Saturday, 30 October 2004

now it is not often that a post appears on a friday night (or really at 1am on saturday morning), so count yourselves lucky that this night is different than most.


Well, duped is too strong a word for it, but mislead seems a bit, well, too innocent. It all goes back to the anti-but-not-anti-Japan book I was reading earlier this month or so. One of the premises, which you may have picked up upon since, is the prevalence of concrete in the countryside, mainly on account of the Forestry and Something Else Ministry (last strategc policy review: Tokugawa Shogunate 1891). Anyway, the point of the chapter in the book was that far too much of Japan was under the extreme influence of concrete and that this was due to nefarious influences in various ministries in the government that took profit over progress any day. And I believed it lock stock and 2 etc etc.

So what has changed? Well simple really, nature. 3 weeks of rain and a magnitude 6 earthquake have wrought disaster on Niigata and Japan as a whole. "Oh woe" Mr Kerr said " the landscape is being destroyed by concrete and crap here in Japan". But I don't know now. I mean, part of me would like to think in this way and try to come across all superior like over the Japanese. But then again, who the fuck does Alex Kerr think he is when he says that Japan can survive inspite of its natural obstacles?

On wednesday I took the day off. It was for other reasons that I will come to in the fullness of time. However, the guru and I sat in a hospital at 1030 and we shook with everyone else as another 6-er shook Niigata. Later on that afternoon we watched the TV as the boy was dragged from the car.

It looked to me as if the bank above the road was mud. If this had been concreted over, would the boy's mother and sister survived? Would the car have been buried in the first place? Would this all have been prime time?

The artificial manipulation of the countryside here has always been something of a sore point as us enlightened westerners bemoan the apparent lack of care and thought that goes into the upkeep of the natural side of things. But how much empirical knowledge of typhoons and earthquakes can be gained from Hampshire, or anywhere else?

This post isn't particularly eloquent or, for that matter, sensical. But it will have to do for now. The point is, if not clear, is how can we criticise if we don't know?

PS however, as a journo asked in the yomiuri the other day, we are pretty much up to date with the "and how does this earthquake make you feel?" type questions so far, but why is there such a lack of questuions such as:
Hmm, Niigata's nuclear power stations, how do they stand up to a magnitude 6 earthquake?
Oh? Have you shut them down yet?
So after the Hanshin earthquake in 1995, what lessons did you learn?
So knowing that supplying stranded people by air was a priority, why did it take 4 days to get helicopters to the disaster site?
A supplementary budget to cover disasters costs will take how long to ratify?
Yes but people are starving and freezing right now...?
So let me get this straight, there are lots of US military personnel in Japan right now and they are doing what to help?

Monday, 25 October 2004

Well we're still here

Though only just due to earthquakes and typhoons, but like Gloria Gaynor, we have survived. Sideways Bob, in a comment, said he wanted a full report on the typhoon - well, I've already written one of those here and suffice it to say that last week's ones were pretty similar i.e. it rained. it was windy. some train lines stopped. we got over it. Similar job with the earthquakes on Saturday night that did some fairly serious damage to Niigata prefecture. It even manged to derail a shinkansen (that's a bullet train to those not in the know), which was the first time a shinkansen has been derailed since they started up in 1964 - a pretty impressive safety record, that. Anyway, Tokyo wobbled quite a lot and our building swayed in an alarming fashion - but for the fourth one at about 1845 I was on my bicycle going to the off licence and at ground level it wasn't nearly so bad, so I think living on the 7th floor really does make a difference, heaven knows what the really tall apartment blocks are like at the top...


Anyway golf-playing-brother also mentioned that there should be more stuff about living in Japan. "Like what?" I enquired. "Simple stuff, you know, that we don't do, like going to a supermarket. That's normal for you but is really weird for us." Which obviously suggests that all the supermarkets have closed down in the UK since I left. But in deference to my adoring public, just for you golf-playing-brother, here is a post about going to the supermarket.

The guru often goes to the supermarket. I, on the other hand, only find time at the weekend to visit the food and daily necessities emporia that dot the landscape. Within striking distance of the flat there are two Iida's, one Inageya, two Ito Yokado's and, if we are feeling rich, the food floor at Sogo department store. Of these I like Inageya most as it is newest and if the important ratio of distance/size/price/bread making ability is used, comes out top. It fails abysmally on the stocking alcohol criteria and some would argue, forcefully, that this should be a reason to veto it entirely. But a lot of supermarkets are like this in Japan, so what can you do? Also it means I get to go to the My Mart offy, to where I was cycling on saturday, which is a really good offy - decent wines, port, spirits, point cards, thai red curry mix - and they know me in there, so that is where we go.

