The Subject was Streetcars

A local community center in Tokyo’ s Arakawa Ward recently held an unusual art exhibit. The subject was streetcars.

Specifically, the subject was the streetcars of the Arakawa Line, which runs right past the center. All day long, boxy little khaki-colored one-car trains come and go at Machiya Ekimae Station, located on a traffic island in the middle of the street out front. They coast into the station with a quiet hum, and power out of it with a slightly louder one. Because they have to wait for traffic lights and try not to hit whatever pedestrians, cyclists, or cars happen to cross their path, the drivers frequently resort to ringing a high-pitched bell. This has given the streetcars their nickname: the Chin Chin Densha, or Ding Ding Train.

It’ s hard not to like these little trains, and the people who live nearby seem to be just as crazy about them as anyone. Dozens of local residents participated in the streetcar art show, most of them contributing photos. These included a streetcar in springtime passing beneath a branch of cherry blossoms, a streetcar in winter doggedly creeping through the snow, and a streetcar at night blurring along between neon-lit buildings. One participant contributed intricate cut-paper artwork depicting large and exquisitely detailed streetcar scenes that must each have taken weeks to execute.

“Sure,” I hear you say, “Trolleys are cute to look at and probably even fun to ride, but do they actually GO anywhere worthwhile?” To find out, I recently went on an expedition along the Arakawa Line. It primarily services residential areas that rarely attract tourists, but getting off the beaten path often yields surprises. As I explored I encountered sacred trees, famous wigs, giant living fish heads, and a whole lot more.

WASEDA STATION: Masks and Wigs

I began my tour of the Arakawa Line at its western terminus, two blocks north of Waseda University. At first glance, the Waseda campus looks like the grounds of any urban college in any big city. The outdoor bulletin boards that line the pedestrian thoroughfares are covered with multicolored fliers stapled there by various student groups. These provide the only contrast to the drab and square institutional buildings that loom on both sides.

However, if you enter the campus by the north gate and take the first two right turns, you’ ll suddenly be confronted by a four-story white plaster building crisscrossed with heavy black external beams. It looks like the stage set from a Shakespearean play, and the effect is completely intentional. It’ s the Waseda University Theater Museum, and William Shakespeare is one of only two people to have entire rooms devoted to them.

Of course, Japan has rich theatrical traditions of its own. The interior of the museum, unlike the facade, is dedicated entirely to them (except for the Shakespeare room). The other person to have a room of his own is Nakamura Utaemon VI, a noted modern oyama (or onnagata), a kabuki actor who plays female roles. Several of his wigs and other accouterments were on display. These included a heavy looking quilted kimono that had a larger-than-life peacock on the back. Each individual feather had been painstakingly embroidered in a variety of colors.

Very few of the exhibits are explained in English, but it is possible to learn from some of them just by looking. For example, there were several bunraku puppets on display, and I was surprised to note that one of them had moveable eyebrows. The scale models of various theaters, complete with cutaway sections for inside views, showed that kabuki and noh require distinctly different forms of architecture. In the museum’ s only interactive exhibit, visitors can try on a noh mask and shuffle across a small piece of noh stage. A large mirror is thoughtfully provided.

There was even a small exhibit on Japanese burlesque shows from the 1960s. There was very little accompanying text, even in Japanese. Then again, photos of topless dancing women in Carmen Miranda headgear really don’ t require very much explanation. For some reason, the strip shows of 1990s Japan were not mentioned. I simply can’ t imagine why not.

Once you’ ve had your fill of art you can get some fresh air along the Kanda River, one block north of Waseda Station. There’ s a good chance you’ ll encounter wild ducks and giant carp. At times the water is so shallow that the carps’ dorsal fins glide back and forth above the water, sinister and sharklike, as the fish search for food. The river is flanked by an ornamental brick pathway lined with shrubs and trees. If you follow this path for a few blocks you’ ll find yourself standing in front of Omokagebashi Station, the next stop on the Arakawa Line.

Shortly after trains leave this station, they make an abrupt 90-degree turn to the right, crossing the river and heading uphill toward Ikebukuro. If you happen to be sitting or standing right behind the driver and looking over his shoulder — yes, it is allowed — these sudden turns can be kind of fun.

