Category Archives: History

Spike: No man but a blockhead

[This is the last ever Spike ramble, so slip on your stoutest trekking boots, decant a wee dram of aqua vitae into your hip-flask, and join me across a few rickety stiles and muddy, forgotten fields.]

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

Samuel Johnson, Friday, 5 April 1776, from The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell

Many moons ago, long before the accident, I went for a drive.
The goal was to dip a metaphorical toe in the Pacific, somewhere in mid-Fukushima, then head over the spine of Honshu on backroads into Niigata and dip another metaphorical toe (or even the same one) in the Sea of Japan. No particular reason, just to blow away a few cobwebs—drive ni iku, the Japanese say, to go for a drive, and it often appears in the rankings of favorite leisure-time activities, at least among men of a certain age.
I never made it to the Sea of Japan. In the depopulating wilds of south-central Fukushima, tantalizing signs advertising a local attraction began to appear with Burma Shave regularity at the side of the road, the last of which was this, directing the driver to turn right up what turned out to be a 6km semi-private road to the top of a hill. “Pax per linguam” reads the Cod Latin motto on the faux coat of arms, “peace through language”. It seems unlikely.

Britain that way

British Hills, British Hills? Where had I heard of British Hills before? In some magazine or newspaper account, years previously? It sounded like a golf club, out at the end of the Metropolitan Line, in Pinner or Rickmansworth perhaps, where the members spend more time at the 19th than at the first eighteen, where chaps (and chapesses—we must move with the times!) with surnames like Bloomstein, though no longer blackballed, are greeted by the barman with a froideur not shown to those with surnames like Brown.  
A couple of hours later I was driving down the private road, face smirk-split from port to starboard, a reaction that only kitsch of the very toppest notch can evoke. The audacity! The execution! The sheer bloody extravagance of the place!
Some years later, not long after the accident, I returned, this time to stay the night.

Drogo

Willie

Racing green

Just like Scotland 

Tenpole Tudor

Part English-as-a-Foreign-Language (EFL) educational institute, part luxury resort hotel, British Hills sprawls over some sixty acres (all “facts” about British Hills, even those on its own website, are quite possibly apocryphal) atop a seemingly randomly chosen hill in the village of Ten’ei, centered around a recreation of a manor house, reminiscent of the late domestic architecture of Edward Lutyens, such as what is now the Abbey House Hotel, built for the Vickers shipbuilding family, and above all Castle Drogo, completed in 1930 and widely dubbed “the last castle built in England”. According to Oxford Brookes University anthropologist and Japanologist Joy Hendry, in The Orient Strikes Back: A Global View of Cultural Display, British Hills was the dream of the mother of the chairman of the Sano Educational Foundation, which runs three not especially prestigious seats of learning, the Kanda Institute of Foreign Languages (est. 1957), a two-year vocational school, Kanda University of International Studies (est. 1987), and Kanda Gaigo Career College, an language and communication course provider (est. 1996). British Hills was completed in 1994, making it yet another fruit of a hazy reverie one late Bubble afternoon, rendered flesh in brick and stone, and without a doubt the most delicious tale surrounding its creation is that it caused such an artificial spike in demand for English oak as to retard the erection of that other temple of chintz, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater on London’s Bankside, by a couple of years. The most frequently cited figure for the cost of construction is GBP60mn, a cool inflation-adjusted GBP100mn (USD150mn). Rumours swirl about financial difficulties in the first few years of operation, with salvation reportedly coming in the events of 9/11, which caused the more timid traveller to shun the complexities of authenticity and seek refuge in the safety of the fake.

British Hills, my spies inform me, is staffed—aside from the Japanese, who do most of the real work—by ten EFL teachers and a dozen or so twentysomethings on working holiday visas, mostly from the UK, Canada, and Australia, although not from the US, either because of visa issues or, one blogger reports, because of the “slovenliness of their accent”. So much for pax per linguam. These twentysomethings are largely present for decorative purposes and their blogs reveal they are not unaware of this. “My receptionist duties mainly involve being British” writes one; as she was British, and not, say, Azerbaijani, this should not have been beyond her capabilities. Writes another: “I can fold a mean napkin as well as bow a lot & look white which is a large part of my job description.”

The reactions of Japanese visitors to British Hills, so far as it is possible to determine from websites such as tripadvisor.com, are beguilingly innocent and free of irony: “a precious facility where you can enjoy a little study abroad in Japan” (国内でプチ留学できる貴重な施設); “everything’s exactly as it would be in England—an English village that makes you wonder whether you’re really in Japan” (すべてがイギリスそのもの!日本にいるの?と思わせるイギリス村); “it’s the UK even though it’s in Japan…step inside and everything’s English language, the feeling of a foreign country without a passport” (日本なのに英国・・・一歩入ったらすべて英語、パスポートなしの外国気分). Whether this trio has been to Britain, I know not, but I’d hazard they’ve never been to Scunthorpe, say, or Workington or Grimsby.

I particularly relish this reaction, written in English by a Japanese man: “A Caucasian receptionist accepted my check-in. … Unlike the people you may see in the countries other than Japan, she behaved in a manner as polite and gentle as Japanese clerks would do.” Then there’s this delightful attempt to render the world of British Hills in the Basic English of eccentric polymath C. K. Ogden (“what the world needs most is about 1,000 more dead languages”)—850 words and just 18 “operators” (“verbs” to you and me):
Hills are small mountains.
British Hills in fact
are not hills or mountains.
They are a sort of hotel
on a mountain,
with a special purpose.
Nearly everything in
this hotel
is British or English.
The building and the
14 houses
are copies of old ones in
Britain.
Most of the workers are able to give talks in English
though some have Australian sounds.
Streets are clean with no automatic soft-drink machines.

Reception from above

Back to school

After much pedantic talk at reception about under which accommodation package I might, having turned up unbidden and unannounced, be allowed to stay, I’m ushered to a room in a “house”—really an aggregation of suites—called Turner, replete with unguents and nostalgically aspirational plumbing from Ross-on-Wye.

Bath from Ross

Aspirational plumbing

Soon it’s time for drinks and dinner in The Falstaff pub, which stands next to “Ye Shoppe” (whatever happened to the “Olde”?); Greene King IPA, Abbot Ale, and Old Speckled Hen are on tap, and I daresay there’s no finer selection of amber nectar to be found on any other Fukushima hilltop.

Drink up

Roast beef of old England

There’s a pear-bottle of Sarson’s on the table—for the fish ’n’ chips, I suppose—but there’s really, really no need for more vinegar, as both the duck entrée and the beef roast are slathered in aceto balsamico, just as they would be at many a mediocre gastropub on the home islands; rap and R&B, turned down just low enough not to grate, fill the tea-color corners, with Frankie J crooning to all who’ll listen that “I can tell you sweet things that would make you smile”; there’s no smoking allowed inside the pub—natch—so I huddle, shivering, around an outdoor ashtray; many Japanese guests are clad in Pottercloaks (what accommodation package are they on?) and there’s endless Pottercrap on the telly. The British Hills experience was turning out to be terrifically, horrifically true to modern life on Airstrip One: all we needed now to complete the picture was ubiquitous CCTV and a pack of hoodies having a brawl in its collective blind-spot.

Amateur oil

Major General Piggott and company

The ambassador's lecture hall

Sir Rutherford and successors

One possible reason British Hills has survived, if not thrived, is that it is formidably well-connected, both on the British and Japanese sides. In descending order, the quartet of photos above show (a much younger) QEII, consort, and mother, together with the Shōwa Emperor and Empress Kōjun; a wall’s worth of yeoman worthies with ties, in foul times and fair, to Japan, starting with Major General Francis Piggott (1910-1996), British military attaché to Tokyo in the mid-1930s and in World War II organizer, under Orde Wingate, of the Burmese chindit partisans; The British Ambassador’s Lecture Hall; and a portrait, in the lecture hall, of Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897), the first British consul-general in Japan.

On the Japanese side, at least at the time of my visit, there was the intriguingly named André Yuki Kawada (1936-2012), so baptized at birth by a French Catholic priest, who was recruited in 1993 from Mitsubishi Corp. to become Director General of British Hills, was eventually to ascend to Honorary Director General, and who just so happened to be the great-grandson of Koichiro Kawada—who, together with the more celebrated Yataro Iwasaki, founded the mighty Mitsubishi zaibatsu. André Kawada was educated at Gakushuin, the bluest blooded of all Japan’s blue-blood schools, where he was a dormitory chum of His Imperial Highness The Prince Hitachi, still fourth in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and interviewed his senpai elder, novelist Yukio Mishima, for the school magazine. Now those are quite some connections—and they explain, I later realized, why the high-speed, touch-free hand-dryer in my bathroom was made by Mitsubishi.

But all this, though intriguing enough, was a distraction, for I had returned to British Hills for one reason alone: the library.

Library conference table

Seat of learning

Annals and a lamp

Bookended

British Hills calls it the replica of a London gentleman’s club, but it strikes me, given its location in the manor house, more like a simulacrum of a gentleman’s private library, of the sort that could, at its apogee, have been found in maybe no more than a couple of thousand castles, manors, and rectories across the British Isles. Whoever had assembled this collection—and I can picture in the mind’s inscape the dry-as-dust mouth of an antiquarian book-dealer on the Charing Cross Road begin to salivate one morning in 1992 as Mr. Kato and Mr. Sato from Japan step across the threshold and describe their requirements—had done a commendable job: the clock had stopped, never to go again, in the middle of the third decade of the twentieth century.

Anyone for Punch

Old Japan hands

One stack of shelves groans under nothing but bound volumes of Punch magazine, 1901-1925. How many legions of unfunny cartoons are contained therein? On my previous visit, a pile of 1960s children’s books on space exploration and popular science had spoiled the artifice, but these had been banished, and there was little left to ruin the illusion, although on close inspection of a shelf-full of Ye Olde Japanne travelogues—Three Rolling Stones in Japan by Gilbert Watson (1904) and The Other Side of the Lantern: An Account of a Commonplace Tour Round the World by Sir Frederick Treves (1905), for instance—The Deer Cry Pavilion by Pat Barr, which I can date no further back than 1968, is but a fawn among hoary stags.

Multivolume editions of exactly the novelists and poets you would expect to find in the library of a conservative but catholic (or even, perhaps, Conservative and Catholic) reader of 1925—Galsworthy and Hardy, Tennyson and Browning and Kipling, Jerome K. Jerome and Arnold Bennett, and of course The Chesterbelloc—are all present and correct.

Whyte who

But what was this shelf, full of novels with curious titles—Tilbury Nogo, M or N, Black but Comely, and Market Harborough (surely nobody could have penned a novel set in that dullest of East England towns)? And who was their author, George John Whyte Melville? I was convinced—wrongly, as it turned out—that I had never heard of him before. This—English literature—was supposed to be my specialist subject, the one over which I had sweated (well, gently perspired) for my undergraduate degree, and yet here was a shelf-worth of a Victorian novelist who had tumbled into such an abyss of obscurity that his very name rang no bell of recognition. Dispirited and dejected, not so much with my unpardonable ignorance but more with the fickleness of fama, I resolved—not for the first time—to bin Spike. What is the point, I asked myself but couldn’t answer, of writing anything that will be forgotten if not within an hour, then at the outside, within a day? Luckily, my wise friend Dr. T was on hand to counsel: “As for futility, of course what you are doing is futile. Futility is to the human condition as wetness is to water. So what? You enjoy doing it. I and many other of your fans enjoy reading it. Long live Spike!” Enheartened, I vowed to ramble on.

So who the blazes was G. J. Whyte Melville? Well, he was a novelist of the sporting field—no, wait, where did I get that from? Why, from Wikipedia, of course. The six-hundred-odd word entry on Whyte Melville has just two footnotes and no cautionary hypertext warning the reader of the fallibility of the writer, for these are the wildest shores of the Wikiempire, where the writ of the Wikilaw does not run and the Wikipolice do not patrol.

And where, I wondered, did the Wikiwriters (let’s assume a collective for the sake of convenience) obtain the knowledge to pen their essaylet on Whyte Melville? From a deep and abiding familiarity with the works? No, not at all, as it turned out—chunks are purloined from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica and to a lesser extent perhaps from the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900.

1) Wikipedia: Most of his heroes and heroines: Digby Grand, Tilbury Nogo, the Honourable Crasher, Mr Sawyer, Kate Coventry, Mrs Lascelles, are or would be hunters.
Britannica: He was the laureate of fox-hunting; all his most popular and distinctive heroes and heroines, Digby Grand, Tilbury Nogo, the Honorable Crasher, Mr Sawyer, Kate Coventry, Mrs Lascelles, are or would be mighty hunters.
2) Wikipedia: When the Crimean War broke out Whyte-Melville went out as a volunteer major of Turkish irregular cavalry but this was the only break in his literary career.
By a strange accident, Whyte-Melville lost his life whilst hunting 1878, the hero of many a stiff ride meeting his fate in galloping quietly over a ploughed field in the Vale of White Horse.
Britannica: When the Crimean War broke out Whyte-Melville went out as a volunteer major of Turkish irregular cavalry; but this was the only break in his literary career from the time that he began to write novels till his death.
By a strange accident, he lost his life in the hunting-field on the 5th of December 1878, the hero of many a stiff ride meeting his fate in galloping quietly over an ordinary ploughed field in the Vale of the White Horse.
3) Wikipedia: Several of these novels are historical, The Gladiators being perhaps the most famous of them.
Britannica: Several of these novels are historical, The Gladiators being perhaps the most famous of them.
4) Wikipedia: Some characters reappear in different novels: such as the supercilious studgroom, the dark and wary steeple-chaser, or the fascinating sporting widow.
Britannica: It is on his portraiture of contemporary sporting society that his reputation as a novelist must rest; and, though now and then a character reappears, such as the supercilious studgroom, the dark and wary steeple-chaser, or the fascinating sporting widow, his variety in the invention of incidents is amazing.

To appropriate from texts long in the public domain is no crime, and were the footnotes adequate, this entry would conceivably not even infringe on Wikipedia’s editorial standards, but were it to be handed in as homework it would merit 0/10, and the authority of the authors has been shot to pieces, pieces smaller than those into which starburst the clay pigeons at which Whyte Melville characters occasionally take pot-shot.

I should have realized from first encounter with the subliterate misuse of colons in examples (1) and (4) above that the Whyte Melville Wikipage was suspect, but I suspect my senses were lulled by ignorance of the subject and, more importantly, by the often spurious authority that Wikipedia has come to command in its dozen (count ’em) years of existence.

“A novelist of the sporting field” has become an Internet micro-meme, used exclusively with reference to Whyte Melville, often by booksellers ignorant of the author whose works they have picked up, perhaps at some house clearance auction. But is “a novelist of the sporting field” a fair characterization of Whyte Melville? Not from the two novels of his I’ve now read, and not, if we take references to foxes as a proxy for the sporting field, from the seven works of his I’ve skimmed at Project Gutenberg: The Interpreter: A Tale of the War has two fox references, General Bounce, or The Lady and The Locusts 13 (six about a horse called The Fox), M or N: Similia similibus curantur one, Contraband, or A Losing Hazard one, Kate Coventry: An Autobiography 14, and Katerfelto: A Tale of Exmoor, four—contrast those with the 63 fox references in the autobiographical Riding Recollections, which really is about the sporting field.

One reason that ignorant booksellers turn to Wikipedia anything other than the deepest of dives into the trenches of the Internet will turn up next to nothing about Whyte Melville—but surely these bibliophiles (and if they’re not bibliophiles, they’re in the wrong trade) have reference works, old-school ones printed with ink on paper, which they could consult for a potted biography?

Companion

Whyte Melville entry

I delved into the recesses of my library to dredge up my 1985 fifth edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by novelist Margaret Drabble (cruelly nicknamed Margery Drivel by me in my youth for the dullness of her fictions) and “a team of distinguished contributors” over five what must have been laborious years, only to discover that in a previous life—in January 1987, to judge from the neat pencil marks in which I had dated readings of surrounding entries—I had read the Whyte Melville entry and officiously corrected in red biro the typo that misrecorded his birth as 1721 rather than 1821. One up to Wikipedia, I suppose. For the record, here’s the entry in full:

WHYTE-MELVILLE, George John (1721-78 [sic]), born in Fife, educated at Eton, joined the 93rd Highlanders, then the Coldstream Guards, and served in the Crimean war. He then returned to England and devoted his time to field sports on which he was an authority. Most of his literary works were novels, sometimes historical, and hunting figures largely in many of them. His first, Digby Grand, was published in 1853; Galsworthy, at Oxford, fell under the spell of the ‘Bright Things’ in Whyte-Melville’s novels and Digby Grand was Jolyon’s (in The Forstye Saga) first idol. He achieved fame with Holmby House (1859), a historical romance describing the Civil War. Market Harborough (1861) and The Gladiators (1863), also very popular, were followed by several others. In 1869 he published his Songs and Verse, and Riding Recollections (1879) was a notable book on horsemanship. He was killed in a hunting accident.

Not inspired, certainly—the antepenultimate sentence is especially damp—and I wonder if the author knew beforehand of the Galsworthy connection or unearthed it from the only academic paper I can find on Whyte Melville, Whyte-Melville and Galsworthy’s “Bright Beings”, by James C. Freeman, in the September 1950 edition of Nineteenth-Century Fiction, which quotes the young Jolyon Forsyte reminiscing about his time at Cambridge in “the golden sixties when the world was simple, dandies glamourous, Democracy not born, and the books of Whyte-Melville coming thick and fast”. There were short-cuts to the assumption of the mantle of authority even before the Internet bulldozed the neighbourhood to make it nothing but a lattice of short-cuts. Another one up to Wikipedia? 

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

Wikipedia: An unsocratic dialogue, January 2013

If you are settling in the wilds, ten reference shelves are the minimum.
Early Reading and Desert Island Books, Patrick Leigh Fermor

Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind, a place we can all go to think and learn.
Excerpt from the latest Wikipedia fundraising message

Spike: Reddit is a disgrace to humanity but Wikipedia is a little gem—don’t forget that Tim Minchin invokes it in Storm:
Does the idea that one afternoon
On Wiki-fucking-pedia might enlighten you
Frighten you? 
It brightened my life today with two great quotations, the first from Hilaire Belloc, on being asked why he wrote so much: 
“Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar.”
 And the second, which you probably know, from Lord Rutherford:
“All science is either physics or stamp-collecting.”
You come closest to Luddism when you claim that “we did have…encyclopedias written by experts”. What we really had was the Britannica, which had long been prostituted to Chicago and the ranks of the door-to-door brush salesmen. (And I didn’t get that from Wikipedia.) That’s not to say Wikipedia’s perfect—it’s failed me when I needed it for things as varied as chemical vapor deposition to the politics of Graham Greene—but it’s free, whereas the Britannica in the old days must have cost a month’s salary or more, it doesn’t take up any space, and plenty of research has suggested it is not much more inaccurate than the Britannica was. Whether this is a giant leap is another question.

