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Japan Heritage: Telling the Tales Behind Historical Sites

Japan Heritage: Telling the Tales Behind Historical Sites

 Since 2015, the Agency for Cultural Affairs has been recognizing Japan Heritage stories, responding to applications from municipal and prefectural governments across Japan. This project recognizes local community efforts to introduce their culture and traditions through the unique historical elements and cultural properties they prize, including sites, architectural structures, industries and customs.

 

Only communities that meet certain criteria receive the Japan Heritage treatment and recognition. In May 2018, the Agency for Cultural Affairs recognized an additional thirteen regional stories, including a joint application from four cities in Okayama Prefecture entitled “Okayama, the Birthplace of the Legend of Momotaro—Ancient Kibi Heritage Conveying Tales of Demon Slaying” and another from Fukuyama City in Hiroshima Prefecture, which put forward “Japan’s Leading Port Town of Early-Modern Times -Tomonoura,with its Sepia Tones Enveloped in the Evening Calm of the Seto Inland Sea.” Sixty-seven Japan Heritage stories have been recognized so far.

 

Mitsunobu Nakajima from the cultural resources utilization division at the Agency for Cultural Affairs explains that the Japan Heritage project was created to recognize the value of cultural properties in local communities in greater historical and geographical contexts rather than independently.

 

“Learning the historical and cultural background of fine arts and crafts allows us to appreciate them on a deeper level,” he explains. “For instance, the knowledge that another piece of art in a distant region affected the creation of an Important Cultural Property creates a new dimension for enjoying the object. Japan Heritage calls this contextualization ‘stories of Japanese cultures and traditions.’ The key criteria for recognition include the appropriateness of the story—whether the tale is built upon traditions and customs rooted in the community’s history and climate—and whether the story’s theme clearly addresses the whole community’s unique characteristics.”

 

Nakajima says that creating and presenting these framed narratives makes it easier to strategically and effectively promote the area, both within and outside Japan. For example, the story of Misasa Town in Tottori Prefecture, which was recognized as Japan Heritage in 2015, “A Site for Purifying the Six Roots of Perception and Healing the Six Senses—Japan’s Most Dangerous National Treasure and a World-Famous Radon Hot Spring,” integrated the arduous mountain paths and steep slopes up to Nageiredo, a small Buddhist temple designated as a National Treasure, into the tale. Spreading the story overseas on social media with the help of the town’s international residents boosted the number of tourists from abroad in 2017 by 2.7 times that of 2014, before the Japan Heritage recognition.

 

The story of Kurashiki City in Okayama Prefecture, “From a Single Cotton Plant—A Textile Town Weaving Together Japan and the West” is based on its history of reclaiming land from the sea four centuries ago and raising cotton. The story shows how this textile town grew and became renowned for the quality of its products and pretty whitewashed houses, which many visitors now come to see. The city constantly promotes its local identity by suggesting model routes that showcase the town’s many interesting spots.

 

Municipalities with stories recognized as Japan Heritage receive financial support for three years and assistance from expert advisors. The Agency for Cultural Affairs also lists Japan Heritage stories in domestic and international promotion activities. Given those merits, more municipalities are expected to clamor for this recognition.

 

“Japan Heritage aims to revitalize local communities by linking cultural properties that aren’t currently connected, so the recognition process also looks at how the applicants plan to promote themselves after recognition,” Nakajima says. “Tsuwano Town in Shimane Prefecture was recognized in 2015 for their story ‘Tsuwano Then and Now: Exploring the Town of Tsuwano through the One Hundred Landscapes of Tsuwano.’ They established a guidance center to explain the story with images and panels, and offered new ways to explore the town. As a result, compared to 2014 the number of international visitors staying in Tsuwano in 2016 grew by 1.6 times.”

 

Japan Heritage sites allow you to see the links between history and culture rooted in the communities, and find new ways to experience Japan.

By Takayoshi Yamabe

 

https://www.gov-online.go.jp/eng/publicity/book/hlj/html/201902/201902_09_en.html

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The Little Robot Still Enchanting Fans Worldwide

The Little Robot Still Enchanting Fans Worldwide

 Nobita Nobi is a boy who struggles with everything from schoolwork to sports and friendships. Naturally this is a source of frustration for his mother, who scolds Nobita daily. But one day Doraemon—an earless robot cat traveling back in a time machine from the twenty-second century—jumps out of Nobita’s desk drawer and changes his life.

