Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Winter of Discontent

(Pictured: Last year's nad-shatterer)
This morning, as I stood in the stinging air outside my mountain home, I noticed a sight that filled my noble heart with terrible foreboding. I beheld upon a mountaintop not so far from me, a crown of crisp white snow, glistening in the morning sun. I immediately felt The Fear, because I know that when the mountain turns white, it signals the beginning of the end, the perpetual, ball-shrinking winter that lies ahead. I rolled my head back and moaned in dread, watching my breath come out in a cumulous white cloud of dragon-smoke.
“Zounds!” I said. “I’d better find some way to keep warm.”
Winter. Japanese winter. That bone-chilling wind coming down from Siberia while the planet tilts us mockingly away from the sun. Will we ever be saved? Can I survive another winter here? Last winter, I took a mulligan on the season and pissed off to South East Asia for a month, but this year I’m out of nenkyu – I’m in for the duration, I’m afraid. A prisoner of this season’s bone-chilling grip.
Truly, my sainted home is not the most well-designed building in the world. A dirty block of concrete, laid like a steaming architectural turd sometime in the 1970s, it has no insulation of any kind, and as such heats up in summertime like a bread oven, and in wintertime acts as a large fridge – indeed sometimes it is actually warmer outside than in. It makes one wonder why the Japanese have never really embraced the central heating system. Today, it’s still a relatively rare thing in most parts of the country, yet in Korea they’ve had the ondol system (traditional central heating which pumps the house full of warm air through pipes) since the middle ages. Enough to make you ponder why the Japanese haven’t taken a leaf out of their book.
The Koreans have a number of other ways of staying warm that we would do well to remember. My Japanese comrade swears blind that the primary method that the Koreans use to keep cool is the consumption of vast quantities of blood-warming kimchi. Having tested this method out myself I can state categorically that this is a falsehood. Whatever else kimchi may be good for, stopping the human body from succumbing to exposure is not one of them. At best all it will do is give you a bit of a sore mouth and force you to take a drink thereby rendering all cold-related complaints secondary for a limited period of time. And even then only if you are a pussy who can’t take spicy food. Or if your idea of hot is eating an umeboshi. I got news for you Jack, just because it tastes like you’re licking an electrical socket doesn’t mean it’s hot. In reality it’s just a little bit sour. But I digress. While I recommend a hearty portion of Kimchi for consumption every day, this particular doctor urges you to seek other means of keeping oneself warm.
Probably the most popular way in Japan of staving away the Devil’s frozen fingers is by utilizing the kerosene heater. While these do actually heat your place they are unbearably expensive to run, require constant refueling (who else here has only just lain down after prayer for a nights Godly rest when the whirring of the heater’s fan stops and in an instant the room is deathly cold? Who else has had to take a walk to the landing late at night to obtain fresh kerosene? All of you, that’s who, you wretches!) they stink to high heaven, and on top of that they kill you. Yes, yes, that is right. The carbon monoxide fumes given off by said contraptions actually have quite a respectable bodycount to their name. Every year all across Japan people go to sleep with the heater on and just don’t wake up. If that’s not a reason to get an ondol or some other form of central heating I don’t know what is.
What will perhaps put you in better stead for the winter will be to get some decent winter threads – perhaps an anorak of at least three-quarter length, like the PE teacher in your local high school wears as he mercilessly drives a class of shivering, be-shorted 15 year olds around the track savagely berating them. Stick some of those hot pads in the inside pockets – slambango! Instant mobile sauna inside your clothes.
Bear in mind that the only place colder than a Japanese apartment is a Japanese school, and if you work at one – which a significant proportion of you probably do – be prepared at all times to wear your scarf and gloves indoors. Sometimes you might ask yourself why they don’t heat the place. It’s probably for the same reason that they don’t put the air conditioning on in summer. The teachers like to suffer. Why do you think they stay at work so late? Well, at least you are safe in the knowledge that any school so cold that you can see your breath in the middle of the afternoon would be closed as some kind of health hazard in any western country, and the teachers who forced students to study in there in those temperatures would be denounced as sadistic criminals and moral destitutes. Hey, it could be worse. You could be wearing a miniskirt. Like 50% of your students.
The same Japanese friend who offered me kimchi as a solution was also quick to recommend onsening. While the onsen process does stave away the cold, I would be loathe to recommend it for the following reasons: while it might be fun to sit in a warm pool of water and laugh at the snowflakes falling ineffectually around you, the actual transit to and from the water is sack-shatteringly painful. And if there are people around you, you’d better get prepared for shrinkage, because that sucker is going to retract. Men, protect your dignity!
For a temporary solution to the cold, what could be better than booze? Tried and tested for centuries by such diverse groups as Russians, the Irish and of course the Scots, a group of which I am fortunate enough to count myself as a member. The consumption of a bottle of brown liquor anesthetizes the senses to the extent that one could go to sleep naked on a wind-swept moor on the coldest night of the year. And I should know. If you want my opinion, the best way to keep warm is to stay drunk from early November to mid-March. Booze is the perfect substitute for Christmas cheer.
Well, the kerosene is out now, and stinking up my apartment like a dead dog in a shoebox, and day by day the white menace creeps further down the mountain. It’ll only be a matter of time before the snow starts falling and I am forced to start burning old copies of the Daily Yomuiri. This is an evil day. Good-bye sunlight! I pray that I will see you again. If you don’t hear from me by April, send an ambulance with a snowplow my way. Tell them to look for a frozen punk.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Happy Anniversary