KISHIBOJIMAE STATION: Stone Owls and a Sacred Tree

Before reaching Ikebukuro you might want to disembark at Kishibojimae Station for a dose of Japanese religion. There is a large bilingual neighborhood map posted in each station, and Kishimojin-do Temple is highlighted as a local point of interest here. It’ s actually fairly ordinary as Buddhist temples go, but it does share its grounds with a small Shinto shrine apparently dedicated to the spirit of a great tree. The tree, gnarled and gray, doesn’ t seem to have as much spirit as it might once have had, but even as it slowly dies it remains impressive. It is truly enormous, with a trunk nearly two meters thick. The tree is girt with ropes and ribbons and enclosed by two pathways to the little shrine behind it. One path passes beneath 17 bright red torii gates, and the other has 19. Kishimojin-do also boasts four stone owls, each the size and shape of a beer keg. Ironically, Otori Jinja two blocks away — a place whose name literally means Big Bird Shrine — has no avian imagery at all.


Higashi-Ikebukuro Station is just a few blocks from Sunshine City, a mind-boggling commercial complex. From a distance it appears to be four separate buildings — the tallest of which is 60 stories — but all of them are joined at their base by an enormous multistory shopping mall. In addition to the countless shops and restaurants one might expect to find in such a complex, there is also a theater, a museum, an indoor theme park, a large hotel, a planetarium, and even an aquarium. The aquarium has an impressive array of ocean creatures, especially when one considers that all of them are now living on the roof of a ten-story building in the heart of a major city. There are jellyfish, penguins, crabs, and trained seals. There are tropical fish, eels, and octopi. The most famous of all, though, is the ocean sunfish. The mambou.

Maybe this fish is popular because its name is so fun to say in Japanese. Mambooooooooooou. On the other hand, it may be popular because its head is the size of a large sofa cushion, and it has no body.

That’ s right, this fish has no body. It doesn’ t even have much of a neck. I’ m sure that there are hearts and intestines and ovaries inside those fish somewhere, but they are probably tucked away where you or I would have sinuses. Gill-breathers presumably don’ t need sinuses.

The mambou must be viewed through a sheet of plastic, like a thick transparent shower curtain, that keeps them from touching the glass walls of their tank. This is because the mambou are creatures of the open sea. Their natural habitat is hundreds of kilometers from land and thousands of meters above the ocean floor. They live in a universe completely devoid of solid objects. They could unwittingly kill themselves by bumping into the glass too often. I’ m told they dine on jellyfish.

Think about it. A population of giant living heads, every one of them a goggle-eyed gourmet, spend their entire lives floating softly in unlimited space. On this very planet!

The same planet is also home to giant frogs from the Amazon. They are about the size of large housecats and thrive on a similar diet. Mice.

I had been looking forward to the spectacle of giant frogs zapping mice from across the room with tongues the size of anchor ropes, but I was disappointed. The frogs, ever catlike, were all asleep. Fortunately, the aquarium shows a short video of the amphibians feeding. Tongue-zapping is apparently not an effective way to catch mice, so a giant frog does something that is both less spectacular and more horrific. It leaps into the air with its jaws spread wide and lands on the hapless rodent mouth-first. No more mouse.

If you find yourself shaken by such unexpected forms of life and death — or just by the rampant commercialism of Sunshine City as a whole — then head back toward Higashi-Ikebukuro Station. Don’ t get back on the trolley, though. Continue walking for another two blocks until you hit Zoshigaya Cemetery. Like Tokyo itself, the cemetery is vast and densely populated. Unlike most of Tokyo, it is serenely quiet. The roar of traffic on a nearby freeway fades to a hum, and it is actually possible to hear birds twittering softly in the ornamental trees that shelter many of the graves. Covering several city blocks, it’ s a lovely place to unwind with a leisurely afternoon stroll, during which you may contemplate your own mortality. As you do, it may be consoling to reflect that whatever is going to put you in your grave some day, it probably won’ t be a colossal frog.


Back on the trolley, be sure to position yourself behind the driver for the really nifty downhill S-curve that leads into Otsuka Ekimae Station. Heading out of this station, the trolley sails down a very long straightaway through an ordinary residential neighborhood. Houses and ramen shops back up almost onto the tracks, providing a view of Tokyo that won’ t be on the cover of Travel? any time soon. Narrow roads squeeze between the closely packed buildings, and even tiny, meter-wide alleys have tiny, meter-long crossing arms that come down as the trams roll by. Most of the buildings in this area are less than three stories tall, and every now and then the soot-streaked smokestack of a neighborhood bath rises above it all. Get out at any of the next several stops for a soak or a stroll. You’ ll find yourself in an area where futons are draped from every window in sunny weather and laundry flaps from poles virtually every day. In residential Tokyo cottage industries still exist, so don’ t be surprised if you happen by an open-fronted workshop where people are weaving tatami, or if you stumble upon a shop that sells nothing but lanterns.

