Friday, January 30, 2015

Traveling and talking

TenguLife is traveling at the moment to the U.S. and talking to some fascinating Japanese who choose to live overseas. More soon about when, where and why.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The oldest novel in the world - a Japanese classic

It could almost be a pub quiz question, which is the oldest novel in the world? The prize for the first English language novel usually goes to Robinson Crusoe from 1719 although there is an argument as to earlier stories in verse such as The Canterbury Tales written in the 14th century but it somewhat depends on the definition of what actually constitutes a "novel". However, if the language requirement is removed there is one clear stand out, The Tale of Genji.

Written in 11th century Japan, it follows the life and escapades of a courtier, a son of the Emperor, disowned as being illegitimate. The fascinating element of the story is, if the settings were updated, this could be an everyday story from modern times even though it was written over a thousand years ago. Genji grows up, falls in love, gets into trouble, faces the challenges of life and did I mentioned gets into trouble? Quite often.

Translated three times into English, it would today be considered something of a bodice ripper. Written in sections over a number of years by the Lady in Waiting Murasaki Shikibu from the Japanese royal court, it was to entertain the other ladies. Although in general it doesn't use names but titles, there are something over four hundred characters who come and go (and very often die) and all age together as the story unfolds. And written in the court vernacular of the day, within a century it became unreadable by most for the next eight hundred years. But it is highly entertaining and he does get into a lot of trouble. Quite often.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The first Japanese settlement in Europe - Coria del Rio

When people think of Japanese overseas settlements it is usually Hawaii or California or possibly even Brazil that come to mind. Few are likely to wave the Spanish flag and recite the name Coria del Rio though in fact this was the first Japanese settlement in Europe and many of the town today still carry the surname "Japon". And it was all down to a gentleman by the name of Hasekura Tsunenaga.

In 1613, under the decade old new Shogunate, a delegation was despatched to Europe to both sign a trading treaty with Spain and to open communications with the Vatican. Travelling via New Spain (Mexico and modern day California) the party left Japan on a ship built by the Englishman Will Adams, later to be made famous by James Clavell in his book Shogun.

Timing and politics conspired against the embassy however and although they met both Pope and the King of Spain, by this time Japan had started to close to foreigners and especially Christians. Knowing the fate that awaited them on return, many who had converted to Christianity chose to stop off in Coria del Rio and make a new life. However, those returning to Japan struggled to hold on to theirs. 

Curiously the entire adventure passed from memory in Japan and remained unknown until the late 19th century when reports of the venture arrived via European texts. And so, although the Mongol hoards reached the borders of modern day Europe, the blue birthmark in southern Spain is purely the work of Hasekura Tsunenaga and his band of merry Samurai some four hundred years ago.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tokyo Tower - more than simply a tourist trap

Tokyo Tower, the bright orange and white communications structure standing in the heart of downtown, used to be on everyone's tourist list of must see sights. I never really understood this as although the view stretches across the entire city, it has to be said, Tokyo is a pretty dull lump of concrete to look at in the day time. Nighttime is a different story, as the lights come on, the city seems to come alive. 

Constructed in 1958 and standing at 330m it remained the largest structure in Japan until recently overtaken by Sky Tree. The new communications tower was needed for the conversion to the digital age but suffers the same fate. Tokyo is boring in daylight. The tower itself looks pretty cool though. The chunks of ice fall from it and crashing through the roofs of houses in the neighbourhood remain a bit of a problem though street patrols, to warn people impending doom, seem to have allayed some of the fears.

But back to Tokyo Tower. With its cheap souvenir stores and frankly a bit of a peculiar odour about it, it was heading for national irrelevance. That was until they illuminated it and it becomes something truly inspiring at night. During the earthquake of 2011, the violence of the tremors was so extreme the mast actually kinked. It took a year to repair it but during that time, as Tokyo went dark, it stood as something fairly special in the night skies. It gave us a little bit more hope to keep going.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Life is a minestrone

Japan is often overlooked on the global tour circuit. It's been nearly a year since McCartney and The Stones blew the roof off Tokyo Dome but since then pretty much nothing. One Direction will be here next month admittedly but I'm something of an alternative target age group for that one. Springsteen is rumoured to be coming in 2016 after a decade long hiatus and U2 have avoided the west coast of the Pacific for almost as long.

So it's down to the small clubs to put on the show. In central Tokyo there are two venues that regularly book great artists who wouldn't otherwise arrive on our shores. At The Blue Note I once saw The Duke Ellington Band play an incredible gig, and though The Duke himself had long wandered off this mortal coil, the band were still going strong. The second location is Billboard in the heart of Tokyo Midtown, a candidate for the worst designed complex ever but the club is great.

