Friday, 30 November 2012

Back to the future -- Japan election diary 2012: Day 14

Click here to go to Day 1 of the 2012 Japan Election Diary.


A spring in his step
Is less youthful nonchalance
Than fear of what's next

Our Man has been known to go running. He supposes the more correct term is jogging, but that conjures up images of leggings, '80s big hair and Olivia Newton John, and Our Man can't be doing with any of that. Running is not so much a matter of vanity, except that he just wants to cheat death a little longer if he can. And having only quit smoking in his 30s, he's got a lot of distance to make up.

He's lucky that within five minutes of the bunker is Teganuma (snapped above with his phone), which makes for a good running track, 18km all the way round,  even if he can rarely make more than 10km before collapsing in a heap back at the bunker. The lake, which is fed by the Tonegawa river, the Mississippi of Japan, used to be the most polluted in the country, but the wise old city fathers got round to stopping pumping the lake full of Kashiwa's sewage, and now it is eighth or ninth most polluted, an achievement they have up in lights, literally -- the ranking is displayed above the city library car park.

Some of the locals will tell you that Abiko is the Kamakura of the north and manage to keep a straight face, and now that it doesn't smell of sewage every time you get off at Abiko Station, Our Man supposes that claim is less preposterous than it sounds for a modest commuter town a couple of kilometres from Tokyo. Though, strictly speaking, Teganuma is not a lake, it's a swamp. Which would make Abiko more the New Orleans of Japan. Our Man can dream.

Around this lake as Our Man gets physical, physical, he can hear the old men's camera bodies talk. If you go running at dusk, you will see dozens of elderly men flocking to the eastern edge of the lake to take pictures of the reflections of the disappearing sun. He'd like to think this was a reflection of some deeper spiritual meaning, something Buddhist or a reinterpretation of the native Shinto religion of nature worship. But it's hard to see much of a worship of nature in the paparazzi scrum of pensioners, lovingly manipulating their equipment. Our Man has been around newsrooms for the better part of two decades but he has not seen as big ones as the old men have poking over their tripods. When not staking out the planet's biggest star, the old boys are out in force snapping cherry blossoms, as if recording and collecting signs of life were the same as living it. Ho hum.

***

While out running it struck Our Man that he hasn't explained any of that dull stuff about the nature of the election, you know, seats and constituencies and stuff. This is partly, of course, because he didn't know until he looked it up on wikipedia just now, and partly because in the age of wikipedia, why does he need to know anything?

He can't answer that, but for completeness, he'll rehash the entry here. But he'll keep it brief. There are two houses in the Japanese parliament, known as the Diet. This election is for the stronger of the two, the House of Representatives, which has 480 seats, 300 divvied up in single-seat constituencies, 180 in 11 regional blocs for proportional representation. Citizens get two votes, one for their prefered candidate and one for their preferred party which dishes out the PR seats. But constituency maps still heavily favour rural areas: a member from hicksville Tottori represents 242,484 voters, but a member from downtown Yokohama represents 493,147.

What do all the numbers mean? They mean any election is skewed toward the countryside and not the cities where 75 percent of Japanese live. It means that the reactionary parties who play well in rural areas have a leg up. It means party bosses hold sway over which candidates can sup from the proportional representation teat. It means that the whole election is illegal since all votes are supposed to be of equal value, not dependent on where you live. The Japanese supreme court said so. Ho hum.

***

Looking for meaning in life is somewhat pointless, looking for meaning in the Japanese elections is entirely pointless, Our Man concludes after reading these two quotes from a link on twitter he clicked on today:
A wise man once said that all human activity is a form of play. And the highest form of play is the search for Truth, Beauty and Love. What more is needed? Should there be a ‘meaning’ as well, that will be a bonus? If we waste time looking for life’s meaning, we may have no time to live — or to play.
Arthur C. Clarke
The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.
Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life’s tape to the dawn of time and let it play again–and you will never get humans a second time.
We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.
Stephen Jay Gould
***

And finally, it looks as if that nice Dr Kada, head of the no-nuke Nippon Mirai no To -- Japan Party of the Future -- now has her very own centre left umbrella party. She can allegedly claim loyalty from 60 likely diet members, though Our Man can't remember where he read that. She's also big into cleaning up lakes, particularly Lake Biwako, Japan's largest lake, so that would play well with Abikans.

