Monday, August 31, 2015

Covering every inch of real estate - a very Japanese approach

In Japan, people like detail. It's an interesting contrast with a more western style of thinking where the approach will to be to paint a broad picture first and follow with the detail later. In Japan, and this is admittedly a generalisation, a tree would be explained from the leaves first and only at the end of the discussion would you hear that it's standing over 200ft tall. You need a good memory to live in Japan as it may take a while before the point of a conversation becomes clear.

This often leads to an interesting discussion when making formal presentations. Western style would be to have minimal information on the slide, three lines of text for example, and then talk through the issue. The Japanese equivalent would be to have every inch of real estate covered with text, diagrams and images. There's nothing wrong with either version, it's simply a matter of tailoring to the audience. Web sites are an good example of this and it's impressive how much information a Japanese web-designer can fit onto the front page.

A Japanese friend and I were once at a conference and both of us were presenting. We've both written and publish books and, during the introductions, the organisers showed these on the screen. It created an interesting discussion later in the evening on exactly this point. My friend's book had a significant amount of detail on the cover and I had a picture of a guy with a sword and a Japanese lady standing next to him. He laughed and remarked that maybe he could have worked on simplifying his. But he also pointed out that maybe I could have told him what my book was about.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Yoyogi Park, An Olympics, Pizza and Rock 'n' Roll

Yoyogi Park is an oasis of green, today in the very centre of Tokyo. On a Sunday afternoon you'll find it heaving with families on picnics, rollerbladers enjoying the inner circle, dads teaching their kids to ride a bicycle and rock'n'roll bands practicing for their future fame and glory. You can even find rocker-billies, straight faced, strutting their stuff around an antiquated music machine. It's an enjoyable place to go but watch out for the frisbees and errant kite-fliers.

It wasn't always that way; the park of today being the result of post 1964 Olympics redevelopment. Originally open ground on the periphery of the growing city, by the early 1900s it had been developed into a military parade ground large enough to see Japan's first powered flight take off in 1910. After the war it was appropriated by the American forces and developed into a vast gated housing complex for US personnel covering some ten hectares known as Washington Heights. 

Entrepreneurial young Japanese took the opportunity to open pizza parlours by the gates though by the early 1960s the houses were becoming the Olympic Village and construction began on the National Gym and the NHK Broadcasting Centre. The late 1960's saw the eventual closure and clearance of Washington Heights and the redevelopment into today's open grasslands and shady pathways. But not before the foundation there of Japan's first boyband, going by the name of Johnnys; and so was laid the origins of the likes of musical juggernauts SMAP and AKB48. Not a bad history for a piece of old scrubland at the edges of a city.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Akihabara - The Fire Engine of Tokyo

Akihabara is a bustling district of northeast central Tokyo, squeezed between the publishing district of Kanda to the south and the sprawling expanse of Ueno Zoo to the north. Ever since the deregulated days immediately following the war, a vast market had grown up there specialising in electronics, initially white goods and later higher tech. Sadly though, the days of the covered market where anything was available are long gone, but probably for the best, it was a heck of a fire risk.

From the mid 1980s a new phenomenon started to raise its profile as the nerdy geeks inhabiting the computer and game stores began to morph into the modern otaku. Otaku are almost exclusively young, male and often somewhat socially challenged spending long hours locked in their rooms glued to a computer screen or their favourite manga. These days it is hard to tell whether the area is selling high tech rarely seen outside Japan or game stores and maid cafes. But that's not where it began.

The area originally developed around the nearby city gate leading to the north. Traders set up stalls and would pedal goods to weary travellers. And then there would be a fire and it would all burn down. The market would be rebuilt and the cycle would start all over again until the next devastating fire. Eventually the city decided to act and built a shrine dedicated to the fire-god Akiba to pacify the clearly angry spirits. The shrine is long since gone, relocated to another ward, but the name eventually stuck. So Akihabara isn't an electronics or gaming district. In reality, it's a fire-engine.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The day a city walked home

After 9/11, so the story goes, people in New York started to keep running sneakers under their desks. On the day of the tragedies, hundreds of thousands had no choice but to walk home, many for hours. Like most of us, those regular people were simply wearing their usual everyday outfit for work including their daily shoes. And those just made the evacuation of downtown Manhattan all that much harder.

A decade later there was an earthquake in Japan. Within minutes of the magnitude 9 the subways were at a standstill, the elevated highways were in automatic shutdown and gridlock hit, bringing the city to a halt. And in a re-enactment of that day in 2001, a city started to walk home. Millions of people had no option but to start a long journey. Women in heels, men in leather flats. For many it was too far, home being days rather than hours away by foot. And for many others, they simply didn't know how to get home, living their lives underground, they didn't know which way to go.

