Sunday, August 31, 2014

Here's a guy who knows how to have fun: Chiba Batman

Chiba Batman

We saw him on TV the other day, but I thought he was a comedian or tarento.  I didn't realize he was just some dude who enjoys dressing up like Batman to drive around on his funky four-wheeler.  We see a lot of bikers out here where we live, far from the city center.  To me, this Chibatman fella is hardly any different from these bikers, who love hitting the road every chance they get, to blow off steam and enjoy themselves.  He just dresses a bit more flamboyantly.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Nice: Movie academy to honor Belafonte, O'Hara, Miyazaki

Movie academy to honor Belafonte, O'Hara, Miyazaki

There have been many brilliantly inspired filmmakers, but few deserve the often-slung superlative "genius."  Hayao Miyazaki is a genius.  I came to his films late in my movie-loving life, taking what I considered a chance on Spirited Away when it played in my hometown.  I went with my dad, who was then in the stages of Alzheimer's where he could no longer compensate for what he'd lost and was still draining away.  He needed help with daily tasks, he'd drift away at times.  The man in the mirror was increasingly a stranger.  He longer could quite comprehend moving pictures on television.  Even televised baseball games were beyond him for the most part, and he was a guy who knew baseball enough to teach it and coach it.

And even in his best years, he'd had this tendency to fall asleep if he sat still for any period of time.  We'd go to the movies and he'd nod off about twenty or thirty minutes in and he'd wake up in time for the credits and the ride home.  And those were movies he wanted to watch.  For something like Spirited Away, which he went to just to hang out with me and get out of the house for a bit, I expected him to have a pleasant afternoon nap. 

At about the halfway point, during one of Chihiro's colorful misadventures in Yubaba's bath house, I stole a glance at ol' Dad and saw his eyes glistening in the dark, the images from the screen reflected in the glassy curve of their corneas, the corners of his lips turned up in an ever-so-slight smile.  He had the same expression he wore many years before when we all went to Disney World and rode the horse-drawn trolley.  That trolley was the only thing that he really enjoyed doing simply for himself that day in the park.  Sure, he got a kick out of watching my mom and me do our thing, but being pulled along by a horse spoke to his country heart in a way anthropomorphic mice and ducks never could.  That trolley was his thing. 

Years and years later, there he was, already on the other side of the initial stages of a disease that wouldn't kill him but instead would hasten his death within two years, watching the work of someone from another culture and it spoke to him.  Maybe the colors.  Maybe the movements.  He wasn't a guy to analyze stories or his enjoyment of them.  When the cowboys farted in Blazing Saddles, he responded with laughter.  That was the level on which he approached media. So I don't know why Spirited Away kept him awake and pleased when so many other good movies, even ones he enjoyed, rocked him gently to sleep, but it doesn't matter.  As much as I'd been enjoying Spirited Away up to that point, seeing his face like that, that pure enjoyment of something for its own sake, was enough to bond me with Miyazaki forever.  I still feel I owe him a big thank you for giving my father and me one more moment like that in a life full of little moments and memories.

There's a lifetime achievement award from me to Hayao Miyazaki.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Japan's economy stalls as incomes, spending languish

Japan's economy stalls as incomes, spending languish

Did the government here really think at any time people were spending less and hurting the economy because they were hoping things they wanted to buy would cost less later on due to deflation?  I want someone to tell me if that truly is the case, as this article states.  I have this suspicion people have been spending less and saving more because they're simply tight with their money, planning for retirement, insecure in their jobs, worried about unemployment or economic hardship or generally pessimistic about Japan's future.  Or in some cases, they work such long hours they don't have time for recreational spending and simply limit themselves to necessities like rent, utilities and food.

You mean news stories about how the "bubble" popped a generation ago and Japan's economy has never bounced back and all those extra hours of unpaid "overwork" at the office and the paid leave workers are either not allowed to take or can only use one or two days at a time spread throughout the year doesn't put them in the mood to go crazy and lavish themselves and their families with a lot of consumer goods and luxury items?

Splurging means Uniqlo or Seiyu these days.

People did briefly go on a spending spree in anticipation of the consumption tax increase.  They were goaded into by news stories leading up to the big change.  You know, on the government-operated national television network.  They made it seem that way, anyway.  Probably in someone's vested interest to do so.  Afterwards, people were more like, "Wow, stuff's so expensive now.  Better not splurge because we can't really afford it."

