Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Summer Reign of Mei-Yu

It's wet in Tokyo. Excessively wet. But that is somewhat to be expected during Rainy Season, a time of year that defines Japan with a total of five seasons rather than four. Stretching from the Tibetan Plateau to the Pacific waters east of Japan, the Mei-Yu weather front slowly drifts north from Okinawa through Kyushu and central Honshu ultimately reaching Tohoku, where it peters out before reaching Hokkaido which rarely experiences significant rainy season rainfall as a result.  

Known as Tsuyu in Japanese, the name refers to the ripening of the plum crop which occurs at this time of year hence the reference to plum rain that is occasionally applied. An alternative label though is Samidare (sa-me-da-ray), which, as with Oktober-fests which generally take place in September, the name literally translates as May Rain. In July. The water is occasionally torrential though more usually simply a persistent, vertical drizzle but with it comes a humidity that eats the cold into your bones as the temperatures fall.

The proud record holder of maximum precipitation on the Japanese islands is the prefecture of Miyazaki. Lying on the eastern shores of the southern island of Kyushu, the region received a Biblical deluge of twenty eight feet (8.7m) in the early summer of 2003 which goes someway to explaining the location of the world's largest sea dome, Seagaia resplendent with indoor beaches and giant wave machines. Closed in 2007 and surrounded by kamikaze bunkers, it was finally figured out that the capacity of the local airport was insufficient to provide the traffic required for profitability, the resort was rather ironically located about a golf ball's flight from the largest ocean on the face of the planet. And Mei-Yu reigned.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Siege of the Blue Samurai

In the summer of 2010 the Japanese national soccer team, "The Samurai Blue" (a name generally only used in English, the Japanese more traditionally naming the team after the coach at the time (if you were wondering)) were preparing through a number of friendly games for the World Cup to be hosted by South Africa that year. And things were not going well. In fact, things were going so badly that in a game against England in Graz, Austria, Japan scored no less than three times and lost 2 : 1 (think about it). As a result the airport was somewhat deserted as the pale Blue Samurai returned home before setting sites on the tournament proper some two weeks hence.

Losses to Serbia and arch-rivals South Korea didn't help the national atmosphere all that much and the team were generally being pilloried in the press of the day. adidas (not a typo, it is actually spelt with a lower case "a"), sponsors of the JFA, had been focusing on the youth of the country, working with a number of schools throughout the Spring and organising each to have the students write messages of support on thirteen giant manga. Slotted together and laid out on the flight path of jet airplanes as they departed Haneda International Airport, the Sky Comic was awarded a Guinness World for the largest comic strip in the world. And still the fans, they did not come.

And then things started to change. Wins over Cameroon and more notably Denmark saw the team through to the last sixteen where they faced Paraguay and suddenly the country started to take notice, sit up, stand, and finally cheer. A 0 : 0 full time score line saw the players march to their respective ends for the dreaded penalty shoot out. The country was going wild and then a cross bar from Komano handed advantage to Paraguay and silence fell as Cardozo stepped up. And converted. Japan was heartbroken but the team were now national heroes and this time when they flew back, landing at Kansai International, the crowd of thousands just went wild. And yes, I was there. And I did too. And the siege of the Blue Samurai was lifted.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Ambiguity of Article 9

Japan is quite refined in the art of ambiguity. To achieve lasting peace and prosperity, Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution states that "land, sea, air and other war potential will never be maintained". Noble sentiments that have served the country well over the last seventy years or so. Coming into effect on May 3, 1947 as a revision of the more militaristic Meiji predecessor, the country has not seen international conflict in anger since and only recently provided even the most basic of support to friends in hot places. Compare this to the Western score sheet and the scale of the achievement takes on near Biblical proportions.

Written in English (MacArthur tired of the government's attempts at maintaining the historical role of the Emperor) there is little room for misunderstanding though the Japanese document that received the seal of assent has since been re-interpreted to exclude defensive forces from the specific exclusions of Article 9. And it is this anomaly that the Prime Minister would like to see addressed head on with an actual revision to the terms so as to no longer have to hide behind something of a smokescreen. When the world rallied to arms in the first Gulf War, Japan could only send a cheque. To be fair though, George Bush did vomit in the lap of the then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, but that's another story.

