Posts Tagged ‘japan’

Photo: The Smart Local.
Members of the Gomi Hiroi Samurai, or the trash-collecting samurai, wear full-length samurai outfits and wield waste tongs that look like swords.

Proving that any kind of work can be turned into a game, Rebecca Rosman and Julia Kim report at Public Radio International’s the World, about some waste pickers in Japan.

“Passersby do a double take when they see Kaz Kobayashi and Ikki Goto. The two men glide through Tokyo’s bustling Ikebukuro district in full-length samurai outfits, while wielding objects that look like swords. They are members of the Gomi Hiroi Samurai or the trash-collecting samurai. …

“On closer inspection, their samurai swords — or katanas — are actually just very long tongs, used to pick up litter. Kobayashi said the tongs are important for novelty value.

“ ‘We’re doing this as entertainment … but it can be tiring sometimes. It’s tough, Man.’

“The Gomi Hiroi Samurai do this three times a week. There’s four of them, and they’re professional actors. In their spare time, they volunteer to keep the streets of Tokyo clean. Goto formed the group in 2009. Since then, they have become a viral sensation on TikTok, with over 700,000 followers and counting.

“Here in Ikebukuro, they target back alleys and parking lots, which are rife with litter. Kobayashi and Goto, working in sync, slice and spin their tongs through the air, meticulously seizing cigarette butts one by one before tossing them into the wastebaskets strapped to their backs. …

“An hour later, Kobayashi and Goto took their wastebaskets to a recycling base. There, they separated out every piece of rubbish they’ve collected. They said that they hope to recruit more Gomi Hiroi samurai  in Japan — and around the world — to spread their message: ‘We punish immoral hearts.’

“It means that trash in and of itself isn’t bad. Instead, it’s people and the actions that stem from their negative mindsets. And a growing sense of negativity is something that Kobayashi said worries him.

“ ‘This is a problem in Japan,’ he said. ‘People don’t go outside.’

“Last month, a government survey showed that 1.5 million people are living as social recluses in Japan. With loneliness and depression on the rise, Kobayashi said he hopes that their fun, zany take on something as mundane as trash-collecting helps people reengage with the outside world.

“ ‘Samurai is a warrior,’ he said. ‘Our philosophy is to help people.’

“For these eco-warriors, ‘clean space, clear mind’ is more than just a saying — it’s the way of the Gomi Hiroi samurai.”

More at the World, here. I was amazed that the “samurai” are doing this hard work as volunteers. PRI also has stories on trash pickers in countries like India, Ghana, and Colombia, where they earn a meager amount of pay and live very difficult lives.

I have to say, I think that public litter is best addressed by everybody pitching in. Clean communities are often the result of peer pressure against creating litter in the first place and individuals who are proud enough of their community to pick up litter where they see it.

PS. In case you don’t always read the Comments, do look at Hannah’s, which included a tip about Ya Fave Trashman. Like the trash samurai, he adds entertainment to an undervalued job. His online talks gained him fame during the pandemic, when trash was piling up in Philadelphia. Read about him here.

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Photo: Studio Gibli via Comicbook.com.
Here’s a life-sized No Face from the wild imagination of “the world’s greatest living animator,” Hayao Miyazaki. You can see other beloved characters if you visit a new theme park in Japan.

All you friends of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, how would you like to get up close to some of his delightful, scary characters? I can’t imagine it’s quite as powerful as seeing them on the screen, but amusement-park developers in Japan are betting on fans wanting to enter the Miyazaki movies and take selfies with characters.

Sam Anderson writes at the New York Times, “As an American, I know what it feels like to arrive at a theme park. The totalizing consumerist embrace. The blunt-force, world-warping, escapist delight. I have known theme parks with entrance gates like international borders and ticket prices like mortgage payments and parking lots the size of Cleveland. … This is a theme park’s job: to swallow the universe. To replace our boring, aimless, frustrating world with a new one made just for us.

“Imagine my confusion, then, when I arrived at Ghibli Park, Japan’s long-awaited tribute to the legendary animation of Studio Ghibli.

“Like filmgoers all over the world, I had been fantasizing about a visit to Ghibli Park since the project was announced more than five years ago. … Hayao Miyazaki, the studio’s co-founder, is one of the all-time great imaginary world-builders — right up there with Lewis Carroll, Jim Henson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Charles Schulz, Maurice Sendak and composers of the Icelandic sagas. Even Miyazaki’s most fantastical creations — a castle with giant metal chicken legs, a yellow bus with the body of a cat — feel somehow thick and plausible and real.

“Miyazaki started Studio Ghibli in 1985, out of desperation, when he and his co-founders, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki, couldn’t find a studio willing to put out their work. The films were brilliant but notoriously artsy, expensive, labor-intensive. Miyazaki is maniacally detail-obsessed. He agonizes over his children’s cartoons as if he were Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. He will pour whole oceans of effort and time and money into the smallest effects: the way a jumping fish twists as it leaps, individual faces in a crowd reacting to an earthquake, the physics of tiles during a rooftop chase scene. …

“ ‘Ghibli’ is an Italian word, derived from Arabic, for a hot wind that blows across Libya. The plan was for the company to blow like a hot wind through the stagnant world of animation. It succeeded. For more than 35 years, Studio Ghibli has been the great eccentric juggernaut of anime, cranking out classic after odd classic: Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Only Yesterday (1991), Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001). …

“Did I find myself stepping into the wonders of Ghibli Park? My first impression was not awe or majesty or surrender or consumerist bliss. It was confusion. For a surprisingly long time after I arrived, I could not tell whether or not I had arrived. There was no security checkpoint, no ticket booths, no ambient Ghibli soundtrack, no mountainous Cat Bus statue. Instead, I found myself stepping out of a very ordinary train station into what seemed to be a large municipal park. A sea of pavement. Sports fields. Vending machines. It looked like the kind of place you might go on a lazy weekend to see a pretty good softball tournament. …

I wandered into and out of a convenience store. I saw some children wearing Totoro hats and started to follow them.

“It felt like some kind of bizarre treasure hunt — a theme park where the theme was searching for the theme park. Which was, in a way, perfectly Studio Ghibli: no pleasure without a little challenge. And so I headed down the hill, trying to find my way in.

“Like many non-Japanese viewers, I first encountered Studio Ghibli through the 2001 film Spirited Away. It is Miyazaki’s masterpiece, a popular and critical supertriumph that won the Oscar for best animated feature and became, for two decades, the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. Critics all over the world simultaneously fell out of their armchairs to praise it in the most ecstatic possible terms. …

“I, on the other hand, am not a film critic. I am an ordinary American … which means that my entertainment metabolism has been carefully tuned to digest the purest visual corn syrup. Sarcastic men with large guns. Yearning princesses with grumpy fathers. Explosive explosions explosively exploding. When I watched Spirited Away, at first I had no idea what I was looking at. In the simplest terms, the film tells the coming-of-age story of a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro. It takes place in a haunted theme park — where, almost immediately, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs, and Chihiro is forced to sign away her name and perform menial labor in a bathhouse for ghosts (ghosts, spirits, monsters, gods — it’s hard to know exactly what to call them, and the film never explains). …

“But plot isn’t really the point. The majestic thing about Spirited Away is the world itself. Miyazaki’s creativity is radically dense; every little molecule of the film seems charged with invention. The haunted bathhouse attracts a proliferation of very weird beings: giant yellow ducklings, a sentient slime-blob, fanged monsters with antlers, a humanoid radish spirit who appears to be wearing an upside-down red bowl for a hat. There is a trio of green disembodied heads, with black mustaches and angry faces, who bounce around and pile up on top of one another and grunt disapprovingly at Chihiro. There are so many creatures, stuffed into so many nooks and crannies, that it seems as if Miyazaki has been spending multiple eternities, on multiple planets, running parallel evolutionary timelines, just so he can sketch the most interesting results. As a viewer, you have to surrender to the abundance. Crowd-surf into the hallucination.

