Thursday, May 25, 2017

Orbital Cloud by Taiyo Fujii

Orbital Cloud offers up a vision of a near future that runs the risk of being bleak (the vision - not the story).

Set just a few years in the future it's not your typical wild end of the world read. Instead it offers up a believable tale of spy shenanigans, terrorism, and technology teaming up to take control of the edge of space - low earth orbit. 

What's most likeable about this is almost everything is believable. With stories of economic terrorism and spying led by North Korea, and the rest of the world trying to sort out how to co-operate to deal with the situation.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Vanished: The "Evaporated People" of Japan by Léna Mauger, Stéphane Remael

The Vanished is at once a very sad and a very uplifting book. It's a collection of stories about a few of the 100,000 disappeared or evaporated in Japan - the johatsu - who just slip away every year. Supposedly this happens more in Japan than anywhere else. 

The stories are sad because they are about people fleeing and leaving behind those they love. In some cases they never meet again. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Japan Modern: New Ideas for Contemporary Living by Michiko Rico Nosé

The subtitle of Japan Modern may be a bit misleading - these new ideas may no longer be new. The book was first published back in 2000 so many of the homes were products of the late 1990s. 

I'm not enough of an architecture buff to know just how much things have moved on - if it all. But I can say that the ideas and homes profiled are worth a look. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan by Richard J. Samuels

Call this history right after it happens. 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan attempts to dissect what's happened in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011.

Written at a distance of two years, Author Richard Samuels looks at three broad areas - the role of the military, energy policy (especially nuclear), and how local government operates.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Viewed Sideways: Writings on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan by Donald Richie

One of the challenges of not knowing the language is having to rely on outsiders or translators to catch a glimpse of Japan. But I'm also lucky on two counts with this limitation.

First is that an outside observer can offer up insights that may not be seen by someone raised in a culture. 

And second, as Viewed Sideways shows, Donald Richie is the inside outsider. Someone who spent so long in Japan and focussed so much of his keen observational skills on understanding the place that he brings a magical illumination. 

Looking at a wide range of culture and style issues mainly over the course of the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 2000s, Richie seems to be as relevant a read today as when each of these pieces were written. (I like the fact that each is dated)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch by Gideon Bosker, Mamoru Watanabe, Junichi Kamekura

WARNING. AVOID IF HUNGRY. I was lucky enough to come across Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch in a used bookstore back in 2013. It was in the window and it drew me in. Though the style and design looks brand new it was published in 1989. 

My wife assures me - between exclamations that we need to eat one of the ekiben - that despite the years the ekiben remain the same. It’s one of the great things about Japan – no matter how much change rolls on, some key things always stay the same.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan by Alan Booth

It’s an interesting idea — walking a country from top to bottom. The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan was the third travel masterpiece I read after launching my Year of Japan books back in 2012.

Booth's story of 128 days walking the length of Japan from north to south is what all travel writing should aspire to be - part glimpse into a place, part glimpse into the author's mind. Booth delivers both - and makes you wish you had the energy to do the same walk.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend by Christopher Ross

Don’t pick up Mishima's Sword expecting a rollicking cross-Japan travel tour. The search for the sword really ends up being more intellectual than physical search for the sword the Japanese writer and ultra-nationalist used to commit seppuku.

The book brings together a short biography of Mishima, combined with quick histories of swordmaking, Japanese martial arts, samurai culture, and just a hint of life in Tokyo. 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

In the Realm of a Dying Emperor by Norma Field

Written in the early 1990s, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor: Japan at Century's End offers a glimpse of Japan at a unique time - the passing of the Showa Emperor in the midst of Japan’s economic boom.

This is the story of the courage of a few people who challenged the standard line that the dying Emperor should be seen as free or any guilt for what happened in the Second World War. 

Field tells this story through three unique personalities - a grocery store owner from Okinawa, a widow, and the mayor of Nagasaki. Each of these stories captures the challenges and benefits of squarely facing off against the past — and the pressure to see it only one way.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Tokyo: A Cultural History by Stephen Mansfield

It’s pretty easy to get swept up in an image of Tokyo as the city of the future that works. It’s all modern and sparkling with a few old shrines to highlight the past.

But there is so much more under the surface — and that surprising history of Tokyo is on full display in Tokyo: A Cultural History. Though writer Stephen Mansfield touches on the major political players and the development of the city, his work is really a literary and cultural biography of the city. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Shinto by Paula R. Hartz

Shinto by Paula R. Hartz is a great introduction and overview of the ancient home-grown religion of Japan. One of the major animists religion in the world, Shinto is driven by the belief there are gods in everything. It’s also a key driver in Japanese culture.

What’s especially helpful with this book is so many folks heading to Japan are going to be going to visit a shrine (and Buddhist temples – this helps sort the difference).

This short volume offers not only the background of Shinto beliefs, but a glimpse into the story behind the shrines themselves.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Hirohito And The Making Of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix

One of the major on-going debates to be found modern Japanese history is about the role Emperor Hirohito played in the war. Was he blameless — as decided by the American occupying forces after the way, or was he an architect and director of Japan’s action?

Hirohito And The Making Of Modern Japan comes down firmly on the latter side. Author Herbert P. Bix offers a long, detailed, and insightful look at the reign of the Showa emperor. The book peels back the story that Hirohito was a powerless rubber stamp monarch during the Second World War and instead was a key force behind the war in China and Japan's disastrous participation on the Pacific front.

At times the wartime politics got a little hard to track (mostly because of a lack of a straight timeline) but the post war section about all the efforts - US and Japanese - to shield the emperor from blame was brilliant.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Things Japanese by Nicholas Bornoff

When you start talking about Japan, it’s pretty much a given that pretty soon the conversation will turn to design – whether it’s technology, knives, or kimonos. Japan has a rich tradition of the highest level of artistry in daily objects.

Things Japanese offers a great introduction to a few dozen of the unique objects that make up the foundations of Japanese culture – whether it’s wonderful ceramics or handmade lacquerware. Nice pictures and short histories of the type of object being profiled serve the mission of a brief exposure to the visible elements of the culture.

Many of these items have become historical objects rather than for daily use – and you may find yourself wanting many of them yourself. A great introduction.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Japan Home: Inspirational Design Ideas by Lisa Parramore & Noboru Murata

Japan Home: Inspirational Design Ideas offers up a lovely survey of Japanese interior (and exterior) design with everything from lamps and hearths to sliding screens and furniture.

The contrasts are so interesting -- many items are intensely geometric while others, found right next to them, have the slight imperfection that makes a different kind of beauty (and lies at the heart of the concept of wabi sabi).

It seems that a great deal of Japanese aesthetics is about exactly this — the precise next to the imperfect. It’s something that crops up again and again.

In the end Japan Home left me dreaming and wishing I could have just a few of the items in my home.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Tokyo Megacity by Donald Richie

Tokyo Megacity offers up a brilliant bio of the world's biggest city.

First there's the historical overview of the city itself, then the profiles of the three major parts of the city -- high, low, and mid cities). What follows are one-page snapshots of the major neighbourhoods of the city. Those snapshots may be short but they capture the essential history of the areas and the character to be found on their streets today. 

The biggest learning moment from Tokyo Megacity was that all the shrines and temples that I have visited are modern rebuilds. I guess I should have realized on looking at historic pictures from the end of the Second World War that not much survived the war. 

The three to five pages of photos that accompany each essay are truly illuminating - and a nice trip to Tokyo.