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Expert's Corner

Japan's foreign policy

posted 22 Mar 2013, 07:36 by Admins ‎(Kylie Wheeler)‎   [ updated 13 Aug 2013, 08:46 by Admins ‎(Halima Chen)‎ ]

The death of an alternative foreign policy for Japan? 

WREAC Fellow and Leading expert on Japan’s territorial disputes, Dr Paul O’Shea (Lund University) discusses the prospects of an East Asian Community under the new LDP administration.






In 2009 the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept to power, defeating the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in dramatic style and forming the first non-LDP majority government in postwar history. The path was clear for the DPJ to implement the many reforms promised in its election manifesto. Although the manifesto focused primarily on domestic issues, the new prime minster Hatoyama Yukio was keen to implement a new foreign policy. This consisted of a (re)turn to Asia, building an “East Asian Community” while simultaneously developing a more “equal” relationship with the United States (US). 

Given that Japan’s postwar foreign policy was built on the primary pillar of the US-Japan alliance, while in contrast relations with its Asian neighbours had remained fractious and at times outright confrontational, this new policy could be described as “brave”. Yet Hatoyama and those within the DPJ who supported it (especially party kingpin Ozawa Ichiro) recognised that the world – and particularly the region – was changing. The 21st Century had already been dubbed the ‘Asian Century’, and while the West was mired in the worst recession since the 1930s much of East Asia continued to boom. Developing broader and deeper relations with its neighbours seemed to many Japanese to be a logical move. 

However, Hatoyama made a promise to relocate the controversial Futenma US Marines base located in an urban part of Okinawa elsewhere in Japan or perhaps even outside of the country altogether. This promise proved to be his undoing. An agreement to move the base to another part of Okinawa had been painfully negotiated over a period of years, and reopening the negotiations would require no small amount of US goodwill. Given that Hatoyama’s new foreign policy vision for Japan did not go down well in Washington, it is perhaps unsurprising that this goodwill was not forthcoming. The eventual failure to fulfill his promise to find an alternative location for the base resulted in Hatoyama’s resignation. 

The next DPJ administration was headed by Prime Minister Kan Naoto. Kan focused on social and economic affairs and quietly dropped the new foreign policy. In September 2010 Maehara Seiji became foreign minister. Maehara belongs to the most conservative faction of the DPJ, and advocates strong Japan-US relations while maintaining a hawkish view on China. The next and final DPJ prime minister, Noda Yoshihiko, also comes from this faction, and thus the DPJ’s foreign policy had come full-circle. Indeed, after Hatoyama’s resignation DPJ foreign policy became more LDP than the LDP itself, with Japan stumbling from bilateral crisis to crisis, facing off against Russia, South Korea and China over territorial and historical issues. By the time the LDP regained power last winter Sino-Japanese relations were plumbing new depths, while top-level South Korea-Japan relations were on hold, waiting for new leaders to thaw the ice following a very public spat between Noda and President Lee Myung-bak in the summer of 2012. 

Elections are rarely fought on foreign policy, and the lower house elections of 2012 were no different. Yet what was striking was the similarity between the foreign policies of the top three parties (the LDP, the DPJ and Isshin no Kai, a vehicle for the charismatic governors of Osaka and Tokyo, Hashimoto Tōru and Ishihara Shintarō respectively). All three espoused a conservative, traditional policy, based on strengthening relations with the US while hedging against China’s rise. It was a far cry from the East Asian Community of 2009 – rather if anything the parties were attempting to out-conservative each other in terms of how they would deal with China. In the end Abe Shinzō led the LDP to a comprehensive victory while the DPJ suffered potentially fatal loses. 

With Hatoyama’s failure, the new cross-party conservative consensus, and the return of one of Japan’s most nationalistic prime ministers in recent history, the prospects for an alternative foreign policy for Japan look bleak. The DPJ faces oblivion at the upper house election this summer, while Hatoyama has left politics and Ozawa, his powerful behind-the-scenes supporter, is a spent force. Abe has proven to be a more pragmatic prime minister in his second term than in his first, prioritising economic stimulus over his pet nationalist projects of constitutional reform and historical revisionism. 

Still, the summer’s elections are crucial. If the LDP win a comfortable majority, and if Japan’s apparent turnaround through the so-called ‘Abenomics’ continues, it is highly likely that having consolidated his position Abe will move to implement some of his more controversial policies. Given the overtly nationalist bent of many of these, not least the revision of article nine (the pacifist clause in Japan’s constitution), it will put Japan on a collision course with its neighbours. The dreams of an East Asian Community are long gone. More important now are concrete plans to avoid an East Asian conflict.

