Aug 23 2020

The moustache that offended Korea


By Fred Varcoe

Korea, how can I offend thee?
Pretty easily, as it turns out. Just grow a moustache. The Guardian reported a few months ago that “Harry Harris’s facial hair is vying with denuclearisation as the defining theme of his tenure as U.S. ambassador to South Korea.” Seriously, Korea? I think you can do better than that.
Of course you can. In October last year, The Guardian reported, “South Korea is intensifying its campaign to ban the Japanese ‘rising sun’ flag from being displayed at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, in the latest diplomatic row linked to the countries’ bitter wartime history.”
Meanwhile, Japan Today reported that Seoul and Busan were to pass a bill to boycott Japanese companies they feel are guilty of “war crimes.”
And, of course, Korea is permanently mortified by the denials of wartime atrocities by Japanese right-leaning politicians such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and, well, all of them really.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to find a more odious bunch of war-crime apologists than Japan’s blinkered “conservatives,” but Korea’s knee-jerk reactions don’t do anything to resolve diplomatic tension or, indeed, practical issues such as compensation for Japan’s wartime sex slaves. And yes, you should be offended every time you hear them referred to as “Comfort Women.” Of course, Korea is not alone at being offended. In December, Kyodo News reported: “Japanese and South Korean lawmakers will cancel their annual meeting aimed at deepening bilateral ties this year following a controversial remark by a Korean lawmaker on Japan’s emperor.”
Japan objected to South Korea’s National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee Sang’s suggestion in February that it would be a nice idea if then-Emperor Akihito would apologize for the “sins” of his father, the sex slaves and any other thing that offended Korea in the previous 100 years or so.
Moon was 100 percent right to make his suggestion.
Those of us who have studied the guarded remarks of the Imperial family are convinced that the now Emperor Emeritus – he abdicated last year – would relish the chance.
In conversations with Korean Embassy officials in Japan, I have suggested many times that Japan’s Emperor should visit Korea. The government of Korea does not need to demand or even suggest that the Emperor Emeritus or the current Emperor, Naruhito, make an apology. That will happen simply because both emperors understand history and understand humanity.
Korea has to do one thing above all others: Get the current Emperor or the Emperor Emeritus to visit Korea.
The opportunity was missed in 2002 when it was suggested that Emperor Akihito visit Korea for the opening of the FIFA World Cup. With Akihito retired and a forward-thinking Naruhito in his place, now is as good a time for Korea to obtain an apology from someone who matters and who won’t withdraw it when political disputes arise.
Asking the government of Japan for an apology is a waste of time, partly because they are so easy to get and partly because they are absolutely meaningless. Wikipedia has a page titled, List of war apology statements issued by Japan, a sad indication of how facile they are.
The Emperor formerly known as Akihito has made a number of remarks that suggest he despises the likes of Abe, his right-wing ministers and the far right in Japan. Most astonishing of all was his declaration in 2001 when he said: “I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea, given the fact that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of Emperor Kammu was of the line of King Muryong of Paekche.”
In relation to Confucian and Buddhist teaching and cultural aspects, Akihito added: “I believe it was fortunate to see such culture and skills transmitted from Korea to Japan.”
You would think that would set off a genealogical and cultural bomb in Japan. But, of course, almost none of the media in Japan reported the remarks in detail.
Being offended by Japan’s refusal to acknowledge its war crimes is easy enough, but essentially futile. One alternative is just to ignore Japan and its haters. It would probably have as much effect. Many commentators in the West are frustrated by the ease with which Korea becomes offended, with the result that many think Korea is in the wrong to pursue claims against Japan when quite clearly it isn’t.
The hurt that Korea feels often results in damage to the relationship between the two countries at a human level. It’s quite shocking to see Korea cancel trips to Korea by Japanese schoolchildren, academics, etc., when this is the kind of interpersonal communication that can enlighten the Japanese and actually change people’s perspectives. Korea’s soft power – food, fashion, pop groups, TV, etc. – has had an extraordinarily positive effect on the way the people in Japan view Korea.
There is one wartime memory in the West that is inviolable and from which Korea can take a lesson: The Holocaust.
Let’s not equate the two. While Japan did carry out a form of ethnic cleansing, it was never as forensic as Germany and the Holocaust.
But who would deny the Holocaust?
In Europe, none but the most virulent of haters. And if they do, they face criminal prosecution. Most countries in Europe have laws making Holocaust denial a criminal offence.
So, my final suggestion to Korea is to take a leaf out of Europe’s book and make the denial of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery a criminal offence.
Ambassador Harris’s moustache may be no more – he recently shaved it off – but that won’t stop Koreans being offended by the memory of it.


Jan 20 2020

Japan’s brutal police state: 45 days in the hole for walking into a lobby

 

By Fred Varcoe

Prosecutors demanded that Australian Scott McIntyre be imprisoned for six months for walking into a lobby.

