Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ever looked at some of the photography which is popular in Japan and wondered why? Not just because like lots of art you have to be steeped in a gazillion years of art history, and art, and have much experience using such terminology as "texture" and tonality and such to explain something that you really don't get, but because it is really outside what you observe or practice yourself. (In other words, you wonder what makes photos of overhead electric lines art.)

I don't give much credence to the East is East and West is West and ne'r the twain shall meet way of thinking, and I have a knee jerk reaction to "Japan is the only country..." but some of the photography is puzzling to say the least. (OK, so is some---much---of Western photography outside of landscape/wildlife).

Anyway, there is a new online magazine called Trans Asia Photography Review, which in it's inaugural issue promises to look at the relationship of culture with photography. Not that everyone accepts the East-is-East stuff:

Non-Asia looks at Asia in a certain way, and therefore Asia looks at, and projects itself, like that too. A couple of centuries ago, this was called Colonialism or Imperialism. Then Edward Said called it Orientalism.

Now it is called Context, and the right-minded, well-intentioned, academically respectable sound of the word obscures the structures of power/knowledge/funding that create this primacy of Context.This is why I am profoundly uncomfortable with the notion of Asia (or any other region) as context – especially when that notion is created and sustained in the non-Asian parts of the world, and then globalized. Aveek SEN, Trans Asia Photography Review.

Written from a more academic perspective, it still promises to be of interest to anyone interested in Asia and art, especially photography. And believe it or not, Japan is considered part of Asia on that site!!!!

For some reason, I cannot get links to stick without going into HTML. Is blogger run by JAL?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lookin' for trouble and finding it.

Most folks around these parts go out of their way to avoid trouble, such as some idiot hanging around in back alleys in the rain taking pictures.

Others do not hesitate to look for it. For them, the NYT and Martin Fackler have published the second in the series on Japan (or is it the US?) and the "Great Deflation." Today, the never before discussed well-worn theoretical possibility of the US turning into Japan is explored in a nice quick way that answers no questions: U.S. Hears Echo of Japan's Woes. Could there be a better way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon in Tokyo?

I guess we should just be thankful that Japan is even mentioned in a major US newspaper.

31 Oct: edited to correct spelling as neither blogger spell check nor I can spell.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Economic afterthought Japan.

Today's yen rate: ¥80.57/$1

Investors, having purchased enough pesos but having spare change left over bought a few yen as an afterthought.*

A few days ago, I was in a discussion with 3 fellows--2 in their 20s and myself and another guy in our 40s discussing the economy. The young fellows had a relatively poor view of the future of Japan, especially concerning the competition from China. I and the other old geezer (Japanese---him, not me) argued that their view of the Japanese economy was too negative. In fact, I mentioned---to the young whippersnapper's disbelief---that I thought at present Japan's economy was in much better shape than the US. This was off the top of my head as I hadn't exact figures, but I been led to believe this from watching and reading US news reports about the US economy. (9% plus unemployment is not encouraging, nor are the interviews with regular folk who have lost their jobs or homes, nor the prediction that I just heard that it would be at least 2011 before US unemployment dropped below 9%). We won't even mention the New Normal.

As my age group peer said, you can't let news reports on the economy guide your life, because they are almost uniformly negative.

I would not disagree with Fackler's report (previous post) as far as the feeling of malaise (ohhhh...I smell peanuts) and the negative view of the future that many have in Japan, but I almost dropped into depression after I read it for the first time. Geez. I knew that there were problems, but I didn't realize we were goners.

Then I began to hear and read things on the Internut written by folks who had been silly enough to have wasted large chunks of their lives specializing in Japan and economics. I found---being too much in a malaise to check Fackler's data myself---that much of his data was simply wrong.

