Monday, May 30, 2016

I simply didn't do it

It's probably been thirty years since the UK required police to record (on good, old fashioned, cassette tape) all interviews within a station. The US probably even predates this and yet it is only now that Japan is introducing laws to require suspect interviews to be taped at all (OK, about 3% were previously recorded, but this hardly counts). Given the 99% conviction rate based largely off "confessions" this would seem a positive step forward. Until you read the fine print.

Note it is only "suspects" who have the right to recording; defendants are still out in the cold. Once charged, an iron curtain is drawn across the proceedings. And not only that, the legislation also allows for the constabulary to cease recording if they believe the suspect is being uncooperative. Which, to be fair, is somewhat the remit of the suspect in the first place. And at twenty plus days incarceration, without access to legal counsel, that would be a lot of cassette tapes.

And so Japan, a modern democracy, still has it's limitations. And, to an extent, don't we all. But when they can lead you to death-row it's maybe a little more pressing than, say, downloading a song from the internet. Also illegal, but technically not necessarily life threatening. And yet when Miyuki Muto beat one of her staff to death (for being uncooperative...) she shows remorse and receives a sentence of no less than five years probation. And yes, I did just write that.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A robotic solution to an age old problem

When Taro Aso, the Japanese Finance Minister, said in 2013 that elderly people should "hurry up and die", he took the mature voter somewhat by surprise. Clarifying, he explained he'd been talking in a private capacity, though I'm not completely sure this makes me feel all that much better. In his defence though, he was effectively toeing the party line which had previously pointed out that opening to mass immigration of care workers was not on the table but it would be OK to send more elderly Japanese to The Philippines instead.

Japan still struggles with the concept of opening its doors to the wider world and as a result has turned its collective attention to the development of mechanical solutions to resolve the coming drought of nimble fingers. In Tokyo it's possible to check-in with a velociraptor or ask for assistance from a metallic receptionist straight from the chasms of the uncanny valley. But in contrast, a cute, semi-sentient seal brings pleasure to dementia stricken elderly without the need for psychotropic assistance.

In a country where care workers genuinely care, there simply aren't enough hands to go around. So robotics is seen as a solution. One of the leading players in the development of power enhancing exoskeletons is Cyberdyne Inc with the HAL 5 structure that augments an individual to the strength of ten. Cyberdyne also claim the name is purely a co-incidental and any reference to Skynet, utterly unintended. Probably best. But the whole HAL pod-bay door may now be slowly opening. Over to you ASIMO. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Ghosts of Sunshine

Sunshine 60 is a square block of a tower in northern Tokyo reminiscent of the somewhat unfortunate architecture inflicted upon the UK in the 1960's transformation of London's skyline from romantically historic to "in need of restoration". On completion in 1978 it stood nearly 240m tall with sixty stories and held the record for Asia's tallest building until surpassed by the 63 Building in Seoul some seven years later. And no prizes for guessing how many stories there were in that particular monolith.

I first visited Sunshine 60 in the early 1990's to enjoy what I had been informed was the finest curry in Japan. The experience however, left me somewhat concerned in relation to the rest of my stay. But at that time I had no idea that the towering structure held a secret. When constructed, it was raised on the grounds of the infamous Sugamo Prison, internment camp to Tokyo Rose, torture chamber of convicted spy Richard Sorge and execution grounds on 23 December 1948, to seven Class A war criminals including Tojo Hideki, Japan's wartime Prime Minister. And, of course, many believe it is haunted as a result.

But in a country with such a history as Japan, wherever you look there will be something, some little piece of that history. And today a friend stumbled across what must be a fascinating story if only I could find it. A German soldier died and was interred on the slopes of Mt Hakone, 100kms from Tokyo, passing away on 10 October 1945. But the question is, what exactly was Theo Zehrer doing in Japan at the time of the Allied Occupation in the middle of the foothills of Mt Fuji? But then again, there would have been worse places to be. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Soroban and abaci

It would only be the most heartless of us who would be unable to identify with the Roman engineer who had to calculate the product of MCML x IV. Or maybe not, most have probably never really thought it through but next time you see one of the astonishing aqueducts spanning a river valley in Europe, think about the people who built it and how they calculated it wouldn't fall. For the next two thousand years.

Before you say it, I know it's neither
Roman nor Mesopotamian, but I did like the graphic
But the Romans did have one tool in the box, the Mesopotamian abacus. A framework of beads and concepts that allows for complex multiplication and the water systems of cities though it has to be recognised that division is a little more problematic. And then Japan got its hands on one, some time around the middle of the fourteenth century, removed a bead and the soroban was born. And is still going strong today. Technically, the difference between a soroban and an abacus is the one vs two arrangement in the upper element of the device. 

