Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Old Man Sato and the lug nut wrench mugging: a tale of neighbourly love

Ever been hit in the head with a solid metal lug nut wrench?


Not recommended.

Old Man Sato was the assailant. I am sure he is a nice man, but he is best avoided whenever possible.

Old Man Sato is a neighbour who says little. He never utters more than five or six words, and he has a preference for two or three. Usually he foregoes words entirely, conveying his meaning with grunts and bullish gestures. He has a magnificent head of hair and he appears to be the same solid width the entire length of his body. His ankles are the size of his calves; his calves the size of his thighs; his thighs merge seamlessly into his waist; and his waist flows smoothly to his head, via chest, shoulders and neck, with hardly a smidgeon of contour change. It's as if he's been fashioned from hardwood (possibly two short planks of it), by an inexpert carpenter, with a few cuts and chisel marks here and there in a vain attempt to create some semblance of human proportions.

I rarely see Old Man Sato. Some evenings he can be seen out for an evening stride, moving at military pace with a staff in one hand, a torch in the other. The only other time he appears is when someone is in distress. He's a good Samaritan. When the front wheel of our car went into the open ditch that runs the length of our road (carrying the community’s used bath, sink and washing-machine water), he appeared out of thin air to help. The car had already been jacked up eighty percent of the way, but he insisted on taking over and completing the job. He gripped the heavy lug nut wrench tightly, and, with a few violent jerks the car was raised surprisingly quickly. But, in his moment of triumph, the lug nut wrench slipped, shooting upwards in an arc, going with the flow of his alarming momentum and, with all the precision of a seasoned mugger, clouted me square in the forehead. Old Man Sato didn't bat an eyelid. I checked mine to see if they were still attached.

Thus, I became rather wary of Old Man Sato.

And so it was with a heavy heart (and a few muffled expletives) that I accepted his help the following winter. A heavy snowfall had buckled the metal legs of our carport. I was clearing away the snow from the roof and trying to assess the damage. Old Man Sato arrived and helped to clear the snow with massive, violent thrusting movements of a shovel across the top of the roof. He succeeded not only in clearing vast quantities of snow, but also in ripping the plastic roof completely away from its moorings on the metal frame, rendering it useless. At the end of the snow clearing he grunted, satisfied with his work, and I, glancing towards the flapping plastic and twisted metal, thanked him for his help through gritted teeth.

A few days later I was out in front of the house when a familiar, thick-set figure came striding purposefully up the road towards me. It was Old Man Sato. He was holding a plastic bag from which he pulled a myoga, Japanese ginger. He emitted a guttural chuckle and a grunt, and thrust it into my hand. He chuckled and grunted some more. His hand returned to the bag, his stubby Cuban-cigar fingers clamped round another myoga, and with further primeval 'uggghhs' he handed it over. In all, he gave me four myoga, and he took as much pleasure in giving the fourth as he had with the first. I thanked him, anxiously.

I took the myoga inside and handed them to my wife.

"Oh, lovely," she said. "Who are they from?"

"Old Man Sato," I replied hesitantly.

She peered at me carefully, inspecting me for any remaining signs of sanity. Then she took the myoga, and put them carefully to one side, out of harm's way.

There they remained for a couple of weeks, sitting ominously like unexploded grenades.

We never got round to eating them. And one day they were no longer there.

Commute (8) Reinforcements

Friday, February 24, 2006

Driving the back lanes to work

I have an eight mile commute to work. There are two sets of traffic lights to negotiate. It takes about 15 minutes from home to work if I rush, but it’s more fun to meander a bit. I don’t think there can be many better commutes possible. Often, I take the back lanes that wind their way through rice fields and the woods. Some of the lanes pass through farmyards, the road splitting the farm in half. Here you're alone, unaccompanied by anyone or anything bar farmyard smells and noises. The animals themselves are phantoms. You get the occasional glimpse, but they are severely cooped up compared with back home. The cows get to stretch their legs every now and again but they don’t get to roam free. Their commute from work to home is a few paces. Even these pigs seem to get more space. But porkers aside, it’s mainly cows around here. Locally produced milk is good, and the beef from down the road in Jinseki is as juicy and tender as it is famous (in the area).

