Monday, October 24, 2005

Books / Movies: "The Constant Gardener", by John Le Carré

John Le Carré's "The Constant Gardener" was the last of the books that I finished from my first raid of the Yokohama City Public Library. In fact, I was actually a bit late returning it (they only let you check books out for 15 days, and I had gotten six--the limit), as not finishing it was simply not an option.

Surprisingly enough for an avid fan of Cold War spy thrillers (Le Carré's mainstay), "The Constant Gardener" was the first Le Carré book that I have read. Of course, as anyone who has seen the movie will already know, "The Constant Gardener" has nothing to do with the Cold War (though Le Carré being Le Carré, he does mention the Soviets, Communism, the Iron Curtain, etc. a time or two) and very little to do with spies. In fact, it is mostly about Africa, and how unchecked, state-sanctioned corporate greed is running amok there in the form of big pharmaceutical companies. The book opens with the murder of the wife of a British diplomat who is stationed to Kenya, the gardener referred to by the book's title. Apparently, she had been digging a bit too deeply into the African track record of a new miracle drug that treats tuberculosis.

And that is all I will say about the plot of the book, as it is a very plot-driven book, with twists and turns galore. Which is not at all a bad thing in Le Carré's masterful hands. For a writer of popular fiction, he certainly approaches it from a literary bent. Characterisation is perhaps his strongest suit, and you find yourself identifying with several of the major characters, likeable or not, simply because you know them so well, you completely understand why they are what they are and why they must do what they do.

Anyone who has had more than a passing flirtation with writing fiction will tell you that, given strong, well thought-out characters, sometimes the story can be lead in directions that the writer never consciously intended, because the characters move as if under their own power. Given Le Carré's serpentine plots and vast conspiracies, he probably governs his characters with an iron hand, or spends a lot of time reforming the plot around their actions, but the result is seamless: a fictional world that allows, encourages, nay, demands total willing suspension of disbelief.

The book? Thumbs up!

The movie? Ugh.

Allow me to elaborate. Lyani and I watched the movie yesterday night (capping off her birthday celebrations). I had just finished the book a week and a half ago (give or take a few days), and I could not follow the bloody plot! Obviously, when a novel of over 100 or so pages is transformed into a screenplay, some compression is necessary. Some characters must be combined, minor plot points must be omitted or only hinted at, etc. But the screenwriters of the movie version of "The Constant Gardener" did a pretty horrific job. The plot was so compressed and mucked about with that the progression made little sense, and the melodrama was turned on full blast. The movie even hit a preachy not or two, where the book was able to make the same point much more powerfully without resorting to cheap Hollywood tactics.

The acting, of course, was fantastic, as you would expect when you hire a bunch of British actors, led by Ralph Fiennes. Tragically, good acting cannot save a bad screenplay, and the movie must receive a thumbs down from me.

Lyani was a little kinder, but even so, she found the plot next to impossible to comprehend. Being fair, I don't think that I could have done a better job of compressing the plot into something that would drive a two-hour movie (why not make it two and a half, or even better: three hours? the story is certainly epic enough to make it work). So I am going to say that maybe a movie version should not have been even attempted.

Having said all of this, the movie is currently rated 7.7 over at IMDB, so maybe people who have not read the book find the movie much more palatable than I did. I would give it a 5.5 or 6.0 at best, simply on the strength of the acting and the excellent visuals.

Summary: read the book, it is excellent! If you must see the movie, please do so before reading the book. You will thank me later.

Happy Birthday Lyani!

Yesterday was Lyani's birthday!

We celebrated in part by going out to eat at El Torito, a Mexican restaurant on the 28th floor of the Yokohama Sky Building, which is right by the East Exit of Yokohama Station. The food was great--I had the Combination #2, a cheese enchilada, two tacos, Mexican rice, and refried beans, and Lyani had the Fajita Burrito--and so was the Corona (I told you, la cerveza mas fina, mi hente!)! Plus, there was a wonderful view of the city of Yokohama. We were looking north, towards Tokyo, but Yokohama stretched on as far as the eye could see, even from 28 floors up. Of course, it is not really surprising that Japan's second-largest city is so massive.


Awhile back, Matthew advised me to find a Don Quixote store near me. This was not bad advice, and I finally took it a week or two ago. Don Quixote, you see, aside from his windmill fixation, also embarked on another quest, this one slightly less, er, quixotic: to bring LOW LOW PRICES EVERYDAY (sorry) to the people of Japan. Why this brave knight and his faithful retainer Sancho are remembered in Japanese mythology as a pair of blue-feathered birds is not a question I am prepared to answer at this time.

So Don Quixote is a chain of discount stores in Japan. The prices are good, and they carry a wide variety of Western goods that you would have trouble finding elsewhere (e.g. Doritos, Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo, Corona Extra beer--la cerveza mas fina, ese!). I go there on a fairly regular basis these days, but yesterday's trip held a surprise: the aforementioned ドンキの侍 (Donki no samurai: "Don Quixote samurai)!

The samurai was working the register, but working it will a single-minded dedication that I doubt you would ever see at a discount retailer anywhere but Japan. Let me explain the Don Quixote setup to give you a setting for the story that will follow: when you are ready to checkout, you bring your basket up to a checkout counter. This counter has room for you to set your basket down, then a fixed barcode scanner, then room on the other side for another basket. As the person before you in line finishes, the clerk moves their now-empty basket to the other side of the scanner, leaving you room to set your basket down. The clerk then empties your basket, one item at a time, scanning the item before depositing it in the other basket. When he is done, your basket is empty, the other basket is full, and you pay. The clerk then puts a few empty bags in the full basket, and you are free to carry it away to the packing table. At this time, the clerk moves your empty basket over, and repeats the process with the next person in line.

So you carry your full basket to a free spot on a packing table, which is just a long, narrow table along the front wall. You transfer your items from the basket to one or more bags, then deposit your basket in a stack on the way out. This is the way things work at most grocery stores in Japan, as well.

Now that you know the setting, allow me to continue with the story of the samurai. This guy has a fairly straight-forward job, as I have just described: he moves your items from one basket to another, scanning them en route, then informs you of the amount you owe, takes your money, and gives you change. In Japan, however, a routine job does not mean that you do not 気を出して (ki o dashite, "put your spirit into it"). The samurai was bringing great honour to his Don Quixote feudal overlords by performing his simple job with amazing speed. He moved things from my basket, past the scanner, and into the receiving basket so quickly that he had to, on several occasions, re-scan an item because the scanner was just not as hardcore as he was. As the price of each item came up on the display, he would yell, 一点三百円 (itten sam byaku en: one item at ¥300) or whatever, which is Don Quixote store policy, but none of the other cashiers put as much into it as this guy. When he informed me that I had one item at ¥300, he said it in the same tone that you could imagine was used by the 47 loyal rônin when they swore to avenge the death of their lord. Intense, in a word.

He had apparently suffered a papercut somewhat earlier, for he kept wincing in pain from time to time (causing the lady in front of me to ask him, "Papercut? Those hurt, don't they."). This, of course, did not deter him from his sworn duty.

