A small corner of the countryside in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture recently made the national headlines, when half a field full of green tea bushes and a large chunk of the hill on which it was perched plunged into the river eighty metres below. As I was watching the news, though, I couldn't help thinking of that scene in Crocodile Dundee, the punchline for which is 'That's a knife'. In other words, forget green tea bushes in Hamamatsu, this is what you call a proper landslide:
As a follow-up to my post about gorgeous gals I'd like to go out with if only Mrs M would let me, and as promised, it's time for a counter-list of studly Japanese fellas.
Except it's not. I asked Mrs M to tell me which of her countrymen she'd most like to be wined and dined by, and she said that, to be honest, there were barely enough to count on the fingers of, er, one finger. So instead, I have decided to disregard looks (almost) altogether, and give you a list of chaps who while they aren't necessarily handsome, may be attractive to the opposite sex for other reasons - for example, they're good at sport, or they're funny, or they have managed to become famous despite the rather obvious handicap of coming from Ibaraki.
So without further ado:
1) Takashi Okamura
Okamura is one of the four or five most famous comedians - in fact, possibly one of the four or five most famous people - in Japan, and turned his diminutive stature (he is just 156cm / 5'1" tall) to his advantage by playing the boké (fall guy) to his sidekick Hiroyuki Yabé's tsukkomi (straight man). As Ninety-Nine (it is an unwritten rule for Japanese comedy duos to have an English name, other examples being Downtown, Black Mayonnaise, Peace and Un-Girls), the two began fronting a phenomenally successful show called Mecha x 2 Iketeru in the the mid-90s, which specialises in crazy stunts and Candid Camera-style pranks.
As well as a physical toll - at one point Okamura broke his shoulder during filming - the pressures of fame took a mental one, too, and in 2010 Okamura was admitted to hospital suffering from nervous exhaustion. In the cut-throat world of Japanese TV, if a celebrity disappears from view there is a very good chance they will never reappear, but Okamura is so well loved that after five months off he was welcomed back into the TV fold with open arms.
My current favourite show of his is Moté Moté 99, which isn't really comedy at all, and involves a group of single women travelling to some far-flung corner of the Japanese archipelago to meet a group of single men and hopefully find their soulmates (rather like Blind Date back in the day, Moté Moté recently witnessed its first marriage). The ironic thing is that despite presiding over so much matchmaking, Okamura himself is, famously, still single, and recently backed out of a relationship with a woman he had been fixed up with in a different segment of the same show.
2) Yuki Ohtsu
Like most footballers, Yuki Ohtsu appears to spend more time perfecting his hairstyle than he does perfecting his ball skills (although having said that, he uses nowhere near as much peroxide as his more renowned countryman Keisuké Honda, pictured here).
Ohtsu's nickname is charao, which means 'flash guy', but gets an inclusion on this list because a) he comes from Mito, and b) while representing his country at the London Olympics, he scored three goals, including a spectacular long-range effort against Mexico, and a less spectacular but more important short-range effort against Spain.
3) Watanabé 'Helmut' Naomichi
Watanabé was working as a director for TBS Television when he was chosen to take part in a reality-style segment of the otherwise unremarkable show Nakai Masahiro No Kinyohbi No Suma-Tachi (or Kinsuma for short). After four summers trying to turn a profit in a beach-front café (a feat that he eventually managed in 2006), Watanabé - possibly voluntarily, possibly against his will - moved to the wilds of Ibaraki to try his hand at being a farmer. He was so well suited to the task that five and a half years later he is still there, and currently putting the finishing touches to a new house, into which his parents will soon be moving from their present home in Amami Ohshima, an island off the south-west coast of Kyushu.
Obviously Watanabé is being paid by TBS for his Hitori-Noh-gyo (ひとり農業 / One-man Farming) spot on Kinsuma, and lives with a small production team on the farm, but his softly spoken, undemonstrative manner is quite unlike that of the celebrity types who occasionally drop by to help out with rice planting, crop picking and so on.
(He's the one on the right in this photo, by the way.)
Particularly in an era when the pervading trend is to move away from the countryside (for the first time in human history, over half of the world's population now lives in cities), Watanabé is setting an admirable example of how to live a life of comparative self-sufficiency. While he is always trying his hand at new tasks - beekeeping, solar power, making charcoal etc - at forty years old, and particularly now that he is settled in Ibaraki, what the viewing public really wants is for Watanabé to find romance...
4) Kohei Uchimura
Forget personality, muscles are where it's at, and no one in Japan has better defined pecs than Kohei Uchimura, who won the combined gymnastics gold medal at London 2012.
Uchimura's parents run a gymnastics school, and while they did of course encourage their son to become a gymnast pretty much from the moment he could stand up, he turned out to have a unique and instinctive talent for the sport.
For an NHK documentary broadcast just before the Olympics, Uchimura's abilities were tested in various different ways and compared to other top gymnasts: for example, when blindfolded, he can tell to within a degree or two how far his body is from vertical, and even as he is performing multiple, spinning somersaults above the floor or the wooden horse, his eyes are open and he is aware of exactly where he is in relation to his surroundings - the spectators, the lights on the ceiling of the hall, and the apparatus itself.
