Thursday, December 31, 2015

Curiouser and curiouser - the evolving laws of Japan

Japan is essentially a highly developed, law-abiding country despite the best efforts of the legal system itself. Total gun related deaths in 2014 - eight. Empowered to enact the laws of the land, the Diet (Japan's version of the House of Representatives), which struggled with the difference between a law and a constitution in 2015, will soon pass a seemingly innocuous requirement to address the question of passive smoking in public. Except, in deference to the voting community of Japan's tobacco farmers, it will avoid any mention of penalties.

A seeming contradiction in terms, a law without the option, or presumably desire, of enforcement, isn't something all that new in Japan though. The original sexual harassment (sekuhara) laws were effectively a request not to participate until as late as the 1990's. That the word 'sekuhara' is a contraction of the English rather than being a native Japanese word is interesting in its own right. And the new corporate governance law requiring companies to employ a certain percentage of female executives has not only had its targets reduced but also avoided the sticky question of penalties at all. 

Indeed product liability laws were only revised in the early 2000's when a faulty TV burnt some unfortunate consumer's house down and the manufacturer's response was to blame the individual for plugging it in. And when Japan finally implemented child pornography laws recently, the bill included a twelve month grace period for people to delete their existing collections. And so, if the passive smoking laws are being de-fanged to prevent disquiet amongst tobacco farmers, then it begs the obvious question, who exactly were they trying to avoid displeasing in the other examples.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The 2000GT, Toyota's first Supercar.

Japan is a by-word for engineering excellence (nuclear reactors apart it has to be said). Their motorbikes pretty much wiped the floors of global competition in the '60s and '70s. Designed not to leak oil and with the novel concept of actually starting in the mornings, they dominated the small engine market. But they didn't really do it with style; that is until Toyota launched the 2000GT at the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show.

Some fifty years later the 2000GT remains a classic of design, a Grand Tourer for cruising the inter-states of the west coast and equally the then developing highways of Japan. The modern Nissan GTR may be a creative tour-de-force (though it drives through town traffic in a remarkably similar fashion to a miss-firing cow), but few would probably prefer its production excellence to the flowing lines of the 1960s creation. And there's the rub; Toyota's first supercar was actually designed and built by Yamaha.

Famous for musical instruments (note the three tuning fork logo on the motorbikes) it had been established in the late 1800s as the Nippon Gakki Company. Fortunately the name was changed to that of the founder (let's face it, who is going to tell their friends over a beer they've just bought a Gakki) and today Yamaha is a global super power based in Hamamatsu. And if you visit in Golden Week, you can fly a kite. Not bad for a corner store reed pipe and piano maker.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The notes of the New Year

As discussed in an earlier post, Christmas Day isn't a big deal in Japan being somewhat overshadowed by Christmas Eve dates and Kentucky Fried Chicken, however New Year is a different matter. Adopted in 1873 in the early days of the Meiji Restoration, New Year in Japan is celebrated based on the western calendar rather than the previously observed floating dates of the Chinese calendar (still celebrated in China and a number of other countries across Asia).

New Year is the time families come together, the surviving generations visiting their ancestors graves and enjoying the morning with an equivalent of Christmas Dinner, though somewhat more focussed on soup and mochi, the pounded rice cake that sticks to everything like baby poo to a blanket. If you try it, make sure the vacuum cleaner is close by; don't ask, but just make sure you know where it is. And a number of years ago I was invited to join a New Year family gathering. 

Money being the traditional gift for children, the two young brothers proudly showed me their haul for the day. These being crisp, new notes, I spent the morning teaching them how to fold paper airplanes. However, these being young brothers, soon one pushed the plane up his sibling's nose resulting in a quite impressive nosebleed, which, according to all assembled, was clearly my fault. From today people will start returning to their family homes and if you're lucky enough to be invited, have a great new year. And ask about the vacuum cleaner, it will make them laugh.

The making of mochi - the vacuum cleaner is used when
you're choking on it  if you're still wondering

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Skies of the Mountains

The stars (the celestial variety at least) of Tokyo suffer from the same afflictions of those in almost every major urban centre of the world; the colour of the air and the level of the light we release from the streets to the dark of the night. Air pollution itself is actually not that bad in Japan although at New Year, the views of Fuji-san from the windows of Shinjuku are undoubtedly clearer as the city's population follows the annual exodus to their home towns and the cars and their exhaust disappear from the streets. 

The winter months are best for viewing the skies but by April the haze and cloud often obscure what can be an incredible night's light show. The planets and the major constellations are visible but it will have been a long while since the Milky Way was visible from the streets of Ginza. And it's only when you head to the mountains do you realise what you are missing; the nights of the Northern Hemisphere are simply stunning.

