From the Psychommu Gaijin Print Archive

“Hate the Jailbait: Why Underage Fangirls Should Be Feared By All”

“Little Miss Hyperactive: She's sweet 13 and has drunk SO MUCH SODA in the past six hours that she can't stop moving, can't stop giggling, can't stop screaming, and can't stop spending Daddy's money on bootleg CDs and toy magic wands. Warning - they travel in packs, and once they get old enough to discover boys, they get REALLY dangerous.” --From “The Fourteen Types of Annoying Anime Fan” by Dave Merrill

Back in the days before anime was in its own section at Suncoast, anime fandom consisted mostly of college guys, often with Computer Science or Electrical Engineering backgrounds. You know, GEEKS. Female fans were a distinct minority; my guess is that most just didn’t want to attend events where legions of pasty, overweight guys would leer at them, though it’s possible that they were all just trying to avoid being hit on by Mike Tatsugawa. In recent years the male/female percentage breakdown at anime conventions and for anime fans in general has drawn closer to the ideal 50/50, so that’s an improvement at least superficially. Now, what this statistical trend that I just invented from thin air doesn’t reveal is that nearly all of those females are what I’d consider children (under 21). And…screw it, I’m gonna say it: this group of fans in particular irritates me the most. Now, I’ve been accused of only seeing the worst in people and making assumptions about the whole based solely on worst case exceptions, and I’m going to fess up and admit that these accusations are entirely true. I’m sure there are probably many cordial fans that wouldn’t bother me in the slightest, but it’s the bad example of the obnoxious ones that casts a pall upon the rest due to their standing out more. So when I say that these underage girls are the bane of anime fandom because they’re catalysts to the influx of non-anime related activities to our conventions, and that more importantly their conduct grates on my nerves, try not to get TOO upset as you read through this. But just in case, I’ll put my email address at the end of this so you can let me know just HOW upset. Now, maintaining the standards of argument validity when talking about something that personally annoys you may not be possible, but let me see if I can try and half-ass it when I talk about how underage fangirls are an impetus in bringing about non-anime related crap to a convention near you.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on at anime cons nowadays that technically doesn’t have jack to do with Japanese cartoons at all when you really think about it, and the only reason they continue to be there is because if these things were done away with, attendance would most likely drop significantly. Case in point: cosplay! Yep, I fail to see how cosplay as it is today has anything significant to do with anime. Who do I blame? THE UNDERAGE FANGIRLS, THAT’S WHO! Before I go on, let me note that I hate all cosplay—not just the underage fangirls—and personally think it has its own fandom and thus should have its own conventions separate from anime conventions. With that in mind, based upon analysis of Lionel “Linus Lam” Lum’s coverage of Anime Expo 2001 over at (which consisted of going through every page of costumer photos and keeping count), APPROXIMATELY fifty to seventy five percent of costumers were females that DIDN’T look like they were of drinking age to me! That’s RIDICULOUSLY high I know, and you also have to consider that Secret Agent Linus Lam loves the chicks, but the POINT is still that even if my eyes were so bad as to introduce a 30% margin of error (due to stuff like counting people that are too old or accidentally counting a guy in drag) the number of jailbait female costumers is very high.

“So what the f*ck does some OTHER practically made up statistic have to do with your point?” you ask? Well, like I said earlier, costuming these days isn’t about the anime anymore. Sure, you might actually dress up as a character from some Japanese cartoon, but from this viewpoint it’s about that ego boost. Yeah, it’s really about getting everyone to look at you and take your picture, or going to the mall or Japanese restaurant/bookstore in full costume just to see how many people stare. The best example of this mindset is “visual kei,” or dressing up at Japanese hair-metal bands. Let it be said once again that visual kei has as much to do with anime as dressing up as characters from videogames that haven’t been made into crappy animated movies/OAVs does; in other words, NOTHING. If you’re at a con, look around during the day. See any…say, Final Fantasy or fighting game costumers? Unless they’re someone from Final Fantasy Unlimited, that stupid set of Final Fantasy OAVs, or some OAV/movie that just might contain dinosaurs that are invisible, their costume probably has nothing to do with Japanese cartoons!

