From past to present…


Book review, from Tokyo – A century has passed since the end of the first great war. Some say the peace treaty gave the world a short 30-year hiatus before the next one, one that was also fought in Asia. Hundred years seem a short time in our shared history, but how many real-life accounts actually remain? Published 70 years after the end of WWII, 若者から若者への手紙 1945←2015(Wakamono kara wakamono he no tegami 19452015, lit. Letters from youths to youths 19452015) affords us this luxury. But be prepared.

“19452015″ contains 15 accounts and reflections of the war by 15 men and women, mostly around their 20s in 1945. Young men sent to frontlines across Asia, one tasked to conduct biochemical tests, a field nurse who subverted a medic’s order, a teacher sent inland with school children to avoid bombings in the city, an ethnic Korean who lost his family name before getting conscripted, one lured by the promise of Manchukuo and left behind in China, survivors of the a-bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One portrait photo precedes each account – this is my story.

We can read facts from history, but the 15 letters shine light on those lives and their inner journeys –

How they were trained to kill, to see the enemy, to follow orders. How their compatriots fell like flies to disease, weakened by malnutrition. How their misery continued even after surrender, facing stigma as returners, as Okinawans. How they found salvation, finding lessons for humanity, remembering their will to live, not just survive, and as survivors, to continue telling their stories.

Reading leaves much to imagination, and the words painted uncomfortable images. My first reading left me numb, even nauseous. Just try substituting the third person (they, their) for the first person (I, my/our) for the paragraph above that starts “How they…”

Thankfully, those stories were spaced by reflections and letters from 15 youths writing back, each again with a photo. Thoughtful responses expressed gratefulness for sharing, filled with hope and dedication to a future of peace and no war. What shocked was the gap in perspectives – the chasm between today and those personal accounts seemed too far to bridge. But that is only natural, since the backdrop that colours our view of life, and with that our readings, are drastically different.

“19452015″ brings readers actual accounts of 1945 alongside attempts to frame the 2015 view of the last world war after 70 years. It paves a journey to understanding life in that tumultuous period of Japanese and world history, but more importantly, poses questions on humanity and life, whether in war or peacetime.

When the book was first published in 2015, more than half of the survivors had already passed on. But their stories remain and are set to reach English readers as an e-book, partly funded by an online campaign that will soon close comfortably past its original target.

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Aside 1: I remember first reading this on the train last year, when North Korea fired ICBMs in Tokyo’s direction. A nearby salaryman snidely remarked to his colleague, “We’ll just fire back, huh?” before alighting at Shinjuku station.

Aside 2: Recently, I’ve noticed more flybys by Chinooks and Black Hawks. Once a whole squadron(??) flew North over Kanpachi, a major ring road in Tokyo. Never have I seen such scenes before in this city that I’ve lived for more than ten years. It felt more like Yamato, in neighbouring Kanagawa.

Aside 3: Earlier today, my phone buzzed. A Yahoo! Japan news flash – The filling of Henoko bay has begun.
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Title: 若者から若者への手紙 1945←2015
Text by Naomi Kitagawa and Motomi Murota, photos by Yuriko Ochiai
Publisher: Korocolor Publishers, 2015

Struggling with neglect


Film review, from Tokyo – Last things first: After watching Kore-eda’s critically acclaimed 『万引き家族』(Manbiki kazoku, lit. Shoplifters), I remember deep anger, sympathy and then finally hope from its abrupt ending. Shoplifters came through as a story of the many forms of neglect, which allows underlying problems to fester, to take on a life of their own. In this film, it colours the decisions made in the struggle for survival, largely out of convenience with huge dose of humanity and a tinge of exploitation. (Core plot follows.)

Right from the outset, the audience is presented with shoplifting as the appetizer leading up to the main course. It is winter in Tokyo, and a middle-aged man (Osamu Shibata, played by Lily Franky) and a slightly wobbly lady (Nobuyo, Sakura Ando) are making their way home together after a few drinks. A boy (Shota, Jyo Kairi) is slumped over the man’s shoulders half-asleep after a long day. Taking a familiar path home, they spot a little girl (Yuri, Miyu Sasaki) left alone out in the corridor of an apartment, cold and hungry, quivering perhaps also from the screams and shouts within.  They decide to take the trembling child home.

