Last column : Farewell message from Tom

When I arrived in Japan in 1997, it was my intention to become a “writer.” Specifically, I wanted to write travel articles to sell in what I was sure would be a big market in the lead-up to the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano.

Alas, I was so poor during my first year here that I could barely afford groceries, much less a ticket to Nagano. In fact, I STILL haven’t been there.

However, when my friend Geoff Noyes introduced me to Kota-sensei, I became a writer after all. Kota-sensei was looking for a foreigner to write about what everyday life is like here in Japan for his Web site, and that was a job that I could do right at home in Saitama-ken. I was flattered to be asked, and my writing career was born.

Though it was not a paid job, it provided me with several important benefits: exposure, practice, and — most of all — deadlines. Once I was obliged to write, I began taking more careful note of my surroundings, I asked more questions and did more reading, and I actually WROTE instead of just wishing to write. It increased my ability, my confidence, and my output all at the same time.

Eventually, and thanks to my experience writing about Japan for this site, I sold a Japan travel story to The St. Petersburg Times, a major newspaper in Florida. (Their Sunday circulation is nearly half a million.) Then I sold a book review to the Asahi Evening News, and the momentum began to build. I became a fairly regular AEN contributor, and later became a regular book reviewer for the magazine Kansai Scene as well. I also wrote for Arizona Attorney, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and The NOVA Monitor, a company newsletter. (Teaching English at NOVA, Japan’s largest chain of language schools, was my primary day job.)

All of these things made my resume impressive enough to land me a job at The Daily Yomiuri early this year. The Yomiuri Shimbun, published in Japanese, is the largest newspaper on this planet, with a daily circulation of over 10 million copies. The Daily Yomiuri is its English-language arm, with a more modest — but growing — daily circulation that recently passed the 50,000 mark.

My job at the Yomiuri consists mainly of editing and rewriting the work of others, though I am able to do a little of my own writing as well. I’ve had one book review under my byline already, and I have several other projects in the pipeline. (Subscribe and watch for them!) I learn something new every day, and the job is the most fun I’ve had on a regular basis in at least ten years.

To a large degree, I have Kota-sensei to thank for my current happy situation. The opportunity and encouragement he gave me got me moving toward a goal that I had long dreamed about. I also owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who took the time to comment on Kota-sensei’s bulletin board. To know that other people out there were reading and thinking about what I had written was both a positive thrill and a sobering reminder of the serious responsibilities a writer has when he presents facts to the public.

I thank you all very much.

This leads to an ironic conclusion. One condition of my current employment is that I am not allowed to write for publication by anyone else in Japan — a reasonable restriction. Therefore, this farewell message will be my last contribution to Kota-sensei’s Web site. I owe him a debt of gratitude for helping me to get started. I know that he and his Web site will continue to thrive in my absence, and I am sure that you will all keep checking in to see the latest by the other columnists as well as Kota-sensei’s own valuable Japanese language features.

Kota-sensei, domo arigatou gozaimashita!

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

Re : Tom san
>>>> Arigatoo Tom san.
Kota Aramaki.


KABUKI IN KHAKI Japanese War Propaganda on Brief Display

In a green field just outside the Indonesian city of Palembang, a freshly landed Japanese paratrooper comes up in a crouch, already leveling a pistol at his first opponent of the day. The blue sky behind him, filled with the white parachutes of his descending comrades, looks like an ocean full of jellyfish.

This dramatic scene is a detail from a 1942 propaganda painting by Goro Tsuruta. Since the end of the Great East Asian War (which you might know as World War II) until this month, the painting had not been shown in public until this portion of it wound up on the cover of the September 4th issue of the Japan/Korea edition of Newsweek. The headline read: “The Art of War: A New Exhibition Challenges the Japanese to Face Their Painful Past.”

This is a perfect example of overblown headline writing. On the one hand, the exhibit was significant because it was supposedly the first time that a collection of Japanese war propaganda art has been shown publicly here since the surrender. On the other hand, it ran for only six days in a one-room basement gallery on a quiet Tokyo side street. When some friends and I visited it last week, we found a small group of old men who were apparently hanging out there all day. We stayed for about an hour ourselves. During that time, the exhibit had only two other visitors, a pair of Japanese men in their twenties who stayed for only a few minutes. Hardly a nation-changing event.

