Category Archives: Extremities

Spike: Some FAQs

A heartfelt thank you for all your kind messages of support; truly I would not have kept writing as long as I have without the encouragement of feedback. Here are my answers to some frequently (or infrequently or only once) asked questions.

 1)    Will Spike remain up for the time being, or do I have to start saving my favorite posts?

That’s an easy one to answer, yes, it stays up. And as WordPress in their munificence charge hardly anything for upkeep (how do they pay their bills?), it will remain up for the foreseeable future—not that there’s such a thing, of course.

 2)    Can’t you turn Spike into a real book, or even an e-book? I’d pay.

That’s also an easy one to answer, no. First, there’s the economics. The last Spike post generated about a thousand hits above the baseline noise over three days. Let’s make a series of what I think are fairly heroic assumptions: that half of all those hitters buy the book, that a publisher is able to drum up interest so that three times that number, 1,500 people, eventually buy the book, and that the book is priced at a hefty $30 or so. That’s $45,000 in gross revenue. Then subtract the cost of printing, especially in the anti-coffee-table book format to which Spike would best be suited, the cost of running down all the dozens of academics, songwriters, and critics, to name but a few, from whom I’ve so liberally quoted, for copyright permission, and numerous other costs that I needn’t detail. It’s never going to be a winning proposition. There’s an even more formidable obstacle, though, one which I simply cannot discuss. Anything permanent, anything with an ISBN, is out of the question.

 3)    What about the pieces you didn’t think were worth salvaging? Where can I find them?

Well, the pieces I thought not worth salvaging really are the scrapings off the bottom of a sad barrel. There are only about a dozen, and they fall into three broad categories: Minispikes about arcane subjects such as the economics of tobacco in Japan, odd assays at macroeconomics, such as the case for a consumption tax hike, and last but by no means least, the Spiked series of venom-laced attacks on ignorant, bloviating hacks (I left one example, the one that I most enjoyed researching and writing, at the table of contents). You can find these pieces, if you must, by clicking randomly on something at the table of contents and following the arrows—Spike as labyrinth, one of my favourite metaphors.

 4)    Will you not keep writing, please?

I would love to set up another blog—“Campaign for a Slow Internet” as a title appeals in its forlorn hopelessness—but I’d find myself muzzled. The itch to write may prove beyond my powers of self-control not to scratch, though. If there is a new blog, I’ll let you know. I will, at some point in the next few months, pen a Spike Preface, explaining the genesis of the blog, taking a gander at the writings of some Eminent Japan Hands (The Two Donalds in particular), and musing over the future of letters in the Age of AGFA—more rambling, in other words.

 5)    Was there ever a definitive answer to what the spike sticking out from the guardrail was for?

(Readers who do not understand to what this question refers, please see “About” on the top bar).
Yes, they serve no purpose whatsoever (a perfect metaphor for Spike): they’re the legacies of accidents in which vehicles collide with the central reservation or side guardrails, popping out the bolts, which then tear metal triangles off the vehicles that have collided with them. I just popped down to see if “my” spike was still there, still overlooked, four years on. It is.

 6)    Could I trouble you for a list of books that should be on our own literary bucket list?

Here are a dozen what I think are relatively overlooked goodies, ancient and modern, in print and very out of print, culled at near-random from the bookcase nearest me:
The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter
Tokyo Style by Kyoichi Tsuzuki
Japan in the Passing Lane: An Insider’s Account of Life in a Japanese Auto Factory by Satoshi Kamata
Unbeaten Tracks in Japan by Isabella Bird
Vermillion Sands by J.G. Ballard
Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human by Jesse Bering
The Lost Wolves of Japan by Brett L. Walker
Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain by Stefan Collini (disclosure: a former lecturer of mine)
Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago by Douglas H. Erwin
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow
and of course:
Digby Grand by George John Whyte Melville

 7)    Can I have your car?

No. The rustmobile stays with me.

“Wherever structure is to be conjured from disorder, it must be driven by the generation of greater disorder elsewhere, so that there is a net increase in the disorder of the universe.” The Second Law, in The Laws of Thermodynamics, Peter Atkins

All photos taken in the towns of Furubira and Shakotan on the Shakotan Peninsula, Hokkaido, September 2012. Rust, like death, never sleeps.

Tama no Yu public baths, Furubira

Shinya Sushi, Furubira

 Oasis activity, Furubira

 Hauling fish on cannery row, Furubira

 Warehouse flank, Furubira

Shiny chimney, Furubira

Fashion Shop Umeno, Furubira

All fall down, Furubira

Rust begets rust, Furubira

Rust ghost doorway, Furubira

Gas stand, Furubira

Waiting for the bus, Furubira

Converging, Furubira

White panel in rust, Furubira

Buttresses, Furubira

Cracks, tiles, and string, Furubira

Cracks and a peek, Furubira

Little bluff, Furubira

Fine old house and warehouse complex, Furubira (2)

Fine old house and warehouse complex, Furubira (1)

Doorway, Bikuni port, Shakotan

Squid boat lights and harbour activity, Shakotan

Squid boat and old warehouse, Shakotan

Squid boat lights, Shakotan

Squid boat lights and winches, Shakotan

 No illegal fishing, between Furubira and Shakotan

Seascape around Horonaifu, Shakotan

Waiting for the bus, Shakotan

Cycling marsupials, Shakotan

Rusty corner, Furubira

Ironmonger's, Shakotan

Vote for Hachiro

Superb doorway, Shakotan

Doorway from the side, Shakotan

 Old meets new, Furubira

 Cannery row, Furubira

In praise of…The Brown Bear

If you go down in the woods today, you’d better not go alone,
It’s lovely down in the woods today, but safer to stay at home,
For every bear that ever there was,
Will gather there for certain because,
Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic
Teddy Bear’s Picnic, Henry Hall & His Orchestra

Excessive harvest continues to be the most immediate threat to the persistence of Hokkaido brown bears.
Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, Tsutomu Mano and Joseph Moll, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia

“What does the sign say?” asked the illiterate Dr. T.  
One of the pleasures of botanizing with Dr. T is that when two roads diverge, we take the one less traveled, which on this occasion led us, in the rental Prius with me at the helm, at the proper and stately botanizing speed of fifteen kays, up a winding, hill-chiseled, single-track logging road, Route 607, on the Oshima Peninsula at the very southernmost tip of Hokkaido. We hadn’t encountered another human being for at least an hour, no small feat in this crowded land.
“It says, ‘Beware of the bears.’”
“Are there any bears here?”
“Nah,” I replied with the faith of the ignorant, the city-slicker guide masquerading as Mowgli, “We’re too far south. They’re all up in the far northeast.”
Ten minutes later, we rounded a corner. There was a bear in the middle of the road.
“Holy fucking crap! It’s a bear!”
Legion are the species of flora and fauna that are devilishly tough to identify in the field on first glance. Bears are not among them. This was Ursus arctos (so good they named it twice), the Brown Bear, aka the grizzly bear, or in its northeast Asian subspecies incarnation, Ursus arctos lasiotus, the Ussuri brown bear—in Japanese, the higuma.
Memories of what happened next differ. I’m told that I moved with uncharacteristic physical swiftness to close the driver’s side window of the Prius. My recollection is that I coolly asked, with the curiosity of the natural scientist, whether it was an adult.
“Of course it is!” exclaimed Dr. T, scrambling around on the back seat for his Nikon. He had about thirty fumbling seconds before the bear, rightly more wary of us than we were of it (how much I would love to know if “it” were a boar or a sow), lumbered up the hillside and into the beeches and maples, which is why even the best photo looks as if it were taken with a Box Brownie by a leprous dipsomaniac with delirium tremens. No Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for Dr. T, then.

I’d naïvely asked whether it was an adult because, not well versed in matters ursine and reared on wildlife documentaries about the salmon-fat Kodiak bears of Alaska and Hokkaido brown bears of the Shiretoko Peninsula, our bear seemed, well, a tad diminutive. Later, Dr. T, quizzed on how big it had been, replied with typical drunken eloquence, “As big as a really fucking big Alsatian!” On reviewing his photo, that seems about right.

Not that—in this case—size mattered: for both of us, it was our first encounter with a bear in the wild, a moment made so much the more magical for being wholly unexpected and unscripted. Globe-gallivanting Dr. T, one of whose friends is an authority on the Spectacled Bear of the Andes, holds out hope of one day tracking down the inspiration for Paddington Bear in deepest, darkest Peru, but for sedentary city-bound me, this was almost certainly the only bear with whom I will ever cross paths. 

The following evening, we watch an item on the evening news: an Asian Black Bear, categorized on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable to extinction, has been driven down into residential districts in the central Japan city of Nagano by a poor season for seeds, nuts, and berries, the dearth of which has been so exasperating Dr. T.
“These narratives,” I warn Dr. T, “invariably end in the death of the bear.”
Twenty seconds later, the bear is dead, shot by a local hunter.
“Isn’t there anyone to speak up on behalf of the bear?”
“Well,” I reply, gesturing at the screen, “This guy’s from WWF Japan, but he’s just explaining how there are likely to be more bear incursions this autumn, so your answer is no.”

******

The Brown Bear is one of only two of the eight species of bear listed by the IUCN as Least Concern—five are listed as Vulnerable and one, the Giant Panda, is listed as Endangered—and while it is safe for now in its strongholds of Russia, Alaska, and Canada, it is long gone from many parts (Mexico, California, the Atlas Mountains, South Korea, the UK, and Germany) of its immense historical range and under intense pressure in many other parts (India, China, Mongolia, North Korea, and most of Europe) of the rest. The Japanese population may be the fifth largest in the world, after that of Romania. But how large is it? I thought, from previous dabbles in ursid research, that I knew the answer—around 2,000-3,000 individuals—but the truth turns out to be more elusive, as this October 6, 2012, article from the online Nikkei newspaper, which I translate in its disturbing entirety, suggests:

How many brown bears on Hokkaido? First survey in 12 years
Survey to be used in trouble countermeasures
How many brown bears are there on Hokkaido? The first population survey in 12 years is to be conducted on Hokkaido, where bear intrusions into forest villages and residential districts are frequent. The previous census, in 2000, estimated the population at 1,771-3,628, but current opinion is divided, with some claiming there are over 10,000 and others that they have been over-harvested. Hokkaido wants to get a precise grasp of the population and use the data in measures to prevent trouble. Between April and September this year, there were 963 sightings and 416 bears were harvested. Reports were made of more than 100 sightings in Sapporo City alone. In the year to March 2012, 825 bears were harvested and researchers are saying that bears are being over-culled in comparison with the estimated population count. How many bears are there really out there? We need a more precise grasp of the number. In September, the prefectural government mailed a questionnaire to some 5,800 hunters within the prefecture asking them to estimate the number of bears in their municipality and whether the number was rising or falling. The results of the survey are to be put together before next March. Discussions have also begun about bringing in the “hair-trap method”, whereby bear fur is collected and DNA analyzed to distinguish individuals, so as to enhance the precision of the survey. The Hokkaido Research Organization’s Environmental Science Research Center is pursuing research into how to cut costs. The generally accepted theory is that up to 10% of a bear population can be harvested annually without impacting the ecosystem. A survey on the Oshima Peninsula in the south of the prefecture using the hair-trap method put the bear population at 800, plus or minus 400. Plans are being drawn up to protect the bears there by putting an upper limit on the harvest at 120 individuals (40 sows).

