Category Archives: Theme parks

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)

Holiday in Fukushima: To the zone of exclusion

It’s time to taste what you most fear,
Right Guard will not help you here,
Brace yourself, my dear,
Brace yourself, my dear,
It’s a holiday in Fukushima,
It’s tough kid, but it’s life,
It’s a holiday in Fukushima,
Don’t forget to pack a wife…

(With apologies to The Dead Kennedys)

 Japan’s Golden Week break in late April and early May is often a wash-out: the four national holidays regularly fall in part on a weekend, the roads seethe with epic bumper-to-bumper jams, hotel rooms are scarcer than hen’s teeth, and even if you finally reach your chosen destination, queues of hours for the attraction are inevitable if it is at all popular.

This year augured better, though: the national holidays distributed themselves beautifully across the calendar, meaning a whole week off could be had for the price of a single working day’s vacation, and the national mood of self-restraint in the aftermath of the disaster was leading the media to predict that traffic volumes would be down by a third to a half. It was time, I decided, to leverage these fortuitous circumstances. Where would the roads be most deserted, where would the hotels be emptiest, where would the queues be shortest, I mused. It was time, I decided, for a holiday in Fukushima.

An accident on the elevated expressway out of the capital brought an hour of almost total immobility, with the trucks thundering past on the inbound lanes causing the ancient, rickety structure to vibrate like an endless earthquake. Eventually we were unshackled, and heading north was like rewinding the clock of spring: while the new verdancy in Tokyo was already dazzling, here the landscape was draped in tentative greens and the delicate pinks of cherry trees.

Few vehicles were left on the expressway as the border loomed. Welcome to Fukushima, said the sign, with inauspiciously high waves menacing a lighthouse, and welcome to Iwaki, where the Hula Girls were born.

Fukushima has been cursed by the decision of a nameless apparatchik or faceless committee many decades back to name Fukushima Daiichi and Daini not after the city, town, or village where they are located, as all but one of the nation’s 15 other nuclear power plants are, but after the whole of the prefecture. Had the decision fallen differently, the litany of nuclear tragedy would read Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Okuma, but now the entire prefecture and its two million inhabitants are tainted by association, a contaminated brand.

Iwaki is huge—at some 60km north to south and 40km east to west, it’s as large as a small English county, and its very northernmost fringe intrudes into the 30km exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi. Like many a Fukushima municipality, it’s an artificial creation, in this case the 1966 amalgamation of 14 cities, towns, and villages. Once a coal-mining region, it has made a relatively successful transition to industry and tourism since the last mine closed in 1976. The first port of call was to pay my respects at the spiritual home of those Hula Girls, Spa Resort Hawaiians.

The cladding around the new hotel going up on the hill lent it an unfortunate resemblance to one of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. The sign to the right announced that the resort would be closed for a while, due to the March 11 earthquake and to another earthquake that had escaped my attention, the April 11 Iwaki aftershock, which turns out to have been an M7.0 temblor directly under the city—just another flick of the catfish’s tail.

Overshadowed by the kitschy glamour of Spa Resort Hawaiians, the neighboring hot-springs district of Iwaki Yumoto has been moldering away for years. Almost all of the hotels were closed, the notices on their doors citing the earthquake and aftershock, with some throwing in “harmful rumors” or “reputational damage” (風評被害), one of the expressions of the moment, for good measure. Traces of a grimier past were not hard to come by: what might have been an old collier’s house stood across the road from one of the largest hotels.

Another expression of the moment, “ganbaro” (がんばろう or ガンバロウ or 頑張ろう), which might be rendered as “hang in there” or “tough it out”, was much in evidence. Here an image character, Tairamon, encourages Iwaki, while a hand-drawn sign encourages Yumoto.

Down at the port of Onahama, a convoy of volunteer buses was parked in serried rank as streams of people who had sacrificed their vacations to help out in any way they could carted debris out of La La Mew, a fish market, gift center, and restaurant complex, and I felt the first prickings of guilt. Fortunately I found company with other rubberneckers watching dockside salvage operations, a man perched precariously on the stern of a sunken vessel.

