Tetsuya Ishida – “Self-Portrait of Other”

Wrightwood 659 has a new exhibit of Tetsuya Ishida’s art: “Self-Portrait of Other.” This is the first retrospective exhibition of his work in the United States.

The exhibit comes to Wrightwood from the Reina Sofia in Madrid where curator Teresa Velazquez and organizers were surprised by attendance numbers—350,000 people visited the exhibit.

Once you see Ishida’s paintings, however, his draw isn’t a surprise at all: his images are striking.

Ishida works at the same time in hyperrealist and surrealist modes. His paintings incorporate the vocabulary of everyday Japanese life: textbooks, cardboard boxes, phone booths, lamps, trains, street-corner traffic mirrors, brands of food. As well as uniquely Japanese situations: school desks, school buildings, passed out drunks, generic apartment buildings, gyudon restaurants.

The hyperrealistic pieces make up very clearly surrealistic images, clearly inspired by artists such as Magritte.

There’s clearly a lot of pain in his work, and he seems to have picked out the parts of Japanese society that seem to be “unusual” to outsiders, which isn’t always easy to do as a native. Velasquez calls it his work “stunning testimony of a turbulent decade in Japan—the 90’s.”

In a way, Japan went through the financial crisis 20 years before the U.S. did, and Ishida seems to reflect that—he worked two jobs to stay afloat (security and work at a printmaker) and gained recognition after his death when his work was shown on an NHK program (based on his official site).

This is the fifth exhibit at the Tadao Ando-designed gallery space, which itself is beautiful. Velasquez noted that the simplicity of the gallery helps viewers focus: “the experience of the work [at Wrightwood] is unique, and much more interesting than in Spain. … You concentrate more on the work.”

They are showing 70 of Ishida’s paintings, sketches, and notebooks, a massive selection from the artist who died at age 31 and only produced around 180 works in total.

Wrightwood is also reprising pieces of a past exhibit in a new form on the level below the Ishida exhibit: “Ando: Museums + Galleries.” On display are models of some of Ando’s art museums as well as a scale model of Naoshima.

Wrightwood releases free tickets for the week each Monday, so I recommended getting on their email list. You can also purchase tickets for specific days, if you’re here for a trip. Tickets are for a specific window of time. Wrightwood will also be open for Open House Chicago, but reservations are required.

Based on what I’ve seen at Wrightwood 659 so far, its exhibits are quickly becoming an appointment viewing. They don’t have a permanent collection, so they partner with groups like Reina Sofia, Alphawood Exhibitions, and the Smart Museum to bring in artwork, which gives them great flexibility and division of labor, and the exhibits they have brought in occupy a space between the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. They’ve had everyone from Ai Weiwei, Ando himself, Le Corbusier, contemporary LGBTQ artists, and now Ishida, who seems posed to become a singularly representative Japanese artist from the 1990s.

The Best Japanese Postcards

Quick update for June aimed at any travelers headed to Japan this summer!

The best place to pick up post cards in Japan is at the Post Office, and one of the best post offices is the Tokyo Central Post Office, just opposite the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station. You can walk around and do your shopping at the Maruzen nearby along with all the great Tokyo station shopping, and then you can pick up post cards, have a coffee while you write them, and drop them in the mail.

They have the very cool postcard set featuring famous sights in a kind of simplified cartoon style. For a while they offered only the old school Japanese postbox, but now it’s expanded to include sights across the country. Stop in the local post offices while traveling to see what’s on offer.

And they have a variety of nicely designed postcards celebrating the history of the Japanese Post Office with really nicely styled post cards.

There are also great souvenirs to bring home as you can see above. Bags, magnets, and other goods. I came home with two magnets.

And don’t forget to ask for nice stamps. There’s almost always something cool, even if it means your stamps exceed the actual cost of postage. They had a Mario set that I regret not asking for, although I did get to use 風神 and 雷神 stamps, which was cool.

June Yamagishi and Papa Grows Funk

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about Papa Grows Funk.

I was having a drink with a high school classmate at Train Bar in Roppongi in August 2002, my first visit to Japan, and he was telling me that our sixth grade science teacher, Mr. Allspach, had been a manager at the Maple Leaf Bar in our hometown New Orleans.

