Japan is An Ordinary World…

[T]here remains a general tendency amongst expats, not to mention tourists, to accentuate their adventures and downplay their daily routine, those few moments and, over the course of of one’s time spent overseas, increasingly unremarkable encounters. That’s something of a regrettable thing.  I believe its often the case that the seemingly normal things, if savoured, can become uncanny things. These strange mundanities then weave themselves into the fabric of moment-to-moment life and incorporate slightly off-base or out of whack aspects into that which would otherwise (and unfairly) considered an ordinary day. Richard Russell, Dancing over Kyoto, 2013

Japan is not quite right, and there is no other way to express this feeling about Japan other than to say, not right. In other countries, people don’t apologise because they stepped onto the train too quickly, in other countries, one not is encouraged to sit so close to other passengers on said train to allow other people to sit.  In other countries one cannot simply have conversations in bars with cute girls, or drink alcohol on the street simply because one is thirsty. Certainly, Japan is not quite right.

Japan is not right, but it also never seems to get old, at least not for that foreigner traversing through it. No matter how long they remains in the same town and in the same apartment, the foreigner never loses the sense of things not fitting, of not being quite right, of something, a thing that remains elusive being out of place, if only I could find a slot for that thing, Japan would make sense, maybe.

It is the oddest experience. Why is it, every time you hit the futon, you forget that five hours later the following will happen, just as it did every other day, you know it this will happen. Every approached as it were new. Your neighbour will take the futon out at nine, like she did yesterday.  Your garbage, on a Tuesday and a Friday, will be collected at eleven, just like it was last week.

There is certainly something about Japan which goes beyond the shock of the new or unfamiliar.  It is, as Richard Russell notes, a sense of the mundane, of the uncanny or the strangely familiar.  I have experienced such a feeling before, but in Japan it is something more.  In Japan, it is experienced as an extreme feeling of déjà vu. I can only give you an example, each morning I wake up, walk outside and take a stroll around my environs. I come across oba-chans, who think I lack a sweater or jumper, when the temperature is 20C or the young boys who seem transfixed by my gaijin-ness, and the young girls who shout Sugoi [Wow] You are English? 

People who live in Japan, they laugh, those people also cry, or go to the toilet, just like they do anywhere else in the world, just, they do the latter, just they do it on a washlet, a heated seat that will clean your behind for you.

It is an experience which is both strangely familiar and not right, all at the same time, for me, it is also the strangest feeling of home.


Japan: An Attempt at Re-imagining (or how I write about Japan)

A thousand books have been written about Japan; but among these, -setting aside artistic publications and works of a purely special character,- the really precious volumes will be found to number scarcely a score.  The fact is due to the immense difficulty of perceiving and comprehending what underlies the surface of Japanese life.  No work fully interpreting that life,-no work picturing Japan within and without, historically and socially, psychologically and ethically,-can be written for at least another fifty years.  So vast and intricate the subject that the united labour of a generation of scholars could not exhaust it, so difficult that the number of scholars willing to devote their time to it must always be small. Lafcadio Hearn, Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, 1904

It is has become obvious to me in the last few weeks that the world of Japan non-fiction writers, has altered much since Lafcadio Hearn wrote his seminal Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation in 1904.  Maybe it is just that Hearn didn’t have the luxury of blogging, and the delight of having dozens upon dozens of people throughout the globe writing to him personally, and sometimes in public forums to tell him how closely his book resembles faecal matter of the loosest variety.

Recently, I have been getting emails about my Japan Times article on having a disability and living in Japan.  Most has been positive, along the lines of ‘nice article’ and ‘write more’.  A minority of readers, however, seemed to take umbrage with my offering, not just saying it was badly written, it may well be, but that I had misrepresented Japan in some way. My critics divide into two camps, let me introduce you to them.

One camp thought I had been too positive, that surely life in Japan for a foreigner with a disability cannot be that good.  Surely, the pointing and staring must get to you; surely life is not really that sweet.  You must have made this is up, Japan can’t be that positive an experience for someone like yourself.  The second camp, somewhat bizarrely in my view, thought I’d been too negative, that in writing about being a disabled foreigner, I had somehow failed to attempt to integrate, to become part of Japanese society, as if in Japan, I should set aside such categories as ‘disabled’ or ‘foreigner’.

