Journal

 

Monday
Nov092015

Local Warming

   It was so warm yesterday--27℃--that my wife and I decided to take the boys to the beach. Only three weeks earlier we had done the very same thing, thinking it would probably be our last visit of the year. Thanks to global warming, or perhaps local warming, it wasn't. And, it may possibly won't be our last.

   According to the news, the arrival of the autumn hews, what the Japanese call kōyō (紅葉, lit. "red leaves"), is now fifteen days later than it used to be fifty years ago. Thanks to this warming trend, we are now able to come to the beach eight months of the year, something that is both pleasant and terrifying at the same time. 

   Better late than never.

Wednesday
Oct212015

Then again . . .

A student raises her hand and asks me what 'show up' means.

"To show up," I explain "means to arrive or come or appear."

"A~h . . ." After chewing on it for a moment, she gives me a peevish look and grumbles, "Didn't we do this before?"

By "this", she means the worksheet I have given her. It's a page from a textbook I've been putting together and trying out in various classes to find any mistakes or poorly worded sentences.

"Possibly," I tell her. "Then again, if you're so smart, why are you having to ask me what 'show up' means for the second time?"

"Ah, solly . . ."

 

Thursday
Oct082015

Portlandia - The Count

I was in Portland for the first half of September. This is the tally after my first week there. (I have included the corresponding numbers after a week back in Japan.)
Fatsos riding Rascals
11ーAs with obese children, this affluent neighborhood doesn’t seem to have very many super-obese people. Fat people abound, but the fire-up-the-forklift type were not as common as I had expected. I suppose that if I were to go out to the suburbs, the case would be different.
0--Obesity just isn't as huge a problem in Japan. I did count three very overweight women during the past week.
Old Ladies Peering over the Steering Wheel of Massive Jalopies
1ーOnly saw one. Also, I only came across one car that was broken down on the side of the road. I take this as a sign that the economy has recovered considerably. 
0ーFew old ladies drive here and there are even fewer massive cars from the 70s and 80s here.
Men in Navy Suits with White Shirts and Red Ties
0ーDidn’t see many people wearing the full regalia of the businessman.
0ーLots of men in suits, though.
The Use of the Words:
"Craft(ed)"
2ーSubway’s hand-crafted foot-longs” (Seems this word is finally dying out. Thank God.)
“Artisan"
             7ーbread, coffee roastery, artisanal wine, Blue Diamond Artisan Nut Thins, Trader Joe’s Artisan Bread, Artisan Carpets, and so on. (This word is still going strong, but not as prevalent as I had expected.)
TV Commercials for Medicine/Pharmaceuticals
1 (Haven’t watched much TV) The one commercial I saw was for a drug for Crone’s Disease. The warning at the end of the commercial was almost as long as the bit praising the benefits of the drug.
0ーHaven't watched TV. In general, you won't find commercials for prescription drugs on TV here.
Obese Children
17 (Far fewer than expected. Must be all the amphetamines the kids are hopped up on, that or the fact that we are staying in a reasonably affluent neighborhood.)  There were quite a few at the Wings & Waves Water Park in McMinville, but considering how expensive the place was, they were probably not getting children from the lower echelons of society that tend to be more overweight. The same goes with the Children’s Museum.)
0ーKids are definitely getting bigger, both horizontally and vertically, but childhood obesity isn't a problem yet.
Nutters Talking to Himself
8
1ーjust saw one. I think the old guy was drunk.
Bums with Signs
15; popular places are Powell's and Salt and Straw; some people seem to be camped out at a particular place with their handwritten on cardboard sign.
0ーSee below.
Homeless People 
148 (Have lost count; hit the mother load at Couch Park and the North Park Blocks)
2ーI asked my wife if she had seen any homeless people. She thought about it a while and replied that she had seen an old man digging cans out of the garbage. Even the bums here are industrious.
Smokers
