Japanese Architecture: A Short History

4.0 out of 5 stars Japanese architecture over the years

Japanese Architecture: A Short History (Tuttle Classics)

A.L. Sadler’s 1941 book “Japanese Architecture: A Short History” is one of several books Sadler wrote to help introduce the West to the then-unknown culture of Japan. More than just a textbook or academic exercise, Sadler infuses his description of Japanese architecture with short lessons on Japanese culture and society. One cannot separate the building from the people, after all.

“Japanese Architecture” goes through each period a chapter at a time, from the Early Period (660 BC – 540 AD) up to the Edo Period (1616 – 1860 AD). He then discusses some of the special features of Japanese architecture, such as the shoji screens, the bathroom, and the ceilings. He goes into some depth of the building regulations of the Tokugawa period, which prescribed what kind of house you could live in by what class you were born into.

By “short history,” Sadler isn’t kidding. Each period gets only a few pages to cover several hundred years, which makes for quick and easy reading. Fully a third of the book is illustrations. Unfortunately, the illustrations are not spread throughout the text but collected in the back as an appendix. That means you have to do a lot of flipping back and forth as you read the book to look at the picture that Sadler is describing.

I enjoyed “Japanese Architecture: A Short History” even though the writing was a bit dry. I was happy for the short chapters, and I wish the pictures had been published next to the text instead of in the back. I don’t know if this is how the book originally appeared in 1941 or not, but that is likely. When I lived in Japan I was curious about the different types of buildings, particularly in the shrines and temples that appear everywhere but are often stylistically different. Thanks to Sadler’s book I have a better grasp of the architecture and can better place when a particular building was made by what style it is in.



5.0 out of 5 stars The Mythology of War


“Ichiro” is exactly why I like comics. Ryan Inzana makes skillful use of the medium to weave a compelling story of Japanese mythology, race relations, family relations, and the folly of war. With his clean and simple visuals he describes complex ideals and deep emotional truths that wouldn’t have had the same impact in novel form.

On the surface, Inzana mixes the ancient fairy tale of the Tanuki Teakettle with a contemporary–and very real–story of a young half-Japanese boy named Ichiro, who has suddenly had his world upturned. Hi American father died long ago in the Iraq war, and his Japanese mother, struggling to make a living in the U.S., takes Ichiro back to Japan and contemplates returning to a country Ichiro barely knows. While his mother interviews for a job, Ichiro is thrust together with a Grandfather he doesn’t remember, who takes the boy on a tour of Japan, from Tokyo down through Hiroshima and ending in Izumo to witness the Kami Mukae festival where all of the gods of Japan gather once a year to meet in Izumo Shrine. But along the way, Ichiro is flung into a fantasy world of magical creatures and yokai, Japanese monsters, and a war between Heaven and Hell.

One of the things that impressed me right away with “Ichiro” was its authenticity. I know nothing of Inzana’s background or ethnicity, but he gives the feel of drawing from person experience and background knowledge for this comic. I did my Master’s Degree in Japanese folklore in Hiroshima, and I was getting nostalgic looking at his artwork. Inzana also perfectly capture the awesome power of the Hiroshima Peace Park. It is very difficult to go there and come away unchanged.

Ichiro is certainly changed by the experience. He begins the story as a military-loving, father-worshiping young man who clings to his father’s war experience like a totem, wearing a “Kill `em all and let God sort `em out” t-shirt and his father’s sunglasses. When he sees the devastation of Hiroshima, he starts to hate America until his Grandfather reminds him that Ichiro is also American, as was the father he idolizes. There are no easy answers, and Inzana doesn’t offer trite or candy-coated wisdoms to ease the bitter pill the conflicted Ichiro has to swallow. I know exactly how he feels.

The fantasy elements begin about halfway through the book, when a confluence of circumstances finds Ichiro whisked away to mythical Japan, into the underworld of Yomi where the monsters live. Yomi has been at war with Ama, the home of the gods, since the Heavenly Bridge was broken and forces conspired to set the two kingdoms against each other.

