Archive for the ‘News’ Category

End of the line for Narita’s hovershuttle

September 18, 2013

AAAAA hovershuttle

If ever you’ve flown to or from Japan via Narita Airport’s Terminal 2, you may have had the chance to ride on the shuttle seen in this photo. But you probably won’t get that chance again. The Yomiuri Shimbun reports via The Japan News that this connection between the main and satellite buildings will be shut down this month, after 20 years of operation. (Read the story here.)

I always enjoyed riding it. It operates something like a funicular railway in that its two separate cars are attached to a loop of cable that shuffles them back and forth between the endpoints of its very short route. But I was amazed to learn from the article that the cars have no wheels. They hover on a cushion of air!

Moreover, according to Wikipedia, “The system is made by Nippon Otis Elevator…It is technically (and legally) not a railway, but a horizontal elevator.”

I’ve gone from thinking of the shuttle as cute to thinking of it as totally awesome. But I have no business at the airport this month, so I’ll never see it again.

Birth of a Japanese tornado?

September 4, 2013

Storm wide

“Tornado” in Japanese is 竜巻 tatsumaki, written with a pair of characters that can be read to mean “spinning dragon.”

The other day, I may have photographed a dragon’s egg.

At 1:14 on Monday, September 3, I stepped out the front door of my apartment in Kawaguchi, a northern suburb of Tokyo, and saw an unusual cloud formation on the eastern horizon.

My friend Bill Hark is a veteran storm chaser in the United States. (You can visit his website here and see a short documentary in which he appears here.) This looked like the sort of cloud that might interest him. So, I took two quick photos to send him and then went about my day, running several errands in an area to the west of where I live.

Storm close

Late that evening, I learned that a tornado had hit the town of Koshigaya about 45 minutes after I took the photos. Here’s one view of what the tornado looked like:

You can see more dramatic footage here and some of the damage it did here. You can read about it here. More than 60 people were injured, but fortunately no one was killed.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until a day later that it occurred to me that since Koshigaya is northeast of Kawaguchi, the cloud formation I had photographed might be related to the tornado. It was just south of Koshigaya when I took the pictures, but the storm’s path moved to the northeast.

When I consulted Bill by e-mail, he said, “The formation is a towering cumulus that appears to be on its way to becoming a storm. I don’t know if it became ‘the storm,’ but I think there is a strong possibility.”

He also suggested that I send the photos to the Japan Meteorological Agency. I have done so. Whether the photos show “the storm” or not, I hope their researchers find them to be of some use.

William Blake at a Japanese zoo

May 23, 2013

In “The Tyger,” English poet William Blake (1757–1827) describes the terrible beauty of a graceful but deadly tiger, and wonders how a loving God could have created such a fearsome monster. Here are some key lines:

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?…

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?…

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Now, with those images in mind, watch this chilling video from the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper last summer in which the staff of Tennoji Zoo in Osaka hold a drill to prepare for the terrifying scenario of an escaped tiger running amok in the park.

There’s some very brief dialog in Japanese, but you don’t need to understand the language to understand the action.

Watch it here.

Vikas Swarup at the Japan Writers Conference

November 11, 2012

Vikas Swarup presented a sneak preview of his next novel, “The Accidental Apprentice,” to the Japan Writers Conference in Kyoto yesterday (Nov. 10, 2012). The book will be published in Janaury.

Swarup’s previous novels are “Q&A” (the basis of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”) and “Six Suspects” (which Swarup mentioned is also in the process of becoming a film).

Swarup, appearing at the Japan Writers Conference for a third consecutive year, gave a reading of the opening pages of “The Accidental Apprentice” before taking questions from conference-goers.

It begins with a young Indian woman named Sapna Sinha sitting in a jail cell, reflecting on how she came to be accused of murder. She traces her troubles back to the day when, on a lunch break from her sales job at an electronics store, she visited a temple seeking expiation over a death for which she feels responsible. (It sounded as if this was not the death that led to her murder charge, but presumably all will be made clear as the novel unfolds.) At the temple, an old man plucked her out of the crowd, introduced himself as a fabulously wealthy industrialist whose companies produce everything “from toothpaste to turbines,” and said he wanted to recruit Sapna as his heir — if she would agree to undergo seven tests.  It sounded like a fishy deal, so Sapna sensibly refused. At least, she refused at first…

In the question-and-answer period after the reading, Swarup said he believes it is important to start a story with a strong hook, so readers will stick around to see what happens.

