By some freak of genetics that I don't pretend to understand, I have been blessed with everyman-like features, and over the years a disproportionately large number of people have told me that I look like someone they know, or someone famous. For example, a friend of mine once went up to someone on the tube and, convinced that it was me, said, 'Hi, Muzuhashi!' only to be treated with a blank look and a 'Who's Muzuhashi?' in reply, and in my days as a sound recordist, there was supposedly a doppelganger doing the same job, even though, like Superman and Clark Kent, we were never seen in the same room together.
In the interests of national security and for the safety of my family and friends, I have yet to post a photograph of myself on this blog. But while my true identity shall remain a closely guarded secret, I thought that now might be a good time to give you at least an inkling of the face behind the enigma.
For example, when I was much younger and still had hair, Ronan Keating was a prime suspect.
As I got older and my hair got thinner, it was Keifer Sutherland.
And then Kevin Costner.
Of course, the irony is that now I'm in Japan, rather than being an everyman, I stick out like a left-winger in the Labour Party, and the only Japanese name ever to have been mentioned in the same breath is that of TV presenter Tokoro George.
Closer to the mark is Arjen Robben, a Dutch international who plays his club football for Bayern Munich, and whom countless junior high school students have 'mistaken' me for.
Facial features, it has to be said, don't necessarily come into the comparison, so what these students are really thinking as they pass me in the corridor and shout 'Robben!' is 'You're a balding white man!'
In much the same way, balding white men - myself included - are often likened to Bruce Willis.
Despite the shining pate, however, Willis is facially even less reminiscent of me than Robben, so for a more likely lookalike, we need to consult some non-Japanese.
A good friend of mine insists that I'm a dead spit for Gary Barlow, which is very nice of him, so long as I choose to overlook the fact that what he's basically saying is 'You look like the ugly one out of Take That'.
Someone once came up to me in a pub and said that I looked like Tim Roth, which is fairly credible.
While a different person once came up to me in a different pub and told me that I looked like Ben Stiller, which is frankly tenuous.
Both witnesses may well have been drunk at the time, and where Roth looks a bit too mean and moody, Stiller looks a bit too sarky and smirky. Ben Miller, on the other hand, is in the right ballpark.
Another friend suggested Rob Brydon, who I like to think is a little on the craggy side for comparisons, although I have to admit that I'm veering into craggy territory myself these days (and by that I don't mean Snowdonia).
You can imagine my confusion, then, when Miller and Brydon appeared together on QI, and even went so far as to kiss each other on screen, a moment that for me was reminiscent of the bit in Being John Malcovich where John Malcovich enters the portal into his own brain.
The same friend who compared me to Miller saw a Surf Crew billboard at a London bus stop, and claimed that he had to take a closer look just to make sure that I wasn't doing swimwear modelling on the side.
While the face may be similar, though, the body is a dead giveaway: I do of course look much better than this with my shirt off.
The best suggestion so far - so good, in fact, that it's genuinely spooky - is Christopher Timothy, who apart from a slightly different nose could quite easily be my long-lost identical twin brother.
Although rather like the Superman / Clark Kent combination, I have yet to be filmed sticking my hand up a cow's backside - not that I'm aware of, anyway.
A final disclaimer: while I do in some aspects resemble many of the gentlemen depicted here, I should of course emphasise the fact that I'm not even remotely as handsome or debonair as any of them. The closest I've ever come to that is by having my voice likened - by Japanese as well as Brits - to Hugh Grant's.
But let's face it, if I looked like Hugh Grant as well as sounding like him, I wouldn't be an English teaching assistant, I'd be...well, I'd be at least a deputy headmaster.
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
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...
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
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?
It has now been three weeks since M Jr was born, and as well as the usual parenting concerns – eg. How do I change a nappy? How do I tell when a bottle of formula has reached the correct temperature? Is it just me or does one of her ears stick out slightly further than the other one? – I have been trying my best to get up to speed with the various traditions and pecularities associated with having a baby in Japan.
Starting at the very beginning, here’s what I’ve managed to find out so far (although be warned, as some of these may be specific to Ibaraki, or subject to variation depending on which part of the country you happen to live in):
1) Moh-koh-han ( 蒙古斑 / Mongolian spot)
Most East Asian babies, along with a few from isolated groups elsewhere in the world – Native Americans, for example, and East Africans – are born with a blue-green mark in the small of their back called a Mongolian spot. In most cases the mark disappears over time, although it occasionally persists until adulthood, or manifests itself elsewhere on the body (if you find your Mongolian spot embarrassing, like a tattoo, it can be removed with laser treatment). According to Wikipedia, Mongolian spots are sometimes mistaken for bruises in the West, and as a consequence, at least a few expat parents have been wrongly accused of hitting their children. M Jr has a small and rather faint Mongolian spot, although given that it's at the top of her builder's cleavage, I didn't think a snapshot would be appropriate.
