Friday, January 31, 2014

Sending Salt to Your Enemy - An interesting Japanese saying

"Teki ni shio wo okuru" is a Japanese phrase that is literally translated as "to send salt to your enemy" the meaning of which is taken to be that even in conflict, one should act with humanity

The origins date back to long running conflicts and feudal disputes that ravaged Japan prior to unification under a single Shogun in the early 17th century. Laying siege to a castle, the lord of the besieging army believed it unfair to starve out his enemy and delivered salt so that he may live to fight (and presumably die) in true battle for the lands.

The question arises though as to whether this is the appropriate colloquial translation. Given that the attacking army was looking to ensure the destruction of the defenders through open battle where they could be despatched through arrow and sword a more accurate translation might be "If a jobs worth doing, it's worth doing well".

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Interesting Japanese Phrases - A Leap of Faith

One of the best places to spend a summers afternoon in Kyoto is the balcony at Kiyomisu, the temple high up on the mountain sides overlooking the city. Enjoy a quiet beer to quench the thirst and simply watch the world go by. The walk up from the center of town is an adventure in it's own right but it's the destination that makes the hike worthwhile.

Today the deck is the haunt of tourists but in the past it was the stage for artists to entertain the crowds. A fair few of whom are reputed to have become a little too enthusiastic and managed to plunge over the edge into the depths below.

And from this arises the phrase "Kiyomizu no butai kara toni oriru tsumori de" meaning to jump from the deck of Kiyomizu Temple (intentional or not). A more colloquial translation though reflects the moment of working up the courage to take the plunge (assuming intent), or more simply "a leap of faith". Something else to ponder as you enjoy that ice cold beer.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Why is Japanese TV just rubbish? - The latest media question

In the classic 1980's movie Crocodile Dundee there is a moment when Dundee has just arrived in the Big City for the first time. In his hotel room he sees the TV set and remarks to himself "TV, I saw that once". Turning it on, there's an episode of "I love Lucy" playing. Switching it off again he comments "Yep, that was it". Come 2020, visitors to the Olympics who were here in 1964 may be about to have just such a deja vu moment.

Recently a debate has started in the Japanese media about the lamentable quality of TV here. The question raised is why programs cover either food, the eating of rather than the preparation which invariably lead to the presenter declaring it to be the most delicious dish they've ever tasted, or game shows involving the same talentos making the same tired old jokes. The debate examines why the massive increase in quality programming seen internationally (arguably following the creation of "Twin Peaks" over twenty years ago) has passed Japan by. Money is given as the straight answer but the discussion has yet to touch on creativity.

So the question is, will Japan up its game over the next few years or, come the 2020 Olympics, will there be a Crocodile Dundee moment all over again.


Friday, January 24, 2014

Karaoke - Tokyo 2020, an Olympic Sport?

As the phrase goes, one of the great things about being over forty is that we did all out stupid stuff before the internet. How true. And how grateful I am.

One of my favourite pastimes used to be karaoke, the Japanese sport where quality matters less than passion and commitment. When the audience goes quiet you know there is only one of two reasons for this. The singer is incredible, or they're rubbish. And every time my friends told me I was rubbish, I knew in my heart of hearts they were just plain wrong and wouldn't appreciate talent if it jumped up and bit them.

And then someone invented the camera phone. Hard to argue over a cold morning coffee when you hear you're flat, off-key and your timing is not overly enhanced by the four beers you had before taking to the stage. At least not as much as you thought it was.

But then you venture out again. You're on stage, the lights come up, the words crystallise on the screen, and you're a star! Faster, Higher, Stronger. For Tokyo 2020, karaoke should be an Olympic event!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Shibuya - the most interesting place in the world?

It's winter and it's cold out there. Possibly not as cold as some places but cold enough for me.  However, when you arrange to catch up with someone there can be few better places than Shibuya crossing. I'm always amazed at the people who spend their lives looking at their phones when one of the wonders of the world is there for them to appreciate if they'd just look up. 

Thousands cross every few minutes like a human migration moving on their way but it's the colours and the variety that are incredible. Japanese have a reputation for being conformist that is, based on watching the people walk by, utterly underserved. There are no two people alike, each presenting their own story. If you have to wait a few minutes for someone, Shibuya crossing must be one of the most interesting places in the world. You just need to look.

Monday, January 20, 2014

An amphitheatre with a park on top in the centre of Tokyo?

