Swaying Chandeliers


On Friday, I wake up early, eat a bowl of cereal and put on my suit to go to the Graduation.

The suit is a charcoal pinstripe, which I bought at the annual Daimaru Department Store suit sale. The cut of the suit is conservative, the waist a bit higher than suits are cut nowadays, the better to contain the shape that, for better or worse, I am. I guess I look more business-like in it, more official (although I teach in a shirt and tie, I’m not required – yet – to wear a full suit when I’m teaching). So why don’t I particularly care for the suit? I kid myself that it’s because it makes me look old. Actually, it just makes me look my age. But who wants that?

You can get a lot of wear out of a suit if you only wear it twice a year, so this is my fourteenth time putting it on. This being Japan, it was probably cut for a man with slightly shorter arms and a somewhat smaller chest. Well, my arms haven’t gotten any shorter and my chest certainly hasn’t gotten any smaller since I bought it, so I leave it unbuttoned (oddly, the waist is no problem at all). I look in the mirror and note how much more I look like my father than last year and the year before. I put on my coat and walk down to the subway station; a chilly March morning in Osaka.

Because I don’t normally wear a suit, I feel different on the train and imagine that I’m seen differently too. I arrive at Nishi-Umeda station and hang a left and head to the graduation: March 11th, 2011.


The graduation ceremony had just ended. I had been helping to emcee and had just directed all the students out of the banquet room and into the hallway.

As you do, you chat, and pose for countless pictures. In the midst of all this, my knees felt odd. I felt as though I’d taken medicine that was too strong. But I hadn’t taken any medicine, and alcohol wasn’t served at the graduation banquet. It was then, when I looked up and noticed the chandeliers swaying ominously, that I realized it wasn’t my knees that were wobbling – it was the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Students, staff and teachers, in suits and kimono were posing for photos below the chandeliers, talking, saying goodbye, and almost nobody seemed to notice what was going on. Those of us who did began gesturing to the others, pointing out what was happening above them. I wouldn’t want to be under one of those things if it gave way. People began arranging themselves along the walls. A few were still oblivious, happily snapping away, and had to be shouted at.

And it just kept shaking. Even those who weren’t normally fazed by tremors were getting decidedly uncomfortable at just how long the thing went on. The Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 seemed like about 2 minutes, but was actually about 30 seconds. Time expands when you’re in a situation like that. This one went on for well over a minute, and seemed like five.

When it eventually petered out, there was an eerie silence as people waited for what, if anything, would happen next.

Another reason for the silence, the great unasked, was “where did it happen?” Nara? Kobe again? Eventually, iPhones were whipped out, headlines checked. Tohoku? But that’s on the other side of Tokyo, hundreds of kilometers away. Must be wrong. But no. It was right.


The above was written a week after the events in Tohoku. I had planned to write about the shocked reactions, the people lost and all the rest, but that would have been dishonest: that came later. For the most part, since it was too much for most of us to comprehend, we did nothing. A few of us left the hotel, went to the Sherlock Holmes nearby, and over pints, tried to figure out where Miyagi was (I had confused it with Miyazaki, nearly as far away, but in the other direction). Periodically, a PA announcement from the building management told us that there appeared to be no structural damage to the building. We wondered if anyone had been killed, but didn’t think much of it because the image of Tohoku to people in Kansai was of an empty rural expanse (the Earthquake aftermath was nearly as much of a geography lesson to urban Japanese as it was for the rest of the world).

Whew, we thought, that was a close one.

Then I went off to see a tango performance, as previously planned (I found out later that the performers had debated whether or not to cancel, but concluded that, like in wartime, you had to keep up people’s morale, so dance they did). The place was packed, as though all were trying to preserve a sense of normality for as long as possible. It was a good show. Excellent music.

I then continued on to have a drink with the graduates at Hub. As we talked, I noticed on the television in the background scenes of seawater lifting up what looked to be toy vehicles in a diorama town and washing them away. And it dawned on me that it wasn’t a movie or animation or an artist’s conception of what could have happened: it was the real thing. There had been a tsunami and Sendai was being flooded.

And we began getting emails from friends in Tokyo, saying the city had shut down and people were having to walk home for hours. And we talked some more and had another pint. And the place was full.

