Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Odaiba

The Happy Few lucky enough to be getting a Xmas present from me this year will be receiving an Aibo, a robot dog from Sony. He doesn’t do much, just picks up a ball and a bone with a byte, but he responds to affection. Stroke him, and his tail wags; pet his snout and a series of green, red and blue lights on his face sparkle, he stretches his front paws out in pleasure and looks up at you. Of course he behaves well, a bit too well in my opinion: he doesn’t bark, chase cats, piss, fart or shit, eats little electricity, and finds his way back to his battery when he, or you, get tired. He looks more than a little like Snoopy. Was it mere coincidence that I saw a Snoopy products outlet just as I was leaving the Sony area?

Aibo is a snippet at US$1,700, available in black or white. But maybe next year’s puppies will be cheaper.

Aibo’s tail wags.
The children break out in smiles.
Sony’s tills ring out loud.

And if you are not too keen on animals, try a ball, apparently based on the same principle, called Q Healing Creature, because, according to Sony, it has “ feelings and instincts (...) which gives us a sense of what life is really like”. The ball will follow your hand, displaying its array of lights, showing pleasure that you are near, demonstrating that you have at least one pal and admirer. The Q Healing Creature is not yet on the market.

By contrast driving will be all hands-off. I “drove” a Toyota e-car, or rather it drove me, like a five-year-old on a fairground ride. We will be locked into a traffic conveyor belt on the motorways, with our steering and speed automatically controlled.

Sony and Toyota are two of the most successful zaibatsu, the enormous conglomerates which are so central and powerful in Japan, have large showrooms in two shopping centres in Odaiba, a district reclaimed from the sea in the port of Toky,o, and which is so typical of Japanese development projects. It had a shaky start, causing the downfall of mayor Shimachi Suzuki in 1995 though plans for a mega 1996 International Exhibition, but now, with Sony and other big companies there, it has taken off.

Toyota’s mall, Venus Fort, is Italianate, with Roman church facades, Venetian streets, classical fountains, a bright blue Mediterranean sky. What a pity the sky outside was so blue itself yesterday! Sony’s Aqua City is more American, with a quarter-size Statue of Liberty, and an array of mock 1950s shops, including The World of Coca Cola.

The crowds of shoppers on this public holiday, for the shops open every single day of the year, do not come down to the water. A pleasant spot, a park and few people. Over on the mainland contained ships are being loaded and unloaded. Behind the high buildings of the Shinagawa business district. A brightly lit pleasure ferry passes. I take a picture. To the right Rainbow Bridge, reminding me a little of the Golden Gate Bridge. I think of the Thames, the Seine and Hong Kong Island, but Tokyo seems to have turned its back on the sea and its rivers. No cafes, no restaurants, few bateaux mouches. It is because of the earthquakes, I’m told, for the areas near water are often the least safe, liable to instant flooding.

I return to Komaba, where the Students’ Festival is just ending. On Monday the rock groups were poor, the rap and break dancing much better, and the Barber Shop Quartet, or rather Quintet, La Voce, good. For four days students set up food and drink stalls, organized shows, and many camped out. The university provided the infrastructure, and the students did the rest. I went into the Planetarium, set up inside the badminton hall, where a Heath Robinson contraption, made out of coffee and beer cans and old lenses, shows us the night sky. Undergraduate courses are traditionally seen as an easy time between the years of struggle to get in and the long hours of a lifelong job in a big company, which was always a guarantee if you graduated from Tokyo University. Indeed, many of the students I see every day will be responsible for the next generations off Aibos and Q Healing Creatures.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Shinjuku

