Sep 9 2014

Blunders cost Japan as they draw with Venezuela

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Yuya Osako was taken off at halftime.

 

YOKOHAMA, Japan, September 9, 2014 – Defensive mistakes spoiled Javier Aguirre’s second game in charge of Japan as his team twice let leads slip away in a 2-2 draw with Venezuela at Nissan Stadium in Yokohama.

After their 2-0 defeat to Uruguay in Sapporo on Friday, Japan started off brightly enough with Keisuke Honda firing just over the bar after 12 seconds. But it was a bit of a false dawn as the first half descended into a scrappy contest.

Venezuela’s Rosales forced Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima into a good save after 11 minutes, while Mario Rondon’s volley went wide in the 24th minute.

Kawashima was again called into action to save from a decent effort by Rondon on the half-hour mark after some some poor play by Hosogai let the Venezuelans in.

Venezuela continued to carve out chances but luckily for Japan the next three went off target.

Japan sparked only occasionally but a nice move in the 38th minute forced a save out of the Venezuela keeper Herndandez.

Aguirre realised changes were necessary at the break and took off the lightweight pair of Yoichiro Kakitani and Yuya Osaka in favour of Shinji Okazaki and Yoshinori Muto.

The change paid off quickly for Japan.

Six minutes into the second half, Muto seized on a poor clearance from Venezuela, sprinted forward 30 meters and rifled in a left-foot shot from just outside the box.

Things were looking up and Maya Yoshida showed his confidence with a superb covering tackle in the 54th minute on Mario Rondon.

But three minutes later his fellow defender Hiroki Mizumoto let him down. The Japanese defender allowed Guerra to rob him of the ball in the middle of the park and after a chase into the box, brought him down.

Rondon stroked the penalty down the middle to make the score 1-1.

Suddenly, the game was livelier. Honda was able to be more involved than the first half when there was no pattern to Japan’s attacking play, Muto was looking confident and Yuto Nagatomo started to make more runs down the left in conjunction with Okazaki.

And it was Okazaki who turned it on for Japan’s second goal in the 67th minute. He sped down the left and put in a hopeful ball to the center where Gaku Shibasaki was on hand to sweep the ball home with a nicely controlled downward shot from 10 meters.

After Vizcarrondo brought down Muto just outside the box, Honda had a chance to put the poor free-kicks from Friday’s game against Uruguay behind him and he did well but saw his shot rebound off the inside of the post.

That was to prove costly when Cichero unleashed a speculative shot at the Japan goal in the 71st minute. Kawashima had it covered all the way but let it slip through his gloves to make the score 2-2.

Kawashima made up for that with a neat save from a Rosales long shot in the 84th minute, but Japan couldn’t pull another goal back and Aguire will have to wait another month for his first win.


Sep 5 2014

Japan lose to Uruguay on Aguirre’s debut

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Tatsuya Sakai loses the ball before Japan’s first goal

 

By Fred Varcoe

SAPPORO, Japan, Sept. 5, 2014 – Javier Aguirre had a disappointing start to his reign as Japan manager after his side lost 2-0 to Uruguay at the Sapporo Dome on Friday.

Japan gifted Uruguay a goal in each half – Edinson Cavani in the 34th minute and Abel Hernandez in the 71st minute – and struggled to create chances.

Aguirre opted to play with Hiroshima’s Yusuke Minagawa up front and a back four of Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida, Tatsuya Sakai and Hiroki Sakai. Masato Morishige and Hajime Hosogai played in front of them, with Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Sporting Lisbon’s Junya Tanaka providing the attacking impetus in midfield.

Japan started brightly enough and were able to keep Uruguay in their half of the pitch for much of the first half. Okazaki had an early but weak shot, while Honda planted the first of a series of free-kicks in the Uruguay wall.

In the 14th minute, Nicolas Lodeiro took a free-kick and Cristian Rodriguez had a free header but put his effort over the bar from 6 meters out.

Okazaki responded with some dazzling work down the left to give Minagawa a similar chance, but the Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker also headed over.

Japan came under pressure around the 25-minute mark and made a couple of very poor defensive headers, a sign of trouble to come as it turned out.

In the 34th minute, Hiroki Sakai played the ball back to his namesake Tatsuya who had the simple job of controlling the ball and getting rid of it as two Uruguayans bore down on him.

Unfortunately, he failed to cushion the ball and let it run to Cavani, who offloaded it to Diego Rolan. Cavani ran for the rebound before squeezing the ball past goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima and a desperate lunge of atonement from Sakai. Japan 0, Uruguay 1.

To be fair, Japan had acquitted themselves decently up to that point and the game was open, perhaps even there to for the taking by whichever team showed a bit of drive and imagination. Tanaka was looking the most likely to do the job for Japan but he didn’t have enough strong support.

Japan need to find another Yasuhito Endo, a player who can take the ball and distribute it with ease. Japan were also missing Makoto Hasebe in defensive midfield and while Morishige did a decent job, Hosogai still has to turn in a convincing performance for the national team.

Tanaka’s last major contribution was a decent 25-meter shot that went straight to Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera. He was replaced by Yoichiro Kakitani with about a quarter of an hour to go.

Before that, Uruguay had gone 2-0 up. Hiroki Sakai, who had one of the first half’s dodgy headers, inexplicable headed a cross back into his own box. Kawashima made a great save from Lodeiro’s fierce shot but Tatsuya Sakai couldn’t clear the ball and Hernandez rushed in to fire it home from close range.

Honda had time to fire his third crap free-kick into the Uruguay wall as Japan resorted to negative play and didn’t look like scoring.

However, in a rare ray of hope, substitute Yoshinori Muto saw a lovely 25-meter volley bounce off the inside of the post in the 88th minute.

Japan weren’t going to get any closer than that and will have to hope for better luck against Venezuela on Tuesday.


Mar 10 2014

Non-ideas for fixing Japan-Korea ties

south-korea-japan-flag

 

By Fred Varcoe

I wrote this as a response to an article by Scott Snyder and Brad Glosserman on Council on Foreign Relations site Asia Unbound in which they explore problems between Japan and its neighbors, starting out with the issue of “national identity.”

“A deeper, and more compelling, dimension of the split between Japan and the ROK as it is currently framed: contradictory conceptions of national identity that stand in the way of reconciliation steps necessary to improve relations.”

 ************************

 The issue of identity is interesting. I would say your average Japanese has a very weak concept of self or identity, even less so when framed in historical terms. The average Japanese person has a poor grasp of history, if any grasp at all. The problem with Japan’s current brand of loud nationalist politicians is that they have the stage and theirs is virtually the only voice out there. So when someone like Prime Minister Abe – as intellectually disadvantaged as a politician can be – says ‘this’ happened in history and we must resist Korea because of it, quite a few Japanese will believe what he is saying because they have no points of reference to refute such claims; because – intellectual capacity notwithstanding – he’s prime minister; and because Japanese have a bad habit of believing anyone who’s always on TV.

The Koreans, on the other hand, have a very powerful sense of self and identity, and a strong sense of history (or should that read ‘injustice’) and did so long before the Japanese annexed their country. The oft-portrayed image of Korea as merely a peasant country prior to (and even during) the 20th century does Koreans a disservice. They have trailed Japan in terms of modernisation in the 20th century, but they have always had a sense of self, a proud history and the ability to make progress.

If anything symbolizes Korea’s relationship with Japan, it is probably the assassination of Queen Min:

“In the fall of 1895, Japanese ambassador to Korea Miura Goro formulated a plan to assassinate Queen Min, a plan that he named ‘Operation Fox Hunt.’ Early in the morning of October 8, 1895, a group of fifty Japanese and Korean assassins launched their assault on Gyeongbokgung Palace. They attacked the queen consort’s sleeping quarters, dragging out the queen and three or four of her attendants. The assassins questioned the women to make sure that they had Queen Min, then slashed them with swords, stripped, and raped them. The Japanese displayed the queen’s dead body to several other foreigners in the area, particularly the Russians, so that they knew their ally was dead, and then carried her body to the forest outside the palace walls. There, the assassins doused Queen Min’s body with kerosene and burned it, scattering her ashes.”

This was followed by annexation and domination as the Japanese forced Koreans to adopt Japanese names and only use the Japanese language as they tried to wipe out Korea’s culture and enslave its population. I don’t think a few new roads, railways and some fancy architecture will compensate for that. And that only ended 70 years ago. This is living memory.

Japan’s sense of victimhood is based entirely on the fact that it lost the war and was humiliated. It’s almost comical how they try to offset decades of rape and pillaging in Asia with the suffering its citizens endured in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki (or was it laughingly called the ‘Peace Museum’ to go along with the Peace Park, etc.?), I wrote: “The only surprising thing about Nagasaki is that foreigners don’t have ‘guilty’ stamped in their passports when they leave.” As a result of Japan’s distorted view of history, most Japanese think that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had nothing to do with what went before. They believe the atomic bombings happened because of American aggression, not because of Japan’s insane rampage through Asia and their attack on Pearl Harbour.

The main missing ingredient necessary to achieve the task of healing the divisions between South Korea and Japan is statesmanship.”

