Author: Daniel Fandino

Digital Life, the Eternal Now, and the End of Linear Time

Digital Life, the Eternal Now, and the End of Linear Time

You’ve seen it happen. A photo from years ago suddenly appears on social media with a new comment, and the original poster wonders why anyone would drag up such an old picture. To them, the photo is firmly rooted in the past as they are able to place the moment at a specific point in time. To observers who come across a picture online, there is rarely such context provided. Without that context, without any indicators explaining where in the progression of a life the photos and the objects we choose to depict online fall, they exist in a state of temporal grace outside the notion of any sort of linear continuity. The digital lives we create are increasingly divorced from our history.

Once upon a time, the recorded moments and material objects that made up the story of a human life read like a book. Akin to chapter titles and page numbers, discernible markers popped up along the way to guide an observer from the beginning to the end of the tale: the hues of a 1970s Polaroid, a tarnished swim trophy, dates neatly inscribed at the beginning of diary entries, scribbled notations on ubiquitous high school book covers professing the undying belief that Van Halen will rule forever. We order the artifacts of life to reflect how we want to be seen at the moment, who we are that that point in time, picking and choosing from the past to form our present. What came before was distinct from what came after. When not on display, when no longer instrumental to daily life, these artifacts and images are discarded or packed away like geological strata by the internal logic of time and place. College mementos don’t quite seem right going in the same bin as yellowed grade school drawings. Photos of friends have their own place, separate from the matching smiles and sweaters of family pictures. A photo of an ex, no matter how happy the relationship, probably won’t be found sitting on the mantle next to the kids at Disney.

As the details of life transfer to the digital world, the markers of space and time fall away in the transition. Consider the last time you saw a friend’s children or their new medal for participating in a marathon. Was it in person, or an Instagrammed image? Faced with displaying our lives online, unable to translate the material things that provide an anchor to our sense of self, we export an image of the object online as surely as we upload a digital image of ourselves. Our material objects become flattened into data, easily shareable, easily displayed—and just easily mis-categorized. Everything can be translated to the digital world, from lunch to a new car. Photography has assumed primacy in our online social worlds, and the ease of a photo eclipses the new novelty of text. Now armed with an excess of data about our lives, there is a paucity of information or context. 300 photos of a Paris trip emerge on social media with little detail or explanation as to their contents. As easy as it has become to upload an image, it is time consuming and tedious to caption these pictures, to track down the exact name of a hostel, or to remember to tag everyone from that weird night after the game. In its place is a void, empty of markers and expository text that is conspicuous by its absence. Objects and photos in the physical world retain a sense of time and space—and if necessary the reassurance of impermanence. We can eliminate physical pieces of our past if need be. Images of objects and photos in the digital world defy such constraints.

When information about a moment does appear, it scarcely lends itself to categorizing the moment in neat folders, or in the understandable context of now and then. Tags exacerbate the matter.  #bestdayever, #friendsforlife, and #totallyworthit speak to an eternal instant that can be any moment in life. The digital world compounds our declining grasp on time and space by offering a self that exists in an eternal now. The result is that much of the personal information online sits divorced from time and place, standing side by side with all the other moments of life captured or translated to a digital medium. It’s a grand museum, a testament to the complexity of a human life and of every decision, every triumph, every quiet moment involved in the evolution of a person. Yet it is a permanent museum without a curator, an exhibition of jumbled, disconnected moments deposited next to each other without rhyme or reason that can never be fully erased. Your photo of college graduation exists in the same space and the same moment as your high school prom, your 37th Starbucks latte, or the regrettable night spent pining for an lost love through sad selfies. What does it say about who you are now, if the path of your life explodes in uncountable directions all around you rather than as a progression of who you were, to who you are, to who you will be?

What to take away from this disassociation is the idea that building a digital life needs to develop a better sense of time and place. The idea everything needs to stay online forever is as problematic as believing every photo belongs on display in a home. Archiving an online space is as essential as cleaning your room. Our digital spaces are not a giant closet—everything doesn’t just go into one place without consequences. If our digital selves are to reflect who we are, it means updating and developing the spaces we inhabit online as we move along in life. Oh, and tagging photos with the date. Your future biographer will thank you.

This post first appeared as a column in Digital America on November 18, 2014.

winter iteration // aaawunder mix
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The Politics of Dancing: Love Live, Population Decline and School Closures in Japan

The Politics of Dancing: Love Live, Population Decline and School Closures in Japan

The central plot element around which the storylines of Love Live: School Idol Festival and its successor Love Live Sunshine are draped is the imminent closure of the protagonists schools. In both series, the main characters rally together to become school idols in order to attract new students to enroll and in doing so save their institutions. To Western viewers, the closure of the schools might be regarded as simply a convenient plot device to add dramatic tension, urgency and legitimacy to the main characters quest for school idol stardom, a maguffin that is easily accepted in order to proceed with the story. The scenario also calls to mind the classic cinematic tradition of underdog films such as Meatballs 2, PCU, Animal House or even Major League, where the authorities are planning to shut down the summer camp/fraternity/baseball club and the plucky heroes must save their beloved institutions. However the subject of school closures in Love Live is not merely a narrative framing device but an issue that speaks to an increasingly serious problem within Japan, an issue that has resonance with Japanese audiences while being relatively opaque to Western viewers.