Dr. T: Though I idolise Tim Minchin every bit as much as you do, I’m not sure that a Wikipedia endorsement from him is enough to shake my nagging suspicion that it is doing for all of human culture what David Attenborough did for biology—dumbing it down to the point that any fool can ‘comprehend’ it. The problem with this is that you then create a huge number of people who think they understand, say, evolution, because they’ve got the box set of Life on Earth
Wikipedia hasn’t, surely, made anyone cleverer or even better informed; it has just given a lot of people the illusion that they are suddenly clever and well informed, which is dangerous, isn’t it? Like anything easily attained—and I do realise that this sounds or perhaps just is incredibly pompous—knowledge looked up on Wikipedia is too cheap to have much value. In the end, to the extent that it has any value at all, it relies on the expertise of the real experts and, if we’re not careful, we’ll disincentivise everyone from becoming an expert, which can still only be done the old-fashioned way. Try an experiment that I have had fun with and look up the Wikipedia entry on the ten subjects on which you believe you are personally best informed. Even the entries on evolution and natural selection are obviously written by what a former boss referred to as “your basic C-student”. By the time you get down to subjects that I really know more than most people about, the entries are barely one step above a trip through the square window on Play School. Anyway, judge your entries on their merits, then come back and tell me, if you still believe it to be true, that Wikipedia is a force for good not evil. What would Christopher Hitchens have said?
Spike: You dare attack Saint David of Attenborough? Next you’ll be having a go at that lovely Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu woman, just like Christopher Hitchens (and yes, I did have to go to Wikipedia for her Albanian name, and very efficient it was, too).
Sorry if it may come as a revelation but not everyone on this pale blue dot is as smart as you—surely there is room for a harmless old duffer like Lord Attenborough of Richmond to instill a wonder for nature in the unwashed? You can be very Calvinist in your opprobrium.
Does Wikipedia necessarily dumb down everything? Walk me through the maths behind the Bayesian derivation of the Doomsday argument here, which we were discussing before. Or perhaps you’d like to try your chances with the Kerr-Newman metric? These are not isolated examples of forbiddingly tricky Wikipages—there are thousands upon thousands more out there. Perhaps we should be arguing that Wikipedia hasn’t been dumbed down enough?
Do you think that people, generally, have the illusion that they are suddenly clever because they can access Wikipedia? Is there any evidence for that? Maybe the possession of a fifty volume Britannica fifty years ago made the people who bought it made them feel special, knowledgeable even, because they’d forked over so much money for it and it had pride of place in the sitting room, but do most casual users of Wikipedia feel that way today? Isn’t the absence of that illusion precisely part of the beauty of its being free?
Here’s how I used Wikipedia today—1) for work, I wanted to confirm that the trading house Mitsui & Co. was founded in 1876—it seemed a little late to me—confirmed; 2) for work, but mostly out of curiosity, I wanted to know if the Japanese for “sprawling prewar business combine”, zaibatsu, shared the same Chinese characters as the Korean Hanja (the Chinese form of Korean, as opposed to Hangul) for chaebol, i.e., Samsung—it does; 3) for pleasure, I wanted to know the classical Greek term of rhetoric for an intentional stutter in oratory—for instance, “thousands—no, tens of thousands—of our fellow citizens…” This was trickier; I thought for a while I had it nailed with epanorthosis—but then, maybe not. Wikipedia’s rhetoric pages need attention. But would the Britannica have been better in any way? And can’t we tell when we’re being let down?
We (well, I, which I admit is a narrower class of humanity) peck at Wikipedia for tidbits—noone, other than a desperate teenager, is going to take it as the sum of knowledge. And encyclopedists are supposed to be your basic C-grade student, encyclopedias are supposed to be for plodders or people outside their fields; it’s not for nothing that one of Wikipedia’s warnings is “This article may contain original research”—noone wants that kind of filth in an encyclopedia! Here’s a mirror-image challenge to yours—go and pick ten subjects about which you know next to zero, search them at Wikipedia, and come away telling me you didn’t learn something, however trivial. That’s what encyclopedias are for.
As for subjects that “I really know more than most people about”, well I concede that Japan pages are dire. Here’s one about a place dear to both of our hearts:
“Most of Monbetsu’s economy is dedicated to fishing for cold-water species such as crab.”
All together now, panto style—“Oh no it’s not!”
But, but, but… Would the Britannica have done any better?  
If I concede to you on one point—and I do—it’s that I often catch journos in the act of pulling “facts” off Wikipedia. I recall writing to a friend, in a context I’ve sadly forgotten, “That is mere Wikiknowledge!” A neologism that noone else (Google says, so it must be true) seems to have coined in a pejorative sense. But this is far from a generalized sense of complacency about knowledge, although it does caution for a heightened sensitivity to laziness. And as we know, journalists are basically only one rung up the evolutionary ladder from high-school students.
Dr T: Well, speaking as one iconoclast to another, yes, Saint David of Attenborough has certainly created several generation of wildlife program fans but I’m unconvinced that he has created many natural historians. We tend to find St. D after we’ve caught the bug, not the other way round. I think that St. D is exactly analogous to Jamie Oliver. St. J has not caused more people to start cooking or to raise their culinary game above Spaghetti Bolognese but he has forced Waitrose to raise its game in the ready meals department. For this, I am thankful. But seriously, you don’t have to be a Calvinist to object to misinformation being dispensed by the BBC, do you? In fact, he says, warming to his theme, isn’t your duty to be scrupulously accurate with the facts proportional to your ability to influence public opinion?
Well, I can’t walk you through the maths behind the Bayesian derivation of the Doomsday argument, which is precisely my point. I understand the principle behind Bayesian statistics, which is that you would be wise to take account of what you already know to be true, when estimating the probability that something about which you are uncertain is also true. For example, if you know that chimpanzees and humans are more closely related than humans and jellyfish, you will get a more robust hypothesis about the relationship among chimpanzees, humans and jellyfish when you plug the DNA into a molecular phylogeny program than if you pretended not to know the likely outcome. It’s a way of incorporating existing knowledge into statistical predictions. The Wikipedia entry on the Doomsday argument taught me nothing intelligible that I didn’t already know and the maths assumes far more understanding than I possess. In other words, it fails on every count. It doesn’t add to the understanding of a reasonably well-educated layman (with regard to Bayesian statistics) and it is intelligible only to people who have access to the original research. As an encyclopaedia entry it’s a waste of energy and someone’s time.
Of course Britannica would have done better! You or I could go onto Wikipedia now and amend any article on the basis of our prejudices not our knowledge of the pertinent subject. I’m not arguing that Britannica was an infallible source of knowledge, just that Wikipedia is more fallible and, further, that you have no way of knowing, as a user, whether a Wikipedia claim is true or false. If you want to figure that out, you have to go to the original research. 
I’m not claiming that Wikipedia is useless or devoid of interesting content. Just that you must judge it by its entries on stuff you know about, not stuff you don’t. Of course, if I look up something I know nothing about, say Japanese ceramics, I will read facts about them of which I was previously unaware. But how will I judge the veracity of these facts? One way would be to look at Wikipedia entries on subjects that I do know something about and estimate the percentage that seem to be on the ball (say, being generous, 30%) and apply that percentage to the stuff that I can’t independently verify.  
My fear is that, as Wikipedia and knowledge become synonymous in popular understanding, we will lose the ability to discriminate between truth and plausibility. 
Spike: I think your comment about the ease of amending Wikiarticles reveals that you don’t really understand how Wikipedia works. It’s like a war, there are fiercely contested hot zones, and areas where truces have held for aeons (in Internet time). You go and try an interpolate a comment at the George W. Bush page that says, “In 2010, ex-President Bush was convicted in a Texas court of sodomy and sentenced to three months in prison” and let me know how long it lasts. Or even if you get through the vetting process to be allowed to insert that comment.
Dr. T: It’s true that I have never attempted to write anything on Wikipedia. I think you are missing my point, however, or perhaps I am making it badly. Fans of Wikipedia or other open source technologies, like Linux or Firefox, seem to believe in the “wisdom of crowds”. It’s an open question whether crowds are any wiser than individuals—I’d vote not, but what do I know. Nicholas Carr’s point is that Wikipedia isn’t written by the crowd, it’s written by a cabal, so you get the worst of all worlds. You don’t benefit from the marginal improvements that could be made by the crowd, if the self-appointed censors didn’t forbid it, and it isn’t written by experts. What you get is articles written by people who have nothing better to do than write Wikipedia articles and police its frontiers.
Spike: Now that is a much more forceful criticism than any other you’ve presented me with. I sense Wikipedia’s actually written by a mix of a crowd and a cabal—crowd at the edges, perhaps, cabal at the center. The cabal needs the crowd because of its own epistemological shortcomings. You could easily enough stand the argument on its head, though, in the absence of really hard evidence, and say that you get the best of both worlds. I know, though, that I could greatly improve thousands of Wikipedia articles, but can’t be bothered (did you know that apathetics inhabit the outer perimeter of Dante’s Inferno, just before the vats start boiling?)  
You got me reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget. He has some beguiling one-liners:
“Wikipedia, for instance, works on what I call the Oracle illusion, in which knowledge of the human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give the text superhuman validity.”
And in what way is that different from a traditional encyclopedia? But actually at Wikipedia, because it’s a constant work in progress, you endlessly encounter those superscripted notes {citation needed} or the magisterial headers “This article has multiple issues”, which are a constant reminder that we are dealing with very human, very fought-over texts. I don’t think Lanier is a careful enough reader when it comes to this.

Postscript: An article in the Free Exchange column of the March 9th edition of The Economist, which surveys a trio of studies that attempt to quantify the “consumer surplus” generated by the wonders of the Internet (although as one study was commissioned by a web-advertising industry group and another partly funded by Google, their integrity must be open to at least a smidgeon of doubt, on the principle that you don’t ask the barber if you need a haircut), handsomely illustrates one of Dr. T’s points. It begins thus (bolding mine):

When her two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer in 1992, Judy Mollica spent hours in a nearby medical library in south Florida, combing through journals for information about her child’s condition. Upon seeing an unfamiliar term she would stop and hunt down its meaning elsewhere in the library. It was, she says, like “walking in the dark”. Her daughter recovered but in 2005 was diagnosed with a different form of cancer. This time, Ms Mollica was able to stay by her side. She could read articles online, instantly look up medical and scientific terms on Wikipedia, and then follow footnotes to new sources. She could converse with her daughter’s specialists like a fellow doctor. Wikipedia, she says, not only saved her time but gave her a greater sense of control. “You can’t put a price on that.”

Much as I am glad that Ms Mollica gained a greater illusion of authority, that is all it is—an illusion. Seven to ten rigorous years of medical training will allow you to converse with specialists like a fellow doctor; one afternoon on Wiki-fucking-pedia might just, if you’re in luck, begin to disabuse you of your belief in homeopathy and other footnotes in the history of piffle but it won’t award you—it beggars belief that anyone has to point this out—a doctorate in medicine.

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

Digby

Inside Digby

The moment that my edition of Digby Grand: An Autobiography, printed in London by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1890, crossed my threshold, having winged its way from Selkirk in Scotland, not so very far from where Whyte Melville was born, it became, at 123 years old (older, just, than any documented human has ever lived), by far the oldest object in my possession, the family heirlooms, such as they were, having been liberated by an avaricious relative as my elderly parents struggled to squeeze the quart of their accumulated lives into the pint of their final home. The corporeal book, with its faint mustiness, imprimatur of age, and archaic typeface, offers manifold pleasures and opportunities for speculation that no e-reader will ever match: was, for instance, Katherine M. Hope, whose name appears on the front paste-down, the same Katherine M. Hope who appears in the 1881 Scottish census as born in 1879 and resident in Clackmannanshire? What would she, an impressionable eleven if the book’s first reader, have made of the dissolute youth of Digby Grand? There’s a palpable thrill, too, as the first pages fall open, that one is about to be inducted into a secret camaraderie: how many people alive and under fifty have read Digby Grand? A hundred?

Manifold, too, are the pleasures within: while there is much hunting, not a little shooting and even some fishing, a great deal of slaughter of the beasts of the field, of “flying covey and dodging coney”, and fulsome tribute paid to “a capital horse, with as crack a pack of hounds as England could produce”, Digby Grand is not, primarily, a “novel of the sporting field” but a Bildungsroman, in which our eponymous hero bids to negotiate the hazards of polite society, in the shape of characters with near-Dickensian names, Mrs. Man-trap, Captain Lavish, Lord Growler, Sir Harlequin Hauteboy, and Dr. Driveller, and its tapestry of temptations, from “enormous consumption of provender and wassail”, “oceans of claret”, “bumper after bumper of Bordeaux”, and “jorums of mull” (this is not a novel likely to appear on the recommended reading list of the British Medical Association) to card games from whist to lansquenet and écarté, on which the stakes wagered are staggering, a dissipate world (“it was usually twilight before I found myself dressed for the morning”) in which it is not always easy to distinguish between “a deuced ticklish fellow” and “a devilish good fellow”, one where Beau Brummel is the dandy’s model, and one in which Digby lives so far beyond his means that he laments that “I found my personal income was about sufficient to fund me in gloves, blacking, and cigars.”

The mood darkens: debts mount, creditors pursue, Digby flees; captured, he becomes “a prisoner of the law” and is reduced to penury. A friend dies by his own hand, driven to insanity by the gaming-table and Play, “firstly the seductive pastime, then the invincible habit, lastly the despotic infatuation, from which there is no escape.” Penniless, with “the charm of youth dispelled”, Digby learns of the death of his estranged father, as improvident as the son, and that of the ancestral home, Haverley Hall, and its contents, “everything must be sold”. Rescued by the Victorian deus ex machina of a chance encounter with an old friend, Digby becomes a respectable wine-merchant: “the days of coxcombry are gone by, the sun of dandyism is set.” Finally, about to marry, Digby—or is it Whyte Melville?—issues a stinging repudiation of Epicureanism: “How many a noble intellect and gallant spirit is at this moment wasting his energies on the most unworthy and unsatisfactory of all employments, the pursuit of pleasure!”

In this, Whyte Melville is in deep dialogue with Horace, whom he has translated three years’ before, or at least the Epicurean side of Horace, the one most familiar to the modern ear through the marble epigrams of “carpe diem” and “nunc est bibendum”, but perhaps nowhere more charmingly expressed than in Ode I.IX, Vides et Ulta, often known as the Soracte Ode, a carmina so knotty and dense an entire book of exegesis has been devoted to it, addressed to what may have been Horace’s catamite, Thaliarchus (“master of festivities”), and marking, according to translator David West, the latter’s passage from boyhood and the love of Horace to manhood and the love of girls.

You see Soracte standing white and deep
with snow, the woods in trouble, hardly able
to carry their burden, and the rivers
halted by sharp ice.

Thaw out the cold. Pile up the logs
on the hearth and be more generous, Thaliarchus,
as you draw the four-year-old Sabine
from its two-eared cask.

Leave everything else to the gods. As soon as
they still the winds battling it out
on the boiling sea, the cypresses stop waving
and the old ash trees.

Don’t ask what will happen tomorrow.
Whatever day Fortune gives you, enter it
as profit, and don’t look down on love
and dancing while you’re still a lad,

while the gloomy grey keeps away from the green.
Now is the time for the Campus and the squares
and soft sighs at the time arranged
as darkness falls.

Now is the time for the lovely laugh from the secret corner
giving away the girl in her hiding-place,
and for the token snatched from her arm
or finger feebly resisting.

World War One—indeed, one poem, Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est—went a long way to killing off Horace in Britian; the war claimed Whyte Melville, too, his uncomplicated paeans to Merry England, his scant acknowledgement of “the lower orders”, and his superannuated vocabulary—Digby Grand must surely be one of the last unironic outings in literature for the Chaucerian “yclept”, as in “one of those solemn outings yclept a county ball”, a ball where the revellers are no mere revellers but “votaries of Terpsichore”. (Why are lexicographers so assiduous in tracking down first usages but not last ones?) Whyte Melville was reprinted twice, once in the 1930s and again in the 1980s, but not by mainstream publishers, and that, in the era of the e-reader, where everything is free (or nearly free) but nothing has value, will be that.

Digby Grand is not without its faults—Whyte Melville has but tepid hands for metaphor, and the jabs at sententious profundity (“What a mercurial thing is youth!”, “Fortune…seldom fails to assist those who assist themselves”) are those of a cheerful bantamweight—but the overarching difficulty for the modern reader (at least one with sufficient reserves of respect to deeply understand that the past truly is a foreign country and they do indeed do things differently there) is that Digby Grand, despite being genre fiction (dread words!), is a demanding read.

(In this context I savour the sole review for any of Whyte Melville’s “802” works at amazon.com:
“The premis is a good one but this book is written like Homer’s Illid. It is simply impossible to read as written. The prose is something out of the second century and try as I might I could only get through 4 chapters. I finally had to put it away as I simply could not keep any intertest. Frankly, it was painful to read a single page and enjoy it. I suggest before you put down any money you read a page or two. The entire book is just like those few pages and if that type of prose keeps your interest…….well your attention span is much more patent than mine.”)

It’s true, you need a patent attention span. Here’s a sentence that caught my eye, but “the entire book is just like” this. Digby—don’t ask why—is sailing down the Saint Lawrence River in Canada with one of his early ladye-loves, Zoë de Grand-Martigny (Digby, and I suspect Whyte Melville too, is possessed of a severe case of Francophilia):

As we steamed along that broad unruffled surface, glistening like burnished gold in the setting sun, and studded with islands of every size and shape, from the undulating mass, whose rocks and woods stretching away into the distance, made us fancy we were coasting on the real bank of the river, down to the tiny islet, reflecting on its wavering mirror the single fir-tree for whose solitary growth alone it could find room; as we glided through this region of enchantment, and paced the deck by our two selves in the drowsy air of the summer evening, no wonder that Zoë and I both felt the influence of the hour, and that in tones lowering more and more as we trenched further upon the dangerous ground of sentiment and romance, we breathed forth whispers that had far better have been left unsaid, and gave way to feelings that should rise again like ghosts of the past to embitter with their shadowy mockery the uncared-for ‘days to come.’

What thwarts the modern reader here is not the vocabulary—only “trenched” gives any pause, and is easily replaced by “impinged” or “broached”—nor even the sheer length of the sentence, which weighs in at 167 words, but the syntax, the thirteen commas, single semi-colon, and above all the hundred words’ worth of multiple embedded subordinate and sub-subordinate clauses before the predicate, which, notwithstanding the disputations of the grammarians, I take to be “felt the influence of the hour” and which appears close to two-thirds of the way to the finishing line, pushed back toward the end of the sentence in a typically Latinate manner. Dickens, Whyte Melville’s contemporary, largely bereft of a formal, let alone classical, education, is in this respect much more palatable to the modern reader.

