Two Tragedies, Half a World Apart

December 15, 2012

The headline news in Japan this morning is likely not much different from the headline news everywhere else: the horrific school shooting in Connecticut seems to have caught the attention of everyone on the face of the planet. From what I have been able to glean from the internet and from English-language TV here, 26 people were killed, 27 if you include the shooter.

Halfway around the world, at more or less the same time, and with somewhat less international fanfare thus far, a similar yet in some respects wildly different scenario played out in Chenpeng Village, in central China’s Henan Province. A man described as “mentally disturbed” went on a rampage with a knife, slashing 22 children at the village school, as well as one elderly woman off site. Apparently he stole a kitchen knife from the 85-year-old woman, assaulting her before heading to the elementary school next door, where he launched his attack on the school children. He was disarmed by school security guards and restrained until the arrival of the police. Thus far, nobody has died, although several of the kids are reported to be in critical condition.

So, the similarities: one mentally disturbed individual with a weapon (or weapons) in each situation; attack takes place in an elementary school; similar time (when adjusted for local time zone); same date; similar number of people attacked…

And the difference: in China, so far, no fatalities; in Connecticut, so far, 27 fatalities…

And the indisputable reason for the difference in number of fatalities: the use of a gun or guns, as opposed to (in this case) a knife, the circumstances facilitated by the comparative ease with which one can obtain semi-automatic weaponry in the US nowadays…

I agree with President Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, that today is not the day for political posturing regarding gun laws. This is a day for mourning, for prayers if you believe in them, for compassion for the victims and their families, and for flying the flag at half-staff. That said, I cannot help but compare the two tragedies and wonder how differently things would have played out if presumed killer Adam Lanza had had only a kitchen knife at his disposal.

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The Kyu Sakamoto Housecleaning Soundtrack

December 15, 2012

A word of caution: to folks under about 60 years of age, this post will likely mean little or nothing, full of references to people you’ve never heard of, citing examples of technology long consigned to the annals of history, and dredging up songs that were already “oldies” long before you were born. Read on at the risk of terminal boredom.

The soundtrack for my Saturday morning housecleaning comes from the late Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, whose number one hit from 1963, “Sukiyaki”, remains the only Japanese-language record ever to crack the US Top Forty charts. The hauntingly beautiful song, originally titled “Ue o Muite Aruko” was a hit in Japan a couple of years earlier, where the single record was released on red vinyl, a departure from the black stock typically used for phonograph records back in the day. It topped the charts there for a whopping three months, and even today, it is a staple in karaoke houses throughout Japan.

Here is an early black and white video of Kyu Sakamoto performing “Sukiyaki”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxIxX7mnsso

Somewhere along the way, I acquired a copy of Kyu Sakamoto’s double-CD greatest hits album, and popped the first volume into the CD drive of my computer this morning. I cannot play it loudly here in Japan, as I would likely do in Canada, because I don’t want to gain the reputation of being the rude foreign guest, so my small Bose monitors are cranked less than halfway up, just enough to rise above the noise generated by my clunking around the kitchen, washing dishes and the like.

Naturally, “Sukiyaki”, his biggest hit ever, leads off the album. The song has nothing to do with the Japanese hot-pot dish of the same name, by the way; the word doesn’t even show up in the lyrics. The song is actually about a man mourning his lost love, walking along whistling, his head held high so that his tears don’t fall. The name “Sukiyaki” was added before its release in the West, on the theory (probably correct) that its original name wouldn’t be easily remembered (or pronounced) by Western listeners. According to Wikipedia, a Newsweek journalist at the time noted that the re-titling of the song was akin to issuing “Moon River” in Japan under the title “Beef Stew”.

The surprises of the CD come when Sakamoto does cover versions of such 60s American classics as Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl”, Del Shannon’s “Hats Off to Larry”, and Jimmy Jones’ “Timing”, with verses in Japanese and choruses in English, sorta:

Calendar Girl:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CB6OjFinwY

Hats Off to Larry:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOrKz8_GaIg
Timing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4T3hnys_E2k   (this one features the original Jimmy Jones recording in an unearthly mashup with Kyu Sakamoto’s cover)

Kyu Sakamoto was killed in the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history, the crash of JAL Flight 123 in 1985, on a short hop from Tokyo to Osaka. More than 500 lives were lost when the airliner crashed into the side of Mt. Takamagahara; there were only four survivors.

In 1993, a pair of Japanese astronomers discovered a new asteroid, and named it “6980 Kyusakamoto”, marking what must be the first time that a dead star has been memorialized as a chunk of dead star. The Japanese numbers six, nine and eight (roku, kyu and hachi) that form part of the name “6980 Kyusakamoto” refer to the trio of which Sakamoto was a member: ROKUsuke Ei (songwriter), KYU Sakamoto (singer), and HACHIdai Nakamura (pianist).

A final note: if you are under 60-ish, and you have suffered through the text thus far, I would like to offer you a more up-to-date version of “Sukiyaki”, a YouTube video of Kina Grannis, doing a perfectly lovely acoustic rendition at Bumbershoot Music Festival in Seattle, over Labor Day weekend, 2012:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOJz7-8A-AU