Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Flower Children 3

In any age, Artists get monetary support from others _ the king, the church, the modern market. The means of support affect the Art (eg., portaits of noblemen, Biblical paintings, modern art). In Tokyo today, Artists get support from a community of Artists, who in turn get support/make money as freeters in the straight economy. This distinction becomes easier to understand if one looks at the true function of Art as giving spiritual fulfillment to people who aren't Artists, those people who are straight and make money. It's like going to church. Art like religion is "necessary" in every society to remind people of the meaning of life. Because the Artist possesses that special power, the Artist gets money from those who make money, so that the Artist can be free of straight-world commitments to practice that power. If Art becomes funded by a community of like-minded Artists (salaryman/freeter masses), Art becomes very different from Art nurtured in the 20th Century modern art scene of the West. Tokyo Art is not combative. It does not try to make a point. It reaches out to others in harmony like a psychotherapy session. There is no prize committee, rich patron/gallery buyer, even recording label/producer to impress. Sincerity is critical: Are you really an Artist? Or are you more interested in success/money/the straight world? If you are truly a Tokyo Artist, then you are "in" no matter how untrained, how off-key, how absurd your Art may be. But you must Believe.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Flower Children 2

The Moon Stomp in Koenji is smaller than most American kitchens, and it really does have a kitchen, where sweet-smelling pizza and hot spicy curry are getting cooked up, but what's really cooking is the music. Descend from the streets into that tiny smoke-filled club, packed with kids in hats and T-shirts, and music is feel-good, giggles-provoking and so harmonious Japanese-style it's like soaking in sudsy lukewarm tubwater. Merrychan is a trio that performs original Japanese-language versions of Cuban and other Latin music. Hearing Japanese sung and yelled in Latin fashion is somehow funnier than you'd think. Speak about identity crisis and parodying Japan's imitative modern music scene! See how "Gerohaita! (He barfed!)" almost sounds Spanish? It's that wit in not taking oneself too seriously that makes these musicians rise above their otherwise proficient but pretty hunkydory (I mean, how could a bunch of Japanese kids beat Los Van Van?) musicianship to something unique, and something definitely entertaining. No wonder the crowd (of about 30, half of them members of the other performing bands) is ecstatic. Funyakotsu-ting was a geeky looking pudgy guy with glasses and a T-shirt with a picture of a donkey that said in English: "Bad Ass." He sang/narrated/even performed karaoke with a guitar. A far cry from a demonstration of musical technique or artistic message, the almost-freak-show "otaku" performance exudes a strange utterly disarming charm. Several fans sat in the front row with multicolored light-sticks and swayed them in time to the music on one tune. Most straight-ahead but just as hippie-spiritied was Cigarette She Was , a folk/pop band led by guitar-strumming singer Teruyuki Kawabata (in photo above on top of flower as a flower child should be). The groups were selling their CDs for something like 200 yen, the equivalent of $1.50. Admission was 2,500 yen for an all-you-can-eat meal-included evening of music. Japan is so affluent and peaceful the dreams go on without a reality test as they do in other parts of the world. Young Japanese are rejecting the older generation's definitions of a proper "salaryman" life (preferably at a big name company). They will earn their keep (freeter-style or otherwise) but play/laugh at Moon Stomp.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Horiemon 6

Things just keep getting worse for Livedoor. On Friday , it got the slammed with the largest fine ever in Japanese corporate history for securities laws violations. (another link) Two certified accountants were also convicted, and one of them got a prison sentence _ the first time an accoutant landed behind bars in Japan on a guilty verdict on such charges. Livedoor was a first for Japan in many ways, and so it makes sense that the justice that the company and its people are getting is also marking a first. About 3,600 individual investors are suing Livedoor and Horie for damages. Harsh judgments in criminal courts are a plus for civil cases. Fuji TV, which was once a major stakeholder in Livedoor, has said repeatedly it's suing Livedoor for damages. And Livedoor's new management is now talking about suing Horie.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cute culture

How do you sell a car that's made by your rival and package it so that it sells for a higher price? Nissan's Pino is a picturebook lesson in how marketing works to place a product in the consumer's consciousness so that it becomes more desirable than what it is. What makes something cute? When is beige cute (fashionable) and when is it drab (yucky)? See a photo here of a proud Pino owner and her mom. And here. You may think it's about duping the buyer, but is it? A car is a car is a car. And what you pay for these days is as much about perception/image and experience/feeling as the THING you end up owning.