Well, good luck with that one. You’re not wrong. Japan is desperate for a leader and hasn’t had one since … er … never. No matter what he believes personally, a Japanese statesman should not visit Yasukuni Shrine while in office. It doesn’t make any political sense at all. Nationalist Japanese politicians use Yasukuni as a political booster, but for prime ministers, ministers and senior government officials it is self-defeating. It says to Korea, China, etc., ‘You can’t tell us what to do.” It’s more about trying to prove they have big penises, which they don’t. Most Japanese politicians are emasculated by local politics, bureaucrats and inferior intellects. They don’t have the intelligence or the freedom to explore their own thoughts – and that’s probably a good thing.

Korean politicians are characterized by egotism, avarice and regionalism. Right-wing politicians are seen as true defenders of the nation; left-wingers, like the admirable Roh Moo Hyun, are labelled Communists. President Roh offered Korean society hope like no other politician had done before him. He was exploited by those around him and ended up killing himself…

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Roh Moo Hyun

The only person who can help to resolve the historical issues between Korea and Japan is the Emperor of Japan, but he is also constrained by politicians and the bureaucracy. He was invited to Korea for the opening of the 2002 World Cup, but it was never going to happen. So maybe resolution of this issue is also never going to happen.

A ‘no-war statement’ between Korea and Japan? That’s not much of an idea and even if one did materialize it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on.

“Japan should declare its support for the unification of the Korean Peninsula under the Seoul government, a statement that would end speculation about long-term intentions in Tokyo about the fate of the Peninsula.”

Not sure that this wouldn’t be construed as Japan interfering in the internal affairs of Korea. Of course, we’re going off topic here, but Seoul is not the legitimate ruler of the entire Korean Peninsula.

The establishment of “a day for the two countries to jointly commemorate the history of the 20th century without being entrapped by it.”

Another wishy-washy idea that isn’t going to happen. August 15 celebrates liberation for the Korean Peninsula. They’re not going to want to stop celebrating that and why would they? It would be like asking the United States to stop celebrating July 4 (Independence Day) because it offended the British.

For right-wing dingbats like Abe, August 15 is not about reflecting on the war and Japan’s dead soldiers; it’s more about keeping alive an idea that didn’t quite pan out first time around but needs to be remembered for the next time.

abex

Shinzo Abe

In conclusion, the sadness of the conflict between Japan and South Korea is the division that moronic politicians are trying to make between two peoples who are quite comfortable with each other. The liberalisation of Japanese culture in Korea a decade ago and the reverse “Korea boom” in Japan made a huge people-to-people boost in the relationship. The “bottom-up approach” endorsed by Lee Chae-ryung makes sense if only evil politicians would just shut up and do their job of leading their citizens and countries toward a better future.

But I guess that’s not going to happen either.


Oct 17 2013

Tokyo 2020: The Bidding Games

tepco oly

 

By Fred Varcoe

Oh crap! We’ve got the Olympics.

Joy of joys. Hang out the bunting. Let’s have a street party. It’s a good thing, right?

“It is immoral to invite the Olympic Games to Japan where the health environment cannot be secured.” Well, the “loony” left would say that, wouldn’t they? But the “loony lefty” who said this, according to David McNeill’s report in The Independent, was former Japanese ambassador to Switzerland Mitsuhei Murata, who maintains that the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is too unstable to allow a major event such at the Olympics to be held 250 km away.

“A dark cloud looms over Tokyo’s prospects due to an escalating crisis at a stricken nuclear power plant,” a report from Xinhua’s news agency stated before the bid. The joy of Tokyo’s success hasn’t blown the dark cloud away. “Faith in both TEPCO and the government’s ability to disseminate timely and accurate information to the global community, as well as their ability to effectively and definitively contain the crisis, is diminishing,” the report added. Nothing new there.

In the days following Tokyo’s successful bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games, media reports in Japan reminded the people there of the cost of the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Over 16,000 people died with more than 2,000 still missing, presumed dead. The dead won’t benefit from the Olympics, while the living are still struggling to benefit from the world’s generosity following the disaster.

Nearly 300,000 people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures are still living in temporary housing. Some have homes in irradiated areas that they can never return to. They need new homes (they need new lives). Maybe there’s a shortage of construction workers in Japan … There’s obviously not a shortage of money. According to the Asahi Shimbun, around $1 billion of disaster-relief money was spent on unrelated projects, including the counting of sea turtles on beaches. At this rate, the Olympic athletes will have accommodation before the disaster-affected homeless of Tohoku.

Mr. Abe’s alternative truth

Before the vote, the Fukushima crisis was seen as a potentially deciding factor for Tokyo’s bid. As media reports outlined a new crisis with the water tanks at Fukushima, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was despatched to the vote in Buenos Aires to allay the fears of those who might want to vote for Tokyo. But he wasn’t convincing everyone on the home front.

As McNeill wrote in The Independent: “Many have expressed concerns that a litany of crises faced by the Japanese government makes it entirely unsuitable to host such a global event. Experts have blamed Japan’s government and nuclear regulators for taking their eye off the Fukushima clean-up since Mr Abe returned to power late last year.”

Others went even further. Reiji Yoshida wrote in The Japan Times: “One question that emerged among the public immediately after Tokyo won the right to host the 2020 Olympics was whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an incorrect statement, or told an outright lie, about the contaminated water issue at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

“During the Tokyo bid delegation’s final presentation before the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires on Saturday, Abe stressed that the ‘effects from the contaminated water have been perfectly blocked within the (artificial) bay’ of the wrecked nuclear complex, and said ‘the situation is under control.’ …

“Tokyo Electric Power Co. admitted that a lot of water — and probably radioactive materials — was penetrating the fence and pouring into the wider ocean. … TEPCO, based on the findings, concluded that a maximum of 10 trillion becquerels of radioactive strontium-90 and a further 20 trillion becquerels of cesium-137 may have reached the ocean.”

 

anti ol tokyo

 

Tokyo, not Fukushima

But while the shadow of Fukushima hung over the vote, it has to be remembered that it was a vote on Tokyo – not Fukushima and not Japan. The Olympic Games are awarded to a city, not an area or a country, so the response from Tsunekazu Takeda, the head of Tokyo’s Olympic bid, made more sense: “Radiation levels in Tokyo are still the same as in London, New York and Paris.” Takeda told the media there was “nothing to worry about,” a statement that residents of Japan and the surrounding areas might not agree with. Takeda wasn’t lying. There was nothing to worry about at that moment, but there are worrying moments ahead, particularly from November when TEPCO starts to remove spent nuclear fuel rods from the damaged Fukushima power plant. It’s a very risky operation that has some activists painting a doomsday scenario not just for Japan, but for the whole world. This story isn’t over yet.

In reality, that’s another story. Having won the Games, Tokyo can now, hopefully, detach itself from the worries of Fukushima. Winning the Games is a cause for celebration, for both Japan and Tokyo. It’s been a long time coming.

Through the past darkly

Tokyo was initially awarded the Summer Olympic Games in 1940 but that was derailed by World War II. You might wonder what the International Olympic Committee was thinking awarding successive Games (1936 and 1940) to two belligerent, war-mongering states (Germany and Japan). Germany, despite being an economic and political basket case after World War I, was awarded the Games in 1931, just as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were coming to power. The Nazis were already the second-largest political party in Germany and a year later they controlled the Reichstag. By the time Berlin hosted the Games, Hitler was chancellor of Germany and Nazism had spread its ugly shadow across the country.

Tokyo was awarded the Games in 1936, by which time it was already raping and pillaging its way across East Asia and had quit the League of Nations (the forerunner of the United Nations) the year before to facilitate its war-mongering ambitions. Yes, the IOC moves in mysterious ways.

 

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Korean Sohn Kee-Chung won the 1936 Olympic marathon but had to run under the Japanese flag.

 

The IOC remembered Tokyo in 1959 – and curiously forgot all about the Pacific War – when it awarded the city the 1964 Games (Tokyo also bid for the 1960 Games, which went to Rome). While some might have wanted to punish Japan for its conduct pre-1945 – notably China and the two Koreas, who were still alienated from Japan politically – the 1964 Olympics served as a symbolic reintegration of Japan into the civilised world. And Japan responded with a dynamic, high-tech Games and a completely restructured city. Tokyo, in fact, dazzled the world in 1964. North Korea boycotted and Japan’s only hint of politicking came when the Olympic Flame was lit by runner Yoshinori Sakai who was born in Hiroshima the day the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on it.

 

1964 Tokyo Olympics

 

Japan got another Olympics eight years later when Sapporo hosted the Winter Games, and they hosted the Winter Games again in 1998 in Nagano. With the 2020 Games, Japan will have hosted four Olympic Games, third overall and second-most – behind the United States – in the postwar era.

While the Winter Games carry a certain amount of prestige, Japan has been chasing the Summer Games for some time. Nagoya was stunned when it lost out to Seoul for the 1988 Olympic Games as the IOC once again opted to send the event to a country ruled by a murderous dictator (Chun Doo Hwan) just a year after he had slaughtered hundreds, maybe thousands, of civilians in the southern city of Kwangju. Of course, the selection of the host city has not always been untroubled by the exchange of favors and cash and Korea has some notable champions of bribery and corruption. A number of Olympic host cities have been accused of excessive “generosity” – including Nagano whose records were mysteriously burned when this topic came up. The IOC cleaned up its act by making changes to the bidding process, allowing its voters to concentrate on the merits of the bidding cities rather than the perks of their positions. Japan next put Osaka on the bidding list but it was doomed from the start after the IOC criticized the bid.