My direct response to the first chorus of disapproval (a woefully large portion of which seem to be disabled, and oftentimes disabled and living in Britain) I can simply say this: I made no claims that Japan is perfect; indeed it is certainly not perfect.  Japan only recently ratified the UN Declaration on the Convention of Rights for Disabled Persons, and was the 140th country to do so, instead of say, at least in the first hundred, and there are only fifty-three member states left to sign.  The experience of being disabled would be different for someone like my wife, a Japanese citizen who, like me, has cerebral palsy.

I am not quite sure what to say to the second group to answer their criticism except this.  Both groups, in different ways raise the issue of my being a foreigner, a gaijin, as something which acted as a lens in my understanding of Japan, both seem to see the ‘gaijin lens’ as offering a distorted and inaccurate view, even if it is a positive vista that one sees from behind the lens.  And there is an interesting question about the duty of a non-fiction writer, writing about Japan.  Is it to simply report ‘the truth’, what is ‘actually there’, or is it to report what she or he sees, thinks and feels and hears, even if it is from a perspective that may not be shared by all?

I am of the latter school of thought.  No one can simply abandon their pre-conceptions and prejudices, nor perhaps should they do so.  Whilst a good writer, native to Japan like Haruki Murakami may help me understand a point of view that could be called ‘Japanese’, I cannot look at Japan except as a foreigner, as that is what I am, a British subject, who has cerebral palsy, living in Japan, and I report what I experience in these blogs.  The mistake though, is to assume that I think that reportage is an innocent process, and simply ‘true’, that Japan is ‘simply’ how I describe it, it isn’t of course, even Hearn titled his book Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation not Japan: A Description. A journalist’s first duty may be to the truth, but a writer’s is not by necessity. Writers, even non-fiction writers, are telling you a story, much like impressionistic painters they are telling you about the world they see, not the world that is ‘actually’ there. Why is such a world, when presented to some, seen as the opposite of the ‘true’ or ‘real’ world? My being a foreigner, and being disabled, is the only perspective I have, something that Donald Richie understood when he wrote ‘On being a foreigner in Japan’, after he had been living in the country for forty-six years.

One could report events that did not happen, or describe people that did not exist, that would certainly be lie, but when did it become a writer’s job to simply describe what is ‘actually there’, to avoid ‘misrepresentation’ instead of also utilising their imagination to try and bring their subject alive to an unfamiliar audience?

And, oh, sometimes Lafcadio was lucky not to have to deal with the Internet.

Sometimes I Am So Western…

Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.” Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on. Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978

As a young doctoral student, and for that matter, before that, a young undergraduate studying philosophy in Britain, I used to be hugely worried about failing to heed Said’s warning.  Being taught at school about the British Empire, and in fact, I can dimly remember primary school teachers of mine referring to ‘Empire Day’ instead of ‘Commonwealth Day’, usually held in the second week of March.  Britain had in the past according to some, enacted a physical and cultural rape of certain countries, and those who held this view usually had India, Singapore, Afghanistan, and China in mind, to name but a few.  It is was now our duty, as ‘good Westerners’, not just to have no interest in colonising, (that at least was understandable), but also to be very careful how we approached other cultures, even geeky adoration of a strange and far away culture could be mistaken for an act of violence against a belief system which should be respected at all costs.  If only my History teacher could have seen Miley Cyrus ‘twerking’ in 2013 A.D., such an act of cultural violation would have no doubt put her in a catatonic state of shock.  

Still, such views were very much in vogue at the time.  Gone was the world of T.E.Lawrence and Rudyard Kipling, replaced with the new enlightened understanding of Edward Said and his students.  This time we were going to get it right apparently, be interested in other cultures, study other cultures, but we would avoid any violent appropriation of another’s culture.  I tried really hard to be a good disciple of Said, but I stopped soon after I came to Japan. Japan offers me many experiences, which convince me that Said is simply wrong when he says that it’s a ‘distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident” ’. Japan has taught me instead that everyone, of all nations, indulges in the practice or something similar.

