Posts Tagged Japan

“Calligraphy” – Play Review


Playwright Velina Hasu Houston’s “Calligraphy”, currently running at www.theatreworks.org  at Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto, directed by Leslie Martinson, is a complex family drama that tests dynamic family bonds from multiple angles.

Image result for theatreworks, calligraphyFirst, there are two cousins, one American, Hiromi (Mia Tagano), daughter of Japanese mother and African American WWII veteran, Eamon (William Thomas Hodgson) and the other, Sayuri (Elizabeth Pan) are dealing with challenges of caring for their respective aging mothers with physical problems ranging from limb fracture to Alzheimer’s to emotional issues like over-dependance. Second, intermingled with these challenges are cultural issues.  Third, while traditional Japanese culture is steeped in family obligations, and generational rules of etiquette mired in feelings of guilt, there is also an overlay of younger generations growing up with vastly different and sometimes Western values. Hiromi is raised by Japanese mother Noriko (Emily Kuroda) in America, albeit with Japanese values, and considers it her filial duty to take care of her mother in old age.  Meanwhile her cousin Sayuri is raised by her Japanese mother Natsuko (Jeanne Sakata) in Japan. Although Natsuko raises Sayuri with strict Japanese values, colored by external influences, Sayuri rebels and pursues Western attire as well as values of independence and freedom.  And finally, these cultural influences collide in interesting ways with individual personalities and temperament of the colorful characters.

Image result for theatreworks, calligraphyWhen the cousins Hiromi and Sayuri plan to arrange a family reunion of sorts and bring their mothers together after the distance of several  years and different continents, the cultural, generational, relational, and personality collisons occur with a noticeable bang. The two elderly sisters have been bitterly estranged over Noriko’s romance with a black GI and they have not since reconciled. Noriko was a beautiful young woman, married the love of her life, raised a responsible daughter and now afflicted with beginnings of Alzheimer’s, she often imagines the presence of her late husband, Eamon, forgets her whereabouts, but often remembers critical details of her childhood.  Meanwhile Natsuko is as intolerant of her wayward daughter’s choices regarding her filial duty, marriage, sex etc. as she was of her sister’s choice of marriage, years ago. And yet despite the intolerance and the drama, Natsuko too has a certain inner strength and a vision to live life on her own terms.

Within artful strokes of “Calligraphy”, these four beautiful women with their unique version of inner strength, stamp their own signature in their world, with bold strokes of personal choices. Calligraphy is not a play about A significant event but about high emotional stakes of ordinary living and these get amplified with beautiful acting by talented cast. I love Mia Tagano in all the diverse roles I have seen her perform. Kudos to Theatreworks Artistic Director, Robert Kelley for enabling ordinary life issues to take the form of art. Calligraphy will be running till March 29, 2017.  For tickets, go to www.theatreworks.org .

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Truce: A Christmas Wish from the Great War – Play Review


In World Premiere of “Truce: A Christmas Wish from the Great War“, at CityLights Theater in San Jose, through telling of the story of the historic event that occurred in December 1914, both the mindlessness of war and the mindfulness of peace, become abundantly evident.   Playwrights Jeffrey Bracco and Kit Wilder have made this historic story personal, by telling it through four main characters, George Krieger (Max Tachis), the German patriotic soldier, fighting for honor, glory, and fatherland; Anna Friedmann (Cailin Papp), the German nurse who questions the wisdom of war; Tommy Williams (Drew Benjamin) English poet who is compelled to go to war by parental pressure and also pulled to write and pulled by his love for his young wife and by his friendship with Krieger; and Maggie Williams (Allison Meneley), young wife of Tommy who encourages him to write and waits for his return from war.

A little piece of history along with the events in the play

For most of World War I Allied Forces, predomi...

For most of World War I Allied Forces, predominantly those of France and the British Empire, were stalled at trenches on the Western Front. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This history was also expertly and succinctly narrated at the  beginning of the play.  The world was polarized and battle lines were drawn, long before the actual event that ignited the region, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, in Sarajevo in June, 1014.   As Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia (Serbian ally) mobilized its military.  Like a game of dominoes, one by one the countries were pressured or pulled into the war, as Germany declared war on Russia, France, and Belgium; Britain declared war on Germany; soon thereafter, Japan, Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire entered the fight; and ultimately US entered the war in 1917.  Ultimately, 70 million military personnel were mobilized.

