Monday, 28 February 2005

To full of flu,
it's sad but true
to write anything
today for you

Monday, 21 February 2005


So Saturday last weekend I was dragooned into being a judge at a local school's speech contest. This came about as my boss's Japanese wife's aunt is the head of English (possibly) at a school not too far away from Kawaguchi - the boss was asked to go, but as he lives a long way from here, which isn't a bad thing, he asked me if I wanted to get up at ten to seven on a cold winter's day off and go along to listen to junior high school girls giving speeches in English. Not particularly, was my initial response, but then the temptation of fifty quid for about 2 hours work was waved under my nose and hey presto, there I was.

The school was in a place called Kami Nakazato, which is only 4 stops into Tokyo from here so not too far away. But being a junior high school with lessons on a Saturday meant that things started early, so it was 825am that I arrived at the station to be met by one of their current native English speaking teachers, a pleasant and chatty US/Korean lady by the name of Dawn. She took me to the school in the cold and sleet, but being from Milwaukee (or possible Wisconsin - or that could be where the chap from the film Love Actually goes... I forget) she actually likes snow and sleet and perishing weather so was quite happy.

At this stage I was a little apprehensive as all the info I had was as above - go along, be a judge, get fifty quid, depart. There has to be more to it than this, was my essential frame of mind at the time. The school is a pretty grand affair, on the site there is a mixed elementary school, separate boys and girls junior high schools and a high school as well. This means a lot of students and also a lot of cash as it is a private job with, I suspect, pretty astronomical fees. But the main thing about the school is it is seriously into its God bothering. Disciples of Christ is their demonination and I think they take the religion angle quite seriously. When we arrived, all the girls were apparently in chapel, something they have to do everyday. Then Dawn mentioned the school motto, which was 'Love God and Smite the Unbeliever' or possibly something very like it. Hmm. And then, when the Principal came to say hello he was carrying a bible and a prayer book...

At this point I was beginning to have some doubts about the whole affair. Was I going to have to sit through dozens of speeches extolling the virtues of christianity, god, angels and the like? Heavens above I hoped not. It wasn't helped when I met my fellow judge, a teacher from the boys school by the name of Karen, whose MA dissertation at Portsmouth uni had been about religious freedom in Hampshire after the French Revolution (where apparently a lot of exiled clergy pitched up after Robspierre decided he didn't want them around anymore, or something).

But then they handed us the scoring sheets and things got a little clearer. There were two groups to judge, 10 second years and 10 third years - meaning that the speeches would last about 45 minutes at most. Not too bad. And, interestingly, they were't really speeches, they were recitals. This was because junior high school students in Japan do not have the creative ability to think for themselves and come up with a speech - this is mainly because any semblance of originality has been beaten out of them by this time and group think has fully taken over, so originality might mean individualism, which cannot be allowed to happen. So the girls were given a list of possible speeches to recite, one of which they then had to learn off by heart. But more of that later.

At 9am, after chapel was over, we made our way to the hall for the speeches. Now I was expecting the 20 speech givers to be there, plus possibly some dutiful parents, but when we entered the hall the entire school was there to watch! And the hall was a big one, two tiered and a proper round hall shape (a bit like the Budokan, but smaller of course), so there must have been about a thousand girls in their to watch the speech givers. Talk about pressure, I felt nervous just watching them. The hall was pretty new looking, big and had a very impressive full sized pipe organ above the stage. As I mentioned, this school has a bit of cash stashed away and is getting more, apparently, as whilst school rolls are falling across Japan with the declining birth rate, this place has a waiting list and is therefore opening more classes every year.

Anyway, of the list of available speeches, the 10 second year students had chosen a grand total of two. These were "barrier-free" and "favour for favour", whilst the third year's had three "Stevie Wonder", "A law of life" and (my personal favourite) "Give me liberty or give me death" (which wasn't about gun control or the Dead Kennedy's and the US punk scene in the 1980's rather it was about some bloke who made a speech in the American war of independence - I can't remember his name, perhaps I should have paid attention to the speeches). Earlier I said 'interestingly' that these were recitals, but of course, the more you hear the speeches, the less interesting they become. As you can probably imagine, the barrier-free one was about a bloke in a wheel chair, although on the list of speeches a typo had turned it into barrie-free, which I hoped might be some polemic about a world without Peter Pan, but alas it was not to be.

