Wednesday, December 31, 2008


It has been sometime since I made the last entry into this blog. I don't know how this long absence has taken place. I have been busy, giving lectures at places (most of the time within Japan but from time to time outside of it), writing neuroscience papers with my students (one of them, Takayasu Sekine, has had his paper recently accepted by a fine journal. Good for him!). I had to write essays after essays, which appeared in magazines and books et cetera, to keep the deadlines. My initially casual commitment to Japanese televisions has over the time become a more involved one, taking some portion of my time. All these elements, taken together, might have contributed to my not writing a blog in English for more than 6 months. On the other hand, I have kept my Japanese blog almost on a daily basis.

(My Japanese blog in the original langauage)

(( My blog through English translation. Even with the great technologies adapted by google the result of machine translation is devastating.)

The lesson is that one can be distracted from something. Even when that "something" is previous and meaningful in one's life. Some time ago, I made a vow to conduct more activities outside the Japanese domain. Writing scientific papers is not enough. I would like to write books in English, let the little things coming out of my research and life breathe the air of the broader, wonderful new world. I am making efforts, but not enough has come out yet.
Not that my activities in the Japanese domain are meaningless. There are thousands of languages spoken on this globe. Every single one of them is important, has an equal right to flourish and nourished. Japanese is only one of them. So is English. My wish to express in English is historically incidental, privately desired, supported by some demographic evidences. And the love to the mankind.
Now that I have made this entry after this long silence, I feel the tiny "English muscle" in my brain itching, ready to be let free to follow its instincts. Let's see what the year 2009 brings.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The importance of being earnest.

Some years ago, I was just starting my research career in the brain sciences. I was attending a series of international conferences in Iizuka city in the southern island of Kyushu. Iizuka had its days when it prospered from coal mining. The coal mining boom was by then long gone. After years of economic decline, Iizuka still had the remnant glamour which had become all the more poignant by the workings of time. Walking through small passages, you would encounter charming restaurants, shops, infusing one with anticipations of things to come. As night fell the heat would become mild, and I could go on walking for a long time. Finding a comfortable restaurant, I would enter and order a set menu and a glass of beer.

There was one particular restaurant that I found my love in and would frequent within the constraints of time. It was one of these small places with no particular features to mention. There were several chairs and tables, and a tatami seating area. The dishes would be displayed on the counter. If you point to the large dishes with your favorite cuisine, they would put small portions of it on your eating dish. Men would have their meal after working hours, drinking beer and watching the baseball. It was that kind of a relaxed, no nonsense place.

On one evening of the conference, I strolled into a pub on the main street. It was a place with an exquisite charm, with bottles of Corona beer displayed on the window, with a woody interior overall. Once in the pub, I found myself face to face with two other researchers from the meeting. Both of them were much more senior than I was. Consequently, I became the listener. I attended to what they said with great interest, drinking from my bottle of Corona.

I remember to this day what they were discussing on that evening.

"When we study the brain, we should never forget that we are actually dealing with a whole human being."
"It is no joke."
"Joys, sorrows, all emotions arise from the brain."
"Everything in life is in the brain."
"We should never let this slip from our minds."

These words left a strong impression on me, all the more so as the academic conference I was attending was about neuro-fuzzy systems, in a heavily technically oriented approach. I might have been realizing by that time that what I intuitively felt to be important mysteries about the brain was different from what was normally researched in the academic circles in the conventional sense. In any case, the words of my newly found mentors left a heavy mark on my mind. I was getting comfortably intoxicated from bottles of Corona, but my mind remained alert.
Everything in life is in the brain.

This doctrine is an important one. The significance of the brain is different from that of other organs that constitute the human body. At the end of the day, what we feel and think are nothing more than the results of the neural firings in the brain.

What are humans beings?

If a brain scientist would like to answer this question, he or she would have to tackle the really hard problem of how on earth mental phenomena arise as a result of the activities in the materialistic brain. Research in the field of the brain sciences needs to go beyond the physical, informational, or biological approach. It should be accompanied by a spirit to close on the essence of the human existence, and a "high mental temperature". Otherwise, scientific investigations in this field would not leave a deep mark on the world view of the general public. The intellectual curiosity of scientists would also be not stimulated in the true sense, it science keeps avoiding tackling the origins of human spirituality.

