Saturday, February 28, 2009

Time Out

I went running today and blanked out, lost track of time. This is the first time this has happened since I started running again two months ago. It wasn't for very long- just 5 or 10 minutes, but it was real and it was good. One second I had reached the midway of my run, where I turn back home, and the next I was halfway back to the mouth of the forest, running towards the fork in the path that led to the meadow...I lost all track of who and where I was, forgot the nagging ache in my knee, the problems at work, the evolving relationship with my partner.

This happened often in Kagoshima; I would lose myself for half an hour or more. I would come to and realise that I couldn't remember that hill, or couldn't remember that slope. On a few occasions I lost the entire run, fininished it without any memory of it at all. Once I was jolted out of my reverie by the sight of a large monkey, a big male, as it scooted across the path in front of me. I remember that, remember being nowhere and then being suddenly on the road again, feeling my body and watching that bloody monkey.

I was always most restful and most content when I came out of these trances, happy about my body and about my mind, but it is a little creepy. What is my mind doing at this time? Surely it is doing something: the brain produces thoughts like the liver produces bile. What is it thinking about when it is not me?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Getting caught in the chicks' train carriage

No penises allowed

It was about 9 o'clock at Shibuya station, one of the busiest. I was tired, happy to find a seat, and mildly surprised that there seemed to be so many women in the carriage.Then a Japanese woman, swift and oddly confident, comes up to me and says something rapidly in Japanese. Not catching it, I reply 'Sumimasen?'. She switches instantly to English and tells me that I am in a women-only carriage. I stare around, thinking that accounts for why everything is pink. I thank her and get off the carriage.

I felt sheepish but also grateful to the woman, not only for telling me (50 other women had ignored me) but because she had tried Japanese first; she gave me the courtesy of not assuming I couldn't understand her.

Part of me wanted to object to being thrown out of my seat; but I don't have the right; the Japanese have made the decision to have women-only train carriages and a public objection by me would make the issue a Japanese versus gaijin issue, when it isn't; it is a gender issue.

But I do think it is a bad idea. It has been put into place to combat the problem of endemic sexual harrassement on the trains; or, to be more specific, the problem of chikan, the train groper. These guys take advantage of packed trains by groping girls when the trains are completely packed, to the point where nobody can move. There are even cases of high school girls turning up to school with cum stains on their skirts. Distasteful, I know.

I myself saw an incident (or saw the resulting fracas) with a chikan. I was coming into Shinjuku, rush hour, one of the busiest stations in the world, when suddenly I heard a tremendous shouting from the other end of the carriage. One guy was yelling for all he was worth. Another man's voice, repeating over and over again: sumimasen, gomenasai, sumimasen, gomenasai. Then the train pulled up to the platform, people flooded out of the carriage, and I saw what was happening. The apologising man, head bent in shame, was trying to get away, pulling hard, while his arm was being held by the other man, a young man, who would not let him go. A young woman was standing nearby, presumably the young man's girlfriend. The man holding the guy's arm stood in the doorway of the train, which meant that the doors couldn't close, which meant the train couldn't leave, which meant that within 30 seconds the platform was swarming with staff. When about a dozen station staff had turned up, the guilty guy had appeared to accept his fate and stood silently, head bowed, on the platform, while the young man talked rapidly to a station officer. All the while the girl stood by, expressionless, saying nothing. She was a pretty girl, short skirt and all that, and I would have been tempted to put my hand on her arse myself... if she had been my girlfriend or we were dating or soemething weird like that...

I often wondered what happened to the chikan guy. Did he go to jail, get fined, or what?

But what stuck with me most about the incident is what the girl did. Nothing. Zilch. I knew that if her boyfriend had not happened to be there, she would have just put up with being felt up on the train, as they usually do. While that chikan was caught, the whole incident was hardly empowering for women.

Which is part of the problem of women-only carriages. It perpetuates the perception that women are helpless and cannot deal with their own problems, or that they are incapable of protecting themselves, or, just as bad, that they should not be expected to make an effort to protect themselves.

