Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hard Liquor, Nerds, and Hamsters Were Cool Last Week

Way behind on the Weekly Roundup. I know you've been waiting for it!

Awamori on the Mainland
I always think it's cool when I find a story about Okinawa that doesn't involve the U.S. military.
In recent years it's been easier to find Okinawan restaurants in mainland Japan, namely in Tokyo. I attribute it to the fact that the Japanese are finally realizing what a treasure they have in the Ryukyu Islands. Here's a story about awamori, the strong rice whiskey from Okinawa, that appeared on

A New Take on "Nerd"
The Japan Society of New York posted this link from to its Facebook fan page. It's the story of the author's quest to encourage his young son (who is an absolute cutie pie) to become a nerd. My favorite part is his definition of nerd: "Someone who has in-depth knowledge on a topic." In some form, we're all nerds. Some of us are nerds in more than one category. Some of us are only half-nerds because our knowledge isn't as in-depth as it could or should be. I like that. The article is riddled with grammatical errors, but it is touching and heartfelt. I guess I can overlook subject-verb disagreement for that. This time. I also like the fact that he lives in Japan (Osaka, one of my favorite cities) and seeks out nerdy things to do there.

Hamster Lego Project
Oh, Japan Probe, what would I do without you? Last week you showed me a cool story about a contest to build the best hamster wheel out of Legos. Unfortunately, the video was taken off the site for copyright purposes, but it's still cool.

ESPN's New Score "Bug" Reminds My Husband of Japanese Baseball
Our TV was randomly set to ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. (I put it there for Braves vs Mets.) My husband happened to notice the new score "bug" in the bottom-right corner of the screen and remarked that it looked like the same bug as televised baseball games in Japan. His review: Big thumbs up! Having the "B" for balls and "S" for strikes makes it easier for my husband to understand baseball in North America. Yay!

I'd love to post pictures of all of these cool stories, but Blogger changed how pictures are imported, and I can't figure it out. I'll work on it in the morning. Maybe.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Interview with's Brandon Siefken

Last Friday my most recent essay about Japanese baseball appeared on the website Baseball Reflections, your one-stop shop for any baseball-related info you could ever imagine. For this essay I wanted to go a little bit deeper into the Japanese game, but I needed the knowledge of someone who is more familiar with it than I am. I turned to Brandon Siefken, a stats nut who runs the website, the place to go for comprehensive news and data on Nippon Professional Baseball. He's also a good friend to JapanBall, the group that runs baseball tours in Japan. Brandon was kind enough to answer a few questions, and I incorporated his insight into my essay. Since I regularly exceed my word-count limit, I couldn't include all of Brandon's excellent answers to my probing questions. So, I'm posting my questions and his answers here. Consider it bonus info.

Susan - You've seen MLB players and NPB players. How is the level of play different between the two leagues? We often hear that Japanese players want to test the MLB waters because they "want to play against the best." Why do Japanese players feel they are not competing against the best players already?

Brandon - They probably feel that way because it is true. MLB is the zenith of world baseball and I do not think any baseball expert would deny that with a clear conscience. That being said, the level of Japanese baseball has risen exponentially in the last decade or so. Japanese play the fundamentals of baseball better than anyone in the world. The work ethic, fielding, stealing bases, bunting, hitting for contact and the concept of small-ball manufacturing runs is played exceptionally well in Japan. What they lack is the power game, and I attribute that mostly to the lack of size. The average players in Japan are smaller than those in the US and less muscular. If a pitcher makes a mistake in Japan, he might get tagged for a single where the same mistake in the US would cost him a home run. MLB hitters not only have power, they are the best in the world at adjusting to a pitcher. There is no doubt MLB hitters are far more dangerous than Japanese hitters. The pitching side of the game, however, is a much closer race between Japan and MLB.

Susan - By now baseball fans are familiar with the Yomiuri Giants (because they are considered the Yankees of Japan) and Chiba Lotte Marines (because of Bobby Valentine), but what are the teams to watch this season? By contrast, who are the Royals and the Nationals of NPB? Who do you predict will win the Central and Pacific titles and eventually the Japan Series?

Brandon - As for teams in Japan on the rise, you would not be able to tell by the current standings, but I like what the Hiroshima Carp are doing. They have strung together two great drafts in a row, picking up players like Takeshi Komatsu, Ren Nakata and Takeru Imamura. They have two good starters in Kan Otake and Kenta Maeda as well as one of the better closers in Katsuhiro Nagakawa. Add to that a new stadium and slick new red uniforms from last year with an energized fan base and I see them challenging in the playoffs soon. I also like what the Chiba Lotte Marines are doing. Yuki Karakawa and Yoshihisa Naruse make for a nice 1-2 punch in the rotation and new draft pick Takashi Ogino is starting 2010 off with a tear, hitting .383 with 7 RBIs in 12 games.

As for the bottom teams, the Orix Buffaloes just do not seem to get it. (see my 2010 issue #4 feature article in Japan Baseball News Weekly) The Buffaloes string together years of terrible drafts, let the wrong players go and inexplicably acquire sub-mediocre talent through free agency. They are certainly a team going backwards and have been doing that for a while.

I believe the Yomiuri Giants and Seibu Lions will win their respective divisions and that Yomiuri has too much fire power not to repeat as champions. They are very explosive and have spent the last few years replenishing their talent in the draft to stay fresh for a whole season.

