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Showing posts from March, 2011

Ordinary stories from Tokyo

Story 1
Mrs Sato is 68 years old. She lives with her husband and disabled 38-year-old son in a suburb in western Tokyo. When the earthquake struck, the couple was at home, but their son was a few blocks away, getting physiotherapy at a special school. Mr Sato wasn't able to call the school since the telephone network was overloaded. He set off on bicycle to find his son, but when he arrived at the school, his son was missing.
The Satos could only piece together what had happened after they found their son. He somehow wandered off after the quake and got onto a bus. Why didn't the school staff notice? We don't know, but it's a small, inexpensive, possibly understaffed suburban school. Fortunately their son is not severely disabled and this is Japan, i.e. it is safer than many other countries, even in the wake of the biggest quake in its history. The passengers on the crowded bus realized that something was amiss and told the bus driver, who told the police, who managed to…

Tokyo glimpses

A young girl walks in front of me in that very Japanese way: ultra-short skirt, black stiletto boots, pigeon-toed, two huge bags hanging from the crooks of her bent arms, palms upwards, hands flopping loosely, forearms pointing 180 degrees like a double door left wide open. She's tiny, but she occupies three times her body size thanks to that elbow-bag-thing. She looks like a miniature Tyrannosaurus rex.
Middle-aged guy gets on the Toei Ōedo Line at Kagurazaka. Beard, which is unusual. Dressed conspicuously fashionably, armed with an obviously expensive leather man bag, which he puts on the seat next to him. As the train gets fuller, going towards Ueno, he makes no attempt to remove the bag to make room for another passenger. He is too absorbed in his MacBook Air and bad jazz screeching from his headphones. Ah well. It could've been worse: it could've been an iPad.

A cherry blossom expedition

This morning I went to Ueno Park on my first "sakura sanpo" (cherry blossom walk) for 2011. The park was very quiet – mostly homeless men, retired people, a few mothers with babies. As has become the norm in Tokyo in the last two weeks, I didn't see one single white face.
I wonder what hanami will be like this year: more subdued or more exuberant? A lot depends on Tōden. If they can bring the Fukushima nuclear reactor under control, and if people don't have to worry about radiation levels anymore – whether justifiably or unnecessarily – then perhaps we'll be able to celebrate a new beginning under the pink popcorn.
Photos of Ueno Park here.

Japan's number9nightmare

Have you read the book number9dream by David Mitchell?
The young hero, Eiji, prays to a thunder god, but his prayer goes horribly wrong. He dreams that a huge flood submerges Tokyo and drowns him. The characters Goatwriter, Mrs Comb and Pithecanthropus live in a post-war wasteland, and at some stage they jump into a waterfall that's flowing backwards (a phenomenon that reminds me of a tsunami).
This is an excerpt from the book's end: We interrupt this programme to bring an emergency bulletin … A massive earthquake has struck the Tokyo Metropolitan region within the last sixty seconds. The National Bureau of Seismology reports a quake of 7.3 on the Richter scale, which exceeds the Great Kansai Earthquake of 1995, and indicates extreme structural damage throughout the Kanto basin … I pick up the antique telephone. I try three times, but Ai's number is dead. So is Buntarō's. So is Nero's. No reply from Ueno. Nothing from the Tokyo operator. I would give anything to be dr…

Acid rain toilet paper mercy mission

Yesterday I bravely battled vicious acid raid to provide an emergency toilet paper delivery service to a friend who'd run out.
Monday was a public holiday in Japan: Vernal Equinox Day or 春分の日, Shunbun no Hi. Friends arranged a lunch at their home in Nakano, and when they heard that my local shitamachi stores had plenty of supplies, I received an urgent request to help out. It was definitely the first time I ever arrived at a party with toilet paper as a gift for my hosts. (Only two products remain in short supply in certain stores: milk and toilet paper. I'm sure it has a deep Freudian significance, but I haven't figure it out yet.)
It was a rainy day, and the streets were quiet-ish. Apparently rain increases radiation levels, and that probably kept some Tokyoites at home. Please note, I said the streets were quiet-ish, not empty. I took the Seibu Shinjuku Line from Takadanobaba, and there was standing room only.
I have to interrupt myself: that is my favourite Japanese pla…

