Archive for April, 2011


The Japanese have never been shy or squeamish about sex. Modern Japanese have an ambivalent attitude toward the subject: on the one hand they feign shock and horror at the mention of sex; on the other hand pornography-soft and hardcore-is ubiquitous, and sexual establishments offering extensive menus are found throughout the country. It is hardly surprising then that shunga, the woodblock prints once considered mass-market erotica but now viewed as high art, originated in Japan.

Shunga, which translates as “images of spring,” evolved from matrimonial manuals for newlyweds called makura-ebon or “pillow books” that featured graphic images of foreplay and a gamut of sexual positions deemed essential to a successful marriage. In the 1680s, however, when advances in technology reduced the time and cost of producing woodblock prints, the focus of the erotic prints switched from one of education to one of titillation.

With this switch, a new name for the genre was coined. Shunga, as it became known, is a combination of two words: “shun” from “baishun” (“selling spring”-a euphemism for prostitution) and “ga” (picture). This term was chosen because most shunga dealt with the world of prostitution, a flourishing industry in Edo (now Tokyo) by the 17th century.

Edo’s population suffered an imbalance of the sexes-there were thousands of samurai or male vassals in the service of the shogun, or feudal lord, quartered in the city and very few available women-that greatly boosted demand for prostitution. This demand was met with the establishment of Yoshiwara, a twenty-acre brothel complex housing over 3,000 prostitutes. It was here that shunga was born.

Shunga prints were originally created to advertise the facilities in Yoshiwara, including the tea houses, restaurants and theaters, as well as the brothels. But the new art form quickly took on a life of its own, portraying every imaginable form of sexual activity from straight heterosexual acts through sodomy, pedophilia, bestiality and a wide range of fetishes.male-couple-on-a-futon-moronobu.jpg Hand scrolls and albums featuring shunga soon became popular, and the prints were enjoyed by both men and women of all ranks, from the very top of society to the bottom.

To Westerners, shunga prints were originally difficult to assimilate. The sexual acts in many of the prints are often grossly caricatured, with outrageously proportioned genitalia-perhaps because native Japanese religions practiced phallic worship-and extraordinary sexual positions. The subjects are frequently reduced to graphic icons with facial features that seldom vary.

The distinct lack of expression on the faces of the subjects, especially the women, is a characteristic of shunga. In the shunga The Masseur and the Girl, the woman featured is surely about to bite off more than she can chew, yet her face remains expressionless. Most women confronted with such a monstrous male organ would certainly appear surprised. The Older Women and the Young Man, however, is one of those rare prints in which the women do show expression, this time at the sight of the young man’s enormity. One of the women looks absolutely thrilled, while the other appears shocked.

Nakedness in itself was not considered erotic. Public nudity was a way of life for the Japanese-mixed bathing in public bathhouses was the norm-before the country opened up to the West and adopted many of the sexual repressions of the Victorians. Consequently, most of the figures in shunga are either clothed or half clothed, with only their genitalia exposed, a condition that was and still is considered highly stimulating by the Japanese.

In the restricted living spaces of old Japan-and to some extent, those of today-sexual activities were often semi public, so it is no surprise that group sex scenes also feature in shunga, as do scenes in which a couple are having sex in front of children. An exaggerated perspective of Japanese open-mindedness can be seen in At the River’s Edge, in which a group of people unashamedly pleasure each other.

Another common feature of shunga is the presence of a voyeur. harunobu161.jpgIn The Voyeur, the watcher is a woman and more than likely a younger prostitute observing the performance as part of her training. In The Cuckold, however, the man hiding under the futon to observe the tryst has a contorted facial expression that could mean he is masturbating, another common theme in shunga. The characters engaged in the sexual activity are usually blissfully unaware that they are under observation, no matter, as in the print titled Out of the Mosquito Net, how blatant the act of peeping is. An interesting twist on the role of the voyeur in shunga is the man in Unnoticed Affair. Hearing a noise in the room beneath, the man strains his ears and is surprised at the noises coming from below. “I’ll have to ask the wife,” he says to himself, “if she’s ever heard that sucking noise down there.”

Unlike countries bound by Christian ethics, Japan has never frowned on masturbation. It therefore comes as no surprise to find that self-stimulation frequently appears in shunga. Voyeurs peeping around a corner or through a space in the shoji (sliding screens) at a copulating couple are often masturbating. Women are often shown stimulating themselves while a man looks on, as in Man Watching Woman Masturbate, or a woman taking a man, often a younger than her, in hand, as in The Boy and the Older Woman.

