Thursday, December 11, 2008

My guesthouse is owned by a cult

...called The Kofuku-no-Kagaku. Which in English means "The Institute for Research in Human Happiness". Pretty catchy, huh?

They're pretty low-key in my guesthouse. The guesthouse is run as a business, not a cult-centre. Nobody gets hassled to join, though I understand that nine years ago, the first time I came to Tokyo, Japanese staying here were asked if they wanted to go to...meetings. Now they just give you a book when you move in. The little library here, dotted with backpacker pulp novels and ancient German-Japanese dictionaries, bulges with abandoned copies of these cult books. They have names like "The Laws of the Sun" and "Guideposts to Happiness". They read like they were written by James Redfield on valium. Most of it is pretty harmless, mildly obvious fluff: "Having been given human life in this world, if we can live in a way that is uniquely individual we will feel all the more joy", "Be intensely sincere" etc etc.

However it is not difficult to find the craziness, the spoon-bending feng-shui Mists of Avalon what's your starsign I remember the womb-state I was a princess-of-Egypt-in-a-former-life frootloop looniness. How about this:

"The Garna Civilization flourished for approximately 25,000 years until the continent was destroyed...the men of that time still had their third eye: a round, emerald-green eye in the centre of their forehead about 2 centimetres above the eyebrows....The Garna civilization came to a violent end...approximately 735,000 years ago."


"The airships of Atlantis would have seemed a very strange shape to us."

No doubt.

"In June 1986 Jesus Christ, Ame-no-minakanushi-no-kami and other spirits came down to me one after another and declared that now was the time to stand forth and announce my presence publicly."

I read a paragraph every now again, just as a reminder never to underestimate human stupidity.

Kofuku-no-Kagaku claim to have 10 million followers world-wide.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Bullet trains are a load of bollocks

Took the Japanese bullet train last week, the legendary shinkansen. The shink has a great reputation: luxurious, swift, silent; wonders of modern technology.

Well, like so many things in Japan, I can report that the reality is sadly different.

I was told that riding the shinkansen was likely flying in an airplane. Maybe, if you are flying Aeroflot in the 1970s. The shink from Osaka to Tokyo was old. It was extraordinarily shabby. Stained seats and faded curtains. Scratched windows. A food trolley whose legs were held together by bits of tape. The haggard crone pushing it was flogging cup noodles and slimy sandwiches made of white bread with the crusts cut off. Decades of tobacco smoke had made the cabin smell like death. The seats were cramped, dingy and lumpy. This was not modern technology. It looked like a film clip from the 50s.

Yes it is swift, but far from silent. The noise comes not from the train itself but from the annoying intrusive announcement before and after station stops. It was a lot worse on the much newer tsubame, the shink that goes from Fukuoka to Kagoshima. That train has so many announcements that, far from being rested, you will have cut your wrists an hour before arrival.

Take my advice: catch the bus. It is comfortable, relaxing and half the cost.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Japan and Marijuana

Japan is crazy about pot. Crazy about eradicating and demonizing it, that is.

Last month, three sumo wrestlers were expelled from the sport, given life time bans, for smoking pot.

The fun started with Russian Wakanoho, who is reported to have lost his wallet somewhere in Tokyo. The good news for him was that, true Japanese-style, it was handed in to the local koban (police box). The bad news is that apparently it had a joint tucked in it. The coppers found it and he ran into a bit of strife when he went to pick up his wallet. His life and career are ruined, actually, as he was given a life time ban. He was a talented rikishi, still very young and had everything ahead of him. He was already in the top division. His stable master got the chop as well, as he was forced to take some responsibility.

It didn't stop there, as the shitstorm unleashed took another two victims when authorities decided they had to test everybody for dope. Two other Russians, brothers Roho and Hakurozan, tested positive and were also expelled. Hakurozan was not in the top division but was definitely up-and-coming. As for Roho, I'd liked him immensely as he provided interest to the sport. As well as being a talented belt thrower with an inside right hand grip, he'd been involved in several controversial incidents with other rikishi. In fact, he's a bit of a thug, refuses to show respect to senior wrestlers, and once punched out a couple of photographers and smashed a window when he lost a bout. Great stuff, brings colour to the sport.

