Monday, October 26, 2015

"Hiroji Kubota’s lens is a witness to history"

Text and photos borrowed from The Japan Times, October 24, 2015.

Caption: March on Washington, D.C., 1963. Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos

Caption: Mae Hong Son Province, near Burma, Thailand, 1997. Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos

Photographer Hiroji Kubota believes that “everyone has a great drama to tell.” With the release of his retrospective photo book, simply titled “Hiroji Kubota Photographer,” now it’s his turn to tell his.

As the sole Japanese member of Magnum Photos, the international collective founded in 1947 to give photographers greater editorial control over their work, his 55-year career has captured America’s civil rights movement, the fall of Saigon and life in China after the Cultural Revolution alongside personal projects with global implications.

Seated at the Tokyo branch of Magnum Photos in Jinbocho, he admits that he’s put off his retrospective for over a decade.

“It’s not the sort of book you can do often. I was approached by a publisher 15 years ago and I turned them down. Why? Because I wasn’t ready to die yet.” The 76-year-old chuckles at his gallows humor, his wit as sharp as his eyes.

Kubota was born in 1939 in Kanda, Tokyo, to a family of freshwater fish wholesalers. His earliest memories are colored by the harsh conditions and senseless destruction of World War II, such as the terrible beauty of napalm bombs burning his neighborhood or the shock of seeing Allied planes gun down fishermen along the coast. He would go on to study political science at Waseda University where he followed the student protest movement with his father’s camera.

In 1961 he assisted a group of Magnum photographers on a trip to Japan and met his mentor, the whimsical and satirical Elliott Erwitt. Erwitt thanked him with a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment,” widely hailed as a photojournalist’s bible. The book inspired Kubota to move to the United States to become a professional photographer with nothing more than a hand-me-down Leica camera and $500 in his pocket — the maximum amount allowed at the time for Japanese nationals traveling abroad.

A tip from Newsweek magazine led Kubota to stumble upon Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his generation-defining “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. Soon after he found himself rubbing shoulders with hippies, Black Panthers and other counterculture forces.

His unique position as a cultural outsider allowed him to blend in with any political or racial demographic.

“In the early ’60s there weren’t many Asians living in America,” he recalls. “I never drew attention to myself. I was welcomed by the Ku Klux Klan, black folks, Native Americans. Being Asian was my great advantage. I’m a person of color, too — yellow!”

Kubota minimizes the distance between himself and his subjects, both emotionally and physically.

“I need to be close. Close enough that they can kick me.” He punctuates this statement, as well as most others, with a toothy grin. His offbeat humor belies the somber, respectful tone of his photos.

His empathy for his subjects comes across strongest in his work across East Asia that culminated in the book “Can We Feed Ourselves?” a project concerned with food shortages and poverty in the developing world.

“It’s an important question, and one that we still haven’t answered. ‘Can we feed ourselves?'” he muses. “Malnutrition includes obesity too, you know. It’s a problem for America as well.”

If photos have the power to raise social awareness, they also have the power to heal. Kubota spent several years in the ’80s photographing two symbols of the ancestral ties between North and South Korea: Mount Kumgang along the Demilitarized Zone and Mount Paektu on the border of North Korea and China. When the exhibition opened in Seoul in 1987, “People were crying. Half a million came to the five-city tour.” His tone turns serious. “At the time I thought Korea would be reunited before Germany. But history is ironic, you know.”

Kubota says he plans to return to Pyongyang in summer to provide photos for an academic text by Bruce Cumings, chairman of the Department of History at the University of Chicago.

Throughout his accomplishments and accolades Kubota has retained a reverence for his mentor, Erwitt.

“I still have much to learn from Elliott,” he says. “If it wasn’t for him I never would have gone to New York, never become a cameraman. I’d have ended up on the board of some company and be long since retired. But my doctor says my body is good for another 20 years. Maybe I can do another retrospective to celebrate my 90th birthday. Motivation keeps you going. The hard part is staying relevant.”


“The world is so interesting. There’s beauty everywhere. You don’t have to go far to shoot something meaningful. I’m lucky to be able to pursue what I enjoy most. What a luxury,” Kubota reflects, content, but still wanting more.

“Hiroji Kubota Photographer” is published by Aperture. For more information, visit


More info at magnum Photos:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Funny/Weird Japan-related Videos

"Can you spot what’s odd about this Japanese classroom?"

From Japan Today, October 23, 2015

So what about this commercial? It looks so normal at first; it’s just a bunch of high school girls hanging out in a classroom, playing a guitar, reading, whatever. But then, right in the middle, something happens. Watch it for yourself and see if you can figure it out before the reveal.


