Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Babe Ruth and the 2020 Olympics

So the proposals are out for the final sports to be included in the troubled 2020 Olympics including skateboarding (didn't realise it was a sport but am open minded to the concept), surfing (small problem if there are no waves...), karate (actually not a huge sport in Japan, judo is much the more popular event), bowling (the only ball sport that is not actually "played"; you "go" bowling) and baseball/softball. Baseball is extremely popular in Japan but with the proposal only providing for six teams, it somewhat underlines the point that it isn't really a global sport.

The hope would be that if baseball were selected, at least some of the games would be played out at the Jingu Stadium, currently home to the Yakult Swallows. Built in 1926, for a cost equal to a business class flight to California today, it saw the 1934 American All Star tour of Japan which included, amongst others, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The tour nearly cost the organiser his life as it was considered sacred ground to the right wing of the day, who got upset and tried to assassinate him. 

It's a vast, open stadium that somehow captures the atmosphere so much better than others and when the rains come down, the umbrellas go up and the beer girls get busy. But if you haven't been, you need to hurry, for it is slated for demolition and will relocate a short walk away to the current site of the National Rugby Stadium, Chichibunomiya, also slated for demolition and currently planned as a car park for the Olympics. At this rate there won't be anything left to demolish in Tokyo by 2020 but if you get the chance, go and watch a game, enjoy a beer, and remember, take your umbrella.

Meiji Jingu 1934
1934, Babe Ruth walks up to the plate and sends the ball into the stands 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Death and taxes - a gaijin tale

September brought the national census in Japan, something that happens every five years and covers all residents irrespective of nationality. For the first time it's offering the option for on-line input, something, for some reason, that was limited to Tokyo only the last time around. The results will show a decline in population but as that is already known, five years seems a somewhat short period over which to hold the count. Although it will also be interesting to see how many note their religion as Jedi Knight (~175,000 in the UK at the last count).

In follow up to the survey, there are a number of related changes happening at the moment including the introduction of a new ID card system that will again cover all residents. We will all now be known by a twelve digit code (romantic huh?). And this is being proposed as a the basis of a rebate system to mitigate the impact of the coming consumption tax hike from 8% to 10% due in 2017. Now many countries operate varying rates of tax to reduce the impact on families on lower incomes, for example by exempting food or children's clothing. But not Japan.

The new proposal is raising eyebrows. The rate will be a flat 10% on all items and then the government will provide a rebate based on what has actually been purchased. And to track this, people will need to provide their new ID number every time they buy a loaf of bread. Statistics is not the most glamorous of subjects but it will be interesting to see what the civil liberties lobby makes of this idea. And don't even get me started on the new Exit Tax or the Inheritance Tax on non-residents! A simpler way, to find, I must.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Start getting ready, Halloween will soon be on us!

Soon we'll see Halloween actually fall on a Saturday and the streets of Japan will go crazy. Young children will follow maps marking the houses where they can receive candy (the "trick" element of "trick-or-treat" doesn't seem to have caught on), the largest processions including hundreds of families, all in costume, and all enjoying a great day out together. But it's when darkness falls that the fun really begins.

In the last few years the student population of Japan has taken to Halloween with a passion. The famous Shibuya Crossing in central Tokyo will be a awash with ghouls, ghosts and things that go bump in the night. But in typical Japanese fashion there will also be elves, pixies, cats and clowns and anything that looks cute as the girls throw themselves into the spirit of what is fast becoming the countries biggest party night.

The student population of Japan will already be putting together their concepts, costumes and plans for the night. So start thinking. Group photos are always the best. And if you want to experience the speed at which Japan can change direction when it puts it's mind to it, head on down to Shibuya Crossing on Halloween. It really will be quite a sight and didn't even exist five years ago. After that of course, it's Santa's little helper time.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The silver lining of Silver Week

Golden Week is the time in late April and early May in Japan where events in history have conspired to bring four national holidays within a hair's breadth of each other. By taking a couple of days of vacation, it can sometimes be possible to enjoy up to nine straight days away from the office. True, international schools often don't observe all the holidays but many take the time off anyway and enjoy a little down time.

