Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dogs I've known II: Clive

Long ago and far away I spent three happy years in Wolverhampton, learning how to design things. Back in those halcyon days, a generous government would not only foot the bill for tuition, but would actually pay students a living allowance. Though it did not permit holidays on the Riviera, it was enough to live on if you weren't picky. I wasn't.
After a brief sojourn in the Halls of Residence that was terminated when the cleaners found a motorcycle engine in my sink (you had to look hard; there was a lot of other stuff in there too) I shared various scruffy old houses with an assortment of scruffy young people. Way down the Cannock Road, one such joint brought me into cohabitation with Rory, a ceramicist whose enormous talent was matched only by the eccentricity of his lifestyle. We got on just fine, going so far as to pool our meager funds to buy a 56lb sack of potatoes and thus solve all our nutrition problems more or less permanently at one stroke.
Out beyond the back of the house there was a builder's yard. We never saw the guy who owned it, but one winter he set a small, skinny dog on a rope to guard the place. It was a freezing November, with penetrating rain and blasting winds, and the poor thing had no shelter. Its pitiful whining struck a chord in Rory's kindly heart, and much against the protests of the other inhabitants of the house (I never really worked out how many there were; I was shacked up with at least one of them at the time, but I think there might have been two more) he brought the bedraggled dog in.
A lively session in the bathtub ensued, as we tried to scrape enough debris off the animal to figure out which end was which and possibly what color it was. By the time we'd hosed him down and toweled his skeletal form off, we could see that at least part of him was Collie. "Smart dogs, collies" crowed Rory, "we'll make a pet of him". We called him Clive, after Clive of India.
Seldom has an animal become so devoted to his rescuer. It was heartwarming to see Clive fill out again (Rory fed him considerably better than he fed himself) and we congratulated ourselves on the boundless good karma this humanitarian act had doubtless brought us.
It was not until he started going walkies in public, a few weeks after his rescue, that it occurred to us that something might not be quite right with Clive. Perhaps because his captors the builders had been Indians, he seemed to have an issue with anyone of darker hue. This included West Indians, real Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, nuns and in fact anyone in dark clothing - including policemen. At the sight of them, he would bare what was left of his teeth and snarl like a timber wolf, straining away on his hind legs while his potential prey nervously eyed the frayed bit of clothes line that passed for a leash.
Fellow dogs excited a different kind of passion in Clive. Having been alerted to the existence of love by his miraculous rescue, he had clearly made it his life's mission to give back to his own in a direct and physical way. The sight of any dog - male, female, huge, tiny, no matter - would bring out the Barry White in him.
One fine day in West Park, the inevitable happened. Inflamed by the allure of a well-groomed Afghan hound, all silky hair and eyelashes, Clive tore at his rope hard enough to snap it. Barely pausing to register his good fortune, he streaked towards his quarry with the clearest of intents. She (or he; we never found out, though I bet Clive did) got the message while Clive was still some way off, and tore away into the park, leaving the aggrieved owner with a bruised wrist and rope burns.
It took us an hour to find Clive, but the Afghan was still AWOL when at dusk we wisely left ahead of the duly summoned police. When we found him, he seemed to have expended his ardor and was waiting peaceably under a tree, rising only to snap at passing Bengalis.
"He's got to go" I told Rory, "he's mental. He'll have us all in the dock at this rate".
Shortly after that I graduated, left that house and moved to Bristol. Some months later, I had a call from Rory. He was in town, and we met up. It turned out that he too had sensed the city's allure, and was now living in a squat up in Frenchay. "How's Clive?" I asked.
Rory looked down for a moment, then confessed. "I took him home to my parents' place" (they lived in a high-rise in the magnificently-named Spon End district of Coventry). "I told them I was going to get some milk, and left him in the lounge".
"Eerrr...how long ago was this?"
"Six months."

Monday, August 8, 2011

America gets downgraded

We were sitting at tea today, discussing the Way of the World. This is the week when (a) Verizon workers went on strike here in Philly (b) the USA got downgraded from AAA to manky old AA+ by Standard and Poors, and (c) China resumed high-speed service on its bullet train lines. How can you join these dots to make a picture? Here goes:
Best Buy kindly send me a multi-page pamphlet every Sunday, extolling their latest wares. Ever the techno-nerd, I leaf through it to see what a gigabyte costs these days. At the back are the printers, and there we find the first link. Boy, are there ever some great printers around now. Full color, 1200 dpi, wireless, fax, scan, sing, dance - you name it, and all for $250 (plus a fortune in ink, but there you go).
How long has it been possible to buy things like this so cheaply? Not long, I assure you. When I bought my first decent color printer in 1995, it cost the present-day equivalent of $900 but struggled to give a true 180 dpi. The pictures looked all romantic and fuzzy, which is great if that's what you want, but back then you had no choice.
The home printer/scanner/fax market has exploded in the last ten years as technologies have converged, but where has the USA been in this? Nowhere. Not one US-made machine to be had. Nor mobile phones, nor PDAs, nor tablet computers, nor any of the other gadgets that have spawned like bunnies since 2000. Apple might design their stuff in California, but they sure don't make it there.