An amphitheatre in the centre of Tokyo...

With a park on top....

And a futsal court in the middle...

Ohashi junction just west of Shibuya is big. Really big. It links Route 3, the main feeder for the highway to Nagoya and Osaka, to the Yamate Tunnel which lets you skip hours of traffic above ground and cut north straight underneath Tokyo. And it took nearly twenty years to complete.

The junction is a massive spiral bridge that links the highway 20m (60ft) above ground to the tunnel 30m (100ft) below ground. But instead of leaving it open with noise and smog, they closed it off and  built something resembling a Roman Amphitheatre. They put a park on the roof and a futsal court on the middle.

Now that's how to use a highway in the centre of Tokyo. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Toys of Kobe's Children

In the days that followed the Kobe earthquake there were many stories of bravery and sadness that came to be reported. One of those stories still stops me every year on January 17, it makes me sit and it makes me think.

The report went that a few days after the earthquake a store keeper, who owned a local toy shop, was cleaning up the mess left by the disaster. In the middle of everything he heard a polite knock at the door of his shop. Looking up he saw an elderly couple, sombrely dressed, waiting quietly for him to finish what he was doing.

Asking if he could help them they replied they would like to buy some toys. Somewhat taken aback he asked why would they want toys in the middle of all of this. They replied "our grandchildren were killed in the earthquake and we'd like something to put in their coffins for them to play with".

Every January 17 I remember this old couple, their dignity, and I pray this will never be me.

Kobe - A natural disaster but a man made catastrophe

At 5.46AM on January 17, 1995 the early morning bullet train was preparing to depart from Shin-Osaka station bound westwards, first stop Shin-Kobe. For the next twenty seconds there was a massive earthquake and the city of Kobe ceased to exist in a recognisable form. The driver was physically sick afterwards when he realised what might have happened had it come just a few minutes later. The city had taken a direct hit from an earthquake that had reflected off the mountains and, like waves crossing on the sea, had magnified in intensity to the level that ten story buildings were now lying in the streets.

The highway collapsed and the famous picture of a coach hanging over the edge would become part of out collective memories. The port subsided back into the water and Nada-ku began to burn. In the next few hours, ironically only the Yakuza raised any form of relief effort and were handing out blankets and hot meals down by the port to anyone who needed them. The government didn't respond until later in the day when they sent Self Defence Forces on "training flights" over the city to assess the damage.

The Self Defence Force were the only organisation with the resources and heavy equipment that day to have made a difference. People were still trapped under the debris and the fires were spreading. In 1995 though, the law still required the Prefectural Governor to sign an authorisation for the SDF to enter the city but the Governor, an ex-communist, refused to allow them entry on constitutional grounds. Eventually, seeing the smoke rising across the city, his Private Secretary signed the order and showed it to the waiting press, announcing the rescue could began as soon possible. He then walked into the Governor's office, showed him the unofficially signed document and said "you go tell them". He remains an unsung hero of the Kobe disaster.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dry January - and what really not to say in Japan

The Christmas and New Year excesses are over and it's time to start the annual recovery process and ask forgiveness from the patron saints of liver recovery and blood toxicity. As a result, many people around the world will have adopted a "Dry January" as a New Year's Resolution, and now, halfway through the month, some may still be at it.

I started the tradition of taking a calendar month off alcohol once a year almost twenty five years ago now. Although I tend to not feel significantly different (an indicator to me that it's not the night before that's the problem but that basically I'm just rubbish at mornings) it's a habit I've kept up over the years if for no other reason than it provides me an element of moral high ground with myself later in the year.

The difficulty in Japan is that the concept of giving up alcohol if you regularly imbibe (remembering many Japanese are tea total) is somewhat alien here. There clearly must be a medical reason for it and January is as much a time of corporate nights out than is December so the question regularly arises. 

To solve this I once came up with the briliant idea of explaining that I had hepatitis (which I didn't but you're not supposed to drink if you do). This didn't actually reduce the questions much however I was invited out significantly less for a while. Strongly suggest you don't use this one. These days I simply tell people I'm driving, drink my tea and leave it at that. They know I'll be around for a beer in February, and March, and April....

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Best Day of the Year in Japan

Today is a national holiday. Not just any national holiday; today is the day all twenty year olds share a birthday. It's the National Coming of Age Day. Throughout towns and cities across the country the bright young things will be dressing in their finest and joining ceremonies to celebrate their majority. The girls will dress in beautiful kimono and the boys, well they will do their best but it's the girls who make the day.

