Tuesday, January 18, 2005


One of the things I shall miss most about Japan is the muzak. When the university canteen closes down at three o’clock we hear For Auld Lang Syne. The Shakespeare Park in Marayama closes with the Beatles’ Yesterday. This evening I passed Ueno Zoo at twenty to five and heard Brahms’ Lullaby. Shopping streets normally play quiet jazz or pop classics to get you in the right mood to do a bit of spending. And of course at Xmas time we heard all the old favourites. Spanish restaurants are supplied with flamenco soundtracks; French restaurants play Edith Piaf non-stop; and my hotel in Kyoto had a permanent background of traditional Japanese music, and I had to listen to the same tape for six days non-stop.

On buses and trains the microphone is an essential part of the driver’s equipment. We are informed by the shrill taped female voice in Japanese about the next stop and warned to take care, then a rather deeper female voice will give the English version. Just for good measure the driver will also tell us about the next stop and also warn us about the hazards of stepping off the train or bus and tell us to “Mind the Gap”. This will all be preceded by the suitable jingles. And just as I was writing this on the bullet train the tinkling ice cream trolley passed.

In Shibuya and other station hubs we are bombarded by video screens and pop music, high-pitched screams advertising this and that, megaphones at every second shop, and the tinny electronic effects coming from the pachinko gambling parlours. Over Christmas and the New Year the right-wing party loyal wishing to restore greater powers to the Emperor kept up a monotonous commentary of “Banzai Heka Tenno”, “Long live the Emperor!’.

In the Nagasaki A-Bomb Museum there was a suitably sober background music, and the in Glover Garden, a park in the area which was the centre of European residence after Japanese ports were opened up in 1859, church music provided a suitably Christian flavour. For Nagasaki, the westernmost port of Japan, was a thriving centre of Christianity after the Jesuits, including St. Francis Xavier, went there in the middle of the 16th century, and though Christianity was officially banned from 1614 for some 250 years by the Shogunate, it survived underground and is still very active, and indeed is one of the ways in which Nagasaki is selling itself as a tourist centre.

I visit the cathedral in Urakami, to the north of Nagasaki, very near the epicentre of the A-bomb blast, which killed 75,000, and which of course completely destroyed the cathedral. I see Japanese nuns in the street. I visit the museum of Dr Nagai Takashi, who treated A-Bomb victims and studied the effects of the A-Bomb while he himself was dying of leukaemia, caused by excessive doses of radiation while screening for tuberculosis as insufficient X-ray film was available due to the war. In the five years before his death, while bedridden, he wrote a number of bestsellers, for example, Leaving These Children Behind and The Bells of Nagasaki. Like many of Nagasaki’s most prominent citizens, Nagai was also a Catholic.

When the bomb fell on 9 August 1945 he was injured but still continued working in his hospital. Three days later he returned to his destroyed home to find his wife and describes the moment in The Rosary Chain: “It was an expanse of ashes but I found her immediately. A black lump lay on the spot where the kitchen had been, the charred remains of a pelvis and spine left by the all consuming fire. A rosary with a cross was lying nearby. I scooped my wife into a scorched bucket. Her remains were still warm”.

A number of schools in Urakami were also near the epicentre. The Yamazoto Primary School is now a spruce new building with a number of memorials, including an air raid shelter, which a few of the 300 survivors out of a total of 1,500 children and staff, managed to reach.

The monument to the twenty-six Christian martyrs, crucified in 1597 by Shogun Totoyomi Hideyoshi is next to a church with two Gaudiesque towers. Nearby one can see the Fukusai-ji Temple, where the huge goddess of mercy, Kannon, is riding a giant turtle, whose belly is a temple, while children look up at her admiringly. Inside the temple I examine the offerings: the Hiroshima and Nagasaki symbol of peace, a chain of origami paper cranes; some cakes; a small bottle of sake; and some children’s toys.

But I’m told that Buddhism and its offshoot. Shinto, have no tradition of Christian charity. In Ueno Park, a kind of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, the home to Tokyo’s most important museums, many of the homeless camp in their blue canvas tents. Their number seems to be increasing. There are jobs available, but who wants to employ a middle-aged no-hoper who may have a drink problem. But today is a pleasant sunny day: clothes can be washed and dried. And there is a free lunch. A soup kitchen. And a pleasant upbeat female vocalist. And I see a large red cross.


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November 6, 2005 at 9:03 AM  
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December 27, 2005 at 5:34 PM  
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