Sunday, July 31, 2005

Spot the difference

If you look very carefully you will be able to see that my nice extreme nationalist neighbour has added a very fetching Hinomaru to his already striking far right besloganed van, which comes complete with loudhailers front and back for enlightening the deluded masses.

I say he is my neighbour but I think the vehicle actually belongs the son of my neighbour. Anyway, he was out washing his pride and joy last weekend and I gave him a hearty hello as I carried my mixed race child into our house. He seemed very pleased and said a hefty hello back. I can imagine him down the isakaya saying "Don't get me wrong, some of my best friends are ... Oh, I love their chips but...". Or maybe that is not fair. I don't really know what he thinks.

My only experience with these black van nationalists is encountering big convoys of them driving very slowly through cities and screaming incredibly loud slogans out of their loud hailers. Our neighbour is kind enough not to do any of that kind of thing in this area. He just parks it up here and presumably goes off for a good scream on a sunny Saturday with his mates.

Actually, to be truthful, I am not really au fait with Japanese extreme right politics and to what extent it draws on racism. Neither do I know what particular flavour of racism they prefer. If I were to hazard a guess I would say Chinese and Koreans are more in the firing line than dopey White neighbours. I'll just keep on shouting the hearty hellos. I was thinking of getting a union jack sticker and giving it to him to go beside the Hinomaru. Or perhaps I should emulate him and kit out my car with some loudspeakers and slogans? I could go with him on a Saturday and tag along at the back of the convoy.

Friday, July 29, 2005

I shop therefore I am

This post is apropos of nothing really but this morning I went to the big electronics store near here to buy a tape recorder to help my Japanese studying. I got there about 9.55 am only to find it opened at 10.15. What was slightly surprising was that there were already a group of about 20 people waiting for it to open. It wasn't a sale or anything, just a normal day. It wasn't just the electronic shop either: there was a supermarket on the next corner that had a similar group waiting for the doors to open. I felt like I had an alibi - i hadn't known what time these shops opened - but I got the distinct feeling that some of these people were regulars.

Anyway, the guy at the front of the queue was wearing a white shirt emblazoned with the motto: "I shop therefore I am".

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

London bombings

As usual, comics seem to express stuff well.

Using these two comics is a bit dodgy from a copyright point of view but since this site has a audience of 5 people at most (are you all reading attentively?) I think it should be OK. Not much different from a round robin email. The first is by Pat Oliphant and the second is by Ted Rall. Visit their sites to assuage my copyright sin.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Famous last words but it seems the typhoon missed us. I was expecting furiously banging amado and sheets of rain skeltering across the roof tiles, but it seems it was a very damp squib. Not much more than a bad downpour in England.

Don't think they are all going to be this gentle so I'll take this opportunity for some complacent rambling.

The name "typhoon" has an extraordinary history. I had thought it was a straight borrowing from the East into English, as the Japanese call these storms "taifu" and the Cantonese Chinese call them "Taaîfung". However, it seems the English word has some of its roots in the ancient Greek word tuphōn, used both as the name of the father of the winds and a common noun meaning “whirlwind, storm". It was borrowed into Arabic as "Tūfān" in the middle ages and passed into India via Arabic-speaking Muslim invaders. It is believed the first English usage, recorded in 1588, came to us through this Indian route and originally specifically referred to a severe storm in India. It seems the Cantonese word Taaîfung, literally meaning great wind, may have occurred quite independently of this lineage. It was borrowed by the Japanese and this separate far Asian usage then reinforced the existing English term and coalesced with it. Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (1819) was the first to use the modern spelling. (Etymology from the American Heritage Dictionary, Houghton Mifflin)

The naming of the individual storms is also interesting. Until 2000, typhoons were named according the American practice of using proper names for their hurricanes (which are the same thing but east of 180 degrees longitude). The Asian side of the Pacific has since switched to a new and gloriously complicated naming procedure, which draws on a list of names submitted by 14 countries in the region. For instance, the name of today's typhoon, Banyan, was submitted by Hong Kong and is a type of tree.

