For Matt Treyvaud's latest contributions to The Japan Times, see below:
Aug 27, 2016
The bulk of "Demythologizing Pure Land Buddhism" is a collection of essays by Rijin Yasuda (1900-1982), a Shin Buddhist thinker in the modernizing tradition of Kiyozawa Manshi (1863-1903). Yasuda "taught a conception of Amida and the Pure Land that made them existential realities in the present," as translator Paul B. Watt puts it in his introduction: The Pure Land for Yasuda was not a cosmic bliss dimension but rather "that place where sentient beings discover their true identity as the Tathagata."
Aug 20, 2016
From the 17th to the 19th century, Japan's only official window on the West was the Dutch factory in Nagasaki. The trickle of scientific and geopolitical information that came through with the merchant ships was gradually curated by enthusiasts into rangaku or "Dutch learning," arguably laying the foundation for Japan's rapid Westernization following Commodore Matthew Perry's arrival in 1853.
Jul 16, 2016
"Strange Glow" hits all the notes you'd expect from a book described as "the story of people's encounters with radiation" — from physicist Ernest Rutherford's overturning of the"plum pudding" model of the atom to the "radium girls" who were poisoned by the glow-in-the-dark radium paint they applied to watch faces. But author Timothy J. Jorgensen does more than just retell the anecdotes. He uses them to illustrate his main argument: radiation is not an unfathomable bogeyman, but a well-understood phenomenon whose effects on health can and must be rationally considered given the challenges facing humanity.
Jun 4, 2016
Mechademia is an annual English-language academic journal on Japanese pop culture and related topics. Each issue has its own theme, and volume 10's is "World Renewal." In theory, this includes not only the branching timelines and parallel worlds of games and anime such as "Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni" ("Higurashi When They Cry") and "Puella Magi Madoka Magica," but also the epochal 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
Feb 27, 2016
Partly inspired by the wartime experiences of author Keiko Itoh's mother, "My Shanghai, 1942-1946" is a comfortably old-fashioned epistolary novel told entirely through diary entries. The story begins in January 1942 as London-educated protagonist Eiko Kishimoto arrives in the Shanghai International Settlement with her businessman husband, and follows them through to their postwar repatriation to Japan.
Feb 20, 2016
Ominous demographic trends, ineffective governance, the not-if-but-when prospect of another devastating earthquake ... the litany of topics addressed by "Japan: The Precarious Future" will already be familiar to readers of this newspaper. A collection of essays from specialists in relevant fields, the book offers a sobering one-volume summary of where Japan stands — or rather, stood a couple of years ago. Chapters were written between 2012 and 2014, so its coverage of some fast-moving topics already feels outdated. This isn't the fault of the authors, of course, but since the book's forecast horizon was only three to five years into the future to begin with, time is not on its side.
Feb 13, 2016
In the the late 19th and early 20th century, when Japan's modernization was well underway, Japanese readers acquired a taste for a certain kind of monster: the twisted almost-human, bearing a grudge and wreaking havoc on the unsuspecting and upright citizens around them. Critics have long seen a connection here, and in "Monstrous Humans" Miri Nakamura, associate professor of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University, offers a new take on this idea, arguing that these "modern monsters" were not throwbacks to Japan's premodern past but rather distorted reflections of the newly imported ideals of modernity itself.
Dec 19, 2015
Subtitled "Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan," William R. LaFleur's book surveys an expanse of Japanese literary history ranging from the "Nihon Ryoiki" of the early ninth century to Basho's posthumous "Narrow Road to the Deep North" (1702). This is a more generous definition of "medieval" than usual, identifying the key characteristic of the era as the supremacy of the Buddhist canon in Japanese thought rather than any particular political arrangement.
Dec 12, 2015
Oct 31, 2015
"Origins of Modern Japanese Literature" is a radical reexamination of how Japanese literature developed after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. It's made up of a series of essays by Karatani Kojin that were originally published in the late '70s, a time when new critiques of modernity were gathering steam in Japan. Karatani's main argument is that modern literary themes such as "the landscape" and "childhood" are not timeless, culturally neutral concepts that the modernists happened to take an interest in, but products of modernism themselves, with specific and intelligible histories. These histories, however, are suppressed by the same "inversions" (as Karatani puts it) that bring the themes into being: "In the very moment when we become capable of perceiving landscape, it appears to us as if it had been there, outside of us from the start."
Oct 17, 2015
The label kouta (which roughly translates as, "little song") has been applied to any number of popular Japanese music forms over the centuries. But these days, the word usually refers to a specific genre of shamisen music that evolved in 19th-century Edo (present-day Tokyo) from existing popular styles, particularly hauta (roughly, "short songs"). The first kouta is traditionally said to have been "Chiru wa Uki" ("Those that fall float"), composed in 1855 by "Joruri" puppet theater singer Kiyomoto Oyo (1840-1901), and by the early 20th century kouta was a lively and varied form — and a vital part of a geisha's repertoire of light entertainment.
Oct 3, 2015
For most of its history the Japanese archipelago knew nothing of circumcision. Contact with missionaries and merchants from Europe did little to raise awareness of the custom, and the procedure does not seem to have been a high priority for the promoters of Western ideas and technology during the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Even today, circumcision at birth remains extremely rare in Japan and the medical establishment's attitude toward the procedure is lukewarm at best. And yet Tokyo alone is home to dozens of clinics offering to relieve men of their prepuces, hinting — with greater or lesser explicitness — at the new world of possibilities that this sacrifice will bring.
Sep 5, 2015
The norito (ritual prayers) found in the 10th-century "Engi-shiki" ("Procedures of the Engi Era") have fascinated Japanologists for over a century. In the introduction to his 1878 translation of the norito, Ernest Satow suggested that they could offer insight into "the rites practiced by the Japanese people before the introduction of Buddhism and Chinese philosophy." More recently, they have also attracted attention from linguists interested in the earliest attested stages of the Japanese language.
Sep 5, 2015
Is the soundtrack to the original Super Mario Bros. game a musical achievement and pop-culture milestone on par with Miles Davis' Bitches Brew? Author Andrew Schartmann sets out to build exactly this case in "Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack" — part of Bloomsbury's 33 ⅓ series on classic albums — by developing arguments he made in his earlier work on video-game music, "Maestro Mario."
Aug 29, 2015
Jodo Shinshu, also known in English as "Shin Buddhism," is usually identified as the most popular denomination of Buddhism in Japan. Based on the teachings of Shinran (1173-1263), it arose as part of the "New Buddhism" of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), which included Zen and Nichiren Buddhism as well as other Pure Land sects — the mainstream for Japanese Buddhists.
Aug 22, 2015
Dennis Washburn's new translation of "The Tale of Genji" brings the total number of English options to four and a half, but the novel remains as daunting as ever. How do you approach a 1,000-page novel from 1,000 years ago, in which most of the characters don't even have proper names? The book's insight into the human condition may be timeless, but the mores of Heian Period (794 to 1185) court society can be baffling to modern readers.
Aug 1, 2015
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