Wednesday, October 27, 2004


As I walked through the paddies near the township of Maruyama, some 80 km from Tokyo, the following lines from The Winter`s Tale were not on my lips, though, I was on my way to The Shakespeare Country Park, Maruyama:

Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice, -- what will this sister of mine do
with rice?

The paddies gave way to rosemary hedges, a mock Ancient Greece square, Rivers Plaza, with plaster friezes interpreting the constellations of the Milky Way, which were almost covered by the rosemary bushes. Ah, more Shakespearian than rice!

Doth not rosemary and Romeo both begin with a letter?

I first visited New Place, or rather, the replica of New Place, the property in Stratford Shakespeare bought when he was already an established dramatist. In the entrance models of an Elizabethan theatre and fair peopled with Japanese washi dolls. Then the gift shop, selling toy London buses and taxis, bardic tat, and local Shakespearian cheesecake. The back of New Place became the courtyard of an inn, of the type where many of Shakespeare`s plays were performed. On one side a Great Hall type theatre, showing a film demonstrating how the theatre was used.

In the room above the gift shop statues and models from some of the most famous scenes of Hamuret, The Tenpesuto and Richiarudo III, all neatly labeled and explained in Japanese. A wax Will composing at his desk. When questioned by a Marlovian figure on the adjacent TV screen, he opened his mouth, muttered a few wise words, moved his head from side to side and wrote a few more kanji.

Thence to the Italian Garden, the Knot Garden, the Physic Herb Garden and to neighbouring Henley Street, Will`s birthplace, recreated pretty exactly by craftsmen and designers from England. We see John Shakespeare at work making gloves, the bed William was conceived in, the bed he slept in as a boy, we see a pensive Will holding his firstborn, Susanna, pensatively scratching his chin. We see Shakespeare`s mother at work in a sparkling kitchen.

Then we visit Palmers’ Farm Tea Room at Anne Hathaway`s Cottage. Cheesecake again, the speciality of this Stratford-on-Avon. On a nice day we sit on the Village Green and feed the ducks and take pictures of the pillory. And wonder why… Why? Why this Stratford lookalike out on the Boso peninsula? Why not? Are not the Shakespearian properties in Stratford all renovations, rebuildings, sanitized refurbishments. Is not the Globe Theatre on the South Bank in London a little way from the original site?

And we must remember the Japanese fascination for Shakespeare. The RSC regularly tours Japan, and Japanese companies frequently adapt Shakespeare. And my favourite film adaptations of Shakespeare are those of Kurosawa.

Japan has also had a craze for recreating foreign resorts. Huis Ten Bosch, a Dutch village near Nagasaki, is the most famous, and there are Spanish, Russian, French, German villages. Some have a literary theme: Canadian World in Hokkaido highlights the Lucy Maud Montgomery classic, Anne of Green Gables, set on Prince Edward Island; and in Hakone, southwest of Tokyo, a French village is dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince.

At the beginning of this piece I mentioned rice. Maruyama is outside the Tokyo commuter belt. There is no fast train. It is in an area which has suffered from rural depopulation and lack in investment in agriculture as economic policy has favoured industry and electronics. The paddies, now often worked part-time by elderly couples, who also have their pensions or other sources of income, are a central part of Japanese culture, but are uneconomic, and much Japanese rice is imported, especially from the US. So Shakespeare, the staple of a certain traditional English culture, has been brought in to support an area which depended on the staple of Japanese culture. Rosemary is now cultivated as a cash crop, and Will can bring in the tourists.

After our musings we step through the wicker gate into Rosemary Garden, and the words of the deranged Ophelia come to us:

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.

But what we see is a little more sanitized: a New England style church (which of course is a gift shop already selling Father Xmas ware) surrounded by beds of flowers.
A quick stroll around the local Forest of Arden, the Forest of the Imagination, before I return to the New Place to buy some postcards. The shop assistant asks me for my answer sheet to the quiz. I haven’t filled it out! Reading Japanese is no easy feat. A six-year-old boy proudly presents his and collects his prize. And I bury my head in shame…

Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Bunkamura Gallery, Roppongi Hills

To get into the “Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection” at the Bunkamura Gallery in Shibuya, you go through the Tokyu Department Store ground floor, and pass, on your left, the Cartier, Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo franchises, and, on your right, the Bvulgari, and Chanel stands. You then enter the foyer, visit a commercial gallery selling watercolours of Mt Fuji, maybe pick up tickets for a show or Swan Lake at the adjacent theatre. Then have coffee and croissants at Les Deux Magots café and buy some Les Deux Magots souvenirs. If you`re lucky, you may see the Tokyo Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at their usual table. The Guggenheim exhibition is sponsored by Nissan. When you leave, you pick up brochures for the new Nissan Maeda.