But here's the thing... Japan already has the eighth largest defence budget on the planet just behind France and the UK though a fraction of that of the US or China. It launches satellite tipped ballistic missiles into the heavens, manufactures F35 strike aircraft under licence, commissions 400m "heli-craft" carriers (resplendent with launch ramps...?!) and employs in excess of quarter of a million active military service personnel. So it's somewhat understandable that the government would look to normalise proceedings and adjust the constitution to reflect the reality of the day despite the inherent sensitivities (and watch this process arriving via the back door to a revision of the "education for all" provision). But then again, with a strict reading of the English original, it could be argued Japan are not actually "maintaining" a war potential; it's positively building it!

Hirohito signs the "Peace Constitution" into law

Friday, June 2, 2017

Soy sauce and other giant squid and whale stories

Having conceded we would agree to disagree, as a final, and ultimately heroic failure of an attempt at winning the argument, I cunningly asked my assistant what, then, was she going to tell her grandchildren when all the whales have vanished from the seas of the world. She looked at me and replied with a twinkle, "they were tasty...". Fair enough. Japan struggles with its relationship with the largest creatures in the oceans; traditionalists arguing it is in part, the culture to enjoy the dish whilst others, predominantly the younger generation, suggesting cultures evolve over time and this time is the one to move on. A quick look at the stats show the traditionalists don't have a fin to paddle with (whaling only taking off after the Norwegians provided a modern ship in the 1930's making it no more traditional culture than a-ha!) and with stockpiles of over 1,000 tons of frozen mammal to call upon, the buying public appears to be siding with the modernists.

The traditional huntings grounds of the Ogasawara Islands, some 1,000kms south of Tokyo (and inspiration for the Orange Islands of Pokemon fame) have figured out that whale watching is something of an economically more viable business model than whale hauling and indeed have created a research centre which in 2005 took the first images of a giant squid, that of sail-ship lore. But no one has yet mentioned this to the five thousand residents of Taiji, the town of The Cove fame. Dolphins genuinely are family entertainment in the seas and an economic alternative for this town in Wakayama-ken with road, rail and sea access.

And it was another little town along the coast of Wakayama prefecture that, in the 1200's became home to a returning monk looking to set up shop and brew a delicious condiment he'd brought back from his travels in China. The Chinese had been enjoying miso paste for over a thousand years but it was left to Japan to syphon off and bottle the brown and sticky by-product. And soy sauce was born. Still to this day, the town of Yuasa ferments their soy bean for up to three years, creating the iconic product of shoyu. Which ironically is used, amongst other alternatives, to lubricate the taste buds in the hunt for perfect bite of whale meat.


Monday, May 15, 2017

An English Lady from the Skies

The crash of the Hindenburg in 1937 brought a swift end to the era of the airship, behemoths of skies and floating bomb platforms of the First World War. Withdrawn from service almost immediately following the disaster was one such craft that operated as a mail carrier between Europe and South America known as The Graf Zeppelin, call sign LZ 127 which in the late summer of 1929 held the distinction of being the first air transport to circumnavigate the globe, including a five day stopover in Japan.

Japan's fascination with powered flight began nearly two decades earlier when, in December 1910, Yoshitoshi Tokugawa (a grand nephew of the last shogun) flew from the parade grounds of Yoyogi, in central Tokyo. As reparation for activities during WWI, Japan was subsequently awarded an airship hanger from Germany which was promptly located at the Kasumigaura Naval Air Field some seventy five kilometres northwest of Tokyo, part of the fledgeling Japanese Imperial Navy Aeronautical Centre.

Following a transit of Tokyo and Yokohama, it was here that the Graf Zeppelin was moored during their stay bringing some well earned relief and warmth, following the flight over Siberia, to its passengers and crew. And onboard, despatched by William Randolph Hearst's media empire, was the English Lady Grace Marguerite Hay-Drummond-Hay who, as a result of her travels (and with the possible exception of Gulliver), holds the distinction of being the first tourist in Japan to arrive by air.