No matter how many video clips of tsunami inundation you can brace yourself to watch, no matter how many survivors’ tales you can bear to hear, nothing prepares your senses fully for the experience: at Onahama it was the stench that was overpowering, first the acrid taste of spilt diesel on tangy salt air, then the stinking assault of rotting fish, now the rank odor of toxic garbage fumes. Although the waves had reached only a couple of hundred meters inland here, barely crossing the portside dual-carriageway, on the unlucky side of the road the Onahama Tourist Center had been eviscerated, its entrails carried who knew where. 

The details appalled: the exuberantly colorful albacore on the side of a fishing boat,

the acres of railroad tracks, their ballast replaced by sea-disgorged sand and stones, and the untouched cement works, with its neat piles of coal, in the backdrop of the carnage.

Located on a sea-jutting wharf, the aquarium Aquamarine Fukushima is the jewel in Iwaki’s tourism crown, and its post-earthquake travails bear uncanny animal kingdom parallels with the woes of Fukushima Daiichi. Flooded throughout the ground floor by the tsunami, its backup power generators kicked in to power up the indispensible filtration systems while the big beasts—sea lions and walruses, seals and otters—were evacuated to other aquariums, as were the piscine stars of the show such as gar and greeneye, but the diesel for the generators and the food for the fish ran out, leaving 200,000 marine organisms of 750 species dead in oxygen-starved tanks.  

Chastened, I turned inland and stopped for a snack at a Seven-Eleven to make my first, very modest, contribution to the revival of the Fukushima economy. An old woman cried from back of the store, “Earthquake! And I’ve only just finished cleaning up!” to a tremor I failed to feel. Some people were still jumpy.

Heading north up the coast, at the places where the road was forced by topography to hug the sea, the devastation was callous in its capriciousness. Fate had been too cruel: one house furthest from the shore in a cluster of a dozen stood untouched, while its companions sat back on their haunches or listed like fish with swim-bladder disorder. Houses sheltered by a headland lay a stone’s skim from scenes of utter destruction. The new things pained the most: a brace of freshly built homes, their first-floor guts ripped out, a pin-fresh hotel with deep scars and smashed windows. No more photos, at any rate not here, I told myself, as a man strapped into his camera strode gleefully off to capture a car upended and tossed, with almost wanton whimsy, into a paddy.

Route Six runs for some 350km up the Pacific coast from Tokyo to Sendai, but it pierces the heart of the zone of exclusion at Futaba and it’s no longer possible to get to Minami Soma from Iwaki. I turned right and headed north toward Fukushima Daiichi.

(Observant pistonheads will notice the car in front of me is a Nissan, as are the two minivans facing camera behind the Nissan dealership—that’s because Iwaki is a Nissan town, being home to the Nissan plant responsible for the VQ engine series, which featured on Ward’s annual 10 best engine list for 14 straight years from 1995 to 2008.) 

Soon it was goodbye Iwaki and hello Hirono—crossing the border meant I was now a couple of kilometres inside the 20km-30km radius from Fukushima Daiichi that was initially designated as the “stay indoors” zone (室内避難区域) until the boundaries were redrawn on April 21, leaving the whole of Hirono but none of Iwaki in the “prepare to evacuate in an emergency” zone (緊急時避難準備区域).

Some lazy hacks have taken to calling everywhere along the Fukushima coast from Minami Soma in the north to Iwaki in the south “nuclear ghost towns”. They’re not, but Hirono is, and I hope never to see another one in my life. No rampaging steers running wild here, no cows lying dying in barns, no dogs turning feral as there are in the 20km zone of exclusion; this had been an orderly departure, leaving in its trace only silences and absences—of cars from garageless driveways, of washing from steel clothes poles, of people from the tidy sidewalks. Every roadside enterprise, from humble ramen stand to ubiquitous convenience store, was locked and deserted. What, I wondered, would an observer catapulted forward in time from two months ago (has it really only been two months?) make of this post-apocalyptic scene.

As so often, it was the signs that were most poignant. One on a hillside proclaimed that Hirono was the town, by virtue of its southerly location, that announced the coming of spring to the north-eastern Tohoku region, while another called for support for the women’s soccer club Mareeze (yes, it’s a portmanteau of “marine” and “breeze”) of Fukushima Daiichi operator TEPCO—like the string of four pure-play nuclear seaside towns to the north, Hirono is a TEPCO company town, thanks to its mixed gas and coal thermal power plant.