But 2016 was a different ball game. The Japan Olympic Committee decided to go with Tokyo rather than Fukuoka and Tokyo presented a beautiful bid for the Games. In fact, it earned the top rating from the IOC after the initial evaluation of the four bidding cities: Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Chicago. Tokyo’s advantages were clearly superior to those of its rivals (although in truth any city getting to the final stages of a bid should be able to stage a decent Games). Tokyo claimed 2016 would see “the most compact and efficient Olympic Games ever.” But then the votes came in. Tokyo was third in the first two rounds of voting, meaning it was eliminated behind Rio and Madrid, which in turn was trumped by the allure of Rio de Janeiro and the attraction of seeing the Games in South America for the first time.

Live today, die tomorrow

So what changed for 2020? Bids from Rome, Baku and Doha were eliminated early on, leaving just three cities: Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul. All three had been persistent triers. Madrid had actually won the first vote for 2016, beating Rio by two votes and Tokyo by six. All had attractions but suffered serious blows in the year before the vote. Madrid presented a very economical bid and was attractively placed globally; East Asia is often seen as an unreasonable time zone for broadcasts in the important couch-potato zones of Europe and the Americas, while Europe fits the bill perfectly timewise. Istanbul had the same momentum as Rio in that the Games could be held in a new area, a different (Muslim) culture and in a city that straddles Europe and Asia. Tokyo, meanwhile, had the money, the technology and the best layout for the Games. They all had something going for them.

But then the economic crisis really started to bite in Spain, which saw unemployment reach 25 percent. And some saw Madrid’s $2 billion budget – half that of Tokyo’s – as a sign of weakness. Olympic budgets invariable double, so there were also worries about whether or not Madrid would be able to keep up the payments with the national finances of Spain in such dire straits. Spain probably won on the affability stakes with Prince Felipe and Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the erudite son of the former head of the IOC. Despite its presentable facades, Madrid’s bid was seen to be built on weak foundations and it lost a runoff in the first round after tying on 26 votes with Istanbul; Tokyo got 40 votes.

Istanbul’s budget was a whopping $19 billion, which raised red flags all over the place. Imagine that doubling. Istanbul had the emotional momentum of Rio in that the IOC would like to spread its wings geographically and culturally, but the voters worried about its budget and the ability to deliver on infrastructure as everything would have to be new. That may not have proved fatal had the city not been hit by a wave of riots in the months leading up to the vote, not to mention the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Fukushima spread a cloud of doubt over Japan but unlike the crises in Spain and Turkey, the problem hadn’t directly affected the bidding city. The mere possibility of disaster/Armageddon trumped the ongoing problems in Turkey and Spain. Abe’s PR work really paid off. And so did Tokyo’s.

 

fukushima-daiichi-nuclear-plant

TEPCO’s Fukushima nuclear plant blows up

 

The 2016 bid was seen as spectacular from a technological point of view and drab from an emotional one. Bids need an emotional tone and faces that click with the IOC delegates. The presentations by then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and then-Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara for the 2016 Games were limp at best. The message from Tokyo four years ago was effectively: We build good cars. Ishihara’s successor as governor, Naoki Inose, wasn’t a great improvement and made a couple of serious gaffes, but he didn’t carry Ishihara’s baggage. And, surprisingly, even Abe came over as a likeable chap in his presentation – made in much better English than Hatoyama’s.

And, as Abe shut the door on the horror of Fukushima, Paralympic athlete Mami Sato, also speaking in understandable English, opened the door to the emotions of the earthquake and tsunami, recounting how she didn’t know if her family in Miyagi were dead or alive for six days. Sato emphasized how Japanese athletes had embodied the Olympic spirit by countless visits to those affected by the disaster – and Tokyo’s bid had its emotional connection. As well as a good speech in English by Olympic fencing medallist Yuki Ota, Tokyo got two delightful speeches in French from HIH Princess Takamado and former news presenter Christel Takigawa.

Tokyo also moved out of Japan to spread the word overseas. It launched its candidature file in London rather than in Tokyo and in doing so was able to ride the coattails of a country that was still buzzing from its own wildly successful Olympics. It also campaigned strongly on the domestic front after the IOC had taken a dim view of support figures for 2016 that showed less than half of Tokyo’s population supporting a bid. Of course, half of 35 million is still rather a lot, but the perception was negative and had to be put right. One of the major plus points was the post-London Olympics parade of medallists through Ginza, which attracted half a million people – an astonishing number – and put the feel-good factor back into Tokyo. An IOC poll saw public support at 70 percent at the beginning of this year and a government poll saw that figure rise to 92 percent 10 days before the vote.

Living up to the past

So what does it mean for Tokyo and Japan?

From a sporting point of view, the Olympics represent the ultimate goal for many athletes. From an individual point of view, they aim for the Olympics and a home Olympics focuses that aim and intensifies the purpose. The host country usually increases the number of athletes and the number of medals. In 2008, for example, China fielded 639 athletes at the Beijing Olympics, earning 100 medals and 51 golds. Four years earlier, it had fielded 384 athletes, earning 63 medals and 32 golds. In 2012, Britain fielded 541 athletes for 65 medals and 29 golds, whereas in 2008, it had won 19 golds, 47 medals overall with 313 athletes.

The 1964 Games saw the city of Tokyo transformed. It was transforming itself anyway, but the Olympics provided the impetus to get things done and Tokyo placed priority on improving infrastructure that would assist the Games, including “road, harbour, waterworks development on a considerable scale over a significant area of the city and its environs.” Tokyo venues such as the National Stadium (soon to be rebuilt), Komazawa Sports Park and Yoyogi Gymnasium are still being used today.

 

yoyogi gym

Yoyogi Gymnasium, still in use today

 

If Tokyo wants to live up to its promises in 2020, it need look no further than 1964. Avery Brundage, the President of the IOC in 1964, was fulsome in his praise of Tokyo and the Japanese:

“No country has ever been so thoroughly converted to the Olympic movement. … Every operation had been rehearsed repeatedly until it moved smoothly, effortlessly and with precision. Every difficulty had been anticipated and the result was as near perfection as possible. Even the most callous journalists were impressed, to the extent that one veteran reporter named them the ‘Happy’ Games. This common interest served to submerge political, economic and social differences and to provide an objective shared by all the people of Japan. In Tokyo everyone united to clean, brighten and improve the city and a vast program of public works involving hundreds of millions of dollars was adopted. It remains a much more beautiful and efficient municipality with the handsome sport facilities erected for the Games as permanent civic assets. … The success of this enterprise provided a tremendous stimulus to the morale of the entire country. Japan has demonstrated its capacity to all the world through bringing this greatest of all international spectacles to Asia for the first time and staging it with such unsurpassed precision and distinction. It is certainly the Number One Olympic Nation today.”

As London showed in 2012, the Games can lift a whole country in many ways. According to a British government report published in July, the 2012 Olympic Games provided a £9.9 billion boost to the economy; saw 1.4 million more people playing sport at least once a week than in 2005 when the bid was won; brought £4 billion of investment into London; helped 70,000 workless Londoners into Games-related employment; and projected that the total benefit to the U.K. from hosting London 2012 could reach up to £41 billion by 2020.

Tokyo has just taken the first step. It has a lot of promises to live up to, but it also has a past to learn from. Perhaps it will lead to regeneration on a broader scale. As Olympic host and capital city, it has a responsibility to do things right.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

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Graphic of how the 2020 Olympic Stadium will look

 


Nov 4 2012

Call them Okayama girls

Okayama Castle

 

By Fred Varcoe

I always thought Okayama was a fairly industrial type of place. Still, my opinion was immaterial as it was a place I never stopped at and never thought I’d visit. It’s famous for pink peaches, a green garden, a black castle and some stupid mythical kid (Momotaro, the peach boy), but really it’s just an ordinary provincial town between Kobe and Hiroshima.
I tried to gauge the buzz of the place by engaging in conversation with two very hot schoolgirls. Both had their uniform skirts hoisted high, one had blue contacts and they were good-looking girls.
“Where you going?” I asked casually, detecting that they really wanted to get to know me.
“Station,” came the reply with a giggle. Not a schoolgirl giggle really; childish, yes, but not stupid cute.
“You just finished school?”
“No. Today’s a holiday.”
“But you’re wearing your uniforms. What have you been doing?”
“Playing…”
“In your school uniforms?” My fantasy life flashed before me.
“Yes, we like the uniforms.” So do I, honey.
“I’m heading for Starbucks.” I didn’t want to be too pushy. Play it cool, I thought.
“OK, fuck off.”
Ah, er, OK.
Alright, they didn’t tell me to fuck off directly, but they did in that way that young girls can, and do. They wanted to talk to the gaijin for a minute; that was about as much intercourse as they needed.
They probably weren’t schoolgirl prostitutes and as I only have 1,000 yen to last me for the rest of the year, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. But as I glanced around the streets of Okayama, it seemed to be full of provocatively attired teenagers. Was this place populated entirely by teenage prostitutes or was it my imagination?
Unfortunately, it was my imagination. I mentioned the fact on my Facebook page and my “friends” demanded pictures. Next day, I was ready with my phone camera, but all the teenage prostitutes had gone. In fact, I couldn’t find any prostitutes at all at 10 a.m. Strange town.

