Monday, May 29, 2006

The Benz Man

It's a black, shiny, low-slung Merecedes-Benz S600 with dark windows and sleek, ever-so-comfortable-looking upholstery. The owner is also expensively upholstered, from head to toe, in shiny black - possibly to match his motor, but probably to hide a middle-age waistline. He is also low-slung, short and squat, his chassis low to the ground. He looks as if he would take corners well. No problems in the ice, nor in high winds.

The Benz man lives in a crappy house, in vehicular terms the equivalent of a Skoda, circa 1985. In addition to this property, he has just lucked out in the public housing lottery and has moved his wife and daughters into a small prefectural run apartment. This housing is a step down even from the Skoda. I don't know why they moved. There's no divorce in the air - they all get on famously. Maybe he just needs more space. But for what?

The Benz man works in construction, or to be exact, destruction. He knocks down buildings for a living. He shouldn't really be driving a Mercedes-Benz S600, tinted windows or no tinted windows.

The other day a local teacher and I saw the Benz man. The teacher asked him about his wheels.

"Nanbo (How much)?" he asked.

Benz man replied, quick as a flash, that the teacher could have it for 5 million yen cash. The teacher laughed and said he wasn't in the market for a car. His eco-friendly Prius would do him just fine; and he had just added alloy wheels to "supe it up" a bit.
Benz man smiled, well, more of a smirk really, and said,

"Is that so?"

The teacher's a persistent bloke, though, and none too sensitive to the subtleties of body language. He's not a man to give up easily.

"When you bought it - nanbo?" he persevered.

Benz man eyed him for a moment, figured he couldn't be arsed with a half-hour conversation with the local maths-meister, and spat out,

"13 million new".

Our eyes widened. The teacher recovered his poise first,

"You been doing something bad?"

There was a gleam in Benz man's eyes. He gave a knowing, slow-motion, cartoon nod of the head. He might as well have winked. Then he smiled a smile as wide and squat as his S600, slipped into drive, and effortlessly purred off into the night.

Friday, May 19, 2006

R.I.P. Kayano Shigeru - Ainu leader

On May 6, in a small town in Hokkaido, a 79-year-old man died. Nothing unusual in that. But the man himself was rather unusual in many ways. Kayano Shigeru, a man known by some as the "Ainu Mandela", spent his life promoting the cause of the Ainu people and its language in the largely hostile environment of mainstream Japan.

For many minorities and minority languages, having a charismatic leader is a real boon. Kayano was certainly that (and it should be said that he was not without his critics - even in Ainu circles). He had a high profile, becoming the first Ainu to win a place in the Japanese Diet (Government). His was the voice that spoke the Ainu language for the first time in government session, and therefore, perhaps more than any other in recent times, he served to remind people that Japan is not the homogeneous nation that former Prime Minister Nakasone promoted. Whether the Ainu people can find a worthy successor is a moot point.

Kayano's voice lives on in recordings; it is his resonant tones you can still hear at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. He has also left a wealth of books and other written materials. His memoir "Our Land was a Forest" is highly readable, and in Hokkaido there is always the Nibutani Ainu Shiryoukan (that bears his name) to visit.

But now it is up to others to champion the cause of the Ainu people in Japan. Many have been doing so for a long time. Below are a few links to interesting Ainu-related websites.

The Ainu Museum

The Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture

Ainu language lessons on the radio

A bibiography of Ainu language and culture

Ainu - English wordlist

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Commute (14) rice paddies primed and ready

Taken on a dreary day in the lovely valley just down the road. Sadly, every year, a few more of the valley's paddies disappear to be replaced by apartment blocks.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It's raining Gobi sand

Sand deposits from China and Mongolia seem ever more frequent in Hiroshima. Apparently desertification is the cause. The effect is dirty cars, dirty washing, gritty teeth, eye irritation, reduced visibility and dodgy photos. This "atmospheric" shot of the torii gate at Miyajima was taken through a veil of Gobi desert sand. Unfortunately, from the peak of Mt. Misen, we couldn't make out even the nearest islands in the magnificent Setonaikai (Inland Sea) chain.

The Yomiuri newspaper reports that March to May is the season. The snows have melted and the westerly winds whip up. At least we don't get it as bad as Beijing where 300,000 tons of sand fell on the capital in two days in April.

