Japan, the Universe & Everything

Japan, the Universe & Everything.


Speed Tribes
Bad Girls
After School Keynotes
Banana Yoshimoto
Tokyo Shock Boys
Japan in War and Peace

If your curiousity about things Japanese extends further than watching anime, you may be interested in what really lies behind the images of Japanese life depicted in anime and manga. Some of it, obviously, is complete fantasy - there are no green-haired girls from outer space - while other elements are fairly accurate - the typical school buildings do resemble the multi-story flat-roofed structures shown in various anime. But there are other elements that anyone not very familiar with Japan could only guess at.

How well do you think you will do with this 'True or False' quiz?

1. Are there shadowy right-wing groups linked to organised crime and extortion rackets whose influences extend right up into the Government? (Mai the Psychic Girl, Legend of the 4 Kings). T or F?
2. Do motorcycle gangs like those depicted in AKIRA really exist?
3. Do girl gangs like those depicted in KIMAGURE ORANGE ROAD, HANAMO ASUZA GOMI, THIS IS GREENWOOD etc really exist?
4. Do virtual idols like 'Sharon Apple' (MACROSS PLUS) already exist?
5. The kind of console gaming and net-hacking scene depicted in MEGAZONE 23 is lifted straight from contemporary Tokyo. T or F?
6. Are Japanese boys as shy and hopeless with girls as Kyousuke (ORANGE ROAD) Tenchi (TENCHIMUYO) or Youta (VIDEO GIRL AI)?
7. Are Japanese girls are as bold and pushy as the girls in the above-mentioned series?
8. Do tranvestites like those appearing briefly in 3x3 EYES really exist?
9. Teachers have got away with killing pupils in over-zealous disciplinary procedures (KEKKO KAMEN). T or F?
10. Japanese youngsters have a lot of spare time to engage in various activities, if not as adventurous as those of Ataru Moroboshi (URUSEI YATSURA). T or F?
Answers are at the end of the article, and while you are thinking it over, here are some reviews of some books etc which should expand your perceptions of Japanese life.

SPEED TRIBES - Karl Taro Greenfield.
If you are interested in what lies behind some of the images of delinquent behaviour shown in anime, you must read SPEED TRIBES, a collection of articles by a Japanese/American journalist. The Speed Tribes" are motorcycle gangs but the author uses the name as a label for other youth groups estranged from the mainstream of Japanese culture. The chapters, which originally appeared as articles in various magazines, are each dramatised documentaries about the life of different persons; a bosozoku motorcycle gang member, an American hostess, a disco girl, a motorcycle thief, porn movie people, drug dealer, yakuza member, member of right-wing semi-criminal movement.The chapter headings are weird enough to merit a listing (my explanation in brackets).
1 Izumi: the money drinkers (Gambling rackets)
2 Tats: the Speed tribes (Bikers)
3: Dai: the motorcycle thief
4: Choco Bon-Bob &Emi;: the perfect Tuna (Porn)
5: Keiko: the Early Breakfast Club. (Disco girl)
6 Hiro & Yoshihara: the Best and the Brightest. (Todai students)
7 Kazu & Hiroko: the Map Maker (Drug deals)
8: Tusk: Twilight of the Gods (Rock band)
9 Ozaki: the True Believer (Right wing)
10 Jackie: the Hostess
11 Moto: Home-Stay (Punk)
12 Snix : the Otaku. (Computer hacker)
All this makes worrying reading for nervous solo travellers!
But even if you came across some of these people, you probably wouldn't know. And some vocabulary you probably won't learn at your evening class:
bosozoku=motorcycle gangsters (lit."speed tribes")
uyoku = fanatic ultra rightist parties (crime linked)
chimpira= gangsters' errand boys (lit. "little pricks")
sarakin= loan shark

