Tag 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.


Filed under Japan

If only freedom of speech meant knowing when to be quiet

Twenty-four hours after the big day, by now hopefully the major disappointment should be fading. I refer, of course, to the possible inability – if in certain parts of the US – to sit in a cinema and watch North Korean assasination romp (words you never thought could belong together) The Interview.

Personally, having caught a bit too much of an earlier Seth Rogan-James Franco offering, This is The End, a thousand years could pass without me needing to witness this comedy pairing again, but realise I probably don’t speak for all. To each their own. But I do wonder about all those manning the freedom of speech barricades this holiday season and their seeming unfamiliarity with this particular xkcd cartoon:


It is surely an ultimate act of assholery to depict the assassination of another country’s leader, however much of a despot they may be, and play it for laughs. Especially when you come from a nation with a long history of assassinating leaders who cause you displeasure. That third panel seems to me to have particular resonance in this situation: too often Hollywood, if not America itself, is immune from the consequences of its actions. Payback – like taxes – is for the little people, not the overgrown children at the top of the Tinseltown food chain that few dare say no to. Even when the ‘boss’ does mention that perhaps a scene is going a little too far and needs to be reshot, the cry goes out that this is Art and artistic expression cannot be constrained.

North Korea seems to have been the butt of  jokes for so long now that perhaps the creative team behind this movie didn’t expect to provoke so much ire. From Team America: World Police to Kim Jong-Un Looking at Things, the narrative has been established that this is more of a tin pot dictatorship than a Pol Pot one. Yet the numbers dying there in recent years – although likely to be never finally confirmed – suggest that there’s not much to laugh at north of the Demilitarized Zone. Even Cold War vintage Bond never went as far as to off a real Soviet leader on-screen, instead using rogue generals or shadowy organisations such as SMERSH to add a drop of reality to a gallon of fiction. Satire has its place, but Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Spitting Image’s depiction of the Thatcher era suggest that it is an ineffectual weapon at bringing about regime change.

Speaking of ineffectual weapons, perhaps one’s perception of North Korea shifts when they are near neighbours. I remember taking a train to work and refreshing Twitter to find out what was happening with a missile that had been launched in my general direction. Luckily – or perhaps not for the scientists that had designed it – it splashed down somewhere in the sea off Japan. And had it not, it no doubt would have been intercepted. Still, it is hard not to feel that there is not giving in to threats and then there is not grabbing the tiger by the tail in the first place.

The Vulture story referenced above quotes Amy Pascal of Sony Entertainment Pictures as saying she is not sure,

how to deal with Japanese politics as it relates to Korea so all I can do is make sure that Sony won’t be put in a bad situation.

Japanese relations with both sides of the Korean divide are usually quite fraught, to put it mildly. At any time, it should not be unexpected that a Japanese parent company might ask its foreign subsidiaries to avoid putting the North’s back up. But at a time when delicate negotiations between the two countries are pushing along like the proverbial glacier, when you realise what is at stake, perhaps artistic expression should sit down, preferably in a back seat, and keep its mouth firmly zipped.

If this latest round of talks don’t result in anything, then I don’t think we’ll ever see them again. We’re both in our late 80s, so we have to accept that we might not be around for much longer. She is constantly in my thoughts. When I think of how I have been unable to do anything to help her all these years, I quietly say sorry to her.

Japan is currently seeking information about a number of its citizens – possibly more than 800 people – who were abducted and taken to North Korea in the 70s and 80s. The clock is ticking as more than one family member has died not knowing what happened to their relative. Information provided in the past has since been shown to be false and remains that were said to be those of certain abductees turned out not to belong to the stated person.

And while the arguments may run that threats should never be responded to, that Art cannot be trammelled by mere politics, that ends up giving cold comfort. The name of Sony is so synonymous with Japan that stating that Sony Entertainment Pictures is an independent American company holds little sway. Via torrents and the campaign for the right of Hollywood to do as it pleases, there will be more chance of seeing The Interview this Christmas than there will be of the Arimotos seeing their daughter Keiko.


Filed under Minitrue

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.


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.


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!



Filed under Japan

A desk of one’s own

Writer Erinna Mettler sparked my interest this week with her post on ‘Desk Envy’. A desk is such a fundamental part of a writer’s equipment, yet so difficult to perfect, it is no wonder that there are thousands of pictures like the ones of famous writers’ workplaces in the post which can inspire the green-eyed-monster. Space in the home is at such a premium – certainly in the UK, even more so in Japan – that for most of us the dream of a quiet room with a huge desk covered with piles of essential writerly clutter and (crucially!) all of one’s own must remain unindulged.