This predicate push, I am reminded from a recent column by George Will, whose politics I do not share but whose prose, bookish yet well tailored, sardonic and lapidary—a favourite word of his—I do admire, can be used to great comedic effect, as in the opening sentence of Leave it to Psmith (1923) by P. G. Wodehouse, a fellow Old Alleynian.

At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.

Compare, if you care (and I think you should), those two instances of syntactic complexity, both from popular and not explicitly literary fiction, one 90 years old and one 160, with the opening sentences of the top 10 paid fiction best-sellers at the amazon.com Kindle store, which as of this writing were these:

1)    There were two things in life that scared the ever-loving crap out of me.
2)    Being left at the altar is not for sissies.
3)    The hell of it was that it couldn’t have been a better day for flying.
4)    It’s not every day I get a naked girl answering the door I knock on.
5)    There was a knock on the door then just the small shuffle of feet.
6)    On the second Thursday of the month, Mrs. Dombrowski brings her dead husband to our therapy group.
7)    As Kate wound her way among the tables, a breeze from the Atlantic rippled through her hair.
8)    When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.
9)    “I told you she would be beautiful,” Decebel held the baby girl in his arms and stared down at her with more adoration than Jen had ever seen in anyone’s eyes.
10) It was done.

We have been reduced to an impoverished world of syntactic flatness, of polder-like tedium. That’s not to say great literature cannot be wrung out of this staccato simplicity—see Hemingway, or Raymond Carver—but if we exist solely in a plantation monoculture of uniform cedar-prose, then we remorselessly rob ourselves of the neurological dexterity required to engage with almost everything written more than a generation ago. As Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

Now that the context of reading is again shifting, from the private page to the communal screen, authors will adapt once more. They will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the essayist Caleb Crain describes as “groupiness”, where people read mainly “for the sake of belonging” rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favour of a bland but immediately accessible style. Writing will become a means for recording chatter.

The faintest vestiges of Whyte Melville linger in Britain: there is a public house, The Whyte Melville, in Boughton, Northants, located in a former residence of his, a memorial fountain in St Andrews, Fife, named after him (he captained The Royal & Ancient Golf Club in 1851), and a lawn bowls club in Moulton, Northants, which bears his name. One of his poems, The Good Grey Mare (“I have lived my life – I am nearly done – / I have played the game all round; / But I freely admit that the best of my fun / I owe it to horse and hound”) was the 1884 inspiration for name of the equestrian magazine, Horse & Hound, still, astonishingly, in print and which bears, I believe, Whyte Melville’s lines on its masthead to this day.

After much sleuthing, I track down a reference to Whyte Melville in Forty Years On (1968), the debut drama of Alan Bennett, Beloved National Institution (subcategories: northern, English, working-class, gay; see also Russell Harty) and at 78, one of the stately homos of old England. I read the play first as a teen—was it this reference that sent me scurrying to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, all those years ago? Set in a second-rate boarding school, Forty Years On is a state-of-Albion treatise, deeply suspicious of a modern world in which “country is park and shore is marina, spare time is leisure and more, year by year” yet also ill-at-ease with the brutalities and injustices of the past, and at its climax a schoolboy reads from a lectern an abridged Whyte Melville poem, titled (according to Bennett) Lines Written in Dejection, a poem of remarkable and unwavering melancholy—or shot through with the maudlin sentimentality characteristic of the age, according to your fancy.

A child in the nursery crying,
A boy in the cricket field – out,
A youth for a fantasy sighing,
A man with a fit of the gout.
Some sense of experience wasted,
Of counsel misunderstood,
Of pleasure, bitter when tasted,
And of pain that did him no good.
The sum of a life expended,
A pearl in the pig trough cast,
A comedy played and ended,
And what has it come to at last?
The dead man, propped on a pillow,
The journey taken alone,
The tomb with an urn and a willow
And a lie carved deep into stone.

In the play, the poem serves perhaps as both a threnody for the failures of the retiring headmaster and an elegy for the passing of an age. Entranced, I try to track down the complete poem, scouring Whyte Melville’s two collections of poetry, Songs and Verses (1869) and Hunting Poems, but draw a blank. More detective work uncovers full versions of the poem, in varying states of corruption, across a rag-tag assortment of long vanished North American newspapers: The Geneva Gazette of January 19, 1877, the Brooklyn Daily Union-Argus of March 27, 1877, The Waterloo Advertiser from Canada of April 30, 1880, The Day, “a Republican evening newspaper” from New London, Connecticut, of November 5, 1891, The Plattsburg Sentinel of November 6, 1891, and finally, the poem having hiked its way west, The Salt Lake Herald of February 19, 1894. In most instances it is titled The Story of a Life, and in all but one, where the author is given, confoundingly, as “Temple Bar”, it is unattributed. Here is a tidied up, composite version, although not, I suspect, one completely ridden of corruption:

A child in the nursery crying—a boy in the cricket field, “out!”
A youth for a fantasy sighing—a man with a fit of the gout,
A heart dried up and narrowed—a task repeated in vain,
A field plowed deep and harrowed, but bare and barren of grain.
Some sense of experience wasted, of counsel misunderstood,
Of pleasure, bitter when tasted, and pain that did him no good,
Some sparks of sentiment perished—some flashes of genius lost,
A torrent of false love cherished—a ripple of true love crossed,
Some feeble breasting of trouble to glide again with the stream,
In principle void as a bubble—in purpose vague as a dream,
A future hope half-hearted, for dim is the future now—
That the triple crown has parted, and death is damp on the brow,
And a debt is to pay by the debtor—a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse,
A feeling he should have been better, a doubt if he could have been worse,
While the ghostly finger traces its ghostly message of doom,
And a troop of ghostly faces pass on in a darkened room,
With ghostly shapes to beckon and ghostly voices to call,
And the grim recorder to reckon, and add the total of all,
The sum of a life expended—a pearl in a pig trough cast,
A comedy played and ended—and what has it come to at last?
The dead man, propped on a pillow—the journey taken alone,
The tomb with an urn and a willow, and a lie carved deep in the stone.

One final slender thread connects the living—us—with Whyte Melville. The last poem in Songs and Verses, Goodbye!, is a bleak autumnal serenade.  

Falling leaf and fading tree,
Lines of white in a sullen sea,
Shadows rising on you and me;
The swallows are making them ready to fly,
Wheeling out on a windy sky.
Goodbye Summer! Goodbye, Goodbye!
Hush! A voice from the far away!
“Listen and learn,” it seems to say,
“All the to-morrows shall be as today.”
The cord is frayed—the cruse is dry,
The link must break, and the lamp must die—
Goodbye Hope! Goodbye, Goodbye!
What are we waiting for? Oh! my heart!
Kiss me straight on the brows! And part!
Again! Again!—my heart! my heart!
What are we waiting for, you and I?
A pleading look—a stifled cry.
Goodbye, forever?—Goodbye, Goodbye!

This was later crafted into a song by the Italian-British composer Paolo Tosti (1846-1916) and later—much later—sung by Canada-born Hollywood starlet Deanna Durbin in the 1946 film, Because of Him. Two years later, disenchanted with the machinations of the movie industry, Durbin upped sticks with her husband to the life of a near-recluse in a farmhouse outside Paris, from which she has only given one interview these past six-plus decades and where she remains, a nonagenarian pushing 92, an emissary from an utterly other world.

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

Otsukaresama. As I mentioned at the outset, this is the last ever Spike ramble. I’m bored, to be honest, with Japan, the Japan of Abenomics and AKB47, of The Idolmaster and super-deformed anime, of bullying and territorial tantrums and constitutional revisionism. It’s not all—not at all—Japan’s fault: my interest waxes and wanes in multiyear cycles and right now I’m waning gibbous, bored of writing Japan this, Japan that, Japan the other, bored more than anything with seeing everything through the narrowing and distorting prism of a nation-state. In most of the ponderables I’ve been mulling over the last year, from, say, “What caused the last five mass extinctions of life on Earth and will knowing the answers shed any light on the coming, sixth one?” and “Would it be possible to construct a sociobiological approach to literary criticism?” to “What, if any, are the artistic implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics?”, the word Japan does not figure; nor does it figure more than tangentially in any putative answers.

More than that, however, I’m disillusioned with much of the Internet, while fully cognizant that little of Spike could have been written without it. I’m tired of the Internet’s stalkers and spammers, the rule of its lynch mobs and witch hunters, the whinnying of its millions of saloon-bar donkey-bores, betraying their unthinking ignorance with every bray, and the incivility it engenders, even in mild-mannered me; tired of the degradation of art to “content”, monetized or not; tired of the ten thousand tech bloggers panting to live-blog the release of the latest phablet (a word which, if you haven’t already encountered it, is coming very soon to your lexicon, like it or not); tired of the grin given me by Jeff Bezos, who, having donned cassock and surplice, is about to administer, gleefully, the last rites to the book on its deathbed, tired of his “fulfilment center” warehouses, tired, so tired already of his Kindle I bought to research this piece, loathing everything about it from the fatuity embodied in its Paperwhite name (paper, at least the paper books are printed on, is not white, it’s ivory to cream) to its assassination of the integrity of the page to the way it froze a fortnight out of the box; tired of the relentless destruction (156,000 US Postal Service jobs gone in the last five years) and the absence of meaningful creation; tired by the erasure of the past, by the all-pervasive decontextualization, and by the way so much is written, stripped down, in C. K. Ogden’s Basic English; tired by the 250 milliseconds, less time than the 400 milliseconds it takes to blink, that will dissuade people from visiting a website if has a quicker loading peer; and tired by the way the Internet panders tirelessly to our false new twin idols of convenience and cheapness. I’m tired of mindless technophiles and technosnobs, such as this writer in the January 26th Economist, and their laughable visions of progress:

The iTV, which may be controlled by via gestures and voice commands as well as via iPads and iPhones, could be a digital hub for the home. It would let people check whether their washing machine has finished its cycle while they gossip on Facebook and watch their favourite soap.

But above all, I’m tired by the Orwellian undertones the telescreens of the Internet are beginning to assume. I could go on; indeed, I could go on at book length, but I’ll leave you, obliquely, with this.

There was a small bookcase in the other corner, and Winston had already gravitated towards it. It contained nothing but rubbish. The hunting-down and destruction of books had been done with the same thoroughness in the prole quarters as everywhere else. It was very unlikely that there existed anywhere in Oceania a copy of a book printed earlier than 1960.

1984, George Orwell

For a book as supposedly well known and widely read as 1984, this passage garners very few citations on the Internet, which makes me wonder—and worry—about the depth of the conversations we have. Noone (in their right minds) would suggest that the West, or any fraction of it, is about to become a totalitarian state ruled over by IngSoc, but if we blithely surrender our libraries, both public and personal, as we seem with alacrity to be doing, to digitization by the Lords of the Cloud, then where will reside the control of the past? Not with you or me. None of the AGFA quartet of lords—Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple—is even middle-aged, two are teenagers, and one is still in short trousers. You might assume, as do their self-appointed overlords in their self-perceived benignity, that they’ll be around forever, immune to overthrow by more malign forces. It seems unlikely.

“What shall it be this time?” he said, still with the same faint suggestion of irony. “To the confusion of the Thought Police? To the death of Big Brother? To humanity? To the future?”
“To the past,” said Winston.
“The past is more important,” agreed O’Brien gravely.

1984, George Orwell

Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention—although I will. There’s many a half-finished essay moldering in the bowels of the desktop, from ones for which I took all the photos, such as Utsunomiya: Nest of Loansharks, but neglected to do the requisite but intimidatingly vast research into Japan’s consumer-finance industry, to ones with barely more than a title, such as Thirty Minutes to Toyota, about the dreariness of life in Toyota’s home prefecture of Aichi. But you don’t want to hear about the ones that got away.

Learnings? Aplenty. In the last four years, I’ve learned a lot about extremities, having visited, in the course of the performance of my writerly duties, the easternmost, northernmost, westernmost, and southernmost points of mainland Japan. Much more than that, though, I’ve learned the hard way how hard it is to write hard—how anything more than a thousand or so worthwhile words a day is well-nigh impossible, at least for me.

All that now remains is for me to give a tear-fragile Oscar speech in miniature: I’d like to thank Financial Times journalist Lindsay Whipp for the article that first gave impetus to Spike; The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Economist, thebrowser.com, and the other media outlets who have kindly profiled or linked to or featured Spike; everyone who, however briefly, has perused these pages; everyone who has taken the trouble to leave a comment, and in particular Jeffrey, Troy, and my fiercest critic, Kyushu Ranger; and above all Dr. T, aka Torquatus, aka Alphatuosity, my intellectual sparring partner—although with him, I often feel like a Whyte Melville pugilist punching feebly in a class above my weight.

“There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past,” he said. “Repeat it, if you please.’”
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” repeated Winston obediently.
“Who controls the present controls the past,” said O’Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. “Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?”
Again the feeling of helplessness descended upon Winston. His eyes flitted towards the dial.

1984, George Orwell

Goodbye, forever?—Goodbye, Goodbye!

Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the Psychology of Nuclear Power

Part Three

Good technologies have few costs in the imaginary world in which we inhabit, bad technologies have no benefits, and all decisions are easy.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (TF&S)

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic.

David J. C. MacKay, Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air

 My interest in K-K and the psychology of nuclear power was first piqued by a fruitless search of the world’s favorite online bookseller for something, anything, in English and worthy of a read on the debacle of Fukushima Daiichi. Granted, it has only been 18 months since the events of 3/11 and the topic is a monstrous challenge, but what has been written is nothing but bilge. I’m going to pick on one book, Silence Deafening—Fukushima Fallout … A Mother’s Response, by one Kimberly Roberson. No, I haven’t read it, beyond what is available for free at the bookseller, but as the old saw has it, you don’t have to eat an addled egg to know it’s rotten. Here’s the beginning of the blurb on the back cover:

A CALL TO ACTION: Nuclear disasters and lessons learned. Facts are facts. There have been at least three major nuclear power disasters to date: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima Daiichi’s unprecedented three nuclear meltdowns in 2011, the worst in history. … Do we wait for another life threatening catastrophic event, or do we act now?

So facts are facts, are they? What I adore about this pronouncement is that it is immediately followed up by a “fact” that is not a “fact”, but a highly contentious assertion, to put it mildly, that the meltdowns at Daiichi were “the worst in history”. The author’s “logic” appears to be that as there was only one meltdown at Chernobyl and three at Daiichi, Daiichi must therefore have been the world’s worst nuclear accident. It’s a matter of simple maths, you see. “Facts are facts” is one of my most beloved nonsensical expressions, right up there with “common sense”: it seems to obey the law of identity, that A is A, the first of the three classic laws of thought, known since at least the time of Aristotle; indeed it appears to be a tautology, but if your “facts” are not “facts” but “dubious assertions” or “downright lies”, you’re left with a very different pair of tautologies—and we haven’t even touched on the epistemological and historiographical slipperiness of facts. That “facts” might not be facts can be gleaned from the wondrous facts-are-facts.com, where we can learn from one Ursula Seiler that:

Jellyfish are essentially chiming bells that swim in the sea. Large jellyfish consist of entire melodies; small jellyfish individual notes … The increasing numbers of jellyfish appearing for example in the Baltic Sea is … a direct result of the ever-present music pumped out of our radios, department stores, etc. that makes up the soundtrack to our everyday life; this active music-making is chiefly what generates the existence of these creatures. Evidently, then, jellyfish epidemics are chiefly the result of mass-produced music.

Evidently. Or why not try this on for size:
Evidently, then, mass-produced music is chiefly the result of jellyfish epidemics.
It’s about as logical back-to-front as front-to-back. But to revisit the blurb:

There have been at least three major nuclear power disasters to date: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima Daiichi’s unprecedented three nuclear meltdowns in 2011, the worst in history.

One of the fascinating consequences of Daiichi, and one that has gone wholly unremarked, is that it gave the world not one but two triptychs of calamity. To deal with this one first: notice how the word “three” recurs thrice in the sentence above—three disasters, one of which was Three Mile Island, and three reactor meltdowns at Daiichi. The triptych of calamity even embeds the word “three” within it: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. This is as fine an example as you’ll come across of the Rule of Three at work, a rule to which I ascribe an almost mystical power—take the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, and the world’s three monotheistic religions, for instance, or the three states of matter, gas, solid, and liquid, the three states of time, past, present, and future, the three primary colors, red, blue, and green, and the abundance of triumvirates, trilogies, and triunes, triads, troikas, and trinities, triplicities, tricoleurs, and hendiatris in our languages. The Rule of Three is, aside from my awful affection for alliteration (and a fondness for parenthetical asides), the only artifice I consciously employ in what I write, and if you’ve read this trio (so far) of posts from the start, you’ll have come across the Rule of Three at its merrily silent work, ooh, somewhere between 33 and 333 times already—although I’ll give you 3,333-to-one against that you’ll have noticed.

So, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima—these are the Big Three nuclear calamities, then, this is a true triptych, yes? Ah, no, at least not if we accept the validity of the inevitably subjective International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) of the IAEA, with the caveat that the IAEA is incorrigibly pro-nuclear. Chernobyl and Fukushima are rated “level seven: major accident”, the highest rating, but Three Mile Island is rated only “level five: accident with wider consequences”, a rating it shares with four other incidents, most of which will be unfamiliar to you in a way that Three Mile Island is not. But there’s a solitary “level six: serious accident”—the Kyshtym disaster in the (then) Soviet Union, on 29 September, 1957—so the true triptych should read Kyshtym, Chernobyl, Fukushima. Why don’t you—in all likelihood—know anything about Kyshtym? Well, first and foremost because the Soviet Union in the 1950s was not the most open—or safety conscious—of societies. Indeed, the accident is only known as Kyshtym because the east Ural city where it actually occurred, Ozyorsk (aka Chelyabinsk-40), was a closed city not on any maps, and while it now has a cartographical presence, it remains a closed city to this day, and it took some six months for news of the accident to filter out. Second, because 1957 is such an awfully long time ago, and because of the recency bias, our evolved human psychology is inclined to overweight the significance of recent events and underweight remote ones. And third, because unless you are a Russian speaker, you can’t pronounce “Kyshtym” (I believe it’s close to “Kuishtoim”), and words you can’t pronounce you can’t easily remember. Incidentally, you probably can’t pronounce “Chernobyl” either, but you think you can, and that’s good enough, whereas the unfamiliar Kyshtym, with its wall of consonants, looks unpronounceable, and that’s enough to intimidate.

So let’s compare the false triptych and the true:
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima
Kyshtym, Chernobyl, Fukushima

Do you notice anything? In the false, the accidents are spread geographically across three continents, the Americas, Europe, and Asia, and occur in two of the world’s three largest economies and (what was then part of) its largest country. In the true, two out of the three occur in the chronically closed and safety-contemptuous Soviet Union. Perceptions shift. These are, loosely and laterally, what Kahneman calls framing effects: put simply, the great difference in your reaction immediately before an operation you are about to undergo on being told either that that the survival rate is 90% or the mortality rate is 10%.

