David Bowie, who died this week, was a well-known Japanophile, adopting many elements of Japanese culture into his stage performances.
“He was someone who knew how to express himself both with music and with fashion,” Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto told the BBC.
“Someone like that may not be so rare these days, but he was one of the pioneers to do both.”
Mr Yamamoto, the creative force behind some of Bowie’s most iconic stage outfits, first got to know Bowie in the 1970s, when the singer was often visiting Japan, and trying to break into the US market.
“I don’t know why he was so attracted to things Japanese, but perhaps it wasn’t so much Japan or Japanese-ness itself. He knew when he looked good in something.
“When you wear something and you look really good… you feel confident and good about yourself. I think my designs and costumes had that effect on him.”
Helene Thian, a fashion historian and lifelong fan who has written extensively about Bowie, agreed. She said Bowie had often been noted as having had “this beautiful androgynous face and body, which suited Kansai Yamamoto’s unisex style”.
Bowie’s Japanese style had already been developing through his interest in Japanese theatre.
In the mid-1960s, he studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, a British performance and mime artist who was heavily influenced by the traditional kabuki style, with its exaggerated gestures, elaborate costumes, striking make-up, and “onnagata” actors – men playing female roles.
Bowie was a natural “shapeshifter“, says Ms Thian, and his training with Kemp and onnagata style helped him as he explored ideas of masculinity, exoticism and alienation.
He even learned from famed onnagataTamasaburo Bando how to apply traditional kabuki make-up – its bold highlighted features on a white background are evident in the lightning bolt across the Ziggy face.
“It wasn’t trying to be literal interpretation” of onnagata, said Ms Thian, “but rather inspired by its gender-bending androgyny. That’s what makes it so powerful, it’s more evocative.”
‘Quick change’ master
Mr Yamamoto said he wasn’t sure why he and Bowie had such an affinity, but that “something resonated between us, something that went beyond nationalities, beyond gender“.
Through his style and performances, he said, Bowie “broke one sexual taboo after another“.
“What he did in terms of bridging the male-female gap continues to this day,” he said, including in the increasing acceptance of gay relationships in Japan.
Among his most famous outfits for Bowie was Space Samurai, a black, red and blue outfit adapting the hakama, a type of loose trousers which samurais wore and which are still worn by martial arts practitioners.
He also sometimes wore a kimono-inspired cape with traditional Japanese characters on it which spell out his name phonetically, but also translate to “fiery vomiting and venting in a menacing manner“.
Ms Thian says Bowie was also “absolutely the first” Western artist to employ the hayagawari – literally “quick change” – technique from kabuki, says Ms Thian, with unseen stagehands ripping off the dramatic cape on stage to reveal another outfit.
‘A very beautiful man’
It wasn’t just his appearance – references to Japan are scattered through Bowie’s music – his 1977 album Heroes even features the track Moss Garden on which he plays a Japanese koto, a kind of zither.
These days, an artist in Bowie’s position might be accused of cultural appropriation – stealing another culture for his own purposes – but Ms Thian says it was never seen that way in Japan.
“Bowie was born to be the ultimate diplomat and artiste,” she says.
“He took his creativity and fused it with his impulses to meld East and West and come up with a healing of the world in this post-war period.”
This was “a homage to Japanese culture and the Japanese loved it“, she said, as Bowie challenged the tendency of Western fashion at the time to lump all Asian styles together as “Orientalism“.
Indeed, Japan embraced Bowie back, and he remains an icon there, with his glam rock style influencing generations of bands and musicians.
Renowned rock guitarist Hotei Tomayasu, best known outside Japan for composing the theme for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Billfilms, told the BBC: “[Bowie] is the one who truly changed my life. My eternal hero and inspiration.”
Bowie is also known in Japan for his role as Maj Jack Celliers in the 1983 iconic film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, directed by the renowned Nagisa Oshima.
The film, set during World War Two in a Japanese camp for prisoners, pits Bowie’s character and another soldier against two Japanese officers, one of whom is played by the famous musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.
