If that building were to speak


Picture book review, from Tokyo – When we speak of Hiroshima today, a site that has become a part of human history  stands apart from the city’s food, its produce, and culture. The UNESCO Heritage Hiroshima Peace Memorial, covers what is today known as the A-bomb dome. Standing on the bank of the river for more than a century, its presence alone tells a story.

Hiroshima resident and poet Arthur Binard gives it a voice in 『ドームがたり』 (Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks) (Tamagawa University Press, 2017), illustrated by Koji Suzuki.

Affectionately known as just “Dome” by Hiroshima people, Dome starts off by greeting the reader, thanking us for dropping by to visit. Like a seasoned speaker, it points out the slight inaccuracy of the name of the nearby tram station, before introducing itself. Fathered by Czech designer Jan Letzel, it was built in 1915 to showcase Hiroshima goods and produce. It had a few other names before “Dome”, whether it was goods or industry, there was always a part of it that was “Hiroshima”. That was until Japan went on the road to militarization, war broke out, and people came to talk about doing things “for the country”.

Dome recalls, as a cicada flew by in the height of summer 1945, an American plane dropped something that cracked open overhead in a blinding flash. The cicada and “Hiroshima” were destroyed that day, Dome says, and since then many things have become very clear through its airy skeleton head.

It sees the world as a makeup of particles. Radioactive particles, it explains, are like teeny tiny shards of glass. Glass hurts, but these particles are so tiny that we cannot feel them, even as they keep buzzing and zapping. Dome also reminds us of the Makurazaki typhoon that struck a month later, washing much of the radioactive particles into the ocean, sending them buzzing across the seas. Further afar, it sees the many particle islands and mountains formed in the course of tests all over the world, and discharge from contraptions humans built to harness the power of this relentless zapping.

How long do these particles continue to buzz and zap? Dome wonders, but hopes that the birds and other friends who visit don’t get hurt by some particle lingering in some dark corner of its bare frame.

After Dome tells its story, Binard provides an epilogue to explain the relationship between Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239, which were respectively used in the warheads of the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki three days later. He also reminds us of the significance of the plague engraved with “e=mc2”, which is a result of US censorship of the nuclear bomb, and the world order dominated by the nuclear powers ever since.

Nearly 7 years since the tsunami hit Fukushima Daiichi, I found this picture book drawing clear links rooted in nuclear power, something that some have tried and failed to harness. Today other nations are conducting nuclear tests for energy sources and consumption underpin industry, trade, affluence and economic growth. This trend of thought seems set to continue in the near future, at least, as calls for a return of morality in economics grow. Therein lies the need to share Dome’s story and Binard’s commentary for future generations.

 

Title: 『ドームがたり』
(Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks)
Text by Arthur Binard, illustrated by Koji Suzuki
Publisher: Tamagawa University Press, 2017

Just different


Book review, from Tokyo – Four teens popped into the train the other day. One of them was visibly larger than the other three, and a tad bit more tanned. He seemed relaxed, laid back, as did the rest. The train crowd that day was just enough for everyone to see whatever happened across the length of the carriage.

The next moment began an episode I would not forget in a hurry. One of the boys starts picking on this bigger boy, making snide comments on his size, his stubby nose, the tiny curls in his hair, his brownish-blue eyes, anything that seemed obviously different.

Hums and haws deflected each attack, as his large frame sank deeper into the cushion. One of the other boys interrupts to ask the interrogator about his family, offering his friend a brief respite. The bigger boy musters a  response, asking some questions of his own. The exchange continues, mostly one-sided, with the obtrusive teen probing deeper.

Perhaps there wasn’t any ill intent, but it was still a disturbing exchange that happened right in front of everyone else.

This episode brought to mind the OECD PISA 2015 report on bullying released earlier this year, where 15-year-olds provided, for the first time, self-reports on their experience of frequent bullying. Compared to other forms of bullying, Japanese teens saw more verbal bullying but less overall than the OECD average. However, PISA acknowledges that cultural differences could have affected responses. Incidentally, the suicide rate among Japanese school children peaks when school resumes in September after about 6 weeks of summer vacation.

Fortunately, Jason Parker, the brave, level-headed sixth grader in Holly Thompson’s verse novel “Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth” (Henry Holt and Company, 2016), never contemplates suicide, but he does come within a whisker of joining them.

Jason’s story starts with him being thrown into a group notorious for bullying. He would have to navigate various tasks together with them for almost two months, until the next seat change. His friends advise him to keep a low profile, to never react, lest it got worse. The teacher is indifferent, even apathetic. Everyone just goes about minding their own business, keeping a safe distance.