It seems some of the member nations have got a feel for what they are doing. The Philippines, for instance, opts for words meaning "sharp", "powerful" and "swift", although their choice of "Typhoon Downspout" ("Imbudo), which actually killed quite a few people in 2003, seemed a bit eccentric.

"Typhoon Downspout"

North Korea, as usual, is way offbeat. Typhoon Pongsona which killed dozens on Guam in 2002, was named after a "beautiful flower specially loved by Korean women from ancient time for its fairy shyness and tender feeling" while Typhoon Podul, which generated winds of nearly 300 kph, referred to a tree under which "people rest and enjoy chatting." I think they just have a black sense of humour. Only the Macanese, however, seem to have grasped what a great marketing opportunity this storm naming is. "Typhoon Bebinca", which clattered into the Philipinnes in 2000, was named after "a Macanese milk pudding served in the Portuguese restaurants of Macau".

The Japanese, while contributing names to this system, refuse to use it themselves, instead opting for a simple numbering system. How wonderfully British of them! Just what what John Bull would have done if the French were sending over "Hurricane Foie Gras" and the Germans "Hurricane Edelweiss".

Monday, July 25, 2005

Done the earthquake

Now for the typhoon. It will arrive tomorrow. Yesterday's forecasts had it going more up the west of Japan but now and it seems to be heading right for us. We've postponed our trip to the mountains for a week.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Asa wins

Sumo haters will be delighted to know that the Nagoya grand tournament has ended, which means that there will be no more sumo here, barring more underwear deliveries, until September. We went into the last day with the Mongolian Yokozuna (or grand champion) Asashoryu tied for the lead with the Bulgarian Kotooshu, who is much more lowly ranked. Both were expected to win their final day bouts and everybody was looking forward to a head-to-head tie breaker between the towering European and the tigerish Mongol.

It turned out to be a bit of a let down. Kotooshu flopped in his match, leaving Asashoryu to wrap it up against the disappointing Tochiazuma without the expected head to head. This is Asashoryu picking up his fifth Emperor's cup of the year. He has now won 13 tournaments, making him the most successful foreigner ever, and he looks as if he might, if he is lucky with injuries, eventually establish himself as one of the greatest Yokozuna of all time.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Lusty comrades

Thought this was quite an amusing post on the Danwei website.


Right, I'm ready.

We had quite a sizeable earth tremor today. It must have gone on for more than ten seconds. As most of you know, courage has never been a strong point so I have tooled myself up on Ebay:

Here's the plan. I'll wear this stuff around the house and perhaps at nights as well if it is not too hot. Helmet and fire suit for all the main ground dangers but the jet pack to get myself airborne as soon as possible. Megaphone for summoning help and a phrase book just in case. Packed lunch to keep the spirits up while I'm in the air and some spare petrol if it is a long wait.

Seriously though, it was a reasonably sized earthquake. We had to dive out of the house into the garden. We were in the study, which is not as structurally sound as the rest of the house, so we broke the normal rule of not going outside immediately because of the risk of falling tiles and things. All of the bookshelves were juddering like crazy. Once outside,we watched the telegraph poles sway quite alarmingly for about ten seconds. We were a very long way from the epicentre, which was in the sea on the east side of Tokyo. In other places it was quite serious.

I've been doing a little research into the earthquake hazard here. First, here is the US Geographical Survey's map of the "seismicity" of Japan. You can't see the bloody country for all the dots. Not good. But what about Hiratsuka? Well, here is a map of the relative risks in different parts of Japan. We are right in the middle of that purple bit on the bottom coast of the main island. Not really very good either.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Cash point gambling

Somebody must remember a wild idea I had some time ago of having gambling built into cash points. Well, a Japanese bank is doing just that!