On Twitter, Sakamoto’s ex-wife Akiko Yano recalled how Bowie carried their young daughter – Miu – on his shoulders when the family visited the Roppongi neighborhood in Tokyo with Bowie in the 1980s.
Miu Sakamoto tweeted this picture of herself as a little girl shaking hands with the singer, saying she vaguely recalled meeting “a very beautiful man“.
“(He is) no more. A world in which David is not living still feels totally unreal.“
Japan is widely-acknowledged to be one of the world’s safest countries. In the Economist’s ‘Safe Cities Index 2015’, two Japanese cities are ranked in the top three, with Tokyo topping the list, and Osaka coming in third place. So, with this in mind, it’s strange to think that Japan is also home to one of the world’s largest and most notorious organized criminal networks – the yakuza.
This iconic underworld of criminals has been made famous in films like Fireworks, Youth of the Beast and Battles Without Honor and Humility, depicting the yakuza as an intimidating bunch famed for their violent behavior. But beyond the simplistic “suits and shades” stereotype of the Japanese mobster, the inner workings of the yakuza are secretive, complex, and as steeped in traditional Japanese values as any other part of the country’s culture.
If you’ve always longed to understand the a little more about the cryptic and labyrinthine honor codes or delicate power balances that underpin this infamous crime syndicate, here’s your chance…
The word ‘yakuza’ has its roots in a Japanese card game: a blackjack variant called oicho-kabu. In the game, a three-card-hand’s value is determined by adding each card together, and then using the smaller number from the resulting two-digit figure to indicate a score. For example, when added together, a hand of 8+9+3 = 20. The smaller number in 20 is 0, which means it scores no points. In fact, this is the game’s worst possible hand.
This losing hand of 8-9-3 is referred to ya-ku-za (ya, or yattsu, means ‘eight’; ku means ‘nine’, and za, or san, means ‘three’). The word yakuzaliterally means ‘good for nothing’. And this explains much of Japan’s attitude to the group.
The word yakuza links back to of the origins of the network, which can be traced back to two Japanese social classifications – gamblers and merchants. During the Edo period in the 17th century, both of these groups were regarded as the dregs of society. Merchants were known as tekiya – peddlers of stolen goods, often with shady reputations. Gamblers were called bakuto, and were known for playing illegal dice and card games.
Both bakuto and tekiya were groups of outcasts, living outside the norms of Japanese society. But this slowly changed. The merchants started to form organised groups that were formally recognized by the Edo government. The gamblers banded together in gambling houses. This eventually led to loan sharking, which required the bakuto to employ their own security personnel.
These embryonic gangs of semi-legitimate criminals and delinquents were regarded by Japanese society with a mixture of fear and contempt. Nevertheless, they attracted new members and gained new influence, and went on to form alliances throughout Japan, eventually being referred to under the collective name: yakuza. These roots can still be seen in today’s yakuza, with some ceremonies still containing elements from the criminal network’s humble trade and gambling origins.
MEMBERSHIP AND STRUCTURE
In the 1960s, police estimates put yakuza membership at around 184,000 – an all-time high. Recent figures suggest the current total number of yakuza members is somewhat lower, at 53,500 (the smallest number on record). This shrinking but still significant yakuza population is divided into 20-or-so large conglomerate groups, which in turn contain hundreds of gangs. The largest conglomerate is the Yamaguchi-gumi family, whose membership is put at around 27,500. This makes it the single largest criminal organisation in the world.
Yakuza groups are organised using a hierarchical structure that works much like a family. Each recruit is referred to as a kobun (child), and has a father, known as oyabun. This parent-child relationship operates throughout every level of the yakuza, from top-level conglomerate bosses (known as kumicho), all the way down to new recruits.
To strengthen these familial bonds, the parent-child relationship is honored and strengthened in a ceremony known as sakazuki. The words akazuki can refer simply to ceremonial cups, but it can also describe a ritual in which loyalty and allegiance are pledged through the symbolic sharing of sake.
Typically, the “parent” will pour the “child” a modest measure of sake, followed by a larger measure for himself. The two will then sip from each other’s cups, in a highly elaborate ceremony that’s often followed by a booze-fuelled feast.