In addition to being a best-selling novelist, Swarup is also the consul-general of India for the Osaka-Kobe area. He therefore referred to himself as a “weekend writer” whose day job keeps him too busy to write during the week. But he cheerily remarked that having a non-writing career freed him from some of the concerns that likely burden full-time fiction writers, such as meeting deadlines or trying to guess the tastes of the market.

All three of his novels so far have been set in India. He said that people in this country sometimes ask why he doesn’t write about Japan. He tells them that if he did, his stories would be all about yakuza gangsters — and his Japanese friends might not like that. But his characters couldn’t be ordinary Japanese people, he says, because they are too nice, calm, polite and orderly to write exciting stories about them.

Spoken like a true diplomat.

A censorship fight over “comfort women”

July 6, 2012

A frail old woman with white hair, a bent back, and a deeply lined face sits by herself in a small, shabby room.

That description would fit several of the black-and-white photos I saw at an exhibition last night in Tokyo. As mundane as the pictures are, certain people strenuously object to their being seen. And that’s why I had to see them.

To get into the exhibition, held on the 28th floor of a Shinjuku office building, I had to wait in a corridor while a uniformed guard used his arm to block the doorway of the small gallery space, allowing people to go in one by one. A woman ahead of me had a very large bag, and he looked inside it before admitting her. Once I got through the door, another guard watched as I walked through a metal detector.

And then I saw a bunch of perfectly ordinary black-and-white portraits of harmless-looking old ladies.

What was the big deal?

A certain number of women, many of them Korean, were forced to work as sex slaves for members of the Japanese military during World War II. They were euphemistically called “comfort women.” The ones who are still alive today are very old. A few of them are the subjects of the photos in this exhibit, taken by photographer Ahn Sehong.

The existence of “comfort women” is an accepted historical fact, but right-wing groups in Japan would prefer to sweep it under the rug.

The Nikon Salon in Shinjuku had planned to display Ahn’s photos, but then canceled its plan. It seems that no clear reason for the cancellation has been given, but you can sample the unofficial speculation and official evasions in coverage by The Japan Times herehere and here, The Wall Street Journal here and here, and Radio Australia here.

Ahn sued, and won. The court ordered Nikon to hold the exhibition after all, and it is now doing so. The show runs through July 9, this coming Monday on the 28th floor of the Shinjuku L Tower, on the west side of Shinjuku Station.

The gallery’s website states, “Although the originally scheduled photo exhibition by Ahn Sehong was canceled for certain reasons, the Tokyo High Court has issued a provisional disposition order allowing the temporary use of the Shinjuku Nikon Salon for Mr. Ahn’s exhibition. In accordance with this provisional disposition, the Shinjuku Nikon Salon will be temporarily used for Mr. Ahn’s exhibition.”

You can see a few of the photos at Ahn’s website, here. The images themselves are not particularly remarkable, but the effort to censor them is outrageous.

Admission to the exhibition is free.

Speech should be, too.

Coca-Cola adds a word to the Japanese language

July 5, 2012

A few weeks ago, I began to notice that some of the Coca-Cola vending machines I saw on the streets in and around Tokyo had a new word painted on them: Ecoru.

Spelled with the Roman letters E, C, and O plus the hiragana character “ru,” this was clearly a verb that meant something along the lines of “to be eco-friendly” or just “to eco.”

Lots of Japanese verbs end in the suffix “-ru.” For example, eat, think, sleep, run, throw, forget, and live are taberu, kangaeru, neru, hashiru, nageru, wasureru and ikiru.

According to “Zakennayo,” a 1995 book on Japanese slang, the Denny’s restaurant chain was such a popular hangout for Japanese teens in those days that they turned its name into a verb: “deniru,” meaning “to do Denny’s.” I never encountered that word in real life myself, but I get the concept. And apparently so does some clever copywriter at the Coca-Cola company.

It seems that the ecoru machines have been around for a couple of years. They involve such eco-tweaks as LED lighting and non-CFC coolants, and they claim to put less strain on the power grid by charging up in the off hours so they don’t have to draw on the public electricity supply during periods of peak demand.