Back to what I was saying: the ones who tend to be into the “visual kei” thing best illustrate what I consider the contemporary cosplay mentality (despite their actual numbers being quite small), AND…they coincidentally are practically all jailbait female types! And if it’s hasn’t really got anything to do with Japanese cartoons, I say go somewhere where you can do that stuff there to your heart’s content as long as it’s not at the convention dedicated to Japanese animation. I understand that the reasons for costuming are diverse and many (love of craftsmanship, heck maybe you really do like the character you’re dressing up as!), and I wouldn’t have as big a problem if cosplayers were all restricted to one area because then I could just not go there (a good personal solution but not an ideal solution for fandom as it doesn’t address the issue of relevancy), but as it is, these people are everywhere and more often than not, the girl with the wings as part of her costume that’s taking up unnecessary space on the elevator looks like she’s a teenager to me. But wait, I did say the young fangirls were a catalyst for the influx of non-anime related activities, right? All this stuff about “underage fangirls are the majority of cosplayers who as a whole don’t appear to concern themselves with anime, which effectively dilutes the spirit of fandom” still doesn’t directly address that issue, so I’d best elaborate or else be subdued by the “OH IS THAT YOUR ONLY EXAMPLE” counterpoint.

Remember when I said that anime fandom used to be mostly guys? Well, now that there’s girls there too, the guys damn sure want to share the same interests they’ve got cause maybe they’ll like, score and stuff! Hey, bubbly underage fangirls LOVE crossplay (dressing up as a character of the opposite gender), and what do you know? Crossplay has become much more popular over the last few years, especially among guys! That doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that some fangirl who just might be their girlfriend thinks it’d be cool, WOULD IT? Sure, there’s always been that 40 year-old hairy guy dressed as Sailor Moon that’s at every con, and the “guys do stuff because chicks dig it” justification applies to all walks of life (“hmm, the only games that a significant percentage of girls play at arcades is Bemani stuff; I know, I’LL LEARN TO PLAY DDR!”), but the influence is still there and I believe it’s more significant than people think. I mean, with regards to that videogame thing, normal anime fans or gamers (from my perspective) would never play a game where you have to actually MOVE, now would they?! As it is, I can only wonder what would happen to the current fan base if these girls stopped liking guys who like anime/cosplay/crossplay/Bemani. Would it all go on without any real change, or would a lot of guys coincidentally lose interest all of a sudden? And WHAT, ONLY TWO EXAMPLES, EACH OF WHICH ARE STRETCHING IT? Well, this section originally had a portion on the whole “plushies” phenomenon but I had to cut it for space...and since I cut out 1000 words, just pretend that what got cut contained the justification. Or don’t.

What it all boils down to is that these people just behave in a way that I can’t stand. Since I’m sure many can’t stand me, it all balances out. But is there any other group that SQUEALS as loudly as possible as often as the underage fangirls? I for one would much rather listen to Torgo’s theme from “Manos, the Hands of Fate” on loop for a week rather than hear that sporadically at conventions and anime club meetings. That alone is enough for me, but the underage fangirls also appear to be the ones that by far and away write the most fan fiction. Now, there’s a simple and easy to remember rule to follow when it comes to fan fiction:


In addition to this, the giggly underage fangirl demographic is also pretty much 100 percent responsible for all the yaoi (a Japanese word which when translated from the Japanese by a team of academics roughly translates to HOT MANLOVE ACTION) fan fiction. I’m not going to fault their taste in anime (not now anyway), but even if the previous fan fiction rule I noted was untrue, these works would still be horrible since they all depend on extrapolating homosexual relationships from SUBTEXTS that every underage fangirl who writes this stuff INSISTS is present between ANY two male characters who so much as appear in the same scene together. My personal solution is to just not read fan fiction, but again, covering your ears and repeating to yourself that “LA LA LA EVERYTHING IS FINE” isn’t really going to affect fandom. Of course, neither is bitching about it like what I’m doing now, but it’s more preferable than my other solution, which is simply killing them all.

