Christmas

Today is Christmas in Japan, and tomorrow is Christmas for me.

Christmas and Japan really seem to have a strange relationship with each other.  It does seem that Japanese do celebrate Christmas – in their own way.  It’s been stripped of any religious or spiritual significance, and has been converted into a time where people eat fried chicken.

It will, perhaps, surprise Japanese people that that is not a tradition here.  It turns out that someone lied a long time ago and said that KFC is a tradition in America.  Trust me.  It isn’t, and it surprises us whenever someone tells us how big a deal it is in Japan.  But even so, every culture needs its own traditions, and I could think of worse.

Christmas means different things to different people here.  For some people, it is the celebration of their savior’s birth.  For others, it’s a time to eat good food with family and watch football.  For others, it is a lonely time as they think about family they lost.  Some people will be spending their first Christmas alone.  For good or bad, it is a matter of cultural identity for us Americans, much like the sakura trees are for Japanese people.  It’s one day out of the year where things are completely quiet, no stores are open, and there is a certain amount of peace where there usually isn’t.  All of the ruckus and hubbub leading up to the holiday is replaced by peace, as children open their presents in the morning, people sing carols, have parties, and for just one day it seems everyone forgets the rest of the year and tries to focus on what really matters.

No matter how you spend Christmas, whether it is a special day, a not so special day, a day full of fried chicken or roast turkey, or soda and chips from the local konbini, I wish you a happy one.

 

Babymetal

Over the past year or so, I’ve become something of a fan of Babymetal.  This may seem odd to people who know me, because I’m a classically trained musician, and I find most metal to be just people making noise, loudly.  But Babymetal has proven to be an exception.

There is a particular characteristic of classical music, in my view:  it’s all perfect.  As I’ve mentioned, I’m a huge fan of romantic era piano concertos (Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, etc.) and I’ve come to believe that every one of them is perfect, even as they are different, perhaps even vastly so.  I cannot conceive of any one of Rachmaninoff’s works, Saint-Saens’ works (except for perhaps his organ symphony), Tchaikovsky’s works, being any different or improved upon, even as not one of them is the same as the other.  Even from the same composer, each work is very different, and perfect in its own right.

I don’t quite have the same feeling about Babymetal, but it’s a similar feeling.  They cross all sorts of genres, and it seems that none of their music is formulaic, and yet pretty much every song I’ve heard except for Megitsune, I like – and I like for different reasons.  I like “Gimme Chocolate” because it’s cute.  I like “Road of Resistance” because it’s very flashy – I’d liken it a bit to Tchaikovsky’s first concerto.  I like “Karate” because of Suzuka’s vocal solos in a very strange musical mode – I can’t identify it offhand, but I think it’s… phrygian?  I like Akatsuki because it allows Suzuka to shine and she really delivers in vocal power.  And I like Metataro because of the fact that it really is genre defying – I’d almost think of it as an appropriated Celtic folk song.  Morning Musume did the same thing in being genre defying (“Mr. Moonlight” comes to mind), but they didn’t break out of the J-pop mold like Babymetal has.  I haven’t heard many more of their works but I’m sure I’ll get exposed to more as time goes on, I’m not seeking it out.

But that’s the thing I think I like most about them – they have the same qualities as classical and romantic composers – each piece they create is nearly perfection for what it is and yet none of them are anywhere near remotely the same.  If you don’t like one piece, that’s okay, there will be another one that will blow your socks off.  The whole band seems to be built on experimentation and pushing the boundaries, and what comes out, I think, actually (and as I say, for what it is) rivals the great composers of western civilization – Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Saint-Saens.  It’s not that genre of music, but the spirit is the same, and I think that’s what people pick up about it and what makes them fans.  They do things no one has ever even considered doing before, and do it in such a way that, many years down the road, I think they will be seen as one of the more influential musical influences of our time.

