Friday, August 31, 2007

Sociology of shampoo

The success of Shiseido's shampoo marketing offered me an opportunity to tell the story about Japanese women and their changing self-perception.
Beauty standards may seem trite _ more about self-asborbed conceit than anything else.
But the right to define beauty and see oneself (race, ethnicity, culture) as beautiful is an essential part of human rights.
One of the women I interviewed, Kaori Sasaki, a business consultant who has a Web page called ewoman, says today's Japanese woman strives to be simple and organic in their lifestyles.
But that doesn't mean she has to be digging around on a farm, growing vegetables.
The other key word is gorgeous, she says.
And so that ideal modern-day Japanese woman can be eating organic food and have down-to-earth values, but she may put on a glittering dress and go out.
She gets to have fun.
Still, looking at Race and Beauty never fails to get a bit depressing.
The combination seems to speak to the worst of our fetishes.
A feminist professor I spoke with, Teruko Inoue, told me the barriers of sex are especially pronounced in Japan because there aren't as many other obvious non-gender ways to divide people for hierachical definitions as there are in other societies such as caste, race and ethnic groups.
So females have become synonymous with the underclass, the easiest to corner into exploitable labels.
Women have come to define the bottom rung of this allegedly (mythically) homogenous society.
This is insightful: Part-time workers are almost all female in Japan.
And women are grossly under-represented in Japanese management.
It's hard being a woman in Japan.
And we're so happy to be told, "Japanese women are beautiful," we rushed out and bought shampoo!
Watch the TV ads here, and listen to the hit Smap tune, a Tsubaki original.
I don't know why Unilever doesn't retaliate with a Japanese version of the far more progressive Dove ads.
But maybe that concept won't fly in Japan.
Shiseido meanwhile has more up its sleeve: a white Tsubaki.
The campaign blitz starts September: Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Story of Miu 4: Bon Odori _ Japan's answer to the Dance Party

Japanese summers are never complete without Bon Odori, the neighborhood thanksgiving celebration of the harvest, the annual homecoming of ancestral ghosts, the end of summer.
The dress code: cotton yukata kimonos in white, indigo and goldfish red, splashed with bold patterns of flowers, bursting fireworks, waves of water. Wooden clogs or woven straw slippers on the feet. Big uchiwa fans, the kind that don't fold out gracefully, upper-class, but just stay flat (also with bold patterns) to get flapped around to swat mosquitoes and cool off in the evening breeze.
The smell in the air: Grilled noodles, pancakes and octopus dumplings topped with seaweed and dried fish, peddled at stalls set up like tents, which also sell manga-character masks, goldfish, shaved ice, bobbing balloon yo-yos, chocolate-covered bananas on sticks.
The sound: Deep intestine-curdling thumps of a taiko drum from a stage that's set up _ just for the weekend.
The drum plays in time to funky songs. Some are minyo folk tunes, but others are pop concoctions, like Tokyo Ondo, which has become the rallying theme song for the Yakult Swallows, and children's songs like Anpanman or Obakyu Bon Odori.
The drummers play loud and strong.
They strike poses, fling their arms, twirling and throwing their sticks, staccato out rhythms, swinging with the beat.
The dancing goes in a circle around the stage, repetitions of steps, arm moves and turns that don't require acrobatic skills to execute (although the instructors on stage _ you can pick them out because they wear the same white and blue yukata _ do every move with a certain elegant nuance you can't imitate without taking real lessons.)
Maybe there are only five, six choreography patterns you have to get in your head, but each song is a little different and so it's harder than you think.
Most of the time you end up looking totally ridiculous.
Never mind _ the point isn't about showing off.
The point is about getting down and having fun and doing the best you can.
And knowing another summer is over.
"Oh, this is so much fun," said Miu, who had never been to a real Bon Odori before, wiping sweat she's worked up from dancing. "There is something about this place that's movie-like. It's surreal."
Something about those lanterns hung from the poles and around the makeshift stage bouncing in time with the embryonic heartbeat booms of the drum surround that place where we are gathered in a soft, strange glow _ reminding us of both our cosmic isolation and the terrible death that is so always there but telling us all this in a warm, comforting way, like a grandmother telling us a story: It's going to be OK; there is nothing to be afraid of.
The way I explained it to Miu is that when the moment comes for me to die, and flashes of images like a multicultural slide show play in my mind in a lazy dozing off of death, somehow, I know Bon Odori will be one of those scenes.
My son was just 6 when he played drums with the other children at his first Bon Odori. He was barely bigger than the drum, challenging the drum, until blisters tore his fingers.
He is 25 this year.
It's not hard to understand why Japanese believe ancestral ghosts come home for Bon.

