Thursday 17 March 2011


I first fell in love with Japan when I was twelve years old, nearly three decades ago. I can remember it very distinctly.
Back then I was a quiet child who loved books, and Lego, and Star Wars, and - most of all - videogames. One day in the Summer I opened my copy of 'Computer and Videogames' and saw a special feature on 'Games you'll never play'. It was all about Japan and the Nintendo Entertainment System, and on the right hand side, in a tiny box with a blurry screenshot, was a paragraph - no more than 50 words - describing a game about Godzilla. It looked utterly unremarkable, except that it shipped with a special controller that had a microphone in it, and to make the monster on screen transform or fire lasers you had to shout commands into the microphone: It would hear you and react. I could not believe what I reading; it seemed like the most insane, wonderful thing ever. The article ended with a brief parting shot saying that Japan was full to the brim with things like this, and was a place with a videogame arcade on the corner of every block, and books just full of comics that even grown-ups read. It sounded wonderful.
Five years later, I bought a Sega Megadrive, one of kind imported from Japan a long time before they came to England, from a seedy little shop in The Lanes in Brighton. The games were expensive, and hard to come by (there was no Internet back then) but, by God, they were good. While everyone else played on their Amiga or Atari, I saved the money from my Saturday job and bought obscure, unreviewed games from small listings in the back of magazines: wonderful, arcade-perfect gems like Ghosts'n'Goblins and Thunderforce II, and although the text was in Kanji and I had no idea what was going on and had to learn each menu by trial and error, I loved it all.
From that point on, a little bit of Japan, of Otaku culture, seeped into me and has been a part of me ever since, two decades plus and counting. It's probably not the best way of getting to appreciate a country, it's people or its culture - but I can't help that: that's what happened to me. I started to love Japan from the other side of the world. I never expected to get to visit.
But I did: I was lucky enough to go to Japan in my late twenties, as part of my job, and it was everything I hoped it would be. Vending machines in the street that sold cans of hot coffee, public notices written in the form of cartoons, vendors on the street selling octopus balls, Tanuki statues standing guard outside restaurants, and - at least in Tokyo - a videogame arcade on every corner. And I got to go back there, again and again, with different jobs: it was the business trip I didn't mind taking, the customer visit that I'd tag a days holiday onto the end of. I have never liked a place more, never wished more that I was part of another culture, than when I was standing in Akihabara Electric Town on a Sunday afternoon, watching the neon signs and the milling crowds. I loved it all; the plastic food in restaurant windows, the gachapon machines, the Shinkansen train, the scramble crossing in Shibuya, the ancient wooden temples in Kyoto and the Tokyo subway lines where trains come into stations halfway up the side of buildings.
And I have passed this all on to my children. Eldest sleeps in a Princess Peach T-Shirt, Youngest sleeps with a Cinnamoroll soft toy. Youngest's favourite film is My Neighbor Totoro, and Oldest can probably name over 400 Pokemon, including their moves and evolutions. Their favourite meal is chicken and rice, because that was Hello Kitty's favourite dinner in the DVD I got them. They prefer Nintendo over XBox and Playstation, because they already know that you have to pick a tribe, that it's gameplay over graphics, and that nobody is ever going to face down Shigeru Miyamato in that contest. Their Daddy's love of Japanese gaming culture has seeped into them through their genes, so much so that my wife warned me that one day they will leave us to live in Japan and that it will all be my fault. I took a quiet pride in that possibility. At least they would live somewhere cool...
Then there was an earthquake, and a tsunami, and a nuclear accident, and I quickly realised that I know absolutely nothing about Japan.
This was because of a picture I saw - this picture, in fact, which first caught my eye because a detail looked familiar - a woman on the far left is holding a shopping bag with a picture I recognised; it is Rilakkuma, the 'relax bear', and I recognised it because it was the first soft toy I bought in Japan for my baby daughter. It is the first thing I noticed but it is the least important detail: the picture shows a long, snaking queue of people, waiting in line to try to buy food from a shop with empty shelves. Nobody is pushing, nobody is shoving: they are hungry and their children need to be fed, and as a nation they are facing the worst that both nature and science can throw at them and they are standing in line to wait their turn.
And you see this again and again, example after example, the very best of people in the face of the worst of times. I read today of a Tokyo shopkeeper who accidentally overcharged a foreign visitor, and so cycled to the bus station the next day in the hope of catching his customer before they left his wonderful, bruised country because he wanted to give him the correct change. How can you not respect that?
I am humbled: by the Japanese people's stoicism, their resilience, their order and structure and the respect they show for each other. I realised that have I loved Japanese culture for all my adult life, but I have been doing so for all the wrong reasons.
What I want to say then, is: Japan, I am so very sorry, for what has has happened, and for what is happening to you. I realise that the sadness I feel is meaningless - I have no insight, cannot begin to imagine what you are feeling - but I love you more now than I ever did.
I'm grateful for the impact you've had on my life and and one day - as soon as possible - I'm coming back. We all are - I want my daughters to see you for themselves.

* (Watashi wa hijō ni zan'nendesu) -"I am so very sorry"

Sunday 16 January 2011

The man that my wife dreams of...