So noone has a damned clue what is going on and the bear census is to be done shoddily and on the cheap. Assuming the Nikkei numbers are accurate, even at the upper population limit of the 2000 census the recent Hokkaido-wide cull rate (“harvest” is a noxious euphemism widely used around the world) is over 20% a year; at the lower limit it is close to 50%. On the Oshima Peninsula, the cull averaged about 80 bears a year between 1990 and 2008, the vast majority in controlled kills of “nuisance bears” (some, using the Ainu language, talk of kimun kamuy, “good bears” and uen kamuy, “bad bears”) rather than in recreational hunting, and a cull cap at 120 would have only saved bear lives one year in the last two decades. If the peninsula’s bear population is only 400, the low end of the survey estimate, the cull-rate cap would be 30% a year and the average cull rate 20% a year.

This goes some of the way to explaining why the odds were strongly stacked that our bear would seem, well, a tad diminutive: brown bears reach reproductive age at around five to seven years and live, unmolested, for 20-30 years, but at a cull rate of even 10% a year, Hokkaido brown bears have only a roughly even chance of making it to adulthood, even setting aside normal mortality rates. To put this in human terms, a cull rate of 10% equates to a homicide rate of 10,000 per 100,000 people; the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime puts the 2011 homicide rate in Honduras, reckoned to be the most murderous country in the world, at 91.6 per 100,000, more than a hundred times lower.

What of the other side of the ledger of death? Between 1980 and 2009, a total of 14 people (five of them hunters) were killed by bears on Hokkaido—fewer than 0.5 fatalities a year—while in the last dozen years, no more than three people a year have been injured annually. On the raw, unadjusted-for-stupidity data (all 18 of the bear fatalities between 1970 and 2000 were male and a minority of victims are solitary nocturnal salmon poachers), you’re approximately 400 times more likely to be killed in a Hokkaido traffic accident (190 fatalities in 2011) and 7,000 times more likely to be injured in one (19,705 injuries in 2011). You’re also approximately 3,000 times more likely to die by your own sweet hand than at the paws of a bear (1,533 Hokkaido suicides in 2010). With people outnumbering bears by about a thousand to one (and I would guess “Beware of the bear” signs outnumbering flesh-and-blood bears by fifty to one), it’s a massively, massively lop-sided conflict between these two apex omnivores. There’s damage to crops and forests to be taken into account, too, but this could be overcome with a well designed compensation scheme—the damage amounts to a paltry million dollars or so a year.

The human population of the eight towns that make up the remote southern end of the Oshima peninsula, where the bears are densest, is collapsing—from 89,000 in 1970 to 47,000 in 2010 and a projected 27,000 in 2035—and across Hokkaido the hunter population is likewise collapsing, down by more than half since the 1978 peak to 9,400 of late, with 44% of them over 60, but it would be premature to declare victory for the bear on these grounds, as the Oshima bear population has been falling these past four decades, too. As long as bears are seen as a pestilent and lethal enemy to be subdued—a view kept alive by folk memories of episodes from the early settler era such as the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident—as long as there are people around, and as long as some have guns, the conflict will run and run.

******

We pressed on along Route 607, which turned into a deeply, rockily rutted track.
“You know, there are very few roads down which you can’t take a two-wheel drive car,” airily opined Dr. T, whose steed of choice is a Land Rover Defender, who believes all lesser mounts must be—or should be, in a righteous world—just as rugged, and who has previous global convictions as long as a brachiating gibbon’s arm for grievous rental car abuse—if rent-a-car agencies had an Interpol most wanted list, he would be on it.
Moments later, to a banshee wail of stone against steel, the Prius grounded out.
“Fuck this for a lark, I’m turning round.”
We headed up around the coast to the other end of Route 607, but could only get a few kilometers into the interior before being thwarted by a forbidding barrier declaring that the road ahead had been washed away.

Even Dr. T in his Land Rover couldn’t have maneuvered past this—although I bet he would have given it the old college try. Unlike other barrier-blocked roads we had run up against in our travels, this one offered no schedule for reopening. Beside the barrier stood a wooden house, its frail, skeletal rib-cage of a roof staved in as if by a giant, vengeful fist. It’s the same all over rural Hokkaido: the homesteads on the most marginal land, furthest from civilization, are as a rule the first to go. Perhaps, I later mused, just perhaps this is where bear salvation lies, in the withdrawal from the extremities of Homo sapiens sapiens (so good—and so immodest—we named ourselves twice) and the closure of logging roads rendered redundant by the demise of the timber trade.

Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth. Thanks to the selfish genetic success of the human cockroach, the 21st century is destined by many a reckoning to see the extirpation of half of all of the creatures with whom we share the planet, in what may come to be known as the Anthropocene extinction, the greatest and swiftest extinction event since at least the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. Barring nuclear holocaust, utterly catastrophic climate change, or asteroid impact, the Brown Bear might make it through to the dawn of the 22nd century, along with the American Black Bear and, courtesy of the crudely nationalist and blinkered efforts of the Chinese state, the Giant Panda, already conservation dependent and ecologically extinct. It has to be touch and go for the other five bears. In the follies of my Greenpeace youth, I used to care passionately about these things, until I came to appreciate the enormity of humanity’s indifference.
As Brion Gysin said, man is a bad animal.

Select sources (in no particular order):

The World Wildlife Fund Japan hates bears (J only)

Hokkaido suicide rates (J)

Hokkaido road traffic death and accident rates (J)

Japan Bear Network report on bear-caused deaths and injuries in Japan (J, pdf)

Bear-caused deaths and injuries on Hokkaido, 1970-2000 (J)

Bear-caused injuries in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)

Bears culled in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)

Bears, forests, and bear culls in Japan, 1923-2006 (J, pdf)

Aging hunters on Hokkaido (J)

Interpreting the recent increase of brown bear conflicts in Hokkaido, Japan, from the 20th International Conference on Bear Research and Management, 2011 (E, pdf)

Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia (E, pdf)

Population Characteristics of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula, Hokkaido (E, ppt)

Management and Research of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula (E, ppt)

IUCN Red List data for the Brown Bear (E)

Bear Conservation and Biodiversity, Japan Bear Network (E, pdf)

The status of brown bears in Japan, in Understanding Asian bears to secure their future (E, pdf)

Modeling the brown bear population in Slovenia (E, pdf)

In praise of…Optimists

The chances that a small business will survive for five years in the United States are about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe that the statistics apply to them. … If you interviewed someone who recently opened an Italian restaurant, you would not expect her to have underestimated her prospects for success or to have a poor view of her ability as a restaurateur. But you must wonder: would she still have invested money and time if she had made a reasonable effort to learn the odds—or, if she did learn the odds (60% of new restaurants are out of business after three years), paid attention to them?

The Engine of Capitalism, in Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

A shaggy dog story

Dusk rolled down the shutters of the day as we were botanizing inland of the Okhotsk Sea on an old dirt-track logging road, Route 1055, in the borderlands between Monbetsu and Okoppe. Our supposed destination that evening, the windy city of Wakkanai at the northernmost tip of mainland Japan, lay still over 200km and at least three hours’ away. As usual, we were running late.

“How about going back to Monbetsu and getting up early to knock off the drive?” optimistically volunteered Dr. T, who in his natural habitat is rarely known to rise before ten.
“Why don’t we try and get halfway up the coast?” I groped on the map for a settlement of any size. “Say to Esashi?”
“Will there be anywhere to stay?”
“There’ll be somewhere,” I replied without conviction.

The Osaki Ryokan had been built not long after the war, volunteered a scion of the extended family who run it, and it showed, in the time-burnished floorboards and the plywood doors to our rooms.

“Are those where they keep the dead relatives?” quipped Dr. T, pointing to the row of chest freezers. To judge from the glimpse I had later of the family drawing room, with its row of severe oil portraits of deceased forebears above the fireplace, hung at an angle so they frowned down on the living, it was a plausible enough hypothesis. Dr T. declared that he needed an hour to process the fruits of the day’s pillaging and made it my mission to scout out somewhere to eat—and, more importantly, drink.

It was Saturday night but the streets of Esashi, famous—if famous for anything—famous for its kegani horsehair crabs, were deathly quiet, as quiet as the graves in which many of its residents already have one foot. You don’t by now, I’m sure, need me to rehearse the demography, but I will anyway: 1970 population 15,800; 2010 population 9,100 (down 42% in 40 years); projected 2035 population 5,900 (down another 36% in 25 years).

“It’s crunch time now for Japanese politics,” bellowed the enigmatic because unsponsored sign above a shop that, the two wall-mounted pillboxes hinted, had just made it into the age of the credit card. Was this a heartfelt cry from a lone individual, sick of petty politicking far to the south? What, if any, thoughts or actions was it intended to provoke? And how soon, exactly, was now?

Plaster and signboards were falling away to reveal the ancient woodwork below: this had once been a ceramic-ware store, but half of the Aegean sailboat sign had vanished. The sake-swilling pot-bellied tanuki badger reminded me of Dr. T—and myself.

There was something starkly heads-and-tails beguiling about the Suntory Bar Toi et Moi.

Back to the quest: spatters of chuckles and cackles filtered out through the cracks in a few red-lantern joints, but these joints I rejected, knowing of Dr T’s intense predilection for the alcohol of the grape over the grain. Almost next door to the ryokan, though, was a restaurant whose name, 4Quattro, betrayed Italian pretensions and the presence of wine. Inside was a revelation: the interior had plainly been very recently and very expensively kitted out in a chorus of chic beiges and blonde woods, with Marcel Breuer cantilevered-steel and cane-backed Cesca chairs from the heyday of Modernism (yes, I confess to a chair fetish), expansive tables with immaculate white tablecloths and dun under-tablecloths, and sensitive spot and recessed ceiling lighting. The assemblage would not for a moment have looked out of place in one of the world’s major metropolises—indeed, it would put many restaurants in many of them to shame.

4Quattro was run by a young local couple, perhaps on the cusp of their thirties, with gender roles entrenched: he manned the counter and cooked, she, baby strapped to breasts, flitted around the dining area, toting the near-unreadable moveable feast of the day’s handwritten blackboard specials. In the depraved lands from which Dr. T and I hail, she would be filed as a “yummy mummy” or more crudely as a MILF. The Esashi Tourism Board (yes, such a body exists), does 4Quattro no favors and underscores the highly gendered nature of the Japanese dining experience by making reference to a “chic interior perfect for women”. For a while, we had the restaurant to ourselves, but maybe a dozen diners had come and mostly gone, all but a couple of them female, by the time we drunk-tumbled out.

We were more interested in matters oenological than gastronomical, and the wine list—red or white, glass or bottle—was a let-down, but Dr. T, more of a globe-trotting gourmand than I, declared the grilled sea bream to be as fine as anything routinely rustled up in the better kitchens of London or New York. How long, I asked mummy, had they been open? About eighteen months. I didn’t have the heart to ask her to estimate her chances of surviving the next eighteen.