That's not to say that the USA plays no role. Oh no. We BUY the stuff. 70% of the US economy is consumer spending, and that figure is counted towards the country's GDP. (The "P" in that acronym stands for "product", or at least is supposed to).
Two weeks ago, politicians of all stripes got their knickers in a twist as they at last grasped the colossal size of the US national debt - which now has just exceeded GDP for the first time - and immediately espoused two entirely contradictory views regarding the best thing to do next.
Japan, meanwhile, has had a domestic debt (not a foreign one; they have been in surplus abroad since forever) of roughly twice GDP, and yet the world is still treating the Yen as a safe currency.
Don't worry, I'm getting to the point.
The reason the world trusts Japan more than the USA, despite the former being a radioactive financial basket case run by Larry, Curly and Moe, is that it still has exporting industries that also dominate the home market. Most of the electronics you buy in Japan is now made in China too, but by solid Japanese companies that repatriate the profits. The Japanese consumer continues to buy domestic names, partly out of conservatism and partly because they are by and large still the best products for the price, and - importantly - their government does not make it easy to buy anything else (you'll see very few Hyundais in Tokyo...)
Meanwhile, China is taking its profits and ploughing the money into infrastructure. Highways, dams, railroads and endless new buildings are springing up all over the place. Of course, they've a way to go before their infrastructure rivals that of the US, but the gap is nowhere near as wide as it was a few short years ago and ours is crumbling downwards as theirs blooms upwards.
In short, then: we have a democracy so sophisticated it achieves less in real terms than many gerontocratic dicatorships, and the world sees this. We go on strike when our benefits are threatened. We make very little, but buy an incredible amount.
They make stuff and use the proceeds to strengthen their economies. They never strike. They don't live like us, true, but then they haven't been downgraded either.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Japanese antique markets


Sakuranomiya, August 22

The dominant motif of this year’s trip is Heat. Every morning we assure each other that this is the day it breaks, and every day it isn’t. The best part of a month with no sign of rain is a new record for western Japan, and things aren’t helped by the humidity. As I type, however, the night sky is being lit up by some fine lightning, and hopes are rising that this might signal some rain. It’s been over 34 both day and night since we arrived, and in a treeless city of solid concrete this can get a bit wearing.
To a people accustomed to commenting on the weather at some length – the British are mute stoics by comparison – this has all of course been a boon. Despite the subtlety for which oriental languages are renowned there are only so many ways you can say ‘Hot, isn’t it?’ It’s not what you say, however, but the head-cocked, eyes-screwed-up expression of brave suffering with which you say it. The usual American response – ‘you call this hot?’ – isn’t considered good manners.
The TV is on, and it’s the usual mix of idiotic quiz shows, sports and lurid murders. The current one features a boy whose grandfather told him to study harder and paid for such insolence with his life. ‘You kill him, then?’ asked the cops, when they turned up to see what the fuss was. ‘Yup, no mistake there’ he chirped, blessedly unaware of the hideous breach of filial piety this constituted. A long line of TV commentators have endeavored to reassure the population that he will be brought to realize the error of his ways. He used a bat, by the way, guns being illegal here.
We were at a temple market yesterday. The attitude of the Japanese to evidence of their own past is an interesting aspect of their society. Confucianism dictates respect for ancestors, and most people make an effort to manifest it at home. Portraits of parents and grandparents decorate many living rooms, staring down in stern monochrome from their perches directly under the ceiling. Hillsides are covered with forests of finely maintained tombs of polished granite, and most people are still fairly conscientious about visiting them. Simple mathematics, however, suggests that if all ancestors were worshipped equally Japan would by now be almost entirely covered with tombs. That it is not reflects a special aspect of Japanese Confucianism, a kind of statute of limitations on piety under which you are not required to honor anyone you can’t actually remember. In practice, this means the oldest portrait in the house will be of the grandparents of the oldest person there. In a country where people routinely make it to 100 and beyond this can still take things back close to the dawn of photography, but in most cases you aren’t talking about anyone who was around before the 20th century.
The Japanese are not ones to dwell on the recent past, and with their past it’s perhaps not surprising. Traditional crafts and tales of yore are very popular, but of course none of that concerns one personally. When an ancestral house comes up empty, on the other hand, it’s usual for the family to strip it to the walls if not demolish it entirely. The odd trinket might be kept for sentimental reasons, but it’s rare for anything more substantial to stay on in the homes of the descendents. Furniture, clothes and most other stuff heads straight to the landfill.
