Category Archives: UK

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.

 

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?

Saudade?

Arisugawa rain 1

It’s the rainy season, and so I am feeling a kind of soggy melancholy , an absence of something, a general dissatisfaction. I am wondering if this is saudade, apparently a longing for someone or something that is absent.

It’s almost the end of term, an in-between time. I’ve finished teaching but still have some paperwork to do. I fly back to the UK next week, but I have a lot to do here before I leave. Sometimes I feel that I’m right here, I am completely where I stand, all of me is concentrated on being where I am, and then other times I feel that I’m not quite here, but not quite there either. Nothing completely connects. This is one of those times.

In London ten years ago, on July 7th, 2005, four suicide bombers blew themselves up and in doing so killed fifty-two people and injured over seven hundred.

In Tokyo ten years ago I spent a lovely evening with a friend; a production of The Producers and dinner, I’m not sure which came first, but I think maybe the theatre. I remember I came home feeling content and relaxed, looking forward to flying back to the UK a few days later.

At home there was a message from my father on the answerphone; a little cryptic, he sounded urgent and was trying to reassure me. He told me that my brother was OK, I wasn’t to worry, everything was fine. Having no idea what he was talking about, I called my parents back, and turned on the TV. I remember perching on the edge of the sofa, rolling my eyes, listening to the phone start to ring, and then absorbing the news from the muted BBC. Four bombs had exploded on London transport.

My father’s message made sense then. My brother was living in London at the time, commuting to work on the Tube every morning. He had been at his desk by the time of the attacks. When I checked my e-mail he had already been in touch, reassuring me that he was OK; he was at work, everything was fine. He had called our parents to tell them the same thing, just as I would do in March 2011; e-mail to him, phone call to parents; it’s OK, it was a big earthquake, the tsunami did terrible damage, but in Tokyo we’re all right. Rattled, but all right.

And then I remember having that feeling, an emotional dislocation, knowing that my country was going through something huge and I was thousands of miles away. I have spent most of my adult life in Asia, and most of that time in Japan. I have consciously removed myself from my own country, I have chosen this distance. And yet, sometimes I feel very far from the mothership. Or rather, I feel the distance between.

I spend my life being British in another country. I routinely get asked random questions about the Royal Family, the correct way to make a cup of tea, the best places to go in London and how to get around, what I think of Stephen Fry, Jeremy Clarkson, the monkey named after the baby princess. Sometimes I have an answer, sometimes I have nothing. Sometimes I want to say, don’t ask me anything after 1990. I don’t know how much a stamp costs, I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, I’m a bit of a fraud, really.

Then I go back to the UK and get all the questions in reverse about Japan. What’s the weather like, is everyone really polite, are your students silent all the time, have you ever been on one of those really crowded trains I’ve seen on YouTube? It all feels like an exercise in time and space, all designed to make me aware of the the distance in between.

I remember calling my brother a few hours later that evening. The trains and buses weren’t running yet, but he was happy to stay at work and go home later. When he had moved to London and decided where to live he had told me that he could walk home from work if he needed to, it was only four or five miles. I asked him to walk home that evening; he declined, and said he’d take a bus or the Tube later. When he got home he sent me another e-mail to tell me he had taken the bus and had seen Tony Blair getting out of a helicopter at Chelsea Barracks. I was annoyed with him for taking a risk, as I saw it, but a month later I was in London myself, and several Tube lines stopped running. I felt almost irrationally determined to get back to his flat on the Tube and when I emerged at Clapham Common I felt victorious in the most deliciously bloody-minded way. Then I understood why he hadn’t walked home that evening.