Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Ghostwriter

A couple of months ago a family moved into the long vacant house next door to where I live. They will be renting the place for just a few more months while their own home in the tony Beverly Hills (not the official name) section of Temple Valley is being renovated. 

When they first arrived in the neighborhood, everyone noticed that the man of the house (i.e. the father and husband) was nowhere to be seen. Rumor quickly spread up and down the sloping street that he was a writer of some note, holed up in a corner room, pounding out the  final chapter of his latest and perhaps greatest novel to date. He is reported to leave the house only late in the evening when he roams the empty lanes and peers contemplatively into the light of the moon through a thin veil of exhaled cigarette smoke.  

Last week I discovered something even more surprising about our neighborhood writer in residence via a mutual acquaintance. He in fact died over a decade ago - but the rumor lives on.

Related post: The Stranger

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sailor Suit

Eight American sailors have filed a lawsuit in US federal court against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), operator of the crippled nuclear power plant in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture. The plaintiffs were among thousands of US servicemen and women sent to lend Japan a helping hand in the wake of the devastating March, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The eight claim the public utility as well as its current owner, the Japanese government, "misrepresented radiation levels" and wittingly led them into harm's way. 

Some call the suit frivolous, but if TEPCO or its owner did in fact withhold vital safety information, I would think that would be enough to put the sailors on solid legal ground. If brought to court the case could also prove or disprove the swarm of circulating conspiracy theories that the US government has worked in the shadows with the Japanese government and nuclear industry to keep the dangers of the Fukushima nuclear disaster hidden from public view. A win for TEPCO might also result in putting a damper on any further similar litigation.

Although the health risks posed by the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe may be a subject of debate, the financial impact is indisputable and growing. One thing for sure is that any monetary burden resulting from this lawsuit will fall mainly on the shoulders of those who call this archipelago home. Now while Japan may be an island, the global economy, of which it is an integral piece, is not. The economic strain the Fukushima nuclear disaster has put on Japan has in turn become a heavier weight on the world than anyone would like to bear. The truth is when it comes to navigating the problems of nuclear power, we are all in the same boat.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Behind the Stamp

The inspiration for the background painted on The Temple Valley Time's finely crafted holiday greeting came from a Christmas stamp I found in my stationery draw. The creative process involved carefully measuring out the size of the stamp and painting a wintry scene around a blank rectangular space. I then scanned the final picture on my computer and printed out a dozen or so postcards addressed to the dozen or so people across the globe I hoped would be delighted to receive them. 

Grabbing the single stamp that served as the anchor for the whole project, I headed out to the biggest post office in town to get eleven or so more stamps. Standing on line, I imagined how clever all my friends and family would think I was after searching for and finally spying the stamp hidden in the postcard’s picture. The anticipation of getting the cards in the mail continued to mount as I approached the front of the line.

Finally standing face to face with the counter clerk I offered him the stamp in my hand and uttered, “I’d like twelve of these please.” As he perused the cute little postage sticker, a curious frown crawled across his lips. Slowly shaking his head he replied, “I’m sorry these are last year’s stamps. We have a new design this year.” 

The words fell like a sword cutting me off at the knees. “GEEZUS, what am I supposed to do now,” I cried out as I shot the bewildered clerk a dirty look. After all I had tailor-made the cards for that exact stamp no other would do. Panic-stricken, I fled the building as quick as I could in a desperate search for the last of last year's elusive Xmas stamps. 

I combed the streets, stopping at the bigger branch offices first but didn't have a lick of luck. At the end of my rope, I finally entered the tiny branch office serving Temple Valley and there, before my eyes, was an entire rack just full of last year’s stamps. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. It was miraculous.

Related post: In the Cards

A Further Note: Behind the Post Office Counter
                                                        (@ Japan Today)

Monday, December 24, 2012

In the Cards

This Xmas card was inspired by the efuto, or picture envelopes, of Shniya Nishida. The mail art created by Nishida all incorporate the stamp into the illustration penned on the envelope as does this postcard pictured here. Can you spot the stamp above (hint: it's the nicest part of the picture). 

While Christmas is getting bigger and bigger in Japan, the holiday hasn't yet been declared a national holiday. This year however it almost was. That's because the emperor's birthday, which is a national holiday, fell on Sunday, December 23. When a national holiday occurs on a Sunday, the following Monday is celebrated as a national holiday too (for no particular reason). That means this year Christmas Eve happens to be a national holiday. Here's to happy holidays for everyone - it's in the cards. 

