A Geek in Japan | 2010 April
Adventures of a geek living in Japan
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Alcatraz Restaurant

“Alcatraz” is a thematic restaurant, advertised as a “Medical Prison”. It’s a quite strange concept but the result is pretty cool. When you enter the restaurant you feel as if you were in a medieval dungeon. Some nurses (waitresses) welcome you and the first thing they do is to ask you about your blood type, they handcuff you and take you to your cell.

The food is not bad but it’s somewhat expensive. All dishes and drinks have interesting names like for example “Flu”, “Morphine” or “Mental Stabilizer”, and some of them are served in test tubes. Moreover, the cutlery reminds you of the one used in prisons in Hollywood movies.

During the dinner there are some actors (waiters) dressed up as monsters that play as if they were mentally retarded running around the cells and scaring you when you go out of the toilet.

It is a great restaurant, but I liked more the Ninja Restaurant! Here you have the map to get to the restaurant.

Alcatraz restaurant

Alcatraz restaurant

Alcatraz restaurant

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The Kuril Islands dispute

Walking around Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido (the northernmost prefecture in Japan), we saw several times these signs claiming: “Let’s regain Japan’s Northern Territories with the Spirit of the Whole Nation”.

Hokkaido

All Kuril Islands were Japanese from 1875 until the San Francisco treaty was signed in 1945, since then the Kuril Islands belong to Russia. Even so, Japan claims the islands as part of its national territory, specially the four islands which are very near Hokkaido (as seen in the sign on the picture). These four islands have a Japanese name and most of its inhabitants belong to the ethnic group Ainu, who speak Japanese (the Ainu language is in danger of extinction)

Kuril Islands
In this map from Wikipedia you can see how the Japanese control over the Kuril Islands changed over the years.

Some years ago Russia was thinking about giving back some of the islands to Japan, but they eventually backed out.

More information about the dispute in Hokkaido prefecture website and Wikipedia.

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10 Japanese movies

Due to lack of funds not many new movies are made in Japan these days, the Japanese movie industry is in crisis. Even so, the movies produced are usually pretty interesting. To watch movies made in different countries is an excellent way to understand the diversity of cultures, values, ways of thinking and lifestyles around the world. Japanese cinema is usually quite slow but full of semantics; however these semantics many times transmit nostalgic and negative feelings, specially movies produced right after the war. In this post I will write about some Japanese movies I’ve seen lately, in no particular order. I think that, as a whole, these movies represent fairly well different genres and styles of Japanese cinema and will give you a good grasp of the cinema of Japan. Have you seen any of these movies? What Japanese movies have you seen lately? Any recommendations?

1.- Ran

The last Akira Kurosawa movie I still hadn’t seen. Ran was one of his last movies and maybe the one in which he spent the most time; it took him 10 years to prepare the sketches and the script. At the beginning, the rhythm of the movie is very slow, but it helps to create tension in the viewers. After the first battle the rhythm increases and then the plot hooks the audience until the end.

An honorable feudal lord named Hidetora, that had never lost a battle, is nearing the end of his life and decides to call his three sons in order to distribute his inheritance. What he didn’t know is that the hearts of his sons were full of evil and eager for power.

Ran Japanese movie
Hidetora (standing up) distributing his territories and castles among his three sons (on the background) in one of the first scenes of Ran.

Cine japonés

Cine japonés
Akira Kurosawa during the shooting of Ran

Score: 8.3 stars on imdb
Ran on DVD at Amazon.com

2.- Higanjima

Higanjima is one of the latest Japanese blockbusters. It is based on a popular manga with the same name. A group of friends from high school in a small town get together to go to a mysterious island called Higanjima; nobody has ever come back alive from the island but they decide to go there to rescue the brother of Akira. It turns out that the island is full of vampires and all kind of different monsters! Higanjima is an adventure movie, the classic situation where people in a group of friends facing a life or death situation start to doubt about everybody else, but little by little they manage to get by fighting forward like in an RPG.

The movie loses rhythm after half hour and in general is pretty bad. Even so, I enjoyed the mix of Japanese and Hollywood cultural elements.

Japanese cinema Higanjima
Front cover of one of the manga volumes

Higanjima DVD cover
Higanjima DVD cover

Score: 5.6 stars on imdb

3.- Tajomaru

Being based on an excellent novel by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Tajomaru could have been an amazing movie. The script combines love stories, betrayal stories, family problems, respect depending on the caste of the characters, power ambition, etc. However the actors are quite bad, the pace of the movie has many ups and downs and the music doesn’t go well with the action. It is entertaining for a boring Sunday afternoon and indispensable if you enjoy movies set in medieval Japan.