After all I’ve said, call it a hunch but I doubt that anyone will really agree with what I just wrote for any variety of reasons, many of them good ones. But it sure seems to me like underage fangirls—while not the direct CAUSE of most problems, really—sure are speeding up the rate of decline, so to speak. I’m probably just drawing conclusions based on the activity of a vocal and highly visible minority, but for now I’ll just stick to avoiding all these people as much as possible. The problem is that it’s getting progressively harder and harder to distance myself from this sort of thing, and the “well if you don’t like it, then either don’t go to the con or quit your whining” ultimatum often presented is not a real long-term solution for fandom as a whole (it could work for just ME). The only “real” solution it seems is time; theoretically time will pass and the people whose behavior strikes me as abhorrent will either mature or disappear, but it appears that in reality while that may be true, a new generation of fans exhibiting the same behavior will come in to replace them—probably in greater numbers—and will continue to do so as long as conventions and fandom itself encourages it.

I understand that anime conventions have to cater to the needs of the whole rather than to the needs of just me (and how unfortunate is THAT?!), but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t voice my opinion on the matter. The time-honored solution for disillusioned fans like myself is to staff a convention (or start one anew) in the hopes of instituting change, but as you can see my views are probably too extreme to be put into practical use. I mean, “get rid of all the cosplayers and make them start their own con?” I think I’m more content with thinking, “it wouldn’t work, but what if…” than actually seeing the ideas fail. Besides, I’m a guy that likes anime but detests anime fans on the whole (but if that’s true, why am I so concerned about the state of fandom, HUH? Good question, I’ll get back to you on that someday), so don’t worry about any of my viewpoints dictating con policy anywhere. Now have fun waiting in line for eight hours and navigating congested halls because a group of fangirls had to stop and get their pictures taken right there.

Daryl Surat welcomes all comments and can be contacted via e-mail at And no, he isn’t gay despite all the SUBTEXTS and doesn’t hate women even though they all have hideous GIRL GERMS that you’ll get if they touch you.

AnimeCENTRAL call for submissons!

This is an open call for submissons for the AnimeCENTRAL issue of Psychomuu Gaijin. This is for the annual Psychomuu Gaijin zine that will be distributed at AnimeCENTRAL 2005 in Chicago. We need articles, reviews, interviews, fanart, comix, you name it. If it can be reproduced in print it's what we're looking for.

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Astro Boy - Kids' WB/Cartoon Network show blasts onto DVD in a big way!

Astro Boy - Kids' WB/Cartoon Network show blasts onto DVD in a big way!: "Astro Boy - Kids' WB/Cartoon Network show blasts onto DVD in a big way!
Posted by David Lambert

This past year, the Kids' WB programming block and later The Cartoon Network started airing a new version of Astro Boy, based on the classic 1963 cartoon series (which in turn was based on Osamu Tezuka's comic books from the '50s). It's the story of an atomic- powered robot who is a reluctant superhero (possessing super strength, jet-rocket feet and the ability to fly) fighting for justice and peace for both humans and robots. Although he is a robot, Astro Boy possesses human-like personality and emotions, and is clever and resourceful.

This morning, Sony Home Entertainment has announced a DVD release for Astro Boy - The Complete Series, containing all 50 episodes of the show, including 29 that were produced for the USA but have not aired up to this point (the series is currently on hiatus, but may return to air later this year when a big-screen Astro Boy film written & directed by Clone Wars' Genndy Tartakovsky hits the theaters).

Note that this title is pretty much classified as an anime show, which we really don't cover anymore at TVShowsOnDVD, but I've made an exception because I've decided that this show has enough mainstream appeal that it's worth passing on to our readers. It's the same reason we cover Speed Racer, Voltron, etc.

Astro Boy - The Complete Series blasts onto store shelves on March 29th, in a 5-DVD package that costs $49.95 SRP. The running time is 1010 minutes, according to Sony. Below we have a shot of the black outer slipcover box, and fanned out behind it are the five individual disc casts which slip inside. Take a look:"

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Pirate copies of Miyazaki's latest anime found at festival

KOBE -- A street vender who sold DVDs of "Howl's Moving Castle," a
popular animation film directed by the famous Hayao Miyazaki, has been
arrested for copyright violations, police said.

"Howl's Moving Castle" is still being screened at theaters across
Japan and the DVD version has yet to go on sale, leading officers to
suspect that the illegal DVDs were made after someone secretly filmed
it in a theater.

