Japan, the country responsible for Hello Kitty and World Cup Pikachu, loves mascots. One of the most popular fuzzy-suited characters over the past year and a half has been Funassyi, a giant pear creature hailing from just outside of Tokyo. Ubiquitous on billboards and TV commercials, he recently threw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day for Japanese professional baseball club Chiba Lotte Marines.
Yet Funassyi is not traditionally kawaii, Japanese for “cute.” Most body-suited mascots are slow and silent; Funassyi darts all over the place and isn’t afraid to scream, let alone talk. While Hello Kitty mostly stands around, Funassyi is prone to random fits of headbanging, shaking, and running from explosions in a field.
It wasn’t a reassuring moment.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Wednesday, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, compared recent tensions between China and Japan to the rivalry between the British and German empires at the start of the 20th century. Like the Chinese and Japanese are today, he noted, the British and Germans were close trading partners in 1914—until World War I broke out. Abe argued that China’s military buildup is destabilizing the region, warned of “inadvertent conflict,” and admitted that the two countries didn’t have an “explicit roadmap” to resolve one. Then the Japanese leader packed his bags and traveled to China’s rival, India, for an official visit.
Although relations between China and Japan have never been warm, diplomatic efforts between the two countries have deteriorated rapidly since November, when China unilaterally expanded its air-defense zone to include the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea (China claims the five uninhabited islands, which it calls the Diaoyu islands, as its own territory). Abe, whose country has controlled the islands for decades, rebuked China’s move for “unjustly violating the freedom of aviation over the high seas.”
Read more. [Image: Yuya Shino/Reuters]
Every year, on the first Saturday in January, Japan makes a grand statement to the global fishing community by putting an exorbitant price on the head of a single bluefin tuna. At the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, the first bluefin auction of the year represents many things: growing consumer demand for bluefin sashimi, the exploitation of natural resources, the collapse of a species, shortsightedness in the face of impending doom to the entire ocean, a depraved publicity stunt.
In 2013, Kiyoshi Kimura, the owner of a Japanese sushi restaurant chain, paid $1.76 million for the first bluefin at Tsukiji, which weighed 489 pounds. Kimura had paid $736,000—a world-record price at the time—for the first tuna of 2012. That fish weighed 593 pounds.
It’s no surprise, then, that journalists were steeling themselves for what was sure to come on January 4, 2014: If the past decade’s trend in pricing continued, this year’s first tuna would surely fetch more than a million dollars. But the Tsukiji fish market bucked tradition this weekend and sold its first tuna to Kimura, yet again, for a mere $70,000. That’s still way more money than most bluefin go for in Japan. But compared to what everyone was expecting—an extravagant sum to start off the new year and remind us that these are the most prized fish in the sea—that’s one crazy cheap tuna.
Read more. [Image: Toru Hanai/Reuters]
In symbolism, it’s worse.
At first I didn’t believe the news this evening that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. I didn’t believe it, because such a move would be guaranteed to make a delicate situation in East Asia far, far worse. So Abe wouldn’t actually do it, right?
It turns out that he has. For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it’s close.
It’s hard to imagine, but there was once a time when karaoke didn’t exist.
Sure, there have long been singalongs and pianomen. And people have made drunken fools of themselves at bars since there were bars. (And before: Alcibiades at Plato’s Symposium? Awkward!)
But this particular fixture of the festive landscape, the karaoke bar and the machine(s) that enable it: This had a discrete moment of creation. And then, like a big bang of joyous, off-key mewling, it blasted out into the universe, expanding and cooling into the formations that you see today. Like The Mint in San Francisco. Or The Alibi in Portland. Or Winnie’s in New York.
They are legion.
It turns out that the inventor of karaoke is a man named Daisuke Inoue, who was born in a small Japanese town in 1940. He was a drummer, by trade and sensibility, which means he ended up returning home “almost penniless” to live with his parents at the age of 28. He started playing the keyboard in particular bars called “snacks.”
And that’s where the story of karaoke really begins.
Read more. [Image: The Appendix]
BEIJING — On Wednesday, fresh off a visit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Joe Biden spent five and a half hours in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping over a series of meetings and dinner. The marathon diplomacy capped a delicate effort by the vice president this week to tamp down Japan’s anger over provocative Chinese actions in the East China Sea while not coming down too hard on China.
Tensions have been growing in Asia among a number of key regional players—particularly Japan and China, which have been squaring off over competing sovereignty claims to five tiny, uninhabited islands that the Chinese call the Diaoyu and the Japanese call the Senkaku. Last week, China raised the blood pressure of Japan’s prime minister—and many a commercial airline pilot—by unilaterally imposing an Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, that overlaps with territory Japan and South Korea also claim.
Read more. [Image: Lintao Zhang/Reuters]
So far, much of the discussion of China’s air-defense identification zone (ADIZ), a new law requiring foreign aircraft to notify China when they fly over a designated region in the East China Sea, has centered on Beijing’s motivations: What is China trying to accomplish by instituting the zone? And, considering that it triggered immediate opposition from the United States and Japan, was this decision a mistake?
These are important questions, but it’s worth zooming out and considering the more fundamental causes for tension in Northeast Asia. Here, the issues become more complex. Is China’s aggression caused by a new president trying to establish his legitimacy? Or is it, instead, an attempt to capitalize on domestic anti-Japanese sentiment? Does the conflict reflect how pre-World War II history continues to shape contemporary East Asian relations? Or is it a scramble for the rich energy resources that supposedly lie inside the disputed waters?
The answer to each of these questions is, unhelpfully, yes. And that’s what makes the present conflict in Northeast Asia so difficult to resolve.
Read more. [Image: Toru Hanai/Reuters]
Earlier this month, the “Japanese-styled family game show” Japanizi: Going Going Gong premiered in the United States and Canada, on Disney XD and YTV respectively. The show puts teams of kids through physical challenges ranging from running along conveyor belts to dressing up as penguins in order to slide down a slippery slope—oftentimes while “ninjas” throw various projectiles at them. Marblemedia, the company behind Japanizi, describes it as a chance for audiences to “experience the zany world of Japanese game show culture.”
This isn’t a new proposition. Japanizi itself is a kid-friendly version of ABC’s I Survived a Japanese Game Show, which ran from 2008 to 2009. Even long before that, Japanese game shows have been sent up by the likes of The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. The punchline to those gags resembles English speakers’ Youtube comments on the subject: These programs are “crazy,” “wacky,” and “weird.”
But the stereotype of Japanese game shows as bizarre affairs where producers put contestants through strange punishment just doesn’t ring true in 2013. The “Japanese game show culture” Japanizi and I Survived A Japanese Game Show trumpet—and that comedies and comment sections mock—once existed, sometimes in forms even more extreme than Western parodies. But that hasn’t been the case in the last 15 years. If anything, more and more Japanese people say their TV choices nowadays have become boring.
Read more. [Image: Disney; YTV]