Monthly Archives: September 2010

チーズ or Cheese: Technological Trouble in Japan

In Japan I have a peculiar relationship with technology, simply put, I just don’t get it.

Cameras are state of the art. Mobile phones are a generation or two ahead. The fax machine still prevails. Broadband Internet is around the fastest and cheapest around, yet take-up is lower than in the US and far lower than that of neighbouring South Korea. I can press a little red button in the Izakaya for instant service and my sushi can be delivered by tiny bullet train (it whisks specific orders directly to your table, as opposed to via the conveyor belt below from which anyone can pick up food). Vending machines greet me in a high-pitched yelp of digital politeness. Lifts in some government buildings appear to pre-date the buildings themselves. My sixty-year-old student can watch TV on his phone, but I don’t think he knows what Google is. When my high school kids tell me they were talking to their friend, they mean they were emailing them. Japanese people buy the best technology around… so long as it isn’t Korean, and then they do it again next year and the year after. The TV is always on, yet no one is ever watching it.

As I’ve noted before, the Japanese have a peculiar relationship with technology. Driven by a rapidly ageing yet economically driven society, consumer goods are constantly bought only to be dispensed with a year later for the shinier new model.

Japan seems to have an endless supply of engineers and a desire to have the best products in the world (look at Toyota’s misfortunate and excessively rapid expansion) yet, Apple’s attempts to get Macs into Japanese schools has been rebuffed with little thought. Technology is welcome in some spheres and clearly not in others.

At times, I find it difficult to cope with this contrast.

When I was younger, my relationship with technology was far more simply defined. My brother would convince me as to what now ancient games console I obviously wanted for Christmas. One so costly as to require the budgets from both our respective birthdays and Christmas days to be combined so that come Christmas morning we could open something that I had not known I had even wanted until a month earlier. Possibly as I hadn’t known of its existence until my brother made it abundantly aware that I too wanted it. Funny that…

While owning a games console, laptop and mobile has become an aspect of my life that I would find strange to do without now, other areas of technology have on occasion left me baffled. Particularly in Japan where I sometimes think that maybe, just maybe I’m too tall for it…

I was entering the gates of Fuji Q Highland, an amazing amusement park that sits just below Mount Fuji. I handed my ticket over and headed over to the machine where I would get my personalized ride pass. It was a metal box, akin to a photo booth without the curtain and seat. Instead of said seat there were two foot prints where one was supposed to stand. So there I placed myself, only to realize that the camera was about chest height on me. I crouched down a little to get my head level with the camera but nothing happened. Wondering if the damned thing was even working I leaned forward for a split second, the wrong split second as it happened.



Pachinko: The Cost of Solitude

They can be found everywhere in Japan. In major cities and in the sleepy countryside alike, the sound of high pitched ringing and pinging flows out of automatic doors as they open to let some poor bespectacled salary man back into the harsh light of day, far from the neon buzz and cacophony of electronic noises of his temporary home and refuge, the Pachinko parlour.

What is Pachinko you may ask? It’s a question I’ve asked my students many times and, “a sort of pinball,” is the only answer I’ve ever received as they remain strangely non-committal in their answers. A way to lose money while being assaulted by flashing lights and random video sequences to build up suspense would have been my guess, but such is their popularity in Japan I’m inclined to believe I may be missing part of their appeal.

According to the Japan Times the game evolved from an American Pinball machine originally exported to Japan to be sold as a children’s toy. Over time the humble pinball machine became an adult’s game and something of a gambling phenomenon.

How much of a phenomenon? Well, two minutes down the road from my apartment, on an otherwise non-descript yet quiet (for just how quiet, see the below picture) road leading in one direction to the highway and in the other to the quiet city centre, sits a fairly typical Pachinko parlour. It has as many parking spaces as the local supermarket and unlike the supermarket they seem to be in demand every moment of the day. They can be found in every city and in my travels I find them to be almost everywhere where one can find a space to build one; in a form of architecture that can only be described as Buck Rodgers style modernism.

Their names are usually snippets of English, something that hints at victory and competition, for example ‘Champion’. Anime or Manga style art often play a role in the signage lending an air of fiction to the places. I suppose it adds to the feeling of a different world that casinos often try to create in order to keep gamblers at their tables through the night by making sure the environment remains the same no matter the time of day. It also on a far more obvious level taps into the general adoration of all things Manga.