It seems every time there's a problem here the solution bandied about consists of "Continue doing what we did before... ONLY HARDER!"  If we all just work longer hours and toe the line more firmly then the nation's future is assured!

Ceci n'est pas une chat: Hello Kitty not a cat, has never been: Sanrio

Hello Kitty not a cat, has never been: Sanrio

I find it bizarre the way this concept has been stretched and pretzeled the last couple of days.  It's not a difficult concept to understand, but I suppose that's what the Internet is for these days-- discovering some idea that should have been obvious all along and then acting incredulous about it. 

All Sanrio is saying is Kitty is not a cat in the sense that Mickey is not a mouse and Goofy is not a dog.  They wear these familiar animal shapes not because they're animals, but because animal shapes are appealing, the visual vocabulary of cute cartoony works.  Kitty is an anthropomorphic character and we've had those for as long as we've had pop culture.  Way back when I was a kid, thousands of years before your grandparents were even introduced via OK Cupid, Aesop did this kind of thing all the time, using animals to illustrate human foibles.  I don't remember any of us running around screaming, "Oh my god, a lazy cricket and an industrious ant!  A fox who sneers at the grapes he can't reach!  I've been lied to!"  Eventually, our animal-shaped avatars began wearing clothes and selling merchandise but they've always been us.

Ultimately, what Kitty is... is her own unique self.

A good friend of mine was Sanrio's North American web designer for years so this is big news for her, but only because she also doesn't get the furor over something that should have been obvious all along and really isn't difficult to understand at all.  Still, I'm pretty sure she's happy so many people are talking about Hello Kitty.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I ain't got the faintest idea what this is: Babymetal plot world domination with Lolita rock

Babymetal plot world domination with Lolita rock

But you know, I have to pontificate on it from within my fortress of ignorance like some kind of idiot king.  I've heard stirrings about Babymetal, but until now I could just turn away.  Every morning when I hit work, I check out this stuff on Japan Today-- which seems to draw a great portion of its content from RocketNews24-- because I want to know what's happening in my adopted home country and some of the articles prove useful for our upper level English Club activities.  And the Japan Times website puts a limit on how much you can read before you have to pay for it.  Screw that.

Thanks to this little daily ritual Babymetal leaped into my consciousness this morning because Japan Today's story about them is one of the most popular right now.  So I read about Babymetal.  And I learned Babymetal is a trio of junior high girls who mesh Lolita style with heavy metal for some reason.  Their names are Su-Metal (she gets the most quotes in the article), Yuimetal and Moametal.  They have a hit single titled "Gimme Chocolate," which continues the continuity of Japanese female rockers and singers singing about food and candy, a tradition stretching as far back as Shonen Knife's early days, which then jumped the Pacific along with Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto fame, and eventually returned to Japan and mutated into Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

My first thought as I plunged into the article was these girls are some of those musical prodigies you hear about from time to time, or see in viral videos on YouTube.  You know, the 9-year-old who can play the drum parts to Rush's "Tom Sawyer," or the kid with the four-octave voice who wows the usually heartless judges on some televised talent contest in Europe.  Just some friends taking music lessons who bonded over a mutual love of heavy metal and had connections somewhere.

Actually, from what I gathered via the article and a quick visit to Wikipedia just now, Babymetal is a manufactured group concept and the three girls have been kicking around the Japanese music scene in various junior idol singing groups for a few years now.  They don't play instruments as far as I can tell.  But at least merging two apparently diametrically-opposed ideas is fresher than simply cloning AKB48 or Perfume with children and dumping some wan pop song theme from an anime series on the charts for the ten thousandth time.  It may all be a carefully orchestrated ploy by a talent agency to make a few yen, but the girls' seeming devotion to metal gods and thrill at meeting Metallica reminds me of Electric Eel Shock, a legitimate hard rocking group who have been upholding the banner of pure rock for a number of years now.  And that's not a bad thing, either.

I'm a rock person myself and if Babymetal can act as a gateway for an infusion of new fans who go on to discover the power and glory of good, honest guitar-based rock music, then I'm all for it.  Not enough to buy a CD, but from the periphery, as a casual observer.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

At last, a real life superhero who is actually useful: Cleaning up the streets

Cleaning up the streets

Mangetsu-man turned up in Tokyo to help clean a bridge in Nihonbashi.  Who is Mangetsu-man?  I don:t know, but he has a big, round head like a yellow moon and a purple cape.  He sweeps and cleans the streets with a broom and a dustpan, so I count myself among his fans.  He wasn't the only one.  Some helpful civilians also turned out.  I am a fan of those people, too.

