Studio Ghibli

Hello blog, long time no see. I thought I might as well finish up my blogging days.

Thanks to our professors’ unwavering diligence, we managed to score some elusive tickets to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. Admittedly, I am nowhere close to calling myself a Ghibli fan, since I often more action-filled productions such as Kon Satoshi’s works. However, the museum had a special exhibition on food, which was exactly aligned with my interest. As Professor Selinger would agree, food is one of the most intimate and significant indicators of culture, society, and politics. Most of my Japanese food knowledge (besides through taste buds and stomach acid) is from a book called Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity by Katarzyna Joanna Cwiertka. As promised by the title, the opening pages of the book immediately jump to the colonial/imperial influences on food in Japan (exemplified by Emperor Meiji’s Western birthday party), especially focusing on the increasing preference and power exertions of Western foods and dining habits.

On the contrary, the exhibit at Ghibli (was beautifully illustrated of course) saw food as a magical element of healing and bonding to construct a certain purified view of a national identity that may or may not exist. To Miyazaki, food is the best unifier of cross-cultural differences, since as organisms, we all must eat to sustain ourselves, but he ignores the inequality in food across socioeconomic and political differences. The onigiri, simple and Japanese, that Chihiro eats to not vanish/stay human is very different than the gluttonous “Western” meal that her parents devour. Just as Miyazaki has used the furusato to paint a nostalgia for a past that never existed, the Japanese rice ball is used to ground Chihiro physically through a display of the simplistic, minimalistic Japanese identity (which can be easily debated). The exhibit was beautifully curated with dazzling fake foods, but food is not always shining and glittering. The fruit box in Ghost in the Shell had no signs of damage or war, not even a single scratch. While it basked under its own mini-spotlight, Setsuko’s representation and the children of the war are erased.

I came to the realization this semester that as a self-labeled foodie and person who really wants to look at the “everyday,” there is no better cross-over than looking at food culture. When examining food, it is not about who ate what, but more importantly, why did they eat such things (or why not). Furthermore, who didn’t eat what and why did they not eat are also important questions. For example, the white rice, presently so symbolic of East Asian/Japanese culture, was only available to a very specific group of people. The change in the military diets of the late 19th/early 20th century to strengthen the forces to defeat/imitate Western powers changed the palates of the young men. Combined with increased production amounts, the steaming bowl of white rice then became a national symbol. Fascinating, eh? This is similar to why I study religion. I am very interested in the commonplace rituals that, for many, has lost its original meaning and understood more through “doing” than “thinking.” Similar to food, we eat without giving much thought to where our food comes from (I am talking about the origin-origin, corn in North America, etc) and how they got to the table. Always remember, pepper > gold, and countries would bring out extreme forms of power for that speck of spices.

The Ambiguous Potential of Hope

Today, I listened to one of my favorite lectures on the trip so far, partly because of the ability to communicate in English with Professor Satsuki Takahashi about fisheries, disaster, and hope. Contrasting with the devastating images of Fukushima we have mainly experienced on this trip, Professor Takahashi talked about her experience with the fishing community via an alternate route, one based on the hopes of reconstruction and promises from the companies/government. In addition, Professor Satsuki mentioned her recent work on aquariums to conclude that aquariums are between art museums and zoos in terms of planned aesthetic reasons. Zoos have the interest of animals in mind while planning the exhibits while aquariums meticulous recreate the ecosystems to look more “natural.” This coupled with ambient lighting and comfortable air conditioning makes aquarium going a popular date spot compared to the zoos oversaturated with rampaging children. The lecture was engaging and opened up a very different (yet similar for me) way to look at post 3/11 from an anthropological POV. Overall, I would like to say that I feel “inadequate” at times when I reply to people that I am *only* an Asian Studies major (no double major, no minor, and not enough interest to continue into academia). But, as we saw during the lecture, history repeats itself and human memory has the magical (fortunate or not) quality to forget. Being able to learn from past mistakes and improve is something we have been working on since preschool, yet we are still not very good at it, especially when they are larger projects involving multiple parties’ interests. I believe that Professor Takahashi gave us a powerful view of the people (and remembered the people through communication). Instead of focusing on the disaster and showing the people as “sufferers,” she spoke about the efforts to rebuild and to redefine, even though the exact visions are vague and can still be easily manipulated by unequal power exchanges.