Can Japan Change the Plan?

posted 3 Sep 2012, 01:23 by Web Admins ‎(Ben Caesar)‎   [ updated 13 Aug 2013, 08:43 by Admins ‎(Halima Chen)‎ ]

Dr Ra Mason, White Rose East Asia Centre

The Rocky Roadmap to Rapprochement with North Korea

In light of the first government-level talks between Japan and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) for over four years, Dr Ra Mason analyzes why Tokyo-Pyongyang relations are mired in political deadlock and proposes areas for possible hope and reconciliation.

Ra is developing research into the risks mediated between Japan's state, market and society which have fundamental implications for national, regional and global security.


Stretching back to the normalization talks of the early 1990s, opportunities for rapprochement with North Korea have been repeatedly scuppered, avoided or missed by a series of administrations in Tokyo. During the period between the test-launch of the DPRK's Nodong missile into the Sea of Japan in May 1993 and the North's second nuclear test sixteen years later, Japan's state, market and society presided over an unprecedented recalibration of risk framed against the DPRK. This included combining and conflating nuclear, missile and abduction issues, as well as highlighting the potential risks posed to Japan's sovereignty, national identity and domestic society by Pyongyang's illicit activities, state-sponsored terrorism and international brinkmanship. In more recent years, media, National Diet and civil society attention towards North Korea has waned slightly in Japan. However, this comes only as the saturation point of a nationwide obsession with all things associated with the DPRK, reached during the first decade of the 21st Century, has given way to the continuation of an uneasy equilibrium in bilateral relations and societal perceptions. This includes the maintenance of a high state-level security risk calibration identified with Pyongyang's leadership and ruling regime, continued negative media speculation regarding the North's actions and future, and negligible efforts from mainstream political, market and societal actors to engage those in the North in a more constructive fashion.

Do, then, the current inter-government talks, the first for over four years, represent a way out of the seeming deadlock in the status quo between Tokyo and Pyongyang? The simple answer is, in the short-term at least, probably not. The reasons for this extend well beyond the borders of the two countries in question, and are somewhat complex, but can be clarified in one sense through the concepts of motivation and momentum. Put simply, the actors with the greatest ability to affect positive change may not be motivated to do so, or, more counter-productively still, are actually motivated to resist such moves. In addition, during the post-Cold War period, a variety of powerful actors, including prime ministers, leading bureaucrats, business leaders and media editors have largely converged towards a negative framing of the entirety of North Korea. Furthermore, this has been reinforced by the largely complementary foreign policy and commercial interests and agendas of the surrounding powers – most critically those of Japan's only official ally, the United States. In combination, these factors have created momentum, which has led to the centre-ground of opinion across multiple sectors becoming so staunchly distrusting and opposed to all that stems from the North and its rulers that more moderate stances towards Pyongyang are discredited. The result is an almost total debilitation of prospects for realizing extensive change in Japan-DPRK relations.

The inability of either new leadership in North Korea, or comprehensive administrative change in Japan, to have a major impact on Tokyo's plans for its modus-operandi vis-à-vis Pyongyang underlines the extent of this impasse. The structure of the regional security environment, supported largely by policy makers operating within the strategic and tactical bounds of realpolitik, also does little to provide a climate conducive to improving relations between Japan and the DPRK. In the mid to longer term, Korean unification – premised on South Korea's effective assimilation of the North – is widely viewed as the obvious means by which tensions with, what would become the former, DPRK could be resolved. Yet, from the promises of the Sunshine Policy articulated by South Korean premier, Kim Dae-Jung, in the late 1990s, until now, unification has not been realised. Indeed, one Korea remains no more than an indefinite and unimplemented pipe-dream. The United States' and China's tactical military concerns over US troops stationed in the ROK becoming positioned within a stone's throw of their Chinese counterparts, including the related political implications, is one reason for this. The inability of South Korea's stuttering, post-Financial Crisis, economy to support the assimilation of a collapsed North Korean state and population – coupled with the reluctance of surrounding powers to commit to its aid in this endeavor – is another. Headed by the latest incarnation of the Kim dynasty, the determination of Pyongyang's regime to cling-on to power at all costs provides a powerful third factor entrenching the status quo.

