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Year in Review: Japanese Culture Series

Popular series continues to explore Japanese culture through lectures and workshops

By Tyson Schmidt

The Japanese Culture series is a collection of workshops and lectures designed to give attendees the opportunity to learn about and experience various aspects of Japanese culture. From rich historical stories of Japan to traditional Japanese arts to modern phenomena such as anime, this series explores a wide range of topics led by a diversity of presenters. This year, the  series was comprised of three events:

Women in Japanese Commercials

This year’s Japanese Culture Series kicked off with “Women in Japanese Commercials”, a presentation that took a look at the different ways women are portrayed in the striking and sometimes strange world of Japanese commercials. This presentation was graciously given by guest lecturer, Dr. Luminita Gurita, who earned a doctorate in multiculturalism on cultural diversity in the Japanese workplace at Tohoku University in Japan and currently teaches at the Calgary Japanese Language School. 

Dr. Gurita began the event by probing nearly 40 attendants with intriguing questions about the ways we engage with commercials. Surprisingly, despite the fact that polls show that the majority of audiences do not watch commercials, corporations still spend millions of dollars a year on television commercials.

The event truly began when Dr. Gurita showed video clips of Japanese commercials. The world of Japanese commercials are bizarre, fast-paced, occasionally erratic, and outrageously funny. Unlike Western commercials, many of these advertisements “show” rather than “tell”. As a result, the imagery is meant to be eye-catching and it certainly succeeds at that. Many students were in uproarious laughter at the unpredictable, action-focused nature of Japanese commercials, many of which cut between increasingly more surreal scenes in rapid-fire succession.

Before and after each commercial, Dr. Gurita was ready to provide thought-provoking questions about the message these commercials intended to send. Despite the chaos of Japanese commercials, Dr. Gurita was able to deftly identify the hidden messages of each of these advertisements. As Japanese commercials feature much less dialogue than their Western counterparts, these themes are much more subtle yet no less important. After all, Dr. Gurita contends, commercials are an important reflection of the society they stem from.  Dr. Gurita pointed out the specific roles women are cast in Japanese commercials, often as background characters or as subordinate employees, but when they are given a leading role it is most often sexualized, such as a lover or as a symbol of beauty and desirability.

By the end, as the laughter died down, each student was left with important questions about the subtle stereotypes and clichés that commercials imply. Japanese commercials, while so different in content, are very similar to Western commercials in that regard. The questioning period was filled with plenty of activity as students eagerly asked Professor Gurita their questions about Japanese society and the future of commercials. Response to the event was exceedingly positive, and it was viewed as both an enjoyable and informative presentation. The SLLLC gives great thanks to Professor Gurita for taking the time to provide such a wonderful experience.

Think Ink #6

The next presentation in the Japanese Culture Series was actually a recurring event called “Think Ink”. This calligraphy crowd-pleaser has always drawn tremendous interest from the students of the University of Calgary’s Japanese language programs, and this one was no exception. The sixth installment of “Think Ink” proved to be as popular as ever and attracted over 40 students. Despite the enormous turn-out, supplies were abundant, and everyone was able to find a seat with a bamboo brush, a sheet of hanshi (calligraphy paper), and a well of sumi ink.

 “Think Ink” was created by the University of Calgary’s own Senior Instructor Sharp, more fondly known as Sharp-sensei by her adoring students. She reprised her role as presenter again this year, opening the event with a succinct history of Japanese shōdo calligraphy, as well as stories from her own experiences living in Japan. Students were greatly entertained by the historical cursive script, sosho calligraphy, which featured indistinct, scrawling shapes that would seem impossible for anyone to identify. This was made even more amusing by the presence of Professor Yang, who was called out for studying scrolls written in historical fonts very similar to this on a daily basis.

The rich history of calligraphy was made even more exciting by the knowledge that soon students would get to take up the brush for themselves.

The University of Calgary was grateful for the help graciously provided by the 5 students of Senshu University and the 11 students of the Hokkaido University of Education. Alongside Sharp-sensei, these students provided a demonstration of how to perform shōdo calligraphy, demonstrating all the basic strokes of shodo by drawing “永”, meaning “eternal” or “forever”. Students were shown the proper way to sit, hold the brush, the appropriate amount of ink to use, and many other aspects of an art so graceful it can take decades to master. At last, students were free to try their hand at drawing the kanji they so frequently study in class in the style of calligraphy.

At first the room was quiet, but slowly outbursts of laughter and exasperation combined to form a lively, if frustrated environment. “This is so haaaard!!”, one student could be overheard exclaiming. Contrary to the expectations of many, getting the strokes just right took unprecedented delicacy and concentration. However, with the help provided by the Senshu and Hokkaido students, cries of frustration rapidly turned to joy as students got the hang of it.


At the end of the event, Professor Yang called everyone together to take a picture with their best kanji. As you can tell from the smiles, everyone had a fun time all around.

Drawing the Holocaust in Postwar Manga

Closing off this year’s Japanese Culture Series, on March 11th, the students of U of C were invited to “Drawing the Holocaust in Postwar Manga”, presented by the U of C’s own Assistant Professor of Japanese, Ben Whaley. Professor Whaley teaches classes based on Japanese pop culture and is one of the leading authorities of the subject in Southern Alberta. As a result, his presentation was sure to impress and correspondingly attracted a crowd of 23 attendees. Professor Whaley opened by taking a moment to remember the devastation caused by the 2011 Tōhoku 9.1 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which shared it’s 8th anniversary with the date of the presentation. As it turns out, for the 1st anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake, the Hiroshima Holocaust Education Centre commissioned and distributed 1,200 copies of a manga adaptation of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl to the affected areas for the purpose of inspiring hope and courage through reading about her difficult life as a young Jewish girl living in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands.

This tied directly into the rest of Professor Whaley’s presentation, which examined how these manga adaptations of The Diary of a Young Girl have become an important link for Japanese audiences to the Holocaust. Due to Japan’s extremely low Jewish population and alliance with Germany in World War 2, Japan does not have the same traditional connection to the Holocaust as Western audiences do.  Instead, Japanese audiences learn of Anne Frank’s story primarily through manga adaptations like the one distributed after the Tōhoku Earthquake. One particularly interesting aspect about The Diary of a Young Girl is how often the story is reinterpreted as a shōjo or “young girls” manga, that highlights her confident, powerful personality as well as her tragic love story. While Professor Whaley’s presentation was much more somber than the rest of the Culture Series, it was also extremely gripping. His presentation demonstrated the cultural significance of Anne Frank in Japan, which includes two foundations dedicated to the Holocaust and the multiple manga dedicated to her story.

The following question and answer period was highly reflective, including multiple questions from Japanese instructors in the audience who shared their own insight on the way Anne Frank’s story has impacted Japan. Despite the nature of the material involved, the presentation was still exceedingly well-received, and many students stayed afterwards to continue the discussion with Professor Whaley.
In summary, this year’s Japanese Culture Series was an amazing experience for the U of C students. Crossing a wide variety of topics, including Japanese commercials, shodo calligraphy, and manga depictions of the Holocaust, students were able to learn about aspects of Japanese culture completely foreign to them. And if you weren’t able to attend this year’s events, keep your eyes out for 2020’s Culture Series which will feature new presentations about the unique world of Japanese culture!