While the obsession of the generals is with moving the pushpins on a map, war has an entirely different impact on the soldiers, in the trenches.  As the characters recount, it was widely believed by common people that the “Great War” would be over within a period of months, if not sooner.  Everyone expected their loved ones to be home  by Christmas.  Then Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary halt in fighting for the celebration of Christmas, in December 1914, but the warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire.  In fact, the generals declared penalties for what they considered amounted to fraternizing with the enemies.

A cross, left near Ieper in Belgium in 1999, t...

A cross, left near Ieper in Belgium in 1999, to celebrate the site of the Christmas Truce during the First World War in 1914. The text reads: 1914 – The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the four years that the world was at war, several deadly battles were fought.  Nearly 27,000 French troops were killed in a single day, in the Battle of the Frontiers, in August, 1914.  In the battle of Verdun in 1916, over one million soldiers were wounded or killed.  In the end, more than 9 million soldiers and over 7 million civilians died, as a result of this “Great War”, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in history.  It is then all the more remarkable that in the midst of the most deadly period of fighting, there was a brief period of calm, friendship, and camaraderie, moments of hope, reflection, and humanity.

This was a one time event. All future attempts to halt the fighting were squashed by generals’ threats of disciplinary action.  It is even more astonishing that this period of calm emerged spontaneously, in the trenches.  Those who were there, not to reason why, but to do and die, disobeyed orders, and for a brief shining period in history, humanity prevailed.   The soldiers declared their own truce; they began singing Christmas carols to each other across the enemy lines.  Entirely a different domino effect was observed, as soldiers in various places, crossed the no man’s land, and shook hands with the enemy soldiers and exchanged presents of cigarettes, plum puddings and beef jerkey and sang carols.  Some soldiers even used this short period of “truce” to retrieve bodies of their comrades, from the no man’s land, between the enemy battle lines.

It is the brilliance of Jeffrey Bracco and Kit Wilder, in how this remarkable historical event is captured and reproduced on stage, in “Truce: A Christmas Wish from the Great War”.  After deep research and from various documents and anecdotes, Bracco and Wilder put together the script.  Ron Gasparinetti created the scenic design to conjure up images of the long ago war, Jane Lambert provided the costume design and Nick Kumamoto provided lighting and video projection to keep the time and place real.  George Psarras composed music from popular WWI songs.  (One popular song “pack up your troubles in your old kit bag” was one of the biggest hits of the Great War time).

This is truly a must-watch play of this theater season, and it beautifully captures the spirit of the holiday season.   Truce will be running at CityLights Theater in San Jose, through December 21, 2014.  For tickets, go to www.cltc.org .

In the aftermath of the #FergusonDecision, this respite is exactly what we need.  Let us call “truce” and renew commitment to create conditions of

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Trip to Kyoto – Kinkaku-Ji Gold Temple, Shogun’s Castle, Kiyomizu-dera, Byodoin Temple, Fushimi Inari Shrine and trip to Kobe: Japan Travel


The best part of my trip to Japan was that we enjoyed different sites with so many of our Japanese hosts.  Each one of them was wonderful, infinitely kind and gracious and truly made our trip memorable.  We saw a lot of temples and shrines in Kyoto.  Kyoto is called a city of ten thousand shrines and has the most gorgeous shrines and temples.

wpid-20140825_130519-1.jpgOn first day in Kyoto, Piper and I met Hanada San and Nakagome San.  These two ladies are 83 and 81 years old and have been best friends for over four decades.  They are highly educated.  Hanada San studied languages and Nakagome San has PhD in Chemistry.  They use technology, accessed emails on their cell phones, and walked at such a fast pace and climbed stairs with such gusto that it would put young people to shame.

I found that in place of typical Japanese softness and roundabout way of saying things, older Japanese women are very direct.  They sit up so straight and exude such dignity as if every wrinkle is telling a tale of hardships overcome and character built.  These two gorgeous women were completely straight forward and totally direct.  Right away they made it abundantly clear that they were going to pay for everything, including meals, entrance fees, and various cab rides.

