Category Archives: Underbelly

Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the Psychology of Nuclear Power

Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued)

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

Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the psychology of nuclear power

Part Two

The Map App

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the psychology of nuclear power

Part One

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

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

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

(to be continued)

Tokyo through the letterbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

one showing the redistricting of neighborhoods in 1943,

and a contemporary book of Tokyo street maps,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The post-Lacanians simply provoke giggles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hashist

One of the most curious things about the boyishly telegenic and viscerally ambitious Toru Hashimoto (pictured left), mayor of Japan’s second city, Osaka, is his name. Not how it sounds—Hashimoto is a common enough surname and Toru a familiar enough given name—but how it is written. Here it is in Japanese order, two-character surname first:

橋下徹

The problematic character is the middle one. Hashimoto is almost always rendered as 橋本 (usually) or 橋元 (more rarely), but to write it 橋下 makes me (and I suspect the average Japanese person) want to read it as “Hashishita” rather than “Hashimoto”. And thereby hangs a tale.

Although seen from Tokyo as the personification of Osaka boosterism, Hashimoto was actually born and brought up, until his fifth year of elementary school, a few stops out of Shinjuku station in the heart of Tokyo, which is why a Japanese acquaintance described his ability to speak persuasively in the Osakan dialect as “bimyo”, ambiguous.

His father’s roots, however, are in the Kansai region of western Japan where Osaka lies, specifically in an impoverished mountain-flank hamlet of some 60 dwellings whose name the media are collectively too terrified to reveal, because this is no humdrum hamlet but what is known in euphemism-drenched contemporary parlance as an “area subject to discrimination” (被差別地域), which, decoded, means a home to Japan’s once mightily despised and now largely ignored undercaste of tanners, gravediggers, and butchers, among other occupations deemed tainted, who down the centuries have gone by a myriad of names, among them eta (穢多, “mass of filth”, a word now so intensely incendiary that my PC PC simply refuses to summon it up), shin heimin (新平民, “new citizens”), burakumin (部落民, “village people”), and dowa (同和, “same as the Japanese”), the currently acceptable term.

When all citizens were required to take surnames sometime after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it appears that all the residents of the unnamable hamlet into which Hashimoto’s father was born chose, or were assigned, Hashishita (橋下) and that was the reading by which his father was known when, sometime after World War II, he left the hamlet for the city of Yao in Osaka Prefecture, where he took up residence in a dowa district (同和地区) and fell into yakuza circles, ending up as one of the three main movers and shakers (三羽烏) in a gangster gang. The father married outside of the dowa community and Hashimoto’s parents moved to Tokyo in the late 1960s, where Toru was born in 1969. In the early 1970s, the father grew estranged from his new family and drifted back to Osaka alone, where he gassed himself to death over debts incurred to other gangsters when young Toru was in the second year of elementary school. Soon after, Hashimoto’s mother changed the reading of her surname to Hashimoto from Hashishita, seemingly in part to sever ties with the rest of the Hashishitas but also because of the negative connotations of the name, for Hashishita (“under the bridge”) carries implications of vagrancy and homelessness whereas Hashimoto (“foot of the bridge”) does not.

Three years after Hashimoto’s father killed himself, Toru, now in the fifth grade of elementary school, and his mother moved to Osaka, where they ended up—coincidentally or not, it is hard to be sure—in a dowa district of Osaka City. His mother, although apparently eligible, refused the rent reduction the city offers to dowa (同和減免措置) and Toru, although his junior high school offered a special education program for dowa (同和教育), was adamantly opposed and took the regular classes. While it is clear that Toru was aware of his dowa heritage from an early age—his father is buried in a cemetery reserved for dowa in Yao—it seems that he only learned of his father’s gangster background from the media after he rose to fame. In public, at least before the investigative journalists from the weeklies broke the story of his father’s background, Hashimoto would deny his dowa roots, saying, “Although we lived in a dowa neighborhood, we weren’t dowa ourselves, so we couldn’t get subsidies, which really hacked me off. I don’t do the dowa problem”.

Although by his own admission not particularly academic, Hashimoto made it into Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University at the second attempt and, after passing the bar exams, registered as a lawyer with the Osaka Bar Association in 1997 at the relatively young age of 28, striking out on his own the following year as a specialist in corporate compliance and M&A, among other fields. He subsequently gained notoriety on Kansai-area talk shows as a celebrity lawyer for the extreme forthrightness with which he expressed his opinions, of which he has many, and was catapulted to his first taste of political power on a nebulous platform of change (slogan: “an Osaka where children laugh”) in the January 2008 Osaka gubernatorial election, backed by the Liberal Democratic Party, in which he won an absolute majority of the votes cast. He resigned as governor before the end of his first term and in November last year succeeded in both winning the Osaka City mayoral election and maneuvering an ally, Ichiro Matsui, into the governorship.

So who is Toru Hashimoto, what does he believe in, and what does he want? There’s something of the shtark, the spiv, the shyster about him—you feel that he’s always about to peel back the jacket of his suit to reveal row after row of Rolex knock-offs on silken racks in the lining. He was cautioned for stealing a bicycle in junior high and, while still a university student, could be found running a tidy little wholesale sideline in leather jackets until someone ripped him off. As a lawyer, he acted as an advisor between 1999 and 2004 for a small-business loan firm (less politely, a usurer) called Cities, regarded by lawyers for the heavily indebted as one of the most intransigent and recalcitrant of any company of its type—and that is saying something. In July 2010, when the brouhaha about the possible extinction of the consumer finance (read: loanshark) industry because of new regulations was at its zenith, he proposed a special-zone concept for the money-lending industry (貸金業特区構想) that would relax the incoming restrictions on the maximum that can legally be borrowed and restore the pre-reform maximum interest rate of 29.2% on loans of less than Y200,000 (just over $2,500) with durations of a year or less. As a friend who is intimately familiar with the underbelly of Japanese loansharking world—and who shares with many Tokyoites a certain metropolitan disdain for Osaka and all its works—said with deep glee, “It is just such an Osaka-rashii idea, just so typically Osaka!”