Related posts: Behind the Stamp 
               Never Forget

Friday, December 21, 2012

Parfait Perfect

Photo by pinguino via Wikipedia

A conversation overheard:

A: I just remembered the world is going to end today, you know, according to the Mayan calendar.

B: That's right. I'm so glad I had that chocolate parfait this morning! 

Here was somebody living a life without regrets. It sounded like the perfect way to go, whether you're ending an era (that's a Baktun if your Mayan) or beginning a new one. 

Mario Iztep tells ABC news, that this December twenty first is both the end and the beginning. Director of the Guatamala City-based think-tank,Indigenous Observatory,Iztep says that "in the Mayan [view of the cosmos], there is no end of the world." As a matter of fact Iztep is looking forward to a bright new Baktun. He told ABC that he hopes the upcoming fourteenth Baktun will be "an era in which we eliminate poverty and racism." That's something nobody could regret.

Here's to a future that's parfait perfect!

Further reading: Bolivia's Morales Calls for New Era of Peace and Unity

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Take Back the Seat!"

Perhaps a pictogram of a blovated politico
should be added to JR East's priority seating sign 

Today is Election Day in Japan and many pundits here have predicted results that will put (insert adjective of your choice here) __________ conservative Liberal Democratic Party candidate Shinzo Abe at Japan's helm. Earlier this week Abe was spotted using the bullet train while out stumping the campaign trail. The candidate had East Japan Railway, the company that runs the train, hold a seat on an unreserved coach and not everybody was happy with the extra courtesy extended to the politician. 

One elderly passenger who boarded the train ahead of the candidate only to find the empty seat off limits was particularly maddened by the incident. When the rider voiced his dissatisfaction over the special treatment reserved for the politician, the candidate supposedly apologized for inconveniencing the man but remained basically unmoved in his position. 

During their journey together, the irate passenger persisted in complaining to Abe who was very much within earshot of the gentleman. In response, Abe was reported to have used his outside voice to clarify his apology, vehemently declaring, “I TOLD YOU I WAS SORRY!” The chance encounter with the citizenry obviously tuckered out the former and now once again would-be prime minister. After defending his seat, he promptly shut his eyes and fell into a deep (perhaps feigned)sleep, in a further indication of what kind of track the country may be on.

About the title: "Take Back the Seat!" is a take on the Liberal Democratic Party's current campaign slogan, "Take Back the Country." Abe's train incident has now given rise to a new "Take Back the Seat" Internet meme.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An Injury to All

Yesterday was declared a day of national mourning across Bangladesh following the tragic fire that snuffed the life out of over one hundred workers at a garment factory there. Writing that the hellish event was the country's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the Internet's Rude Pundit notes that "While the Bangladesh factories have attempted to eliminate child labor, young (mostly) women still end up toiling in the slave-like conditions. And those conditions can include locked doors, no fire exits or extinguishers or sprinklers, and strict rules on leaving one's station, all for 21 cents an hour..."  - And all that just so some of the world's largest and most adored apparel makers can make a quick buck.

The Quartz website has photos provided by the International Labor Rights Forum showing some of the labels found among the ashes from that deadly blaze. They include those of internationally known American brands probably familiar to those of us who have shopped the stores surrounding Temple Valley. 

In recent years many U.S. apparel giants have pledged to make their clothes "sweat-free," by only contracting with factories that distinguish themselves from sweatshops by adhering to some sort of fair labor standard. The problem is that the voluntary nature of those commitments essentially leave the fox  in charge of the hen house. In countries where labor regulations are lax, enforcing those standards is left entirely in the hands of the individual businesses headquartered there and the international firms that hire them. 

On top of that, a ceaseless maze of subcontracting makes tracing an item of clothing from factory to retail shop floor an arduous task at best for the average consumer. Your favorite dungaree seller may say that they will only work with factories that guarantee a safe and ethical work environment but without any real oversight there is no way to hold their feet to the fire, despite the recent tragedy. Over a century of needless deaths in factory fires since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire have taught us the painful lesson that in the corporate boardroom  greed tends to trump the ethics card. 

Consumers (a.k.a. everybody)are the last link holding together the chain that binds so many needle workers to a life of poverty in which they are forced to toil under some of the worst conditions imaginable. Opting out of the system isn't  a realistic alternative for most consumers unless they can spin their own textiles or live in an area where nudity is a viable option. 

Most of us have to procure some kind of clothing made by someone else. If you are at all concerned about the conditions under which that person labored to make the garment your wearing, make sure it bears a union label. Union garment worker shops may be a rare animal these days and hardly ever seen in today's emerging economies but they usually ensure a fair wage and working conditions wherever they exist. 