Much to their disgust, they had to be satisfied with torturing him for 45 days and giving him a suspended sentence. Because he walked into the lobby of the building where he believed his kidnapped children were being held. Two minutes of parental concern translated into 45 days of life on the chain gang.
Scott’s two children were born in Australia and spent the first half of their lives there. The family moved back to Japan, but Scott and his wife didn’t get along and she started divorce proceedings. The children were 10 and 7 at the time. In May 2019, Scott’s wife disappeared with the children after a visit to their in-laws who lived 100 meters down the street. He was unable to find them or see them. Child abduction is against the law in Japan and runs counter to a United Nations convention that Japan has signed. But in Japan, it’s a regular occurrence and one that rarely gets punished. And one the police don’t want to get involved … unless a foreign dad walks into a lobby.
After a couple of seriously violent typhoons, Scott wanted to make sure his kids were safe, so he went to his in-laws’ apartment building and gained access when a resident came out. He wasn’t able to find out anything about his kids and left the building after a couple of minutes. The police arrested him.
One. Month. Later.
Bad enough, you might think. But it gets much worse.
In a civilized country, the cops might have given Scott a warning. More likely, they wouldn’t have bothered. In fact, in a civilized country, the cops would have gone after the wife for abduction and the in-laws for conspiracy to kidnap children. Remember, the couple were still married and the wife had no right to abduct her children and prevent Scott from seeing them. What if she was a lunatic and child abuser? Apparently, that’s OK, just as long as she’s Japanese and doesn’t walk into a lobby. If you think having your children kidnapped is bad enough, then obviously you haven’t been arrested in Japan for walking into a lobby.
Scott McIntyre held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan after his release. Reuters, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal showed up, but no Japanese media. Which was a shame because he had plenty to say.

The Ghosn treatment
‘I was subjected to the same treatment as Carlos Ghosn was with the use of 24-hour light, which is classified by both the United Nations and Amnesty International as a method of torture. On three separate occasions I asked to make a formal complaint that I was being tortured and I was told that nothing would be done and if I complained further, I would be placed in solitary confinement or a strait jacket. These are not the marks of a modern, civilized nation and also bring shame on the nation of Japan and should be immediately ended, not just for myself but for the 95 percent of detainees and prisoners who are Japanese and who also don’t have a voice in this issue.’
‘I did 45 days detention for a minute of just going into the lobby of my parents-in-law’s apartment to try and see if my children were safe after a natural disaster. I was handcuffed and put in a four-by-three tatami-mat cell. I shared a cell with several murderers, with a rapist, with a pedophile, with a violent armed robber, with various yakuza. This is unusual for someone on a trespassing charge to be put in these kinds of situations.’
‘This is the image that Japan is portraying to the world ahead of hosting the Olympics, that they’re allowing abductions of children to happen and what I believe and what Amnesty International believe is torture for people in detention. Their own people are being tortured in detention. You can understand why if I had $20 million and a private jet and a big drum case, I would be out to Lebanon as well, because why would you want to stay here and suffer under these conditions?’
‘I was not allowed to exercise daily and when I complained about that, I was threatened with isolation and with the strait jacket. In Kosuge, where Carlos Ghosn was held, we were not permitted to stand up in the cell, so you have to sit at a table. You were not allowed to lean against the wall. So that was 23 and a half hours a day of sitting on the floor. You could lie down for a two-hour nap period in the afternoon and you could lie down at night, but during the day you had to remain seated at the desk, and over the nine-day New Year period, there was no exercise. So, for nine days, it was either lying asleep or sitting on the floor either seizan style or with crossed legs on the tatami.’
‘I made three separate complaints about what I explained to them was torture and was not permitted under Amnesty International and U.N. regulations and, as I said before, I was told this is just my opinion that this is Japanese law and this is the way things are done in Japan and if I made any further complaints about it I was threatened with either being placed in an isolation cell or with a strait jacket. I complained about the use of 24-hour light. The lights remained on and it’s impossible to sleep. I haven’t slept properly since November. I was fortunate to only have 45 days. You can only sleep for maybe an hour at a time. What does that do to people mentally? It’s like the night of the Walking Dead. People are walking around like zombies. You can’t have clarity of thought.’
‘I met so many people, other detainees and prisoners, who openly said to me: ‘I didn’t do what they are accusing me of doing but I’ll confess because I’m told if I confess, I’ll get half the sentence. If I fight it, I’ll get 10 years. If I confess, I’ll get five years.’ As Carlos Ghosn mentioned in his press conference, Japan has a conviction rate of 99.4 percent. This is not normal. This is not normal in any country.’
‘Japan uses this as a way of showing how safe and how efficient their system is, but I know from my experience, because I was told directly by so many inmates, ‘We didn’t do what they said we did but we’re confessing just to get out and we were told by prosecutors if we confess we will get a substantially lower sentence.’ This I was told directly by multiple prisoners that I was being held with. During the interviews I had – I think it was three interviews with the police and three or four with the prosecutors – at not one of those interviews was a lawyer present at any point in time, which I think is also an accepted practice.’

