Media Mix, July 3, 2016

credit: Robert Gilhooly

credit: Robert Gilhooly

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about recent press coverage of the death penalty. Though I stress that the mainstream media avoids the question of whether or not Japan’s application of capital punishment amounts to retribution, I should point out that there are some newspapers who are at least going beneath the surface facts of a case and trying to understand what happened, both in terms of the crime and the trial. Tokyo Shimbun’s Daisuke Sato has done some good work in reporting how the public “faces” the death penalty, and recently did an in-depth article on one AP reporter in the U.S. who has covered executions in a very intense fashion. (Unfortunately, Tokyo Shimbun has not chosen to make this article available for free on the web.) Miako Ichikawa and Sakura Funazaki interviewed the man convicted in the Ishinomaki case while on death row for Asahi Shimbun and brought out some pertinent details about the case that weren’t covered generally, such as the fact that the trial lasted 8 days and only 30 minutes were devoted to the defendant’s childhood and “social situation.” There was no testimony from experts on his psychological state. Mainichi Shimbun also interviewed the Ishinomaki killer, who has accepted his fate and expressed remorse, though other media haven’t reported it.

And with regard to the basic idea of the column, that the death penalty is nothing more than revenge, a symposium conducted in Japan by representatives of the European Union on Oct. 10, 2013 addresses this idea directly and eloquently. It’s worth watching.

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Media Mix, June 19, 2016

14212426230_49aac41861Here’s this week’s Media Mix about last month’s big ATM heist. At the end of the column I mention a segment about credit card security that aired on NHK’s morning information program “Asaichi.” The segment was one of the few I’ve seen that shows how Japan’s financial institutions are working on this problem, and I got the feeling from the way the reporter was treated that it wasn’t something institutions necessarily want to publicize widely, but in the wake of these sort of robberies it might be a good idea to let people know that they are being protected to a certain extent.

But the message was clear: It’s really up to card users to make sure their money is safe, even if card companies are expanding their surveillance activities. An outside expert explained how hackers advertise stolen card numbers and passwords on so-called black sites where “customers” can buy this information for prices starting at $25.00. The price is higher for cards with higher credit limites, etc. The expert also pointed out that people who use these cards illegally will likely not use them for large purchases, since they will be flagged immediately by either the card company or the card holder and the card will be cancelled. So he recommended to card holders to check their monthly statements carefully for even small amounts that seem unusual. Since most people have lots of items on their statements, they may not check everything closely, especially if the amounts are small.

It’s important to catch these illegal purchases quickly since card companies give you up to 60 days to point them out. After that the card holder has to pay for those purchases. However, NHK also interviewed one card holder who had been hacked and noticed illegal purchases on her statement, and then got the runaround when she called the credit card company. Even when she called the police they said they couldn’t do anything about it, only the credit card company could, since it was the credit card company who they considered the “victim.” Eventually, she cancelled the card and was able to get her money back, but only after she had called the Internet shoppping service that charged her and she spent time going over the purchase. The point is: Keep all your records, including receipts, to make sure the items on your statement are things you really bought, and call the card company immediately when you see something wrong. You may get the runaround, or you may not. Also, always be present when you hand your card to someone in a shop, and make sure they don’t take it away, since they might be copying down the information. A main source of stolen credit card info is sloppy retail security.

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Keiko Horikawa and the forgotten remains of the victims of Hiroshima

President Barack Obama’s speech in Hiroshima in May was lauded as a gesture of great historical significance. The U.S. remains the only country to ever use a nuclear device for the deliberate purpose of killing people, and the conversations about that decision over the years have been one-sided in that the perpetrators of the act and its victims have never discussed it in the presence of each other. If anything, the discussions on one side have avoided the points being raised on the other, since Japan and America have now been allies for 70 years. The U.S. justifies the bombing by saying it saved more lives than it destroyed and won’t even consider the notion that the bombs may not have been necessary to end the war; while Japan has lamented the huge loss of life by blaming war as an abstraction without suggesting that its current defense partner may have committed a crime.

But there was one element of Obama’s speech that deserves attention: The people most directly affected by the bomb, the hibakusha, will soon be gone, and without that link the world is in danger of forgetting the real significance of Hiroshima. This is true not only of the world, but Japan, where many citizens, it seems, know very little about August 6, 1945, despite the fact that the literature about Hiroshima is dense on both sides, and though I don’t have figures to back up this claim, I believe more of what has been written in English has been translated into Japanese than vice versa. At this late date it would seem that anything that could possibly be written about what happened on that day has been written, but when you consider how many people died that day, it’s obvious all the stories have not been conveyed. Japanese antiwar and anti-nuclear activists were genuinely pleased with Obama’s speech, even if he managed to avoid addressing America’s responsibility for all those deaths.