     17; surprisingly few smokers, many of them have been homeless; haven’t seen anyone smoking inside, even in bars, something I have liked.
A handfulーFar fewer than I had expected
Cops on Bikes
4
0ーNo cops on bikes, horses, Segways, etc.
Cops on Horesback
3
High-end Sports Cars 
 2, Mazerati, Tesla
A fewーDidn't really pay attention to cars when I got back to Japan.
Asked for Money
        1ー"Sir, can you help me? Could you give some money for food?"
0ーIt's rare to see panhandlers in Japan. I think I've only seen one in my 23 years here and that was in Ōsaka which doesn't really count.
Unappreciated Buskers
8
0ーThere are an awful lot of street musicians here but unlike America they don't do it for money so much as exposure.
New Slang/Words
1
“Amazeballs"
“Epic" is being overused on TV.
Cultural Refrences/Terms I don't Get
Too many to keep track of . . . Such as “Line”, “Data”, LTE, Fantasy Football, . . . 
People Referring to Church/God
0ーThis ain’t the South and this ain’t the ‘burbs.
0ーAlmost no one talks about their faith here
People with Face Tattoos
0 (Seems everyone—men, women, young and old—has sleeves of tattoos here. Many tattooed necks and body piercing, but no tattooed faces . . .yet.)
0ーHave only seen one person with tatts so far.
Men with Prospector Beards
35ーThis fad is still going strong, much to the chagrin of Messrs. Schick and Gillette. (Should have also counted men with wild mustaches, but it’s too late. My survey is done.)
1ーAnd he's a friend.
Men with Wild Mustaches
2ーShould have started counting this sooner.
0ー
Men with Hoops in their Earlobes
7
2 or 3ー
Women with Shaved Heads
5ーMany, many, many lesbians in town. They seem far more prevalent/visible than gay men.
0ー
Strangers Talking to me on the Train (telling me much too much about their lives) 
2
0ーHardly anyone will talk to you here.
People I Know Eating Burgers in Front of Me.
4ーYou know who you are.
0ーBurgers are rather popular right now, just not in my immediate family.
Doggy Bags
2ーStopped keeping track of this. I don’t think there has been any meal I have been able to completely finish so far. The servings are HUGE.
0ー
Unpalatable Cocktails
6
Good Cocktails
6 (Taught the bartender how to make three of these; went to Trader Vic’s for the other two; Matador had an alright margarita) 50/50 is pretty lousy odds for a town that considers itself a Food/Beverage Mecca. 
0ーHaven't been out drinking
Microbrew
8
Pyramid Curve Ball Blonde Ale, not bad
       Big Leaf Maple by Anchor, not bad
Something Cream Ale, pretty damn good
FIVO Hoppy, so so
Stone IPA, so so
Noble Scot by Portland Brewing, so so
Proletariat (Red Ale) by Lompoc Brewing, great name, not bad
Widmer Hefeweizen, and oldie but goodie.
1ーI had an Oktoberfest brew yesterday that hit the spot.)
Getting Barked at by People in Service Industry 
2
My Type-ish (not a knockout, but I wouldn't kick her out of bed for eating crackers)
        6
?ーFar too many to count.
Knockout
0
?ーFar too many to count.
The words “literally”, “like”, “basically”, “actually”, etc.
        2 (Haven’t really been keeping count. Girl at restaurant yesterday said “like” like every like two or three words and it was like super annoying like . . . I was like, Stop saying like! You sound like, like an idiot.)
Squirrel!
        13 (May be the same one I’m seeing; quite a few around the main synagogue in NW. Jewish squirrels?)
0ーNone.
Hypodermic Needles, probably used for drugs
4
Headshops
3ーMary Jane’s Glassware
Medicinal Marijuana Shops
6ーCanabliss, Mind Rite, Oregon Weedery. I suggested to my 85-year-old mother that she might put herb on her Bucket List, but she wasn’t interested.
The Smell of Pot in the Air
1ーOn 23rd
Vending Machines
3ー(one was empty, none are outside)

 

Thursday
Sep172015

Voice of America

 

  A friend asked me, "How could anyone vote for a guy with an accent like that? He sounds like Rodney Dangerfield under the influence..."

  The guy in question is Bernie Sanders.

  To be honest, I don't mind the way Bernie sounds. I think a populist needs to have a unique voice like his, one that lends the speaker the air of a back alley pugilist. The voice of Democratice Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio fits the role perfectly.          

