A ‘Morning Drama’ for the English

My days in Japan begin at eight in the morning when the ‘Morning drama’, ‘Renzoku Terebi Shōsetsu’, ‘serial TV’, or ‘Asadora drama’ begins, the TV set in my apartment, which doubles as an alarm, announces both the beginning of the day and a new episode. I get up and watch the drama, which is fifteen minutes long, as my wife and I get ready to face the day. I love NHK’s Asadora dramas; they are my guilty pleasure, and often a Japanese language learning aid, exposure to the spoken word being useful for one trying to learn.

For those who are unaware, the ‘Asadora drama’ or ‘Morning drama’ is a serial TV programme that runs twice a year on NHK, and each series is six months long, one begins in April and ends in September after which the next drama begins.  The programme’s gender politics may be suspect, it certainly seems to be aimed at wives and children staying at home, and the theme of every drama is essentially the same, that of a young woman (and often incredibly cute), trying to succeed in life.  When I arrived in Japan, in August 2012, it was ‘Umechan Sensei’ about a young woman trying to become a physician in post World War II Tokyo.  Another notable mention was the 2013 drama ‘Amachan’ which included a pre-watershed depiction of the March 11th disaster, which I thought was quite daring.

So when, in November 2013, I read in The Japan Times, that NHK were looking for an actress to play ‘Ellie’, a fictionalised version of Jessie ‘Rita’ Roberta Cowan, wife of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka Whisky, you can imagine this Asadora drama-loving, half Scottish (and therefore whisky drinking, obviously) was excited as a haggis lover on Burns night.

Therefore, when the Glaswegian Ellie (well acted by Charlotte Kate Fox) from the beginning spoke Japanese like a native, I must confess to initially being a little disappointed.  But not only was Ellie fluent, so were her Scottish parents, their part, told in flashback, being dubbed in Japanese.  After making such a fuss about finding a non-Japanese actress to play the lead, the producers had copped-out I felt, chosen the easy path.  Why wouldn’t Ellie speak English, at least for a small portion of drama, until she learned Japanese, surely there was some room for a little bit of un-dubbed but subtitled English? Then I remembered the following news report.

In June 2013, NHK was sued for ‘mental distress’ by a Japanese gentlemen, the cause of his distress was the excessive use of English ‘loan words’ appearing in Japanese TV media.  Apparently, words such as ‘terebi’ (TV) or ‘konpuraiansu’ (compliance) were over used and should be replaced by Japanese equivalents.  He sought 1.4 million Yen (USD 14,300; GBP 9,300) for his distress.

The report got me thinking: suing for mental distress over loan words may seem excessive (although as an English teacher here in Japan, it’s a distress I share), but it also highlights how brave and radical NHK were in casting a non-Japanese actress in a lead role for the first time.  The lead actress in the ‘Morning drama’ acquires instant fame, and is ubiquitous on Japanese TV in the year they play the part.  In Japan, it is a fame comparable to being the new Batman or Doctor Who.

Japan it seems to some has often had issues with representing both foreigners and the English language.  There are commentators on Japan, who see Japan not just as insular, but out-right xenophobic and take the lack of representation of foreigners in the Japanese media, or negative reactions to the English language in the media, as evidence of such xenophobia, and that is a reaction I have never understood.  It would be nice of course, if more of the news were translated into English, but the lack of such translation, for myself at least, is a spur to learn better Japanese rather than request more news reports be rendered into English.  It would of course also be interesting to see more foreigners appearing in Japanese dramas, other than the manga and 2010 film ‘My Darling is a Foreigner’, American actress Charlotte Kate Fox’s appearance in ‘Massan’ is the one of few high profile instances of foreigner taking the lead in a Japanese drama.

But let’s just stand back and properly appreciate that casting decision for a moment. For the first time in its fifty-three year history (the first Asadora drama ‘Musume to Watashi’ aired in 1961), a non-Japanese, an American, has been cast as the lead.  I am no TV historian, but I can’t recall off hand, of another TV channel casting a foreigner in its lead role, the only one that comes close, is the Canadian William Shatner’s casting in Stark Trek, though when he was cast; it was hardly a flagship show.  The lead in the BBC show Doctor Who, which is comparable to the Asadora, in terms of fame and status, has never cast a foreigner as The Doctor.  In fact, The Doctor has never been anything other than British, white and male. If we are to partly judge the quality of a TV show on whether it presents many ‘diverse’ characters, ‘Massan’ pulls NHK into the lead ahead of Doctor Who at least, unless, based on the most recent incarnation of The Doctor, we are to view being Scottish as some weird and crazy ethnic identity.  And personally, I congratulate NHK on ‘Massan’ not just for casting a foreigner, but for reminding me that Japanese whisky is really good.

