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As we approach the 70th anniversary of the end of Japan's War, Japan’s “history problem” – a mix of politics, identity, and nationalism in East Asia, brewing actively since the late 1990s – is at center stage. Nationalists in Japan, China, and the Koreas have found a toxic formula: turning war memory into a contest of national interests and identity, and a stew of national resentments.
This is a mega-review of vol. 1-13 (aka, the ones that are currently available in English)
The Library Freedom Act Libraries have the freedom to acquire their collections. Libraries have the freedom to circulate materials in their collections. Libraries guarantee the privacy of their patrons. Libraries oppose any type of censorship. When libraries are imperiled, librarians will join together to secure their freedom.
In the not-to-distant future, Japan passes the "Media Betterment Act" which censors objectionable material. Librarians are against censorship and will fight to keep their collections free and available. Literally fight. Like, they made an army. To fight against the federal censors(and their army).
AND YOU WONDER WHY I LOVE THIS?!
I devoured this series. Like, read all of them in a week, often staying up way past bedtime because I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. I love the overall concept. Plus, not only is about people fighting to protect access to materials (with their literal lives!), but it's a shoju manga, so SO MUCH SEXUAL TENSION.
Our main character, Iku Kasahara wants to join the Library Defense Force to be like her "prince"-- a member who saved a book she wanted to buy from censorship. She has passion, but not a lot of skill and is driven hard by her Sargent Dojo (who, um, OBVIOUSLY is her "prince.") She eventually becomes the first woman on a super elite squad that has to both be an army fighter, but also an actual librarian. But, over the run of the series, this is far from the only relationship we see (I won't say my favorite, because it develops pretty late and is a bit of a spoiler.)
I love the politics and maneuvering the library forces do. I like the plotline where Kasahara's parents don't know what she does because she knows they won't approve. I love love love Kasahara's roommate, Asako Shibazaki. She's very beautiful and a bit aloof and a lot of people read her as shallow, but she has a lot going on beneath the surface. She's a librarian with some serious hidden talents. I love the way her character develops. (In fact, she might be my favorite character.)
I like that there are cultural end notes to explain things, and several bonus mangas at the end of most volumes to fill in some quiet moments.
The over-the-top melodrama of some of the relationship stuff gets old, but I'm starting to recognize that it's standard for a lot of shoju manga.
Overall though, I LOVE THIS SERIES and am trying to force all my coworkers to read it. (LIBRARIES BUILT AN ARMY TO PROTECT FREEDOM OF ACCESS FROM GOVERNMENT CENSORS. DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUDE.)
If I understand Wikipedia correctly, there are 15 total volumes in this series. 13 are out in English now, and the 14th comes out in October. Based on past publication schedules, I'm guessing the 15th will be out next April. My one regret? This is based on a novel series and the source material doesn't seem to be available in English.
Books Provided by... my local library
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World War Two was the most devastating conflict in recorded human history. It was both global in extent and total in character. It has understandably left a long and dark shadow across the decades. Yet it is three generations since hostilities formally ended in 1945 and the conflict is now a lived memory for only a few. And this growing distance in time has allowed historians to think differently about how to describe it, how to explain its course, and what subjects to focus on when considering the wartime experience.
On March 5, Marie Mutsuki Mockett and I will be reading and talking about exorcising the past (all meanings of exorcise possible) at McNally Jackson at 6 p.m.
Marie’s wonderful new book, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, is about death and grief and family and ghosts and so much more. She’ll read from it, and I’ll read from the working introduction to my book on the science and superstition of ancestry, and then we’ll talk about all of that and take questions and comments from you. Hope to see you there!
The narrator of this delightful book is a boy who loves baseball – in two different countries! He goes to games in the U.S. with his American grandfather (pop pop) and games in Japan with his Japanese grandfather (ji ji). Bold, colorful illustrations show, side-by-side, the trip to each stadium. It’s a wonderful invitation for kids to compare and contrast two different experiences and also reflect on the countries and cultures of their own families.
Clara Lemlich immigrated to New York with nothing aside from her family, clothes, and a few words of English. When her parents were unable to find work, she took a job as a garment factory worker – earning a few dollars a month for countless hours bent over a sewing machine. With a blend of vivid watercolors and stitched fabrics, this book tells the story of how Clara led her coworkers on strike to protest their horrendous working conditions. Bosses of the factories paid for Clara to be beaten and arrested repeatedly, but nothing could stop this gritty, five-foot tall woman from securing a better life for millions.
