Category Archives: Japan

Say it with Pocky

For a long time, KitKat has been marketing itself as a kind of lucky chocolate. February and March are the season for university entrance examinations in Japan and KitKat has used a play on words to imply that pairing your study time with its chocolate bars will bring certain success: kitto katsu, 屹度勝つ, you will undoubtedly win, or gain victory. You can see how this would appeal to an anxious high school senior, munching away on sustaining sugary snacks while they study for potentially the most important exams of their life.

In recent years there has been less pressure on high school students; with the declining birthrate there are fewer students, and the exam hell imprinted on the imaginations of people in the West is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of what every high school student goes through. Universities need to fill their places and in the autumn there is a system of early admission which assures many students of a place. Of course, the ones who want to go to prestigious universities and other students who have not yet secured a place still face the exam hell of February and March.

In past years I have seen combination packs of KitKats and a matching mug for sale in convenience stores, but this year I haven’t seen any. KitKat has moved into other auspicious times of the year; the post office sells specially-packaged bars with the animal of the next year on the box and an ‘otoshidama’ (お年玉) envelope for New Year money attached to the back.

With such rich pickings to be had in the auspicious chocolate market, if only you can carve your own niche, it’s really a wonder that it has taken Glico this long to market its Pocky varieties as more than just ‘stick to fun’. Of course, there are the many seasonal and regional variations, but until now Glico hasn’t messed with the Pocky name itself. But this spring, Glico has introduced a range of ten different named boxes, all with an eye to the Valentine chocolate market and beyond.

I don’t know how long these special boxes will be available, and not all the boxes have the special names. To find the originally-named boxes you have to poke along the shelf and past the regular boxes. Your reward will be the boxes below. Beneath each special name is a short phrase clarifying the message. Not all Pocky varieties have these special boxes, it’s confined to five varieties; the original red-box Pocky, thin Pocky, almond crush Pocky, heart-shaped strawberry Pocky and ‘adult milk’ (?) Pocky.

And now, with a drum roll, please, I’ll present these ten wonders, in reverse order, according to their awesomeness, having set myself up as the Pocky Authority:

#10: Okaecy

Okaecy

This is my least favourite. ‘Okaeshi’ (お返し) means a return gift, something you give to someone  after they have given you a gift. Under the name it says ‘おかえしです’, which simply means, ‘this is a return gift’.

#9: Lovecky

Lovecky

Going over-the-top with the heart-shaped, seasonal, specially-named strawberry-with-bits-in variety here, I’m putting Lovecky at #9, in large part because I’m not sure how Glico wants us to pronounce it. Under the name it says, ‘ai shitemasu’ (愛してます), or, I love you.

#8: Mamacky and Papacky

Mamacky           Papacky

In joint 8th place I’m putting the Mamacky and Papacky pair. I suppose these are aimed at the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day markets, but they’re some of the most difficult to find. Under Mamacky it says, ‘Mama, arigatou’ (ママ、ありがとう) or, thank you, Mum. Under Papacky it says (predictably), ‘Papa, arigatou’ (パパありがとう) or, thank you, Dad.

#6: Tomocky

Tomocky

Here is the pair to Lovecky, Tomocky. ‘Tomodachi’ (友達) is the Japanese word for ‘friend’ and under the name it says ‘kore kara mo, tomodachi’ (これからもともだち), from now on too, friends, or I suppose, let’s always be friends. I can see this one being quite a hit with high school girls.

#5: Thanky

Thanky

The first of the thin Pocky pair, Thanky. Under the name it says, ‘itsumo sankyuu desu’ (いつもサンキューです) or, thank you always. Probably one of the more popular ones, it would be nice to have this one available permanently, but I suspect it won’t happen.

#4: Yorocky

Yorocky

Here comes Thanky’s twin, Yorocky. Under the name is the phrase, ‘yoroshiku onegaishimasu’ (よろしくお願いします), one of the great untranslatables. My dictionary app offers the following; please remember me, please help me, please treat me well, I look forward to working with you. It’s a way of appealing to someone for their patronage, really, and while that might sound odd in English, it’s amazing how often there are opportunities to use it. Another that might be good to have around.

#3: Ganbacky

Ganbacky

Just as ‘yoroshiku onegaishimasu’ is a phrase for daily life, so is the wording on this box; ganbatte kudasai’ (がんばってください), or, please do your best or hang in there. You can use it to exhort someone in any endeavour. There’s also a version you can use to assure those around you of your intention to do your best; ganbarimasu, or 頑張ります. British fans of Takeshi’s Castle, an old Japanese series on repeat somewhere in the ether, will be familiar with this declaration, made by contestants before they attempt a challenge. Another Pocky there would probably be a permanent market for.