Home is a single storey structure shrouded in foliage, a cramped, messy abode, where two women, one grandiosely old (Hatsue, Kirin Kiki), the other whose future lay just ahead (Aki, Mayu Matsuoka), did not seem especially perturbed by the new arrival.

The story revolves around the familial relationships among these six people: Osamu, an odd-job construction worker; Nobuyo, a laundry shop part-timer; Hatsue, the old lady living on handouts and pension payouts; Aki, who chose her grand mother over a college education overseas; Shota, Osamu’s pilfering sidekick and curious reader; and Yuri, the newcomer, who threw a spanner into the old equilibrium.

The Shibatas live in poverty, pilfering to make ends meet, but they bring Yuri home, take her on a shopp(lift)ing run to get new clothes, swimming costumes, and then to the beach for that picture perfect family outing.

Things go downhill quickly though. Their wafer thin finances are hit first by Osamu’s injury, so when Hatsue leaves Aki in mourning, the next turn proves a carbon copy of gruesome reality – they decide to hide her body to continue receiving her pension payouts. Nobuyo then gets laid off, a deal struck with some compensation.

But when Shota gets caught on a routine run, the Shibata’s house of cards finally unravels, illuminated under the spotlight, crumpling under the long arm of law.

All through the movie, I saw the Shibata’s struggles with money, their humanity inciting sympathy and solidarity. I smiled at their familial joys, but winced occasionally at their choices for survival. And so I comprehended my blase at the superficial media coverage of the unplanned abduction and the initial anger against the officials who effused pity along with disdain. Bringing Osamu and Nobuyo under the law proved their errors, but it felt cruel to label those struggles as simply a result of being grossly misled.

A story rooted in an elder getting by alone, her misguided granddaughter, two wayward part-timing adults struggling for a livelihood, and two neglected children who found temporary shelter. Perhaps it all hinged on the boy who read, for him to find the courage to trust the world and its myriad systems. If others had reached out to them, if they knew what was out there for them, perhaps the story would have been very different.

It all began with the Shibatas bringing little Yuri into their home, and it all ended with her finding something offscreen. Although that felt rather abrupt, it is a fitting ending, because that’s probably the start of another story altogether.

 

Shoplifters (2018)
Original title in Japanese:『万引き家族』(Manbiki kazoku)
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
More on the film at IMDb

If that building were to speak


Picture book review, from Tokyo – When we speak of Hiroshima today, a site that has become a part of human history  stands apart from the city’s food, its produce, and culture. The UNESCO Heritage Hiroshima Peace Memorial, covers what is today known as the A-bomb dome. Standing on the bank of the river for more than a century, its presence alone tells a story.

Hiroshima resident and poet Arthur Binard gives it a voice in 『ドームがたり』 (Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks) (Tamagawa University Press, 2017), illustrated by Koji Suzuki.

Affectionately known as just “Dome” by Hiroshima people, Dome starts off by greeting the reader, thanking us for dropping by to visit. Like a seasoned speaker, it points out the slight inaccuracy of the name of the nearby tram station, before introducing itself. Fathered by Czech designer Jan Letzel, it was built in 1915 to showcase Hiroshima goods and produce. It had a few other names before “Dome”, whether it was goods or industry, there was always a part of it that was “Hiroshima”. That was until Japan went on the road to militarization, war broke out, and people came to talk about doing things “for the country”.

Dome recalls, as a cicada flew by in the height of summer 1945, an American plane dropped something that cracked open overhead in a blinding flash. The cicada and “Hiroshima” were destroyed that day, Dome says, and since then many things have become very clear through its airy skeleton head.

It sees the world as a makeup of particles. Radioactive particles, it explains, are like teeny tiny shards of glass. Glass hurts, but these particles are so tiny that we cannot feel them, even as they keep buzzing and zapping. Dome also reminds us of the Makurazaki typhoon that struck a month later, washing much of the radioactive particles into the ocean, sending them buzzing across the seas. Further afar, it sees the many particle islands and mountains formed in the course of tests all over the world, and discharge from contraptions humans built to harness the power of this relentless zapping.