You can find technical details in Japanese at Coca Cola’s website here. It shows that some of the machines even have solar panels on top. I haven’t seen those yet.

Condsidering what a big business vending machines are in Japan, this looks like a step in the right direction.


The plot thickens: A third lover appears

July 2, 2012

In a previous post (here), I wrote about a trademark dispute between the makers of “White Lover” cookies and “Funny Lover” cookies. Now there’s a “Black Lover” on the scene:

White Lovers (Shiroi Koibito) are cookies made by Hokkaido-based Ishiya Co. Funny Lovers (Omoshiroi Koibito) are cookies made by Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. And Black Lovers (Kuroi Koibito) are little bars of chocolate-covered corn made by Hokkaido-based Sapporo Gourmet Foods.

The design on the Black Lover box features the silhouettes of a man and a woman beneath and old-fashioned streetlamp with a block of text hovering above them. I hoped the text would describe some classic old love story, but here’s how I’d translate what it really says: “Grains of love. These are the jewels of a vast land — sweet and crispy snacks of corn and Asahikawa-grown black beans coated in chocolate to fascinate lovers.”

I brought my Black Lovers to the office, ate one, and shared the rest with coworkers — one of whom remarked on their similarity to a “Corn Chocolate” product made by another Hokkaido-based confectioner called Hori. So, in the name of research, I dropped by the Hokkaido antenna shop in Yurakucho, Tokyo, to buy some of those:

They certainly look similar. But to my palate, Corn Chocolate is tastier Black Lovers. The Hori product has a more disctinct corn taste — especially the white chocolate variety, which has a milder-flavored coating.

Considering that Ishiya decided to fight Yoshimoto Kogyou over the Funny Lovers, I wonder what is going on in Hokkaido right now among Ishiya, Hori, and Sapporo Gourmet Foods over the Black Lovers.

Is it sweet love or bitter  hate?

A tiny speck of reality in “Battleship”

May 6, 2012

There’s a tradition in American journalism of using a buzzy topic from pop culture as a jumping-off point to discuss the more serious issues of the day. Having just seen the movie “Battleship,” in which Japan and the United States join forces in a war (against space aliens), I thought I’d try my hand at this type of essay, thinking about what a general American audience may not know but might be interested to learn. Here goes:

How can you be friends with a guy who kicks you in the face the first time you meet him? In the new movie “Battleship,” that is exactly how the relationship between the two main characters begins, yet the eventual buddies – a U.S. Navy officer and his Japanese counterpart – go on to save the world from invading space aliens.

Based on the classic board game of the same name, “Battleship” premiered in Japan in April and opens in America on May 18. It may be a splashy sci-fi action movie, but it also provides an opportunity to reflect on the real-life military alliance between the United States and Japan.

Things get off on the wrong foot between mariners Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) and Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) when Nagata’s foot connects with Hopper’s jaw during an inter-services soccer game near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The blindside kick may not have been intentional, but parallels to the 1941 surprise attack must have been.

Everyone knows what happened after that attack, and how Japan rebuilt its economy from the ashes of World War II. Less well known is that Japan also rebuilt its military to become a sleeping giant in its own right, with more troops, tanks, submarines and fighter planes than Britain, France or Italy.

Such strength is awkward in light of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which renounces “war…and the use or threat of force as a means of settling international disputes” and declares that “land, sea and air forces…will never be maintained.” Officially, Japan doesn’t even have a “military.” Instead, it has “Self-Defense Forces” (SDF), the legitimacy and uses of which are well-worn topics of debate in Japan.

On constitutional grounds, Japan contributed money rather than troops to the 1990-91 Gulf War, only to find itself criticized for “checkbook diplomacy.” Therefore, when the U.S. began fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, Japan dipped a toe in the water by sending Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) ships to support the U.S. Navy with refueling operations in the Indian Ocean – an active role, but deliberately far from combat.

The Indian Ocean program lasted eight years. It ended after the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party lost power in a 2009 election and a new government under the generally more dovish Democratic Party of Japan declined to renew the legislation that authorized it.

The new government also threw into disarray a previously agreed plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station within Okinawa Prefecture, a cluster of small southern islands crowded with U.S. bases. The benefits of the U.S. military presence accrue to Japan as a whole, but the burdens fall mostly on Okinawa. Yukio Hatoyama, the first DPJ prime minister, wanted the air station relocated out of the prefecture altogether.

