Monday, 29 November 2004

In the news this week...

The word, of course, has been parricide. For those not up to speed, this is "the killing of a near relative esp. of a parent" according to my concise OED and has been in the news as there have been a couple of fairly gruesome examples. One chap in Mito was arrested on Wednesday after apparently killing his folks, whilst a 28 yr old chap was arrested on suspicion of mudering his parents and sister, though her 11month old baby daughter was spared as apparently she didn't pose much of a threat to him.

Both of these chaps seemed to think that they were having undue pressure put upon them by their fathers, and so decided to take matters into their own hands before, they thought, their fathers' did away with them. The 28 yr old chap decided his mother and sister had to go as well in case they, quite rightly you would guess, shopped him to the police. The undue pressure the two had been put under was along the lines of 'get a job' or 'get some qualifications', that sort of thing. But the thing is the second chap, the 28 yr old, didn't need to really, he was one of the growing phenomenon of Japanese kids who withdraw from life and shut themselves up in their rooms. There is a Japanese word for these people, but I'll be buggered if I can remember what it is.

Most Sundays the guru and I watch a program which is a bit like the DIY-stylee changing rooms things on brit TV excpet it s done by professionals and doen't include a presenter called Charlie. Essentially a couple/family who have been living in a shitty old house for 40 years decide to raid the piggy bank and splash out up to 50,000 quid for someone to redo their house. The usual practice here is for the architect to rip out all the old dark wood and replace it with light pine, make the windows a bit bigger, put some skylights in the roof and reshape the living areas so people can actually live in them and hey presto, you have a house that it is eminently livable in. But, and here's the point, one of the really striking things about the program is not that the family have put up with such crappy living condidtions for so long, but that the parents haven't kicked their 20-30 yr old offspring out of the house already.

Most of the programs have the kids, now adults, living at home with their parents. Not surprised this leads to murderous killing spress. In fact I'm surprised it doesn't happen more, but it seems to be the standard way to do things around here (and far be it for me to criticise a whole culture...oh, all right then). When I've talked to some of the women who work in the office, they think it perfectly normal and shudder when I suggest they make their kids move out, but then they complain that their kids eat all their food, are messy, come home late, are disrespectful and all of the other things that kids do to annoy them. None of these ladies in the office have added 'are murderous', but you never know. I can remember big p saying, in jest but I got the point, that I and golf-playing brother were to be kicked out of the house at 16, or until we finished full time education. The most common defence by the ladies in the office is that firstly apartments are too expensive (which is rubbish), and that secondly 'who will look after my [27 yr old, lazy] baby?' Well, perhaps baby could look after himself and at the same time (rapidly) learn the fundamentals of cooking and bill paying - I was going to suggest 'cleaning' there as well, but then I realise I should try and keep this grounded in reality.

But no, doesn't seem to happen here. Children, especially sons, are doted upon to such an extent in Japan that they never need to learn these skills. Boys are waited upon hand and foot by their monthers until they get married, then they are waited upon hand and foot by their wives. If they don't get married, it would seem, they carry on living at home, which obviously isn't healthy as it can lead to the cases above.

The papers

Chap came to the door this evening, a Japanese newspaper salesman. Newspapers are big business here in Japan. Whilst in Britain a paper round is done by spotty 13 yr old kids before school, here it is a proper job and the delivery guys also double up by delivering goods during the days. So papers are arranged not by local newsagents shops, but by agents of the papers, so rivalry becomes fierce as these really are peoples livelihoods at stake, hence you get salesmen coming around to your door at seven o'clock on a Monday evening trying to sell you newspapers.

Now the guru was out at the time, doing something that pregnant women do and I had only just got home. I read the english language daily yomiuri everyday, have it delivered from the yomiuri agents. This chap was also from the yomiuri, but the Japanese version and when I opened the door he looked a little crestfallen but launched into his spiel anyway. At first I thought he was going on about my paper so I nodded along to humour him. Them he started going on about getting three months for free, no three and a half grand fee to pay.

"But I only pay two and half for my paper?"

"No with this deal you won't have to pay anything for three months"

"For a paper that I already read?"

"No!" much smacking of forehead "for the yomiuri shimbun!"

"The Japanese langugage one?"

