Friday, April 29, 2016

The human heart of an earthquake

A friend sitting on the road in Kumamoto
I sometimes hear those who've yet to experience an earthquake in Japan that they think it must be quite exciting or at the very least, quite interesting. And to be fair to them, that's precisely what I thought when I first arrived in country. And then Kobe happened and six thousand people died in a natural disaster and then the largely man made catastrophe that it became. Laws were changed following that and a later quake in Nagano a decade later; but earthquakes aren't that interested in laws.

An earthquake is the sudden shock when your world moves under your feet. Like two opponents in an arm wrestling match, the eventual result can occur imperceptibly slowly, or it can come in one, explosive instant. And when it does the ground ruptures and a series of shock waves pass through every single structure in their way. Whether that be farm fields or mountains, high rise buildings, ancient castles or homes. Each will receive a beating in a neutral and uninterested, uncaring manner.

But sometimes curiosity gains the better of us and we want to see the results without maybe considering the thousands or hundreds of thousands of individual souls impacted. But as a man living in the tsunami hit area of Tohoku I once met said to me after the disaster of March 2011, "I look at devastation every day outside of my window, so please, come visit sometime and have a beer, it'll give me something else to think about". And if you really want to know what the human heart of an earthquake look like, it looks something like this...

In ancient times, when Pandora's box was opened, and evil came flooding into the world, all that was left at the bottom of that box was hope. He also said to me "Think about us once in a while. You never know, it just might make a difference". Help when you can. Not when you have to.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The memories of Golden Week

Golden Week, the series of national holidays that starts upon the 29th of April each year in Japan and allows for nearly ten days away from the daily grind of the office for the cost of a couple of days of annual vacation, is about to commence. The traffic is already building across Tokyo and the highways will stall within a few hours. But tomorrow morning will be slower still and those brave enough to venture out will also still be out several hours later. Which is strange.

Because although in Japan the government not only supplies information on-line as to real-time traffic black spots, red-sports and generally difficult conditions, it also provides forward forecasts by day, by road. Heading to the mountains or the coast or the golf course, there will be a helpful indicator that tells you which day the traffic will be at its stationary peak. And still they go; to paraphrase Jeff Wayne's plaintiff cry in "War of the Worlds".

But Children's Day, the 5th of May, the last day of the holidays, is a national celebration. A friend of mine would always organise an expedition to see the Urawa Reds play in the 62,300 seat Saitama Stadium with himself and his wonderful family. A football crazy soccer fan he would invite us to the game and refuse to let us pay for the tickets or even buy the beer. And the last time I saw him he had my young son on his shoulders, running through the streets of Urawa, celebrating his team's triumphant victory. And then he died. And each year during Golden Week I sit and think about him, and I miss him.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Golden Week and the Gates of Rashomon

Golden Week is a moment in time when Japan closes its doors and puts its collective feet up at the end of April and beginning of May due to holidays ranging from an Emperor's birthday to a celebration of children. Or more accurately, boys. The cotton carp streamers, known as koi-nobori, do their thing and stream from rooftops, at least they used to, until we started to run out of children that is and the koi-nobori becoming somewhat thin on the ground.

But it's rare that people stop to think why it is actually called Golden Week, though the connection to being able to take two days vacation from the office grind and enjoy nine consecutive days away would seem somewhat obvious. However the origins date back to the golden era of radio, which used the phrase "Golden Time" to denote that moment in the evening when tired workers came home, tuned in, and put their own feet up and listening figures would spike.

And so it was that these days in April and May, being an effective Spring vacation, allowed the populace to relax and enjoy themselves a little as well. Including visiting their local cinema to watch such movies as the Kurosawa classic, Rashomon, with its many differing storylines. As a result there would be a boom in ticket taking which led to a gentleman by the name of Masaichi Nagata, the president of Daiei Cinema, the studio that made Rashomon, to refer to the time as "Golden Week". And so it stuck. In 1951. The only remaining question now being of course, what were the origins of the name of radio's "Golden Time" in the first place?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The differing ways to measure an earthquake

Japan, lying at the intersection of three of the planet's great tectonic plates, is prone to earthquakes as the massive islands of rock press up and over each other, one forming mountains, the other forming immense sea trenches, eventually spawning their offspring, volcanos. And as yet, it remains impossible to predict when an earthquake will strike, and to a useful extent where, though it is just a matter of time that Japan will take an impact.