 

A science-fiction manga series for children, Doraemon is the representative work of Japanese manga artist Fujiko F Fujio (the pen name of Hiroshi Fujimoto). The manga storyline follows Nobita and his friends, who overcome challenges in their everyday lives aided by the amazing futuristic gadgets that Doraemon pulls out of his “four-dimensional pocket.” Since it was first published in 1970, the series has been adapted into an anime series as well as films. Over the past five decades, Doraemon has gained numerous fans both within and outside Japan. The series has been translated into twelve different languages and published in seventeen countries, and the anime series has been broadcast in fifty-five countries.

 

Translated Doraemon manga are particularly popular in Asia. “In particular, Vietnamese fans’ love of Doraemon is unprecedented,” says Mitsuru Saito, chief producer of international media at publisher house Shogakukan. Even before Shogakukan and their counterpart in Vietnam concluded the official licensing contract, Doraemon was already famous in Vietnam due to unauthorized copies. Fujio opted not to receive royalties accrued from this official licensing, requesting instead that the money be spent on promoting education for children who wish to learn. The Doraemon Scholarship Fund, founded to honor Fujio’s wishes, has allowed over ten thousand Vietnamese children to pursue their education.

 

When Doraemon—now a traffic safety mascot throughout Vietnam—appears at schools, children welcome him enthusiastically. The Doraemon series occupies a third of the manga section in local bookstores.

 

“The Doraemon manga series was originally created for magazines that Shogakukan used to publish for school-aged children, so the character is like a friend to young readers,” says Saito, explaining the reason for the character’s celebrity and popularity. “The simple and easy-to-understand artwork, the fun plots where Doraemon makes children’s innocent wishes and dreams come true using his gadgets, and the gentle and encouraging worldview that encompasses the characters are universally appreciated, going beyond generations and national borders.”

 

As the publisher responsible for preserving the original artwork from the manga series, “it is Shogakukan’s wish to preserve the manga’s form and value as it is, and continue to pass it on to future generations,” Saito says. However, they continue to improve the quality of their publication. For instance, in pursuit of better picture quality, they renewed the printing films for the original volumes of the series.

 

“We’ll keep sharing Doraemon manga with the world,” Saito says. “While it may have a long history, we want to continue to emphasize the appeal of this wonderful, timeless work.” Thanks to the efforts of the publisher that took over Fujio’s creative philosophy, through the pages of manga Doraemon will continue to be a trusted friend to children for generations while staying true to himself.

By Tamaki Kawasaki

 

https://www.gov-online.go.jp/eng/publicity/book/hlj/html/201902/201902_07_en.html

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The Pillow Book and the Japanese Mindset

The Pillow Book and the Japanese Mindset

“The charm of The Pillow Book derives from beautiful depictions of the four seasons by Lady Sei Shonagon, who wrote over a thousand years ago in the Heian Period (794-1185),” explains professor Etsuko Akama of Jumonji University. “Starting with the famous opening line, ‘In spring, the dawn—when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red…’ she incorporates seasonality by showcasing the highlights of each season, which are carefully depicted and blended in her prose.”

 

In the first paragraph that starts with the above line, the writer describes how the sky of Higashiyama in Kyoto changes color as the sun rises, along with the fireflies that illuminate the summer night. “Her descriptions convey a sense of movement, almost like a video posted on social media,” says Akama. Shonagon’s prose allows the reader to visualize the scene, and the distinctive characterizations through the senses—the chirps of the insects, the fragrance of irises and the drenching storm against the face—enthrall readers.

 

As her writing progresses, you can also spot many noteworthy plays on words and witty ideas. For instance, “near yet far” is used to describe the last day of the year and the New Year, as well as relationships with family members one doesn’t get along with, while “far yet near” is used to portray the Buddhist paradise and relationships between men and women. Her words are similar to those of modern women, mixing humor and sarcasm: the pleasure she finds when a hated person has a bad experience, noting that there is nothing more interesting than gossiping about others, or pointing out that sermons are better when the lecturer is a handsome man. “Sei Shonagon was talented at expressing people’s honest feelings through her writing,” Akama states.

 

It’s been said that female writers first appeared in Japan during the Heian Period and women’s literature flourished. Prior to that time, Japan’s written language was entirely based on kanji (Chinese characters), and it was considered vulgar for women to learn to write in this “men’s language.” However, during the Heian Period a new and simpler form of writing called hiragana was devised. This made it possible to print an anthology of poetry called the Kokin Wakashu in native Japanese instead of the classic Chinese characters. This sparked a revival in Japanese literature.