As much as I hate adding to the narrative of New Orleans exceptionalism, perhaps this is unique and characteristic of the city: New Orleans is the kind of place where your middle school science teacher, known for daily quizzes, dapper suits from the ‘70s, and for being very tall and strict, can also be a regular at a neighborhood dive bar that hosts some of the best bands in the city.

My friend said that Mr. Allspach recommended Papa Grows Funk and that they had a Japanese guitarist. I went to see them for the first time later that summer after I returned from Japan. It was a random Monday night in that dead space in the calendar when college students hadn’t returned to the city, but the bar was full.

Papa Grows Funk at the Maple Leaf for their third-to-last show in April 2013. Walter “Wolfman” Washington on stage with them in this photo.

I quickly became obsessed with the band and New Orleans funk, which all originates from the 1969 The Meters self-titled album (YouTube)(and probably some R&B that came before that). I even had a chance to see the band in Tokyo at Club Quattro in Shibuya when I was studying abroad in 2004.

So it was a thrill to profile the guitarist June Yamagishi for the Japan Times: “June Yamagishi: Hitting New Orleans with a suitcase and a guitar.”

I spoke with him when I was back home in February. He’s super friendly and open and fits right in in New Orleans, where he’s lived since 1995. He’s managed the city that whole time without a driver’s license, which feels like a miracle, but it seems like he’s been based out of the Lower Garden District neighborhood since he got to New Orleans. We were sitting outside Mojo Coffee on Magazine Street, and he could point to the house where he first lived and the house where he recorded a solo album before he moved to the city.

He’s basically a guitar legend in Japan as well. There’s an extended conversation between June and the guitarist Char on YouTube. This is the first part of that program:

I need to give it a watch.

And to give you a taste of June’s music, I recommend the song “Yakiniku”:

And here’s a clip of June from an upcoming documentary about Papa Grows Funk. He’s talking about how the band started gigging at Old Point Bar in Gretna:

I Heard That – よく出る

yoku deru

Despite the fact that I work at a Japanese office, I use English most of the time. I do the occasional translation, have the occasional conversation in Japanese, and read the occasional Japanese email, but Japanese language ability was not a requirement for my position. That said, I’m being exposed to much more Japanese than I was when I was in New Orleans, and for this I am thankful.

As a Japanese language student not in Japan, you have to be a collector of sorts, and the less frequent your encounters with Japanese are, the more you have to hoard and delight in those encounters. This can be true even if you’re immersed: It’s easy to turn off your Japanese ears if you’re bored or tired or surrounded by people who are insufferable. Maintain vigilance.

On this note, I’ve been trying to do a better job of collecting these little bits of conversation and force them to roll around in my head a bit. I thought I’d try to post some of those here and give the stories behind them in a new series…I need something to get me going, and sadly my next Japan Times piece won’t be online until the first week of August.

The phrase today is よく出る.

Chicago has been great for Japanese encounters outside of work as well. I recently discovered Conversation Exchange and met up with one language partner already and have another in the works. I’ve also volunteered with JETAA at an old folks home with a sizable Japanese-American population.

We read out the bingo numbers (in English—there are non-Japanese as well), and that’s about it, but they appreciate it and are a lot of fun to see every month. We also have very brief conversations in Japanese with some of the folks. For the first half of the year I was going three times a month to help out a volunteer who couldn’t make it, so they really got to know me.

Because they’re all a bit hard of hearing, we use a big speaker and microphone to do the calling, but even then they have trouble. One woman, who goes by Lillian I think, often double checks the numbers with the others at her table, which includes some younger non-Japanese folks.

One week, I called out a number, and she turned to her tablemates and said セブンティ・フォー? They corrected her to 75, and she said, オー、セブンティ・ファイブ。よく出る—Oh, seventy-five. That one comes up a lot.

The phrase made me smile because it perfectly represents how all the residents think about bingo. Some will come exchange their bingo cards between games because they got an unlucky card. Others grumble conspiracy when a certain number happens to pop up multiple times in a single night.

Volunteering has helped me understand the meditative, hypnotic appeal of bingo, but this is the benefit I get. It’s an hour where I can turn off my phone and call numbers, focus on being in the moment, but I’m not sure if it’s the same for the old folks—they are pretty competitive about it. I guess the thrill of winning is also appealing, as is the benefit of community.

