books
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BLACK BOX
Shiori Ito
2021 The Feminist Press
In this new English-language translation of the original Japanese book Black Box, journalist Shiori Ito of Japan relives her hellish experience of having been raped by a well-known member of Japan’s news media establishment, the inexcusable handling of her rape case by police and ultimately her victory in court against her sexual abuser.

That accused abuser was Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a politically well-connected, right-wing television commentator who was then the Washington D.C. bureau chief for the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), a major TV network in Japan.

The story was major news here in Japan in 2017, when Ito, then a 20-something intern for the Reuters news service in Tokyo, held a press conference to publicly name Yamaguchi, then in his late 40s, as the man who had drugged her two years earlier, taken her to his swank hotel room in Tokyo without her consent and then raped her while she was unconscious.

But, as Ito relates in the book, the act of rape was only the beginning of the nightmare. She had to deal with the intrusive, humilating investigation by police in Japan, who, like Japanese society overall, tend to blame and bully the victims rather than the victimizers.

Standard operating procedure for the police in rape cases in Japan is to make a woman “reenact” the experience of rape in front of a group of male police officers. That is exactly what happened in her case too, as she writes about being coerced into doing the reenactment in a judo-practicing hall within the police station:

There was a blue mat spread out on the floor, and judo uniforms hung along the wall. Many police officers must have trained here — the room smelled of sweat.

Using a life-size doll, in a judo hall filled with only male investigators, I was forced to reenact the circumstances of my rape.

“Lie down there, please,” I was told, as I lay face up on the blue mat, surrounded by men. One of the investigators placed a large doll on top of me.

“Like this?” “Or was it more like this?” they asked as they rearranged the doll.

As the camera flashed and I heard the shutter clicking, my mind tensed up and then completely shut down.

Had the same thing happened that night?


Police repeatedly asked her, on that occasion and others during the investigation, whether or not she had been a virgin at the time of the rape. The police’s explanation each time was: “We have to ask.”

All of this constituted a second act of rape against Ito, just as it does with any other woman in Japan under the same circumstances. In the end, the police investigation came to naught because, as was reported later, the top police investigator in the case called off the arrest of Yamaguchi, the alleged rapist, at the last minute and closed the case.

Ito appealed to prosecutors to have the case reopened, but it never was. Ito suspects, with good reason, that the case was dropped by police due to Yamaguchi’s political connections in high places in the Japanese government; he had earlier written a biography of Shinzo Abe, then the ultra-nationalist prime minister of Japan. A “black box” is what the police told Ito her rape case represented: a dark, murky place where the truth of the rape crime might never be known and shouldn’t be pursued.

So, Ito filed a civil case against Yamaguchi and in 2019, the court found in her favor. Yamaguchi filed a counter-suit against Ito, claiming his good reputation had been damaged, but the court refused to hear his case, citing major inconsistencies in his accusations against Ito.

Yamaguchi all along had used his respected standing in the Japanese press community to publicly call Ito a liar and slut-shame her in the media. Ito, in turn, received lots of hate mail and threats from Japanese citizens who had told her to drop her case from the beginning. But it is to Ito’s credit that she stuck with it to the end. Less than five percent of all rape cases in Japan are ever reported to police, and looking at Ito’s case, it is easy to see why.

The American printing of this book by a non-profit publisher,
The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, promotes Black Box as “The Memoir That Sparked Japan’s #MeToo Movement”. But that may be a bit of an overreach. In fact, there have been very few cases like Ito’s in Japan in recent years and any such movement in Japan faces the same uphill battle as before: namely a conservative, uncaring Japanese public that basically despises the weak and respects the strong.

The antiquated rape laws in Japan were amended only slightly in the wake of Ito’s well-known case. But the basic pillars of discrimination against women are still in place, as Ito notes: The age for sexual consent in Japan — are you ready for this? — still stands at 13 years old. The male-dominated Japanese legal system, like the male-dominated news media industry, churns on.

The translator for this American edition of
Black Box, Allison Markin Powell, a translator of several other Japanese literary works, does a commendable job in handling the sensitive subject matter and keeping Ito’s original voice intact. An extended excerpt of this book in English can also be found on the Granta website.

As for Ito herself, she has left Japan in the wake of her rape case, saying that it would be impossible for her to continue her lifelong dream of being a journalist in a closed society like Japan.
Shiori Ito is now an independent journalist based in Britain.