Hashimoto is also an ardent supporter of the legalization of casinos and, even more controversially, wants to restore some of Osaka’s red-light districts that were cleaned up ahead of The International Garden and Greenery Exposition in 1990. He is on record as an admirer of cockroaches, as they flee quickly and have an acute sense of danger, and had some eyebrow-raising things to say on the subject of rules in general in his 2006 book, Mattou Shoubu:

Unless we build a Japan in which people who sneak through the cracks in the rules are applauded, this country will not survive in the international society of the future.
「ルールの隙を突いた者が賞賛されるような日本にならないと、これからの国際社会は乗り切れない。」
Wringing out ideas that get around the rules, isn’t that what’s most needed in today’s Japan?!?
「ルールをかいくぐるアイディアを絞り出すことこそ、いまの日本にとって一番必要なんじゃないか!」
It’s only clear rules that are the basis of actions, and where there are no regulations defined by clear rules, then I don’t care what anyone does.
「明確なルールのみが行動の基準であって、明確なルールによる規制がない限りは何をやっても構わない。」

Hashimoto’s political and social philosophy, such as it is, strikes me as being grounded in the Victorian self-help mentality of a Samuel Smiles. Like many a successful man of humble origins, he simply cannot fathom why everyone should not be able to prosper, as he has, by dint of industry and application. In a prefectural assembly debate in 2008 he defended the cuts his administration was making in support for poor students attending private high schools: “In today’s world, the first and foremost principle is self-responsibility. No one is going to save you.” (今の世の中は、自己責任がまず原則ですよ。誰も救ってくれない。) This is tempered, to be fair, with a belief that those unable to clamber into the sumo ring of competition, such as the disabled, should be offered all due assistance. Though partly of dowa stock himself, he won support from the (very) far right in the Osaka gubernatorial election for his pledge to cut the dowa measures budget to zero and in another 2008 prefectural assembly debate, had the following to say on the dowa:

I was brought up in a so-called dowa district. The dowa problem hasn’t been solved at all. But just because there’s still prejudice, the question of whether they should be given special preferential treatment—well, that’s a different matter.
「私はいわゆる同和地区で育ったが、同和問題は全く解決されていない。ただ、差別意識があるからといって、特別な優遇措置を与えていいのかは別問題。」

Despite having been bullied himself at school because of his inarticulacy in the Osaka dialect when he arrived from Tokyo, Hashimoto has no shred of sympathy for the victims of bullying:

There’s bullying wherever you go. If you can’t get over something like that, what are you going to do in the rest of your life?
「いじめなんてどこの世界にもある。それ位乗り越えられなくてどうするのか。」

In some ways, Hashimoto reminds me of nothing so much as a crusty old hang ’em and flog ’em Tory from the shires, a breed now nearly vanished from the shores of Britain. Although in an interview he has claimed his sole memory of his father was of having had the living daylights thrashed out of him, aged three, by the old man for throwing chopsticks across the dinner table, he has boasted elsewhere, immune to the layers of irony, that he beat one of his own kids for 50 minutes straight for having been caught bullying—beaten for bullying, I should add, not for having been caught. He called for the swift hanging of the perpetrator of an indiscriminate knife attack in 2001 at an Osaka elementary school that left 8 students dead—and was duly rewarded. Of the near gang-rape of a fourth year elementary-school girl (who was thus about 10 years old) in the Kansai city of Amagasaki in 2006, Hashimoto hinted that she might have been asking for it, although how a prepubescent girl asks for something about which she knows nothing beggars my feeble imagination:

It all hinges on whether they took off the girl’s clothes, or whether she took them off herself.
「女の子が服を脱がされたのか、自分から脱いだのかによって話が変わってくる。」

Hashimoto has a rusty axe to grind about education, about which his beliefs are a perplexing brew of the sensibly iconoclastic—he is a vociferous critic of Japan’s cram-and-rote-learning system and a supporter of a more diverse entry system for state high schools, with non-academic criteria such as sporting ability to be taken into account—the mainstream global right—classes streamed by academic ability and school vouchers—and the dismal pedagogy of the Gradgrind: he wants useful education, whatever that might be, not education imposed from above, and believes the core curriculum should be stripped down to reading and writing, the abacus, and the inculcation of respect for one’s superiors. He is a remorseless foe of Nikkyoso, the Japan Teachers Union, which although a shadow of its onetime self I think Karel van Wolferen was right all those years ago in identifying in The Enigma of Japanese Power as the only liberal-leftist opposition to the paternalist monolith, and a backer of former Transport Minister Nariaki Nakayama (now, aged 68, settling comfortably in to that political retirement home for old fogeys, The Sunset Party of Japan), who, possessed by a form of hysteria, once dubbed Nikkyoso “the cancer of Japan”.

As any ill thought through and hastily articulated political worldview is bound to be, Hashimoto-ism is a bundle of contradictions: he wants to arm Japan with nuclear weapons and bring back conscription, yet—at least since the Fukushima disaster—has come out against nuclear power. While in favor of Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, he hopes the gods forefend that foreigners, no matter how many generations their families might have been in the country, be allowed to vote in even local elections. Hokkaido University professor Jiro Yamaguchi coined the brutal portmanteau “Hashism” to condemn our Hash’s authoritarian tendencies, amply documented in a comment made in June last year:

In Japanese politics these days, the most important thing is dictatorship. Having so much power you’re called a dictator.
「今の日本の政治で一番重要なのは独裁。独裁と言われるぐらいの力だ。」

and in a 2009 slanging e-mail match with his own staff:

You’re frighteningly unconcerned that the prefecture has lost Y38bn [about $500mn] by failing to forecast water demand. No one seems worried. If this was a private-sector company, the whole lot of you would be quivering in shock! … Organizations in which people’s pay is guaranteed no matter what happens are terrifying.
(抜粋)「水需要予測の失敗によって380億円の損失が生まれたことに関しても、恐ろしいくらい、(職員の)皆さんは冷静です。何とも感じていないような。民間の会社なら、組織あげて真っ青ですよ!!(略)何があっても給料が保障される組織は恐ろしいです……」

A female prefectural bureaucrat had the temerity to send him a rebuke, to which he responded:

First, don’t give your boss any sass. I’m your boss. I’m the head of this organization. Time to acquire some common sense. As the head, I’m giving you a serious warning. If you’ve got a bone to pick, come to my office and I’ll hear you out. 
「まず、上司に対する物言いを考えること。私は、あなたの上司です。組織のトップです。その非常識さを改めること。これはトップとして厳重に注意します。あなたの言い分があるのであれば、知事室に来るように。聞きましょう。」

Ultimately, the poor woman was given a—probably career-destroying—official reprimand. Around here, we’ve come to call this kind of toy-throwing tantrum “pawa hara”, power harassment.

But like many a politician on the make, what Hashimoto believes in most ardently is himself. Unlike the others, though, he’s not in the least ashamed to admit it:

What’s wrong with a lust for power and glory as a motivation for becoming a politician? Why do politicians blather on about serving the people, serving the country—such bullshit! (Literally, “it makes my arsehole itch”.) Setting one’s sights on being a politician, that’s the pinnacle of a lust for power, a lust for glory. After that comes doing it for the people, doing it for the country. Us politicians have to grudgingly serve the people so as to satisfy our lust for power, our lust for glory. 
「別に政治家を志す動機付けが、権力欲や名誉う欲でもいいじゃないか」「なんで『国民のために、お国のために』なんてケツの穴が痒くなるようなことばかりいうんだ?政治家を志すっちゅうのは、権力欲、名誉欲の最高峰だよ。その後に、国民のため、お国のためがついてくる。自分の権力欲、名誉欲を達成する手段として、嫌々国民のために奉仕しなければいけないわけよ。」

As a shoot-from-the-hip, take-no-prisoners politician possessed of many an unsound view, Hashimoto has amassed down the years a glorious rogues’ gallery of gaffes that deserve to be framed and exhibited, as Doonesbury does with the wisdom and wit of a Bush or a Gingrich. Here’s a random assortment:

People who like [the traditional performing arts of] noh and kyogen are weirdoes!
「能や狂言が好きな人は変質者。」

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down too well with the practitioners of noh and kyogen and their trade associations.