Often before going to the supermarket we jot down the things we need to buy, we call this our 'shopping list'.

On the way to the supermarket we now pass a little building site. Kawaguchi is a city in transition at the moment. As it is just over the river into Saitama prefecture, it was once far enough out of Tokyo to be considered a place to place industry, so there are a lot of factories here. Not just ordinary factories mind, but heavy industry, steel smelters and die cast workshops and the like. The history of Kawaguchi is built on these factories and there is iron everywhere (more even than concrete, though this is slowly changing). But now, as the sprall has overtaken the city, industry is getting out. Even in the last two years the big factories on our side of the train lines have all but closed as the land has rocketed in value, meaning large wads to knock down the factories and build big apartment blocks in their place. This means, of course, that the demographics of the place are rapidly changing. It used to be, from what I gather, quite a polarized place, with a lot of factory workers and a few owners, so lots of small, cheap housing blocks and some really rather large and pleasant houses for the owners. But now it is all changing. Big apartment blocks mean white collar Tokyo commuters with young families. And it is a great place to commute from, one of the reasons we live here, as Shinjuku is only 20 minutes away, same for Ueno and only 25 to Tokyo and Otemachi, so quite convenient really (and trust me, convenience is the number 1 priority for home buying in Japan).

So this building site we pass was once a factory, or part of a factory, that the owners decided to change to residential land. (I think it was part of a factory as the rest is still there. Not sure what it makes, but luckily there are no zoning laws in Japan, so it could be the largest producer of hydrochloric acid in Japan and be quite legally placed in a residential area. Crazy.) So once this piece of land was levelled to make way for the builders, the guru and I mused on a saturday afternoon as to how many houses would be built on it. Now I have no idea about the exact size of the plot, but I would estimate that perhaps it is 25 meters by 15, or so. So I though one house and a nice big garden, or perhaps two. The guru, being Japanese, said they would squash them in there so three was more likely. Imagine our surprise, then, when the buggers managed to find space for 5 houses! Cheek by jowl doesn't do it justice.

Now to build a house in Japan is very simple, it seems to me. First get yourself the land, dig a foundation about a meter deep at most and then cover the floor with concrete, including raised bits about 50cm high that are the outline for the internal and external walls. Then, once that is dry, you bugger off to Ikea and basically buy a flat packed house. No really, everything else, it seems to me, is made of wood and looks like one big jigsaw. The frame is just lengths of 4x2, put up like a skeleton, after which a chap comes along and fills in the gaps with chipboard which is nailed in place with one of those pneumatic nail guns - no screws here. Windows are cut into the chipboard and the aluminium frames fitted. Lastly, on the outside, some nice mock brick cladding is added to make the thing look nice and substantial, which it isn't. Inside they are finised very nicely, I expect, but what you have is a very thinly walled house, which explains why they are a bugger to heat in winter, no cavity wall insulation in sight. But then again they have to be this way as it does make them exceptionally flexible and therefore safer in earthquakes. Also, if a big one does hit, the last thing you really want is lumps of concrete or masonary falling about your ears, the fewer heavy things that can drop on you the better, I guess, which is why bathrooms are always on the gound floor in houses. This flexibility, whilst being a strength, is also a weakness as the average lifespan for a house in Tokyo (or maybe Japan, I can't remember) is only 26 years, which is a ridiculously short time for a house, not even a lifetime - though by the time you can afford to buy your own house, it is probably about how much time you'll have left.

Anyway, I follow the building of these houses with much interest. I also wonder who is going to buy one of these five places as, in the few weeks since they were started, we have had a shit load of rain, meaning that all that wood can't be in the best of condition by now...

+++to be continued - next week (possibly), the supermarket+++

Monday, 18 October 2004

What's going on?

It's all a bit odd at the moment, but Japan seems to have sort of, well, gone to sleep. I mean, in the last few weeks we have had -

No politicians with foot-in-mouth disease.

Koizumi not doing anything to annoy anyone.