 

 

“It’s Saturday night
And I’ve just got paid,
Gonna find a whore
And try to get laid.”

Yes, I’m sure that’s what Bill Haley sung in his famous groundbreaking rock ‘n’ roll classic “Cock Around the Clock.” But it didn’t apply to me, ‘cos it was Thursday night, I hadn’t got paid, I wasn’t trying to find a whore and I never get laid. I’ve just finished my work and I’m plodding along the streets of Okayama. The internet tells me there are two bars that might be of interest to me.

“On weekdays (nights) there is nothing to do, but there are some bars around the main street. Aussie Bar is one of them which is a ‘gaijin bar,’ literally foreigners bar. It’s a friendly Australian bar but not so crowded on weekdays (even weekends recently). Weekends you can go to Club Matador, which is a Latino dance club with English-speaking staff. Friday nights they have salsa parties, which are not crowded, but on Saturday nights every bored foreigner and Japanese ladies who are looking for foreign guys are gathering there. The musics (sic) are South American-based boring stuff, but after few drinks you may like it. The place is hard to find and not so close to the station. It’s somewhere in Tamachi area (adults area).”

Ah, a ringing endorsement in disguise – or in disgust. I hit the streets, walking away from the east side of the station where I’m staying. According to the map, there’s nothing on the west side (although a couple of people I talk to tell me their favorite eating and drinking places are on the west side). I head up the street from my hotel. It seems relatively lively. There’s a couple of late-night coffee shops (they’re even hard to find in Tokyo), some bars and izakaya. Nothing adult. No schoolgirls, not many slutty looking women – in fact, not many people at all. Five minutes up the street, I’m outside the “hard-to-find” Club Matador wondering if I should chance their tempting-looking chicken and chips. Seems surprisingly pricey. Half a chicken and chips is 1,500 yen, 600 yen more than I pay at the press club in Tokyo. Let’s walk some more.
A few yards beyond Club Matador I’m standing on a tree-lined road that is split in two by a narrow, fast-moving river. It’s really very pleasant. That and the trams make the city seem very parochial. It’s like a throwback in time. I’m tempted by the smart-looking tapas bar I see, but that would also involve spending more than I want to. I wander further up the street past a pink-signed soapland advertising some cute local gals, none of whom appear to be teenagers, schoolgirls or partial to clothing. There’s a conveniently placed hotel to the rear. I circle back towards Club Matador and opt to stroll up the road-lined river.

Las Bimbas

Here’s Skippers, obviously trying to look like an English pub – and succeeding until I look at the menu. Pizza, pilaf, chili con carne? I glimpse inside. It looks alright. I’ll check it out another night when I might be in the mood for British pilaf. (I tried; it was closed.) Cafe Gong looks tempting in a dingy kind of way, but I have my walking boots on now and can’t stop. A deluxe darts bar looks OK (they have a Guinness sign outside), as do the modern-looking Agate and Shelter, but I end up outside Club Matador again and I’m hungry. I would really like their chicken and chips – so I order the guacamole plate. It’s barely passable (for 800 yen) and the bimbo next to me insists on nicking some of my doritos. Her (cuter) bimbo friend passes, but smiles in a non-patronising way. (Japanese bimbos are masters in the art of the withering smile; I’m sure they teach it at bimbo school.)
Bimbo 2 works in a dentist’s or is a dentist, or maybe she just likes teeth. Or perhaps she’s offering to clamp her teeth around my …. I really should learn more Japanese. Such faux pas could prove embarrassing. Anyway, it’s Thursday night and the two are out enjoying themselves, which seems to involve trying every cocktail on the menu.
“What’s that?” I inquire of the pink monstrosity in front of B2.
“It’s pink,” she replies.
“OK, but what flavor is it?”
“Errrr…..”
I take a sniff.
She smells nice.
I sniff the drink.
Oh my god.
“It’s strawberry. It’s like a milkshake.”
“It’s got vodka in it,” Ippei, the English-speaking barman tells me.
Ippei is a handsome young chap who looks like he knows the bimbo sisters, or at least wants to undress them. His English isn’t perfect, but he’s very friendly and happy to talk. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much to say. I tell him I was looking for the Aussie Bar, but was told it had closed down. I had asked three women I was working with in Okayama where the best places in town were, in particular the Aussie Bar. It was closed they said. So I asked them where I could go instead.
“To eat?”
“To drink, you know, a bar.”
“…………….”
Clueless. I’m not sure they even knew there was an east side to the station.
Luckily (a relative term in this context), I met Ippei.
“I’m working there tomorrow night,” he says. “Come along.”
Bimbo 1 has a headache, is whining and has decided to fall asleep in her food. I’d asked her what she does for a living.
“Nothing.”
What do you do all day?
“Sleep.”
What do you do at night?
“Drink.”
“Are you a whore?” I imagined a brave version of me asking her.
“Of course I’m a fucking whore, you idiot. Do you think a normal person would dress like this?” I imagined her reply.
“Where’s the Aussie Bar?” I ask Ippei.
“I’ll draw you a map.”
Nice guy.
Fifteen minutes later he presents me with a map on a small but detailed piece of paper. He’s even colored in the river. If I’d had the time, I think he would have built me a three-dimensional mock-up of the area. It’s a very intricate map for something that only needs a few swift strokes of the pen. It turns out all he had to do was say: Go outside, turn left at the river and walk for three minutes.

 

How to get to Aussie Bar

The bimbos are becoming boring. The foxy barmaid is anything but – but she ignores me. Barman No. 2 grudgingly says hello. He says he’s Mexican. All his buddies speak Spanish. One plonks himself down beside me (I think to avoid sitting next to the black guy a few stools up.) I look at him; he looks at his drink. I look at my drink. I look at him again. He looks at his drink. I look at the barmaid. She looks at his drink. Time to leave.

Lowered expectations

“It’s Saturday night and…” I grab Ippei’s map and go in search of the Aussie Bar, which, of course, is just around the corner from everything else.
I cross the main street that leads from the station to the castle.
Everything goes dark. It was like someone had turned off a light switch. If there was actually anything there, I would call it the sleazy part of town. But it was just gloomy. There’s one place near the main street called the ORZ Bar. Is that it? I didn’t actually check what the Aussie Bar was called. You’d expect Waltzing Matilda or Ned Kelly’s Last Stand or the XXXX Bar or the Where the Bloody Hell Are You Bar. I decide the ORZ Bar isn’t it. Shame, it looks quite decent. As I venture further into the gloom, a dull yellow sign appears.
It says: “Aussie Bar.”
Great name.
I lower my expectations.
But it looks like a bar, a British bar really. Ippei is sitting next to the fridge and offers me a stool. He introduces me to the owner, Jason. Pleasant enough.
I’m hungry.
“What’s on the menu, Ippei?”
Not much, as it turns out. Mexican pilaf, chicken and rice, a dog turd and sausages.
The dog turd sounds tempting.
“What kind of sausages do you have, Jason?”
“Err…”
“Are they Japanese, or English style or German frankfurters, or what?”
“Errr… I don’t know. I think they’re Japanese.”
“Yes, I think they’re frankfurters,” Ippei chips in unhelpfully.
“What flavor is the dog turd?”
I need an alternative to unspecified sausages. Rice. You can’t go wrong with rice.
“What’s the Mexican pilaf like? Has it got beans? Is it hot and spicy?”
“Errr….”
“It’s rice,” Ippei explains. “And Mexican.”
And?
“And maybe a little bit spicy, but it’s good.”
“Can you put a dog turd on it?”
“Sure.”
Mexican it is, then.

The Mexican chef tosses rice from the rice cooker into the pan, sprinkles chopped chilis on top and adds some home-spiced chili beans. In a few minutes of crazed flambé culinary magic, he has conjured up a healthy helping of home-cooked soul food to warm my stomach and my heart…

Ippei takes the plastic bag out of the microwave and cuts it open. The brown contents ooze onto a plate, which Ippei serves to me with his ever-cheery smile.
“Mexican pilaf,” he reminds me. It tastes good, but I was so hungry even my toenails would have tasted good.

