On the ball with manga soccer hero Captain Tsubasa

This week I had an encounter with one of Japan’s best known illustrators of manga books, Yōichi Takahashi.

He’s the author of a highly successful manga about soccer called Captain Tsubasa.

Mr Takahashi started drawing the character in 1981 and it has gone on to sell more than seven million copies, as well as being turned into a hugely popular television series, which appeals across the generations in Japan.

It is even a hit in China – something of a surprise, given the rivalry between the countries in many fields, including the football pitch.

On the ball

“I wanted to tell a story about a boy who has great ambition and achieves his goals,” Mr Takahashi says of his manga’s hero, Tsubasa Ozora. “Soccer is a team sport but the rules are quite flexible so that allows for a certain freedom of expression,” he says.

The pictures portray the boy in athletic poses as he plays passionate football. The manga helped spread the popularity of the sport in Japan, leading to the formation of the J-League in 1992.

Captain Tsubasa has been published in French, Spanish and Italian. The French player Zinedine Zidane – who now plays at Real Madrid – claims that as a boy, he was inspired to play football because of the comic.

Rather surprisingly, though, the manga has not been published in English yet – although you can buy a quite cool T-shirt showing its hero!

Hope in Syria

An Arabic version of the manga was recently distributed to children living in refugee camps in Syria, as part of an effort to lift their spirits.

“The situation in Syria is terrible – so terrible that I think it stops kids from dreaming. But it’s their dreams that one day will make Syria good again,” says Obada Kassoumah, who translated the manga into Arabic.

“I wish I could just give them a little bit of hope and make them believe that yes, they can have dreams,” Mr Obada told the BBC.

Wings of desire

But why is the boy called Tsubasa?

“In Japanese tsubasa means wings – so it’s a way to show children they can grown their own wings and chase their dreams,” explains Mr Takahashi.

In the many years since he started drawing the series, he has sometimes considered bringing it to a close and moving onto other projects. “But then Captain Tsubasa comes to me in my dreams and asks me if I can give him another chance to let him play again. How can I let him down when he makes such a request?” he laughs.

British Museum

Yōichi Takahashi was speaking at the British Museum, which is currently showing the largest exhibition of manga ever held outside Japan.

The pictures include a number of works by Takahashi, as well as drawings by many other illustrators, alongside the older works of art which inspired them.

As I mentioned in my blog last week, stepping into the British Museum to see the pictures enables one to appreciate them in a deep way and to share one’s pleasure with others.

The Citi exhibition Manga will run from 23 May to 26 August 2019 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum.


Pictures run riot as manga enters the British Museum

The largest exhibition of manga ever held outside of Japan opened in London this week.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the preview.

A huge room inside the British Museum holds a striking collection of around 160 pictures, as well as videos, statues, books – and even a place you can dress up in a manga costume and have your picture taken.

The British Museum’s Director Hartwig Fischer said it offers an opportunity to see a “new dimension” of Japan.

Thought provoking

“We give our visitors a lot to look at and a lot to think about,” said Mr Fischer.

He went on to explain that the museum has been collecting manga almost since the genre started and even commissioned an artist called Hoshino Yukinobu to draw a book called Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure.

Mr Fischer said: “Manga tells stories which are relevant and address questions which matter to us all. It also looks at aspects of life which are challenging. In this exhibition, we tried to celebrate the intimate aspects of manga as well as acknowledge its global power and presence.”

The exhibition includes examples of some of the most popular manga series in Japan, including pictures by famous artists such as Tezuka Osamu (Astro Boy and Princess Knight), Akatsuka Fujio (Eel Dog), Toriyama Akira (Dragon Ball).

Ghost story

For me, it was a spooky little painting by the great 19th-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai which truly made me shiver.

It shows a ghost about to take revenge on the wife who killed him by raising the mosquito net which protects her from insects as she sleeps. It’s a gruesome picture of a particularly quiet form of murder!

Fertile ground

The exhibition’s curator Nicole Rousmaniere says Hokusai’s ghost picture is an example of the fertile ground from which manga grew.

