This was a good year for Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Colorado. A lot of the credit goes to Ikuhiko Ono, the consul general who came to Denver late last year and has made a concerted effort to reach out to...
PSY, the Korean pop sensation whose viral hit video, "Gangnam Style," has been viewed almost 800 million times on YouTube (that's the official video, never mind the countless other users' uploads and all the spoofs and tributes), closed out the American Music Awards on Nov. 18. In a savvy, surprising and ultimately, ironic, collaboration, the 35-year-old PSY (real name: Park Jae-sang) was joined for a mashup of his hit with MC Hammer's "2 Legit 2 Quit" (above) and brought the house down, with celebs and fans (Hammer too) mimicking his horsey-cowboy dance moves.
Within minutes, blowback flew out over Twitter. Most of the messages were gut reactions to the irony of a song sung mostly in Korean being featured on the "American" Music Awards. Here's one example: "Seriously psy is closing the show?? It's called the AMERICAN music awards not the Korean.." and "I'm pretty sure this is called the American Music Awards #gobacktoAsia." (OK, the "gobacktoAsia" hashtag is pretty offensive -- I've had that yelled at me in the past.)
The fact that the tweeters didn't catch the awesomeness of the irony and only expressed their xenophobia and ignorance was disappointing but not surprising.
Some of the tweets, though, were flatout racist, like "Why is chink PSY at the American music awards he doesn't make American music what is going on" and "are you kidding this chink is on the AMA's? #sad #keywordAMERICAN." You can see a sampling of offensive tweets at the Public Shaming Tumblr blog.
What's sad is how, when you check Twitter to see the profiles of some of these tweeters, they turn out to be young kids -- teens, by the look of them, and by the tweets about how chemistry is a hard class, or how a friend snagged Justin Bieber tickets. These are people who probably should, but don't, know better. Their parents may not have instilled an appreciation for equality. (I'm generous here; sure, the parents might just be racists themselves, and the kids learned their values from their families.) Or maybe they're just ignorant. Or maybe they really do hate Asians (they obviously think we're all "chinks") and other people of color.
These types of Twitter outbursts offend me and piss me off. But I'm starting to see a pattern. This show of ignorance flares up whenever there's a spark that lights the flames of bigotry. This time it was PSY having the utter gall to own the stage at the AMAs. Last year, it was an explosion of stupid comments about how the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated Japan was somehow payback on the "Japs" for Pearl Harbor.
Just a few weeks ago it was when Barack Obama easily won a second term as president. We'll have to be on guard for lots of outbursts for the next couple of years on the Obama front, I fear. Floating Sheep, a group of geography brainiacs, posted a fascinating map after the election, "Mapping Racist Tweets in Response to President Obama's Re-election" that showed that most of the hate speech on Twitter originated in the South. It's too bad the region is living up to its historical stereotype. The Atlantic shared the map along with some of the nastier tweets, such as "OK we pick a worthless nigger over a full blooded american what the hell has our world come its called the white house for a reason."
Umm, sorry, it is NOT called the White House because only white people can live in it.
But all this incredibly awful racist chatter is ultimately in the minority. In each of these instances, the vast majority of more reasonable people rise up and snuff out the hatred. For all the idiotic comments about PSY, some have already been deleted by their creators, and some of the accounts have been shut down, probably because of all the backlash.
In the end, I've come to accept that whenever people feel their deep-rooted values (including those of prejudice and bigotry) are threatened, they lash out in the most primitive way they know, right from their prehistoric neanderthal brains. I don't expect that all of mankind will suddenly stop being tribal and accept each other as equals. I can't change every racist's mind. Hell, I may not change any racist's mind. I can only try to set an example myself of how I think people should treat each other. It's that now-cliche saying from Gandhi: "Be the change that you wish to see in the world."
In fact, I think that PSY's performance with MC Hammer is worth noting not just for the hate it sparked, but also for the change it represents in the world. When I saw Hammer, my immediate reaction was "Oh man, he's trying to make another comeback? Couldn't they pair PSY up with someone who's more current?"
Then I thought about it, and there's a huge significance to the duet. I don't know if the AMA's producers did it on purpose or it was a happy accident. But the performance was a stunning moment of cross-cultural collaboration, not just a clever mashup with baggy parachute pants for nostalgic value. Crystal Anderson of the High Yellow blog gets at some of the racial significance (and how black R&B and hip-hop have influenced Kpop) in her "Psy and Hammer" post.