At around a thousand meters, (~3,000 ft) the air is so clear the moon will keep you awake. The population of Japan has, since the 1950's, been predominantly urban and so the villages and towns of the rural country are fewer and further between and the skies can be seen in all their majesty. The beer's not bad either... If you have the chance take a trip to an onsen outside of the city, sit and relax with a waters up to your neck and just watch the stars go by. Living in Tokyo you can sometimes forget how incredible they are.

Moonset, 5.00am, an hour before dawn

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The saga of a National Stadium

The day the old National Stadium in central Tokyo played out its final encounter in May 2014 as Japan put Hong Kong to the wall with a 49-8 victory over Hong Kong's Rugby Union team, who were possibly unaware of their contribution to a little piece of history. The stadium was then demolished to a fighter jet fly past and, with the plans for the new creation also demolished, now resembles a large pile of rubble in the eastern corner of Shinjuku.

The initial Zaha Hadid design was cast adrift after providing a boost to the Olympic bid based officially upon the question of "cost". As the architect herself pointed out "that's what happens when you say to the contractor you've got the job, now how much will it cost?". The two new finalist, which came in at a cost a fraction of a percent in difference from each other and remarkably close to the government specified limit of approximately $1.3bn, have now been whittled down to one.

And pancakes it is. Japan has great experience in wooden structures so there is little question it can be delivered in style. The timing of November 2019 is probably a little surprising for the Rugby World Cup, first left standing at the alter when the original design was abandoned only to find the new stadium is destined to be complete a mere three weeks after the Rugby World Cup final. A national stadium is important, reflecting a belief in the value that sport can bring to a country, its youth and its populace in general. And it's not just for the Olympics; it will be there for next fifty years. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

'tis the season to be jolly - j'nai...

Only a few days to go until Christmas and the Santas are appearing thick and fast on the streets of Tokyo. The department stores have been in full festive mode all the way back to Halloween and I have to admit my first Christmas dinner was actually on December 7th, which feels and eternity ago from where I'm standing today. There are no carol singers on the streets but the stores have been making up for that with rolling renditions of "Last Christmas" playing over and over again (not bad for a thirty year old song).

The interesting thing is though that Christmas actually isn't a big deal in Japan. Companies are open for business, most staff wouldn't even think about taking the day off. The 23rd is a national holiday but that's because it's the Emperor's birthday (an event with its own story) but Christmas Day is part of the normal working calendar, most companies opting to close over the New Year instead. But Christmas Eve will see a couple of interesting traditions.

KFC will be stockpiling entire flocks of chicken wings remembering "Christmas isn't Christmas without Kentucky Fried Chicken" surely one of the most effective advertising campaigns of all time. And then there's the Christmas Eve date. Despite the street campaigns by the self titled "Christmas Losers" (there might be a good reason for the name), every single person in Japan will be with someone special for the evening. Even if there is no one that special, they'll find someone to share their company. It's a nice tradition, no idea where it came from. But whatever, a Fine and Happy Christmas to you all!

A Miracle on 34th Street - Best Christmas movie ever!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Harrison Ford, a Giraffe and a three legged Crow. Welcome to Japan.

Kirin is the Japanese word for a giraffe, although when Japan first saw a real life giraffe is a question somewhat open to debate but probably dating back to the early 15th century and the Chinese explorative voyages to the coasts of Somalia. The name however, predates the African savannah lands and referred originally to a mythical beast, the qilin; horned, hooved, part dragon and sometimes the harbinger of good news.

It's also the name of Japan's second most popular tipple, Kirin Lager Beer, overtaken in the 1990's to the surprise of the nation by the upstart Asahi Super Dry. Promoted by the likes of Harrison Ford, Yokohama based Kirin beer had seen dominance over its Osaka counterpart for as long as most could remember but eventually the hoover, horned, scaley deer like dragon beast was to be seen off its top spot and remains to this day a default rather than first choice.

Indeed, to generate new interest, Kirin went as far as creating an App that not only provided the reader with the location of the nearest fine establishment stocking its products, when you scan the bar code on the bottle, you get your own avatar to keep you company. A little sad and lonely it has to be said. Still, probably better than being a yatagaras, the three legged crow that kills itself if it breaks a promise. Mythical creatures are interesting in Japan.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Spring Valley Brewery and the first fine pints of Japan

Back in the early days of April 2015, Kirin Beer, one of the major brewers in Japan, entered into an experiment in the backstreets of Daikanyama, a small and quiet neighbourhood of Tokyo. Established as a minor house of creation, The Spring Valley Brewery takes advantage of the changes in brewing laws of a decade ago that allow for low volume, on-site creation of some quite remarkable tastes. And as you sit outside, under cover from the rain and with a heater to keep you warm, you have to wonder as to the origins of the name. At least I did.