Since it was our anniversary yesterday I feel completely justified in posting a large picture of me and my better half in what appears to be a very passionate embrace. I make no excuses. It is my blog and I will do with it as I please. What do you expect, articles all the time? What do you people want from me?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

TV Casualty

(Pictured: Beautiful food like this curry could never find its way onto Japanese TV)
Youtube, the internet’s most popular video sharing service was recently forced to wipe 30,000 files from its website due to copyright issues. The Japan Society for the Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers is considering lobbying for a screening process for videos being posted on the site, to prevent copyrighted material from being illegally screened. Most of the clips that find their way onto the internet from Japan are from TV shows or commercials. They are also immensely popular viewing. But why?

The answer lies presumably in the innate quirkiness of Japanese TV programming. It seems that westerners regard the everyday weirdness of Japanese TV with a mix hilarity and confusion that makes viewing compulsive. Indeed receiving an email with a link to a befuddling or disturbing clip featuring Japanese people maltreating or otherwise embarrassing themselves is not by any means an irregular occurrence for many.

I remember some time ago I received an email with a link to one such clip. The show was one of these physical challenge type shows where the guests have to perform feats of limited athletic prowess to an audience who invariably laugh as they are humiliated. In this show, a group of pretty young Japanese women had balloons stuck to their backs, and had to run around for sixty seconds and evade an aggressor who was determined to burst them. The aggressor in this case was a muscular seven-foot-tall shirtless black man bearing an expression of affected animalistic cruelty. Having a microphone shoved into his face, he bellowed in English “I SHALL DEFEAT YOU ALL.” Then the referee blew his whistle and he was off. For such a huge guy, he moved with the swiftness that surprised and terrified his cutesy-girl opponents, who squealed and shrieked in naked terror as he pursued them relentlessly around the room, bursting one balloon after another, howling and ballooing. The Japanese girls slipped and slid around in a futile effort to escape his terrible wrath, but when the sixty seconds were up, not one balloon remained. The presenter broke up the melee and separated the victorious gaijin from his vanquished foes. A couple of the girls were actually crying. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Aside from doing absolutely nothing to negate certain ingrained racial preconceptions in Japanese culture – that all foreigners are animalistic and rapacious - this clip serves to highlight the sadistic edge of Japanese comedy. The Germans would call it Schadenfruede. As the Japanese would say: “Tanin no fukou wa mitsu no aji” which roughly means “others misfortunes taste of honey.”