Yet, while I can see the Pachinko machine’s roots in pinball, as it looks essentially like a vertical pinball machine with added things to twist and push and generally confuse and distract its players with, it has evolved into something all the more confusing and inherently Japanese in its design. In fact if I had to describe it to someone my best attempt would be Akihabara in a box. A neon cacophony dedicated to the art of switching off from the hustle and bustle of life itself.

The game itself is appallingly simple. You rent little pachinko balls (think pinballs) for around four yen a ball, so a thousand yen note will get you about 250 balls. The aim is simply to win more balls which allows you more opportunities to get them to drop into the central gate that then activates the slot machine element of the game that allows you to win yet larger prizes. To get a considerably more detailed overview of how the game works, check out the Wikipedia Pachinko page.

However, while they may be on almost every other street in Japan they are not necessarily all doing quite so well. Nationally Pachinko is actually worth more than Japan’s domestic auto industry and an individual parlour can easily make $25 million dollars a year. Yet, despite these huge figures, on my regular drive to lessons I pass two empty, creaking and dilapidated Pachinko relics. Thanks to their distinctive design no one appears to have any interest in reusing the buildings themselves. A friend of mine has even noticed one such Pachinko palour is currently filled with the product of this years rice harvest. A gambling den converted for use into a grain silo of sorts.

The house, clearly, always wins, unless as in the case of the latterly mentioned derelicts, the house is too big for the area it resides in. But the size and number of them in my otherwise sleepy little city suggests that these colossal gambling halls, are on the one hand incredibly popular and the other, very profitable indeed.

When my friend played the other day, in an attempt to fathom what the hell the appeal of these machines was he dropped a hundred yen in a low risk, low win machine that lasted as a game for all of fifty seconds. However, people will spend hours upon hours in these places and rarely beat the house and if they do only by a measly margin.

How much, is a moment of solitude costing the average Japanese person who indulges in Pachinko? According to The Japan Times in a 2007 article, “a YRI survey of about 2,000 respondents conducted between September and October in 2006 found that the average amount spent on pachinko was a whopping ¥28,124 per visit.” In pounds, for my English readers, that comes to a whopping, £214.67.

As David Plotz notes in his article on Pachinko in Japan (and it only exists in Japan) the all-pervasive, easy access and economically draining variety of gambling that it takes the form of (in contrast to the economic and tourist draw of places like Las Vegas) is seen by academics to be the worst kind of gambling in a society from an economic standpoint. What does that mean exactly? Well you’d happily fly to Las Vegas, see a show, eat some fine foods, drink some colourful cocktails and generally have a good time. Possibly even, without gambling a single penny, but no one is flying to Japan for Pachinko.Certainly not for the parlours in my city.

The strange thing is, technically, gambling is illegal in Japan. Yet, Pachinko operates in a grey area where it is generally ignored and loosely regulated. There is no moral distain for Pachinko as far as I can tell in my day-to-day life and so as noted in the fantastic piece on Pachinko on the New York Japan Society website by David Plotz, Pachinko is treated like many other vices in Japan, as a purely practical issue.

The nervous shuffling from my students when I from time to time ask them certain questions is usually pretty indicative of unspoken elements of Japanese society that they know to be logically harmful, perhaps even shameful but to which they turn a blind eye. That personally the appeal of Pachinko remains elusive to me is obvious, I come from a generation and a culture with other means of escape from the daily grind; indeed not being Japanese I don’t believe the daily need be a grind at all. Yet, that shuffling persists because while I cannot discern the comfort one receives from the abandonment of self in somewhere as noisy and crowded as a Pachinko Parlour (if only for that brief few hours a day to maintain one’s own sanity and separateness from the solid whole that is Japanese society), it is simple to discern something that the Japanese know too well already. That a practical response to something damaging, is nothing to be ashamed of, but if that solution includes the desire to pretend it doesn’t exist at all, to never discuss it in real detail then it will be left to fester all the worse.

