Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

Shooting more complicated fish in a barrel…

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

This was on the wall outside a restroom at Narita Airport:


I have a fairly large vocabulary, but I didn’t know what “Ostimate” was until I looked it up. It refers to a person who has had an “ostomy” which is (it seems) an entire class of surgical procedures dealing with the re-routing of urinary and excretory function. The most commonly known one being a “colostomy”.

So, this is an example of a sign that appears, at first glance, to be needlessly obtuse, but is in fact extremely helpful. I would assume that to someone to whom this notice is targeted, the utility and clarity is clear. There is no doubt. And I also assume that it is deeply and practically appreciated.

This humble blogger for one, is humbled. And educated. And more attentive as a result…


…stay tuned!

Shooting fish in a barrel (pt. 2)

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

From a Japanese customs, entry form:


Sorry. This picture isn’t so good.
I’d like to draw your attention to item number 5, which states as prohibited articles: “Obscene or immoral materials, and Child pornography.”
Here again there are two rather interesting implications.

1. Child pornography is not included in the class of objects described as “Obscene or immoral materials.”

2. In order to be in violation of this rule one needs to have BOTH “Obscene or immoral materials” AND “Child pornography.”

Oh what a difference that “and” makes.


…stay tuned!

Shooting fish in a barrel

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Finding mangled English in Japan is WAY too easy… But it’s still fun so here we go:



…stay tuned!

Marina Del Ray

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

For the last two weeks, I’ve been in Los Angeles. Actually Santa Monica. Actually Marina Del Ray.
A gang of us from SITI Company have been making a new show. It is a new version of Antigone, written by Jocelyn Clarke. We’re working at the Getty Villa which is just up the coast from where we’re living. Where we’re living is two blocks from Venice Beach.

I’m spent quite a bit of time in Los Angeles over the years, and have come out to this area just to visit the beach, but I’ve never spent this much time here. Although we’ve been so busy with the show I haven’t had that much time to myself, I’ve taken a few walks around and done a bit of running.
It strikes me that the climate, fauna and even the architecture of this area is remarkably similar to areas of Japan that are very familiar to me from childhood. This is a bit weird. I mean, this is Venice Beach. We’re talking Muscle-Beach and paddle-tennis and literal beach bums waking up under huge swaths of graffiti. Sand in everything. Despite the clear differences between almost any part of Japan and California beach culture, I have moments when a smell wafts through the air here that transports me back to my childhood in a powerful way.

It’s not just the ocean. Even though it is the Pacific one.

I think a lot of this is botanical.

I think a lot of this is neurological.

Powerful nostalgia in places we’ve never been…

I fly to Shanghai in the wee hours of Monday morning. Never been there. Wonder if I’ll remember it…

Dog silencer

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

Had a pretty decent bowl of Gumbo Ya Ya at “The Gumbo Pot” in the Farmer’s market by “The Grove” here in L.A. today. Also had an order of Hush Puppies.

For those of you who don’t know, a “Hush Puppy” is a smallish morsel of corn bread, fried in some kind of fat. The name comes from the story that cooks would make these to throw to the dogs to shut them up when they were barking. Don’t know if it’s true but it’s as good a story as any.

I was thinking about the fact that I, like a lot of Northerners, first heard the words “Hush” and “Puppy” put together as the brand name of a loafer. It turns out that the name of the shoe comes from a sales manager for a shoe company on a trip to the southeast, hearing the story about the origins of the corn bread nuggets and naming the shoes after them. At the time (late 50’s) it was common to call tired feet “Barking dogs.” so a shoe that would sooth them was a…

This morning I was reading an article about how words like “Kamikaze” and “Hara-Kiri” are actually not Japanese words at all. Rather they are misreadings of the kanji for “Shimpu” and “Seppuku.” These words were essentially invented by anglophone translators (in some cases Nissei) during WWII, who simply didn’t know the pronunciation of the original Japanese words (this is a very understandable error if you know how the Japanese language works). Nevertheless, Kamikaze and Hara-kiri are now part of the Japanese lexicon through adoption.

So, while I ate my gumbo and corn bread, I was imagining an irresponsible etymologist coming to the conclusion that their shoe brand was suggesting that they should quiet a noisy dog by kicking it.

Ah, life.

Going back to some Japan Thoughts

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

Ok, so I’ve been lazy about the Blog. Here I am climbing back into the saddle.

