Saturday, March 29, 2014

Getting lucky at the National Stadium

Yes, I know there are various different interpretations that could be attached to a title such as "Getting Lucky". And it also seems a great concept for a song title. Though that may have been done before. However this week we got lucky. Paul McCartney announced he was coming back to Japan. Whichever way you look at it, that's a Beatle up there on the stage.

When he toured Japan in November I was having lunch with a friend when his phone rang. Two tickets, did we want them? Actually it wasn't something I'd really thought about but given the chance we decided to go. One of the best shows I've ever seen. When McCartney plays The National Stadium in May, it'll be the last chance to see one of life's great entertainers and a chance to see a little part of the 1964 Olympics before it is finally consigned to history. And to the Nagaijin, this time he's coming there too.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Spring arrives in Tokyo

Yesterday was the first day of Spring in Tokyo. Although by definition it arrived last Friday with the Vernal (Spring) Equinox, no one is really interested in technicalities, the important question is when has the sakura arrived? Throughout the year, the cherry trees with their tangled branches are an ungainly, even ugly, sight. But when the blossom announces the onset of the hanami parties it's time for people to enjoy a beer under the branches and Spring is here.

Hanami parties will happen all across Tokyo for the next two weeks. People will take blankets to the parks and rivers and celebrate with friends. Yasakuni Shrine and the walk around the Emperor's palace are famous for their beauty at this time of year but my favourite is a walk along the Meguro River. Although an open concrete storm drain these days, for the next two weeks it transforms. If you have a spare afternoon, there are worse places you could go. Happy Hanami everyone!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Essential Beginner's Guide to Japan - now in paperback!

More than twenty years in the writing but publishing into paperback was the hard part! Now available on Amazon as well as The Beginner's Guide to Japan Book Store not to mention Kindle.

Is Tokyo Japanese? How exactly do I use chopsticks? Being exactly wrong rather than inexactly right and why is English so difficult? These and hundreds of other questions are explained in an interesting and entertaining approach to life in Japan.

"But Why? The Essential Beginner's Guide to Japan" is an invaluable companion for anyone on their journey through the Land of the Rising Sun whether directing a taxi, ordering pizza by telephone or trying to unravel the mysteries of reading and writing kanji. And exactly why are there people waving red batons at each and every construction site?

With over twenty years experience on the ground in Tokyo, the I pass on the inevitable learning from having made nearly every mistake possible for a foreigner arriving for the first time. Japan is a wonderful country and “The Essential Beginner’s Guide to Japan” covers everything in daily life I wish I'd known on January 7, 1992.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Same day delivery in Japan is dead. Now it's same afternoon!

The other day I was sitting in a restaurant in central Tokyo having lunch with my son. I noticed his phone case had seen better days and, feeling generous, suggested he could get another one and I'd pick up the tab. He happily accepted. We got my iPad out, went onto the Amazon Japan site, found the one he'd been subtly hinting at and ordered it. The time was around 1.00PM.

Just after 8.00PM that evening the doorbell rang and there it was. Same day delivery. In fact, same afternoon delivery. I'd had to skip on the "pay on delivery" option and also the "pay at your local convenience store" hadn't been offered. But as I pay through credit card on my account anyway this really wasn't an issue.

Then yesterday I was ordering something from Amazon France for a friend who lives in Paris. It gave me the option of standard delivery in five days or express in three. Sometimes you just feel spoilt living in Japan. The attention to customer services takes you breath away.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

So just how do you pronounce Pokemon

Today it was announced that Pikachu, the small, yellow Pokemon (who closely resembles a friend of mine) will be captaining the supporters for the national team at the World Cup in Brazil in a couple of months. That the announcement was reported to have been made by adidas raises an interesting question. Just exactly how do you pronounce Pokemon and while we're at it, it's addi-das, not adee-das by the way.

Around the world Pokemon seems to be pronounced po (as in "poke") ki (as in "key") mon (as in "mon"). Actually, its not too easy to write pronunciations but I hope you get the gist. This is actually a little off base. As with many western words adopted into Japanese "Pokemon" is a contraction of its original English phrase. This is common in Japan so for example a car navigation system is called a "navi" and an air-conitioner is called an "air-con". Interesting the reverse is also occasionally true, for example "bra" and "flu" are always referred to as "brassiere" and "influenza" in Japanese.

So, to pronounce it correctly, it's important to go back to the origins of the name itself. And the origin of "Pokemon" is "Pocket Monster" and pronounced with a short "o" (as in "pocket") rather than a long one (as in "poke"). At some point someone outside Japan read it, mispronounced it, and it stuck. Same for adidas really, but the guys have given up the fight on that and get on with playing sports instead of worrying about a name. Good luck to the Samurai Blue! - Now if only we could get the rugby team to change its name from The Brave Blossoms....


