Tag Archives: Japan

Sei Shonagon’s Lists

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book is one of the strangest and most delightful works of literature in the entire human history.

Shonagon (966-1017) was a Lady-In-Waiting serving the Japanese empress Sadako in the peaceful Heian era. She authored the Pillow Book, a “collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints and anything else she found of interest during her years in the court.” In other words, while the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet was creating Beowulf, Shonagon was writing a blog. Pillow books (Makura no Soshi) were a genre of personal writing of the time, and it wasn’t unusual for court ladies to swap and read them: the one that survives to our time is the one that was most fun to read.

And it is fun to read; and not just compared to OTHER 1,000-year-old books. Shonagon describes the trivial, everyday minutiae of a world extremely alien to us, that of a totally secluded Heian court: one in which people rarely walk, but rather crawl; in which women blacken their teeth; in which polygamy is normal, but men and women hardly ever see each other’s faces; in which professional posts are obtained through poetry contests; and in which referring to a woman by name was considered so rude, and thus so thoroughly avoided, that nobody knows what Sei Shonagon’s actual name was. You read Pillow Book, and you really get a sense of who these people were, these people who lived a thousand years ago: what other book does that?

And you can very quickly become immersed into the spatiality and the temporality of their life: the seasons, the festivals, how people’s careers progress, what to wear when, what to never wear, how to find a husband, what is uncool, what happens to the dead, the spatiality of flirting and romance, the spatiality of old age and abandonment. And I suppose that’s why I love it so much: for the way it is eschews grand themes. Everyday life is an incredibly under-appreciated thing. How it works, why it works, why it fails, why we’re happy or miserable living it. As Chris Marker said, “I’ve been around the world several times, and only banality still interests me.”

The most famous thing about Pillow Book is Sei Shonagon’s lists. Here are some:

16. Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster

Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.

It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of raindrops, which the wind blows against the shatters.

17. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

Dried hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

25. Infuriating things
A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation.
A hair has got on to your inkstone and you find yourself grinding it in with the inkstick. Also, the grating sound when a bit of stone gets ground in with the ink.
A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on.
A baby who cries when you’re trying to hear something. A flock of crows clamoring raucously, all flying around chaotically with noisily flapping wings. A dog that discovers a clandestine lover as he comes creeping in, and barks.
I hate it when, either at home or at the palace, someone comes calling whom you’d rather not see and you pretend to be asleep, but then a well-meaning member of the household comes along and shakes you awake with a look of disapproval at how you’ve dozed off.
Some newcomer steps in and starts interfering and lecturing the old hands as if she knows it all. This is quite infuriating.
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NUMMI and Japanese management

This is about two things very dear to me: Asia and industrial production. (I imagine nobody who reads Guerrilla Semiotics knew how much I am into industry until this moment, so I welcome you into the know. Just the other day I regretfully thought about how, among all the low-paid jobs I’ve ever had, I have missed out on working on the factory floor. One day I will write a long post about how industrial production is incredibly important, but I don’t think that day is today.)

Europe is very many beautiful things, but it tends towards arrogance and chauvinism – especially towards Asia, perhaps because Asia is the immediate threat, the rising competition. In my past 12 months in Germany, I have seen more incidents of open, upfront, unembarrassed racism than I have seen in 6 years in Australia (although, to be precise, it came largely from French and Italian people, not from Germans; the two times I had to break some of that residual sense of propriety we have towards haters and say ‘You are a racist’, the person saying ‘No, I’m not!’ to my ‘Yes, you are a racist’ was in both situations French).

One of the most common ways in which Europeans flatter themselves is by claiming that Asia / Asians may be doing well economically, but they have no tradition of democracy, critical thinking, and the respect for the individual. In particular, democracy gets a lot of talk-time, because Asians are considered to be prone to group-think and totalitarianism, and the example given tends to be Mao Zedong. Racism towards Asian people is rife throughout the white people’s world, and I have seen it in Australia (very often people claiming to be ‘afraid of China’s rise’ or some such thing), and I’ve seen it among educated people who hold dearly values of openness and tolerance (which is to say, it is important to them to feel that they’re open-minded and tolerant), but in Europe I was quite astounded at how readily this thesis of there is no respect for the individual in Asia was bandied about by people who knew nothing about Asia.