Nice but Tim

“Here’s another Englishman,” Jason exclaims. “It’s Tim.”
Why, so it is. Never met him before, and within minutes I’m thinking he’s a complete twat. Might be marginally tolerable when he’s not pissed. Drunk, he comes at me with all barrels blazing.
“Writer? I’m a writer, too.”
“What do you write?”
“Oh, everything. You know…”
Er, nope; haven’t got a clue. No matter, he’ll keep talking.
“Do you know there are three ways from which to examine life? Love, justice and pity. These three define everything in life. Take David Beckham. His love of playing for England. The just decision to drop him. And the pity we have for him. You see; love, justice and pity. It defines everything.”
God, I wish I’d met this guy before I’d had that Mexican pilaf. I sense vomit.
Tim’s faux-yakuza shirt and wicker trilby are too close – not to each other, to me. Not only is he trying to ram his cod philosophy into my brain, he’s also trying to ram it down my throat physically. He goes to hug a guy at the bar. Then he comes back to me and makes to try and hug me. I warn him to back off.
“Tell me more about your philosophy, Tim.”
He rants. He’s still too close. This guy is obviously stir crazy. Small towns can do that to you. Luckily, he goes to the bog and the girl at the bar smiles at me. I move. She’s sitting with a guy who surfs and boxes. She works in Starbucks, and makes it sound like a career. Maybe in Okayama, it is. They’re friendly, although Starbucks girl is constantly looking over my shoulder at the entrance as if she’s seeking salvation from another patron as yet unarrived. Surf dude buys me a beer and asks if he can stay at my house in Chiba. I tell him my wife might not approve. He’s a little too insistent. And I don’t want to buy him a drink.
Jason distracts me by introducing Matt, another Englishman. He’s a middle-aged northerner with unfashionable glasses. Wearing an England shirt. He reminds me of a mad, very highly strung former submariner I used to work with in Saudi Arabia. Too wound up. Too intense. But compared to Tim, he’s almost a relief.
Time for a little relief of my own. Reality returns in the bog (luckily Tim’s left it).
What the fucking hell am I doing in a craphole like this? Aussie Bar? Any Aussie Bar that calls itself Aussie Bar is desperately saying to all sane people: Stay the fuck away!
I get the fuck out.

Eureka! Erikas!

Sunday morning. My last full day in Okayama. Time for a latte to sustain me through the afternoon’s work. It’s shopping day in Japan. Lots of girls; not a lot of fashion. Still, it makes pleasant viewing. A girl in a floral dress comes in, gives me a smile. It’s not the “Why the fuck are you looking at me” smile I usually get; it’s more a “Hello, have a nice day” kind of smile. But a genuine one.
Hot chicks in hot-pants waltz by outside the window. My peripheral vision catches a floral dress. It’s sitting next to me. It’s Erika; she’s a bank person. She’s very attractive. She speaks English.

Metal-tipped tentacles spring from her ears, she slices open the top of my head and removes my brain.

Surprisingly, this isn’t true. Erika is simply an angel sent by Bog in heaven to make me like Okayama. She lives half-an-hour out of town with her family and three dogs. She works in a bank. She likes Starbucks. She’s visited England (London, Oxford, Windsor, Canterbury, Salisbury). She wants to speak English with native speakers. She’s so pleasant I’m tempted to ask her what species she is.
She asks what I’ve done in Okayama. I tell her about the previous night’s visit to the Aussie Bar.
“An Aussie bar. Maybe I should go there.”
“NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I suggest lightly.
Don’t you know anywhere else, I ask.
Not surprisingly, she doesn’t. She gets up at 5 a.m., gets to work before 8 a.m., finishes at 5:30 p.m., goes home, eats with her family, plays with her dogs and goes to sleep. In spite of the fact that she’s met me, she has faith in foreigners. She wants to meet her prince, she says.
“Prince Fred of Chiba?” I inquire.
As much as an angel can do it, she gives me the “fuck off” look.
So many Japanese know so little about the places where they live. I wonder if I know that little about England. Well, certainly I do now, but I’ve been out of the country for 30 years. Nevertheless, I know things. When I go to a new town – in any country – I try to walk around it. Sometimes, I walk for hours and hours. I look for restaurants or bars, nooks and crannies, history and schoolgirls. All the things a tourist needs. All the things a resident needs to know. After a two-hour walk around Okayama, I seemed to know more than all the residents I met there. And that happens all the time. I still know dick, but I know more dick than most residents.
But Erika restores my faith in the people of Okayama. I can’t judge the place on the few barflys I’ve met. She’s wholesome and genuine, not stupid and outgoing in a very demure way. I’m not sure she’ll find her prince in Okayama, but I know a few places she needn’t bother looking in.

Molly volley

But she wasn’t the only Erika sending out positives vibes from Okayama. Erika Araki is the captain of the Japan volleyball team and she hails from Okayama. On Saturday, she had been massive in helping Japan overcome the unbeaten Poles in the women’s World Grand Prix.

 

 

Recovering from an injury, she had come off the bench and put on a hero’s performance in front of her family, friends and fans. In fact, the whole team were awesome. They may not be giants on the international sports stage, but this particular group of players – coached by the tight-lipped, but, I suspect, very fucking good Masayoshi Manabe – is a wonderful advert for Japanese women, Japanese athletes and Japanese potential.
Hopefully, Okayama will be inspired by Erika and her teammates. Maybe all Okayama girls should be called Erika.
More likely, they’ll just be called Okayama Girls.
Don’t want to confuse the guys at Aussie Bar.


Oct 30 2012

Stomu Yamash’ta and the sound of Zen

By Fred Varcoe

Stomu Yamashi’ta progressed from being a teenage musical prodigy in the 1960s to arguably the most famous Japanese person on the planet a decade later. Then he gave it all up and went to meditate in a Kyoto monastery for three years. For three decades, the musician that Time magazine once referred to as “the man who has changed the image of percussion” has largely stayed in Kyoto refining his art, refining his life and living in a Zen-like world of sounds and music.
This is not rock ’n’ roll. There’s no record deal, no tour, no merchandise, no groupies. There’s no timeline. Yamash’ta is a point in infinity, a musical shaman, a giver and receiver of life and music.
His most recent tangible product is a double DVD, “Walking on Sound,” in which he collaborates with Icelandic counter-tenor Sverrir Gudjonsson and which is referred to as a “Zen and Viking opera.” The first part is “The Void,” which brings together Yamash’ta’s percussion, Gudjonsson’s singing and vocalising, Syrian soprano Noma, the Irish flute of Dominique Bertrand, the shakuhachi of Genzan Miyoshi and the chanting of four Buddhist monks. The second part is “The Sound of Zen,” largely consisting of Buddhist chants accompanied by Yamash’ta’s percussion, Miyoshi’s shakuhachi and the yokobue of Michiko Akao. Both are live performances recorded at the Saint-Eustache Church in Paris. The other DVD is a documentary of how the performance came together.
At a young age, Yamash’ta’s reputation was established so rapidly that he was in demand the world over from the greatest musicians of his age. His entrée was classical music – he played as a guest with the Kyoto and Osaka Philharmonic Orchestras at the age of 14 – but his musical mind quickly absorbed everything around it, be it jazz, avant garde, rock or the abstract. He defined the role of the solo percussionist and started to improvise and compose, contributing to the soundtracks of movies such as “The Tale of Zatoichi,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “The Devils.” He moved through avant garde to jazz before establishing the Red Buddha Theatre Company to showcase his idea of sounds and vision.
His most visible work in the rock world came in 1976 when he collaborated on the Go project with huge stars such as Steve Winwood (Traffic), Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music), Mike Shrieve (Santana), Klaus Schulze (Can) and Al Di Meola (Return to Forever). Yamash’ta had transformed himself from a classical teenage prodigy into a global rock star.

Giving it all up
Then he gave it all up, returned to Kyoto and stayed at a monastery for three years.
“I came back from Europe when I was at my peak, and many people wondered why I quit and came back to a Buddhist temple, suspending – almost giving up – my career,” Yamash’ta recalls. “I thought I should give up to become zero again, to get hungry again.
“I had to be honest to myself, what I felt. I was too lucky to be able to taste the best of everything, including classical music, contemporary music, jazz-rock fusion. I was able to collaborate with the best. This was a kind of fate and after tasting this kind of pure fate, I had to go back to something totally different, which you could call ‘religion,’ although I don’t like to use that word because it creates misunderstandings. I was glad because I had this almost desperate hunger which made me go to the temple. My father was associated with one of the most famous temples in Kyoto – Toji – and by this luck I found something that I had never experienced in my lifetime before. So it was a really good approach for me.”
In short, Yamash’ta wanted out of the “system.”
“When you become part of a system, at some point we need to make a transition to go to a different level,” Yamash’ta explains. “In today’s reality, we are facing this kind of transition.”
Zen uses meditation as the means to enlightenment and Yamash’ta took a similar path in the temple, which he refers to as “a spiritual environment of humility and innocence.”
“It gave me enormous joy and some kind of answer,” he says. “Suddenly, I could see myself very clearly.”

 


As if by fate, he learned of a stone with amazing sonic properties that was found in the mountains of Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku Island.
“When I met the Sanukite stones, I felt like my life was almost complete,” he says. “Speaking personally, I got my answer to life so I feel I can end it, to depart to a different world. But of course, I am still living here, existing, and the last 25 or 30 years were for me more personal. And this personal thing was wonderful – to be able to spend this time as an artist. I didn’t have to concern myself with social benefit.”
But Yamash’ta doesn’t reject society. Far from it. He is more outgoing than some might think. He may think a lot and meditate a lot, but he laughs a lot and enjoys good company. It’s easy to see that talking – communicating – puts a sparkle in his eye.
“Now, I feel like maybe I’m at my final stage, so from now it’s more like my mission – or whatever I can do – to communicate, to make some kind of function to create a better beauty, and this beauty can lead to a new ‘garden,’ ” he says.