When Japanese Kawaii! Culture goes a little too far…

Walking back from taking the pictures for this article, I passed by a stonemason’s that deals primarily in gravestones.  These kinds of places are scattered quite openly around Japan and are fairly easy to come by, indeed I pass by one with an enormous nine-foot tall figure outside in lieu of an actual sign when I drive to certain lessons.  I’ve always been rather impressed by the craftsmanship and obvious skill involved. In a country so full of flashes of neon it’s nice to come across something of the traditional and understated from time to time. Something respectful of its heritage, not gaudy when it should be gracious.

But then I saw something less funereal, more furry… he does look rather dapper though.

Accidental Adoption: Manners and Stray Families

Jetlagged, weary and still thinking a bit in Japanese having only been on English soil for all of an hour, I lumbered onto the tube, bags in hand and wishing I didn’t have to take the Circle line of all things. Immediately two enormous suitcases caught my eye. They had JAPAN in big letters plastered across them and sure enough on the seats surrounding these great hulking bags sat a rather sleepy, but mostly nervous looking Japanese family.

Half asleep myself, I spotted the only spare seat in the carriage that just happened to be next to this family. I wandered over, dodging other passengers, attempting not to jostle or knock anyone with my rucksack, and without thinking asked the nice family, “Is it ok?” and pointed at the seat.

Fine right? Nothing odd there, except, well… I asked in Japanese. In London. On the tube, where nobody speaks to strangers and certainly not in that stranger’s native tongue.

I got a nervous, “hai/yes” in response and so I slumped down into the seat. Of course that wouldn’t be the end of it though. I could see the family nervously glancing at one another, reflected in the opposite window, wondering whether to engage this utter stranger in conversation. This went on for a minute or two before I felt bad for getting them all in a kerfuffle and turned and asked them where they were going.

Pari, as the Japanese call Paris, was the destination. Followed by a variety of confused questions as to why an Englishman was speaking Japanese (however poorly).

After helping them successfully get off at the right stop, which conveniently also happened to be my stop, they quickly gathered the courage to ask me what they’d clearly wanted to ask me all along, “could I do them a favour?”

Here was their problem; they were staying with their daughter’s friend’s family in Paris. Their daughter’s friend speaks Japanese. However, they’d been unable to get in contact with her as they only had the home phone number. The family of said girl would in all likelihood pick up the home phone, the family that only spoke French and English.


I was immediately handed a mobile phone, already dialing. It rang and rang and I found myself thinking, “Why don’t you ever just not talk to strangers? Bloody plonker.” It rang a little more…

And nobody picked up.

Thank god.

We said our goodbyes, they thanked me for my efforts and waved me on my way as I went with a good friend to get my first taste of English ale for eleven months. Over that beer I began to wonder, how the hell had I managed to accidentally adopt a whole Japanese family?

Japanese politeness that’s how.

I should know better.

Pedantic Paperwork II: The tale of the elusive license

When it comes to getting a driving license in Japan, it’s all a matter of timing. The window that you need to get to in the giant mess of a bureaucratic testament to 1980’s flat pack architecture (part of Japan’s peculiar, let’s make buildings that last for precisely twenty eight years and nothing more, attitude to construction) is only open for an hour and half in the morning and after lunch.

Presumably the rest of the time is consumed with filing the mountain of unnecessary paperwork they produce, or perhaps cleaning and polishing their fine array of government issued stamps and stamps. No that isn’t a typo, the first variety are of the wooden handle, rubber base variety. The other are of the, we couldn’t possibly trust more than one person with real currency, lets convert all cash into government issued stamps that are of equal value only within the confines of these four hastily constructed walls, kind. Walls that they do not in fact leave as these currency stamps are issued by the state and returned to the state within mere minutes. Going hastily from the little window nudged into the far corner from where you purchase them, across the corridor to the slightly larger office in charge of producing the flimsy bit of card and minimal plastic which your mug will be digitally plastered onto.

And you thought the post office was a mess? O ye of little faith. There is more madness in Nippon than you have ever dreamed of in your society.

There is of course the endless stream of paper, the details of myriad national licenses held in an enormous folder that quite literally bursts at the seams. The amazing stamp collection, both wooden and paper, the endless people performing quite patently simple tasks, in triplicate and then passed back to the desk behind them to be inputted into a computer that in all likelihood is not connected to any grand database. It is that burgeoning bureaucratic machine, designed to perform every function in the longest fashion possible.

