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New Year’s Revolution

January 20, 2010

If you’ve read anything on this blog before, you might have noticed that the end of last year was something of a hiatus.

The reason for that was that anything I might feel like writing about in normal circumstances simply lost its significance in the face of one very important development…

Read more…

Happy New… mid-January

January 15, 2010

A belated happy New Year to you. I hope it brings you good health and good luck.

We’ve ensured our good luck, of course, by getting along to the shrine for hatsumode, and trading in last year’s good luck charms for this year’s, and picking our omikuji (daikichi again!)

How's your luck?

Happy New Year

And with the New Year comes the frost and the snow. Not that it bothers Ojizousan, who remains as unfazed as ever…

Perfectly chilled

How (not) to rob a shop

September 15, 2009

If you’re going to turn to a life of crime, specifically holding up retailers for the contents of their till, I would imagine it’s useful, if not essential, to be somewhat hardened.

Work out your banter before you go in.  Think of something intimidating, something that shows your ambition, something bloodcurdling like…

Could I please have some money?

Err… Mmm. Not sure I’d be too frightened of that, to be honest. But it’s what 24-year-old Ryo Miyata tried when he “entered a convenience store in Osaka’s Kita Ward” at gone 3 in the morning last Wednesday armed with a craft knife.

The clerk, who later described the man to police as “quite timid-looking”, simply responded “You can’t go around doing things like this. Why don’t you stop it.”

Those harsh words sapped the young man’s spirit, and he put down his blade on the counter and waited with the clerk until the arrival of the police, for whom it was just the beginning of another day on the tough crime-ridden streets of Japan.

Sweet, sweet schadenfreude

September 4, 2009

I remember the day I learned the word schadenfreude in German class.  My teacher explained, with a certain pride, that the English have no word for it, and to express the concept adequately in English, we would have to resort the clumsily lengthy phrase, ‘a malicious pleasure taken in the misfortune of others’.

And so we were sold on both the concept of schadenfreude (courtesy of our teacher’s gleefully vivid examples) and the tidy, handy package of the single word.

Well it turns out my German teacher was taking a dramatic liberty.  The English do have a word for it.  Apparently it is epicaricacy.   But I’ve never heard an English speaker use that word.  Possibly because it looks like a devil to pronounce.  But also because the German word is obviously German, and the use of the foreign word almost as a euphemism convinces us on some cultural level that we imported not only the word, but also the concept – as if you “need a German word for that”.

Nonsense, of course.  The word caught on so well precisely because we understood the concept so well.  It is also a very English thing to savour the downfall of those we feel, for whatever reason, deserve it.

In a discussion with a student recently, it became necessary to broach the subject, and attempt an explanation.  The student nodded, and said, “You mean 他人の不幸は蜜の味 !” (tanin no fukou wa mitsu no aji) – ‘other people’s misfortune tastes of honey‘.  With a broad grin on her face.

Why should I have been surprised?  It seems, after all, that everyone has a word for it.

We are the Miyuki Hatoyama Fan Club

September 4, 2009

miyukiUntil last week’s general election you could be forgiven for characterising Japanese political life as dull.

But Miyuki Hatoyama, whose husband Yukio will become Japan’s first Democratic Prime Minister later this month, may well be the character to inject a little colour into it.

In a book she wrote last year entitled 私が出あった世にも不思議な出来事 (‘Very Strange Things I’ve Encountered’), she is quoted as saying –

While my body was sleeping, I think my spirit flew on a triangular-shaped UFO to Venus. It was an extremely beautiful place and was very green.

On a TV talk show earlier this year, she first led the interviewer up the garden path with a tangential story about Tom Cruise being Japanese in a previous life (she knew because she had been there too, it seems), before announcing –

“I also eat the sun,” she said, looking up with her eyes closed, raising her arms high as if she was tearing pieces off an imaginary sun. “Like this, yum, yum, yum. It gives me enormous energy. My husband has recently started doing that too.”

In a country that has got used to Prime Ministers wearing out after a year or so, I hope you stick around for a long time, Miyuki, you brighten the place up.

1997 all over again

August 31, 2009

As night turned to the morning of 2 May, 1997, I sat in my living room in London, in front of the television, and watched as the political ground shifted, as a conservative country ousted its Conservative government after almost two decades of power.

Even ministers and former ministers were losing their seats – Rifkind went, then Lamont, then Mellor – and in the early morning when bigwig Portillo lost, the magnitude of the government’s rejection became clear.

Swayable conservative voters had swayed en masse and the incumbents had been swept out of power by a landslide.

The Tories had ‘only’ been in power for 18 years. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had, until last night, been ruling the roost almost uninterrupted since their establishment 54 years ago. The scale of the Democratic Party’s (DPJ) victory, or more precisely, the LDP’s loss cannot be overstated.

And while all polls predicted the end of the Aso government, it wasn’t until the big names started falling that the LDP talking heads on TV really started to wince.

Japanese voters, in effect, get two votes – one for an individual candidate in their area, and another party vote for a proportional representation pool.

And that PR pool is now the only hope for some very big names who lost their seats.