"Yes!" his forehead taking another beating

"Do I look like the sort of person who wants to read a Japanese newspaper? Especially when I already get your english one?"

"You can get it free for three months and I'll throw in a couple of beer vouchers"

"I can't read Japanese, why would I want a Japanese newspaper?"

"You speak it very well! Like a native! Three months for free!".

Etc etc etc. Naturally my Japanese was about as far from 'like a native' as is possible, but the bloke just did not stop. He looked really shocked as I repeated, getting a little exasperated, that I already read one version of his paper and didn't really want another one. Indeed as I closed the door the look on his face suggested that I had stolen his wife, crashed his car and set fire to his house in the space of one afternoon.

Could have done with the beer vouchers though.

Tuesday, 23 November 2004

What might have been...

I have just, if you keep tabs on the book reading list on the right, finished Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. This is a fascinating book and well worth a read, so please consider it recommended reading and get hold of a copy if you haven't done so already. It is full of good stories about his life in the kitchen, lots of ego trips and self aggrandizement (hope that's the correct spelling) but very amusing as well - and now I know where the 'never order the fish on a Monday' refrain comes from.

Anyway, one story that really struck a chord was how he got into the whole cooking thing in the first place. When he was about 9 his folks took him and his brother to France for a summer - his father was French and a cook and they went on a gastronomic extravaganza that only a 9 year old can fail to appreciate. Somewhere along the line he realised that there might be a little more to food than just sustenance and so he started trying everything put in front of him. All going along okay until an episode in the town of Arcachon, near Bordeaux. A friend of his Aunt's down there took the whole family out on his boat to his oyster beds, waited until the tide went out and then started a-harvesting the ripe crustaceans. On offering the whole family the chance to sample a freshly plucked oyster, raw from the shell, all declined except the youngster, who, basically trying to gross out his parents, tried the biggest of the bunch and had his epiphany. Suddenly food was where he was at and a culinary star was born.

I recount this as almost exactly the same thing happened to me...

We had a few holidays in France as a family when I was just a slip of a lad, with father parental driving the family down to the south of the country. Most of these were in a place called Annecy near the Alps and a few, like Bourdain, where in Arcachon. (Writing this now I have realised why - Annecy = Cotes du Rhone, Arcachon = Bordeaux - our family holidays were extended boose cruises. Fair enough I suppose). Anyway yes, when I was about 9, perhaps, we had a holiday down Arcachon way, which for a little kid at the time was great. Very hot, sunny, fantastic Atlantic coast with big rolling waves coming in to Cap Ferrat to keep you interested in the sea, the world renowned Dune of Pilay (or something), which is the biggest sand dune in Europe and is, well, a great big pile of sand (you had to humour the parentals at times).

And there were oysters everywhere. Father parental, the big p of comment fame, had, no, still probably has, a thing about fresh oysters - can't get enough of them. Won't eat them in the UK, as far as I know, as they are too expensive, but down there they were two a penny so every meal, for him, was oysters. Lunch? A dozen oysters and a couple of Kronenbourgs (for 10 francs I suspect). Pre-dinner apertisers? Half a dozen and a carafe of local red. Dinner? More oysters and mother's driving back to the campsite. (Can't remember breakfast but I am sure oysters were involved somewhere).

But no one else would join him in his gastromonic gratification. Not surprising really, considering what fresh oysters look and smell like, but in the end I, like Bourdain, thought I'd give it a go. It must have been toward the end of the holiday and we were in some quite nice restaurant in Arcachon. Big p had ordered the Plateau de Fruits de Mer (lit. trans. Plate of that which is left at the bottom of the drag net and which we can sell to the English). This was a big plate of anything and everything from the sea , most of it raw and, of course, had a good number of oysters arranged artfully at the centre.

"Go on, you'll love it"


"It's an experience, you'll never get another chance"


"Otherwise I'm not buying you another steak frites"

"Er...ok then"

In my memory the selected shell was about a foot across and 6 inches deep, the oyster inside a monster of the deep. I took up the sample, added a bit of lemon juice and, my life playing across my eyes, knocked it back. It was, if I recall, like swallowing the end product of a mucus heavy head cold.

I felt its cold, sea watery-ness slide ever so slowly down the back of my throat as father looked on, beaming.