The survival of the North Korean state has, thus far, been achieved in no small part though the use of domestic repression and international brinkmanship, but also through the indoctrination of exclusionary nationalism and the deflection of societal malcontent towards rival states, including Japan. In this sense, the core of the problems facing Japan-DPRK relations is one which derives, ultimately, from a mismatch of constructed ideologies and the imbalance of how risks are framed, mediated and calibrated as a result. For example, the gulf in focus of perceptions between Japan's ongoing public and political sphere outrage towards the North's state-sponsored abduction of Japanese citizens, and North Korea's continued demands of greater compensation for the thousands of Koreans forcibly relocated to Japan as labourers and sex-slaves, or comfort women, during the pre-War and wartime periods of colonization, is indisputable. In this way, both sides frame their own national identities in juxtaposition to those of a negatively depicted adversary across the single body of water which divides them. In Japan's case, this negative framing has been conflated – by actors intersecting the state, market and society – with issues such as ballistic weapons development and nuclear proliferation. This has, thus, led to a multifaceted recalibration of associated risks across these sectors. The result is an escalation of a hegemonic narrative which justifies and perpetuates the implementation and maintenance of hard-line policies directed at Pyongyang – and discredits voices which oppose such.

However, though foreign policy has rarely, if ever, been directed by ethics, the understanding that ideological factors resulting in discordant national identities are central to the lack of progress in Japan's dealings with North Korea, does, potentially, open the door to the instrumentalization of ethically-based concepts into policy formation. The crux of this argument is that, essentially, if Japan is to gain in geo-political and economic terms from improved relations with the North, it must find a way to reframe North Korea and recalibrate the risks it identifies with the Pyongyang-based regime more favourably. Engagement with the North's new young leader, Kim Jong-Un, is obviously one aspect of this. In addition, greater dialogue at the leadership level needs to be combined with a shift in political and media focus, away from the unlikely probability of North Korean missiles striking Japan, towards issues of human security on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. The rekindling of normalization talks, for instance, may pivot as much around an ability to persuade policy makers in Tokyo that increased economic ties between the two states offers an opportunity for them to gain political capital, as the incentives of commercial benefit. Nevertheless, the underlying concerns in Japan with regards to balancing against China's rise economically, as well as geo-politically, may also play a role, because Japan has the potential to compete for economic influence in North Korea's restructuring economy. Indeed, the desperate sate of Pyongyang's economic balance sheet in some ways only increases their reliance on external investment, and favours other parties when negotiating pertaining terms and conditions of trade. China leads the way, and has already been accused of economic colonialism in this respect, but Japan might be able to seize the opportunity to join such an endeavour, if political ties are improved. The domestic portrayal of leading Japanese politicians, acting in a philanthropic, human security-based, role towards a needy neighbouring populous, will likely be significant in this prospective negotiating game.

Of course, such a wholesale switch of stance and attitude is neither facile nor instantaneous. Furthermore, Kim's reassertion of his paternal predecessors' philosophical outlook and military-based rule is an obstacle in itself – along with remaining elements of the structural constraints already outlined. However, if North Korea's leader can be slowly encouraged to take a seat at the table with whichever Japanese premier is currently in power, and Japan's media market and society can be persuaded to reconceptualise the North, the risks currently attached to the DPRK's state apparatus might well be reassigned elsewhere. It is through such a process of identity-based mediation of risk, that ideological change can be realized. The consequent shift in framing would doubtless bring changes in political rhetoric, reformation of the hegemonic narrative, and, ultimately, the restructuring of policy. If such a process can take hold, perhaps Japan can change its grander plans for relations with North Korea, and smooth the rocky road to rapprochement.

Please note: The views expressed in here are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect those of NIJS, the White Rose East Asia Centre, the University of Sheffield, or the University of Leeds.

Why Japanese Sociology Matters

posted 23 May 2011, 02:18 by Web Admins ‎(Ben Caesar)‎   [ updated 19 Oct 2012, 09:50 by Admins ‎(Halima Chen)‎ ]

Professor Patricia Steinhoff examines Japan's significance in sociological studies

Patricia Steinhoff is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her research interests include social movements, conflict, and the Japanese left.