“Miyazaki knows that his work can be difficult — and he is, at all times, righteously defiant. ‘I must say that I hate Disney’s works,’ he once declared. ‘The barrier to both the entry and exit of Disney films is too low and too wide. To me, they show nothing but contempt for the audience.’ …

“Let’s pause here, briefly, to make sure we all fully appreciate No Face. The very best Miyazaki characters, the ones that hit on the deepest spiritual levels, are the ones that do not speak. Totoro, the Cat Bus, soot sprites, kodama (the little rattle-headed forest spirits in Princess Mononoke). And the greatest of all these — one of the great strange miracles in the history of cinema — is No Face. No Face is a lonely ghost who appears, out of thin air, in the middle of Spirited Away. He is so simple and deep, so eloquently silent, that it is hard to even describe him. Words themselves hesitate. This, in fact, is partly what No Face is about: the failure of language. …

“This was the one experience I absolutely wanted to have at Ghibli Park, the thing I had been fantasizing about from thousands of miles away: to sit next to No Face. I wanted to enter Miyazaki’s most iconic scene: No Face, sitting, expressionless, on a red velvet seat on an ethereal train near the end of Spirited Away. I needed to sit there with him, to put my real 3-D body next to his fake 3-D body. I needed to feel that I was gliding over the water, lonely but not alone, on his sad hopeful journey.

“Unfortunately, this turned out not to be possible. Everyone else in Japan seemed to have come to Ghibli Park to take this photo.” 

Read Anderson’s long, wonderful article at the Times, here. Better yet, find the movies and watch them.

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Photo: Sunphol Sorakul/Moment via Getty Images.
Some of Kyoto’s machiya homes that mix work and living space took on a new life during the pandemic, Bloomberg reports.

The places where people worked and the places where they slept merged during the pandemic. In Japan, that change gave an ancient style of architecture renewed prominence.

As Max Zimmerman wrote at Bloomberg CityLab in May, “While the pandemic has turned many kitchens and bedrooms into makeshift home offices around the world, there’s one style of housing in Japan that’s been mixing business and living space for centuries.

“The city of Kyoto is known for its stock of unique historical structures called Machiya, which get their name from two Japanese characters: machi — which in this context can mean a neighborhood, market or group of workshops — and ya, meaning dwelling. These beautiful wooden townhouses, which mingle residences with storefronts and workshops, offer a rare window into traditional Japanese life and architecture. Their design also raises an important contemporary question: How can aging homes created for a bygone lifestyle be incorporated into a modern city?

“Despite economic and cultural headwinds, machiya have proven capable of adapting to the present — and even influencing homes in the future.  An influx of tourists before Covid-19 saw many machiya find renewed purpose as restaurants or vacation rentals, while their mixed-use design provides lessons for people adjusting their lifestyles to working at home during the pandemic. 

Kyoto’s machiya reached their maturity as an urban form as early as the 17th century when, during a tumultuous period that still preoccupies Japanese culture today, the Tokugawa Shogunate ended more than a century of political violence.

“As the city rebuilt, massive demand for housing led to a standardization of designs, materials, measurements and fittings that allowed them to be erected quickly and inexpensively throughout the city. 

“It was during this time that machiya emerged as not just homes and businesses but also the basic building blocks for the city’s wider administrative structure. In times of conflict, communities within Kyoto banded together to defend themselves, even building stockades around their neighborhoods to protect themselves from the violence. When peace was restored, the Shogunate made these groups a permanent part of the city’s administration as semi-autonomous units with the power to establish local bylaws.

“Chief among their concerns was the uniformity of each machiya, whose size and design were crucial for fostering equality and harmony among its members. These neighborhood groups regulated the width of plots, forbidding the creation of larger parcels or combining homes, and imposed strict rules on various design elements. This ensured a relatively even distribution of taxes, light, ventilation and safety — as well as a pleasing aesthetic.

“These plots became known as unagi no nedoko, or ‘eels’ beds,’ for their long and narrow proportions. These ‘beds typically started at the street with a shop unit, fronted not with walls or glass but wooden lattices that provided some visibility from the inside and privacy from the outside. The typical unit was covered in a sloping roof, clad in lines of curved tiles producing a characteristic wave-patterned surface.

“Behind the shop was the residence, composed of multipurpose rooms with tatami mat floors and sliding doors. The deepest room was reserved for the head of house and important guests, with a small courtyard garden for light and ventilation. The spine of the house was a broad corridor with a packed earth floor running down one side of the house, connecting the commercial and residential portions. This hallway was where daily functions like cooking were performed, with a toilet and bathing space at the end. While the earliest machiya were single-storied, most later examples have an upper floor used as storage or sleeping space with slitted apertures to let in light. …

“For more than 250 years, machiya were the economic, political and social glue of Kyoto — as small businesses powering the economy, as households organizing community events such as festivals, and as administrative units by which local affairs were managed. 

“They began to change in the mid-19th century, when reform-minded revolutionaries overthrew the shogunate, destroying much of Kyoto and ushering in Japan’s modern era. In its rebuilding process, the city embarked on a period of modernization by incorporating western technologies and culture. …

“Although Kyoto was spared from destruction in World War II, its aftermath endangered machiya more than any other conflict. Japan’s postwar recovery redoubled modernization efforts that produced major housing changes. In their heyday, the machiyas’ use of gardens for natural light and ventilation would have made them relatively comfortable dwellings. By new standards, however, they were cold in the winter, lacked novel necessities like modern kitchens, had poor lighting and were expensive to maintain. …

“Many owners demolished or sold their machiya to make way for western-style housing like danchi apartments. Those that held on refurbished them with modern appliances, materials and layouts. New laws also made it impossible to build machiya with traditional construction techniques, leading to a decline in their number and skilled workers who can build them. There were 40,146 surviving machiya in Kyoto as of March 2017, down from 47,735 in 2011, according to a city survey. …

“Since the early 2000s, many machiya have found new life as restaurants, cafes, and museums thanks to a nostalgic aesthetic popular among young people and tourists. Some people still use their machiya to make traditional crafts like sake and textiles, while others have been preserved as cultural landmarks. …

Garden Lab, a co-working space and residence built out of two machiya that were uninhabited for four decades, is one such example of reuse. It forms part of a restored machiya cluster that includes a coffee shop and roastery, which makes use of the machiya’s capacity to accommodate machinery. Garden Lab’s founder, Drew Wallin, says that neighbors have noted the renovation’s positive impacts on the area after their long-term abandonment. 

“Wallin founded Garden Lab, however, to demonstrate how machiya can help balance private and professional life, a struggle for many still working from home as the pandemic endures. He found that machiya’s incorporation of natural light and outside air fostered healthier routines in ways that artificially lit, climate-controlled  homes fall short. Their reliance on the sun for light and warmth, for example, can help residents detach from work in the evenings and improve sleep habits as night set in. “

More at Bloomberg, here. Great photos. No firewall.

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Photo: Yano via Wikimedia.
Kamikatsu, Japan, has worked for years to become a zero-waste town.

Here’s an update on an ambitious Japanese town I wrote about here a few years ago. It’s Kamikatsu, where the residents are still working hard at creating a completely sustainable way of life.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Julia Mio Inuma have a report at the Washington Post. “Tucked away in the mountains of Japan’s Shikoku island, a town of about 1,500 residents is on an ambitious path toward a zero-waste life.