  I may have mentioned this before, but I usually "listen" to the news via podcasts, rather than "watch" it, and I often find myself asking, "Do I really want to listen to that voice for the next four years?"

  No disrepect to Democratic favorite, Hillary Clinton, but her voice grates on my nerves. And the woman couldn't deliver a punchline even if her life depended on it. (David Brooks made a funny comment last week that Hillary will be coming out with a plan in a week's time to be more spontaneous.)

  Jindal sounds like he has his mouth full o' grits whenever he talks. How could the Chinese ever negotiate with him? "Mr. President?" Mumble, mumble. "Mr. President?" Munch, munch. "Mr. President?" Yes? "Are you finished eating?"

  Rubio sounds like the student body president of an all-boy Christian high school who mistakenly put his chastity ring on his tiny weenie.

  Cruz's voice has all the appeal of a table saw stuck grinding away on a rusty nail.

  Donald Trump's voice is both annoying and entertaining at the same time. It's your fiftieth hit of meth when you know deep in your heart that you should just put the pipe down and get some goddamn sleep for once.

  Perry sounds too much like W. Thank God the Lord spoke to this Christian soldier loud enough that he finally got the hint and stepped out of the race. "Guess I shouldn' a tried runnin' again. Oops."

  Lindsey Graham? Oh, dear, no.

  Santorum sounds like he was just shown a photo of three adults have inappropriate sexual contact with each other and doesn't know whether to be titilated or disgusted by it all.

  Christie should be at the end of a counter at a sports bar in Jersey, wearing a Joe Namath jersey, a Bud Lite in his meaty hand, rather than on a debate stage.

  Rand Paul has a dry whiny voice; he sounds like he'd scream "Uncle" even before the titty-twister commenced. And you expect him to look into Putin's eyes and . . . "Uncle!"

 

  I could go on and on and on. 

 

Friday
Aug072015

Average Annual Salary

   More depressing stats from one of my favorite websites of late, Heikin Nenshū Labo. This shows the trend in average salaries in Japan between the years 1995 and 2013. 

   In 1995, the average yearly salary for a "salaryman" in Japan was ¥4,570,000. The average salary peaked in 1997 at ¥4.67 million, but has fallen ever since. In 2009, the average salary was only ¥4.06 million, due to the recession that followed the "Lehman Brothers Shock" and stock market crash of 2008. Growth in salaries has been anemic in the years since. 

   Looking at this chart, I am curious to know, one, what the average salary was during the bubble years of the late 1980s, and, two, whether salaries have increased in 2014 and 2015. I would also like to know how "salaryman" is defined.

   In 2013, the average male salaryman earned ¥5,110,000, compared to an average of only ¥2,720,000 for women.

   This graph shows the average salary for men (blue) and women (red) according to age. 

   Doda has a pretty good breakdown of income according to age. The average fortynine-year-old man in Japan earns ¥6,830,000. 46% of those men earn more than seven million yen. Only 13% of men and 5% of women in their late forties earn more than a ten million yen a year. 

   At Career Connection, you can get information on the average salary paid by a particular company and read reviews by people who are working or have worked for the company. Nomura Securities, for example, pays workers in their forties an average of ¥16,240,000 a year. Not bad. TEPCO pays its forty-year-old employees an average of ¥12,170,000.

Tuesday
Jun162015

Where it all goes

   I had the girls in one of my classes make mini presentations today, the purpose of which was to learn how to present data. One student gave a short presentation on how the typical Japanese student spent her money. It contained some surprises.

   As you can see from the chart, the two largest expenses are social (drinking, dating, hanging out with friends) and food. The third largest expense was clothing and beauty products. 

   What struck me as somewhat odd was that rent accounted for only 4% of their expenses the same as the phone bill.

   I'm not sure how the data was collected or who was asked, but I assume that the reason rent does not amount to much is because the average student even if he is living alone does not pay for his own rent. His parents do. Such is the rough life of the typical student in Japan.

   My own experience couldn't have been more different. 