Umi, Honoka and Kotori react to the news their school will be closing. Umi, best girl, keeping her cool.

Japan’s population is on the decline, with the Japanese government estimating a drop from 126 million people in 2017 to approximately 88 million in 2065. The Japanese population is also aging rapidly, with projections seeing 40% of the population older than 65 by 2065. With a diminishing, older population, resources are being shifted towards providing services for the elderly while the need for schools is decreasing as there are increasingly fewer Japanese of school age. Schools are facing being closed down or combined as enrollment numbers fall.

On the other side of the coin, a diminishing pool of available students means competition is now becoming intense between schools. Unlike American public schools where placement is usually a geographical matter, schools in Japan have entrance examinations which a student must pass to earn a place–a common element in school related anime. Where schools could once afford to be extremely selective, now even prestigious institutions must consider allowing admission to students with lower scores in order to maintain their student body size and ensure their future. Arguably, the new need to attract students is threatening to lead to a decline in entrance standards, which in turn threatens to erode not only the reputation of Japan’s premier institutions but also the quality of their graduates. Schools hurting for students now must weigh their survival versus maintaining a certain standard. How low do you go? Certain high schools in Japan have connected universities and guarantee admission to students who successfully graduate–successful meaning passing, even if barely. It is a lack of new students opting to apply to Love Live’s Otonokizaka Academy that puts the school on the knife’s edge of closure. Private schools in particular are dependent on attracting students to stay open. For parents and students this means they now hold the whip hand.

Aquors reacts to the news that Uranohoshi Girls’ Academy is scheduled to be closed. P.S. Yoshiko, Love Live Sunshine best girl.

Consider the situation of Otonokizaka Academy, the primary setting of Love Live School Idol Festival. After protagonists Umi, Kotori and Honoka learn their school is going to close, the three attempt to figure out what about their school can be attractive to new students.  A sweet location somewhere near Akihabara and Kanda shrine notwithstanding, the trio come up empty handed except for vague allusions to the school’s rich past. The schools clubs and achievements, they notice with some chagrin, are lackluster. It is this lack of any other distinguishing characteristic that motivates the three schoolgirls to form an idol group after Honoka notices the reputation of UTX, a flashy new school, is bolstered by the presence of the popular school idol group A-RISE. Although the series focuses on the impact of A-RISE on enrollment, it should also be noted that UTX has elements which Otonokizaka and the girls cannot easily compensate for. After the tour of the traditional Otonokizaka with unimpressive results, the brief glimpse of UTX is one of an ultramodern school. The takeaway for viewers is that UTX is a more technologically advanced school, with amenities and impressive facilities not found in Otonokizaka. A second season episode shows UTX has a coffee house and cafeteria with flat screen televisions and students in sleek white modern uniforms. Compare that to Uranohoshi Girls’ Academy in Love Live Sunshine, where Dia ruefully notes that the classrooms do not even have air conditioning as the Aqours girls languish in the summer heat. Which school would a student rather attend, if given the choice?

The UDX building in Akihabara, the real world inspiration for UTX.

In a sense, μ’s had it easier than Aqours in trying to save their school. As a rural school, Uranohoshi Girls’ Academy faces the double whammy of decreasing enrollment and the tendency for young adults to move towards major population centers. Even today, concern is rising that students are eschewing quality regional universities in favor of schools in the major cities. The Japanese government is considering imposing restrictions on student enrollment in Tokyo to prevent even greater flight of youth from rural areas to the urban centers. Ultimately, the efforts of μ’s and Aqours to save their schools come to very different conclusions. μ’s is victorious in Love Live and is able to gain enough new applicants to keep Otonokizaka Academy open. Although they come close, Aqours, despite also winning Love Live, are unable to save their school and prevent its closure.

Perversely, the population pressure on schools comes as the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT} is reassessing the current decades old yutori educational philosophy (ゆとり教育). Yutori education or “relaxed education” sought to end the strict, pressure-cooker Japanese educational environment and did away with compulsory Saturday classes. However, rising sentiment is of the opinion yutori education has weakened the abilities of a generation of Japanese students and stricter school standards need to be reintroduced. How the two concepts will reconcile is a question that is looming over the Japanese educational system. It is worth noting μ’s and Aqours both spend a great deal of time practicing to be school idols while apparently doing just fine in classes.

School idols aside, the differences between UTX and Otonokizaka Academy reflects to some degree the more consumer-driven emphasis in modern American education. What can Japanese schools offer a student is now the imperative, rather than the other way around. The situation is mirrored to a different degree in American universities. Facing budget crunches, many U.S. universities are opting to improve the undergraduate experience in order to draw in more students, as undergrads increasingly bear the costs incurred by schools. New dorms, lazy rivers, and enhanced football facilities often come at the cost of funding the academic side of universities.

Personally though, I would prefer some school idols.


