Saturday, March 26, 2016

Great athletes are simply great athletes

One of the greatest athletes I've ever had the privilege to watch exercising his art is a Japanese baseball player who has achieved the pantheon of simply being known by one name, Ichiro. Fluidly walking on the pitch (park, field? never sure with baseball) even the opposing fans were up on their feet cheering him. Never the home run king, simply one of the best players of all time, he went on to take the American leagues by storm for more than a decade.

But others had walked the path of greatness before. Oh-san set the single season home run record in 1964, a record he held for over four decades; not bad in Japan for a guy with Chinese citizenship. But it was a contemporary of his who held the game's fans in palm of his hand for over two decades; a man not renown for his outstanding memory, forgetting to finish a home run once, leaving his son at a game and having to call his wife to explain to his taxi driver where he lived on various occasions.

But boy could he bat. Like the greats he was also known by a single name, Nagashima. A coach when I first arrived in Japan having retired from the pitch more than a decade earlier, he still held legendary status and people would whisper rather than state his name. And at the peak of his powers he was so feared in the field he would be walked rather than being given the opportunity to play out of the park. And that happened so often he once walked to the plate, took the stance and waited for the ball. But this time, he'd deliberately forgotten the bat.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The absent burner phones of Japan

Burner phones of stuff of a movie director's dreams. An untraceable approach to instant communication for international sting operations, bank heists and car chases. Pre-paid, no one knows the user as he or she races past the convenient manhole, snaps the phone in half and throws it into the depths of the earth, speeding off into the sunset. That is, apart from in Japan, there they mainly don't exist, and where they do, you need your passport registered to it first. So much for anonymity.

And this is where it gets interesting. In its day the prepaid market in Japan was growing rapidly until its reputation became entangled with organised crime. Despite the ECB (a European business association) pointing out that the usage by the underworld of this convenient form of communication (for the younger and those with zero credit rating) had been traced to less than 0.1% of illegal activity on a usage basis, the government decided it was time to act. And pre-paid phones were effectively banned in the early 2000's.

However, they still exist. Just. Foreigners flying into the country can pick them up at the airports. But, in a similar fashion, organised crime, funnily enough, still exists. So burner phones are largely a thing of the past here and the police are happy and the consumer's memory too short to remember them. And seventeen year olds who are not legally allowed to contract for a phone (or anything) still need to rely on a parent or older friend. Will be interesting to see how the lowering of the voting age from 20 to 18 last year is going to change things. Go out and vote; and maybe you'll get your phones back. It's your elders who voted them out.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

I am very very waiting

Native, and to a large extent proficient non-native speakers of English, tend not to notice some of the complete curve balls (American phrase) that can be played with a straight bat (English) whilst putting the cart before the cow (French). It's only when you live somewhere like Japan and the room stops as everyone looks-up the meaning of a basket case you realise we don't speak English, if you think about it we actually speak idiom. 

This can cause more than just a little chaos. Most Japanese have never heard of Blackadder and so when you refer to your cunning plan, people tend to assume you actually have a plan. And a sticky situation, stickier than when sticky the stick-insect was stuck to a sticky bun, is seriously going to get you nowhere. And once in a meeting a colleague exclaimed that you don't use a mackerel to catch a sprat, even I had to pause for thought.

But English has one key advantage. Less than half the worlds users are native; we are used to hearing it in it's different forms. When someone refers to finding a mouse, we automatically take in the context and understand whether someone is talking about a food cupboard or a work station. But Japanese is so much more homogenous that leaps of lateral thinking are less  likely, for example the word for a virus is wirusu (wils) from the German, unless you're a computer, and then it's a birus. Languages are funny things, but someone with bad English, speaks two.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

From cherry blossoms to the ghosts of spring

So spring is slowly walking its way north through the archipelago of Japan and soon the parks will be full of celebrations, beer and old friends under the sakura trees of Tokyo. The famous cherry blossoms will be out, the weather still a little cool, and the junior staff from every company, sitting on a blue tarpaulins awaiting their daytime colleagues whilst holding onto the best locations and avoiding being overrun by early revellers. And that includes the preparations for the parties in Aoyama Cemetery. 

Central to the metropolis, the gravestones lay home to the mourning trees of the capital. "The dead centre of Tokyo" as a friend used to say every time we drove by. Families will pack the rows between  the stones and enjoy a reminiscence of times gone by but often of days yet to come. As someone whose home country lyes overseas, it's a fascinating time to watch an appreciation of nature, in all its forms from the families with children to the those visiting an ancestor in an urn.

A cheerful place at this time of year, I once found myself walking through the two and a half hectares of city centre listening to "The Women in Black" on a cold and somewhat dark evening. Strongly suggest you don't do that. Unless you like the feeling of inquisitive spirits following in your footsteps. Which is the reason the nearby Meiji Forest was hand planted around the famous shrine a few kilometres away in the first place. As you walk through the trees, the Emperor Meiji and his wife may just be looking over your shoulder. And that's why the forest is there. But watch out for a light tap on your shoulder....