Ironically, China and Japan are currently at odds over legitimate export of sand for use in concrete production. The Mainichi reports that Chinese sand is high quality and cheap, and therefore much in demand in concrete-loving Japan. But, China have pulled the plug on export deals.
The Chinese move has rattled concrete producers in Western Japan in particular because they have switched to Chinese sand after sand extraction along the Setonaikai Sea became difficult. Thus, they are now working hard to devise alternative plans, such as making sand by crushing gravel and increasing domestic sand extraction.

One alternative plan could be to sit, wait, and look to the heavens. It's raining Chinese sand in the Setonaikai this year - and in record quantities.

Japan's World Cup squad

Only one surprise in Zico's Japanese squad for the World Cup. Maki makes the plane, Kubo doesn't. You've got to feel sorry for Kubo, but ever since I wrote glowingly about his eccentricities here, he hasn't been able to hit a barn door from a couple of paces. Can Maki do any better? Doubtful. But he does get around the pitch, and looks up for it. On occasions recently, Kubo has looked like a forlorn puppy that has lost his bone. Maki must have nicked it.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Japanese takarakuji lotteries

Every three minutes (on average) someone in Japan lands a 100,000 dollar plus prize in one of the lotteries.

The serious punters really do their homework, carefully choosing how and where they purchase their tickets. Rumour has it that the best ticket booth in the country is in Tokyo at the Nishi Ginza Depato Chansu Senta - window number 1! You can wait up to two hours in line there when, if you took a couple of steps to your right to window 2, you would be served immmediately. (In Hiroshima City, the lottery booth near the Tatemachi streetcar stop (on the corner) always has a long line for the Jumbo takarakuji due to a big winning ticket sold there in the past.)

Gleaned from the weekend newspaper, vital information for all lottery players. The winners of large sums of money in the Japanese lottery were asked just how they did it - what they paid special attention to when they purchased their winning tickets. Take note! In order of popularity, these were the answers they gave.

1. Ticket booths which have had previous big winners.
2. A balance between buying batches of tickets with successive numbers and random number batches.
3. Ticket booth's atmosphere.
4. The date of purchase.
5. The ticket booth seller.
6. The amount of money spent, or the number of tickets.
7. The direction the ticket booth was facing.
8. The number of the ticket booth window.
9. The time of day.
10. Fortune telling.
11. The clothes they wore when making the purchase.

What do the big winners do with their money?

According to the paper, 42% save it and 26% pay off debts.

There was no mention of the remaining 32%. Pursuing a path of hedonism presumably.

Friday, May 12, 2006


They all call him Tomato-jiisan (Old Tomato Man), the kids around here. He lives alone in a ramshackle house on the corner of the housing estate. Coming across him for the first time is a disturbing experience, even in daylight. Picture a sort of post-apocalyptic form, bent beyond recognition, looming out of the smoking rubble. His eyes do spectacular, other-worldly things; and his teeth defy description. He has tremendous amounts of hair, sprouting in clumps just above the ears, and his face is stubbled like a newly-harvested rice paddy. Burnt by the sun, and presumably life itself, he cuts a harrowing figure. He rides a sky-blue tricycle from time to time with the debris of a decade sitting in its basket.

I always say hello when our paths cross; he grins and murmurs neighbourly greetings in return. I didn't even know the local children called him Tomato-jiisan, let alone the reason why. Yesterday I found out.

My son, along with the other leaders of the children's groups in the near vicinity, accompanied a teacher from school to visit Tomato-jiisan. They knocked on his door, and waited for his wild visage to appear. They then bowed deeply and made their apologies, taking collective responsibility for the crimes committed against an old man by local kids. These crimes included calling him Tomato-jiisan, and ringing his doorbell and scarpering (cherry-knocking we called it in my day, but its known as pingu-pongu dashu in Japanese) over a period of five years. Tomato-jiisan had grown tired of the taunts of kids, and had been worn down by answering his door to phantom visitors over half a decade. He had called the local school to complain and they had sprung into action.

You might think it was good that the school took an interest in the welfare of one of the older folk. After all, it can't be pleasant to live on your own, and have all and sundry mocking your very existence. Those sentiments entered my head too. Five years is a long time to yank anyone's chain, let alone an old man's. But why had the old fella been singled out for such treatment? And what I wanted to know more than anything, was why the local kids called him Tomato-jiisan in the first place.