2) Mei-shin (迷信 / superstitions)
M Jr is both a lion and a dragon (Leo and Chinese year of the~ respectively), although we won’t know what her ketsu-eki-gata (血液型 / blood type) is for another year or so, which in Japan is rather akin to not knowing your own name. Even Mrs M, who is almost as cynical as me when it comes to things like star signs, will talk in all seriousness about how As are obsessive compulsive and ABs have split personalities, and isn’t it unusual that we ended up together despite me being a B and her being an O.
A rather more obscure superstition that I became aware of just recently is the roku-yoh (六曜 / six labels for the Japanese calendar). Originally imported from China, the roku-yoh designate each day of the year with varying degrees of good or bad fortune, and while they don't really have anything to do with childbirth, I thought I'd share them with you anyway, in case, like me, you've ever wondered what all those strange kanji are next to the dates in your diary:
– Sen-shoh (先勝 / literally ‘before win’) – The morning of a sen-shoh day is lucky, but the hours between 2pm and 6pm are unlucky.
– Tomobiki (友引 / ‘friend pull’) – The morning is lucky, lunchtime is unlucky and the evening is very lucky. Tomobiki days are good for business dealings and lawsuits, but bad for funerals.
– Senbu (先負 / ‘before lose’) – The morning is unlucky and the afternoon is lucky.
– Butsu-metsu (仏滅 / ‘Buddha destruction’) – Very unlucky all day.
– Tai-an (大安 / ‘big safe’) – The most auspicious of the six, and thus a good day for weddings and the like.
– Shakkoh (赤口 / ‘red mouth’) – The time between 11am and 1pm is lucky, but the rest of the day is unlucky.
Despite being born at four in the afternoon on a shakkoh, M Jr seems to be doing well, although in future, we may decide to hold her birthday parties at lunchtime.
4) Héso-no-o (臍の緒 / umbilical cord)
Allowing a father to cut his baby’s umbilical cord is a recent development in Japan, and wasn’t even mentioned to me as a possibility when M Jr was born. A much older tradition dictates that the umbilical cord is given to the parents, who leave it to dry before placing it on the butsudan (仏壇 / Buddhist altar) or kamidana (神棚 / Shinto shrine) in the family home. Otoh-san, for example, still has both Mrs M’s and onii-san's umbilical cords, and while we donated most of M Jr’s for medical research, a small part of it now sits in a little wooden box on the kamidana.
(In contrast to this, Bobby Orgon
said recently on Sekai Banzuké
that in his home country of Nigeria, the umbilical cord is believed to possess mysterious powers, and that rather than keeping it, a father takes his baby’s umbilical cord from the hospital and buries it where there is no chance of it ever being found.)
Three days after her baby is born, it is customary for the mother to eat bota-mochi – rice cakes covered in red bean paste – and for her family to give them to friends and relatives when they pass on the news of the birth. Okah-san placed her order for bota-mochi almost as soon as M Jr had let out her first cry, and a couple of days later I took the day off work to drive okah-san around, handing out bota-mochi to our many aunts, uncles and cousins. The two main disadvantages of bota-mochi are that a) they’re not particularly appetising, and b) they’re made of mochi-gomé
(餅米 / extra-sticky rice used specifically for making rice cakes), which in the past was thought to aid the production of breast milk, but which has recently been found to do the exact opposite.
5) Mei-mei-sho (命名書 / name scroll)
Also on the third day after the birth, the mei-mei-sho – on which are written the baby’s name, its status within the family (for example, whether it’s an older brother or a younger sister), its birthday and the name of the head of the household – is displayed on the butsudan, the kamidana or even the tokonoma (床の間 / the decorative recess in an old-style tatami room, which in a modern-day hotel or B&B is often home to the TV). When Mrs M was born, otoh-san hired a professional calligrapher to write her mei-mei-sho at a cost of over 10,000 yen, whereas this time round, he typed it on Microsoft Word and printed it on a sheet of A4 paper.
6) Shussan-todoké (出産届 / notice of birth)
It is necessary to give notice at the town hall within fourteen days of a birth, so that your baby can be included on the koseki-toh-hon (戸籍謄本 / family register), and also so that you can begin receiving kodomo-té-até (子供手当 / child benefit). In the process of doing this, Mrs M and I realised that while M Jr will be registered as living at Mrs M’s parents’ address, her hon-seki (本籍 / permanent residence) is about a kilometre away, on a now empty plot of land where her great-grandparents – otoh-san’s parents – owned a house before they passed away in the 1970s.
7) Toko-agé (床上げ, aka obiaké / 帯明け or possibly obiya-aké / 産屋明け)
Back in the days when home births were the norm and the child mortality rate was far higher than it is now, a party called oshichi-ya (お七夜 / ‘honourable seventh night’) was held to celebrate a baby reaching a week old. Nowadays mothers and their babies spend that first week in hospital, and are only allowed to check out when they’ve been given a clean bill of health. At this point, however, they are expected to spend a further two weeks at the mother’s parents’ house, and this twenty-one-day period is known as toko-agé.