Famously drunken Shoichi Nakagawa (do you remember him?) went, finance minister Kaoru Yosano too, then former defense minister Fumio Kyuma, and Toshiki Kaifu then became the first former Prime Minister to lose his seat since 1963.

The parade continued with former defense minister Yuriko Koike, former finance minister Bummei Ibuki, former foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura, and the heavyweight former LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa.

By morning, the parliamentary LDP had shrunk from 300 to 119.

Of course a good number of those who voted for the DPJ, like those UK voters who voted Labour in 1997, will simply have been disaffected conservatives fed up with being ignored by their party and intent on punishment. And even if DPJ rule turns out to not to be significantly different from what came before, that is at least one important lesson for Japanese politicians to take from this election. Japanese voters, who have shown no particular desire to punish ne’er-do-well politicians in the past, have shown their teeth, and the incoming DPJ will do well to keep in mind what the LDP ignored.

But it appears that while many will have voted negatively, many more have chosen to reject the corruption of the ancien regime in the hope of cleaner government. They’ve chosen optimism over fear, recognised that some sort of change is necessary. Whether they will really get that, or whether the optimism will turn out to have been misguided, I don’t know enough about it to say one way or the other.

But the Japanese electorate has taken an enormous leap of faith. I hope the landing is soft.

“I bought it from a foreigner”

August 11, 2009

If you don’t know, you don’t need to, and if you know, you don’t need reminding of the details of this week’s Japanese celebrity drugs busts.

Apart than the subsequent media frenzy, the other entirely predictable aspect was when Noriko Sakai is said to have told police in questioning –

I bought it from a foreigner

And of course the police informed the media, and the media informed everyone.

This is a common… what is it, an excuse? A diversion? Whatever it is, search any drugs arrest story and this line crops up with annoying frequency.

The suspect, under questioning, is obviously trying to protect the friend or trusted source who they usually buy their drugs from. Does anyone really believe that every time someone with a drug habit, particularly a celebrity, wants to conduct a bit of illicit business, they go out and take the risk of buying from a complete stranger?

It’s become a fashionable excuse among those arrested for drug offences to cover for their supplier by fingering an anonymous foreigner.

It’s clearly a diversionary tactic, so why do the police feel the need to pass it on to the media, who in turn take great pleasure in broadcasting it to the nation?

Its effect is two-fold. All of us foreigners are caught in the blast, suspicion lands on all of us – the implication is that a random foreigner being a druggie is entirely believable, even to be expected.

But the main agenda is to keep the middle classes safe in the delusion that the drug problem is not a Japanese problem, but a foreign one. After all, I’ve never heard a report saying “The dealer was Japanese” – the question of nationality, or more precisely the foreignness, is only deemed worthy of report if the suspect claims to have bought from a foreigner.

Anyone who believes that the vast majority of Japanese drug users are not buying from their Japanese friends, or from trusted Japanese sources, is naive in the extreme. But the media portrayal of these cases might lead the unthinking to believe otherwise.

It’s probably true of most developed countries that most drugs that are abused recreationally are brought in from abroad. And it’s a fair bet that the vast majority of the illegal drugs business conducted in Japan is controlled by Japanese. Why on earth wouldn’t it be?

But if you’re a fretful, easily scared, middle class Japanese, the media would like you to believe that the nation is an innocent victim of an unopposed army of foreign pushers and importers, which it most certainly is not.

The value of a good teacher

July 31, 2009

In the award-winning documentary Children Full of Life, a fourth-grade class in a primary school in Kanazawa, northwest of Tokyo, learn lessons about compassion from their homeroom teacher, Toshiro Kanamori. He instructs each to write their true inner feelings in a letter, and read it aloud in front of the class. By sharing their lives, the children begin to realize the importance of caring for their classmates.

A term in the lives of a class of 10-year-olds and their extraordinary teacher.

Sarah Palin resign Alaska thing

July 29, 2009

It comes then, the maverick, the quitter, that jumps ship, to be, to become, in the future, from now, the President of the, of those, United States.

Her final beautiful goodbye that speaking thusly:

Then in the summertime, such extreme, summertime, about 150 degrees hotter than just some months ago than just some months from now, with fireweed brooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving and reminding us that, here, Mother Nature wins.  It is, as throughout all Alaska, that big, wild, good life, teeming along that road that is north to the future.

Listening to Sarah Palin try to express a coherent thought in her first language is like listening to a beginner struggling with their second language.

Beware sun-eating dragons

July 24, 2009

As the day of the solar eclipse drew nearer, I started to pay attention to the weather forecasts, which were uniformly pessimistic.   And we awoke that morning to rain lashing at the windows, and crashing thunder.

So we made our preparations that morning without urgency or excitement as we stared up at the blanket of thick cloud, unsure even where in the sky the sun was.  Everything was grey.

But as the hour drew nearer, the cloud thinned ever so slightly, enabling us to say with a degree of scientific certainty that the sun was “probably somewhere over there”, pointing vaguely to the lighter grey patches of the sky.

We hadn’t bothered making enquiries about ‘eclipse glasses’ and I hadn’t prepared any photo filters.

But at the appointed moment, the clouds thinned a bit more and filtered through this view, and within ten seconds, it was gone again.

Black hole sun