Monday, May 15, 2017

An English Lady from the Skies

The crash of the Hindenburg in 1937 brought a swift end to the era of the airship, behemoths of skies and floating bomb platforms of the First World War. Withdrawn from service almost immediately following the disaster was one such craft that operated as a mail carrier between Europe and South America known as The Graf Zeppelin, call sign LZ 127 which in the late summer of 1929 held the distinction of being the first air transport to circumnavigate the globe, including a five day stopover in Japan.

Japan's fascination with powered flight began nearly two decades earlier when, in December 1910, Yoshitoshi Tokugawa (a grand nephew of the last shogun) flew from the parade grounds of Yoyogi, in central Tokyo. As reparation for activities during WWI, Japan was subsequently awarded an airship hanger from Germany which was promptly located at the Kasumigaura Naval Air Field some seventy five kilometres northwest of Tokyo, part of the fledgeling Japanese Imperial Navy Aeronautical Centre.

Following a transit of Tokyo and Yokohama, it was here that the Graf Zeppelin was moored during their stay bringing some well earned relief and warmth, following the flight over Siberia, to its passengers and crew. And onboard, despatched by William Randolph Hearst's media empire, was the English Lady Grace Marguerite Hay-Drummond-Hay who, as a result of her travels (and with the possible exception of Gulliver), holds the distinction of being the first tourist in Japan to arrive by air.

The Graf Zeppelin flies over Tokyo, August 19, 1929


Friday, May 5, 2017

"The" Ginza - Part 1

Interestingly this random "the" actually appears twice in Japan. There is "the Ginza" in Tokyo, today the height of cosmopolitan retail, and "the Gion" in Kyoto, the traditional street of geisha and teahouses (and tourists). But Japanese is a notoriously vague language and doesn't actually posses a definitive article so why do we sometimes impose one in English? Indeed, in Japanese the name is sometimes reverse engineered through katakana (the alphabet reserved for western words) as "za Ginza", a confirmation, if needed, that the origins are English, rather than Japanese.

The etymology of the name itself relates to the government's silver mint (Ginza literally translates as "Silver Chair") which was located in the area until 1800 when the shogunate became tired of the endemic corruption and moved it to Nihonbashi where they could keep a closer eye on back door activities. The name stuck though and the area was a veritable rabbit warren of kabuki theatres, river boat wharfs and kimono stores until in 1872, it was razed by catastrophic fire. And now it began to take a very different shape. An Irishman, by the name of Thomas James Waters, cleared the streets and created the new and distinct European coffee house experience of Brick Town.

English speaking foreigners were just beginning to appear around this time in Japan as the country opened it's doors to the world and it was during this period that it seems to have acquired the "the". Reference to it can be found as far back as 1908 in The New York Times when it was reported that "Admirally Sperry was mobbed by crowds wanting to shake his hand in the Ginza". And then again  in the Chicago Tribune where somewhat more ominously the front page reported "today's target is the Ginza" in January 1945. And so the Ginza's epithet arose as a result of its position as a unique European experience in the heart of the capital city of the land of the rising sun. Somewhere to meet and discuss the events of the day. "The" place to be seen.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Rise of the Concrete Castle

Japan, as with many countries, has a treasure chest of castles criss-crossing the nation. Ornate in execution, the typical style that springs to the western mind is based on the Azuchi-Momoyama design, with Azuchi Castle itself being the original blue print overlooking Kyoto on the shores of Lake Biwa. Today however, the vast majority of structures derive from concrete poured largely in advance of the 1964 Olympics (Osaka Castle even boasting a useful glass elevator following a 1990's refit) with three notable exceptions of Himeji, Kumamoto and Matsumoto castles. And Kumamoto is pushing it a little with a central keep from the 1960's as well.

The decline and fall of the castle network across the country came largely as a result of, but not necessarily during, the Boshin (civil) War of 1868/69. Osaka Castle was razed to the ground as the Imperial forces made it clear that there was a new kid in town (the emperor being only sixteen at the time) but the majority of what remained were intact. These castles though were seen as a symbol of the era when Japan was ruled by the Shogun and his daimyo lords. Not wanting obvious reminders of the past, people simply dismantled them for their timber and iron.

Today, many of the recreations are spectacular to visit and house museums that provide an interesting guide to feudal life in Japan. The restored Tsuruga Castle in Fukushima Prefecture with its deep moats and ten meter thick battlement holds the distinction of hosting the last mainland battles of the civil war before the bakafu forces withdrew to Hokkaido for their heroic, though somewhat doomed, last stand. But one castle, that of Hiroshima, suffered a unique fate in history, being the only one to be destroyed by an atomic bomb. Less than a mile from the epicentre, deep inside, lay the military communication rooms which on that day were staffed by high-school girls, the men being somewhat pre-occupied at the time. And when they sent a radio message saying the city had been destroyed in a single blast, the government in Tokyo simply didn't believe them. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Where did all the panic go?

I was recently asked an interesting question as to whether the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula were affecting my long term plans as to life in the land of the rising sun. The simple answer was "no" however I did caveat the reply with a note that I may "reassess priorities if the arrows begin to fly". The only concern that is regularly raised amongst my international friends is actually the inconsistent message being issued from an administration in the position to inadvertently light the blue touch paper. 