Thanks to this and other translations of
Black Box, her story is now reaching a much wider global audience far beyond Japan’s narrow confines and is a must-read for anyone wanting to know what the underside of Japanese society really looks like, especially where women are concerned.
音楽 music
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OUTSIDE CHILD
Allison Russell
2021
The debut solo album by Canadian singer/songwriter Allison Russell stands out as one of the most inspiring, emotionally moving albums of the year, if not the best of them all.

That Outside Child often challenges the listener’s comfort zone — it is, after all, an intensely personal recording about Russell’s horrific experience of sexual abuse from a young age at the hands of her stepfather and her journey of recovery — by no means takes away from its excellence. She breaks the silence surrounding her story with courage, honesty and hope.

The 11 tracks on the new CD kick off with the ballad “Montreal,” a bittersweet tribute to her hometown, the place where all the abuse occurred over the course of a decade, starting when she was five years old. The parks, graveyards and cathedrals of the city became her residence and refuge as a teenage runaway trying to escape the abuse at home.

In “Persephone,” a catchy, upbeat tune, Russell finds her first love in the skinny arms of a 15-year-old girl, like her, during secret trysts in a basement bedroom. It’s a fitting title for a song: In ancient Greek mythology, Persephone, the daughter of Zeus, was kidnapped by Hades to be his wife in the lower world of hell.

Russell molds a wounded child’s thirst for revenge into a folksy fairytale titled “The Hunters” (audio clip above), as the child runs with the wolves and comes back for some justice against her abusive stepfather and natural-born mother, who looked the other away while all the abuse going on.

The chorus, one of many parts of the album sung by Russell in French, goes:

Le coeur de l’enfant est le coeur de l’univers
l’amour doré
Comme bien-printemps, généreux, chaleureux
Mais jamais innocent
Ni complètement san douleur

(The heart of a child is the heart of the universe,
golden love
Like High Spring, generous and kind
But never innocent
Nor completely without sorrow)


Most of the songs on the CD were co-written by Russell and her American husband JT Nero, who is also her musical partner in Birds of Chicago, the roots-rock band they still co-lead.

A couple songs on Outside Child that were written by Russell alone, though, really shine: “All of the Women” and “Little Rebirth” — the former about a prostitute who Russell once knew while serving as a mental health worker in Vancouver, and the latter an organic blend of Black American gospel and traditional Celtic lament. A multi-instrumentalist, Russell also plays a mean clarinet and banjo on these tunes.

If Russell’s intent is to leave the listener smiling after all the heavy listening, she succeeds with the album’s closing track, “Joyful Motherfuckers”. (The song title alone is worth the price of the CD.) In this acoustic duet with Nero, Russell directly addresses her abusive father — “You were the thief of nothing / I’ll be a child in the garden / ten thousand years and counting” — and exhorts fellow wounded travelers out there in the world to “show ’em what you got in your heart”.

Outside Child, released on the Fantasy Records label, is a soulful, sincere creation chock full of haunting melodies, which makes perfect sense: Just as with the blues, only those who have truly lived the haunting melody can truly sing the haunting melody. And Russell has lived it.

With a strong, supportive band backing her, Allison Russell has reached deep down inside and bared the soul of her inner child. All that’s left is for the rest of us to pick up on her new musical autobiography, a story about falling and rising again, and relate her personal journey to our own.
映画 film
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THE PEOPLE VS. AGENT ORANGE
Alan Adelson & Kate Taverna, directors
2020 85 min.
Two women from countries half a world away from each other find common cause in taking on some of the most powerful forces on the planet — the United States government and U.S. multinational chemical corporations — in this television documentary film about the abuse of authority and the officially sanctioned poisoning of human beings and nature.

Tran To Nga of Vietnam and Carol Van Strum of the U.S. are the focus of the film, as they fight in their own ways to expose the truth behind the massive use of the highly toxic chemical Agent Orange in their respective nations during wartime and peacetime, using the courts and the media to try to inform and sway the public about the issue.

The People vs. Agent Orange, directed by U.S. independent filmmakers Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna, has been broadcast on TV in both France and the U.S. to some well-deserved acclaim. It’s not the first film to link up the plight of Vietnamese and American victims of Agent Orange (yes, there are such victims in the USA too), but it is by far the best one.

