Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

65 years 13 October, 2010

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 3:02 pm
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I was born not long after the war and its after-effects reverberated through my childhood. Boys’ comics were full of brave British soldiers battling nasty Germans shouting “donner und blitzen!” (although I preferred spacy stuff like Dan Dare), my parents got nervous at the sound of the siren from a nearby airfield, friends would mutter in the corner of the playground about fiendish “torture” practiced by evil Germans or Japanese and distant mushroom clouds were a regular item in my dreams for some years. But some 580,000 Japanese civilians, and more than 2 million soldiers died in that war – far more than for the UK or USA, if not coming up to Russia or Germany ( Wikipedia ) and most Japanese of that generation have terrible memories of the war.

The last couple of years, NHK, the national TV network, have made a project of interviewing eyewitnesses to build an archive of war experiences while they still can. Many Japanese soldiers died in the most horrific circumstances, with little support from central command beyond exhortations to rely on their “samurai spirit”. Most older Japanese have strong anti-war opinions, and I think it would be fair to regard the civilian population as co-victims, along with many fellow-Asians, of the militarism that gripped the country in the early 20th century – a time when people were tortured to death for mentioning in a letter that they hoped the war would end soon… So maybe NHK are hoping to maintain this pacifism into the next generation, who grew up in the postwar era of prosperity. Good luck to them!

The anniversaries of the monstrous flashbulbs that went off over Hiroshima and Nagasaki come early in August, just before the end of the war itself. Now, more people actually died in the firebombing of Tokyo, but that doesn’t alter the suffering of children who were fried on their way to school. Tragedy, like peace, is indivisible – it’s not really a question of numbers – and I was glad to see the American ambassador at Hiroshima this year, to pay his respects. Just a natural human response, you’d think, so why was this the first time since the end of the war 65 years ago? Even more, why did so many Americans get angry about it, complaining that there was nothing to apologise for? Leaving the issue of whether the atomic bombing was justified or not – there are arguments on both sides – surely there’s nothing wrong with recognising the suffering of innocent people?

Now, maybe it’s time for Japanese to face up to the Nanking Massacre?


Summer 22 September, 2010

Filed under: customs,seasons — johnraff @ 2:14 pm
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Finally it’s over – sort of. That sultry sticky sweltering sweaty squishy soggy humidity has dropped way down as the dry Autumn air from the continent takes over. Although we’re going over 30°C today and you wouldn’t call it cool exactly, the mornings and evenings are really pleasant and there’s a nice breeze even now, at 2 in the afternoon. It’s been a record-breaking long hot Summer this year – more than 500 people are reported to have died from heatstroke and the electricity companies are expecting to make record profits from all the carbon they burnt to keep our air conditioners running. (How are we going to escape this situation where the only way to make life tolerable is to contribute to making it worse? I’m reminded of the old, old Kevin Ayers song “Why are we sleeping?“) A lot of my friends teach at universities, get long Summer vacations and head right out of here for the month of August. Conversely, for old friends in Europe, August is the obvious holiday season and that is when they want to come over here to visit. I try to talk them out of it, explaining that they’ll likely find the heat intolerable, but they don’t really get it …till they arrive.

Even so, Summer in Japan is a special time. For a month or two we share the same air mass as Southeast Asia (apparently Hong Kong has Japan beaten for humidity) and it’s as if the whole country has taken off southwards. You don’t need more clothes than a T-shirt and pair of shorts, and even when working there’s a sort of holiday atmosphere. (I guess the suit-wearing salarymen might see it a bit differently…) The kids are all off school and along with the cicadas the heavy air carries the sounds of High School Baseball from a thousand open windows. And the evenings can be magical. The warmth just envelops you so that there’s no distinction between indoors and outdoors. Just take a walk around your neighbourhood, follow the smoke pouring out of a local yakitoriya for an ice-cold beer and some grilled chicken, or maybe even head to a beer garden… These are a different story really – while eating outside, maybe on the roof of a tall building, has an appeal, you’re usually obliged to go along with some kind of “all you can eat and drink” sort of deal, usually with a time limit. The foods not that great, there are hundreds of people and the effect is a bit like feeding time at the zoo.

