Category Archives: News

Goodbye 2012

Tokyo is slowly shutting down as the New Year approaches. To a visitor the city might look crowded, but the trains and buses are not crowded at all and instead of the usual rush and bustle there is a more relaxed, but still purposeful sense of activity. People are stocking up for the next few days, since everything except convenience stores will be closed tomorrow. As with many other countries, every year more and more shops open earlier and earlier so by January 2nd there are plenty of places to go if you fancy a bit of retail therapy.

Many years ago, everything closed for 3 days, and everyone spent time with family. In the days leading up to New Year, everyone pitched in to do a big clean and special New Year dishes collectively called ‘osechi’, each with a symbolic meaning, were prepared. These days, at least according to the Japanese people I know, people do clean but not necessarily with the fervour of yesteryear, and the osechi dishes are eaten on the 1st but not in vast amounts. They are very expensive if bought in a department store, and hugely time-consuming to make at home.

My version of Japanese New Year is quiet, but since I have only just come back from the UK the whole Giant Cleaning binge is lost on me. I haven’t the energy or the time; I prefer to do my spring-cleaning in spring when I can open the windows and let fresh air in without freezing.

Despite the general air of winding down, I was surprised to find a noisy demonstration taking place outside Shibuya station. There were dozens of people standing there with large Japanese flags and placards, listening to a very angry man on top of a campaign truck who was very exercised about NHK, the national broadcaster. His comments and the placards were the same; that NHK is anti-Japan, anti-emperor and pandering to China. In the course of his screeching, Mr. Angry announced that later in the afternoon they would all march to the central offices of NHK and demonstrate there. Not everyone was winding down, it seemed; he was very clearly winding up himself and everyone listening.

NHK protest

Continuing the general theme of angry shouty Japanese men, Japan has wrapped up the year electing the right-wing LDP (Liberal Democratic Party), is still embroiled in territorial disputes with China and South Korea, and the economy is looking shaky. The new government seems keener on keeping nuclear power than the rest of the population, but just to reassure us all Prime Minister Abe has appointed a Minister for Nuclear Emergency Preparedness, Nobuteru Ishihara,  spawn of former Tokyo governor Ishihara. So that’s all right then.

Today’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper has a centre spread of the Top Ten Domestic news stories of 2012. They are:

1. Yamanaka wins Nobel Prize for iPS research                                                                                 2. Tokyo Skytree opens                                                                                                                      3. Uchimura, Yoshida shine in London Olympics                                                                              4. LDP wins Lower House poll, retakes power                                                                                  5. Japan-China ties sour over Senkakus                                                                                           6. Annular solar eclipse seen from Tohoku to Kyushu                                                                       7. Ceiling panels fall in Sasago Tunnel, killing 9                                                                                8. Giants win 1st championship in 3 years                                                                                        9. Final Aum fugitives arrested                                                                                                        10. Multiple murder mystery linked to Miyoko Sumida

I wonder how many of those made the news outside Japan; I think I can only say with confidence that four did. Plenty to blog about then.

I bought some sushi and came home, posting my New Year greeting cards on the way back. To be delivered tomorrow they should have been posted by the 25th, but I didn’t get my act together before I flew back to the UK and so they will be delivered a couple of days later. I also bought a bag of mikan, or mandarin oranges, and plan to do very little for the next few days.

As I walked home I saw a lot of traditional New Year Shinto decorations on windows, gates or doors

DSCN0521and some businesses already had the pine and bamboo decoration called ‘kadomatsu’ (門松) outside

DSCN0524The sky was pink as the sun set and the neighbourhood seemed very quiet.

Dec 31stAs I write this, I can hear the neighbourhood volunteers walking down the road, warning us to be careful about fire hazards in our homes. On TV I have just watched an advert for dietary supplements for women, made from pig placenta, and the BBC, bravely ignoring all of the above news stories, have once again broadcast one of their ‘Japanese obsession’ stories, this time about a supposed obsession with cuteness and a school where you can train to be a mascot and spend your days inside a large furry suit. Sigh. As I have written this I have made a mental note to write more about a lot of things I’ve mentioned, but for now this is my snapshot of the end of the year.

Goodbye 2012. You were an improvement on 2011, but you could have been better. Let’s see what 2013 brings us. Now I am snuggled up at home, it’s time for sushi!


The BBC’s obsession with Japanese ‘obsession’

This morning I was reading the news on the BBC’s website, when I noticed that one of the most popular articles was listed as ‘Japan’s obsession with blood types’. It just made me sigh.