Shigeyoshi Oshio, 35, a street vender from Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture,
has been accused of being in possession of illegally copied DVDs,
including those of "Howl's Moving Castle," at a stall during a
festival at a shrine in Nishinomiya on Monday.

Officers seized some 1,000 DVDs from Oshio. (Mainichi Shimbun, Japan,
Jan. 11, 2004)

Miyazaki in the New Yorker

The Animated Life
Issue of 2005-01-17
Posted 2005-01-10

This week in the magazine, Margaret Talbot writes about the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, the writer and director of such films as “Spirited Away.” Here, with The New Yorker’s Daniel Cappello, Talbot discusses Miyazaki’s films, his influences, and his temperament.

DANIEL CAPPELLO: How did you become interested in writing about Hayao Miyazaki?

MARGARET TALBOT: My kids watched several of his movies, especially “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), on video a lot, and I started to realize that I could abide repeat viewings of them more than almost any other children's movies, with the possible exception of “The Wizard of Oz.” Naturally, I started wondering about the filmmaker who was doing me such a favor. Last summer, when I went to Japan on a United States-Japan Foundation Media Fellowship and began reporting on him, I found out that he hates the idea that children watch his films repeatedly. He's very worried about kids consuming too much media, and thinks that they should watch a movie like "Totoro" no more than once a year.

Miyazaki famously doesn’t grant interviews, but he spoke with you. Why doesn’t he like to do interviews, and how did you manage that?

It's true that Miyazaki does not like to give interviews, even in Japan, where he is really famous and beloved. I think one reason is that, while he certainly feels that he makes good movies, he feels some ambivalence about contributing to the sort of animation glut in Japan, and so is reluctant to go into promotional mode. But probably the bigger reason is that he is an intense workaholic, and resents anything that takes him away from his work. His producer and friend Toshio Suzuki told me that in the early days of their studio, Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki would work from 9 a.m. to 4:30 a.m., and that in recent years he has mellowed somewhat and goes home at midnight. Yasuo Ohtsuka, an animator who has worked with him on several projects, said that he always figured that Miyazaki thought he would die if he stopped working. And Miyazaki himself told me that his idea of a vacation was a nap. I think it was sheer luck that I got the interview—I happened to visit the studio on the very day that he had finished his latest film, "Howl's Moving Castle" (which came out in Japan in November and will be out in the U.S. next year), and he was showing the completed version to his wife and some of the staff. He was feeling relaxed and expansive, it seemed, and was willing to talk. I don't think he would have left the studio to talk to me—but there I was in his lair, where he is most comfortable. And I don't think he would have talked to me if I'd come the next day. He would already have been on to the next project.

Does Miyazaki have a specific style in the genre of anime? How does he compare with contemporary directors of animation?

Miyazaki is rather different from a lot of his contemporaries in anime, such as Mamoru Oshii ("Ghost in the Shell") and Katsuhiro Otomo ("Akira" and "Steamboy"), and, certainly, from the makers of shows like "Pokémon," "Digimon," and "Yu-Gi-Oh!" His characters don't have that big-eyed, anime look. His themes are less often science-fictiony or futuristic. Like a lot of the great British fantasy writers—C. S. Lewis or J. K. Rowling or Philip Pullman—he's very dedicated to realism in the service of fantasy, meaning that he makes little details (the way Chihiro kicks her toe into her shoes, or the way Haku the dragon falls when he's wounded) internally coherent and naturalistic. He's not into “Matrix”-like experimentation with the laws of time and space, which a lot of anime is. There's a great deal of human warmth in his films and, in “Totoro” and “Spirited Away” (2001) in particular, some nuanced attention to the psychology of children. At the risk of sounding just kind of besotted, his films are uncommonly beautiful. He has a very painterly sensibility. Finally, unlike a lot of animators, including his good friend John Lasseter, of Pixar, he isn't a fan of computer animation. He really favors the (now) old-fashioned method of hand drawing.

For people unfamiliar with his oeuvre, how would you describe his films, starting with the earlier ones, like "Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind" (1984) and "Castle in the Sky" (1986)?