It was only when I got home, close to midnight and turned on my computer and saw my mailbox and Facebook full of messages from around the world that I realized the magnitude of what had happened, how many towns had been obliterated, how many tens of thousands had been washed away. I had actually felt the quake and seen snippets of activity on TV sets here and there, but had never seen, as those who had seen the headlines and heard the newscasts elsewhere, the big picture.

I sat up until two answering messages, calling home, still in that suit which, when the day began, had been my biggest concern.

Heisei 26.1.13 Coming of Age Day

Today is the day Japanese 20-year-olds put their best suits or kimonos on and go to the local city hall to meet friends and listen to dull speeches. It’s a national holiday, and, having a mild cold, I celebrated it by acting as old as I possibly could: I even had prune-flavoured yogurt on my bran flakes this morning. I browsed the internet for home hints, three of which I tried; I had leftovers on toast for lunch; I put away, finally, my Christmas and New Year’s Card paraphernalia; I washed a scarf in the sink; I read on the sofa for a few hours, and if I’m really ambitious soon, I will make a pot of tea and read for a few hours more. I’ve got BBC Radio 3 on in the background and I’m wearing a chanchanko. I don’t think I’ve left anything out.

Every Christmas, Fred and I send each other secondhand books. I’m presently getting tucked into one of them now: Halfway to Hollywood, Michael Palin’s second collection of diaries. I was surprised when it arrived, because it appears to have been a library book: along a scribbled-out barcode on the front cover, I can make out ” Mesa County Public Library District” and on the inside cover, a boldfaced stamp in red ink: Withdrawn. Now, a quick Google shows me that Mesa County is in Colorado. I think Fred ordered the book from a shop in Seattle ( via Amazon). It’s now in Osaka and I can only imagine why it was withdrawn. This edition is only from 2011; it’s in excellent condition and still has the cellophane dust jacket over the dust jacket that all hardcover library books have. There can’t have been a surplus of Michael Palin Diaries in Mesa County, Colorado, so how did I end up with it? A library closed? A local Republican grandee came across the word ‘bum’ several times and had the book banned? Being a Python, Palin does quite freely use the word ‘bum’, and there is some discussion among the Pythons early on about the making of a short film called ‘Penis Apology’ to show at the beginning of ‘Life of Brian’ (in which you do see Graham Chapman’s willy for about two seconds). But that wouldn’t be it. For all the benefits of eBooks ( and I did read about 20 of them last year) they don’t have the story behind them that old books do.

Is it dinner time yet?


The baby cries and howls on the stopped train.
Until then it was almost cosy sitting here on the local,
Appreciating the autumn light on the tracks,
Listening to a podcast about Louis McNiece (1907-1963).
Uncrowded seats of mostly elderly men,
Calmly, in Panama hats and baseball caps,
Listening to the grammatically elaborate apologies of the conductor
For the inexcusable inconvenience caused to us
By that person who jumped.

9 Sept 2013, between Ibaraki and Takatsuki

It Takes Two to Tango…

(…from Amagasaki to Buenos Aires)

(This originally appeared as an article in the August, 2011, issue of Kansai Scene)

From August 16th-30th, the city of Buenos Aires will host its 8th annual International World Cup of Tango. Representing Asia in this event will be a pair who both live and work in Hyogo.

At the qualifying round in Yokohama this past June, Hisako Iwamoto and Hiroshi Takazaki, both of Kobe, handily beat out competing pairs from Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan in their category (Stage Tango; see sidebar). The duo have performed professionally for the last four years as Chako & Tacky (チャコ&タッキー, the common nicknames for Hisako and Takazaki in Japanese). Although they both have day jobs, in the evening they perform, teach – and still study – Argentine Tango at the Alma de Tango Academy in Amagasaki.

I spoke to Chako and Tacky at the dance studio, where they were already beginning to rehearse for Buenos Aires. I expected, when asking about how they got into tango in the first place, to hear stories of years of childhood dance lessons and demanding stage mothers (of course, I have lived in Japan for years, and had also just seen Black Swan). Happily, I was wrong. Neither were dancers prior to discovering tango, and it was only after immersing themselves in the music that they decided to take the next step, as it were.