The literal translation of toko-agé is ‘floor up’, and refers to the practice of keeping mother and baby’s futon laid out on the bedroom floor at all times. While grandma does the washing, the cooking and the cleaning – not to mention as much of the baby-minding as her daughter is willing to hand over – mother and baby stay indoors and avoid anything that involves the use of cold water (they are seen as being particularly vulnerable to catching colds and infections). Unfortunately for Mrs M, otoh-san didn’t quite catch on to the purpose of toko-agé, and packed her futon away every morning, thus depriving her of the chance of a siesta. Also, for someone who was going for a walk at least once a day until the evening before M Jr was born, being stuck indoors felt a little claustrophobic, so she moved back to our apartment after just seven days in hospital and seven days at home.
8) O-iwai / uchi-iwai (お祝い / 内祝い)
In the UK, a new arrival is the cue for a veritable frenzy of knitting – booties, blankets, little baby-sized jumpers and so on – but in Japan, the parents will instead be granted the gift of cold, hard cash. The word o-iwai – ‘honourable celebration’ – is used to describe all kinds of gifts, but the tricky thing for the recipient is what to give in return (uchi-iwai).
As okah-san explained to us, uchi-iwai should amount to at least half the value of the original o-iwai, and it is best to go for a nice, round figure. For example, to the friends and relatives who gave us 10,000 yen o-iwai, we will give uchi-iwai to the value of 5000 yen, and for the friends and relatives who gave us 5000 yen o-iwai, we will round up their uchi-iwai to 3000 yen. Many people order their uchi-iwai from gift catalogues, but to avoid disappointment, Mrs M and I will be giving shopping vouchers instead, and okah-san has insisted that we supplement these with an extra present of something edible, meaning that in some cases we will retain just 20 % of the original o-iwai.
The shopping vouchers are from a credit card company called JCB (nothing to do with the people who make mechanical diggers, I might add), and purchased at a branch of the electronics store Yamada Denki. One of Mrs M’s great aunts lives just down the road from Yamada Denki, but when Mrs M suggested dropping in to hand over the uchi-iwai straight away, okah-san said that under no circumstances must we do so until the twenty-one days of toko-agé were up (after all, Mrs M was officially supposed to be at home, napping on her futon and with okah-san waiting on her hand and foot).
OK, so that’s the stuff we’ve already done, but still to come – in the near future, at least – are:
9) Omiya-mairi (お宮参り / first visit to the shrine)
After thirty days (one website suggests thirty-one for a boy and thirty-two for a girl, but anywhere around the one-month mark seems to be OK), the baby is taken to the local shrine so its family can pay their respects to the ubusunagami (産土神 / god of one’s birthplace). In some cases, this is done a hundred days after the birth, and known as momoka-mairi (百日参り / hundred-day visit).
10) Okui-zomé (お食い初め / literally ‘honourable eat first’, aka momoka-iwai / 百日祝い)
Taking place a hundred days after the birth, okui-zomé is symbolic of the move from a milk-only diet to rinyu-shoku (離乳食 / solids), although unfortunately for the baby, the food on offer is strictly for adults. A variety of traditional dishes are laid out on the dinner table and then wafted under the baby’s nose - if it’s a boy, this is done by the senior male member of the family, and vice versa for a girl – before being eaten. Presumably the baby has to make do with a jar of Cow & Gate instead.
(Nb. This isn't M Jr, just an anonymous Google picture search baby.)
11) Koku-seki (国籍 / Nationality)
While most Japanese citizens are only allowed to hold one passport, those of mixed parentage (who are referred to as haafu – ie. half-Japanese, half-foreign) are allowed to hold two until they reach twenty years of age. At that point they are supposed to choose which passport they want to keep, although some who retain their Japanese passport secretly renew the other at a later date. By the same token, some parents don’t bother registering their haafu baby with the relevant foreign embassy in the first place, effectively choosing Japanese nationality straight away.
Partly because so many foreigners went back to their home countries after the earthquake, immigration laws – or at least the way in which they are implemented – have been relaxed a little of late, so I have a feeling the one-passport-only rule may have been dispensed with by the time M Jr reaches her twentieth birthday. In any case, at some point in the next few months, Mrs M and I will apply to the Consulate-General in Hong Kong for M Jr’s British passport, which will cost about a hundred quid including postage, and last her for the next five years (by which time she will of course look utterly different from the photograph of Winston Churchill contained therein).
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. R
ather 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 Shinsuk
é 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 Shinsuk
é, 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.
In order to revise for - and sit - the Japanese Language Proficiency Test
, I've had to take a quick break from blogging, so before the next instalment of the Sado diaries, I thought I'd give you the opportunity to savour a new-ish TV commercial for Choco Pie (which as many of you will know is my favourite tea-time treat
).Once you have found your way to the Lotte TV commercials page via the link below, click on the picture of a smiling child being handed a
Choco Pie, which can be found both in the carousel at the top of the page and to the right of a row of 'New!' commercials further down.
The ad is short and sweet, so to speak, and the titles and voiceover go something like this:Choco Pie - today's good points
:Made it one step furtherHelped out with the shoppingManaged to ride by myselfYou did your best, didn't you?A treat for every dayLotte Choco Pie(Lotte's motto, incidentally is o-kuchi no koibito (お口の恋人), which means
'a sweetheart for your mouth'.)
