Monthly Archives: September 2011

I ♥ Hatsudai Awa Odori

I love Japan the most when it’s a public holiday. It seems like everyone agrees to put the frantic pace of life to one side for a day and act like they were born to indolence and enjoyment instead.  I realise from speaking to students that they will have done five days’ work in three this week, to make up for two holidays, but I hope it felt worth it on Friday morning.

Tokyo woke up to a gorgeous autumn day, and as the sun went down, we headed to Yoyogi for the Hatsudai Awa Odori:

The drums were loud and infectious:

They are also punishing to the drummers.  I saw one with hands covered in blood, still playing, laughing to his friends about the cuts.

Laughing because it was worth it, playing through the blood and dancing away any tiredness or aches and pains.  Letting the neat bag of empty tins grow bigger, ignoring the line between participant and onlooker, as the cool night air gave a promise of the winter chill to follow.  What better way to say farewell to summer than with a final frenzy:

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Roke encounters

Roke wasn’t my first typhoon so I thought I knew what to expect: the windows would rattle, there would be a ton of rain and it wouldn’t be very pleasant to be outside.  I checked the Japan Railways website before leaving for work and all seemed normal.  I got a bit soggy on the walk to the station, but no more than you would expect on a winter’s day – or a summer’s day – in Manchester.  Here is a picture I took of the rain streaming off my neighbour’s house:

The garden seemed to be enjoying it, anyway!

Things started to get a little out of the ordinary part of the way through my first lesson.  The school building was jumping around like in an aftershock and more than once the student looked up from the books and raised a concerned eyebrow.  Take care out there, I said as he was leaving, but thought nothing more of it until after my second class, when I heard that the schools were being closed and we were being advised to get home sharpish.

That turned out to be easier said than done!  With many other unhappy commuters I waited on a train that couldn’t move because the wind was rocking it back and forth so much that to leave the shelter of the station would have been madness.  Through the pelting rain I took this admittedly not very great shot of the one on the next platform:

You might just about be able to make out a carload of passengers calmly reading newspapers…

And there we waited.  In the end, a couple of hours went by, my water and chocolate ran out and I began to get a little restless.  Then we were asked to leave the train and wait on the platform, the doors shut but still nothing moved.  I went down the stairs, back into the station, where not much was happening.  Realising from a quick look at a map that I was about 5 km from home, I decided to walk.  The weather was definitely calmer now, although as I couldn’t be certain if that was the end, or the eye, of the storm, I made sure not to dawdle!

As I walked I saw bikes lying in heaps like discarded toys, cliché though it is, exactly as if some giant children had been playing with them and suddenly got bored.  Trees were uprooted, huge plant pots overturned and leaves and twigs crunched underfoot, as if everything had been shredded.  I saw a building site’s hoardings toppled over and another one whose netting had been sliced as if with a knife, leaving the ends flapping like a sail in the still full breeze.  Then the human detritus, hundreds of broken umbrellas, a lost baseball cap and a scarf, their owners maybe somewhere in the next ward, wondering exactly where their belongings had ended up.

It was such a relief to get home, find it still standing and to sink into my own pillows.  Then the final pay off, as always happens on the post-typhoon morning, you wake up and throw open the curtains to witness this sight, whereupon all the inconvenience and mayhem seems strangely worth it:

If only there was some way to have the post-typhoon freshness without the big wind…

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The tip of the iceberg

The News International scandal is just the tip of the iceberg of unelected oligarchies and corporate power in Britain’s democracy, according to a new report by David Beetham of the LSE, arguing that:

it serves to distract attention, as the MPs’ expenses affair did, from the ongoing embrace of the corporate world by politicians, of which their toadying to Murdoch has been such an egregious example.

Meanwhile, using a piece of legislation for other than the intended purpose, the Met is seeking to force the  Guardian to produce its source for the Milly Dowler phone hacking story by way of the Official Secrets Act.  Precedent seems to suggest that they won’t get very far in this course of action, but it is an unnecessary, not to mention expensive, battle for the Guardian to face.  Especially at a time when they have been picking up almost universal plaudits for pursuing the story in the face of so much hostility.

After a summer of revelations, it looks like this one has got much further to run yet.