So I waxed rather rhapsodic about Japan while I was there so here are some things that SUCK about Japan:

• Relative rarity of free WiFi networks (Australia, or at least Melbourne, also SUCKs on this count)

• Rarity of AC outlets in Airports, trains, train stations. There are coin operated cell-phone charging stations which are cool, and I understand that free plugs aren’t ubiquitous in the States either, but if you look, you can usually find power to snitch in the US. This leads to another thing: I understand that the power needs are different, but if every little calculator can have the little photo-voltaic cell on it, why can’t my iPhone have a flip top that provides a trickle charge. I don’t expect it to be able to run it, but it would slow the battery drain. Wouldn’t it? (I’m setting this up for my bother Joel to comment on it).

• Shu-den. The last train. For all the glory of Japanese mass transit, it doesn’t run all night. On the way back to the hotel one night in Tokyo, Akiko and I were on the last train on the Sobu line into Shinjuku. We were changing there to the Yamanote, but the Yamanote line was delayed. Because the Sobu train was the last one of the night, they waited for the Yamanote line to arrive. When we got off the train, it was already full. As we stood there across the platform from it, it filled up to the point that people were hanging out of the doors. When our train finally showed up, it was full and MOST of the people got off and tried to get onto the now completely full Sobu train. The scene on the platform as our train pulled away was something out of a high-concept disaster movie. The number of people trying to get on was at least two and a half times the packed capacity of the train.

I don’t know the numbers on this but if the MTA here in NYC can run trains all night, why can’t there be some service late night in Japan? Is there a downside? Sound? Wear and tear? Capsule hotels will go bankrupt?

Speaking of sound:
• Sound trucks. Japanese politics features a very vocal radical right-wing, called the Uyoku. As opposed to the radical left Sayoku, Both of these are boarder-line terrorist organizations, and whereas when I was young the Sayoku were the ones demonstrating against Narita airport and the constitution, by the time I was living here in the 80s and 90s it was the Uyoku that was making all the noise. To over-simplify completely, the Uyoku are Neo-Nazis. They’re intensely nationalist. They don’t like foreigners. And they would like us to operate on the basis that the 2nd World War is still on, and that Japan should be much more aggressive towards the Russians in terms of certain islands which are in northern Japan or southern Sakhalin, depending on who’s telling the story.

The MO of these guys is to drive around in black panel vans with white and red slogans written all over them and late 1930’s Messerschmidt loud speakers on the roof. The guy in the passenger seat then proceeds to shout into a hand held CB style microphone and what you can hear through the distortion of the tortured amps is a stream of Mussolini style tirade. They often have a posse which consists of a small parade of men marching behind them in military fatigues, helmets and white gloves, holding various banners and flags.

I was eating my lunch in the court-yard of the theatre in Mito many years ago when one of these parades went by. One of the marchers came over and stood over me, watching me eat my rice-ball. After awhile he asked if I liked Japanese food. I told him that I did, and he walked away as if I had validated something about his life. I was a bit confused by the encounter, but I don’t think I was as confused as he was.

Akiko and I ran into such a parade in Shibuya on our way to see Kayoko’s play and the sound bouncing off the glass sides of the valley of high-fashion retail was mind melting. I didn’t make out ONE SINGLE WORD of what this knucklehead was saying. I don’t know what the issue was, or what he was trying to convince me of. I suspect this has ceased to be the point of these trucks. They’re a form of right wing punk rock. I don’t know their politics enough to know if I agree or disagree with them anymore. But I don’t like their punk rock.

• Misogyny. There’s a lot of it in Japan. It’s everywhere. You see it in the behavior of both men and women. Almost everything I say about liking the basic state of being in Japan is predicated on my being male. I often wonder if Akiko would like Japan if she hadn’t been somewhat inoculated to the misogyny by growing up here.

• Racism. There is a truism that I hold to about living in the United States that states that, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t benefit from being a white person. This is mostly because I’m treated in with a modicum of respect and normality. I assume in an emergency, that I’ll be able to communicate reasonably with members of the Police. for example. In Japan this gets complicated because there is a kind of positive racism in that I’m actually held in some weird form of respect just cause I’m white. This has dissipated over the years just because it’s not the rarity it used to be, but when I was a kid it was SO easy to take advantage of being European that a lot of us didn’t really notice the extent of the effect. I remember that the first few black people I had contact with in Japan, had radically different experiences as “Gaijin”. Some of it was novelty but there was an ugly edge to it. Hip-Hop culture’s hold on vogue has changed this considerably, but there’s a generational issue. The official bureaucracy is not hip to Hip-Hop. The historical situation concerning Koreans and Chinese is an absolute horror story.
One has to be careful. To say that Japanese people are racist… is racist. I know many Japanese people who are very sophisticated about these issues. I’m talking about general social tenancies here, which I acknowledge is dangerous.

