Friday, November 29, 2013

Snow + Tokyo = Chaos

Northern Japan is very used to snow with places such as Akita or Sapporo receiving several meters throughout the winter. It's a little less common in Tokyo but when it arrives, chaos ensues. Tokyo drivers are unused to snow and many tend to drive as if it's a beautiful summer's day. To add to the situation, pedestrians also tend to assume that the sliding car coming quickly towards them will be able to break and stop, although they've probably already thought of that. When it snows in Tokyo, stay home and keep warm. It's better than being run over.

Unagi, Anago, Inago - the little differences matter

To a non-Japanese speaker, and indeed to a non-native speaker, the slight variations in spellings and pronunciations can prove problematic. Many words seem similar though in Japanese they hold a vastly different meaning. Unagi is the word for fresh water eel whereas anago is the word for saltwater eel. It's interesting that in English there is only the one word - eel, something of a "but why?" moment.

It becomes important when it comes to pronunciation though. If you order a plate of unago and your pronunciation is slightly off and it sounds more like inago, you will receive a plate of lightly fried grasshopper instead. Bon appetite!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving and Japan - A celebration?

Not really. Thanksgiving, unlike Halloween which seems to become more popular each year, hasn't translated to Japan. It's an important celebration for the sizeable American community across the country who kindly invite friends of all nationalities to join them for the day but turkeys are relatively safe compared to their US compatriots.

An English friend of mine was once asked by someone unaware of the origins of the day if he also celebrated Thanksgiving back home. His reply "yes, but we celebrate in March when they left".

Oh, and if you want a chuckle, go to Google and type "George Bush turkey" and click on images. It will make you smile.

Japan loves a good festival

During the summer months and into autumn Japan lights up, literally, with paper lanterns, music, parades, food and of course, beer. Each village or district will have a local festival organised by the neighbourhood. Everyone dresses in light yukata and parades will be held throughout the streets. Many events are small and go almost unnoticed being held over a few hours on a Saturday afternoon or evening with maybe a few dozen people joining in.

Others can be major events in their own right with thousands of people turning out to celebrate the bon-odori. This one in Ebisu attracts over 5,000 people from across Tokyo each year with the entire crowd slowly circling the central drum tower, all moving in rhythmic time together. And if it rains, you get wet.

If you ever wondered where those discount luxury items come from, here's one way

One source of discount luxury goods arises from a  uniquely Japanese situation, the hostess club. Hostess bars are common ground for businessmen who overtime will fall for the old routine of “she must really like me”. He will, overtime, develop a favourite and at some point she will lead him into the discussion of her favourite luxury brand. She may say that Louis Vuitton has released a new bag and that she thinks they’re wonderful. 
In a vain attempt to gain her pleasure he will purchase the bag and present it to her as a gift. Each night she then plays the same game with a different customer. By the end of the process she may now have several identical Luis Vuitton bags, all but one of which she keeps carefully in the original wrapping and promptly sells them to a discount retailer. The one she keeps she shows to each of of her customers and tells him that’s the one he bought specially for her and she loves it. The punter is happy and the girl has made a little spare cash. Everybody wins.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

We Japanese - a unique national identity

One of the interesting cultural reflections of Japan is the sense of a unique individuality of the nation as a single, all encompassing entity. When discussing how to phrase something, a non-Japanese person would probably say something like "in English we call this …..". Not the case in Japan where a Japanese person would, more likely than not, say "we Japanese call this …..". There is a cultural bond that comes with being a 99.5% homogeneous nation. And provides an interesting contrast to how other nationalities perceive themselves as well.

Cultural misunderstandings - and there are many

It's relatively simple to walk into a cultural misunderstanding without really realising and with the best of intentions on all sides. I was once in a meeting discussing how, and how not, to talk to the press in Japan. A slide was shown on the screen and used as an example of how not to present yourself, the issue being to always ensure you remembered to shave before the conference. Looking at the picture I wondered if the participant realised that their extremely expensive designer stubble was being misinterpreted for having got up late in the morning.