Of course, most of the farming around here is of rice. Ricefields fill the valleys, and the valleys are hemmed in by wooded hillside. Irrigation is provided by a series of ponds. The ponds, when low, have the tell-tale signs of man’s creation. They are concrete basins. But when they are full, the water meets the roots of the trees at their edge. No man-made evidence is on show, and they really are quite beautiful. On a bright morning (or a light evening), it's uplifting when you turn a bend in the road and see the sun on the water. The world looks good in reflection.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Commute (7) fog 'n poles

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

More Alice than Kafka?

Kafka or Alice? Whose world am I in?

In moments of torment, and there can be quite a few, this question can cross the mind of a grumpy foreigner (let's call him Guy Gynn) as he sups his beer after a day in the Japanese workplace.

The obvious answer to the question would of course be "neither", but the obvious is not what you always hear, or for that matter what Guy always feels.

It's not unusual for Guy's answer to be an unequivocal "Alice's". The comparison, after all, has been made many times. Everything around him can seem removed from Guy's own reality, with his status seemingly dependent on which side of the mushroom he eats. A little nibble on this side and his status grows; a chomp on the other, and he positively withers. At times, in meetings, he is certainly at the Tea Party along with the Hatter, the March Hare, and the rest of the ensemble, making "decisions" that ultimately have no meaning. All authority is held by the Queen of Hearts. Anxious looks at the clock are met with despair. Time has stood still. The interminable meeting shows no sign of coming to an end. It is always 6 o'clock. Poor Guy.

When things are getting pretty bad and paranoia really sets in, Guy's answer may change to "Kafka's". Things look sinister. He is ill at ease, perplexed, lonely, and feels threatened. The Tea Party has taken on the nightmarish hue of The Trial. All the characters in all the scenes are grey and shadowy. Not knowing what is going on, who is in charge, or to whom he can appeal, Guy is passive and accepting. He can do nothing. The treadmill is moving and he is on it. An inexorable slide to a place from which he can't escape. He awaits the inevitable. He can run, but he can't hide. He has become, as you can see, very, very paranoid. Poor, poor Guy.

If you felt things couldn't get any worse for Guy, then you were wrong. Every now and again the answer to the original question "Kafka or Alice: Whose world am I in?" turns out to be "both". Guy leads a schizophrenic existence oscillating between the two worlds. One minute he is merely befuddled, jumping through hoops (or hitting hedgehogs through them with flamingo mallets) at the behest of the Queen of Hearts; the next he is in a Kafkaesque struggle with an invisible enemy, punching thin air in a state of wild exasperation. Which world is he in? Kafka's or Alice's? Poor, poor, poor Guy. He really has lost it.

Of course, Guy lives in neither of these worlds. It's just that, on occasions, it doesn't half seem like he does.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Commute (6) Just when it seemed like spring ...

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Murder in Miyoshi

In a small country town in Hiroshima prefecture, a murder. When I heard I expected to hear snippets of information spreading like wildfire - in the shops, on the radio, on local TV, in the paper, and on the lips of all and sundry. But the response has been subdued. Yes, it was on the radio. Yes, it warranted a rather small article in the local paper, but it hasn't been sensationalised. This surprised me in a smallish country town. It would have been all the talk in a similar-sized town in Britain, especially when the victim (a woman in her fifties) had been found stabbed upward of thirty times in the chest and head. It must have been a frenzied attack. Perhaps it didn't cause such a stir because the apparent killer (a taxi driver in his sixties) turned up at the police station an hour or so after the crime, and admitted everything. Drunk, and angry, he had called at the woman's house to claim back money she owed. Just in case she refused, he had taken a kitchen knife along with him.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Commute (5) a bleak sweep of the Egawa

Saturday, February 11, 2006

'Mad-dog' Kubo, Pretty Boy, or the Sushi Bomber?

Good news for Japan’s World Cup bid – Tatsuhiko ‘Mad-dog’ Kubo is back from injury. Out injured for eighteen months with a herniated disc (“even pissing was painful”), he makes a welcome return in the friendly games leading up to the WC. Can he solve Japan’s problems in attack? See how he fared here.