The upside to the Japanese attitude towards gender and racial equality is that there is a relative absence of political correctness. People are more likely to indicate their attitude, and you know where people stand, but the underlying ambient level of discrimination is undeniable, and unacceptable. It’s not that this isn’t also true of most other countries, including the States but I believe Japan is shamefully behind, in terms of equal pay and other tangible issues.

• Localized technology. I don’t know exactly how to talk about this yet. It’s something that I really noticed on this last trip and I’m not sure I can be clear here but it has to do with Japanese society’s tendency to create a great deal of innovation that is fundamentally self-involved. It’s like the Americans making cars that only appeal to Americans and then expecting everyone to buy them.

There is this canard about Japan not being able to innovate. I think this is bunk. This is a society that can come up with five, distinct, cost-effective ways to package a rice ball without the seaweed touching the rice, that can be unwrapped without touching the rice directly. The six years I was gone saw a transformation in the way hot cans of coffee get sold out of vending machines. The new trains have these very user-friendly data screens that let you know where you are and how long it’s going to take to get you where you’re going. The thing that gets me is that the layout is reversed depending on which side of the train you’re on. In other words, the whole layout is reversed to make sure that the map is oriented the way the train is actually moving. The next station on the map is in the same direction as the train is moving. This is a small thing, but it’s the kind of thing that makes a difference between technology that’s adjusting to humans or the other way around. The iPhone (which I love) has a flaw in this regard: When it’s in Landscape mode, the volume rocker is reversed relative to the volume indicator on screen, and Apple is the master of this game.

Think for a moment about the latest development in toilet technology that has an actual impact on your life (not in the area of cleaning the toilet). No really. Think about it. It’s probably the development of cheap, readily available toilet paper. I’m willing to bet thats what it is, and I don’t remember a time when this wasn’t the case. This means, that I’ve NEVER seen forward movement (excuse the pun) in the technology of routine bowel evacuation. This is not true in Japan. When I was a kid, the throne style “western” toilet was a relative rarity. Now a toilet that doesn’t have a built in bidet, and automated washing set-up with air-drying and seat warming is a relative rarity. I’ve seen these things introduced in little news items in the States as an example of “those nutty Japanese”. I have never seen such a clear example of “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”

Mocking these things makes us look like the filthy ignorant Neanderthals we probably are, but the broader point here is that the innovation that has lead to things things is not permeating world culture. This is the thing I can’t put my finger on, but there’s something self involved about making something that only a Japanese person would find useful. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that of course, but somehow I get the feeling in Japan that it’s not coming from a passion towards the Japanese way of life, but a fear of going out and playing in the bigger playground. It is the old Japanese insularity, and it feeds the conflicted sense of superiority (look at our cool stuff)/inferiority (oh you wouldn’t be interested) that lies at the heart of so much in Japan.

Ok. Thats it for now.

Gotta go do some stuff.

Seeing things and people in Tokyo.

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

So I’ve been in Tokyo for the last while. My time here has been extremely busy. No time for silly things like blogging. However, I have been thinking a good deal about this country and culture.

The one thought that I keep circling around is the idea that Japan is spending a good deal of energy and resources on innovation and development that is relevant only for the Japanese, and is still somehow failing to find ways to make their contributions resonate fully in the world community. I’ll try to come back to this point, but for now some vignettes of the week.