Susan - Do you think the increased number of Japanese players in MLB is hurting Japanese baseball by depleting the league of its talent? Or could it actually be helping NPB gain interest and exposure? Is your website contributing to the exodus of Japanese players?

Brandon - I think this question is not only about baseball, but also about culture. The Japanese do not look at their baseball league the same way we Americans look at MLB. Americans are very serious about their sports. To the Japanese, professional sports are more of a side show to their every day lives. Yes, there are some fans here who make sports their lives, but that number is very small compared to their American counterparts. Japanese baseball games generally start at 6pm on weekdays but broadcasts of games on national TV always begin at 7pm, usually starting in the 3rd inning or so with highlights of the last hour of action missed. Likewise, broadcasts end promptly at 9pm despite how the game is playing out. It could be a 2-3 count in the bottom of the 9th inning of a 1-0 game and the broadcast will still end at 9pm for pre-recorded variety shows or news. Americans would never stand for that.

My point in explaining all of this is that Japanese like their baseball, but they do not "live it." They see it as one part of their lives. In that respect, I do not think Japanese baseball is hurt much by players leaving for the US. Japanese fans follow teams here more than players. They will still support their team when it is time to watch baseball. Once the players go to MLB, the fans support those players as a player instead of the team. In short, I think the level of fan support will not change even if the talent level decreases in Japan.

As for my website, I believe it is broadening the reader's view of Japanese baseball and the players here, who have been relatively anonymous for years. For the same reasons I stated about Japanese fans here, I do not think there are other sites that break down the numbers and stats of Japanese baseball like mine does. That can only be a good thing for MLB and for NPB Japanese baseball.

Susan - In "You Gotta Have Wa," Robert Whiting described the difficulties foreign players faced while playing in Japan in terms of discrimination from management, players, and fans. Yet, foreign players in the '70s and '80s were given lavish contracts and perks their Japanese counterparts did not receive. How has that climate changed in the last decade? NPB has a limit to how many foreign players are on each team. Do you see this changing in the future?

Brandon - The area of contract and salaries is not my specialty, as I like to focus on stats and analysis of the players. However, my opinion on this is that foreign players here are viewed as somewhat of a necessary evil. Japanese teams want these players for power hitting to help the team win, but these players are not respected or adored like the Japanese players. Japanese media often refer to the foreign players as "rentals" or "helpers." This is due to the fact that most foreign players do not last long here, so it is difficult for fans to get attached to them. The long term foreigners like Alex Cabrera and Tuffy Rhodes are few and far between.

As for lavish contracts, Japanese players are much better today so I think the salaries might be evening out a bit. The foreigners still make good money, but they probably do not stand out like they used to because the Japanese salaries are going up as well. Contracts for foreign players are usually short-term deals because they are viewed as a gamble by the Japanese. Japanese contracts can be 10 years long, so the foreign contracts look bigger because they are for shorter terms.

For these reasons, it is rare for a foreign player to be adored by the Japanese fans like Randy Bass back in the Hanshin Tiger glory years of the '80s. Alex Ramirez for the Giants is close to that though, but still a very rare case.

Susan - Will Yu Darvish eventually play in the Major Leagues? If so, how soon? What do you think his chances are of succeeding? Were you surprised he was named the Pacific League MVP for 2009?

Brandon - Firstly, I would not be surprised that Darvish wins any award. He should win them all. He has an amazing natural talent that is rare. I believe he is close to leaving Japanese baseball, and it could be this year. There is one AL East MLB team with a scout following Darvish's every start. I have also heard that Darvish is teaching his young child the ABCs.

His wife is a model named Saeko, and Darvish is said to respect her opinion on matters very much. He is also influenced by his father, who is Iranian. Those two people may have some say in the decision process, but this is the first year Darvish himself has commented in a positive way in public about going to MLB. Darvish is kind of a quirky guy, he does not talk much and is known to be a little awkward socially. His opening up about the possibility of playing in MLB is a big deal here. There are many rumors he will come out after the 2010 season and I believe he might as well. When he does, I think he will be a very good pitcher in the US. He is too talented and physically gifted not to succeed. If there is anything that could potentially hold him back it would be something mentally hindering him or bad coaching. Talent-wise he is a lock to succeed.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What I Did for My Spring j-CATION

More than a week after I attended j-CATION at the Japan Society, I'm still thinking about what a fantastic event it was. Based on the theme of food, j-CATION celebrated the joys of the Japanese culinary experience through the unlikely (at least for Westerners) conventions of art, calligraphy (which can be considered art), and a game show.

Lanterns at the entrance to the Japan Society

Making a $5 donation to the shrine

The place had a festive atmosphere as fellow j-CATIONers crowded around every open space in the Japan Society to soak in the sights, sounds, and flavors of Japan's culinary delights. Giant video screens placed throughout the building displayed Japanese food commercials, music videos, and photos from Japan Society's bento contest.

The big screen with j-CATION promo

Virtual bento contest

Girls dressed as maids

There was so much to do, but I was able to take in a majority of the activities. Here's a basic rundown of my day.