Some said they wished he would read the work of Keiko Horikawa, a journalist who last week won an award from the Japan National Press Club and whose work has focused on Hiroshima. None of her writing, as far as I can tell, has been translated into English, so this wish is hardly actionable, but the point is that Horikawa’s approach to the bombing has been detailed and wide-ranging, and emphasizes the point that each life is precious. She is one of those rare researchers who feels she has to understand a topic fully, in all its ramifications, before she can write a word. Her life’s work is dual: the Hiroshima bombing and Japan’s death penalty, subjects that are somehow connected at their roots. Horikawa’s subject is the value of a human life, whether it is that of a person condemned to death for a crime, or that of an anonymous person killed in a wholesale act of obliteration. She doesn’t judge the act, at least not overtly. She only reminds us that each life has meaning regardless of the way it was taken away.

In a very small attempt to continue this discussion and make Horikawa’s work more generally known in the world, I am here posting an English transcript, translated by my partner, Masako Tsubuku, of a press conference that Horikawa gave in August 2015 at the Japan National Press Club to promote her recently published book about the Hiroshima Memorial (“Genbaku Kuyoto”). In addition to explaining how the task of remembrance will never end, she provides invaluable insight into the work of a freelance journalist in Japan. I apologize for the length, but we think everything she says here is worth hearing. Continue reading

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June 2016 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on May 25.

ANOHNI / Hopelessness (jake-sya)(BGJ-4020)Birdy - Beautiful Lies (ALBUM)Hopelessness
-Anohni (Rough Trade/Hostess)
Beautiful Lies
-Birdy (Atlantic/Warner)
In her past pop incarnation as Antony Hegarty, Anohni sang about love in all its variations, and the most indescribable aspect of her voice was the way it conflated ecstasy with despair. Both feelings were somehow recognizably distinct while occurring at the same time. That quality remains in tact on her first album in six years, despite the fact that love, or at least the romantic kind, is less in evidence. One might say that love is everywhere, even in the stories of terror she concocts about the American effect on the planet and its peoples, because she can only engage the victims she describes with love. She has nothing else to offer them. Another change that isn’t as much of a change as it seems is the music: trading the generally acoustic chamber instrumentation for dance-oriented electronic production courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Anohni seems more out into the world. Even when she was on stage, singing in front of hundreds of people, she felt alone in her craft, but despite the title of her album she reaches out, presumably to listeners who might have avoided her art songs before. Which isn’t to say you’ll hear something like “Drone Bomb Me” in a disco anytime soon, but the booming synths and skittering percussion make tactile what was once only spiritual. The aim is obviously to meet the world on its own terms, because that’s the only way you’re going to change it. And it’s clear Anohni means to provoke disgust and dismay at the way her country looks upon “others.” There’s no more cutting musical commentary on the disappointments of the current administration than “Obama,” and the scalding resentment toward the gender that Anohni once reluctantly called home is perfectly realized in “Violent Men.” More significantly, her despair at the despoilment of the earth is expressed as both a personal insult and a cosmic affront. And there’s more, but Anohni never spreads herself thin, because while emotion may come easy to her, she understands its expression has to be justified. The British singer Birdy (Jasmine van der Bogaerde) doesn’t carry the same sort of weight in her own songs of disappointment, and though it would be easy to pin it on her relative youth, it has more to do with finding easy solutions to musical problems every pop singer her age has to address. Like Lana Del Rey and Lorde, Birdy equates high expression with volume and density, so as her feelings intensify so does the accompaniment. On radio, in isolation, this kind of thing works well, but over the course of a long-player it dissipates any energy that might have accrued had the songs been more varied in style and tone, despite her fondness for simple piano ballads. Kate Bush would probably advise her to lighten up a bit, and she should know. Continue reading

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June 2016 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on May 25.

