Sunday, February 28, 2016

A crisis in the night

Japan, as a nation and a culture, is astonishingly good at executing a pre-determined path. But it somewhat struggles with emergencies, especially ones not in the manual. When the Kobe earthquake toppled the city, the mayor spent the day wondering what to do and the Self Defence Forces could only fly over the city on training exercises whilst the habitation below burnt to the ground. The Tohoku earthquake of 2011 wasn't much better and it took the government over a week to actually declare a disaster; something the rest of us had already figured out on day #1.

And so it was little of a surprise when the restaurant I had booked for dinner had something of a fire in their kitchen and the emergency drill said for the staff to evacuate the customers first and themselves second. In this instance a little bit of an over-reaction I fear, it seemed that an extractor fan had given up the ghost more than anything else and the room was filling with smoke from the open braziers. Still, training kicked in and the staff began clearing tables.

The only issue being that the manual clearly didn't illustrate exactly where we should evacuate to. Showing something akin to ingenuity, the manager decided we should evacuate up, after all, that's what you do in a flood. Fires are a little different though. So we headed down fifteen stories on the fire escape. Customer service being of paramount importance, the manager assigned one of the staff to lead us, pointing out where the stairs were as we went. They were actually directly in front of us, one step at a time as it were. Still, better safe than sorry and we can say we rescued one of the junior staff from certain work that evening. Hope he still got paid though.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

No representation without taxation!

"No taxation without representation!" was the war cry of the somewhat peeved and independent minded good citizens of Boston as they pitched tea leaves into the biggest drink of them all some time towards the end of the 18th century. "No representation without taxation!" was the slightly less known response of The New Statesman in a Rik Mayall classic from the late 1980's. And both tag lines would appear relevant in Japan today.

The individual income tax rate has just taken a hike to an eye watering 56% marginal rate on high earners. But it's not the rate that is excruciating, it's the fact that all foreigners being taxed at this rate, and many expats clearly fall into this band, it's that none of us have the right to vote. I don't mind paying my fair share of tax, I really don't, and the law states the rates and so it's time to pay up. But not having a vote, even though it really wouldn't make a difference at the end of the day, that's the issue.

All of us, permanent resident and non-doms alike, live here as guests of the people of the Japan. But we pay our fair share and would like to have our say; even if it's a little one. An almost irrelevant one. But it isn't going to happen any day soon. So I'll carry on walking my dogs and thinking about tax rates and representation. But throwing tea into the Pacific Ocean isn't something I'll be thinking of; I quite like green tea, especially in Hagen Daz ice cream. Cup o' cha love?


Monday, February 22, 2016

The stars of TV cars

Being a poor-Japanese reader and absolutely non-Italian speaker, the pleasures of Inspector Montalbano are something of an unattainable though everyone tells me it's an excellent and enjoyable series. Living in Japan it's relatively simple to forget that talent shows and NCIS (which I have to admit, is something of a guilty pleasure) is not the only programming offered up to the airwaves. And then it all falls rapidly down; subtitles in Japanese and language in something else, one can easily become quickly lost.

One of the problems with TV in Japan is the cost. It costs virtually nothing and it shows. The stereotypical game show is sadly a little too close to the mark. There are occasionally high quality drama but they tend to rely on outstanding writing than world beating production. Sports coverage tends to be limited to football (soccer) and baseball though marathons and the local variety ekidens are highly popular but the audio quality tends to be akin to your mum taking a home video cam to a school sports day (though all mums do wonders with that anyway!).

And so this brings us to the nightmare scenario. How exactly will the new Top Gear be presented on TV in Japan? Previous versions have seen the one hour show cut down to thirty minutes, somewhat detracting from the continuity of the tightly interwoven scripts. Just as long as it's not dubbed, because the powers that be tend to delete the English track completely and the two new shows due to commence later this year would just not be the same. It's not the cars, it's the sarcasm. And as a language, Japanese doesn't lend itself too well to that.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Tunnels of Tokyo

TenguLife has been travelling for the last ten days and hence has been somewhat below the blog event horizon. It is hard to understand why, in the modern world of jet planes and fast cars it took a little over twenty four hours to travel from the east coast of America to the east coast of Japan. But that is what it is, and much as I admire Washington Dulles Airport for having no additional security checks (I took my shoes off once, do I really need to do it again?)  I would have enjoyed the 11.00AM Bloody Mary in the lounge. But it was not to be, ANA sharing with Lufthansa and apparently these Germans don't drink in the morning, though these must be the first in history; my old company actually included in the work rules that beer must be available at all times of day, and many enjoyed the pleasure.