Monday, March 17, 2014

It's a dogs life

It's tax day in Japan. Each year anyone with income over a certain amount or anyone with non-employment income, has the pleasure of filing a return and donating a substantial sum to the government. I don't mind paying tax but as with the good residents of Boston, it always seems unfair that I also don't have a vote. And as I also don't get to pour tea into the harbour, I'm going to take my dogs into Daikanyama, have a coffee and sit and watch the world go by.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A little good that came from a wave of destruction

Today is earthquake day. The story is being retold in minute detail on every channel and in every newspaper. It was a tragedy of immense proportions that still haunts the nation of Japan some three years later. But here is a short story of something good that came from the events that day.

In 2012 we organised a company offsite for all employees. Something we had done every two or three years and chose the town of Urabandai in Fukushima Prefecture as the venue. We chose this area partly to assist the local economy by bringing nearly five hundred people for three days and partly to address the demons many were still looking for and facing up to the fear of the dark. It was not a popular choice but when we explained that the radiation levels were lower than Rome people began to understand.

The theme of the event was to "Change the Game", the usual corporate rhetoric. However I'd seen a documentary about one man from Tohoku who was also trying to change the game in his own way. He was the Mayor of Rikuzentakata a town virtually removed from the landscape by the wave, leaving a single tree where there used to be a forest. Toba-san had been mayor for a little over a month when the earthquake struck and that day lost his wife to the tsunami. But in the weeks and months to come he'd helped his community recover, first demanding aid from the government and later taking to YouTube when the promised support didn't arrive.

He had known his town was on borrowed time from before the catastrophe. The population was both ageing and declining. He'd known he had to change the game. He wanted to make his community one where families wanted to live again and one that could be a showcase for Japanese technology. And as he talked on the programme I realised he would be the perfect speaker to come and talk to the staff. Not about the tsunami but about changing attitudes and taking opportunities where you can. His speech, an hour long, was both inspiring and heartbreaking. Half the people were in tears and talk was of nothing but that presentation in the days to come.

A small group of people took it upon themselves to see where they could make a difference and quietly started to arrange activities in the town and volunteer their time. There were no sports teachers any more, either having been taken by the water or having to look after their own families and situations first. So they organised football, games and other activities. They gave the children something to do. And finally they persuaded the town in Germany where the corporate head office is to twin with Rikuzentakata and develop a long term program. And last summer nine children from the town were flown to Herzo for a football camp. A little good in so much bad. Thinking of you guys today.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The day that changed Japan

March 11 will be here soon. Much changed that day for so many people around the world. It was, in effect, history's first digital disaster. Everyone had a smartphone and thousands of video clips were made and re-broadcast on Facebook and YouTube. The world saw the destruction of Tohoku in real time. I watched it staring silently through a shop window with crowds of others halfway home.

Many people tried to help over the next few weeks. One was twelve and he made a simple video. And it helped people start to cry. And by crying begin on the path to come to terms with their grief. Just begin. The Japanese in the picture means "I'll Fix You". It'll take three minutes and forty five seconds of your day.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


The earthquake was nearly three years ago. For the last week there has been non-stop coverage on TV of the disaster. Some, so desperate to have any form of message, have taken video directly from YouTube. Others are genuinely original and offer interesting insights into what has (and hasn't) happened since.

What most are forgetting though is the foreshock. The world changed for many hundreds of thousands of people on March 11, 2011 but we'd been given advance notice on March 9. Then an earthquake that would be considered massive in its own right hit the Tohoku region and was felt far afield in Tokyo. The foreshock was the beginning. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Miyashita Park - visions of future past

A few years ago a certain global sports brand got themselves into a ridiculous situation of being damned in the press and by the good people of Tokyo for trying to redevelop, rename and sponsor a famous park in the middle Shibuya. The argument went that it was a historic location much loved by all who grew up in the area and should remained untouched. 

Emotions were running high and at one point barricades were manned to prevent the developers moving in. Working for a rival global sports brand, and with a certain sense of schadenfreude, I sat back to watch the story rapidly spiral downhill. The only problem was, I didn't know where it was. Everyone told me it was famous and in the middle of the very area I lived. But I still couldn't find it. Until someone actually took me there.

With all the descriptions I'd heard I was looking for something like a mini-version of Central Park or Hyde Park in London. What I found was a mud flat with tarpaulin tents along its length. And I found it on top of a car park where it had been moved for the Tokyo Olympics some 50 years ago. And this is one of the things I love about Japan. People can look at something and see the history and the romance and completely look through the reality. It's a handy trick living in the middle of the largest piece of concrete in the world.