Three awe inspiring things about typhoons

The sound when you are standing in one


The day after

Fox tears, when it rains from a clear blue sky

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Golf in Japan - the game of gods

The stereotype of the golfing corporate executive is not so much a stereotype as actually true in Japan. A day on the links is considered vital to the good development of business relations and to turn down an invitation something of a slap in the face. Golf is serious business, I’ve actually agreed to play in a typhoon after my colleagues looked at me in horror when I suggested we should shelve the day as there was a risk we could be killed in the storm.

When language is difficult it's a great way to get to know people and it does seem to provide several extra vacation days a year to those who enjoy the game.

The Places People Play...

In Tokyo there is one main centre for a new foreigner to look for both socializing and networking, the Tokyo American Club (TAC). However, TAC isn’t the only place in town. The British Club, having expired many years ago, left a hole that has partly been filled through and expansion of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, the FCCJ. 

Out of Tokyo there's the Yokohama Country and Athletics Club or its sister the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club in Kansai. In Hiroo, the Tokyo Lawn Tennis Club sports no grass but ten clay courts and if it's the view then it has to be Roppongi Hills for dinner on the 51 floor. 

And then there is the Tokyo Club. And anyone who doesn’t know what this is, probably shouldn’t.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A dilemma in the snow. Was this the right solution?

The snow has already started falling in northern Japan and over the next few weeks will begin to spread south. The Japan alps are looking spectacular and the ski slopes are already open for business.

Last January heavy snow fell on Tokyo as well, something of a rarity. Walking to the station in the morning I saw a group of teachers clearing snow from in front of the local school. None of the work was really making a difference, the sidewalks were already clear as was the main entrance. The point though was not to clear snow but, as a team, to be seen to be clearing snow and therefore contributing to the local community. One of them, a female teacher in high heels and business suit, was using one of only two spades and clearly suffering for her efforts. 

This created for me a very Japanese dilemma. Should I offer to take the spade and help clear the snow  or simply walk on? In my home country I may well have offered to take the spade, but this isn't my home country and the objective wasn't necessarily to clear snow.

If I had offered to help and taken the spade the teacher would simply have continued, as many of her other colleagues were already doing, using her bare hands. I would actually have made the situation worse. She was there to be part of the team and would continue until the team itself finished. The group is always more important than the individual in Japan.

So I gave her my gloves and asked her to leave them on the wall when she'd finished. At least she'd have warm hands.

If you ever wanted to try skeleton

Nagano is host to the 1998 Olympic bobsleigh run which doubles up for skeleton and luge as well. Skeleton, where you are facedown and head first, is actually considered the safest of the three disciplines. If you fall off a skeleton sled you’re only a few inches from the ice and the two of you will travel as a pair together to the end. Fall off a luge and you may become airborne and that can get unpleasant.

This is where it gets awesome. Twice a year, the track is opened for public days. The first run, to let you get used to the idea, is one third from the bottom. They push you off and a team is waiting to catch you at the finish line. Then it’s one third from the top and you really feel the speed, and a little like Darth Vader as you breath in and out and all you can hear is the ice and your breathing. 

The finish line is a long straight incline and almost everyone finishes at around the same point where the team is waiting for you. However, as a foreigner, I had a little bit more gravity on may side and went through the finishing trap doing about 30mph with the crew sprinting up the ice to catch me before I started coming back down again. At the end of the day you come away with your official timesheet as a souvenir and one massive smile on your face.

That little shutter sound

So you've arrived in Japan and have just received your new iPhone. Everything is going well, the menu is in English and the service seems to work without a hitch. Then you go to take a photo of your sleeping baby and "snap!" the camera makes a loud shutter sound. Loud enough to wake baby. Searching for the Settings option to switch off the noise, you come up empty handed.

There's a reason for this. In Japan, digital cameras and camera phones must make an audible noise when a photo is taken to allow people to know they're in a picture. And when you read about some of the pictures people try to take on the train, it kind of becomes obvious why. When baby is asleep, best  leave them to sleep in peace.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Karuizawa - Getting away from Tokyo

At around 1,000m (~3,500ft) Karuizawa is just over an hour by shinkansen from Tokyo. It makes the temperature in summer about 10C cooler than in town and the same in winter. In January the temperature will drop to -10 but the air is so dry you can walk outside and drink a coffee in a t-shirt. In fact in winter people will dry their laundry by hanging it outside and letting the ice sublime away. 

