Thursday, October 30, 2014

So who really wants a frying pan at 1.30 in the morning?

We've all done it. It's late in the evening and your favourite program is on. The couch is comfortable and slowly you drift off after a hard day at work. The sleep comes naturally and is incredibly peaceful. And then suddenly the TV increases volume by a factor of ten and you are jarred awake to someone demonstrating the wonderful qualities of a new vacuum cleaner. And they won't let you sleep until you buy one.

I happen to have a remarkably comfortable couch and so this happens to me on a little more than regular basis. Last night, for example, I was suddenly awoken by a pair gasping at the wonders of a new frying pan as if it was literally the second coming. And I'm sure the volume had increased to slightly below that of a jet liner on takeoff. The question was, who exactly would want to know about a new concept in frying pans at this time of night.

I once asked this to an executive of one of Japan's largest tele-sales companies. He explained it was always a couple on the screen and they were being fed questions into their ear pieces directly from the telephone switchboards as viewers called in and hence the continuous Q&A. He went on to explain their two busiest times of day were early afternoon when Japanese mothers are home and bored and then again in the early hours of the morning when their daughters come home and are just as bored.

So if you've ever wondered who wants to buy a frying pan at 1.30AM, the answer is simple. It's Mrs Watanabe's daughter.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The problem of being safe in Japan

It's not an empty generalisation to say that Japan is a safe country. By comparison to the US there were less than a dozen gun related crimes in 2013 against tens of thousands. It has its fair share of unhinged individuals of course, stalking is a problem and obsessives can demonstrate what can only be described as surreal behaviour. The police can sometimes struggle to recognise a deteriorating situation. But as a culture, it is safe.

Woman can walk the streets at night without concern of attack. The biggest problem is probably going to come from speeding scooters and drunk drivers into the early hours. In a country where many work late into the night, it's not unusual to see office women returning home late after midnight. Indeed, it's generally considered so safe that parents are often required by schools to allow their children to journey to school on their own from a young age as part of their personal development.

And there lies the problem. The natural alarm bells that we develop as we grow up, warning us that a situation, if not necessarily unsafe, at least requires increased awareness, often don't exist. And this, combined with a low level of foreign language skills, can lead to tragedy when travelling abroad. So the answer to the question "is Japan safe" can definitely be said to be "yes". Does it teach you to be safe? Well that's an altogether different question.

Yoshihiro Hattori, 11/22/75 - 10/17/92

Monday, October 27, 2014

Michael Woodford on Japan

This week there are a series of presentations in Tokyo by Michael Woodford, former CEO of Olympus and unfortunately I can't make it to any of them. Not happy. It was three years ago that Mr Woodford was appointed to the post of President and CEO after thirty plus years at the company but within a few weeks was out of a job and out of the country. His crime was to expose corporate fraud on an unimaginable scale perpetrated over two decades by his predecessors, a number of whom remained close to the company.

The story had started to circulate in the weeks before the exposure. Consulting fees of hundreds of millions of dollars had been paid to seemingly unknown offshore companies in relation to the acquisition of a number of businesses, the largest of which was based in the UK. The fees themselves were then said to be re-circulated back to covertly cover losses dating back to the 1990's. Exposure led to the closing of ranks in a moment that cannot be described as the finest in Japanese corporate history but in the long term potentially it could lead to very much needed reform.

For me though the flagship moment came when the new president held a press conference to apologise for the resulting loss in the Olympus share value. Explaining the events with a straight face he, rather grumpily, remarked "if only Woodford hadn't disclosed the affair there would have been no impact to shareholder value". Which in layman's terms is pretty close to saying "if they hadn't found the body…."

Friday, October 24, 2014

Karaoke - the opiate of the singing masses

Karaoke (pronounced kara-o-k, rather than carry-oky) is, at its heart, an outstanding participation sport in Japan. Outside Japan it has a reputation for being something the drunk guy at the party does to the merriment of his friends accompanied with significant derision and not just a little embarrassment the following day. Here, the harder you try, the more they love you, no matter how rubbish you actually are.