But here's some historical context to consider:
Hammer's career was at its commercial peak with his fourth album, Too Legit To Quit, which was released in 1991. His biggest hits were the title track (spelled with "2″s) and "You Can't Touch This." He may have fallen from his high perch atop the charts within a few years, but on April 29, 1992, Hammer was very much a player in the country's social and pop culture consciousness.
That's the night that Los Angeles lit up with its own flames of hatred. The trial of four white police officers for the brutal March 1991 beating of Rodney King, a black man, ended in acquittals, and thousands took to the streets to riot in protest.
Over the next six days and nights, a racial subtext played out between the African-American and Korean communities in South Central L.A., which were already on tense terms because of a light sentence given a shop owner who shot a black teenager, and resentment over the fact that Koreans ran many of the businesses but didn't hire African-Americans. When the rioting began, Koreans armed themselves to protect their shops and violence broke out between the communities. When Rodney King made his emotional plea, "Can we all just get along?" he wasn't just talking whites and blacks. He also included Asians.
So now fast-forward two decades -- the media made a big to-do over the 20th anniversary of the King verdict and the L.A. riots in April 2012. To have PSY, a Korean superstar and MC Hammer, an iconic black star from 1992 (who helped fund Justin Lin's breakout indie film Better Luck Tomorrow), performing "Gangnam Style" and "2 Legit 2 Quit" on stage together to close out the American Music Awards, seems an ironic and appropriate -- even touching -- bookend for the year. It's a racial and cultural coda that hopefully signals that wounds have healed and we're in a -- ahem -- "post-racial" era.
Yeah, right. Tell that to the haters.
This is a cross-post from Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View blog....
As outsiders to the anime and manga community, Erin and I are drawn to Nan Desu Kan, Denver's anime convention that celebrates its 16th year this weekend at the Marriott in the Tech Center, in large part for its attendees' passion for cosplay. We're not that familiar with the plethora of contemporary anime titles (though I did grow up as a kid in Japan watching the likes of Astro Boy).
But you don't need to be an anime expert to appreciate the crazy freakshow (in the good way) of cosplay.
Cosplay is a word coined by a Japanese animator, Nobuyuki Takahashi, after he attended a Los Angeles anime convention in 1984. He was taken by how many American fans dress up to role-play their favorite anime characters. When he returned to Japan and reported on his trip in the media at home, he called the phenomenon cosplay, a typical Japanese language trick of creating a pun by collapsing two words together: Costume Play.
At the Marriott last night, cosplay was front and center: The annual Cosplay Costume, the main event for many attendees, was held in the hotel's event center. The lobby, halls, restaurants and conference rooms were all thick with people dressed to kill ... in a cartoon. The hotel reserves every room -- the entire building -- for the three-day event.
And last night the highlight of the convention, the annual Cosplay Contest, was held.
Front desk staff said if anyone called to book a room this weekend, they were told upfront if they weren't coming for Nan Desu Kan, go somewhere else. It's hard to imagine the bewilderment of a family of innocent tourists who ended up stuck in the midst of this temporary alternate universe.
It was a crowded universe, too: Yesterday for the first time, convention organizers actually sold out every available pass. There were 7,500 anime fans in the hotel, and most of them wore at least a bit of costume, whether it was just a silly knit cap with cute anime character ears, or a full-on work of kinetic sculptural art that meticulously recreates an anime character.
The name Nan Desu Kan is itself a pun, an American twist on Japanese words. "Nan desu ka?" means "What is it?" and the founders turned the "ka" into "kan," a pun on "con" as in "Starcon," "Comic-con\" or "V3con" -- short for convention. Erin and I attended several Nan Desu Kans and even were asked to speak at one -- I spoke about the rise of interest in Japanese pop culture in the United States, and Erin spoke about the Japanese American internment camps during World War II. Back then the convention hadn't grown to the size it is today.
In one of the vendor areas, we ran into Becca Feiner, who ran Nan Desu Kan for over a decade and helped the event mature. These days she's content to sell exquisitely-crafted steampunk jewelry at Nan Desu Kan and has a "normal" day job. She notes that early on she tried to incorporate Japanese cultural elements into NDK's programming. Now that the emphasis has shifted much more on just the anime and characters, it would be a good time to host panels next year on Japanese culture in anime, or even bring in demonstrations and performances of traditional Japanese culture (NDK, like other anime cons, brings in rock singers and bands who perform the music in popular anime).
Feiner also observed that at various times anime started to attract older audiences, and it was reflected in NDK's attendees, with more people in their '20s showing up. Now, Feiner guesses most of the attendees are high school students.