If you're in Japan today, don't stay at home. Take a camera and walk into town. It only happens once a year and must rank up there as one of the best days. Enjoy it with them, they've been waiting twenty years.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Book 2 - Draft 1 - Complete! The Expats Guide to Japan

Writing the first guide to life in Japan "But Why - The Essential Beginner's Guide to Japan" was actually very enjoyable. However, when it was nearly complete I began to have a nagging sense that I was writing for two different audiences. Within the book were guides on how to live and go to the onsen but there were also sections on how to manage Japanese teams and when to develop you sense that a business meeting was going horribly wrong. Possibly the same reader but possibly not.

As a result I took the decision to split the book in two. This allowed me to move into even more areas of interest for the new arrival in Japan, no matter what their background and also to develop a separate work that really focussed on the key techniques to management in the Japanese environment. The style and accessibility the same, the content different. The second book will be called "But Why? - The Expat's Guide to Japan" and today I (more or less) completed the first draft. Now the hard work really begins...

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Japanese TV commercials - But Why?

One of the surprising things for a new foreigner to Japan is the quality, or better put, the style, of Japanese TV commercials. Aside from a few that are genuinely witty (such as the Nissin Cup Noodles which are hysterical) most appear to follow one of two formats. Shouting about the product or presenting something cute about the product. The name is repeated multiple times and the whole event is over in 15 seconds. No comments please!

Then something interesting occurs. The commercial is then immediately repeated all over again. Unchanged and unrepentant, the product name is once again shouted from the screen. It took me many years to work out that these two issues, the lack of creativity and the repetition, are actually two sides of one coin.

In Japan it is the access to TV broadcasting, rather than the content of the commercial, that is the barrier to entry. To air a commercial it is necessary to go through one of the few dominant media resellers. Once you are past them, it doesn't matter so much the content as you are finally into the living room. As the shortest TVCM spot available is 15 seconds it's better to make a short commercial and show it twice if you are lucky enough to gain a 30 second slot than to go to the expense of making a new commercial or a 30 second version of the first. Market forces are funny old things in Japan.

This blog is designed to answer the questions a newcomer to Japan might have. If you have any, please feel free to make a note in the comments below. Thanks.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Three awesome books on Japan - "Dave Barry Does Japan" - 3/3

OK, accepted this is not high culture. But it is absolutely on the money in many, many ways. After a three week trip to Japan the insights are spot on and an excellent approach to learning something new of Japan without the heavy duty approach of years of learning. The book really is hysterical. Although a little dated having been written in the early 1990s, Dave Barry, an American columnist, has a clarity of vision on Japan that is as refreshing now as it was then. In fact, I still use many of the anecdotes to explain Japan today.

The point about "yes" means "I'll think about it" and "no" means "your idea should be fed to the goats" even makes my Japanese friends laugh at the both the wit and also the truth and insight Although written essentially as an amusing account of his visit, his simple approach to understanding the culture provides an excellent eye opener to both the new starter and the old hand alike. The chapter on Hiroshima aside (as it really is in the wrong book) you will cry laughing from start to finish and unintentionally learn a lot about Japan in the process. And you'll know what not to shout at baseball.

Three awesome books on Japan - "Sayonara" - 2/3

"Sayonara", written by James Michener in the mid-1950s, follows the relationship of an American officer stationed in Japan during the Korean war and how he met and fell in love with a dancer, Hana Ogi, slowly developing an understanding of an international relationship that only someone in that situation can really appreciate. It was later made into a very successful movie staring Marlon Brando but that wasn't something I knew until years later.

When I met my wife I spoke little Japanese and she no English at all. The characters in the book follow the same path and when I read it the story helped me realise I wasn't the only one to be going through the development of a bi-cultural relationship. As we'd created our own language that only the two of us understood and as both of us watched the others eyes open to alternative ways of looking at life, so this book traced the effect some four decades before.

When he can look at a painting of Hanaogi, the 18th century courtesan and see the same as looking at a picture of Hana Ogi, the 20th century star of Takurazuka, he realises he understands so much more than before his life in Japan. Standing on the beach at Miura ten years ago with my Japanese friends, they all look to sea and enjoying the view, me looking at the concrete and pylons, it took me time to come to that appreciation. But I'm glad I did. If you're starting an international relationship, especially where language is a problem, this book will resonate with you and in a way you won't feel quite so alone.