There were only about 30 works on display, and the first ones we saw were a collection of ten pencil sketches of soldiers by a guy named Kuribara Makoto. They were tattered around the edges and some were grease-stained, so we all assumed that Kuribara was a soldier himself, and that he made these sketches to kill time in the trenches. Most of the soldiers are sketched either from behind or in rear quarter-profile. All of them are stark figure studies, showing a man and sometimes his gun; there is no background at all. The usual pose was a man lying on his belly with a gun held in front of him and the soles his boots toward the viewer, or casually crouching against a rifle with its butt on the ground and barrel in the air: exactly the attitudes you would expect to find weary soldiers in if they were guarding a piece of ground somewhere on a day when nothing was happening. It was easy to imagine Kuribara on such duty himself, taking the afternoon to sketch his view of the guys ahead of him.

This was the most surprising thing about the works on display: only a handful portray any violence. None of them seem to even show a dead body (although my friend Tony and I had an argument about whether a certain figure in one painting was dead or just lying down). Aside from Kuribara’s rumpled figures and a few gore-free battle scenes, most of the paintings show plain or handsome young men looking clean and neat and calm in their new uniforms. The intended effect was to inspire confidence and pride, but today’s viewer can only regret that so many of those guys never got much older.

As for the battle scenes, it is interesting to note that only one of them (“Kota Baru” by Nakamura Kenichi) showed soldiers on both sides of the fight. This is an ink-wash drawing that shows a group of uniformed Japanese soldiers dramatically slashing into the enemy ranks with long swords. No blood appears as the faceless enemies (British or Malaysian) fall off to the sides, and the only gun in the picture is unused in the background. It’s kabuki in khaki. A few tiny planes in one corner of the sky offer the only confirmation that this is indeed the 20th century.

Only one other painting shows enemy soldiers. It depicts the British defenders of Hong Kong as seen by the Japanese attackers. It is apparently just before sunrise, and the viewer is charging a hilltop machine gun nest beneath a canopy of camouflage netting. The city lights and glimmering harbor of Hong Kong are just within sight over the shoulder of the hill. Judging by the panic-stricken expressions on the two visible British faces, the goal is attainable.

There is only one picture of the home front, a rather melancholy scene in which three generations — grandmother, mother, and little boy with war toys — huddle on a tatami floor while the mother opens a scroll that was delivered along with a military medal in a small box. The medal is the telling detail. It wouldn’t have been sent to these three if the man of the family were alive to wear it. It doesn’t seem to fit the theme of pro-war propaganda.

Nearly all of the paintings are artistically realistic. One of the exceptions, which was probably the largest picture on display, is an impressionistic portrayal of some traditional Japanese comic dancers entertaining the troops in China. The artist’s thick brush strokes are perfect for the large and deliberately silly figures of the performers who dominate the left side of the painting, but they reduce the audience of soldiers on the right side to a sea of grotesque and clownish smiles. At first I wondered if perhaps the artist was deliberately subverting his own message by making the soldiers so ugly, but then I decided not. The audience (not the performers) is lit from above by a bare light bulb in a metal hood. The cone of light cast by this bulb, bright white at the top and fading into darkness below, looks exactly like Mount Fuji topped with snow. It dominates about one third of the canvas. The soldiers are smiling so wildly because, as the Fuji-light symbolizes and the dancers attest, this part of China has BECOME Japan.

In addition to the paintings, there were also twenty or so official photo portraits of the artists themselves. In most cases, the guys (and of course they are all guys) don’t look military at all but rather like stereotypical artists with pointy goatees, disheveled Trotsky manes, and dangling cigarettes. Most of them are posed in front of their work. One guy is slumped over a table as if exhausted. His chin rests in the crook of his left arm while his left hand fingers the hair on the side of his head. His right hand rests on the table with a cigarette smoldering between his knuckles. The table is practically buried under dozens of paintbrushes, pencils, and artistic tools. The entire wall behind him is covered by a mural he seems to have just completed. It looks like a busy highway after a strafing. Vehicular wreckage is everywhere and people are dashing about in a panic. The artist’s large, innocent eyes are turned up toward the camera beneath his bushy brows. Look at me, his expression says. I’m sensitive. I’m bohemian. I’m Imperialistic Japan.