The Graf Zeppelin flies over Tokyo, August 19, 1929


Friday, May 5, 2017

"The" Ginza - Part 1

Interestingly this random "the" actually appears twice in Japan. There is "the Ginza" in Tokyo, today the height of cosmopolitan retail, and "the Gion" in Kyoto, the traditional street of geisha and teahouses (and tourists). But Japanese is a notoriously vague language and doesn't actually posses a definitive article so why do we sometimes impose one in English? Indeed, in Japanese the name is sometimes reverse engineered through katakana (the alphabet reserved for western words) as "za Ginza", a confirmation, if needed, that the origins are English, rather than Japanese.

The etymology of the name itself relates to the government's silver mint (Ginza literally translates as "Silver Chair") which was located in the area until 1800 when the shogunate became tired of the endemic corruption and moved it to Nihonbashi where they could keep a closer eye on back door activities. The name stuck though and the area was a veritable rabbit warren of kabuki theatres, river boat wharfs and kimono stores until in 1872, it was razed by catastrophic fire. And now it began to take a very different shape. An Irishman, by the name of Thomas James Waters, cleared the streets and created the new and distinct European coffee house experience of Brick Town.

English speaking foreigners were just beginning to appear around this time in Japan as the country opened it's doors to the world and it was during this period that it seems to have acquired the "the". Reference to it can be found as far back as 1908 in The New York Times when it was reported that "Admirally Sperry was mobbed by crowds wanting to shake his hand in the Ginza". And then again  in the Chicago Tribune where somewhat more ominously the front page reported "today's target is the Ginza" in January 1945. And so the Ginza's epithet arose as a result of its position as a unique European experience in the heart of the capital city of the land of the rising sun. Somewhere to meet and discuss the events of the day. "The" place to be seen.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Rise of the Concrete Castle

Japan, as with many countries, has a treasure chest of castles criss-crossing the nation. Ornate in execution, the typical style that springs to the western mind is based on the Azuchi-Momoyama design, with Azuchi Castle itself being the original blue print overlooking Kyoto on the shores of Lake Biwa. Today however, the vast majority of structures derive from concrete poured largely in advance of the 1964 Olympics (Osaka Castle even boasting a useful glass elevator following a 1990's refit) with three notable exceptions of Himeji, Kumamoto and Matsumoto castles. And Kumamoto is pushing it a little with a central keep from the 1960's as well.

The decline and fall of the castle network across the country came largely as a result of, but not necessarily during, the Boshin (civil) War of 1868/69. Osaka Castle was razed to the ground as the Imperial forces made it clear that there was a new kid in town (the emperor being only sixteen at the time) but the majority of what remained were intact. These castles though were seen as a symbol of the era when Japan was ruled by the Shogun and his daimyo lords. Not wanting obvious reminders of the past, people simply dismantled them for their timber and iron.

Today, many of the recreations are spectacular to visit and house museums that provide an interesting guide to feudal life in Japan. The restored Tsuruga Castle in Fukushima Prefecture with its deep moats and ten meter thick battlement holds the distinction of hosting the last mainland battles of the civil war before the bakafu forces withdrew to Hokkaido for their heroic, though somewhat doomed, last stand. But one castle, that of Hiroshima, suffered a unique fate in history, being the only one to be destroyed by an atomic bomb. Less than a mile from the epicentre, deep inside, lay the military communication rooms which on that day were staffed by high-school girls, the men being somewhat pre-occupied at the time. And when they sent a radio message saying the city had been destroyed in a single blast, the government in Tokyo simply didn't believe them. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Where did all the panic go?

I was recently asked an interesting question as to whether the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula were affecting my long term plans as to life in the land of the rising sun. The simple answer was "no" however I did caveat the reply with a note that I may "reassess priorities if the arrows begin to fly". The only concern that is regularly raised amongst my international friends is actually the inconsistent message being issued from an administration in the position to inadvertently light the blue touch paper. 

However, English rock stars apart (Ian McCulloch), the entire country is hardly running to the hills or building nuclear bunkers under their homes. There have been drills in the north of Japan but given the four minute warning (well, ten, give or take) before a missile lands, there is limited scope for an effective retreat. So why the isn't there panic in the streets as submariners arrive in South Korea and an elusive carrier group steams (allegedly) in the general direction of the north? 