For example, we know that Japan has been on a long downward spiral since the bubble burst back in 89 or so, except that it has not really been in a long downward spiral since '89 or so. Growth slowed after the bubble, but increased slowly until the US originated Lehman Shock of 2008. Japanese language students (university level) have actually increased in part due to the popularity of manga.* (By now I am sure that there are sources all over the web countering the NYT stats. But check around NBR for just a few.)

Anyone who denied that Japan has serious problems, economic and otherwise would be a fool. But to make the country look like a desolate basket case is no less foolish.

I am fortunate enough to be able to occasionally speak with a few fellows in high positions in a large Japanese corporation which is having a very difficult time due to the high yen, Chinese and European competition, high cost of raw materials, and other serious problems. They aren't "ordinary people" in the sense that they don't have to worry about their jobs unless the company goes bankrupt (which ain't very likely---I suspect Uncle Taro would step in), and they haven't given in to despair, nor are they anywhere close to giving up. Renho's "What's wrong with being number 2," pisses them off to no end.

Perhaps it's a generational thing, or perhaps it American optimism transferred to Japan. Perhaps it's hardheaded foolishness, but I don't think Japan is dead, dying, or willing to roll over and die, in spite of what seems to be poor political leadership. (I suppose I could say the same thing about the US.) I think what the anonymous poster on my previous post implied was right: The article was as much more about the US or where we fear it may be heading than it was about Japan.

6:37 pm: A late thought: I am not sure, but I believe it was John Dower in War Without Mercy, who said something like: The US swings between thinking that the Japanese are invincible supermen, or quaint, incompetent, Orientals who can do nothing right. Apparently, we are in the latter stage now.

*I realize that things ain't that simple, but people with money to protect, gain, or lose tend not to be total fools with it. But then again, we did have the subprime crisis....

**One of my high school classmates has a son in university studying Japanese. Why? Manga. MangaMan Aso was not a complete aho after all. My old Japanese tutor is now in the US getting requests from manga fans to study Japanese. I thought this stuff was a bit goofy, but in fact, it is no goofier than those of us who studied Japan in the late 80s early 90s thinking that it was the economic way of the future.

I admit that I have a bad taste left over for the NYT and MF after the vending machine costume article of a few years ago. Fact checkers my ass.

1730: As always, edited after posting.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Great Exaggeration

A few weeks ago (Oct 16), the increasingly irrelevant and soon-to-be-an-afterthought like the rest of the dead-tree press New York Times published yet another controversial Japan article by the unflappable Martin Fackler.

On first read, without even looking into the data Fackler and the Times provided, it smelt of overkill and predictably included required specialized Japan story jargon such as "Godzilla." It has been analyzed and criticized quite a bit* by folk who know a hell of a lot more about that floating world known as economics than I.

But those critics are most likely clueless. After all, the NYT has fact checkers who would not allow inaccurate and/or overwrought nonsense through in anything other than an editorial.

In answer to these whining nitpickers who "object to exaggeration" especially in the publication that they believe to be "the last bastion of reliable journalism" (giggle-giggle Fackler's NYT?) , the Public Editor(s) published a response. Apparently, the biggest problem was the use of the word Godzilla, and calling Japan an "afterthought." Other than that it was all hunky-dory, I guess.**

The Regional Editor for East Asia, Kyle Crichton (no known relation to the Japan expert Michael Crichton***), agrees that Japan is an "afterthought" because the "Japanese economy is no longer a source of anxiety in Washington or anywhere else." Compare that to the 80s when Godzilla was buying up the US and you will understand like Kyle does.

Hmmm. Regional Editor for East Asia. (Note to self: Disregard all NYT reports from East Asia.)

Another Public Editor for the Times, Arthur S. Brisbane, acknowledged the problem Fackler faced of how to "bring alive" Japan's economic decline for a "wide audience." Since Martin was for some unknown reason unable to include homeless ninja in the article to bring it alive for the masses, he was left with Godzilla and selected interviews with ordinary people. The story was a tremendous success according to Art, for it was a page one story in the paper version and reached the top of the most e-mailed list. Wonderful!!!! Congatulations!!!! That is certainly more important than accuracy when one talks about success for the New York Times!!!! Whooo Hooooo! You go Gray Lady!!!