I take the Inokashira Line from Komabatodaimae and change to the Keio Line at Medaimae, thence to Shinjuku on the semi-express. At Shinjuku I must get the Seibu Line but discover I have left my map at home. There seems to be no sign for the Seibu Line. Avoiding Restaurant City, I leave the Keio station through the Keio Department Store, for all the private lines have their big stores, their departos. I run the gauntlet through a column of food stalls and their beautiful packs of pickles, fruit, sour bean sweets, teas and chocolate and enter the JR foyer. Still no signs for the Seibu Line. Could it be a JR Line. No, the Yamanote Line I know, the Chuo-Sobo, Sobo, Seibo? The Shosen-Shinjuku, the Shinkansen, the Rinkai, the Saikyo? I caught this last one on Saturday, no way. No sign on the map. Has the Seibu merged? Changed its name? No longer exist? Have I confused it with the Odakyu? I go the the East Entrance – walk around the block and I’ll find it.

Now I’m at the West Exit. Where is the Seibu Department Store? But I seem to be getting farther away. An Australian woman asks me the way. I look at her map and see “Beware this area – hostess bars!”. I direct her to Takashimaya Times Square, but am lost myself. I pass the bus station and the Odakyu store but still no Seibu. The animal rights people are arriving. The second-hand manga comic sellers have set up their stalls. The Cockney kebab seller has opened up. I look down Shombun-Yokocho, Piss Alley, but nothing doing there. Could it be near Shinjuku Sanchome or Shinjuku Nishiguchi, or Minami, Kita, Higashi, East, South, North or West. I would have been better to go on the Yamonote to Ikebukuro, or is it Asakusa, and get the Tobu Line there. I finally lose my pride, descend into the Marounuchi Metro Line and ask for help. I’m shown a map of the Seibu-Shinjuku Line terminal hidden away and nestling close to the Kabukicho pink light district, and, after one or two more detours, am finally there.

Tokyo is a city of many centres, and Shinjuku is the Big Daddy of them all. The home to the largest suburban railway hub in the world, the Tokyo administration offices and many other corporations in the west side skyscrapers, and, on the east, kabuki theatres, Korea town and the largest pink light district in Tokyo. Neither Ridley Scott or Sofia Coppola felt quite at ease here, from what we can see in Blade Runner and Lost in Translation.

I return at greater leisure to Shinjuku Goen, the finest of Tokyo parks. Sit down at one of the viewing points or pavilions to jusst look at the Japanese garden; smell the rose garden laid out in the French style, even with a Helmut Schmidt rose; feel at home in the central English landscape garden, apparently laid out by Capability Brown, has a prospect of Tange Kenzo’s art deco NTT DoCoMo Tower. The wilderness area is neatly cared for. Get your ticket for the traditional tea house at the automatic ticket dispenser.

No geishas and their sponsors on an autumn leaf viewing outing but many collecting leaves for their ikebana or scrapbooks, and hundreds of elderly Japanese painting and taking pictures. What better to stave off senility than a telephoto lens, and if you get a bit shaky use the tripod.

Into Tange Kenzo’s Metropolitan Government Building, one of the few places in Tokyo where your bags are searched, remember the 1995 metro sarin poisonous gas attacks, and up the 48 storey towers, which, according to the Rough Guide are “ unmistakably Japanese”, as the “dome criss-cross pattern of its glass and granite façade is reminiscent of both traditional architecture and the circuitry of an enormous computer chip”. It is dusk, but a fine day, Mount Fuji-san is just visible beyond the smog, and all the cameras are out.

And then, just a stone’s throw away I find myself in Fudori Dori, a narrow suburban shopping street, with American 1950s songs quietly playing on the loudspeakers, where the bicycle mothers, and also bicycle executives and salarymen, stop on their way home. And so many small shops. One with a pair of elderly sisters selling just rice, another pickles, another beautifully packaged tea, another tofu. At one of the greengrocers I buy my rettuce and remons. The supermarket, Venga Venga, which provides bicycle parking, seems much fuller. Just how long will these small stops survive?. Areas outside the big cities seem very Americanized, with strip development everywhere, and an American dependence on the car. Here in Tokyo, with so little space, cars are often not practical, you have to carry your shopping home, and so still many such tiny shops, apparently remnants of a bygone age, survive, within the shadow of the Tange Kenzo’s stark futuristic towers.