Well, it appears that unlike most of the gentle older folk around here, Tomato-jiisan was not a fan of children from day one. And, on one fine evening five years ago, with the sun low in the sky, and the echoes of youthful laughter bouncing off the council housing walls, he lost his rag. Local folklore has it down as a completely unprovoked attack. A moment of pure madness. With wild banshee cries and flying spittle, and the help of a large stock of overripe tomatoes conveniently to hand, he took advantage of the high ground on which his house is situated. Defying his age, the old man pelted the children with unerring accuracy. The kids below didn't stand a chance. Like rabbits caught in headlights, mesmerized by the windmilling arms and spinning eyes, they stood rooted to the spot. They were, to a child, cut down in a hail of soft, red, tomato flesh.

Thus, five years ago, the old fruit flinger on the corner of the estate became known as Tomato-jiisan, and a five-year period of slow, stealthy revenge began.

Tomato-jiisan. Sinner or sinned against?

Part of me says - sinner, definitely sinner. The tomato terrorist got off pretty lightly with a daft moniker and a few fruitless (pun intended) trips to his front door.

But part of me says - sinned against. An old bloke, all alone in life. Perhaps it's our community that has failed him. You've got to feel sorry for him.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Commute (13)

Monday, May 08, 2006

7-11 Heist: A thousand bucks, and make it snappy!

Most drop in for their bento, a few riceballs, or for a can of hot, sweet coffee. Others prefer a quick butchers' at the scantily clad babes in the glossy mags by the window. But the other day, in the early hours, a young man walked into a local Seven-Eleven convenience store carrying what is thought to be a shotgun, and walked out again carrying what was thought to be about 100,000 yen.

Most unusual for around here. The 800 yen an hour workers didn't put up a struggle - thank goodness - and there were no injuries. The security camera caught the man in the act, and the photo of the menacing masked raider was released to the public.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A wedding in Hiroshima

We sat in our finery, separated from view by a concertina partition that had seen better days. Us and them. Our side was providing the groom; the lot we couldn't see yet were supplying one blushing bride. To my right sat an old relative. Back ramrod straight, a medal pinned on his left breast. It was hot. Children fidgeted, adults made polite talk, we all wiped at the sweat forming on our brows.

The wedding hall organiser made his entrance, all stiff and ever-so-humble. His bony face wore a complacent, self-satisfied look, and the rest of him wore a mourning suit. With a nod and a flourish, he drew back the partition. We, in all our sweaty glory, were revealed to the other side, and they in turn were revealed to us. In their seat of honour, at the front, the bride looked bashful - and very hidden - in her traditional white costume. In our seat of honour sat no-one. Whoops! The organiser's hollow cheeks took on the reddish hue of the celebratory carpet. The smug, self-confident features concertinaed rudely out of shape. He bowed ever-so-humbly low, nose almost to the floor, and made repeated moshiwakegozaimasen apologies to us. Hastily he closed the concertina partition, and hurried out of the room.

Some giggled, some laughed, and one or two even guffawed. The closed partition could no longer fulfill its separating function. Two halves had become whole. We were as one. The tension, along with the organiser's cool veneer, had been cracked wide open.

Ten seconds later the hapless fellow returned, with a bemused looking groom tightly in his grasp. The partition was re-opened, and we were re-united visually with those we had already joined through laughter.

It was a good wedding.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Commute (12) rape blossom

Minamata - 50 years on

Today in Minamata, a Kumamoto port town and a name synonymous with tragedy, they marked the fiftieth anniversary of "official recognition" of the appalling mercury-poisoning disaster. This notorious pollution case disgraced not only the company that dumped the waste, but the government too. Basically, the facts are that the Chisso Corporation dumped industrial waste into the sea. The waste contaminated fish, and the fish were eaten by locals. The methyl mercury entered the human system and destroyed the central nervous system of the brain. Some amazing photos were taken by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith showing the plight of Minamata victims to the world. This is a photo of one of their photos. It shows cross-sections of three brains. The lower brain is healthy. The middle brain is from an eight year old girl who died two years and nine months after contracting "Minamata disease". The top picture shows the brain of a seven-year-old boy - his brain gradually eroded by the mercury over a period of four years. As far as disasters go, this was about as shameful as it gets. Man, money, and political power, combining with devastating effect.