“Nausicäa” is the most science-fiction-like. It takes place in an environmentally blighted future, where people live huddled on the edge of a toxic forest. But, like almost all of his films, including the charming “Castle in the Sky,” it has a very engaging, bright-eyed, natural but courageous girl as its lead character.

What about others, such as “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Princess Mononoke” (1997)?

“Princess Mononoke” is a very original and strange movie—also an environmental parable—set in medieval Japan. That and “Nausicäa” and “Porco Rosso” (1992), which is a “Casablanca”-ish story about a pig who is a flying ace in the Adriatic between the world wars, aren't for young kids—just my little parental warning. I love "My Neighbor Totoro," which is about two young sisters who move with their anthropologist father to a country house in Japan. The little girls uncover this magical world of fuzzy woodland creatures, including a bus shaped like a cat (Akira Kurosawa admired it, and somebody did a re-creation of it at Burning Man a few years ago) and a big, benign bewhiskered thing called a Totoro. The interesting thing is that you gradually realize that the girls are in a kind of crisis: their mother is in the hospital for a lengthy stay, and they are having to cope with her absence and the unpredictability of her return. Their fantasy world is one that they enter partly to find comfort. The creatures aren't as anthropomorphized as in a Disney film—they don't talk, and their sheer size suggests that they aren't quite tamable—and the girls are not as idealized. The little one throws a tantrum, the older one yells at her. They are emotionally vulnerable but physically brave, as well as powerfully imaginative and sometimes spacey—like real kids. “Kiki's Delivery Service” (1989) is also a really good family movie. It's the story of a young apprentice witch who goes to a lovely, Miyazakian city on some coast of Europe, where she has to make her own way for a time. She starts her own parcel-delivery service, by broomstick, of course. For a time, she loses her ability to fly, and rediscovers it when she needs to rescue her young (male) friend, a sweetly dorky aviation enthusiast. It's partly a movie about vocation—how to find one when you are young, and how, practically and spiritually, to make it work. It's one of the only movies I've ever seen that treats this as the basis of a narrative adventure for children.

How do these compare with his latest films, “Spirited Away” and “Howl's Moving Castle” (2004)?

His latest films are more visually sumptuous than the earlier ones—the fantasy worlds they create are even more extravagantly detailed—but, again, they are similar in that they have ordinary, ungorgeous, though likable and ultimately quite resourceful, young girls as their heroines.

You visited the Ghibli Museum, on the outskirts of Tokyo, which is dedicated to his work. What is it like, and how does it compare with other museums, especially those designed for children?

The museum reminded me of an old term for the precursors of museums—“cabinets of wonder"—because the idea of it is really to trace the creative process that goes into animated films—and especially Miyazaki's, of course—in a way that is both trippy and very beautiful. It has all these rooms where a dreamy child might be sketching backgrounds for a movie or coming up with an idea—they are kind of romanticized places, with oak furniture, jars full of colored pencils, watercolors and postcards tacked to the walls, model airplanes and flying dinosaurs hanging from the ceiling. In one of the exhibits, there's a very cool zoetrope with figures from “Totoro”—John Lasseter told me that he was enchanted by that, because it reminded him of the original meaning of animation—to bring to life, to set in motion. The museum has a movie theatre that is designed to not overwhelm children. It lets in a lot of natural light, has bench-style, child-scale seats, and a soft sound system. And it's a great building: painted in candy colors, with stained-glass windows, wooden floors, high ceilings, sort of Arts and Crafts meets Lewis Carroll. You feel good being in there.

Miyazaki’s own childhood and upbringing seem to have had an impact on his work as an adult. Can you describe that influence?

His father helped run an airplane-parts factory, a family-owned business. So he probably came by his love of airplanes and flying—which shows up throughout his work—close to home. He was one of four boys, and, of all of them, he was the closest to his mother, who was sickly and bedridden a lot of the time he was growing up but was apparently a formidable and very smart person.

What did you learn about his relationship with his family today?

He married a gifted and successful animator, who then stopped working to raise their two sons. One, Goro Miyazaki, is now the curator of the Ghibli Museum. The other son is an artist who does finely detailed wood engravings. Apparently, Miyazaki wasn't around much when his children were little—he was working all the time. Now they've formed strong professional relationships with him. Keisuke, the artist son, did some of the exhibits for the museum.