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Getting old

Turning sixty in Japan is something of a big deal. There have been the first hundred days followed by your shichi-go-san celebrations and lets not forget about a day in early January with everyone turning twenty at the same time. But turning sixty means you've made it through five circuits of the Chinese zodiac and you've made it back to your birth symbol one more time. Whatever you were, you are again. In a sense, you have been reborn.

Kanreki is the name for the day but tends to be celebrated more by men than those of the fairer sex who, in general, would maybe prefer to maintain something of a lower profile for this particular milestone. The family though will recognise it and a red uniform will be prepared and presented; the colour representing this day of your rebirth. But how has Japan changed in those sixty years.

Think about it. Phones are no longer used for making calls, TV now boasts colour and libraries are places to leave your spare books for others to read. People no longer have cars but this comes by choice rather than the forces of economics and this year will see eighteen year olds at the ballot box whereas sixty years ago was still the early days of universal suffrage and only to those over twenty. So for everyone enjoying their day of kanreki, happy birthday to you. Just look at how your world has changed.


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A beer glass approach to world peace

The are sometimes disagreements between friends and often differences of opinion. There's bluster within belligerence and then there are just plain threats. Threatening to nuke Tokyo, for example, raises a little bit of a concern but more for symbolic reasons of the A-bomb than genuine public belief that North Korea could actually land one on downtown Roppongi. But that doesn't stop the Patriot Barriers being rolled out in times of international stress.

So the question arises, could Japan defend itself in time of conflict. Currently the answer is obviously yes; one quick call to America and a massive shield would rise around the archipelago. Japan's security has been guaranteed by the US since the pact was signed at The Presidio in 1952. But many here feel uncomfortable with such reliance on an ally and things are slowly moving more toward self sufficiency. For example with the introduction of the new Izumu Class "helicopter" carrier. You have to wonder what the forward launch pad is for.

The Self Defence Force (SDF) is highly trained and well equipped though their recruitment marketing team could do with a little help as seen here with a recent campaign to pass disembodied heads to shadowy anonymous figures. But will Japan ever actually have to defend itself? Probably not. China may be annoyed by rhetoric and create concern with gun batteries on newly created desert islands, but there's a lot of tourists in the shops of Shibuya. There may be sabre rattling in the television news but theres a lot of beer glass clinking in the bars too. People may not know it yet, but lately they're all actually friends, just with a few differences of opinion every now and then.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The streets of Dogenzaka

The streets of Dogenzaka carry an interesting character. In the late 19th Century they led to the daimyo lands of long forgotten war lords though still referenced in the books of Yukio Mishima, many of which will leave you wishing you had left them on the shelf. But Dogenzaka is an area of re-invention and re-interpretation. From once leading to the lord of the land, they now house the houses of the young. And your taxi will have to slow down as you drive through. Though walking is better.

The district is now under a long term re-generation unrelated to the 2020 Olympics though many may assume so. But quietly in the background the area has adapted over the years to each of the passing waves to overcome Shibuya in central Tokyo. The clubs are small, a few hundred people at most, but they show life and are open to all. A recent concert by one of my favourite Scottish bands saw maybe 500 enjoying the show but maybe the same on the streets waiting for the next.

And that's the point. In Tokyo 500 teenagers can gather together on the streets and no one feels concerned. In fact you kind of wonder where they got the costumes and where their coats are on a cold winter night. And as your taxi slowly moves through the crowds, the angry young youth of Japan will politely move out of the way and bow to apologise for causing you some inconvenience. Which on the whole is a great deal better than being shot at.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Kubi-kake - putting your neck on the line

The act of sliding a finger horizontally across your throat has many different meanings in many different cultures. You're dead is an unsurprisingly common interpretation but in Japan it more likely to mean you're fired. However, it's possibly only in Tokyo that there is actually a tree named after this well worn action, the "cut throat" Kubi-Kake gingko tree of Hibiya Park, "planted" there in 1899 close to the future site of the Frank Lloyd Wright 1923 designed Imperial Hotel.

Converted from daimyo lands in the days of the shogun to military parade grounds following the Meiji Restoration and finally to Japan's first 365 day a year park in 1903, the area has some interesting secrets. The Large Open Air Concert Hall (the name is, yes, something of an oxymoron) doesn't quite stand up to The Greek Theatre in LA on a hot August night (and a prize for anyone getting that reference) but is quite a feature in its own right.

But the name of the much loved tree derives from a gentleman by the name of Dr Seiroku Honda, the designer of the new public leisure grounds when he insisted on saving it from the axe-man's  blow by uprooting and relocating it during the development of Hibiya-Dori. He literally put his neck on the line to save the topiary and the name somehow stuck. And now there's an Oktoberfest there and Doctor Honda is long forgotten but his tree is beautiful. And if you want to sit and think about life for a while, it's well worth a visit on a sunny day.