No political scandals.

No big business scandals.

No anti-foreigner crusades by media/famous people.

Krazy Kim keeping quiet.

Mr Jenkins deserter fellow keeping quiet.

And a general lethargy about everything else...

I'm sure it's not only me. I know the last few posts have been a little on the negative side, mainly to do with too much rain and a super-abundance of snot, but still, all is not well I fear. Perhaps someone is slipping prozac into the water supply...? Even Fuji TV's big autumn drama is an entirely soporific frippery based losely on old Wham! songs (set, excitingly, to climax at christmas with the song 'Last Christmas'. Be still my beating heart)

I don't know, perhaps everyone is gearing up for a really wild November or something, but I really can't remember it so quiet. Or perhaps the whole country is agog at the US presidential election. I would comment on all of this, but this isn't a blog about US politics, there are quite enough of those as it is without me cluttering up the ether with my opinions... ok, just a little one then.

Doesn't matter who gets in, we're all f**ked anyway. Think either of them give a shit about you and me? No, nor me. Splendid isolation was a splendid policy for the US pre-WWII, perhaps they should try it again.

But why should the Japanese be so intrested in the US election? Hmm, well, I suppose as one of the main trading partners their relationship is important. OK. And, well Koizumi has been making a bit of noise about moving US army and airforce bases in Japan, mainly as the bases are making a bit too much noise themselves. I think this is something that the Japanese PM does around this time every four years, when there is an election in the US, trying unsuccessfully to get the encumbent or incoming pres to listen to him. Don't think it has worked so far, and probably won't happen again, but you never know. Of course Japan could just kick the Americans off their country completely, if they really wanted, but I have a feeling that Krazy Kim might just like that prospect a little too much.

But it's weird, the whole US base thing. Of course I realise why they are here and the history behind it all, fairky straight forward stuff. But then consider this. A month or two ago there was a helicopter crash in Okinawa, a US military helicopter flew into a university building, doing a fair amount of damage, as you would suspect. First to arrive on the scene were military personnel who closed down the whole area and refused to let any Japanese police or crach investigators within 100 yards of the crash site for a couple of days. Point blank refused, just like that. No matter that it was on public land over which the military had no jurisdiction. If I had been the mayor I'd have ordered the local police to arrest all the Americans for obstructing police officers in their duty, or something like that. Anyway, from what I can remember there has been little in the way of apology from the US base, or indeed explanation as to why they refused to let Japanese civilians anywhere near the crash. Guess they don't have to if they don't want to, but this has hardly endeared the US to the local people in Okinawa.

And just how is it that the US has a base on Cuba? Never have understood that one.

Of course it could all be to do with baseball. For those not in Japan, just to fill you in, Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners managed to hit a baseball more times than anyone for 81 years. Well done him (and pity that the rest of his team were so shite). And Hideki Matsui is currently belting the hell out a baseball in the semi finals of the league thing. So well done him as well. On this side of the pacific the Seibu Lions are playing the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan series to see who wins the whole shebang.

Hmm, that must be it, Japan Inc. has shut down for the end of the baseball season. Roll on November.

Tuesday, 12 October 2004

Fade to grey

There's been a lot of it around in the last week or so, grey I mean. As I mentioned in a comment on the last post, in the last week in has rained on sunday, monday, tuesday, friday, saturday, sunday, monday and again today. Mostly this has been incessant, full on 'proper' rain that just doesn't stop. Can fair get you down, let me tell you.

On saturday we had typhoon number 22 of this unusually busy and prolonged typhoon season dump its load over us here in the kanto region. At times on saturday we had over 100mm per hour raining down upon us which, trust me, is an awful lot. The entire golf course was flooded from saturday morning onwards, though in a pleasant variation, the raised bank between river and course was still navigable, almost as if a path had be laid through the centre of a lake, upon which one could walk and contemplate the elemental force that is nature. Well, you could if some bastard hadn't given you a cold that lasted exactly three days, the length of the bank holiday weekend...

So not only was the weather grey and pissy, so was my mood for the whole weekend. No study, even though it was perfect weather for it, as the brain cells wouldn't move out of first gear (which is something along the lines of 'I said no already, so bugger off'), no going out and having fun as it was too wet, no nothing except sitting at home, feeling miserable and waiting for the sun to shine (should anyone wish to add another bucket to the vat of self pity in which I wallow(ed), please feel free).