The alarm clock makes a horrible shrieking noise. I turn it off and gaze blearily at the grey light filtering through the curtains. It is not even bright enough for the birds to have recognised it as dawn yet, but nonetheless I have to get up, because I have to go to work, and I know that the car will have frozen solid overnight and will require at least twenty minute of rigorous effort to scrape the ice off it. The Wife needs to get up as well, because the children will need to be marshalled through the breakfast/wash/dress process. If left unsupervised they will eventually get up with no problem, but will then simply watch Pokemon cartoons until the sun goes back down again. So I give the duvet-shrouded lump huddled beside me a helpful nudge, just to help get her started, much as you would bump start an old car that fired up a bit unreliably.
"Urgh" she says.
"It is morning, my sweet" I say.
She sits up, and squints around the room unhappily, before finally fixing her gaze on me. "Oh, that's disappointing" she says.
I fumble in my drawer for socks. This is a tedious process. I have about a thousand 'black' socks, and yet incredibly none of them quite match. This is because I am always putting my socks on either in the dark (Winter) or with my eyes crusted over due a cold (Autumn) or hay fever (Summer), or simply scrunched tight in quiet agony due to a hangover (any time of year). This in turn means I am basically careless about making sure the left and right ones match up when I put them on, and so they have all been washed a different number of times, which means they are now all slightly different shades of dark grey. Also, many of them have worn right though, but when I encounter these I am too lazy to throw them away and just throw them back in the drawer, where some have remained now for literally years. This makes the simple act of putting socks on each morning a tombola of frustration, as 50% of the articles in my underwear drawer should really just be taken outside and burnt.
"What is disappointing?" I ask
"I dreamed you were someone else," replies my wife, sadly. "But you're still just you."
A lesser man would be at least a bit wounded by that, by I am made of sterner, or possibly just less caring, stuff.
"Oh yes?" I ask. "Gary Barlow again?"
(At the height of Take That fever - the first time around, back in the early nineties - my wife was delighted to discover that she was born on the same day as Gary Barlow, in the same hospital. As a result she feels that they have, on some level, a connection. I'm glad this belief added some secret spice to her purchase of the cassette single of 'Why can't I wake up with you?' in 1993, but now, nearly twenty years later, I really think she should let go of the idea that their destinies remain inextricably intertwined. This is something she doesn't appear quite ready to give up on just yet, though, if her dreams are anything to go by...)
"No" she says, shaking her head groggily. "It was you. But a much better version of you. A dream version."
Again, some people would regard that as insulting, but happily I am blessed with the cast-iron belief that all those around me, and my wife in particular, are lucky to have me in their lives, regardless of how loudly they may protest the opposite. So instead of taking her comment as a slur on my character, I merely consider it an interesting topic for further discussion while I struggle manfully with my boxer shorts.
"What do you mean? You are already living with the dream version of me," I point out. "In real life."
She laughs hollowly - the laughter of a woman who was one number out for all six balls in the lottery. "The dream version of you was so much better" she says.
I pause, underwear only halfway up. "I don't think that can be possible" I say.
"He really was."
"He was more romantic."
"Uh huh.."
"More...intense. More sophisticated..."
I snort loudly, causing a bubble of early-morning snot to appear briefly in one nostril. She is making the dream version of me sound like a brand of filter coffee. All he seems to be missing is the rich aroma.
"And what did he do, exactly?"
"Not much. He was just there, being thoughtful."
"He sounds dreadful..."
"He was lovely." She is now girlishly hugging her knees in bed. It is faintly nauseating.
"And what did he have to say for himself?"
"He didn't say much. We mostly just communicated on the emotional level. I could tell what he was thinking."
"Can you tell what I'm thinking right now?"
"Yes. And the dream version of you would never be so unpleasant..."
"Tell me, did the dream version of me ever...take it to the bedroom, if you know what I mean?"
"No, he didn't. That was one of the things I liked best about him."
"Perhaps your dream version of me is gay? Anyway here in the real world, your real husband has to go out and earn some money. I'll see you tonight."
"I shall be daydreaming about him," my wife calls after me. "Just so you know. I might have a little affair with him, in my head..."
I don't bother replying to this. In my head I've been carrying on with Winona Rider for the last fifteen years, so it seems only fair.

