Tag Archives: Tokyo

Shop til you drop

new year decoration1Christmas is a largely commercial affair in Japan. Of course, there are plenty of decorations put up, and that starts in November, but I don’t expect it is truly celebrated by anyone except the 1% of the population which is Christian. However, I would say that people enjoy it, in the same way they enjoy Valentine’s Day or Hallowe’en. Christmas Eve is the big date night of the year, and through some very clever marketing many Japanese people are convinced that a bucket of fried chicken from KFC and strawberry shortcake from the local convenience store are the perfect dinner on the 25th. Japanese people generally don’t exchange Christmas presents, and by the morning of the 26th all the decorations are gone, soon to be replaced with the traditional Shinto New Year decorations. For anyone newly-arrived in Japan, this sudden absence of all things Christmassy can be a shock, especially for someone feeling a little homesick and still getting used to the idea that December 25th is just another working day.

For Japanese people, the big celebration is New Year (正月). As shops shut down just before the end of the year, they put up New Year signs on their doors and kadomatsu (bamboo and pine decorations) on either side of the entrance.

new year shop entranceTraditionally, shops and other businesses didn’t open on the first three days (or sometimes more) of the new year, but every year more and more is open even on January 1st. As I did last year, I spent some time on New Year’s Day walking a 7 lucky gods pilgrimage, and was surprised at how much was open. Who wants to go to McDonald’s on New Year’s Day? The answer is, a surprising number of people. I enjoyed starting the year walking to shrines and temples, and this year walked with a friend, which was far more fun than doing it alone. She said her prayers at each stop, which made me slow down a little, and not just check off each one along the way and move on to the next one. It reminded me of what the route really was for. Last year I started earlier and so didn’t see so many people, but this year we waited in line several times.  Since I had already blogged about it I decided to do something different and posted on Facebook as I arrived at each temple or shrine, but if you would like to read about it, here is the link to last year’s post:

https://tokyopurplegirl.com/2013/01/04/starting-the-year-the-japanese-way/

Having spent January 1st in a very traditional way, I spent the afternoon of January 2nd in a way more recognisable to my students as a New Year tradition: the sales. January (or these days, end-of-December) sales are not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. In many countries one of the first things people want to do after Christmas is go to the shops to return or exchange gifts and spend money or gift tokens they have been given.  As I already mentioned, Japanese people don’t exchange Christmas gifts, but anyone under twenty can look forward to receiving otoshidama (お年玉) at New Year. These are small envelopes containing money; gifts from parents, grandparents and other relatives. Many young people save all they are given, the reckless few spend it all, but often there is a compromise; they save some and they spend some.

Shops re-open on January 2nd or a little later and are hoping that some of this New Year money is coming their way. For high school girls, there are two places which are a kind of mecca on any day of the year; Takeshita Dori (竹下通り) in Harajuku, and the 109 building in Shibuya. Yesterday I went shopping with someone visiting Tokyo, and we decided to go to the mothership, Shibuya 109. Before I went, someone told me they thought I was crazy even thinking about going there on January 2nd, but we were on a shopping mission, and nowhere else would do.

109 salesYesterday was the first day of the ‘7 days bargain’ and in the early afternoon it was absolutely packed. The noise levels were excruciating and there were personnel everywhere guiding people along, particularly near the escalators. There are eight floors, and each one is a collection of different shops. The escalators form the centre of the building, so the best way to see everything is to go up the escalator, then walk all the way round to see what you can find. Every shop was selling lucky bags or fukubukuro (福袋), sealed bags containing a variety of items. These bags are not cheap, most of the ones I saw yesterday started at ¥10,000, but you know that the value of the contents is more than that, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. At places like the Apple store you might get an iPad or a Macbook, and so some really determined people will camp out the night before (or maybe even longer) to ensure that they get their hands on such a bargain.

Back to the 109 building. Not only was every shop selling lucky bags, but there was at least one person, usually a young woman, shouting to attract attention. The crowds, the loud music, the screeching . . . you have no idea. We went up an escalator, round the floor, up the next escalator, round the next floor . . . we were on a mission for footwear, and so I can tell you that there are very few shops selling only shoes and boots. I think we found three. There was one on the first floor, one around the third or fourth floor, and one right at the top on the eighth.