The measuring system of the size of an earthquake though can be defined. But as always, there is more than one way to skin a Japanese cat. The recent M7.3 that struck Kumamoto was undetectable in Tokyo, we didn't feel a thing. Though closer aftershocks possibly triggered by the activity a thousand miles away did have me diving to grab the TV before it fell. And here lies the rub, what is more important, the power of an earthquake or the impact is has on your house.

Western systems (Richter as the press prefer, or Moment of Magnitude as the scientific community tend to refer to) are synonymous with the energy released in the earth's convulsions. Wherever you are in the world though, M is a fixed number. But the Japanese system, shindo x, is a statement of the intensity of the impact at any single, specific location. Scaled 1 ~ 7, 1 being barely perceptible, 7 being total destruction, it speaks little to the power of the temblor though volumes as to whether your family's highway to work has collapsed. Both systems are useful but they are quite different.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Fast cars and the crashing problem of an ageing society

In Japan, as in many countries around the world, it is an offence to drive under the undue influence of alcohol (and I'm not even going near other mind altering substances in this particular post). The definition is set as percentage blood alcohol and has been determined by the government as seemly to be effectively zero. Have a beer at lunch and no driving until the next day. And every now and then there is a police drive to remind the general populace of their responsibilities.

Indeed, the laws have now been tightened to the extent that the owner of a car, whom allows his automobile to be driven by an inebriated acquaintance, is effectively as guilty as the perpetrator themselves. And this concept extends to the passengers in the car as well. Sit there and allow someone to drive drunk and your frankly an idiot is the message from the courts who shall remind you of this with a fine of several thousand dollars. As a result drink driving offences have declined substantially over the years here.

And if you head out in your car for a night on the town in Japan it's actually not a problem, it's the driving home that is. And an entire industry has been created around this where you can call a number and two gentlemen in a small car will arrive post haste. In a system known as daiko one will drive you and your vehicle home while the other follows behind to collect his colleague at your destination. So Japan is at least trying to get on top of its drink driving problem. However, whilst deaths relating to those drivers aged 65 and above have increased to over 55% of the total deaths on the roads, maybe there's now something else to consider in a rapidly aging society.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The shoeless soles of Tokyo

It's been so long that I didn't even think twice before removing my shoes when I entered the four-story building in Atsugi, just outside Tokyo. After all it would never cross my mind to walk into someone's house with my shoes on, so why would I do so in an office? With all the furore over Messi's gift of his boots recently, it suddenly struck me how curiously unusual this act would appear in most countries in the west.

To keep the company's carpets clean, I unlaced my footwear and slipped them off, donning a pair of slightly small blue plastic slippers neatly laid out just inside the door for our convenience. Anywhere else I would probably feel somewhat ridiculous in a suit, tie and blue slippers; but not here in Japan. And we sat in the meeting, everyone looking serious and trying to find a resolution to a mildly intractable problem we were facing, whilst all the time shuffling our electric blue feet under the table. 

And when we finished we walked back to the entrance, where our shoes had all been lined up and neatly turned around so they would be easier to slip on. Then we bowed to each other and our contingent strolled away to hail a taxi, leather shoes once more rounding out our suits and ties. And all the while the thought running through my mind was not about those blue carpet slippers but about something  genuinely embarrassing. Had anyone from their team seen the hole in my sock when I'd removed my shoes?


Monday, April 4, 2016

The sakura tourists of Tokyo

It's sakura season, the time of year when the (frankly ugly duckling) cheery trees come out in bloom. Over the previous few weeks in the spring time of Japan, the colour of the the flora of Japan has been tuning from brown to white in a pedestrian stroll from south to north. And then the hotels became full. For the first time, hanami parties are bringing in the tourists and Tokyo is looking for a little extra space. Japan's 2020 vision of twenty million tourists has already happened. And largely in the last week of March / first week of April.

At first this was a little surprising. Why would tourists want to arrive in droves and see the cherry blossom? Stay at home and a wave of colour and scent will slowly cross your own township. And then talking to the hotels in and around Tokyo, it became clear, the tourists aren't from Japan, they're from overseas. And this is one of the most incredible times of year to see the sights. So forget about temples, Fuji and sushi, come see Japan when every village is something special.

Of course that means there wasn't a hotel room to be had for love nor money this last weekend. Cheep and cheerful, business and luxury alike, they've all been maxed out to capacity. Which makes you wonder, Japan as a country is at capacity with twenty million visitors. Paris alone manages more than that on an annual basis. The world will applaud Japan focussing on increasing global communication and cultural integration. But where exactly are they all going to sleep?