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.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Visually stunning drama

I went to the Kabuki-za theater in the central district of Ginza, Tokyo with my editor Ms. Yoko Oba, and Ms. Ayako Taniyama, who illustrates my essays on history in the Mainichi Weekly magazine.

One of the acts was Kanjincho. Although I have seen it many times, each time the experience is knew. A lot of discoveries are made, as is the testimony of any great classics.

This time, I was drawn to the visually stunning dramatic structure, in which the protagonists struggle, negotiate, get infuriated, and finally arrive at a humane and moving solution. It is as if a symphony is played out in front of your eyes using the bodies of actors, who are made up in exaggerated contrasts and dressed in conspicuous attire. The score is written in the implicit traditions of bodily language which have been handed down through the generations for hundreds of years.

The actors remain constrained in their bodies, and yet their expressive powers transcend time and space.

It was one of these moments when one realizes the bliss of a life in Tokyo. I simply love Kabuki.

The theatrical treat was followed by a culinary one in the Sushi restaurant Tsukasa, where the finest specimen of Maguro are procured and served through the eyes of Mr. Hiroki Fujita.

Visually stunning drama. A scene from Kanjincho.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A diligent boy

From time to time I wonder: If I lived this time as a small school boy, what would I have done? How would I have felt about the goings on the world, how would I regard the people around me? How would I breathe in the air which is the beginning of the 21st century?

Occasionally, I encounter kids who remind me of my own youthful days. I observe them with great interest and empathy at these times, as they appear to be the echoes of my emotional and intellectual life of the past.

While vacationing in Taketomi island last extended weekend, I glanced upon a boy by chance. He was reading a book while strolling the venerable street of Taketomi, flanked by age old coral walls. The boy was deeply absorbed in his reading. From time to time, he would raise his eyes, and watch us strangers from a big city afar.

What kind of mental life is he nurturing, I wondered. How would it feel to be born and grow on this lovely island of a population of 342, with just 172 households, where everybody presumably knew everybody else?

How would he absorb the flying clouds in the sky? Would he be astonished by the great fruit-eating bats flying in the darkness of night? Would he pick up the seashells on the shore? Would he accumulate knowledge about the beautiful butterflies that inhabit Taketomi? Would he dream of going to the big cities, to attend places of higher education?

It was not likely that my life and his life would cross again in any significant way. However, that afternoon, on the coral island of Taketomi, my life resonated with the life of a diligent boy, leaving a bittersweet aftertaste.

I wish all the best in life for the little soul.

The diligent boy on Taketomi Island

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A swarm of bacteria

The speed of the evolution of bacteria is rapid, as it multiples very rapidly, with corresponding changes of generation. It is natural that species of bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics within a short period, given the rapidity of its multiplication.

Humans, on the other hand, cannot reproduce so rapidly. The human evolution has taken another strategy.

Human evolution is characterized by sustainability, supported by the longevity of individuals. Although the "self" maintains its identity over decades, the elements that compose the self multiply and perish within a very short period.

Humans, in a sense, is a "habitat" in itself, in which the evolution of constituent entities occurs. Humans evolve most efficiently when behaving like a swarm of bacteria.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Butterfly road

Breathing in the air on the subtropical Tametomi Island, old memories came back to me.

In February 2001, I traveled to Taketomi Island with some of my best friends. Notably, Yukio-Pegio Gunji was there.
On the first afternoon, we rented a bicycle and pedaled towards the beach. There was a small path, with weeds growing from both sides. As we sped through the vegetations, butterflies flew out of the shrubs and encircled us. Their wings deformed and changed positions in the air, like flower petals dancing in the wind.

It was a beautiful and yet fundamentally comical scene. We felt as if we were in a classic film. Some scholars and students dedicated to the research of complex systems riding the bike on a small island, with butterflies celebrating our efforts. The vision was striking and poignant. It stays with me to this day.

On this particular visit to the island, we made it to the butterfly road again. I found the path to be a little bit wider than in memory, perhaps due to an expansion work that has been done. Due to the seasons or other elements, there were less butterflies in the air, so I missed the replay of the movie scene with Yukio-Pegio Gunji.

The butterfly road revisited.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

We somehow coped

I love the night breeze on a southern island. As we finished our dinner and gently walked home through the narrow paths, I looked up at the sky. There were stars. The milky way was clearly visible. Before knowing it, almost unconsciously, I was searching for the giant fruit-eating bats, which are characteristic of the subtropical islands around Okinawa.

