Friday, September 28, 2007

Virtual worlds

As though we weren't busy enough dealing with reality, welcome to the virtual world.
We are about to get a whole range of cyberworlds to live in and do all the things like shopping and meeting people you do in the real world but were probably too busy to get to.
But people will always be people.
The same social ills and cultural differences in the real world seem to be playing out in these second (third, fourth, etc.) lives.
"Meet me" is the Japanese version and so it's more subdued _ in the same way NTT DoCoMo's "i-mode" is a more controlled and orderly network on cell phones, including ensuring payment of fees.
The question is: Do Japanese want this?
The popularity of DoCoMo as a carrier is dwindling in Japan, but it's not because people are fleeing in droves from a regulated universe.
They are defecting to cheaper carriers (belive it or not, unlimited calls aren't taken for granted here).
Another competition has been music downloads (just as regulated in choices/fees).
"Meet me" is designed to be a hit for Japanese outside the city areas.
If you can't come out to Harajuku, then jump into "meet me."
Non-urban Japanese ("chiho") are the biggest patrons of electronic shopping _ the same target for online worlds.
Similar tendencies are observed for "Second Life."
New Yorkers, for example, aren't the biggest fans of "Second Life."
Not much going on there in Seattle?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Jazz transcends boundaries

Caravan, Easy Money, All of Me, Moonlight Serenade .......
Drummer Takayoshi Tanaka is realizing a longtime dream in leading a Big Band.
Most of the band members, as well as the crowd, were Japanese Boomers.
Some didn't even have hair.
But they had swing.
It's moving to witness people who have never given up on their belief in Music over the years.
George Bernard Shaw was right: Youth is mottainai to keep it the sole privilege of youngsters.
The crowd loved it _ Mr. Tanaka, who played for 30 years in the Self Defense Forces band, calls it "ai to roman to kandou no" Orchestra.
After the concert, Mr. Tanaka gave me the '60s Power handshake, still a bit breathless, his hand still sweaty and hot.
You were so cool, kakkoii, I told him.
Honto? Really? he asks, as though he isn't sure and wants to know.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sony delays virtual world, shows rumble controller

It was his first big speech as head of Sony's game business, but the news Kazuo Hirai gave us was the delay of "Home."
He also showed us a controller that vibrates _ not much of a technological razzle dazzle.
Even Hirai called it an item of nostalgia!
Ken Kutaragi, his predecessor, announced a price cut at last year's show.
But no such news this time around.
It would have been so deja vu, as Hirai noted.
Sony is a treasure chest of great technology, and it'd seem like a speech before game fans would be filled with forward-looking news for reporters like us to write about.
Instead, Hirai spent much of his time acknowledging the failure of the PS3, and saying games had to appeal to a wider audience (an homage to Nintendo's strategy).
It's fascinating to see how a dominant game machine thrives on its success to build even more success.
The longest lines at the show were in front of the Wii games _ and these were at the booths of software makers.
Nintendo doesn't take part in the Tokyo Game Show.
Of course, except two years ago, when Nintendo's president, Satoru Iwata, was invited to speak and showed us the wand for the Wii.
The Wii is now gaining more violent/adult-oriented games that we don't usually associate with Nintendo.
Like "Biohazard" on Wii.
I didn't have time to stand in line to try them, but rather intriguing.
Meanwhile, both Sony and Microsoft were trying to do a Wii-number with their lineup, expanding their appeal to those who aren't "core gamers."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Japanese politics

Joichi Ito's opinion piece in The New York Times today was a truly enjoyable piece of bicultural (Japan/U.S.) writing.
To appreciate it, like an inside joke, you almost have to be bicultural in the same way he is bicultural _ observing Japan as part-insider Japanese and part-outsider "gaijin."
I interviewed Joi Ito in 2004 as a star blogger when mainstream journalism was still trying to grapple with blogging as a new medium.
Now, even I blog!
Diversity/sensibilities shed light on life/social change/prejudice/injustices _
Being marginal helps us question societal assumptions and understand what's relative/arbitrary vs. what is fundamental/eternal/universal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sociology of shampoo 2

Shiseido didn't have much of a new twist to its marketing campaign for its new white version of the now red Tsubaki shampoo.
The shampoo has been a hit here.
But the launch for the revamped Tsubaki played up much of the same themes _ and even the same women.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Letter From North Korea