When my items were completely transferred, he had to hit a few keys on the register, which was to his left. Well, he pivoted 90 degrees clockwise with martial arts precision, and attacked the register like it had murdered his brother. I have seldom felt sorry for electronics (with one notable exception being Oliver's laptop when he used to slam the screen closed with all of his might in the common room in Kanazawa), but I did pity this cash register.

He announced the total, and I handed over some cash. He managed to make change, which was a reasonable complex amount, in terms of bills and coins, in record time. It was like something straight out of "Kung Fu Hustle": he brought his open palm down on the cash register draw, causing the exact amount required for my change to fly up in the air. As the change fell in slow motion, he whipped his hands back and forth in a complex pattern, one designed to produce precisely the air currents necessary to sort the change into his hands.

OK, it was not quite like that, but he did sort my change bloody quickly!

So, he gave me the change, then thanked me: "katatsuke nai desu!" This is an archaic way of saying "thank you" that was employed by samurai during the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). I have not heard it outside of 時代劇 (jidai-geki, period dramas) in my time in Japan. Quite impressive.

My only worry is that this chap is a likely candidate for 過労死 (karôshi, death from overwork). You just cannot put that much into your register jockey job without suffering some sort of consequences.

Customer service in Japan: literally a matter of life and death.

And what is Yatsu up to, you may ask? Well, he is helping out on the computer these days.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Back from the Dead

Yesterday (Friday) at about 13:00, my hard drive started to fail. I first noticed a grinding noise, and then my machine locked up pretty hard trying to swap stuff back to main memory as I attempted to shut down. Not even Ctrl + Alt + SysRq S U B could save me! (This means, for those of you who are not Linux geeks, that I was properly hosed.) I had to power my laptop off manually, then reboot onto a rescue CD (thank you, Gentoo Universal Installer CD!), and use dd to back up my most important partitions. Luckily, there was barely enough life left in the hard drive to scrape most of the important data off.

I spent the afternoon looking around Central Yokohama for a hard drive, before getting a email (on my keitai--ain't technology wonderful) from my friend Nikolay (strong in Japan the Bulgarian presence is, yes, mmm), telling me to check out the Softmap near Yokohama Station. So Lyani and I hurried over there, and found a used 30GB hard drive that was even the same model that was originally in the laptop! For ¥6000 (about $55 US)!

So I have been re-installing Gentoo (my Linux distribution of choice) and rebuilding my applications, slowly but surely. The box is still not at 100% health, application-wise, but I have the major pieces done: X.Org, fluxbox, Firefox, Skype, and XMMS.

Witness the power of Linux: yesterday, before getting Nikolay's email, when it looked like I would not be able to get a new hard drive until today, I took the broken hard drive out of my machine. I then powered it on, with the aforementioned Gentoo Universal Installer CD in the drive. This booted up a Linux kernel and left me at a command prompt. From there, I was able to bring up my network interface and download a KNOPPIX Live CD image to my portable USB hard drive. Had Nikolay's email not come, I would have taken my portable hard drive to one of the neighbours' apartments and asked them to burn the image onto a CD. Then, we would have been able to use my laptop, sans hard drive, to browse the web, etc. Can your Windows do that?

In completely unrelated news, Yatsu has started using the shower. He says it is more convenient that the traditional methods for cleaning that have been employed by bears these past millenia, namely, licking themselves.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Pleased to Meet You, Hope You Guessed My Name

Which Fantasy/SciFi Character Are You? has a cool little survey up whereby you can determine which Science Fiction or Fantasy character you most identify with (thanks for the link, Wil Wheaton!).

I was Picard! (Hence the picture.) Are you proud of your son now, Dad?! :)

Here is a list of all the characters you can get in the survey. I am happy to see that I am in the marked minority. I always knew I was spacial! Of course, part of me is unhappy that I did not get Raistlin Majere!

If you roll 20s, there is also a survey that tells you which D&D character you are. Only hard-core D&D gamers will be interested, but I know a few of you read this blog. For those who are interested, I am a Neutral Good Elf Ranger Bard, which is not so surprising, since this is the type of character I seem to play, anyway.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Earthquake Post

The ground is shaking while I type this!

Details to follow, but it feels about the same as the last one.

Update 1: No news has hit Tokyo Broadcasting System's News i site yet, but I can tell you about our "earthquake detector". Lyani's brother Ivo and his family gave us a wind chime as a house-warming gift when we lived in Williamsburg. We have brought it with us from Williamsburg to Columbus, and now to Yokohama. Unfortunately, here in Yokohama, the wind never hits it hard enough to make it chime. However, when the earth starts a' quakin', the wind chime starts doing its thing. In fact, in tonight's earthquake, I heard the wind chime before I even noticed that the floor was moving under my feet. I guess I am starting to get used to earthquakes now. I did not even get nervous during this one, I just moved out from under the hanging lamp into the doorway, where nothing could fall on my head!

Update 2: Yahoo! News has a pretty meaty story on this quake: apparently it was a 6.3 on the Richter scale, so it was more powerful than the last one, but the epicentre was farther away from us, which is why it felt about the same. Again, no damage, no causalties. According to this TBS News i story (RealMedia video here), it looks like a JR East Shinkansen (the Bullet Train) was derailed, but the safety mechanism that was designed to keep the cars attached to the track in the event of a derailment worked. Hurrah for Japanese engineering!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Books: NATSUME Souseki Doubleheader

I just finished reading "Botchan", by NATSUME Souseki (夏目漱石著 坊っちゃん), thanks to a trip to Shibuya to drop off some paperwork at Amazon that afforded a good two hours of on-train reading and the fact that I happened to forget my keys this morning, a circumstance that required me to wait for Lyani's school to be over, thus having another hour to read. The novel is a mere 173 pages in length, and so entertaining that it can easily be read in a single sitting.

"Botchan" is a simple and humorous book, quite a departure from the brooding seriousness of NATSUME's later works. It is also one of the most-beloved books in the entire Japanese literary canon and also, according to none other than Donald Keene, probably the most frequently read novel to boot. The plot, as in most of NATSUME's novels, is sparse and straight-forward--it exists, after all, just as a vehicle for NATSUME's fluid and sparkling prose--a young Tokyo lad, known to the reader only as Botchan (the closest English translation would be "young master", as an older butler might call the beloved youngest son of an English nobleman) graduates from junior college and is offered a teaching position in far-away, rural Shikoku, which he accepts. In the month or so he is there, he manages to get into one amusing scrape after another, before finally deciding to resign and return to Tokyo.

The reasons that the book is utterly compelling to the Western reader are the quality of NATSUME's prose--light and playful here--and the sheer likeability of the viewpoint character. Botchan is a straight-forward, unpretentious, and singularly generous fellow. He never fails to speak his mind, and while he does not exactly seek conflict out, neither does he shrink from it. He is a rare chap among the tatemae no tatsujin-tachi ("Masters of Tatemae" in English, where tatemae is the art of always putting the best face on things, never revealing your true feelings (hon'ne), that is employed regularly in Japanese society to avoid conflict) that are the Japanese, and this gets him into trouble almost constantly. This makes him a bit of a rebel without a cause, perhaps, though his rebellion is comic rather than romantic.