Oizumi

I tried, but failed, to find a similar wave of immigration, or reverse immigration, as it is being called. Many Argentines, of Spanish grandparents, or great-parents, are returning to Spain, but they speak Spanish, or at least Porteno. It is as if the Indian economy took a massive leap, the UK economy fell, the rupee became a hard currency and sterling weak, and 300,000 Britons of Indian origin returned to Bengal no longer speaking Bengali. Or let’s imagine a stagnant US economy, the dollar falling, and North Americans of Cuban origin, having lost their Spanish, taking up factory jobs in Havana in the post-Castro boom to save some strong pesos.

I get off the train at Nishikoizumi, 80km north of Tokyo, and enter Canta Galo, the secos e molhados general store of Sr Miyogi, three years in Japan, “Daijobi, tudo bem”, Brazilian rice and beans, tins of feijoada, Café Pele, even olive oil from Portugal imported from Brazil, and Inca Cola, the vomit green manna of the Andes, to quench the thirst of the Peruvian dekaseguis. Maybe even the most famous dekasegui of them all, Alberto Fujimori, or least his Yakuza minders, do their shopping here!

Into the Brazilian Plaza, Comida por Kilo, Pastel & Cia, Rio Fashion, Garoto for men’s wear, Elba Ramalho on the video. A despachante for Japanese driving licence and documents, and a Varig agent of course. The occasional Japanese is wearing a suit. A bauru at the lanchonete, Acogue do Ceara is selling beef from Australia cut in the chunky Brazilian way. Brazilian beef has not yet managed to get its foot in the door.

On my way out I’m accosted by the local Peruvian evangelicals, “Come to our culto, our service, tomorrow and find God.” Competition is strong, particularly after the recent visit of Bishop Edir Macedo of the rival Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus.

We drive to the Brazilian inter-school volleyball and indoor football championships. Schools have come from the other main area of dekaseguis, in Aichi, near Nagoya, a long drive. We are surprised by the lack of parents. But today is a Saturday, a working day for most. Orders are coming in. Jobs are there for the taking at Sanyo and Fujitsu electronics, Subaru car plant and their sub-contractors. Overtime pays 50% more or double, and this is why we are in Japan, to make some money, buy a house in Brazil, set up a business, maybe a franchise. In the 3D work, dirty, dangerous and difficult, in the foundry or paint shop, we can make up to US$4,000 a month. Stay two or three years, and we could make 50, 60, 70 thousand dollars, and then go back.

And such is the thinking of many. There is no engagement with Japan, the language, ancestors, Shinto, Buddhism, food or crafts. Karaokes are popular, but with English of Brazilian music.

Teenagers leave school at sixteen and go into the factories. Why go to high school in Brazil or Japan when they can earn U$2,000 a month and buy a smart car? But there is a feeling of non-belonging, of being in-between cultures. And we see the familiar consequences of petty crime, drugs and wannabe gangs.

Many have similar features but few have the willowy Japanese figure. The meat diet of the South of Brazil has thickened them up. Many of the families here are mixed. Wives and husbands are often from non-Japanese families.

The first descendants arrived in the state of Sao Paulo some hundred years ago to work on the coffee plantations. Many moved to towns or set up their own market gardens. Integration came slowly but surely. Brazil was always a melting pot. In the 1930s, to avoid the possibility of German bunkers, dictator Getulio Vargas banned schools teaching in foreign languages, and anyway, immigrant children had to learn Portuguese to get on. World War II was the watershed. After the war Japan was the shame of the world, burnt-out and poverty-stricken, better to forget, and Brazil the country of the future. More emigrants left.

But the Brazilian miracle of the sixties and seventies turned sour with the stagflation of the eighties and early nineties. Unemployment also appeared. And the yen was soaring and Japan booming, resulting in a shortage of labour. All those with one Japanese grandparent could obtain visas to work in Japan, and 300,000 came from Brazil.