Don't get your hopes up, though, because as I was writing this blog post, Uchimura announced in quick succession that he a) had got married and b) is to become a father, a coincidence that is known in Japanese as dekichatta kekkon (出来ちゃった結婚 / a shotgun wedding).
5) Sanma Akashiya
Sanma - real name Takafumi Sugimoto - is one of those people born with two or three times the energy and enthusiasm of an ordinary mortal. If he ever sleeps, I can't imagine it is for that long, and his waking hours are a whirl of presenting, socialising, joking and laughing (particularly the latter).
When I first started watching Sanma, I thought that maybe he was just playing up for the camera, but his enthusiasm is infectious, and more importantly, it is underpinned with genuine comic talent.
As the host of numerous TV shows, he invariably manages to be the funniest person in the studio, and many is the time his co-stars will applaud a well-placed one-liner. More importantly, he manages to avoid being self-righteous or sentimental, a trap into which many of his contemporaries fall all too easily, and the main reason I like his show Honma Dekka is that if there is even the slightest hint of someone taking themselves seriously, Sanma will immediately step in with a put-down or comic aside.
6) Yuki Saito
I am still largely ignorant of baseball, but one player who is worth mentioning for his clean-cut good looks and gentlemanly behaviour is Yuki Saito, who broke numerous records as a star pitcher for Waséda High School and Waséda University.
Even while pitching his way through a sweltering summer's afternoon, rather than using his sleeve, Saito would mop his brow with a blue handkerchief, a habit that earned him the nickname hankachi ohshi - the handkerchief prince - and which caused sales of blue handkerchiefs to sky-rocket.
Another incident that has entered baseball folklore occurred at the end of a press conference, when Saito not only tidied his own chair beneath the table, but that of his coach as well. Not something you will see John Terry or Ashley Cole do, for example, and while Saito's record since turning professional has thus far failed to live up to expectations, his status as a housewives' favourite comes with a lifetime guarantee.
7) Kenta Nishimura
If you're after honesty in a man, look no further than writer Kenta Nishimura, winner of the 2010 Akutagawa Prize for his novel Kuéki Ressha (苦役列車 / literally, Hard Toil, Ordinary Train).
At a press conference after the announcement, Nishimura turned up in a check shirt and shorts, and proceeded to charm the assembled journalists with his unpretentious manner. When asked what he was doing when he heard about the prize, he said that he was at home and had been thinking of going to a brothel.
'Lucky I didn't, isn't it?' he said, and went on to describe his utterly unglamorous lifestyle, confessing that he doesn't have any friends and doesn't even talk to anyone on a regular basis. Nishimura never went to high school, managed to acquire a criminal record between various dead-end jobs, and while he certainly doesn't have Saito's looks or Okamura's earning power, anyone this self-effacing deserves a fighting chance with the opposite sex (conversely, I wonder whether he hasn't been flooded with offers of marriage since finding fame).
8) Akihiro Yamaguchi
I was going to include four-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Kohsuké Kitajima on this list, in particular for his post-race interview after the 100m breaststroke final at Athens 2004, during which he said words to the effect of 'That was really wicked. I've properly got goosebumps.' (ちょう気持ちいい。鳥肌ものです。). In terms of Japanese swimming, though, the future lies with Akihiro Yamaguchi.
Yamaguchi failed to make the Japanese team for London 2012, but not long after it was over he set a new world record in Kitajima's other specialist event, the 200m breaststroke. Not only was the record set at a minor swimming meeting in an outdoor pool, but Yamaguchi is still a high school student, and at the time had just celebrated his eighteenth birthday.
Look out for Yamaguchi at Rio 2016, and in the meantime, here is a picture of him in his swimming trunks.
9) Takeshi Kitano
Kitano is one of the most famous comedian-stroke-presenters in Japan, and like Sanma, can be seen on prime-time TV several times a week. The really unique thing about him, though, is his ability as a film director.
Not many people in Japan have even seen them, but films like Sonatine (ソナチネ in Japanese), Zatoichi, Hana-bi, Brother and Kikujiro are almost in a genre of their own. You might describe them as philosophical gangster comedies, in that they combine dead-pan humour with extreme violence and occasional meditations on the meaning of life, and you can clearly see their influence in the early work of Quentin Tarantino - ie. two parts gangsters-in-suits-hanging-out-and-telling-jokes to one part graphically bloody violence.
In fact, Kitano was once involved in a life-imitating-art gangster-style kerfuffle, which became known as 'The Friday Incident'. When a journalist tried to buttonhole Kitano's university student girlfriend (he was already married at the time, and has allegedly fathered at least one secret love child), he got a gang of buddies together and drove over to the offices of the newspaper where the journalist worked. As well as trashing the place with umbrellas and fire extinguishers, the group beat up several members of staff, and at one point, Kitano was quoted as uttering the immortal words Bucchi-korosu kono yaro! (ぶち殺すぞこのやろう！/ I'll fucking kill you, you arsehole!).