Two thirds of the way to the Japan sea coast, Karuizawa is also home to Asamayama, one of the most active volcanos in Japan which put ash onto Tokyo in a 2004 eruption, minor compared to the 1108 eruption when the pyroclastic flow came to where I'm standing some 10km south. It's also the edge of the inland glaciers in the last ice age as well as being home to the only statue of Sherlock Holmes in Japan. Its nice sometimes to get away.

Friday, November 22, 2013

November, the best time to come and visit

Although Japan moves almost seamlessly from Trick or Treat to Santa Claus, early November is undoubtedly the best time of Year to visit. The summer heat has passed and taken it's humidity with it. The weather is cool and dry and without any significant holidays, roads and trains are calm and comfortable. But the best has to be when you have the chance to travel to the mountains. The forests of central Japan have turned to scarlet. There are few sights better in life.

Japan often misses the tours but sometimes, just sometimes...

It has to be said that Japan often misses out on concert tours. The Stones recently didn't come to Japan, as didn't Springsteen, it's been nearly ten years since we saw Madonna and when The Who played in 2008 it was the first time they had been here after nearly forty years together. Some artists find difficulty relating to the crowds due to the level of English and others simply find there isn't the demand. However Clapton will make his twentieth visit next year, nearly making the Budonkan his home from home (the Albert Hall) and when Paul McCartney played the Tokyo Dome recently, 180,000 got a rare chance to see an old master take them back to the days of The Beatles. You have to be patient, but they do come.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Bonenkai season is fast approaching and the diary is rapidly filling up

December is bonenkai season in Japan and the corporate invitations will be rapidly filling the calendar. The important thing to remember about the bonenkai though is that it's not a Christmas party. The bonenkai is an important part of the ritual calendar and whether it is a short celebration of a full evening party, it's officially the last chance for anyone to complain about anything that happened during the year, literally translating as "forget the year party". Effectively it's a cleansing process so that the new year can start afresh and any ill will or trouble is consigned to history. Bonenkais really are an important part of the corporate year, enjoy.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How do I say "I" in Japanese? - Well that sort of depends

One of the difficulties of learning Japanese is also one of the great pleasures when you get it right. The language has essentially two forms, standard Japanese and keigo, the honorific language used when circumstance suggest extreme politeness. I'll come back to keigo in a later post but to illustrate the issue of understanding relative positioning, take the English word "I" as an example. In Japanese it has multiple forms for varying circumstance dependent on whether you are a man, woman, senior or junior. The problem being, if you get it wrong you can cause quite some offence or, alternatively, hilarity depending on the mistake you make.

Watakushi:    used by both men and women when being extremely polite
Watashi:     the equivalent but used in normal conversation
Atashi:   used by women only when talking to a friend
Boku:   used by men only when talking with friends
Ore:   used by men only when talking to someone more junior

If you're ever unsure, use watashi. As a foreigner, it's polite enough and you'll be forgiven any slight errors of etiquette.

Do I need to speak Japanese to live in Japan?

The simple answer to this is "no". Although I do speak Japanese, I have colleagues who have happily lived in Tokyo for many years with no Japanese at all. The key here is the word Tokyo though. Outside Tokyo, the English ability disappears very rapidly and at least basic Japanese becomes much more important. Even in Osaka, a city of more than eight million people, English is very thin on the ground.

If you are thinking of coming to Japan to work, your company may provide Japanese lessons. These may be of help but the real learning comes with practicing with Japanese friends, and that doesn't come overnight. Setting realistic targets such as how to direct a taxi or asking simple directions will take a lot of the strain out of living in Japan and will help direct actually learning the language.

If you're on a 2~3 year assignment, you're not going to working in Japanese unless you're a good linguist to start with. And then the answer may be in keigo (the honorific vocabulary) and you may just be lost all over again. Investing time into understanding Japanese business practices and cultural approaches will provide rich rewards over an above learning the language itself.