Japanese cinema Tajomaru

Score: 6.0 stars on imdb
Tajomaru on DVD at Amazon.com

4.- Okuribito (Departures)

Okuribito or Departures (international name) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last year. It had been very long since a Japanese movie hadn’t won the award. Daigo works playing the cello in an orchestra in Tokyo but he is forced to abandon his passion and he returns back to his hometown in Yamagata to live with his wife. He finds a job in a funeral parlor… It is a rather sad movie that really gets to you heart. The soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi is fabulous.

Japanese cinema Departures Okuribito
Okuribito English version poster.

Score: 8.2 stars on imdb
Departures on DVD at Amazon.com

5.- Topazu (Tokyo Decadence)

Topazu or Tokyo Decadence (international name) is a movie that Ryu Murakami made in the 80’s. I saw it because it caught my attention that a writer that has been writing novels for more than 20 years had also directed a movie.

If you see Tokyo Decadence you can get an idea of how people lived in Tokyo at the height of the Japanese bubble of the end of the 1980s. The main character is a prostitute specialized in sadomasochist services that has to endure the perversions of a lot of rich people in hotel suites in Tokyo. She is not happy but she lives with the hope that her platonic love is reciprocated.

I really enjoyed the cinematography, the atmosphere, and being able to see Japan 30 years; but the movie in general was dull and monotonous. Anyway, I recommend it to Ryu Murakami fans (not to be confused with Haruki Murakami)

Japanese cinema Tokyo Decadence

Score: 6.0 stars on imdb

6.- Goemon

Goemon, the most popular Japanese thief, is the main character in this movie. The story is based on the legend of the historical character Goemon, who supposedly existed. Oda Nobunaga betrays his most loyal vassal Hideyoshi Toyotomi; the young Goemon is loyal to Nobunaga and the anger makes him look for revenge to give back the honor to his feudal lord. Samurai story, epic battles (including Sekigahara battle), cutting-edge special effects, all condensed in more than two hours.

Goemon Japanese cinema

Goemon Japanese cinema

Score: 6.9 stars on imdb
Goemon on DVD at Amazon.com

7.- Akiresu to kame (Achilles and the Tortoise)

Akiresu to kame or Achilles and the Tortoise (international name) is the latest movie by Takeshi Kitano, one of the most known Japanese directors outside of Japan. Akiresu to kame is a movie with many autobiographical elements, that the director uses to make fun of his own life as an artist. The nostalgic feeling of the movie reminded me a lot of Kikujiro no Natsu (known internationally as Kikujiro), also directed by Takeshi Kitano. I loved Akiresu to kame! Great movie!

Japanese cinema Achilles and the Tortoise

Score: 7.5 stars on imdb

8.- Shogun Assassin (Kozure okami: Ko wo kashi ude kashi tsukamatsuru)

Based on Kazuo Koike manga Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami). The movie was released in 1980 and the truth is that, having read the manga, I wasn’t expecting too much of it, however I have to say that I loved it. Pure adrenaline!
The plot is based around a samurai (ronin) father and son who are looking for revenge. The father, “Lone Wolf”, is played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, one of the best martial arts actors at the time. His performance in battles is brilliant and gives the movie a lot realism in some parts.
Don’t miss it if you enjoy samurais and revenge stories, like for example The Vengeance Trilogy or Kill Bill. In fact, Quentin Tarantino admits loving Shogun Assassin and that he watched it several times before and during the production of Kill Bill.

Japanese movies Shogun Assassin

Score: 8.0 stars on imdb
Shogun Assassin on DVD at Amazon.com

9.- Seppuku (Harakiri)

One of the best movies I’ve seen lately. The script is impressive and the performance of Tatsuya Nakadai superb. There are different movies with the same title, be careful, the good on is the one directed by Masaki Kobayashi in 1962. Almost all the movie is set in the same place, where the main character thinks aloud in front of a court about the dilemma of committing suicide or not following the Japanese harakiri/seppuku ritual.

Harakiri Japanese movie
The main character on his knees in front of a katana, which he will have to use to end his life.

Score: 8.2 stars on imdb
Harakiri on DVD at Amazon.com

10.- Crows Zero 2 (クローズZERO 2 Kurōzu Zero 2)

Another movie based on a manga. The action is set in a high school full of gangs related to yakuza groups; where there frequently violent fights and many other problems. Directed by Takashi Miike, the blood scenes are guaranteed althought not to the levels of Audition, another movie by the same director.