Welcome to Hirono, says this sign, a town where you can meet others through soccer—Hirono is home to J-Village, the first national football training facility. It claims that Hirono, too, is the hometown of children’s songs—the two to which it refers, known by every child throughout the land, being The Dragonfly’s Glasses, written by a local country doctor, and Steam Train, whose connection with Hirono rests on a tenuous lyrical pun. Still, every little town must have its little claim to fame.

By the town hall, an elliptical message: everyone participates, a healthy town.

Dylan was drawling, “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long” over the stereo as I parked up awhile to watch a procession of olive drab armoured personnel carriers, adorned with white bibs reading “disaster dispatch duty”, and police riot buses, windows begrilled, roll in from the south, realizing with mounting consternation that the buses were from Nagoya and other far distant places. Admittedly, there have been many reports of burglaries and even the odd mugging of an ATM within the zone of exclusion, but does it really take the whole of the nation’s boys in blue to restore law and order to a few rural towns? Or were they, I wondered, streaming in for slyer, more sinister purposes, to make recalcitrants among the workers for TEPCO and its subcontractors toe the radiological line?

Route Six was blocked at the 20km limit, as expected. A cop waved traffic off to a diversion to the right and I found myself facing the twin chimneys of the otherwise invisible power plant, not a comforting sight.

Another diversion, this time to the left, and I wound up at J-Village, requisitioned by the state soon after the disaster as the front-line base for the nuclear drama.

TEPCO and subcontractor workers at Fukushima Daiichi get three days R&R here after three days on site, although as according to its own website, J-Village has no running water, it’s unclear how much rest or relaxation anyone might get.

And this was truly the end of the line: I was now 9km south of Fukushima Daini and 20km south of Fukushima Daiichi. Entry forbidden by the Basic Law on Disaster Response, Article 116, Paragraph 1, Item 2, threatens the sign, violators may be punished. With a Y100,000 ($1,250) fine or—more likely—a month in chokey, say the media, and not fancying 30 days in the slammer—prisons hereabouts are no holiday camps, by all accounts—I resolved to venture no further. In a van by the sign, a bunch of Hitachi Transport System employees—what were they doing here—were nodding off or dozing on as a busload of hired hands from general contractor Taisei shipped out of J-Village. Everyone, but everyone, was wearing facemasks, fine for pollen allergies but as likely to stop radiation in its tracks as a picket fence would a bull elephant in heat. A cop car cruised past, sirens silent but lights ablaze, eyeing me suspiciously. Perhaps because of an overdose of Kafka—at least a sievert’s worth—at too impressionable an age, I’ve always feared groundless arrest and prosecution, and although I wasn’t committing any illegal act, my presence, I felt, was no longer required. Life was turning into the first reel of a low-budget sci-fi gore fest, and I had lost the desire to stick around to find out what happens next.

On returning home, I discovered the depth of the Faustian compacts in which these Fukushima seashore towns had engaged with TEPCO. While the prefectural average per capita income in the year to end-March 2009, the latest year for which data are available (Japanese-only link to a mine of fascinating Fukushima factoids here), was around Y2.75mn ($34,000 at the current rate), it was Y5.65mn (over $70,000) in Hirono, by far the highest in Fukushima, and Y4.85mn (over $60,000) in Okuma, home to most of Fukushima Daiichi. In the sublimely implausible event that Hirono and its 4,500-odd inhabitants were to declare independence, it would rank somewhere above Switzerland and below Norway as one of the nominally half-dozen wealthiest nations on the planet. Remember that the next time you fork over for your electricity bills, Tokyoites.

The nuclear shoreline is also impervious, it would seem, to the vicissitudes of recession. While the rest of the prefecture—and the rest of the world—were left reeling in wake of the global financial crisis, the Soma district (essentially the Fukushima coast minus Iwaki) was clocking up gross product (i.e., GDP at a local level) growth of 6.4%, a figure that would not bring dishonour to the average emerging economy.