Japan is an organised, consensual culture. As the city closed and people started to move there was no panic despite the continued aftershocks, the first of which, in its own right, was greater than the one that had razed Kobe to the ground. But as the traffic lights turned red, people waited patiently, no pushing and no jostling until the lights turned green again. And then the mass, as one, moved on. And as the city started to slowly recover in the weeks and months to follow, people started to keep running sneakers under their desks.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Update: Three hurricanes, four typhoons and a wedding

Update 2. 9/9/15: 25cm (about 10 inches) of rain in 48 hours across Tokyo. Four typhoons in the space of two weeks. It's a little wet here at the moment. 120,000 evacuated in Hamamatsu, a city on the Pacific coast between Tokyo and Nagoya. Second one coming for Japan tomorrow or the day after.


Update: And now, two weeks later, we have three hurricanes in the East Pacific, at one point all reaching category 4 at the same time. Something of a first. We're enjoying quiet an El Nino this year.


Typhoons are relatively common at this time of year; in fact we're in the middle of the season, so somewhat to be expected. What is not so common are twin typhoons approaching across the Pacific which is the case today. This time we'll dodge a bullet in Japan, which can't be said for the battered people in Taiwan as one will veer west and hit them, the other will veer north and skim the east coast but without actual landfall. At least that's the current forecast. Going to get wet though.

Two years ago, in October 2013, that wasn't quite the case as a twin typhoon formation made a direct hit on the Miura Peninsula to the south of Tokyo. As they approached the coast they merged to form a single system, winds relatively unchanged but the water they carried significantly increased. It's estimated that the energy released by a single typhoon is equivalent to the power consumption of Japan. Over an eight year period. So a pairing is not to be taken lightly.

And on that very same day in October 2013, a friend had planned to marry his beautiful Japanese bride in the ancient capital of Kamakura, pretty much Ground Zero. We knew the transport systems would be down and road travel dangerous. It simply wouldn't be safe for the guests, the staff or the happy couple so it had to be postponed for two days. But after a typhoon comes incredible blue skies and calm seas. And if you're going to get married, try timing for after a double one. What a beautiful day.

Twin typhoons Atsani and Goni as they storm across the Pacific

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A little bit of England in Japan - The Great British Pub Quiz!

Update: Footnik Pub Quiz tonight

Tonight I'll joined what has become something of a regular tradition. People from various different countries gather together on usually the third Tuesday of every month near the railway tracks of Ebisu to celebrate one of the great British traditions, chat, compare notes and compete at the highest levels. And at the end of the evening, everyone walks away with a few more friends than when they arrived.

There are usually around fifty people there. I count people from England, Scotland, Canada, America, France, Australia and I'm sure many other countries. There is occasionally even a table of ladies from Japan joining in the evening. And so to the strains of Joni Mitchell singing "Big Yellow Taxi" we figure out the connection is "transport" and will usually still lose, going down to a better team on the day. The great British pub quiz is alive and well in Tokyo, raising money for charity and testing anyone who cares to join at the Footnik whether the door was black or red. Thank you in advance for another great night.

It's not so much the heat as the humidity - summer in Japan

According to my iPhone it's currently 28C though it apparently feels like 33C, an uncomfortable temperature at the best of times. I'm sitting, sweating away, with a permanent bottle of water as a faithful companion. Last week saw temperature in the mid-30s through the entire week and even night time temperatures steadfastly refused to drop below 26C. For someone who grew-up believing 15C represented a fairly hot summer's day, this is uncomfortable to say the least.

Over 10,000 people across the country were hospitalised with heatstroke last week alone. But it's not the heat that really causes the problem, it's the humidity. 84% half an hour ago, it's risen to 89% as I type and will undoubtedly continue to rise through the day. Yesterday it hit 98% and stepping outside is an instant exercise in saturation, your clothes drenched in sweat that simply refuses to evaporate despite the temperature.

And that's the problem with the high humidity. The heat makes you sweat but the humidity prevents it from evaporating and without that it doesn't act as the body's natural cooling system. And you just get hotter and hotter until you collapse and are carried off to hospital. So whatever you do if, like myself, you're unaccustomed to this debilitating weather, keep that faithful bottle of water with you wherever you go. And find a department store. They're mercifully air-conditioned.

