For Love of Humans and Cats

This is such a sweet story about Japanese-American Dale Araki and his wife Shoko.  The couple have a strong attachment to each other and to their cats, Suki and Yaki.  They also give some great life lessons about surviving and thriving in a cross-cultural relationship:

What is intercultural marriage to you?

Dale: It’s like double-mint gum. You double your pleasure, you double your fun, there’s also double misunderstanding!  On the positive side, you double everything.          

Shoko: That makes life richer. Another good point is — if we were both Japanese, I might have thought, “No, I can’t continue the relationship anymore,” but in an intercultural marriage, I can think like “Misunderstanding occurs because of cultural factors, not because of one’s character.” A concept such as “kuuki o yomu” (literally, “read the air”) exists only in Japanese culture. A relationship won’t work out if you think of trying to make yourself understood without saying anything. You have to speak up and express yourself in words.                                        

Dale: We’re like a reference to our former students who get married to foreigners. When I ask my students what they think of intercultural marriage, they say things like “It’s fun” and “gaijins are more romantic.” But it’s not for everyone. It requires a lot of work, understanding, more patience, sense of humor — to really make it work.

Of course when I read about Dale, Shoko, Suki and Yaki, I thought of one of my favorite songs growing up: “Sukiyaki” by A Taste of Honey.  I did not know that the American Sukiyaki song was based on the Japanese original, Sukiyaki, which was sung by Kyu Sakamoto under the title “Ue o Muite Aruko” (I will walk looking up).  If you watch the Sakamoto video, you will see that it is anything but glamorous.  He is walking in a very industrial setting.  As my historian friend, Yuko Konno, explained to me in an email:  “As you can see in the video of ‘Sukiyaki,’ there’s a working-class theme here.  This was a time when Japan was experiencing rapid economic growth supported by cheap labor from rural areas.  Sakamoto’s songs appealed to these lonely young men and women.  His songs are both sad and forward-looking — sad because of loneliness, hard work, and simply the pain of living, and yet forward-looking because (I assume) Japan’s economy was doing well.”  Well put, Konno-sensei!

Oh, and as a cat lover, I couldn’t resist buying a little substitute cat.


Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

Nora Ephron (1941-2012) 

Nora Ephron is dead.  I find that a bit hard to believe because (a) I didn’t know she was ill and (b) she wasn’t that old where one started asking, “Gee, I wonder if s/he is still alive?”  Ephron was a 1962 graduate of one of the Seven Sisters, Wellesley College, in Massachusetts.  This link is her 1996 Wellesley Commencement address and you’ll find it very entertaining, which is what we all know about Ms. Ephron.  You can also read about her thoughts regarding aging here.

Nora Ephron was a Renaissance woman: novelist, writer, film director, comedian, playwright, and Huffington Post blogger.  She is remembered for many memorable films, Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, all three of which received Academy Award nominations for best original screenplay, and Heartburn, about her marriage breakup with Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein.

I’m very sad about the passing of Ms. Ephron, who I had the pleasure of hearing speak in 2009.  She introduced her good friend Arianna Huffington at a Manhattan event where Arianna was about to be presented with a lifetime achievement award.  Ephron was side-splitting funny.  She had no off button, as you will hear in the commencement address.  She is that unusual type of person, a real “woman’s woman.”  We don’t have enough of these women in the world: strong, funny, vulnerable in that secure way of knowing she is smart.  Ephron wrote and spoke from a woman’s point of view, which isn’t a bad thing.  She made women feel really good about being women.  I will miss her and am sorry she is gone at 71.  What stories did she have left to tell?  We won’t know.

Vogue Propaganda

Vogue Propaganda

Fashion-backward Propaganda

Last week I watched a documentary film from 2009 that profiles Anna Wintour and the American edition of Vogue magazine as it prepares for its annual most important fall fashion issue.  It’s called The September Issue and I highly recommend it if you are at all curious about the British-born editor-in-chief Wintour, who nevertheless remains an enigmatic figure behind those enormous sunglasses.  (The only person I have strong positive feelings for in the documentary is creative director Grace Coddington, without whom Anna Wintour would have her goose cooked.)  The Hollywood version of the diva-in-chief is The Devil Wears Prada (2006) starring Meryl Streep as the Wintour character and Anne Hathaway as her assistant.  (The 2003 book on which the film is based was written by Wintour’s former assistant Lauren Weisberger.)