Attended a language lesson on how to order food and pour drinks in a Japanese restaurant
This class was as basic as it gets, but with good reason as many of the people in the classroom had never studied Japanese or visited Japan. For once, I actually felt smart in a Japanese class, but that's not why I liked it. The instructor, Kazuko, had great energy and enthusiasm. She printed menus featuring simple items such as coffee, tea, beer, and sake and even had props like sake bottles and fake sushi.

Kazuko-san's menu

Observed a calligraphy class
I watched a group of people, mostly classmates studying Japanese in college, learn from master calligrapher Masako Inkyo how to write the kanji (Chinese characters) for certain foods. The atmosphere was much quieter than the boisterous language class, but calligraphy seems to be done best in a hushed setting. Watching Inkyo Sensei's precise movements with the thick brush made me wonder if I would have enough patience to learn shodo, "the way of writing." Her first example to the class was the kanji for sakana, or fish (魚). The contrast of the shocking black ink on crisp white paper turned the writing into a work of art. I also couldn't help but love the coincidence of someone named Inkyo chosing a craft that involves ink.

Masako Inkyo draws "sakana" (fish)

Inkyo Sensei helps a j-CATIONer with the brush

j-CATIONer draws "niku" (meat)

Sampled food
Of course. The event was about food, after all. Vendors from local Japanese restaurants and stores set up kiosks and sold their wares. The sweets were my favorite. Kyotofu was there with their scrumptious green tea cupcakes and signature "pigs in a duvet." Yeah, they sell pigs in a blanket. I suppose "duvet" makes it sound classier. When I bought one – of course, I did – I said to the people manning the Kyotofu kiosk that it didn't sound like a Japanese snack. After I devoured the mini hot dog wrapped in bread, I realized I had in fact eaten them from several panya (bakeries) in Japan.

Kyotofu's mini green tea cupcakes

I bought crazy snacks – squid legs, ramen-flavored wheat crackers, dorayaki (a pancake filled with bean paste and chestnuts), and some kind of corn stick thing – from the Dainobu stand. The Japanese deli's stall reminded me of the black-market stalls at Ameyayokocho in Taito-ku, an area near Ueno Park in Tokyo. Well, it's not the black market now, but it was back in the days following the end of World War II.
Setting up Dainobu's stall

Snacks from Dainobu

The popularity of Oms/b was good and bad. It was good that so many people had the opportunity to enjoy their healthy and creative rice balls; it was bad that they were sold out when I wanted the opportunity to enjoy their healthy and creative rice balls. I didn't feel like waiting half an hour for more to arrive, but I did have a chance to talk to Toshiya Suganuma, Oms/b's vice president. He's also the director of Ippudo, the East Village ramen noodle restaurant that's so wildly popular that it's been packed with patrons each time my husband and I have tried to eat there. I may not have had rice balls, but I am going to do a couple of stories about the Japanese snack and the ramen phenomenon in NYC. Stay tuned.

Oms/b had only wax replicas of rice balls; more arrived later

The tsukune (chicken meatballs) from East Japanese Restaurant was quite tasty. I can't explain it, but somehow I managed to resist the cream puffs from Choux Factory. The more I think about it, the more upset I am with myself. I didn't taste the sweets offered by Minamoto Kitchoan, either. What was wrong with me?! The amazing Japanese bakery was there selling and offering samples of wagashi, Japanese sweets that perfectly complemented the tea from ITO EN's tea workshops.

j-CATIONer learns about wagashi

Learning about tea from ITO-EN

I washed all the good food down with Hoji Cha (roasted green tea) and sake.

The bar in the j-LOUNGE

Umeshu (plum wine)

Tied one on with furoshiki
I've sung the praises of tenugui, Japan's most versatile cloth, but now I must give furoshiki its due. Unlike tenugui, furoshiki is square and can come in different sizes. Like tenugui it can also be used to wrap wine and sake bottles. Keiko Iida from Kiteya, a SoHo crafts store, showed us how to make what she called "a kimono for wine bottles" and eco-friendly grocery bags.

Keiko Iida (left) of Kiteya demonstrates furoshiki tying

Saw an exhibit
I've actually seen the Japan Society's current exhibit, Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection (my review to come soon), but I wanted to walk through to see a few of my favorite prints again. The Japan Society also found connections between Kuniyoshi's artwork and Japanese cuisine, and they created a quiz asking us to look for examples of food and drink while enjoying the art.

Upstairs to the gallery

Hiroki Otsuka (center) discusses manga with a budding artist

Hiroki Otsuka, Japan Society's Mangaka (manga artist)-in-Residence, was set up in the exhibit space. He critiqued j-CATIONers' examples of manga and drew a few caricatures as well.

Watched a game show
I'll be honest. I thought the game show was gonna suck. I didn't know any of the participants – quite frankly, reading Amazon Annie, the Queen of Squeeze was going to be there with her Lobos Locos actually scared me – and I wasn't sure what to expect. It was a bizarre mix of contestants and games, but it was well done and entertaining. Blindfolded contestants wearing nose plugs had to guess what the kimono-clad assistants fed them (onion, Spam, Pepto Bismol). Another game was to guess what the Japanese food was by an out-of-focus picture on the big screen. Finally, they made sushi out of their teammates. It was actually hilarious. Oh, and the Queen of Squeeze beat out a musical group and food bloggers.