"Botchan" can certainly be read as a glib commentary on Japanese society, which is of course one of the major thematic currents that courses throughout NATSUME's novels, but it is first and foremost a comedy, and this, combined with the nostalgic feelings it stirs in Japanese readers (in the translator's note, Alan Turney compares it to the nostalgia a Western reader might feel when reading one of Dickens's descriptions of a Victorian Christmas), makes it a tremendously popular book in Japan, never out of print since its original edition in 1906.

My opinion? Thumbs up!

And while I am on the subject of NATSUME, let me also say a few words about "And Then..." (夏目漱石著 それから), which I finished weeks ago (it came from my first batch of library books) but have been too lazy to write up so far, even though I liked it tremendously.

"And Then...", to which I will hereafter refer as "Sore Kara...", because the English translation grates on my ear, might very well have been written by a different author than the one responsible for "Botchan". Where "Botchan" is light and humorous, "Sore Kara..." tackles some serious themes, and, like most of NATSUME's novels, ends in disaster. Only two things clue us in to the fact that both books are the work of a single writer: the masterfully rendered language and the minor plot point in "Botchan" concerning a faithless woman (in most of NATSUME's novels, an unconventional or socially unacceptable love affair takes centre stage).

"Sore Kara..." is the story of the second son of a wealthy merchant. The plot, as always, is simple: our "hero" (whether he is heroic or not, he is the viewpoint character, which is usually enough to fulfill the literary definition of the word) Daisuke, who has graduated from university several years past, is living a life of leisure in his own house, attended to by an elderly woman and a young, lazy houseboy. He has no occupation, but instead receives a monthly allowance from his father, an entrepreneurial sort who took advantage of the new opportunities afforded by the Meiji Restoration to start a very successful family business, which the elder brother has inherited. Suddenly, Daisuke is contacted by his best friend from university, Hiraoka, who has just lost his job in Kyoto and has returned to Tokyo, in deep financial trouble. Daisuke is subsequently visited by Hiraoka's wife Michiyo, another friend of Daisuke's from university, who has come to ask Daisuke for a loan on her husband's behalf. Daisuke then falls in love with Michiyo (or perhaps discovers that he has always loved her, since first they met), which culminates in him asking Hiraoka to release her from the obligation of marriage. Hiraoka agrees, but writes a long letter to Daisuke's father explaining the situation, which results in Daisuke being disowned by his traditional, Confucian father, and also by his traditional, socialite brother. Which causes Daisuke to go insane and possibly die (the end of the book is not clear on that point).

So that is the story. What makes the book great are the characters and their interactions. Daisuke, the protagonist, is quite introspective and analytical, well aware of his many faults. He is also accepting of them, reasoning that being the man that he is, how could he act any differently? He comes into regular conflict with his father, a stern patriarch who was born a samurai during the late Edo Period, schooled in the Chinese classics and Confucian morality. Daisuke's father expects him to live up to his social obligations, namely, marriage, but Daisuke has refused match after match. Just as he is considering accepting a match that his father favours more than usual, he falls in love with another man's wife, a mortal sin in the eyes of his duty-conscious father.

Daisuke's father represents old, feudal Japan: stern, traditional, beholden to social responsibility to the point of rigidity; Daisuke himself is the brave new Japan of the Meiji Era: he has cast off the feudal mind-set of his ancestors, but is muddled and confused, unsure of how to act now that he has embraced modernisation and the West. The fact that it is Daisuke who comes out on the losing end of the conflict and is destroyed is no mistake; NATSUME was very critical of both the feudal past and the chaotic present (he did most of his serious writing between 1908 and 1915), and one of the major themes in his works is the fact that Japan as a country is listless and lacking direction. Had he lived past 1916, he surely would have been one of the strongest critics of the military-industrial complex that came to utterly dominate Japan by the early 1920s.

Love is also a matter with which NATSUME regularly concerns himself, but it has to be a special sort of love, that which is forbidden, unwise, but also unstoppable. As a (somewhat reluctant) scholar of English literature, he must have been familiar with William Shakespeare's many star-crossed lovers, but while he did the Bard proud in a way, it is highly unlikely that he was particularly influenced by "Romeo and Juliet", "The Tempest", etc. In fact, NATSUME expressed much disappointment with English literature, feeling that it was so different from his beloved Chinese literature that it was completely lost on the East Asian reader.

Forbidden love is actually a pretty common theme in Japanese literature. NATSUME's characters, however, break the mold by actually attempting to seize love, instead of (in classic Japanese fashion) accepting the futility of it all and living their lives in sorrow, or escaping the social constraints by double suicide. Of course, NATSUME is not so naive that he lets his characters be happy; oh no! they must bear the burden of consequence created by their socially unacceptable decisions. When the relationships survive, they are heart-wrenchingly bittersweet, as in "Mon".

NATSUME Souseki is probably my favourite Japanese writer (in a dead heat with the splendid ISHIGURO Kazuo), and "Sore Kara...", while not the novel for which I felt the strongest affinity--"Kokoro" holds that honour--it is another brilliant work by a brilliant writer.

My opinion? Thumbs up!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Earthquake and Fire

Lyani and I just experienced the second earthquake we have been able to feel since coming to Japan at the beginning of September. The first one was just a mild tremor, not really worth writing home about (and so I didn't write home about it), but this one was a bit more intense. It lasted about 30 seconds, but it really moved stuff, man! Including me, since I was seated at the time in my rollie desk chair. The quake did not knock anything off the shelves, but we were certainly a bit nervous for the duration of the shaking. Ah, such is life (in Japan, anyway).

But lest anyone worry, know this: buildings in Japan have to meet stringent engineering requirements. I believe that said requirements ensure that buildings can withstand being right above the epicentre of a quake of 7.5 on the Richter scale. Matthew, can you verify this?

Update: the quake is being reported in Japanese news (Japanese language only, sorry about that) (RealMedia newscast here, Windows Media newscast here) and the English-language news sources in Asia are starting to pick it up now. The reports say that the quake measured 5.1 on the Richter Scale at the epicentre, which was just north of Tokyo. According to our landlady, it felt like a 3-ish quake here in Yokohama. There are no reports of injuries or damage.

Update the Second: It must have been a good day for quakes.

Update the Third: Wow! I really should not have named this post "Earthquake and Fire" (the title of a song by Hepcat, for those of you who are keeping score at home), because we just had a fire in our neighbourhood last night! It broke out in an apartment on the fourth floor of a building across the street at about 01:30 AM. Fire trucks responded quickly, putting out the fire but also making an awful din. That will teach me to tempt fate, I suppose!

On a completely unrelated note, you asked for pictures of Yatsu, our pet bear, and now you got 'em!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Snap Crackle Pop

Go the leaves underfoot, for lo! autumn has finally come to Japan!

And it's about bloody time. The weather this past week or so has been perfect: after a rainy spell that lasted a few days, the sun returned, but the blazing temperatures of summer did not, making for perfect weather in which to walk about.