We spent the first couple of nights in Tokyo at the home of Yoji Sakate. Mr. Sakate is the artistic director of the Rinkogun company, and current head of the Japan Playwrights Association. I have known Sakate for about a decade now. We first met when I performed the simultaneous translation for a tour of Rinkogun’s Capital Of The City of the Gods. This was a significant tour for me in that it marked my first visit to New Orleans. I have since translated a number of Sacate’s plays and directed a reading of a section of his Attic. The last time I was in Japan was when I was here 6 years ago to create an adaptation of Moby Dick with RInkogun. So the first night we were in Tokyo, a bunch of the people who had worked on that show came over and we had about 17 tons of food and drink. It lasted late into the night.
I had a long conversation with Mr. Furumoto, Rinkogun’s managing director. He’s from Toyota, where I grew up, so we have always had an interesting bond. It was interesting to hear how the funding situation in Japan is getting more and more severe. GOS grants that had kept the company alive for most of it’s 25 years, have simply gone away. Despite the fact that Rinkogun and Sakate have won just about every award available to them, and are arguably one of the most firmly established companies in the country, they’re still having to re-invent the funding wheel every year to stay afloat.
There was a woman at the party that I did not know, who brought some food that she introduced as “macrobiotic”, informing us that it’s currently a big hit in the United States. This is a common trope, something that is barely on the radar in the U.S. is marketed here as a huge craze that is sweeping the United States. What struck me though was that she used the word “macrobiotic”. Now, I may be wrong about this, but my understanding is that the concept of macrobiotic food is based on “Shoujin Ryouri”, which is the food eaten in certain Japanese Buddhist monasteries. So there’s a perfectly good Japanese term for this stuff, which everyone in Japan would understand. “Macrobiotic” is, at best, clumsy in Japanese.

The next day, Akiko and I went down to Yokohama to have lunch with Akiko’s older sister and the elder of her two daughters. The ocean-front area of Yokohama around the new “Landmark Tower” is a futuristic architectural splurge with amusement parks, hotels and shopping malls arranged like the diorama of a theoretical cubist city. Post-modernism is alive and well in Yokohama. After lunch, Akiko and I went up to the top of the Landscape Tower (the tallest structure in Japan) on the elevator (the fastest elevator in Japan, although the certificate on display from Guiness said “Fastest Elevator” so I’m not sure if there’s a faster one anywhere). The view was spectacular. Even in Yokohama, which is technically past the southern border of Tokyo, the expanse of buildings is unending. You literally can’s see the edges of the city. It’s civilization as far as the eye can see, off past the curvature of the earth.

That night, Akiko went to see the dance company she used to dance with and Sakate met me at the Tokyo Public theatre to see Hanagumishibai’s new take on Chushingura. Hanagumishibai is a 20 year old company that has as it’s theme, the re-interpretation of Kabuki in a modern, unauthorized context. These guys (and yes, they’re all men) trained in the traditional techniques of Kabuki but are not part of the official Kabuki organization. I hadn’t seen their work in over 10 years, so I was curious to see how they were doing. I was a bit disappointed. Back in the day, the company had featured a friend of mine, the extraordinary Sasai Eisuke, as the principal Onnagata (specialist in playing women). Sasai was so compelling he became a kind of phenomenon all on his own. The times that I saw the company, the interplay between Sasai and company founder and director/performer Mr. Kanou was mind-blowing. These two guys were at the edges of their ability, weaving a totally new kind of cloth out of this ancient thread. Sasai has since left the company, and although Kanou is still really (and I mean REALLY) amazing on stage, the production as a whole felt safe. They have a lot of money now, the costumes look fabulous, the staging is gorgeous, but many of the very things that they began criticizing about official Kabuki are now features of their performance. It could have been because they were doing, perhaps, the most well worn play in the Kabuki cannon, but especially the first half was deadly boring.

The next day, Akiko and I moved to my brother Joel’s place for a night. After a beautiful walk through Tama Cemetery (resting place of Yukio Mishima, Edogawa Rampo, General Tojo and Admiral Yamamoto), we had dinner with Akiyo (an old friend from Toyota) and her two kids, so along with Joel’s family it was quite a crowd.

The next morning, with the help of Joel, I got a bunch of little fixes implemented on the blog. So if you haven’t noticed, things are working smoother and every-thing’s a bit prettier here at Leon’s blog.