Kubo is a rangy, left-footed striker who has a better eye for goal than any of Japan’s other strikers. He is also clearly far more of a loose cannon than the rest of them. Yanagisawa looks great, a pretty boy with a heart-breaking smile. Unfortunately ladies (or gents), he appears to be a passion-free zone. He plays with the verve of one of his fur coats. Takahara (the 'sushi-bomber') just doesn’t cut it. He looks tough with his shaved head, but the sushi-bomber’s fuse is rarely lit. Oguro and the other pretenders are still a bit raw.

Kubo plays for the Yokohama F Marinos team, but in his early days he played for our very own Hiroshima SanFrecce. He is also a bit of a wild scamp, some say with enough screws loose to bring the whole house down.

Rumour has it that Kubo first showed off his screwball nature at a disciplinary hearing. He was up on a charge, having been red-carded in unusual circumstances. The disciplinary committee chairman asked him to confirm that he had jogged 20 yards to the touchline and then proceeded to push the assistant referee. Kubo said that this was quite untrue. The chairman, flourishing an official document no doubt, repeated the charge. Kubo stuck to his guns insisting the report was incorrect. When pressed for his version of events, Kubo raised a few eyebrows when he insisted it was in fact 50 yards and not 20; that he most certainly had not jogged, he had sprinted; and that he had not pushed the assistant referee, he had punched his lights out.

Apocryphal or not, this story catapulted Kubo to the top of my list of players to watch in Japan.

'Mad-dog' has wispy facial hair – not really a fashion statement, it’s more as if he doesn’t quite trust himself with a razor. Watch out for his mad, staring eyes, his hangdog expression, and if you are an assistant referee, his right hook at the World Cup in the summer.

Watch out Germany! 'Mad-dog' Kubo is hopefully coming your way.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Big bad boys ... but are yakuza numbers dwindling?

A report in a Japanese newspaper says that the number of yakuza members has dwindled. Down for the first time in ten years, in fact.

Yakuza presence appears to be comparatively light in Hiroshima. On occasions, you can see some sharp suits and darker-than-dark sunglasses prowling downtown. I seem to remember there was a shooting at the train station donkey's years ago; and about a dozen years ago (perhaps more), some mafia bigwig was shot in the city's streets. As a consequence, the building in which I worked had armed riot police stationed at each entrance. A known yakuza lived in a penthouse at the top. The riot police were there to protect him.

Seems very odd. The authorities have stats on their numbers. They have addresses for the organisations. (The Hiroshima city branch has just shy of 300 members and its headquarters is in Nihoshin-Machi, Minami-Ku. It is the fourteenth largest group in Japan). And on occasion the police are sent to protect them.

The members do get pulled in for questioning a fair bit. Processions of yakuza presenting themselves at the local courthouse were a feature in the early 90's. My commute in those days regularly included sightings of large men in garish clothing, with obsequious (but very large) henchmen in tow. They seemed to be having a bit of a laugh, acting out an already known plotline. This complacency seemed to confirm the historically cosy relationship between authorities and crime syndicates.

The numbers are down, but only by comparatively few. No end to the status quo just yet, me thinks.

For an entertaining yet ultimately depressing read about a foreigner's life with the yakuza, try Tokyo Underworld. For thorough research, I'd recommend Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld, and for an eclectic mix of stories from the seedy side of life in Japan, you can't go far wrong with Speed Tribes.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Rights for all sexes?

This article (click here) caught my eye the other day. A male-to-female transsexual in Gifu, Japan, was not permitted to register officially as a woman because she has children that were born before she had the sex change. Apparently, the law is in place to protect children who would be "confused" if a parent officially tried to "register a gender change". Hmmm. I doubt the registration would add to their confusion.

It caught my eye because, coincidentally, I had just been reading an article by Rod Liddle in The Spectator. He mentioned that the Birmingham University Christian Union had had their bank account frozen by the university authorities for two reasons. First it wanted to admit only Christians to its membership (shock horror!), and second its publicity recommended the CU to “men and women”, therefore discriminating against “transsexual or transgendered people”. Liddle was dumbfounded by the “lunatics” having so much control that failing to advertise to “sexual weirdos” resulted in punitive action.

So, rather differing attitudes of the respective authorities to the human rights of the transsexuals. Of course, in the Japanese case, there is the added complication of the human rights of the children involved.