Monday, August 17, 2015

It's not about the Trademark but the Integrity

Update: The Tokyo Olympic logo was formerly scrapped on 1 September, four days after announcing it was original and would be kept despite growing calls for change.


I rarely lose my temper. In fact, over twenty years I can only recall that occurring on two separate occasions. And the second is somewhat topical at the moment. A designer I'd asked to prepare a logo for a specific event had produced quite an interesting piece of work. Once incorporated into the entire corporate communication it was pointed out that another artist had produced something very similar. And she'd done it earlier and she was distinctly unhappy. Challenging the guy, he admitted it wasn't his own work but swore blind he could prove it wasn't a copy of hers.

And his evidence was not what I was expecting. The following day he brought someone I hadn't met before to explain to me. My designer hadn't designed anything, he'd copied it from this new guy. And to prove that he hadn't copied it from the original woman, the second person brought the book with him where he'd, in turn, copied it from. The designs were identical and I was somewhat livid. As a company, a well known brand in the market, these two wombats had opened us up to the allegation of being unethical cheats, nothing more than facsimiles of another's skills and talents. A photocopier could do that.

The argument over the design of the Japan Olympic logo is heading in the same direction. Once released it was quickly pointed out to bearing remarkable similarities to a European design. The defensive argument then being presented was that the European design hadn't been trademarked. Well, neither is Hamlet but I don't pretend that I actually wrote it. Or suggest I painted the Mona Lisa for that matter. Or even wrote Beethoven's Fifth. The London Olympic logo wasn't widely loved; but it also wasn't a copy. Japan has many incredible artists and designers. But we can all see where this is going. And that is so sad.

Friday, August 14, 2015

An Oasis in the centre of a city

Tokyo is busy. Seriously busy. With arguably thirty million people living within commuting distance of Shibuya Crossing, there are not many places on the planet that so many people call home. But right in the centre there are small oases of tranquility and one of those is the Asakura House in Daikanyama. Built in 1919, it's survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the days of the Pacific War. Not too shabby for a hundred year old wooden structure. Granted its struggles were in its younger days.

The interesting thing about Tokyo though, is that there is a lot to do but not actually that much to see. The city at night is a stunning array of light but during the day it's a pretty big piece of concrete. Think of London and immediately Tower Bridge, St Paul's and Big Ben come to mind. New York you've got The Empire State Building and Central Park. But Tokyo? Arguably one of it's most iconic centres is the Tsukiji fish market (and that's about to close its doors to relocate to a new home).

Tokyo is an awesome city with hidden gems around every corner. If you want to listen to good old vinyl records you are genuinely spoilt for choice. Near where I live there is a library where you can order a beer. At 3.00AM! And even closer there is a bar where the husband and wife owners compete with each other over who know's 1970's rock better than the other. But if you would like just a little bit of down time, the Asakura House will set you back a dollar. And you can sit and watch life go by.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Surely you can't be serious - Jets roar in the skies of Tokyo

Japan has an interestingly integrated culture where millions would rather be inconvenience than cause distress to the few. It's not wrong, it's just the way it is. So, for example, although Japan has compulsory purchase laws, where individual's land can be bought against their wishes, people would rather not use them and act through consensus. Hence Narita International Airport having one and a half runways and a few strips of farm land in the middle.

And speaking of airports, Narita, it has to be said, is still rubbish, in that it is approximately 80km's from central Tokyo with limited connecting domestic flights and trains limited to bus speeds so as not to compete. To an extent, it is easier to take an international flight via Korea than to make a connection through Narita. But things are about to change. In time for the Olympics, Haneda, the alternative airport in downtown Tokyo, is about to see a major expansion in traffic with new flight routes to add multiple new landing slots. And at this point, let's ignore the fact that tourist traffic actually drops during an Olympics as people stay away to avoid the crush.

The upshot of the new flights into Haneda, starting in September, will be interesting. Tokyo is a rare global city that, to this point, is blessed with clear skies (except for the occasional News helicopter). Almost all flights landing at Haneda are routed around the outskirts of Tokyo bay and so the noise of jet engines are rarely heard in town. But this will change. With nine (yes nine) new runways planned in the Kanto region over the next decade or so, the skies are going to get busier. And Tokyo is going to get louder. As Leslie Nielsen famously replied in Airplane!, "Surely you can't be serious?", "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley".