Lunch at Mini Shop, where Marcelo is doing well. Where are hashi, the chopsticks? I settle for a steak, rice and beans as there is no feijoada, but Ana Maria Braga is on Globo more than makes up for my disappointment.

Some do go back to Brazil for good. Students spend a year or two here to pay for their studies. Many go back and stay in Brazil a year or two. Their business fails. Brazil seems messy and insecure. They have longed for Brazil, now they long for Japan. They are drawn by the Land of the Rising Yen, and return, and finally stay.

And eventually, in thirty, forty, fifty, years, there will be a permanent colony of second, third, generation dekaseguis. Speaking Portuguese almost certainly, Maybe a Portuguese with a difference. Business and newspapers and schools are already flourishing. Doctors and dentists too. There will be Brazilian-Japanese politicians seeking votes, films, radio and TV stations. A university, who knows?

We return to see the final of the girl under-16 indoor football. Viviane powers past Xuxa to score the winning goal for Hamamatsu. The reporters from Tudo Bem and International Press scribble in their notebooks. Edson Ruffino, ex­-pro with Joinville EC, tells me about the lack of English schools in the area. Never mind Japanese, English is what we want, but not taught by a native Japanese speaker. And I think of the yen to be made...


My thanks to Hilda, Augusto and Marianne.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Ueno, Yokohama

It is just before Christmas 2003, and I am strolling around the pink light district of Ueno, Tokyo and feel invisible. The whores fail to notice me. They have no interest in my being their john. My ego takes a blow, and my vanity is broken. On my third lap I get a single offer of a hand job, a massaji, five man, 50,000, yen, US$500. Slightly dear I think. Still, manual labour is expensive here. And white trash like me goes unnoticed when the salarymen are flinging their 10,000 yen notes to the wind. The company has done surprisingly well. And there is a Xmas bonus.

They do not see me,
Painted ladies of the night.
For he has few yen.

And such is life in Japan. Two coffees, tiny piece of apple pie, US$15. Anything that involves skilled labour will cost. An overhaul at the hairdressers sets you back US$200. But I swim in the subsidized local pool for US$3 and exercise on the sophisticated machines in the subsidized training room for US$2. At the university my health care is free.

And how the high yen attracts. Like bees round a honeypot. Casual labour will pay nearly US$10 an hour. Barmaids from North Carolina, kebab sellers from North London, club hostesses from Australia, systems analysts from India, dekaseguis from Lima and Sao Paulo, English teachers from all over. Many small importers. Export to Japan, so we can pay for their hi-tech exports. Jam, cheese, beer, mangoes, wine, rice, rice, rice. Save for a year, two. Invest, take it easy, chill out in India or Brazil.

Yesterday I was in Yokohama, where Japan first opened up. After 200 years of virtual seclusion, with only a limited amount of trading with the Dutch off Nagasaki, Captain Perry’s black ships from the US, black because of their smoke, forced the shogunate to open up, and in 1859 part of Yokohama became the Foreign Settlement, the only place in Japan where foreigners could trade. The Europeans, mainly Brits, lived up the hill, in Yamate, the Bluff, and the Chinese below. They had their own enclosed community with butchers, bakers, candlestickmakers, brewery, tailors, cricket and horse racing. I visit their graves in the foreigners’ cemetery: Hall, Anglin, Angus, Diack. Many Scots.

Perry’s black ships came.
Yamate became the Bluff.
And still is today.

Up on the Bluff little seems to have changed. Some of the old houses survive as teashops or museums. English, American, French housewives, an occasional househusband, fetch their children from the international schools. Two mothers from Bangalore discuss their problem in finding apartments. Down the hill on Motomachi, the smart shopping street, the French, Italian and British goods are still on sale, but these days imported, not produced locally. Up the road there is the American forces personnel compound, for the US still completely controls Japanese defence.