This means that Japanese antiques are relatively cheap, and especially those more personal things like clothes, which appear in huge mounds at temple markets. Ten bucks will get you a perfectly serviceable summer kimono, and if you’re prepared to fork out fifty or so you can get a spectacular formal job in heavily-embroidered silk, complete with sash. A bit of cleaning and it’s good as new. Japanese ladies would rather walk down the street buck-naked then be seen in a second-hand kimono, however, so apart from visiting foreigners business should on the face of it be somewhat slow. The flocks of muttering old grannies who nevertheless descend on the kimono piles are not buying them to wear. Quilt making is a kind of mania in Japan these days, and not surprisingly when so much fine material is to be had so cheap. The combination of Pennsylvania Dutch techniques and silk kimono cloth can be a bit odd – the sartorial equivalent of the Curry Doughnut, one of those wacky but effective Japanese combinations of foreign idioms that no foreigner could have conceived – but I have seen some very fine work indeed, and hats off to the ladies.

Radio in Japan


Driving my little delivery truck around Shikoku in the afternoons I would sometimes search for some music on the radio, but never with any luck; there were five channels with clear reception, but all were filled from morning to night with endless chat. Private local stations, the national channels, AM, FM and probably shortwave too, it made no difference; not a tinkle, not a note, just egotistical bores chuntering on at each other, apparently unaware that the mikes were switched on. What did they have to talk about? Absolutely nothing, as it turned out, but that didn't stop them. Here is a sampler of dialogues from various spots on the dial. First off, an afternoon 'information variety' programme (these descriptions are all from Japanese newspapers, and highly misleading. I once tuned in to a ballsachingly boring drone which turned out to be about 'Onions and how to deal with them' though its title was 'Action Focus').
"Hellloooo! This is Kobayashi!"
"Helllooo! This is Ueda! Welcome to 'Exciting Afternoon'!"
"Mr Kobayashi!"
"Yes?"
"It's getting really hot these days, isn't it?"
"Yes it is, isn't it?"
"We can say it's pretty well summer now, can't we?"
"Yes, that's right, isn't it?"
"Mmmmmm...there is a lot of really good food we can eat in summer, isn't there?" 
"Yes there is, isn't there? You mean things like cold noodles, don't you?"
"Cold noodles, yes! I really want to eat cold noodles, you know!"
"Because it's summer?"
"Mmmmmm, yes, that's right, isn't it?"
At this point the truck lurches and swerves as I punch the station switch, swiping at the dashboard like Mike Tyson. There's a baseball game on the next channel...
"Live from the Tokyo Dome, this is the Giants versus the Tigers and we're at the bottom of the sixth with Kuwata at bat. He's had two strikes and has two runners on base!" (So far so good).
"Our guest this afternoon is the former pitcher for the Giants, Mister Sasaki. Mister Sasaki!"
"Yes!"
"Kuwata is really looking good today, isn't he?"
"Yes he is, isn't he?"
"Why do you think that is, Mr. Sasaki?"
"Well; it could possibly be because he's very fit, don't you think?"
"Aaaahhhh...that's right, isn't it? Because he’s fit....I see! He certainly is very fit, isn't he?"
"Yes he is. That's probably because he's been training, isn't it?"
"Aaahhhh.. is that right? Now I understand! He's been training, eh? No wonder he looks fit. Thank you mister Sasaki! That was Mr. Sasaki, the former pitcher with the Giants! He said that Kuwata is fit, because he’s been training!"
Oh lord. What's on NHK, the Japanese government station?
"Here on 'Traditional Japanese Culture Hour' we are going to receive the honor of learned comment from Miss Suzuki, who is the honorable holder and thirty-four-time winner of the sublime All-Japan Traditional Flower-Arranging Championship trophy. Good afternoon Suzuki - teacher."
"Good afternoon"
"Please honor us with your comment this afternoon."
"Please tolerate my ignorant presence on your famous program."
"First of all: there are many kinds of flower arranging, aren't there."
"Yes there are, aren't there."
"And you have done many of them yourself, haven't you?"
"Well I have, haven't I, but of course any miserable effort of mine has been but a pale imitation of the illustrious work of my great teacher Professor Harada."
"Aaahhh....Professor Harada. He was a great flower-arranger, wasn't he?"
"Yes he was, wasn't he?"
A brief pause while I extricate the truck from a ditch. My eyes glazed over and I dozed off at the wheel. We'd better try something a bit racier; there's a 'popular variety' show on the local AM channel.
"Ok, let's get on the phones! We're calling Takamatsu City today!"
Beep - boop - beep - bip - boop - beep -boop - bip - bip!
Neeeeeeeep. Neeeeeeep. Neeeeeeep. K'chack!
"Hello?"
"Hello! This is Crazy Takahashi from Radio Amazing!"
"Oooooh! Mr. Crazy! Gosh! Ooooohhh!"
"Please honor us with your participation!"
"Please honor me with your valuable air-time!"
"What are you doing right now, Mrs. Ueda?"
"Well, I was just cleaning my bathroom, wasn't I?"
"Were you? Aaahhh... I see!  What are you going to do today?"
"Well, I'm going to finish cleaning the bathroom, then I really ought to go shopping, don't you think?"
"Yes! That's right, isn't it! You know, it's really hot outside today, so be careful!"
"Aaaahhh.. is it? It must be summer, then!"
"Yes, many people are saying it's summer, aren't they?"
"Oh really, are they?"
"Yes they are!"