I was feeling a bit depressed last week, and at first I thought it was a post-holiday slump or a bout of homesickness. After a while, though, I realised that my depression was caused by the gaping void which had opened up in my life since Mrs M and I finished watching the final season of ER.I was addicted to ER way back in the mid-nineties, and Mrs M caught the bug when a friend of hers lent us a huge pile of DVDs last year. Once she had reached season 5 or 6, I picked up where I had left off, and we both became more and more obsessed, until we practically sprinted through the last few episodes.
Bizarrely, the Japanese DVDs use Roman numerals, so it wasn't until I accompanied Mrs M to the local video shop that we realised season XV was in stock, although the show's secondary title in Japan is a helpfully literal translation of the phrase 'emergency room': 緊急救命室 / Kinkyu-kyumei-shitsu
. Mrs M watched some of the early episodes dubbed into Japanese, but this always felt a bit odd, particularly as the voice actors performed as if they were working on a more, as it were, 'grown up' production. So for the most part we chose the original soundtrack with Japanese subtitles, which gave Mrs M her English listening practice and me my Japanese reading practice (not that I'm ever going to use words like ten-teki
- 点滴 / intravenous drip - hin-myaku -
頻脈 / tachycardia - and hohwa
- 飽和 / saturation - in real life, but anyway).
To be honest, the glory days of ER were its first few seasons, when the show was fast-paced, technically superb and genuinely gritty (in a way that I assume Hill Street Blues used to be, although I never saw it). Somewhere around series 11 or 12, the makers seemed to lose their mojo, and we nearly gave up on it altogether, as the pace slowed to a crawl and it all began to look a bit daytime-y. But while the budgets had clearly been cut, with noticeably fewer set pieces and special effects than before, there was enough good acting and good writing that, by the two-hour finalé, we almost didn't want it to end at all.What the early shows in particular did well was to keep several story strands going at the same time, balancing action, romance, comedy and tragedy, against a backdrop of (so far as I could tell) realistic and well-researched medical-type stuff, and all wrapped up in a smooth, stylish, studio-based package
. (Geeky technical note: as a former sound engineer, I was particularly impressed with how they managed to avoid post-synching dialogue when such liberal use was made of the steadicam, and with so many of the actors wearing radio mics.)
At the peak of its success, the show's stars were getting paid seven-figure sums per episode
, which is pretty mind-boggling when you consider they were making 22 a year. The sequences set in the Congo in seasons 9 and 10 really did look more like a feature film than a TV show, and I suppose from that point onwards, they only way they could go was down.While the female characters remained strong until the end - Angela Bassett acts the rest of the cast off the screen as Doctor Banfield in season 15 (where on earth had she been since What's Love Got To Do With It?), and
Parminder Nagra (of Bend It Like Beckham fame) got better the more seasons she starred in - once Anthony Edwards and George Clooney had left, no one ever quite managed to fill their surgical gowns. Doctor Kovac, Doctor Gates, Ray what's-his-name: they were all a little too pretty and a little too shallow. Mekhi Phifer as Doctor Pratt was the pick of the bunch, although Mrs M's vote for studliest doc went to Noah Wyle as Carter.Carter was in many ways the heart and soul of the show: he started pretty much when it started and the two grew up together, and you could almost say we saw the world of the ER through his eyes. Carter also starred in what was probably my favourite episode, in which he and a medical student are stabbed by a psychopathic patient, although the way he left the show, by being dragged off to Africa by his frankly annoying wife (sorry, Thandie Newton - it wasn't you, it was the role), was a little anti-climactic.
Conversely, if I had to choose my least favourite episode, it would probably be the one in which Ewan McGregor adopts one of the thoroughly unconvincing accents for which he has become so renowned, playing a 'Chicago'-ite who holds up a convenience store (McGregor is so rubbish at accents that on occasion I even find myself doubting his Scots, although I should probably leave it to someone better qualified for the job to trash the likes of The Phantom Menace
Another stand-out episode (a double- or possibly even triple-bill, if I remember rightly), was the one in which Doctor Romano gets his arm chopped off by a helicopter rotor blade, which leads me on to one of the few gripes I have with the normally excellent scriptwriting.
Because there is more time in a TV series than a movie in which to create realistically complex characters, it's very satisfying to watch those characters develop as time passes, but for whatever reason, Romano was never allowed to do so. He was bullying and insensitive from the very first minute he appeared on screen until the very last, and particularly after the arm / rotor blade incident, you felt there was a chance he might redeem himself. In one of the more bizarre curtain calls the show has seen, however, he died just as he had lived: as the guy everyone loved to hate.In contrast, there are characters like Frank: on the surface, Frank is a doughnut-eating, old-school conservative, racially
insensitive male chauvanist. While his main function is to provide comic relief to contrast with the blood-and-guts being spilled around him, in a couple of key episodes we are given insights into his life that cast him in a completely new light. In one we meet the daughter to whom he is devoted, and who happens to have Downs Syndrome, and in another, when he finds himself on the wrong side of the reception desk as a patient, he delivers an anaesthetic-induced monologue about the African-American soldiers he fought with and came to admire in the Vietnam war.I
n the old days, when the writers had run out of ideas and the film crew needed some time off, sitcoms used to do a flashback episode: scenes from previous series would be interspersed with 'Hey, do you remember when so-and-so did that hilarious thing?' dialogue and wiggly screen special effects straight from an episode of Scooby Doo. Apart from one very short sequence just before Doctor Rasgotra jumps ship, mercifully, the makers of ER didn't stoop to such nonsense. While a lot of the actors who had left the show returned for cameos in season 15, it was all done with a reasonable amount of subtlety, so that rather than a big, back-slapping party scene in the final episode, characters pop up in relatively credible circumstances - or in Doctors Greene and Romano's case, a rather ingenious and newly filmed flashback that fills in some of Doctor Banfield's back story.
