Japanese cool

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It took Japanese-born performance artist Katsumi Sakakura years of exploration and reinvention before he finally embraced his native culture.
It took Japanese-born performance artist Katsumi Sakakura years of exploration and reinvention before he finally embraced his native culture.
Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon
There is a TV program in Japan called "Why Did You Come to Japan?" Launched on the back of the inbound tourism boom, it catches visitors unawares at Narita Airport and asks them their reason for coming. If they offer interesting stories, the crew will follow them on their trips.


It's highly entertaining, educational and strangely moving in parts, and watching it always reminds me of what an important role Japanese culture has all over the world -- e.g., Steve Jobs was influenced by Japanese principles of zen minimalist design -- and the influence it continues to have on youthful dreams.

In one segment they found a young Canadian woman who had dreamed of visiting Japan ever since she won a gold award at the International Children's Art Exhibition, run by Pentel, when she was 6 years old.

When asked if she'd ever seen her painting again, she said no. A couple of weeks into her trip, she got a call saying they'd tracked it to a Pentel factory in Japan, and she met the TV crew there.

The moment she was shown her painting, now 17 years old, was precious. She couldn't help crying and laughing at the same time. This was the painting, she said, that changed her life. The prize gave her confidence in her talent. She pursued art as a career, and Japan remained in her dreams as the place that had made that happen.

It made me think about why I go to Japan, other than for business. The food, yes, but to say it's all about cuisine does the country an injustice. For me, it's the whole package, that sense of the future as well as the past that's found in its people, food, streets, architecture.

I love the quirkiness and creativity of its pop culture. I respect the discipline of its society. I am awed by the hospitality and pride they embody in their service to visitors. I admire the innovation.

When he was asked why he set most of his sci-fi in Japan, William Gibson, author of "Neuromancer," said, "Japan is the global imagination's default setting for the future," a place where people "seem to the rest of us to live several measurable clicks down the time line," where one encounters things that are not yet but soon will be found in Western urban centers.

Yet, while the world might be enamored of Japanese culture, it took almost four decades before performance artist Katsumi Sakakura discovered what was cool about his own culture.

In his mushin (a mental state that trained martial artists are said to enter during combat) performances, Katsumi, whose name means "conquer yourself," performs against a projection of light and sound. Every movement is perfectly timed, synchronized to the sounds and images on the screen.

His performance is a true blend of elements -- East and West, martial arts and dance, tradition and technology, strength and grace, creativity and discipline. Toward the end, he battles his own shadow and conquers it.

The name Katsumi was given to him by his father. And if you hold the belief that your name forms you, then Katsumi has spent his entire life conquering himself to find his calling in dance and artistry and through his art, his purpose in life.

Born in Nagoya, he was 5 when he was taught karate by his father.

"I was not good at studying, and I hated sports," he recalled. "However, I loved to make things by hand, and I was good at art and craft. But my father told me, 'You can't study or do anything, so you'd better learn self-defense to survive.' People think karate is a way of fighting, but the real meaning of karate is self-defense. The most important thing is strength of spirit."

He also learned about the principles of bushido, the way of the samurai. "In other sports, when you win, you are happy and you celebrate. But bushido is not about winning. It's samurai spirit not to show happiness because if you win, someone loses. And remember, a long time ago, people fought with real swords, and if someone died, you should not be happy because you have killed someone."

But those lessons only dawned on him later in life as he went through his struggles to find his identity.

In university, being of small build, he was bullied and got into fights. Although in karate, there's the saying "even small bodies can win against big bodies," he found himself disappointed with the martial art form.

"My father told me, 'Don't pick a fight, but if someone attacks you, then you have to accept the fight.' At that time, I didn't really understand the true meaning of karate and thought it was about body size."

He quit karate and took up boxing. For his thesis, he explored the differences between the two sports. "You use your knuckle, and the purpose is the same: to knock someone down. The difference is in the method."

Interestingly, writing the thesis opened his eyes to the beauty of karate, and he went back to his fighting roots.