ASUKAYAMA STATION: A Mountain in the City

The last stop on the straightaway is Asukayama, named for the large hill that prevents the tracks from going straight any farther. From here they curve down and around the northern flank of the hill to get to Oji Station at the bottom of the other side. In making this descent, the trolley drives onto the pavement of a major street and shares the road with automotive traffic for about two blocks. It is brief segments such as this that earn the Arakawa Line its bragging rights at the last “streetcar” in Tokyo. The Setagaya Line, located elsewhere in the city, keeps the Arakawa Line from being Tokyo’ s only “trolley.”

Across the street from Asukayama Station is Asukayama Park, which occupies the upper half of the hill. There, you can enjoy long views of Tokyo stretching west toward Ikebukuro, where Sunshine City dominates the skyline, or east toward Chiba, where the horizon is nearly flat. The top of the hill is thinly forested with small trees and scattered statues. There is also a large playground that features a decommissioned streetcar and a gigantic old steam locomotive. The centerpiece of the playground is a two-story high cement castle where kinds can play a real-life game of Chutes and Ladders. It has eight slides and even more ladders.

Slightly downhill and to the south, there is a trio of museums: the Paper Museum, the Shibusawa Memorial Museum, and a local historical museum. All are housed in very large and modern-looking buildings, and all of them were closed for the evening when I arrived.

The park itself may even have been (officially) closed by the time I arrived, but I was not alone in the gathering darkness. A middle-aged woman in a surgical mask was practicing tai-chi beneath a stand of pine trees that whispered in the evening breeze. A solitary young man seemed to be cruising, which I found mildly exciting and poignantly sad. A straight couple was making out in the cab of the cold black locomotive. It was time for me to go home.


As I stood on the hilltop I could see the lights of a trolley far below heading east without me, east toward the yellow moon that was rising slowly above the city haze. The stops still ahead of it included Machiya Ekimae, where the trolley itself was star of the community art show. Also ahead was Kodai Station, where one may leave the trolley and transfer to the “Water Bus” which docks three blocks north on a side channel of the Ara River.

According to my maps, the Water Bus service extends both upriver and down, including stops in seven different Tokyo wards. Even when compared to streetcars, a boat line is a pretty distinctive form of urban transportation. So, the next time I notice a community art exhibit in Tokyo, I’ m definitely going to pop in for a look.
The subject may be boats.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

Street of Woman,Road of Men

Saitama now has its very own multiplex cinema. As anyone who has heard of Kurosawa (or at least Godzilla) knows, movies have been an important part of Japanese culture for decades. The multiplex, however, is a very recent development. The one here in Saitama was opened by Warner Brothers just a few months ago.

One of the promotions they’re using to lure customers inside is a weekly “Ladies’ Night” during which women can see a show for a relatively cheap 1,000 yen (US$8.60 or 7.57 Euros) instead of the usual 1,800 yen (US$15.50 or 13.63 Euros).

Not being eligible for this discount myself, I had forgotten all about it until one night a few weeks ago when I was walking down the street and found myself in the midst of a large crowd that had apparently just gotten out of a movie. I often walk on this particular street at night and usually find it dark and deserted. It felt odd to suddenly be sharing it with hundreds of people.

There was something else about the crowd that was a little odd, though it took me a moment to put my finger on it. They were all women. I looked to my right. Women. I looked to my left. Women. I looked up the street and down the block. Women, women everywhere! There was only one man present. Me.

For there to be many ladies present on Ladies・Night was not remarkable, but for there to be ONLY ladies was a little weird. Where were the men in these women’s lives? Didn’t they have husbands, brothers, male friends? It was 9:30 at night, so there would have been plenty of time for the men to get home from work before the movie started.

And for that matter, why weren’t the women at work themselves?


This scene reminded me of another crowd that I had encountered on another day and another street. Last summer I was strolling along the Inner Moat of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, noting the similarities between that area and the Mall in Washington, DC. For example, both spots are green oases in the center of bustling national capitals. Physically, the white dome of the US Capitol Building looms over one end of the Mall just as the jagged pyramid of the Japanese Diet Building dominates the skyline near the moat. (The Palace itself is mostly hidden by trees.) On sunny days, both places are crowded with bureaucrats who have decided to spend their lunch hours jogging instead of eating. In Tokyo the crowd also includes a lot of business executives because there are numerous corporate headquarters nearby.