I wondered what my three children would think if I declared I wanted to become a woman and told them I was booked in for surgery on Monday. I think they would take it pretty hard. They carry enough burden as it is in a small country town with a father who is, by definition, a weirdo, because he is not from these shores. My son wishes his mates didn’t comment (however gently) about his large nose holes, his self-perceived prominent ears (surely a Japanese trait – a prerequisite for NHK presenters, is it not?) and he dislikes his long eyelashes immensely. He’d rather look as hard as nails like a prop-forward.

Not so long ago here in Japan, I worked for a year with a woman who had previously been a man. At my workplace, I must admit, we waited with bated breath to meet her. I had never knowingly met a transsexual person, and I’m pretty sure most of my colleagues hadn’t either. I imagined a strapping, broad-shouldered woman, who could hold her own on the rugby field - a sort of 'butch' Dame Edna.

The suits that matter debated hotly about which toilets she would be using, the men’s or the women’s. Obviously it was the women’s, but many of the enlightened top-brass just couldn’t get their heads round the idea. Would there be complaints from other women? Using the men's wouldn't solve the problem. Cue sharp intakes of breath, choreographed sucking sounds, and mumbles of "komaru naaaaa". Life can’t be easy if you are trapped inside a body with the wrong appendages. And I doubt it gets a lot easier once you’ve taken the plunge to actually have “cut and paste” surgery. You're different, and in many people's eyes being different basically makes you a "weirdo".

To my shame, when she arrived, she pretty much fitted my stereotype (bar the Dame Edna bit). She was a powerful, six-footer and counting, with shoulders any man would be proud of. You’d have been relieved to see her lined up as lock-forward in your side of the scrum. But, she was definitely a woman, and confident and comfortable in her Mark-II body.

Her lover came with her. Her lover was a woman, and their relationship was therefore lesbian. But get this, they had been lovers for many years. In their early days they'd had a heterosexual relationship (him being a he and she being a she). Talk about an enduring, extraordinary love. These two loved each other so much that the gender didn’t matter. The girlfriend had been able to overcome any "confusion" she may have felt, although it can't have been straightforward.

Life can’t be simple for transsexuals, but it can’t be a picnic for their loved ones, either. Especially if they still spend their lunchtimes in school playgrounds.

(By the way, Liberty, the human rights museum in Osaka has reopened and it is well worth a visit. One of the dozen or so themes it covers is about sexual minorities in Japan)

Commute (4)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Kyoto station ... did I see an eyesore?

I had some time to kill the other day in Kyoto station. This is a snap from the outside. The building arouses passions, especially from long-term residents. The argument against the huge structure of glass and steel is that it's so un-Kyoto, that it just doesn't fit. It's too high and imposing and detracts from the Kyoto-ness of Kyoto. It has helped to open further the floodgates of crass, modern architecture in a once beautiful city of low, wooden buildings. The argument for the building - that it is an architectural masterpiece, and a big improvement on the last one. It's the twenty-first century and Kyoto should move on. If Kyoto Tower (the eyesore reflected in the photo) was permitted, then why on earth not Kyoto Station?

I'd love as much of old Kyoto to be preserved as possible. It's disappearing pretty fast. On the road I used to live, the old machiya houses are being replaced by convenience stores. I think that's a great shame. But Kyoto Station itself, I'm not so sure about. I thought that I'd naturally come out in opposition to the building which was opened in 1997. However, once you're inside, the sheer size of the place is awesome. Stairways to heaven. Escalators too. A cathedral of glass and metal. Some of the artwork is a bit dodgy, but it's robust enough to stand up to the elements. And the elements are certainly part of the station building. That is one of the things I think I liked about the place. You're not sure if you are inside or outside, and for the indecisive chap that I am, that is rather appealing.

Not all the modern art is dodgy. I reckon some of it is pretty good. I rather liked this piece in the photo.

But highlight of an hour to kill at the station is not the 700 yen cup of Earl Gray in the English Tea Shop, but the overhead walkway. A futuristic tunnel that takes you along the heights of the building itself.

From there you can look out across Kyoto to the north, taking in one eyesore from another, as many long-term Kyoto residents would put it.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Commute (3) cold here, again

Our boys took one hell of a beating

On Sunday our under-11 football team headed in from the sticks to take on the big city teams in the prefectural finals. This photo shows the very formal nature of the closing ceremony at Hiroshima Stadium. Mercifully the speeches were short.