So, anyway: NUMMI. I’ve discovered the story of NUMMI on This American Life, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to learn new things about the world. NUMMI was one of the worst-performing car manufacturing plants within General Motors, plagued by low performance, open hostility between management and the workers, and very poor work discipline among the workers (something like 1/5 of the workers were absent at any time). It closed and then re-opened, keeping the same workers, as a part of a deal between GM and Toyota, in the 1970s. As a part of the deal, NUMMI would produce cars for Toyota, but had to learn to operate under the management rules of Toyota, which are as representative of the Japanese work culture as General Motors is representative of the American management practices.

You can listen to the entire radio program here, as well as read the transcript, but here are a few highlights outlining what happened. For training, NUMMI workers were flown to Japan, where they spent 3 months learning how to operate on a Japanese factory floor.

The key to the Toyota production system was a principle so basic it sounds like an empty management slogan– teamwork. Back home in Fremont, GM supervisors ordered around large groups of workers. The Takaoka plant, people were divided into teams of just four or five– switch jobs every few hours to relieve the monotony. And a team leader would step in to help whenever anything went wrong.

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‘The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965.’

He wrote me: coming back through the Chiba coast I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name. To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it’s radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’

I saw Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil maybe half a dozen times. An essay-film, not a documentary but certainly plotless, almost 3 hrs in duration, a miracle of dramaturgy. Every time I saw Sans Soleil, I was in company, and each time I was the only one to stay awake until the end.

Watching Sans Soleil has always felt like being inside someone’s head: unspeakably intimate. To see what they see and think what they think, synchronised, have the same associations, same train of thought. Sex doesn’t even come close. Chris Marker was a recluse who gave no interviews, and that is probably why.

Chris Marker is, without a doubt, the only film-maker I can quote by heart. He said: nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments; only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.

Chris Marker died this morning, at the age of 91.

He said, I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. This is from Sans Soleil too, footage of people sleeping on the ferry to Tokyo. Limbs in every way tangled, a socked foot dangling off the armrest.

David Thomson once wrote that La Jetee is the most important film ever made, “never mind if no one named it recently for Sight and Sound in their “10 best” polls. I know that if you went to most of the people polled in that magazine and asked, “What about La Jetée, then?”, they’d say, “Oh, well, of course”, and then (I’m one of them) we’d come up with some fancy excuse about La Jetée being above and beyond the best.” La Jetee, made in 1962, still feels, to this day, like it comes from the future of cinema.

The man who introduced me to Chris Marker was also the worst person I have ever encountered in my life, a vile man, and here we return to the proverbial Jew-gassing Nazionalsozialist and his enjoyment of classical music. To make my life easier, I tell myself stories of how he never appreciated Marker for the real reasons, only the false ones, things like technique or the monochrome stylishness of La Jetee, or Marker’s place in the history of cinema. Not things like dangling feet, or the side observation about the Japanese man ‘making an important discovery in electronics’ before killing himself to follow his wife.

I remember thinking, in the early days, that Chris Marker, despite the name, could not be an Anglophone, because his humour was too soft and diffuse. The bit in …a Valparaiso where the narrator starts inventing reasons for why the city is just so. The tiny commercial break in Letter from Siberia, a sing-song advertisement for reindeer as household appliance. Who does that? Nobody does that. When people do things like that, we fall in love. When we think about why we love people, it’s that calibre of behaviour, nothing bigger or more outwardly significant.

The question that has haunted me for years has been this: why do we get bored watching a film, or reading a book, and yet we can observe a street corner for hours? Sometimes it seems like art couldn’t possibly surpass living reality; and sometimes there come majestic works of art that seem like the only thing worth making, really worth making. Chris Marker created the pinnacle of both possibilities. Sans Soleil, the awe of reality; La Jetee, the perfect artefact, truer than the truth.