Akiko and I then moved to a hotel in Ikebukuro, which was part of our old stomping grounds. That night we went to see Shiraishi Kayoko play the mother in Parco Theater’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenan. For those who don’t know, Shiraishi Kayoko is the best stage actor in the world right now. I would qualify this as my opinion, but I’m not the only one who feels this way. She was Suzuki’s lead actor for the period of time when his work was important, and she was the progenitor of much of the so-called Suzuki Method. I was lucky enough to have my time with the Suzuki company and hers, overlapp by about 3 years, during which time we became quite close. She has toured to the United States twice with her “Hyakumonogatari” solo performances, and I have made a fool of myself on those occasions, distracting the audience with simultaneous translations. Aside from being a remarkable performer of the first order, she is also a fanatically loyal friend and one of my favorite people.
The production was directed by a new up-and-coming 32 year old whipper-snapper of a director. It was solid, but not brilliant as a production. As is appropriate to the material, the style of performance was naturalistic. But this raises one of the most interesting points about the production; Kayoko is anything BUT a naturalistic performer. She is a monster on stage. A huge theatrical presence of titanic proportions, and to the very depths of every bone in her body, theatrical. So for her, acting “normal” on stage is immensely difficult. What this meant is that everyone else on stage is coming from a place of comfort within the daily-life body of naturalistic performance, and reaching towards theatricality. Kayoko is starting from a place of intense theatricality and reaching towards daily-life. Which one do YOU think is more interesting to watch? For me it’s no contest. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The character is a horrible, cruel, resentful hag of a woman. Kayoko makes her absolutely and terrifyingly vivid in all her ugliness and then makes you care about her. It was, in a word, stunning.
After the show Akiko and I and Kayoko and her Husband went to Roppongi for late night Chinese. At midnight it became Kayoko’s 66th birthday so we made a deal about that. She was born the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. As she said, “…there’s always been something about me and America.”

The next day (Sunday), I met my childhood friend and ersatz guru Tom “Peach-fuzz” Eskildsen for breakfast. We then met up with Akiko, Ivar Eimon, Paul Hoshizaki and his wife Hiroko for lunch. These are all childhood friends of mine. We were eating at this really rather good “All the organic food you can eat in 90 mins for 1800 yen” place when another childhood friend who lives in Kobe, Loren Gilbertson called Ivar. It was about as close to a full-on reunion as I care for.

Ivar had to leave but the rest of us went over to the Ginza and walked around until Joel and Ruth showed up and we had Joel’s favorite thing to eat in the entire world An-pan fresh from Kimuraya. Kimuraya is a very old bakery on the Ginza and An-pan is a sweet bean-paste filled roll that originated there.

The party then shed those not related to the Ingulsruds and we went to big brother John E’s and after meeting up with Joel’s two girls, we had a pizza dinner surrounded by John and Kate’s 29th floor, panoramic view of Tokyo at night.

This morning we had to leave the hotel by 10 am leaving us the bulk of the day before our evening flight, so we went to Ueno (the Hard Rock Cafe spells it “Uyeno”), put our bags in a big locker, and went to Ryogoku; the Sumo district. The reason for this side trip was that we had not had any luck finding Tabi (Japanese formal socks with a bifurcated toe that we wear for Suzuki Training) in my size. For reasons that perhaps obvious to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the sport, the Sumo district is a good place to look for anything oversized you might want in Japan. Please insert here one or more jokes at my expense comparing me to a sumo wrestler.

And now I’m at the airport. The tabi and everything else is checked in and we’re checked into that international limbo of intercontinental air travel. This has always been an emotionally and philosophically loaded space for me. I used to write poetry on airplanes a lot. Then I stopped writing poetry all together and the world was a better place.

I can’t say that I’m ready to go back. There are certain things/people I’m looking forward to seeing. But on the whole, I wish I’d been here longer. This is leading to a sense that I want to get back as soon as possible, and for as long as possible. I don’t want to be an ex-pat. I find them sad. But I do love this place and feel a bond to it, even if it’s only one way.

Then again, I want to live a life with lots of places that I miss.

Underwater hot springs.

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

Akiko and her mother and I went to a hot-spring spa (onsen) today. The two of them did all the planning. I knew we were going to a village called Ogata but that was about it. As we got closer we were suddenly driving across a huge plain with what looked like wheat fields (covered in snow). When I asked about these unusually large fields, Akiko’s mother said that they were rice paddies. And then she dropped the bomb. We were driving across the bed of a lake that had been drained.

The largest lake in Japan is lake Biwa. Lake Biwa is relatively near where I grew up and was the object of several school trips as well as the half-way point of an epic bicycle trip that a group of us made to the Japan Sea. What I did not know until today was the fate of Lake Hachirogata, the second largest lake in Japan.

