Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Old Order Changeth

The end of a year inevitably involves various  lists, as we look back over what took place and what that means for us and for our future. The best or worst movies, books, games, or whatever are proposed by critics or by fans, and the best--but especially the worst--news events are reviewed by the media.

2011 brought more than usually frequent and severe disasters, with the combination of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant catastrophe naturally being the closest to home in my case, not least because its effects are continuing and will be for a long time to come.

That closely followed the devastation in Christchurch, New Zealand, and was followed itself by hundreds of tornadoes in the United States, among them the one that wrecked Joplin, Missouri. Hurricane Irene wasn't as bad as it had been predicted to be, but it was bad enough to leave three million homes without power, and a repair bill in the billions of dollars. Then there were torrential rains and flooding around the world, with Thailand making the news in Japan especially, mostly because of the effect on Japanese manufacturing interests there. Both  flooding and drought plagued Africa, and floods in the Philippines wrought enormous destruction. Turkey, too, had a severe and deadly earthquake. That's not anywhere near an exhaustive list.

The casualty figures are mind-numbing, and it's unfortunately easy to lose sight of the fact that each among the many thousand lives lost was an individual, often with friends and family left behind, and with things left undone and dreams unrealized.

Then there were people whose lives were cut short by illness or accident, rather than by natural disaster.

There are lists of those celebrities who died during 2011, such as this  one, and even videos, such as this   one.

Among those individuals who passed away this year was Christopher Hitchens, a philosopher many--but not all--of whose opinions and attitudes toward life were much like my own. I strongly disagreed with him about champagne and lobster being among the "four most overrated things in life", for example, but strongly agreed with "cheap booze is a false economy", as well as with many of his views about politics, religion, and much else. I've always appreciated intelligent, witty iconoclasts; he was one of the best of them, and an articulate hedonist, as well.

As I get older, seeing these lists every year is just a little scary in the cases where I've outlived someone who passed away other than accidentally. I was 45 when Jerry Garcia died at 53 in 1995, for example, but Steve Jobs was five years younger than I am.

For me personally this hasn't really been a great year. I'm in good health (against all odds), what property I have is intact, and I don't seem to be in any immediate danger of setting off Geiger counters when I walk by them. On the other hand, the extra year of work I managed to negotiate  my erstwhile employer into (grudgingly) granting me ran out last spring after an unexpectedly early retirement, and I'm still without a steady job. That's one of the things that I'm hoping to rectify in the coming year, and the sooner, the better.

Here's hoping that the coming year is much better for all of you, and for me, too.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy Boxing Day!

Happy Boxing Day to those (including my friends here in Japan) for whom it's December 26th when you see this. Merry Christmas to my friends and relatives for whom it's still December 25th. If any of my readers celebrate some other holiday around today, I wish you a happy holiday of your choice.

Boxing Day is an official national/public holiday--what some call a banking holiday because the banks are closed--in several countries, mostly the Commonwealth countries. The origin of the name is not enitrely clear; there are several theories that can be found with a bit of online research.

As Saint Stephen's Day it's celebrated as a public holiday in numerous countries as diverse as Austria, Catalonia, Germany, and Poland. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the day on December 27th, and their use of the Julian Calendar puts the day on January 9th of the Gregorian Calendar, which can be a little confusing, I suppose, but not really any more so than the Asian observation of New Year on different days depending on whether one uses the Grgorian or Lunar Calendar.

St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, and it's from him that I get the second of my two middle names, although it's spelled "Steven", with a "v" instead of a "ph", on my birth certificate. For the several people in my past who had believed me when I told them that my middle initials stand for "Extra Special", I have to confess that I was kidding: sadly, it's the much more prosaic "Edward Steven".

This seemed like a good day to resume posting on my blog. Among other things, I'll go into the reasons for the hiatus in a longish post at the end of the year. For now, I'm just letting you know that I'm back, and wishing you a Happy Boxing Day, and happy holidays of whatever sort you prefer. Cheers!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sakura and Masks

As of today, it has been a month since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and as I write this my study is being shaken by a succession of shocks severe enough to make me look very warily at the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves surrounding me. The preliminary news reports are saying that it's a Magnitude 7.1 quake, 6-lower on the Japanese shindo scale, centered off Fukushima Prefecture, and that there are tsunami warnings and cautions in effect along the Tohoku and Kanto coasts. Under more normal circumstances, that would be a significant earthquake;  now it's "merely" another in a long series of aftershocks.

A couple of hours ago, there was a brief but intense thunderstorm, also sudden after a mild, sunny day. That's more common here in the summer, but not unheard of in the spring; in retrospect it seems as if it was a loud herald for yet another demonstration of Nature's violent side.