Sadly, though, they seem to be going at the idea half heartedly. You don't stake any of your own money on the fruit machine function: you either win money or get nothing but I don't think you can lose. My idea much more far sighted: customers to be offered the chance, when they were withdrawing money, to "double or quit" on a roll of the wheel. £20 for a night's drinking might, with a few lucky hits of the button, morph itself into £800 for an impromptu week on the Costa del Sol. On the other hand, it might disappear into thin air. Combine the gambling function with cash withdrawals using a credit card and we might really have some fun. I suppose it would have some unfortunate consequences for the unluckier optimists among us, but then the banks don't exactly specialise in morality anyway.

The BBC article about the fruit machine ATM tries to link the story to a more serious issue: "
Since Japan's economy turned sour a decade ago, its once-complacent banks have had to work harder to attract custom. And cash machines have been relatively slow to catch on, not least because most banks still insist on charging for withdrawals. " I would suggest that the Japanese banks still tend towards complacency. Here are some radical ideas for them: internet banking, direct debit cards that are useable in shops (they only seem to have credit cards), giving overdrafts without asking for a cash surety before you give them (this condition is not just for foreigners), allowing people to get cash from their visa cards etc. etc.. I am very poorly informed about banking and all of these restrictions may be the result of the regulatory framework, but the general impression is that the British highstreet banks would wipe the floor with the Japanese if there was competition.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

A very funny sumo bout

Last time I posted about Sumo it got a thoroughly poor reception in certain quarters. "It is as bad as football. Dead boring," was the refrain. Accordingly, I kept my blatherings confined to the comments section of that last post. The Nagoya Grand Tournament has just finished its 12th day (three more to go) and, contrary to expectations of an Asashoryu stroll, we have a lead shared between Asashoryu and the Bulgarian Kotooshu. They have both lost two bouts and both won today[1,2].

Anyway, the reason for breaking my sumo purdah, is today's classic bout between my nippy favourite Ama and his fellow Mongolian Tokitenku. People often seem to think Sumo is a silly sport. Well, sometimes it can be really silly.

On a more serious note, here is a study putting up a good argument that there is match fixing in top level sumo. The research was published in 2000, so it is old news to me, but I hadn't heard it before. The authors argue that it has been going on for a long time and that parts of the sumo establishment may have tolerated or even facilitated the fixing. There have been media reports over a number of years of match fixing by some fairly prominent wrestlers, including the former Yokozuna Akebono.

I wonder whether an even bigger scandal might be around the corner? It is mere speculation but, with large numbers of foreigners now entering sumo (there are something like 35 Mongolian wrestlers), the sumo world may not continue to be the very tight community with common language and ethos that it has always been. The number of potentially corrupt wrestlers and sources of corruption may increase, but also the number of possible whistleblowers. Another factor to bear in mind is that sumo is televised abroad now and seems ideally suited as a gamblers' sport. As English football knows to its cost, big stakes on unregulated foreign tables are dangerous for fair play or even traditional old unfair play in any sport.

All right, that's enough...

I've done two months of blog postings on the Japanese theme and I need a break. Today's ramblings will be about blogs. There is an awful lot of dross out there (a certain springs to mind) but in the past few days I have come across three blogs that are worth reading. As blogs tend to be, they are quite specialised but what makes them stand out is the wit and incisiveness with which they are written. All of these are public faced blogs, rather than essentially private attempts at communication like this one, but they are at least as interesting most newspaper op-ed pages. They all have rss/atom feeds, so I can read them on my page every morning with my coffee.

The Indigo Jo Blog at - a young (I think!) Muslim convert called Yusuf Smith gives a sharp response to all the balderdash in the press about Islam. This post was particularly good: a much needed rocket up the arse of that old bullshitter Charles Moore. (G. can't read can he??)

The Danwei blog - a more commercial looking blog this one, from multiple authors, but it does seem to be giving a fairly sophisticated commentary on a certain type of China news. I thought this post was interesting.

And, finally, the Leiter Reports - essentially an academic blog in the area of law and philosophy, but it is so well written and so acerbic that I find it interesting anyway. This is his post on the new Supreme Court nominee.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Satellite images

This isn't quite an "I can see our house" post but here is a Googlemap satellite image/map of the part of the point where this composite pic was taken, which is a few minutes from our house .

