Friday, December 31, 2010

Burning Bright

The Year of the Tiger is just about gone. I count it as the year when I entered middle age, not exactly a welcome thing but one that was inevitable. It has been a fairly good year, all things considered, with roughly as many ups as downs; I've always known that you need valleys to be able properly to appreciate mountains, so I can't really complain.

I have reestablished contact after a very long time with at least one highly valued old friend this year, and that makes up for a lot of the less happy surprises I encountered.

Blake's The Tiger is from his Songs of Experience while The Lamb is from Songs of Innocence. Most of my innocence is far behind me, but I'm looking forward to lots more experience in the year to come, and--with any luck--many years ahead. I've pretty much always valued experience over innocence, anyway.

I hope the past year has been good for you.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Saved from the Flames

Stories in the news about house fires are depressingly frequent in Japan, and it seems as if they usually involve deaths. I don't think that this is due to less reporting of fires that don't result in death or injury; there are plenty of reports of fires that only do property damage, but I get the impression that a disproportionate number of fires are deadly. Since many of the victims are children, it was particularly gratifying to hear about a fire in which all four children survived.

Personally, I think that it was extremely irresponsible of the parents to go out leaving such young children unattended, and that they are very, very fortunate even though they have probably lost most or all of their possessions. I can certainly understand the desire of a couple in their mid-20s to go out together once in a while without the kids. There aren't a lot of places where a young couple can bring along kids aged 2, 3, 5, and 6 and enjoy themselves more than the kids do, even if you ignore the near-certainty that caring for the kids is going to make the outing more of a chore than a joy.

Since this couple went out at 10 in the evening and hadn't returned by midnight when the fire broke out, I think it's likely that they went our for a drink (it seems too late for pachinko, another common reason for leaving children unattended). I don't know anyone in drinking establishments, whether staff or patrons, who can honestly say they like having little kids around. Some people make polite noises and perhaps comment on the kids' cuteness, but I believe that nobody in a bar thinks kids really belong there, and it's absolutely certain that noone thinks the kids are as cute as their parents do...particularly when the kids get bored or tired and start whining, crying, and running around. Only the most oblivious of parents can fail to notice that, really putting a damper on their social life.

In Japan, at least in big cities, getting a baby-sitter isn't generally a viable option for parents who don't have relatives living nearby, either, particularly late into the evening. Adult neighbors typically want neither the responsibility nor the aggravation, and teenagers don't generally have that much free time. There are cultural/social issues with paying non-professionals for such services, too, and with their accepting pay. And obligations incurred must be repaid, one way or another. There's also a certain amount of social stigma attached to leaving one's children with "a stranger"--even a neighbor or friend--even assuming one could find a willing one and wasn't worried about repaying the favor.

So I can understand, but not condone, the desire of the young parents to go out leaving their kids alone but apparently asleep, thinking that they'd be safe by themselves for a few hours.

Unfortunately, Japanese homes aren't that safe, particularly from fire.  There are numerous reasons for this. Small, often cluttered homes that are either built of or filled with flammable material are the rule rather than the exception. Many homes--although well-stocked with electronic gear and appliances--have inadequate power supplies and insufficient or inconveniently placed wall outlets; this leads to lots of extension cords and multiple-plug taps, often stuffed behind or under furniture, and even if there's no short circuit from damaged wires, the heat buildup can cause fires. Particularly in winter, when the humidity in much of Japan is very low, fires tend to start easily and spread quickly. Ventilation tends not to be very good, heaters--especially older ones--are often not particularly safe, and escape routes are rarely wide or unobstructed even if smoke inhalation hasn't already removed escape as an option.

A building fire alarm, and presumably a (still relatively unusual in private homes) smoke detector that triggered it, combined with a neighbor both awake and alert, managed to avert a much greater catastrophe than this fire could have become. The kids were saved from the flames, and I'm very happy to see it. I hope that the news
will motivate at least a few parents to reconsider when they think about leaving their kids alone in the house, even for a short while.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Up in Smoke

For the first time in quite a long time--like several years--I attended a meeting of the Tokyo PC Users Group, a group in which I used to be quite active. I've been the president of the group, and the VP, and I was the editor of the newsletter for seven years, too. Back in the old days, I had a lot of fun and learned a lot as a member of the group, and it was pleasant to show up again at their meeting held in the basement hall of of the Tokyo Union Church and speak with some of the old friends with whom I've not had much chance to interact for quite a long time.

The inducement to attend was a presentation by Hugh Ashton on independent publishing. It was a very informative and potentially useful presentation, especially interesting because I've read both of his books that he used as examples: Beneath Gray Skies and At the Sharpe End.

It's a long-standing post-meeting tradition to walk down Omotesando  to Shakey's Pizza and continue conversations begun at the meeting over pizzas and pitchers of beer, and in the old days the more valiant--or foolhardy--would, after being ejected from Shakey's at closing time, walk back behind the building to a complex of bar/restaurants that included a branch of the Tex-Max Zest chain where one could investigate a variety of tequilas or just eat nachos and guzzle margaritas.  Once upon a time, we'd go to to an old favorite of mine in the complex, Zenon, where they kept a half dozen bottles of Freixenet Cordon Negro just for me, with which to chase the Myers's rum they also kept on hand for me and my friends. Zenon vanished with the bubble, pretty much, but Zest lasted a long while, as did Oh, God!, an odd little billiards bar that showed movies every night, and a so-so Cajun restaurant/bar upstairs called--unaccountably--La Haina. It wasn't uncommon for the hardiest of the crew to drink and talk until it got light outside...and since the TPC meetings are usually on the first Thursday of the month, that meant an interesting Friday work day.  But we were all somewhat younger then.

I arrived in Omotesando much too early for the meeting, and was dismayed to find that Zest--and indeed the entire restaurant complex--had disappeared and been replaced by an amazingly ugly glass and steel building housing, as nearly as I can tell, a place selling something called "Gorilla Perfume".

Even Ozymandias's legs had been done away with; no trace of the former character-soaked building remained. I had really been looking forward to a tequila or two, while trying to recover from my first actual viewing of the absolutely execrable "Omotesando Hills"...they replaced historic, interesting old apartments with a huge complex of shops which look from the outside like the world's largest construction site prefab workers' quarters. At night, lit up, they go from terminally bland to remorselessly garish, and I sincerely hope that they--and the architect who inflicted them on Tokyo--are relentlessly haunted by baleful, unforgiving ghosts forever moaning and mourning for the days when some vestiges of good taste still remained in the area.

After the meeting, I was looking forward to at least the hour or two of beer, pizza, and conversation, just like old times...until I found that Shakey's has, for the month of December, and for the sake of those customers who enter the place to gaze at the illuminated ginkgo trees lining the street outside, made the entire restaurant into a no-smoking zone. This means, to me, that they don't want my patronage, so I declined to enter. I won't be going back when they change their policy back, either. In fact, since I don't care for the attitude behind the policy, you won't find me in a Shakey's anywhere, ever again.

The remainder of the evening was salvaged (somewhat) by Michael Wright, who suggested we hike a bit further and visit a local branch of a taproom selling craft beers. The place started in Numazu, and I'd heard of their branch in Naka-Meguro. I confess that their excellent ales seduced me to stay for more than one even though they, too, turned out to have a no smoking policy. They at least have an ashtray outside the door...if not for that, I wouldn't even have mentioned the place (nor stayed for more than one beer, maybe not even one). I see no need to provide a link for them if they won't provide a smoking space for me, though, other than outside in the rain, so if you're interested, you can search for them yourself.

It seems that Omotesando has been added to my list of places to which I can never return, because they have become something too different from what I remember.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Video Ahoy!

A lot of TV airtime has been spent recently on the Senkaku Islands collision video released to YouTube last week. It was a sensation at first because the Japanese government had refused to release it except for a very brief version shown--rather reluctantly it seems, and certainly quite late--to a small group of legislators. This stance was somewhat understandable at the very beginning of the incident, since the captain of the Chinese vessel accused of purposely ramming a Japan Coast Guard ship had been apprehended but not yet tried: the video footage would have been evidence in a trial.

But then the captain was released and repatriated, ostensibly by the local prosecutors' office without pressure from national government politicians. If you believe that, in the face of China's heavy-handed response to the captain's arrest--reducing rare earth exports and arresting Japanese contractors for photographing supposedly secret military areas (a set-up if I've ever seen one)--then you're a lot more gullible than I am.

The captain returned to a hero's welcome in China. Japan was accused of  "caving in" to Chinese pressure or lauded for calm diplomacy in contrast to China's thuggish approach, depending on who was talking/writing. Attempting to capitalize on their "victory", with the typical tiresome so-called "spontaneous" anti-Japanese demonstrations here and there across the country as a background, the Chinese government tried to further their claim to the islands, conveniently ignoring the fact that China had regarded--and even recognized in writing--the islands as Japanese (or at least Ryukyu Kingdom) territory for ages...until it became known that the area is likely to be rich in resources. Suddenly it became Chinese territory.

