Monday, November 30, 2015

Ichiyo Higuchi - the third women on a Japanese bank note

Ichiyo Higuchi is familiar to the residents of Japan as the face of the ¥5,000 bank note where she has resided since 2004. A writer of classical short stories, she studied poetry from the Heian period ~800 - 1200AD, and wrote in a flowing style almost unintelligible today. She died after her brief career at the age of twenty four having contracted tuberculosis, something not uncommon in the late 1800s.

However, she was not the first woman to feature on the national currency. Beating her by four years, and appearing in the lower right corner of the ¥2,000 note to this date, Murasaki Shikibi, the author of arguably the worlds first novel, The Tale of Gengi, coincidentally actually written in the Heian period, is something of a rarity. The note itself is somewhat unpopular being considered a little unlucky by denominating a number starting with "2" (a whole different story).

These two ladies were simply following in ancient footsteps though. Adorning the ¥1 note in 1881, a little less than a decade following the currency's introduction, came the Empress Jingu. Something of a mythical figure from the time when the Romans walked across the lands of Europe, she was actually imaged by the Italian engraver Edoardo Chiossone, and today he can be found in Aoyama Botchi, the cemetery in central Tokyo. But she can't; sadly no one knows where she departed this mortal coil.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The sorrow of losing a friend of Japan

Jonah Lomu was a legend in the world of rugby. With a little help from Mike Catt he invented the commercialisation of the sport in 1995 as he executed a perfect Maori Sidestep and ran straight over the England fullback. He told me once they became friends and even joked about the incident over the years. And Jonah was a great friend to Japan, acting as a country brand ambassador when New Zealand played Australia at the National Stadium in Tokyo in the fall of 2009.

I was fortunate enough to meet Jonah in Tokyo on a number of occasions over the years as he visited the country. What was striking about him, apart from being one of the greatest sportsmen of all time, was what an outstanding human being he was. He'd talk about his family, his young son and his passion for cars, rarely mentioning his sport and he had time for anyone who would like to talk to him. Like many professional athletes of the modern era, he didn't really drink, happy to nurse a cola throughout an evening.

The last time I saw him he was carrying his infant son through security at Narita airport the night after we'd had dinner. We'd met outside the east Inakaya in central Tokyo. By accident I'd been sent to the west restaurant and so arrived twenty minutes late after I figured out what had happened. There he was, global superstar, just sitting on the railings outside the place, waiting for me. "No worries" he said, and that night we had a great dinner and talked about racing cars.

Jonah Lomu
Jonah Lomu, friend of Japan 1975 - 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Spirit of Radio - Part II

Unloved and largely unused, car radio in Japan tends to be something you're more likely to experience when your taxi driver is listening to the baseball. Satellite radio failed to take off after a number of the early stations went bankrupt, the in car equipment setting the avid fan back by several thousand dollars, it couldn't generate the audience to support the airwaves. Terrestrial radio, as discussed here, carries so few channels it's not too popular either.

Interference free, land based digital radio, popular around the world and not requiring a satellite dish to be strapped to your car roof, has also not raised it's head in Japan but one thing has. In-car TV. Popular for keeping the kids quiet in the back seats, with the use of a $50 conversion kit, the dash mounted navigation system can be enabled to display television too. It is illegal to sell a new car with front seat TV, but drive around the corner and there will be a man with a spanner to help.

And this is slightly strange given the stringent road safety laws in Japan. You must pull over to use your mobile phone and the blood alcohol limit is actually zero for drivers with penalties for passengers too if the driver fails a breath test. But for TV the law simply expresses a desire the driver won't stare at the screen whilst driving. Glancing apparently is fine. And remembering that navi systems also take DVD's, when you're driving around, whatever you do, do not let the kids look inside the car next to you! Or be prepared for some very awkward questions...

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Spirit of Radio - Part I

Visitors to Japan are often slightly confused, or even little surprised, at what they hear when they turn the radio dial. The airwaves are, with a few exceptions, rubbish compared to what they are used to back home. The very limited number of stations pack sports, news, pop music, classical concerts and anything else they can into the day with no real concept of a target audience. Tokyo has a grand total of five FM stations, compare that to LA with something around sixty, and each one of those knows exactly who is listening.

The issue in Japan is really one of a missed boat where the Japanese government restricted licences to the staid national broadcaster until the early 1990s when the first commercial stations were established. By this time Sony had invented the Walkman, soon to be followed by MP3 players, iPods and ultimately Apple Music. The kids didn't listen to the radio, their dads did. Throw in the limited bandwidth and stations found it hard to get to market and the market wasn't listening when they did.