After graduating from Nagoya Gakuin University with an undergraduate degree in economics -- a degree that baffles him, "because I never studied economics, only boxed" -- he tried more than 10 jobs.

"I worked in fashion, was a car mechanic, cook, housekeeper," he recalled. "I changed jobs all the time."

Today, when Katsumi speaks to university students in Japan, he tells them, "You can be happy switching jobs until you find what you love."

From MC Hammer to Japanese cool

He found what he loved about 30 years ago, at age 25, when he discovered dance in a gym he frequented.

"I was amazed by hip-hop," he said. "I copied moves I had seen on television. I was so in love with Western culture and hated anything Japanese."

He impersonated MC Hammer, coloring his skin and doing his hair to look like the American hip-hop artist.

One day, when an American dancer from Hollywood came to see his MC Hammer impersonation, "I thought she would compliment me, but instead she said I was doing it wrong, and I was insulting her people by coloring my skin and waving my hair."

He recalled that she said, "Don't you know our history? We face troubles because of our skin color. We love Asians, your straight black hair, why do you want to change yourself? Japan has such cool culture."

"That surprised me," he said. "I thought Japan was not cool. I wanted to be American. But my life changed at that moment."

From then on, Katsumi investigated Japanese culture and experimented.

"I didn't understand what was Japanese cool," he said, "Was it calligraphy, side kicks, samurai style? And then I wondered if there was something secret in the movements of karate; maybe Japanese cool is to be found inside karate."

He returned to his karate roots, blending controlled body movements with dance. But still not satisfied, he traveled to Los Angeles to learn more about dance.

It was there, in 2004, that a breakthrough moment gave rise to the idea behind his current mushin performance.

"One of the directors of the show asked me to put my name on the screen behind me, but because the screen was so big, I thought only showing my name was boring so I started to think about showing other things," including about "blending screen power with human power," and his performance style was created.

It took at least another five years before he was discovered, and he had social media to thank for that. "YouTube changed my life," he said. "I could put my videos out there and promote myself, and people started discovering me."

Before that, he was pounding the pavements with his videos, knocking on producers' doors and being rejected. He recalled one meeting in which the agent in Los Angeles threw his video into the trash can in front of him. "That was the saddest moment," he said. "I cried. I had no money, and he put my work into the rubbish."   

But he never gave up. Today, he has performed in 39 countries. He said the perfect audience was Indian, because "they understand entertainment," but the most special was in London "because they understood the spiritual intent of the performance."

So, the boy who learned karate at 5, then abandoned it for Western boxing and hip-hop, has conquered himself and rediscovered his Japanese roots.

"It's funny," he said. "When I was young, I [didn't] like Japan. Now I love Japan. I want to tell the world what is Japanese cool. My performance embodies part of Japanese culture. It's not just about the external movements; it's about the internal spirit. That spirit came to the fore during the tsunami [in 2011], when we saw Japanese people be patient, queueing for their water in times of crisis. ... For Japanese, this is normal behavior. This is the original thought of karate: never insist on winning, think of the other person. That's Japanese cool."

The legacy of the name

While some might say his has been a life of struggle, Katsumi said, "I haven't found it difficult myself. In fact, I would like other Japanese to change. Most go to the office every day even though they don't like it. Monday to Friday, not happy; Friday night and Saturday, happy; then Sunday, they think of Monday, and they become blue. That's not real life."

As for his father, now 80, Katsumi finally invited him and his mother to watch him perform last year. "I was nervous because I thought I'd lose focus if my parents are in the audience," he said. "But I finally got the courage to do it at a big show last year."

His eyes tearing, he recalled, "My father said, 'You have become the greatest performer; I am very proud of you.' That was the first time he said it."

And it reminded Katsumi of when his father told him about his name.

"When I was 10, I started entering karate competitions, and I'd lose every time," he said. "Everyone could do 50 pushups, but I could only do 29, so I came home to practice. He said, 'Why compete with others? If you keep competing with others, you will always lose because there will always be bigger bodies, stronger fighters. You have to compete with yourself. Is 29 your limit? The right way is conquer yourself, that's your name."

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