However, learning the language is enjoyable in its own right and really can be very rewarding as the fog of life begins to clear and everything becomes just a little less confusing.

Navi System - your in-car marriage counsellor

Japanese car navigation systems (navi systems) are awesome. Every country I visit, I ask the question about what the navigation system covers and it seems Japan still has the edge on most. Finding your destination by address, phone number, general location etc has been around for a long time but how about McDonalds or fuel or hotels (of various kinds) or police road blocks. They even give you the heads up on speed traps. However, for me, the really impressive feature of the Japanese system is the real time traffic information on almost all roads across the country. I'm not talking simply highways but in-city roads too and the re-routing system is seamless and simple.

There is really only one problem for the newcomer to Japan and that's that the maps are, and will always probably remain, in Japanese. Menus can often be switched between English and Japanese but the incentive for the manufacturer to invest in creating an English map is virtually zero. Navi systems have taken the tension out of a marriage on a long journey when a map book used to be involved and will be able to show you the traffic ahead if nothing else but you may need the support of Google Maps to really get around. Next step, learning kanji.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Walking home

After the earthquake of March 2011, millions of people had difficulty returning home. For a large number this was unrelated to the problems of the gridlocked roads or suspended rail service and much more to do with they simply didn't know where they lived. Many people live on the subway and rarely see the world between their home and work; they just didn't know where to go.

I started to walk home a couple of times a week, a distance of around 8km (5 miles), just for the exercise and suddenly discovered a Tokyo I'd never seen before as I took routes through backstreets and alleyways, keeping clear of the main roadways. Walk home, it's fascinating, healthy and you'll know where to go in an earthquake.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Shibuya - little by little it's changing

Left pretty much alone since the 1964 Olympics, Shibuya is due for a major upgrade. Little by little, the change is coming. In early 2013, in phase one of the project, a number of lines were moved in an overnight big bang to a new station building causing chaos with commuters as they found their existing simple transfers now included multi-level subterranean hikes.

The existing station building is slowly being dismantled as will many others to follow and over the next several years a new vision is being created of open pedestrian areas, modern offices and simplified access from either side of route 246. It will be a mess of Biblical proportions for a while but if the new area looks like the designs, it will have been worth the wait.

Bicycle Laws - more honoured in the breach

The humble bicycle is legally classified as a light vehicle in Japan. However the associated laws are, as the saying goes, "more honoured in the breach than the observance". People generally ride on the sidewalk, or if on the road, head on into traffic. Helmets are rare although mandatory for children and the limit is one passenger although two children strapped front and back is a common sight. If you buy a bicycle or bring one to Japan, register it with the police. If you are stopped they will check it's not stolen and if you're not registered, you're at the beginning of a lot of paperwork.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

When the big one strikes, you'd want to be with these guys

After the big one there were many heroes. During the quake these staff in Sendai ensured everyone was safe first, the manager re-entering the store twice to ensure it was clear. When an earthquake strikes the usual wisdom is to stay inside the building you're in unless you think it's coming down. The March 2011 Tohoku quake went on for five minutes however this shows only the first two as the security cameras were destroyed. Partially collapsed, it took nearly four months to repair the damage. Stay safe.

This blog is to help people understand Japan. If you have any questions on what to do in an earthquake, feel free to ask in the comments below.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Why did they close the highway?

The highways through Tokyo are famous for stationary traffic but in reality are usually free flowing and open. One night recently, coming back from Yokohama, the police closed the road and set a blockade just before Haneda Airport. When I asked he explained it was for "security reasons" but wouldn't say any more. Now, even for the Emperor they use a rolling blockade rather than a fixed one. The next night One Direction played Tokyo. Coincidence?

This blog is to help people understand Japan and make their lives simpler here. If you have any questions please feel free to ask in the comments below.

The Dark Side of the Moon

May 2012, Tokyo was in the direct path of an eclipse and we got to see the dark side of the moon. Taken from my roof balcony on an otherwise unremarkable day.

