Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Radio Exercise

If you are a citizen of Japan, you would know what RAJIO TAISO (Radio Exercise) is no matter what the age. It is a series of pretty simple movements set to very pleasant piano music that we all learn in gym class. There are two different types and you learn number one in elementary school, and two in middle school (I think). Each takes about 3 minutes to do and it's a good warm up for any sports you might play for the rest of the class so you do it.

But because it's something everyone knows, it has spread to places beyond the school gym. Some corporate offices and factory type of places go outside after lunch and do it all together before returning to work. It's team building and stretching all rolled up into one. Sometimes you can see such things happening from a subway if you ride it around that time of day. But of course for people between the ages of 12 to 35, it's totally dorky and no one wants to do it.  If they are forced, they just sort of do it.  There is a scene in a Studio Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart,  where the main character has to go to a summer Radio Exercise and get her paper stamped to get credit and she totally goofs off because she is the only one attending. We've all been there.

The history of this dates back to 1928. Apparently, an American health insurance company aired something like this back then to promote general health of their people--because insurance companies need people to stay well and there were some epidemic of tuberculosis and such which prompted them to come up with this. Japanese insurance companies who learned this followed suit and developed what we now all know. Along with the piano music, a man would coach you through the moves so that you can follow along. It first aired on NHK, which is like PBS here and 80 years later, it still airs everyday, now on TV. They stopped during the war, and when some emergencies occurred, but other than that, it is apparently the longest running TV spot in the history of Japanese TV but it's treated as something senior citizen might do and that's it. Side note: the American occupational soldiers apparently found this to be somewhat creepy in that everyone was doing exactly the same move all together. Kind of like what we feel when we see North Korean children dance--I imagine and I can see why.

Recently, I read it in a Japanese magazine that this Radio Exercise is not to be dismissed.  If you do it right, it actually does a lot of good. I am lacking in exercise these days outside of walking the dog and felt like I should to something so I tried it.

It. Kicked. My. Ass.

I am a former dancer.  In my twenties, I was dancing about 20 hours a week. I obviously don't do that any more but I still choreograph shows and teach occasional dance classes so there should be some good base there.  And yet, after 6 and a half minutes of this, my heart was pumping more than it probably should, and the next day, I was sore. Kind of sad because it really isn't hard.  But also kind of a discovery. So I decided to do it everyday. I can do 6 minutes, everyday.

It been about a week now and I am a fan.  This is good stuff if you have a job that makes you sit all day. It's super simple but stretches and moves everything you need to. Of course, you would not think this to be anything if you are a kind of a person who works out a lot.  Don't judge me. I don't care about the dorkiness, because I am middle aged. I made my 6 year old daughter do it with me, and she had a good time. I don't know that she will continue, but I will, dammit.

In closing, I give you the visual.  Try it. It's dorky fun.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

In the Year 2020

It has been announced that the summer Olympics in 2020 will be held in Tokyo. There has been a pretty intense amount of campaigning in Japan and it seemed like the whole country just exploded with excitement when it was announced. As did I.

Japan has hosted three Olympics in the past-1964 in Tokyo, 1972 in Sapporo, and 1998 in Nagano.  The last two were the winter games.  It was a big deal in 1964, because it was the first time that an Asian country hosted the games, and Japan was recovering from the devastation of WWII (more on that HERE). But this event put the country on the map.  Japan requested to hold the events in October that year (because summer in Tokyo is so very bloody humid), and since that year, October 10th (day of the opening ceremony) has become a National Holiday. After the Tsunami of 2011, and the grim events the followed with Fukushima nuclear power plant, there has been many talks in the Japanese media about how the country might cease to exist if the Japanese people continued to lose faith. And much like how it helped back in 1964, people's hope for 2020 is riding on the success of the Olympics.

One of the biggest emotional damage I felt after the quake two years ago, was the notion that the foreign residents fled the country. And while there are still some concerns, I hope that people will go.  We're certainly talking about it. Our daughter will be in middle school, which might be the perfect age. Japanese media is now talking a lot about pros and cons, and who is going to direct the opening ceremony, what entertainers get to host the events around the games, etc. As it's shown in the article posted above, in 1964, they had a young man who was born on August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima to run the torch. That is hard to top. But in the meantime, I want to plant this in your head. You have seven years to save your money and think about it.

I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

This Time Of Year

September 11th was my mother's birthday.  Two years ago, on that day, my mother who had been in and out of the hospital was released to go home--for the last time, it turned out.  It was the best present she could have received  at the time. I went home to see her shortly thereafter for about 10 days, then 5 days after I came back, she passed away.  And that was October 5th.