And the name goes back to the origins of Kirin Beer itself. Today Japan has three major beer companies; the Osaka based market leader Asahi, with its signature tipple "Asahi Super Dry", remains slightly ahead of Kirin following the shocks of the 1990's when it overturned their market dominance which is then followed, a little far behind, by Suntory, another Osaka based brewer dating from the days of the Meiji restoration. But Kirin's roots date to chaotic days of the opening of Japan, in the the twilight of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Founded in 1869 by William Copeland, an American-Norwegian entrepreneur who had arrived in Japan half a decade earlier, 'The Spring Valley Brewery' provided German style beers to both the local Yokohama foreign community as well as the Japanese market itself through Meidi-ya, at the time an importer and distributor of foreign goods and produce. Selling out to local investors in 1885, the brand would eventually evolve into Kirin, the name of a lucky, mythical Japanese beast. And so if you'd like to see the origins of The Spring Valley Brewery take the short walk from the Gaijin Botchi in Yokohama, past the international school and over to Kitagata Elementary School, for that's where it all began. Kampai!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Last Friday before Christmas

The expat community of Japan has many interesting societies and gathering that help bind the  diaspora together. 'Brits Not Bankers', 'The St Andrew's Society' and the 'Curry Club of Kobe' are just a few examples of the informal gatherings that occur throughout the year. And now it's Christmas. And there is one that is held just the once each year. The Last Friday Club. Which this year was designated by decree to be Monday, 7th December (it's a long story).

The origins of Last Friday Club date back to 2001 when on the last Friday before Christmas, two foreigners decided to have a quick lunch together and one had a cool little new device called an iPod. Over a couple of beers they prodded and played with this new toy, enjoyed the lunch at Trader Vics and agreed it would be a great idea to catch up again a year later again on the last Friday before Christmas.

Today the group has grown somewhat however membership always rotates. Invited on a blind cc, no one, excepting the organiser, knows who will actually be there on the day. International footballers, the odd coach of a national team, presidents of companies and numerous others take the afternoon off and enjoy a beer and a pina colada together (and there is obviously a story about that too which if you read carefully, you may get the reference). And then it's back to the corporate world and another year until we catch up again. Thanks to all for coming along, great to see you and here's a festive treat...

Friday, December 4, 2015

Tokyo Comic Con - The Genius of Steve Wozniak

Tokyo Comic Con 2016 kicked off with a press launch in Roppongi Midtown. Something new for Japan, the origins date back to a conversation between Stan Lee, the godfather of American superheroes, and Steve Wozniak, the legendary engineer who brought Apple to the world alongside Steve Jobs. They believe in a cross over between pop-culture and technology and aim to create something that is truly global in scope and execution.

Woz-san, as respectfully referred to by the MC, talked of his love of Japan and how he sees it as a country of pioneering concepts and technologies. Somewhat adverse to international travel, he made the point of how much he enjoyed visiting Japan in particular and even how his wedding ring was created using the technology of the katana, something over four centuries old. But he just loved the technology. And he talked about the new world.

His belief is that learning should be fun. Motivation is more important than knowledge he said. The world has changed and Steve Wozniak was an agent of that change. Steve Jobs famously loved the Zen of Kyoto but Steve Wozniak spoke of his passion for Japan's future vision. And then he was joined on stage by Darth Maul along with the Emperor from the dark side, praised the work of Mifune, he of The Seven Samurai, to his daughter and chatted with a green haired cosplay idol. But he believes learning should be fun. And from a man who changed all our lives, that's important.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Fratellis in Shibuya

Roppongi is famed as the night life centre of Tokyo for the foreign community having housed some of the infamous gaijin friendly establishments dating back to the 1960s as it drew the crowds away from Akasaka and the Ginza. However, it's not where the locals party, especially the young; they hang out in back streets of Shibuya where the bars and clubs often start late and finish even later.

The clubs, although very focussed on the domestic market, often without a word of English to assist even in basic directions, such as where is the door, are just as happy to host a foreign band as a local one. The big name acts are seen at venues like the Budokan or Tokyo Dome but if you're looking for something a little different, take a walk down the side streets of Dogenzaka. O-East, Quattro, O-West, Womb and the rest always have a hugely diverse selection of entertainment to choose from.