But upon arrival, Japan has now built something quite remarkable. Narita is in the wrong place. Few would argue with that, including the small population of the town of Narita itself who were fairly solidly against the idea of an airport in the first place. Travelling into Tokyo though used to be a choice of over the Rainbow Bridge (or taking the slow) (or slower) train designed to match the speed of the bus routes. The tunnel under the bay was good for Yokohama but deposited the intrepid driver into the back streets of Oimachi if brave enough to try the route.

And then they built a second tunnel. Coming out from underground after crossing the water between downtown and the airport, there is now a new way to come into central Tokyo. And it is fast. C1 is the old circular roadway around the centre of the capital but now C2, the outer ring, is slowly opening in sections. And last night it brought me home. Depositing cars some 10k's from the entrance, we no longer need to travel through backstreets, roadworks and traffic lights. Circumnavigating Tokyo just got a little bit easier. Now if they could just move Narita some 60k's closer life would be perfect. Or use Haneda of course.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Happy Birthday Japan

February 11 is a national holiday in a country famous for its many days of rest. Which is not a bad thing as people typically take only a fraction of their company annual leave. In total there are sixteen here compared with the US where there appear to be around ten but then these are topped up with local and state days away from the grind as well. Germany has six weeks annual leave so I haven't even researched how many additional days and anyone going to France in August will miss the entire population as it decamps to the country.

But February 11 is National Foundation Day in Japan. It was designed around the ascension of the first Emperor Jimmu some two and a half thousand years ago. Initially the government fluffed it though. In 1872, choosing the Chinese New Year, the populace thought it was all associated with China rather than Japan and so the following year it was switched to the fixed date of February 11. And it has been there ever since.

Occasionally it can be hijacked by the far right wing with speaker vans blaring across the country, usually in relation to the Russian discussion of the ownership of four islands off the north coast of Hokkaido, or more recently minor arguments with China over a chunk of rock that the Tokyo government decided to buy from a private family, sparking renewed disagreement. But most people simply put their feet up. Not much happens on this day. Winter is receding but Spring has yet to arrive. And the coffee on the veranda is actually very nice. Happy Birthday Japan.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Winter waterfalls - the beauty of ice

Japan can be cold. We sit off the eastern coast of the world's largest single land mass so it's going to happen from time to time that the wind will come to visit us directly from Siberia; and that's really cold. But sometimes it pulls a surprise and although the air temperature is sub-zero, it starts to rain. And then you have an ice storm. The rain falls and as it touches the first thing when it reaches the ground it instantly turns to ice. As my postman can attest to. Once I chiseled him out.

But strangely the reverse is also true. In the mountains of central Japan, people will dry their laundry outside on a washing line, in the middle of winter, at -15C. The whole process works because the air itself is so dry that you can walk outside in a T-shirt and drink a cup of coffee without really feeling the chill. A little different to where I grew up; cold was cold in those days.

Then there is what happens to waterfalls in an arctic climate. Japan is roughly on a par with Arizona and the north coast of Africa but that Siberian wind makes all the difference. And the rivers freeze over. Indeed, people will bring the hoses out and deliberately create their own ice sculptures in the winter months by slowly spraying water on a tree or rock. And yes, I did do it. And yes it looked awesome; like a waterfall of ice. But this is the tree that my postman sheltered underneath. Not sure it helped.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The art of the sword

One of the interesting aspects of learning a second language for a bilingual illiterate like myself as I arrived on the shores of Japan all those years ago, is how much it teaches you about your own native language. Realising how many different meanings of "spring" there were became something of a party game and realising "this" and "this" were different words came as quite a surprise. The English language has the largest vocabulary of all apparently followed by Russian. But there are words that simply don't exist.