You may not be familiar with union labels. You won't find them on a pair of Levis or a host of other well known garments. Still they're out there and, like the people that stand behind them, they have been standing for safe working conditions and more for as long as workers have been standing up for their rights. 

Buy union-made and start wearing your clothes inside out to show the world the label and you just might start a fair trade trend that stretches from Karachi to Kalamazoo. 

Remember to look for the union label and remember "an injury to one is an injury to all."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Undercover Work

Cover up. It's getting cold outside. Winter is coming. I know this for a fact because the old men who, on lazy Sunday mornings, typically mosey down to the corner convenience store for a nicotine fix in their slippers and linen pajamas have now switched to flannels. I think it's going to be a particularly frosty one this year because some of the old guys are already wearing vests over their jammies. 

Wile I've lived in rafter-snapping climates where the temperature can dip down to ten or more degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit scale, I've never experienced the kind of numbing temperatures that winter brings to Yokohama. It's the kind of cold where sheets of ice begin to form on the inside of the windows yet it's mild enough outside for camellias to bloom. I would say the "colder inside than it is outside" phenomenon is one of those mysteries of the orient but I can't. The fact is I once met a native of Japan's frozen northern metropolis of Sapporo who after moving to Yokohama was just as puzzled by the frigid feeling you get indoors that begins seeping into every bone of your body somewhere around the end of the baseball season.

I think part of the answer to the riddle can be found in the empty space between the exterior and interior walls, the space that would normally be filled with insulation in some parts of the world. The other part of the answer can be found in the central heating system. There isn't any. Then of course the rotation of the Earth around its axis and whether or not your house sits on the sunny side of the street factors in too I imagine.

One thing I know for certain is that as the mercury is dropping the strength of the bed's magnetic pull on our bodies seems to be rising. Inside my house, we can't see our breath hang in the air above the comforter just yet but it's only November and already we have to dig down deep to find the courage to rise up from beneath our warm covers on these near-arctic mornings. I'm not complaining. I'm glad to have a roof over my head. I'm just having trouble adapting to the change in habitat, unlike my son, Jiro, who may have discovered the perfect winter survival mechanism.

Each night before hopping into bed, he lays out his school uniform within arm-reach of his futon. When it's time to rise the next morning, instead of getting dressed in the glacial environment of his room, he simply pokes his arm through a tiny opening in the warm woolen cocoon engulfing his body. Next he sequesters his pants, shirt, jacket, etc. through the arm hole and then changes safely within the warm cavern he has constructed during the night before emerging fully dressed and ready for anything. It's a metamorphosis that adds whole new layers of meaning to the idea of covering up for winter.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Safety in Numbers

Yesterday the kids from the elementary and junior high schools in the area trudged home in groups accompanied by their teachers. It's an exercise they perform from time to time in preparation for an emergency situation. Somehow it sort of teaches the notion that there is safety in numbers. That lesson hit close to home early Monday morning when the lifeless body of a seventy two year old man was found sitting on a bench in nearby Ushioda Park with a bullet lodged in his head. In addition to prompting local schools to implement the well rehearsed precaution of returning home in designated groups, the discovery has put the whole community on alert.

Homicide is a relatively rare occurrence here. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2008 (an average year) there were six hundred and forty six murders in Japan. While I could easily be wrong, I think that means roughly 0.5 out of every one hundred thousand people were murdered that year. About 1.8 percent, or eleven, of those victims were killed with a firearm. 

That all sounds kind of scary until you look at the figures in comparison with most other countries. The homicide toll for the U.S. that same year rang in at 16,465 (5.4 out of every 100,000 people). Out of that number, 11,030, or sixty seven percent were shot with a gun.

I can't definitively explain the huge difference in the figures. Whatever the reason, there seems to be a lesson that Japan could offer the U.S. and other countries around the world in how to keep more of their citizens from being shot to death. One of the factors in the overall equation might well be Japan's strict gun control regulations. While many in the U.S. and maybe elsewhere see gun control as a danger to liberty, I see safety in the numbers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Passing the Buck

Today is the day of the week that the more unexplored regions of our ice box become clearly visible. It's Tuesday, the day before the weekly order of groceries arrives from our local food coop. 

This Tuesday I found this, probably pricey cut of equine flesh, hidden in a particularly dark corner of the refrigerator where it's been lurking for the better part of a fortnight. I know how long it's been there because I put it there shortly after my uncle had saddled me with it. 