It's true, we saw mostly younger anime fans and many families. I liked one family with two young girls dressed as anime characters, while the mom was dressed as Laura Croft, the Tomb Raider, with pistols trapped to her legs and dad was a pretty decent approximation of the video game character Super Mario with the iconic red hat. My teenaged niece was there somewhere (we never ran into her) and so was the teen daughter of a friend of ours.
Even without panels and workshops specifically about Japanese culture, I have to think that NDK and other anime cons are good for building relationships between Japan and the United States. I remember speaking to a young man a few years ago at NDK who was going to major in Japanese because he fell in love with Japan through anime. We've also met people who studied martial arts because they were initially introduced to it via anime.
By the looks of some of the contestants, who went to great lengths to replicate some of the tiniest details of their (albeit future, fantasy) Japanese characters, they're practically ambassadors of Japanese values if not quite Japanese culture.
The challenge will be to take this passion for contemporary pop culture and add on a layer of knowledge about cultural traditions, and appreciation for Japan in real life.
This post was cross-published from Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View...
It was the right song for the occasion: "Duo Sokyo" ended a brief concert marking the 100th anniversary of Japan's gift of more than 3,000 cherry trees to the United States as a symbol of friendship, with the traditional Japanese folksong that is probably best-known in the west, "Sakura," or "Cherry Blossom."
Duo Sokyo, Yoko Hiraoka playing the koto, a traditional harp-like instrument, and David Wheeler playing the shakuhachi, bamboo flute, were part of the celebration held at the Cherry Hills home of Consul General Ikuhiko Ono and his charming, elegant wife Eiko.
The invited audience enjoyed a dinner buffet after the concert, of traditional dishes served up by the Onos' private chef.
The Onos have hosed a series of events in their official residence, and in venues throughout the area since their arrival almost a year ago. Of the Consul Generals that have been assigned to Denver (covering Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) since the Japanese consulate in Denver was established in 1999, Ono has been the most pro-active in reaching out to the Japanese American community, and emphasizing cultural events.
His staff asked attendees to fill out a survey at the end of the evening which sought input on what kinds of performances and presentations we would like to see organized the Consulate. I always enjoy traditional Japanese cultural performances, but I noted in my survey that it would be great to also bring in contemporary Japanese culture, from J-pop music to anime programs. (The Consulate is already co-sponsoring a series of classic Japanese films from the 1930s to contemporary movies, with free admission as part of the International Film Series at CU-Boulder's Muenzinger Auditorium; the first in the series is a Sept. 23 4 p.m. screening of the 1935 samurai film, Sanzen Tange and the Post Worth a Million Ryo.)
The Consul General has made the effort to confer awards from the Japanese government honoring people in Denver who contribute to greater understanding or business relationships between Colorado and Japan. This year, the Consulate has been involved in a number of public events marking the Cherry Blossom Centenary, including planting hundreds of new cherry trees in Denver (a park in Green Valley Ranch, the Denver Botanic Hardens and of course our own "tiny Tokyo," Sakura Square) as well as in Boulder, Colorado Springs and elsewhere.
The Consulate has also been tasked with the various humanitarian relationships that were established after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan. A couple of delegations have visited to thank Coloradans for their generosity with aid, and the Consulate hosted an anniversary memorial with a taiko drum group from the Tohoku region. Relationships continue between the region and Colorado, with the Consulate's help.
The announcement of next year's direct flights by United Airlines between DIA and Narita-Tokyo promises much more engagement between Colorado and Japan; I wouldn't be surprised if the Consulate keeps establishing a higher profile in the months to come.
Note: This post was cross-posted from Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View...
It's now over a year since the Great East Japan Earthquake, as the disaster is now officially called, and the subsequent tsunami devastated a huge swath of the Tohoku region along the country's northeast coast. With the anniversary looming, many communities in the U.S. planned commemorative events, and many people are still remembering how they learned of the disaster.
The initial news of the earthquake, which struck at 2:46 p.m. local time on March 11, 2011, were horrific: I got an email alert and tuned in CNN late at night Denver time and saw the tsunami devour entire towns, outracing cars of residents trying to escape its path. The total toll as of February was over 15,000 confirmed dead with over 3,000 still missing. The tsunami that wreaked most of the havoc after the earthquake was as high as 40.5 meters, or 133 feet -- that's 13 stories high -- and washed as far as 10 kilometers, or six miles, inland. Entire towns were erased in one terrible wave. And with the added terror of nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai Ichi nuclear plant, a city and its entire surroundings have become toxic and closed off for decades, with lives interrupted, homes abandoned.