Where are you from? A young woman, asked me in convenience store in Ome-shi, Tokyo, the first city I lived in when I moved here.  Britain, I say clearly.  Doko? (Where?), she responded, looking confused.  Britain, I reiterateI look at her face for a light bulb flash of recognition, there wasn’t one. I reached into my pocket for my smartphone and consulted Maps.  I turned the screen round to her, the British Isles enlarged on the screen, hai dozo (there).  Ah, she exclaimed with relief, England.  Initially, I was simply confused, did I? Thankfully she explained it thusly:

If you are from Britain, or in fact from the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, well then you are from England. The term, also upon occasion covers parts of Éire, unless you are talking to a Post Office worker, they understand ‘United Kingdom’.  It often confuses me, half my family is Scottish, and much of ‘English side’ has Irish heritage only one generation old. The term English is often appropriated by far right wing political groups with which I do not want to be associated. I always see myself as British, and yet this young woman of Yamato, had confidently assured me that I certainly was from England, and no other country. My grandmother being born in Galway was born in England, my grandmother from Aberdeenshire, was born in northern England, as was my brother who was born in Aberdeen itself.  All in England you see, it’s really very simple.

I give you exhibit B, ladies and gentlemen, once in a while, and usually, although not exclusively, I manage to illicit from female colleagues and friends this response: Wow, You understood that? I thought you were Western.  I am not always quite sure what it is I am doing or not doing that impresses them.  It appears to be connected to the surprise that I can use chopsticks, or know about any Japanese cultural artifacts, such as manga, anime or J-Pop, as if to be from the West, was to also be from a place that had no restaurants, books or devices to play music. After all, you are from the West, how can you possibly know about such things?  People from the West should not be able to use chopsticks, drink nihon-shu or speak Japanese, as that is what we Japanese people do. If you experience this reaction of happy surprise though, you should be proud, it means that you are beginning to follow the Japanese Way of Doing Things, and your hosts will be impressed.  It starts with the surprise, that you can use chopsticks, or have basic tourist level Japanese.  Maybe then you graduate to level two, you demonstrate that you are aware of the convention of pouring drinks for friends in restaurants, or can also order your own food.  Be advised though, once you start along the Japanese Way, any straying from the path, any failure to follow the establish way will be swiftly met by Yappari I Knew It, you are in fact a foreigner, as your gaijn-ness re-asserts itself through failure.  You may have fooled us into thinking you were something else with your chopstick use, sake drinking and language, but we have seen you using a fork, so we know the truth.  When you walk along the Japanese Way, let’s just say it is good to take a guide.

Which brings us nicely to exhibit C, the recent All Nippon Airways campaign, which some believe is racist; in fact ANA has apparently pulled the advert.  I don’t believe the advert is racist, although part of the campaign, does make use of stereotypes that British media, at least could not get away with.  One poster for example has a photograph of a Japanese person, dressed in the apparently traditional attire of one the many destinations ANA can take you.  So the person from Frankfurt looks like she just stopped singing Edelweiss with Christopher Plummer, and the London representative , who wears what I have come to call ‘The Full Van Dyke’, shall certainly ‘av a loverly time with Mary.

So I lay this challenge to those still overly concerned with Said’s charge of Orientalism, what about Occidentalism?  And with that question, the defence rests, and is off to drink chu-hi, eat natto and do all manner of un-western things.




Japan becomes 141th ratified signatory to the UN Convention on Rights of Disabled Persons

this NHK News Web link, and this Kyodo News reports that Japan became the 141th ratified signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Person(140 countries and the EU) , and it did so on the 20th January 2014, according to the UN Website.  The Japanese Ambassador to the UN, Yoshikawa Motoera, said that ‘now is the time to protect the rights of disabled persons’, that is all the more important as Tokyo prepares to host the Olympics and Paralympics Games in 2020.

