Saturday, February 28, 2015

Prince William of Daikanyama

The Japanese Royal Family has little chance to express itself. Although remaining fundamentally popular, their lives are controlled through the Imperial Household and their pubic personas are limited to the occasional poem and the odd birthday statement of thanks. That was until this week when Crown Prince Naruhito broke all protocols and spoke his mind directly to the press, making himself a hero to many as he challenged the direction current politics were taking. He then took a jog around the Palace.

But this week Prince William, second heir to the throne of the United Kingdom is on tour in Japan. And the crowds have gone wild. Today he visited Diakanyama, a small suburb of Tokyo and people started arriving four hours in advance. They stood in the freezing weather in hope of the chance to glimpse the future King of England. It was families, kids, old couples and young alike. And many brought their dogs, one dressed in a magnificent Union Jack outfit. And did I mention it was cold?

People are simply delighted, and somewhat amazed, at William's relaxed and friendly approachability. He walks and talks to the crowds, shaking hands and, something almost unheard of, smiles with them. As he got out of his Jaguar this morning the assembled throng surged forward for the chance to take their ultimate picture. And this afternoon he is leaving to visit Tohoku and see the devastation for himself. I'm assuming by helicopter, something he could actually fly himself. Japan has a new celebrity Royal. And he's not Japanese.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The adventures of a Tengu in Tokyo - Part 3/3...Could it work?

If you ever wondered how an international relationship would work when she spoke no English and he spoke no Japanese. Could it work?

They take the train back to Shibuya Station, everyone talking in full speed Japanese now the evening is coming to a close and the sake is taking full effect. Tengu can't follow anything of the conversation, nil, zero, even his friend is too engrossed in the group conversation to keep him included. After all, he'd been on the go-kon too. Tengu finds himself asking could it work? 

Simple things like how do you arrange a date on the phone when you can't speak to each other? Would they be able to talk or even be able to laugh together. How could he ask for a date, he needed his friend to help translate for even that simple conversation. And if she said yes, what then? But just as he thought he was maybe getting ahead of himself, Naomi waved goodbye to the group but before leaving grabbed his arm and wrote her number on his hand. 

Old fashioned style, no Facebook Friend request, a simple written phone number. And yes, the conversations were difficult, the translation App became the third person at the table every time they went to dinner. It took more handwork than either of them could have imagined but that piece of extra commitment, that extra effort eventually led them to understand. He didn't need to worry or wonder if they would ever laugh together. Communication isn't about understanding a language, it's about understanding each other.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The adventures of a Tengu in Tokyo - Part 2/3... Karaoke

If you ever wondered how an international relationship would work when she spoke no English and he spoke no Japanese. Karaoke.

Dinner is brought to an abrupt halt as the lights start to sway. "Jishin da!" someone quietly says, it's an earthquake, not uncommon in Japan but they always give pause for thought. And then it's off to the niijikai, the second party, and it is of course karaoke. His friend whispers to him "remember, sing the songs you know, not the songs you like." Good advice as it turns out. They all walk the short distance to Smash Hits in Hiroo, the girls a little distance ahead, swapping notes on how the dinner went. 

Tengu is watching as the girls seem to be teasing Naomi who playfully slaps them laughing. The guys looking at him smiling as they descend the stairs into the basement karaoke bar. The stage is filled with six guys singing a fine rendition 500 Miles, stomping in time to the wild applause of the rest of their party. Naomi appears next to him, she has the English language song book in one hand and the bowl of edamame, small green beans, in the other.

Not wanting to disappoint, though very conscious that his singing is nothing to write home about, he chooses a Beatles' song and waits for the call to the stage. Karaoke in Japan has much less to do with skill and much more to do with effort and Back In The USSR is the perfect vehicle for those short on vocal talent. The crowd go wild, Tengu had put his heart into it, no one cares that he couldn't carry a tune in the proverbial bucket and Naomi is smiling. It's time for the last train, they gather their coats and head for Shibuya Station. Crunch time.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The adventures of a Tengu in Tokyo - Part 1/3... Naomi

If you ever wondered how an international relationship would work when she spoke no English and he spoke no Japanese. Naomi. Hope you enjoy.

Shibuya crossing - central Tokyo at night
He's standing at Hachiko outside Shibuya Station in central Tokyo on a Saturday evening. It's Blade Runner country, massive screens blasting messages at the thousands of people who make the crossing every ninety seconds or so. Hachiko is the meeting place in Japan, the statue memorialising a long since passed, though much loved, dog, there are hundreds of people around waiting for their friends to show. And he's waiting on a friend who has invited him to a go-kon, a kind of group blind date. Now what could go wrong with that?