Whoring by the Japanese in China is a kind of ODA.
「日本人による買春は中国へのODAみたいなもの。」

Astonishing how much offensive condescension can be packed into so few words. This talk-show spasm did at least provoke an impromptu and tear-stained on-air apology the following week.

Shitty boards of education
(クソ教育委員会)

This was said in reference to municipal boards of education that refuse to disclose percentages of correct answers scored in scholastic tests at the local authority level. In a language almost bereft of swear words and yet with vast scrolls of verboten taboo-to-broadcast expressions, this is more shocking than it might seem to outsiders. Hashimoto was rapped over the knuckles by his own mother for this; he apologized but did not withdraw the comment.

On a Fuji TV program in 2006, Hashimoto infringed one of the many taboos by using the banned word “cripple” (びっこ引いている), which elicited an immediate apology from both him and the compere, Sawako Agawa, to whom he said on-air a couple of months later, “If it was up to me, I’d knock you up straight away” (いまの僕なら阿川さんを即妊娠させられますよ), which earned him a complaint from the Osaka Bar Association that he had brought the dignity of the profession into doubt.

In 2008, Hashimoto had a contretemps with the ever-so-slightly left-of-center Asahi Shimbun, which had published an editorial critical of his posturing:

The world would be better off if the Asahi disappeared. It’s a totally foolish institution. I hope it goes out of business soon. The paper seems to think it’s fine to badmouth the powers that be.
「朝日新聞がなくなった方が世のためになる。全く愚かな言論機関。すぐさま廃業した方がいい。権力の悪口を言っていればいいと思っているのではないか。」

If the number of adults that just badmouth people like the Asahi does increases, then this country’s done for!
「人の悪口ばっかり言っているような朝日新聞のような大人が増えると日本はダメになります。」

Hashimoto is by no means a fan of NEETs, young people not in education, employment, or training, an acronym that originated in the UK and spread swiftly to the Far East:

Lock them up and set them to forced labor!
「拘留の上、労役を課す。」
Folk who don’t pay taxes aren’t entitled to live. 
「税金を払わない奴は生きる資格がない。」

With NEETs not having anyone in particular to stand up for them, these comments went uncensured.

One of the most contentious left-right tug-of-war freedom-of-conscience issues is that of forcing teachers to stand, face the Rising Sun, and sing Kimigayo at school ceremonies. Here’s what the Hash thinks:

Civil servants who repudiate the flag and the national anthem should quit. Antics that make light of their unsackability are absolutely intolerable.
「国旗国歌を否定するなら公務員を辞めればいい。身分保障に甘えるなんてふざけたことは絶対許さない。」

And finally, a dig at the sleepy Sea of Japan backwater (he’s got me at it now) of Tottori, a long put-upon butt of jokes:

Tottori’s got about 600,000 people, but 40-odd members of the prefectural assembly. Six would be enough!
「鳥取県は60万人くらいの人口で、議員が40数人いるんですかね。鳥取県議なんて6人でいいんですよ。」

Osaka has 109 prefectural assembly members for 8.9mn people, one for every 80,000 citizens, while Tottori has 35 for 585,000 people, one for every 17,000 citizens, so Hashimoto might be said to have a point, but this is not the sort of comment with which a politician can get off scot-free, and Hashimoto, having trampled on delicate provincial sensibilities, was forced to murmur an apology.

Although not gaffes, two quotations about his children—he now has seven—reveal him to be a stay-away, hands-off dad of orthodox ilk, as uninterested in their welfare as his father was in his:

I’ve got seven kids but I haven’t had anything to do with their upbringing, so the wife asks me how I can spout off about childrearing.
「私も、子どもは7人いますが、全く子育てをしなかったので、妻から『子育てについて何を語るのですか。』と言われました。」

I’ve got six kids but if the wife wasn’t around, spending 30 minutes with them would be about my limit.
「僕は子供が6人いるけど、妻がいなければ子供と一緒にいるのは30分が限界かな。」

At least some of these gaffes would in the West be darts toxic enough to stun the advance of even the most bull elephant of politicos but here, while we assiduously sort them into categories—was it a “slip of the tongue” (失言), a “problematic utterance” (問題になった発言), or the amorphous catch-all, “words or deeds that became a talking point” (話題になった言動)— the culprits soldier on. After all, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, a wholly unreconstructed racist and misogynist whose gaffistry makes Hashimoto look like a rank wet-behind-the-ears amateur, is on his fourth successive term, and nothing, but nothing, he says, even his declaration that the Great East Japan Earthquake last year was divine punishment (天罰) for the greed of modern Japan, can stop him in his tracks. Why this occurs, I can only speculate: that these populist demagogues are in many cases channeling the opinions, sometimes repressed by decorum, of an on-balance archly conservative electorate more than willing to indulge the odd gadfly here, the grumpy maverick there, if only for entertainment value, as long as they do not get too close to the levers of power. 

But there are always specifics at play, too, and the popularity of Hashimoto in his Osaka bastion can be explained by his eagerness to shake a devolutionary fist at Tokyo, the center of power in a highly centralized state, and the woes of Osaka itself, expressed as well as anywhere on the website of his new party, Osaka Ishin no Kai (大阪維新の会), glossed variously as One Osaka and the Osaka Restoration Party.   

Per capita prefectural income in Osaka Prefecture fell to Y3.08mn (c$39,000 but around $31,000 at PPP, very roughly the same level as Spain or South Korea) in 2006 from Y3.57mn in 1996, down by close to Y500,000 (14%) over the decade. In Osaka City, the decline was even more dramatic: the city’s per capita income was Y4.12mn in 1996, close to Tokyo’s Y4.27mn, but while Tokyo’s rose to Y4.82mn in 2006, Osaka City’s fell to Y3.44mn (down 16.5% on the decade), creating a gap of around Y1.4mn. The prefecture has the highest welfare rates in the country and unemployment blackspots as bad as anywhere, and with many of its leading corporate lights such as Sharp and Panasonic now adrift in seven seas of misery, the troubled present augurs more pain to come.

On arrival as governor in February 2008, Hashimoto inherited a monstrous prefectural debt of around Y6trn (approximately $10,000 a head), the legacy of a decade of fiscal mismanagement and deficits, and his first act was to declare a financial crisis and vow to cut the budget by Y100bn (about $1.3bn) a year. He managed to prune Y244bn over three years in what I’ll concede was a gutsy performance that started with his own salary, which he slashed by 30%, and that naturally earned him a host of enemies. As Osaka mayor, he will doubtless be anxious to take the same scalpel to the bloated municipal body, and in a city where the average bus driver earns somewhere between Y7.5mn ($95,000) and Y9mn ($115,000) a year, depending on which source you consult, and a third of sewage maintenance workers reputedly were until recently pulling down more than Y10mn ($130,000) annually, few could dispute that there is flab for the trimming.