Unfortunately, Googlemaps haven't got round to doing really detailed satellite images of Hiratsuka. Chigasaki, the next town down the coast, has much better images and central Tokyo is pretty amazing. The existing ones of Hiratsuka give a general feel for the lie of the land though.

You can zoom in an out using the slider, switch between maps and images using the buttons, and drag the map around with your mouse. If you zoom a bit out, you can see the whole of Japan. It is amazing how much of it is uninhabitable mountain ranges and how many people are packed into a few little gulleys and plains around and about them. A. and I are hoping to go for a little trip into the mountains next week.

By the way, here is a Googlemap of Mount Fuji with a stain on its bib.

And an Googlemap of Mount Oyama having a cig break.

And, for those not as obsessed by Japan as myself, here are the pyramids.

And the lunar landing sites.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Under the sweltering sky

A lovely refuge from the awful heat and humidity at this time of year is our "kakigori" (scraped ice) machine:

Basically, you stick some ice cubes in the top, turn the handle and out comes a kind of eatable ice. If you have it straight away, it is white and fluffy. I add a lemon cordial. It tastes like a very light sorbet. A. has condensed milk on hers which I put down to heat induced delirium.

A sobering experience

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I am not saying the Japanese are a bunch of old soaks but the row upon row of monster whisky and shochu bottles at the local hardware store was an eye opener. I'm not quite sure what relevance these Godzillas of the spirit world have to good DIY (maybe a swig or 20 helps with the band saw) but I have never seen bottles like them. They were bigger than the biggest Coke bottles I've come across and were wickedly cheap at about £25 for 4000 ml. I resisted the temptation.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Bomb damage

Like most people, I was already pretty familiar with images of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which killed more than 140,000 people:

And the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, which killed at least 100,000 people.

But I was less familiar with images like this one, of the conventional bombing of Tokyo:

On the night of March 9, 1945 alone, more than 100,000 people died and 16 square miles of the city were flattened in one fire bomb raid. In the following two weeks, a further 31 square miles were destroyed in 1,600 firebomb sorties. I do not know the total number of people killed in more than two years of bombing of Tokyo.

Other large cities, including the major conurbations of Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya, were also firebombed. The Japanese animated film "Grave of the Fireflies" is based on the experience of Kobe, one of the first cities targeted in these raids.

On a slightly less depressing note, here are some pictures of bombed city districts and how they look now:

Isezaki-cho, Yokohama

Kawasaki city

Kawasaki city

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Bread revisited

I must post a little addendum to my post about Japan's surprising breads. It seems there is a popular boys' manga called "Yakitate!! Japan" which rather wonderfully captures the pioneering spirit of the Japanese baker. The title is a horrible pun on the Japanese word for bread ("pan") and it tells the story of a young son of a rice farmer who sets out to create a "bread that tastes better than rice".

In Japanese, baguettes are called "Furansu Pan" (French Bread). There is also "Igirisu Pan" (English Bread) and "Doitsu Pan" (German Bread). Our hero figures that Japan should have its own national bread too and that it must be called "Ja-pan"!!!! Every new bread he makes in his international quest is called "Ja-pan 1" or "Ja-pan 23" and he is currently on "Ja-pan 57" or something. These delicacies include a croissant with exactly 327 layers, a candied turtle shaped bread, a "melon sushi Ja-pan", a bread that takes you to heaven and back and a "cannabis Ja-pan" (the subject of the page on the right). The usual storyline goes along the lines of the young man taking on some rival (often foreign) baker in some weird bread competition and winning.

It is all very confusing but wonderfully expresses the indomitable spirit of the Japanese baking fraternity. Although it is primarily aimed at young boys and has been very successful in this market (even being made into a animated TV series) it seems to operate on another level as a kind of pastiche of other manga. It lifts all kinds of incompatible archetypal characters from other boys' manga and mixes them together in humorous combinations (a bit like mixing a Sherlock Holmes style detective, a Marilyn Monroesque sex symbol and Billy Bunter).