10) Takahiro Tasaki
It is not unreasonable to suggest that high school girls are the most culturally influential minority in Japan, and when questioned in a recent TV programme - presented, predictably enough, by Sanma - about who is the fittest bloke in Japan, the most popular choice by some distance was Takahiro Tasaki of the R&B vocal / dance group Exile. In fact, one of the girls interviewed for the programme found Takahiro so attractive that the mere thought of him caused her to burst into tears.
It may not surprise you to learn that before winning a 'vocal battle audition' to become a member of Exile, Takahiro trained and worked as a hairdresser, and for those of you who are interested in that kind of thing, his vital statistics are as follows:
Birthday: 8th December
Star sign: Sagittarius
Height: 180cm (5'10")
Blood group: O
Hobbies: karaté, calligraphy
Be warned, however, as Takahiro was born in 1984, which by the Chinese calendar makes him a rat. Hmm...
So that's it. As always, any suggestions for additions to this top ten of totty will be most welcome, and in the interests of balance, next time round I suppose I should compile a gay and transgender one...
Tomakomai West Port Ferry Terminal to Tomakomai Cycling Terminal (苫小牧西港フェリーターミナル – 苫小牧市サイクリングターミナル) – 7km
While my room-mates may have been quiet, the Sunflower ferry’s PA system was most definitely not. An alarm sounded at both 6 and 6.30am, before an automated announcement at 7.30 to tell us that the coast of Aomori Prefecture was now visible to our left – not much use as a) there were no windows in Room 358, and b) even if there had been, it was raining too heavily to see anything. After that we were treated to information about the restaurant menu and opening times, followed by a selection of muzak that included Ralph McTell’s Streets Of London arranged for Bontempi organ.
As the ferry arrived in Tomakomai I got talking to Mr Small Forest, who was on his tenth cycle tour of Hokkaido and rode a lovingly maintained, old-school racing bike .
A resident of Chiba Prefecture, Mr Small Forest was aiming to reach Wakkanai in the far north of Hokkaido, covering 100km a day, staying in railway station waiting rooms and cooking his own food along the way. As I hummed and hawed about whether or not to venture out into the rain, he posed for a photo, did a few stretching exercises and cycled off.
This amusingly sensational public information poster ('Be Poisoned. Flashback. Be Broken. No Future!!') caught my eye in the ferry terminal ticket hall.
But despite waiting around for several hours, by the time I finally set off at about four in the afternoon, the still pouring rain was accompanied by flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder.
At Tomakomai Cycling Terminal - a kind of bicycle-themed youth hostel - when the receptionist asked to see my passport, I realised that I had no ID on me of any kind: no passport, no gaijin card, no driver’s licence, not even a credit card, although I did have my Co-op Bank debit card, which he graciously accepted as evidence that I wasn’t going to take part in any terrorist activities.
‘There was a G8 summit at Lake Tohya the other week,’ he explained, ‘so everyone’s been on the alert, particularly public institutions like this one. They brought in extra police officers from all over Japan – if you’d been here at the time, you probably would have been stopped and searched. Are you American?’
‘No, I’m from England.’
‘Really? Ah, that takes me back! I spent three months in Ramsgate in – when was it? – 1974. I was practically the only foreigner there, so they treated me like a VIP.’
Well, I suppose someone has to get nostalgic for Ramsgate.
I was the only guest at the Cycling Terminal that night, and for just under 4000 yen (less than twenty quid at the time), my room was spacious enough to accommodate a party of ten, with a TV, a safe, a fridge freezer and all-you-can-brew green tea. More importantly, there was a large, sauna-like drying room in the basement that was kept at a constant temperature of something like 50°c, so that my clothes were dry enough within an hour for the short ride to a nearby soba restaurant.
‘Tomakomai is the rainiest place in Hokkaido,’ said the restaurant's chef and proprietor, Mr That Swamp. ‘Does it rain a lot in England?’
‘Not as much as you might think, actually.’
‘How about London fog?’
‘No, no. That was all over a long time ago.’
‘England, England. Let me see... Ah yes, James Bond!’ I joined in as Mr That Swamp hummed the twanging guitar theme from the James Bond films. ‘What's the actor's name?'
'Yes, yes, yes. And who else was there?’
‘And Pierce Brosnan!’
‘Of course. And Timothy Dalton.’
Mr That Swamp was so impressed with my knowledge of James Bond that he gave me an extra deep-fried prawn and a free cup of saké, and invited me to come back the following morning for a demonstration of how to make soba noodles.
Many of us have had reason to complain about our job at some point or another, but the next time you feel like handing in your resignation and storming out of the office in a huff, spare a thought for the subject of this recent news story:
Death by overwork: only three days off in thirteen months - charges filed against presidents of confectionery company
The supervisory office for labour standards in Mito City and the Mito City public prosecutor's office have filed charges against the 69-year-old male director and 54-year-old female president of Japanese confectionery manufacturing company Hagiwara, which is based in Kasama City, Ibaraki Prefecture.
The suspects are being prosecuted for contravening a labour and management agreement by granting one of their male employees - a resident of Kasama City - just three days off in the thirteen-month period between 1st August 2010 and 31st August 2011, and for making him work on his days off a total of fifty-three times during the same period. They also failed to notify the labour standards office of the contents of the employee's contract.