Like many girls growing up in Hyogo Prefecture, Chako was a fan of the Takarazuka Revue. One year, when she was a teenager, she saw the troupe perform a musical number involving – she realizes now – Argentine tango. She had never heard such music before and was immediately impressed. Around the same time, Yo-Yo Ma’s album Libertango became a big hit in Japan. That clinched it. She wanted to do more than just listen, and when the Alma de Tango Academy opened in 1999, she was one of their first students.

One day in his mid-20s, Tacky (or Hiro, as he was then and is now, when not performing or teaching) was listening to some CDs in the World Music section of a music shop. After listening to flamenco for a minute (“maa-maa”), he switched to the next CD, which happened to be a tango compilation.  “I just said, ‘Wow!’ and bought it immediately.” Although he didn’t know any Spanish, he was struck by the deep feeling and drama of the music and singing – an antidote to J-Pop. He noticed, while walking home from work a year or so later, the very same tango studio where Chako was by now an instructor. On a whim, he turned up one evening, spoke to the owner, Ryo Ikemoto, and asked to join a dance class. His first question, on being told to lead a dance, was, “What does ‘lead’ mean?”

“You’re putting me on, right?” was the sensei’s stunned reply.

*Fast forward several years. In 2007, Chako & Tacky began performing professionally as a team at private events, hotel dinner shows and concerts, and over four years, entered the Asian Competitions, both in Stage and Salon categories. In 2010, after furious training and high hopes, they narrowly came 2nd . Discouraged, they considered retiring after honoring some prior performance commitments earlier this year. They began wondering if it was all worth it: remember, if you see a perfectly executed dance lift, it’s the sum of countless drops (Tacky: “And kicks and bruises!”); for every look of passion, there are the rehearsals in which the all-important passion goes astray (Chako: “Shouting matches!”). It became harder for them to follow their sensei Ryo’s prime tango directive, “Don’t be strong! Be passionate!” They didn’t feel either.

However, Ryo and his wife Hazuki (a formidable dance team and themselves Asian Champions and runners-up in Buenos Aires in 2005) finally convinced them that, having come this far, they should give it one last try. Ironically, the decision to make this their grand finale freed them up to show the judges what they could do. “In a way, we had nothing to lose,” says Chako, “as long as we could always say we did our best…” To their astonishment, this zen-like acceptance (along with the usual rehearsals and master classes and bruises and holding down day jobs) resulted in their winning, and winning decisively, in Yokohama. So it wasn’t a finale after all.

Speaking as someone who rather likes tango music but has trouble tapping his feet, let alone dancing, I asked them whether it was necessary to be as completely committed to tango as they were in order to enjoy it. They both said, nearly at once, “No. No way.” You can begin dancing, they agreed, at any age. “The key is to relax,” said Chako, to which Tacky added, “It’s surprising how many people can’t do that. ‘Relaxing’ doesn’t mean you don’t have to master the basic steps – of course you do. But until you let yourself go and just try them, you’ll just be stiff like a wooden doll (ningyou), and you’ll never gain the confidence to rise to the next level, which is improvising with a partner.” They implied that, in a society somewhat weighted, to say the least, against improvisation, it takes a special person to want to lose themselves in that all-important first step. But there are such people, and as teachers, it gives them great satisfaction when a student finds – as they did – that special place within themselves.

The Alma de Tango Academy is located near JR Tachibana Station in Amagasaki.

For more information: http://www.alma-de-tango.com/



The World Festival of Tango will be held from August 16th to 30th in Buenos Aires, Argentina.


SIDEBAR: In Western countries outside of South America, the tango holds a sort of nostalgic image of Rudolph Valentino, gauchos and exaggeratedly-controlled passion. Like most clichés, there’s a grain of truth to it, but it’s a homogenized, Hollywood view all the same.

Argentine Tango is a dance which evolved mostly in the working class dance halls (milonga) of Buenos Aires around the end of the 19th century. What distinguishes it from most other forms of social dance is that past a few basic steps and conventions (which must, however, be mastered precisely), the tango is mostly improvised at the moment of performance, which requires both a knowledge of and feel for the music on the part of both partners. The later, European version – which you might have learned at a dance school, along with the waltz and the cha-cha-cha and other social dances – is the one we so often see in the movies, and is so different from the original (which has actually been declared an intangible part of World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO) that Argentines refer to their dance hall version as Salon Tango to avoid confusion. In competition, Salon category contestants dance around the floor while keeping their embrace (abrazo). However, since they don’t know in advance which piece of music they will be dancing to, judges are looking to see how smoothly the couples adapt and improvise their steps. In contrast, Stage Tango is intricately choreographed, and pairs are judged on the skill of their dramatic, flamboyant performances. At the 2011 Asian Championships, Chako & Tacky won in the Stage category, while Lily Cheng & Raymond Chu, a couple from Hong Kong, took the Salon category, and will be accompanying them to the finals in Argentina).

