Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Looking Back on 2012 (Part One)

I have several projects with looming year-end deadlines. I really should be working on those this morning. Which, of course, makes this an excellent time to devote instead to an update here. 2012 is fast winding down. What kind of year was it?

A fine and memorable one, thank you. Not without its bumps and bruises, of course, but those just help remind me that I’m alive. I end the year feeling gratitude and hope.

The first half of 2012 found me on sabbatical. In early January, I flew to Seattle for the MLA convention. I saw old friends, sat in on some good panels, caught the film “The Descendants” in a cinema across from the hotel–and accepted the Scaglione Prize for the translation I co-edited of Natsume Soseki’s Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings. Later that month, I flew up to Ann Arbor to participate in a faculty workshop, and a week later I presented a talk at another faculty seminar at Northwestern University. The month ended with Satoko and I enjoying a performance by Westside blues legend Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater at SPACE, the little-club-that-could up in Evanston.

In February, we caught Ricardo Muti conducting the CSO in Franck’s Symphony in D minor and then, a few days later, I attended the University of Chicago Folk Festival, featuring Billy Boy Arnold. The most exciting event of the month: my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, came out from Columbia University Press. I heard many nice things about it from people–to the point that I started to worry that it must not be very good. If something you write doesn’t piss anyone off, how interesting can it be? But later I heard through the grapevine that a number of senior scholars in my field hated it. I felt reassured. In late February DePaul University hosted a fun workshop based on the book for Chicago public school teachers.

On the first day of March we watched Pierre Boulez lead the CSO in a wonderful performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The next morning I was off to NYC for meetings. Then on March 10-11 I co-hosted a conference in honor of my colleague, Norma Field, who retired at the end of the 2011-12 academic year. “What March 11 Means to Me” brought together an amazing group of public intellectuals from Japan for personal and philosophical reflections on the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster: Amamiya Karin, Komori Yoichi, Ryusawa Takeshi, Takahashi Tetsuya, and Yokoyu Sonoko. The following week, I traveled to Toronto for the AAS annual meeting, where I chaired a roundtable discussion on the 1950 wire recordings of Japanese performers in concert in Sacramento (more on those anon).

In April, I was back in NYC for a lecture at Columbia University. While there, I saw the acclaimed revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and caught up with a few old friends. Back in Chicago, we attended a lively concert by Rodrigo y Gabriela and a fine performance by the Alvin Ailey dance company a few days later. Later in the month, I drove up to the Twin Cities to visit family and friends, catching a Twins game while there and a Beloit Snappers minor-league game on the drive home. During the month, I also finished up an article on Natsume Soseki’s conception of world literature, which appeared in the May/June issue of the Iwanami Shoten journal Bungaku.

On May Day I joined the protest march that started out from Union Park and made its way past the site of the Haymarket Massacre (the historical origin of May Day) before ending at a rally downtown. A few days later, we caught a live performance by one of my favorite musical discoveries of the year: Kids These Days. The group manages to combine rock, funk, jazz, and hip hop and make it all work; their debut album Traphouse Rock came out later in the year and was one of my favorite records of 2012.

Later in May I attended the Atomic Age II conference at Chicago. It featured a keynote address from Koide Hiroaki, one of the most important critics of Japan’s “nuclear village.” The next day, we joined a group to visit the nature preserve in the western suburbs where the remains of Chicago Piles 1 and 2 (the world’s first nuclear reactors) are buried. Later in the month we caught a surprise cameo appearance by Ray Davies at a public television benefit concert, and then I was off to Tokyo for a quick one-week visit. During that trip, I attended the May sumo tournament, met a number of scholars, visited libraries and bookstores, and stopped by an exhibit of photographs by Mike Nogami. After coming back to Chicago, I survived the NATO conference shut-down of the city, dragged the kids to the reunited Beach Boys concert at the Chicago Theater, and enjoyed a Millenium Park performance by Kelly Hogan (another key musical discovery of the year). We ended the month by catching Court Theater’s production of “Angels in America” with Larry Yando’s memorable turn as Ray Cohn.

