Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sometimes I like Japan

...but only when I don't leave my gaijin shell.

When I do, I invariably come across grotesque and offensive deviations of human behaviour.

Yesterday, on a trip to Yokohama and its station environs to have lunch with a friend, I was brutalized by any number of deviant and creepy manifestations, including, but not limited to...

1. An 'information counter' just outside the station, staffed by young women who were trying fervently to become mechanical automatons. They would stare meaningless into space until a member of the public approached them, then reel off their inhuman, blindly-rehearsed spiel. When the person left, they resumed their mummy-like appearance, primly inspecting the empty air about 2 metres in front of them. The whole effect was akin to some souless clockwork-driven machine, dedicated to sucking the blood and spirit out of all humanity.

2. Many instances of shallow, prim midde-aged housewives with their pampered, tiny doll-like little show dogs in their handbags. These little labrats cost thousands of dollars to buy and their owners are taking them for a 'walk'. As I walked I entertained fantasies of Japan collapsing just before Chinese takeover. When this happens, I dreamed, and the riots sweep the train stations, I will grab one of these rats and cheerfully cook it on a stick.

3. A temporary shop opening up and selling 'memorabilia' for some train station anniversary - Chinese made junk of calendars, notebooks, gadgets and toys. The creepy, geeky nerdy 'otaku' types rushing and crowding around made me think of that photo...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Japan arrests Chinese fishing boat captain...Japan releases Chinese fishing boat captain

Early this month there was an incident near the disputed (and uninhabited) Senkaku islands between China and Japan. Japanese Coast Guard vessels first collided with and then impounded a Chinese fishing boat fishing within Japan's self-declared territory around the islands.

At first the fishing boat fled the scene of the collision, forcing the Japanese vessel to pursue and board the Chinese ship, and assault the crew with samurai forces.

Ok, I made up the samurai bit.

So the Japanese Coast Guard arrests the captain and crew. The crew were quickly released, but the Chinese captain was detained for the next 17 days.

Unleashing a hellfire shitstorm.

In China the islands are known as the Diaoyu islands and considered to be Chinese. In fact one of the interesting aspects of the affair is to read newspaper editorials from either side of the China Sea- or is it the Japan Sea. In Chinese newspapers the islands are "indisputably Chinese from ancient times." In Japanese editorials, however, "there is no question at all that the islands belong and have always belonged to Japan".

Which allows me to make one obvious point, a point that has not been made by the media of either country: there is a dispute and there is a question about the ownership of these islands.

So anyway in China the issue becomes a patriotic and nationalistic flashpoint. There are demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy. Internet forums explode with abuse. Several thousand people cancel tourist trips to Japan. A Japanese group is forced to pull out of a cultural dance exhibition because of security concerns. The Chinese suddenly cancel joint mineral and resource exloration plans for the islands. The Japanese ambassador is summoned repeatedly for official complaints. And just yesterday China announced the beginning of trade sanctions against Japan starting with the suspension of rare earth exports, necessary for the production of cars, mobile phones and other electronics. Chinese news reports are full of coverage of the "illegal and immoral detainment of the patriotic Chinese fishing captain."

So just today the prosecutors in charge of the case in Japan announce that the captain is to be released without charge or further prosecution of the case.

Well, to me this is

1. Very obviously the best thing to do, and

2. Very obviously due to the pressure from China on the Japanese government.

So the issue is set to dominate Japanese politics for some time. The opposition parties are saying it shows Japan to be weak-kneed and that the decision compromises its national security. They say that the decision is 'very regrettable'.

Which is easy for an opposition party to say. They don't have to deal with the second most economically powerful nation in the world, feverously nationalistic and rabidly anti-Japanese at the best of times, howling with fury just across the water and launching trade sanctions faster than you can say 'Nanking massacre'.

The funniest part of the whole business is how Japan has handled the inevitable. Even I noticed that in the last couple of days the media has been emphasising the negative aspects of detaining the Chinese captain: pictures of empty hotel rooms, frantic company employees calling rare earth suppliers in China, videos of protestors in Beijing. They were telegraphing the punch.