One of the reasons I started writing e-mail updates after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 was the way the BBC and other parts of the media were reporting the situation in Japan and how I felt it was not painting a true picture. It was disappointing, and I often sent e-mails to the BBC to say that I disagreed with how their reporters were portraying what they saw here, that what they were saying did not seem to be an accurate account of Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. I remember standing in front of my television one morning, watching Matt Frei reporting from the famous Shibuya crossing, and saying to the screen, that’s not true. It was amazingly frustrating listening to reporters stating as fact something they may have seen in one place, and instead of presenting it as an anecdote (or even speculation) they extrapolated and presented it as a general fact. I e-mailed the BBC many times and never received a response or even an acknowledgement that I had contacted them. I felt better just by e-mailing my concerns, and I wrote my updates, sent them to friends and family, and comforted myself with the fact that at least the people I knew would not be taken in by the BBC’s misrepresentations. Since then, however, I have grown more concerned that the BBC sometimes deals in stereotypes and its stories about Japan may help to confirm a stereotypical view of this great country.

I went to secondary school and university in the 80s, and at the time Japan’s economy was in the middle of the bubble, and I remember watching news reports about ridiculously expensive golf course memberships and companies paying record-breaking amounts for pieces of art, being very excited about getting my first walkman and generally having an impression of a country awash with huge amounts of money and cutting-edge technology. And yes, I know this is not a completely false picture. Now I live in Japan, and have been here for many years, and I have friends who have told me that when they think back to the bubble years they just remember getting up, going to work, coming home late, eating, going to bed, then getting up and doing it all again the next day and the next day . . . I don’t think the majority of Japanese people were spending ridiculous sums on sporting activities because they were too busy working.

Today, Japan has the 3rd biggest economy in the world, and until recently it was 2nd but was overtaken by China. While the images we saw in the bubble years persist in people’s view of Japan from overseas, the fact is that salaries are no longer in the stratosphere and unemployment especially for new graduates and other people in their 20s, was reported at 4.2% in October. Apparently, between 1953 and 2012 the average has been 2.7%; the highest recorded was 5.6% in July 2009, the lowest was 1.0% in November 1968. Clearly these numbers sound low when compared with recent figures from other countries, but it was 4.5% and 4.6% from November 2011 to May this year, and historically this is all much higher than the average for the last 50 years. The Japanese economy, like a lot of the rest of the world, is not doing well. Although Japanese people have traditionally saved money, 11.2% of people have less than one million yen in savings.

I don’t remember seeing any of this information on BBC World, but of course I have a job and don’t spend every minute of every day glued to the television and I may have missed it. What I know I have not missed is the general tone of the reporting, which plays up stereotypes and fails to provide much of a context, and so I come back to the headline which made me sigh this morning.

To be fair, the real headline for the article is ‘Japan and blood types: Does it determine personality?’ and the alternative ‘Japan’s obsession with blood types’ was the one that appeared in the list of most popular stories. However, someone has made a decision that the ‘obsession’ angle is the one which will catch a reader’s attention and I would suggest that it’s not a helpful word and really implies a focus that in my experience Japanese people just don’t have. It’s true to say that Japanese people know their blood type, while people in other countries may not be, as a rule, so aware. I must also say that I am, apparently, true to my blood type and my personality matches. I want to point out, though, that a few years ago a diet book was popular in the UK, and it was called ‘Eat right for your type’ and was based on certain blood types being suited to certain diets. For the record, I must also admit that the foods that suit me were consistent with my blood type according to that book. My quibble is not that there is no truth in it, but that presenting the Japanese people as ‘obsessed’ with this kind of thing is not an accurate portrayal. If you would like to read the entire article, you can find it here: .

My second example is an article which was on the BBC website on March 15th this year, just four days after the 1st anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami. It was titled ‘Japan’s obsession with perfect fruit’ and you can read it here: . Again, this word ‘obsession’ implies an excessive focus, an attention to this aspect of life which is beyond what most people would have. There is no context to this article, and by omitting several key facts Roland Buerk, the journalist who wrote it, creates an impression that I take issue with. For a start, the exchange rate between yen, sterling and the US dollar gives a false impression, since the yen is so strong at the moment, and he doesn’t point this out, and so gives a false impression of the prices here. The fruit is expensive, but the prices are not quite as high as they might seem. Secondly, the article includes this sentence: ‘Even run-of-the-mill apples can cost $2 (£1.25) or more each in central Tokyo, and families tend to share one or two around the dinner table, chopped up.’ If you can, put aside the ridiculously Dickensian vision of a Japanese family huddled over a single apple, because you may be imagining an apple you could hold in your hand and eat. Unless you are some kind of human anaconda that is not possible with a Japanese apple of the type he is referring to. Recently a friend gave me a Japanese pear and since its size was similar I made a note; it was 38cm in diameter and weighed 773g. Quite the monster fruit, and actually plenty for several people. Mr. Buerk failed to point that out.

