February 28, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (19)

"Riding the wings of the phoenix" echoes the title of the book. Tonan (図南) refers to the fabled southern flight of the phoenix (鵬), with the same nuance as "Go west, young man." So the saying "The wings (tsubasa) of the phoenix" came to mean setting off with big plans in mind.

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February 25, 2013

Equal opportunity eye candy

Having previously observed that a big draw of NHK's historical dramas is the very attractive women they cast in the lead and supporting roles, I feel obliged to point out that NHK hardly shuns the aesthetic when it comes to the men.

The stodgy network has a fondness for chart-topping rock stars with decent acting chops. For example, Gackt (left) in Fûrin Kazan and Masaharu Fukuyama in Ryômaden.

And last month on Yamamoto Yaeko, a fencing match was concocted in order to give Hidetoshi Nishijima, who pays Yaeko's older brother, an excuse to strip down to the waist.

I'm sure it was important to the, ah, um, historical accuracy of the scene. Though for some mysterious reason, nobody else did.

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February 21, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (18)

Rikou's little lecture at the end got me thinking of Henry V, act 4, scene 1. King Henry, wandering about the camp (in disguise), gets into an argument with one of his soldiers about "just war" and the moral responsibilities of a soldier:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all: "We died at such a place."

King Henry, in turn, defends the prerogatives of the king:

The king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services. Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers

But alone by himself a few minutes later, he cries out:

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!

Of course, King Henry always had the option of not getting involved in a pretty pointless war to start with, a game of thrones that had been going on for almost a century, and would continue for several more decades after Agincourt.

Considering the "Prime Directive" enforced in the Twelve Kingdoms, and the rule that no emperor can be succeeded by anybody with the same surname, such a conflict wouldn't last very long there.

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February 18, 2013

Yaeko Yamamoto

NHK's 2013 year-long historical (Taiga) drama features another one of those amazing Meiji period women, Yaeko Yamamoto. To quote from Wikipedia:

Yaeko was the daughter of Yamamoto Gonpachi, one of the Aizu domain's official gunnery instructors. She herself was skilled in gunnery, and took part in the defense of Aizu during the Boshin War. After the war, Yaeko went to Kyoto to care for her brother Yamamoto Kakuma, who had been a prisoner of war in Satsuma custody. She remained in Kyoto, and became a Christian in the 1870s. Soon after, she married Rev. Joseph Hardy Neesima [Jo Niijima] and, together with Neesima and Kakuma, played an integral role in the founding of Doshisha University.

Yaeko later served as a nurse during the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars.

She and her husband were a remarkably modern couple, causing a minor scandal in stuffy Kyoto by addressing each other as equals (not using honorifics) in public. Their house was equipped with central heating and had one of the first western-style, indoor toilets in Japan.

The television series begins with an equally fascinating juxtaposition. The very first scene is, in fact, a vivid depiction of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg (1863). It then seamlessly transitions to the seige of Aizu Castle during the height of the Boshin Civil War (1868-69).

And then back to the Gettysburg Address.

Like the U.S., Japan was going through a revolutionary change, attempting to transition from a thousand years of feudalism to a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." And it'd be doing it practically overnight.

The next scene is that of a Japanese man walking down a Boston street in 1865.

He's Yaeko's future husband, Joseph Hardy Neesima (his Americanized name), who attended Phillips Academy and Amherst College from 1865 to 1870. Like Yaeko's Spencer repeating rifle, the Meiji reformers were in no way hamstrung by a "not invented here" mindset.

The producers at NHK pointedly intended these twins themes of a woman and a country liberating itself from the past to resonate with contemporary Fukushima, where Aizu-Wakamatsu is located. Fukushima took the brunt of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear melt-down.

One of Japan's biggest stars, Haruka Ayase, was cast in the lead role (you can watch her playing well against type as a blind swordsman in Ichi, a Zatoichi spinoff).

Back in the real world, describing his wife to a friend in the U.S., her husband wrote, "She is not a handsome woman, but she does handsome." Hey, there's no need to pretend that a big draw of NHK's historical dramas isn't the very attractive women they cast in the lead roles.