A quiet weekend in Tokyo

I want to start this post with a reminder: Although Tokyo is fine, the destruction in Tōhoku is indescribable and the tragedy remains immeasurable. I have lost my faith in the international media and I have never trusted any politician, so I do not want to repeat what they say. I can only tell you what I experience, personally, in my own tiny sphere in Tokyo.
Yesterday was a beautiful day. I walked to Asakusa along the Sumida River to take photos of Tokyo Sky Tree, which reached its maximum height of 634 meters on 18 March 2011 with no fuss and no fanfare. It is now the second tallest man-made structure in the world.
The streets were quieter than usual, but my shitamachi neighbours were out and about: families strolling next to the river, mothers biking with their kids to well-stocked supermarkets, old guys sleeping in sunny spots on the river embankment. Asakusa and its famous icon, Sensō-ji, were busy but not crowded.
I did not see one single white person. While I was walking along th…

Remote rejections

My company has been urging all employees to register with their embassies. I obediently obliged like a good sheeple should. Since I'm still officially a South African citizen, I tried my best to register with the South African embassy in Tokyo. They redirect all queries to the South African government's website.
This morning, I received this message:
Welcome to the Registration of South Africans Abroad (ROSA). An error has occurred while establishing a connection to the server. When connecting to SQL Server 2005, this failure may be caused by the fact that under the default settings SQL Server does not allow remote connections. (provider: Named Pipes Provider, error: 40 - Could not open a connection to SQL Server)
Tonight, for my own amusement, I tried again. I was told:
Login failed for user 'sa' because the account is currently locked out. The system administrator can unlock it.
I'm living in a country crippled by disasters, and it's still functioning better than …

A cold night awaits

I went to work today, but came home early because there might be a blackout in Tokyo tonight. After a public announcement, there was a controlled stampede to the stations. Anywhere except in Japan such behaviour would be described as exemplary restraint, but in Japan it qualifies as a bit of a kerfuffle. It was rather fun. I didn't have to exert any energy. I was propelled forward by crowd velocity. The only tricky part was getting out of the train at Akihabara: it was so densely packed I'm still not sure all my body parts exited with me. I chose to get out at Akihabara and walk the rest of the way because I wanted to see the panicky pandemonium that Western newspapers describe in such vivid detail. Ummm. I'm afraid I'm a very bad eye witness. I saw nothing extraordinary, except that people went home unusually early.

It has occurred to me that we might see a bump in Japan's notoriously low birthrate nine months from now.
I bought supplies at my local fruit and veggi…

No, I'm not going home. I am home.

I am appalled by the international media's coverage of the earthquake.
Panic in Tokyo? What panic? What are you talking about? Are you so disappointed that Japan has not deteriorated into social anarchy that you are fabricating your own stories? Do you think the horror in Tōhoku is not enough to whet your readers' appetites that you have to create your own fantasies?
You deserve to be usurped by the new media like blogging, social networks and Twitter, which are far more reliable than any newspaper.
There is concern in Tokyo, even frayed nerves, but there is no panic. Not yet. There might be if you do not stop your hysterical speculations, but even that might not be powerful enough to push Tokyo off the self-control edge.
Now that I have that off my chest, I can continue. This will be a disjointed post, but newspapers are spreading so much undiluted unmitigated crap that every rational person should do what she can to provide balance.
The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant
Let us talk a…

"A coast where no coast ever was"

Through the twilight eastward all looked, and saw at the edge of the dusky horizon a long, lean, dim line like the shadowing of a coast where no coast ever was, — a line that thickened as they gazed, that broadened as a coast-line broadens to the eyes of one approaching it, yet incomparably more quickly. For that long darkness was the returning sea, towering like a cliff, and coursing more swiftly than the kite flies. "Tsunami!" shrieked the people; and then all shrieks and all sounds and all power to hear sounds were annihilated by a nameless shock heavier than any thunder, as the colossal swell smote the shore with a weight that sent a shudder through all the hills, and a foam-burst like a blaze of sheet-lightning.This excerpt comes from an article by Lafcadio Hearn in The Athlantic Monthly, December 1896. You can read more here. His description of a tsunami starts on page 837.