And last night was awesome. 10cc played for the decade. I grew up to their music and although only Graham Gouldman remains from the original line up, the other band members can trace their roots back to the early days so the feeling and sound was tight. These small venues keep the circuit alive. New bands and those of the like 10cc, past their commercial peak but with an incredible back catalogue can come and wow the audience. And wow them they did last night. Great show if you have the time.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Emperor without an Empire

On the face of it Japan is lacking the key element of being a nation state with an Emperor ie there is no Empire. It would seem more straightforward to have a King when there is only a single country to be the monarch of. And yet old habits die hard and on January 1st 2015 we entered the twenty sixth year of the reign of "His Imperial Majesty the Emperor Akihito". 

The Japanese empire was born with the Meiji Constitution enacted in 1868 following the brief civil war at the twilight of the Tokugawa Shogunate. At this time the country that is now considered Japan was effectively a set of autonomous republics plus the Bakufu regions administered directly from Edo (today's Tokyo). The title "Emperor", used throughout this new constitution, reflected the need for an overarching authority and brought agreement between the separate domains to centralise the creation of laws as well provide an overall control structure for the armed forces.

Following the creation of this crypto-empire, Japan set about creating a real one with the annexations of Korea and Taiwan (Formosa) followed by the invasion and creation of a puppet government in Manchuria. Then there came the relatively brief occupation of quite a large area of South East Asia stretching as far south as northern Papua New Guinea, west to Myanmar and east to the islands of the Pacific. 

And then it all ended in tears. The Empire of Japan was formally put to the sword with a new MacArthur led constitution in 1947. And then it was a question of holding Japan together. Changing the title of "Emperor" was simply a fight not worth fighting. And so today Japan is a single country empire and a living God officially became a mere mortal at the simple stroke of a pen.

A relaxed MacArthur greets Emperor Hirohito;
the image causing something of a scandal for its informality

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Interesting Japanese phrases - Part 3

Japanese has some interesting phrases to it that at first hearing sound somewhat strange to the foreign ear. For example, when you present a gift to someone it's customary to say "tsumarani mono da kedo" which literally translates as "It's a boring thing but....". You have to wonder the origin of that one but it is the polite way to give something.

Another that is heard everyday on the train and follows the announcement of the station your train has just arrived at. As the passengers exit the carriage an announcement reminds them not to forget anything by saying "wasuremono wasurenaide kudasai" which means "please don't forget your forgotten things". Obvious if you think about it.

Probably my favourite though is the response as someone leaves the office in the evening. The departing party will start by announcing they're about to be rude and go home first "saki ni shitsurei shimasu" - "going first I'm about to do something impolite". To which the reply from those still at their desks will always be "o-tsukarasama" which pretty much means "Be tired!".

And don't even get me started on why a headache can have a headache....

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"Hafu" - a phrase that really misses the point

The word "half" is not one of my favourites. It's used in Japan and many other countries as almost a throw away comment to describe the children of international marriages and again on television this morning they were talking about it. To me it comes with something of an unthinking disregard for the individual and almost a disrespect for their character. To me there is no such thing as a "half".

The children of an international marriage were born with two cultures wherever they may choose to live. They probably have dual language ability and a knowledge, if not a respect, for two cultures. They'll have worked hard to understand their double identity and harder still to understand the nuances of communication that goes beyond simply speaking. 

These children are remarkable in their achievements. There is nothing really "half" about them but there is a lot that is "double". A friend recently asked me how to approach the subject with his new baby girl as she grows up. The only advice I could offer was "with envy". These double children have so much more to experience in their lives, so much more than us plain old "singles".

Miss Universe Japan 2015 - Ariana Miyamoto

Monday, January 19, 2015

Creating a gaijin friendly Japan for the Olympics

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics beginning to raise its profile in the national consciousness, a broad debate has commenced in the press as to how to make Japan more user friendly for foreigners. The lack of English usage and ability in the general populace combined with a written character system that prevents non-readers of kanji from penetrating even the simplest of messages are being seen as issue for the smooth operation of the games. And those who argue that if you come to Japan you should try to be Japanese could simply be paraphrased as saying "Don't come".

Solutions are being mooted to increase the use of English language signs and menus in restaurants. Indeed taxis now carry translation sheets (though these are often kept in the trunk though a sign in the window at least alerts you to their existence) but the proposals so far are essentially cosmetic. Japan has an opportunity to genuinely re-invent itself as being an accessible country with the wave of support that will grow as the games approach. Jet lag, perceived high costs and the lack of English on the web are all against the governments plan to move from 13 million tourists a year to 20 million but this is the opportunity.

