Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Lutheran Karaoke

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

karaoke |ˌkarēˈōkē| noun
a form of entertainment, offered typically by bars and clubs, in which people take turns singing popular songs into a microphone over prerecorded backing tracks.
ORIGIN 1970s: from Japanese, literally ‘empty orchestra.’

To add to the general festivities at year’s end, Prof. Yang sent his minions off on a Friday afternoon, at his expense, but in his absence, to “Party World”, a downtown Hangzhou establishment, which lives up to its name by providing private party rooms, with free access to a very well laid buffet (no smoking or alcohol, please), including excellent espresso. Only God and the proprietor know how many such rooms — dozens, at least, maybe a hundred, and all seemed bursting with non-alcoholic party-makers.

But unlimited food and a space you don’t have to clean up afterwards, is not sufficient catalysis for a Chinese party; the true attractions here are a large display screen, two microphones on long cables, and a computer console for selecting among countless thousands of karaoke titles. The songs are not with ’empty orchestra’, but void of solo voice, which the party-goers themselves fill in, prompted by color-coding each successive word of the song lyrics, in synchrony with the music. That’s it: a high-tech delivery system for an ancient group entertainment, singing.

Of course, I participated, and had fun doing so. Not with the Chinese songs, though it occurred to me that the slow rhythms, dumbed-down vocabulary and repetitive nature of some songs might make a great Chinese language learning tool. But occasionally an English language song was conjured up, and the microphone pushed in my direction, as if I were the only one there who could read/sing English. This was doubtless done as a sort of rite of initiation, to earn my credits as a bona-fide karaoke singer. My fellow karaokites seemed satisfied with my efforts, and politely refrained from noting that my English diction is better than my sense of pitch or rhythm.

One such moment with me as star, was to render the 1970’s Eagles song, “Hotel California”, with a slightly forlorn ’70s tune and lyrics which were only vaguely familiar to me. As the words unfolded, it seemed clearly to be an allegory to marijuana intoxication. Or should I say, it seemed hazily so? Maybe I was the only one old enough to pick up on it.

I had lived the first 67 years of my life without going to karaoke halls, and, though I confess to enjoying this party, I probably could bear another 67 years without repeating the event. The very neutrality of my reaction, however, compared to the avidity of my Chinese friends, convinced me that some profound difference between the Eastern and Western soul must lie at the root of the Chinese romance with karaoke.

Vicariousness seems to be the key attribute of karaoke singing. But gaze as I will into the Chinese soul, I don’t find evidence of a predilection for vicariousness: nothing vicarious about Chinese food, nor about their drinking customs, nor about their driving habits, nor in their entrepreneurial spirit. No vicars in China, unless you count the local Party secretary.

But perhaps I’m just singing the wrong tune. After all, what is that annual Handel-Messiah sing-along if not just Lutheran karaoke?

Racial Profiling

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Affluent shopperssomething to hideTokyo Rosethese must be Ainuinnocents?fraternizationwould you trust him?old warrior

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My efforts at racial profiling began when a Chinese friend, who like many Chinese still harbor a great grudge against the Japanese, not only on account of Japanese brutality during their aggression into China beginning in 1937, but because of the continuing Japanese denial and historical revisionism…. Anyway, this friend said he could spot a Japanese “from across the room”, and I suppose he meant a room otherwise filled with Chinese. So I thought I must be awfully ethnically insensitive, and should work on it.

By now I had a pretty good baseline on the variations in the Chinese countenance, and even some applied practice in Vietnam. But, anticipating our trip to Japan, it was clear that this would be the real McCoy, and the perfect opportunity to train in physiogonometrics. Of course, as I started observing Japanese in trains and restaurants and on park benches, I realized that clothing and iPods and even mannerisms also provided cues. Any social scientist would have warned me of these confounding variables. In an attempt to neutralize them, I tried to “undress” my subjects, so to say, in the interests of scientific rigor, you understand. Even so, this business of racial discrimination is exacting, and it would have been nice to have had a set of calipers, like Himmler’s people had at their disposal.

After ten days, I had the defining characteristics of the Japanese down pat. Though I did have to consider several angles, which would be hard to implement across a room. Still, I felt pride of achievement. The amazing thing is that, after returning to Hangzhou, with my enhanced sensitivities, I began to realize how many Japanese there were living here in China. The few that I have approached, and addressed with my small vocabulary of Japanese greetings, pretended not to understand me. Of course, if I were a Japanese living in China, I too would dissemble, given all the Chinese observing me from across the room. Dissemblance, denial — they’re a devious race these Japs, the whole lot of them. What with their little gadgets and funny-sounding “r’s”, they’ve got a choke-collar on the whole Asian economy far out of proportion to their diminutive size, and that after we whipped their asses in ’45.