When a kobun receives sake from an oyabun, they have officially passed their initiation into their yakuza family. At this point they’re ranked in a similar way to older or younger brothers. They’re also required to cut ties to their real family and swear allegiance to their local boss.
Within the strict hierarchical structure of the yakuza, there are certain rituals that are designed to ensure every member knows exactly where they stand. The most well-known of these is called yubitsume, or “finger-shortening.” This gruesome atonement ceremony is required of a yakuza member when saying “sorry” simply doesn’t cut it.
First, the wrongdoer places a piece of white cloth on a table. Then, once they have tourniqueted their little finger with a piece of string, they place their hand on the cloth. Next, taking a razor-sharp knife, they sever their little finger above the top knuckle, and wrap up the resulting piece in the white cloth like a gift. Finally, they present the gory parcel to their oyabun. At this point, when the oyabun accepts the finger, they are also deemed to have accepted the kobun’s apology.
Yakuza members are wise to learn from their mistakes: subsequent wrongdoing means that they have to amputate the next knuckle of their little finger. And so on, and so on, as long as they are seen to be transgressing the group’s strict code of conduct. It’s not uncommon to see more mature yakuza members missing significant portions of both sets of digits.
The yubitsume ritual is said to have its origins in the time when yakuzamembers carried swords. Without the top part of the little finger, it’s much harder to grip the sword handle firmly. This meant that the member missing the finger would be increasingly dependent on their senior members for protection, drawing them closer to the gang.
Today’s yakuza members are less likely to carry swords. But considering golf is a wildly popular pastime in Japan, a missing little finger can still cause a serious disadvantage…
One of the most iconic images associated with the yakuza is their intricate, full-body tattoo designs, which are an integral part of the group’s history and culture. These designs can sometimes be seen peeking out from beneath shirt-sleeves or collars: tattoos are considered taboo in Japan, so they’re typically worn in such a way that they can be concealed.
The traditional yakuza “body suit” often has an unmarked strip that runs up the centre of the stomach and chest – this means a traditional open kimono can be worn without openly displaying a tattooed torso. It also gives the body a place to sweat – which is important in preventing liver failure.
This culture of body art is more than just decorative: thanks to Japan’s traditional tattooing technique, irezumi, it’s a very clear way for members to demonstrate their ability to withstand excruciating pain for long periods. Irezumi tattoos are hand-poked – which means that ink is jabbed by hand into the skin using needle-tipped wooden tools. This process is time-consuming, uses toxic ink and is extremely painful – 80% of those aiming for the full “body suit” are unable to stick out the whole process. The technique may be excruciating, but it yields incredible results. The colours are vivid, and it’s possible to achieve subtle gradations in tone that are impossible with an electric tattoo gun.
Those who do go the distance find that creating the full body suit is a lifetime journey, and one that requires them to form an intimate bond with their tattoo artist. These master artisans will often spend time getting to know their client before deciding on a theme for the tattoo design. Popular subject material includes koi carp, which symbolize courage and power, and cherry blossoms, which symbolize the fleeting nature of life (in other words, the yakuza way of saying, “life fast, die young”).
Yakuza members often meet in onsen (Japanese bath houses). These places are highly traditional, and require visitors to be naked – which means they cannot carry concealed weapons. While everyone is unclothed, unarmed, and equally vulnerable, tattoos serve as an effective way of intimidating other yakuza. A full body suit is a very clear demonstration of extreme physical toughness. For non-yakuza visitors to the bath house, the arrival of a bunch of tattooed heavies generally serves as a clear announcement that it’s time to hit the road.
Different yakuza groups involve themselves in different forms of business, to varying levels of moral questionability. Not all of them are entirely unscrupulous: for instance, Japan’s largest yakuza syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, forbids its members to engage in drug trafficking (yet this doesn’t stop them from earning an estimated $6bn a year!).
