Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Six steps in Japan - bloom bloom to boom boom

咲 ... This is the single character that we chose to name our first child. It means to blossom or to bloom. 9 simple strokes. It reads "Saki". To celebrate our daughter's birth my sister gave us a book of Saki's greatest works.

Saki was the pen name of Hugh Hector Munro, a master story teller satirising Edwardian society. You can read his short story Tobermory, here. For an extensive online collection of his works visit this webpage. It is really worth the read.

Another Munro, Neil Gordon, was a Scottish doctor who lived in Japan in the first half of the 20th century. For the last part of his life he moved to Hokkaido and lived among the Ainu people in Nibutani, ministering to them spiritually and medicinally. He was influenced by shamanism. You can visit his house and see his Ainu collection in the bleak Nibutani (pack for cold weather). He published an anthropolgical study Ainu Creed and Cult.

Blind shaman women are known as itako. They gather in Aomori to commune with the dead. Check here for a quirky Japan death map including information on the grave of Jesus Christ in Aomori!

Jesus Christ the manga version. Described as a comedy and romance. Think they must have twisted the plotlines a little.

Short (but useful) English bios of the main comedy protagonists in Japan.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Japanese comedy ... don't you just love it?

And who said it was all rubbish? Well, not all of it anyway. This lot courtesy of Youtube.

First up, brilliant comedy. Watch the last minute especially. An old man scaring the pants off some unsuspecting souls.

Talking of scaring the pants off people, this fits the foreign stereotypical take on Japanese humour (bizarre in the extreme) and puts a whole new slant on toilet humour. Takeshi Kitano is involved, weaving his familiar chaos.

And CTU's Tony Almeida (from the show 24) meets his match with a bit of traditional Japanese slapstick.

Hmmmmm. Click and enjoy!??

Monday, July 24, 2006

Pollack guts or marmalade on your toast, sir? Breakfast in Japan

Awoke bleary eyed after a late night watching Japanese golfer, Tanihara's failed attempt at knocking the supreme Tiger Woods from his perch. On auto-pilot, I reached for the marmalade to spread on my doorstep of Yamazaki bread. The lid displayed some unfathomable Korean hangul with small English lettering beneath saying "salted pollack intestines". With visions of dead movie directors and their innards floating before me, I declined the marmalade/salted pollack guts (too early for cannibalism), and plumped for some ultra-sweet, pale Japanese honey. These days, I reckon most of the Japanese young are breakfasting on thick doorsteps of toast (usually with butter and sometimes with jam too if they are pushing the boat out) if they have anything with their milk or green tea at all. (A flawed survey with absolutely no mention of pollack intestines, salted or otherwise, of Japanese breakfast habits carried out in 2000 tells a slightly different story.) In the past it would have been rice and nutrition-packed miso soup (one of the best pick-me-ups possible at daybreak) cooked especially lovingly by mum. Last night's main meal leftovers, whether fishy, meaty or intestinal, would have been the accompaniment.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Learning Japanese - web help

What with all the rain and all, some people may be hitting the books rather than the beaches. Studying Japanese is certainly getting more varied than in the old days. As a change from the books, three great websites that I've come across in the recent past (but admittedly spent little time using) are: for brushing up reading skills. for great kanji study.

nihongo juku for reading and listening.

Wish these websites had been around 15 years ago to help smooth the pitholed road that I walked. Still stumbling now.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Japanese car insurance

The crash was a shock, painful emotionally and psychologically rather than physically. My wife and son were the only two in our little black 600cc Suzuki. Two other cars were involved. The culprit (the words "stupid cow" were mentioned) rushing to get her daughter to juku (cram school) on time in her little silver Suzuki, and the other victims, a family in their little white Suzuki. A coming together of Suzukis. A grand total of 1800ccs of flimsy, metallic Suzuki engineering gathering together for the first time since the factory, like long lost siblings in a less than joyful reunion.

The insurance, too, was a shock and painful to boot. Bashing your forehead against an unyielding wall for several days tends to cause pain. Resistance to impassivity is difficult to maintain. Your forehead hurts, but the wall appears not to have suffered any damage. In fact, a week later it manages to speak in the same dispassionate tones that it was using on day one. The wall doesn't give a monkey's.

The insurance logic is warped, and you just get a sneaky suspicion that the insurance companies are all in cahoots. In Japan, it seems, blame is shared pretty much no matter what. The insurance companies put their heads together and come up with a percentage share of blame for each of the parties involved. The police wash their hands of the affair. So, even if you are not to blame, you usually get hit with a percentage of the costs, and therefore all the problems with working out whether to pay out of your own pocket, or let your insurance company cover it and see your premiums rise spectacularly for the following year. If you want complete absolution then you can take on the insurance company yourself, but this is not good for your health. They have constructed an elaborate set of hurdles that you need to clear before you get anywhere near a glimpse of the finish line. It just ain't worth it ... and don't they know it.