A final note, that may or may not be relevant. Her party has a fax number featured prominently on its website, which is decidedly '80s for a bunch of folk calling themselves The Japan Party of the Future.

Until tomorrow.
This blog series
 is now a great
 book. Honest.
Cleaned up and
 all presentable,
Guts Pose: Diary of a
 Japanese election
 gone bad
features a previously
unpublished afterword
 by me and foreword
by Michael Cucek.
You can buy it here.

Go to DAY 15

Thursday, 29 November 2012

On with the show - 2012 Japan Election Diary: Day 13

Click here to go to Day 1 of the 2012 Japan Election Diary.


Today began with some genuine showbiz news, rather than the daily showbiz for the ugly that is politics.

NHK, the BBC of Japan, announced it would not be featuring any South Korean pop bands on its flagship New Year's Eve reds and whites pop programme where talentless manufactured boy bands compete against talentless manufactured girl bands. But the tedious programme holds a dear place in most Japanese families' light entertainment hearts as a symbolic farewell to the year that was. It certainly is full of symbolics, and Our Man usually uses it as an excuse to go to the pub.

NHK's excuse for dropping the Koreans was "public opinion" concerns, and that K-pop bands haven't had any big hits this year. Though the Kyodo news report Our Man read cited arguments over the Takeshima/Dokudo islands, that both nations claim rights to, now that symbolic battles are still more prevalent than real ones.

Our Man's 11-year-old daughter would dispute NHK's reasons, being a fervent K-pop fan, but Our Man pleads ignorance. He can barely tell the difference between K-pop and J-pop. As far as he can tell, K-pop groups must have fewer than eight members and J-pop groups must have more. All sound the same, can't sing and... OK, OK, I am turning into my Dad. While I do talk back to greetings and thanks from automated toll gates, I haven't started driving into the country at weekends and rolling down the window to fill the car with the smell of manure to exclaim, "Ahhh, the smell of the country," quite yet. This, Our Old Man would do on trips to abandoned railway embankments to pick raspberries with my grandmother for jam and wine-making. A fond memory is of the occasion he went through two bottles of raspberry wine and the only way to get him in to bed was to cajole him in German. "Wir mussen auf die Treppe gehen!" is still about the only German I can remember to this day, thanks to him. I could go on, but there is a small chance he could read this entry, and he deserves to be immortalised in virtual print for far more worthwhile achievements than improving Our Man's schoolboy German. 

***

Now Our Man is going to break through the fourth wall and address you directly, dispensing with the fiction that this diary is his own inner-most thoughts that he just happens to have left open on the back seat of a the double-decker bus that is the internet. The fact is that everything he writes here is informed by the knowledge that this is public. It is harder than it looks to keep the competing factions, to borrow a political metaphor, checked and balanced. How much of the personal and private should he reveal? How much fact? How much fiction? How much of the public record should he rehash? Do you really care what Our Man has to say about the goings on of the day, when he barely cares himself? All substance and no flash makes for a dull read. But all flash and no substance fails to satisfy even the lightest of appetites.

George Orwell had it right in his essay Why I Write (Google it, it's free takes about 15 minutes to read) that all folk who willingly put pen to paper are motivated to varying degrees by egotism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. And all these motivations are present in Our Man's virtual head. Probably.    

In the end, all Our Man can do is make a decision of what to write for the day and follow it through and hope he can live with it in the morning, that you will get something from it (even though he has little idea what that could be) and his family will still talk to him at dinner. His only defences, and they are flimsy ones at that, are to wrap himself in a shroud of anonymity (although that's showing severe wear and tear) and to distance himself from the truth or dare of his words with a heavy air of irony and third person grammatical gymnastics, although he reserves the right to drop those when he feels like it. Though he really should keep it consistent for the book, I suppose (you're not making my life any easier with that sentence -- ed.) It's the only way he knows that he can tell the truth. 