 

According to Akama, women became leading figures in literary studies during this time, with a focus on intricate descriptions derived from observation and emotions. Even in the modern dictionary of classic Japanese words, explanations for emotional adjectives are referenced from women’s literature.

 

Sei Shonagon’s father, Kiyohara no Motosuke, was a famous poet, so she grew up surrounded by books, reading, studying kanji characters and gaining wonderful writing skills. At the time, upper-class women were hidden away from society once they married. However, Shonagon thought that women should know more about the world. At court, she met Empress Teishi, which resulted in the birth of “seraglio literature” and The Pillow Book.

 

“Although Empress Teishi’s family soon fell to ruin and she died shortly afterward, thanks to Sei Shonagon this florid seraglio literature was preserved for posterity,” Akama notes.

 

The Heian Period was the longest in Japanese history, lasting for over four hundred years. Although there were political issues, it was a peaceful time without any wars. It was also an age of imperial aristocracy, and through complex human relationships and romantic emotions, many forms of expressions were born through self-reflection, suffering, weakness, craftiness and fear.

 

“Chirps of insects not being considered noise but rather something soothing is an aesthetic specific to Japanese people,” Akama says. “It’s likely that this form of emotional expression derives from the Shinto belief that trees, insects and even words contain a soul, and that we are surrounded by eight million kami (gods).”

 

These and other emotions of Heian people from over a thousand years ago still live within the hearts and minds of modern Japanese.

By Tamaki Kawasaki

 

https://www.gov-online.go.jp/eng/publicity/book/hlj/html/201902/201902_02_en.html

 

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The Market that Stocks Japan’s Pantry

The Market that Stocks Japan’s Pantry

Guinness World Records recognizes the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market—commonly known as Tsukiji Market—as the world’s largest fish market in terms of seafood handled and produced, and the market’s intermediate wholesaling system offers quality control and attentive customer service that have no equal. Tsukiji Market supports Japanese food culture, and is the main reason people take for granted that fresh fish will always be available at the dining table.

Tsukiji Market opened in 1935 when the old fish market in Nihonbashi and the fruit and vegetable market in Kyobashi were relocated. The product lines include approximately 480 varieties of seafood and 270 varieties of fruits and vegetables, a daily volume and value amounting to over 1,779 tons and ¥1.55 billion worth of seafood, and over 1,142 tons and ¥319 million in fruits and vegetables (including eggs and pickles). The market welcomes 42,000 visitors a day (November 2002 survey), and admits about 19,000 vehicles daily. Handling everything from shipments to sales, operations run 24 hours a day, making it a market that never sleeps.

“Tsukiji Market’s greatest strength is that it isn’t a producers’ market directly connected to a particular fishing port, but rather the largest consumption market in Japan,” explains Osamu Shimazu of the Wholesales Cooperative of Tokyo Fish Market. “In general, all seafood products from every producing center can be obtained here, and it offers the best quality selection of fresh fish in all of Japan. Even if regional fishing ports are temporarily wiped out in times of natural disaster, we can always procure goods from somewhere.

“Including frozen items and processed goods, we collect cargo from all over the world, and not only high-end products—we can also provide the most suitable products to fit our customers’ budgets and needs,” Shimazu adds. “Even with the same type of fish, there are differences in how to prepare it to get the most delicious flavor out of it, whether it’s as sashimi or grilled with salt. The ability to understand that and offer a product that best fits the customer’s needs depends on the abilities of the intermediate wholesaler as a connoisseur.”

With the popularization of the Internet and an increase in customers who order products directly from regional fishing ports and fishermen, the necessity of intermediate wholesalers between buyers and sellers has come under debate, but it is these concierge-like abilities of the “connoisseur broker,” as well as his or her power to assemble wholesale cargo, that are cited as the advantages of Tsukiji Market.

“Because we are such a large market, each merchant works diligently to provide the best product, and that is a defining characteristic of Tsukiji Market,” Shimazu explains. “There are seven seafood wholesaling companies here, whereas in a regular market you would often find only one. There are over 630 intermediate wholesalers, and each provides attentive service to fulfill their customers’ needs. At every location of this system, built like a spider’s web, there are professionals checking and verifying the quality of products at Tsukiji Market. I believe that you can understand the value in that.”