The life and sounds of stone
His musical endeavours over the last quarter of a century have revolved around bringing the Sanukite stones to life. Anyone can bang a drum, but breathing life into inanimate objects takes a belief that the objects really do possess life and power. Yamash’ta caresses his stones and communicates with his stones as if they are alive. For him, they are. They possess life – in their unique sounds and their 20-million-year history. Yamash’ta the percussionist is not a member of a band or orchestra; he does not beat time to someone else’s rhythm. He does not beat time, period. He is a channeler of sounds. He discovers the sounds of the stones. They are not his sounds; they are the stones’ sounds.
“The Void” is a journey through history, through life, and a message of peace and hope for the future. Yamash’ta worries about the younger generation and wishes they could find the awakening that he has experienced over the last three decades.
“Compared to our age, young people have a more established education,” he explains. “They have more information, but being young, the tragedy is they have not had enough experiences that could create a new dimension, and to face a new consciousness; you need knowledge to overcome. You have to filter knowledge through experience. And maybe this is one reason why young people are becoming so inward-looking today.
“I was glad about Steve Jobs’ message: ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish.’ That is very Zen. To understand foolishness is a very, very deep message. I think in the ’60s and ’70s we had a very good kind of foolishness and this opened a new door, a desire to taste humanity. When you hear some of today’s songs, it’s so obvious they have not had good experience. I’m sorry to say they are just singing social information. If they allowed themselves to be more ‘foolish,’ they could find a better approach to create a new artistic scene with coexistence.”
Yamash’ta is no fool, but he has the spirit of a fool – the fool of Shakespearean literature, a fool that has more wisdom than those around him, but which is not always obvious. As in meditation, sometimes you have to close your eyes to see the light.

 


Oct 16 2012

Japan, Korea and the Gangnam void

By Fred Varcoe

There’s something distinctly odd about Japan’s cultural relationship with South Korea. Of course, with around a million Koreans or people of Korean lineage living in Japan (the Koreans would claim around 120 million, but that’s a different story), it should be no surprise that there is a strong link between the two. Head to the area between Shin Okubo/Hyakunin-cho and Kabukicho in Shinjuku Ward and you will be overwhelmed by Koreana. You can’t move for Korean shops, Korean restaurants, Korean pop culture and Korean people.
When I lived in that area between 1987 and 1992, there was nothing there. And I mean nothing. At that time, Japanese culture was effectively banned in South Korea – no pop music, no films, nothing – and it seemed like it was a two-way affair. Japan, too, wasn’t exactly going out of its way to understand the culture of its closest neighbour (despite the presence of plenty of Korean hostesses where I lived).
Following the easing of restrictions on Japanese culture (which was, of course, always available in the bootleg markets of Seoul and other cities), the two countries slowly opened up to each other. Japanese bands were already becoming popular in Korea, while “Winter Sonata” heralded a tsunami of dreadful dramas into Japan. Koreans have become big stars in Japan, while Japanese are free to exploit the smaller Korean market.
Japanese pop fans have realised that Korean bands and stars can out-sing and out-dance the domestic versions (or at least equal the many “Japanese” stars of Korean descent). Other Asian countries have followed suit. The Koreans are everywhere.
PSY is everywhere.

 

 

Who’s he?

The pudgy 34-year-old has taken the world by storm with his quirky dance hit “Gangnam Style,” racking up half a billion views on YouTube and soaring to the top of the charts in the U.K., the United States and a host of other countries. He’s now a worldwide star.
A worldwide star that most people haven’t heard of in Japan.
The anomaly doesn’t make sense. Japan has been mainlining Korean culture for a decade now and doesn’t seem to be able to kick the habit. However, a recent reawakening of the Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute has put the right-wing lunatics back on the street and TV stations have been put under pressure to lay off Korean culture. Even Fuji TV, known as a right-wing channel, was apparently “warned” to be less accommodating to Korean programs and to show more Japanese crap.
Politicians from both countries have fanned the flames in irresponsible ways. South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s ill-advised trip to the islands sparked the latest round of insults and many Japanese have been happy to return the insults with their warped version of history. The Koreans are in possession of the islands and aren’t going to give them up. The Japanese have a weak claim to them and aren’t going to do anything to try and reclaim them, apart from fruitless gestures and ineffective legal measures. So the catcalling is just that.
But it may be that there is some discrimination against PSY for being the world’s most visible Korean. Some people claim not to like “Gangnam Style,” but not many. And it should be right up Japan’s alley – great tune, good beat, stupid dance, funny and fun. What’s not to like?

Some say PSY hasn’t promoted the song in Japan. HELLO!!!?! Half a billion people have seen it on YouTube. It shouldn’t need promoting. It’s a worldwide phenomenon; you’d think that any media organisation must report on it. How could they ignore it? But I haven’t seen it mentioned on Japanese TV (which, admittedly, I try to avoid) and when I polled 50 university students, only one of them knew it – or admitted to knowing it.
PSY reportedly was planning on heading to Japan at the end of September and even planning to do a special Japan version of his song (“Roppongi Style”), but the trip didn’t come off. No reason has been given. One theory is that he was concentrating on doing a deal with Justin Bieber’s management in the U.S. But one factor that may be preventing PSY from coming here is a drugs bust in South Korea in 2001. He was busted for smoking marijuana. Apparently, the usual drill for South Korean parents in such situations is to head down to the cop shop, fall to their knees and beg forgiveness for their child. PSY’s parents apparently just shrugged and said, “Yep, that sounds like our son.”
PSY also had trouble with his compulsory military service. According to Wikipedia:

“PSY served his mandatory military service as a technician in a venture firm from 2003 to 2005. After evidence came to light that revealed that PSY hadn’t properly carried out his duty during his service as a technician, he was re-drafted to serve as a soldier in the ROK Army in August 2007. After being discharged in the summer of 2009, PSY said he had learned a lot through this experience. He said he also felt the weight of his responsibility to his wife and twin daughters, born two months before he headed off to the ROK Army boot camp.”

PSY has been labelled “K-Pop” but he’s not really part of the K-Pop setup. He’s not pretty, he’s not slim, he doesn’t look like he’s been surgically modified and he’s not young – generally prerequisites for success in Japan (and Korea). But he does have talent and has been successful over the years. More to the point, he’s funny and an iconoclast. He gets irony, which the Japanese haven’t managed to invent yet. Maybe the Japanese just don’t get him.

 

Apkujong (no) style

“Gangnam Style” parodies the young, rich and stupid who flash their brand names in the meat markets of Seoul. PSY should know; he’s one of them. Well, he’s a rich, Gangnam boy. Actually, Gangnam is a large area south of the Han River in Seoul. The ground zero for the rich dicks PSY parodies is Apkujong. Here’s what I wrote about Apkujong for The Japan Times 10 years ago:
“Apkujong
Part of the Gangnam area, but merits an entry in its own right as it’s the trendiest part of town. Or, to put it in the vernacular, it’s full of tossers with more money than taste and posers with no taste at all. Apkujong is a little bit Ginza, a little bit Regent’s Street, a little bit Beverly Hills. … While you will still get your hamburger joints (McDonald’s, Kentucky, Hard Rock Cafe, etc.) and family restaurants (Bennigans, Thank God It’s Friday), you can find several classy eating establishments, bars and cafes. Of course, there’s nothing more irritating than seeing a bunch of clueless dorks with cash pretending they’re better than everyone else, but if you can ignore the cream of South Korea’s jerks, you can find some decent food in the area. Apkujong is BIG on fashion designers. You have been warned.”


According to an AP report: “ ‘The song explores South Koreans’ ‘love-hate relationship with Gangnam,’ said Baak Eun-seok, a pop music critic. The rest of South Korea sees Gangnam residents as everything PSY isn’t, he said: good-looking because of plastic surgery, stylish because they can splurge on luxury goods, slim thanks to yoga and personal trainers.
‘PSY looks like a country bumpkin. He’s a far cry from the so-called Gangnam Style,’ Baak said. ‘He’s parodying himself.’ ”

Well, good luck to him. PSY obviously can do without Japan. Japan, on the other hand, desperately needs someone like PSY who can recognize and parody the buffoonery in Japanese society and politics and entertainment. We don’t need no Beat Takeshi, as Pink Floyd might have said. It’s another brick in the wall that Japan loves to live behind.
The world’s gain is Japan’s loss.

