Tag Archives: Politics

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.

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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?

Pedantic Paperwork

Paperwork. God damned Japanese, paper pushing, bureaucracy at its finest. One hour before I’m due to hop on a bus bound for Nagoya, followed by a train to the airport, I get a call from the Japanese post office. I get the gist of the call. They are calling about a money transfer to the UK I set up two whole days earlier. Meaning the pointlessly pedantic, picky, sodding forms I filled out two days ago have been lingering in the office for some time. As far as I can tell there’s a problem (they wouldn’t be calling otherwise) with the reason I’m sending my money. Having explained it clearly two days prior I ask the guy to call back in ten minutes when he can speak to my boss who will be able to discern the reason for the call far better than I can with my shoddy Japanese.

What turns out to be the problem? Apparently sending money to my account in England is an insufficient explanation for the transfer. So sending my money, to my account needs clarifying. ‘Fine’, I tell my boss, ‘tell him it’s for bills.’ ‘What bills?’ the man on the phone asks. ‘Plane ticket, tell him it’s the plane ticket.’ Apparently that’s enough justification. Just.

The post office in Japan is one of the finest examples of the excessive bureaucracy that allows Japan to maintain a fairly low unemployment rate. Whether this is the prime motivating factor for such excessive paperwork is debatable. Some part is certainly played by the ironic mistrust of modern technology that is all pervasive in Japanese government work.

Prime example in day-to-day life is the continued heavy use of fax machines. While an old man’s business card may have no email address in sight, the fax number will hold pride of place. I have never gotten my head around how a country which watches TV on its mobile phones insists on these ageing contraptions.

Another example was when I went to Nagano City to renew my visa, never mind that the place was fairly bereft of computerization in any form, but the lift with giant Lost in Space vacuum tube technology buttons, as big as a roll of fifty pence coins were a defiant swipe at the modernity that has swept through the rest of life here.

Yet, this ridiculous charade with the post office left me pondering something else aside from the creaking nature of change. If the specific use of my money is in question, must I consider bank transfers from the post office in Japan to have equivalent conditions to the ones my mother once imposed on birthday money? One may not transfer one’s own money outside of the Land of the Rising Sun unless you promise not to spend it all on sweets and strip clubs.

In addition, how much detail would have been too much detail? Bills wasn’t enough, plane ticket was. Yet, what if possessing not one dishonest bone in my body, but plenty of deviant kinky ones I revealed that it was to fund the spiraling costs of an expensively imported, inflatable harem that left my neighbour with a Japanese love pillow looking decidedly well adjusted.

In all likelihood he’d probably have just recommended a trip to Akihabara and that we not bother with the paperwork after all.

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.      

Brazen Oldies

I’m used to being stared at in Japan, but one hundred and fifteen senior citizens all staring at me at once is a new experience to be honest. That they were expecting a speech from me was all the stranger. Yet, there I was in front of a collection of silver haired, wrinkle faced, smiling and occasionally snoring faces about to have a one hour ramble on all things Japanese and British.

I should perhaps clarify before people begin to think I make a habit of strolling into old folks homes and regaling a room full of pensioners with tales from a long dead empire. I’d actually been hired to do this as part of the usual rent-a-gaijin service my employers run, ‘Need a pale faced young man from rainier shores to promote your local service? We have your gaijin.’ There’s no harm in it, usually they just want someone to write a few words in English on their service. I did just that for a local river rafting company; that I ended up wearing a traditional peasants hat and blue happi (essentially the top half of a heavy cotton kimono or yukata) and posing for a photo was sheer coincidence. This time however, I was stood at the front of a large meeting room on the third floor of the local government building and sharing my thoughts on weather, sport and food in Japan and Britain.

The way it worked was that I’d reel off a short sentence or two and then a very nice English chap who’s been out here for many a year would translate my peculiar ramblings into much clearer Japanese.

My nervousness in such events often translates in an infuriating way. I can speak perfectly clearly, but my hands will shake a fair bit. It’s certainly not as bad as it was when I was kid, a year or so of bartending and now teaching everyday means I’m pretty confident when it comes to holding the attention of a table full of people but it’d be fair to say that a hundred and fifteen people is outside my usual comfort zone.

I started to ease into it all pretty quickly, even managing to get a few laughs when I mentioned how I became a Hiroshima Carp fan because supporting a winning team just doesn’t feel like… well like supporting a team really. Supporting England and Huddersfield Town is hardly the quick path to glory after all.

Eventually we reached the question and answer portion of the event from which I hadn’t really expected too many surprises. This is after all a nation of infuriatingly polite people and as such not prone to asking difficult questions. Usually never straying beyond, ‘is this delicious?’ But I’d forgotten that I live in a country where the elderly rule and inappropriate questions come not from the mouths of cheeky teenagers but from brazen oldies.

