In the meantime feel free to check out my books if you'd like more stories of Japan!
Monday, June 22, 2015
Saigoyama Park, at the top of the hills separating Shibuya from Meguro in central Tokyo, is a delightful little area where people spend weekends hanging out on the grass having a beer with their friends. The name comes from the historical owner, Saigo Tsugumichi, a Marquis, Admiral and little brother of The Last Samurai, the real one played by Ken Watanabe and not the one played by Tom Cruise. His house stood on the top of the hill (yama meaning "hill" in Japanese) overlooking the bluff. Before the concrete towers of developing Tokyo stood in the way, his view would have been a panorama from The Pacific to Mt Fuji, 100km west of the capital.
The wooden building has long since been relocated to Meiji Mura near Nagoya to be preserved for the nation but Saigo was also the first man in Japan to own a race horse though whether this was relocated too remains a mystery. The park is now planted with sakura (cherry trees) that flower for a few days each year at the end of March bringing the crowds. But outside the chaotic hanami party times you can often see a old man there with a guitar. He's not the greatest player in the world but he has chosen one of the most peaceful places to learn. And that makes him awesome.
Friday, June 19, 2015
It's actually quite interesting that there have been twenty two Japanese winners of the Nobel Prize (ten of which were in physics by the way, a subject close to my heart). Recently an OECD survey (the world's club of rich countries) pronounced Singapore as the best education structure in relation to science and engineering. Asian countries rounded out the top five with Japan coming in with the fifth place. The USA and UK came in at the low twenties, something to raise the question about the benefits of an Anglo-Saxon education. But wait.
Japan may have produced twenty two Nobel Laureates but the UK has raised 115. And America trumps that in spades with 353 (as of 2015). Given population variances, Japan is running at roughly 20% of the rate of global recognition of the UK or the USA. And it doesn't end there. A quick online search of entrepreneurship also suggests a similar pattern. Japan may be #5 in education but it is also close to #30 in business development. The education doesn't appear to be producing the desired effect. Children simply don't know how to ask a question.
I once arranged for a visit by Grade 5 students from and internationals school in Tokyo to visit a store of a fairly famous sports brand. We spent an hour discussing why particular products were grouped together and why specific graphics were being used in specific places. The kids had great ideas and clearly understood the basic principles they were seeing. The interesting moment came when the students had left and the store manager approached me. He didn't understand why I'd been asking questions. When he was at school the teachers would just tell him the answer. Which he would write down and learn. And there we have 22 vs 115 vs 353. Ask the question. Any question. Make them think.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
This is a story I've thought about writing many times. And haven't been able to with the respect for the people involved. The kamikaze, the Divine Wind, that had protected Japan from the Mongol invasions of history has different perspectives but hopefully ones that can be left in the past. Each time I've started the explanation, the loss of life, the mothers sacrificing their children to allow their fathers to be selected, those on the front line defending their ships, it's been something I couldn't bring together. But everyone should read the story below. Thank you Yuri Kageyama for the amazing article that follows. All rights Yuri Kageyama.
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
It's raining. I mean seriously raining. A short time ago it was a clear, warm day but the light was already changing. When it starts to turn a distinct muddy yellow colour you know the heavens are about to open. The lightening strikes are sudden and close in the centre of the city and the sky will blackout completely if the storm continues to strengthen. The interesting thing though is that a few miles away it may well be picnic weather, not a cloud in the sky. Tokyo is a climate control centre unto itself.
The city is, in effect, one massive concrete coating on the landscape. The heat island effect it creates means that when it's storm weather in Shibuya, it may be clear a few miles away. The inverse is also true. When it's snowing in the suburbs, it can be cool and dry in downtown. A few kilometres can make all the difference, especially when it comes to flood warning. The old river courses having long since been cement lined, deepened and narrowed, can soon swell to the street level. Announcements are sometimes made over the local Tannoy system, telling people to stay clear.
Rain storms can bring several centimetres of rain in a matter of hours. If the weather looks like becoming extreme I'll put a rain gauge outside and it's not uncommon to see four or five inches in a day. On this scale though rain can cause flooding when the run off is now so limited compared to the past. And the question often arises, when an evacuation warning is issued, where do you go in a city that is under a deluge, surely everywhere is wet? The answer is simple. Evacuate up.
|The vast labyrinth of Tokyo's underground flood defences|
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Tokyo is gearing up for its next great sporting event, the 2020 Olympics. People are talking about it around town. Whether for, or against, everyone seems to have an opinion. The stadium is causing controversy, but complaining about cost and design after winning the bid seems a little unsporting. The latest reports are that it actually won't be complete on time for the Opening Ceremony. The roof is said to be the latest casualty and an element of the seating many be temporary. It doesn't take a genius to see where this is going; the city is getting a smaller stadium.
