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.

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62 responses to “Season’s greetings

  1. “….why would anyone waste their precious time on my witterings…”

    Because how you think and write is breathtaking, intricate, and provoking.
    My only other experience this riveting (and I do get out) is listening to Bill Evans arrangement of the Spartacus Love Theme.

    Thank you, Pachiguy.
    I bow to you from across the world.

    • I have no ear for jazz, I’m afraid, but I’ll take that as a compliment…
      Will try harder to write better in 2012, that’s my New Year resolution.
      My metric for that is making myself cry at something I wrote…

  2. Looks like there’s not much to see there except for a familiar facade haunted with the memory of a deadly cult. You should visit Aum’s village next, although I’m sure there’s even less there :)

    • “Looks like there’s not much to see there except for a familiar facade haunted with the memory of a deadly cult.”
      Not much to *see* perhaps, but the goosebumps were chilling.

  3. Let me tell you some of the good things about the Spike Japan blog, in case you sometimes have lingering doubts:

    1. It’s interesting and though there is an underlying theme to all of the postings, the focus varies widely: rust, abandoned resorts, the mysterious North, demographic matters (especially demographic matters): matters you cannot read about elsewhere.

    2. It’s well written.

    3. It’s not polemical. You have a point of view, but you don’t force the facts to conform to it. And your blog is never cynical, rarely sarcastic: the facts speak for themselves.

    4. Good photos – especially of rust, sensu latu.

    5. The subjects are interesting, even important, ones on which little or no reliable information is otherwise available. In particular, the photos of Japanese vernacular architecture in run down towns show a side of Japan you never see in tourist brochures. Likewise the descriptions of bubble follies.

    6. The cherries on top of the sundae are your occasional excursions into puncturing the pomposity and self-importance of pundits at the Economist. (And, dare we say it? the fictions they’ve made up.)

    If I may give some advice: don’t fall for the advice of others “oh, you should write a book!” The blog format as you use it encourages freshness in the material because you do it when and as YOU want; you’re not writing against a deadline nor as an obligation to meet a certain word count. I regularly read several blogs that have multiple postings per day. Interesting, but tiresome. Spike Japan is never tiresome. It makes my day to receive email notification of a new posting, even if sometimes weeks have elapsed since the previous one.

    If ever a book were to be made out of Spike Japan, just transcribing the blog with notes on updates and developments would suffice. (Please make it a book with luxurious illustrations!)

    Incidentally, you may be interested to know that at least one regular reader (yours truly) was sufficiently interested in your exploration of Hokkaido to trace out your route using Google Streetview. How’s that as an indication of something very good about Spike Japan?

    Best wishes for the holiday season. Don’t eat too much!

    • I ate too much. Thank you for the kind words of encouragement and advice. Afraid that some weeks may elapse before the next post, as I’ve decided to award myself a sabbatical and delve a little deeper still before the next post goes up. So many questions just lead to other questions…

  4. “Not much compared to the Benjy the skateboarding dog video at YouTube”
    Haha well the internet can an immensely powerful learning tool if used right but I’d dare say the majority of the internet is just used for mindless entertainment and porn. Spike provides for myself different perspectives and fascinating stories that would otherwise never have been brought into the light. Well written and well sourced, a rarity nowadays. The content you provide has much more of an effect on those quarter million than however many watching benjy.
    Happy Holidays and a toast to more musings in 2012 o/

  5. Your blog reminds me of my own days in Japan, during the indian summer of the boom years in 1991. Thanks for your efforts — this is a wonderfully well written blog and it is obvious that many of the posts required considerable research and effort. Carry on!

  6. Thank you for your writing efforts this year and for expanding my worldview. You are a good craftsman. The writing is like what the New Yorker used to have- extremely long articles that covered subjects that one wouldn’t have thought of as having interest, but do after gaining your insight.

    What I’m not clear about is if the depopulation of Japan manifests itself in a similar way to the depressed areas in the US, like West Virginia or the abandonment-in-process cities in the midwest.