All of this has become business as usual when dealing with China, and if anything the rare earth export reduction is arguably counter-productive, since it highlights the risk of over-reliance for critical resources on a single source, especially if the source is prone to economic gunboat diplomacy at the same time that it's increasingly running real warships through sensitive waters.

Other Asian nations can hardly have been surprised, given the long-standing Spratly Islands issue, by the way, but that's a story for another time, perhaps.

For that matter, the problem with over-reliance for resources on possibly hostile providers must have had some deja vu notes for any Japanese who have studied--or are old enough to remember from personal experience--the run-up to World War II.

In any case, the collision video, which had been described from the beginning as clearly showing the Chinese boat ramming the Japanese patrol boat, remained unseen by the general public. Once there was no longer a possibility of its being used as evidence in a trial, the only rationale for keeping it under wraps seems to have been an attempt to avoid offending China. This approach didn't impress either the opposition parties or many (most?) of the general public.

Apparently it didn't sit well with at least one member of the Coast Guard, either.

A 43-year-old man who has been described as an "officer" in the Coast Guard has--after a week or so of media frenzy about who leaked the video--reportedly admitted to uploading it from an Internet cafe in Kobe near his ship's berth. Since details of his name and rank haven't been made public as of this writing, it's not clear whether he's a commissioned or warrant officer or a petty officer. It's also not entirely clear how he obtained a copy of the video, although it seems to have been pretty freely available to many Coast Guard members through their computer network. This is important both because of what it may reveal about weaknesses in the organization's data control systems and because of the degree of secrecy that was afforded to the data; the latter may make a big difference in what the Coast Guardsman is charged with, depending on whether it can be regarded as having been secret information when he released it.

Many Japanese government organizations, both local and national, have had problems with the security of their data in recent years. Some of the leaks have been accidental, including those due to careless use of file-sharing software applications. Others have been more sinister, with data illegally sold to unauthorized parties.

This leak, however, judging from a TV journalist's interview with the man himself prior to his public revelation, is different. It appears that he uploaded the video because he felt that the public had a right to see it, and by implication at least felt that the government was wrong in continuing to suppress it.

Public response so far, at least to the extent that one can trust the mainstream media to report it objectively, seems to be leaning in favor of the man being a hero who should not be punished. Others apparently feel that regardless of his personal feelings/beliefs, he violated a trust in a manner inappropriate for a public servant. There certainly is a case to be made for either opinion; which you prefer is up to you.

Either way, I think it's pretty likely that his career in the Coast Guard is finished. The opposition party is--predictably--even calling for the resignation of the Coast Guard commandant to take responsibility for the leak. It's difficult to imagine a mere patrol craft crewman continuing his career under those circumstances. The future wouldn't be a bright one for him or his family even if he weren't old enough to make new career opportunities extremely difficult to find.

Personally, if the truth is as it appears to be, I wish that I were a wealthy owner of a steamship line, so that I could offer him the job that he's almost certainly going to need.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cheers, Mike

I just received an e-mail notification that an old friend, Mike Marklew,  has passed away.

I first met Mike when he was managing the now-defunct Tokyo British Club in Ebisu. I was a member for the last year of its existence, and spent a lot of time talking and drinking with Mike both in the members' bar upstairs and in the public bar, the Barley Mow, on the ground floor. It was he who gave me my "Big Mike" nickname, because there were so many other Mikes among the regulars there; it could get complicated to figure out which of us was being discussed  in some of the ale-fueled conversations.  Toward the end of the club's existence, when money for wages was tight, I did some pro bono bar tending in the Barley Mow to help provide some time off for the depleted staff. Mike was always quick with a clever quip or a well-poured pint, whichever side of his bar I was on.

Shortly after  the British Club closed its doors for the last time, Mike oversaw the construction and opening of The Black Lion Pub in Meguro. I was a regular visitor there even when the pub was still a construction site in what had been a parking lot and small office, before they had their operating license, when--since they weren't yet legally allowed to sell drinks--the "bar" was an ice chest filled with bottled beer, and there was a bucket for "building fund donations" in lieu of a cash register, and I've been a regular there since. Mike ran the place for a few years before moving to other places, and eventually moving to the UK to care for his elderly mother.

We've kept in touch by e-mail since then, with much of the volume of our correspondence being a constant flow of jokes and amusing pictures or videos from him to me and a huge collection of his friends, interspersed with a few more serious messages and updates on what he was up to. Once in a while he'd ask for help or advice on some computer problem, which I was always happy to give if possible. More often he'd pass along information about mutual acquaintances in various parts of the world--and even in Japan after he left--with whom he kept in touch far more diligently than I have.

I'll miss Mike's loyalty to his friends, and his witty observations on just about anyone and anything. I'll miss his inexhaustible stock of anecdotes, many from his extensive travels and numerous jobs throughout his life. I'll miss seeing his name in my e-mail inbox and wondering what odd bit of humor, wit, or clever observation I could look forward to seeing. I'll miss the feeling that, even though he's far away, an old friend is--or soon will be--enjoying a pint and observing, with an amused twinkle in his eye, the human condition.

I'm pretty sure that Mike had a firmer belief in an afterlife than I do. I hope he was right, because I'd like to think that he's sitting at the corner of some celestial pub's bar, where the pints are always perfectly poured, and it's always Happy Hour.

Cheers, Mike.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Colonel!

Harland David Sanders, "Colonel Sanders", the founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain, and arguably the inventor of the modern restaurant franchise system, was born on September 9, 1890.

Although the first KFC store I visited was in Japan (the same is true for McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King, none of which were particularly prominent in San Francisco before I left in '70), I've made up for it over the years with considerable consumption. I still remember how excited my Navy buddies were when  the KFC shop opened in Enoshima, and the chicken-buying expedition that we mounted from our home in Akiya/Tateishi. If memory serves, this was the first shop opened after the initial introduction at Expo '70 in Osaka.
I remember a lot of parties and a lot of late-night pit stops on the way home from wild revelry in which the Colonel's chicken took a starring role as the only solid sustenance.
So, Happy Birthday, Colonel, and thanks for the memories!

Edited to fix the Akiya link

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Over 35 but After the First

Although there's a tentative but welcome breeze blowing through the Tokyo area today (apparently brought by a typhoon approaching slowly from the south and west), the heat wave persists and is expected to do so for at least another week or so. Several records have been broken around the country, and the unusually fierce and long summer heat  has been a constant news item for many weeks. In fact, it has become even more newsworthy now that it's September, and we should theoretically be experiencing the beginning of autumn weather. Except for that breeze, no such luck: the nights continue to stay above 25 degrees Celsius, and the daytime highs are above 35--and sometimes close to 40--all across the country.

Thus, I was somewhat surprised to see, in a TV  news story last weekend, that the still numerous visitors to Shonan beaches were complaining about the umi no ie (literally "ocean house(s)" or "house(s) at the sea") having stopped operation and indeed being dismantled. These temporary but sturdy structures house restaurants/bars and often offer showers, changing rooms, and a place to rest, along with rentals of beach chairs, umbrellas, inflatable boats, and the like.

When the weather is good, these places do a lot of business, particularly--but not only--on weekends and public holidays. They're often the only practical place for beach-goers to get a cold drink, a bowl of flavored shaved ice, or something to eat. Unless you bring your own umbrella, they can be the only place to get a little shade, too. They set up each year at the landward edge of the beach, quite a few of them on any reasonably large and popular beach, and operate throughout the summer season.

The tricky term is "summer season". The report I saw, with thirsty bikini-clad girls complaining in the foreground and umi no ie being rapidly dismantled in the background, was filmed on the fourth or fifth of September. The temperature was 37 or 38 officially in the area, which means probably at least three degrees higher at the beach in the sun. But it was after the first of September, so the summer season was over.

I don't know just what sort of financial arrangements these establishments make with the local government (and probably the local yakuza as well) for permission to set up shop on the beach. Their existence is beneficial in providing a service to the visitors and in doing a lot to prevent heat stroke cases, and the local government gains financially as well.

It's not unreasonable to imagine that someone would have thought to arrange for a couple of weeks' extension, since the sun, the heat, and the beach goers are still very much around.

Someday maybe I'll look into just what sorts of permissions and charges are involved in operating an umi no ie, but for now I'll just remain bemused that they are being taken down even though the only indication of the end of summer is gradually shortening days and the numbers on a calendar.

I am bemused, but I can't honestly say that I'm surprised. I spent several years early in my stay in Japan living near the beach. In those days, I found it odd that virtually nobody--except for a few surfers, anglers, and die-hard sailboaters--went to the beach until the first of July, and they all disappeared at the end of August. The local Shinto priests would have a beach opening ceremony (they do such rites on popular mountains and hiking trails, too), and the next day the beach would be covered with glistening, reddening people. Come September, the crowds would melt away. This was pretty much regardless of the weather, although in then-typical years it used to start to become noticeably brisk toward the beginning of September, especially in the morning and evening. Typhoons would start to proliferate around then, too.