Japan matters as a critical case for studying how societies are put together. It is just similar enough, and just different enough, to challenge our assumptions and raise deeper questions about how societies work and how people live within them. Much about Japanese society is not visible on the surface or consistent with its public face. It takes time, patience, and a willingness to explore uncomfortable questions in order to begin to understand these less visible dynamics. Although there are many very fine sociologists within Japan, there is also a place for outsiders, who come to Japan with different questions and explore topics that are deemed either too sensitive or too ordinary to study. The outsider who studies Japanese society, or the Japanese who is trained in a foreign country, brings a fresh comparative perspective and makes a special contribution to the study of Japanese society.

Japan acts as a kind of prism, revealing different aspects depending on the nature of the comparison. Whilst older comparative sociology often exoticised Japan, contemporary research generally places it alongside other industrialised societies. The vantage point matters. Comparisons between Japan and the United States highlight different features than comparisons between Japan and the United Kingdom or Germany. We need many different perspectives in order to understand this very complex society.

Japan also matters as a natural laboratory of social change. Over the past 150 years Japan has experienced a series of massive social changes. Now, even as it is a globalising force throughout the world, it struggles with the domestic impacts of globalisation. It has many of the same social issues that can be found elsewhere: an aging population, minorities and foreign workers, suicide, unemployment, health care, crime, an unfamiliar youth culture, and economic inequality. Even when subjected to immense external pressure, Japan has crafted responses to each challenge with its own special blend of careful selection from outside models plus domestic innovation. Japan does not necessarily have better solutions to social issues, but it offers alternative approaches from which other societies can learn - even if only to learn what not to do, or what cannot be transferred easily to a different society.

Those who have made the study of Japan an intrinsic part of their lives no longer ask why Japan matters, because it matters deeply to them. Increasingly, however, scholars who are not primarily Japan specialists find that Japan matters as a challenging comparative case. A growing body of research in English and other western languages allows non-specialists to conduct secondary research on Japanese society. Yet non-specialists still remain dependent on dedicated, language-proficient Japan specialists to produce the primary research that makes such secondary work possible.

Finally, the study of Japanese society matters for those who approach Japan primarily from other disciplinary perspectives. Key aspects of the Japanese economy and Japanese politics require an understanding of Japanese social structure and dynamics. At an even more basic level, effective communication in the Japanese language requires some understanding of Japanese society. As an international centre of excellence on Japan, the work at NIJS is vital to the research and promotion of the understanding of Japan in the United Kingdom and internationally.


Please note: The views expressed in here are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect those of NIJS, the White Rose East Asia Centre, the University of Sheffield, or the University of Leeds. Following East Asian convention, the family name precedes the given name(s) in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names unless the particular person uses the other more dominant name order, where the given name followed by family name (such as the Western name order), in his/her publications and/or official or everyday life. This article was originally published in Nijs News, Number 3 (July 2008), pp.2 as "Experts' Column: Why Japan Matters".

Japanese History: Civilization, Cigarettes and Capitalism

posted 23 May 2011, 02:13 by Web Admins ‎(Ben Caesar)‎   [ updated 23 May 2011, 02:18 by Admins ‎(Halima Chen)‎ ]

Professor Florian Coulmas examines the relationship between Japan's rapid economic development and the pursuit of happiness.

Florian Coulmas is Director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo (DIJ). His research interests include the interface of culture and society, and ethnochronology in the Japanese context. DIJ is a cooperation partner of the White Rose East Asia Centre. DIJ recently established a research focus entitled, "Happiness in Japan, continuities and discontinuities".


Yokohama's 150th anniversary celebration of the opening of its port serves as an opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished since. Recall that the 'opening of Japan' was brought about by force. Prior to the arrival of the American gunboats, the Japanese enjoyed 250 years of peace with their neighbours. In the century that followed they made a lot of progress, becoming the first developing country avant la lettre, getting themselves involved in five horrendous wars, annexing a neighbouring country, establishing a puppet state on the continent and eventually having most of their cities utterly destroyed - all in the name of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number'. This was the western ideological principle the Meiji reformers decided to emulate.

These intellectuals convinced themselves and their fellow countrymen that Confucian values such as modesty and contentedness meant stagnation, while liberal utilitarian values held the promise of progress. Men such as Nishi Amane and Tsuda Mamichi promoted self-interest and a life that is competition. Nishi declared the desire for gain a holy duty, while Tsuda, in an 1875 article tersely entitled "Lust", informed his readers that the progressive people had more copious desires than barbarians, citing as proof the gusto of enlightened people for music, poetry and cigarettes. The former two had, of course, been appreciated for many centuries by cultivated Confucians, while the latter was important because of ‘the progress of humanity'. Progress, like tobacco, came from the West. When Tsuda wrote his article, the Japanese government issued the first license for selling tobacco (soon to be turned into a state monopoly for financing the Russo-Japanese war). Being unaware, like all of his contemporaries, of the harmfulness of tobacco, his encouragement of cigarette smoking provides us with a fine example of bounded rationality and of what capitalist progress is about: trial and error.