It doesn’t feel like any numbers get drawn more frequently than the others, but you never know: We use a tumbler that spins bingo balls, and none of them are perfectly spherical, so in theory some could be shaped in a way that would make them よく出る.

号外 – Ploughshares Fantasy Blog Draft and New Site

Fantasy Blog Header - Final Rowling Cropped

Because I don’t have enough blogging platforms already, I went and offered up my services to the Boston-based literary magazine Ploughshares, and they were foolhardy bold enough to take me up on my offer. My first installment of the Fantasy Blog Draft is online today. I’ll spare you the details here. Instead, head over to my new personal website where I write a little more about the exercise.

Now that I have a real personal website complete with strange line drawing self-portrait:

self portrait


I’ll be able to keep this site Japanese オンリー!

Distant Disasters

I have a nonfiction story online today over at Trop about my experience during Hurricane Katrina and the Great East Japan Earthquake. I was in Fukushima for Katrina, and in New Orleans for the quake, the tsunami, and the ensuing nuclear disaster. Strange days.

New Orleans and Japan are both defined and cursed by their geographies: Zoom out from the French Quarter, and people unfamiliar with the area are generally shocked by how little land there is in southeastern Louisiana.


While certain areas of Japan are farther from quake zones than others, nowhere is immune, and all across the island there are reminders that disaster could strike at any moment.

About half an hour to the east of the town where I lived was the small town of Bandai (磐梯), which is shadowed by Mount Bandai. The mountain is about half the height of Fuji, but it makes for a much prettier climb since it is covered in trees and surrounded by beautiful terrain. I climbed it three times, once every year I taught. The southern face of the mountain is a familiar mountain landscape: green in the summer, brown and white in the winter. It looks out onto Lake Inawashiro, and the Inawashiro ski resort on the skirts of the mountain; the smooth slopes were covered with snow by New Year’s, and more adventurous teachers than myself spent nearly all of their free time zipping down the runs in the winter.


The north side was rocky and scarred. On July 15, 1888, three earthquakes hit the region, and shortly after the third, a large volcanic eruption blew out the northern face and resulted in a landslide that covered towns at the foot of the mountain. Nearly five hundred people died. In the place of the destroyed villages and croplands, the eruption created five lakes of all different colors, which is reflected literally in the name of the area: 五色沼 (ごしきぬま). The area is filled with onsen and hiking paths.

Whenever I climbed Bandai, I parked on the south side, took an early bus around the mountain to the lakes, and then hiked up to the top. In certain places, the north side feels like the bottom of an empty riverbed or a forgotten quarry. We scrambled over large rocks making our way to the steeper ascent, which was lined with chains to help climbers. I often wondered if it would blow again, without any warning, as we were climbing.

University of New Orleans IELP Scholarship for 3.11 Disaster Victims 3.11被災者対象奨学金 – UPDATED

UPDATE: 2012.12.07. The scholarship recipient has been selected! The recipient is a resident of Iwate Prefecture and works at her parents’ ryokan, so learning English should be helpful for her in the future. Congrats!

Hey everyone. I’d like to take just a moment of your time to spread the word about a scholarship that the University of New Orleans Intensive English Language Program (IELP) will be offering for victims of the 3.11 disaster. The scholarship will cover most everything except for transportation. I personally know several of the teachers in this program, and they are fantastic people. If you know anyone who would be eligible for this, please do let them know. Anyone 18 and over affected by the disaster can apply (not just university students). Please share this widely!


―18歳以上の3.11被災者なら誰でも応募可能 (大学生でなくても可)。
―期間:1月10日―3月13日、または、 4月1-5月24日 (どちらか選択、いずれも8週間)
―アメリカでの学費(語学留学)、住居費、食費は 奨学金 ($4000)で大半カバーできるが、渡航費、学生ビザの申請に必要な費用は自費。

英語で300Words程度のエッセイを書いてもらうことになります (津波を経験して思ったことまた、どうして英語を勉強したいか)。

応募、質問は nito@uno.edu まで。

Scouting the Competition

I wanted to see what the competition looks like in the Expats Blog writing contest, so I did the hard work and looked through all 42 other entries. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of weak ones. Something about travel writing makes it one of the easiest types of writing to do poorly. I know I’ve been a perpetrator in the past, but I’ve been surprised by the reaction I’ve gotten from readers – seems like I’m on the right track with this piece even if I’m not all the way there yet. If you haven’t, check out my entry “How to Fly First Class For Free” and leave a comment of support! Today is the last day to do so.