As my attention turned to the joggers themselves, though, the similarities between Tokyo and Washington quickly broke down. The Japanese joggers circle the moat in a counterclockwise direction, so on my clockwise stroll I’d estimate that I came face-to-face with about 200 of them in 15 minutes. Their high degree of uniformity gave me pause. This being Japan, a complete lack of racial diversity was not surprising, but it didn’t stop there. A handful of brave souls had ventured out in lycra, but almost everyone else had on the same basic outfit: a new-looking two-toned (usually dark) track suit with piping. These suits were all made of shiny high-tech fabric. The cheap-but-practical cotton sweats you might expect to see on US joggers were totally absent. There were only two basic haircuts in the entire crowd: flat-top and mop-top, although the mop-tops were more likely to have a touch of gray in them.

But the most remarkable similarity among the 200 or so jogging bureaucrats and executives I saw that day was this: of that number, exactly one was a woman. One.


The Japanese have a word for women like her: ko-iten, which means “one red dot.” This refers to the lone woman in an otherwise all-male environment or situation. When I was walking down the street near the movie theater, I had unwittingly become a kuro-iten, or “one black dot,” which refers to the lone man in a female milieu. Ko-iten is the more well-known of the two terms. Presumably, this is because traditional male preserves, such as business and politics, are more desirable and interesting than are female islands of privilege such as Ladies・Night at the multiplex.

Last week I was riding the train into Tokyo before sunrise when I looked around me and realized that every single one of the approximately 30 passengers in my car was a man. A week or two before that, I had brunch at a pancake house with a friend who described the place as a hangout for “middle-aged housewives.” I looked around and saw that every single customer in the restaurant appeared to fit that description — except us.

We’re all heard stories about Japanese salarymen who are strangers to their own families because of the excessive overtime they work. I’ve been tempted to dismiss these tales as exaggerated, but finding myself in the midst of mono-gender crowds so often lately has led me to wonder just how separate the worlds of Japanese men and Japanese women really are.


To delve into this question, I interviewed some Japanese adults on the question of “retirement divorce.” This is a phenomenon in which a married woman feels abandoned by a husband who routinely works late and on Saturdays. She eventually gets used to his absence, so when he retires and is suddenly home ALL THE TIME it comes as a bit of a shock. She may even realize that he has become a stranger over the years, and that she is not comfortable sharing her home with a stranger. Her space has been invaded. The marriage ends.

Two of the women I asked about this phenomenon reacted to the idea with such enthusiasm that I began to worry that they might be contemplating it themselves, so I changed the subject. A third woman said that she had never heard of such a thing and didn’t believe it could happen. I decided to tread lightly with her, too.

A man I interviewed attributed retirement divorce to the fact that women are “clever” enough to wait until their husbands have just received a big retirement bonus. They hit him while he is relatively rich.

The same man also told me, though, that men often get what is coming to them because they do nothing to maintain the quality of their marriage. For example, he said, many men never say “I love you” after their wedding day.

Well, if not “I love you,” then what DO they say? According to one popular stereotype, a tired man coming home from work has three little words for his wife: “Furo. Meshi. Neru.” That is, “Bath. Dinner. Sleep.” A rather perfunctory set of demands. Like most stereotypes, this is — I hope — exaggerated, but one woman I spoke to said that her husband is even worse. According to her, when he gets home he is so tired that SHE is the one to say “Furo? Meshi? Neru?” and he will nod or shake his head in reply. He spends his Sundays lying on the floor in front of the TV, as motionless as a cocoon.

Another woman’s retired husband still visits his old office two days a week, and those are the days she likes best because she doesn’t have to make his lunch. I suggested that maybe he should make her lunch once in a while when he was home all day. She gave me a charming smile to show that she appreciated my foreign sense of humor.


Conventional wisdom says that one way couples can keep their marriages vital by going on dates like they did in the days of their courtship. Why not a trip to the movies? This brings us right back to the multiplex.

Looking at the posters on display outside of the theater this week, there are a variety of choices. The Chinese actor who plays the title role in “The First Emperor” glares fiercely out at passerby with a larger-than-life scowl. The poster for “The Truman Show” features a close-up of Jim Carey’s innocently sleeping face. George Clooney dominates his “Out of Sight” poster in a dark, tough-guy profile.