Long Cat makes an appearance

"Clash of the Foodies" game show

Witnessed Kobayashi eat hot dogs 
Competitive food eating champion Takeru Kobayashi was the subject of a "Luscious Lecture." The six-time winner of the Nathan's July 4th hot dog eating extravaganza was interviewed by food writers from Time Out. Kobayashi began his career in competitive food eating by entering a curry-eating contest while in college, and he's been eating all kinds of food in timed competitions since. He shared his technique that allowed him to consume 64.5 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Then he and the food writers gobbled down a plate of hot dogs. How can something so gross be so fascinating to watch?

Time Out's Daniel Gritzer and Jordana Rothman introduce Takeru Kobayashi

Kobayashi talks about his workout regimen

More kimono-clad assistants bring out the hot dogs

Kobayashi makes quick work of the dogs; Rothman and Gritzer, not so much

Met interesting people, some of whom had no prior connection to Japan
I'm a true fan of all things Japanese, so it was only natural that I attend j-CATION. However, I was amazed at how many people I came across who didn't think about Japan every day the way I do. In my account of the event for, I highlighted a few of the conversations I had to emphasize how the event meant different things to different people.

Long line outside the Japan Society

Chose dinner over music
After debating over whether to stay for the Asobi Seksu concert, my friend Lisa and I decided grabbing a meal would be the better choice. As we walked out of the Japan Society, I noticed the growing line of people waiting for concert tickets. It would've been interesting to see, but I'm happy that we had delicious ramen at Menchanko-Tei instead.

Enjoying j-CATION with Lisa (left)

My husband and I have been members of the Japan Society for about ten years, and this is the best event I've ever attended. We've been to great weekend forums before, but they're usually held exclusively in the auditorium and consist of a series of interesting and informative lectures and panel discussions that rely on the use of slide shows and short video clips. The inclusion of the world's top Japanese culinary experts notwithstanding, looking back those forums seem vanilla compared to the sensory overload of j-CATION.

Essentially I went to Japan on a Saturday. Just for the day, but a full day, indeed.

Monday, April 19, 2010

This Is Decidedly NOT Cool!

Magibon is on the big screen at Akihabara! She's staring and saying a rehearsed Japanese line. (She probably doesn't even know what it means.)

Last January I wrote a blog entry about this American girl who calls herself Magibon. She stares into her computer's camera for minutes on end and, well, that's it. That's all she does. Yet she's a sensation in Japan.

Now I see this report on TokyoMango that she's on the big screen in Akihabara, Tokyo's neighborhood for electronics and anime fans. I can tell she's desperately trying to keep her mangled teeth from showing. (Yes, that's a terrible thing for me to say, but I can't help it!)

One of the comments posted on TokyoMango in response to the Magibon story echos by sentiments exactly:

"I realize that a lot of my resentment for her stems from jealousy, in that fickle Japan has not decided to make me their "next big thing," but I think that resentment is well-justified in that she really brings nothing to the table. If she has any talent, she is not presenting them in any of her videos. She doesn't sing, dance or act, she doesn't speak Japanese (except for a few well-rehearsed lines), and she isn't even all that cute. This makes the fact that they have chosen her to win the gaijin favor lottery that much more grating."

It's crazy for me to be jealous of a talentless twenty-something, but I'm like the person from the above quote. I'm upset because Japan has chosen Magibon and not me to be "the next big thing." What's Magibon's appeal? She looks a little like Peko chan, the mascot of Japanese confectioner Fujiya

Here's Peko chan. 
from Flickr user Kawaii Japan

Here's Magibon sitting in front of her computer.
from an article on 

She may look cute in this photo, but check out how she really looks.

Okay, I'll stop making fun of the girl. This picture certainly makes me appreciate the braces I wore during my pre-teen years. 

I won't be bitter. I'll continue to love Japan. And one day, Japan will love me, too.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A New Uniform for Matsui and Other Cool Japanese Stories from the Week

A Ring for Hideki
The highlight of my week was by far Tuesday, Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. I'm not even a fan of the Yankees, but I was moved by the emotion of the pregame ceremony. Of course, my favorite part involved Hideki Matsui, who became the first Japanese-born player to be named World Series MVP after he batted .615, with 3 home runs and 8 RBI (with a record-tying 6 RBI in Game 6) for the Yankees in the Fall Classic.

Matsui was present at Yankee Stadium on this year's Opening Day to receive his World Series ring, but this time he wasn't wearing pinstripes. He was in the Bronx as a member of his new team, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Matsui waited in the visiting team's dugout as each Yankee from the 2009 World Championship team was called onto the field to receive his World Series ring. Matsui was the last player to be called, and he was warmly welcome by appreciative Yankees fans. They recognize that Matsui's play during the season and postseason – despite hobbling on two bad knees that limited his playing time – contributed to the Yankees' 27th World Series Championship.

His former teammates recognize that as well. After Yankees manager Joe Girardi presented Matsui with a box containing his World Series ring, all of the Yankees on the field shared a group hug with him. Jon Lane, who writes about the Yankees for, wrote this account of Matsui's return to the Bronx.