According to the labour standards office, the member of staff, who was working as 'general director of manufacturing' and in control of shipping at the company, collapsed after arriving home on August 30th last year and died two days later. He was thirty years old and died as a result of ventricular fibrillation, although in February of this year, his death was officially recognised as being due to overwork.
It was recorded on the man's time card that he did more than one hundred hours' overtime per month for every month of the thirteen-month period, although the company could not confirm this, and said, 'the employee in question was taking breaks'.
Citing the man's status within the company, the suspects are refuting the allegations, saying that 'sections of the rules regarding labour standards law are not applicable to such a supervisory position'. The labour standards office, however, ruled that 'the employee was responsible for shipping, and as such, his role did not constitute a management position'.
(Various sources, including the Mainichi Newspaper, 1st October 2012. Oh, and in case you hadn't already cottoned on, karoh-shi / 過労死 is the Japanese word for 'death by overwork'.)
If you know of anyone male who has moved or is thinking of moving to Japan – ie. working here rather than just taking a holiday – it is 99% certain they are not just coming for the culture, the comic books, the Zen meditation or the nuclear meltdowns. No, what they are secretly – or not-so-secretly, as the case may be – here for is the women, and it has to be said that despite taking a genuine interest in the woodcuts of Katsushika Hokusai, the films of Takeshi Kitano, learning a martial art and eating raw fish, I was no different.
My dream came true in the form of Mrs M, and while we are of course now blissfully happily married, I thought it might be interesting to tell you who are the top ten Japanese women that just supposing I wasn’t blissfully happily married to Mrs M, I wouldn’t be entirely displeased to find sitting across the table from me in a posh restaurant, for example, or next to me at an office party.
The most visible ladies in Japan, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, are the forty-eight members of AKB48, whose management team hit upon the ingenious idea of an annual election to decide who is the most popular – and by implication, the cutest – member of the group. In a stroke of marketing genius, the rules of the election dictate that you are only entitled to vote if you have purchased an AKB48 CD or download, and the winner of the election is promoted to ‘lead singer’ (I put the words ‘lead singer’ in quotation marks because whether what AKB48 do can be described as singing – and indeed whether any of them actually sing on their records – is a moot point) for the proceeding year. In both 2009 and 2011 this was Atsuko Maéda, who while she does have a certain charm is also rather annoying. Whenever you see Maéda on TV, she is almost guaranteed to burst into tears from the sheer emotional strain of being in a girl group (as in this commercial for ochazuké), and frankly, she should just pull herself together.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that anyone who thinks AKB48 are a prime example of Japanese womanhood is sorely mistaken, and would be better advised to do a Google image search for this lot instead:
1) Mari Yaguchi used to be in Morning Musumé, who were the AKB48 of their day, and the reason I have a soft spot for her is that she reminds me of Mrs M. While both Yaguchi and Mrs M are petite, however, Yaguchi’s husband is a foot taller than me, so I almost certainly wouldn’t stand a chance with her if – purely hypothetically, you understand – we happened to attend the same suburban swingers' key-swapping party.
2) Perfume are also a girl group, and to be brutally frank, every bit as talentless as both AKB48 and Morning Musumé. They are, however, less annoying (I have yet to see a member of Perfume cry on national television, for example), less ubiquitous, less numerous and better looking, in an impressively leggy kind of a way.
3) Speaking of legginess, I would argue that the most statuesque of Japanese models is Yu Yamada, whose face was absolutely everywhere when she first came to prominence in the mid-noughties. In the context of the fashion world, Yamada is already past her prime, but has a distinctly un-Japanese exoticism about her, possibly because she hails from the southern islands of Okinawa.
4) Attractive older women are known as jukujo (熟 女), and the queen of the jukujo is Sawa Suzuki, actress, variety show regular and a kind of Japanese version of Rula Lenska. Don’t get your hopes up, though, as she is currently engaged to be married to a man ten years her junior.
5) Possibly because I watch her every week on Honma Dekka, another jukujo eminently deserving of a mention is Wakako Shimazaki, who is, incredibly, still single.
6) Ayako Katoh is also a regular on Honma Dekka, and as well as keeping a level head when all about her are taking the piss, she either has very good taste in clothes or a very good stylist.
7) As Swiss Tony may once have said, a beautiful woman is worth nothing without a beautiful personality, which is why the next lady on my list is Ayano Fukuda, who is kinda quirky, kinda cute and, most important of all, kinda funny. Fukuda is an impressionist currently doing the variety show rounds, and while she may well have disappeared from view a year from now (worryingly, she only ever seems to trot out the same two impersonations), she will always have at least one fan club member in Ibaraki.
8) My next choice will be seen by many as wildly eccentric, but again, partly because she is on TV every week (Sekai Banzuké, Itté Q) and partly because she is the antithesis of AKB48 girly cuteness, Ayako Imoto is, as the saying has it, quite fit. She strikes me as the kind of woman who could hold her own in a fight, an argument or a piss up, and who because she has travelled the world several times over, would almost certainly have something interesting to say for herself should one, for example, find oneself sitting across the table from her in a pie and mash shop.