In February 2011, Vogue published a very flattering profile of the lovely, fashion-forward Asma al-Assad, married to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” She is the first lady of Syria.

Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Web site says, “the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are deep and dark.

You can see from the article that the profile avoids the horrific human rights record of the Assad regime.  After the Syrian uprisings began in spring 2011, Vogue pulled the article from its online archive but you can read the original here.  (The Internet always allows such things to show up again somewhere.)  It has been reported that the global PR firm Brown Lloyd James arranged for this positive propaganda piece to help soften the image of the Assad family in the Western media.  The United Nations estimates that up to 11,000 Syrians have been killed in the uprisings, primarily civilian protesters but also armed combatants fighting the Syrian army.

Take this as a lesson in bad timing and fashion-backward reporting.

Lights of Japan

Lights of Japan

What the world needs now is the light of “Resilience.” With thanks to people all over the world, we would like to create things that serve as lights to the world. This film was created for “Japan Night,” a side event of World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2012 at Davos.

Come for the music. Stay for the story.  This beautiful short film, Lights of Japan, must be seen by more people than those lonely few who visit the Japanese Government Internet TV site.  I have a feeling Lights of Japan has been seen exclusively by a select group of the world’s elite cozying up at Davos.  That’s not good enough.  It must be seen by the masses, because it’s the elite and the masses who are going to rebuild Japan.

When I asked my Sophia students if they had seen the film, they all said no.  Hmm, I thought.  Why is this such a hidden gem?  I realize that it was made for Japan Night at Davos, but it is a public domain film or it wouldn’t be linked to the Japanese government website.

The Japanese government produced the film with private partners and the film production quality is high.  The problem is the distribution, which is a critical part of the planning for any film.  If Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” still applies, then the message of Lights of Japan is suffering due to poor media distribution.  You won’t find this film on YouTube (yet), nor will you find it easily on the Internet.  I had to dig and dig until I found the “Japanese Government Internet TV” webpage.  Believe me, that URL does not glide off one’s tongue.

Watch the film and tell me what you think.  What’s your favorite scene?  Mine is that lengthy pause before Nobuyuki Tsujii starts playing the first notes on the restored piano.  The classical music is extraordinary and the first time I watched this I had tears in my eyes.  It is truly inspirational to watch the resilience of the Japanese people a year after the earthquake and tsunami.  The message of resilience and hope is a message that is ripe for the world, so I hope the world will see this.

Weird Japan: Cool Japan or Just Weird?

Weird Japan: Cool Japan or Just Weird?

21st Century Japan

It is very true that many people outside of Japan laugh at the popular culture videos,  game shows, news, and photos.  So, if foreigners think that some of the J-Pop is weird, is that good for Japan’s image?  I think it is, because the bottom line is that you are garnering global attention.  Lady Gaga is a weird American and that doesn’t stop her one bit from upping her Twitter follower numbers.  Now I don’t think “weird Japan” will garner more support for Japan’s government policies, but at least it intensifies curiosity.

I do have an issue with the baby doll look of a lot of these adult women pop stars.  Doesn’t it feed a stereotype of the Asian female in general and Japanese woman in particular as someone to be dominated and controlled?  Am I just being extreme here in my theory?  You tell me.   I think that the West still gazes across the Pacific to the East and finds it a place of mystery and exotic adventure.  We hold a lot of stereotypical images in our heads, both positive and negative, about the Asian region of the world.  How can we get to know each other with more honest eyes?

21st Century China

Asian-Americans Dominate New Immigrants

Asian-Americans Dominate New Immigrants to US

A new Pew Research Center survey, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” finds some startling changes in immigration patterns to America.  A decade ago, 19% of immigrants to the United States were Asians and 59% were Hispanics.  That’s all changed. In 2010, 36% of all new immigrants were from Asian countries and 31% were Hispanics.  The face of America is changing once again.  The Pew study concludes: “Asian Americans are the best-educated, highest-income, fastest-growing racial group in the country.” Consider the statistic on higher education attainment.  Almost 7 out of 10 Asian immigrants to the U.S. from either South Korea or Japan will have their bachelors, according to the Pew study:

Compared with the educational attainment of the population in their country of origin, recent Asian immigrants also stand out as a select group. For example, about 27% of adults ages 25 to 64 in South Korea and 25% in Japan have a bachelor’s degree or more.  In contrast, nearly 70% of comparably aged recent immigrants from these two countries have at least a bachelor’s degree.

That does not mean that everything is rosy for Asian Americans.