It may be disjointed, and make for an uneven ride when it's pasted together into a book, but if Our Man thought of the enormity of the project -- to write a book ostensibly about the Japanese election, one of many subjects he is woefully unqualified to write about but still does, he simply couldn't make it. But break the book up into manageable daily chunks, he just might be able to get to the end. And you never know, when he cuts out the crap all the chunks might make a hearty meal. Whatever. This is Our Man's diary, not George Orwell's. 

Our Man is probably thinking too much (you've never been guilty of that before -- ed.) and he should take Keith Richards' advice to Pete Townsend on writing  ("think less, and play your guitar more") and just get on with the show. 

And so he shall, without fear or favour.
This blog series
 is now a great
 book. Honest.
Cleaned up and
 all presentable,
Guts Pose: Diary of a
 Japanese election
 gone bad
features a previously
unpublished afterword
 by me and foreword
by Michael Cucek.
You can buy it here.

Go to DAY 14

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

ELECTION FEVER -- 2012 Japanese election diary: Day 12

Click here to go to Day 1 of the 2012 Japan Election Diary.


"I have some bad news for you," Dr Kondo said to me.
Our Woman had been prepared for this moment. She'd come along to the consultation armed with her Japanese to English dictionary. Although she hardly needed it. Over breakfast coffee she'd already memorised the Japanese and English for all the malignant forms of cancer in the book, knew what our medical insurance would pay for and what it wouldn't and had a better idea of where my spleen was than I did.
I was prepared too. I took out a crisp ¥10,000 note from my wallet and handed it under the table to the doctor before he could announce his diagnosis.
"Doc, I don't care what it is, just don't tell me to give up the alcohol, OK?"
I could see the nurse's eyes crease above her surgical mask and busied herself straightening the curtains.
Dr Kondo removed his half-glasses and used them to wave away my money. He spoke rapidly and incomprehensibly.
Our Woman sat attentively, nodding, in serious-face mode until he stopped talking, and then she looked around, lost.
"Well, what did he say?"
"He said you're a bit fat and have bad eyesight."
I wiped my glasses on my T-shirt, tort over my belly.
"Next he'll be telling me I'm middle-aged and a foreigner. I know."
The doctor laughed. He could speak English too, I diagnosed.
Our Woman was still incredulous. "Are you sure doctor? There's nothing else wrong with him? Are you quite certain?"
To some extent, I shared her disappointment about such a mundane diagnosis after so much effort. It wasn't just my memory that was still raw from the thorough ningen dock examination the doctor and his staff had put me through a week earlier. As well as the innocuous blood pressure and height and weight tests, they even gave me an ultrasound. Not to mention the pint of barium shake I had to consume, the vial of spit I had to provide, the two test tubes of piss and a cotton bud of shit. And it takes all the accumulated knowledge of 4,000 years of civilisation to be able to make polite small talk with a man who has stuck his finger up your backside, let me assure you.
"Quite certain. He has 'A's in all other categories. Lung capacity, EKG, blood pressure, stomach, intestines..."
"What about alcohol? He drinks too much alcohol, right?"
"Yeah, what about that doc?" I patted my wallet and gave him a wink.
"He shouldn't drink too much, but there's no need to abstain from all alcohol."
"So there's nothing wrong with him?" Our Woman was deflated.
"Well, he could do with losing five kilos. In Japan he is considered at risk of metabolic syndrome, but in America he is still within average weight."
I didn't tell him I was British.

***

You have to respect doctors, particularly in this country. They retain their honorific titles sensei (teacher). Our Mother in Law went to him when she had lost her voice six months ago. As Kondo-sensei examined her, there was a great wailing and screaming from outside the surgery window. The doctor, nurse and Our Mother in Law all stopped to listen.
"I can't tell if that's a cat or a baby in distress, " he said. All agreed and the wailing continued.
"I do believe that's a baby," he said.
"No that's a cat," my mother in law whispered. The nurse walked over the window and pulled back the curtain and looked out the window.
"Ah, not to worry doctor, it's a cat."
"Nurse, what are you doing!"
"Well, you said that it might be a baby..."
"We don't have time to be conjecturing about whether something is a cat or a baby, we are a medical establishment, get away from the window and remember you are a professional!"
"Yes, sensei. Sorry sensei."