“In 2003, Kamikatsu became the first municipality in Japan to make a zero-waste declaration. Since then, the town has transformed its open-air burning practices for waste disposal into a system of buying, consuming and discarding with the goal of reaching carbon neutrality. Now, the town estimates it is more than 80 percent of its way toward meeting that goal by 2030.

“But even for a town its size, carbon and waste neutrality is a high bar. And with more than half of its residents over 65 years old, the rural community is rapidly shrinking. The town is working with manufacturers to encourage them to use more recyclable materials, which would help reduce waste and burning. …

“The Zero Waste Center is the town’s recycling facility, where residents can sort their garbage into 45 categories — there are nine ways to sort paper products alone — before they toss the rest into a pile for the incinerators. …

“The town offers an incentive system in which people can collect recycling points in exchange for eco-friendly products. There are signs depicting what new items will be made out of those recycled items, and how much money the town is saving by working with recycling companies rather than burning the trash. …

“ ‘When residents cooperate, the money used for recycling is reduced at the same time, so you can see the merit to cooperating,’ said Momona Otsuka, the 24-year-old chief environmental officer of the center.

“Two things are key to creating a culture of widespread recycling, she said: policies, such as the 1997 Japanese law that gave towns and cities authority to recycle waste, and the cooperation of residents.

“Attached to the Zero Waste Center is a thrift shop where residents can drop off items they don’t want anymore, and others can take them free. All they need to do is weigh the item they take from the shop and log the weight in a ledger so the shop can keep track of the volume of reused items.

In January alone, about 985 pounds’ worth of items were rehomed — from unused batteries and sake glasses to furniture, maternity clothing and toys. The number is displayed inside the shop. …

“Rise and Win Brewing Co. brews two types of zero-waste craft beer, made of farm crops that would otherwise be thrown out because they are too misshapen to be sold publicly. … For years, the brewery tried to find an efficient way to donate leftover grain from brewing beer. Composting took a long time, and delivering fertilizer to farmers was a lot of work. So last year, they developed a way to convert used grain into liquid fertilizer, which is then used to grow barley for beer. …

“Hotel Why opened in 2020 as a part of the Zero Waste Center facility, which is constructed in the shape of a question mark to depict the question: Why do we create so much waste? The hotel feels like a secluded cabin in the woods, and at night, the stars resemble a planetarium.

“Each guest is given six bins to sort garbage during their stay. The sleek decorations are all reused materials, including a patchwork quilt made of denim scraps, and a wall display made of ropes. The furniture is salvaged from showroom models.

“The hotel emphasizes using just what you need. At check-in, guests cut individual bars of soap so they get just the amount they need for their stay. Coffee beans are ground based on the number of cups the guest wants, so that nothing goes to waste.

“Kamikatsu residents and businesses work to minimize as much food waste as possible. For example, at Cafe Polestar, there was one dish available for lunch to reduce waste: curry made with local vegetables.

“Even the leaf used to decorate their dishes was produced locally, from a company called Irodori, which has been selling products made from Kamikatsu’s lush forestry since 1986. There are 154 families in town involved with the project, mainly women aged 70 and older who can pick leaves to create intricate designs. The leaves are then sold to high-end spas, hotels and restaurants in Japan and other Asian countries, to create sustainable decorations.

“ ‘Our business helps people realize that there are valuable items even in mundane everyday things around them,’ said Tomoji Yokoishi, Irodori’s chief executive.”

More at the Post, here, where you can also read about the town’s ride-share system and its roughly 40 drivers, including the mayor, who use “a handful of cars so they can drive residents or visitors.”

I loved so many of the ideas and like to imagine towns everywhere coming up with their own unique ones.

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Photo: via Wikimedia Commons and Hyperallergic.
Unknown artist, “Mummy portrait of a young woman named Eirene from Egypt” (c. 1st century BCE), encaustic on wood panel.

Isabella Segalovich at Hyperallergic recently had a lot of fun surveying women’s eyebrows in art.

“Being a public persona on the internet means that my face is looked at almost constantly by strangers,” she writes, “leading to uninvited comments about one feature in particular: my eyebrows. On TikTok, the more viral my video, the more ‘feedback’ my bushier-than-average, Ashkenazic brows receive. Reactions range from applause to truly unhinged amounts of anger and disgust. 

“I started wondering: Have people always been this weird about eyebrows? … Let’s take a quick tour of how [eyebrow] ideals have shown up in art across civilizations throughout history: from bushy, to bold, to completely bare. 

“Ancient Egypt: No matter the gender, many people in Ancient Egypt took special care to bolden their eyebrows with kohl or mesdemet. Like other Northern African and Asian cultures, the face was understood to be sacred, and thus, it required protection: kohl and mesdemet both served to guard against infections around the eyes. Kohl is used by many to this day around the eyes, both for adornment and for spiritual protection or devotion. This preference for strong eyebrows combined with traditions of carved reliefs resulted in highly defined, expressive arches in many Ancient Egyptian portraits. [Check Hyperallergic to see that the] wooden Inner Coffin of the Singer for Amun-Re is a beautiful expression of this high-contrast aesthetic. …

“Nigeria: From 1500 BCE to about 500 CE, a culture in Nok, Nigeria left behind now-famous terracotta sculptures with particularly detailed faces. Researchers Peter Breunig and James Ameje observed Nigerian craftsman Audu Washi, who showed them how to make these terracotta features using traditional methods.

A sharpened, sanded-down piece of wood is gently pushed into the clay to create fine details including the very distinct, graphic [Nok] eyebrows.

“The arched outlines of the eyebrows in these sculptures are similar across the portraits, but subtle tweaks in their shape and the space between them conjure vastly different personalities.

“Ancient Greece and Rome: While it’s hard to imagine with today’s inaccurate images of pristine white sculptures, many women in Ancient Greece and Rome were also unibrow fans! In some settings, a hairy unibrow was not just considered beautiful, but viewed as a sign of wisdom. Victoria Sherrow’s Encyclopedia of Hair recounts how Ancient Greek women used powdered antimony (also known as kohl) or even patches made of goat hair glued onto the forehead to achieve this look. A fresco of Terentius Neo and his (unfortunately anonymous) wife was a unique find in Pompeii because they are displayed as having equal status. Many may have been envious of her pair of prominent eyebrows — or really, just the one. …

“China: Women of the Tang Dynasty in China (618–907 CE) painted their eyebrows in dozens of different fashions, long, short, thick, thin, and wavy, depending on what was in style that year. Well-off women would use qingdai, a blue-ish pigment made from indigo. The woman in the portrait [here] has her face painted with additional decoration on her forehead — huadianor plum makeup. In 5000 Years of Chinese Costume, Xun Zhou writes that women would even decorate between their brows with luminous materials like ‘specks of gold, silver, and emerald feather.’ 