So when the Secretary General of the governing DPJ announces with a straight face that the decision to release the Chinese captain was 'the result of investigations and not political', well, you just have to smile at the attempt to save face.

Because if you believe that, well, maybe the Nanking massacre didn't happen after all.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

In which I am a guy and about 80 years old

According to Urlai at

I am between 66-100 years old.

In terms of cynicism perhaps.

A guy, and most upset.

I guess they got that right

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Japan's Missing Centenarians

In a country famous for its long life expectancy, the dark side of longevity is emerging.

Many of Japan's oldest people, 100 years old or older, are missing.

People are officially registered as alive until proven otherwise, and with Japan's Byzantine family register system and the limited investigative powers of local governments, it is often not possible to determine if somebody is dead or alive.

At last count there were over 350 missing centenarians.

The growing scandal around the true fate of Japan's centenarians began in July when a visit by ward officials to the house of Sogen Kato, a Tokyo man believed to be 111, led to a police search of the house which revealed his mummified remains in his bed.

According to family members, about 30 years ago he had declared he wanted to become a 'living Buddha' and had retired into his room. His family had not heard from him since.

A possible explanation for the apparent lack of interest on the part of the family in the well-being of their elderly member may be related to the fact that they were drawing on pension funds that continued to be directed their way, to the tune of over 110 thousand dollars over the decades.

Kato's family are now under investigation.

No kidding.

The discovery led local government officials to search for and generally attempt to verify the existence of centenarians all over Japan.

Since then there have been nightly reports on the drama. The remains of a Tokyo woman believed to be 104 were found stuffed into her son's backpack, where they had been for more than a decade. Rumours abound of sticking grandma in the freezer so her pension can be collected.

Local media are blaming the false records of living centenarians on sloppy bureaucratic paperwork.

Among other centenarians still registered as living are a 186-year-old man in Yamaguchi prefecture.

Officials said: 'He may be dead.'

Indeed. Love the Japanese penchant for caution. After all, he may be alive, which would make him 70 years older than the second oldest living human, as old as Japan's last shogun.

Friday, September 03, 2010

New PM for Japan?

Well, the revolving door prime ministership continues for this great country.

On September 14th the Democratic Party of Japan has a presidential election, with incumbent Naoto Kan (already the fifth prime minister in 5 years) facing challenger and party heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa.

Nobody seems to know why Ozawa is doing this. Monumentally unpopular and rotting black with funding scandals, Ozawa nevertheless is the most powerful man in the party and a good chance to win and thus become prime minister.

Naoto Kan has had four months, and has gotten in strife merely for mentioning the possibility of raising the consumption tax. Not that more consumption tax is needed...Japan's budget could be easily balanced if they stopped concreting the countryside. Weird but true.

Ozawa is an old school bureaucratic tool, desperate to rewind the Japanese postal services privatisation process, and in general further the slide into stagnation and cultural death.

Just thought you should know.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Hatoyama goes bye bye

Well, the prime minister of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama, resigned today. The merry-go-round of Japanese politics continues. His likely successor, Naoko Kan, will be the fifth prime minister in 4 years. It remains to be seen how long he will last.
In truth, Hatoyama had himself to blame for his disastrous run. He made a pile of unfulfillable promises while in opposition, only to fail to deliver almost all of them. The most disastrous pledge was to shift the Futenma military base out of Okinawa- how could he have thought that could happen? The Japanese have such a terminal case of the Nimbies that that base is either closing or staying in Okinawa forever.

To be fair, though, Hatoyama is a victim, just like his predecessors, of an absurd and unstable political system, with little executive power, massive gerrymandering, and inbuilt resistance to change. Resistance, that, if anything, is even more entrenced that when Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's most successful prime minister in recent history, spent all his considerable energies on the hopeless quest for real reform in Japan.

Real reform that is, unfortunately, looking less and less likely with every ineffectual and temporary leader that comes after him.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Japanese TV 1

A line of B-grade T.V. talents and comedians line up to taste some soup from a spoon. The soup is being served out by an overweight unattractive woman wearing 37 layers of makeup.

As each talent comes us to taste the soup, she demands,

"Say you like me."

"I like you", he says obediently

The audience titters and giggles, the lining talents pepper the field with comments,

"He said it!"