Popular with internet viewers is the game show “Silent Library” where inexplicable and terrible things happen for no reason at all. The game plays like Russian roulette, each player picks up a card, one of which has a skull and crossbones motif on it. If they draw that card, a horrendous punishment will be inflicted upon them by their fellow contestants. Among the tortures I witnessed was “Wasabi Roll”, where the hapless contender is forced to consume the some sushi laden with the aforementioned foodstuff. He of course then hacks, coughs, slavers a bit and demands some water. Later on in the show the poor fool falls victim to two other pranks – “Bad Smell Air” and “Slapping Machine”, the first of which involves the donning of an air mask which supplies the contender with foul air, as he once again nearly loses his lunch, the second of which needs no explanation: his colleagues hold him down while a machine delivers a series of painful looking slaps. The most terrifying of the torments inflicted though was “Old Man Bites Tenderly”. This involved an elderly Japanese man who removes his dentures and then furiously gums the ears of the unfortunate bearer of the skull and crossbones card. He whimpers and moans in obvious discomfort as the old man takes his fleshy earlobes into his toothless mouth and jaws on them. Truly awful. Also I forgot to mention as it's set in a library they have to be silent at all times.

I have to confess, I don’t really “get” Japanese TV, and not just because I suffer from the twin curses of cultural ignorance and lack of Japanese language ability. Japanese TV programs, in general are a great deal cheaper-looking than their US, Canadian or UK counterparts – the sets seem to be sparsely decorated and the props seem to be primarily made out of card. Possibly it only seems this way to me because there are so many variety shows on Japanese TV and they are reportedly very cheap to make, or because my TV set is broken and I can only get two channels.

I remember the first time I switched the TV on when I arrived in Japan. The show that I watched featured a man with a red coat, whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to wake people up really early in the morning, for no discernable reason. He would drive around town in his car, wearing his red coat, in the early hours of the morning, when it is still dark outside. Then he would select a house and go up and knock on the door. When the residents emerge, bleary-eyed, he announces they are on TV and their expression immediately changes from weary irritation to delight. Usually then the resident will invite the red-coat-man in for tea and they will discuss the prank in detail. One time, the red coat man arrived at a door to discover that the resident had left it unlocked, so being as quiet as he could he snuck himself and his camera crew in, and made his way to the residents bedroom. Seeing a woman asleep, he shook her awake. She immediately freaked out, thinking the intruder was either there to rob, rape or otherwise mischief her. But the red coat man explained she was on TV, and she soon saw the funny side of it. I cannot begin to comprehend what the point of this Endeavour of his was was.

But it’s not all juvenile torture and dubious pranks on Japanese TV. From my experience, Japanese TV is generally very boring. For instance, most shows on Japanese TV in the evening - especially around mealtimes - stick to the following formula. Some food will be cooked. The food will be Japanese in origin, or if foreign in origin at least so thoroughly Japanified for public consumption that it will be unrecognizable as such. Generally speaking, I have no idea what the food is, often it is sushi, which is easily identifiable, but more often than not it will be a food that the gaijin does not know and is possibly not meant to know. Ask your Japanese wife. In any case after the food has been thoroughly examined a middle-aged woman in a kimono will pick up a pair of chopsticks and gingerly take a bite. She will usually look shocked for about three seconds then cover her mouth and say “O… O… Oishi!”, elongating the last syllable for an inordinate amount of time to accentuate just how delicious the food is. I myself gain no pleasure from watching middle-aged women eat sushi so this type of programming does not interest me, but there does seem to be quite a lot of it, so it must appeal to somebody. God only knows who though. Some degenerates no doubt.