This bastion of electric wealth is unlikely to see its fortunes crumble anytime soon. While TEPCO is seeking a 20% cut in its peons’ pay and the toothless in-house union has folded its hand without a whisper of dissent, the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi and, as now seems likely, Daini, will provide decades of arduous but lucrative work, while the five generators at Hirono will be even more pivotal to keeping the lights on in the capital.

I headed northwest, inland, to the city of Tamura then backtracked east, so I was now due west of Fukushima Daiichi and closing in on it, my destination a celebration of all things coleopteran and the rhinoceros beetle in particular, Kodomo no Kuni (“children’s country”) Mushi Mushi (“insect insect”) Land, whose attractions include the Rhinoceros Beetle Mansion and the Rhinoceros Beetle Natural Observation Park.

Lying just 33.4km west of Fukushima Daiichi, Mushi Mushi Land had gamely struggled on after March 11 until, bizarrely, someone realized around a month later that eight households in the area were inside the 30km zone and the city mandated the evacuation of the whole district. This much I knew in advance, but the word was that somehow the on-site accommodation facility, Sky Palace Tokiwa, was still open. Many of the backroads leading to Insect Land had been ripped asunder by the earthquake, however, the signposts were unhelpful, and dusk was stealing in, so with reluctance I gave up my quest to spend the night in coleopteran company.

Just down the road I found a ramshackle single-storey hot-springs hotel, Kanda no Yu, an agglomeration of at least eight wings, ells, and extensions of varying age. The proprietress—let’s call her mother—seemed to take a shine to me.

“Have you come to volunteer?” Again the twinge of guilt.

“No, I’ve come to support Fukushima. And to do a little research.”

Raucous laughter emanated from a party in the interior.

“It’s getting pretty lively back there.”

“Yes, the cherries are in full bloom. It’s the first booking we’ve had in quite a while. Since…” Her voice trailed off.

“I had hoped to stay up at Insect Land, but it seems to be all shut down.”

“Is it? That is a shame. The beetles are just coming into season now, too.”

Grandmother gave me the once-over with a beady eye as I carried my bags in. Somehow I found myself looking up with her at a swallow’s nest in the eaves.

“It’s a swallow’s nest.”

“Yes, I see. But the swallows haven’t come back yet, have they?” I knew as soon as I blurted this out that the conversation had taken a wrong turn.

“Of course they have!” she said in high dudgeon, pointing to a trace of swallow droppings below the nest. “You don’t think we’d’ve left the shit there from last year, do you?”

Dining options in the center of Tamura were limited. I settled on a counter perch at this branch of Hakkenden (“legend of eight swords”), a kushiyaki chicken-on-a-stick chain. A lanky black-uniformed dude with a scraggly goatee, pierced nose, and an indecipherable and amateurish monochrome tattoo above his right wrist proved to be a disciplined twirler of the chicken batons on the charcoal and won my heart when he flipped the bird in some style to a customer acquaintance, the first time I’d ever seen the middle finger given on these islands. A queue of blossom revellers—no sombre self-restraint here—built up outside the restaurant. “Japan,” I thought to myself, “there’s life in the old dog yet.”

Back home, I wasn’t so sure. Like the rest of Fukushima, which is set to lose a fifth of its folk in the coming quarter century, Tamura is in dire demographic trouble. The population, heading south to 40,000, is already a quarter below the 1970 level and fell by 6.5% from 2005 to 2010 alone, outpacing the predictions of the demographers due mainly it seems to a tumbling birth rate, and is likely to fall by another quarter by 2035. Agriculture is in a state of collapse: while there were 11,000 farmers in 1985, only 4,400 were left on the land by 2005, perhaps because one of the primary crops is uncompetitive leaf tobacco, the sole and increasingly reluctant buyer of which is the former cigarette monopoly, Japan Tobacco.

As with Tamura, so with Hakkenden, a brand of a listed restaurant operator, Marche, which has some 850 restaurants, directly run and franchised, in various formats, around the nation. While Marche sales hovered around Y19bn-Y20bn ($235mn-$250mn) from 2002 to 2007, they have plummeted in the last five years. Marche is aiming for sales down 13% to Y13.5bn ($170mn) in the year to end-March, a target it will be lucky to achieve, as sales in the first three quarters of the fiscal year were down a calamitous 18%.