Bad Girls.
Bad girls are rare in Japan! Sure, there are girls who hang around with bike gangs, or go to discos to get laid, but there is little evidence of the violent girl gangs who appear in HERE IS GREENWOOD, KIMAGURE ORANGE ROAD, HANAMO ASUKA GOMI and sundry other anime. Madoka and Hikaru were a tad badder in the original ORANGE ROAD manga, where they smoke cigarettes, wear leather jackets, drink, and threaten Kasuga's sister Kurumi; than they are in the anime. Asuka in HANAMO ASUKA GOMI is the definitive bad girl, so bold and fearless that she frightens her parents.
In fact, Japanese girls are notably less streetwise than their Western sisters and are often so shy that they freeze in panic if a gaijin tries to speak to them. Japanese society is still so conventional that it seems all a schoolgirl has to do to get a bad reputation is to go to discos, drink alcohol, or be seen in the entertainment district. Schoolgirls whose hair is not glossy black have to bring a note from their parents confirming that the hair colour is natural and NOT (heinous offence!) dyed. (The use of a rainbow of hair colours in anime may be pure coincidence.) Perhaps this is why Japanese boys find the idea of 'bad girls' so exciting.

AFTER SCHOOL KEYNOTES - Amy Yamada (Kodansha English Library, 182pp, Y520.)
If you want to know the real-life angle on the adolescent love affairs shown in innumerable anime and manga, then you need to read Amy Yamada's "After School Keynotes". Is school romance all as innocent as anime often makes it seem?
Amy Yamada's writing is very popular with younger Japanese women and also well regarded in literary circles. In this small book, she explores the love lives of Japanese girls with extraordinary sensitivity, perception and insight. The book, tracing the sexual awakening of a high school girl, consists of a number of linked tales. The semi-autobiographical narrator observes the love trials of other young women and tries to be a detached observer but is gradually drawn in. The writing, often quite sensual, depicts ordinary scenes with such intensity that the reader might almost be there. The preoccupation of Japanese girls with love and romance, their frank interest in sex, and the envious ostracism that greets a girl who dares lose her virginity, comes over very strongly.
Note that this book is unavailable in the UK except in specialist stores like the Japan Centre. This edition, with kanji-sprinkled dustjacket, was evidently translated and published for Japanese who like to read their own literature in English!

KITCHEN - Banana Yoshimoto (Faber & Faber, 150pp, 5.99)
KITCHEN contains two ostensibly unconnected stories, 'Kitchen' and 'Moonlight Shadow'. The tales deal with mothers, trans-sexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love, tragedy, as contemplated or experienced by a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan.
In the first story, Mikage, who has lost her parents and then her grandmother, is invited to live with a friend and his mother. In the second, the heroine mourns her boyfriend who has been killed with another girl in a road accident. In this story, a youth goes to school wearing his dead sister's school uniform, an action which evokes surprise, curiousity and admiration more than censure.
Yoshimoto is an excellent writer, very popular with young Japanese women, some of whom have read few novels by anyone else. Her novels have a strange, offbeat quality that sometimes is reminiscent of *shojo* anime.

N.P. - Banana Yoshimoto (Faber & Faber, 194pp, 5.99)
This is the second book by Yoshimoto, and is a story of passion, friendship and incestuous relationships. The 'N.P.' is the title of a fictional last collection of short stories written in English by an expatriate Japanese. It seems fated never to see print in Japan, as each time a new translator takes up the task, death or suicide gets in the way.
The novel is the story of four young people each involved with the writer or his work who attempt to overcome their feelings of pain and loss.
This novel is a little harder to get into than "KITCHEN" but is an intensely written tale of youthful desires and obsessions.


Warning - not for the easily offended!

I first heard about the Tokyo Shock Boys from a flyer I picked up from an Edinburgh street during the yearly Festival. It showed four fierce-looking young Japanese in sunglasses posed variously with a fan and curved sword and footed by a series of quotes such as 'The Shoguns of Samurai Schlock', 'Horribly Hilarious' 'Truly mind-blowing bad taste' 'I found myself reduced to helpless, if shameful, laughter'
This I had to see, as I consider myself a conoisseur of popular Japanese culture (well I try, I try).