Err the Japanese did, which was brought home to them with the help of two nuclear bombs intended to impress the Soviets. After that cruel lesson they had no choice but to make another attempt at the pursuit of happiness, which the Americans had written into their 1946 constitution. Again they proved to be model students. Quickly realising that “happiness” was to be understood as material wealth they became an industrial powerhouse and then lifted consumerism to unprecedented highs. Has this brought them happiness? The Japanese didn’t need the present crisis to question this. From 1958 to 1991 their Gross National Product grew six-fold, while their life-satisfaction did not budge. Oscillating between overwork and unemployment; steadily increasing the number of clinically depressed patients; refusing to reproduce; and having the highest rate of all Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries of children who say that they are lonely, the Japanese do not look so happy.

150 years ago with the opening of the port of Yokohama, Japan embraced utilitarianism and set out on the capitalist road to become a civilised country. They have come a long way, but they do not seem to enjoy the fruits of their efforts; a good reason to study the pursuit of happiness in Japan – with potential lessons for other market economies.


Please note: The views expressed in here are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect those of NIJS, the White Rose East Asia Centre, the University of Sheffield, or the University of Leeds. Following East Asian convention, the family name precedes the given name(s) in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names unless the particular person uses the other more dominant name order, where the given name followed by family name (such as the Western name order), in his/her publications and/or official or everyday life. This article was originally published in Nijs News, Number 4 (Feb 2009), pp.2 as "Experts' Column: Why Japan Matters".

Japanese Economics: Japan Matters

posted 23 May 2011, 02:01 by Web Admins ‎(Ben Caesar)‎   [ updated 23 May 2011, 02:17 by Admins ‎(Halima Chen)‎ ]

Professor Kaneko considers Japan's relevance in a rapidly globalising world.

Kaneko Masaru is Professor of Economics, Keio University. He specialises in economic institutions and public finance. Professor Kaneko is also one of Japan’s best-known public intellectuals.  This article was translated from Japanese by Andrew Dewit, Professor of the Politics of Public Finance, Rikkyo University.


Japan matters because of its sheer economic scale. Even after about fifteen years of post-bubble low growth and several recessions, the country still ranks among the top global economies. This becomes evident when the relative size of Japan’s Gross Domestic Product measured by the World Bank in “international dollars” (ID) - a hypothetical currency reflecting purchasing power parities - is compared to other global economies. By this measure, the US remains the world’s largest economy at about 13.2 trillion ID, China ranks a close second at just over 10 trillion ID, and India sits at third place with a little above 4.2 trillion ID. Japan has slipped into fourth place, with slightly more than 4.1 trillion ID. But that still leaves Japan far larger than fifth-place Germany, which trails a fair distance behind at 2.6 trillion ID. The UK, meanwhile, ranks 6th, at just under 2.1 trillion ID. Thus, even if Japan fails to startle the world with another so-called miracle economy, it will at the very least remain, for decades to come, at the very front ranks of the international economic community.

Japan is also one of the world’s most competitive economies. As is generally recognised, the country is handicapped by its comparatively low utilisation of women and foreign skills as well as stubbornly poor productivity in non-traded sectors. But even so, Japan’s overall competitiveness consistently ranks among the top ten in World Economic Forum surveys. In the 2007-2008 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index, Japan ranked eighth, just behind Singapore but a notch ahead of the UK.

In addition, the Japanese yen is a key global currency. The yen has of course been comparatively weak in recent years, due to the Bank of Japan’s policy of extremely low interest rates. The policy has been a source of considerable consternation in the Eurozone, as the US dollar and Japanese yen have both fallen against the Euro and left the latter to shoulder much of the burden of an unbalanced global economy. But together with the Euro, the yen may indeed emerge in an even more central position over the next several years. This is because the fallout from the rapidly worsening sub-prime financial crisis started in the US looks set to further undermine the dollar’s global role.