I've been to North Korea only twice _ in 2002, as part of the press with then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and with the Foreign Ministry delegation that went there ahead of Koizumi's trip.
I don't know what I was expecting. But it was definitely one of the most memorable places I have visited ever.
Things we take for granted simply aren't there.
There aren't that many places you can go in this day and age to have that kind of eye-opening experience.
And it's just as about depravity of mind/soul as materialistic poverty.
We stayed at Pyongyang's top hotel, but the hallways were dark at night because of the energy shortage.
I had to feel my way, touching the walls, to find my way back to my room.
The toothbrushes in the rooms were primitive wooden sticks with barely any bristles at the end.
The bed was a hardened box.
The night streets were also totally dark.
Streetlamps, skyscraper lights, neon signs and car headlights we are used to as providing visibility just aren't there.
And because of this, you can see the stars so clearly it's dazzling.
The mornings start with blaring broadcast speeches and militaristic singsong music tearing through the air.
The TV, which has maybe two channels, only shows those weird propaganda we see on news footage about North Korea.
It is surreal.
It is like being on a movie set where everything that looks real is a cardboard facade, and the people you encounter are actors, all putting on suspiciously cheery faces pretending to love their dictator.
We were given official tour guides to "babysit" us during our entire trip.
But surprisingly we were pretty free off-hours to roam around as much as we liked, although we couldn't go very far, given that we as reporters had to stick around to go to briefings, and there aren't any cabs to hop on or anything.
When a photographer and I went across the street to eat dinner at a barbecue place, we ordered dishes by pantomiming a bird (for chicken) and mooing (for beef).
As I said, I don't know what I was expecting.
But I wasn't expecting everybody to be so nice.
We don't expect friendly human beings with what we are fed about North Korea, day in and day out_ not the restaurant waitress trying to decipher our orders, the "babysitter" guides, everyone far nicer than people on average, say, in New York.
It's more like visiting a forsaken rural area where people aren't used to visitors and see them as guests who need looking out for.
The landscape (before driving into the city through the famous arch) is also pastoral and untainted.
The sloganistic billboards we associate with communist nations are absent outside the city, and because the nation is too poor to have many cars the whole place looks fairytale (so Nihon mukashi banashi) _ winding dirt roads through luscious green and fresh air.
All picturesque, untouched by the modern world.
It reminded me of Show Era Japan.
Naturally, the press group I was with got taken to the obligatory tourist spots during our free time _ controlled and orchestrated.
We went up Juche Tower.
We went to the statue of Kim Il Song.
We went to the reimen restaurant.
Some reporters put in a request, and we also got to go to a department store.
It was more like a drug store or a Daiei by American/Japanese standards, and the strange thing was that the shelves were filled with the same product (eg., plastic alarm clock) over and over (like a miniature shabby version of a Costco).
A small booth inside the store offered foreign exchange services.
Apparently, the department store caters largely to diplomats and other visitors as regular North Koreans can't afford to shop there.
It was obvious throughout our assignment the country was eager to get foreign currency from reporters:
We were charged an exorbitant fee for transmitting our stories.
You often see in Japanese TV how North Koreans guides speak fluent Japanese.
This is true.
One North Korean man, while we were waiting for a briefing, told me he could sing Japanese songs.
He demonstrated his skill by singing in perfect Japanese: "Konnichiwa Akachan."
It was bizarre to be sitting in Pyongyang and watch this North Korean sing "Konnichiwa Akachan."
But besides this brief rendition of "Konnichiwa Akachan," the standard music there was all numbing blaring militaristic songs.
On my flight back to Japan, the jazz wafting through my earphones (music we take for granted but music that speaks so clearly and so fundamentally of a free, democratic, creative society) literally brought tears to my eyes.
Not only because Music is so beautiful.
But because it is so unfair the people of North Korea don't have the freedom to just reach over and listen to that Music.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Microsoft's Xbox 360

The Xbox 360 event was video show after video show of games in the works for the machine that's losing out big time to Nintendo's Wii and Sony's PlayStation 3 in Japan.
Japanese gamers like role-playing games and so Microsoft must sign on star game creators to get people to buy the console.
The obvious catch is that these designers would rather make games for machines owned by more people.
But you know what? A lot of these games look the same.
There's a lot of blood and gore, choice of weapons (knives/swords of all sizes/shapes, etc. ), knights' armor/the billowy ninja-look.
And the obligatory cast: (1) young male hero (2) sidekick (3) cute female facing off against (1) monsters (2) faceless soldiers.
When you think about it, it'd seem there could be some variety.
Why not a game that takes place in a kitchen (there are knives there as well)?
How are games as a genre going to maintain the momentum for creativity, given the growing competition from entertaiment on the Internet for spending free time without leaving your home?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Mimi Yokoo