UNTITLED JOHN WELLS PROJECT Adam asks Helene to taste his latest dish.Burnt
Bradley Cooper is good at playing assholes, and Adam Jones, the borderline sociopathic chef he portrays in Burnt, takes the cake. An American from the wrong side of the tracks who made his way to France as a teen and quickly rose in the world of haute cuisine with the help of a superstar mentor, he struggles with addiction when not getting everyone who has ever appreciated him pissed off. After cleaning up in New Orleans, Jones arrives in London to start his own restaurant and assembles a group of ne’er-do-wells as his kitchen staff, including a sous chef named Helen (Sienne Miller) who understandably doesn’t trust him. Director John Wells transits between food porn and scenes of Jones melting down and treating his staff like shit. Beyond the offensive stereotypes, this narrative development doesn’t work dramatically because it’s at the service of food that most of us aren’t interested in. It certainly isn’t worth getting emotional over. Although there is obviously an audience for this kind of thing, I would like to think it’s a very small one. (photo: The Weinstein Company LLC) Continue reading

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Media Mix, May 29, 2016

A fairly tame example of shunga

A fairly tame example of shunga

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the obscenity trial of the artist Rokudenashiko, which ended earlier this month in a guilty verdict that she will appeal. As discussed in the piece, much of the trial was taken up with debate on the “artistic value” of the artist’s work and whether or not it was more accurately described as being pornography. The absurdity of this line of reasoning lies in the work itself, which was data that could only be seen or otherwise “appreciated” if it was input into a 3D printer and realized in material form as a mold. From all reports, except for the artist herself, only the prosecution ever did this, meaning that the charge of “distribution of pornography” doesn’t hold water since no one actualized the data into something that could possibly stimulate sexual excitement. Consequently, if the prosecution were to convince the judges that the data were obscene, it had to prove that the prosecution itself was aroused by the final product, because no one else had “experienced” it in that form. The judges themselves eventually ruled that the vagina kayak, the reason for the 3D data, was not obscene because of its stylized nature, so the data’s pornographic qualities were either completely theoretical or subject only to the prosecution’s queasy gaze. Continue reading

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May 2016 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on April 25.

macklemoreNoiseland LP 5MM spine JacketThis Unruly Mess I’ve Made
-Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (Warner)
Man About Town
-Mayer Hawthorne (Victor)
Reportedly, when Macklemore won the best hip-hop album Grammy in 2014, he felt guilty since he’s a white guy plying an African-American art form, and other, presumably more deserving, albums by black rappers were overlooked. Two years on he releases an album that awkwardly addresses this conundrum, and some people will wonder why he bothered. Eminem, after all, never felt the need to justify his fame and success, so why does Macklemore? In an age when “White Privilege” is still a problem, perhaps he thinks he has to address these matters forthrightly in song. In any case, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made covers a number of social issues, including addiction and body image, and it all sounds obligatory rather than inspired. Producer Ryan Lewis backgrounds Macklemore’s sermon-like raps with a lot of instruments and voices, which is why some people refer to his music as “gospel rap,” and to that extent he’s fashioned a unique sound that may or may not qualify as hip-hop but retains the catchy breeziness of good 80s radio pop. He earns more than enough props with “Downtown” by featuring rap godfathers Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz, who nevertheless manage to show up Macklemore’s somewhat lackluster lyrics even though all they do is chant in unison. Of course, the point is that Macklemore knows his history, but more variety in this vein would be welcome. As it stands, he’s versatile enough to be called a real entertainer, but he might do better with a word collaborator. For sure, when he tries to explain himself, as on the aforementioned “Privilege,” he digs a hole that even Lewis’s scruffy beats can’t pull him out of. It’s good to see Macklemore working out these matters for himself, but an internationally released album may not be the best place to do it. Mayer Hawthorne is another nerdy white guy who has staked his career on black music, and his acceptance by the general music-loving public has nothing to do with paying dues to the source, except in the sense that he pays dues by getting everyone’s booty shaking. As a solo act he’s done as much to revive old school urban soul music as Leon Bridges, and as a member of Tuxedo made white disco safe for hipsters. On his fourth album he leavens the R&B with 70s soft rock and a bit of Steely Dan jazz. Though not as tasty as his 2011 joint, How Do You Do?, the grooves are more resilient and the singing less self-conscious. Since Hawthorne’s lyrics are generic in the romantic make-out mode, there’s not a whole lot of depth to the record, but he applies his melodic gifts liberally to slower cuts like “Cosmic Love” and “Breakfast in Bed,” making them more than just enjoyable pastiche. In this light, it’s difficult not to think that Macklemore wouldn’t have to worry about privilege if he just had more talent. Continue reading

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