To be really earnest both in the emotional and intellectual sense is the key. I realized in my youth that in any fields of human activities, a work which inspires people and keep being read for a long time to eventually become a classic is one which the author has worked on in real earnest.

(Translated Excerpt from the original Japanese text of Ken Mogi's "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998). Translation by the author.)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Secular memories

Things that ever happened in my life remains as the connection pattern between neurons in my brain.
On the first day of my elementary school, I recall the sunbeam was reflected in a white impression on the long and straight road that lead to the school premises. On the very first class room meeting, I was at my desk with my newly found classmates, with my cheek on my hand, looking at nothing, absent-minded. Ms Arai, teacher of our class, took notice and remarked "are you now bored, my little one?"

Parents were requested to remain at school after the entrance ceremony on that day. My mother was at the back of the classroom, too, and laughed with the other parents. I brushed in shame.

There was a large sweet acorn tree near the front gate of the school. When I was in the second year, there was a "boom" of acorn eating among us. As we left the school in the after hours, we would compete to find good ones, and would eat them on the way, with the school satchels cozily on our backs. At break times, we would play "hand baseball", in which we used our hand as the hitting bat. I remember quite well that the balls were green.

Each remembrance constitutes a "page" in my life, a part of the richness of my humble personal history. All those memories are encoded as patterns of connectivity between neurons. There would be memories long forgotten, but secretly stored in the cortical network pattern. I might happen to remember them sometime, or would never recall them. In any case, when the physical presence of my brain disintegrates, the rich storage of memory of my life would be lost forever. Memories are integral constituents of my existence. The "self" critically depends on these memories. The removal of them would leave a "self" as a transparent "core", vibrating poignantly in the great nothingness of the universe.

In "In my life", the Beatles sing thus.

There are places I'll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all

These words are simple. It is as if a middle aged man is reflecting on his own life late at night, with a glass of whisky in his hand. Freed from the admittedly difficult assessment of what life means, he would recall past events in his life ; that was then, then was that.

The lyrics of "In my life" are elementary. It reflects the significant fact that an ordinary human being would reflect on his own mortal existence on this earth in such a manner. In the past, such ideas as god, heaven, hell, afterlife, and reincarnations have been regular features of the genre when one would ponder one's own life. These concepts would not find their places in the mannerisms of modern times. That the sentimental musings of an ordinary human being on his own life have become secular is one of the most important features of human spirituality today. For the modern human, how he actually lives in "this world" is all that there is, with nothing to be added or subtracted.

(Translated Excerpt from the original Japanese text of Ken Mogi's "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998). Translation by the author.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Meeting with Kim Peek

I had only the faintest idea, if any, what Salt Lake City was actually like. Naturally I remembered some fragmentary scenes from the 2002 winter Olympics. Beyond that, except for the faint connotation of the Mormon church and the self-evident indication of the existence of a "salt lake", most probably large, I did not have any premonitions of what to expect.

On 25th May 2008, I traveled from Tokyo to Salt Lake City, Utah, via San Francisco. As the airplane descended to make the final approach to the airport, I witnessed the vast expansion of water underneath. The geological variations manifested by the surrounding areas were fascinating to watch. I could see how the water, which presumably contained a high concentration of salt, merged itself with the land in an interesting gradation of colors. I looked on, and figured out that the tints and shades represented different conditions in the area such as shallow water, mud, or dry and flat earth. And these lands would of course be salty. Just like us organic life-forms, the mother earth itself was rich and heterogeneous, I thought, while my cheek was pushed against the airplane window.

It was already late afternoon when I found myself at the curb of the airport exit. As the car was driven towards the downtown, the most impressive element which entered my experience was the vision of mountains surrounding the plain which embraces the salt lake city area. The air was serene and cool, and I was already in a process of transfiguration from the busy streets of Tokyo, my native town.

