Tokyo Car Culture, Part I

June 21, 2009

Some of the stranger automobiles I’ve encountered on my travels in Japan:

almost a vw van (but really a subaru, i think)

almost a vw van (but really a subaru, i think)

almost a jaguar (but really a pint-sized mitsuoka)

almost a jaguar (but really a pint-sized mitsuoka)

almost a mini cooper s (but really a daihatsu, as far as i can tell)

almost a mini cooper s (but really a daihatsu, as far as i can tell)

almost a 1955 Toyopet Crown (but in fact a 50-odd-year-later Toyota Origin)

almost a 1955 Toyopet Crown (but in fact a 50-odd-year-later Toyota Origin)

a mitsubishi east brain?

a mitsubishi east brain?

almost a car (but it has some growing up to do)

almost a car (but it has some growing up to do)

the all new Nissan Pivo2, whose passenger area can pivot 180 degrees, but not while driving

the all new Nissan Pivo2, whose passenger area can pivot 180 degrees, but not while driving

why do you suppose you never hear of high speed police chases in japan?

why do you suppose you never hear of high speed police chases in japan?


Mysteries From the Mysterious East

June 20, 2009

Although Japanese mystery novels have not chipped their way into the collective Western consciousness, it is neither for lack of trying nor dearth of product. I have reviewed several of the contemporary crop of writers for BookPage over the past couple of years: Miyuki Miyabe, Asa Nonami, Natsuo Kirino, to name but a few. They are only the tip of the ice berg, in fact only the tip of the ice berg of Japanese mystery novelists whose work I have read: Shizuko Natsuki, Ryu Murakami, Seicho Matsumoto, Arimasa Osawa, and Akamitsu Takagi, to name but a few more. Sometimes my first experience with a writer is his / her second or third book and it has spurred me to go back and read previous work; such was the case with Natsuo Kirino, whose Real World I reviewed last summer:

“Tokyo is said to be the safest city in the world, although if the events in Natsuo Kirino’s chilling Real World are any indication, the safety may be something of an illusion, a thin gauze veil over a maelstrom. Four teenage girls are the protagonists, although some are definitely more pro- than others: Toshi, the steady one, who hears the loud noise next door, unaware that a murder has just taken place; Kirarin, the sweet and lovable one who is a bundle of contradictions just below the surface; Yuzan, the one who has not quite come out of the closet, although her friends are all aware of her sexual leanings; and Terauchi, the hyper-philosophical one who struggles with loneliness and betrayal. All of them have a peculiar bond with a geeky high school kid nicknamed Worm, and each of them will have a fateful interaction with him: two will die, and two will find the courses of their lives irreparably altered. Real World is not about central-casting Japanese girls who shyly cover their mouths when they smile, but rather about thoroughly serious contemporary young women faced with a crisis well beyond their limited abilities to cope with it.”

I had received a copy of Kirino’s previous book, Out, but had not had the chance either to read or review it; still, it looked interesting enough that I put it into my night stand bookcase for a future read. (It should be noted here that the logistics of book reviewing are sometimes a bit overwhelming, albeit in a good way. Each month I have to review four books, sometimes more, which means reading at least six or eight in order to be able to choose the best four to review. I try to mix it up a bit, male / female, younger / older, new authors / old favorites, domestic / foreign, and so on.) Inevitably some great books slip through the cracks. Nastuo Kirino’s Out was one of those, as I discovered on the airplane to Japan last time around.

If I had reviewed Out, it would have looked something like this: “Natsuo Kirino’s debut into the American literature market is the the wildly inventive Out, a macabre tale of a quartet of night shift working women who inadvertently become for-hire corpse grinders. Got your attention? I thought so. It starts innocently enough, when Yayoi Yamamoto murders her husband. Don’t shed any tears for this loser, though; he was a world-class abuser, and richly deserved his fate. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I guarantee you will empathize with Yayoi. Yayoi seeks help from workmate Masako Katori, the clear thinker of the four, in disposing of the body, and she in turn recruits the group’s senior member, Yoshie Azuma. The final member, Kuniko Jonouchi, slips into the mix by accident, showing up at the very inopportune moment when the other three are hacking away at the remainder of Yayoi’s dear departed husband Kenji. Conveniently, somebody else is tapped by the police as the prime suspect, and the four think they are in the clear. No such luck, however, for someone knows their secret, and he sets about using it to blackmail them. Not ordinary blackmail, though; he doesn’t want money…he wants some bodies disposed of, and who better for the job than someone(s) with experience in the field? Read Out…to find out.”