Located just south of where I am in Noshiro (Akita Prefecture). In the early 1960s the federal government implemented a project where the lake was drained to create farmland. A program was put into place where people from all over the country applied for 3000 slots to become farmers on the new land. Many of them had never farmed and they were all brought together and put through a training program. The program “planted” the farms in 5 waves over the next few years. During the 4th wave rice production in Japan was producing surpluses and the 5th wave was delayed but eventually implemented. The village of Ogata where we were going is a completely “artificial” village, built on the firmest high ground on the lake bed.
About a decade ago, Japan was trying to revitalize rural life and gave every village government in the country a hundred million yen grant to do whatever they wanted with. Ogata, used it to dig a couple of wells, tapping into a mineral spring, and created two hot-spring spas. It was one of these that the three of us visited.

If you have ever been to an onsen you know what kind of time we had. If you’ve never experienced it, I wish for you to have an opportunity. This was not the best onsen experience of my life. Through a really bizzare set of circumstances, there was a period when I was with the Suzuki Company when I was frequently a guest at the legendary Asaba Ryokan in Shizuoka. There is little that compares with that. Today’s onsen was more along the lines of the Hotel onsen. In typical Japanese nomenclatural whimsy it was called the Sun Rural Hotel, and looked for all the world like any hotel anywhere in the world. Although we weren’t staying the night we had gotten a “room”, which was a tatami mat room with a low table and various accouterments. After spending a little bit of time in the room we went up to the feature that makes this distinct from any non-onsen hotel in the world. Half of the top floor is given over to two (guys and gals) massive bathing areas, with panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. After washing one’s self outside the tub/pools, you get into the hot water and just sit and soak. There are few things like it. Once you get a bit hot, you get out and rinse off with cool water and then get back in. Minerals in this particular water gave it a tint that was like dark tea but there was no smell. There’s something about sitting in hot water, watching the snow come down that makes me deeply happy. I don’t think this is an original thought at all. It is a thought with an entire industry behind it, here in Japan. There’s something about knowing that I was eight floors up over what used to be a lake that made this even more intense.
After about an hour of this, we went back down to our room where a spread of food was waiting for us. A meal like this is like a carefully constructed meal of Japanese tapas, consisting of little plates of perfect morsels of various foods. Most of it seasonal, and regional. Good Japanese food has always been local, not because of carbon footprint, but because it TASTES BETTER!!

We left and went to Akiko’s aunt’s place in the village. She married the grandson of one of the farmers that came in who is now farming there himself. He was very patient with an almost constant stream of questions from me about how all this worked, how the draining was done, the Dutch engineer that they hired to design the pump system that still keeps the area from flooding. He said that although there has never been a flood, the ground in most of the fields is “like tofu” and you can’t drive on it. The little block of houses that constitutes the village is made up of people from all parts of Japan, and we were served a succession of delicacies that they had received from almost every prefecture (including mikans from Mikabi).

The thing that gets me about this is that I had no idea. I’d never heard of this whole thing. The lake. It’s draining. The farms. It’s all ripe for a documentary. Maybe I just missed it. Wouldn’t be the first time.

One other thing: The kind of close-knit hospitality one finds around here is almost scary. Yesterday, we literally dropped in on another of Akiko’s Uncle and Aunts, and spent a few minutes introducing the big American guy, and talking about this and that. We were served the der-rigor tea and nibbles. A matter of minutes after we got home, a bottle of very rare sake was delivered from said Uncle. I mean, there’s a side of this kind of behavior that leads to a level of stress that’s horrible, but there’s a side to it that is warm and human and kind of wonderful.

Still the good of Japan is outweighing the bad. I better leave soon before it has a chance to catch up…

The pollyanna tour of Japan continues…

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

Let me just say, cause it really can’t be said enough: Japan has HUGE problems. There are many angles from which you can just take this society apart.