Monday, August 10, 2015

The story of the Skylark of Shibuya

Japan was not a very enjoyable place to live immediately after the war. Having narrowly staved off famine and slowly rebuilding under the American administration, for the children of the country life was fairly bleak. And then someone created the Hibari-go for them, an idea that roughly translates as Skylark. In 1951 an airborne cable-car ran from the rooftops of the Toyoko Building (Tokyu Bunka Kaikan, which later housed the Shibuya planetarium), to the Tamaden Building, a hundred meters away.

Under its operating licence, the cable-car was not allowed to actually provide transport facilities and so the trip was a round-robin back to the start, the doors remaining firmly closed. Up to twelve children could ride at any one time, gaining a bird's eye view of the rapidly rising city, which had been flattened by years of war. But the question has to be asked, why build a cable-car, especially one that is purely for sight-seeing and only for children, in a time of extreme austerity and reconstruction? 

In the late 1980's, I once briefly worked on a company that had been created post war in Allied occupied Germany. The founder had realised that, if he accumulated all the possible grants available at the time, he could build bowling-alleys and have the Allies pay for them, the money available being greater than the actual cost of construction. It's interesting to note that the Hibari-go only operated for a year and a half, closing in 1952; the year America pulled out of Japan. But whatever the reason it was created, it must have given the children of Shibuya quite something of a ride to remember. All aboard the Skylark!

Children peer from the Skylark onto Shibuya Crossing below

Sunday, August 9, 2015

When you need a helping hand in Japan

Update: Since first posting this article in July a number of people have asked where to find medical support in Tokyo. One excellent website covering a wide range of English language resources is, dedicated to supporting the foreign community in Japan. Great range of options  providing contacts for both health and wellness. 

In addition to this, the team at the Tokyo English Life Line (now known as TELL) have been  taking calls and providing counselling facilities to the foreign community for over four decades. If you're having a hard day and just need someone to talk to, they'll answer. 


Original post:

A number of the concerns for any expat arriving in a new country tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern. Finding somewhere to live, getting children into schools, opening a bank account and finding medical support in a language they themselves support. There's nothing like a good illness without a doctor you can talk to try the spirit especially if it's malady unfamiliar in their home country. Even  drugs can have different names adding to the confusion. Something of an issue for those with severe allergies.

The good news is that Japan has outstanding, first world, medical facilities. Although you have to pay upfront, if you're on a local contract then a significant element of the cost is covered by the government. But caveat emptor, using your national insurance card and finding a doctor who speaks your language are not, necessarily, the same thing. The international facilities tend not to accept the local green card and the domestic hospitals are unlikely to speak anything other than Japanese outside the major cities.

One further point to note is, if you happen to need an ambulance (dial 119 by the way) it will arrive quickly but then, in many cases, commence calling around to find a hospital to take them. Something of a pain if you're in, well, pain. This isn't anything against foreigners, it's the process for Japanese too. But once you're in, the place will be pristine and the service quick and efficient. Unless you're having a baby that is; then you can be in for a week or more. For fun, try asking how long women are pregnant in Japan and you'll be surprised to hear it's ten months. And that's a whole other story.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Team sports, national pride and national pleasure

Japan doesn't have a national sport in the sense of a global rivalry. To have that it needs a team with history and legacy and although it is a potent force in Asian soccer, that's more a reflection of Asia than the Japanese national team, talented individuals many of them may be. But a national sport is more about the passion and the pride of a country than it is about individual players, and that raises the obvious question - why?

If you think of soccer the great rivalries that spring to mind are endless, Holland - Germany, Germany - England, Brazil - anyone; with rugby the same pattern appears with the great southern hemisphere teams of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa wreaking havoc over England, France and the rest of the northern countries on a four yearly basis. And indeed cricket, where the Ashes are played for pride and not players or India vs Pakistan where everyday people, rather than asking 'what's the score', will ask 'what's THE score'. There is simply nothing else to talk about.

Japan has many outstanding individual athletes, swimmers who break world records, gymnasts who perform incredible feats or ice skaters who can take on the best and win with grace. But team sports are still developing. Schools focus on soccer, baseball and basketball but only soccer is genuinely a global sport (some would argue but simply ask them to name the captain of their national baseball team). However that's not the point. Sport is about national and personal pride and pleasure, it's about the crowd cheering as much as the player shooting for the goal. But in Japan in 2015, genuinely, it's not about a single stadium.

Playing for pride

Friday, August 7, 2015

The meaning of Meguro and the game of cricket

Today I was planning to write an article about the meaning of Meguro, a district on the old western reaches of Tokyo. As kanji characters carry meaning as well as pronunciation, it can often be entertaining to transliterate someone's name into English and watch the expressions change as people realise what you are doing. So when Nakata-san meets Sakura-san it literally means Mr In-the-middle-of-the-rice-field has just said hello to Mrs Cherry-blosson. Bit of a mouthful in English though.