The moment Apollo 11’s Eagle touched down on the Moon, it became a defining moment for a nation that had lived up to a President’s lofty goal. With stunning illustrations, this poetic story allows you to join Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin as they prepare for liftoff, follows them at every stage of the mission, and doesn’t let go until they are safely back home. Brian Floca has created a work of art worthy of inspiring young readers to dream beyond what is easy, and strive for what is hard.
Loading 500-pound bombs into a Navy warship is, to say the least, a dangerous job. On July 17th, 1944, the fears of the untrained men who held this job became reality when an explosion claimed the lives of 320 men, the majority of whom were black. During this time, the Navy, like every other part of the United States Military, was segregated,frequently leaving black men to be treated as second class citizens serving menial roles. This masterfully crafted nonfiction book follows the fifty men who refused to go back to this life-threatening and degrading work, and the court case that followed.
There are few characters you will ever root for more than Doug Swieteck. On the surface, he is a good for nothing, skinny thug with a reading disability. Just ask his teachers and they’ll tell you. However in the depths of Doug Swieteck, where this book takes place, you find a boy who is trapped – one brother a bully, one a vacant shell of his pre-war self, and an abusive alcoholic for a father who has left a horrific mark on his youngest son. The secrets Doug is holding back from the reader are gut-wrenching, but with the help of a few strangers-turned-friends and a newfound passion for art, this fourteen-year-old will inspire every person lucky enough to pick up his story.
The Second World War affected me quite directly, when along with the other students of the boarding school in Swanage on the south coast of England I spent lots of time in the air raid shelter in the summer of 1940. A large German bomb dropped into the school grounds fortunately did not explode so that we survived. To process for entry into the United States, I then had to go to London and thus experienced the beginnings of the Blitz before crossing the Atlantic in September. Perhaps this experience had some influence on my deciding to write on the origins and course of the Second World War.
Over the years, there have been four trends in the writing on that conflict that seemed and still seem defective to me. One has been the tendency to overlook the fact that the earth is round. The Axis Powers made the huge mistake of failing to engage this fact during the war and never coordinated their strategies accordingly, and too many have followed this bad example in looking at the conflict in retrospect. Events in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific often influenced each other, and it has always seemed to me that it was the ability of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt to engage the global reality that made a significant contribution to the victory of the Allies.
A second element in distortions of the war has been the influence of mendacious memoirs of German generals and diplomats, especially those translated into English. The enthusiasm of Germany’s higher commanders for Adolf Hitler and his projects vanished in the postwar years as they blamed him for whatever went wrong, imagined that it was cold and snowed only on the German army in Russia, and evaded their own involvement in massive atrocities against Jews and vast numbers of other civilians. They were happy to accept bribes, decorations, and promotions from the leader they adored; but in an interesting reversal of their fakery after the First World War, when they blamed defeat on an imaginary “stab-in-the-back,” this time they blamed their defeat on the man at the top. Nothing in their memoirs can be believed unless substantiated by contemporary evidence.
A third contribution to misunderstanding of the great conflict comes from an all too frequent neglect of the massive sources that have become available in recent decades. It is much easier to manufacture fairy tales at home and in a library than to dig through the enormous masses of paper in archives. A simple but important example relates to the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. One can always dream up alternative scenarios, but working through the mass of intercepted and decoded Japanese messages is indeed tedious work. It does, however, lead to the detailed recommendation of the Japanese ambassador in Moscow in the summer of 1945 urging surrender rather than following the German example of fighting to the bitter end, and to the reply from Tokyo thanking him for his advice and telling him that the governing council had discussed and unanimously rejected it.
A fourth type of misunderstanding comes from a failure to recognize the purpose of the war Germany initiated. Hitler did not go to war because the French refused to let him visit the Eiffel tower, invade the Soviet Union because Joseph Stalin would not let the German Labor Front place a “Strength through Joy” cruise ship on the Caspian Sea, or have a murder commando attached to the headquarters of Erwin Rommel in Egypt in the summer of 1942 to dismantle one of the pyramids for erection near Berlin renamed “Germania.” The purpose of the war was not, like most prior wars, for adjacent territory, more colonies, bases, status, resources, and influence. It was for a demographic revolution on the globe of which the extermination of all Jews was one facet in the creation of a world inhabited solely by Germanic and allegedly similar peoples. Ironically it was the failure of Germany’s major allies to understand this concept that led them over and over again, beginning in late 1941, to urge Hitler to make peace with the Soviet Union and concentrate on crushing Great Britain and the United States. World War II was fundamentally different from World War I and earlier conflicts. If we are ever to understand it, we need to look for something other than the number popularly attached to it.