In the end this was a SHISEIDO makeup commercial, and they finish with the tagline “anyone can be cute.” Hear that guys? There’s nothing wrong with a little exfoliation/moisturization in your life.


"Oita lures travelers with wonderful montage of synchronized hot spring bathing"

From Japan Today, October 24, 2015

For prefectures to separate themselves from the rest and showcase what makes them special, they have to do something grand. In Oita Prefecture, this means presenting their world-famous hot springs with a synchronized swimming team in what can only be known as “synchronized bathing”.

Oita is one of the nine prefectures that make up the island of Kyushu and is most famous in Japan for its diversified selection of natural hot springs, or onsen. People around the country travel to Oita and soak in water that is heated by volcanic activity. To show off a number of their its best onsen, Oita recruited the help of a professional synchronized swim team. You’ve definitely never seen hot springs enjoyed quite like this.

The women travel all over the prefecture, stopping at all styles and kinds of hot springs. This includes a visit to Oita’s famous sand baths and mud baths in Beppu.


Friday, October 23, 2015

"Japan to allow hearing aid-dependent persons to drive taxis, buses"

From Japan Today, 10/22/15:

The National Police Agency on Thursday released a plan to allow hearing aid-dependent persons to obtain a license required for driving taxis and buses in Japan.

The agency will revise the ordinance of the road traffic law, which will be open to public comments until Nov 21 before taking effect on April 1.

“We have made a step forward in expanding the occupational field for hearing-impaired people,” said Masashi Matsumoto, director at the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, in welcoming the plan.

“We will tackle an enlightenment campaign to have people understand that there is no problem with hearing-aid users’ driving,” he said. “In the future, we would like to pave the way for anyone to get that kind of license irrespective of hearing-aid use.”

The revision will ease the present requirement for any person to hear a 90-decibel horn 10 meters away without a hearing aid to obtain a second-class license.

The move comes after the agency, in cooperation with groups of hearing-impaired people, conducted experiments since fiscal 2013 and demonstrated that there are no safety problems with driving by such people.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

"More firms offer mail-in HIV tests, but many lack follow-up support"

Graph and text from The Japan News, October 15, 2015.

A record high of 77,588 HIV screening tests were conducted by private firms through the mail last year, but some companies still do not have an adequate support system for users who test positive amid the rising popularity of this inexpensive testing method.

In a survey by a group of researchers led by lecturer and microbiology expert Shingo Kato of Keio University’s School of Medicine, the number of mail-in HIV screening tests conducted by private companies was about 3,600 in 2001, the year the survey began. The figure has increased year by year.

The tests’ growing popularity stems from the advantage of users being able to ask companies for HIV screening tests without having to meet other people face-to-face. They are also free of the time constraints involved in having to visit a medical institution.

Users can purchase test kits for about ¥2,000 to ¥8,000 each. They are asked to draw a blood sample from a fingertip and mail it to an inspection firm, which will confirm the results by mail, e-mail or on their website. The process takes a few days to a week.

The mail-in screening test is only a preliminary examination, however — a blood sample that tests positive could actually be a “false positive,” meaning the individual does not actually have HIV. Users who receive a positive result must follow up by undergoing a more detailed examination at a medical institution.

According to Kato, however, many of the private businesses offering mail-in HIV screening services only inform users of the initial test results and leave follow-up actions entirely in the hands of individuals.

Public institutions, such as public health centers, offer HIV tests free of charge on an anonymous basis. Users can gain a good understanding of their results, since doctors will give a detailed explanation in face-to-face consultations.

However, many of these public institutions only offer screening tests on fixed days of the week or during certain times of the day.

The number of HIV screening tests at public institutions stood at about 177,000 in 2008, but in recent years the figure has decreased to the 130,000-140,000 range.

Private firms offering mail-in HIV screening services started emerging around the year 2000. There are now about 10 such companies across Japan, and their numbers are reportedly on the rise.

“There’s a possibility that users are not getting adequate explanations about their screening results,” Kato said, “since mail-in services don’t offer face-to-face consultations in which proper explanations can be given.”

He also pointed out the need to prepare and improve operational guidelines for the screening system so that proper medical treatment can be offered to those who are in need of it.

Based in Osaka city, ALBA Corporation Co. conducts about 20,000 mail-in HIV tests in a year — with 30 to 40 of the cases testing positive. The company said it offers follow-up services for users who test positive, including introductions to medical institutions that provide detailed confirmatory examinations as well as consultations to support them.

“The industry needs to establish criteria to protect the safety and credibility of HIV examinations,” said Kazushi Manda, the president of ALBA Corporation.


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"'No dogs allowed': Why one service dog was refused entrance to these restaurants in Japan"

Photo and text borrowed from Japan Today, October 18, 2015.

It was Saturday, October 3 when a hearing-impaired woman and her service dog, a hearing dog for the deaf, attended an event promoting the awareness of service dogs at the Hankyu department store at Hankyu-Umeda Station in Osaka. After the event, the unnamed woman, her dog, and a friend went for a bite to eat at one of the restaurants located inside the same department store on the same floor as the event. Ironically enough, and much to the surprise of the woman, a member of staff stopped her from entering the restaurant, stating that animals were not allowed inside.

The woman’s friend pulled out a guidebook about hearing dogs for the deaf, trying to explain that the dog wasn’t a pet but an animal trained to assist its owner. The staff still refused, however, and the pair finally gave up and went elsewhere, thinking that it must have just been an unfortunate misunderstanding. Perhaps this was just one uninformed staff member who didn’t realize service animals are actually allowed in public places, they thought.

But even at the next restaurant they were turned away yet again…

Just like in numerous other countries, Japan has laws which state that individuals with guide, hearing, or mobility dogs may not be denied access to any facility open to the general public such as hotels, public transportation, and yes, even restaurants. The Access Law for Service Dogs was passed in Japan in 2002, just over a decade after the United States’ Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which included laws protecting access rights for people with assistance dogs.

Still, more than 10 years after the legislation was passed, there are many who are still unaware of the law’s existence (or who possibly deny access to service dogs in spite of the law).

The woman with her hearing dog and friend were finally allowed into the third restaurant they tried. This wasn’t the first occasion she had been turned away from a public establishment because of her service dog, yet it was particularly crushing for her as the service dog awareness event had just been held in the same department store and on the very same floor where the restaurants were located. It seems that maybe a couple of people who didn’t attend the event should have.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing is far more common than it should be. According to an article by ZENOAQ: “The Japan Guide Dog Association conducted a survey in 2004 asking random members of the public about legal access rights for service dog users. Of approximately 500 people who replied, nearly half were unaware of the law passed to protect these rights. Under the current access law, public buildings, public transportation, and facilities open to the general public, such as stores and hotels, may not deny access to people with guide dogs, hearing dogs, and mobility dogs.

“Recently, 100 guide dog users were interviewed to assess the current situation. 52 stated that they had experienced denial of access at some time even after the passing of the aforementioned law. Of those facilities that refused entry, restaurants ranked the highest at 32, followed by taxis, hotels (mainly Japanese-style inns), and privately owned hospitals…”

Yes, the survey was conducted only two years after the law had passed, but the fact that it is still happening more than 10 years later is rather disconcerting.

In addition to apologizing directly to the woman concerned, on October 7, the Hankyu Department Store posted an official apology on their homepage, promising to retrain their staff and take other necessary measures to ensure the same thing does not happen again.

The woman says even though she was hurt by the experience, she will continue to spread the word in order to ensure others with service dogs will not have to go through the same thing.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"Deaf student plans thesis in sign language"

Photo, chart and story borrowed from The Japan News, October 15, 2015.

A graduate school student, born without the ability to hear, has become the first person in Japan to undertake the challenge of completing a master’s degree thesis through sign language instead of by means of written Japanese.

Shinya Kawabata, 36, studying at the Japan College of Social Work in Kiyose, western Tokyo, has been video recording the sign-language thesis for presentation in DVD format to the graduate school. He has been receiving sign-language instruction from Prof. Kurumi Saito, a specialist in linguistics.

Mitsuji Hisamatsu, chief of the secretariat of the Japanese Federation of the Deaf (JDF), points out the challenges students with hearing disabilities face. “Because answers to examinations and theses at a great majority of universities in Japan have to be written in Japanese, those deaf-mute students who are good at sign language but not so good at the Japanese language have been greatly disadvantaged,” he said.

Kawabata and Prof. Saito aimed to put sign-language theses on the same level as written ones. In exchanges between the two, Kawabata posed such questions as, “How does one quote part of a thesis written by another researcher?” to which Prof. Saito replied, “When you quote a researcher’s thesis for the first time, you should spell out the person’s full name and make it clear what page of the thesis you have made the quotation from.”

In addition to his hearing disability, Kawabata also identifies as gay. After entering the graduate course of the college in April last year, he has been studying methods of supporting “dual minority” individuals who are both deaf-mute and members of one or more sexual minority groups known collectively as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender).

As the title of his master’s thesis, Kawabata has chosen “Support for the deaf LGBT by means of sign language.”

In addition to describing the current state of the deaf LGBT community, he is incorporating into his thesis key points for social workers to take into account when giving advice to deaf and LGBT persons. These include “being aware of the existence of people who do not belong to the ‘man or woman’ categories” and “refraining from communicating via e-mail at times when face-to-face sign language communication is necessary.”

Because sign language and the Japanese language differ widely in both vocabulary and grammar, many deaf-mute people find it hard to read and write in Japanese. Kawabata is literate in Japanese to some extent, but has found it difficult to write a master’s degree thesis in the language.

Prof. Saito thus came up with a proposal in July that led college authorities to change the rule on graduate school theses and agree to accept “sign-language theses” in addition to ones written in Japanese and English. Prof. Saito noted that Kawabata’s sign-language master’s thesis is the first to be undertaken in Japan.

For the project, Kawabata uses video cameras and other devices to record himself signing the contents of respective chapters. After sending the recorded chapters to Prof. Saito for review, Kawabata rerecords them in response to instructions given by the professor in sign language or through e-mails. His goal is to capture each chapter in a 10-minute video.

“Although I earlier thought that, in spite of the difficulties, there would be no alternative to writing my thesis in Japanese, I now feel relieved that presentation of my thesis in sign language has been approved,” he said with a smile. As Prof. Saito put it, “I earnestly wished to enable Kawabata to produce his thesis in sign language, by which he will be able to express whatever meaning he wishes to convey.”

Kawabata finished recording the thesis in mid-September, with the finished product constituting about two hours of video in total. After undergoing one more round of review by Prof. Saito, the thesis is scheduled to be transferred to DVD format for presentation to the graduate school in January next year. A Japanese translation of the thesis, completed with the help of a sign language interpreter, will be added to the DVD as reference material, the professor said.

“We would like to see this country turn into a society in which everyone is able to express his or her ideas and opinions in either Japanese or sign language and receive appropriate evaluations for each of them,” Hisamitsu said.

Measures for popularizing sign language have been spreading both at home and abroad.

In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with the aim of positioning sign language as equal to spoken languages and helping expand the places in which sign language can be used. About 50,000 people use sign language in Japan, according to a survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry conducted in 2006.

The number of local governments that have issued “sign language promotion ordinances” to encourage the use of sign language currently stands at 18 across the country, including Tottori and Kanagawa prefectures. Services for helping people use sign language have also been increasing among local municipalities and in the private sector.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

So-called Manga Artist Mocks Syrian Refugee

Photo by Jonathan Hyams 

From The Japan Times, October 8, 2015.

Manga artist removes illustration mocking Syrian refugee

A manga artist behind a Facebook illustration labeling a refugee from Syria a selfish freeloader has taken it down at the request of a photographer who criticized her for distorting his work.

On her Facebook account Thursday, artist Toshiko Hasumi refused to apologize, claiming her illustration, based on a photo of a girl at a refugee settlement in Lebanon taken by Canadian documentary photographer Jonathan Hyams, did not constitute copyright infringement.

Hasumi, however, explained she deleted the illustration at Hyams’ request early Wednesday because “the fact remains I have caused him enormous trouble.”

“But I will not apologize no matter what,” she said. “Because unlike in Japan, you’re destined to lose in a court battle overseas once you’ve admitted to your fault.”

The illustration contains a thought bubble that says: “I want to live a safe and clean life, have a gourmet meal, go out freely, wear pretty things and luxuriate. I want to live my life the way I want without a care in the world — all at the expense of someone else.

“I have an idea. Why don’t I become a refugee?”
it concludes.

Hasumi rejected accusations it was racist, claiming she did not seek to denigrate Syrians, she told The Japan Times.

Instead, she said, it was meant to ridicule economic migrants “pursing a safer, more comfortable life in a foreign land under the guise of pitiable asylum seekers.”

For his part, Hyams was quick to express shock at the illustration on Twitter: “Shocked + deeply saddened anyone would choose to use an image of an innocent child to express such perverse prejudice,” he said.

“What a shameful misrepresentation of the plight of the Syrian people,” he continued, adding the photo was taken for the independent charity organization Save the Children.

An online furor has broken out in response to Hasumi’s illustration, with the number of signatures calling on Facebook to recognize it as racism totaling more than 10,000 as of Thursday.


A BBC report provides more information and context. It reports that Japan has offered to donate $810 million to help Syrian and Iraqi refugees but refuses to take in any of these refugees. Last year Japan accepted only 11 of 5,000 potential asylum seekers.

The so-called manga artist also posts anti-Korean posts on her Facebook page.

While there has been discussion of copyright infringement of the photographer, what about the image rights of the girl? Or better yet, did the so-called manga artist get permission from the girl's parents? Why did this so-called manga artist need "inspiration" from an underage girl? Was there any research done on the actual situation of the girl?

VAOJ will not show the problematic illustration.

Read more at (and see the ugly image if you want...):