As governor, Hashimoto can also be credited—to a degree—with cleaning up crime: Osaka has long been notorious as the crime capital of the country (these things are of course relative—Osaka is no Detroit). Some pragmatic initiatives—thousands of CCTVs and bright LED streetlights, ring-fencing the police budget from the worst of the cuts—helped reduce the number of reported crimes by 24% from 2007 to 2010, ahead of the 17% reduction recorded nationwide. Finally, after 35 inglorious years, Osaka ceded the title of national pick-pocketing champion to Tokyo in 2010. And for such an avowed autocrat, Hashimoto governed with a surprisingly liberal streak in some respects, pushing Osaka up the national information disclosure rankings, as compiled by the National Ombudsman Conference, from 28th out of 47 in 2007 to first in 2010.

The policy for which Hashimoto is now best known, however, is an arcane one: he wants to make Osaka Prefecture the administrative mirror-image of Tokyo. As he perceives it, the problem is that, although the population of Osaka is similar to that of a New York or London, administratively it is a patchwork quilt of 43 separate local authorities—33 cities, 22 of them with more than 100,000 people, nine towns, and a solitary village—which breeds overlapping provision of services and general inefficiency. The plan is to merge Osaka City with 10 of its surrounding cities, turn them into 20 wards, aping the 23 wards of Tokyo, and then turn Osaka Prefecture into a city. Without delving deeply into the minutiae of the pros and cons of the plan, its single biggest drawback, to this observer leastways, is that it rests on a specious piece of a priori reasoning: that to make Osaka look, administratively, like Tokyo will make it behave, economically, like Tokyo. It won’t, because the causes of the gaps that have opened up over the last dozen or so years between the capital and the second city—globalization, technological advance and commoditization, and the steady whittling away of the industrial base, to name but three interlocking phenomena—are not going to be ameliorated, let alone sent into reverse, by a dose of administrative tinkering.

No matter: Hashimoto is a—very resolute—man with a plan. To push it through, though, he will need not only the unwavering commitment of the wavering people of Osaka and the unqualified support of the heads of all affected municipalities, which has not been uniformly forthcoming, but also approval of revisions to the relevant laws by both houses of the Diet, which will require cross-party consensus, all of which will be a very tall order indeed. My suspicion, though, is that he is using the plan as a means to an end, that end being to orchestrate a revolt of the regions and vault himself onto the national political stage as a Napoleonic colossus astride the horse of a new, third-party force. He wouldn’t be the first dowa boy made good in national politics by any means—former minister for post-earthquake reconstruction Ryu Matsumoto, whose career imploded so spectacularly and entertainingly in a blizzard of boorishness one Sunday last summer, is the grandson of the founder of the Buraku Liberation League—but he would be the first with a gaze fixed so snake-like on the ultimate political prize, the keys to the Kantei. It was, I believe, former PM Taro Aso—no friend to the dowa—who said that it would be impossible for someone of dowa lineage to become prime minister. In Hashimoto, we might just see that assertion put to the test.  

Whoever said that Japanese politics was dull?

 [An apology, a justification, and a recommendation: This post relies on intelligence gleaned from a handful of websites, a couple of articles from the business weeklies, and a smattering of general knowledge. Amazing what you can unearth through just a little fossicking in the leaf-litter, though. The original Japanese quotations I inserted as something is always lost in translation: to take one tiny example, “zettai yurusanai”, rendered here as “absolutely intolerable”, loses the insistent aggression of the double-t plosive in “zettai”. Finally, for those seriously interested in the ins-and-outs of politics, Japanese style, I can do no better than recommend Michael Cucek’s splendid blog, Shisaku. How he stays so immaculately well informed is a constant wonder and mystery.]

Season’s greetings

Well, the carol muzak fills the air of the arcades and promenades (with a muzakal rendition of O Tannenbaum, better known to these Brit ears as The Red Flag—“The people’s flag is deepest red / It shrouded oft our martyr’d dead”–on heavy rotation), the rightist soundtrucks blare out martial songs in the background as I write this as they rehearse for the Emperor’s birthday on December 23, and snatches of the fourth movement (“Alle Menschen werden Brüder”) of Beethoven’s Ninth, a hardy perennial Yuletide favorite in Japan, emanate from television and radio.

All of this can only mean one thing: it’s time to inaugurate a new tradition, at grave risk of coming across somewhere between an Oscar acceptance speech and a sherried-up great-aunt’s photocopied Christmas circular, and send out season’s greetings to all. Writing in the contemporary world is, for me at least, a daunting affair—with 100,000 books published annually in the US, another 100,000 published in the UK, some 200 million and mounting blogs in the blogosphere, and half of all US teens describing themselves as “content creators”, why would anyone waste their precious time on my witterings, I often wonder to myself, so I’m simply and straightforwardly grateful to everyone who stops by, in particular to Spike’s 300-odd e-mail subscribers, who hail from places as diverse as Hanoi and Prague (with a big shout-out to the sizeable Alberta/British Columbia contingent), its 100-odd Twitter followers, and especially to everyone who takes the trouble to leave a comment.

Us bloggers are narcissistic, solipsistic, frequently deluded folk, filled with self-doubt—in short, we’re human—so we care deeply about our stats—our clicks, our hits, our comment counts—and at the business end of a fine WordPress blog, at least, we can obsess unhealthily over them in quite some detail. It was with a rush of delight, for instance, that I discovered last month that Spike had notched up its quarter millionth hit. Not much compared to the Benjy the skateboarding dog video at YouTube, I bemoaned to a friend, who caustically and rightly replied that Benjy brings far more joy to the world than I do.

Spike began the year with the quotation “By God,” says he, “I think the Devil shits Dutchmen” and ended with the phrase “harsher winds blowing in the heartland”. In between, I somehow managed to scrawl out 24 posts—another novella length’s worth of ramblings—about everything under the Japanese sun from alienation to orb-weaver spiders. As Spike, my alter-ego, the year brought one particular personal highlight, at a farewell party—no shortage of them this year, as foreigners fled—at the rooftop poolside of the swanky Tokyo American Club, where the host introduced me as “Spike Japan” to coos of recognition and approval, as well as friendly admonitions not to slacken the pace and disappoint my “fans”. So once again, thank you all—I simply wouldn’t have kept on writing without you.

Ah, I almost forgot—the photos. They’re fresh off the roll, taken yesterday on a wild-goose, needle-in-a-haystack mission to the summer resort of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture with my old friend Dr. W—, associate professor of Japanese history at W— University. The mission was to find this mountain lodge, in amongst fifteen hundred others like it, in a half-shambolic, half-spruce besso holiday home resort called Lake New Town, where entry by outsiders is an act of trespass and the now icy roads make driving treacherous.