I feel for these guys. I remember the good old days, just 12 or so years ago when newspapers did not have to take time out to respond to riffraff. Back in those days, they never had to admit any weaknesses at all, except for an incorrect address or misspelled name. A simple "We stand by our story" was all that was required, no matter how obviously flawed, absurd, or insane.

Oh, the name of the article? Carrying the Facts too Far. What does that mean I wonder? How can you carry facts too far if they are facts? Is that sort of like exaggeration? And isn't an exaggeration sorta like inaccurate or even untrue to some degree? No problem, it is a Japan story after all.

*A check of NBR's Japan Forum (link in Japan Links) will give a taste.

**So as not be accused of carrying the facts too far, I have to say that they were responding to a reader who complained about the use of those terms and who had expected "at least a passing resemblance to the truth."

***Sorry, that was uncalled for. A cheap shot. Very childish of me.

1055PM: Edited

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chatting with the neighbor lady

About 2 months ago, an elderly lady moved in with her family about two houses down from me. I knew something was different about her, because I always see her on the street in front of her house, greeting everyone who passes by. She always has a good morning, a good afternoon, or a good evening for me and sometimes gives me friendly advice, such as "Be careful walking by the intersection, it's very dangerous." She doesn't duck away or ignore me because I am not Japanese. This sort of thing isn't very common in Tokyo. In fact, I don't believe I have ever seen anyone else like her here.

This morning as I was coming home for an early lunch, I met her again, and exchanged good mornings. But today she stopped me, crossed the street to where I was, and began by apologizing for being out on the street so often. While I considered whether or not to forgive her, she did another very un-Tokyo-like thing and began talking to me as if I were something other than a Special Person from Afar. She wasn't using her grade school English nor her half-Japanese/half-katakana English, but rattling off in regular Japanese just throwing in an occasional "wakaru?"

I'll admit, I didn't catch 100% of everything that she said, but I learned that she was outside everyday walking up and down the street for exercise. She seemed a bit proud of how far she walked, pointing to the intersection with Kanpachi-dori 2 blocks away and the one in the other direction about 1/2 a block away. In fact, she showed me 3 times.

She was ill, she said, with a bad heart, but she (perhaps un-Tokyo-like) enjoyed exercise. She had done a lot of sports when she was in school, and especially loved running. Now she was walking up and down the street to get well again.

A few minutes into the conversation, she mentioned that she was 86 years old and from Hiroshima. She had been there when the bomb was dropped killing 6 of the 9 people in her family, who as I understood it were sake brewers. Only she, her mother, and her younger sister survived. "The war was terrible for Japan," she said, and I did not disagree.

"Where is your family from," she asked. "The US," I replied. After inquiring about my age, she assured me that I was too young to remember the war. "I am 86 years old," she said.

"After the bomb [how long after I did not get] we moved to Tokyo." "Six people in my family died, and only 3 lived." "The war was terrible." "My son now teaches at Keio. Do you know Keio?"


"It's a university.... I am 86 years old.... I became sick with a bad heart, so I come out here everyday for exercise. I liked to run when I was young... It's not good that I come out dressed in a robe. I'm sorry."

"Well, you'd better go, it's getting cold. I'm sorry for bothering you. Be careful of the intersection, it's dangerous."

I always remember (and value) when these types of things happen in Japan, since they are so very, very, rare. And it's almost always old people.

I wish I had brought a recorder...

Of course, I could not remember or write everything we discussed. We talked for 10-15 minutes...a record for me in this sort of encounter.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Window cleaning, Jiyugaoka. Gotta say that this year there is no doubt that fall has really arrived. Now if only tree leaves changed colors before late November/early December...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thank you for your service. Now bugger off.