It got to the bottom of my throat. Stayed for a few seconds to admire the view. The decided it liked the outside world far more and began its ascent. As it came slowly higher up my throat a green tinge to my skin apparently shadowed its progress.

I managed to keep the bugger down, just, but my epiphany at that moment included the word 'projectile'. Indeed it took me quite a while after coming to Japan to pluck up the courage to have a crack at sushi and sashimi, both of which I now love. But even today oysters cause me a bit of bother, even the deep fried variety.

But I was that close to a life as a chef.

A bit about Japan...

It was a national holiday today, labour thanksgiving day to be precise, which apparently is nothing to do with the socialist labour movement but is to give thanks to people that work. Think you way through that one. So the Guru and I wandered off to Ikebukuro for the afternoon to nose, buy some bits and pieces, that sort of thing. Now the Guru is not a fan of Ikebukuro, too messy she says. I am not really sure what she means by messy, but I think it is the reason I quite like the place, in that it isn't sterile of too planned, shiny, new or false. In fact it feels like a higgledy-piggledy place with alleys, short cuts and side streets. As I said, I quite like it.

Today was meant to be pre-christmas shopping but we managed, somehow, not to buy a sngle thing except for lunch. As we were in Ikebukuro we had ramen as it is the most competitive ramen place in Japan, apparently, and the place we went to had quite a long queue outside. But the problem was that the shop was on 'ramen street', where a televised 'ramen battle' was held last new year and so, I felt, it was all a bit hyped. The ramen was ok, but not great and not really worth waiting 15 minutes for in a queue. The place I usually go to in Kawaguchi is just as good, if not better, and is more authentic as the walls are greasy and the staff are rude.

Monday, 15 November 2004


am desperately trying to think of something to write this evening, but the brain seems to have gone to bed. The guru is still pregnant, which is good news. Nothing really to add on that score - as I said in a comment the other day, last week she went to the hosp where they took another armful of blood, this time to do some checks to ascertain the likelihood of there being genetic problems with the baby. If the guru has a higher than average chance, which is likely as she is a little older than normal for a first kid, then they will do more tests, almost certainly an aminocentesis, which is particularly nasty and about 3% or something of which end in premature birth or miscarriage. Don't want to do this unless we really have to. Plus, as with eveything here, it costs a shit load more cash. Anyway the results of the initial blood test will be ready next week, so I'll keep everyone posted.

And of course we've been thinkning about names. Big P was wondering about this as well, and he has a vested interest as he will be a grandfather all over again. The common practice of mixed parents here seems to be to give any offspring a western first name and a Japanese middle name. This is all well and good but may well get tricky later as Japanese aren't allowed to have middle names, the system can't cope with it. I wrote before about how to choose names in Japanese, but hadn't really considered this important point. It was bought home to me by a colleague talking about a western friend of hers who had a daughter with a Japanese chap and went to japanese then english names (they had also decided to form a double barrelled surname), until they came to register the kid and found that they were fine with the first name being something like 'Noriko' but the rest of the name had to squashed into one box, as it were, and ended up being Janeyamaguchirobertson - not a good way to go through life, I suspect.

This becomes important when kids get to 22. Japanese are unique, you see, so if you have a Japanese passport you can't have one from another country as well. You're Japanese or you are not, nothing in between. So kids with mixed parents have to choose, when they get to 22, what they want to be. If our kids chose to be British they would have to apply for a visa to stay in Japan just like every other foreigner - though admittedly they would have an easier time of it and there are special visas that people in this situation can obtain. Anyway, seems a bit rum to me and I can't think of too many other countries that put those sorts of limits onto its citizens - mainly as I haven't thought about it really, I guess Krazy Kim wouldn't be too happy if his North Korean charges could get hold of valid second passports, or the Chinese for that matter. Ah, must be dictatorships then...

On that score Krazy Kim has been very quiet recently. The jug eared deserter that is Mr Jenkins has finally been dishonourably discharged from the US army, forty years after going awol, in a move that didn't really surprise anyone at all. I mean, were the American authorities really going to charge a 70 old bloke with a dicky-ticker? I think not. I think Kim has been keeping schtum to see how the US election went. Over here it has all been a bit low key. Koizumi said he was happy, everyone else seemed to think he's mad, which is perhaps why he and bush get on so well.