And coming from a classically trained musician such as myself, that is high praise indeed.  I would not say that about nearly any other metal band.  For all of their talent, skill, and even popularity, most of them have never been really good at pushing the envelope.  Babymetal broke through it and became something truly transcendental.

J-Pop vs K-Pop

I will not say that I am a huge fan of K-Pop, nor am I a huge fan of J-Pop, but I am more familiar with J-Pop than K-Pop.  But I find myself very impressed with the K-Pop groups I have seen.  The other day I saw a “Girls’ Generation” cover of “Dancing Queen” – they did it in English, and without a discernable accent.  It was extremely high quality.  Frankly, it was much higher quality than I would expect out of a J-Pop group.  More frankly, any J-Pop group save, perhaps, Babymetal.

There seems to be a cultural difference between Korean and Japanese pop, and I have remarked on it before.  The Japanese seem to value cuteness and approachability, and talent doesn’t seem to matter.  The Koreans seem to deliberately cultivate unapproachability and perfection.  Their idols truly seem to be meant to be idols, meaning, objects of worship.  But the Japanese groups don’t really need talent – hardly at all – as long as they can gain a following of people who will buy their albums and “support” them (meaning, voting in senbatsu competitions and buying their products).

Now I’ll admit I don’t know a whole lot about K-Pop, but I know what I saw the other night, and that was quality.  Some groups are a little more fun than others, like Crayon Pop seems to have more of a J-Pop sensibility to it.  The Japanese seem to think “ganbatte”, or “try my best”.  They’ll prepare as much as necessary and get it done.  The Koreans seem to think “If I have to try, I’m not good enough.  I’m going to nail this.”  And holy cow, do they.

Which do I like better?  I don’t know.  If I’m looking for cute and poppy, J-Pop pretty much fits the bill.  If I’m looking for actual quality, it’s K-Pop all the way.  The poor J-Pop groups – particularly the really popular ones like AKB48 – really don’t stand a chance.  They’re cute, they’re funny, they’re silly, they’re adorable, and Korean singers and dancers wipe the floor with them.

But then, they know this.  They know exactly what they are, what they do, and why they’re there.  Maybe it will translate to success in the future for them – I know aces like Takahashi Minami and Sashihara Rino have gone on to decent careers.  But not all.  I don’t think that would be tolerated in Korea.  The standards are far, far, far, more exacting.*

* There are exceptions, on both sides.  So stop typing.  🙂

Why I Could Never be Japanese

A couple of weeks ago and a few posts ago, I wrote about a part of Japanese history and culture that really bothered me.  Nothing in it was unfactual to the best of my knowledge, though I was perhaps a little harsher than… No.  No I wasn’t.  That was a topic that I was actually holding back on a bit.

I still lost two followers.  I don’t think I’ve lost 4% of followers from one post on any blog, ever.

It’s not so much that I keep track of these things, as much as I like to know when I’ve hit a nerve.  Obviously the topic bothered people enough that they decided they were done with me.  I’m okay with that, but as with many things in my life, it sparked some introspection.  And I realized that I would never survive for more than a few weeks in Japanese society.

Why?

I speak my mind.

I am outspoken even for an American.  I have, in the past, said things that other people refused to say, for one reason or another.  Perhaps that’s because they disagree with me.  Perhaps I touched on a verboten subject.  Or perhaps I was just plain offensive.  Hey, I’m human too, and I’ve said things in the past that I probably shouldn’t have said.  And some things I still believe I should have said that other people think I shouldn’t have, and I have a couple of words for that idea that don’t go on a “family” blog.

But I’ll never apologize for speaking my mind.