Finally, Japan matters as an important case study in comparative capitalism. In spite of all the rhetoric about globalisation and convergence in the 1990s, we find that national economies - and especially the increasingly salient city-regions within them - remain very diverse. Indeed, in many policy areas, Japan now confronts challenges that the rest of the industrialised countries are set to deal with in the visible future. Ageing is prominent among these areas, as Japan’s “silver” generation of over 65s topped 21.5 per cent this year. Thus the study of Japan’s social, energy, environmental, and other policy regimes can offer other countries valuable clues in how to deal with contemporary policy challenges. As an officially recognised Centre of Excellence, NIJS serves as an appropriate venue to conduct research in these crucial areas.


Please note: The views expressed in here are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect those of NIJS, the White Rose East Asia Centre, the University of Sheffield, or the University of Leeds.

Japanese Film: 15 Recommended Movies

posted 23 May 2011, 01:46 by Web Admins ‎(Ben Caesar)‎   [ updated 23 May 2011, 01:59 by Admins ‎(Halima Chen)‎ ]

Dr Mika Ko selects fifteen films that every student of Japanese film should have in their collection

Dr Mika Ko's research interests are in the fields of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and she is particularly interested in the development of transnational East-Asian cinema and its potential to challenge traditional forms of national production. Below is a list of the 15 'must-see' Japanese films she recommends. Narrowing the selection down to just 15 was a painstaking effort for her because she could recommend so many more!


Page of Madness (dir. Kinugasa Teinosuke, 1926)

Acted by an avant-garde theatre group, conceived and directed by one-time kabuki female impersonator Kinugasa, A Page of Madness remains one of the most radical and challenging Japanese movies ever seen here. An old sailor works as a janitor in an asylum to stay close to his insane wife and to help her to escape, except that she doesn't want to go... Kinugasa deploys a battery of expressionist distortions and otherwise stylised images to plunge his audience into 'irrational' experience, always withdrawing to a 'saner' perspective, and then undercutting that with another visual or dramatic shock. This version has music added by Kinugasa when he rediscovered the print in 1970. (Synopsis from Time Out Film Guide.)

Ikiru (dir. Kurosawa Akira, 1952)

Considered by some to be Akira Kurosawa's greatest achievement, Ikiru presents the director at his most compassionate; affirming life through an exploration of a man's death. Takashi Shimura portrays Kanji Watanabe, an aging bureaucrat with stomach cancer forced to strip the veneer off his existence and find meaning in his final days. Told in two parts, Ikiru offers Watanabe's quest in the present, and then through a series of flashbacks. The result is a multifaceted look at a life through a prism of perspectives, resulting in a full portrait of a man who lacked understanding from others in life. (Synopsis from Criterion Collection.)

DVD is available from Criterion and Amazon.

Tokyo Story (dir. Ozu Yasujiro, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari) follows an aging couple, Tomi and Sukichi, on their journey from their rural village to visit their two married children in bustling, post-war Tokyo. Their reception is disappointing: too busy to entertain them, their children send them off to a health spa. After Tomi falls ill, she and Sukichi return home, while the children, grief-stricken, hasten to be with her. From a simple tale unfolds one of the greatest of all Japanese films. Starring Ozu regulars Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara, the film reprises one of the director's favorite themes of 'generational conflict' in a way that is quintessentially Japanese and yet so universal in its appeal that it continues to resonate as one of cinema's greatest masterpieces. (Synopsis from Criterion Collection.)

DVD is available from Criterion.

Chikamatsu Monogatari (dir. Mizoguchi Kenji, 1954)

In Chikamatsu Monogatari director Kenji Mizoguchi again employs the repertoire of bunraku in this tale of lovers thwarted by the constricting feudal hierarchy of 17th-century Japan. Kyoko Kagawa and Kazuo Hasegawa star as, respectively, the wife, Osan, and clerk, Mohei, of Ishun, a wealthy and corrupt scrollmaker. When Osan's brother asks her for help in paying a debt, she turns to Mohei, who agrees to use his master's seal to dispense the money she needs. Although he refuses to implicate Osan, Mohei is forced to confess his actions to Ishun, who publicly humiliates the clerk and locks him in a storeroom. Through a series of complications, Ishun arrives at the mistaken belief that Osan and Mohei are lovers. Mohei is instantly dismissed and forced into exile. But when Ishun offers a seppuku knife to Osan, she refuses ritual suicide, knowing that she's committed no crime, and escapes from her husband's house. The director counter-poses the high-angle shots, vertical architecture, and entrapping shadows of Ishun's establishment--visual metaphors for the rigidity of this feudal society--with the simple grandeur of nature--a visual metaphor for love--in a compelling denunciation of destructive social mores. (Synopsis from Amazon.co.uk.)

