Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Some Ryohei Yanagihara Book Cover Designs from the '60 & '70s

 From the Hitomi Yamaguchi series "Mr. Everyman's Elegant Way of Life."

  From a translation of Beth Wheeler's "How to Help Your Husband Relax."

 From "A Useful Book for the Great Outdoors."

From "Modern Rascal Manual" by Akiyuki Nosaka.

(All covers are from 柳原良平の装丁 published by DANVO in 2003.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I'm With These Guys

Punishment in Droneland

The news yesterday that Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry minister Banri Kaieda had threatened to punish Tokyo firefighters if they failed to comply with orders to carry out a spraying operation at the Number 2 reactor of the Fukushima Daichi plant was hardly surprising. Nor was the subsequent apology which was nothing more than a hollow face-saving measure. Behind the scenes, I'm sure, "punishment" will go on. When you sign up to be a drone, you don't dress in the Queen's clothes; a drone never even thinks to say "No, I'm not going to do that." A drone has only one purpose: to work for the good of the hive.

But what the punishment means within droneland is anybody's guess. All military-like organizations have their means: ostracism, bullying, assigning the punished the nastiest work; never again promoting them — the form of punishment is really only limited by the sadist's imagination.

I like what the late Richard Feynman had to say about disrespect for authority. He started with the simple observation that we're all human beings — every one of us has to get up in the morning, eat, shit, walk on two legs, cry wolf, etc. Just because someone's wearing a uniform or a funny hat doesn't make them inherently more magical or powerful.  There's no reason to bow to someone —whether it's the pope or five-star general — just because they're wearing a pope cone or five-star general thingies on their shoulder.

Now, I don't want to disparage the bravery and self-sacrifice and loyalty to the colony that so many workers in and around Fukushima have exhibited. But I do think it should be within anyone's free will to refuse to carry out insane commands. I'm not going to Afghanistan to kill people, so don't ask me. I'm not hosing down that reactor either no matter how many days off or how many yen you're willing to dangle in front of my nose.

Last night, at a local shipbuilding company, I was in the middle of a conversation with a student about just this topic when another student, whom I rarely see, trudged into the classroom. His face was a whitish-purple behind his white allergy mask; his hair disheveled and greasy; his uniform dirty; his hands a pink color from what looked to be a rash.

We both looked at the newcomer with a mixture of fascination and horror, asking almost simultaneously what had happened to him. Just work, he said. He had spent the afternoon inspecting paint jobs in various dark and cramped nooks of the bulkheads of a carrier. He had the blinking, dazed look of a man just released from a prison hold.

I'm sure that that man would go anywhere and do anything on that ship that his superiors ordered him. I don't doubt his loyalty or bravery or heart. But I do think he should watch the Feynman video. We need fewer foot soldiers and drones in this world, not more.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Now and Then

In a happy moment of internet serendipity, while doing an entirely unrelated search, I came across the bottom picture of the flapper girl contemplating her doll just a day after taking the top picture of the anthropomorphized fruit in my local bookstore.

While the fruit seem grumpy, the girl is definitely contemplative, a nice contrast to the present day almost unremitting cheery, chipper cartoon images all around us.

The boxed, two-volume set is a compilation of the greatest hits from the journal Kodomo no Kuni (Kids' Land) which was published monthly, mostly in the 1920s, 30s, with a few issues in the 40s. You can learn more about the history of it here, but I first came across some of the images here. The bottom picture shows the magazine cover for the January, 1922 issue.

One of the interesting aspects of the boxed reprint is that the designers elected to erase the magazine's original title, which read from right to left, and replace it with a more modern version reading left to right. Below is the original with the katakana reading from right to left.

You still occasionally see print reading from right to left here — on the side of a boat or an old sign — but I suspect the practice was abruptly ended at the conclusion of World War II. 