Sure, there are a few more loose ends in the plotlines than before, the way in which characters are introduced and retired from the show is sometimes perfunctory, and the camerawork isn't quite as easy on the eye as it used to be, but even season 15 is gripping, and funny, and moving, and stomach churning, and all kinds of other things that make you want to keep watching, and for those many reasons, I shall continue to feel a bit depressed for at least another couple of weeks - or until Mrs M and I start watching seasons I to VIII of XXIV, whichever comes first.
It was pouring with rain until about 10 o’clock last Thursday morning, so instead of doing three and a half hours of soccer club, I did an hour and a half. In that hour and a half, though, I sweated off at least a couple of kilos, pulled a muscle in my leg, felt like I was about to have a heart attack, did a spot of gardening and didn’t kick a single football.
We started off, as the soccer club does almost every day, with what I was assured were ten laps of the pitch, but which felt like several more, alternating between a sprint along the sidelines and a jog along the goal lines. I pulled my left quad within seconds of setting off because, oddly, we hadn’t done any stretching beforehand: the students had been stuck indoors studying since 8.30, so perhaps they were eager to get going, and just to make things that little bit more challenging, we all carried a half-litre bottle of water in each hand. By about the third or fourth lap, I was seriously considering giving up, as quite apart from the veritable waterfall of sweat cascading from my brow, I had begun to get a tight feeling in my chest. As the sun poked through the clouds for the first time that morning, I also wondered whether I might be in the early stages of heatstroke.
When I was going through a jogging phase a few years ago, I read that interval training – ie. alternating between jogging and sprinting – is one of the best ways to increase your stamina over long distances. Sadly I was far too lazy to try interval training for myself, and having finally experienced it first hand, my advice to any budding jogger would be to start off with a very small amount of sprinting and build up from there, rather than going straight in with a half-and-half mix of the two.
After a ten-minute drinks break I thought we might get to play some football, but no such luck. (‘When it’s raining heavily,’ explained H-kun, who is the team captain, ‘we do stuff like this. If you play soccer in the rain people end up catching cold.’) The next exercise involved jogging round the pitch in a line as before – still carrying water bottles in our hands – with the last person in the line sprinting to the front and shouting ‘Hai!’ (‘Yes!’), then the new last person doing the same, and so on and so forth. With about fifteen or twenty people in the line, this meant that I was only sprinting for about ten seconds every couple of minutes, but the accumulated physical exertion was beginning to take its toll, and when Y-sensei looked up at the clock on the side of the school building and said, ‘Another seven minutes!’ I couldn’t face any more and stopped for another drinks break – or rather, keeled over at the side of the pitch and wheezed like a forty-a-day smoker for a few minutes, before gulping down another litre of water and waiting for the dizziness to stop.
I managed to re-join the line for the last couple of laps, but by the time we had completed those, even if we had been given the chance to start practicing our dribbling skills or free kick technique, I’m not sure I would have had the energy to join in, so was quite relieved when Y-sensei told us to jog down to the other end of the pitch and round off the training session with some kusa-tori.
As we squatted down, kama
in hand, and began pulling up weeds near the goal line, Y-sensei asked each student in turn what they thought the purpose of kusa-tori was, and gave marks out of a hundred depending on their replies.
‘Three or four years ago,’ said Y-sensei, ‘this pitch was covered in weeds. They were all over the penalty area, which got in the way of us playing properly. Since then we’ve been paying more attention to doing the weeding, and the soccer team has started winning.’
‘The team with the tidiest pitch,’ he continued, ‘is the team that wins.’
Making your school football team do the weeding may seem like a slightly ridiculous thing to do, but it made me think of another point that Malcolm Gladwell makes in The Tipping Point. His theory – based in part on studies of a reduction in New York crime rates in the early nineties – is that a person’s environment has just as big an influence on the likelihood of them committing a crime as their background or their personality. The people running the New York subway system turned around crime levels at least in part by cleaning up graffiti. They also clamped down on fare dodging, which because it was so prevalent and so visible, was influencing normally law-abiding citizens to join in.
On a recent episode of Honma Dekka?! (ホンマでっか？！/ Is That Really True?!) – a TV show that has a panel of academics and experts reveal a variety of interesting new trends, discoveries and inventions to a panel of celebrities – one of the experts cited a study which showed that around the time of large firework displays, just as levels of discarded rubbish increase, so do levels of petty crime. In other words, people’s behaviour degenerates in direct correlation with the cleanliness of the environment in which they find themselves. Surely it is no coincidence that Japanese children, who grow up cleaning their schools and weeding their playing fields, and whose parents and grandparents place such importance on keeping their homes spic and span (and their toilets in particular
), turn into adults who are less likely to commit crimes.