" Mmmmm. OK, then, I'll be careful outside!"
"Thank you!"
"Thank you!"
We used to have this stuff on British local radio too, interspersed with records by the likes of Val Doonican and Engelbert Humperdinck. A whole generation of punk rockers, bikers and heroin addicts emerged as a direct result. On Japanese daytime radio, however, there are no records. There are also no solo sports commentators; a minimum of two are needed to generate the necessary level of harmony for true understanding of complex, arcane events like Wimbledon and when it comes to really hard-to-grasp sports like Sumo, which has one rule, four or five experts team up to ensure the sound man has no chance to pause for breath. The goal is never to have a second’s silence, and with essentially soundless sports like golf this means the commentators have to drone on uninterrupted for the entire afternoon. Given a match featuring the national team, though - any sport, from soccer to marbles - they wheel on the Mad Bloke. The Mad Bloke specialises in adding as much extra tension and excitement to the brave efforts of the Japanese team by going mental. In the final stages of the marathon, game, match or whatever, his already terse and nervous delivery speeds up as the clock winds down. Slobbering into the mike, he eventually abandons sentence structure and even words themselves in his frenzy. Here is the Mad Bloke in the last minute of a basketball match, Japan versus Somewhere :
“One minute! One minute! Come on Japan! Two points! Fifty seconds! Two points! Come on Japan! Gold medal! Forty seconds! COME ON JAPAN! The Somewhere team shoots! NOOO!!! Four points! Come on Japan! Thirty seconds! Come on Japan! Four points! Not impossible! Twenty seconds! Come on Japan! JAPAN! PERSEVERE! DO YOUR BEST! COME ON! PLEASE! AAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!
The Mad Bloke sadly never kills himself, though from the volume of the screaming you’d think he was trying to, possibly with a fruit knife. It amazes me that none of the other people in the commentary box, whose ears must be ringing as if at a Motorhead concert, lean over and whack him with a bat.
A sporting moment. In the little factory where I spent a year, all radios were tuned to the High School Baseball Championship from Koshien stadium near Kobe. This is a genuine, 24-karat national tradition, dating from 1915 (as opposed to the soccer World Cup – during which the Mad Bloke herniated himself – which is a new and horribly popular phenomenon). Teams from high schools all over the land vie to scoop the trophy; all wear white outfits, shave their heads, bow to the other team and generally behave like ideal citizens. They then play desperate baseball, stealing bases, running like Carl Lewis and swinging at anything. The victors are magnanimous, the losers blub like five-year-olds, and everyone scoops up a handful of dirt as a souvenir. What could be wrong with all this? Well, one year I got to watch the opening ceremony. The teams file into the stadium in square formation, do a lap and then line up in regiments below a podium. A strapping young lad with the obligatory kiwi-fruit haircut then takes the stand, and, with one arm raised at a steep angle, recites the code of honor and ethical play to the hushed hordes. Watching this, I suddenly got a strong jolt of déjà vu. It took a moment, but eventually I got it. The marching, the speech, the salute - it’s a carbon copy of the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games. The ones Hitler organised.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pachinko


At various times in Japan I was taken to play Pachinko. This seemingly innocuous game of chance is a national pastime, along with getting drunk and falling asleep in front of the TV, and the palaces constructed to house its machines are truly breathtaking examples of....I don't know, I can't tell you because there's nothing else on Earth like them. Huge edifices of glass and chrome, they resemble, with their myriad flashing neon tubes and sparkling globes nothing more than giant Wurlitzers, blazing with pulsating light against the glowing night sky. Pachinko parlors are often three or four stories high and contain not only the machine hall but accommodation for their fairly extensive staff, along with other offices and rooms. Those built on cheaper land on the outskirts of towns also have vast parking lots, and there are often thus several acres of land devoted to a game whose actual playing space is ten square feet. Some of the exteriors have themes, like 'Space Travel' or 'The Wild West' but they are all visually hideous in a way that only modern materials and electricity wastage on a grand scale can achieve. Driving through the countryside at night, a big parlor's lights can be detected as a multi-colored glow on the horizon from miles away, like a cruise liner exclusively for retiree carnival workers, with some establishments even playing searchlights onto the underside of the clouds to guide the witless to the fount. Pachinko, as you all know, is basically vertical bagatelle. It is played on a machine with a flat screen inches from the player's nose, behind which is a gaily-printed board studded with thousands of pins. Japanese people call it 'pinball', but unlike that game there are no flippers with which one might influence the course of the ball. Through the forest of pins tumble little stainless steel balls that bounce around a bit before falling into oblivion at the bottom. Lurking here and there on the playfield are little trap doors that occasionally pop open for a brief period and allow any ball which enters to win a prize - more balls. The player sits bolt upright like an attentive zombie in front of the machine, controlling the inflow of balls with a small dial to his right. That's it. The machines are arranged in long rows and people sit back-to-back in the narrow alleyways between them. Technically, you can't win anything more exciting than snacks or soft toys, but - and here’s a curious thing - near every parlor there is a little hole in the wall behind which is a generous person who will buy your hard-earned trinkets for huge wads of cash. Don’t do the obvious thing and buy something from a toy shop in the hope that you’ll make a profit on it at the hole in the wall, though - for some reason, they only buy things won at Pachinko. Isn’t that odd? Gambling on Pachinko is actually illegal, so these two businesses can surely not be connected.
