Alan Booth Part 2 – This Great Stage of Fools

Way back in January 2011, one of the very first posts on this blog was about the writer Alan Booth, who lived here for more than two decades, produced two of the most well known and well liked travel books about Japan, and sadly passed away at the age of just 46. Little did I know at the time, but that post would become by far the most popular that I ever wrote – on a very small scale indeed, you might almost describe it as ‘buzzy’.

Comments on it became, in a quite spontaneous way, a kind of unofficial noticeboard for fans – and even acquaintances – of Booth, in large part because the post’s popularity happened to coincide with the creation of This Great Stage of Fools, a book of his hitherto uncollected and unpublished writing. This Great Stage of Fools was compiled and edited – lovingly, painstakingly and over the course of several years – by Booth’s friend Timothy Harris, who himself was one of the commenters, and who was considerate enough to keep us up to date regarding progress on the book, from his trawling through the archives all the way to the publication party in May of last year (of which more later).

It took me a while to get round to buying a copy of This Great Stage of Fools, it took a while to get round to reading it, and it has taken another long while to get round to writing this review, and partly because I realised that I had so much to say on the subject, partly because this is the first post on Muzuhashi for the best part of three years, please forgive me if I ramble on for an unnecessarily long time, and wander down one or two side roads along the way. I use the quite selfish and thoroughly presumptuous excuse that Booth himself would have approved.

I first saw Alan Booth’s name mentioned in Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues, which despite – or perhaps even because of – its unexpectedly gloomy ending, and along with Booth’s own books, Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea and Leslie Downer’s On the Narrow Road to the Deep North, is one of my favourite about Japan.

As Ferguson is travelling through Hokkaido on the final stage of his hitchhiking odyssey, he stays in a guest house whose proprietors suggest to a star-struck Ferguson that Booth, too, may have stayed there while he was walking in the opposite direction, a decade or two previously, and having just embarked on his own top-to-tail journey through Japan.

Thanks to this I discovered Booth, and had soon read both of his books, before eventually writing a review of the second – Looking for the Lost, which is also, I should mention here, the result of the efforts and editing prowess of Timothy Harris – that became the aforementioned Alan Booth blog entry.

Slowly but surely, as I was blogging about Japan, settling into life here (for the second time – I lived in Tokyo and then Ibaraki for two years in the mid-noughties) and becoming a father to Muzuhashi Juniors I and II, readers began to respond to the post, and in reply to a comment along the lines of, ‘I wish there was another collection of Booth’s writing out there,’ Harris himself appeared to say that yes, there was, and that he was the editor.

Along with Harris, his publisher Ry Beville, and even friends of Booth’s from his university days, all sorts of other fans chipped in to the discussion. I learned of Fexluz’s epic plan to re-walk the entire journey described in The Roads to Sata – including, wherever possible, staying in the same lodgings and sticking to the same schedule – and was fortunate enough to become acquainted with the very nice people behind the Alan Booth Appreciation Facebook page. Then, at long last, came This Great Stage of Fools.

Speaking of which – and before I continue – a quick commercial break: if you’re a fan of Booth’s, or of this blog, or if you’re a Japanophile who just happened to drop by, you can purchase a copy of This Great Stage of Fools direct from the Bright Wave Media website for 3000 yen including delivery (3500 if you live outside Japan). As Timothy explained to me, dealing with Amazon can be a financially disadvantageous experience for small-scale publishers of non-best sellers, because they are obliged to charge less than is necessary to turn a profit. So think of the slightly-above-average price tag – along with the mild inconvenience of not being able to use Amazon Prime etc. – as your contribution to keeping writers like Booth in the spotlight, and editors like Harris and publishers like Bright Wave in an honest living.

But anyway, when I finally sat down (or rather, lay down beneath the kotatsu in our front room) to read This Great Stage of Fools, I have to confess that my first thoughts were somewhat equivocal.

The collection starts with more than a hundred pages of Booth’s film reviews for the Asahi Newspaper, ranging from those poking fun at creatively bankrupt box office hits, to those heaping praise on what would nowadays be described as ‘art house’ films. Booth’s reviews are, as you might expect, insightful, well written and at times very amusing, and he was clearly knowledgeable about Japanese film history. Of the films he reviews, however, I have seen just four (Ran, Grave of the Fireflies, Akira and Kiki’s Delivery Service), heard of just three more, and even if I was inspired by his reviews to see more, the majority would not be easy to track down, even here in Japan.

So much as I admired the film reviews, to me they were rather abstract, and as I read my way through them, I couldn’t help but think that Harris had compiled This Great Stage of Fools in the wrong order, for as any music fan knows, the basic principle when deciding the running order of an album is to put the hits at the beginning, while here he seemed to be starting with the obscurities, B-sides and bonus tracks.

The second, third and fourth sections of the book are much more the kind of thing we have come to expect from Booth, being a combination of eyewitness accounts of Japanese festivals, essays about folk songs which aren’t a million miles away from being travel pieces themselves, a biography of the shamisen player Chikuzan Takahashi – whose birthplace, the Tsugaru Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture, might reasonably be described as Booth’s spiritual home – and an account of a walk across Shikoku.

The latter was commissioned by the Japan Airlines magazine Winds, and makes for a satisfying addition to The Roads to Sata, being nothing more pretentious than a day-by-day diary, with descriptions of the people he meets, the places he stays and the toenails he loses along the way. I wonder if he had planned to flesh it out at some point with some historical, cultural and geographical detail, although it also made me feel sad that Booth never walked the Henro Pilgrimage around 88 of Shikoku’s shrines, which would have been the ideal subject for one of his travel books.

(Parenthetically, I have myself crossed the Minokoshi Pass below Mt. Tsurugi in Shikoku  – where Booth gets into a drunken karaoke battle with a fellow diner – and by that point the village just below it was home to an art installation that makes a very telling point about the decrease in number and increase in average age of the Japanese, and about their seemingly inexorable movement from rural to urban centres of population.)

So with its sketches of local people and unusual goings on, its dancing, devils, myths and legends, the middle section of This Great Stage of Fools is reassuringly familiar, but it is in section five – entitled Going Hence – that Harris’s reasons for ordering the book as he did become apparent.

For the end of This Great Stage of Fools is about Booth’s end – in both senses of the word, in fact, as his terminal illness originated in his colon, and probably the funniest passage in the book is his account of two visits to Tokyo Medical and Dental University Hospital, the first of which involves a nurse taking a stool sample with only a curtained screen separating them from a hundred or so other people in the waiting room, and the second a doctor questioning him about his bowel movements as a similarly inquisitive queue of patients sits within earshot.

Indeed, Booth’s humour here is as dry as a half-litre bottle of Asahi, and while for the most part Going Hence is either played for laughs or avoids sentimentality and self-pity, one can only imagine the pain – both physical and psychological – that Booth was going through at the time.

So the writing in This Great Stage of Fools becomes more personal as it progresses, and therefore better and better, and the more I read, the more I realised that the only possible place for an account of Booth’s final days would be in the final pages of the collection. And for that reason, to put the film reviews after this, or to shuffle them with the travel and cultural pieces, would never work.

In any case, an insight into Booth’s illness was what I had wanted to read more than anything else, ever since his brief reference to it on the final page of Looking for the Lost. But why should that be so? Well, I suppose to myself and many other Japanophiles, Booth is a hero of sorts, and because of his untimely death – the details of which most of us were until now entirely ignorant – he has the allure of a kind of gaijin James Dean: someone who lived fast, died young and left a good-looking corpse. Well, OK, so it was more like living within the speed limit, dying in middle-age and leaving a ruddily-complexioned, British-looking corpse, but whereas Booth’s death was in no way glamorous, the very fact that it happened lent him an air of mystery that writers like Will Ferguson, Donald Richie or Leslie Downer, for example (and with apologies to all three), do not have.

And more than that, while I abhor the whole concept of celebrity culture – or as it’s referred to here in Japan, geinohkai (芸能界 / げいのうかい) – I can’t help but be curious about the personal life of the people I admire. So while Booth doesn’t appear to have been someone who made any particular effort to keep his private life hidden, there is something rather thrilling, and at the same time cathartic, about reading the final section of This Great Stage of Fools, because we have at long last been granted a glimpse of the human being behind the books that we love. (Again parenthetically: it is interesting to note that even in an era that pre-dated the instant communication of the internet, Booth received his fair share of hate mail in the form of handwritten letters.)