Even as the Futenma issue strained U.S.-Japanese relations, China—whose military has also grown along with its economy—began aggressively asserting claims to Asian waters where other countries have long-standing interests. Recent provocations include 2010 and 2011 incidents in which Chinese Navy helicopters buzzed MSDF ships while Chinese warships passed between remote Japanese islands. A Chinese fishing vessel in disputed waters even rammed two Japan Coast Guard ships in 2010. The fishing captain was arrested but quickly freed in a political move that did little to placate China, which temporarily cut off vital exports of rare earth minerals to Japan in apparent retaliation.

While such incidents make Japan’s civilian leaders appear feckless, the status of the military has been growing. In 2007, the once lowly Japan Defense Agency was upgraded to a cabinet-level Ministry of Defense. In 2011, Japan established its first overseas military base since the end of World War II, an outpost in Djibouti charged with fighting piracy near Somalia. SDF personnel have also joined U.N. peacekeeping operations in places like South Sudan, even if the infrastructure projects they are working on there are distant from violent border areas. And after last year’s horrific earthquake and tsunami, SDF rescuers were virtually the only arm of the government whose actions earned widespread public approval.

U.S. forces also lent a much-appreciated helping hand after the 2011 disaster, and their cooperation with the SDF is set to grow stronger. A breakthrough in negotiations last month will likely lead to the transfer of 9,000 U.S. Marine Corps personnel out of Okinawa, though many will remain (and the Futenma issue is still not fully resolved). As part of the deal, Japan will help to pay for facilities for the shared use of U.S. and Japanese forces in U.S. territories such as Guam and Tinian Island.

The two nations’ military forces were on alert together last month as they awaited the launch of a North Korean rocket. The SDF intended to shoot it down with Patriot missiles if it threatened Japanese territory. A U.S. satellite observed the April 13 launch, but the failed rocket blew up at such a low altitude that the curve of the Earth hid it from ground-based SDF radar. (In “Battleship,” the alien vessels are also invisible to radar, but Nagata devises a clever way to determine their locations – providing one of the movie’s best sight gags.)

On April 30, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and President Barack Obama met at the White House and expressed in a joint statement their commitment to ensuring “responsible and rule-based” use of the high seas and further strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

As if to put an exclamation mark on that statement, during Noda’s trip to Washington several Chinese Navy warships sailed unannounced through a narrow strait between Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island (about the size of Maine), and Tanegashima, a smaller island that is the launch center for Japan’s space program.

Maybe it isn’t very likely that space aliens will invade the Earth using weapons derived from a Hasbro board game. But the United States and Japan teaming up to face a common threat at sea? That’s not so far-fetched.

Japanese curry: Asteroid memorial

April 5, 2012

What was the first country to land a spacecraft on an asteroid? What was the first country to bring asteroid samples back to Earth? What was the first country to celebrate these achievements with at least four different movies … and a commemorative curry?

The answers are Japan, Japan and of course Japan.

The Japanese space probe Hayabusa was launched in 2003. Its destination, which it reached using cutting-edge ion engines, was the asteroid Itokawa. The asteroid is a peanut-shaped mass of rock and dust about 500 meters long, usually described as being 300 million kilometers from Earth. Just reaching a target of that size at that distance is an amazing feat.

Unfortunately, a lot of things went wrong on the mission. But in most cases, engineers at JAXA (Japan’s space agency) were able to improvise solutions.

The worst problem was that a device meant to collect material from the asteroid malfunctioned. When Hayabusa returned to Earth in 2010, making a fiery landing in Australia, its sample canister appeared to be empty. Microscopic inspection, however, revealed tiny particles of asteroid dust that scientists are continuing to study. Although not the hoped-for treasure trove, it was a historic achievement nonetheless. Itokawa and the moon are the only celestial bodies from which humans have ever managed to bring back any material to Earth.

I recently learned, though a Yomiuri Shimbun article, that the Sunkus convience store chain was selling “Itokawa Curry” for a limited time. A block of rice in the shape of the asteroid was positioned on a plate of curry sauce that represented the darkness of space. Floating in the background were a meatball standing in for Earth and a sliced egg playing the sun. Crowning it all was a bite-sized piece of fried chicken perched on the rice to represent Hayabusa landing on the asteroid. (This is appropriate, given that Hayabusa is named after a bird – albeit a peregrine falcon, not a chicken.)