As part of my Japanese studies, my teacher, Emi Kikuchi, has me keep a journal in which I write a couple of brief sentences each day using Japanese vocabulary, grammar, and kanji. My entry for Tuesday, April 13, 2010, consisted of a couple of basic sentences that said I worked at the game and that Hideki Matsui was there with his new team. During class I complained to Kikuchi Sensei about my desire to express the emotion of the ceremony in a more eloquent manner.

Kikuchi Sensei is the Japanese version of an English grammarian. Proper usage is important to her. After I described the scene at the Stadium, she thought for a minute and scribbled out a narrative that imparted my feelings but added a distinctly Japanese nuance.


This bundle of text says essentially what I wrote in the second paragraph of this blog entry, but the Japaneseness of it is beautiful. Kikuchi Sensei describes Matsui as wearing a "new uniform." To us here in the States, that simply means he's on a new team. But to the Japanese, a new uniform is symbolic of stages of achievement. The Japanese feel a special sense of pride when they put on a new uniform after advancing to the next level of school or to a new job, especially the first job out of college. So to describe Matsui as wearing a new team uniform, Kikuchi Sensei is emphasizing the pride the baseball player must feel in the new stage of his career and in his life.

Former Carp Is Now a Ranger
After Matsui and his Angels left New York, the Texas Rangers came to town. This baseball nugget is about an American who played in MLB, then in Japan, and is back in MLB again. The back-and-forth, up-and-down career of pitcher Colby Lewis hasn't drawn worldwide attention, but I'm mentioning him here because I saw him pitch in Japan last September. As a member of the Hiroshima Carp, Lewis pitched a gem against the Yakult Swallows at Meiji Jingu Stadium. The Bakersfield native tossed a 5-hit shutout and hit a home run to win 9-0. Now he's with Texas again, the organization he was part of from 1999 until 2004. He's having a good season so far; he's 2-0 with a 2.19 ERA. Too bad he didn't pitch in this weekend's series against the Yankees because I think it would've been an interesting story for Michael Kay and John Flaherty to discuss on air. (They probably wouldn't; I realize that I'm the only one on the YES television crew who cares about Japanese baseball.)

I'll Give You a Consommé Punch
Kikuchi Sensei had a busy week with me. In addition to her mini-essay about Matsui, she decoded another crazy Japanese commercial. In my first installment of my Weekly Roundup of Cool Japanese Stories, I posted a commercial my friend Tammy sent me. 

The product in the commercial is called Consommé Punch, potato chips flavored with a stock- or bouillon-based soup known as consommé. I thought the "punch" referred to juice such as Hawaiian Punch or other fruity drink. However, Kikuchi Sensei informed me that in this instance, "punch" isn't a flavor, but a kick of flavor. The chips have a "punch" of consommé flavor that gives you a sense of "Wow!" from the first bite.

I think it's universally understood that the dog is trying to cheer up his brokenhearted friend, but you need to understand a little Japanese pop culture to grasp the meaning behind the dog's methods. What's the deal with the large ear? The dog is performing a routine by a popular Japanese magician/comedian named Maggy Shinji (マギー審司). He's actually not much of a magician, but his schtick is to pop out a big spongy ear while saying "It's getting bigger!"

Magi Shinji and his big ear

Finally, the little dance the dog does is not a kabuki dance a geisha would perform. It's an imitation of a time-honored ritual of men at an enkai, or drinking party. At these enkai one particularly inebriated reveler invariably decides he wants to dance. Without any clothes. While in his birthday suit, the guy uses two obon, or serving trays, to cover his manhood.

The dog's antics seemed to do the trick as the boy talked to his sweetheart again. Or is it a new girl?

Animals and Food: Always a Winning Combination
I'll wrap up this week's roundup with two videos I found on Japan Probe. First, here's a cat who loves the smell of curry.

So cute! The phrase カレーでメロメロのネコ (kare de meromero no neko) means that the cat (neko) is madly in love (meromero) with curry. My favorite part about this video is that the cat doesn't eat the curry, but he gets it all along his jawline. I wonder if the owner actually eats this dish, or does she have a fur-free plate waiting in the kitchen?

You've probably heard that the Japanese sell practically anything from a vending machine. Cup Noodles, neckties, batteries. What about raw fish? Check out this interesting feature about a Japanese zoo.

That's right, for about one dollar you can buy bait from a vending machine and feed it to an akisha (an eared seal such as the California sea lion) at the Tobe Zoological Park of Ehime Prefecture. I would love to try this, although I do admit I'd be a little nervous. A ravenous sea lion might come close to removing a finger or two. But the concept is wonderful and very Japanese.

Just a few more reasons why I think Japan is cool. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Weekly Roundup of Cool Japanese Stories

Umm, okay, I'm a little late on this week's – I meant, last week's – roundup. I know you've been waiting with bated breath for what I think was cool in Japanese culture, so I'll get right down to it. Females seem to figure prominently.

Discovering Japanese Astronauts
Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi had been living and working on the International Space Station (ISS) for three months when he was joined by fellow astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, who was on the space shuttle Discovery when it docked with the ISS. It marked the first time two Japanese astronauts and four female astronauts were in space at the same time (Yamazaki was accompanied on Discovery by Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger and Stephanie Wilson; Tracy Dyson was aboard the ISS.). Yamazaki is Japan's second female astronaut, after Chiaki Mukai.