The chain gang
Both inside and outside the detention center, things weren’t going well for Scott. ‘When you’re moved, you’re moved in handcuffs and you’re tethered with rope to other prisoners, anywhere up to a dozen other prisoners. This is unacceptable, but it’s certainly not acceptable for a father who is trying to ascertain if his children are alive or dead.’
Not content with messing up his life, the police were also complicit in messing up his apartment.
‘Three days after I was detained, I managed to pass the key to my apartment to a friend of mine. When she opened the door of the apartment, the apartment was completely trashed. There was rubbish and garbage all over the floor and multiple items had been removed from the house. She went back two days later and everything was gone. All of my children’s belongings were removed from the house, my children’s books, their desks, their chairs, their toys. All of their photographs were gone, boxes containing little memories of them were all gone, the vast majority of my property was gone. I’ve managed to borrow a suit from a friend and bought a T-shirt from UniQlo, but outside of this I have almost nothing. The fridge was taken, the washing machine was taken, the television was taken. Almost all of my property was taken from my apartment.’
‘I don’t know who came into my apartment but there’s only two people that had a key to that apartment, me and my wife, and there was no sign of forced entry. Someone came into my apartment three days after I was detained and I want to know how they knew I was detained. Who from the police is informing people that I was detained? I made a complaint immediately to the police that everything had been removed from my apartment and I want to make a complaint of theft. I was told they would do nothing. My children were taken, my children’s memories were taken and now everything has been taken from me.’

It’s a family affair
‘So, now this ordeal for me is over but it’s not over for the children. I have to start again. I have nothing. And this all for trying to find my children who were taken from me against my will. I was told we won’t do anything for you; this is a simple family matter and simple family dispute. So, if it’s a simple family matter and simple family dispute, why, when I go to the apartment of the parents-in-law who are family, why am I arrested? Why are they supporting one element of the family but they are not supporting the other element of the family? Things are not equal, things are not just and as you know, as with so many parents, we go to the police. I went with a copy of the law. ‘This is the law of Japan, you must investigate.’ They said, ‘Go away. We will not investigate. I went more than a dozen times. It’s not acceptable. The police are obliged to investigate.’
‘What I would like to see the police do is put in the amount of effort they put in to investigating a two-minute trespassing in which I didn’t talk to anybody, I didn’t touch anything, I didn’t damage anything. I went in to look if my children’s umbrellas or shoes were there and I immediately left. It was no more than one or two minutes. The amount of effort they put into that they could have put the same amount of effort and work into investigating the claims I’d made of kidnapping and abduction but which they refused. What I want them to do now is to investigate equally the theft and removal of all of my children’s and my property from my apartment. It’s now time for the police to show they treat everybody fairly and equally. If they are going to investigate trespassing, then I want them to investigate why 90 percent of the things from my house were removed.’
‘In many cases in my experience in Japan, children are viewed almost not as a human. In this case, they are almost viewed as a marital asset, as property to be removed and distributed. In Japan, as soon as divorce is finalized, one of the parents is removed from the family register. You’re obliterated. You’re not longer a parent. If the parent remarries, the new partner has the chance to officially become a father or mother of your children and you have no rights. It’s not normal in most countries and this is why we keep coming back to the same thing – just change the law to joint custody. We want the family court to move things quickly. It’s not good enough – nine months on average for someone to see their children. It’s not good enough for 70 percent of parents to never, ever, for the rest of their life, see their children. It’s an abuse. It’s a human rights abuse against children, 100,000 children a year, and in my opinion, it’s one of the biggest human rights abuses anywhere on the planet that 100,000 children are being denied basic fundamental human rights by multiple organs of the Japanese state.’

The dehumanizers

It should be completely embarrassing for Japan to have a Wikipedia page titled ‘International child abduction in Japan,’ and for there to be websites such as bachome.org and japanchildabduction.org dedicated to child kidnappings in Japan. Japan was horrified by the abduction of its citizens by North Korea, but it seems to have no qualms about its own citizens stealing children. The United States put Japan on a blacklist of countries showing non-compliance with the Hague Convention on parental abduction. It removed Japan from its blacklist in the same month that Scott McIntyre’s wife kidnapped his children, despite State Department concerns ‘about both the lack of effective mechanisms for the enforcement of Convention orders and the sizable number of pre-Convention abduction cases.’ The move was criticized by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, who stated: ‘It cannot be denied that the Japanese government has done little to help reunite those American children who have been separated from their left-behind parents.’

The police state of Japan fits right in with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to relive the glories of its militarist past. The wartime and pre-war military ‘thought police,’ the Kempeitai, struck fear into the hearts of Japan’s ordinary men and women. The current judicial system, including its police and prosecutors, aims to do the same. It’s ironic that the West tried to dehumanize the Japanese for their savagery during the Pacific War, when in fact the Japanese – led by the Japanese state – are perfectly capable of dehumanizing themselves.


Oct 14 2014

Neymar scores four against Japan

IMG00820

 

By FRED VARCOE

SINGAPORE, October 14, 2014 – Brazil striker Neymar gave a masterclass in finishing on Tuesday, scoring all four goals as Brazil beat Japan 4-0 in Singapore.

It was always going to be tough for Javier Aguirre’s team against a strong Brazil lineup, but the Mexican manager fielded a very experimental team with only two regulars – striker Shinji Okazaki and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima – in his lineup.

Early signs were good but on a simply dreadful pitch at Singapore’s national stadium, it was never going to be easy and Japan weren’t helped by some poor defending from Taishi Taguchi, who had a terrible game.

Neymar was into his stride early, claiming a penalty in the first few minutes and then forcing a foul as three Japanese defenders struggled to contain him. Neymar sent the free-kick against the post from 20 meters, delaying his inevitable appearance on the scoresheet.

That came soon enough. In the 21st minute, Neymar escaped the dozy defending of the Japanese backline, took the ball wide of Kawashima and drilled a shot into the roof of the net.