Musical Magnetism

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Chiba trioYuki and JudyTomoko

Still Minatures

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Tomoko Ando and Yukiko Hayashi live in Chiba City, across the bay from Tokyo, a locale that the Lonely Planet Japan guide dismisses as being of no particular interest. Perhaps not in terms of shines, temples or beautiful volcanic cones. But music has a powerful magnetism that draws across continents. Tomoko is a pianist; Yuki a violinist. Both lived several years in Atlanta, where they had joined forces with Judy to play music regularly at Northside Hospital. English horn, violin and piano is a hard combination to beat.

I dare say that all the temples of Kyoto, all the shops of Ginza and all the museums of Ueno couldn’t match the pleasure of one afternoon’s reunion in Tomoko’s living room — piano is the least portable of the three; oboe and English horn were schlepped through airport security and half-way round the world; Yuki arrived by train with violin slung across back. Two young children provide plenty of distraction for Tomoko; Yuki’s husband, sadly, has been rendered invalid by a stroke, relegating Yuki’s violin to second fiddle. But lack of practice and a two-and-a-half year hiatus in playing together only intensified the energy to get it right.

For me the pleasure was vicarious, but no less real. I participated as best I could: kept the recorder running, so that you (click on “Still Miniature” link above to download the mp3 clip) and they can relive the moment. Here’s to the three of you — bravo!

There seems to be a special bond between musicians, unfathomable to us non-musical mortals, and only to be envied. Condi, we understand, plays terrific piano; perhaps Ahmadinejad plays the oboe (it originated in Persia); was it not Saddam fiddling as Baghdad burned? If the three could only have gotten together on the William Grant Still “Miniatures”!

Sake Socialism

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Tokyo Ginzagood foodexcellent sakeprofound conversation

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If you are fortunate, as I am, to have a friend and former scientific colleague willing to show you the sights in Tokyo, I suggest allotting equal time to some quiet, far-from-Ginza sashimi bar as to the glitz itself. Perhaps it was the sake more than the fish that facilitated our joint retrospections into the just-so stories of how we came to the laboratory bench. My tale was routed through Madison, Wisconsin, which provided both a cover in the form of an academic deferment from the draft and a stage for anti-war boisterousness. The University thrived on the former while squelching the latter.

Tamie’s tale was more interesting. It was routed through Moscow, where, uniquely for students outside of the Eastern Bloc, Japanese students were courted in a Soviet effort to win hearts and minds. Reaction to MacArthur-styled occupation and the persistence of Japanese denial of guilt had spawned a post-war generation of Japanese youth that viewed socialism as the path out of that morass. So the young chemistry student dropped out of Tokyo U in favor of Moscow State. During the next five years he learned Russian and earned a degree in physical chemistry. The contingent of Japanese students — I believe is was only forty some — had brought their political commitment with them. As the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong grew ever more brutal, they did what red-blooded idealists were doing in all parts of the world: they organized a protest demonstration at the American Embassy.

In Madison, the University’s tactic was to summon city police, bloody a few heads as examples, and drag the rest off the streets to city jail, only to drop charges when the demonstration was thus defused — you can’t have a demonstration without people. In Moscow, the University’s tactic was to threaten expulsion and deportation — you can’t have a demonstration without people. The very idea of people-power was just as threatening in the one capital as in the other.

But the Japanese students were at least as savvy at politics as at chemistry. The Russian students, they realized, had long since been drained of their spunk, but not so the other foreign student contingents, especially the Cubans. Three times the Japanese students organized demonstrations along side the Cubans and Africans. Three times they were threatened with expulsion and deportation. But thanks to student solidarity, the little bastards had the Dean by the short hairs — Japanese were expendable, but no way could he get away with ejecting the Cubans and Africans.

With another glass of sake the irony turned from amusing to bitter. That was not socialism, but feudalism – or something to that effect is the summary I remember. Tamie returned to Tokyo, Russian degree in hand, pursued a doctoral degree in molecular biology, and eventually emigrated to the U.S. Still a keen and able scientist, even in retirement, I glimpsed a former keeness in that very Japanese bar, far from Ginza, far from present realities.