The answer lies in the Japanese psyche which is formed and moulded by the geological intersection of three or the earths intersecting tectonic plates; the source of earthquakes, volcanos and  unstoppable tsunami. And everyone knows "the big one" could happen tomorrow. I once saw an interview with a foreigner who had lived through the Kobe earthquake and filled his bath every night in anticipation of another until he realised "I was worried about yesterday and forgetting to live for tomorrow". So no, at the moment no one is looking to flee. We have tomorrow to look forward to.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The privations of personal privacy

Personal privacy is something not to be taken lightly in Japan. I once had been working with a colleague for several months and casually asked about his weekend. You could almost see the dark clouds racing from the horizon. Whether it had been particularly awful I'll never know as he quietly but firmly replied that was "personal". Fair enough and one peculiar encounter a common trait it does not make. But when soon after I heard whispering one morning I asked the cause to which I was informed they thought the lady on reception may have got married. But no one was sure.

Given the choice of revealing a personal mobile number to the world or carrying two phones, one personal, one business, people in Japan will almost exclusively opt to carry the second device. And here it has to be said that I've been listing my personal number on my business card for over twenty years and I'm at a total loss as to if it has ever resulted in an unwanted call. However, I've even had my assistant once refuse to provide her own number and I had to swear on the graves of my forebears that I would only use it in dire emergencies of biblical proportions before she would give it up.

Once one of my staff tweeted (somewhat disparagingly) about a famous athlete arriving in our store. The Twittersphere exploded and within a matter of hours she was being i-mobbed, people even tweeting her home address and trolling her with abuse. We were actually quite concerned for her safety and took action as best we could. And so here in Japan, where the police won't actually do anything until you've already been clubbed senseless by a reported stalker, maintaining a strict Chinese Wall between personal and public is something of a national obsession. I still wouldn't mind knowing what the guy had been up to over the weekend though. He really did look guilty.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A legacy lost?

With three years to go until the Summer 2020 Olympics Japan is currently in the process of realising it has a new issue on its hands. The stadium debacle is well known (though the focus has been on cost rather than arguably political expediency) as is the problem of a plagiarised logo followed closely by the men only golf club voting to admit women only on pain of losing the event and the uproar of restaurants across the capital that if smoking is banned then their customers will be unfairly impacted and go elsewhere (not to smoke?).

But the realisation that, due to the structure of the system, there are actually insufficient teachers, both Japanese and international, able to raise the level of English (whether you like it or not, it is the default global language) of their students to a basic communication level, effectively sounds the death knell of 2020 being an international tournament accessible by the majority of the country. It will be a domestic sporting event, all be it an outstanding one performed on the stage of the combined live world media. But here it is now unlikely to raise and inspire a new generation to look beyond the coastline. Which wouldn't be such a problem if the country didn't have another problem with the ever declining base population. 

Unfortunately the base population is set to decline by over 20% in the next thirty years and soon after the ratio of working population to those already retired will be approaching parity. Japan, the world's third richest economy has just ranked 40 out of 48 surveyed countries in a UN study on English as a second language. The day the doors need to open and even basic care workers are welcomed in, this skill would soften the surprise of a foreigner at the front door. Japan can turn on a dime when needed, but with the best will in the world you don't wake up in the morning fluent in a new language. It takes time, commitment and not a little inspiration. This Olympic legacy has sadly probably already been lost. Time for a re-think.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Those little moments of happiness

In 1972, a young Japanese stylist by the name of Yacco Takahashi, flitting in and out of the London music and art scene of the time, was introduced to David Bowie who was breaking through with his album Hunky Dory, in its own right something under the influence of Japan. And she became instrumental in creating the chimera of Ziggy Stardust, rock god and voice for the Spiders from Mars.

Ziggy, Yacco, Kansai; photo by Sukita
Yasuko "Yacco" Takahashi had previously worked with T-Rex who were, partly as a result of her work, slightly ahead of the curve in creating the Glam Rock image of the early 1970's. She introduced Bowie to two Japanese friends who she new from her life in the famous Harajuku Central Apartments in downtown Tokyo and would later describe her time with the three of them as "those little moments of happiness". One, Kansai Yamamoto, was a popular young fashion designer from Yokohama who dressed Bowie in clothes designed for women and created the androgyny that was to confuse and bewilder a generation of parents.