Crows Zero 2 Japanese movie

Score (I guess it has been inflated by votes from many fans of the manga) : 7.2 stars on imdb
Crows Zero 2 on DVD at Amazon.com

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Tsukiji fish market

Tsukiji fish market has been recently on the news because it has been temporarily closed to the public. I visited Tsukiji fish market for the first time when I just arrived to Japan in 2004. These were my impressions when I visited Tsukiji at the time, which I wrote in my Spanish blog:

Tsukiji, in Tokyo, is the largest fish market in the world. Beside being huge, it is worldwide known for its really exotic variety of species like huge tuna fishes, whales, blowfishes or mussels the size of your head. We went to Tsukiji early morning (at 7:30 am) when it’s the most crowded; there we found many people driving around with some kind of carts that move really fast. If you don’t pay attention, one of those carts will run you over, they just don’t care if there’s people around.

Tsukiji fish market
Tsukiji fish market

We were really looking forward to see how they cut 300 kg tuna fishes (maguro in Japanese language, very important word in Japanese restaurants). In no more than some minutes they cut a whole fish and prepare it to be frozen; they have really developed a perfect technique to do it as fast as possible. If you want to practice cutting fish, there are arcade machines in Game Centers to practice your fish cutting skills with a plastic knife. There are also arcade games where you have to go fishing in a small boat in the sea and other similar games. As you can see, there is a great passion for fish-related stuff in Japan.

Cutting maguro in Tsukiji
Cutting maguro in Tsukiji

After seeing the maguro cutting, we were given some chopsticks and we ate some fresh raw maguro with a little bit of soy sauce. Amazing breakfast!!

To conclude the post, a small Japanese language lesson. The kanji that we are going to learn is very useful when you are trying to look for a restaurant that serves fish. Fish is “Sakana” in Japanese, it is written using the following kanji:

Kanji of fish = Sakana
Kanji of fish = Sakana

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Having money so close and so far at the same time

I captured with my camera these two men that live on the streets of Tokyo next to a couple of banks; I felt sorry for them and they made me think about the irony of this world in where we live. The first one is next to Acomu offices, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi UFJ bank, specialized in lending money using short-term loans (from one month to one year) but with really expensive interest rates (between 8% and 18% depending on the case). The second man had built “his home” next to a Mitsubishi UFJ bank branch, one of the largest financial institutions in the world.

Homeless japan

Homeless japan

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Sanyo Eneloop

The brand “Eneloop” has been lately one of the most popular Sanyo brands in Japan. The first product under the Eneloop brand was a battery recharger with no special features; maybe the key to its success was its design simplicity which reminds you a lot of Apple products. Another key to its success was that it was released to coincide with the launch of the Nintendo Wii, whose controllers make the use of rechargeable batteries practically indispensable. In big retailer store, there was almost always an Eneloop stand right next to the Nintendo Wii one.

Eneloop

When Sanyo saw the success of the battery rechargers, Sanyo decided to expand the brand releasing all kind of battery rechargers and batteries. There are also available adapters that you can connect directly to the iPhone so the battery lasts longer, solar chargers for cellphones and also an Eneloop bicycle that has a Sanyo battery.

Eneloop
This dog-shaped recharger can recharge an AAA battery.

Eneloop

Eneloop

Eneloop

Eneloop

Sanyo Eneloop

Eneloop
The Eneloop bicycle

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The largest population of robots in the world

Many American science fiction movies portray robots as a danger to humanity, some movies even portray robots as rulers of the world above humans. On the other hand, Japanese movies and manga usually show robots as kind and empathic creatures plenty of feelings. For example, in some anime shows robots help humanity to save the planet against alien menaces. Most Japanese people like the idea of a society where robots take more and more importance helping them in their everyday life.

Terminator
Frequently robots in western fiction are evil. (more Terminator photos here)

Astroboy
On the other hand, Japanese fiction usually portrays robots with a pleasant and likeable face and as superheroes capable of saving humanity.

The Japanese population is expected to decline from 127 million inhabitants right now to 103 million people in the year 2050. The forecast is optimistic regarding the birth rate and immigration. It is without a doubt an unprecedented decline of population in human history, which is severely affecting the economy of the country.

Nowadays, Japan is the country with the largest population of robots in the world. There are 1,000,056 industrial robots operating around the world according to the International Federation of Robotics. Almost a third of those robots, 298,000 units, are in Japan; 166,000 are in United States, Canada and Mexico, and 336,000 are in Europe. In 2008, the industrial robotics market handled more than 9,000 million euro (12,000 million dollars), and 79% of the market was controlled by Japanese corporations, the largest one of them being Kawasaki, more known in the west for its motorcycles than for its robots.

Some years ago there was a debate about whether robots could steal the jobs from humans, something that would make the unemployment rate to go up. In Japan, the ironic thing is that the lack of people is making a necessity that robots replace people without affecting the unemployment rate. Robots have become an essential part of the working force of the country. Toyota, the corporation in the world with more operational industrial robots, is also the corporation that uses them with the highest efficiency. Toyota production lines are the fastest in the world, its robots can produce a car in just a few hours almost without human help.