    • “What I’m not clear about is if the depopulation of Japan manifests itself in a similar way to the depressed areas in the US, like West Virginia or the abandonment-in-process cities in the midwest.”
      No, the mechanisms aren’t very similar. In Japan, very generally speaking, the decline is the more intense the more rural the area. There’s no Detroit or Cleveland parallel, really; although there are some depressed smallish cities, there’s no city of more than half a million hemorrhaging people. This is a consequence, I suppose, of a much more evenly distributive sociopolitical system.
      But I note that West Virginia’s current population is some way above its 1970 population…

      • Detroit’s issue isn’t regional depopulation, it’s local (white) flight. While the city itself is 40% of its 1950 peak, the metro area has grown by 1,000,000 people and the region by 1,500,000 in the same period. More people than ever live in Detroit and its suburbs, even if the city itself has returned to its WWI population-level.

        There are some parallels in the US. The Buffalo Grass stretches of NW Texas, eastern Colorado, western Oklahoma, western Kansas and western Nebraska have fewer people than in 1900, but that was because it was originally settled in an unusually rainy period, and the area turned out to actually be a godforsaken desert in normal conditions. It was never very populous, or not even that for very long.

        West Virginia, central Pennsylvania, and the parts of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan along the Superior Shield have emptied out, but those, like the more abandoned stretches of Hokkaido, were always cold, snowy places settled because they had mining. Once the mines ran out, there was little reason to stay. These places were never very large, though, so they only went from merely small to truly tiny. The county where I went to college peaked in the 1930s at 88,000 people, and that crashed to 22,000 or so by 1980, before the college itself started buoying the population back upward some into the 30s again. Like I said, though, it was never a big place, just once bigger.

  7. “…and half of all US teens describing themselves as ‘content creators’…” Sure, if you consider forgettable pictures of forgettable nights posted to Facebook or Tumblr content. Though I hate to pass judgement, I much prefer your stuffs to theirs.

    Happy holidays, and thank you for a year’s worth of adventures!

    • I assume that the totem pole is cast concrete? If not, does it hail from BC, Washington or Alaska?

      • Ooh, purest cast concrete. There are many of them dotted around Lake New Town, adding a sinister touch, as if one was needed. And I guess they hail from the land of blithely ignorant Japanese kitsch…

  8. The Red Flag as a Christmas carol – delightful! reminds of the claims years ago one could buy Santa on The Cross Christmas cards in Japan; probably apocryphal but certainly a possibility.
    I am surprised you only have 224 email subscribers; your blog is a delight and has on occasion been ‘mentioned in dispatches’ such as The Guardian and The Browser. Oh well, no accounting for the poor taste of the masses.
    Huis Den Bosch remains my personal favourite.

    • Oh I’m sure that many people are also subscribed via RSS.

      And thank you for this year of entries, Sir Pachiguy. I enjoy seeing emails from here in my inbox, and I look forward to another year of it.

      • Fewer subscribe via RSS than you might think… These days I get a spike off the baseline, which is about 200 hits a day (many of which I suspect are spambots and the like sniffing around), of about 400 hits over two days, which is very roughly the combined e-mail subscriber list (which outsiders see) plus the comments subscribers list (which they don’t) plus Twitter. Not that I care about these things, of course.

    • “The Red Flag as a Christmas carol – delightful!”
      That was my ignorance showing, sadly. The words to The Red Flag were set to the music of what became a German carol, O Tannenbaum, by Irish socialist Jim Connell. Post duly updated. Still, when I hear those stirring tones while hunched over the vegetable stand fingering aubergines for freshness, I can’t help but sing, a little too loudly for comfort, “Then raise the scarlet standard high, Within its shade we’ll live and die, Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, We’ll keep the red flag flying here.” It’s so redolent of the age in which I grew up, comic in a way–British socialism didn’t produce many “martyr’d dead”–yet I love it just the same.
      I’ll see if I can top Huis ten Bosch for you in the coming year, although I imagine I’ll have a hard time trying.

  9. I continue to read your work with interest, and look forward to more entries next year.

  10. Another delightful offering gratefully accepted. Thank you.

  11. “University of W— . . . ”

    Washington?
    Waterloo?
    Wisconsin?
    Wallamaloo? (“Well said, Bruce! Crack two!”)

    “I come here for the company.”

    I don’t remember how I found Spike, but I’m so glad I did. Your is by far the most entertaining and engaging blog about Japan that I read on a regular basis. I just wish you’d publish more.