As June began, I flew to Los Angeles to join in the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. It was lovely to catch up with old friends from UCLA, and while there I got to meet and chat briefly with one of my childhood heroes, Daniel Inouye (RIP, Senator Inouye). It turned out that he was one of the 442nd veterans involved in inviting Misora Hibari to Hawaii in 1950 for a charity concert–which led in turn to the 1950 Sacramento concert recordings. Another quick trip to Minnesota followed, and I was back home to catch the last day of the Chicago Blues Festival, including an uplifting headliner set by Mavis Staples. During June we also caught the CSO a couple times, including an eye-opening public rehearsal led by Ricardo Muti, and we visited the Roy Lichtenstein exhibit at the Art Institute. But the cultural highlight of the month was the acclaimed production of “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theater, with an ensemble cast so strong that the supposed stars, Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane, mostly just blended into the scenery.

July is when things really got busy. I’ll write about the second half of the year tomorrow. In the meantime, I really should get hopping on those year-end projects….

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This and That: Two Weeks in the Life

Posted in Film,J-Pop,J-Rock,Japanese film,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other,Sumo by bourdaghs on the May 24th, 2012

Apologies for the radio silence around these parts in recent days. It’s been a busy, fun couple of weeks since last I posted here.

I was in Tokyo for six days last week, meeting with other scholars and visiting archives and bookstores. I also had a chance to get together with the good people at Byakuya Shobo, the publishing house that will be bringing out the Japanese translation of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop next month. It’s the same team that was responsible for the Japanese edition of Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler a few years back.

Along the way, I also attended Day 10 of the May sumo tournament. I was disappointed that the new Kakuryu bento lunchbox was sold out by noon, but had an enjoyable day at the Kokugikan nonetheless. I also saw a couple of current films while in Japan: Waga haha no ki, adapted from Inoue Yasushi’s semi-autobiographical novel about a novelist’s relations with his aging mother and featuring a very strong cast headed by Yakusho Koji and Kiki Kirin; and Rentaneko, an engaging independent film by Ogigami Naoko (of Kamome Shokudo fame) about a young woman who rents out cats to lonely people. It’s a low key, often humorous, meditation on the pleasures and agonies of repetition in everyday life. Mark Schilling’s review for the Japan Times can be found here.

I flew back to Chicago last Saturday and was immediately plunged into adventure: trying to negotiate my way from O’Hare International Airport to the South Side through a maze of traffic closures in effect because of the NATO Summit.

This past Monday night, we took the whole family downtown to see the reunited Beach Boys in concert at the Chicago Theatre. Once again, the commute was a challenge: the Metra trains didn’t start up at 6:30 as promised, and Lake Shore Drive was still shut down. After some hasty improvising, we managed to get there in time. The show was terrific fun. The first half was heavy on early surf numbers, but things really came alive after intermission. Highlights included a lovely version of “Disney Girls,” a plaintive “In My Room,” and the final encore number of “Fun Fun Fun,” when Brian Wilson came out from behind the grand piano to (at least temporarily) strap on a bass guitar and resume his original position in the band.

My fifteen-year-old daughter, who takes her singing seriously, complained that they were using Autotune to correct pitch on the vocals. I pooh-poohed the idea, but when I got home and did some Googling, I found out that many Beach Boys fans are up in arms about the same issue. Either way, it was a fun and historic show, as Greg Kot noted in his review for the Chicago Tribune.

