My Japanese Dad

My first night in Japan after 11 years has stayed with me, coming back to make me smile on a regular basis. I was nervous coming into Japan after being deported and banned many years ago. I drank on the plane. I drank a lot of wine hiding the mini bottles like a good alcoholic. But I needn’t have worried. I entered without drama and met Mayu on the other side.

Lurching through the freeways of Tokyo in an immaculate cab with electric doors and a driver with white gloves on, the road swung left and right, up and down like a video game. We made it to Mayu’s favourite restaurant where she knew all the staff, hanging out like a barfly smoking and drinking wine. It was a cool place, not the kind I remember in Japan but I guess we all have to move on.

It was late but we ate and drank, intending to stay until the first train in the morning. Conversation was flowing with the wine. When I came back from the bathroom, the next table, two Japanese guys in their 50s were talking to Mayu about me I soon learnt. They were drinking heavily but were in a happy mood. I knew this was going to be fun.

I spoke with the guy nearest me. Brown skinned and balding, his face was round making his glasses small. His grasp of English was as shaky as my Japanese. You understand? he asked. Eeeerr no, I replied smiling. We ordered sake. Soon I was replying in Japanese and his round, red face laughed. He had no idea what I was trying to say. We ordered more sake.

His friend, someone who looked like he used to be a businessman, started drifting to sleep. It was 4 am now. They decided to go. He gave me his meishi (business card), clearly a personal design with a drawn self-portrait on it, shook my hand furiously and hugged me. I kissed him on both cheeks. He laughed uncontrollably slapping his friend. This guy was great.

After he left, he banged on the window and smiled a huge smile while waving one hand. The other held his bike, a rickety old contraption. He was riding home. We left an hour later only to find he had paid the bill for us too. I emailed him to thank him and we stayed in contact ever since. His English hasn’t improved. But his enthusiasm is undimmed and he’s invited me to meet his family next time.

The streets were empty and cold as we walked back. Very cold. The business towers loomed over us. The wide pavements told us nothing. Side roads lay deserted. The air was cold in our lungs as we reached the station and boarded the first train. We talked through the almost empty morning train. It was home time. Tokyo’s grey roofs rushed by, we left the train and got in the flat and fell fast, fast asleep.


Memories of the Future

Photo1997I’ve never bored of sitting at the window looking out over the world. Landscapes gain a grandeur only tourist adverts allow you to peak at. In developed countries 70% of the world’s population live in cities these days. And they too have their attractions, even vast conurbations such as Tokyo. Flying into Rome was special a few months ago. We could clearly see the Coliseum and St Peter’s in the Vatican. Sao Paolo and Mexico City were the biggest cities I’d flown into and like Tokyo it lacks a centre, a heart and clear distinctions from the air. Yet they still impress as communal masses. I started to film Tokyo as we flew out. Then my arms got tired!

Returning to Japan was an exciting and nervous moment for me. Some of you might know the story! But equally I was nervous and excited to know if my memories had served me correct. If what I remembered was real and not overwhelmed by selective memories and nostalgia. Walking through Tokyo, a city I barely knew, if you can, was exciting. But returning to Kyoto, a golden period in a pretty fortunate life confirmed all I needed. As the snow petals fell as I waited for Scott, I watched the walkers, illuminated by a million lights, braving the cold, I’d not been fooled.

What I remembered mostly and could never grasp was the levels of culture. Everyday you could walk down the same street and see something different. You were constantly surprised. The detail and attention given by the Japanese to present wrapping is an example. It’s a trained perfection. Pride is revealed by the shock and embarrassment when such standards are not reached.

On deeper levels there is a social meaning for every action and non-action. The silences are inhabited by such value. Few foreigners understand this. Few make the effort. Most simply continue on assuming everyone agrees with their statements and actions, that they are the charismatic leader of the scene. They rarely learn much. The depth is mind-boggling. However even the Japanese can find it difficult to explain why certain actions are necessary.

Photo1909A similar example can be found when reading Japanese newspapers. Japanese has three alphabets; hiragana for grammar and verbs, katakana for foreign words and kanji for nouns. There are so many Kanji (more than 10,000) you need to read through the context to understand. Most Japanese aren’t able to full read or understand their own language. Imagine the trouble for foreigners. All language is culturally-based but even if you are born into it, Japanese can be problematic. I remember Yukiko lived in the US for 4 years from the age of 7 to 11 years. Her English was excellent, if with a real American accent but her Japanese suffered and she found it difficult to keep up.

Tokyo is an entanglement of trains, roads and elevated highways. Riding into the city in a taxi feels like an episode of Grand Theft Auto as we screamed and bumped through neon-lit tunnels. The first night in Tokyo involved going to Mayu’s favourite restaurant and drinking sochu with locals. We may not have understood each other but between us we got the point across.

Photo1988The next night we headed to Shibuya and had the most Japanese day imaginable. With Ponchan and Mayu and later Kenta we went to Uniglo to buy clothes, ate okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake and at 4am Yoshinoya, Japanese fast food, drank ashasi, sang karaoke, played bowling, crossed the Shibuya junction, ate under at Under the Sea and took the first train back. I managed to shout out ‘hey isn’t that a love hotel?’ just as a couple walked out the door.