“Europe: Women in late medieval art display a very distinct hairstyle; that is, no hair at all! John Block Friedman writes that ‘misogynistic scientific writing had made female body hair a psychic and physical danger to men.’ So when it came to eyebrows, some women would pluck them until they were almost nonexistent. This plucking extended to thinning out hairlines to reveal large, bald foreheads. Petrus Christus’s 1449 painting ‘A Goldsmith in His Shop’ shows a wealthy woman bedecked in sumptuous fabric. She may have even used harsh chemicals to help rid herself of unsightly hairs. …

“Japan: Eyebrow fashion had an especially unique moment in the Heian period of Japan (794–1185 CE) where, in a manner similar to Chinese trends, both men and women would pluck out their eyebrow hairs completely, drawing new ones an inch above the natural browline. One of these styles was known as hikimayu (引眉) in which both thumbs were dipped in black makeup pigment and then used to create mirroring prints far up on the forehead. This print actually comes from many centuries later in 1876, and is a part of Toyohara Kunichika’s dazzling print series titled Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties, which are portraits of ‘good and evil’ women throughout Japanese history. …

“Iran: At the beginning of the Qajar dynasty in Persia (1785–1925), male and female ideals of beauty grew closer and closer together, and so did the eyebrows! [Scholar] Afsaneh Najmabadi has shown that women would darken their eyebrows and even decorate their upper lips with mascara to show a faint mustache. Men often took on stereotypically feminine features, sometimes appearing beardless with slim waists in paintings.”

For fabulous pictures from those locales/eras and others, click at Hyperallergic, here. There is even a lovely eyebrow photo of a robot called Kismet. No firewall at Hyperallergic; donations encouraged. PS. Check out the author’s eyebrows here.

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Photo: Ichihara Art x MIX Committee.
An astronaut greets passengers at Kazusa-Murakami station. Leonid Tishkov titled his installation “Mr. Murakami’s Last Flight,” or “Waiting for A Moon-Bound Train.

Today I have a couple links to something fun happening in Japan, where whimsical art in the countryside is drawing tourists.

At the Economist we learn that “a cosmonaut sat for most of the winter on a platform at Kazusa-Murakami station in Chiba, a rural Japanese prefecture next to Tokyo. As they waited for trains, local grandmothers would chat with the inanimate installation, the work of the Russian artist Leonid Tishkov. Visitors to an abandoned clothing factory in the nearby village of Ushiku found a multimedia labyrinth assembled by the Japanese artist Nakazaki Toru, using objects and memories retrieved from the site: old sewing machines, mannequins draped in fabric samples and recorded interviews with the family that once ran the place. These were two of over 90 pieces created for a triennial festival known as Ichihara Art x Mix, held in the Ichihara area of Chiba in late 2021.”

Alan Gleason at Artscape Japan continues the story: ” ‘Art x Mix’ may seem a curious title for the triennial art festival in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture. However, the event does boast an unusual blend of elements that serve the art it showcases very well. One is the verdant, rolling landscape of the Boso Peninsula. But even more central to the festival’s identity, and perhaps the key to its success, is a tiny privately operated train line, the Kominato Railway.

“The festival is a fairly new event. First held in 2014, its third edition was scheduled for 2020 but delayed by a year due to the Covid pandemic. Sponsored by the city of Ichihara, the program itself is planned and directed by a team under Fram Kitagawa, Japan’s reigning outdoor art festival impresario. …

“Operating since 1917, the [Kominato] line is a living anachronism, a holdover from the days — well into the postwar era — when trains got everyone everywhere in Japan. As roads improved and rural areas emptied out in a mass migration to the cities, passengership plunged and, one by one, Japan’s local railways shut down.

“How has the Kominato Railway survived? At least partially thanks to the vision and marketing savvy of its management, it would seem. In the last decade the company has carried out what it calls ‘reverse development’ of its stations, restoring them to their appearance in days of yore; enlisted the help of residents along the line to keep brush trimmed back and the station yards attractive; purchased used diesel rolling stock from closed lines in other parts of the country; and, in 2015, introduced the Satoyama Torocco (from ‘truck,’ a small rail car used in mining or logging).

Satoyama, literally ‘villages and hills,’ is a buzzword the city and the railway favor to highlight the pastoral beauty of rural Ichihara. The Torocco is a special train outfitted with open-air passenger cars and a miniature steam locomotive that is actually a diesel. …

“Ichihara Art x Mix is a brilliant initiative on the city’s part, not least because it gives the Kominato Railway pride of place as an art object in itself. The trains — at most two cars in length — trundle slowly along a single narrow-gauge track at roughly one-hour intervals, making the 40-kilometer trip from Goi, on Tokyo Bay, up the Yoro River Valley to its southern terminus in the Boso highlands in one and a half hours. …

“The other defining factor in the festival’s allure is the Yoro River itself, which twists and turns its way through the highlands, carving deep ravines and creating some impressive cliffs and waterfalls in the bargain. …

“In typical kitchen-sink festival fashion, the organizers have installed works all over the area — far too many to see in a day, or even two or three. … A car is certainly the most efficient mode of transport, but also the least rewarding. The train is a pleasure in itself, but its sparse schedule, and the distance between the stations and many art venues, will limit the number of destinations you can easily get to. A good compromise is the festival’s free shuttle bus, which travels around two circuits that cover most of the major venues. …

“Ushiku: In a copper-clad former sundries shop, Chinese artist Ma Leonn’s Mobile Photo Studio has a hilariously retro stage set inspired by prewar kamishibai (‘paper play’) storytellers; staff will kindly photograph visitors posing against this backdrop. …

“Satomi Elementary School: The dark, cavernous gymnasium is the perfect setting for a ‘playback’ of Artists Breath, a tour-de-force display of multiple videos with corona-related messages by artists from around the world. …

“Tsukizaki Village: Sitting in the middle of a fallow rice field is Dutch artist Elmo Vermijs’s cryptically titled installation Mirror of Soil. But that is precisely what it is: a shallow concave hemisphere scooped out of the ground that functions as a ‘sound mirror.’ Stand on the raised platform smack in the center of the pit, and it’s true — you will hear a faint murmur you did not hear before, which the artist describes as the ‘sounds of nature.’

“Just down the road stands an imposing edifice, the now-vacant residence of one of the village’s more eminent citizens. Currently it is home to Turkish artist Ayse Erkmen’s installation Inventory. Erkmen videotaped the process by which the entire contents of the house — not just furniture, but decades of accumulated bric-a-brac — were removed, sorted, and placed in wire crates that now line the path from the gate to the house. Running this gauntlet of family heirlooms, one encounters everything from wall clocks and electric fans to old swords, stuffed birds, dolls, and souvenirs of the kind that all postwar families of means used to acquire on holiday excursions. The experience will give anyone who has lived in Japan a twinge of nostalgia; we all have friends whose parental homes were full of just this sort of stuff. Inside the house, the artist has placed video monitors in each room that play back her recordings, striking a poignant contrast between the on-screen activity and the silence of the emptied rooms.

“The ancient but well-preserved stations along the Kominato Railway are also part of the fun. Each one features at least one prominent outdoor art object, and one extremely eccentric public toilet. The toilets are the brainchild of architect Sou Fujimoto, who appears to have thoroughly enjoyed himself designing facilities customized to the ambience of each stop. Kudos go to Itabu station’s Toilet in Nature, a pristine white throne that sits in a glass box surrounded by a 200-square-meter garden. It’s for women only, by the way. Privacy is ensured by a curtain and the 2-meter-high log fence around the garden.

“Greeting every train at Kazusa-Murakami — an unmanned station that is the first and last stop on the line just outside the Goi terminus — is Russian artist Leonid Tishkov’s astronaut.”

More at Artscape Japan, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Takehiko Kambayashi.
Octogenarian app developer Wakamiya Masako creates fabric designs with Excel art (note her shirt) and also games that older people can win against kids.

I know I’m not the only one when I say that I miss Jimmy the Geek. He would make an initial housecall for computer problems, but after that, he’d solve problems over the phone, usually without charge.

Jimmy died two years ago. And I have managed to take care of myself, techwise, mostly by following his approach to finding solutions.