The group’s celebrations of California surf and car culture framed the opening set, but it was Part 2 where the music cut deepest. It began with the core quintet gathered around Wilson’s piano for a mission statement: “Add Some Music to Your Day.” Then it reclaimed the beauty of the band’s more melancholy and complex late ‘60s and early ‘70s work. “Heroes and Villains” melted into intricate, multi-part harmonies that brought smiles to the faces of the participants as Wilson waved his arms with uncharacteristic vigor. “Good Vibrations,” with its plush harmonies and outer-space sound effects still sounded futuristic. […] In turn, the Beach Boys made falling in love sound both sacred and tragic – their joy tinged by sadness, their despair lifted by hope. And sometimes, as suggested by Brian Wilson’s performance Monday of “Sail On, Sailor,” it becomes too much to bear.

A couple of other odds and ends:

The Atlantic has a nice story by Patrick St. Michel about the trend toward hits by young children in J-Pop, including a mention of my new book. You can read the article online here, and if you haven’t yet checked out “Make Believe Melodies,” St. Michel’s fine blog on contemporary pop music in Japan, you should do so right now.

JERO, the African-American Enka singer who was raised in Pittsburgh singing Misora Hibari numbers with his Japanese grandmother, will be making his New York debut in a concert/talk appearance at the Japan Society next month. Details here. It’s been a while, so to refresh your and my memories, here’s his wonderful 2008 debut single, “Umiyuki” (Ocean snow):

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The Coming Weekend

It’s going to be a busy weekend.

Friday, I’m planning to head downtown to catch Kids These Days, a terrific group that combines hip hop, jazz and R&B, in their set at Columbia College’s “Manifest” festival: 5:40-6:30 p.m. “Under the Big Tent” at 1001 S. Wabash Ave. There will be free music performances all day as part of the event.

Then on Saturday it’s the big “Atomic Age II” conference at the University of Chicago, with guest speakers including Kyoto University nuclear physicist Koide Hiroaki (one of the few specialists in the field willing to speak critically about Japan’s nuclear power industry and the government’s role in promoting it), Muto Ruiko (a prominent anti-nuclear activist from Fukushima), and Robert Rossner, professor of Astronomy, Astrophysics and Physics at the University of Chicago and former Director of the Argonne National Laboratory. Last year’s conference was enormously informative and energizing, and I am hoping for more of the same on Saturday.

Sunday, we’ll be visiting Site A/Plot M Disposal Site, the final resting place of Chicago Pile-1, Enrico Fermi’s first nuclear reactor. It was originally located under the grandstands of Stagg Field (currently the site of Regenstein Library) here at the University of Chicago.

In the midst of this flurry of activity, the May sumo tournament gets underway Sunday at Kokugikan in Tokyo. Yokozuna Hakuho is the favorite going in, but sumo has been pretty unpredictable as of late. I have a ticket to attend day 10, and I can’t wait. It just might take my mind off the seemingly unending miseries of the 2012 Minnesota Twins. After a dreadful 2011, Twins fans came into 2012 buoyed by one slender hope: that this season couldn’t possibly be as bad as last.


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The New Year Sumo Tournament

Posted in Sumo by bourdaghs on the January 22nd, 2012

It ended today in Tokyo with yokozuna Hakuho knocking off ozeki Baruto (who had already sewn up the title three days earlier), thereby denying the latter a perfect record for the tournament. Here’s the Day 13 match against Kotoshogiku where Baruto clinched the title:

There were a few dodgy bouts toward the end, especially a henka (sidestepping your opponent at the face-off, a cheap win) that Baruto pulled on Day 12. But it was good to see the gentle giant from Estonia walk away with his first championship. Here’s hoping it’s the beginning of a drive for promotion to yokozuna.

Overall, the quality of the sumo was good. The clearing out of deadwood after the match-throwing scandals last year continues to pay off, with lots of ambitious young rikishi trying to take advantage of the unexpected opportunity to advance quickly through the ranks. The ozeki also performed well: except for Kotoshogiku (8-7), they all finished with double-digit wins.

