Thursday, December 31, 2015

Curiouser and curiouser - the evolving laws of Japan

Japan is essentially a highly developed, law-abiding country despite the best efforts of the legal system itself. Total gun related deaths in 2014 - eight. Empowered to enact the laws of the land, the Diet (Japan's version of the House of Representatives), which struggled with the difference between a law and a constitution in 2015, will soon pass a seemingly innocuous requirement to address the question of passive smoking in public. Except, in deference to the voting community of Japan's tobacco farmers, it will avoid any mention of penalties.

A seeming contradiction in terms, a law without the option, or presumably desire, of enforcement, isn't something all that new in Japan though. The original sexual harassment (sekuhara) laws were effectively a request not to participate until as late as the 1990's. That the word 'sekuhara' is a contraction of the English rather than being a native Japanese word is interesting in its own right. And the new corporate governance law requiring companies to employ a certain percentage of female executives has not only had its targets reduced but also avoided the sticky question of penalties at all. 

Indeed product liability laws were only revised in the early 2000's when a faulty TV burnt some unfortunate consumer's house down and the manufacturer's response was to blame the individual for plugging it in. And when Japan finally implemented child pornography laws recently, the bill included a twelve month grace period for people to delete their existing collections. And so, if the passive smoking laws are being de-fanged to prevent disquiet amongst tobacco farmers, then it begs the obvious question, who exactly were they trying to avoid displeasing in the other examples.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The 2000GT, Toyota's first Supercar.

Japan is a by-word for engineering excellence (nuclear reactors apart it has to be said). Their motorbikes pretty much wiped the floors of global competition in the '60s and '70s. Designed not to leak oil and with the novel concept of actually starting in the mornings, they dominated the small engine market. But they didn't really do it with style; that is until Toyota launched the 2000GT at the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show.

Some fifty years later the 2000GT remains a classic of design, a Grand Tourer for cruising the inter-states of the west coast and equally the then developing highways of Japan. The modern Nissan GTR may be a creative tour-de-force (though it drives through town traffic in a remarkably similar fashion to a miss-firing cow), but few would probably prefer its production excellence to the flowing lines of the 1960s creation. And there's the rub; Toyota's first supercar was actually designed and built by Yamaha.

Famous for musical instruments (note the three tuning fork logo on the motorbikes) it had been established in the late 1800s as the Nippon Gakki Company. Fortunately the name was changed to that of the founder (let's face it, who is going to tell their friends over a beer they've just bought a Gakki) and today Yamaha is a global super power based in Hamamatsu. And if you visit in Golden Week, you can fly a kite. Not bad for a corner store reed pipe and piano maker.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The notes of the New Year

As discussed in an earlier post, Christmas Day isn't a big deal in Japan being somewhat overshadowed by Christmas Eve dates and Kentucky Fried Chicken, however New Year is a different matter. Adopted in 1873 in the early days of the Meiji Restoration, New Year in Japan is celebrated based on the western calendar rather than the previously observed floating dates of the Chinese calendar (still celebrated in China and a number of other countries across Asia).

New Year is the time families come together, the surviving generations visiting their ancestors graves and enjoying the morning with an equivalent of Christmas Dinner, though somewhat more focussed on soup and mochi, the pounded rice cake that sticks to everything like baby poo to a blanket. If you try it, make sure the vacuum cleaner is close by; don't ask, but just make sure you know where it is. And a number of years ago I was invited to join a New Year family gathering. 

Money being the traditional gift for children, the two young brothers proudly showed me their haul for the day. These being crisp, new notes, I spent the morning teaching them how to fold paper airplanes. However, these being young brothers, soon one pushed the plane up his sibling's nose resulting in a quite impressive nosebleed, which, according to all assembled, was clearly my fault. From today people will start returning to their family homes and if you're lucky enough to be invited, have a great new year. And ask about the vacuum cleaner, it will make them laugh.

The making of mochi - the vacuum cleaner is used when
you're choking on it  if you're still wondering

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Skies of the Mountains

The stars (the celestial variety at least) of Tokyo suffer from the same afflictions of those in almost every major urban centre of the world; the colour of the air and the level of the light we release from the streets to the dark of the night. Air pollution itself is actually not that bad in Japan although at New Year, the views of Fuji-san from the windows of Shinjuku are undoubtedly clearer as the city's population follows the annual exodus to their home towns and the cars and their exhaust disappear from the streets. 

The winter months are best for viewing the skies but by April the haze and cloud often obscure what can be an incredible night's light show. The planets and the major constellations are visible but it will have been a long while since the Milky Way was visible from the streets of Ginza. And it's only when you head to the mountains do you realise what you are missing; the nights of the Northern Hemisphere are simply stunning.

