The importance of being an idol

Much like sleeping on the train or eating fermented beans, idols are extremely popular in Japan.

Despite the name, they’ve actually got very little to do with golden calves. They’re actually young women who sing catchy J-pop and appear on TV a lot.

Not strictly relevant.

AKB48 is a good example. It’s a group which, as of April 2011, has 56 members, making it the largest in the world. Here’s about one-third of them:

The great thing is that everyone pulls their weight equally.

AKB48 have sold millions of singles and have a rabid fanbase. They perform every day of the week at their dedicated theatre in Akihabara, an area in Tokyo from which the group gets its name. Other attractions of Akihabara include discount electronic goods and lots of….alternative comics.

 

Modified to protect privacy and dignity.

Another famous idol group are Morning Musume, who are the biggest-selling female group in Japan. They differentiate themselves from their J-pop contemporaries by singing upbeat tunes and performing choreographed dance routines.

Iconoclastic.

Morning Musume are also well-known for making changes to their line-up every year. Given that the group has been going since 1997 it can be difficult to keep track of who’s actually in it. Luckily this graph can help: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Mmchronicle.jpg

Obsessing over idols is nothing new. In fact, Japanese people have been filling their homes with images of their favourite pop stars for years.

See if you can spot this one.

No?


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course.

 

 

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Stuck on my mobile with the Osaifu-Keitai blues again

Japan is a land of restrained elegance. Just have a look at this photo I took last week.

See my Flickr account for more contemporary scenes

Those of you who unfortunate enough not to come from pure samurai stock will be relieved to know that you don’t have to be personally conveyed over watery straits by cheery peasants to experience this rarefied sense of beauty. No, all you have to do is get a Japanese mobile.

Take me as an example. I’m as common as they come (I’m the one in the centre carrying the woman on my shoulders) yet my phone gives me all the sophistication of a young Soseki Natsume; seen here modelling a particularly compact model.

“Moshi moshi….Yes, this is he”

I signed up with Docomo, who are one of the biggest mobile providers in Japan. Given my position in society as a humble person-across-water-carrier I chose the cheapest, most basic package and got the cheapest, most basic phone possible.

Owl cup not included

It’s a stripped down piece of sleek minimalism.

Yes, that is a little sheep butler in the middle of the screen. No, I can’t get rid of him.

I initially thought it might be difficult to use, given all the bells, whistles and sheep butlers. This is not the case however, as the phone handily comes with an in-built English translation function. So using such features as ‘Mail’ ‘LifeKit’  ‘i-concier’ and ‘Osaifu-Keitai’ becomes totally self-explanatory.

About as self-explanatory as Docomo’s recent ad campaign.

That old chesnut

Perhaps the most important feature is that it comes with an 8.1 megapixel camera so that taking photos of mildly amusing things in public becomes that little bit easier.

This was a particularly good mildly amusing blur.

Stay tuned for more.

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The little squiggles that sap your will to live

The Japanese writing system is made up of three different sets of characters, hiragana, katakana and kanji. A certain lack of political correctness aside, the first two are relatively straightforward. They are both a collection of simple characters which correspond to a sound and when placed together they make up full words, just like the Roman alphabet.

You can differentiate kanji from the other two alphabets simply by looking. Basically, they’re the ridiculously complicated-looking squiggles.

Everybody sing! – A,B,C,D,E,F,G……

Although they look very pretty I can assure you that attempting to learn kanji is the worst thing about life in Japan. This is because there is no way of knowing their meaning or even how to pronounce them without a great deal of prior memorisation. Also, most kanji have at least two different totally pronunciations, so correctly reading them requires knowledge both of what the various pronunciations are and which specific one to use in the situation. This is no small task, given that there are thousands of these little squiggles.

The word kanji itself literally means ‘Chinese characters’. This is because they were initially invented by some sadistic bastard in China thousands of years ago before being exported to  Japan.

A sadist hard at work

Perhaps I’m giving too negative a picture. After all, a proportion of kanji* are essentially miniature pictures so if you look closely enough you can easily work out what they mean. Or so the theory goes.