Respite comes from his little sister, whether it is the mess in their shared room, their adventures storming through the streets, meeting new people in the neighbourhood, and ultimately when she saves him. He also finds some joy outside school and peace at Aikido class, where he trains his mind and body to be ready for his enemies, or so he thinks.

Two crimes are woven into the plot – a fire and a lost paperweight. The former was arson, a primer for the latter case that had a greater bearing on the story. For the class, it was theft. For Jason, it was betrayal and the worst possible scenario averted by his little sister.

The verse format forces the reader to stay close to Jason, as we follow him through a harrowing period of his life in a coastal town.

We join him in keeping alert for attacks at school, which leaves one exhausted but still looking to avoid contact in town. We are grateful for the pockets of refuge in Aikido and other parts of the town, the space to reach out to Jason’s interests elsewhere. We are blind-sided by his wayward focus, losing sight of obvious danger, before finally finding closure and a way forward with Aikido.

Jason’s story made me step back to reflect on my reactions toward differences, on the importance of learning to accept differences as they are, as a chance to connect, not abuse. It opened the door to delving deeper, to view outward aggression as a suggestion of other problems, to recall how difficult it is to handle peer pressure, and to look out for tell-tale signs of abuse and reach out, because it could make a whole world of difference for someone.

Title: Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth
Author: Holly Thompson
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2016 (available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)

Parenting or not in Web 2.0


Book review, from Singapore to Tokyo – Pinch, drag, flick, tap. Slick moves mastered to deal with life to the tune of each new generation of smart devices. Buzz, flicker, ring, flash. An endless deluge of noise, light, vibes, and activity that demands our attention at every other moment, as if we did not have enough to deal with already.
Sometimes our devices bring new and refreshing updates, but more often just rejigged posts. At other times we’re creating something for everyone else in this age of user-generated content. And if you’ve got a kid craving for attention, then you’ll have trouble focusing on either. But we are in control, aren’t we? Or are we slaves of our own making?
Smart devices are so much a part of our lives today that misplacing one brings isolation from the connected world, the IoT. Well, in real life, we only have 24 hours a day to focus our limited energy on only so much. And if the touchscreen is taking our eyes off other things that should really matter, like your own kid, then obviously there lies a problem.

『ママのスマホになりたい』, “Mama no sumaho ni naritai” (literally, “I want to become mummy’s smartphone”) illustrates just this, drawing on a real essay by a Singaporean primary school boy, in which he professed that his wish was to become a smartphone (article at allsingaporestuff.com).

With Nobumi’s trademark cartoony characters, the simple, childishly spiteful exchanges between 3-year-old son and mother portrays the struggle for a parent-child relationship in an era of push feeds and other intermittent attention grabbers. The boy loses numerous creatively laid skirmishes, including a cardboard kingdom where smartphones are not allowed, before finally reconnecting with his mother.
A self-confessed guilty party, it is less my smartphone, but the daily struggle with the clock that leaves me wanting more play-and-bond time. Living with devices involves rules, balance, and understanding, something this book could maybe help parents and their children reach together. Then again with future generations set to bypass PCs and dive straight into mobile and wearable devices, and interacting through them, who knows whether this book be read the same way by the end of the next decade.
Kids grow up quickly, faster than the next app upgrade. We can uninstall updates on a whim but we can’t just reboot our lives, so I’ll be sure to catch myself on my smartphone at home, and my kids before they are ready to leave the roost!
Title: 『ママのスマホになりたい』 (Mama no sumaho ni naritai) by Nobumi
Publisher: Tokyo, WAVE Publishers, 2016

Questions from The Ranch of Hope


Book review, Tokyo – Years after the 3.11 triple disaster, a rancher continues to tend to his herd of more than 330 cattle in a no-go zone in Namie, Fukushima. Portrayed as a nuclear rebel by parts of the media, the picture book behind the ranch raises some serious questions.

On the cover of “Kibou no Bokujo” (The Ranch of Hope), he could easily have been chewing in defiance on a burning cigarette. Instead, it shows a man with his dog, cat, and cow with the ranch in the background.

The pictures go from animals and houses abandoned after the disaster to the lone rancher who stayed behind to tend to his ranch. Inside, cattle eat, drink, defecate, and get hungry. The rancher continues his job, feeding and tending to them. Some of the weaker grow ill and die, but the rest have remained healthy, eating, drinking, defecating, and getting hungry again. Cattle numbers have recovered, it says, as the ranch took in those that had wandered near from elsewhere.