The bars of Shibuya, Roppongi or Akasaka cater to all tastes of music. Japanese, Korean, English and Chinese are all available in the small room rented by the hour. Good humoured staff will supplying a non-stop stream of beer, chu-hi and mizuwari although they will politely decline when offered the microphone. And for the more adventurous there are the cosplay specialists that provide costumes to allow the revellers to lose themselves even further into the evening. Karaoke is a serious business in Japan.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pedal power - liberating the legs of Tokyo

I enjoy walking. I don't mean the type of walking that includes hiking up a mountain but the type that takes me around the city. The back streets of Tokyo can be interesting once you're off the main routes and usually provide useful short cuts. I'll happily walk for an hour rather than take a taxi or train providing the weather complies. But there has been an interesting trend over the last couple of years that was clearly evident this morning. The electric bike.

I live on a hill and a fairly steep one at that. And as I walked to a morning meeting today I was overtaken by a lady riding her electric shopping bike with baby seat and infant onboard effortlessly riding up the hill. And then walking back after my meeting I met my seventy year old retired neighbour shooting up the hill as well on his electric bicycle without a hint of breaking into a sweat.

Coming to the fore in the London Olympics where they were used by the pacers in the keirin events (operated by a marvellously moustached rider) they form a successful and growing segment of the Japanese two wheeled market. To avoid heavy regulation they are usually a constant torque device where pedalling is effectively the on-switch and the motor does the rest. The battery can be unclipped and taken into the house for overnight charging. Now, if we could just persuade people to wear cycle helmets in Japan…

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A pizza slice approach to finding where to live in Tokyo

Tokyo is a big city. I mean really big. Depending on how you count, there are between thirteen and thirty million people living here. And it can be fairly compact so you would have thought that finding somewhere to live would be relatively straightforward. Well, yes and no. Finding a house or apartment you like can be simple, but knowing whether your new dwelling is in a gaijin friendly location is almost impossible for the newcomer to asses.

The difference between areas can be crucial to the quality of life for a family recently relocated to Japan. Although all areas are essentially safe, certain areas are simply not set up to support the requirements of a foreigner. It's not that people will be unfriendly or hostile to a new face, they simply won't understand. The necessary life support systems exist in parts of Tokyo and but are non-existent in others. And the real estate agent may not bring you up to speed on this.

The east side of the city has incredible charm but is simply not designed for newcomers or even many old hands. The areas that are foreigner friendly, from the perspective of daily life and support infrastructure, are generally on the west side of the city. Take a pizza slice from Meguro to Yoyogi and into the centre as far as Akasaka and you'll have an incredible array of options and services designed for, and experienced with, foreigners. And there may even be some English. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Beginner's Guide To Japan and how not to order pizza

It was six weeks between a normal and somewhat unexciting existence in London and being on a plane for a journey that would change my life. The Japan office desperately needed an English speaker, which should have been an indicator to me that there was no one in the office who spoke English. To save cost the company had bought a one way ticket and having no work visa and no obvious intention of leaving, I spent my first few hours in Japan in the immigration holding cells at Narita Airport with some very concerning looking characters.

Minor hiccups aside I soon fell in love with the country, the bright lights, the people, the food, the noise and the hilarious misunderstandings. I had no idea why those people were waving red batons everywhere, didn't know sushi from sashimi and had never eater live shrimp before. I received some awesome advice in those early days on how to survive and experienced gestures of immense kindness when everything seemed to be going wrong. 

And I laughed with a Japanese family when I ordered pizza for my friends only to find it was the wrong number and the family had been taking a note of the order and then passing it on for them to the pizza place for over six months.

Is Tokyo really Japan; why do people prefer to be exactly wrong than inexactly right; what do I do in an earthquake; how do I use chopsticks; getting around; learning to read and write and what exactly to do and, more importantly, not to do at an onsen? All questions I asked and learned the answers through experience over the following twenty years. 