In general, however, the yakuza are known for engaging in fairly shady activities. These can range from the sex-trade industry, gun smuggling, illegal gambling, blackmail, extortion, protection racketeering and even politics. The yakuza even has an interesting way of playing the stock market – gangs will buy stocks in businesses, and then send members to board meetings. Once there, they use personal information to intimidate other board members, who are pressured to make payoffs in order to save their reputations.
Where blackmail or extortion are concerned, yakuza techniques are carefully crafted to uphold the Japanese values of politeness and honour. Instead of simply demanding cash, yakuza members will ask corporate leaders to give to fake charities, or attend fake benefits or golf tournaments, all requiring donations at ludicrously inflated prices.
It’s easy to imagine the criminal underworld as a place continually fraught with paranoia at its discovery by the police. But, in Japan, the mafia hides in plain sight – often with its own offices, business cards and corporate websites. It’s not illegal to belong to a yakuza gang. In fact, senior members even register themselves with the police, and some have their own pensions!
These semi-legitimate organisations even take part in activities that are actively beneficial to the community. After the 1995 Kobeearthquake, the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate provided disaster relief to the stricken communities — including a helicopter that they just happened to have lying around! — and the group was praised for responding much faster than the Japanese government. After the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, the same group opened their offices to refugees, and sent trucks to affected areas to deliver tons of food, blankets and supplies.
Although they are widely hated by the Japanese public, yakuza gangs are a surprisingly effective method of keeping troublemakers off the streets. Their hierarchical structure requires potentially out-of-control youngsters to adhere to a strict code of behavioural conduct (or risk losing their fingers), which is a counter-intuitive but efficient way of insulating the Japanese public against random acts of violence.
In fact, it could be said that without the ‘balancing’ force of the yakuza, Japan would be a much more dangerous place. And this leads to the rather bizarre conclusion that the country is, in fact, not a safe place in spite of the yakuza, but rather, in some part at least, because of it.
Continuing with the onslaught of compelling editorials, The Hundreds‘ latest video series teams up with 2013 AVN female performer of the year Asa Akira. Following from the release of her memoir Insatiable: Porn – A Love Story – which lets reader into her personal life and common misconceptions of the adult industry, this series titled Hobbies with Asa Akira follows Akira on her downtime as she searches for a new hobby.
Dropping in on different artisans and athletes in Los Angeles, Akira tries her hand as a tattooist, taxidermist and boxer, amongst other creative roles. Hobbies with Asa Akira premieres Monday, April 6. In the meantime, enjoy the trailer above for a sneak peak for what is to come
Coinciding with recent Art Basel festivities in Hong Kong, Edison Chen presented a new project dubbed 3125C. Taking form as a pop-up gallery on the 13th floor of a commercial building in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay district, “Unlucky 13″ featured an array of contemporary art pieces and memorabilia belonging to Chen.
Trying his hand at curating, the actor-musician presented artworks from the likes of Misha Hollenbach of P.A.M., Devin Troy, KAWS and TomooGokita. A slew of apparel from Chevingon, VANQUISH, TheFourness,CLOT and Emotionally Unavailable line was also available along with a special T-shirt collection by artist Cali Thornhill Dewitt. Attendees were treated to an array of delectable snacks, music selection from DJ Prepare, and tattoo service courtesy of Shamrock Social Club’s own Dr. Woo.
Check out the recap images for a glimpse of ”Unlucky 13.” For all of items from 3125C “Unlucky 13″ Pop-Up Galleria are available for mail orders, you can purchase them throug firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Woo of Shamrock Social Club is one of the most coveted tattooists on the West Coast. With over 300,000 followers on Instagram, a long list of celebrity clientele and a wait-list that stretches well beyond summer, shines a spotlight on the artist’s core beliefs and values by spending a Saturday with him and his family.
In a previous video, he notes how the arrival of his children changed his career trajectory and now the video above acts as a narrative on what truly makes him tick. It’s easy to draw parallels between his body of work and his unique perspective on life.
Tattoo artist Jang Jun-hyuk works on customer Suh Hyun-woong at his parlor in Seoul.
When Suh Hyun-woong showed his mother his first tattoo, she burst into tears.
“She couldn’t understand why I would want to do that to myself,” Suh laughed. “But now she’s pretty much accepted it.”