Subsequent investigation, courtesy of the Food Business Research Institute and other luminaries, suggest that the Japan bar and restaurant bankruptcy rate is only half that of the US, with a fifth of those founded in the three years previous to 1999 (but a quarter of rameneries and the like) having gone out of business. This might, paradoxically, be due to the greater caution of the Japanese entrepreneur. Still, the industry is contracting, with the number of bars and restaurants peaking at a scarcely credible 846,000 in 1991 (one for every 150 or so people) and falling to a still staggering 673,000 in 2009 (down 21%) and the market value peaking in 1997 at Y29.0trn and falling to Y23.6trn in 2010 (down 19%), a decline in both nominal and real terms, and 4Quattro is a very unlikely restaurant (in 2006, only about a tenth of all restaurants were classified as Western) with very high overheads in a very unlikely place, from whose already threadbare catchment area we can exclude the old, the young, the poor, the fisherfolk, and most men. I wouldn’t want to wager on 4Quattro’s chances of long-term survival but I am selfishly grateful for the optimistic bias of its instigators, even though that bias may ultimately come at great personal cost.

Furiously botanizing, toward Hamatonbetsu up the Okhotsk coast we trundled, as backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.

**********

Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they really are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters optimistic overconfidence. In terms of its consequences for decisions, the optimistic bias may well be the most significant of the cognitive biases.

Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Wake Wakkanai, or Cinema Paradiso, Hokkaido style

Although Wakkanai (from the Ainu yamu wakka nai, the swamp with the cold drinking water) features in all the best guidebooks, few Westerners ever make it there for the night. How few? In the year to end-March 2012, 30 Britons, 18 Germans, 123 Americans, 25 Canadians, and 46 Australians (ever the adventurers), that’s how few, according to the city’s preposterously comprehensive website.

“Everything’s brand new!” exclaimed Dr. T, gesturing with an arc of the arm at the 12-storey ANA Hotel (1994) and the sparkling station complex, which had been razed and rebuilt since my last visit three years before. “I’m beginning to suspect that Spike has been spouting guff all this time about the decay of rural Japan.”

Dr. T claims to be a depressive realist, usually prefacing references to optimists with an Anglo-Saxon expletive, but I was beginning to suspect that he had an unacknowledged streak of optimism buried deep within. Or that he was falling under the spell of the Potemkin Village bias that is one of Kahneman’s profoundest insights: What You See Is All There Is, or WYSIATI to its friends. Or that he simply delights in winding me up.

As Dr. T sieved fruit and catalogued the day’s plunder, I moseyed around the glossy new station.

Tell me what’s wrong with this picture. Give up? Allow me. Where do I start? First off, there’s noone on the bus. Not too surprising, you might think—it was a seven on a Sunday evening after all, and this could be taken as a sign of prosperity. Fair enough, let’s move on. Second, there’s only one taxi in the ranks; that there is one at all is a triumph of hope over experience, as the next—and last—train is not due in until 22:47, nigh on four hours’ maudlin wait away. Third, there is absolutely noone about, in vehicle or on foot. Fourth, and most intriguing, is that little neon-orange sign that blares out the single, magical word “CINEMA”. No, I tried to wrestle-reason with myself, no, no, noooo, surely nobody, however beholden to the opiate of optimism, could have… But they had.

I bought a platform ticket and eyed the timetable. Eight arrivals a day, eight departures a day, the last of which, the 19:24 to Horonobe, 60km to the south and with a 2010 population of 2,700, was idling away its last moments of leisure before chugging off. There were no passengers.

Later I was to discover that in fiscal 2009 Wakkanai station served just 266 train embarkers and disembarkers a day, that this number was down by a quarter in five years, that the platform count was reduced to one from two in the 2010 remodeling, and that the station, home to massive marshalling yards as late as the seventies, cannot now muster even a single set of points. To channel my imaginary potty-mouthed Jewish grandma superhero: and on this facelift you spent exactly how much?

About $50mn. Sorry grandma, I just couldn’t help it. B-b-b-but, I didn’t spend much of my money, please understand, most of the construction was financed by bonds and subsidies, so the bill will fall on future generations. “Putz!” Thwack! “Owww!”

Before I talk you (and myself) through the minutiae of the economics of movie theaters in Japan, let me take you by the hand and lead you through the (other) streets of Wakkanai, the ones that Catherine the Great—and Dr. T—didn’t see. Let’s start with a couple of aerial views, looking north from downtown.

The gaps that make the chessboard, now gone to grass or gravel, many being hawked as pay-by-the-month parking spaces, are empty lots filled with the specters of torn-down buildings—central Wakkanai was sardine-packed tight in the sixties—and give the district the air of a scaled-down rustbelt inner city in the US, although without the gun-toting, crack-peddling hoodlums. Level the many disused or underused buildings and the chessboard would open up further.

This grotty gem of a multi-tenanted zakkyo building, where we dined at the appropriately named Karaku (“Flower Pleasure”) on sashimi, is more representative of the architectural jewels of downtown Wakkanai than the new station complex.

Two very drunk men from the suburbs of Tokyo, celebrating their liberation from salaryman serfdom at sixty with a whistle-stop road-trip circuit of Hokkaido, discussed past and future routes with a passion I would not have been able to predict it was possible to possess. On noticing us, the more voluble of the pair established our native place and raised a wobbly glass.

“Aaah, Igirisu, totemo ii kuni da! Ōshitsu ga aru kara! Japan, ōshitsu! England, ōshitsu! Very good!”
“What’s he saying?”
“He’s saying that England and Japan must be united in friendship because of their royal family and imperial household.”
“Why on earth does he think that?”
I was tempted to offer a republican toast, “Up the ōshitsu!”, but restrained myself.

Suddenly, the man’s face grew serious. He uttered a guttural growl and fell off his barstool.

To the right of Karaku is a bar emblazoned with declarations of fan fervor for four of Hokkaido’s pro and semi-pro sport teams: the Nippon Ham Fighters (baseball), Consadole Sapporo (soccer), Levanga Hokkaido (basketball), and Espolada Hokkaido (futsal). Sport fans are prey to the most optimistic of biases—the blind conviction, in the face of often onrushing lava streams of evidence to the contrary, that this season the pennant will come to its rightful home—but aside from the Ham (or the Meat Packers, as their sponsors unromantically call themselves in English), who are a regular presence in the Japan Series, the performances of this quartet must test the sunniest of dispositions. Consadole Sapporo oscillate between the first and second divisions, have never won anything other than promotion, and are about to be demoted to the second, demotion determined more swiftly than it has been for any J-League team, on a current record of played 29, won four, drawn two, lost 23, and a -49 goal difference. Levanga Hokkaido have only once tasted more victories than defeats in the five seasons since they were formed, have finished last twice and second-to-last twice in the eight-team Japan Basketball League, and started the 2012-2013 season with five straight losses. That the team features a guard who is 42 years old does not inspire confidence for their prospects. Espolada Hokkaido finished last season in ninth place in the ten-team Futsal League. Testosterone levels in the bar must be semi-permanently depressed.  

Out-of-the-way spots like Wakkanai are the last bastions of that endangered species, the unchained coffee shop. The intense slab-serif font is for me a madeleine ticket back to childhood.

Fancifully, I like to kid myself that the blue-bonneted woman waiting for the bus in Wakkanai, 2012, is the child in this photo, waiting for the bus in Wakkanai half a century before, and that the bus, like Godot, never came—and never will.

It’s the contrast between public-sector affluence and private-sector squalor, precisely the opposite of what prevails in the West, that’s so mesmerizing. To drape this trio with a negligee of statistics, the number of shops in Wakkanai fell by a quarter between 1999 and 2007, the number of people they employed fell by close to a fifth, and their aggregate annual sales fell by a sixth.

Historically, the Wakkanai economy rested on three planks: the fisheries, farming, and tourism. The fisheries were the first to be hit, with the Soviet Union’s 1977 imposition of a 200 nautical mile exclusive fishing zone; the catch fell by four-fifths between 1976 and 2008 and its value by two-thirds. The implosion of the fisheries coincided with the population peak in 1975, at 55,500. By 2010, the population had fallen by close to 30%, to 39,600, due mainly to an exodus of young people in search of work. If you are going to run a successful cinema, young people are what you need, and Wakkanai does not have many of those, or at least not nearly as many as it once did: the population of 15-29 year olds more than halved in the three decades between 1975 and 2005 and fell by more than a quarter in the decade between 1995 and 2005 alone. As measured by production value, farming—mostly dairy cattle—peaked in 1985 and has been gently ebbing ever since, with the number of farm households falling by a third between 1990 and 2005. Fickle tourism stepped in to fill the breach.

That this ghastly 1952 trawler owner’s residence has been turned into a museum should be enough to convince that Wakkanai itself is bereft of tourist charm: its appeal lies chiefly as a portal to the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, and in particular the volcanic-dramatic  island of Rishiri, seen here at dusk.

Wakkanai then fell prostrate victim to one of the cruelest and oddest of boomlets, the remote island boom (離島ブーム) of 1998-2002. The total tourist count, including day-trippers, peaked in 2002 at 818,000 and fell 43% to 456,600 in 2011, while the total number of nights spent in Wakkanai accommodation peaked in the same year at 473,700 and fell 25% to 356,500 in 2011, as tourists were lured away by whatever the TV wide-shows told them was hot that season. In 2002, Wakkanai was declared a kaso chiiki, a district of underpopulation, and by 2007, according to an admittedly unsourced comment at the Wakkanai Wikipage, 29.9% of Wakkanaikers were telling municipal pollsters they either wanted to move out of the city or were actually planning to do so.

“And into this you built not just a cinema, but a miniplex with three screens and 250 seats?”

On the day after I returned to Tokyo, an optimistic article in the Nikkei—and the Nikkei, which sees its primary responsibility as being to rustle those pom-poms as a cheerleader for corporate Japan, always likes to look on the bright side of life—enthused about how entrepreneurs are endeavoring to infuse fresh life into smaller cinemas, defined here as ones having fewer than five screens (a category into which T-Joy Wakkanai most definitely falls) by making them more distinctive, but even the optimism of the Nikkei could not disguise the bleakness of the outlook for smaller cinemas, whose nationwide screen-count, it reported, had fallen by 60% in the last decade, from around 1,250 to 500. Another Nikkei article I unearthed revealed that annual ticket sales had been pancake flat at 160mn-170mn last decade, before cratering to 145mn in the crisis year of 2011. As go ticket sales, so go box office revenues, which held steady at around Y200bn for a decade before slumping to Y180bn last year.

“And into this you built a miniplex and have the temerity to charge Y1,800 ($22.50) a ticket, when incomes in Wakkanai are half those of Tokyo, where tickets cost the same?”

My rule-of-thumb—whence it came I know not—has always been that no cinema, either miniplex or multiplex, is viable in a Japanese city with fewer than 100,000 potential cineastes. Was I right, though? Anoraks on and away we go! There are only three places on Hokkaido with fewer than 90,000 people that have cinemas: Wakkanai, Nayoro (31,000), home to a magnificent 1973 single-screen flea-pit, the Nayoro Daiichi Denkikan (the Nayoro Number One Electric Pavilion, 名寄第一電気館), named in tribute to the first cinema in Japan, and Urakawa (14,000), home to the 93-year old, 48-seat Daikokuza (Big Black Theater, 大黒座), both of which are firmly on my next Hokkaido itinerary. In contrast, everywhere with more than 90,000 people has at least one multi-screen movie house.