And I wished someone had told me the answers as I got off the plane those six weeks after I left London. So I wrote a book of answers for all of those people beginning their own journeys. I hope you enjoy it and if you have any more questions, just let me know.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Shochu - the ultimate alternative to sake

Shochu is a thirst quenching, hangover inducing, collective noun for one of Japan's finest tipples. Whereas sake is well known, though often misunderstood, outside Japan, shochu is hardly known at all. In America, for tax purposes, it is often incorrectly labeled "soju", a reference to a Korean drink similar, but not quite the same as, its Japanese counterpart. But if you visit Japan, shochu is one of the items that should be on your experience list.

It's usually a clear spirit, most popular at 25% strength though there are versions at 20% and 40%. The 40% version is very much an acquired taste usually with a very distinctive flavour however the recommendation would be to start with the 25% variety and sample the options available. And there are many options available. It's derived from a number of sources, imo (sweet potato), mugi (barley) and kome (rice) are the most common and unlike sake, which is brewed, shochu is distilled.

If you try it, the favoured approach is to fill a tumbler with ice, then add the shochu and let it stand for a few minutes to chill. It's then surprisingly refreshing though too much will lead to a slow and difficult start the following morning. It's also remarkably cheap at some $10~15 for a 1.8 litre bottle in the local convenience store. But then again, it's always advisable to drink alcohol for the pleasure rather than the price.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Harajuku to Shibuya - from Madonna to Lady Gaga

For many, Ginza is a favoured destination when visiting Japan. The chic stores and wide streets allow every foreign brand to display their wares to the rich and relaxing of the world. But that's the point, in reality it's nothing you can't find on 5th Avenue, Bond Street or the Champs Elysees. Or at an airport duty free shopping plaza for that matter. Originality is thin on the ground and even Japan "exclusives" will have their origins in the global product range.

And yet Japan drives youth fashion across Asia and indirectly youth culture globally. On a Sunday afternoon any time of year when the weather is good, take a train to Harajuku station and walk along Takeshita Dori. Not a single foreign fashion brand will be on display. Each and every store is a small boutique, product often hand-made during the week, sold during the hectic weekends; only a few items of each design available. The turn around time for concept to shelf isn't measured in months but days. The fashions are cutting edge relevant.

From Takeshita Dori cross Omote Sando, avoiding the European fashion brands, walk slowly along Cat Street. The street will be packed with teenagers, each looking as individual as they possibly can. It's a myth that everyone in Japan wants to conform, to be identical. These are as individual as it comes. And then it's Shibuya. The 109 building is the Mecca of youth fashion. And this is where Lady Gaga, Madonna and the rest go every time they visit Japan. And it's where the ideas come from. In some ways, Shibuya 109 really is the spring waters of global youth fashion. And you probably won't want to go to the Ginza stores again until you're back at the airport.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

It's National Sports Day and the entire community is out

Japan is famous for having many interesting national holidays and today is the chance to celebrate National Health and Sports Day (Taiiku no hi). Which is actually tomorrow but that's not part of the story. This particular holiday was introduced two years after the Tokyo Olympics as a way to promote health, sports and general good welfare. But equally as important it's a way to bring a community together.

Today (a Sunday), the local high school opened it's gates and welcomed everyone in. Hundreds of people came, young and old, in all representing eighteen local locals. And it being a national event, the sports weren't just for the children. And although we didn't win, I enjoyed a three legged football game even if they did try to categorise me as "over 50". Which I'm not. Really I'm not...

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Kanji and the Seven Dwarves

Written Japanese is an interesting concept. With the Roman alphabet you can relatively easily figure out the pronunciation of a word even if it is completely new to you (silent letters excepted). With Japanese, you either know it or you don't. There is no middle ground. And it takes until adulthood to learn the approximately two thousand standard charters used by newspapers and government circulars. But once you learn them it is quick and as each character is essentially a word, it's outstandingly effective for Twitter.  