Which is probably just as well given that the 19-year-old student’s body is a growing, monochrome canvas of fantasy designs.
Once associated almost exclusively with organized crime members, tattoos are going mainstream in South Korea, championed by sporting heroes, K-pop stars and other celebrities with passionate fan bases.
But the law has failed to keep pace, leaving the growing number of Korean tattoo artists vulnerable to prosecution on the whim of local authorities.
Tattooing itself is not illegal in South Korea, but the law states that it can only be carried out by a licensed medical doctor.
“So if you want to get a tattoo, you’re supposed to go to a hospital? It’s just absurd,” said Jang Jun-hyuk, the owner of Tattooism, a tattoo parlor in central Seoul.
Officials say the law as it stands is justified by health considerations, including the risk of hepatitis or HIV infection from improperly sterilized needles.
“It’s invasive. The skin is punctured and it bleeds. That’s why we look at it as a medical procedure,” said Korea Medical Association spokeswoman Ahn So-young.
Nevertheless, the government does appear to be considering change and commissioned a study in October on the possibility of permitting legal tattoo parlors.
In the meantime, tattoo artists continue to inhabit a professional world not dissimilar to sex workers; technically illegal but largely ignored by the authorities as long as they stay under the radar.
Most Korean parlors, like Jang’s Tattooism, are literally “underground” — basement studios with unmarked doors whose locations are spread by word-of-mouth.
Jang, 42, was a 20-year-old student at a fashion college in Seoul when he saw his first tattoo sported by a friend and decided then and there where his future lay.
The friend had got his tattoo in Mexico and, given the lack of options at home, that’s where Jang went to train.
“In Korea at that time, nobody was using a tattoo machine. It was really just criminals using needles on themselves, and the results were pretty ugly,” he said.
The organized crime stigma was so great that, until recently, having a large tattoo would result in a rare exemption from South Korea’s mandatory military service.
After several years in Mexico, Jang returned and set up his first illicit tattoo studio in a nondescript office building in Seoul.
There was no sign, and with advertising not an option, he tried to drum up customers by posting pictures of his work on the Internet, along with a mobile phone number.
“In the first three months, I probably got about 10 customers,” he recalled.
“But it was a good time. There were only about 10 parlors in Seoul, and we all knew each other and encouraged each other,” he said. “It’s all a bit competitive now.”
There’s no real consensus on when attitudes began to change, but a pivotal moment in 2003 involved soccer player Ahn Jung-hwan, a national hero following the South Korean team’s heroics at the World Cup a year before.
After scoring in a match against Japan, Ahn peeled off his shirt to reveal a shoulder tattoo declaring his love for his wife.
“He was a big name and that started things off,” Jung said. “Suddenly there were all these other sportsmen, as well as movie stars and K-pop singers getting tattoos as well.”
Business picked up, and the number of tattoo parlors mushroomed, but the legal issue remained.
Five years ago, Jung’s parlor was targeted in a random raid and he ended up in court, where he was fined $3,000 and given a one-year suspended sentence for violating public health codes.
Despite sporadic crackdowns, the number of studios has continued to grow and some, like Maverick in the expat-friendly district of Itaewon, have grown bold enough to put up neon signs.
“It’s a form of passive resistance,” said Maverick owner Lee Sung-je. “It’s my way of saying ‘I’m here, doing my work.’ “
Lee claims customers across the social spectrum, including a smattering of civil servants, and executives working at straight-laced conglomerates like Samsung.
“Though they do tend to go for tattoos that can be covered up easily,” he said.
Francis Kim, a 31-year-old chef, said his tattoos still draw a mixed response.
“I get a lot of compliments from younger people, but the older crowd tend to look at me as if I must be a gangster, or just a loser who doesn’t fit in,” Kim said.
Suh Hyun-woong, meanwhile, appears intent on pushing his mother’s tolerance to its limits, with an eclectic choice of tattoos that includes the baffling acronym WGUMCD emblazoned in large gothic script on his stomach.
“What Goes Up Must Come Down,” he explained. “It’s my life motto.”