And the vibrancy was raised to "11" last night as the Scottish band The Fratellis brought the house down in front of around 500 Japanese fans who seemed to know the words to every single song and who carried a flag waving Scottish fan on their shoulders for much of the time. Highly talented and highly enjoyable, it was a great show. Thanking the crowd and pointing out that without them they'd just be three guys in an empty room, they left the audience ears still ringing. And then we walked home. Shibuya is just so easy.

Fratellis in concert in Japan

Monday, November 30, 2015

Ichiyo Higuchi - the third women on a Japanese bank note

Ichiyo Higuchi is familiar to the residents of Japan as the face of the ¥5,000 bank note where she has resided since 2004. A writer of classical short stories, she studied poetry from the Heian period ~800 - 1200AD, and wrote in a flowing style almost unintelligible today. She died after her brief career at the age of twenty four having contracted tuberculosis, something not uncommon in the late 1800s.

However, she was not the first woman to feature on the national currency. Beating her by four years, and appearing in the lower right corner of the ¥2,000 note to this date, Murasaki Shikibi, the author of arguably the worlds first novel, The Tale of Gengi, coincidentally actually written in the Heian period, is something of a rarity. The note itself is somewhat unpopular being considered a little unlucky by denominating a number starting with "2" (a whole different story).

These two ladies were simply following in ancient footsteps though. Adorning the ¥1 note in 1881, a little less than a decade following the currency's introduction, came the Empress Jingu. Something of a mythical figure from the time when the Romans walked across the lands of Europe, she was actually imaged by the Italian engraver Edoardo Chiossone, and today he can be found in Aoyama Botchi, the cemetery in central Tokyo. But she can't; sadly no one knows where she departed this mortal coil.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The sorrow of losing a friend of Japan

Jonah Lomu was a legend in the world of rugby. With a little help from Mike Catt he invented the commercialisation of the sport in 1995 as he executed a perfect Maori Sidestep and ran straight over the England fullback. He told me once they became friends and even joked about the incident over the years. And Jonah was a great friend to Japan, acting as a country brand ambassador when New Zealand played Australia at the National Stadium in Tokyo in the fall of 2009.

I was fortunate enough to meet Jonah in Tokyo on a number of occasions over the years as he visited the country. What was striking about him, apart from being one of the greatest sportsmen of all time, was what an outstanding human being he was. He'd talk about his family, his young son and his passion for cars, rarely mentioning his sport and he had time for anyone who would like to talk to him. Like many professional athletes of the modern era, he didn't really drink, happy to nurse a cola throughout an evening.

The last time I saw him he was carrying his infant son through security at Narita airport the night after we'd had dinner. We'd met outside the east Inakaya in central Tokyo. By accident I'd been sent to the west restaurant and so arrived twenty minutes late after I figured out what had happened. There he was, global superstar, just sitting on the railings outside the place, waiting for me. "No worries" he said, and that night we had a great dinner and talked about racing cars.

Jonah Lomu
Jonah Lomu, friend of Japan 1975 - 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Spirit of Radio - Part II

Unloved and largely unused, car radio in Japan tends to be something you're more likely to experience when your taxi driver is listening to the baseball. Satellite radio failed to take off after a number of the early stations went bankrupt, the in car equipment setting the avid fan back by several thousand dollars, it couldn't generate the audience to support the airwaves. Terrestrial radio, as discussed here, carries so few channels it's not too popular either.

Interference free, land based digital radio, popular around the world and not requiring a satellite dish to be strapped to your car roof, has also not raised it's head in Japan but one thing has. In-car TV. Popular for keeping the kids quiet in the back seats, with the use of a $50 conversion kit, the dash mounted navigation system can be enabled to display television too. It is illegal to sell a new car with front seat TV, but drive around the corner and there will be a man with a spanner to help.

And this is slightly strange given the stringent road safety laws in Japan. You must pull over to use your mobile phone and the blood alcohol limit is actually zero for drivers with penalties for passengers too if the driver fails a breath test. But for TV the law simply expresses a desire the driver won't stare at the screen whilst driving. Glancing apparently is fine. And remembering that navi systems also take DVD's, when you're driving around, whatever you do, do not let the kids look inside the car next to you! Or be prepared for some very awkward questions...

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Spirit of Radio - Part I

Visitors to Japan are often slightly confused, or even little surprised, at what they hear when they turn the radio dial. The airwaves are, with a few exceptions, rubbish compared to what they are used to back home. The very limited number of stations pack sports, news, pop music, classical concerts and anything else they can into the day with no real concept of a target audience. Tokyo has a grand total of five FM stations, compare that to LA with something around sixty, and each one of those knows exactly who is listening.