No one wants this lodge to be found—no signs guide the way, no memorial plinth stands nearby, no “X” marks the spot. This is no ordinary lodge though, but the Asama Sanso, where on February 19, 1972, nigh on forty years ago, five members of the United Red Army forced their way in, took the caretaker’s wife hostage, and held off the police in a bloody siege that lasted ten days and left two cops and a bystander dead. The United Red Army had started the winter of 1971/2 a platoon 29 strong, but at its Haruna Base, just over the prefectural border in Gunma, had succumbed to an orgy of internecine strife and lynch-mob justice that left 12 of its acolytes dead through starvation, exposure, and asphyxiation for imaginary thought-crimes that span the gamut from “defeatism”, the offence of the first to die, Michio Ozaki (22), to “bureaucratism” and “theoreticism”, the offences of the last, Takashi Yamada (27). As the dragnet closed in, the ringleaders and other members were nabbed; five escaped on foot across the border to Nagano, and so began the siege of the Asama Sanso.  

It was a strange stand-off: the besieged paid no heed to the police and made no demands of their own. The lodge was stocked with provisions aplenty, and once the only entrance, on the top floor, had been barricaded, it was turned into a nigh on impregnable fortress. Nothing on the police side worked, not even the 150 tonnes of water rained down, the 1,500 rounds of tear gas fired, the all-night barrages of noise, and the megaphoned pleas of anguished relatives. The siege was marked by moments of macabre comedy: the besiegers’ bento meals froze in the frigid cold before they could be doled out and the police were forced to rely on then just-invented Cup Noodles for sustenance. A scheme to destroy the top floor with a wrecking ball had to be aborted after the operator of the improvised armored crane kicked the battery terminal from its moorings in the cramped cabin.

On the 10th day, the police stormed the lodge; it took over eight hours to find and subdue the five fugitives. If the incident spelt the end of ultra-radical left as a force with which to be reckoned , it marked the dawn of the age of live outside broadcasts and saturation coverage of breaking news—the peak audience rating of 90% on the last day of the seige has never been matched before or since in Japanese television history.  

At the time of the siege the lodge belonged to a maker of musical instruments. Astonishingly, it was not demolished but renovated and extended, passing through several owners before ending up a few years back in the possession of a motorcycle design firm, which goes some of the way to explaining the sign in peeling green and fractured French by the front door: “C’est l’espace pour les menbres et amis de moto”. In February this year, it was bought by a Japan-registered company with a Chinese name and probable Hong Kong connections, to predictable howls of outrage from the right, enraged that the Maoist-tinged United Red Army should have the last—for now—laugh as ownership passes into the hands of the sons and daughters of Mao. What the Chinese plan to with it is anyone’s guess—it’s hard to imagine anyone who knows their history spending a restful night in a place so abustle with ghosts.

Of the five fugitives, one, Kunio Bando, was released in 1975 after the Japanese Red Army stormed the US and Swedish embassies in Kuala Lumpur and took 52 hostages; he remains at large. One, Motohisa Kato, was just 16 years old at the time of the incident, and went largely scot-free. His older brother, Michinori, was sentenced to 13 years; he is now a farmer and active in the Wild Bird Society of Japan. Masakuni Yoshino was sentenced to life for the murder of 17 people and remains behind bars. Hiroshi Sakaguchi, “number three” in the United Red Army, was sentenced to hang and remains on death row, four decades on—a cruel and unusual punishment if ever there was one.

Well, you wouldn’t have wanted a beaming Santa and his grinning little elvish helpers on a Christmas card from me now, would you? All the best for the year ahead, thanks again, and please drop by, if you have the time to spare, in 2012.

Holiday in Fukushima: Drift, baby, drift

When hunting for destinations for a holiday in Fukushima, I reached not for a Rough Guide or a Lonely Planet (my 1994 edition of which anyway devotes just a couple of its eight hundred pages to the delights of the prefecture) but for an altogether more outré publication, Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s 1998 bilingual bestiary of the bizarre, Roadside Japan, described by the author himself as “a heaping helping of crass, dumb, and vile nonsense”, a book that celebrates every stupendous banality of modern existence, from the idle menace of swan pedalos to the tragicomic absurdity of abandoned restaurants capped with giant concrete Buddhas, and which has served as a wellspring of inspiration these last few years. What did Doctor Tsuzuki prescribe for Fukushima? Only three sites, as it turned out—Godzilla’s egg (which we’ll come to later), the treasures of the ogre hag of Adachigahara (which sadly we won’t), and Tohoku Safari Park, which on first blush sounded unpromising:

You can nose your Honda as close as you dare to a yawning lion, feed giraffes from your car window, get bison slobber all over your windshield, it’s a thrill a minute here!

Yes, been there, done that, remain in therapy from the assault of a troupe of chimps on the vinyl roof (well, it was the seventies) of our slice of ripped-off bargain-basement Detroit iron at a certain British safari park when I was six, something I am still subtly paying for in the shape of an ever so slightly diminished inheritance. No bison was going to slobber all over my Honda’s windshield, thank you very much. But Tsuzuki mentions in passing that the park had an “Erotica House—something for the kiddies and something for the grown-ups”, and this called for further investigation.

No trace of the Erotica House was to be found at the website of the safari park—my, how prudish we have grown in our dotage, Japan—and it turns out that in 2006 the president of the park, Tokio Kumakubo, then aged 74, briefly ended up in the clinker for displaying pornographic photos of un-mosaicked couplings in his Erotica House. This wasn’t Kumakubo’s first brush with the law: back in the sixties he had become one of the largest real estate brokers in Tohoku but his operations fell apart in 1973 when he was suspected of tax evasion. Somehow he navigated his way through bankruptcy while holding on to large tracts of land, on which he built a couple of successful safari parks, and was reputed at one time to own a hundred racehorses.

In the course of unearthing all this, I learned that Kubota had indulged his son, Nobushige (41), by building him a network of motor-racing tracks, Ebisu Circuit, on lower hillside land to the east of Tohoku Safari Park, that these circuits were regarded as the spiritual home of that made-in-Japan motorsport, drift racing, that Nobushige was a pro drift racer and the Lord of Ebisu, where he is known as “The Controller”, and that the weekend I would be in town the circuit was scheduled to hold a Drift Matsuri festival. Sold!

 

Pulling up in front of the safari park entrance, it was instantly apparent that something was awry.

 

Although it should have been one of the holidaymaking peaks of the year, the ghastly seventies hulk of the Safari Hotel had been crudely mothballed, a stub of two by four jammed down behind the round handles of its glass reception doors.

Mold was creeping up the long-closed shutters of a used tire vendor.

 

Across the road was a spartan dosshouse nap room, bedding heaped in corners, available free of charge to circiut drivers too impecunious or obsessed to pay for accommodation.