The View From the Tatami

{This originally appeared as an article in the July, 2011 issue of Kansai Scene}

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) is famous among film students as the traditionalist director who broke all the rules. He would happily move props around from shot to shot if he thought it would enhance the composition. He rejected the over-the shoulder conventions of conversation scenes and shot the actors face on, looking directly at the camera (if two actors are in the same shot, they are usually looking in the same direction). His camera angles were so low (shot from the supposed perspective of a person watching the action from the tatami floor) that his cameraman often had to shoot scenes while lying on his stomach.

In his lifetime, Ozu was beloved and respected in Japan like few other film-makers, as much for his (carefully-crafted) affable old uncle persona as for the movies he made. The persona was as much an illusion as anything he created onscreen (he died of throat cancer, from incessant smoking, his once-tough body already ravaged by heavy drinking, when he was only 60). In the 1960s, a later generation of Japanese directors reacted against Ozu’s seemingly complacent, well-crafted home dramas, sneering at their celebration of middle-class family values. It later became clear that they had missed the point – Ozu was in fact documenting the breakdown and dissolution of the traditional Japanese family. Few of his works, though beautifully composed and filmed, are full-on feel-good movies. In story after story, people earnestly do what they think is right – and in the eyes of Japanese society, it usually is – but they end up feeling less than satisfied. Not that Ozu’s movies are all glum – on the contrary, they are infused with wit and real affection for ordinary people and their foibles.

Sidebar: An Ozu Primer. (Ozu’s career began in the silent era and ended just before The Beatles hit the bigtime. Here’s a selection. Note: All the movies below are available with English subtitles from The Criterion Collection, via Amazon.com)

I Was Born, But… (Umereta keredo…, 1932) – Two young boys are invited to watch some home movies by their classmate, the son of their father’s boss. They are shocked to see their father (an early salaryman,whom they hero-worship) clowning and acting stupid for the benefit of the boss’s camera and they realize he’s just another cog in the wheel. Remade in a much more cheerful colour version in 1959.

A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa monogatari, 1934) – A middle-aged actor and his shabby repertory company arrive in a small mountain town to put on a show. The actor meets up with his old lover, who has raised their college-age son, who thinks the man is his uncle. The actor’s much younger mistress finds out and in a fit of jealousy unravels everything. Ozu remade this in colour in 1959.

Early Spring  (Banshun, 1949) – A widowed professor and his daughter live contentedly together in Kamakura. The daughter has no desire to marry, but after pressure from meddling do-gooders, the father lets on that he’s thinking about remarrying. The dutiful daughter, not wanting to be in the way, has a “successful” marriage arranged and moves away, creating a happy ending for everyone but the daughter and now-lonely father, who were perfectly happy to begin with.

Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1954) – An elderly couple from Okayama travel to Tokyo to visit their adult children. The children, however, have little time for them in their lives, apart from the obligatory formalities, and the only one who shows them any sincere affection is the widow of the son who never came home from the War. The old ‘blood is thicker that water’ clichés of Japanese society are quietly dumped out the window.

Equinox Flower ( Higanbana, 1958) – A lighthearted generation-gap story of  a successful businessman whose daughter has decided to get married without his approval. This is Ozu’s first colour movie – he held onto black and white for as long as he could and then made up for lost time. It’s worth watching for the composition alone.

The Quiet Genius of Kon Ichikawa

{This originally appeared as an article in the June, 2011 issue of Kansai Scene}

Kon Ichikawa (1915-2008) was born in Mie and studied in Osaka. He began his career as an animator and perhaps because of this, his directing style is so visual that some of his best films can be easily watched without subtitles He once said that his favourite director was Walt Disney.

Yet Ichikawa is best known for a movie he made twice and a documentary many wish he hadn’t made. The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto,1956; remade in colour, 1985) is the tale of a once gung-ho Japanese soldier in Burma who renounces war and becomes a Buddhist monk to atone for those who died in it. The original won prizes at Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award and is still considered one of the greatest anti-war films of world cinema.