The issue in Japan is really one of a missed boat where the Japanese government restricted licences to the staid national broadcaster until the early 1990s when the first commercial stations were established. By this time Sony had invented the Walkman, soon to be followed by MP3 players, iPods and ultimately Apple Music. The kids didn't listen to the radio, their dads did. Throw in the limited bandwidth and stations found it hard to get to market and the market wasn't listening when they did.

The cessation of analogue TV in 2011 extended the existing frequencies available of 76MHz~90MHz up to 95MHz but to date this has only provided opportunity for the old warm and fuzzy local AM stations to switch to glorious FM stereo radio. It has also allowed InterFM, a bilingual mainly music station squeezed into their 76.1 slot when it was established as an emergency broadcast service post the Kobe earthquake of 1995, to expand onto a new setting of 89.7, warmer and clearer. But looking back to the days, tuning into1440 Luxembourg when the sun went down, and you have to think "man, that was a great sound". Where exactly were the pirate ships in the 1960s just when Japan needed them to get those kids hooked on the greatest medium of all, radio.

Radio Luxembourg

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Story of a Yen

Gold one yen coin 1871
The Japanese Yen has an interesting history. For a start it's a typing error in English having been dubbed "yen" rather than the local pronunciation of "en" in an early English / Japanese dictionary. Introduced in 1871 in the early days of the Meiji Restoration, it replaced the Tokugawa monetary system and was defined as the equivalent of the commonly used Spanish Dollar, the same dollar adopted by America. So in the beginning it was one yen = one dollar. At 125 today, how times have changed.

The "Great Japan" one sen coin
There were originally 100 sen to the yen and 10 rin to the sen but by 1953, given hyperinflation, a rather large war, and the impact of the gold standard, the sen and the rin were abolished and the yen, no longer 1:1, was fixed at 360 to the dollar. That is except for the Japanese Military Yen, used across conflict zones from 1904 until 1945. It was defined as worthless on 6 September, 1945 and economies such as Hong Kong where it was the only legal tender lost everything.

Great Japan Military 10 yen note issued in Hong Kong
World trade and the Plaza Accords saw the end of the undervalued yen and by 1995 it had reached 80 to the dollar. The effective boost to FX rates saw the land value of the Emperor's Palace being reputedly equal to the entire real estate of California. Today the commonly used 500 yen remains one of the world's highest denomination coins but just occasionally there are both 1000 yen and 10,000 yen commemorative issues. And this year saw the introduction of the catchily titled "Great East Japan Earthquake Reconstruction Project Coin". And the tree, well that's the story of a very sad miracle.   

Monday, November 16, 2015

The creepy critters of Japan

I'm not good with bugs. Confronted by a hairy spider I'd rather lease it territory and find a new apartment than deal with it directly. Peculiarly, snakes, mice and lizards do not worry me one iota, happy to pet them all. But cockroaches (which can also fly short distances by the way) again do, the same way as spiders. Moths and butterflies not a problem, even stag beetles I'm ok with. Which brings it down to a question of speed rather than design. Spiders are quick running critters.

Fortunately central Tokyo is a fairly hostile environment for bugs. I've seen a handful of cockroaches over the years and the house spiders are smaller than a penny, and even I can cope with that. You see the odd snake in Yoyogi Park, but these are black Rat Snakes and completely harmless or occasionally an abandoned pet liberated to a life of freedom under the trees. And the lizards are smaller than your hand, rare and not that keen on people either.

But outside Tokyo is a different matter. The Wolfman Spiders of Izu clearly descended from a 1950's B-movie and the Hymenoptera ants could carry away your car. Above about 1,000ft make sure you cover up if around grass lands or waterways, the bite of the buyo, or black fly, will leave you seriously considering amputation to relieve the itch. But it's the osuzumebachi, or Giant Hornet, that holds the record. It inflicts the final cut to more people in Japan each year than any other member of the animal kingdom, humans excepted. But humans can't fly and I don't like bugs. 

Enjoy a picture of a Minion. If you want a bug,
you can look those up yourself

Friday, November 13, 2015

TenguLife is two today - thanks for reading

Zero Hour and the music of Tokyo Rose

There have been many references to "Tokyo" in popular culture over the years. Tokyo Joe was both a 1949 Humphrey Bogart movie and a 1977 Bryan Ferry (he of Roxy Music fame) song which is actually a reference, rather ironically, to a song from Jimmy Cagney in the musical "Shanghai Express" about the 1930's war in China. Deep Purple also got in on the act with one of the great driving songs My Woman From Tokyo about their first tour of Japan (and also the last of the Gillan / Blackmore line up).