The atmosphere in a Pachinko parlor is dominated by noise and light; there is the rushing and clattering of the machines themselves, a constant blare of music (often stirring military marches when the DJ senses people are tiring), bells and sirens that indicate wins and the frenzied yelling of announcers over ultra-loud PA systems. The announcers keep up a running commentary on who is winning, what time it is and so on. It's truly deafening, and this assault on the ears is matched by the garish, multi-coloured neon lighting that sears the eyeballs even as you walk past outside. Pachinko parlors are hot and cramped, everyone smokes like crazy and even a few minutes' play can lose you considerable sums of money. For anyone interested in trying it, the overall effect can be simulated by standing in a foundry in mid-shift with lit cigarettes up your nose while someone shines car headlights into your eyes and you feed a stream of coins into the toilet. It is occasionally possible to win money at Pachinko, and 'professional' players exist in sufficient numbers for specialist magazines to be published describing new machines and parlors, but the fact that the owners all drive the ubiquitous Mercedes and are able to pay the overheads (I once tried to count the neon tubes in a single parlor; I gave up at 800 when I couldn't see properly any more, which at 60 watts a tube lit ten hours a day means a heck of an electricity bill) suggests it's a mug's game. At the end of each day, after the doors close, professional pin-benders open the fronts of the machines and carefully bend the pins in such a way that the machine will perform differently the next day. This makes it impossible for a ‘pro’ to home in again on a 'winning' machine.
A mind-numbing pastime for morons - why, then, is Pachinko so riotously popular? Whole families regularly go to play, each member sitting numbed in their own little cocoon of shattering noise and foul air gazing glassily at the screen while throwing away hard-earned cash. Conversation is impossible, and what little communication there is must be carried out by hand signals. Outside, in the parking lot, preschool children are regularly abducted or suffocate playing with the heater controls in their parents' cars; sometimes they've been left at home unsupervised (shut in a drawer, in one recent case, which led to suffocation) and burn their wooden homes down. Every year brings another list of child deaths and domestic accidents that happened while the victims' guardians were out playing Pachinko, and yet the parlors grow ever bigger and more grandiose. "Gambling", said one of my Pachinko-playing acquaintances, "Japanese people love to gamble."
Ask the average Japanese adult if they play pachinko and they'll either wrinkle up their noses in distaste or grudgingly admit 'sometimes'. A great many do, however - between a quarter and a third of the population according to a recent newspaper
survey - and large groups of would-be zombies queue up, waiting for parlors to open in the mornings. There are many theories, the favorite being release of stress (the standard Japanese excuse for moronic behavior, which sounds much nicer than 'he's an irresponsible jerk with a mental age of nine') by self-hypnosis with flashing lights and so on, but if you ask me it is just a refuge for poor fools who don't want to be left alone with their thoughts (or families) for even a minute. Like other bizarre aspects of Japanese life (the matt black buses and trucks, for example, that are garlanded with Imperial flags and driven slowly round crowded inner-city areas while the fascist bastards inside yell messages of race hatred and mortal devotion to the emperor at volumes above the pain threshold through speakers on the roof utterly unmolested by the police, one of whom once gave me a sanctimonious lecture about freedom of speech when I complained that they were rattling my windows) pachinko is accepted as normal simply because no-one has ever thought to question it. Social commentators in the media, of course, are far too busy criticizing the West for its frivolity and wasting of natural resources.
One last thing about Pachinko. A few years back the North Koreans launched a ballistic missile clean over Japan into the Pacific. The hilariously incompetent Japanese air defense forces were caught on the hop, and the defense minister wasn’t told until the following day. North Korean TV, meanwhile, was regaling the masses with footage of the liftoff backed with commentary by the mad quacking woman who announces each new triumph of the Workers’ Paradise. At the same time, their representatives reassured the world that what they’d seen was actually a satellite launch (They said, get this, that they’d launched a satellite to broadcast patriotic songs. NASA have been unable to find it, and the fact that the songs are being broadcast intermittently on long wave suggests that someone may not be telling the entire truth. The model the North Koreans proudly displayed on the TV news was of a football painted white to represent the Earth surrounded by a ring of bent coat hanger wire, along which a tin can painted silver progressed in a series of jerks. They’d presumably spent all their money on the rocket.) It’s the last outpost of Stalinism, is North Korea, a darkened land of third-generation indoctrination run by a cunning elite who skillfully play the nuclear blackmail card to get food and cash out of the West, while denouncing their benefactors in bloodcurdling terms and letting their own population starve. Many Japanese have a basic loathing of communism anyway, and fear North Korea as an unstable geopolitical time bomb. All the odder, then, that they go and play Pachinko at all - because a large proportion of the parlors are run by North Koreans, who channel the profits directly back to their homeland.