What if we add in the dates?
Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), Fukushima (2011)
Kyshtym (1957), Chernobyl (1986), Fukushima (2011)

Perceptions shift again: while the false triptych suggests a run-rate of a “serious” or “major” accident once a decade, as recency bias blocks out the nuclear quarter-century before 1979, the true suggests a run-rate of every couple of decades. This doesn’t mean that we should necessarily expect any run-rate, given the paucity of the denominator in the equation “cumulative years of safe global nuclear power plant operation divided by serious or major accident”, simply that this is how we psychologically perceive a run-rate.

An admittedly crude way of looking at historical accident rates is to assign the 25 INES level four to seven nuclear accidents that have involved far-field radiation releases since the dawn of the nuclear age a point score—say 5pts for a level four accident, 10pts for a level five, 15pts for a level six, and 25pts for a level seven—and break them out over the decades. Then we multiply by a thousand and divide by total net installed nuclear electrical capacity at end-decade to get a very rough metric of accident severity per megawatt, decade by decade.

1940s: 5pts (no commercial reactors in operation in 1949)
1950s: 50pts = 50,000 ÷ 548MW = 91.2
1960s: 40pts = 40,000 ÷ 14,121MW = 2.8
1970s: 40pts = 40,000 ÷ 117,814MW = 0.34
1980s: 40pts = 40,000 ÷ 311,942MW = 0.13
1990s: 5pts = 5,000 ÷ 347,368MW = 0.0144
2000s: 0pts  NA
2010s (to date): 25pts = 25,000 ÷ 370,705MW (end-2009) = 0.0674

You don’t have to be Sherlock to notice a trend. However, if you don’t want to have any truck with the pro-nuclear IAEA’s INES, there’s an alternative: the nuclear accident magnitude scale (NAMS) developed by nuclear-skeptic David Smythe, professor of geophysics at Glasgow University. Here I add up the cumulative magnitudes, decade by decade, of the 17 INES level four to seven nuclear accidents for which he has been able to calculate a NAMS magnitude of severity and again multiply by a thousand and divide by total net installed nuclear electrical capacity at end-decade.

1940s: 3.8 (no commercial reactors in operation in 1949)
1950s: 21.4 = 21,400 ÷ 548MW = 39.1
1960s: 23.1 = 23,100 ÷ 14,121MW = 1.64
1970s: 16.9 = 16,900 ÷ 117,814MW = 0.143
1980s: 8.0 = 8,000 ÷ 311,942MW = 0.026
1990s: 4.8 = 4,800 ÷ 347,368MW = 0.0138
2000s: 0  NA
2010s (to date): 7.5 = 7,500 ÷ 370,705MW (end-2009) = 0.0202

The trend remains unchanged. (We might also observe here that there has never been an INES level four to level seven accident involving any reactor that started commercial operations after 1980 and only one that started after 1975 [Fukushima Daiichi No. 4].)

Let’s turn to the other triptych of calamity, this one wholly home-grown: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima. Note the sibilant smoothness, punctuated by the repeated “shima”, with which the trio of four-syllable words trip off the tongue. This triptych is having a hugely potent effect on the Japanese psyche, with mayors from Daiichi-afflicted towns being invited last summer and this to address memorial services at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here’s an excerpt from a Japan Times article (August 28) by one Michael Hoffman, preposterously titled Complacency perished in the Fukushima nuclear disaster (as if the dirt of complacency had been simply wiped clean from the Japanese or human mind):

Neither the victims of Fukushima Prefecture’s triple meltdown in March 2011 nor the aging survivors of the world’s only two wartime atom bombings are letting that [the issue of nuclear devastation in peacetime] pass.
“In terms of being nuclear victims, we are the same,” Hiroshima survivor Sunao Tsuboi, 87, told the AFP news agency.
“In my mind, Fukushima is like a third nuclear victim, following Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” added Fukushima evacuee Sachiko Sato.
Nuclear devastation in peace is war, a 90-year-old Buddhist nun named Jakucho Setouchi goes so far as to say. Setouchi is a writer of considerable reputation whose collected works, published in 2002, run to 20 volumes. Speaking to Shukan Asahi magazine, she said, “The earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters, but (TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant) was a manmade disaster, and therefore the same as war.”
War happens when it is allowed to happen; ditto nuclear disasters. “The atmosphere today,” says Setouchi, “is exactly like 1941, ’42.” Back then, the public and mass media bought the official line that Japan’s victory was assured. In our own time, the public and mass media bought the official line that the safety of nuclear power was assured.

Leaving aside the grotesque syllogistic lapses (to say that all wars are manmade disasters, Fukushima was a manmade disaster, and therefore Fukushima was war is no different, (il)logically, from claiming that all cats are mammals, a cow is a mammal, and therefore a cow is a cat—this is the fallacy of the undistributed middle), it must seem the height of fatuity to the pro-nuclear power brigade—as it does to this more disinterested observer—to dare to mention Fukushima in the same breath as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is not for a moment to gloss over or belittle the very real torment, fear, and anxiety suffered by the 150,000 or so people whose lives and livelihoods were disrupted by Fukushima Daiichi, but this disruption lies at the far, far end of the wide, wide spectrum of human suffering from instant and involuntary vaporization. It just does. Nevertheless, instead of whining about this new triptych, it might be more productive to do some explaining of it. A useful pointer, I think, can be found in Stephen Pinker’s epic and hard to refute The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, whose counterintuitive thesis is that we live in the most peaceful epoch of the history of our species.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the culmination of the very interstate-violent short century of the Empire of Japan (1868-1945). It’s worth reviewing, briefly, that violence with some rough tallies of mortality. Killing kicks off with the civil strife of the Boshin War, (1868-1869, 3,000 deaths). A lull ensues until the First Sino-Japanese War and annexation of Taiwan (1894-1895, 50,000 deaths), followed by the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905, 140,000 deaths) and the annexation of Korea (1910, deaths unknown). Then comes the Japanese involvement in World War I, 1914-1915, the seizure of German New Guinea, and the Siberian Expedition (1918-1922, 5,000 deaths). In the depths of the Great Depression come the invasion of Manchuria and establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo, 1932. Then there are the two almost forgotten but history-changing confrontations with the Soviet Union, the Battle of Lake Khasan, 1938, and Battle of Khalkhin Gol/Nomonhan Incident, 1939, a “four-month long small war that … cost no fewer than 30,000 and perhaps as many as 65,000 casualties on both sides” (Alvin D. Coox, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939). The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) bleeds into Pacific Theater in World War II (1941-1945), with around 18mn civilian and 6mn military deaths, of which Japan accounted for perhaps a million civilian and two million military deaths. So Imperial Japan was at war for 22 of the 52 years between 1894 and 1945 and preparing for, or recovering from war, for many of the rest, with a combined home islands death toll of maybe four million. And the death toll in interstate violence in the 66—and counting—years of peace between 1946 and the present? Zero. Very few major states have witnessed such a precipitous decline in interstate violence, and were we to investigate the plethora of forms of intrastate violence, from assassination as a political tool and state-sanctioned capital punishment to humdrum murder, rape, and robbery, we’d find similar pictures of precipitous decline.

With the gradual disappearance of violence, in all its forms, from Japanese society, there has concomitantly arisen the myth of safety—the myth that complex electromechanical systems such as trains, aircraft, and yes, nuclear power plants can simply never fail, despite being designed, built, and operated by ever-fallible humans. If the nuclear establishment was a willing purveyor of this myth, then the public was a willing buyer of it. Recently there has been a contretemps, with unpleasant nationalist overtones, about the deployment of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor V/STOL aircraft in Japan in general but in Okinawa in particular, and the phrase of reassurance most routinely trotted out by politicians seeking to pave the way for deployment is that the Ospreys will not fly until “safety has been confirmed”. To be sure, the original Japanese expression, anzen wo kakunin, is an elusive one, and “kakunin” could be interpreted as falling just shy of “confirm”, but can there be anyone gullible enough to swallow the proposition that any aircraft could plausibly be declared unambiguously safe?

(to be continued)

(with thanks to A.E. for the Kyshtym tip-off)

Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the psychology of nuclear power

Part Two

The Map App

“Where are we,” she said, voice pock-marked with irritation. “Well,” he replied, projecting The Map, with a couple of fist unclenches, from his handheld onto the savannah below, so The Map was coterminous with the terrain and the terrain was gridded into 100m squares, covered with contour lines, and dotted with flags showing points of interest. “We’re at 4.27S, 34.36E, 71.4km NNW of Singida and 15.2km SE of Lake Kitangiri.”
She crouched down to the path, across which a column of termites marched, identified by The Map as Ancistrotermes latinotus. At least they know where they’re going, she reflected. He pinged the homunculus of The Map up the ridge and donned goggles. “Hey, I can see the lake from here. Maybe there are still fish.” On that The Map was silent. “Face it,” she said, irritation swelling like a welt, “we’re just as lost as we ever were.”
(with apologies to Jorge Luis Borges)

“So this is where Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village once stood, is that right?”
“It was up in the hills,” said the head gardener, jerking a sweaty thumb-palm behind the blocky, nondescript building whose privet hedges and trim flowerbeds he and his gardener team were tending in the already unforgiving early summer heat.
“But you can’t come in. This is private property. Anyway, there’s nothing left now. It’s all been torn down and carted away.”
“But I’ve come all the way from Tokyo today, especially, just to…”
“Can’t help that. Nothing to see, anyway.” He went back to weeding.
I retreated. A signboard on stilts, though, fifty feet behind us, betrayed him, letting slip an alternate narrative of a different, more revealing, entrance, and wonders to behold beyond. I was off.

While the concrete mosque, now used as a storehouse for mini-tractors and bales of who-knows-what, is magnificent, and the insurmountable rust-teared minarets, from which no muezzin—or megaphone, for that matter—could ever have called the faithful or doubtful to prayer, were a treat, nothing gave me more pleasure than to simply see the words “Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village” strung up, faux-brass notched-corner in-memoriam nameplate style, above an empty signpost. So it hadn’t, then, been just a feverish dream, a disturbance of sultry sleep. I felt like an explorer at the portal to the ruins of a lost world, a Hiram Bingham in the undergrowth at Machu Picchu in 1911 or a Howard Carter on the threshold of the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen in 1923.

Leading away from the mosque towards the Sea of Japan East Sea Sea of Japan East Sea sea, with all the frenetic syncretism a theme park can muster, was a replica of the Ionic colonnades of Ephesus. It took a moment to puzzle out, but soon I realized the lopped-off columns hadn’t been earthquake or otherwise toppled—they had been designed this way. The colonnade, then, was the not yet quite real ruin of a fake ruin of a real ruin, a real ruin for which its numberless creators had never had ruination, fake or real, in mind. Post-apocalypse, the archaeologists of centuries hence will—we can only hope—concoct fantastic theories to explain this exotic outpost of the Hellenes and Seleucids on the shores, not of the Mediterranean, but another near-landlocked sea thousands of miles adrift.

Flanking the mosque was an avenue of assorted antiquarian statuary: first up was Alexander the Great, a near carbon-copy in concrete of the statue in the Istanbul Archeological Museum, although the left-hanging bulge in his come-hither toga seems more generous than in the original (perhaps Hephaestion or even Bucephalus was close) and untended concrete has given him a swarthier complexion than the ancient chroniclers claim for him. His empire stretches now not from the Danube to the Indus but to a single keeled ticket turnstile, rot-rusted off its moorings.

The other, anonymous statues, nameplates stolen by the sun or souvenir-hunters, feet eroded and genitals chipped away by the unforgiving chisel of time, were armless, headless, legless. In the museum, these absences evoke veneration; in the theme park, stripped of antiquity, they invite only a chuckle of derision.

Behind the prosthetic-legged youth, a soulless concrete mini-amphitheater, a travesty unfit for Euripides and no doubt with the acoustics of a collapsing barn, had been rammed into the hillside, with a shrunken orchestra and distended, barren proscenium.

The plinth on which the equestrian Ataturk once stood was now home to a pyramidal trellis topped with a pentagonal star, nicely nondenominational—a hexagram might have been another faux-pas—placed there by the wedding people, whose fragrant compound, Le Prier (“The Prayer”), all rings and jings and other fine things, lay at the top of the hill.

The wedding people, though, operate in the teeth of a demographic headwind, for while there are about 4,700 citizens of Kashiwazaki of the eminently marriageable ages of 30-34, there are only 3,200 or so tots and toddlers under five, so the marriage market, if we artificially restrict it to the confines of the city, shrinks by nearly a third in the next three decades, even without allowing for inevitable and irrevocable out-migration to university, and failure may, after all, be an option—as it always is.

Descending, I stumbled on the money shot: the rusty minarets of the mosque perfectly mirrored in the exhaust stacks of the K-K nuclear power plant, some ten kilometers distant.

It was about a decade ago, as I recall, that I first encountered the expression “XXX porn”, where the triple X refers not to the hardness of the core but to another sphere of life entirely. In this case, it was the innocent aside of an American colleague: “The Japanese do food porn really well, don’t they?” (Indeed they do, although they are lamentably poor at property porn.) Since then, the trope has spread like Spanish flu, with “mommy porn” to describe Fifty Shades of Grey seemingly the most fashionable iteration of late. Two examples of the trope concern me in particular here, as I’ve been dubbed both a luster after rust and a pornographer of ruins: “ruin porn” and “rust porn”, the former seemingly more common than the latter, which is after all only a subset of the former. Ruin porn is a realm into which academics, apprentice and actual, have already muscled, with their windily highfalutin talk of Foucaultian temporal heterotopias and other such ill-digested bunkum. Personally, I question the utility of loading up the critical elephant-gun with the porn bullet, to shoot it scattershot at every phenomenon or artifact that is described or photographed with ardor, passion, or admiration: if “ruin porn”, why not “book porn” (nice stacks) or “shoe porn” or “inkwell porn”?

Yikes, it seems as though “book porn” and “shoe porn” are already in frighteningly common parlance; as for “inkwell porn”, well, it can only be a matter of time. Non-porn porn’s biggest failing, though, must be its effacement, inadvertent or otherwise, of the intrinsic top-shelf ickiness of porn-porn—unless you’re gay, when you get to enjoy your porn pleasures guilt-free (or do you?) No-one to my knowledge—though my knowledge here is necessarily limited—routinely creams their pants to a peeling-plaster photo of a disused insane asylum or even to a goat-cheese and walnut soufflé straight from the oven—and if you do know of such people, I’d recommend avoiding them. But, unforgivingly and unforgivably, as so often, I digress.

Ruins’ appeal in part, I think, lies in their offer an escape from the rage to order of (Japanese) society, but mostly because they are symbols of failure, and failure is so much more common, and thus often so much more instructive, than success. Think only of the tens of thousands of aspirant athletes who fail to make the cut for their national Olympics teams, the thousands of Olympians who return home without a medal, and the hundreds who mount the two lower tiers of the winners’ podium, necessarily twice as numerous as the gold-baggers. Tory politician and demagogue Enoch Powell famously wrote that “All political lives…end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and human affairs,” and that sentence would resonate more with its references to politics removed. Yet most people, in their inbred optimism, would rather not hear talk of failure: should you stoop to browse the business or self-help books—nearly indistinguishable genres scarcely a rung above the contemptible travelogue—at your local bookshop, your hand will not dart instinctively out for tomes titled The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective People, Mediocre to Bust: Why Most Companies Fail, or How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, for these books have not, and will not, be written.

I drove through the trim city center towards K-K, past the Atom Museum, more formally known as the Kashiwazaki Nuclear Power Public Relations Center.

What kind of atoms belong in an atom museum—superannuated atoms, atoms put out to pasture, the odd unwanted radioisotope, Potassium-40 perhaps, with a sufficiently long half-life?
The K-K complex is vast—about three kilometers by one and a half—and modest, hidden from inquisitive eyes behind a deep perimeter forest of pines. To obtain any visual purchase on it, you have to head for its optical Achilles’ heel, the beaches. Access to the beach due south comes through a succession of ugly steel doors set into an ugly steel windbreak that renders the beach invisible from the shore road; no great loss, for this is a joyless betrayal of a beach, a straggle of russet sand strewn with plastic detritus interspersed with the odd wire-throttled and rotting gull, a beach mauled by tetrapodded banks and piers and breakwaters, sprinkled with solitary surf-fishermen of a certain age keeping almost surly distances from each other.

Whatever you may feel about nuclear power, though, there’s no denying that K-K is a mighty, mighty beast—with 8,212MW of installed capacity, it alone can unleash more juice than can the entire electricity grid of Nigeria (population 170mn)—and standing in front of it, I found it hard to stifle a sense of awe, however unprepossessing the surroundings. The main entrance resembles nothing so much as a multilane expressway tollbooth.

To K-K’s immediate north lies the hamlet of Ominato, deserted in the dog-day high-noon heat. I scrambled down to the beach, cleaner now but devoid of life, through the grounds of a rambling minshuku bed & breakfast inn. Trade cannot, you would think, be good.

From here we’re looking south, mostly at reactor No. 5, but also with reactors No. 6 (KK6) and No. 7 (KK7)—the first and the second advanced boiling-water reactors and hence the first and Generation III reactors to be built anywhere in the world—peeking bashfully out behind. “Power plant photography forbidden” said the sign on the electric fence, but I was seized by a spasm of illiteracy and snapped on. What secrets could there have been to steal from such an innocuous distance? In its obsessive secretiveness and almost autistic inability to communicate, the company known as TEPCO (as Bloomberg likes to refer to it, with a nod perhaps to Prince)—the operator of both K-K and Fukushima Daiichi—is surely its own self-injurious worst enemy.

What, then, yokes the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and K-K together, aside from physical proximity? More than you might imagine. Take Kajima Corp., for starters: one of Japan’s Big Four general contractors, and among them primus inter pares. Kajima subsidiary Kajima Design was responsible for the aesthetic horrorshow that was Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village, while Kajima the parent was responsible for its construction. Kajima also had a hand in the civil engineering work for the first three reactors of the seven at K-K (as well as all six of those at Fukushima Daiichi). No wonder, then, that the dome of the mosque bears more than a passing resemblance to the containment domes of old-school US pressurized-water reactors such as those at Indian Point in (not very) upstate New York. If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail; if all you have are steel and concrete and blueprints for a nuclear power plant… With no theme parks and nuclear plants, and few roads and airports and tunnels left to build, Kajima has been a little down on its luck of late: revenues in the year to end-March 2012 were a quarter lower than they were exactly two decades before, at the late Bubble peak.

Then there’s the chronological congruence. While planning for K-K started back in the late 1960s, when Ryutaro Omori, then around 40, was working his way up the dull ranks of his family bank, the orgy of construction of both the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and of K-K climaxed within a very short timeframe: Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village opened its doors to the public in July 1996, while KK6 reached criticality in December 1995 and started commercial operations in November 1996, with KK7 to follow in July 1997.