The kanji for Meguro though means 'Black Eyes' and the origin, I've always been led to believe, was from one of five statues set to guard the western approaches to Tokyo on the roads from Kyoto, the Imperial Capital at the time they were erected. However, in final research, it became clear the area was already associated with the name over four hundred years before the statues were built. Fascinating article from JapanThis for more info on this story (and many others). Which somewhat blows today's story out of the water. So let's talk about the cricket.

Yesterday was Australia's worst day in over a hundred years of Ashes matches. But the game's not over yet so let's keep the gloating until the fat lady sings. The Ashes are only played between England and Australia, the name being the ashes of English cricket when England first lost to Australia in 1882. On the return tour the concept was soon manifested by burning the bails of one of the matches and are now held in a small urn at Lords, the spiritual home of cricket, in London. But talking to the British Ambassador one day, he remarked that there are actually twenty three active cricket clubs in Japan. And that's something I didn't know.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Netflix is coming to town

Going to the movies is almost always, by definition, an enjoyable experience. Why go otherwise? But Japan brings a small complication to the process; what to do with the question of language. Japan does have a movie industry, however these movies tend to be in Japanese. And, as a result, and without subtitles, is something of a challenge for non-native speakers. However, this is nothing in comparison enjoying a western movie.

English language movies are addressed in one of three ways. Very occasionally they will be shown in the original format but, as this attracts a somewhat limited audience, watching them can be a lonely experience. The alternatives are subtitles or dubbing, both of which have their own limitations. Dubbing invariably mis-mixes voice with character and subtitles are a running distraction; try watching Avatar with 3D writing floating in front of the screen.

And now Netflix is coming to Japan, hopefully having resolved the problems belying iTunes and Amazon, namely a total lack of content. Not everything available on iTunes USA or even UK is available in Japan. As with Kindle, vested interests and international licensing agreements seem to continuously undermine what should be a consumer based service. Movies are there to be watched, books are there to be read. Here's hoping Netflix brings television to the audience. After all, it is 2015. And, as Joey once remarked, "without a TV, what do you point your furniture at?".


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds

Over the next few days there will be reflection and remembrance of the day the first real bomb was dropped. Following the invention of gunpowder by the Chinese civilisation some thousand years ago, bombs had moved in incremental steps; little by little growing in size and power. But one day they made a jump, a leap that changed the way we perceive each other and our own destruction. And to the people who argue the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes, I still consider the greater crime was not to call a halt when there was the chance.

A number of people who survived the bombing of Hiroshima on 6th August travelled to their home town of Nagasaki over the next three days. Eight survived both bombs. The cities weren't destroyed, Tokyo having suffered worse in the firebombing of March, earlier that year, but what was created was a symbol of what can and should never be. If you have a vote, use it wisely.

When you visit the Peace Park in Hiroshima today, the story to stand and reflect upon is (for me) not one of the blinding devastation that day, but one of a young girl who survived the incineration. Her mother told her that if she made 1,000 paper cranes, a bird of hope in Japanese, she would survive. The statue is still there in the park. Covered in cranes. She didn't make it to 1,000. She died. And I still stand and think about that at this time of the year. A young child.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Nadeshiko - the flowers who waved goodbye

The word Nadeshiko became globally recognised in 2011 as the name of the Japanese soccer team who won the Women's World Cup, lifting a country still reeling from the earthquake and tsunami a few months before. Going in as the underdogs, there was something in their composure as it came to the penalty shoot-out that alluded to the victory to come. True, Team USA returned the favour four years later in a replay of the final, but I don't remember the name of that team, just that they were great sportswomen and earned their victory the hard way. But Nadeshiko is the name remembered.

The meaning of the word is generally held to be synonymous with the pink flower of the same name, a bloom from the carnation family, something seen across the low hills of Japan. But it also has a second meaning in Japanese which represents the mythical connotations of womanhood and purity of spirit. Given the spirit shown when each player stepped up to take their penalty shot, the flower may as well have been forged in steel.

But Nadeshiko has one other association, looking back to the final days of World War II. Japan had lost, there was no way around that. The navy was, to all intents and purposes, non-existent, and without it the country had no way to feed and re-supply itself. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are seen as the final blows that brought an end to the disaster of the Pacific War but before the end arrived, the kamikaze were the final toll of the Imperial bell. And the Nadeshiko were the girls who waved them goodbye.