Back at the inn, the maid fussed, cautioning of morning chills, as I marvelled at the room’s tiny and prehistoric CRT TV. There was a choice of TEPCO reading matter—a hardback propaganda manga from a decade ago, “Environment company TEPCO: Together with wisdom to a living future”, and the latest edition of Nikkei Business magazine, whose cover bore a picture of TEPCO president Masataka Shimizu bowing and the stern Dostoyevskian legend “TEPCO: Crime and punishment”—but I was too tired for either. Serenaded by a sublime chorus of frogs, pebbly then tremulous, I fell asleep 35km and, according to my roadmap, three traffic lights due west of Fukushima Daiichi to my first ever nuclear nightmare, in which a vitrified radioactive waterfall atop which I was standing was about to melt.

Before breakfast next morning, I took a stroll around Tokiwa, the dusty corner of Tamura where I had pitched up, enraptured by the consumer electronics shop,

the ironmongers,

and the vendor of salt and Subarus (said the sign),

before coming across a photographer’s studio with something I’ve been longing to unearth—a two-digit phone number.

Around the corner of the shop lay a feast for the amateur iconographer.

All new cars, exclaims the ad for a driving school at the top. New that is, if a 1962 Nissan Cedric qualifies as new. The deeply faded wooden plaque pronounces the store owner to be a member of the Japan Photo Culture Association, which still exists, while below that there’s evidence that the phone number on the front of the studio hadn’t seen time lop a digit off.

On and on through Tokiwa thundered the trucks of the military and the police, bearing tell-tale number plates from Yokohama, Gifu, Toyama, anywhere but here, on their terrifying way to Fukushima Daiichi.

As I prepared to leave after a hearty country breakfast, mother pressed a couple of onigiri rice balls into my hands.

“For lunch. Made with mushrooms freshly picked from the hills.”

I accepted, embarrassed. Later I wondered whether this was some obscure trial of courage—or foolhardiness. Still, what’s the odd kilobecquerel between friends? I had one—just the one—for lunch. A little salty, perhaps, but delicious.

Spiked: The mechanics of modern journalism

Rebuilding Japan: Fukushima’s Hawaii girls go on tour to promote safety

Sitting on a hill just 28 miles from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is one of Japan’s most peculiar and popular tourist destinations.

By Malcolm Moore and Julian Ryall 7:52PM BST 18 Apr 2011

When it opened in 1961, Joban Hawaiian Center was the country’s first-ever theme park. It thrilled the hard-working post-war generation with a fantasy of palm trees, hot springs and hula girls dancing in grass skirts.

In the five decades since, it has only grown in popularity, changing its name to Spa Resort Hawaiians and drawing 3.8m hotel guests last year and a further 1.5m day trippers to its giant tropical dome, filled with water slides and a giant pirate ship.

Before the resort opened, Iwaki was a grim coal-mining town and the site of the Sendai No.1 POW camp during the Second World War where 252 British prisoners were sent to work in the mines, and where at least 22 of them died.

In the 1960s, however, as Japan turned away from coal to other forms of energy, including nuclear, Iwaki’s economy found itself on the verge of collapse.

The story of its transformation into a Hawaiian paradise even became the subject of a movie in 2006, called Hula Girls, a Japanese version of Brassed Off in which the local girls in Iwaki start dancing in grass skirts to “save the town” against the wishes of their dour coal-mining parents.

Today, however, the Spa Resort Hawaiians is closed for business, and in the shadow of the nuclear emergency at Daiichi, it is unclear whether it can ever attract hordes of tourists again. Builders are busy working on a new six-storey hotel, but no one knows if it will ever hold any guests.

“No one here is blind to the impact of what has happened at the nuclear plant will have on the local area,” said one security guard outside the gates. “We have reached the lowest of the low. It cannot get any worse. But we cannot think negatively or we would have to give up. We have chosen to be positive,” he said.

A spokesman for the resort simply said that repairing the damage the earthquake did to the pipes that funnel the area’s natural hot springs into the pools would cost “several hundred million yen”, and that he was worried that fearful Japanese may never come back to Fukushima.