At Yamazaki's request, Japanese designer Tae Ashida created a custom outfit for the historic occasion: A light-blue knit cardigan and navy-blue shorts. I'm assuming she donned the wardrobe under her spacesuit.

AP Photo/John Raoux

The Knuckleballer Becomes an Outlaw
Eri Yoshida is making her dream of becoming a professional baseball player come true. The 18-year-old knuckleballer from Kawasaki, signed with the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League and is expected to join the team next month. During spring training Yoshida met Tim Wakefield, the veteran knuckleball pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Yoshida credits her ability to throw the quirky pitch to watching video of Wakefield pitching.

Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox meets Eri Yoshida during spring training.
Photo from The Joy of Sox blog.

The Golden Baseball League is an independent minor league that has ten teams in California, Arizona, and parts of western Canada. The Outlaws are said to be making arrangements to accommodate Yoshida, the only female on the team.

Meanwhile, Back in Japan . . .
Not to be outdone by young Eri Yoshida, ladies in Japan have their own professional league. JapanBall fan Daisuke posted this link on JapanBall's Facebook fan page. I can barely read the website – I know, I need to study harder – but it looks as if there are two teams: The Kyoto AstoDreams and the Swing Smileys of Hyogo. Maybe their first game is April 23? From what I can tell, this is a legitimate, working league with players and schedules and websites. We're talking baseball here, not softball. And I think that's pretty cool.

The Girls Professional Baseball League
Photo from the website

The photo on the Girls Professional Baseball League's website of a glass slipper on the mound is a nice touch, too.

The Guinness Book of World Records Must Be Huge by Now
Olympic silver medalist and recently crowned World Champion Mao Asada received official commendation from the Guinness Book of World Records during a Stars on Ice event in Tokyo on Sunday. Asada is the holder of the world record for most triple axels performed by a woman in one competition. It's important to note that Asada landed the triple axels during the entire competition, not during one program. She stuck one in her short program and followed that up with two in her free skate.

Mao Asada receives a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records
AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama

Asada is the third Japanese figure skater to be honored in the Guinness Book. Midori Ito is on record as who won the silver medal behind Japanese-American Kristi Yamaguchi at the Albertville Olympics in 1992. The other Japanese figure skater in the Guinness Book is Miki Ando, who in 2002 became the first woman to land a quadruple jump in competition.

Is there a record for most blog posts and articles about Japanese stuff? If there is, I'm sure I'm far behind, so I'll keep working on it. I'll be back at the end of this week with more cool stories.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Weekly Roundup of Cool Japanese Stories

Baseball and monsters dominate this week's cool Japanese stories. 

Okay, So This Story Might Not Be Cool, but It's Interesting and Relevant
Starting stateside, there was bad news from spring training for Japanese pitcher Junichi Tazawa. The 23-year-old right-handed pitcher for the Red Sox will have season-ending Tommy John surgery, which means something is horribly wrong with a ligament in his elbow.

Tazawa made headlines when he asked not to be drafted by any pro teams in Japan and played one year in Japan's industrial league. The Red Sox swooped in and signed him to a three-year deal in December 2008. The youngster posted a 9-7 record with a 2.55 ERA in three different levels of the minors last season and finished out the year 2-3 with a 7.46 ERA in 4 starts and 2 relief appearances for the Red Sox. One of those relief appearances was his major league debut, an extra-inning affair against Boston's archrival, the New York Yankees. Tazawa pitched well but gave up a walk-off home run to Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the 15th inning

Dr. James Andrews, who is apparently the only doctor who can perform this procedure, will operate on the Yokohama native on Tuesday.

A Big Win for a Small Prefecture
Sunday is Opening Day in MLB, but baseball has been in full swing in Japan for two weeks. Professional baseball isn't the only game in town, however. The amateurs were on center stage for Japan's equivalent of March Madness, the Spring Senbatsu High School Tournament at Koshien Stadium in Osaka. (Japan has two March Madnesses; there is a Summer Senbatsu as well.)

Saturday 43,000 people watched as Konan High School from Naha, Okinawa scored five runs in the top of the 12th inning to win the Spring Koshien. Konan starter Yosuke Shimabukuro pitched all 12 innings and struck out 11. 

This is huge, not only for Konan, but for all of Okinawa. Okinawa has long been the redheaded stepchild of Japan. It's the poorest prefecture (state) in the country and is overrun by the US military. To some mainlanders Okinawans aren't considered "real" Japanese. Okinawans have a unique history, culture, and cuisine. But now, for at least a few moments, Okinawans are Japanese. I'm happy for Konan High School, and I'm bursting with pride for my family in Okinawa.

Off My Soapbox, Back to Baseball
I mentioned earlier that baseball season has already begun in Japan. 


This stick – I mean, model – is Nanao, this year's Race Queen and "image girl" for apparel manufacturer Sanai's swimsuit collection. She throws out the first pitch at a game between the Nippon Ham Fighters and the Orix Buffaloes this week. I love how the umpire is trying not to look at her.

If Vivian Woodall, a teacher at my elementary school back in Hope Mills, North Carolina, had seen this photo, she would've screeched, "Feed this girl some grits 'n' gravy!" Since Nanao is Japanese, maybe someone should feed her some katsu curry instead.