Life in Tokyo, the Giorgio Moroder penned classic etherial New Wave song performed by the English group Japan was a  hit across Europe before the band split and the singer, David Sylvian, moved on to working with the keyboard player from Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi Sakamoto. However, rather than simply referencing popular culture, few have actually been a part of it themselves. But one who did was known simply by the name of Tokyo Rose, a name that was actually a catch all for any Japan based English speaking female broadcaster during the Pacific War. 
The most famous of these was Iva Ikuko Toguri. American born and stranded on a visit to Japan after Pearl Harbour, she was forced to work alongside Australian and US POW's reading transcripts and playing music on the propaganda radio show "Zero Hour". Post war she was arrested but later released by the Occupation Administration though ultimately would be convicted on one count of treason in the US, in what could best be described as a "kangaroo court". Spending over six years in prison she would eventually receive a Presidential pardon from Gerald Ford in 1976. She passed away in 2006 but not before being recognised with a citizenship award for courage in the face of adversity. Rather than dimming morale, the troops had actually really loved her taste in music.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The secret of Kimi-chan and her red shoes in America

赤い 靴 (Akai Kutsu)
"Red Shoes"

赤い靴 はいてた 女の子
異人さんに つれられて いっちゃった
横浜の 埠頭(はとば)から 船に乗って
異人さんに つれられて 行っちゃった

今では 青い目に なっちゃって
異人さんの お国に いるんだろう
赤い靴 見るたび 考える 
異人さんに 逢(あ)うたび 考える

"Akai Kutsu" is a popular children's rhyme in Japan, depicting the true story of a little girl known as Kimi-chan. Her mother being poor gives her to adoptive parents and Christian missionaries from America take her home for a better life. Published in 1922, and whilst interesting in its repetitive use of the word "foreigner", and accepting that all translations are subjective by definition, in English it goes something like this:

The girl wearing red shoes has,
Gone to America with a foreigner.
She took a ship from the wharf in Yokohama,
Gone to America with a foreigner.
Now her eyes have turned blue,
I wonder about her as a foreigner in that country.
Every time I see red shoes, I think of her,
Every time I meet a foreigner, I think of her.

There is even a statue to her in Yokohama where she boarded the ship to her new home, however, there's a secret and it's very similar to one we sometimes tell children about their beloved pet. The give away is that there is also a statue in Azabu-Juban, a quiet, leafy, neighbourhood in downtown Tokyo. And the reason it's there is this is the site of the orphanage where she passed away from tuberculosis at the age of nine. Her mother, living in Hokkaido, never knew she didn't board the ship, and the father, sticking to his story all her life - "she's gone to a farm in the country".

The statue of Kimi-chan in Azabu Juban

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Jodie Foster and the Aliens of Shiretoko

The Shiretoko Peninsula in eastern Hokkaido derives its name from the Ainu word meaning "the end of the world". And it would seem hard to argue with that. Some seventy kilometres long, it boasts no less than seventeen volcanos and has the distinction of being the most southerly location in the northern hemisphere where sea ice will form. A distinction for which it received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005.  

However, the Shiretoko Peninsula has something of an inter-galactic secret. In 1997 Jodie Foster first met aliens there in the classic sci-fi movie "Contact". The original colossal worm-hole making machine having been destroyed by a maniacal Jake Busey at Cape Kennedy, a space bound John Hurt brings renewed hope to Dr Ellie Arroway by showing her the location of a second, secret, device hidden on a spur of land on the east coast of Shiretoko. 

But here's the kicker. Not only does the interstellar mobile phone not actually exist, though I think we'll all be ok with that for the time being, but neither does the spur of land on which it was supposed to be built, the location having been CG'd into the movie. So if you do try to contact aliens in northern Japan, the closest you'll get to is the Kunbetsu Post Office. And of course then you'll need a valid shipping address. The truth is out there. I'm afraid just not in Shiretoko.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Cancer of Fukushima

Nuclear power is something of an emotive subject in Japan following the disastrous multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in March 2011 and subsequent contamination of the local region by what was, in effect, a massive dirty bomb. Since then, every reactor in Japan has been taken off-line for "maintenance" though Sendai (in southern Kyushu) was brought back to life over summer and Tsuruga, on the Japan sea coast, is currently pushing to restart its engines too. And without them The Maldives is soon going to be a new Atlantis.

Public concern has been recently heightened by reports of the first worker to develop cancer through exposure to radiation at Fukushima itself. Except, despite the headlines, he didn't as far as anyone knows. With 40,000 workers at the site, the average cancer rates in Japan suggest at least 200 would develop cancer annually without any man-made encouragement. The unlucky individual, with a dose of 15,700 microsieverts, has been awarded workers compensation for falling ill and being able to prove he received a dose higher than that legally mandated. Despite the headlines, no one is actually claiming there is a causal link between his illness and exposure to radiation. He was just smart enough to fill in the correct claim forms. 