Long live sheeple!

Either every single resident was involved in a massive overnight clean-up operation, or the shitamachi withstood the earthquake astonishingly well.
I went for a walk this afternoon. I needed food supplies, and I deliberately walked past the nearby supermarkets to one closer to the Sumida River. If you walk directly, you can do it in 20 minutes; if you wander aimlessly, as I did, it takes twice as much time. I did not take my camera. I simply observed.
It looked almost surrealistically normal, although it was very quiet. Two houses had newly erected metal frames around them, probably for some repair work; I spotted a few Tokyo Bureau of Waterworks employees who were fixing a water pipe; and I got a friendly hallo from a man who was repotting plants that had fallen over; but there was no sign that anything was wrong until I entered the supermarket. The shelves were not bare, but they were a lot emptier than usual.
I was intrigued by what had sold out: toilet paper, bottled water, processed…

The catfish under Japan

Saturday afternoon, and Namazu the catfish is finally calming down. We're still getting aftershocks, but not as often or as intense as earlier.
A sober calm continues to reign. I've read so many newspaper articles and blog posts, and all refer to the quiet self-control of the people of Japan. I get the impression that many, if not most, are staying home today unless they are directly involved in emergency services or rescue operations. I've been outside only twice: once to turn on my gas supply, which cuts off automatically when a quake hits, and again to buy food. My nearest konbini had only empty shelves, but I bought fruit, veggies and canned "sea chicken" (tuna) at a small mom-and-pop vegetable store on the corner across from my apartment building.
Both store owners know me well by now, but the warmth of the shitamachi people still catches me by surprise. When the konbini obachan ("tannie") saw me, she rushed at me and patted me on my arm. "Kowai…

A perfect dawn

Dawn has broken on a bright, clear day.

Tokyo Sky Tree is still standing.
The earth shuddered throughout the night. According to reports, we've had more than 50 after-shocks, several more than magnitude 6. I don't think anybody slept well.
We're still experiencing after-shocks, but fewer and not so violent. We're still receiving warnings of other shocks via mobile phone email: "early warning another shock Tochigi, early warning another shock Nagano, early warning another shock Kanagawa". These emails arrive with their own sound, a kind of whooping alarm that rattles me anew each time I hear it.
I've confirmed that my closest friends and their relatives in Japan are OK. My colleagues walked home, from central Tokyo and Shinjuku to Chiba and Saitama. It takes seven hours to walk from Shinjuku to Koiwa.
Death toll at 5 am this morning: 184 confirmed dead in eight prefectures, but hundreds missing.  I am stunned by the videos and images. The real devastation was w…

The day the earth somersaulted

I don't know what was shaking the worst: the earth or I. Neither do I know whether I'm feeling real aftershocks, or if my knees just won't stop trembling.
Everybody will write about the 11 March 2011 quake, but here is my version:
I was doing freelance editing in an office building in Tsukiji when the quake struck. Initially nobody paid any attention, but when it continued for an unusually long time, we all glanced around uneasily. Then, suddenly, the shaking intensified so badly that we involuntarily got up. Just as well: only a few seconds later, two big filing cabinets crashed down on the desk where I had been sitting.
I was terrified. Your brain shuts down – you cannot decide whether you should crawl underneath a desk or run out – especially when the quake just won't stop.
Disjointed thoughts chased one another helter-skelter through my mind: "How high are we? How many floors above us? How old is this building? Oh shit there goes another filing cabinet! I think I&…

I'm a fainéant

Next time I'm asked what my hobby is, I will say I'm a fainéant.
According to "Fainéant, French, alteration (influenced by fait néant, does nothing) of Old French faignant, idler, from present participle of faindre, feindre, to feign."
Now I just have to practise that nasal draw in the final syllable: fay-nee-aw.
PS: I stumbled across this word while checking whether soir was feminine or masculine. I dedicate this post to my favourite Francophile, Vox.

