Sunday, January 17, 2010

Item From the Past: Osaka 2000

In mid-January 2000, I wrote a letter about my recent visit to Japan, to friends of mine who had lived there when I did, in the early 1990s. Soon after, I modified the letter to include footnotes, which went to a person who had never lived in Japan, and who would have been mystified by many of the references. The following is a slightly different version of that second letter, footnotes included. Not ponderous or leaden academic footnotes, but fun-loving, fancy-free ones.

The best part of the long flight to Osaka was spent flying over the Yukon and Alaska. According to the map on the video screen, that’s where we were — almost up to the Arctic Circle, though the map wasn’t overly precise. I’d thought it would be dark, but it wasn’t exactly: a rim of sunlight illuminated the left (southern) side of the sky.

I was on the right side of plane, and underneath were frozen mountains and rivers and other topography, a pale whitish blue, just light enough to see. I spent a good many minutes looking down at this completely alien landscape. Only once did I see anything that resembled artificial light: a golden fleck, not twinkling nor moving (it seemed from 30,000± ft.). A beacon in the Brooks Range?

Most of my time in Japan wasn’t spent looking around for odd bits of information, or making comparisons the way it was five or more years ago. We had New Year’s feasts with Yuriko’s family and her sister’s husband’s family and (later) several of her friends. We also went out to buy things to carry or mail back. And there was, naturally, also the business of keeping Lilly fed, clean, sometimes amused, and so on. It was a busy trip.

But odd bits came to me sometimes. There's a TV ad campaign currently under way for Lawson (1). In it, Konishki (2) is “Mr. Lawson,” a vaguely political figure in an expensive suit — not off the rack, for sure — speechifying about the merits of Lawson. The first lines of one commercial are: “Boys, be ambitious. Onigiri, be delicious.” (3)

You might remember that first part as the parting words of Dr. Wm. Clark, foreign expert in the founding of the University of Hokkaido, to his students. Who wrote that line? Would a Japanese copywriter have the ear? Doubtful. Would an English speaker know the reference? Maybe, but it is fairly obscure. I’d never heard of it till I saw it on Clark’s statue at the U of H.

In other news: teenage girl fashion in Japan, at least to judge by what I saw in Namba (4), involves time in a tanning booth, white lip gloss, and shoe soles as thick as battleship armor, and about as ugly too. But no signs of Western decadence, such as tattoos or odd body piercing.

According to Yuriko, people waste... I mean, spend a lot of time on line in Japan these days, but the Internet is considered primarily a function of youth culture. On the other hand, many different age groups carry cell phones around; I don’t know if I ever saw one in pre-1995 Japan. The first place I remember seeing them in great numbers was in Hong Kong in 1990. I don’t think technology was the delaying factor in cell phone usage in Japan. I’ll bet what took so long was setting up the business cartel to offer the service. My favorite cell-sight was a guy riding a bicycle, smoking a cigarette and talking on his phone all at the same moment, when he happened to be tooling down a narrow street — what other kind is there? — at dusk.

The streets, as it happens, are the same unnerving mixture of cars, motorcycles, bicycles and me, the large pedestrian, as they ever were. The first rule of walking in Japan is still no sudden lateral moves. I suppose by the time I left Japan, I’d gotten blazé about it, but this time, while pushing Lilly in a stroller, I was all too aware of the street hazards. Speaking of motorized transport, it seems that a handful of bozos in Japan still have the wherewithal to buy SUVs. Just the thing for all those open roads in Nippon. Sometimes, you’d never know the country is in a depression.

Sometimes, you would. Parts of Nakanoshima (5) have become Hoovervilles. Except that Japanese bums don’t build flimsy little shacks, but instead string tarps over large collections of sodaigomi. (6) The effect of all those tarps is like cobwebs overrunning corners of a gloomy forest. There were even a few pitched at the entrance to City Hall, at least for the New Year’s holiday, when no one would be around.

Eikaiwa (7) aren’t completely dead, even if many long ago stiffed their teachers out of a last month's salary. To judge by subway ads, ECC and Nova persist. No signs of many others, though. And no nearly nekkid ladies advertising certain Moonie-owned conversation schools.

Other observations: There’s now a Starbucks on the Midosuji, near Yodoyabashi (8), and Yuriko says there are others, where there were none before. Despite the depression, there are new names in convenience stores: “a.m./p.m.” and “Family Life.” Mos Burger (9) is selling a curry chicken focaccia sando (10). Vending machine drinks are now ¥120, though I saw a few at the “old” price of ¥110.

That’s about it. We did make it to see the Daibustu (11), and one day went to the Flower Festival Memorial Park (12) — which, oddly enough, I’d never been to before. That was the only place this time around that was new to me. It’s actually a good park, certainly by Osaka standards: some open space, trees, etc.


(1) Lawson is the name of one of the most common convenience stores in Japan. It uses Roman letters for its name.

(2) Konishki was a sumo star in the early 1990s. And, at 600 lbs. at least, one of the larger in a group of large men. Hawaiian-born, he never reached the top rank — yokuzuna — but rather made it to the second rank, ozeki. Some thought this reflected prejudice against his foreigner status, but not long after he was denied yokuzuna, another Hawaiian-born foreigner, Akebono, did achieve the top rank.

(3) Onigiri is a rice cake, triangular in shape with its edges wrapped in seaweed and something — a plum, a bit of meat — in the middle. Lawson, of course, sells many of them. Lawson’s weren’t bad, either. Good bachelor food.

(4) Namba is a major transit node in the middle of Osaka. North from the main Hanshin Rail Station is a long fussgangerplatz popular with young Osakans.

(5) Nakanoshima is a long, narrow island formed by two branches of the Yoda River, which runs to Osaka Bay through the heart of the city. The Bank of Japan Kansai branch is on the island, and so is the Osaka Prefectural Office. Much of it is a park, with tennis courts, walking paths, public flower gardens, etc. There were bums there before the bubble economy burst, but seemingly many more afterward.

(6) Sodaigomi = literally, “big bulk garbage.” Old appliances, etc. Also cruel slang for retired salarymen who don't know what to do with themselves after a lifetime of long hours at the office.

(7) Eikaiwa are conversation schools, of which there used to be a number of chains. The one I had worked for previously closed suddenly in early 1994 (just before I left the country), stiffing its teachers and probably anyone who had bought lessons. Common knowledge had it -- and I think my source was good on this one -- that the Moonies owned one chain of schools. In any case, a notorious train ad for that school that featured a woman undressing gratuitously, though only her bare back was visible. By notorious, I mean among expatriates.

(8) The district just south of Nakanoshima, much of which is owned by Sumitomo. The Midosuji is the main street through the district, and one of the busiest in Osaka.

(9) Mos Burger. A Japanese hamburger shop. They make good burgers, including some using rice paties instead of bread.

(10) Sando = sandwich

(11) Daibustu = The Big Buddha. A enormous bronze buddha in Nara, housed in an enormous wooden temple (Todaiji). One of the wonders of Japan.

(12) I did not go to the the International Gardening and Flower Expo of 1990, which was open when I arrived in Osaka. I didn’t know many people then, and the Expo was charging some outrageous entrance fee (before I understood that that was the norm). “Flower Station," the name of the radio broadcasts from the Expo, was to my ears the best station in town. They hired American deejays, or deejay wannabes, and let them play whatever they wanted. A couple of the deejays were fond of saying words they never would at home, too.



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