Summer turning into fall is one of my favorite times of the year.  As I grew up in Tokyo, that meant it was a relief from the beastly heat, and you could wear cute jackets but not have to bundle up.  But even as I have lived in Seattle for 14 years where the summer is the most beautiful time of year, something about the cool air and adding a comforter to your bed seems cozy. And the rain just adds to that.

But now, between September 11th and October 5th is a pensive time for me. The day of my mother's funeral was beautiful.  Sunny and warm.  And so gorgeous fall days will forever be associated with that time.  My father recently told me that he recalls cherry blossoms in full bloom when his mother passed away (he was 16 at the time), which is another beautiful time of year in Japan. He didn't articulate it, but I imagine he thinks about that every spring.

Last year, I went home alone to attend the one year anniversary gathering.  There is a two year gathering this year, but I am unable to go. Once again, the distance is separating me from my family--I wish I was just a train ride or car drive away, but I am not. All I can do is to call my dad and chat with him, look up at the sky and search for my mother and report to her about my daughter in my head. I go over and over about things I said and didn't say and the very last hug my mother gave me which was weak but lingering.

Recently, I was back on stage after almost 12 years. It was play about The Manhattan project called The Realm of Whispering Ghosts and much to my shock, I had one of the four principals, and with the most amount of lines, which almost did me in. I played a young (!!) woman who died in Hiroshima bombing and tries to go back in time to change history.  Her character was determined, loyal, relentless, and strong.  She was my mother.  I thought of her every time I was out there and when my husband saw it, the first thing he said was "your character reminded me of your mom," and we hadn't even discussed it.

Then around the time of her birthday, a calendar, which is produced by an organization my mother was a part of, fell to the floor while my husband was near by.  He picked it up and tacked it back on the wall and it fell twice after that.  When he went to pick it up for the third time, he uttered, "I know it's your birthday, Janet."

I suppose that is how people live on. By haunting you in good ways and bad and lingering in your thoughts and sense memories.

Maybe I will take myself to church on October 5th.  That'll shock her.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

High Five

I volunteer at my daughter's school every once in a while if I can make it work in my schedule.  I enjoy it quite a bit because I get a glimpse of her school life and see her in her element.

This morning, I went again and this sweet classmate of my daughter says,
"Hi Yuki's mom!" which she always does.
"Hi sweetie." Says I, like always.

 Later, she sees me again and says,
 "Wait, are you Yuki's mom or..." and I say,
 "Yes, I'm Yuki's mom."

Then she smiles and says,
 "My mom always mixes you up with Sophia's mom."

Sophia's mom is also Asian. But she doesn't look anything like me, of course.
Given that she is a sweet child and this is her mom confusing us and not her, I just said,
"Oh yeah?"

Then my daughter chimes in and says, "Is it the hair?"
to which the girl replies "Yeah, I think so."

I am pretty certain the hair is not why the mom confused us, but I wanted to high five my kid for not going to the race assumption and then this girl for agreeing.

When people make such remarks I always have to stop and think before I react to see if it's a generalized race thing or they are actually onto something. I am proud of myself for not saying "tell your mommy, 'no, that's the other Asian.'" So high five to me too.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Oh hi.  I didn't see you there. Thanks for still being here despite my spotty attendance.

We just returned not too long ago from a trip back to Tokyo. Since my mother's passing, I am now making efforts to go there a couple of times a year to be with my father. Not a bad way to go. And April is a lovely time. The weather is mild, often pretty sunny. But because we are now going pretty frequently, I am starting to take note of things that I may have missed when I am too distracted by the big changes. On this trip, the thing I noticed that most was the noise. Japanese people like noise. And all the time. It is probably more prominent in Tokyo but even on TV, we like noise. Let me be specific:

1. If you go to a mall type of place, every store is blasting music. Stores in the US have music too but this is different. Some stores in Japan will play the most annoying, in your face, loud whatever as if this is a challenge for the shoppers to stay there and buy things.

2. Probably the noisiest of them all are the electronic stores. We have several chains of these mega electronic shops that has several stores and sells all things electronic. And apparently, they want to turn on every single thing that they are selling and turn it all the way up and just let them go.

3. Markets. Traditional food vendors bark to call in customers. This is an old tradition. It makes the place lively and each has a very specific pitch of voice they use and what they say.  What's funny is that this is now carried through to what we call Depa-Chika (department store basements), where an amazing array for foods are displayed for purchase. And they are high quality up scale foods but people are barking as if this is an outdoor market. Right around rush hour when housewives are out looking for stuff for dinner is the noisiest because they are pushing some specific items that are on sale that day. This noise, I don't mind so much.

4. TV. The majority of tv programs play music in the background, except for news--but even news related shows play music in the background while conversations are happening. And sometimes the level is just high enough that I have to strain to hear the dialogue.

5. Subway stations use to ring this jolting alarm to warn people that the doors are closing. But some time during the past 30 years, they switched it over to some musical tones, and it varies depending on what line you are on or what station. (Or some such thing. There is a whole population of train nerds who can tell you more and better, I am sure).

See, someone already did this for me. 
I don't expect you to sit through all 11 minutes.

All of that is part of the culture, but I wonder why? On one hand, we are known for our Zen gardens and quiet spirits yet we can't seem to part ourselves from noise making.  

During our stay, we took a side trip to Hakone near Mount Fuji. The place is known for it's view and hot springs. My father expressed interest in taking a small trip, so with my brother's family, we went there for a couple of days. We were having a nice lunch by a lake after taking a boat ride (well, it was called a Pirate Ship--not sure why it had such a theme but one does not refuse a chance to go aboard such things, methinks) and it was casual enough place that you ordered and paid for the food up front and they gave you a pager to let you know when it was ready. But it was a pager that beeped. And every single customer had one. So the restaurant not only was playing some muzak but had a constant beeping coming from every table. And to add to this, my 6 year old daughter kept beeping with each beep she heard. It was one of the most noise annoying meals I've ever had in front of a beautiful lake. Not. Relaxing. At. All.

But then later, we saw this out of our car window and all was restored.


Monday, April 1, 2013


I saw this in a store the other day:

I'm seeing a lot of this type of merchandise lately and I have mixed feelings on it because:

1. Yay for Japanese things to be considered cute and cool.
2. Things looking slightly off (for example, on the bottom of this plate, it says "sweet" and the upper left, it says "sour." Not quite sure what the hell kind of meal that would be. Then there is that whole Rising Sun military flag situation.)
3. But not so off that they make me angry.

My daughter loves these kinds of things. She goes right to it and wants them because she relates to all things Japanese (or seemingly Japanese). It's tricky. I don't want to be that mom that is so cranky and nothing but fact based, but at the same time, it is important to me that she knows when these things are not quite accurate.  So when we look at such items, I will tell her that they did a really good job with it but this word is a little wrong, or some such things.

On the big picture, however, my kid is connecting to it and feels proud that she knows something about that culture so that is all good.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Japanese Idol: AKB48

Perhaps some of you may have seen a story that ran on CNN a couple of weeks ago about a Japanese pop star who shaved her head because she was caught dating someone. Perhaps you did not. Either way, it is time for me to unleash the cultural phenomenon that is AKB48.

But before I get into that, a little background. Japan is coo-coo for idols. There are several idol-cranking-machine companies that create groups of young men or women, train them to sing and dance, and put them out there as their products. Entertainers in Japan commonly work for a studio/agency and they get paid a salary. It's similar to the studio system that this country used to have for movies. If you want to be a singing star, but you are not a singer/song writer or a band, you can take the idol route and audition for one of these big wigs. And if you are lucky enough to pass, your celebrity persona will be totally fabricated by people high up and belong to them to do with as they wish. Singing abilities are not particularly important and as long as you can move with some semblance of rhythm, you qualify--or so it seems. The most important part is the look. You have to look your part.

I think this idol phenomenon exists because Japan tends to be a high stress culture (from people taking their schools and jobs too seriously) and people need release. Drinking hard, eating good food, and singing karaoke are some of the remedies, but TV idols are another way. You have something pleasant to look at and they provide you with some hopes and dreams that they can some day belong to you--no matter how creepy that may seem. And that is what they work hard to provide.

My analogy aside, idols are just a way of life there and we've had some ebb and flow in quality and longevity of such groups over the years but it is a constant in our society. As for some examples, in the '70s, when I was in elementary school, I was obsessed with two groups. One was Finger 5:

Yeah, baby, yeah!

I loved them, wanted to join the family and go on tour with them. I have heard that they once had a joint concert with the Jackson 5 in a stadium in Tokyo and it sold out. When I heard about this, I was about 25 and was seriously angry that I missed it. 

Then there was Pink Lady:

I loved them, wanted to join the pair and go on tour with them. I knew every song, every choreography (I still know them. It's a scary thing.) and spent hours in my room simulating their lives and wearing costumes that I put together. They were a national sensation. They were together for about 4 years (which is close to my entire elementary school life, so it felt long back then) but then disbanded and once they disappeared from Japan, they made a brief TV appearance in the US in a variety show called "Pink Lady and Jeff."

This is upsetting on so many levels, I can't get into it.