The following night I arrived at the Palladium, one of those imposing but grimy buildings in a side street of Edinburgh's 19th cent. New Town that looked like a classical temple from the outside, and inside looked like a cross between a church (complete with cramped wooden pews) and a theatre, and maybe had served as all these when not doubling as an Auld Reekie slum. Outside a crowd waited to get in, all Westerners except for two nervous looking Japanese girls.
After a lengthy and under-explained delay, the audience was let in, and eventually the show got under way, with a young Japanese producing a blast of club mix sound from a portable console and a wall of amps and speakers.

The Shock Boys come on stage dressed in a mix of Western and stage Japanese garb and launch into their series of startling and painful stunts. The first trick is cutting with a very sharp-looking sword a watermelon placed on the stomach of the fattest Shock Boy. There follows eating dry ice, stopping the blades of revolving electric fans (ouch), snapping a prickly cactus with the buttocks, letting off fireworks stuck into various bodily orifices. Then there is the drinking of washing up liquid.
One of the Shock Boys is placed in a glass booth which contains fireworks. When it is sealed, the fireworks are lit and sprinkle a rain of sparks all over him.
A more startling point of the show is when one of the Boys (the tall bald one) dangles a live scorpion on his bald head and inside his mouth. Then there is the Vacuum Bag. An incautious volunteer from the audience, with more years than commonsense allows herself to be zipped inside a stout plastic bag alongside one of the Boys (Sango). The bag is then connected to an industrial vacuum cleaner which sucks out all the air and shrink-wrapped the transparent bag around the pair of them.
Then there is the Rabbit. Nambu carries a white and black rabbit on stage. In view of what has gone before, one fears for the rabbit's life! However, Nambu merely sucks at the rabbit's behind and then spits out some brown pellets. YUKK!

During most of these proceedings the two Japanese girls have their hands crammed over their faces in classic poses of horror and embarrassment.

Then there are the Testicles. Nambu ties a rope around his testicles and fastens the other end to a toilet plunger glued to Gyuzo's head. They have a tug of war contest. Nambu wins, and flips up his loincloth to show the audience that it isn't a scam. Later another foolhardy volunteer comes on stage and sits on a wheeled office chair. Nambu pulls her around the stage by the rope tied to his testicles. The audience applaud.
One of the Boys puts on a huge nappy which he fills up with kerosine. Later he stuffs his nappy (not the same one, hopefully) with fireworks and lights them. They keep the stunts happening, accompanied by loud Japanese club mix music, for about 70 minutes.

"Outrageous, hilarious, compelling, intellectually worthless - the best night out this side of Tokyo!"
"By the end of the show it's unclear whether the Tokyo Shock Boys deserve our applause, a padded cell, or a speedy deportation order... absolutely indefensible; I enjoyed it enormously."
"Tacky, tasteless, juvenile, depraved... and hilarious!"
"Should be banned... stupid, repulsive and it's nae funny.. but they've got very strong testicles."
"A Shock Boys performance, once seen, is never forgotten, however hard you try."

The Tokyo Shock Boys (known in Japan as DENGEKI NETWORK) are one of Japan's best known comedy exports. They came together six years ago after individually working as actors and comedians on the Tokyo live comedy circuit. Three of the Boys, Gyuzo, Sango and Danna, met while building sets for a Paul McCartney concert, and they all met Danna while performing individually on one of Japan's notorious midnight variety TV shows that had a segment showcasing weird and gross acts ( the kind of TV show featured on Clive James' roundup of bizarre foreign TV).

For more information, biographies, and pictures, visit the Shockboys' own homepage.

Geoff's comment : I'm not sure how much I enjoyed the Shockboys or if they were any good but it was certainly an experience...