The cessation of analogue TV in 2011 extended the existing frequencies available of 76MHz~90MHz up to 95MHz but to date this has only provided opportunity for the old warm and fuzzy local AM stations to switch to glorious FM stereo radio. It has also allowed InterFM, a bilingual mainly music station squeezed into their 76.1 slot when it was established as an emergency broadcast service post the Kobe earthquake of 1995, to expand onto a new setting of 89.7, warmer and clearer. But looking back to the days, tuning into1440 Luxembourg when the sun went down, and you have to think "man, that was a great sound". Where exactly were the pirate ships in the 1960s just when Japan needed them to get those kids hooked on the greatest medium of all, radio.

Radio Luxembourg

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Story of a Yen

Gold one yen coin 1871
The Japanese Yen has an interesting history. For a start it's a typing error in English having been dubbed "yen" rather than the local pronunciation of "en" in an early English / Japanese dictionary. Introduced in 1871 in the early days of the Meiji Restoration, it replaced the Tokugawa monetary system and was defined as the equivalent of the commonly used Spanish Dollar, the same dollar adopted by America. So in the beginning it was one yen = one dollar. At 125 today, how times have changed.

The "Great Japan" one sen coin
There were originally 100 sen to the yen and 10 rin to the sen but by 1953, given hyperinflation, a rather large war, and the impact of the gold standard, the sen and the rin were abolished and the yen, no longer 1:1, was fixed at 360 to the dollar. That is except for the Japanese Military Yen, used across conflict zones from 1904 until 1945. It was defined as worthless on 6 September, 1945 and economies such as Hong Kong where it was the only legal tender lost everything.

Great Japan Military 10 yen note issued in Hong Kong
World trade and the Plaza Accords saw the end of the undervalued yen and by 1995 it had reached 80 to the dollar. The effective boost to FX rates saw the land value of the Emperor's Palace being reputedly equal to the entire real estate of California. Today the commonly used 500 yen remains one of the world's highest denomination coins but just occasionally there are both 1000 yen and 10,000 yen commemorative issues. And this year saw the introduction of the catchily titled "Great East Japan Earthquake Reconstruction Project Coin". And the tree, well that's the story of a very sad miracle.   

Monday, November 16, 2015

The creepy critters of Japan

I'm not good with bugs. Confronted by a hairy spider I'd rather lease it territory and find a new apartment than deal with it directly. Peculiarly, snakes, mice and lizards do not worry me one iota, happy to pet them all. But cockroaches (which can also fly short distances by the way) again do, the same way as spiders. Moths and butterflies not a problem, even stag beetles I'm ok with. Which brings it down to a question of speed rather than design. Spiders are quick running critters.

Fortunately central Tokyo is a fairly hostile environment for bugs. I've seen a handful of cockroaches over the years and the house spiders are smaller than a penny, and even I can cope with that. You see the odd snake in Yoyogi Park, but these are black Rat Snakes and completely harmless or occasionally an abandoned pet liberated to a life of freedom under the trees. And the lizards are smaller than your hand, rare and not that keen on people either.

But outside Tokyo is a different matter. The Wolfman Spiders of Izu clearly descended from a 1950's B-movie and the Hymenoptera ants could carry away your car. Above about 1,000ft make sure you cover up if around grass lands or waterways, the bite of the buyo, or black fly, will leave you seriously considering amputation to relieve the itch. But it's the osuzumebachi, or Giant Hornet, that holds the record. It inflicts the final cut to more people in Japan each year than any other member of the animal kingdom, humans excepted. But humans can't fly and I don't like bugs. 

Enjoy a picture of a Minion. If you want a bug,
you can look those up yourself

Friday, November 13, 2015

TenguLife is two today - thanks for reading

Zero Hour and the music of Tokyo Rose

There have been many references to "Tokyo" in popular culture over the years. Tokyo Joe was both a 1949 Humphrey Bogart movie and a 1977 Bryan Ferry (he of Roxy Music fame) song which is actually a reference, rather ironically, to a song from Jimmy Cagney in the musical "Shanghai Express" about the 1930's war in China. Deep Purple also got in on the act with one of the great driving songs My Woman From Tokyo about their first tour of Japan (and also the last of the Gillan / Blackmore line up).