    • I just updated the good doctor’s reference, to further confuse you. But one of your guesses might have been right–or wrong, I couldn’t possibly say.
      And one of the highlights of my year was someone from the University of Wallamaloo (OK, Wollongong) writing to say she was “teaching” Spike to her journalism students,
      so no Pythonesque mockery of Australian higher education, please (although she did add that her charges were generally grossly guilty of plagiarism…)
      “I just wish you’d publish more.”
      More? More?!? I’ve already virtually given up on housework–you should see the state of my apartment–and a social life for the sake of this blog. Let me give you a tiny
      example–the first paragraph of “Seasons Greetings” took me about two hours to hammer into place, contrasting as it does the earthy, honest late 19th century socialism
      of Britain and Ireland, the squalid noise into which political activity of whatever ideological stripe in Japan has degenerated, and the transcendent Enlightenment humanism
      of Schiller and Beethoven, all rendered in varieties of song and set up in less than 100 words as a prelude to the tale of the Asama Sanso. And I’m still not at all happy
      with it…

  12. Thank you for a year of great posts.

  13. Thank you for your posts.

    I found this place a side effect of consuming too much manga and anime, and am glad to see some weird stuff from Japan that is actually real.

  14. One of the few sites I eagerly await to see new content from. Thanks for providing a window to a country I will probably never know. Your eloquent way with words is inspiring.

  15. Thank you for a year of wonderful and insightful blogging.

    This is completely off topic, but I can’t resist- in light of the recent passing of the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong Il, I recently reread the “book” written by an Englishman, Andrew Holloway about a year he spent working as a reviser in Pyongyang in 1989. His writing and analyses remind me very much of this blog:

    (the entire chronicle is here, along with a short foreword)http://aidanfc.net/pyongyang.html

    Anyway as I said, completely irrelevant, but nevertheless, a very, very interesting read.
    Merry Christmas.

    • The life of Andrew Holloway as a North Korean propaganda “reviser” (Orwell would have loved it) is absolutely fascinating, thank you. I’ve only had the chance so far to read Chapters 1-6 and the last couple; he certainly offers the most nuanced perspective on NK (at least in the late 80s) that I’ve seen, although the moments of gob-smacking naivete stand out too. I wish he had been less of a broad-brush reporter and more alert to the detail, but you can’t have it all. I have really no scintilla of an idea, though, why you would associate him with Spike…

      • I have no idea where the association comes from either – but it was not meant as an insult! Maybe because both present intelligent and in-depth analyses of (vastly different) countries and cultures alien to my own. In any event, I am glad you found the reading as interesting as I did – it is so very Orwellian! I can only wonder what Andrew would have thought of the famine that followed soon after he left – certainly the warning signs were there in 1988.

        All the best for 2012 and I will be eagerly watching for new content.

  16. I don’t have the eloquence of past posters in describing your blog, but I must say I’d like you to stick with it as long as it doesn’t become a burden. I’ve enjoyed your insight and knack for describing what may be forgotten – a small statue at the head of a path, the overgrown metal post from a mysterious structure.

    So many small things clamoring out for notice, and you do them all justice in a world frequently distracted by shiny things and overblown drama. I salute your architectural sensibility, the love of things that have fallen to the forces of decay.

    I enjoy your blog, more than I can articulate with mere words.

    Cheers,

    TraderTimm

    • Many thanks for the words of encouragement. You’re absolutely right, so many small things do clamour out for notice, and I’ll do my best to continue focusing on those rather than Lady Gaga or Steve Jobs.

  17. Bob / Pittsburgh

    Happy Christmas pachiguy, and thank you for a year of interesting, acerbic, insightful writing.

  18. You couldn’t pick a better exemplar of Japanese “lifestyle” infrastructure than Lake New Town. The place was developed c. 1970 as a place where middle-class folk could have a Karuizawa besso of their very own, not just the tedious ruling classes that John Lennon was forced to hobnob with when he spent Summers in Karuizawa in the late 70s. But Asama Sansou struck (the whole thing played out uncannily like the demise of the Symbionese Liberation Army a bit latter), and the place was permanently stigmatized. It’s been decaying ever since. As recently as ten years ago there was a Mitsukoshi built like a (very) faux chateau, replete with a suit of armor out front to greet customers. Now it’s gone. Some effort has been made to spruce up the place – Spike doubtless noticed the landscaping around the lake, and the refurbished main office – but it’s a lost cause. The good news is you can buy a besso there for a few million yen. Not sure if the building would be salvageable, but you could give it a try – I’ve seen a couple of old places there that have been nicely rehabbed.