Book Review

JAPAN IN WAR AND PEACE by JOHN DOWER. (Harper Collins, 1995,368pp, 18, ISBN 0 00 255602-2) -Essays on history, race and culture.
This recent book contains ten essays on recent Japanese history, several of which shatter popular myths or disclose little-known and startling facts. The book provides a historical account rather more incisive than most of the shoal of popular books about Japan.
The first chapter, perhaps of greatest interest to those interested in Japan's commercial success, analyses its roots in the militarism and zaibatsu of the 1930's, and the rather communistic central direction of the early Occupation and reconstruction period, paving the way for the advances made during the Korean war.
The second chapter discusses the war movies made in Japan from the 1930's up to 1945. These were often of considerable artistic merit, and in contrast to the jingoism and racism of American movies of the period, the Japanese war movies rarely depicted an enemy, preferring to tell the story of a typical hero, and in showing the horrors of war were, on occasion, (like Takakau Heitei's Fighting Soldiers) anti-war to the point of being suppressed by the regime whose Chinese war they were supposed to be promoting. One movie had mock sea battles so realistic that Occupation authorities spent some time searching for the original battle footage.Today, these films are almost unknown, and exist only in rarely sceened archives.
The third chapter describes the atomic bomb research carried out by the Japanese during the war period. Many will be surprised to learn that the Japanese had an atomic bomb programme at all. Although no particular effort was made to keep this secret, writings on the subject after the war were in Japanese. In fact it seems to have been a low-key affair, and those involved believed (no doubt correctly) that without adequate reserves of uranium ore, and the industrial muscle to build huge separation plants, Japan had no hope of producing a usable weapon before the end of the war. However, when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at least some Japanese knew exactly what had hit them.
The fourth chapter neatly overturns the popular image of the Japanese people as being totally and fanatically behind the Emperor and the war effort up to the end of the war. In fact, disaffection among the common people was widespread and Marxist unrest was feared by the authorities. Dower produces impressive statistics, compiled by the secret police, of the numbers of people arrested for writing violently anti-government slogans of the "Kill the Emperor" variety, or engaging in vocal criticism of the regime. Statistics of the numbers of strikes and labour disputes occurring in the war period are also given. The fifth and sixth chapters cover the post-war Occupation period. The most interesting observation of this period is that up to 1948, Japan was being put through a period of democratization, demilitarisation, and the weeding out of those associated with the war regime, and the imposition of an anti-war constitution, and that after 1948, at the behest of the Americans, this went into reverse gear, with conservatism, anti-Communism and militarism high on the agenda, and with many left-wingers being fired to be replaced by previously purged militarists. To the chagrin of the Americans, the otherwise pliant Japanese refused to revise their anti-war constitution, which had huge popular support (as only those who have read chapter 4 of this book can appreciate) and declined to raise a new, large Japanese army.
The Korean War started in 1950, and is widely believed to be a key factor in Japan's postwar ecomomic boom.
Chapter 7 is entitled "Japanese Artists and the Atomic Bomb" and may be of more interest to manga fans than the economic and polictical chapters, for it mentions "Barefoot Gen" The art itself is deeply moving, and the political dimension in the context of re-militarization is also discussed.
Chapter 8 discusses the racism in the American and Japanese cultures, and Chapter 9 shows it as expressed in American cartoons. During the war the Japanese were frequently depicted as subhuman, or as menacing supermen.
Chapter 10, in similar vein, discusses fear and prejudice in US-Japanese relations, as expressed in such items as the recent anti-Japanese movie "Rising Sun." The wartime racist sentiments still appear today, in the persistence of depictions of the Japanese as puny, adolescent, or as supermen (sometimes simultaneously).
Chapter 11 consists of reflections on the death of the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, in 1988. Hirohito's image underwent several changes during his long reign, from remote uniformed figure, seen seated on horseback, to warlord, to ageing, shy, vulnerable civilian.
This book is essential reading for those with an interest in Japanese culture and history.
(Geoff Cowie.)


1. True, most observers believe. Though they may not be able to order out the armed forces, what these people can get away with is chilling enough.
2. They do exist. The bosozoku (speed tribes) are part of a Japanese underclass of dropouts, kids from broken homes and would-be yakuza. Many, however, ride 50cc bikes with the silencers removed.
3. If there are any, I know nothing about them.
4. Almost true; Yui Haga- a virtual starlet - was manufactured to the point where several girls did the signing at autograph sessions.
5. True.
6. True. They spend all their spare time attending cram school.
7. False. It's just a male fantasy.
8. They do, and are widely tolerated in that sort of nightlife or entertainment situation.
9. True. Teachers have got away with stuff like killing kids by slamming the school gates on them as they arrived late. No kinky stuff though.
10. False! See 6.