Ahhh. Saturday night. A full moon. Cool, fall weather (only available in Japan). The OWWISAM (The One with Whom I Share a Mansion) in her room watching YouTube continuing a nearly 4-month war of silence. And me, having not had the sense to accept an invitation to take a trip to an onsen in Abiko, now sitting around reading the news on the Internet. Who ever said life in Tokyo was not exotic?

While not reading about things Japan, I sometimes---actually usually---read things about other weird, unscrupulous places such as the US. Really, the US is actually harder to understand than Japan even though I was born and raised there.

Reading Bob Herbert's latest column, The Way We Treat Our Troops, almost makes a wasted Saturday night worth it:

...for evidence that the United States is letting its claim to greatness, and even common decency, slip through its fingers, all you need to do is look at the way we treat our own troops...The idea that the United States is at war and hardly any of its citizens are paying attention to the terrible burden being shouldered by its men and women in uniform is beyond appalling.

...I would bring back the draft in a heartbeat. Then you wouldn’t have these wars that last a lifetime...(Careful Bob, that is gettin' mighty close to being unAmerican.) NYT

Unfortunately for Mr. Herbert and the US, this will never, ever change. Not only do we not pay for our wars---well, not right away instead we borrow from other countries---we make sure that mostly poor and lower middle class fight them while sloganeering "Support Our Troops," then assume them to be dangerous crazed nuts (and make movies and all kinds of "documentaries") when they get back.

It has become fashionable since the wars began 10 years ago to tell any veteran, "Thank you for your service." I have heard that---or actually read it in e-mails and on Facebook etc, since no American in Japan ever said it to me---but I never know how to respond. I am sure people are sincere in saying it, but I have no idea what it really means.

I once applied for a part-time job back in the US after getting out of the USAF and starting college. The fine patriot read my application saw my military service and asked, " You're not in the National Guard or anything are you?"

"No," I replied.

"Good," said the worm, "We don't need any of that shit (meaning he did not want to have to give time off for annual drills etc)*.

I would almost bet that he is now all supportive of the folks fighting in Afghanistan, as long as they stay in Afghanistan or at least not bother him with any of that military "shit."

*I did not take the job.

Blogger spell check does not accept Facebook as a properly spelled word.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Your tax ¥ at work

Being unable to locate any foreigners in Japan, the government will: travel allowances to about 100 native English, Chinese and Korean speakers to visit key cities and come up with ideas on how to make it easier for travelers to use public transport, stay at local hotels and eat at local restaurants, said an official at the Japan Tourism Agency. Reuters

Far be it from me to accuse whomever came up with this as being someone who is out of touch with the country in which he/she lives, for I am sure that there is a good reason for it. Perhaps Uncle Taro figures he could get better advice from someone who doesn't actually know Japan and just drops in out of the blue and gets to experience the kid-glove visiting gaijin treatment. Besides, anyone who has been here long enough to know much about the country might make some embarrassingly uncomfortable suggestions, for example, "Maybe you should begin by firing the folks who came up with this idea."*

Anyway, anyone who has read @Tyler Bru^le`! *would know that Japan's tourist facilities are already nirvana.

*Gonna knock off the yokoso Japan fingerprinting too?

**Does the world envy Tokyo Midtown yet?

Only in Japan

Friday, October 15, 2010


from conversations this week:

"I'm worried that foreigners will think Japan was wrong (on Senkaku) because we gave in to China."

"I think Ozawa, Hatoyama, and Kan are terrible. They gave in to China. We need to show the world Japan's 'will.'" (Discussing Senkaku).

"If China had done that to the US, I think there would have been a war." (Senkaku dispute.)

"I think there should be mandatory military service in Japan to bring patriotism to the young." (US born, LDP supporter. Very "patriotic" who admires the US. Unfortunately, he has an often simplistic or outright wrong view of the US. Decent guy, not a nut. I would say he is simply politically conservative.)