Everyone seems pleased to have two Japanese at the ozeki rank now. This was especially true after the tournament began with a symbolic moment highlighting the recent dominance by foreigners. In the Kokugikan arena in Tokyo, they hang giant portraits of the winners of the last 32 sumo tournaments, 6+ years’ worth of champions, from the rafters. In preparation for opening day of this tournament, they took down the last remaining portrait of a Japanese wrestler, from Tochiazumua’s victory back in 2006. It’s been all Mongolians or Europeans since. Maybe Kisenosato or Kotoshogiku, the great Japanese hopes, will end that streak in 2012.

Two odd happenings during the tournament, caught on video. Gyoji (referee) Kimura Shozaburo was inadvertently flattened and knocked unconscious in a Day 4 match between Baruto and Wakakoyu (scary, but he was back on the job the next day):

Then on Day 8, way down in the Sandanme division, we had a remarkable size mismatch: Ohara (83 kilograms, or 183 pounds) vs. Orora (273 kilograms, or 602 pounds). Of course, the little guy won. Keep your eye on the big guy’s left foot as it steps out of the ring just before he shoves his opponent out:

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Sumo in Fukuoka

Posted in Sumo by bourdaghs on the November 27th, 2010

Everyone was looking forward to the current sumo tournament in Fukuoka. Indeed, it’s turned out to be one of the most exciting basho we’ve had in years — but not for the reasons we anticipated. Before it began, all eyes were on the lone yokozuna Hakuho, who had not lost a match since January and who was therefore on track to break legendary Futabayama’s all-time record of 69 consecutive wins (set back in 1939) on day 8.

The breathless anticipation deflated rather suddenly when Kisenosato knocked off Hakuho on just the second day of the tournament, ending the winning streak at 63. That’s still the longest winning streak in sumo in 70+ years, if it’s any consolation.

But after that disappointment it quickly became apparent that we were in for an exciting tournament. For the first time in ages we could even pretend that the outcome was in doubt (yes, yes, I know that Hakuho will come back and win the championship in the end, but we can at least pretend that it’s not a done deal). Ozeki Kaio has apparently discovered the fountain of youth; after stumbling to the brink of retirement several times in the last few years, the 38-year-old veteran has wrestled brilliantly, moving quickly and with a power not seen from him in recent memory. He is now 11-3 and out of the title chase, but just a couple of days ago he was tied for the lead at 11-1, delighting his hometown fans in Fukuoka.

Ozeki Baruto also looks good, though he too has now faltered to an 11-3 mark. Giant-killer Kisenosato has turned in an impressive 10-4 record from the tough east maegashira 1 slot. Most impressive of all has been west maegashira 9 Toyonoshima, who is tied with Hakuho at 13-1 for the lead with just one day to go. If Toyonoshima wins his final match tomorrow (lucky him: his opponent will be Kisenosato) and if Hakuho gets the expected win against ozeki Kotooshu (a lackluster 8-6 so far), we’ll actually have a play-off match to decide the Emperor’s Cup title. Who would of thunk it?

In fantasy sumo I’ve scraped along to a 7-7 record. Tomorrow’s results will decide if I move up or down in the banzuke rankings for the New Year’s tournament in January. Either way, it’s been an exhilarating ride and it’s reminded me all over again of how much I love this sport.

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This and That

Posted in baseball,Classical,Music,Sumo by bourdaghs on the July 14th, 2010

It must be summer, cuz you’re never around (a good line stolen from the Fountains of Wayne). But I protest: I really am around. You just wouldn’t know it from the paucity of blog updates lately. I’m juggling a large number of rather rather bulky and wobbly projects these days.

I did manage to catch some of the baseball All Star Game last night. When I heard the news yesterday morning about former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, I had to smile at the timing. Back in his heyday in the 1970s and 80s, if the Yankees didn’t make it to the World Series in a particular year Steinbrenner would always pull some stunt right in the middle of the series (fire his manager, berate his team captain, whatever) to steal the headlines away from the teams still playing for the championship. So of course the man would pass away on the day of the All Star Game, assuring that all the coverage would focus not on the mid-season classic, but on the Boss.