I go to Nihonbashi occasionally in search of American comic books.  There's a nice little shop there called Blister that sells them, plus imported toys.  It seems a fairly quiet place with a few restaurants and a number of office buildings.  I'm not sure what its main focus is.  You know, Shibuya is for shopping, Shinjuku is for fun, Akihabara is for AKB48 and geeky interests.

The next time I go to Nihonbashi, I'll keep an eye out for Mangetsu-man and his anti-garbage crusaders.

Monday, August 25, 2014

How would you rate the quality of Japanese restaurants in your native country (if you are not from Japan)?

How would you rate the quality of Japanese restaurants in your native country (if you are not from Japan)?

Most of the "Japanese" restaurants where I'm from in the United States don't really offer what I consider Japanese cuisine.  Their fare is delicious, but just putting teriyaki sauce on grilled beef or chicken chunks doesn't make your dish Japanese.  Then there's the traditional American "Japanese steakhouse" with the dude putting on a wild show tossing meat and eggs and vegetables around with knives and spatulas on the grilling surface right there at your table.  That's always fun, the results are usually pretty tasty, but I haven't found any places here in Japan that do that.  They may exist.  I simply haven't seen one, nor have I heard of one in my admittedly limited experience. I've asked friends and acquaintances here and they usually just say something along the lines of, "Sounds great!  I'd love to go to one of those!"  One buffet restaurant advertising itself as Japanese served the same stuff you find at many Chinese buffet restaurants, including french fries, pizza and Americanized sushi.  All reasonable edible, but not really what I'd consider Japanese.  I think it's out of business now anyway.  Out of those I've been to, I'd rate the food quality as adequate, but the Japanese dining experience and authenticity of cuisine as sub-par.

But I have eaten some decent sushi in Georgia, or at least sushi comparable in quality to what I've had in Japan.  At conveyer belt chains and in supermarkets, that is.  Not at the high quality sushi or sashimi restaurants we've dined at in Japan, though.  In fact, there's even a conveyer belt sushi restaurant in Tokyo Station where the taste tops anything I've eaten in Georgia.  But if you want something approaching an authentic Japanese dining experience with decent-to-quite good sushi, you can find it Atlanta, Athens and even at one particular restaurant in poor, little, Japanese-food deprived Albany, Georgia.  But if there are restaurants in the United States that can match or top the "real deal" or even that station sushi place, I haven't been to one.  Maybe they're in cities outside Georgia.  New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle, places like that.  Of the several sushi restaurants back home I've eaten at, I'd rate the food quality as adequate to above average and the Japanese dining experience and authenticity of cuisine roughly the same.

That is, if you don't order simply the California rolls. You can get those in Japan, but most of the people I've talked sushi with think they're a bit amusing.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Let's discuss Japanese pizza again...

We ordered pizza last night.  Well, we ordered pizza for me.  My wife ate udon.  She's on an udon kick lately because she's been having some stomach problems and udon makes her feel better.  The less written about this the better.  I, on the other hand, went for my traditional comfort food.  Our delivery service of choice is Aoki's Pizza because we like their pies.

These pizzas aren't really anything special.  There are better pizzas available even here in Japan.  There's a place called Pizza Garlic, which I think is still open.  They have delicious pies.  Marisa is another pizza restaurant with stone oven pies.  They have excellent pizza there.  Kind of "craft pizza," definitely not New York or Chicago style, but amazingly tasty.  I even like Happy Valley's pizza.  The crust is a bit on the thin side even for a soft, bready type crust, but you can get a simple pepperoni pizza there.  The trouble is, all these options require hopping a bus or driving a car.  Aoki's brings a reasonably edible delivery-style pizza with thick, bready crust right to your house or apartment.  So while it's not as memorable as any of those other restaurants, or even compared to American delivery pizza, it's within the standards I grew up with.

Which true pizza connoisseurs would probably find laughable, but I'm a philistine due to geography.  The first pizza I ever tasted was probably Gargano's, which was a local tradition... in Albany, Georgia.  That's pretty far from the places where people debate pizza.  Then we got Domino's and life was never the same.  There are some serious pizza snobs out there and I salute their dedication to pizza perfection, but I am not among them.  I go for familiarity.  Aoki's Pizza gives me this even while adding all those exotic Japanese pizza toppings.  You know, like seaweed, corn, squid or octopus and even mayonnaise.

