Departed Souls: Things That Shape Us

I got caught off guard.

As I went through the entrance of the Christchurch Art Gallery, I was greeted by the gigantic picture of…

myself…

I was there for the opening of the “Things That Shape Us” exhibition that began yesterday on 24 July.

As those who know me will know, I am a very private person and do not always enjoy “publicity”.

I am aware that it is a necessary evil to keep doing what I love to do, which is to devote my life to rakugo until my very last breath, but it did make me feel a little uneasy and exposed if I’m to be honest.

But I was there to witness the story that my creative partner Fiona Amundsen and I wanted to tell through our work “An Ordinary Life”.

This work is based on actual and imaginary dialogues with my late grandfather, who was a witness of the bombing of Nagasaki.

Before I talk about this work, I’d like to be clear that it is NOT our attempt to victimise Japan or Japanese; I am deeply ashamed of our colonial past and what my ancestors did particularly to other Asian and Pacific nations.

It is our attempt to capture something universal, regardless of our race, nationality, belief, or religion, through my personal experience with my grandfather whom I deeply adored and respected.

It is a very personal account that is now open to the public.

My grandfather was an unconventional man for his generation.

He turned an artist (calligrapher/ shakuhachi, bamboo flute master), a teacher, a pacifist, and even a feminist after the war.

He was the funny grandpa who always made people laugh even in the toughest of circumstances.

He was a flamboyant man and…

a very bad driver.

He was an excellent liar, too.

He had hidden most of his experiences in Nagasaki where he lost his father and siblings.

Very, very well.

Painfully well.

Until his departure.

The inspiration for this work came when my mother told me about his journals on his deathbed.

They were full of darkness.

My mother destroyed all of the journals “to protect his honour”, and I was told what was written in there very selectively.

This made me want to know who this funny, cultured man really was.

I don’t even remember why, but Fiona and I talked about where my grandfather would be now before the opening.

My answer was, “He must be still on this side of the Sanzu River” (in the limbo state, somewhere between the worlds of the dead and the living, in the Japanese worldview).

At 4:00PM, all the artworks were blessed by karakia (Māori prayer).

Fiona said something like “Your grandfather is now blessed through karakia”.

I felt like my grandfather had finally moved on, but I was not too sure.

That night I was woken up in the middle of the night by a strange sensation as if some form of transformation was taking place.

Like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon.

Rebirth.

I was convinced that he had finally gone to the other side of the river and fallen asleep peacefully.

The next morning, I woke up to a text from my wife to tell me that our last remaining family member from the WWII generation had passed away.

Now all the family members who witnessed the war are gone.

A circle has been completed.

We must keep telling their stories on their behalf so that we will not repeat the same mistakes.

So that we will not lose our “ordinary life” that, after all, matters the most.

Ainu Mosir: My First Ainu Movie

[This article turned out really long, so if you are interested in what the picture above is all about, please scroll straight down to the bottom.]

I recently watched a beautiful movie called “Ainu Mosir”, which is on Netflix and I thoroughly recommend to learn how the Ainu people live in modern day Japan.

For those who are not familiar with this subject, the Ainu are one of the indigenous people of Japan who mainly lived/ live in the Tohoku region (the northern part of Honshu, the main island of Japan), Hokkaido, and Russian territories (Sakhalin, Kamchatka Peninsula, etc).

Wajin (和人: Ethnic Japanese) and the Ainu began having conflicts over land, natural resources, etc. a long time ago, and many Ainu were already under the Japanese rule during the Muromachi period (1336-1573).

We don’t know exactly how many Ainu people live in Japan now, but the government estimates there are around 25,000 in the entire Japan. The unofficial estimates reach over 200,000.

Most of them live in Hokkaido. According to the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, there were 16,786 Ainu people in Hokkaido in 2013.

As I grew up in the greater Tokyo area, I met only one person with an Ainu ancestry in my entire life.

He said he had an Ainu ancestry but identified himself as Japanese, not Ainu.

Many Ainu people have intermarried to ethnic Japanese, and from what I know many live as ethnic Japanese like him.

There have been discrimination towards the Ainu for centuries, so his choice was understandable to avoid unnecessary disadvantages.

I guess I am going quite sidetracked (I should be talking about the movie really…), but, dear readers, Japan has never been “mono-racial” as some of us insist.

Along with the Ainu, there are Ryukuans (Okinawans), and there had been Emishi, Kumaso, Hayato to name a few before the Wajin/ Yamato finally united Japan.

There have been intermarriages.

We have an expression “Akita Bijin” (Akita Beauty) to describe women from Akita prefecture. It’s generally said that women from Akita are beautiful (I don’t know about the men from there… 😅)

I don’t necessarily agree with this, but I wonder if this is due to the intermarriages between Yamato and Ainu/ Emishi.

Iomante

Now…

Getting back to the movie, it is the first time for me to watch an Ainu movie in my life.

I am really happy to see that the Ainu culture has been gaining a lot of attention from the mainstream Japanese media due to the successful manga/ anime series “Golden Kamuy” (though I am also aware that some people have pointed out that there are cultural appropriations in the series).

Ainu Mosir really shows what it is like to be Ainu today.

Their identity, every day life, cultural survival and struggle.

The story revolves around an Ainu ceremony called Iomante, which has NOT been performed since 1975 in the Akan Lake community.

In this traditional custom, a brown bear is raised with love and care, but given as a sacrifice at the end of the ceremony.

This concept would probably put off a lot of animal lovers (like myself), but we probably need to see beyond the surface of this ceremony.

It is a reminder of the sacredness of life and thanksgiving to the nature.