The survey noted that Indian-Americans stand out in the personal importance they place on parenting – 78% of them said being a good parent is one of the most important things to them personally.

Korean-Americans are the most likely to say discrimination against their group is a major problem, and they are the least likely to say that their group gets along very well with other racial and ethnic groups.

What do you think of the study’s findings?

Negative Ads: Hate ‘Em, Love ‘Em, Nuke ‘Em

The president, any president, should go negative early, often, and without apology if the goal is victory. The notion that negative campaigning is some toxic modern aberration in American democracy is bogus. No campaign may ever top the Andrew Jackson–John Quincy Adams race of 1828, in which Jackson was accused of murder, drunkenness, cockfighting, slave-trading, and, most delicious of all, cannibalism. His wife and his mother, for good measure, were branded a bigamist and a whore, respectively. (Jackson won nonetheless.) In the last national campaign before the advent of political television ads, lovable Harry Truman didn’t just give hell to the “do nothing” Congress, as roseate memory has it. In a major speech in Chicago in late October 1948, he revisited still-raw World War II memories to imply that the “powerful reactionary forces which are silently undermining our democratic institutions”—that would be the Republicans— and their chosen front man, Thomas Dewey, were analogous to the Nazis and Hitler. Over-the-top? Dewey was a liberal by the standards of the postwar GOP and had more in common with a department-store mannequin than with a Fascist dictator.

That’s why he would be wise to seriously reexamine the history of a spot so effective that it’s the only aspect of the entire LBJ-Goldwater race that anyone remembers. The latest volume of Robert Caro’s epic life of Lyndon Johnson stops just short of the 1964 election. But last fall, Robert Mann, a journalist and historian with a relevant previous career seeped in the cauldron of Louisiana politics, got there first with Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds, an enterprising book meticulously reconstructing the genesis and impact of this very brief, very devastating piece of film. Mann’s account is all the more instructive when read in the context of 2012. Paradoxically, the most famous attack ad in history stands apart from many of those that followed it—including most produced today—by containing no facts or even factoids, no quotes, no argument, no image of either candidate, and not even a mention of the target’s name. And yet its power remains awesome to behold. It finished Goldwater even though Americans in 1964 tilted slightly more conservative than liberal (37 to 35 percent, according to Gallup) and even though the Goldwater campaign outspent LBJ’s on television advertising by some 40 percent, including for an attack ad of its own linking the president to graft, “swindle,” juvenile delinquency, crime, and riots.

Frank Rich, Nuke ‘Em: Why negative advertisements are powerful, essential, and sometimes (see “Daisy”) even artistic. New York Magazine, June 17, 2012

Read the entire article by Frank Rich and tell me, do you think that we moralize too much about negative versus positive political campaign ads?  Is all fair in love and political war?  Do ads turns off the people from voting or fire them up to participate in the political process?

Why Americans Stay Fat

Family lore has it that the first word out of my mouth as a toddler was “Pepsi.”  I loved the dark-colored cola over milk, juice or water, and as soon as my mom would go out I grabbed hold of the apron of our lovely family helper with my plea, “Annie Mae, Pepsi, Pepsi.”

As a consequence of this parental defiance, I have always had to watch my weight.  Drinking a sweetened soda at a young age set my taste buds primed for other things that just weren’t good for my growing body, including candy, hot dogs and chips.

By the time I knew better about what to choose and what to leave out it was almost too late.  Early eating habits stick with you and are hard to break.

Now it’s 2012 and America’s longest running conflict continues.  Of course I’m not referring to Afghanistan but the battle with the bulge.  New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to ban super-size 64-ounce sodas that are sold in convenience stores like 7-Eleven and limit sugary drinks in restaurants and street carts to 16 ounces.  Many citizens who want to drink what they want in whatever size container have ridiculed his Nanny state approach.  The major soda drink suppliers, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, have also met the proposal with silence.

Until now.

Katie Bayne, with the dazzling title of president of sparkling beverages in North America, is now fighting the good fight for Coca-Cola.

Katie Bayne, Sugar Evangelist

In an exclusive interview with a marketing reporter for USA Today, Bayne said, “There is no scientific evidence that connects sugary beverages to obesity.”  She does not like her company being singled out for expanding waistlines.  In fact, sugary drinks are just fine for the American diet as long as the calories taken in balance with the calories burned.  She goes many steps beyond the call of duty, arguing that sugary drinks offer the key to a vibrant life, sort of like yoga in a can:

A calorie is a calorie.  What our drinks offer is hydration.  That’s essential to the human body.  We offer great taste and benefits whether it’s an uplift or carbohydrates or energy.  We don’t believe in empty calories.  We believe in hydration.