There is a catch though. I once asked two Japanese friends to read out loud an article from The Yomiuri, Japan's most popular daily newspaper (see "Ten Things to do in Tokyo"). Quickly the exercise became something of a discussion as they disagreed and corrected each other on the pronunciation. The issue being that kanji characters have at least two pronunciations and often many more. The correct sound is defined by the positioning and conjugation of the character rather than the character itself. This leads to the interesting situation that a Japanese person will be able to understand a newspaper but not necessarily be able to read it out loud.

And here's the challenge. Take a very simple character for the Japanese word for "person" hito 人. The pronunciations can range from hito, bito, to nin, jin etc and keep going. Like naming the Seven Dwarves, it's a great pub game trying to remember all the different ways to pronounce a single ideogram. And in this case, I believe there's seven. But then again, I could be wrong. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

The power of Japan - seriously?

Unlike any other country in the world, Japan has two completely separate, incompatible electrical power system. The east of the country, Tokyo to Hokkaido, operates on 50Hz whereas the west, Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, operates on 60Hz. Modern appliances are designed to accommodate both but my old turntable sits in the closet, love but unusable. 

The history of this dates back to the late 1800's and the first attempts to electrify the country which was a somewhat entrepreneurial time. As usual Tokyo and Osaka were in competition and Tokyo decided to import German made AC generators operating at 50Hz whereas Osaka equipped the city with American generators operating at 60Hz. Small, localised services expanded over time until slowly everywhere was illuminated. And they've been different ever since.

Japan's electrical Mason-Dixon Line bisects the country through the Shizuoka and Nagano prefectures. West of the Fujigawa and Itoigawa rivers the country is 60Hz and east it's all 50. Even following WWII the political will simply wasn't there to choose a single standard. The upshot would have been that half the country would need to replace every household fixture. A politically and economically unbearable decision.

And so Japan remains disunited, unable to transfer power across a river. And my turntable will remain in it's box, out of sight, but not out of mind.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

When an earthquake strikes

Nine tenths of all the energy released in earthquakes in the last one hundred years in Japan was released at 2.46PM on March 11, 2011. Everyone knows what happened next as a massive black wave of water enveloped the coastline of Tohoku, north east Japan. In some areas the shape of the bays and inlets forced the water higher and higher to over one hundred and thirty feet; in others the flat coastal areas allowed it to sweep ever further inland devouring houses, farms, cars, trucks, people in its path.

The earthquake led to the tsunami and the tsunami led to the destruction of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. As it failed so did the power to northern Japan and people started to turn the lights out. Gasoline was rationed from the following morning and remaining stocks would be exhausted within three days. Bottled water disappeared as rumours spread that the mains supply was contaminated with radiation and store shelves emptied as panic buying led to people hoarding, not knowing what to expect next.

In the following weeks Japan came close to collapse and Tokyo became all but a ghost town. The roads north were closed and the escape route west was shadowed by Fuji. If it erupted Japan would be cut in half. Confusing and contradictory messages from the government heightened the feeling of crisis and images appeared on line in the world's first digital disaster. It was fifty six days from the initial foreshock to the first day we didn't suffer a major aftershock. And if you want to read the story, here it is. 

Tokyo before the earthquake. The city lights are bright.

Two months after the earthquake. Life has become dark and silent. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bowing in Japan, a serious business

An attendant leaves the rail car after serving coffee
Bowing is taken seriously in Japan. Very seriously. It not only acts as a formal greeting rather than shaking hands or the even more adventurous slight peck on the cheek, it runs throughout the entire culture and is a reflection of the formal respect people hold for each other. It's an apology, a thank you, a hello, a good bye and much more. 

Yesterday I was travelling on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) where an attendant spends the day walking up and down the aisles with their cart of snacks and drinks serving the weary travellers. And as she leaves the car after completing the service she politely turns and bows to the passengers before turning again and continuing to the next. Each bow is perfect, hands folded neatly into the lap, and each waitress performs the ritual to each and every car.

Another example to look out for is can be seen when you're travelling in and out of the Japan by air. Watch the ground crew as the aircraft slowly draws back from the gate. In perfect unison they will all bow together. And naturally each bow is perfect and set to precisely the correct angle. And as a foreigner, we're never going to get it quite right.