***

The term ningen dock "Human dock" was popularised by the Yomiuri Shimbun in 1954 as an annual check-up for salarymen like a ship coming into port to have the barnacles scraped off, ready to return to voyage safely around the world. 1954 was also the year that the crew of a Japanese fishing boat was  irradiated in US atomic tests that led to the newspaper working with the CIA throughout the 1950s to promote the use of nuclear power to damp down Japan's understandable anti-Atomic instincts that were flaring up again.
Fast forward to post-Fukushima Japan and nothing has changed. A nuclear accident irradiated innocent victims, the Yomiuri Shimbun is campaigning to keep nuclear power, calling all other options utopian, and their preferred party, the pro-nuke Liberal Democratic Party is leading the polls, with the tepidly anti-nuke DPJ all at sea and cruising straight for an electoral iceberg. Are there any good men left to steady the anti-nuclear ship of state?
No, but now there is a woman. Shiga Prefecture governor Yukiko Kada (an academic doctor) announced today that her party Nippon Mirai no To was going to campaign for a nuke-free future, more benefits for women and improving the work-life balance, according to the Japan Times. I don't know what that means, but if it means I don't have to work, I'm all for it. And so is Ichiro Ozawa of the People's Life First Party who promptly disbanded his party to join hers, which makes the campaign poster of his pictured here that I spotted yesterday in Abiko a collector's item.
Only two rocks on the horizon that I can see: her party has no official candidates and polling day is in three weeks.
Still, she could be just what the doctor ordered.

This blog series
 is now a great
 book. Honest.
Cleaned up and
 all presentable,
Guts Pose: Diary of a
 Japanese election
 gone bad
features a previously
unpublished afterword
 by me and foreword
by Michael Cucek.
You can buy it here.

Go to DAY 13

Monday, 26 November 2012

SCOTCH ON THE ROCKS - 2012 Japan elections diary: Day 11

Click here to go to Day 1 of the 2012 Japan Election Diary.


Democracy never tasted this sickly sweet.

Sure, Our Man joined the hipsters on Twitter mocking Richy Rich Romney and decrying Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama's drone wars. Sure, he concluded that American democracy came down to a choice between Coke and Pepsi. And sure, he argued how wonderful it would be if only people had a real choice, real variety... why, just imagine what that would look like.

It would look like a Japanese drinks vending machine.

Should you go for incumbent Noda's Democratic Party of Japan's frothy cafe latte? The only problem is it's passed its sell-by date and is only served cold. Then there's that new drink in a flash container, but we're not sure what's in it. Is it a yogurt drink, good for the old tum or a dynamic sports drink? With Ishihara-Hashimoto's Japan Restoration Association Revitalising Hot Sports Yogurt Drink, it's the new flavour for all. Consume at your own risk. There are a variety of other drinks of course with appealing packaging, some calling themselves wonda or boss, but inside they are all cans of vile black coffee.

Except one.

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party is a traditional green tea. You've tried it before. It's hard to recall now, but it was pretty bitter, not exactly what you were after, but it's warm and passable refreshment on a miserably wet day, given the alternatives.

And Abe's pretty bitter about the constitution. At least, that's the taste he wants to leave in your mouth. In the rabid world of blind nationalism, the one-eyed statesman is king. That is, when your biggest rival is talking about simulating nukes and is willing to push the country to the brink of war with an armed superpower over a few rocks in the middle of the ocean (yeah, it's not like they are important, like the Falklands - ed.) the least you can do is talk about revising Article 9 of the Constitution renouncing war and dropping the term "self-defence" from the Japanese armed forces. I'm not sure what Abe's getting at, but if it means a nation that can look after its own defences thank you very much America for all that you've done for the people of Okinawa, that doesn't sound so unreasonable.

As long as everyone with their fingers on the simulated button is of sound mind and body. Because, you know, Abe and the rest have learnt the lessons of history, remember?

Oh, and a Japan that can stand up for itself sure plays well on the streets. Japan is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore from a rising China and a bossy America. Just, someone has to pay for the cost of doing all that. You know, with taxes?

A simulated nuke doesn't grow on trees you know (are you sure? It might do -- ed.) and you know, if you want to keep building dams, concreting coastlines, turning the nuke plants back on it's going to take a lot more than the 5 percent sales tax increase whose passage sent the DPJ into a death spiral. You could always just print more money, I suppose. That wouldn't have any bad consequences, would it?