Back at the window for ‘foreign driving license conversion’ I was asked a seemingly never-ending list of inane questions. How much did your driving lessons in the UK cost? How long does it take to pass? What driving school did you use? What is the test course like? What the hell do you mean you drove on real roads? Are you mad?

After this ridiculous inquiry I was beginning to get rather…perhaps… well just a touch impatient. There was an oral exam to go and an eye test and frankly I was bored of waiting. But the gent behind the counter sprung a small surprise. That had been the oral exam.

Huh, I hear you say.

Apparently there has been a spree of (considering there were a sum total of three foreigners getting a license that day, a spree may have been an exaggeration on his part) foreigners forging British driving licenses in order to bypass the driving tests that individuals from other nations such as America have to go through. After this bit of storytelling was voiced my boss noted that she could indeed see how a piece of plastic as poorly constructed as the British license could easily be forged. Shoddy foreign craftsmanship.

One eye test later and I was handed my new, somewhat shiny, mostly cardboard Japanese driving license. Finally free of the red tape I looked at the piece of hastily constructed rubbish in my hands and thought to myself, why would anyone try and forge the British license, when forging the Japanese one would be far easier?

Reverse Culture Shock

I couldn’t tell you what it was precisely that I found strangest. I guess it was a combination of things that seemed utterly alien to me. I could read signs, I understood the pointless announcements bellowing out over tannoy systems and people weren’t even glancing at me from across crowded train carriages.

How had it happened that the very place I call home could affect me like that? Nothing was really a surprise as such, yet there was a distinct feeling of separation to begin with, as if someone had turned down all the settings on a TV. I felt more like I was watching my life in analog than living it in glorious real life HD.

I remember when I first arrived in Japan often feeling like I’d spent half my day working through an economics paper, so taxing was the strain on my mind as it attempted to muddle through the inordinate number of signs and symbols that make up the very basics of modern life. In an English speaking country, or even one that makes use of the Roman alphabet the way the mind is able to distinguish between the important and the utterly useless is a skill you already possess and as such your mind makes attempts to streamline its workload by dismissing quickly on an unconscious level what is relevant and what isn’t. Yet, here in Japan that simply isn’t possible and so your mind attempts to grapple daily with doors to which it does not hold the key. It can be a tiring, though ultimately rewarding process when one gets even just a toe in that door. In comparison, England and the sights, smells and sounds of home, while a welcome experience seemed to come all too easily.

Over the course of a couple days it began to fade, this feeling of detachment and life at home took on a semblance of the old sense of regularity. Though even that was fleeting as in my limited time at home I made an attempt to see as many friends and family as I could realistically squeeze in and so most days I found myself living a perpetual stream of Saturdays where I would grab coffee, lunch, dinner or far too many beers with friends and family. My body did not thank me for all this self-abuse of caffeine, fat, salt and alcohol but my mind did. The chance to really switch off, to give my brain some real downtime has been welcome and so I find myself now back in Japan with a real desire to push on, to keep studying and traveling in an attempt to grasp a little more of this distant land that for now I still call my home.

That I can do so is largely down to my wonderful friends and family who managed to find the time to help me distil a frankly ridiculous number of experiences into my time home.

I attended the fairytale wedding of two of my friends, slept two nights on a boat in Southampton while attending the ‘Passage to India’ themed regatta in the village one of my dearest friends now calls home, I got to see my two adorable little second cousins who grow bigger by the day, ate curry and drank ale in the company of my favourite physicists, computer scientist and med student (now Doctor), had a night or two in the ‘udd, found myself proving to a drunk in a bar that I really do live in Japan by having him google this very blog (when he saw the picture at the top of the previous post he said, ‘Woah! Is that your house?!’ ‘No.’ I said, ‘that’s Kiyomizu Temple.’) and even found time to graduate from last years Masters degree in all its pomp and hilarious irony (a video clip of a student had her noting that, ‘the university isn’t the least bit pretentious’, cue brass band announcing the entrants in all their academic finery). Oh and Pad Kee Mao… how I had missed you.

I could easily get a blog post out of every one of the wonderful days spent in the company of the people I love, but I would feel like I am intruding and frankly I couldn’t do you all justice.

You mean more to me than words on a screen could ever convey.

P.S. Sorry to anyone who I skipped in my description of what I got up to. This post is soppy enough without a never ending paragraph.