The market system in place here, made possible through these intermediate wholesalers, has attracted a great deal of interest from overseas. In fact, Vietnam is reportedly considering adopting the same system. And in terms of fish exports, due to an increase in orders from Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and North America in recent years, the Wholesales Cooperative of Tokyo Fish Market is preparing a support system to handle and simplify the procedures as a way to reduce the burdens imposed on individual wholesalers in anticipation of the scheduled move of the market to nearby Toyosu in 2016.

“As interest in Japan rises as we approach the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, our goal is to show the world how wonderful Japanese food culture is,” Shimazu says with great enthusiasm. It’s only natural that supplying fresh, delicious fish to households and restaurants is the foundation for maintaining the importance of seafood in Japanese food culture. Since Tsukiji Market makes that possible, it can truly be called the pantry of Japan.

by RIEKO SUZUKI

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Welcome to the Cosplay Olympics!

Welcome to the Cosplay Olympics!

 Cosplay—short for “costume play”—refers to dressing as characters primarily from manga and anime, with a variety of events held not just in Japan but in countries around the world.

 

The World Cosplay Summit began in 2003, with countries sending the winners of their respective qualifying tournaments to Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. The biggest cosplay event on the globe, the Summit is where the world’s top cosplayers are crowned. In 2015, the number of participating countries and regions rose to twenty-eight, and the event is now the ultimate aspirational objective for cosplayers worldwide. And with greater media coverage from many countries, the Summit has come to be known as the cosplayer Olympics. Tokumaru Oguri of the World Cosplay Summit executive committee spoke about the path this event has taken and its current outlook.

 

A mini-program reporting on the cosplay phenomenon and culture, organized by Oguri, then a producer at a Nagoya television station, inspired the inaugural event. “While we were doing research for the show, we learned that cosplay was enjoying more success overseas than in Japan,” he says, “so we organized a discussion and invited cosplayers from France, Italy and Germany along with Japanese cosplayers. Even if they couldn’t speak each other’s languages, their favorite characters all shared the same names. And that’s all it took. They had a great time. And that was the first World Cosplay Summit.”

 

When the event and cosplay championships took place at the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi Prefecture, it led to widespread international media coverage from outlets such as Reuters and the Associated Press. As a result, many inquiries came from various countries through their embassies, with some expressing a desire to join in. Thanks to this momentum, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism began lending their support in 2006, and in 2009 the event gained the backing of the city of Nagoya to establish the executive committee.

 

Since then the event has vastly expanded in scale each year, and as of 2015, a cumulative total of more than 1.96 million people have attended the Summit and its associated events. At the opening ceremonies for the 2015 Summit, held at Laguna Ten Bosch amusement park, representatives from the various countries gathered around as the ship Thousand Sunny (from the popular manga and anime One Piece) floated in the bay, and conducted a tape-cutting ceremony. Participants streamed this event in real time via social networking services worldwide, sharing their excitement and passion with an even larger global audience.

 

Another development was the inauguration of the WCS Omotenashi Student Executive Committee in 2013, which consisted mainly of Japanese students and paired up Summit participants with student volunteers (omotenashi refers to the Japanese spirit of hospitality). For the duration of the event, the volunteers provided extensive support—from assistance with cosplaying to translation—with the Summit serving as an opportunity for promoting cultural exchange and creating deep bonds of friendship.

 

“Over the period of about a year, qualifying trials are held in 15 cities in Russia and 26 provinces in China, and cosplayers from all over Europe gather at the Japan Expo in France,” Oguri says, explaining the flourishing overseas cosplay boom. “Japanese anime and manga are very high quality, and they feature characters that are easy to identify with. And with the advent of the Internet, it’s become easier to access such works. I think this is what served as the foundation for the worldwide cosplay boom. There are tens of thousands of events, both online and offline, where people can come together. Cosplay can be a tool—and one unlike any other—for cultural exchange.”

 

The World Cosplay Summit has several goals in mind. One is to reduce the number of countries that have indicated interest in participating but haven’t yet been able to do so—currently over thirty—to zero by the year 2020. There are also plans to contribute to the revitalization and creativity of Japan’s regions by sending the majority of overseas cosplayers to regional cities and holding the final qualifying rounds for the World Cosplay Summit within Japan’s borders. Cosplaying has become a common global language, and it continues to generate powerful connectivity and energy to the world.