Mio Yamato has a secret sword hidden in the attic. Her grandfather, Ojiichan, showed it to her when she was nine years old, He told her that the sword would be hers when she turns 16, but he made her promise not to touch it before then. Ojiichan planned to teach her about the katana, but he never got a chance, because the next day he died from a massive stroke.
All these years, Mio has avoided the sword as she promised her ojiichan, and kept it hidden away, even from the rest of her family. But when she needs a katana to complete her costume for a costume party a few days before her sixteenth birthday, she figures that she's close enough to 16 to take it. As soon as she touches the sword, though, strange things start happening. She feels an immediate connection to the sword; it's almost as if the sword is alive and speaking to her. Then a giant, catlike, many-tailed monster called the Nekomata appears. The Nekomata claims the katana, and threatens to kill everyone that Mio cares about to get it.
With a distinctive teen voice and an action-packed plot full of Japanese monsters, sword battles, Kitsune, and a super-hot 500 year old Japanese dude, The Name of the Blade is loaded with teen appeal. It should especially appeal to anyone who likes anime, Japanese folklore or culture, but there's so much Japanese influence in pop culture today that its appeal should be much broader than that.
The characters are interesting, well-rounded, and authentic teens. Mio is ethnically Japanese, but culturally she's a Londoner. Her ojiichan taught her Kendo and some Japanese folklore when he was still alive, but her father eschews his Japanese heritage, and Mio knows very little about Japan except for Kendo and anime. Mio's impulsiveness in taking the sword and her other early behavior show an immaturity that she starts to grow out of throughout the book, as she begins to take responsibility for the consequences.
Her best friend Jack (Jacqueline) is a bit of a rebel, with pink and purple streaked hair and black fingernails. Both girls get along with their families, although Mio's relationship with her father is somewhat strained. Shinobu, the 500-year-old Japanese boy, is mostly a one-note character, but his hotness more than makes up for that. He looks out for Mio, and yet I found it refreshing that he doesn't try to take the sword from her, even though they both have a claim to it, and he lets her take the lead in battle. (Although he does teach her a few things about combat).
There is also a young Kitsune (fox spirit) named Hikaru. The Kitsune are one of my favorite parts of this book. Apparently, there's a London court of Kitsune; how cool is that? Mio, Jack, and Shinobu get caught up in Kitsune politics when they visit the court to ask for assistance.
The plot is exciting but well-paced. The story alternates the big battle scenes with quieter moments and other challenges. It's quite an enjoyable read.
There are a few things that weren't explained, but since this is the first book in a trilogy, I hope that everything will be explained fully before the end.
The Name of the Blade does well on diversity. Besides Mio's Japanese heritage, Jack and her sister Rachel had a grandmother who came from Barbados, and they have brown skin. Jack is also a lesbian, which comes up a few times, but doesn't really play a role in the story, except when Jack has to tell a Kitsune who is sweet on her that he isn't her type. The girls are multifaceted personalities that are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality.
Who would like this book:
Anyone with an interest in Japanese folklore, culture, martial arts, or anime. Anyone who likes stories where the contemporary world intersects with the fantastic.
FTC required disclosure: Review copy sent by the publisher to enable me to write this review. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.
One hundred years ago today, far from the erupting battlefields of Europe, a small German force in the city of Tsingtau (Qingdao), Germany’s most important possession in China, was preparing for an impending siege. The small fishing village of Qingdao and the surrounding area had been reluctantly leased to the German Empire by the Chinese government for 99 years in 1898, and German colonists soon set about transforming this minor outpost into a vibrant city boasting many of the comforts of home, including the forerunner of the now-famous Tsingtao Brewery. By 1914, Qingdao had over 50,000 residents and was the primary trading port in the region. Given its further role as the base for the Far East Fleet of the Imperial German Navy, however, Qingdao was unable to avoid becoming caught up in the faraway European war.
The forces that besieged Qingdao in the autumn of 1914 were composed of troops from Britain and Japan, the latter entering the war against Germany in accord with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Alliance had been agreed in 1902 amid growing anxiety in Britain regarding its interests in East Asia, and rapidly modernizing Japan was seen as a useful ally in the region. For Japanese leaders, the signing of such an agreement with the most powerful empire of the day was seen as a major diplomatic accomplishment and an acknowledgement of Japan’s arrival as one of the world’s great powers. More immediately, the Alliance effectively guaranteed the neutrality of third parties in Japan’s looming war with Russia, and Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 sent shockwaves across the globe as the first defeat of a great European empire by a non-Western country in a conventional modern war.