Another example is a huge theatre curtain created in 1880 by the painter Kawanabe Kyōsai, featuring actors in the form of demons and ghosts, blurring the worlds of fantasy and reality.

It’s a very delicate treasure and Waseda University, which owns it, has decided this will be the last time it will travel outside Japan.

Love stories

A lot of contemporary manga looks at relationships, especially romance. One interesting example in the museum is called My Brother’s Husband described by one reviewer as “an unprecedented and heartbreaking look at the state of a largely still-closeted Japanese gay culture.”

The Exhibition’s curator Nicole Rousmaniere says: “Manga can sometimes tell the stories of people whose stories are not usually told.”

She also believes that the emotional power of manga is important. “It can help relieve pain and has a cathartic quality,” she says.

Skilful hands

Most of the time, readers of manga books flick through the pictures so quickly I wonder if they actually notice them. But looking at the exhibition, I realise the great artistic skill involved in making these works.

Stepping into a museum to see the pictures enables one to appreciate them in a deep way and to share one’s joy with other visitors.

The Citi exhibition Manga will run from 23 May to 26 August 2019 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum.

Sea monster ice cream deserves good table manners

Why is it seen as rude to eat snacks, such as barbequed squid, while walking around?

Well, for the polite Japanese, walking and eating at the same time is “a big no no” according to the writer Mercedes Hutton, who’s done a nice article on this topic in this week’s South China Morning Post.

Mercedes claims that visitors to Japan are causing offence through our rude behaviour with food.

Our problem is that we apparently try to do two things at once – eating and walking – and this grieves our hosts, in places such as Kyoto’s Nishiki Market and Senso-ji, in Tokyo.

Mindful eating

According to Mercedes, we foreigners are plainly not following the principle of “Ikkai ichi dousa”, which essentially means “ do one thing at a time”.

She writes: “This is a fundamental tenet of Japanese philosophy that promotes the dedication of particular attention to each aspect of our lives. Whether strolling along Takeshita-dori, in Harajuku, or savouring a Hokkaido soft-serve ice cream, every activity benefits from being singularly focused upon; do both at once and neither can be enjoyed to their full potential.”

While I am all in favour of mindful eating, I wonder what the social rules are when it comes to barbecue squid.

Monster vs ice cream

This treat, known in Japanese as ikayaki, is often sold at outdoor festivals, especially in the summer.

It’s served on a stick so it looks like a cross between an ice cream and a sea monster.

Although it’s very chewy, it tastes delicious. But it’s almost impossible to eat politely and cleanly with chopsticks – or even a knife and fork.

That means scoffing it down while standing up – perhaps while enjoying fireworks or watching a spooky dance aimed at entertaining ghosts, known as obon.

No one has ever given me instructions on how to eat barbequed squid, so I assume that the etiquette is this: it’s OK to eat it standing up but not while moving around. Stay in one place and throw the stick away afterwards – and probably aim to clean one’s face as soon as possible!

Too polite

Mercedes notes in her piece that the Japanese probably won’t tell you this advice for fear of causing offence.

She concludes that this suggests “Japan has a problem with politeness.”

A more direct approach, she feels, would help avoid the simmering resentment caused by our bad table manners.

She suggests we follow the locals’ lead and hang onto our waste until it can be properly disposed of.

She says: “Doing so not only saves face for the long-suffering Japanese, it also helps to give tourists a better rep at attractions on the verge of being overwhelmed by visitors (masticating or otherwise), which can only be a good thing.”


What is the Japanese army doing in Egypt?

Japanese soldiers are taking up positions in Egypt.

Admittedly, it is not a large army. Only two officers are going there, for now.

But it’s a significant point because for many people, sending soldiers to foreign countries in any capacity goes against the pacifist spirit of Japan’s constitution.

In fact, it’s rather controversial to even call them soldiers or an army – they are members of Self Defence Force and their job is to defend the Japanese homeland.

Change of approach

The journalist Jeffrey Hornung explores the implications of the Egyptian deployment in an excellent article Foreign Policy magazine.

He says the men will join the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) which monitors the cease-fire between Israel and Egypt.

(At least I am assuming they are men – although I was told the other day that gender equality is high on the agenda of the Self Defence Forces, so they could be female officers.)