It was an experience. The feeling of having all my senses bombarded was amazing, the only other time I have felt that was when someone took me into a pachinko parlour years ago, but this was even more extreme because of the crowds. Having successfully found something to buy, we headed straight down the escalators and emerged, gasping for air, into the afternoon sunshine. The Shibuya 109 building. Not for the faint-hearted.

Mr. T

train

Mr. T is homeless. I first met him about six months ago, and since I usually see him about once a week I have got to know him a little. Thinking about American people all over the world getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, I thought I would introduce Mr. T to you and tell you a little about how he lives. Getting to know him and talking to him has made me thankful for the comforts and security I have.

I don’t know how long he’s been homeless, but it’s over ten years. I’d say he was in his fifties, but I’ve never asked his age. He often spends the day sitting in church (where I met him), listening to a small radio with earphones. Recently he’s been listening to the sumo tournament.

Several years ago I used to help out at another church in the diocese one Saturday a month, when there was a group who made food for homeless people in Shibuya. We used to spend several hours making pork soup and rice balls, or curry rice, and later in the evening another group took the meals to Shibuya Ward Office where a lot of homeless people slept. Several things have stayed with me since then; the care that was taken to cook a nutritious meal; the way we changed the menu according to the requests that were fed back to us, and the loving way everything was done. One of the group members told me that if a homeless person came to the church during the week, someone would cook a bowl of noodles and sit with him or her while they ate, to share some time together.

It was that last point that came back to me when I first met Mr. T, and his friend Mr. M. They were both in church, sitting quietly. We talked for a while, and it was then that I heard that Mr. T is from Hokkaido, and has no living relatives. Mr. M was from Chiba, and had a family, but never went back there. They told me that they’d been sticking together for over ten years, and that they slept in the entrance to a bank. In the winter they have sleeping bags to protect them from the elements, and in summer they have trouble with ants.

Mr. T seems to know all the places around Tokyo where he can get food, but to get to any of these places he has to walk. Depending on the day of the week there is food available at different locations, and Mr. T told me this evening that on Sundays there is a church which provides a meal. (It is common practice for Japanese Anglican churches to cook a meal after the service and for everyone to eat together, and it is this meal that Mr. T shares.) He also knows where he can go to be warm, so in addition to our church he often goes to a library, which has some kind of seating area downstairs where he can stay until it closes in the evening.

Last week I saw Mr. T for the first time in several weeks. He hadn’t been around and I was wondering where he and Mr. M were. In some distress he told me that he hadn’t seen Mr. M for over a month. They had often gone their separate ways during the day, but one evening Mr. M didn’t return to the bank entrance. Over the course of the month since then, Mr. T had gone in search of his friend; to the hospital which cares for homeless people; to the places where they had been together to receive food; to the park where Mr. M’s friend lives in a blue tarpaulin tent. Mr. M had spent a week over there once, helping his friend collect aluminium cans, crushing them and taking them somewhere to get money for the scrap metal. He tracked down the friend but no one had seen Mr. M.

Mr. T is desperately worried for his friend. He was worried that he had been involved in some kind of traffic accident, or that someone had beaten him up, but as time has gone on he has changed his mind. I had noticed that Mr. M had trouble walking, and Mr. T told me that he had a lot of sores on his legs, and he’s worried that his friend got some kind of infection. He used to put band-aids on his legs when he could, but if he couldn’t get any he used to use sticky tape. Mr. T is still waiting for his friend to come back, and that is how he reports the situation when he sees me: ‘He hasn’t come back yet.’

It is upsetting to listen to his distress, to his loneliness, and his feelings of despair that he has been unable to find and help his friend. Mr. M never seems far from his thoughts, and he often mentions him. A decade-plus friendship is a long one at any time, in any place, but on the street they have been each other’s support for so long, and now Mr. M is not there.

Life often whizzes by, there is so much we don’t see or don’t want to see every day. Getting to know Mr. T, to call him my friend, I have heard about how people live on the streets. It’s not easy to live with the information, and it makes me wonder at the resilience of the human body and spirit. So this Thanksgiving, although I’m not American, I shall appropriate it for my own. I am so very thankful to have a roof over my head, enough food to eat, enough money in the bank, for all the security that brings. Thankful too for all my friends, but I send up extra prayers for Mr. T and Mr. M, that Mr. M will find his way back and they can support each other again as they have done for years.

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:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23527300

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.