The local Chugoku Shinbun newspaper covered the competition. Leading up to the tournament they published pictures of the eight teams that had qualified for the finals with accompanying blurb. Seven of the teams were immaculately kitted out, arms folded, intense stares to a man. They looked formidable. One team was ragged - a jumbled assortment of uniforms, arms hanging loosely by their sides, staring somewhere off into the middle distance. That team was ours.

The blurb for seven of the teams talked of never-give-up attitudes, training regimes, experience in previous competitions, and using a combination of teamwork, covering, speed, and skill to aim for ultimate victory. One team talked of snow hampering training, but they would try hard. Their motto was, “Work hard at study and sports, and take care of your friends!” The opposition must have been quaking in their size-4 boots. As I read, I must admit my quaking was of the fatherly pride variety. We would show those city slickers a thing or two.

Parents gathered in clusters in the old Hiroshima Stadium with its peeling paintwork and impossibly small seats (all spectators should bring one buttock only, please). The teams marched into the stadium. Seven teams marched in time, well-drilled, in straight lines. Our team sort of lurched its way in like a drunken snake. With the players staring around them, seemingly in awe of the size of the stadium, all pretence of a "march" was soon abandoned. A sergeant-major would have had a fit.

The stadium brought back memories for me of the dawn of professional football in Japan in the early nineties. Wonderful memories of a missed Gary Lineker penalty, an international match in the Asian games between Hong Kong and Uzbekistan (official attendance 2500, actual attendance 43 including players and coaching staff), and of a long-haired Czech playing for the local Hiroshima San Frecce team who, in a fit of pique, got his foot wedged tight in an advertising hoarding after kicking a hole in it. When he realized what an arse he looked, he panicked, lost his balance and fell. Eventually he was rescued but minus his boot. I was reminded of a scene from “Jaws”. The San Frecce crowd looked on in breathless wonder at the exotic entertainment.

Sunday was, of course, a far more important event for me than any of these distant memories. My son, Yuji, was one of the boys in from the country. Here he is (looking so small) limbering up before kick-off in an effort to shake off the "drunken snake" hangover.

To cut a long story short, on the day, experience, covering, speed and skill were somewhat superior to our mantra of “taking care of your friends” and we got thumped 7-0. As the result became more obvious with every passing second, the spectators in our group took to gentle self-deprecation.

“It’s too warm”, said a smiling mum as the icy wind whipped around our ankles. “If we’d had three foot of snow the city kids wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

“Look at our lads. Attention spans of a bunch of monkeys down on a recce from the mountains.”

“Just as well we didn’t win. The Championship final is in Yamaguchi. And some of us don’t have passports.”

Vanquished in the prefectural finals, but this ragged bunch are still North Hiroshima Champions.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Damned with the faintest of faint praise

Tatemae and honne are often the bane of a foreigner's life in Japan. Working out what a person really means or really feels can be an excruciating, and often fruitless, experience. Often, it really isn't worth the bother.

If you didn't click the link above, basically tatemae is "what is said", whereas honne is "what is intended." Tatemae is sugar-coated candy, sweet untruths - or little white lies, if you prefer. Honne is the bitter pill, or the cold, hard facts. Honne can be the words that cut you to the quick.

These two concepts are often portrayed as uniquely Japanese, but of course they're not. They occur extensively around the world in varying degrees. The English are pretty good at softening the blow with little white lies, but perhaps even better at cutting to the quick. Tatemae is to honne what an English "you haven't changed a bit" is to a sotto voce "God, hasn't he aged!"; or "I've had a lovely evening" is to Groucho Marx's pithy "... but this wasn't it."

This tatemae honne dichotomy sprang to mind when I read a marvellous end of term email assignment from a student. It made me reach for my "English Dictionary of Japanese Ways of Thinking" (not for the faint-hearted). It says this about these "Japanese ways":

"Much to the dismay of Westerners ... the Japanese use these two forms of communication and occasionally switch from tatemae to honne, or vice versa, depending on the context of the situation. Therefore, skilled negotiators are expected to determine, by the tone of voice and other nonverbal clues, the depth and subtlety of the other party's intentions."

I'm not sure if my student was employing honne, tatemae, or a mixture of both. "Depth" possibly, but "subtlety"? Surely not.

These are the wonderful words in the closing message of his mail:

This lesson was very simply awful, but interesting.
Best wishes,