We've tried Pizza Time and Pizza-La.  Pizza Time, while delicious, proved to be a bit greasy.  You know, that orange pizza grease.  I don't really like having to blot my cheese before eating a slice.  We're willing to try Pizza Time again, but for now we're Aoki's customers.  Pizza-La was the first pizza I ate here in Japan, back when a friend and I came for a two-week visit.  Our hosts ordered pizza one night.  I seem to remember we tried to order one matching American tastes, but it probably had corn on it.  Have I eaten a Pizza-La pizza since then?  It's likely, but I can't remember.  If I have, it must not have actively offended me or else I'm sure I would remember.  That's not a glowing recommendation, but you can order Pizza-La in English from their online site.  This means there's another Pizza-La pie in my future.

When I lived in a small, rural community in Chiba prefecture, the local delivery pizza place was met with derision by its target demographic, school kids.  The all said they loved pizza, but openly mocked this company in class when we discussed food.  I can't remember the chain's name and I never tried one of their pies.  Maybe that's just as well.

Here's a quick tip for English conversation instructors-- ordering a pizza makes for an easy lesson in making simple requests.  Give your students a few topping and drink choices, throw in a salad and drill them on how to ask for things, make one the restaurant employee and one the customer and your students practically teach themselves.

Thus concludes today's pizza topic.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

111-year-old Japanese man becomes world's oldest

111-year-old Japanese man becomes world's oldest

Centenarians are cool.  If you manage to hit triple digits, you've accomplished something rare and wonderful.  I'm not generally one of those "the world is a horrible place" people, but let's be realistic.  It is a dangerous place.  As they say, most accidents happen in the home.  And your bathroom is the most dangerous room there.  So stay out of the bathroom and pee and poop in your living room and allow the family dog to lick your body clean every morning so you can avoid setting foot in the kitchen as well.  Then you stand a pretty decent chance of beating Sakari Momoi's total.  Or Misao Okawa's.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

AKB48 recruiting part-timers for Y1,000 per hour

AKB48 recruiting part-timers for Y1,000 per hour

Is AKB48 still popular here?  It seems they've been around forever now.  As recently as last year they were all over our TV in recognizable form, but either I've lost the ability to discern the group's members or they aren't as ubiquitous.  It's probably the latter.

While AKB's charms are lost on me, I get why they're appealing to a broad swath of people here in Japan.  When I first heard about them during their initial splash, I thought, "Well, yeah, they're masturbation fantasy fodder for pervy middle-aged train gropers."  They are that.  But to my surprise, I quickly learned AKB had a number of followers among my younger English conversation students.  They looked up to the girls in AKB and imitated their dance routines during class breaks.

It's like watching a high school class go through the motions over and over.  They even "graduate," but there are always newer, younger, cuter AKB members waiting for a chance to take over so that every role is filled.  You can project whatever image you like onto whatever one it is the company slots each girl into.  This one is the class leader, this one is the sporty girl, this one is shy, this one is smart, this one doesn't work hard enough so let's all hate her.  They're big sister, little sister, best friend, girl friend, one-handed lover, both sexy and chaste, all thing to all people.

However, what is most important is they work, work, work nonstop in a big, harmonious, cooperative group to perform and cheer on the all-so-important jiji and salarymen who run this country.  They inspire the next generation of homemakers and office ladies to do the same.  And they get little in return for their sweat and hardship yet never complain.  Self-sacrifice and the grind of endless labor to little personal return.  Your satisfaction comes from building up the whole rather than the part.  And if you don't feel any personal satisfaction, then that's okay, too.  You are not important at all.  In general, people dig that here, and it helps to have AKB serenading you while you endure it.

Now here's this part-timer scheme, which actually seems like a good idea for girls who want to be in AKB.  While the group apparently has several thousand members at any given time, meaning their national coverage continues unabated through all hours of the day and night, there aren't enough slots for aspirants.  While most high schools I know of forbid part-time jobs for students (these kids barely have enough time to breathe much less earn spending money, plus there will be time enough for work post-university and pre-marriage), who could refuse a starry-eyed youngster her chance to associate with her idols and get a little taste of the glamorous life of a celebrity who earns millions for someone other than herself?  You don't earn much as a contracted talent here, but baby, you are adored.