I'll have to do a little research and get back to you.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Climbing Fanta Hill yesterday, just below the crest which opens onto a view of the reservoir, I stumbled upon a little heart-shaped zippered pouch. Like clutching the lottery ticket just before scratching off those boxes you just know will reveal your waiting millions, I had a lovely vision of a nice little bundle of ten thousand yen notes.

Instead, what greeted me was a moldering note and a precious little piece of burnished wood. I ripped off the leaf of a nearby weed, and plucked the block out.

A nice two-toned hardwood, it fit nicely in my hand, its smooth, gently beveled surface perfect for worrying.

It was a talisman, akin to a rabbit's foot or a little jade Buddha, a lucky charm to guide the bearer through the year.

I felt slightly guilty taking the thing — after all, this good luck charm could be patiently waiting here on this hillside for its owner to return. Was I unwittingly disturbing the course of events of the owner's life? Further, if the amulet had been abandoned or lost, it is, by legend here in Japan, believed to have protected its owner from some dire consequence. In that case, had it used up its powers, and was now nothing more than a nice-looking burnished piece of wood? Or had it taken on, absorbed that evil, and was now an unlucky charm?

The skeptic and the dreamer in me battle. The dreamer in me says of course things have spirit; of course we shouldn't disturb them; of course sentience runs through everything.

The skeptic in me scoffs. If that's the case, then what you're saying is that maybe the earth under Daichi was getting irritated and decided to scratch this massive nuclear zit lying on its shoulder.

The Shintoist in me says yes, that's just about right.

Whatever the case about animateness, I have the thing now, and I justify its presence in my pocket as a necessary piece of research.

Back home I introduce him to my other talisman, a rock plucked from shore of the Mekhong in Laos several years ago —

— and a bearing scrounged from god-knows-what industrial site in Providence, Rhode Island:

So here's my criteria if you're gonna be my talisman: you've gotta be smooth; you should fit snugly in my hand; you shouldn't too heavy or too light; and you must, must, must be made of an all natural material, something elemental: wood, metal, or stone.

I have a crystal that's just the right size and weight, but it has sharp edges, so is relegated to the shelf. The ball bearing is perhaps too small, he gets lost often, but always reappears at opportune times. Echosquirrel tells me that when she was packing our things to move from Oregon, the little guy just sort of popped out of nowhere and started rolling across the floor. A week later it greeted me, perched atop a care package of books and other goodies.

But all that's by the way.

Talismen, meet your new talisman friend:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

More Good Design

You see corrugated sheet metal barns and warehouses all over the place out here in the "countryside." Usually they are in some state of rustiness and/or dilapidation. Utilitarian structures to the extreme, they are fairly quick and cheap to put up; fairly quick and cheap to tear down.

Normally I pass by without giving them a second look. But this one was special. This one had style.

A simple wooden door — made from cedar I'm guessing, the hills are lined with the stuff — and everything square, level and true.

Echosquirrel likes the tiny recessed handles. I like the ensemble. The flimsy and the solid existing together. A craftsman's paean to simplicity.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reactor Failure

The events of the past few days here in Japan, with the meltdown or partial meltdown of at least two of the nuclear reactors up in Fukushima, has made me not a little self-conscious of the title of this blog.

When I first started Tiny Reactors last year right around this time, I decided to give it its name not only as a forum for myself to quickly react to books, news and events happening around me (and for you all to reply); but living in the green-conscious city of Portland, Oregon I was also thinking about alternative energy use — and tiny thorium reactors were in the news at the time as a relatively low cost alternative to fossil fuels. I had a vague idea that I would write about science and/or green issues; I had a large stack of books waiting to be read. And more books were coming in daily.

Almost immediately, however, the blog went off in its own direction — I started learning Photoshop and some of the neat tricks that I could do with that — and my more wide-ranging interests wouldn't allow me to narrow the field.

And then I moved to Japan. To the island of Shikoku on the Seto Inland Sea. Far off the beaten path. Without my books.

For the first several months the blog was frozen. I hurled myself into work and getting reacquainted with the Japanese language. Tiny reactors was sadly relegated to the scrap heap.