Ebisu Yokocho - packed with tiny bars and restaurants
The venue they've chosen is in Ebisu, one stop away on the Yamanote Line. It's called Ebisu Yokocho, roughly Ebisu Alley, though in this case it's a converted old office building packed with numerous tiny bars each serving their own speciality. Dinner is going to bring together eight people in all, four guys who are connected by his friend and four girls, connected by his girlfriend. Apart from that, no one knows anyone and, ominously, no one can speak English. And Tengu's Japanese is rubbish. Translation App in hand and silently mouthing "in for a penny, in for a pound" he squeezes in and takes his seat.

Okonomiyaki - just awesome
Food is the great leveller in Japan. No one simply goes for a beer, there will always be sustenance attached and the bar they've chosen specialises in okonomiyaki, a favourite of Western Japan but popular in the metropolis of Tokyo too. It's similar to a stuffed pancake adorned with shimmering fish flakes magically swaying in the heat. This gives him a chance to join the conversation, asking, although knowing full well, and in awful Japanese, what it is. And over the course of the dinner, involving a little beer followed by a little more sake Naomi explains. At 25 it's the first time she's ever spoken to a foreigner.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

An unexpected voice of reason

In 1945 MacArthur took the decision that the Emperor must stay. This held the country together and prevented a descent into chaos across both Japan and a significant part of Asia where the military remained as the only effective force of discipline. And so, unlike in Germany where there was a clean break, Japan was set on a different path. One that was largely addressed its past through collective amnesia and a broad lack of education. The alternative would be a direct criticism of the Emperor himself.

After seventy years though this past still remains as an ever present ghost, slightly out of view, something you can just catch in the corner of you eye but never to be discussed. And then the Prime Minister pays tribute to convicted war criminals, his advisors propose apartheid as a solution to immigration and academic institutions call for a re-writing of the country's history. The signs were beginning to suggest Japan was taking a major step to the right. 

And then something happened. Crown Prince Naruhito issued a statement that Japan should remember it's history "correctly". This wasn't in support of the revisionists but a direct shot across their bows. It was a stunning condemnation of the current political direction of the country, even more so that the Royal Family are considered to be above politics and personal statements are unheard of. Naruhito has just poured a massive bucket of water over every firebrand looking to fan the flames of nationalism. And it has to be said, nicely done sir.

Crown Prince Naruhito - a welcome voice

Monday, February 23, 2015

And the winner is...

A huge thank you to everyone who voted for TenguLife in the recent IXX15 awards. It didn't win but there is always next year. The winner was a Dutch blog about life in Ireland and I really wish I could read it but the amount of Dutch I know could fit in a frog's ear. However it did actually come in as the #1 ranked blog in Japan and that made me smile. There are some outstanding pieces of work out there and congratulations to everyone who was nominated. 

TenguLife is written to explain some of the curious aspects of life in Japan. When you land at Narita everything is just a little different. The "Welcome to Japan" sign actually says "Welcome home" in Japanese. The country is incredibly friendly but green traffic lights are called blue and when you leave the office in the evening people will thank you for being tired. 

So if you have a question about Japan or what life is like on the ground, feel free to ask. I always love to emphasise how important it is to leave the concept that everything is "just plain wrong" at the door. Japan is different, and sometimes a little frustrating, (and sometimes very frustrating), but it's not wrong, it's just different. I hope you enjoy reading more. Let's see how we do next year...

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Shinkansen, the only way to travel

Tokyo Station is a beautiful grand old building defined by the traditions of late Victorian England and wouldn't look out of place in London. It is just emerging from under the covers of what seems to have been a decades long refurbishment and is, to be honest, looking spectacular for it. Walking through the north entrance hall of the Marunouchi gate this morning, which is uncovered for the first time I can remember, I was surprised to see a beautifully ornate domed ceiling, decorated with alabaster doves at the foot of each buttress.

The only problem was that the rest of Tokyo had decided to use Tokyo Station this morning too. As far as I could see there were ski-suits and gear bags occupying every square foot of the hallways of the building. Every teenager in Japan would appear to have decided to go skiing with their friends this weekend. Edging through the crowd I finally made my way to the entrance for the Nagano Shinkansen only to find it appears to have moved. Where the gates used to be there is now the ticket desk and where the main ticket desk used to be is now a plasterboard wall. And did I mention that every teenager in Japan had decided to go skiing this weekend.

