Sunday, August 21, 2016

The ignorance of bliss

The Economist magazine is rumoured to operate an editorial policy of assuming the reader is intelligent and yet ignorant of the subject and therefore they will compare IBM (a computer services company) to Apple (a telecoms and hardware company), just in case you didn't know. But Japan isn't quite like that. It assumes you're intelligent, but it's somewhat up to you to fill in the blanks. And that's where it can evolve to be the horribly wrong; for we fill in the blanks with the world we know.

And our prior experiences compared to Japan have all the relevance of peanut butter to a glass of Chateaux Petrus. And so when someone says "yes" we will tend to assume it means, well, "yes". Rather than "maybe". And as Dave Barry once pointed out "no" should be more accurately translated as "your idea should be fed to the goats". So learning Japanese as a language is never the end of the story, what an answer means may not be anything related to the words of representation.

And so when a computer translation attempts the impossible, the result is usually the unintelligible. But this is missing the key ingredient of brought to the kotatsu by The Economist. It took me probably five years to be able to understand that I genuinely didn't understand what was happening around me in this country. And recognition of one's ignorance, now that's a powerful stair to ascend. In Japan "ignorance of the facts" is a world apart from "ignorant of the fact".

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The traffic of Tokyo

There are many ways of moving around the city of Tokyo. The reputation of gridlock and hours to travel from A to B may have been true but these days are limited to the days of the odd earthquake and those special 1st September mornings when everything is disrupted deliberately to remind the general populace of what the day of a major earthquake will actually be like. Without the death, fires, collapsed buildings and washed up fish in the street of course. 

In these modern days the roads are, more likely than not, to be pleasantly clear. And then the occasional odd, somewhat surreal, occurrence will, well, occur. Driving through central Tokyo recently I was somewhat surprised to look left whilst more than a little bored at a set of inevitable traffic lights and there, sitting next to me, was Super Mario. He looked, smiled, waved. And I was reminded of the early jet test pilots who would wear guerrilla masks so if any other plane saw them, no one would believe a word of it.

And so, some twenty years ago, I heard a story from a slightly older colleague, of local transport highly efficient over rough terrain and driven by an engine needing little more than the odd bucket of water every now and then. And opposite the New Otani Hotel in Akasaka was a set of railings, well embedded in the verge of the road, perfect for ensuring and solid anti-theft properties.  For he swore blind his boss used to come to work on a horse.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Barrels of Grace and Good Luck

A little search on Google will quickly show the remarkable resiliance of a champagne bottle compared to the hull of an ocean going liner. But celebrating the launch of a ship is very much like the launch of a company, a project or a concept. And Japan knows how to celebrate and in this case it's not just about a container aimed at a vessel, it takes mallets, people, ribbons and barrels of sake. And the trick is to stand well back.
Traditionally sake was sealed, stored and transported in wooden barrels of varying sizes and emblazoned with creative designs. But the importance of a barrel is the end is always a circle and circles represent harmony and perfection. And so to celebrate the launch of something new, the assembled members surround the barrel and pummel the lid with mallets until it breaks, releasing the perfect circle and with it, perfect success.

However, I mentioned that these barrels were also used to transport the liquid inside and so are extremely tightly bound and no manner of banging is going to open the lid of an unprepared cask. So when you see the smiling faces celebrating the launch of whatever is new, know that the top has already been prized open, the wood sawn through and then carefully replaced to appear untouched. But try to do this yourself and be warned, it will fight back. And you'll carry the sweet odour of sake for the rest of the day. This I know from personal experience.