    We used to have a place in the adjacent Marubeni “bessochi,” where we had a great, North-facing view of Asama. Alas, Lake New Town’s abandoned ice rink also featured in our view, and when I’d go over to check out the area around the ice rink, I found cars, oil drums, appliances, and all manner of rubbish strewn about. Most of it was mercifully hidden by vines and weeds, but to me it put to lie for good and all any notion that Japan was a particularly “eco-friendly” country. Really, the countryside is just a big garbage dump if you look carefully enough.

    Interestingly, the “Cape Cod”-style place we built nearby in 2001 stimulated a bunch of Japanese to build their own Western-style places, and some of them where actually quite well done – a rarity. Prices seemed to be getting a little bubbly by 2007, so we sold and made a bit of a profit – another rarity. No desire to repeat the besso experience, but Karuizawa is still a nice place to visit. Be sure to take your friends for a night drive around Lake New Town for spooky thrills.

    • “The place was developed c. 1970 as a place where middle-class folk could have a Karuizawa besso of their very own, not just the tedious ruling classes that John Lennon was forced to hobnob with when he spent Summers in Karuizawa in the late 70s.”
      Indeed it was seemingly developed around 1970, although some Japanese bloggers led me astray into believing that development started as early as the late 1950s. Apparently, Lake New Town was new enough not to be on the maps of the United Red Army when they blundered their way into it, according to Yoshikuni Igarashi in his (I think excellent) paper, Dead Bodies and Living Guns: The United Red Army and Its Deadly Pursuit of Revolution, 1971-1972. (Thank you to my professor friend for the introduction). Yet another beautiful irony–one more being that the fugitives watched Nixon meet Mao on the besso TV (the day before the cops cut off the electricity) on February 22, 1972, and their world fell apart before their eyes.
      “But Asama Sansou struck (the whole thing played out uncannily like the demise of the Symbionese Liberation Army a bit latter), and the place was permanently stigmatized.”
      Ah, the Symbionese Liberation Army! As a kid, I searched long and hard on the maps for the country of Symbia that was to be liberated. And there’s a Japan connection, too, in Wendy Yoshimura.
      “As recently as ten years ago there was a Mitsukoshi built like a (very) faux chateau, replete with a suit of armor out front to greet customers.”
      Amazingly, the Mitsukoshi is still on the hard-copy Mapple map of Nagano we purchased on the day of our visit. We lunched at a lakeside brasserie and asked one of the desperately keeping-up-appearances women waiters where it was. She claimed there used to be two (!) Mitsukoshi in the area but that they had now gone. Photos are hard to come by on the Net but I managed to track one down:
      http://d.hatena.ne.jp/d-sakamata/20050303/p2
      Incredible to think it lasted until at least 2005.
      “Spike doubtless noticed the landscaping around the lake, and the refurbished main office – but it’s a lost cause.”
      Spike did, and it is…
      Yes, if I ever have to entertain out-of-towners in the summer ghost-story-telling months, I’ll be sure to take them blindfolded to Asama Sanso and Lake New Town.
      Thank you so much for the comment–local knowledge and tidbits are always priceless. And if you know more about Lennon in Karuizawa, please tell…

  19. “Alberta/British Colombia”

    “British Columbia”

  20. “that I discovered last month that Spike had notched up its quarter millionth hit. ”

    Congrats! I’m gonna hit that in a bit and “quarter millionth” sounds bigger than 250,000 so I’m gonna say it when I get there :)

  21. excellent, as always. Thank you.

  22. Spike,
    after four years in a row of doing business wth Japan and as many business trips there, I thought I had an impression of this country. Still, Japan is a maze to me, and there are lots of Japanese customs and habits that I will never get used to, least understand.
    Your blog has been the absolutely best and resourceful insight to put a lot of observations into place. The shabby look of just about any company building I’ve been in (with one noteable exception: Nissan’s development center in Atsugi, apparently modeled after Renault’s). The old 4×4 pulling up in front of Shinagawa Station, blaring out some (to me) unintelligible stuff for hours without being disturbed or even being noticed by anyone. The fact that I never, ever came across even a single woman among my business partners (ok, being an engineer, just about the same applies to Europe, to be honest). All these (even educated) Japanese whose English is limited at best.
    Still, there are a few aspects which are better visible from abroad: a (although small) number of Japanese coming to Europe for a shorter or longer period of time, most of them loving it. A sizeable number of Japanese women who get married to a European, evading their position in Japanese society. And the Japanese colleagues, with whom we have come to a mutual understanding and acceptance, them knowing our European ways (at least partly) and we knowing (also partly) their Japanese ways.