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A Nice Cup of Tea

On my recent trip back to the UK a great pal asked me what it was about George Orwell that I thought made him so relevant over fifty years after his death.  A couple of vodkas to the good I blethered on about the politics, writing and all round genius.  How his being of the Left but often despairing of his fellow travellers means that his writing still speaks to those who support left-wing causes and those who oppose them.  Obliged to Offend is much more eloquent on the subject here.

That is all correct, but what I should really have done is what I am about to do now.  Which is to point everyone who needs further convincing in the direction of this essay by Mr Orwell, on his instructions for a perfect cup of tea.   I consider myself to be no mean slouch in the tea-making department and have made tea that has wowed drinkers on three continents.  But even I don’t have an eleven-point programme for the correct way to go about it.  My favourite method is to have someone else do all the hard work:

And I could have an argument with him from now until the end of time about point 10.  But far all that, I still believe there is no more perfect way to spend a day, especially a Sunday, than curled up with George Orwell and a favourite brew.  I have a feeling he would approve.

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New term, new tunes

You can tell it’s September.  This time of year always feels like the start of something for me, maybe because my birthday is fast approaching, or because my arrival in Japan was 12 months ago and I’m reminded of how it was when everything was new.  Anyway, record companies must operate on similar lines, because there are loads of new tunes flowing through my headphones at the moment.  Here are some I think you will enjoy…

The first one ‘Yeah So’ has not been very far from my ears since it came out in 2009, so I was really happy to discover a stream of Slow Club’s second album ‘Paradise’ on the NME site.  On first listening it seems to be more to the darker side of their earlier songs, so there’s nothing here as joyful as ‘It Doesn’t Always Have to Be Beautiful’, for instance.  However, that is no bad thing, their voices and songwriting having matured so that the ‘difficult second album’ conundrum has been deftly sidestepped.  I especially love the line, ‘and I know, soon you’ll go’ on the utterly gorgeous ‘You, Earth and Ash’, as well as the sultry ‘Where I’m Waking’:

After finding Swedish band I Break Horses and the slice of wonderfulness that is ‘Winter Beats’ via Twitter, I am completely in love:

Totally coveting the album ‘Hearts’ and will write more as soon as I have it!

I always knew local lad Betamax DC made great hip-hop, but he’s been so entertaining on Twitter lately that the music had slipped to the back of my mind.  And that was really stupid of me, because ‘Gringos’ is a cracking album and no-one should wait any longer than necessary before grabbing themselves a copy.  Blending an array of influences into something that sounds like nothing else is the mark of greatness:

Welsh band Masters In France have been compared to Snow Patrol and Kasabian on various websites, but that can’t be true because – unlike those other generic indie stalwarts – I like them.  Masters In France are streaming six songs on Sound Cloud here, my favourite of which is the very danceable Mad Hatter:

I’ll always be happy with an Alice-tinged video as well.

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Old stories, old music

From a friend who told me she had started to re-read the Brothers Grimm to tell the stories to her young son, discovering unremembered darkness within the familiar tales,  to one of the last books I read before I left the UK for Japan: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, in which books whisper in the night while the wolves and worse-than-wolves howl.

From the stories I want to finish writing down to all the ones I tell out loud again and again, honing them as if they were the blade of a sword wielded by a handsome prince, in a tale told by everyone’s favourite cinematic Grandpa, now sadly no longer with us…

Stories are on my mind a lot at the moment.

Here is a secret that you probably already know: the stories you tell and the stories you hear are nothing less than tuning forks that you strike again and again. Your innermost being hears the notes and responds, not to the story, but to the music that carries it… This is the secret – the music underneath the story is what carries the magic.

- Tom Hirons, storyteller

Then I hear that today is Dahl Day, the birthday of one of the great music makers of storytelling, whose tales sang through my childhood and still ring deep in my heart today.  There are many, many, of Roald Dahl’s books I could pick as my favourite, Matilda, the BFG or the autobiographies, Boy and Going Solo.  Instead, I think I will choose Danny the Champion of the World, with its gypsy caravans and poachers in the woods, Danny and his Dad cocking a snook at the landed gentry and their gamekeepers.  What better way to celebrate than to curl up with your own favourite.  Happy Dahl Day!

The Princess Bride picture kindly borrowed from here

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Six months

Today is a day of anniversaries, perhaps rightly, the 10-year one garnering more attention worldwide, while the six-month one occupies minds closer to home.