In Britain, Japan’s victory was celebrated as a confirmation of the strength of its Asian ally, and represented the peak of a fascination with Japan in Britain that marked the first decade of the twentieth century. This culminated in the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition in London, which saw over eight million visitors pass through during its six-month tenure. In contrast, before the 1890s, Japan had been portrayed in Britain primarily as a relatively backward yet culturally interesting nation, with artists and intellectuals displaying considerable interest in Japanese art and literature. Japan’s importance as a military force was first recognized during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, and especially from the time of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan’s military prowess was popularly attributed to a supposedly ancient warrior spirit that was embodied in ‘bushido’, or the ‘way of the samurai’.
The ‘bushido’ ideal was popularized around the world especially through the prominent Japanese educator Nitobe Inazo’s (1862-1933) book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which was originally published in English in 1900 and achieved global bestseller status around the time of the Russo-Japanese War (a Japanese translation first appeared in 1908). The British public took a positive view towards the ‘national spirit’ of its ally, and many saw Japan as a model for curing perceived social ills. Fabian Socialists such as Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) and Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) lauded the supposed collectivism of ‘bushido’, while Alfred Stead (1877-1933) and other promoters of the Efficiency Movement celebrated Japan’s rapid modernization. For his part, H.G. Wells 1905 novel A Modern Utopia included a ‘voluntary nobility’ called ‘samurai,’ who guided society from atop a governing structure that he compared to Plato’s ideal republic. At the same time, British writers lamented the supposed decline of European chivalry from an earlier ideal, contrasting it with the Japanese who had seemingly managed to turn their ‘knightly code’ into a national ethic followed by citizens of all social classes.
The ‘bushido boom’ in Britain was not mere Orientalization of a distant society, however, but was strongly influenced by contemporary Japanese discourse on the subject. The term ‘bushido’ only came into widespread use around 1900, and even a decade earlier most Japanese would have been bemused by the notion of a national ethic based on the former samurai class. Rather than being an ancient tradition, the modern ‘way of the samurai’ developed from a search for identity among Japanese intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century. This process saw an increasing shift away from both Chinese and European thought towards supposedly native ideals, and the former samurai class provided a useful foundation. The construction of an ethic based on the ‘feudal’ samurai was given apparent legitimacy by the popularity of idealized chivalry and knighthood in nineteenth-century Europe, with the notion that English ‘gentlemanship’ was rooted in that nation’s ‘feudal knighthood’ proving especially influential. This early ‘bushido’ discourse profited from the nationalistic fervor following Japan’s victory over China in 1895, and the concept increasingly came to be portrayed as a unique and ancient martial ethic. At the same time, those theories that had drawn inspiration from European models came to be ignored, with one prominent Japanese promoter of ‘bushido’ deriding European chivalry as ‘mere woman-worship’.
In the first years of the twentieth century, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance contributed greatly to the positive reception in Britain of theories positing a Japanese ‘martial race’, and the fate of ‘bushido’ in the UK demonstrated the effect of geopolitics on theories of ‘national characteristics’. By 1914, British attitudes had begun to change amid increasing concern regarding Japan’s growing assertiveness. Even the Anglo-Japanese operation that finally captured Qingdao in November was marked by British distrust of Japanese aims in China, a sentiment that was strengthened by Japan’s excessive demands on China the following year. Following the war, Japan’s reluctance to return the captured territory to China caused British opposition to Japan’s China policy to increase, leading to the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1923. The two countries subsequently drifted even further apart, and by the 1930s, ‘bushido’ was popularly described in Britain as an ethic of treachery and cruelty, only regaining its positive status after 1945 through samurai films and other popular culture as Japan and Britain again became firm allies in the Cold War.
Headline image credit: Former German Governor’s Residence in Qingdao, by Brücke-Osteuropa. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
In Japan, there is a common myth of the spirit of language called kotodama (言霊, ことだま); a belief that some divine power resides in the Japanese language. This belief originates in ancient times as part of Shintoist ritual but the idea has survived through Japanese history and the term kotodama is still frequently mentioned in public discourse. The notion of kotodama is closely linked with Japanese linguistic identity, and the narrative of kotodama has been repeatedly reinterpreted according to non-linguistic factors surrounding Japan, as well as the changing idea of “purity” of language in Japan.