Concerning the Smartphone in Japan

Obtaining a telephone not the easy matter it is in most other countries, and often entails waiting for four of five years unless one has recourse to the black market…Telephone are still so scarce in private houses that it is an unwritten law that when anyone is lucky or rich enough to obtain one the use of it shall be extended to his neighbours. John Morris, in Traveller from Tokyo, 1945


Times have changed, we no longer have a five year wait, or a need for the black market, nor do we need to share with our neighbours, but the Japanese love affair with the phone continues unabated. When I first arrived in Tokyo in 2012, I couldn’t help but notice how many smartphones or Sumātofon were used by everyday commuters.  Before I knew about the differences between Tokyo-ites and Osakan Japanese, I had divided Japan into different sorts of Sumātofon-jin or smartphone people.  Let me introduce you to them.

The Priority Seat Stow-away: I always feel sorry this one.  This is the salaryman, who has left work, maybe early, and has an important call he knows he has to take, either from his boss or his wife.  He will be found sitting on the Priority seats, looking nervous, Sumātofon in hand (which shall be an Android, never an iPhone – too expensive) waiting for the call, and will pretend to play games as he does.

The Proud Porn Viewer: You remember when I said people in Japan no longer have to share the phone with our neighbours?  Well maybe I was wrong, as the case of the Proud Porn Viewer clearly demonstrates.  He is usually a salaryman on his way to work or on the way back from it; in fact I have never properly observed this species except during the hours of 7am to 10am and 10pm to midnight.  They also found most commonly in certain places, the Yamanote Line on way to Akihabara and back, or on the way to Nippombashi in Osaka. Anywhere Otaku culture can be found. Yet during these times he can be found, quite openly staring at his Sumātofon watching porn.  If you sit next to him you get a free show.  Good Times, ne?

The Emergency Make-up Checker: Do you need to know if a Japanese woman truly loves you?  Right find out if she is one of these people.  The Emergency Make-up Checker is rare breed.  I always find her on the priority seats, usually on a Friday or Saturday, between the hours of 6pm and 8pm.  Her usual habit is to put on her makeup, on the train, as she goes to meet her boyfriend, using the reverse camera option to make sure she looks OK.  This task evidently requires also sitting on the priority seats, maybe they are the only seats that are empty, with the right lighting during that time.

The Annoying Gaijin Tourist:   He’s never been on a JR Train before, and yes he is usually a male.  He doesn’t know it’s not really allowed to take photos, or that you are drunk, and probably don’t want your photo taken, or that yes you are British, and yes have lived here for almost 18 months. This one, I suggest you observe at a distance. But sometimes, this species of Smartphone user gets lost, can’t find his territory or his herd, and as such times it is both safe and advisable to approach.  Prepare your best ‘PEACE’ sign for photos though.

It must also be understood that all Japanese Sumātofon users have to hold the phone a foot away from their eyes, and can never look at you or their feet, as bad things would happen if they looked up away from the screen.

NHK secure Paralympic rights in Japan for 2014 and 2016

Original link http://www.paralympic.org/news/nhk-secure-paralympic-rights-japan-2014-and-2016 post January 9th 2014


The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has awarded the exclusive host broadcast rights in Japan for the Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 Paralympic Games to Japan’s only public broadcaster NHK.

Under the terms of the agreement NHK, who have a long history of screening the Paralympic Games in Japan will broadcast over 29 hours of coverage from March’s Winter Paralympics in Sochi and 46 hours from Rio 2016 on 2 free-to-air terrestrial TV channels. (General TV and Educational TV)

In addition, for the first time ever in winter games NHK will show live coverage of the Opening Ceremony at their terrestrial TV channel and will screen daily 30 minute long highlights programmes during the Sochi Winter Paralympics. For Rio 2016, the highlights show will be extended to one hour each day of competition.

NHK also has the option to broadcast World Championship staged by IPC sports including athletics, swimming, alpine skiing, Nordic skiing and ice sledge hockey between now and 31 December 2016 and other para-sport events.

Sir Philip Craven, IPC President, said: “We are absolutely delighted to extend our long-term and extremely strong partnership with NHK for a further four years.

“With Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, it is vitally important that we continue to raise awareness of the Paralympic brand in Japan not just during the Paralympic Games, but all year round. This deal, which makes NHK the ‘official Paralympic broadcaster’ in Japan, will go a long way in helping us to achieve this.