Life in Tokyo, the Giorgio Moroder penned classic etherial New Wave song performed by the English group Japan was a  hit across Europe before the band split and the singer, David Sylvian, moved on to working with the keyboard player from Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi Sakamoto. However, rather than simply referencing popular culture, few have actually been a part of it themselves. But one who did was known simply by the name of Tokyo Rose, a name that was actually a catch all for any Japan based English speaking female broadcaster during the Pacific War. 
The most famous of these was Iva Ikuko Toguri. American born and stranded on a visit to Japan after Pearl Harbour, she was forced to work alongside Australian and US POW's reading transcripts and playing music on the propaganda radio show "Zero Hour". Post war she was arrested but later released by the Occupation Administration though ultimately would be convicted on one count of treason in the US, in what could best be described as a "kangaroo court". Spending over six years in prison she would eventually receive a Presidential pardon from Gerald Ford in 1976. She passed away in 2006 but not before being recognised with a citizenship award for courage in the face of adversity. Rather than dimming morale, the troops had actually really loved her taste in music.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The secret of Kimi-chan and her red shoes in America

赤い 靴 (Akai Kutsu)
"Red Shoes"

赤い靴 はいてた 女の子
異人さんに つれられて いっちゃった
横浜の 埠頭(はとば)から 船に乗って
異人さんに つれられて 行っちゃった

今では 青い目に なっちゃって
異人さんの お国に いるんだろう
赤い靴 見るたび 考える 
異人さんに 逢(あ)うたび 考える

"Akai Kutsu" is a popular children's rhyme in Japan, depicting the true story of a little girl known as Kimi-chan. Her mother being poor gives her to adoptive parents and Christian missionaries from America take her home for a better life. Published in 1922, and whilst interesting in its repetitive use of the word "foreigner", and accepting that all translations are subjective by definition, in English it goes something like this:

The girl wearing red shoes has,
Gone to America with a foreigner.
She took a ship from the wharf in Yokohama,
Gone to America with a foreigner.
Now her eyes have turned blue,
I wonder about her as a foreigner in that country.
Every time I see red shoes, I think of her,
Every time I meet a foreigner, I think of her.

There is even a statue to her in Yokohama where she boarded the ship to her new home, however, there's a secret and it's very similar to one we sometimes tell children about their beloved pet. The give away is that there is also a statue in Azabu-Juban, a quiet, leafy, neighbourhood in downtown Tokyo. And the reason it's there is this is the site of the orphanage where she passed away from tuberculosis at the age of nine. Her mother, living in Hokkaido, never knew she didn't board the ship, and the father, sticking to his story all her life - "she's gone to a farm in the country".

The statue of Kimi-chan in Azabu Juban

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Jodie Foster and the Aliens of Shiretoko

The Shiretoko Peninsula in eastern Hokkaido derives its name from the Ainu word meaning "the end of the world". And it would seem hard to argue with that. Some seventy kilometres long, it boasts no less than seventeen volcanos and has the distinction of being the most southerly location in the northern hemisphere where sea ice will form. A distinction for which it received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005.  

However, the Shiretoko Peninsula has something of an inter-galactic secret. In 1997 Jodie Foster first met aliens there in the classic sci-fi movie "Contact". The original colossal worm-hole making machine having been destroyed by a maniacal Jake Busey at Cape Kennedy, a space bound John Hurt brings renewed hope to Dr Ellie Arroway by showing her the location of a second, secret, device hidden on a spur of land on the east coast of Shiretoko. 

But here's the kicker. Not only does the interstellar mobile phone not actually exist, though I think we'll all be ok with that for the time being, but neither does the spur of land on which it was supposed to be built, the location having been CG'd into the movie. So if you do try to contact aliens in northern Japan, the closest you'll get to is the Kunbetsu Post Office. And of course then you'll need a valid shipping address. The truth is out there. I'm afraid just not in Shiretoko.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Cancer of Fukushima

Nuclear power is something of an emotive subject in Japan following the disastrous multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in March 2011 and subsequent contamination of the local region by what was, in effect, a massive dirty bomb. Since then, every reactor in Japan has been taken off-line for "maintenance" though Sendai (in southern Kyushu) was brought back to life over summer and Tsuruga, on the Japan sea coast, is currently pushing to restart its engines too. And without them The Maldives is soon going to be a new Atlantis.

Public concern has been recently heightened by reports of the first worker to develop cancer through exposure to radiation at Fukushima itself. Except, despite the headlines, he didn't as far as anyone knows. With 40,000 workers at the site, the average cancer rates in Japan suggest at least 200 would develop cancer annually without any man-made encouragement. The unlucky individual, with a dose of 15,700 microsieverts, has been awarded workers compensation for falling ill and being able to prove he received a dose higher than that legally mandated. Despite the headlines, no one is actually claiming there is a causal link between his illness and exposure to radiation. He was just smart enough to fill in the correct claim forms. 

Indeed, workers in the US are deemed at no risk working in an environment with ten times the radiation levels of the Japanese government stipulated safety levels. To date, no single person has died as a direct result of exposure to radiation from Fukushima. But the suicide rates of those displaced in the evacuation are very real and increasing. With a construction boom in Tokyo pulling workers away from rebuilding Tohoku and allocated funds sitting unused in government coffers, perhaps it's time to worry a little less about the design of the new National Stadium and instead help those who four years later are still living in shelters. Just a thought.

