Friday, September 30, 2005

Being "haafu"

My ten-month-old son is a "haafu gaijin" (half foreigner), to use a phrase borrowed from this excellent article by Associated Press writer Natalie Obiko Pearson.

Actually, as soon as I put down that "haafu" description in print, I realise how inappropriate it is for me to describe him as any such thing. In the end, other people in England and Japan will choose to label him in all kinds of ways. Some will do it with love. Some will do it ignorantly. Some will label him maliciously. In the end, though, his identity is his and only his to decide. It will emerge from his own experience, thoughts and feelings.

I found myself quite emotional after reading Natalie Obiko Pearson's article. I often worry that I might have caused unnecessary problems for my son by coming to a country where, undeniably, there is more consciousness of race as a definer of nationality and social identity than, for instance, in London/middle class England (I'm not sure about the whole of the UK and whether that applies to all races). On this particular issue, I am sure he will have to meet challenges but I don't think I am being too superficial in saying there are problems growing up everywhere for everyone. There is so much love for him here too and so many good things for him to experience.

In the end, as I say, the one thing I feel I must try to do as a dad is keep my mouth shut on my various thoughts and theories on this issue and give my son space to feel his way into his own life. Neither his mum or dad can really predict what the challenges will be, because neither of us have ever or could ever be in his particular situation. I am sure his choices will be quite unexpected. I suppose all I might be able to do is arm my child with the sure knowledge that any individual identity is about much much more than just race and nationality. It is also about locality, family, education, culture, individual will, gender etc. etc. etc. etc. A person who could only identify themselves as "Japanese" or "English", "white" or "yellow" would, in the old medical sense, be an imbecile.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The road ahead

Today, I officially became a full-time university student and G. officially got a nursery place. Interestingly, his selection process was a lot more rigorous than mine.

"Beauty is to be found in disarray"- Sakae Osugi

I've always been slightly intimidated by those Japanese interior design books that are are so popular in the West [1,2,3,4,5]: all clean lines and beautiful simplicity of design. How could I ever get my Japanese interior to live up to the ideal? Wouldn't you have to have some kind of compulsive disorder to get your house that clean!

So I was mightily reassured to stumble upon Tokyo Shoes's link to a photo book called "Tokyo: a certain style", which documents the reality of Tokyo interiors.

A. and I aren't hopeless outcasts after all! Compare and contrast the Tokyo book's desk:

With mine:

By Jove! I think I've got it!

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Dramatic climax to Autumn sumo tournament

Today was the last day of the Autumn sumo tournament. It ended in fine style.

Mum, Dad, A. and I went to see to day six of the tournament at the Sumo Kokugikan in Tokyo. It was one of those once in a life time experiences. A.'s dad had got us superb seats. Included in the price of the all day ticket was as much food and drink as we could consume and we had an amazing view of the action, right down next to the Dohyo. My mum used to complain about these sumo posts on this blog but I think she was bowled over by the sport when she saw it with her own eyes. Both Mum and Dad ended the holiday religiously turning on the TV at 5pm everynight for the main bouts.

Anyway, today was the last day of the 15 day tournament. Two wrestlers went into it tied for the lead: my favourite, the Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu (above) and the up and coming Bulgarian Kotooshu (below). In recent years, Asashoryu has been the dominant force in Sumo but Kotooshu has started to put up a strong challenge over the last two tournaments.

Anyway, these are the bouts that decided the tournament. Asashoryu and Kotooshu fought the two "ozekis", the highest ranked sumo wrestlers below Asashoryu's "Yokozuna" rank. Looks like Kotooshu will be promoted to ozeki soon:

Kotooshu vs. Chiyotaikai
Asashoryu vs. Tochiazuma and a slow motion replay.

That meant they had a showdown.


We got up at the crack of dawn during our stay in Tokyo to see the tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market.