By RIEKO SUZUKI / Photos: © World Cosplay Summit 2015

 

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A Celebration of the Arts

A Celebration of the Arts

For Japanese students, autumn’s onset not only heralds a change in wardrobe and the brilliant colors of changing leaves but also the anticipation of a special schoolwide culture festival known as bunkasai. In contrast with the school sports festival and its emphasis on athletics, the bunkasai allows students at all levels a respite from their desk studies to give performances, present arts and crafts and pursue other creative and culturally oriented activities.

Highlighting Japan traveled to Yokohama for Kanagawa Sohgoh High School’s twenty-first annual bunkasai to learn firsthand about this unique aspect of Japanese school life. At the entrance to the campus, principal Yoichi Ichikawa welcomes a diverse audience: students’ friends from other schools, junior high students thinking about applying to the school, alumni reconnecting with their old campus, parents and the general public—particularly people living in the vicinity.

As at many other high schools and even universities, Kanagawa Sohgoh’s bunkasai is student-led. This year’s coordinator, second-year student Mea Suzuki, takes a few moments to describe how the event is organized. “We started preparing three months in advance,” she says, going on to detail how she and other students on the head committee decided on the program theme and preparation schedule before delegating tasks to subcommittees. Teachers provide support, but Suzuki and her peers—along with hundreds of other students—are responsible for the event’s preparation, setup, operation and cleanup.

Students are free to choose whether to participate in Kanagawa Sohgoh’s bunkasai. Yet vice principal Yoshimitsu Nakajima estimates that nearly all of the school’s approximately eight hundred students are involved, whether through regular club activities or volunteer groups. Some schools have different approaches in this regard, with festival activities based instead around student classes. Nevertheless, Nakajima notes, even those who do not take on a role still attend to cheer on their classmates.

A five-member dance group opens the day’s event with a lively hip-hop dance near the school’s entrance. In the central courtyard a jazz band plays Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” to a throng of camera-toting fans. In the kyudo (Japanese archery) hall, guests wait patiently in a twenty-minute queue for a chance to practice the art under the guidance of kyudo club members. Students perform one after another on stage in the school’s main auditorium and on a smaller platform outside.

Closer to the sports field, delicious scents of food beckon visitors to investigate. Students are cooking and selling reasonably-priced treats that include savory okonomiyaki pancakes, cotton candy, and a rice cake sandwich of melted cheese and mochi (glutinous rice) sold by the swim club called suimasenbei (reportedly only available at Kanagawa Sohgoh). The bunkasai is not intended to be a moneymaking enterprise, but Suzuki says that any funds raised are first used to cover expenses and the rest donated to charity.

Nakajima guides us around the ten-story building that forms the school’s main campus. Classrooms on each floor have been transformed into art exhibitions, informal coffee shops, cultural exhibits, and even a haunted . . . classroom. A Kanagawa Sohgoh support teacher and alumnus, who was himself the bunkasai student coordinator seventeen years ago, has seen the bunkasai change over the years. “It’s much more organized now,” he says, “and the number of visitors has increased significantly, from three thousand to at least six thousand people.”

All too quickly it is lunchtime, and many visitors decide to stop by the swim club’s tent to purchase their popular suimasenbei. The large queue of hungry customers waiting there is one indication that this year’s bunkasai has been a resounding success.

by NOAM KATZ

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Tokyo to Nagoya City in 40 Minutes

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Tokyo to Nagoya City in 40 Minutes

More than fifty years have passed since the Tokaido Shinkansen connecting Tokyo and Osaka began operating. Construction of the Chuo Shinkansen, which will connect Tokyo, Nagoya City and Osaka City using a new technology, superconducting maglev, commenced in 2014. The Tokaido Shinkansen was constructed along the Pacific coastline, but the Chuo Shinkansen will run through the inland areas of the Japanese mainland, connecting the three cities in as short a distance as possible.

The superconducting maglev is a contactless transportation system in which the train levitates approximately 10 centimeters due to the magnetic force generated between the on-board superconducting magnets and the ground coils. Because the system causes no friction between the wheels and the rails, unlike conventional railway systems, it enables ultra-high-speed operation. Its operating velocity is 500 kilometers per hour. At its fastest, the superconducting maglev will connect Shinagawa and Nagoya City (a railway length of 285.6 km) in 40 minutes and, further down the line, Tokyo and Osaka City in 67 minutes. (Presently the Tokaido Shinkansen at its fastest connects Tokyo and Nagoya in one hour and 34 minutes and Tokyo and Shin-Osaka in two hours and 22 minutes.) Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) plans to open the route between Tokyo and Nagoya City, currently under construction as the first phase, in 2027.