The touching parting gaze between another rancher and his endearing calf is paired with a page splashed in red with carcasses and several men in the faraway background clad from head to toe in white protective wear. In contrast, the owner of the Ranch of Hope goes around doing his daily chores in his regular farming attire. He is simply doing his job, keeping his cattle fed and alive, even if they can no longer be sold because no one would take them.

The story goes deeper, into the rancher’s thoughts – what is the meaning of life, of plentiful rice fields, rivers teeming with fish, clean fresh air, a local brand painstakingly built up by the community over the years, that vanishes just like that?

The book’s sobering pictures serve as a reminder of the gravity of some decisions in life, which are made by a few and end up affecting many others.

Title: 『希望の牧場』 (Kibou no Bokujo, The Ranch of Hope)
text by Eto Mori, illustrated by Hisanori Yoshida
Publisher: Tokyo, Iwasaki Publishing, 2014

Tokyo’s looking at diversity


Tokyo, 12 November – Last week, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare released its latest survey on the diversity of working arrangements in Japan’s shrinking population. For the first time in the survey’s history, non-perm or temp workers account for exactly 40.0% of the national workforce. Initial media reports highlighted the record, albeit slightly suspicious, ratio and a stunning statistic that many temps preferred the flexible working hours that part-time, temporary, and contract assignments offer. Unlike the survey, reports did not highlight the diversity in the temp workforce, a grouping of part-timers, full-time contract workers, and retiree rehires.

Part-timers, as the term suggests, work differently than other temps. For example, female part-timers, a third of temp respondents, were the main breadwinners less than 25% of the time, which means 75% were out there for the sake of pocket money. So part-timers choose when they lined their pockets while other temps looked for hard money and a job-skills fit even as they knew that the dearth of perm opportunities kept them swimming around the temp pool.

Meanwhile, close to 95% of male retiree rehires were still breadwinners making that smooth cost-heavy transition into full retirement. For younger temps, about 80% of men between ages 24-45 were breadwinners as compared to below 30% of women. So, temp or not, men in Japan still bring home the dough. Note that this age band is home to new and future families and parents.

Temps were also much less satisfied than perms about remuneration, job stability, and career prospects. On the other hand, perms were marginally unhappier with the quality of instruction from their managers and their working hours. Japanese work culture is infamous for long hours, and they don’t seem any more pro-family or pro-baby than the boomer years, so who will be there to power any future growth? With companies already turning to contracts to rehire retirees of proven value, it looks like even longer work hours and active aging for everyone.

Maybe a longer working life could translate into longer-term, sustainable growth, targets of Japan’s new stewardship and corporate codes. Before those two came around, Japan also changed its employment contract laws. They slapped a 5-year limit on dated contracts. Beyond that, a worker had the power to issue an ultimatum to convert to a rolling deal. This power came at a price – the law only applies to dates after promulgation. No backdating, slates wiped clean, employment contracts renewed from zero.

The law was devised to bring stability to contracted work, but if Japan’s economy were to grow again, as its government envisions, then the power to switch to a rolling contract on, most probably, a frozen wage will only slowly squeeze a temp’s already thin pockets. Some lawyers have commented on this no-win situation for temps. Companies are now free to estimate long-term temp costs using 5-year ceilings. No need to mention “black” companies, a growing social problem of employee exploitation, temp or otherwise.

Who can make things better? Activist investors are more of the latter, so since cheap, skilled labour is a win-win, don’t expect an agent of change there. What about employers? Do they have the principles or pockets to take valued temps on their permanent payroll? Or would they force them out? Maybe even deprive them of CV-pretty work ahead of the 35-year-old glass ceiling for jumping ship or before the temp-to-perm window arrives? The ball has been placed firmly in the hands of employers. Some temp agencies have switched to directly hiring registered persons as full-time ready to go employees, so there is new hope.

The flip side of this employment conundrum is the 60% perm workforce, where the temp-perm disparity could breed elements that are even less motivated toward productivity. Stability in the perm world can easily be twisted into protecting the system, scraping through with the bare minimum, and producing the goods only when a chance to climb up the corporate ladder comes round.

Toxic for productivity? No rocket growth, just inching up or down every year? Maybe that’s sustainable for a while. Now the case is for the entire workforce to be included in the numbers game, or a respected bastion of moral authority, like Justice Bao or Mito Komon, to ruffle some feathers and clean up the show, because it’s high time companies show some real commitment toward embracing diversity.

Adventure at Japan’s theatre of sport


Tokyo – It was the morning of May 22nd, the last day the Japanese National Stadium would be open for tours to the public before renovations ahead of the 2020 Olympics. I took the day off to become part of the 6,000-strong weekday crowd, taking the municipal subway line to take me straight to its North gate.