But for me at least, it is not just these things that make This Great Stage of Fools so important, and by way of explanation, you will have to allow me to wander off along one of those side roads I was talking about at the beginning of this post.

My father was born into a wealthy family and went to a reputable public school (Charterhouse, no less – the Alma Mater of people like Robert Baden Powell, David Dimbleby, Peter Gabriel and, er, Jeremy Hunt), but essentially dropped out of the system at eighteen, finding employment in a succession of part-time and temporary jobs. When he met my mother he was running secondhand bookshop in Bristol, and after they separated he instead travelled the country as a member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association. He was also – like his father before him, and as I would subsequently become – an aspiring (i.e. failed) writer, and while I have yet to find the time to decipher his practically illegible handwriting, at one point wrote a full-length autobiography, as well as a good deal of romantic poetry (that is in the romantic tradition, as opposed to the lovey-dovey one). In the late eighties he decided to quit the bookselling and go back to school, securing a place at the now defunct Coleg Harlech in west Wales, and while he did, as far as I can remember, complete the course and have ambitions of becoming a university lecturer, this coincided with his diagnosis with skin cancer.

Although he didn’t fill me in on many of the details, it would seem that he contracted the disease while on a walking holiday in the south of France, and by the time he went to have a mole which had appeared on face looked at by a doctor, the cancer had already spread too far for there to be any hope of a cure. After an operation to remove tumours in his neck and shoulder, a round or two of chemotherapy (which he described as ‘like having malaria’), and a rather desperate (desperate for him because it was so out of character) attempt at a kind of detox diet cancer treatment, he passed away in the summer of 1990.

Because my parents separated when I was about four years old, I didn’t see much of my father. He travelled around a lot and even when he was nearby, sometimes preferred not to visit because his relationship with my mother could be rather strained. At the end of his life, too, he was living a long way away, and by that point I was a miserable teenager who rarely left the house and wanted to have as little to do with my parents as possible. So while I was upset when I learned of his death and did of course go to the funeral, I’m not sure that I ever properly grieved for him.

Cut to about twenty-five years later, and I was given a batch of mp3 files by my brother, digitised from some dictaphone tapes which had been languishing in the attic at our mother’s house. The tapes were recorded by my father on the aforementioned walking tour (actually tours – as it turns out he went on two, in successive summers in the late eighties), and my brother recommended that I listen to them.

I had been aware of the tapes’ existence from the time my father died, but even once the recordings were in my iTunes library, was hesitant to listen to them. There were various reasons for this, the main one being that the experience could turn into a kind of morbid pantomime, with myself as the audience urging him – in vain and unheard – to use some sunblock or buy a bigger hat, as he – oblivious to his fate – mentioned how hot and sunny it was.

Then, about two and a half years ago, I fell ill myself. This was no terminal illness, and unlike Alan Booth, for example, I wasn’t given a 30% chance of five years to live. I didn’t even necessarily need to see a doctor (although I did consult several), let alone have chemotherapy, an operation, or a rectal examination within earshot of a room full of fellow patients. But it did count as a kind of mid-life crisis, and for a while at least, turned my entire life upside down, cause me to re-examine what that life really meant, and to quite fundamentally change me as a human being.

So while this is my first post to since 2016, the not-so-gory details of my illness can be found here, here, here and here, in a series of guest posts that James at the ALT Insider blog was kind enough to carry – probably the most I have written on any subject in that entire time.

But anyway, one of many new things I began doing in order to recover from my illness was to take a walk every evening after the children had gone to bed, and after a year of doing so with just my own thoughts for company, I dug out my headphones and started listening to music, podcasts and audio books. This eventually led me to my father’s recordings, and what I found in them was, in its own rather understated way, a revelation.

During the two walking holidays, whenever my father had something interesting to say, and sometimes when he was simply making his way along a footpath or a road, he would press the record button on his dictaphone. He talked about the scenery, the weather, the food he had eaten, where he had been and where he was going, and he also talked about himself. About how motivated, lazy, positive, negative, wide awake or worn out he was, and about his life: his work, his plans to go back into education, and his relationship with my brother and I.

So not only was this a voice I had not heard for nearly thirty years, it was also expounding on topics that even at the time I didn’t hear him talk about. At various points in the recordings he wonders how my brother and I are doing, reminisces about things that happened when we were growing up, and confesses that he would like to see us more. He also describes his regret at having wasted so much time worrying about his relationships, both with my mother and with subsequent girlfriends (apart from the woman he was living with when he died, these were women I had absolutely no idea existed during his lifetime, and while I believe I may have met one or two, they were never introduced to me as such).

Occasionally my father also recorded himself in conversation, and while he doesn’t appear to have been a fluent French speaker, he knew enough, as the saying goes, to get by. This was another aspect of his life that I had no real knowledge of, and particularly fascinating because it made me realise how I must sound when I speak – and struggle – with Japanese, both literally in the sense that our voices are similar, and conceptually in the sense that we both put ourselves in a position where we had to use a foreign language on the natives.

At one point in the recordings, he leaves the dictaphone running while using a hotel pay phone, and as I listened it took me a minute or two to realise that the person on the other end of the line was me. At the time I was sixteen, and had just arrived back from a school exchange visit to Hungary (which as it happened was emotionally tumultuous, and my first real brush with the depression that reappeared during my more recent illness). The conversation is fairly mundane, as we share travellers’ tales and he tells me when he expects to be back in the UK, and towards the end of the call he refers to me by a nickname that I had no memory of him using (no, not Muzuhashi, in case you were wondering).

In the background of the recordings, too, you can hear the sounds my father heard as he made his way through the south of France: tractors, passing cars, church bells, birdsong, buskers, and a group of customers singing what appears to be a rousing rugby song in a bar in Marseille. You can also hear his breathing and his footsteps, and as I walked the backstreets of small-town Ibaraki at nine or ten in the evening, these synchronised with my own, and this recording of the past was overlaid with the present moment of my own experience, my father’s words and my own thoughts about them overlapping, intermingling, and reverberating back and forth across the decades.

My father does indeed refer to the heat – to the sunshine, his sensitive skin, and how there is a patch of sunburn on his forehead that won’t heal up – and part of me wanted to call out to him, to warn him of the dangers, and to urge him to see a doctor sooner than he did, so that his life might instead be saved, and our relationship able to grow and develop; that he might still be with us today, and interested in my own adventure abroad.

But more than anything else, listening to the tapes was miraculous, because apart from one or two home videos, they are the only place in which his voice is preserved, and even though the mp3 files had been sitting in my iTunes library for the best part of a decade, hearing his voice again so unexpectedly was joyful, fascinating, moving, mysterious, and so many other things all at the same time.

At the time I listened to the recordings I was seeing (well, having video chats with on Skype) a psychotherapist, and relating to her the experience of hearing my father’s voice again, and of finding out so much that was new to me about his life and the way that he felt, brought my sessions with her to a natural and satisfying conclusion. It gave me the motivation I needed to move on with my life: not quite cured, but with a sense that the illness I had been dealing with for so long was fading into the background. And while it is somewhat of an exaggeration, reading This Great Stage of Fools – and in particular its final section – was a similar experience: revelatory because it was one that I never thought I would be granted.

Both Booth and my father died in their late forties from cancer that was diagnosed too late, and while their journeys through life were very different, both shared a passion for walking and a passion for words, so that for me, and if only in a small way, Booth is a father figure, and I realise now that one of the reasons I like his writing – and one of the reasons, no doubt, that my review of one of his books resonated so much with readers of this blog – is precisely because of this, so that when I wrote about Booth, I was also writing about my father, and about myself.

Booth’s words in the final section of This Great Stage of Fools are both personal and emotional, and as well as mentioning his family for the first time, he recounts a visit to India during which he spent time volunteering for Mother Theresa and the Missionaries of Charity.

Here Booth washes blankets in the appalling conditions of the Nirmal Hriday Hospice for terminally ill destitutes, and becomes a kind of surrogate father to patients at the Shishu Bhavan children’s hospital. What he describes is quite unlike the boozy, breezy bar chats of The Roads to Sata or Looking for the Lost, and in doing so, he reveals himself to be both compassionate and selfless. In the context of what was to come, one might also suggest that the experience prepared him for the suffering that was about to intrude into his life, and bestowed on him the humility he would need to confront his own mortality.