He got it from a dear friend of his who brought it back from a westward excursion (to Nagano, which I believe lies northwest of where I am sitting now in Yokohama). The old geezer claims that because he was born in the year of the horse, eating the meat would be akin to cannibalism so he regifted the souvenir item to me. I took it as part gift, part challenge. He's forever "challenging" me to some sort of  epicurean duel involving one kind of exotic Japanese fare or another (a lot of which he pulls off his laundry line). The truth is once you've eaten Spam, everything goes down easy.

Now horse meat is, well, a horse of another color altogether. The horse runs wild across the American psyche and stands as a symbol of the unbridled spirit that shaped the country. An invasive species brought to the shores of America by Spanish conquistadors some time in the sixteenth century, the animal has been revered from coast to coast ever since. Eating the creature, while certainly not unheard of, is considered taboo by most. Recently much ink has been spilled over the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's controversial sale of wild horses which were then slaughtered and sold on the market.

Now I feel that I've been somehow mixed up in the whole controversy and I just don't know what I'm going to do. I do have one idea though. My nephew is supposed to come over for a visit tonight and his birthday is coming up sometime this year. All I need is a handsome gift bag and maybe some craft beer to tie the whole thing together because while I could eat a horse I'd rather pass the buck. 

Related post: Hanging in the Balance 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fed Up with Feedback

                                           Source: via Leon on Pinterest

Feedback! If you only work with machines, animals other than people, or in total seclusion you might not get it. If you work with people, you're likely to get it more than you like since it can leave an awfully bad taste in your mouth. 

You're also likely to really get this poster and others exhibited by a couple of Irish "mad men," so to speak,(Mark Shanley and Paddy Treacy). The pair are turning some negative client feedback into something very positive. As they explain on their Sharp Suits web page, "Ireland's creative community have gotten together to release a lot of pent up anger and sadness through the medium of the A3 poster, all in aid of [Dublin's] Temple Street Children's Hospital." 

The exhibition of posters (featuring actual comments that ad creatives, designers, animators, directors, illustrators and others have heard from their customers) has been dubbed a "creative catharsis." Go ahead and visit the site, maybe order a print, and purge yourself of any negative vibes that may be haunting your creative side.

Related posts: 

Translation Revelation
In Other Words

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Balancing Act

The morning's downpour was a rainstorm of no less than biblical proportions. It had turned much of the sidewalk and street into a waterway that even the most skilled Venetian gondolier would think twice about navigating. Separating the waters covering the sidewalk from the waters over the street was an expanse of elevated concrete that in the best of weather provided only a hurdle to be overcome by pedestrians crossing this, the busiest thoroughfare in town.

Some are more poised for life's balancing act than others. She was a natural. Where the puddles rose above the height of her heels she used the concrete curb as a bridge. Then with a clear plastic bag in each hand she navigated its length from the boxed lunch shop on the corner to the office down the street. I haven't seen such perfect balance since my two-week stint with The Greatest Show on Earth. 

Back then the undisputed masters of the high wire were a daredevilish duo known as the Carillo Brothers. Working far below them was me, a lowly cotton candy hawker who would gaze up at the stars thrice daily to witness them perform "for the first time anywhere" virtually the same exact but always breathtaking tightrope act. While the pair never worked in high heels, they did some pretty amazing feats of acrobatics on a thin wire suspended very high up in the air and, wherever the law permitted, without a net. So dangerous was their act that it demanded absolute silence.

During one particular show in which the pseudo siblings were defying death as usual, I was outside the arena loading up on cotton candy. Inside the ringmaster pleaded, "ladies and gentleman we ask you to remain completely silent as the Carillo Brothers perform for the first time anywhere one of the most dangerous acts of funambulism in the history of the circus." I had no idea what was going on, otherwise I would never have burst through the arena doors shouting louder than a dozen thunder claps, "HEY, HEY GET YOUR COTTON CANDY HERE!"

Thank goodness we happened to be in a jurisdiction where the pair were legally required to work with a safety net beneath them. If we hadn't been, the story would have ended here and rather badly (especially for Pedro and his unrelated "brother" who I think may have also shared the identical handle, Pedro). While I was unable to watch the act unfold, I've been told that the two were fortunately able to soar through the air before landing with what was described as absolute panache and with not a scratch on either. 

The poor candy floss boy, on the other hand, did not go totally unscathed by the incident. It was at the exact moment that I busted through the doors yelling at the top of my lungs that I came face to face with one of the most feared circus bosses under the Big Top. It was the one they called The Rolling Kaiser. Moving like an express train through a darkened tunnel, the fire in his eyes said it all. One rumbled "GET" and the other "OUT!!!"  I complied with the request as fast as my Converses could carry me and have never looked back. 