Kirino was by no means my first encounter with Japanese mystery fiction, though. In fact, I am not quite sure who was, although there is a good chance it was Miyuki Miyabe, the reigning doyenne of Japanese genre fiction. Here is my BookPage review of her sorta-supernatural thriller, Crossfire:

“Tokyo police detective Chikako Ishizu, protagonist of Miyuki Miyabe’s best-selling Shadow Family, returns for an encore performance in Crossfire, this time forced to re-evaluate her skeptical position on paranormal behavior. It seems that Junko Aoki, a pretty young Japanese woman, has a strange talent: she can start fires simply by exerting intense concentration. It is a gift she uses to exact vigilante justice in cases where the conventional legal system failed. Both Ishizu and Aoki seek justice for criminals, but their methods are distinctly at odds with one another, as are their usual outcomes. As the bodies begin to pile up, the police are not the only ones to take notice: a growing vigilante group in Tokyo would dearly love to add Aoki’s talents to their arsenal. Best described as a mystery-meets-supernatural novel, but definitely leaning more toward the mystery side, Crossfire will be a big hit with fans of Stephen King and John Connolly alike.”

I have a special place in my heart for Japanese author Asa Nonami; her book The Hunter was the first novel I read and reviewed upon touching down in Tokyo a few years back:
“As this is my first column written from within the confines of my tiny Tokyo apartment, it seems especially fitting to lead off with a review of a Japanese author. Asa Nonami makes her first foray into English-language mysteries with The Hunter, translated by the talented Julia Winters Carpenter, who impressed readers (including this one) with her English rendering of Miyuki Miyabe’s 2004 thriller, Shadow Family. Originally released in Japan in 1996, where it won the prestigious Naoki Prize, The Hunter stands poised to take aim at Western markets this month. The heroine, beleaguered police detective Takako Otomichi, is as complex and conflicted a protagonist as any in recent memory. The product of an affirmative-action type program to bring more females into positions of power in the workplace, Otomichi is by turns coddled, patronized and outright dissed by her co-workers. On top of that, she is recently divorced, her sister is semi-suicidal, her mother is a harpy and her new partner is a misogynist of the first order. Otomichi’s latest assignment finds her hot on the trail of a murderous canine, possibly a cross between a large dog and a wolf. Surprisingly, there is a society, albeit a loosely knit and somewhat clandestine one, that promotes the breeding of these clever and ferocious animals; to Otomichi’s dismay, the key figures all seem to be cops. And what’s a girl to do when the cops all stick together to keep a female officer out of the loop? The answer, of course, is to stay one step ahead, to beat the bullies at their own game, a task that Otomichi is well up to. The Hunter is a first-rate page-turner, sure to have readers queuing up for a sequel.”

The crime rate is quite low in Japan; indeed, it is among the lowest in the world, particularly where violent crimes are concerned, but you would never know it from the diabolical plotting and scheming of the fine suspense writers from the Land of the Rising Sun.


The Week in Pics

June 13, 2009
open-top double decker bus, hong kong twilight

open-top double decker bus, hong kong twilight

coming soon to a theater near you, malron blando in on the waterflont...

coming soon to a theater near you, malron blando in on the waterflont...

the jinrikisha is alive and well in asakusa

the jinrikisha is alive and well in asakusa

words to live by

words to live by

the ginormous blue buddha of Kamakura; I went inside, accompanied by a gaggle of giggling grade school girls

the ginormous blue buddha of Kamakura; I went inside, accompanied by a gaggle of giggling grade school girls

how cute is this little toon car, a mid-nineties Nissan Figaro

how cute is this little toon car, a mid-nineties Nissan Figaro


Tom Swift and His Atomic Pun

June 13, 2009

English language geeks, among whose number I proudly count myself, have long been enamored of a weird and wonderful kind of pun known as a Tom Swiftie. This brand of humor draws its name from the Tom Swift novels, a series of boys’ books popular in the early and mid-twentieth century, the product of prolific children’s writer Edward Stratemeyer, who also penned (with a multiplicity of pseudonyms) the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, as well as the earlier Bobbsey Twins and Rover Boys tales. Tom Swift was noted for the way he did or said things, with arcane adverbs describing his every move. Somewhere along the line, parodies began to pop up, with the adverb connected by pun to the body of the sentence, and the English language has never been the same. “Go to the back of the boat,” said Tom sternly. “Did I discover radium?” asked Marie curiously. “I dropped the toothpaste,” he said, crestfallen. You get the idea. There are also pseudo Tom Swifties in which there is no adverb, simply a verb that plays upon the action of the sentence: “I’m a plumber,” he piped.

My friend Steve Johnson found these immensely appealing, and offered: “You don’t bring me flowers anymore,” she said lackadaisically. To which I replied: “The prisoners are escaping over the wall,” the guard said condescendingly. And so the games began, and they have likely not ended, although my “‘Houston, we have a problem,’ he said apologetically” occasioned a card from Steve reading simply “Game/set/match”.