I recently read a manga by Yoko Takahashi called Gaikokujin no Daigimon (外国人の大疑問 / The Big Questions for Foreigners), which among other things contains the results of a questionnaire given to expats. In answer to the question, ‘What do you dislike about Japan?’ as well as such responses as, ‘Rush hour trains full of people’ and ‘The rent is expensive’, some people said, ‘Japan is very convenient, but for some reason I feel lonely.’ This is a sentiment to which I am sure a lot of expats can relate, and while in Going Hence Booth navigates his way through terminal cancer with the usual articulacy and good humour, for the first time in his writing, I sensed that he, too, may have been lonely living in Japan.

I wonder if Booth’s prodigious drinking was one way in which he dealt with this, and another reason I am drawn to his writing is because my father, too, was a drinker. But while my father was an alcoholic – in the sense that his personality changed for the worse when he drank – Booth really did appear to be a social drinker, and rather than alcohol being something that held him back, it enabled him to meet a huge variety of people, to communicate with them (often in Japanese, of course), and to pass on what he learned from them to his readers.

This Great Stage of Fools will almost certainly be the final published work by Booth, although there would appear to be even more writing of his that is yet to be collected. For example, one of the comments on my first Alan Booth post mentioned a travel piece for which Booth ‘went “undercover” on a Hato Tour Bus, seeing the sights of Tokyo with a group of other foreigners,’ which I for one would love to read, and his wife Su-Chzeng has an archive of his papers that will hopefully find a home in a university library or similar.

Both Su-Chzeng and Mirai – her daughter with Booth – spoke at the launch party for This Great Stage of Fools, and while I was unable to attend in person, I listened to Fexluz’s audio recording of the party on one of my evening walks. Alongside many wonderful tributes to and recollections of Booth, Mirai brings an unexpected new perspective to her reading of a passage from This Great Stage of Fools, investing her father’s words with drama, vivacity, and a quite different sense of humour from that which comes across on the page. Listening to this made me see Booth’s writing in a new light, and it heartens me to think that while Booth is no longer with us, his spirit lives on in his books, which will surely be read, enjoyed and reinterpreted for many years to come.

Alan Booth

Alan Booth moved to Japan in his twenties and lived here for more than half his life, until his untimely demise from cancer at the age of 46. On the face of it he would appear to have written just two books, and one of them was published posthumously, so there must be scope for a further collection of his journalism and travel writing, of which there was sufficient for him to earn a living (he doesn’t appear to have worked in any other capacity in Japan, apart from a brief stint as an English teacher when he first arrived here).

The Roads To Sata is Booth’s most well known book, but while the task he undertook in order to write it – namely, walking the entire length of Japan from its northernmost to southernmost points – is impressive, in my humble opinion, Looking For The Lost is a finer literary achievement. Most importantly, when he went on his first, epic trek, Booth had only been in the country for seven years, and while his Japanese was already very good and his grasp of the country’s culture wide-ranging, by the time he went on the three shorter walks on which Looking For The Lost is based, he had at least another fifteen years of linguistic expertise and cultural knowledge to draw upon. So while The Roads To Sata is an account of his travels from A to B, and largely concerns itself with the people he meets and the places he visits along the way, in Looking For The Lost he follows in the footsteps of three historical figures.

The first is Osamu Dazai, who was born into a rich family, became a famous writer and ended up committing suicide. The second is Saigo Takamori, who was a military and political luminary in Meiji times, but made a few enemies along the way and ended up dying in heroic and / or tragic (depending on how you look at it) samurai-style circumstances. And the third are the Heike, not so much a figure as a group of figures: a military clan who wielded power the best part of a thousand years ago, and who having been defeated were hounded from their homes, never to be seen again.

Dazai is a particularly interesting figure in relation to Booth, as both were prodigious drinkers. Booth is very much aware of this, and refers to a review of The Roads To Sata in which his journey was described as ‘a 2000-mile pub crawl’. Indeed, he appears to spend almost the entire time drunk, to the extent that you wonder a) how he managed to remember what happened while he was on his travels and b) how he managed to stay sober for long enough to write an entire book about them. The summer of his north-to-south walk appears to have been particularly hot – even in Hokkaido and by Japanese standards – so one has to assume that quite apart from being sunburned, bug-bitten and with blisters on his blisters, he must have been completely dehydrated from dawn until dusk, and for the entire six months the walk took him to complete. For Booth, drinking is as matter-a-fact a part of everyday life as breathing and eating, and in Looking For The Lost is referred to entirely casually: a few bottles of beer for lunch here, several flasks of saké for dinner there. Goodness knows, if he had managed to survive the cancer, liver failure would surely have picked him off before too long.

But anyway, while Dazai’s pub crawl took him round the northern tip of Honshu, through a bleak and remote region called Tsugaru that Booth makes no attempt at all to glamourise, Takamori’s journey was around Kyushu, which is a particularly attractive part of Japan. Perhaps the most interesting point raised by Booth’s account is that while Kyushu is by no means bleak, due to the inexorable shift in the Japanese population from the rural to the urban, it too is becoming remote – on one day of walking in particular, he sees an average of approximately one other human being per hour, most of whom are old enough to be retired. This was something I came across when I travelled around Hokkaido, where the population demographic is getting older and older, and whatever children there are disappear to live in Sapporo or Tokyo as soon as they get the chance.

While Takamori was no alcoholic, he makes an excellent starting point for Booth’s reflections on the Japanese psyche. Takamori was one of the last of the old-style samurai, and his character encapsulates many ironies and contradictions, the most amusing of which is the fact that he almost certainly suffered from a medical condition that made his testicles swell to an enormous size, to the extent that he had to be carried around by his minions on a sedan chair. Again, Booth’s writing here is greatly enhanced by the insight he has into the subtleties of Japanese history and culture.

I was reading an internet forum the other day in which Booth was criticised for a Theroux-esque tendency to complain about things and make bitchy comments about Japan and its people, and while it’s true that he does succumb at times to what one assumes was the fashionable travel writing style of the time, he of all people – rather than an ignorant first-timer with nothing but a Rough Guide and a beginner’s phrasebook in their backpack – has earned the right to be critical. Before following in Takamori’s footsteps, for example, he has read – in the original Japanese – pretty much every piece of biographical writing there is on his subject, to the extent that he is confident enough to suggest his own theories about exactly where Takamori went, how he went there and why. (Again, this is something that cannot be said of The Roads To Sata, and Booth backs up numerous theories that contradict the accepted Japanese view with hard evidence: for example, his etymological take on the word ‘kokeshi’ – the wooden dolls of Japanese children with pudding-bowl haircuts – is particularly fascinating, not to mention rather spooky, and by the by, draws on an excellent Japanese book that has been translated into English, Memories Of Silk And Straw by Junichi Saga.)

The Heike, though, are more elusive than either Dazai or Takamori, as there is little documentation about them, and in any case, their story is so old that it has long since begun to blur at the edges and to move into the realms of myth and legend (after less than a century, Booth notes that Takamori is already well on his way to being perceived as a myth – even a deity – rather than a real historical figure). What Booth teases out of this is a meditation on the relative transience of Japanese culture and its artifacts. While it is true to say there are very few old buildings in the country as a whole, Booth manages to track some down that date back hundreds of years, and whose thatched roofs and snake-ridden rooms serve as vital proof of Japan’s history, and as a bridge to its mythical past, which may or may not have been peopled by clans such as the Heike. (His questioning of the modern Japanese assertion that as a race they are somehow purer than those of most other nations is also worthy of examination, particularly for an outsider. I for one was unaware that besides the Ainu of Hokkaido, several other indigenous tribes pre-existed the Japanese race as we know it today.)

Oddly, one of the only jarring moments in Looking For The Lost is its reference on the final page to Booth’s fatal illness. I would be intrigued to read an account of his battle with cancer (although perhaps the confessional style didn’t suit his writing – Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, for example, is much more personal than either of Booth’s books), but the way in which he suddenly shoe-horns it into his conclusion rather detracts from what has come before.

