Thoughts on the occasion of Muzuhashi Junior’s first birthday

I once read an article in which the psyche of a new-born baby was likened to that of someone who is falling in love for the first time in Paris, every single day. In other words, as a baby one has to cope with almost continual sensory and emotional overload: every experience is new, every object is mysterious and every interaction with another human being is potentially revelatory, or ecstatic, or heartbreaking. As M Jr reaches her first birthday, I often wonder what she is thinking or how she feels, and because, like most people, I can’t remember any further back in my own lifetime than when I was three or four years old, whatever I come up with can amount to little more than speculation.

The kind of people who can – or who claim that they can – remember what it was like to be a baby are often prodigies; or rather, prodigies often claim that they can remember what it was like to be a baby, and I wonder if this doesn’t have something to do with language. For while the whole ‘falling in love for the first time in Paris’ thing probably settles down a little once we learn to walk and talk – which even for ordinary folk happens when we are about a year old – we do not acquire a sophisticated enough grasp of language to describe what we are doing until a good while later: quite possibly, you could argue, at around the point we begin to retain the memories that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

If you try to describe what you are doing as you read this blog post, for example, you might say something like, ‘I am sitting at my computer, with a cup of tea on the desk and my mobile phone next to it. It’s a sunny day outside and the post has just landed on the doormat.’ Ask a four year old to describe what they are doing and you might hear something like this: ‘I’m bored. I’m playing with a cuddly toy. I’m bored again. I want to eat an ice cream. I fell over. It hurts. I’m bored again. I want to eat another ice cream,’ etc etc. Attempting to put yourself in the place of a baby, however, is a lot harder both for you and for the baby. The impressions themselves might be: ‘Bright light! Strange funny coloured object! Tastes weird! Where’s mummy? Strange funny coloured food! Yuck! Spit it out! Cry!’ and so on. The thing is, though, babies do not yet posses even such a basic vocabulary as this, so even if, for example, they know roughly what a cat is and recognise it as such when they see one, they haven’t yet learned a word to assign to it, and it is my theory that until this happens, their memory of seeing the cat, or of stroking it or hearing it purr, is perhaps less likely to attach itself to their synapses in such a way that that memory will still be there in six years’ or even six minutes’ time.

The other day at her grandparents’ house, M Jr climbed the staircase to the first floor and made her way into otoh-san’s study, where the two of us kept an eye on her as she crawled around and investigated the various objects there: a stereo, a mosquito repelling gizmo, an alarm clock, some old newspapers, an empty cassette case and so on. To you or I, an empty cassette case would be nothing more than a hunk of plastic – and an out-of-date hunk of plastic at that – but to M Jr it is a thing of wonder: it is hard, partly smooth and partly textured, half black and half transparent; it makes an impressively loud noise if you bang it against something or drop it on the floor, and if you can prise it open, it essentially becomes another object altogether with a completely different shape. Perhaps the only mundane thing about it is that it doesn’t taste of anything, although that certainly didn’t stop M Jr from coating it with drool (in the same way that dogs have a highly developed sense of smell, so a baby’s mouth is more sensitive relative to their eyes and hands, hence M Jr’s tendency to give pretty much any new object an exploratory chew, where the rest of us would instead pick it up and look at it).

As a parent, one aspires to creating a stimulating environment for one’s child, and to providing them with as many and varied experiences as possible, but it seems to me that – up to a point, at least – a baby would be sufficiently stimulated even if he or she was in a completely empty room with white walls, a white floor, a white ceiling and no furniture. Well, OK, I suppose they would at least need an old, empty cassette case to keep themselves occupied, but you get the idea. By the same token, it appears to be possible to create a child prodigy simply by bombarding them with stimuli and forcing them to work, study and practice as much as possible whatever skills you want them to be good at. A recent TV programme here in Japan followed a few such parents, one of whom has her son complete listening tests in Japanese and English simultaneously, while another plays recordings of history lectures and works of literature to her daughters at double the normal speed. Regardless of how they may be developing emotionally, these children do indeed seem to be benefitting from their parents’ zeal, and to embody the theory that so long as they are brought up in the correct environment – or rather, in a particular kind of environment – any child has the potential to excel.

I couldn’t help feeling as I watched the programme, though, that raising a prodigy requires a huge amount of effort on the part of both parent and child, and more to the point, that such effort is way beyond a lazy git like me (I’m not going to accuse her of being a lazy git in print, but Mrs M freely admitted to feeling the same way). The fact is, even bringing up a contented and comparatively problem-free daughter leaves Mrs M in particular in an almost permanent state of exhaustion. Even though I am at work for most of the day, and even though Mrs M is the one who gets out of bed in the small hours to give M Jr her bottle of milk, I too am tired most of the time. Much as I would like to play classical music to M Jr, or read to her from Wikipedia, or teach her English using flashcards, puzzles and CDs, it’s as much as I can do to look on and say, ‘Is that interesting?’ when she’s waving an old cassette case around, or ‘Do you like Michael Buble, then?’ when we’re listening to music in the car, or ‘That’s a cute doggy, isn’t it?’ when the next-door neighbour’s pet poodle walks past.