Silver Week, on the other hand, is a different animal. Manufactured through the combination of the "Happy Monday" law which locked a number of national holidays onto a Monday rather than a specific date so as to avoid Sundays, and a second law that provides for an additional "bridging" day when two holidays fall a single day apart. And every few years this happens in September when the equinox shifts to the Wednesday following Respect for the Aged Day on the third Monday of the month.

But the two do have one thing in common; half the country tries to go on vacation at the same time. Tokyo is empty but that's not surprising when you look at the highways and see all the cars parked, fuming away, in traffic jams that can stretch fifty kilometres towards hometowns all across the country. But an alternative is to stay at home for Silver Week and go away the weekend after. The roads and trains are empty as families stay put, spending time recovering from the previous weeks stresses and strains. It actually makes for quite a peaceful couple of days away. The old adage is proved true again, there's always a silver lining.

The JARTIC real time traffic feed. In Silver Week it uses a lot of red ink. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The heart of the Rugby World Cup

In 1995 Japan played New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup, hosted in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, greeting the antipodean team, famously said to Jonah Lomu "you frighten me a little bit". At the previous tournament the country had recorded their first win against Zimbabwe raising hopes for the game in the national psyche but on this there were to be no fairy tale finishes as the All Blacks inflicted a 145 - 17 demolition of the Brave Blossoms, something that put the games development in Asia back by a decade or more as it licked its wounds and no one else looked for a similar mauling.

It's said that football is a game where players try to convince the ref they're injured whilst rugby is where the players try to convince the ref they're not. All Black legend John Kirwan took on the task, for the 2011 championships, of building a Japanese team that believed it could win and talking to him over lunch one day he was adamant that the question of build, size and stature was a red herring, the team had speed and scale. Passing the baton to Eddie Jones he cannot have imagined in his wildest dreams how quickly that belief was going to be vindicated.

So Japan has beaten South Africa and you have to hope someone placed a wild bet on that and is now enjoying their newly minted fortune. Rugby is finally on TV and some people are even aware the next Rugby World Cup will be held here in 2019. But when a friend sent Eddie a congratulations message the reply was to look to Scotland for the coming week. Nicely done gentlemen, very nicely done for Saturday saw green clad Irish fans cheering the Japanese in a Welsh Stadium singing a Scottish song for a game played in England against a team from South Africa and even the Springbok fans gave them a guard of honour. And that's why I enjoy rugby.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The local street matsuris of summer

It's matsuri season in Japan. The time of year when the blistering heat of summer has passed, the evenings are now simply pleasantly warm and the old villages of Tokyo celebrate with small, local festivals. Processions wind their way through the streets accompanied by drums and children cracking sticks together. The lead will carry bamboo, the stems freshly cut. And the entire community will become involved. This year, a young man in a wheelchair followed close by, having a wonderful time. 

The parade will finally spill out into a local park, dirt rather than grass, and the evening will settle down to beer, gossip and dance. Young children will follow grandparents as the circle builds and tightens, everyone becomes everyone else's best friend and people catch up on the events of the last year's stories. Finally the dance comes to an end and an announcement is made that it's time for home. And the local matsuri is over again, but the community is reset, and the evenings grow shorter.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The orphan tsunami of The Pacific

Tsunami can cause devastation, taking the souls of entire towns and villages as they arrive with a single wave front, taller than many buildings and stretching as far as the eye can see. They're not like a beach wave, crashing and gone, tsunami keep going, some for minutes before they recede only to arrive again as the next front impacts the shore line. And they travel across seas and oceans at the speed of a jet liner.

An earthquake in Chile has set this process in motion. Usually an earthquake precedes a tsunami, providing a warning that it will arrive, the ground shakes and the seas rise. But orphan tsunami are not like this. The earthquake may have generated the wave nearly half a planet away, there's no feeling of shake or temblors, no sudden shock followed by a rolling sway as the ground moves under your feet. Today we receive warning via satellite and TV. But that was not always the case.