The common wisdom that old folks need to ask children for tech help gives us a bad rap. Many older bloggers know how wrong that is. We have learned to do all sorts of fancy things with WordPress, for example, adapting when the platform makes its endless “improvements.” My grandchildren have no idea how to do this. They could learn it fast, but I would have to teach them.

You can see why I was drawn to today’s story about Wakamiya Masako, 86, who learned to develop a game app at age 82.

Takehiko Kambayashi writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Retired from bank management for about 25 years, she has spent a lot of her time helping older friends and neighbors learn to use smartphones, and she’s developed the theory that they have a hard time because there aren’t games and apps aimed at their age group.  

“One possible solution, she thought, was to create a gaming app to encourage and enchant older people into more comfort with their smartphones. …

“Her idea has made her famous at home and abroad for being one of the oldest app developers in the world, lauded by Japanese leaders and global technology executives for transcending age barriers.  

“ ‘Ms. Wakamiya asked me to develop a gaming app in which seniors can beat young people,’ recalls Koizumi Katsushiro, president of Tesseract, a company that teaches computer programming and app development in the northeastern city of Shiogama. 

“But he suggested she create the app herself, and that he would help her. The energetic Ms. Wakamiya took on the challenge, struggling for six months to create the game. …

“In 2017, at the age of 82, she launched Hinadan. The game features Japan’s traditional Hinamatsuri festival, a celebration of Girls’ Day. On the Hinadan app, which takes its name from a tiered stand for displaying traditional Japanese dolls, users must move dolls – puzzle-like – into appropriate positions according to roles: the emperor and the empress, court ladies, and court musicians with instruments. It has now been released in five languages. 

“ ‘I was pleased with the launch. But I did not think it was such a major achievement,’ says Ms. Wakamiya, surprised at the global interest in her work. 

“Hailing her as the world’s oldest app developer, Apple chief executive Tim Cook invited her to the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, in 2017. …

“Ms. Wakamiya, who serves as vice chair of the Mellow Club, a Japanese online group for older people, soon found herself on the global speaking circuit encouraging older people to overcome discomfort with technology.

“In 2018, she delivered a keynote address at a United Nations conference in New York on ‘Why are digital skills critical for older persons?’ And she has published several books on aging and technology in Japan, including one titled ‘Life Becomes More and More Interesting After 60.’ …

“In Japan, her advocacy for the use of technology at older ages is particularly notable. Japan has struggled with difficult problems associated with its declining birthrate and aging population, including labor shortages and slow economic growth.

“Those age 65 or older account for 29% of Japan’s population. That’s projected to rise to 38% by 2065, estimates the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo. 

“Ms. Wakamiya began using computers a few years before she retired in 1997 in hopes of socializing online while looking after her aging mother at home.

She says she found that, more than just a new way to expand her circle of friends, computer literacy enriched her life with opportunities to broaden her perspective and satisfy her intellectual curiosity.

“The deficit of online material for older people made her get creative: Using Excel spreadsheets, she saw patterns that she translated into art – designs for fabric and paper fans. She calls it ‘Excel art.’ 

“ ‘Excel looks difficult for seniors. But I came up with an idea of drawing designs using its functions. Then, I got so excited as I was able to produce one new pattern after another,’ says Ms. Wakamiya. … 

“Ms. Wakamiya has taught other seniors how to produce artworks online, using the Excel software as a design tool. ‘It’s very important for seniors to be creative and produce something original,’ she says. 

“Ms. Wakamiya, who sits on Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s digital policy committee, is known as an information technology evangelist with a mission to get seniors to acquire digital skills. … On her own initiative, Ms. Wakamiya flew to Estonia, which is pioneering the e-Residency concept of digital nations, in 2019 to see how seniors are able to fit in its e-government systems. She also made a speech and held workshops on Excel art during her stay. …

“Hashimoto Kayoko, retired from her career at a major trading house, stumbled upon Ms. Wakamiya at an Apple store in Tokyo, where she was giving an inspirational speech. ‘It was as though rain in the dark sky suddenly turned to a brilliantly sunny day. Ma-chan lights up my heart,’ she says. ‘Ma-chan shows me a can-do attitude.’

“Ms. Wakamiya, who lectures across Japan, encourages older people to be involved in volunteer work especially because many, particularly men, do not know what they are going to do in their post-retirement life. 

“ ‘While you contribute to society, volunteering can help broaden your perspective by meeting and working with those in different age groups. Some of them have high aspirations,’ she says. … 

“Ms. Wakamiya’s life after retirement made her see things differently because, throughout her four-decade career at a bank, most of her acquaintances were in the same business, she says. She recently realized that often, in Japan’s culture of perfectionism, many people are simply so afraid of failure they won’t try something new.

“ ‘You should not worry about failures. There are no such things as failures,’ she says. ‘To just start something new is deemed a success because you still learn in the process.’ ” 

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Upcycle Stitches.
Sashiko is a needlework to reinforce, to repair, to mend, and to decorate the fabric. 

Whenever I hear something good on Public Radio International’s the World, I hope they will post a text version online so I have something to edit, but today’s story is accessible only as audio. So I am combining it with a May 2018 blog post that “atsushijp” wrote at Upcycle Stitches: “Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko Project.” (Atsushijp did us all a favor by sharing this work with a different audience, and I have not tried to tweak her English.)

“It has been almost 7 years since I had encountered this beautiful project: Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko  Project. … After the earthquake followed by Tsunami on March 11th, 2011, the five volunteers established the project to support the people in Otsuchi, especially those who had nothing to do but sitting in the evacuation shelter. The men had a lot of things to require the muscle power after the disaster. The young generation also had many tasks to revive the infrastructure such as distributing the support goods and clean. However, those who wouldn’t be able to move, mostly elderly women, did not have things to do and had to wait. …

“The project tries to create jobs for those who couldn’t do hard labor outside. They have been trying to create the community where anyone can gather for the purpose of stitching. We all then hope that the stitching can be a part of the purposes of their new life after the earthquake. I, Atsushi, first join the project in June 2011. …

“I had written many articles and reports regarding the Otsuchi Sashiko in English, but I had to give them up when my father passed away and the stakeholders decided to shut down the website. Well, even after the sad reality of me leaving Sashiko behind for while, my mother, Keiko Futatsuya, kept in touch with them. Now, she is the advisor of Sashiko technique and designing in Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko Project. …

“Otsuchi town was badly damaged by the earthquake followed by Tsunami, including the loss of town hall and the mayor and more than 1,280 of people’s life. The survivors [who] needed an evacuation shelter by losing their house were more than 9,000 people.

“In the evacuation shelter, mothers and grandmothers, who were very much hard worker in their own house as a house-maker, didn’t have anything to do. There were no kitchen to cook, no living room to clean, no dishes to wash. Men and young generation could work for the cleaning debris, but the job required a lot of muscle power. Mothers and Grandmothers couldn’t help them even if they wanted to. …

“The answers they had come up with was Sashiko, in which requires only a needle, thread, and piece of fabric. The Sashiko was doable in a limited space of the evacuation shelter. The mothers and grandmothers wanted to do ‘something’ instead of just waiting.

“An elder woman who lied down all the day in the evacuation shelter. A hard-working mother who lost her house-making job. A young woman who lost their job opportunity. Everyone in Otsuchi moved the needle with hoping the recovery of Otsuchi. Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko project is their first step to the recovery by women in Otsuchi since June 2011. The Earthquake destroyed the houses and jobs and took away our previous people. We, as Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko Project, would like to re-establish the town of Otsuchi throughout Sashiko by strengthening, mending, and making it more beautiful. …

“When a mother, who enjoy Sashiko, is happy, the household will be filled with smiles. If the household is filled with smiles, the town of Otsuchi will be energetic. When the town of Otsuchi become energetic, everyone in the town and related to the town will be happy. …

“We strongly respect the value of hand-made craft culture with spending so much time and putting the good-heart in it in the era of ‘speed’ and ‘efficiency (productivity)’ with mass-production and mass-information. ‘Hand-Made Craft’ provide us ‘Care’ and ‘Mindfulness (Mental Wellness)’ by thinking of other, and using our own hands.”