Theodore C. Bestor recently published a book on Tsukiji, which he subtitled "The fish market at the centre of the world". It is not such a crazy claim. Tsukiji is by far the world's largest, selling $5.7 billion worth of seafood a year (New York's mammoth Fulton Fish Market only manages about $1 billion), and pulls in an unimaginable array of seafood from all over the world. "Six mornings a week, between four and ten o'clock," Bestor writes, "Tsukiji is a maelstrom of frenetic motion ... At dozens of separate auctions for hundreds of distinct varieties of seafood, crowds of traders bid fiercely against one another in arcane hand gestures and venerable semi-secret codes. As the auctions end, workers wielding gaffs and handcarts haul gigantic tuna carcasses and crates of dried sardines, tubs of sea bream and trays of octopus across the wet cobblestones to the long sheds that house the market's 1,677 stalls. " From these small family-owned stalls, Tsukiji feeds a nation obsessed with eating the best fish the world has to offer.

We got to the market at about 5.30 am and saw the tuna auction. The fish covered the floor of a huge hall full of squadrons of professional bidders, who went from fish to fish hacking off little samples of flesh from the tails to assess the quality. Every now and then an auctioneer would stand on a chair somewhere in the hall and toll a hand bell to gather the bidders. There might be several auctions going on in the hall at any one time and each auctioneer had his own style. Some almost sang their monologues, others were all manic arm movement and monotonous chuntering. Here is one of my terrible videos.

The day before we visited the market we went to one of Tsukiji's best sushi restaurants. It was an education to see the extraordinary institution that supplied our super fresh flesh.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


This blog will probably not be updated for the next week or so as I entertain my visiting folks. This is a photo taken from Tokyo's Hankyu Hotel near the beginning of the entertainments. It was snapped at about 5 am because we had to get up early to see the tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Japanese funeral

Joi Ito, the chap who wrote that excellent New York Times article about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, posted a piece on his blog this morning about a funeral in his village. He describes the close ties between neighbours in rural Japan and the expectation that they will support each other quite extensively at funerals and suchlike.

We are in a curious position here. Hiratsuka isn’t really what you would call rural Japan anymore. A. remembers that in her childhood the hill above us was a forest full of snakes, insects and Jomon remains (really, they now have signs to these spots). There were very few houses in the whole area and five extended families, including A.'s, had been living here for hundreds of years. One family was derided by the other families as newcomers. They had arrived 300 years ago.

That has all changed now. The hill was sold to a building company and is now covered by a modern housing estate. Many people living up there lost a packet when the property bubble burst in the 1990s, but there are still plenty of Mercs and BMWs. If you walk around in the early evening, you can hear the young daughters of these households practising their pianos and violins. I don't know why that speaks so strongly to me of children being brought up in nuclear families but, put it this way, they aren't grubbing around for insects in the forest anymore. Many of these families have very few ties with the area and the local people.

However, because A.'s family have such deep roots here (apparently there are over 300 people hereabouts in A.'s extended family), we find ourselves living in a peculiarly rural and traditional suburbia. We have had deliveries of aubergine all summer from A.'s grandfather's field. (Everyday, another aubergine. We're running out of recipes fast. I feel I like I might turn into one!) Returning to Joi Ito's theme, A.'s family have loads of responsibilities to fulfil towards their neighbours. They have something called a "tonarigumi" or "kumi", which means all of the aforementioned five families help out at each other's funerals.

Not so long ago, A.'s parents were swept up in the funeral of one of the heads of the five families. This particular family were rather famous for their carefulness with their money. On one particularly notorious occasion, the local authority had been buying land so that it could build a new school for the children here. Everybody else sold at a reasonable price, but this family refused to sell for ages, until their price had been bumped up massively. The incident earned the family a new euphemistic nickname: the "avid farmers", unable to countenance selling an acre of their land because of their unquenchable passion for growing aubergines. The "avid farmers" have long been famous among their neighbours for their extraordinary expanding fields. It seems the border lines of their lands have a tendency to edge outwards, inch by inch, year by year.