Akiko and I went to “Jusco” to do some shopping today. Much of the expeirience is pretty straight forward but at a certain point, I notice that the music that is playing at the normal, almost ignorable, muzak level is all hard-rock versions of Christmas carols. I leave it to others to decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Here’s something I think is pretty great: NHK, Japan’s national broadcast company has a lot of the kind of educational programing that one would expect from what is essentially Japan’s BBC. However, I’m noticing that there are a lot of contests and other shows in which, for example, people are asked to send in photos they’ve taken with an accompanying haiku or other short poem. There is no prize. They just show selections on a future broadcast. I saw a show in which people had sent in videos that they had shot. These were not “Japan’s Funniest home Videos” or “Jackass” episodes. It’s painfully tasteful shots of waterfalls and mountains in the mist. There are also little shows about how to use your cell phone, aimed at the middle aged, and an in depth tutorial on taking pictures with your phone.
As we’re approaching the end of the year people are beginning to make plans for their “nengajo” (a new year greeting post card). These cards are based on an image rather than information, so creativity is a key thing and the need to make cool ones has always been an important driver of desktop publishing and home printing technology. People send out literally hundreds of these thing. Anyway I must have seen at least four different shows on NHK that touched on ideas for making this year’s card.
There are of course, cooking shows, but on NHK they take the time to tell you how to tell the difference between an egg that is fresh enough to eat raw (no salmonella in Japan) and which ones you need to cook.
None of this happens with reference to brand names or in a way that promotes any corporation. The rules that require brand anonymity on NHK lead to all kinds of hilarious pieces of masking covering up the makers name on camera’s, phones and cars.

What I think is interesting about all of this is that NHK clearly has as it’s purpose the enriching of people’s lives. Giving people a place to send their videos and haiku-photos, while simultaneously offering advice on how to use the technology concerned, gets people out and active. Yes, of course there’s an aspect of this that is saying “Go buy a camera” but the emphasis is on the availability of aesthetic participation. Much of the advise for the nengajo cards was to make them by hand (a traditional calligrapher gave the advise: “Don’t bother taking a calligraphy class. You’re not going to get good at it before the end of the year. Just explore what you can do within the skill level you already have.”)

The word “Bunka” in Japanese translates to “Culture”. But it is used in the broadest sense of the word culture. In the states when we say that PBS celebrates “culture” we tend to mean that it deals with art, literature, performance and so-called “high” culture. But when NHK deals with culture it deals with that which we would refer to as “life-style”. We are quick to say things like “In Japanese culture people take their shoes off when they enter a house.” but we’re not likely to have a sense of participation in our own culture in this sense. We do tend to identify with things like holidays as forms of cultural participation, but not the way we eat, bathe or sleep.
In Japan there is a palpable sense of participation in these things. It is perhaps the result of the culture’s roots, or the people’s awareness of those roots, or it could be the synthesis of Buddhism, Confucianism and Animism. But there is a deep sense in Japan that the fabric of daly life itself is a subject worthy of attention.
And NHK is the broadcast forum for this attention.

Can you tell that I’ve been watching TV? Akiko’s mother’s house is a very traditional Japanese house that sprawls all over the place with long hallways connecting cozy little rooms. During the rather cold winters here in Akita, only one room in the house is heated. This becomes dining room and living room depending on the time of day. I’ve spent most of my time here, watching TV and working on my computer. There’s a mysterious WiFi network that I can catch from time to time. Resulting in odd moments like when I was video-chatting with my brother in Tokyo and my Mother in Minnesota at the same time.

I remember one time, a long time ago in Toga. We were up there working on something in the winter and I complained about the fact that we didn’t heat the dorm more aggressively. One of the company members looked right at me and said, it’s that kind of attitude that keeps getting you guys into wars. Geeze! No kidding! I think about that every time I have to step outside this warm little room. Our place in NY is steam heated with an oil furnace. We’re on the 5th floor of 6. During the winter, we have to open window cause it gets too hot.
Like many homes in Japan, and that dorm in Toga, this place doesn’t have running hot water. If you want hot water you have to heat it. Yet, it has a bath that heats and reheats it’s own water.
It is impossible to not participate in the season here. It is winter. You taste it in the food and you feel it on your skin. And not that there aren’t places in the States where this is all true, I would argue that it is more prevalent here.

This sense of participation in daily life leads to some interesting things. For example: when I was growing up, people would often ask me if I ate bread or rice for breakfast. This was a clear marker at the time of whether or not you lived a Japanese life-style or not. The fact that I usually had corn-flakes tended to skew the equation, but the idea was that this behavior was tied to cultural identity. People were, to some degree, willing to confer on me, Japanese status if I ate a Japanese breakfast. Even now, the fact that I eat, and actually like, natto is taken as one of the most significant facts in support of my being an inner Japanese.
And there’s something going on here that is actually deeply comforting. Japanese society tends to breed attitudes that are racist and xenophobic. This is a huge problem and I don’t want to imply for one second that this is not a horrible, ugly part of people’s attitudes that must be educated out of existence. But there is some kind of mechanism that is put into play when someone looks at me differently because I eat natto. Tolerance for fermented beans is not, to my knowledge, genetic. So when someone has to question their assumption that only Japanese people can stand to eat natto they also have to question other assumptions that are related to that one about the nature of their identity as “Japanese”.
They have to begin to look at “Japanese” as something that anybody can participate in. And if these barbarians can be Japanese, maybe…

Told you it was pollyanna.