200px-dream_of_the_fishermans_wife_hokusai-1.jpgIn the creation of shunga, reality usually took backseat to artistic freedom. In Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by the renowned ukiyoe artist Hokusai, an octopus-with the eyes of a lecherous man-is performing oral sex on an ecstatic woman. Female abalone divers, who dived for shellfish in the costal areas, were popular subjects in shunga, and were occasionally depicted pleasuring themselves with sea creatures such as a sea cucumber-a animal that, like the male penis, stiffens and ejects a jet of fluid when stroked.

Although there was no stigma attached to shunga-all the great Japanese woodblock artists produced them-the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1858 was the beginning of the end for this unique art form. A new form of morality was imposed on the country and shunga disappeared from sight. Fortunately, most of the prints were saved and now appear in museums and art books around the world. The exception is Japan, where, ironically, shunga is proscribed as pornographic.

© Charles R. Pringle 2007

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Visitors to Japan have an enormous variety of foods to choose from.  Sushi, sukiyaki and tempura are familiar Japanese dishes to anyone with even a modicum of gastronomical inquisitiveness. But there are some less well known Japanese dishes that can, quite literally, take your breath away.

Imagine sitting down to a meal and suddenly realizing that you have brought something unpleasant into the restaurant on the soles of your shoes. What do you do? Rush outside and try to scrape the offensive waste off? Not if you are in Japan, you don’t. First of all, quickly and furtively cast you olfactory organ over the dish in front of you; if the smell seems to be emanating from your plate, remain seated. It could be that you have been served the traditional Japanese delicacy of kusaya, which means ‘stinking fish.’

Kusaya is without doubt one of the contenders for the ‘most difficult to acquire a taste for’ award, if there were such an award, that is. But in some parts of Japan, it is considered a delicacy and eaten with gusto.

Kusaya is often made from mackerel, and the process takes months. First of all, the fish are soaked in a kusaya gravy that consists of a brine solution that is used over and over again. Some of this gravy is over 100 years old. When the kusaya gravy is not being used to process mackerel, a fish fillet is added to it to maintain the microflora that boosts the distinctive pungent aroma. When the fish are removed from the kusaya gravy, they are are dried in the sun.

Kusaya are usually grilled, and this is when the uninitiated start checking their shoes and looking around at other patrons. The stench is overpowering, but aficionados of the dish consider this a small price to pay for the taste, which is not as bad as the smell. But there again, it couldn’t possibly be.

On a positive note, there is no record of anyone dying after eating a kusaya, and anyone who actually eats one will have something to talk about when they return to their home country.

Some visitors, however, might not be lucky enough to live through their adventures with Japanese food. Those who want try their luck with fugu, one of the world’s most deadly dishes, should make sure that they eat it only in a special restaurant with a fully-licensed chef. Failure to do this involves the risk of dying a horrible death.Recently, two men from Shikoku foolishly prepared their own dinner of fugu—and they died a few hours later.

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Recently as I have been walking home from Tsukiji to Roppongi, a distance of about 6 kilometers, I have had a feeling of déjà vu. For a few days I wracked my brains, but could not figure out where the feeling was coming from. Then, this morning, as I opened my eyes, I experienced satori.

Tokyo presently resembles Berlin of the 1970s, when the city was divided in two. I lived in the West and worked in the East. The sun shone evenly on both sides of the city; so during the day there was very little difference—except for the advertizing billboards. In the West, the glitzy billboards advertised the latest in the line of automobiles such as Mercedes and Porsche, as well global brands like Coca Cola, Channel and Gucci; in the East, the giant austere billboards hosted huge photos of the Worker of the Month and text listing the achievements of the “Working Class Hero of the Deutsche Demokratic Republik.”

But when the sun went down, the difference between the two halves of the divided city was stark. The West lit up with neon while the East disappeared in darkness. In the words of the song by the singer-songwriter Paul Joses (Scottish-born but then resident of West Berlin), the red side of the Berlin Wall was like the Dark Side of the Moon.

Tokyo is by no stretch of the imagination like East Berlin of the 1970s—quite the contrary, it is still very much a vibrant and exciting city—but there are certain similarities. There are very few flashing neon lights and store fronts are dark and the interiors are on minimum lighting. But this is because everyone understands the need to save on electricity while the country is experiencing a crisis.

