Saturday, January 21, 2017

Amakudari - the Descent from Heaven


In the classic 1946 movie "A Matter of Life and Death", David Niven (the quintessential Englishman) plays the role of a bomber pilot forced to bail out without a parachute or face the flames as his aircraft is consumed by fire. However, lost in the thick channel fog, he is missed by the angels and spends his time falling in love and arguing his case with the powers that be to stay on earth, alive, rather than take his place beyond the Pearly Gates.

Well, Japanese business has its own form of this and it remains significantly less altruistic than the life of Squadron Leader Peter Carter and his debate with the afterlife. Known as amukadari, or "descent from heaven", it's the practice of the retiring bureaucrats in grey suits from the government taking remarkably well compensated roles in the industries they had been charged with overseeing throughout their careers. And yes, this does somewhat create a conflict of interest.

And so, after nearly three decades of economic stagnation and decades more of the practice being an open secret, a law was enacted in 2009 to curtail these activities. Which brings us full circle to another all time classic movie as Japan reaches its "Casablanca" moment. Things have been quiet until recently, however now there appears to be a voice crying in surprise "shocked, shocked I am that there is gambling in this establishment" as Claude Rains exclaimed to Humphrey Bogart, just at the moment he pocketed his winnings. And no, the line "play it again Sam" never did appear in the movie. And also no, we'll probably never know why now. But someone's clearly not happy.




Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Kobe Earthquake and the birth of the smartphone

At 5.46AM on January 17, 1995, the early shinkansen was readying to pull out of Shin-Osaka station bound west for Hiroshima and beyond. Had it been ten minutes earlier it would have been travelling at speed as the second most devastating earthquake of the twentieth century eviscerated the city of Kobe, the shockwaves rebounding from the mountains encircling the metropolis of 1.5m people, causing an interference pattern that would create utter destruction in one block whilst leaving the next untouched.

There were heroes and villains that day. I walked the ground nearly six weeks after the catastrophe, as that is what it had become, the fallen highway already cleared from the view of the world, and I stood in respect and watched small gatherings in the burnt out wreckage of Nada-ku, silently praying for the souls of those lost, trapped under the heavy tile roofs of the flimsy wooden structures, unable to escape as the fires closed in. The Governor of the Prefecture of Hyogo, being an ex-communist, refused to allow the Self Defence Forces, the only organisation with the resources to make any difference that day, into the city. The SDF was initially restricted to operating "training" flights from the skies to assess the damage.

Two events in particular that day made life saving differences. The technicians at the hydroelectric station supplying energy to the city realised they'd lost one third of their demand and the grid would soon catastrophically overload. Ignoring the manual and authority lines they flipped the switches and started pumping water back upstream saving the power grid from total meltdown. And then the Personal Private Secretary to the Governor signed the order to allow the SDF in to the prefecture. He announced to the press the Governor had signed the instrument and then went to the Governor and said "you tell them I lied if you want to".

The Great Hanshin Earthquake was a natural disaster magnified a hundred times into a man made catastrophe. But as a result the laws were changed and ex-communists can no longer fiddle as their cities burn. And as 300,000 telegraph poles collapsed and the phone lines ceased to function, the few with mobile phones, the only communications still available, placed them on street corners next to small collection tins for those to use who needed to let loved ones know they were still alive. Or that some were gone. And Japan came to a collective realisation that the mobile phone was a gift and not a curse. And we are connected today to each other partly through the price paid by the city of Kobe in the early hours of the morning of January 17, 1995.




Monday, January 16, 2017

There are Dragons on Mars

Art work by Takeshi Sato of David Bowie's Heroes album cover Iconic David Bowie cover of Aladdin SaneWhen David Bowie shuffled from this mortal coil in January 2016, I took a quiet moment to myself; he'd had a profound impact on my teenage years as I'm sure he influenced the lives of many millions around the world as we searched for ways through the angst of youth. And now, as time goes by, it's so good to see that he is being remembered as far away as Japan with an exhibition of both his work and memorabilia. The theme of the communication is the iconic image from the "Aladdin Sane" album cover shot by the late, great Brian Duffy. 

Painting of the classic adidas Gazelle Originals by Takeshi SatoTakeshi Sato helping 36 children in Mie-ken enjoy being creativeHowever, cast you eyes to the right of the official poster on location and you'll see a second, incredible work, taken from the 1977 album "Heroes", here created by the gifted artist Takeshi Sato. And I was fortunate enough to share a glass of wine with him and talk about his work. Incredibly passionate, he not only creates characters seemingly from thin air, he works with brands such as adidas and spends time with children to share the pleasure and beauty of art, and how anyone can be a part of this, they just need to believe. And apparently dragons are big across Asia.

Video of the paining of a golden dragon by Takeshi Sato

When many visualise their thoughts of Japan the first concepts that spring to mind are Toyota or Sony or the Nintendo Wii. And not much seems to have changed in a decade or more. However, in this country, often perceived to be on something of a downhill slope when it comes to the new, Takeshi Sato and his friends are proving everyone would benefit from taking a closer look and see that creativity remains innovative and powerful in Japan. And just like David Bowie there really is Life on Mars. And it's not just sentient, it's overwhelmingly vibrant.