*(about 4 percent)

So we have the kanji for ‘person’

You see.

And then there’s man’s best friend

Uncanny really

Can you guess this one?

It’s a human hand of course! Don’t believe me? Take it from someone who knows about these things…

What’s the Japanese for simplissimo?

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If you go down the woods today try your best not to be savagely murdered

If you have loved ones who live in Japan than you should worry constantly about the very real prospect of them being eaten by bears. Forget radiation, earthquakes and tsunamis, the biggest threat here comes from these furry killing machines. Environmentalists may tell us that if we treat these creatures with enough respect then we’ll be safe, but really this is just propaganda spread by the bears and their ruthlessly efficient PR machine. In fact, the bears are so damn good at manipulating the public that this is their prevalent image amongst the vast majority of people in Japan:

Chilling

So the task of fighting the bear’s lies falls to fearless guerrilla journalists like myself. The truth is simple; all bears are sadistic psychopaths who kill for pleasure. Their lifestyle consists solely of wandering through the forest in a vain attempt to satisfy their bloodlust. The only times a bear will stop killing is when it becomes so exhausted from its murderous rampage that it must rest for an extended period of time, or ‘go into hibernation’ as ‘biologists’/the pro-bear lobby insists on calling it.

Basically, they’re the Charles Manson of the animal kingdom. Have a look and see if you can tell them apart.

Crudely photoshopped images don’t lie

If you’re hiking in Japan you should pay close attention to public maps as they display locations of the most recent bear sightings.

I’ll amend this one to make it a bit clearer…

Three on the loose! God help us

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May your watching-people-watching-trees day be full of people watching trees.

So we’ve come to that time of year when your garden variety ‘my life in Japan’ blog talks about the cherry blossoms and how lovely and pink and flowery they are. I should make clear right now that you’re not going to find any of that here. You see, we’re of the opinion that the whole cherry blossom scene has, frankly speaking, gotten a bit square.

Notice the total absence of cherry blossoms

If we’re going to resurrect the tarnished image of the cherry blossom then we’re going to have to play some serious jazz with the old tired formula. That’s why I propose a radical new face-lift. From this moment on, cherry blossom viewing will be rechristened as ‘the honourable week of people watching people watching trees’.

In years before cyberspace was dogged with photos like this

Change the record grandpa

We now have:

Observe the beautiful way in which the spring sun illuminates his fishing hat

Another fine example

Sympathetically framed in the centre, the blue jeans, taken with the pink of the blossoms and grey of the concrete combine to create a pleasing artistic effect

People who watch trees are a determined bunch, refusing to let a near total lack of light deter them from their chosen vocation.

Where it’s at

Maybe you think that I’m a dreamer, maybe you say that rebranding such an intrinsic part of the national psyche is an impossible task. To that I say, this guy seems to have pulled it off with panache.

Take that, you doubting Thomases

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A salaryman’s castle is his capsule

It’s well-known that Tokyo was, until very recently, the largest city in the world. Unfortunately that’s all changed thanks to last month’s unprecedented nuclear disaster. Today’s visitor won’t find the bustling metropolis of yesteryear but rather a desolate post-apocalyptic ghost town. If you don’t believe me then take this chance to educate yourself: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/3473142/My-nightmare-trapped-in-post-tsunami-Tokyo-City-of-Ghosts.html?OTC-RSS&ATTR=News

I can back this up with my own photographic evidence of this grim scene from Shibuya, captured sometime earlier this week.

Not a soul in sight

In these nightmarish end-times it’s all the more imperative to have a safe place to call your own, and what place could be better than a plastic pod-shaped capsule? It’s obviously an attractive proposition to many people, therefore I attach some pictures of a lovely new property that’s just come on the market.

We begin with a stylish art-deco exterior.

The interior sympathetically carries on these bold architectural themes and comes equipped with all the latest mod cons such as a pillow and lightbulb.

Yes, this is a recent photo

Located within a tight-knit community, the property is easily accessible and provides the height of convenient living. It would ideally suit a buyer who doesn’t do a lot of standing up.