   In my second year of college, three of my friends and I shared a two-bedroom two-bath apartment in La Jolla just north of San Diego. The rent was $800, which came to $200 each. At the time I had a "part-time" job, working 32-plus hours a week (M-Th, swing shift) at the La Jolla Cove Hotel, a real dive, that paid about four bucks an hour. I took home about a hundred dollars a week, half of which went for rent and the remaining half I had to somehow feed and clothe myself with. It was no day at the beach, let me tell you. 

 

   According to the Department of Industrial Relations, the minimum wage in California in the early 80s was $3.35 an hour. In 1988, it was raised to $4.25.

   I remember taking the job, one, because of the location--it was just a few blocks down the street from the apartment--and, two, because I thought the pay and work schedule were pretty good.

   One of the interesting things about the job was that in an age when computers were starting to take off, the hotel continued to do everything in completely analog fashion.

   We had several large boards measuring about a two and a half feet by two feet on which all the bookings were recorded. If someone called to reserve a room we would first have to ask when and how long the guest intended to stay and in what kind of room. The usual questions? But, then we would have to go over these boards and see if there was an availabilty. It would sometimes take five minutes just to confirm whether a room was available or not. If we had a room and the price was right, the guest would reserve it which consisted of my physically writing down the guest's name on the board. Surprisingly, there weren't many mistakes. Guests weren't always happy with the room they got, but we seldom forgot a reservation.

Thursday
May282015

The Kindy Bus

I took my son, Yu-kun to kindergarten this morning and managed to arrive at the very same time as one of the school busses.

The kids all clamored out of the bus and were herded by two teacher to the main gate of the school where they put their hands together, bowed deeply, and shouted in unison: "Hotoke-sama, ohayō-gozaimasu! Enchō-sensei, hayō-gozaimasu!" (Good morning, Buddha! Good morning, Mr. Principal!)

It was my first time to see this, and I must say it was adorable.

Yu-kun also takes the school bus from time to time depending on the weather and my wife's energy level. (He rode it yesterday but ended up vomiting all over himself and had to be sent back home.)

The “pink bus”[1] usually doesn’t come rolling into our neighborhood until a few minutes after nine in the morning.

When the bus comes to a full stop, one of the teacher hops out, grabs the kids and throws them in like sacks of recyclables. Once on board, the kid is then free to sit wherever he or she likes. Yu-kun sometimes sits in the very front next to the driver, sometimes in the middle near a girl he likes, and sometimes in the very back like yesterday (which may be the reason why he threw up).

The kids are usually dressed in a variety of uniforms. Some wear the whole get-up with the silly Good Ship Lollypop hats and all, while others wear their colored class caps. Some are in their play clothes, a few in smocks, and fewer still wear their school blazers. Anything goes really and that’s fine by us.

A year and a half ago, my wife and I were considering four different kindergartens. Two were Christian, one Buddhist, and a fourth was run by what appeared to be remnants of the Japanese Imperial Army’s South Pacific Division.

It was this fourth kindergarten that initially appealed to us. The kids were said to be drilled daily and given lots of chances to exercise and play sports outside, something that offered us the possibility that our son would come home every afternoon dead tired.

Well, in the end, that school didn’t want us. (So, to the hell with them!) We went for the free-for-all Buddhist kindy, instead.

I think we made the right choice.

The other morning, I happened to see the bus for the Fascist kindergarten. Although it pulls up at the very same place where Yu-kun usually catches his own bus, the similarity stopped there. For one, all the kids were wearing the same outfit with the same hats, the same thermoses hanging from their left side. When they got in the bus, they did so in an orderly fashion, the first child going all the way to the back, the second child following after and sitting in the next seat. The bus was filled from the back to the front and I wouldn’t be surprised if the children filed out of the bus in the same orderly manner. Once seated, the kids sat quietly. It was at the same time both impressive and horrifying.

 


[1] I still have no idea why it is called the “pink bus” because nothing on it is pink. Every time Yu-kun says, “Oh, the pink bus!” I scan it from bumper to bumper to try and figure out how on earth he can tell it’s the pink bus and not the “yellow bus” which is actually yellow.