The Japanese culture seems more collectivist.  They seem to want to blend into the crowd, not make waves, go with the flow.  Of course, this makes for a more peaceful society than mine most of the time – there is something to be said for a people that make as much of an effort to get along with each other as the Japanese do – but it also makes for a society where you… go with the flow, I guess.  I’m not that type of person.  I have never been that type of person.  That made my childhood difficult because of being raised in a religious cult that frowned very hard on questions, but I have never lost that quality.  I am not loud and obnoxious like the stereotype many people have of Americans, but I do speak my mind, I’m not shy about it, and I’m sure in many cultures, such as that of Japan, that is a most unwelcome quality for the most part.

My Japanese teacher, after spending several decades in the US, has even expressed a frustration with that tendency.  I told her that she was definitely Japanese, she said she felt more American in some ways, and we agreed that she’s somewhere in between now.  She is Japanese, but she has been exposed to “my” culture for a long time, and it’s rubbed off on her.  Not all the way – there are still culture clashes often – but enough so that she can put up with my outspoken nature.

But I don’t think most Japanese people could.  And the fact that my post had such an outsized negative impact on my small, insignificant blog, bears that thought out.

I am outspoken.  I am who I am.  I don’t care who doesn’t like it.  But it still makes me sad that, for that and a few other reasons, I fear ever going to Japan.  I would not fit in.  I know I would not fit in.  Hell, I don’t even fit in in my culture.

But, for some reason, I continue to learn the language.  It is still interesting.  But I will always be an outsider in that culture, and to be blunt, I’m sick of being an outsider, and no way am I going to put myself in a position where that feeling is exacerbated rather than mollified.

I love many things about Japanese culture.  It is good to learn the language, consume the culture, laugh at their comedic antics and media, and generally broaden my horizons by learning about a different way of thinking.  But the admiration for the culture that I used to have is waning a bit.  Now I see it as I do mine.  A proud culture that mostly works and has some glaring flaws that can’t be put aside or ignored.  And I’ve got enough to deal with in my own without taking on the worries of another.

I am American.  I will always be American.  I was born here, and I was raised here, and daggum it, no bushwhackin’, sidewindin’, hornswagglin’ cracker croaker is gonna ruin my bischen cutter… oh wait.  What was I saying again?  Seriously, I am American.  That’s what I’ll always be.  And there’s no use trying to make it in another culture when I can barely make it in my own.

Honestly, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into studying Japanese.  And I don’t regret that time and effort.  I will continue doing so for the foreseeable future.  But it is just one part of this complete breakfast.  I haven’t really studied piano for a long time, and many pieces I learned to play I’ve actually forgotten how.  I need to remedy that.  I need to push Japanese aside just a bit and make sure my horizons stay broadened.

Maybe some time I spend thinking about how much of an outsider I am in the Japanese culture would be better spent going back over my scales and Hanon exercises.

That’s all, I guess.  Time to review wanikani and figure out what’s next in my life.

Why does a Classically Trained Pianist like J-Pop?

As I might have mentioned at one point, I am a classically trained musician.  I am familiar with most of the works of many major composers, but my favorite classical pieces – or romantic pieces, as the case may be, are some of the more famous piano concertos.  Those by Saint-Saens, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Schumann – I love them all and have been listening to them for many years.  I love the complexity, the interplay between the soloist instruments and the orchestra, and most important, how even though there are many notes (the piano itself can have thousands spread over the better part of an hour) not one is wasted and every note has a place.

So why does someone like me like J-Pop, which is essentially none of these things?  In many cases, the performers don’t harmonize or even have any idea what harmonizing is, the lyrics are trite (though for those who don’t know Japanese that doesn’t really matter, the fact that they’re Japanese is good enough), the harmonies can be intersting but are rather poppish – it’s everything classical music isn’t.  You could get rid of half the notes and it really wouldn’t matter, and all but one or two singers are superfluous in most cases.  By classical standards, J-Pop is barely even worth noticing, much less paying attention to.  About the only thing they really do well is dance around in sync with each other, for the most part.

Nonetheless, I still rather like it.