As central and local governments in Japan set a 10 year goal to restore the ruined areas in the north-east of the country, it is difficult to see how that task could be any tougher.  The Japan Times cites the huge costs involved, the need to rethink communities to ensure residents are protected from future disasters and the ongoing catastrophe of Fukushima nuclear power plant as areas of concern:

… the massive piles of debris kept in temporary storage sites along the coast are just one indicator that a huge amount of work remains to be done.

Creating new jobs is a priority, as many people who worked for businesses that were wrecked in March remain unemployed. A recent labor ministry survey showed that at least 70,000 people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures lost their jobs because of the quake-tsunami catastrophe.

It all makes for a full in-tray for Japan’s brand new Prime Minister, not helped by yesterday’s resignation of industry minister Yoshio Hachiro over ‘controversial’ comments that the radiation-riddled areas close to the crippled Fukushima plant were now like ghost towns.  Perhaps his also-reported jest about wiping radiation from his clothes onto those of journalists was a little weak and poorly timed, but criticism and his resignation serves to avoid the obvious truth in the words.

In the days after the disaster, as Japan collectively held its breath and accurate information trickled out from TEPCO while contaminated water gushed from its plant, the response was characterised by mishap and unpreparedness, according to the Mainichi Daily News:

The government hoped that if the plan was successful, it could lift emergency evacuation preparation orders for areas lying between 20 and 30 kilometers from the plant. However, a series of minor accidents, including temporary malfunctions and leaks from the 4-kilometer-long hose used to carry the water, slowed down the operation, and the operations of the system has not yet been stabilized. According to official data, 32 mishaps with the water purification system had occurred by mid-August.

As the old Irish joke goes, if you were going to restore the ravaged areas of the country, you wouldn’t start from here.  In the face of such official dereliction of duty, it does offer some comfort to read of people finding hope and strength, from the Otsuchi convenience store owner in the Japan Times story above, to the family of young Nozomi Sato, born on March 12.  In the words of her father, Shigeru:

When I go back home everyday my wife and children are there. It may sound so trivial, but to me it is an everyday relief.

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I may never be the greatest photographer in the world

…but every now and then I take one I’m really happy with.  Like this:

- Shibuya Crossing, last weekend

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Phone hacking: the end of the beginning?

Having spent the weekend taking journalism’s weak pulse, it would be remiss not to at least glance at the chart of  the biggest media story of my lifetime.  Especially since yesterday saw further revelations from the parliamentary select committee and the preliminary inquiry hearing into phone-hacking by UK newspapers.  Again, I offer my apologies to everyone who reached saturation point with the whole affair long ago.

That seems to be a fairly natural reaction, as at more than one point this summer, it seemed the revelations were coming too quickly to grasp.  Yet things started slowly, as they often do, with actor Sienna Miller receiving a payout in the case she had brought against News Group, publishers of The Sun and The News of the World (NOTW), over claims they had hacked into her mobile phone’s voicemail messages.  As part of the settlement they admitted unconditional liability.

And there it might have rested, one more tale of how vile the British newspapers can be to those they consider fair game because they are deemed to have courted fame for one reason or another.  Interest might certainly have waned, were it not for continuing disclosures of the hacking of phones belonging to murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, relatives of service personnel killed in Afghanistan and even those who surely, they didn’t need to hack at all.

The NOTW defence that these practices were limited to one rogue reporter, Clive Goodman, jailed for hacking the phones of Buckingham Palace staff, were never particularly convincing.  As occurred to many, what editor would be so un-curious as to the sources of such rival-busting scoops?  That argument was further blown full of holes by a Guardian story detailing payouts of over £1m to settle three cases that threatened to reveal how widespread phone hacking was.  As the Guardian very delicately pointed out:

The evidence also poses difficult questions for:

• Conservative leader David Cameron’s director of communications, Andy Coulson, who was deputy editor and then editor of the News of the World when, the suppressed evidence shows, journalists for whom he was responsible were engaging in hundreds of apparently illegal acts.

• Murdoch executives who, albeit in good faith, misled a parliamentary select committee, the Press Complaints Commission and the public.

• The Metropolitan police, which did not alert all those whose phones were targeted, and the Crown Prosecution Service, which did not pursue all possible charges against News Group personnel.