The irony is that the Olympics will be confined to Tokyo, and predominantly central Tokyo, probably the only location in Japan that has a basic semblance of international support. However 2019 will also see Japan host the Rugby World Cup. And that will be hosted across the entire country. English is the world's default language, like it or not. It's time for Japan to stop thinking of it as an exam subject and view it as a communication subject. The Olympics is an opportunity for change, miss it and it'll be a generation before another comes around. And in the meantime, invest heavily in augmented reality...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ten more things to do in Tokyo

These are some interesting adventures for anyone visiting Tokyo (and maybe for some already living here). I deliberately haven't gone into detail so as not to distract from the surprise. Each has it's own little secret which I hope brings you a smile as you find them and think "so that's what he was talking about".

1   Visit Harajuku on a Sunday afternoon and watch the wild and weird costumes go by

2   Take the boat from Hamamatsucho to Asakusa along the Sumida River and drink a cold beer

3    Sit with the forty seven ronin at Sengaku-ji and think

4   Ride the Yamanote line all the way around

5   Walk from Ueno Station to Okachimachi Station on a Saturday afternoon

6   Find Nombe Yokocho in Shibuya and go into any of the little bars

7   Eat at a modern kaitensushi restaurant and video your order arriving

8   Sing you heart out on the stage of Smash Hits! in Hiroo

9   Ask if you can try the paddle at Inakaya

10  Buy flowers for the person you're with

If you found this interesting you may also enjoy Ten things to do in Karuizawa as well as Ten things to do in Osaka. And if you're still looking for things to do in Tokyo, here's the original Ten things to do in Tokyo. I hope you enjoy Japan.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The day Kobe was razed to the ground

It was a year to the day since the Northridge earthquake. I was sitting in the office, a young, fresh faced manager, on what seemed liked a regular morning in Tokyo. My boss arrived and mentioned there seemed to have been an earthquake in the western city of Kobe and two people had been reported killed. Over the weekend there had been a brace of sizable earthquakes in Tokyo, one large enough to disable the gas supplies that are on automatic trip switches in modern buildings. And the morning carried on as normal. 

I was sent out to a clients office just before noon, a bank based in Kamiyacho, a financial suburb of the city. When I arrived the office was silent, everyone standing watching one of the many TV screens around the room. The Kobe earthquake had been so extreme it had destroyed the sensors alerting the country to the disaster. Only slowly was the information trickling out. The Korean Government had established an emergency team by 9.00AM when the Japanese PM was said to still be in bed. The Cabinet had yet to meet. Over 600 were now being reported to have died.

We all left work early that day. I went home and switched on the television, putting a tape into the recorder. For the next eight hours I watched as the city of Kobe burned; the full extent of the disaster only becoming clear as night fell and the scale of the fires could be seen. The highways had collapsed and the city of Kobe was burning to the ground as the gas mains ruptured. There were heroes and villains that day but today, twenty years on, it is just time to take a moment and reflect on what could have been, but wasn't. Over 6,000 died that day. I still have the tape.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Did not see this coming - just speechless - the singing Prime Minister

Ex-Presidents and Prime Ministers tend to either cut out a new life as an elder statesman or woman, open libraries or hit the highly lucrative corporate speaking road. Or alternatively they vanish into obscurity. Jimmy Carter is trying to teach the world to be a better place, Tony Blair is himself trying to persuade the Middle East to talk to each other and even Richard Nixon did reasonably well on the talk show circuit.

However, being an ex-Prime Minister in Japan comes with it's own unique set of problems. First of all, if each opened a library we'd be flooded with them by now. There have been sixteen since I first arrived just over twenty years ago and one of those has been in office twice and another held the role for a full six years. So it is a bit of a puppy mill as a profession. But mostly they fade into the background or take up appointments running the Olympics.

One though, Yukio Hatoyama, has taken post-presidency to a whole new level. Hatoyama was the architect of unseating the LDP from power for the first period reasonable time in several decades. He then proceeded on a rather controversial time in office before resigning after nine months. But I did not see this coming. Ladies and Gentlemen, your star of Waist Side Story, the former Prime Minister of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Exam week - when the entire youth of Japan stresses out

Each year the youth of Japan sit down for an exam that will decide their lives. The entire year will sit down together and they all complete the same test on the same day. Make it and you're into university, fail and it's the end as far as many will feel. The pressure is immense and parents have been building their children to this day for years sending them to cram school after regular school every night for three extra hours of tuition until the kids are physically and emotionally exhausted before returning home to complete their homework.