What the papers don't say

One interesting thing that I saw was this. As you can see from ther link there was a hoohah in the British press about a manga artisit who tried to draw realistic depictions of the rape of Nanking in the weekly comic Young Jump. However when he did this, using original photographs, he was hounded into changing his artwork by members of the far right who denounced his work and did the usual right wing type things of denying the atrocity ever happened, that it is exaggerated, that it wasn't them and that they were forced to do it (all usually in the same sentence). Now, I might have been overly lax in my scanning of the papers over the last week or two, but I can remember no mention of this anywhere. The guru, whom I asked about this after discussing it with the aforementioned big p, knew nothing of it either. So how is it that this story was reported in the British press but not here in Japan? Because the press is a bit crap, that's why. They have been getting better recently, as has been noted in these very pages, somewhere, but this just seems a bit shite to me - unless of course the right wing nutters hounding this artist chap are also the people who own the newspapers, not unlikely considering some of the editorials I read in the Yomiuri of a morning. (In the interests of blogger impartiality I just Googled Hiroshi Motomiya, the author of the comic, and found the Telegraph article link as above, but none on the first few pages to a Japanese newspaper, weird that).

Anyway, the right wing chaps are always at this sort of thing. I did read the other day that some were arrested on a Tokyo (I think) street for selling hinomaru flags (that'll be the flag of Japan to those not in the know). They were forcing passers-by to buy these flags for up to 60,000 yen, that's 300quid, and loudly denoucing people for being unpatriotic if they didn't. This is one of the things that led the Emperor, no less, so murmur the other day that he thought it was wrong to force school teachers and other public servants to stand to attention and face the flag when the national anthem is played (something like 200 hundred teachers were reprimanded for not doing this earlier in the year in Tokyo). Now you would think that the Emperor saying this would mean that people in Japan would listen and respect his words. But of couse the Imperial Household Agency, which as far as I can tell is the worst kind of 'power behind the thrown' type set up, immediately issued a press release that said basiclly yes, the Emperor did say that, but what he meant by it was actually quite different in that people who don't stand to attention during the national anthem should be flogged and/or be forced to watch the Sound of Music 18 times in a row.

Caused a bit of a furore that as the Geneva convention has very strict limits on the number of times a person can be forced to watch the sound of music - amnesty international is monitoring the situation as I type...

Thursday, 11 November 2004

the north-south divide

and there was me thinking it was bad in the uk...

Monday, 8 November 2004

After the excitement...

of last week's post and all its assorted associations, we're back to the more mundane this week. The guru is still pregnant and will be for the foreseeable future, well, until May,and I am rapidly coming to realise, even as I type, that this alone isn't going to sustain this blog for too long as not a great deal changes form week to week.

So better think of something else to write...

Here's a weird thing that I see almost everyday and have been meaning to mention for ages but have never seemed to get around to it. When I taught, before doing what I do now, I used to teach a lot of kids from about 2yrs old and upwards. I was pretty good at it, though I say it myself, mainly as I soon tapped into the most effective teaching method for young learners - noise. Anyway, this isn't the point, the point is is that when I taught Japanese kids I was very much of the opinion that kids are kids all over the world and that there's not a whole lot of difference between a 6 yr old in Japan and one in say, the UK, US or Australia. I mean, kids like having a laugh, being noisy, getting messy if possible and generally larking about. Organise your lessons with as much of that in as possible, hopefully with a bit of English thrown in and you have yourself a happy classroom and a good learning environment.

Nowadays, of a morning, I leave the flat at 8am two or three times a week, depending on what time I have to be at the office. With an 8am departure I am walking at the same time as the kids all go off to elementary school (junior high school kids are generally about with a 730am apartment exit). To make it easier to spot elementary school kids, they all wear yellow hats - baseball caps for the boys and round sun hats for the girls. This is to make them more visible to cars and easier for older bullies to target, one would think.