All of which is good harmless fun. This, however, is not:

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Somebody is actually marketing the turtle bread under the "Yakitate! Japan" brand! Arrrgh. If this is the national bread of Japan then I would advise all Japanese people to stick solely to rice!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Sumo is back!

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The Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament has been on our screens since Sunday. There are six grand tournaments a year and they alternate between Tokyo and the provinces. The Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu [1, 2, 3], the only current wrestler with the rank of Yokozuna or grand champion, is totally dominant at the moment. He has won all of the grand tournaments so far this year and only missed out on one of last year's.

We've had four days of wrestling and Asashoryu has one all four of his bouts, which already puts him ahead of all of his main rivals in the event. He is actually on a 20 bout winning streak in the grand tournaments, so it is difficult to see past him as the eventual winner. Mind you, sport has a way of springing surprises. The real fascination at the moment is watching a wrestler in his prime so completely dominate his rivals, some of whom are considerably bigger than him.

Here are his victories:

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

There are 11 consecutive days of wrestling left. He was lucky on day 2 but day 4 was classic Asashoryu: bullying his opponent out of the ring with powerful arm pushes and then adding some unnecessary afters at the end just to show who is boss.

Ama, the small but nippy wrestler I mentioned in a previous post, isn't doing so well. He is 2 and 2. This was his most comprehensive defeat. Poor guy needs to put on some weight.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A new pillow

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No, I haven't gone completely samurai. It is a lot cooler than a sweaty feather pillow in these stifflingly humid summer nights.

These things are sold in Japan as "summer pillows" and they work. They seem to be made of a similar sort of woven staw as tatami mats. They are harder than a normal pillow but quite quishy, with some kind of bunched up straw or plastic inside. Thanks to this one, I got some sleep last night.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Hiroshige's Hiratsuka

Ando Hiroshige (1797–1858) was one of the great ukiyo-e artists. The peak of his success came in 1833 with the print series "The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido" , the famous highway connecting Tokyo and Kyoto.

Hiroshige had some of the dash and daring of the old master Hokusai, whose work is reputed to have attracted him into print making in the first place. However, whereas Hokusai's work sometimes had a bit of the hard edge of modern art about it (it later became a major inspiration for some modern artists), Hiroshige revelled in the intimacy and approachability of his work. Other famous series followed the Tokaido prints, such as the "100 views of Edo [Tokyo]" and "Sixty-nine Stations on the Kiso Highway".

One of the famous Tokaido series was a view of Hiratsuka, a thriving staging post on the Tokaido road in Hiroshige's day. This is the image he produced.

And this is a photo taken from about the same spot now. It seems Hiroshige took some liberties with the landscape. The mountain to the right of Hiroshige's print is not there anymore. They might have knocked it down (!!!) or it might be Oyama, which is way off to the right and cannot be seen at all from this spot these days because of a load of advertising hoardings. It is also possible that Hiroshige inverted the image, with the lower mountain on the left of the picture moved to the right for compositional purposes.

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It is tempting is to see the contrast between these two images as evidence of the massive changes in Japanese society: a clash between a quiet rural past and a brash commercial present. On the other hand, the Tokaido road was always about bustling trade and its staging posts were renowned dens of iniquity and haunts of seekers after the fast Buck. Ukiyo-e itself was a mass market product sold to a faddish metropolitan market and Hiroshige was one of the most accomplished players of that market. Come to think of it, the traffic you see on the modern road is probably a lot more local than much of the traffic on the old Tokaido route.


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Saturday, July 09, 2005

Ed's wedding

I kept it quiet (because I didn't have enough time to see anybody) but I was back in Blighty for a few days last week to attend Ed's wedding. It was lovely. My Dad commented on the picture at top right that it looked like a "should I do this" picture. Having been there (both figuratively and actually), I think it was more a "will she do this" shot.

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