Anorak aglow with excitement, I expanded my unscientific analysis to 10 randomishly chosen ruralish prefectures and found just four cinemas in places smaller than Wakkanai: two were in the suburb-shadows of biggish cities, one was a 96-seater relic in the Tochigi town of Motegi (14,000), and one a true mystery. (If anyone can explain why there is an eight-screen, 1,494-seat multiplex in the Ishikawa city of Kahoku [34,000], do please get in touch). Between them, these 10 prefectures have 46 cities with populations between 40,000 and 90,000, but just six have commercial cinemas. However, there are only five cities with more than 120,000 folk that are cinema-less, the largest being Ashikaga (152,000) in Tochigi. My rule-of-thumb, it turns out, was more or less on the money.

There are two ways of forensically examining the viability of a cinema: from the inside and from the outside. Not having access to the books of T-Joy Wakkanai, which is owned by a subsidiary of one of the old Golden Age Big Six movie studios, Toei, we’ll have to go for the outside approach. Time to brush up that kindergarten maths… T-Joy manages to squeeze 20 showings out of its three Wakkanai screens (wring that asset dry!)

Theater 1: 66 seats, seven showings = 462 people/day
Theater 2: 86 seats, six showings = 516 people/day
Theater 3: 98 seats, seven showings = 686 people/day
Total: 1,664 people/day

At the 2010 census population of 39,600, it would take just 24 days for whole of Wakkanai to go to the cinema once. Assume 1.33 cinema visits a year, the national average of late, and it would take 32 days for the whole of Wakkanai to complete the ritual of its annual movie excursions. What happens in the other 11 months of the year?

Alternatively, look at it like this: 1,664 seats/day x 365 days a year = 607,360 people/year capacity; with 52,669 visits @ 1.33/year = seat occupancy rate of 8.7%.

So now you know: if you turn up one icy February day in Wakkanai, when the wind chill makes it feel like twenty below, and fancy catching a matinee, you probably won’t need to book ahead. Whoever said that Spike serves no practical purpose?

Eight point seven percent. That is a vanishingly low occupancy rate for a bums-on-seats operation: hoteliers, railway operators, and airlines only stop sweating and start smiling when their occupancy rates hit 60%-70%. As it turned out though, I had more to learn about the business model of the movie world, and learn it I did, from Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis, by Harold L. Vogel, writing here of the US:

It can be determined that in 2009, the maximum theoretical annual gross, based on 39,717 screens, was about $286 million per day or about $104 billion per year. The industry obviously operated well below its theoretical capacity, because there are many parts of the week and many weeks of the year during which people do not have the time or inclination to fill empty theater seats: in 2009, the industry’s average occupancy rate per seat per week was roughly 2.3 times, and box office receipts of around $10.6 billion in 2009 were thus only around 10.2% of theoretical capacity.

So T-Joy Wakkanai might after all be only a percentage point or two from normality—and, presumably, profitability! Don’t get too optimistic. This begs the question of why small-city Japan isn’t stuffed to the gills with miniplexes, to which my best, uninformed, answer is that the economies of scale only kick in at above, say, a 500-seat, five-screen level: much of what little money there is to be made from showing movies comes from the food and beverage (F&B) concession, with its 80% (my guess) cola and popcorn margins, which can be run by one uneconomically for 100 punters or economically for 500. (Should you be interested, by the way, T-Joy Wakkanai is hiring for its F&B concession, although at the low end of the Y680-Y850 hourly wage range, it will take you more than two-and-a-half hours to coin the dough to watch a flick). And what of the future? The projected 2035 population of 26,700, which may need to be cut given recent rates of outflow, and only one cinema visit a year yields a seat occupancy rate of 4.4%, at which point, presumably, T-Joy would pull the plug—although subsidies (and parent earnings) can soothe the sting of failure for so long…

Back in the sixties, Wakkanai had four cinemas—here you can see the Wakkanai Nippon Gekijo in all its tatty glory, showing a 1961 Michael “play it, Sam” Curtiz/John Wayne oater, The Comancheros (no wonder so many with a shred of sense gave up on the movies)—but the last one closed its doors in 1988, done in by the usual suspects.

All that was left, then, was to track down the optimists behind the cinema revival. They had, I figured, to be local, and they had to be dreamers.

Yukihiro Fujita, chair of the company, Saihoku Cinema (a consortium of eight local construction companies), that administers the nuts and bolts of the miniplex, and Ippei Takahashi, the president, first meet in 1992 when Takahashi, who was running a video rental store, calls on Fujita, the boss of a construction company, Fuji Kensetsu, to expand his store. Takahashi had long been hurt by criticism that he and his ilk had killed the cinema, while Fujita was shocked when his young son misidentified the local culture center as a movie theater. In 2001, the pair take undubbed anime movies without subtitles to Sakhalin, where they receive a rapturous reception from the local children, and they awaken to the presence of cinemas everywhere on the island. What exactly happens next is glossed over in the sole interview with them I was able to dig up, but with Fujita the chair of the Wakkanai Construction Association and thus a pillar of the community, it’s not hard to imagine. Fujita claims that breakeven comes at 60,000 bums-on-seats a year (so I was, gratifyingly, not at all far off in my guesstimate), which would require 1.5 cinema visits/year from the good burghers of Wakkanai, but he defines the catchment area as anywhere within a 90km radius of Wakkanai, in which 78,000 live, and aims for annual attendance of 100,000. Much as I sympathize with the aspirations of the optimist, I struggle to conceive of anyone in, say, Esashi making a 180km round-trip on roads treacherous with ice half the year for the disposable visual and auditory pleasures of—what’s on this week?—The Bourne Legacy, The Hunger Games, or Bayside Shakedown: The Final.

Yet on they dream, the optimists, and on they build.

**********

The evidence suggests that an optimistic bias plays a role—sometimes the dominant role—whenever individuals or institutions voluntarily take on significant risks. More often than not, risk takers underestimate the odds they face, and do not invest sufficient effort to find out what the odds are. Because they misread the risks, optimistic entrepreneurs often believe they are prudent, even when they are not.

Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Bitter oranges

“There’s a place just over the road that’s calling itself a bistro and looks like it’ll have a decent enough supply of Chateau Chunder.”
Dr T’s Aomori City hotel room floor was strewn with scores of seed-filled Manila envelopes, while the bathroom floor had sprouted a muddy volcano of soil, leaf-litter, and amorphous forest detritus. Had the room been fitted with ceiling-embedded surveillance cameras, he would have faced instant arrest as a one-man mobile drug laboratory.
“With you in ten!”

Bistro Daidai, we learned at the end of yet another wine-trodden evening, was named after the bitter orange (aka 橙, “the climbing tree”, Citrus aurantium var. daidai, Seville orange, sour orange, bigarade orange, and marmalade orange). Why, I never got so far as to ask. It had three tables seating four and half-a-dozen seats at the counter. We were the first customers that Friday night. There were three twentysomethings behind the counter, a woman and two men, one of whom cackhandedly spilt wine all over the table—and me. The table was mopped clean and toweled dry but I was left with bruise-blotched trousers. How long had they been open? About four months, came the reply.

Dr. T grew glum. “You know, we don’t do these micro-restaurants in the UK.” Dr. T likes to claim that sauce-soaked years of depression have dulled his sense of empathy, but as a former junk-bond analyst well versed in the ways and woes of troubled enterprises, a man who once described himself in an essay titled On Optimism as “Mozart to the Salieri of really bad decisions”, a twice married (“the triumph of hope over experience”) part-owner of a London trattoria, and a (necessarily optimistic) nursery entrepreneur who flirts with failure the way a lothario flirts with the ladies, I could tell that, as we wolfed down pâté de campagne that would not have disgraced a prix fixe menu in the Dordogne, he was sizing up the bistro’s chances of survival—and was pained at the message the mental spreadsheet sent.

Conversation turned to the contrasting approaches to bankruptcy in the US, the UK, and Japan, with Dr T sagely concluding that the UK offers the worst of all worlds: in the US the banks are quick to call in loans but there is little stigma attached to bankruptcy, in Japan there is stigma but the banks are infinitely forbearing, while in the UK the banks are brutes and the stigma remains acute.

Later, alone, I cradled a glass of red up to one of the city’s busiest intersections and loitered awhile, tallying up the percentage of taxis with passengers this Friday night—about one in ten. It was hard, I felt keenly, to be optimistic about the fate of Bistro Daidai. 

To the outsider, Japan, with its stratospheric suicide rate and sober demeanor, is not obviously a hotbed of optimism, and indeed the Japanese delight in telling pollsters that they will cede to noone in their pessimism about their nation’s prospects, but I would invite you to take the three case studies above, and the optimism embedded in the sundry acts of creation, as evidence, albeit fragmentary and partial, to the contrary. This should come as no great surprise, though, as psychologists and neuroscientists have made great strides in recent decades in the study of the enigma of optimism, and the evidence is mounting that we have been hard-wired by evolution to be genetically (more or less) optimistic. Here’s Tali Sharot, neuroscientist and author of The Optimism Bias: Why We’re Wired to Look on the Bright Side, on our ingrained propensity for optimism:

How is it that people maintain this rosy bias even when information challenging our upbeat forecasts is so readily available? Only recently have we been able to decipher this mystery, by scanning the brains of people as they process both positive and negative information about the future. The findings are striking: when people learn, their neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information. When we hear a success story like Mark Zuckerberg’s, our brains take note of the possibility that we too may become immensely rich one day. But hearing that the odds of divorce are almost one in two tends not to make us think that our own marriages may be destined to fail.

Why would our brains be wired in this way? It is tempting to speculate that optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival. Research findings that optimists live longer and are healthier, plus the fact that most humans display optimistic biases—and emerging data that optimism is linked to specific genes—all strongly support this hypothesis.

Perhaps you’re an optimist—or at least some of your best friends are optimists (likely). Perhaps you think that tomorrow really will be better than today, and the day after tomorrow will be better still (unlikely), or that, like Charlie Brown, this time Lucy really won’t take away the football at the last moment (very unlikely), or that the Japanese stock market really will one day recapture its Bubble luster (still more unlikely). [Finance industry wisecrack: “What’s the definition of an optimist?” “A Japanese equity portfolio manager who irons five shirts on a Sunday night.”] Perhaps even I, guilty as I am of entrepreneurial acts, perhaps even I am an optimist. If you are an optimist, then I wouldn’t want you on my team if I were planning something novel and resource-intensive—bring me the morose and misanthropic. But praise be heaped on the shoulders of those who sacrifice their wealth, if not their health, to bring us, however fleetingly, eateries where none, in a world of depressive realists, would be, and on the shoulders of those who conspired to restore the simple magic of projector, screen, and dark expectant hush to a struggling city at the end of the world.

In praise of…The Oma-Hakodate ferry

I too board the ferryboat alone.
Staring at the freezing seagulls, I cry.
Oh, Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene…
Farewell my love, I’m going home.
The wind shakes my heart, just brings tears.
Oh, Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene.

Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene, Sayuri Ishikawa, 1977

“Nostalgic sea route” says the nostalgic black-and-white poster in the ferry corridor, opting for the English word for “nostalgic”, rendered in katakana, over the Japanese one. It chronicles how services started on the Oma-Hakodate run in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, with the redoubtably named Daikan Maru. Another boat was added in 1965, another in 1968, another in 1969, another in 1970, and another in 1971, the year of the Nixon shock. A former ferry crewman tells on the poster of a dozen round-trip sailings a day on the then two hour, now a hundred minute, voyage back in the Showa Forties (1965-1975); later, on a 1971 timetable at the ferry operator’s website, I count 15 sailings, many deep in the night.