The term kotodama literally means “the spirit of language” (koto = language, dama (tama) = spirit or soul). It is a belief based on the idea of Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan which worships divinity in all natural creation and phenomena. In ancient Japan, language was believed to have a spirit, which gives positive power to positive words, negative power to negative words, and impacts a person’s life when his or her name is pronounced out loud. Wishes or curses were thus spelled out in a particular manner in order to communicate with the divine powers. According to this ancient belief, the spirit of language only resides in “pure” Japanese that is unique and free from foreign influence. Therefore, Sino-Japanese loanwords, which were numerous by then and had a great impact on the Japanese language, were eschewed in Shintoist rituals and Japanese native vocabulary, yamatokotoba, was preferred. Under the name of kotodama, this connection between spiritual power and pure language survived throughout Japanese history as a looser concept and was reinvented multiple times.
One of the most significant historical moments in which the myth of kotodama was reinvented was during the Second World War. In order to strengthen national solidarity, the government reintroduced the idea of kotodama, coupling it with the idea of kokutai (国体, こくたい, koku = country or nation, tai = body), the Japanese national polity. The government promoted the idea that the use of “pure” and traditional Japanese language was at the core of the national unity and social virtue that is unique to Japan, while failing to use the right language would lead to violation of the national polity. Under the belief of kotodama, proposals to abolish or reduce the use of kanji (Chinese characters), which had been introduced since the modernization of the country in the second half of the nineteenth century, were fiercely rejected. Instead, the use of kanji as well as traditional non-vernacular orthographic style was encouraged. Furthermore, based on the kotodama myth, the use of Western loanwords was strictly banned as they belonged to the language of the enemy (tekiseigo) and those words were replaced by Sino-Japanese words. For example, the word ragubî, which is the loan from the English word “rugby,” was replaced by tôkyû, a Sino-Japanese word meaning “fight ball.” The word anaunsâ, which is the loan from the English word “announcer,” was replaced by hôsôin, a Sino-Japanese word meaning “broadcasting person.”
It is interesting to note that the kotodama myth was reinvented to encourage the use of Sino-Japanese elements, whereas in the ancient belief the myth promoted the Japanese native elements and eschewed Sino-Japanese elements. In other words, Sino-Japanese was redefined as the essential element of the “pure” and “traditional” Japanese language. Even the movements to simplify the Japanese orthographic system by abolishing the use of Chinese characters and using only kana (phonetic syllabaries) to write Japanese were considered to be violations of kotodama, despite the fact that kana was invented in Japan. This complete reversal of the position of Sino-Japanese elements can be explained by the belief that the increasing use of Western loanwords was creating a new threat to the Japanese linguistic identity. The idea of kokutai, along with other militarist propaganda, was stigmatized in post-war Japanese society and faded away. However, the idea of kotodama survived through the post-war democratization period into contemporary Japan with yet another face.
You still hear the word kotodama today. A song titled “Ai no Kotodama [Kotodama of Love] – Spiritual Message” performed by a Japanese pop rock band, Southern All Stars, is a well-known hit which has sold over a million since it was recorded in 1996. Above all, one frequently sees the term kotodama used in public debates on the subject of foreign loanwords (gairaigo, which excludes Sino-Japanese loans). For example, an article from a nationwide newspaper stated that “loanwords are threatening the country of kotodama.” Thus the idea of kotodama is still linked to the purity of language in contrast to Western loanwords but, unlike the link between kotodama and political identity of the country made during World War Two, it seems that the myth is now linked to its cultural and social identity while recent waves of globalization have increased the diversity within the contemporary Japan.
The diversity of Japanese society goes hand in hand with the diversity of its vocabulary, which we can see from the rapid increase of loanwords in Japanese. However, at the same time, this increases a sense of insecurity in relation to the linguistic and cultural identity of Japan. As a result, the ancient myth of kotodama has been reinvented as a way to manifest Japanese linguistic identity through the idea of a “pure” language. Kotodama has no fixed definition, and continues to transform as Japanese society undergoes changes. It is questionable if the Japanese still really believe in the spiritual power of language — however, the myth of linguistic purity persists in the mind of the Japanese through the word kotodama.
Every time you want to stop writing about "Frozen," it breaks another record. This weekend, the Disney smash hit remained in first place at the Japanese box office for an incomprehensible eleventh weekend in a row.