Ichikawa was always respected in the business end of the movie industry as a studio director who, like Clint Eastwood, always brought his films in on time and under budget. So when the notoriously dictatorial Akira Kurosawa was sacked from the making of Olympiad 1964, the official document of the Tokyo Olympics, Ichikawa was chosen as a safe pair of hands to finish the job. The then ultra-nationalist JOC gave him a huge budget and unlimited access to the events, expecting in return a celebration of the glory of Japan and its victories: think Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics to understand what they were looking for. What they got, to their outrage, was a nearly three-hour, nearly wordless, wry, stylistically eccentric showcase of the Games, focusing not so much on the winners as those who came all the way to Tokyo to do their best.  Thus, we see not only the great Ethiopian, Abebe Bikila, win the marathon, we also see the man who, some hours later, slowly, methodically, came last. Besides the victories, we see poignant slow motion shots of exhausted cyclists wiping out on the rainy streets of Tokyo, and the lone and lonely athletes from small, overlooked new countries. He shows in great detail the Japanese loss of the first Olympic heavyweight gold medal in judo – to a Dutchman (grown men literally wept in shame in the streets of Tokyo that day, but Ichikawa admiringly shows the losing Japanese judoka quietly, good-naturedly, congratulating the winner). Although the movie was a scandal at the time of its release, it’s now the template for nearly every honest sports documentary you’ve ever seen since.

Ichikawa’s vast output (89 movies in 60 years!) is often overlooked by Western film buffs because of its difficulty to pigeonhole (and few of his movies are subtitled – although, except for his literary adaptations, that’s rarely a problem). He made social statements, light comedies, samurai dramas, TV movies-of-the-week, whodunits, innovative documentaries. The list in the sidebar doesn’t scratch the surface, but it’s a good place to start.

–      Sidebar:

–      Fires on the Plain (Nobi,1959) – A stark film about Japanese soldiers abandoned on Leyte Island in 1945. Ichikawa portrays them neither as noble samurai or fanatical villains, but as exhausted, increasingly desperate men doing everything they can to simply survive. Naturally, this honest portrayal ensured its initial unpopularity in both Japan and the US. (both Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp are available with English subtitles and commentary from The Criterion Collection, via amazon.com)

 –     Ten Dark Women (Kuroi juunin no onna, 1961)- A prominent TV producer’s wife and 9 mistresses get together and decide to kill him. Doesn’t quite work out that way, though. Witty and weird and shot in wonderfully stark black and white.

–     I Am Two Years Old (Watashi-wa ni-sai,1962) – The world of a salaryman’s family, as seen through the eyes of the youngest member. A wry commentary on the Economic Miracle.

–      Alone Across The Pacific (Taiheiyo hitori-bochi,1963) – Based on the true story of young Ken’Ichi Horie (from Osaka!) who sailed alone from Nishinomiya to San Francisco in 1962. Again, very little dialogue, but Ichikawa’s visual sense makes it all perfectly understandable.


Juzo and the Women

Juzo Itami (1933-1997) came to directing relatively late in life. Before he turned 50, he was known in Japan primarily as a TV and movie actor (although his father had been a noted director of samurai movies before the War). In 1984, though, he mortgaged everything he had to write and direct The Funeral (Osoushiki), a gentle satire about a family who gather to give a traditional send-off to their aged father, but, being a modern Japanese family, have no idea what to do. In the course of the wake, the prayers, the how-to videos (these are classic), the family draws closer together, even as they conclude that, after all, the old man wasn’t really very nice and they aren’t going to miss him very much. That synopsis doesn’t sound very funny, but that’s the key to Itami’s skill as a director: his ability to tell serious truths through a deceptively light, humorous style.  The Funeral won prizes in Japan, and Itami got to keep his mortgaged house. He then went on to make his most internationally well-known film, Tampopo. It’s the story of a couple of truck drivers who try to help a widowed mother (Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami’s wife, who starred in all ten of his movies) save her run-down ramen shop. Their quest to find the perfect noodle recipe is punctuated by hilarious, pomposity-puncturing vignettes about the nature and status of food in society.