 

English Translation of “Gangnam Style” (from the web):

Oppa is Gangnam style
Gangnam style
A girl who is warm and human during the day
A classy girl who know how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee
A girl whose heart gets hotter when night comes
A girl with that kind of twist
I’m a guy
A guy who is as warm as you during the day
A guy who one-shots his coffee before it even cools down
A guy whose heart bursts when night comes
That kind of guy
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Now let’s go until the end
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh
A girl who looks quiet but plays when she plays
A girl who puts her hair down when the right time comes
A girl who covers herself but is more sexy than a girl who bares it all
A sensible girl like that
I’m a guy
A guy who seems calm but plays when he plays
A guy who goes completely crazy when the right time comes
A guy who has bulging ideas rather than muscles
That kind of guy
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Now let’s go until the end
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh
On top of the running man is the flying man, baby baby
I’m a man who knows a thing or two
On top of the running man is the flying man, baby baby
I’m a man who knows a thing or two
You know what I’m saying
Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh


Oct 6 2012

Dealing with Death

 

By Fred Varcoe

I went to my first funeral when I was 38. It was my father’s. I hadn’t had to deal with death up to that point – and I haven’t had to deal with it much since then.
I’ve paid my respects a couple of times in Japan and South Korea, but I wasn’t particularly close to the people involved, or even knew them at all in some cases. Death was distant; it was abstract. I never felt involved. My recent trip to South Korea to take part in my father-in-law’s funeral brought death back into my life.
There have been a few deaths sort of near me – all my grandparents. But they, too, were distant. I only met my grandparents once a year at best; I didn’t know them so well. I was 8 years old when my mother’s mother died (at 58) and vaguely remember going to say goodbye to her as she lay dying at home. Her husband died 10 years later, slightly out of his mind, while my father’s mother succumbed to cancer around the same time. I hadn’t seen either of them for ages. They lived far away, I was a teen at boarding school and nobody in my family really seemed to make an effort to meet up.
But at 23, with one grandparent left, I made a trek across London to see my remaining grandfather. He was 86, and we went down the pub for some gin and fags. He was good company, alert, funny and as down-to-earth as most Cockneys. He drank pink gin – strong pink gin – and we talked about trivial things. He died a few weeks later. I don’t know how; I don’t know what of. I like to think he had a pink gin in one hand and a Woodbine in the other. But having seen him so recently, I felt connected. I wish I had been more connected to all my grandparents. They were a diverse bunch and had so much to offer.
But it was too late.

The day the music died

Death continued to pass me by. Working in Saudi Arabia in the early ’80s, a couple of colleagues died young: one through an ill-judged experiment with nitrous-oxide, the other – a rampant homosexual –from a mysterious disease. Life went on.

One death while I was there did affect me. In December 1980, I bought the Arab News in downtown Taif and took it home. As I entered my bedroom, I glanced at the front page; John Lennon had been assassinated. I was stunned. Perhaps I was more shocked by the fact that I took it personally. It sounds trite, but it was like a part of me had died that day. But it was true. I had grown up with The Beatles. I had bought Please Please Me at the age of 7. I even went to see the movie Help! with my paternal grandmother, another down-to-earth Londoner. The Beatles wrote the soundtrack to so many young lives. We were all emotionally involved.
Fast-forward 22 years to another musician who helped write the soundtrack to my life. Warren was an acquaintance who became a great friend. Like his hero Ray Davies of The Kinks, Warren wrote stories into music – great English pop songs. I used to visit him in Holland when he lived there in the early ’80s. Holland buzzed, and we had a lot of fun. So much fun, it dominated our conversations for the next 20 years. Warren had two Top 10 hits in the U.K. with Bucks Fizz and five minor successes in Japan (I was his agent). He was always first on my list of people to see when I went to the U.K., but with limited time on visits home, I didn’t always see him. At 55, he went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up.

 

Warren on stage in Holland (with ex-Gruppo Sportivo bassist Eric Wehrmeyer)

 

It was like being robbed of my memories. Talking about our rock ‘n’ roll days in Holland kept those days alive, kept us young, kept us alive. Is this what happens? Your friends die and bits of your life just drop off with them? We hadn’t finished reminiscing; that part of our lives still felt so close. Is it now?

A week to the day after Warren’s death, I became a father. Suddenly, life had new meaning. My life. But now I realize the enormity of what I’ve done and nothing horrifies me more than to think that I might not be around to help my daughter grow up. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t expect to live to an old age.

 

Goodbye, Grandad

My Korean father-in-law didn’t have that problem. One of his daughters died young in a car accident, but he had six reserves plus a son. There was a lot of life in the Lee family. A week after his death, there still is.
But saying goodbye to this man – as dignified and well-grounded as my paternal grandfather, who died at exactly the same age, 86 – was a mixture of the grand and the grotesque. And for the first time since I attended my father’s funeral, I was a participant.
With my father’s death, the remoteness was still there. My father died while I was in Japan and I’d been living overseas for 14 years. It took me two days to get home. I didn’t have to deal with the everyday stuff of death. I got home and the funeral was arranged. I saw no dead body. I didn’t feel involved. My mother, brother and sister had to deal with everything; I just had to fly home. On the morning of the funeral, I played golf. Did I appear cynical? I hope not. Golf clears the head and my head needed clearing. I was hiding behind an emotional wall. It wasn’t going to get to me yet. To get to the crematorium, I drove my rental car. I didn’t want to be part of a procession. I was almost in denial as to all of this being real.
But then we were in the crematorium chapel with my father’s coffin on the rollers ready for his final journey to the incinerator. It all came home to me. This was my life. Death was suddenly real. The priest was talking about my father. After a short service, a curtain shielded the coffin as it rolled toward the burners. A door closed. Goodbye, Dad.
And then we were out in the sunshine, drying our tears, saying goodbye to the living, driving home. What do we do now?
Party, of course. Good food, a lot of Champagne and we were living life again. Perhaps it was too easy, too quick. The Koreans have to work a lot harder for their closure.

The long goodbye
My wife’s father died at around 4 a.m. on a Monday morning. I managed to get my wife on a plane to Busan at 2 p.m. on the same day and she was in Daegu by 6. By then, her family were several hours into the ceremonials. They had delayed dressing the body – in front of the family – until she arrived. I’m not sorry I missed it. Curiously, the first things her parents had shown me the first time I went to their house were the clothes they would be dressed in after they were dead. I was under the impression that I would have to help dress the body. This wasn’t the case, partly because I was traveling a day behind my wife, but mainly because the mortuary staff did that. The wife told me it was done very well and with great class. “My father looked very dignified,” she said.
Due to work obligations, I arrived 24 hours behind my wife. I figured that by the time I arrived in the early evening the whole family would soon out of mourning mode and into the food and alcohol.
Wrong!
I was hustled into the mourning area in the basement of a small hospital to pay my respects before the altar that had been set up. You could barely move for flowers.

 

 

I was soon on my knees.
“You have to do two and a half bows,” my brother-in-law informed me.
Well, what’s that? OK, two on my knees, head touching the floor; I get that. But a half bow? Do I get half up and get down again? Or do I get all the way up and bow halfway. I’ll opt for B, Bob. Eerrrck! Wrong! But no big deal.
I was handed a black suit to replace the black suit I was wearing (“It’ll get dirty,” I was told.) and given an oversized white shirt and black tie, identical to the suits and shirts and ties worn by the other five sons-in-law and my wife’s brother. I had to wear a strange tall yellow hat and armband made of linen, which had a single black line running around it. The brother’s had two black lines. South Korea is a Confucianist country; everyone has their rank. I felt like the corporal of death.

 

No, really, it suits you…

In the small altar area, there were seven cushions lined up on each side. Not quite seven brides for seven brothers; there were seven brides for the lone brother and six brothers-in-law. Position was determined by age. I was married to daughter No. 4, so I was fifth in line (the brother was first, of course). The women were lined up in similar order opposite their husbands.
The altar had a smallish picture of the deceased and lots of food and flowers. The primary floral tribute had been provided by the chairman of one of South Korea’s chaebols, an impressive tribute and one of significance. Big wheels are turning.
Mourners flooded in. Mourners were not only those who knew the deceased, but also those connected to the family, so colleagues of the son, sons-in-law and daughters. Some came in groups; others individually. As they entered the mourning area, the family lining each wall would chant “Igo, igo, igo” non-stop, a call to the spirit of the deceased. The chief mourner in the visiting group would make an offering of alcohol and light a stick of incense, followed by the requisite two and a half bows. Then, all the mourners in that group would turn to face the male relatives and both sides would fall to their knees again in a humble bow. Then, they would make to get up, but invariably fall to one knee to offer a message of condolence after being introduced by whoever they knew among the family. They would then put an envelope containing money in a box ($55,000 passed through that box over the three days!). Some would then leave; others would eat and drink at the restaurant adjoining the altar area. They were soon replaced by other mourners. In fact, this had been going on for well over 30 hours by the time I arrived. Nobody had gone home. On the day I arrived, the procession of mourners didn’t finish until after midnight. At 1 a.m., the family ate. Most grabbed two or three hours sleep on the floor. The marathon was not over yet.

 

Waiting for more mourners

The first ceremony of the final day came at 5:45 a.m. The ceremonies were now getting more heart-wrenching for the family. Another ceremony was held in front of the coffin before it was loaded into the massive black Cadillac hearse for a journey to the old man’s home. Another ceremony was held in the yard there with one of the elders from the village leading the prayers.

 

 

Up to this point, things had been moving and dignified; the old man was being sent off with love and affection.

Then we got to the crematorium.

 

At the crematorium

The coffin was unloaded into what appeared to be the tradesman’s entrance. The family was directed to a waiting room. People could watch TV. Soon, we were hustled into a glass-walled viewing room. Beyond the window was the coffin. Beyond the coffin was a line of a dozen doors to what looked like industrial furnaces. It was horribly stark.