    Thank you for putting endless hours into a wonderfully researched blog which is fun to read. It is testament to both your love for this country and yourq despair about it. Keep on writing, I am already looking forward to your next entry.

    • Glad to be of service. I’m intrigued by the “old 4×4″ outside Shinagawa station in particular. Sounds more like Bible bashers than rightists, but even the thumpers of the Good Book tend to stick to Toyota Hi-Aces. Whatever and whoever they are, the general reaction will be one of complete indifference anyway.
      Yes, there is certainly a sliver of younger Japan, mostly women, that “marries out”, as it were; you’d probably find even more of them per capita in Australia. But I wouldn’t want to overstate the overall numbers, although I have no stats (and there are almost certainly none available).
      Good luck with the business contacts–Japan isn’t really so hard to understand, I don’t think (although there is a big industry out there that thrives on telling you that it is).

  23. Happy New Year, Spike, I just saw that you went to our “neighborhood”…I did pass through that area a few times, but as you mentioned it is rather easy to overlook without consulting google maps beforehand as it lays off the main road. But I don’t think it is a dead place, for it still is in a favourable location. As you said it is going back to it’s roots, offering older houses and plots for people with stricter budget and families that live there “full time”. It is only a short straight drive on the mostly two lane road “Prince dori” to Karuizawa station to take the Shinkansen to work in Tokyo as more and more people do (my wife being one of them) or use the back roads towards west to get to the supermarket without the traffic jams on the major roads during season. As for “death in Karuizawa” wasn’t it about two years ago now that some famous person hanged himself in his room in Prince Hotel? With all these villas old and new, shiny and decaying, dark and bright, sitting so silently side by side whenever you go off the main road, into the dark woods, the human death looks like a mere reflection of the surroundings only… It might well be a dream-come-true for the haikyo-hunter, so quite a few buildings are difficult to categorize, ruin? abandoned? neglected? or just waiting for the now distant-living owner to come back again some summer day?

    • Happy New Year Wolfgang. Yes, I dropped by your neighbourhood, it was very cold and in Lake New Town, very spooky! I find it hard to believe that people actually live in that besso-chi in particular full-time–there was almost no-one around when we were there and “For Sale” signs had been malleted into the unforgiving, icy ground outside every tenth besso or so.
      “Death in Karuizawa”–it was Kazuhiko Kato. Who can forget his orchestration of the Sadistic Mika Band in the mid-1970s? Well, I must admit I could, although they’re more interesting in a funky prototypical Talking Headsy way than I had previously given them credit:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CK0MzYAPicg
      So quite a few buildings are difficult to categorize, ruin? abandoned? neglected?
      Yes, we played that game, the game that every haikyo hunter plays. In the deep, dark, besso woods, we went by the degree to which the property was enveloped by thick pines…
      More on Nagano anon…

    • Happy New Year! Fingleton on spectacular form again, although it does get rather like a broken record. Many lines to savour, though, although I’ll take this one as my favourite:
      They [the Japanese] have the latest cars, including Porsches, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes and all the finest models.
      All of them, all Japanese! That 15-year old minivan I clocked this morning must have been driven by a foreigner. I’d like to issue a little challenge to Fingleton: go and stand on a street corner, right now, in Muroran, Hokkaido, dressed only in summer clothing, and count half a dozen Porsches, Audis, or Mercedes-Benzes before crying uncle in fear of hypothermia. OK, I win.
      The sad thing is that he has half a case, but ruins it with hyperbole and ridiculous apples-to-oranges comparisons.
      81 high-rise buildings taller than 500 feet have been constructed in Tokyo since the “lost decades” began. That compares with 64 in New York, 48 in Chicago, and 7 in Los Angeles…
      Could that be because the Tokyo metropolitan area has at least twice the population of metropolitan New York, very little space, and a cultural predeliction (still) for skyscrapers? By this bizarre metric, Los Angeles must be really in dire economic straits. (I also harbour grave doubts about the accuracy of Skyscraper.Page’s stats–1,189 buildings qualify in Tokyo but only 147 in Osaka and 62 in Nagoya?) But need I go on?!?