Then something goes awry: no more new ferries join the route and the older ones are pensioned off, I believe, in the seventies and eighties. In 1988 the ferry to whose walls this poster is pinned, the bafflingly named Vayu, is commissioned, and these days she is the only one left on the Oma-Hakodate run, which is down to two sailings a day—and she was not even a third full on the off-season weekday I found myself poring over this poster. What went wrong? It can only be speculation, but I would wager that growing affluence and falling airfares robbed the ferries first of their foot traffic and then the spread of the rental car and the cult of convenience robbed them of their vehicle traffic. No trains or planes link tiny Oma with the rest of Japan; the only passage in is a crawl along the top of Honshu, three hours and a hundred miles north of an expressway.

White squares of paper inscribed in nautical blue with our destination—not that there are ferries out of Oma to anywhere other than Hakodate—placed on our dashboards, we clang up the gangramp and—“Fold your mirrors!” shout the orange jump-suited ferrymen over the thrum—clamber up the steep steel staircases to the passenger deck. At the stern, exposed to the elements, are rows of backward-facing plastic molded bucket seats bolted to steel bars, and into one I slump as the gritty tang of diesel fumes, so foreign to these antiseptic shores and so welcome, begins to bite, as a storm brews over the mountains behind Oma to the south and the sun from the east illuminates a wheel-handle of what if any consequence I know not, dripping with white paint-icicles that foretell this autumn morning of the winter ahead.

In their world of drab industrial greens, a world no stranger to the ship will ever know, the ferrymen winch in their python ropes that tie us to land and the Vayu shudders and judders into awful life.

Departure is a process of shedding, of casting away, the sloughing off of the skeins that tangle us on land, an escape into a purer, elemental world of sea and sun and sky, a world bereft of pachinko parlors and home improvement centers and Y100 thrift stores—although we carry with us the grubby landlubber crimes (no seafarer would doubt our guilt) of instant noodles and ancient coffee.

Flitting from port to starboard, starboard to port, leaning on the low balustrades with their topmost rail the texture and color of teak, I marvel at the guts of the ferry, the slathered coats and recoats of paint, the hooks and eyes, the stencils and hoops, the lifeboat gantries and the modern crows’ nest and the icy lights, drinking in every last clasp and bolt.

The Vayu is in her last seasons of life in this incarnation: after a quarter of a century plying the Tsugaru Straits, she is to be replaced by a new Daikan Maru in spring next year. Will she see another quarter of a century of service in some poor, watery nation like the Phillipines or Bangladesh, I wonder, or is she destined to head straight for the scrapyard? Allusive press releases on the ferry operator’s website speak of a ferocious tussle fought by Oma to keep the route alive against the operator’s will, of compensation for losses incurred in recent years, and of promises by Oma to shoulder the entire cost of the new ferry in return for a pledge by the operator not to downsize. So the new ferry will be longer, heavier, and able to carry more passengers (478 versus 470, to be precise) than the Vayu. Not that a sparkling new ferry, regrettably, will make the route viable again without lashings of subsidies, subsidies that Oma may be gambling that it can afford with its half-finished and now hugely controversial nuclear power plant.

Half-way out, half-way home, somewhere on the roiling, oily-black waters of the Tsugaru Straits—where it matters not—current tugging the boat east into the Pacific, engine and propeller fighting back, we cross the invisible Blakiston Line, the silent marker of a biogeographic discontinuity much less familiar than the Wallace Line that seperates Southeast Asia and Australia, named after the Victorian gentleman of leisure and adventure Thomas Wright Blakiston (1832-1891), he of the largest and rarest Fish Owl, a man once described as having an acute “sensitization to the strange”, who first hypothesized—correctly, as it turns out—that the deep Tsugaru Straits, unlike the shallower La Pérouse Straits that separate Hokkaido and Sakhalin, never permitted a land-bridge to form between Hokkaido and Honshu during the last glacial maximum, which explains elegantly, among many other natural phenomena, why there are grizzlies on Hokkaido and black bears on Honshu and macaques on Honshu but not on Hokkaido. It’s this, the Blakiston Line, I come to appreciate after ten days of botanizing with Dr. T, as much as any human intervention, which renders Hokkaido and its birch-white forests so other-worldly to a visitor from the south.

My fellow passengers are listless; for them ferry time is a caesura in the prosody of their lives. A lanky lad, encrusted with barnacles of silver jewelry, yaps animatedly into a mobile then crumples into a heap. Most sprawl and splay, sleep or read, chat or stare idly into space on their little shoeless islands.

Port side, another ferry, this one steaming up from Aomori, appears on the mirage of the horizon first as a trio of grey grain elevators, then as a gunmetal battleship jacked up out of the water as if on hydrofoils, as shearwaters skate across the polite whitecaps and the lipstick slit of a Korean VLCC (very large crude carrier) sidles westward into view.

Up looms Mount Hakodate, atop which a statue of Blakiston watches over us; soon I can pick out to the west the Kami’iso cement works, with its monstrous marine centipede of a loading jetty marching out a couple of kilometers into the ocean.

Interminable announcements presage arrival and send us scurrying down into the bowels to our cars and campervans, past tires strung up as improvised cushions and inscrutable numeric runes, impatient for the giant yellow and green gape of the ferry’s jaws to slack open, and as we wait, I reflect back on how, gazing from the starboard balustrade at the great sweep of the straits out into the Pacific, it felt as if the Vayu was the sister of every boat, from coracle to catamaran, that had ever sailed, just a boat, like all boats, in sea and sun and sky, a naked bridge between two worlds.

The end of the line?

The Iwaizumi line, a spur which runs for 38km and nine stations up the rugged middle of Iwate prefecture in Northeastern Japan, from the hinterland of the fish city of Miyako, mauled by the tsunami, to the cow town of Iwaizumi, whose 10,400 residents are spread out across a territory of 992km2, half as large again as Tokyo’s 23 wards, with their nine million residents, is notorious—at least among observers of these phenomena—for being the least trafficked line in the whole nation, with average daily ridership per kilometer of 46 people in fiscal 2009, one 23,000th the ridership density of the Yamanote loop line in central Tokyo. Half of it was built during World War II, prompted by military demand for clay for flame-resistant brick for industrial purposes, but it was not completed until February 6, 1972, an astoundingly late date and one by when the demographic future of Iwaizumi, then home to some 21,000 people, was already on the wall, as scrutiny of the photo below of Iwaizumi station on opening day (and also in 2003) might suggest.

The line, up and down which three trains a day trundle, led for many years a charmed life: it was targeted for the axe at the privatization of Japanese National Railways in 1987, just 15 years after completion, but escaped because the road that runs more or less parallel with it and is the only route into Iwaizumi from the south is not wide enough in many places for two cars to pass and is treacherous in winter. East Japan Railways (JR East), which inherited the line post-privatization, tried again to get rid of it in 1996, but was rebuffed. Then, on Saturday July 31, 2010, at 07:33, disaster struck. Loosened by hours of torrential rain, rocks had fallen at the end of a tunnel 24km up the line, and into them the single-carriage northbound morning train ploughed and derailed.

Most accounts say there were seven passengers and two crew—astoundingly the line was never converted to driver-only operation—on board at the time, although my fourth-hand sources tell me that at a recent presentation, JR East asserted that there were only three passengers, and all of them were train-spotters. The Japan Times reported the incident the next day thus:

A 63-year-old man suffered a graze, while a 48-year-old man badly hit his shoulder and leg, the officials said. Another passenger who felt ill and the 28-year-old driver, whose back was slightly injured, were sent to a hospital.

Naturally, the derailment featured prominently on the national evening news broadcasts and in the pages of the national press the next day. “Naturally,” I hear you scoff, “a derailment in which four people were slightly injured on a railway line of no consequence in Iwate, so far from the centers of power, why the media hype?” Well, Saturday is a slow news day and Japan is a slow news society, it is true, but let’s take a little detour to explain the prominence afforded the derailment.

You could do worse, in attempting to explain much of what happens in modern Japan—and nearly everything that doesn’t—and by extension Korea and China, than by holding the event up to the light shone by five interlocking words, all of which share a common character: anzen(sei), (安全[性], safety), anshin (安心, peace of mind), antei (安定, stability), fuantei (不安定, instability), and fuan (不安, unease). Safety is an integral component of stability, which leads to peace of mind. Its absence leads to instability and hence to unease. These words exist like the parallel strings of a guitar: a single string can be plucked or several can be strummed at once. The Iwaizumi derailment was a clear violation of the prescription of anzensei, safety, and an infringement of anshin, peace of mind, not only of the injured but of the townsfolk of Iwaizumi, engendering in them fuan, unease, that the derailment would be consequential enough to knock the line out of commission, with the antei, stability, of the “natural” order of things, replaced by the fuantei, instability, of change–even though a replacement bus service running the length of the line was inaugurated just two days after the derailment.

On March 30 this year, JR East held a press conference at which it formally announced plans to axe the Iwaizumi line. The accompanying briefing materials, available in Japanese here and in sadly truncated English here, make for astonishing reading. Passenger numbers, never elevated to begin with, have fallen to a quarter of the level they were at in 1987 at privatization. In fiscal 2009, the line generated Y8mn (about $100,000) in revenue, not appreciably more than the annual income of a family of four (about Y6mn), yet cost Y265mn (about $3mn) to run in operating expenses, resulting in an operating loss of Y257mn, so the line loses Y32 for every Y1 it takes in. The report identifies 23 places along the line where rockfalls are possible, a further 88 where rockslides are possible, and puts the cost of ensuring the safety of the line and the safe running of trains—those words again—at Y13bn (about $150mn), mostly through the time-honored method of spraying concrete on rockfaces. To put that cost into perspective, assume that every last yen the line generates could be hypothecated to payment of the construction bill—which it cannot—and that revenues will remain static—which they will not—then it would take 1,625 years, or until around the year 3637, for the bill to be paid, or roughly a thousand years after the last inhabitant of Iwaizumi, at the current population rate to halve, pops his or her geta.

It is in many ways a marvel that something as gloriously, anarchically, emphatically antithetical to the rules of economics and the regimen of the bean-counters as the Iwaizumi line should have staggered on for as long as it has. If it is indeed axed, it will be an epochal event, marking the first closure of any JR East line since privatization and potentially opening the floodgates to other closures—of JR East’s 67 conventional, non-shinkansen lines, just 16 were profitable in fiscal 2007. The language of the briefing materials, though, is apologetic, not defiant, for the company must know that it has a fight on its hands. The Mainichi Shimbun, a national newspaper, reported on the closure the day following the press conference, in an article wholly sympathetic to the defenders of the line, under the headline, JR Iwaizumi line to be axed, users despair. After briefly recounting the history of the saga, it turned to the locals:

Users and related parties have been voicing their discontent and despair about the plans to axe the line. Shunya Kawamura (17), who took the line to get to Iwaizumi High School, said, “I’m using the bus replacement service, but there are lots of corners on the highway and I get carsick.” Most of the users of the line are Iwaizumi High School students or the elderly visiting hospitals in Miyako. It was reported that, at a residents’ rally in Iwaizumi in January, some older people said that being shaken around in a bus without toilets made them feel awful. The Hotel Ryusendo Aisan, which takes in about 3,000 railway fans and other tourists a year, has been hit hard by the disappearance of tours since the accident. Hotel boss Sadaji Nakamura warned that, “If the railway is wiped from the map, the town will gradually lose its appeal as a tourist attraction.”

