Tuesday, 20 February 2007

The Abe issue

The Daily Yomiuri has, once a month, a readers’ write-in thing where they propose a theme and your average punter can write in and let loose their thoughts. Recently they have had such things as ‘what more can Japan do to encourage eco-friendliness in others so we don’t have to?’; ‘Just how many nukes should we drop on Krazy Kim’s People Mart?’; and a personal favourite ‘What avenues of whining should Japan now explore in an attempt to get a permanent seat on the UNSC?’. This month’s question is a little different, however. If memory served it is something like ‘Why has new-ish PM Shinzo Abe’s popularity gone down the tubes?’

Now I have thought long and hard about this over the past few minutes and I must admit to being at something of a loss. This might strike you as strange, but it is so. The reason I am at a loss might, however, also be the reason his popularity has gone down the tubes, as I can’t think of anything that Shizo has done since he became PM, so much so that I still can’t think of a decent, or indeed any, nickname for him, which I find just a little bit depressing.

So, he came to power after the Kool Kid Koizumi collected his P45 in September last year and, as far as I can remember, really hasn’t done anything. It almost seems as if Japan has gone to sleep with him at the helm. Reading through the archives of this blog, as I am wont to do on occasion when bored, I have come across posts about Krazy Kim, about dodgy architects, scandals a-plenty, succession issues, Yasukuni, takeovers and makeovers and all sorts of other things that happened with, to and by the Kid (read back, you’ll find them all in there (somewhere)), but since the autumn I really can’t think of too much that has gone on. OK, there was the cabinet minister that said women were essentially ‘birthing machines’ and that they were failing in their duty – he threatened to resign but Abe wouldn’t let him. That was interesting for about a day, but that’s about it.

It’s almost as if John Major has decided that being the most dull and boring politico in Britain wasn’t enough so he thought he’d branch out and give another legislature a go. But maybe, and here possibly is the point of all this, the Kool Kid has actually done what all politicians want to do but generally fail in the attempt: he changed the game (here in Japan), changed the political landscape. Recast the mindset of ‘the people’ (whoever we/they are). Redefined what it is to be a politico in Japan. Reinvented. Shifted. No longer are ‘the people’ going to be happy with a faceless, humourless, unmemorable grey suit. Now, because of the Kid, perhaps people want politicos who try and do stuff, who have opinions, who try to change the way things work (or don’t work), who say things like ‘oops, might have bungled that one a tad’ and who have, (shudder) some passion for the job.

The thing with the Kid was that he polarized opinion, he really was, it seems to me, either loved or hated. Now that might seem strange if you are reading this in the UK or US (or elsewhere, but I don’t know much about the politics of that country) as political parties, and political issues, often have the effect of polarizing opinion, but here in Japan consensus has often been the order of the day. This is perhaps because Japan has essentially had one political party in power since 1945 (the good ‘ole Liberal Democratic party, who are neither liberal nor democratic, natch) and also because harmony is/was paramount – in this sense harmony means collusion between big business and big politics to ensure people are told what to do and then do it, sort of like Stalin or Hitler’s command economy but with smiles, nicer cars and no gulags. But the Kid, with acts like going postal (privatizing the postal savings system), being principled (kicking out the dissenters in the party) and having the balls to fight (his back me or sack me the country at the last election, and they backed him), maybe something changed in Japanese politics which has, perhaps quite unexpectedly, changed something in the electorate.

So when Silent Shinzo (how about that one?) comes along, expecting everyone to slip back into their late-90s political acquiescence, he may be feeling just a tad miffed that people are asking him questions and expecting (as if?!) answers and action. I think there may be a lot of head scratching going on the Strip OL Shabu-shabu joints of Shinjuku as the old guard, the ones who breathed a sigh of relief when the Kid was as good as his word and retired in September, try and figure out how they can run a damned country with a lame duck PM and an increasingly irritating tendency from ‘the people’ to ask questions they shouldn’t and expect something approaching a reasonable, or at least reasonably believable but not necessarily true, answer.

Or I might be wrong, maybe they just don’t like his ugly mug, but I’d like to think that there’s a bit more to it than that.

Monday, 5 February 2007


So a couple of things going on this week, well, in the last few weeks or so.

Well done

First up a welcome week for English sporting success, with both the cricket team beating a not-really-trying-Australia team and then the rugby boys beating a not-very-good-Scotland team. Well done there to both, but I suspect it will be harder against teams who are actually trying to play them (indeed I fear the Aussies want us to reach the final of the CB series so they can humiliate us all over again – but that’s perhaps just my jaded and cynical view of the whole thing). But hey, at least we’ve remembered how to play the oval ball game at last, and long may it continue (might even get out of our RWC pool now...)

Beans means ?

Then yesterday, Sunday 4th, was Setsubun-no-hi, a rough and ready translation of which is ‘Day of throwing beans at Ogres’. Now this may sound like great fun, and in a way it is, in a weird Japanese festival kind of way. Essentially on this day, which in the weird old Japanese calendar is the first day of the New Year and of spring as well (could be the Chinese new year?), it was a whole new start kind of thing. So what you had to do was get some beans (special anti-ogre beans one suspects) and then proceed to attack any ogres that might be living in your house (as far as I can see). Now in our flat we, unfortunately, did not have any ogres, or any lesser fairy-tale creatures either, more’s the pity, so we had to make do with dad in an unconvincing ogre mask.

