Tag Archives: BBC

Tokyo: A safe city?

Olympics4On Sunday mornings I have a very early start, and am regularly awake by 5am, so this morning I was already up and watching the news when Tokyo was announced as the winning bid to host the 2020 Olympics. I watched the Japanese delegation in Buenos Aires jumping up and down, the scenes of jubilation from the arena in Komazawa Park, built for the 1964 Olympics, and I thought . . . well, I thought a few things. I have quite mixed feelings about it.

The Japanese bid had focused on being a safe choice: ‘the Olympics will be safe in our hands’. But what does ‘safe’ really mean?

First of all, the statement that I think most people would agree with, that Tokyo is generally a safe city for tourists and for residents. There are clichéd stories of people losing valuable items and getting them back, but it really does happen. Wallets, purses, mobile phones – drop something in the street, leave it on a train and if you go to the police box or station office there is a high chance that you’ll get it back. Not every time, but a lot of the time.

A few years ago, a group of people from a small company I knew in Tokyo went to the UK on what was termed a ‘study trip’ (= junket). On their return they told me that a woman in their group had had her handbag snatched one day. She had been shocked but also infuriated and so had given chase. She had managed to retrieve her handbag (Japanese company employee 1, Petty Criminal 0) but when she wrote a report about their trip she included an account of the incident (which I wholly understand) and concluded with this statement:

‘Japan is safe. Abroad is dangerous.’ (日本は安全、海外は危険) Cut and dried, black and white. No more to say. Of course, it’s not that simple, but with the exception of a few places, I would go anywhere in Tokyo at any time of day or night, on my own, and I would feel safe. I often walk home from the station at ten or eleven o’clock, listening to my iPod, and I don’t worry about being safe. I wouldn’t do the same in the UK. I go out and leave my windows open, and in fact left them open while I was away all summer. I leave windows open at my mother’s house in the UK, but she lives in a village and even that is against recent police advice and know friends and family in cities who lock everything before they go out. I have friends in rural parts of Japan and even Tokyo who never lock their doors.

Japan is safer than many, if not most other countries. Japanese citizens and residents who have got used to life here need to remember that when they travel and be more cautious, but the idea that someone is imperilled the moment they step off the plane in another country is not true.

So, Tokyo will be a safe place to hold the Olympics. Visitors can be generally assured of their personal safety. Yes, I will give them that. Generally, that is a truthful statement.

Next, the Tokyo bid claimed to be a safe (reliable) city which could be counted on to complete construction on time, to have a mass transit system capable of moving huge numbers of people from A to B. Again, I would give them that, but the way it was highlighted left a bad taste on one memorable occasion. At the end of April, Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose cast aspersions on Istanbul’s bid in the most general and unpleasant terms, when he criticised Islamic countries (yes, all of them), saying, “The only thing they share in common is Allah and they are fighting with each other, and they have classes.” He was slapped down by the International Olympic Committee, who said that cities bidding for the Olympics should not make negative comments about rival bids. Governor Inose apologised, first claiming that he had been taken out of context (that old chestnut) but then acknowledging that his remarks had been ‘inappropriate’. That was the end of the story.

But while that was the end of Governor Inose’s mouthing off, he was following in a long tradition of Japanese politicians saying offensive things, and then trying to wriggle out of it by saying their words had been taken out of context. Gov. Inose’s immediate predecessor, Shintaro Ishihara, was of course well-known for his offensive remarks, but he seemed to enjoy the upset he caused and unlike other politicians never seemed apologetic. However, Deputy Prime Minister Aso was true to form in July when he made remarks regarding the government’s desire to change the constitution, specifically to remove Article 9, in which Japan renounces war and the means of war. He suggested that Japan’s government copy Nazi tactics to push through constitutional changes: “The German Weimar constitution changed, without being noticed, to the Nazi German constitution. Why don’t we learn from their tactics?” You can read the full article here:


This is probably the subject for a separate blog post, but it does seem to me that Japan doesn’t ping the international radar with its unsavoury behaviour, and I wonder why. Maybe Japan seems non-threatening, not a country that could pose a threat, but anyone who knows about the rise of militarism here in the 1930s knows that’s not true.