Launch of new series: What Is It?
I’d like to introduce a new series of posts I’m going to be writing called: What Is It? I’ll be exploring topics related to the world of books and reading as well as taking suggestions from you.
What Is It? Haiku To kick things off, I’ve decided the first topic in this new series is going to be haiku. Haiku is a mystery to many devotees of the written word – myself included – so, I’ve gone out into the world to learn more about the mysteriously clever art of haiku and share my findings with you.
At a glance:
- Haiku is a word for a specific type of poem and is originally from Japan
- A haiku (poem) contains a specific number of syllables (like a limerick contains a defined number of lines)
- A haiku contains a total of 17 syllables divided into 3 lines
- The first line has 5 syllables, the second has 7, and the third and final line contains 5 syllables
- A haiku doesn’t have to rhyme and most of the time they don’t
- Popular haiku subjects include elements from nature (seasons, animals, plants)
If you’ve been inspired by reading some haiku by other authors and feel ready to try your hand at writing one yourself, then Writing and Enjoying Haiku: a Hands-On Guide by Jane Reichhold seems like a good a place as any to start. You’ll read how haiku can bring a: “centered, calming atmosphere into one’s life, by focusing on the outer realities of life instead of the naggings of the inner mind.” Sounds perfect doesn’t it?
There’s a fantastic sub culture of haiku for nerds, and this one looks like a great collection: Nerd Haiku by author Robb Pearlman. It contains 200 poems that speak to “core elements of the nerd universe: science fiction, fantasy, comic books, super heroes, big-budget movies, role-playing games, technology, TV series, animation, cosplay, and video games.”
Let me know if you already enjoy haiku, or if you’re delving into this subject matter for the first time. Have you written a haiku about your love of books? If so, we’d love to read it. Here’s my attempt, although with much help:
Boomerang Books blog Prose and opinion combine Best explored with friends
Hopefully this new series will cover some interesting topics and inspire you to explore new areas in literature. Suggestions are very welcome, so please comment below and tell us what you’d like to know more about in the great world of books.
Issues concerning Imperial Japan’s wartime “comfort women” have ignited international debates in the past two decades, and a number of personal accounts of “comfort women” have been published in English since the 1990s. Until recently, however, there has been a notable lack of information about the women drafted from Mainland China. Chinese Comfort Women is the first book in English to record the first-hand experiences of twelve Chinese women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese Imperial forces during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945). Here, author and translator Peipei Qiu (who wrote the book in collaboration with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei), answers some questions about her new book.
What is one of the most surprising facts about “comfort women” that you found during your research?
One of the shocking facts revealed in this book is that the scope of military sexual slavery in the war was much larger than previously known. Korean and Japanese researchers, based on the information available to them, had estimated that the Japanese military had detained between 30,000 and 200,000 women to be sex slaves during the war. These early estimations, however, don’t accurately reflect the large number of Chinese women enslaved. Investigations conducted by Chinese researchers suggest a much higher number. My collaborating researcher Su Zhiliang, for example, estimates that between 1931 and 1945 approximately 400,000 women were forced to become military “comfort women,” and that at least half of them were drafted from Mainland China.
Although it is not possible to obtain accurate statistics on the total number of kidnappings, documented cases suggest shockingly large numbers. For instance, around the time of the Nanjing Massacre, the Japanese army abducted tens of thousands of women from Nanjing and the surrounding areas, including over 2,000 women from Suzhou, 3,000 from Wuxi, and 20,000 from Hangzhou. These blatant kidnappings continued throughout the entire war, the youngest abductee’s being only nine years old.
Chinese and Malayan girls forcibly taken from Penang by the Japanese to work as ‘comfort girls’ for the troops. The Allied Reoccupation of the Andaman Islands, 1945. Lemon A E (Sergeant), No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit. War Office, Central Office of Information and American Second World War Official Collection. IWM Non Commercial Licence. Imperial War Museums.
What impressed you most deeply when you heard the stories of these women?
What struck me most deeply were the “comfort women’s” horrendous sufferings. I felt strongly that their stories must be told to the world. Many of the women were teenagers when the Japanese Imperial Forces kidnapped them. They were given the minimum amount of food necessary to keep them alive and were subjected to multiple rapes each day. Those who resisted were beaten or killed, and those who attempted to escape would be punished with anything from torture to decapitation, and the punishment often included not only the woman but also her family members.