Wednesday
May272015

Boz

Spoiler Alert: Boz don' look like this anymore.

  Boz Scaggs will be in town again this June. Every time one of these stars from yesteryear comes to tour Japan, my first thought is: Is he short of cash?

 

Fart of mine~♪
Can't keep this gas from passing
Stop flatulating!

Who's done the cutting?
Fart of mine~♪
Oh what's the use in trying?
No one can stop you now (Toot!)


   Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

Monday
May252015

Hikawa Maru

   The other day when I was writing about the value of ¥100 in 1946, I remembered visiting the Hikawa Maru which is permanently berthed at Yamashita Park in Yokohama. One of the things that struck me was the cost of a transpacific voyage at the time of the ship’s completion:

   “Leaving Kōbe,” a sign on the ship reads, “Hikawa Maru picked up passengers and cargoes at a number of other Japanese ports, and entered the Port of Yokohama. From Yokohama, the ship began the 13-day transpacific trip directly to Seattle. At the time of Hikawa Maru’s completion, the one-way first-class fare from Yokohama to Seattle was about ¥500. In 1930, a new recruit joining NYK Line directly from college would have earned ¥70 a month, and could have buil[t] a house for ¥1,000. Thus, we can see that luxurious first-class travel by sea was special, available to only a handful of privileged individuals.”

   The Hikawa Maru had 35 First Class cabins, with a capacity of 76 people. The price, as indicated above, was about five hundred yen, or US$250. There were also 23 “Tourist Class” cabins, accommodating 69 passengers--tickets for the one-way voyage were $125 (about ¥250)--and 25 Third Class cabins that had a capacity of 138. Third Class tickets sold for $55~75 (¥110~140).

 

 

Monday
May112015

Cobwebs, Again

Japan, you are one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Surely, you can come up with a better way of wiring your nation than this.

Thursday
May072015

Vacation pay, then and now

When looking into the value of a hundred yen at the end of the Pacific War, I came across a number of interesting comments and anecdotes. One person claimed—and I have yet to fact check this—that a junior high school graduate’s starting salary in 1945 was about 100 yen. An employee in those days would be expected to work ten hours a day, and would be given only two days off a month. Paid vacation did not exist seventy years ago. By 1946, starting salaries rose to four or five hundred yen due to the effects of the post-war inflation and shortages. 100 yen in 1946, could be said to be equivalent to about fifty thousand yen today. 

A week ago, I was talking with a woman who worked for a company that runs a number of fashionable hotels and restaurants throughout Japan and in Manhattan. She was on holiday at the time, explaining that she was entitled to take a total of twenty-two days paid vacation every year. Many companies in Japan give lip service to paid-holidays, but few actually let them take so many days off. The woman had taken off eleven days in order to travel to Kansai. She said she was going take another eleven days off in the summer and travel to America.

When I first came to Japan, most people, including me, worked six days a week. The Prime Minister at the time, Kiichi Miyazawa, declared that he wanted to make Japan the world’s leading country regarding lifestyle and leisure. It made me laugh at the time. Even if companies offered their employees paid vacations, none of them could take time off. If you wanted to use the benefit, you normally had to resign from your job first. Masao Miyamoto wrote of this in his highly-recommended Straightjacket Society.

Things, I'm happy to say, really have improved for many workers in Japan over the past two decades. There have, no question about it, been a lot of losers, too—part-timers, contract workers, and the like—but that’ll have to wait until another post.

Thursday
Apr302015

A 100-Yen Distraction

One reason I am such a slow reader is that I get easily distracted by questions which come up while I am reading. The other day, for instance, I read the following passage in Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun:

 

“When I had finished disposing of the wood, I asked Mother for some money, which I wrapped in little packets of 100 yen each. On the outside I wrote the words ‘With apologies.’”

Dazai, Osamu, The Setting Sun, translated by Donald Keene, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1956, p.34.

 

The story takes place in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Kazuko, the narrator of the story, and her mother have recently moved from Tokyo to a Chinese-style villa in Izu.