#2: Sukky

Sukky

Here is the runner-up, the fantastically-named Sukky. The message on the box is ‘anata ga suki desu’, あなたが好きです, or, I like you. A clear candidate for Valentine’s Day and maybe next month’s White Day. Clearly the genius here is in the name, which Glico must have thought looked cool but of course looks just plain wrong. I have bought a number of these to take back to the UK as gifts. Excellent.

And in 1st place . . . another drumroll please . . .

#1: Giricky

Giricky

Pipping Sukky, it’s original Pocky twin, to the post, ladies and gentlemen I give you Giricky. Disappointed? Maybe you don’t speak Japanese or don’t know about the particular traditions of Valentine’s Day in Japan.

In Japan, Valentine’s Day is the day that girls and women give chocolate to men; men reciprocate (if they want to!) a month later, on March 14th, White Day. Valentine chocolate can be divided into two categories. The first is honmei choco, or genuine feeling chocolate. This is traditionally homemade chocolate or cakes and cookies and is given to a boyfriend or father. The other category is giri choco, or obligation chocolate, and is given in massive quantities in workplaces. I read recently that the average amount spent on each ‘obligation chocolate’ gift is ¥500 to ¥1,000. Clearly, it can be an expensive day.

But now, Japanese women and girls have this genius option: Giricky. The message on the box is ‘giri choko desu’, 義理チョコです, or, THIS IS OBLIGATION CHOCOLATE.

I have no words for how much I love this. Every year I see women buying huge amounts of chocolate, spending all that money, and then at work I see my male colleagues looking increasingly pleased with themselves through the day as they fill a carrier bag with all the chocolate they receive, puffed up on the smugness of (apparently) being popular.

I am hoping that this year a lot of women have decided against spending that ¥500 to ¥1,000 and have instead nipped down to their nearest convenience store, spent ¥130 and bought up a good supply of these boxes. I am imagining men across Japan going to work tomorrow, happily anticipating a haul of chocolate and instead receiving boxes of (admittedly yummy) Pocky emblazoned with the message: THIS IS OBLIGATION CHOCOLATE.

Be under no illusions, men of Japan. This is OBLIGATION chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

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August 6th, every year

Sky at dusk

There are some dates that are not ordinary dates: March 11th, June 4th and two dates this week, August 6th and 9th. So much is written and said every year about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and every year it seems too much, and never enough.

It seems too much because it feels so overwhelming, the images are so iconic and so horrific. Interspersed with interviews with survivors, dignified and mildly-spoken elderly Japanese people who re-tell their stories of the hell they experienced. It is hard to know what to think, other than, make it stop.

And every year, nothing is ever enough, because the years pass and it doesn’t seem like we ever gain any clarity, we make no progress to making sure it can never happen again. I have no words of wisdom, I only have some snapshots of what I have heard from Japanese people over the years. In the absence of anything else, I offer them here:

About fifteen years ago some students made posters about their grandmothers in my class. Two students wrote about their grandmothers’ experiences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. One wrote that her mother was outside Hiroshima that day, but went into the city in the days following the blast. She swore that she would never tell anyone what she had seen, because she didn’t want to pass on the horror, ‘but she did,’ wrote the student. She didn’t write any more, but I always wondered what her grandmother had told her.

Another wrote that her grandmother’s beloved brother was caught in the blast, but wasn’t killed that day. Instead, he died in her arms a week later, poisoned by radiation. ‘It broke her heart.’ Although she went on to marry and have children and grandchildren, there was always heartbreak because of the brother she had lost. Hers was a life put back around unimaginable grief.

There is a remarkable resilience in the human spirit. People live through horror and somehow put their lives back together around it. In China I have met people who lived through the Cultural Revolution, who were treated very badly, got sent down to the countryside, but then years later returned to the city, maybe had neighbours who were part of their persecution, and somehow manage to live with that.

When I first lived in Japan, I met a woman who had lived in China as a young child. I don’t know why her family was there, but her mother had died and as the Japanese retreated she and her father tried to get some money to get back to Japan. She stood by the side of the road, holding her mother’s beautiful kimono, begging strangers to give her a few coins for them.

I have a friend whose mother is from Hiroshima, and was a small child on that day seventy years ago. She was outside the city, but saw the flash when the bomb was detonated. It’s one of her earliest memories.

Mine is of my brother and our dog.

Hers is the flash of the atomic bomb.

What’s yours?