In other news: It looks like, with the help of Joel, the comments functionality on this blog is up and running again, so post comments and talk amongst yourselves.

A day among the Super Trains

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

Japanese super express trains. For people of my generation who grew up in Japan, these trains are loaded with mystique. Until the French built some faster ones, these were the fastest trains operating anywhere in the world. I’m not absolutely sure but if you factor in the size of the network, I think the Japanese system is the largest super-express system in the world. With their aerodynamic “Bullet” designs, Star-Trek interiors and smooth, quiet operation, these things have more in common with spaceships than steam locomotives.
Japan doesn’t do very much freight by rail, so rail lines aren’t constantly cutting through industrial pits and huge switching yards. Cities are still centered around the stations so the trains come right into the middle of the most attractive energetic areas. Most of the super-express lines are elevated, affording views of the surrounding countryside that is hard to rival. The sensation is often more “low flying aircraft” than it is “fast train”.

What is it that allows the Japanese mass-transit system to be so much better than anything I’ve ever seen. New York, Paris, Boston, Chicago, London, San Francisco. All these systems have their charms and their ups and downs. But the Japanese system is in a league of it’s own. The sensation you get riding the Japanese system is that the network is awake. The people running the trains are paying attention. They take deep pride it what they’re doing. Comparing this to Amtrack conductors, who are basically comedians to distract you from the fact that the train is running 3 hours late, is a good way to be embarrassed as an American.

I haven’t been back to Japan in some six years. I keep noting that this is the longest time that I’ve been away from Japan since I was born. The thing that surprises me the most is the extent to which Japan has NOT changed in 6 years. In the past when I hadn’t been back in awhile, I was always amazed by the changes. This time I’m amazed how things are pretty much as they were. The exception to this is tiny things that I’m noticing in the transit system. Little things that have been tweaked and improved. The new “Suica” card system (proximity based cards), the screens on the Yamate line that show not only where you are on the loop but running ETAs to each station coming up. It’s this sense of constant pressure forward that makes the whole thing seem alive, awake and sentient.

I’m typing this on the Super-express hurdling north from Tokyo, towards Akita. When I was a kid there was no Super-express north of Tokyo. The first time I went to Akita, 11 years ago, there was no Super-express to Akita. We had to go to Sendai and change. It took all day to get to Akita. It will still take me the bulk of the day, but the establishment of the “Akita Shinkansen” has cut hours off this trip. When was the last time anything happened in the states that cut HOURS off a trip? I mean Amtrack has that fast train in the NorthEast corridor, but the improvement in time is marginal.

Now lest we get the impression that Leon is just lauding praise on his birthland, there are PLENTY of things that Japan doesn’t do well at all. Take for example express-ways for cars. They suck here. The US interstate system is a utopian fantasy compared to the bizarre dystopian nightmare of the Japanese express-way system. It’s really slow, and really dangerous, and to top it all off, really expensive. I noticed at Tokyo station that there are a lot of situations where wheelchair access seems really iffy. I haven’t even been here 24 hours, and I’m already sick of lines and crowds. I wouldn’t mind the one thing that Amtrack does give you: Standard AC electrical outlets at your seats. The list can go on and on. But the fact is that the rail system is superior.

The great thing about this is that it’s an electrical system. Meaning that the carbon footprint of the entire system is a determined by how power is being generated. I believe that a significant portion of Japanese voltage comes out of nuclear plants for better or worse, but as cleaner power sources come on-line, the trains just plug into it (Wow! I sound really pollyanna about this).

Oh yeah. Guess what? I’m ready for universal, ubiquitous, free WiFi. Why is it ok to assume that everywhere I go there will be basic sidewalks and roads for me, but I can’t assume web connectivity? I know this is an unreasonable argument, but we’re not going to get anywhere with reasonable arguments. It’s time for it. Why not? Public space! Come on people! Cities of the world, GET ON THIS!