I haven't written about the multiple disasters that struck Japan since my post last month on dealing with the immediate post-quake transportation problems. I haven't really felt as if I had anything worthy of adding to the many opinions and descriptions and discussions, at least not at this still rather early stage. I will probably have something to say later, when more accurate information is available for all of the affected areas and their inhabitants.

Just before the aftershocks began today, though, I was reminded that it was 41 years ago today that I arrived in Japan. That day also started off sunny and mild, but there were showers later in the day then, too. The cherry blossoms had bloomed somewhat earlier that year than this, but there were still plenty of them on the trees, along with petals dancing in the wind or swirling in rivulets of rain on the streets. As I rode in a van from where I'd landed at Yokota Air Base to my new duty station at Yokosuka Naval Base, my attention was certainly caught by the sakura, but it was also caught by all of the masks I saw.

At the time, I had never seen anyone wearing a surgical mask outside of a hospital. As we drove through what was probably Yokohama, right around rush hour, it seemed as if at least one of every 10 people we passed were wearing masks. It was inconceivable that so many doctors and nurses had forgotten to remove their masks before starting for home, or even that such a high percentage of the passersby could be medical personnel.

After a moment's consideration of whether I might be hallucinating, I asked our driver, another sailor but one who had at least been here long enough to be able to drive skillfully through Japanese traffic. At first, he didn't understand the question; I immediately revised upward my estimate of how long he'd been here.

"Oh, yeah...the masks. They wear them when they have colds, or hay fever, or when they figure that others might. I guess you could say it's a combination of caution and consideration. Avoid catching something, or avoid passing something on to others. You'll get used to it."

And of course I did. I hardly noticed the masks anymore after a few months, just as I hardly noticed the occasional mild earthquake--having been born and raised in quake-prone San Francisco helped with that. I've been seeing more masks than usual lately, but regardless of what some of the more sensational--and irresponsible--journalists have been saying, that's much more because of the very high levels of pollen in the air this season than because of any fear of wind-borne radioactive contaminants, at least for most people in the Tokyo area.

The sakura blossoms are admired for their ephemeral beauty, but also because they return, brilliant and lovely, each spring. The sakura fubuki--cherry blossom blizzards--of petals blown from the branches are sad but beautiful, yet carry a promise of next year's glory. The masks that so many people wear are a sign of temporary discomfort, even misery, but they, too, are impermanent.

Beauty, and health, and happiness will return, to the sakura, to the people, and to the country; recovery will take time and effort, but it will happen, and probably faster than expected.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Long Train Runnin'

After Friday's catastrophic earthquake--the Japan Meteorological Agency has announced that it was Magnitude 9.0--and tsunami, rail transportation in the Tokyo area  completely shut down, stranding what was probably well over a million commuters. Many stayed in their offices, with friends,  or in ad hoc shelters set up in hotels or public halls. Hotels were quickly filled, and many people decided to give up on the long lines for taxis and buses, especially after hearing media reports of closed or gridlocked roads, electing to walk home even though it was a journey of tens of kilometers. Some of the more enterprising bought or rented bicycles. Most watched and listened eagerly for news of the resumption of train service, among them thousands waiting in and around stations.

Saturday morning's announcements of the piecemeal return of one line after another triggered a rush on the stations that opened, notably those on the circle-route Yamanote Line. I was about to embark on what promised to be an arduous journey by motorcycle to Kumagaya, 60 kilometers away on a map but 70-odd by road depending on the route. The combination of dismal news about closed expressways and somewhat more optimistic notices of returning train service changed my mind, so I took a cab to Shinagawa Station.

A horde of people, mostly tired-looking office workers  it seemed, stood or shuffled at ground level, hundreds queuing for buses or cabs intermingled with more hundreds edging slowly toward the stairs up to the concourse and wickets on the floor above. The escalators were turned off, probably wisely given the size of the crowd and the potential for a dangerous domino-like mass toppling. I was impressed by the stolid, steady, stoic behavior of nearly everyone, pressed together and moving at a glacial pace, considerate of their companions in adversity and obedient of the station employees' directions...I was to see much more of that for the next half day.

I remembered a little used and rather obscurely placed elevator  tucked behind a couple of shops in the station, and so managed to avoid the long wait to climb the stairs. The automatic wickets were disabled, left open presumably to facilitate entry and thus avoid bottlenecks and maybe injuries from the sheer press of people. I took a swipe at the sensor with my Suica card just in case, but it was indeed free to enter. The Shinagawa concourse, both inside and outside of the wickets, is spacious. Even with the steady stream of people entering, it seemed less crowded than during normal rush hours; the platform was a different story altogether.