The biggest crimes that the entries seems to commit are:

– Listing things. This makes it clear that the author wasn’t able to synthesize a main idea. Feels far too bloggy to me, which is how a lot of the writers work (including this one). Nothing wrong with blogging, but I hope the judges will be looking for more than a blog post in this contest.

– Focusing on the departure. One common theme was the hustle and bustle in a home country before arriving abroad. I found it pretty boring, although maybe that’s because my own initial departure was so long ago. I guess it’s an easy place to start a story (one that I kind of rely on to a certain extent), but it again makes me think the writer didn’t have a focus and was just writing from a natural beginning. (Like starting a short story with the main character waking up.)

Three of the stories managed to reel me in:

“Fourth Grade in a Foreign Country”
Sharon Ashworth shares the trials and tribulations of sending her daughter to elementary school in Germany. This one had me from the solid first sentence: “Thankfully, there was a smile at the end of the first day of school.” I also loved the alliteration in the title.

“Finding our bliss in Bangkok”
This entry by Kathy Drouin-Keith is told largely in detailed scenes and has some really well penned lines, my favorite being the following: “If you want to see a tickled Thai, have a little Western boy wai them.” I can imagine being her son, who ruins her attempts at negotiation with his tears.

“Dude – where’s my bathroom?”
The title anecdote from Sarah Drane’s story is very funny – one of the most surprising I’ve heard from expats, although I did meet a JET who returned to his Aomori apartment after winter break to find his pipes frozen, exploded, and spewing water into his closet. Sarah would definitely be able to sympathize.

Kick-Heart Kickstarter Project

RUN don’t walk over to Masaaki Yuasa‘s Kickstarter Project Kick-Heart! There are just over 12 hours left on the project, and you can still help support the first crowdfunded anime.

Yuasa is the director behind the 2004 movie Mind Game, which has to be one of the top three or four massive triumphs of anime in the last ten years (to me, it’s the best anime movie ever, but I haven’t seen that much, to be honest). His new project will fund a 10-minute anime short about two wrestlers:

There are a bunch of different reward levels, but 5 USD will get you an SD download of the movie – great value! Pledge higher to get a higher quality download or physical rewards like T-shirts and DVDs and whatnot.

If you’re interested in Kickstarter, you should also check out my Kickstarter blog over at Kick What? I’ve been cheating on Japan and Japanese with the crowdfunding crew. More Japanese stuff coming in the near future.

Cool Word – まったり

I’ve got an article on the Japan Times Bilingual page today about the Japanese translation of Facebook. I highly recommend switching your language over to Japanese to improve your recognition of the various loanwords and compounds that get used on the site. And definitely make sure to go in and add your 姓 and 名 into the settings so that your Japanese friends and coworkers can track you down.

Ideally, though, you have loads of Japanese friends who are also using Facebook – this is by far the best use of the site. These Japanese friends should be updating their statuses and commenting on things at a regular pace. I have a few who do so, but even with the small number, I’ve learned a couple of awesome words. Notably, まったり. The best part about Facebook is that you are learning in context: words get defined by pictures and comments.

For example, a friend posted this picture:

With the following comment: 今日は天気悪いから好きなカフェでまったり。

I could immediately approximate the meaning of まったり – what else are you going to do on a rainy day at a cafe with nothing but a cup of coffee? – but a week or so later, another friend posted this status update:


The status went on, but you get the idea from the first sentence where まったり is used to modify the verb 鑑賞 (かんしょう, view) – it means to chill the fuck out. You can either just chill the fuck out at a café because the weather is bad or you can chill the fuck out and watch TV. In the first case, the する after まったり is dropped, and in the second case it’s used as an adverb to modify 鑑賞.

The third syntax you can use is まったりした to modify a noun such as まったりした人, which reminds me of one of my favorite phrases from Cowboy Bebop: のんきなやつだな – that’s one chilled out bastard.

(And on a Facebook sidenote, I hope that the translation of “Like” to いいね! effectively communicates to beginning students of the language that いい doesn’t simply mean good and that 好き doesn’t really mean “like.”)