Inzana impressed me with his ability to flow the story so freely between modern day and mythical Japan. Although there is some foreshadowing, Ichiro’s is spirited away so suddenly you can’t help but get whisked away along with him. His depictions of the Japanese underworld and its inhabitants pass my accuracy test as much as his scenes of Hiroshima. He draws heavily from the Yamato Shinto pantheon from the Kojiki, including Amaterasu, Susano, and the god of war Hachiman. He also populates his fantasy kingdom with kappa, tengu, Aobozu, and a host of creatures from traditional Japanese folklore.

While the fantasy element tells its own story, there is a clear metaphor; the cracking of the Bridge of Heaven is a terrorist attack. The heavenly kingdom of Ama blames their old enemy of Yomi, and wages war against them even though evidence for the attack points elsewhere. The god of war Hachiman counsels against the pointless war, but as a loyal soldier he does as he is told. Both sides become embroiled in a ages-long cycle of attack-and-revenge, attack-and-revenge. I didn’t have to look too hard to see the US/Iraq war, Colin Powel, George Bush, and the Twin Towers. But the metaphor is not heavy-handed and in your face. Inzana much too subtle a storyteller for that.

Inzana’s art, by the way, is fantastic and equally as powerful as his writing. He has his own style that involves loose, fluid brush strokes. I found it entirely fitting that his art style is rarely black-and-white, but relies heavily on shades of gray, just like the ideology that makes up his story. The whole tone of the comic and the art is personal, and you can tell that this comic means something to Inzana.

I have read that Inzana uses his color palette to distinguish between the real and fantasy Japan, and that is the only thing I regret about my black-and-white advanced review copy–I realize I am not seeing this work in its full splendor. The comic looks fantastic as it is, and I think it works perfectly fine in black-and-white, but as skillfully as Inzana handles the story and the art I am sure he handles the colors impressively.

It says on the back cover that this is Ryan Inzana’s second graphic novel. I had never heard of him before “Ichiro,” but I will be looking up his previous work as well as keeping an eye on him in the future.

Country Delights – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 2

5.0 out of 5 stars More Japanese Weird Tales

After enjoying the first volume in this series, Tales of Old Edo – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 1, I was eager to read volume two. While I was quite familiar with many of the tales of old Edo, I didn’t know what to expect from “Country Delights.” There are a few famous names here, and some stories I know, but most of the book was new territory. And, as promised by the title, delightful.

As with “Tales of Old Edo,” Kurodahan Press assembled a collection of classics and modern authors, of the ultra-famous and the not-so-much. Some of the authors will be familiar to anyone with even the most casual acquaintance with Japanese literature—like Natsume Soseki (Botchan), also also known as “that guy on the old 1,000 yen bill,” Izumi Kyoka (Japanese Gothic Tales), and Yanagita Kunio (The Legends of Tono) who almost single-handedly created Japanese folklore studies. Many of the authors I had never heard of, but that didn’t mean their stories were any less fascinating. In fact, in the later stories it was interesting to watch the waning influence of Edo-period storytelling and seeing obvious Lovecraft-influences slowly creep in.

There are nine stories in total in “Country Delights,” and one short comic. In his introduction, Robert Weinberg suggests that you read all of the stories before reading Higashi Masao’s introduction, which I heartily agree with. There are lots of surprises here that you don’t want spoiled. Most of the stories are fairly short, and the longest, “Midnight Encounters, (1960)” runs ninety-four pages. The oldest story is Izumi Kyoka’s “Sea Daemons (1906)” and the most recent is “Reunion (1993)” by Takahashi Katsuhiko.

As with “Tales of Old Edo,” none of the stories in here could be classified as “horror.” These are weird fiction, more unsettling that shocking. Most make use of traditional settings and Japanese ghosts and monsters, but some favor exotic locales.

My favorite story in “Country Delights” was “Sea Daemons,” which is no surprise as I really like Izumi Kyoka. This story of a poor coastal fishing village and their battle with something from the dark of the ocean was chilling and sad. “The Kudan’s Mother, (1968)” by Komatsu Sakyo was also intriguing, telling the story of a cursed house during the firebombing of WWII. “The Clock Tower of Yon, (1961)” had the most Lovecraftian feel, with the exotic French setting and the hordes of Tibetan cats. I know there is a sub-genre of Lovecraft-inspired Japanese fiction, but this is the first story I have read in that vein. Not every story was a winner. I thought both “The Mummy (1942)” and the comic “Only You (1992)” were lackluster.