In 1700 a massive earthquake on the Cascadia fault line, offshore from Vancouver, sent a stealth wave directly at Japan. Unrecorded in North America, it's known from Japanese records kept at the time. Again in 1960, a M9+ quake in Chile sent waves across the ocean that arrived at over three meters high. Communications, having been substantially improved over the years, allowed for warning and evacuation. But that orphan wave still took over 100 lives, and that was after it had taken out Hilo. Today's wave was ok, 80cm at most when it reached Japan. Stay safe everyone.

Tsunami waves simply don't stop for anything

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The life of an international marriage

An international marriage is a constant exercise in the art of compromise and a need for understanding that maybe you just don't understand, and possibly never will. When they begin they're often accompanied by difficulties arising from both language and culture, partially overcome as you develop your own vocabulary; others may not understand but you understand each other, sometimes better than the couple who grew up in the same country, culture and language all their lives. 

You often talk through metaphor with the constant reference to past experiences to explain when the words simply will not come. Today smartphones and on-line translation simplify the matter but it is still something of a matter of faith that you will both be at the same restaurant at the same time. But you try, and you continue to try every day, to make a success of the choices you have both made.

It's been twenty years since the day we were married at a castle in southern England, a young Englishman and a wonderful, beautiful Japanese lady, and I still wake up each day and say 'thank you'. No marriage is easy or can be taken for granted but an international marriage carries a unique set of complications. Unless you think of them as opportunities and new experiences; always try and never give up or give in. I reckon twenty years is a good start. I'm looking forward to writing an update in another twenty. And I'm so unbelievably glad she said 'yes'.

Tokyo, 17 September, 2015

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The radioactive fallout of a consensus based society

A consensus based society, in theory, has a number of significant advantages. For example, although there are compulsory purchase laws in place to force the sale of a property, the government prefers not to use them but rather come to an understanding with all involved before a development proceeds. Anyone who has had to sit on an airplane at Narita airport for thirty minutes whilst it taxis to Runway Two has had to experience the pleasure of this particular compromise.

A more recent implication though relates to the continuing decontamination following the Fukushima dirty bombs. Top soil, removed from the towns and villages unlucky enough to have been downwind the day the reactors buildings went skyward, had been scraped away and collected into large vinyl storage totes (bags), each weighing around a ton. And then consensus kicked in and no one knew where to put them so they were piled high on a beach front in Tomioka.

In the recent flooding (of biblical proportions) that came following the rains and typhoons of recent days, nearly 300 of these totes were washed into a nearby river, of which only approximately 200 have so far been recovered. Sadly, this is a case where consensus has a very high cost. No one in their right mind would actually want this material stored near them, but someone had to draw the short straw. The alternative is now floating out to sea in a large, black, plastic bag. Possibly easy to see at night though...

1,000 litre storage bags in Tomioka, Fukushima-ken.
Lucky there was a cone there...

Monday, September 14, 2015

Mt Aso Erupts

Update: September 14, 2015: Mt Aso in Kyushu, southern Japan, erupts sending ash 2km into the air. Early reports everyone has been evacuated and with a little luck, it'll all be quiet again soon.


First posted 16 April, 2015:

Krakatoa is famous for a number of reasons, probably the most unfortunate being the (catastrophically bad) 1969 disaster movie "Karaktoa East of Java". Panned by the critics, it was not only the only disaster movie made in wide format Super Panavision 70, but it also miscalculated the location, Krakatoa actually being west of Java. Aside from this, it was also responsible for the loudest recorded "bang" in human history, with the shockwaves being picked up on barometers around the globe. However, as an eruption, it was dwarfed by the much larger, though relatively unknown, Tambora some seventy years earlier. Which actually is east of Java.