As a part-time AKB member, taking part in commercials and public handshake events, the pay is 1000 yen an hour, which beats minimum wage in the US, and most part-time jobs here in Japan as well.  That's better than some of the hourly rates I've seen advertised for part-time English conversation teachers.  And even though it's probably exhausting, you get to wear cute clothes and travel all over Japan.  All that has to be better than frying hamburgers or washing dishes.   If I were pretty enough and young enough, I'd be tempted to give it a shot myself.  Damn skippy.

But mostly, I think this is just a clever ploy to publicize a website where people can search for part-time jobs.

Islamic State claims responsibility for detaining Japanese man

Islamic State claims responsibility for detaining Japanese man

This is a tragedy in the making.  It's already bad enough.  When I first heard about this, my impression was this man really was a doctor or a journalist.  One reason I had for thinking that was a truncated subject line in an email I received from the Japan Times.  It ended with the word "embedded," which I associate with journalists covering the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Evan Wright comes to mind, especially since I just finished watching Generation Kill, the TV miniseries based on his book by the same title.  Which I then read, followed soon after by Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away, an account of the same events from the perspective of the USMC platoon leader who appears in both.

Now it turns out this man embedded himself for reasons that seem a bit flaky to me.  Posting videos of himself online, running around with rebel troops in Syria.  Pretending to be something he isn't.  According to a news story my wife and I watched last night, which included a number of quotes from someone likely to be the man's father, his intent was to start some kind of private mercenary security firm.  Like Blackwater or one of those other now-infamous names.  So he wanted to see some of the world's trouble spots to get a closer perspective of his chosen field. 

This kind of stuff seems really fun and cool when you do it in a first-person shooter game, or you watch Arnold and Sly pretending to do it just outside some tropical resort in Hawaii or Costa Rica or a desert a couple of miles away from Los Angeles, but I'm not exactly sure how one goes about starting up a mercenary firm in the actual places where the fighting happens.  I doubt you do it this way, though.  My uneducated guess would be it's much more practical first to join a nation's military and learn and put into practice soldier skills in a real-world setting.  If you survive, then just maybe you have what it takes to create and run this kind of company.  I still wouldn't suggest it as a small business start-up when your CV suggests you're better off running a lemonade stand.  A mom and pop security firm, minus the mom?

Others may feel the best way to learn is to do.  Maybe they're right.  My sum total of first hand military experience consists of a month or so of close-order drill with the elite warriors of the local Civil Air Patrol when I was in junior high.  Nice bunch of guys.  I learned to read a map and I got to fly in a single-engine airplane, from which I saw my house.  But what do I know?  I've only fought wars on my sofa or in my computer chair at home.  So maybe you should just show up at a war and do your best until you can upgrade your status from amateur to pro.  Both certainly die alike.

I only hope our guy here returns safely to Japan with enough experience to live his dream.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Father of TV 'talent' Rola released due to insufficient evidence

Father of TV 'talent' Rola released due to insufficient evidence

I have to admit I haven't the foggiest notion of how the Japanese justice system works.  I just hope never to fall afoul of it.  We haven't seen Rola on TV much since the police arrested her father, but we did see him the other day on the news.  He grinned and waved and shouted a message to his daughter much to the delight of news photographers and videographers standing across the street from the jailhouse where he'd been for three weeks.  Then he got into a taxi.

His daughter favors him.  They have similar noses and mouths and nearly identical smiles.  He's not a bad looking fellow, but on Rola these features are much prettier.  The whole thing reminded me of American celebrities with troubled parents.  I'm not going to name them, but you can guess the ones I mean quite easily.

Anyway, three weeks, then released on insufficient evidence.  Seems like a long time to me, but, as I've said, I don't know the law here.  While I plan never to involve myself in anything with even a whiff of illegality about it, there's always the chance for getting into some serious trouble due to miscommunication and from not knowing my legal rights here.  When traveling or living abroad, do not assume that country has the same protections in place for people accused of crimes-- innocent until proven guilty, for example-- as in your home country.  So I need to study my rights here.  You should, too, if you plan to move to or even visit Japan.

Well, for visiting perhaps this isn't a high priority.  No sense in being alarmist.  I just hope we don't end up on the wrong side of the chief of police's desk, a la The Big Lebowski.  A coffee cup to the head would probably be getting off lightly.