Exporting Shame

The Otohime. Destroyer of Worlds- and autonomous bladder control

Pavlov would be thrilled. In the 1890s he trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell in St. Petersburg. Now, in the 21st century, Japan has trained its womenfolk not to urinate unless they hear the sound of a waterfall.

Hold on, you say. Does this mean the lot of them have to haul ass to the nearest nature spot to take a leak? Fortunately not: instead, Japanese technology has sorted out that particular conundrum for them by installing neat little boxes in toilets, the “Otohime,” which emit a tinny version of Niagara. Apparently many of them find it difficult to tinkle without the jingle.
Continue reading “Exporting Shame”

Piglet to plate.


I never thought I’d see a happy marriage between two of my most disparate interests: electronic music and animal husbandry.

But if anyone was to do it, it’s Matthew Herbert, a man who has made entire albums out of the sound of crumpling coke cans, stomach rumblings and torn newspapers. According to his manifesto, he rejects drum machines and any recorded music that already exists, building everything out of samples of his immediate surroundings, or else live instruments. For the album “Bodily Functions,” he recorded yawns, coughs, fingernails across skin, and all the other infinitesimal sounds that human bodies make, and then formed beats, loops and melodies out of them.
Continue reading “Piglet to plate.”

Pride after the fall.

Vivienne Sato

Time Out Tokyo recently ran a feature about the lack of a proper Gay Pride parade in Tokyo. The event began in the 1990s, but has withered away in the last decade. When it does happen- rather erratically- it is rather subdued and many of the participants wear masks to cover their faces, or hover around the float that doesn’t allow photos.

To many, Pride is the stamp of a progressive, tolerant society. Its absence is therefore problematic, and hints at the presence of homophobia.
Continue reading “Pride after the fall.”

Enari Tsuneo

My most recent article for the Asahi is a review of photographer Tsuneo Enari’s exhibition, “Japan and its Forgotten War,” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Ebisu, Tokyo. You can read it here.

I was struck by the exhibition largely because I know very little about Japan’s role in World War II. I’m one of those people who despised history lessons at school and now regrets not paying more attention- although I went to a Catholic Girls School that mostly presented the past through the prism of the Church and probably didn’t touch on Japan at all. The problem is, as Alain de Botton says, “we imagine the past to be extremely foreign, and so we don’t use it as the supreme practical guide that it can be… [Ralph Waldo] Emerson suggested that we read history as a compendium of moral lessons.”

Continue reading “Enari Tsuneo”

Land of the rising… towerblock?

From above, Tokyo sprawls out like a Sim City designer’s wet dream: slick, efficient, multi-layered, seemingly chaotic and yet tightly ordered. A nervous system of train lines pulse from dawn to dusk; cars clatter over elevated highways while a jumble of pedestrians and cyclists await red lights patiently below.

Settlements organize themselves around the nodes of train stations. At night, the city looks like a handful of necklaces in a drawer: the glittering jewels of train stations and the commercial buzz around them, against the negative space of the dark industrial wastelands in between.

My first visit to Japan was in 2004, when I lived in rural Fukuoka for six months. I came expecting flashy cities, vibrating with neon and vertically punctuated by sleek skyscrapers, fringed by thick and mystical forests that concealed ancient wooden temples.

Yet although I was right that Japan would be full of contrasts and contradictions, I was shocked and disappointed by the schism between the international image of the country and the actual landscape that greeted me.

Continue reading “Land of the rising… towerblock?”

This isn’t Japan

“This isn’t Japan,” the old man said. He gestured towards the still intact part of the city. “Us living out here, them living over there—this kind of inequality hasn’t existed since the war.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Behind him, the dawn tide was still pooled around the hollowed out houses, a kilometre inland. A pig farm stench was seeping through our masks. Sewing kits, rice bowls and t-shirts still lay in the mud, where horse-flies buzzed in clusters. No, I thought; this isn’t Japan.

Continue reading “This isn’t Japan”

This is how we do it.

I had a mortifying experience a little while ago. I was walking down the street in Ginza on my lunchbreak when a middle-aged man called out, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” in English behind me. I spun around. Very politely, and still in English, he said:

“I’m sorry but you might want to check your dress. I can see your bottom. We don’t do that in Japan, it’s… just not done. Sorry.” He looked apologetic. I flushed a deep red.

“Oh. I see. I’ll be sure to, er, check. Thanks,” I replied, stunned. Then I turned on my heels and speed-walked away.

Five metres down the road, all kinds of brilliant ripostes came to mind, including, “スケベオッサン、何であたしの尻をじろじろ見ているの?!” (“Why are you staring at my ass, you sleazy old man?!”). But the thing that really riled me was his assumption that foreigners dressed in a sleazy way, while Japanese women and girls are chastely covered up.

Tell me that after walking down the street in Shibuya and Harajuku, where girls’ actual buttocks — rather than just the shadow of them through material — peek out of ridiculously short hotpants. Tell that to me on Center Gai, where you can ogle all the cleavage (both tit and ass) as you like. Tell that to me the next time I see a twelve year old skipping along in over-the-knee PVC boots and a tatty lace garter. Oh no, we don’t do that in Japan.

If I had been Japanese, I highly doubt he would have pulled me to one side of the sidewalk and warned me that my countrymen never dressed like that.

Being loud on the train, or rowdy in the street, or doing drugs, or being lazy, dirty. As a foreigner, any of these crimes will be blamed on your nationality. As a Japanese person, it would be blamed on your own character or personality. If you eat in the street and you’re a foreigner, your uncouthness is a product of your foreignness. A Japanese person who does it is… well, simply rude.

Conversely, most foreigners in Japan find themselves maligning something a Japanese person has done as “typically Japanese.”  It requires a little more empathy and humanity to realize that many behaviors are personal, and that individuals shouldn’t be held up as representatives of an entire culture.