What is Agent Orange? It’s a military-grade herbicide or weedkiller used to instantly kill brush, plants and trees, and is made up of two highly destructive acids: 2,4-D (2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4,5-T (2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid). A by-product of this combination, dioxin, is one of the most toxic chemical elements known to humankind — toxic enough to alter the human DNA in horrifying ways and to be passed directly from pregnant mothers to their fetuses.

Agent Orange was widely used by the American military during its war on the sovereign nation of Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s, specifically during a U.S. military operation known as “Operation Ranch Hand,” which ran from 1962 to 1971. During that time, about 20 million U.S. gallons of defoliants and herbicides like Agent Orange were sprayed widely over rural areas of South Vietnam in an attempt to deprive Vietnamese guerrilla forces of vegetation cover and food.

These chemicals were mass produced for the U.S. military by American chemical companies: household names like Monsanto, Dow Chemical and Diamond Shamrock.

Nearly 20,000 aerial spraying missions were conducted by the U.S. military during Operation Ranch Hand. Spraying was done from ground vehicles and from boats as well. Areas of neighboring Cambodia and Laos were also sprayed. These actions by the U.S. military constituted the most heinous acts of chemical warfare in modern history.

Agent Orange succeeded at the time in its intended purpose of quickly destroying large swaths of Vietnamese jungles and other rural areas during the war, turning them into dead zones and near-deserts where almost nothing grew and few living creatures survived.

That included human beings. Millions of Vietnamese civilians over those nine years were also sprayed and most of them suffered severe health problems in the ensuing years, long after the war formally ended in 1975. These health problems have been passed down to the fourth generation of Vietnamese people since then.

But Americans too were affected by all the herbicide spraying in Vietnam. U.S. military personnel passed on the DNA damage caused by Agent Orange to their own offspring once they returned home to the USA. Many former U.S. military persons have died after suffering years of health problems due to exposure to Agent Orange during the war, leaving their children to carry on the poisonous legacy in their own damaged bodies.

Tran To Nga, a Vietnamese grandmother and former guerrilla fighter during the war in Vietnam, has made it her personal mission to demand reparations in courts of law from the American companies who made the wartime chemicals that poisoned her people. As she puts it in the film: “I was born in war, I grew up in war and we are at war now” against Agent Orange manufacturers.

Carol Van Strum is an elderly woman living in a mountainous rural area of Oregon in northwestern USA. She too has fought in court to stop the U.S. Forest Service and private companies from spraying Agent Orange over local forests in the region as part of timber clearcutting operations — spraying that has been going on long after the U.S. military was forced to stop using Agent Orange in Vietnam.

But opposing the use of Agent Orange has had its costs for both women. Tran in Vietnam still has multiple health issues to deal with in old age, and so do her children and grandchildren. Strum in Oregon lost her four young children in the late 1970s in an arson attack on her home that has never been solved by police; she carries on the battle against Agent Orange spraying, which continues to this day within the USA, in their memory. The website she helped launch, The Poison Papers, is a model for citizen activism at its best.

Directors Adelson and Taverna do an exceptional job of escorting the viewer back and forth between Vietnam and the USA to tell a David-vs.-Goliath story of epic proportions. But there is also hope in the film, as Vietnamese and American victims of Agent Orange defy the odds and find strength in joining forces in their quest for recognition.

This film is shot in a clear high-resolution digital format and the cinematography by two video teams, based in Vietnam and the U.S., is second to none. Likewise for the film’s original score, which is chilling and inspiring in equal measure.

As well done as The People vs. Agent Orange stands as a cinematic work, though, it is not the first documentary film to connect the two countries’ respective Agent Orange victims. That honor goes to Japanese filmmaker Masako Sakata, based here in Japan, who has made two films covering this very subject: Agent Orange — A Personal Requiem (2007, viewable here in its entirety) and Living the Silent Spring (2011; trailer here).

The official website for The People vs. Agent Orange, produced by Films for Humanity, includes a useful resource section that educates and informs about the ongoing international battle against Agent Orange. The film’s website is a good place to start looking into the dark underworld of American chemical weapons of mass destruction.

Two women, in Vietnam and the USA, are devoting the last years of their lives to spreading the terrible truth about what chemicals like Agent Orange do to people and seeking true justice. This new documentary film is their story and, by extension, the tragic story of millions of others who have gone unheard and unseen over the years. It’s a tragedy that ranks as nothing less than a global crime against humanity and nature, and each one of us alive today is ultimately responsible for knowing about it.