In the Cemetery there is of course the War Memorial. A Capt. Hawkins. Could he have been a relation of my grandfather? No memorial to the Second World War. All the foreigners had left by then. But this struck me as earlier in the day I had visited the Maritime Museum. Not a single mention of the Pacific War. It seemed the Yokohama shipyards had built just merchant vessels and luxury liners, and the years between 1941 and 1945 were a blank. And information inside the training vessel, the Nippon Maru, now in dry dock, delicately avoids the fact that it was used in the war.

And in Tokyo where are the war memorials? I first went there in 1996, just after visiting the concentration camps, cemeteries and memorials in Poland and was struck by their absence in Japan. It seemed a case of starting again, completely obliterating the past. Never again shall we devote all our energies to military expansion. The generals were totally discredited and still are. Japan is still, semi-officially, a pacifist country. Only a handful of nationalists would like Japan to reequip.

In Yokohama Bay,
Where are the ships of war?
A nation forgets.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Shimokitazawa

They are even a pleasant sensation at first. A slight trembling, a slight swaying, a rocking, a lullaby. They wake me up in the middle of the night. I fall back asleep. They gently shake me out of my snores in the early morning. The Sunday morning after Nigata the after tremors shook the partition dividing my balcony from my neighbour’s. This was going to be it. But it wasn’t. And the Wednesday after the Computer Room began to shake. But the power didn’t even go off. And the nearby trains continued to ply their way...

At the time of the Nigata earthquake I was on a train. I thought the line was getting a bit rough, but it was the quake, 6.8 on the Richter Scale, the strongest since the 1995 Kobe disaster. The last earthquake in Tokyo was in 1923. Another is long overdue...
As the sun rises
The tremors awaken me.
Is this the big one?
And such is the danger of life in Tokyo. Urban violence hardly exists. The Yakuza keeps to its well-defined areas of prostitution and people smuggling. Many people carry wads of ten thousand yen (US$100) notes. Nobody uses credit cards or cheques. Handbags are left unzipped, doors unlocked. Small children ride the trains alone. The crowds pose no menace, no violence. And the white-gloved attendants so delicately shove you into the railway carriage. The drunken stumbling salarymen on Friday night are the most benign of drunks. Squads of workers clean up the dangerous slippery autumn leaves. Gangs of stray mongrels are not seen. All dogs must be licensed. In a month I have seen only one dog turd on the pavement. And that had disappeared the next morning!


I make my way to the nearby shopping area of Shimokitazawa. Narrow pedestrian streets, traditional Japanese lights, A group of retro 1960s and 70s shops. At Brand New Rocket angular stereo systems, red and blue plastic chairs, lean square Bauhaus sofas, formica tables, rectangular fireplace clocks made in China. Black and white televisions with tiny screens, what a relief are those fuzzy images from the flatiron hi-tech widescreens! Dinky, Corgi and Matchbox cars. I remember them well.

At Chicago the kids choose their weekend garb. Velvet or corduroy? Green, brown or crimson? Striped trousers? A top hat? Was that the purple velvet jacket I could never afford in 1973?

Record shops; vinyl is big here. Present shops, the Halloween decorations are replaced by Father Xmas. Naughty Pooch selling dog clothes. Western Suteki, waiters with their cowboy hats, next to Grand Cru and Rain Forest. Near the station chain drugstores, 100 yen shops and pachinko parlours. Under the railway arches a jazz band plays from Cabaret. Over the railway line the designer griffes, tea shops, tiny local restaurants seating five or six people behind their cloth curtains and paper windows.
A geisha passes.
Going to a rendezvous?
No, she works in a shop.

All is so tranquil,
Among the gorgeous shops,
And the cash tills flow.

Laughter from within,
Beyond the paper window.
Who’s drinking in there?

We eat at a sushi restaurant sitting on box stools outside. It is the end of October but 20 degrees. The small portions are presented on a variety of beautiful porcelain dishes and straw baskets, and we sip our sake from hooped cups.