Oh, hang on, that wasn't the right photo…
9) To continue the theme of strong women, I couldn’t possibly finish this post without mentioning at least one member of the Nadéshiko Japan women’s football team, who while they aren’t exactly Girls Aloud, are the height of glamour compared to Nadéshiko GB, for example, or even Nadéshiko Sweden. While many men would ask Nahomi Kawasumi to accompany them on a romantic night out at Old Trafford, the Bernabéu Stadium or, er, Ladysmead, I would offer my spare ticket to Saki Kumagai, who is a) rather attractive, and b) scored the winning goal in a World Cup final penalty shoot-out.
10) Last but not least, when it comes to having crushes on famous people, I have always believed that it’s important to seek out someone a little more obscure and a little more accessible – so obscure and accessible, in fact, that there really is the slimmest of chances one might find oneself sitting next to her on the bus, for example, or in the launderette. The reason being, in this case, that the thoroughly charming Shizuka Haségawa is a presenter-stroke-reporter for NHK Ibaraki, whose studios are just down the road from where I now live. When Haségawa was on TV the other week, onii-san described her in no uncertain terms as being busu (ugly), but that only endeared her to me more, not to mention increasing my confidence that should the opportunity arise, our destinies may still be intertwined (Haségawa is so obscure that I couldn't find a decent picture of her, so the curious amongst you will have to make do with her NHK Ibaraki profile page instead).
So that’s that. I'd like to reassure you that I ran this blog post past Mrs M just in case she took offence (she didn’t, mainly because she knows that not a single one of the aforementioned women would give me a second glance if I was quite literally the last man on earth), and I suppose the obvious follow-up would be a post about the Japanese men she thinks are deserving of a wider – or rather, worldwide – audience. In the meantime, suggestions for additions to the list would be much appreciated: who is your ideal J-lady, and why?
I've always been a sucker for any news story that involves bungling crooks, and this one from last week is a fine example of the genre:
On Monday 7th May at around 5.30pm, a 59-year-old woman arrived back at her apartment complex in Nishi-ku, Sapporo, and was checking her mail just inside the main doors when a man crept up on her from behind. He snatched her handbag - which among other things contained approximately 4000 yen (about £20) in cash - and ran off, a moment that was captured for posterity by security cameras in the residents' car park.
As any bag snatcher worthy of the job title will tell you, it's essential to plan your escape route in advance, but being a certified Bungling Crook, our man got on his bicycle and promptly headed towards a dead end at the back of the apartment block. Not only that, but the victim of his crime was hot on his heels, and caught up with him as he was turning around to look for a way out.
While the woman preferred to remain anonymous, she did agree to be interviewed on camera, and appeared on the news filmed from the neck down and with her voice disguised. Here's how she described what happened next:
'I held up my hands and shouted, "Wait!" and then grabbed the shopping basket on the front of the bicycle. I managed to get hold of my bag, and as I was trying to snatch it back, the struggle continued next to the bicycle. I was biting down on the thief's left hand, and you could see it was hurting him, but even so, he didn't make a sound. After he escaped I noticed something strange in my mouth. When I realised it was a finger, I felt rather queasy and spat it out.'
Yes, that's right, in the process of successfully reclaiming her bag, the woman managed to bite off part of her assailant's little finger - a neighbour interviewed for the same news item described finding it on the ground a few minutes later.
Once the thief had extricated himself from his victim's vice-like jaws - she bit down so hard that she broke one of her front teeth - he did eventually make his getaway, and at the time of writing is still at large. Aside from the obvious distinguishing feature of being one fingertip short of a handful, he is described as being in his 30s, between 170 and 180cm tall, and solidly built, with a light-coloured jacket and dark-coloured trousers.
The most amusing thing about the story is that cutting off the top of one's little finger is a common form of penance for members of the yakuza, so while the suspect is almost certainly not a gangster (it's highly unlikely that a proper yakuza would indulge in such petty thievery), he is destined forever to be mistaken for one.
As one news agency rather dryly concluded, 'The police have not revealed the whereabouts of the severed finger, nor have they said whether or not they will take a fingerprint from it to help apprehend the suspect.'
(Unfortunately, two news reports on this story have already been removed from YouTube, but if you fancy reading more about missing little fingers - aka koyubi / 小指 - may I recommend Junichi Saga's fascinating book Confessions Of A Yakuza.)
In amongst many newspaper stories commemorating the first anniversary of the earthquake, this one caught my eye for several reasons. Firstly, it is about one of the few people who lost their lives in Ibaraki (there were twenty-four in all - twenty-five if you include another who is still missing), and one of the few who did so as a result of the earthquake rather than the tsunami. Secondly, the events described took place in Mito, which is just down the road from where Mrs M and I now live. But thirdly, the manner of her death was bizarre to say the least...
A mother's heart has not healed, but she is helped by a circle of friends and supporters
Daughter died with her beloved cat - Akira Ikegami's publication is her destiny
Ms Seguro of Mito - 'Finally I can get back on my feet'
65-year-old Yasuko Seguro runs a beauty salon in Matsumoto Town, Mito City, and lost her daughter Keiko Taguchi - a housewife, who was 37 at the time - in the Great East Japan Earthquake. Yasuko showed us a recently published book that contains Keiko's story.
