Thursday, May 5, 2022

The Perceptions of a Geisha

The perceptions of the countries of the world are always interesting to encounter. The British food is solely fish and chips, all Americans carry guns, New Zealand is full of hobbits and all Spaniards dance The Flamenco. Etc. Obviously the stereotypes not only differ by country under review but also by the country of those enjoying the review. For example my French friends have rarely mentioned the British penchant for seafood but apparently I do (full disclosure: I'm British) eat roast beef. All day, everyday.

And in return, every Frenchman rides around on bicycles in a black and white striped t-shirt with a string of garlic around his neck. In my humble British opinion of course. And this leads me to my point, stereotypes are just that, an uneducated viewpoint, more often than not, far from reality. And that's as true of Japan as any other country (and if you do ever meet me, please don't mention "fish and chips" thinking you're being original, you're really, really not). So Stereotypes are founded more in ignorance than intelligence and in there lies the rub, they limit our perceptive abilities.

So recently I was in a conversation regarding Geisha. In the West, "Geisha" is, obviously, a pseudonym for "hooker", which genuinely couldn't be further from the truth. Geisha were / are (yes there are still Geisha today, try the backstreets of Kagurazaka in Tokyo) highly trained entertainers in arts of such as Shamisen, poetry or dance. End of story if you were hoping to get lucky when Japan re-opens its doors. True, through the nature of their work they would meet the rich and famous and a relationship may develop. And, when you think about it, that's no different from the origins and foundation stones of any relationship. Even if you happen to be a "Lion Tamer"... 

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

The Olympics of Kano Jigoro

On a sunny 4th of August, the Japanese athlete, Naoto Tajima, leapt 7.74m into the history books of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Triple jumper by speciality, he was more than a half decent long jumper too. He came third that day and stood on the pantheon taking his place and laurels into history. Standing next to Jesse Owens who was on his way to winning four gold medals (and somewhat poking a stick in the eve of a certain dictator) (oh, and wearing very early Adidas running shoes) outlines his achievements.

However, this story is about the Japanese delegation which had been lobbying hard for a number of years to host the 1940 Olympics, a petition which subsequently was successful. The head of the Japanese Olympic Committee, Kano Jigoro went as far as to say that if Japan was not awarded the games, then the Olympic Committee had "got it wrong". And he would organize another games, bigger and better.

This was to be Japan's final showing in the Olympics until 1952 in Helsinki, the invitation letter to London 1948 presumably lost in the post. Kano Jigoro's vision for 1940 didn't come to pass as no one had mentioned the coming invasion of China and Japan, subsequently, being shown the host nations door, however he did go down in a little bit of history. Between Jesse Owens and Naoto Tajima, you can make him out in the background, not looking very happy. But probably better than the host on that day.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Standing in the rain at Hachiko

No one under the age of twenty five has known the world without the internet. And before I receive a blizzard of comments bellow, that doesn't necessarily mean "have used the internet" however it is so pervasive in our lives the influence is genuinely global. School students today receive more information in twenty four hours than my grandparents received in a lifetime. And they think that's normal. It'll be interesting to see how their brains evolve, and evolution is not slow. But I digress.

When I met my "to be" future wife in Tokyo, there were no mobile phones or any way to message and contact each other outside leaving a message on an answering machine ("Hachiko, hachiji") and pray the message got through. And the queue outside the phone booths at 8.00 o'clock on a Friday night was not something to be trifled with. As everyone else had the same problem looking for 10yen coins. And, of course, you had to carry your English/Japanese dictionary with you when your date did appear. 

Silver Bell was the place in Osaka and Hachiko in Shibuya. Almonds was the go to location in Roppongi to meet but we didn't have mobile phones then. And we waited oh, so much and so often. And then the Keitai bought us time. You'd test out a flip phone by how satisfying the clunk was as you snapped it closed. A little like pressing the ejection button on a cassette player. Which no one under the age of twenty five knows anything about either.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

That Soylent Green Moment

One of the pleasures of living in Japan as a non-Japanese passport carrier is to be able to use the "Re-Entry Permit" line inbound at the airport. Usually both people ahead in the queue are processed and through in a matter of minutes whereas the (and you'll notice I qualified the passport point with "living in Japan") non-residents and also Japanese passport holders are privileged to enjoy the pleasure of an awful long time in their respective queues with a strong dependence on inbound flight schedules. That is of course provided you have your visa in order...

Although many don't realize the point, when you arrive, if you don't have a visa, you're actually being granted a ninety day (which allows for business meeting etc to boot) tourist visa. From most countries. Some need pre-issued visas but that's not what today is about. Living here requires a valid visa, and these arise in multiple flavors, whether one, three, seven years etc. But they all have one thing in common. They all need to be renewed before you become a fugitive from the his Imperial Majesty's pleasure.

And so came my day yesterday. The Tokyo main visa center is in one of the most inaccessible places there is, in amongst the labyrinthian roads and islands of downtown Shinagawa. On-line, the staff receive a generally bad wrap (rap?) which, to be honest, is unfair. They're nice and helpful, though a smattering of English would be a plus. But within thirty minutes I was processed and on my way out. This is a ritual I go through every seven years and each time I meet someone I know. It struck me yesterday, though, there was no one who appeared to be over sixty years old. Which means one of two things. Older people return tend to their home country in general, or that the door, marked "Soylent Green", has something else behind it...

Friday, January 21, 2022

So Exactly When Is It In Japan?