The system hasn't changed for years but once in to university it's almost impossible to flunk out. Several years of partying ensue occasionally interrupted by lectures. The system is pretty much universally loathed but as it's the only system, it's that or nothing. As a result the juku (cram) schools are, well, crammed with kids whose parents are competing with other parents as much as their children are competing with each other.

Juku extends from not just the children aiming for university but often as far down the age ladder as getting a child into the right kindergarten. The limitation on places means once one parent forces their child into the process the remainder feel obligated to provide their child an equal "opportunity". And the children stress out. The system should be modernised in reality. No one should be obligated to force their children to rote learn simply to beat another child to a place. A career should depend on skill and ability not the name of your school. But in the mean time, good luck to you all this weekend. Relax, life is more than a single exam.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Daikanyama - a hidden gem of Tokyo

Tokyo is an interesting city where there is much to do but not actually that much to see. The view of the Emperor's Palace is only the gate, the Imperial Hotel was a sight to see and then was knocked down to be replaced by a concrete monstrosity. But at least Tokyo Station has been renewed in fine fashion to its former glory. In fact it could be said the most interesting thing to see in Tokyo is Tokyo itself, especially at night.

However there are many small and fascinating districts. Roppongi, Ginza, Shibuya are well known outside the country but somewhere like Jiyugaoka remains fairly well hidden to the tourist train. My favourite though is Daikanyama nestled between the outskirts of Shibuya, Nakameguro and Ebisu. It has an air to it similar to SoHo or Wimbledon Village. You feel your somewhere different, somewhere not quite in Japan.

Recent years have seen significant redevelopment though as Japan renews itself every thirty years anyway, this is no surprise. The old KLM compound has been replaced by a luxury apartment complex and Eddie has left Tableaux but the boutiques and bars are as vibrant as ever. And then there's T-Site, a marvellous concept of book stores, sound equipment, Starbucks, restaurants and coffee lounges. And surprisingly, they really like dogs. I'm off for a walk.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Saying goodbye to a friend

It happens. You get the call and there is absolutely nothing you can do. Your friend has passed away, a wife has lost her husband, a daughter has lost her father. It happens. But that doesn't make it any better. You can but show you're respect and try to bring any form of comfort you can to the family. And so tonight we bury a friend. I'm hoping with many, many others there too.

A Japanese funeral is both intensely private and an open, public event. Last night the family and close friends will have stayed with the body until the time comes for the cremation. They will have sifted the ashes to find any remnants of bone and then carefully placed these in an urn. This evening we will all visit and pay our final respects, queuing in line as we each in turn say a prayer in front of  what is sure to be a smiling photograph. And going home we will sprinkle ourselves with salt so that no back luck can follow.

He was younger than me but flew to England to be at our wedding twenty years ago. And when he landed the first thing he asked was could I get him tickets for the Arsenal game the following day. We didn't manage that but Fulham was a descent compromise for someone who loved soccer and had never seen an English game before. And I like to think that that was him. Living every day the best he could. And when I finally pop my clogs, I hope they say the same of me.

Takeshi in better times walking off to the left, looking straight ahead

Monday, January 12, 2015

Take your camera, it's a magical day

Today is National Coming of Age Day. Anyone turning twenty in the past twelve months will be dressing up, attending official ceremonies to mark achievement of majority and then there will be a lot of partying undoubtedly without the parents present. Today is a day they have been looking forward to their entire lives. And they will celebrate in style.

So if you are in Japan today, grab your camera and head into town. This is a special day for these kids, the day when they officially become adults. Twenty is the legal age for drinking and now they no longer need to feel guilty even though it was their birthday that actually counted. By evening the streets of Shibuya will be filled with the giggling, slightly red faced youth of Japan.

The boys (men as of lunch of course) will don a black, slightly ill-fitting suit and join their friends feeling slightly awkward before entering the official venues. The girls though are a totally different story. They will spend the morning from the early hours preparing their kimono often covered with a winter wrap with warm, fur lined collar. At first they will join the ceremony and then, casually, walk around town with their friends. And they are a beautiful sight to see.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Whales, Politicians and a Free Press in Japan

Recently the Japanese whaling fleet left the western harbour of Shimonoseki for the Antarctic. Although the ships carried no harpoons and claimed to be pursuing peaceful research, it still aroused global criticism. The accusation being this is just a scouting trip for next year's hunt. Since the late 1980's Japan has insisted on "critical scientific research" that involved hunting, killing, storing and selling whales, claiming time and again there was no other way to obtain the "scientific data". And the stockpiles of blubber grew.