Anyway, one of the great things about penny-pinchers is that they provide such excellent entertainment for everyone else. The priest at the funeral was obviously not too chuffed at his payment (the amount is left to the discretion of the family) and delivered an interminable sermon on the importance of generosity in life. He was not seen at the wake after the ceremony, which is apparently very unusual. A.'s dad came home laughing his head off because during the party there had been constant cajoling from members of the "avid farming family" for guests to eat their full, in fact more than their fill if possible. They kept appearing with bottles of sake and urging everybody to drink up. This was obviously seriously out of character and there had been some confusion among the guests until one of the catering staff whispered that the family was paying by the hour not by the amount of food and alcohol consumed. The thought of all that money going to waste obviously pained them too much and the thought of the caterers staying another hour was clearly torture. I suspect every family in the neighbourhood was chuckling about it in the evening. Aren't close knit communities wonderful?

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The sea again

White surf on the black sand of Oiso beach

Went to the beach again today. Sad that these posts about a beguiling sea should coincide with Katrina's evidence of its destructiveness. The sea here can have a very nasty face too (tsunami, typhoons). The nursery we have decided to put G. into is very near the sea. There is a nagging worry that a bad thing might happen.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The sea, the sea

Can't believe I didn't do it sooner but today I went to the sea, which is only about five minutes drive from our house. I love the sea. It always relaxes me to have my feet in the surf and eyes on a flat horizon. I have been bugging A. for ages to go there.

The sand is grey near Hiratsuka (a tourist brochure would probably say "unique black sand "). It sounded a bit grim when Aya described it that way but in reality the beach was quite nice really. A top spot for a seaside barbeque. The Komayama mountain ridge sweeps down just behind the spot we parked. I think the seaside can get quite crowded in high summer, hence A.'s slight reluctance to go before, but there were only a few surfers there today. I wondered about having a go at surfing some time. I hear it's hard.


Bush looks out the window of Airforce 1 at New Orleans

[This blog entry was posted on September 2 as an initial reaction to the disaster in New Orleans. It evolved into a bit of a stream of consciousness over several days, spread over a number of posts. I have consolidated them into one post because I think other people's interest may be limted.]

Just a little sidelight on the barbarism in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. This is of course playing all over the Asian media, often and perhaps inevitably in very unflattering ways. It doesn't do a lot for America's international image. The country is being made to look like some kind of tin pot, banana republic, with a seething mass of desperate citizens and without the leadership or the resources to organise a prompt relief and public order operation. One pretty reasonable Chinese blogger who writes in English, Binfeng Teahouse, tried to deliver an antidote but in the process said a lot about the nature of the reception of this news in his country. I hate to think how the stark racial aspect some of these images of the Deep South in crisis plays in this part of the world. People don't necessarily understand the situation in the South.

On the Bush front: what is he going to do this time to distract attention from his administration's tardiness , poor decision making and poor leadership despite plenty of warnings? Invade Iran? Or Massachusetts? Is it just me? Am I missing something about the basic standards citizens demand from their leaders or are we going to have a very dangerous lame duck floating in the post Katrina flood waters?

Update: New Orleans Blogger (further Katrina stuff posted from morning of September 3)

There is a chap blogging from inside New Orleans. He is part of a team who have remained in the city to keep an internet hosting service up and running. This account of a mobile phone conversation with someone at the Convention Centre caught my eye.

Some ill informed thoughts as I retreat red-eyed from a night watching the coverage of this on CNN: I am sure there will be much talk over the next few days of everyone pulling together in the States and getting through this catastrophe together. I heard one of the Louisiana senators talking about how her house had been destroyed. Looking at the images on CNN, though, and at the reasons why these desperate people were still in the city raises a question about whether this is really a "national" disaster or whether it is better described as a disaster for the poor and the weak. I know all disasters tend to hit the weakest hardest, but the US authorities' laissez faire attitude to disaster relief seem to have made this one more starkly class divided.