But all good things must come to an end and so by the time work came around this morning I was feeling chipper enough to drag myself in. Still raining though.

And the weather is playing havoc with the much vaunted weather forecasting system here. The newspaper on saturday confidently predicted that monday would follow the accepted post typhoon pattern of glorious sunshine and humidity to match, even going as far as to suggest that the late year record of 4th October for a 30+degree day would be broken. Was it buggery. And it looks like no end is in sight, well, at least not tomorrow, which appears as if it will be chucking it down again. This is not what I signed up for when returning to these shores. I expected cool, clear, crisp autumns with beautiful blue skies, gently falling leaves in a riot of colour and...and...and something else intrinsically autumnal which I am signally failing to get right now.

It could all be the end of the world, of course. I mean, I read in the paper this week that since a very large chunk of the Laursen B ice shelf (sorry about spelling) fell into the antarctic ocean a year or two ago, the glaciers in the area have been pouring ever more ice into the sea, potentially increasing the rate of sea level rise by another few notches. Added to this were rumbles inside Mt St Helens in the US, eruptions from Mt Aso here in Japan and a bloody big jolt of an earthquake on wednesday night last week which, not to put too fine a point on it, scared the shit out of me.

It was at about 1130pm and I was brushing my teeth at the time. Now I'm quite used to earthquakes (not wanting to sound blase in any way), but being on the 7th floor, they tend to get magnified a bit and so when this one hit, the jolt actually made me stumble slighty, the first time that had ever happened. The guru, who was in bed, immediately shouted "should we open the front door?" to which I replied "mmphf!" and then ran to the door, opening it upon my arrival. Now at this point the guru should have got up and proceeded in a calm, swift and yet orderly fashion to the aforementioned door. However she did what just about everybody does, which is sit bolt upright in bed and wait to see if the earthquake kills you. It didn't, of course, but it was a biggy, measuring 5.8 on the Japanese scale. Brian, who lives in Chiba, swears that he heard a roar just before it hit, which is something I have never heard but am assured does happen. The earth roaring, now there's a thing. In the office the next morning several bookcases had toppled and some water from the fish tank had slopped into the tortoise pens (don't ask), but things were generally ok.

Still, gave me a fright.

Oh, by the way

in my lethargy found this new game on yahoo - diverted my boredom in a pleasing way for a good few hours...

Monday, 4 October 2004


It is not often that the guru and I go out of an evening, trying to save money and all that, and it is even rarer that we get invited out. But on Saturday night last weekend we did get an invitation to... a function.

Well, I say we but in actual fact it was I, and the good guru wasn't interested upon finding out what it was. Nor was I, really, to tell the truth, but I thought I had better go along as it might have been one of those occasions where I could 'meet' some people and possibly 'network', which apparently is a jolly important thing one must do. Especially important, if books are to believed, if one is an expat and therefore opportunities are limited by the small number of other expats in Tokyo. But 'meeting' some people and 'networking' is not that easy as it involves a lot of what is commonly known as 'small talk' but which is more correctly named 'talking bollocks to people you don't (want to) know for two hours'.

So this is how I found myself walking to the Agnes Hotel (cracking name, if you ask me) in the heart of Iidabashi on Saturday evening. I was off, I'm sure you're dying to know, to the Warwick University Graduates Alumni Function (I really can't think of another word to describe it) Tokyo 2004. Considering I only know one other warwick graduate in Tokyo (Brian, and he wasn't even invited! Well, he does return-to-sender anything that comes through his door from them) who wasn't going, you can maybe see why i wasn't filled with unbounded joy about going along. But there were two reasons for attending. One, curiosity, just who would be there? and two, it was only 1,500yen with a bar and free food. Well, 1,500 for as many glasses of red wine as I can get away with and some nosh besides, well, it has to be worth a couple of hours of anyone's time.

So, arriving at the lobby it was quite clear who would be attending, lots of Japanese people. Not surprising, I suppose, what with this being Japan, but I though perhaps one or two foreigners might be there, but on arriving, no. And not only were all of the attendees at this point Japanese, 90% of them were female - things suddenly looking up. Then I got 'small talking' to a lady by the name of Rena and realised that these females were a) really rather clever, they seemed to have gone to warwick for MAs and PhDs, but they were also b) loaded, as a further degree, especially at money grabbing warwick, does not come cheap for a native student, let alone an overseas one.