Meanwhile, the 30 hula girls at the resort have gone on a nationwide tour, starting in Tokyo, to try to persuade the Japanese public that Iwaki is still safe. “People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said Ayumi Sudo, 45, one of the dancers. “We have felt like dancing naked to show we are not contaminated. I want to see tourists coming back and revive Iwaki as it was before, with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

For Fukushima, however, the future is looking grimmer than ever before. The prefecture’s main industries are tourism, agriculture, fishing and manufacturing. Rice from Fukushima is famous throughout Japan and the area is one of the country’s top producers of peaches, apples, pears, tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. The haul of fish from the prefecture’s 100 mile-long stretch of Pacific coast is one of the largest in Japan.

In Tokyo, the government is frantically trying to reassure Japanese consumers that produce from Fukushima remains safe to eat and has staged a series of events where prominent cabinet ministers, including Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, munched their way through tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers.

But jittery buyers are shunning the markets, and all fishing has been stopped by the problems at Daiichi. “People say they are supporting us, but they choose not to eat Fukushima goods and manufacturers are shifting their lines of production. Superficially they are supporting us, but substantially they are not,” said Professor Toshifumi Tadaka, an economist at Tohoku university whose family lives in Fukushima.

Fukushima is also an ageing prefecture. “Agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, but the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases every year and the rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem,” said the local government’s international affairs division. With many young people now evacuating the area because of the crisis, there is a worry they may find jobs elsewhere and never return.

In the coming months, as investment pours into Fukushima to rebuild its economy, there is an opportunity to remodel the economy once again and create new industries. But it is unclear if anyone will be able to make the same leap of imagination that led to the creation of the Hawaiian Center in the 1960s.

“We have to be patient,” said Professor Tadaka, arguing against any leap into an unknown industry. “We think we should return to agriculture, fisheries and forestries,” he said. “If young people wish to leave then they can.” And if the local economy declines, he said, it would simply be the responsibility of the people to consume less.

“If you earn two million yen a year (£15,000) then you must learn to live within that.” The professor is pencilling in at least ten years for the North East region to fully recover from the triple calamity of quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Others blame Japan’s stultifying political system for a failure of vision. “Even if someone came up with an excellent idea, such as creating a solar power industry here, it would never get off the ground with all the bickering and back-and-forth,” said Teruhisa Nakamura, the president of the Sendai 89ers basketball team. “The ideas that worked in the 1970s and 80s will not work now the era of growth is over. What we need now is some kind of change,” he added.

The story of Iwaki, the Joban coal mines, and the inevitable kitsch of Spa Resort Hawaiians is one I’ve been meaning to write about for ages, so I was naturally curious when a friend forwarded me this article from The Telegraph, which beautifully exemplifies the shocking mechanics of contemporary, cut-and-paste “journalism”. Off we go…

When it opened in 1961…

Only five words in and the authors have set off on their carefree venture across the minefield of error. The source for this is undoubtedly the English-language website of Spa Resort Hawaiians, here. But wait a moment—in this chronological history, January 15, 1961 occurs after April 1, 1965. The careful hack should know better than to trust any English-language website in Japan, especially one that proclaims on its homepage, “Hawaiians can be enjoyed in any type of weather!” (I’m sure they can!) All one has to do is go to the Japanese-language site (or to the Wikipage in Japanese or English) to confirm that this is a typo and Spa Resort Hawaiians actually opened on January 15, 1966.

Joban Hawaiian Center was the country’s first-ever theme park

This is also sourced from the Hawaiians History page on the Spa Resort Hawaiians website and may actually be correct!

In the five decades since, it has only grown in popularity

Or not, as the case may be—the Hawaiians History page in both English and Japanese suggest that visitor numbers peaked in 1970 at 1.55mn. According to the financial results of resort operator Joban Kogyo (Japanese only link here, page 4 of 42), the resort attracted 1,487,000 people in the year to March 31, 2010.

changing its name to Spa Resort Hawaiians and drawing 3.8m hotel guests last year and a further 1.5m day trippers

Wow, 3.8mn hotel guests, that’s impressive. That would mean, for instance, that every man, woman, and child in the whole of Fukushima spent two nights a year there. Yet what looks to be the biggest of just four hotels at the resort has only 305 rooms (Japanese only link here). Let’s generously say the other hotels are the same size and all rooms are doubles, giving us 2,400 beds a night—people would have to sleep four to a double bed and the hotels would have to be fully occupied 365 days a year to accommodate 3.8mn guests. The financial results of Joban Kogyo linked to above, however, reveal that the guest tally was a more modest 362,000. Wrong by a factor of 10x.