How long do these particles continue to buzz and zap? Dome wonders, but hopes that the birds and other friends who visit don’t get hurt by some particle lingering in some dark corner of its bare frame.

After Dome tells its story, Binard provides an epilogue to explain the relationship between Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239, which were respectively used in the warheads of the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki three days later. He also reminds us of the significance of the plague engraved with “e=mc2”, which is a result of US censorship of the nuclear bomb, and the world order dominated by the nuclear powers ever since.

Nearly 7 years since the tsunami hit Fukushima Daiichi, I found this picture book drawing clear links rooted in nuclear power, something that some have tried and failed to harness. Today other nations are conducting nuclear tests for energy sources and consumption underpin industry, trade, affluence and economic growth. This trend of thought seems set to continue in the near future, at least, as calls for a return of morality in economics grow. Therein lies the need to share Dome’s story and Binard’s commentary for future generations.

 

Title: 『ドームがたり』
(Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks)
Text by Arthur Binard, illustrated by Koji Suzuki
Publisher: Tamagawa University Press, 2017

Engaging fact-based fiction close to home


Comic/Graphic novel review, from Tokyo, about Singapore – Sonny Liew’s “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” (Epigram Books, 2015; Pantheon Books, 2016) created a stir with news of a S$8,000 grant being withdrawn on the day before the book’s Singapore launch in May 2015. Despite some reviews online suggesting some reasons, it was still quite a shocking turn of events.

Having earmarked it since then, I finally got my hands on a copy directly from the local publisher online almost two years on.

Sparingly bonded, each time I reread it, I flip each page with utmost care, each turn creaking on the spine, threatening to pull the book apart. The stories inked into the pages though come through vibrantly.

Charlie Chan is a comics artist who lived through the post-war history of this island nation, which was famously propelled from third world to first in half a century, maybe less. In the course of that time, the world saw the rise of Lee Kwan Yew, known widely as the nation’s founding father, and left behind some other people and forces that inevitably helped shape the path of its young history.

The author blends his visibly apparent illustrations among Charlie’s and other historical snippets, positioning Charlie and the facts closer to the past, while assuming a modern day tone himself to explain things to present day readers. Charlie’s repertoire across several comic genres in a single book is also refreshingly entertaining.

Well, this multi-layering is all the master storyteller’s work, a work of fact-based fiction that clinched six nominations and won three Eisner awards. Coupled with the withdrawn grant, the attention drew more reviews on the story and artwork, yet I felt many missed the bit that I enjoyed most – reading a work that touched very close to home.

I particularly liked how Malaysia or Malaya played a part almost throughout the book’s narrative, especially Sang Kancil, the clever mouse deer. That is simply due to cultural, geography and political ties – Singapore is just across the 1-km Causeway, and became independent in 1965 just two years after merging to form Malaysia. It is even more natural considering the fact that the author himself was born in Malaysia, and moved across the straits at 5.

As a child, I remember classmates who commuted daily across the Causeway. They were always at school before me, and would sometimes talk among themselves about who came in earliest that day. They had a much better command of the Chinese language than I did then, and probably do still.

This somehow ties in with the way Charlie attempts to highlight, at numerous points, the fluctuating fortunes of the Chinese-educated population, tying in historical movements and incidents like the student riots and the Communist threat. Having studied at a Chinese school left me wondering why that part of history, learned mostly by ear, was scarcely mentioned in class. Perhaps I simply wasn’t paying enough attention, perhaps blinded by all that glitter in the race for survival through affluence. (Rereading that last sentence revealed the many fallacies of my juvenile thoughts.)

Littered with factual episodes to present different takes on history, including an alternative reality where the late Lim Chin Siong becomes Singapore’s Prime Minister, this 320-page graphic novel weaves fact with fiction to create a series of engaging fact-based anecdotes.

