Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sony Design Key Person Interview

Sony Design

Key Person Interview

December 2006

Aha! experience on Play Station Portable.

This year, I helped Sega create two games on Sony Play Station Portable based on the phenomenon of change blindness. Here's a few of the reviews (in English) of the game.

On the game packages and the press releases, my name is spelt as "Kenichiro Mogi". That is my formal name. Ken is an abbreviation. All my friends call me Ken.

One of the reasons why I helped develop this particular game was because I wanted to promote public awareness of what a creative organ the brain is. There is too much emphasis on drilling the brain to do arithmetic etc., in which function the computer is far better anyway. I would like people from all walks of life to realize the potentials inherent in themselves.

Here's my earlier essay on the significance of the Aha! experience.

Onceness and the philosopher's walk

(Now available as a chapter in "The Future of Learning")

"The game package"

Beyond this linguistic closure

Some time ago, aneta made a comment on my earlier entry and asked how I divided the topics between my English and Japanese blogs.

My blog in Japanese has been running for 7 years now, starting on the 12th of November, 2006. It is fairly well established in its style and readership. The entries during the period of 2004 to 2005 has been edited into a book (Yawaraka-nou, or "The flexible brain"), published from Tokuma-shoten.
My English blog, on the other hand, is far from being established and is in the process of experimentation.

Actually, expressing oneself in English, while living in Tokyo and being absorbed more or less in the Japanese cultural environment, is a difficult task. It is related to the context in which the Japanese people and culture are thrown into in the modern age.

Since the Meiji revolution, Japan has been playing the game of a catch up. It has been customary for the intellectuals to "import" ideas developed in Europe and the States, and the same process is basically happening even today. I am not saying that no original ideas have been nurtured in this country. I am just pointing out that the product of Japanese intellectuals have failed to find its market outside Japan. Although Japanese sub-culture (Manga, Anime, Otaku) are getting popular in the world market, many intellectuals (university professors etc.) in Japan remain in a "domestic" existence.

Japan as a nation has a tendency to be closed and self-contained, mainly because of the language. Once you write something in Japanese, it is almost certain that the majority of the readership will be Japanese citizens. I have published ~20 books in Japanese, and I well know that my readership will be effectively limited to this island country as long as I keep publishing in my native tongue.

I think this linguistic closure is bad for me personally and for people in general living in Japan. There is a nationalistic trend rampant recently, and I am personally worried. A sense of universal liberty and a tolerance towards people from different backgrounds can only come from an effort to meet the unknown, to communicate, however clumsily, with people who literally speak a different language.

My English blog is in a totally different context from the Japanese blog, and I enjoy the contextual departure. When I write something in English, my imagined readership is not necessarily people from countries where the native tongue is English. Although I do much appreciate people from U.K., the United States, Canada, Australia, to read my blog, I would at the same time very much like people from regions of minority languages, whose only means of opening oneself to the wider world is by adapting to the English language, to access my humble blog.

I do not know where this experimentation is leading me. I will keep writing any way.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Idiot Train

There are some books that I read again and again. Hyakken Uchida (1889-1971)'s "Idiot Train" (Aho Ressha) is one of my all time favorites. It is a humorous writing on Uchida's own beloved past-time, riding on the train for pleasure. In the Idiot Train essay series, he goes all over Japan trying to satisfy somehow his insatiable desire for train rides. It is no ordinary travel essay, though. Uchida does not want any of that distraction or enlightenment people normally expect from getting to see things in a new land. He just wants to travel on the train, drinking sake and having an interesting conversation, and that's that.

In the opening sentence of the first volume of the Idiot Train, Uchida confesses thus (translation from Japanese mine)

I call this trip idiot train because people would say so behind my back anyway. Needless to say, I myself do not consider this undertaking to be that of an idiot. To be honest, you don't need a reason to go somewhere. I don't have any reason in particular to do so, but I have made up my mind to go to Osaka on the train.
As I do not have any particular reason to make this trip, it is ridiculous to travel second or third class. Traveling first class is always the best. At the age of 50, I made up my mind to always travel first class. In spite of my determination, I might be obliged to travel third class when I have no money and yet have some specific reason to make the trip. But I would never travel second class, which is irritatingly ambiguous. I don't like the appearances of people traveling in a second class coach.