The reaction to the disaster on both sides of the Pacific was swift and supportive. Nationally, JACL announced a partnership with Direct Relief International, which has now given more than $2.4 million in donations to eight organizations in Japan -- 100% of all donations went to recovery efforts, with no administrative fees taken out. The American Red Cross takes out a portion of all donations to pay for administative fees, but it's the best-known relief organization in times of crisis, and by the end of summer the Red Cross announced it had given $260 million to tsunami relief in Japan.
Beyond such high-profile efforts, there were dozens of fundraising events and benefit concerts across the U.S. including in Denver, where a number of fundraising events were held to channel money to recovery efforts. The Red Cross in Colorado raised $3 million for Japan. The Japan America Society of Colorado raised more than $126,000 and hand-delivered a check directly to aid agencies on the ground in the affected part of Japan at he end of the summer. (Full disclosure: I'm a board member of JASC, although I wasn't involved in the fundraising efforts.)
The Asian Pacific Development Center's "Power of Solidarity" concert, which was held just weeks after the quake, raised over $30,000. There were other concerts and fundraisers organized on the fly to raise money for disaster relief and recovery efforts.
All of the expressions of goodwill and condolences -- and donations, and volunteer aid workers -- from around the world were much appreciated by the Japanese government. In the run-up to the March 11 first anniversary of the disaster, the Japanese government sent out groups of diplomatic emissaries to thank communities for their help.
A couple of weeks ago, Yoshio Onodera, the Director of Risk Management for Miyagi Prefecture, the state most affected by the tsunami, visited Denver with a delegation to show his government's appreciation.
Onodera made three stops during his swing through Denver. He began the day with a visit to Garden Place Academy, an elementary school in the Denver Public School District that serves a lower-income, mostly Hispanic neighborhood in North Denver, in the shadow of the intersection of I-70 and I-25.
Although 90% of the school's students are on the federal school lunch program, the students -- and their families -- held a week-long bake sale in the playground and donated $425 to the Red Cross. It was a touching show of support.
Onodera told the school's principal, Rebecca Gaustad, in a meeting before he met a 5th grade class, "Your support has been a great hope for all the children and all the people of Japan."
Onodera then spoke to a 5th grade class and thanked them in person, and heard from student government representatives. The school was prepared for the visit -- there were signs everywhere welcoming Onodera and his group in English, Spanish and Hiragana Japanese. The students gave the visitors gift bags of omiyage, or small gifts, and Onodera in return gave out candy and Miyagi Prefecture pins to the students. It was a small but significant exchange program, that hopefully will resonate in the kids' minds in the years to come.
After the emotional visit to the school, the Miyagi delegation presented a more adult report of both the immediate response to the quake last year, and the result of all the rebuilding efforts in the months since. The damage just in Miyagi Prefecture was staggering: $115.54 billion, according to Onodera, who showed a PowerPoint slideshow that included some before-and-after images of his home state.
As Director of Crisis Management, he described the minute-by-minute response of his office: the temblor hit at 2:46 pm with a tsunami warning issued at 2:49. At 3:02 the prefecture requested military aid be deployed to the area, as a Disaster Task Force was convened. The report revealed a local government that was quick to react. But the scale of the disaster was one that caught everyone off guard, even if they were prepared.
Onodera spoke about Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. military mission to aid the stricken area. The initiative was aptly named, because "tomodachi" is Japanese for "friend," and emphasized how the outpouring of sympathy, help, volunteers and money from acround the world was appreciated by everyone in Japan. (The "thank you" videos making the rounds attest to that.) Taichi Hanzawa of the delegation, from the Miyagi Prefecture's International Affairs Division of Commerce, Industry & Tourism, made a pitch for business investment (tax breaks! incentives!) and tourism to come to Miyagi and help restart the economy.
After the lunchtime presentation, the delegation went on to meet with Colorado Lt. Governor Joe Garcia (Gov. Hickenlooper was traveling) to personally thank him as a representative of the state. Such scenes were repeated throughout the U.S. as a show of gratitude from Japan's Foreign Ministry.
After that the Miyagi delegation returned to Japan, the Consulate General of Japan in Denver marked Sunday's anniversary with a private ceremony for invited guests. Meanwhile, there were events all over the country to commemorate the disaster, and one opening of a powerful documentary film that is being screened across the country at AMC theaters, but unfortunately not here in Denver.