"He said he liked her!"


And that was the show

Monday, May 03, 2010

A new base in Tokunoshima?

The Japanese media has long been obsessed with the issue of U.S. military bases in Okinawa. And over the years simmering discontent in that prefecture was periodically heightened by a various unpleasant incidents- U.S. servicemen involved in a rape case with a local teenage girl; a helicopter crashing into a building. So when Yukio Hatoyama made an election pledge to 'look into' moving U.S. facilites out of their present locations, specifically the marine base in Futenma, many people expected...well they expected some the base at Futenma to be closed. Which is unfortunate because it is campaign pledge that Hatoyama looks unlikely to be able to keep.

Because regardless of the feelings of local protestors in Okinawa it seems unlikely that U.S. forces will be leaving the area anytime soon. Nor is it clear that they should, in the interests of both Japan and the United States. Bases in Japan provide a vital presence in North Asia for American interests. And the U.S. military umbrellas covers Japan for a fraction of the financial and social cost that would be incurred if Japan were forced to...actually provide their own defence. Not to mention the huge direct injection of money that into the Okinawan economy that that the bases represent. Unfortunately there is such a strong case of 'Not in My Backyard' fervour in Okinawa that the political and media pressure upon Hatoyama has been relentless.

The latest chapter in this sad saga is the proposal by the Hatoyama government to shift the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the island of Tokunoshima.

Tokunoshima, 200 kilometres to the NorthEast, is actually part of Kagoshima. I've been there. Lushly tropical, it's famous for bullfights, where the bullfights square off against each other and people make bets on the winner. Naturally the whole island has erupted into vociferous protest and immense rallies are protesting the destruction of the local culture, the crime, the dirty foreign invasion

I spent a week there in the company of other JETs, cruised around, drank local shochu and sat on beaches. It's beautiful, but it's also increasingly concreted and just as closeminded as the rest of the country. And like all of Japan, slowly depopulating and rusting.

And as for those two girls I met at the cafe on the beach, those two lithe but snaggle-toothed beauties, Izumi and Harumi, those little lying two-faced flirting vixens who wouldn't return my calls and broke their promise to call me when they visited the mainland, well...

Those little slappers will get what they want when a few thousand bored and horny U.S. servicemen descend upon their little faux paradise.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Shameful Penis

So today I went to an onsen for the fist time in several months.

God it was good. Several different baths, with different solutions of mineral salts with various beneficial effects upon a tired teacher's body. Outside bath. Massage pool. Sauna.

But it occurred to me that Japanese men are ashamed of their penises. 90% of men, though otherwise completely naked, were walking around with a face cloth held discreetly over their genitals. Funnily enough, I don't seem to remember this practice when I first came to Japan some 10 years ago. Is it really a recent phenomenon?

Well, it is only relatively recently in Japanese society that the bulk of onsens have been divided into mens' and womens' sections. Pre-war it was very rare. Everybody just washed up together, a healthy and open tradition compared to the Victorian prudery of the West. But in recent decades mixed bathing has become the exception rather than the rule. Who knows why. Maybe it was in unconscious emulation of the West. Maybe a consequence of the post-war consumerist objectification of women - after all, if a woman's body is so special, you can't just give away the sight of it for free! Maybe it was a response to the growing perversity of Japanese men ... let's face it, I wouldn't want wanking lecherous 40-year-old virgin underwear-stealing mummy's boys leering at me either. Whatever the reason, mixed onsens are few and far between these days.

But why should men, Japanese or otherwise, be ashamed of their penis? Doesn't every man have one? In a room full of men, who are you gonna offend? Is each individual really of the belief that his penis is so much smaller than his companions' that it must be covered up in shame? Surely that can't be possible. There is only one possible conclusion. There must be something inherently shameful about the penis itself, so shameful that it is covered up even in a Japanese bathhouse.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that the penis is the most shameful part of the body. It is the last thing to be exposed to a lover; the most inappropriate thing imaginable to show in public, an object so taboo that I feel mildly embarrassed just writing about it. In most places in the world you'll be arrested more quickly for bringing a penis out in public than for bringing out a gun, sword, knife or rocket launcher. Hollywood movies will depict murder, assault, suicide, slavery, genocide, torture and Sarah Palin becoming president. They have no shame. Yet they won't show you a penis. Go figure.