August 9th

 blur

 In Japan August 9th and all the commemorations and remembrances that are every year connected with this date are already over for another year. Here in the UK there are still a couple of hours left. This morning I read an article someone had posted online about the decision by the United States to use atomic bombs to end the Pacific War. While the points it made were ones I had read before, specifically, that Japan was already defeated, but that the US had dropped the bombs to test its new weapons and also to warn the Soviet Union not to try to invade Japan, the quotes from high-ranking military personnel against the bombings were new to me. It all got me thinking about what was done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and so I have had these thoughts going round and round in my head all day.

The official line is, I suppose, that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (August 6th) and Nagasaki (August 9th) were necessary to end the Pacific War, that without them the war would have dragged on, and even more people would have lost their lives. This is based on the events in Okinawa, where Japanese civilians fought and died or committed suicide, and there was massive loss of life on both sides. It was believed, apparently, that the same pattern of events would have unfolded across Japan. Certainly, Japan was already on its knees. And equally certainly, the Japanese people believed their leaders (as did the people of the other countries involved in the war) and would have done what they were told. But the atomic bombs? Were they really necessary? Were they really the most appropriate and most expedient way to end the war?

I am no historian, though I do find history fascinating. I really don’t know whether the decision to use the atomic bombs was the correct one. That is why I chose a blur for a picture at the top of this post, because I just don’t know.

But emotionally I know that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wrong. There is something deep and instinctive that reacts in me, that just screams that it was wrong. Even if you want to argue that one atomic bombing was expedient, ended the war, how do you justify the second, over Nagasaki, three days later? And so today I have had three things replaying in my mind, and all I can do is lay them out and wonder if, in writing, I reach some kind of understanding.

Over twenty years ago, when I was first living in Japan, I met a woman who attended the same church in Yokohama. She was maybe ten years older than me and was from the Pacific North-West of the US. Her parents had worked in some capacity on the atomic bomb programme and she was absolutely adamant that it had been right to drop those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t remember discussing it with her in any detail, I just remember her being totally convinced and insistent that the bombings were necessary. It came up in conversation, and it just hung there.

Several years later, in the summer of 1995, I was in Washington DC and went to the exhibition at the National Air & Space Museum of part of the Enola Gay. It was the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bombings, and there had been quite a lot of controversy about the exhibition. The original plan had been for a more balanced, comprehensive examination of the events, but after pressure from veterans’ groups the display had become much more narrowly focused.

I remember seeing part of the Enola Gay, and a sign on it telling people that there was no danger of radiation from it. I remember wondering at the mindset that accepted the inflicting of such a diabolical weapon on a whole city, but felt it necessary to reassure individuals forty years later that there was no radiation to harm them.

There was a video as part of the exhibition, interviews with surviving crew members, and towards the end a recording of the navy chaplain praying with the crew ‘for the success of the mission’. The video ended quite suddenly; the voiceover explained that the crew flew over Hiroshima and dropped the bomb. The Enola Gay flew around and watched the explosion, then flew home, mission accomplished. The end.

I walked out of the exhibition in a kind of daze, shocked that a priest had prayed for ‘success’ in such a context. How could anyone think that God wanted human beings to do these things? And also shocked that there was no mention of how many people were killed that day. There was such a disconnect between the bombing and the consequences of it.

And then, at the end of the nineties I went to work at the school where I still work today. One year the final year students made posters about their grandmothers in English class. Two wrote about their grandmothers’ experiences in the aftermath of the bombings. One wrote that her grandmother lived outside Hiroshima but went into the city in the days after the bombing. What she saw was so horrific that she had promised herself that she would never speak about it, but according to her granddaughter she did speak and told her children and grandchildren what she had seen. The trauma of it still echoed in her granddaughter’s words. Another student wrote about her grandmother and the elder brother she loved more than anyone else. He was caught in one of the bombings and died in her arms, of radiation sickness. It broke her heart, the student wrote. Although she went on to marry, to have children and grandchildren and a full and busy life, it broke her heart and she was never the same again. And finally, I have a colleague whose mother is from Hiroshima. She was a toddler on August 6th 1945. She was outside the city but saw the flash of the atomic blast, and that flash is her very first memory.

Living in Japan, I don’t think it’s unusual to hear these stories. I have heard other stories, of grandfathers judged war criminals, of people stranded in China, starving and orphaned, of people growing up in occupied Korea, believing, knowing they were in Japan. I am not trying to portray the Japanese people as simply victims, or to pretend that the Japanese aggression in Korea, China and other parts of Asia didn’t happen.

But the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are unique in the history of warfare. No other country, as Japan frequently points out, has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Was it necessary to bomb those cities? Did it really end the Pacific War? I really don’t know, because I only have my emotional response, and really, I don’t want to have another response. Some things are so horrific that even being able to comprehend seems beyond my ability. I know the horror is so vast and in knowing that I find I have nothing left to process anything else.