Nasty bumps on the head not covered by our insurance policy

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It’s hip to be circular

It’s generally accepted that knowing your market is critical to the operation of a successful business. Given the very precise nature of this shop’s stock, I’m guessing there’s something the owner of this particular Jimboucho store knows that we don’t.

I guess the panic-buyers are stuck in traffic…

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In every dream home a (bland and functional) heartache

Well it’s been two weeks since the quake and, contrary to conservative estimates, the entire population of Japan hasn’t yet succumbed to radiation poisoning. On the other hand, we’ve been having regular scheduled blackouts most days. They generally last for a period of about three hours and plunge society into total anarchy, as can be seen from this shocking amateur footage.

A poorly illuminated horde of rioters

Nevertheless life must go on, no matter how deteriorated the fabric of society has become. If your taste in home furnishings are anything like mine then a significant portion of that life is probably spent shopping in or dreaming about 無印良品, or MUJI. Its winning combination of blandness and functionality can be found through a handful of stores dotted around a few choice locations in the West and pretty much every settlement in Japan with a population greater than 4.

Halfway there…

The name 無印良品 is read as ‘mujirushi ryouhin’ which catchily translates as ‘unbranded high-quality goods’. They sell a wide variety of fine items, united by the aforementioned combination of winning blandness and functionality. Being a particularly bland and functional person I naturally paid a visit to the Tokyo flagship store near Yurakucho station. Any fears I may have had about the store living up to my bland and functional expectations were assuaged when I saw the entrance.

Bland AND functional!??!

As you would expect, it was like one of the other hundreds of MUJI stores but a bit bigger. Oh, it did have a canteen and an opticians though. It was brilliant. I bought two pens to mark the occasion.

That little bit closer to bland and functional nirvana

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How I learned to stop worrying and love TEPCO

Well, dear friends, this is it, what could very well be my very last post ever. For you see it’s only a matter of time before I succumb to the rising levels of background radiation. The level of atomic material in the atmosphere has increased dramatically over the last 48 hours, at some points reaching twenty-five times that of normal levels.

A completely accurate representation of my apartment building

Currently, the level is 0.000106 millisieverts per hour. Some people may tell you that’s about 1/1000th of the dose per hour you receive from a long-haul flight, or about 1/10000th of a level that may affect human health. Now I’m no scientician, just a concerned Kanto citizen who obsessively checks the rolling news every sixteen seconds, but it seems to me that we’re looking at a full-blown nuclear apocalypse here.

Pray for Japan

Of course I’ve made preparations, but my 7/11 brand surgical mask can’t hold back the fallout forever. Although I’ve accepted my future life as a remorseless road-warrior in the coming dystopian future I do see a silver lining to the current mushroom cloud. Perhaps I’m letting my imagination run away with me here, but then again the study of totally awesome superhero powers is still only a fledgling science. Therefore, we cannot rule the very real possibility that my exposure to unworldly levels of radiation will melt my DNA and I shall emerge as an atomic mutant with the power to write devastatingly brilliant superhuman blogs.

Artist’s rendition of  what we can expect from the new site

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While we wait for the world’s first blog written by a B-movie monster it’s worth remembering the far more pressing issue of the rapidly developing humanitarian crisis in the areas worst affected by the earthquakes and tsunamis. A friend who is living in Tohoku recommends making a donation of either money or resources to one of these two web-sites:

Second Harvest, based in Japan - http://www.2hj.org/

Red Cross in Japan http://www.google.com/crisisresponse/japanquake2011.html

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Who says confronting your own mortality can’t be cute?

Visitors to Japan often remark on the huge number of cute things that are seemingly everywhere.

Typical office scene, somewhere between Sapporo and Naha

Personally speaking, I think people often make too big a deal of this. They are forgetting the important roles that cuteness can fulfil. Just take a look at a leaflet explaining the process of becoming an organ donor and ask yourself how disastrous this piece of public information would be without anything cute on the front.

Doesn’t bear thinking about

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