The Krakatoa eruption, of 1883, delivered approximately 35 cubic kilometres of rock into the skies, an explosion more than 10,000 times that of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Puts the nuclear age somewhat into perspective. Tambora in 1815, by comparison, ejected 160 cubic kilometres into the atmosphere and was so extreme that it caused famine around the world, 1816 being known in Europe as the year without a summer. And then we come to Mount Aso in Kyushu, Japan.

Aso, with a circumference of 120km, is one of the world's largest volcanos, or more accurately, super-volcanos. It sits in the centre of the southern island of the main Japanese archipelago, approximately 1,000km to the southwest of Tokyo. Although Mount Aso is constantly rumbling, the last time it really decided to let everyone know that it was there, it sent over 600 cubic kilometres skywards. Nearly twenty times the scale of Krakatoa, that's approximately equal to launching Mount Fuji into the heavens. However, looking on the bright side, at least that was some 300,000 years ago. And I'm pretty sure they didn't have barometers back then.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Will Japan welcome the refugees of the world?

With the refugee crisis in Europe set to see the largest mass migration since the Second World War with hundreds of thousands fleeing the violence, it's interesting to note that in 2014 Japan took a sum total of 11 (yes, eleven) refugees. Interesting this is actually more than were killed in gun related crime in Japan that year, which stands at 8, compared to something in the order of 30,000 in the US (guns don't kill people, bullets kill people...) although this number in turn is approximately equal to the number of suicides in Japan during 2014.

Japan is seeing an endemic population decline that commenced in 2011 and is set to enter free fall with a reduction of some 40% by 2060 and so, at some point, the nation is going to face a decision. Open the doors or accept economic collapse. Currently there isn't the will to allow mass immigration but with ghost villages in the countryside as the populace either dies or moves to the cities, it's probably simply a matter of time until the decision is made by itself.

The new tax laws are certainly not designed to help the situation; the exit tax being a direct disincentive to arrive in Japan in the first place and the new inheritance tax on non-resident beneficiaries of the estates of relatives residing in Japan defies explanation but has a lot of non-voters questioning whether to come here at all. But if Australia can offer a new home to 12,000 Syrians, Japan has a chance to take a stance. Although, as a country, it might be dead set against the concept of immigration, it's actually very welcoming to immigrants. I know, for I am one.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Stay safe - Here comes the rain again

My unofficial rain gauge (actually a straight sided ice bucket placed on the balcony), recorded 40cm (16 inches) of rain in forty-eight hours here in central Tokyo. Actually it could have been more as I found it full twice and have no idea how much may have over run the brim. When it rains it pours, as it were. Thankfully the second typhoon heading our way looks to have veered to the north and the archipelago may only receive a glancing blow later today.

Typhoons are a fact of life in Japan. Death, taxes, typhoons and earthquakes as the saying goes. The country is well prepared, the classical ceramic tile roofs being designed to hold on in the high winds. But this typhoon was different, it was slow, meaning the intense rains lasted for longer as the storm slowly edged by. Strangely, it really wasn't that windy by the time it arrived here, though the 120,000 people of Hamamatsu, a coastal city some 250km to the southwest of Tokyo, who had to evacuate in advance of the deluge, probably had it worse.

Japan is a largely mountainous country and, as a result, prone to flash flooding. When the rains come, the run-off can be quick and violent and this time took out an entire district of the city of Joso, near the ancient city of Nikko, and more than twenty five people are currently missing though one lucky man was winched, carrying a dog, from his roof to the safety of a rescue helicopter less than five minutes before the waters took the entire building. For now though the rains are gone and the skies blue; but enjoy it while you can, tomorrow we'll be wet again. Stay safe where ever you may be.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Cosplay Lifestyle of Japan

Princess Leia chases Chewie at Comic-Con
Cosplay, (short for costume play) is not uncommon at conventions and exhibitions around the world especially at events such as Comic-Con in the US where people dive into characters that are astonishingly realistic, many deserve a worthy mention and a few should maybe try again the next year. The word, though not the practice, is Japanese in origin dating back to 1984 when it was coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi writing in a manga fan magazine about a science fiction conference he's attended in Los Angeles.

