井の中の蛙

6/2/2011

Ninjas at Night, Dragons at Dawn: Magic Tree House does Japanese History

Lego Ninja 2011 B1Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series is intended to educate and entertain by taking its protagonists to different times and places, real and mythical. These Scholastic books are mainstays of schools, libraries, and primary curricula, and some of the books have companion “Research Guide” publications for kids who want to know more about the historical, cultural or scientific background. Some of these books are aimed at early readers: the first 28 in the series are short, with short, simple sentences appropriate to 1st or 2nd graders; after that the series shifts into the slightly more fantastical “Merlin Mission” mode, longer stories with more complex writing suitable for 2nd or 3rd grade students; the research guides seem to be aimed at 2nd through 4th graders.1 In these stories, Jack and Annie are given a book which, combined with the magic of the tree house, takes them to a time and place where they can carry out a mission of some kind, while learning about the site of their adventure. The whole thing is supposed to be an encouragement to learning, so to speak, showing the value of book reading. Twice in the series, Jack and Annie have visited Japanese history: in the earlier, shorter work, we get nature-loving ninja and threatening samurai; in the later adventure, we get the nature-loving poet Basho, a magical dragon, and threatening samurai.2

(more…)

  1. Check the Scholastic web site for official suitability levels. Also if you have any doubt about the fact that these are aimed at an education audience…. []
  2. I could put a spoiler alert here, but how many 2nd-4th graders are reading this blog, who haven’t already moved beyond Jack and Annie adventures? Well, my son wants to read this post when I’m finished with it, but other than him? []

10/30/2010

The Red Flag Song

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 5:46 pm

On May 1, 1946 Oscar Olander, a former commissioner of the Michigan State police, entered Tokyo early on the morning of “Food May Day” as part of his mission to investigate the state of Japanese police in the defeated nation. On that day, over a million Japanese joined what was described as a “sea of red flags” to celebrate the day of labor but also make desperate calls for food and the address of other basic grievances.1 The red flags joined those of the American occupier as Olander writes in his diary,

8:03 we arrive back in Tokyo – we are greeted (?) by a gathering of hundreds of communists starting to celebrate May Day. They are singing a revolutionary song in Japanese to the tune of “Maryland my Maryland” as they wave their many American flags.”2

Maryland my Maryland,” the state song of Maryland, is actually sung to the tune of “Lauriger Horatius” or “O Tannenbaum.” Mark Gayn, a journalist whose diary entries can be found quoted in almost every book on early postwar Japan and Korea, identifies the song more precisely in his own May 1 entry:

…the men marched briskly, singing the “Marseillaise” and the “May Day Song,” … and the “Akahata,” or the “Red Flag” with its curiously lilting tune, The people’s flag, the red flag, wraps the bodies of our dead; Before the corpses turn cold, their blood dyes the flag…3

You can listen to the song in Japanese here.

The 赤旗の歌 is the Japanese version of Irish Jim Connell’s 1889 “The Red Flag.” When one is in the mood for a blood dripping song for an internationalist revolution, I can’t think of a more powerful song. The opening verse and chorus run:

The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyr’d dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high,
Within its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.

人民の旗は深紅にして、
幾度 同胞の屍を包めり。
その死屍 冷え固まらん前に
血潮は旗を染め上げぬ。

いざ赤旗を高く揚げよ、
その旗影に我ら生きて死なん。
臆病者は怯み、裏切者は嘲るも
我らここに赤旗を閃かさん。4

In terms of cultural history, this song, that here so captures the remarkable transformation witnessed on that first postwar May Day in Japan is a good example of one that has really travelled well with international revolutionary culture (beyond the well-known anthem the Internationale). Searching on inter-tubes with Mr. Google reports that it was sung at conferences of the British labor party, by Chinese communist anti-Japanese partisans as early as 1931, and that it is a popular pick in North Korean song contest and among South Korean protesters.

The Korean version of the song, 적기가 (赤旗歌), can be heard sung at the climactic close of the 2003 movie Silmido based on the events surrounding Unit 684.

Imagine the faces of Japanese police watching the protesters that day in 1946 as they listened to the song, even as their ranks were being purged, mostly, of the Special Higher Police whose very job it was to arrest and ideally convert (転向) anyone who were poisoned with such “red” thoughts. Of course, with the “reverse course” only a year or two later, at least some of the smiles of the revolutionaries would be wiped away as the force of the US occupation turned against the Communist threat.