I could not find one. Mrs. Maki, owner of the restaurant Maki, our favorite hanging-out place on the island of Taketomi, told us that there were less fruit-eating bats now, especially after the unusually strong typhoon that hit the island last summer. "Before that", she said, "the bats were flying over that tree beyond the house".

Without the blessing of the bats, we somehow coped. The night was as dark as it used to be, without the air-bound creatures which used to enliven the blackness enshrining our existence.

Every cloud has a silver lining. The magic of the sunshine on Taketomi island

Monday, September 14, 2009


Sunday came, and I traveled to the southern Island of Taketomi, one of the Ryukyu Islands. The district is called Okinawa, after the biggest of the Ryuku Island of the same name.

When I travel southbound, I go through a remarkable process of transformation. It is especially true in the case of Okinawa.

The moment I get off the plane, the process starts. I am in a mood to take off my belongings from civilization, e.g. the watch and socks. The tendency gets stronger as I travel further from the airport, cross the ocean on a boat to arrive at a small island, like the Taketomi island.

I prefer not to take any job to an southern island, as I would like to relax without caring about what I have to do. However, sometimes I am obliged to take some assignments, as in this particular trip. This morning, while my students were visiting the Utaki (sacred places in Okinawa Style), I was busy typing my manuscript on a desk in the gardens of the Minshuku we are staying.

As I worked very diligently, I could finish my job before noon. I spent the afternoon taking in the sunshine and the wind in a westward-looking beach.

The sunset in Taketomi Island

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Chicago rain

This Saturday in Tokyo was characterized by occasional rainfalls, which became quite strong from time to time, verging on being a pouring rain. As I move around in cars, I did not have to use an umbrella. I do not mind the rain so much when I do not have to cover the space above my head with the nuisance of an umbrella. I hate separating myself from mother nature.

I love to listen to the rainfall in the safe haven of the indoors. It is simply scrumptious to read a favorite book on the sofa, while occasionally paying attention to the rhythmical sound of the raindrops.

As I recall. there was a particularly memorable rainfall in Chicago. I was 22, and was attending the 38th Japan America Students Conference. As the schedule on that fateful day was to meet with some important people, we had our best suits on. The day started with a bright sunshine, so we did not expect anything nasty to happen weatherwise. An American participant told me how there were flats in the skyscrapers in Chicago. The residents living in the upper floors are "above the cloud level", so that they sometimes have to ask a friend on the "earth level" how the weather was down below. The story amused me. There was apparently no need to worry about the weather on that day.

I was mistaken. We were all wrong. Suddenly, a black cloud gathered in the sky. Literally in minutes, the rain started to fall with a vengeance. We were in the middle of an open space, and there was simply nowhere to hide ourselves. Needless to say, nobody had an umbrella. We became soaking wet.

As abruptly as it started, the rain stopped without warning. The sun came back, and we were soon basking in the sunshine, while the water dripped from our noses and sleeves.

Alex began to laugh, with the characteristic, whole-hearted laughter that was Alex. I began to laugh, too. There was something amusing and refreshing in that savage exposure to the wild weather of Chicago. It was as if we were embraced and kissed by mother nature herself.

The experience was divine, and I remember it vividly to this day. The Chicago rain is one of my favorite wet memories.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Professor Higgins

I was 10 or so when I first saw My Fair Lady (film). I was immediately fascinated by the whole ambience. At that time, video recorders and video tapes were not widely available. So I bought the sound tracks in the LP format and listened to them. It was my first lessons in the English language.

The character of Professor Higgins, played by Rex Harrison, captured my imagination from the beginning. I do not know what was so significant. His manner of getting to the point with the speed of lightening, his devotion to the study of speech, the accompanying and inevitable dropping of all considerations of material and domestic needs, was an inspiration.

When I traveled to U.K. and had a chance to have interactions with the English academics, I found that the Higgins type is not rare. Higgins are everywhere. They have their peculiarities, quick wits. The eyes are cast at nowhere, their minds apparently occupied by unearthly things.

The speech and actions of Professor Higgins is a music in itself. It was so beautifully portrayed by the late Rex Harrison that the world owes a heritage to him. I, for one, owe a youthful inspiration which probably helped my scooting towards the fanciful worlds of intelligent endeavors.

Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison) offering chocolates to Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn).

Friday, September 11, 2009

Not an easy place to live

I knew that Glenn Gould, my favorite pianist, used to like reading Kusamakura (Grass Pillow) of Soseki Natsume. Naturally, I have read the original Japanese version (many times), but have never ventured to tackle an English translation.

For some reasons, Kusamagura has been hanging on the verge of my consciousness recently. The other day, I finally bought the new translation by Meredith McKinney, published from Penguin Classics.