Our Man has tried his best to avoid talking about this general election as a horse race -- assessing who is in front, who is behind, who fell at the first fence and had to be shot and turned into glue that kindergarten kids can use to smear on old tissue boxes to cover in crepe paper to give as gift tissue boxes to their fathers who will keep them for the foreseeable future on the shelf above the washing machine as they don't have any use for tissue boxes covered in crepe paper, no matter how adorable the person who made it is -- because that can get tedious. Hey editor, do something about that sentence. Where is your red ink when it's needed? (Sorry, I'd drifted off. Have you hit your 1,000 words yet? If not, can you hurry up and get to the point please?)

Anyway, I didn't want to talk percentages, look what happened to Romney's campaign when he talked 47%, but they are unavoidable. You remember that nice Michael Thomas Cucek from the other day? Well, he has rounded up the latest opinion polls from this week (and last week in brackets). And they make for uncomfortable reading for anyone hoping for a sane, capable prime minister emerging from the electoral mash:

Kyodo

Liberal Democratic Party 19% (24%)
Democratic Party of Japan 8% (11%)
Japan Restoration Association 10% (8%)
New Komeito 4% (4%)
Your Party 3% (2%)
People's Life First 2% (1%)
Don't know 45% (43%)

What Our Man takes from these numbers:

1) Almost Romney's fabled 47% of voters are undecided. Or more accurately, they have decided that these guys are not their cup of tea.
2) The Liberal Democratic Party is unpopular, but half as unpopular as the Democratic Party of Japan.
3) The Japan Restoration Association could actually push the DPJ into third place.
4) Whoever wins will actually lose because they won't have a mandate to rule.

As a horse race, this thing is over. But as a Molotov cocktail, there are a few more ingredients to throw in the mix. Who would bet against the North Koreans lobbing a missile into the sea? Will the electorate wake up and remember how corrupt, inept the LDP were? And if they do, will they vote for the JRA? Is anyone interested in the folk still struggling to put their lives together after the tsunami? After Fukushima?

Whatever. See you at the bar, Noda. Mine's a scotch. You're paying.

This blog series
 is now a great
 book. Honest.
Cleaned up and
 all presentable,
Guts Pose: Diary of a
 Japanese election
 gone bad
features a previously
unpublished afterword
 by me and foreword
by Michael Cucek.
You can buy it here.

Go to DAY 12

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Zeroes over the capital - 2012 JAPAN ELECTION DIARY: DAY 10

Click here to go to Day 1 of the 2012 Japan Election Diary.

"We'll be over our target in 10 minutes, kick back and enjoy the music."
The pilot's hachimaki bandanna fluttered in the ice-cold cockpit.
It was noisy as hell and I was too keyed up, sitting in the rear-gunner's seat, to pay much attention to the music. But sure enough I could make out a tinny Glenn Miller number. The Japanese pilots knew they were getting close to Pearl Harbor when they could hear Chattanooga Choo Choo.
So the pilot told me, but our target today was the Arkansas State Capitol. We circled it a couple of times as if to strafe it, and dived with the sun behind us.
I was sitting in the back of a VAL dive-bomber of the same ilk that had struck on that infamous day. Although whether it was a replica or the real thing I don't recall now. During the week my pilot was a DHL pilot based in Memphis, Tennessee. But at the weekends, he would fly with the Tora Tora Tora air display team re-enacting battles for folks at air shows around America. Though naturally, in their retelling of Pearl Harbor, the US won the day, with a P-51 Mustang chasing the Zeroes out of the sky.
Well, you have to play to your audience.