Sunday 12 December 2010

The evening interrogation: Sheep lips and ghost pudding

My daughters and I have instigated a new game. Or, more correctly, they have instigated a new game, and I have to suffer through it. It is called 'questions at bedtime' and it goes something like this: I read them a story, tell them it is time for bed, kiss them goodnight and make for the door. At this point one of them, in an effort to postpone the moment before I turn off the light and leave them to go to sleep, will say: "Daddy, can I just ask you something?"
This initially seems like reasonable request, so I pause, hand on the light switch, and say: "Yes, of course". This is my first and only mistake, but it is grave one. What then follows is a game of wits: they will a string together a series of infuriating questions, many of which will be gibberish, but for reasons that I cannot properly comprehend, I feel somehow honour-bound to try and answer them. The 'game' ends when either am forced to say "I don't know", or I crack up entirely and start shouting "For God's sake, go to sleep!" It is a game that I always lose. The whole process, frankly, is a specialised form of intellectual torture.
Youngest goes first. She always goes first, because she can soften me up with any kind of nonsense question off the top of her head, giving Eldest the opportunity to then pick holes in whatever I say.
"Daddy," she asks, "Why do we have lips?"
A relatively easy opener, I think. This one I can answer. "To help us speak" I say. "So that we can make lots of different shapes with our mouths to make different noises."
Youngest nods at this, satisfied. Eldest, however, has sensed an opportunity."Why do animals have lips, then?" asks Eldest. "If they are for talking?"
"Um..." I say. Great, I think, one question in, and already I'm struggling.
"Because, Daddy, you know animals can't speak..." she reminds me, in the manner of someone gently chiding a simpleton.
"Yes, but they still communicate..." I insist.
She looks at me with contempt, as if I have somehow let her, myself, and the entire family down with my foolishness. "With their lips?" she asks, in a voice that is heavy with cynicism.
"Ye-es," I say, though now with noticeably less conviction as I am beginning to doubt myself.
"Sheep? Sheep do this?" she asks dubiously. "In a field? Outside? Sheep wrinkle their lips at each other, even though they can't talk?"
"Yes," I say, thinking, Ah, no, that really doesn't sound right at all now. "So that they can make different noises" I add.
"But sheep don't make different noises," she points out. "They just go 'baa'.."
"That's true..." confirms Youngest, in her unappointed role as Chief Fact Corroborator.
"Yes, but I think the 'baa' noises sound different to other sheep" I offer.
"Because of their lips?" asks Youngest
"Yes," I say, though at this point I am now about 95% certain that I am wrong, and I can't think of single earthly reason why sheep should have lips in the first place. It's not like they have much to talk about.
"Are you sure?" ask Eldest, but only because she is still relatively young. In a few years time she will just shout: 'That sounds like bullshit!', which is clearly what she actually means.
"Good night, then" I say brightly, deciding that a swift exit is the best policy
"Daddy, wait, wait!" says Youngest. "Why are animals in zoos?"
Again, on the surface, quite a simple question. "So we can go and see them" I explain.
"Do they go home afterwards? When the zoo shuts?"
"No," I say, realising that she possibly thinks that the cheetahs at Whipsnade are there because it's their job to pace up and down in their enclosure all day, and perhaps that they get to clock off at 5pm and drive home to their families. "They actually live in the zoo."
"Even when the people aren't there?"
"Yes, all the time."
She ponders this. "Don't they get bored?" she asks.
Personally, I tend to think that they do. "Yes, probably." I say, nodding, as if I know this for a fact.
"What do they talk about?"
"They can't talk, sweetheart" I say.
"But they've all got lips. Just like sheep..." points out Eldest, who has been listening carefully and has now masterfully located an inconsistency with my previous statements, which she can now exploit mercilessly. Sometimes she is so like her mother. Nonetheless, I feel a touch of paternal pride: if she can keep this up, a glittering career as a barrister clearly awaits her.
"...and anyway: birds don't have lips, but they can still communicate" she adds.
"Birds have beaks, not lips, Daddy" agrees Youngest gravely, as if I really should have considered this before speaking.
I sigh deeply. I really would very much like to go downstairs and eat my dinner now.
"Birds have tongues, though" I say. "And that's all part of how animals communicate. Lips are just one option."
Eldest looks deeply sceptical, as if I have somehow cheated by holding this fact back.
"No, birds have beaks," insists Youngest. "Not tongues."
This could literally go on all night, I think. "They have beaks and tongues. Now go to sleep" I command, turning off the light and stepping out of the door..
"Daddy, daddy, wait, wait!" shouts Youngest. "I want to know something else!"
I pause on the threshold. "One last question" I say.
"If you go out, and Mummy goes out as well, and nobody is here with us..."
"We won't ever do that, sweetheart. Somebody will always stay with you."
"Yes, yes, but if you did...."
"But we won't. Don't worry."
As it turns out, she is not worried. She has more pressing concerns.
"But if you did...and it was lunchtime, would a ghost appear?"
"No," I say emphatically, "There would be no ghost."
"Well, then - who would make our lunch?"
I pinch the bridge of my nose and realise how tired I am. It is late, I haven't eaten yet, and my four-year old daughter wants reassurance that if we were ever abandon her, we would at least have the decency to first arrange some kind of catering ghost who can rustle up a sandwich.
"It is time for bed now", I say firmly.
"What would a ghost make for lunch, anyway?" asks Eldest. I realise that she is directing this question to her sister, and I am now superfluous.
"Ghost pudding" says Youngest with a speed that suggests she has previously given this topic considerable thought.
Eldest muses on this. "No, that wouldn't work" she says. "Because ghost pudding wouldn't really be there, it would be just be made of air."
"No, it would be made of ghost..." insists Youngest.
Eldest shakes her head. "No, it wouldn't. Any anyway, you only get a ghost when something dies. So you would have to make a pudding and then kill it to get a ghost pudding"
I shut the door on them. I think a large drink to go along with dinner is very much in order.