Neymar rifles in his first goal

Neymar slides in his second goal

 

Japan had their chances but struggled to find the target. Kobayashi saw a neat 10-meter volley flash past the post in the 24th minute, a strong shot from Gaku Shibasaki flew over the bar six minutes later and Okazaki sent a glancing header wide five minutes after that.

A Junya Tanaka half-chance was desperately cleared by Brazil just before halftime, but defender Shiotani didn’t have the composure to put the rebound on target, allowing Brazil to go into the break 1-0 ahead.

Aguirre brought on Keisuke Honda for largely anonymous Ryota Morioka at halftime, but the first action of the second half saw Brazil go 2-0 up.

More useless defending by Taguchi allowed Neymar a free run at goal and he calmly slid the ball past Kawashima.

IMG00817

Kawashima made up for that with a great save from Miranda, and Okazaki hit the post from a tight angle before Neymar proved he was human and missed an easy chance with just the goal to beat.

Substitutes Coutinho and Robinho also spurred good chances after being set up by Neymar and in the end Brazil’s superstar had to do the hard work himself.

In the 77th minute, Kawashima made a fine save from a Kaka header and then turned away a shot by Coutinho, but the ball ran to Neymar who had an easy finish from close range for his hat trick.

But he wasn’t finished. Brazil swept up the field in the 81st minute and Kaka lifted the ball to the back post for the unmarked Neymar to head in No. 4.

Japan fought a little harder in the dying minutes and Yoichiro Kakitani got a great head on Kosuke Ota’s cross in the 89th minute only to see it tipped over by Brazil keeper Jefferson.

 

*******

IMG00813

The result was not much of a surprise but the gap between the major footballing powers and Japan remains big. Aguirre reckons his players play with passion, but who’s he trying to kid? The likes of Shibasaki, Kakitani and Taguchi (not to mention Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo) have all the passion of Japanese schoolboys.

Japan have an attitude problem, i.e., they don’t have one. Aguirre needs to pump his players up, not blow smoke up their arse. Enough of the Zicos and Zaccheronis; Japan need a boss with anger. Get angry, Javier….


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.”

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 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.


Mar 3 2014

Cold comfort for Japan’s sex slaves

 

Right-wing and revisionist politicians Yoshiko Matsuura and Tomoko Tsujimura

Right-wing and revisionist politicians Yoshiko Matsuura and Tomoko Tsujimura

 

 By Fred Varcoe

It was nice to see the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan invite two right-wing politicians to the Club to express their views on the “comfort women.” Tokyo-based politicians Yoshiko Matsuura and Tomoko Tsujimura demonstrated how the right think in Japan. Or, to put it another way, how the right is incapable of thought.

Matsuura and Tsujimura arrived to explain how they travelled to Glendale, Calif., to protest at a statue of a “comfort woman” being erected in a public park. The protest was accompanied by a letter – from the Japan Coalition of Legislators against Fabricated History, which was signed by hundreds of legislators – to Glendale Mayor Dave Weaver explaining why they were protesting.

Here are some excerpts and comments:

1.     “We are committed to instilling a fair-minded, accurate perception of history in our children.”

A noble idea that has never been part of the Japanese mentality. Japan has consistently denied crimes committed in the past – as it denies truths that it doesn’t want made public. They constantly denied Unit 731 existed in China until incontrovertible evidence emerged. Sweep everything under the carpet is their modus operandi. If we can’t see it, it didn’t exist. It is ironic that the many signees to the letter to Mayor Weaver portrayed the message of the statue as a “distorted view of history.”

2.     “Japanese military authorities never forced Korean women to engage in prostitution. The comfort women were part of a legally sanctioned prostitution system, similar to others in existence throughout the world. They were handsomely remunerated; the word ‘sex slaves’ is an inaccurate description of the comfort women.”

It is quite possible that real prostitutes from Japan, Korea and other countries sought to make money from Japanese soldiers. The right wing in Japan often cites an American Army report from Burma that suggested that some girls they came across were professionals (i.e., prostitutes) and making a good living. But no one outside Japan has suggested that this single report exonerated Japan over this issue or that this represented the true, broader picture of what was going on in Japanese military brothels.

3.     “Also engraved on the statue is the following: ‘In memory of more than 200,000 Asian and Dutch women who were removed from their homes in Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, East Timor and Indonesia, to be coerced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Armed Forces of Japan between 1923 and 1945.’ However, the Japanese military never abducted women or compelled them to serve as comfort women.”

The speakers and other right-wingers in Japan claim that the Japanese military never abducted women. And they absolve themselves entirely by blaming recruitment on local agents. This is to some extent true, but there is little doubt that the agents were working on behalf of the military and the military was fully complicit in these crimes against humanity. Whatever the chain of command may have been, the women were conned into working for Japanese military brothels. If they had been independent prostitutes, as the Japanese imply, then they would have been free to go where they wanted and fuck who they wanted. But they were typical examples of human traffic, conned into believing they would be properly employed (e.g., in a factory) and reimbursed. The traffickers then imposed an artificial debt on them – typical of today’s traffickers – which they had to work off by being raped by Japanese soldiers (up to 40 a day). The vast majority of these women were not free, certainly were not prostitutes and definitely didn’t want to be where they were. They were enslaved and, let’s be quite clear, they may have been recruited by “agents” (and there is evidence of military complicity) but they were slaves of the Japanese armed forces. Lack of freedom = slavery.