The translations in “Country Delight” were a marked improvement over the previous volume. Whereas some of the translations in “Tales of Ole Edo” felt stilted and academic, the translations in “Country Delight” were just pure reading pleasure. I caught a few mistakes, and reading the “Legends of Tono” translations was a big awkward as I have translated those myself and know the different choices I made. But on the whole you could just disappear into the story and forget you were even reading a translation.

Overall this was another great volume from Kurodahan Press, and I am looking forward to volume three.

Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan

4.0 out of 5 stars Sacred Mummies

Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan

The self-mummified monks of Japan are an obscure phenomenon. They are little known in Japan. Unless they live in a town that has one, your average Japanese person is unlikely to know that they exist. My wife had never heard of them, nor had any of my Japanese friends. They are obscure enough that even someone like me—who purposefully seeks out rare and obscure phenomenon and once planned a trip just to see a mummified kappa and traveled to Omine-san to train with the Shugendo monks—was only vaguely aware that they existed.

Which is why it was a treat to read Ken Jeremiah’s book “Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan.” Often it takes someone like Ken Jeremiah—someone obsessed enough with a single, obscure phenomenon, to take the necessary time to research and write up the story—adding to the available body of knowledge so that someone like me can learn a little more.

Self-mummification happened during a time when ascetic practices were taken to the extreme. The practice was considered to be the holiest of holies—a transformation into Buddhahood while still inhabiting your physical body. Monks attempted the transformation for centuries; the oldest known self-mummified monk is from 1128 and the most recent from 1878. For a period of up to 3,000 days monks would prepare both physically and mentally, reducing their diet to little more than pine needles and resin, and meditating constantly in dark caves. When they were ready, they would be buried alive. After a suitable period, their bodies were dug up, and if mummified then the transformation was consider to be successful and they were venerated. If the body had decomposed, then it was felt that they had not achieved Buddhahood.

“Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan” is a somewhat misnamed book. While it does go into the history of the seven self-mummified monks of Yamagata, Japan, there really isn’t enough information on them to fill out a book. Instead, Jeremiah adds chapters on various practices of mummification, on Kobo Daishi and the Shugendo religion and the various beliefs that influenced the monks, and on asceticism and self-immolation practices worldwide. Being interested in these subjects, I enjoyed the additional chapters, although there are better and more complete books available. But if you aren’t familiar with Japanese religion then the extra chapters make for a good background as to why these monks would do this.

In all honesty, I can’t say that “Living Buddhas” is a particularly well written book. The chapters could be better organized and the transitions smoother. Some of the chapters can be a slog to get through. Jeremiah mixes history with personal belief, and I laughed out loud when I saw pseudo-scientist Graham Hancock (Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization) quoted quoted as a reliable source. The last chapter in particular, “The Nature of Life and Death,” is more of a personal essay and seemed out of place.

But given the obscure nature of the subject matter, I am willing to forgive a lot. Jeremiah’s book is the most complete you are likely to find on the subject, if not the only book available. I am grateful that he took the time to research and write it. And now I have a new stop to see on my magical mystery tour of Japan.

Fire on the Plains

4.0 out of 5 stars Sick Soldier

Fires on the Plain – Criterion Collection

Many people talk about the realism of Ichikawa Kon’s anti-war film “Fire on the Plains” (A poetic translation of Japanese title “Nobi,” meaning the burning off of fields during harvest season). Personally, I don’t think “Fire on the Plains” is realistic at all. It is an expressionistic film, filled with metaphoric imagery and subtle allusion. It is a bleak film, but also a dark comedy filled with gallows humor. In some ways, with the dead-eyed soldiers feasting on human flesh, it could even be a zombie movie.