Horiemon 5

Miyauchi was not able to avert a prison term and was sentenced to 20 months in prison. The others got suspended sentences.
I did a story on how people are questioning the harsh treatment Horie is getting vs. Nikko Cordial. Another link. And an updated version of the story on the possibly double standard in Japanese justice. Some are even hinting the authorities are getting lenient because Citigroup is interested in taking over Nikko Cordial. Delisting Nikko Cordial would have saved money for Citigroup by making NC shares cheaper. But NC's reputation would have been devastated. By not delisting, its reputation stays intact and you prevent an exodus of the best workers from Nikko, according to pundits. For the cynics, the message is: It pays to be big and powerful, and maybe American in Japan.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Horiemon 4

Perhaps the Japanese court will hand down as harsh a verdict on the other executives at Livedoor as with Horie.
Japan's court system doesn't have plea-bargaining.
The judge in Horie's case is saying that the evidence shows Miyauchi was the main man behind the schemes, allegedly used to inflate profits.
Then at least the logic would follow that it would make sense for Miyauchi to possibly end up with even a heavier sentence.
Soichiro Tawara's news show on TV Asahi noted the lenient treatment Nikko Cordial was getting from the authorities vs. what happened with Livedoor.
Nikko wasn't even delisted despite lots of Japanese media reports saying that it will _ making its stocks gyrate like mad all along (likely landing hefty profits for investment funds).
The show also pointed out, as have our AP stories on Livedoor, that past executives accused of inflating earnings didn't get prison terms.
But the pundits on the TV show said part of the reason may be that Horie made millions off selling his stocks in Livedoor.
The verdict on Miyauchi and others is scheduled for March 22.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Horiemon 3

I was one of the reporters rushing around March 16 to tell the world the verdict in the trial of Livedoor founder Takafumi Horie.
Since foreign media are assigned only two seats for some 10 news organizations that wish to get into the courtroom, we have to play a musical chairs version of reporting.
We get armbands from the ninth floor PR office that show to court security that we are indeed reporters. We pass each other the armbands like a relay racer.
The trial is attracting a great deal of attention. TV was an endless stream of Livedoor reporting. TV and still photo cameras aren't allowed in Japanese courtrooms except for the first few minutes before the session starts. And so what we see (is Horie wearing a tie? What color is the tie? Is he hair slicked back? Or spiky?) is important.
When Horie asked the judge to let him leave the courtroom, we all had to rush out to relay that information, although we had no idea what was going on. I thought he had to go throw up.
When Horie came back five minute later, looking pretty much the same as when he had left, we had to all rush out again and relay THAT.
His lawyer told us later that he hadn't been feeling well all day and he probably needed to use the bathroom. Horie, appearing in a TV interview in the evening, said he had diarrhea.
The whole drama is far from over because Horie is appealing.
Besides the question of his innocence, there are others:
Is the same punishment being fairly doled out for a comparable crime? I don't remember cases of executives of major companies ever getting prison terms for this kind of white collar crime.
Does a guilty plea win lenience? I.e., what is Miyauchi's verdict/sentence going to be next week?
How sane is a justice system that convicts 99.9 percent of its defendants?
It is often difficult to hear what the judge is mumbling from where the foreign media must sit _ the very back row.
Fortunately, all the Japanese reporters who get to sit up front are all yelling the news in their version of relay tag:
Guilty, guilty, guilty. Two years six months prison. Two years six months prison. Two years six months prison.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Love hurts

why does loving someone hurt so much?
but i would rather suffer in love than be without
it's so true what they say:
about that pain hurting/squeezing/screaming
like a hole burrowing the insides of your heart
black and red
burning scars
i wish i could forget/escape/disown
this love that makes us so brave
this love that makes us love so
much with that love so the pain is almost too much to bear
except in love:
to love not only those we love
but love also those whom
those we love

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Chips EveryWARE

Adam Greenfield, who has written "Everyware, the Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing," had some harsh words on his blog for my Chips Everywhere article. But there's always a happy ending to Yuri's endeavors: He is willing to be that expert who will be interviewed for comment for my next technology story!