Before the resort opened, Iwaki was a grim coal-mining town and the site of the Sendai No.1 POW camp during the Second World War where 252 British prisoners were sent to work in the mines, and where at least 22 of them died.

This at least seems to be correct and is sourced from here.

The story of its transformation into a Hawaiian paradise even became the subject of a movie in 2006, called Hula Girls, a Japanese version of Brassed Off in which the local girls in Iwaki start dancing in grass skirts to “save the town” against the wishes of their dour coal-mining parents.

This is well-known and could have been sourced from Wikipedia. By the time I reached this passage, a distinct feeling of déjà-vu was setting in, for this is a classic “me-too” piece of journalism inspired by two earlier articles. The first is from the Asahi, is dated April 10, is available here, and is reproduced in abridged form below.

The 2006 Japanese movie “Hula Girls” is set in a decaying coal mining town in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, in the 1960s. Based on the real-life Joban Hawaiian Center resort that opened in Iwaki in 1966, the town is planning to build a mock-Hawaiian resort, and a young woman (Yu Aoi) is interested in responding to a recruitment ad for hula dancers. She tells her mother (Junko Fuji) so during supper, but the mother admonishes her sternly: “Forget it. Hawaii in these boonies here in the northeast? Ain’t happening.”

But the struggling town sees its only hope of survival in the Joban Hawaiian Center, which will use the region’s natural hot springs. Miners’ daughters get busy practicing hula dancing, but many locals remain hostile to this new project because it only suggests the imminent closure of the coal mines.

The ardor of the project’s supporters gradually turns nonbelievers into believers, and this “Hawaii of the Tohoku Region” blossomed into a successful venture. It has since been renamed Spa Resort Hawaiians, and attracts about 1.5 million visitors a year.

Then the March 11 quake and tsunami struck, followed by the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster 50 kilometers away. Spa Resort Hawaiians has been temporary shut down, and this is said to represent a worse crisis for the locals than when the coal mines closed.

About 30 hula girls, now out of work, will shortly begin performing in the Tokyo area and some parts of the Tohoku region, and later tour the nation.

The second article comes from Agence France Presse (AFP), and was widely picked up by rags around the world, such as The Age, on April 15. Here it is, slightly abridged.

They pulled on their grass skirts to help save their mining town once before, now Japan’s “hula girls” plan to save it again, this time from becoming a nuclear ghost town.

A spa resort on the cusp of the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant exclusion zone might be a difficult sell to tourists but a group of sexy Hawaiian style dancers plan to do just that.

“People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said dancer Ayumi Sudo. “I want to get rid of that image.

“We have felt like dancing naked to show that we are not contaminated.”

Sudo and her hula girls twirled their naked waists outside a Tokyo train station this week to promote safe farm produce from their Pacific Coast hometown of Iwaki, in Fukushima prefecture.

Iwaki was made famous in the 1960s when the declining coal town was revived by an elaborate Hawaii themed spa resort thanks to its hot springs, a story immortalised in the 2006 movie Hula Girls.

The tourist attraction, now called the “Spa Resort Hawaiians”, was largely left unscathed by last month’s giant seismic disaster but has been closed since.

“Our facilities got cracks, and windows were shattered. But the major reason why the spa is still closed is rumours surrounding Fukushima,” said resort marketing official Takashi Wakamatsu.

Veteran dancer Sudo, 45, said she had been told that evacuees from areas near the nuclear plant had faced discrimination elsewhere, and that cars with Iwaki licence plates had trouble buying petrol at filling stations.

Sudo is one of a stream of Iwaki dancers who have kept the spa running since it was established in 1966 to revive the mining town amid the country’s shift from local coal to foreign oil as its main energy source.

As portrayed in the movie based on the real life story, the town was put on the map by a nationwide tour of Iwaki hula girls, which sparked public interest in what seemed like an outlandish, palm-studded theme park 45 years ago.