Touched by the hand of a god

On New Year's Day 1946, the Emperor of Japan, in a radio broadcast to his people, renounced his divinity and became a mortal man. Although Hirohito had long questioned his ancestry to Amaterasu the sun goddess when the imperial line was founded in 660BC, the announcement came as a shock to many. Just before making the speech Hirohito took one final sip of tea and began to speak. This unrecognised act made the cup the last vessel on earth to be touched by the hand of a god.

This blog is to help people understand Japan and make their lives simpler here. If you have any questions please feel free to ask in the comments below.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Quote from the Mayor of Rikuzen Takata

I was once fortunate enough to meet the Mayor of Rikuzen Takata, a town in Tohoku wiped from the map by the tsunami of March 2011. I asked what our company could do to help and this was his answer:

“Our lives are filled everyday with the devastation brought by the tsunami, our town is gone and all we see is destruction. Think of us once in a while and come and visit when you get the chance. It would be nice to see something different for a change”.

Live for today, tomorrow will look after itself

Arriving in Japan post Fukushima can be a little daunting. Although its important to know what to do in an earthquake, its also important not to live your life for the next one. Welcome to Japan, a fascinating and wonderful country.

If you have any questions about life on the ground here, feel free to ask in the comments below.

The day the lights went out

Japan is a remarkable country. When the earthquake disrupted power to Tokyo, people didn't panic. The issue was not just the loss of the Fukushima power station, massive as it was, but that this crisis led to the closure of all nuclear powered generation across Japan, some 30% of supply. Old, gas fired stations we unwrapped from their mothballs and even two oil rig generator ships were moored in Tokyo Bay and hooked up to the network.

But the worry in everyone's minds was the question of what would happen in summer. Peak power demand arises from the use of air conditioners in Japan rather than heating as in many European countries. Indeed, the absolute peak utilisation would arise from 11.00AM to around 4.00PM as the mid-day sun heats the land. And if there wasn't the power to drive this, the government was planning to switch off the supply. Tokyo and the rest of Kanto was under the threat of rolling blackouts, a massive disruption to house, home and transport as even the trains were not going to be immune.

So the government mandated all business must save a minimum of 15% on their prior year consumption. Companies organised weekend shifts to even the load across the week. Escalators were switch off and even vending machines were idled. But the incredible thing about Japan is that people managed it. We got through that first summer without collapse. And everyone pitched in and contributed their part. The predicted crisis was avoided as everyone simply switched out the lights.

Tokyo in February 2011, a month before the earthquake

Tokyo in June 2011, three months after the crisis. The city went dark.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What does an earthquake feel like?

The key to both small and large earthquakes alike is not to panic. Here, I had time to find my phone, switch on the camera and start filming. This was an M6.6 but we had all become a bit laid back after the big one.

If you have any questions about life on the ground in Japan, feel free to ask in the comments below.

Why "But Why"?

Having been in Japan over twenty years I have probably made every single mistake a foreigner can here. There's a reason for that though, Japan just does things differently. Listening to a colleague in his Japanese lesson, the exasperation ion in his question "But why?" Been there, seen it, done it - and feel for him.

If you are thinking of coming to Japan or have just arrived and everything around you doesn't seem to work the way it should, feel free to ask questions in the comments below. It will get easier over time.

If you ever wondered why you keep getting lost...

Leaving any subway or train station in Japan you will always find a useful street map spread across an adjacent wall as you come out. Each one is different depending on the location of the exit itself and they are designed so that when you look at them you are effectively looking at the city in front of you. Each map is effectively individually tailored to its location. Someone has actually stood where you are standing and figured out the orientation you're trying to figure out. And you're either looking puzzled or you are probably about to get very lost.

The issue is that, this remarkable (and very expensive) form of ultimate customer service may allow you to quickly orient yourself to the local environment, however it only does so if you know that is what it is actually doing. By definition, if the map reflects what you are looking at, North will almost definitely not be at the top. Unlike every other country in the world. So when you hold the directions in your head, you're starting at a disadvantage. The good news of course, is that the map will be in Japanese anyway. So you're probably lost from the start.