Category Archives: Emptiness

Spike: Some FAQs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 4)    Will you not keep writing, please?

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

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

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

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

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

 7)    Can I have your car?

No. The rustmobile stays with me.

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

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

Tama no Yu public baths, Furubira

Shinya Sushi, Furubira

 Oasis activity, Furubira

 Hauling fish on cannery row, Furubira

 Warehouse flank, Furubira

Shiny chimney, Furubira

Fashion Shop Umeno, Furubira

All fall down, Furubira

Rust begets rust, Furubira

Rust ghost doorway, Furubira

Gas stand, Furubira

Waiting for the bus, Furubira

Converging, Furubira

White panel in rust, Furubira

Buttresses, Furubira

Cracks, tiles, and string, Furubira

Cracks and a peek, Furubira

Little bluff, Furubira

Fine old house and warehouse complex, Furubira (2)

Fine old house and warehouse complex, Furubira (1)

Doorway, Bikuni port, Shakotan

Squid boat lights and harbour activity, Shakotan

Squid boat and old warehouse, Shakotan

Squid boat lights, Shakotan

Squid boat lights and winches, Shakotan

 No illegal fishing, between Furubira and Shakotan

Seascape around Horonaifu, Shakotan

Waiting for the bus, Shakotan

Cycling marsupials, Shakotan

Rusty corner, Furubira

Ironmonger's, Shakotan

Vote for Hachiro

Superb doorway, Shakotan

Doorway from the side, Shakotan

 Old meets new, Furubira

 Cannery row, Furubira


The Diffident sandwiches of Uta Schreck

Every perturbation is a misery, but grief is a cruel torment, a domineering passion: as in Old Rome, when the Dictator was created, all inferior magistracies ceased; when grief appears, all other passions vanish.
Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (1651)

If you care to conceive of the Internet as a city—and it’s a workable metaphor, I think, twenty million streets splayed out under a kaleidoscope sky—then on some foggy, wastrel nights, if you’re intrepid enough to slip on that shabby gabardine trenchcoat at the back of the cupboard in the hall, turn up its collar, brace against the wind, and click-trip your way down the fustier byways and more antique alleyways, you can, if you’re lucky, a fortune-favored anthropologist, come across a civilization in microcosm that most would have imagined went extinct in the Victorian crepuscule.
Such is the Asiatic Society of Japan (patron: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado), which, as you can glean from its recent lecture list—

  • Japanese Netsuke: Treasured Miniatures
  • Japanese Government, San Francisco Treaty, and Disposition of Okinawa
  • On the Life of the Meiji Emperor
  • Sumo: Samurai to Cyberspace: How sumo is adapting to the changing times
  • Edwin O. Reischauer [1910-1990, US Ambassador to Japan]
  • The Rediscovery of the Japanese Sword
  • The Role of Women in Kyogen
  • The Tokugawa Art Collection
  • The Brush of Asia and the Forms of Europe

—is devoted to the most traditional of culture, the highest of high politics and diplomacy, and the Imperial Way, its world unsullied by the plebeians or the provinces, by science or commerce, by the present or the future.
It was for the meetings of the Asiatic Society of Japan that, for some years, some years ago, Mrs. Uta Schreck made the sandwiches. Reference to these sandwiches occurs some half-dozen times in the online annals of the society.

May 2004
The assembled company then adjourned to the adjacent conference room … Here we were grateful to one of our Council members, Mrs. Uta Schreck, who once again demonstrated her talent for making a large assortment of open sandwiches that were both elegant and delicious.
April 2006
To end the meeting, everyone was invited to partake of the wine that Council member Mrs. Shigeko Tanaka prudently procures for the Society’s lecture meetings at once-a-year bargain prices. Those present also enjoyed delicious open sandwiches diligently prepared by Council Member Mrs. Uta Schreck.
May 2006
After the meeting those assembled were invited to partake of wine and also Mrs. Uta Schreck’s delicious and innovative open sandwiches.
Annual Report of the ASJ Council for 2006
All the meetings … concluded with a modest reception, for which … Mrs. Uta Schreck kindly provided her distinctive open sandwiches.
Annual Report of the ASJ Council for 2007
This year Mrs. Tanaka also undertook to provide some simple snacks, as Mrs. Uta Schreck’s declining physical condition prevented her from preparing her famous open sandwiches which we had enjoyed in the past.
Annual Report of the ASJ Council for 2007
Unfortunately, never a year goes by without our having sadly to record the deaths of members. This year … we said farewell to a faithful Council Member, Mrs. Uta Schreck, who, as House Committee Chair, had so often enhanced the pleasure of our meetings with her inimitable open sandwiches, a happy marriage of Japanese and European ingredients. Some of us still try to recapture the magic of those sandwiches, and Uta, surely one of our most diffident members, is fondly remembered and greatly missed.