It is of course ironic that Booth should have lived in a country with the longest life expectancy in the world, and whose excellent medical system is renowned for picking up serious illness early enough to enable successful treatment, when his own illness went undetected until it was too late. What a shame that he did not live to produce more great travel writing about the country that became his home.


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.

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.

The ALT Insider guest post!

In the space of little more than a year, ALT Insider has become the one-stop-shop for those of us who ply our trade as token gaiji…er, I mean English teaching assistants in Japanese schools, and seeing as James – the man who rules over the ALT Insider kingdom – was kind enough to let me write a guest post for his site, in the spirit of reciprocity, here’s his contribution to the United Kingdom of Muzuhashi. Read, enjoy, and if you’re an ALT in Japan, I strongly recommend that you check out ALT Insider (for example, probably my favourite post is this one about how to skive off work without incurring the wrath of either your vice-principal or your dispatch company).

Friday 13th September 2015 – My home to the 7-11 (自宅 – コンビニ)
Presents received – receipt, smile, several hundred pictures of college students

On a random Friday in a September like any other, I took a break from the endless hilarity that is Japanese TV and walked to the fridge to grab a drink. Upon opening it, I realized my only thirst-quenching options were the remnants of a slightly expired quart of milk, and a large bottle of Sirachi hot sauce.

I considered my options. I could take a chance on the milk being okay to drink, but the potential downside would leave me hunched over and unwell. I could sip on the hot sauce, but aside from that not being very thirst quenching, a mistake could force me chug the milk, adding another monkey wrench to the equation.

Without an appealing option, I decided that I was going to take action to improve my situation. I was going to make the trek to a convenience store. I knew the path well. I wouldn’t need any supplies other than a bike and the clothes on my back. I took a quick shower, gave myself a pre-biking massage, and began to squeeze into my biking shorts.

A mere 45 minutes later, I bid farewell to the cat and locked the door behind me as I left. As I heard the twist of the lock, I felt that familiar feeling when any great quest begins.

What awaited me on my journey? What characters would play a part in this tale? How did that cat get into my house? What treasure was awaiting me at my destination? Seriously, though, whose cat was that?

As I pondered those questions, I arrived at my bike garage. Okay, it’s not actually “mine,” but rather more of a community garage over which I claim ownership to feel better about myself.

Anyhow, in my glorious garage, I was presented with a pair of options:

The first was a pink beauty I nicknamed The Stallion. No gears, no basket, no rules.

The second was an orangey yellow stunner upon which I bestowed the name Puddle Dancer. It boasted a basket, a semi-flat tire, and a locking system that isn’t functional.

Since I felt like living dangerously, I hopped on Puddle Dancer and prepared to depart. I input the address into my iPhone, and I was ready to roll.

Departure time: 3:15

If everything went well, I was scheduled to arrive at the convenience store at 3:17, but I’ve been on enough of these bike trips to know that you should always expect the unexpected. I pressed on.

After I pushed the pedals a few times and breathed in that smooth Japan air, my jitters quickly disappeared. I was officially on my way. Sometimes on these epic quests, that feeling of, “Wow, this is really happening,” doesn’t show up until the middle, and sometimes even later than that. On this trip, however, it came nice and early, which is a great feeling. I took a selfie to commemorate the rush of adrenaline.

About half a minute later, now that I was within viewing distance of my destination, I picked up the pace. Was it excitement about being so close to my goal? No, it was something deeper than that. There is this really huge dog that scares me, so I speed when I go through his domain.

With Cujo in my rear-view mirror, I foolishly sighed in relief. The feeling wouldn’t last.

As I turned onto the road with the 7-11, a huge herd of college students appeared, blocking my path! I could have probably cleared them out through my usual tactic of acting like a lost foreigner asking for directions in English, but these quests are defined by their uniqueness, so I chose to wait it out.

After waiting countless minutes for them to pass, I pulled into the 7-11 with a feeling of sincere satisfaction. Not because most of the students were wearing skirts and it was a windy day (or at least not exclusively because of that), but because I had made the effort and took the risks to get what I wanted and to grow as a person.

There are too many people out there who don’t go after what they want. I’ve met so many people who, if put into the same situation as I was, would have just settled for that two-day-old milk or the hot sauce. Probably more people would have just settled for tap water. It takes a bit more to be someone who leaves the safety of home and treks to the great unknown to satisfy a thirst.

I set the bar higher. And I know you can, too.

The next time you need something, don’t settle for tap water (or your situation’s equivalent). Go for it. Make the effort. Take that selfie. Wait for those students. Go to that conbini.

I’m James Winovich.


James Winovich is the creator of, a website all about helping people have more fun in Japan. Lesson plans, a podcast, and a huge archive of articles are waiting for you there. Have more fun during your time in Japan.

Preggers pt 2

Mrs M is now seven months’ pregnant (or eight if you count them the Japanese way), and we keep ourselves amused of an evening by watching Muzuhashi Junior on the move. She seems to be most active just after we’ve eaten and just after we’ve gone to bed, and like a cat in a sack, when she kicks her legs or wiggles her arms, little comedy bulges appear in Mrs M’s bump. Late last year, though, when we had only just found out the good news, M Jr was a barely discernable shadow on the ultrasound scan – like the kind of inconclusive photographs people point to as evidence of the existence of UFOs or life on Mars.
No matter how apparently healthy your baby is – a couple of weeks later, and despite being just 8mm long, M Jr’s heartbeat was both audible and visible – the chances of miscarriage are relatively high if you have conceived with the help of infertility treatment. So Mrs M quit her part-time job and spent those first few months doing as little as possible – not that she felt like doing much in any case, as she was queasy from morning sickness most of the time.

Before the pregnancy we had made pilgrimages to various kosazuké-jinja (子授け神社 / ‘child bestowing shrine’), and as well as tossing a coin in the collection box and saying a prayer, bought lucky charms called omamori (お守り) and ofuda (お札 – in case you’re thinking of buying one, an ofuda is supposed to be hung on a south-facing wall and returned to the shrine if and when your baby is born).

Once you’re pregnant it’s time to visit an anzan (安産 / safe childbirth) shrine, and to observe a somewhat obscure tradition called inu-no-hi (戌の日 / dog day). Because they can pop out a healthy litter of puppies every year, dogs have long been regarded as symbolic of safe childbirth, although as opposed to the more commonly used kanji for dog (犬) the dog of dog day (戌) is the eleventh sign of the Chinese zodiac. There is therefore a dog year every twelve years and a dog day every twelve days throughout the year, and on the first dog day of the fifth month of her pregnancy, the mother-to-be buys a length of white material called a hara-obi (腹帯 / literally ‘stomach belt’). The hara-obi is wrapped around her belly to support her bump, protect the baby and keep them both warm, although as Mrs M discovered, having your stomach bandaged up in several metres’ worth of swaddling makes it hard to breathe and practically impossible to sit down. There is a very detailed description of dog day – in Japanese only – at this website, and judging from the diagrams contained therein, Okah-san didn’t wrap Mrs M’s hara-obi in quite the correct fashion.
Shrines and temples, incidentally, make plenty of money from hara-obi, ofuda and the like, and tend to be conspicuously well appointed: above the entrance to the Izumotaisha child bestowing shrine in Kasama City is this enormous rope, which despite weighing in at a quite mind-boggling six tons is replaced every year.
After dog day we went along to the city welfare department to register the pregnancy, and to take advantage of the various financial incentives on offer to prospective parents. As if to emphasise the declining birth rate out here in the sticks, when we arrived at the reception desk the lights were off and there was no one in sight. The sound of laughter drifted over from the far end of the darkened office, along with the unmistakable aroma of McDonald’s french fries, and after calling out a few hopeful ‘Excuse me!’s, a woman eventually appeared and led us into a meeting room to complete the paperwork.

Despite managing to avoid the enormous expense of IVF, we were still entitled to most of the money back for our three courses of artificial insemination (which I have been reliably informed is referred to as IUI – intra-uterine insemination – in the UK), along with a large chunk of what we will pay for scans and antenatal care. Once M Jr is born, as well as child benefit (jidoh-téaté / 児童手当) we will get a nappy allowance every month for the first year of her life, although a cut-price car seat is one of many expenses to have been trimmed from the council budget due to the financial burden of the earthquake.