  • Japan’s population projected to plunge to 88 million by 2065 –
  • Student count, knowledge sliding –
  • Universities Struggle to Cope with Shrinking Population and Globalization –
  • Japan considers limits to enrollment in Tokyo colleges to promote regional school –
  • Japanese school reforms fail to make grade –
The American Occupation of Japan and the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Village

The American Occupation of Japan and the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Village

The 1964 Olympics had a profound impact on the urban landscape of Tokyo as the city restructured itself to host the Games. The cost of the Olympics were substantial, ballooning to nearly half a billion dollars compared to the modest 30 million dollar spending on the 1960 Rome Games. The Japanese government saw the Games as means to re-enter the global stage and present an advanced and peaceful Japan to the world. New venues were constructed while existing facilities were repurposed or renovated. However, for the Olympic Village, the housing meant for the athletes, a ready made solution presented itself to the planning committee courtesy of the American Occupation of Japan.

After Japan’s surrender on August 15 1945, 350000 U.S. troops entered the island nation as part of the Occupation force. With Tokyo devastated, housing was required for American military personnel and eventually their tens of thousands of dependents. In Shibuya a former Imperial Japanese military parade ground was turned over to U.S. authorities and renamed Washington Heights. Japanese workers built hundreds of homes and Washington Heights quickly became a small enclave of America within Tokyo. Aside from over 800 houses, Washington Heights held schools, stores, churches and all the amenities of home for the soldiers and their families. Streets were given names like Chestnut and Sycamore while Japanese citizens were not allowed within the tightly guarded community, which was separated from the rest of Shibuya.

The last remaining house of the Washington Heights complex in Yoyogi Park.

The Washington Heights military housing area remained under U.S. control even after the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco ended the Occupation a short seven years after it began and returned the Japanese government to power. Despite the end of the Occupation, the U.S. retained a sizeable number of troops within Japan, a state of affairs that was exacerbated by the ongoing Korean War. By 1961 however, the successful bid by Japan to host the 1964 Games meant that the large amount of land occupied by Washington Heights, encompassing nearly a million square meters, was needed for Olympic facilities. American military families were moved to new housing to the west of Shibuya in Chofu. Some homes were then converted into the Olympic Village for athletes while the rest of the community was leveled to make room for the new National Gymnasium and annex building, which hosted the swimming, diving and basketball events.

The National Gymnasium

Washington Heights was not the only such complex in Tokyo. Narimasu airfield in Nerima ward was similarly handed over to U.S. authorities and was transformed into the Grant Heights community for American military families. Grant Heights was also eventually returned to the Japanese government and is now the site of modern day Hikarigaoka Park and related housing developments.

High rise buildings now occupy the land where the 1964 Olympic Village and the Washington Heights military housing complex once stood.

After the Olympics the Village was demolished to make way for new construction–and despite the successful Games, erase a highly visible reminder of the American Occupation. A large swatch of land north of the National Gymnasium was turned into modern day Yoyogi Park in 1967. The only existing remnant of Washington Heights and the Olympic Village is a single house, preserved in a corner of Yoyogi Park. A commemorative plaque explains the use of the building during the Olympics and the origin of the surrounding garden but leaves out any mention of the American Occupation or of the Washington Heights complex.

The commemorative plaque in front of the sole surviving Washington Heights/Olympic Village building.

References and further reading

  • The 1964 Tokyo Olympics: A Turning Point for Japan –
  • Olympic construction transformed Tokyo –
  • Washington Heights Housing Complex –
  • A Look Back at When Tokyo was Awarded 1964 Olympics –
  • The Games of the XVIII Olympiaid Tokyo 1964: The Official Report of the Organizing Committee
Skyfall: The Fighting Temeraire

Skyfall: The Fighting Temeraire

In a scene in the 2012 film Skyfall, James Bond sits in the National Gallery, silently contemplating a painting when he is joined by Q. Q briefly remarks on the painting before identifying himself to a visibly irritated 007. While the moment serves as the introduction of the new Quartermaster, it also underscores the tension between the new and old as well as the question of Bond’s place in the modern world, major thematic components of Skyfall. This is done in part by making a connection between Bond and the ship in the painting, a familiar icon to many British.

Bond and Q contemplate obsolescence, modernity and relevance in Skyfall.

“It always makes me feel a little melancholy. A grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?

“A bloody big ship.”

Q and Bond, Skyfall

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838 is a painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner, arguably one of the greatest of all British artists. The artwork itself was voted Britain’s favorite painting in a BBC radio poll in 2005. The 98 gun HMS Temeraire was built as a second rate ship of the line in 1798, one of three Neptune class vessels. She was named for a French ship captured by the British in 1759, which then served out a career in the Royal Navy under the same name. (For the curious, téméraire means “reckless” in French.) The designation “second rate” was by no means a commentary on the ships worthiness in battle but rather an indication the vessel was smaller and less expensive than the costly and valuable first rates. As such, second rate ships often sent on missions and formed the core of fleets, while the relatively rare first rate vessels were often considered too valuable to risk on anything other than the greatest of engagements.

Fun fact: The naval term “first rate” used to describe the most powerful Royal Navy ships is the origin of the modern term “first rate” to describe anything optimal or excellent.

The Temeraire served a generally quiet career, seeing a major fleet action only once at the Battle of Trafalgar. There the Temeraire was credited with saving the HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Nelson, taking on two French ships at once and emerging victorious after a bloody fight. The ships actions earned accolades and a place in the hearts and minds of the British people, as well as the nickname, “The Fighting Temeraire.”

Yet time, as Q notes, erases worldly glory. After becoming obsolete as a warship, the Temeraire passed through a number of roles, including time as a prison ship and a guard vessel. Eventually, the ship was ordered to be scrapped and was taken under tow by to the shipbreakers. While no longer viable as a warship, the fame of the Temeraire remained and thousands came to view the last days of the ship.

Turner painted the artwork in 1838. It is worth noting that Turner took artistic license with his painting, as the Temeraire was stripped of its masts and rigging and was towed by two tugs, not just one. Rather than serving as an accurate impression of the last voyage of the Temeraire, Turner imbues the painting with symbolism representing the end of an era.

The themes of the painting underscores Skyfall‘s depiction of Bond as a agent past his prime, struggling to remain relevant in a world that discards old warriors. It also mirrors the relationship between Bond and Q, evoking the idea of the new surpassing the old, reflected in Q and Bond’s testy exchange. The Temeraire being hauled away by a steamship is akin to the gap in technology in Skyfall, where Bond’s martial skills are of questionable use in a world of hackers and cybercrimes, where an errant hard drive is more dangerous than a gun. Like the Bond franchise, the Temeraire is depicted as a glorious old warship of a bygone era, while the dark, dirty steam tug of the modern world mostly obscures it on its final voyage. Unlike the Temeraire, Bond survives and redefines himself, even if it may only be to die another day.

References and further readings

  • Skyfall, 2012 – Directed by Sam Mendes
  • “Towing the Temeraire: A drawing rediscovered” –
  • Skyfall and the Importance of Thematic Clarity –
  • “Reboot, Rebirth, Repeat: Skyfall” –


The Origins of Godzilla: Castle Bravo and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru

The Origins of Godzilla: Castle Bravo and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru

Often lost in the modern fan fascination over kaiju and the status of Godzilla as a pop culture icon is the fact that the origin of the King of Monsters is inextricably bound to the atomic age, the fear of nuclear Armageddon and the anxiety over Japanese experiences during World War II. While the Godzilla films in general allegorically speak to the danger of nuclear weapons, one incident in particular served to spark the genesis of Japan’s signature monster: the 1954 Castle Bravo test and the accidental irradiation of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru.

The Godzilla statue in Shinjuku.

The Castle Bravo nuclear test took place on March 1, 1954 on the Bikini Atoll, a part of the Marshall Islands. It was the first attempt by the United States to detonate a dry fuel hydrogen bomb and the latest in a series of nuclear tests that had been conducted since the end of World War II. In the early morning hours of March 1st, the Castle Bravo device exploded with a force of 15 megatons, 1000 times the power of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs. The force of the explosion stunned US authorities, who vastly underestimated the destructive power of the bomb, pegging the expected output at ‘only’ 5 to 6 megatons. The bomb blasted the coral of the atoll into a fine powder which absorbed radioactivity. The ash was then blown into the air and carried by the winds. The Castle Bravo test remains the fifth most powerful nuclear explosion in history to this day.

The unexpected strength of the test combined with strong winds meant the fallout from the explosion covered a much larger area than originally anticipated. The Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (sometimes referred to as Lucky or Fortunate Dragon Number 5) lay in the path of the fallout, although the ship was just outside of the announced danger zone. Reports indicate the ship was covered by the fallout dust, which stuck to to clothing and hair. The crew, unaware of the danger, resorted to scooping the ash off the vessel by hand. Upon their return to Japan, the 23 members of the ship’s crew were found to be suffering from acute radiation poisoning. One crew member would die a few months later from related causes. Fear over contaminated fish led Japanese authorities to bury thousands of tons of tuna.

The Daigo Fukuryū Maru inside the Exhibition Hall

The massive fallout and the plight of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru‘s crew became worldwide news, showing that the effect of a nuclear explosion was not limited to those in the area of direct damage. The widespread fallout reached Australia, Japan, parts of Europe and the United States. The Castle Bravo test galvanized anti-nuclear activists and struck a chord within Japan, already grappling with the legacy of the recent atomic bombings and the uncertain position of the country in the developing Cold War. The lingering concerns over the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were brought back to the surface by the sickened fishermen. Combined with the fallout from the test, Japan was once again threatened by the use of nuclear weapons.

Soon after the Castle Bravo test, Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was returning to Japan after a failed attempt to film a movie in Indonesia. With the unexpected impact of the Castle Bravo test and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident in mind, Tanaka quickly came up with a story provisionally titled The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea and presented it to the studio. Toho bosses approved the concept and work began on the film in April of 1954. Eventually the movie and titular monster were named Gojira (ゴジラ), a portmanteau of gorira (ゴリラ, gorilla) and kujira (, whale).

After a very rapid process of development and filming, Gojira was released in November of 1954 and a cultural phenomena was born. The connection to Castle Bravo and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru is referenced in the movie’s opening scene, which depicts the crew of a ship relaxing before a sudden blinding burst of light explodes in the distance, quickly consuming the vessel in an inferno. The ship burns as the radio operators tap out a final distress call before the vessel is lost, destroyed by a force outside of their understanding or control. The scene both calls to mind Japan’s position in regards to the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and the danger posed to all humanity. The 2014 American reboot directly incorporates a 1954 Bikini Atoll atomic explosion into its narrative, postulating that the test was actually a failed attempt to kill Godzilla. However, much of the archival footage shown is of the 1946 Baker explosion, part of the earlier Operation Crossroads tests. Little data is available from the Castle Bravo explosion, as the higher than expected power of the test vaporized the scientific equipment meant to record information.

From the opening credits of the 2014 film Godzilla.

Today, the King of Monsters is an ambassador for Japan, a pop culture icon known across the world. The general perception of Godzilla is one far removed from the sickness and destruction fresh in the minds of Japanese filmmakers in the 1950s. The Bikini Atoll remains uninhabitable due to high levels of residual radiation. The Daigo Fukuryu Maru itself was deemed safe after inspection and decontamination and returned to service on the seas. Renamed the Hayabusa Maru the ship was put to use as a training vessel until it was scheduled to be scrapped in 1967. Upon learning of the ship’s impending destruction, the governor of Tokyo intervened to save the vessel. With the original name restored, the ship is preserved inside the Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall in a quiet park on the edge of Tokyo, a silent memorial to the unleashing of monsters both real and imagined.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall.

References and Further Readings

  • The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters – ed. by Jeffery Andrew Weinstock
  • “Godzilla’s Secret History” –
  • Official web site of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall –
  • “Castle Bravo: Fifty Years of Legend and Lore” – by Thomas Kunkle and Bryon Ristvet
  • The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki – ed. by Mark I. West
Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza and the Fear of a Rising Japan

Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza and the Fear of a Rising Japan

For some, John McTiernan’s 1988 Die Hard has undergone a cultural transformation into the unlikely position of a favorite Christmas classic. The setting of the film on Christmas Eve and the inclusion of Christmas in Hollis by Run DMC, Let It Snow over the end credits, and Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th playing as the terrorist/thieves loot the Nakatomi vault as as exuberantly as children opening presents have firmly cemented a connection between the holiday and the film in the minds of most viewers. Yet often overlooked is Die Hard‘s intentional subtextual commentary on the state of America in the late 1980s and the fear of a rising Japan overtaking the United States. It was a fear that appears alien today, with Japan viewed more positively for its popular culture.

Die Hard is based on Roderick Thorpe’s 1977 novel Nothing Last Forever and adapts many elements of the book fairly faithfully, including some of the more iconic moments seen on film such as the final confrontation between Gruber and McClane. However, one major change to the setting of the book influenced the entire tone of the film and reflected a pervasive social anxiety over Japanese power in late 1980s and early 1990s America. Thorpe’s novel was originally set in the headquarters of Klaxon Oil, a large American company. The film switched the firm to the Japanese Nakatomi Corporation. The change fit the times. Oil was a hot button topic in the late 1970s, as the two oil shocks, the gas crisis and clashes with OPEC dominated headlines. Japan was squarely in the news as a global competitor to the United States in the late 1980s–a rival that seemed to be winning on all fronts.

By the 1980s. Japan’s economy was firing on all cylinders. An unprecedented economic revival since the end of World War II had positioned Japan as the third largest economy in the world. Alongside this economic might appeared to be elements of a strong, stable society. Crime rates were very low compared to the States, the educational system was lauded as superior, living standards were high, companies cared for their employees, family was held in high regard, and Japanese technology was seen as the pinnacle of advancement. As Marty McFly stated in Back to the Future, “All the best stuff is made in Japan.” Japan in 1988 was seemingly an unstoppable powerhouse–but a fatal flaw lay at the heart of the Japanese economy.

Japan leveraged that economic power and began purchasing assets in the United States, eventually holding over a third of America’s total debt. Japan appeared ready to surpass America in global economic, if not military, power. This did not go over well with several groups within the United States, many of which took to Japan bashing or to argue for stronger sanctions in an economic showdown with an unexpected rival. The underlying tension in U.S. – Japanese relations in the late 1980s is evident in a short exchange of dialogue between John McClane and Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi:

McClane: You throw quite a party. I didn’t realize they celebrated Christmas in Japan.

Takagi: Hey, we’re flexible. Pearl Harbor didn’t work out so we got you with tape decks.

Another, more subtle reference to the state of the U.S. – Japanese relationship is found in the set design for the 30th floor of the Nakatomi Tower, where the Christmas party takes place. The exposed stone and waterfall design of the floor are replicas of elements of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a masterpiece of design by one of America’s greatest architects. The unspoken takeaway for the audience is that the Nakatomi Corporation purchased Fallingwater to serve as decoration for its headquarters, suggesting the sale and breaking up of America echoed in reality by the purchase of Rockefeller Center by Mitsubishi Estates in 1989. Reports stated that 30% of Hawaii and Los Angeles were owned by Japanese interests with 53 billion in American assets purchased, often more as a display of economic strength than economic practicality. The decision to use an architectural landmark rather than famous American paintings (works by Jackson Pollock and American Gothic come to mind), is again meant to evoke the then high-profile purchase of American property by Japanese firms. The result is a more visceral mental image, as it suggests the loss of territory, the expected outcome of a defeat in war. American icons are the prize of a dominant Japan, heritage displayed as trophies in the halls of a foreign power.

Pearl Harbor is also tangentially referenced again when Theo cracks the first code to the Nakatomi vault. The password is “akagi” which directly translated means “red castle” in Japanese. Akagi was also the name of one of the aircraft carriers that participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Business is war, after all.

Die Hard‘s subtext of Japanophobia is not unique. Other films of the era touch upon anti-Japanese sentiment and fear of Japanese economic dominance, including Michael Crichton’s 1992 thriller Rising Sun, which was turned into a mediocre film in 1993. Coincidentally, or perhaps simply reflective of the perceived financial power of Japanese companies buying up American real estate, Rising Sun also features a high rise building named Nakamoto Tower. Several other works use the fear of a rising Japan and an America outmatched by Japanese efficiency and sharp business sense in various ways, including Ron Howard’s 1986 comedy Gung Ho about an ailing American auto plant bought out by a Japanese firm. (Point of fact: The term “gung ho” is not derived from Japanese rather from Chinese. It is a commentary on the general lack of understanding about Japan that still persists to this day.)Tom Clancy’s 1994 novel Debt of Honor has the more outlandish premise of Japan going to war with the United States. A more speculative take on the eventual future of the U.S-Japanese rivalry can be found in the 1992 Emilio Estevez vehicle (pardon the pun) Freejack, where the United States has lost “the trade wars” against a vague Asian power (or powers). The growing influence of Japan upon the United States is seen in the costuming and art direction of Blade Runner and Demolition Man.

The anxiety about Japan buried in Die Hard was not simply restricted to entertainment. Like alien invasions of the 1950s or the zombie films of the 1990s, popular culture reflected the social anxieties of the times. Fear of what was seen to be unfair Japanese business practices and the impression of Japanese workers as superhuman were pervasive. Labor unions exhorted Americans to boycott Japanese products and buy American, particularly automobiles. Politicians and new organizations chimed in on the subject, such as Time magazine in a 1987 cover feature. Writers and academics also pursued the issue, resulting in scholarly analysis such as Politics and Productivity: The Real Story of Why Japan Works, The Enigma of Japanese Power, and Japan. Inc. More alarmist and Japanophobic books hit shelves like Trading Places: How We Are Giving Our Future to Japan and How to Reclaim It, Zaibatsu America: How Japanese Firms Are Colonizing Vital U.S. Industries, and The Japanese Conspiracy. These books either offered advice on how to better emulate Japanese business tactics or attempted to portray Japanese business strategies as a sinister attack on America, akin to a second Pearl Harbor.

The endgame for this particular form of Japanophobia in the United States came from within Japan. A property bubble had been building for years, as speculation drove land value in Japan to astronomical levels. As an example of the massive overvaluation of property, the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo were worth more on paper than the entire state of California. Stock prices also went soaring, fueled by a ready supply of currency. Japanese banks were inefficient and issuing bad loans, saddling themselves with debt. The central Bank of Japan was aware of the problems but did not react quickly enough to solve the issues. The result was the bubble bursting in 1992, resulting in losses of trillions of dollars and shattering the gears that propelled Japan’s economy. Japan entered the Lost Decade and has struggled to recover ever since. The undercurrent of anti-Japanese sentiment largely vanished from American popular culture and politics with the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy and a resurgence in the American economy in the early 1990s.


  • Japan-Bashing: Anti-Japanism since the 1980s by Narelle Morris
  • “Revisiting the ‘Revisionists’: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Economic Model” by Brink Lindsey and Aaron Lukas
  • Contemporary Japan by Jeff Kingston
  • The Bubble Economy: Japan’s Extraordinary Speculative Boom of the ’80s and the Dramatic Bust of the ’90s by Christopher Wood
  • Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan
Liberty Leading the People

Liberty Leading the People


Liberty Leading the People is a painting by noted Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix. The painting celebrates the July Revolution of 1830, which saw the end of the rule of King Charles X, the younger brother of King Louis XVII, the monarch famously beheaded during the French Revolution. The July Revolution installed a constitutional monarchy under the “Citizen King” Louis-Phillippe, so named since the revolution established that as king he drew his power from the will of the people. Louis-Phillippe himself would be deposed less than two decades later in the Revolution of 1848. (Europe had a lot of revolutions in the late 18th century stretching into the mid-19th century,)

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix

As an iconic image of violent revolution, with easily adaptable imagery and a snappy title to boot, Delacroix’s painting has become embedded in popular culture. From the fluttering tricolor and the weapons in the hands of a distinct array of figures, to the bodies sprawled on the ground and the personification of Liberty in the center, all the elements are in place to depict the scene with a variety of characters from other media, often superimposing wildly differing meanings upon the piece.

Adding to the malleable nature of the painting in popular culture is the indeterminate origins of the moment depicted to most observers. Delacroix’s painting does not commemorate an actual event during the July Revolution, but rather a Romantic rendition of the revolution as a whole, just as the female figure in the center represents the concept of liberty driving the people forward rather than a real person. Given that to most non-French the July Revolution of 1830, much like the 1832 June Rebellion in Les Misérables, is not very well known and often conflated into a single broad concept of a “French Revolution,” the image is able to speak to a wide range of concepts to a viewer, both real and imagined, historical and fictional. It is untethered from a moment in history, and thus freed from the expectations and preconceptions a painting depicting a real event with real people brings with it, as occurs with other renditions of works such as Luetze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. As such, variations on Liberty Leading the People are often seen in fanart and in popular media.

Mercy Leading the People – Overwatch fan art by Arqa
From the 2015 anime series Shimoneta

The personification of Liberty remains an enduring figure in Western civilization, Originating from the Roman goddess Libertas, the image of a female embodiment of liberty has graced various American coins, while more recent incarnations include the Goddess of Democracy statue raised during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations and perhaps the most well-known modern example, the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Marianne, a female personification of Liberty, is the symbol of the French Republic and appears on government seals and currency. The Liberty depicted in Delacroix’s painting is a precursor to the more official version of Marianne used today.

The original painting now hangs in the Louvre; its many imitators can be found on Pixiv, Tumblr, or a meme generator near you.

Further Readings

High School Fleet: Musashi and the Harekaze

High School Fleet: Musashi and the Harekaze

As befits an anime entitled High School Fleet, warships take center stage. Two ships dominate the series, the battleship Musashi and the destroyer Harekaze.

Musashi is modeled both in name and appearance after the Japanese World War II era battleship Musashi. The Musashi and her sister ship Yamato were the largest battleships ever constructed, the result of a shipbuilding philosophy that viewed battleships as the key to naval superiority. Like the more famous Yamato, Musashi was named for an old Japanese province that once encompassed modern day Tokyo. The Musashi was designed to be capable of engaging multiple targets at once and be more than the equal of any other battleship in existence. This battleship philosophy would be proven wrong during the war as the aircraft carrier emerged as the most powerful ship on the seas. The Musashi was never involved in the kind of decisive battleship versus battleship combat envisioned by Japanese war planners and was sunk by American aircraft during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Musashi steaming in formation in episode 01 of High School Fleet

Figuring prominently in shots of the Musashi is the golden disc set into the bow. The crest is a variation of the Imperial Seal of Japan (菊の御紋 kikunogomon), the emblem of the Japanese Emperor and Imperial Family. Historically only the largest ships in the old Imperial Navy were allowed to carry the Imperial crest. Similar to the placement of the Imperial seal on army equipment, the Imperial Crest served both as a point of pride and as a reminder that the ship was the direct property of the Emperor and the crew were to conduct themselves accordingly.

As the Musashi and her sister ship Yamato were the only two vessels of their class, it is likely the battleship with the blue color scheme seen in the opening minutes of the first episode is the analogue for the Yamato. However, the Musashi and Yamato have a little known third sister ship: the Shinano (信濃). Historically, the Shinano was refitted into an aircraft carrier after Japan’s devastating losses at the Battle of Midway and sunk shortly into her maiden voyage. In Haifuri, a throwaway line indicates the Shinano is operational as a Yamato class battleship.

On the other hand the main ship of the series, the destroyer Harekaze (晴風, Clear Wind?), has no direct historical analogue. The official web site for the series describes the ship as a Kagero class destroyer, a class that served in the Japanese navy during World War II. Nineteen Kagero class ships were produced, with only one surviving the war. As seen in the first episode the Harekaze is equipped with torpedo launchers. Torpedo salvos from extreme range was a common tactic of the Imperial Navy during the war, particularly given the technical sophistication and range of the Japanese Class 93 Long Lance torpedo.

As befits the main ship of a series, there is more than meets the eye in the Harekaze. The official website makes mention of special test equipment installed on the ship and at one point in the first episode Torpedo Officer Mei Irizaki notes the Harekaze is a “high pressure” ship. This is a comment on the steam boilers that power the ship but perhaps also a reference to the three experimental high pressure boilers installed on the Shimakaze. The Shimakaze was the fastest destroyer of the war. Although terrifically fast, clocking a top speed of 40 knots, the ship proved too technically difficult to mass produce and thus remained the only vessel of her class. The Harekaze is listed as having a top speed of 37 knots, faster than the historical Kagero class but a little short of Shimakaze’s top speed. Mei further echoes the similarities by continuing on to state the Harekaze has speed but also faults.

Harekaze steaming towards a rendezvous.

By way of comparison, the Musashi displaced 72,800 tons and was over 860 feet long. A Kagero class destroyer was 2500 tons and 388 feet long.

It is worth noting both the Harekaze, Musashi and other vessels crewed by students are obviously World War II era designs, while the ships crewed by instructors follow more modern design sensibilities. The purely fictional Sarushima appears to combine the lines of modern Zumbalt class destroyers with the rear deck of a helicopter carrier or amphibious landing ship. The Toumai High instructors in episode 5 appear to be onboard modern Japanese navy Kongo or Atago class destroyers.