The nightfall came soon enough. I went to the steak restaurant (Spencer's for Steaks and Chops) in the Hilton hotel. The waiter was friendly, and explained that they were famous for the quality of beefsteaks, notably the "cowboy cut", which he recommended. Why not, I said. Then he asked what brought me all the way to Salt Lake City. "I came to meet with Kim Peek", I said. "Do you know him, the renowned savant who inspired Barry Morrow to write the script for the movie Rain Man?" "Of course", the waiter answered. "Actually, Kim Peek comes to this restaurant from time to time with his father." "Oh, does he bring the Oscar with him?" "Yes", he said. "I hope you will have a good time with him!".

I really enjoyed the "cowboy cut" that the waiter brought to me. It seemed like a good omen. I was with the film crew of the Fuji television, one of the most popular key stations in Japan based in Tokyo. We were to make a program about Kim Peek and other notable savants of the contemporary time (Stephen Wiltshire of U.K. and David Helfgott of Australia). I was to meet with Kim Peek and Fran Peek, his father, and the crew was to film the event.

As a scientist, I hoped that I would be able to take a glimpse of what lies beyond the mind of this "stellar savant". My expectations were high. I had the intuition that meeting with Kim Peek would enrich me in domains not possible to be verbally expressed or documented easily in a scientific paper, and lead me to newly found venues of investigation, both intellectually and emotionally.

From the materials I studied beforehand I learned that Kim was 16 months old when Fran took him to be examined by a neurologist. The cold-hearted and (with the benefit of hindsight) careless verdict was to put Kim in an institution, and forget about him altogether. Fran did not comply with the advice. Fran took care of Kim, almost single-handedly, loved him, and encouraged him to develop his own unique talents. The result is one of the most remarkable brains known in human history. Uniqueness is probably a given, but it takes (an unconditional) love to nurture it.

The next day was spent preparing for the meeting and shooting some background scenes. We drove to the copper mining site, where they have dug a very large hole in search of valuable metals. We then went down to the shores of the salt lake, which actually looked like an ocean. Legend has it that the Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young, upon arriving at the lake shore, thought that they have reached the pacific ocean and decided to settle down. (It is one of the blessings of the land of America that you are close to untouched nature no matter where you are.)

In the evening we came back to downtown again. The film crew thought it would be a good idea for me to ride on the horse drawn carriage. I sat next to the lady who held the reins. When the lady asked me what bought me to Salt Lake City, I mentioned the name of Kim Peek. Her face brightened instantly. "Oh, I know him!" she said. "Kim Peek once came to my daughter's school to give a talk. He came with his father. After the talk, we chatted for a while". "Did he bring the Oscar?" "Sure he did. He was a very interesting person."

Thus, people in the City seemed to know Kim Peek well. I could feel that the footprints of Kim Peek was everywhere in Salt Lake City. It was as if the encountering process had already begun even before the great day dawned on me.

Finally, the day came. It was early morning, and we started in the direction of Kim's house. I was told beforehand that he was living in a nice neighborhood. The sky was clear, and refreshing air was blowing against my face through the open window. The car meandered off a busy street and eventually found itself parked amidst the tranquility of suburban greens.

The crew told me which house I should walk to. I took to the path, approached the designated address, and knocked on the door. Almost immediately I heard a faint sound from inside. Some moments later, a gentleman was looking out of the door, which I recognized as Fran Peek. "Hello" I said. "Hello" Fran said. Then Fran called in a gentle voice to somebody inside the house.

A few seconds passed, and I could hear the footsteps of another person from within. There appeared Kim Peek himself. I was not sure what to expect from our very first encounter. There was no hesitation on the part of Kim, however. He walked straight up to me, grabbed my shoulders, and held my body very closely to his. Then he moved his face close to mine, and said in a whispering voice. "You have made yourself a great man. People admire you for what you have done in your own field."