"All Americans have to go in the military if there is a war."

"America is very important for world peace" A reply to my statement of fact that the US cannot continue funding it's current contribution to "world peace" via the military. Time for the "peace country" to show us how it is done?

"We Japanese promised the world we would have no more wars." Same conversation as above. (Was that the US written article 9 he was referring to?) Bottom line: the US is forever supposed to "protect" Japan.

"We shouldn't have to go in the military because we would lose time for learning job skills and foreign languages." (Perhaps Japanese are just as ignorant about the military as Americans. I suppose the lack of opportunity to learn a foreign language is more accurate for the SDF, but folks who work on F-16s might just have a few skills. They surely as hell have more marketable and practical skills than some goofball who majored in such things as Asian Studies).

Gee, nothing totally insane this week. Just enough to reinforce my opinion that most Japanese whom I know---nah, in general---haven't the slightest clue of what the US is or is not.* And little attention is paid to possible repercussions of Japan showing it's "will" or saying "no." Just the mere act of Japan doing so, will somehow impress the hell out of the rest of the world, and Japan will then...ummmmm...what? Win?

Several years ago there was a CM on TV with a popular comedian---I forget his name, but one of a pair who often appear on TV---who was at a meeting full of non-Japanese. He was in some disagreement with them and stood up and shouted in English "No!" The foreigners were taken aback that this Japanese fellow could say "no." A common fantasy that goes no further, it seems.

The US media does a terrible job covering Japan. The Japanese media is little better as far as the US is concerned. I am often amused by folks who claim that Japanese know much more about the US than Americans (US) do about Japan. Yes, people may be familiar with the names of all of the states, some US history (The One with Whom I Share a Mansion is extremely knowledgeable about US history and was even before she attended a US university. She is a rare case though), but as the unquestioning acceptance of Fujiwara Masahiko's book of pure horsepooky proved, most haven't a clue.

What a slow week. It might improve tomorrow as I go drinking with The Oz Lady.

*after nearly 11 years here, neither do I.

1600: Edited to add a few more that I remembered.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Nah, it's not that!

There's a perfectly innocent explanation.

Imagine, if you will, that the following was written about Tokyo instead of New York:

Almost invariably, after I have hustled aboard early and occupied one half of a vacant double seat in the usually crowded quiet car, the empty place next to me will remain empty for the entire trip...

...I can rule out excessive body odor or bad breath; a hateful, intimidating scowl; hip-hop clothing; or a hideous deformity as possible objections to my person...

...I can’t accept the bounty of an extra seat without remembering why it’s empty, without wondering if its emptiness isn’t something quite sad. And quite dangerous, also, if left unexamined... The Seat not Taken: NYT Opinion

Apologists and explainers, both Japanese and non-Japanese, would be all over the fellow explaining why the reason for this in the US is not the reason for such behavior in Japan. No, it would have to be tradition, innocent naivety, provincialism, or maybe zen.

And no, it need not be examined by the citizens of this special land.

Edited to correct nativity to naivety.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

No objections voiced as Japan turns extremist

At least that is what I gather from reading this fine, well-written, and thoroughly researched piece from a professional paid journalist for the Globe and Mail (Canada).*

Somehow, I had missed the significance of the rise of the extreme right in Japan. I have even missed the rise itself, thinking it no more than the usual rightists and fellow travelers rattling off their poison. I never noticed that the anti-foreign sentiment---although always present among some, including the media and gov't---was any worse than it had been under Koizumi and Abe when it seemed that neither the government or the media could resist labeling crime, criminal tendencies, and non-Japanese in the same category. And of course we have heard the old bigot Ishihara and his oral bowel movements for about a million years.

But the Globe and Mail has found that things are turning truly sinister. So sinister that even the Old School extreme right is concerned. Concerned not with the beliefs of the newer more extreme nutjobs, but with the way they express their beliefs:

“These Net right-wingers have no rules, no restrictions … . I’m against this kind of hate speech, these ugly comments. Their thoughts and ideas are okay, but the way they express them is not,” said Mr. Kimura, whose own Issuikai movement made headlines earlier this year by hosting an international gathering of right-wingers...