As an unsentimental friend who shares my fascination with the tale snorted on reading this, “JR East could lay on a fleet of luxury coaches, hand out free motion-sickness pills, hire a troupe of can-can dancers to entertain the passengers, and still come out ahead!”

Still, a cleanly professional website to defend the line has been set up and inundated with messages of support, petitions have been organized, rallies have been held—the one mentioned above and pictured below attracted some 900 folk—and cakes no doubt have been baked.

On May 10, the Iwate Nippo reports, the deputy governor of Iwate and the mayors of Miyako and Iwaizumi lobbied the deputy president of JR East for the swift and complete restoration of the line and then met with the vice minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport to request that the ministry “guide” and “advise” (read: browbeat and coerce) JR East into seeing the error of its senseless thrift, to which the vice minister’s guardedly noncommittal response was to acknowledge the importance of the line while stating the need for the local authorities and JR East to talk fully to each other and search for a resolution. Conjecture it can only be at this stage, but there may be as good as an even chance that JR East can be cajoled into spending the $150mn and saving the line.

All of this fascinates but does not surprise: the love for local, loss-making lines, a fiercely nostalgic love for a past that never existed but which is no less a valid love for all that, flames in inverse correlation with the economic utility of the line. I have never had, and may never have, the pleasure of the Iwaizumi line’s acquaintance, but during the spring Golden Week vacation last year, I rode—both ways—the Tadami line, which runs 135km from Aizu Wakamatsu in western Fukushima through snow country to Koide in Niigata, which itself was only completed in 1971, and which, if the Iwaizumi line is axed, will be crowned with the twin titles of the least trafficked and most money-losing line in the empire of JR East—and just in time I was too, for torrential rain three months later swept away bridges and services have still not been fully restored. Although no commemorative run, just a regular scheduled train, it was packed with rail buffs achatter with excitement, and along the rail-side banks were dotted throngs of hobbyist photographers who vied for the best shots. Truly, madly, deeply, Japan is geek heaven.

(With thanks to A.P. for the additional reporting)

Iida: A twitch at the curtains

That summer feeling
Is gonna fly
Always try and keep the feeling inside
Need a crystal ball to see her in the morning
And magic eyes to read between the lines

Teenage Fanclub, Sparky’s Dream, 1995

Geologically, Iida is a place where the bedrock of life’s banalities lies much closer to the earthen surface of works and days than it does in the painted face of the big smoke, which makes her a more honest, death-embracing locus, but she was not somewhere I could hold on to for very long. I treat Iida nonetheless as my furusato hometown, though no parents, siblings, or relatives wait for me there, and truth be told I’m a neglectful lover, rarely returning now. It was with a touch of trepidation, therefore, that I accepted an invitation from Old Bill, fellow Withnail & I obsessive, connoisseur like me of quality knobs (this one a Bakelite beauty from Sato Parts),

electronics tinkerer extraordinaire,

self-styled “Dipso Dad”, now husband to long-suffering Shinako and father to the adorable Lynne (aka 凛, Rin, “dignified”) and Hannah (aka 花, Hana, “flower”) to visit for a sultry September weekend.

We set off on a road tripette in Bill’s lesbian-beloved Subaru Forester, with Lynne, buried in a book, on the back seat. This being rural Japan—and Nagano Prefecture in particular, I can’t help but feel—we were soon in the realm of aerial roadways to heaven

and tunnels

and bridges

to absolutely nowhere at all.

There’s something of a cheap optical illusion and something crassly Freudian about the tunnel and the bridge. Unoriginally, I want to scrawl under the photos in a “steady, painstaking, artificial script”, “Ceci n’est pas une rue”, and be rewarded for my efforts years later with an explicatory and adulatory essay by some soixante-huitard philosopher replete with talk of unraveled calligrams and negations multiplying themselves. To me, at least, the bridge is violent, the hillside vulnerable; the tunnel, its mirror image, is patient, the river ready to be bridged. As they are near neighbors, separated by only a few dales and folds, the bridge and the tunnel could perhaps get it together on an Internet dating site for large ferroconcrete structures.

To return to the mundane: all three form part of what one day, my son, my daughter, will be the San’en Nanshin Expressway, a 100km link between Iida in the interior and Hamamatsu on the coast. The project was given the green light back in 1983; the aerial interchange and the bridge have been in a state of Viagric erection since 1994; only a dozen or so kilometers have so far been completed; much of the rest is scheduled for completion in 2016 or after; and a few crucial sections have no schedule for construction at all, which means they are unlikely to be completed until the mid-2020s, fully four decades after the project left the drawing board of some faceless committee. As a friend loves to say, in Japan we take the long view. The expressway traverses terrain that is about as hostile to the dreams of road-builders as any on the planet, as hereabouts the Japan Median Tectonic Line meets the Fossa Magna, with the trickiest sections costing around $30mn a kilometer and the bill for the whole expressway set to come in somewhere north of $2bn. The leisurely construction schedule testifies both to the unimportance of the road—denizens of Iida can already access Nagoya in two hours and Tokyo in four—and pinched budgets for megaprojects such as this.

The road’s boosters, which encompass the whole of “official Japan” from the Ministry of Concrete—sorry, I’ll read that again, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport—on down, make claims for it alternately nebulous and suffused with the finicky precision of the bureaucrat: of the Iida portion, completion will mean that 88% of outlying towns and villages will be able to reach the city center by car in the event of rainfall of 100mm or more (which must occur, ooh, half a dozen times a year), up from 71% currently! And for this you want me to pay $2bn? Opposition to the road is inchoate, disorganized, confined to the odd squawk of a taxpayer on obscure bulletin boards. Make no mistake, my son, my daughter: the men from the ministry (no women there) will have their way, the bulldozers and pile-drivers and excavators will prevail, bridge will meet tunnel (and maybe fall in love), the San’en Nanshin Expressway will be built.

Our destination was the hundred-soul hamlet of Shimoguri, fancifully known as “the Tyrol of Japan”, the last stutter of civilization in the Southern Alps before boars and eagles and bears take the place of humans at the apex of the food chain, seen fragmentarily here looking north toward the 3,000m peaks of the Akaishi Mountains. 

One blogger, something of an authority on out-of-the-way crannies, calls Shimoguri “the backwoods at the back of beyond” (僻地の中の僻地), and once, before the arrival of the roads—the good roads—in the late 1960s, it might have been. Now it is scarcely an hour from the center of Iida and indeed, courtesy of a 2005 municipal amalgamation, lies within its precincts. So the city stretches its claws out into the country. Nor is it, as he claims, “Japan’s last hidden spot” (日本の最後の秘境), if such a chimera exists: tourists far outnumbered locals when we were there. Still, it’s an otherworldly place, accessible only up and down and around a vertiginous single-track lane 10km long, with fields of cabbage and potato and buckwheat so steep—up to 38 degrees steep—that they have to be tilled from above to stop the soil slipping irrecoverably down the slopes.

We traipsed out through a sad stand of plantation pines, shot through with the slenderest bolts of amber and rapacity, dead to birdsong and itself, for the money shot—our rapacity—of Shimoguri in the glaresquint sunlight.

Architecturally no gem, largely rebuilt after the tarmac was laid, Shimoguri looks best from afar, though it does have some top sheds, the plank-knots a Braille from tree to forester.

Humanity has been fossicking around these valleys for millennia, the archaeological record shows, the earliest modern trace an inscription on a temple bell from 1460. But Shimoguri, school-less since 1980, is locked in a bloody bout with custom and its trainer, time, a bout it is all but bound to lose this coming century.

On the way back, we detoured to the feted baby village of Shimojo. I’d told Shinako we would.
“I hear the birthrate’s really high there.”
“Yeah, but there aren’t any jobs, so everyone has to commute into Iida.”
Guess I wasn’t the only hard-boiled straight-talker in town.

Overheated hacks prone to hyperbole have showered garlands on Shimojo, calling it “the miracle village” (奇跡の村), “a model municipality” (モデル自治体), and “the village where Japan’s future can be seen” (日本の未来が見える村). It’s attracted praise from across the ideological spectrum, from the Japan Communist Party to the right-leaning Nikkei BP, and even won a hat-tip from The Economist in its latest special feature on Japan in November 2010. What’s all the fuss about? Simply this: as the nation’s birthrate cratered to an all-time low of 1.26 in 2005, Shimojo’s was rising, to 2.04 on average between 2003 and 2006, tantalizingly close to the replacement rate and as high as anywhere on mainland Japan. (And yes, the corollary is that not a single municipality on the mainland then had a birthrate above the replacement rate).

Shimojo’s path to celebrity status begins back in 1992, with the election as mayor of one Kihei Ito, a gas station owner, who professed himself appalled by the sloth and inefficiency he uncovered in the village administration. To instill in the flaccid pen-pushers the rigors of the private-sector ethos, so the party line goes, he packed them off to wait on customers at a home improvement center in Iida, humiliating them with their dismal sales performance in comparison with regular employees. To cut spending, the bureaucracy was allowed to wither on the vine through natural attrition, ultimately reducing the number of officials per 1,000 head of population to half the national average and the bill for their salaries by a third from the peak. To free the village from the vicious debt cycle of subsidies (補助) paid for through the issuance of muni bonds (地方債) paid for in turn by tax grants from the state (交付税), Shimojo forewent 1990s luxuries such as the installation of a full underground sewage system, opting instead for much cheaper septic tanks. In a bid to further prune expenditures, one that carries the firm smack of Soviet collectivism, Mayor Ito had his villagers do their own road repairs and build their own roads, especially the farmer’s tracks that lattice the paddies, with the council providing only the cost of materials.

All this thrift was to transform the village’s finances. Bear with me on a brief geeky foray into the intricacies: in 2009, there were 1,749 municipalities across the nation, and lacking a lucrative tax base of the sort provided by, say, the headquarters of a major corporation, Shimojo remains dependent on tax grants from the state, ranking a lowly 1,489 nationally in its fiscal strength index (財政力指数), a measure of a local authority’s own revenue raising ability. But by recurring expense ratio (経常収支比率, very roughly fiscal resources allocated to recurring expenses divided by recurring fiscal resources), a metric of a local authority’s fiscal flexibility, Shimojo ranked seventh nationwide, and by bond expense ratio (実質公債費比率, very roughly muni bond servicing costs divided by general fiscal resources), Shimojo ranked an astounding fourth, behind only three central Tokyo wards.

With the money saved, Mayor Ito set about on phase two of his grand scheme, the audacious “village population doubling plan” (村民倍増計画), which to any Japanese of a certain age would carry overtones of the 1960 “income doubling plan” (所得倍増計画) of Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, achieved in a mere seven years. Step one was to build cumbersomely named “housing to promote the permanent residence of young people” (若者定住促進住宅). The first three-storey, twelve-unit block went up in 1997, but by Mayor Ito’s account, he slipped up in accepting a state subsidy of half the cost of construction, a subsidy that came with all sorts of inconvenient notions of justice and fairness attached: the right to live in the apartments was decided by lottery and a number of them had to be set aside for low-income families. Well, that was sure to bring in all sorts of undesirables! The good mayor was careful to build the next nine blocks with the village’s money alone, so he could attract only “quality young people” (質のいい若者), ones willing to participate in extra-curricular activities such as the volunteer fire-brigade and village events in that deliciously voluntary-compulsory way I long ago pinpointed as a defining national characteristic.