The brutal torture was not only physical. These women confined in the so-called “comfort stations” lived in constant fear and agony, not knowing how long they would have to endure and what would happen to them the following day, worrying what their families went through trying to save them, and witnessing other women being tortured and killed. During research and writing I often could not hold back tears, and their stories always remain heavily and vividly in my mind.
I was also deeply impressed by their resilience and faith in humanity. These women were brutally tortured and exploited by the Japanese imperial forces during the war, and when the war ended, members of their own patriarchal society discarded them as defiled and useless. Many of them were ignored, treated as collaborators with the enemy, or even persecuted. Yet what the survivors remember and recount is not only suffering and anger but also acts of humanity – no matter how little they themselves have witnessed. Wan Aihua, though gang-raped multiple times and nearly beaten to death by Japanese troops, never forgot an army interpreter who saved her from a Japanese officer’s sword. She told us, “I didn’t know if the interpreter was Japanese, but I believe there were kind people in the Japanese troops, just as there are today, when many Japanese people support our fight for justice.”
What motivated you to write this book?
In part, I was shocked by the lack of information available. In this day and age, it feels like every fact or story to be known is easily at our fingertips. However, in this instance, it was not the case. Even after the rise of the “comfort women” redress movement, most of the focus was on the “comfort women” of Japan and its colonies, and little was known about Chinese “comfort women” outside of China. This created a serious issue in understanding the history of the Asia-Pacific war and to the study of the entire “comfort women” issue. Without a thorough understanding of Chinese “comfort women’s” experiences, an accurate explication of the scope and nature of that system cannot be achieved.
In the past two decades, how to understand what happened to “comfort women” has become an international controversy. Some Japanese politicians and activists insist that “comfort women” were prostitutes making money at frontlines, that there was not evidence of direct involvements of Japanese military and government. And they say telling the stories of “comfort women” disgraces the Japanese people.
One of the main purposes for me to write about Chinese “comfort women” is to help achieve a transnational understanding of their sufferings. To understand what happened to the “comfort women,” we must transcend the boundaries of nation-state. I hope to demonstrate that fundamentally confronting the tragedy of “comfort women” is not about politics, nor is it about national interests; it is about human life. Dismissing individual sufferings in the name of national honor is not only wrong but also dangerous, it is a ploy that nation-states have used, and continue to use, to drag people into war, to deprive them of their basic rights, and to abuse them.
Peipei Qiu is the author and translator of Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves, which she wrote in collaboration with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei. She is currently professor of Chinese and Japanese on the Louise Boyd Dale and Alfred Lichtenstein Chair and director of the Asian Studies Program at Vassar College.
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This is one of those great novels that blends up truth and imagination so well that the lines between fact and fiction are so blurred you don’t even know where to begin trying to unravel it. It also doubles the intrigue especially the way Jesse Ball structures the story to unfurl piece by piece, layer by layer in such a way you are taken by surprise after surprise.
The story concerns the “Narito Disappearances”. A crime that baffled local authorities in Osaka where eight people had gone missing seemingly without a trace until one day a signed confession is handed in to police. The man who has made the confession is quickly arrested and doesn’t say another word. But this is not a whodunit because as the story goes on we see there is a much bigger and more important question that who.
“I am looking for this mystery. Not the mystery of what happened but the mystery of how”
One one level this is an ingenious crime novel. By telling the story in a different order the facts and “truth” aren’t revealed to us until we get to the beginning of the story. Rather than telling the story in chronological order we follow the path Jesse Ball’s investigation follows like a trail of breadcrumbs. Ball recounts his investigation through interview transcripts and internal notes as well as letters and other documents he is given along the way. Each interview shines a little more light onto the story and leads Jesse to another piece of the puzzle.
I was so engrossed in this book it wasn’t until finishing it that I truly digested what I had read. In many ways this is a modern parable about the moral fallacies we place on our systems of justice but the skill and subtlety in which Jesse Ball tells the story gives it not just power but also emotional resonance. And by doing so Jesse Ball gets to the absolute core of what a crime story is and what it should mean when we read one.