Three awesome books on Japan - "The Roads to Sata" - 1/3

In the early 1990s I started to read a column by a man named Alan Booth in an English language newspaper. He'd clearly arrived in Japan decades before I set foot here and had done something quite extraordinary. He'd walked the length of Japan from Cape Soya in the very north of Hokkaido to Cape Sata in the south of Kyushuu. Although he never reveals the timing, from hints in the book you realise it was sometime in the early 1970's, the days before foreigners were seen much outside the main cities.

From the, start when the local cafe owner explains that his wife is a donkey, to the closing pages where he looks forward to returning to his family, he took me through a side of Japan that to some extent no longer exists today. Foreigners were so rare that he actually caused a road accident at one point when a car drove past shouting "gaijin, gaijin, gaijin" and then promptly hits the crash barrier. Probably should have been watching.

The support he receives on the way brings a humanity to the countryside and the walk through the Peace Park in Hiroshima a moment of deep reflection though also one of over the shoulder tension. Alan Booth passed away in the mid-1990s but his book "The Roads to Sata" is a wonderful insight into rural Japan. His last article was entitled "That's All Folks!" and he left to explain to his young daughter why she wasn't going to have a father any more. But his story of the revenge of the fish will make you cry with laughter.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Simpsonesque elements of noise pollution in Japan

I was once standing on the edge of a beautiful cliff top vista looking out over the Japan Sea coast. It was late morning and I'd been driving for a couple of hours on quiet country roads and just pulled over to stretch my legs. Listening to the quiet forest all around and enjoying the view I nearly jumped over the edge when there was sudden scream of "IRASHAI, IRASHAI" (WELCOME!, WELCOME!) from a loudspeaker the size of a house with the dial turned up to 11. The source, a small convenience store over the road that clearly was aiming to entice business from the other side of the Pacific.

Noise pollution is a general problem in Japan from the stores in Tokyo that compete to sell their wares by shouting through megaphones to any passer by, to the speaker vans that cruise the streets screaming politics from the 1930's, to the gentleman in our neighbourhood who likes to contribute by cleaning the road at 7.00am every Saturday with what appears to be a large empty oil drum and a big stick. 

Talking to my Japanese friends none of them actually appreciate the noise and would prefer to enjoy a little light Zen given the opportunity. Noise in Japan is a good example of technology running ahead of application. Before Google we didn't have information at our fingertips however before mega-speakers we could walk up to each other and politely say "hello".

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The U-Turn Rush - No, the car one

I've talked before about the importance of certain events in Japan when families will do everything possible to come together in their home towns. Golden Week in May, Obon in August and also New Year's Day. A significant portion of the population will travel within country (though those travelling overseas is steadily increasing too). The problems arise when everyone travels on the same day/days and the shinkansen will be at 300% capacity and the roads too. Outbound can be managed but the U-turn rush, the phrase for the homeward journey, seems to always be remarkably well co-ordinated.

The key to avoiding this is purely timing. A matter of a few hours can make the difference between a two hour journey and a nine hour one. The interesting issue is that there's is a very good forecasting system that provides indicators on the peak times and yet many drivers will still be caught in 80km (~50m) stationary traffic every time having wanted to eek hour the final few hours with family and friends. And today I got caught too. Though not quite as bad my 180km journey took 1 hour 45 for the first 150k's and 2 hours 15 for the final 30k's. 4 hours in all. If I'd just skipped breakfast... 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year in Japan and why a vacuum cleaner is a good idea

Christmas isn't a national celebration in Japan and is more recognised as a time for the young to party. However, New Year is the family date of the year. Until the time of the Meiji Restoration Japan followed the Chinese calendar and so New Year would move from year to year but under the new government it was decided to adopt the Gregorian calendar and so for at least one day a year the family will come together for a traditional breakfast with as many generations around the table as possible.

One of the favourite staples for this meal is called ozoni, a small bowl of soup which also contains mochi, a form of rice that has been pounded (traditionally with a huge wooden mallet) until it has the consistency of thick, sticky rubber. Each year, as this food is being quaffed, the mochi can become stuck in your throat and indeed a number of people succumb to suffocation as a result. Hence, the recommended approach to New Year's breakfast is to always have a vacuum clear near by. When someone starts to choke the only solution is to put the tube down their throat and suck the mixture out.

And on that note, Happy New Year everyone from Japan and may your mochi not get stuck.