Then there’s the Japanese movie “Shomuni,” about a quartet of ladies in tight skirts and high heels. The actresses who share the lead in that film appear on their movie poster only from the waist down.

On second thought, maybe a dinner date would be a better idea.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

Shakes and Paper and Autumn Leaves : Wandering Through Saitama

Rites of Fall

We had our first frost here in Kawagoe the other day, but I have known for weeks that colder weather was on the way.

Bright autumn leaves have added a splash of color to department store displays for some time now. These leaves are made of paper, but they mirror the red and yellow leaves outside that adorn the lampposts in the streets. Those leaves are made of plastic.

A more reliable sign of the changing seasons was the debut of HOT buttons on the ubiquitous outdoor vending machines. During the warmer months it is possible to buy iced tea and iced coffee from machines on every street corner and railroad platform in the land. As of a month ago, the machines began to offer hot tea and coffee as well. When that happened, I knew hat the end of summer was near.

When Big, a local izakaya, began to fly their “Nabe Matsuri” flag — advertising their annual “Stew Festival” — I knew for sure that I had seen my last warm day until next year. Old Japanese men have been wearing longs johns every day for weeks now, and stylishly knotted scarves have begun to appear on people of all ages. Murky vats of oden are now steaming away on the counters of 7-11 stores everywhere.
Winter is practically here.

Famous Leaves in Nagatoro

Viewing autumn leaves — real ones — is a venerable tradition here in Japan. For urban residents, this means making a special trip into the mountains, a ritual I’ve somehow missed out on during each of the previous years I’ve lived here.

This year was different. The Saitama International Exchange Network (SIEN) organized a trip to Nagatoro, Saitama’s premier leaf viewing spot, and I decided to go along. I wanted to see if what people say about this prefecture is true.

Last year, Saitama ranked dead last in a national quality-of-life survey. People who live here like to say that this is because the prefecture has no seashore, but the survey also took into account Saitama’s high levels of air pollution and low levels of cultural attractions. (Apparently, convenient access to the cultural attractions next door in Tokyo didn’t count.)

I’m happy to report that Saitama is not the desolate wasteland it is so often made out to be, especially in its northern reaches. The Nagatoro River is a beautiful stretch of water that flows through a long, rocky gorge that is rimmed with trees that were all ablaze in orange, yellow, and red. For about one kilometer on the northern shore, there are broad natural shelves known as iwadatami, or “stone tatami.” Tatami are the smooth, tightly woven bamboo mats that make up the floors of traditional Japanese rooms. The iwadatami are a bit more rugged than their name might suggest, but they make ideal platforms from which to view the foliage on the opposite bank. They’re also good vantage points to watch the passing boat traffic. Every few minutes a kayak, a rubber raft, or an old-fashioned wooden boat would go by. The latter were long and narrow and crammed with about twenty tourists apiece, piloted through the rapids by men standing upright in pajama-type outfits and straw hats.

Not far from the river, but completely hidden by trees, is the Saitama Museum of Natural History. One of its main attractions is a life-sized model of a vicious-looking 12-meter shark whose fossilized teeth had bee found nearby. It was easily big enough to swallow a grown man without even chewing. So, even in the days when Saitama did have a seashore, it still would have ranked pretty low in the quality-of-life surveys.

(Incidentally, the teeth had previously been kept at a local shrine, where they were venerated as “tengu fingernails.”)

Another Nagatoro landmark is Mt. Hodo, a mountain which has a small Shinto shrine at the top, and a larger complex of shrines at the base. There’s a cable car that takes visitors almost to the summit, where the view is startling. From above, Nagatoro is revealed as a small city that covers most of the valley floor below. However, the area around the river itself has been so well preserved in its natural state that visitors who walk to the river directly from the train station, as I did, are left with the impression that they are out in the wilderness, miles from any city.

Famous Paper in Ogawa

A week earlier, a friend who lives in Ogawa-machi, also in northern Saitamai, had taken me on a tour of his town. Ogawa is smaller and less famous than Nagatoro, but it has made a name for itself in the field of traditional Japanese handmade crafts. The most famous of these is fibrous washi paper.

My friend took me to a small family-run shop where the paper is still made by hand. Their factory is a barn-like building with a thatched roof. Our guide for the morning was an ancient and diminutive lady whose looks were deceiving. She dashed from room to room at breakneck speed and lifted large crates and pieces of machinery out of the way so we could get a better look at the paper-making process.