I don't want to be ashamed of my penis. I want it to swing free. I want to feel the breeze. I want to glory in my genitalia.

I want to liberate the penis.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Running a marathon in Japan

So three weeks ago I ran my first full marathon.

It had been, of course, a dream for some time.

But running a marathon takes a combination of elements that are often not always available. You need to be ready to make a big committment to training. 42 kilometres is a distance that demands respect - it cannot be done without the training. And the training takes time. A lot of time and energy and psychological wherewithal.

So you need to make that committment, a committment for several months. Running several times a week. No late Friday or Saturday nights on the booze, because you know you will just not get up the next day and train.

Yep, the training is the hardest part. 200 hundred hours or more. I have often felt sorry for people who do shorter sports- sprinters, polevaulters, gymnasts. All that training and 1 mistake can ruin it all come competition time. A figure skater who trains for years to make the Olympics only to slip on a patch of rough ice, fall over and lose years of her life. That's not an issue in the marathon, as the hardest work is done in the training and the actual day is just the inevitable result, good or bad.

So my job gives me free time, back early enough most afternoons to run, and each glorious Tuesday all my own. That became my long run, starting at 10 kms and eventually weekly in the 30s. My longest was 38. Everything after 30 hurts.

Every time.

When the day came I was confident I could finish, just keen to do as well as I could. When you put in those hours, you start thinking about what your finish time will be, because you inevitably want to get the most out of your training that you can, get the most return on the pain you have invested.

The marathon is popular in Japan. It fits well with the Japanese psyche, the paradigm of grim endurance. And make no mistake: long distance running is about putting up with pain. And the solo aspect works well too; despite their much vaunted reputation for teamwork, the Japanese are hopeless at teamsports. Teamsports require leadership and flexibility.

So on the day I was one of a mere handful of foreigners amongst 10,000 Japanese running the Sakura marathon in Chiba. It was very well-organized, staffed and serviced.

And extremely cold. The temperature never topped 6 degrees and was often close to zero. Cold even for a marathon, when in general you want it to be cold.

The start was at a stadium. The feeling in the air was quite sober, unlike the atmosphere at Western races. A few people had funny costumes or hats, including a trio dressed as Ultraman. The gun went off. We were a couple of minutes behind the starting line but microchips we were wearing recorded the exact time we cross the starting line. I was with my friend Dave. We had often trained together, and planned to stay together for a large part of the race. Unfortunately that was not to happen, as Dave has toilet troubles and after the first 5 kilometres he stepped off to pee and I never saw him again. It was like he had been taken out by a sniper in mid sentence. I shall miss him.

That left me and the entire nation of Japan. Dave had been thinking that we had been starting too fast and should slow down. Left to myself, I decided to let my body follow its own pace and speeded up slightly. I settled into my stride. I was not yet tired and I was passing people. To my surprise one of the people I passed was the 4 hour 30 minute pacemaker. One of the disadvantages of competing in a country where you miss a lot of the language is that you miss things. If I had known there were pacemakers things may have gone differently. I resolved to keep passing people until I reached the 4 hour pacemaker and stick with him. In the event I never managed that.

I passed a lot of people. Up ahead I could see one of the costumed entrants, a young man in a yellow full body lycra suit and an umbrella hat. He was my next target. I did not want to be beaten by a cartoon character. For a long time I held him in sight, but he was passing people as I was and I gained on him only slowly. At about 15 km I stopped to pee and lost a lot of ground. My pace at that time was good. I was thinking I would keep the same pace until the 30km mark and speed up if possible, finishing in a negative split. At the halfway mark there was a timer displayed on the road that read 2:03. I was cautiously optimistic about finishing in under 4 hours.

After the halfway point I started to take drinks and sweets at the rest stops regularly. Until then I had only drunk once. After about the 25km mark I was still gaining slowly on Yellow Man but now I was starting to hurt. I was familar with the feeling but I was worried about how long there was to go. After a while the gap between me and Yellow Man grew no closer even though I was still passing people. By the time I passed 30km I was in pain; my goal was merely to maintain my current pace and then see if I had anything left at the very end. I stopped to pee again; it seemed to take a long time and when I rejoined the pack the Yellow Man was 400 metres ahead.