Phallic asparagus, vaginal mussels, ripened fruit, even pepperoni pizza galore, food is sex, blood, delusions and life itself in paintings by Mimi Yokoo.
The meals are spottled with dots of feverish color.
Her brushstrokes pulsate like swirling psychedelic veins.
She uses glitter and beads in some places, playfully plops fake birds with feathers on the canvas.
She sets an elaborate dinner table with such manic prim and proper detail everything on the top half of the canvas is reflected upside down in the bottom half like a mirror into the unknown.
Why is food so sad?
Food and fat and appetite celebrate orgasm, fertility and birth.
But women aren't allowed to eat.
They stay thin.
And all the food grows dizzyingly larger than life, enticing menacingly, forbidden jewels of desire/hunger/taste.
I went to a gallery opening for Mimi Yokoo's paintings at Nantenshi Gallery.

Sony unveils Rolly

After a lot of buildup on a countdown Web page, Sony showed us the Rolly.
Sony chose to show off the machine in a hotel bedroom (as opposed to big halls where the electronics and entertainment company usually chooses to show new products) to highlight how Rolly's relatively delicate sound bounces in an intimate setting _ i.e., a good way to impress a girlfriend, perhaps fodder for pillowtalk.
Is Rolly a cool robotic toy for Japan's fashionable geeks?
Or just another "so what?" gadget?
I wasn't convinced too many people would shell out 40,000 yen for a music player on wheels, with or without clever dancing.
Sony also showed in a demonstration the machine moving in time to electronic voices in a conversation.
My office colleagues think Rolly would be more petlike if you made it like a Tamagotchi (since it looks like an egg anyway), demanding care and attention.
Their version of Rolly would grow sad, even die, if you don't play music on it everyday.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Toyota's Press departs for Chrysler

I was on vacation but back at work, although from home, when I found out late at night that Jim Press whom I've written about in this blog was leaving Toyota for Chrysler.
Press, an American, just joined the board of Toyota as the first non-Japanese three months ago.
It was a rather high-profile promotion as a clear message about how Toyota was becoming a global company.
Press' getting headhunted to Chrysler is a sign of how Toyota is winning respect in the industry.
But I wonder who'll be the next non-Japanese Toyota brings on board?

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Chatter on the sociology of shampoo

My article is stirring up a lively discussion.
But ...
Did I ever say there were never any Japanese women in ads before?
That's a rather absurd idea, isn't it?
The story is about the success Shiseido has had with a new marketing drive that sends the message about "beautiful Japanese women," and hired a bunch of famous women, not just one.
My earlier blog post on the sociology of shampoo.
Looking at gender and ethnicity is one good way to tell a story about Japan _ or any society _ because the "master traits" delve so deeply into our makings on who/where we are in each society.
And one way to get blog attention.

Defining Art

Some thoughts.
And more thoughts:
A South Korean poet with whom I did a reading in Hibiya Park with other poets many years ago told me that being a poet poses giant risks.
Poets speak the truth, he told me with conviction, and that's why they are always going to be seen as a threat from those in power.
This was a new frightening idea to me.
I was more used to seeing poetry as a way of self-expression, something that may draw ridicule or indifference, but not something that got one's life in danger.
Most artists in the modern democratic world spend their time trying to perfect their technical skills and building their marketing/business contacts so they can get an arts grant, a product on the commercial market, a good review in The New York Times, an exhibition at a major museum, or whatever else that translates their skills into a livelihood and a happy state of mind as far as getting worldly Respect.
But in extreme situations, when artistic choice doesn't match the rules of the physical non-artistic society, the artist must even choose art over life.
Today, on NHK, Donald Keene was talking about his favorite Japanese artist, painter Kazan Watanabe, who sought to bring Western influences (perspective, lighting) in his work at a time when the Edo Bakufu had set up an isolationist "sakoku" policy of banning contact with the outside world.
Kazan criticized that mentality as "a frog in the well."
This got him in trouble, and he was imprisoned and interrogated for seven months.
He was released but placed in exile and could not paint freely.
He killed himself at 49, writing in his will he was worried about bringing trouble to his family.
One of his final paintings, a portrait of his mother, uses only traditional Japanese techniques.
But another is a powerful portrait using Western techniques that NHK said Kazan purposely put an incorrect year of creation, to hide his persistent pursuit of even outlawed techniques for his artistic vision.