In Japanese, the word "genki" is a very simple example. There's no direct translation but the word means roughly "I'm feeling great", "I'm doing good". Another is "o-tsukaresama" which is called as someone leaves the office in an evening and roughly translates as "you must be tired" or "thank you for being exhausted". Not something you'd hear very often in English. And then there's "tameshigiri". The adverb to test your sword's craftmanship on another's corpse.

No longer a daily practice (as it were), it used to involve skilled swordsmen, similar to the way a car is tested by an experienced driver, slicing into the corpse in a consistent manner to eliminate the "human" element of the test. And try as I can, I really can't think of an equivalent word in the English language for that. 

And as a PS as we're talking about language: Never laugh at someone's poor English, it means they speak two languages. Thank you whoever came up with that phrase.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The horses of Shinobazu Pond

The district of Ueno in northeast Tokyo is famous for a number of reasons. Not far from Asakusa, the home of the 18th century Yoshiwara entertainment district, today it is famous for the sakura trees in spring when the hordes will descende after work hours to drink beer and party together. It's also the home to the capital's largest zoo boasting pandas and where a friend of mine once green-screened a giraffe. And it also has a pond.

And Shinobazu Pond has a history. If you look at it's shape it somewhat hints at what it may be. Although today the Ueno district would appear to be inland, it's actually an ancient reed bed, overspill from the tidal flows of the Pacific Ocean as it hugged the coast line of Tokyo Bay. But the natural shape of the swamp and a 2,000 meter circumference provided an opportunity for a popular sport in the new Meiji Era.

Enterprising entrepreneurs of the day decided to build a horse track around its permitter in 1884 and enjoyed a day at the races for the next several years. The Emperor actually attended the opening event but horse races are expensive and eventually it fell into disuse and closed by 1892. And today it is quite a pleasant lily pond; though a filtration system keeps it a little cleaner than it was in the days when it would bear witness to the Sport of Kings. And that is why it's the shape it is.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The beans of good luck

On the 3 February 1992 I was a very lost foreigner, very new to Japan. I'd landed a few weeks before and was living in Osaka, not speaking a word of the language in a city of eight million people, not many of whom spoke English. Non-Japanese were so rare of the ground that little kids would run up and tap me, running away laughing that they'd touched a foreigner. Indeed once an entire school class lined up on a train to ask for my autograph as they'd never met a foreigner in their lives before.

But February 3rd is a special day in the Japanese calendar; known as setsubun-no-hi it was the last day of winter in the Chinese calendar before the adoption of the western style in the early days of the Meiji Restoration. And it was the day to drive the evil spirits out of the house. Spring cleaning as it were. In a ceremony known as mamemaki, families would throw beans out of the doors or windows, shouting at the devils to get out and to call good luck in.

And on that day my Japanese boss brought me a small package and a note from his wife. Her English wasn't great but she'd obviously taken the time and effort to write the short transcript for me, explaining what I needed to do. The package contained a handful of beans and when I got home that night, I threw them out of the window not really understanding why. And life started to get better after that. Thank you Mrs Gorokawa, today I still remember your kindness and the good luck you brought me all those years ago. My son is seventeen and my Japanese wife is beautiful.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The nail that sticks up

There's a quite famous Japanese phrase "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down". This refers, obviously, not to any actual form of woodwork, but a philosophy on life where harmony is valued and dissent not tolerated. "Don't make waves" would be a similar expression in English but it is not quite the same as it implies the action taken carries a negative connotation whereas its Japanese cousin discourages any form of independent action, for good or ill. Just don't be different from the crowd.

The concept, although considered by some a little archaic, is deeply ingrained in the country's psyche as a group mentality. Indeed, even in the workplace people would prefer to be recognised as a team than as an individual, irrespective of contribution to a successful outcome, or lack thereof. People in Japan simply prefer to be seen as a cogent entity rather than a talented solo artist. And there is a reason for this and it's seeped in history.

For centuries Japanese culture revolved around subsistence rice farming for sustenance and this required communal support. You can't plant and nurture a rice field all on your own, it takes the entire village. So if you're cast out you're probably going to starve. And the option of joining a new village was somewhat limited, they would want to know why you were cast out in the first place. So the nail kept his head down. Or got hammered down. Or died out. And Darwin had a theory about that.