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Po pi po ~ Miku Hatsune Vegetable Juice Dance

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Japanese smileys vs. Ekman faces

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Some medias and the blogosphere (see here, here and here) are celebrating a new study published in Current Biology, allegedly showing that recognition of facial expressions is not universal. Psychological universalists and relativists never seem to get tired of chewing on that old bone of contention.

There are two aspects to the study. The first is a very nice exploration (by means of eye-tracking) of the way Asians process facial expressions, replicating the earlier work of Masaki Yuki and colleagues three years ago (read what Karim wrote of it at the time). Japanese subjects tend to focus on the eyes instead of the mouth to decode emotions – as one could have guessed from looking at Japanese Smiley faces :        (^_^)     for ‘happy’,       (T_T)        for ‘sad’, and other such          (*_*)       …

Yet the authors don’t stop at that fascinating result, and go on to try and prove another point : that because of this difference in face-processing style, East Asian subjects and ‘Caucasian’ subjects are not equally good at recognizing some of Paul Ekman‘s supposedly universal facial displays of emotions, like disgust and fear. And indeed East Asian subjects are significantly likelier than Caucasians to misinterpret happy or fearful faces.

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Obon Jour

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Christopher Hitchens in Slate –Japanese teenagers, babies and reconciliation:

This time every summer I begin to suspect myself of going soft and becoming optimistic and sentimental. The mood passes, I need hardly add, but while it is upon me, it amounts to a real thing. On the first weekend of every August, in Palo Alto, Calif., the Japanese community opens the doors of its temple and school in order to invite guests and outsiders to celebrate the Obon Festival.

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Japanese babies look like small-scale models of grown-ups in a way that makes one want to laugh out loud, while their old people achieve a sort of fineness and slenderness in bone structure and bearing that causes one to turn the head and also to wish to bow in deference.

I suppose that I am risking these generalizations (Japanese teenagers appear to look pretty much like teenagers everywhere, especially the males, so who knows what’s going on?) because it’s only a few decades ago that Japanese people were portrayed as especially ugly and misshapen and menacing. You don’t even have to look at cartoons and caricatures of the World War II epoch—more recent stereotypes from the economic rivalry of the 1980s were also pretty rough. And the first week in August is when we commemorate, or at any rate ought to commemorate, the first use of the atomic bomb. It is in living memory that this device was used on humans and the term yellow peril used to justify its use. (Japanese skin comes in several attractive shades. Yellow is a nice enough color but is not the word one would use for any of them.)

In the United States, and especially in California, the war against Japanese imperialism was also accompanied by collective punishment of Japanese-Americans and the sequestration of their persons and property. ()


400 – Japanese Whispers: Mapping the Forbidden Outside World

For two centuries after 1640, the official Japanese policy towards the outside world was known as sakoku (’closed country’), by which both Japanese leaving the country and foreigners entering it could expect the death penalty.

Although not quite as harshly absolute as that, isolationism prevailed until American commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Fleet sailed into Uraga harbour in 1853, forcing Japan to open up, first to commerce with the US, later to trade with other western countries.

This Japanese world map circa 1850, gives an impression of the country’s view of its place in the world on the verge of its forced reintegration into the international community. It is an intriguing mix of foreign knowledge and native perspective.

The Japanese archipelago is placed self-confidently at the centre of the map, banishing Europe from its usual central place to a marginal one, at the western edge. The American continent is banished to the map’s far eastern side.

The continents, each assigned a different colour, are generally in the right position vis-a-vis each other, but their contours are very poorly rendered, as if the map was not drawn directly from a contemporary western example, but via a system of Chinese whispers.

* Europe is an elongated mess, the Black Sea landlocked, the Greek peninsula melted, the British Isles fragmented into multiple rocks the very presence of which has smoothed out the continent’s northwestern shores to an almost straight line from Biarritz to Hamburg.
* Africa is intersected by giant rivers morphing into two fabulous (and fabulated) inland seas; South Africa’s Natal region is placed on its own island. Madagascar had bent out of shape, its northern cape aiming at a clutter of too-large islands.
* the Red Sea is coloured red, but the Arabian peninsula is coloured in as part of Europe – not to mention triangle-shaped. The Indian subcontinent (which actually is triangle-shaped) is rendered as a tired, sagging lump of land, much smaller than the huge Indochinese land mass.
* Unless one generously discerns the St Lawrence River in the giant wound gaping in North America’s eastern side, that continent shows hardly any resemblance to its actual shape (South America is shown much more realistically).
* By 1850, the British were busy colonising Australia, but this map still presupposed the area to be barely visited, showing it as a confused, semi-discovered muddle of land, attached to the Southland – the mythical Terra Australis Incognita of ancient – western – lore.

However flawed it may be, what this map proves by getting the general gist of the world’s geography right, is that Japan was not entirely cut off from outside knowledge.

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(Hat tip: Akindynos)