My concern with these articles and others the BBC has broadcast or published on the website is not that they are not true, but rather this; they are whimsical, cultural stories, which I can see (from their place on the ‘most popular stories’ lists) appeal to people, and yet they are presented without some background which would make them more informative and using language which misrepresents the Japanese people. When you come across articles which amuse but yet seem to confirm or present a stereotype, please remember that, just as London is not engulfed in smog and populated by men in bowler hats carrying rolled up umbrellas, just as in the UK we don’t all stop for afternoon tea every day, these snapshots of Japan may be just that and not the blanket statement they may appear to be.

Shintaro Ishihara, sigh

So, Shintaro Ishihara, Governor of Tokyo since 1999, probably Japan’s most famous right-wing politician, has announced today that he is stepping down as Governor so he can start a new political party with fellow right-wingers. In the BBC article you can read here, it states:

‘The veteran politician is known for making controversial and nationalistic comments.’

Well, that’s the understatement of the day. The man has made a career out of it. Gov. Ishihara probably came to the attention of a lot of people outside Japan when he published the book ‘The Japan That Can Say No’ in 1989, which argued that Japan should stand up to the US and forge a new kind of relationship, since the one that existed was born out of the post-war occupation and was more like a parent and child. He argued that Japan should interact with the US differently, since it was no longer the defeated country it had been in 1945. He  had already been a well-known person in Japan for many years by then, having won a prestigious literary award before he had even graduated from university. The novel was made into a film (from a screenplay he wrote himself) and featured his brother in one of the roles.

He entered politics in 1968, and was active in national politics for over 25 years. Although he was always a popular politician, he never led his own faction within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and failed in his bid to become the leader of the party. He resigned from national politics in 1995 right after the Aum sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway and in 1998 ran as an independent candidate for the Governorship. Since then he has made a career of being an equal-opportunities offender, regularly making comments that one or more section of society finds objectionable. He is always unrepentant and as far as I know he has never apologised, though he has sometimes attempted to parse his utterances into something less offensive or to hone his attack on one particular group.

I am loathe to start quoting his offensiveness here, since it is easy to track down elsewhere on the Internet, but it is fair to say that he has reserved some of his most objectionable comments for China. As Governor he also went out of his way to irritate Beijing, e.g. by inviting the President of Taiwan or the Dalai Lama to Tokyo. Most recently he was the instigator of the disagreement over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. He announced in April that he wanted to buy the Senkaku Islands from the private Japanese citizen who somehow claimed to own them, and raised a large amount of money from private donations to do so. To prevent him from doing this the national government bought the islands instead, and from there we get to the situation we find ourselves in today, which I wrote about in a previous post,

Shintaro Ishihara, as leader of his own political party, is probably hoping to challenge the established parties in the general election that has to be held by the end of 2013. While it has been unpleasant to have him as the Governor of this great city, the idea of him as the face of Japan on the international stage as Prime Minister of Japan is worse. The man is a bigot. He has said deeply offensive things about the people and cultures of many countries; about women; about gay people. He has denied history and said last year that the tsunami was ‘divine punishment’ for Japan’s greed and materialism.

In his announcement of his resignation as Governor, he singled out the language of the Japanese Constitution as being ‘ugly Japanese . . . imposed by the occupying army’ and has criticised what he sees as the pacifist aspect of the Constitution, commonly known as Article 9, in which Japan renounced war and the means to wage it. The Japanese Self Defence Forces (SDF) are in direct contradiction to this. Article 9 has been under attack for a number of years, and there are grassroots groups all over Japan, some affiliated with religious groups of different faiths, some secular, but all working to protect it. A Japan with Shintaro Ishihara as the leader of a major party or the Prime Minister would put Article 9 in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, Ishihara is also a skilled politician, he knows how to tap into populist sentiments, and since he has been elected as Tokyo’s Governor four times there are clearly a lot of people who agree with him or are at least willing to give him their vote. However, he is divisive and offensive, and I shudder to think how he would impact Japan’s relations with its neighbours in Asia and beyond, to the rest of the world.