Ground crew at Narita Airport wishing the flight bon voyage

Monday, October 6, 2014

So Tokyo is clean again

Typhoon Phanfone paid Tokyo a visit through the early hours and into the morning. By noon the winds had fallen, the broken umbrellas were being collected and the skies were clearing. The air is clean, washed by hours of rain, and the sun is unusually hot as it no longer needs to burn through the pollution we live in on a daily basis. The chances are it will be a brilliant scarlet sunset.

A woman was standing at a bus stop in Shibuya as I came home last night. The winds were still building at the time but enough to make walking difficult. A sudden gust turned her inside out, raincoat over her head, hat long gone. 

The official rainfall was forecast to be 10cm yesterday. Significant under any circumstances but actually  nothing like the final result. I keep a rain gauge outside my house, a simple straight sided cylinder about a handspan across. And it recorded twenty six centimetres. That's over ten inches of water falling across Tokyo in a matter of hours. Tokyo is definitely clean today.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

When it rains….the Japanese Grand Prix won't be far behind

September / October is dead centre of the typhoon season in Japan. The storms do come at different times in the year but if you were to organise a major sporting event with one hundred and fifty thousand spectators you'd be hard pushed to find a more unreliable time. Obviously the Olympics are scheduled for September but that it many years away but today is the Japanese Formula 1 Grand Prix. And typhoon Phanfone will make landfall a little further south at about the same time the drivers start their engines.

The Japanese Grand Prix is not unused to heavy rain. In 2007 the heavens opened and the first nineteen laps were a slow procession behind the safety car as I sat freezing in the stands. It was eventually won by Hamilton with his race engineer commenting "I guess we can tick off racing in the wet then". In Ron Howard's superb dramatisation of the 1976 Grand Prix season, Rush, you experience what it was like for the drivers in extreme conditions. And of course James Hunt winning the World Championship.

The Japan race has historically been a pivotal one in the F1 calendar being so late in the season with thirteen champions being crowned here over the years. However with the increase in dates this won't be the case this year and with four races still to be held following Japan it's unlikely to be again in the future. The wets will be on every car today, each moving sixty litres of water a second which is the equivalent of over five tons per second on the grid. Have a great Japanese Grand Prix, I hope you have an umbrella. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Formula One - The Legend of Suzuka

It's the Grand Prix weekend in Japan. Suzuka is not only the oldest circuit on the F1 calendar but also claims to be the drivers and fans favourite. And it has to be said it's produced many a great race. Senna and Prost saw the decisive crashes here in '89 and '90; the first seeing Prost take the title and the second seeing Senna. I remember watching and thinking as they got our of their cars, if only they'd shaken hands.

Suzuka is actually the name of the city where the track is located and nothing to do with Suzuki; in fact it was built as the test track for Honda. It remains a nightmare to access requiring the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya followed by a local train followed by a long, long walk. Alternatively, once you reach Nagoya have a car arranged to take you to the circuit, wait for the day and bring you back. I actually met Fernando Alonso together with Damon Hill this way once.

The Formula One weekend also leads to a series of parties and events in Tokyo claiming one or more of the drivers will be there. This inevitably leads to an excellent turnout but rarely a showing by one of the few on the face of the planet capable of driving those machines properly. In the case of Jensen Button it always rings slightly true as his fiancé is Japanese/Argentinian. And that's why he shouts "YATTA" when he wins a race. It's the Japanese for "DID IT!" 

And back at the track, if you're tickets are for the main stand, take your sun cream. At 2.00PM on a Sunday afternoon, when those engines start and the sound rips into you, you're face on into it. However this weekend you may be saved from this by the effects of typhoon Phanfone. Though I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Watch if you haven't seen

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Expat's Guide to Japan - A Cover Story

In June this year I had finally completed the companion to The Beginner's Guide to Japan and titled it The Expat's Guide to Japan as the focus this time was on working in the Japanese business environment. The only remaining question was the cover. And I had an idea. I was going to model, standing looking out directly at the reader, wearing a suit and looking confident. Standing slightly behind would be a kimono clad geisha looking directly at me with the expression "This'll end in tears".