Evacuees still remain in temporary shelters after four years

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Building a Billion Dollar Brand - in Japan

First draft complete! A little over fifteen years ago something fundamental changed in the Japanese landscape. Up until that time the perceived wisdom had been that a foreign brand entering the market would need a local partner; someone who knew how to operate on the ground. And then adidas decided to go solo, cold turkey if you will, and take direct control of its brand in Japan. Within a decade the experiment had produced a billion dollar company that had redefined the Japanese market model.

I was lucky enough to be there at the start and over the following years worked as part of the senior management team as we grew the business from a serviced office with a handful of people and zero sales to being the dominant sports brand in Japan. And many times over the years I've been asked to write the story, something that I have always declined to do so. Writing a "kiss & tell" somehow just felt wrong.

And then in early 2015 it was suggested I write the story around the business model; exactly how did we build a billion dollar brand in Japan? And that I could write. Eliciting the thought process and occasionally hilarious, I recount how we approached each challenge in turn until the brand became 50% larger than our respected rivals from across the pond. And now the hard part begins; editing.  After that though, might just be time to get a real job. Unless I start another book of course.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Billboard - man, does it turn up surprises

Tokyo is a little interesting in that it suffers from a lack of major venues that can really showcase the great artists of the day. There's no Wembley Arena or Madison Square Garden, and the only two in the city, Tokyo Dome and The Budokan, although they can host acts, the acoustics are really not there. The Budokan was built for judo and the Tokyo Dome is actually a baseball stadium. Audio comes a far flung second (though it has to be said, ten rows back from the stage, Paul McCartney was really quite something).

But what Tokyo does have is a plethora of smaller venues that sometimes really throw up a surprise. The Blue Note is relatively well known and in a few weeks it'll be The Fratellis at O-East in Shibuya. Club Quatro always has great acts and Candy Dulfer brought the house down when I saw her play a few years back. But the new kid on the block is Billboard. Almost impossible to find inside Roppongi Midtown, it regularly books surprises that turn out to be outstanding.

Last week saw Leo Sayer play Japan for the first time in over thirty years. With three Japanese friends, who confessed to knowing nothing about the singer, we had a seriously great night. It has to be said a touch overweight, he held the audience in the palm of his hand. Great pipes and infectious enthusiasm; you know that he'd have played exactly the same show even if the room had been empty. And my friends loved it. So if you get the chance, seek out the small venues, there are awesome artists hidden away in those small little places. And they might just surprise you. I did me.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Curious Cuisine of Tokyo

Living in Japan somewhat spoils you for the local cuisine. Visit a top Japanese restaurant in London or New York and whilst everyone else is cooing over the exotica you usually find yourself thinking that something isn't quite right. But it doesn't need to be an expensive night out on the town in Tokyo, even the cheapest bowl of ramen will often be outstanding. And that's before the garlic. And if you want only garlic, well there's that too, at a chain by the name of Niniku-Ya (the Garlic Shop).

Tako-yaki (octopus chunks in dough) is excellent at midnight on the way home and okonomiyaki, a form of filled pancake, will set you back but a few dollars and goes great with a beer. In fact almost all Japanese food goes well with beer, wine being something of an afterthought. Uni, sea-urchin, is something of an acquired taste having the consistency of mushy sea water but natto (fermented beans) remains for a limited audience; it smells a little like baby sick.

Basashi, thinly sliced raw horse meat, may sound a little off-putting but is actually delicious and of course, sushi and sashimi are a delight. Kobe beef will set you back a pretty penny but katayaki-soba (deep fried noodle) will satisfy the need without breaking the bank. So if you come to Japan, enjoy the cuisine, it's quite an experience. And if you can only stomach McDonald's, at least try the teriyaki burger, it's actually not that bad.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Shima Uta - The Island Song

On 1 April 1945, US Army and Marine forces spearheaded the invasion of Okinawa, a battle lasting nearly three months that claimed the lives of close to half the pre-war population of the islands. Taking shelter in the cave systems, the civilian population were co-erced and instructed to take their own lives rather than surrender to the Americans. And so many of them did. Far more died this way than actually in the fighting.

And then a young guy from Yamanashi Prefecture, an hour outside Tokyo towards Fuji, visited the island and saw the impact for himself. Emerging from one of the tunnels, he was struck by the clear air and open skies and saw the stark contrast to the suffocating tunnels underground. And he wrote a song about it, part in Japanese, part in the native Okinawa language. His aim, to make people aware of how and why these people died.

Shima Uta, The Island Song, is a haunting, hypnotic melody that talks about the divisions created by the conflict and how the people were caught in a time they neither wished for nor understood. Although the English translation conveys the meaning of the song, the Japanese carries the emotion and intensity. It's one of the most accessible songs for a non-Japanese speaker. And its message is a heartbreaking one to hear.

Shima Uta