Cosplay in Harajuku on a sunny Sunday afternoon
But Japan takes this harmless hobby to a whole new dimension. Here, it's not reserved for special events or conventions, in Japan it's a completely immersive way of life. Walk the streets of Harajuku in central Tokyo on a Sunday afternoon and you'll meet every whip wielding nurse or Alice attired maid you could ever want to see. The costumes are often incredibly elaborate and may share a theme between entire groups of fans, co-ordinated and dressed to kill. Indeed, the entrance to the Meiji Shrine is often packed with (predominantly) young women getting into costume and character for a day out on the town.

And now Tokyo Disneyland is throwing its doors open to the Cosplayers for two special weeks before Halloween, allowing adults, rather than only children, to enter the fun by joining the spectacle. This being Japan there are of course rules; Disney Characters only please; it's a family event, no uncovered shoulders or tummy buttons; no full face make-up and nothing to impede the mobility of others. Apart from that, if you want to hang out for the day as Snow White, Donald Duck, Captain Jack Sparrow or The Incredibles, Tokyo Disneyland is waiting for you. Knock yourself out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The fan magazines of the crime bosses of Japan

The recently announced split in the Yamaguchigumi, the largest organised crime gang in Japan with some 50,000 pre-split members, has brought the police onto a higher level of alert with the possibility of a power struggle and both inter and intra factional fighting. The yakuza, as these crime gangs are known, shun the secretive life of their western counterparts and are well known to the police and media alike. Membership itself not being a criminal offence, many take on an almost celebrity like status in their local societies.

Originating in the Edo period from the loose organisations of pedlars and gamblers, they were actually recognised by the shogun and so took on a semi-official status. As a result, modern day yakuza see themselves as romantic, almost noble, element of society. Simply because they organise loan-sharking and protection rackets, they also see a civic duty and indeed were the first on the ground in Kobe when the city was devastated by the 1995 earthquake, handing out blankets and food while the government dithered.

Denoted by characteristic body art (the reason tattoos are barred from onsens (spas) and public baths) they operate under the equivalent of a code of honour. Any fall out from the Yamaguchigumi split is unlikely to involve "civilians" and is also unlikely to involve random shootings. Simply being in possession of a firearm, in itself, carries the penalty of several years in prison. Twenty-five years of a stagnant economy have hit the yakuza as much as any other element of society but whether this is the beginning of the end, well, you'll just have to read one of their fan magazines. But it's ok, you have six to choose from.

Takakura Ken accepts Robert Mitchum's severed pinky as a sign of contrition
in the 1974 movie "Yakuza"

Monday, September 7, 2015

And so it begins - Santa Sighted in September

There is a story, potentially an urban myth but certainly worth repeating, of a slight cultural misunderstanding that happened one Christmas back in the 1980's. The alleged incident occurred at the now defunct Sogo department store in Yurakucho, downtown Tokyo. Deciding to adopt the festive spirit, they created a display of traditional Christmas characters with the centre piece being Santa, firmly nailed to the cross. Points for trying I suppose.

This being early September, the next holiday event will be Silver Week in the third week of the month when two national holidays fall a single day apart and, as a result, the intervening day is also given, by law, as a holiday. After that it is Halloween, which in recent years has been adopted with gusto by the student youth of Japan. Head down to Shibuya crossing if you can. Quite a sight if you happen to be in Tokyo at that time of year.

The one thing though that is not supposed to be seen in September, is Santa and his sleigh. And on 2nd September, The Mandarin Oriental set a new record for the earliest known introduction of what can only be described as a very sheepish looking Father Christmas, clearly still working on building up his winter body-fat reserves for the feverish night's work to come. Just hope the reindeer don't get too jealous of Olaf, or Santa is in for a rough ride. Uhh, Happy Christmas! I think.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The day Flipper died

If you remember Marine Boy, you're probably fast approaching the big 5-0. Or past it. The oxy-gum chewing, sub-aqua hero, along with his dolphin friend, Splasher, would save the oceans, and mankind along with it. An early example of colour television, it first broadcast from 1969 to 1971. And as a young child I would be transfixed every time I heard that opening theme tune. Made in Japan, it came as a spin-off from an earlier series though names and looks were slightly modified and for contractual reasons it was actually shown in the US before being broadcast in its home country.

