Category Archives: Japan

On leaving

It was on the Malaysia-Thailand border that it really hit home, the advantage of that burgundy-covered book that an accident of birth had gifted me. An entire train-load of people had been politely asked to get off and line up for a passport inspection. It was early in the morning, with a hazy idea of exactly where we were and a head full of track-rocked dreams, the jungle not very far from the station. Trying to remember every detail seems almost redundant, your brain drinks it all in and stores it away for later without you really noticing. The train staff, inspectors and regular travellers knew the drill, the backpackers and first timers tried to affect an air of the same and that same patient mood that hovers all over anything bureaucratic in South-East Asia soon lulled the crowd back into half-sleep.

It took about 30 seconds for me and my friend to pass the inspection and get settled back on to the train. That burgundy and gold front page, enclosing the request in the name of the Queen that you get afforded such assistance as may be necessary, really is one of the winning tickets in the lottery of nationality. As people from other countries waited in line and explained why they were going where they were going, or backed it up with other documentation, we were waved through. And I remember remarking that you would think after the antics of our not-that-distant Colonial past doors would be slammed in our faces everywhere, but no, we get welcomed pretty much wherever we set foot.

When I think back further, to the first few weeks in Japan, among all the novel sights and experiences is a blend of work, eat, sleep and paperwork. I couldn’t get a nice mobile phone without a bank account. I couldn’t get a bank account without a residency card. I couldn’t get a residency card because I hadn’t managed to find my local ward office. Eventually I asked the right person and they drew a little map from the private train line station to where I needed to go. There was a lumber shop marked on the way and I remember drawing up to it, gaining confidence that I was going in the right direction. I got my residency paperwork. I opened a bank account, I got a smart phone and I was away. Gave back the temporary constantly-needing-top-ups flip phone to my employer in favour of Twitter on the train to work! Emails! Google Maps so I would never get lost again (ahem). It took about eight weeks for me to become a legal alien.

The year I left the UK, I was among one of the lowest numbers of people emigrating for the past five years. I do recall my paperwork taking a while to come through, but I don’t remember any fear that I wouldn’t be allowed in. My education, my skills, the language and culture I had been steeped in from birth, were considered valuable. When you teach in Japan, the category of visa you usually get is the badass-sounding ‘Specialist in Humanities and International Services.’ I got to arrive by plane, after a journey spent glued to the window, catching my first sight of desert mountain ranges – somewhere over Iraq, I think – and sleeping off the jet-lag in an airport hotel before meeting a company rep who delivered me through the labyrinthine train system to my new front door. Although functionally illiterate in Japanese, I went to work in air-conditioned schools in a suit and earnt a decent amount of money that was paid to me every month without fail, all by dint of having been born at the right set of coordinates.

We can’t have a conversation about immigration to Britain without involving those of us who have left. From the former colonies and Commonwealth members where we have long assumed we will jump any visa queue that exists, to the European sun-spots that guarantee us freedom of movement and excellent NHS-funded healthcare, to the old Eastern staging posts and finance centres where you can still have a maid and a sundowner and a pretence that you rule over anything, is domiciled a statistically significant number of people hiding their ‘immigrant’ status behind the much gentler term ‘expat’. Not one of them, it is safe to wager, has ever had fluency in their host country’s language demanded as a condition of residency, nor been denied access to emergency healthcare. Anec-data exists to show that foreign teachers in Japan who qualified received unemployment benefit when a major employer went to the wall.

It is absolutely vile for us to go about the world expecting to have red carpets rolled out, when what we give back in return is suspicion and hatred. The double standard of sending Royal Navy ships to extract our own citizens from war zones and then trying to wriggle out of accepting even a meagre number of refugees should cause us all to choke on our imported cornflakes. If globalisation is to mean anything more than a licence to plunder weaker countries, it has to involve a partnership between those who live in their country of birth and those who have moved on, for whatever reason. Perhaps it is also time for us to drop the use of ‘expat’, and join with the campaign to celebrate immigrants and their contributions to British society.

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The Museum of The Little Prince in Hakone, Japan

Finding myself with time to spare and a copy of The Little Prince at hand, resting on the shelf more for decoration than for anyone to read, presented an opportunity. So I settled down, opened the pages and drifted off on adventures with my friend from Asteroid B-612.