It's a defeatist attitude, and one that seems to me to be an admission of failure. Why should women need to be segregated in order to feel safe? It is like dealing with the Arab-Israeli problem by building a concrete security wall to separate the two communities. Walls are not the answer. Shouldn't they be targeting the gropers? Or shouldn't women be putting up more of a fight?

Would Western women?

I also find it insulting to me as a man. It tells me that I cannot be trusted. That women need protection from me. It reminds of the unease I felt, as a young and earnest university student, when during a safety-on-campus meeting I was told that at nighttime, if I see a woman walking towards me on my side of the street, then I should cross over to the other side of the street. I had gone to the meeting wanting to help, only to find that I was part of the problem. I felt strongly then, and still do, that perpetuating victimhood does not help.

Fear is not the answer.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Face masks: Just how creepy are they?

The Japanese love face masks. In the street, at work, and especially on trains, you can see them everywhere. Seems a bit weird for newcomers, you come to a strange country with an unusual culture, only to find that Ebola seems to have broken out, and the locals refuse to breathe the air, oblivious to the alien, inhuman feeling they create among freaked-out foreigners.

Well, the Japanse have reasonable-sounding explanation for wearing face masks. It is claimed the masks prevent infection, especially from influenza, and more importantly, stop your flu being transmitted to others. It is thus considered polite to wear the mask, as a courtesy to others. They are also worn in the Spring to prevent breathing in the pollen that commonly causes hayfever. A reasonable explanation, I suppose.

However, I prefer to believe that these Japanese are members of a satanic death cult, and they wear face masks because they are preparing for Armageddon, as only face masks will protect them from the hideous viruses soon to be released by the government and foreign multinationals. Soon the charismatic leader of the cult will unleash his word and the mask-wearers will attack, killing and eating, zombie-like, all the unbelievers who refuse to conform...

But that's just me.

But seriously, what is it with these people? Don't they know how they look? Extras from some B-grade sci-fi plague movie? Basically, the truth is that the Japanese are basically afraid of everything; somebody in the same city with a case of the flu gives them an excuse to put another barrier between them and the scary world. Japan: paradise for paranoia. Lowest crime levels in the world, yet locals patrol the streets at night looking for 'troublemakers'. Safest country in the world for kids, yet the poor little buggers are forced to wear personal alarms, just because a few years ago, one child, out of a population of 125 million, was kidnapped and murdered...

Anyway, for an account of my favourite example of Japanese paranoia see for some nice pictures of the Pana Wave cult, whose penchant for white masks, white everything has some interesting parallels with the face mask movement. Call me cynical, but it has occured to me that the Pana Wave people are just at the extreme end of the face mask continuum.

Anyway bye for now. I gotta lie down. Think I've got the flu coming on...

Maid face-mask soft porn: why didn't I think of that?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Saw a trainspotter today. My walk to work takes me past a multi-track segment of the railway, several lines going past, a perfect trainspotting site.
So this guy was standing there at the link fence, a huge-zoomed camera hanging around his neck, checking a printed schedule and looking at his watch anxiously, stamping his feet against the cold. He looked rather pitable, but then, who am I to judge? His hobby takes him into the fresh air, gives him something to do, costs little, and satisfies his need to...look at trains. I can understand it in a way. It's the same urge I had as a boy to collect toy cars, categorise them, line them up, look at them. If this man's hobby seems a bit ridiculous, even laughable , it's important to remember that most men his age in Japan play pachinko.

The only other trainspotter I've met in Japan was a regular conversation school student I had years ago in Tokyo. Middle-aged man, desperate comb-over, missing teeth.

"Trainspotting?", I said in mild surprise.

"Not like the movie!" he said adamantly.

The intensity with which he made this statement, coupled with the almost aggressive countenance he assumed, made him seem for a moment actually not dissimiliar to Begbie as he was stabbling that innocent guy in the pub. I briefly wondered whether the lifestyles of trainspotting and heroin addiction in the Glasgow underworld did in fact overlap in some ways, and that the irony of the otherwise well-chosen movie title was perhaps misplaced.

Then I looked once again at my middle-aged student, who had once claimed that he had never used a washing machine in his life, leaving domestic duties first to his mother and now his wife, and I thought...