However, this post isn't about whaling (this one is though). In any healthy democracy the role of a free press is to hold our society up to the cold light of truth. The press has consistently supported the line that whaling is a cultural issue (though it only really began in the era of Elvis) but yesterday's sailing is a clear example of the hypocrisy of the industry. If it was critical to kill the whales yesterday then why isn't it critical today? And there wasn't a mention of it anywhere. 

You might think it had been pushed off the front pages by the horrendous barbarism in France and although this did receive an element of coverage, it came as the second story. Politically the press are controlled by the government through the kisha clubs where information is disseminated. Annoy the government and you're out without a story. But that doesn't really explain why yesterday's main discussion was about a tooth and a bit of plastic being found in a McNugget. Seriously, Japan would only benefit from a stronger, freer and arguably more mature national press. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

When you put your mind to it, practically anything is possible

2015 will see the opening of the latest jigsaw piece of the Shinakansen lines that connect the cities of Japan in a fast and efficient rail network. The new route will extend the Nagano line with Kanazawa allowing tourists from Tokyo to reach the renown gardens of Kenrokuen in the comfort of a near silent carriage with coffee served every now-and-then by polite staff wheeling their carts up and down the aisles.

The Shinkansen, first pulled out of Tokyo Station in October 1964 in time for the Tokyo Olympics. With it's air-sealed compartments and earthquake detection system that can bring it to a complete stop in ninety seconds if an earthquake is detected, it remains one of the worlds safest and most reliable rail system with zero passenger fatalities to date. The jaw dropping fact though is that, when the first trains rolled out, the entire project had only been approved by the government five years earlier in 1959. 

With dedicated tracks to be built and mountains to be bored through, the construction crews pulled off a spectacular feat of engineering. Within twenty years of the end of World War II, Japan had designed, developed, financed and created an entire new rail network, the likes of which had not been seen before. In comparison the UK will take seventeen years to build a high-speed network half the length of that first line, across open land with few hills let alone mountains and hasn't recently been flattened by war.   

A red moon rising over Tokyo

There's a moment of sheer brilliance in the recent movie "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" when Walter, played by Ben Stiller, catches up with the photographer he's been searching for. They are in the high mountains of Afghanistan and the photographer, Sean Penn, had been waiting for a mountain leopard to appear. As the beautiful animal emerges between the rocks, instead of taking the picture, Penn simply smiles. "Sometimes", he says, leaning back from his camera, "it's simply better to watch".

Last night I was having dinner at the Hacienda del Sol in Daikanyama, a small neighbourhood in Tokyo. Our table was by the window with a view in the direction of Roppongi and beyond that the lights of the northern perimeter of the city. And then, as we looked down from our ninth floor vantage, a brilliant red full moon rose between Sengokuyama and Tokyo Tower. And, as with the snow leopard, we all sat back and simply watched this breathtaking sight. Sorry, no picture but that left in the memory.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A really nice thing to do

The first few days of New Year are an interesting time in Japan. The family will have woken up and had breakfast together with the traditional mochi and a little sake then often there will be a visit to their ancestors resting place to say hello in a happy way and leave flowers. And then there will be a visit to shrine to wish for luck and health in the following twelve months.

Meiji Jingu in central Tokyo is a favourite shrine to visit at any time of the year and well worth an afternoons stroll in summer. But at New Year it becomes a little insane. Over a million people will visit within twenty four hours, each washing their hands as they enter and tying a paper wish to the branches of the trees before leaving via the secret exit to Harajuku station only open on these days of the year.

But some people will not be too well and unable to visit the shrine each year. They'll be in hospital and looked after by wonderful staff hoping to make things just a little easier for them. And at one near here the staff made a real shrine for the patients so even those confined to their beds could come along to pray. And that's a really nice thing to do.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

An alternative New Year's Day

By now the world is slowly waking up to 2015 or just about to get there. Hangovers will have been suffered or be in the process of creation. Wherever you are I hope you both enjoying and have enjoyed the close of one year and the beginning of the next. There's light snow in Tokyo and the TV new year quiz shows are in full swing.

If you're looking for something slightly alternative for the day and you're in the Tokyo area, one of the most interesting places to visit is the Gaijin Botchi, the Yokohama International Cemetery near Motomachi Station. I know it sounds strange to visit a grave yard at New Year but you've probably already exhausted all other options.

Three reasons to go there though. First, it's on the bluff overlooking Yokohama bay with stunning views all around. Second, it's actually a really interesting piece of history having been created to inter the remains of a young sailer from Commodore Perry's fleet that opened Japan in 1854. Third, the air in Tokyo and surrounding cities is now clear. The cars are gone and the pollution with them. And so Fuji has never looked better. And here's the view from the top. Happy New Year.