  1. John Dower has a great section on the May Day celebrations in his Embracing Defeat p254-67. []
  2. Oscar Olander Papers, Box 1 “Our Trip to Japan” Installment #2 p3 []
  3. Mark Gayn Japan Diary Charles E. Tuttle Company (1981), 197-8. []
  4. See full side by side J/E versions, along with a link to a recording of my absolute favorite Irish version of this song that does not sound exactly like O Tannenbaum here. []

8/30/2010

Young Samurai: The Way of the Sword: Ancient Culture, Modern Politics

Reading The Way of the Sword while listening to the “Restoring Honor” event, I began to wonder if our current shift to discourses of honor and warriors is a side effect of the ubiquity of martial arts in the US over the last 35 years. The values of martial arts, even the most modern ones, include personal and collective honor in ways that were, for a long time, rather absent in most American rhetoric. Sarah Palin said “If you look for the virtues that have sustained our country, you will find them in those who wear the uniform, who take the oath, who pay the price for our freedom.” That’s as good a paraphrase of the Imperial Rescript for Soldiers and Sailors as I’ve ever heard from an American politician.

The cultural and historical problems which made Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior such a weak hash of Harry Potter plotting and dojo delusions persist in the second book of the trilogy. Like the first volume, it’s a quick read, probably most suitable for middle school/junior high readers, though older readers with an interest in the martial arts won’t find it childish. Historians of Japan, however, will find this gaijin-boy-in-early-Edo tale a test of character not unlike the one the protagonist faces: to get through it, you must ignore exhaustion, overcome moments of sharp pain, focus on the goal, and achieve a state of no-mind…. [spoilers ahead, of course, though the fact that it's the middle part of a trilogy probably tells you most of what you need to know.]
(more…)

6/7/2009

Before the miniseries, there was….

Shogun Game cover I’m not sure when my family got this game, but I remember playing with it in the late 70s. Though Shogun is described as a “digital” game, there’s no electronics involved: magnets in the board turn the dial in each piece until a number shows in the window; that number is how far the piece can move next time. The pseudo-random element takes some of the strategy out of the game1 and so it moves pretty quickly. Below you can see a rare early checkmate — most games involve a lot of piece exchanges before checkmate is on the table — that my 7 year-old managed to pull of in his third game. The numbers swinging around in the pieces is quite enchanting, especially for kids.

Shogun Game Max MateThe game seems to have been invented by a Japanese, but I’m not sure it was ever marketed in Japan. Clavell’s Shogun came out a year or so before this game did, so it’s likely that the title would have been attached to anything with a hint of Japaneseness about it.

The association of ‘Japan’ with ‘digital’ is interesting; the use of ‘digital’ itself is an interesting cultural moment, the transition from ‘transistor’ to ‘digital.’ It’s got to be early in the analog v. digital wars, and the term is clearly being misused, as this is a patently analog game. Like “Shogun,” “digital” is a marketing device intended to invoke emotional responses rather than being descriptive.

  1. especially if you play a cutthroat version which doesn’t allow players to test moves before making them []

5/25/2009

Young Samurai Book One (of at least three): Harry Potter Bushido

I almost didn’t check Chris Bradford‘s Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior out of the library when I saw it, but some instinct told me that it was something I should read. Perhaps it was the realization that Young Samurai was the first book in a series — oddly, though, there was no information on the other books1 — and therefore likely to have some serious publicity support from the publisher. Perhaps it was the realization that the publisher was Disney/Hyperion, which more or less guarantees a pretty substantial distribution and readership. Perhaps it was the hope that I might find, finally, some historical fiction worth recommending…..

The book is about a young English boy who’s shipwrecked in Japan in 1611, and gets adopted by a samurai family, while being stalked by the ninja pirates who killed his father and crewmates. So it was a bit Karate Kid and a bit of the story of Will Adams (more Samurai William than Shogun); nothing surprising, really, but all a bit familiar. Aside from fairly predictable ahistorical elements,2 commonplaces of martial arts fiction, and the implausible interpersonal relationships, nothing out of the ordinary.

I was about halfway through the book, though, when I realized what I was reading: it was the scene where Jack, the young Englishman, shows up at the school of his adopted father/patron — a formidable warrior — and all the students are introduced to the instructors at a big banquet. I put down the book, walked into the other room and said to my wife, “It’s Harry Potter in Japan!”

[spoilers, of course, under the fold]

(more…)

  1. As near as I can tell from the websites, the second book is coming out in the UK shortly, with the third book scheduled for next year and a TV deal in the works, but nothing on the US side about when the sequels might be available here. []
  2. ninja, yes, and wakou pirates (who are also ninja) off the coast of eastern Japan in 1611, and the post-Enlightenment attitudes of the protagonist []

4/14/2009

Say hello to your new robot overlords!