  • Battleship Musashi: The Making and Sinking of the World’s Biggest Battleship by Yoshimura Akira.
  • Warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1869–1945 by Hansgeorg Jentschura, Dieter Jung and Peter Mickel.
The Litten and the Tiger: Chinese Folklore and Pokemon

The Litten and the Tiger: Chinese Folklore and Pokemon

The new Pokemon starts for Sun and Moon were announced a week ago. Aside from Rowlet, the round little owl which is obviously the best, the fire type Litten and the water type Popplio were also introduced. Litten bears a distinctive mark on his forehead, a mark that is influenced by Chinese folklore and the position of the tiger in Chinese culture.

Litten, one of the Sun and Moon starter Pokemon.

In Chinese mythology and folklore, the tiger is considered the king of beasts. To represent this, stylized images of the tiger are often depicted with the character 王 (wáng) on the forehead, with 王 meaning “king” in Chinese. The the stripes on the foreheads of real tigers are thought to also evoke the character 王. Due to kanji being derived from Chinese characters, 王 holds the same meaning in Japanese. As the fictional word of Pokemon is one apart from our own, placing 王 on Litten would be too much of a fourth-wall breaker, unduly challenging Pokemon’s own internal mythology. However, the altered marking serves the same purpose, as audiences aware of the the connotation will find the connection to the tiger and the symbolism of 王 readily apparent.

The Tycoon of Japan: The Japanese Origins of the Word Tycoon

The Tycoon of Japan: The Japanese Origins of the Word Tycoon

The word tycoon conjures up images of wealthy industrialists–or at the very least Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly. It may not summon the image of a Japanese warlord, yet that is the original meaning of the word. Tycoon is derived from the Japanese word taikun (大君, Great Prince), a term used to refer to the Shogun. The story how it entered the English language is one of a crisis of communication and the fancy of an American Secretary of State.

When Commodore Matthew Perry arrived off the shores of Japan in 1853, his mission was to open the country to American trade. Japan had been a closed country where foreigners were not allowed since the early 1600s under a policy of seclusion, or sankoku (鎖国). The policy was not absolute but had prevented the United States and other countries from attempting to open trade.

Upon his arrival near Edo (modern day Tokyo), Japanese officials attempted to order Perry to leave for Nagasaki, the only port that foreigners could enter. Perry refused and demanded he be allowed to deliver a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan. Japanese officials were at a loss as to how to reply to his demand as American intelligence on Japan was flawed. Although there was an Emperor, it was the Shogun who held real power in Japan. Perry however, was not to be dissuaded. He insisted his letter be accepted by emissaries of the Emperor or he would resort to violence. The Commodore had taken to heart the advice of Captain James Glynn, who had led an earlier attempt to open contact with Japan. Glynn recommended any future negotiations be backed up with a show of force. It was partly for that reason that Perry arrived with what is now modern day Tokyo Bay with four ships, two of them steam powered and belching black smoke into the skies. The black painted hulls of the squadron and black smoke gave the ships their enduring Japanese name: the kurofune (黒船), the Black Ships.

In advance of the expedition, Perry had new Paixhan guns installed on two of his ships, each one capable of lobbing explosive shells deep into Edo from his position offshore. Fire was the greatest threat the city of wood and paper faced and an assault by the American ships would devastate Edo. Japanese officials, fully aware of the damage Perry’s fleet could inflict, were at a diplomatic quandary. The Shogun was technically only a military commander, as a direct translation of the word shogun (将軍) indicated, hardly the rank Perry demanded to contact. In order to impress upon the Commodore the high rank of the Shogun, the term taikun, or Great Prince, was used. Taikun had been used before in diplomatic exchanges between the Shogun and other nations. Perry accepted the emissaries of the Great Prince and handed over his letter. He returned the next year and with the signing of the Convention of Kanagawa, Japan opened to American trade.

Perry’s mission was an immediate sensation in the United States. In recognition of his command, Congress awarded him $20000, worth $500000 in 2016 dollars. Perry spent the final years of his life writing a three volume report of the expedition entitled Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan. He died shortly afterwards in 1858. Excerpts of the report were published in American newspapers and the word tycoon was regularly used to refer to the leader of Japan.

Secretary of State John Hay was particularly taken with the term, as it bore with it connotations of power and the stereotypical concept of a mysterious and distant Asia. As such, he used it to refer to President Lincoln, calling him the Tycoon. From Hay’s penchant to call Lincoln the Tycoon and the repeated use of tycoon in the American press, the word entered popular culture. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the word Emperor was used for Japan’s leader. Tycoon remained in the vernacular, keeping the connotation of an important person. However, it was not until after World War I that the word came to specifically mean a business magnate.

As for Perry, his role in Japan’s opening and eventual transformation has not been forgotten. He appears occasionally in anime, such as Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei where he is portrayed as being unable to stop opening things.


  • The History Of How A Shogun’s Boast Made Lincoln A ‘Tycoon’ –
  • John Hay and John Nicolay in the White House –
  • The Capital of the Tycoon: Three Years Residence in Japan by Sir Rutherford Alcock.