Uchida then goes on to consider how he might get the necessary money to travel first class from Tokyo to Osaka and back. Finally, he goes to see one of his friends.

"I would like to go to Osaka."
"Ah, that is a good idea."
"So I came to see you on this matter."
"Is it an urgent business?"
"No. I don't have any particular reason, but I think I will go any way."
"Are you going to stay there for some time?"
"No. I think I will return immediately. Depending on the circumstances, I might even come back on the night train as soon as I arrive at Osaka."
"What do you mean depending on the circumstances?"
"Depending on how much travel money I have. If I have sufficient money, I will come back immediately. If I don't have enough, I might stay in Osaka for one night."
"I don't quite understand you."
"On the contrary, everything is clear. I have considered the matter with great care."
"Is that so?"
"Anyway, can you lend me some money?"

The idiot train essays are full of irrelevant and self-conscious prose writings of the finest quality. It is impossible to convey all the subtle nuances embedded in the original Japanese text, but something is better than nothing.

Uchida's dry and witty wisdom teaches us that that life is not about some kind of dreamed-of achievements, but that rather the process of living along ultimately justifies itself.

Uchida is a disciple of the great novelist Soseki Natsume.

Humorist, novelist, essayist Hyakken Uchida

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Reflections on the ever-changing

The past is a vast stage for metamorphoses. The critic Hideo Kobayashi once remarked to Yasunari Kawabata, the author of "Snow Country".

"Not much can be expected out of a living human. What a man thinks, says, and does, is never reliably predictable, whether you speak of yourself or of others. It is next to impossible to make a living human the object of your appreciation or serious observation. On the other hand, the dead are quite admirable. Why is it that the impression and the whole character of a man become quite clear, once he is dead? It is quite probable that dead men are the only true human beings that we come to know in this world. Are we living humans only animals who gradually become true humans as we approach our mortal end?"
(Excerpt from "Reflections on the ever-changing", original Japanese text published in 1941. Translation mine)

What Kobayashi speaks of men here has a universal relevance. The past is never fixed, and the significance of a particular experience becomes clear only after some time has passed since its occurrence. Maturation requires the workings of time. A child is never a child as it happens. You can appreciate your own childhood in the true sense only after you become an adult, when you reflect on what happened so long ago.

One's past is a rich fountain of significant experience, just as the future is an arena for unpredictability. Only in the long-gone past can one find solace and the food for soul. With a will to recall and a freedom of imagination, the past becomes a realm of vivid close-to-heart.

Hideo Kobayashi (1902-1983)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

White magic

Most of Wolfgang Amdeus Mozart's music are in major keys. His music represents optimism and belief in beauty and good. In an impressive moment in Die Zauberflote, Monostatos and the gang try to capture Papageno and Pamina. At the sound of the magic bell, they all begin to dance, singing Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schön! It is absurd, and is so movingly beautiful. Needless to say, Mozart as a man of the world must have known that human societies are not so simple as that villains forget their vicious wills and surrender to the power of beauty so easily. However, as a musical fantasy it is of the purest quality, and is tinged with sadness.

Around the time of his mother's death in Paris, Mozart composed the 31st Symphony ("Paris"). Although personally a time of anxiety and sadness, the symphony does not reveal any sign of negative emotions. The music is full of youthful joy, oblivious of life's woes and sadness.

Mozart's compositions are excellent examples of what I metaphorically call "white magic", an act of good will to bring about beauty and love into the world. It is an interesting fact that white magic in this sense derives its energy in part from negative emotions. An enigma of human psyche is that negative emotions can be turned into positive emotions somehow. This "alchemy of mind" is evident in some of the masters of expressive art, notably Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Wolfgang Goethe.