How my appetite pulses for these sandwiches, sandwiches that are “elegant”, “delicious”, and “innovative”, “distinctive”, “famous”, and “inimitable”, “kindly provided” and “diligently prepared” by the diffident hands of Uta Schreck. How these sandwiches must have leavened the stilted badinage of the assembled Chrysanthemum Clubbers and miscellaneous dignitaries, stiff with the self-conscious archaisms of a world in which wine is “procured” (to buy it would be vulgar) and “partaken” (to drink it might hint at drunkenness). How intriguing is the final reference—“some of us still try to recapture the magic of those sandwiches”—by doing what, exactly? Holding séances?
Recast that final sentence, transpose Uta and her sandwiches. Does the meaning change?
Some of us still try to recapture the magic of Uta, one of our most diffident members, and her sandwiches are fondly remembered and greatly missed.
That suggests, to me at least, the threnody is to the sandwiches, not their creator.

I had thought that the ne plus ultra of crocodilian insincerity in public displays of grief, the absolute nonpareil nadir of our gutter culture, was the collective celebrity reaction to the death in the summer of 2011 of singer Amy Winehouse. 

Winehouse Dead: Shocked Friend Kelly Osbourne Tweets Sadness
Celebrities are taking to their Twitter to pay their respects and express their grief in regards to the sudden death of singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse, who was found dead at her London home on Saturday. …
Best friend and fellow singer Kelly Osbourne, who had previously helped the late singer check into a drug addiction treatment facility in 2008, according to The Associated Press, tweeted her disbelief.
“I can’t even breath right now i’m crying so hard I just lost 1 of my best friends. i love you forever Amy and will never forget the real you!”
Other stars took the time to tweet their respects as well, including Rihanna, Jessica Alba, Ashton Kutcher, and Kate Moss.
Rihanna: “I am genuinely heartbroken about this,” and “Dear God have mercy!!! I am SICK about this right now!”
Jessica Alba: “So sad about Amy Winehouse—she was so talented. Really tragic.”
Ashton Kutcher: “I nevr know wht 2 post after paying respect 2 sum1 who died. Just seems lk anything funny is inappropriate. mayB I’ll just go C Harry Potter.”
Fellow Brits Kate Moss and Lily Allen shared, “R.I.P. Amy Winehouse, So upset, my heart goes out to her, sad to see such talent vanish from the world.”

There’s a smorgasbord of riches to relish here—“celebrities taking to their Twitter” as if it were an Ottoman or snuff, the tweeting of sadness, the spectacle of Kelly Osbourne, starved of oxygen and deprived by tears of eyesight, valiantly tapping out a valedictory, and Dear God, it really, really is all about ME, Rihanna—but the infelicity prize must go hands-down to Ashton Kutcher (whoever he is). One can only pray that Lord Voldemort and company helped assuage his inconsolable misery. If, as psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross contended, there are five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—they are not much on display among our clutch of celebrities. 

At first blush, the responses in the record to the deaths of diffident Uta Schreck and anything-but-diffident Amy Winehouse could not have less in common, but pierce through the abyssal differences of tone and register and there’s a shared perfunctoriness—compare “fondly remembered and greatly missed” with “really tragic”—a marking of time in public mourning. And as with the sandwiches of Uta Schreck, here it is (sometimes) the songs (“such talent”, “she was so talented”) of Amy Winehouse, not person, that are memorialized.

Grief, by all accounts, is a human universal, though capable, clearly, of great cultural and historical heterogeneity—think of those images of ululating Shias in the Iraq War, or maudlin Victorians, touched by Tennyson (“O sorrow, wilt thou live with me / No casual mistress but a wife”). Debate rages in the halls of academe as to whether grief is an evolutionary maladaptation, “the cost of commitment” as psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes labeled it, or a useful epiphenomenon, signaling a period of withdrawal and introspection. One thing strikes this casual and intermittent but curious observer of grief, though: notwithstanding the upwellings and outgushings of mass public grief over the death of a Princess Diana or a Steve Jobs, grief at its best, ardent but not debilitating, seems to me to be a glacier in deep retreat across the mountains of the modern mind, retreating from kith to closest kin, a corollary, perhaps, of a tentatively, selectively, but intriguingly documented decline in that most distinctively human of emotions, empathy. For how can you grieve for someone about whom you never really gave a tinker’s cuss in the first place?


In praise of…Optimists

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

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

A shaggy dog story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Wake Wakkanai, or Cinema Paradiso, Hokkaido style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Bitter oranges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In praise of…The Oma-Hakodate ferry

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

Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene, Sayuri Ishikawa, 1977

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of the line?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Kiyosato: High plains drifter

(part two of two)

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

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

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

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

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

“What brings you to Kiyosato?”

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


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

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

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


“I’m on my own.”

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

“In winter.”

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

A pause ensued.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“So what did you like the most?”

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

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

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

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

“Nice life.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Sotheby’s offloaded some Beuys

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

and still be home in time for tea?