The Last Emperor and Working in Japan

There is a scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film ‘The Last Emperor’ that has always resonated with me and even more so since moving to Japan.  The Emperor, P’u Yi, now in Fushun prison, bemoans his lot in life; he is no longer in power and is now under house arrest. He protests to his captor You saved me because I was useful to you.  The Prison Governor responds: Is it so terrible? To be useful?

It’s a scene I often think about since moving to Japan two years ago.  In Britain, where I hail from, I was never useful.  I never had a full time job, as generally speaking, people with a disability are rarely employed, but there is something worse than not being employed, and that is that is to have nothing be expected of you, which I why I never forget a University colleague working at Japanese university, a week after I arrived and appeared at the office saying: Good. You’re here.  We need your help with English.

For some expats in Japan, especially those who work at eikawa, I may have just outlined their worst nightmare, you are here because you are useful as a resource to improve our English, and nothing more, is what they hear. They, apparently see the fact that they have to teach English as some kind of hardship.  I hear something different, I hear the following:  you are able to improve our English. Can you help us out?

Of course, everyone complains about their job a little, I understand that, and there instances of foreigners being treated unfairly, if not illegally by their employer, and such instances of abuse obviously should not happen. Yet I think if you looked through the social history of ‘being employed’, you will find many instances of workers who complain about their employer, and maybe in a capitalist society, that is the way of things.

And yes, I can quite agree that some of the business of being an English teacher in Japan is not pleasant.  It can be exhausting, you have to work long hours, doing things you do not want to do, and nobody likes that. On social media, I often complain about how my disability adversely affects my life, to let off steam.  But I’m sorry I have a limited amount of time for people who complain about work.  Too many people do not have work, and for a long time I was one of them. However, I have to point out one thing.  This is not a hard life, sometimes you may have to entertain guests to entice more students.  Is that really so bad?  Maybe it’s that you have to dance with youngsters, maybe explain Halloween or Christmas to them, is that so bad, because I quite enjoy it.

I like being useful.





Impairment, Fear and Self-loathing in an Osaka Internet Cafe

Sometimes I need help.  This is something that people with a disability are not meant to say, but the fact is I do sometimes need help.  Whether it be difficulties in walking from A to B, or getting a seat on the train, or help with carrying shopping home, here in the Land of the Rising Sun I, as a disabled person am often reliant on the kindness of others and those others are often strangers.  Japan, rightly or wrongly is seen as a ‘polite’ country, but even taking that into account, I often think the following:  It must be difficult for the Japanese people to help me sometimes.

In the last month or so, my impairment, my cerebral palsy, has been causing me problems, my left leg in particular has becomes so stiff and painful, that I now find it difficult to walk some days. One of the worst aspects of pain is that it can force you to be overly self-concerned, to focus on your body and your own well-being to the exclusion of others. You can become mean, you begin to view the world in a kind of instrumentalist way, you know have to do so much to fulfil your work obligations in a day, eat so much to avoid starvation, hopefully at some point you can schedule some fun or rest. Quite frankly pain can make you socially inert to outright selfish, when you have to focus some much on your body to navigate the world, it easy to ignore world itself. If you are not careful you can become either blind or a little too used to the little acts of kindness that make your day easier, and after a recent visit to an Internet café in Umeda Osaka (where many of my articles are written), I realised that I had allowed my physical malady to turn me into a selfish human being.

Consider the following scene: You work at an Internet café, a middle aged westerner arrives. He walks down the stairs, and asks for a room for a couple of hours. He wants a computer, TV, a non-smoking cubicle and all you can drink when it comes to soft drinks.  So far this is a commonplace scenario, many foreigners use Internet cafes, so it’s no big deal right?

Well it is and it isn’t.  Let’s modify the scene a little.  Let’s imagine you work at an Internet café, and a middle aged westerner arrives.  Only this middle aged westerner limps downs the stairs to approach you at the customer service counter, looking like he could physically collapse at any moment.  He also asks for computer, TV, a non-smoking cubicle and the all you can drink in atrociously bad Japanese, and staggers towards his assigned place in the establishment.  A few hours pass and the physically encumbered westerner turns to leave, he pays his X amount of Yen for his time at the computer and begins to make his exit.  And he really struggles walking up the stairs, pausing for a few seconds on every stair.  You decide to help him up the stairs, supporting his left side as he walks.