4.     “Japan is a nation whose culture places great value on women, as evidenced by the fact that works about romantic love created by women writers such as Murasaki Shikibu.”

Anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time knows that Japanese women are far from being equal with men:

From the Asahi Shimbun:

“October 26, 2013

Japan’s ranking for female equality has fallen a further four places from 101st in 2012 to 105th this year, according to the newly released 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, ranking women’s equality in 136 countries.

The ranking is Japan’s lowest since the World Economic Forum started releasing its annual report in 2006.

The report, released on Oct. 25, said that Japan is failing to have women more involved in society despite their achieving a high education level.”

Murasaki, of course, created the “Tale of Genji,” a book that is revered in Japan but is basically about a paedophile rapist…

  • 5.     The Japanese Government-General of Korea prosecuted and punished deceitful brokers at every opportunity. But neither government nor military entities were involved in any way whatsoever in recruiting the comfort women.”

Another copout. I don’t think the Government-General of Korea did a very effective job of prosecuting and punishing deceitful brokers. More to the point, if this was the case, why were the women recruited not sent home if the Government-General of Korea was aware they’d been tricked into serving in the brothels? The inescapable fact is that the Japanese military wanted the women in the brothels, didn’t care how they got there and would keep them there no matter what their recruitment involved.

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 I had a simple question for these women at the FCCJ. It was this:

“Were Koreans forced to work in the mines in Oita?”

They refused to answer the question. At first, they said they were only there to talk about comfort women before rambling on about how Koreans and Japanese were working together to win the war, which I thought showed they had a sense of humor before realising that they weren’t joking.

But the question had a purpose. My Korean father-in-law was forced to work in the mines in Oita during the war. Mr. Lee was a noble man of unimpeachable integrity. His admission was not a trick to get money from Japanese companies or the Japanese government. In fact, it was a painful memory for him and one he only shared with his family a few years before he died.

So I wanted to know what Matsuura and Tsujimura thought about Korean workers in Kyushu. Were Koreans like Mr. Lee forced to work down the mine. Their reluctance to answer spoke volumes.

If they believed (and I’m sure they did) that Koreans were forced to work down the mines in Kyushu, then it shouldn’t be a surprise if women were forced to work in brothels for the military. If they had said Koreans weren’t forced to work down the mines, then they were calling my father-in-law a liar. I know he wasn’t. So for me, their arguments have zero validity.

In fact, they were asked how many Koreans they had spoken to about this issue and the answer was none. Tsujimura, proudly related how she had spoken to her military grandfather about the war but failed to tell us how many Korean “prostitutes” he had slept with.

*************************

Tsujimura also tried to suggest that Japan had “civilised” and modernised Korea during its occupation, with one of her arguments being that the number of children being born rose dramatically during that time. Again, she failed to understand why.

My mother-in-law married my father-in-law at a young age, as did many other Korean women, at a time when North Korean agents were kidnapping residents of the South, especially young women. The young women of the South saw marriage as a form of protection against the marauding insurgents from the North, and it is likely that women in colonial times in Korea sought similar protection, as outlined in this quote:

“The Korean cult of female virginity which strictly enforced the norm of girls’ premarital chastity, unwittingly served as an important contributing factor in rendering Korean unmarried women desirable recruits in the eyes of the Japanese authorities. Indeed, Aso Tetsuo (1910-1989), an army doctor, concluded in his report – written after his medical examinations of the women – that unmarried Korean women, rather than Japanese prostitutes, would make better ‘gifts for the Emperor’s warriors.’ The indigenous sexual culture, with its emphasis on what I call ‘virginal femininity,’ thus helped render colonial Korea a prime source of young ‘virgins’ to satisfy the needs of the Japanese military comfort system.” – from The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan by C. Sarah Soh.

So you can see, being an unmarried girl/woman in colonial Korea made you a target.

According to Soh’s book, Japanese historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki found six official documents in the Library of the National Institute for Defense Studies that “clearly implicate the Japanese government in the establishment and maintenance of the military comfort system.”

One of the disturbing aspects of the FCCJ press conference was how Matsuura and Tsujimura sought to turn the issue around as a Korean attack on Japanese. While the statue in Glendale was erected largely at the behest of Koreans, it represents the sex slaves of many nationalities. Tsujimura claimed that Japanese schoolchildren were being bullied by Korean kids in California and asserted that this amounted to “racial discrimination.” Being a historical dunce, she is obviously unaware that the Japanese and Koreans are the same race. More to the point is the fact that Dutch, Australian and many Asian women were victims of the comfort women system. It is not just about Korea and Japan. Jan Ruff-O’Herne is one of those former sex slaves who has spoken out on the issue. Like others, she didn’t want to revisit the past, but Japan’s denials re. the Korean comfort women forced her to speak out 50 years later.

 

ruff

Jan Ruff-O’Herne

 

 

”First it was only the Korean women, and nobody took any notice because ‘they were only Asian women’. But then when a European woman spoke out the world suddenly took notice,” Mrs Ruff-O’Herne said.

 *************************

Another constant factor in this debate is the issue of apologies. In 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a statement that many see as an apology by the government of Japan for the comfort women issue:

 “The Government of Japan has been conducting a study on the issue of wartime “comfort women” since December 1991. I wish to announce the findings as a result of that study.