You describe Miyazaki as "detail-oriented to the point of obsession"—for example, he will take a trip around the world to find a perfect color that he has in his mind. Europe seems to be a central part of his obsession. Why is that?

For a couple of reasons. One is that he was born in 1941, so the Japan in which he lived in his early childhood was devastated by the war. He sort of took refuge in an imagined Europe. The other is that he loved fantasy literature in the European, and especially British, tradition, so that colored a lot of his own vision. He also loved European painting: Chagall and Bosch are influences he has cited.

Miyazaki seems to have definite feelings about the world today, in terms of technology and the environment and the effect they have on the way in which we perceive and live life. What does he think, and does it translate into his work?

He's a big critic of our dependence on virtual reality—computer games, TV, and animation, too. He complained, when I met him, that so much in our culture is "thin and shallow and fake." He's also an environmentalist, of a somewhat dark and apocalyptic variety. He's said, not entirely jokingly, that he looks forward to the time when Tokyo is submerged by the ocean and the NTV tower becomes an island, when the human population plummets and there are no more high-rises.

Are there countries other than Japan where animation is as popular across different age groups?

I think that Japan is unusual, if not unique, in its animation and comic-book culture. It's rich and developed there, and very respected as an art form. So you really do see people of all ages reading manga on the subway, for instance, and up to fifty per cent of book and magazine sales in Japan are of manga. There are ninety animated programs on television every week, and the genres are quite varied, from family dramas to violent cyber stuff to totally kawaii, or cute, kids' stuff. Anime fans here bristle at the idea that animation is just for children—though I think you'd have to concede that in the U.S. animation is more widely consumed by children than by adults. Miyazaki doesn't seem to have any problem with being perceived as a director who makes films primarily for children—he just thinks they should be sophisticated, good films in their own right.

You end your piece with a reflection about how harsh Miyazaki sounded in person, and yet how kind and humane his films are. What were your thoughts on this contradiction?

My feeling was that he was, by intellect and temperament, perhaps a pessimistic person, but that he has great vitality and a great respect and fondness for children, and that he wants them to make their own judgments about the world. He doesn’t want to swamp them with premature cynicism.

Peter’s new friends

Peter’s new friends
By Angel Gurria-Quintana
Published: January 9 2005 16:23 | Last updated: January 9 2005 16:23

Wrong About Japan
by Peter Carey
Faber £12.99, 166 pages

Ever since Commodore Perry sailed into Edo Bay in the 19th century, forcing Japan out of its isolation, western curiosity about the land of the rising sun has been boundless. From the creations of Puccini to Tarantino, Japanese stereotypes have doggedly inhabited our popular culture, while a number of scholars and specialist have taken it upon themselves to “understand” Japanese culture.

In the postwar period, American anthropologist Ruth Benedict explained that the essence of Japan could be found in its unique coupling of aesthetic and militaristic values - the chrysanthemum and the sword, to use her own memorable phrase. Years later, French intellectual Roland Barthes opted for an approach that forewent any knowledge of Japanese culture altogether - the country was an empire of signs, where calligraphy, flower arrangements and gambling parlours were equally open to interpretation. Needless to say, very few Japanese felt adequately portrayed by such intriguing but simplistic foreign readings.

Among the most endearing traits of Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan is a blunt admission of the fact that gaijin (the Japanese term for foreigners) have never quite comprehended Japanese culture, and never quite will. “I slowly began to understand that I was wrong,” he writes about his various cultured assumptions. “Because once I was in Japan,” he continues elsewhere, “I understood that, as a foreigner, I could never know the truth.”

Carey went to Japan to satisfy his 12-year-old son’s intense curiosity about the comic books known as manga and their animated version, anime. To parents of adolescent youths, his dilemma will be familiar: how to find an interest shared by one’s moody, introspective offspring. When Charley developed a passion for manga and anime, the Booker-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang thought he had found the common ground that might lead to fruitful discussions about Japanese history, poetry, theatre and woodblock printing. “I began to wonder if we might enter the mansion of Japanese culture through its garish, brightly lit back door.”