Taking my first and last steps through the gates, I looked to the queue ahead. Snaking across the entrance platform was an excited but orderly crowd, a mix of parents with carriers and strollers in tow, couples, chatty girls and wide-eyed boys. I spotted a few sporting soccer jerseys and some others clad in business suits. They had obviously gone out of their way to take time off for the tour and were all set to get back to work.

As we shuffled toward the tour entrance below, some were conspicuously out of line, peering anxiously past the gates while feverishly urging their friends to arrive over the phone as others frantically fingered their smartphone screens. Staff were unraveling more rope to round up the growing queue but a few were already hollering for last-minute entrants ahead of shutting the gates. Time was of the essence.

Enjoying the intermittent windows of sun, I gazed upward for signs of rain clouds as a chilly breeze picked up because rain was forecast later in the day. A large menacing mass drifted nearer, threatening to open up and dump whatever it held. As we moved down to the tour entrance beneath, I caught my first glimpse of the track and field through a ground-level entrance. The brilliant green glowed brilliantly beyond the pitch dark entrance. The pitch did not welcome, it drew you in. Restrained by my orderly habit, I prised my eyes away and turned to the queue ahead.

A crooked clock hung above the tour entrance

A crooked clock hung above the tour entrance

I noticed a slightly crooked clock right above the tour entrance, which was laid out haphazardly using a few tables and benches. No one really noticed the alignment of the clock above it, except for the time. We were in for some history, but first we had to pass by an open cash box, some stacks of papers, and clammy hands snapping away at the 1,000 yen entry fee, before receiving a visitor access pass.

Liberated from the ordeal of the snail-paced queue, I charged out into the open to the curved road around the stadium.

1964 Olympic winners plaque and flagposts

The 1964 Olympic winners list

Many were pointing their cameras upward, toward the trident flag posts and the 1964 Olympic winners list. Carved in stone and perched high above us, we stretched to search for familiar names only to be met with droplets of rain. I remembered the momentous triumph of the Japanese women’s volleyball team and snapped a few quick photos before dashing off past another crowd (and winners board) to the main attraction: the sporting arena within.

Ground-side view of the pitch and terraces

Ground-side view of the pitch and terrace

By then, some brollies had gone up but sports enthusiasts are not the weakly kind. I found myself angling for a shot of the pitch among the many lined up along its perimeter. Some crouched down to caress the grass while others stood still to enjoy the expanse of the pitch and the ground-side view of the main stand terraces. As the droplets fell harder, the field embraced it and glistened vividly. Any joy was soon dampened as the winds picked up and forced us to take shelter.

Mother Nature's performance - a hallowed field

Mother Nature’s performance – a hallowed field

One brave figure remained on the tracks under an umbrella as the heavens opened. Another lone figure, a visitor, soon accompanied him, trudging up and down the length of the pitch, seemingly oblivious to the increasingly heavy downpour. The rest of us were left cowering from the fury of the wind and rain, seeking shelter under entrances, covered terraces and walkways. As the storm reached its peak, rain splash formed a fleeting calf-high mist as mother nature demonstrated her craft in creating a hallowed field.

Main stand view

Main stand view

I stole on an intermission in her performance to make my way up the main stand, only to be greeted by a stream, a result of gushing drainage outlets at the sides of the aisles. Sloshing up the slippery concrete steps and moderately strong current while being pelted by large droplets of rain, I took the fastest possible route to an open seat in the covered stands, brushing past two ladies who stalled midway in the rain with their brollies. Seating myself down in the main stand, I noticed someone starting off on the home stretch. He tore through the light rain and fell theatrically at the end, drawing warm applause for the performance. “That was pretty fast!” some said, amused and happy to have seen good sport today. My spectator experience thoroughly satisfied, I ventured forth to the cauldron atop the opposite stand.

I joined the crowd on an flanking move. Making my way through the ground entrance and up a flight of stairs to the upper stands, I reached gate 37, the entrance leading to the famed cauldron. Once again out in the open, this time without any cover in sight, I glanced up the towering floodlights. The rain cloud was moving east, leaving clear blue skies behind its gray trail.

A familiar backdrop adorns the main stand

A familiar backdrop adorns the main stand

Turning round to the west, my eyes immediately recognized the familiar Shinjuku skyline. Just a stone’s throw away, it seemed even nearer as a pretty backdrop adorning the main stand. A spectator tormented by the sight of his team could simply look away to enjoy the concrete landscape that stood over the horizon. The sight was enough to keep anyone distracted till something exciting happened on the grounds below.