Well, a rational balanced human being can't help but feel sorry for these lads. For one, testing for marijuana amongst sumo wrestlers is just a way to create a scapegoat. It's a bit of an open secret that the real drug problem in the sport is steroids, which are never tested for (because that would catch Japanese rikishi, get it?) And then there's the fact that marijuana is obviously not a performance-enhancing drug. The only thing dope improves performance in is the appreciation of South Park. And let's face it, if you had grown up in autocratic Russia, land of declining alcoholic life expectancies and mafia showdowns, and then come to Japan at the age of 16 for a lost youth of training and beatings, well... you would want to light up to.

In fact, the only thing that surprises me is how few wrestlers were caught smokin the wacky tabacco.

Ah, the irony. It is so deep it is hardly worth putting into words. Japan, a country where alcohol, an infinitely more dangerous and harmful drug, is freely available, cheap and potent, while tobacco use is so ubiquitious you cannot even go to a Wendys Hamburger restaurant without dying from passively-acquired lung cancer. Well do I remember the 'smoking station' outside the Board of Education office in Nejime, Kagoshima. The old alcoholic cancer-ridden pachinko-adicted oji-sans would puff blissfully away, poisoning my hair and skin and lungs and soul, right under the community poster urging everybody to be on the look out for the 'devil weed', marijuana.

The saddest thing, the biggest waste, is that it is hard to imagine a society that is in more desperate need of marijuana than Japan. What a range of problems a few joints at university age would solve. Think about the benefits: openmindedness; critical and innovative thinking; artistic appreciation; sense of humour. Who would want to work 14 hour days 6 days a week who had been exposed to counter culture as a youth? Hey, even sex is better with dope!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Japan and Finance

Well, this week the gyrations of the world's stockmarkets continue. In Australia, Kevin Rudd has decided just to print money as a way of coping with the crisis. In the States, the annual budget deficity may soon be a trillion dollars. That's a lot of zeroes.

In the last two weeks, stockmarkets have collapsed, the the Aussie and other currencies have fallen sharply, while the Japanese yen has skyrocketed to the Aussie.

And if the world's investors view Japan as a safe haven, then you know we are in serious trouble.

Japan; where the scale of boondoggling defies imagination; where banks have huge, unquantifiable bad debts; where the largest single amount of money ever collected by human beings- Japan's postal savings accounts- is spent on concreting beautiful rivers, building museums with no exhibits, and sending politicians to restaurants where the waitresses have no underwear and the floors are mirrored.

If Japan is a safe financial haven, a port in a storm, it is time to be afraid.

Friday, August 22, 2008

I am. You are. We are gaijin.

There has been a bit of discussion recently in the Japanese press about the use of the word gaijin, as a label for non-Japanese.

Gaijin,  外人 , literally 'outside person', is most usually translated as 'foreigner'. Having negative connotations perhaps, but not necessarily racist.

But the depth and subtle nasty power of the term can only be seen when you compare it with the more politically correct  外国人 , gaikokujin, 'outside country person'.

Gaikokujin is a legal term, referring to foreign nationals. Gaijin is just used to mean 'non-Japanese' and as such is inherently rascist. It is used constantly, by all kinds of people, to refer to foreigners, especially caucasians. If you are a gaijin, it doesn't matter where you come from. It only matters that you are not Japanese. Even Japanese living overseas, for example my friends in Sydney, will cheerfully refer to Australians as gaijin, without any sense of irony. There is nothing necessarily malicious in its use, but you cannot argue that part of its function is not to exclude: it is about creating boundaries between 'us' and 'them'

It is not as bad as 'nigger' , but its innocence is only relative. It might be more usefully compared to a word like 'Jap'; popular right up to the 70s, but thought to be pretty offensive now in educated company. 'Jap' serves the same function as 'gaijin': it is a useful abbreviation that is racially-based. Which is what this issue is really all about: race. In the West nationality and race are increasingly separated, while in Japan they remain synonymous. That is why the term gaijin is offensive- it confirms ethnicity and reminds foreigners in Japan that they can never be Japanese.

It is true that the word is most often not meant to be offensive, indeed it can even be respectful. Thus you have the existence of the term gaijin-san,
'Mr Foreigner'. I have even on a couple of occasions heard the term o gaijin-sama, 'Honourable foreigner'. It is obvious the Japanese are often unaware of the negative nuance behind the word, which is why many are surprised if a foreigner is offended. But this surprise merely demonstates the insidiousness of the problem; it is symptomatic of the inherently racial view of the world held by the Japanese, a worldview of which they themselves are often not aware.