In fact, the Ainu have always protected the nature and would’ve never considered profiting from exploiting the nature, say, by mass dairy farming like we do in “developed” countries.

You can watch the movie and decide what it is about.

Now…

The reason why I posted the picture from the film at the beginning was because I was really surprised that the actor was wearing a jacket from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, a Māori-run university here in New Zealand.

I had known that the Ainu people visit New Zealand to learn from the successful cultural preservation/ language revitalization strategies of the Māori people, and I guess he acquired it through one of their exchange programmes.

I was really moved to see the connection between the Ainu and the Māori in such an unexpected place!

References

Ainu Association of Hokkaido

Ainu People

Image Attribution

Iomante: Murase Yoshinori, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1000 Podcast Downloads!!!

Maybe I am someone with very low expectations about what I do, but…

I’m genuinely surprised to find out that my Podcast ‘Japanese Street Wisdom– A Rakugo Performer’s Musings’ has already been downloaded a little over 1,000 times!!!

Thank you so very much for all your continued support!!!

Your support means so, so, so much especially for someone like me who is engaged in the most indie art of pretty much all the indie things!!!

I am sorry that I have long neglected it, but now I feel obliged to record the next episode as it seems like a lot of people are actually listening to it without my knowledge!

If you still haven’t listened to this rather short and sweet (& rough-cut) podcast, you can find it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube.

Or you can listen here on my website:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

The True Name of the “Thunder Gate”

Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate)

One of the most famous landmarks in Japan is Kaminarimon (雷門; かみなりもん) or the “Thunder Gate” in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Along with Mt. Fuji, Tokyo Skytree, and Tokyo Tower, it is no exaggeration to say that it is recognised by virtually all Japanese people.

But did you know that “Kaminarimon” (Thunder Gate) is just a nickname for this gate?

Many Japanese do not even know this, but its real name is “Furaijinmon” (風雷神門; ふうらいじんもん) or “The Gate of the Gods of Wind and Thunder”.

If you look closely at the picture above, you’d probably notice that there are two deities displayed on the sides of the gate.

The one on the left with the drums is Raijin (雷神 らいじん) or the god of thunder. He makes thunder with those drums.

I remember as a child I was told to hide my belly button as Raijin likes to eat it for whatever reason…

The one on the right is Fujin (風神 ふうじん) or the god of wind.

Therefore, the official name of Kaminarimon is Furaijinmon.

In fact, if you look at the giant red lantern from the other side, its official name is actually written on it.

Furaijinmon (風雷神門; ふうらいじんもん)

Asakusa is one of the destinations that I definitely recommend you to visit once the Corona crisis is over.

The remnants of the Edo period (1603-1867) can be still felt in this area, and it is widely considered the heart of the Edo culture. For rakugo lovers, it is also known as the home of Asakusa Engei Hall (浅草演芸ホール), one of the four full-time rakugo venues in Tokyo.

I am so looking forward to visiting Asakusa again myself!

Asakusa Engei Hall

Photo Credits

Asakusa Engei Hall: Kakidai, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Furaijinmon: Moyan Brenn from Italy, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kaminarimon at night: Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Talking About Rakugo: The Japanese Art of Storytelling” NOW ON SALE!!!

I am super excited!!!

Kristine Ohkubo‘s latest book “Talking About Rakugo: The Japanese Art of Storytelling” has JUST been published!!!

I haven’t been thrilled this much for a while, and this is easily one of the highlights in my rather drab life.

I have REALLY been looking forward to this day for the following very good reasons:

  1. The author is a big rakugo fan, and this book is her expression of her love for this art. She is even a fellow member of the English Rakugo Association!
  2. I just found out that my master Kanariya Eiraku is the co-author of this book!!! (I just found this out myself… both Kristine and my master kept this a secret for a long time… cheeky them 😁)
  3. I am featured in this book along with my rakugo superstars!

I can confidently say that it is the most accessible yet comprehensive book on rakugo that is available in the English language!

I forgot to mention, but the book even features some rakugo scripts by my master Eiraku!

The author has just notified me that she had ordered a copy for me to thank me for being a part of this book!

But I am the one who needs to thank her 😊

You can purchase your copy here!

Short Film “Half-Life”

This year I’ve had an honour of working closely with a multi-talented artist, Fiona Amundsen.

About two months ago, our short film, which incorporates rakugo, the Aikido concept of “zanshin” (残心), and remembrance of WWII, was released on Asia New Zealand Foundation’s digital platforms.

This work was a part of “IN TOUCH arts commissions” by the foundation, and I feel very privileged to be a part of this project.

You can still view this film/ artwork, but before you watch it, I’d like you to know a few things:

  1. My family’s experience in Nagasaki is only a personalised way of remembering our mistakes as humanity as a whole. I am deeply ashamed of what my Japanese ancestors did to many Asian nations and others, and this is no way our attempt to victimise Japanese.
  2. It is our way of finding the universal message of peace in the ordinary, everyday things.
  3. Part 1 is very dark and many may give up watching the rest, but Part 2 has some humour in it based on my own experience with my grandfather. But Part 2 only makes sense if you watch Part 1…

I decided to write this first because someone who probably hadn’t watched the work nor read the interview commented as below on the foundation’s SNS:

“Great idea! Let’s remember Nanking, Rangoon, Singapore, Jakaraka [sic], Port Moresby, and many many others too shall we?”

This work was created to do exactly that!

Here is the link to our work. You can also find our interviews on the page. Some of the super intellectual comments are by Fiona 😁

You can find other commissioned work here.

May peace prevail upon us all!

Kia tau te rangimārie ki a tatou katoa!

我々と共に平和がありますように。