African Samurai

Over at All the Anime, I review Lockley and Girard’s Yasuke: The True Story of the Legendary African Samurai, and pronounce it to be great fun, albeit not all that historical.

“Poke around Asian history for long enough, and you will find flashes of striking diversity – the Italian girl buried in a medieval grave in Yangzhou, or the Persian camel drivers celebrated in Tang dynasty porcelain. Reading the 14th-century Travels of ibn Battuta, we find him dropping in on a fellow Muslim in a Chinese harbour town, admiring his ‘fifty white slaves and as many slave-girls.’ You can bet there’s a story, there.”


The Tale of Genji

Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji appears to have been patched together over the course of a couple of decades, serialized in episodic chapters for a small circle of intimates. Its titular hero is a minor princeling, the son of one of the emperor’s lesser concubines, doomed to a life of genteel idleness and forced into several soap-opera situations involving unwelcome betrothals, doomed love affairs, and court scandals. It is likely, but impossible to prove, that some of the situations in which he finds himself were thinly disguised allusions to real goings-on in the capital.

“I have a theory,” Murasaki wrote, “about what this art of the novel is…It does not simply consist in the author’s telling a story.” Instead, she argued for writing as a true vocation—an insurmountable urge to communicate with others.

“On the contrary, it happens because the storyteller’s own experience…even [of] events he has only witnessed or been told of—has moved him to an emotion so passionate that he can no longer keep it shut up in his heart. Again and again, something in his own life…will seem to the writer so important that he cannot bear to let it pass into oblivion.”

Murasaki’s depiction of court life is an idealized world of courtiers dueling with witty poems, and of lovelorn princesses waiting for their Prince Charming to sneak into their bedchamber for a midnight tryst. She presents a view of an idle, timid coven of women diverting themselves with guessing games and literary competitions, largely at the mercy of a society of rapacious or dismissive men. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what’s worse for one of Murasaki’s women: attracting the attention of a nobleman who will force himself on her in a midnight visit, or realizing that such attentions are waning, that he has found another diversion in another palace courtyard, and that she is left literally holding the baby.

The attitudes of Murasaki’s characters make it abundantly clear that women in in her world are second-class citizens, “creatures of sin” in Genji’s words, regarded by the menfolk as idle, ditzy decorations. Such attitudes are a world away from the ancient legends of Japan, which are thickly populated with queens and warrior-women, and seem to imply that the indigenous people accepted a power structure that regarded women and men as complementary equals. In The Tale of Genji, we catch a glimpse of the damage that may have been done by several centuries of immigrants from the mainland, infusing the Japanese with another Chinese import—chauvinism.

Entire shelves of books have been written about The Tale of Genji, and the adroit, oblique way that it purports to be about its title character, the “shining prince,” while actually being about the women in his life. An early chapter features Genji and his friends idly and somewhat cluelessly discussing the types of women that exist, setting up dozens of later chapters in which he blunders into relationships with their real-world manifestations.

From A Brief History of Japan by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

Eurovision Shouty I-Spy 2019

Dare to Dream! We’re back for the game of the year, the Eurovision Song Contest hosted this year by Israel, a country which won last year with a chicken dance in a kimono. The Netherlands is inexplicably the bookies’ favourite, but audience appreciation for Malta, Switzerland and Norway are all off the charts, and North Macedonia’s entry will be popular with anyone who can’t remember Rise Like a Phoenix. We’ve already had to say goodbye to Austria’s blue-rinse with a boob tube, Romania’s zombie bondage butlers and Portugal’s… well, I don’t know what Portugal was, except it was a song about mobile phones that sounded like someone throwing a piano down some stairs.

Step One: you will probably need to be quite drunk. Step Two: The following sights will be seen during this Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest. Can you see them first? Remember to shout it out. Party hosts will need to keep score of who gets what first, or otherwise dish out the forfeits to those that aren’t quick enough. As ever, there is more than one key change, and plenty of orbital cleavage. Keep your eyes (or ears) open for any of the following. And when you notice it, SHOUT IT OUT!

In no particular order, in Saturday’s final you should look out for:

Midget drum-kit
Chinese man with a stepladder
Heart made of lasers
Pogo-dancing idiot
KEY CHANGE! (every time you hear one)
MULLET! (a man with two haircuts, both of them bad)
MAN TABLE! (table made of men)
Crotch grabbing
Some audience nutter waving a Brazilian flag for no reason.
Girls on sticks
Mirror man
Giant chair
Hammer time! (hammer as musical instrument)
Lyrics: “I’m dancing with the fairies now.”
Black thigh boots but no knickers
Sudden gospel choir
Hand-drawn armchair
Giant reindeer effigy
Man in inadvisable shorts
HOLA OLA! First sighting of supervisor Jon-Ola Sand
Onstage Fencers
SHOW A LEG! (single leg poking out of costume)
Misheard lyrics: “I’m shitting my body tonight.”
He’s a Cockney Czech!
El Dancing Wicker Man
Lyrics: “Na Na Na”
Big ballerina
White thigh boots
Backflip! (seriously, stop with the... stop... stop!)
Hands make a heart (on or off-stage)
Gaucho backing dancers
Lyrics: “The ruins of what has been”
FLAME ON! (every time there's pyrotechnics)
Slide and Sneer!
Lyrics: “I can be your jungle.”
Giant ball!
Giant ball thrown into the audience.
Buddha Jazz Hands***

HORSE HEAD! As a special bonus for all you astronomers, at some point tonight you will see Barnard 33, also known as the Horsehead Nebula.

Other optional bonus categories are:

YES, WE KNOW! (every time someone points out Israel isn’t in Europe)

The Palestinian Protest Sweepstake – pick a song in advance to see if you can predict when the stage invasion, banner or other stunt inevitably happens. My guess is when Estonia or the UK are onstage, because that’s when everybody will be in the loo.

Threatening comment from Eastern European panellist about “our neighbours”

Panellist attempts to say “L’CHAIM!”

AYOUB SERIOUS? Green-room host Lucy Ayoub switches into Arabic.

(*swaying one’s head from side to side in a snakey fashion.).
(**ostentatious cleavage sufficient to see from a satellite in orbit, which, according to Eurovision bra consultant Tom Clancy, requires a minimum of C-cup).

(***the dancers all pile behind the singer in a line and then fling their arms out, creating a multi-limbed oriental deity-look)


“We are technicolour. Watch us go.”

Medieval Frenemies

One of our most valuable records of life in the Heian court comes from a chatty, contrary, vulnerable lady-in-waiting whose habit of writing topical lists and musings often makes her come across like a modern blogger. Common to the etiquette of the day, her true name remained unspoken in public and is hence lost, although she is usually referred to by her nickname, Sei Shōnagon (Lesser Councillor of State Kiyo’s [Woman]). Some of her diary entries even appear to be what we might now call memes—snickering about a cat treated as a royal personage, or a long-forgotten in-joke about a spindle tree, enduring today as nothing but an unintelligible punchline.

Sei Shōnagon loves getting letters; she derives a nerdy joy at finding books she hasn’t read before. Rude people piss her off. She can never find a truly good pair of tweezers. She hates that moment when you splash ink on a book you are copying out; that moment when you wait up all night for a man who doesn’t show; or when he does and then snores loud enough for your neighbors to know what’s going on.

She doesn’t like going to bed alone, and burning fine incense that makes her feel like she is a class act if there is no man to notice. When she looks in her Chinese mirror and the burnished bronze is a little cloudy, it makes her fret that she, too, is losing her looks. When an evening letter arrives from her lover, she can’t wait to find a lamp, and uses tongs to snatch a lump of red charcoal from the nearby brazier, squinting in the half-light, heedless of the fire hazard.

Sei Shōnagon gets annoyed when she hires an exorcist to deal with someone’s spirit possession, only for the guy to turn out to be a drowsy charlatan. She swells with childish pride when the empress addresses her and she accidentally says the right thing in response.

When her carriage travels down a narrow woodland lane, she reaches out to touch the trees.

Haters still hated. Murasaki Shikibu (the “Wisteria Girl of the Ministry of Ceremonies ), a fellow court lady who also kept a diary, couldn’t stand Sei Shōnagon, but had to put up with her scribblings. A thousand years later, we are immensely fortunate to have access to the writings of both these remarkable women, who not only wrote beautifully and evocatively about their lives, but did so at the same time and place. Somewhere, sitting in a bar not far from you right now, there is a pair of frenemies just like them—one bubbly, chatty, and sensual; the other shy, plainer, but smarter. Sei Shōnagon is the hot, flirty one with a ready comeback; Murasaki Shikibu is the wallflower who thinks of something cleverer, but only on the way home. Widowed at a young age, Murasaki was introverted, introspective, icily witty but faintly repulsed by human contact, particularly with Sei Shōnagon, whom she regarded as insufferably smug, airheaded, and with an inflated sense of her own literary merits.

“If we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so pretentiously scatters about the place,” Murasaki wrote, “we find that they are full of imperfections.” By far the smarter one, Murasaki tried and largely failed to keep her intellect secret from her fellow court ladies, whom she rightly suspected would be at first curious, and then jealous. Murasaki, who dismissed Sei Shōnagon for her flighty interests and empty opinions, had the last laugh, being remembered as the world’s first novelist for writing The Tale of Genji around the turn of the eleventh century.

From A Brief History of Japan by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

The Tokyo SkyTree

Behind the scenes, another invisible technological transformation would spell disaster for a Tokyo landmark. With tourist attendance already dropping, Tokyo Tower was found to be no longer fit for its main purpose as a TV broadcast antenna. The new requirements of all-digital broadcasting, and the obstructions caused by multiple skyscrapers all over the city, now demanded an even larger broadcast tower.

The Tobu Railway company jumped at the chance to meet that need. Its managers had found themselves lumbered with a tempting piece of real estate – a derelict cargo yard, left over from the pre-highway days when Tokyo’s construction boom required the movement of building materials by rail. Now, with lorries fulfilling such functions, and passenger traffic lured away by more convenient stations nearby, Tobu needed something to fill the 60,000-square-metre space. A combined subway station, shopping mall and landmark TV tower would do the trick, with the project getting underway in 2005.

In Japan’s stagnating economy, there were few excuses for such boondoggles – but the new digital broadcast tower would prove to be an exception. Opened to the public in 2012, the new 634-metre building was named by a public vote. Rejected names included the Edo Tower, evocative of the samurai past, and the Rising East Tower, alluding to the ‘Pacific Century’ – a term denoting the idea that the twenty-first century will be economically dominated by states of the Asia-Pacific region. One suspects that the architect was rather hoping for the chosen name to be Musashi, which is simultaneously an old word for the Tokyo area, the name of a famous samurai and a pun based on the tower’s height: 634 metres = mu-sa-shi. Inexplicably, the winning name was the meaningless Tokyo SkyTree; we should count ourselves lucky that nobody suggested Buildy McBuilding.

As with Tokyo Tower in earlier generations, the structure itself was merely a beacon on top of a more traditional property, in this case the Solamachi (‘Sky Town’) shopping centre, which also hosts the Sumida Aquarium, a planetarium and the Postal Museum, along with offices and restaurants. In the usual shuffling of place names and associations associated with Tokyo, the nearby Narihirabashi metro station was renamed Tokyo SkyTree – its fourth name in only a century of operation.

From An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo, by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

Passionate Friendship

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Deborah Shamoon’s wonderful Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan, which delves deeply not only into the creation of female-centred media, but the attempts by various interest groups to “gatekeep” what those media mean.

“Shamoon takes Jennifer Robertson to task for her pioneering work in English on the Takarazuka Revue, accusing her of talking up fans’ reaction to this all-girl performance troupe as a form of proto-lesbianism. She eloquently outlines a polarised debate over whether we should believe the facetious asexuality hyped by the Takarazuka Revue itself, or the hype of researchers determined to daub it all over with the rainbow colours of queer theory. Her discussion of a possible middle ground, a ‘lesbian continuum’ in the terminology of Adrienne Rich, along with the widespread implications of stating that, for example, lesbianism is normal, or lesbianism is abnormal, is a delightful and nuanced tiptoe through that particular identity politics minefield.”

Yes, that’s the poster for the all-girl musical about the life of Abraham Lincoln. Thanks, Japan.



Up now at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, an entire nest of articles about the women who transformed manga in the 1970s, including large entries on Moto Hagio and Keiko Takemiya, and a general piece on their Year 24 Group. As an additional bonus, there’s also a piece on Sachiko Kashiwaba, the fantasist whose work was infamously proclaimed as an “inspiration” for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.