A few years before Marine Boy ran the live action show Flipper. Actually starring five female 'stunt' dolphins, and one male for the famous tail-walk, it ran from 1964 to 1967, so I guess I saw the repeats in the years to come. Flipper, along with his friend and marine park ranger, the widowed Porter Ricks, would have great adventures and the baddy always lost. However, the Flipper dolphins were caught and trained for the TV show by a man named Ric O'Barry until one day one of them died in front of him for no reason. It just gave up living, not wanting to be a captive anymore was his belief.

And now we come full circle. Splasher was loved by the children of Japan but O'Barry brought a tragedy to the world in his heartbreaking documentary The Cove in 2009, as Japan sat by and let the  small town of Taiji slaughter thousands of dolphins for not much more than dog meat. The hunt begins in the early days of September and the argument goes that it is allowed under international law. Well, the law can be an ass. In life, just because we can do something, it doesn't mean we should. We used to burn witches at the stake and crucify heretics but that hasn't happened for a while. Times really can change if we want them to. Change.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

September 1st - a National Emergency

At 11.58am on September 1st 1923, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck off the coast of Odawara, some 100km south of Tokyo. The duration was several minutes and the force so extreme the Giant Buddha at Kamakura, weighing 93 tons and 60km away, moved more than two feet. When the tremors reached Tokyo they created a firestorm that raised the entire downtown district of the city eventually leading to the loss of over 140,000 lives.

Japan is prone to natural disasters whether earthquake, tsunami or typhoon. Children are taught from the youngest age to dive under their desks when the shaking starts and grab their yellow safety helmets as they leave the building after a quake. And on 1st September each year a national emergency is declared and the country goes into preparation mode.

The police cone off roads to simulate the traffic chaos that would follow a major event, stations are randomly closed and fire demonstrations simulate a real disaster. Following the Kobe earthquake, the role of the Self Defence Force has been radically revised to allow for direct support and Chinook helicopters can be seen flying overhead. In reality the idea is not so much training as raising awareness. The learning from Kobe was that a natural disaster does not have to become a man made catastrophe. Stay safe everyone. Now, check your earthquake kit.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

End of an Era - Farewell to the Okura

The Orchid Bar - smoking section
Today is the start of a new era. For the first time in fifty two years it's not possible to book a room at Tokyo's iconic Okura Hotel, or even order a beer in the legendary Orchid Bar. President's have stayed there and so did Bond in the film 'You Only Live Twice', though how he managed the 600km journey to Himeji Castle so quickly was never clearly explained. It's also in a scene from the surreal Haruki Murakami book IQ84 (Q being the pronunciation of the number nine in Japanese if you were wondering) as a body is smuggled out of the back. 

Soon to be no more - The Okura Hotel Tokyo
Built for the '64 Olympics, it's descendant will open in time for the 2020 events. There has been much criticism and lamenting of the decision to raze the building to the ground being considered one of the finest remaining examples of 1960's Japanese architecture it certainly boasts a remarkable lobby. But outside some excellent food and outstanding customer service, that's actually about it. The rooms show their age and the Orchid Bar still banishes non-smokers to a pokey little side room more suitable for rabbits. It is time to go. 
The spa was never really like this

The replacement soaring structure, designed by the son to the original's architect, will be a pair of glass towers, forty-one stories high. Being atop the bluff of the yamanote (foothills) of Tokyo, the view of the bay area will be spectacular and, a hundred meters from the American Embassy, it is bound to host Presidents into the future. Whether Bond will ever leap from it's towers is an unknown but with the well hidden and tight access roads he's going to be better served with a motorcycle than a limousine. And maybe in the new Hotel Okura's resurrected Orchid Bar, it'll be the smokers who are banished to the rabbit hutch. Let's wait and see.