 

“After my father died, it was Uncle Wada—Mother’s younger brother and now her only surviving blood relation—who had taken care of our household expenses. But with the end of the war everything changed, and Uncle Wada informed Mother that we couldn’t go on as we were, that we had no choice but to sell the house and dismiss all the servants, and that the best thing for us would be to buy a nice little place somewhere in the country . . .” 

Dazai, Osamu, The Setting Sun, p.17.

 

The changes, Uncle Wada speaks of, are the societal upheaval brought about by the end of the war and the new constitution, which became law on 3 November 1946 (Emperor Meiji’s birthday) and went into effect six months later on 3 May 1947 (Constitution Memorial Day). Article 14 of the Constitution states:

 

“All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin. Peers (華族, kazoku) and peerage (貴族, kizoku) shall not be recognized. No privilege shall accompany any award of honor, decoration or any distinction, nor shall any such award be valid beyond the lifetime of the individual who now holds or hereafter may receive it.”

 

Kazuko and her mother are members of the soon-to-be abolished Japanese aristocracy, known as the Kazoku (華族, lit. “exalted lineage”). The Kazoku, or hereditary peerage of the Empire of Japan, was created after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 by merging the Kuge (公家, royal family), which had lost much of its status with the rise of the Shogunate in the 12th century, with the former Daimyō (大名, feudal lords) of the Edo Period (1603-1868). (More here.)

Although the number of families in the Kazoku peaked at 1016 families in 1944, the Constitution of Japan effectively did away with the use of noble titles outside the immediate Imperial Family. Nevertheless, many descendants of the former Kazoku occupy positions of influence in society today. One such person who comes to mind is Morihiro Hosokawa, the 79th Prime Minister of Japan (August 1993 to April 1994). Hosokawa was the eldest grandson of Moritatsu, 3rd Marquess Hosokawa, and the 14th Head of the Hosokawa clan. His maternal grandfather was the pre-war Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe. I have heard that Hosokawa never had to touch money, relying instead upon an assistant to handle such matters. I have heard the same about Tarō Asō from his own kabanmochi (鞄持ち, lit. “bag holder”), or assistant.

 

So that answered one of my questions. The second question concerned the value of 100 yen at the end of the war.

 

I found some interesting data on this. According to the bank of Japan, 100 yen in the following years is worth (in 2005 yen):

 

 

1931       ¥888,903

1932       ¥801,084

1933      ¥699,895

1934       ¥686171

1935       ¥668,913

1936       ¥641,795

1937       ¥528,537

1938       ¥501,055

1939       ¥453,547

1940       ¥405,180

1941       ¥378,214

1942       ¥347,751

1943       ¥324,976

1944       ¥286,718

1945       ¥189,809

 

After the end of the war, Japan experienced runaway inflation which would last for over four years. Wholesale prices doubled by the end of 1945 and continued to rise. In the first year of the occupation, prices rose by 539 percent. 1.4 kilograms of rice, which had cost 2.7 yen in June of 1946, would end up costing 62.3 yen by early 1950.

In his National Book Award-winning Embracing Defeat, John W. Dower provides the following example of what life immediately after the war was like:

 

“Okano Akiko, a middle-class Osaka housewife writing for a women’s magazine in 1950, offered an intimate picture of what ‘enduring the unendurable’ had been like for her family. Her husband, a teacher at a military-affiliated school, became unemployed after the surrender but soon found a low-level job as a clerk at a salary of 300 yen a month. At that time, about a quart and a half of rice cost 80 yen, so to make ends meet, they began selling off their belongs.

“In the confusion of early 1946—when a ‘new yen’ was introduced in a futile attempt to curb inflation—the company employing Okano’s husband went out of business, leaving him with a mere 900 yen in severance pay . . . The price of rationed riced tripled in 1946, but, out of principle as well as poverty, the family tried to use the black market as little as possible.

“Eventually, her husband found a job as schoolteacher at a salary of 360 yen per month. They had little choice but to continue to sell their possessions, purchasing black-market goods about eight times monthly, at a cost of roughly 400 yen per month . . . Her husband lost his job again when the school ran into financial difficulties, this time receiving only 50 yen as severance pay. He, too, began to suffer noticeably from malnutrition, his entire body beginning to swell up . . .