That was the very first sentence that Kim spoke. I was to listen to remarks of essentially the same nature from Kim in the following hours on that day that we spent together, either directed to me or others in the crew. Holding somebody very close to himself and whispering assuring remarks was clearly Kim's favorite way of greeting people. I was to appreciate the profound social significance of Kim's mannerisms.

We took some time to look at the living room, which was under refurbishment at the time of our visit. There were several interesting items. One of them was a large trophy, which, Fran explained to us, was for an award only two persons received thus far, namely and Kim Peek and Christopher Reeves, for overcoming one's difficulties. There was also a drawing of Kim Peek done by one of the famous savant artists living in the United States.

It was time to go outside. I walked slowly admiring the beautiful day alongside Fran and Kim towards an open green field nearby. We found a bench and sat. The sun sprinkled the beam over us. Soon the conversation started. Or rather, time passed by as Kim spontaneously spoke of various themes that came to his mind, with Fran helping us by adding explanatory remarks to what Kim said.

It was fascinating to witness the dynamo behind Kim's mind. Kim seemed to make associations almost at random, or it so seemed to an innocent onlooker. However, it gradually became evident to me that there was a solid structure of association behind what Kim had to say, whether it was about current affairs, some people that Kim and Fran used to know, or detailed facts of history ranging from British monarchy, baseball, and the great wars.

During our conversation, Kim did not sit still. He would stand up out of the blue and would walk around, endlessly muttering to himself. Kim would occasionally come up to me, would push my arms in a guiding manner downwards so that they would hang straight. Then he would hold my upper arms tight with his hands and whisper the ego-reassuring words again.

Fran was Kim's careful and caring partner. Fran would gently say "Kim, why don't you come back to the bench so that they can film while you are talking to Ken." Kim would follow his father's words, but would start walking around again in a few minutes.

It was a revelation to me that Kim's awesome memory power was not limited to the "public domain", in which people can verify the accuracy of Kim's memory by independent means. Kim's intellectual energy did not make a distinction between those knowledge pertaining to personal matters from those belonging to the wider world. Kim would make remarks about people who were living nearby, who have moved, married, died, had memorable incidents, or said something interesting to Kim and Fran.

"Wasn't it so, dad?" "Didn't he, dad?" "Didn't they, dad?" Kim would ask Fran after saying something about the past,
and Fran would say "yes", nodding in a very assuring manner. "You see, Kim would never say anything he doesn't actually know" Fran said, during one of these occasions when Kim stood up and wandered away from the bench, where Fran and I were sitting. "He would never tell a lie. Everything he says is true. There are times when what he says is so complicated and detailed that I do not know what he is talking about. On other times it is difficult to follow the associations that he makes. However, when it is possible to verify what he says, it becomes clear that Kim is 100 percent correct."

The film crew wanted to have a solid evidence of Kim's extraordinary abilities in a manner that viewers in Japan could understand. Accordingly, I mentioned my birth date, 20th October 1962. Literally without a delay, Kim said "Saturday". It was true. Then I read out the birth dates of some of the people who would appear on the program when the shot film is edited and broadcast. Kim correctly answered the days of the week for all of them, each time without any noticeable interval between my questioning and his answer.

It is known that Kim is born with a uniquely configured brain. He lacks the corpus callosum entirely, so that his left and right brains are more or less "independent" from each other, without the usual flow of information which binds the two hemispheres together in normal subjects. Although it is not the case that the agenesis of corpus callosum always results in a prodigious memory, it is certainly the case that Kim's special abilities developed under this special condition. The story of Kim's life is a manifestation of the value of neurodiversity, a philosophy which would endow the individualities of various brain conditions special and unique values free from the monotonous and often discriminatory systems of evaluation such as I.Q.