Recently, however, both the weather and people's leisure patterns have changed considerably. It's hot--very hot--earlier in the year, and it stays that way later in the year. People tend to do things in smaller groups and travel a lot more by car than by train. And, for various socio-economic reasons, many people--especially young ones--have more spare time on their hands whether on weekdays or weekends.

It no longer makes much sense to close down your beach-side business at the beginning of September, particularly when there are still hordes of potential customers watching you do it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Survival Unaffordable

Recently a 76-year-old man was found dead in his home in Saitama, having perished from heat stroke. In the continuing heat wave, such news has become all too common. Indeed, with 31,579 people having been rushed to hospitals with heat stroke between June 1st and August 15th this year, individual heat stroke cases rarely make the news these days unless there is something unusual about them.

Nearly an entire school baseball team having to be hospitalized for heat stroke after practice games that began around seven in the morning was, for example, sufficiently bizarre--or at least unexpected--to merit special media attention. Ordinarily, starting in the cool early hours should have been enough to avoid such severe dehydration, but lately the early hours haven't been that cool: temperatures as high as 35 degrees by 10:30 in the morning have been registered, because nights don't cool off as much as they used to. In the Tokyo area, for instance, there have been 36 excessively muggy nights this summer so far, when the average had been 16 for the same period.
The heat stroke deaths of four people in their 20s last month also got media attention, because except for people engaged in strenuous activity heat stroke is thought of as being particularly likely to strike the elderly.

In the central Tokyo area (i.e., the 23 wards), there were 104 deaths from heat stroke in the last month as of yesterday.  Over 90% of those Tokyo deaths were people aged 65 or over. Somewhat surprisingly, over 95% of those people died at home, rather than out in the sun as one might expect. Indeed, 40% of them died at night.

Various reasons have been advanced for this, including older people not noticing the heat as much, or not drinking enough perhaps because they don't feel as thirsty as younger people might. Reduced overall stamina may be a cause, too. Reluctance to leave air conditioners on all night also seems to contribute: assuming that it will become cooler late at night, and setting the air conditioner to turn off after a couple of hours can be deadly if the temperature stays high.

The poor fellow in Saitama was a grimmer case. Investigation showed that he had lived for the last 10 years without electricity or gas; he couldn't afford to pay the bills, and used a flashlight at night when he used light at all. His son (the Japanese reports call him "the oldest son", but it's not clear whether there are any other children) is injured and unable to work, and it appears that the father either couldn't or wouldn't apply for government assistance, most likely the latter.

Although the Kanto Plains area doesn't get as cold as it does in, say, Hokkaido or Niigata, the Saitama winters over the last decade must still have been terribly harsh for an elderly man with no electricity or gas. I suppose that he survived the cold with many layers of clothes or blankets. The recent heat wave, with no air conditioning, no fan, little or no breeze, and relatively little relief from the heat even in the middle of the night, seems to have been just too much for him.

While I have plenty of sympathy for people who collapse from heat stroke while working in their fields or gardens, or while walking over the heat-softened asphalt on sales visits to their customers, I feel particularly sad when I think about this poor senior citizen who stuck it out for 10 years without basic utilities, before finally succumbing to the heat, because he couldn't afford the means to survive.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Respected or Forgotten?

Recently the  mummified corpse of a man who, were he still alive, would be 111 years old and Tokyo's oldest man, was discovered. His immediate family had apparently followed his orders to leave him alone in his room so that he could "become a living Buddha" the style of legendary monks, apparently by starving to death or dying of dehydration, and he's thought to have died 30-odd years ago. Until he was finally found, the ward officials had believed him to be their oldest living resident.

This was followed shortly by the realization that a woman who is--or would be--113, and Tokyo's oldest resident,  can not be located.  Her daughter, with whom she is registered as living,  apparently thought she was living with a younger brother in another city. The daughter has had no contact with either relative for years, and a check of the brother's address has shown it to be a vacant lot on its way to becoming part of a new road. The last news I heard about this case was that the police had finally located the brother, who informed them that his mother had died years ago. The news story I heard implied that further investigation was proceeding.

These two cases caught so much media attention that not only investigative reporters but even the various ward and city offices involved have begun to try to determine the whereabouts of the least those 100 or over. As I write this, the total nationwide whose location (or even current existence) cannot be verified has risen to 56. Tokyo had 5 so far, Osaka 18, Hokkaido and a couple of other prefectures 4 each, and several other prefectures one each, the last time I saw a breakdown.

I imagine that the number will rise, across the nation, as people are belatedly checked on more aggressively. There are (probably) over 40,000 centenarians in Japan, after all. If the confirmation parameters were expanded to include those over, say, 80, the total would no doubt be surprisingly high. If all those over 65, the basic starting age for pensioners, were investigated, the total of citizens for whose location or current condition (i.e., whether they are still alive) cannot be confirmed would probably be astounding.

In some countries, this wouldn't be too surprising. Not all countries, or cultures, are highly focused on actively keeping track of their citizens' whereabouts and health conditions. At the risk of sounding cynical, I'd say that this is particularly true of those citizens who are old enough not to be taxpayers any more. To be fair, many societies are not willing to put up with too much government checking into their lives. Not a few people resent even regular census efforts as an invasion of privacy and an unacceptable level of meddling in their lives. Many countries lack the resources even if they have the desire.

Japan, however, requires every resident to register with his or her local government office, and to update the records when they move. Citizens need a current copy of the juminhyo (residence registration) for all sorts of things, such as buying or selling or renting property, acquiring a driver's license, making credit or other contracts, applying for jobs, buying a vehicle, and pretty much anything else that requires more than very simple proof of identity.

For foreign residents, some of them centenarians who are also "missing", this essential document's purpose is served by the infamous  gaikokujin toroku shomeisho (proof of foreigner's registration), which we are all required to carry at all times. A document verifying the registration can be acquired from one's local government office and used in place of the juminhyo.

Note that the juminhyo, or its foreigner equivalent, can only be procured from the local government office in which one is registered. If you move to another administrative area (generally speaking, to another ward or city), you are obligated to transfer your residence registration to the new locale.

So, theoretically, the government has a record of where each of its residents resides. There are further records (family registers) by household and/or family, with a smaller version for individuals, wherein births, deaths, and marriages are recorded along with information about who the head of the household is, and who has left the household/family. Copies of these rather more detailed records are also sometimes required by, for example, prospective employers, or for registering a marriage or the paternity of a child.

In addition, many if not most local police forces have traditionally made rather concerted efforts to canvass neighborhoods to determine who lives where. Pretty much every time I've moved in Japan (about a dozen times), a local cop appeared at my door within a week or so, politely inquiring about who I am and whom I'm living with. The downside of this is that the police may know more about you than some people might be comfortable with, the upside is that visitors who get lost trying to find your house in Japan's semi-chaotic house numbering system can ask at the local police box with a strong chance of getting precise directions, sometimes even a police escort. If a catastrophe befalls one's house--say a fire, earthquake, or meteor strike--the police have a pretty good idea of at least who might have been expected to be there when the disaster struck.

With all this interest in and record-keeping for residents' locations, it has become a (belated, in my opinion) source of surprise that the government can't locate so many of its senior citizens...or even confirm whether they're alive or dead. It has also become a source of embarrassment for the local governments who are supposed to be keeping track of their residents (not least because there are sometimes issues with where pension payments have been going, and who might have been spending them).

Of course, if you don't do anything that requires a copy of your residence documents, you're pretty much "off the radar".

The reasons I've seen given so far by government officials for why they've lost track of their citizens have centered on right-to-privacy issues. This may lead to a change in the law governing protection of personal information. In at least some cases, government workers who have inquired about the elderly in their areas have been turned away by relatives, or been unwilling to go beyond pressing ineffectually at unanswered doorbells. In more urban areas, the decades-long trend of people not really knowing much if anything about their neighbors has contributed to the difficulty of getting information about unresponsive residents.

Nobody has mentioned it yet, at least in the national media that I've seen, but there may also be a problem with a lack of coordination between government departments:  most people's deaths are reported to the local government office, either by relatives or by the police, and I suspect that the reports haven't been circulated to everyone who ought to know, so that one department may know that someone has passed away, while another department in the same office may still have them on their resident rolls. Of course, this may not be the case, and as I say I haven't heard it mentioned, but it wouldn't surprise me much.

I imagine that at least some of the people may have quietly disappeared--with or without the knowledge of and/or reports from any relatives--and become homeless, or wandered off into the woods, either way perhaps eventually to have become unidentified corpses. If there's no landlord worrying about unpaid rent, and no concerned relatives or friends, that's not at all inconceivable. There are even more disappearances--95,989 in 2004, for example--than suicides in Japan every year (about 30,000), and I don't think that anyone is systematically correlating disappearances, found missing people, and unidentified corpses. As far as I can determine, there doesn't even seem to be any systematic correlation between disappearances and suicides, at least at a national level.

