Saturday, September 26, 2009

At the Imperial Hotel

I gave a talk at the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo. The hotel is preparing itself for its 120th anniversary. I was invited to speak on serendipity, which has been chosen as the ethos word for the special occasion by the president of the hotel, Mr. Tetsuya Kobayashi. After the talk, I had a lively dialogue with Mr. Kobayashi on the nature of making most of the chance meetings we have during the course of our life.

Mr. Kenichiro Tanaka, the chief chef of the hotel, prepared a special dinner for us. Mr. Tanaka has been a guest on The Professionals program that I host, so that I am familiar with his warm ways of communicating with people. It was a pleasant evening.

The Imperial Hotel is a national institution. Initially organized as a Western style hotel to welcome foreigners to Tokyo after the opening of the country to the outside world after the Meiji Restoration, it represents the finest in the tradition of deep-running hospitality. Although on the surface it is very western, in spirit the finesse remains uniquely Japanese.

This particular blog is in part an experimentation on expressing the world view and sensitivities of someone who was born and brought up in Tokyo, in the lingua franca that is English. In a sense, I feel the Imperial Hotel is trying to do the same thing.

At the Imperial Hotel main entrance. With president of the hotel Mr. Tetsuya Kobayashi and the chief chef Mr. Kenichiro Tanaka.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The brat element

I think I was a dirty brat. During the elementary school days, I used to take a bath with a book in my hand. Often, I did not wash at all, and would get out of the bath where the only difference was that I have progressed with the reading of the book by several pages. My mother used to accuse me of "a crow's bathing", after a popular expression in Japan referring to a bath taking without the cleansing elements.

As a result, my hair would often get oily, as if a natural additive was applied to the head shrub. I was literally an oily boy.
Nowadays, I take shower and wash my hair every morning. And yet, I do not distinguish between soap and shampoo. Most often, I wash my hair with a bar of soap. The brat element has not left me.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dinner party

I was invited to a dinner party in honor of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, at the British Embassy in Tokyo.

I was introduced to the Archbishop by the British Ambassador to Japan, Mr. David Warren. Mr. Warren is a warm man with a robustness of quick wit and sound judgments. It was a great pleasure to accept Mr. Warren's kind invitation to this special dinner.

Dr. Williams was educated at Cambridge and Oxford, and is known for his liberal views on the role of the Anglican Church. He is an poet in its own right. Before the dinner, some of his poems were set to beautiful music by members of British Embassy choir.

At dinner, I sat next to The Bishop of Leicester, The Rt Revd Timothy Stevens. I had a lively conversation with Tim.

During the conversation, something struck me.

I said to Tim, "you know, something just struck me" "What is it?" "Well, it just occurred to me that in English culture, at a dinner table like this, people carry on talking as if the food on the table does not matter." "Yes, it is probably very much true." "My mentor was Prof. Horace Barlow at Trinity college, Cambridge, and I sometimes had dinner there. I remember well how people appeared not to pay any attention to the dishes on the table, which were actually excellent. Why is it?" "Well, as an English person, I probably don't realize the reasons for the particulars of my own culture. Probably the English people do not think what you eat is very important in your life."

After the dinner, during the port, I was discussing the London Underground, and a question arose. Mr. Jason James, Director of the British Council and the Cultural Counsellor at the British Embassy, told me he would send an e-mail later on why the underground card is called "Oyster".

Here's the e-mail from Jason.

Subject: World is your oyster
From: Jason James
To: kenmogi

According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the expression "the world is his oyster" means 'the world is the place from which he can extract success and profit, as a pearl can be extracted from an oyster.'

A quote from Shakespeare is given:

Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny.
Pistol: Why, then the world's mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open.

(Merry Wives of Windsor, II, ii (1600))

These days, it just means "You have complete freedom to do whatever you want.' It is usually used with reference to people's career prospects - e.g. we might say that if someone gets into Tokyo University "the world is his/her oyster."

Best regards,

Jason James

On the way back on the taxi, I received a phone call from the Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo, who has just returned from a successful performance in Monaco. Ebizo is going to Hakata this weekend for his performance there in October. I commented how super his Roppo action was during his performance of Ishikawa Goemon with his father Ichikawa Danjuro.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A good gardener

The brain is able to adjust its functions according to the particular context in which the subject is expected to do well. For example, cramming for the entrance examination is a context. Common sense tells us that those who do well in the cramming context do not necessary perform excellently in the general arena of life. It is simply because the contexts are different.