It is easy to love La Jetee, I as much as everyone, but Sans Soleil was always my favourite, because it was stronger than sex, because it had not the easy 50s stylishness but the more trying, gravelly 80s video textures, because it was as long as a DJ set, because it kind of was, anyway, a remix of memory. Sans Soleil is messy, and, someone once said, ‘for people who want their lines straight, life itself is a problem’.

As I get older, I realise that this will become more and more common: I will outlive artists important to me. And then, perhaps, one day this time will no longer be my time, among the living artists there won’t be any I adore. There have never been many artists truly, seriously important to me. Perhaps one for every artform (except non-moving visual arts, which I like but do not love). Chris Marker is the first one to die, and I am left a little bit more mortal.

I like to think the spirit of Chris Marker lives on in the work of chelfitsch and Jerome Bel.


Laforet campaigns, 1997-2012


laforet grand bazar from steve nakamura on Vimeo.

Summer 2011: Cheer up, Japan!


Winter 2011: GEEE FACE


Spring 2011: be noisy



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On Elite Education (w/ Néojaponisme)

In his 2005 article The Myth of Japanese Universities, Marxy of Néojaponisme penned a short, but biting critique of the supposed ‘elite’ Japanese universities (such as Tôdai; I’ve met girls professing to simply want to marry a graduate thereof).

I quote in some length, because Marxy (himself a graduate of, as alleged throughout Neojaponisme, Harvard), compares the liberal arts education there and yonder through meaningful criteria, and draws sensible implications. This is not only relevant for the Japanese ‘elite’ universities, but also, very much so, for Australian ones, and its culture in general.

As a disclaimer, I am a graduate and occasional employee of an ‘elite’ Australian university, and I have written before on the very low levels of education enforced by the institution, the cynical discourse around it, and the emphasis on immediate profit and financial growth above all else.

But, here Marxy:

Graduating at the top [of an elite Japanese university], however, does not take so much effort — mostly just perfect attendance and taking the final exams. There are very, very few papers or long writing assignments, and reading is kept to a minimum. Students enrolled in elite zemi (seminars) are expected to write a thesis and do other substantial research projects, but mostly they do work as part of the zemi group.

I’ve seen nothing compare to my own undergraduate Junior Tutorial in East Asian Studies where we read 200-300 pages on a given topic, discussed it with a professor one day, discussed it with a graduate student the next day, and wrote a seven-page paper almost every week. This particular class was my trial-by-fire that whipped me into much stronger academic shape with writing, reading, and general knowledge. Japanese universities — in their current institutional role as “fun time” before a life of backbreaking employment — would be somewhat malicious to assign such a curriculum. The students may be able to do such a task, but this sort of demand breaks the trust between educator and educatee in what McVeigh calls “simulated education”: We all pretend like we’re studying and you pretend to not notice we aren’t [emphasis Jana’s].

[…] I do think there is a connection between the anti-intellectualism (well maybe, a-intellectualism) of Japanese universities and the a-intellectualism, a-politicism, and general social apathy of Japanese society. Most Western students may get a taste of social understanding in high school, but universities are where we get a chance to get a deeper knowledge and broader perspective on the world. […] There are some positive society-wide benefits to having a college-educated populace: higher understanding of social issues like racism/sexism/class discrimination, deeper interest in artistic endeavor, a greater social discourse. Frankly, huge swatches of Western societies lack a certain amount of these “ideal” effects, but we do have many institutions that are fueled by academic maturity (for example, The New Yorker and National Public Radio).

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The art of wrapping

I bought many things on my recent trip to Japan. It was hard not to: just about everything on sale in Japan was eminently worth buying. Food, drinks, books, shoes, humble boxes, ceramics, paper goods, whatever I set my eyes on was simply beautifully crafted, with precision and care. Even more, it was all displayed with such respect for the object that it made everything seem meaningful, valuable, important.

Even more importantly, every item purchased was so lovingly wrapped for me by the shop assistants that many of the things I bought I didn’t have the heart to unwrap. I felt, in a way that might be quintessentially un-Japanese, that I might ruin some crucial quality of my buy by getting it out of its paper packaging.