We're pretty sure that we were 0% to blame for the accident. The silver Suzuki pulled out, gung-ho fashion, onto a main road and hit the unsuspecting white Suzuki. Hi-ho-gung-ho silver then careered across the centre of the road into our blameless, black Suzuki and my wife and son. The humans were thankfully unharmed which is more than can be said for the vehicles. Externally our car had the equivalent to a few bruises, a broken nose, displaced cheekbone and a bit of blood, but under the surface the damage was fairly extensive (internal bleeding of a serious nature). Total damages come to more than half the cost of the car.

Coughing up ourselves when we feel blameless goes against the grain, but the forehead is hurting too much to keep nutting that wall. AIU is our insurance company. Here is the full version of an interesting interview with an associate company of AIU that have started an insurance service in English for foreigners in Japan. The guy who set it up answers a frequently asked question,
Are there some differences in insurance practices between Japan and the West?

One area of difference is probably third party compensation. If you are in a crash, even if you are the one crashed into, you are still liable for a certain amount. You have to take responsibility. Foreigners might find it hard to understand why they are responsible when they get hit. However, the law says that because your vehicle was also moving, you have to be liable for 5% or 10% or whatever.

So like it or lump it, we'll be taking part of the blame. Perhaps its our fault anyway. An academic study has shown that if you have a dark colored car, you are more likely to be passively involved in a collision. Do what they do in Japan - buy white or silver!

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Meeting (aka Time Theft or ennui nipponica)

We sleep, we snooze, we slumber; we kip, we catnap and we take forty winks - sometimes even more. We certainly don't listen. There would be no point in that. The meeting is an extraordinary event. The Chair reads in a bland, soporific monotone - sometimes for several hours or more. In our shut-eyed torpor, some of us sigh gently, some scratch languidly behind an earlobe or up a nose cavity; some find contentment with a bout of throaty mucus juggling, others resort to the common and garden snore. On one memorable occasion, the most senior party present snored so spectacularly loudly that he succeeded in completely drowning out the Chair's monotone. Nobody had the heart, or the balls, to wake the venerable fellow, and the meeting continued ad nauseam to the accompaniment of those unusual backing vocals.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Finger on Tokyo's pulse

Summer heat getting to you? Then perhaps the ice bar in Tokyo is for you. Tables, counters, chairs, glasses, and just about everything else is made from ice. The whole place is kept at a bone chilling -5 degrees. It's not cheap, and reservations are in 45 minute slots, but its a cool way to escape the humidity. Tokyo has a whole host of bars, with plenty of quirks amongst them. For an interesting selection of them visit Watashi to Tokyo blog and the unique Tokyo restaurant section. Right now, this blog is one of my favorite reads on the net. A Japanese person with their finger on the pulse of Tokyo.
For all you want to know about restaurants, bars and nightlife in Hiroshima, you can't get much better than the Get Hiroshima webpages. Hiroshima doesn't pretend to be Tokyo. No ice bars here. But plenty of unpretentious places to cool down and quench that thirst after a hard day's work.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Larry King's missile

The news is dominated by North Korea's missile tests. (Perhaps one of these dazzling chaps gave the order.) The trajectory of the missiles took them closer to Russia than to Japan, but it is Japan that most commentators see as most vulnerable in this situation. Japan are shouting loudest - sanctions imposed immediately. South Korea's hands are tied. It has put too much effort into creating closer relations to blow it all in one shot. The United States is worried - long range missiles could reach Alaska. But it is China that may well have the the most influential hand if any deal is to be made in the diplomatic sphere.

Television and newspaper analysis is in overdrive. In the U.S. studios, to me it all seemed bluster and empty rhetoric. After all it is a long way away. A bunch of clever people sitting round tables playing at international relations. That was until a very wrinkled Larry King asked, "So what do we do if they launch a missile into the centre of Tokyo?"

That woke me up.

The reply, by the way, was that it would warrant a "serious response".

The Japan Times' perspective
CNN's take on it
The People's daily in China report
The Korea Herald article
The BBC has this to say

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Depressing, grisly crimes

Wherever you go, if you trawl the newspapers or keep an eye on television news, I guess you'll come across depressing crimes aplenty. In my early days in Japan, it seemed that a murder wasn't really a murder unless it involved a body being chopped up into small pieces before disposal (usually in a variety of unimaginative ways). I remember thinking that I'd arrived in a very odd country. Every murder seemed to be one of these barabara satsujin jiken (ばらばら殺人事件). People were forever coming across body parts - when out for a stroll in the woods, when fishing, and it was a time when it wasn't too wise to use train station lockers if my memory serves.
These days you hardly ever hear about a barabara satsujin jiken, but other grisly, depressing crimes abound. Right now the murder/arson seems to be an everyday occurrence. They're so frequent that it does make you wonder if the idea pops into some poor soul's head when watching the news. The murder/suicide (usually with young children as murder victims) is depressingly familiar, too. And what is it with this spate of imprisonment of young women (不法監禁) in the homes of what must be very warped blokes? The crimes seem to come in bunches, as if one crime is the catalyst for a series of copycat crimes.
Depressing and grisly crimes, indeed, but with a different twist from the depressing and grisly crimes back in the UK.