I feel a little guilty that my first word wasn’t Coke but Pepsi.  Little did I know that as a toddler I was receiving nutrition, hydration and an energy source from the caramel-colored sugar water.  Hooray for my precocious mind for knowing that my choice of Pepsi-Cola over water, juice or milk was the right one.

Of course I speak in jest.  Katie Bayne is the modern equivalent of a P.T. Barnum.  Barnum, like Bayne, was the quintessential American huckster.  The huckster believes that most Americans fit into one of two categories: (1) fool or (2) damn fool.  So when it comes to our weight battles, Americans love to believe the hype: that over-expensive sugar water is a suitable replacement for zero calorie H2O, or that a sugary pick-me-up in the afternoon is as good as a short walk or quick nap to reenergize.  Katie Bayne can make her ridiculous claims because it’s what most Americans want to hear.  We want to believe that we don’t overdue it, that our portions aren’t so big, that American freedom is really just freedom of consumer choice as measured by the refrain, “I want my 64 ounce soda and I want it now!”

There is an election going on this year in America.  It’s not the one between Romney and Obama.  It’s between the truth and the hype, the facts and the propaganda.  As long as American media continue to give serious reporting space to paid propagandists like Bayne, I’ll know who’s winning and the rest of us will wobble merrily along sipping our Big Gulps.


Check out this review of Burger King’s new bacon sundae.  It’s just the thing to eat with that Coca-Cola.  Note this patriotic tone, as if grease and sugar together equal good citizenship:

There is something about the fusion of fatty meats and sugar-enriched ice cream that makes me feel so … American. Halfway through the sundae I was expecting a bald eagle to swoop in, carrying sparklers.

While Burger King claims that they are only offering this dessert for a limited time, part of me believes that the insatiable appetite of our country will have this item become a menu staple faster than you can say “God Bless America.”

Nicola Furlong Family Speaks Out

Nicola Furlong (right) with her sister Andrea

The brave, courageous family of murdered Irish exchange student Nicola Furlong is speaking out just three weeks after their daughter was killed.  Richard Hinds, a 19-year-old Memphis Tennessee man who grew up playing piano at his church, has been charged with Nicola’s murder after he confessed to Tokyo police that he strangled Nicola for rebuffing his sexual advances.

The family states that nothing will bring back their daughter even if justice is served.  Her younger sister, with whom Nicola was best friends, said that she hasn’t even come to terms with her sister being gone.  Nicola’s father expresses confidence in the Tokyo criminal justice system where 98% of charges lead to convictions.

Read the article and in particular watch both interviews with the parents and sister.  The Furlong family comes across as incredibly loving and my heart breaks as I listen to them express such emotional pain.  It is so true that nothing will bring back their daughter and sister, but I hope the Furlong family finds some peace over time.  May the vibrant spirit of their daughter live with them forever and may their memories of Nicola be of how she lived her life with a sense of joy and great adventure.

Barackaganda: Where Hollywood Meets Washington

Just weeks ago President Obama was hard at work delivering his Washington Correspondents’ Dinner stand-up routine and now we find him on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for what is being dubbed his “Checks and the City” tour, a play on words for actress Sarah Jessica Parker’s $40,000 a plate soiree featuring Michelle and Barack Obama.  Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine and screaming diva in the documentary film, The September Issue, will also be at the Thursday gathering.  For $40,000, that plate should come with a new Prius c.

The AP author of the article says that Obama has no choice but to hook his falling star status onto the ready cash of multimillionaire Hollywood actors and actresses like George Clooney, Cher, Matthew Broderick, Ellen Degeneres, among many others.  There is great potential for this money-raising tete-a-tete to backfire.  Americans have an ongoing love/hate relationship with Hollywood.  While we may like the product that comes out of the industry, we don’t think much of the lifestyles of many of the rich and famous.  These are not the Go Go 1980s anymore nor are these the “Yes, we can!” feelings of just a few years ago.  Granted, anyone who hates Hollywood isn’t going to vote for Barack Obama anyway, but he needs the Independents to beat Mitt Romney.

Is President Obama looking too closely aligned with Hollywood?  Do you think this close alliance between Hollywood and Washington will make any difference in the presidential election?  Or do you just want to know what they are serving for $40,000 a plate?