At the admission gate I forked over a very reasonable Y1,500 ($20) spectator fee, for which I was rewarded with a complementary pair of black driver’s gloves emblazoned with “Drift Tengoku” (Drift Heaven) in pink—drift is nothing if not colorful—and a sheaf of bilingual maps, guides, and warnings, the sternest admonition being a chillingly ultimate disclaimer of responsibility: “No matter what happens (for example, death, wound, damage) during Drift Heaven Week, we can’t take responsibility or be liable for anything”.

Roars, screeches, and bellows, not of the lions, bears, and tigers of the safari park but rather of the Soarers, the Chasers, and the other big beasts of drift, drew me in.

Someone—I forget who—once wrote that you could live in Japan a long time before realizing that the head of state was the emperor. I’m not sure that’s true, but you could certainly live out your life in Japan—even as a Japanese—without being aware that the subculture of drift-racing existed, never see it on the nightly news (broadcasts are relegated to an obscure satellite channel), never read of it in the daily papers, never hear of it in morning coffee conversations with coworkers. That’s I think because it has its (eighties) roots in highly illegal touge mountain-pass racing on public highways and is hence condemned to be forever part of the ura, the hidden Janus face of society, rather than the omote face presented to the world, no matter how much it has been made respectable and spread around the globe in recent years.

Nothing quite prepares the drift novitiate for the unearthly banshee wails and tortured turbo whinnies of a drift car driven at the limit, and within moments I was hooked. Drift struck me immediately as everything modern omote Japan so fastidiously tries not to be: stinky, grimy, raucous, unrefined, unfettered, and very definitely high-testosterone—no soshokukei herbivore men need apply here. And as Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the BBC carlife show Top Gear, might say, I absolutely bloody love it. This well-watched video, Ebisu: The Soul of Drift, captures the poetic, almost balletic, rhythms and cadences of drift far better than any still photo could.

And yet, for someone primed like me to look for signs of trouble, they were everywhere. The pit blocks were at best half-full of wannabe racers. What cars there were, were of a certain vintage, like this R32 Skyline from the distant early nineties, easily tuneable rear-wheel drive monsters of power that the Japanese auto industry doesn’t much deign to churn out any more.

The merest handful of spectators, including this couple out on a date (at whose instigation, I wonder), were scattered across the creaking, peeling stands.

The circuit’s maintenance and support vehicles were without exception of extreme antiquity. An old woman loitered at the door of her customerless restauant, watching the action. The VIP room had been furnished with worn and lumpy sofas that might have been yanked off the street in the glorious sodai gomi days of yore, when people junked their almost new yet already unwanted furniture by the roadside. Could it be possible, I mused: in the land of its birth, was drift adrift?

Much to my surprise, a knot of foreigners were lounging around the pit walls. I approached one, a US Air Force dude who’d driven down from the Misawa Air Base in far northern Aomori and who’d missed the last festival because of a tour of duty in Iraq. He’d been here four days and nights straight—no time to sleep, he said—but had smacked into a wall and done some damage to his ride, which is why, at the chaotic lower echelons of drift, bruised is best.

“The great thing about drift, man, is you get to mix with the pros, people like Naoto Suenaga.”

“It’s not like NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt Junior, ya know.”

I assured him I was sure it wasn’t.

After a couple of entertaining hours, I wended my happy way north, but was left with a headful of nagging questions. Was drift one of the holy places where the races meet? It seemed so, from the conviviality with which pro Suenaga chatted with his foreign admirers. Was drift in peril in its homeland? So hard to tell, what with the circuit only about 65km west-northwest of Fukushima Daiichi and the dislocation and disorientation of the March 11 disasters so fresh. Or was drift only ever a minority passion? And why was I so smitten?

I vowed to return to Ebisu Circuit in August, when it hosted rounds six and seven of the D1 Grand Prix professional drifting series, and in the meantime mugged up a little on the history of drift, which I’ll recount here first through half-a-dozen key words.

Hashiriya (走り屋, hooners): Drifters that once upon a time raced illegally over mountain passes or in wharfside warehouse districts. The originators of drift, hashiriya at first raced on grip principles until a quiet drift boom built up in the mid-eighties. Street drifting as practiced by the hashiriya peaked in the mid-nineties and went into decline as drift moved, not without police pressure, onto circuits and into the world of omote.

Broadly defined, my online Japanese drift lexicon tells me, hashiriya includes a subtribe, the “maximum speedsters” (最高速系, saikosokukei), who liked to race on Tokyo’s extraordinary network of elevated expressways and who themselves could be divided into sects: the “bayshore kids” (湾岸系, wangankei), who preferred the flatter, straighter Tokyo Bay expressways and the “roulette tribes” (ルーレット族, roulettezoku), who preferred the central elevated ring road. One rouletteer cheekily quipped to a TV reporter full of omote outrage in a late nineties newsclip I unearthed that the Tokyo expressways are like a racing circuit with a Y700 admission fee—which is exactly why they have featured in so many a video game. 

These subtribes are not to be confused with a bewildering assortment of other mostly dormant or extinct speedster sects from bygone eras, many two-wheeled: the “thunder tribes” (カミナリ族, kaminarizoku), the “Mach tribes” (マッハ族, Machzoku), and the “thriller tribes” (スリラー族 thrillerzoku), bikers of the sixties who gathered spontaneously in parks and plazas, the din of their exhausts, mufflers removed for enhanced performance, reminiscent of rolling thunder; the “circuit tribes” (サーキット族, circuitzoku) and the “750 tribes” (ナナハン族, nanahanzoku), Saturday night station-front racers of beefy Honda 750 bikes who were mostly tolerated by the police, even on occasion trained in safe riding skills by them; the notorious “violent running tribes” (暴走族, bosozoku) biker delinquents of the eighties, keener on brawling and militarist paraphernalia than racing; and the “rolling tribes” (ローリング族、rollingzoku) of the eighties and nineties, who aped the style of pro superbike racers, tore over mountain roads in the depths of night, and died in droves on corners and off cliffs.

Dorikin (ドリキン, drift king) – The nickname of the man widely credited as the godfather of drift, Keiichi Tsuchiya (55), who first rose to fame for his drifting techniques and six straight victories in the 1984 Fuji Speedway freshman races and who briefly in 1987 lost his Japan Automobile Federation racing license for a hair-raising video, The Touge

filmed on the treacherous and now bypassed old road over the Usui Pass between Nagano and Gunma prefectures—all this in a country where it is a reputedly a crime to leave tire marks on the white lines on the road. Also known as the “drift dude” (ドリフト野郎, drift yaro), Tsuchiya is these days the retired elder statesman of drift.

Dorisha (ドリ車, drift car) – This is what you drift in, your wheels, your ride—better get yourself a fly one. A portmanteau word combining the first two of the four Japanese syllables in “drift” and the pseudo-Chinese reading of “car”.