   As a result of the study which indicates that comfort stations were operated in extensive areas for long periods, it is apparent that there existed a great number of comfort women. Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day. The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.

   As to the origin of those comfort women who were transferred to the war areas, excluding those from Japan, those from the Korean Peninsula accounted for a large part. The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule in those days, and their recruitment, transfer, control, etc., were conducted generally against their will, through coaxing, coercion, etc.

   Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honor and dignity of many women. The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.

   It is incumbent upon us, the Government of Japan, to continue to consider seriously, while listening to the views of learned circles, how best we can express this sentiment.

   We shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history. We hereby reiterated our firm determination never to repeat the same mistake by forever engraving such issues in our memories through the study and teaching of history.

   As actions have been brought to court in Japan and interests have been shown in this issue outside Japan, the Government of Japan shall continue to pay full attention to this matter, including private researched related thereto.”

A number of prime ministers and politicians have issued apologies, although they are often vaguely phrased to allow Japan to squirm out of direct responsibility.

The closest the Emperor came was this statement to South Korean Prime Minister Kim Dae Jung in 1996:

“There was a period when our nation brought to bear great sufferings upon the people of the Korean Peninsula. The deep sorrow that I feel over this will never be forgotten.”

Under the premiership of idiotic revionist Shinzo Abe, there have been calls for Japan to amend the 1993 Kono statement, suggesting there may be doubt about the testimony of Korean women that the statement was based on. And here lies a problem, namely that Japanese politicians are inherently duplicitous and unreliable, so any statements they make are without value.

 

abe hitler

Japanese protesters show what they think of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

 

The only person who could put an end to the issue would be the Emperor, but he is constrained in his statements by the revisionist politicians and conservative bureaucrats that run Japan.

*************************

 Japan also points out that all issues concerning the war were resolved when the two countries normalized relations and “settled” all outstanding wartime issues. But this was an agreement between a right-wing Japanese government and the South Korean government of military dictator Park Chung-Hee. Park was a proud servant of the Japanese colonial rulers, joined the (Japanese) Manchukuo Army and, according to a report in the Hankyoreh newspaper, even signed an oath of allegiance to Japan in his own blood.

 

park blood

Report on Park Chung Hee pledging allegiance to Japan in his own blood

 

The 1965 treaty was a diplomatic agreement that rode roughshod over the human problems created by Japan’s past. It was about business and money, not about human suffering or individuals. Technically, the two countries resolved their differences and established diplomatic relations, but this is a human issue and the humans involved are still suffering.

This was brought home to me several years ago when I visited England with my Japanese girlfriend. We arranged to visit my friend Debi at her parents’ house. When Debi’s father heard a Japanese was coming to his house – a cute, lovely and kind Japanese – he walked out and refused to return until the Japanese had gone. He had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese in Singapore and the mere thought of hearing Japanese or being in the same room as a Japanese filled him with painful memories.

For him, it was a reminder of the hate and violence he experienced at the hands of the Japanese. The comfort women are reminded of that hate every day not only through their own experiences, but also through the persistent attempts by Japan to deny that such atrocities ever took place. Would Matsuura and Tsujimura call Debi’s father a liar, like they do my father-in-law?

Probably, especially if he was Korean…

 

Korean demonstrators offer advice to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Korean demonstrators offer advice to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

 

 

*************************

Links:

Park Chung Hee signs oath to Japan in blood

Unit 731

Excerpt from book on comfort women (Google books)

Comfort women article

Japan PM denies coercion re. comfort women

Australian ‘comfort woman’ slams Japan

Comfort women article by Suvendri Kikuchi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Dec 2 2013

U.K. to the world: No dogs or Koreans (rapists OK!)

 By Fred Varcoe

The traditional image of your average embassy is that they are there to protect a country’s citizens. My traditional image is that embassies are there to help move the country they represent closer to the country that hosts them.

 

Access all areas (if you've got the money)

Access all areas (if you’ve got the money)

The traditional image is complete rubbish, of course. Embassies exist to glorify the country they represent, to push the policies of the government in power and to drum up business and money. Citizens in trouble hamper these ambitions and are usually treated as dog shit on one’s shoe.

Take the case of my friend R in Saudi Arabia. She unwisely got pregnant to a married man. OK, he wasn’t a Saudi but a good stoning was still a possible outcome.

I know, she thought, I’ll get the nice people at the British Embassy to help me.

Er, it’s not our kind of business, the embassy people said, meaning, of course, that unless you help the UK make lots of money, you are of little use to us, so why should we be of use to you.

Luckily, R’s father did make lots of money for the U.K., and after phoning the Foreign Office, the lackeys at the embassy in Jeddah got R home where she could have her baby.

The British Embassy describes its role like this:

“We develop and sustain the important and long-lasting relationship between the UK and Japan. This involves dealing with a wide range of political, commercial, security and economic questions of interest to the UK and Japan.

“The British Embassy in Tokyo, together with the British Consulate-General in Osaka, represents the UK government in Japan. Our two offices work together to support the full range of British interests in Japan: international cooperation in support of our values and working to reduce conflict; building Britain’s prosperity through increased trade and investment in open markets; and supporting British nationals who visit and live in Japan through modern and efficient consular services.”

The bit about helping British citizens seems to be a bit of an afterthought.