When the circus rolled out of town it rolled out without me and I moved on to a different kind of circus that was my high school career. I wasn't on the show long enough to pick up any cirky lingo or skills but one trick I did learn was to always keep my ears open and my eyes peeled lest I miss the greatest show on Earth that is all around us.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Love Notes


You may know what love feels like but do you know what it sounds like? If you want to find out, just click the link below the picture above. It will take you to the website of musical artist, Shugo Tokumaru, where anyone can draw their own musical composition to express whatever they are feeling (just press the draw button in the lower right hand corner of the screen when you get there).

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


They were kind of hard to miss. A stark white gym shirt, sky blue shorts, and a big navy blue nylon carrying bag hung out to dry on a cord hung across the living room/dining room/master bedroom. 

Maybe he left them behind on purpose. I wasn't sure. While he has the prototypical build of a basketball player, he's really not that athletically inclined. In fact he hates phys ed and often "forgets" his gym uniform. After breaking his big toe last summer, he had now just about finished milking the last ounce out of the fractured bone in the way of excused gym class absences.  

Yet it was possible that, as he ran out the door on his way to school, the shorts and shirts standing there with nobody inside them just totally escaped his field of vision. Maybe he simply forgot them. So with that possibility in mind, I snatched the clothes off the line, bagged them, and headed out the door in pursuit of my son Jiro in hopes that I could catch him before he arrived at the gates of Craneview Junior High School.

After pumping my bicycle pedals as fast as I could, I finally caught sight of him and with the last breathe in my body cried out, "Pumpkin" (that's what I call him sometimes).
When I got no reaction, I stopped dead in my tire tracks out of concern that I was perhaps chasing down the wrong kid. That could have been problematic but after sizing him up again from the back I figured it had to be Jiro. There just aren't that many kids attending Craneview Junior High who tower above six feet. So I pulled up along side of him to get a better look but he still didn't seem to notice me for some odd reason. It was as if I had become invisible.

"Did you forget something?" I asked. I still didn't get any answer. His eyes were riveted on the road ahead that led toward the school and he kept moving forward as if he were in some sort of trance. I had never seen someone so intent on getting an education. Then I saw the light. I was being ignored!

That's when I looked around me and realized where I was. We were but A BLOCK AWAY FROM THE SCHOOL! I was suddenly overcome with the distinct feeling that I had been there before and I had. Only it was my father running on the heels of my shoes and calling out, "Hey Pumpkin, did you forget something?" It was within earshot and eyesight of every kid from kingdom come and I almost died from embarrassment.

Now here I was years later breaking all sorts of junior high kid protocols myself. It had to have been absolutely mortifying for little Jiro but it was too late. I had come full circle and there was just no turning back. Keeping pace with the lad and looking straight ahead I instructed him to carefully take the bag containing the gym uniform from the bicycle without so much as glancing in my direction. After both of us executed the no- less-than acrobatic maneuver with the precision of a couple of characters ripped directly from the pages of a John le Carre novel I pedaled off into the distance without ever looking back, not even once. 

If there had been a cop around to witness the suspicious hand off I'm sure we would have been hauled in for attempted espionage or some other nefarious need. Luckily there wasn't and we weren't but instead just hopefully learned a valuable lesson. While memories can haunt you forever, some things are best left forgotten.

Related post: On Track

Monday, November 5, 2012

In Praise of Weak Characters

Writing in the Japan Times, columnist Philip Brasor notes, "Japan is overrun with cute mascots. They represent everything from chain stores to police departments, and for the past decade or so there has been a marked increase in the popularity of one species of mascot called "yuru-kyara." The second half of this word stands for "character," while "yuru" is from the adjective "yurui," which means "light" or "weak," though in this case the nuance is that of being unserious, unfinished, unimportant... The point is that they aren't skillfully executed. In fact, the amateurish nature of their concept and design is their main appeal."

Here in this Youtube video some of Japan's meekest mascots take on Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" in perhaps the weakest iteration of the Internet meme.*

*At least I think that's what it is (It's hard to tell if they're lip dubbing or not since their mouths are for the most part two-dimensional fabric patches sewn or glued to their heads).

Related post: Let's Michael Everyone


Via The Japan Times: Mascot Bird Warns Kids of Radiation

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What's the Big Stink?