The only one whose photo didn’t fit this pattern was Kuribara, the pencil-sketch artist. He is shown in the field, standing with a large sketch pad balanced on one arm as he draws a row of three soldiers who are seated on the ground in front of him. He wears the same uniform that they do. The top half of his face out of the picture, as if the photographer were more interested in the three men sitting on the ground. The bottom half of his face is obscured by the shadow of his hat. This visual anonymity was oddly fitting, since we were left to wonder whether Kuribara was an official war artist from the start, or a talent discovered in the ranks. There’s no way to know, since the show included no biographical or historical explanations and the only information offered about each painting was title, artist and date. Perhaps the exhibitors thought that too much editorializing would be risky.

As an interesting postscript, the exhibit concluded with a pair of postwar street scenes by an artist whose simple and humorous style resembled a grungy version of that of Sid Hoff, the American children’s book illustrator. Hung side by side, these two wide canvases at first seem to represent one continuous street. That may be the intention, but closer inspection reveals a time difference between them. The first picture is immediately after Japan’s surrender, and the second is during the early days of the Occupation. The first picture shows thoroughly beaten Japanese soldiers trudging home, while the second shows robust and cheerful American soldiers entering the scene. One is entering a bordello. Everything is in ruins in the first picture, but the second has a new building under construction in the background even while most of the people seem to be living outdoors. In the first picture, people are lining up at a wooden shack to receive rations. In the second, there is still no grocery store but fish and grilled squid are being sold on the sidewalk. In the first picture nobody is working, but the second picture shows a tiny spark of industry in a group of men who have opened an outdoor shoe-repair shop. The first picture shows a few people shirtless and barefoot, but in the second picture everyone is fully dressed — although fully dressed in rags for the most part.

Life is far from perfect is either picture, but the direction of progress is clear. These last two paintings tell us that, despite the brave images in the rest of the exhibit, things began to go right only after Japan lost.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


HANGING OUT WITH THE CATS

Have there been any nuclear accidents in Canada lately? Last week I saw some truly frightening animals from that country when I visited the cat zoo.

Yes, the cat zoo. You already knew, of course, that there is a cat art gallery here in Japan, so why not a cat zoo? In fact, this country boasts at least two such zoos. One of them, in the Kinugawa area of Tochigi-ken, is called Wan-Nyan Mura (Woof-Meow Village). The other, more conveniently located in southern Tokyo, is called Nekotama (Cat-Tama, so named because it is just a few blocks from the Tama River).

A Japanese cat fancier of my acquaintance put me onto this place, and she gave me a coupon for 200 yen off the 700 yen (US $6.54 or 6.80 euros) price of admission when I said it sounded interesting. Like many cat fanciers here, she does not actually own a cat. Her apartment is too small, and there are rules against pets. The relatively high rate of three-generation households also cramps the style of some would-be pet owners. I know a guy who still doesn’t have a cat at the age of 40 because his mom won’t let him have one.

Those who are catless but wish they weren’t can get their fix of cooing and cuddling any day of the week with a visit to Nekotama. There’s a bulletin board just inside the entrance covered with snapshots of recent visitors holding cats. One of them was a stocky guy in a black leather vest with no shirt on underneath it. He was wearing a bandanna on his head, mirrored sunglasses, several days worth of stubble, and a goofy grin as he cradled a Tabby in his massive arms. It goes to show you never can tell.

Most of the visitors on the day that I was there were young women on their own or with boyfriends in tow. Exclamations of “Kawaii!” (Cute!) could be heard on a fairly steady basis. Cute is big in Japan. Of course, no one said “Kawaii!” in front of the display case housing those horrid and unfortunate Canadian things.

They, and several other distinctive breeds, were housed in glass-fronted pens that were meant to resemble Western-style living rooms, complete with chairs, tables, and (non-functioning) fireplaces. The largest of these was occupied by a pair of nearly identical Turkish Angoras called Silky and Milky. A sign helpfully explained that one of them had blue eyes and the other one had green eyes. Both of them kept their eyes closed. There was also a cute creature called a Scottish Fold whose ears are folded over, and a pair of odd-looking pug-nosed cats. My own personal favorites were the dark and velvety Russian Blues, who would have made lovely pets or lovely gloves.