But that stadium is important. In 2002 not a single game was played in the capital city of the host nation. It will be a symbol of Japan for not just 2020, but for the next fifty years. In 2050, children will be able to walk by it and say "my grandfather built that." The arguments that it is disrupting the natural surroundings don't carry too much weight either. I walk the area regularly and, apart from the other stadiums around it, there are railway tracks and a feeder road to the highway system. Time to create something to be proud of.
However this is forgetting something important. Very important. In 2019 the same stadium is due to host the final of the Rugby World Cup. Even if it's not your sport, it's the second most popular event on the planet after the Football World Cup. The Olympics come in third. The word on the street in Tokyo though is that things aren't well in the RWC camp. In fact, it's being suggested the stadium is the least of their problems. This is a global event. Let's hope in 2050 children will also be able to say "my grandfather played in that."
Monday, June 15, 2015
The problem about living in a foreign language is interesting and a little challenging at times. However, if you're an English reader then you can pretty much already read, though not necessarily understand, French, Spanish, Italian, German etc. And if you can read it then you can have a good go at translating it. But if you can't read it in the first place you're kind of stuck, and this is the issue with Japanese (though not if you read Chinese, then you have a good starting point).
Kanji, one of the three written Japanese alphabets, is based on pictograms and ideograms. Yes, once you know that the two symbols represent a man sitting under a tree and therefore are equal to taking a vacation, it can become easier to understand. But that man could have been taking a siesta or, indeed, planting a tree. The multiple pronunciations add the interesting effect that people may actually understand the meaning but cannot read it out loud. Always a fun challenge for your Japanese friends to ask them to read a newspaper aloud article and see how long there is before an argument.
There are actually ways of translating kanji even if you can't read it. The core elements are slightly more standard than would appear at first sight and once you recognise these radicals there are dictionaries to help look them up. There's also the approach of counting the strokes and then searching by count, though this can be someone long winded. But when I went to change my phone at SoftBank on Saturday, I was sort of relieved to find they now have a dedicated English service, at least in Shibuya, central Tokyo. Life just got a little bit easier. I'm a happy person!
Friday, June 12, 2015
The pyramids were big. Seriously big. Once complete, The Great Pyramid of Giza, at nearly 150m, was the tallest building on the planet for the next 3,800 years until the stone masons at Lincoln Cathedral, England, took up the challenge. And in the world of wooden structures, nothing compared to the original Great Buddha Hall in Nara, western Japan, for over a thousand years. Built to contain a giant statue of Buddha, the building also acted as the local monks administrations office and the grounds contained pagoda reaching nearly 100m to the skies, giving the pyramids a run for their money.
The construction of the Buddha required donations from over two and half million people. Following a series of natural disasters, civil unrest, failed harvests and even an outbreak of small pox, the Emperor decreed it to be the duty of all citizens of the region to contribute to the monolithic hall and the 15m bronze Buddha itself, to pacify the deities. Harsh in a starving rural environment but probably better than offering up your first born as required elsewhere not too long before.
And so the Great Hall was constructed, the Buddha cast and the local deer population became recognised as the messengers of the gods. And the Emperor had nearly bankrupted the country in the process, something many would see as potentially foolhardy. But not if your objective was to pacify your empire and bankrupt your enemies. In fact it was a highly effective strategy. And the hall stood as the largest wooden structure in the world, with small interruptions for fire, until surpassed by the Odate Jukai Dome in Akita, north west Japan. However, rather than housing a giant buddha, this has a slightly more utilitarian function. It protects the local baseball pitch from the local inclement weather.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
Tonight Japan plays Iraq in a friendly soccer game at the Yokohama Stadium, thirty minutes out of Tokyo. In 2002 the stadium hosted the World Cup Final where Brazil put a very lucky Germany to the sword. Interestingly it was also the venue for Japan to mark its first ever win in the World Cup, beating Russia 1-0 a few weeks earlier. That game set the highest television viewing figures since the 1964 Olympics. It was probably one of the few times in history that Akebono, the sumo Grand Champion, and Kimu Taku, the heart-throb singer from SMAP, wrestled each other for seat space as they sat to watch the game. Those were good times.....