I doubt that anything that looks like a natural death of someone not immediately identifiable inspires much  effort from the police to determine who they might have been, unless there's a local missing person report, and probably one that's pretty recent. I suppose that there is, unfortunately, not much reason for the police to spend limited resources on them if nobody else seems to be concerned.

When the annual national holiday, Respect for the Aged Day, comes around, there are always plenty of human interest stories in the news about people who have managed to live to 100 or beyond.  Reporters interview them, local government people visit them and present them with small gifts, and so on. Some of them may even become media celebrities, for a while at least.

In Japan, as in most of Asia, in principle the elderly have traditionally been respected, even revered, for their experience and presumed wisdom.

It's a pity that nobody seems to know where so many of them are, or indeed even whether they're alive.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Flashes in the Windows

After days of sizzling, muggy weather, the utterly still air suddenly began to move yesterday evening, accompanied by a definite drop in temperature. I was looking forward to a little rain, for relief from the mind-numbing heat, so the distant muttering of thunder would have pleased me even if I weren't a thunderstorm fan.

"Cool!" I thought to myself, and cool it soon became. I should have listened to the little inner voice saying "Be careful what you ask for".

Up in  the Saitama/Gunma border country, thunderstorms can be pretty dramatic. That's fine with me, since I really enjoy the flashing and crashing and booming. Down in the largely rural flood plain at the base of mountains to the west and north, with few tall buildings and virtually no hills, the view of lightning bolts striking all around the horizon is spectacular, too.

After a sweltering day punctuated with PA system public service announcements urging citizens to avoid "entenka"--"being under the burning sky"...very poetic and very accurate--I was looking forward to a short, violent, squall-like summer shower.

I wasn't looking forward to the multiple brief power outages caused by some apparently very close lightning strikes. I definitely wasn't expecting to be unable to reboot my computer after the first blackout. The prospect of losing all kinds of data and applications was a shock, and when I tried to recover, the operating system's helpful suggestion that I repartition my hard drive (accompanied by the diffident comment that this would destroy any data on the drive) quite ruined the great mood that the thunderstorm had brought.

Since I didn't like that advice, and since although I couldn't get Windows to boot in any mode at all, I did get a very brief Windows splash screen and a too-fast-for-the human-eye-to-follow error message with the infamous blue background, I decided that maybe there was still hope for the data on the drive, so I tried other alternatives instead. It took a while, during which I said some pretty vile things about both the OS and my so-called surge protector.

I did finally get the system back up and functioning, though, with no significant damage that I can see. An unexpectedly happy ending, and an educational one: when lightning flashes started illuminating my windows again this evening, and the artillery of the gods began to rumble, I shut down the PC. Some Windows are better shut during storms.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Raining pretty hard, isn't it?"

Every time there are floods and landslides, whether from an unusually heavy rainy season or from a typhoon, the TV news programs of course show lots of video footage of the destruction and of the disruption of people's daily lives. The impact of scenes of collapsed hillsides, washed-away roads, buried houses, and engulfed streets and shops is undeniable. It's grimly fascinating to see rushing rivers--carrying trees and maybe even cars or parts of houses--surging perilously close to bridges, or to see people paddling rubber boats above drowned streets and parking lots.

For those of us living in eastern Japan, these sensational reports can even serve a practical purpose: since such weather generally moves from west to east and south to north, we can see what may be in store for us in the near future and--to some extent--prepare for it.

Unfortunately, reporters--or more accurately the directors and producers who tell them where to go and what to say--can't leave well enough alone.  For some reason it is deemed necessary to have endless live reports from areas where there really isn't anything useful to say, and in the case of night-time programs, nothing useful to see, either. I actually feel sorry for the poor reporters who gamely try--but invariably fail--to say something intelligent about the height or ferocity of rivers next to which they are standing, but which their cameras are unable to show because of insufficient light.

Similarly pointless live reports are done from, for example, in front of police stations after suspects in major crimes have been arrested, with comments limited to "so-and-so has been arrested and is being questioned in this police station but there is no further news at this time". At least they have a police station to show, and it's sufficiently well-lit.

That's very different from showing a square meter or so of water surface, the maximum that can be lit by the film crew's best efforts, and trying to make dramatic observations about something that, from the viewers' point of view, might just as well be a swimming pool.

I feel less sympathy for the media people who decide that it's not enough to show and describe the effects of flooding and landslides, so they try to inject some "human interest". The idea isn't bad; the implementation is almost invariably dire, largely due to the ridiculous questions they ask.

For example, following a shot of water cascading down the stairs to a basement bar, a reporter was shown interviewing the owner the next day. The poor proprietor is standing in the water-logged wreckage of his business, shoveling sludge and looking forlornly at the soaked and muddy furniture, carpets, and walls. The reporter asks, "Is this going to be difficult to clean up?" and "Will there be much impact on your business?". It's a tribute to the patience of the bar owner that he didn't chase the news crew out of the place with blows of his shovel, screaming "What kind of stupid questions are those, you morons?".

My leading candidate so far this season for egregious stupidity in reporting is a film sequence I've seen repeated maybe 30 times in the last week. Two guys, trouser legs rolled up, soaked to the skin in the torrential rain, are trying to push a pickup truck through knee-high rushing water. The reporter asks, "Did your engine stop?".

That's beyond banal. It's beyond stupid. What possible answer could be expected? "No, we turned the engine off and are pushing the vehicle in a downpour because we are masochists", perhaps?

Then there's the old standard "How do you feel?" which I recently saw a reporter ask a guy whose home had been crushed by a landslide and washed, with all of his possessions, down a raging river. To me, the only reasonable response would be, "I feel like throwing you and your camera crew into the river".

Every year, the various TV networks run what they call "NG prize" programs...what would be called, I guess, "blooper awards" in the US. These "outtakes" are mostly misspoken lines in dramas or news programs, sometimes they're physical goofs like breaking sets, falling on news locations, and the like.

I'd quite like to see a similar program based on a collection of clueless reporters' questions, perhaps with a suitably ironic-voiced narrator offering possible suitable responses.

I admit that it could be difficult to come up with appropriate answers to some of the more outrageously idiotic questions. Questions like that of this post's title, which is a quote from a reporter in the middle of a record-breaking downpour, surrounded by cars only a few centimeters from being completely submerged.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Wrestling with Gambling

The latest scandal bedeviling the sumo world involves, as anyone who has read a newspaper or watched TV lately knows, wrestlers and stable masters revealed to have been gambling. The biggest problem involves wrestlers who have been betting on professional baseball, with the apparent involvement of the yakuza. Extortion added fuel to the media's fiery denunciations of the sumo association's oversight, and the usual parade of ex-policemen, sports journalists, essayists, lawyers, and various "experts" of various kinds appeared to add heat--but not much light--to the "discussion".

It didn't help that the gambling news came very soon after the scandal about yakuza having been provided with ring-side seats so that they would appear on TV and encourage their imprisoned friends watching the televised matches from their cells.

It could have been worse; the sumotori could have been betting on sumo matches, but I haven't heard even a hint that any of the wrestlers or stable masters were doing that. The news about baseball players caught betting on baseball barely lasted a day, being eclipsed utterly by the sumo gambling scandal.

So now an ozeki and a stable master have been fired, numerous others  have been suspended, the sumo association is reeling in disarray, and there was serious doubt for a while about whether the upcoming Nagoya basho (tournament) would take place.

NHK, after waffling for a couple of weeks, decided not to do their regular live broadcast for the first time in over 50 years, and several companies decided to withdraw their long-running (and very lucrative)  sponsorships, at least temporarily.

I can follow the strong negative reaction to gambling wrapped up with the yakuza, particularly since the news followed rather closely on other scandals involving drug use by a couple of wrestlers, a fatal hazing incident,  and the spectacular fall from grace of ex-yokozuna Asashoryu after what seems to have been a drunken brawl.

Canceling the Nagoya basho would have been very unfair to the many other sumotori who have been diligently practicing and were evidently uninvolved in gambling. I think NHK (no strangers to scandals themselves, by the way) made a very bad call in deciding not to televise the tournament. They claim that 68% of the 13,000 viewers who contacted them advocated not televising, but I very seriously doubt that's an even distribution of viewer sentiment (what about the millions who didn't call?), and it's definitely punishing the innocent.

It was predictable, though, as were the various sponsors' flights: they are trying to avoid being tainted by scandal and being seen as supporting malefactors.

What bothers me most about this whole situation, though, is that it's not only about betting on baseball, or even about gambling involving yakuza. Some of the suspended wrestlers were gambling in card games or in mah jong games, and although I might have missed it, I haven't heard that those involved the yakuza. Nevertheless, many announcers and news analysts (along with those ubiquitous "experts") have been wringing their hands and making all sorts of outraged noises about all of this terrible gambling.

Give me a break.

I've known hundreds of people who play mah jong, and known of maybe a couple of thousand more, and every single one of them played for money. Maybe not a lot of money but, like friendly poker games, people who play mah jong bet on it. Including probably at least half—and I'm being very conservative here—of the people on TV who are bemoaning the moral turpitude of the sumotori who did it. I don't really know about card games, since I haven't seen or heard of that many card games being played in Japan. But virtually every adult who plays mah jong--and that's a lot of people--bets on it.