And that is a good thing, because I have done quite a bit of walking in the past few days! 21,000 steps on Wednesday and 24,500 on Thursday! And how do I know this, you may ask? The answer is simple: the step count data comes from Ota's digital step counter, purchased for 100 yen (Update 1: Ota has corrected this figure by pointing out that the step counter set him back a hefty ¥200--a little less than $2.00 US) at a Kansai (the region of Japan surrounding Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara) hyaku-en shop (hyaku-en, or 百円, being, of course, 100 yen, or roughly $1.00 US).

"Who or what is Ota?" you may now ask. "And how did his / its step counter find its way to Yokohama?"

All in good time, gentle reader, all in good time.

Fate, apparently, has a soft spot in Her heart for William and Mary alumni, based on the fact that roughly two days after I had accepted the job offer from Amazon, my college roommate, one Mr. Robert Ota Dieterich, Esquire--whom any of you familiar with my college career will know simply as Ota--was happy to accept a job offer from a Japanese video game developer named iNiS. The company's offices are in Naka-Meguro--which is the last stop before Shibuya on the Tokyu-Toyoku Line, for those of you at home keeping score--which means that Ota will need to relocate from his current residence in Kashiba City (a tiny place in Nara Prefecture, down Kansai way), as the six-hour round-trip commute each day from Kashiba City would be untenable to say the least.

So apartment hunting was the matter that caused Ota to make the pilgrimage north to the Tokyo Area (called Kanto in Japanese) to our humble apartment, which, at free, was much more economic than even a business hotel. He stayed for three nights, Tuesday through Thursday, and we had a blast! He got here Tuesday night, after a meeting with iNiS that ended at 18:00. I met him at Yokohama Station at the gates of the Tokyu-Toyoku Line, and from there we headed to meet Lyani at a little restaurant in Kannai for some katsudon (a delicious Japanese dish involving pork cutlets--deep-fried, of course--laid lovingly on a bed of rice and doused in an egg-onion-something-else-really-good sauce). After that, we went back to our apartment, where Ota and I watched an episode of "Rescue Me". Lyani, unfortunately, had to study; a situation that is not unusual for her, inasmuch as she has anywhere from three to five hours of homework every day!

On Wednesday, we met a colleague of Ota's from iNiS, one Matsumoto-san (who reminded me somehow of Parappa the Rapper), at a train station two stops from Shibuya on the Tokyo Den-en-toshi Line with the inexplicably bad-ass name of Sangen-jaya. Matsumoto-san, who lives in the area, took us to a gaijin-friendly realtor, where Ota looked through books of available apartments until he found a handful that matched his specifications. Matsumoto-san then took his leave, and the realtor (whose name was, believe it or not, Kanazawa-san--Kanazawa, being, for those of you who are not in the know, the place where I lived when I was previously in Japan, where I met my wife, etc.) drove us around to see each apartment. Ota selected two of the apartments as leading candidates and phoned Matsumoto-san at iNiS to tell him so. Matsumoto-san set up a meeting for the next day at the realtor's with Hamada-shacho (Update 2: Ota's boss is Harada; my hearing is just not what it used to be!), the CEO of iNiS, who was going to be Ota's guarantor.

A guarantor is a must for foreigners seeking apartments in Japan; he or she must be a native Japanese with a stable financial background who is willing to co-sign the rental contract to provide security for us untrustworthy gaijin. There are companies willing to guarantee foreigners for a fee--usually a month or two's rent--but even then, many landlords are reluctant to deal with gaijin. Japan, you see, has a culture so defined by formal, rigid social intercourse that Japanese people seem to be deathly afraid of gaijin, who (as the thinking goes) have no idea how to interact in Japanese society. In fact, this is a reason that has been put to me for why the yakuza (Japanese organised crime, remember?) leaves foreigners alone--they just have no idea how we will react if harassed, and that scares the living daylights out of them.

So anyway, Ota was very fortunate in that the CEO of his company was willing to act as his guarantor, and that his company was so accommodating in helping him find, er, accommodations. This made a potentially very painful process essentially pain-less.

After finishing up at the realtor's, Ota and I went next door to a lunch counter to eat something. It was an interesting place, and new to me: you ordered your food by putting money in a vending machine, punching the button corresponding to the dish you wanted, and then, after receiving the ticket that the machine printed out, presenting said ticket to the employee behind the counter. This employee would presently bring your meal out. According to Ota, this was a chain diner, and the ticket machine approach was not terribly unusual. Still, I found it novel, being a simple country bumpkin from Ishikawa Prefecture.

Our Tokyo apartment-hunting mission for the day completed, we caught a succession of trains back to Yokohama, where we attempted to find one Tokyo-Area Immigration Bureau, which was said to exist somewhere in Yamashita-cho (which is the area around Yamashita-koen and the Osanbashi Pier that I described in the first part of my blog entry on karaoke). We stopped in at the Yokohama City Hall, hoping that they could direct us to the Immigration Bureau, since all we had was an address, and I have told you before that addresses in Japan are notoriously unreliable ways to actually find a place. It turned out that not only could they direct us, they could do so in English, thanks to a Westerner that they had working in the City Hall. We were not sure of his origin, but I thought he was German or Northern European, so over the course of the next few days, he actually became The Terminator (Arnold, not that Agent Doggett wuss-ass "hey, I've got knives for hands" T-1000 wanker) in our mythology.

So The Terminator told us that the droids we were looking for were located right next to the Marine Tower and the Yokohama Doll Museum. I knew where these places were, so we set off for them on foot. Along the way, I showed Ota the glory of Yamashita-koen (he agreed with me that the "Lonely Planet" chaps were absolutely out of their minds in describing it as "dumpy"). We found the Immigration Bureau, but also found that it closed at 16:00 (I am convinced that Japanese government offices and businesses are engaged in unending competition to see who can have the most inconvenient hours for the working public).

Undaunted, we made our way back to Kannai for a little arcade action (namely "House of the Dead 3" and "Taiko no Tatsujin" (太鼓の達人): "Taiko Master" in English, a rhythm game where you actually have to play the taiko, the traditional Japanese drum pictured at left), then went to the grocery store to pick up the fixings for tonkatsu (pork cutlets, breaded and fried), which Ota had recently learned how to cook. We returned home and prepared quite the feast: in addition to Ota's skillfully done tonkatsu, I shredded some cabbage and cut up a few tomatoes as a garnish. We had a special sauce for the cabbage--soy sauce with a little lemon juice--which I think is called ponku (Update 3: Ota points out that this magical sauce is called ponzu), but I forgot what Ota said (care to help me out in the comments, Ota?). The meal was delicious, and there was even enough left over for Lyanka to make herself an obento, or boxed lunch, for school the next day.

Osu! Tatakae! Ooendan!After supper, the exhausted Ota collapsed on his futon whilst I tried my hand at "Osu! Tatakae! Ooendan!", a sweet rhythm game for the Nintendo DS, developed by Ota's new employer, iNiS. It is hard to explain the gameplay, so check out this Flash movie of one of the songs being played or this Windows Media (WMV) commercial for the game. If you like rhythm games and own a DS, you may want to import this game! Email me if you want me to pick it up in a used game store for you.