One of the reasons for constructing the Chuo Shinkansen is to reduce multiple risks by building another line along the main artery connecting Tokyo, Nagoya City and Osaka City, which is vital for Japanese society. The Tokaido Shinkansen has now been operating for more than fifty years, and it will need to be fully prepared against aging degradation and large-scale disasters in the future. The opening of the Chuo Shinkansen will enable the impact of the improvement work for the Tokaido Shinkansen to be reduced. In addition, building another line along the main artery will be effective in preparing for disaster risks, including major earthquakes.

The Chuo Shinkansen is also expected to produce enormous synergistic effects on the economy and society. It will be effective in forming a huge integrated urban zone made up of Japan’s three largest metropolitan areas — the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area, the Chukyo area adjacent to Nagoya City and the Kinki area adjacent to Osaka City. This is expected to create wider regions for human activities, which will lead to major lifestyle changes, such as how business is carried out and how leisure is enjoyed.

Research into the superconducting maglev started in 1962 and running tests began in Miyazaki Prefecture in 1977. Running tests began on the 18.4-kilometer Yamanashi Maglev Line in Tsuru City, Yamanashi Prefecture in 1997. The Yamanashi Maglev Line was extended to 42.8 kilometers in 2013 and will be used as part of the Chuo Shinkansen in the future. Currently, running tests of Series L0, a railcar of the operating line specifications, are being conducted on the Yamanashi Maglev Line. The front railcar of Series L0 is 28 meters in length. This series is characterized by its 15-meter long “nose” to reduce air drag. In 2015, a manned running test recorded 603 kilometers per hour, the world’s fastest velocity for a railway. Although JR Central has already established the practical technologies for superconducting maglev, it continues to work on the upgrading of technologies such as those connected with improvement of comfort and efficiency of maintenance with a view toward the opening of the Chuo Shinkansen between Shinagawa and Nagoya City.

At the Yamanashi Prefectural Maglev Exhibition Center, which is located along the Yamanashi Maglev Line, you can watch the superconducting maglev run at ultra-high speed up close. There are also displays featuring the actual prototype of a test railcar that set the world record of 581 kilometers per hour in 2003 and a machine introducing the mechanism of the superconducting maglev. In addition, JR Central began conducting a lottery-based experience program for the superconducting maglev in 2014, and a total of more than 50,000 people have experienced journeys of 500 kilometers per hour to date.

Currently, there is a plan for high-speed railways based on the Japanese superconducting maglev technology in the United States as well. The superconducting maglev is expected to dramatically change the future of Japanese and global railways.

By OSAMU SAWAJI/Photos and Illustration: Courtesy of JR Central

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The Oldest Jokes in the Book

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The Oldest Jokes in the Book

 Ebisu, the God of a good catch and business prosperity, is having a bad day. He has cast his fishing line in the hope of hooking a jumbo fish, but none is biting.

“Yare-yare” (jeez!), he says as he reaches into his basket to pull out more bait, causing a ripple of excitement among his audience – in particular the younger members, who know what’s coming next.

In this comedic play during an evening of Iwami-kagura drama, held at a 450-year-old shrine in the city of Hamada, Shimane Prefecture, the forty members of the audience are in effect Ebisu’s fish and the bait is not grubs, or herrings, but candy, which he flings by the fistful into the audience to hearty applause and squeals of laughter.

“It was funny, but a little scary,” said a four-year-old girl, who had joined Ebisu on the makeshift stage to lend a hand reeling in the papier-mâché sea bream.

The girl’s contradicting response is almost germane to kagura, a genre of dance that is Japan’s oldest performing art.

Although kagura’s exact origin is unknown, its earliest form is believed to have been a ritual derived from the legendary tale of the sun goddess Amaterasu and the entertaining way in which the goddess Ame-no-Uzume performed dances to persuade the reclusive, cave-dwelling Amaterasu to shed light on the world once more.

Over the years, many types of kagura have evolved, incorporating Shinto and, to a lesser degree, Buddhist elements. Some are highly ritualistic, such as the miko-kagura performed for the Imperial court by miko shrine maidens — descendants, it is said, of Ame-no-Uzume — while others are highly theatrical, almost kabuki-esque.