 

A door opened and the body was shoved through. It was quick, sudden and shocking. Family members yelped in shock. The furnace door closed and everybody was hustled out to wait.
We waited for over an hour under a hot midday sun. We did lunch. We drank beer. We waited some more.
I went back to the waiting room as it was cooler there. I noticed a bank of TV monitors, each one placed above a photo of those being “processed.” You could watch the furnace doors open and the ashes being wheeled out on a trolley. The picture was fuzzy, thank God.
But then the monitor told us furnace No. 4 was ready and we were hustled back into the glass-walled viewing room. The door opened and a tray of bones was dragged out. The women screamed for their father. Everyone looked on in disbelief.
Originally, the family thought they would stick with tradition and bury the old man on a hill near their house. But South Korea is losing its cultural markers. Modern times require quick and easy solutions to life – and death. The dead don’t need to take up space on a hill.
One or two bones were still identifiable. Two crematorium staff swept everything into a box and brought it over to where the family were watching in a state of shock. I stood well back, holding my daughter for comfort. Everyone was distraught. This was no way to create a final memory of a man revered by his family. This was processing, not healing, not loving, not even remembering. Who’d want to remember this?
The bones were crammed into an urn and handed over. Thanks for your patronage; have a nice day. Er, recommend us to your friends…
The family drove back past the old man’s house and village and up into the hills to a Buddhist temple where his ashes would be enshrined and where the family could find spiritual salvation. Religions require belief and everyone wanted to believe that father was on a journey, and his journey would end peacefully in a sacred place. It was sunny and 33 C; no one had any energy left. A Buddhist priest gave the family the spiritual sustenance they sought. We said our last prayers for the old man’s final journey, bowed to the ground one more time to say goodbye and headed home.

Final resting place

 ****

Later that night, a magpie – a symbol of good luck in Korea – flew onto a wall of the house. He gave the impression he belonged there and looked paternally at the family members clustered behind an open window. He flew into the house and perched high up in the living room. Nobody said anything, but everyone thought the same thing. How could you think otherwise?
After refusing to leave, the fearless widow Lee grabbed the bird and ushered it out. It flew away into the night. She watched it go, saying a final, silent farewell.
Sorry, you don’t live here anymore.

 

 

****


Sep 25 2012

Slash and Burn: Getting a ‘faceover’ in Korea

 

 

By Fred Varcoe

I’ve often wondered why so many South Korean actresses look the same. A South Korean friend once told me that 80 percent of the girls in her high-school class had had cosmetic surgery. And this wasn’t the middle of Seoul; this was smalltown Korea. Cosmetic surgery is huge business in Korea.

But I never expected to experience it myself. Probably because I’m not Korean. For many, having surgery is a routine thing to do. My wife’s had stuff done and her sister and even her mother. I didn’t notice.

At least, I didn’t notice until I checked old photos. My wife had quite significant bags under her eyes and my sister-in-law looked positively worn out. Surgery has taken at least 10 years off their faces; they look great. So they decided that it was my turn next.

I hadn’t thought about it, but they told me I had too many wrinkles around my eyes and my face was getting too lumpy. I got a new pair of glasses and could see they may have a point. And, to be honest, I had thought my face was turning to jello.

But not enough to splash $5,000 on a refit. So my sister-in-law blackmailed and bribed me. “Do it for your daughter,” she said. “She doesn’t want a daddy that looks like a granddaddy. And I’ll pay.” Convincing arguments – so I said yes.

The clinic was at the top of a fairly non-descript building with a vacant shop on the first floor. We were shown into a glass-panelled waiting room. A couple of women staff members looked at my face and talked to my sister-in-law (a lay expert). I got the go-ahead.

A very attractive young lady came in and put big dobs of cream on spots on my face. She was nice. I wish I’d had more spots, but she left.

Then I went to see a doctor. Nobody was speaking English. The doctor prodded my face, consulted with my sister-in-law and said OK. After further relaxation time in the waiting room, I was led to another room and told to take my shoes off and lie down on the surgical table. The doctor came in, told me to close my eyes and started to nuke my face with a laser. You could smell the flesh burning and feel the heat of the laser, which felt similar to the laser that nearly erased Sean Connery’s bollocks in Goldfinger. But after attacking my eight spots, I was led back to the waiting room again, bollocks safely intact.

Then it was time for the main show.

Cosmetic surgery, my arse! The results may be cosmetic, but the surgery is very real.

I’ve had lots of doctors cut me up on the operating table, but I was always asleep. Not this time. I was taken to an realistic-looking surgery, told to take off my shoes, given a pajama top that was too small for me and placed on the operating table. Two big lights shone down at me. First the nurse took my blood pressure. It was high (157/84). My unhealthy lifestyle, I thought. They wrapped the outside of my head and placed a cover over my upper torso that left a hole for my face. Then the nurse started washing my face with iodine.

All this time, my sister-in-law was present to act as interpreter – in Japanese, which didn’t help much as her Japanese is much better than mine. The doctor came in and I was told that they would thread a needle into my skin to allow the areas to be anaesthetized. It might be painful, he added, teaching me the Korean word for pain (paekum). As I was to be cut in four places (two sections of about 3 cm above each eye and two sections right beneath each eye, each about 6 cm), they did this four times. It felt like a big needle being threaded through my skin (mainly because that’s what it was) and it hurt like fuck.

Boom, boom, boom went the beat of my heart. Seriously. Was it my body or my mind reacting to this abuse?

Soon after, I felt the pressure of the scalpel, followed by the flow of blood as they opened up my face. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen after that – and I still don’t know what happened. But it took a long time. I was told they cut out about a centimetre of face from under my eyes, but they were also putting stuff in. There was a machine that seemed to inject something (glue, cement, landfill, botox – I don’t really know, but I suspect botox) into the holes cut in my face. When they did it below the eye, it pressured the eyeball and was very uncomfortable.

I became anxious. My blood pressure rocketed again and my heart was pumping so hard it felt like it was only a matter of time before it burst through my chest. The doctor was so concerned, he recalled my sister-in-law from the waiting room to try and get me to calm down. Eventually, my heart stopped trying to burst through my ribs, but I really wanted the machine to stop injecting me with stuff, because it hurt every time it did.

Finally, I guessed that they were doing some sewing. It was a huge relief. I didn’t want to be skewered or cut or cemented or traumatised any more. And I wanted to make sure the doctor hadn’t glued or sewn my eyes shut.

Then it was all over. I could open my eyes. They didn’t feel happy. The doctor said everything had gone fine. The nurses smiled and took their time cleaning me up, which was the only nice part of the whole two-hour procedure. They gave me a mirror. I looked like Dr. Frankenstein’s first experiment and it seemed I had about 50 stitches in all.

 

 

Before

 

 

My sister-in-law came in. She was enthusiastic, but then spotted a problem. They hadn’t botoxed my forehead as she had requested (it was a bonus procedure). The doctor came back armed with a new syringe and jabbed it into my forehead about 10 times. Thankfully, that was the last procedure. I just wanted to go home and see my daughter.

But she was none too pleased seeing Daddy all bashed up. I told her Daddy had been to see a doctor and his face was painful. I saw a look of worry pass across her face. She wasn’t impressed with the results, but reassured by Mummy, she accepted Daddy’s latest disfigurement.

 

After

 

Daddy wasn’t too sure either, despite the enthusiasm of my wife and her sister. The stitched up scars looked ugly (they always do, of course) and the lasered spots were covered with skin-regeneration tape. I felt like I should be in a circus. But my wife and her sister had already decided we should go on a family trip to Daegu, Pohang and a temple or two. As I wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol during my recovery, I was one of the designated drivers (the other designated driver drank anyway). So, everyone else in Korea would be allowed to view the taped-up foreign monster. My wife had provided me with a pair of sunglasses that covered most of the scars, but I still had a large dressing under each eye. It was hard to eat chewy stuff like meat, so I ended up eating less and drinking less. I was allowed to remove the dressing after a couple of days, but my face was jaundice yellow.

The stitches came out six days after the operation and were removed by a very pleasant nurse who was very deft with the scissors. When I’ve had stitches out before, I’ve almost passed out, so I wasn’t looking forward to it. It took around 20 minutes and I managed not to pass out, just. Everyone was pleased with the results, but for me, it was still too early to tell. Eleven days on, my face was nearly clear and the scars less red, but my face felt tight. One of my friends said it seems like I can’t smile any more. The wrinkles in my forehead have gone.

More likely, they’ve just been paralyzed. According to Wikipedia, “Botulinum toxin is a protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, and is the most powerful neurotoxin ever discovered.” It doesn’t repair your body, it just stops it working. So your frown doesn’t disappear, your frown muscles are zapped so they don’t have any choice but to stop frowning. I had a fair amount of trouble opening my mouth properly when I tried to eat. Six months later, most of my face is working again, but no botox means no youthful veneer. So if I don’t want a forehead that looks like the ocean outside my front door during a typhoon, I gotta go back for more “jab-a-syringe-in-the-ageing-foreigner” torture.

Maybe I’d be better off just adopting a healthy lifestyle.

You’re right; too late.

“Nurse!”

See, it worked…


May 3 2012

‘Jimmy the Greek’

I wrote this song for The Shytots 30 years ago and recorded it for the first time 30 days ago. Great guitar work by my trusty manservant The Hippy.