"How come you get all the good assignments?" my editor said after I got back to the office. That was a joke. Excluding the editor, The Jacksonville Patriot had a news staff of one (me) and a girl who worked three mornings a week, so I pretty much got all the assignments. It was my second paper. I'd quit the Conway Log Cabin Democrat after two years, tired of being thought of the weird foreign guy only good for doing the weather reports, obits and fetching biscuits and gravy for the real journos. Now, I was covering the Little Rock Air Force Base, an Agent Orange incineration plant, not to mention all the Rotary and Lions Club International lunches you could shake a press pass at.
The editor was a pretty good fella, despite being a born-again Christian. But we did have our differences.
He was adamant Paul was better than John. His argument was that if you compared their solo careers, any reasonable man would agree.
"Wings was so much better than the Plastic Ono Band."
"That's not Lennon's fault."
"What about Live and Let Die? Band on the Run?"
"What about Working Class Hero? Imagine?"
"Two words: Revolution No. 9"
"That's three. Two words for you: Frog Chorus."
And so on and so forth, a battle neither side could win. Or risk losing.


The war is still casting a shadow over Japan. It would be nice to think that this election the country could finally put the damn thing to rest, but every would-be PM has his position informed by nationalist agendas.
Ishihara's is the clearest. He told John Nathan in a New Yorker article on the origins of his nationalism: “The Americans could see that we were kids, but they would strafe us anyway, for fun. One day I had to throw myself into a barley field. As I lay there, the Grummans and P-51s came roaring over me, flying low, and I could see that they had pictures of naked women and Mickey Mouse painted on the fuselage. I couldn't believe my eyes! I was scared to death, and angry but I was also thinking what a place America must be, what a culture, and how different from Japan. Then I heard other planes but no machine guns this time; they were Zeros in pursuit, and their insignia was the Japanese flag. I felt like reaching up to embrace that rising sun.”
He denies the Rape of Nanking: ”People say that the Japanese made a holocaust but that is not true. It is a story made up by the Chinese. It has tarnished the image of Japan, but it is a lie.”
Young Hashimoto, Ishihara's understudy, is compared to Hitler by his detractors, but apart from insisting Osaka teachers stand for the national anthem and claiming the South Korean sex slaves were willing participants, the jury is still out.
Abe too has difficulty admitting that the Japanese army made use of Korean sex slaves and has difficulty in believing that "Class A" war criminals (the diplomats and generals who sent Japan to war) are in fact criminals. By the way, his grandfather was a Tojo cabinet member. Just sayin'
That leaves Noda. He too believes the Class A War Criminals are not criminals. I don't know what his views on sex slaves or the Rape of Nanking are, I daren't ask.
I have to admit that my knowledge of the Rape of Nanking, Class A war criminals and Korean sex slaves is sketchy at best. I do note that the war crime trials were hardly impartial and suffered from two massive faults: that their intention was to shift the blame from the imperial family, whom MacArthur wanted to keep clean to help with Pax Americana; and that they had nothing to say about Allied crimes against humanity, you know, Hiroshima? Nagasaki?
But even so. Call Our Man an ignoramus, but he still doesn't get why it is easier for pols to construct elaborate lies than just admit the truth. Can't the politicians just say: "Our ancestors did bad things, under direction of our government of the day, and we cannot hope to hold our heads up high in the world without fear of moral blackmail until we admit that to ourselves. We fucked up, but you can trust us now to never do that again because we have learnt the lessons of our past."
Have they?


I showed Our Woman my pictures of the men who would be prime minister and she smiled absently.
"Well, what do you think?"
"I think they should all be playing shogi in a park somewhere, not trying to run the country. They are Japanese from a different time. Is this the best Japan can offer? If it is then I'm sorry for Japan. Really sorry."
This blog series
 is now a great
 book. Honest.
Cleaned up and
 all presentable,
Guts Pose: Diary of a
 Japanese election
 gone bad
features a previously
unpublished afterword
 by me and foreword
by Michael Cucek.
You can buy it here.

Go to DAY 11

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Filtered views - JAPAN 2012 ELECTION DIARY: DAY 9

Click here to go to Day 1 of the 2012 Japan Election Diary.


In seven years, my mother in law was never once able to order a cup of coffee in the United Kingdom.

But not through lack of trying. Starbucks, Cafe Nero, Costa Coffee, McDonald's, you name it, she tried and failed to order coffee from the lot. Something about the way she pronounced "coffee" more like the Japanese "kohee" would inevitably result in a tepid cup of Earl Grey being plonked in front of her. At first this would bother her, but after a few years, she came to expect the unexpected and even took a delight in what strange beverage would appear before her, bewildered that "kohee" could be interpreted by the barristas as tea, chai, hot chocolate or Coca Cola.