Impeccable orderliness demonstrated once again

Impeccable orderliness demonstrated once again

The back stand’s main attraction awaited. I refocused my thoughts and rejoined the queue. A single file formed along an aisle toward the cauldron. I waited in line, amazed by the live demonstration of impeccable orderliness so characteristic of Japanese society. We all played our part, shuffling toward the cauldron to take a prized photo or two. That was all the time we afforded ourselves with the crowd breathing down on us. Some took selfies in their business suits, others perched atop the fences or searched for the best possible composition. All this happened in line, with the rest of the stands empty. We all knew where the best vantage was, just follow everyone else!

Rain clouds left behind clear blue skies

Rain clouds left behind clear blue skies

Past the cauldron, the line disappeared, the tension dissipated, and the euphoria subsided. A sense of nostalgia tinged with longing sadness quickly took hold. I would have loved to see a game here. Any sporting event, just to feel the wind in my hair and cheers reverberating across the ground. The open skies, flowing terraces, and flights of stairs in this arena was deprived of sporting endeavor, save the lone runner and some soccer jerseys. What will the future hold for its new incarnation? Its design will hold the key to the answer, and without doubt, it will not just be sport.

The crowd-guided tour had dispersed and I made my solo exit through an adjacent gate. It was the only other one open to us that day, waiting to be shut like the rest of them until the final farewell on the following weekend.

Gates closed

Gate closed

As I made my exit, a local TV station caught a fellow visitor in Kashima Antlers colors, who was chatting away happily into the camera. On the way back down the last flight of stairs, I received a towel to remind me of my adventure in one of Japan’s sporting monuments.

Hike reaping more for less


Tokyo – Since Japan’s sales tax rose to 8% on April 1, 2014, I’ve noticed some changes, particularly in the way prices are shown. Major supermarket chains jumped on a legal revision to show prices less tax before the hike. Before, it used to be mandatory to display tax inclusive retail prices throughout the country, but today, we get tax exclusive prices, along with the more familiar tax inclusive ones in parentheses. Conditioned to non-bracketed figures, a shopper’s mind will register the lower prices, even as it recognizes the significance of the bracketed (tax inclusive) figure in peripheral vision.

Not that I don’t get along with the number 8, sharing the same sound as prosperity in Mandarin, it’s the best number businesses can wish for. That has rung true here in Japan. Even as Starbucks has taken a slight hit on its tall-sized beverage, which now costs not 15 or even 20 but just 10 yen more at 350 yen, elsewhere, math seems to be an urgent subject for revision. Haircut chain QB raised its flat 1000 yen cuts by 80 yen, even as they offered the old price for senior citizens on weekdays. Vending machine prices have also gone up by a dime, which is around 8%. Well, at least we all know who’s counting their pennies here.

Cents really do matter in Japan, a country famous for clockwork train services and attention to detail. After years of molding 5% prices and making them attractive propositions, the 3% hike has created mental challenges and added unwieldy change in our pockets. Imagine trying to keep your shopping under 1000 yen by grabbing groceries for 94, 380 and 460 yen, tax exclusive, preparing a nice bill in line, and ending up having to find another 8 yen. Try ruffling through loose change under the anxious gaze of other people in the queue. I’d probably give up, pay with the nice 1000 yen bill plus a 10 yen coin hastily retrieved from my already bulging store of coins. The mint in Hiroshima has done shoppers no favours, ending its four-year break to meet an expected surge in demand for 1-yen coins.

Toll fares also rose on the same day, or rather expressway operators chose to change their discount scheme to charge daytime drivers more. A night drive from Tokyo to neighbouring Yokohama on the Tomei expressway is now 30% more expensive unless you passed the toll gates after midnight. That’s another huge blow to logistics companies who will have been scratching their heads for answers to gas prices that have been flying through the roof since the yen began its slide.

Drivers aside, I can see shoppers swarming to limited time offers and daily bargains at supermarkets. The Uniqlo phenomenon is proof of thrifty shopping habits: a prolonged campaign of weekend hard bargains means Uniqlo shops are empty the rest of the week. It’s not hard to see people ask whether anyone would buy a garment that is not a rock-bottom offer. I can see businesses timing their own hikes with the government’s before slashing them again for offers, but that’ll only add fuel to swarming in a society already known for its herding habits. Maybe it’ll help companies manage inventories better, but cultivating such consumer habits will not bring long-term benefits.

The papers have reported a 2.7% CPI gain in Tokyo in an overall positive outlook for the Japanese economy. However, some observers remain cautious and have indicated that it was driven by the tax hike. The evidence is there for all to see, if you look hard enough at the prices in parentheses. Focus and attention to detail (and offers) will obviously be the mantra for discerning shoppers. For now, I will sit back and watch how things pan out before the next 2% hike hits consumers again in October next year.