Having bought my ticket and with a few minutes to spare I made it to the train. And here I am, sitting in a seat which is reasonably comparable to business class on a mid-haul flight. My lap top is plugged in and charging as is the phone, and my seat is gently reclined using the electronic controls. The teenagers are all off in the cheaper, unreserved carriages so suddenly the ski poles have disappeared and I can sit and relax for half an hour and wait for the food trolley to arrive. Travelling can be stressful at the best of times but if your worst problem is having to wait for your morning coffee, then it’s really not that bad. And someone has just texted to say it’s on its way.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A tsunami warning in Tohoku

At 8.06 this morning, northern Japan was shaken by an M6.9 earthquake centred off the Sanriku coast of Tohoku, northeast Japan. Although barely perceptible in Tokyo it was intense closer in and triggered a tsunami warning which appeared on all television and satellite stations within minutes. The city of Ofunato issued an evacuation order for the port area which remained in place for over two hours. Thankfully the wave came in at only a few centimetres, not enough to cause any damage.  

A magnitude 6.9 is a serious earthquake, enough to slam doors 200km away; by comparison the 1995 Kobe event was an M6.8 and that razed a city being closer in. Mild by comparison, here is an M6.6 I filmed on my iPhone sitting in my office in Tokyo about 250km from a quake back in 2011 (we had become a little blasé about aftershocks by then). Remembering that the scale is logarithmic, this morning's rattle will have been significantly stronger than this in Iwate, the closest prefecture to the epicentre. 

You can see the fours and threes being reported across the map below. Rather than representing magnitude (M), essentially a measure of the energy released by an earthquake, the Japanese system measures the local intensity of the temblor, in this case by prefecture. Effectively it tells you the strength of the shaking at any particular location and is recorded on a scale of 1 - 7. Luckily this morning's quake was way offshore, reducing the impact as the shockwaves spread and dissipated, but it still won't have been too pleasant. Hope you guys are OK up there today.

A TV screenshot thirty minutes after this mornings M6.9 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Breaking the chains of history

1985: West German President Richard von Weizsacker
All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. The young and old generations must and can help each other to understand why it is vital to keep alive the memories. It is not a case of coming to terms with the past. That is not possible. It cannot be subsequently modified or made undone. However, anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present.

2013: Barak Obama speaks at the Memorial Service to Nelson Mandela
He taught millions to find that truth within themselves. It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth.

2015: Ayako Sono – Former advisor to the Prime Minister of Japan
We must make a system which strictly keeps immigrants in their legal status. It may seem contradictory but it’s almost an impossible task to understand foreigners if you share living space with them. Humans can work, research and exercise together. But it is better to keep the living space separate.

I'm unable to find a Japanese person who agrees with Sono-san. I'm so glad to say.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Last Chance to Vote

A huge thank you to all who have voted for this blog over the last ten days. I really appreciate the support for each click there has been. When the vote opened I was in LA, learning to use Uber and meeting many incredible people so admittedly was a little late in kicking off. But if you enjoy reading this and haven't had chance to vote yet, please click here (or the big "Vote" button to the right). Voting aside, I'm just glad you enjoy reading it. 

Thank you!


Saturday, February 14, 2015

My Japanese Valentine

Sometimes you just get lucky. You meet that person and you get to spend the rest of your life with them. Recently I met a couple who re-new their vows every year as a reminder of how much they love each other. They choose a different location, different country or different culture, but each time they're reminding themselves how lucky they are. And Valentine's Day would be the day to say it. Except of course, in Japan, where it's just a little bit different.

On Valentine's Day, February 14, every girl in the country has the opportunity of sending the boy of her dreams a card or a gift, sometimes anonymously and sometimes not, but it will remain unrequited, at least for some time. Valentine's day is a one way street in Japan, it's up to the girls rather than the boys, but that's not quite the end of the story. On March 14 the order of the universe is restored and it's the boys turn to be romantic. That day is known as "White Day", the day the boys have to get their act together.

And so on Valentine's Day the flowers will be sent, chocolates eaten, and probably a bottle of wine or two will be opened. Nice dinners at romantic locations will be organised and a million Valentine's cards will be written and sent in the hope of return in a month's time. And the boys? Well, they'll be keeping a record of who they received them from and developing the plan of who to return them to on March 14. And how...

I would for you

Friday, February 13, 2015

The un-armed forces of Japan

I usually avoid controversial issues by choice in this blog. But just sometimes... There is much debate in the press and political circles in Japan at present in relation to amending the pacifistic constitution foisted on the country at the end of the war by the MacArthur administration. The concern is that its limitations include the restriction to protect itself or its allies in the event of war and given the changes brought on by the modern world, this is seen as a critical weakness. But this is only half the story. 