Noting that some nutjobs reacted to the Senkaku incident by the usual "smokebombs" at an offending foreign consulate; concealed weapons near the residences of non-rightwing-extremist politicians; anti-Chinese demonstrations etc, our fine reporter observed that these run-of-the-mill events:

... highlight a tide of rising nationalism that is just one of the new social ills afflicting a country that 20 years ago was the richest** and most stable** on the planet.

But an even more frightening bit of evidence was uncovered by that sharp-eyed fellow, while watching (?) a demo of 2700 folks organized by the web-based New School extremists with whose ends the Old School agrees:

“Throw illegal immigrants into Tokyo Bay!” he yelled to loud cheers from his fellow marchers and silent stares from shoppers who paused to watch the procession. If anyone disagreed with the sentiment, no one said so publicly. [Emphasis mine]

There it is. I had mostly missed it. I knew of the newer more openly racist*** and extreme groups and their still small but reportedly growing numbers. I knew that many people in a historically xenophobic country exhibited xenophobia to some degree or another. I knew of the anti-Chinese sentiment, especially after Senkaku, but I never had evidence of the silent acceptance of extreme beliefs by the public until I read that last sentence.

Shoppers did not publicly disagree with a large group of noisy nutjobs!!!! What else can one conclude from this but that they must have agreed?

Somehow though, I as a foreign resident do not feel like "other foreigners":

...while other foreigners – including some long-term residents of Japan – say they also feel increasingly unwelcome, and complain of police harassment and rules that prevent non-Japanese from renting homes or gaining professional tenure.

for I don't see anything especially new. I don't feel "increasingly unwelcome." I never felt especially wanted nor loved here to begin with. I will have to keep a closer eye on this evil trend.

I must admit that I learned something about myself from reading this piece. I too, am an anti-foreign extremist, for had I been at the demo, I doubt that I would have publicly disagreed with the goofballs either. Blinky Ishihara, old buddy, lets go out for a few drinks...

*A black sun rises in a declining Japan, by Mr. Mark Mackinnon.

**Huh and double huh?

***The more openly racist (is that possible?) newbees reject the idea that their racism is racist.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Ex-newsman spills the beans

I have always like Fridays. I usually only have to work at things I enjoy. I can look forward to a either an Yebisu black or an Asahi "The Master" Pilsner* for lunch. Even Precce, the world's most overpriced, never-stock-a-new-item supermarket, has some early weekend food out. And the little old lady who seems to stand out in the street in front of her house every day, all day, very pleasantly bowing to and greeting everyone who walks by makes the run-em-down-and-let-god-sort-em-out, sidewalk-hogging young princesses of the Denenchofu private Junior High for girls tolerable for an hour or so.

I also have a little more time to leisurely check out other blogs. Today, I discovered the answer to the question that I have had for years---no, nearly 2 decades: Why do journalists, authors, even bloggers, write so many stories about an inscrutable, uniquely-unique, fantasyland Japan that few people who know the country (at least the Japan I live in) recognize?

The answer is that there are guidelines for Japan-related writing, a sort of a style-guide for the Japan as Disneyland crowd.

Our Man in Abiko has the until now well kept secret here. That explains it all.

Japan writer's required image of busy
crossing in front of Shibuya station

*As yet unexplained, why does Japan's version of Miller Lite, Asahi Super Dry, sell at the same price as the vastly superior Asahi "The Master" Pilsner?

Another mystery: Why does Adobe Lightroom 3 occasionally refuse to watermark photos. Answer: Who cares, just don't buy version 4 until it has been out for 27 years and the bugs are semi-worked out. Ruined my #*#$% Friday fixing Adobe's buggy crap.