      • I’ve always thought that Fingleton was a prat, but the skyscraper count is an important metric of sorts and I remarked on it when I was last living in Tokyo from 1995-1998, smack in the middle of the (first) “Lost Decade.” Just who was building all these new office and hotel towers and why?

        Tokyo may have twice the population of NYC, but it’s also more than twice a large geographically and yet (last time I studied this sort of thing) has about half the population density of Manhattan (Queens and the Bronx skew the data the other direction). And I believe that the majority of the highrises that have gone up in Tokyo over the last 15 years or so have not been residential towers but additional office space, built at a time when Tokyo had ceased to be the economic center of East Asia. So, again, just who has been moving into all this new space?

        I agree with you that this boom in highrise construction hardly counters the economic data on the ground, but, at least from 2008, Tokyo and Japan’s economy haven’t been any worse than that of NYC, Chicago or Los Angeles or the U.S.

      • Just who was building all these new office and hotel towers and why?
        Now that is an interesting question; the obvious answer is Mitsubishi Estate, Sumitomo Realty, and Mitsui Fudosan, the Big 3 of Japanese real estate. But for whom? Let’s leave that aside for a moment.
        “Tokyo may have twice the population of NYC, but it’s also more than twice a large geographically and yet (last time I studied this sort of thing) has about half the population density of Manhattan (Queens and the Bronx skew the data the other direction).”
        Oranges-to-oranges, please! It looks like that at first blush:

        Tokyo
        2,190km2
        13.2mn people
        6,030 people/km²

        NYC
        1,214km2
        8.2mn people
        10,630/km2

        But remember Tokyo is a semi-rural entity–the town of Okutama alone has an area of 226km2, almost the size of Brooklyn and Manhattan combined (242km2), and only 6,000 people! And that is far from the only place skewing the density data away from Tokyo.
        The only really accurate comparison would be made from commuting areas, which I don’t have the time or resources to calculate right now.
        You have to remember also that, as another correspondent has just put it, Japan is a very centripetal society. If your office is not within 10 minutes of Tokyo station, you’re nobody. That’s what drives the building boom, in very select areas. And the biggest factor that may have been at work, as an astute colleague pointed out, is that it really only became possible, thanks to technological advances, to build skyscrapers in the Earthquake Nation in the mid-to late- 1980s. No surprise then that there was an element of catch-up in the 1990s and thereafter. All of this helps to render the Fingletonian “analysis” highly dubious at best.
        But, at least from 2008, Tokyo and Japan’s economy haven’t been any worse than that of NYC, Chicago or Los Angeles or the U.S.
        If you’re talking about peak (2007 Q3) to current GDP data, plain and simple, then yes, it has been far, far, worse in Japan. There’s no room for debate on that. Often, thinking from a Japanese perspective, I wonder enviously why the US (and UK, if you like) caused all the problems and suffered the least…

      • One thing about Japan that strikes me — and is borne out in our host’s travelogue-y essays– is that it’s a very centripetal place . . .

        Japan may be #3 now but it’s still colossally wealthy, at least a portion of it is, and that portion generally lives and works in Tokyo, proper.

        And Tokyo, proper is about the size of Fresno, the fifth largest city in California. I actually overlaid the two cities in Photoshop to check : )

        It’s my thesis that a lot of the US’s funny money from the housing bubble of 2002-2007 made it to Japan via our love of Japanese stuff (even though Japan is increasingly manufacturing this stuff in China).

        When I lived in Japan in the 1990s, 日本製 consumer goods was the norm, but now I suspect it’s the oddity.

        Offshoring all the line work to China is actually a double-edged 刃 for Japan — it’s berigu for the Tokyo command center, but disastrous for whatever 田舎 is losing the work.

        What we’ve got is a fallacy of composition, or division, or something, here. Plus we should never underestimate the power of borrowed money to make poor long-term investments for that matter.

      • It’s my thesis that a lot of the US’s funny money from the housing bubble of 2002-2007 made it to Japan via our love of Japanese stuff (even though Japan is increasingly manufacturing this stuff in China).

        You know, that’s my thesis, too–although it only dawned on me a few weeks ago. It does a very good job of explaining why the J economy did so relatively well in the Koizumi years and so relatively badly in the vortex of 2008-2009. Sadly, the trade flows are now so complex, with exports of intermediate and semi-processed goods going to China and then being assembled there for shipment to North America, that I wonder whether it is possible to prove. We need a resident economist expert in international trade patterns.

