Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Times brings us an amusing story on Japanese culture:
Perhaps it was the equivalent of Americans waking up one morning to find John Wayne transformed into the Cowboy of the Village People.

For 25 years, on a Japanese television series called "The Violent Shogun," Ken Matsudaira played an 18th-century samurai who embodied Japan's idealized masculinity: strong, selfless, interested in neither women nor money, quick to dispense cold justice with his sword and a single order, "Punish!"

So closely identified had Mr. Matsudaira become with this pop culture hero that it came as a shock when the Japanese found out recently that for the last decade (and hidden mostly out of sight), he had been dancing the samba on stage in glittering gold and purple kimonos, emitting animalistic cries and thrusting his hips. His sword replaced by a coterie of female dancers and a revolving disco ball, he told his fans that in these dark days in Japan, samba was the only thing to do and sang: "Samba! Viva! Samba! Matsuken Samba! Olé!"

The image was in keeping with the macho or tough-guy image idealized in the pop culture for much of postwar Japan, said Kimio Ito, a sociologist at Osaka University. It is in the last two decades that the image of the idealized male began changing, he said, with the popularity of funny and sensitive types.

In the real world, as the generation of gray-suited corporate warriors has given way to young Japanese men who put great care in their dress, use cosmetics and are generally considered feminine, it was perhaps not surprising that "Matsuken Samba" has become wildly popular now even though Mr. Matsudaira had been performing this show for a decade.

The shows also developed a following in Japan's gay subculture, said Noriaki Fushimi, a gay author and lecturer on sociology at Meiji Gakuin University. The image of "Matsuken" (as Mr. Matsudaira is familiarly known) featured prominently in gay festivals last year in Sapporo, in northern Japan, and Shinjuku 2-chome, the gay district in Tokyo.

"Matsuken's original image was that of a samurai, a macho image," Mr. Fushimi said. "And there was a huge impact when someone who had a macho image, a sophisticated samurai image, absorbed a kind of femininity."

"Matsuken Samba" became popular throughout Japan after a CD of the show's songs was released last year, and Mr. Matsudaira's radical transformation was complete.

"About 90 percent of people had a favorable reaction," he said. "For about 10 percent, especially among older, conservative men, the image of the samurai was shattered."

To many, the enormous success of "Matsuken Samba" struck a deep chord in a Japan gripped by uncertainty and pessimism about its future. Here was a samurai icon for a quarter century, no longer bent on fighting with his sword for a better society, transformed into a hedonistic samurai who lives only for the samba.

"Olé! Olé! Matsuken Samba! Let's fall in love, amigo. Let's dance, señorita. Let's forget about sleep and dance through the night! Samba! Viva! Samba!" (Spanish and Portuguese are evidently interchangeable in the lyrics.)

As everyone from children to salarymen began singing and dancing to "Matsuken Samba II," some people compared its popularity to that of a dance that gripped Japan in 1867, the year the 264-year Tokugawa shogunate ended. Japanese reacted to the era's confusion and uncertainty by dancing and chanting, "Eejanaika!" or "Why not? It's O.K.!"

At the "Matsuken Samba II" show here recently, fans shrieked, "My Lord!" and "Shogun!" as Mr. Matsudaira addressed the audience. Introducing the show's last song, Mr. Matsudaira listed problems besetting Japan and added, in words that could have been as much about his country as about himself: "In times like these, the only thing to do is samba!"


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