Keiko had a cold and was asleep on the third floor of Yasuko's house when the disaster struck, and died from cerebral contusion when her collection of books collapsed on top of her. She loved novels and manga, and more than five thousand titles were arranged on the bookshelves in her bedroom. She was staying with her parents at the time because her husband was working away from home.
Yasuko found Keiko's body after pushing her way through the many books that were scattered about the room. Keiko was with her beloved cat Gato. As if the cat was protecting Keiko, it was covering her face when it too died. 'My daughter had no visible injuries,' says Yasuko. 'Gato had protected her.'
When this story appeared in newspapers, a publisher made an offer to Yasuko, saying, 'We want Keiko's story to appear in Akira Ikegami's book.' Yasuko preferred to quietly lay the incident to rest, and rejected the offer.
After losing Keiko, Yasuko stopped eating, and lost over ten kilogrammes. Almost every day she talked to her daughter's photograph, and while she knew there would be no reply, she even sent text messages to Keiko's mobile phone saying, 'I want to meet you, I want to meet you'.
Soon afterwards, Ikegami called Yasuko directly, telling her that all proceeds from the book would go towards helping people in areas affected by the disaster.
'Lots of people have had a hard time, had their houses swept away in the tsunami, had family members go missing.' Yasuko agreed to the publication, and says, 'Hopefully I can contribute something to helping the victims of the disaster.'
The book, published as 'From The Great East Japan Earthquake - News To Join Our Hearts', was published at the end of June last year, with Keiko's story appearing as 'To heaven with her beloved cat'. But even now, after a year has passed, Yasuko has yet to read the book. The events of 11th March 2011 weigh heavily on her heart. Recalling Keiko, she says, 'Why couldn't I have helped you?'
Meanwhile, Keiko's story has appeared in newspapers and in the book, acquaintances of Keiko have come from far and wide to meet Yasuko, neighbours have given her food, and people often pause as they pass the house to bow silently. Many people have supported Yasuko.
'Even if it hadn't been for the earthquake, I wouldn't have been able to put my mind in order yet. But despite having been affected themselves, everyone has shown their support for me, even though they should have been too busy to even think of me. So now, at last, I can get back on my feet,' says Yasuko, her voice filled with tears.
(From the Tokyo Newspaper, 11/3/12. Incidentally, Akira Ikegami is probably the brainiest person in Japan, or at least the most famous brainy person in Japan, and while it hasn't yet been translated into English, you can buy his book here.)
One of the most famous videos of last year's tsunami was shot in Rikuzentakata City, Miyagi Prefecture, and makes for pretty terrifying viewing. If you fast-forward to four minutes in, however, you will notice a small group of people trying to outrun the approaching wave of debris and muddy seawater.
Setting aside what was going on in the background for a moment or two, you may be surprised...no, forget that: you will be astonished to learn that all of those people survived - a few happy endings among many, many sad ones, and a story that was related in one of the TV programmes broadcast this month to mark the first anniversary of the disaster.
Four minutes and thirty-five seconds into the video, the final two members of the group can be seen running across a field towards the camera, and disappear out of frame just as the tsunami is snapping at their heels. One of them made it to safety despite having broken a bone in her foot as she was climbing over her garden wall, and by an incredible stroke of luck, the other - who only gets around with the aid of a walking stick - was scooped up by a floating rooftop and deposited on the hillside without injury.
Although it's hard to make out, on the left-hand side of the screen from around the five-minute mark, some residents from a nearby old people's home are in the process of being rescued - you can get a slightly clearer view two and a half minutes into this next video, shot from almost the same location.
Daichi Sugawara, who was a member of staff at the home, can be seen running back down the hill towards a wheelchair-bound, 94-year-old lady called Umeko (the documentary didn't mention her surname).
When he was interviewed for the documentary, Daichi - who was just ninteteen years old at the time, and with his chubby features, acne and pudding-bowl haircut is probably the least heroic looking young man I have ever seen - recalled the events as follows:
'I thought that either I was going to abandon Umeko and run away, or we were going to die together. Of course, when I looked into Umeko's eyes, I thought, "If I let go of her hand now, I may regret it for the rest of my life". I thought of her as a member of my own family.'
Daichi pushed Umeko to safety, and out of sight of the video camera, even the man who is apparently washed away as this is happening somehow managed to scramble his way back onto dry land.
Umeko was interviewed for the documentary along with Daichi, and said, 'Daichi is like a grandson. He is so kind, and he really saved me when I was sitting in that wheelchair.'
Just as I was wiping a tear from my eye and wondering whether Daichi has been given some kind of award for this incredible act of bravery, Mrs M turned to me and said, 'If that was me I would have left her behind. She's ninety-four - she's lived enough already, hasn't she?'
Oh well, so much for sentimentality.
Just as I was putting the finishing touches to this post, the Guardian published this article by the one and only Charlie Brooker, which among other things includes a typically succinct and hilarious description of the majority of content on Japanese TV. So, about a week late and at the risk of being accused of jumping on the bandwagon, here is my own take on the subject (or rather, take two - you can find take one here).