There's a certain view that Japan is different from everywhere else. Piles of books have been written about what makes Japan uniquely unique, either a shining beacon to the world of what's right with urban living, robots and Buddhism; or more recently, as a cautionary tale of what's wrong with everything under the sun.

I have no intention to add to either pile. It's getting late on a Saturday night and I can't dazzle my way to any original insights or rehash an argument that would convince you, even if you happened to be sober, that underneath the sushi conveyor belts and cosplay codpieces, Japan isn't much different from any other place. In fact, go on and pour yourself a drink or two, I'll be better company if you've had a few.

That's not to say there aren't differences. But the longer I stay in Japan the harder it is for me to see the otherness of what has become home. Increasingly, I have to ask others to see any strangeness unique to the country and not just the universal strangeness that is life.

Back in my first tour of duty in Japan in '97, the otherness veneer was wearing thin and I began to suspect Japan was just the UK in a kimono. I asked a Japanese student who had lived in London what the difference between the countries was.

"That's easy. In Japan we have all the little things right, but the big things wrong."

He said if you left your phone on the table of a Ueno coffee shop, it would still be there when you return from the toilet, that the baths will be piping hot, but that the chance of a woman becoming Prime Minster would be as remote as whale being removed from the national diet.  

"In the UK, you have all the little things wrong, but the big things right."

He's right. The UK suffers from a chronic lack of water pressure, train doors that don't open unless you roll the window down and open from the outside, and if you could actually find a plumber to install a power-shower, he'd be unlikely to show up within a day or two of his promised arrival. I could go on, but this is not the Daily Mail letters page, thank Buddha. And yet despite it all, Brits manage to change their governments from right to left and back to right again, fairly frequently and with relative ease.


Not so in Japan. News broke today that a chap took five people hostage at knifepoint in an Aichi Prefecture bank to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Noda. Which was really a waste of effort as, er, he has already jacked it in. You know, that's why there's an election and everything? Perhaps the fella should read the papers more. Police nabbed him when he fell asleep in a chair at 3am on Friday (perhaps he had been reading the papers...? ed.) about an hour after I'd finished writing yesterday's diary entry. Must admit, I'm relieved to discover there is a soul passionate about the Japanese election who knows even less about it than Our Man.

Well, I might as well do a round-up on other news that has filtered through to the bunker here. Hashimoto, the Outlier from Osaka, the junior partner to Ishihara has admitted the obvious -- their party can't hope to win a majority of the 480 seats in the Lower House since they won't be able to field more than 150 or so candidates. But he and The Ishihara are clearly scaring the mainstream. 

Noda and Abe appear to have agreed to do a one-on-one debate on the internet. I thought this would be a mistake for Abe, who is technically the favourite but might not be if people actually heard him mangle the language, and a gift to underdog Noda who could have a reasonable chance to be understood at Starbucks, but I realised I was missing a trick here.

An internet interview sounded all very down with the kids and all, but actually it's politics as usual: by going the internet route, they are avoiding having to debate with Ishihara which if the programme appeared on TV, they'd have to include all the candidates by law. Being only fair and all. So, now Our Man has to keep an eye on YouTube as well as read the paper. 

He's given up doing the big things right, but hopefully Our Man can get the little things right.

This blog series
 is now a great
 book. Honest.
Cleaned up and
 all presentable,
Guts Pose: Diary of a
 Japanese election
 gone bad
features a previously
unpublished afterword
 by me and foreword
by Michael Cucek.
You can buy it here.

Go to DAY 10

Friday, 23 November 2012

It's the stupid economy -- 2012 JAPAN ELECTION DIARY: DAY 8

Click here to go to Day 1 of the 2012 Japan Election Diary.


You could tell it wasn't going to go well by her half-hearted bow.

The junior high school student tried to turn the knob at the back of the chair to lower the seat, but it wouldn't budge and she perched herself on the edge, hunching over the Steinway grand piano, head tucked between her shoulders like she was trying to hide from the onlookers. But her expression was betraying a guilty conscience. I thought of those particularly insensitive teachers who say stupid things like "just enjoy it" before an exam. The enjoyment is all theoretical, academic. Not real. Not enjoyable.