“In 1948, the food situation improved somewhat, although potatoes remained the mainstay of the family diet. Both wife an husband fell seriously ill that year and went deeply into debt. In 1949, another child was born, and meat and fish finally became plentiful again, although it was still a struggle to make ends meet, as rent and food prices continued to climb. As 1950 began, her husband found a teaching position at a college. For the first time since the war ended, they could live on his income; and so, Okano wrote, she was finally able to think about the quality of family life, not mere survival.”

Dower, John W., Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, pp. 101-102.

 

In 1945, the value of 100 yen, according to the Bank of Japan, was equivalent to \19,200 in 2012. One must keep in mind, however, this is the value of the yen based on the prices companies used when conducting business among themselves. Some, looking into wages paid or prices in the market in the postwar years put the value of 100 yen in 1945 at anywhere from four thousand to fifty thousand yen.

Whether one hundred yen in those days was four thousand yen, twenty-thousand yen or even fifty thousand today was all rather academic to Kazuko and her mother, we will learn in the third chapter, because they recieve a letter from their Uncle Wada that informs them that:

 

“. . . our money is all gone, and what with the blocking of savings and the capital levy, [Uncle Wada] won’t be able to send us as much as he has before. It will be extremely difficult for him to manage our living expenses, especially when Naoji arrives [from the South Pacific] and there are three of us to take care of.”

 

Now back to reading Dazai's The Setting Sun.

Tuesday
Apr212015

Japan, the Beautiful, and Concrete

Reading Henry Scott Stokes's The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima I came upon the following passage:

“As we left Odawara and reached the coastal expressway beyond, the car passed the first of the succession of big industrial plants which we would see on our return to the capital, still an hour away at least. There was no beach below us, only a dreary series of massive reinforced-concrete tetrapods, intended to break the force of the sea as it hit the might wall below us. ‘I believe in culture as form and not as spirit,’ said Mishima, referring to the leprous Khmer monarch Jayavarman III and his building of one of the temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon. He seemed very tired as he talked. ‘I want to keep the Japanese spirit alive,’ he added, as if unaware that he was contradicting himself . . . A few minutes later, he cradled his head in his left arm, leaning back in his seat, and fell fast asleep. The car sped swiftly on toward Tokyo, which we would reach in another half hour . . . From time to time I caught the sight of buildings, new factories, other expressways. As we passed Chigasaki, there was an occasional pine tree to be seen by the road, still standing on what had once been the historic Old Tōkaidō Road to Osaka, three hundred miles to the west. That was all that was left of old Japan, perhaps—a few pine trees.”[1]

 

It occurred to me that if in the late 60s Japan’s landscape had already become a scorched earth of industry and “modernism”, then it was stupidly naïve of me to embrace the romantic image I’d had of Japan before I actually came almost a quarter of a century ago—the sensitivity devoted to the most mundane of daily items, the beauty of manicured gardens changing with the seasons, quaint Japanese houses with tiled roofs and a zen-like simplicity inside, young pearl drivers lowering their lithe bodies deep into the pristine sea, a respect for nature that exceeded worship . . .

 

Thirty years after Stokes biography was written, humorist David Sedaris had this to say about Japan:

 

“Riding the high-speed train—the Shin-kansen—to Hiroshima, I supposed that to the untrained eye, all French cities might look alike, as might all German and American ones. To a Japanese person, Kobe and Osaka might be as different as Santa Fe and Chicago, but I sure don’t see it. To me it’s just concrete, some gray and some bleached a headachy white. Occasionally you’ll pass a tree, but rarely a crowd of them. The Shin-kansen moves so fast you can’t really concentrate on much. It’s all a whoosh, and before you know it one city is behind you and another is coming up.”[2]

 

Out of fairness to my adopted country, I should note that Japan is seventeenth among nations in the world (and the third industrialized nation, after Finland, 72.9%, and Sweden, 69.2%) for forested area. 68.6% of the land in Japan is covered by forests. It is also one of the few countries in the world where the percentage of forested land is increasing.

