Sunday, September 22, 2013

PBS videos on Edo period Japan

The US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has a YouTube account. A while ago, I found a series of programs from 2009 that they produced about Japan's Edo period. If you're interested in Japan, I think these videos are a good general introduction to that time in Japan's history, a period covering over 200 years, when the Tokugawa shoguns ruled and Japan closed its doors shut to the rest of the world. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this series and gained interesting insights into this period in Japan's history.

If you're Japanese and trying to learn English, I also think that this is a good series to watch to practice your English listening comprehension ability. It's also a chance to see and analyze, and perhaps critique how Japan is portrayed in this particular production from a generally well-regarded US media network.

The series is titled, "Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire," and is mostly based on written accounts of European eyewitnesses in Japan during that period—Christian missionaries during the early part of the period, and then other Western foreigners who were able to stay in Japan during its self-imposed isolation.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

News reports have it that sales of the Japanese manga Barefoot Gen (はだしのゲン) have soared ever since the manga series that deals with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima floated to the top of Japanese news headlines this past August, buoyed by reports that Shimane Prefecture's Matsue City education board had requested elementary and junior high school libraries to restrict access to the manga, a request that is believed to have stemmed from the board's opinion that the manga series contains inappropriate images of atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

Besieged with criticism, the education board has since withdrawn its request; and plagued with curiosity, I have since bought the first couple of volumes of the English version of the ten-part series.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Great Kanto Earthquake and crayons from the USA

Having previously devoted some blog space to this topic and having developed an interest in it, I thought I'd make a quick survey of how Japan commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Great Kantō Earthquake (関東大震災), a catastrophic, magnitude 7.9 earthquake which struck the Kantō region of Japan just before noon on September 1, 1923.

It is not mere coincidence that Japan also observes its National Disaster Preparedness Day (防災の日) on the day of the year when one of its most fatal and destructive natural disasters happened, flattening Yokohama and a large part of Tokyo, and resulting in approximately 105,000 deaths. Established in 1960, Japan's National Disaster Preparedness Day was created with the tragic lessons of the Great Kantō Earthquake in mind, and as a way of leveraging those lessons for the purpose of executing a well-managed response and saving lives and property in the event of a similar calamity. This year, the national government carried out disaster response exercises assuming a worst-case scenario of an eruption of a large, M9.1 earthquake along the Nankai Trough, an underwater trough in the southern seas of Japan stretching from Shizuoka Prefecture in Honshu to the Hyūga-nada Sea off the eastern coast of Kyushu.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Japanese woodblock print markings

In two recent blog posts, I wrote about the topic of Japanese woodblock prints. One post was about Utagawa Hiroshige's bestselling ukiyo-e print series, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (東海道五十三次), and the other post was about the woodblock prints in the Taishō Shinsai Gashū (大正震災画集), which is a collection of prints depicting scenes pertaining to the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.

In this post, I'd like to touch a little more on the markings that could be found on Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period. Let me add in this preface that I am by no means an expert on woodblock prints. But I've been trying to learn about them, and I'm sharing here what I've learned and my own observations.

There are a few kinds of markings that could be found inscribed on woodblock prints: The artist's signature, the artist's seal, the print's title, the series title, the publisher's mark, and censor and date marks. Note that not all of these marks may be present on a woodblock print. Sometimes there is just the artist's signature.

Japanese woodblock print markings.
Figure 1: The markings on a print from the Hōeidō edition of Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō [1]. Click on the image to enlarge.

In Figure 1, I have annotated in red the different markings that are on a print from the Hōeidō edition of Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, which I will use here as an illustration. This print depicts Mishima-shuku (三島宿), the 11th post station from Edo along the Tōkaidō. The quiet scene shows a group of travellers at the Mishima Shrine on a misty morning [1]. Isn't it a wonderful scene? This is how a master paints fog and remoteness and invites reflection.