It really began to hurt. Each kilometre marker seemed much further than the previous one. Were they lengthening the kilometre as the race went on? I concentrated on maintaining my pace. In my mind I went through quotes from the movie 300, imagining myself holding the line against the enemy. I can do this. I can do this. It was still gruesomely cold. After 35 km the pain became agony. All around me the Japanese were moaning. It was the first time I had ever heard Japanese express pain; normally they are a stoic, reticent people. I had ceased to pass runners and concentrated on holding my spot; next to me an old man grunted "Oi!", "Oi!" with every breath. The strain was etched on every face around me. I knew I would finish now and exerted all my effort into not slowing down, holding the pace. Some minutes were easier than others. I swore I would never do this again. My left knee, never in good condition, was a ball of flame. The last 3km seemed to take forever. People were lining the course cheering us on. I just wanted it to end. The last 400 meters was a hill climb back up the stadium. It was Hell, but it was a short Hell and a different Hell to the flat. I shift and place my weight on the balls of my feet and keep running.

My finish time was 4:05. I wonder if I could have done better but I doubt it. When I finished I had nothing left. Nothing at all. I don't know if there will be a next time but if there is I would like to get under 4 hours. But I am not sure; when I started writing this I was excited about doing another marathon but near the end the memory of the pain came back and I have my doubts.

After the race I waited for Dave to finish (toilet stops had cost him 25 minutes) and we ate and ate. One of the good things about a marathon is you can eat anything you want when you finish. You have just lost 2 kilograms after all. And the fast Japanese food available was good: fried chicken and fried noodles, hotdogs and okinomiyaki pancakes.

I think I'll start training again.

Monday, April 05, 2010

More on whale meat

...being served in the university cafeteria.

I took this pic of クジラカツ (whale cutlet) at my university cafeteria. Didn't taste bad either; better than the curry. It cost about 6 dollars, a bit pricier than their usual fare of noodles and sliced beef on rice.

In universities in the West it would be inconceivable to serve up whale meat in the cafeteria. There would be riots and demonstrations. You would probably get less of an outcry if you put baby meat on the menu.

Part of the difference is the Japanese attitude toward whaling, but another part is the political atmosphere at universities here. There is none to speak of. No gender studies departments pushing political correctness. No campus clubs advocating action to protect the environment. No schools of thought, inside or outside classrooms, looking at society or history or politics from a leftist perspective.

The whale cutlet was consumed on a table surrounded by other tables full of students from the kendo club, the football club, the dance club, students studying chemistry, students applying makeup, students sitting in their class groups, students glancing shyly at me, students talking about teachers or tennis or the food or their boyfriends.

It is true that the combative atmosphere of the 80's, let alone the 60's, is fading from Australian universities. Full fee paying students have sacrificed for their place in the system and are therefore invested in protecting that system rather than rocking the boat.

But my Japanese university is ridiculous. Can't somebody be upset about something?


Saturday, March 13, 2010

A good thing about Japan - it's not religious!

Yes, Japan has many good points and I've just remembered one of them!

Japan is not a religious country.

Well, that's not entirely true. A vague but deep sense of superstition pervades the culture. Many people believe in ghosts, spirits, and good luck charms. They will go to a shrine to pray for health, or assistance is passing university exams, or help in getting pregnant.

But their beliefs are not dogmatic. A typical person will cheerfully go to Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple in the same month without seeing a contradiction. Nor is there one. Indeed there is a kind of informal overlap between major religions here...Shinto looks after birth and childhood; you get married in a church with a (usually fake) Christian priest, and your funeral is a Buddhist ceremony. Nobody gets angry. And then, if asked, people will say 'there's probably no God anyway.' I have even read that most Buddhist and Shinto priests don't actually believe in God or an afterlife - it's just a job.