The nostalgic futurism and the “hope” are two ideas that I have frequently encountered in my class about contemporary India the past semester. I would like to take the following post to condense some thoughts (I wrote my first essay for the class on this!):

  • The formation of Pakistan: Pakistan, the name, can either represent “the land of the pure” or symbolize an acronym of the regions it was constructed from. The problem with the vision of Pakistan was the “purity” of it. While not many people would object the idea of “pure,” few could really agree on the same definition of “pure.” Precisely, because of the inability to concretely define the vision, conflicts arose and the outcome of the state did not match the vision of some of the independence leaders. The idea of “hope” is a very powerful tool. Yet, it is constantly abused to pacify the people. Hope allows dreaming for a better future, but the ambiguity allows for easy manipulation.
  • Second is the appropriation of history as in nostalgic futurism, which happens too often and too widely in history, so I will talk about in a broader context: The “desensitization” of trauma and tragedy has occurred for the residents, who have suffered and trekked through multiple disasters in the last century. While each circumstance is different in the exact causes, there are common themes of the human-made disasters and the cycles of “progress.” Yet, we, maybe evolutionarily/psychologically inclined, repackage the tragedy and cannot recognize the trends. How shall we ever learn? My peers were surprised to learn the existence of nuclear fish hatcheries. It is also my first time hearing about the projects, but I was not shocked to see why these plants would exist. Although the water used is filtered via nuclear plants, the fishing community uses the water because it is a win-win situation as Professor Takahashi noted. I think with an explanation from the officials as well as the economic benefit, the fishing communities are willing to agree (especially since fishing tends not to be the most lucrative profession recently). It’s not (what I would say) a short-sighted decision. I think it makes sense to think about it as: I can use the water and get some good out of it (with supposedly no harmful effects) or not use it at all. Furthermore, if there were to be a nuclear accident, the nuclear hatcheries would be the least of my problems since the future of fishing will remain unknown.(This is written quite late at night and I get very ramble-y.)

At night, we went to the National Theatre to watch an annotated version of kabuki. SO GLAD WE WENT. As a devoted theater techie, I love being in the audience seat for once (although I would have GLADLY explored the light booth and backstage/understage/fly gallery). I enjoyed the performance and learning about the power/gender dynamics of kabuki, but personally, I am really proud of how far I have come since day 1 of college in terms of technical theater. College was my first exposure at the theater, in general, and of course tech. Through the last two years, I have learned so much technical knowledge from lighting to sewing to moping as well as how to be a considerate audience/caretaker (imagine taking care of actors) and still maintain a sense of humor. I have grown great respect for theater in general, especially for its subversive tendencies (which even exists in kabuki). (Who said theater is “useless”?) The countless hours of rehearsals and cooperation (and stamina) between the performers, musicians, and stage crew are unimaginable for the audience, just to produce an enjoyable performance. (Again, it was great to have Noto-san, a kabuki fan, to explain some of the customs of kabuki.) Lots of love for theater and hope everyone can learn to appreciate it!


P.S. I love bubble money and theatres. Cushy rugs, gorgeous chandeliers, dazzling bathrooms, and comfortable room temperature. Wonderful experience.


Tokyo Sea Life Park and Emi-san

Yesterday was a wonderful day. We started in Tokyo Sea Life Park (the surrounding park was very aesthetic, photos at the end). Then, we ventured through the aquariums, encountering VERY adorable penguin plushed animals. In the afternoon, we met Oda sensei, who immersed us in a wonderful learning experience about tuna and the aquarium’s educational efforts. We started by drawing the bluefin tunas through direct observations and catching a glimpse of the “Employee Only” mechanical rooms. Lastly, we got to touch a frozen tuna for educational purposes. Then, we continued into an engaging conversation/Q&A about marine biology conservation and education efforts.

I am not the fan of neither aquariums nor zoos, but if I had met such an inspiring educator such as Oda-san and experienced his directly involved approach, I may have headed toward a different research direction in life. All I felt from aquariums (even more so than zoos) were the unethical confinement of sea creatures for recreational purposes. While the majority of the families yesterday still went for recreational purposes, I really appreciate the efforts done by the aquarium towards outreach (especially the free part). Compared to aquariums in Houston, where $$$ is the main goal and it is impossible to schedule an educational event without an organized school field trip), I have grown to see such institutions as just another money-making agency that exploits the livelihood of sea creatures (and a white tiger) for the amusement of humanity. I do think there still exists ethical problems with containing living organisms (since we would never do that to another human, hopefully). But, knowing that one can really learn and grow to appreciate life through close contact is settling. The best part was how enthusiastic the staff were. I am glad to see that despite language barriers, the mutual feelings of “interest” and “excitement” transfer and can be enjoyed by both.