Bicycles in Japan

Everyone cycles in Japan; unlike in Britain, not only is it permitted to ride on the sidewalk, you'd be mad to try anything else. Another big bonus is that no-one has to wear those hilarious helmets that look like upended bidets (though the Mormon missionaries who infest some districts like a bad smell do so voluntarily, a real public service as it makes them easier to spot and avoid). Bicycles are everywhere, in ranks, lines, rows and every other possible formation, and often just scattered around in heaps like an upended box of coat hangers. Though they are not cheap, people there treat bicycles like disposable tissues, and as soon as a fault develops the offending machine is often abandoned somewhere discreet like a park, to be picked up after a suitable interval by scavenging trucks and crushed for scrap.
As a kid, I was a real bicycle buff. When I was twelve my father bought me a second-hand Raleigh, and explained that there would never be another so I'd better learn how to fix it. Being unable, then as now, to keep from interfering with perfectly healthy machinery - a trait which has furnished an impressive collection of scars at odd points on my body with which to impress educationally subnormal girls at parties - I fell on the hapless machine and spent years constantly dismantling it in search of largely imaginary faults. In this way, I picked up a rudimentary knowledge of engineering largely by trial and error until I was able to build and rebuild entire bikes for my friends with an acceptably low injury rate, and progress to more gratifyingly complex motorcycles and cars. The engineering in even cheap bicycles is invariably good; they are minimalist devices, with no more parts than necessary, and rely on high-quality materials and standards of assembly for their remarkable durability. The Orient has long been largely pedal-powered, and during World War II the Japanese used bikes to beat the Europeans to all the prize spots in Southeast Asia (an act of military brilliance that the pedestrian British infantry nevertheless viewed as cheating). In the years of reconstruction after 1945, a time for which many older Japanese people have a perverse kind of dewy-eyed nostalgia, the bicycle was a symbol of revival; one step above walking and thus one step in the right direction. The first Honda motorbike was a standard model gents' tourer with a bolt-on motor that sounded like a cat sneezing and couldn't have pulled a chicken off its nest. (It must have been a source of endless merriment at the Triumph factory in Birmingham). With this long history of cycling, their alleged commitment to the environment and their oft-professed pride in simplicity, you'd think people in Japan would still treasure bikes as sturdy friends. Not so. Japanese rivers, lakes and swamps all rest on a solid bed of serviceable bicycles, and they can also be found up trees, on mountain tops and in the foundations of office blocks. In Shikoku, there is a canyon full almost to the brim with dead ones, and railway stations regularly have to deal with hundreds of them abandoned in the cycle park by absent-minded owners who, in the throes of Baroque hangovers, forget they own a bicycle at all and just go and buy another one. This lackadaisical attitude extends to scooters and motorbikes, too; along the riverbanks of Osaka lie hundreds of dumped ones, some stolen by juvenile delinquents and abandoned, others just thrown away. Even those that no longer run are still complete, with hundreds of parts and assemblies in good-as-new condition that in other countries would be sold to DIY buffs by used-part dealers. In Japan, however, such a trade would not work, as the technical knowledge to fix anything more complex than a light bulb is not a feature of their education, formal or otherwise.
Incidentally, you can't take bicycles on trains in Japan any more, just like in Britain, unless you take the wheels off and put it all in a giant bag which you can then use to stab people.

A Japanese funeral


My father-in-law died some years back; not unexpectedly, as he had lived a bachelor life for his final twenty years on a strict diet of meat, booze and nicotine, but unwelcome nonetheless. My wife being an only child, she and I automatically became the Chief Mourners.
The relatives assembled. He died in hospital; no fuss, no pain, the numbers just got smaller and off he went. There was a small amount of dignified sniffling from one or two ladies, but nothing unseemly. There was, however, work to do. First things first: the hospital recommended a funeral company, whose unctuous representative turned up suspiciously quickly. It being thought tasteless to discuss such matters at such a time, we were not informed exactly how much everything would cost, but the best possible service was assured.
The body was suitably dolled up and delivered to the house, where we were busy laying on the beer and peanuts for the wake. A special bed was laid out for the occasion, and a rented futon of spectacular gaudiness covered all but his head, which was frozen with dry ice to keep him fresh and perky.
My father-in-law had a simple rule in his house: if he could remember a particular object being new, then it was technically still new and thus did not need cleaning. He had a very long memory. His predilection for fried food, coupled with a cigarette habit which must have earned him Christmas cards from Japan Tobacco Inc., and latterly the presence of an incontinent dog (a large, mad Siberian Husky puppy whose testicles were connected to the centre of its brain with a very thick cable, and who celebrated the announcement of walkies each day by pissing with joy in random directions) had lent the place a certain atmosphere. He ran his own business for years, not that he ever got rich, and as owner of a shop was the target for profligate gift giving. He attended the weddings and funerals of all his employees, their friends and relatives, and, if the captions on the gift wrappers were any guide, a number of total strangers, returning from each laden down with further gifts. Ties, tea sets, coffee makers, towels – millions of towels – luggage, commemorative books and slews of electrical doodads – all went unopened into the numerous wardrobes upstairs that divorce had handily vacated. When they realized this stuff was never to be looked at again, the hordes of mice who lived in the walls and ceilings phoned their relatives to come on over for a gnaw-in. By the time he died and the place had to be tarted up in a hurry for the wake things had got to the stage where you didn’t dare lean on any surface lest warm water and spoon handles be required to separate you again. We cranked up the incense a bit to mask the fragrance of the dog, and spent an afternoon scraping the stalactites of congealed fat off the kitchen ceiling. Needn’t have bothered, it turned out, at least as far as his surviving brother was concerned, as his first comment on arrival was how clean the place was compared to his own.