Hachiroku (ハチロク, eighty six) – The Toyota Levin/Trueno Sprinter AE86 featured in The Touge video above. Known affectionately as the “the little hachi that could”, the AE86 was the first great drift car and is still widely adored and drifted today, even though production ended in 1987. Slumming it in the Tokyo ’burbs in the late nineties, I often wondered why these dowdy and already dated coupes were going for anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 at the second-hand dealers—guess I know now.   

D1 machine (D1マシン) – At the far end of the spectrum from the (originally) cheap, cheerful, lightweight and modestly powered hachiroku, these are the mean machines that duke it out in D1. We’ll encounter some later.

A series of landmarks punctuated the gradual emergence of drift from the shadowy ura valleys to the sunlit omote uplands. In 1995, Initial D, a manga about young hashiriya, started serialization in Weekly Young magazine, spawning an anime of the same name that ran intermittently from 1998-2006, (mostly shown when hoon-fearing folk were safely tucked up in bed—27:20 to 27:50 in one case on the magnificent only-in-Japan 48-hour clock), and a 2005 Hong Kong movie. In 1997, a monthly magazine in praise of all things drift, Drift Tengoku, began publication. In October 2000, the first races in the All Japan Professional Drift Championship, which would soon morph into D1, were held at Ebisu Circuit. By now, drift was going global: Formula Drift started in the US in 2004 and the first Red Bull Drifting World Championship was held in 2008.

Hollywood at long last sat up and took lucrative notice of the drift explosion in 2006, with the third in the Fast and the Furious film franchise, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a fine example of a favorite subgenre, so-bad-they’re-good films (ostensibly) about Japan. Here’s a blurry fanboy video montage, music courtesy of the Teriyaki Boyz:

I wonder if you know
How they live in Tokyo
If you see me then you mean it
Then you know you have to go
Fast and furious (drift, drift, drift)
Fast and furious (drift, drift, drift)

I wonder if you know, how they live in Tokyo? Not quite like that, to be sure. The movie is unabashedly a teenboy’s wet dream, something made amply clear about five minutes in, when a tanned blonde highschool babe offers up her body to the winner of a grudge-match roadrace. The sheer wet dreaminess of it all is quickly and cheerfully acknowledged in the dialogue: as our hero motors into an implausible multistory car park filled with tattooed Asian hotties in microskirts bent over throbbing engine bays, his buddy hands him a conveniently at-hand box of tissues. After a split second of incomprehension: “That’s for when you blow your wad, man.” How thoughtful!

Our teen hero, Sean, supposedly 17 years old, is played by Lucas Black, already 24 back then (and already able to pass for forty), which made him the oldest teen swinger in Tokyo town—and the most ridiculous one ever to try and ease himself behind a Tokyo high school desk, albeit at a most fantastical high school where something akin to sushi but more elaborate, rather than curry rice, is served for lunch.

As we’re in the Tokyo ’hood and all, we have to get with the local lingo, and until very late in the action, where Sean develops overnight a stunning competence in Japanese, the movie is fixated on two words: gaijin, foreigner, which goes through many mutations, the most favored being a heavily accented first syllable and a long drawn-out second—GUYjean—and yakuza, gangster, which is pronounced as if “bazooka” had had its “b” replaced with a “y” and the “z” and the “k” swapped—yaKOOza. I braced myself for what was surely to come, and yes, there it was, halfway in, uttered by Sean’s gone-native and fount-of-local-wisdom father: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”. Let that be a lesson to all you drifters out there. But don’t worry too much if you’re a foreigner, as Sean’s drift guru Han has some words of Nietzschean wisdom to impart: “Outsider, insider, doesn’t really matter, all that matters is knowing what you really want and going after it”. Austrian house-painter Adolf Hitler would have been hugely consoled.

Due to the utter dearth of thoroughbred Japanese actors and actresses able to get by in English, everyone in the movie under 40 of any importance, aside from Sean (white) and his pal Twinkie (black) is a hero of hyphenation: Sean’s guru, Korean-American actor Sung Kang; the love interest, Peruvian-Australian actress Nathalie Kelly; the villain, Japanese-Korean-American actor Brian Tee, and the villain’s sidekick, Argentina-born Korean-Australian actor Leonardo Nam, which gives the movie the air of having been filmed not in the monoculture of Tokyo but in polyglot Los Angles—as indeed much of it was…  

So I found myself one sweltering and thunderous August Saturday pounding up the Tohoku Expressway in search of drift. The first surprise was the Ebisu Circuit car park: aside from the odd souped-up econobox that no go-faster sticker or low-profile tire should ever grace, the spectators’ vehicles were eminently sensible and would not have looked out of place in the lot of a suburban supermarket.

Stalls that lined the path to the main circuit offered insights into the culture of drift.

The T-shirt hanging left-center assigns ateji, phonetically equivalent Chinese characters, to the four Japanese syllables of “drift”—怒輪, “dori”, “angry wheels”, 風徒, “futo”, “follow the wind”, making the foreign indigenous. On its left, the towel is adorned with the expression togekotai (峠攻隊, mountain-pass attack force), in conscious echo of the tokkotai (特攻隊) special attack forces of World War II, known to the rest of the world as kamikaze pilots.

A stall offering one of the strangest of all offshoots of the phenomenon of drift: rajidori, radio-controlled miniature drift cars, which once had to have their wheels encased in PVC tubing to make them slippery enough to drift but now come equipped with their own tiny low-grip drift tires.

Crea (vocals) and Mia (rap) of duo 80’s☆Doll, selected in last year as official D1 artists, were hawking their debut album, Lip Service, a lively mix of eighties disco music and current club sounds (says their website).

A kimono-clad lovely was doling out free samples of Beast Eye, a homegrown alternative to Red Bull. A fair few of the womenfolk, who made up maybe a quarter of the crowd, had donned kimono for the occasion, which lent the proceedings a matsuri feel, as did the customary and coronary-inducing choice of festival fare: kara’age fried chicken, American dogs (deep-fried sausages on sticks), and fried yaki soba noodles.

Over the tannoys, the MCs chattered away about a shank of beef that was roasting on a giant spit and would later be carved up for all who stayed for the evening fireworks.

No mention was made of the home of the cow that had been slaughtered to fill the bellies of the worshippers of drift; let’s hope it wasn’t a local, radioactive one.

The setting was certainly stunning: this view of the stands looks east, over the central Fukushima valley and out toward Fukushima Daiichi beyond the pale blue hills in the distance.

No surprise that prominent among the sponsors were three tire brands, Toyo Tires, Dunlop, and Goodyear: drift is so brutal to tires that many pro drift racers change theirs after every bout, which lasts all of a couple of minutes. 

My guess was that the grand prix had mustered an attendance of three or four thousand, around the number that gathered back in October 2000 for the very first D1 races: drift then was perhaps neither thriving nor dying, but idling, ticking over. Still, there was enough money left in the pot to afford an LED ad truck, to remind you where you were in case you forgot.

Back on the circuit, the D1 machines screamed on, leaving layered acrid veils of burnt rubber through which others had to drift.