As it turns out, he was wrong about that, too. Not only because Charley never warmed to kabuki theatre and ukiyoe art, despite his father’s desperate pleas, but because, as the author soon finds out, the alleged back door to Japanese culture is, in fact, its main entrance.

There is a running joke throughout Carey’s essay, involving the nature of “the Real Japan”. To Charley, the phrase conveys Shinto shrines and teahouses, and he intends to stay as far away from it as possible. As it happens, he finds himself in the thick of a culture that is just as “real” as the other more ancient one. The only realities that can exist, Carey concedes, are versions of the same multifaceted country. “Of course to think that manga... are somehow more authentic than temples is wrongheaded,” he realises, “but this actually was our Japan, and we liked it here.”

Carey’s earnest anthropologist’s attempt to study manga and anime as “artifacts worthy of cultural investigation” - is comically offset by his travel companion’s matter-of-fact expertise on such matters, and by the realisation that he is inevitably prone to misunderstandings.

He knows, however, that such misunderstandings are fruitful for a writer. On meeting a venerable swordsmith, he asks if making a steel blade is a spiritual experience. The old master’s wry answer is: “You’ve been reading American books?” Later, the director of a cult anime listens respectfully to Carey’s hypothesising before making it clear “that nothing in this country was as I thought it was. My misunderstandings were very interesting, he said.”

Caricaturing a foreign culture is the easiest path for authors of accounts of travel. It is easier when dealing with one so alien, so teeming with apparently inscrutable peculiarities, as the Japanese. Carey studiously avoids caricatures. His Japanese characters are as filled with contradictions as his disoriented gaijin.

Although Carey owns up to a depressing feeling that stems from his “shameful ignorance” and an “inability even to break the skin of this culture”, his attempts at dealing with his admitted lack of knowledge are, ultimately, superficial. For someone claiming to be anxious to understand, he is remarkably relaxed about not knowing the language.

And yet, it is the sheer lack of pretension that makes this understated account of travel so illuminating. Like Carey and Charley, we may never cease to be wrong about Japan. The “Real Japan” may yet elude us, but realising this may be the first step towards unpicking inevitable misapprehensions. For this reason alone, readers of Wrong About Japan should be grateful.

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RECIPE FOR SUCCESS:Soup masters : English
By SAYAKA YAKUSHIJI:Contributing Writer
Masahiko Yamada samples his latest experiment at Nissin Food Products Co. central research center in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture.
Masahiko Yamada samples his latest experiment at Nissin Food Products Co. central research center in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture.

As instant ramen spreads around the globe, researchers in Japan continue to pursue the perfect taste. `You are not born with taste buds. It's something you build up.' MASAHIKO YAMADA Researcher of Nissin Food Products Co.

This is the fourth installment in a series on Japanese inventions and what they offer to the world in 2005.

KUSATSU, Shiga Prefecture-Inside his spotless laboratory, Masahiko Yamada carefully examines the results of his experiment. The concoction he has created could change the lives of millions around the nation.

Yamada, wearing a light green uniform, samples a glass of clear liquid scooped from the large metal pot containing two large chickens, onions, carrots, scallions, shiitake mushrooms and seaweed.

He pauses before evaluating the mixture.

``The soup's got the sweetness of the chicken,'' he says. ``They are broiler chickens, but they give their own good flavor.''

Yamada's job is to find the ultimate soup. After all, he was given the title of ``soup master'' from his company two years ago.

The title is warranted, according to those who know the 57-year-old researcher of Nissin Food Products Co. They consider Yamada a ``living god'' of instant ramen noodles.

The world's first instant noodle was created by Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin, in 1958.

In the 45 years after the invention, production of instant noodles expanded by 422 times and became a common part of the Japanese diet. On average, a Japanese ate 42.7 servings of instant noodles in 2003.

Easy-to-prepare ramen has also won international recognition, influencing global culinary lifestyles. World demand for instant noodles topped 65.25 billion servings in 2003, according to a survey by the International Ramen Manufacturers Association.

Researchers like Yamada are the keys in the development of the noodle products. At Nissin's central research center here, 17 soup experts toil day and night in search of new flavors.

In his more than three decades of working at the nation's leading maker of instant noodles, Yamada has been involved in creating soup seasonings for more than 100 products, including such long-selling hits as ``Demae Iccho'' and ``U.F.O.''