This latter style, known under the umbrella term sato-kagura (village kagura), was officially encouraged during the Meiji period (1868–1912), when local residents adopted the roles previously played by shrine priests and attendants, who had previously been the sole purveyors of the ritualized, Shamanistic plays that are often referred to as “Shinshoku-Kagura.”

Sato-kagura subsequently flourished and today a variety of dances and music are performed at many local festivals and other public events around the country. Some of the events last not more than an hour; others, such as those held in the fall as part of harvest festivals, continue overnight.

Today there are hundreds of kagura troupes throughout Japan performing numerous types of the dance, including Ise-ryu kagura and Izumo-ryu kagura.

Iwami-kagura alone is performed by some 150 troupes in a district of western Shimane Prefecture once known as Iwami.

Iwami-kagura features a repertoire of around 100 dances, invariably accompanied by flutes, percussion and voice. It is believed to originally date back to the Muromachi period (1336–1573), according to Takashi Shimono, who played the part of Ebisu at the performance at Hamada’s Sanku shrine.

“It was originally a ritual dedicated to the gods that was performed by shrine priests but was handed over to parishioners and turned into a kind of show,” he said. “Today the plays are close to kabuki in style and created with the objective of enjoyment for those who come to watch.”

A major distinguishing feature of Iwami-kagura is its fast tempo, called hacchoshi, the elaborate dress, which can weigh in excess of 30 kg, and striking washi paper masks.

“Another feature is that the plays are visually impactful and easy to comprehend even if you don’t understand the words spoken,” says Kenji Asaura, who heads the Mikawa Nishi Kagura Hozonkai troupe, whose members include local public servants, fisheries employees and workers at a local auto parts manufacturer.

This is particularly true of the comedic plays. Ebisu’s feeble fishing exploits and plodding, almost vaudevillian dance moves, are given an extra humorous touch by his mask, featuring an oval face, slightly drooping eyes and permanent grin.

“Just looking at that face makes me want to laugh,” said another member of the audience at Sanku shrine. “Not all kagura plays are comedic, but they are all highly entertaining.”

The age-old power of kagura to captivate an audience remains undimmed.

By ROB GILHOOLY

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What’s Manzai?

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What’s Manzai?

Far and away the most popular style of comedy in Japan is manzai, a form of performance that can trace its roots in New Year celebrations back around a thousand years. The basic premise is similar to comedy double acts seen across the globe, with a tsukkomi “straight man” and boke “funny man/fall guy,” but with the emphasis in manzai heavily on rapid-fire delivery, puns and deliberate misunderstandings.

The particular style of manzai now dominant in Japanese show business hails from Osaka and was brought to the fore by Yoshimoto Kogyo, which is headquartered in the city. The popularity of the style helped turn Yoshimoto into a giant entertainment company with most of the famous comedians in Japan on its roster.

So when American-born Stephen Tetsu decided to undertake the ambitious challenge of becoming a manzai-shi (as performers are known) he knew that Yoshimoto’s New Star Creation school was the place to go. The year-long course molds aspiring comedians into shape, teaching them skills such as voice control and comedy writing, as well as dancing and stage sword fighting.

Tetsu, who grew up in California but got a taste for the style via his Japanese mother, says he was, “taken off guard” by the dance classes and sword fighting, but found performing routines in front of the demanding instructors, “taking notes and not laughing” the toughest element.

Forming and breaking up around ten double acts during the course, Tetsu — who plays the boke role — linked up with his current partner, Leo Togawa, to form “Iruka Punch” (“iruka” means dolphin in Japanese) shortly after its completion. The duo have been signed up by Yoshimoto Creative Agency, part of the entertainment conglomerate, and are currently paying their dues and honing their craft by performing on the manzai circuit.

In spite of the challenges, being one of less than a handful of foreign manzai performers in the field has brought advantages to Tetsu and Iruka Punch. Yoshimoto Kogyo has a content creation partnership with Netflix, and Tetsu became the narrator and star of What’s Manzai?, a documentary for the global online video platform last year. The film followed Tetsu through his training at the manzai school as well as introducing the form, how it works and how it differs from Western comedy.

“Japanese and Western comedy start from different places. Japanese comedy is more about just making people happy, whereas Western comedy is about saying what you want to say, a kind of confession,” says Tetsu in an interview at Yoshimoto Creative Agency’s Tokyo offices.