Tonight will also mark the rather sad continued exile of the Iraq team as it is forced to play their games in away stadiums. It's been nearly three decades since the team could play at home. Players have been born, grown up, played for their country and retired, all in that time. But tonight at least, the fans around the world of both the Japanese and Iraqi teams will be able to hear the commentary in English as well as their mother tongue. And it's all down to NHK which has taken the gamble (for which they should be applauded) to retain a foreign commentator. Actually, he's a Japan based, English, Spanish, Japanese speaking, successful music producer who also happens to have a life long passion for football, going by the name of JJ.
The commentary has been available in English for Japan's home games for the last few months and the idea is outstanding, addressing one of the basic problems of the Japanese language. Almost no one outside Japan speaks it. There's just one more step for NHK to make. Please, please, please make the broadcasts available in English, in Japan. Currently it's only available overseas. Seriously, where are the most non-Japanese speaking fans sitting watching the games? It's not London... Gambare Nippon!
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
On New Year's Day, 1946, the Emperor Showa, or Hirohito as the man himself was known, issued an official "clarification" of whether he was a divine entity or not. The announcement quite deliberately made reference to the Five Oath's Charter of 1868 which suggested this issue had already been settled before the Allies arrived, so why all the fuss? The problem was that the later Meiji Constitution of 1889 clearly reflected the Shinto doctrine that the Emperor ruled through his divine power, the roots of which were the belief that the Imperial Family were descendants of the Sun God, Amaterasu. And this was effectively the point; was he a god, beholden to no-one, or not?
Japan is comfortable to live with uncertainty and contradiction and in this instance had elected, post war, to adopt essentially a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, somewhat to the frustration of MacArthur. He was looking for a clear statement in English that the man was simply mortal; none of this confusing god stuff. And that is exactly what he got, a clear statement, in English, with the Emperor renouncing his divinity once and for all. But there was one caveat. Making his announcement, Hirohito had not spoken in English, he'd spoken in Japanese.
The Emperor Showa himself strongly believed that, as a direct heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, he was a physical embodiment of the divine. However, MacArthur wanted to reposition him as a Head of State, a constitutional representation of the nation, rather than a deity, un-answerable to the people. So he needed this statement but the statement had been crafted to be deliberately vague. Hirohito had clearly said that he was not the incarnation of a god. But in Japanese that didn't mean he couldn't still actually be a living god. And he didn't make any reference to that.
Saturday, June 6, 2015
Nestled at the northern end of the grounds of the Imperial Palace within Kitanomaru Park, the hexagonal building, which was designed and constructed some fifty years ago, wouldn't suffer excessively from something of an overhaul. Access is laborious due to the crowds, parking essentially non-existent, and a modern high school would give it a good run for its money when comparing the interior facilities. Indeed, the Super Arena in Saitama City north of Tokyo is actually better and easier to get to from Tokyo Station and that is within hailing distance. But there is something a little magical about seeing an act live at the Budokan.
The Beatles were the first rock band to play live there back in 1966, causing something of a scandal as the hall was considered by many to be almost sacrosanct. And then, after the Beatles, pretty much everyone came, something over eighty of whom released their own live recordings. Clapton has essentially set up home there when he's not actually at the Royal Albert Hall and McCartney recently charged $20, the same price he did for the original shows all those years ago (though balancing it out with $1,000 for ring side seating). So who did play four nights at the Budokan? Led Zeppelin of course. And I missed them all. By quite a long time.
Friday, June 5, 2015
Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu isn't a name that springs to mind when thinking about the giants of Japanese politics. But he didn't do too badly. A lawyer by training he was a career diplomat before becoming a politician in the post war years. He resolved disagreements with Russia, which then repaid the favour by having him tried and convicted at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals in 1946. This was in spite of representations by senior American diplomats, and indeed, the Chief Prosecutor, Joseph Keenan himself, and he was to spend his time until 1950 behind bars for his deeds.
He never became Prime Minister although he did form and lead a small, and not very successful, party in the mid-1950's. He was Ambassador to both UK and the Soviet Union before the war and was a rare voice speaking out against the rise of the military command structure in the 1930's for which he was sidelined during the period of the conflict. The press referred to him as "Shiggy" as he argued, unsuccessfully, against the Tri-partitie Pact, something he saw as an ill-considered step on the inevitable road to war.
He didn't become a movie star, wasn't rich and in 1957 died quietly at his home in Yugawara, an hour's drive along the coast from Tokyo. Over all he didn't live a very exciting life apart from two events that mark him out in history. Firstly, he was the ranking diplomat at the United Nations where he represented Japan in its application for membership. But the second reason he'll be remembered is that he was the little man in a top hat and glasses, walking with a limp, resting on a cane, who boarded the USS Missouri 2 September 1945 and signed the Japanese surrender. And that's probably something he could tell the grandchildren about.