Thursday was more of the same. We met Hamada Harada-shacho at the realtor's office in Sangen-jaya at 10:30 and looked at five more apartments (actually, one was a replay from Wednesday). Ota selected one and filled out the application, then the two of us returned to Yokohama. We rode the Tokyuu-Toyoku Line all the way to its eastern terminus, the Yamashita-koen / Motomachi stop on the Minato Mirai Line. From there, it was a two minute walk to the immigration bureau, where Ota got some information on the visa application procedure. Then, with time to kill and no set plans, we walked up through Yamashita-koen, went out on the Osanbashi Pier, and walked from there past the Red Brick Warehouses to World Porters. We made a quick stop at the international grocery store, where I had to purchase some yellow mustard (tragically, they did not have French's, but maybe that was for the best, as 100 grams of French's costs 800 yen, and this bottle of no-name stuff was a mere 280). Next came a visit to the soft pretzel stand in the food court, where I purchased a soft pretzel, and with no sense of irony, asked for mustard (I had forgotten that I had my very own bottle in my backpack!). Ota made sure to point out what an idiot I was, for which I remain eternally grateful.

We walked over the old railroad bridges (built in 1907 by the American Bridge Company of Brooklyn--Ian, you should ask Doug if he is familiar with that company) back to Minato Mirai, the jewel in Yokohama's tourism crown. We walked first along the waterline in front of the Landmark Tower, Queen's Tower, and Pacifico Yokohama, to the seaside Rinko-koen, then back to Pacifico to see Lyani's school. We then took the walkway back to Sakuragi-cho Station, through Queen's Mall and Landmark Plaza (I mentioned all of this stuff in a much earlier blog entry, and plan to write a full entry on Minato Mirai at some point in the (hopefully) near future). We walked back to Kannai for another arcade session, the highlight of which was passing "Linda Linda" on "Taiko no Tatsujin". Afterwards, we met Lyanka at Mos Burger (a sort of Japanese version of McDonald's) for supper, then returned home for a "Rescue Me" marathon. We watched the last four episodes of the second season, which were pretty intense indeed. I will say no more, for all reader of this blog may not have seen them, and I do not want to spoil anyone's fun.

The next morning, Ota went into Naka-Meguro to meet with iNiS before heading back to Kansai to hoist a few with the Japanese schoolteachers that he met during his stint in the JET Programme, whereby native speakers of English get to go to Japan for one, two, or three years to become teaching assistants to elementary and middle-school English teachers.

Shinsengumi keitai strapI am happy to say that Ota did not fail to live up to his obligations as dictated by the Japanese custom of omiyage (お土産, traditional gift-giving). The way it works is when you visit someone, you are supposed to bring a little present to give to your host, usually something that is indigenous to your hometown. When you take a trip, you are supposed to get omiyage for your colleagues at work from the place where you went. Anyway, Ota was nice enough to bring me a Shinsengumi keitai strap (pictured at left; click on the picture for some full-size action) and a killer Shinsengumi keychain, though neither Ota nor I could imagine anyone actually using it as such. The keychain is a fully functional katana (刀, Japanese sword) and scabbard, a good 23 centimetres (nine inches) in length. The katana actually slides out of the scabbard! It is quite dull, of course, but will function quite nicely as a letter-opener. The scabbard is emblazoned with the characters: 誠 新選組 (makoto Shinsengumi); Shinsengumi being the name of the organisation, and makoto meaning "devotion", which was Shinsengumi's motto.

Shinsengumi keychainIn case you cannot remember exactly what the Shinsengumi is (and thus cannot really fathom why I would be so chuffed at this particular omiyage), here is a quick overview. The arrival of Commodore Perry to Japan in 1853 and subsequent opening of Japan's ports to the West brought existing tensions between the traditional, anti-Western Tokugawa Shogunate and some young, radical, pro-modernisation samurai, mostly from the large and powerful domains of Choushu (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture) and Satsuma (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture), to a head. The period between the arrival of Perry's "Black Ships" in 1853 and the fall of the Tokogawa Shogunate in 1868 is known as the Bakumatsu (幕末), or end (baku) of the Tokogawa Shogunate (bakufu, in Japanese). In general, this was a conflict of young versus old, with the old defending the status quo and the young fighting to Westernise and modernise. The exception to the rule was the Shinsengumi, a group of fiery young ne'er-do-wells recruited by the Edo (modern-day Tokyo) police in 1862 to root out anti-Shogunate samurai. The Shinsengumi basically fulfilled the same role as Hitler's brown-shirts, terrorising innocent and guilty alike for "the greater good".

As a relentlessly anti-Shogunate fellow myself, you may wonder why I like the Shinsengumi, who fought on the wrong side of the conflict during the Bakumatsu. The answer is pretty simple: because they were cool. They were a colourful bunch of violent, unruly roughnecks, but they sure looked good doing it, in their white and blue tunics.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Google Maps Hacking 101

For all of you who have not yet used Google Maps, I would recommend that you head on over and play with it for a few minutes. Try typing your address into the search box at the top, or try one of these example searches:

If you played with those maps at all, did you notice that you can click the left mouse button, and while holding it down, move the mouse around to "drag" the map in different directions? Try it! Did you see the control on the left side that has a '+' at the top and a '-' at the bottom, with a graduated line connecting the two? Did you click on the '+' to zoom in or the '-' to zoom out? Did you click on the slider between the '+' and the '-' and use it like a scrollbar to change the zoom level more than one step at a time? Try it!

Now, can you say "wicked cool!"?

But even cooler than all of this, from a coder's perspective, is that Google has published the API (that is Application Programming Interface to all the non-coders in the audience; think of it as the blueprints to the system) to Google Maps, so you can extend and customise it to your little heart's content! And customise it I have done!

I now present to you, without further ado (it just seems wrong to omit that cliché, n'est ce pas?), my Gaijin's Guide to Central Yokohama. The map should provide the curious with some spatial orientation that might make the geography of some of my blog entries more understandable. The map loads centred on our apartment, with various markers illustrating train stations, banks, shopping locations, Lyani's school, etc. If you zoom out five times, you can see where I will be working: it is the dark green marker to the northeast of the cluster of markers in Central Yokohama.

This map is by no means complete, so check back from time to time to see what new entries I have added. I will also try to link geographical locations in future blog entries to the map, to give you some additional context.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Books: "Rum Punch", by Elmore Leonard

I just finished reading Elmore Leonard's delightful "Rum Punch", a crime novel concerned (unsurprisingly, for fans of Leonard) with a bail bondsman who is getting sick and tired of his job. When opportunity, in the person of comely flight attendent Jackie Burke, knocks, he answers, and many plot twists later (again, a hallmark of Elmore Leonard's writing), rides off with her into the sunset.

