Category Archives: Politics

Tokyo 2020: An Honest Introduction?

I missed the London Olympics, in person at least. Watching from my sofa on the other side of the world I couldn’t quite believe the news at first. It wasn’t the gold medal haul that surprised me, rather the change in national spirit it seemed to engender. A pride at the things a small island nation could do and achieve. More importantly what we could strive to be. We could be an example of a modern and most importantly to my mind, a multi-cultural Britain. One that not only celebrated those differences but achieved more because of them.

It seems I might have a shot at experiencing that buzz in person after all. Tokyo is going to be hosting the 2020 Olympics and I couldn’t be happier for the nation I currently call home. I’m confident Japan will produce a marvel to match that put together in London. Having experienced Japanese fan culture first hand I know that the stadiums will be bouncing and the country will contract Olympic fever in pandemic proportions. It really will be something to behold.

In many ways though, I can’t help but hope that Japan does things a little differently to the UK.

Last year the Guardian wrote this in their editorial response to the games,

The Games have celebrated what is easy to take for granted: that for all its inequalities and struggles our society at its best can be a living example of tolerance and cohesion, of inclusion and possibility.

But looking on from afar I now see a UK that is ‘actively hostile’ to immigration and an immigration system in place that would turn away British friends and their Japanese spouses if they don’t have enough money in the bank.

An approach apparently designed to make sure,

“that spouses coming to live in the UK would not become reliant on the taxpayer for financial support and would be able to integrate effectively.” 

Which is obviously why the government has made that integration easier over the years by cutting funding to ESL courses.

Then just the other day a prominent English footballer got rather ambushed into making jingoistic remarks about what qualifies someone to play for England. He wasn’t saying anything xenophobic really but he probably didn’t realize just how blurred an issue national and ethnic identity is for many of us. Take one Ikechi Anya for example, the Glasgow born, Romanian/Nigerian who plays for the Scottish National football team.

I myself if I were any good at any particular sport would be eligible for the UK, England, Ireland, the USA and probably Japan under residency regulations.

Thankfully my lack of athletic prowess has spared me such a wrenching decision.

But jokes aside, it feels like I’m watching Britain turn its back on the very things we rightly celebrated. A nation built upon, and stronger for a sense of identity that goes beyond where you were born and from whence your grandparents came.

Japan however, isn’t exactly lauded for its sense of racial or ethnic diversity. I’m part of the 0.6% classed as other. The 0.5% and 0.4% of Korean and Chinese ethnicity that make up the rest of the other 1.5% of Japan that isn’t Japanese are in all likelihood third and fourth generation immigrants who know no other culture than that of Japan. As such Japan’s Olympics is probably going to be a celebration of a culture and identity that is far more simply defined.

Now, I’ll make this clear; it is very much a culture that should be celebrated and I look forward to seeing the very best of Japan come 2020 because I’ve already experienced it in the day to day kindness and goodwill offered to me. But I hope, that where Britain welcomed the world and then turned its back on it Japan will do otherwise.

What a legacy Japan could achieve if it not only celebrates the things that make Japan distinct and unique but openly looks to share that with the world and in the process widen the definition of what it is to be Japanese to include the best of other cultures too. Because some of those other cultures are already here, they are already making significant contributions to Japanese life. They raise families, they participate in the local community and they contribute in myriad untold ways to the growth of the nation.

In 2020 Japan will seek to introduce itself to the world.

Hopefully it’ll be an honest introduction.

And unlike Britain the rest of the World will be welcome for more than just the summer.

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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.

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?

Review: War Games by Linda Polman

War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times

by Linda Polman

There is this idea of a pre-9/11, pre-internet, pre-twenty four-hour rolling news where the world existed in clear terms, in simplistic black and white, good and evil, west and east. There was a story, a narrative to how our lives progressed and with it came a sense of certainty. Call it what you like, a nostalgia for the old Cold War binary or simply rose tinted glasses but we all know it was never really that simple. The problem is we like to make these stories because they’re clear and comforting, they draw a line and we know on which side of history we stand. Worse still, we beg for it, it’s how we demand to be fed information. So in a world where information comes at us faster than we can possible digest it and formulate our own opinions on the matter how do we deal with the shades of grey?

Linda Polman’s latest book would seem to suggest that we don’t. While the nature of war and disaster hasn’t changed all that much, how we perceive it and deal with it has. What has been dubbed the CNN effect, the highlighting of an issue by television that results in political and humanitarian action, has changed how humanitarians, journalists and the victims of such human tragedies interact with one another. The web linking them all together was always convoluted but now it resembles something of a Gordian knot.  One that should we attempt to cut it would do untold damage to those we are trying to help while leaving it intact does much the same.

War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times is the story of how the divide that separated Florence Nightingale and Henri Dunant has grown from its vast beginnings into an even greater chasm. The question that divided the two of these great figures; is help really help when it prolongs the suffering of those involved and drives it to continue on unabated? Nightingale could not see how one could call it help when it prolonged a war, while Durant could not stand aside and not offer help, even if it resulted in prolonging the cause of the suffering.

War Games charts the current state of the humanitarian system, the media and those who dole out the violence and suffering humanitarians seek to reduce. War Lords, journalists and aid workers all locked into a convoluted cycle of mutual support. Tracing a path from Goma to Afghanistan while shedding light on the side of humanitarian work that doesn’t make BBC News 24 or CNN.

This is a book that casts a revealing eye on an area of charity that could sorely use it. What it reveals is a situation that lacks an easy answer, but seeks to question it nonetheless.

This is what I like about this book, aside from the fact that it well written, engaging and all the things one might expect from such a well regarded journalist, it doesn’t seek safe ground or profess to know the right answer.  Indeed, when every other person in the media professes to know the answers, it’s best to seek out those who are still looking for the right question.