Yankees’ fans clearly held the man in great affection. As a Twins’ fan and therefore a congenital Yankees’ hater, I generally despised him and everything he stood for as a baseball owner. But as several tributes I’ve read point out, wouldn’t it have been great to have a Twins’ owner as committed to winning as Steinbrenner was with the Yankees? Anyhow, I imagine he is up in heaven now (or, given the Damn Yankees thematic here, down there below), trying to rehire Billy Martin.

The very odd Nagoya sumo tournament got underway Sunday. Something like a quarter of the wrestlers in the top two divisions are suspended or banned due to the gambling/yakuza scandals, and NHK has gotten all holy about this and is refusing to televise the bouts live. Yokozuna Hakuho will no doubt take the title, as usual–on Tuesday he broke his own personal record of 32 consecutive wins. But with so many of the usual faces sitting this one out, the tournament should generate some unusual results. For starters, it’s a terrific opportunity for lower ranked wrestlers to leapfrog up the rankings.

Other than that, what have we been up to? Last Saturday night, we headed downtown to catch the Grant Park Orchestra play a free concert in Millenium Park under the energetic baton of female conductor Xian Zhang. We liked the program very much, as did Tribune critic John von Rhein and Sun-Times critic Andrew Patner. They played a piece by the contemporary composer Chen Yi, Prokofiev’s “Suite from Love for Three Oranges,” and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major. Didn’t mind the raindrops or the firetruck sirens hardly at all. It must be summer.

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Sumo in Trouble

Posted in Current Events,Sumo by bourdaghs on the June 27th, 2010

The powers-that-be in the world of sumo have backed themselves into a corner. The artificially inflated ethical standards that were invoked to dethrone the foreign yokozuna Asashoryu now prove unattainable for the Japanese-born wrestlers and managers. In particular, the holier-than-thou attitude that developed over the past few years has now inadvertently provoked a major piling on in the mass media at the latest scandal, which involves the newly exposed gambling habits of dozens of current and former wrestlers.

Gambling by athletes is undoubtedly a problem. Given that it is illegal, it necessarily involves them with unsavory characters (in Japan, that means the yakuza), and it opens up the potential of players falling deeply in debt and throwing matches in return for clearing the slate. The lifetime ban of Pete Rose in American baseball for betting on the sport in which he played a central role was entirely appropriate, even if no evidence emerged that he attempted to rig the outcomes of games.

On this basis, some of the wrestlers named in current media reports deserve punishment, perhaps even banning. But a witch-hunt atmosphere of hysteria has now set in, and even wrestlers who occasionally bet in private hanafuda card games between wrestlers are being singled out for media pillorying. The Nagoya tournament is supposed to get underway in a couple of weeks, but now that is up in the air. Will it be canceled? If it goes forward, will NHK broadcast it? Will ozeki Kotomitsuki be banned for life from the sport?

There’s an old adage: be careful what you wish for. For years, cranky sumo observers in Japan upset with foreign dominance yearned for the sport to be “cleaned up.” Congratulations, folks: your wish has come true. I only hope the sport survives it.

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This and That

Posted in Jazz,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other,Sumo,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the June 24th, 2010

We spent yesterday afternoon at the Field Museum of Natural History, taking in the “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age” exhibit. The centerpiece artifact is Lyuba, the one-month-old mammoth discovered frozen below the permafrost in northern Russia in 2007. She is remarkably well preserved for a creature some 40,000 years old: she is even cute in a baby animal sort of way. But as I gawked I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what separated this scientific exhibit from, say, the curios that drew crowds in 1840s and 50s New York to P.T. Barnum’s Museum. Well, it’s something to do with the kids on a summer afternoon, and it’s air conditioned.