A couple of weeks later we went back for a Baby Welcome Class, which was mostly for the benefit of us dads-to-be. Using a life-size and life-weight baby doll, we were shown how to change a nappy (the midwife’s advice was to avoid lifting the baby’s bottom by grabbing hold of its ankles, as this can put unnecessary pressure on its lower back) and how to bathe the baby (for this we kept a towel draped over the baby’s body help it feel at ease). The dads were also asked to wear a pregnancy simulation suit, so that we might better understand what it is like to use a Japanese-style squat toilet, for example, or lay out a futon, when you have acquired what is effectively a 10kg beer gut. In fact, the limit on weight gain during pregnancy – strictly enforced by most doctors – is a mere 7kg (just over a stone), and when Mrs M attended a separate antenatal class at the maternity clinic, most of the time was taken up with warnings about how bad it is for an unborn baby to be subjected to a diet of fatty foods.

At the Baby Welcome Class we were also shown an old NHK educational film, in which an expectant father – replete with eighties side-parting and large-framed, Buggles-style specs – was subjected to various tests and experiments. In one rather surreal sequence, a researcher swallowed a small, waterproof microphone and the father talked to the researcher’s stomach as if it were his pregnant wife’s. The resulting recording was played back to show how clearly an unborn baby can hear what is going on in the outside world, although in this case it was merely a rather stilted ‘Hello? This is your dad. How are you?’

While babies can’t see or smell anything when they’re in the womb, their senses of hearing and taste are already developing, and a recent TV programme put forward the intriguing theory that up until they are three or four years old, about a third of children retain memories stretching back until before they were born. Of the children who were interviewed for the programme, several recalled the food their mothers craved during pregnancy, as welll as the moment of birth itself: one talked about the taste of a particular melon-flavoured ice cream bar, and another described the feeling of being popped out of his mother’s stomach when she had a Caesarean, information they (probably) wouldn’t have heard about second hand. (Apparently, such children are less likely to open up to their own parents, so the next time you meet a friend’s or relative’s toddler, try asking them what they remember and you may be surprised by the response.)

Other than the Baby Welcome Class, the only research I have done into becoming a parent is watching The Back-Up Plan on DVD, a thoroughly unremarkable film notable mainly for J-Lo’s hairstyle, which looks as if she has been in head-on collision with a steamroller and a tanker full of industrial-strength bleach. Something tells me that the time has come to start reading Mrs M’s ever growing collection of baby books and magazines…

Speech 演説

After much badgering by my teachers, this year I finally decided to have a shot at the prefectural speech contest for non-native speakers of Japanese. Somewhat improbably, I came in second place, although this may have been because a) one of those teachers was on the panel of judges, b) another teacher gave me a lot of help writing my speech, c) I had concocted a fiendishly cunning tactical plan after seeing a Vietnamese friend take part last year, and d) I have been living in Japan and studying the language a good deal longer than most of the other contestants: my first lesson (at South Thames College in Putney, in case you were wondering) was nearly a decade ago, and all told I have lived here for over four years, whereas the eventual winner – whose speech was so wonderful that it actually made me cry – has only been here for six months.

If nothing else, entering the contest taught me the importance of preparation, aka the six Ps: Proper Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. When I was a teenager, I harboured ambitions of becoming an actor, but gave it all up because I couldn’t handle the pressure. Terrified that I might forget my lines, I either deliberately took minor roles or volunteered for backstage work instead, although the thing is, I can’t recall ever taking the time to properly memorise my lines. Determined not to make the same mistake again, I recited my speech at every available opportunity, including over breakfast, during the cycle ride to and from work, in the teachers’ cloakroom, and while Mrs M and M Jr were taking a bath. I also used all three third-year classes at my junior high school as audience guinea pigs, and while I don’t think I ever made it all the way through without making at least one mistake, by the time I was standing at the lectern on the big day, the words were so fixed in my mind that it would have taken an assassination attempt or a stray meteorite for me to mess them up.

Several of my fellow contestants, meanwhile, were still tweaking, memorising and generally fretting right up until the last minute. The woman sitting next to me as we waited for our names to be called didn’t listen to a word that was being said, instead muttering her lines to herself the entire time, and one or two others didn’t know exactly what they were going to say until they were already saying it. As the organisers explained, going over the official time limit of five minutes wouldn’t necessarily be fatal to one’s chances of getting a prize, but it wouldn’t exactly help them either, and two or three contestants were interrupted in mid-sentence by the dreaded warning bell (the timekeepers also held up a ‘thirty seconds to go’ cue card to add to the tension).

Five minutes, as it turns out, makes for a much shorter speech than you might expect, to the extent that once I (OK, my Japanese teacher and I) had timed it, pruned it, timed it again and pruned it some more, mine ran to just one side of word-processed A4. This is even more surprising when you consider that Japanese is such an economical language: a much larger amount of information can be packed into a 140-character Japanese Tweet, for example, than its English equivalent.

I have made speeches in English many times, and while it’s risky to just play it by ear, speaking in your native language allows you so much more leeway for ad-libbing, covering up mistakes or saying the same thing in a slightly different way. In a second language, though, you have far fewer weapons at your disposal, and are a lot more likely to talk yourself into a syntactical dead-end from which there is no elegant or economical means of escape.

My chosen specialised subject, as you might expect, was M Jr, and while my teachers kept emphasising that prize-winning speeches in the past have at least ended on a serious note – they tend to have serious beginnings and middles, too – I made a point of playing it for laughs. For those of you who don’t understand Japanese, I have translated the speech into English, and while much of the humour has been lost as a result, just for the hell of it, I also fed the original into Bing Translator, with bizarre – and frankly funnier – results (see below).

Becoming a father for the first time in Japan

In December 2011 my wife became pregnant. As a result, I realised that when it comes to childbirth, there are various differences between Japan and the UK.

For example, when my wife found out that she was pregnant, she said, ‘Ten months is going to be tough..’ ‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘Japanese women are pregnant for ten months! And to think, British women are only pregnant for nine…’ Later on I was relieved to be told that one month of pregnancy is calculated differently by Japanese and non-Japanese*.

Pregnancy in the UK is basically a licence to ‘eat as much as you like’, and it is not uncommon for pregnant women to gain four or five stone. In Japan, on the other hand, pregnant women are told by their doctors not to gain more than one and a half stone – sometimes even one stone – in weight. Despite her morning sickness, while she was pregnant my wife had a craving for ice cream, and in particular, green tea-flavoured Super Cup. In accordance with the doctors’ guidance, I strictly limited the amount of ice cream she ate. But when I got home from work, many was the time I would find an empty Super Cup in the kitchen rubbish bin.

On 6th August last year my wife’s contractions started and we went to the hospital. According to her, the labour was so painful it felt as if her back would break. If she had given birth in the UK, she would have been able to receive as much painkilling treatment as she liked. In Japan, however, most women giving birth are not allowed to take medicine of any kind. So when my wife asked a nurse, ‘Excuse me, can I have some painkillers?’ she was flatly refused. ‘If you take medicine,’ said the nurse, ‘your baby won’t know when it’s supposed to come out.’

Eventually my wife’s waters broke and she was taken into the delivery room. Seeing her on the deilvery table was so terrifying that I had absolutely no idea what to do for her. When I whispered, ‘Good luck!’ and tried to stroke her hair, she swatted my hand away and said, ‘Get out of the way!’ (This is an experience I think dads all over the world will be able to relate to.)

Before I knew it my wife had given birth to a beautiful baby girl, and I was so happy that tears came to my eyes.

At present, one in four babies in the UK is born to mixed-race parents, whereas in Japan, that statistic is just one in thirty. As a result, such children are viewed as special and referred to as ‘half’s. ‘Half’ isn’t necessarily a bad word, but since our daughter has both Japanese and British genes, instead of being referred to as a ‘half’, I hope that she will be referred to as a ‘double’**.

Either way, from now on my wife and I will try our very best to bring up our baby.

Thank you very much for listening.

* The Japanese calculate the term of a pregnancy in lunar months of twenty-eight days, as opposed to calendar months of twenty-eight to thirty-one, hence the confusion.
** The ‘double’ idea wasn’t my own, and is gaining in popularity as an – albeit slightly jokey – way of referring to mixed-race Japanese.