Later, the realisation dawned that I had been meaning for a long time to write about my visit to The Museum of The Little Prince in Hakone but the endless concerns of pretending to be a grown-up had intruded. The photographs remained tucked away and with them my memories of walking down a French street without having ever left Japan.

A street in Provence, in Japan

This is not so much a museum as its own world: dedicated to The Little Prince and the life of the pilot he meets in the desert, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The buildings that house the museum, along with the gardens that surround them, could have been transported here from Europe.

Museum entrance with gardens

Museum gardens

Little Prince Museum grounds

While the attraction may be owned by a Japanese broadcaster and have been created in the midst of a literary theme park boom, it has clearly been put together by those who love the author and his most famous work. There is much joy to discover in the small details. This window exhibit in one of the shops on the French street features contemporary adverts from airlines and destinations that were popular during Saint-Exupéry’s flying career.

Suitcases on display

Here is the entrance to the exhibition hall where, once admitted, you are required to put the camera away.

Theatre du Petit Prince

That is a shame as far as this photo series goes, however it does allow the visitor to focus on the detailed recreations of scenes from the author’s life, including his childhood bedroom, office from the early days of postal aviation and apartment during his exile in New York, among others.

The exhibits’ descriptions are mainly written in French and Japanese, although there is an audio guide available in English. Having made the decision to go without, I coped pretty well while giving the last vestiges of my French abilities a workout. It doesn’t really matter which language you are most comfortable in though, as the final exhibit shows, The Little Prince now appears in almost every language found on our planet.

There is, as you would expect, a well-stocked gift shop, café and restaurant. Yet even on a grey day such as the one of my visit, with rain never very far away, the gardens are not to be rushed through. To do so may mean missing one of the many scattered sculptures.

Here is our hero with the characters of the sheep and the fox:

Little Prince, sheep and fox

Little Prince detail

And here he is on his small home, with his rose:

Little Prince and Asteroid with rose

The details of Saint-Exupéry’s life are worthy of a hundred adventure tales and, whether you are familiar with his works or not, a stroll around this beautifully crafted museum is an excellent way to discover more about the man and his creations.

Model of Saint-Exupery's plane

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Japan, the museum is about an hour away from Tokyo. A visit will delight all who are children, or were once children or who wish they still were children.

What better guide could you ask for?

Le Petit Prince, Hakone

For you it’ll be as if all the stars are laughing. You’ll have stars that can laugh!

 

 

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Ainu (2009- 2013), photographs by Laura Liverani

As if we needed any additional incentive to travel to Spain, now that winter has definitely arrived in the northern climes, the mail brings word of a new exhibition, opening at Ciclo Cultural du Japon in Valencia.

Ainu (2009- 2013) contains photographs by Laura Liverani, as she explains,

The Ainu, the native people of Japan, were officially recognized as an ethnicity in 2008, after more than a century of discrimination and oppression which almost completely effaced their language, society and culture. Today several individuals and groups across Japan are involved in Ainu rights, cultural revitalization and diffusion. This photographic series explores contemporary Ainu identity and culture, focusing on representation and self-representation of the Ainu, both within institutions such as museums and outside, in everyday’s life practices. The work, still in progress, started in 2009 and aims at raising questions about a culture in the process of changing and redefining itself.

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In the occasion of the exhibition, the photographs will be accompanied by a text by Marcos Centeno, director of the documentary film Ainu. Caminos a la memoria (2013) which will also premiere in Valencia.

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An exhibition well worth seeing, in a fantastic city as well. I have been unlucky enough to have been in Europe while Laura was exhibiting in Japan and now back in Japan as this one opens in Spain. If you are fortunate enough to be closer, I would strongly recommend a visit, while I wait for our travel schedules to coincide!

ainu23

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1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

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Breasts. Some of us have them. Do you have them? How often do you think about them? (You may answer this question even if you are not thinking of your own.) Do you worry about their size, what people you meet think about their size, or whether sexual partners are turned off by their size? Are you always comparing your breasts to those of others? Do you find it impossible to enjoy even long-wished-for experiences because of thoughts like these? Even in moments of danger does your mind stray to the size of your potentially inadequate breasts?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ and you are a highly sought after physical therapist with a sideline in lucrative contract killings, you should probably do everyone a favour and stop obsessing. Call a plastic surgeon, use some of the pile of money you have sitting in a safety deposit box and get the blooming things done. Go up a cup size. Or two! Get the silhouette you have always known you deserved. And then we can get on with the rest of the book because you are one of two main characters in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and frankly, there are bigger things to worry about than the size of your breasts (sorry… Not sorry.)