Recommended for ages 8-12 This slim historical novel in verse packs an wallop of an emotional punch. It tells the story of Mina Tagawa, a young Japanese-American girl from Seattle who along with her family is imprisoned in an internment camp in Idaho, where they live for three years. The author sensitively portrays this shameful period in our history, and the way in which different members of Mina's family react: her stoic grandfather; her angry father, a newspaper reporter who is arrested soon after Pearl Harbor; her frustrated teenaged brother, who joins the highly decorated Japanese regiment that fought in Europe. We also see the reaction of Mina's white best friend and her family, who try to remain loyal to their Japanese American friends and neighbors during this difficult time. In a particularly moving passage, Mina's brother Nick writes of his experience liberating Dachau, drawing comparisons to the camp he lived in Idaho surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers like the ones he saw in Germany. In an afterword, the author explains that she was inspired to write Dust of Eden by her childhood doctor, a second-generation Japanese American who was interned along with his family during World War II. The afterword gives a short background on the chronology of the internment. Add a Comment
My obsession with David Mitchell continues and is getting more intense. There are books you devour. There are books you savour and never want to end. And then there are David Mitchell books which are both. I went with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet because there was a reference and crossover with The Bone Clocks. It is […]
I've just returned from five heady weeks in Tokyo, soaking up life back in the old metropolis, the place I lived for nearly half my life. Every year daughter and I go back to Japan, usually in the summer, every year we return with new and unique experiences, the only constant being the humidity and the constant murmur of cicadas, though this year there were several unseasonably cool spells amidst the swelter.
It's wonderful to explore familiar locations, see old friends and family, but I also had a very busy schedule of preparation, culminating in a ten day solo exhibition at Space Yui in Aoyama, followed by another seven day show (currently still running as I write) at Yui Garden in Yokohama.
The front porch of Space Yui
No matter how many years go by my fascination with Tokyo remains undiminished, I try to be as busy as I can when we go back, it's a city that demands purpose and direction. As I no longer live in Japan I find that without such direction and with daughter mostly staying with her grandparents I start to feel an emptiness, ponder too deeply on the past and other topics best left alone. No, move on, on, always onwards! Like the city itself, my relationship with Tokyo is constantly evolving, the journey continues.
Hanging day at Space Yui with gallery owner Hideyo Kimura
It's been busy, inspiring and very encouraging. The exhibition, still on at Yui Garden, centres around original artwork from my recent picture book Stone Giant (Ishi no Kyojin in Japanese), from which visitors can order Neograph prints (giclée art prints overprinted with a fine silkscreen to prevent oxidation and deterioration ofcolour, rendering prints that are virtually indistinguishable from artwork). I also created several smaller pieces of original art specifically for the show.
Book of prints, and artwork from Stone Giant
Some of the smaller images created especially for the show
Wolves in the Forest
The gallery staff have been supportive beyond measure, Space Yui is a key part of my platform in Japan, the care and encouragement I receive there is inspiriting and progressive, all credit due to Kimura-san and her team.
Opening party, with guests including Komine Shoten editor Tsuyoshi Yamagishi (left) and picture book creator Satoshi Kitamura (right)
Opening party - with Togo Kasahara, designer Hiroyasu Murofushi (I & I Inc) and Takeshi Fujisaki
Opening party, with illustrator Satoshi Kitamura (background), curator Taiko Nakazawa, Tomoe Furuhashi and DJ Young Richard
The show at Space Yui began with a busy opening followed by a regular stream of visitors, I was quite overwhelmed by the large number of attendees. Signed copies of the Japanese edition of Stone Giant (Ishi no Kyojin) sold out within the first few days and had to be re-stocked by publisher Komine Shoten.
Signed copies of the Japanese edition Ishi no Kyojin
There were several highlight successes, the biggest being news of several competing offers for the Japanese rights to my next US book Crinkle, Crackle, Crack!. Written by Marion Dane Bauer (who also wrote the 2012 released Halloween Forest), the US edition is due for publication through Holiday House next year. I'll post more about the Japanese edition when details have been confirmed.
With art director Susumu Yamada (Tokyo Planet Design)
With members of SCBWI Japan
With Emi Noguchi
With my daughter and photographer Hitoshi Iwakiri
The exhibition is now on at the fabulous new gallery Yui Garden in Nakamachidai, Yokohama. In a building created by and for an architect's design office that overlooks Seseragi Park, the setting, interior and atmosphere is simply exquisite. If you're in the area before it closes on the 8th please do drop by.
Entrance to Yui Garden
The show at Yui Garden
It's been a wonderful summer. Many thanks to all the gallery staff and visitors to the exhibition!
A buzz has been building about Australian author Mark Henshaw’s long awaited second novel after Out of the Line of Fire. The Snow Kimono (Text) is a literary psychological thriller set in Japan and France. Insights into both those countries shape the contours, ridges and atmosphere of the novel. Paris is wet and snowy and […]