Uh oh, thought I, I can see where this evening is going to go, better start on the booze, which seemed very passable. So at this stage there was plenty of milling and not much else. The head mc chap, Jon Somethingorother, was nowhere to be found and on one seemed to be stepping into his shoes. So Rena and I continued to make 'small talk' - she is from Kanagawa prefecture, did her MA in Literature focussing on a bunch of Irish poets I've never heard of, graduating in '98. She did not live in Leamington or consider her top priorities whilst at warwick to drink too much, find a dealer, devise a new pub crawl route/drinking game/forfeit or get up to other student high jinks, so you can see our topics of conversation were pretty limited. Still, we managed to smile and chat and I managed not to anything wildly inappropriate, of which I am justifiably proud.

Just then, as if to save me from foot-in-mouth disease, a Japanese chap did the decent thing and stepped at last into Jon Somethingorother's shoes and do a welcome speech about half an hour after the function started. Then we had the curiously Japanese customs of the toast. Now I am all for toasts at weddings and birthdays and the like, but functions, hmmm. Also, if you are going to go to the bother of having a toast, well, then it is champagne, surely, or at least a drop of decent sparkling wine to get everyone in the mood? But in Japan, it seems, toasts are often made with lager...

So, put down your glass of quite pleasant plonk, fill a smallish glass with Kirin's best and shout "kampai" at everyone. Chink, chink etc [that is meant to be the sound of glasses touching lightly, not a derogatory remark about Chinese people]. All very odd, if you ask me, as beer at the same time as wine? No, I don't think so either (unless it's much later in the evening).

Then came the food, which was in the style of a buffet. Here we came up against the perennial problem of carrying the plate, holding the glass, eating the food and talking all at the same time. Luckily the hotel had cut the food into bite sized pieces that were only just too big to eat comfortably in one mouthfull, but only provided forks so you couldn't actually cut anything smaller. So, 'small talk', pop a piece of (very pleasant) roast pork in the mouth and chew, realise you have to answer a question so try to swallow, end up with tears in your eyes as a semi-masticted lump of meat forces it way down your throat, cough, splutter, look up and realise your conversation has walked off with a worried look in his eye.

Suave? That's me.

After that I 'small talked' with a chap who graduated 27 yrs ago after blagging his way into the university and basically cheating whilst he was there. Nice work. He was quite an interesting bloke, but had a tendency to spit Roy Hattersley style when he got excited. And then when he realised I wasn't a scientist, lost interest in chatting to me - or maybe that was another piece of pork...

Then I at last noticed a couple of foreigners at the function. So, wanting a decent conversation (thought the Japanese people I spoke to spoke excellent English, far better than my Japanese, but then again, thay had been to uni in the UK so it should be good). Anyway we were soon back into the 'people with deep pockets' syndrome as this couple, and a married couple they were, were on the real expat deal, shipped out by their companies. So he was a managing director of something to do with the Japanese/asian arm of one of the big accountancy firms, whilst she had recently departed from her position in an international law office. Clever people, obviously, who have done jolly well for themselves. The real expat deal means astronomical salaries, a large pad in Azabu Juban (where we went to the matsuri in August), nannies to look after their two kids, etc and associated wad. Me jealous? not really, though chip on shoulder did develop just a teensy bit. But they were nice people who really like being in Japan and who, like me, weren't really sure about going along to the function but did out of a sense of curiosity (I don't think they needed to worry about the whole open bar/1,500 yen thing - oh how the other half live). And interestingly he graduated at the same time as me, but I never knew him for two very good reasons. One, he lived in Coventry in years 2 and 3, very odd, and two, he did maths. Oh well. So we chatted and 'small talked' and it wasn't too bad as at least we could try and remember pub crawl routes, bands we saw in the union (radiohead and the manics before they were famous), all whilst desperately trying to think of people that might be a common link. It was not to be.

And with that, I buggered off home. There was one other Brit there, but he was a bit weird, so the less said about him the better, don't know why, just slighty creepy and sinister in an Alistair Sims kind of way.

Am I glad I went? I suppose so, it was interesting in its own way. Will I go again if the Warwick Graduates TokyoAlumni Steering Committee organise anything ? Well now, that depends on the toasts.