“The deal means more Paralympic coverage than ever before in Japan and far greater promotion in advance of the Games. It provides the perfect platform for us to build upon in the years leading up to Tokyo 2020.”

Masayuki Higuchi, Head of NHK Sports, said: “We are looking forward to have the opportunity to work alongside IPC to deliver the excitement of the Games. As a public broadcaster we feel the responsibility in bringing the positive influence towards disability sports. We will strongly commit to push forward the Paralympic movement in Japan that will lead to the success of Tokyo 2020.”

Ahead of both Games, NHK will promote the Paralympics through the creation of dedicated websites, pre-programming and comprehensive and wide-ranging marketing campaigns.

NHK has also sub-licensed some rights to SKY Perfect JSAT, a subscription based satellite channel, who, for Sochi 2014 will create a free-to-air 24-hour Paralympic channel. In total it will show over 200 hours of coverage, made up of 60 hours of live coverage, highlights and pre-recorded programmes.

The Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will take place between 7-16 March and will feature around 700 athletes from 45 countries who will compete in 72 medal events across five sports.

They are set to be break all Winter Paralympics viewing records with TV deals having already been announced for Canada, Europe, Great Britain, Russia and with more to come.

Home Thoughts from an Ingurisshu Abroad

So today I bought airplane tickets for Britain, leaving in early February and coming back in March, as mentioned in previous blog posts, the idea of returning to Britain, has at a times, troubled me, for details I suggest reading by this and this.

And yet there are things I miss about the UK.  Not necessarily particular places, although I do miss the City where I went to University, Hull, where I began my academic and married life, as well as my home town of Rotherham. It wasn’t a simple longing, I certainly cannot even picture a full-time return to the UK for some time yet, and, to speak truthfully, in my heart of hearts I don’t think the economic situation will improve enough for me to live there.  However, I do miss my parents, friends, some aspects of academic (as a Brit for example, it would be nice not to use American English or Ingurish to explain one’s thoughts) and Mars Bars.

What’s that you say, Mars Bars?  One of the things you miss most about Britain is Mars Bars? Well in a way yes, I miss Mars Bars, you can’t get them here, or Twixes, or should that be Twix’s or Twixi?  Either way I’ve never seen them, Snickers yes, Mars Bars and Twixi, no. 

Obviously it’s not all about Mars Bars, although it is often the little things, things like Mars Bars, a pint of Carling, and Yorkshire Pudding, that I miss most.  I probably would not actually eat the Mars Bar, they rot the teeth, I shall simply know they are there to be possibly devoured, but Yorkshire Pudding shall definitely be consumed.  Why the country that has the city with most Michelin stars (Tokyo in case you wondered) can’t have one restaurant that can produce a passable Yorkshire Pudding at decent prices is beyond me, and the same goes for the holy grail that is an oven that can heat up twelve inch Pizzas.   

And it is not all about food of course. It’s the ability to talk in English without needing to speak at three quarters of the rate you usually speak a minute, even if the person you addressing have stayed for an extensive time the United Kingdom or America. And when you do speak to the locals (strangers in a pub, old grannies and taxi’s drivers are especially good for this) not to have the first question be When are you going home? I also have a nephew I’ve never actually met, and would like to see him.

If such a list of things genuinely bothered one that much, one would of course, never really leave one’s country of origin, if you really want English, ultimately, I recommend staying in Britain, I hear the Yorkshire Pudding is tasty there. I’m certainly not ready to go back for good, but I have been in the Land of the Rising Sun since August 26th 2012, and that’s been feeling like a long time recently. So I was coming to the end of the teaching part of the University academic year, and lacking any administrative duties, with the academic year re-starting in April, I decided to temporarily leave the land of rising suns, chu-hi and ramen and re-visit the land of drizzle, cuppa teas and Yorkshire puddings. 

At least my visit will make three quarters of my local watering hole, obaa-chan and taxi driver very happy! I shall blog and make videos about my time as the prodigal son, and in the words of another famous resident of Japan, I shall return.