And then there were the Sphinxes. The female of the pair had such bright yellow fur that it looked synthetic. She had very little of it. Her gray and heavily wrinkled skin was showing through so clearly that her hide had the look of a much-trampled carpet that should have been replaced years ago. Her mate was even more grotesque. He had no hair at all except for an electrified-looking crewcut between his radar-dish ears. He had a lot more skin than he really needed, and most of the excess was hanging from his neck or draped around his shoulders. I couldn’t help noticing that his scrotum — which I overheard other visitors commenting on as well — would not have looked out of place on a considerably larger animal. A Great Dane, perhaps. Worst of all was his tail. Long, gray, lumpy, and totally hairless, it resembled nothing so much as a misplaced section of intestine. The effect was particularly shocking when he sat upright with his tail coiled over his abdomen. It was as if he had just committed seppuku with his own claws. Yuck.

I wish I could say that I spent more time gazing at the elegant Silky and Milky, but that just wouldn’t be true. I was surprised to learn that the Sphinx, in spite of its name, is a Canadian breed. The land of polar bears and arctic hares, of mink and beaver and Mike Myers’ chest wig, has given the world a hairless cat. How unpatriotic can you get? The voyageurs must be rolling in their graves.

Eventually I did tear myself away to see what else Nekotama might have to offer. There were two enclosures where visitors could actually encounter cats in person to stroke and hug them to their hearts’ content. The visitors’ hearts, that is. The cats themselves were kept on leashes and seemed a bit harried by all the attention. I also found these rooms a little too crowded myself, and since I was not on a leash I left.

My last stop was — of course — the Nekotama gift shop. As one might expect, this is a vast emporium of cat coffee mugs, cat calendars, cat paintings, cat stationery, cat cookies, cat keychains, cat toys, toy cats, cat refrigerator magnets, cat lamps, cat umbrellas, and so on.

What caught my eye was the Nekotama brand of herbal tea that includes catnip as its main ingredient. I had heard that this is an herb that is supposed to affect cats in the way that champagne affects people. Since then, I have been told by a couple of cat owners that it makes their pets roll around on their backs and drool, so perhaps champagne is not a sufficient analogy. Whatever catnip is, though, everyone agrees that felines love the stuff.

Hmmmm.

I stood around for a while thinking about how I should ask my question, and then approached the cashier when no one else was nearby. “Can only cats drink this?”

She was very quick to correct me. Cats CAN’T drink catnip tea because they have an aversion to hot beverages. I should have known. After all, the term “neko-jita” (cat tongue) is how the Japanese describe a person who doesn’t like their food or drink too hot. In any case, Nekotam’As catnip tea is intended primarily for human consumption. The cashier went on to say that if I drink it while my cat is in the house, the smell will make my cat love me very much. She then did a convincing pantomime of a cat cozying up to someone who smelled irresistible. She added that if I poured a little of it into a shallow dish and let it cool, then my cat would probably join me in enjoying the tea.

I decided not to tell her that I didn’t have a cat.

So, my plan now is to wait for my next free and sunny day, brew a pot of tea, and enjoy it on the outside steps of my apartment building. I’ll bring a shallow dish and an extra cup and share it with whatever human or feline neighbors happen to come by. As long as no Sphinxes show up, I’ll count the experiment as a success.

Wish me luck.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


SUMO !

In wooing his mate, a male pigeon fluffs up his feathers to make himself look larger than he really is. Hey baby, look at me! I’m the biggest bird on the block!

Likewise, a sumo wrestler strikes dramatic poses when he confronts his opponent before a bout. Squatting with legs akimbo and arms spread wide, his body language says, Behold! I’m huge! You haven’t got a chance.

Then he draws himself up to his full height, which in the case of one of the current champs is 204 cm (6’8″). Leaning his enormous torso to one side, he raises his opposite leg high into the air. The message is clear. My bulk may be equal to that of your whole family, but I’m still agile enough to balance it on one foot! Prepare to lose!

At least, that’s how I’ve always interpreted the posturing of sumo wrestlers about to fight. On a psychological level I’m sure it actually works that way — the glaring titans certainly make the most of it — but I recently learned that the historical purpose of these gestures was to make the combatants look LESS threatening.

A dozen centuries ago, sumo was a form of dueling. Noblemen with a dispute would send a couple of their bodyguards into the ring to sort things out. The original purpose of the arm-spreading and leg-lifting routine was to show that neither fighter had any weapons concealed on his person. (This may also explain why they fight in a state of near-nakedness.)