In over 30 years of breast-owning, I have never thought about a pair as much as I have about Aomame’s. It feels cruel to a writer whose books I have enjoyed in the past, but someone needs to say: ‘Haruki, give it a rest, lad’. In his defence, it could be argued that Aomame is living out a suspended adolescence, where girls can fixate on such superficialities, and that when given the chance to change her appearance in order to evade capture more effectively, she declines. However, when this happens:

Aomame mourned the deaths of these two friends deeply. It saddened her to think that these women were forever gone from the world. And she mourned their lovely breasts – breasts that had vanished without a trace.

The reaction is laughter rather than sorrow. Only the weight of the tome and an unreturned rental deposit on my apartment prevented me from throwing it across the room with great force, à la Dorothy Parker. It isn’t as if Mr Murakami is some crazed misogynist who doesn’t know any better. Countless examples prove that he can write women well, when he manages to lift his literary gaze higher than their chests. Aomame’s boss, the Dowager, is the kind of kick-ass old lady that everyone needs on their side: tracking down powerful abusers, maintaining a haven for their victims and dispensing quiet justice from a hothouse filled with butterflies. Fuka-Eri is a precocious literary talent, despite suffering from something akin to dyslexia. Yet her ‘beautifully developed’ full breasts are the feature that rates a mention almost every time the teenager appears. To add balance, so do her small, beautiful ears, if you are playing Haruki Murakami Bingo. Prepare to shout ‘full house!’

What bedevils 1Q84 is the makings of a great story trapped somewhere within these pages, that unfortunately isn’t one you can read unless you want to get busy with a red pen, scissors and glue. Editorial input seems to have been limited to pats on the back while waiting for the Nobel Prize Committee to call. It is all the more frustrating because the amount of time that a book this size demands in investment would suggest that readers be rewarded in return. There are small glimmers of interest. The author is particularly good on the subject of cults, the origins of the Sakigake group are gripping and the menace and influence they are able to wield genuinely alarming. Underworld lawyer Ushikawa’s backhanded property dealings are a nod to the asset price bubble which is about to inflate, hobbling Japan’s economy for two decades and counting. The Little People are another frightening entity on first appearance, albeit later defanged and left woefully under-utilised. Tengo’s co-conspirator Komatsu has a great deal of interest to say on the nature of publishing stardom and the manipulation of the reading public, bestseller lists and the patrons of literary prizes (ahem). Unfortunately these potent elements are diluted in a soup of double moons, cats and small breasts, until it begins to feel like a parody.

Perhaps the biggest letdown, remembering the many memorable characters that inhabit Murakami World, is the weakness of the two leads. It is difficult to feel the affection with which we regard, say, Watanabe’s meanderings into maturity in Norwegian Wood, for the romance of breast-obsessed Aomame and her opposite number, Tengo. Tengo could be an early forerunner of the much lamented ‘herbivore men’, except that he seems to be getting more than his fair share of the sex, which even by Murakami standards is decidedly icky. Haunted through his most intimate moments by a brief sexual memory from infancy concerning his mother, fantasising about the 10-year old Aomame, a sex scene with Fuka-Eri so cringe-y it was nominated for a Bad Sex award, Tengo could be a poster boy for abstinence. Vaginas are hairless and appear ‘freshly made’, in which case they are entered, or possess ‘thick, rich [pubic] hair’ in which case they are not. Murakami could be satirising the youth-fixated sexual landscape and its effect on women’s bodies – or he might just dig really young girls. And we are meant to root for Aomame and Tengo as star-cross’d lovers, despite him getting his rocks off with young girls and her prowling Roppongi bars to pick up balding middle-aged men. It is all a far cry from Orwell’s Junior Anti-Sex League.