It begins with the kozo plant, or paper mulberry. The wood of this plant — particularly the roots, it seemed — is soaked in water for a period of days or weeks until it becomes slimy. At that point, it is taken out and shredded into fine, thready pulp. The pulp, in turn, is then mixed into a large quantity of water to create a substance that resembles very thin wallpaper paste. It is from tubs of this watery paste that the paper itself is finally made.

Hanging over the tub is a horizontal wooden frame. A thin, flexible bamboo screen is laid flat in the bottom of the frame, and then the whole thing is lowered into the tub. The frame is filled with paste and sloshed around until a very thin layer of pulpy sediment is deposited on the screen. The remaining liquid is dumped back into the tub, and the whole process is repeated two or three times.

Finally, when the sediment on the bamboo screen looks reasonably solid, the screen is removed and flipped over onto a wooden table. The screen is then gently peeled back from the table, leaving its layer of mulberry pulp behind. To my surprise, the old lady stacked dozens of wet sheets of proto-paper right on top of one another. Apparently the fibers set so tightly when the water drains off of them that there is no danger of the sheets sticking to one another. Final drying of the paper is achieved later, when she sticks the sheets up onto the smooth metal sides of an old furnace.

Because of the texture of the mulberry fibers, even a simple sheet of this paper is pleasing to look at and touch, but there are deluxe versions as well. In some cases the lady I met scatters flower petals onto the bamboo screen so that they actually become part of the paper as the pulp accumulates around them. I have even heard of this being done with whole flattened butterflies.

After we had tried our hands at making paper ourselves, my friend and I went to lunch at a soba restaurant where the noodles are made by hand on the premises. Then we went for a leisurely hike on one of the mountains near town, and returned to Ogawa-machi in the late afternoon for a visit to the local sake factory. One particular brand of sake this factory makes is simply called Ogawa Jizake (Ogawa Local Sake). It is as clean and sweet as spring water, which is in fact one of the main ingredients. Its smooth deliciousness makes it potentially dangerous, but the fact that they chose to name this excellent product after the town, with no further elaboration, says a lot.

So, there are plenty of worthwhile attractions in Saitama, especially in the rural north, but they can’t be enjoyed at that manic speed that is often possible in the big city. If you want to enjoy Japan slowly, then northern Saitamais a fine place to start.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

Tom Clancy’s Debt of honor

Imagine that some elite and highly trained American spies have gone undercover in Tokyo. One of them is trying to follow a woman down a city street at an unobtrusive distance.
“In Los Angeles she would have been unremarkable … And though her Western clothing was somewhat distinctive, many people on the street dressed the same way — in fact, traditional garb was in the minority here, he realized with a slight surprise.”
The spy business just aint what it used to be. If a CIA officer could be surprised by the minority status of traditional clothing (well under one percent), then the Agency’s training manual on Japan must be seriously out of date. By the better part of a century.
In the last ten years, the Central Intelligence Agency has had its share of embarrassment. They were caught unawares by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Indo-Pakistani nuclear tests, and a malignant double agent in their own ranks. Happily, though, the CIA’s lack of fashion sense is pure fiction. The passage quoted above comes from “Debt of Honor,” a 1994 novel by Tom Clancy.


Tom Clancy is the CIA’s most famous fan, and the agents he writes about in his novels are usually brave and brilliant. In this particular book, though, he makes them look like fools because Clancy himself knows next to nothing about Japan.
He’s the kind of guy who finds it メsurprisingly Westernモ that some Japanese engineers drink coffee on their work breaks instead of tea. While he underestimates Japan’s similarity to the West (specifically the U.S.) in that regard, he overestimates it in another. He has one of his spies leave only a small tip when paying for a drink, in order to be inconspicuous. Obviously someone forgot to tell Clancy that leaving a tip of any size is a sure-fire way to get noticed. There is no tipping in Japan.
Clancy used to have higher standards. His name has been a regular feature of U.S. best-seller lists for the past 15 years. Several of his books have been made into movies, including “Patriot Games” with Harrison Ford and “The Hunt for Red October” starring Sean Connery. Ronald Reagan was an early fan, and in the 1980s Clancy was often credited with having invented his own genre, the “techno-thriller.”
Research, research, and more research was the secret to his success. His early novels were bursting with technical details, and his first one took him years to write. There was a fascinating fact on every page, and they were all woven seamlessly into the plot.
Unfortunately, success made him lazy. By the time he got around to “Debt of Honor” he could no longer write his characters a decent lunch.