But back to the second idea that Japan is safe, meaning reliable, will have everything ready on time, and be able to move everyone around the city efficiently. Yes, I will give them that too, but how much will it cost? The Japanese economy has been stagnating since the bubble burst in 1990, and the gamble seems to be that massive construction will boost the economy and a fat profit will be made. In the meantime, the taxpayers of Tokyo will be picking up the bill.

Finally, the aspect of Japanese safety that has been in the news a lot in recent weeks: Fukushima. The Godzilla in the room.

Two and a half years ago, a tsunami slammed into Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and three of the six reactors went into varying degrees of meltdown. The hapless, incompetent and arrogant Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) has been trying ever since to get on top of the situation, while running rings round the government and anyone else trying to get an accurate picture of what is going on. Now it seems they never really got their act together and since last month the facts and figures finally emerging have painted a very scary picture. Water contaminated with radioactivity is leaking into the Pacific, and into the ground around the plant. It has reached such high levels that anyone exposed to it would die within hours.

This was the issue which threatened to derail the Tokyo bid, and Prime Minister Abe addressed it personally when he spoke in Buenos Aires before the final vote. According to the BBC, “He allayed fears over the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant 150 miles (240km) from the city by saying: ‘It has never done, and will never do, any damage to Tokyo.’ ”

Yes, well, boo to that, Mr. Abe. That’s not so far away from Tokyo, and while I know it’s Tokyo which will host the Games, I don’t think that’s totally the point. 150 miles (or 240km) away from Tokyo there is a serious, ongoing nuclear incident. The most serious since Chernobyl. There is an exclusion zone around the plant, a dead zone, and who knows if people will ever be able to live there again? The spent fuel rods were, last time I saw any information about them, 4 storeys up in a damaged building, in a tank of water, exposed to the elements, covered with blue tarpaulin. The plans to sort out this mess are measured in terms of years, apparently lacking any sense of urgency. What would happen if a typhoon hit the area? Or another earthquake and tsunami? It seems to me there is a lot of gambling on what probably won’t happen, and politicians making statements about scenarios that will ‘never’ happen. But can they really give such absolute guarantees?

After the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, the number of tourists visiting Japan fell dramatically. Despite assurances, people didn’t want to risk it. There are some words which people react to on a very instinctive level. I would suggest that those words would include ‘earthquake’, ‘tsunami’, ‘nuclear meltdown’, ‘radiation’ . . .

150 miles or 240km. Does that sound like a great distance? In the UK that is the equivalent of London to Chesterfield or Cardiff, and in the US, Washington DC to Philadelphia PA, or Baltimore MD to Richmond VA.

Do you still feel safe? Would you still feel confident that people will travel here and happily ignore the risks? We’re not talking about vast distances here.

Underneath the declaration that Tokyo is safe there is so much more information, so many more aspects to this. Facebook has lit up today with a wide range of opinions. This is in no way anything other than anecdotal, but from what I have seen, opinions range from a straightforward, ‘Yay for Tokyo, that’s great!’, to ‘Oh no, Tokyo shouldn’t have got it’. There are a lot of mixed feelings, and that is where I find myself.

I am proud of this city, I love so much about it, and I’m excited that Tokyo will have an opportunity to showcase what’s great about it, that people will come and have an amazing time. That certainly happened when Japan co-hosted the 2002 Football World Cup. But, but, but . . . how much will it cost? Will it make an already emboldened, aggressive and increasingly xenophobic government even bolder? Some have pointed out that Mr. Abe probably won’t be the Prime Minister, that this current crop of unpleasant fellows will not be in power. True. But the LDP has been in power for most of the last seventy years, do you think that’s going to change? It won’t be Abe & Co. in power, but in the tradition of generations of political families here it will probably be their younger brothers or sons.

I do hope that the 2020 Olympics will be a wonderful opportunity for Tokyo. I really do. But I also hope that for the next seven years, there is a spotlight on Japan, that the rest of the world watches what Japan’s leaders say and do, that they are held to account, and that they deal with the situation in Fukushima sooner rather than later, not just for the Olympics, but for all the people in Tohoku who have already endured two and a half years of Tepco lies and government ineptitude.

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: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20170787 .

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: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-radio-and-tv-17352173 . 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.