More at Upcycle Stitches, here. The audio story at the World, here, covers aspects of the initiative in which men have helped, too.

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Photo: Dex Ezekiel/ Unsplash.
A physician in Japan realized that artificial intelligence [A.I.] that could differentiate pastries might also be helpful in medicine.

I love accidental discoveries. In today’s story, a Japanese doctor was amazed at how precisely artificial intelligence could distinguish one pastry from another — and he had a lightbulb moment.

James Somers reports at the New Yorker, “A.I. researchers used to think that, without some kind of model of how the world worked and all that was in it, a computer might never be able to distinguish the parts of complex scenes. The field of ‘computer vision’ was a zoo of algorithms that made do in the meantime. The prospect of seeing like a human was a distant dream.

“All this changed in 2012, when Alex Krizhevsky, a graduate student in computer science, released AlexNet, a program that approached image recognition using a technique called deep learning. AlexNet was a neural network, ‘deep’ because its simulated neurons were arranged in many layers. As the network was shown new images, it guessed what was in them; inevitably, it was wrong, but after each guess it was made to adjust the connections between its layers of neurons, until it learned to output a label matching the one that researchers provided.”

Somers recounts that on a visit to Japan, he saw a bakery scanner identify a pastry with extraordinary precision and wanted to learn more. His curiosity took him to Hisashi Kambe, who once “developed SUPER TEX-SIM, a program that allowed textile manufacturers to simulate the design process, with interactive yarn and color editors. … A series of breaks led to a distribution deal with Mitsubishi’s fabric division, [and in 1985] Kambe formally incorporated as BRAIN Co., Ltd.

“For twenty years, BRAIN took on projects that revolved, in various ways, around seeing. … Then, in 2007, BRAIN was approached by a restaurant chain that had decided to spin off a line of bakeries. …

“The checkout process was difficult and error-prone—the cashier would fumble at the register, handling each item individually—and also unsanitary and slow. Lines in pastry shops grew longer and longer. The restaurant chain turned to BRAIN for help. Could they automate the checkout process? …

“By 2013, they had built a device that could take a picture of pastries sitting on a backlight, analyze their visual features, and distinguish a ham corn from a carbonara sandwich. …

“In early 2017, a doctor at the Louis Pasteur Center for Medical Research, in Kyoto, saw a television segment about the BakeryScan. He realized that cancer cells, under a microscope, looked kind of like bread. He contacted BRAIN, and the company agreed to begin developing a version of BakeryScan for pathologists. …

BRAIN began adapting BakeryScan to other domains and calling the core technology AI-Scan. AI-Scan algorithms have since been used to distinguish pills in hospitals, to count the number of people in an eighteenth-century ukiyo-e woodblock print, and to label the charms and amulets for sale in shrines. One company has used it to automatically detect incorrectly wired bolts in jet-engine parts.”

More in the long article at the New Yorker, here.

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Photo: CNN
In Japan, wearing a mask was common even before the pandemic.

I’m told that in Sweden, it’s been hard to get people to start wearing masks now that the authorities have changed their approach to the pandemic. In Japan, where mask wearing on subways and elsewhere is normal to protect health, dialing up usage has not been a problem.

That has created an opportunity for a robotics company with an idea about putting a multipurpose mask over your Covid-19 mask.

As Rebecca Cairns reported at CNN Business last November, “When the Covid-19 pandemic made face masks an everyday essential, Japanese startup Donut Robotics spotted an opportunity. They created a smart mask — a high-tech upgrade to standard face coverings, designed to make communication and social distancing easier.

“In conjunction with an app, the C-Face Smart mask can transcribe dictation, amplify the wearer’s voice, and translate speech into eight different languages.

“The cutouts on the front are vital for breathability, so the smart mask doesn’t offer protection against the coronavirus. Instead, it is designed to be worn over a standard face mask, explains Donut Robotics CEO Taisuke Ono. Made of white plastic and silicone, it has an embedded microphone that connects to the wearer’s smartphone via Bluetooth. The system can translate between Japanese and Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, English, Spanish and French.

Donut Robotics first developed the translation software for a robot called Cinnamon — but when the pandemic hit, the robot project was put on hold. That’s when the team’s engineers came up with the idea to use their software in a face mask.

“Donut Robotics started life in a garage in Kitakyushu City, in Fukuoka prefecture, in 2014. … With venture capital investment, [Ono and cofounder engineer Takafumi Okabe] applied to Haneda Robotics Lab — an initiative that sought robots to provide services for visitors at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. …

“Donut Robotics’ Cinnamon robot — designed to provide tourists with useful information and help them to navigate the airport — was one of four translation robot prototypes selected by the project in 2016. Haneda Robotics Lab says Cinnamon beat the competition because of its appealing aesthetics and user-friendly design, and because the translation software performed well in noisy environments. …

“The team started testing a prototype at Haneda Airport in 2017 and continued developing the technology. But earlier this year, Covid-19 hit Asia and the airport project ground to a halt. ‘We were running short of money and wondering how to keep the company going,’ says Ono. The team sought a solution and came up with the idea to adapt its software for a product that would sell well in a pandemic. …

“Donut Robotics launched a fundraiser on Japanese crowdfunding platform Fundinno in June. They raised 28 million yen ($265,000) in 37 minutes, says Ono. ‘It was very surprising,’ he says. …

“A second round of crowdfunding on Fundinno in July raised a further 56.6 million yen ($539,000), which Ono plans to use to develop translation software for the international market. … Ono says the first wave of distribution is expected to take place in Japan, with 5,000 to 10,000 masks available by December [2020]. They will be priced at $40 to $50, he says, with an extra subscription for the app. Donut Robotics will not expand overseas until April 2021 at the earliest. …

“The mask’s Bluetooth chip can connect to smartphones up to 32 feet (10 meters) away, says Ono. He hopes the mask will make new social distancing norms in locations including hospitals and offices easier, by enabling good communication.”

Photo: Donut Robotics

More at CNN, here.

As I write this, the English language class where I volunteer is about to start. At the risk of throwing a wet blanket over this robotics story, I can’t help mentioning that translation devices really slow language acquisition.

But I do think the Donut software’s ability to clarify your words and make social distancing work better is great. I’m constantly misunderstanding muffled words spoken through a mask — which gave a granddaughter a really good laugh the other day.

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Photo: Mizuki Production/via Kyodo
An amabie drawn by the late manga artist Shigeru Mizuki. The amabie, says National Public Radio, is a “sea monster from 19th century Japanese folklore that has become an Internet meme and pop culture mascot in the fight against COVID-19.”

Isn’t it interesting how we turn to ancient wisdom and mythology to find meaning in crisis? It’s not so much that we believe in fantasies, but we begin to realize that metaphor may have something to tell us that can’t be captured in headlines or scientific reports.

Consider the little amabie, a friendly, protective monster that has risen up from Japanese folklore to address coronavirus.

From the Japan Times: “Social media users have been getting creative recently with images of a legendary Japanese [monster] said to have emerged from the sea and prophesied an epidemic. …

“The story of the half-human, half-fish amabie monster was first featured in a 19th century woodblock-printed news sheet from the Edo Period (1603-1868). The creature was depicted with long hair and a beak, and a body covered in scales.

