Category Archives: UK

What really matters

sheffield reflection

It’s an odd feeling, seeing the name and picture of someone you love on the news. The name and the face match, but the person is flat, defined by what is being reported. Earlier this month, my best friend went missing, and wasn’t found for nine days. While she was missing I Googled her name several times a day, hoping for good news, fearing bad news, and every time I read an article I thought, that’s her, but not her. There is so much more than just this one thing they are reporting. I was so scared that she was gone, terrified that I would end up writing this to remember her. Instead there was good news, beyond good news. There was miraculous news, and she was found. She is alive and she is safe.

But there is still much more than was ever written in any news report, I suppose there always is, but until it happens to someone you love you don’t realise how one-dimensional the people in the news are.

M has been my best friend for twenty-five years. We met when we worked in a cheese shop in Sheffield. At the time, I had just graduated from university and was trying to figure out what to do next, and she was married and lived only a few miles away from me. I suppose we are unlikely best friends, having not so much in common when we first met. But something clicked and we have been friends ever since. I can’t remember ever having an argument, but I did offend her that first day by insulting her perfume (Giorgio, for the record).

We worked together for a year, while I juggled teaching English to a group of Chinese men working in Sheffield and, for a few weeks, as a translator for a delegation visiting from Sheffield’s twin town of Anshan. The owner of the shop often left us to our own devices. We became friends with the regular customers and some of the other people who worked in nearby shops. We named some customers after the cheeses they always bought; White Cheshire Woman, Roquefort Woman, Manchego Man and our favourite, Tomme de Savioe Man. His sister used to work in the Body Shop, and when we saw her we always told her to send him in to buy more cheese.

One day a local chef asked me out, and the owner of the shop told some regular customers all about it. Next time they were in they asked me about it, not realising that the chef (Rex, for the record) was standing right next to them. I did what any sensible person would do, and went head first into the chilled cabinet, whimpering. M stayed calm, patted my back and spun some ridiculous tale of some other chef. Rex stood by impassively while the customers listened to her talk on and on. Rex finally left, so did they, and we collapsed with relief. One of the customers reappeared sheepishly, bringing a peace offering of chocolate from Thorntons. ‘That was him, wasn’t it?’

After a year I left, and went to work in China. M sent care packages from the Body Shop and letters. I returned at the end of the year and a few months later I came to Japan for the first time. We kept in touch with occasional phone calls, and when I called her that first Christmas she told me she was pregnant. G was born the following August, but I didn’t meet him until I went back to the UK in March. I remember seeing her standing at the door, with a bundle in her arms. I spent the next year in the UK and watched him grow, and her marriage end.

The next few years were difficult, working and being a single parent. I don’t know how she made ends meet. As G grew he played football, tried playing a couple of instruments and joined the beaver scouts. She was always at his football matches, and on rainy days would transport her muddy goalkeeper son home sitting on a bin liner on the back seat, carry him through the house with instructions to keep his arms tucked in and not touch anything, put him in the bath and turn the shower on him to get all the mud off. I remember also that she found it ridiculous to have to address the adult in charge of the beaver scouts as ‘Rusty Beaver’. He wouldn’t answer to anything else.

I came back to Japan, and we kept in touch by phone, by mail, and when I was back in Sheffield we met up. She continued to work for the NHS, moved to Manchester, then moved back to Sheffield. Along the way G started acting and whenever I saw her we would watch the bits of dramas to catch a glimpse of him. She always knew exactly where to start the video. She bought an apartment, and met D. She and G came to Japan, and I finally got to show her the country I had been calling home for so many years.

By now we had e-mail, Skype and Facebook, but we have never been very good at keeping in touch regularly. We just catch up when I’m back in Sheffield. We usually meet in John Lewis (which we both still call Coles), near the make up counters, though I check the shoe department also because she is often there. We walk past the Clinique counter and remember a sales assistant who worked there in the early nineties and always wore way too much make up (Rose, for the record). From there it’s lunch or coffee or both. She is always immaculately made up, and I am not.

This strong, beautiful, amazing woman is a mother, daughter, sister, partner, colleague and friend. A mother first, I think, fiercely proud of G, always supportive. I knew she was tough, but I also knew she was stressed sometimes, that life was not easy. I never stopped to wonder if it could all get too much. Then one day it did, and she became a person in the news. She became name, age, occupation and a disappearance. Then she became a miracle when she was found.

At the cheese shop, she once worked through ‘flu. Just kept going, right through it all. We both loved the same peachy Charles of the Ritz lipstick, and even today we are still looking for a similar shade. She loves Shu Uemura eyelash curlers, which I have been tasked to get her on several occasions, since they are not sold in the UK. She has stubby eyelashes, so Japanese Fiberwig mascara was a hit, too. She doesn’t like nuts or blue cheese. She has watched Love, Actually more times than probably anyone can count, and every year loves listening to the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York at Christmas.

This is my best friend, the person I have known for quarter of a century, who knows me probably better than anyone else. I love you, M xxx


August 9th


 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.

Two lives, ended


The lives of two men ended this week. Both were lives cut short, and there is not a lot of information available about either death, but there the similarities end.

On Thursday morning, a man who had been convicted in 2008 of murdering three members of his family, was hanged at Osaka detention centre. His name was Masanori Kawasaki, he was 68, and he was the first person to be executed this year, but the ninth since Mr. Abe became Prime Minister two and a half years ago.

According to Amnesty International, there are 128 people on death row in Japan. The Justice Minister authorises executions but the person awaiting execution (the vast majority men but several women) are not told the date in advance; one morning guards will come to their cell and they will be escorted to the death chamber where they will be hanged. Until that moment they don’t know when it will be; consequently, every day could be their last. Amnesty International has criticised Japan not only for having the death penalty, but also for the secretive manner in which it is carried out.

This afternoon, another Japanese man, according to sketchy reports possibly also in his sixties, killed himself in Shinjuku. While there is little information available, it appears he climbed onto a bridge at Shinjuku station, and sat for an hour, using a microphone to speak about his opposition to the constitutional changes Mr. Abe’s government wants to make, and could make this week. When police moved in to try to climb up to him, he poured something over his head and set himself alight. The fire was extinguished but no information is available about him, though early reports said he had died.

Two Japanese men, their lives very different, their deaths news. What is the value of a life? How public should a death be? If someone murders another, is executed for their crime,  is their execution news? Can we say by their terrible, even evil act, they have forfeited the right to humane treatment? If someone climbs onto a bridge in the middle of Tokyo, uses a microphone to broadcast his views, and then self-immolates, should those pictures be on the news? Can we assume that by such a public act he expected that?

Two lives have ended, violently. This evening I feel weighed down by the news, distressed by such a horrifying, public act. Sad to live in a country that still enforces the death penalty. Trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. I had hoped that by writing this I would somehow make peace with what I have read, but several hundred words later, I am still feeling that by these two deaths we are all diminished.