The further into "Rum Punch" I got, the more familiar it seemed to me. Finally, it dawned on me that Quentin Tarintino's 1997 film, "Jackie Brown", starring none other than Pam Grier in the title roll, just had to be an adaptation. The Internets proved my hunch correct.

I have read three Elmore Leonard books so far, and a certain pattern has held for all three: I have seen a movie interpretation, was disappointed, read the book, and wanted to see the movie again. These three books were, in chronological order, "Get Shorty", "The Big Bounce", and now "Rum Punch". I saw both "Jackie Brown" (the film adaptation of "Rum Punch", as we have just discovered) and "Get Shorty" as a teenager, and was expecting both of them to be "Pulp Fiction: The Sequel", "Jackie Brown" since Tarantino directed it, and "Get Shorty" since it starred John Travolta. When I went back and watched "Get Shorty" after reading the eponymous book (which was last time I was in Japan, coincidentally), I was blown away. Snappy dialogue, a plot with more twists than a Synder's pretzel, and some great characters. I imagine that I will experience the same thing when I re-visit "Jackie Brown", which should happen soon since I have both a Tsutaya card and a Bittorrent client... (oops, was that last bit out loud!?).

"The Big Bounce", on the other hand, is a different story. It must be Ryan O'Neal's (no, not my friend Ryan O'Neil, the actor who was married to Farah Fawcett!) worst movie. It is a terrible, terrible film. Apparently, Elmore Leonard himself was totally shut out of the script-writing process, and he pronounced the final script as terrible. I do not know if he was more involved in the remake of the film, starring Owen Wilson and Charlie Sheen. I suspect that he was not, as IMDB voters largely panned the film.

Speaking of remakes and sequels, I did see Be Cool, the sequel to "Get Shorty", based on Elmore Leonard's book of the same name. It was not bad; I especially enjoyed the always-hilarious Vince Vaughn's antics. Travolta, rehashing the character of Chili Palmer, was just OK. I missed Rene Russo, who played Palmer's love interest in "Get Shorty". Casting Uma Thurman as Palmer's new lover interest was a mistake; nothing could top the Thurman / Travolta chemistry in "Pulp Fiction", and Thurman seems to give her best performances when under the watchful eye of Tarantino.

So why did this book review suddenly turn into a film review? Simple: Leonard writes novels that read like movies. And I mean this as a compliment. Leonard is Hollywood at its best: amazingly witty, sharp dialogue, unforgettable characters rendered without resorting to reading their thoughts much (a device that is used a lot in literature but seldom works on the screen; with Denis Leary's hallucinations in his fantastic "Rescue Me" being one of the few examples to the contrary), colourful settings, intricate plots that keep you guessing until the last page, and a very cinematic style of narration. Leonard is quite simply one of the finest pop fiction writers out there, in the same league as Tom Clancy, and in my mind, king of the comic crime caper.

My opinion? Thumbs up!

Skype's the Word

Any readers of this blog who do not yet have a Skype account should run, not walk, to get one! Skype is a Voice Over IP (VOIP) application that uses the Internet instead of the Publicly-Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) to enable phone calls. The best part? Computer-to-computer calls are free! Like zero dollars free. That is zero yen free, too.

They have a few value-added services that do cost money, such as the fantastic SkypeOut, which allows you to make calls from your computer to a normal phone. And it is dirt-cheap, too! But not as cheap as free, so if you want to talk to me, please get a free Skype account so that I don't have to spend money doing it! All you need is a computer with an Internet connexion (which you most likely have, or you would not be reading this blog), a soundcard (which almost all computers build since 2000 do), and a headset with a microphone (if you do not have one of these, your local computer store, Target, or--God forbid--WalMart should have one for aorund $20).

When you have an account, email me and let me know what it is. I will then let you know what my account name is (though most of you who are familiar with my normal account name can probably guess). I would not recommend posting your account name in the comments, as this blog is not password-protected, so any Tom, Dick, or Harry can read it.

That is all.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Books: "The Samurai", by ENDO Shusaku

ENDO Shusaku's "The Samurai" (遠藤周作著 侍) is the forth book that I have finished from my trip to the Naka Ward Library last week. The first was a cheesy X-Files book (but at least it was written by Kevin J. Anderson, who has done some decent Star Wars novels, and more recently, written some Dune prequels with Frank Herbert's son). The second was NOZAKA Akiyuki's "The Pornographers", which I wrote about previously. The third was NATSUME Souseki's "And Then...", which I will write about presently.

"The Samurai" is ENDO doing what he does best: historical fiction set in the time just before TOKUGAWA Ieyasu closed Japan off from the rest of the world, the early 17th Century. As in his seminal work, "Silence", "The Samurai" concerns itself with the persecution of Christians that occurred in that time, and the effect of Christianity on the Japanese. The story is far more plot-based than was "Silence"; at its centre is the journey of one HASEKURA Tsunenaga (an actual historical figure), along with three other Japanese envoys, to the West. HASEKURA is the samurai from the title of the book, and when ENDO is narrating in the third person, he is only referred to as "the samurai". It is only through dialogue spoken by other characters and the brief first-person passages (from the diary of the other main character, a Franciscan friar named Father Velasco--based on a historical figure named Father Luis Sotelo) that we learn his name.

The book opens with a description of the samurai's life on his minor estate in the marshlands of northeast Japan. It is a simple life, with the samurai joining his peasant retainers in their daily chores. The entire village is just one bad harvest away from starvation, but the samurai feels no resentment towards his lot in life, and in fact feels bound to the marshlands, where he was born and he expects to die.

Next, the scene shifts to Father Velasco (though he is referred to only as "the missionary" in this scene), imprisoned in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), the capitol city of the Tokugawa Shogunate. We are shown the priest's religious fervour, his pride and ambition (which ENDO's narrator notes are slightly unseemly for a priest), and his desire to conquer Japan for God (with no weapon other than the Good Book, however--Velasco despises the Spanish conquest of Nueva España). He expects to be freed from prison, since the Japanese have need of his services as an interpreter: after 10 years in Japan, he speaks Japanese fluently, along with his native Spanish and the other usual languages spoken by a Spanish priest of that time (Latin, Greek, Italian, and probablyPortuguesee, given the influence of Portugal in the early 17th Century). And freed he is, as the Japanese want to send him on a mission back to the West.

Despite being an island country, at the beginning of the Tokugawa Period, Japan lacked the ship-building technology to construct vessels capable of crossing the mighty Pacific. So when some Spanish sailors were marooned on Japanese soil after theirgallonn--inbound fromManilaa in the Spanish colony of thePhilippiness--was heavily damaged in a major storm, the crafty Naifu (the court title assumed by TOKUGAWA Ieyasu after abdicating from the position of Shougun--military ruler of Japan) came up with a plan. He would use the ship-building knowledge of the Spanish sailors to build a mighty galleon, which he would send back to Nueva España (modern-day Mexico), along with a Japanese trade delegation, for Japan could benefit greatly from direct trade with Nueva España (all trade with the Spanish Empire thus far has been through Manila).

