Monday, June 27, 2016

The wet weather of a rainy season

Across eleven days from late May to the middle weeks of June each year, the Japan Meteorological Agency traces the path of the fifth season as the Mei-Yu weather front progresses east from southern Kyushu to the borders of Tokyo and then on northward, at the rate of a brisk morning walk. Although not all that wet, indeed it's more often sunny that gloomy, Rainy Season is measured and reported on a daily basis including in some years the uncommon, though not unknown, statement when it fails to come to an orderly close.

The temperature sees a modest dip following the on-set of summer real in the middle of May and indeed it actually becomes quite pleasant in advance of the stifling heat of summer. So if you are thinking of a quick trip, there are worse times than now to experience the country. And this is where the problems begin. The government's target was to receive 20 million guests by the time of the Olympics in 2020, but, and much to the ministry's surprise, this number has already been achieved in 2016. And the hotels are full. In fact, Tokyo is full and creaking at the seams.

And so the question becomes one of how will the country cope as the number accelerates toward unimagined levels. The soaring yen will assist in dampening the spirit and indeed both Beijing and London actually saw falls in traffic during their Olympiads as people stayed away assuming the worst. However the current plan to convert 10,000 love hotels to regular guest facilities does somewhat smack of desperation. Though possibly it is also a reflection of collapsing birth rate of the country. And, of course, it is now raining.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The screeching Brakes of Ii Naosuke

Each time I start to research the fascinating subject of the execution grounds of Edo period Tokyo, I keep coming across the name of the Shadow Shogun Ii Naosuke. Admittedly he wasn't actually responsible for them and granted the word "fascinating" is being used under a somewhat liberal interpretation, but he did make hay whilst the sun shone. Rising from relative obscurity as the fourteenth son of a regional warlord he was born lucky, seeing his older siblings either adopted or deserting this mortal coil at opportune moments and ultimately became heir to a hereditary seat of government as Daimyo of Hikone.

Eventually, by taking advantage of a legacy, and relatively unused, Shogunate position of Tairo, he rose to become Grand Elder to the Shogun and, in the summer of 1858, he engineered the signing of the Harris Treaty, formally establishing the terms and conditions of engagement between Japan and America. Much to the annoyance of many of his fellow ministers. However he took dissent in his stride and once his once the opposition had shown its complete hand, he had a fair number of them executed to shut them up in what became known as the Ansei Purge. 

Which brings me full circle to the actual execution grounds themselves. Though on a side point Ii was himself assassinated in the spring of 1860 by relatives of many of those caught up in the "realignments" of the previous months. And so if you find yourself on the Hibiya Line near Minami-Senju in North East Tokyo and you hear the screeching of brakes, it might not actually be the brakes that are screeching but the spirits of days gone by. Some 200,000 are estimated to have been cumulatively executed in the grounds of Kozukappara there over a period of some two centuries from its beginnings in 1651. Japan wasn't that big on incarceration as punishment in those days.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Rattle and Hum of a light touch of Pneumonia

When I arrived in Japan in the early 1990's the major influence on Japanese medicine remained the long reach of the German early schools as the country rapidly advanced from a feudal society to one we'd more or less recognise and an emerging democracy. And with it came the German vocabulary; for example, a computer catches a "virus" (actually "birus" in Japanese) from the recent English where as a human catches a "wilse" from the older German.

But over the last two decades the training institutes began to recognise this was potentially something of a limited option. Outside German not too many people speak the language and adding insult to injury, inside Germany everyone pretty much speaks near perfect English. And so with much else in life, English is becoming the default "B" language for doctors and other medical professionals. And so this morning as I sat in my local clinic my physician explained, half in English and half in Japanese, that it appears I've contracted pneumonia.  

And I thought that was reserved for the older generation but it did give me the opportunity to sample several hundred different styles of tablets, powders, patches and potions. Just for the record, powders are nasty. Take something that tastes pretty awful to begin with, pulverise it to allow maximum dispersion of the foul alexia and then make me take it three times a day. And all I could think throughout the consultation, was what incredibly beautiful cursive English script he used. And as I rattle around the house with a container load of pills inside me, it honestly puts my primitive scrawl to shame.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Sands of Tottori Ridge

On the Tottori coast of the tideless Sea of Japan, there is something of a anachronism that appears under the landing gear of flights as they descend from Tokyo in the east into the aptly named "Sand Dunes Conan Airport". More an image from "Lawrence of Arabia" it is replete with camels and ponies that ride the ancient dunes as they rise hundreds of feet above the water. Covering over thirty square kilometres, the dunes are thrown up by the prevailing winds and the peculiar currents of the coast line and have been around for something over 100,000 years despite the best efforts of the local authorities to plant trees and build wave disrupting sea defences.

And that's about it for Tottori-ken however it's still enough to attract some two million tourists each year. The name itself means "to catch a bird" possibly from the abundant waterfowl but also possibly from the swan that taught the son of the Emperor Suiko to speak. Then again he was already thirty and this would appear to be more an urban myth than an actual sub-plot from The King's Speech. Though if the only word he mastered was "quack" the legend may hold an element of truth in it.