A lot of westerners criticise the Japanese education system for being too regimented – militaristic, even – and more like national service than school. While I am not necessarily in favour of national service, I am beginning to see the benefits of a system that keeps its students fit, healthy and active, gives them regular and multiple goals to work towards (not to mention properly commemorating the reaching of those goals with ceremonies, prizegivings and so on), and teaches them the benefits of using every spare moment to practice what they do until they master it, all without having to fire a gun or drive a tank.
Perhaps things have changed, but when I was a child, unless you happened to go to private school or have parents who could afford to pay for private tuition, the scope for taking part in extra-curricular activities was woefully small. Admittedly there was a teachers’ strike when I was at middle school, but even allowing for that, with the exception of rehearsals for the annual school play, I hardly ever stayed later than 4 o’clock, and certainly never went to school during the holidays. More to the point, I can’t imagine that any member of the current England football team has ever got down on his hands and knees and tended to a football pitch (do they even clean the senior players’ boots any more, as apprentices did in the old days?). If they had, perhaps they might be able to display a little more humility, and devote themselves a little more selflessly to their team.
I had a TV when I first moved to Japan, but apart from the first half of England v Switzerland in Euro 2004, I never watched it. This was simply because I didn’t understand a word that was being said, and in the intervening seven years, to be honest, not a huge amount has changed. TV is the same wherever you go – quick-fire, fast-paced, and with as much information and entertainment packed into as short a time as possible – so I still have trouble keeping up, but I have realised that while a lot of foreigners label the programming here as ‘mad!’ ‘weird!’ or ‘bonkers!, that’s because they’re consuming it on a purely aesthetic level, with no real idea of the content. Admittedly, Japanese TV tends to be fairly noisy, in both the audio and visual senses of the word, but it has also been influenced by – and come to have its own influence on – TV from abroad.
The archetypal Japanese TV programme goes something like this:
A panel of celebrities sits in a studio and discusses things – often food, sometimes bizarre happenings from around the country / world which they have watched along with the punters at home, and sometimes gossip or other celebrities. There may well be a quiz and / or challenge element to the show, often involving the Japanese language or general knowledge, sometimes a more physical or craft-based activity like cooking, skipping rope or limbo dancing, and sometimes getting out and about and visiting a fish farm, dressing up in a silly costume and accosting members of the public, or going to New Zealand and bungee jumping off a rope bridge.
During these VT sections, the reactions of various members of the panel will pop up in a little window in the corner of the screen, and in this sense, Japanese TV is good example of post-modernism in action – ie. the viewers’ experience of a real or filmed event is mediated because they see and hear it through the eyes and ears of said celebrities, who in turn cannot ‘switch off’ their performance during a VT, since at any moment the vision mixer could cut to a shot of them looking surprised / amused / horrified etc.
While plenty of celebrities appear in this kind of context several times a week, there are three colossi of the format, all of whom have been nationally famous for many years. The first is Sanma (not his real name – sanma / 秋刀魚 is a variety of oily fish which in English is called Pacific saury), who has an all-year-round tan, glowing white false teeth, and is in the habit of literally rolling around on the floor if he finds something funny. The second is Shinsuké, who somehow reminds me of Jimmy Carr, although more in hairstyle than personality, and who teases his guests almost to the point of bullying. The third is Beat Takeshi, who Westerners will know as a brilliant film director, but who is much more famous in Japan as a comedian / presenter. Partly because he was badly injured in a motorcycle accident a few years ago, causing his face to be partially paralysed, I can honestly say that I do not understand a single word Takeshi says, which is a shame, because I get the feeling he is the most satirical voice on TV – one of the programmes in which he currently appears is a discussion of the week’s news, and covers everything from politics to sport.
Separated at birth? Shinsuke and Jimmy Carr.
Elsewhere, Takeshi can often be seen dressed in a shell suit, comedy glasses and a bad wig and bashing his co-hosts over the head with a squeaky toy hammer, a habit that betrays his roots in what was known as the manzai boom. Manzai (漫才 / stand-up comedy involving double acts) became hugely popular in the early eighties, to the extent that even today, almost all comedians start out as one half of a double act. In the series Turning Japanese
, which was shown on Channel 5 earlier this year, Justin Lee Collins very bravely tried his hand at manzai, and realised in the process that as the stooge in a double act, you have to be prepared to get hit over the head approximately once every five seconds for the entire course of your performance (although not necessarily with a squeaky toy hammer).
Believe it or not, this doesn’t mean that manzai is unsophisticated, a fact that is exemplified by probably my favourite member of a double act currently doing the TV rounds. Nezuchi is an unbecoming bloke with prominent front teeth, a centre parting and a tartan jacket, and has an incredible talent for coming up with ingenious puns and plays on words, some of which are pre-written, but many of which are clearly improvised. Nezuchi’s manzai buddy is almost completely superfluous, but without each other, the two of them may never have made it into the public eye in the first place.