I'm not a gambler myself, but if I were I'd be very unhappy to be reviled for it by anyone who plays mah jong, or even pachinko, the vastly popular pinball game in which—very ingenuously—one wins prizes, not money,  so it's not technically gambling…but every pachinko parlor has, within a few steps of the door, a place where those prizes can be exchanged for cash. I've known a couple of professional pachinko players, in fact; quite a few people make a living at it.

Castigating people, sumo wrestlers or not, for doing what millions of their countrymen do daily—gambling for money--is amazingly hypocritical. Unfortunately, in Japan blatant and widespread hypocrisy is something that you can bet on happening.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Road Test

The government has begun its experiment with toll-free expressways. As nearly as I can determine from the maps they've been showing on TV, 50 rather small sections scattered throughout the country have been declared toll-free and are being observed for changes in traffic flow on them and on nearby ordinary roads.

The total length of the sections is said to be about 20% of the total expressway length nation-wide. Although there are some areas of Japan in which I haven't driven--basically southern Kyushu, northern Hokkaido, and all of Shikoku--I'm still pretty sure that the segments they chose for the experiment are among the most remote and least-traveled. It seems to me that the only thing making them even marginally useful as a test of going toll-free on the whole expressway system is that they do seem to be pretty much evenly scattered geographically.

Unfortunately for any validity to the experiment, the population of Japan is not even close to being distributed geographically. In fact, without having checked but based on pretty fair empirical knowledge, the 50 sections seem largely to avoid areas of dense population (and, of course, heavy traffic).

Early reports showed an average of 163% usage of the now-free expressway sections, compared with the same time last year, and as much as 270% in one area of Yamagata. I suspect that the beginning of Yamagata's lucrative cherry season may have a lot to do with that figure, as truckers take advantage of reduced costs.

Predictably, nearby railway operators are unhappy, and have responded by offering discounts--some in combination with local taxi companies--to encourage people to ride trains instead of driving on the newly-free expressways. Truckers  interviewed on TV were also predictable in being happy about reduced costs but concerned about the likelihood of increased congestion and traffic jams.

It looks to me as if some of the roads, both national and prefectural, near the test expressway sections will naturally become less congested as many drivers opt to use the expressways instead. Other than that, I see little real benefit for most of the areas chosen on the experiment, since it's virtually impossible to see how any real impact on tourism can be expected from such localized piecemeal changes. From the Tokyo area, I believe it would cost me several thousand yen to drive to even the closest of the free sections, for example.

I also fail to see how the choice of areas can possibly be of any real use in determining the results of making the whole expressway system toll-free.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Stop 'n' Go

The other day a guy drove his van from a parking lot straight into a "conveyor belt" sushi restaurant, injuring a dozen or so people. Most or all of them were sitting in the waiting area between the glass front of the shop and an interior partition. Judging from video of the aftermath, it's surprisingly lucky that nobody was killed: the van was completely inside the store, which was thoroughly wrecked. The driver claims to have mistaken the accelerator pedal for the brake pedal.

I've written about this phenomenon in my now-retired weekly column; you can try following this link to read it while the archive still exists. Accidents caused by drivers who confuse the gas and the brakes are proliferating, and although many of the drivers seem to be older folks, by no means all of them are. In fact, not all of the accidents are in or around parking lots, as one might expect, either. There have been a couple recently on expressways (the drivers reacted--too late, and very badly--to stopped traffic ahead by hitting the gas instead of the brake and slamming into the back of the last vehicle in line, causing multiple vehicle accidents) or on ordinary roads (one I remember was a driver who panicked in a curve, dramatically sped up instead of slowing down, and launched his vehicle through a guardrail into a house beyond it).

Most of the media comments I've heard about these accidents have been focusing on the age of the drivers, implying that their judgment is impaired and their reactions both slow and wrong, or else on the probable fatigue (if in heavy holiday traffic) and/or inexperience (if they're young) of the drivers. I've tended to suspect that drivers only familiar with automatic transmission vehicles are a major part of the problem.

But the guy who drove into the sushi shop was only 59, the accident happened during the daytime in a parking lot, and he's a professional truck driver.

I don't expect to see a follow-up story, so I'll never know further details, I guess, but it doesn't seem as if age, physical condition, or inexperience can be blamed in this case.

For many, many years I have habitually tried to avoid sitting in public places in seats where I can't see the entrance; I like to see people entering before they see me. I suppose I'll have to start avoiding the front areas of shops, bars, and the like, now, lest someone run me down indoors.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Take it to the Bank

Is it only me, I wonder, that resents being forced to open bank accounts? I don't mean "instead of keeping money under the tatami" or "instead of burying cash in the garden". I mean being forced to open yet another bank account for the convenience of some company that owes (or will owe) me money, but wants to pay it into a particular bank, even a specific bank branch, of their choosing.

This practice allows companies to minimize the charges they have to pay for making bank transfers, and in some cases to avoid the charges altogether. Since checks are rarely used here, either by individuals or by organizations, the transfer transaction fees can mount up pretty quickly, even at the rate of a hundred yen or so each time. The company clerks' jobs are somewhat simplified, too, because they have fewer accounts to keep track of.

Often—but not always—the company will arrange for the account to be opened, requiring only that you fill out and sign/seal a form. In a week or so you get your bankbook and ATM card in the mail.

That's registered, return-receipt-requested mail, so you either have to be at home when the postman comes, or else arrange to pick it up or have it re-delivered at a specific time. "Specific" here can mean a window of a couple of hours or as much as a half day. Having to arrange your schedule for the sake of some company's convenience is another annoyance in the forced account process.

Keeping track of the balances in multiple accounts, some of which may be for rather small amounts such as transportation or other expense reimbursements, can be troublesome, too. Lately many—but by no means all—banks allow some transactions or account balance confirmation to be done online. That's better than taking the bankbooks down to the branches of each bank, or poring over mailed statements, but it's still a time-consuming hassle…and remember that this for your client's/employer's convenience, not yours.

Depending on the bank, but in every case that I've personally encountered so far, most changes to bank accounts require that the account holder go to the specific branch of the bank where the account exists, during office hours. This seems to be required for such things as getting a new bankbook or ATM card (some banks have started allowing this to be done by a combination of e-mail and postal mail, to be fair, but it's still a hassle), changing the signature or seal for an account, and closing the account.  That means that although opening the account may be as simple as filling out a form that your client/employer gives you, closing it will probably mean a special trip and very likely a long wait. Leaving an account with no activity for a while is sure to result in phone calls from the bank telling you to use the account or close it, so you can't really just ignore accounts you no longer use.

What's more, in my case, there are a couple of banks that I prefer to avoid using, either because I find them more than usually unethical (the once-scandal-ridden Sumitomo Bank, for example) or because I've been particularly unhappy with their "service" (Mitsui Bank, for example, which happily charged me extra for 24-hour-service on transfers, but took four days to accomplish them because the "24 hours" meant 24 hours after enough people's printed transaction records were finally gathered at the branch to make it worthwhile, and taken by hand to the head branch of the bank, from which they were then—finally--transferred). You can imagine how happy I'd be at being forced to use a bank representing a merger of my two least favorite banks.

Since the justification offered is typically either "everybody does it (implying 'without complaint')" or "it's much more convenient for us", I am not persuaded, and I don't like being forced. However, the alternative is not being paid, and I like that even less.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Banned Beards

I see that the town of Isesaki in Gunma has decided to ban facial hair on their workers, due to complaints from some people who apparently found dealing with bearded men "unpleasant".

The ban coincides with the start of this season's "Cool Biz" campaign, when employees are allowed--encouraged, in fact--not to wear jackets and neckties. This makes it easier to set air conditioner temperatures higher, or turn them off entirely, to save energy costs and maybe have some effect on climate change and such phenomena as the "heat island effect" (Isesaki's not sufficiently urban to worry about that effect, though, I'd think).

I don't really see any logical connection between the beard ban and the Cool Biz campaign, but I had to laugh at the irony in the statement from the Isesaki City authorities: "public servants should look like public servants". Evidently coatless and tieless public servants are OK, but beards and mustaches don't fit the acceptable image.

I presume this means that a dozen or so of Japan's prime ministers, including Itō Hirobumi, who was Prime Minister four times, didn't look like public servants. Nor, say,  Saigō Tsugumichi (the younger brother of Saigō Takamori), who was an admiral and served as Navy Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs. Nor Ōkubo Toshimichi who is regarded as one of the founders of modern Japan, and who served as Minister of Finance.