Thursday, June 4, 2015
You always know there is something a little interesting about a person when their main Wikipedia page has a link to a separate Wikipedia page to list their life time achievement and given honours. And this weeks topic of conversation, Mr Sepp Blatter, happens to be the proud owner of one. Twenty four honours from different countries plus six separate doctorates and honorary citizenship of East Timor (and no, I don't know if they have an extradition treaty). And the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun was bestowed upon him by Japan.
The awards ceremony, and very nice associated dinner, was attended by yours truly, and the Prime Minister of the time, Yukio Hatoyama, and a Princess (who was a charming lady with perfect English by the way, and does a significant amount in her own right to promote sports in Japan). The latter two I didn't know would attend but got an inkling something was happening when the hotel concierge opened my taxi door and greeted me by name. Not bad considering how many people were there. And before you ask, I was a last minute stand-in, sadly neither famous nor important.
There are many hard working and highly dedicated people committed to spreading the word of football across Asia. It is the beautiful game and it does bring people together whether in professional competition or on the school playing field. And one of them is actually speaking sense. Kozo Tashima (also an excellent English speaker) is making that rare thing for Japan. A well crafted global statement. His point "if he's innocent he should stay, if he's guilty then he should go today". Nicely said Tashima-san, very nicely said.
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
A recent article in The Economist asked the interesting question "which was the best?". The question related to the evolution of music over the last fifty years and the choice was (somewhat lightheartedly) between The Beatles and The Stones. The conclusion was that only a wombat would vote for The Beatles, The Stones clearly being the greatest band of all time. Except maybe when Mick Taylor was playing but that's a different discussion. And then an interesting letter was printed in a subsequent edition, a letter from a certain Reverend Neil Young (not that Neil Young, but it would have been good). He pointed out the answer is actually much simpler, The Who were clearly the best band of all time. A good call. Though the real answer is clearly Led Zeppelin. Or Pink Floyd.
So having been lucky enough to have seen The Who, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney (Ringo Starr, when asked, once said "The Beatles won't re-unite whilst John Lennon is dead" so that one is sadly out) I've been able to have a good chance to compare the options. The question for me though is, having seen some of the greatest performers of all time, how come I've never actually been to a concert by a Japanese band? The closest I've come is the warm up act to a World Cup game in 2010 when Funky Monkey Babies did a fine job of rocking the crowd. Great name by the way. But the question always comes back to why there are so few internationally successful Japanese bands. In fact, it's fairly close to nil. OK, two. Well, one.
Off the top of my head I can think of Yellow Magic Orchestra and Sylvian & Sakamoto, however, as Ryuichi Sakamoto was in both of those it's a little questionable whether this counts as one or two. I also remember a trio from the 1990's but can't recall the name. K-Pop (Korean pop music) is phenomenally popular in Japan (and given Psy breaking the two billion YouTube views, popular globally too) but even SMAP (and that I need to explain who SMAP are somewhat illustrates my point here) struggles beyond the shores of Japan. And as the demographic is pretty much against the concept of youth, it's not going to be a long time before your average J-Pop fan is in their fifties. But who am I to talk. Simon and Garfunkel at the Dome were awesome. And Clapton at the Budokan. And Green Day at the Saitama Arena. And The Police, but not sure where I saw those guys.
|Actually, these guys were pretty good too...|
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
Before bullet trains and elevated highways, in fact before asphalt and motor cars, Japan was linked by a series of five super-highways constructed, or at least, extended, throughout the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603 ~ 1868). This was primarily a time of peace in Japan and, whilst the shogun ruled his feudal lands with an iron hand, he also disarmed the country, demonstrating it is possible to remove all those weapons after all. Travel, although controlled, was allowed to facilitate both pilgrimage as well as trade and the Tokaido, the East Sea Road, was the quickest route between Tokyo, the political capital of the shogun, and Kyoto, the spiritual residence of the Emperor.
Today people no longer walk the Tokaido. Indeed, twenty years ago my colleagues barely knew it's history, laughing when I suggested that Route 15 was once a main artery to old Japan. But if you walk the old roads, you will find these little parts of history. Near here was the original British compound, sword strikes still visible, as well as the resting site of the souls of the 47 ronin of Senkakuji. However, that's another story. And on the lower right you'll find the the Takanawa Prince Hotel. It was a long time ago but once I used to live there. But that was before there was a gate. Though after the Tokaido.