Indeed, workers in the US are deemed at no risk working in an environment with ten times the radiation levels of the Japanese government stipulated safety levels. To date, no single person has died as a direct result of exposure to radiation from Fukushima. But the suicide rates of those displaced in the evacuation are very real and increasing. With a construction boom in Tokyo pulling workers away from rebuilding Tohoku and allocated funds sitting unused in government coffers, perhaps it's time to worry a little less about the design of the new National Stadium and instead help those who four years later are still living in shelters. Just a thought.

Evacuees still remain in temporary shelters after four years

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Building a Billion Dollar Brand - in Japan

First draft complete! A little over fifteen years ago something fundamental changed in the Japanese landscape. Up until that time the perceived wisdom had been that a foreign brand entering the market would need a local partner; someone who knew how to operate on the ground. And then adidas decided to go solo, cold turkey if you will, and take direct control of its brand in Japan. Within a decade the experiment had produced a billion dollar company that had redefined the Japanese market model.

I was lucky enough to be there at the start and over the following years worked as part of the senior management team as we grew the business from a serviced office with a handful of people and zero sales to being the dominant sports brand in Japan. And many times over the years I've been asked to write the story, something that I have always declined to do so. Writing a "kiss & tell" somehow just felt wrong.

And then in early 2015 it was suggested I write the story around the business model; exactly how did we build a billion dollar brand in Japan? And that I could write. Eliciting the thought process and occasionally hilarious, I recount how we approached each challenge in turn until the brand became 50% larger than our respected rivals from across the pond. And now the hard part begins; editing.  After that though, might just be time to get a real job. Unless I start another book of course.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Billboard - man, does it turn up surprises

Tokyo is a little interesting in that it suffers from a lack of major venues that can really showcase the great artists of the day. There's no Wembley Arena or Madison Square Garden, and the only two in the city, Tokyo Dome and The Budokan, although they can host acts, the acoustics are really not there. The Budokan was built for judo and the Tokyo Dome is actually a baseball stadium. Audio comes a far flung second (though it has to be said, ten rows back from the stage, Paul McCartney was really quite something).

But what Tokyo does have is a plethora of smaller venues that sometimes really throw up a surprise. The Blue Note is relatively well known and in a few weeks it'll be The Fratellis at O-East in Shibuya. Club Quatro always has great acts and Candy Dulfer brought the house down when I saw her play a few years back. But the new kid on the block is Billboard. Almost impossible to find inside Roppongi Midtown, it regularly books surprises that turn out to be outstanding.

Last week saw Leo Sayer play Japan for the first time in over thirty years. With three Japanese friends, who confessed to knowing nothing about the singer, we had a seriously great night. It has to be said a touch overweight, he held the audience in the palm of his hand. Great pipes and infectious enthusiasm; you know that he'd have played exactly the same show even if the room had been empty. And my friends loved it. So if you get the chance, seek out the small venues, there are awesome artists hidden away in those small little places. And they might just surprise you. I did me.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Curious Cuisine of Tokyo

Living in Japan somewhat spoils you for the local cuisine. Visit a top Japanese restaurant in London or New York and whilst everyone else is cooing over the exotica you usually find yourself thinking that something isn't quite right. But it doesn't need to be an expensive night out on the town in Tokyo, even the cheapest bowl of ramen will often be outstanding. And that's before the garlic. And if you want only garlic, well there's that too, at a chain by the name of Niniku-Ya (the Garlic Shop).

Tako-yaki (octopus chunks in dough) is excellent at midnight on the way home and okonomiyaki, a form of filled pancake, will set you back but a few dollars and goes great with a beer. In fact almost all Japanese food goes well with beer, wine being something of an afterthought. Uni, sea-urchin, is something of an acquired taste having the consistency of mushy sea water but natto (fermented beans) remains for a limited audience; it smells a little like baby sick.

Basashi, thinly sliced raw horse meat, may sound a little off-putting but is actually delicious and of course, sushi and sashimi are a delight. Kobe beef will set you back a pretty penny but katayaki-soba (deep fried noodle) will satisfy the need without breaking the bank. So if you come to Japan, enjoy the cuisine, it's quite an experience. And if you can only stomach McDonald's, at least try the teriyaki burger, it's actually not that bad.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Shima Uta - The Island Song

On 1 April 1945, US Army and Marine forces spearheaded the invasion of Okinawa, a battle lasting nearly three months that claimed the lives of close to half the pre-war population of the islands. Taking shelter in the cave systems, the civilian population were co-erced and instructed to take their own lives rather than surrender to the Americans. And so many of them did. Far more died this way than actually in the fighting.