Still, we can dream. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Lake District recently, with hints of spring breaking through the winter gloom all around. The hotel had this lovely number sitting in a corridor seemingly unused and unloved, except by the chambermaids for heaps of fresh linen mid-change.

hotel desk

Contemplating all that space for half-scrawled notes and pages torn out of newspapers could give me palpitations. Drawers overloaded with notebooks, both filled and still to be used, cartridges and half-full bottles of ink, because this desk would go so well with my favourite pens… until my thoughts crash into the likely shipping costs to get the thing to Tokyo and realise it isn’t to be.

The reality for most of us is that writing space has to exist wherever we find it. When I lived in London I would write sitting on the bed, a cushion behind me and one under the knees, laptop finely balanced, in a pose that would strike dread into the heart of any physiotherapist or yoga teacher. Although it did keep me paying the bills to have my poor spine straightened out again. Having to clear away the detritus which somehow accumulates around any working writer – take the picture of Einstein ‘s desk for evidence – before I could go to sleep was always such a disheartening thought that writing into the early hours became the norm.

It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I came into possession of a dedicated writing desk. A low wooden table acquired from a neighbour who was moving on, it was the first piece of furniture that I owned after arriving and all the more loved for that. Writing in bed continued, of course, as well as curled up in a chair, but owning a desk was a step up and great things were sure to follow, I was convinced. This is my first Japanese desk, looking far too neat, which means it was probably tidied for the picture:

first writing desk in Japan

Of course, it wouldn’t turn out to be the perfect writing desk, otherwise this post would end here. The difficulty, entirely of my own creation, was that there was so much of Japan to explore beyond those walls that I barely spent any time within range of the desk. Writing again became something to do in cafés, on trains, at work, or in the park. Anywhere, it seemed, but at the dedicated space that had so fortuitously been granted.

For my next apartment, things would have to change. After coming into possession of another donated desk and chair, then finding a wonderful place to locate them – overlooking a neighbour’s well-stocked garden – combined with living closer to the distractions of the city, suddenly writing time was almost abundant. Who wouldn’t want to spend all of their free days here:

Tokyo desk

It is summer, hence the mosquito coil kept close to hand, but the air conditioning unit was right above the window and the fridge a short hop away. ten minutes hate became an unneglected website again, letters were penned and the following spring my book, The Teas That Bind, was written here. All punctuated with essential breaks for pots of tea and staring out of the window. The way the butterflies would dance through the sunshine as it dappled between the trees will stay with me forever.

But life moves on, time intrudes and I find myself between desks again. As ever, my reserve writing haunts are cafés and there is fun to be had attempting to track down a new favourite. Here is where Erinna Mettler surprises me a little, as she writes:

The words don’t really flow in public cafés. For a start off I usually bump into someone I know and then there’s the hovering waiting staff asking if I want a refill, or babies crying and if I drink too much coffee it costs a fortune and I keep needing the loo. The café has to be just right, it has to be big enough to hide in from friends and waiters, with tall ceilings and no piped music, and I prefer diverting decoration and real-fire cosiness.

Although it has been a long while since I was a resident of the same town,  my memories of it being full of serviceable writing cafés would be shattered if they had all been conquered by the big chains. In the same way that we fetishise desks, most writers probably have a picture in their head of the perfect writing café experience, my own heavily influenced by a visit to the actual table in Paris once used by this lady:

Simone de Beauvoir writing cafe

It is doubtful if she would be as prolific today, however, if she were attempting to write in the 21st century version of her home-from-home café, surrounded by loudly obnoxious tourists and gawping fan-girls such as myself.

Perhaps this is the lesson to learn from all this desk adulation: that the space itself is irrelevant. Make it the best, comfiest, happiest place it can be but don’t get too caught up with perfection. While perfection on the page should always be the goal, sometimes the means and the location of production will have to fall far short of the ideal. Sitting at the dream desk racked with writer’s block and indecision would be a far worse fate than that of being jammed into a tiny table at a terrible café with a mug of bad coffee scrawling note after note on napkins because there is no more space in your notebook.

As Hemingway knew,

the great thing is to last and get your work done

because what is created when your backside is in the chair is far more important than the quality leather cushion or cracked plastic that it rests upon. So even if you are lucky enough to achieve perfection in your surroundings, be sure to recall this advice from Stephen King:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.


Filed under The Golden Country

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:


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.


Filed under Japan

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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