The mid-nineties were to prove the last years of growth for Kashiwazaki. K-K had played its atom-splitting part in reversing the fall in the city’s population, which fell from 123,000 in 1947 to 94,000 in 1975, then rose to peak in 1995 at 101,500. It’s now below 90,000, lower than it was in 1920, and falling by up to 1,000 a year. In 1995, there were 16,000 kids under 15 in the city; there are 10,500 now, a third fewer and falling. In 1996, the city’s gross product amounted to Y559bn; a decade later, in 2006, it was Y487bn (down 13%), and it fell by nearly a quarter more in the earthquake year of 2007. This decline was mostly a function of deflation and the shrinking number of people employed, which fell by 14% between 1996 and 2009, with the contractions particularly acute in the primary sector (down 30%), as elderly farmers and foresters and fisherfolk lay down their hoes and axes and rods, and in the secondary sector (down 29%), as industry hollowed out and construction withered. The city’s per capita income remained relatively constant, though, fluctuating between Y2.85mn ($36,000, not PPP adjusted) and Y3.1mn between 1996 and 2007, before falling in crisis-racked 2009, the latest year for which data are available, to Y2.6mn.

The Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake struck at 10:13 on Monday July 16, 2007. While Ataturk was wobbling on his perch, down at K-K, just 19km from the epicenter, there was a whole lotta shakin’ going on, a lot of it in excess of the design specifications of the plant, as amply documented by your on-line encyclopedia of preference. Aside from some spillages of radioactive water, one of which was mopped up with towels (please, for PR’s sake!), the most serious incident was a fire at a KK3 electricity transformer, the reaction to which laid bare naked Keystone Coppery on the part of TEPCO: the chief operations manager happened to pass the transformer in his car, noticed the smoke, concluded that the fire wouldn’t burn long, and left the task of quelling it to subordinates; instead he made his way to the emergency room, whose door, its frame warped by the earthquake, could not be opened, so whiteboards were carried out into a car park, whence the disaster response was coordinated. The subordinates found that the fire hydrants near the transformer had been knocked out by the earthquake and yielded up no more than a trickle of water. Plant officials tried to notify the local fire brigade by phone, but they had no hotline and couldn’t get through; five off-duty firemen were corralled and they finally doused the blaze, two hours after the earthquake.

TEPCO, with peerless optimism that would have done Ryutaro Omori proud, was gung-ho to restart K-K the very next day; it was not to get its way. This was not the first time K-K had fallen silent—it was taken wholly, if briefly, off-line in 2002-2003 as punishment for a TEPCO data falsification scandal—and it wouldn’t be the last. It took nearly two years before K-K was allowed to creep gingerly back to life, with KK7 fired up in May 2009, to be followed by KK6, KK5, and KK1. Meanwhile, KK2, KK3, and KK4 have lain dormant these past five years. Then after Fukushima, one-by-one the four operating reactors reached routine maintenance milestones, as what is now the polite fiction has it, and were idled, not to be restarted, with KK6 the last to shut down, in March 2012. So K-K, for the third time in its brief adult lifespan, finds itself a white elephant—and at non-inflation-adjusted construction costs alone of Y2,571bn (about $32bn at the current Y/$ rate, which underestimates the real dollar cost), a very pricey white elephant.

TEPCO’s government-sanctioned revival plan hinges wholly on a complete K-K restart by April next year. This looks optimistic in the extreme, as newly prominent forces, from the Governor of Niigata Prefecture on down, are resolved to make K-K’s current slumber an eternal one. So are the rust-slashed minarets of Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village a fearsome premonition of its fate, is K-K truly a ruin of the future? If we look far enough out, out say to 2057, when the last of the reactors, KK7, is due to be decommissioned, nigh on a century after the plans for K-K were first hatched, when the ashes of your correspondent will have long joined those of Ryutaro Omori in the grave, when the inhabitants of these islands will number a third fewer than today, and when alternative sources of energy will surely be cheaper and more readily harnessed, the answer must be yes. Before then, anything in this sublunary world we have no choice but to inhabit must be possible.

One of the baleful—if understandable—consequences of the Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake and the incidents at K-K was that it led the nuclear community to assume, for the following four years, that the next menace would come from the ground, whereas we know now, with our perfect clarity of hindsight, that it was to come from the sea. And since Fukushima, power companies, like generals forever fighting the last war, have been furiously erecting breakwaters and seawalls and levees to protect their nuclear plants—against a historical event. You can see TEPCO’s progress report on breakwater building at K-K here—and note the pride with which the red triangle declares that the top of the breakwater is 15m above sea level.

Why 15m? Simply because that is the top end of the range of estimates (13.5m-15m) of the height of the tsunami that inundated Fukushima Daiichi. There is just no conception available to the minds of the planners that the next tsunami might be higher than the last tsunami. This is a near textbook-worthy instance of what psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his magisterial distillation of a lifetime spent probing the rational irrationalities of the human mind, Thinking, Fast and Slow, terms anchoring effects, the most celebrated example of which comes from Kahneman and colleague Amos Tversky’s seminal 1974 Science paper, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases:

In a demonstration of the anchoring effect, subjects were asked to estimate various quantities, stated in percentages (for example, the percentage of African countries in the United Nations). For each quantity, a number between 0 and 100 was determined by spinning a wheel of fortune in the subjects’ presence. The subjects were instructed to indicate first whether that number was higher or lower than the value of the quantity, and then to estimate the value of the quantity by moving upward or downward from the given number. Different groups were given different numbers for each quantity, and these arbitrary numbers had a marked effect on estimates. For example, the median estimates of the percentage of African countries in the United Nations were 25% and 45% for groups that received 10 and 65, respectively, as starting points. Payoffs for accuracy did not reduce the anchoring effect.

To summarize: your estimate of the percentage of African countries in the UN will be swayed by the randomly generated number of a wheel of fortune, even though your conscious mind—were it awake—must know there is no connection between the two numbers. Once you grow alert to anchoring effects, you begin to notice their ubiquity: take, for instance, a breathless report on the nightly news a month ago, replete with elaborate 3D computer simulations, of the consequences of a future eruption of Mount Fuji that was an exact echo of the last one, the Hoei eruption of 1707-1708. Now I’m no volcanologist, but I’m willing to hazard a small wager that the next eruption of Mount Fuji will resemble the last one not at all. Stress tests, whether of banks or nuclear reactors, must also in most cases be fraught with anchoring effects. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb witheringly notes in his pompous but profound examination of rare events, Black Swan:

It is particularly shocking that people do what are called “stress tests” by taking the worst possible past deviation as an anchor event to project the worst possible future deviation, not thinking that they would have failed to account for that past deviation had they used the same method on the day before the occurrence of that past anchor event.

Anchoring effects, then, are the first in a series of potentially harmful mental tics, heuristics, and biases that we’ll encounter in the third and final part of this series of dispatches, a brief dissection of the psychology of nuclear power.

And just in case you were wondering—the percentage of UN member states that are African countries? I make it 26% (51/193).

Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the psychology of nuclear power

Part One

I thought this Account of the struldbrugs might be some Entertainment to the Reader, because it seems to be a little out of the common Way; at least I do not remember to have met the like in any Book of Travels that hath come to my Hands; and if I am deceived, my Excuse must be, that it is necessary for Travellers who describe the same Country, very often to agree in dwelling on the same Particulars, without deserving the Censure of having borrowed or transcribed from those who wrote before them.

Gulliver’s Travels Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan Incredulity usually greets me when I blurt out the three nouns and an adjective, seemingly randomly strung together, of Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village; that incredulity is squared if my interlocutor knows where the city of Kashiwazaki is—in deepest, darkest Niigata—and for what it is these days most famous—being home to (most of) the world’s largest nuclear power plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, so vast it sprawls into the neighboring village of Kariwa (hence the double-barreled appellation)—to which we’ll refer as K-K, as experience suggests that even foreigners with a modicum of proficiency in Japanese have trouble with its pronunciation and psychology suggests that people are prone to prejudice against words and names they can’t pronounce—and we wouldn’t want that. Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village was a demented brainchild—perhaps the most demented brainchild, although the competition is brutal—of a man fiercely philoprogenitive of demented brainchildren, Ryutaro Omori (1928-2004), the boss of Niigata Chuo Bank, a second-tier regional bank that had only graduated from mutual savings & loan to orthodox bank status in 1989, a man so tone-deaf to the clanging cymbals of the economic orchestra that he failed to hear that the Bubble had burst and, brimful with all the champagne optimism of which our species is so effortlessly capable, decided in the early 1990s to finance not one, but three theme parks, inspired by his Golden Ring concept, in which he pictured a great golden ring laid across the map of central Honshu and in which the theme parks, running in an arc from Niigata in the northwest to Mount Fuji in the southeast, would sparkle like diamonds on a ring. First to come and last to go was Niigata Russia Village (opened 1993, closed 2003). Last to come and first to go was Gulliver’s Kingdom (opened 1997, closed 2001), on the flanks of Mount Fuji in the now dismembered village of Kamikuishiki, amid the curséd sites of the dismantled headquarters of the murderous Aum Shinrikyo terror cult, which can’t have helped with the public relations—indeed, urban legend has it that the park’s giant concrete Gulliver lay pinned atop the foundations of the Satyam No. 7 sarin gas plant. In between, Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village opened in July 1996 at an initial cost of Y4.5bn (about $60mn), replete with a grand bazaar cram-full of gaudy, Orientalist knick-knackery from nazar boncuğu evil-eye amulets to floral ceramic serving plates to disposable cigarette lighters adorned with transfers of trad-clad Turkic damsels, a Trojan horse of mountainous size, more ark than horse, with a spiral staircase between its legs, a Noah’s Ark, more round-prowed fishing boat than ark, which housed a menagerie of odd-eyed Van cats, a mosque, purportedly a (more) secularized and much scaled-down interpretation of the Hagia Sophia, with minarets but no mihrab or minbar, and a multi-storey car park for the visitors who never thronged. For entertainment, there were restaurants showcasing one of the world’s “three great cuisines” (the other two being Chinese and French—whence does that odd meme originate?) and belly dancing, of course, but also—at least on occasion—yağlı güreş grease wrestling, in which strapping men clad only in black kisbet lederhosen douse themselves in olive oil and grapple on the ground, with their hands often inside their opponent’s trunks grasping for fingerholds on the crotch, a spectacle that caused bewilderment in the Japanese audience, according to one Turkish aficionado of the sport. By 1998, just a couple of years after the park had opened its doors and as the stormy seas of financial crisis swamped Asia and led the Nihon Maru to list gently into recession, visitor numbers were falling away precipitously, which caused the park management, their optimism undimmed by experience, to draw the entirely erroneous conclusion that what the good folk of Kashiwazaki wanted was more Turkish culture, not less, and specifically more Turkish Culture Village, not less, so they doubled down and dipped into the ever capacious and welcoming pockets of the Nippon Credit Bank, pockets that were to bring down the bank in the December of that year, and borrowed another Y3bn (about $40mn) to build a 40,000m2 extension to the initial 49,000m2 lot, which opened (with entrance fees hiked) in July 1999, a month after the Financial Services Agency, concerned about the mounting non-performing loans of Niigata Chuo Bank, had slapped it with a prompt corrective action order. Shady English language school operator Nova, which itself was to go belly-up in scandalous circumstances in 2007, was seen as a prime candidate for to sign up for a private placement of bank shares to boost depleted capital, but eventually it balked and by September 1999, a good old-fashioned 19th century bank run, this one on the brink of the 21st century, had started at Niigata Chuo, driving the bank under in the December of that year, although it was not finally wound up until 2006. By then Ryutaro Omori was two years dead and buried; I’d like to think—with no malice aforethought—that he died a broken man but I bet he didn’t. In all the galaxies of the Internet universe, I can only track down one photograph of him, dating from 1996 when he was 68, every inch the rotund provincial bank manager, head cocked back and eyebrows at once quizzical and comical, as if aware of the great jest their owner was playing on the world, a photograph accompanied by an interview in which Omori lays out his plans to build an international airport five kilometers off the Niigata coast (would that have been for the Pyongyang tourist trade, one wonders) and the interviewer speculates that Omori might just stay on at the helm of Niigata Chuo until he turned a centenarian. In May 2001, the state-mandated vultures of the Resolution and Collection Corporation (RCC), an entity entrusted with the Herculean task of cleaning up the Augean stables of banks’ Bubble bad dung-debts, started swirling around the mostly reeking assets of Nippon Credit Bank, and Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village closed its doors in the December of that year. But this was not the end of the village, for the jewel in Kashiwazaki’s admittedly modest tourism crown could not be allowed to die a martyr to mere debt, and in July 2002, the city bought the property from the RCC for what must have seemed at the time like the knock-down bargain price of Y150mn (about $2mn) and leased the park to a consortium of local touristic firms for an annual peppercorn rent of Y4mn (about $50,000)—at which rate it would have taken the city just shy of four decades to directly recoup its investment—and the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village reopened the same month, with entrance now free. On staggered the park for another couple of years, until nature intervened, as is so often its wont, in the shape of the now almost forgotten Chuetsu Earthquake of October 2004, the first of many earthquakes we’ll encounter before this tale is told, which although a mere Richter 6.8M (how we scoff at those these days), still contrived to kill forty or so folk, was the deadliest in Japan since Kobe in 1995, and also inadvertently snuffed out the life of the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village, which closed for good a month later and was liquidated with cumulative losses of Y150mn, the same amount for which the city had bought it just a couple of years before. If this was where the curtains fell on the short but sorry saga of the Turkish Culture Village, then it would be just another fable of failure, but it was in its death, not life, that the real fun and games began, for this had been, after all, the world’s first theme park with a Turkish twist, and the eyes of the people of Turkey—or at least, the Turkish embassy in Japan—were on developments, not least because the Turks had donated some of the park’s attractions, including a replica of the tomb of Alexander the Great and, crucially, a four meter high, four tonne bronze statue of one Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the widely revered founder of the modern Turkish state, on horseback, especially commissioned by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism from sculptor Metin Yurdanur in civvies, rather than the usual military garb, so as not to offend the delicately and newly found antimilitarist sensibilities of the statue’s hosts. Murmurs of concern over the future of the park were heard to emanate from the Turkish embassy and proposals, which come to naught, were floated for the Turkish Chamber of Commerce in Japan to take it over. Meanwhile, the Kashiwazaki City authorities put the cadaver of the theme park out to competitive tender, and three firms bid for it by the March 2006 deadline. In a plot development few could have foreseen, the issue of the park’s future was then hijacked by the (inter)nationalist right, in the shape of the BS (broadcast satellite) station Channel Sakura, of which your terrestrial-television bound correspondent had confessedly never heard, and which reputedly evades legislation on the political neutrality of broadcasters by dispensing with editorial content and having all opinions voiced by (mostly minor) politicians, pundits, and other upstanding members of the commentariat. A special program on the fate of the Turkish Culture Village and the insults supposedly being heaped on the Japanophilic nation of Turkey by Kashiwazaki mayor Hiroshi Aida featured the Turkish flag (and Channel Sakura is very keen on flags) hung upside-down throughout. Demonstrations were planned, a committee was formed, and in May 2006, this committee, the cumbersomely named Committee of Regional Assembly Members who Support Friendly Relations between Japan and Turkey, barged into the Turkish Embassy in a failed bid to persuade the ambassador to intervene and stop the sale. In June 2006, the hammer finally went down on Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village, sold for Y140mn with the approval of all Kashiwazaki municipal assembly members present to a local industrial waste recycler, Wastec Energy, which had quixotically branched out into the business of marriage and opened a wedding resort adjacent to the village, into which it planned to—and indeed did—expand. The contract of sale contained an explicit provision that Wastec be properly heedful of friendly Turkish-Japanese relations and that it fully consult with the city on matters concerning the statue of Ataturk. Nature, however, was not a signatory to the contract, and struck again, this time in July 2007 with the Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake, a 6.6M shallow crustal quake on a previously unknown fault just off the coast of Kashiwazaki that left a toll of 11 dead and some 1,100 injured, and which caused the statue of Ataturk to tilt perilously on its plinth. Wastec, fearful that the statue would fall, hauled it down off the plinth and abandoned it, splendid steed and distinguished mount on their undignified sides, in a grassy tract of wasteland and covered with blue tarpaulin sheets. The right took up cudgels again, this time with clubber-in-chief the Sankei Shimbun newspaper, ranting about indignities unbecoming to (the statue of) the hero of a friendly nation and asserting that criticism of the discourtesy from intercultural friendly associations and Kashiwazaki citizens was mounting. Wastec president Naoyoshi Hida disclaimed responsibility, saying, “To be honest, people going on and on about Turkey is a pain. I want the city to move the statue”. Mayor Aida likewise disclaimed responsibility, saying, “The statue’s not the city’s property and the city won’t restore it or buy it.” Wastec and the city ended up embroiled in lawsuits and the statue was left to molder in the grass, to the consternation of the Turkish Embassy, for a couple of years, as Wastec’s callous treatment of Ataturk’s statue threatened to become an international incident. At this point, the shadowy but mightily powerful Nippon Foundation, long a plaything of the late Ryoichi Sasakawa, the self but dubiously proclaimed “world’s richest fascist” and a man whom we’ve met before on these pages, interceded, and after many rounds of negotiations with all parties and a small town, Kushimoto, in the far-flung prefecture of Wakayama, off the coast of which a frigate of the Ottoman Empire, Ertuğrul, on the empire’s first goodwill voyage to Japan, foundered and sank in a typhoon in 1890, the statue of Ataturk was finally transported in May 2010 to Kushimoto and placed in the plaza in front of the lighthouse, a spot chosen by the Turkish Embassy, to be formally unveiled on June 3, 2010, the 120th anniversary of the wreck of the Ertuğrul. Here endeth, then—for now—the lesson of the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village. Death dealt very different hands to Omori’s Siamese triplets. In life, Gulliver in his Kingdom looked like this: (thank you, photographer Karen Kasmauski and National Geographic).