Tottori, on the fringes of the Chugoku region, which extends west to the Straights of Shimonseki (which is a whole different story), the dialect is a mix of Kansai-ben, Chugoku-ben and various other more localised spoken traits. And so when people say there is only one version of Japanese, point out there just may be others. But whatever you do, don't say that in Tohoku-ben, because absolutely no one is going to understand you if you do. Botchi botchi da na.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

But I don't have a vote

I’m 50, carry a British passport (of which I’m quite rightly proud), grew up in a modestly small village in the Cheshire heartland and, having lived longer overseas than the rules allow, do not have a vote in the upcoming European referendum. I paid my taxes when I worked in the UK and I’ve paid my taxes in my host country where I have chosen to make a life, and I don’t have a vote here either. The islands where I was born have seen the comings and going of Romans, Vikings, French (though arguably these particular French were also Vikings) and swathes of nationalities over the centuries. It built an empire, which had it’s down sides, but also brought the rule of law, education, democracy, and eventually (though with a little kicking and screaming) universal suffrage. It also brought an industrial revolution, calculus, the computer and in the last two decades, the most important creation to have emerged in my lifetime, the World Wide Web. Which, by the way, a citizen of the United Kingdom gave away for free, simply saying "it belongs to everyone”. 

We created the London Olympics and James Bond, we built a political system modelled around the world, have healthy children and we don’t shoot each other. I was brought up with the concept that you haven’t failed until you give up and my grandparents' generation paid that price. And how the world would be different today if they hadn’t. And when I was young, this country took another step to join a union that has brought peace and prosperity to the continent for decades. A continent where it admittedly sits on the outskirts, geographically and arguably politically. This club allows freedom of movement, a guarantee of human rights (whether you want them or not) and the ability to work and live in a populace of more than 500 million people. And I don’t have a vote. 

So lets say I’ve had neutrality impressed upon me. That’s life and I accept the rules of the country of my ancestors. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion. Everyone over the age of 65 will probably not live to see the implications of an “Exit” vote. Their choice is not for themselves, it’s for their children and more importantly, their disenfranchised grandchildren. Their exit vote will strip their loved ones of the right to live, love and experience the vast majority of the continent of Europe, its people, cultures and creations. They can holiday in Barcelona but can no longer, by right, live in Valencia. Their votes will not bring back the “Great” in Great Britain, it was never lost. We still invented the jet engine, cricket, graphene and steam power. And despite it having been a little while since we won at football, we still have the best and most entertaining soccer league in the world (oh come on, don't even try arguing). 

By joining the European Union, the United Kingdom lost none of these things and is a member of club of which it should be proud; it shaped it, and at one time saved it. But I don’t have a vote. And my son doesn’t have a vote. And if my country votes to leave, he will have, for some inexplicable reason, lost the right to live in the countries and cultures of Europe, something remarkable that he has yet to truly enjoy. And it’s a decision in which he has had no say or choice. A vote to stay, like it or not, is not a curse, it’s a gift to our children. And to theirs in turn. For a seventeen year old, living in a globally integrated society, joined by the common platform of the English Language, why anyone would want to lock the exits and throw away the key is simply incomprehensible. The drawbridge is down, and has been for 2000 years since the Romans came over to build straight roads and the odd wall here and there. I may not have a ballot paper, but I do have an opinion and if it changes the vote of just one person, then I guess I had a vote after all. Please share.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Some days are just plain lucky

Special days are carefully chosen. And avoided...
Starting a business, buying a home, opening a store and obviously getting married are all serious issues which should never be taken lightly, especially when you might suffer the misfortune of choosing an unlucky day for the big occasion. But in Japan you may enjoy luxury of knowing this in advance. Somedays are lucky, and some simply are not. But a quick search on-line will help you out. Indeed, most printed calendars and even computer schedules will actually have them included. In Japan, the good and the bad are labelled in advance, for your convenience.

The maneki-neko; a bringer of good luck
Some days are lucky in the morning and some in the afternoon; some provide good luck all day and others the reverse. And Tomobiki boasts excellent luck all day except for noon; when it's awful. And given that "midnight" is generically used to refer simply when it's dark, noon is probably trickier to catch than it would appear at first sight and it's really no surprise to find it actually covers a full two hour period rather than a moment in time.

And so people will plan their special day around a calendar dating back to the early eras of Monkey and his friends of magic. I'll relocate half the office the morning of one day and the other half the afternoon of another just to avoid the problems that may ensue. And then of course, the conundrum that concerns me most is which noon exactly do we refer too? Tokyo Time or Greenwich Mean Time? Or any other for that matter. So good luck, or break a leg, whichever black cat you would prefer to throw over your shoulder whilst you pick up that penny. Life was so easy in the days before the first train pulled away from Shimbashi Station.