At around a thousand meters, (~3,000 ft) the air is so clear the moon will keep you awake. The population of Japan has, since the 1950's, been predominantly urban and so the villages and towns of the rural country are fewer and further between and the skies can be seen in all their majesty. The beer's not bad either... If you have the chance take a trip to an onsen outside of the city, sit and relax with a waters up to your neck and just watch the stars go by. Living in Tokyo you can sometimes forget how incredible they are.

Moonset, 5.00am, an hour before dawn

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The saga of a National Stadium

The day the old National Stadium in central Tokyo played out its final encounter in May 2014 as Japan put Hong Kong to the wall with a 49-8 victory over Hong Kong's Rugby Union team, who were possibly unaware of their contribution to a little piece of history. The stadium was then demolished to a fighter jet fly past and, with the plans for the new creation also demolished, now resembles a large pile of rubble in the eastern corner of Shinjuku.

The initial Zaha Hadid design was cast adrift after providing a boost to the Olympic bid based officially upon the question of "cost". As the architect herself pointed out "that's what happens when you say to the contractor you've got the job, now how much will it cost?". The two new finalist, which came in at a cost a fraction of a percent in difference from each other and remarkably close to the government specified limit of approximately $1.3bn, have now been whittled down to one.

And pancakes it is. Japan has great experience in wooden structures so there is little question it can be delivered in style. The timing of November 2019 is probably a little surprising for the Rugby World Cup, first left standing at the alter when the original design was abandoned only to find the new stadium is destined to be complete a mere three weeks after the Rugby World Cup final. A national stadium is important, reflecting a belief in the value that sport can bring to a country, its youth and its populace in general. And it's not just for the Olympics; it will be there for next fifty years. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

'tis the season to be jolly - j'nai...

Only a few days to go until Christmas and the Santas are appearing thick and fast on the streets of Tokyo. The department stores have been in full festive mode all the way back to Halloween and I have to admit my first Christmas dinner was actually on December 7th, which feels and eternity ago from where I'm standing today. There are no carol singers on the streets but the stores have been making up for that with rolling renditions of "Last Christmas" playing over and over again (not bad for a thirty year old song).

The interesting thing is though that Christmas actually isn't a big deal in Japan. Companies are open for business, most staff wouldn't even think about taking the day off. The 23rd is a national holiday but that's because it's the Emperor's birthday (an event with its own story) but Christmas Day is part of the normal working calendar, most companies opting to close over the New Year instead. But Christmas Eve will see a couple of interesting traditions.

KFC will be stockpiling entire flocks of chicken wings remembering "Christmas isn't Christmas without Kentucky Fried Chicken" surely one of the most effective advertising campaigns of all time. And then there's the Christmas Eve date. Despite the street campaigns by the self titled "Christmas Losers" (there might be a good reason for the name), every single person in Japan will be with someone special for the evening. Even if there is no one that special, they'll find someone to share their company. It's a nice tradition, no idea where it came from. But whatever, a Fine and Happy Christmas to you all!

A Miracle on 34th Street - Best Christmas movie ever!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Harrison Ford, a Giraffe and a three legged Crow. Welcome to Japan.

Kirin is the Japanese word for a giraffe, although when Japan first saw a real life giraffe is a question somewhat open to debate but probably dating back to the early 15th century and the Chinese explorative voyages to the coasts of Somalia. The name however, predates the African savannah lands and referred originally to a mythical beast, the qilin; horned, hooved, part dragon and sometimes the harbinger of good news.

It's also the name of Japan's second most popular tipple, Kirin Lager Beer, overtaken in the 1990's to the surprise of the nation by the upstart Asahi Super Dry. Promoted by the likes of Harrison Ford, Yokohama based Kirin beer had seen dominance over its Osaka counterpart for as long as most could remember but eventually the hoover, horned, scaley deer like dragon beast was to be seen off its top spot and remains to this day a default rather than first choice.

Indeed, to generate new interest, Kirin went as far as creating an App that not only provided the reader with the location of the nearest fine establishment stocking its products, when you scan the bar code on the bottle, you get your own avatar to keep you company. A little sad and lonely it has to be said. Still, probably better than being a yatagaras, the three legged crow that kills itself if it breaks a promise. Mythical creatures are interesting in Japan.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Spring Valley Brewery and the first fine pints of Japan

Back in the early days of April 2015, Kirin Beer, one of the major brewers in Japan, entered into an experiment in the backstreets of Daikanyama, a small and quiet neighbourhood of Tokyo. Established as a minor house of creation, The Spring Valley Brewery takes advantage of the changes in brewing laws of a decade ago that allow for low volume, on-site creation of some quite remarkable tastes. And as you sit outside, under cover from the rain and with a heater to keep you warm, you have to wonder as to the origins of the name. At least I did.