Soon I realised though that I had a friend who just has an ability with the camera. He can take on almost any character and simply nail it. So I called and he immediately agreed. If nothing else, it was going to be an experience. I also decided I wanted to add a little more Japanese character to the scene and so borrowed a real Samurai sword, a registered national treasure and very, very sharp. Next I needed the geisha and turned to an old friend who had always been able to look at me and, without saying anything, let me know I'd just done something particularly stupid. The perfect look.

Working with a very talented, young, female photographer at her studio (Imano-san at And Photo in Daikanyama) we started the shoot early on a Sunday evening. The pictures were working well with both Eddie and Rumi playing their parts perfectly. And then the idea evolved. Instead of showing the pair in essentially conflict, why not show them in support of each other? Eddie, the enthusiastic expat businessman and Rumi the strong and supportive Japanese counterpart. And so the cover was born. And I love it.

The Cover Story

Eddie picks up Rumi unscritped; Imano-san grabs her camera and starts to shoot. 

Rumi takes a series of breathtaking solo pictures
Eddie practices with the sword

The original concept - "This'll end in tears"

Thursday, October 2, 2014

An alternative approach to learning Japanese

I'm often asked by  friends new to the country what's the best way to learn Japanese. The actual answer to this is find a Japanese boyfriend or girlfriend who doesn't speak a word of your native language and go from there. However this is obviously not particularly useful advice for those of a more married persuasion. 

At the heart of the issue is that the question is actually the wrong question. The starting point should always be why do I want to learn Japanese? If the reason is that you love the sound, find elegance in kanji and simply enjoy learning then that's a perfect motivator to study as much as possible. However, if the reason is that you're aiming on working in Japanese before leaving after a three year rotation, there's a better way to get a return on your investment.

Japanese as a language breaks down, depending on who you are speaking to, into a number of separate sub-languages. Whether the person is senior or junior, male or female, not only the vocabulary may be different but essentially the language itself. If you're the president in an office, when you learn standard Japanese, it's more than likely your staff would use keigo in response. You may know what you are saying but you haven't a clue what the reply means.

My advice to people coming to work for two to three years has always been the same. Learn to direct taxis and order pizza by telephone but then set realistic objectives. Unless you're an outstanding linguist in the first place you're unlikely to be working in the language just before you're reassigned to a new country anyway. In reality, a little time invested in learning Japan is much more effective than a lot of time invested in learning Japanese

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Perils of Counting Sheep - the Enjoyment of Japanese

Spoken Japanese is a beautiful sounding polysyllabic language. The sound construction itself is much simpler than English (hence the difficulties many Japanese have in pronouncing English words) but it still comes across as rich and fluid. In structure it is actually significantly more rigid than English and as a result, once you have learnt the rules, there are limited variations and hence it simply becomes a game of learning vocabulary.

But some of those rules….

One that is easy to be caught out on is the counting system. There are thirty six separate systems in daily use and probably significantly more that have fallen out of favour over the years. The systems themselves are actually modifiers on the number itself and describe certain aspects of the item being counted. For example, one plate would be ichimai, indicating it is a flat object, whereas one bottle would be ippon, indicating it is tall and round.

Typhoons have there own modifiers as do cars, stamps, children, time and many more. Ippun, nifun, sanbun are the equivalent of one, two, three minutes. Whereas in English you simply count and add the word "minutes", in Japanese you have to remember the correct modifier. Luckily it rotates in groups of three but 12:47 becomes a difficult time to say aloud if you're not used to it.

And then we come to animals. A small animal would be counted with the modifier -piki (again rotated in groups of three). So one, two, three rabbits would be ipp-iki, ni-hiki, san-biki. However large animals are counted using -to; itto etc. This then causes an added confusion; just what exactly is the difference between a small and a large animal? And if you ask a Japanese friend they will more than likely laugh. Because, in reality, most of them won't know either.