So take a look at this humble little thing, a papier-mache box, I bought in a shop in Asakusa, and religiously carried around for a month after in its original packaging. Watch as it comes apart, the thing of beauty (見事) that it is.

The box itself is gorgeous; after all, that was what I saw on the shelf in Asakusa. However, the multiple layers of packaging added an entirely new level (or layer) of beauty to it. The habit of wrapping a square item in a square sheet of paper by rotating it slightly was common to my experience of Japan: many very humble items came to me wrapped like that, in very humble shops and from people who clearly weren’t any sort of paper artists. The folds in such a wrapping process result in many very small, unusual corners. It was only once I had unwrapped it, and examined the paper, that it became obvious that, despite the seeming haphazardness of the angle, and the irregularity of the little folds created along the way, there was great thought involved in the technique. It was only once the wrapping paper was laid out that the symmetry of the folds was revealed:

After returning from Japan, I spent at least a month gripped by what my boyfriend called a case of post-Japan blues afflicting all Australians. Nothing, to put it simply, was good enough anymore. What would have seemed like ordinary customer service until my departure for Tokyo suddenly looked like gratuitous acts of random and deliberate rudeness. I was appalled by shop assistants across multiple states shrugging and declaring that they weren’t really good at wrapping, instead handing me some brown paper and letting me do the job myself, if I was so keen on having my bought goods packaged. In a bookshop in Brisbane’s South Bank, adjacent to GOMA, a bookshop that purported to be a classy joint, I had to quite warmly insist to the shop assistant that his wrapping skills would certainly be adequate before he deigned to wrap the pile of books I had just bought with the intention to give as presents. And not to say anything about the quality of the purchased goods. After Japan, quite simply, nothing was good enough anymore.

Japan is certainly heaven for anyone with a love for applied arts – Japanese arts are all applied, and Japanese culture values application enormously. But being there reminded me strongly of the little pleasures of living in Europe – travelling a few kilometres whichever way and experiencing a thousand microfelicities upon finding something new, beautiful and native to the local area to savour, touch, perhaps bring back as a little present (omiyage, お土産). And I remembered my visit to Perth, my first travel in Australia outside of Melbourne, walking through shop after shop, all of which could have been called Cheap&Nasty (dot-painted boomerangs, koala keychains, postcards of men holding pints of beer), and wondering how it was possible that so many people had spent so much time settled on that corner of the Earth without producing, appreciating and refining a single thing, a single item special to them. A single thing worth making with care, displaying with respect, wrapping with love and selling proudly to a visitor.

One could make the age argument (Australia is so young!, has not had the time to produce papier-mache boxes worth raving about!), but it is an insincere argument. What makes the Asakusa box special is not the thirteen hundred years of Japanese civilization. It is the care with which it was made, the care with which it was displayed, the care with which it was wrapped upon purchase, the care which naturally extended to my own greater appreciation. Such care comes with respect for the craft, and appreciation of beauty that is a degree separate from the utility, cost or status value of the object. It is materialism in the proper sense of the word.

It is care that Australia lacks, not history. After all, most of what human beings do, as a species, is rather banal: growing and eating food, building shelter, hitting balls of varying shapes according to varying rules; some paved roads here; some drying racks there. Civilization and culture are not so much the sum total of our operas, marble horsemen and bell towers, but of our ability to imbue with meaning and purpose these everyday activities that we have shaped our life around. What makes Italy a deeply satisfying place to live in is not the ruins of the Colosseum, but the way Italians talk about food and football: not as guilty pleasures, but as activities of cosmic importance. (As of Japan; look no further…)

To be able to tell why something that you do matters, it is not enough to bullshit (marketing thrives in Australia as well as in Italy), because a narrative of that sort is not a lie. It is definitional, and generative. It is born by giving a voice to one’s own innate sense of what is important, and it makes others care for it more. It forms, by default, a community. But it requires an opening up, and it makes one vulnerable. Especially if the context is that of a place in which it is considered somehow embarrassing to care.

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