That is not to say that some cautious optimism in not appropriate. On Japanese television the preferred term in now gaikokujin, and there is a creeping sense of the issue among intellectual Japanese. I remember clearly one of my first days in Kagoshima, where a young primary school teacher, introducing me to the class, asked the children not to call me gaijin, saying that gaikokujin was the correct term. I was impressed. Of course, that didn't stop the kids, their parents, other teachers and the Board of Education cheerfully and without conscious malice referring to me as gaijin for the next three years.

And while I object to being called gaijin on intellectual grounds, practically it is impossible to battle. Being upset at being called 'gaijin' in Japan is like being upset at having to breathe air. It is not a battle that an individual can win. I have never been allowed to forget my gaijinness, but you take the good with the bad. That's what living in a foreign country is all about.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sumo is Fantastic

Sumo: Crowd surfing has yet to take off...

Sumo- ancient noble sport capturing the essence of Japanese ritual and history?

Or fat guys fighting in a circus freak show?

Whatever it is, I love it.

Essentially an absurd pastime, it is spiced up immeasurably by the atmosphere, the ritual and the trappings.

I am a big fan and quite an addict. I follow the banzuke, the rankings, and I love the top guys: the yokozuna, Hakuho and Asashyoryu. I've been to see a tournament twice, it's great, and well worth it, except that the box seats are about the size of my palm and are supposed to fit four people.

Once given the ridiculous premise, fat guys slapping each other up, the Japanese have taken these elements to their logical conclusions. The rikishi, the wrestlers, are not only fat, they are obscenely fat, but strong, like Americans with muscles. And you don't just get to see their bodies, their fat is displayed for the amusement of the crowd. Huge white shiny buttocks. Oceans of gut. Giant flabby thighs. On some level, it's a deliberate counterbalance to the rest of Japanese society, where anorexic flesh is covered up and hidden far more than in the West, and where most women just don't go to the beach for fear of somebody glimpsing their thighs. Which is not a problem, because the Japanese male can get to see all the tits and ass he wants at the sumo tournament...tits and ass...just the anatomical features missing in most Japanese women- tell me there is not something unconscious at work here! One can only conclude that sumo acts as some kind of pornography for Japanese men, giving them what they need and pandering to their homoerotic instincts in a safe 'sporting' environment.

The circus freak show element is likewise exaggerated. It is not enough to have the rikishi display their fat juiciness in front of crowds of drunk adoring shouting fans. The spectators are placed in rows at the bottom of the dojo, the clay wrestling platform. This dojo is much too small for these human whales to perform athletics on, so inevitably one or more of the rikishi fall off. To heighten the comic effect of this, in the front rows are placed the people it is most amusing to see being squashed: old dignified men drinking tea, nursing mothers, babies in prams etc. Truly it is good fun to see 200 kgs of fat fall into the crowd, scattering cushions, lunch trays and primly dressed women in all directions. By the way, injuries, which are common, almost never happen during the actual bout, but when the rikishi falls off the dojo. Not surprising when you think about what happens when all that muscle and fat falls 1.5 m onto the ground, cracking a skeleton meant to handle the weight of an actual human being.

As the actual bouts are over quicker than you can say 'Jenny Craig', the pre-fighting stage is extended to several minutes. The combatants glare at each other not once, twice, but three times before stomping back to their corner and giving their ass a nice big slap to work up the crowd. Then they grab a big handful of salt to throw on the ring and drive out evil spirits. Some of you may be interested to know that these evil spirits include women, who are never allowed onto a sumo ring. Then they finally charge each other and press their giant flabbering folds of muscle and slabbing flesh into each other and start pushing and shoving and pushing and shoving and grunting and moaning and sweating and grabbing and slipping and pulling until one falls over and they are all men.

The TV commentary is hilarious, it is worth the effort of following the sport just for the commentary. It is the only sport where you may hear a remark like,

"He'll be a much more effective competitor after he puts on about 20 kilos."

Sometimes the commentators say things that make you think there might be a more direct expression. For example, "Excessive forward contact resulted in some overleverage", might be usefully rendered as "The fat guy fell over" and "The average ozeki just doesn't have as much mobility," means "He's fat but he's fast", while "He looks to be in the best shape among the ozeki" simply means "He's the fattest."

And occasionally the peculiarity of the sport lends to the commentary a different possible interpretation. For example, the word "thrusting" seems to come up a lot, as in "he's thrusting for a better position now", while my personal favourite is "He achieved great extension with his thrusting." Surely an achievement of which any man could be proud.

But I do not mean to denigrate the sport. The wrestlers are fit and strong, and they follow a strict training regime- it is not easy to consume 20 pieces of KFC chicken every day.