DVD is available from Amazon.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (dir. Naruse Mikio, 1960)

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs might be Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse's finest hour--a delicate, devastating study of a woman, Keiko (played heartbreakingly by Hideko Takamine), who works as a bar hostess in Tokyo's very modern postwar Ginza district, entertaining businessmen after work. Sly, resourceful, but trapped, Keiko comes to embody the conflicts and struggles of a woman trying to establish her independence in a male-dominated society. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs shows the largely unsung yet widely beloved master Naruse at his most socially exacting and profoundly emotional. (Synopsis from Criterion Collection.)

DVD is available from the BFI.

The Actor's Revenge (dir. Ichikawa Kon, 1963)

This wildly melodramatic tale of a kabuki female impersonator who exacts a long-delayed revenge on the men who drove his parents to suicide is played out against a backdrop of comic rivalries between thieves in the Tokyo underworld. Kazuo Hasegawa plays the dual role of the actor and the thief in a film which celebrates his 300th screen appearance. A heady mixture of swooning romanticism and stylised action, with a soundtrack that ranges from traditional Japanese music to lush Hollywood strings and cocktail jazz, An Actor's Revenge is a cinematic tour de force. (Synopsis from BFI.)

DVD is available from the BFI.

A Woman of the Dune (dir. Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1964)

One of the sixties' great international art-house sensations, Woman in the Dunes was for many the grand unveiling of the surreal, idiosyncratic worldview of Hiroshi Teshigahara. Eija Okada plays an amateur entomologist who has left Tokyo to study an unclassified species of beetle that resides in a remote, vast desert; when he misses his bus back to civilization, he is persuaded to spend the night in the home of a young widow (Kiyoko Kishida) who lives in a hut at the bottom of a sand dune. What results is one of cinema's most bristling, unnerving, and palpably erotic battles of the sexes, as well as a nightmarish depiction of everyday Sisyphean struggle, for which Teshigahara received an Academy Award nomination for best director. (Synopsis from Criterion Collection.)

DVD is available from the BFI and Amazon.

Tokyo Drifter (dir. Suzuki Seijun, 1966)

In this free-jazz gangster film, reformed killer "Phoenix" Tetsu drifts around Japan, awaiting his own execution until he's called back to Tokyo to help battle a rival gang. Seijun Suzuki's "barrage of aestheticised violence, visual gags, [and] mind-warping color effects" got him in more trouble with Nikkatsu studio heads, who had ordered him to "play it straight this time." Instead he gave them equal parts Russ Meyer, Samuel Fuller, and Nagisa Oshima. (Synopsis from Criterion Collection.)

DVD is available from Amazon.

A Diary of Shinjuku Thief (dir Oshima Nagisa, 1968)

Using a gripping storyline involving a violent, moody drop-out and a disaffected young woman, director Nagisa Oshima crafts a powerful exploration into the world of the young Japanese radicals of 1968. Drawing a parallel with the student riots of Paris and New York, Oshima's world is punctuated by cultural icons such as Henry Miller and Muhammad Ali and stylized with hand-held camera-work. The title character, played by Tadanori Yokoo, takes the first step on the road to ruin when he steals an inconsequential item from a bookstore. Caught in the act by the shopgirl (Rie Yokoyama), the shoplifter becomes the girl's sexual partner and virtual slave. The film is rife with erotic symbolism that will be lost on no one.This striking experimental film exemplifies Oshima's audacious, dynamic style--a style that mixes violence, eroticism, politics, and self-reflexivity to explore the link between modernism and non-Western modes of perception. (Synopsis from Earlham Film Series.)

DVD is currently unavailable.

The Funeral Parade of Roses (dir. Matsumoto Toshio, 1969)

A feverish collision of avant-garde aesthetics and grind-house shocks (not to mention a direct influence on Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange), Funeral Parade of Roses, a twisted and modern version of Oedipus Rex, takes us on an electrifying journey into the nether-regions of the late-'60s Tokyo underworld. In Toshio Matsumoto's controversial debut feature, seemingly nothing is taboo: neither the incorporation of visual flourishes straight from the worlds of contemporary graphic-design, painting, comic-books, and animation; nor the unflinching depiction of nudity, sex, drug-use, and public-toilets. But of all the "transgressions" here on display, perhaps one in particular stands out the most: the film's groundbreaking and unapologetic portrayal of Japanese gay subculture. (Synopsis from Amazon.co.uk.)