PS: Maybe this is not the right time for humour but this made me laugh (maybe it wasn't the right time for political points either). If you don't like swearing, don't click the link. It is a tongue-in-cheek take on the Yahoo! "looting versus finding" controversy, which you probably know about. He explains it anyway. (Via no-sword)

PS: At least there is a bright side to all this. The American Family Association rejoices with Rev. Bill Shanks, pastor of New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans: "New Orleans now is abortion free." Hooray!

PS: One of the responses to the criticism of the administration's incompetence will be that it is political point scoring from lefties. Dadahead reports that criticism is not limited to the left.

PS: "While some fight the insurgency in the city, other carry on with rescue and evacuation operations" - Where are we? In Louisiana, according to the Army Times.

Update: Watch this!
(further Katrina stuff posted from evening September 3)

Fox News is a right-wing television news channel in the US. It is often accused of aggressively spinning stories to favour a conservative perspective. Two of its reporters lost it with the news anchor on Friday. It is compelling television and revealing about the reality of the situation in New Orleans:

"Look in the face of the baby. This is it. No sugar coating. No political spin. No Republicans or Democrats. People suffering. Let them go. Let them out of here."

"Look in the face of the baby. This is it. No sugar coating. No political spin. No Republicans or Democrats. People suffering. Let them go. Let them out of here." (Version 2. Not as good quality but a different format in case the other one doesn't work.)

PS: This is a bit more difficult to get to play (I had to use Internet Explorer) but it is worth it. Kanye West, a US celeb, goes seriously off script when doing one of those stock "Please give generously" broadcasts with comedian Mike Myers. To be honest, I don't know who this West gentleman is but feelings have obviously been seriously stirred up by this.

PS: Juan Cole, Professor of modern history at Michigan university, comments on the Bush administration's double standards on looting. Iraq's deputy ambassador to the United Nations has also noticed.

PS: Of course, everything I am writing here about Katrina is second hand. I am simply relying on other bloggers accounts in the US on this topic. I've become rather obsessed over the past couple of days with what seems like the extraordinary inability of the world's dominant power to organise a piss up in a brewery. I've been surfing loads of blogs about this. Some are way faster than Brian Leiter (I like Dadahead for its unashamed leftiness) but, as usual, Leiter's coverage is crisper than a fresh linen sheet.

PS: At last, six days late but he has got it.

PS: And a detailed Washington Post article on what went wrong in the Bush administration in the lead up to Katrina.

PS: Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, breaks down during an interview on the NBC program Meet the Press: "The guy who runs this building ... His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night... Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody."

PS: Meanwhile, Barbara Bush shows that empathy for other people's suffering runs in the family.

PS: A BBC rescue boat in New Orleans.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Yuko's flowers

My friend Yuko Agata has set up on her own in London as a flower designer after doing her apprenticeship for what seemed like ages with two of the big floral designers. This is her website. If anybody wants any flowers doing, go to Yuko because she is super professional, super enthusiastic and super nice. She did our wedding flowers and transformed the space.


Kanto earthquake seismograph recorded at Tokyo University.

Today is the anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake on September 1, 1923. More than 100,000 people were killed. Among them was A.'s Grandma's sister, who was a young baby. A.'s grandfather was about the same age as George at the time and his parents' house collapsed on him. He only survived because a large column fell on a cupboard under which he had been crawling and created a pocket of safety.

Anyway, last night A. cooked some Imam Bayildi, a Turkish aubergine dish which translates as "the priest fainted", and decided to take some round to her grandparents this morning (the aubergines had come from their field). Her grandfather was rather astounded that his eldest grand daughter had at long last got into domesticity. A. wanted to put the Imam Bayildi in the fridge because it should be served chilled but her grandfather thought this was a rather more momentous event than that and immediately put it on the family altar, saying this was the day of the death of his wife 's sister in the earthquake and it was appropriate to dedicate this extraordinary beginning to her.