Since the Spanish sailors ran aground in the domain of DATE Masamune, one of the most powerful daimyou (generals) in Japan, TOKUGAWA instructed his retainer to select four samurai to accompany the trade mission as his personal envoys. The samurai were to bear a letter from DATE, asking that trade between his domain and Nueva España be opened, in return for the construction of cathedrals and freedom to proselytise for Christian missionaries. Father Velasco was to act as interpreter for these four samurai.

To make a long story short, the voyage is a complete failure. The delegation reaches Nueva España, where the profit-hungry Japanese merchants are baptised, as Father Velasco tells them that they will be unable to trade in Nueva España unless they become Christians. The Japanese delegation is welcomed with pomp and ceremony, and even granted an audience with the Spanish Viceroy of Nueva España. The Viceroy tells them that he does not have the authority to grant their request for trade, so Father Velasco decides that they will continue on to España itself. After a hard voyage across the Atlantic, Father Velasco has to debate the issue of missionary work in Japan with a leading Jesuit padre, who feels that the Japan is already lost to Christianity. Velasco wins the debate, largely thanks to the envoys deciding to become Christians, and the council of bishops is about to grant his request and recommend an audience with the King of Spain, when a letter arrives from the Jesuits in Manila, reporting that TOKUGAWA has signed a trade agreement with protestant England, crushed the remnants of the TOYOTOMI family in Osaka (the last challenge to his sovereign authority over all of Japan), and forbidden Christianity throughout his entire realm, including the domain of DATE Masamune. Hearing this grave news, the council has no choice but to agree with the Jesuits; Japan is a lost cause.

Father Velasco's last hope is that the Japanese envoys might be granted an audience with the Pope himself. So they journey to Italy, where a high-ranking cardinal at the Vatican decides that the Vatican will not ask the King of Spain to see the envoys. The Vatican has also decided to write off Japan. The delegation continues on to Rome, where the Pope appears for the celebration of Easter. As he passes, the Japanese envoys make such an impassioned display of requesting him to hear them out that the Pope grants them an audience. Of course, this audience is only symbolic; the Pope will not grant what the envoys ask in light of the news from Japan.

The envoys return to Japan (except for one of their number, who returned to Japan earlier from Nueva España, and another who commits seppuku--ritual suicide after their mission fails). Velasco himself goes no farther Philippineshilipines, for by this time, Japan has been closed to foreigners, and Christianity is forbidden on pain of death. When the two samurai return to Japan, they are detained and questioned, and it comes out that they became Christians. Since the samurai maintain that their conversions were not in earnest, but simply for the sake of the missions, they are allowed to return to their homes, but forbidden from associating with each other again. The main character, the samurai, returns to his home to find it much the same, and he resumes his simple life, happy to be reunited with his wife and children at last. A year or two later, the samurai receives orders that he is to be confined to his home as a punishment for adopting a "heathen religion".

Several years later, Father Velasco sneaks back into Japan, disguised as a merchant, determined to continue his missionary work. He is captured in short order, and when news of his return reaches Edo, orders are dispatched to DATE that the two surviving envoys are to be executed for the crime of being Christians. The book ends with Velasco's own execution.

Cheery stuff indeed; yet this is how ENDO's books usually turn out. In fact, Japanese literature as a whole tends to be much more gloomy than even its Western counterpart. Conventionally happy endings are seldom seen.

ENDO's theme is, as in "Silence", how establishment Christianity as promulgated by the Catholic Church cannot succeed in Japan. Japanese Christianity is a more private, personal affair. As in "Silence", an arrogant, proud priest gradually learns this, but not before his plans all utterly fail. In the end, of course, the priest dies.

The word samurai as it is understood in the West has more to do with swordplay and MIFUNE Toshiro than with the idea that is at the core of the Japanese concept: servitude. This is why ENDO chose to title his book, "The Samurai", and this is why the otherwise ordinary main character is important to the novel. His honourable subservience to his temporal lord gradually gives way to servitude to a greater lord. Of course, ENDO being ENDO, there are many parallels between the life of the samurai and the life of Christ. There are even more parallels between Valasco and Christ, which will hardly surprise anyone who has read "Silence", since that priest actually felt he was becoming Jesus Christ.

"The Samurai" is a well-written, compelling book. One does not have to be a Christian to enjoy it, in fact, it was wildly popular in largely secular Japan as a rollicking tale of adventure set in a famous historical period. It is far less overtly psychological than "Silence", though Christian themes are a strong undercurrent throughout the book.

My opinion? Thumbs up.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


The title of this entry, for those who do not read kanji (I'm talking to you, Chris Kohler!), is "Ware ware wa Shinsengumi de gozaru!", which means "We are the (expletive deleted) Shinsengumi!". The Shinsengumi, of course, were a group of samurai (swordsmen) who were fanatically devoted to the Tokugawa Shogunate during its last years (1860-1868), a period of time in Japanese history that is know as the 幕末 (bakumatsu, the end (matsu--and no, this is not the same matsu that Kohler was famously accused of not being able to read; that was 松, pine tree) of the shogunate (bakufu).

There is a great scene in the "Ruroni Kenshin" movie (an animated film that is set in the chaotic times of the Bakumatsu) where the Shinsengumi kick in the door of an inn where some anti-Shogunate leaders are conspiring. As they stand there, framed by the door of the inn, looking bad-ass indeed, their leader utters the phrase: "Ware ware wa Shinsengumi de gozaru!". This, for my money, is one of the coolest moments in the history of Japanese animation.

So what made me think of this, you ask? As I was walking home from the Isezaki shopping district today (I went there to play some "House of the Dead 3", a popular arcade game where you use a huge shotgun to put the undead to rest, thus freeing them of the endless pain of their unholy existence--at least, that is how I justify it), I had to wait on the corner to cross a major street near my house. As I waited, about eight members of the 神奈川県警察官--Kanagawa-ken Keisatsukan, the Kanagawa Prefecture Police Department, or KPPD, as we call them (no we don't, but it sounds cool, doesn't it?)--rolled up, literally, on their bicycles.

Now you Americans remember when we first started seeing bicycle cops, right? Remember how they looked like complete dorks, with their little bike helmets and reflective vests? Well, Japanese police most certainly do not look like dorks. In fact, they looked like they might just hop off their bikes and kick my ass if I looked at them wrong. So I didn't. Look at the wrong, that is. (In fact, the Japanese police are known to beat the odd confession out of a suspect from time to time...)

They don't need no stinkin' helmets, that is for sure. Despite the fact that they do not even carry guns (I think only riot police in Japan do--can you verify this, Matthew?), they look about 20 times more hard-core than any American cop outside of the movies. I only wish I had been packing my camera, though I am not sure I would have had the guts to ask them if I could take a picture. They might just have told me where I could stick my camera...

Speaking of hardcore, the other day, while I was walking down the pedestrian mall in the Isezaki district, I saw the most unrepentant, old-school yakuza underboss left in Japan. This guy was completely bald, dressed in a double-breasted black suit and crocodile-skin shoes (or gators, if you prefer the lingua franca of Tha Filthy Dirty South), was wearing sleek golden Gucci sunglasses, and walked with the aid of a cane. But he did not need the cane, it was simply a pimpin' accessory. I was very careful not to stare, as I have no desire to sleep with the fishes (魚と寝る? Do the Japanese say that? I really need to watch some more Beat Takeshi movies!).