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They took us to Kinkaku-Ji gold temple.  This is a zen temple whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf.  There is another similarly named Silver temple, Ginkakuji that we did not see.  Kinkakuji is absolutely gorgeous temple, overlooking a large pond.  We could not go inside.  But we walked around outside and took pictures.wpid-20140825_124624.jpg

We went to a lovely restaurant with delicious vegetarian food for lunch.  Then we took a taxi and went to see beautiful rock garden and lotus garden.  Again the views were absolutely astounding and every place gave an idea of how seriously Japanese people take elements of beauty.  Hanada San and Nakagome San were lovely company.  Hanada San told me that she was just like my mother and I began calling her Mama San.

We took a taxi and went to see a Shogun’s castle, called Nijo Castle.  The castle castle has two concentric rings of fortifications, the Ninomaru Palace, the ruins of Honmaru Palace and various support buildings and several gardens.  In 1601, the founder of Tokugawa Shogunate, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to the construction of the Nijo castle.  In 1867, the palace was the stage for the declaration of support to the emperor by Tokugawa Yoshinobu and the palace was returned to the Imperial Court.   wpid-20140825_145029.jpgwpid-20140825_162610.jpg

We were the last people to enter.  As we walked past an area, the caretakers closed the doors behind us.  We were the only people and so we clearly heard that as we walked by the wooden floors squeaked, but not in an annoying way.  The floors squeaked like the sound of the bird and they called it the nightingale squeak.  The squeak was designed to alert the shogun when someone was walking and so that no one would sneak up on anyone in the castle and yet it was designed to be gentle on the ears.  It was a gorgeous castle with lovely views outside.

We then went to Takashimaya, a huge shopping center and after some window shopping, went for dinner.  I wanted to climb up the seven floors, while everyone else took an elevator.  The floors however, did not go straight up but veered sideways on each floor and finally when I landed on the 7th floor, I emerged in the warehouse of a huge grocery store. I made my way out of the grocery store but could not locate them.  In English combined with sign language, I explained to the concierge to make an announcement for Piper, and they did.  I got found, and we had a hearty laugh during the lovely dinner!!  Hanada San and Nakagome San insisted on coming with us to the train station to buy tickets and stood waving goodbye at us for as long as they could see us.  Awww I was soooo touched!! What a memorable day!

wpid-20140828_172857.jpgWe enjoyed Kyoto again with Kozue and her daughters Hikari and Yuki and visited the Kiyomizu-dera shrine.  Kyomizu-dera temple was founded in 780 on the site of Otowa Waterfall, and is added to UNESCO world heritage sites.  The main temple juts out with a big wooden stage, 13 meters above the hillside below, offering gorgeous views of cherry and maple trees, along with the views of the city of Kyoto, in the distance. The main hall, along with the stage, was built without the use of nails.

Behind Kiyomizudera’s main hall is the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking.  In front of the shirne are two stones, placed 18 meters apart.  If you can successfully walk from one to the other, with the eyes closed then it is said to bring luck, in finding love.  If someone guides you and you reach the other stone then it means that an intermediary may be needed, in finding love.  At the shrine, there are many other little puzzles and special prayer places to help in finding love.  The Otowa Waterfall is located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. The waters come out in three separate streams and visitors use cups attached to long poles to drink from them. Each stream’s water is said to have a different benefit, namely to cause longevity, success at school, and a fortunate love life. However, drinking from all three streams is considered greedy, so you must choose, where to drink from.  Important lesson in prioritizing!wpid-20140828_184239.jpg

We walked up and down the souvenir street and then went to eat at hot pot restaurant for Okinawa cuisine.  Kozue was immensely sweet and discussed menu for me at great length to make sure that I got completely vegetarian food.  Later we walked around and enjoyed the Kyoto skyline at night and saw the reflection of the Kyoto tower on the glass building, opposite the tower and enjoyed the water fountain with music.

wpid-20140824_112118.jpgLater I enjoyed the visit with Lisa to the beautiful Byodoin Temple and garden.  While walking back from the temple, we stopped at a tea shop and then walked to the station.  But Lisa forgot her water bottle at the tea shop.  So we parted company, as she went back to retrieve the bottle and I went alone to Fushimi Inari Shrine.

wpid-20140829_135443-1.jpgFushimi Inari Shrine is at a base of Inari mountain (Inari mens God of rice) and has trails that go up the mountain to many smaller shrines, across 4 kilometers.  The distinctive feature of this shrine is that entire walkways up are lined with literally thousands of vermilion or orange tori gates.  This is not only one of the most popular shrines among tourists visiting Japan but during Japanese New Year, it also draws several million Japanese worshipers.  It was great fun walking up the trail.