Much better are the Summer festivals, especially out in the countryside. There’s dancing, more of that indispensible ice-cold beer and young people come back from the cities to revisit relatives. The young girls look really cute in their Summer kimonos and there are quite often fireworks too. Japanese fireworks are some of the best in the world, and the big displays draw millions of people. All this is really based on the “Obon” festival, when the spirits of dead ancestors return to their families and have to be entertained with Bon odori – traditional dancing. Fires are lit to help them find their way home, and later to send them off again. ( Could that be where the fireworks come from? )

This is also the time for ghost stories – some say it’s because they give you a delicious chill, but maybe it’s just that Obon connection again. There are some real ghosts too. Among the spirits who return for consolation are the nearly three million who died in World War 2. The anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the Pacific war come in quick succession at the beginning of August, and the ringing of temple bells joins the cicadas and baseball.

So it’s not all festivals and fun, and the Autumn just coming can be really beautiful, as can Spring, but I’d still say Summer is my favourite season.


Peace 15 August, 2008

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 2:16 pm
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Today, August the 15th, is the day the Pacific war ended in 1945, and the event is marked with ceremonies all over Japan including a speech on TV by the Prime Minister. Coming in the middle of the “Obon” holiday, when returning spirits of departed relatives are entertained for a few days, the timing is perfect. While I remember the boys’ comics when I was a kid were full of war stories with heroic Brits and evil Germans, commemoration of the war seemed to be mainly about giving thanks for the sacrifices of troops who died. Japan has its own Yasukuni Shrine for that, but it is unfortunately tangled up in right-wing nationalism and attempted revision of Japan’s historical record, which is nowhere as well known to most people here as, for example, that of Hitler in Germany.

The main message here is “never again”. While atrocities committed in Asia cannot be denied, the Japanese people themselves suffered terribly during and after the war – the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was really horrible – and seem to have lost any faith in war as an instrument of foreign policy they may have had in the 1930’s. I think the same might be said of most Europeans. Both have fully tasted the bitter fruit of extreme nationalism. Others might take note.

Here in 2008 the world doesn’t seem such a peaceful place: wars, invasions, massacres of innocent civilians continue, spurred on by greedy, short-sighted governments’ cynical distortion of peoples’ natural love of their place of birth into fanatical nationalism. Well, if we don’t move on from that soon and get together to deal with the real issues that face all humanity, then there won’t be too much more history.

(…all we are saying…)


War in Space? 21 May, 2008

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 2:34 pm
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Today I saw on TV that the Japanese upper house had just ratified a bill allowing the military use of space.

BBC AP New Scientist Japan Times

I don’t like this at all. The last thing the world needs now is a new arms race. Of course there are reasons – everyone’s afraid of China these days, and they didn’t help by that trial shooting down of a satellite the other month. Then North Korea fired that missile over Japan a couple of years ago.

Since Reagan first dreamed it up, I’ve always thought the whole Star Wars thing was a scam to make (more) money for the evil Military-Industrial Complex. Fear of China and North Korea is the tool the Americans use to keep their Japanese “allies” under control. Just when prime minister Koizumi seemed to be about to improve relations with the DPRK in 2002, the US dug up all that nuclear stuff… Likewise they must be pleased that South Korea’s “sunshine policy” toward the north has been dropped by the new president. An undemocratic, authoritarian and possibly paranoid China certainly gives much to worry about, but the current US administration’s confrontational attitude only makes things worse. (Of course the same can be said about the face it presents to Arabs and Muslims worldwide, but I’ll leave my anti-Bush tirade for another day.)

I’m disgusted with the Japanese Democratic Party too. As the main opposition they have a duty to keep the government LDP in line, and prepare themselves as a potental replacement. With prime minister Fukuda’s popularity down around 18% this is now a real possibility, but apart from quibbling about petrol tax, they haven’t been using their control of the upper house very constructively, and supporting the government over Star Wars confirms their image as a #2 LDP… 😦

Maybe they are all really worried about aliens.


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