Judging these was difficult. The kids had been practicing for weeks with Dawn (hence her not being a judge) and the other teachers, so they were pretty good. We had to grade the speakers on three criteria: presentation (smooth memory); pronunciation and; intonation, gesture and something else I can't remember. As they had practicing for ages, the first criteria was redundant so it was down to the other two, and as the pronunciation was all pretty similar, it pretty much came down to the last category. And, of course, they were all really good, very good indeed. I remember studying French at school and doubt I could have done the same at that age - but then again one has to wonder if the girls had any idea what they were actually saying, sadly I think understanding was limited as you could tell from the occasional unnatural pause (that they all made at the same place) that it really was robotic. But there had to be a winner, indeed a second and third as well, for each year group and through the jottings and tottings of us judges, these were found.

Then came the surprise. The judges had to go onto the stage, give a congratulatory speech and then hand over the loot. Now I'm quite used to public speaking, but having a thousand or so pairs of eyes from an audience of junior high school girls focused upon you is quite disconcerting, giving a speech in your own language difficult enough, so hats off to the contestants. Naturally all the contestants that won were ever so happy and you could see that they were going to go home and be exceptionally proud of their achievments, and so they should. One thing that especially cheered me was the second year winner. When I announced her name there was the Japanese equivalent of astonishment, as if she were not meant to win. Not only did this come as a surprise to her, but the rest of the school as well. I wonder if anyone made any money betting on her with long odds...?

And that was it. We were thanked for our time, given a cup of tea, signed a chit for the 10,000yen and released back into the sleet by about 1045. They've asked me to go back in July for the high school contest where the contestants actually make up their own speeches - could be interesting...

Thursday, 17 February 2005

It's gonna be a boy!

Roll on May

Tuesday, 15 February 2005

Onsens in hot water (again)

And other excellent cliches, if I can think of them. If you recall, I wrote somewhere before about Onsen owners in Nagano (or perhaps Niigata, I can't remember) who firstly were using tap water in their authentic onsens (not good) and then another bunch who were found to be adding bath salts to theirs to make them smell better (possibly even worse - I seem to remember that the expression "just don't fuck with their baths" was in that post, possibly to try to convey the importance of the issue). Anyway, more fun was to be had last weekend.

I first noticed something was amiss by the helicopter circling over the Arakawa at about 8pm on Thursday evening. We get quite a few (for Japan) helicopters passing our apartment, I think the river must be used a kind of route marker for the military to go around Tokyo, but these are usually during daylight hours at the weekend. So to see a chopper hovering and slowly circling at night was a little odd. The guru confirmed this on my getting home, saying it had been there all afternoon and was making a bloody racket. What could it be, we wondered?

Well, apparently over on the Tokyo side of the river in Kita-ku (lit. trans. North Borough (hugely original, that name)) a company had been sinking a 1,800meter hole in the ground to find a hot spring from which they could then build an onsen. What they failed to appreciate, however, was that until 1972 natural gas was extracted nearby and that there might be some small pockets of gas still around.

"Er..." they said, as a Tokyo monitoring centre found increasing levels of methane in Setagaya-ku (lit. trans. Outskirts-rice-field-in-the-valley Borough (yeah right))...

"Oops..." they opined as a mixture of water and methane shot 10 metres into the air, breaking the overhead gantry lighting...

"Fuck..." they added as the water and methane mixture swiftly expanded and was ignited by the broken lighting into a 20 metre tower of flame...

"...and here we go again", said the fire department, as they were called in to deal with the blaze. This took them nearly 24 hours to do, such was the ferocity of the fire and the fact that the methane was being pushed out of the hole by all this pressurised water. Apparently it took 4.5 tons of muddy water and 2000 sandbags to bring everything under control, though why muddy water was necessary, rather than, say, clean water, I am not sure. I am also not sure how to get a terrible pun involving the bluesman Muddy Waters into that sentence. I will keep trying, but fear the moment has passed.

One has to ask, of course, quite why the metropolitan government allowed the company to sink such a deep hole into what was formerly known as the Koto Gas Field, especially when the Environment Ministry (slogan: Concrete painted green is just like Real Grass) said something along the lines of, oh yes, this has happened before in Tokyo, happens all the time in fact. Doh. And, indeed, one has to wonder quite why anyone would want to build an onsen in Kita-ku. There are already 59 hot spring sources in Tokyo's 23 ku's, so why bother with another. And, I mean, onsens, well, they are basically places to go out of the city where there is a bit of nature the Environmental ministry hasn't got its hands on yet. You know, a cold beer in a hot outside bath with views over the snow covered hills, that sort of thing, not wander down the street with a one-cup sake, turn left at the car park and have a bath there, what's the point? Ah, but I'm not Japanese so I can't appreciate the spare aesthetic beauty of an onsen in an industrial estate.