The top four speeches were broadcast on local radio (one of my students, whose mother had tuned into the progamme by chance, came up to me the next day to say congratulations), and listening back made me realise how many ‘um’s and ‘er’s I used to stall for time, when what I should have been using were Japanese ‘eh-toh’s and ‘a-noh’s. Not that I’m going to post it here, but Mrs M videoed the whole thing for posterity, and watching this made me even more self-conscious, largely because I have developed a Prince Charles-like habit of concluding each paragraph with a kind of half-smile / half-grimace.

This is the radio broadcast:

And here’s the bonkers Bing translation:

That would be a father for the first time in Japan,

My wife got pregnant two years ago, in December. I noticed variations in it about childbirth in the United Kingdom and Japan sparked, of.

See, for example, pregnancy, wife “10 for months, it’s harder now…” and when I said, I “Wow! Japanese girls are pregnant 10 months it until delivery?! In the United Kingdom takes only 9 months! “And wondered. Being taught how to count Japanese and foreigners is different is one month pregnant, I felt.

A British woman was pregnant, basically “all-you-can-eat” in, often pregnant fat 2, 30 km away. On the other hand, doctors in Japan is pregnant woman. 10 kg so that does not increase more than the weight limit. Wife was fixated in the ice cream (especially green tea taste Super Cup) despite the morning sickness nausea during pregnancy. I have severely restricted wife eats ice cream according to the guidance of the teacher,. But I get home and kitchen trash discovered the empty Super Cup many times out of the box.

She started 8/6 last year, and went to the hospital. According to his wife is sore hip crumbling labor pains or feel. If you birth in the United Kingdom in general labor analgesia can so you can freely take medicine. However, natural childbirth from straightforward in Japan, my wife “or why the pain? “And when I asked the nurse who was refused if you drink drugs, when the baby is out, some couldn’t once and for all.

Finally, my wife and her waters broke and went into the delivery room. When I saw the wife is depicted riding on a birthing bed, I too scary too, you can give and what did not know at all. In a low voice “go for it! “And said, as his wife’s hair. Then, “out of the way! “And I have been rebuffed. This experience is worldwide independent dad that you can see well.

Landmarks that cute girl is born safely between, I’m glad tears..

Currently, parents is international couples is one of four children born in the United Kingdom. In Japan it to substitution, so a 30 per person, such children are seen as a “half” something special. “Half” is not a bad word that is so blood of English and Japanese in both daughters, want to seen as a “double” not “half”, and I hope.

I work and I would like to hard parenting hard with my wife from this either way,.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Here’s the original Japanese text:


一昨年の12月,私の妻が妊娠しました。 それをきっかけに,イギリスと日本では出産に関して、さまざまな違いがあるのに気づきました。



去年の8月6日,陣痛が始まり、病院に行きました。妻によると、陣痛は腰が砕けるかと思うぐらい痛かったそうです 。もしイギリスで出産するなら無痛分娩が一般できなので薬を自由に飲むことができます。ところが、日本では自然分娩が普通ですから,妻は「痛み止めをもらえませんか?」と看護師さんに頼んだとき、「薬を飲んだら、赤ちゃんはいつ出てこられるか分かりませんよ」ときっぱりと断られました。

いよいよ、妻は破水して分娩室に入りました。妻が分娩台に乗っている姿を見た時、私はあまりにも恐ろしすぎて、何をしてあげたらいいのか全く分かりませんでした。小さい声で「 頑張れ!」と言って、妻の髪の毛をなでようとしました。すると,「邪魔!」と拒絶されてしまいました。この経験は世界中の立ち会いするお父さんはよく分かると思います。





And finally, purely out of curiosity, I fed the Bing translation back through Bing and back into Japanese, with even more surreal results:


私の妻は妊娠して 2 年前に、12 月に得た。私はそれの変化イギリスときっかけと、日本での出産に気づいたの。

、妊娠、妻を見る「10 ヶ月間は、それは難しい今…」と私が言ったとき、”うわっ !日本の女の子妊娠 10 ヶ月はそれまで配信ですか?イギリスはわずか 9 ヶ月で !」と疑問に思いました。日本人と外国人をカウントする方法を教えられている 1 ヶ月妊娠しているが異なる場合は、私は感じた。

イギリス人女性は妊娠中、基本的に「食べ放題」に、多くの場合妊娠脂肪 2、30 km。その一方で、日本の医師は妊娠中の女性です。10 は増加していませんので kg よりも重量制限。妻、アイスクリーム (特に緑茶味スーパー カップ) にもかかわらず、朝のつわり吐き気を妊娠中に固定されてあった。私は深刻な妻食べるアイスクリーム先生の指導によると制限が。しかし、家に帰るし、台所のごみ箱に何回もの空のスーパー カップを発見しました。

彼女は 8/6 昨年を開始し、病院に行った。彼の妻によると痛みの崩壊しつつある労働痛みヒップまたは感じです。イギリスに生まれの一般的な鎮痛労働する場合だからあなた自由に薬を取ることがでくことができます。しかし、自然分娩から日本、私の妻の簡単な”や、なぜ痛みですか?”私赤ちゃんが出ているとき薬を飲む場合は拒否された看護師を尋ねたとき、いくつか一度、すべてことができなかった。

最後に、私の妻と彼女の水を破ったし、分娩室に行った。妻は乗る、出産ベッドに、私はあまりにも怖いのも描かれている見たとき、与えることができるし、はまったく知りませんでしたか。低い声で「それのために行く !」いう彼の妻の髪。その後、「邪魔 !」私は拒絶されています。この経験は、あなたがよく見ることができます世界中の独立したお父さんです。


現在、親は国際カップル イギリスで生まれ、4 人の子供の一つです。それ置換するので日本では 30 人、そのような子供は、「半分」特別な何かを見られています。「半分」そう遺伝子英語と日本語の両方の娘に悪い言葉ではない、ない「半分」、「ダブル」を見たしたいし、思います。



Poo! うんち!

When you have a baby, all of a sudden poo takes on a much bigger role in your life than it used to. In the days following M Jr’s birth, her nappy filled with a black, tar-like substance, the technical term for which is meconium, and which contains a mixture of (and I quote) ‘intestinal epithelial cells, lanugo, mucus, amniotic fluid, bile and water’. This eventually settled down into something less sticky and with more of a green tinge to it, and while Mrs M and I both wondered aloud how M Jr’s digestive system contrived to turn milk green, according to a kind of colour swatch given to us at the hospital, white poo is actually a bad thing, and a sign that your baby could be suffering from a medical condition called tan-doh-heisa-shoh (胆道閉鎖症 / biliary atresia).

After this initial period of plentiful poo-ing, however, M Jr was soon exhibiting signs of the dreaded benpi (便秘 / constipation). Many more Japanese are cursed with this condition than the rest of us, and as a consequence, the relative ease and frequency of one’s bowel movements is considered a perfectly respectable topic for dinner party conversation. Some say the epidemic came about after meat and / or dairy products were introduced into the Asian diet, and others that after centuries of eating rice, the Japanese intestine has evolved to be slightly longer than average, and thus more easily blocked. When Mrs M – who is, as the saying goes, benpi-kei (便秘系 / a member of the constipation club) – first moved to London, like most of her fellow countrymen and women, she still ate sticky, white, low-in-fibre rice with every meal including breakfast. But despite experimenting with supposedly bowel-friendly brown rice, wholemeal bread, dried fruit, orange-flavoured fibre drinks and even linseed, it soon became clear that what we were dealing with was a full-blown genetic predisposition.

At just over a week old, and while she and Mrs M were still staying with the in-laws, M Jr went poo-free for over forty-eight hours. I had read online that breast milk contains an ingredient that naturally guards against constipation, and at the time, M Jr was drinking a mixture of breast milk and formula, so we immediately cut out the latter. With the temperature in the thirties, dehydration was another possible factor, and at least once a day we gave her a baby bottle of warm water. In accordance with an NHS Direct-style website I had found, we also massaged her stomach and moved her legs around as if she was jogging or riding a bicycle, but to no avail.

Then one evening I sat in front of the TV with M Jr on my lap, and in her usual fashion, she wriggled about and pulled an array of funny faces. She also farted a couple of times, and I soon became aware of an odd – although not necessarily offensive – smell. Upon investigating further, I was confronted with a veritable number twos tsunami, and before long, the entire family had gathered round to congratulate M Jr on her achievement. More to the point, from that day onwards, sitting on my lap had a kind of laxative effect on M Jr, so that every time I put her there, she would screw up her face until it turned red, wave her arms and legs like a beetle on its back, and endeavour to grant me the gift of poo.