I was desperate to try this historic dish for myself, and over the past week and a half I have made a total of six visits to four different Sunkus locations, but it wasn’t until yesterday – the very last day of the promotion – that I finally found the coveted curry in stock.

Asteroid sampling tool

In case you’re disappointed at not being able to try it yourself, I can assure you that the flavors were well within the gray middle zone of convenience-store standards and thus totally forgettable. But the symbolism was delicious.

It turns out that this product was meant as a promotion for the Shochiku film company’s new 3-D movie about the Hayabusa mission. It’s called “Okaeri, Hayabusa,” which means “Welcome home, Hayabusa.” Here’s a trailer:

That movie is just the latest of several on the topic. Twentieth Century Fox also came out with a film simply called “Hayabusa,” starring Toshiyuki Nishida, an actor best known for his lead role in the movie series “Tsuri Baka Nisshi” (Diary of a fishing fool). Here’s the trailer:

The Kadokawa film company made a computer-graphic retelling of Hayabusa’s journey called “Hayabusa: Back to the Earth.” The final line of this trailer, “Saa … kairou … natsukashii chikyu ni” (Well … let’s go home … to our fondly remembered Earth) actually chokes me up for some reason. Maybe it’s the accompanying music. Maybe it’s the fact that I actually understood it. Or maybe there was a mood-altering ingredient in that curry. Watch:

The Hayabusa film with the most star power (pun unavoidable) is Toei’s “Hayabusa Harukanaru Kikan” (a title I would roughly translate as “Hayabusa’s homecoming from afar”), with Ken Watanabe as an awkwardly coiffed engineer:

I don’t think any of these movies could be described as massive hits. Does this reflect on their cinematic quality, or were there just too many of them for the market to absorb? Not having actually watched the films, I’ll leave that for others to judge.

Intellectual property fight: A tale of two cookies

December 9, 2011

Last month, Hokkaido-based Ishiya Co. sued Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. for trademark infringement. Ishiya has been selling its “Shiroi Koibito” cookies since 1976, and Yoshimoto Kogyo began selling “Omoshiroi Koibito” cookies last year.

The name of the original cookies means “white lover.” The new cookies have nearly the same name, except that the addition of an extra character at the beginning changes “shiroi” (white) to “omoshiroi” (funny). Yoshimoto Kogyo is an Osaka-based entertainment company best known for its comedians. So if you might find a “white” lover in snowy Hokkaido, perhaps you’d find a “funny” lover in Osaka.

Shiroi Koibito cookies are famous in Japan. If one of your coworkers in this country takes a trip to Hokkaido, there’s a good chance they’ll bring Shiroi Koibito cookies back as an omiyage treat. According to an article in The Daily Yomiuri, the Shiroi Koibito name has been trademarked since 1980, and its packaging has been trademarked since 2004. The brand managed to maintain its popularity even after an expiration-date mislabelling scandal described in a Japan Times article from 2008. According to an article in the Mainichi Daily News, Ishiya sold 7.2 billion yen (more than 90 million U.S. dollars) worth of the cookies in fiscal 2010.

Ishiya says some people have accidentally purchased Omoshiroi Koibito cookies after mistaking them for Shiroi Koibito cookes. It is easy to see how this might happen. The name of the new cookies is nearly identical to the original cookies, and the packaging is extremely similar.

However, a spokesperson for Yoshimoto Kogyo said the company was “bewildered” by the lawsuit against it. Perhaps this remark was meant to be omoshiroi.

The packaging may be confusingly similar, but the cookies are surprisingly different.

One of my coworkers brought a box of each type to the office recently, and I sampled them both. Ishiya’s original Shiroi Koibito is the small square cookie in the photo above. It consists of two buttery langue de chat cookies, baked until brown at the edges, sandwiching a small tablet of either white or dark chocolate. Yoshimoto Kogyo’s Omoshiroi Koibito is the large round cookie. It consists of two thin waffle cookies sandwiching a layer of maple cream that smelled and tasted like it was artificial.

I don’t claim to be an authority Japanese intellectual property law, but I am interested in seeing how this case plays out in court. My gut tells me Ishiya should win.

My taste buds tell me they already have.