Meat me at Yoshinoya

Again last year I wrote about Yoshinoya and the problems they were encountering by the banning of American beef imports due to BSE in US cattle. Luckily, this time I can remember where, it's here, so you can relive the old days if you feel the urge. Well, this week Yoshinoya decided, in it's infinite wisdom, that whilst the the beef ban is still in place, it may as well use up it's last stocks of meat, so decided to sell gyudon in a number of it's restaurants across Japan. And so, even though the beef maybe contaminated, long queues were seen outside all the stores giving this once in a lifetime opportunity. Weird, as people were ecstatic to be given the chance to eat gyudon with American beef - usually it is only Japanese produce that creates such a rush (but of course Japanese beef is far too good be used in gyudon, whilst Aussie beef is too stringy and British beef, well, that's were BSE came from. Actually, on this point, the first case of Variant CJD was either reported, or the first person died from it, in Japan this week. The reason why the man got the disease was that he spent a month in the UK in about 1989. That's right, of all the beef the guy has eaten all through his life, it was one month in the UK that killed (or will kill) him. In a no way knee-jerk reaction, the Japanese Medical folks announced they will not accept blood donations from anyone that has spent a month or more in the UK in the last 100 years (or somesuch time period). Indeed I wonder if I will even be allowed into the hospital when the guru gives birth...)

Good news and Congratulations

To my colleague Helen and her husband Yosh as Helen gave birth to a healthy, boucing baby girl on Saturday night. Mother and baby are doing well, the baby was three thousand something grams and fifty something centimetres long (or tall). Good luck to all.

And as for the rugby

... I reckon Sue Mott has got it about right.

Monday, 7 February 2005

Crime waves

Once upon a while I wrote about the Japanese love of shutters. I would try to link to it, but I can't remember where/when it was and I can't be bothered to go all through the posts to find where, but trust me, I did. Anyway, the gist of that post was that all Japanese houses, and a good few apartments, have rolling steel shutters that cover all the windows and patio (not that they have patios) doors and that I really don't understand why. The usual response is because of safety, though I suspect it is a deep psychological need to hide themselves away from the outside world - very big on the inside versus the outside (honne vs tatemae) the Japanese, which western often can't get the hang of, mostly as we call it being two faced.

I digress. I am now in the process of revising my opinions - I'm into double loop reasoning (actually I'm not at all, I just read about it in a text book and it seemed a good justification for changing my mind). Last week, or maybe the week before, a game of high school baseball was carrying on in a place called Hasuda in Saitama pref, about 30 mins north of Kawaguchi by train. One chap hit a ball so far it flew out of the diamond and into a drainage ditch abutting the fields and an outfielder chap gave chase. Not only did the chap find the baseball, he also found about 15 million yen in cash. That's about 75,000 quid, not a bad haul. Naturally being a good citizen, he took it straight to the police and then crossed his fingers as if no one claimed the cash, it would be his. Finding large amounts of cash in shopping bags is quite a common occurence here in Japan and one of the other reasons he took the cash straight to the police is that usually these hauls of cash are the ill gotten gains of the yakuza and so if you are found spending it the wake up call is likely to short, sharp and no doubt painful.

What makes the story more odd is that the following day is that another 3 million, or thereabouts, was found in the same ditch a little further away. What I love about this find is that it was spotted by a retired gentleman out walking his dog and he did what he thought he should by informing the police but not touching it himself - disturbing the evidence or somesuch - again no doubt in the anticipation of collecting the cash on it unclaimed deadline. But, as he hadn't touched it and local bobby fished it out of the culvert, the official finder of the cash was the bobby, not the chap. My was he pissed off.

So far so normal for the police of Hasuda. But in an amazing show of swift action and zealousness the local constabulary arrested a 25 year old woman on suspicion of theft. Well, they say suspicion but she has admitted robbing her ex-boyfriend, but that isn't good enough just yet. Anyway, what happened was that she was dating a chap in Ageo, not too far from Hasuda but they split up and so to teach him a lesson, she colluded with a couple of friends to steal some cash from the ex. So, they broke into his apartment and "alledgedly stole about 60 million yen from a suitcase in the man's closet". So let's get this straight, not only did the ex boyfriend have about three hundred thousand pounds in his apartment, which seems crazy enough to me, but it was kept not in a safe but in a suitcase in his cupboard? Right...