Militarism. Check. Nuclear weapons. Check.

It’s quite fortunate that on these two topics I generally agree wholeheartedly with the Japanese otherwise I’d know what one hundred and fifteen disapproving old Japanese people sound like.

Disappointingly I was asked the difference between England and Britain, some Japanese being blissfully unaware of the existence of Scottish people beyond scotch and the Welsh beyond… well they don’t know Wales is there really.

Fortunately one man had some inkling of the construction of our Kingdom and asked me whether all the countries in the UK still hate each other. No of course not, I told him.  They all hate England.

Though when abroad, they just hate that no one seems to know that Scotland isn’t a prefecture of England.

Coping with Old Age

Crammed in, squashed, crushed and suffocating from a heady mix of ineffective deodorant and sweat, rattling along in the bus towards the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. I had made the fatal mistake of getting on the bus just before the end of the school day. My punishment for such foolish timing would be to spend the journey getting repeatedly jabbed in the ribs by errant school bags, while simultaneously playing catch with a pensioner. By which I mean I was repeatedly catching a little old pensioner before he fell over and rolled down to the back of the bus to become a sprawling mess of broken and shattered limbs. It seems he had decided that holding onto one of the many hand holds dangling above was simply too much of an effort, especially when he could position himself just ahead of me and fractionally to the left so that with every lurching motion the bus made as it departed from each successive stop he would fly back into my quickly outstretched arm. Safe from the floor and a sea of shuffling feet he would nonchalantly rebalance himself, adjust his footing and prepare for the next sharp jerk as the bus jolted back to life. He seemed quite content and rather amused with the arrangement.

Flying pensioners are not a usual feature of Japan, but the amusement and total lack of anxiety in regard to life and its various predicaments is.  Older people in Japan are simply far more confident and relaxed than their western counterparts. It’s a peculiar reversal of the West where confidence is deemed to be predominantly a trait of the young. Yet here in Japan, the combination of a deep held reverence for seniority and a school system quite devoid of opportunities for individual creativity often means that the spontaneity and imagination usually associated with a young mind at play are more evident in the older generation. While my teenage students sometime struggle to come up with a daft answer to a question my older ones are never short of self-deprecating and lightening fast witticisms.

That confidence can however, have a more dangerous side. Little old people behind the wheel of an enormous car are a continual fear of mine. You see, Japan’s roads are quite often remarkably narrow and in my part of Japan also have open drainage along the sides. These open drains are about 60cm deep so if a single tyre slips into one of these you’re going to come to a rather abrupt and dangerous halt. I have been dreading accidently tumbling into one these from the moment I first got in a car here. However, what I hadn’t initially feared, though now I do, is the total disregard for safety exhibited by little old men in enormous cars. Often careening onto my side of the road and then skimming past me while I hug the edge of the road, a minor precipice to my left and an oblivious geriatric to my right. All the while, the other old folks in cheap mini trucks, perfectly narrow and nippy for Japan’s tiny roads are king. They fly around corners, bends and down hills secure in the knowledge that they can dart through any gap no matter how small. A little more manic in their approach to driving than the former, but at least they can see over the steering wheel and are unlikely to send me flying into a ditch at the side of the road. I hope.

There is a passion for living and learning that doesn’t seem to fade in old age in Japan, if anything it is rejuvenated in retirement, once free of the crushing grind of standard Japanese working hours. I teach many people over the age of sixty, some even edging closer to eighty these days and all of them are in possession of a keen desire to learn, to travel, to discover new things and to ask me endless questions covering the mundane, the peculiar and the downright personal.

This week they’ve been engaging with British politics and the unusual turn it has taken of late. Questions have often focused on the age of the candidates (our young Tory PM elicited a great deal of surprise, perhaps more surprisingly they felt Japanese politics could use a similar injection of youth), their backgrounds and what will change in Britain as a result. Considering the political upheaval and general distrust of all politicians in Japan they have found British politics to be an interesting comparison. They also discussed the seemingly little known influence on and relationship that Britain has had with Japan for just short of four hundred years now.

I am all the more impressed with the older generation of Japan as it has lived through changes that have occurred at an almost impossible rate. Japan never does things by half. In April 1895 one Lord Charles Beresford, who was quoted in the Times of London, perhaps summed up best just how rapid modernization has been and continues to be in Japan,

‘Japan has within 40 years gone through the various administrative phases that occupied England about 800 years and Rome about 600, and I am loath to say that anything is impossible with her.’

The people here are able to come to grips with new technology and a changing world with seeming ease. Yet, there is one thing that they will always struggle with, which seems petty to mention, but to be honest, they often have difficulty with their pronunciation of ‘R’ and ‘L’ the result being that the two are often transposed. Not that big a deal really, unless of course they want to discuss the British Election.