Anyway, what you can observe here is Japanese group think par excellence. All the kids walk to school in groups, the same group everyday. Each group is led by an older looking kid, probably 7 to the rest of the kid's 5 or 6. This older looking kid is the leader as they hold the yellow flag. The yellow flag denotes authority - you do not fuck with the yellow flag. The rest of the group, maybe 6 or 7 other kids follow the leader. They walk in the straight line, single file. They always occupy exactly the same spot in the line. Their organisation is such that I know that if I leave the flat at 8am dead, I will pass the first group just after leaving the block and the second as I turn right onto the small street in front of the old people's home (with the building site and the 5 new houses at the end). The second to last student of this group will be a girl with pig tails who stares at me every time I walk past. There are no teachers to check on progress, and only a few mothers at some crossroads to oversee road crossing. The kids, and the yellow flag, rule the walk to school with an iron bound efficiency. There is no noisyness, no larking about or high jinks. I have not seen one kid trying to give another a dead leg/dead arm/wedgie in 18 months. Not one pile-on have I observed. In reality these are not kids, they are robots. And this messes with your mind.

A part of me thinks "wow, that is so great, the kids are all organised by themselves. And it's a lot safer as they aren't running in the road or causing a disturbance". But then my real brain kicks in and tells the Japaneseifying part of me to stop being so stupid and look again. These are 6 yr old kids, for heaven's sakes, they should be mucking about, playing tag, fighting each other and generally being, well, kids. But they're not, they're too far into the system. They have been organised and inculcated with group think. Already.

I used to think that, as far as my kids were concerned, a Japanese education up to the age of about 10 would be great, but junior high school isn't known as exam hell for nothing and so by then, at the latest, the guru and I would be looking for a return to the old country, or an international school depending on how things looked (and how healthy the bank balance was). But now I'm not so sure - if 'they' can make 6 yr old kids walk in single file everyday of their school lives, what else can 'they' do...?

Monday, 1 November 2004

Onto more serious matters...

Right, no time to talk about shopping this week, we have other stuff into which to sink our teeth.

Now, as you may well have read in the past, time was when I needed to take half the day off, not only because it was a nice day, but also for a spot of swift wrist action back home, after which the guru could take my outpourings to the local hospital so they could help in the procreation business.

Well no longer as I can officially announce that the good and wonderful guru is well and truly pregnant!

Indeed she has been for a while now, but keeping fingers crossed meant that it was hard to type the words. But no need to worry now. Hah! just thought about that statement and realised that there is everything to worry about for the next 18 years or something ridiculous like that. Anyway, last week we went for the end of 12th week check-up and scan and stuff, which apparently is a key point in that the miscarriage chances start going down from here, so good news. So counting back it only takes a moment to realise that the fateful time was the obon holiday - no work, de-stress, relax, break out the red wine etc - which means that whilst we were meant to be honouring dead generations we were in fact doing our darnedest to usher new ones in, which seems quite apt to me.

Of course this means this blog will now completely change from a view of life in Japan for a person of foreign extraction to one about a bloke bleating on about his wife and child yet to be born (the child is yet to be born, not the wife). Oh well, I don't care.

So we have already visited the Japanese version of Mothercare, which goes by the catchy name of Akachan-Honpo (lit. special baby-merchandise shop). Luckily for us, we have one placed almost on our doorstep, well, a 15 min walk to the station followed by a 20 min bus ride to Green City shopping centre, conveniently sited close to bugger all (oh alright, it is next to a motorway exit, but not much good if you don't have a car). Anyway we went there a couple of weeks ago to look at maternity wear, not that I did much looking at that, mind, not after seeing the enormous pants on offer. It was weird, but as soon as this whole baby possibility came along, the only baby related products I have been able to think about have been the baby harness carrier things where you strap the little bugger to your back or front, and push chairs. So anything that will get the baby out of the house. Clothes, accessories, bathing stuff etc, not a look in so far - don't know why, sure there is something deeply psychological about it, or maybe I'm just an outdoorsy sort of person, who knows, not I and I'm not up for analysis.

Anyway, the one thing that Akachan-honpo confirmed, as if I needed any reassurance, is that having a baby is bloody expensive. I'm sure this is true of every country in the world, but here, well, small South American countries have smaller GDPs, of that I am sure.