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wpid-20140829_150635-1.jpgWith Donna to Kobe

The highlight of my trip to Kobe was that quite unexpectedly, we ran into a Jain temple, even as I was explaining to Donna that during the religious days of Paryushan, I generally go at least one day to the temple and this may be the only year, when I would not be going, since I was in Japan.  As we accidently came upon a Jain temple, Donna insisted that it was not a coincidence and these events happen in our lives, when we have powerful intentions and that it is a part of the divine plan.  We walked in Kobe a lot.  Also went to the harbor, which was beautiful.  I love Manju, little Japanese dessert and ate a lot of that.wpid-20140827_141647.jpgwpid-20140827_130457.jpgwpid-20140827_094858.jpg

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Japan Travel – Toilets, Efficiency


Touring Japan was an amazingly refreshing experience.  I will post a series of blogs, to cover different regions of Japan or different experiences I had in Japan.

Japan, it seems, is all about efficiency, but additionally, it is compassionate efficiency.  That is to say, it is all about making things easier for others.  And one always thinks of others, before self.  You observe the efficiency in everything from the tender loving care with which the tiniest of gardens are nurtured that utilizes small spaces beautifully, to the way in which shoes are removed before entering homes, by turning around, so that when you leave, you can put the feet directly into the shoes, with ease.  

wpid-20140820_122245.jpgBut the efficiency of the toilets just bowled me over.  The toilets have numerous settings, bidet and behind washing etc.  When you flush the toilet, a tiny wash basin behind the toilet starts to pour water to fill up the tank.  One uses that water pouring into the wash basin to wash hands.  There is a slight inconvenience to reach over the toilet to wash hands, but it leads to extreme efficiency in water usage as the same water used for washing hands will be used to flush the toilet in the next round.   Some toilets start playing music as you enter, so that you do not have to listen to the sounds of other people doing their job.
 
I was so fascinated by toilets and each time examined them carefully.  In one toilet, I noticed a little contraption on the wall opposite the toilet.  I could not quite understand Japanese writing but when I pulled it down, it came down as a little seat.  And from the picture, I realized it was a seat for a parent to sit on while their little toddler was on the toilet.  Fascinating!wpid-20140820_122324.jpg  wpid-20140904_152722.jpg

 

wpid-20140821_165502.jpgIn another toilet, there was seat to let the toddler sit while the parent needed to use the toilet.  Now I wonder how exactly we used the toilet while carrying a child and with no place to put the child down.  And then there was one where both a parent and the toddler can use the toilet, side by side.  Compared to the US, while the toilets are much smaller in Japan, they include these little conveniences because someone thought about it.

 

Japanese efficiency is different from German efficiency.  In both systems, the train comes on time and both countries are efficient because they both have a set of mostly rigid, unbendable rules, and they have cultivated a mindset to stick to them.  But consider this fact about Germany.  I read somewhere that “everything there has to be done exactly as prescribed (no exceptions).  There is no point waving madly at the bus driver to let you on after he has closed the doors: the timetable leaves no time for compassion”.

It is a tad different in Japan.  Similar unbendable rules underpin the efficiency, but the rules include compassion, thinking about the community, graciousness, and respect for others.

How so?  There is a rule that after the train leaves the station, the conductor needs to make one round in each compartment.  Then it reaches the next station and he or she gets up and again makes one round (in case anyone needs any help).  Each time, whether the passengers acknowledge his presence or not, the conductor is required to acknowledge the passengers and render himself approachable, by bowing to the entire compartment, as he enters, and again, as he exits.

wpid-20140823_132655.jpgIn another situation, we went to stay at a monastery.  We were required to take off our shoes at the door (as is customary also in every Japanese home), and were given a set of shoes to wear inside the monastery buildings.  All shoes were exactly the same and therefore interchangeable.  One morning, we went to pray in the Buddhist temple.  We all removes shoes at the door.  Me and my friends were the last in coming out of the temple.  I presumed that shoes closest to the door will be taken by the others, who came out before us.  To the contrary, everyone coming out makes extra effort to take shoes furthest away, so it will be easier for others coming after them.