In the film, which won the 2007 Japan Academy prize, the daughters of hardened coal miners initially drew frowns and indignation from their fellow townspeople when they put on hula dresses and bared their skin.

“We are in the similar situation again,” said Sudo, who runs a hula dance school under her stage name of Linolani. “So we and younger dancers should all gather together to help bring life back to the town.”

“I would like to see tourists come back and help revive Iwaki as it was before — with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

Meanwhile, back to The Telegraph.

“No one here is blind to the impact of what has happened at the nuclear plant will have on the local area,” said one security guard outside the gates. “We have reached the lowest of the low. It cannot get any worse. But we cannot think negatively or we would have to give up. We have chosen to be positive,” he said.

This paragraph strongly suggests that one or other of the authors actually visited the site of Spa Resort Hawaiians. But did they? I only ask because on the same day, April 18, the dynamic duo put out no fewer than four articles, this one on Spa Resort Hawaiians, one on Hitachi, one on Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and one on Japan’s Long Road Ahead.

Meanwhile, the 30 hula girls at the resort have gone on a nationwide tour, starting in Tokyo, to try to persuade the Japanese public that Iwaki is still safe. “People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said Ayumi Sudo, 45, one of the dancers. “We have felt like dancing naked to show we are not contaminated. I want to see tourists coming back and revive Iwaki as it was before, with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

This paragraph is a composite of the Asahi and AFP articles above, with the central quotation a carbon copy of the AFP article. Plagiarism? Surely not: there must be some identical root source for both, mustn’t there? Mustn’t there?

For Fukushima, however, the future is looking grimmer than ever before. The prefecture’s main industries are tourism, agriculture, fishing and manufacturing. Rice from Fukushima is famous throughout Japan and the area is one of the country’s top producers of peaches, apples, pears, tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. The haul of fish from the prefecture’s 100 mile-long stretch of Pacific coast is one of the largest in Japan.

This wins the prize for my favorite paragraph! It is largely lifted directly from the English-language Fukushima prefectural website here. Here’s the website:

Because of the favorable climate, many of the agricultural products grown in Japan, including rice, are produced in Fukushima. The prefecture ranks among the top producers of such fruits as peaches, apples and pears and such vegetables as tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. Livestock farming is also active. Fukushima’s 159 kilometer-long Pacific coastline is the site of the prefecture’s vigorous fishing and seafood processing industries and the area’s haul of fish is among the nation’s largest.

Meanwhile, back to The Telegraph.

In Tokyo, the government is frantically trying to reassure Japanese consumers that produce from Fukushima remains safe to eat and has staged a series of events where prominent cabinet ministers, including Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, munched their way through tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers.

Yes, I’ve been watching the nightly news, too.

But jittery buyers are shunning the markets, and all fishing has been stopped by the problems at Daiichi. “People say they are supporting us, but they choose not to eat Fukushima goods and manufacturers are shifting their lines of production. Superficially they are supporting us, but substantially they are not,” said Professor Toshifumi Tadaka, an economist at Tohoku university whose family lives in Fukushima.

Try as I might, I couldn’t track down the good professor. No combination of searches at the Tohoku University website, nor on the Internet as a whole turned him up. Does he really exist, I began to wonder? And then I found him—Professor Toshifumi Takada, an audit specialist in the accounting department. Japanese names are so confusing, aren’t they?

Fukushima is also an ageing prefecture. “Agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, but the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases every year and the rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem,” said the local government’s international affairs division. With many young people now evacuating the area because of the crisis, there is a worry they may find jobs elsewhere and never return.

Now this paragraph—another absolute gem—is phrased as though our hack heroes actually spoke to someone at the local government’s international affairs division. But they didn’t, as the passage is lifted directly (again!) from the Fukushima prefectural website here. Here’s the website:

Although agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases each year. The rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem, as does the increasing competition among agricultural producers.

So there you have it—the mechanics of modern journalism, exposed. Piggyback an existing story, do a quick trawl around the Internet for some factoids, stir in a couple of quotes that may have involved a telephone call or two (although I have grave doubts about the veracity of what the professor and basketball manager are reported to have said), and hey presto!—an article is born. In all likelihood, it took me longer to write this exposé than it did Mr. Moore and Mr. Ryall to concoct their farrago.

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(part three of three)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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