Even with a prior knowledge of Kim's condition, the demonstration of his unique abilities were so astonishing that it shook the very foundations of my belief system of what constitutes a human being. The sense of awe that we feel in the presence of a person like Kim derives itself from our admiration of a higher intelligence. The universe is constructed in such a wonderful manner that the numerical bookkeeping is conducted at a level of depth and detail unimaginable for a mortal human, no matter how gifted he or she may be within the scale of the human race. No matter whether one believes in God (traditional or unconventional), or is an atheist or an agnostic, if one is blessed with a power of reason to comprehend the makeup of the universe as modern science has revealed and continues to clarify, one cannot avoid being awe-struck at the magnificence of the design of the universe, whoever might have been responsible for its genesis. The manifestation of a super intelligence clearly has a divine connotation for us. When one witnesses a person like Kim Peek, a feeling of reverence surges from within.

After having a quite interesting conversation on the bench for a few hours, we drove to Kim and Fran's favorite restaurant nearby, Anna's Cafe. There we had an intimate time. It was heartwarming to see how Fran helped with cutting the food into small pieces so that Kim could easily eat them. The condition of agenesis of the corpus callosum resulted in Kim being unable to conduct basic motor tasks necessary in everyday life. As a consequence, Fran has to help Kim with most of his daily chores, brushing his teeth, taking the shower, undress and dress, etc. The flowering of Kim's special talent was not possible without Fran's devotion and affection.

Fran brought the Oscar to Anna's cafe. When a waitress or a customer approached, Fran would ask quite friendlily "Have you ever held an Oscar?" People would invariably say "No", and were delighted to hold the evidence of Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay presented to Barry Morrow. Barry kindly gave the Oscar to Kim to take it around and show to people. Consequently, it has since become the Oscar held by the most number of people.

The Oscar is an ice-breaker, as well as an instantly effective explanation of Kim's uniqueness. The film Rain Man made the life easier for Kim and for many people with savant syndrome, as people from the street came to know the existence of such uniquely gifted individuals as depicted so wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman in that film.

It was moving to observe how demonstrating such feats as telling the day of the week of a person's birth date has become a mode of communication for Kim Peek. Many people with savant abilities are also autistic, although savants are not limited to people with autism. Kim Peek does not belong to the autistic spectrum by diagnosis, and is quite sociable and eager to associate with people. However, Kim apparently has a difficulty in understanding other people's mind, making communication in a conventional manner awkward.

It was a great discovery on the part of Kim that he could make people pleasantly surprised and engaged by displaying his memory power. With the unfailing support of Fran, it was now possible for Kim to establish a mutually rewarding relationship with other people, even when they were perfect strangers.

The fact that Kim was able to compensate for his difficulties in reading other people's mind with his tremendous memory power, often associated with the very failure of cognitive abilities related to the so called theory of mind, set me thinking a lot, and for a long time. What an ingenious way to get around one's inabilities! Kim's almost compulsive manner of greeting, namely the tight grasping of both arms and the whispering of assuring words at a very close distance, also seemed to be an effort to overcome communication difficulties. Kim would like to associate with people somehow, although not in a manner conventionally accepted by the society. Savant-like memory is not usually classified as a manifestation of social abilities. It is rather considered to be an antithesis of of what is social. The "double roles" played by Kim's savant abilities in the context of social relationships are both humanely moving and intellectually revealing. And Kim's life story keeps going in interesting directions, a continued journey in a world yet unknown to humans.

Leaving Anna's cafe, we headed for the Salt Lake City public library, where Kim would spend hours reading books. It is said that Kim is able to read two separate pages with his left and right eye at the same time, remembering virtually everything written therein. A Scientific American article ("Inside the mind of a savant") published in 2005 reports Kim's tremendous ability thus: "Kim began memorizing books at the age of 18 months, as they were read to him. He has learned 9,000 books by heart so far. He reads a page in eight to 10 seconds and places the memorized book upside down on the shelf to signify that it is now on his mental hard drive."

As soon as we arrived at the library, Kim disappeared with one of the crews. After a while, Kim came back. We went up to the fourth floor with him. Once out of the lift, Kim started to walk through the shelf, appearing as if he was looking for something interesting.

It became eventually apparent, however, that Kim had a clear mind of what he wanted to show us from the beginning all along. Kim took us to where the phonebooks were. Kim mentioned a relative's name, who married with somebody several years ago. Kim apparently wanted to confirm the address of the aforementioned relative. He went straight to a location in the bookshelf, and, taking a particular phonebook, opened a specific page straight away, without any signs of hesitation, behaving in every respect as if he knew the wanted information was on that particular page.