At the Roppongi Hills Mori Arts Gallery the main exhibition is on the work of Dutch couturiers Viktor & Rolf. Descend from the exhibition on the 53rd floor, where the City View is also included in your admission ticket, to the atelier boulangerie, where the bakers are styling their cakes and bun and the craft jewelers are turning their rings.

Roppongi Hills is a fifty-three office block. The Bunkamura is part of an upmarket department store complex. The worlds of art, work and shopping are almost seamlessly merged. Though times are changing, rigid shopping hours in North America and many European countries have resulted in a division between “shopping” and other leisure activities. Here in Japan the shops are open till late at night everyday and all day Sundays, and shopping becomes part of a night out. Indeed, the term “Gallery” is often used for an upmarket jeweller`s or jewellry store. Le Corbusier`s modernist city would separate area for work, leisure and commerce. Brasilia was built to this pattern. Postmodern Tokyo mingles them all.

And it is in the shops that we get an idea of the immense wealth of modern Japan, despite the bursting of the economic bubble in the nineties and the recent sluggish economy. Consumer habits are in many ways different in Japan: cars are difficult to buy, not because of their price but because you must have a parking space to buy one. Few people own second homes: house prices are fantastically high, and few have sufficient leisure time – holidays are very short here – to be able to enjoy them.

As well as the international griffes, which all have several outlets in Tokyo, certain service areas seem to have taken off in Japan: aromatherapy; relax centers, which give you a ten-minute shoulder and back massage for $10; cyber cafes with private booths and comfy armchairs where teenagers have access to vast libraries of manga comics for $5 an hour. Money can make life that little bit more pleasant. The U. Goto florist`s in Roppongi has a pianist on a grand piano playing popular classics to make your purchasing all the more enjoyable.

Clothes shops for dogs are also popular. When the temperature falls a few degrees below 20C, parades of fashion conscious pooches take to the parks and walks. This year check kilts are in fashion for the ladies; and jump suits are a la mode for the gentlemen. And there are even shops for outfits for dog owners to wear, maybe to match that of your dog: “Sara Brandt – Casual Wear for People Who Love Dogs”.

Roppongi Hills. I looked for the hills and found none. We are in the world of Japish, the use of English by Japanese commercial establishments, which has its own peculiar usage. Standard English rules are broken. Terms take on meanings of their own. Nearby is another office and entertainments complex, Ark Hills. So “Hills”, maintaining a certain amount of its semantic meaning, defines a high place, but one that is man-made.

Japanese has no plural, so the English plural when we refer to a countable noun in general is ignored, and we find: “Gentleman”, “Lady”, “Condom”, “New Arrival”. “Casual Food” seems to be used in place of “Fast Food”. Particles may be ignored, so “make-up” becomes “make” in “Hair and Make”. Fashion and beauty services use English all the time: “Fairy Annex” is a local beauty parlour; “Feel Free – Hair Produce”, a hairdresser`s, which, like all the others advertises “Perm, Cut and Blow” No, I have yet to see “Blow Job”!

Some names make sense but surprise us: “Clean Living” is not a moralistic anti-pornography organization but a laundry franchise! Others fail to make any sense whatsoever: “Big Foot” is a store for pre-fabricated wooden houses; “Erotica” a shop selling eye glasses; could “Nude Trump – Used Clothes” be an ironic reference to Donald Trump, or a misspelling of “tramp”? My favourites are the gaudy neon signs advertising “Green Peas”, the name of a chain of halls for slot machine and “pachinko”, a mini-pinball gambling game.

Food and drinks use English. After sweating I drink “Pocari Sweat”, and in the morning I choose from the drinks dispenser between “Athens Morning”, “Morning Black” and “Morning au Lait”. Last December in Nara I ate a “Morning Dog”, a hot dog served before noon!
A local dog-training enclosure, about the size of a tennis court, lays on the hype: “Rainbow Fields. Companion Dog Trainer. Happy Campus Life”. Well, it is near the University of Tokyo!