Takeshi Sato creating a new work of art

Friday, January 13, 2017

Life in Tokyo - Nikaime no Hanashi

And if you're wondering, the title means "the second story" about Life in Tokyo, the second in a series of loosely interconnected monologues around the fascinating existence of living on the ground as a bilingual illiterate. And this one is about taking a photograph. Or actually slightly over 200 one freezingly cold evening in late December. Photography had always been an enjoyable hobby for me, dating so far back we used to use something known as "film" in our cameras. And then my son came along and, somewhat counter-intuitively, I put the camera down and spare time disappeared into the annals of history.

Norie TamuraBut I'd always wanted to learn how to use one of these new wave digital devices and noticing my beautiful Contax RX could now effectively be sold more for spare parts on e-Bay than as a photographic device (shashinki in Japanese) I invested in a  basic digital model and quickly realised how far out to sea I actually was. So lessons were required but these were going to be in Japanese and the learning curve would be fairly horizontal at best. However then, ensconced and bored on a train one day, having missed my lift back to Tokyo (but that's a whole different sea-sick story) into my phone I typed "photography lessons Tokyo English" and up popped a gentleman by the name of Alfie Goodrich, an outstanding photographer who could lead me into the new world, in English. 

The internet is a lifeline to the non-native world but only as a means of finding the solution to a problem (imagine trying to find Alfie by word of mouth). And so we spent the first of what I plan to be many evenings with the beginnings of an understanding of available and flash-light portrait photography, working with the incredibly stunning, and extremely talented, model, Norie Tamura. My point, though, is that language isn't a barrier to life in Japan. As one of my son's teachers once pointed out, a ten year old, with an iPhone, could thrash all the parents from the school combined in a pub quiz. Japan really is open to anyone today, you just need to see the question.

Noire Tamura

Friday, January 6, 2017

When the children break free

Ever since the year 2000, the second Monday of January has been a special day as each and every twenty year old reaches the age of majority (before 2000 that it was 15 January but that led to conflicts with the Happy Monday Law that automatically moves a national holiday to the following Monday if it happens to fall on a Sunday. Which it did on a fixed date). Although already recognised in law, on this day they become recognised as an adult in the eyes of a culture. 

Morning ceremonies will be held across the country in town halls and schools to congratulate them and wish them well for the future but to also remind them of the responsibility they now hold in their hands. Dating back at least until the Nara Period (most of the 700's) the ceremony of Genpuku (colloquially translated as "to put ones head on") is a time of celebration (though sometimes with a little too much celebration...) for both the young adults coming of age but just as much a moment of pride for parents and family. 

And so everyone will dress in their finest and attend their local ceremony; boys usually in ill-fitting suits looking someone uncomfortable, girls wearing incredibly ornate and beautiful furisode (pronounced "fu-ri-so-day") a long sleeved version of kimono, traditionally denoting the lady remains unmarried. So if you want the most incredible memories of Japan, grab your camera and head into town, it is truly a sight to behold. And congratulations, probably with some hiccups on the way, you've made it to adulthood. Have a wonderful day.




Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Nengajo - knowing you're not forgotten

Japan isn't big on Christmas cards. In fact, unless you actually know where to look (Tokyu Hands or The Loft) you're probably going to miss them entirely. But the jigsaw cards are fun, you can write your message and then break them into dozens of pieces, pop them into an envelope and send it to your friend for re-assembly at their leisure. But the issue is not really one of Japan being a largely non-Christian country and therefor not celebrating Christmas, most Christian countries don't send Christmas cards for that reason; it's just a traditional way to say you're thinking of your friend.

And Japan does that on January 1st. In fact, more than 20% of the total mail despatched each year is delivered on one single day as the national population takes time out to wish each other well. The cards are known as nengajo and will almost always be personalised, whether with a photograph of the family (which year by year you see growing, ageing, learning, leaving the nest or just smiling and saying hello) or with a handwritten note to let you know you're not forgotten in life.

And as you get older the stack of cards grows from a few to often hundreds. I once stayed with a family for New Year in southern Kyushu and their collection required two hands to hold them all. But I have decided to become eco-friendly and make my little contribution to saving the rainforests. The card was prepared with photoshop and Facebooked and emailed. A few however will still be printed and handed personally to some who don't inhabit this digital world. Because they're also my friends and I'm thinking about them too.  

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Fine and Happy New Year!

It's New Year's Eve and Tokyo is quiet as people have returned to their home towns to be with family. Tonight the country will be sitting in front of the TV watching Kohaku, the annual "Boys vs Girls" (boys in white, girls in red) sing off that has been running for, it would seem, ever. All the favourite singers and talento of the day join in an multi-hour extravaganza of a competition, wrapping up just before midnight as everyone switches over to watch the countdown on Jonny's Pop Show.

But there's an interesting aside for the name of Kohaku. The reason why the girls are in red and the boys are in white is that Kohaku is actually a stylised koi carp which is also red and white. Bred in the 1800's it's now featured in garden ponds the world over and each and everyone can be traced back to a gentleman by the name of Kunizo Hiroi who successfully mated the first pairing to an ornamental fish. But more impressively, single handedly invented the concept of an ornamental fish in its own right.

But as Kohaku closes, the camera will switch to a tolling bell, ringing in the New Year. And that's when everyone changes channel to the Jonny's party. A neighbour of mine, the lead guitar of a band  known as "New Dawn" used to hangout here and we'd have beers on the balcony. He was a really nice guy and I never really knew what he did or who the band were. Until I saw him closing the show as the countdown sounded. I asked him later about why a famous guy like himself would sit and drink a glass with me (of all people) and he said that as I didn't know who he was he just felt like a regular guy. And he liked that. Happy New Year.