The orbitofrontal cortex, together with other related circuits in the brain, is responsible for the fine tuning of the coordination of brain's various circuits so that it functions properly in the context given.

It is one thing to do well in the particular context that one confronts at a particular time. It is another to choose the context in which one is supposed to perform, with minute care and unlimited imagination.

Many people, as life progresses, falls into a particular pattern of context, and learn to do well in it, but fails to have a metacognition of the context itself.

Choosing the context is an art of cultivating the vegetation that is the self, which can grow only slowly and by daily customs. One must be a good gardener in the "plantation" of the brain, making decisions on the context setting with wisdom.

The orbitofrontal cortex (from Wikipedia)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The magical transformation

Yesterday, there was a shooting for the "Untitled Concert" (Daimeino nai Ongakukai) program conducted and introduced by Yutaka Sado. The Untitled Concert program is broadcast by TV Asahi weekly. The venue was Opera City, in the metropolitan Shinjuku district.

The theme was the music of Antonín Dvořák.

I appeared as a guest, and had conversations with Yutaka Sado, accompanied by the master of ceremony Ms. Naoko Kubota.
Yutaka Sado is an extraordinary man.

A conductor, by the very nature of his job, remains silent. He is, in a sense, deprived of speech. The only way to express himself is through the baton, and the orchestra does the actual physical expression for him. Because of the deprivation of voice, the conductor becomes passionate. The volcanic fire comes from the non-existence of speech.

Therefore, it is an unusual and difficult job to alternate between being a speaking person on one hand, with all the friendliness that one can command, to reach the general audience, and being speechless on the other, putting all one's existential weight on the baton.

Yutaka Sado does exactly that. Now he is talking expressively about the charm of Dvořák. The next moment he is conducting, with the baton as his only way of expression. Yutaka is speechless, while the orchestra plays heavenly music. The magical transformation has been accomplished.

With Yutaka Sado and Naoko Kubota on the stage from an earlier broadcast.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Vulnerable for change

Being assertive is important in life. Without putting forward one's values and opinions in an explicit way, nothing changes in the tranquility of the universe. On the other hand, I think it is equally important to be a skeptic, being doubtful of one's own view.

From time to time, I encounter people who are quite positive about what they think and feel. When there isn't an accompanying element of self doubt, I feel a bit strange. I get suffocated even, having the sensation of being driven up against the wall. It is actually those people who are cornering themselves towards dead ends.

By being doubtful of the self, one opens the door for learning and growth. Looking back on my own past, I realize that I have never been completely sure of what I held to be my own opinion. There was always a remnant fluctuation, a vibrating center of the self swayed to and fro by the invisible wind.

I am very proud of my vulnerable nature. Being vulnerable for change is the only way of life.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

When I was around 10 to 15 years old, I really loved the musicals. As I recall, the film that kick-started the whole thing was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which was shown in a local film theater when I was 10.

When you think about it, the way some memories are associated with a particular period of life is strange. I vividly recall that I was exactly a 5th grader when I saw the film in the darkness of my favorite film theater.

As one gets older, memories are not so well designated to a specific period. For example, it is sometimes difficult to temporally pin down the initial viewing of some memorable films (e.g. Solaris, El Sur, L'Albero degli zoccoli) that I encountered in my 20s. The childhood days are marked by vivid and colorful progressions of time. As one passes adolescence, the segmentation of time becomes less clear.

Back to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There were some features of the film that captured my imagination. For example, the contraptions that the mad inventor father (played by Dick van Dyke) builds in the film fascinated me. One of them cooked an egg and made a sandwich at the breakfast table, with some disastrous results.

There were some lovely tunes, like "Doll on a Music Box", where Truly Scrumptious (played by Sally Ann Howes), pretending to be a mechanically constructed doll, dances on a music box, ostensibly presented as a special gift to the tyrant Baron Bomburst.

There is a clip of this beautiful scene on youtube.

Looking back, the whole film is lovely, as in it the adults endeavor to entertain the children and children-at-hearts very seriously.

A scene from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.