Based on the novel Fires on the Plain, PFC Tamura (Funakoshi Eiji) is caught in a no-man’s land of being a sick soldier. Stricken with tuberculosis, he is too weak to help out with the manual labor of digging air raid shelters, yet too healthy to be treated at the field hospital where a small staff are tending to battle-wounded soldiers. All through the movie Tamura wanders, sometimes joining up with small groups of lost soldiers. He has the charmed luck of the survivor, often being the only one to walk away after all his short-time companions are killed.

One of the most interesting things about “Fire on the Plains” is that it has no point. I think this is the first war film I have seen where the soldiers aren’t pursuing an objective. They have no hill to take. No rendezvous appointment to keep. No enemy to kill. They aren’t even really trying too hard to survive. Tamura and the rest are all just the flotsam and jetsam of war, moving from place to place on the tides of battle. Thoroughly defeated, there is some vague notion of evacuation, but as the promised port lies across the enemy-held territory, they know that attempting the journey is tantamount to suicide. Many of them try anyways.

With nothing driving them, “Fire on the Plains” is made up of moments. Tamura encounters soldiers in various stages of degradation and despair. But the dark moments are peppered with oddball humor. In a Charlie Chaplin homage, a line of soldiers discard their boots for slightly better pairs then passing their leftovers to the soldier behind them. Last in line, Tamura ends up barefoot. In another scene, which was straight Monty Python, some officers seeing a corpse lying face down in the mud and wonder if they will end up like that, to which the body promptly lifts up its head in a classic “I’m not dead yet!” moment.

The only real criticism of “Fire on the Plains” is its one-sided perspective. The Japanese soldiers suffer greatly, yes, but there is little sense that these same soldiers were once raping, enslaving, murdering, and eating the Filipino population before the US came and fought them back. There are only some feint allusions to this, such as Tamura’s senseless killing of a young Filipino girl–an act which shows us that Tamura is no more heroic or decent than the rest–or in the Filipino female soldier’s slaughter of a surrendering Japanese soldier. Without knowing some of the history behind this film, the Japanese soldiers come off as too sympathetic. Sure, they are just the useless grunts ordered to fight by their nation, but it was these same useless grunts ravaging the population just a few months earlier.

The Criterion DVD for “Fire on the Plains” is not bad. There is a booklet essay, an interview with Donald Richie, and a video piece with Ichikawa Kon and actor Mickey Curtis who played one of the soldiers. The picture and subtitles are all up to the usual Criterion standards. There is no commentary track, which is disappointing, but otherwise this is a solid DVD.

The Buddha in the Attic

4.0 out of 5 stars We, the Japanese

The Buddha in the Attic

Being married to a Japanese woman, and having lived for many years in Japan, I have always been interested in the stories of those who came before, those people who endured all the hardships and paid all the dues so that my wife I and could live happily in the US without anyone batting eye. I am fully aware that it wasn’t so long ago that the government could have ripped her from me and sent her to a concentration camp in the desert.

“Buddha in the Attic” is ostensibly the story of the Picture Brides, those women who made the long voyage across the ocean betrothed to a man who they had only ever seen in a picture. Most of the photographs were lies, taken twenty years earlier when the men were still young, and most of the fairy tales of riches and an easy life were nothing but lies. These women found themselves facing a hard life in a country prejudiced against them. But author Julie Otsuka expands the story with every chapter, moving beyond the Picture Brides to encompass all the Japanese women in the Pacific coast; the maids, the prostitutes, the wives, the mothers. And finally she expends her scope to include all of the Japanese, forced to abandon their homes and property, rounded up like cattle, and shipped to concentration camps in the desert.

This was not the easiest book to read, something due entirely to the writing conceit adopted by Otsuka. It is impossible to call “The Buddha in the Attic” a novel. It is much more like a long-form poem. In an attempt to show the group experience of the women, she starts every sentence with “we” or “Some of us.” The paragraphs read like lists, sounding something like:

“We worked all day in the field. We brought tea to the elegant ladies in their big houses. We washed laundry in hot water until our hands blistered. We went on shopping trips to the finest stores. We cooked three meals a day for a mining camp. Some of us wore the same kimono every day. Some of us wore pants for the field. Some of us had new underwear and white gloves. Some of us never washed the dirt from our hair.”