As far as this poor girl was concerned, she was heading to a public execution. But she started strongly, getting through the first few bars with no difficulty, but then her fingers faltered and she had to backtrack to find her place again. The audience held its breath. She found her place again, but then a few flat notes billowed through the hall and before long she was just picking out the odd riff with her right hand and clawing blindly with her left.

She stopped, and I wondered if tears would flow instead of the music, but she turned a page and continued, haltingly. The old folks in my field of view had fixed expressions, not so much from the suffering of listening to her massacring a show tune, but out of sympathy of how much she must be suffering. It seemed cruel and unusual punishment to make one so young go through with so public a humiliation. In this corner of the world, a mistake or two due to inexperience or lack of skill can be overlooked, but failing to practice for such a public spectacle is unforgivable.

I looked away. I searched twitter on my phone. I actually started to read a business story in the Japan Times about Abe. Not out of disrespect for the perfomer, but out of embarrassment for her. I wanted to be as far away from here as she did, I couldn't bear to add to her misery.

So I read the first thing that came to hand. The biz briefs. Stocks in Sony and Panasonic were downgraded to junk status by Fitch. I don't know who Fitch is, but this is apparently significant. Our Man and Woman had his and hers Panasonic mountain bikes as a wedding present back 15 years ago. My eldest has a Sony mp3 Walkman. This may or may not be significant.

Finally, her fingers came to rest, the halting music expired. It was over. The audience gave her a measured round of applause, 50 percent politeness, 50 percent relief. Her choice of song was My Favorite Things.

This blog series
 is now a great
 book. Honest.
Cleaned up and
 all presentable,
Guts Pose: Diary of a
 Japanese election
 gone bad
features a previously
unpublished afterword
 by me and foreword
by Michael Cucek.
You can buy it here.
So it was that I found myself back in Inzai for the second day in a row, this time for the annual piano show that my girls' piano teacher holds in the Inzai Civic Hall, a great public hall with seating for a thousand. Today, it was host to 30 kids and their families in the morning and again in the afternoon. That's a maximum of 200 people using the hall over six hours. A hall with a Steinway. A hall with a parking lot, staff and heating, lighting, not to mention its own traffic lights.

You could take this as a sign of the affluence of a nation that could afford to throw such resources at the fostering of kids' piano lessons. Or you could take this as a sign that the nation that was going to take over the world in Rising Sun back in the 80s has blown its fortune on concrete multi-purpose halls (the "no purpose halls" of Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons) that scar the landscape in a similar way to the giant box retail stores in the US.

Whatever. Somebody has to pay for it.

But not me. Or anyone today, because November 23rd is a national holiday to celebrate labour and productivity. At least it has been since the end of the war. Before that it was Niiname-sai the imperial harvest festival. But times have changed since then.

I forced myself to read about the "right wing" LDP's economic policies under Abe (so you don't have to, dear reader). It appears that he is against the Trans Pacific Free Trade blah blah blah and that he is in favour of quantative easing and fixing interest rates. I'm not sure what this all means, but I take it that he doesn't want folk to buy cheap groceries from the Americas and Australia, that he does want to print money and if the governor of the bank of Japan doesn't like it, he's out of a job. Doesn't sound very right wing to me, but what would I know? Economics is not one of my favourite things. Cheap Chilean and Australian wine is though, and a strong yen, as that's the currency I'm paid in. But apparently that's stupid, according to the business pages. Well, according to me, I think they're stupid. Howdya like them comparing apples to oranges, huh?

I did read something else via Twitter today that could be construed as business-related and to do with the Japan election, so it deserves its place in this entry. According to Phil Brasor, writer for hire and the bunker's favourite columnist at the Japan Times, Ishihara's sudden resignation as governor will cost Tokyo taxpayers $50 million to foot the bill for an election to find his replacement. Which will be Naoki Inose, his former hand-picked vice mayor, who has been endorsed by the LDP and of course his former boss Ishihara.

Hmmm. A crass disregard for other folk's money. An inability to keep his stupid mouth shut. Got it. Ishihara is the Donald Trump of Japan politics.

I'm going to quantitively ease my backside into bed now, in preparation for another day.

Go to DAY 9