Recently, Britain’s ambassador to Japan, Tim Hitchens, made it clear that British embassies are more concerned with commercial benefits than British citizens, with business and political relationships rather than human relationships.

 

U.K. ambassador to Japan Tim Hitchens

U.K. ambassador to Japan Tim Hitchens

In 2012, the British government introduced legislation that seriously penalises British citizens married to non-EU spouses. The Guardian quoted Home Secretary Teresa May as saying that British citizens can marry who they want, but “if they want to establish their family life in the UK, rather than overseas, then their spouse or partner must have a genuine attachment to the UK, be able to speak English, and integrate into our society, and they must not be a burden on the taxpayer. Families should be able to manage their own lives. If a British citizen or a person settled here cannot support their foreign spouse or partner they cannot expect the taxpayer to do it for them.”

Part of that seems reasonable, but does it seem fair?

Know this; earn this

My wife is Korean. We carried our earlier married life entirely in Japanese. The new rules require a reasonable level of English. She might have that now, but if we wanted to go to the U.K. halfway through our 15-year marriage, her level of English would not have been high enough and she would have been rejected on those grounds.

She is also required to have knowledge of life in the U.K., including useless facts such as: How many members does a jury have in Scotland/ Which daughter of Henry VIII was a devout Catholic and persecuted Protestants?/ In which year was the National Trust founded by three volunteers? Where is Europe’s longest dry ski slope situated?

My wife has been to the U.K. many times and even stayed with my mother for six weeks (when her English – but not her sanity – improved). She knows more about English life than someone who can remember that French people called Norman invaded in 1066 (and I only learned this week that the Normans were actually relocated Vikings). She can make shepherd’s pie, Yorkshire pudding, porridge and marmalade. She understands her British husband and where he’s from (although it often seems that he doesn’t). She didn’t need to speak English to understand this and she doesn’t need to know how many inches there are in a yard to understand British culture.

You can’t quantify a relationship!

Oh, but the British government is trying. Childless couples where one partner is British and the other non-EU must earn a minimum of £18,600 to be allowed to settle in the U.K. If you’ve got children, you have to earn more.

Auberon Waugh wrote in in Another Voice: “The whole language of politics is geared to treating anything as good which is conducive to general prosperity, anything as bad which is detrimental to it. Often one finds whole passages of political rhetoric … which assume that this pursuit of prosperity is the only and supreme Good.”

Oscar Wilde’s perspective is still definitive: “People nowadays know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

This is true of the British government and current ambassador to Tokyo Tim Hitchens doggedly follows the government line. Here’s his meandering and totally unconvincing response to my question concerning the restrictive and illogical new immigration rules for spouses of British citizens (who, like my wife, can also be parents to British citizens):

“We live in democratic societies and therefore need to respond to the pressures from our electorate and there are two different strong pressures that are operating in the U.K. at the moment. One is the need to achieve growth to pull out faster from our economic difficulties and the other is the need to control legal immigration. Those are two very powerful messages that come from the electorate and therefore one has to get the balance right between those two. It’ll mean that there are tough rules that are unpopular with certain people who want to come and which are very popular with the electorate and there are other moves which encourage businesses to work and to allow us to have more students coming, allowing a loosening of visa rules on Japanese businesses operating in the U.K. which some in the U.K. population may wish we didn’t do because that seems a bit loose to them, but our judgement is that … [garbled] … we keep on having an open economy and encouraging investment in the UK. So those are the two competing forces. I don’t think that this is an issue that is particular to Britain and I think this is exactly the same debate that you would get if you were trying to get into France, if you were trying to get into the United States or if you were trying to get into Japan, and it will always be one of the hardest issues to respond to because everyone will have a personal vested interest in the particulars of the policy and moving it back to the democratic legitimacy of the policy is a painful thing for that person to do. So that’s my honest response at the general level but it won’t satisfy you on a personal level because these are tough rules.”

It won’t satisfy me on a personal level because it’s a rubbish answer and if it’s really a policy, it’s a rubbish policy.

It’s the economy, stupid

First of all, the electorate in Britain is demanding an end to uncontrolled immigration. I’m sure the ambassador would say that immigration is controlled. Yes, there are rules, as we can see from the above, but they are haphazard at best.

Why do people want to control immigration? Is it about economics and jobs? Partly. British people see foreigners coming to Britain and finding jobs when the native population can’t, but of course in part the incoming foreigners are plugging a gap in the job market (as well as undercutting the rates of their British competitors). So, there may be an economic argument for both allowing them in and keeping them out.

But is there an emotional one? The main problem with immigration is that many people don’t want to live alongside people from other cultures. This is not universally true, but in Britain it’s hard enough for a northerner to settle in the south, let alone alongside a Korean or a Pole or a Bangladeshi. The history of India demonstrates that. The Indians were united in their desire to get rid of the British and divided in their approach to independence, which resulted in three imperfect countries (invariably at each other’s throats) instead of one. Point me to a country where immigration has benefitted the integrity and culture of a country (and no, the USA is not the right answer). Accepting outsiders is hard for most people. It’s not impossible; just hard. The British government seems to think that if you earn £18,600 and know why Hastings is pertinent to British history, it’s easy.