Did Someone Say Curry?
Oh, yes. It was a huge question back when Hideki Matsui's days as a Yankee were numbered. But the question was answered this week. Go! Go! Curry! will still give out coupons for one free topping the day after Matsui hits a home run. Even though the 2009 World Series MVP is now with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the best Japanese junk food joint in NYC still support him. 

From One Godzilla to Another
While one Godzilla is being welcomed to Hollywood, another Godzilla is rumored to make a return. This week I read rumors about a joint venture between Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros Pictures to bring back the iconic Japanese monster in stunning 3-D technology. Thomas Tull, founder and president of Legendary Pictures, promises the new version won't suck as much as the 1998 remake that starred Matthew Broderick.

That's it for this week. More cool Japanese stories in seven days.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Ancient, the Really Old, and the Green at the Japan Society

I know I talk about the Japan Society ad nauseam, but I really like going there! They've put on some excellent shows/talks/exhibits lately, and last week was particularly fantastic. Okay, I'm gushing. Sorry. Anyway, last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Japan Society to see three very different things: An art exhibit featuring what could be the precursor to manga, a discussion about how three artists approach the concept of being "green," and a centuries-old art form that pokes fun at the samurai class.

The Really Old
First, the latest gallery exhibit at the Japan Society is a must-see for anyone in or near the city. Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection showcases the masterful work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), a color-woodblock artist whose warriors and otherworldly creatures could have influenced manga. I can see why, especially in his pieces that include Chinese combatants or Japanese samurai fighting to the death against a monster. 

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Chinese Warrior Ruan Xiaowu Fights Underwater, 1827-30. American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) Photo ©Trustees of the British Museum

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Minamoto no Raiko and His Retainers Battle with the Earth Spider, early 1820s. American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) Photo ©Trustees of the British Museum

Generally I'm not a fan of the phantasmagorical, but I was drawn to Kuniyoshi's series about the tattooed  Chinese desperadoes from the novel The Water Margin and his series about birds and beasts more than to his landscapes. His landscapes are beautiful, but after seeing rooms filled with bold, fantastic creatures fighting to the death, it's hard to get overly enthusiastic about a monk walking up a snow-covered mountain.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Monk Nichiren in the Snow at Tsukahara, c. 1835. American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) Photo ©Trustees of the British Museum

The fact that landscapes even exist in Kuniyoshi's repertoire is a testament to his skill and diversity as an artist, as well as the evolving tastes of people who appreciated art at that time. Kuniyoshi also created works featuring geisha (until images of courtesans and geisha were banned by the Japanese government in 1842), kabuki actors, and animals that impersonated people, comic prints known as "crazy pictures."  The vividness of the colors shows how carefully preserved these prints from the 1820s are. Very impressive.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Octopus Games, 1840-42. American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) Photo ©Trustees of the British Museum

The Green
The Japan Society has a "Green Japan" series where people sit around and talk about being green and saving the planet. I picked a good one to attend. Conscious Inspiration: Juxtaposing Nature and Art Form was a discussion between architect Shigeru Ban, artist Mariko Mori, and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. I was excited to see Shigeru Ban, a "starchitect" whose Metal Shutter Houses is near my apartment in Chelsea. Ryuichi Sakamoto is the frontman for the Japanese '70s electropop band Yellow Magic Orchestra and won an Academy Award in 1987 for composing the score of The Last Emperor. I didn't know anything about Mariko Mori, but I like her for her quirkiness – she dresses only in white – and her next project is in Okinawa. She has quirky fans, too, who built this website that's hard to read because the text is purple.

Even though this was part of the "Green Japan" series, each of these creative people spent the evening talking about how they're not green in the sense that Americans are. Their green is based in nature and in finding a balance between our busy lives and the beauty of the natural world. Ban must use the environment in his work, so he tries to find the most efficient materials possible. Sakamoto is the founder of more trees, an organization that promotes the planting of, well, more trees. Mori "becomes one with nature," a process that allows her to paint.

One annoying thing about the event was the earpiece. Since the three guests felt more comfortable speaking in their native Japanese, live translators were there. The earpiece of the transmitter thing that I had to wear in order to understand what Ban, Mori, and Sakamoto were saying didn't fit well. Or maybe I didn't have it in right. Anyway, I had to hold one hand to my ear to keep the earpiece from popping out, which made it difficult to take notes. I'm done whining now. Overall, it was an interesting talk punctuated by Sakamoto's line – with tongue planted firmly in cheek – that "squid will dominate the earth." One day, he says, "squid will grow legs and come on the land." Pretty fitting since I had just seen Kuniyoshi's depiction of Ariomaru killing a giant octopus.

(from left) Ryuichi Sakamoto, Mariko Mori, Shigeru Ban, and moderator Stefano Tonchi

The Ancient
My first encounter with kyogen a YouTube video the Japan Society posted on its website. I used the video for research and in my story to promote the Yamamoto Kyogen Company's performances.

I knew I pretty much had to see the first performance so that I could review it, but I wasn't sure how much I would enjoy this ancient comedic form of Japanese theatre. In fact, I honestly didn't think I'd be able to sit through an hour of the sing-songy voices. Well, I was wrong. I loved it. It was interesting, engaging, and funny. There was a sadness to it, too, just like the sitcoms from the '70s and '80s that make you laugh and teach you a lesson in humanity.