Nobody really takes religious belief seriously here. The conflicts of the Middle East and the ravings of the American Bible Belt are viewed with bemusement or dismay. And best of all, religion has not forced its hypocritical slimy tentacles into government, or education, or morality. Sex doesn't come with the religious guilt it does in the West. You will not go to hell for sleeping with the soccer team - you will just get gossiped about.

The lack of strong religious belief in Japan is one of its best points. Probably contributes to low levels of violence and a general feeling of physical safey.

And I think this is funny:

Friday, March 05, 2010

Japanese Unsatisfactory Answers to Simple Questions


This happens a lot, and is very frustrating. Something comes up, arouses curiousity. You ask why something is the way it is, but the answer you receive...never fails to unimpress, and is so seemingly unconnected with what the real explanation must be that you are left bewildered that such an answer could be given. You gradually begin to realise one important aspect of the bigger picture: Japanese don't ask questions, and if they do, they don't question the answers. They just accept them.

Here are some of my favorite examples:

"Why are there so many vending machines?"

"Because they are very convenient."

Ten for every block? Three selling cigarettes and drinks...outside a 24-hour convenience store?

"Tokyo has 20 million people. Whey don't the trains run 24 hours? It would stimulate the economy."

"They need to do maintenance."

I suspect the limited train hours have more to do with the influence of the taxi industry than maintenace schedules.

"Why does the beach close at the end of August? It's 36 degrees celsius."

"Because it's cold."

Maybe cold has a different meaning in Japanese.

"Why can't I swim at the beach at the bottom of my street?"

"Deep water."

This was the answer I got on my second day of JET. It took 20 minutes of 4 office people looking through dictionaries to come up with it.

"Why can't I teach this class English?"

"Because they are studying for their English test."

The saddest thing is, once you understand the system, this makes perfect sense.

"Why does the principal spend all his time doing the gardening?"

"Because he is very busy."

"Why can't the kids bring food from home?"

"Because they can't bring food from home"

"Why do I have to carry this gaijin card around with me?"

"Because many foreigners are criminals."

That makes me feel great

"Why do Japanese people spend so much time at the office?"

"Yes, it's difficult."

And my favourite:

"Why did Japan attack America duing the war?"

"There was a war with America?"

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Japanese Hobbies #4: Sleeping


"What did you do on the weekend?"
"I slept."

If I had a dollar for every time I have had this conversation, I would have enough money to sleep every day for the rest of my life myself.

I am not sure why the Japanese sleep so much and do other things so little. Perhaps it's because so many things were organised for them when they were growing up that they never had a chance to find out what they really like to do. Or maybe it's because there isn't much else to do (pachinko anyone?). Or maybe what they claim is correct, that they are so tired from studying or working that any free chance they get is spent sleeping.

But I am skeptical of this claim. Partly because housewives and students (who hardly lack free time) also confess that sleeping is a hobby. And partly because a lot of the time they are not really working, just pretending. Indeed, workers often combine sleeping and working. The head of the Board of Education in my old town Nejime would sleep the afternoon away, his soft snores drifting through the partition from his office. At 4.30 I would head out the door, asking if he was going to go home soon himself.

"I'm sorry. I have to do overtime."

As an aside, it is truly extraordinary, a genuine Wonder of the World, that the Japanese can sleep so easily. Not only do they sleep on trains coming home at night, dozens in a carriage, head lying against shoulder in a cute and slovenly row, they also sleep on trains at 1 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. They sleep on trains standing up, one hand holding the strap, swinging around 360 degrees and back again as the train goes around corners.

My adult students tell me they sleep through business meetings.

"Why?" "How?"

"Because it's warm and I'm tired"

My lover will sleep one metre from the TV blaring full blast. Her mouth lies open and I take photos and put them on my screensaver. She gets angry, but she laughs as well.

My students are so good at sleeping through my class that they can do it while holding a pen the whole time, thus diverting suspicion. I swear to God that I have seen several of them do this and take notes at the same time.

I have seen my friend in Kagoshima hold a conversation while sleeping. No words, just murmurings, but the intonation is spot on and he responds to questions. He even repeats his murmur if he receives no reply.

All this talk of sleep has led me to believe that I will go to bed. I leave you with a quote from D.H. Lawrence:

"And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created."

