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Notes on Japan for My Father

Seoul  The economic news from Japan is grim.  Exports, the lifeblood of much of the country’s economy was down 10% in September to the lowest point in 30 years reflecting the continuing aftershock of the worldwide recession, aggravated by a currently unresolved land and trade dispute with China that led the downturn.  One person I visited recently commented sharply that the new government in power after decades of effective one-party rule, simply didn’t have the relationships in China and elsewhere to solve problems in the back channels with the finesse and face saving that is a mandatory requirement in this part of the world.  Regardless, you wouldn’t know there was even an economic hiccup in Tokyo or Sendai which were maintained so spotlessly that seeing a piece of litter almost provoked a double-take from me each morning if I beat the sweepers out.  Major construction in downtown Tokyo also seemed to be roaring forward.

My father, a WWII navy veteran was typical of that generation in being tight lipped about the war, partly because he spent much of it in the NROTC at Milsaps and Tulane preparing to be a lieutenant.  He shipped out finally for the far east after the war was effectively decided, hitting a number of ports after a Pacific crossing including Tokyo, though that’s as much as I really ever heard him say.  Nonetheless there’s little doubt that had he been with me, he would have been surprised, if not astounded, at this almost obsessively ultra-modern country and its third largest global economy.

Here are some random notes, he would have enjoyed, as you might as well:

  • Signage is ubiquitous and very, very detailed!

  • There are public facilities, but this isn’t India, and they are dignified and discrete.

  • This is vending machine heaven!  The popular bottles of green tea drunk by people everywhere turned out to have a Coca-Cola label on the top of the bottle.

  • New since my last visit was 40-inch hard barrier blocking the Metro tracks from the push of commuters, broken only by the automatically opening gates.  I was told, perhaps correctly, that the city had built these barriers in the six-years since my last visit because too many salarymen a little tipsy from some after work libations were falling fatally on the tracks.  Something had to be done, so they did it.

  • There’s a lot of smoking still, but best be careful where (even though many public restaurants still allow smoking surprisingly), even outside on the street, where there are constant warnings.

  • Remember when Japan was the gold standard for electronics?  They seem to feel that they still are, especially if you pause for a second and try to take the full measure of a parking meter.  Remember when they were simply metal stumps that swallowed coins?

  • Not everything is new wave, because in our work there’s still a bit of old school.  Both the police and a number of protestors sport plain plastic megaphones around their necks to give raised voices something of non-electronic boost.

  • The leaflets may be multi-colored with glossy paper and galloping graphics, but collating is still by hand just as it was more than 40 years ago when I first made flyers and shuffled them together with forms in welfare rights.

  • Anime “animals” of all shapes and sizes are pervasive and Hello Kitty is still out of control but that sort of playful or infantile imagery still gave me no response when I was asked about the full-bodied “frog” at the Anti-Poverty Campaign rally, I could only say, “Was that a frog?