That was the last manifestation of Kim's incredible ability on that day. By that time, I was accustomed to Kim's idiosyncratic modes of behavior. I was not surprised when Kim continued to come up to me and hold my arms tight, whispering the same sort of magic words of assurance, looking into my eyes from very close, occasionally bursting with breath, always friendly, constantly in motion, driven by an invisible dynamo from within.

I could see that taking care of Kim was a very tough job for Fran. Fran's unfailing support for all those years is a wonderful story of love and understanding. I could appreciate, although only partially, one of the reasons why Fran had been able to go through all these hardships. Kim had such a charming personality. It could be even said that one was addicted to Kim's manners. Kim's countenance would suddenly change without any warning, expressing an apparent agitation within. The volcanic eruptions of awesome memory power, the dynamic movements of body, the willingness to share his talents with the passers by, the gleam in his eyes, the whispered reassurances, empathy, all these things together made "the Kim Peek experience" deeply rewarding and transforming.

It was finally the time to say good bye to Kim and Fran, two extraordinary individuals I learned to like, respect, care for, and even love during such a short time. The crew took the photo of us three standing in front of the library, with Fran holding the famous Oscar.

As the photographer was ready to take a snap, Kim yawned, in a big and slow movement, as if to gulp down everything to be known, to be felt, and to be witnessed in the cosmos.

Ken Mogi, Kim Peek, and Fran Peek

Kim is an honor for all of us. An inspiration, an enigma. I still cherish the image of Kim looking like a lion king. No matter where I am, I will always look for the savannah in which Kim's spirit roams and reigns. We would be able to breath more freely once we find the promised land.

(The meeting took place on the 27th April 2008. The Fuji television program will be broadcast in July 2008. My whole-hearted thanks to Kim and Fran Peek for their kind hospitality.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

The annunciation

I was in Kobe, delivered a lecture at an academic conference. After the sessions, I found myself near the Rokko mountains. The spring was finally in the air. I was admiring the gentle variation of natural tints and shades of the forest that covered the rocky slopes, painted on the phenomenology of my mind by the nature's everlasting process of life.
Subconsciously, I think I was pondering the origin of human creativity, a subject of my recent investigations. Suddenly, I realized a beautiful metaphor for the conception of a new idea.

The annunciation.

When a new idea visits us, the archangel Gabriel kneels before us, telling us that a new idea has been conceived. The idea does not stand still. Once conceived, it keeps growing, matures, until finally a fruit is borne.
Life is a vast ocean of change in which the annunciation might visit us at any moment. The miracle is to be found in the most subtle symptoms. We thus breathe on earth forever enthralled.

The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The natural history of contingency

The natural history of contingency
by Ken Mogi

One of the deepest joys in life is to understand more fully the world in which we find ourselves, as the days unfold.
The objective knowledge of how the universe is constructed is very much related to the subjective working wisdom of daily life. The academic and the worldly are interrelated. Without a background of wisdom accumulated over the many years by scholars and thinkers, we cannot hope ever to enrich our individual lives. Without jumping into the ocean of life in which the unknowns await, we cannot aspire to accomplish anything substantial in our academic endeavors. A system of knowledge which would ultimately encompass the whole universe starts from the very private experience of this small "I". The microcosmos resonates with the macrocosmos. In that realm, the traditional wisdom of "tao" itself would be gradually fused into the grand ensemble of wisdom, western, eastern or otherwise. At this meeting point of the knowledge of the world and the knowledge of life lies the human brain.
What is deeply moving in the novel "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes is the process in which Charlie Gordon gradually comes to an understanding of what have been happening to him once a successful operation endows him with an improved intelligence. Various scenes from his life would flash back, as Charlie starts to comprehend how other people have been feeling, regaining his own emotions. Through this "rite of passage" does Charlie finally come to a reconciliation with his own past. Charlie, in a sense, lives his life all over again.