I learned this interesting tidbit last month when I attended a sumo basho, or tournament, for the first time. There are six basho every year, and half of them are held in Tokyo at a venue near Ryogoku station on the Sobu Line. The others are held in different regions of Japan. Another interesting fact I learned — the hard way — is that the cheapest seats are the best. The others get you only slightly closer to the action for a much higher price. Luckily, the arena is so small that even the nosebleed seats offer a pretty good view.

At 2,100 yen ($19.80 or 19.80 euros), the cheap seats at a basho may be the best entertainment value in Japan. The first match among the lowest-ranking rikishi (wrestlers) is at 8:00 in the morning, and the fights don’t stop until the yokozuna superstars do their thing at 6:00 in the evening. You may stay for as long as you like, but if you leave the building they won’t let you back in.

Fortunately, there’s no reason to leave. There’s a small restaurant in the building, and the two snack bars provide a decent array of munchies that can be washed down with the available beer, sake, and whiskey. You can also buy a wide range of “sumo-nirs”

— thanks to my friend Tony for that awful pun — including autographed posters, framed handprints of big-name rikishi, and even a set of chocolate sumo dolls. I found sumo to be fun from the very start, but I couldn’t help noticing that my own enthusiasm increased after I had polished off a bottle of sake and a bag of shredded squid. After my sumo companions and I finished a round of salami and beer, we were well primed to root for the yokozuna.

Rikishi are divided into numerous ranks, with yokozuna being such an exalted one that there are times when no one holds it. In the past three centuries there have only been about 60 yokozuna. Currently there are four, which has led more than a few observers to conclude that the sport is top-heavy at the moment, and that perhaps the rank is being awarded too often. To become a yokozuna, a rikishi must win two consecutive basho and display certain intangible qualities to impress the authorities of the sport. A decade ago, modern sumo’s most beloved figure (and the fattest rikishi ever), the American-born Konishiki, complained that racism was behind his failure to attain yokozuna status despite the numerous tournaments he had won. He may have had a point at the time — no gaijin had ever made it as far as he had, and some officials were openly uncomfortable about it — but this is no longer the problem it was. Two of the current yokozuna, Musashimaru and Akebono, are hulking Hawaiians, and the prestigious ranks just below yokozuna include another American, an Argentine, and two Mongolians. Meanwhile, Konishiki has gone on to become a very successful television personality.

Sumo is sometimes derided by Westerners as fat men in diapers shoving each other, but anyone who actually sees it and pays attention soon discovers otherwise. Some matches are decided by mere shoving, but most involve an array of techniques such as feints, holds, and throws that are much more interesting to watch. The loser is the one who is forced out of the dohyo (ring) or who touches the ground with any part of his body other than his feet.

Sometimes a rikishi is forced to the very edge of the dohyo, which has a slightly raised border. Gripping the border with his toes, he can make one last effort to save himself from being shoved out, and he sometimes succeeds. The crowd goes wild when this happens. Another technique for a wrestler in this desperate spot is to deliberately fling himself backwards out of the ring, pulling his opponent with him. Executing a twist as he falls, he tries to make his opponent hit the ground first. Most matches are over in seconds, but others go through several reversals before being finally decided. One match that my friends and I watched was so close — the wrestlers hit the ground side by side at the exact same moment — that the judges ordered them to start over.

The notion that sumo wrestlers are fat is largely true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. In moments of exertion it is often possible to see muscles rise out of the fat like great fish rising to the surface of the water — and then submerging again. This is especially true on the arms. Also, it is surprising how often the belt of a rikishi’ s loincloth looks a surreal dividing line between two completely different people. Since the most strenuous part of sumo is propelling a heavy opponent away from oneself, rikishi often have impressively muscled buttocks, hamstrings, and calves, regardless of the fat that may be riding around their top halves.

Ten years ago, during my first period of residence in Japan (I’m in my second now), it seemed as if sumo wrestlers would soon be muscular all over their entire bodies. The biggest star of the time, outshining even Konishiki, was a guy named Chiyonofuji. He had dislocated one of his shoulders several times, and had taken up weightlifting in the hope that larger muscles would shield the joint from further injury. As a result, he had a truly distinctive physique gave him more in common with bodybuilders than with his fellow rikishi. Everyone back then wondered who would represent the future of sumo: the ultra-fat Konishiki or the ultra-buff Chiyonofuji?