And the name goes back to the origins of Kirin Beer itself. Today Japan has three major beer companies; the Osaka based market leader Asahi, with its signature tipple "Asahi Super Dry", remains slightly ahead of Kirin following the shocks of the 1990's when it overturned their market dominance which is then followed, a little far behind, by Suntory, another Osaka based brewer dating from the days of the Meiji restoration. But Kirin's roots date to chaotic days of the opening of Japan, in the the twilight of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Founded in 1869 by William Copeland, an American-Norwegian entrepreneur who had arrived in Japan half a decade earlier, 'The Spring Valley Brewery' provided German style beers to both the local Yokohama foreign community as well as the Japanese market itself through Meidi-ya, at the time an importer and distributor of foreign goods and produce. Selling out to local investors in 1885, the brand would eventually evolve into Kirin, the name of a lucky, mythical Japanese beast. And so if you'd like to see the origins of The Spring Valley Brewery take the short walk from the Gaijin Botchi in Yokohama, past the international school and over to Kitagata Elementary School, for that's where it all began. Kampai!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Last Friday before Christmas

The expat community of Japan has many interesting societies and gathering that help bind the  diaspora together. 'Brits Not Bankers', 'The St Andrew's Society' and the 'Curry Club of Kobe' are just a few examples of the informal gatherings that occur throughout the year. And now it's Christmas. And there is one that is held just the once each year. The Last Friday Club. Which this year was designated by decree to be Monday, 7th December (it's a long story).

The origins of Last Friday Club date back to 2001 when on the last Friday before Christmas, two foreigners decided to have a quick lunch together and one had a cool little new device called an iPod. Over a couple of beers they prodded and played with this new toy, enjoyed the lunch at Trader Vics and agreed it would be a great idea to catch up again a year later again on the last Friday before Christmas.

Today the group has grown somewhat however membership always rotates. Invited on a blind cc, no one, excepting the organiser, knows who will actually be there on the day. International footballers, the odd coach of a national team, presidents of companies and numerous others take the afternoon off and enjoy a beer and a pina colada together (and there is obviously a story about that too which if you read carefully, you may get the reference). And then it's back to the corporate world and another year until we catch up again. Thanks to all for coming along, great to see you and here's a festive treat...

Friday, December 4, 2015

Tokyo Comic Con - The Genius of Steve Wozniak

Tokyo Comic Con 2016 kicked off with a press launch in Roppongi Midtown. Something new for Japan, the origins date back to a conversation between Stan Lee, the godfather of American superheroes, and Steve Wozniak, the legendary engineer who brought Apple to the world alongside Steve Jobs. They believe in a cross over between pop-culture and technology and aim to create something that is truly global in scope and execution.

Woz-san, as respectfully referred to by the MC, talked of his love of Japan and how he sees it as a country of pioneering concepts and technologies. Somewhat adverse to international travel, he made the point of how much he enjoyed visiting Japan in particular and even how his wedding ring was created using the technology of the katana, something over four centuries old. But he just loved the technology. And he talked about the new world.

His belief is that learning should be fun. Motivation is more important than knowledge he said. The world has changed and Steve Wozniak was an agent of that change. Steve Jobs famously loved the Zen of Kyoto but Steve Wozniak spoke of his passion for Japan's future vision. And then he was joined on stage by Darth Maul along with the Emperor from the dark side, praised the work of Mifune, he of The Seven Samurai, to his daughter and chatted with a green haired cosplay idol. But he believes learning should be fun. And from a man who changed all our lives, that's important.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Fratellis in Shibuya

Roppongi is famed as the night life centre of Tokyo for the foreign community having housed some of the infamous gaijin friendly establishments dating back to the 1960s as it drew the crowds away from Akasaka and the Ginza. However, it's not where the locals party, especially the young; they hang out in back streets of Shibuya where the bars and clubs often start late and finish even later.

The clubs, although very focussed on the domestic market, often without a word of English to assist even in basic directions, such as where is the door, are just as happy to host a foreign band as a local one. The big name acts are seen at venues like the Budokan or Tokyo Dome but if you're looking for something a little different, take a walk down the side streets of Dogenzaka. O-East, Quattro, O-West, Womb and the rest always have a hugely diverse selection of entertainment to choose from.

And the vibrancy was raised to "11" last night as the Scottish band The Fratellis brought the house down in front of around 500 Japanese fans who seemed to know the words to every single song and who carried a flag waving Scottish fan on their shoulders for much of the time. Highly talented and highly enjoyable, it was a great show. Thanking the crowd and pointing out that without them they'd just be three guys in an empty room, they left the audience ears still ringing. And then we walked home. Shibuya is just so easy.

Fratellis in concert in Japan