The biggest TV gossip of 2011 had to be the sudden resignation of Shinsuké Hamada, who as well as looking a bit like Jimmy Carr, was found to have links with the yakuza. ('Jimmy Carr Mafia Link Shock!' - now that would be an interesting story. But anyway, I digress.). Once evidence of his friendship with a minor hoodlum became public, Shinsuké did the honourable thing by jumping before he was pushed, but is unlikely to be welcomed back anytime soon, and as onii-san pointed out, the punters are now a lot less likely to patronise his chain of restaurants for fear of guilt by association.
In the manner of post-Angus Deayton Have I Got News For You, some of Shinsuké's shows have drafted in guest presenters, among them Koji Higashino, who despite my prediction that his career would be cut short after an on-screen character assassination, has become an even more regular fixture on the panel show circuit.
Higashino's most notable appearance of 2011 was as a participant in the Sado Island Triathlon, posters for which were all over the place when I was there for my summer holidays. Rather than the usual 1.5km swim / 40km cycle / 10km run, however, the Sado Triathlon involves a 3.8km swim, a 180km cycle and a full, 42km marathon, and while the swim was reduced to 3km because of an approaching typhoon, there can be no shame in the fact that three of the four participating celebs failed to complete the course. (Incredibly, all three - including Higashino - fell short of their goal not because they collapsed from exhaustion, but because they couldn't keep within the fifteen-and-a-half-hour time limit.)
Both Shinsuké and Higashino cried in public last year - Shinsuké at his resignation press conference and Higashino in the lead-up to the triathlon - and the more Japanese TV I watch, the more I find myself blubbing into my remote control. For example, here's the scenario for a recent documentary about guide dogs:
Scene 1 - Partially sighted woman in Hokkaido has owned the same guide dog for almost a decade. Dog is due to retire next year. Woman cries.
Scene 2 - Ageing guide dogs limp around special retirement home, older ones lose ability to walk, eventually pass away. Sight of dying dogs enough to reduce grown man to snivelling wreck.
Scene 3 - Too young to be trained, new-born puppies are adopted by ordinary families for first year of their lives. No footage of life in temporary homes. Instead, documentary cuts straight to farewell at end of year and collective crying session.
It was at this point, about fifteen minutes in, that I decided to change channels for fear of being plunged into state of irreversible depression.
Speaking of dogs, I had planned to share some footage of another Shinsuké, who is quite possibly the cutest animal of all time, but unfortunately the clip has been withdrawn from YouTube, so you'll have to make do with this slide show from Twitter instead. (Believe it or not, Shinsuké isn't a puppy - pomeranians apparently retain their cuteness into adulthood.)
The prize for 2011's cutest human being goes to seven-year-old Mana Ashida - aka Mana-chan - who got her big break in a drama series called Marumo No Okité, and has since featured in no less than fifteen different TV commercials, not to mention countless variety shows, chat shows and music shows. The theme tune to Marumo No Okité - sung by Mana-chan with her co-star Fuku Suzuki - is the unfeasibly catchy Maru Maru Mori Mori (I did have a go at translating the lyrics, but gave up when I realised they were almost completely meaningless):
Just as Ahsida and Suzuki do a silly dance in their music video, so Japanese companies are in the habit of including similar dances in their commercials, the most notable example being this combination of five portly blokes, a Beyoncé tune and a new variety of cup ramen:
Despite the ubiquitousness of commercial-length public information films in the weeks and months following the earthquake (when advertisers were reluctant to purchase airtime), the most broadcast commercial of 2011 has to be this one for Choya alcohol-free plum wine, which as well as a silly dance, features a jingle that wouldn't necessarily be annoying if it wasn't for the fact the ad has been shown approximately fifty times a day for the past six months:
Probably the creepiest TV moment of the year was an appearance by Masahiko Kondoh, a veteran of the Johnny's music agency, which is Japan's most successful pop production line. After a brief interview, Kondoh looked on as members of present-day boy bands attempted to sing his hits - many of which were released before they were born - from memory. Most of these fresh-faced young lads had clearly been signed to the Johnny's agency on the basis of their looks rather than their voices, but Kondoh wasn't fussed about whether or not they could hold a tune. Instead, he cut short a performance only if they forgot the lyrics, which resulted in some very awkward moments where the singer apologised and promised not to make the same mistake ever again, and Kondoh tutted and shook his head disapprovingly. The youngsters spent the entire show heaping praise on Kondoh, and looked genuinely terrified as they were waiting for their turn to sing (there was no time to prepare as the songs were chosen at random), and the whole thing played out like a scene from a gangster film in which the godfather summons people to his office for a dressing down. Kondoh's presence was so menacing that it really did feel as if someone was going to end up in Tokyo Bay wearing concrete boots, although as far as I know, everyone involved lived to sing another day.
Last but not least, I was glad to see that Honma Dekka?! - my favourite TV programme, and one that I've mentioned on this blog before - won a prize for excellence in the TV entertainment category at the Japan Commercial Broadcasting Federation awards.