The famous opening sentences are translated thus:


As I climb the mountain path, I ponder--
If you work by reason, you grow rough-edged; if you choose to dip your oar into sentiment's stream, it will sweep you away. Demanding your own way only serves to constrain you. However you look at it, the human world is not an easy place to live.

From Kusamakura: Translated by Meredith McKinney, Penguin Classics


I think it was Soseki's pessimistic observation that haunted my soul when I first read the novel as a child. It is, however, a pessimism with a vital force to go forward. Soseki apparently wrote the whole novel in a matter of a week, if we take his words literally.

Pessimism, or acknowledging that existence can never be perfect, is the founding stone for a vigorous life. It is the source of great works of art. There is wisdom in educated pessimism.

Although I am generally regarded as an optimistic person by my friends, I must say that there is always a tinge of pessimism in the way I regard the world.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lights are everywhere

The other day I visited a temple in the Hieizan mountain near Kyoto.

I met with The Great Ajari Yusai Sakamoto, who completed the Sennichi Kaihogyo (1000 days of intensive and life-or-death journey through the mountains) twice.

As I was leaving the quiet sanctuary, I looked back. There were rays of sunshine permeating through the woods. There is such a magic about lights going through the air, when they are made visible.

Even when we cannot see, the lights are everywhere, permeating, being reflected, shining on, and emanating from.

The rays in the woods stood in my mind as an example of invisible things, which surround our life. When made visible through the workings of rare conditions, they appear to us as heaven-sent miracles, but earthly all the same.

Light rays permeating through the woods.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Why doesn't he write and find out?

From my own experience, and from the general brain scientific point of view, writing has a special significance for the brain.

My mentor at the University of Cambridge was Horace Barlow. Once, Horace was organizing a conference. One of the participants did not send in an abstract. When contacted, the negligent participant answered that he did not know what he should write in the paper. When the postdoc who was functioning as an assistant for the conference reported that reply, Horace immediately said:

"Why doesn't he write and find out?"

Horace's sharp comment cuts right into the essence of the cognitive processes involved in writing. When writing, one often consciously perceives chunks of information which has been dormant in one's unconscious. Writing provides a channel between one's conscious and unconscious.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Yutaka Ozaki

There are certain cultural phenomena, which, due to the language barrier, cannot transcend easily to other nations. These are hidden treasures, screened from people of other cultures at a great loss to the knowing and unknowing parties.

Yutaka Ozaki is one of them. A legendary singer-songwriter, he died at the premature age of 26. The wikipedia entry , at its present rudimentary state, simply does not do justice to this great musician.

Yutaka Ozaki sang about youthful dreams, anxieties, and love. The young spirit is sometimes rebellious towards the status quo, for the very good reason that the fiery energy cannot be contained in a conventional social structure.

Yutaka Ozaki's song, while being an anthem of rebellion, eventually deepens into a love which is all-encompassing, including those against whom the young artist expressed his mistrust in the lyrics. Overcoming the obstacles, Yutaka Ozaki's songs attain the universal value of a great art.

My favorite Yutaka Ozaki songs include "I love you", "Oh my little girl", "Graduation", and "Singing to the Wind" (Kaze ni Utaeba).

Yutaka Ozaki (1965-1992) at a concert.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Liquid in life

I had a public dialogue with the designer Taku Sato. in the Les Deux Magots Cafe Tokyo, Shibuya. Taku is widely known and appreciated for his design of packages, in which he depicts, in the utmost simplicity and elegance, the essential properties of a particular brand.

When I have a discussion in public, I rarely meet the counterpart beforehand. I prefer to let the conversation follow its own life force ad libitum, rather than to adhere to a designated structure.

The spontaneous verbal exchanges with Taku last night was exceptionally successful, thanks to the gaiety of his spirit.

Taku said that surfing has been his passion for more than two decades, and described the experience in precise and poignant words. Taku's reference to the oceanic sport on the waves led us to the appreciation of the liquid in life.

In civilization, we are tend to be surrounded by solids made of steel, concrete, and other infrastructures. Given the unavoidable trends, life continues to thrive, gets to its highest points, in liquids. That something which is without any definite shape, always changing, breaking our expectations, calling for a total engagement by the body, shifting, penetrating, mixing, gorging, going over everything, into everywhere, becoming time itself in its transitions. That something, ubiquitously liquid.

The lively conversation with Taku left a vivid and viable aftertaste. I thrive in that tone today.

Here's to the liquid in life.

With Taku Sato in the Les Deux Magots Cafe Tokyo.