However, English rock stars apart (Ian McCulloch), the entire country is hardly running to the hills or building nuclear bunkers under their homes. There have been drills in the north of Japan but given the four minute warning (well, ten, give or take) before a missile lands, there is limited scope for an effective retreat. So why the isn't there panic in the streets as submariners arrive in South Korea and an elusive carrier group steams (allegedly) in the general direction of the north? 

The answer lies in the Japanese psyche which is formed and moulded by the geological intersection of three or the earths intersecting tectonic plates; the source of earthquakes, volcanos and  unstoppable tsunami. And everyone knows "the big one" could happen tomorrow. I once saw an interview with a foreigner who had lived through the Kobe earthquake and filled his bath every night in anticipation of another until he realised "I was worried about yesterday and forgetting to live for tomorrow". So no, at the moment no one is looking to flee. We have tomorrow to look forward to.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The privations of personal privacy

Personal privacy is something not to be taken lightly in Japan. I once had been working with a colleague for several months and casually asked about his weekend. You could almost see the dark clouds racing from the horizon. Whether it had been particularly awful I'll never know as he quietly but firmly replied that was "personal". Fair enough and one peculiar encounter a common trait it does not make. But when soon after I heard whispering one morning I asked the cause to which I was informed they thought the lady on reception may have got married. But no one was sure.

Given the choice of revealing a personal mobile number to the world or carrying two phones, one personal, one business, people in Japan will almost exclusively opt to carry the second device. And here it has to be said that I've been listing my personal number on my business card for over twenty years and I'm at a total loss as to if it has ever resulted in an unwanted call. However, I've even had my assistant once refuse to provide her own number and I had to swear on the graves of my forebears that I would only use it in dire emergencies of biblical proportions before she would give it up.

Once one of my staff tweeted (somewhat disparagingly) about a famous athlete arriving in our store. The Twittersphere exploded and within a matter of hours she was being i-mobbed, people even tweeting her home address and trolling her with abuse. We were actually quite concerned for her safety and took action as best we could. And so here in Japan, where the police won't actually do anything until you've already been clubbed senseless by a reported stalker, maintaining a strict Chinese Wall between personal and public is something of a national obsession. I still wouldn't mind knowing what the guy had been up to over the weekend though. He really did look guilty.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A legacy lost?

With three years to go until the Summer 2020 Olympics Japan is currently in the process of realising it has a new issue on its hands. The stadium debacle is well known (though the focus has been on cost rather than arguably political expediency) as is the problem of a plagiarised logo followed closely by the men only golf club voting to admit women only on pain of losing the event and the uproar of restaurants across the capital that if smoking is banned then their customers will be unfairly impacted and go elsewhere (not to smoke?).

But the realisation that, due to the structure of the system, there are actually insufficient teachers, both Japanese and international, able to raise the level of English (whether you like it or not, it is the default global language) of their students to a basic communication level, effectively sounds the death knell of 2020 being an international tournament accessible by the majority of the country. It will be a domestic sporting event, all be it an outstanding one performed on the stage of the combined live world media. But here it is now unlikely to raise and inspire a new generation to look beyond the coastline. Which wouldn't be such a problem if the country didn't have another problem with the ever declining base population. 

Unfortunately the base population is set to decline by over 20% in the next thirty years and soon after the ratio of working population to those already retired will be approaching parity. Japan, the world's third richest economy has just ranked 40 out of 48 surveyed countries in a UN study on English as a second language. The day the doors need to open and even basic care workers are welcomed in, this skill would soften the surprise of a foreigner at the front door. Japan can turn on a dime when needed, but with the best will in the world you don't wake up in the morning fluent in a new language. It takes time, commitment and not a little inspiration. This Olympic legacy has sadly probably already been lost. Time for a re-think.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Those little moments of happiness

In 1972, a young Japanese stylist by the name of Yacco Takahashi, flitting in and out of the London music and art scene of the time, was introduced to David Bowie who was breaking through with his album Hunky Dory, in its own right something under the influence of Japan. And she became instrumental in creating the chimera of Ziggy Stardust, rock god and voice for the Spiders from Mars.

Ziggy, Yacco, Kansai; photo by Sukita
Yasuko "Yacco" Takahashi had previously worked with T-Rex who were, partly as a result of her work, slightly ahead of the curve in creating the Glam Rock image of the early 1970's. She introduced Bowie to two Japanese friends who she new from her life in the famous Harajuku Central Apartments in downtown Tokyo and would later describe her time with the three of them as "those little moments of happiness". One, Kansai Yamamoto, was a popular young fashion designer from Yokohama who dressed Bowie in clothes designed for women and created the androgyny that was to confuse and bewilder a generation of parents.

The second was a photographer by the name of Masayoshi Sukita who grew up on the southern island of Kyushu and who was from then on to record Bowie's life through the lens of a camera. And one day in early 1977, Yacco took Bowie for a walk through the backstreets of Tokyo to meet Sukita at his studios. There, along with Iggy Pop, they created a series of images. And the cover of "Heroes", the seminal album from Bowie's Berlin period, was shot that day. Not in LA or London. But in a small studio in the backstreets of Harajuku. In just about an hour.