The jury is still out on that question, but the Konishiki camp has the definite edge. Most of today’ s rikishi are simply enormous, especially in the top ranks. Takanohana, one of the reigning yokozuna, is like many of today’s rikishi in that he has characteristics of both types: a roundish belly but powerful shoulders. Several others, though, are clearly in the Konishiki mold. Fellow yokozuna Musashimaru and Akebono, for example, weigh 224 kg (494 pounds) and 235 kg (518 pounds) respectively. Musashimaru looks like a bear getting ready to hibernate, and Akebono had large breasts that flow around to form silhouette-altering rolls of fat under his armpits. The up-and-coming Miyabiyama, who has scored several amazing upset victories lately, weighs 177 kg (390 pounds) at the age of 22 and has a pear-shaped body topped with a pear-shaped head.

The one wrestler in the elite division who clearly follows in Chiyonofuji’s footsteps is Terao, who is 111kg (245 pounds) of nearly solid muscle. He’s a big favorite with the crowd. He’s one of my favorites too because he’s still going strong at the age of 36, making him the oldest active rikishi by far. Terao looks like he’s 25. In contrast, the 28-year-old Musashimaru looks like he’s in his 60s and will probably have his first heart attack before his reaches Terao’s current age.

One possibly hopeful sign for the future is that the anonymous wrestlers of the lower ranks who fought in the early hours of the tournament include a many more who are muscular than who are fat. It will be a good thing, in my view, if these are the ones who move up in the seasons to come.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


AMERICAN INTERLUDE

Recently I returned to my native country, the United States, for the first time in three years. Having become used to life in Japan, I knew that America would probably have some surprises for me. They began before I even left, at Narita Airport.

TALK, TALK, TALK, TALK, TALK

“What I’m looking forward to is getting back to the States and reading a newspaper with a REAL sports page,” said a loud voice about a dozen spaces behind me in the check-in line. “They’ve got lots of basketball coverage here. The Japanese are crazy about basketball, I don’t know why, nobody plays it here. But they just ignore football. There’s nothing in the newspapers about football. They just don’t care.”

Yes, Americans are loud. At least some of us are, and I’ll admit that I’m one of them. However, it seems that a lot of Americans will get loud with anyone, whereas I prefer to talk to people I already know. I believe that Japanese newspapers do have REAL sports pages because they cover baseball, soccer, sumo, and other sports that the Japanese public is actually interested in, even if American football isn’t one of them. However, it never crossed my mind to say so to the man standing behind me in line because I don’t know him.

Whoever he was, he was less constrained than I, for the next thing he said to his companion was, ” So, you’re flying from here to…?” The two were obviously total strangers, but the second man’s monosyllabic replies didn’t keep the first man from gabbling on and on.

In Japan, I get chatted up by total strangers about twice a year, and it’s usually some drunken old man on a late-night train who wants to practice his Occupation-era English. The fact that I’m a big scary foreigner might have something to do with it, but I never see the Japanese grabbing each other’s lapels for surprise conversations either. During my week in the US, though, I was conversationally approached by at least ten different people. For example, I rode several buses, and three of the drivers wanted to talk to me.

Sometimes this talkativeness was uncomfortable. One day while my father and I were shopping at a large discount drug store in Colorado, he asked me to look for some lip balm. An old woman spun around suddenly and exclaimed in our faces, “Floor mats, that’s what I’m lookingfor! I need some floor mats for my car, and they don’t have them here!”
On a flight from Minneapolis to San Francisco the woman sitting next to me was full of questions which I answered as briefly as possible. She had dirty hair, baggy eyes, swollen lips, and a large protruding glob of what might once have been bread stuck in her upper teeth. I’m afraid I may not have been successful in controlling the expression on my face, so she soon turned back to her traveling partner. He was a pale, thin young man with large eyes, a large Adam’s apple, and an NRA (National Rifle Association) baseball cap which had a swatch of Episcopalian rainbow ribbon safety-pinned onto the side. Despite his near-total silence, she kept up a steady stream of chatter across half a continent. She clearly had a case of what the American writer Michael Chrichton has described as “verbal incontinence.”