At night, we went to Emi-san’s house and had the best time karaoke-ing, trying on yukatas, and eating homemade vegetarian food. Finally the “cultural immersion” aspect as marketed by most study abroad programs. I am extremely glad to be in the suburbia where “average” people live, not just those represented in popular forms of media. It felt like home, as in Hangzhou, with the high rise and the community. Emi-san was such a wonderful host, offering us food and taking us places. I will definitely be improving my Japanese to be able to communicate with my host family this fall.


Today, I went to the zoo. I saw a panda (note the singular). He/she is still very adorable and enjoys eating very much but definitely not as much poop as the pandas before. The frightening amount of tiny children roaming around with parents is scarier to me than a tiger breaking its glass prison and prancing at me (or so I think). I have never liked the zoo. I really do love fluffy animals, especially those that see eating and sleeping (and pooping) as their main life goals. The zoo was more tolerable this time around because of Christmas-sensei’s frequent questioning that directed my attention away from the caged, gazing animals to thinking about the construction and the history of such a space.

The better part of the day (besides getting to try the sensational Ichiran Ramen) was going to the National Museum with a scholar of medieval Japan (SO MUCH KNOWLEDGE). I love museums and have often thought about going into museum studies, the best type of NPOs in my opinion. I paid a lot of attention not only to the displayed items but also the presentation of lights, colors, and space. Compared to the Edo-Tokyo museum of the “ordinary, normal life,” the art displayed in the National Museum is one of ostentatious patronage and elite. And, nevertheless, I love patronage when it gives way to such wonderful creations. I want to someday be highly ranked enough to handle the delicate papers.

A couple more observations:

  • I had known about the prevalence of Buddhism in Japan after the 6th (??) century, but I did not realize HOW prevalent. The Buddhist elements were present in almost every single display, from the aristocrat to the shogunate and the samurais. Buddhism was interpreted and presented differently in each case for various reasons. There were even special mandalas with very heavy Sanskrit/Hinduism/Indian influences. Really enjoy seeing Buddhism from its origins.
  • I have been to the Forbidden Palace in Beijing as well as read many textbook entries about the amazing artifacts in China. But, most of the famous items do not live in China. They are mostly split between UK, France, Japan, Taiwan, and USA. For example, the Mogao Caves has a grotto for sutras. However, when I went last summer, I learned that the grotto has been empty for the last century+. During the late-Qing/early-ROC periods, the imperial forces invaded and took the scrolls for their own collections, including individual collectors and scholars. The fine arts museum in Boston has one of the scrolls, in fact. If museums come to a positive agreement and decide to share/rotate/trade exhibits, the possession of the items would be with a different history than those forcefully taken during times of unrest and violence. I am traveling to Taiwan this summer and my most anticipated stop is actually the National Museum in Taipei, where most of the treasures of the Forbidden Palace are now housed. I still enjoy being able to see these priceless arts, but being in museums does motivate me to question the power of political history even in the “ever-so-aloof” arts.


I think the photos explain it all. Aesthetic Kamakura, the quintessential photographs of “rural” Japan. In China, there is a saying to describe the journey of a tourist: Sleep on the bus, see temples off the bus. That is exactly what Kamakura was for us. We saw temples and shrines throughout our hikes in the woods. Having two Japanese scholars with us, we got a very in-depth view of Japan’s history during the Kamakura period and later Meiji influences (see, I now know some of the names of Japanese periods). I came to Japan without knowing anything about Japanese history, especially not from the perspective of the Japanese documents/archives. Being able to learn the history in person is a very powerful event.

Because Kamakura was such a great setting for me, despite my sickly stomach issues, I want to take this post to talk a bit more personally about my experience. The history is fascinating since I had never heard of any of it before (except the Buddhism parts which I learned from a religion academic context rather than historical). I am a very quiet traveler. I don’t like people knowing where I come from and want to blend in as much as possible. My solution is to talk less and listen more, in addition, to hopefully observe the most from the ordinary. (As per senseis’ requests) I previously commented on how helpless I feel in Japan, not being able to communicate well, but being able to travel with a group that can understand, I do feel that I am getting much more than the “tourist experience.” For example, before entering a Shinto shrine, one should clean oneself by washing one’s hands and rinsing mouth. One tourist took the ladle and drank the water directly instead of dabbing the lips using the hand before spitting it out. As I saw the crowd of tourists at Kamakura yesterday, I wondered what they got from the experience in a country that they do not speak the language. I am interested in studying food culture, especially with the colonial dynamics of its history and the emerging attitudes based on increasing tourism. Does the average tourist come to Japan to visit the temples have even a brief idea of the history and politics behind the religious artifacts? Or, do they rejoice in updating their social media to show the “cool” and “cute” Japan with the “ancient, exotic” culture?