It wasn’t long before she had clammed up again, and this time we were in for the long haul. After three defecation-free days, Mrs M took her to the maternity clinic, where I-sensei said that M Jr was too young to take any medicine or have an enema (rather than a rubber hose and warm water, My First Enema involves sticking a glycerine capsule up your baby’s backside, upon which the capsule dissolves and magically opens the floodgates). The only thing he could suggest instead was the Cotton Bud Method, which I can’t imagine anyone resorts to in the UK, but which is tried and tested over here. For this you dip a cotton bud in baby oil or vaseline, insert it to a depth of about a centimetre (and when I say insert it, I don’t mean into your baby’s ear), and gently move it around in a circular motion, supposedly to stimulate the evacuation response. Even this didn’t work, though, and on Day Six, Mrs M called A-san, who as well as being the mother of one of my students, does home visits as a qualified midwife.

By the time A-san turned up, it had been a full week since M Jr last needed her bottom wiped, and while we weren’t exactly panicking – I had read that a week between poos is nothing out of the ordinary for a newborn – it was disheartening to watch her gurning away of an evening, only to find that no solids were being emitted, just gases.

This time, on the second or third attempt, the Cotton Bud Method worked, and again, the result bore an uncanny resemblance to the contents of a jar of Patak’s. If someone is benpi-kei, one always assumes that their poo has congealed to a diamond-like hardness and would therefore be painful to pass, but this carrot-and-coriander-soup-like mixture looked as if it ought to come out of its own accord, or at least without the sufferer having to pull any funny faces.

And perhaps that was M Jr’s problem all along, in that she hadn’t yet worked out how to push, as it were, in the correct fashion. A few nights ago I was awoken by the sound of another Niagara Falls of faeces, which had burst forth at the exact moment Mrs M was changing M Jr’s nappy. Like me, Mrs M had assumed that it would be a couple more days before the next installment in this scatological saga, but after a few seconds of grunting like a pensioner with a prostate problem, M Jr let rip, and Mrs M almost ran out of baby wipes trying to stem the tide.

What the future holds is anyone’s guess, although I suspect that no matter how much fibre we force her to eat when she moves on to solid food, M Jr’s digestive fate is already sealed, and she is doomed to spend the rest of her life worrying about where the next poo is coming from. Still, at least she’ll have a hundred million fellow Japanese with whom to talk about it over dinner.

(If you fancy reading another poo-related blog post, please make your way to this page at More Things Japanese.)

The agony and the ecstasy

Baseball is by some distance the most popular sport in Japan, and in order not to feel left out when the subject comes up in conversation, I have been trying to learn a little more about it. Obviously there is a national league with its dominant team, the Yomiuri Giants, and several Japanese play in the American major leagues – most notably Ichiro Suzuki of the New York Yankees, who just passed 4000 career hits, something that only six other players have managed before him –  but it seems to me that the true spirit of Japanese baseball is embodied in the Kohshién (甲子園).

Kohshién is the common term for Zenkoku-kohtoh-gakkoh-yakyuu-senshuken-taikai (全国高等学校野球選手権大会 / the All Japan High School Baseball Championship Series), which takes place in August each year at the eponymous Kohshién stadium in Hyogo Prefecture, and while a similar tournament, Senbatsu-kohtoh-gakkoh-yakyuu-taikai (選抜高等学校野球大会 / the Invitational High School Baseball Tournament) takes place at the same stadium every March and April, the former is the bigger draw. This, I suspect, is partly because playing a full baseball match in the blazing heat and humidity of a mid-summer’s day makes the players – some of whom are just fifteen years old – seem just that little bit more heroic and self-sacrificing, and indeed, this year the heat came into play in the most unwanted fashion for the representatives from Ibaraki Prefecture, Johsoh-gakuin.

Each of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures sends a team to the Kohshién, and Johsoh can boast two of Ibaraki’s three overall victories in the post-war years. This summer they won their first three matches to earn a place in the quarter-finals against Maébashi-ikuéi from Gunma Prefecture, and by the end of the eighth inning of that match (each team bats nine times in a game, hence ‘bottom of the ninth’ being such an oft-heard phrase, even if most non-baseball fans have no real idea of what it means) were on the verge of a place in the semi-finals.

That ninth inning, however, seems to me to place a greater burden on the players involved than the climactic moments of almost any other sporting contest, and in particular on the pitchers (ie – and if you’ll forgive me for stating the obvious – the guys who are throwing the ball, as opposed to the ones who are attempting to hit or catch it). If a pitcher goes into the final inning with his team leading the match by just a point or two, the pressure on him to protect that lead is enormous, and while catchers, fielders and batters can and do make mistakes during the course of a ninth inning (see below), the onus is very much on the pitcher to protect a lead rather than on the batter to claw it back (in the same way, the expectation in a penalty shootout at the end of a football match is that the outfield player will score, not that the goalkeeper will make a save). As a result, bottom of the ninth collapses, comebacks and turnarounds are a relatively common – and if you happen to be on the losing side, gut-wrenchingly depressing – occurrence.

In this particular match, Johsoh went into the final inning with a 2-0 lead against Ikuéi, and  rather than have a meltdown, their star pitcher – Harumi Iita – succumbed to a combination of the heat, exhaustion, and quite possibly some psychosomatic pressure into the bargain. While professional baseball teams have a whole roster of pitchers on which to call over the course of a season, high school teams will often reach the closing stages of the Kohshién having relied on a single pitcher for the entire tournament, and quite possibly in the preliminary, prefectural rounds as well. Not only that, but the Kohshién takes place over the course of just two weeks, with fewer and fewer days off to recuperate between games as it progresses.

As the match wore on, Iita began to tire – in the words of Johsoh’s catcher Yusuké Yoshinari, ‘his pitching got slower and his curve balls stopped curving’ – and while Iita was warming up before the ninth inning, he got a cramp in his leg. After spending five minutes off the field receiving treatment he resumed his warm-up, only to get a cramp in the other leg. Because this was diagnosed as being possible evidence of the early onset of heatstroke, Iita was taken out of the match, leaving Johsoh’s second-choice pitcher, Yuta Kanéko, to handle the all-important final inning.

To liken the situation to a cricket match, this is a little like asking a player from a pub team who just happens to be in the stands to step onto the field and bowl the final over of a match between England and Australia.
‘Oy, Dave! Jimmy Anderson’s stubbed his toe. Reckon you can come on throw a few balls down the pitch? They only need a couple of runs to win the game and get into the final of the World Cup, but don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be fine. Go on, put down your pint and I’ll find you a pair of trainers.’

To be fair to Kanéko, he very nearly fulfilled his emergency role, and reached a point where there were no ‘runners’ (ie batters who had hit the ball and made it to first, second or third base) and just one more batter to get out. The next batter hit the first pitch that he faced from Kanéko towards a Johsoh fielder, Suguru Shindoh, who instead of collecting the ball and calmly running the batter out, fumbled it and threw high and wide of his teammate.

Kanéko was soon in full meltdown mode, and it wasn’t long before Ikuéi’s star player, the all-rounder Hikari Takahashi, had scored a three-base hit to bring the teams level at 2-2 and send the game into overtime.

By now my colleagues and I had taken an unofficial tea break to watch events unfold on the Board of Education office TV, although the psychological pendulum (if you’ll forgive the Colemanballs-esque metaphor) was swinging inexorably in Ikuéi’s favour.

In his capacity as pitcher, Takahashi registered three successive strike outs to end the tenth Johsoh inning in a matter of minutes, and as he stepped up to pitch Ikuéi’s tenth inning, poor Kanéko was probably shaking like Shakin’ Stevens and William Shakespeare doing the Shake ‘n’ Vac while sharing a milkshake.

Almost every ball he threw seemed to get dispatched to some far corner of the ground, and before we knew it, he had surrendered the winning run and Ikuéi had triumphed 3-2. In a post-match interview, a clearly traumatised Kanéko (his eyes ‘red with tears’, as the Tokyo Newspaper described it) said, ‘All of a sudden I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere in the stadium. I don’t remember anything [about the tenth inning] at all.’