Perhaps they, and the many other bearded and mustached politicians and civil servants and military men who have served Japan over the years, didn't fit the image of public servants held by whatever petty bureaucrat(s) came up with the idea of banning facial hair in Isesaki. I'd be willing to bet that any one of them did a great deal more for the citizens of Japan, though.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Fatal Distraction

A young woman was accidentally struck and killed by an arriving train at a train station in Nakano, Tokyo yesterday morning. She was hit in the head by the leading edge of the third carriage as the train was still slowing to its stop at the platform. I'm sorry to hear that someone lost her life, and I'm sure that her friends and family must be devastated. Unfortunately, my sympathy is somewhat tempered by the circumstances leading to her demise.

Witnesses at the scene agree that she was intent on using her mobile phone as she walked to the very edge of the platform, and she either didn't notice the arrival of the train at all, or else severely misjudged its speed and position relative to her.  She very clearly didn't heed the warning announcements about standing behind the yellow safety line. In fact, she wasn't hit by an oncoming train; she was hit by one that was already passing in front of her as she walked into it. Evidently she was so intent on whatever operation she was performing with her cellular phone that she was pretty much unaware of her dangerous situation. She perished not so much out of carelessness as out of fatal distraction.

One of the news programs reporting the incident had a staff member visit the area outside the station, to observe cell phone use there.  They reported that there were "too many people to count" walking while talking on cell phones, and counted at least 10 walking head down, intent on sending text messages, including some who set out to cross the intersection without stopping to check the traffic signals or look for oncoming traffic. They also interviewed several people, including an elderly woman who said she'd been walked into by oblivious people using cell phones, a young woman who admitted to having crossed streets several times without checking for lights or traffic while reading or sending messages, and a 30-ish "salariman" who said he'd nearly been hit a few times while engrossed in playing games on his phone while walking.

It's certainly easy to find pedestrians anywhere around Tokyo (and, I assume, throughout Japan) with most of their attention on their conversations or text messaging. It's quite common to find bicyclists and motorists, including people driving large trucks at high speeds, with most of their attention on their phones. Both while walking and while driving, I've frequently had to swerve or stop quickly in order to avoid people like this; it probably happens to me four or five times a week, on average.

It would be comforting to believe that the woman's death yesterday would at least serve as a lesson, or a warning, to people about letting the phone become so distracting that it presents a danger to themselves and those around them. I very much doubt that will happen though, since everyone seems to think that they are paying sufficient attention to their surroundings, and can successfully and safely "multitask"…it's other people who are oblivious.

I imagine that the young woman who died yesterday believed so, too, before her fatal distraction.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Unbecoming Speech

Back in the the '70s, I managed several restaurants, including a steak house, an Italian restaurant, a couple of fast food outlets,a delicatessen, and even an ice cream shop. I mention that previous career only so that you will understand that I actually know something about hiring and training waiters and waitresses. These days, my contact with service personnel in the “hospitality industry” (i.e., the bar, restaurant, and hotel business) is only as a customer, but I haven’t forgotten my past.

A while ago, I was watching a television program about the training of personnel in new restaurants. The program showed a couple of expert consultants and how they helped the managers of the soon-to-be-opened shops. One of the things that caught my attention was the training in language: the store managers and their service staff were being taught what expressions should--and shouldn’t--be used. I was very pleased to hear that one of the most common expressions I hear in restaurants, and one that has always bothered me, is in fact wrong.  The expression is: "(something) ni narimasu", as in, for example, when a waiter or waitress brings your order to the table and tells you, “Ebi (shrimp) tempura ni narimasu”.

That has always bothered me. It seemed to me that the expression was used in a misguided attempt to sound more formal/polite, even though "de gozaimasu" (a formal form of "is") would do the job quite well. I suspected that the phrase has become so common that service personnel, and their bosses, had begun imitating the mistake.

My Japanese, although it certainly isn’t native speaker level, is quite adequate for most situations, so I thought that I at least understood what “narimasu” means: "becomes" or "will become". My unspoken reaction to that very common " narimasu" expression has always been “OK, but what is it now?” or “How long do I have to wait before it becomes what I ordered?".  

I haven’t (yet) been so unkind--though I’ve definitely been tempted--as to ask the waiter or waitress directly.  Certainly so far whatever has been brought to me looked as if it was already tempura, or a steak, or a pint of Guinness, or whatever else I ordered. In some cases, it’s really intriguing to consider what it might be if it’s still becoming what I ordered. If something, for example, is becoming a raw oyster, then what is it now?

So, I was happy to see this consultant on the TV program sternly correcting the store managers and service personnel, using almost exactly the words that I’ve always thought: “It’s not becoming a sirloin steak; it’s already a sirloin steak!”

[This appeared in a somewhat different form a few years ago on a different website. Unfortunately, the phrase still seems to be as popular as ever.]

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Limited Express

One of the DPJ's announced aims was to do away with expressway tolls. They said--and still say, in a vague and unconvincing way--that Japan's expressways would become, well...freeways.

The 1000 yen weekend and holiday discount was supposed to be a step toward this. I've talked about this earlier, and although I wouldn't call it a complete failure, it certainly has been far from an unqualified success. The real motivation seems to have been stimulating domestic tourist spending in the hinterlands rather than trying to learn anything from the experiment regarding making expressways free, as was sometimes claimed. It certainly "enhanced" traffic congestion.

Now the government has come up with a new plan, and its recently announced details seem to have made almost nobody happy. Based around a 2000 yen cap on tolls, it actually raises the tolls for short (under 70 km) runs, and puts the so-called Metropolitan Expressway on a stepped distance-based scale, with the highest toll for ordinary passenger vehicles 200 yen higher than the current flat rate of 700 yen.

Short-haul delivery companies and truckers are understandably upset, as are those who remember that just around the time that the Metropolitan Expressway was supposed to have paid for itself and become free, the tolls were raised from 500 to their current levels. Now they are, for many potential users, being raised again.

Nevertheless, these changes are being touted as reductions and  as steps toward making Japan's expressways toll-free.

Then there's the issue of whether it makes sense to buy and install the costly ETC equipment. I'll bet a lot of drivers who bought them to take advantage of the 1000 yen holiday rates are kicking themselves now.

I'm certainly not going to buy an ETC device, and I wouldn't even if I did enough expressway driving to justify it by the slightly increased convenience and minimally faster toll gate passage. I might save myself a total of 10 minutes or so between northern Saitama and my office, but with the new rates my tolls would go from 2600 yen to 3400 yen.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Bigger They Are

My old friend David, he who supplied the title for my last post, reminded me that I hadn't mentioned the parking issue that contributed to my moving vicissitudes. It would obviously have been easier to rent a big truck and do the  whole move at once instead of making multiple trips with my car. If the civilian parking wardens weren't such persistent pests, that's exactly what I would have done. However, since curbside parking would quickly get me a ticket, the only safe and reliable place to park during the move is shown in the photo of my bike from my May '08 post. There's less than twice the length shown in the picture available, so only a fairly small vehicle would work.

Although I haven't reconnoitered thoroughly yet, my initial scouting of the new office's immediate environs hasn't turned up any place to park a bike, much less a car. Maybe I can make a deal with the gas station next door.

Unfortunately, I'm not going to have to worry about that for a while, because I probably won't be able to ride the bike for at least another week or so. I've got a sprained left wrist and/or thumb, the palms and fingers of both hands are scraped, swollen and bruised, and my left elbow and knee have got some "road rash", too.

That's not the result--as it probably sounds--of a bike wreck; I merely tripped and fell on the street the other morning, and (mostly) broke my fall with my hands.  I was immediately reminded of Dr. Jack Horner, the paleontologist whose controversial opinion that T. Rex was a scavenger rather than a predator is partly based on a theory that it was so big and had such relatively weak arms that a fall at fast running speed would likely have been fatal.  "The bigger they are, the harder they fall"...luckily, although I'm pretty big I'm not that big, and I have quite strong arms and hands with which to break my fall.

So, I wasn't injured that seriously, but it's going to take a while before I'm able to grip the bike's clutch lever strongly enough to change gears. In fact, I've had to type this post using only my right hand.

Unpacking all of those boxes is going to have to wait a week or so, too.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Moving Experience*

I've been working out of the same office in Shiba, near Tamachi in Tokyo's Minato Ward, for well over a decade, maybe closer to two. The company recently decided to move out of the building and into another one in  the Shibaura area. The "ura" means "back" or "behind", and indeed Shibaura is on the other side, the Tokyo Bay side, of the train tracks. It's a somewhat less prestigious address, but presumably the rent is less, and these are financially difficult times.

The move--as of the end of March, and the end of the Japanese fiscal year--coincided, coincidentally, with my birthday, my retirement as a full-time, permanent employee and the start of the next phase of my career as a contractor/consultant.

For the last three weeks or so of March, though, I was rather less concerned with changes in addresses and statuses than I was with the logistics, and the manual labor, of moving.

Everything had to be removed from the old building by the end of the month. To make things more interesting, I'd been working in a more-or-less private office with three desks, two large bookcase/cabinets, and three file cabinets...all of them filled with books, texts, files, and miscellaneous equipment, mostly stuff I'd collected and/or produced over the years, but some acquired by the company (a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, and dozens of translating dictionaries) or left behind by colleagues who had long ago moved on to other jobs. In the new office, I've got one desk in a typical Japanese open-plan office.

