March 11, 2006

Peace museums, simulation, and interactivity

Ayme Frye posted recently about the Navy Underground Tunnels on Okinawa, including a recording she took while in the tunnels. Walking around the tunnels and even outside you couldn’t escape the mindless looped flute music and narration piped through speakers everywhere.

For me, the presentation of the underground tunnels showed a desire to mask or forget the realities of the tragedy. From the soothing music (it sounded like inane versions of martial music actually), to the cheery, polite voice; from the souvenirs assaulting you immediately after you exit, to the euphemistic brochure—it all seemed to be an attempt to distract from the gravity of the place. Almost like a way to distract so one wouldn’t suffer the embarassment of being emotionally touched. All it lacked was a kawaii mascot.

I’m not sure if you could relegate this to the realm of “cultural difference,” as the trip to the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Museum later that day attested to the possibilities of a very powerful and emotional representation of war tragedy. Also contrasted with the Hiroshima Peace Museum, another highly sophisticated museum, I would dare to say that the presentation of the Navy Underground Tunnels has more to do with funding and poor design than any sort of cultural difference. Unless you take the view that the other Peace Museums, because they are more international in scope, take on a more international and less Japanese method of presentation, with multi-media displays, etc. But I would venture to say that the Underground Tunnels was merely a poor imitation of these more sophisticated museums, trying to integrate some level of multi-media with its audio presentation. What they forgot was that the other museums were built from the ground up, so to speak, and need to use these multi-media presentations in order to simulate the effects of war. What they forgot was the inherent power of the tunnels themselves, and by trying to integrate the multi-media aspect they actually succeeded in detracting from the immediacy of them. I found the whole experience to be incredibly alienating.

To go back once again to Nadine Wasserman; at the end of her essay she talks about culture and marketing in the 21st century:

The real and the simulacra are interchangeable. Visitors can see “masterpieces” at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas—the land of simulation—just as easily as they can at the Met. Cultural tourism can lead to Disney’s Epcot or Nike Town just as easily as to a “real” museum; and museums are borrowing tactics from shopping malls and from Disney to learn more about interactivity and visitor services.

This is incredibly apparent when walking through the Peace Museums. The appeal to the senses is so strong, especially at the Okinawa Museum with its nearly life-size recreation of the caves in which Okinawans sought refuge (complete with chilling wind simulation) and the post-war Okinawa street. They pulled out all the stops, practically transporting the viewer back in time.

I have visited many museums documenting the tragedies of war, but those built on actual sites don’t need to rely on Disney methods of interactivity and simulation. The chill is already in the air and the silence is so powerful.

February 13, 2006

Sushi: a Japanese tradition

Last night I was treated to the “quintessential Japanese experience:” a soak in an onsen preceded by a meal at a sushi-ya. Among other indescribables I enjoyed octopus heads, blowfish caviar, and more octopus heads. Delicious. Luckily I had seen this video a couple days previously, thereby saving myself some awkward moments of gaijin impropriety.

Thanks to the Japanese comedy group ラーメンズ (Rahmens), for producing such a hilarious parody. Unfortunately the only websites that mention them are all in Japanese, so if you can read Japanese, by all means, どうぞ。

January 27, 2006


momotaro and me
Originally uploaded by nattynattyboom.

What is kawaii? And why are the Japanese so obsessed with it? They are obsessed to the point that virtually every corporate logo, every product, and every event is accompanied by a “cute” mascot. One encounters kawaii packaging from delivery services to mobile phone companies, from pharmaceuticals to toilet paper. Kawaii is a cultural institution—even the municipal and prefectural governments each have a kawaii character that graces the pages of their tourist brochures. While grocery shopping one will encounter various portable stereos blasting looped “cute” theme songs for different departments, featuring children singing songs like, “Niku niku niku” (meat meat meat) over a background of pop synthesizers. The “cute” industry is booming and expanding globally. Kawaii is ubiquitous. And irresistible.
I’ve never been the kind of girl who could be entertained by browsing in gift shops, “oohing” and “aahing” over meaningless minutiae. Nothing usually catches my eye. I first realized this when on a class trip to Washington, D.C. After every museum it seemed my friends would get caught up for what seemed like hours inspecting and commenting predictably on every little plastic souvenir.
In Japan this behavior has been refined and spread, until it seems to be a national syndrome. I participated in a kimono festival in Nagahama last year, and from what I observed it could have been subtitled Let’s-Get-Dressed-Up-in-Kimono and-Then-Go-Shopping! Day. After the laborious process of putting on the kimono, all we did was wander around the shopping district and murmer, “ah, kawaii…” at every little Totoro or TarePanda.
It seemed that I was impervious to all these kawaii knick-knacks until now. I’ve always found kawaii fascinating as a cultural phenomenon, but never been driven to actually buy any of it. But last week I bought a stuffed raccoon with a big round head, no neck, tiny ears, no mouth and little bead eyes. He is so impossibly…cute.
The reason I bought him was because of heartache. In the period between leaving Japan for vacation and coming back, I lost many things—my home, my friends, and my boyfriend of four years. My heart was absolutely shattered. On the plane ride back to Japan, my twelve-hour flight was spent feeling like a used tissue, drinking red wine and indulging in the adolescent sentiment of the Shangri-Las and other teenage girl groups from the sixties. Purchasing the stuffed raccoon also had a calming effect. Every time I squeeze him or look into his vacant expression, I forget a little.
Could this in some way explain the kawaii craze that has gripped this nation in its post-war years? In an interview, the executive of Sanrio, Tsuji Shintaro, revealed something terrible. Speaking about conflict in Kosovo he said, seriously, “If only I could come up with a Hello Kitty smart bomb.” As if an expressionless, two-dimensional kitten could help the soldiers cope with the stress of blowing stuff to smithereens. Perhaps this is the dark side of kawaii, a way of forgetting, a way of preoccupying oneself with adorable yet meaningless tchotchkes, thereby freeing oneself of the burden of introspection and analysis.     

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