The determination to use only "white magic" in one's life is a worth one. It is malicious for the self, not to mention for the society, to give a straight expression of one's negative emotions. "Black magic" brings only misfortunes and tragedy into the world. It is worth conscious and unconscious efforts to try to turn one's negative emotions into positive ones, to use only "white magic". It is possible to do so. Just Listen to Mozart's music and be touched.

Mozart the "white magician"

Monday, December 25, 2006

Found art.

Marcel Duchamp's "readymade" is different from conceptual art. When Duchamp signed "R. Mutt" on a urinal to turn it into a piece of art, it was not that any urinal would do. It must have been that particular urinal, with that particular shape and color.
The alternative term, "found art", should indicate a careful aesthetic search process to be a significant description of what is going on. Otherwise it loses legitimacy as a methodology of art.

For example, when a stone is used in a "found art" piece, it should not be any stone, just representing the concept of it. If you are given the instruction to "express yourself" with a stone, you could keep searching for years on end, without discovering the stone that just fits your sensitivity and intentionality. Uncovering a good found art object can be a very serious undertaking indeed.

The serendipitous discovery of a good "readymade" or "found art" object tests the artist's aesthetic senses, just as in the "created" pieces in the traditional sense. This is a worth remembering point when discussing this particular category of art.
Some part of the sense of bewilderment and wayward value the term "ready made" or "found art" conjectures in one's mind, however, might actually originate in the gray zone between illegitimacy and recognition. Refinement should not lead to an overkill of the original stigma.

My own favorite "found art" is the fossil of a nymph of a dragon fly. I discovered it in a fossil shop in the Kinokuniya bookstore in Tokyo. The shape is indicative of a fighting spirit. It is one of my treasured possessions.
I have not "signed" this readymade object yet, though.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Menuhin's Messiah

As Christmas approaches, I am fond of playing George Frideric Handel's Messiah while at work on a CD or DVD. I especially love the part on the last judgment.

At the senior high school in Tokyo, I had several good friends, with whom I would discuss literature and music and other things that would interest a "highbrow" teenager growing up in the capital. One day, I was discussing Handel with one of my most respected friends then and ever since, Akira Wani, now a professor of law at the University of Tokyo. Akira mentioned that he usually prefer German to English in a classical oral music. However, he said, Handel's Messiah was a rare exception. He definitely preferred hearing Messiah in English to ditto in German, namely the arrangement and translation by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

One of my cherished memories of classic music concerts concerns the time when I heard Messiah in the Royal Albert Hall in London. The conductor was Yehudi Menuhin. The timing is a little obscure, but it must have been the winter of 1996 to 1997, only a few years before Menuhin's death in 1999.

It was the first time I heard Messiah in a concert hall, and I was amused to see the audience stand up just before the "Hallelujah" chorus, in a tradition allegedly started by King George II, who was so moved by the music.

On that day, the moment of truth came at the very beginning, even before a single note was played. The audiences were seated, and the orchestra was finished with the tuning. Menuhin came to the podium, showered with an enthusiastic applause, and gently raised his hand to conduct. He was about to move the baton downwards, when there was a slight rustle in the auditorium. Menuhin stopped the baton just in time, and without moving his raised hand, turned his head to see a late audience made his way to the seat.

There I saw, still vivid in my memory, the great violist and conductor holding his action like a living statue, literary motionless, waiting for the late comer to be seated.

When the unfortunate violator finally found his seat, Menuhin moved down his baton, and the music started, as nothing had happened. A good part of a minute must have passed during the incident. All the while, it was as if conducting time was just held from proceeding until the nuisance was removed, and that was just that.

I sometimes remember Menuhin in that posture when I listen to Messiah. It is the image of a mature and inspiring spirituality encapsulated in a human flesh, revealed at the time of an embarrassment.