My reaction though, I am sad to say was initially to be afraid. My fear partly came from the fact that I hadn’t noticed her walk up behind me on the stairs until she held me arm, and had prised my rucksack off my shoulders. I almost said what are you doing?  It was only when I turned and saw her, all smiles, saying ‘Daijoubu desu ka [You OK?]?’ that I relaxed; I simply was not expecting such a kindness.  I felt both silly and ashamed.

I felt really guilty for the way I reacted, even though it was a reaction which remained unspoken – though not necessarily unexpressed, I’m sure my body language spoke volumes even if I said nothing through words. She was trying to help me and yet I, initially at least, viewed her kindness as an intrusion, perhaps even as an assault.  True, maybe it is partly not my fault – I could not see or hear approaching, but that my reaction was one of fear still troubles me.  Had I become, albeit out of necessity, so concerned with my physical condition, so focussed on the humdrum of life, the getting from A to B that I had simply not even considered friendly engagement with hitherto unmet others a possibility?

Some might think what my little helper did a rather ordinary act; I needed help andwas given it, and in an ideal world, we would consider her behaviour to be normal rather than kind, yet I think it takes a special kind of courage. Consider the situation from her point of view, to approach a stranger, who is obviously non-Japanese, so there is a possibility of language barrier, and is physically encumbered (a rare thing to see in a westerner) and offer to help. There are often many reasons not to offer help at the best of times, whether it be a concern for your own safety or well-being, or because you simply have not got the time to help. I’m not sure in all fairness that I could do the same if the roles were reversed, so upon reflection, I see what she did to be most extraordinary.

I only wish I had had the presence of mind to say thank you.

Giving up your seat on a train is a public affair

By Michael Gillan Peckitt in The Japan Times

A recent article in the media in Japan about the attitudes and behavior of able-bodied passengers toward reserved seating on trains reminded me of one of the few negative experiences I have endured as a disabled foreigner in Japan, and it pertains to the tricky art of acquiring use of the “priority seats.”

For the uninitiated, priority seats are those put aside for the disabled, elderly, pregnant and the young — usually a couple of benches at the end of each carriage. People often do give up a seat to those in need, save for the odd salaryman, who either pretends to be asleep or, on occasion, is drinking a can of beer.

If the latter is the case, the said salaryman is sometimes met by death stares from his fellow natives that seem to say, “Stop letting the side down.” It is quite heartening, actually, to see such concern for the collective self-image. The article pointed out that able-bodied passengers in Tokyo will often sit, at least until a person in need arrives, whereas people in Sapporo would often stand, even if the appropriate person in need never arrives.

It might surprise the reader to learn that, as a disabled person, despite the laudable intentions of the commuters of Sapporo, I prefer the Tokyo way of doing things, at least in this respect. When people do not or cannot sit on these seats, they stand just in front of them, often blocking access to the seat. This is not their fault — there may be nowhere to sit down — but it can make someone who is prone to involuntary muscle spasms worry that the commuter standing in front of them may fall victim to an unexpected and completely uncontrollable whacking. Of course, people might not be sitting down for a variety of reasons — maybe they only have a couple of station stops before home, and therefore don’t see the point.

When I first moved to Japan, rather than question their motives and actions, I simply thought that my hosts must be very gracious, often giving up their seats for me. They are kind, but recently I have noticed another aspect to the act — something that hints at a darker side to the exchange: the possibility that some Japanese people have a savior complex when it comes to surrendering seats.

The act of giving up your seat is a very public affair: You get up and give your seat to another commuter; if the train is busy, people may have to make room for you as you get up and they sit down, so people do notice when you give up your seat. That it is noticed imbues the act with a certain performative character, almost as if the one giving up is playing the central role in the play — “helping the unfortunate on the train.” There are certain rules and moves to this role, which, like a kabuki actor, you must execute with no deviation from the script. Let me talk you through the play.

Firstly, once you accept the role of seat giver-upper, you may show no signs of physical fatigue yourself. You may not sweat, sigh, yawn or show any signs of fatigue at all. It would simply be bad form to give up your seat to the physically encumbered and then look like you were complaining that you were tired. The person for whom the seat is being given up also begins their role at this point, and their first act is to accept the seat: Even if you do not need it, you must endure the comfy chair. Refusal to do so will be met with disappointment, disbelief and sometimes anger from the giver-upper. I have in fact been struck once for refusing the gesture.