Much has been made of the inspiration provided by Nineteen Eighty-Four (nine in Japanese is ‘kyu’, hence the ‘Q’, the Little People as the opposite of Big Brother) but it is a struggle to note any deeper connection between the two. However, if Mr Murakami is looking to George Orwell for inspiration, there is this passage, from Why I Write:

I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it…

Perhaps Murakami has outgrown his own motifs, writing with more than half an eye on the judges in Stockholm blurred his focus, or it is possible that he went and sat in a well halfway through and the publishers got a ghost-writer to finish it from screwed up notes retrieved from the bin, or via a box marked ‘patent pending ACME MURAKAMI THEME GENERATOR’. Like Fuka-Eri’s work, Air Chrysalis, this is a book crying out for a determined editor backed by a ruthless publisher. In tests, 8 out of 10 talking cats said ‘It’s no Kafka on the Shore, now, is it, mate?’

J. C. Greenway’s copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is 266 pages long and she has never tried to throw it across a room.

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The Daily Mail on those funny foreign types

The UK’s Daily Mail attempted to bring a little light relief on Christmas Eve, via the subject of Japanese dining choices:

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Long-time Japan watchers will no doubt shrug at this well-worn trope, critics of the Daily Heil will note that it has taken them a while to catch up on this story, which must have been doing the rounds for over 20 years.

I suppose there is something to be said for the Mail approaching it from the angle of amusement at those funny foreign types and their ways, instead of the thundering outrage at the death of Christmas which they so readily summon at this time of year.

For the record, while I have never eaten KFC at Christmas in Japan, it is very popular. However, usually with young couples rather than families as Christmas isn’t a holiday or a family event in Japan, that’s saved for New Year’s Eve instead.

ten minutes hate wishes a very Merry Christmas to all readers, wherever you are and whatever you are eating while reading.

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Words to live by

I don’t often post funny signs from Japan, as it seems a bit cheeky when I speak about 20 words of the language, but the juxtaposition of this set made me smile. Vital advice, I hope you will agree.

The rules are: try not to make a noise, stop playing with fireworks and  do not climb over the fence.

Thank you for your consideration!

Photo by me, taken in Yokohama

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Challenging preconceptions and prejudices

Ever since I arrived in Japan I have held a – some would say irrational – prejudice against Roppongi. Admittedly based on little more than an after-work trawl through the area’s multiple British pubs and a few horror stories heard about the clientele of the ‘all you can drink’ nightclubs, I was content to describe it to a visiting friend as something she could comfortably miss off her itinerary. ‘Like drinking in Leicester Square in London’, I said, ‘fine for idiots who don’t know better and tourists’.

But, as with holders of all other prejudices, close examination proves me to be the idiot for damning the whole neighbourhood based on a couple of dodgy nightspots. Today I was lucky enough to be invited to Roppongi’s Mori Art Museum for the ‘Arab Express: The Latest Art from the Arab World’ exhibition, which runs until 28 October. You would be daft to let a similarly irrational aversion prevent you from seeing it.

The exhibition, the first of its kind to be held in Japan, opens by noting a significant parallel in the way both the Arab and Asian nations are viewed by outsiders. The diverse natures of both regions are often dismissed as offering little more than their stereotypes, be that veiled women for one or geisha for the other. The artists in the Mori’s exhibition play with these stereotypes in various ways, from Halim Al-Karim’s ‘Untitled 1′, with its indistinct red-clad figure to Maha Mustafa’s ‘Black Fountain’. The latter splashing oily droplets all over a white room whose windows look out over the Tokyo landscape, reminding the viewer that while one country’s problems are caused by a lack of natural resources, another’s spring from an abundance of them.

The Arab Express curators are aware that for many people, the first thing they think of when considering the region will be its conflicts. The artist always has a choice about how much reality to include or ignore and many of those represented here wrestle with these concerns. In ‘To Be Continued’, Palestinian artist Sharif Waked confronts our fears with his depiction of a typical suicide bomber’s video which, on closer inspection of its subtitles, has the protagonist reading from One Thousand and One Nights. ‘The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer’, included in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s ‘Wonder Beirut’, features depictions of the once-popular tourist attractions of the ‘Paris of the East’, the negatives burnt by the photographer after the outbreak of the civil war in an attempt to make the pictures resemble the city he found himself living in.

It is a powerful and thought-provoking collection, yet not without moments of humour, even including a series of works which reference the Japanese trend for purikura. Capturing the diverse cultures which make up the Arab World is no small challenge, yet the range of works on display will ensure you leave feeling at once informed, wrongfooted and entertained.

Confront your own preconceptions at the Mori Art Museum before 28 October.

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