This isn’t to say that I find child rearing boring. On the contrary, this last year has been wonderful, and inspiring, and moving, and has more than lived up to my expectations of what it would be like to become a father. It is an endless joy to at least try and see the world through M Jr’s eyes, to watch her acquire new skills and express new emotions: she can now, for example, crawl, stand up, hold her own baby bottle, drink through a straw, pick up food and put it in her mouth, smile, laugh, cry, play jokes, do impersonations, wave bye-bye, shake her head, bow (she is half-Japanese, after all), open doors, press the buttons on a remote control and point it at the television, recognise herself in a mirror, recognise herself in photographs, rub her eyes when she’s tired, point, clap her hands (something that happened so spontaneously I can only assume it is a natural human instinct, not something that is taught or copied), dance, climb stairs, climb onto tables, climb out of chairs, blow raspberries, undo zips, undo velcro and turn the pages of book.

Indeed, and while M Jr has yet to utter any words that might be recognisable as such, she seems to have inherited the Muzuhashi family’s love of them (as well as her dad being a blogger who once earned his living writing lame gags for low-budget TV shows, her paternal grandmother was a librarian and her paternal grandfather an antiquarian bookseller), and when Mrs M took her to an event at the local library, one of the volunteers reading books to the children noticed that M Jr was more absorbed in what was going on than anyone else, and advised us to nurture this interest. Thanks to friend of ours whose kids have grown out of them, we have inherited a library of English language children’s books, and while M Jr is often more interested in chewing the pages or attempting to rip them out altogether, she does seem to enjoy following a story, and to be interested in books on a purely aesthetic level.

While we have yet to sit M Jr at a piano and make her read the sheet music to Beethoven’s fifth symphony, she also seems to be musically inclined, and will wiggle her hips to anything even remotely rhythmic or tuneful, inlcuding the warning bell at a level crossing and the jingle our washing machine plays when it reaches the end of its cycle. She turns all kinds of objects into wind instruments, including, so far, the plastic case for a thermometer, a tug boat bath toy she received as a Christmas present, an empty cardboard box and the plastic lid to her baby bottle: the sound she produces often resembles the voice of Darth Vader more than it does music, but she seems to enjoy the reverberative acoustics.

If anything sets M Jr apart from other babies, though, it is her sleeping habits. LIke most parents we were careful to have her sleep on her back when she was born, but it wasn’t long before she had learned to roll over from back to front and front to back again. Not only that, but she soon developed a fondness for moving about in her sleep, to the extent that every night, Mrs M now covers the entire bedroom floor with mattresses and duvets, and when I go to bed an hour or so later, or when one of us wakes up in the night, or when we get up the next morning, M Jr can be literally anywhere in the room: snuggling up against her mum, lying at my feet, leaning against the wall or halfway into a cupboard, and rather than lying on her back facing the ceiling, she is just as likely to be lying on her front with her backside in the air, on her side with her legs stretched out as if she has dreamt of being in a running race, or crammed into a corner of the room in a confusion of bed sheets and cuddly toys (speaking of which, she has already found her Linus-like security blanket, namely a fluffy toy bunny with a Union Jack bow around its neck – okah-san has already bought a second, identical bunny just in case we lose the first one).

Of course, as well as behaving differently from other babies, M Jr also looks different. Not massively different, mind you, but while most new borns resemble bug-eyed, hairy-eared little aliens regardless of their background, the older they get the more genetics come into play, and in M Jr’s case this manifests itself most obviously in a) her head and b) her hair. A typical Japanese head is flatter at the both the front and the back, where Westerners have longer noses and rounder skulls. A typical Asian baby, meanwhile, has a full head of jet-black hair, while a Western one’s is thin and wispy. Then again, most of the strangers who come up and coo over M Jr – and there are a lot, believe me – know that she’s mixed race simply by looking at her mum and dad.

Among a total of around 1500 students at the five different junior high schools where I currently teach, probably five – and certainly no more than ten – are foreign or mixed-race, a situation that was mirrored in the small country town where I was brought up. Until I went to university as a twenty-three year old, my experience of meeting people from different racial backgrounds was limited to the waiting staff at the local Indian restaurant. In the same way, when I walk down the street where I now live, I stick out like an alfalfa sandwich in an Angus Steak House, and when I walk M Jr down the street in her pram or in her Ergo Baby sling, so does she – the only difference being that people are much less likely to smile at me and tell me that I’m cute.

It will be interesting to see how M Jr copes with her celebrity status as she grows up, but for the moment we are thoroughly enjoying parenthood, and looking forward to being bombarded with requests for presents when she learns to talk and turns two this time next year.

2011 TV review of the year

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.