• The Press Complaints Commission, which claimed to have conducted an investigation, but failed to uncover any evidence of illegal activity.

For confirmed political junkies, this was the effect of pure grade medical stuff being applied directly to the receptors.  Like one of those stoned conversations you hear at the end of a long night, when you feel the truth of every jibbering, over-indulged word from your companions.  Except now it turns out that was all true and ‘they’ really were all in it together

Within quick succession, the NOTW was closed and News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks resigned, leaving commentators to ponder what it could possibly all mean.  Was News International unravelling after so long in control, or were these calculated moves to head off further scrutiny, especially the perceived threat of UK investigations spreading to the US?  How far Brooks’ departure could help to avoid this scenario remains to be seen.  Given Murdoch Senior’s skills as a political operator, it is surely premature to write the company’s obituaries.

Especially since, as an excellent article in the New Yorker noted, the tabloid culture dreamed up by Murdoch has taken over British newspapers so completely that old distinctions between tabloid and broadsheet have been pushed aside in the race to the bottom.  While readers may be shocked at how far journalists went, within that culture, it is less surprising:

If your attitude toward the lives of others is that of a house burglar confronted by an open window; if you consider it part of your business to fabricate conversations where none exist; and if your boss treats his employees with a derision that they, following suit, extend to the subjects of their inquiries—if those elements are already in place, then the decision to, say, hack into someone’s cell phone is almost no decision at all. It is merely the next step. All that is required is the technology. What ensues may be against the law, but it goes no more against the grain of common decency than any other tool of your trade.

So while there is certainly more to come from News International and James Murdoch is likely to face more awkward questions, the newspaper readers of Britain should not lose sight of the key questions around what else these ‘rogue elements’ were up to and what the effects on the country’s democratic institutions were.  The fallout of the scandal perhaps offers the best chance in a generation to create a fairer, more equitable society for Britain.   As Freedom of Information campaigner, Heather Brooke writes:

This is why there is collusion between the elites of the police, politicians and the press. It is a cartel of information. The press only get information by playing the game. There is a reason none of the main political reporters investigated MPs’ expenses – because to do so would have meant falling out with those who control access to important civic information. The press – like the public – have little statutory right to information with no strings attached. Inside parliament the lobby system is an exercise in client journalism that serves primarily the interests of the powerful.

Freedom of information laws bust open the cartel. They give everyone an equal right to access information. You don’t have to take anyone out to lunch. You don’t have to pay anyone or suppress a damaging story to maintain a flow of information. You simply ask, with the full power of the law behind you.

She also notes:

Phone hacking, that’s just touching the surface of that whole industry in personal information which is vast, huge, it’s massive

And Tom Watson, a backbench MP who as one of Gordon Brown’s henchmen had his own insider knowledge of the ‘dark arts’ and who now sits on the parliamentary committee investigating phone-hacking agrees:

I think we’re probably only about halfway through the number of revelations. I’m pretty certain there will be quite detailed stuff on other uses of covert surveillance. I suspect that emails will be the next scandal. And devices that track people moving around. That’s just starting to come out.

Unfortunately for those who are starting to get bored with phone hacking this story looks, in the tabloid parlance, to be one ‘with legs’.  A prospect which this politics junkie is relishing.

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Johann Hari and the health of journalism

I am sure that you could argue that the world doesn’t really need another writer boring on about the downfall of Johann Hari, a tale which has largely remained unremarked upon outside of the ever-decreasing circles of those who still pay attention to print journalism and political writing.  That being the case, apologies are due to all saner heads for what follows.

The story began earlier this summer, when doubts were raised about details contained in stories written by the Independent newspaper’s star columnist, Johann Hari.  An early investigation of a Hari interview with Italian communist Toni Negri by the ultra-leftist writers at Deterritorial Support Group concluded:

It’s rather ironic that an article whose main premise is that Negri negates a ‘truthful memory’, essentially attempting to fabricate history to fit his own political agenda, seems to be based upon an encounter in the ICA which is almost entirely fabricated.

This inspired further examination of interviews conducted by Hari, uncovering other worrying deviance from usual standards, such as examples of quotes given to other journalists being presented as if they had been spoken directly to him.  Brian Whelan noted after a review of an interview with Gideon Levy:

While Hari has questions to answer over the quotes he claims were given directly to him he also seems to be freely creating mash-up quotes out of disparate statements levy has made over the years.