There's not much point in posting a clip, as Honma Dekka?! is a lot more verbal than it is visual, but just to give you an example of the kind of fascinating facts and figures they come up with, Homaré Sawa - women's World Cup MVP and scorer of the late equaliser that took the Japan vs USA final to a penalty shoot-out - recently appeared as a star guest. In the section of the show known as Jinsei-sohdan (人生相談 / counselling service), she confessed to having very poor co-ordination, and after much to-ing and fro-ing, the panel of experts came to the intriguing conclusion that this is a good thing for an attacking player - ie. if defenders are in tune with how an opposition player moves, they will more easily be able to intercept her, but if the attacker is less predictable and her movements less regulated, she will more easily be able to find her way through the defence and to a goal-scoring opportunity.
Back in the late nineties, I was lucky enough to get hold of that most prized of possessions, a Hotmail address with my christian name first, my surname second, and no dots, dashes, numbers or anything else extraneous in between. Purely for illustrative purposes, let's pretend that my real name is Billy Nugget, and that the address in question was email@example.com
Even then, there were already scores of other Billy Nuggets using Hotmail, but I just happened to sign up at the precise moment the original Billy Nugget either decided not to use Hotmail any more and cancelled his account, or died in a freak dog grooming accident. As I'm sure you can understand, I was very pleased about this fortuitous turn of events (fortuitous for me, that is, not necessarily for Mr Nugget). Partly for convenience sake, and partly because I couldn't bear the thought of giving up something so easy to remember, I kept hold of this holy grail of email addresses, and in the intervening years have become well acquainted with the idiosyncracies of Hotmail's service, of which there are many.
For example, allow me to introduce those of you who are not familiar with Hotmail to its 'Contacts' feature:
Like other free email accounts (and indeed mobile phones. And indeed, er, address books), Hotmail allows you to store your friends' / colleagues' / acquaintances' / stalkers' contact details alphabetically. Should you happen to email someone you have not emailed before, or should someone non-suspicious happen to email you, Hotmail will even ask if you would like to add that person's name and details to your contact list. So far so good, and after more than a decade with Hotmail, I now have getting on for two hundred contacts, some of whom I email regularly, some occasionally, and some I will probably never have reason to email again for the rest of my natural life.
Anyway, let's assume I want to send an email to one of those occasionals; one of the people whose email address - and this is a key point - I don't happen to know off the top of my head. As usual, I click on the 'New' option on my Hotmail page and a blank email appears. In the 'To:' box, I begin to type my friend's name - once again, and purely for illustrative purposes, let's call him Harry Pratt. Almost instantaneously, a drop-down menu appears listing everyone on my contacts list whose email address begins with an H: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and so on and so forth. The trouble is, now that I come to think of it, Harry is a bit of a joker, so rather than email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org or even email@example.com, his email address begins with crazyharry or bonkersharry or madcappratt or something similarly 'hilarious'.
Now you would think, wouldn't you, that the whole point of a contact list - particularly the contact list for an email account - would be to allow the user to quickly access his or her friends' email addresses merely via the use of their christian name or surname. As anyone with any sense will tell you, it's far easier to remember a couple of key words like, say, 'Harry' or 'Pratt' than it is to remember something far longer and more complicated, like firstname.lastname@example.org, for example. The mind-bogglingly infuriating thing about the Hotmail contact list, however, is that even though Harry's email address is stored along with his name therein, it is not possible to access that name at the precise moment you need to do so. In other words, the drop-down menu that automatically appears when you begin to type in the 'To:' box is not a list of your friends' names that start with that letter, but merely a list of the email addresses on your contact list that start with that letter, which two things, as we've already discussed, have no intrinsic connection.
What I actually have to do in order to get Harry's email address into the 'To:' box of the aforementioned email is to:
1) Save a draft of the email
2) Go to my contact list
3) Go to the H section of my contact list
4) Find the name 'Harry Pratt' halfway down the page
5) Click on said name
6) When Harry's contact details appear, manually copy his email address [my italics]
7) Go back to my inbox
8) Go to my drafts folder
9) Click on the drafted email
10) Paste Harry's email address into the 'To:' box
Now if you'll just excuse me, I need to pause for a moment and use some punctuation:
Call me a remorseless pedant if you like, but surely, after well over a decade of running what is still one of the most utilised email services in the world, the good people at MSN might have figured out that this small but significant glitch in their system could do with being fixed. More to the point, they have probably received complaints numbering in the tens of millions from disgruntled and remorseless pedants like myself: enough complaints, in fact, to make them realise that perhaps the time may have come to sort things out.
One of the obituaries for the recently deceased Steve Jobs claimed that he had a reputation for prioritising 'form over function', but whoever wrote this had clearly never used a single Apple product. Sure, I have had my fair share of problems with the various Macs I have owned - malfunctioning CD drives, crashed hard drives, dodgy keyboards etc. - but that never stopped them from a) looking good and b) being easy to use. PCs, on the other hand, a) look ugly and b) are not easy to use, and for this, Mr Jobs deserves at least a modicum of retrospective credit.
So what does this all have to do with Japan, I hear you ask? Not much really, except to say that had Bill Gates been born Japanese, PC and Windows users might all be a lot more satisfied with their Microsoft product user experience, and I might more readily be able to access the email addresses of my contacts, thus allowing me to waste even more of my time on Facebook, Twitter and Badass of the Week.