Two of Clancy’s supposedly clever American spies are living in Japan disguised as Russian journalists. This cover forces them to make some uncomfortable adjustments to their lifestyle:
“The food, while strange, was exotic and interesting enough that the novelty hadn’t quite worn off yet. [One of them] might have grumped about the desire for a hamburger, but to say such a thing, even in Russian, would have broken cover.”
Anyone who stays in Japan for more than 24 hours will find hamburgers whether he wants them or not. The suburb where I live and work is not exactly a major center of world trade, but there are no less than four McDonald’s restaurants within a five minute walk of my workplace. Within the same distance, there are two Lotterias, two KFCs, one Wendy’s and one First Kitchen.
Not only do all the major international fast food chains operate here, –McDonald’s alone has over 2,600 outlets –but there are a number of home-grown franchises as well. Among these, MOS Burger has what are far and away the best fast-food hamburgers I’ve ever tasted. They even beat Wendy’s. Clancy’s poor famished spies missed out on a real treat by not visiting MOS Burger.


When “Debt of Honor” first came out, a number of critics accused Clancy of Japan-bashing. The villain of the book is a highly intelligent but coldly arrogant billionaire who uses his wealth and connections to control the Japanese government behind the scenes. James Bond, Dirk Pitt, and their ilk have beaten up dozens of guys like that over the years, and they came from every nation on earth. He’s just a standard-issue pop-fiction bad guy. There’s nothing especially Japan-bashing about that.
But there is a more sinister current that runs through the book, something so subtle that at first I mistook it for more bad writing. At several points in the story, the mood of the Japanese population changes abruptly as the result of decisions that the government has made in secret.
In secret. For this to make any sense, it must mean that Clancy buys into the old obnoxious notion that Japan is a hive with a collective intelligence. That there are no individuals, only cells.

Sick stuff.


Looking at “Debt of Honor” as a whole, though, it seems that Clancy is bashing all of us through his 19th-century worldview that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. We are us and they are them and that’s that.
In Clancy’s world, no Russian could crave a hamburger. No Japanese would serve one. Japanese who drink coffee are a little odd. So are Americans who like rice. Everyone takes their borders with them.
Clancy is not alone in thinking that way, but I’m happy to report that the real world isn’t like that. The real world is getting smaller all the time, and most of the people in it don’t mind getting to know one another. In the late 20th century, cultures have begun to mix more comfortably than ever before, with fabulous and unpredictable results.

I’m going to stop writing now and walk over to 7-11 for a burrito. They’re just introduced a new flavor. Tandoori chicken.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

Tochigi Cowboy

Behind Mount Rushmore, the cowboys were having a party. They’d roasted a 300-pound side of beef, legs and all, for the occasion. It hung on massive skewers for all to admire, salted and peppered and glistening with crispy fat. Whole cloves of garlic had been poked into its massive flank to cook along with it.

While a band from Nashville sang to the crowd, a cook in a cowboy hat went to work. He dug the fingers of one greasy hand into the animal’ side and tore loose a chunk of flesh. Working a knife beneath it with his other hand, he quickly peeled off a strip of beef as long and thick as a man’ arm. He passed this to his assistants, who sliced it up for the eagerly waiting crowd.

“Dozo,” the assistants politely said.
“Domo,” the guests replied.

That doesn’t sound like cowboy talk to you? That’ because this bull roast is in Japan. It’ in Imaichi, to be exact — a little town in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, about 90 miles north of Tokyo. The town is home to a theme park called Western
Village, which is meant to resemble an old-fashioned cowboy town, right down to its imported musicians and giant replica of Mount Rushmore. In what is to become an annual event, 20 whole American beef carcasses — 40 sides of beef — were served to the public there over the course of 40 days this summer. According to Susumu Harada of the sponsoring U.S. Meat Export Federation, this was the “largest event featuring the roasting of U.S. beef in Japan.”

The idea is to show the park’ guests a good time while
also encouraging them to eat more US-produced food.

The park

Western Village is the brainchild of Kenichi Ominami, a gray-haired entrepreneur with thick black eyebrows and a loud, hair-trigger laugh. He is a gregarious Americaphile who strides around his park in a cowboy hat, two-tone shirt, and a gigantic silver belt buckle with Mt. Rushmore carved on it. He and his brother Masayuki founded Western Village 25 years ago as a small guest ranch with three horses and a fishing pond.