American chattiness is not necessarily a bad thing, though. Had I been thinking more clearly, I could have turned it to my advantage. My first few days in the US were spent in Minnesota, the state whose governor is former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura. I am currently trying to sell a review of Ventura’s autobiography, and I easily could have could have pumped the Minnesotans I met for their opinions on the job he has done so far. Unfortunately, I was so taken aback by the idea of strangers talking to me that I brushed off some people who could have been helpful. In Colorado, I saw my father make a potentially useful business contact with someone who began talking to us at a bus stop. About rocks, of all things. And then a few of the loquacious strangers were just plain interesting, such as the septuagenarian skier who spoke to my parents and me on a chairlift.

This sort of thing must have happened to me in America before, but I never noticed it. After three years in quiet Japan, it came as something of a shock.

COLISEUM-STYLE ENTERTAINMENT

One person who didn’t speak to me was a Minneapolis taxi driver who was more interested in listening to his morning radio program. When I left America three years ago, the comfortable and usually intelligent humor of radio acts like Harden and Weaver (older Washingtonians will know who I mean) was already a thing of the past. Morning radio had come to be dominated by jarring, lowbrow, short-attention-span ” morning zoo” programs that were sometimes zany but often just obnoxious. The taxi driver and I were listening to one of those.

The hosts of the program were having a contest. Whoever called in from the most unusual location would win a pair of tickets to a New Year’s Eve extravaganza. The caller on the line during my taxi ride said she was phoning from Dennis Green’s house. The hosts immediately got very excited, but it took me a few minutes of listening before I realized that Dennis Green was the coach of the Minnesota Vikings football team. The caller was the baby-sitter for Green’s three-year old daughter.

Feigning disbelief, the hosts told the baby-sitter to put the child on the line to prove it. They proceeded to interrogate her about her father. Most of the questions (like “What’s your daddy’s name?”) left her sounding very confused and slightly frightened. (To a three-year-old, daddy’s name is Daddy. Even I know that.) When she finally admitted that her favorite color is purple, apparently the team color, they left her alone.

I hope the baby-sitter got fired. I was shocked that someone entrusted with taking care of a child would show her off as some kind of freakish curiosity. I was also disturbed that the radio hosts didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with what they were doing. I was even more disturbed by the idea that a large chunk of the public regards this kind of thing as legitimate entertainment.

However, this problem is not limited to the United States. Here in Japan, on July 23rd, 1999, a domestic airline flight was hijacked by a man with a knife shortly after it took off from Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The pilot was stabbed to death. Television reporters immediately raced to the pilot’s home to ask his wife what she thought of this, and that is how she learned what had happened to her husband.

About fifteen years ago, a video called ” Faces of Death” was controversial in America because it showed film footage of executions, suicides, and fatal accidents. These, days “reality TV” programs showing much the same thing have become commonplace in both the US and Japan. It is true that most of these programs are produced in the United States, but the fact they have found an audience in both countries is a bad sign for everyone.

FUNNY MONEY

Before going to America, I had read that the paper currency was being redesigned. I had even seen a few of the new $100.00 bills in Japan. However, upon being handed several crisp new $20.00 bills at the currency exchange desk I was surprised by how weird they felt. I don’t know if the US is now using of new type of paper or if I had just gotten used to the feel of Japanese currency, but they felt stiff and a little rough. It was odd.

Odder still was the fact that I actually flinched the first time an American cashier handed me my change. My first purchase was an 80-cent postcard. Handing over a dollar, I received two dimes. They were so tiny that after three years away my sense of touch no longer recognized them as coins. They felt more like collar buttons or watermelon seeds. Even the Japanese one-yen coin, a small aluminum disk of almost no value, feels more substantial in the hand.

On top of that, there are now at least six different versions of the US quarter in circulation. The quarter is a 25-cent (25 yen, or 0.25 euros) coin that has George Washington on one side and an eagle on the other. Usually. In 1999, the US Mint issued five different versions of the quarter. The Washington side has been slightly redesigned, and the eagle is gone. In its place you can find one of five different designs representing the first five states to join the Union: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut. In 2000, five more quarters will be released, representing Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Virginia. This will continue until every state has one. Ten years from now, there will be over fifty different 25-cent coins in circulation, and still more if the occasional drives for DC or Puerto Rican statehood have succeeded by that time.

The Pennsylvania coin is dignified enough, with a goddess of some sort extolling ” Virtue, Liberty, Independence.” Can’t argue with that. The Georgia coin looks like a video arcade token, with a plump, deeply cleft peach framed by a map of the state’s borders. Perhaps when Iowa’s turn comes around, their coin will carry a diagram of an ethanol molecule.