Much of the stuff could be, and was, thrown out or sold to recyclers, but a lot of it had to be moved. This meant a great deal of sorting, packing, carrying boxes, and making several 150 kilometer round trips from home to office in my car, a smallish SUV. I could have used a couple of professional movers and a 2-ton truck, but you make do with what you have.

I ought to mention, for the benefit of my readers who aren't familiar with traffic conditions in the Kanto Plains area, that the trip from the wilds of the Saitama/Gunma border country to southeastern Tokyo takes a lot longer than someone from--for example--northern California might expect. The 75 or so kilometers can be driven almost entirely on expressways with a nominal speed limit of 80 kph, but unless it's three or four in the morning, it will probably take three or even four hours.  Most of that time is likely to be spent fuming in the  exhaust from cars moving at glacial speeds on the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway, the last 10 or 12 kilometers of the journey.

Having learned that the hard way many years ago, and being unwilling to add insult to injury by actually paying the 700 yen toll to participate in a world-class chronic traffic jam, I opted for a "lesser evil" solution. I took the Kanetsu Expressway (which is usually pretty fast, as long as it's not ski season) to the outskirts of Tokyo, and then ordinary roads to the office. That's a better strategy than using the Metropolitan "Expressway" (an extraordinarily inapt name), but is still somewhat tactically deficient if you're doing it at the end of the fiscal year. That's when the infamous "let's do all sorts of road and other public works construction now so that our budget isn't reduced for next year" activity kicks in. The predictable result was around 45 minutes for the first 65 kilometers getting to Tokyo, and two hours or so for the next 10 within it. It worked the same way in reverse, except for one day when I left Tokyo before dawn.

There is, of course, the option of not using expressways at all. If you don't mind dealing with an astonishing number of signals, roads that expand and contract from two lanes to six and back, and hundreds of sleep-deprived truck drivers, you can save the 1400 yen for the Kanetsu, the 500 yen for the Gaikan connecting ring road, and the 700 yen for the Metropolitan Expressway...but it'll probably take over four hours and the stress--even if you're like me and really like to drive--will probably take a month off your life expectancy. I can only recommend that option for masochists.

In any case, I did manage--just barely--to get a ton or so of stuff packed and moved by the deadline.

I don't want to think, just yet, about unpacking and finding storage space for it all.

*Thanks are due to my old friend David for the title.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

This is Becoming a Habit (and I'm Glad)

On this day last year I wrote about how surprised and pleased I was to hear from a long-lost and very dear friend. She sent me an utterly unexpected e-mail message and really made my birthday a happy one.

Come to think of it, I guess I can't call her "long-lost" because she has certainly not been lost; if anything I guess I have. But I know where I've been...pretty much. It's really contact that was lost.

Today, in any case, she managed to astound me again, by calling me on the phone!

I hadn't been having a particularly good morning, as I proceeded with the now weeks-long task of packing up the accumulated stuff in my erstwhile office. Tomorrow's the last day for removing what remains of my possessions in the office I've occupied for many years. The company has moved to a new office, and they're vacating this building. I have a single desk there instead of multiple desks, bookshelves, and file drawers, and I've been sorting and packing and transporting stuff for longer than I would have believed possible (or necessary). There's just one carload left, though, or at least I hope so. In any case it has been tiring and rather depressing.

Hearing my old friend's voice wishing me a happy birthday and talking about old--and new--times immensely improved my outlook, and once again, with even greater intensity, made my day!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Glimpse of the Future

Many, even most, of you know that I've been writing a weekly column for my employer for a few years now. Called Glimpses of Japan, it started as a column in a company internal news magazine and was intended to introduce or explain Japanese customs, trends, pastimes and the like to non-Japanese employees both here and abroad. Some time after that magazine was phased out, I was asked to revive the column--but this time aimed at English-reading Japanese--as a tool to attract repeat visitors to the company website. Before long it was moved from the company website to a "mail magazine", so people could subscribe to it and have it sent to their PCs or cell phones.

The idea was for me to write a fairly brief piece about whatever I--as a long-term foreign resident--considered worth commenting about regarding Japan, whether observations or opinions. I was billed, with some justice, as being "karakuchi"; when used about wine or sake, that means "dry", but about comments I guess it is best translated as "acerbic" or "caustic". I'm often enough cynical, and I suppose I've been caustic enough to deserve the label.

The column, a blog of sorts, seems to have been fairly popular, and it produced some thoughtful and thought-provoking comments from readers. Now, out of a desire either to economize or to reduce my workload, or both, the column has been discontinued. The last installment is here while it lasts; I'm not sure at the moment whether the archived back numbers will continue to be available.

Except for a few holidays, I had to submit Glimpses by every Friday afternoon to a colleague for formatting and uploading; sometimes work schedules moved the deadline to Thursdays.  Once I started this private Balefire blog as an experiment, I had to be concerned about avoiding duplication, but since my posts here are erratic and rather infrequent, that wasn't really much of an issue. Meeting a weekly deadline, often when other work deadlines were also yapping at my heels, was an issue, and sometimes quite a tricky one. There were times when I just didn't have anything to say offhand by Wednesday night or thereabouts, so I watched a lot of late-night news programs in ambush mode, waiting for something that would provoke a sarcastic comment from me...and a topic for the next column.

I'm not going to miss some of the stress associated with six years' worth of weekly deadlines. On the other hand, I'm something of an excitement junkie so I probably will miss some of the end-of-week pressure and adrenaline. I've also already been told by a few readers that they're going to miss Glimpses, so--tentatively for now, since my work situation is going to be in a state of flux for  awhile--I intend to increase the frequency, and probably the average length, of my posts here. Although I'm not going to be writing specifically for  non-native readers of English, a lot of the posts are likely to be on the sorts of topics I chose for that column, and I'll probably include some expressions and figures of speech chosen with that audience in mind. Rather than explaining what might be obscure to that group, though, I'll solicit questions as comments, and answer any questions there.

At least, that's the plan for now, if one can justify calling  a glimpse into a possible future a plan.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Rum, Reggae, and...Curry

When I was very young, reading some of my grandmother's collection of old Reader's Digest magazines, one of the ubiquitous little filler items--sometimes jokes, sometimes household tips, sometimes witty observations--caught my attention and tickled my imagination. This one merely reported that there was a pink log cabin with a sign saying "Frenchy's Chinese Oasis" in someplace like Minnesota, but I have remembered it for half a century.

The memory of that incongruous and eclectic restaurant image was stirred when, 10 years or so ago, I first saw a flyer advertising Arun's. "Reggae Shot Bar", it said, and "Bangladesh Food". I find odd combinations like that fascinating, almost irresistible, and I visited Arun's that very evening. I wasn't disappointed, either.Their selection of rums was better than usual for Tokyo, the reggae music was well chosen, the food was uninspired but definitely tasty , and the prices were reasonable. As for the interior decoration, I think that the next time somebody asks me to explain what "funky" means, I'll send them to observe the decor at Arun's as a learning experience.It's pleasantly bizarre and comfortably shabby, and I quite like it.

Posted by Picasa
This is a very recent picture, showing the relatively new awning and (mostly) repainted exterior.  There's a more artistic one here (be sure to click the "image info" button in the upper right) that seems to be from 2008 and shows details of the old awning, and a customer-written review here from late 2006 with some shots of the interior and a couple of the dishes on the menu.

Arun's is only about a few minutes' walk from Oimachi Station, and it's worth a visit even if only to bask in the mildly surreal atmosphere for the time it takes to drink a little rum and maybe eat a samosa.  

Monday, March 1, 2010

Caution is the Quay

All day Sunday every channel on TV had a blinking, color-coded tsunami warning map of Japan overlaying about 20% of the screen, much/most regular programming was replaced with tsunami news, and coastal areas were constantly subjected to a barrage of PA system and emergency services vehicle announcements warning people near the water to evacuate and to stay away from the seashore.

The waves from the Chile earthquake arrived in due course, with less force than had been feared, but with some pretty dramatic scenes of quays submerged until nothing but the tops of bollards could be seen, and waves rushing upstream in rivers.

Earthquake-prone Japan is no stranger to tsunamis; almost 200 have been recorded. In 1498 one even washed away the building that once housed the Great Buddha in Kamakura, a considerable distance from the nearest beach. More recently, the 1993 Okushiri tsunami killed nearly 200 people with a wave over 30 meters high. The memory of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami is still pretty fresh, and there have been many documentaries and news stories since then about the potential danger of tsunamis. One originating as far away as Chile is not lightly dismissed here: it is often mentioned that the one caused by the 1960 Chile earthquake killed 199 people in Japan. So the government, quite rightly, was not inclined to take this newest tsunami threat lightly.

There are always some people who fail to exercise sufficient caution (I hesitate to say "common sense", because it so demonstrably often isn't that common). Quite a few surfers rushed right out to the Pacific beach at Kujukuri, Chiba, intending to surf the tsunami, and had to be warned back by the local police. I predicted this scenario...I've known a lot of surfers.