But he is not the only one. Every week, it seems, you can read in the paper that such-and-such a house was broken into over the weekend and x hundred million yen were stolen whilst the family was away skiing. And this is why, in a convoluted way, Japanese have horrible iron shutters disfiguring their houses - they're all too f*cking stupid to use banks.

I mean, I can understand having a few hundred quid locked in a safe somewhere, just in case you happen to have to buy a tv before the cup final because your kid just put his foot through the old one, but why on earth would you need to have a quarter of a million quid in your house? 'Oh we don't trust the banks' is one reason often trotted out and I can understand this to an extent, but then again perhaps they should ask the govt to stop bailing out failing banks so that some bankrupt and therefore the banking sector gets stronger as a result. No wonder the average household thinks Japan is getting a more dangerous place and that crime is on the increase - I'd be paranoid if I had that much cash in my home, very paranoid indeed. And I'm not even sure steel shutters would be much deterrent to a decent thief. And talking of thieves, is anyone surprised burglary is on the increase? I'm not, not with such rich pickings to be had in the average punters' house, actually I'm suprised there isn't a crime epidemic sweeping the land as we speak...

Talking of robbery

The guru and I went out baby shopping at the weekend. Not that we went out to shop for a baby, we're getting one of those in May, hopefully, no we went out to buy things for the baby that we are going to get.

Buying stuff for a baby is important and therefore you have to get the right things and so it is a big decision what you buy. Therefore if the two big purveyors of puchchairs have 837 models in the 2005 range, you must assess the pros and cons of each and every model before even thinking about buying. Then you must cross reference these with last year's road tested models to see if the 2005 range is better than 2004 (and, if possible (which you might think it is not but your wife will have other ideas) cross reference models over the last five years for wear and tear factors). Then you must assess all of the colour options available. Then you must at least appear to listen to the opinions of your husband. Then you must reconsider all the options again as the QX-501 (2005) you have finally decided upon doesn't come burnt sienna (only black with mustard yellow), but the QXa- 501 (2005) does come in burnt sienna but doesn't have the moulded grips whilst the QX-501 (2004) does come in burnt sienna and does have the grips but only scored 99.98 in the Which? Magazine Supermarket/Bus Manoeuverability tests and, well, you will be spending a lot of time in supermarkets so this is important etc etc etc

So we didn't buy a pushchair, too many variables at play. But we did get some other stuff like a high chair, some toys, a carrying sling thing that may well be called a papousse, as Brian reminded me today, and a bum bag for putting baby stuff into, and we got it all from a sort of baby show thing organised by one of the big baby stuff makers in Japan. The bit about robbery is that they claimed it would be a massive discount affair and that the average punter could save thousands. So the high chairs were all about 17,000 yen, reduced form 55-60,000 yen. Now I thought 'wow, huge savings' but the guru, in her clever and knowing way, poo-pooed my enthusiasm by saying that on the 'net they are always this price and no-one ever pays full price'. Makes sense, but that means either the company are not making any money at all (not likely, let's face it) or their rrp's are just complete bollocks - which is a lot more going for it, I reckon.

So we huffed and puffed around this big hall with about a million other couples and babies/young children (declining birth rate in Japan? Not on the evidence of Saturday afternoon) and amazingly didn't have an arguement, which I thought was pretty good going. But then again I have realised my role in the whole baby thing is, at the moment at least, to follow the guru around and say 'yes dear' to any question that she asks.

Tuesday, 1 February 2005

And the baby is a...

...well, it is, according to the doctor at his most gnostic, a boy...or possibly a girl, definitely one or the other.

Well thank you for that, I must admit you had me worried there, but now my mind is well and truly put at ease. Dimwit. The guru had another check-up today, hence the delay in writing, as I foolishly thought there might be some news on that score, but no, just the usuals. The usuals this time around were: the baby is ok; it is now over 1000grams; whilst the baby has been putting on weight the guru actually managed to lose some by keeping a careful eye on the calories she eats (her husband, whilst she has been doing this, has been telling her to eat more, I might add, but to no avail). Basically all still going well with the pregnancy thing, mother and child are doing fine whilst father is still trying to catch up. So that leaves us with...