Before I get carried away, I should point out that a similar thing is happening in Japan, though on a smaller scale. This year will see the introduction of the first new Japanese paper currency in decades, and a new coin as well. Japanese coins have floral designs, while paper money has portraits of intellectuals. The 1000-yen note, for example, carries a portrait of Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), the author of many famous novels including ” Botchan,”
“Kokoro,” and ” I am a Cat.” The 10,000-yen note features Yukichi Fukuzawa, (1835-1901), a Meiji-era Westernizer who wrote over 100 books. In between is the little-used 5000-yen note, bearing the likeness of the little-known Inazo Nitobe, who was a bigwig in the League of Nations.

The newest intellectual to join this lineup is a woman, but it’s revealing to see how far back in time they had to reach to find her. She’ s Shikibu Murasaki (c.978-c.1026), author of ” Genji Monogatari” and star of the soon-to-be-released 2000-yen note. ” The Tale of Genji,” as it is often called in English, is widely considered to be the supreme masterpiece of Japanese literature. Given that, and considering that her nearest modern competition would probably come from the insipid Banana Yoshimoto, I’d have to say that she’s an excellent choice.

As for coins, the large and heavy 500-yen piece is being redesigned this year, but for reasons more practical than esthetic. The 500-yen coin is worth $4.90 (4.88 euros) but it has the same size, shape, weight, electrical conductivity, and general appearance as the Korean 500-won coin, which is worth only 45 yen (44 cents or 0.44 euros). Criminals have been taking advantage of this similarity in increasing numbers by importing large quantities of Korean coins which they use to dupe Japanese vending machines. Many of them don’t even bother making a fraudulent purchase. They just drop 500 won into the machine, hit the ” cancel” button, and receive back over ten times as much money as they put in. It’s a very quick and profitable but totally dishonest procedure which the owners of vending machines don’t like. As a result, nearly all of the machines have been equipped with coin slots too small for the large coins to fit into. This is inconvenient for the public and vexing to the government, which understandably doesn’t like to see its coinage rejected. This is especially true in Japan, which probably has more vending machines per capita than any other country on earth.

Hence, the new coin. The biggest difference in its appearance will be a slightly yellowish color due to the use of a new metal that will change the coin’s electrical conductivity, thereby helping machines to recognize it. There will also be a new feature inside each of the large zeroes in the number 500. It won’t exactly be a hologram, but the newspapers says that a ” hologram-like” design will appear in each of those spaces.

TECHNOLOGICAL BREAKTHROUGHS

After washing my hands in a public restroom in the US, I discovered that Americans are still drying their hands with a type of hot air blower that I have come to regard as old-fashioned. It has a big round nozzle that emits a jet of warm air. You have to stand in front of the machine for the better part of a minute rubbing your hands in the stream of air before them are reasonably dry. The newer Japanese machines don’t use a round stream of air at all. Instead, they shoot out a very thin and highly concentrated SHEET of hot air that is so powerful that it actually produces a dent where it touches your skin.

My parents found this concept disgusting when I tried to describe it, but I persist in thinking it’ s pretty cool. Once or twice though the sheet of air is usually sufficient, but I like to put my hands in again and again so I can watch the dent move up and down my skin. I know it makes me look weird, but people think that about me anyway, so why worry?

Another technological breakthrough that was absent in America was fully automated ski lift tickets. In the US it is apparently cutting edge stuff when the lift attendant uses a scanner to read the bar code on your ticket. In Japan, though, the lift attendants never bother with your ticket because the gates to the lift area can read a magnetic card in your pocket all by themselves. If your card is valid, the gates will open and let you into the lift area.

Thinking about it now, it occurs to me that neither of these systems is much of an improvement over the old-fashioned way of having a large date stamped on your ticket in ink.

Slightly more practical is the “Wax Boy”
service available at some Japanese ski resorts. It’s a coin-operated ski-through hut located right on the slope that will wax your skis while you wear them.
To those who view the US-Japanese relationship primarily as a rivalry I say: don’ t let Wax Boy and the souped-up hand dryers get ou down. There are still some areas in which Japan clearly lags behind. For example, despite all their vaunted techno-prowess and alleged service-mindedness, the Japanese still haven’t discovered how to make an ATM work on holidays or after 9:00 PM on weekdays.

It seems we still have a lot to learn from each other.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.