“There are a lot of political jokes in the United States, but Japanese comedy steers away from politics,” notes Tetsu, who admits his attempts to include political elements in his act have not gone down very well with audiences.

“I don’t know if it couldn’t work, but in Japanese comedy and manzai you want everyone to laugh. With political jokes there will always be someone who’s mad at you,” he adds.

While acknowledging the advantages that being a novelty brings, Tetsu says he “doesn’t want to be considered funny just because I’m American.” Nevertheless, he does use his otherness in his shows. “I tried not to play on it at first, but we got a lot of pressure from producers and other people to use it more, and the truth is that it does work,” he says.

With his career still in its infancy, Tetsu’s future goals include to perform at the Namba Grand Kagetsu (NGK) Theater in Osaka, a manzai Mecca, operated by Yoshimoto, and to win the M-1 Grand Prix contest. The end-of-year competition, broadcast nationally, and naturally organized by Yoshimoto, comes with a 10 million yen (90,000 US dollars) prize and the potential to catapult winners to manzai stardom.

“And in terms of performing, I want to see if manzai would work in English,” says Tetsu. “I would really like to know if it could.”

By GAVIN BLAIR/Photos: © 2016 Yoshimoto Kogyo

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Shaping the Evolution of Multilingual Speech Translation Technology

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 VoiceTra is a multilingual speech translation app capable of instant translation between thirty-one languages, developed by the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Speech translation systems are being developed elsewhere in the world, with several well-known web services already in existence. However, one of the biggest advantages VoiceTra has is that it does not use English as an intermediate step in the translation process. Instead, the app translates directly from Japanese into thirty other languages, allowing for a much higher level of accuracy.

Taking into account the wide range of tourists in Japan, it supports major European languages and Asian languages as well, which is also one of its unique selling points.

“VoiceTra is currently the only app that supports two-way speech translation between Japanese and Myanmarese,” states Kiyotaka Uchimoto, director of the Planning Office at the Advanced Speech Translation Research and Development Promotion Center of NICT.The number of visitors to Japan is expected to keep increasing as the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games approach. To create a society where visitors would not have to worry about language barriers, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announced its Global Communication Plan in 2014. Since then, many private enterprises have joined this nationwide initiative, speeding up NICT’s research and development to the point where they were able to carry out field experiments of their multilingual speech translation technology in real-world settings, such as hospitals, shops, restaurants and tourist destinations.

VoiceTra is available for free to individual users. It offers a simple and easy-to-use interface, and accurately recognizes the differences between various speakers such as their inflections and speaking styles. Moreover, the translation process is nearly instantaneous. The system utilizes a neural network (deep learning) based on human neural pathways to accelerate its learning process. The accuracy increases as the number of users rises with more information at the disposal of machine learning algorithms, leading to a natural and nonliteral translation. Emergency services, railway operators, taxi companies and hospitals have customized the VoiceTra technology and are using it to communicate with visitors from abroad. The smartphone app has also marked a total of three million downloads.

This wonder of technology is the culmination of nearly three decades of study, despite a rocky start due to skepticism regarding the merits of such research. “Nevertheless, we were convinced that this speech translation technology was necessary for the future of Japan,” says Uchimoto, thinking back over the road that led him to this point. NICT’s speech recognition technology has held up well against rival technologies from prestigious universities and noted research labs around the world at the International Workshop on Spoken Language Translation (IWSLT), an international competition, placing first in the world for three years in a row.

Besides being used in train stations and other public transport, medical facilities and in other situations in Japan, VoiceTra is now going beyond just a smartphone app in the hands of private enterprises. For instance, a hands-free ID card-sized device developed by one company targets doctors and nurses in hospitals. The device translates voices detected from the front (i.e., the patient’s voice) into Japanese, and voices detected from the top of the device (i.e., the doctor or nurse’s voice) into a designated language. Further research is being done at NICT on technologies that detect and translate multiple languages simultaneously. “The ultimate goal of our research is simultaneous interpretation that gives the most appropriate translation according to the context. To help us build the necessary database, we hope that as many people as possible will try out VoiceTra when they visit Japan,” says Uchimoto.

VoiceTra official site: http://voicetra.nict.go.jp/en/index.html

By Tamaki Kawasaki

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https://www.gov-online.go.jp/eng/publicity/book/hlj/html/201805/201805_09_en.html

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