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

No Tsunami in Japan this week

Well, on Sunday the approaching tsunami from the Chilean earthquake unleashed... a tsunami of media panic. At the very least emergency broadcasts dominated half the screeen of the program you were watching on TV; and most stations were devoted entirely to tsunami reports.
The broadcasts repeated again and again the list of prefectures expected to be hit as well as the expected time of arrival and height of the tsunami. I kept missing the details for Yokohama (if they were given) but the height estimates ranged from 3 metres to 1 metre. But all reports stressed one thing in common: noone, under any circumstances, was to go near the water; you were to 'seek shelter' until told otherwise. Even the prime minister was brought on to tell everybody to stay away from the sea.

So of course I go down there to have a look. Not only is there nothing to see, the beach the seaside park are buzzing with the usual fishermen, joggers, and walkers.

Japan disappoints once again. When I get home I find all the size estimates have been downgraded to '60 centimetres', even a life-threatening '20 centimetres'.

Meanwhile there was no mention, in the midst of this paranoid media panic disaster meltdown, of...Chile, where upwards of 700 people were killed and hundreds are trapped under the rubble. But hey, who cares about them?

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Sumo R.I.P.

"Know, O prince, that between the years when the last Japanese yokozuna reigned and the years of the slow, irrecoverable decline into irrelevance of this ancient and noble martial sport, there was an age undreamed of, when gleaming behemoths clashed across the land like shining gods beneath the stars - Kaio, Kotomitsuki, the iceman Hakuho with his steely grace, sad-eyed Bulgarian Kotooshu, Harumafuji with his supreme craft, the giant Baruto with incomparable strength. Matching their skill and power against each other in the eternal quest for greatness and immortality. But the proudest warrior of all was Asashoryu, reigning supreme from the dreaming steppes of the west. From the land over the sea he came, the Mongolian, black-topknotted, fire-eyed, mawashi-clad, sword in hand, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic girth, to tread the sacred clay of the dohyo under his bare feet."

We shall remember him.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Day Sumo Died

Sumo died yesterday.

Asashoryu, the yokozuna grandchampion, was forced to retire yesterday.
After a meeting with the Japan Sumo Association he announced his retirement at a press conference. And though at the conference he said he was retiring as he "had caused a lot of trouble in the world", there can be no doubt it was pressure by the JSA that brought on the retirement against his will.

On January 16th Asashoryu was involved in an incident at a nightclub in Tokyo. Turns out he got drunk and punched someone, breaking a guy's nose. Admittedly this is inappropriate behaviour for someone in his position...but being forced to retire is hardly fitting punishment. It is just more evidence of the JSA being unhappy with the reality of modern sport.

The truth is that Asashoryu has been 'a bad boy' for a long time and the conservative JSA (not to mention conservative Japanese in general) have always been unhappy with him. In 2003 he was disqualified in a bout for pulling the hair of an opponent (probably accidentally). The disagreement continued in the locker room and apparently he smashed the guy's car mirror. He also drew condemnation for raising his fists in triumph after a recent tournament victory.

Asashoryu is a spirited guy. He gets angry. He often throws opponents out of the ring instead of pushing them. He has a big ego.

In other words, he is kind of like...a top athlete. And God knows that sumo, a dying sport trapped in meaningless ritual, ignored by Japanese youth, and straighjacketed by declining revenues, needs a bit of life. A bit of bravado. A personality. In any other sport his normal behaviour would receive little comment and his worse excesses would get him warnings or a fine. In Australia, cricketers abuse each other and umpires regularly. As for footballers, newspaper headlines are full of rapes, bashings, and drug orgies. And those guys get warnings and suspensions. Sumo has lost its greatest athlete because one guy got punched.

Of course the Japanese media is claiming this latest incident is the final straw after years of behaviour not befitting a yokozuna. But some of the things Asashoryu got in trouble for in the past are ludicrous, and reflect more on the punishers than the punished. For example last year he committed the unforgivable, mortal go-to-hell sin of playing golf with other Mongolian wrestlers just before a tournament. And his most famous transgressiion was 'feigning injury' and missing an unimportant regional tournament to go back home to Mongolia for a visit, where he was filmed playing soccer and seemingly not so injured after all. For this he was banned for the next two tournaments. This is a punishment akin to banning Roger Federer from two Wimbledons for failing to turn up to the Queen's tournament. The suspension led to a bout of depression and poor performance from which Asashoryu only recovered last year. Then he staged a come back and the bouts between him and rival yokozuna Hakuho were the highlights of each tournament.