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 1:34 pm

A recent article in the Japan Times, pointed out to me by a resourceful student (thanks Lindsay!), shows that the future imagined in Ghost in the Shell and other works of Japanese popular culture is just over the horizon. It resonated for me because I’m currently rereading Anne Allison’s wonderful Millenial Monsters with my seminar students. The book grows increasingly familiar and spooky as my own kids start to develop interests in Pokemon and the other globalized Japanese toys that still dominate American (and many other countries’) consumer toy market. Ah well. At least they’ll know how to communicate with our robot overlords later in the century: “Pikachu, I choose you!”

2/11/2009

The Teahouse Fire: Painstaking

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:46 pm

I don’t often get unsolicited books with handwritten notes from the authors, unless I worked with them in some way. What was even more surprising is that the book came to my new office before I was even done unpacking! That’s pretty spiffy service. The book had blurbs from Maxine Hong Kingston and Liza Dalby, which was promising. The book was about The World of Tea, and centered on an orphaned American taken in by a prominent Japanese family; not so promising. The author, Ellis Avery is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia in Creative Writing, and a five year veteran, we’re told in her bio, of tea ceremony training. Well, most of my fun books were in boxes, so I did read The Teahouse Fire, and since it is about the bakumatsu-Meiji era, I feel I should say something about it.

The Teahouse Fire is a historical fiction, which shares most of the flaws typical of the genre: a carefully set but very selective milieu; characters cobbled together from cultural and psychosocial fragments; wildly unlikely encounters and inappropriate behavior. Though the story does less damage to the historical narrative than usual for this kind of work, it is still an excellent example of why I don’t ever use historical fiction in my teaching, and why I rarely read it (especially in my own field!). [SPOILERS ahead]1

(more…)

  1. I’m an historian, so knowing how it comes out doesn’t bother me. []

11/15/2008

Only in Japan: Yakuza Sued

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:26 pm

The New York Times is reporting on tensions between the Dojinkai and the civilians living in the neighborhood of their headquarters. Two features of this are worth noting in the context of the Samurai course. First, the Yakuza are widely acknowledged to be one of the last, greatest bastions of feudal samurai concepts of honor and the utility of violence; comparing the modern yakuza to medieval samurai is shockingly fruitful. Second, the social order represented by the neighborhood association is a modern incarnation of the horizontal alliances described by Berry in The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto, the ikki as described by Ikegami, and the goningumi of the great Tokugawa order.

Even the appeal to law, civil authorities, is quite traditional: though the Japanese are considered “non-litigious” it’s really not true of the present or the past. In the present, a lot of disputes are dealt with through arbitration systems that aren’t that different from small-claims courts. In the past, of course, the petition to authority and the lawsuit were common enough to be one of our best historical sources. [crossposted to Japanese History]

Late Update: Going through old email, I found this McNeill Adelstein report on the current state of yakuza. I was surprised to see that the 1992 law had so little effect: when I was in Japan in ’94-95, it seemed like it had done some good.

5/1/2008

Otakon: Desperately Seeking Academics

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 11:15 am

I hear through the grapevine that the organizers of Otakon, the huge anime/manga/pop culture convention held every in August in Baltimore, are looking for academic papers and panels on East Asian art, history, and culture to round out their offerings. Interested parties should contact Omar Jenkins, Head of Programming.

11/9/2007

A brief rant at an easy target

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:37 pm

So I’m grading my latest World History quiz, and one of the terms is “samurai.” Being a two semester World History sequence, I didn’t spend a lot of time on the samurai — I had one day to cover pre-1500 Japan and Korea — so the answers were mostly based on the textbook (loosely) or people’s prior understandings of the term1 or on Wikipedia.2 At some point I got suspicious and looked up the glossary definitions at the back of the textbook.3 Most students don’t use it, but sometimes they think it’s a good short-cut for the short-answer identification quizzes I give. It’s a viable suspect.

Here’s what the book said:

Samurai (SAM-uhr-eye) A Japanese warrior who lived by the code of bushido (p. G-9)

Yeah, that’s it. No chronology, no economic or political context, and an undefined foreign term at the heart. A quick survey of the rest of the glossary reveals that most of the other definitions are: a) longer; and b) better. Not all, mind you.

Yeah, I had to check and see if they had, in fact, defined that foreign term.

Bushido (BOH-shee-DOH) The “way of the warrior,” the code of conduct of the Japanese samurai that was based on loyalty and honor. (p. G-2)

Aside from the proununciation error, it looks…. Oh, the Japanese samurai… as opposed to samurai elsewhere? “Honor” is a pretty vague term, too. Again, no chronology, no authorship, minimal context.

I know it’s a minor point, but this text is in its fourth edition and these textbooks go through what’s supposed to be exhaustive reviews by dozens of scholars. So why does the glossary read like a touched-up Western Civ text?

  1. ahem []
  2. the Wikipedia article has a note at the top begging for expert assistance and citations. Any of our readers already wikipedians? []
  3. Bentley and Ziegler and Streets, Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History []

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress