Grumbling and gambling

In trying to keep in touch with Japan and Japanese, I regularly listen to podcasts from Japanese radio.  Talk shows are best for catching up with news, and for tuning back into the hymns and hums of the Japanese language.  From each show I always learn something new about Japan.

And after concentrating on Japan, I see England and the English a little differently. Both countries look utterly bonkers.

For example, the other day, I heard an odd idiom involving 4 and 5.  The expression 四の五の言う (to speak of 4s and 5s) apparently means to grumble. Why 4 and 5?  Apparently the 4 and 5 refer to numbers on a dice. It was from the grumbling jargon of gamblers in the Edo period, betting on the outcome of dice-rolls.  The atmosphere at dice dens must have been something like this:

According to Japanese Slang Uncensored by Peter Constantine, gambling was banned in Japan at the end of the Edo period. The buying and selling of dice became illegal. Persistent gamblers were even decapitated. This crusade against gambling was part of the fight to compete with western countries threatening Japan’s borders which all had far more sophisticated methods of corruption and theft.

And you can’t build an empire with dice, unless you’re playing Risk.

There are still no private bookmakers in Japan. but gambling has survived.  Now there is pachinko – pinball without the pins, and state-supervised betting on bicycle races. According to my friend, these keirin bicycle races were developed for gambling purposes during the American Occupation in 1948. In other words, the sport was invented just so that people could throw their money at it.  What a barmy idea!

I switch off the radio and then walk to work, passing on one narrow street 4 bookmakers all a stone’s throw from each other.  All were appealing to punters to invest their earnings on 11 strangers kicking a pig’s bladder around. Utterly bonkers.

There must be an innate need for people to throw money about. If only I could catch.

NOTE:  Guchiguchi and gutaguta are other ways of saying grumble in Japanese. I think the words themselves actually sound like a grumble. Or is that just my imagination?

In a similar way, the word mogomogo means something like mumble. When you can’t think of what to say, you just mogomogo mumble.  Mogomogo sounds like a mumble (a goldfish mumbling maybe).

NOTE 2: I spoke to a Japanese friend about “speaking of 4s and 5s”. He said it was an old, dated expression. Then he added that it was typical of an English person to be attracted to the language of grumbling.  I had a right moan at him for that.

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Translated Christmas

These bleak mid-winter nights are a good time for wild dreaming. Alone in the dark, the world can only be imagined.  Anything seems possible, even faith. Perhaps that is why I agreed to go to church the other day. A Japanese friend, a former salaryman from Tokyo, invited me a to a Carol service at a Brighton Baptist church. He was curious about an English Christmas. And so was I. It was my first service in perhaps 20 years.

The service included a John Lewis advert, starring a family of animated penguins  projected on a large screen, multi-lingual sermons and speeches by 2,000 year-old angels.  I think my friend had asked me along to help him understand. Fortunately, my friend confined his post-service questioning to asking about the filling in our Co-op mince pies.

Christmas is too cringe-worthy to explain now. It is much better translated. The Japanese translation works brilliantly. I heard on the radio this morning that in Tokyo at Christmas, couples were queueing for hours outside KFC and love hotels.  Eros and the Colonel join Jesus around the manger, what a lovely image.

Perhaps Christmas has never been easy to explain. The festival itself might originate not from celebrating the birth of Jesus, but from a pagan ritual related to the midwinter solstice. Iron Age tribes used to gather around stone circles in midwinter to eat Co-op mince pies. It hasn’t changed much.


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The Kintoki carrot

Can you remember your last bite of carrot? I mean, when was the last time you really had the opportunity to taste and consider it’s flavour and source?  Carrots are being taken for granted in the modern world. We have lost our respect for them. Well, I had anyway, until my final night in Tokyo.

I was standing at a crowded oden counter in a Tokyo backstreet when my friend introduced me to the Kintoki carrot. Big, red and juicy, the chunk of carrot, steeped in oden juice, was a real treat. Such is my ignorance though, I probably would not have noticed it had my friend not raised it as a talking point.  “It’s from Kyoto,” he said. I was impressed and grateful. It seemed such a long way for a carrot to travel.


I did not think much more of it, although the name Kintoki stuck in my head. Now, back in England, I have learnt more about it. The Kintoki carrot is part of a revival of Kyo-yasai – vegetables grown in Kyoto which flourished in the old capital before the tidal-wave of western agricultural produce and production techniques took over in the Meiji period. I like their venerable-sounding names, more like titles. Other prized specimens, all on sale online, include the Horikawa Burdock Root and the Kamo aubergine. Kyo-yasai are now so popular they are being exported all over the world.

More details on kyo-yasai are documented in the excellent, Kansai Cool by Christal Whelan.

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Faces I can see

On the 3rd floor, the old living quarters for store employees, I met Katsuyasu, the curator of the exhibition.  Raised in Iwaki, Katsuyasu was working in Tokyo at the time of the tsunami. He made the brave decision to quit his job in Tokyo and return home to help in Fukushimas’s recovery. Many other people of his age – mid 30s, also returned from Tokyo to help in the rebuilding. Later in the day I met another local man who commuted that spring every weekend from Yokohama driving up the expressway for 4 hours in a vintage Mini Austin. They must have had strong feelings towards their hometown.

Katsuyasu also said there was an understandable exodus of younger people in the other direction, away from Fukushima. The saturation media coverage of the disaster, with frightening radiation warnings would have been impossible to completely ignore.

The disaster changed Katsuyasu. He became an avid news watcher. After watching a press conference, he read how it was reported in 10 different newspapers.  He noticed all of the articles had distinct takes on the stories.  That struck him as really strange.  I asked him who he trusted now.  He said people he knew, “faces I can see”.  I suppose it is hard to lie to someone who you will see the the next day.

In Fukushima Minpo, the local paper, Nishida Toshiyuki, the Fukushima-born star of the film Gakko (School), was quoted as saying that the disaster has forced Fukushima residents to think about the meaning of life.  What Fukushima citizens have learnt about the meaning of life should be shared with the rest of the world.

Fukushima is slipping off the front page. The NHK homepage has stories on a distant typhoon, a slight increase in summer bonuses and the American mid-term elections.  No mention of the ongoing crisis two hours north of Tokyo where thousands of people are preparing to spend another winter in emergency living shelters.

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Flowers in Fukushima

Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, has never really interested me. I suppose I had always subconsciously considered flowers as something women do. Men, I supposed, did rocks and weeds.  But not for the first time, I was mistaken.

Manmade ikebana was on display in a photo exhibition in Iwaki this weekend. The theme of the exhibition was Fukushima’s post-tsunami landscape. The atmospheric location was a half-abandoned department store. The photos, printed on Japanese paper, were hung up on grey concrete walls in dark, oddly-shaped rooms on the 2nd and 3rd floor. One room was dedicated to the work of ikebana photographer Atsunobu Katagiri.  Some of the photos were startling, a red rose placed in front of a stack of crushed cars, a bunch of flowers in the middle of an abandoned, weed-covered railroad.

I remembered a line I read recently in the manga version of the Book of Tea about finding beauty in the everyday. With some things, it seems impossible to find anything beautiful. Perhaps finding beauty in the destruction of the tsunami is impossible. It can only be placed there, like with the arranged flowers.

I told my Japanese friend about the exhibition. He then introduced me to rebel flower arranger, Nakagawa Yukio. Judging from this video, he appears to be more flower-butcherer than flower-arranger, but at least he is trying.

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Break Cafe

This morning I bought a notebook at Family Mart to empty my confused mind onto. The confusion started again pretty quickly. I have spent the last couple of weeks in huge woods and forests in rural Japan, over two thirds of Japan is covered with surplus wood. Yet my notebook had ‘Made in Indonesia’ printed on it, even the wooden bowls on sale in Muji had ‘Made in Philippines’ stamped on them.

Family Mart and Muji were station-side stores in the coastal town of Iwaki in Fukushima. I have come here get myself fit again after a long spell of work. Tokyo’s concrete forest is no place to recover.

Autumn colours line the pavement on Iwaki’s Ginza road. On closer inspection, the red leaves are made of paper and are stuck to brown branches made of plastic. Well, it looks like autumn if you squint. If Ginza road isn’t a glamorous enough name, the street also calls itself Princess Avenue, there are even small statues of Cinderella, Snow White and Princess Kaguya.

I took my notebook into Break cafe. It has two stories, a fake brick panels outside and fake wooden flooring inside.  The menus are works of art, shoppers and schoolgirls crammed over it like pigs at a trough, “piza oishisou!” (the pizza looks tasty) – yes, if you squint hard enough. Cream is the cafe’s big attraction: creamy coffee, creamy crepes and even cream on ice-cream.

Next to me, two schoolgirls were telling tales of a recent school-trip to Kyoto, Nara and Himeji. School trips in Japan seem to be a coming of age event, a way of informing children they are part of a nation not just part of a town. The whole of Japan seems to have visited Kiyomizu-dera at some point, normally as a teenager.

The waitress came over to refill my water glass. She did it with a smile and a flourish. She was taking real pride in her job. This reminded me of a conversation back in Brighton between an English man and a Tokyo man. The Englishman was looking for a job, a job that “helps people, something useful”. He was not having any luck. The Tokyo man said the Englishman should not categorise jobs in that way.  All jobs are useful. All jobs are meeting a need and worth doing. It was an interesting point.

Speaking of mundane jobs, in the film Gakko, there is a moving scene when the night-school teacher recites a poem about a toilet cleaner who takes immense pride in scrubbing the bowl spotlessly clean. I can’t remember either the poet or the poem, but the image of this proud and diligent toilet cleaner has lingered in my mind, a frequent inspiration and encouragement, and not just for cleaning the toilet better.

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Stumbling back into Japan 

A couple of weeks ago I returned to Japan for a short working visit. It has not been a smooth transition.  Firstly, getting a firm grip on the language again has been harder than I expected. Speaking Japanese is not like riding a bike. It is not like riding a bike at all in fact.

I learnt Japanese after qualifying as an adult, but those language lessons feel like a long time ago.  Sometimes I have absolutely no idea what someone is trying to tell me. It is quite worrying, until I remember I have exactly the same problem with the English language.

The smaller size of things such as chairs, tables and people have been a shock too.  In previous spells living in Japan, I was never exactly elegant, but I don`t think I was quite the destroyer of worlds I have become, stumbling about all over the place like an elephant trying to put on pyjamas. A written apology stapled to my forehead would save a lot of time.

After a long time back in England, Japanese food has become extraordinary again.  Burdock is back to being an exotic delicacy again; raw horse or boiled locusts are not normal anymore, and seaweed for breakfast is back to being vaguely amusing.

On TV the other day I saw Pumpkin curry has gone on sale to celebrate Halloween. This advert features a boy band. I watched it gobsmacked, full of questions. So pumpkin curry is the new Halloween tradition. But what is Halloween for? And what is tradition? And what about the poor burdock?

I can`t really feel at home here; I don`t think I ever really did.  But I do feel comfortable and curious, awed by it all, if a little confused sometimes, like an old goat at a badger`s birthday party.  Know what I mean?

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