        When I lived in Japan in the 1990s, 日本製 consumer goods was the norm, but now I suspect it’s the oddity.

        Not quite the oddity yet…

        Offshoring all the line work to China is actually a double-edged 刃 for Japan — it’s berigu for the Tokyo command center, but disastrous for whatever 田舎 is losing the work.

        To be sure, and a good thing to be reminded of on a day on which the Bank of Japan downgraded its assessments of seven regional economies (although one of them was Kanto-Koshinestsu, home to the command center.) Not being a Kremlinologist of the BoJ, it’s hard to know how to read the language, but things seem most severe in Kinki. I love the way that to go from “the economy continues to pick up as a whole, although some signs of severity are observed” to “the economy continues to pick up as a whole, although the pace of the pick-up is moderating in some aspects” for Hokuriku is regarded as a downgrade.

    • oh man the guy refers to George Friedman!

      Whatever happened to The Coming War With Japan???

      Ask a 22 yo woman leaving school this March about how great the Japanese economy is.

      Interesting story here:

      http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-01-05/women-beat-men-to-jobs-as-japan-mancession-spurs-deflation.html

  24. Someone mentioned this blog in Steve Sailer’s blog and Half Sigma, on their articles commenting Fingleton’s silly article.

    Both sites, incidentally, are biased against immigration. And they both commend Japan for not importing immigrants – I think in one of your articles

    https://spikejapan.wordpress.com/postcards-from-oizumi/

    you mentioned those Japanese-Brazillians , who are treated as “foreigners” in Japan.

    Japan does have some foreign population, but I don’t think the culture will allow these people (including the ex-Japanese – even the infamous Tokyo Rose, who broadcast Japanese propaganda during WWII, went back to America after serving time for her war crimes) to become “Japanese” no matter how many generations pass.

    So it’s clear foreigners won’t turn back the tide in Japan’s case.

    • From Steve Sailer’s blog:
      “A friend who moved to Japan in 1980 said that back then it was full of ugly buildings and poorly dressed people. Now, it’s full of nice buildings and well-dressed people.”
      Surely some mistake? It (well, we all mean Tokyo when we say “Japan”, sadly) remains full of ugly buildings and, outside the Yamanote line, poorly dressed people (and I include
      myself, inside the Yamanote line). Isn’t that what Uniqlo is there for? Not to mention Shimamura, which is for people too poor to shop at (really quite pricey) Uniqlo. Surprising
      that Shimamura hasn’t received the attention of a solicitous NY Times or Guardian hack aching to do a sensationalist article on the decline in Japanese living standards–I guess
      it’s below their radar screen.
      From Half Sigma:
      “The secret of the [sic] Japan, which is not mentioned in the NY Times article, is that they don’t have any NAMs to drag down the standard of living and cause the country to decline.”
      Can you or anyone else help helpless me with what a “NAM” is?
      No, foreigners will not turn the tide back in Japan’s case. My best assay at how that won’t happen, can’t happen, and is simply demographically impossible came here:
      https://spikejapan.wordpress.com/spike-hokkaido-2/teshio-mashike-and-the-rumoi-subprefecture-of-palisades-and-christ-signs/

      • Can you or anyone else help helpless me with what a “NAM” is?
        http://www.halfsigma.com/2009/05/nam-nonasian-minority.html

        Sailer’s overt racism makes him an odious little # but his argumentation is useful at times when I get into internet fights with conservatives (Sailer really nails Karl Rove and the Bush Administration to the wall for how they encouraged the housing boom/bubble for politically strategic reasons).

        As for Japan’s “demographic decline”, I just don’t see it. Sure, there’s going to be a lot more old people and a lot fewer young people this century. This sucks for schoolteachers and other youth-oriented industries but it also opens up more jobs for women in nursing, as the BusinessWeek article I linked to gets at.

        The only thing that matters for any economy is whether there’s enough wealth creation to match wealth consumption, and by wealth I don’t mean Wall Street wealth but hard goods — largely food, fuel, and infrastructure.

        Fewer mouths to feed and less new infrastructure to build is going to be a good thing for Japan. Economically marginal areas should and will become depopulated, as people relocate to less morbid regions.

        That’s all theoretical of course. How this plays out in realtime is the tough part for millions of people.