Another kind of robots that is starting to make up for the lack of people are service robots. For example, Japan faces a great lack of nurses. The aging of the population is causing a dramatic rise in the numbers of people admitted to hospitals and living in geriatric centers. The lack of young people able to assist the elderly is being offset by the introduction of service robots capable of doing complex tasks like, for example, helping people to get up from bed and go with them to the bathroom, or even fry an egg.

Defense, rescues, security and logistics are other sectors where service robots are gaining more and more importance. There have already been many cases where robots have been the hero of a rescue in a catastrophe in Japan, mostly in earthquakes.

Taking into account industrial robots, service robots and domestic robots, there are more than 5 million operational robots in Japan. It is forecasted that at the end of this decade there will be more than 30 million. Robots are becoming more and more commonplace in our everyday life, not only in Japan but all around the world. They are here to make our lives easier and they are indirectly changing the rules of the game, our society and the economy, as computers did in the second half of the twentieth century.

Article originally published in the Spanish newspaper El País.

Other articles published in El País:

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Osamu Tezuka in Takadanobaba

Osamu Tezuka, considered the father of manga, was born in the neighborhood of Takadanobaba in 1928. Takadanobaba is a quiet student neighborhood in Tokyo located near Waseda University, north of Shinjuku. Tezuka lived practically all his live in Takadanobaba and the neighborhood appears sometimes in some of his works; for example in his manga Astro Boy, the main character was born in the “future” in the year 2003 in Takadanobaba. Tezuka Osamu died at the end of the 80s, but his work is still alive in Japan. In 2003, to celebrate the “birth” of Astro Boy, streets in Takadanobaba were decorated with murals to pay tribute to one of the most respected mangakas in history. The murals are permanent and you can see them if you visit the subway station (it’s only 5 minutes from Shinjuku using the Yamanote line)

Takadanobaba Osamu Tezuka

Takadanobaba Osamu Tezuka

Takadanobaba Osamu Tezuka

Takadanobaba

Takadanobaba

Tezuka
Atmosphere next to the station.

Tezuka

Tezuka

Tezuka

Tezuka

Takadanobaba

Takadanobaba

Takadanobaba

Takadanobaba

Takadanobaba
Advertising of an academy to educate future movie animators.

When Yamanote trains stop at Takadanobaba station, the Astro Boy melody is played in the subway. In this video you can hear the song:

Tezuka

Tezuka

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Random pictures

I bring you here some more pictures that were waiting to be published but don’t deserve a post on their own. I hope you like them.

House without windows
House without windows

Varias
This one has windows but the balcony is somewhat weird.

Takeshi Kitano ad
Kitano Takeshi ad in Shibuya.

Okonomiyaki
Advertising for a chain of okonomiyaki restaurants. For those studying Japanese, can you find the pun?

Polygonal house
I was walking randomly around Tokyo streets and bumped into the polygonal house!

AKB48
AKB48 section in a shop. AKB48 is one of the most popular idol music bands in Japan at the moment.

Don't get drunk
Don’t get drunk and cause trouble in the subway.

Curious house facade
Curious house facade.

Yoyogi-Hachiman
Yoyogi-Hachiman in Tokyo in the moonlight.

Don't know
I don’t know exactly what it is. We found it in west Tokyo.

.
A state of the art electronic dictionary. It is an ideal device to learn Japanese!

Ginza station
Ginza station, without people!

Turfy merchandising
Turfy merchandising stall; I think it is a horse races mascot. If somebody knows something about Turfy let us know.

Aquarius advertising
Aquarius Vitamin Guard advertising in the subway. I think this kind of Aquarius is only sold in Japan.

Crappy bus stop
Another crappy bus stop

Unkempt house in Tokyo
Unkempt buildings in Tokyo downtown. Notice that the light post is also falling apart. It’s not difficult to find some parts of Japanese cities that look like they have been abandoned.

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Geminoid

Geminoid is the name of the robot being developed by professor Ishiguro from the Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories. The objective of professor Ishiguro is to create a robot that is an exact copy of himself. That is to say, he wants to create an artificial professor Ishiguro. Seeing the results of his first prototype, he is doing a pretty good job:

Geminoid android
Professor Ishiguro next to his Geminoid.

Applying the knowledge he has acquired during the development of the first prototypes of Geminoid, the next challenge of professor Ishiguro is to develop a replica of a woman that could be used in hospitals to keep company with patients.

Geminoid robot

The cost of developing a Geminoid (a robot designed taking a concrete real human as a model) following Ishiguro’s techniques is approximately 80,000 euros (110,000 dollars). It is still extremely expensive to have viable commercial applications. What do you think about it? Does it cross the uncanny valley? Would you like to have you own “Geminoid”?

More information about the Geminoid.

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