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