There wasn't space for more people on the platform--indeed some people were waiting on the stairs leading down to it--but the crowd waiting patiently for the next train was arranged in neat rows and lines at the spots marked for the train doors. When I arrived, only the counter-clockwise route had been started, and that only just, but there was a train at the other side of the platform waiting for the start of service in that direction, and people waiting patiently inside those cars and in line for the next train, too. Most had expressions of relief at having made it this far, and there was an overall air of gaman.

The first train to arrive was probably among the first two or three of the day, with predictably few people getting off (I assume it had started from Ōsaki ). They had to thread their way through the ranks of the waiting crowd, but there was remarkably little pushing and shoving other than unavoidable jostling due to the sheer number of people. Although much more crowded than an ordinary rush hour, it was considerably less hectic and frenzied; I presume that everybody was just pleased to have a train to board, and nobody had any unrealistic expectations of a speedy journey.

That train was filled and pulled out, and I was now close enough to have a reasonable expectation of getting on the next one. During weekday rush hours, there's a Yamanote Line train every couple of minutes, barring unforeseen accidents, but it was closer to a half hour when the next arrived. In the meantime, periodic announcements were made explaining that the previous train was moving slowly, checking the condition of the tracks as it went, and the subsequent train would proceed accordingly. These announcements continued after I squeezed onto the next train, all the way to Ueno Station, a trip that took something like three times longer than usual due to the slow deliberate pace. The car I was in had one of the fancy LCDs mounted above the door, providing more-than-usually-important information about which lines or sections thereof were running, delayed, or still stopped. At least one of the announcements turned out to be false: it incorrectly indicated a shinkansen line had resumed, unless I was hallucinating--but I had decided to take the longer, slower Takasaki Line...if the train stopped along the way, I thought I had better options for walking to the next station on that.

When we finally reached Ueno Station, the electric signboards were of no help at all; evidently the schedules were so utterly fouled up that it was pointless to even attempt displays. I can see the point, but it would have been useful to know which lines were using which platforms, for the lines (like the Takasaki and Utsunomiya Lines, for example) that sometimes--but not always--share platforms. This bred confusion and the attendant anxiety about maybe standing for over an hour in a line for the wrong train. Further confusion was caused by some station employees' having incorrect (or at least obsolete) information, and by the continual cacophony of announcements--loud and often unclear--from multiple platforms competing for attention. It didn't help that trains all seemed to have "Ueno" as their destinations until moments before they pulled out of the station, so one couldn't judge merely by looking.

I could have...probably, barely...crammed myself into a Takasaki Line train  that left about noon. I decided to wait for the next train, on which I was able to get a seat. It left at 12:50, and finally arrived around 15:00, taking about twice the time it usually requires for the run. I had to wait in line for an additional 20 minutes or so to pay my fare, since the initial wicket in Shinagawa didn't record my entry. They took my word for where I'd entered, and I imagine they would have done so pretty much regardless of where I'd said, within reason.

It was a long, often uncomfortable, day. In retrospect, I think that I made the right decision in choosing the train system over the motorcycle, though. Having since heard of people taking 16 hours to drive 16 kilometers (I can stagger that fast), even though I'd expect somewhat better time on the bike it would probably have been a lot slower and probably even less comfortable.

And I might have had to title this post "Midnight Rider".

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Late Coming of Age

Last Monday was Coming of Age Day, a national holiday celebrating the entrance to adulthood of those who become 20, the age of majority in Japan.

As usual, TV news and variety programs interviewed many of those attending the coming of age ceremonies held across the country, asking them predictable questions about what they intended to do as newly full-fledged adult members of society, about their aspirations and dreams, and the like. Along with many positive, optimistic, even idealistic comments, there were plenty of anxious or outright pessimistic ones, as might be expected in the current grim economic conditions. One that really attracted my notice, however, was "I wish I'd (been born early enough to have) experienced the bubble".

Japan's economic bubble was pretty much over in the early years of the '90s, with the last vestiges gone by around '95. Economists would probably argue that that's too late, and it probably is from an economic point of view. There were still quite a few people behaving as if things were better than they were, though, dancing on the fantail of a sinking ship, until about then.

That young man would have entered kindergarten about the time that the last notes had been played and the last steps danced, when the bubble had unarguably burst, and I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for his parents, too; their son was conceived at a time when relatively few people even noticed that the ship was taking on water, when it looked to many people as if the carefree party cruise was still going to continue for a long time, if not forever. Those parents probably expected a much brighter future for their son, and for themselves.

