Monday, 27 September 2004

where to start...? always a tricky one. The advice usually given is to start in the middle and then go back to the start to finish off, or something like that. But that doesn't work if your not exactly sure where the middle is going either and you haven't even thought about the ending.

So today it was an exceptionally gray and wet day, in fact it almost seemed like a day in blighty, with low cloud and persistent drizzle, interspersed with buckets of very heavy rain, which was at least a little diverting. This was apt, the grayness not the diverting rain, as seemed to sum up my outlook at the moment, mainly on account of finishing the book that I wrote about last week, Alex Kerr's Japan is a Totally F**ked Concept. I have now realised the wisdom of reading books about countries when you are far, far away from the country that the book is about, preferably never to return. It is a big mistake to read a book slagging off the country you are living in, especially if a) you aren't leaving for the foreseeable b) you agree with most of what the book says and c) your partner, who is from said country, does not agree at all. This is not a recipe for a sunny visage and a spring in the step.

Then, to make matters worse, you troop off to the virgin cinema in 'trendy' Roppongi Hills to watch 'The Fog of War' which though very, very interesting, is also a wee bit depressing about the state of human nature and our inability to learn from past mistakes. If you haven't seen it, then I would highly recommend it: 2 hours of interviews, contemporary footage and anecdotes from Robert McNamara, the US Defence Secretary during the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam and the like. Fascinating, but not exactly laugh a minute stuff. Also it was Roppongi Hills, which as you well know is not my favourite place in the whole of Japan.

This, though, made me smile this week, or perhaps it was last week, I can't really remember. The Japanese, like most people, like a jolly good opinion poll to brighten up their morning daily. Current hot topics in these opinion polls are such normal things like how much you dislike the prime minister (even though he cried in Brazil when all the expats cheered him for 5 minutes), how much you hate North Korea (especially now that Krazy Kim seems to be warming up his nukes for no apparent reason - hey! When did he ever need one?) and how dangerous Japan has become. This poll that I saw was on this last topic. Part of it was all about the breakdown of Japanese family life, the increase in violent crime, especially by younger and younger children and the fracturing of society. Good news on this point, by the by, as Kaio won the Autumn Sumo basho, which finished yesterday in Tokyo. He beat Mongolian grappler Asashoryu to claim the Emperor's Cup, the first Japanese to do so for...for, well quite a long time as I can't remember the last native to do it. Asashoryu fell to something like a 9-6 record, which is pretty dismal for a yokozuna - so smies all around in the Japan Sumo Association as Japan reasserts itself as a force to be reckoned with.

I digress. So this back to this poll and its main subject. The headline for the poll was something like 'Japanese Fear Increase in Foreign Crime!' Or to put it another way, your average Japanese person on the Kawaguchi omnibus is worried about the increasing number or crimes committed by foreigners in Japan, especially, it seems violent crimes perpatrated by evil Chinese gangsters and their terrible rackets (noisy people obviously, ho ho ho). Now, as a student doing an MBA, all of my assignments involve first person research, in which views of others need to be sought. So, all the books tell me, you have to be very careful when framing questions so that you don't introduce bias, or leading questions or try to put words into people's mouths. So imagine my surprise, as the saying goes, when the question that the poll was based on translated roughly like 'Are you worried about crimes being committed by foreigners who have over stayed their visas and are now residing illegally in Japan?' Surely the answer to that question, if asked of anyone in any country about illegal immigrants would be yes, but here it was trumpted all over the front pages as if it was some kind of revelation.

What made me smile even more was that further into the article it sheepishly revealed that whilst the total number of crimes committed by foreigners is going up, as a proportion of all crime it is going down. Also, violent crimes by foreigners are going down as well, the only real growth area, as it were, are for visa infringements, such as over staying your visa, and these generally for students studying Japanese - ok, they are mostly Chinese, apparently , so at least something was accurate in the report. Nothing like an unbiased free press to stir up intelligent debate, although coming from the UK, with its tabloid trash, I'm hardly one to talk really.

On the plant front, continuing good news from the chilli plants. We have now had a total of three chills, two of which I have eaten and can confirm that they were, indeed, green chillis. And they weren't too bad, reasonably hot and spicy, but not eye wateringly so. One certainly livened up a pot of bog standard tomato-y pasta sauce the other week, so well done the chilli plants.