Anyone on a panel show who is not a comedian is either a model, a singer or a serious actor or actress, and the most ubiquitous of these at the moment are members of the girl group AKB48. AKB48 are ubiquitous partly because there are, I think, forty-eight of them to choose from, so that at any one time, AKB48 are appearing on several different TV shows, in numerous commercials, and gigging at one or more music venues. Like many girl and boy bands, their members are essentially interchangeable, and for every one of them who outgrows the group and moves into acting / presenting / appearing on panel shows, another has already passed the auditions and is poised to replace her.
No celebrity, incidentally, has the slightest qualms about doing advertising: Takeshi is currently starring in a commercial for ECC English school in which he speaks very poor English indeed, Sanma is doing one for Sedes painkillers
, Shinsuké is doing one for Miura water softeners, and it is not unusual to spot the occasional Hollywood star earning some extra cash. Tommy Lee Jones has been the face of Boss coffee for the past five years, and whenever I watch the ads in which he appears, I can’t help thinking that for him, Lost In Translation must seem very much like a home movie.
The other main varieties of panellist that are worth mentioning are foreigners and homosexuals. One or two of the former have lived in Japan for many years and become fluent in the language – Dave Spector
and Daniel Kahl
being the most notable – but the majority are mixed race and were born and raised here. When Mrs M and I have kids, we are seriously considering pushing them into showbiz, since so long as one of your parents is foreign, even if you have no discernable talent whatsoever, you can make a very decent living indeed on the panel show circuit. One haafu (ハーフ / half-Japanese, half-foreign) in particular, who I shall not name for fear of litigation, barely has two brain cells to rub together, but has long, flowing blonde hair, looks good in a mini-dress, and probably earns more for a single TV appearance than I do in a year.
While there is an element of tokenism about foreigners on TV, homosexuals, transsexuals and transvestites do seem to have gained genuine acceptance, even if they are more likely to get hired if they are outrageously camp. About five years ago, a straight comedian came up with a character called Hard Gay, who appeared on TV dressed in a studded leather cap, aviator shades, black leather waistcoat and black leather hot pants, and was fond of doing pelvic thrusts in the faces of his fellow panelists and / or members of the studio audience. At the height of his fame, and in an act that in retrospect speaks of quite overwhelming hubris, Hard Gay actually held a press conference to unveil his latest catchphrase. Onii-san tells me that soon afterwards, Hard Gay’s popularity began to wane, and that having fallen on hard times, he – or rather, the comedian who created him - was forced to get a proper job.
Now, though, there are enough authentically gay celebrities that the panel on one recent show was exclusively gay and transgender. The show’s format was to find a suitable partner for Tanoshingo, who is probably the most seen face on television at the moment, and who for sheer camp-ness makes Alan Carr look like Chuck Norris. As with Ai-chan – a transsexual who is attractive enough that he / she must have had men all over the country beginning to question their sexuality – Tanoshingo’s funniest lines are often delivered when he reverts to his ‘male’ voice, and while his fame may, I suspect, be as short-lived as Hard Gay’s, it must surely be a sign that homosexuality is a more accepted part of Japanese society when several other members of the panel were straight-acting celebrities who happened to be gay.
Speaking of which, Japanese celebrities have no qualms about discussing the most intimate details of their private lives on national television: Shinsuké made one of his female panellists (Kiriko Isono) cry when he joked about her divorce – a divorce that was precipitated by her husband being unfaithful to her with a younger woman – and a couple of weeks ago procured Isono’s mobile phone from her PA and sent a text message to her new boyfriend, before reading the reply out to the studio audience. In a programme about unbalanced boyfriends and girlfriends, Nezuchi talked about a previous relationship in which he was hen-pecked by a woman who lived the high life on his hard-earned cash, and Satoshi Ishii, a judo gold medallist at the Beijing Olympics, openly discussed his marriage to a girl who wrecked the house or threw crockery at him when she suspected he was having an affair (hey presto, they have since divorced).
Another recent show devoted a good half-hour to the character assassination of one of its comedian panellists. Other members of the panel related incidents where they felt he had been insensitive or deceiving, before a series of dramatic reconstructions, behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with friends and colleagues were shown to back up the accusations. On the evidence presented, he was prone to ignoring people when they talked to him, to bouts of obvious insincerity, to breaking promises to his friends in order to get a laugh, to deliberately putting people in awkward situations, and to horsing around on location to the point where it was no longer funny but embarrassing. While the comedian was given the chance to defend himself – and to make light of the accusations – the programme ultimately portrayed him as a sociopath, and whether or not the incidents depicted really were true (was it all an elaborate, Andy Kaufman-esque stunt, and was everyone, in fact, in on the joke?), I wonder how his career may suffer as a result.