So is this another example of the constitution being ignored?

As Foreign Policy points out, Japan has dispatched troops to work with U.N.-controlled peacekeeping operations nine times.

Abe’s plan

When it comes to the future of the Self Defence Force, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has two clear goals.

Firstly, he wants to maintain a solid alliance with the United States.

He also wants to the reform of the constitution in order to change the status of the Self Defence Force into an army with the capacity to fight internationally.

On that point he is running out of time.

Political battle

Constitutional change requires a majority in parliament, which should be possible, given the dominance of Mr Abe’s LDP party in both houses of the Diet. However, it also needs agreement through a referendum. Public opinion is divided on the issue, so it is doubtful that the government will press for a vote it could end up losing. Mr Abe’s term in office must conclude by September 2021.

Japan’s former enemies, China and South Korea, oppose a constitutional change which would empower the military, due to their bitter memories of being attacked and occupied. Japan will not wish to upset its neighbors, just as it hosts the Olympic Games next year.

Furthermore, it is inconceivable that Japan would reopen the debate about developing its own nuclear weapons, given the delicate relations with its neighbours.

Mr Abe recently told his party convention that the LDP “will lead concrete discussion towards proposing amendments to the constitution.”

Such discussions are likely to be as far as he can take the matter before he departs, almost certainly to be replaced as prime minister.

But quietly, behind the scenes the status of the Japanese armed forces is changing.

As Jeffrey Hornung puts it in Foreign Policy “While it may not seem like much now, we may be witnessing the start of a different kind of new era for Japan.”

Peacemaker or Pacifist: What was Emperor Akihito’s view on war?

I have been very moved by watching the abdication of Emperor Akihito this week. The media coverage has reminded us of his deep commitment to peace.

However, I’m wondering if it’s appropriate to call him a “pacifist” – a word which appeared in many foreign correspondents’ reports, including one by the BBC’s Laura Bicker, who said: “As pacifists, the Emperor and his wife have travelled the world to help heal Japan’s wartime reputation.”

Expression of remorse

This refers to the way in which the Emperor has expressed deep remorse for Japan’s invasion and occupation of parts of Asia. This was acknowledged by the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who each praised the Emperor for his peacemaking efforts.

Indeed, the Emperor’s final words before he abdicated this week were: “I pray for peace around the world.”

But is praying for peace a pacifist thing to do?

What is pacifism?

Pacifism covers a spectrum of views. For some it means the total rejection of all violence. For others, it means an impassioned quest to resolve disputes peacefully.

The religious organisation the Quakers puts it his way: “Pacifism is not simply the refusal to fight: it includes working actively to bring about or preserve peace, by removing the causes of conflict.”

Japan has a constitution which is pacifist in spirit. It was drawn up by the Americans after the Second World War and bans Japan from ever again amassing an army which could launch an attack like the one on Pearl Harbour.

Ever since, there has been a great deal of compromise. Japan now has a large and well-armed Self Defence Force.

Furthermore, the United States has a duty to defend Japan if it is attacked and could even use nuclear weapons in the event of war.

Constitutional revision

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would like to revise the constitution but time is running to do that out before he retires in 2021.

In the view of NPR reporter Anthony Kuhn: “Akihito’s pacifist views are believed to have created simmering, if unspoken, tensions with a government that has tacked to the political right and wants to cast off postwar restraints on its military, government and monarchy.”

The NPR piece also quotes a political scientist named Koichi Nakano from Sophia University in Tokyo who says: “Akihito has in some ways become a surprising sort of democrat, a surprising pacifist, who is not necessarily feeling comfortable with the government of the day and that sort of mistrust is mutual.”

In Professor Nakano’s view, Prime Minister Abe would like to upgrade the emperor to head of state rather than a symbol of the state.

Next generation

That nuanced debate about the role of the Emperor will no doubt continue into the next generation. Emperor Naruhito did not touch on it in his inaugural speech. “[Akihito] showed profound compassion through his own bearing,” he said.

“I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by the Emperor Emeritus … and fulfil my responsibility as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people of Japan.”