Quantify. Quantify. Hitchens went on to talk about the EU but to him – representative of the government of David Cameron (oh, and Corporal Clegg) – it again came back to how much the EU can do for Britain’s business:

“The single market is the key reason that Japanese investors want to be in the UK and I personally find it difficult under any circumstance to imagine any government wanting to take the UK out of the single market.”

 

Please don't leave us, rich Japanese company

Please don’t leave us, rich Japanese company

The problem is not one of a single market; it’s one of a single culture. The EU is trying to homogenize an amazingly diverse and culturally rich continent. As with politics, culture is largely local. Countries and their culture evolve from small communities. The EU’s attempts at a form of affirmative action and the undermining of national interests is going to tear countries – and the continent – apart. David Cameron says if the Conservative get in with a clear majority at the next election, he will put forward a yes/no referendum on EU membership two years later. That’s nearly four years away. He’s trying to dodge the issue. Britain should have had a referendum way before this. You will remember that Britain did have a referendum on entering the forerunner to the EU, the Common Market. The people of Britain said yes – to joining a small economic community in Western Europe, not to a monolithic, federalised pseudo-state.

Citizens of 28 countries can walk into my country, find a job, claim benefits and even get housing from the state. Nobody asked the citizens of my country if this was a good idea. Meanwhile, my wife of 15 years, has to jump through hoops to stay in Britain and be a mother to my 5-year-old daughter if I choose to go back home. The British government seems to think that Britain needs operate at maximum commercial capacity to survive in the modern world. Britishness, it seems, is something it can sacrifice on the altar of commerce.

Why should I have fewer rights to a family life in the U.K. than a couple from France or Slovakia? Why should a non-EU criminal have the right to a family life but not me (see here for one example of many: http://tinyurl.com/6ajkvx5). I married a woman I loved, but she’s not of sufficient commercial value to the country I was born in to allow her to reside there.

I wish I could rediscover the country I was born in, but it’s not there anymore.

 


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 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 27 2012

Letter from Japan

Vote for me!

 

(This was an experimental column offered to The Japan Times [can’t think why they didn’t take it] and based on the “Dear Bill” column from Private Eye. Originally written in 2001.)

****************************************************************************************

Dear Frank,

I start with a question: Is new Philippines President Gloria Arroyo the first head of state that you’d be willing to shag?

She’s awfully close. It might take a few beers, but give the Filipinos credit – they’ve got a good-looking girl in charge.

 

mmmmm….

 

Of course, it doesn’t really matter who’s in charge over there as the country is such a mess. Up until now, the old maxim “you
get the leader you deserve” appears to be true over there.

That’s why I can’t understand why they were so keen to get rid Of “Elvis” Estrada. Just because he was a fat, greasy-haired, philandering gambler with his hand in the till, it doesn’t mean to say he doesn’t deserve to be president of the Philippines. Seems to be the perfect sort of chap to me. I can’t understand why countries like the Philippines don’t have a law that makes embezzlement legal – perhaps up to a limit of $10 million. They’re going to do it anyway, so the government might as well facilitate it.

Anyway, the old maxim has never let Japan down. Look at what we’ve got now: Yasuhiro Mori.

If he was a fat, greasy-haired, philandering Elvis impersonator things might not be so bad.

All right, so he’s a bit on the bulky side, but he has none of the endearing attributes of the Filipino “Elvis.”

He is, basically, a complete twat.

Perhaps the maxim can be reversed (“The leader gets the people he deserves”), but I know not all the Japanese people are as mind-bogglingly moronic as their leaders.

Of course, most of the leaders are.

In the 14 years I’ve been here, Japan has been run by a string of gutless incompetents with the all moral rectitude of a paedophilic priest.

Most of the leaders have come from the Liberal-Democratic Party, which has maintained power for most of the post-War years. To be a Liberal-Democratic politician you have to be:
a) rich;
b) stupid.

Of course, politicians belonging to the Liberal Democratic Party (I thought the name was a joke until I remembered there is no irony in Japan) have a host of other attributes, including bribe taking, bribe giving, shagging geisha girls (and paying them a monthly retainer), lying, cronyism, bribery, lying, egotism, lying and lying.

Why, you ask, do the voters put up with this?

Up until now, it’s been because they think that the Socialists would upset the gravy train that Japan hoped to ride into the 21st Century.

Ah, I hear you say, but Japan’s economy is a complete mess, only a few steps away from that of the Philippines, but much, much deeper in debt.

That’s true, but the succession of LDP governments in the ’90s used the national piggy bank to create the impression that everything was OK.

More recently, they started borrowing – a lot – sending Japan spiralling into debt and almost certain financial ruin a few years down the road.

Mark my words, Japan is going to be hit by a massive financial collapse, followed by – or, perhaps, preceded by – social collapse.

No, forget the maxim; Japan does not deserve such a fate, but the voters have to start realizing that they’ve been conned by their politicians.

The government will only do something about it when it’s too late (and they’ll do too little then). At that time, the voters will turn against them, but that will be too late, too.

I wish Estrada would come over here and be prime minister; you know exactly where you stand with him. You can budget in a few million dollars for him to rent a few mistresses and gamble away, knowing that the rest will be untouched.

Unfortunately, like the Philippines, Japan has little left to gamble with.

Billy.

P.S. What about that Makiko Tanaka … she’s a spunky woman, don’t you think? Might be alright at 4 a.m., pissed out of your brains.