Having heard, from his parents, from others of their generation, from the media, and from movies and dramas, of the heady bubble days, that young man is understandably envious, and disappointed.

I don't blame him. I was lucky enough to experience that bubbly era, and I had a great time. He missed a lot by coming of age too late.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Return of the Tiger

Just at the tail end of the Year of the Tiger, an anonymous benefactor styling himself "Naoto Date" donated some "randoseru" book satchels to a facility for underprivileged children. These sturdy knapsack-like bags are essentially required for elementary school children, and they are quite expensive. Appropriately, the satchels appeared on Christmas Day. Also appropriately, "Naoto Date" was the "real" name of a character from a manga and anime of around 40 years ago, whose alter ego was "Tiger Mask", a professional wrestler who kept his real identity secret, and who, having been brought up in such a facilty, donated much of his winnings to children in similar straits. This makes the Year of the Tiger an apt choice, too.

Since then, evidently inspired by this act of charity that caught the media's attention, more donations have been made to institutions across the country...almost 100 the last time I checked. Some of the gifts were randoseru, some were stationery items, or toys, or cash. A recent gift was a large quantity of fresh vegetables. It appears that people are giving whatever they can that they think will be of benefit to the children.

Some of the donations have come with letters from the anonymous donors, at least one signed with the name of another famous old manga/anime character, Joe Yabuki ("Ashita no Joe"), a boxer who also had an underprivileged childhood and also finally won fame and success--or at least a sort of redemption--in the ring. The letters sometimes say very little except that the gifts are meant to be used to improve the lives of the children. Sometimes they indicate that the benefactors were motivated by hearing or reading about the initial donation from "Naoto Date". A few of the donors mention that they are not rich, but want to contribute even just a little toward the children's well-being.

Some of the media coverage has been describing this phenomenon as a "charity campaign". What I particularly like about it is that it's not a campaign: it is a series of spontaneous charitable acts by people, apparently all individuals rather than organizations, to benefit underprivileged kids. The donations subsequent to the first one have been characterized as being "copy-cat" gifts; that's fine with me, too...these "copy-tigers" may have been motivated into action by the first and subsequent donations and the publicity they received, but to me that in no way diminishes the value of the gifts, or of the sentiment behind them.

I'd bet that the kids--many or most of whom are probably too young to remember even the reruns of the manga characters that were popular among people who are now mostly over 50--would agree with me.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Gone Tomorrow

I'm sorry to see that Anne Francis has passed away, not long after Leslie Neilsen.

Apparently they are both more remembered for other roles, but I remember them best for Forbidden Planet, which--along with The Day the Earth Stood Still--is among my favorite old science fiction movies. I don't remember exactly when I saw Forbidden Planet, but it may very well have been at a theater when it first came out; I would have been only six or seven, but my Dad took me to quite a few movies when I was younger than many people would think appropriate for the content.

Dad was pretty iconoclastic sometimes; at least, he didn't seem to hold many opinions because they were popular. His take on "age-appropriate" seems to have been "whatever the kid can understand sufficiently to enjoy", and he determined that by trial and error. He gave me a copy of Moby Dick when I was maybe nine or ten, and I recall enjoying it even though I had to struggle through parts of it at the time, and probably missed a lot of what the author wanted to say. When I read it again some years later I appreciated having had the earlier opportunity even though I naturally understood the book very differently when I was older.

I understood Forbidden Planet differently, too,  when I saw it again later in life, and it motivated me to read The Tempest earlier than I might otherwise have done so.

It seems that a remake of Forbidden Planet is planned. I'm not sure how great of an idea that is; when I heard about what they'd done to The Day the Earth Stood Still in its remake, I decided to catch it on TV or on a rented video, and even if they don't utterly ruin it by making egregious changes from the original, Forbidden Planet without Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen just wouldn't be the same.

That's one past future that I'd just as soon they leave alone.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Hare Today

Happy New Year!

May the Year of the Rabbit bring you all of the health, prosperity, happiness, love, adventure, and excitement that you could possibly want, even in your wildest dreams...and then a lot more on top of that.

Too much is never enough; it may be wiser to be moderate, but it's certainly not as much fun. Wouldn't you rather burn out than fade away?

Think twice about avoiding temptation, because the opportunity may not present itself again.

That probably doesn't sound like very rabbit-like advice, but Napoleon Bonaparte was born in the Year of the Rabbit, and he said, among many other things, "Ability is nothing without opportunity". Walt Whitman was another born in the Year of the Rabbit, and he said "The road to wisdom is paved with excess". I can't argue with either of those sentiments.

Have a great year!