At times there seems to be a hint of self-mockery. Was not the sign I saw in Meguro, “Fablic Cleaning of All Materials” intentional? And surely the notice in my residence: “Encycropedias not to be taken out of the robby” ironizes the Japanese difficulty to distinguish between “r” and “l”?

But is English not somewhat depasse? Isn`t it a little more chic to buy designer furniture from “La Citta del Per Favore”? Maybe even mix English and French, as we find in Junior City, the pre-teen mall in Shibuya, where one finds “Poesie Elf” and “Comme Ca Boys”; in the Roppongi Hills clothing stores, “Design Works: Deux Cotes”, Trois Rounds; and at the gentleman`s tailor`s, which advertises “Old England-Paris, in the 2004 collection automne – hiver”.
Travelling from Kyoto to Tokyo on the shinkansen, the bullet train, last December, I passed bright neon signs standing erect on the top of a number of buildings, “Hard Off”. But, unfortunately, I have yet to discover what kind of business or venture they referred to. It may have been a remedy for Priapism which turned out to be a flop.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Komaba, Shibuya

Found in Translation

1. Komaba, Shibuya

I’m here at Tokyo University as Visiting Professor till the end of the year. My seminar will only begin at the end of the month, so I find myself with a certain amount of time to put down some thoughts in this blog. In the first few days, suffering from jet lag, I arrived at the Department office at 8 a.m. Nobody around. The Department secretaries trundle in at 10 a.m., and leave at 17.30. The Department office is the tea room, the gossip room and the lunch room. The two secretaries are squeezed into a corner. And I wonder about this high tech, workaholic Japan. Will so many of the students I see strolling from lecture to lecture with their designer punk coiffures, or on the tennis courts or the lacrosse field, tomorrow be the besuited “salarymen” I see on the train? Or is Japan changing? Is a new generation going to take it easy and rest on its laurels?

I live in a quiet residential district. House prices are high, extortionate. Streets are narrow, there are few cars, and those that one does see are usually SUVs, BMWs or Jaguars. Stray leaves are rapidly cleared up. In case of major earthquakes we are instructed to assemble at the local junior school. The other side of the railway line is not quite so smart and has the feeling of a neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone else. Schools abound. The Tokyo International School, Komaba Technical School, Tokyo Metropolitan High School among them. All schools have uniforms. The boys wear navy blue blazers similar to mine at King Edwards School in Birmingham. The girls wear miniscule skirts, blouses, cravats, socks, but no high heels or stockings. Primary schoolchildren wear dapper sailor suits or gymslips with 1920 style hats. Everyone travels the train, even the 6 and 7 year-old girls, alone, on their way home, or to cramming or piano classes. Nobody raises an eyebrow.

From Komaba one heads two stops to the terminal station of Shibuya. Shibuya, Shibuya, the junction of five railway lines and two metro lines, bus station, overhead flyovers, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world, where more than half a million souls cross the road everyday to the backdrop of acres of neon, huge five storey high video screens, and the accompanying commentaries in high pitched childlike girlish whines. By comparison Picadilly Circus seems like a village green. After the 1923 earthquake the big stores, Tokyu and Seibu, developed the area, and this explains why you exit the station right through the department stores, the “departos”, and Shibuya thrived. Stores, shops, boutiques, all open till late, bars with names like Insomnia Bar, Black Flys and Joystick, slot machine parlours, fast food joints and restaurants from every corner of the world, love hotels, gentlemen’s clubs, a world of leisure and pleasure, especially for the young, that is, average age something between 15 and 17, who come here to show off their outfits, their hairdos and just hang around, this is Shibuya. But go down the alley to the public garden by the Yamamote train line and you will see the tents of the homeless. All men, fifty or more, drunks, dropouts, Skid Row, broken marriages, couldn’t cope. They eke out a living collecting cans, doing odd jobs, maybe getting state handouts. Their tents of plastic canvas are immaculately tidy. They are a steep above the men who sleep under the bridge. Each has a kind of cot, a 2 metre by one plastic wall surrounding his space. Cecilia Lorschiavo of the Universidade de Sao Paulo has written on the aesthetics of the homeless, including the homeless in Tokyo.

Everyone in Shibuya meets near the statue of Hachiko, the dog. After his master’s death in 1925, he continued coming down to the station every evening to meet him till his own death some nine years later, and was commemorated by a statue. But quieter times, and he didn`t have to find his master among the five million commuters who daily pass through Shibuya station nowadays.