Secondly, you may not sit down, even if another seat becomes available. That’s right — you chose to be a Good Samaritan, and giving up your seat means you can never get it back: You are condemned to a vertical train journey. Even if most of the seats are free in the priority section and the person you gave it up for has left the train, at least your fellow commuters will notice your act of generosity: Your transition to Savior of the Priority Seats commences.

Now, the third act: You must stand in front of the person who now occupies your seat, hanging from the handles. Why be charitable unless you can guilt the person you helping? That is the only reason I can think of to explain why people do this. If they were trying to help me as a disabled person they would sit down, and therefore be out of my way. But, no, I’ve found that even if you motion toward an empty seat, they will not take it: The role of seat giver-upper apparently requires martyrdom.

And so to the finale of this piece of theater, although since it is lesser performed, perhaps we should consider it an optional encore. I have had the dubious pleasure of seeing it at least twice, most memorably performed by a 30-something man on the Keio Inokashira Line traveling from Shibuya to Komaba-Todaimae, and, again, a few months ago, by an elderly woman on a Kyoto-bound train in Osaka. This is the part where our hero can expect lots of gratitude for their act of charity.

Being brought up to mind my Ps and Qs, I begrudge no one a few thank yous. However, there are some for whom, it seems at least, thank yous are not enough. In each instance, I thanked them with a single thank you and they looked visibly upset. I paused, bowed and repeated the thanks. I could swear a smile of relief rather than gratitude appeared on their faces. I imagine they thought: “I came on this train, sat down, then got up and with the selflessness of samurai facing battle, gave up my seat to the disabled foreigner. I stood there, eschewing the empty seats so that people could see me giving up my seat and recognize me as the Savior of the Priority Seats, and all I got for that was one measly thank you? Unbelievable!” Well no, actually, that’s just being a good person. Enjoy your journey. Mine’s the next stop.

Help for elderly, disabled recidivists crucial for rehabilitation into society

From The Yomiuri &The Japan News, Saturday 23rd August 2014

The Yomiuri ShimbunPublic prosecutors are working to rehabilitate elderly people and people with intellectual disabilities who repeat relatively minor crimes, such as shoplifting and skipping out on restaurant bills, to help them rejoin society.

In cooperation with welfare experts, prosecutors are trying to secure places at welfare facilities for such people, as well as seeking to get their indictments suspended or receive suspended sentences in court.

Preventing repeat offenses is important to protect the public’s safety. It is understandable that prosecutors are exploring ways to achieve this in keeping with suspects and defendants’ circumstances, instead of just sending them to prison, thereby encouraging them to regain their footing in society.

Since January last year, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office has recruited social welfare workers as part-time employees to help prosecutors with specific assistance measures.

For example, an elderly man arrested on suspicion of shoplifting was placed in a nursing home after a suspended indictment, as he was suspected of suffering from dementia. More than 350 people have received welfare assistance and medical treatment in the past 1½ years without serving prison terms.

In Nagasaki, Otsu and elsewhere, panels comprising psychiatrists and other experts investigate the degree of disability of each defendant and compile reports that district public prosecutors can refer to when they seek penalties. Sendai and 19 other district public prosecutors offices cooperate with local probation offices and help probation officers find places for suspects to live after they are released.

Such endeavors are an attempt to take advantage of welfare networks and expertise.

No end to repeat offenses

The driving force behind these efforts is the seemingly endless number of repeat offenses committed by the elderly and mentally disabled.

According to a Justice Ministry white paper on crime, the number of elderly persons serving prison terms has been continually increasing, with the figure for 2012 more than five times that seen 20 years before. More than 70 percent of the prisoners were repeat offenders.

A survey of inmates suspected to have mental disabilities shows they served 3.8 prison terms, on average, and some of them had been imprisoned more than five times.

It is hard to say that serving time in prison has led to rehabilitation in such cases. If they have no place to live and work and no prospects for their lives after completing their jail terms, released prisoners will repeat crimes and end up being jailed again.

Severe punishments must be imposed for heinous crimes, but depending on the case, it could be an effective public safety measure to treat elderly offenders or those with intellectual disabilities from a welfare standpoint.

Welfare assistance for repeat offenders would have the additional benefit of preventing the overcrowding of prisons and reducing the costs of operating them.