Notwithstanding the onerous free-time obligations, the mayor’s offer was for many too good to refuse—spanking new 63 square meter (680 square feet) two-bedroom apartments with two parking spaces for Y35,000 ($450) a month, half what one would cost in neighboring Iida, and the applications flooded in. There was more pro-natalist largesse on the way, too: a 20% cut in kindergarten fees, a children’s library with some 7,000 volumes, and free healthcare at any hospital in Japan up to the last year of junior high school. “It’s great,” one young mother of two told the reporter from Akahata (“Red Flag”), the Japan Communist Party rag, in 2005, “We can take the kids to hospital even if they’ve just got the sniffles”, a comment sure to strike unintended fear into the hearts of the opponents of unmetered medicine everywhere. The population of the village, which had peaked in 1950 at around 6,500 and fallen to a low of 3,859 in 1990, began to inch higher, reaching 4,241 in 2006. Mayor Ito had done it! Earnest delegations poured in from every corner of the land—250 alone in the three years to 2009—to study the “miracle village”. It’s impossible to know precisely what lessons they took away, but the national birthrate began to crawl like a toddler higher off the 2005 low, and Shimojo in its own infant way may be fractionally responsible.

We parked up outside one of the breeder blocks, a nondescript dun-colored slab with no trace of the rustic that could have fallen off the drawing-board of any architectural practice in Japan after an hour of slipshod draughtsmanship. While there were no real live children around—perhaps they were at hospital with the sniffles—there were at least traces of them, in the shape of plastic toys in bright made-in-China primary colors stacked under stairwells. A lightly modded Chevy Astro van spoke of the presence of members of the Yankee subcult, renowned for their proclivity to procreate early and frequently (and often in the van), in contradistinction to most of the rest of the nation, which procreates, if at all, little and late. In retrospect, knowing what I do now of the Shimojo story, the block had the stench of the factory farm about it, the odor of the illiberal conceits that lie behind all such crudely gerrymandered attempts to manipulate populations up or down, and, in Mayor Ito’s welcome mat laid out only at the squeaky clean feet of “quality young people”, just the faintest trace of eugenics.

Of late though, some of the sheen seems to have come off the mayor’s great experiment. The population is on the slide again, down to 4,105 as of November 1, and the village website lets on that a few of its apartments are vacant and available to “married men” (妻帯者, itself a superbly gendered expression, combining characters for “wife”, “bind”, and “person”). Sexual minorities, of course, need not apply, though they would no doubt return the insult, had they the grotesque misfortune to be born in Shimojo, by fleeing at the earliest opportunity. It’s not hard to discern what lies behind the flagging of the baby revolution: the village has in essence been filching the youth of Iida, which itself finds it has fewer and fewer of them, due to a demographic profile that’s been described as “waistless” (寸胴型)—missing the middle—and only so many of them will accept the trade-off between cheap accommodation and soporific, stultifying, and claustrophobic village life under Mayor Ito’s paternalist eye.

What worlds can we see in Shimojo’s grain of sand? Three, I think. The first is that the village was lucky to have the autonomy to do what it did. The great Heisei merger boom slashed the number of villages nationwide from 568 in 1999 to 184 today, of which a staggering fifth (35) are in Nagano, even though it accounts for less than 2% of the population, testimony maybe to a stubbornly independent local streak. The second is that there exists across swathes of primarily rural but also urban Japan both a dyed-in-the-bone conservatism, here to be seen in the disrespect paid to the bureaucratic clerisy, and—ignoring the contradictions for a moment—an almost Tea Partyesque resistance to state (federal, in a US context) “interference”. The third is that however valiantly Mayor Ito and his village have fought against population decline, its forces are destined to overwhelm them, not merely because they are 4,000 pitted against 128 million, but because all the fevered construction of an environment purportedly friendly to childrearing misses the larger point, which is that until hiring is more equal in every regard, workplace regimens are redesigned from the ground up around the needs of working mothers, and women’s careers are not deep-sixed by childbirth, there will be no baby-strike solution in sight. Not something an old duffer oyaji like Mayor Ito could be expected to comprehend.

En route home, we passed Iida City Hospital.
“That’s where I’m going to die.” From others’ mouths this would have come with the tonally different melancholies of the honorable exile, the ambiguous émigré, the despicable expatriate.
“No, no,” I strove to reassure him. “I’m sure a clean swift stroke will get you in your bed.”
A little later, I gestured sweepingly at a clatter of drive-ins, superstores, and car dealers on the main suburban drag.
“You know, I don’t remember this in the slightest.”
“Perhaps there really is a God after all.”

We headed back to Bill’s own Iida satellite village, Toyo’oka (population 6,797), whose much-mocked (by me) motto is “early to bed, early to rise, breakfast”. Perhaps it sounds better in Japanese: hayane, hayaoki, asagohan. Ah, no. There are few distractions to ruffle the determinedly diurnal lifestyle to which the motto exhorts the populace: a beer or two and banter to warm up the evening at a snakku bar, some late-night slapstick on TV, or perhaps a midnight loiter on the aluminum bench by the ashtray at one of the two 24/7 convenience stores.

I delved into the statistics of disruption: there were 16 traffic accidents reported in Toyo’oka in 2009, one roughly every three weeks, most of which will have been no more than fender-benders. There were 23 crimes reported in Toyo’oka in 2009, some of which at least will have been of the order of radishes pilfered from a field, 33.73 incidents per 10,000 people, ranking the village 1,534th out of 1,749 municipalities (lower is safer) in a fierce contest for uncriminality in which several municipalities went entirely crime-free.

Nevertheless, Toyo’oka has a permanently staffed police substation (豊丘村警察官駐在所), to which I believe three constables are assigned, giving each one roughly one crime every six weeks to investigate. The average annual pay of a Japanese police officer was Y7.7mn (almost exactly US$100,000 at the current rate) in 2007, so with overheads it is fair to assume that it costs very roughly $500,000 a year to investigate the two crimes a month that plague Toyo’oka.

There are a quarter of a million stalwart women and (mostly) men in the thin blue line keeping us from anarchy across the nation, one for every 500 people, so the vipers’ nest of vice and sin that is Iida (population 104,668) has perhaps 200 officers (and an annual wage bill of around US$20mn). As far as I can tell, ten crimes were logged in the Iida police blotter in November this year: five thefts of bags, purses, or cash from cars, two burglaries in which cash was stolen, a theft of a moped, a theft of a pair of gloves from an office, and a theft of a grating from a “facility”. Small wonder, then, that out in the provinces more than 10 hopefuls vie for every police officer post.

The terrible tranquility engendered by the lust for order makes the Ina valley a wonderfully untroubling and untroubled place to raise The Mikan Sisters.  

But as with everything, there is a quid pro quo. A wag once described the then faded-to-scruffy English seaside resort of Brighton as a place that “always looks as if it is about to help police with their enquiries”. Well, behind the privet hedge, Iida is the hand twitching the net curtains at the window with the neighborhood watch sticker, ready to turn in the hoodlum likes of Brighton to the authorities at the first hint of trouble.

Bill does his best to puncture the boredom of smugness with tacks of wit. He took a dubious phrase from a previous post of mine, “chapatsu slappers” (women of easy virtue with dyed brown hair), shortened and Japanesed it to “chappa surappa”, and taught it to his daughters, who now with glee will point to some hapless stiletto-heeled, bustiered, and chestnut-locked lass and shout in unison in their perfectly modulated Japanese, “Are wa chappa surappa?” Is that a tart? No one understands, though, and the tranquility seeps back to stifle once more.

You know what the fellow said—in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

With its mizuhiki cord craftwork and its puppet festival, Iida is not short of cuckoo clocks of its own. While the relationship between crime (presence or absence thereof) and culture (presence or absence thereof) is no doubt not as easily mappable as the words Orson Welles put into the mouth of Harry Lime in The Third Man imply, it’s fair to say that the cafés of Iida do not hum to the sound of aspiring scriptwriters crafting screenplays on their laptops, that the bars of Iida do not throng with bien-pensant wannabes deep in debate over polymorphous perversity (“No, no! Gender is a performative construct!”), the role of crocodiles in the Mesozoic ecosystem, or the proof of the Poincaré conjecture, fair to say that the air of Iida is not febrile with intellectual ferment.

We girded ourselves with barrel-bottom sake for “a brief nocturnal sample of the delights of Iida’s nearly extinct nightlife.” I was keen to renew my acquaintance with Cock,

a subterranean izakaya pub offering “multinational home cooking”, whose matchbox I treasure, much frequented by the in-crowd long ago, but we found its space had been usurped in 2006 by a hip-hop emporium, Club Rulez, so there was to be no Cock for us in Iida that night.

We dined on butter and batter with an old mutual friend in an almost chic restaurant whose other patrons, without exception, were Japanese men with Filipina consorts. The talk was of shrinking pay packets and shrinking enrolments, old bangers bought on the never-never, and diminished expectations—harsher winds blowing in the heartland.
(to be continued)

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(part three of three)

The gardens of the real Paleis Huis ten Bosch were never finished; obviously that would not do for the hyperreal Paleis Huis ten Bosch. The hyperreal sent Professor Treib into rapture: “a magnificent tunnelo encircles the principal parterre, itself kept in eloquent trim.”

A gilt plaque at the entrance to the gardens carries the words of Yumi Katsura, bridal mother since 2006, who would like you to know that:

Here I declare this land as “Lover’s Sanctuary” to impart the joy and the magic of encounters, blissful marriages, and raising a happy home. I send my blessings to your encounters and wish you a wonderful future.

Belonging only to a single lover, the gardens must be a solitary sanctuary.

Much of the Paleis is open to the public; while once its exhibits may have served to educate, today they came across, bereft of explanation, as a folkloric freakshow.

More cutouts, these two to inform you that a modern Dutchman, at 184cm, is considerably taller than his 17th century forebear, at 160cm.

In many rooms, either the inspiration of ideas or the perspiration of money had run out.

Then suddenly, breathtakingly, in the midst of kitsch there was art, art that had somehow snuck past the sullen sentries of bad taste guarding the perimeter of the park. The room equates to the Orangezaal (Orange Hall) in the real Huis ten Bosch, which looked like this in a 1650 painting by Caesar Van Everdingen:

Huis ten Bosch was built in the mid-17th century for Princess Amalia of Solms-Braunfels, a grandmother, incidentally, of King William III of England, who after the death in 1647 of her husband, Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik, the freer of the Republic from the Spanish boot, had the central hall of the palace converted into a mausoleum in his memory, covered with allegorical murals glorifying the triumph over the Spanish by a dozen of the most celebrated artists of the day.

Queen Beatrix baulked at a reproduction of the Orangezaal in Japan, perhaps feeling that it was too private, perhaps feeling that it was too martial. Thwarted, Kamichika and company turned to a former director of the Rijksmuseum, Simon Levie, to commission a contemporary Dutch artist, and he chose Rob Scholte, known in some quarters as the Dutch Andy Warhol, who had recently gained notoriety for a parody of Manet’s Olympia in which the recumbent woman is replaced by a wooden puppet.