“An amabie is said to have [told a Kumamoto] official, ‘There will be a bountiful harvest for six years, but disease will also spread. Quickly draw a picture of me and show it to the people.’ …

“On March 6, Kyoto University Library posted on its Twitter account a picture of the original news sheet, dated April 1846, with an illustration of an amabie and a description beside it. …  Since then, social media users have posted amabie images in myriad forms — including clay figurines, embroidery, paper cutouts and manga — alongside phrases wishing for an early end to the current pandemic. …

“A drawing of the monster by late manga artist Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015) [was] published on the Mizuki Production Twitter account on March 17. …

” ‘Japan has traditionally had a custom of trying to drive off epidemics by such means as drawing oni ogres on pieces of paper and displaying them,’ said Yuji Yamada, a professor at Mie University who is well versed in the history of faith practices in Japan.

“ When many people are suffering and dying, our wish for an end (of the pandemic) is the same in all ages,’ he said.” More at the Japan Times, here.

National Public Radio (NPR) points out that even the Japanese health ministry has pressed the amabie into service:

” ‘Stop the infection from spreading!’ The words appear to come straight from the beak of a creature with a bird’s head, human hair and a fish’s scaly body, in a recent public service announcement from Japan’s health ministry.’ ” More at NPR, here.

P.S. Since most of us continue to be fascinated by humanoids sporting fish tails, I have to point you to Asakiyume’s post about a real-life maker of mermaid and merman tails, here.

Art: Kaori Hamura Long
At NPR, another illustration of an Amabie.


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Photo: Ryan Jenq for the New York Times
Robby Kraft created two origami, left,
“using his own custom code for developing new crease patterns.” He also folded “Hyperbolic Cube,” right, which was designed by Thomas Hull of Western New England University.

Origami is an ancient paper-folding technique that is turning out to have some very modern applications.

Kathleen Massara at the New York Times interviewed a few folks who know a lot about it.

” ‘I would say the biggest rule is no cutting,’ said Wendy Zeichner, the president and chief executive of OrigamiUSA. It’s ‘one piece of paper and no glue.’

“OrigamiUSA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about the art form. The group traces its roots to the 1950s, when Lillian Oppenheimer, one of its eventual founders, began to communicate with paper folders around the world, including Akira Yoshizawa in Japan, who is often credited as the father of modern origami — they would send each other diagrams explaining how to fold different shapes from a single square sheet of paper. …

” ‘Origami is really almost as old as paper,’ Ms. Zeichner explained — it means ‘to fold paper’ in Japanese — and paper in sheet form is thought to have been invented in China around 105 A.D. To start making shapes like cranes and frogs, it boils down to two basic techniques: mountain folds and valley folds, which are different ways to make the edges meet. After that, you can get creative….

A few years ago, NASA engineers were able to create foldable telescopes and a flower-shaped shade to block out light from distant stars by using paper-folding techniques.

” ‘If you want to send something in a rocket, it has to be packed small,’ Ms. Zeichner said. ‘The same algorithms you would use in origami would be used in this.’ The same goes for folding an airbag into a car, or creating pop-up homeless shelters.

“Precision is key, whether someone is folding a humble crane or a complex modular structure with interlocking parts. So is enthusiasm. ‘The majority of people are either enthusiasts on the simple end or on the complex end,’ said Jason Ku, a lecturer at M.I.T. and a faculty adviser to the origami club there. …

“The goal is to arrive at the most efficient and elegant means of achieving a particular effect. ‘I want the result to be complex, but I want to simplify the process it takes to get there,’ Dr. Ku said. …

“As in math, it’s important to show your work. … ‘Showing your technique is one of the biggest aspects of origami,’ said Taro Yaguchi, the founder of Taro’s Origami Studio in Brooklyn.

“Before the 1950s, certain origami objects were more difficult to create, partly because diagrams weren’t standardized. Some guide books simply presented the results, without the necessary steps to get there. Yoshizawa, in Japan, and Samuel Randlett, in the United States, helped develop a set of international diagram conventions that is now referred to as the Yoshizawa-Randlett system.

“ ‘Before it got codified, it could be very confusing,’ said Jeannine Mosely, a software engineer in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Mosely is known for large-scale projects such as an origami Menger sponge, a series of cubes adding up to a giant cube, made out of business cards. At the time, the fact that she didn’t use square paper caused ripples throughout the origami community. ‘There were people who didn’t want anything to do with my work because I started with rectangles,’ she said. …

“Diagrams and algorithms won’t be much help if you’re not using the right materials. ‘It’s a mistake a lot of beginner’s make: they go online and find the most beautiful kind of paper,’ said Jewel Kawataki, a New York-based jewelry maker who creates different designs with chiyogami, a sleek fabric-like paper. “You can see their frustration in YouTube tutorials. They’ve used the wrong paper.’ …

“Toshiko Kobayashi, an art therapist in Manhattan who grew up folding as a child in Tokyo after World War II, believes in the art’s ability to heal. ‘Just after the war, there was nothing. Paper was one of the readily available toys for me,’ she said. In New York, she has been busy introducing the art to different communities through the Origami Therapy Association in Manhattan, which she founded in 2002. …

“For many, the practice is embraced for its calming aspects. ‘It’s lessened my anxiety a lot,’ Ms. Kawataki said.

“Regardless of techniques, the community, whether in person or online, keeps people excited about the art form. ‘Origamists from around the world will meet and fold together,’ Ms. Mosely said. ‘They might not be able to talk to each other, but they can fold.’ ”

For some breathtaking photos, check out the New York Times article, here.  And be sure to watch the origami documentary Between the Folds by Vanessa Gould.

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Photos: clockwise from top left, Emma Smales/View; Afyen Hsin-Chu; Takanobu Sakuma; Hufton+Crow/View
The bottom right photo shows Shigeru Ban’s Paper Log Houses, temporary housing in Kobe, Japan, created after a 1995 earthquake left many residents homeless. The
New York Times took an in-depth look at Ban’s body of work here.

It’s inspiring to see a successful person in any field turn her or his talents to a humanitarian cause. That is what innovative Japanese architect Shigeru Ban did after seeing problems with post-disaster housing in Africa. He knew he could do better.

Nikil Saval at the New York Times wrote an in-depth feature on Ban’s larger body of work and explained how he got into building temporary paper-tube shelters.

“His move to create shelter architecture came out of seeing the temporary structures offered to Rwandan refugees in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1994. At the time, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was handing out plastic tarps and aluminum poles to hold them up, but many people were instead selling the aluminum and harvesting nearby wood to frame their tents, contributing to massive deforestation.

“Ban wrote to the U.N.H.C.R. several times before flying to Geneva. There, he encountered the organization’s senior physical planner, Wolfgang Neumann, who became interested in Ban’s idea of using recycled paper tubes to build shelters. Ban was hired as a consultant and the concept was later implemented at a camp in northern Rwanda.

“The first time Ban used paper tubes for a disaster relief project was in Kobe, Japan, in 1995, where a series of small houses — about 170 square feet each — were constructed for victims of an earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people.

As is typical for Ban’s humanitarian projects, each shelter cost less than $2,000 and took a single day to construct; according to Ban, about 30 were built over the span of a few weeks, mostly by volunteers.

“These shelters remained in Kobe for about a year, after which they were dismantled and recycled. But a church and community center in the city, also designed by Ban and built out of recycled paper, stood for 10 years, a testament to the durability of his work.