Towards the end of the day, many of the shelves in convenience stores are empty of milk, bakery products and the like. Large bottles of mineral water are just not available, beer is scarce and getting scarcer, and even cans of chu-hi are in short supply. The reason for the beer shortages, we are told, is that the major domestic brewers all have breweries in the Tohoku region. I have heard no excuses yet for the shortages of chu-hi.

Nevertheless, despite the dimming down (of the nighttime skyline, I mean), and the shortages of essentials like beer and chu-hi, Tokyo is not at all in crisis; nor was East Berlin in the 1970s. The difference between the two is that the situation in Tokyo is just a temporary phenomenon, while for East Berlin it was the norm, and Tokyo will light up again soon.

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I decided to collect and take provisions to the victims of the March 11 Tohoku-Pacific Ocean Earthquake and the tsunami that struck in its wake came about after discussing the quality of reporting on the event by the European media with a friend. We both agreed that much of the news coming out of Japan, especially news about Tokyo, which was relatively unscathed, was either inaccurate or false. We both found it hard to believe that people were actually starving in some of the areas that had been hardest hit. This was, after all, Japan, one of the richest countries on earth, a country with an outstanding record of donating to other countries in times of need. Then we heard from someone who had been up to the north that people were suffering badly, that bureaucracy was getting in the way of relief, and that people were desperate for many of the basic items that we all took for granted. We had no way of knowing whether this was true or not, but we decided to go ahead anyway.

First of all I had to find a driver to help me take the provisions to the disaster area, and then I had to appeal for and collect whatever I could and buy what I could not collect. A friend volunteered to rent a truck and drive, so I started collecting provisions. I put up an appeal asking for contributions in Japanese and English on the notice board in my building. Almost every family in my apartment building contributed something. I quickly noticed that some things—rice, canned food, gas canisters and charcoal—were conspicuously absent; so I started buying them. Unfortunately these items are particularly heavy and, because of a surge in demand, finding them in the shops was extremely difficult. Then there was a limit on the amount one person could buy in each shop: consequently, I had to visit dozens of shops, some quite far away from where I live, to get enough provisions. Nevertheless, among other things, I managed to buy and carry home 50 kilos of rice and 25 gas canisters as well as six boxes of canned goods and charcoal. This was not only time-consuming, but also physically exerting and I began to worry that my knee might not hold out.

Two days before departure two problems arose: the volunteer driver was refused time off work to drive up to Minami Sanriku and the rental firm told me that I could only have the truck for 24 hours. At first, both problems looked insurmountable. Every rental agency I called responded negatively because “it was the moving season so nothing was available.” I pleaded and explained the reason I needed a vehicle, but my appeals were met with a smile and a shrug. Everyone I called and asked to drive up said that they would love to but that they already had plans for the weekend. I was running out of options when I remembered that one of my friends, Geoff England, had a driving license; so I call him. He immediately volunteered to drive and to rent a van, thus killing two birds with one stone, and we arranged to meet at the rental agency just before 6 pm on Saturday 2 April.

Meanwhile the things I was buying and the people in my apartment building were donating began to mount up, and I realized that they would not all fit in one van; so I started to call round once again. This time I managed to contact a Mr Arata who was working with an organization called OGA for Aid. He told me that he had room on his truck for more supplies and agreed to drive up with our van.

After Geoff, his wife Ayuko, and I picked up the van, we drove to Takadanobaba to pick up some of the things that Clive France, who was taking another van up north, could not fit in his van. Then we picked up Peter Blake, a professional photographer who had also volunteered to drive, and drove to my place to meet up with Arata-san and his team. We loaded the vehicles and set off at exactly 7.44 pm, stopping once before we left Tokyo to pick up Ana Shimabuku and the provisions she had collected.

Once out of Tokyo the road was practically empty, at least in the lanes heading north. The threat of radiation sickness certainly keeps people off the roads. We tanked up at every opportunity because we knew that once we got into the disaster area, there would be no gasoline available.

After we left the highway, driving became more difficult. We were in total darkness because there were no lights anywhere. We even passed through towns and villages that, although inhabited, looked deserted. It was a very strange feeling. Many of the roads we traveled were cracked and, despite the darkness, we could see damage to buildings all around. We left the towns behind and started to climb into the mountains on narrow and twisting roads that were in very poor condition. We started our descent and entered a world of destruction on a massive scale. At about 4 am we arrived at a road that was closed, and that was the road we needed to take. The guard told us that we would have to wait until 7 am for it to open, so we tried to find space to park—and that was very difficult because the whole area was covered in debris, the remains of what had once been a town were piled up everywhere we could see with the headlights.