A hot sulphur spring bath sounds nice
There it is again. That awful stench! It's the smell of rotten eggs. It comes and goes but from where nobody knows. I've managed to pinpoint where it perhaps seeps through the floorboards and  the possibility of it being  a natural gas leak or sewer gas has been ruled out. That leaves few other explanations for the odor though. 

I've been informed it could be a spirit with digestive issues.  That prospect sounded a little frightening until I heard the second  possibility - that the house sits atop an active volcano. The only other explanation for the smell that I've gotten so far is that there might be a hidden sulfur spring lying just beneath the earth's surface that is venting off some vapor from its hot healing waters that run beneath our foundation. Whatever it is, it sure stinks now and then.

I've always thought of this house my family and I live in as sitting inside a little dimple in the face of the earth. Now I'm afraid the reality is that it lies more toward the posterior part of Mother Earth's anatomy and believe me it's no bed of sweet smelling roses.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Field Report

Vegetables gone bad.... 

Farmer in western Japan reports runaway radish.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Signs of Hope

Worry over family and friends living in the path of the killer hurricane that swept through the Caribbean and US Eastern seaboard  earlier this week had me glued to live coverage of the storm being streamed over the Internet. Among the images that I found most riveting weren't those of Hurricane Sandy at all but rather Lydia Callis (or maybe Calas), the sign language interpreter who seemed to upstage New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, with every gesture and movement of her body. She was sheer poetry in motion, a shining star in perhaps one of the city's darkest hours.

Related post: In Training

Thursday, November 1, 2012

In the Face of Fear

Jack-o'-lanterns on Halloween night
Ours is the only dwelling in the neighborhood that has these burning pumpkin heads sitting sentry at the doorstep on Halloween. It seems people everywhere now go to great lengths to make October 31 the scariest day of the year. My biggest fear is that there will be a fire somewhere in the vicinity and these guys you see here will be suspected of starting it. Then by association I will be saddled with the blame and have my head handed to me.

Next year I'm going to do something like this.

Related post: I Did This

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Monsters of Our Own Making

I Live in Fear
movie poster
Last week's frightening discovery of an unexploded WWII-era bomb on the grounds of Japan's Sendai Airport highlights the lasting impact wars tend to have. That find and a similar one made earlier this year in Tokyo shouldn't come as such a big surprise given the sheer tonnage of explosives dropped on the country during the Second World War. Fifty eight percent of the city I now call home was destroyed by the fire and explosives that rained from the sky over half a century ago.

I sometimes think about that disturbing statistic and the possibility that some of those deadly devices might still be lying around here when I'm gingerly digging around in my half postage stamp-size garden (maybe I shouldn't call it a garden since nothing ever grows there). There is no escaping my fear. The problem of unexploded ordinance (a.k.a. UXO) extends to every corner of the earth that has seen a major military conflict and that covers a big part of the globe. The annual "iron harvest," the collection of unexploded mines and more that French and Belgian farmers turn up when they plow their fields each Spring, still yields all sorts of potentially deadly WWI-era surprises. As unbelievable as that may sound, it pales in comparison to the "Twelve Tales from the Nuclear Crypt." The tales are a collection of stories about Cold War-era nuclear bombs that have gone missing or worse, accidentally gone off, as told by Jeffry Lewis on the Foreign Policy website (read it there and beware).

The thought that these atomic monsters of our own making are out there, just waiting, is likely to send chills up and down anyone's spine on a night full of Halloween fright. It might even be enough to make you want to reach for the proverbial torch and pitchfork and try to finally put an end to the making of these monsters once and for all.

Related post: On the Wings of Cranes

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Stranger

This has happened before. 

A strange foreigner has moved into the apartment building at the bottom of the hill I call home. The really strange part is that he has moved into the exact same apartment where the the last foreigner to come and go from this valley lived. It's as if they keep that space reserved for ex-patriots, or maybe the last guy to live there recommended it to the current occupant via the international grapevine. I don't know if either is the case but it just seems like a weird coincidence. 

At least one person I know, my wife, swore the two foreigners were one in the same. She claimed she couldn't tell the difference and then told me to stop peaking out the window. It wasn't until I told her about the arrival of the new appliances that she finally believed me and agreed it was a new and different occupant. It's not like I'm staking out the building or anything like that. It's just that the house we live in rests inside a little dimple* in the face of the earth overlooking the apartment building below so I can't help but notice the goings on there. 

I never got to know the last foreigner who lived there. All I know is that he was an American and kept kind of odd hours (9-5). Our paths only crossed once and I think one of us was slightly inebriated at the time because all I managed to utter was "howdy" and tip my cap. He seemed like a nice guy, at least that's what everybody in the neighborhood said, but I was sort of glad to see him go just the same.