There exists a drift technique, “smoky curtain driving” (煙幕走行, enmaku soko), designed to exploit the haze and rob drivers behind of their sight, although it wasn’t being deliberately practiced here.

A short sharp squall breezed down from up in the mountains, and the nimble drift cars, at both sides of the limit of adhesion in the dry, were reduced to lumbering dinosaurs in the wet, gingerly tiptoeing into corners at half their normal speed and even then often spinning out to shunt the walls of tires and giant polystyrene blocks. 

The track dried out soon enough and my attention turned to the scoring, which operates on an all-must-have-prizes principle. Drivers start out with 100 points and have them deducted for not following the prescribed line around the four corners on which they are judged, for wobbles, for sloth, for shallow angles, and for lifting off the throttle. Nobody scores fewer than around 95 points (with usual local precision, scores are pushed out to two decimal places, so 96.78 would represent an average score) unless they spin or lose their drift and return to the prosaic world of grip.  

It dawned on me that not only was drift scored like figure skating, it resembled it in a host of other ways. All other motorsports are akin to speed skating, where time is not only of the essence, it is the essence. In drift, though, while speed is key, it is not an absolute god whose word is law. Drift, like figure skating, has single and pair events, and outside of regular competition, synchronized drifting with multiple cars. Drift, like figure skating, is about skill, transition, execution, choreography, and interpretation (the five components of the International Skating Union non-technical judging system). Drifters even practice figures of eight, and pirouettes around a single cone.

My attention wandered back to the crowd. D1 spectatorship was not just an escape for lonely young men but a day out for the whole orange family.

Go Team Orange! (Whoever said Japan was suffering from a collapsing birth rate?)

A pair of portly, bonneted, and very well provisioned women left too many questions unanswered.

Was that a brace of young mullets I saw before me? The father’s baseball cap bore the forbidding Rabelaisian legend: “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives”. Amen to that—and the halves of the global fruit can be sliced at so many angles.

Unimaginatively, I dubbed this willowy trio the Vuitton boys, after the Vuitton clutch bag one of them slung nonchalantly from his shoulder and the Vuitton wallet one of them carelessly left sticking out of his back pocket. Wonder how long they’d last at a NASCAR race?

 

Up in the stands stood the pink Crocs tribe, the leader sporting a pair of those monstrous crimes against footwear in the most shocking of shades.

For some, the heat and the smoke and the excitement, not to mention the family feuds, had all become a bit too much, underscoring the uncanny local ability to sleep through unholy levels of noise.

Finally I found a fence-free sweet spot, on the last corner before the finish line, from which to snap the drifters slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination…

One of the incidental fascinations of drift is its physics, the subject of a droll 2006 paper with a Keatsian title, On the Dynamics of Automobile Drifting, by Mujahid Abdulrahim of the University of Florida for the US Society of Automotive Engineers.

Drifting is…an important part of any memorable movie scene involving a police chase. Despite the performance advantages of low-sideslip driving, it is well known that villains are more appropriately apprehended with much tire squealing and smoke.

Abdulrahim kindly explains from his lofty physicist’s perch that drift “challenges drivers to navigate a course in a sustained sideslip by exploiting coupled nonlinearities in the tire force response”, a thought unlikely to be uppermost in the mind of the average drifter approaching the apex of a bend. Here are some random shots of passing sideslippers captioned with soundbites on the physics of drift.

Takahiro Imamura (39) in a Mazda RX7 FC3S (1986-1991)

Through the complex relationship between slips and forces, equilibrium is achieved in general with front tires in counter-steer and rear tires spinning.

Robbie Nishida (33) in a Toyota Cresta JZX90 (1992-1996)

The coupling between longitudinal slip and lateral force is of particular importance for drifting, considering this is the primary means by which moment stabilization can be achieved at large sideslip.

Tatsuya Kataoka (32) in a Toyota Trueno AE86 (1983-1987)

The rear tires in a typical drift maneuver operate in the nonlinear plateau regime while the front tires operate nearer the linear range at small slip angles.

Ryoji Jinushi (37) in a Toyota Soarer JZZ30 (1991-2000)

The sideforce generated at large sideslip is generally less than the maximum sideforce, thus drifts cannot maintain high levels of lateral acceleration. Drifting produces unstable conditions such as positive cornering stiffness gradients and large restoring/upsetting yaw moments.

Yoshikazu Kawakami (36) in a Nissan Silvia S14 (1995-2000)

Thus, the challenge of drift racing is manipulating the vehicle controls to achieve small yaw moments in order to maintain a large-amplitude sideslip attitude.

None of these cars, at their battered and beaten cores, was less than a decade old, and a couple might have been on the road a quarter of a century. These were low-ranked drivers, to be sure, with scarcely a point between them all season, but the drivers on the leader-board were largely at the reins of steeds no more modern. Almost without exception the drivers are on the far side of thirty, with some, such as number four ranked Ken Nomura (48), pushing the half century mark. Drift, I concluded, was getting gouty, putting on a middle-aged gut—much like the land that gave birth to it.

Despite our physicist’s talk of longitudinal and lateral tractive forces, the dominant force that drift both does battle with and tries to harness is inertia, as does any attempt to pilot round a corner at moderate velocity a modern vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine, which would much rather go straight on. A motorsport called drift with inertia at its heart: could there be a better mirror-metaphor to hold up to contemporary society?

Aside from half-Japanese US army brat (and I mean that in the kindest way) Robbie Nishida, pictured above, there was only one foreign driver on the circuit that day, Italian Federico Sceriffo, whose Subaru Impreza’s business end looks like this.

Neither of them had accrued any points in the season thus far, and much as it pains me to say, I suspect neither—nor any GUYjean—has much of a chance of climbing the rankings, unless drift gets itself organized under an international governing body, as it should—why, if figure skating is, it could be an Olympic sport one day.

Among the 38 (naturally all-male) drivers, only one was at the wheel of a foreign marque: Takahiro Ueno in a BMW 320i, the traitorous filler in this colorful sandwich.

And as far as I could tell, your tourist-correspondent in the world of drift was the only roundeye in the spectator stands.

Of my two trips to Ebisu, I preferred the former, with its overwhelming shock of the new. At the D1 Grand Prix, there was not even an overpriced beer to be had, thanks be no doubt to the Fukushima constabulary. The patter of the MCs was drenched in excruciatingly formal Japanese and winners were welcomed to the podium with a tremulous titter of applause. A friend known for his delicate turn of phrase forecast that Ebisu would be chockablock with “chapatsu slappers” (translation: women of easy virtue with dyed brown hair) but there was scarcely a bottle brunette to be found. Drift at the top has been professionalized, commercialized, sanitized, and suburbanized, stripped by the dominant culture of the “sub” of its subculture. Nothing wrong with that in many ways—even drifters have to eat, after all. But in the long and winding road from ura to omote, something fierce and vital has been sacrificed along the way: the barking, howling, snarling beast of drift has finally been tamed.