Perhaps less understandably--but equally predictably--one of the remote camera video feeds on the news showed a couple of people who went down to a harbor edge, in one of the areas with the highest warning level, at the height of the first tsunami wave. They were apparently undaunted by the fact that the quay was inundated by a wave almost sufficient to cover the tires of vehicles parked on it, and deep and strong enough to force the guys to climb atop a block wall. What motivated them to head for the sea when 70,000* people around the nation's coasts were heading away from it to shelters, and after several hours of persistent warning announcements, is a mystery to me.

*This was the figure that seemed most reliable at the time I wrote this post, a little after midnight Monday morning; later in the day other numbers were published, including the probably pretty reliable ones from quoting a Kyodo News estimate of 520,000 nationwide ordered to evcuate, of whom 320,000 were in Aomori, Iwate, and Miyagi. They say "About 30,000 people actually moved to public evacuation centers, according to the Kyodo News estimate", but it's not clear to me whether that's a nationwide total or referring to the people in those three prefectures only.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Watching the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, I was somewhat surprised to see Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah being performed.

He's a Canadian, and he's a great poet, lyricist, and singer. I've liked him and his work for a long time, and I've liked the song since the first time I heard it...which was only a year or so ago; I was surprised at the time that I hadn't come across it earlier, and disappointed that I'd somehow missed it until then. There are several versions that one can watch/listen to, although the one I first saw was on YouTube.

I would have liked for Mr. Cohen himself to have performed the song at the ceremony, but k.d. lang's rendition was one of the better covers I've seen, brilliantly performed, and she's a Canadian singer/songwriter, too, so that's fine, I suppose.

If you didn't catch it, it's well worth searching for when it makes its way to reruns, video, YouTube or wherever. Meanwhile, there's a version here that she did at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction of Leonard Cohen in 2006. Somewhat different, but also good.

I was, however, wondering about the choice of song. I was listening to a simultaneous (well, almost) interpretation in Japanese, which I always find distracting: the English and the Japanese each vie for my attention, and I never feel as if I'm getting as much information as I would if I were listening only to one language or the other. I believe that I heard somebody describe the song as a "song of peace", which is nice Olympian sentiment but isn't the way that I'd describe the lyrics.

And I don't really see how, for example, "love is not a victory march" or "I did my best, it wasn't much" fit into the whole Olympic Games picture.

Nevertheless, it is an excellent song, and the performance was a suitably impressive part of a very impressive opening ceremony.

So...ah...hallelujah, I guess.

How Singular

I was somewhat desultorily reviewing the information available on the web regarding terror birds, motivated by a program I'd been watching on the National Geographic cable channel. I'd seen the program--or one very like it--some time ago, and (typically for me) I was again doing something else at the same time. Consequently I missed a detail: the name of one of the bird's prey, described as a mammal unrelated to any now extant. This piqued my curiosity sufficiently that I made an attempt to identify it. In that particular quest for impractical knowledge, I have so far been unsuccessful.

However, in a process that's not entirely clear to me, I somehow came across the "technological singularity" concept. I vaguely remember having heard the term before, but if I ever knew what it means I'd forgotten, and further investigation led to mention of Singularity University. I'm sure that I hadn't heard of that before, and I'm surprised, since it's the sort of information that I usually encounter in the course of my regular reading and research.

So now I know, and I have something else to monitor and think about.

I also have the amusing realization that a quest for information about the Miocene led to information about the (near?) future.

Monday, February 1, 2010

In Whatever Comes Our Way

Among the factors making driving in Tokyo interesting are the many narrow roads, bad visibility at corners due to foliage and/or structures, vehicles parked at the roadside, ubiquitous construction sites, and widespread lack of sidewalks. When you add all of the death-defying bicyclists and oblivious pedestrians--and not a few wildly incompetent motorists, some driving huge trucks--you have a great arena for lots of excitement, with more thrills than a circus.

Having grown accustomed to the more common street scenarios and the typical antics of the people involved in them, I'm not that easy to surprise any more. It doesn't necessarily require surprise to provide an adrenaline rush, though, and I'd much rather be thrilled than bored, so I'm not averse to a fair bit of excitement and entertainment.

There were more acts than usual in one day recently.

First there was the guy who sprinted out from behind a parked truck, across a narrow but well-traveled road, right in front of me. He didn't merely dash, he was running full out, perhaps because he realized that the light was red for him, and cars were zipping by, and he thought he stood a better chance for survival if he ran faster through the traffic. I probably would have hit him, had I not seen the shocked look on the face of a driver in the oncoming lane. He saw the runner coming from the other side of the truck that hid him from me on my side of the road, and slammed on his brakes just in time to miss him; I downshifted and braked hard on the strength of the driver's expression, so I just brushed the runner's coattails.

A couple of hours later I came across a middle-aged woman on a bicycle, pedaling furiously against the lights, crossing a major multi-lane thoroughfare, with a look of fierce determination, shouting "Get out of the way!" repeatedly and glaring at all of the cars and trucks screeching to sudden stops to avoid hitting her. I have no idea whether she was color blind, or confused, or just clueless.

Only a couple of hundred meters further on, a compact van came up from behind me as I waited for a light on a narrow one-way street, the driver blaring his horn to get the half dozen cars behind me to move over so he could pass. We let him by, and he sped through the red light. I have no idea what his story was.

Later in the evening, another of the Tokyo street circus performers appeared with a new act: this young woman was holding a mirror, a makeup case, and a cell phone; she was attempting to apply makeup and send text messages, while riding her bicycle. Evidently it took a lot of concentration, since she had no attention to spare for the drivers and pedestrians who had to dodge around her.

I thought that was it for the day, and I was only a few minutes from my destination, when the last performer suddenly zipped out of an alley from behind a hedge. I had to swerve a bit to avoid him, and then did a was a junior high school kid riding--somewhat unstably but undeniably--a unicycle.

It's going to take big cats or elephants or something to appear in the Tokyo street circus before I'm surprised or even very thrilled at what comes my way, now.

I've already seen plenty of clowns.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Looking for Adventure

Recently I've been having, with unusual frequency, dreams that share certain characteristics. Although not identical enough to accurately be called recurring dreams, they have been notably similar both in "plot" and overall theme, and that has made them memorable and thought-provoking.

They all involve rushing around, by motorcycle, by taxi, on foot, or all three. With a constant sense of urgency and dogged determination, I'm striving to accomplish something while overcoming irritatingly frequent obstacles. All of this harried and exasperating activity takes place in a sort of stylized version of familiar yet oddly changed places. Shibuya, Aoyama, Akasaka, and Yokohama--all places where I've lived, worked and played for many years--form a recognizable backdrop to all this frenzied activity, but they are all considerably different from reality...they all resemble something you might see in an adventure movie set in Asia in the '20s or '30s, dramatic in mood and stunning in detail, exoticized and romanticized into scenes from an Indy Jones or Charlie Chan movie. The Dragon Lady or Fu Manchu would fit right in.

They're not nightmares, but they're certainly not restful or calming dreams, either. Since I've been having these dreams four or five times per week for several weeks, I've been wondering what's been going on in my subconscious to produce them. My current theory is that I'm feeling a lack of adventure in my life lately, so I'm looking for it in Dreamland.

There's no denying that the days of flying bottles and breaking rattan in dockside bar contretemps are behind me. It has been well over 30 years since I was dancing in illegal after-hours clubs with a sentry/doorman whose warning sent us all scurrying back to our tables when the police approached (drinking was OK after the arbitrary--11 0'clock?--time, but dancing was not, for some reason).

Explaining to a very skeptical cop that I had missed the last train, was therefore attempting to borrow a boat to sail down the bay from Yokohama to Yokosuka, and that I'd be returning the boat the next morning before the owner even missed it...that's definitely another memory from the dim past that wouldn't bear repetition these days.

So is racing around the circle route on the Metropolitan Expressway, virtually deserted after 10 o'clock in those days. You had to be very good, and pretty much stay entirely off the brakes, to do it in under 16 minutes. That's not even remotely conceivable with the kind of use the expressway gets now.

Times have changed, and so have I, I guess. Car chases, knife fights, scuffles with thugs in dicey low dives, really wild parties...all of those and much more are pretty much things of the past. Fond memories, but few if any of them really suitable for repetition in my current circumstances.

So, I've been thinking, maybe I sort of miss adventure. Maybe life is feeling a little too tame to me lately. It has become a subject for reflection.

And I reflected upon it somewhat differently the other night. Riding the bike in a really strong and bitterly cold wind, I got a much stronger and longer adrenaline rush than I really needed, as fierce gusts continually threatened to push me out of my lane and into guardrails or other vehicles whose drivers were struggling, too.

An hour or so of thrills doesn't really qualify as an adventure, I suppose, but I admit that once I'd arrived and parked the bike, I--briefly--thought to myself, "be careful what you look for".

On the other hand, the dreams haven't stopped.