Scholte’s reaction, as Levie explained what the Huis ten Bosch of the east entailed, was one of someone grounded in fashionable critical theory:

I immediately thought: this seems absurd, this is postmodernism in its purest form.
(Ik dacht meteen: dit lijkt me absurd, dit is postmodernisme in zijn zuiverste vorm.)

The massive 1,200m2 mural, Après nous le Déluge, took four years, 1991-1995, to complete, the project delayed by a hand grenade that exploded under Scholte’s car outside his Amsterdam studio in November 1994 and resulted in the amputation of both his legs in a case of mistaken identity, a bombing which ironically prevented the mural from being unveiled, as intended, on August 9, 1995, the 50th anniversary of another bombing, that of Nagasaki. 

Après nous le Déluge is at once provocative and playful: provocative in its stridently apocalyptic vision of warfare in an Orangezaal for an anti-war age, playful in the way it toys with reproduction—in its appropriation of Golden Age painters—and originality, with its Dutch traffic light chandeliers and its bicycle pump cordon posts, topped by a marvelous trompe l’oeil cupola which serves to submerge the naval battles on the walls, and by so submerging them, consigns them to history. In its interplay of reproduction and originality it stands as a commentary, half-amused perhaps, perhaps half-affectionate, on the theme park in which it finds itself.

All realist art, in which the Dutch Golden Age excelled, aspires to be a trompe l’oeil. In his 1642 pamphlet, Praise of Painting, Dutch painter Philips Angel recounts approvingly the Greek legend, as told Pliny the Elder, of the rivalry between two painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes so real that birds would peck at them, while Parrhasius, determined to outdo his rival, invited Zeuxis to inspect one of his paintings, covered with a curtain. Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to draw the curtain aside, but the curtain was the painting, and Zeuxis confessed himself vanquished, exclaiming, “Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself!”

Theme parks, too, aspire to be a trompe l’oeil, escapist landscapes deceiving the consenting visitor into a willing suspension of disbelief in both space and time. Strolling around Huis ten Bosch, I found it easy enough to summon up the mental elisions necessary to gloss over the asynchronous putter of the internal combustion engine and the anachronous cha-ching of the cash register, to drift in and out of a 17th century, albeit one scrubbed neatly clean of pox and pestilence, disastrous inundation and public execution, war and art. Space was a different matter, though, as an un-Dutch world made endless intrusion. At one moment, the intrusion took the shape of a too elegantly Oriental arrangement of fronds and fenceposts outside a Japanese restaurant.

At another, it was the view from the Domtoren over grim military housing for the local US naval base, Fleet Activities Sasebo.

The grinding heat and humidity, coupled with the backdrop of mountains, were constant reminders that we weren’t in Groningen anymore. When dawn came the next day, the sky was so low and the rain came down in sheets so thick that it was hard to tell if night had left off and day had begun, as islands reared up in Omura Bay like the backs of giant prehistoric crocodiles and billows of cloud hugged the mountains around the bay as if emanations from some undousable subterranean fire destined to burn forever. No, this definitely wasn’t Groningen anymore.

While I’ve scarcely set an adult foot in the Netherlands, I was weaned on Golden Age art, courtesy of the local picture gallery, and above all the landscapes of long-forgotten artists like Aelbert Cuyp, Philips Wouwerman, and Meindert Hobbema, where for instance windmills are not charming scenic adornments, their phony sails electric powered, but mighty instruments of dominion over water, as in The Mill at Wijk by Jacob van Ruysdael in the Rijksmuseum,

and this was a huge hindrance to the suspension of disbelief.

Before I set out for Kyushu and Huis ten Bosch, I told a female colleague not known for mincing words where I was going. “Eeeh, yada! Norimono bakari.” Ew, yuck! It’s just rides. How wrong she was. There are almost no rides, indeed very little for kids to do at all, and that was Kamichika’s intention, for Huis ten Bosch was meant to be a theme park for adults, and especially perhaps for what the Japanese, torturing a noun out of a French preposition, call “avec”, young courting couples. At some point, though, someone had realized the error of this but, lacking funds, tacked on a feeble funfair that has now been stilled.

In what a state of delightful innocence the creator of Corky must dwell.

Huis ten Bosch has been beset from the outset by three great failings: the failure of geography, the failure of underinvestment, and the failure of conception. The failure of geography we’ve dealt with: tucked away in a hard-to-access corner of Kyushu, its catchment area shrank hard and fast once the Bubble fashion for extravagant airborne weekends of indulgence gave way to the sobering realities of the hangover. The failure of underinvestment was a necessary consequence of the extortionate amount Huis ten Bosch cost to build. Without unending investment in novelty, theme parks cannot attract the repeat visitor, and in Japan, still the land of shinhatsubai, the freshest and newest on sale, novelty matters. Most grievous of all, though, has been the failure of conception: while I adore the humility in riches of the Dutch Golden Age—surely no other place and time has scripted its history so diligently and beautifully in its art—and abhor the vacuity and disingenuity of Disney’s “The Happiest Place on Earth”, I realize that most people are not like me, and Huis ten Bosch has always lacked a compelling theme and the characters to go with it. While Disneylands have Mickey and Minnie and a cast of thousands, while Universal Studios has Spiderman and Shrek and Sesame Street, to name but a few, Huis ten Bosch has, well, Miffy.

Not that Miffy is a bad little rabbit to have on your side. In a 2008 interview in UK newspaper The Telegraph with Miffy’s creator, Dutch artist and illustrator Dick Bruna, journalist Horatia Harrod reports that Japan is home to Miffy’s most ardent fans and her most lavish consumers:

In Bruna’s studio there are gifts from children all around the world, but most numerous are the cards artfully crafted from patterned paper, and flocks of origami birds which are sent for good luck. When Bruna goes for his morning coffee, he says, ‘there are often Japanese people waiting there—they know’. And when he toured Britain on Miffy’s 50th anniversary, he was followed from venue to venue by a middle-aged Japanese woman who sported a Miffy painted on each cheek.

It’s just that Huis ten Bosch seems incompletely capable of exploiting the Miffyverse, with its 118 picture books, to the full, to say nothing of Miffy’s friends, Boris and Barbara Bear and Poppy Pig, who are nowhere to be found. Where were the Miffy rides? Where were the adults dressed as Miffy ready to pose for snapshots with excited children (and middle-aged women)? Where was the Miffy experience?

Travel agency H.I.S. took over Huis ten Bosch in April 2010, and here and there were signs of investment.

An encouragingly quadrilingual hoarding announced that a haunted house was about to open.

An exhibit, running for three months, replicating famous scenes from the long-running TV anime One Piece, was also about to open.

At the February 2010 news conference announcing the takeover, H.I.S. Chairman Hideo Sawada exuded a breezy confidence: “We aim to take the firm into the black in as early as two years. We are 99% sure we will succeed.” Plans include an H.I.S. call center, enabling the company to cut its own costs, an outlet mall, and a business center. In an August 2010 interview with The Nikkei Weekly, Sawada offered an incisive enough analysis of the problems of Huis ten Bosch:

I think it is essential for a successful theme park to have not only a good location but also characters and content attractive enough to make visitors want to come again. The old Huis ten Bosch was just a rehash of good old Dutch streets. A single visit was enough for people. For the newborn Huis ten Bosch, we plan to lure a diverse range of companies, making use of its vast stretch of land.

There have been early glimmers of success: visitor numbers leapt 24% on the year in the Golden Week holidays in late April and early May and 38% over the summer. But before we break out the champagne to celebrate the rebirth of the phoenix of Huis ten Bosch from the ashes of insolvency, some words of caution are warranted. In its FY10/10 results, H.I.S. crowed:

Therefore, the company [Huis ten Bosch], which was included in the scope of the consolidation this year, recorded Y5,570mn [$67.8mn] in sales but an operating loss of Y113mn [$1.38mn] for the period from April 1, 2010 to September 30, 2010. However, the company recorded a recurring profit of Y429mn [$5.22mn] for the period, for the first time ever since its establishment, and was able to form a base of profitability.

What H.I.S. doesn’t deign to tell us is what caused the remarkable turnaround from the loss at the operating line to the profit at the recurring line. My bet is that it was almost certainly the subsidies from Sasebo. Far from having “a base of profitability”, Huis ten Bosch remains effectively in the red, even with the jump in visitor numbers.

H.I.S. said in February 2010 it planned to invest only Y2bn ($22.2mn), with local worthies such as Kyushu Electric Power stumping up another Y1bn, altogether less than a third committed back in 2003 by Nomura, which also enjoyed a dead cat bounce in visitor numbers when it took over, and although H.I.S. has Y46.3bn ($564mn) in cash stashed away, its pockets will not be bottomlessly deep. As early as September there was a hint in the Nikkei that its budget for investment is already being whittled down. 

If Huis ten Bosch presented a desolate spectacle by day, then by night, with the day-trippers gone, it gave off a still more despondent air. A lugubrious rain came on, and I bought a made-in-China Huis ten Bosch umbrella whose spokes broke at the first gust of wind. Muzak, of which there were at least half a dozen types, from jauntily fluty to accordion schmaltzy, noodled on and on. Being at Huis ten Bosch was like being put on hold by a corporate call center—for eternity. There was live muzak to be had, too. 

A pair of Frenchmen sawed and crooned their way through Maurice Chevalier’s Sous les Toits de Paris to the faintest smattering of applause. These were the only foreign entertainers I came across, the rest having been dismissed—like many hundreds of the Japanese staff—long ago. As Elvis felt with his New Amsterdam, so I felt with mine: it had all become much too much, and I had to step on the brakes to get out of her clutches. 

I retreated to the wholly deserted Bar Astral at the ANA Hotel to make some acerbic, gin-sodden notes, one of which reads, “Huis ten Bosch is an idea so monumentally and catastrophically bizarre that it can hold its head high in the exalted company of the greatest delusional fantasies of all time—Operation Barbarossa, say, or Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Softened by the passage of time and the accumulation of research, Huis ten Bosch is now in retrospect my most beloved example of a favorite kind of place, one like Seagaia that clings tenaciously by its fingertips to the cliff of life, against all odds. Of one thing we can be certain, though: until Huis ten Bosch, the greatest artifact by far of those crazy eighties years, finally fails or flourishes, the boil of the Bubble will not have been lanced from the body of Japan for good.

What chances of survival for Huis ten Bosch, still very much in the intensive care unit? As a fan from childhood of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I’d put them at worse than even, but only time, envious time, fortune’s Ferris-wheel, and the efforts and the wallets of all now involved will tell. I fear, though, that the plans of H.I.S. are incoherent, no better than the heavy application of lipstick on a pig. I fear that the shackles of the Bubble fetter escape from the miasmas of the past. I fear, Huis ten Bosch, that only Miffy—and Jude the Apostle—can save you now.

Postscript: There remains one loose end that needs to be tied. Whatever happened to the creator of Huis ten Bosch, Yoshikuni Kamichika? He’s still around. Runs his own management consultancy. Shouldn’t that be “mismanagement consultancy”? Calls it the Eco Research Institute, trading on Huis ten Bosch’s largely spurious green credentials. Looks like every other salaryman pushing seventy. If you met him on the street, you’d have no idea of the joy he brought and the trouble he caused.