One of his recent achievements is ``Gyoretsu no Dekiru Mise no Ramen,'' which means ramen noodles of a shop crowded with fans.

It's not just broilers Yamada has tried out to find the perfect broth. He has tested sea bream, dried squid and soft-shelled turtles; anything that catches his eye can be a potential ingredient.

``Recently, I had a chance to go to a market in Kyoto. They had pretty good local vegetables,'' he says.

But being a soup meister is not easy. Whenever he takes a business trip, he feels obliged to check out local ramen shops, often six to seven a day. To figure out the secret of success, Yamada peeps into kitchens or

chats with the chef.

The trips can sometimes be ``just hellish.''

``Hokkaido is pretty tough. Their noodles are wide and hard. Once, I had to run to a drug store and get a laxative in between ramen shops,'' he says. ``Kyushu is easier. You can go for two or three rounds. Drinking alcohol helps, you know.''

The direct experiences are essential for Yamada's job.

``There are cookbooks written by famous cooks. But you can't recreate the same flavor by just looking at the recipe. What's really important is not in the book,'' he says.

And the competition in Japan is always close behind.

In 2003, at least 889 brands of instant noodles were marketed nationwide. With the rapid cycle of repackaging traditional brands and creating new products, about 200 flavors are developed annually by Nissin.

Coming up with the right seasoning can take several months. To prepare for the endless sampling session-researchers try out 30 to 40 soups (including noodles) in just one day-Yamada stays in shape. He recently completed a two-day marathon covering 80 kilometers.

``You are not born with taste buds. It's something you build up,'' says Yamada, who has visited hundreds of ramen shops around the nation.

Ramen, consisting of flour noodles kneaded with kansui water and served in hot soup, originated in China. Japanese packaging technology spread the ramen culture around the world.

``Chicken Ramen,'' the world's first instant noodle, was born after Nissin founder Ando witnessed people lining up at ramen stalls in war-torn Osaka. He saw a business opportunity in creating preservable noodles.

Fried noodles mixed with seasoning came handy in Japan during times of economic expansion. Busy workers wanted something quick to keep their stomachs full.

The Japanese creation proved useful in other countries, expanding to regions from Russia to Africa where ramen was not exactly part of the dietary tradition.

Nissin has also grown. It now operates 25 overseas factories in eight countries, including the United States, the Netherlands, Brazil, Indonesia and India. Seeing potential demand from the Middle East to Eastern Europe, Nissin predicts worldwide demand of instant noodles will reach 100 billion servings by 2010.

Like many other companies in the manufacturing industry, Nissin sees enormous potential in China. In 2003, 27.7 billion servings of instant noodles were consumed in China, accounting for more than 40 percent of world consumption.

Ironically, the inventor of instant noodles is struggling at the original home of ramen.

The majority of the Chinese market is currently occupied by Taiwanese and Chinese firms that can take advantage of low prices and distribution channels.

To gain a foothold, Nissin began producing its brands in the three coastal areas of Guangdong province, Shanghai and Beijing in the late 1990s. Furthermore, the company recently set up a research center in China, dispatching Japanese instant-noodle researchers to analyze and explore the needs of the local market.

Localizing flavors is essential for acceptance of the product. Nissin had earlier opened similar research centers in the United States and Europe to pinpoint the tastes of consumers there.

``For example, instead of soy sauce or miso flavor, chicken, beef, pork and seafood are the main soup seasonings in China,'' says Shinji Hiratani, manager of the international division at Nissin in charge of overseeing the Chinese region. ``Even the preferred taste of seafood is different according to the regions.''

While his colleagues are trying to figure out the ultimate soup abroad, Yamada waits patiently in front of the large pot in his lab in Kusatsu. The chickens have been cooking over a low flame for more than three hours, but Yamada says four more hours are needed before the end result is complete.

Yamada's patience and enthusiasm come from his ``belief'' in instant noodles, a dish he has adored from his college days in the 1960s. ``What's tasty is what's tasty,'' Yamada says. ``It's just that the flavor has not been in people's dietary habits.''(IHT/Asahi: January 5,2005)(IHT/Asahi: January 5,2005)

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