The other thing that bothers me about Japanese TV is that there’s always so much clutter on the screen. Numerous titles and assorted text cover the screen at any given interval. What they say is an enigma for my non-kanji-reading self, but much of the time they seem to have a sense of mysterious urgency about them, or so the double-exclamation points would suggest. Also, is there any reason why there needs to be a box with somebody’s face in it in the corner of the screen constantly? Why is the host’s reaction to a woman eating sushi deemed important enough to merit being shown in a separate frame while the event is taking place? My theory is this: just as Japanese school students will seek to confer with others before answering even the simples of questions, so the Japanese TV viewer needs complicity before reacting to the images the TV shows. It has the same effect essentially as the laugh track does, it encourages the audience to react thereby strengthening the empathy between the viewer and the people on the screen. Ha! Nice psychological voodoo, but you won’t fool me. I can see through your cheap parlour tricks.

So am I selling Japanese TV short? Am I missing out? I decided to spend the whole day watching TV to try and find out. I witnessed rather a lot of baseball coverage, which given the season is unsurprising. Also I saw a documentary on the Japanese volleyball team. In this documentary the exquisitely coiffed members of the volleyball team are harangued and pushed about by their menacing coach, who forces them to perform various menial tasks around the gym to learn self-discipline. He has them scrub the floor and sweep up. Then he forces them to write some kind of essay. This both amused and delighted me. The boys of the volleyball team are of the bangs-and-white-jeans type you see in trendy clothes stores, with immaculately plucked eyebrows and vacant expressions. The kind of feminine-looking guys my good friend Mike was referring to when on one lagery evening he said in his broad Southern drawl “Some of these guys, Dave, if I was drunk, I’d fuck ‘em.” Which makes it all the more hilarious to see them being savagely berated by a squat, square-headed minotaur of a volleyball coach.
Later on in the afternoon I witnessed a singular event, a father/son swimming competition which pitted three families against each other. Not too interesting except that the men were all rake thin with a ghostly pallor, and clearly in far worse shape than their kids. Too much work and not enough exercise perhaps? The best bit of this show was when the presenter tied the kids together and made them swim in opposite directions. How nobody drowned I have no idea.

The next show I watched actually was quite transfixing. It was that show where the hosts reunite families who have been separated for years. In a series of reconstructions it told the story of Yumi-chan, the guest on the show. A child of mixed Japanese and Filipino parentage, when her parents split up she is forced to return to the Philippines with her Mother who abandons her in the rural Philippines. My favourite part of the reconstruction was when the mother tells her this is where she is going to live and the child-actress says “eeeeeehhhh???”. Of course, of course the poor girl doesn’t want to stay in the smelly Philippines, poor thing! God forbid. In any case, she eventually goes back to Japan to live with her mother and “new father” an abusive drunk. Eventually Yumi-chan’s mother snuffs it and leaves her alone. Quite sad, of course but that’s when TV does its magic. The presenters locate her father and they are reunited on the show. Yumi-chan, now an 18 year old mother, who has been sobbing solidly since she entered the studio, finally meets her father, who also starts blubbering and raking his hands through his thinning hair. Then the host, who had surely been selected for this job due to how dignified he looks when he cries also let a noble tear roll down his cheek. And then the other presenters started sobbing uncontrollably too. Then the audience. I could hear the woman in the apartment next to me start to cry too. That must be good programming.

Later on I watched a solid action movie about a Japanese Naval ship that gets taken over by bad army men, and are fought off by two navy guys who save the ship with only minor scratches. Having not seen a decent boat movie since Under Siege this was refreshing to me. Lots of people get shot and one of the heroes drowns a woman in the ocean. Fresh.

So in the end of the day, behind all the juvenile humour and arbitrary punishments, perhaps Japanese TV is worth watching after all. It’s just like TV back home, if you sift through the tripe for long enough, eventually you might come up with a golden example of televisual ambrosia. But at the end of the day maybe you’d be better of reading a book or getting some exercise. I feel ill.