I have an interesting dilemma, though if push ever came to shove, I'm fairly sure the local constabulary probably wouldn't agree with me. The issue is, my driving license, a document that is managed under the Japanese system of defining year by the reign of the Emperor, expires in Heisei 35 as clearly displayed in bold writing on the front. Except today is Reiwa 4, and there never will be a Heisei 35 following the well earned retirement of Emperor Akihito in 2019. And in there, lies the rub. After the ascension of the new Emperor, the prior counting system ceased to continue.

Government related documents tend to (but not always do) apply the Japanese Calendar. To know when to renew my license I have to convert the Heisei date to the Western Calendar, find the year (2023) and then convert back (Reiwa 5) (must remember to renew my license next year...). And sometimes they mix them. Having just completed my annual house insurance I needed to complete the date in two separate sections, one in Japanese format and one in Western. And I'm sure I'll receive said form returned with a correction.

The system commenced in 1868, technically Meiji 1, with the adoption of the new constitution and scant regard for the confusion to follow (my Japanese friends become just as confused if you were wondering). Taisho was next in 1912, though this is the one that seems to be the least remembered. The Showa period commenced in 1926 bringing in the long reign of Emperor Hirohito (the only person to receive "The Stranger Order of the Knight of the Garter" from the Queen, twice, as it got rescinded in 1941 for, ahem, obvious reasons, and then re-awarded in 1971; which apparently made him happy). Rounding things out saw the Heisei Era from 1989 which bings us to today with Reiwa from 2019 (which was both Heisei 31 and simultaneously Reiwa 1). And don't ask, it's really never going to change.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A Pina Colada at Trader Vics

Some people have interesting traditions. In something of a different era, I once called a friend on the last Friday before Christmas. People were out of town and truth be told I was somewhat bored so calling around those still in situ. One friend answered thinking it was his girlfriend (let's not get into what he actually said when he found out it was me...) and we decided to catch up. He had something with him I'd never seen before, and it held a lot of music. The iPod had been launched to the world some two months prior and so I've always been able to date that last Friday to his shiny white headphone attachment.

And hence a traditions was born. On the last Friday before Christmas each year I host a small lunch for a few friends who don't necessarily know each other but I think they'll enjoy meeting new friends. And I also somewhat define what actually is the "Last Friday". Given the habit of many to leave Japan toward the year end for their homeward journey I've decided I'm allowed to opt for alternative dates to enjoy their company, though these days there are the obvious restrictions of airborne bugs and lack of airplanes.

And so on Friday 17th a few friends met up. We were all vaxed and asked the staff not to approach the table but allow beverages to reside on a side counter where we could select the range ourselves to avoid them having to expose themselves to any potential risks (total count in Japan that day, 56). They didn't do this of course as service is their pride. For which we are extremely grateful. One day we are going to be back to abnormal times, but I'd still like to thank the staff of Trader Vics for kindly welcoming us again. See you next year. With a Pina Colada. And yes, you have to figure that one out...


Tuesday, December 14, 2021

A Namamugi Incident

More years ago than I care to remember I walked "The Kiso Way" from Magome to Tsumago in Nagano-ken, one of the few remaining sections of the Tokaido, the Edo Period stone highway connecting Tokyo and Kyoto. At least I thought I did. Researching this article I've found I'd strolled the Nakasendo, the other road from Tokyo to Kyoto. Which somewhat negates the flow of this article that last weekend I walked the other end of the Tokaido, but this time I'm sure. I had a historian with me. And he had a map.

Setting off from Hachiko in central Tokyo at 6.00AM beating the noise and heat of day (admittedly in December so we somewhat embraced the chill of the morning) with a purpose in mind. I enjoy a good walk and my destination was the Gaijin Botchi (Foreigners' Cemetery) on the bluff overlooking Yokohama, some thirty-five kilometers to the south. I had a detour in mind this time, I'd known of the Namamugi Incident when an Englishman took on the 700 strong retinue of a homeward bound Daimyo with a somewhat predictable outcome. But at least they put up a plaque to him and erected a small (and quite quaint) memorial right next to the Spring Valley Brewery (interestingly founded next to our destination for the day).

Strolling in the morning light we passed through Magome again, this one a suburb of Tokyo (no offense to the residents but, don't go there) and caught up with the third of our party. And then age and sore hips started to take their hold and a detour via a morning cafe where wine and painkillers would be gratefully quaffed became something of a necessity (en-route to which we came across a rusted Nissan Skyline shooting break carrying a tax disk that showed it hadn't been driven in over thirty years, about the same time I was walking through the peace and beauty of the first Magome. And strangely a sign on the side announcing "For Public Use Only"). 

Sustenance received and we moved on. To the train station from where we advanced to Namamugi of said incident only to find the wall and the plaque had succumbed to a wrecking crew less than a week before and the memorial had been relocated (but this one we found). We did find a red footprint and decided this must be the spot of the epic battle and so declared the first objective of the day duly successfully achieved and boarded our train bound for the Gaijin Botchi, a few stops beyond Yokohama Station.

Climbing the steep rise to upper plateaux of the Bluff (actually, there's an escalator concealed inside the hill) we reached the destination of our eventful day. To find it locked. But what a beautiful day, December and people were picnicking on the lawns with a bridal pair thanking their lucky stars for the photo-op. So we crossed from the view of Fuji to the other side of the hilltop and took in the view of Yokohama Bay, thinking of those days before escalators had been invented. And then we went home. By train. No reason to be silly about it.

Thanks go to Rory and Marty!