Friday, March 9, 2007

Chips everywhere

It's still a test, but computer chips stuck in buildings and corner posts in Tokyo's Ginza won't stop talking to you, as evident in my participation in a recent demonstration. The chips are an upgrade of the more common RFID chips in widespread use, which are more like barcodes to identify products. The chips from Professor Sakamura of TRON fame relay information that can be updated on servers. He denies they will be used for "Big Brother" monitoring of human individuals. But that would seem one obvious potential use. Another link to my story.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Ebizo and Kamejiro

I should have shouted the question in Japanese when the interpreter failed to tanslate the last part of my question to Ebizo Ichikawa and Kamejiro Ichikawa at the Foreign Correspondents Club.
The question: Given that your children will inherit your family's artistic legacy, when you choose the woman who is to be the mother of your children, do you (1) look for traits that you think are desirable in a Kabuki actor, (2) listen to what your father recommends, or (3) simply fall in love?
And if so, (4) are you in love now?
The interpreter completely ignored question (4).
He also mistranslated Ebizo's reply, which was that he would take all those factors into account.
The translator said exactly the opposite.
My story gives Kamejiro's reply.
Kamejiro was outspoken and witty. What impressed me the most was how like a regular young man he was.
When his father Danshiro Ichikawa went on and on explaining the intricacies of Kabuki theater, he quipped jokingly: "One example is enough!"
Kamejiro got laughs when he reminded his father the interpreter won't be able to remember all that he said!
When Kamejiro was asked what he wanted to be in his next life, he said he had already completed his incarnation cycles, and he isn't destined to come back to Earth and will instead stay in Paradise.
When it became his father's turn to answer, he kept muttering: "Pilot."
His father did tell the story that he once dreamed of becoming a pilot.
But now, Danshiro said, he will choose to come back as an actor again.
They were such an obviously loving father-and-son team, it was charming.
Afterward, Kamejiro and the two fathers were still in their bluish kimonos.
But Ebizo changed instantly into Western clothes, perhaps to go to his next engagement.
A black ski cap on his head, he walked right past us in a flashy red jacket with golden logo-like marks that were both Kabuki-esque and Gianni Versace _ every inch the superstar that he is.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Shima's violin

Shima (short for Yumi Miyagishima) already knows what life is all about: She was born to play the violin. She knows this. That discovery, that conviction, that vision. When she plays _ sometimes in a deafening cavernous live-house, filled with throat-scratching smoke mixing with the laughter of other young people like her, dancing, talking, being themselves; sometimes in an organic-food restaurant, wafting faraway sounds like the harmonium and the Chilean flute and the smell of curry and memories of hippie dreams from the 60s_ her violin wails with the determined cries of a thousand women, all choosing to live for what they believe in, taking a stand. Bring out the violins _ people don't say that for no reason. The weeping violin makes me feel all the love I have for her, and for Women Artists, that I have to fight to hold back my tears. When I tell her this, she laughs and suggests humbly her playing may be so sad? Watching you brings me only joy and pride. So many people take the easy way out _ get a job, get married, look for money, seek status. But you stand. And play the violin. Because that's what you were born on earth to do. She told me once: "Today was a good day. I got up, I had a nice brunch, and I played the violin." She is also very wise. I ask her, worried: "What's going to happen when we just grow older and older?" "Don't worry about it. You just enter a different stage in life," is her reply, delivered as a fact, in her trademark carefree, free-spirit, oh, so spiritual shrug. And I believe her.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Orsay in Tokyo and Haiku

An old wooden desk
Yellow dots of light, shrieking
Filling Van Gogh's room

Artwork by Van Gogh is among the pieces from Orsay on display now at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum. I am struck by how the painting is filled with happiness. We are so used to the image of Van Gogh as a tormented lonely ear-shaving painter. Another painting that stood out is Auguste Renoir's portrait of Claude Monet. There is so much respect and love in that painting. Besides the works, and the artists' lives behind the works, we also see the relationships among the artists.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Robot serves tea

Of all the things you can make a robot do, University of Tokyo is having it serve tea . Professor Tomomasa Sato is serious this is an important chore for robots as companions and caretakers. He says he doesn't like to ask a student or his wife to serve tea. He feels guilty. He acknowledges human beings are still going to do the most important caretaking, family interaction and yes, tea serving. But sometimes it's asking too much of a person. Another place to read my story and watch video.
Also here.