Now there is another one there in that exact same spot. I imagine he will help the old ladies in the neighborhood carry out their garbage while regaling them with tales of rodeos and the inner workings of the American political system in flawless Japanese. He will no doubt become known as "the good foreigner" and I will by comparison be known as "the bad foreigner."

This has happened before. 

*I think it might be the mouth of a dormant volcano. 


Monday, October 22, 2012

Big in Seattle

... but not so big in his native Japan where he currently resides, the singer/song writer known as PWRFL Power, a.k.a. Kazutaka Nomura, has been hailed as the brightest star on the music horizon since Daniel Johnston (sans the psychological dissonance). His music has been called "real and human" and "something you can connect to." So like everybody else who comes within earshot of Kaz's playing, I'll shut up so we can listen here:

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Bug Roundup

Everybody makes mistakes, but as Albert Burnside (played by Alan Alda)in Rod Lurie's Nothing But the Truth notes: "Sometimes a mistake is like wearing white after Labor Day and sometimes a mistake is invading Russia in winter." Earlier this week Japan's biggest news daily, The Yomiuri Shimbun, fessed up to a mistake that was probably on a magnitude  somewhere between those two extremes. On October 13, the Yomiuri issued what its rival, the Asahi Shinbun, calls "a front page apology" for its sensational and erroneous reporting on human stem cell transplants. 

While most readers anywhere in the world would be surprised to see a big front page correction, a study by University of Oregon professor, Scott Maier, reveals that mistakes are hardly rare animals in the news business. After surveying a sample of US news dailies, Maier and his team discovered 2615 errors in 1220 stories. Put those figures through the numbers cruncher and you wind up with something like half the stories printed in a newspaper on any given day being wrong in some quantifiable way. What is rare in the industry is corrections. Maier found that at the end of the day only about 2% of news outlets ever corrected their mistakes. Is it any wonder why Americans have such a low opinion of the journalism profession? 

According to a recent Pew Foundation study faith in the fourth estate is at an all time low in the U.S. While thorough fact checking could prevent many errors from occurring in the first place, Poynter's Craig Silverman notes in his Regret the Error column that correcting errors "can in fact build trust." The public may not be as unforgiving as some might think. In fact, if asked, most people might believe that to err is human but to correct is divine, especially when it comes to setting the record straight. 

Luckily there is a tool called MediaBugs that is designed to do just that. That is - set the record straight. MediaBugs "is a service for reporting, correctable errors and problems in media coverage." The brainchild of journalists, Scott Rosenberg and Mark Follman, as well as software developer, Ben Brown, MediaBugs was funded with a Knight News Challenge grant. The service holds the bright promise of being an effective tool that could be used to bridge the divide between the press and the people it serves. Not only that, as an open source software program it has potential for applications that go far beyond news reporting.

Online publishers of all stripes can also take advantage of the MediaBugs "report an error" widget that anyone can embed into their  website. A number of sites, like Tech in Asia, already use the widget which seems to be an effective way to boost a publisher's proofreading and fact checking processes while connecting with readers at the same time. 

Here is a roundup of Japan-related MediaBugs reports from the last couple of months. Some have been resolved, some have not. While most are of the "wearing white after Labor Day variety," they all serve to hopefully hold news organizations to a standard that would prevent errors on the order of "invading Russia in winter" (or anywhere in any season for that matter).  

From MediaBugs:

Quake Video - In the Wrong Place
(ABC News)

The description for this video, capturing a few minutes of the killer earthquake that rocked Japan in March of 2011, reads: "Residents in Miyagi Prefecture run as debris falls from buildings." The trouble with the story is that the reporter on camera identifies herself as being in Yokohama City...Read more

Picture Imperfect (The Atlantic Monthly - online) 

The caption for a photo of a 2005 North Korean state ceremony accompanying this article on "the strange rise and fall of North Korea's business empire in Japan" reads: "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours the Tehran nuclear research reactor. " The AP photo looks like it was shot inside some...Read more

More than a Village (Vanity Fair)


Before Vanity Fair could publish Michael Lewis' article on President Obama it had to agree to give the White House first crack at reading it and deleting anything it didn't like. The revelation raised lots of eyebrows along with ethical concerns. Maybe the White House shouldn't have checked this article prior to publication but someone should have. In his story, Michael Lewis writes, “On March 11 a tsunami rolled over the Japanese village of Fukushima, triggering the meltdown of reactors inside a nuclear power plant in the town…” More than a village, Fukushima is...Read more

Big Hole in Bagel Head Story (Huffington Post)

Writing in The Japan Times blog, Japan Pulse, Rebecca Milner notes that “a show on National Geographic, ran a segment earlier this week on a kind of extreme body modification that has been happening in Japan’s underground for years. It involves injecting saline into the forehead and... Read more

Punctuation Matters O:) 
In response to the above error report, a lone preserver of punctuation steps up to ask the Japan Times blog about a missing question mark and without fear or favor the archipelago's favorite English news daily steps down... Read the discussion
BTW - I think the bagel head emoticon above,O:), was designed by a HuffPost commenter who goes by the handle "elsquibbs."