Talking of which, get this (you knew I couldn't resist a little rant). Japanese national health insurance is such that for each bill from the doc, you pay 30% and the govt pays the rest. Nice and simple. But being pregnant isn't considered 'being ill' so the govt refuse to pay their 70% of any medical bills! This from a country that has a drastically aging population, woeful birthrate and serious manpower problems just around the corner! It's easy, you fuckwits, cover all the bills from the hospitals (and in Japan you go to hospital a lot) that deal with pregnancy and you might just encourage people to have a few more kids. When the guru gives birth we will have to fork out about half a million yen! Now even the govt has realised that this is a bit excessive and will reimburse 300,000 of it, but still, that leaves over 1,000 pounds we have to pay and that's if everything goes smoothly. If it doesn't, I shudder to think. Still, this is all obviously rocket science to the grey suits, though with their average assets of 78 million, as reported this week in the papers, the naturally don't need to worry about these sorts of things, but for the rest of us... :-(ok... rant over... calm down... go to your happy place.... breathe deeply... there you go:-)

After all that Akachan-Honpo was just like a big shop full of baby stuff. We bought a few things and a christmas present for Charlie (golf playing brother's son, for those who haven't been paying attention) and then left as it was full of screaming kids. I realise that I am going to have to get used to this, but let's just take it one step at a time.

So what else have we done? Well, we have registered the pregnancy at our local town hall. None of this waiting until the birth sort of nonsense, get the thing registered as a foetus. As with most things in Japan, pregnancy has to be organised, no happy-go-luckiness here, thank you very much. So on registering the pregnancy you receive a Boshi-Techo (lit. mother and child note - fathers, apparently, don't need to know this stuff). Actually I think this is a good idea, to be honest. It's a small booklet that lasts from the 12th week pregnancy check-up until the kid is about 6 or 7 years old. Into it goes all the useful info such as height and weight of mother and child during pregnancy, then all stuff to do with the kid as it grows, like vaccinations, illnesses had, visits to doc and dentist etc. All very organised and useful for when you ask your mother "have I had measles/mumps/dengue fever?" to which the answer is usually "yes it was when you were 5... or was that your brother? Erm, well, one of you has had it." So you get one of those and about leaflets about sudden infant death syndrome, or cot death, which seems a little early to be worryng prospective parents like that.

And of course we have been for the 12 week check-up. This was a the swish new hospital which is very convenient as it is only about 15 minutes walk away, and jolly brand spanking new it is, or newly rebuilt on the site of the old hospital. Anyway we went there on wednesday last week, and I took the day off to go along, look at the scan, be morally supportive and then finish off my current course assignment in the afternoon. (Q. who are the coolest workers in a hospital? A. the ultrasound people) We got there at about 1030am and the first thing we had to do was sit through another earthquake. I mean really, it's getting a bit much, all of this. A magnitude 6 aftershock hit Niigata, meaning a 4 was felt through Saitama, but because this was a swish new hospital, we hardly felt a thing, certainly not as bad as a rickety old apartment building. Then we got to see the doc, who was a tad surprised to see me in there as well, not a lot of fathers take time off work to attend something such as this, I would guess. He asked the guru a few questions and then motioned her through to the scan room where they were going to perform the necessaries. When the guru asked "can my husband come in as well" they nearly shat themselves. "What!? In the ultrasound room?! With you?! At the same time!? No, no absolutely not! Never! Men aren't allowed in there! Apart from doctors, but they don't count! Why not? Might contaminate the place with non-doctor related maleness! And he hasn't shaved this morning! I mean really!" are certainly some of the things they said in between gasps of incredulity. I expect they're still talking about it even now. But the guru got scanned and all is well. It is about the right shape and size, it moved during the scan so there are two distinct images of Klingons attacking the Enterprise and all seems to be well so far.

After that, of course, we had to pay. What got me about this last act is that we got a receipt about a foot long. Pretty impressive stuff. Most of ours was blank as we had only had a couple of things cheked and done. Down the right hand side was a couple of lines and then the amounts we had to pay. On the left hand side was the bits the govt would pay for, but ours was almost all blank because, as mentioned above, the govt aren't interested in giving us any cash for this. I say almost blank as there were a few numbers. They added up our points, which work, apparently, like air miles... I'm not sure what you get if you earn enough points, a set of steak knives seems somehow inappropriate, but a set of scapels might come in handy. Who knows, you might even get enough for a free operation, almost seems to make it all worthwhile.

oh, and for those that are interested...

saw this online games thing on some tv program - am quite taken with proximity...