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February 14, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (17)

"Jug stones" (満甕石) translates literally as "full jug of rocks" (man'ou seki).

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February 11, 2013

"Emperor" trailer

Here's a movie I'm looking forward to, even though, based on what's presented in the trailer, it looks the "drama" was invented out of thin air.

The Tokyo War Crimes Trial wanted to be Nuremberg II, but ended up the Great Scapegoat Hunt. General MacArthur's goal from the start was to whitewash Emperor Hirohito's record. Bonner Fellers's job was to coordinate that effort. The results of the "investigation" were never in doubt.

As John Dower describes MacArthur's intentions in his masterful account of the Occupation, Embracing Defeat:

This successful campaign to absolve the emperor of war responsibility knew no bounds. Emperor Hirohito was not merely presented as being innocent of any formal acts that might make him culpable to indictment as a war criminal. He was turned into an almost saintly figure who did not even bear moral responsibility for the war.

In the process, says Herbert Bix, MacArthur's extraordinary measures "had a lasting and profoundly distorting impact on Japanese understanding of the lost war." It is this historical legacy that continues to haunt Japan's diplomatic relations with Korea and China over half a century later.

I'm convinced that at least some of this discord could have been ameliorated if Hirohito had abdicated at the end of the Occupation, and in more apologetic tones than his famous surrender address (in which he basically said: "Well, things didn't quite turn out as we expected.")

In any case, Hirohito's actions hardly constituted a "crime" (if anything, his incompetence helped lose the war). But the Tokyo War Crimes Trial was more about getting even, settling old scores, and moral preening. The wartime propaganda notwithstanding, Tojo was in no way analogous to Hitler.

To suggest an imperfect precedent—though Andersonville certainly presaged Bataan in many gristly ways—Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison, was tried and executed after the Civil War, but not Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee, who had far bloodier hands.

If "war crime" is a redundancy, then "just war" is an oxymoron, as if there's a "right" or "moral" way to kill millions of people and destroy trillions in property and infrastructure. William Tecumseh Sherman was right: War is all hell. However necessary a war may be, it should never be mistaken for "justice."

In the end, the loser cannot escape paying the exacting cost of simply losing. Even MacArthur's staff, privy to the aerial bombing surveys, were not prepared for the magnitude of the wasteland that greeted them: 60 to 80 percent of every major city (except Kyoto) in Japan burned to the ground.

The winners don't fare so well either, which is why the difficult but just thing to do is resist the urge for show trials and payback. Fortunately, the Tokyo War Crimes Trial was over by 1947 (the typical civilian felony trial takes longer). The Occupation would go on for another five years.

I consider the Meiji Restoration in the mid-19th century and the Occupation of Japan in the mid-20th not just two of the most fascinating periods in Japanese history, but human history. Both periods epitomize what it means for a people, in John Dower's words, "to start over in a ruined world."

So even the revisionist versions are worth a look. Besides, Tommy Lee Jones!

In any case, considering Hollywood's low standards of accuracy when it comes to Japanese history, it'd be practically impossible not to improve upon The Last Samurai, which scoots right past revisionism into outright fantasy.

Speaking of which, if you want to pick a person responsible for the Pacific War, Saigo Takamori is your man. He died in 1877, but the bushido ideals he personified (one thing accurately depicted in The Last Samurai) would quickly corrupt Japanese politics and start the dominoes tumbling down.

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February 07, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (16)

The actual meaning of the epithet Shushou asks about is up for grabs. The kanji (狗尾) literally means "dog's tail." It also means "foxtail" (狗尾草), except "foxtail" is pronounced enokoro-gusa. The reading provided by the furigana is koubi, which can also mean "mating" (交尾), as in how animals reproduce. Then again, animals don't mate in the Twelve Kingdoms.

The kanji 妖 (you) shows up in words like 妖精 (fairy, elf) and 妖怪 (goblin, monster). Youma is an actual word (you + "demon"), meaning "specter" or "monster." The second kanji in youchou (鳥) means "bird."

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