Like the American West itself, his park has been expanding ever since. Over the years Ominami has added a Wild West show,a concert stage, a 3-D theater, an exhibit of antique American cars,several restaurants, and a railroad featuring two vintage steam locomotives. The centerpiece is a street full of old Western buildings staffed by robot models of American movie stars from Charles Bronson to Marilyn Monroe.

There’ even a “Mexico Land” on the other side of a river that cuts across his property. Naturally, Ominami refers to this river as “The Rio Grande.” There’ a rifle range where guests can fire lasers at targets across the river.

Ominami rarely uses the word “Big” when describing his projects. Everything is “bigger” or “biggest.” His boasting usually seems justified. For example, his miniature golf course is crowded with Norman Rockwell-era buildings that are nearly life-sized.

Mount Rushmore

His crowning achievement, so far, is his massive fiberglass-and-concrete Mount Rushmore. The faces alone are six yards high, compared with 18 yards on the US original. The entire sculpture is so big that there is a three-story museum and gift shop inside of it.

Replicating a huge American monument in the Japanese countryside may strike some as bizarre, but there is method to this madness. Ominami wanted his park to be associated with an American cultural icon that hadn’t already been overexposed in his country. The Statue of Liberty in particular, he complained, had been degraded by its inclusion in the external decor of countless “love hotels” around Japan. As the term implies, love hotels rent by the hour.

The opening of Mt. Rushmore back in 1995 marked the start of Ominami’ latest project. He plans to showcase a different US state or region every year, and began with South Dakota. “I think America is [the] United States of America.” he explained. “But Japanese people [think that the] West Coast or East Coast is America. But America is a very big country.” Each of the 50 states is “another face” of America, he said.

After South Dakota, Ominami featured the Mississippi River states, and then Minnesota. This year’s “face” of America is Wisconsin, and Iowa is up next.

Wisconsin State Fair

According to Ominami, the three most famous cities on earth for beer are Sapporo, Munich, and Milwaukee. Beer was a natural theme for his “Wisconsin State Fair.” So was cheese. He threw in the bull roast for wider appeal.

In Japan, organizing an event of this kind is more easily said than done. Ominami’ original plan was to serve dozens of American beers and cheeses, but Japanese customs regulations got
in his way.

Businesses must pay a fee of 20,000 yen ($150.00) for each brand commercially imported, regardless of quantity. This made it impractical to import a few bottles of each of a wide variety of beers, so Ominami imported many bottles of a few beers instead.

Naturally, big names like Budweiser and Coors are represented in his selection, but he also managed to include a few American beers that are little-known in Japan, such as Rolling Rock, Samuel Adams, and Henry Weinhard. More obscure US brews, such as Nude Beer, Chili Beer, and Apollo “Space-Crafted” Beer, were present in single bottles for display only. He couldn’t legally sell them.

He faced worse obstacle with the cheese. Of 20 cheeses that he had hoped to showcase, he could obtain only a meager selection eight. The others contained “chemicals” forbidden by the Japanese government. Ominami said that even the US embassy, one of the sponsors of the event, couldn’t help him get them into Japan. “This is Japanese law!” he exclaimed in amused exasperation.

Then there was the beef. Normally, importers buy only finished meat products such as steaks or ground beef because they are more economical to ship. But for dramatic effect, Ominami wanted the whole animal.

Susumu Harada arranged to ship 40 sides of beef from a California slaughterhouse to the Tochigi theme park. It took four months just to find a meat supplier who would construct the special wooden frame containers needed to send the frozen carcasses to Japan by ship. “If you improperly handle [them] in the course of transportation, the bones might be broken or the shape of the carcass might be drastically altered,” Harada explained. “There are a lot of technicalities.”

Harada’ efforts paid off, for the meal at Western Village was quite tasty and a big hit with the crowd. Most of the Japanese visitors remarked on the meat’ tenderness. It was a quality that some of them were surprised to find in American beef.

And Next….

The beer and cheese fair runs until June 30, 1999, and Ominami is determined to make the bull roast an annual summer event.

It was a challenge to organize the bull roast this year,Ominami declared, but next year it will be easier. With his next featured state being Iowa, he expects corn to play a starring role along with the beef.

South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa. State by state,the American West is being settled all over again. This time,though, it is happening clear across the Pacific, even further west than anyone imagined before.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.