(This is the author's own translation of the opening sentences from the essay "The natural history of contingency" ("Guuyu sei no shizenshi") which originally appeared in Japanese in the quarterly magazine "Kangaeru Hito" (The Thinking Man) published by Shinchosha . The "Natural history of contingency" essay series will be carried in Kangaeru Hito over the next two years.

Monday, January 21, 2008


A few days ago I caught a cold. Walking around in a T-shirt was not such a good idea. They say the cold affects your stomach this year. (When you think about it, they say so every year, actually.) On the morning after I found that I lost my appetite, and could not bring myself to eat breakfast.

I expected a full working day ahead, and had to eat something. On the table I found a banana. I took a nibble, and felt that I could eat on. In less than a minute, I finished the whole thing.

Thanks to the banana, I could carry the weight of my life that day. Now the cold is gone.

Aren't the bananas wonderful. They used to belong to the luxury food category in the postwar Japan. They were like jewels. The sight of bananas would make people filled with yearning and envy. Now they are sold very cheap. A child doesn't take much interest in the bananas. I don't, either, usually. But the fact remains that the bananas are wonderful.

I once heard it said that people react to beautiful things even when they are deeply depressed. Bananas must be to the stomach as beauty is to the brain.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sushi doesn't travel.

One of the good things living in Tokyo brings into life is the experience at fine sushi restaurants. Sushi might have transformed itself into one of the more fashionable food items in various parts of the world, becoming part of the staple diet first for the connoisseurs, and then for the general populace. Dan Ruderman, one of my former colleagues at the Horace Barlow laboratory in Cambridge U.K., used to boast that the best sushi in the world was to be found in California.

However, the essence of the best of sushi does not travel well. That remains surprisingly true in today's globalized world. In a sense, the heart of sushi has not moved even an inch. To enjoy the authenticity, simple purity, and get immersed in the sensual bliss, you simply have to travel to Tokyo. Needless to say, you have to know where to visit. In addition you need to know certain unspoken rules, what to appreciate, and observe the essential customs to make the miracle happen.

A proper "sushiya" is not even a "restaurant" in the western sense. For a starter, in many established places there is no menu or price lists. You simply sit down at the counter, and the culinary ritual starts without the nuisance of an order. In an "omakase", the "oyaji" (chef) of the sushiya would set before you various nigiri sushis, one after one, with a minimalist explanation of what they are.

Various specimen of "neta" (fish to be taken care of through miscellaneous tradition honored steps and then artfully sliced to finally become the toppings on rice) have been purchased in the market with the greatest care imaginable. It is an art of procurement requiring many years of training to master. For example, in order to secure the best maguro (tuna) which is arguably the king of sushi neta, a working knowledge encompassing a wide range of sushi phenomenology is necessary: The pros and cons of various fishing methods (angling, trolling, trawling) in affecting the final quality of meat, the seasonal changes of availability in various parts of the ocean around Japan and the rest of the world, the strength and weakness of each fish port, the anatomy of the fish body ("akami", "chutoro", "otoro", and other rarely encountered parts). On top of all that, the chef must have the skill to prepare the culinary jewels from the sea to obtain the best results.

It is the whole culture of sushi in its dedication to the finest details of procuring and preparing the neta that is so hard to travel. As the result of the mutually nurturing relationship between the oyaji and the customers over many years, the atmosphere in a excellent sushiya approaches that of a monastery, a similarity in contraction where the incessant pursuit of sensual pleasure ultimately culminates in a stoic and almost forbidding ritual of spiritual endeavor.

In sushi restaurants in California or New York, one may be able to enjoy good nigiri sushis and brand new rolls (accompanied by avocado or otherwise). but the serene air of the best Tokyo sushiya has simply not arrived. The difficulties involved are similar to the ones encountered when trying to remake Kurosawa in a western context. Like the swift and glittering swordwork of a master samurai, the core of sushi does not travel.