What's New? (Inhabitat)

via Charize on Pinterest

The emergency homes for disaster victims built by the Ex-Container Project are new, but that’s not what Inhabitat says. Back in April of 2011, reported that “a group led by Yasutaka Yoshimura Architects… has formed the Ex-Container Project with the intention of...Read more

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Not Big in Japan

While Gangnam Style fever continues to sweep the globe, Japan seems to be immune to the viral music video sensation by the South Korean musical artist known as PSY. It’s kind of a mystery to me that the song hasn’t taken root here. Even with the recent squabble over a rocky outcrop lying in the waters that separate Japan from South Korea (etcetera), the Japanese public seems to be enamored of Korean popular culture. 

At least that’s what a tour of the local Temple Valley DVD rental emporium would suggest. There is an entire aisle devoted to Korean television dramas and movies. The shelves hold about two thirds as many DVDs as the section devoted to American TV shows and movies (which is twice as big as the area housing DVDs of Japanese movies and TV shows). Oh and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were playing a CD by some K-pop group on the store’s background music system the last time I popped in. The music genre, tailored to suit the local market with Japanese lyrics, has a pretty solid fan base here. 

So why isn’t everybody in Japan making knockoff Gangnam style videos and uploading them to YouTube like everyone else across the globe? The bigger question might be why Gangnam Style has taken the world by storm in the first place. I’m sure lots of recording artists are trying to figure that one out. Maybe the key to unlocking the mystery of the first question lies in the answer to the second. Trying to solve this riddle could keep me up all night. Who knows, by morning everyone in Temple Valley could  be moving it Gangnam Style. Stranger things have happened.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Updated 10/9/2012 @ 23:36

Yokohama - People across the country were pleased to discover the news that Japanese researcher, Shinya Yamanaka, will share the Nobel prize  with the U.K.'s John Gurdon for advancing the fields of medicine and physiology. Gurdon is being honored for his 1962 discovery in cellular biology, while Yamada is being recognized for carrying the Cambridge scientist's work to the next step with groundbreaking research he did at Kyoto University in 2006 and 2007. 

Since the announcement was made, people across the Twitterverse have been all a flutter about a surprising discovery of their own. It's a Twitter account owned by one Shinya Yamanaka (@YamanakaShinya), bearing a photograph with a striking resemblance and listing the exact same academic credentials as the Nobel Prize-winner of the same name. The Twitter account timeline for @YamanakaShinya includes the following three and only tweets:

Aug. 9, 2012 - "I just joined Twitter today. This is my first tweet."

Aug. 29, 2012 - "I just discovered something really big! TBA soon."

Oct. 8, 2012 - "I just got the NOBEL PRIZE!  :)"

 Many say it's a fake account (pointing to the dates of the big discovery, etc. as proof). Claiming it's all a big lie, they insist the tweets are merely an elaborate ruse to fool the unwitting, or that it's perhaps just a good-natured gag.  
I don't know. Maybe it's all legit and Yamanaka is every bit as much a comic genius as he is a scientific wiz. Then again maybe it is a counterfeit account and the little bluebird is just dead wrong here but it still makes me smile all the same. Another often questioned source, Wikipedia, says "a dead bluebird is a symbol of disillusionment, of the loss of innocence..."  That alone may be reason enough to keep this story alive and at nearly 40,000 "retweets" and counting it doesn't look like the bluebird's tweeting will be dying out any time soon.

UPDATE: The Asahi Shimbun reports tonight that they have discovered that the Twitter account owner is indeed a phony and not the Nobel Prize-winning scientist (but don't tell that to the nearly 17,000 followers that the fake Twitter account had amassed over the course of the day).

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Naturally Polite

「ホントすいません、枯れそうで」 on Twitpic
This beautifully balanced bowing daikon, or white radish, was posted by kataoka_k on Twitter.

While some must be trained to be polite and courteous, to others it just comes naturally.