Japan as a world player

Poor old Japan, it really doesn't get it at all. There has been much rumbling in the press recently as Japan has been making it every-so-often bid to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The main reason, it seems, that Japan reckons it is owed a permanent seat is that Japan is the second biggest contributor to the UN funds, with only the Principality of Liechenstein giving more (possibly). Cash, it seems, equals power, and in most cases this is an absolute truth. But not for the UNSC, mainly because the more Japan clamours for a seat, the more it does really dumb things that makes everyone roll their eyes and smile into the handkerchiefs. Consider the recent couple of examples:

Refugees - I can't remember the exact details but is was something like this. A group of people pitched up in Japan, quite possibly Kurds from the middle east, and asked to be allowed to stay as they were refugees and if they were deported they would face the usual nastiness on their return 'home'. The UN got involved somehow, perhaps the group phoned the UN and asked if they could be designated as refugees "pretty please", to which the UN, always a sucker for this sort of thing, said 'oh all right then' and declared them thus. But the Japanese Immigration Bureau, to whom we dedicated unnumbered words a week or two ago, did not agree one bit with the UN and sent the group packing with a clip round the ear. So let's get this straight, you're really into getting a seat on arguably the most powerful UN body and in order to ingratiate yourself with the voting committee you pronounce the judgements of an almost equal body to be invalid and do exactly the opposite of what they recommend. Hmm, I wonder what the UN head of Refugees had to say to the head of the UNSC about Japan candidateship...?

Foreigners - They just keep turning up and gettng in the way, if only they would stay out of Japanese affairs the place would be a much better place. Excellent ruling from the Japanese high court this week on a case that has been rumbling on for a good few years. A woman by the name of Chong Hyang Gyun was refused permission to sit an exam that, if she passed would put her in charge of other healthcare workers for the Tokyo Metropolitan govt. Her name doesn't sound Japanese, this is because she is officially Korean. As has been pointed out on these pages before, a large number of Koreans were forcibly repatriated to Japan in WWII to work as slave labour in factories and, at war's end, stayed in Japan for whatever reason. These people, and their children, grand children and great grand etc have been denied Japanese nationality even though they may have only the most tenuous links with the Korean peninsula. Chong Hyang Gyun was one of these, a second generation Korean who is, to all intents and purposes, Japanese. She was also very good at her job and so, on the encouragement of colleagues applied to take an exam to gain promotion. She was denied this by the Tokyo Metropolitan govt on the grounds that foreigners could not be put in positions where they would have to give orders to Japanese public/government workers - who knows what havoc they could wreak? So she sued, stating that even if she couldn't take the position, she should be allowed to at least sit the exam [her logic]. After battles through the various levels of courts the Supreme jobbie had the final say this week and said, as if it was any surprise, that the govt had not acted in an unconstitutional manner and that foreigners are indeed dangerous and Japanese are unique. Now the point to make here is not so much the ruling itself, as I would be surprised if there are many countries that would too many decision making repsonsibilites to non-nationals in the public services. No, the point, I think, is that an awful lot of Japanese seem to think it is perfectly acceptable to maintain the fiction of a sub-class of residents who are Japanese in every way except that the govt has decided that they officially are not. As long as rights are denied to these "citizens" then Japan should have no chance whatsoever of gaining more influence or power in the UN.

More Pesky Foreigners - Otaru, Hokkaido has a problem. Stinky Russians keep coming over and using their onsen baths. But, damn them to hell, they don't know how to use them properly. OK, we have two options here. We could try welcoming them and then educating them on Japanese bath etiquette so they fit right in. Hmm, you mentioned another option...? Yes, we could just ban all foreigners from using baths in our town. This kind of intrigued a chap by the name of David Aldwinckle who decided to test it out. He gained Japanese citizenship (I doubt expressly to test the situation, but you never know) and tried to visit the 'ringleader' onsen with some chums, a mixture of Japanese and foreign. He, not surprisngly, was refused entry, even though he is officially Japanese, along with the other foreigners, whilst the Japanese were let in. Why? He looked foreign therefore he wasn't allowed in. His two daughters? The foreign looking one no, but the Japanese looking one ok! Naturally he took the onsen to court over racial discrimination but, and this is where the eye rolling starts, the court found in favour of the onsen, saying something like 'theye is no actual legal definition of racial discrimination in the UN charter [to which Japan is a signatory] so the onsen is free to decide what it wants to do' or something like that. Anyway you can read all about this chap and his one man crusade against discrimination here, and I would urge you to do so as it is fascinating stuff. So, this UN thing on discrimination, more like a guideline, right? Anyway about that seat...

But these are just three examples of the Japanese tendency to shoot themselves in the feet. I mean, for the court to decide that the UN Refugee agency doesn't know what it is talking about, or to decide that the UN doesn't really understand its own mandate on rascism, well, they're not exactly making any friends in the UN, now are they...