Firstly, the government at the time had several attempts at writing a constitution but given the multiple drafts insistence on the Emperor effectively ruling by divine right and women being more or less subservient to men, these weren't seen as appropriate. Hence the MacArthur draft based on the British constitutional democracy format. The second issue here is that the document contains the following Article considered to be the nexus of the issue:

A worthy objective indeed. The only problem is that Japan currently has one of the largest military budgets in the world and, for example, whereas the UK has five destroyer class warships, Japan already has twenty six. An outstanding example of the Barbara Streisand effect if ever there was one; the more you try to hide something, the more that people will look. The government could have its cake and eat it by adopting change and being open about it. Currently though it's arguing for an empty plate. Make the chance, be open and honest about it and less tidy up this small $50bn constitutional breach once and for all.

The unarmed forces of Japan

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The sorrow of Fukushima

March 11, 2011 saw one histories greatest earthquakes. I use the word "great" here in the sense of scale; there was nothing good that actually came from it. The devastation it unleashed on the Tohoku coast line will scar the region for decades to come with many areas unlikely to ever be rebuilt or recover as the younger generation looks to the cities further south to start a new life. Many communities were declining before the events that day, now they're in free fall.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant remains a catastrophe area with exclusion zones still in place. Decommissioning will not begin for many years to come and the technology required doesn't exit for much of the process. But the meltdown at Fukushima caused a secondary issue, it became a "distraction" to the real and present crisis. The meltdown and radiation released forced the relocation of many thousands of people but the tsunami forced the relocation of hundreds of thousands when nearly twenty thousand died in the tsunami within minutes of the earthquake. 

Over a million buildings were partially or totally destroyed by the combined effects of the temblor and black wall of water and in many areas the reconstruction process has hardly begun. And the world and Japan remain focussed on the one issue, Fukushima. The sense of urgency has left the country though 170,000 still live in temporary housing. The Mayor of Rikuzentakata has issued an open invitation for anyone to visit and maybe a little gaiatsu, external pressure, might help things along. To paraphrase The Economist, "what will all the foreigners think when they come for the Olympics?".  It's been four years, that should have been enough.

Just run. Run uphill. Don't worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. Uphill. 
So run! Run uphill!

The International eXchange and eXperience Top Blogs of 2015 - if you enjoy stories of Japan!

The IXX15 is an annual competition for the top blogs written outside the bloggers home country seeking to introduce life in their host country. From the UK I arrived in Japan in 1991 and haven't quite got around to leaving yet and started writing this blog to explain some of the more interesting (and sometimes just plain peculiar) aspects of the country and the culture. 

Nominated by readers, it's an open vote for all and so if you do enjoy reading it and would like to vote please feel free. Click the link, select TenguLife and then simply hit the vote button. And you'll have my sincere and unreserved gratitude! And a promise to continue writing about the stranger aspects of Japan from whales to traffic lights to walking backwards through the streets of Tokyo to saying hello to the neighbours and a dilemma in the snow. And where John Lennon enjoyed tea in the forests of Karuizawa!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The mythical creatures of Japan

Japan is really good at horror. I mean really good. From movies to mythical creatures there's something to scare everyone. Even thunder storms have a life of their own with young children trained to run for cover, hand over belly button, in case the lightening comes down and steals it. Arguably that may be good training for the kids though.

Many are chimera like the tsuchigomu, part tiger, part spider and part demon, they feed on weary and unwary travellers. And the tengu, from where this blog takes its name are part human, part bird. There are dragons aplenty too, giant skeletons that bite your head off and more demons that I have space to mention. However, a number of the legends curiously relate to people's legs in one way or another.

You can always tell a ghost by it's long neck and lack of feet. Kamaitachi are triplets that like to steel your legs and Teke Teke is a young girl who also has a penchant for cutting peoples legs off, though she tends to leave them behind. But best of all are the katakirauwa, little piglet ghosts. You can tell they're ghosts because they have one ear and no shadow and whatever you do don't let them run between your legs or they'll have your soul.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Email makes the world a smaller place

I first arrived in Japan something over twenty years ago. Bright eyed and bushy tailed I transferred to the Japan branch of my London based company, not knowing in any shape or form what was to come. The life of an expat can be curious, your friends come and go in a matter of months and the face to face, beer to beer, relationships can be a short term matter and sometimes you begin to prefer not to make friends than make them and lose them again.