The Ikuéi players ran onto the field to celebrate, scores of Johsoh cheerleaders cried into their pom-poms, and Johsoh’s head coach Riki Sasaki looked on from the dugout, no doubt wondering how his side had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Not that it would have been much consolation to Johsoh, but Ikuéi went on to win the tournament, one of the few teams in history to do so at their first attempt. Their coach, Naoki Arai, took up his position about ten years ago when there were problems with bad behaviour within the baseball club. Now, though, his players are so disciplined that he has them get up every morning and walk the streets collecting rubbish, an activity during which they are not allowed to talk to each other. As Arai says, ‘A person who picks up rubbish is a person who doesn’t drop rubbish.’ Wise words indeed.

Chopsticks 箸

For a long time, whenever I ate lunch with the students I couldn’t help noticing that they held their chopsticks differently from me. At first I thought that it might be just a lack of table manners on their part, particularly as a lot of them seemed to be employing a crude-looking, clenched-fist technique.

Then one day a third-year homeroom teacher – having given me the standard ‘Oh, you can use chopsticks!’ compliment that most foreigners in Japan have heard a thousand times over – finally explained what I had been doing wrong (in other words, what he had really meant was, ‘Oh, you can’t use chopsticks properly!’).

The basic principle of the chopsticks grip is to keep the lower stick stable and move the upper one, thus creating a pincer-like action, and on this point I was at least partially correct. My mistake, though, was in resting the lower chopstick on my middle finger and gripping the upper one with my index finger and thumb.

As the homeroom teacher demonstrated, what I should have been doing was resting the lower chopstick on my ring finger, and gripping the upper one with my middle finger, index finger and thumb.
This allows the user to spread the two chopsticks apart at a wider angle and to grasp larger food items, as well as being able to perfect a greater range of other, subsidiary skills, such as slicing and filleting.
The secret to this technique lies in the thumb: as you can see from the above photos, I had been keeping mine at too acute an angle in relation to my fingers, and once the homeroom teacher had pointed out that my thumb should be at least perpendicular, if not at an even more obtuse angle, the rest came relatively easily.

Those previously impenetrable grips used by my students suddenly made sense, and not only that, but over the coming days, I noticed that many of them are in the habit of holding their pens and pencils in the same fashion.

Ever since I was a child, I have had a bump on the first joint of my middle finger (in Japanese, this is called a pen-dako / ぺん胼胝) from resting pens and pencils there.

A significant minority – in fact, possibly even a majority – of the children I teach instead rest a pen or pencil on the first joint of their ring finger, in exactly the same way as they do the lower prong of the chopsticks pincer.
This seems odd if you’re trying it for the first time, but entirely logical if you happen to eat that way as well, and to do both from a young age.

Even with this new grip, however, I still find it hard to pick up those smaller or slipperier food items – beans, individual grains of rice, noodles and so on – so while Mrs M uses slender, laquered chopsticks like this:

I am less likely to send fragments of food flying across the dinner table if my chopsticks have indentations at their tips, like this:
A recent article in the Tokyo Newspaper, though, suggests that a solution to this problem may be at hand:

‘Non-slip chopsticks’
Born out of cooperation between industry and academia – Concave structure ‘hugs’ the food

Enjoy your meal with non-slip chopsticks… Working alongside the laboratories of Tohoku University post-graduate professor Kazuo Hokkirigawa, moulded plastics manufacturing company Union Industries of Nakahara District, Kawasaki City has developed a new kind of chopstick called ‘Takétori‘, which can cope with even the most hard-to-grasp foods. Union Industries’ 65-year-old president Masahiko Morikawa says that ‘Takétori are perfect for anyone who has trouble using chopsticks.’

The invention was sparked by an email that Professor Hokkirigawa received three years ago, which read, ‘We’ve been looking for chopsticks that make food easier to eat for the residents at our old people’s home, but we can’t find any. Please can you develop something like this!’ Having pondered the various theoretical requirements, Professor Hokkirigawa and his fellow researchers eventually came up with the ‘hugging’ structure.

In order to increase the area coming into contact with the food, the chopsticks were made with four concave surfaces at their tips, which in combination ‘hugged’ the food. Because the raised edges of each concave surface of the Takétori ‘bite’ into the food, bigger particles are easier to pick up.

The cooperative enterprise between Sendai City and Kawasaki City was born in August last year, when Hokkirigawa was searching for the materials to bring this structure to life. During a visit to Union Industries, Hokkirigawa had his first encounter with ‘Unipéré‘, a combination of powdered bamboo and tree resin for which Union had acquired the patent.

Once Hokkirigawa had taken a sample back to his laboritories for testing, it was confirmed that Unipéré is between 30 and 70% more non-slip compared to plastics used for a similar purpose. Not only that, but the added value of its inherent antibacterial properties and environmental friendliness meant that Hokkirigawa’s academics could embark on full-scale development of the product in cooperation with industry.

Professor Hokkirigawa says proudly, ‘The special characteristic of the Takétori is that when you use them, it isn’t the primary surface of the chopstick that supports the food, but its edges. This “hugging” construction is a world-first.’

From 1st May, Takétori will go on sale via the Union Industries’ homepage, and at their Hamazoku shop at the Silk Centre in Naka District, Yokohama City. One set of Takétori costs 680 yen, excluding tax. Enquiries to Union Industries on 044-755-1107.

In case you’re having trouble visualising the Takétori, seen end-on, rather than being round like a normal pair of chopsticks, they look like this.

680 yen is, it has to be said, extremely expensive for a pair of chopsticks, so for old folks and relatively old folks like me, here’s hoping that Union Industries licences out the patent for general use.

The key test of the Takétori, though, will surely be their ability – or otherwise – to cope with natto, those sticky, slimy, slippery fermented soya beans so beloved of Ibaraki-ites…

(For the original article from the Tokyo Newspaper, Wednesday 1st May 2013, see below.)




滑 りにくい箸で楽しく食事をー。川崎市中原区のプラスチック成形加工会社「ユニオン産業」と、摩擦を専門にする東北大大学院の堀切川(ほっきりがわ)一男 (いちお?)教授(五六)の研究室が連携し、つかみにくい形のものも簡単につかめる箸「竹取」を開発した。ユニオン産業の森川真彦社長(六五)は「お箸の 苦手な人たちに使ってほしい」とアピールする。







Washing machine 洗濯機

Back in the days when I was still a bachelor, I would do the laundry as little as was humanly possible – ie. about once a fortnight for clothes and once a month for hand towels, tea towels and so on. Like her mum, however – and particularly now that we’re a family of three – Mrs M does a truly heroic amount of washing. She claims – with some justification, it has to be said – that my bath towels acquire a mouldy, grandad-style stink after just two or three uses, and partly because of this, makes a point of washing every single towel in the house every single day.

Our second-hand top loading washing machine (top loaders are still the norm in Japan, and while they won’t flood the room if you open the door in mid-cycle, can strip a shirt of its buttons within weeks) cost a paltry 9000 yen back in 2011. With a capacity of just 4.5kg, though, Mrs M often found herself doing three loads a day, so in order to save her some hard labour, the other week we went to K’s Denki and bought a brand new, front-loading Hitachi BD-V3500.

The last washer-dryer I bought in the UK – from John Lewis, no less – cost less than three hundred quid, but here, even this almost-bottom-of-the-range model set us back 100,000 yen, which is about 750 quid at the current exchange rate. If nothing else, though, it’s an impressively enormous gadget: where British washing machines are designed to fit snugly beneath a kitchen counter top, here they are installed stand-alone in utility rooms or on verandas, as you can see from this photo of our glamorous product model M Jr.

Because our old top-loader took little more than half an hour to complete a cycle, Mrs M and I used to mock the slowness of British machines. The BD-V3500, however, is similarly sluggish, and should you make use of it as a tumble dryer too, a complete cycle can take as much as three hours. On the plus side, it can be programmed up to twelve hours in advance, has a special crease prevention feature, an ultra-gentle hand wash equivalent cycle, and often tells you what it’s doing in the soothing tones of a female voiceover artiste.

The first time M Jr was confronted with its monolithic presence she was genuinely frightened, but she will now sit and watch the drum spinning and the lights flashing on the control panel for as long as you leave her there – in fact, if she was a little taller she would probably climb on board and go for a spin.