The second was a photographer by the name of Masayoshi Sukita who grew up on the southern island of Kyushu and who was from then on to record Bowie's life through the lens of a camera. And one day in early 1977, Yacco took Bowie for a walk through the backstreets of Tokyo to meet Sukita at his studios. There, along with Iggy Pop, they created a series of images. And the cover of "Heroes", the seminal album from Bowie's Berlin period, was shot that day. Not in LA or London. But in a small studio in the backstreets of Harajuku. In just about an hour.

Monday, April 3, 2017

When a nuclear missile is aimed in your general direction

As a matter of choice I rarely write anything political on TenguLife. But here goes. In the closing days of a hot and stifling 1998 August, the population came home to the somewhat shocking news reports that North Korea had launched a missile which had flown through the skies above Japan before landing harmlessly in the Pacific ocean to the east. The shocking part though wasn't the flight of the missile as such, it was known North Korea was working on this, it was that Japan hadn't actually detected it and American satellites had picked it up in flight, politely informing the government later that afternoon.

And so the country has known for nearly twenty years that a ballistic strike from Kita-Chosen was possible but lived securely in the knowledge that the deterrent effect of ceasing to exist if anything did land in Japan would deter the regime from testing its abilities in the theatre of real life. However, increases in missile tests, developments in technology toward fast-launch solid fuel ordnance and the dark cloud of a nuclear bomb program have raised concerns further in recent years and schools have even started holding evacuation drills. Just in case. 

Patriot missile batteries can occasionally be seen deployed in the grounds of the Ministry of Defence (Boekicho) in Ichigaya, conveniently in the centre of the capital, though these are due to be withdrawn and enhanced by 2020, just in time for the Olympics..., but it isn't this causing concern at the moment. Seoul is approximately thirty miles from one of the largest conventional forces on the planet and when the button is provoked, will suffer horrific damage from a rain of effectively unstoppable long range artillery. And if that button is connected to the missile system, Tokyo will likely be next. And so seriously, this is no time to get trigger happy. Let's let the diplomats weave their magic. After all, playing golf and watching The Simpsons is much safer. For all of us.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

An international gift

When my son was a teenager I was once asked what I'd been like at the same age and I replied I'd been exactly the same as him. Except "he speaks two languages, reads and writes four alphabets, plays guitar like Jimmy Page, his artwork is displayed in galleries across Tokyo, his physics gains top scores and he has friends in regular contact from more than forty countries around the world. And he thinks that's normal." "Apart from that, we're exactly the same." How the world has changed.

Generalising, there are two varieties of international schools in Japan. Those that cater to students returning home in the relatively near term, and those that cater to students who probably won't; often because home is Japan though their lives are global and culture international. The former existing to maintain a relative level within a curriculum so that on return the integration is painless and the latter as a means to an end in its own right without focus on any one specific nationality.

And although there is always the option of Japanese school itself, for those of us grown up in a mono-cultural environment, leaving a home country is something akin to cutting the umbilical cord. But the students of this international environment of high school in Japan are all the better prepared for the transition as they move from country to country in the future. And I can simply look on and think to myself "I wish I could play guitar like Jimmy Page..."

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mother Earth and a Rocket to the Skies

It takes a number of times enjoying Princess Mononoke to realise that there actually isn't a princess in the film and a clear dearth of anyone by the name of Mononoke. The title refers more to a concept and with a western upbringing "Mother Earth" would probably be the closest interpretation. And knowing that, the film makes an awful lot more sense however now that you know, you should watch the movie as I'm not going to explain it here other than to say it's an incredible creation.

The inspiration for the setting of Princess Mononoke are the woodlands of Yakushima, an island lying to the south of Kagoshima off the coast of Kyushu (one of Japan's four main islands). The ancient forests and thirty plus mountain peaks over 1,000m provided the Director Hayao Miyazaki with the identity of the feature though in reality Yakushima has been all but replanted following extensive logging over the centuries which finally drew to a close in the early 1960s.

However, if you do have the opportunity to visit you'll not only see deer with monkeys riding their backs (full disclosure: I've never actually seen this but am told it happens), an old tree, my friend's bistro and quite a few imported tanuki, but also the occasional sighting of an H2 rocket launch from the shores of nearby Tanegashima. And for that you need to watch a different Miyazaki movie, Howl's Moving Castle. Something that is also worth taking your time.