Having etched its place in Singapore’s art history at a time when the nation is gradually opening up to artistic pursuit, the book will undoubtedly also have sown the seeds for a deeper look into the nation’s, and the region’s, historical narrative.

It has certainly reminded me of the possibilities fiction offers in shining a light on the many untold stories lying under the surface of historical fact.

 

Title: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Author: Sonny Liew
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2015Pantheon Books, 2016
(available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)

Winner of 2017 Eisner Awards for Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material—Asia, and Best Publication Design

Other accolades listed on publisher websites.

Tokyo’s looking at diversity


Tokyo, 12 November – Last week, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare released its latest survey on the diversity of working arrangements in Japan’s shrinking population. For the first time in the survey’s history, non-perm or temp workers account for exactly 40.0% of the national workforce. Initial media reports highlighted the record, albeit slightly suspicious, ratio and a stunning statistic that many temps preferred the flexible working hours that part-time, temporary, and contract assignments offer. Unlike the survey, reports did not highlight the diversity in the temp workforce, a grouping of part-timers, full-time contract workers, and retiree rehires.

Part-timers, as the term suggests, work differently than other temps. For example, female part-timers, a third of temp respondents, were the main breadwinners less than 25% of the time, which means 75% were out there for the sake of pocket money. So part-timers choose when they lined their pockets while other temps looked for hard money and a job-skills fit even as they knew that the dearth of perm opportunities kept them swimming around the temp pool.

Meanwhile, close to 95% of male retiree rehires were still breadwinners making that smooth cost-heavy transition into full retirement. For younger temps, about 80% of men between ages 24-45 were breadwinners as compared to below 30% of women. So, temp or not, men in Japan still bring home the dough. Note that this age band is home to new and future families and parents.

Temps were also much less satisfied than perms about remuneration, job stability, and career prospects. On the other hand, perms were marginally unhappier with the quality of instruction from their managers and their working hours. Japanese work culture is infamous for long hours, and they don’t seem any more pro-family or pro-baby than the boomer years, so who will be there to power any future growth? With companies already turning to contracts to rehire retirees of proven value, it looks like even longer work hours and active aging for everyone.

Maybe a longer working life could translate into longer-term, sustainable growth, targets of Japan’s new stewardship and corporate codes. Before those two came around, Japan also changed its employment contract laws. They slapped a 5-year limit on dated contracts. Beyond that, a worker had the power to issue an ultimatum to convert to a rolling deal. This power came at a price – the law only applies to dates after promulgation. No backdating, slates wiped clean, employment contracts renewed from zero.

The law was devised to bring stability to contracted work, but if Japan’s economy were to grow again, as its government envisions, then the power to switch to a rolling contract on, most probably, a frozen wage will only slowly squeeze a temp’s already thin pockets. Some lawyers have commented on this no-win situation for temps. Companies are now free to estimate long-term temp costs using 5-year ceilings. No need to mention “black” companies, a growing social problem of employee exploitation, temp or otherwise.

Who can make things better? Activist investors are more of the latter, so since cheap, skilled labour is a win-win, don’t expect an agent of change there. What about employers? Do they have the principles or pockets to take valued temps on their permanent payroll? Or would they force them out? Maybe even deprive them of CV-pretty work ahead of the 35-year-old glass ceiling for jumping ship or before the temp-to-perm window arrives? The ball has been placed firmly in the hands of employers. Some temp agencies have switched to directly hiring registered persons as full-time ready to go employees, so there is new hope.

The flip side of this employment conundrum is the 60% perm workforce, where the temp-perm disparity could breed elements that are even less motivated toward productivity. Stability in the perm world can easily be twisted into protecting the system, scraping through with the bare minimum, and producing the goods only when a chance to climb up the corporate ladder comes round.

Toxic for productivity? No rocket growth, just inching up or down every year? Maybe that’s sustainable for a while. Now the case is for the entire workforce to be included in the numbers game, or a respected bastion of moral authority, like Justice Bao or Mito Komon, to ruffle some feathers and clean up the show, because it’s high time companies show some real commitment toward embracing diversity.