Before we parked, however, a local man drove by, realized that we had brought provisions and offered to show us what he called a “shortcut” to the distribution center. Back up the mountain we went on roads steeper and narrower that the ones we had originally taken. Thirty minutes later, however, we arrived at Hotel Kanyo, a luxurious resort hotel that, apart from the two floors below ground level that out to see, had escaped major damage. It was 4.30 am and the temperature was below zero: we were freezing and tired, but we could not sleep for the cold. Around 6 am one of the staff brought us a cup of coffee. The inside of the cups were lined with plastic wrap because there was no running water to wash the cups with.

At around 6.30 am, Angela Ortiz from OGA for Aid, and aid agency organizing relief efforts in the area joined us in the lobby. She explained the situation and told us of the needs of the people. She said that the Japanese military was providing rice and drinking water, but that there huge shortages of just about everything else. People can survive on rice and water, but sooner or later, health problems kick in. What the people desperately needed were canned protein foods like fish, seafood, meat and chicken as well as canned vegetables and fruit. They also needed baby food, sanitary items, over-the-counter medication, fruit and energy drinks, toys and a whole host of other things that we normally take for granted but the people living in the refugee centers could not get.

Angela also told us some horrific tales of desperation in the area. She spoke about a minshuku (bed and breakfast) in a hamlet called Yoriki at which more than 20 people had been trapped for two weeks because the roads had been destroyed. There was no electricity, gas nor running water and no means of communicating with the outside world. In desperation they had put up flags in an attempt to attract the attention of the Japanese military helicopters carrying our search and rescue missions and delivering provisions. The people trapped there were on the verge of starvation when volunteers from OGA for Aid found them.

Angela also told us the story of So-kun, a 12-year-old boy who traveled in our van from the distribution center to Utatsu Junior High School that was function as a refugee center for 470 people. After the earthquake struck, he and his mother managed to escape to a school on a hill. When the tsunami raged past in the valley below, he could see bodies being swept up the valley. He lost his dog and house but, fortunately, he had survived.

After we had been briefed by Angela, we unloaded our provisions and set out to see the damage in the light of day. I had read all the reports in the newspapers and seen all the images on television, but what I saw with my own eyes was much worse than anything I was prepared for. The town of Minami Sanriku and its surroundings looked like the aftermath of a nuclear war. Very few buildings had survived intact; there was rubbish and refuse where houses, hospitals, schools and shops had stood. Bridges were battered and broken; railway lines were ripped off their pilings and lay twisted like strings of wire; lamp posts were bent, buckled and snapped in two; and even the road surfaces had been destroyed. Wrecked cars, buses, tractors, and ships were everywhere, some on the roofs of the buildings that still stood, others high up on the hillsides or up trees. But the most disturbing sight was that of the personal belongings—photos, notebooks, pens and pencils, CD players and the like—scattered among the debris or hanging from trees—clothes, sheets, blankets and futons—on either side of the tsunami-ravaged valleys in a macabre caricature of festive decorations.

We returned to the distribution center and then drove to Utatsu Junior High School, where OGA for Aid had organized an hour of games for the children to celebrate a birthday. The children were happy for an hour at least, but the elderly did not have anything to cheer about. Some sat around in small groups on the mattresses on which they slept, others came and went, but I noticed one old man sitting alone. He never moved a muscle the hour we were there. His eyes looked straight ahead, but he was not seeing anything in that gymnasium: he was surely looking into the past. I had to struggle to keep back the tears for I did not want to upset any of those unfortunate people who have lost everything except their dignity. They have been living in appalling conditions since March 11. They have no electricity, gas or running water. There are a few kerosene heaters here and there; so it must be absolutely freezing at night.

It is difficult for me to come to terms with what I saw in Minami Sanriku. The violence and havoc wreaked upon an unsuspecting community in the space of a few minutes by the unstoppable forces of nature is not easy to comprehend. I was not there the moment nature struck; so I will never be able to understand the fear and shock of those who were. But now that I have met and spoken to some of the survivors I will never be the same again.

The survivors will need help for some time, so those of us who took provisions at the weekend are resolved to continue delivering them. We are planning our next trip for April 16 and so far we have arranged for two vehicles. If we can get financial support of any kind, we will be able to take more. We are also looking for Japanese companies that could help us buy products like toilet paper, gas canisters and the like in bulk. We gratefully appreciate any support we can get.

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