I’ve remarked before on the Japanese word “ganbatte”, or “ganbarou”.  It basically means “good luck” or “try my best”, but there is an undercurrent of demand there.  Basically, if you fail, you didn’t “ganbatte”.  You can only be said to “ganbatte” if you’ve succeeded.  You can sometimes hear one of the girls in J-Pop saying “I didn’t try my best” when they fail at something.  The implication being, that if you try your best, you will always succeed.

I think this is the spirit around J-Pop that I like, even more than the music themselves.  They’re always challenging themselves, and deliberately so.  Take AKB-48.  People said “they can’t dance well”, so they made a piece that deliberately was the most difficult dancing they’d ever done.  People said “they can’t harmonize”, so they release an a-capella choir piece.  People said “Well, they can’t sing solo”, so they actually had an a capella piece where there was a solo singer and a few of the girls were actually singing harmony.  People said “OK, they can’t play any instruments.”  Well, I guess, challenge accepted, because they put together “gimme five” where some of the girls learned how to play instruments just to prove everyone wrong.

Basically, J-Pop seems to be mostly oriented to an “I’ll show you” kind of “ganbatte” attitude.  If you tell them they can’t do something, they’ll do it just to spite you, and be all smiles and cute all the way.

I was watching a performance of Saint-Saens concerto #4 today – one of my favorites, especially the last movement, and I was watching the performer’s fingers dancing all over the keyboard, and I realized, for all of their talent and practice, most classical musicians don’t seem to have this quality.  They work on playing their instrument, on perfecting their instrument, and sometimes get a job on a symphony orchestra or as a soloist career.  But unless they want to branch out into different kinds of music, that’s where it stops.  Don’t get me wrong, you can become very well known and prosperous doing that – but to me, it seems a bit like a waste.  You only learn to do one thing very well.

But the J-Pop artists seem to alwys want to improve themselves, always try new things, always branch out into new ideas and see if they work.  Take Babymetal, for example.  If you tell a person off the street to try to merge heavy metal and J-Pop, they’ll look at you like you’re an idiot and say “that would be awful.”  And I can’t tell you how many Youtube reaction videos I’ve seen where the sentiment is “Holy crap!  That shouldn’t work at all, but it does!  What did I just watch?”  And then they go down the foxhole.

I think this is why I like J-Pop.  They’re always reinventing and improving themselves, trying new things.  Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, but they never seem happy with the status quo.  You say “well, you can’t do that”, and they say “oh yeah?  Watch me.”  And they do.  One even got into a play-off with a true concert pianist playing Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo”.  You could tell the difference in their playing – the concert pianist was far better – but she held her own.  Someone challenged her, and she said “ganbatte”.  I’ll try my best.

And that is why I, being a classical pianist admire groups such as Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin and its offshoot Babymetal, and a few other groups besides.  It’s not that their music is particularly interesting – most professional musicians could – and do – wipe the floor with them.  Even the K-Pop artists are in such a different class performance-wise that the J-pop artists seem to get a complex when watching them.  But at the end of the day, they understand “Ganbatte”.  Trying their best.  And that’s why I like them.

They’re scrappy, and if someone tosses a challenge at them, they own it.

It’s really hard not to admire that.  Even as a classical pianist.

Uncomfortable

Note to Japanese readers:  if you are not prepared to accept a rather harsh criticism of your culture, please stop reading now.

A couple of days ago, I learned about the behavior of the Japanese in the second world war, and it rather shocked me.  I didn’t really understand why the Japanese were (and to some degree, are) so reviled in South and East Asia, but after hearing about some of the atrocities that were done in Manchuria, China, and the Philippines, among others, I think I understand it now.  I’m very uncomfortable with it.  Primarily because it seems, from what I’ve been reading, that most of those countries, including South Korea, only want an acknowledgement and apology for what the Japanese did eighty years ago.  I imagine some are looking for reparations too, but I’m not going to get into that discussion.  That’s also something we’re dealing with in America, on a smaller scale, and I don’t want to open that can of worms.