I have accumulated a list (see below), but it is only the tip of the iceberg (he said titanically), and clever additions will be welcomed and noted. (Note: some require more thinking than others…)

“We can’t have this and eat it too,” he said archaically.
“Elect Rick Lee,” his supporters cried electrically.
“We brought you gold and frankincense only,” he demurred.
“I used to command a battalion of German ants,” he said exuberantly.
“I accidentally pierced my cheek,” he said mysteriously.
“I’m Captain Hook,” he said offhandedly.
“Elvis has left the building,” he said expressly.
“Emily has put on weight,” he said emphatically.
“3.14159,” he said piously.
“Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete,” he said repeatedly.
“There must be something more than faith and charity,” he said hopefully.
“I have $100, who will give $200?” he asked morbidly.
“I cannot eat another cream puff,” he declared.
“I’ve changed my name to Al,” said Hal, exasperated.
“It’s half base,” he said half-assedly.
“I’m Jack the Ripper,” he said horrendously.
“He’s a really cool sailor,” she said hypnotically.
“This chicken has no beak,” he said impeccably.
“You should get it monogrammed,” he suggested initially.
“Why are you so close to me?” Adam asked naively.
“It’s subtraction,” he said, nonplussed.
“It’s 9:59,” he said pretentiously.
“I have only shampoo,” he said unconditionally.
“I’m headed for Scotland,” he said clandestinely.
“What’s the German word for ‘four’?” he asked fearlessly.
“Is your name Timothy or Russell?” he asked timorously.
“I manufacture horizontal kitchen surfaces,” he said counterproductively.
“Leprechauns never tell the truth,” he implied.
“I will name the first insect,” God said adamantly.

And finally, a particular anti-favorite of mine: “I hate adverbs,” said Tom.

As you can see, like parsley, sage and rosemary, these are simply thymeless.


Manglish, Part I

June 4, 2009

a bit of holy marketing...

a bit of holy marketing...

it's that old L and R issue again...

it’s that old L and R issue again…

truth in advertising

truth in advertising
whiprush is a big probrem in Japan...especially if you're under the infruence

whiprush is a big probrem in Japan...especially if you're under the infruence

want a job copy writing for Swarovski?

want a job copy writing for Swarovski?

bee-ware of bee-zilla

bee-ware of bee-zilla
ladies, gentlemen and...aliens?

ladies, gentlemen and...aliens?

yeah, but how much does it cost?

yeah, but how much does it cost?

my sentiments exactly...

my sentiments exactly…

It is almost too easy making fun of the fractured English that can be found everywhere in Japan, particularly when you consider just how monolingual most Americans are. However bad the Japanese may be at English, it must be said that we are decidedly worse at their language, our Japanese vocabulary being limited to a handful of cross-cultural words: sushi, tsunami, teriyaki…um, Toyota, Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Pokemon, (okay, I’m back on track here) sudoku, anime, banzai (and its pseudo-homonym, bonsai), kabuki, manga, futon, geisha, haiku, ikebana, Godzilla, karate (and jujitsu), sumo, judo, jinrikisha, kamikaze…

There must be more, but those are all I can think of at the moment.

The Japanese, however, use English in all walks of life with gay abandon, and in ways that make a native English speaker sit up and take notice, albeit perhaps not in the way the writers had in mind. The result is known colloquially as “Engrish”, so named for the perceived Asian transposition of “R”s and “L”s. There is, in fact, a website dedicated to the funnier examples; not surprisingly, it can be found at http://www.engrish.com.

I amuse myself hugely by taking pictures of things that are largely invisible to the legions of Japanese photographers, namely, the unintentionally hilarious signs, product labels, t-shirts, etc., featuring hopelessly mangled English. At a park in Kyoto, for instance, a sign instructed me to “Be Careful of the Bee”. I guess it was not bee season, as I neither saw nor heard any evidence of said bee, but I can only imagine that he (or she) is truly fearsome, if someone felt it necessary to erect a sign about it. Another one I quite liked hung from a museum doorway: “KEEP OFF The Concerned Person Only”. I paid no attention, as I was not on the concerned person, as far as I could tell. In the hallway of my hotel was a map delineating the fire escape route, with the helpful advice: “Take the low posture with muffled breathing”. Probably my favorite, although such a choice is extremely difficult, is a t-shirt with some pointed commentary about romance novels, made all the funnier (to me, at least) by the fact that my sister-in-law is a published romance novelist. On the front it said: “GOTHIC A Little Bit And Avoided The Romance Books”. On the back, well, you will have to have a look at the attached picture, which is worth the proverbial 10-cubed words. Note: apologies for the sometimes blurry pics, several of which were snapped on the fly, and without flash, so as not to alert the subject.