The priest arrived. This was the neighborhood man, who rolled up on his ladies’ bicycle (Buddhist priests start out on bicycles and graduate to large motor scooters, which they ride in a manner that suggests they’ve already checked and confirmed that they qualify for heaven). He hummed and hawed a bit at the body in its casket, then set out a bit more incense and began the droning. The liturgy of Japanese Buddhism in most of its various flavors relies heavily on droning for effect. Reading from a little book of scripture, the priest chants in measured phrases at a sprightly pace, each lungful delivered in a sonorous monotone punctuated at the end by a cheeky little lift. Every ten phrases or so, he reaches out one gorgeously clad sleeve and pings a little bell. It used to go on for hours, but nowadays the TV generation likes things a bit snappier, so ten or fifteen minutes is about the limit, after which he cleared off for the night.
You’re supposed to sit up the whole night, but few do any more. After some fairly cheerful drinking and gossiping around the body, everyone shoved off and we bedded down, leaving a candle burning downstairs in case the departed came back to life and wanted to go for a pee.
Come the morning and all was business. The funeral company man turned up bright and early to top up the dry ice and take some details for the shindig itself. A photograph had to be found for display the service, and I insisted on one in which he looked suitably amiable. (Finding one was no simple task, as there seems to be some unwritten Japanese law that when a picture is taken, all men present must scowl like demons. In the picture taken at a formal dinner to mark our wedding, more or less the whole family is there. My leg was in plaster at the time, so I couldn’t obey the photographer’s injunctions concerning the exact correct seating position – buttocks clenched, knees welded together and tight fists poised on the thighs – and to everyone’s dismay both my wife-to-be and I seemed to think it appropriate to smile. In the resulting picture we thus stand out a bit; two cheerful young souls surrounded by three rows of gargoyles apparently in various stages of chagrin, rage and constipation).
Various relatives drifted in and sat around making odd comments about nothing until the time came to load him up and take him down to the temple. He couldn’t just go as he was, though. First he had to be dressed – selected relatives getting to put socks on his feet – and placed in the coffin, again by various guests. Certain objects were then put in there with him to jolly up the interior; a photograph or two of happier times, a car brochure (this from the son of a distant relative who remembered how much my father-in-law liked cars) and his golf gloves. The funeral company man reminded us that certain objects could sadly not be consigned with the deceased, including live ammunition, spray cans or explosives of any kind. I’d give a lot to hear how they came to have to issue that particular warning.
The job of Master of Ceremonies was then handed back to the priest, who called each first-degree mourner up to administer final refreshment in the form of water dripped from a green leaf onto the frozen lips of the corpse. Things were getting a bit odd for my taste by this time, and I was doing my best to stay out of it. The coffin was then lined by everyone with flowers laid on for the purpose (‘Use lots of flowers! We have plenty!’ beamed the funeral company man) and the lid was shut, a little window over his face preserving the opportunity for last glimpses for anyone who turned up late.
At the temple we all milled around outside a bit, with the men smoking furiously in anticipation of the coming ordeal (thirty minutes of abstention). Inside a room next door to the temple itself, the funeral company had set up a large carved wooden altar at the far end, in the middle of which the coffin was stashed under a field of carefully-priced (and, it turned out, mostly plastic) flowers. Wreaths bearing the names of the mourning households were hung from the walls - carefully spaced to maximize the effect, as there weren’t many - and one or two sallow youths in black tuxedos acted as ushers. When everyone had shuffled in and sat down there was another half-hour drone-a-thon from the priest while each mourner in turn (and in order of seniority, us first) shuffled up to burn some incense. At the top of the altar was a hastily printed enlargement of my father-in-law’s picture, and below it a wooden tablet on which was inscribed his new name. His new name? When you die, in this particular version of Japanese Buddhism, you must receive a new name. This is for use in heaven. Heaven? There’s a heaven in Buddhism? New one on me, too. Turns out there is, at least in Japan. They’re a bit vague about it, referring to ‘this world’ and ‘that world’, but it seems that there definitely is another place, and it’s a bit classy so your own name won’t do at all. As your new name has to serve you for eternity, it follows that it ought to be a good one. The priest, who for some reason knows which names are best, will be happy to sit down and think of a really nice one for your treasured relative. For a price. Now, as we all know, certain Chinese characters have particularly auspicious meanings. If you’d like the dear departed’s new name to feature one or more of these special ones, it can perhaps be done. At a larger price. (My wife’s uncle Yasumasa was a bit of a rogue, with a taste for the good life, so when he died his new name was a real beauty. It cost the best part of a million yen, or five thousand pounds at the time. I hope he enjoys using it, though knowing him as we did it seems unlikely he’s anywhere within telephoning distance of heaven. When his creditors subsequently began to emerge and claim his entire estate it turned out he owned nothing at all. I suppose whoever is in charge in ‘that world’ must by now have sent the lads round to reclaim the name after the check bounced).