No seriously, sumo is a great sport, it's just not... a real sport. It has about as much chance of getting into the Olympics as synchronised swimming.
Oh, wait...

Sumo: occasional mismatches do occur.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

How to eat whale

I've been In Tokyo about a week now and yesterday I got to combine one of my favourite pastimes, conveyor-belt sushi, with one of my goals in Tokyo, to eat whale.

At the sushi train directly across the road from the entrance at Kamata station, they are offering plates of sushi whale for about 3 dollars: too good to resist. That's the sign in the photo: くじら 'kujira', means 'whale'.

It was too easy; just take the plate of the conveyor belt, add a little soy sauce, and eat the raw whale straight off the plate. It's a dark red meat with a strong taste; I could get used to it.

As for the ethics, I am aware of both sides of the argument, having heard it both in Australia and in Japan. I personally don't feel the Japanese should be harvesting whale in Antartic waters, but not for the reasons usually given by the Green Lobby. I think the Japanese should probably stop whale hunting because, firstly, it is not really necessary and causes a lot of diplomatic strife with countries such as Australia. Secondly, the Japanese argument that they should hunt whale because it is part of Japanese culture is more than a little disingenuous; they hunted whales on a very small level for centuries, it is true, but so did many other countries: The United States has a stronger case for traditional whale hunting than Japan. And the traditional whale hunting conducted by small villages never approached the industrial harvest that takes place, way out of Japanese waters thousands of kilometres away in the Antartic Ocean.

Having said that, it is difficult to argue that whale hunting is inherently bad. The most common reason given not to hunt whales- that they are endangered- is simply not true. Some whales are endangered, some are not; and the species hunted by the Japanese, minke whales, is not endangered. Simple as that. And rational discussions about population numbers for other species are difficult because arguments inevitably are coloured by emotions.

Which is what this is really all about. The public thinks that whales are majestic, noble and beautiful. People get upset when you fire rocket-propelled exploding harpoons into their brains. Fair enough maybe, as far as it goes. But I'm not sure that whales are any more noble or majestic than Great White Sharks, for example, and nobody seems to get upset about them being on the verge of extinction. And who is to say cows and sheep are any less noble? As for the argument that whales are intelligent, it turns out that there is very little hard data on the subject. Quite difficult to measure the intelligence of whales apparently, being so big and all.

So I reckon refusing to eat whale would just be hypocritical when I'll eat just about anything else. And hypocrisy is one of the greatest sins of all.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Being Fingerprinted at the Airport

Just returned to Nihon last week. I was keen to experience the new 'anti- crime and terrorism' measure that has been put in place at international airports in Japan: the fingerprinting of all non-Japanese.

It could easily be argued that this procedure is discriminatory, offensive, and degrading. While trumpeted as a way of preventing terrorism, it ignores the fact that the only terrorist attacks ever made on Japanese soil were committed by Japanese nationals (sarin gas, anyone?). As for crime, well, despite sensationalist media reports whenever a foreigner commits a crime in Japan, statistically, foreigners commit fewer crimes than Japanese. So, it's pretty clear the fingerprinting is not really about crime or terrorism, it's about xenophobia.

But who am I to complain about that? Australia is pretty racist and xenophobic too, and if the Japanese want to upset their local foreigners and the international community in general, it's not my problem, just another symptom of exclusion and the accompanying decline. If Japan desires to fingerprint all incoming foreigners, they should feel free.

Too bad it doesn't work.

The fingerprinting system is, shall we say, not particularly effective. You are required to place your two index fingers on a glass electronic-reading mechanism. After you hear the pleasant 'ping pong' sound, you can take them off and you are recorded. However, what happened to me, and to almost all people around me, was the depressing 'unh- unh' of electronic failure. This happened 7 times in a row before I lost a little patience and started a little non-violent protest, placing different fingers on the glass at different times, and moving them around in groovy circles. I then found out that it takes about 5 seconds to process an attempt, but each attempt is recorded more or less instantly, so you can creat a 'backlog' of failed attempts, taking your fingers off and standing helplessly with a dumb look on your face as the machine registers failure after failure. Great stuff.

Even after I started playing ball again, the machine just didn't seem to like me. The operator first dried my fingers and the glass, then moistened them with a special little cloth, it seemed I was there for years...

When I finally got through the operator didn't seem annoyed- it was clear she dealt with this a hundred times a day, and as I walked through I heard the next person behind me register his first attempt with a resounding failure.