Needless to say, that didn't go anywhere, but they were super hot once. 

OK, so jump forward to now. AKB48. The current National obsession. AKB stands for Akihabara, an area in Tokyo that is known for selling nothing but electronics and therefore also action figures and comic books to attract all nerds (I took my husband there once and experienced the cult-ish vibe there where men are afraid of real women but can mingle with them if they looked like anime characters. As a result, there are many girls dressed as such giving out flyers to their cafes.And 48 stands for...well, how many of them are in the group. 48 girls. In. One. Group.

 They actually hold a record on Guinness book of records. So. Many. Girls.

They are EVERYWHERE. You cannot escape them. There is not a single Japanese person young or old, who doesn't know who they are. I once watched a documentary on how they came about (not sure why) so I now know the whole story and it is an amazing tale of business development. A producer named Yasushi Akimoto, who has cranked out some talents had an idea to develop a girls' group with a concept of "idols you can meet." He went looking for a space in Akihabara, and got a floor of a chain store called Don Quixote that sells a bunch of random stuff. (Side note: I have also taken my husband there and it was the loudest, most crammed, hyper stimulating shopping experience of our lives.) Akimoto renovated the space and put a tiny theatre there that would seat only about 100 people and put an ad out for young girls who wanted to sing and dance. He selected about 20 to start and started putting on a very wholesome show of many girls in their uniforms. Slowly but surely, nerds started to flock to this place, more girls wanted to join, and it settled into a group of 48. There are upward of 80 plus girls who are "members" but you have to be good to be in the top 48. But even within that, there is team A, K, and B and they rotate to accommodate the space and their schedule of performing daily. Fans came to see their tiny concert everyday, bought trading cards, collected and traded them, and voted on who they like best. If a girl gets more votes, her spot in the group moves to front and center. So the fans had some power and that attracted more nerds to flock together. 

Over the past 8 years or so, they've gained momentum and broke out of their little place (though that still exists and the members who are not on TV often still perform daily) and now they appear on top rated shows and crank out albums, all of which sky rocket to the top. And once a year, they have a televised fan-voting event where the top 10 most popular girls get selected. It's like a Presidential Election (well, to a certain demographic). If you are in the top 10, you get more gigs and if you are even in the top 25, you get better positions for cameras on TV, therefore, your chances of getting more votes the next year gets higher. It's so awful yet brilliant. Here is footage of their concert with the top girls getting to spread out:

They maintain  a friendly "team spirit" type of attitude on camera at least about each other and they are supposed to stay innocent, therefore they are not allowed to date while they are in the group. Which leads me back to the girl I mentioned at the top. She is one of the top 20 girls and broke the rule (she was seen coming out of a male singer's apartment). To apologize, she shaved her head. No one made her. She did it because she felt that is what she deserved. People were like, "um...that was extreme." Seriously. I feel bad for the girl.

They can also choose to "graduate" the group and become an independent star, which I think is the goal of many in the group. It is a tabloid head line if one of them decides to graduate. I guess Japan is a peaceful country if that is making headlines.

And because of their success, there are now SKE40 (Sakae area of Nagoya), SDN48 (more "mature" girls), NMB48 (Namba area of Osaka), HKT48 (Hakata area of Fukuoka), JKT48(Jakarta, Indonesia), TPE48 (Taipet, Taiwan), and SNH48 (Shanghai, China). 

I am going to launch SEA48, the Seattle area version with 48 girls... who are all 48. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


2013 is the year of the snake. Snake is the sixth animal in the zodiac. For the zodiac sign of snake, we use a character that looks like this: 巳, which is a different character from when we write the animal snake--such as the Japanese language. The character is said to be modeled after a fetus or a snake coming out of the ground, therefore symbolizes new beginning or new discovery.  That meaning is also drawn from the fact that snakes shed their skin. Japanese people also believe snakes to be god's creatures that brings fortune and longevity.

From 2002 to 2010, my mother had sent me a zodiac animal figure for the following year to be displayed on our mantel for Christmas. When she passed away in 2011, she had just two more to go to complete the collection of all 12 animals. I asked my sister in law if she would send me the next two in her place and she kindly obliged. A beautiful dragon arrived that year and for this year, she sent a very friendly looking snake figure. When I open the bin full of those animals that stays in the garage, I feel a lot of love from both my mother and then from my sister in law. From next year on, I look forward to revisiting the animals, thinking back to the year my mother sent it to me and thinking about where my daughter will be the next time we see that animal. 

I had a odd year last year of grieving and suffering some more loss of friends and colleagues. A new beginning is just what I need.  And I will write more posts this year, I swear. 

Happy New Year to you all.