Story of Miu 3.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Poet Plays Piano

Ishamel Reed, poet, essayist and scholar that many of us knew was a genius before the MacArthur Foundation made it official, plays piano on this CD with the same forthright finality of his writing.
Other members of the Ishmael Reed Quintet are David Murray on saxophone, Roger Glenn on flute, Carla Blank on violin and Chris Planas on guitar.
Murray and Glenn are famous as musicians.
Planas, I found out, is also a veteran musician.
But it's hearing Reed explore a new voice as a musician that's so endearing, moving and refreshing.
I mean, why not?
Carla, Ishmael's wife, is also better known as a dancer, but she's gone back to playing the instrument she studied in the past.
This is not to say the music isn't first-rate.
It holds up to all that's out there by people who play music and don't dance or speak poetry.
It is Music that cuts through all the Noise (music making money, music on the charts, music that says nothing) to transport the listener to that special kind of space where people play/speak freely with just the power of intelligence and insight.

On another note, poetry and piano met in Tokyo when Eddie Palmieri took the stage.
My son/drummer Isaku, his percussionist friend Winchester Nii Tete (playing MON Sept. 3 at Shinjuku Pit Inn) and I sat right in front.
And I must say I literally saw colors jump out of that grand piano _ warm yellow like fireflies, sparkling crystal like pink stars and a collage of hues like a swirling rainbow.
Sorry about all the cliches, but it's true what they say about how sounds have colors.
(Please go on Isaku's blog to see video footage.
But you probably can't see the colors on YouTube video. Something that perhaps come close:
Close your eyes and see Piet Mondrian.)

Thank God for all the poets and pianists of the world.

Auto workers in the U.S./Germany/Japan

In some ways, a farmer has more in common with farmers in other nations than with people of other occupations in the same country.
That can be said of other professions _ boxers, chief executives, carpenters, reporters.
That's because what we do to earn a living is such an all encompassing and fundamental part of our being that what is required to perform that job right comes to define how we think and act, and what we ARE.
Recently my colleagues and I did a project together to look at auto workers in the U.S., Germany and Japan, to see what they had in common, as well as what separated them.
The package together told a story that was more than each story on its own:

The U.S. story
The story from Germany
The story from Japan

I remember talking to farmers in Michigan and farmers in Japan and realizing how much farmers have in common, although they don't speak the same language and they live so far away from each other.
I also remember the point in I believe a book by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: We are what we do every day (The way he put it was that we become what we pretend to be and so we must be careful.)
People can justify all they want in their minds to appease their guilt about what they do.
But sometimes matter overtakes mind.
Every little decision/act/word counts.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Politics and Toyota

A couple of our reporters were out this week and so I got to do politics stories for a change.
It's an exciting time to be covering politics in Japan because the ruling Liberal Democrats have suffered their biggest defeat probably in the history of their party, which has ruled Japan virtually all the time for more than 50 years.
The Liberal Democrats are credited with orchestrating Japan's modernization and reconstruction after World War II.
But Japan and its voters are changing.
Many young people, usually associated with total disinterest in politics, voted for the opposition in the latest election.
Analysts say the candidates for the opposition have never been better.
And they may be finally giving Japanese voters a chance for a real alternative to the Liberal Democrats.
It's fun to send alerts.
It gets your adrenaline going.
And it's a bit frightening.
But it's always a moment I look back on (during a weekend, say, like today) as one reason why reporting is so much fun.
Our bureau got to do that earlier this week because the agriculture minister stepped down to take responsibility for the election defeat.
Now the question is if/when will the prime minister resign/reshuffle the Cabinet/dissolve the lower house of Parliament.
I also did my usual job covering business on Toyota's earnings.
Toyota posted a 32 percent rise in profit for the first fiscal quarter.
Another time for an alert.

World's first hybrid train

I took a ride on the world's first hybrid train to go into commercial service.
It's a cute little train in a resort area that's fun to ride.
But this was serious work for writing a story.
The company official there kept giving us strange explanations _ such as the motor running backward _ that I later realized just couldn't be right.
I made calls later to check to make sure we had it right in our story.
It's strange how some Japanese companies don't seem to be aware that if they give us reporters the wrong information, then they aren't doing their job right. We are doing our best to understand the technology, but we aren't experts.