“He has also used shipping containers to build thousands of small housing units in Onagawa, on Japan’s northeast coast, following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami there, and beer crates weighted with sandbags have occasionally served as the foundation for his Paper Log Houses (including in Kobe), illustrating Ban’s commitment to relying on ‘local materials’ in the most expansive sense: whatever is cheap and locally available that won’t result in waste.

“These structures are off-the-cuff, constructed quickly by staff members of the Voluntary Architects Network, a nongovernmental organization founded by Ban in 1995, along with the help of local students and volunteers. Initially, he was able to pay for them through donations and his own earnings; some of his relief projects now receive public funding. But he often uses his expensive commissions to test out ideas for his aid work, toying with cheap materials in structures for the rich so he can use them later to help those who have lost everything. …

“Ban is not given to displays of pity or indignation; he usually explains his humanitarian efforts by citing his horror at waste rather than some charitable impulse. It is an austere, utilitarian front for the architect to present, considering that, at the moment, he is trying to expand his humanitarian efforts beyond temporary structures and has just begun working with the southeast Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to develop housing for its new capital, Amaravati — multistory units for which paper tubes would not likely be appropriate (he has instead been considering fiberglass foam-core panels). But disasters will continue to preoccupy him.

“He spoke of doing larger urban-scale planning, preparing cities for disaster relief. More earthquakes, certainly in Japan, are likely, to say nothing of climate-change induced nightmares. ‘This moment, the beginning of the 21st century, is a big moment to change the direction — toward sustainability and disaster relief,’ he said. ‘This will continue as the main theme of this century.’ Times had changed since the Modernist era: ‘Those times, people believed that they would have utopia some day. But we know that it’s not true. There’s no utopia.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Guenter Schneider/Kaoru Akagawa
An artist rediscovers kana script, used in medieval Japan by women for secret communications. “I felt as if I were reading a history of my DNA,” Kaoru Akagawa says.

In childhood, I loved the idea of secret languages, mainly for hiding thoughts from grownups, I believe. I never learned Pig Latin, but when I was about 10, my friends and I spoke almost nothing but Goose Latin, which involved throwing a lot of f’s into words.

In medieval Japan, women developed a secret script to hide their thoughts from other authority figures — men. Today the artist Kaoru Akagawa, among others, is giving the mostly forgotten kana calligraphy new life.

Elizabeth Dearnley writes at the Guardian, “Anyone who has ever fired off a text in haste will sympathise with the first point on 11th-century Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon’s list of ‘infuriating things’: ‘Thinking of one or two changes in the wording after you’ve sent off a reply to someone’s message.’

“This list, her messages, and her Pillow Book in which they’re recorded – a sparklingly acerbic, blog-style frolic through the lives of Heian-era aristocrats – were written using kana, a Japanese script mainly used by women for nearly a millennium to write literature, arrange secret assignations and express themselves freely within the confines of court life.

“Women in medieval Japan were discouraged from studying kanji – characters modelled on written Chinese which represent individual words – and began using kana, which transcribe words phonetically. A standardisation programme at the beginning of the 20th century saw 90% of the 550 characters used in kana die out. But these forgotten characters are now being kept alive by the artist and master of Japanese calligraphy Kaoru Akagawa, who became fascinated with them after deciphering letters from her grandmother.

“ ‘Reading my grandmother’s letters was always difficult for me as a teenage girl,’ recalls Akagawa. ‘Her handwriting looked like scribbling, and I used to ask her to write properly.’ But years later, during Akagawa’s calligraphy training, she had a revelation while taking a journey along Himekaido, a historic trading route favoured by women travellers. Reading documents written in kana housed in castles and temples, Akagawa says: ‘I felt as if I were reading a history of my DNA.’ Far from being scribbles, she realised, her grandmother had been writing to her using the same script.

“Akagawa uses the forgotten kana in a style of calligraphy called kana shodo, and also fuses traditional calligraphy with new techniques in a style she’s named kana art, where thousands of minutely painted kana form larger images and paper sculptures

“ ‘When people talk about Japanese calligraphy, they normally mean kanji shodo,’ Akagawa explains, ‘a style imported from China, practiced by samurais and monks.’ Kana shodo uses a script which was known by the 10th century as onnade, or ‘woman hand’, she continues, which became ‘the backbone of a female-dominated literary culture’.

“Sei Shōnagon’s contemporary Murasaki Shikibu wrote her masterpiece The Tale of Genji – often called the world’s first novel – using kana, which were often associated with private and emotional life. Men who wanted to reply to love letters sent by noblewomen used kana themselves to reply. And the tradition lasted for hundreds of years; the 19th-century novelist Ichiyō Higuchi used kana script for her sympathetic portrait of the life of a geisha, Nigorie (Troubled Waters).

“Japan’s government standardised writing in 1900, establishing the system of kanji, hiragana and katakana characters used side-by-side in modern written Japanese. … By the second world war, knowledge of the older kana had almost vanished. One of the last generation to use the script in daily life was Akagawa’s grandmother, born in 1921: ‘When I told her I was learning kana shodo, she was very pleased.’ …

“Whether writing Japanese classics, love letters or embroidered messages, women have circumvented official communication channels in creative ways throughout history. As Akagawa remarks, such handwritten texts frequently feel very personal: ‘I’m always surprised how such a simple action as handwriting can affect audiences’ emotions so deeply.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: All Nippon Airways
In addition to the male Kabuki performers, there’s an onnagata (man in female role) in the in-flight safety video of a Japanese airline.

After seeing one too many airline safety videos about how to buckle a seat belt, passengers tend to tune out. That is, unless the video is really entertaining. Consider this safety video using Kabuki dancers. I know that would make me pay attention.

Andrew Bender wrote about it at Forbes. “Let’s call it like it is: those airline safety presentations have always felt a little like a kabuki dance, no? Now Japan’s largest airline, All Nippon Airways, has taken that literally, with actual kabuki performers in its newest in-flight safety video. I, for one, can’t stop watching it. …

“Supervised by a kabuki performer, the four-minute-plus production opens with an ANA flight attendant wearing a red-and-white striped kabuki mask, before the striped curtain behind her (in the traditional kabuki colors of black, deep-green and the orange-red the Japanese call persimmon) slides to reveal an airplane cabin set.

“Kabuki actors stow their elegantly lacquered bamboo boxes in the overhead bins and under the seats (not in the aisles, thank you), fasten seat belts over their elaborate kimono and dutifully turn off electronic devices displaying scenes from classic ukiyo-e woodblock prints on their screens. The same style is used to show how high heels, in this case chunky wooden geta sandals, can tear the evacuation slide.

“In another section, an actor wearing an oversized wig and robe and fearsome makeup tries on the oxygen mask, and a child in the classic pure white face makeup demonstrates the ‘brace for impact’ position. And it’s quite a sight to see an onnagata (male performer in a female role, a longstanding kabuki tradition) perform the life vest demonstration.

“Kabuki theater traces its roots to 1603, the early Edo Period, and is on the UNESCO list of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Among its unique features are stunning costumes, stylized dialogue and poses (immortalized in ukiyoe woodblock prints, kind of like iconic modern-day movie posters; see 1:38 in the video), a revolving stage and musicians who sit onstage and animate the action with music and narration. Many of the leading performers have family lineage in kabuki going back more than a dozen generations.

“At various times the safety video shows another feature of kabuki, on-stage assistants covered head to toe like ninjas. Called kurogo, they’re typically dressed in black implying that they’re not visible onstage, but in this video they’re instead in ANA’s signature blue and white. …

“ANA’s safety video debuted late last year and went worldwide on flights this January. As a bonus, a behind-the-scenes video of the production plays during deplaning.”

More at Forbes.

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