In 2002, the Kingdom was auctioned off at the third attempt to a resort operator and in 2004, a sliver of it reopened as an attraction called The Dog Run, whose unique selling point was that here, and only here, dog owners could let their pooches roam free on grass. It lasted a year. In 2006, the land was sold again, to a hugely ambitious Hiroshima-based real estate developer, Urban Corp., captained by another dreamer and schemer, Hiroyuki Bozono, which was felled in August 2008 with debts of $2.5bn, the biggest bankruptcy in Japan in six coddled years, brought down by leverage-fuelled overhasty expansion, a whiff of links to organized crime, and most proximately and perhaps most disastrously, a complex $300mn convertible bond and swap deal with French bank BNP Paribas, closed as the hyenas and jackals started to prowl, a deal on which disclosure was not, shall we say, full, frank, and fair, one in which Urban Corp. thought it was borrowing Y30bn from French Peter to pay Japanese Paul but ended up with less than a third of that, as the deal was linked to the share price and BNP Paribas was furiously converting the bonds into shares and selling them, driving the shares lower in a panicky market on the precipice of the Lehman Brothers collapse. Banksters, eh? Just a few rotten apples, to be sure. For an unfathomable reason I’m reminded of an observation of psychologist Paul Rozin, an expert on the cultural evolution of disgust, that “a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches”. Meanwhile, in 2007 Gulliver and his Kingdom had been dismembered limb from giant limb to make way for the grand resort that Urban Corp. was planning. After Urban Corp. went tango uniform, the land was auctioned off yet again, unpropitiously just days after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, and there the trail, as doggedly as I can pursue it, runs cold. In death, Niigata Russia Village has enjoyed a more sedate and less chequered passing than Gulliver’s Kingdom, no doubt because of its undesirable real estate location in the sparsely inhabited hills behind Niigata City, where it has been left to rot and ruinify, the only events of note an arson attack in September 2009, which partly razed its hotel, and numerous small acts of vandalistic love, ably photochronicled here. But what remained of the physical relic-icons of the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village? On this the massed resources of the Internet drew a blank. It was time, I felt, to investigate.

(to be continued)

Tokyo through the letterbox

Reams have been written about the suicide-as-spectacle of novelist Yukio Mishima’s death; less, perhaps, about the cartographies and circumstances of his birth. He was born Kimitake Hiraoka, on January 14, 1925, the first child of a civil servant, of a family of what would once—then, indeed—have been called “very good stock”, and his wife, of a family of Confucian and Chinese scholars, in Yotsuya, once on the fringe but now already in the heart of a Tokyo that was rapidly expanding and shifting its center of gravity westward, in a district known then as Nagasumi-cho (永住町, “long dwell town”, although he would be gone from the neighborhood by the age of eight) but which was reorganized and renamed Yotsuya 4-chome in a municipal redistricting on April 1, 1943 (one would have thought they would have had better things to do), before being pulverized to smithereens by American air-raids less than two years later.

Before the Meiji Restoration, Nagasumi-cho had formed part of the Tokyo estates of one of the three noble branches of the house of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Tayasu Tokugawas, but by the early 20th century, it had fallen on its uppers, and was home to a couple of dozen cheap lodging houses, of which this drably fading hostel, the Nagaragawa, where rooms can be had for Y4,000 ($50) a night, is the spiritual successor.

Mishima describes the family and house into which he was born in his almost wholly autobiographical but unreliably narrated novel, Confessions of a Mask (1949), the book which made his name, thus:

…My family began sliding down an incline with a speed so happy-go-lucky that I could almost say they hummed merrily as they went—huge debts, foreclosure, sale of the family estate, and then, as financial difficulties multiplied, a morbid vanity blazing higher and higher like some evil impulse.

As a result, I was born in not too good a section of Tokyo, in an old rented house. It was a pretentious house on a corner, with a rather jumbled appearance and a dingy, charred feeling. It had an imposing iron gate, an entry garden and a Western-style reception room as large as the interior of a suburban church. There were two stories on the upper slope and three on the lower, numerous gloomy rooms, and six housemaids. In this house, which creaked like an old chest of drawers, ten persons were getting up and lying down morning and evening—my grandfather and grandmother, father and mother, and the servants.

私の家は殆ど鼻歌まじりと言いたいほどの気楽な速度で、傾斜の上を辷りだした。莫大な借財、差押、家屋敷の売却、それから窮迫が加わるにつれ暗い衝動のようにますますもえさかる病的な虚栄。
―こうして私が生れたのは、土地柄のあまりよくない町の一角にある古い借家だった。こけおどかしの鉄の門や前庭や場末の礼拝堂ほどにひろい洋間などのある・坂の上から見ると二階建であり坂の下から見ると三階建の・燻んだ暗い感じのする・何か錯雑した容子の居丈高な家だった。暗い部屋がたくさんあり、女中が六人いた。祖父、祖母、父、母、と都合十人がこの古い箪笥のようにきしむ家に起き伏ししていた。

(On inspection, it occurs to me that the original translator, Meredith Weatherby, one of a coterie of gay Americans who were to generously dominate the narrow neck of the funnel through which Japanese arts reached the wider world in the years after the war, has some of this wrong, not least the implicit reference to a five-storied house, when the original says, ambiguously, that the house had, or appeared to have, two stories when viewed from the upper reaches of the slope, and three stories when viewed from the lower reaches, but we know that as early as 1952, six long years before publication in English, Weatherby and Mishima discussed the translation in New York, so I defer—and anyway, I digress.)

Declivities are important here: there is the metaphoric incline down which the family fortunes begin to slide, mirrored by the slope on which the old rented house precariously rests, and there’s one more slope that matters, the one on which Mishima, as a boy of four, has—by his account—his erotic awakening:

It was a young man who was coming down toward us, with handsome ruddy cheeks and shining eyes, wearing a dirty roll of cloth around his head for a sweatband. He came down the slope carrying a yoke of night-soil buckets over one shoulder, balancing their heaviness expertly with his footsteps. He was a night-soil man, a ladler of excrement. He was dressed as a laborer, wearing split-toed shoes with rubber soles and black canvas tops, and dark blue cotton trousers of the close-fitting kind called “thigh-pullers”.

The scrutiny I gave the youth was unusually close for a child of four. Although I did not realize it at the time, for me he represented my first revelation of a certain power, my first summons by a certain strange and secret voice. It is significant that it was first manifested to me in the form of a night-soil man: excrement is a symbol for the earth, and it was doubtlessly the malevolent love of the Earth Mother that was calling to me.

坂を下りて来たのは一人の若者だった。肥桶を前後に荷い、汚れた手拭で鉢巻をし、血色のよい美しい頬と輝く目をもち、足で重みを踏みわけながら坂を下りて来た。それは汚穢屋ー糞尿汲取人ーであった。彼は地下足袋を穿き、紺の股引を穿いていた。五歳の私は異常な注視でこの姿を見た。まだその意味とては定かではないが、或る力の最初の啓示、或る暗いふしぎな呼び声が私に呼びかけたのであった。それが汚穢屋の姿に最初に顕現したことは寓喩的である。何故なら糞尿は大地の象徴であるから。私に呼びかけたものは根の母の悪意ある愛であったに相違ないから。

(Weatherby reorders the Japanese, as is his prerogative. Let’s re-unpack a little of it using the tried-and-true four-step formula of the late, lamented Mangajin magazine.
坂を下りて来たのは一人の若者だった。
Saka wo orite kita no wa hitori no wakamono datta.
Slope (object marker) descend-came (of + topic marker) one-person (of) young-person was.
A youth came down the slope toward us.
肥桶を前後に荷い、汚れた手拭で鉢巻をし、血色のよい美しい頬と輝く目をもち、足で重みを踏みわけながら坂を下りて来た。
Koeoke wo zengo ni ninai, yogoreta tenugui de hachimaki wo shi, kesshoku no yoi utsukushii ho to kagayaku me wo mochi, ashi de omomi wo fumiwakenagara saka wo orite kita.
Night-soil buckets (object marker) front-and-back (place marker) bear-on-shoulder, was-dirty hand-towel (as) headband (object marker) did, blood-color (of) good beautiful cheeks and shines eye (object marker) had, feet (by) heaviness (object marker) distribute-by-step-while slope (object marker) descend-came.
Bearing a yoke of night-soil buckets fore-and-aft on his shoulder, wearing a dirty hand-towel as a headband, with handsome ruddy cheeks and shining eyes, the youth balanced the heaviness of the yoke with his footsteps as he came down the slope.
それは汚穢屋ー糞尿汲取人ーであった。
Sore wa owaiya—fun’nyo kumitorinin—de atta.
That (topic marker) night-soil-man—feces-and-urine ladle-person—was. 
He was a night-soil man, a ladler of excrement.

One thing the English loses, in the transitions from “blood-color” to “ruddy” and from “feces-and-urine” to “excrement” is the bond being tentatively forged by Mishima between blood and feces, a theme to which we’ll return, and it helps to know that Mishima was nicknamed “Aojiro” [“Blue-white”] at school for the pallor of his complexion—but I digress.)

The locus of Mishima’s desire, he goes on to say, is on the dark-blue “thigh-pullers”, part of the uniform of laborers still worn occasionally today, and the night-soil man’s occupation itself, although he then claims that he had “a misconception of the work of a night-soil man” and soon transfers his ardor to “the operators of hana-densha—those streetcars decorated so gaily with flowers for festival days—or again to subway ticket-punchers”—particularly the latter and “the rows of gold buttons on the tunics of their blue uniforms”.

What was once Nagasumi-cho is bounded to the east by another residential district, to the north and south by two major arteries, Yasukuni-dori and Shinjuku-dori, which were there in the days of Mishima’s youth, and bisected to the west by another major artery, Gaien Nishi-dori, which was not. The quarter into which Mishima was born, to the east of Gaien Nishi-dori, is tiny, at most 500 meters north-to-south and 250 meters east-to-west. Flat to the south, to the north and west it declines perhaps 20 meters in altitude to meet the major arteries—this is where Mishima’s formative slopes lie. Although I’ve lived for a nigh on a dozen years a two-minute cycle ride from it, and passed the mask it presents to the world on the major arteries measureless hundreds of times, I realize I’ve never once penetrated beyond the mask, down its somnolent streets and tangle of lanes where, in the deepest recesses of the warren the alley is so narrow, so private that to set foot in it feels like intrusion.
Although I have the prewar address for Mishima—Nagasumi-cho 2-banchi—and three maps to guide me, one from 1936,

one showing the redistricting of neighborhoods in 1943,

and a contemporary book of Tokyo street maps,

the address is too amorphous and the layout of the streets has changed too much to do more than stab a guess at its precise location, so I resolve to wander down every street and stairway, every passage and slope, and see what turns up.

It takes a moment to register from the exterior what the Horaiyu, a sento, a neighborhood public bathhouse, is—the giveaways are the chimney and the sign for hot water (ゆ) on the curtain behind the entranceway.
“Not many of these left,” says the passing Frenchman.
“No,” I concur, “I don’t think I’ve seen one in years.”
The sento is flanked, not only by a brace of vending machines, but by a pair of laundromats.

“Interesting architecture. From the sixties, I guess. People bring their washing here, have a bath, go home, everything’s pikapika,” he exclaims, using the onomatopoeia for a state of resplendent cleanliness.

The Horaiyu survives because, as it was in Mishima’s day, the neighborhood is pockmarked by poverty. To be sure, in this central and hence desirable neck of the woods some gentrification has occurred—a huge shiny new condo edifice has sprouted at one corner, a crop of smart townhouses has taken root at another—but there are plenty of shabby old blocks of one-room apartments lacking bathrooms, or even space for a washing machine, dotting the district.

The Meiwaso, the Mitsuiso, the Kawakamiso, how cruelly they taunt their occupants with the suffix for “villa” or “manor” (荘) that they all share in their names, how little, it is patently clear, their slumlords spend on their upkeep, how much it costs—about $500 a month—just to rent one of these tiny, tiny toeholds in the center of the capital. No Poggenpohl, no Aga, no Miele here, no kitchens at all: if you’re lucky, a one-ring gas stove on a bench to reflect your no-ring loneliness. I’ve been close to down-and-out in urban Japan, I’ve seen these places from the inside, and I well know they’re slit-your-wrist suicide traps, one misstep from death—or life on the street.

Some of the tenants are just transients through poverty, penurious students from the provinces scrimping by on what their parents can send them and their arbeit part-time jobs can pay them, but others—that never-married middle-aged woman who cleans your office toilets, that widower with his baton for directing traffic at construction sites, that barely employed aspiring singer growing too old for the game—they are stuck here for good.

“You’re still in Edo,” continued the Frenchman, using the old name for Tokyo. “Up there, at the big intersection, there are some old stones that show the boundary between the city and the country, you know, when Shinjuku was fields. Okido, it was called.”

He was right. The stone lantern marks the location of the Yotsuya Okido, one of the three “big wooden doors” that served as customs barriers on the three main thoroughfares west out of the capital, in this case the Koshu Kaido out to Nagano Prefecture. How many countless times have I passed it without pausing to contemplate its significance, I wonder.

A man passed by us on his way home from the sento.

“And over there,” the Frenchman went on, gesturing in the opposite direction, “in Tomihisa-cho, there’s a memorial to [Greek-Irish author] Lafcadio Hearn. Quite elaborate it is. He used to live there when he was in Tokyo. Ask at the police box, they’ll tell you how to find it.”

Who is commemorated and who is not: no plaque, no plinth with somber statue, no pedestal with bronze bust honors Mishima’s birthplace. He has never been forgiven for his criticism of the emperor, for the many other feathers he ruffled, for that last torrid day of his life.

In many ways, that day—November 25, 1970—was a homecoming (not that Mishima ever lived for any length far from the neighborhood of his birth). Nagasumi-cho is just 500 meters or so from the western edge of what was then the Eastern Army headquarters, where, after Mishima and four members of his Shield Society private army kidnap the army commander and Mishima harangues a throng of bemused and listless soldiers, hungry for lunch, in a speech that begins by acknowledging its own futility and is drowned out by boos and jeers and heckles and the police and media helicopters circling like vultures overhead, Mishima retreats to the commander’s office, smokes a final cigarette, strips to his loincloth, gives his wristwatch to a henchman, plunges a dirk into his belly, and is decapitated, to be followed headlong into death in like fashion by his acolyte Masakatsu Morita.

Indeed, from one spot—just one spot—in Nagasumi-cho, as the vista, usually so constricted, opens up, you can see the green-swaddled roofs and the communications tower of the Ministry of Defense, which moved to the site once occupied by the Eastern Army 12 years to the day before this photo was taken, in a relocation that took seven years and cost $3bn or so, the site having also once been the headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army and the venue of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, where the Tokyo War Crimes Trials were held.

That day was a homecoming in less literal ways, too. Enthralled, I watch anew the 1985 BBC TV documentary, The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, as bewitched by the imperfect perfection of his Grand Guignol exit—a monstrous coelacanth of an act hauled up from the depths of the extreme—as I was when I first saw the program, a naïve teen, when it first aired. There’s so much to savor but inevitably Mishima is the star: his urbanity, the suaveness with which he speaks in archive footage in excellent English about the “huge spiritual vacuum” and “unbearable boredom” engulfing post-war Japan, the relish he reserves for the word “death”, the voiceless dental fricative of the terminal “th” pronounced perfectly, his eyebrows, two hairy black caterpillars writhing with malevolent intent, and his sign-off declaration, “Hara-kiri sometimes makes you win.”

I grow fascinated by the khaki winter uniform of the private army, in which Mishima appears in the last shots taken of him alive, mere moments before his death, a uniform that some have ridiculed as Ruritanian or Graustarkian and others have derided as the livery of a hotel doorman, but which seems to me the epitome of a sparsely modern sensibility and was designed by a man, Tsukumo Igarashi, with a truly otherworldly name (九十九五十嵐, “ninety-nine fifty-storms”) who had worked with Pierre Cardin in Paris and sewn trousers for General de Gaulle and who is still alive, designed thanks to the offices of one of the patriarchs of the latterly deeply scandal-tainted Seibu railway-to-department store-to-real estate empire, Seiji Tsutsumi, who is also still alive. And the uniform itself, isn’t its progenitor to be found in the “thigh-pullers” of the night-soil man? And those rows of buttons that ascend in flying goose formation up the flanks of Mishima’s abdomen, aren’t they the descendents of the buttons on the subway ticket-punchers’ tunics? And that hachimaki headband, with its Shinto-nationalist inscription (七生報国—“Even if reborn seven times, I will serve my country”), isn’t it the just the night-soil man’s dirty hand-towel, rarefied, cleansed and politicized?

The double disembowelment and beheading produces barrels of blood, as is only to be expected, great ghastly torrents of blood that spatter everyone and everything; it also releases, as the dirk goes in, the stench of feces, even though Mishima had evacuated his bowels that morning, and it’s plausible that if he had had any space left in his sensory system free of paralyzing pain, the very last odor he would have tasted would have been his own ordure—and there we are, transported back to the slope of 1929, with the night-soil man, his beautiful blood-red cheeks and his buckets of excrement. So in death, Mishima achieves his earliest yearning: writing of the night-soil man, he says, “Looking up at that dirty youth, I was choked by desire, thinking ‘I want to change into him,’ thinking, ‘I want to be him.’”

In the BBC documentary, Nobuko Lady Albery (now there’s a name to conjure with) says in her exquisitely cut-glass but expressive English of the suicide of Mishima something worth citing in full:

It was a political embarrassment, as well, because just when Japan was on the point of becoming a member of the advanced industrialized nations, whom we have copied so doggedly all those years, and then here comes this writer, and killing himself as if the clock were put back two centuries. Certain people say, the way he died, the way he worshipped the sword, the Japanese Hagakure cause of ethics of the samurais and everything, he’s the most archaic, the most reactionary Japanese. Now, in whatever little compartment as an individual, as a clown—which he liked to be—as an actor, as an impostor, as a gangster, as an aristocrat, in every little thing he tried to be, he over-existed, and I think that quality, the Japanese simply not only scorn, but find intolerable, because we have all been brought up on this Confucian teaching, “When there is a stink, put a lid on it.”

When there is a stink, put a lid on it—this is what Mishima refused to do. When he appropriates—if that’s not too strong a word—the buckets of the night-soil man, he lifts their lids and carries them with him, through life to death.

Nagasumi-cho is trisected south-to-north by two roads just wide enough for cars to pass each other; one manages to make it out of the neighborhood, the other dissolves into an intricate nest of tiny lanes barely wide enough for a bicycle, then into a lattice of stairways and slopes. There are no gods here, save for a tiny curbside Shinto shrine to Oinari, flanked by red-bibbed stone foxes in cages, no shops here, save for a greengrocers with sagging sun-sapped awnings,

no reason for outsiders, save deliverers of parcels and post, to broach the bulwarks of the district. I wander the lanes of the flatlands first, where manhole covers seem to rear up off the asphalt like the shining breastplates of warriors.

It’s a fine day for washing, for airing, for drying, and the laundry is out—as it is all over the city—on ramshackle verandahs perched above sheds and on poles blocking rickety staircases.

Umbrellas hang off a staircase handrail like acrobats and futons lap out of windows above banks of air-conditioners, their parasitic tendrils seeming to suck the life out of the old grey concrete.

Almost nothing is left of the neighborhood as it would have appeared in 1970, when Mishima died, but here and there are vestigial traces of the first wave of post-war reconstruction, and down the merest capillary of an alleyway, accessible only on foot, I stumble across the purest expression of that reconstruction, a house, its front staved in as if punched in anger, that dates to around 1950—confirmed by an old man weeding nearby.