This ‘ogre’ then attacked the Guru and youngster before being repelled with the aforementioned anti-ogre beans. These were chucked at the ‘ogre’ whilst chasing the beasty around the house and then out of the front door. The youngster was, however, all a bit nonplussed by these anti-ogre antics so was not particularly good with the bean throwing (and come to think of it had I known that beans held such effective ogre repelling qualities it would have made role playing with MERP and D&D a whole lot easier in my spotty youth). However the ‘ogre’ was dismissed from the house and then, surprisingly, we had to spend the following 20 minutes picking up little bits of crushed beans from all over the place.

The youngster was happier, however, when he got up after a nap to find a train in the living room. He has a bit of a thing about trains, as does any 1 and 3/4 year old, as far as I am aware, and has books about them, models of them and probably dreams about them as well. Anyway a few weeks ago, or maybe a month, we bought a new oven/microwave thing that came in a big box. Since it was delivered the box has remained in the living room as the youngster’s Best Toy Ever ™ and the parent’s Most Annoying Big Box in the Living Room ™. Anyway for weeks I have been looking at said box and thinking, and saying, I must make a train out of that box, so yesterday I finally pulled my finger out and did the business. I must admit that it gave me a huge dose of fatherly feeling to actually make something that he plays with. My art skills, being a ‘bit shite actually’ are in fact perfect for impressing not-quite-two year olds and so he was most happy with his new train. It was modelled badly on a Kodama shinkansen, for those of you sad enough to want to know.

Our living room yesterday afternoon

The food of hot, p3rvy $ex...

Ok, you hear about chocolate being the food of love, or maybe strawberries & cream, asparagus or even oysters and powered rhino horn. But they, I’m afraid, are but a chaste peck on the cheek compared to Shabu-shabu, the padded black leather fetish dungeon of the culinary world.

Now for those of you not in Japan you may wonder what I am on about, but that’s surely been the case for the last four years, so no change there. Shabu-shabu is a type of dish that Japanese do very well, D-I-Y food. Japanese, it seems to me, love food that you go to a restaurant for but then proceed to actually cook yourself, for example okonomiyaki, kushiage and yakiniku to name but three. This, it seems, negates the real need to have a restaurant, but I guess Japanese hate washing up, hence their desire to go out. Shabu-shabu works like this – get a bit round pot of boiling water, take some wafer thin slices or raw beef, dunk beef in water for few moments (holding with chopsticks all the while), dunk now cooked beef in assortment of condiments (pepper, raw egg, candle wax), then eat. The shabu-shabu-ness of it comes from the motion of swishing the beef in the water.

OK, so far so not that odd or depraved. But it was in the 1990s that Shabu-shabu became, in Japan, a byword for smut with the notoriety of the No Pants Shabu-shabu restaurants in Shinjuku. The premise was simple. Same basic restaurant but with two key differences; one, mirrored floors and; two, waitresses not in kimono but in very short skirts and nothing to keep out the drafts. These became the talking point as they did not cater, as you might suspect, for the lower end of society, but it seemed predominantly for the ministry of finance and other government mandarins (actually you might have suspected that more...). A few dodgy deals, one or two intrepid reporters and the blag was blown.

But now we have a new phenomenon – the OL Strip Shabu-shabu. An OL, should you be wondering, is an Office Lady. They wear kind of crap corporate uniforms and until recently we employed to make tea and be groped on trains. But Women’s Lib finally arrived and so the mean old government made it illegal for the salaryman to manhandle these young ladies on the subway, thereby increasing the sexual frustration of every salaryman over the age of 40.

So OL Strip Shabu-shabu has now arrived. As you can see from this news article the basic idea is again simple – as you shabu you thin slices of beef you can ask you waitress to strip off. Great, your own personal floor show whilst you eat you dinner. You can, it seems, even ask the waitress to then dress up in another costume from, one assumes, the ‘side order’ menu.

But what makes me really wonder is, why Shabu-shabu? What is it about thin slices of beef that make men want to ‘get down on it’? I mean there’s no No Pants Okonomiyaki, no Strip Yakitori, so why Shabu-shabu? This, I suspect, is one of the unfathomable idiosyncrasies of Japan that I keep reading about in travel books...

Thursday, 1 February 2007


Just to pass on a few choice quotes from a letter I received this morning:

"It is a very useful introduction"

"The literature review is relevant an extensive. Presenting a framework for literature review and explaining the relevant terms and concepts is very useful."

"[investigation] Sample is excellently explained"

"Data presentation is detailed, and reflects an understanding of the issues involved."

"The conclusions are well linked to the study."

"This assignment [dissertation] is an excellent piece of work" (particularly proud of that one)

"The author has a deep understanding of the issues involved, and the effort to engage them in the backdrop of international literature and practices is commendable. Very well done!"

And my personal favourite...

"We write to offer our warmest congratulations on achieving your Masters degree with distinction..."

OK, it's subject to external marking, which won't be complete for about three months, but as the first and second internal markers both gave over 70%, which is an 'A', I'm quietly confident that the 'with distinction' bit will remain.

Quite chuffed about this.