The olive tree continues to grow apace and is now over a metre tall, which is most impressive indeed. No olives yet, but they will come in time, I am quite sure of that. Actually, last week I sneaked off the top shoots to slow it down for the winter, but already it has sprouted three new shoots around the cutting and shows no sigh of slowing. Today the balcony, tomorrow the world!

And the rosemary, much of which has died due to the same strange thing that decimated the mint, is now doing ok. There is only really one plant left, but it is the oldest and the biggest and also has new shoots a-sprouting so hopefully it will see the winter through.

But RIP for the coffee tree, which went brown and died in about 3 days. This after it was doing so well and had recovered from its little white bug(ger) attack. Oh well, looks like I'm going to have to contiune to buy my mocha...

Monday, 20 September 2004


Finding it difficult to know what to write tonight. The main probelm is the book I'm reading at the moment - Alex Kerr's Dog and Demons: The fall of modern Japan. This is a fascinating book and well worth a read, especially to anyone living in Japan. The gist of it is that, essentially, Japan is f****d - too much concrete, too much destruction, too much debt, too little thinking and not nearly enough caring.

But how true is this of the rest of the world? Are they fingers that can only be pointed at Japan? How much do people care in Europe, America or Australasia?

I'm not sure how much I agree with all of what he has to say, but I am in total agreement about Japan and its love affair with concrete. Japan is fast on the way to becomming an exceedingly ugly place, paved in concrete and then covered in billboards and neon. The 'not enough caring' comes from everyman on the Kawaguchi omnibus, as it doesn't seem to matter that these things happen and few Japanese people seem to speak out about it (that I know or have heard about, I hasten to add). Though perhaps Kawaguchi is a tricky place to choose as from our windows we can see a massive expanse of greenery along the riverbank, both grass and trees, which is one of the main reasons we live where we do (it isn't the 1' 30" journey to work, I can tell you). But I can't believe that very many people in Tokyo and the surrounding Kanto plain get such a view. Our old apartment in Chiba had a car park outside (which was hidden by bamboo trees, which were very nice and Japanesey, until the carpark owner cut them down for no apparent reason) and a road, nothing much to see there, and I don't think it is any better for the majority.

But of course we are living (and choosing to at that) in a megalopolis over 12 million people (in Tokyo, not including Saitama, Chiba and south to Yokohama) so how much more can one expect? And the trains run on time, and no one is likely to mug me, let alone shoot me accidentally during a drug war standoff - OK, too much Fox News Syndrome there, but you get the point.

Maybe that's the problem with the book, too much negativity. Is there an opposite to rose tinted spectacles?

Haven't finished the book yet, but it has certainly got me thinking.

Tuesday, 14 September 2004

The girls in blue

Now it might be thought that I have a bit of a thing about the police in this country, a bit of a negative attitude. This is of course completely wrong as I have a *extremely* low opinion of them. I have written in these pages, somewhere, about stories in the paper about crap things that they do, mainly because they seem quite funny to me, but then again because I'm usually quite aghast of the things that they manage to come out with.

But I'm beginning to realise, right now in fact, that this might just be because I come from such a totally alien cultural background that anything and everything the police do just seems odd because I am a foreigner. I wasn't going to write about this, probably because it was in the newspaper again, and that's not what we're meant to be about today, but we'll come onto that later. Anyway, letter in the paper from a chap whose wife/partner got knocked off her moped by a car. Chap, being dilligent, got the number plate details and so, when the police arose from their sloth long enough to scratch an armpit and arrive at the scene, he passed on said details. He then expected the police to leap into action, as it were, go to miscreant motorist's house, knock down doors, shout 'hut hut' a lot and effect a swift arrest (he is American). But no, and this is perhaps where the previously unheeded cultural chasm opens.

The police, being ever resourceful in finding ways to make their own job easier, telephoned the egregious automobile pilot and asked him, if it wasn't too much bother, if he minded wandering down to the nearest koban for a quiet word as he seemed to have nudged a motorcyclist whilst driving home half cut from his local sake-ya. Now if this happened in the UK, the response would be laughter followed by a few choice expletives and the connection being cut. But here the errant driver said 'right you are, it's a fair cop' and went to the station, apologised, bowed a bit and then buggered off - probably after paying a bit in damages, I would guess, but otherwise as free as scott, as the saying goes.