Photo1906The next day I took the bullet train with a bento and stayed 3 nights in Kyoto. Everything is clean with an army of washers and polishers in attendance. Manicured fields and perfect streets sat under distant mountains. A Japanese man cracked his egg on the bench, pouring the remanents into a bowl. I was tired and slept. Later I looked out the window and there was Kyoto.

The station is magnificent. Kyoto Tower over looks it. I stayed with Liz and Meeting Scott, Liz and Yumi in Kyoto, wandering the streets and refinding myself was beautiful. I knew my way instantly. It was Kansai damashi! We found a bar with live blues, a tiny intimate venue. We picked up an American and after 3 hours of karaoke with Liz, It was 730am and we went for some food. Getting home that late was normal in Japan and now I was back in Japan.

Workers in Japanese are all Japanese. Students man the lower-end jobs in karaoke, bars, restaurants and convenience stores. There is no out-sourcing of effort. Everyone learns from the bottom up and their responsibility. The shops and restaurants rings out with practiced greetings. It’s all ritualised, cute and also slightly disturbing.

Photo1933The next two nights I met Scott, my old drinking buddy from Kyoto, a guy who always made me laugh and later with Yumi for some amazing food. It was lovely to see her. After a quick trip to Seoul (more later), I returned for one last night in Tokyo followed some tayoyaki, real Japanese food. I left happy, more than happy. It was worth the nerves. I’ll know I’ll be back again and again.

Going Back to Japan

IMG_20140307_085903So I know I’m going to Japan because waiting at the gate everything is different from just 20 metres away. You have the endless numbers of glasses for starters. The formal style on the men with the spikey, manga haircuts and plain colours. The women wear their ill-matching colours, layers over layers, scarfs and jackets and funny shoes. Everyone looks like their mum dressed them on speed.

Then there is always the Japanese guy who travels, wears his Indian threads and has a beard. Japanese men follow their girlfriends around and no one says anything. The occasional Japanese is wearing a white surgical mask, a forlorn attempt to keep the germs away. A group of Pakistani men in their dress walk past and looked. The Japanese don’t notice.

The waiting is quiet. The gate is open but there is no rush. No one wants to go first. So you apologetically, or serrenditiously stand up, like you are just stretching. It’s a young crowd of boarders, all in their 20s, like some university trip. Most have boarded and I can’t remember anything. We can’t wait any longer. It’s the final call. Time to go back to Japan.

Beach Football World Cup Qualifiers

2013-01-22 09-25-37-063I went to the WC beach football qualifiers here last week. Beach football is usually garbage but being sat with 200 Afghans as they trashed Qatar 7-3 with their goalkeeper making a string of fantastic saves and then scoring on the counterattack was brilliant. The Afghans who do the poorest jobs were great fun. They were smiling, had drums and danced and cheered. Plus if you know anything about Afghanistan, you’ll know how diverse they are ethnically and that really showed in the crowd.

The previous game brought out the local Thais and Japanese as their nations dueled to a 4-1 Japanese win. The Japanese are good at this, twice winners in the past but this time their hopes seems to rest on the 6-4 African guy who played at the back! The Qataris themselves were embarrassing in their lack of support for their team.

IMG_20130126_215410_0I went back with friends here for the finals. The UAE controversially beat Australia (who scored an equaliser a  second after the final whistle). The UAE spent a significant amount of their time rolling around on the sand too. The final brought together Japan and Iran and its fairly raucous fans. Iran used their size advantage to bully the Japanese but simply couldn’t get past the best player in the tournament, a lanky, black ‘Japanese’ guy called Ozu. Japan led throughout until the last few minutes when Iran scored 3 quick goals to equal it up. It went to penalties and Iran kept their nerve. The best team beat the best player who tired after leading the whole team and never being subbed.

The top 3 team went through to the World Cup beach football tournament in……Taihiti. I am in the wrong business. Great nights of football and cultural experiences.

South Korea just doesn’t get it

“Japanese political leaders are making dangerous and reckless remarks invoking a `preemptive strike’ in an attempt to further intensify a crisis on the Korean Peninsula,” Chung Tae Ho, spokesman for South Korea President Roh Moo Hyun, said in a statement today. The comments reveal `Japan’s nature of aggression so we cannot but be alarmed.

The usual South Korean Governmental statement shows the usual failing to see the wood for the trees. Japan is worried and having missiles flying over its country and into the sea nearby is a very dangerous situation. What would happen if one of those missiles veered away or fell over Japan.

The South Korean Government is worried about Japan re-arming after the militarism of the 1930s but those days are far gone now and Japan is an international player. That’s exactly what either Korea isn’t here. South Korea must realise that the greatest danger to its near and long-term security and economy is North Korea. How many people have to be kidnapped? How many years must North Koreans live in dire poverty or work camps? South Korea muist starting working with the regional powers to get rid of this dictatorship.

While South Korea’s statement was meant to have a multiple effect of criticising Japan, placating China and North Korea but mostly the nationalist within the south, it merely annoys right minded people and long term strategists. North Korea is in the wrong here and its gesturing is putting the lives of up to a billion people in many countries in danger. South Korea must be stronger here and realise the sooner they take the medicine the better. No pain without gain they say. The North Koreans are living through hell here while its totalitarian government rambles on. This is not the time for petty, historical moves but an end game to come about. If South Korea, Japan and China can find an end to this crisis, a new bridge can be cemented between them and can last for a long time.