And then someone sends you a message. Someone you met over twenty years ago. Just a short note to say thank you for something I did, something I said, all that time ago. And it makes you sit and think that the friends you made, how important they are, that they never really left. They're just somewhere else. And what does an ocean and half a continent mean at the end of it, your friends are still your friends. And an email can make the world a very small place. And I'm grateful for the friends I have wherever they may be.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The meaning of "maru"

Kyotoku-Maru is better known as the tsunami ship having been lifted by the great waves of March 11, 2011 and deposited somewhat unceremoniously about half a mile inland. The Toya-Maru was a ferry between Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, and Honshu the main island. It went down in a typhoon in 1954 with the souls of over one thousand onboard. And the Ehime-Maru suffered the ultimate fate as it was accidentally struck by a US submarine in 2001. Mori-san, the then Prime Minister, electing to continue his game of golf when he received the news surprised no one at the time.

Unlike the traditions of many countries, Japanese ships are never named after individuals. Non-milliatary vessels most commonly carry the suffix "-Maru" in their title; a tradition dating back to the pre-shogunate era of the sixteenth century when Toyotomi Hideyoshi called his flagship The Nippon Maru. The nomenclature was approved by the Emperor and stuck, remaining in place to this day. And although the kanji for the word "-maru" depicts a circle it can be seen more to represent the completion of a journey, the safe return to port.

And so Japanese merchant ships carry the designation maru to represent good luck and the life giving sanctuary from the sea brought by the vessel. Though how a modern trawler can be sunk by a modern submarine practicing an emergency surfacing that was performed for the pleasure of joy riders is simply beyond understanding. Sometimes the -maru isn't quite enough to ensure the return to port but for most it brings them home safely. And that's why they are designated with the kanji for a circle.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Tengu Life

So what exactly is a Tengu? An interesting question that in a way answers itself. The Tengu is a mythical Japanese creature, inquisitive in nature and often somewhat mischievous. Half man, half bird, they live in the labyrinth of tunnels under Mt Fuji, coming out when they feel there is need to protect the mountains and forests of Japan.

TenguLife is written to raise thoughts about interesting aspects of Japan, the culture, its pure awesomeness (!) and sometimes its shortcomings. Although never attempting to answer questions in full, the aim is to introduce ideas for readers to research further. Occasionally someone drops me a question and I learn something new in the process which is always a pleasure.

Having written about John Lennon in the mountains of Japan, Uber, why traffic lights are green but everyone calls them blue, what to do in an earthquake and the oldest book on the planet, it is an interesting process. And someone has very kindly nominated it for a global award as an introduction to life in Japan. If you enjoy this blog, please feel free to vote for it. The finishing line is 16 February. Scroll down until you see TenguLife, click and vote. Please have a good race.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Uber - the greatest thing since sliced bread, except in Japan....

Having used Uber for the first time this week I'm now addicted. For those yet to have the pleasure, it's a taxi service controlled from your iPhone. The App is simple and payment for rides is made by credit card or PayPal, the details of which you input once and once only. As a result the service is cashless and rules of the game include no tipping. Perfect. And a great emergency system if you lose your wallet.

The system tells the driver where you are and you watch on your phone as the car approaches. On travels in America at the moment, I've used it a dozen times and barely had to wait more than two or three minutes for a meticulously clean car to arrive with the App already telling me in advance the model, registration and drivers name as well. And on top of all that, it's about half the price of a regular taxi. I really can't see any reason to use any other service ever again.

Except in Japan that is. Uber arrived in 2014 and to navigate the morass of regulations designed to restrict competition, they hopped on board with the taxi companies themselves. The cost is not only the regular taxi fare but includes an additional pick-up fee. And if you want a larger vehicle there's an additional $5 fee for the pleasure. In response, the president of Uber Japan has been reported as saying this approach is a 'win - win' solution for all. Not completely sure which planet that is on.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A little risk taking would be a good thing for Japan

Shoji Nakamura is an interesting character. Jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the development of the blue LED laser he left Japan for the U.S. to follow his research in an environment he saw as more encouraging of creativity. And recently he encouraged fellow Japanese of all walks of life to take an opportunity to live outside Japan saying you can learn much about your home country by looking in from the outside instead of from the inside.

The sentiment is a relatively rare statement as it could be interpreted as a criticism of his own country however it is certainly not a unique view raised by Japanese expatriates. Over the years I've often listened to the frustrations of the native community on the difficulties and unnecessary complications of life in Japan compared to the relative simplicity of life overseas. It's an opinion I've heard many time over many years.

And a few nights ago the point was raised again. I was introduced to wonderful Japanese couple who make Japan themed television but are based in America. Their most successful program was actually syndicated in over 100 countries around the world. Frustratingly for them it has been refused time and again in Japan itself on the basis Japanese people wouldn't want to see it. Given the archaic state of television with the mix of game shows and aging 'talentos' unchanged from twenty five years ago, a little risk taking might just be something of a refreshing breeze. Nakamura-san's point is simply to  at least give change a try. You never know, people might just like it.