To the north and east, as the claustrophobia intensifies, the abandonment multiplies. Of a jumble of refuse outside a postage-stamp park, to which an enraged resident has affixed a sign that’s almost a haiku:

Fly-tippers
Go to hell
I’ll be waiting!
Enma Daio (the wrathful Hindu-Buddhist god of purgatory)

Of bicycles, naturally, but also of scooters, moldering away under and beside stairways, wherever surplus space—there’s precious little—can be found.

The doorways close in as the passageways narrow—and what doorways they are, rust-blotched and rust-rashed doorways, doorways in ocher with ancient light fixtures, crazy-paved doorways with piles of tires, doorways to secret strips of land down which one could go looking for a lost cat and end up in a parallel world, doorways with the light on at midday and a sticker refusing flyers for sex services, doorways to a landing on stilts with no manifest purpose, doorways that give on to yet other doorways, where someone always seems to watching.

And the stairways! What a profusion of stairways crowd in now, aerial stairways, stairways that clamber up the sides of the tenements, public and private stairways that feel forsaken by feet, stairways piled on stairways—impossible Escher stairways the denizens of this netherworld of stairs are condemned to ascend and descend for eternity.

“Is it so unusual?” asked the man in yellow and black, dismounting with bagfuls of laundry.
“No, not really. I just like the shape of the stairs.”
“Bloody stairs. Hard work when you’re my age.”

Quixotic though the quest for the slope of the night-soil man certainly was—there is no telling whether it has been effaced by war or prosperity, or even how close to Mishima’s home it lay—being freed from the burden of certainty allowed the liberty to choose whichever felt right. I have never had a literary hard-on for Mishima, but I could feel one coming on, dick as dowsing-rod, walking the backstreets of Nagasumi-cho. We can infer from the scene in Confessions that the slope was narrow, as the buckets are being carried, fore-and-aft, over one shoulder, whereas the yoke would usually be worn across the back of the neck with the arms wrapped around the beam—the night-soil man as eternal Christ-like penitent in the blood cult of Christianity. The night-soil man’s journey must have been short, too, because by the twenties there were surely night-soil carts, hand-drawn or horse-drawn, plying their abject trade across the metropolis.

In this—no doubt morbid—curiosity about the night-soil man, I’m joined by throngs of priests and priestesses of the religion of psychoanalysis, be they Freudians, post-Freudians, Lacanians, post-Lacanians, post-post-Freudian-Lacanians, or whatever irascible sect into which they have splintered, who furiously pen articles in their journals and festschrifts with titles like Phallic Narcissism, Anal Sadism, and Oral Discord: The Case of Yukio Mishima. (Oddly, they are steadfastly uninterested in the operators of hana-densha or the subway ticket punchers.) The coarser sorts of Freudians simply insult:

One may also discern a more specific psychological meaning [than that attributed by Mishima himself to the night-soil man]: the attraction to excrement common among homosexuals fixated in what Freud called the anal-sadistic phase.

Deadly Dialectics: Sex, Violence, and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima, Roy Starrs, Associate Professor, University of Otago (1994)

The more sophisticated post-structuralists, influenced by feminism and queer theory, simply obfuscate:

The ability to spill (blood, shit, urine) is a sign of the body’s flaunting of the norms of containment, its relish in excess, but also of its moribundity. Accordingly, Kochan’s [i.e., Mishima’s] first physical attraction is to a ladler of excrement (funnyuo: manure/urine), an episode that comes close on the heels of his initial bout of autointoxication and reinforces his tendency to apotheosize health-as-reformulation/emission. … But the connection of excrement to the social role of the shit-ladler and the mapping of that role on a sociohierarchic grid—a role that Kochan valorizes and eroticizes—indicate the attraction is identificatory as well. One effect of Kochan’s pairing of recirculation/emission fantasies with the ladler of excrement manifests itself in a homoeroticized coprophilia, in which health and beauty are linked with the collection/dispersal of soil/feces.

Body/Talk: Mishima, Masturbation, and Self-Performativity, Donald H. Mengay, Associate Professor, Baruch College, CUNY (1995)

I used to be old enough to understand what this meant, but thankfully I’m so much younger now. And besides, just to take the first sentence alone, the ability to micturate and defecate is not a sign of either the “body’s relish in excess”, as bodies alone cannot relish anything, nor of its moribundity, but of healthy excretory processes, and blood is not to be idly conflated with feces or urine.

The post-Lacanians simply provoke giggles:

It is around the age of four that the boy must lose his penis to bear the phallus, the signifier of desire and of castration. This is how masculine identification takes place. The privilege of the phallus, says Lacan, is to give order to the real of the body and to its mental scheme, to integrate it, so that even if it remains parceled out, it functions as the elements of the body’s crest, or coat of arms.

Violence in Works of Art, or, Mishima, from the Pen to the Sword, Danielle Bergeron, Training Analyst, GIFRIC, Quebec (2002)

It amuses—though it should appall—that the good taxpayers of New Zealand, the United States, and Canada should be funding, directly or indirectly, this infantile psychobabble. In a September 11, 1964, Life magazine special ahead of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, Mishima has the following to say, in a short yet meandering and in places flippantly offhand essay, A Famous Japanese Judges the US Giant (adore that “giant”):

In America … the fear of self-confrontation appears to have impinged on the outlook of some intellectuals. I was amazed to learn how many intellectuals and artists frequent the psychoanalysts. Would it not be more proper for the psychoanalysts to consult the artists? In Japan, the laundries send a man every morning to the back door to pick up the family wash, but in America it is the customer who must make his way to the laundry with his bundle of soiled clothes, the accumulation of days if not weeks.

By poring over the entrails of Mishima’s life and works in search of validation, the psychoanalysts are, I suppose, answering his wish that they consult the artist, although they appear convinced they have the upper hand in the dialogue; personally, I would advise anyone with disequilibria of the mind, psychoanalysts—surely they have enough problems of their own—and indeed anyone of less than robust mental constitution to steer well clear of Mishima and artists of his ilk. As for the soiled laundry analogy—as if schizoaffective disorder, psychotic depression, or delusional parasitosis could be washed out like a dirty shirt—well, just see above…  

The next day, a little providence and a little diligence conspired to hand me a modern address—Yotsuya 4-chome 22 banchi—for Mishima’s birthplace. While still amorphous, this address covers less territory than its prewar counterpart, and there was only one corner.

So this was it, the modern incarnation of that “pretentious house on a corner, with a rather jumbled appearance and a dingy, charred feeling”; still a tad pretentious and jumbled, perhaps, though not dingy and charred. It is both the office premises of Aroma Watch Japan (that’s “watch” as in “wristwatch”), about which I can dig up nothing, and the home of either a Japanese with the forbiddingly rare family name Kiku (聞) or—heaven and Mishima forfend!—a Chinese.

But what of the slope? There was one leading away to the right from the corner house itself, narrow enough in places, but scarcely an incline and lacking in drama, and another, half-slope, half-steps, but too broad and too bright, somehow, for the night-soil man. The steps, though—what if the slope had been laid to steps since? Again, there were two candidates.

The first stairway I dismissed as too wide, too straight, but the second, ah the second—there was an ineffable magic about the way the stairs climbed, then twisted, then narrowed, then turned, one wall rusticated with mossy stone. This, then, was the slope of my night-soil man, my Mishima.

If much of what was Nagasumi-cho looks dowdy and superannuated, well it is. In 1979, critic Donald Ritchie could write in an essay, Tokyo, the impermanent capital, that “the city as a whole does not appear as though it were built to last”, that new buildings are so flamboyantly modern “one cannot but expect them to be shortly superseded”, and of how the grand shrine at Ise, the Mecca of Shintoism, is torn down and rebuilt every 20 years:

In its way the Japanese city follows this same pattern. The idea of continually pilling down and putting up is very strong. Tokyo for this reason always seems under construction and indeed, will never really be finished.

Tokyo strikes me as a vast swathe of veldt that has to be swept by fire—in its case, earthquakes and conflagrations historically, latterly carpet-bombing and prosperity—to have its ecosystem renewed. But in the last two decades of stagnation, and especially in the last five years, those fires have grown fewer, briefer, and more concentrated around stations overground and underground, and in places like Nagasumi-cho—of which there are thousands across the capital—the clock of renewal has slowed to a crawl. Tokyo, like its inhabitants, is aging, and because, beyond the arteries, its proportions are so resolutely human, and because it is primarily built of concrete, that most unforgiving of materials, whose aging cannot be disguised by Botox or surgery, the physical fabric of the city is aging as a favorite aunt or uncle ages, visibly, almost painfully, as the metabolism of the city slackens. As far back as 1932, Belgian poet Henri Michaux could exclaim, “Tokyo is a hundred times more modern than Paris!” The same comparison would not hold today.

This, though, is my Tokyo, if not the Tokyo of Mishima: unshaven, unshowered Tokyo, Tokyo with its make-up off last thing at night, a place of battered plastic bottles strapped with green duct tape and nylon string around a lamppost to ward off cats and—maybe—demons, of rolls of toilet paper and cleaning fluids seen through frosted mosaic windows, of traces of tires worn in the dusty beige and ecru tile floor of an empty garage, of a white business shirt slumped on a pillar like a crumpled ghost, of bicycles parked where no bicycles should be, of brooms and plant pots and bright blue upturned buckets and bins, of resident association noticeboards, green felt encased in bronzed steel, with no notices of note, of electricity meters slapped on chipboard and strung up with wire knots, of silvery shrouds for motorcycles and motorboats, of lanes and balconies and doorways and narrow strips of sunlight that fall on passageways between buildings down which noone ever strays—a disciplined Tokyo gothic if you like, where a fluorescent strip-light always flickers down some dank corridor, even on the sunniest day, where clouds sneak up and rain sets in for hours and hours, where a mother sits on a bench in a park reading a paperback, alone, while her toddler son plays in the dirt, alone, where ivy breeds and strangles desire, and where, on a stairway forever in shade, a camellia weeps its petals for the youth of an old woman who hangs her undergarments with bath-fresh flesh-pink pegs on a washing line in a gloomy nook, hard by the spot where—just possibly—eighty years before, a boy had his first, aureate, erotic encounter, one that was to define the contours of his life and death, a Tokyo where some young Mishima still lies in bed and dreams of blood and glory, a Tokyo where something—or someone—can always be revealed if one peers intently enough past the spray-on drywall coating and through the letterbox, the letterbox of everybody’s river.

Iida: Roots music

I never met an expat, you know, who found anything to replace his homeland. I mean, they don’t miss it necessarily any more—they can be happy and all that—but they don’t find anything substantial to take its place; consequentially they are a bit insubstantial themselves.
Henry Klein, letter, 1984

Haiku pounds its beat,
Truths that skulk are flushed and trapped—
Dark torch of insight.

I blame it all on Henry Klein. A short stout Jewish poet from Golders Green, bearded and balding (by the time I met him), Henry walked out on London one day, a lover taking leave of his mistress, at the ash end of the hippie era (though no hippie he) and headed south to Franco’s Spain, before answering an ad in the paper in 1979 (16 years before I would answer another fateful ad, 16 years ago), and pitching up in Ecuador, self-styled “El Mitad del Mundo”—“the world’s great waistline” as he dubbed it—then undergoing its last weary rites of rule by military junta, where he stuck—or got stuck, who can truly tell the difference.

I first met Henry around the pine kitchen table, deeply grooved with the elbows of numberless small-hour conversations, of a mutual friend. How they met, I forget, and neither is around to ask. Not three years in, I was sick of criminal lawyering, sick of the ceaseless parade of late-night cop-shop cell-blocks and their stink of shit and piss and sick, sick of crack and smack and Shoot-up Hill, sick of Kilburn, then the undisputed street crime capital of Europe, sick of being a state-sanctioned accessory to murder in an adversarial Anglo-Saxon legal system, and sick of the investigation that had been launched against me by the Metropolitan Police on suspicion of complicity to destroy evidence and pervert the course of justice in a big drug and guns case up Hendon way, Henry’s old stomping grounds.

Henry invited me to come and teach at his language school, Lingua Franca, in the capital, Quito. So one leafless and withered autumn day in 1993 I walked out on London in my turn and pitched up in Caracas, meandering south while reading Proust (“Proust one, South America nil” read the laconically un-Proustian scorecard in a postcard home) and the Venezuelan red-tops, whence I learned of the verdict in the trial of the killers of Jamie Bulger (24 November) and the death in a police shoot-out of Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar (2 December), just a couple of days before crossing the llanos into Colombia, then the undisputed homicide capital of the world, finally showing up bedraggled but bewitched on Henry’s new turf just as the Christmas lights blinked on in the watery Andean air.

Henry and I didn’t see a great deal of each other outside of work that year. That was all his fault, too, as he let me in on a well-guarded secret—the one-bullock cloud-forest town of Mindo, halfway down the Andes as they tumble toward the Pacific, where I passed many an ecstatically drenched and mud-caked weekend in search of ant-pittas and sun-bitterns, tanagers and toucanets, sicklebills and manakins, sleeping under rain-spattered eaves in a creaky, leaky hotel that reeked of rotting timber and the mythical deluges of Macondo.

Being paid ten bucks a day, though kind by local rates, made me fret that if I let my ticket home explode I’d be trapped for years, so it came to pass that on my final Sunday I found myself at last at Henry’s adobe hut deep down in the Tumbaco valley east of Quito, guzzling gutrot rum, shooting the silly breeze, and petting his mule Rocinante, the same hut where he blew his brains out with a pistol after falling in rash and unrequitable love (“woo the wench I shall”) with a girl-woman almost young enough to be his granddaughter. It was August 18, 2000, he was 56, and the 21st century hadn’t even begun.

Back in England in the mid-nineties, there were precious few orthodox employment avenues left for someone whose CV had started out so promisingly but had already deviated so distressingly—defender of robbers and rapists, traveler down drug-addled and lawless roads—as mine had. After a hateful Liverpool interview at one of its last shipping firms, all whispery teak-panelled corridors, model schooners of long bygone eras entombed under square Perspex vaults, and the unmistakable whiff of condescension and death, I gave up on England one fine spring morning and flicked open the Tuesday “education” Guardian, still in those days eight-months pregnant with opportunity. “Take me somewhere rich but strange,” I implored the genie of the ads.

Henry wrote on July 5, 1995, a month after I arrived in Iida—the only letter I ever received from him—addressing me as “Dearest Dos Botas” (“Two Boots”, one of two affectionate—I hope—nicknames I garnered that year, the other being the unmerited “Wrong Way Richard”), chiding me for not staying longer (“maybe ‘personal management’ isn’t high on your list of accomplishments…”), asking me to sell him my left-behind sleeping bag (“it was blotched with mildew and heaven knows what else”), and enclosing a sheaf of a dozen typewritten poems, a few of which adorned the walls of my bohemian (read: decrepit) digs for years. Henry was only published posthumously, but published he was, in a slim but bilingual and handsome volume, Obra poética.

Although solitude may have felled him ultimately, being a bachelor who only met the world on his own most demanding terms had its advantages: by the time he’d hit his half-century, he’d devoured all that mattered in the Western canon, from Catullus on, and all that mattered in the Spanish tributary too. How to choose just one from the precious dozen he left me? “Landscape”—“Sand like old bones, the surf flowers / With death”? No—too unrepresentative, Henry was never a poet of outer landscapes. “Poe’s Tomb (after Mallarmé)”, which he worked and reworked for ten astounding years—“Like Hydra vilely startled hearing thence”? No—too metaphysically arduous for this narcissistic age of ours. “Dark Ending, New Year’s Eve, 1994”, which he wrote the month after I left—“I could die right now and know less of love than art”? No—brilliant, undoubtedly, but just too much of a bitter, hollow laugh. So by a haphazard process of elimination, here’s a Petrarchan sonnet that isn’t, one that’s long lingered in my mind as the one of the simplest, most awful, and finest efflorescences of his. 

The dark allows no end

It’s not the sound that tears his mind apart
But what his mind allows the sound to be:
The dread of sunlight, the dark’s embrace—he
Takes phenomena as ends where horrors start…

“It was good and right for us both”, she said,
Informing him in tones that most of us
Would reckon merely sanctimonious,
While the words, like iron, went through his head.

No, not the sound (his mind apart), but what
The dark allows no end to: the cold, that place
Without a name, some shape beyond his sight. 

“For us both”, she said, his iron head not
Held in that embrace—the state of grace
Her voice assured him was both good and right.

 Inspired perhaps by Henry’s letter, perhaps by the novelty of new surroundings, I chanced my arm at haiku for a month or two that first summer, before setting down my pen, perhaps because I realized—if I hadn’t already known—that the genre in international hands has become the Britain’s Got Talent or American Idol of poetry, beloved—alongside fifty-word stories—of tidy schoolteachers who ache for short and easily markable assignments—teen haiku about self-esteem, anyone? I’ve now come to think, though, that haiku as a genre shouldn’t be dismissed too cavalierly, as a lot can go calamitously wrong in the space of seventeen (or fewer) syllables. Compare and contrast, if you will, without my commentary, two offerings apiece from our latest Nobel laureate in literature, Tomas Tranströmer (top), and the President of the European Council, Herman “Haiku” Van Rompuy (bottom), while making the allowance that all (I believe) are translations.

My happiness swelled
And the frogs sang in the bogs
Of Pomerania.

Climbing up a hill
In the full blaze of the sun
Goats devour fire.

In a nearby ditch
Toads mating passionately
Inaugurate spring.

Birds in concert,
One sings above all others.
I don’t know its name.

As any self-respecting amateur who felt he’d been caught with his poetic kecks down would, I buried my haiku, unseen and unread in a box under the stairs these past 16 years. They would have lain there longer had I not tried to summon forth what that summer of 1995 had been, in any slightly recoverable respect, like. Memory had played its usual tricks: what I thought had been neatly recorded in fountain-pen ink in a ring-bound folder turned out to have been scrawled on scraps of crudely folded copier paper, many criss-crossed with mysterious Stanley knife incisions, written in propelling pencil (an early Japan infatuation), mostly rendered half-indecipherable by crossings-out, marginalia, and a numbering code I can no longer decipher.

There were far more than the dozen I suspected: eighty all told, sixty stripping out variations on a theme. The couple that had stuck around in my head were wretched; others, long forgotten, perhaps forgivable. Here for starters, anyway, is the only one occasioned by South America, in memory of a nighttime walk into the—still—tiny and remote hippie homestead village of El Paují, on the Venezuelan/Brazilian border at the threshold of El Abismo (“The Abyss”), where the last gasps of the Gran Sabana and its Lost World tepuis give out on an escarpment that overlooks the headwaters of the Amazon, one of the very last places on the planet where it is—still!—possible to gaze down in naked awe on nothing but virgin rainforest as far as the ravished eye can see. This one, then, is for you, Henry, however slight and however belated, wherever you hide in death’s dateless night. 

By a moonlit path
Fireflies starbright flit and rise,
Comets as they fall.