Now on the surface it seems like pretty shite policing to me, but the mere fact that the police did it, and the chap duly arrived, goes to show that no matter how strange you think this country is, and no matter how many times you think 'but they wouldn't do it like that in...' the fact is that Japan is a deeply, deeply weird place. I mean, even the criminals are polite and own up to their misdemeanors...but...I mean...huh?

Then again, some people have just no respect for the law whatsoever.

As I said earlier, all these stories about how crap the police are I have seen have been in the paper, but on Friday last week I saw this in action for myself. I was eating lunch with a couple of others from the office, this time at the curry place (good curries, no Japanese cooks there, all authentic Indian personages who, I'm sure I wrote somewhere before, have live cricket feeds over the internet when India are playing, which is just fine with me). Anyway they have a small terrace, big enough for one table and four chairs, where we were engaged in witless banter and curry consumption on the aforementioned sunny Friday afternoon. Along comes a black beamer that parks on the other side of the road but effectively blocking half the carriageway. These are residential streets and so are quite narrow, making passing tricky. Out jumps our plucky parker and dives into the curry emporium in which we are also scoffing.

About 10 minutes later a small car draws up. I have seen these cars before, they look a bit like police cars but have different markings on, are really small and always have three official looking ladies inside. So this patrol car slows and looks at the beamer and then quick as a flash a green and white cane is produced.

Fascinated, the terraced based foreigners watch agog...

The cane is tipped with a piece of chalk and in the blink of an eye, the chalk has marked the driver's side tire with a cross and written '155' on the road next to the mark. Then, blaring from the loud speaker atop the patrol car, the instruction "Oi! You! Wherevere you are! Move your bloody car toot sweet, we'll be back in 15 minutes to check on you" (may have been) barked.

Ah, '155' means it is five to two in the afternoon and so they will circle and come back to check at 3:10. Bouyed by our Holmes like deductive reasoning, we get up to leave, thinking what a jolly effective way to do the traffic warden thing, they don't even have to get out of the car (though quite what the lady in the back of the car did remains a mystery, moral support perhaps?) But then we saw the folly of the plan.

Beamer driver chap came out of the curry house looking a bit peeved. Got in, started the car, rolled it forward about a foot, then got out and returned to his lunch. Of course now the mark on the tire and the mark on the road didn't match up, so one assumes that the taffic ladies now had no hold over him, he had done exactly what they asked him to do. Though not quite in the spirit of the law, it was certainly within the letter of it.

We weren't able to hang around to see what happened when the ladies in blue returned, more's the pity, but it did increase my respect for law enforcement in this country.

No really.

Tuesday, 7 September 2004

Windows for warships

Saw this over at Dearie Me, does it make you worried? I think it should, Bill Gates really is going to take over the world...

Monday, 6 September 2004


You thought I'd forgotten, but I have done no such thing! Click here for this year's guide to 2004 Talk Like a Pirate Day...

And just to get in the mood

Yesterday I left my land lubbing legs on the quayside and embarked on the open seas for an evening for rape, pillage, plunder and drinking. Well, except for the first three, but luckily there was plenty of the fourth to make up for it.

That's right. Every year we organise a great big piss up for teachers and managers alike as a Tokyo boat cruise compnay has hit upon a jolly wheeze. Punters appreciate Tokyo Bay, especially at night as it is all twinkly, which looks pretty, and it's dark, unsurprisingly, so you can't see the pollution, and also the same punters like boozing. So, get a great big boat, put as many people on it as possible, fill it with beer and then sail around the bay for a couple of hours every weekend.

And it really works. For only 2500 yen, about 12quid, one can join this boat and get pretty well bladdered as the price includes as much beer as you can drink. So I and about 70 odd teachers did just that last night. And the nice thing about it is that as the average Japanese person gets drunk, they don't tend to get angry or pushy and want a fight, they just smile and then fall over, meaning that everyone else smiles and falls over as well, though luckily not overboard. If you really want to, as it were, push the boat out, you can hire a private room on this boat, which means you get some nosh as well. But this seems a bit odd to me as if you do, you only get a little porthole and so can't see outside, so what's the pont, you may as well be sitting in an izakaya in Saitama. But some people do, and fair play to them.