Both work equally well and indeed you will see Japanese people performing mental arithmetic as their fingers imperceptibly flick beads up and down an imaginary adding machine. And this week I'll be interviewing someone who, on their resume, state that one of their life achievements was to gain Grade II in the use of the abacus. I guess they meant soroban but assumed I wouldn't understand. I do, but I also remain impressed as always by someone who has a skill I have yet to master.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Expectations and the perfect customer service

It's 9.30 in the evening and whilst my wife enjoys here favourite  shows, I'm lying face-up on the carpet at her feet enjoying a home delivery sports massage service soon to arrive. For one hour from 10.00 o'clock he'll work on my old and aching back and see if he can make it rather more functional for the rest of the week. My wife, being Japanese, I'm sure will serve tea and, in the rain, he will pedal off into the night. Whatever you think you have to be impressed with the work ethic.

There are any number of outstanding examples of customer service here, from the lady refilling one of the 5.5million vending machines on the streets (nearly 1 for every 23 of the populace) at midnight or the store staff putting out the umbrella bags when it rains to stop shop-floors becoming wet and slippy. And the amazing thing about it is that everyone simply expects not only to receive the ultimate standards, but to provide it too. And this is why there is no tipping Japan.

The thinking goes that servers expect to provide perfect service and a tip, inversely, is saying you're grateful for receiving service better than you expected. Which means you were expecting something less than perfect in the first place; something of a slap in the face. So when I pay the masseur he will ask and expect simply his fee and I shall pay only the fee and not a penny more. And in the end, we're both going to be happy; though with the rain tonight, he will be wetter.  

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The reservations of a culture

There's a famous joke about the English inhibitions and our inability to reach out and say a simple "hello". Whether it's true or not depends on your viewpoint but it goes something like this: "A plane crashes on a desert island. The only survivors are an Englishman and possibly the most beautiful girl in the world. A year later the Englishman is still waiting to be introduced." Harsh to the English male of the species, but probably fair.

However Japan suffers many of the same concerns and reservations. When asked one time whilst riding from Tokyo to Yokohama "isn't inappropriate for ladies to be bathing in a river", the Japanese guides response in the the 1870's
to the new and somewhat curious foreigner was "no, but it is considered inappropriate to look". The issue is that different people with their differing backgrounds look at a situation in different ways.

And so tonight when my wife and I had dinner with a fascinating Japanese lady she raised the same subject. Walking her lovely dog in a local park she recognised a famous actress. And then she recognised a second one. And etiquette kept them apart. Same park, same background. But difficult to say hello. And it's nice to know I'm not the only one waiting to be introduced on a desert island. But maybe someday I should do something about that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Night at the Opera

Well, nearly. Sometimes in Japan life can get a little interesting. Invited to a photoshoot studio for a beer to celebrate a national holiday, I suddenly found myself surrounded by extremely talented musicians who play just for the fun of it. And play they did, kicking off with "New York State of Mind" followed by "Change the World"; one admitting he didn't know the songs, but on drums he was just following the guitar.

And then, of course, it came to my turn. Anyone who knows me recognises my musical gifts as being as impressive as my skiing abilities. Enthusiastic and yet at the same time, rubbish. Selecting "Norwegian Wood" (following a somewhat disastrous "Sound of Silence") the guys rallied around and, being offered a guide vocal, I made my way through probably my favourite Beatles song to a welcome, though undeserved, round of congratulations from the assembly.

And then a lady stood up to sing. Enka is the traditional style of Japanese verse and when performed well can become spell binding. I have no idea of the story but it was captivating for that brief instant. If only my skiing and singing were just that little bit better. But for that moment I was lost with friends in the suburbs of Tokyo. Oh, and golden rule of karaoke, sing the songs you know, not the ones you like.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Darling Buds of May

May Day is an interesting turning point in Japan. The heaters go off and soon we'll be embracing the aircon, as the heat rises and the humidity sets in before summer. But just at the moment the weather is  warm and refreshing, the mornings bright and the evenings long and a pleasure. May and October are the best times to experience the country, the inverse of each other as the seasons merge one into another.

The frogs of the mountains will start to sing in chorus and we still have a few weeks before the mosquitos begin to disrupt our lives (as the Dalai Lama surmised "if you think you're too small to change the world, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito"). The cicada, or semi in Japanese, have yet to start their cry and Tokyo is peaceful following the population's exodus to their historical home towns. And it's the day the trains switch over from heating to their cooling systems.

So if you ever thought about visiting this country, you couldn't do much better than May, before the rains of June, the heat of July and humidity of August. September sees the peak of the typhoon season and then the land cools through October, the optimal window at the close of the year. May is a special time, life begins to wake up again after the sleep of winter. We may be at the same latitude as the northern shores of Africa, but those Russian winds are cold. And now they are behind us.