Recently — I'm not sure if it's the imminent arrival of spring or just the urge to share some of the things I've been witnessing — I've returned.

I'll still be reacting tinily (and sometimes at length) but if you can please forget that this blog has anything to do with nuclear reactors I'd be happy. Not that they don't have a future; it's just that until we learn how to take care of them and their waste a lot better, I'd rather see humans think seriously about other less toxic ways to stay humming and alive.

Anyway, with the weather brightening and the snow up in the mountains melting, I'll be heading out to some beaten down, forlorn, and rusting places no tourists in their right mind would ever think to go.

Over and out.

For now.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Foraging and Gleaning, Gleaning and Foraging

Whether it's morels in Montana in June, chanterelles in Portland in October, blueberries in Massachusetts in August, or ginkgo nuts here in Japan in the fall, I love the act of setting out on foot with a purpose, the anticipation of finding something in a new or remembered place.

Sometimes we don't know where we are going, and certainly don't know what we will find. The other day we headed upriver on our bicycles, under the train trestle to the outskirts of town, and over the highway up into the hills. At the confluence of a bamboo grove, tiny shrine, and water tower we left our bikes and headed down a trail into the woods. The grove soon opened out onto a man-made grassy slope that seemed to rise almost vertically into the sky.

"Dam!" I said as I picked my way over the hump and scurried antelope-like over to a sluice with a sheet of sweeping water. A slide a littler me might have tried.

I looked down. At my feet was a vintage Fanta bottle. A twin to one I had found a few months back on another slope in another part of town. The same ribbed glass. Only this one had some spring in its neck and a matching violet beside.

Picking up the bottle made me think of the Agnes Varda documentary "The Gleaners and I" — you can watch the first four minutes here — and the act of stooping. Bending over to retrieve a treasure or edible morsel. An act at once iconic and rooted in our DNA.

But what's the difference, I wondered, between gleaning and foraging?

I hadn't really thought of it much until re-watching the beginning of the film.

Gleaning, I guess, goes hand in hand with agriculture and civilization. It's the picking up of the leftover potato or undersized corn cob or wheat ear of an already harvested or abandoned crop. It's often an act of survival. Varda's narrator makes the point that while gleaning was traditionally done severally with others, each gleans on his own" and, I would add, in his or her own way.

Foraging, on the hand, doesn't depend on domestication. It's done mostly in the wild or semi-wild. Out there. In the mountains or on the seashore. Away from the tended and cultivated. In forgotten or neglected or difficultly accessible places.

So I guess I gleaned the bottle, but foraged the plant from its insides? Or does foraging require that I eat the greens? I suppose I'd have to identify them first.

Anyway, when I got home I pulled the little plant out with chopsticks and gave the bottle a cursory wash, then stuck the plant back in the opening and set the gleaned thing next to its friend. Kind of fitting — Japanese and English standing there side-by-side.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Move Over Odwalla!

I used to live in California, so green drinks don't necessarily scare me, but green drinks nestled in among the single-serve coffees in the convenience store are a bit perplexing, especially when the jar's label is entirely in kanji.
I figured the little guy must be drinkable since it was sitting in among the "regular" drinks, so I picked one up and went to the counter to find out what I would be consuming.

The girl there knew as little as I did — but we both agreed it was a rare thing I had picked up and was probably healthy for me.

It was only 105 yen (about $1.27 at today's exchange rate) so I went for it.

I stuffed the drink in my bag and jumped in a cab to get to work.

When I got there, I had a few minutes of down time, so I turned the cute little green bottle around to see if I could glean anything else:

Ah! 100% kale. That I could understand.

I peeled off the lid and lifted it to my lips with all the faith of an aboriginal sampling a new fruit. Fresh and cold and a little chunky. I'm sure it was good for me.

Back at home I looked up the name of my drink: Endo's Medium Blue-Green Juice from Kochi.

It's made locally and the bottles, I think, are returnable. And it's a lot cheaper than Odwalla. I give it a slightly reserved thumbs-up.