The Japanese are really into their all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink deals (tabehoudai and nomihoudai respectively). I suppose for the restaurants doing them they can be a good thing. I remember a few years back a largeish group of us met up for the Metropolitan Hotel Ikebukuro's evening nomihoudai one holiday. Things got off to a good start when we arrived. The drinking was meant to kick off at 6pm and go for three hours until 9 (this was a really good deal), but on arrival we found that the cake tabehoudai was still in full swing, even though it was meant to finish at 530. "But we wish to drink ourselves stupid" we said to the head waiter chap, who suddenly started looking very worried. "Ah, very sorry, but these people still need their sugar rush and we must not disappoint them in their fondant grazing" he (might have) replied. So we waited. By about 630 they had finally thrown out the last of the cake eaters - can you imagine eating nothing but cake for 2 hours? Horrible, but hugely popular in this wonderfully weird and woefully toothed country. So then we got started on the drinks.

And it was fab, but they obviuosly weren't in the slightest bit ready for a bunch of foreigners being there. Other places in Tokyo have a reputation amongst foreigners as good nomihoudai places (like the Shinagawa Prince hotel, Monday to Thursday - that's the other great thing about them, often they are in really nice hotels on the top floor, so you get great views and cheap booze - perfect) and so the staff are ready for foreign-falling-over antics, but not the Metro, or at least it didn't seem that way to us. First up was the fact that we demanded to be watered for the full three hours. The waiter chap tried the 'we finish at 9pm' blag, to which we countered 'oh pardon us, but the deal is for 3 hours and we didn't sit down until 645 because you wouldn't make the cake eaters leave, your problem, not ours'. We were still sober at this point and more importantly coherent, so faced with this barrage of logic, they were forced to acquiesce.

Next we realised why they were being so wary. A Japanese couple who had come in at the same time as us, at 645 as if they knew they would have to wait, left after about half an hour. This shocked us all quite profoundly. A fixed price all you can drink deal that last for three hours and you leave after 30 minutes! Where is the sense in that? But more Japanese came and went whilst we were there, treating the place as if it were a regular bar. Very odd, but it seems as if that was the Japanese way. We, however, did it the English way (and New Zealand way as well, if memory serves), which meant getting slowly louder and after enough beer had been drunk, moving onto silly drinks that came in small glasses and had a much bigger effect...

I think the biggest shock, though, was the 'no having fun' rule. We repeatedly told off, not for the volume of our speaking, but for laughing too long and too loudly. 'Speaking ok but not loud laugh' was the rule. Then, speaking softly as we were, a jazz trio started up on a little stage next to the dance floor. How jolly, thought some of the assembled, let's a go for a quick spin (not I, I hasten to add, dancing not being a strong point). But no, the waiter chap returned and admonished the perpetrators 'no dancing on dance floor - listening only!' was his refrain, which even surprised a couple of the Japanese who had got up for a swift two-step.

I think it was then, at not even 945, that we realised that it was not to be, made our farewells and headed out into the Ikebukuro night. In the time honoured fashion of very drunk people everywhere, I think we then decided that we hadn't had enough so sought out another favourable watering hole, the Hub pub I think, stayed they for a while and then, somehow, I fell in a fountain - things are a little hazy about it all around this point but I managed to find my way home and then complained long and loud to the guru (who had stayed at home) of being abandoned by everyone else. Next day I was informed that I had said me goodbyes to everyone before wandering off, bumping into things/people and listing heavily to port.

And the best thing about it was the whole evening hardly cost a thing because of this great nomihoudai deal at the hotel. About a tenner or so, which if you're Japanese and only stay for 30 minutes and one drink is probably a very good deal for the hotel, but if 15 foreigners turn up with the express intention of drinking for the entirety of the alotted time, I think the place may soon have been out of pocket.

Oh well, we had fun anyway.

Getting Chilli

Yes, we now have chillis! The seeds that I sowed more in hope than in expectation in spring have matured into quite big plants and we now have two fully formed green chillis slowly getting bigger. Next step is to try them out. The guru says she will have none of this (good, home grown organic produce, whyever not, what could be healthier?) so it shall have to be up to yours truly to test the water, as it were. Further bulletins as events, or hospital reports, warrant...

And lastly

Happy birhday to golf-playing-brother, who is one year older today. Yaay!