With the service over, it was into the cars and off to the crematorium. This turned out to be a squat, concrete block in the middle of the tomb yard of another temple some way off. We stood around in the bleak little building while the stove was cranked up and all was readied. As the coffin was trundled into the flames the priest, rather unnecessarily I thought, reminded us that this was the last time we’d see the departed. Alas, this turned out not to be true. After some time and one or two peeks into the sight glass by the bored-looking crematorium operators, the slab was pulled out again. Steaming away, there lay a toasted but reasonably complete skeleton. The mourners all crowded round to get a good view. “Ah yes”, said the priest, pointing, “the skull has exploded. That normally happens”. Everyone nodded and frowned in concentration as he picked up a large pair of chopsticks and started to poke about among the fragments, commenting on the discoloration of the cancerous bones. “Here it is” he announced finally, and propped up one of the bones for all to see (one of the uppermost vertebrae, I think). He tapped it with a chopstick. “You can see quite clearly the figure of the seated Buddha. This is an unusually well-defined one”.
This was getting a bit too much like Voodoo for a nice boy like me, so I left them to it (everyone took turns, I later learned, to load the bones into an urn with the chopsticks).
Outside in the sunshine, my father-in-law’s older brother was perched on a tomb like a little gnome, merrily puffing away on his 379th cigarette of the day.
“Not going in, then?” I asked.
“You won’t catch me in a place like that” he grinned. “Depresses me something terrible”.
I pointed to his gasper.
“They won’t let you smoke in there, either, eh?”
“I’ll tell you something.” He pointed a bony finger at the still-smoking chimney. “People say he died because he smoked and that’s why he got lung cancer, but that’s a load of rubbish. People who are going to get cancer are going to get it, no matter what they do. I’ve smoked seventy a day since I was fifteen and I’m fine. Doctors say they can’t find a thing wrong with me, and I’m eighty-five. He was going to get cancer anyway. Not suprising he died.”
Errr…alright then. I felt it better to change the subject, and figuring I had nothing to lose asked a question few Japanese would dare to.
“What did you do in the war?”
He beamed. “Me? I was in China. It was excellent. I was buying horses for the Imperial Army. I’d go and buy horses off the Chinks for a few sen each and sell them on to cavalry officers. Time of my life. You could get women for almost nothing – the army laid them on for the troops. Lots of food and tobacco, too, right up to the end. We had a fine old time”.
I confess I was beginning to like him. With my interest in the war and his apparent willingness to talk about it I could have stayed and chatted all day but frantic flippering from the doorway of the crematorium suggested my presence was required. The last bits and pieces had all been swept up with a brush and pan, and a final drone had accompanied the sealing of the urn, so this bit was finished. We all piled into the cars again and tooled round to yet another temple where my father-in-law’s bones were poured into the base of the family tomb to join those of various ancestors. Then it was back to the room with the altar for a feast and extensive drinking, while his digitally retouched photo gazed down on us from the top of the flower-bedecked edifice.
Well, the long day drew to an end and that was that. Or was it?
“We were lucky”, my missus told me, “The priest agreed to combine the seventh-day memorial service with the funeral so we don’t have to do it next week. There’s nothing now until the 49th day”.
Sure enough, one month and nineteen days later everyone reassembled at the temple and a drone was performed. The priest, who had some time to waste before his next appointment, then treated us to a rambling sermon which started out as an advertisement for his particular sect (“Some other sects I could mention believe in more frequent memorial services, but we are progressive and don’t think any more than this is necessary”) but went on to cover various themes such as the recent poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway (“In times like these, where such terrible things are happening all around us, it is reassuring to know” etc.) and ended up with a thrilling update on the state of his lumbago (“Riding a bicycle as I do is, I think, the best way to get around but my lower back hurts dreadfully sometimes”).
“Remind me”, I asked my wife as we tucked into yet another communal lunch, “What’s the point here?”
“The departed soul hasn’t actually departed. It’s still present. We have just prayed for it to leave and go to the other world.”
“Why didn’t he bugger off after the funeral?”
“He needed to see that we are alright and that we are doing everything properly”.
“Right…so that’s it, then?”
“Until next year”.
Sure enough, one year later we did it all again. And again a year after that. When the seventh anniversary comes around, we’re supposed to have another shindig, and if we’re really devout it should go on at gradually expanding intervals until, wait for it, forty-nine years after my father-in-law died. I will be 85 by then, and what with one thing and another I haven’t booked the hall yet.