The agony of perfume

One of the good things about Japan is that its women do not drench themselves in perfume. If they use fragrance, it is usually light, floral or natural. I'm not sure what the reason is – awareness of population density or courtesy towards others – but this abstemiousness is a great blessing if you happen to be a hay fever victim.
This evening, as soon as I sat down in my train seat, my nose quivered. Then it twitched. Then it succumbed to olfactory agony. I could smell her before I could see her: it was a white (or whatever the PC term is) woman wearing a repugnantly cloying perfume. She was sitting in the same row, about six seats away. Perhaps it felt worse than it was because I'm not used to heavy perfume anymore, but that stuff had definitely not been applied sparingly.
I got up before we reached the next station, and fled to the next carriage. Even eau de sarariman le soir – sweat, smoke and alcohol – is better than that miasma of misery.

Slim vang sy baas

That Afrikaans expression means "too clever by half", and I'm guilty.
When you write a post about language and its correct use, it is virtually guaranteed that you will make a mistake in it, or at least use a contentious structure that will be challenged by a pundit.
If I made an error in my post about copy editing, I'm not aware of it yet, but just after I published it, a rather embarrassing blooper in my first post was pointed out to me. I received a gleefully grinning "gotcha!" e-mail – and yes, an e-mail can definitely grin! – from a writer friend. "Enrichening? Really?" he asked.
Eish. Enriching. Mea culpa.
Several of my friends are writers or copy editors. We have an unspoken agreement that we are allowed to make typos and use sloppy grammar in our e-mails, but I hope they will keep me on a tight leash as far as my posts are concerned. That's what friends are for: to tell you when you're being an idiot. To the komainu at my grammar gate,…

A humdrum task

Sub-editors busied themselves with their humdrum task of reducing to blank nonsense the sheaves of misinformation which whistling urchins piled before them. – Evelyn Waugh, ScoopI have always worked with words – journalism, copy editing, copywriting, scriptwriting, publishing, book retail industry – and I am often entertained by the squabbling between the disciplines. (If I may interrupt myself with a typical copy editor's comment: that word has various spellings, including copy-editor and copyeditor. If you speak British English, you probably prefer sub-editor. I have chosen to use copy editor two words in this post. Live with it.)
Writers moan that copy editors are nit-picking neurotics; copy editors complain that writers are slaphappy slobs.
Then there is the bickering between copy editors and linguists about who has the greater insight into matters grammatical. Geoffrey K. Pullum of Language Log refers to the "pointless tone-deaf bossiness" of copy editors, but copy …

The nomad moves again

I have worked in various areas in Tokyo, and later this month I am moving to a workplace in yet another ward: Shinjuku.
I have never been a particular Shinjuku fan. It is on the wealthier north-western side of Tokyo, and acts as the gateway to the Tama River area which is so beloved by expats. (Think of it as the Bryanston/Sandton of Tokyo.) Shinjuku is new, modern, glitzy, frantic, trendy, very happening. It is bold, brash, unapologetically new money. Its focus is consumerism with a healthy dollop of hedonism added to the mixture.
Shinjuku is cut in two by the world's busiest railway station. The eastern side consists of Tokyo's famous red-light district Kabukicho, its equally famous gay district Shinjuku Ni-chōme and what is arguably Tokyo's premier shopping district. The western side or Nishi-Shinjuku is the business district with a plethora of dazzling skyscrapers and 5-star hotels. If you have seen the movie Lost in Translation, which I happen to hate, you have seen a f…