 

The title of this post might not ring any bells for most readers, but this was a play on the title of Yasunari Kawabata's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature: "Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself. Kawabata won the prize in 1968, and, four years later, killed himself.

 

 


[1] Stokes, Henry Scott, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, New York: Cooper Square Press, 1974, pp.234-35. 

[2] Sedaris, David, When you are Engulphed in Flames, London: Little, Brown, 2008, p.295

Monday
Apr132015

Selling Snake Oil in Japan

After cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, a fifty-something-year-old American man, someone I have never seen around town, taps on a microphone a few times then jumps right into his presentation.

From the get-go, it stinks of some multilevel marketing scheme and, looking around the room, I can see that it’s the same old crew that has come together to push it: guys who were doing Amway, then NuSkin, then Noni. And now they’re gung-ho about something called Rexall Showcase: a new name to the old scheme of pushing overpriced supplements and dubious weight loss products on family and friends and kicking the profits up the pyramid.

“This is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for, folks!” the speaker exclaims. “This is The Golden Opportunity! The chance to get into a business when it’s just getting off the ground. Amway, NuSkin, yes, they’re all good business models, excellent business models, in fact, but if you really want to make money with them, why, you should have gotten into the business twenty, thirty years ago. Folks, I’m tellin’ ya, Rexall Showcase is the opportunity you’ve all been dreaming about!”

As I listen to him, I must admit that what he is saying doesn’t completely lack merit. Imagine being able to have entered into a business like Amway when it was first taking off, before overeager fools irretrievably ruined its reputation. But today? Try to become a millionaire in Amway today and you’ll probably die trying. Your hair and skin will look fantastic, though. You might even feel fantastic, too, if you can manage to swallow their horse-pill sized megavitamins.

The American tells us he has been living in Japan for over thirty years, longer than anyone else in the room. “I’ve been here since Nixon was president!”

Laughter.

“And all these years, I have been running a business. Several businesses, in fact!”

He’s quite successful, he assures us, saying that he even supplies Fukuoka Airport with his products.

There are oohs and ahs.

“And, let me tell ya, folks, I know a good opportunity when it comes up from behind me and kicks me in the ass.”

More laughter.

The American talks like a snake oil salesman, but the others in the room eat it up; so eager they are to get their grubby little hands on cold hard cash that what he is saying must sound like the sweetest of music to their ears.

And then, he invites a long-haired douchebag by the name of Clive up to the front and says, “Clive has been blowing us away . . . Tell me again, how much did you earn last month?”

“Two million yen.”

There are whistles of astonishment and why wouldn’t there be? Two million yen for a month’s worth of work is a respectable amount of cash, twice what I am making, working what amounts to three jobs. But, why is this “very successful” guy dressed like someone who is only earning a tenth that amount? The Canadian, a former strip dancer at a “ladies’ club” that went bust years ago, is wearing ripped Levis, old cowboy boots, and a dowdy sports jacket. Any moment now I expect him to tear the jeans off and start jiggling his nuts.

“See, I told you it was fishy,” Akané whispers into my ear.

“Fishy doesn’t even begin to describe it. This is borderline fraud what they’re doing. Let’s get out of here.”

 

This is an excerpt from A Woman's Hand, a sequel of sorts to the novel A Woman's Nails. The novella was inspired by events which happened about fifteen years ago.

Wednesday
Apr082015

Beatitudes of the Republican Jesus

Blessed are the rich: for only they have earned the kingdom of heaven the hard way.

Blessed are the bold: for they shall possess the land and the mineral rights below the surface.

Blessed are they who rejoice in their success: for they shall be comforted in the lap of luxury.

Blessed are they that have eaten their fill: for they shall have seconds and thirds after they loosen their belts.

Blessed are the vengeful: for they shall mete out retribution upon the Darkies and have mercy on Whites with Affluenza.

Blessed are the conservative of heart: for they shall see God in their own likeness and it will be very good.

Blessed are the chickenhawks: for they shall be called the children of both Patriots and God.

Blessed are they that persecute others for law and order’s sake, for they will have the keys to the kingdom of heaven as well as the keys to the for-profit prisons.