However, such an apology and acknowledgement has, from what I understand, never been forthcoming.

I can think of many reasons for this.  I am not familiar with Japanese culture as much as someone who may be living there, but my general impression is that they tend to avoid things that cause them shame or embarrassment.  So I can kind of understand why they, even today, avoid thought or mention of what was done in world war two.  But in other senses, I can’t.  Culture is a very strong driving force, and I get that, but there are some things with which the only appropriate thing is swallowing your pride, and owning up to the history of one’s country performing unimaginable atrocities in wartime should be one of those things.

I am very uncomfortable with Japanese culture right now, and while I continue to learn the language as I don’t wish for two years of study to be in vain, I’m not sure if I want to ever visit there at the moment.  I mean, before I was pretty sure I would never be able to, but now I’m not even sure if I want to.  Because behind every kawaii thing they come up with, there are relatively recent wounds of war that are still festering, and I remain very disturbed by what I learned.

Hagibis and “Black Companies”

As I have said previously, there are many things to admire about Japanese culture, and quite a few things not to admire as well.  I have always strove, in this blog and elsewhere, to look at Japan with an unflinching lack of bias – acknowledging the good, acknowledging the cultural differences that are legitimately morally relative, and also calling out the unquestionably dark sides of Japanese culture that sometimes rear their heads.

Honestly, though I hear it’s recently changing, the biggest thing about Japanese culture that actually deters me from living there is its workplace environment.  They are a culture that tends to value uniformity and teamwork above individual contributions.  That, in itself, is one of those things that I think are legitimately morally relative, and that’s not really what I’m criticizing.  I wouldn’t want to work at a company like that, but my culture is different.  I hear some Japanese companies are taking a more western approach, and I applaud that, while at the same time recognizing that I’m applauding it because it’s more inline with my culture.

But what I don’t like are “black companies”.  These are companies that, to put it bluntly, abuse their workers.  Force them to work long hours, accept no excuses for being late, fire people for getting a snack… basically treating them as feudal slaves with the veneer of modernity.  The suicide rate in Japan is troubling, and at least a portion of that is people who are overworked so badly that they simply can’t hold up under the pressure anymore.

What prompted this observation was finding out that there were some companies that forced people to work through Typhoon Hagibis when it roared through the Tokyo metro area.  The trains were shut down, I’m guessing people were told to shelter in place or find somewhere inland to go, essential services were disrupted.  There were even a few people killed and injured.  It was, by all accounts, a pretty major hurricane, and Japan will be spending quite a bit of time and money recovering from it.  A direct hit on one of the largest cities in the world is not something to take lightly.

And yet, even Hagibis was not enough to excuse some people from work.

This is an aspect of Japanese culture that, frankly, disgusts me.  One can certainly argue the merits of long hours and some of the other aspects of the Japanese corporate culture that are questionable but not necessarily cruel.  But forcing your employees to come to work in the middle of a typhoon?  I don’t care who you are or what culture you’re from, that’s not excusable.

But the problem, as I see it, is that Japanese people accept this.  If people simply didn’t work for black companies, there wouldn’t be any more black companies.  But instead, people feel an obligation, cultural or otherwise, to continue working for the company that is mistreating them so badly.  I’m not sure if it’s because of the post-war idea that one works for the same company for life, or if it’s just the Japanese cultural tendency not to make waves, but the fact that this kind of thing keeps happening is a major black mark on Japanese culture, and is a part of the darkness that makes me think twice about visiting or living there.

And this problem will be exacerbated by the birthrate decline.  In a few years, there will not be enough people to fill all of the jobs that are needed by Japanese countries.  Foreigners, specially western foreigners, will not put up with that kind of environment, and those that are entering the workplace will slowly begin to realize that they are more valuable to the company than the company is to them.  And at that point, the apocalypse will come for “black companies’.  And not a moment too soon.