And then a young guy from Yamanashi Prefecture, an hour outside Tokyo towards Fuji, visited the island and saw the impact for himself. Emerging from one of the tunnels, he was struck by the clear air and open skies and saw the stark contrast to the suffocating tunnels underground. And he wrote a song about it, part in Japanese, part in the native Okinawa language. His aim, to make people aware of how and why these people died.

Shima Uta, The Island Song, is a haunting, hypnotic melody that talks about the divisions created by the conflict and how the people were caught in a time they neither wished for nor understood. Although the English translation conveys the meaning of the song, the Japanese carries the emotion and intensity. It's one of the most accessible songs for a non-Japanese speaker. And its message is a heartbreaking one to hear.

Shima Uta

Friday, October 30, 2015

Tossed on the Salad of History

From the early 1900's, even before the war with Russia, Japanese settlers began to colonise areas of northern Manchuria, then a part China but later to be annexed as the state of Manchukuo. In instance of Ohinata nearly the entire village emigrated. By the end of the war, more than 1.5 million Japanese, including the children of the early settlers, were effectively stranded with the surrender of Japan and, known as "outer Japanese" could no longer call for protection from their mother country.

More than 37,000 farmers had emigrated in the first half of the century from the Japan sea coastal prefecture of Nagano and now found themselves stranded on the border with Russia and acting as a buffer zone between the two armies. The majority eventually made their way back to Japan between 1946 and 1949 but were required to prove they were Japanese by finding a relative in Japan to sponsor them. And many found they were being roundly rejected as a further burden on their impoverished families.

Settling on unwanted and unproductive land to the west of Karuizawa, on the slopes of the Asayama volcano, they worked the land little noticed until they started to grow some of the finest crops in Japan. And so if you see a photograph of the Emperor in the salad fields of Ohyuga, it's something to know they are there by the labour of the returnees from Manchuria, people who had been tossed on the sea of history, as their fate became known.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What The Dickens! - A Shakespearean Pub in Tokyo

What The Dickens! is an English style pub tucked away on the top floor of a distinctly curious building in the back streets of Ebisu, a lively district on the fringes of Shibuya in central Tokyo. One of the pioneers of warm beer and great pub grub, it opened its doors in the late 1990's and boasts an interestingly winding two floor interior as well as loud live bands. It also features a brain teaser of an entry; if you can't open the door, that's not the door you're trying to open. Look for the handle on your left.

Stepping inside you could be forgiven for thinking you'd just been transported through space and time to the back streets of Victorian London. They have absolutely nailed the authentic decor of a traditional English pub. Relatively famous amongst the foreign crowd, the walls are plastered with Dickensian quotes and passages, which is a little ironic as the phrase has nothing to do with Dickens but rather derives from Shakespeare, spoken some 250 years earlier by Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor. 

The space also boasts an interesting history having previously housed an office of the now defunct death-cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which, one day in March 1995, thought it might be a good idea to release sarin gas into the Tokyo Metro. The organisation was subsequently disbanded and What The Dickens! moved in. And although there has been at least one unfortunate individual who has shuffled off this mortal coil over a beer in the years since, this had nothing to do with the fine ales and chicken pies served by the friendly landlord. All in all, Shakespeare would probably have been quite at home here in Ebisu.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Community - the heart of the Japanese spirit

The phrase "fighting spirit" is often banded around in Japan to recognise achievement against the odds. However it rarely questions whether the achievement was actually the right thing to do in the first place. When two schools recently competed in baseball and the game remained tied for four days the teachers forced the pitchers to continue hour after hour. The parents praised the children's "fighting spirit" for having stood in the summer sun for four straight days. However, in many other countries the teachers would be considered guilty of child abuse.

Strangely though, there is a significantly more real, and arguably more important, aspect of the Japanese character, and that is a real and genuine sense of community. It's something I haven't experienced in my home country; there would be many local events true, where we would go along and join in the fun as a family, but not necessarily as a community. Would we know each other or would we turn out to represent our local neighbourhood, for example?

So when the local Sports Day in Japan comes around, it's not simply a school event, in fact, it has nothing to do with the school at all. Organised by the representative committees, over three hundred people spent the entire day competing (more or less) in a series of races, obstacle courses and various imaginative trials by cardboard box. Fifteen neighbourhoods, from toddlers to teens to great grand parents, everyone came together to enjoy their community. And it's something special. An achievement so much more important than "fighting spirit". And I like that.

sports day