 

Completely vanished from recall was a short senryu series, in which I’d thrown not one but two poetic rulebooks to the four winds and immodestly titled “Aubade Haiku”—a tiny uncollaborative renga of wildly dissonant vignettes on the sour stale end of a love affair that had never been.

We’re drunk; your tai-chi
Moves, me slumped, you grab, turn, kick—
Your pissed elegance.

We sit, you and I,
At separate tables, writing—
Together alone. 

Your mate’s a migraine,
You’re a bore; what keeps me here
Is the girl next door.

My violin heart—
No Strad, but must you pluck it
Pizzicato style?

Summer: love kindled,
Stoked by noon’s blaze; fires that burn
Brightest, soonest fade. 

That sodden night you left—
Blood-soaked tears poured down the street,
Signals blinked on, red.

I’ll frame and freeze it,
It’s best viewed chilled and kept on ice—
That night you left me.

Life apart goes on,
I suppose; you summon sleep,
Now I’ve dismissed it.

Life’s strangely slanted,
Now you’re gone; summer crows cross
The moon at midday.

Lonely at nightfall—
The far dull throb of traffic
Helps to ease the pain.

Iida life settled soon enough into a Tin Pan Alley ditty of hummable insubstantiality: desultory classes in the evenings, in a time and a place where just to be foreign was still just about enough for everything, and otherwise nothing but youth’s last vestiges and huge helpings of time, big brimful to overflowing bucketfuls of it, time enough indeed to cock a snook at time itself.

Thirties looming large,
I find a Mini, makes me smile
At that tortoise, time.

Time enough for petty sessions of sweet thought, to dredge up reminiscences of imaginary places never visited, nor visitable, time enough for a writer’s sentence of hard toil—spending the whole morning putting in a comma, and the whole afternoon taking it out, as Oscar Wilde once wisecracked—time enough for multitudes of indecisions and revisions.   

Smoke town closing time.
Scuttling cabs sweep up the shards
Of nights spent, smashed again.

There was a new-old flat to be filled out and grow comfortable in, only the tenth place I’d ever lived, a flat whose balcony looked across the somnolent streets of the Ina valley to the Southern Alps. “Promise me you won’t sleep with my daughter if you come and work for me,” she said. That promise, glibly made, proved harder to keep than expected, as the pert sixteen year-old sat cross-legged—for shame—on the tatami at my low table and, egged on, told of sexual conquests and the conquistadors of her no longer new found lands, but kept it was.

Wet night junction, calm.
“Blue, amber, red,” chant the lights,
Unheard their mantra.

Mountains, valley clouds—
Pasted-on white paper strips
By children playing.

The hospitality, which spilled over from all directions, was lavishly rural: it was impressed on me from the first day on that Iida was, in the local cosmology, irretrievably inaka—the boondock backwoods, home only to hicks and rubes, bumpkins and yokels—although it was swiftly apparent that the train north never leaves a built-up area for the hour or so it takes to trundle to the end of the line. It was an age of indulgence—in a bad way—in a culture of indulgence—in a good way—and it was only too delightful to be indulged, on one occasion by a kaiseki feast. “French food is a symphony,” he analogized, “but”—with a note of pride—“Japanese food is a string quartet.”

After lunch, the others bathe.
Hung-over, I watch carp swirling.
“Satori?” Not yet.

Lacking a TV,
I watch carp weave bright mosaics,
Their scales the pixels.

Without wheels of any kind those first few weeks, the only way to get from here to there and back again, aside from the odd charitably extended lift, was to walk. No matter though, when even to pop round the corner to stock up on eggs and milk was an adventure. 

Supermarket eaves.
Swallow nestlings wail for food,
Plump tots gape below.

The walk that meant the most, the one that mattered, was the one from flat to school. Because of the eccentrically elliptic way the city had grown up, spilling down east from a plateau up on the west toward the river that runs north to south through the valley, it took only a quarter-hour stroll from my flat on the half-farm fringe to the school in the center. 

On airborne racetracks,
Above wind-rippled paddies,
Dragonflies jockey.

Windless summer’s day.
Sedge grass fronds sway and rustle,
Insects take off, land. 

The school stood hard by the main railway station, which every weekday afternoon disgorged throngs of chattering, tittering teens: the rebels would fan out into town in quest of kicks, of which only the tamest were to be had—karaoke, perhaps, or an hour whiled away browsing the bookshop manga—while the studious would soon be found crowding our  juku cram school desks, brows tilled deep in concentration or puzzlement. 

Abroad, new faces, vistas—
But nothing as strange
As another nation’s trains. 

Across the tracks lay the central business district. Wracked repeatedly by fires, the last time in 1947, it had been relaid in as rectilinear a grid as watercourses allowed, one that would have contented Mondrian. Tell-tale malodors of incipient decay were already awaft for those with a nose for them—one of the two department stores, Seiyu, had already rolled down its shutters for the last time—but in my naivety I failed to inhale. “The streets are humming,” I ventured to a tightly-laced accountant student of mine one Saturday night as we sauntered downtown, gesturing at knots of revelers carousing from bar to bar. “Oh no,” he plainted, “It’s nothing like it was five years ago,” making that half-decade span sound like an unbridgeable chasm—as it proved to be, though neither of us could have known that then.

City street swelters,
A shop’s doors part, gust cool air—
Hands release a dove. 

Sprinkled and scattered
By the priest’s watering can—
Gossiping ladies. 

In the cake shop chill,
Two inflated mobiles sway,
Frog and tortoise kiss. 

I fell in with the inevitable crowd. There might have been three dozen Westerners, strangers in a strange land about which we mostly shared an encyclopedic ignorance, dotted across the lower reaches of the valley, in area as large as greater Tokyo; in all likelihood there are few more now. Our patriarch—although he would have resisted that appellation—was Old Tom, a gnarled cane of a shakuhachi flute-maker who had blown in from Kansas one windy day in 1967 and forgotten to leave, siring four sons along the way. Divorced (but partial to mistressy), he lived alone burrowed in a ramshackle warren of a bungalow, worthless now, up a precipitous single-track road high in the wooded foothills of the Alps, above the slope of blueberry bushes he’d planted to supplement his threadbare flautist income. 

Far-off mountain crag,
And the pine trees painted on
With the thinnest brush.

Old Tom had a deshi apprentice—although he would resist that appellation—Bill from the Mersey, in appearance then every inch the hippie, in character a mutterer of sardonic asides, asides at which pieces of the jigsaw began falling into place. On a friend in a fluster at having parked in a bus stop: “It must be hard work, you know, being Japanese.” On a hillside flattened and clawed chalk-white by excavators: “They never met a mountain they didn’t want to move.” For want of any better offers, I found myself a few times that summer at al fresco shakuhachi recitals at which Tom and Bill performed. The polite bemusement with which the audiences reacted put me in mind of Samuel Johnson’s comparison of women preaching to dogs walking on their hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Bill and I carved out time to scramble around temples, most obscure though some, such as Zenkoji, of more than local fame. 

Vellum confetti
Specks the path; no bride, no bells—
Hyacinth petals. 

A midsummer shower,
And from nowhere, moss returns
To its element. 

A temple garden.
Through pines some pagoda thrusts
In vain mimicry. 

It was a time of women, women of every hue, black and brown, wheat and white. Never before had there been so many women in my life; never since have there been. Women to companion in drink and smoke, women to share and make secrets with, keep and break secrets with, women to seduce and in turn to be seduced by. In time, the foreign women at least would melt away, most returning home—for every woman that sticks around, I’d hazard five men do—but for now they were an organizing principle of life. Lonely E~, with her pastel blue house and her nervous laugh and her carousel of remote controls; lovely Y~, lost as water is in water lost in the behemoth of her SUV, tripped at every turn by the small-town values in which she had against her will been trapped; effusive G~ from a mid-Wales caravan park, who turned up at one riverside picnic with squeeze in tow, later revealed to be the grandson of legendary back-room dealmaker and seventies prime minister Kakuei Tanaka; and elusive L~, Texan heiress and neighbor—back home—of Ross Perot, who had wound up in a tiny valley-end village where she went contactless for many a moon, an undiscovered Amazonian tribe all to herself. Once she told me of her mother, who after a fortnight’s stay exclaimed, “But darling, I’ve been here two weeks and I haven’t seen a single chandelier!” After various misadventures, she ended up for a spell as a CIA spook in the Tokyo bureau; what must it be like to spy on a nation in whose junior high school classrooms you’ve spent so much time, I wonder. Then there was J~, inspiration and inadvertent muse, nicknamer of me “Rickshaw”, and now a Gestalt therapist back in her native Toronto; the day the plum rains broke we took a road trip north to catch a celebrated taiko drum troupe.  

Distant hillside house,
White walled with its roof tiled blue,
Far from shore, a wave. 

Field-abandoned bus,
Staring through mossy windows—
Naked mannequins. 

In blue ocean sky,
A signal stuck on amber—
Tiny suns we make. 

Autumn came, and laying aside my poet manqué pen, I began to gather the accoutrements of language study—vocabulary dictionaries paper and electronic, kanji character dictionaries introductory and all-encompassing, flashcards, grammar guides, and a charming textbook geared to factory-hand trainees where one of the first words learnt is “welding”—and embark on a romance that has lasted to this day.

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, electronics tinkerer extraordinaire, self-styled “Dipso Dad”, now husband to long-suffering Shinako and father to the adorable Lynne and Hannah–to visit for a sultry September weekend.  

(To be continued…)

Kiyosato: High plains drifter

(part two of two)

“My brother dabbles in stocks,” said the winningly frank B&B landlady, slight, short-cropped, and in her mid-sixties, as she caught me leafing through the Nikkei over morning coffee on the terrace.

“Only as a hobby, mind. He’s retired now. He was a salaryman, back when times were good.” She meant the Bubble.

“But us self-employed folk, with our meager pension pots, well, we’ll just have to keep working until we drop.”

She would have had a little more in her pension pot, I reflected maliciously, if she hadn’t amassed the vast collections of ceramic clowns and brass reception bells arrayed in the lobby—not the last time that day I was to come face-to-face with the obsessions of the collector.

“We had a French intern with us this summer. After the accident, she was the only one in her class to come back. Loves it here, she does, wants to get a job here after she graduates. But things aren’t the way they used to be, are they?” I agreed they weren’t; they rarely are, these days.

“What brings you to Kiyosato?”

“I was wondering what there is to do here.”

“Do?”

“Yes, do. In Kiyosato.” Aside from letting a Jersey ice-cream dribble down your fingers while rifling through knick-knacks in the last few souvenir emporia.

“Well, there’s golf. Putting courses, park golf, real golf, we’ve got it all.”

“Not much of one for golf, I’m afraid.”

“Tennis?”

“I’m on my own.”

“There’s skiing, in winter of course.”

“In winter.”

“Down at Cote de Vert, you can pet farm animals and let your dog off the leash, let it run free.”

A pause ensued.

“Here,” she said, handing me a local brochure, “you can read.”

After meandering the highways and byways for a day, at least five distinct ecosystems in Kiyosato revealed themselves: the tumbledown center, built up and brought low by the Bubble: the farmers—of corn and cabbages and cows—who have their own sad tales to tell, some forebears having arrived before the war from dam-flooded villages near Tokyo and some forebears after the war, repatriates from ill-starred settler colonies in Manchuria and elsewhere in the empire, forebears who found scratching a living from the unforgiving high plains almost intolerably hard at first; the owners of besso holiday homes, homes that run the gamut from rustic pine dachas to old-money piles with private tennis courts and hypermodern concrete-and-glass affairs; a crescent of lavish dormitories to the north-west belonging to universities—Meiji, Aoyama Gakuin, and Nihon—and to Tokyo commuter-belt cities—Tachikawa, Fuchu, Chofu, Kodaira, and Hino, short stays at which are free for their lucky residents; and a community of potters, weavers, woodworkers and other artisans in the cheaper, lower foothills to the south-east. The economy will truly have to fall into rack and ruin before the farmers, the bessoites, and the dormitory sojourners feel much anguish, and it is they who provide the residual flicker of vitality, although none of them can be of any comfort to the hoteliers and little to the restaurateurs.
Then there were the museums.

Down a long and winding lane that swung between fields of corn, now as high as an elephant’s eye, and prim and proper besso, stood the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts, which likes to style itself K*MoPA. The staff were stiff, the echoes were cavernous, and the lavs were marble. Museum-goers were notable only by their absence. The exhibition, titled Great Spirit: Photographs of Curtis, Sardar-Afkhami, and Yagi, showcased the early twentieth century “noble savage” Native American photos of Edward S. Curtis, some jaw-clenching and jaw-dropping Mongol images by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, of whom I’d never heard, and in a sop to the locals, some tepid Aleut shots by Kiyoshi Yagi.

Of as much interest, though, was how the museum could possibly finance itself. Its negligently maintained website reveals superfluously that its restaurant, La Premiere (I did say we were very French around here) closed in 2006. I sat where its terrace had been, sipping a watery vending-machine coffee. Its resort facility, Patrie (I did say), closed at the same time—it was clear the museum was now clad in concrete clothes far too big for its shrunken dimensions. Its funding sources and ownership structure have defied my best attempts to prise them out, however, so I can only conclude it is a yakuza money-laundering front.

***

Down at Cote de Vert (I did say we were very French, if grammatically inaccurately so, around here), lay another museum, the unimaginatively named Kiyosato Bokujodori (“Ranchroad”) Antiques. This was more of a one-woman affair; in her mid-fifties, the owner fussed intrusively over slipper provisions while revealing she had lived a decade and a half in Australia. The second-floor museum, dedicated largely to old Noritake porcelain, was half shop; the first floor was all shop. As an occasional though now largely dormant collector of ceramics, mostly somber Bizen-yaki and neoclassical celadon, I have strong opinions about old Noritake: most of what remains should be piled in a heap in the road and run over by a fleet of steam-rollers, although I would spare the occasional late pre-war Art Deco piece, such as this sugar bowl.

It wasn’t wholly the fault of the Noritake company, to be fair; they were catering to fantastically depraved late Victorian tastes. The owner explained that some eighty percent of old Noritake went to the US, ten percent to the UK, and ten percent to the UK colonies; nowhere was the attempt to accommodate local sensitivities better on display than in this plate for the Australian market, depicting a pair of not very lifelike Kookaburras sitting in the old gum tree.

I wondered about the impulses behind the retrieval and repatriation of old Noritake: by my book, at least, it is severely subtracting from rather than adding to Japan’s GDP (gross domestic pulchritude).

“So what did you like the most?”

“The Satsuma-ware was quite attractive.” Although at $6,000 or so for this tea caddy, it was just out of my price range.

“Oh yes, all the foreigners like that. It’s so colorful, gaudy even.”

Your old Noritake is not a model of understatement, I thought to myself.

“I’ll be closing for winter next month. I spend six months here and six months on the road abroad, collecting.”

“Nice life.”

“Oh no, not at all!” She recoiled, horrified at the accusation, and I made my excuses.

***

Damned hard to find, the Kiyosato Museum of Contemporary Art was an implausibly modernist confection to come across at the end of a rutted gravel road best navigated by a four-by-four. By “contemporary”, the curators meant bleeding-edge avant garde from World War One Duchamp Dadaism through to Christo’s wrapped “environmental art”, with an accent on the High Dadaesque Modernism of Fluxus (“purge the world of bourgeois sickness”) and John Cage from the fifties and sixties. Their clock had stopped in 1990 or thereabouts; there was nothing “contemporary” on show at all. Most ultramodern art has always struck this determined middlebrow as the province of charlatans, fraudsters, and conmen, and there was little the museum offered to change my mind, although I was smitten with Christo’s oil drums,

Bernard and Hilla Becher’s beautiful typologies of functional industrial ugliness,

and this shot of the lunatic Lithuanian George Maciunas, Fluxus guru and inadvertent pioneering gentrifier of New York’s SoHo warehouse district, unsung hero to the bourgeoisie he professed in his too short life to despise. 

As intriguing as the art on its floors and walls and doors was the museum itself, which, in betrayal of any minimalist aesthetic that might be associated with much of modernism, was brimful to bursting with piles of posters and books and assorted paraphernalia.

Clearly the museum was the product of a very personal mania; while there were no truly costly works on display, no Duchamp Fountain, say, or Yves Klein monochrome, the collection must have cost a small fortune to assemble. In an annex at the back, a man in late middle age, leafing through a catalogue, struck up a conversation.

“We don’t get many foreign visitors. Where are you from?”

“Britain.”

“Oh, Britain’s been very helpful to us,” he said with a gratitude that made me feel personally responsible for the assistance rendered.

“Sotheby’s offloaded some Beuys

for us a while back. The thing is, the museum can’t truly pay its way, not on the admission fees. The season’s so short, the visitors are gone by October.”

“That’s my brother.” He gestured at another man in late middle age, leading around a small tour party, whose members were also uniformly in late middle age. “He built this place, twenty years ago. I retired and joined him last year.

“Japanese people,” he harrumphed, “they’ve got no time for modern art. Thirty seconds in here is enough for most of them.”

I tried an upbeat tack. “But things were different back in the sixties, weren’t they? More folk were interested in those days, no?”

“Not really. Most people were only interested in getting rich. It’s a shame. I lost my house building up this collection. Now I guess we’ll have to sell up and close down in a few years, if things go on this way.”

There can be little doubt that things will go on, kono mama, in this way. To have spent one’s adult life acquiring, accumulating, above all collecting, and to be faced in old age only with dissolution, the brutal whittling away of what was so patiently and painstakingly amassed; well, it would be more than this curatorial heart could bear.

***

Like its better-looking and better-off sibling, Karuizawa, whose flagging fortunes were reputedly restored by a Scottish-Canadian theologian, Alexander Croft Shaw (1846-1902), a foreign missionary godfather (of a later generation) was instrumental in the development of Kiyosato: American Paul Rusch (1897-1979), who orchestrated the construction of Seisenryo, a “Christian fellowship youth retreat” in Kiyosato in 1938. It’s fitting, if regrettable, that otherwise godless Kiyosato, devoid of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, a once creamy cheesecake slice of the foreign set upon a native plate, should have had a Bible-thumping mentor.

At the now sprawling Seisenryo complex, there were suddenly tourists, busloads of them shipped in on daytrips from the plains to do not very much, save buy trinkets and slurp ices and admire Mount Fuji from afar.

Busloads, but not busloads enough to save the heart of Kiyosato from an aortic aneurysm.

There were other, still more curious attractions to explore—The Japan American Football Hall of Fame and the Dormouse Museum (“no live dormice were used in the creation of this exhibition”, the sign assured)—but for museumed-out me they would have to wait. A faint fondness for Kiyosato welled up as I prepared to take my leave: where else in the world, after all, can you run across a mid-sixties Mazda whimsically plomped on the roof of a roadside flower-shop shipping container,

a searing photomontage condemnation of Adolf Hitler by John Heartfield/Helmut Herzfeld (1891-1968), Nur keine angst, er is vegetarier,

and still be home in time for tea?