That’s not an exact quote, but it gives you an idea. When I read the first chapter, I was intrigued with the style. But with the second chapter, when I realized she intended to write the entire book that way, I was annoyed. Then finally I got into the rhythm of the writing. But I never really grew to like it.

Otsuka’s writing style creates too much of a sense of a faceless mass, of a wash of humanity that you can never connect with because they have no names and no faces, no individuality. The style does allow for scope; telling no individual story means that she can cover decades and thousands of lives in a scant 150 pages. But I wish that Otsuka had left her style in places, and broke up the repetition with something more personal. I have seen the same subject handled more personally, like in the film Picture Bride or from the Chinese point-of-view with The Poker Bride. I think “The Buddha in the Attic” would have benefited from a few of those kinds of individual stories.

One chapter I really enjoyed was the final one. I have read quite a bit about the Japanese concentration camps of WWII, but always from the Japanese point-of-view. “The Buddha in the Attic” is the first book I have read that deals with the white Americans who woke up one day to find the classrooms empty, the stores closed, and their towns and cities entirely stripped of the Japanese population that once lived there.

Double Victory

5.0 out of 5 stars Something to fight for

Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II

What do you do when you are called on to give your life to defend a county that doesn’t recognize your rights as a human being? That is the question that filled the mind of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities in the US during WWII. Back. Filipino. Mexican. Japanese. Indian (both kinds). All were denied the full rights of citizenship from a county that didn’t allow for immigration based on racial lines, and stated that applicants for naturalized citizenship must be “white.”

In choosing to fight for the US, ethnic minorities were hoping to achieve a “double victory;” one victory against the Axis powers, and another against prejudice and injustice at home. They hoped that by volunteering to fight and die for the US, by struggling alongside white people, that they would finally be recognized as full-fledged human beings and that their blood sacrifice would buy them the rights they so desperately deserved.

Ronald Takaki’s “Double Victory: A Multi-Cultural History of America in World War II” is a deeply-affecting book, that tells the stories of the many people fighting for this double victory. In each chapter, Takaki tells the story of a different group, starting with black men and women, then Native American Indians, then Mexicans and Latinos, then the Chinese and Filipino, then the Japanese, and then the Jews. Each chapter is filled with personal stories and interviews, about the particular hardships and prejudices affecting each group, and the similar reactions.

There are so many specific images and stories in “Double Victory” that will stick with me. The Japanese American child, born and raised in the US and speaking only English, who had to start each day of school reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while behind the barbed wire fence of a concentration camp. The Japanese American man who fought in the US army during WWI entering the concentration camp in his full military uniform with honors as a silent protest. The black veteran returning from the war, wounded, and being told he had to sit in the back of the bus. The black soldiers who were told during training to be careful not to stray off base, because there were lynchings going on by people who resented seeing black men in US army uniforms.

I was born long after these events, and it is difficult to understand the thought processes of the time. In times of war and desperate need, I can’t imagine turning away an offered hand just because it is the wrong color. But that is exactly what happened. I can’t imagine the US legally discriminating and handing out citizenship on the basis of color, but that is what happened too.

And other countries noticed. Propaganda from Germany and Japan was full of examples of the US’s racial policies, showing how the hypocrisy of “freedom” only applied to those of the correct color. The Alien Land Law act. The Chinese Exclusion act. The Zoot Suit Riot. All of these were wrapped presents to Adolph Hitler and General Tojo. Our promise of democracy was revealed to be the sham it was.

I have read Ronald Takaki’s Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb so I am familiar with his take on the racist nature of the war against Japan, and why it differed from the war against Germany. Takaki is a persuasive and interesting writer, who sheds light on some forgotten or purposefully buried corners of US history.

By all but the strictest definitions, I am a white guy. But my grandmother was a Cherokee Indian, my wife is Japanese, and my best friend is black. After reading “Double Victory,” I realize how much I owe to those people who came before me who fought for their rights, and for the rights of their children’s children, and who built the future that I know live in. This book put many things in perspective, and let me appreciate how far we have come. And how far we have to go before the true double victory will be achieved.

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