The biggest loser in this sad epic is not Asashoryu, of course. It is not even the JSA, whose members must live with throwing away the best wrestler they will ever see in their lives. The real losers are sumo fans and the Japanese public in general, who are faced with yet more evidence that their leaders and role models are atavistic and out-of-touch dinosaurs dooming their culture to irrelevance.

Asashoryu was an incredible talent. Speed, strength and skill in perfect balance. At his best he was untouchable. In 2005 he won all six tournaments, several without losing a single bout. He also won the first tournament this year in decisive form, making the iceman Hakuho look decidedly fragile, and moving into 3rd place on the all-time list for most title wins. He is only 29 years old, and certainly has several years of top form potentially in him. Now we shall never know if he could have been the greatest sumo rikishi ever. Who will take the next tournament seriously, when Hakuho or Harumafuji lifts the Emperor's Cup, and the huge ghost of Asashoryu looms over everyone, unfought and unforgotten?

Shame, Japan, Shame.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Japanese Hobbies # 3: Playing pachinko

So what is your image of Japan?

A romantically beautiful garden in tune with the surrounding environment, with cherry blossom trees sighing in the soft wind next to a carp-filled pond?
How about a wooden training dojo, alive with the thuds of kendo sticks and the thwacks of archery shafts hitting home in their stuffed-straw targets?
Or perhaps an exotically beautiful kimono-clad girl, playing a shamisen and singing in a clear high voice of love and loss?

All images of Japan, and all false.

The one thing that sums up Japan, that underlines the chasm between the image and the the pachinko parlor.

A pachinko machine is what you might get if a slot machine, a poker machine and a pinball machine had a threesome and engended some misbegotten mutant child. Knobs whistles and dials. Flashing lights. Cigarette-filled ashtrays. Sirens and blaring music. Hundreds of tiny steel ball flying around, bashing into each other and driving their noise into your skull like a hammer wielded by a meth-addict. Filling the parlor with a desperately unpleasant mix of loud noise, bright light and tobacco smoke. Pretty much my personal idea of hell.

Oh, and you have to pay. A lot. It's gambling Japanese-style. And just as the Japanese army doesn't actually exist according to the Japanese consitution, and thus passes itself off as the /Self Defence Force/; the pachinko parlor rewards its few lucky winners not with money directly, but with cigarettes, radios and lighters, which the patron drags around the block to the secretive yakuza-run pawn shop and exchanges for hard yen.

The most popular pastime in Japan. They are everywhere, from the smallest countryside town to the huge Shinjuku and Shibuya parlors with hundreds of machines.

On Saturday afternoons, when you may wonder why the parks and beaches in your city of 20 million or your town of 6000 are empty, you will find the answer when you walk by the open doors to the local parlor and see the lines of captive men inside, tied to their machines like the worst pokie-addict back home. Not only that, you will often find men in large numbers early in the morning, lining up outside waiting for the parlor to open. I can understand this, it gives the Japanese an opportunity to combine two of their favourite activities.

In fact, it is so popular that parchinko parlors are often the largest and most conspicuous buildings in a town or neighbourhood. Some theorists, observing that a society's largest buildings are often places of worship- cathedrals in Europe, temples in South-East Asia, mosques in the Middle East, have concluded that pachinko is actually Japan's real religion. Certainly its most popular.

Many magazines, books and internet sites are devoted to pachinko, where readers learn hints, tips and strategies. Many pachinko players are convinced it is possible to win long-term, by, for example, finding out which machines are programmed to pay out more winnings. In fact, many people have ambitions to achieve the Holy Grail of Pachinko Life, that is, to become a Professional Pachinko Player. Unfortunately I do not share their ambition.

In fact, I think it is fair to say that the very thought of the shuddering horror entailed by such an occupation is enough to make me doubt the existence of a benevolent deity.

Yeah- I don't get it either.