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Well, it's a Step up from Iron Meg and Hank

I just received my first email from William and Mary's new president, Gene Nichol, announcing that none other than Sandra Day O'Connor will succeed Henry Kissinger as our new Chancellor. Oh my.

But when I stop and think about this, I am actually not as angry as I thought I was. True, O'Connor was a Republican appointee, but on the other hand, I would not call her a conservative idealogue by any stretch of the imagination. While I do not agree with her on several of her major Supreme Court rulings, I cannot deny that she has been a moderate, reasonable jurist and served our country well. And compared to the last two Chancellors (Kissenger and Thatcher), she is Mother Freakin' Theresa.

So I guess my final opinion is: we could have done much worse. I will just have to wait and see how O'Connor handles her Chancellorship. Good luck, Sandra!

Note: this entry was cross-posted from Politics Schmolitics

Monday, October 03, 2005

Books: "The Pornographers", by NOZAKA Akiyuki

You may recall that last week I took a walk down to Honmoku-hara 16 cho-me, with the express purpose of locating the Naka Ward branch of the Yokohama City Library. Locate the library I did (at last), and upon procuring a library card, I checked out six books. Three were by Western authors, and three were translations of Japanese literary works.

I want to get into the habit of recording my thoughts about books shortly after reading them, and I cannot think of a better place to do this than in my blog, where said observations will be archived for posterity, and may prove useful the people who read my blog as well, in their own quests to find worthwhile reading.

So here is the first of hopefully many entries in the Books series: NOZAKA Akiyuki's "The Pornographers" (野坂昭如著 エロ事師たち). Before discussing the book itself, let me explain the conventions I have employed above. Japanese names are written (as some of you no doubt know) with the family name first and the given name second. Because this is at odds with the Western convention, the Japanese have taken to writing their family name in all capital letters when using the Roman alphabet, so that everyone is sure exactly which name is which. Also, I have defied the MLA / Chicago style guidelines when it comes to representing the title of the book, since my medium is HTML, and links tend to be underlined on web pages. Thus, many people writing for the web use quotes to signify the title of a work, whether that work be a movie, song, book, poem, article, etc. Finally, I have written the author's name (first, which those who can read Japanese will know by the 著 character after the name, as this marks the author in Japanese writing) and book title in the original Japanese.

At this point, it would probably be good to point out that the book deals with pornography and the men who partake of it. While the book itself is certainly not erotica (it is quite satirical and farcical), the more staid readers of my blog may want to give both the book and my remarks about it a miss. You have been warned; if you read on beyond this point and are consequently offended, I disavow all responsibility!

OK, now on to the book itself. The main character, who goes by the nickname Subuyan, is a natural salesman and entrepreneur, who lost both of his parents in The War ("The War", in Japanese literature, always means World War II--other wars are called by name, for example the Sino-Japanese War of 1900 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5). From a meager shack in his hometown, he started harvesting salt from seawater and selling it as a preservative to fishermen, and then moved on to selling fish. From this trade, he made enough money to move up to Osaka, where he, a young man of 20, set up shop as a wheeler-dealer. Finally, he took a sales job with a cash register firm, and then, from there, started selling pornographic pictures, using his sales job as the perfect cover.

Pornography, as it turned out, was our hero's true calling, and by the time the main action of the book takes place (the mid-1906s), he had branched out into re-selling "blue" movies (illegal pornographic films depicting sex explicitly), sex toys, penis enlargers, and entertaining businessmen with fictional tales of his own erotic adventures. He had also found a partner in crime, Banteki, an audio-visual geek who had wired his own apartment building to catch couples in flagrante delicto on audio tape, which he and Subuyan use to create soundtracks for silent blue movies.

It is Banteki who first suggests the idea of the two pornographers making their own blue movies, which serves as the catalyst for the rest of the action in the book, a series of schemes and adventures, each more outlandish than the last. Along the way they enlist the help of several other eccentric chaps: Cocky (no, this has nothing to do with his endowment), who lives in a shack and keeps pet cockroaches in match-boxes; Hack, a pornographic writer who has fallen on hard times since the bottom fell out of the porn book market; Paul, a slick young businessman who has been given the shaft (figuratively) by a perverted doctor who makes his own porno films, starring himself and nurses from his clinic; and Kabo, a naive and simple young man who Subuyan meets while doing a ten-day stint in jail, suspected of distributing pornography.

Subuyan, while leading his motley crew in various pornographic enterprises, becomes quite overcome by delusions of grandeur, coming to consider himself the ultimate humanist, giving his clients a reason to lead their otherwise empty existances. Banteki, on the other hand, really relishes his role as the director of Subuyan's films, and he becomes more and more the artiste. This ultimately creates a conflict between him and Subuyan, as the latter grows bored with more conventional pornography and starts looking for the perfect expression of eroticism. He settles on the orgy as his magnum eros (if you will), and after an imperfect first try, he pulls off a crowning triumph with his second effort (note that he does not participate in these orgies, they are purely for the benefit of humanity as represented by his clients and a hand-picked selection of women) and expires happily several days thereafter.

That is the plot in a nutshell, and it is certainly an engaging one. Coupled (pardon a pun or two, please) with the author's wickedly satirical style, matter-of-fact and measured as it presents a farce beyond belief, the book is utterly compelling. In fact, I finished the 300-page novel the same day I started it.

In addition to being a ripping good yarn, the book serves as an indictment of several more serious establishments, namely postwar Japan, the glorification of capitalism, and delusional humanism. I leave providing evidence of this as an exercise to the reader, as this is my blog, and I paid my dues in various English Literature classes back at the good old College of William and Mary, and I intend not to write critical essays for fun.

My final word on this book? Thumbs up! It is tremendous fun to read, and it might leave you with a bit to think about, if you choose to reflect on it.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Pictures to Prove It, Part II

Mario celebrates his 25th birthday in SibuyaPictures from around Tokyo

Ota, Kohler, Lyani and I prepare for a night of karaoke goodnessPictures from the infamous karaoke outing with Kohler and Ota

Lyani and I relax in Yamashita-koenPictures from Yamashita-koen, a seaside park in Yokohama

Nifty cars spotted around Yokohama and TokyoPictures of various cars that caught my eye

Hot Men's BoxPictures of Engrish: that Japanese version of my beloved mother tongue

Found a Good Job in the City, Workin' for the Man Every Night and Day

I have just accepted an offer from Amazon Japan to join them as a Unix System Administrator! I will start work on November 01, or when I get my working visa, whichever comes first.

To say that the job is in "The City" is a bit of a stretch, though, as I will be working at the Ichikawa Distribution Centre out in Chiba (an eastern suburb of Tokyo). The facility is right on the bayshore, however, and affords excellent views of the Chiba city centre across the water.

I am quite happy to have found a job so quickly, and very excited at the thought of working for Amazon, an excellent company by any standard!