 

Before entering every temple, you are required to wash your hands with a ladle, by the water spigot.  The hand washing is ritualistic and has to be done exactly the same way.  And it was thus explained to me.  You pour water over right hand, once that is washed, you hold the ladle with the right hand and pour water over left hand, and then you lift the ladle such that the water pours over the handle.  The reason you do this is because after both your hands are cleaned, the water goes over the handle and it is cleaned for the next person to use.wpid-20140824_113308.jpgwpid-20140820_112256.jpg

I found Japan to be incredibly clean but once when I was looking to throw some garbage, I could not find any garbage bins.  Then I asked someone how did they manage to keep the country so clean, without any garbage bins.  She explained that in order to eliminate security threats and to lessen the work for the city, they have minimized the garbage cans, and people just take their garbage home!

Everytime one enters a place of worship, one is required to take off the shoes and wear another set of shoes to be used inside.  One time, as we came out, I dumped the shoes given and promptly took my shoes and I was ready.  The next one to come out was 81 year old Nakagome-San.  She took the shoes of every member of our group and laid them on the floor such that each of them can put their feet directly into the shoes.  I was totally ashamed that it had not even occurred to me that I should get everybody else’s shoes and keep them ready for them.
 
Thinking about others is such an integral part of Japanese mindset that with the Japanese, it is a habit.  Thinking about the community and others, before self, is just how things are done and in the process, it enhances efficiency and ensures smooth running of the system.  Unfortunately, in some instance, things have gone awry when majority in the group engage in something inappropriate, and no one would challenge the community or the majority.

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The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee – Book Review


The Piano Teacher is a story of British, American and other expats in Hong Kong and the local wealthy Chinese who were all caught in a tremendous struggle for survival, during the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s.

Historical Background
In March 1939, Japan dropped bombs on Hong Kong territory, destroying a bridge and a train station.  Japanese occupation of Hong Kong began in December, 1941, after 18 days of fierce fighting against imposing Japanese forces who invaded the territory.  The occupation lasted for 3 years and 8 months, when Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War.

All the characters are caught in a complicated struggle for survival during extremely brutal Japanese administration during the occupation.  There is a constant tug between integrity and submission, for the sake of survival.  The story is interesting and is placed in a historical context that is important and yet not a lot is written about it.  There are times when the author gives interesting insights into the characters.

Some aspects of the story emerge with clarity and are interesting.  For instance, during 1940s and 1950s, the extent to which stereotypes and prejudices played a role, in an outwardly diverse place like Hong Kong, is interesting.  “The Indians had been brought over by the British, of course.  Pakistanis ran carpet stores, Portuguese were doctors, and Jews ran the dairy farms and other large businesses.  There were English businessmen and American bankers.  White Russian Aristocrats, and Peruvian entrepreneurs – all peculiarly well traveled and sophisticated – and of course, there were the Chinese, quite different in Hong Kong from the ones in China”.  Similarly when occupiers came, they divided the immigrant population by race and accordingly assigned living quarters and other privileges.  Author has done good research to convey the brutality of the occupiers and their impact on innocent people.

But unfortunately, there are many limitations.  The book meanders and the real plot begins only after a reader sticks through slow moving and boring beginning.  There is too much of vague dialogue that seems to be going nowhere, there are portions of the book that do not flow well.  The characters are not well developed and they lack depth.  There isn’t a single character that a reader can identify with, root for, and turn the pages to see the character survive the occupation.  This is a huge limitation in the book.  The occupiers are clearly bad, brutal, and loose in the end.  That part of the story is very clear and well developed.  Almost any reasonably well told story would have had survivors that a reader is rooting for and is eager to see them come through this horrific ordeal.   Character’s humanness and limitations would only make them more real, not distant.  But characters in the book feel too distant.  As a reader, you feel no empathy, no dislike, no hope, nothing for them.  Then there is the piano teacher.  The book has her title but she has no role whatsoever.  The story could have been told without her presence.

The story just does not grip you in anyway whatsoever.  You flip the pages and it matters little how it will end.  It is extremely disappointing.  This is a story with an exciting plot and tremendous promise that simply failed to live up to its potential.        

Japanese soldiers arrested the western bankers...

Japanese soldiers arrested the western bankers and kept them in a Chinese hostel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

   

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