(Sukiyabashi Jiro, which recently received three stars in the Michelin Guides, making Mr. Jiro Ono the world's oldest three-star chef at 82 years, is one of the most honored sushiyas in Tokyo)

Friday, January 04, 2008

The brotherhood of the living and the non-living

During the new year holidays, I had a chance to glance at some of the old photos at my parents' house. The old times certainly existed, but are sometimes difficult to hold vividly in one's memory. When these times were "here and now", I certainly breathed and reveled in the unmistakable qualities of the passage of time. I could not escape from it. Moments of my life flourished and then perished, never to return or to be regained. There were people around. My parents were once at my own present age or even younger.

In the long history of humanity that have now fatally passed, countless people have wondered why it is that all living things are destined to die. This particular enigma originates from the more general and arguably greater puzzle of the passage of time. The mystery of life is a part of that of temporality.

There was a time when the earth found itself in its infancy, still hot and sometimes violently erupting. That time is now gone. Once there was a collision between the earth and a meteorite with a diameter of a few kilometers, making dinosaurs and other species on earth extinct. As "here and now", these periods had the same encapsulating and inescapable qualities for the contemporary dwellers, whether actual or hypothetical, conscious or unconscious, living or non-living.

Mortality is not unique to life. It is an unavoidable consequence of the flow of time. Time itself is mortal. Mortality is the consequence of, and the prerequisite for, any changes that befall this world. Pondering the nature of time opens one's eyes to the hidden agenda of the universe: The brotherhood of the living and the non-living. Thus we learn to embrace all materials in the world as sharers of a common fate.

Myself at five years old in the kindergarden album.
These times are now irreparably gone.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Conversation with Kanzaburo

I was invited to sit as one of the guest judges at the 58th Red & White Year-end Song Festival
hosted by NHK, performed live and broadcast on the new year's eve (19:20 to 23:45 JST, 31st December 2007). It is considered as one of the greatest honors for Japanese singers to be selected to sing in this once-a-year festival. 10 people were invited to be the guest judges this year.

One of my co-judges was the great Kabuki actor Kanzaburo Nakamura. Kanzaburo is known for his superb acting, as well as for planning and executing ambitious stage projects such as the commercially successful and critically acclaimed performance of Kabuki pieces in New York in 1977. Kanzaburo plans to tour in Berlin in 2008.

I exchanged short but vivid words with Kanzaburo during the preparations and curtains. One of Kazaburo's well-known roles is "Gonta" in the play "Sushiya". Gonta, a notorious criminal on the surface, is revealed to be a sincere follower of his forlorn master. The fact that Gonta is committed to the great cause is only revealed at the time of his imminent death, caused by a stab from his father infuriated by the apparent vice. It is too late for the poor fellow when the stabbing was discovered to be unjustified, and the confessions of the convert that follows is played so movingly and convincingly by Kanzaburo.

During the conversation, Kanzaburo mentioned that he would like to perform Gonta in front of the inmates at a Japanese prison.
"Do you think it is possible?"
Kanzaburo whispered in a eager tone.
"I think to perform Kanzaburo's vice together with his hidden sincere heart in front of the prisoners would be great. But I doubt if the officials would allow it."

As is well known, Kabuki initiated from the dance drama performed by Okuni at the beginning of the 17th century. When the Tokugawa government forbade female actors from stage, the Kabuki players invented Onnagata, where male actors play the role of women. Since then, Kabuki was never in line with the prescribed norms preached by the powers that be, choosing to go along with truths of human nature rather than the officially approved moral institutions of the times. In Kanzaburo I witness the finest example and embodiment of this living tradition.

The pinnacle of our conversation was when Kanzaburo mentioned out of the blue that Kabuki actors used to visit psychiatric hospitals to study the behavior of patients, so that they could refine the performance of mentally distracted roles. These days, however, such a visit is difficult to realize, as people are oversensitive about being politically correct. Needless to say, it is important to be politically correct in the modern life. The wide dynamic range of the "dramaturgie" of Kabuki, however, originates from elsewhere.

The Great Kanzaburo Nakamura the XVIII th. (1955-)