(Image source)

If I were in England this weekend, I’d be trying to worm my way into the Glastonbury Festival. Among many others, one Raymond Douglas Davies will be taking the stage for a set on Sunday. A preview article notes the role the Kinks had in establishing this annual music festival back in 1970:

In 1970, founder and dairy farmer Michael Eavis decided to hold a music event and booked the Kinks for 500 pounds but, when they failed to show, got Marc Bolan instead.

Typical. Ray is a little better about these things nowadays, so presumably he will actually play his scheduled set.

Tonight, the plan is to catch the fabulous jazz chanteuse Dee Alexander in a free concert out on the Midway Plaisance. Summertime, and the living’s easy….

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Midway Point at the Kokugikan

Posted in Sumo by bourdaghs on the May 16th, 2010

The current Summer Sumo tournament in Tokyo has reached the halfway point. It’s been insanely busy around my house, so I’ve managed to watch just a couple of days–and then only by using the fast-forward button judiciously. It’s not the best way to watch sumo, since you lose touch with the ritual pacing that is so central to the sport’s charm. But skipping past all the time between bouts also allows you to condense an entire day’s worth of top division matches, which in real time takes ninety minutes, into about fifteen minutes.

The most poignant fact about the current tournament was reported in the press (Japanese-language only) just before it got underway. If you’ve ever visited the Kokugikan to watch matches, you’ve seen the grand array of enormous (3.17 by 2.28 meters) portraits of past champions hanging around the upper tier of the arena. There are 32 in all, and with each tournament they take down the oldest and replace it with a portrait of whomever won the most recent title. As a result, with six tournaments a year, the display gives you a nice snapshot of the last five-plus years in the sport’s history. Here’s an article about the portraits.

(Image source)

Just prior to the current tournament, to make room for Hakuho’s portrait celebrating his victory in Osaka this past March, they took down the portrait of Kaio commemorating his championship in the Autumn 2004 tournament. As a result, right now of the 32 portraits hanging in the Kokugikan only one is of a Japanese wrestler–Tochiazuma, celebrating his upset win in the 2006 New Year tournament. The rest are all Mongolians–with the exception of one that portrays Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu. It’s all enough to make a nationalist weep.

It isn’t going to change this time around. Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho has things firmly in hand so far with an 8-0 record. The brand new ozeki Baruto (from Estonia) has displayed hesitant, sloppy sumo, but has managed to hang in there at 7-1. Everyone else, including all of the domestic wrestlers, is basically mincemeat at this point. The closest thing there is to a Great Japanese Hope is sekiwake Kisenosato, who has a decent 5-3 mark.

If you were to push the fast-forward button to skip through the last five years of sumo, make sure you don’t blink. Otherwise you’ll miss your one chance to see a Japanese wrestler hoist the championship banner and trophy. The way things look, your next chance to see that sight might be several years away….

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Maybe it was All Just a North Korean Plot?

Posted in Current Events,Sumo by bourdaghs on the April 22nd, 2010

Tokyo newspapers are reporting that former yokozuna Asashoryu, who retired in disgrace earlier this year after winning the January sumo tournament, was part of an official Mongolian delegation that visited Pyongyang earlier this week. Huh?

Full story here (Japanese-language only).

Then again, I’ve just discovered that Wikipedia has a length entry on “Mongolia-North Korea Relations.” I quote:

Unofficially, North Korean visitors show significant interest in studying Mongolia’s economic reforms; according to the Mongolian side, North Koreans see them as non-threatening because they are a fellow non-Western country and went through similar experiences under communism. Mongolia’s efforts to introduce free-market capitalism to North Korea also have a component of self-interest. The Trans-Siberian Railway, an essential link in the potential continuous rail transit route from South Korea to Europe, passes through Mongolia; North Korean economic liberalisation which allowed South Korean shipping to pass through its borders would remove the major stumbling block to such a route, providing economic benefits for Mongolia.

You learn something new everyday….

[Updated on May 16, 2010 to replace broken links]

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