Even for someone who has grown accustomed to British celebrities baring their souls in public, stuff like this makes me feel a little uneasy, and sure enough, it’s not unheard of for matters to take a more sinister turn. Mrs M and onii-san filled me in on the details of another incident involving a woman called Ai Iijima, who started out as a hostess, found her way into the world of TV, and subsequently became a best-selling author. As part of a show broadcast in 2007, she was given an on-screen consultation by a fortune teller, who made various portentous statements about her future, including the assertion that she would ‘no longer be around in two or three years’ time’. A year and a half later, Iijima died as a result of what was officially diagnosed as pneumonia, but which may well have been suicide, and while she may have been mentally unstable in the first place, the incident exemplifies the pitfalls of exploiting celebrities for the sake of higher ratings.
Perhaps because of this, the programmes I like best on Japanese TV tend to exploit ordinary members of the public instead: Big Daddy is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows the fortunes of several families with large numbers of children, and is all the more interesting because such families are even more of a rarity in Japan than in the UK. Contrary to what you might think, Darts Holiday doesn’t involve Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, but Johji Tokoro (whose trademark is to balance his glasses on his forehead rather than over his eyes – you will quite literally never see Tokoro in public without his glasses balanced on his forehead) throwing a dart into a map of Japan and sending a camera crew to wherever it lands. The crew will then drive around and find local people going about their business: a farmer taking his prize cow for a walk next to a busy A-road, for example, or a woman foraging for wild vegetables, or a group of singing skateboarders practicing in their front yard. Similarly, Nihon Hikkyou-dé-Hakken (日本秘境で発見 / Discoveries in Japan Off the Beaten Track) seeks out eccentric characters from around the country and follows them around with a camera, and while there is some research involved, large parts of the programme appear to be genuinely off-the-cuff.
The more informative brand of Japanese documentary is rather different from our soberly presented, David Attenborough-style fare, and treats its subject in more of a comic book style, through an information overload of voiceover, music*, graphics, charts, animation, video footage, stills and subtitles. In fact – and for no apparent reason – almost all Japanese TV programmes now have subtitles, which is a godsend for people like me, as it gives us a better chance of understanding what’s going on.
Anyone who grew up in the UK in the eighties will remember Endurance – aka. ザ・我慢 / Za Gaman – which was made famous by Clive James on Television, and the Japanese still have a fondness for ridiculous challenges: every 2nd and 3rd January, an event called Hakoné Eki-Den sees teams of university students run a total of 217km in relay from Tokyo to Hakoné and back, and every summer, one lucky celebrity gets the chance to jog around Tokyo for twenty-four hours as part of the Children In Need-style charity telethon 24-Hour TV (I could have sworn the woman who did it in 2008 hopped in a taxi at one point so she wouldn’t be late arriving in the studio, but anyway). Also in 2008, a team of celebrities attempted to swim the Sugaru Straits between Aomori and Hokkaido, which are like a much tougher version of the English Channel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they failed, an outcome that led to much on-screen crying. In fact, and in a way that belies their reputation for stoicism, the Japanese are quite an emotional bunch, particularly when there’s a television camera around to capture the moment for posterity, and there is nothing the networks and the viewers seem to like more than an emotional reunion, a teary confession or a televised memorial service.
As you might expect, daytime TV is a mixture of Richard and Judy-style chat shows, teleshopping infomercials and cheesy dramas, many of which originate in Korea. Japan, too, has its own soap operas, one of which changes its location, scenario and characters every six months or so, and the most recent of these was about a teppanyaki shop, which brings me back to that most essential ingredient (if you’ll pardon the pun) of Japanese TV: food. It’s probably best to save this topic for a future blog post, but for now, I feel obliged to mention the signature shot of Japanese TV, a shot that cameramen and women must spend years of their working lives perfecting.
This shot – let’s call it the CCU or Chopsticks Close-Up – is of a morsel of food held between chopsticks or on a fork and poised above plate or bowl, ready to eat and filmed in as mouth-watering a way as possible. Imagine, if you will, a slice of sashimi drizzled with soy sauce, the fingerprint-like whorls on its surface glistening in an atmospheric backlight; or a tumbling tangle of noodles, steaming hot and drenched in ramen stock or rich miso, with a few delicate slices of spring onion balanced on top; or a wafer-thin slice of Kobé beef, drenched in its own aromatic juices and…well, I’m sure you get the idea, although it’s a shot that I can’t recall ever having seen on British TV, which tends to go in for hand-held, quick-cut shots of the food being prepared, followed by formal portraits of the finished dish on a table-top, or of Jamie Oliver / Nigel Slater / Nigella Lawson tucking in and telling us how great it tastes. The CCU is lingering, loving and so extreme that you can see the chopsticks quiver slightly as whoever is holding them – probably the production assistant – struggles to keep perfectly still.
But anyway, all this talk of food is making me hungry - I'm off to the supermarket to buy some Choco Pie.
(*An interesting point about the use of music on Japanese TV: in the same way that during British TV programmes, when someone gets on a train, Mystery Train by Elvis Presley starts playing in the background, or when they get in a car, ditto Drive by The Cars , or when they get on a bicycle, ditto Bicycle Race by Queen, so the musical cues here are almost always based on English language lyrical associations. I assume TV stations must hire researchers with a) a very good grasp of English and b) an encyclopaedic knowledge of overseas music.)