DVD is available from Amazon.

Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (dir. Kazuo Hara, 1974)

In this autobiographical work, Hara turns the camera on his ex-wife Takeda Miyuki, a bisexual feminist activist who has relocated to Okinawa. She gets pregnant following a tryst with an African-American GI and proceeds to eviscerate Hara in a private conversation with his girlfriend, Sachiko. Miyuki proves to be the perfect cinematic device for Hara to reveal the most intimate details of his fascinating life. (Synopsis from Harvard Film Archive.)

DVD is available from Amazon.

Sonatine (dir. Kitano Takeshi, 1993)

In Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine, a Tokyo-based yakuza boss sends Murakawa (Kitano), one of his top men, on a peacekeeping mission to Okinawa, where two rival factions are coming to blows. Murakawa is naturally suspicious of the volatile situation and decides to lay low for a few days on a secluded beach. Slowly Murakawa and his men begin to let their guard down, battling boredom with various games and antics. However, harsh reality finds them sooner than they would have expected--leading to a bloody conclusion. A stunning combination of abrupt violence and quiet meditation, Kitano's film is widely considered a classic. (Synopsis from Amazon.co.uk.)

DVD is available from Amazon.

Bird People in China (dir. Miike Takashi, 1998)

After his boss falls ill, the Japanese salaryman Wada is assigned to go to remote Yunnan Province in China to assess the value of a load of jade there. He is abruptly joined by Ujiie, a violent and uncouth yakuza enforcer, who has come to collect on unpaid debts owed by the company. As they set out, the two of them are bewildered by the journey they face: their vehicle falling apart, roads washed out, having to journey by turtle-drawn raft, their guide/interpreter developing amnesia after being hit by a branch. Eventually they reach the remote village and find a simple people who live around myths of their bird people ancestors. Listening to a local girl singing, Wada realizes that her song is a traditional Scottish love ballad. The discovery of a crashed plane makes him realize that their myth of bird people comes from her grandfather, a British flyer who crashed there and settled amongst the people. At the same time, Ujiie comes to love life there and realizes that their development of the jade mine will corrupt the Bird People's simple culture and so takes ruthless steps to stop them ever going back. (Synopsis from The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review.)

DVD is available from Amazon.

Nightmare Detective (dir. Tsukamoto Shinya, 2006)

A competent detective, Keiko Kirishima, encounters two mysterious suicides. Somehow the two incidents seem to be connected since the victims both dialled the same number--a sequence ending with '0' that is not registered anywhere in the country--just before their death. The wife of one of the victims, who was sleeping next to him, testifies that it looked like someone was attacking him in a dream. After some investigation, Keiko and her colleagues are directed to the so-called 'Nightmare Detective' who has the power to enter other people's dreams. Keiko asks him to cooperate with their sting operation but is bluntly refused. Knowing there is no other way, Keiko herself decides to dial the deadly number... (Synopsis from the Nightmare Detective's official website.)

DVD is available from Amazon.

The Mourning Forest (dir. Kawase Naomi, 2007)

No longer clear of mind in the senior years of his life, Shigeki (Shigeki Uda) lives in a rural nursing home, holding on to what memory he has left of his late wife Mako. Unpredictable and at times rough and feisty, Shigeki takes an interest in new caretaker Machiko (Ono Machiko, Moe no Suzaku, Eureka), a young woman still coping with the recent death of her son. The two develop a close friendship, finding in each other an inexplicable source of warmth and healing as they quarrel, giggle, and embark on minor adventures. During a car trip, Shigeki wanders off on his own into the forest and Machiko follows, unable to stop him on his quest to find Mako. Faced with cold temperatures and untrodden paths, the two journey through the night and day to a destination that beckons from their minds. A remarkable achievement in humanistic cinema, Kawase Naomi's The Mourning Forest (Mogari no Mori) won the Grand Prix at the 30th Cannes Film Festival. The Mourning Forest moves at a ponderous pace through strikingly beautiful natural environments to create a quiet hymn of warmth, tragedy, and poetic beauty. (Synopsis from YesAsia.com.)

DVD is available from YesAsia.

The list above is given in chronological order.

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