Then Guy Walters asked the damning question ‘does Johann Hari actually meet his interviewees?’ after finding that nearly every quote from an interview with the Afghan political activist Malalai Joya had been lifted from her book ‘Raising My Voice’:

Hari has appropriated words written by Joya… and given the entirely false impression that the words were said to him. [...]

Mr Hari has severely misled his readers. He has given them the impression that he is a star interviewer who is able to obtain amazing responses from those he meets.

Seasoned watchers of journalistic misbehaviour might have felt that the matter was displaying more than a few similarities with the case of reporter Jayson Blair and the embellishments and lies contained in his stories for The New York Times.  Johann Hari and his friends and supporters did not remain silent in the face of such allegations.  In a perhaps less than wise move, Hari decided to fight his corner.  An article on his website claimed that there was nothing wrong or misleading in his attempts to ‘tidy up’ the muddled thoughts of those who were more coherent in their writing than when speaking:

So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech. It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point that (say) Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview. Since my interviews are intellectual portraits that I hope explain how a person thinks, it seemed the most thorough way of doing it.

He went further in the Independent, offering the following justification for his actions:

Over the years I have interviewed some people who have messages we desperately need to hear – from Gideon Levy about Israel, to Malalai Joya about Afghanistan, to Gerry Adams about how to end a sectarian war. Just this week, I interviewed one of the bravest people I have ever met – Shirin Ebadi. I would hate people to not hear these vital messages because they incorrectly think the subjects have been falsely quoted. Every word I have quoted has been said by my interviewee, and accurately represents their view. I hope people continue to hear their words.

This idea of Johann Hari being on the side of all that was good and true and therefore being granted a special immunity spread very quickly.  Via Twitter, Polly Toynbee suggested that what had been uncovered was somehow less bad than other misdeeds that were emerging into daylight at the same time:

Radically different from my own view, also in 140 characters:

Defending Hari because he’s on “your side” when you would be tearing Mel Philips a new one if she’d done the same makes you look stupid

Luckily, a great deal of what I have been mulling over about the affair has been written much less argumentatively on the Splintered Sunrise website, in a post which is well-worth a read.  Its title has labelled it as ‘a bit of a rant’, but I believe it to be a clear dissection of the issues raised by these events, while remaining free of partisan mud-slinging.  A major problem is that, as Splintered Sunrise notes:

Hari himself once said that he viewed his job as being a paid advocate for the causes he believed in…

When there are ideological battles to be fought and won, and when the consequences of losing are potentially so catastrophic, any pretence to objective truth is rapidly jettisoned.  You have to make your readers care about your subjects and that, according to the conventional wisdom, cannot be done by a dispassionate reporting of facts.  Instead, as also mentioned by Splintered Sunrise, it does appear that everyone is trying to engage in gonzo journalism, by following the path of Hunter S. Thompson in putting themselves at the centre of the story.  Of course journalists are free to hold convictions and to back them up with action, but when Laurie Penny gets bashed over the head by police truncheons at the UK Uncut protests, suddenly the story becomes more about her than other ‘ordinary’ protestors, or even the cuts themselves.

This is a further, painful consequence of the decline of the British newspapers.  Cost constraints are making formal journalism training a relic of the past and star columnists who will keep the punters entertained and the web clicks coming are preferred to more experienced, perhaps more reasoned, yet lower-profile reporters.  Perhaps it has also strayed into the news sections from the features pages, where a Caitlin Moran interview with Lady Gaga or Keith Richards will feature almost as much of the writer as the star.  I love Caitlin Moran and her writing, but she’s not what I am looking to discover in a profile of these musicians.

What next for Johann Hari is certainly a difficult path, as an investigation by Andreas Whittam Smith will almost certainly have to judge him harshly or face accusations of a cover up.  Hari’s return to passionate advocacy on behalf of his preferred causes in print seems set to be a long and painful one.  What next for newspapers is even less sure.  It is, perhaps, too easy to quote George Orwell, especially in light of the likely outcome of Hari’s 2008 Orwell Prize award.  Yet if we require a reminder of the importance of reading those we agree with politically with the same skeptical eye we view those holding opposing views, here it is, as crisp and as clear as ever:

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political
parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable; and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

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