Pray for Japan was shot and directed by Stu Levy, an American filmmaker who lives in Tokyo. When the earthquake struck, he immediately volunteered to help in the relief efforts in Tohoku, and was amazed at the solidarity and resolute spirit of the survivors even in the wake of such a horrible event. He began shooting footage even as he volunteered, and eventually, the themes emerged that he built his film around: School, Shelter, Family, and Volunteers.
Levy shot scenes that tell stories that illustrate these themes, like Kento Itou, the teenage boy who lost his grandparents, mother and five-year-old brother to the tsunami, and organizes a memorial taiko drum performance and hoists a display of koinobori, the Children's Day carp flags that his baby brother Ritsu loved. Another theme of volunteers focuses on Pakistani immigrants who live in Japan, who drove to the area in the days after the quake to help however they could. They ended up serving food -- lots of authentic curry (which must have been a shock to the Japanese, who love curry but make a different gravy style of the cuisine) for survivors in the town of Ishinomaki. The residents' farewell ceremony when the Pakistanis leave is a moving expression of gratitude.
The film opens March 14 nationwide (except Denver... ) as a charity event, so check your local listings and see it on opening day. Bring some tissues just in case. And watch for it to show up on DVD, or in your cable's On Demand menu, on Netflix or RedBox.
Also on March 14 in Denver (since we can't go out to see the film), there's a fundraising concert for Tohoku by the Japanese taiko drum group Matsukawa Kyougaku at DU's Newman Center. It's part of the group's "Arigatou" (Thank You) Drumming World Tour, sponsored here in Denver by Domo Restaurant owner and Aikido Sensei Gaku Homma's Nippon Kan organization.
I don't know anyone who was killed in the Tohoku region, and all my family, friends and acquaintances in Japan were fortunate to be largely unaffected by the disaster. But the tragedy hasn't played out its final scene yet, with the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown still unresolved, and thousands of people forced to evacuate.
There's a happy ending for Tohoku and for all of Japan, though, in its people's resiliency. It's a cultural trait that can sometimes hold Japanese back (think of the hard-working but self-effacing employee who never gets the management promotion because he's not aggressive), but in times of crisis, it kicks in and gets things done. The damaged region is scarred but cleaned up, and much of the devastated area has been if not rebuilt exactly as before, then at least well enough to go on living, or to start a new life.
The many stories of the Japanese spirit like the ones on display in Pray for Japan have been inspirational, and the rest of the world will look on in admiration as the people of Tohoku pull themselves up again. I know I'll be watching.
Amazing and cool: The Washington Post presented a series of before-and-after photos of Japan right after the earthquake and last week ... overlaid over each other so you can slide the image and see one then the other.
The New York Times used the same online technology to create a similar gallery of before-and-after images of the stricken area.
Here's a Finnish newspaper website that has more photos that compare Japan in the days after the quake to today. Google Translate is always funky, but helpful...
The Pacific Citizen newspaper of the JACL, which usually covers Asian American news, published this story marking the anniversary by interviewing survivors in Japan: "Rebuilding Japan, One Year After the Earthquake and Tsunami"
The Huffington Post has created a section on its website that covers the Japan Eathquake Anniversary.
(Cross-posted from Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View...
Project Renew, held Feb. 18, was a night of cross-cultural splendor, with hip-hop dance groups alternating with traditional Asian cultural groups, including adorable little girls from the Lao Buddhist Temple; Denver Taiko's thundering Japanese drums; a troupe that showed the spirit of Cambodia; and Mudra Dance Studio, the energetic and dynamic group that mixes classical Indian dance with the flash and pop instincts of Bollywood choreography.
The event, organized by a pair of young Asian Americans, Joie Ha and Leo Tsuo, was a fundraiser for the Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado, which burned to the ground in December.
The concert was a success, filling the Davis Auditorium on the University of Denver campus and raising over $4,300 for the Laotian community.
The fundraiser was a testament to the sense of community unity between young people who identity as Asian Americans as well as by their ethnic heritage. The two event organizers are Chinese American, not Laotian. And the presence of Japanese, Indian and Cambodian traditional performers in addition to the Laotian community's traditional dance group, plus the mix of ethnicity among the hip-hop groups, is a reflection of the diversity of Asian America today.
Project Renew was a powerful statement. I expect more powerful statements will come from the area's next generation of AAPI leaders.
Here's the full performance by Hype 303, who I think are ready to audition for "America's Best Dance Crew." They closed out Project Renew with their rousing choreography:
You can still donate to the Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado's rebuilding fund on their website.
Cross-posted from Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View blog -- video by Gil...
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