      • As for Japan’s “demographic decline”, I just don’t see it. Sure, there’s going to be a lot more old people and a lot fewer young people this century. This sucks for schoolteachers and other youth-oriented industries but it also opens up more jobs for women in nursing, as the BusinessWeek article I linked to gets at.

        It’s really a well-rehearsed argument about the ratio of dependents (retirees and the young) to the working-age population and the huge social security burden that having 40% of your population over 65 (that’s the projection for 2050, off the top of my head) entails. The only real ways to deal with it are by raising the retirement age to 75 or so and forcing women into the workplace.

        Those jobs in nursing/long-term care of the elderly in the BusinessWeek article are, outside of farming and forestry, about the worst-paying ones in Japan, and I find it hard to see where the resources might come from to change that.

      • NAM is “Non-Asian Minority”, which mostly means blacks and people of Latin American extraction.

        The definition of “Asian” differs by person by person. In Britain “Asian” contains a lot of people from former British India. In North America, it’s not clear whether such people are considered to be “Asian ” or “NAM”.

      • “Surely some mistake? It (well, we all mean Tokyo when we say “Japan”, sadly) remains full of ugly buildings and, outside the Yamanote line, poorly dressed people (and I include
        myself, inside the Yamanote line).”

        Now, now. Some of us have actually lived and worked outside of Tokyo and even the Kanto region. When I first came to Japan in 1979 the nation was indeed full of ugly buildings and poorly dressed people (there was something so disturbing about seeing so many woman putting so many unshaven legs in pantyhose). But, when I returned again nearly a decade later, my old furasato of Nagoya had been spruced right up, Tokyo was a marvel and, yes, much of the populace (the urban majority anyway) was much more fashionable. Even if they didn’t quite pull it all together, the average Japanese urbanite was still better dressed than their opposite number in the U.S.

        And as for above discussion of population density, I thinking of Tokyo-shi compared to NYC and not Tokyo-to.

        And as far comparative economic conditions, as of 2008, the year when most of us considering it all having come unglued here, the unemployment rate (probably around 15%) and the on-going foreclosures easily surpass what was happening in Tokyo-shi and Japan as a whole.

      • “and the on-going foreclosures easily surpass what was happening in Tokyo-shi and Japan as a whole.”

        one thing about the US that few people actually understand is that 20%+ of US incomes during the 2002-2008 period was coming from new debt money being spun through the housing bubble machine:

        http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?g=4je

        this was a ~$1T/yr stealth stimulus flow that got us out of the dotcom funk and kept the party going well past the 2004 election. A further under-appreciated dynamics is that Japan, Inc benefited greatly from this money flow, since it bathed all swathes of US consumerdom in sweet sweet Liquidity, and we USians do love us our Japanese consumer goods.

        Complicating my understanding of Japan is their immense internal debt structure, where borrowing is 50% of government expenditure apparently.

        But all this is just money they’re borrowing from themselves, so in one sense it’s not any serious imbalance that the Japanese will need to address. People can continue to buy JGB (whilst pretending they’re saving money instead of paying the corresponding taxes) for a good long time still, I’d guess.

      • But all this is just money they’re borrowing from themselves, so in one sense it’s not any serious imbalance that the Japanese will need to address.

        Until they run out of money to borrow… Did you ever read my piece, Japan: How bad is the fiscal mess?

        The “money they’re borrowing from themselves” argument is a bit of a canard, IMHO.

  25. WRT ‘Tokyo proper’, here’s that overlay I was talking about:

    http://i.imgur.com/bCWXh.jpg

    showing Tokyo’s transit system overlaid on Fresno (California’s 5th largest city). When constructing this I was shocked & pleased to see that the Shibuya-Ikebekuro corridor lined up well with Fresno’s main N-S commercial backbone (known as Blackstone Ave).

    Fresno’s sprawl off the left edge in reality also matches closely with Tokyo’s commuter sprawl, except the Setagaya/Kanagawa axis is still mostly undeveloped farmland on the Fresno side.

    When I lived in Tokyo in the 1990s I loved to bicycle around the place, but making this composite really impressed me wrt how tiny Tokyo Proper really is.

  26. Alec Simpson ( 15 years in Japan)

    Nice Writing… just try to adjust out of your white briton mind and try to walk in a local in some pub in southampton or wherever it might be imagining you might be of any other race than say… white
    Soo smug and superior still … demanding respect in the farthest corners of the world… you asshole. Respect Japan and you might learn a thing or too about yourself(ves)…

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