It's also easy to appreciate watching a craft such as kyogen knowing that the people onstage are the third and fourth generations of a family of kyogen performers. I appreciate how important tradition – and the carrying out of that tradition – is to Japanese people.

Yamamoto Kyogen Company performs a scene from Shido Hogaku, a classic comedic Japanese play. ©Yoshiaki Kanda

My Lesson
Growing up in North Carolina, I never appreciated my Japanese (Okinawan) heritage, but living in New York has presented myriad opportunities to learn about this great culture. It wasn't until I started writing about Japanese culture in NYC for that I realized how many Japanese-related things are going on here. It's amazing, overwhelming, and educational. I'm lucky to be in the general proximity of institutions such as the Japan Society to introduce me to people, traditions, and art that I would have never seen otherwise.

Cheering Overtime for the Heels at the Garden

London Warren and his fantastic hair. Photo by Ryan Kozelka on

Felled by London Warren and his fantastic hair, the North Carolina men's basketball team wasn't successful in its quest to win the NIT championship against Dayton on Thursday night. It was a disappointing end to a frustrating season. After working the Coaches vs Cancer Classic and the awful Duke game to end the regular season, I was fortunate to attend the Heels' brilliant NIT semifinal as a fan on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.

Ready to go at the Garden

Okay, so it wasn't brilliant, but I was pleased the Heels were able to survive to beat Rhode Island 68-67 in overtime and advance to the final. 

Rhode Island. Colors: Baby blue (some would call it Carolina blue) and white. Mascot: Ram. Mascot's jersey number: 23. Hmmm. Suspicious.

Who are the impostors in baby blue? Hard to tell which team is which since Rhode Island copied North Carolina's colors.

At any rate, my husband was kind enough to suggest we go to the game despite his status as a non-sports fan. He was also kind enough to put up with the evil monster I morph into whenever I watch Carolina play. So, while I screamed like a crazy woman, he took pictures at The World's Most Famous Arena

We arrived at our seats to find folding chairs and a table. (Note to self: WC means wheelchair accessible!) The seats were actually pretty good: One level up from the floor, under one of the baskets on the away team's (Carolina's) side. The folding chairs were comfortable – good for Marc's back – and the table was convenient because it allowed me to have something to slap my hands on in disgust whenever the Tar Heels made a turnover (17 times) or missed a free throw (8 times) or had a sloppy play (countless).

The view from our seats in section 95WC. Little did we know that WC means "wheelchair."

My behavior wasn't completely atrocious; just ask the nice young men who were sitting next to us. (They were able-bodied; they didn't understand what WC meant on the online seating chart, either. Nyeh.) They were rooting for URI; we were rooting for UNC. But it was civilized. We actually apologized to each other after we cheered. 

It was a delicate situation. One of the guys is the brother of a Rhode Island player, a freshman by the name of Akeem Richmond. From Sanford. North Carolina. Grew up worshipping the Tar Heels. Was the ball boy for the 2005 NCAA championship team. Wanted to play his college ball in Chapel Hill. Lightly recruited by Roy Williams. Ended up at Rhode Island. The school that ripped off Carolina's colors and mascot. Once the battle lines were drawn between my WC tablemates and me, I told Eric, Richmond's big brother, "I hope your brother does well but his team does not." He said that was fair.

As the sixth man for the Rams this season, Richmond set a URI freshman record with 81 made 3-point field goals and shot 40 percent from long range. When I read that in the Raleigh News & Observer, I knew we were in trouble because the Heels are vulnerable to the 3. (Vulnerable is an understatement. The Heels gave up 16 (!) made 3-point field goals to William & Mary on March 16, their first game of the NIT. As of this writing, Carolina ranked 185th among NCAA Division I schools in 3-point FG defense, allowing opponents to score 34.4% from behind the arc. Not good.)  

Despite good season numbers for Richmond and bad season numbers for UNC, the game didn't go according to plan for the freshman from Sanford. He shot 0 for 6 (all from 3-point range), had 1 assist, 2 turnovers, 2 rebounds, and a steal in his debut against the team he loved as a child. Maybe Richmond was nervous because he felt he had something to prove to Carolina. Maybe the big stage in New York City contributed to his jitters. Whatever the reason, it was lucky for Carolina Richmond's shot was off because we had all we could handle from the other Rams.

The Tar Heels defend against Brooklyn native Delroy James.

Falling all over each other

Deon Thompson handles the ball in the first half.

Tied at halftime.

Warming up for the 2nd Half.

Will Graves hangs on the rim after his monster jam.

LDII shoots a 3.

A free throw by Deon.

It's a tight game, and I'm losing my mind!

The Heels devise a strategy in the huddle.

It's tied!

My guys overcame their sloppy play and fought hard to win in OT. Too bad they were outmatched by the Dayton Flyers two nights later. (It was the fantastic hair; I just know it. Or maybe it was the 20 points by Marcus Johnson.) I definitely see good things for the future with the awkward-shooting Tyler Zeller, the rail-thin John Henson, the speedy and aggressive Dexter Strickland, and even the beleaguered Larry Drew II. We should be a very good team next season!

We win!

I'm happy to say I saw the Heels in the Final Four. It was the wrong Final Four, but a Final Four nonetheless.

MJ has really let himself go . . .

Obesity in the USA.