However, much remains to be done to sufficiently implement welfare assistance. The Justice Ministry and prosecutors offices must cooperate with the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and local governments to increase the number of welfare facilities that can accept repeat offenders.

The prosecutors must also examine the effects of welfare assistance to verify that recipients can be rehabilitated and that such steps deter repeat offenses.

Holidays & BBC Ouch on Chopsticks and Disability

I am holiday, Bon or Obon, a festival for the dead held in August here in Japan. I am Tokushima, on Shikoku Island, famous for its ‘Awa Odori’, ‘Awa Dance’. Awa is the old name for the area and the Dance is kind of Sisyphean middle finger to death.

But I had to share this with you, Kathleen Hawkins of BBC Ouch on chopsticks and disability.



A Different Empty Seat on Another Crowded Train

The doors slid open on the nearly vacant subway car and a mass of passengers piled in.  All the available seats were filed in a wild flurry.

Well, almost all.

People either spurned the empty seat or ignored it as if it were occupied. – Baye McNeil, Hi! My name is Loco and I am a Racist

Of course, people might not be sitting down for a variety of reasons.  Maybe they only have a couple of stations stops before home, so don’t see the point, or maybe there are letting a family member sit down.  But those are the only two good reasons, as Baye McNeil notes, if there is an empty seat next to you, the reasons for its being left vacant are rarely good, there are some Japanese people it seems, are afraid of foreigners, so as they rather stand than sit next to them.

The situation is slightly different if you come to Japan with a physical disability. There are seats put aside for the disabled, elderly, pregnant and the young, these are the ‘priority seats’, usually a couple of benches at each end of each carriage.  People (I say people, but it is usually a female member of the population that actually gives her seat up) do usually give up a seat to those in need, save for the exception of the odd salaryman, who either pretends to be asleep or, on occasion is drinking a can of beer, if the latter is the case he is often met by death stares from his fellow natives that seem to say ‘stop letting the side down’, quite heartening actually, to see such concern for the Japanese public self-image.

When I first moved to Japan, I thought simply that may hosts are very gracious, often giving up their seats for me, and do not mistake me, they are kind, but recently I have noticed another aspect to the act of giving up your seat, a darker side to the exchange.

The act of giving up your seat, especially if it is a very busy train, is a very public affair.  You get up and give your seat to another commuter, and it will often be to a foreigner, disabled, elderly person or someone who is pregnant.  People may have to make room for you as you get up and they sit down, so people do notice when give up your seat.   That it is noticed, imbues the act with a certain  performative character, almost as if the one giving up is playing the central role in the play ‘helping the unfortunate on the train’.  There is certain rules and moves to this role, which like a Kabuki actor, you must execute with no deviation from the script.  Here are the rules:

(1 Once you accept the role of ‘seat giver-upper’ you may show no signs of physical fatigue yourself. 

You may have had a long day at work, it maybe a Summer’s day, but if you give up your seat, you may not sweat, you may not sigh, you may not yawn or show any signs of fatigue at all.  It would simply be bad form to give up your seat to the physically encumbered, and then look like you were complaining that you were tired.

(2  You may not sit down, even if another seat becomes available.

That’s right good Samaritan, giving up your seat means you can never get it back, you are condemned to a vertical train journey.  Even if most of the seats are free in the priority seats section and person you gave it up for has left the train. This is really a sub-section of rule one, of not showing fatigue. 

(3  You must stand in front of the person who now occupies your seat, hanging from the handle bars.

Why be charitable unless you can guilt the person you helping?  That is the only reason I can think of to explain why people do this.  If they were trying to help me as a disabled person they would sit down, and therefore be out of my way.  But no, even if you motion towards an empty seat, they will not take it.  Maybe they have yet to compete the final act of their ‘priority-seat martyr’ Kabuki play, that of suffering by having to stand despite the many empty seats.

(4  You can expect lots of gratitude.

And of course, being brought up to mind my P’s and Q’s I begrudge no one a few arigatogaimashitas.  But there are some for whom that is not enough, and a saviour complex quickly develops.  You came on this train, sat down, then got up and with selflessness of Samurai facing battle, you gave up your seat to the disabled foreigner or pregnant lady.  You stood there, hanging from the stabilising handle bars for thirty minutes, eschewing the empty seats that you could have sat on so that people could see you giving up your seat, and recognise as the Saviour and Protector of the Priority Seats and all you got for that was one measly arigato? Unbelievable!

Well no actually, that’s being a good person.  Enjoy your journey.  Mine’s the next stop.