Many of Itami’s later movies were exposés of Japanese societies ills, disguised as comedies. In 1992, he made Minbo no Onna, (aka, The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion), the story of a woman (Miyamoto, who appears out of nowhere like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western) who saves a foundering hotel from the clutches of a Yakuza extortion ring. It is more-or-less a how-to manual on how to protect your company from the ever-present threat of gangsters, and the film’s portrayal of the yakuza as blustering, vulgar, idiots was so insulting (i.e., true), that Itami had his face slashed by goons outside his home (later, another gang barged into a theater which was showing the film and ripped up the screen with swords).

Itami was undaunted, though. While in hospital, recovering from his wounds, he began collecting enough material to make a darkly funny exposé of the health care system (Dai-Byouin/The Last Dance). He went on to make several more comedies, but he was now a marked man, and although his death was officially a suicide, there are still rumors that he might have had some help in jumping from the top of his house one Tokyo winter evening in 1997.


Most of Itami’s movies are readily available on DVD with English subtitles. Besides the four mentioned above, you might also enjoy:

Suupaa no Onna (Woman of the Supermarket) –  This one exposes the dirty tricks that supermarkets play on their trusting customers (date-changing, rewrapping, etc). Miyamoto shows her store-manager friend how he can be honest and still make a profit. Not as preachy as it sounds.

Marusei no Onna (A Taxing Woman), parts 1 & 2. – Miyamoto plays a tax inspector, diligently tracking down tax evaders. Itami got the idea for this one after the success of his early films suddenly boosted him into a shockingly higher tax bracket.

Marutei no Onna (Woman of the Police Protection Program) – Two years after the Aum Shinrikyo attacks of 1995, Itami had the guts to make a comedy about a corrupt cult leader and the actress (Miyamoto, of course) who inadvertently gets in his way. Itami’s last film, and one of his best.

{NB – This originally appeared as an article in the May, 2011 issue of Kansai Scene}

Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri, 2010

For the fourth of fifth sixth time, I joined some friends at the Danjiri Matsuri in Kishiwada. The brother of one of my friends lives on a side street just around the corner from where his neighbourhood’s danjiri passes by on the way to the big parading area downtown. Occasionally, it stops at the corner and the people who pull the float/shrine take a break, tape up blistered fingers, re-tie head-bands and happi-coats, have a sports drink –  and a cigarette (this being Japan, after all). This gives one a chance to get a lot of action photos and  close-up shots that you don’t usually get at the crowded epicentre of the festival (although you have to be quick – which, you’ll notice, I am not – to take it before the inevitable peace sign shoots up).

Click here to see this year’s photos. Click on the dates to see the photos from 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2003.


Last month, while the cherry blossoms were still blooming in Osaka, Dave, Tom, John and I met for dinner at Chindonya, an izakaya (pub) in Nagai, my neighbourhood. I enjoy a get-together like this, partly because the food and atmosphere of the place are good (as noted earlier here) and also, poignantly, it’s one of the few situations anymore where I get to be the youngest person at the table.  We arrived early, at around six. The only other customers were two men, who looked to be about 70 (meaning they were probaby about 62). They were sitting at the largest table, which seats 6. It’s common in Japan for customers who come early to an empty shop to be seated at a larger table – it shows hospitality. Besides, most places don’t usually fill up until between seven and eight, and such early arrivals are usually long-gone by then. The men were dressed in the typical garb of retired men in Osaka: cotton bucket hats, earth-toned plaid shirts; one of the men wore a windbreaker, the other the type of zip-up, multi-pocketed vest favoured by photographers and park pond anglers of a certain age. They were quietly nursing a mug of beer apiece and a bowl of edamame. Probably two old co-workers taking time out from their daily retirement pachinko routine for a hike around the park and a little drink afterwards. You see them all the time in Nagai Park, and we thought little of it.

After an hour of eating and drinking and talking, one of us noticed that the two old guys had nodded off to sleep. Again, nothing odd about that: catnapping is one of the national sports in Japan, and I, a very light sleeper, often envy people’s ability to doze off anywhere.

It was only after one of the old guys woke up and quickly ducked out, leaving the other one sleeping at the table, and none of the staff made any effort to wake the remaining guy up, that we started to wonder what was going on. At around seven-thirty, a party of five came in and asked for a table. “Sorry,” the waitress had to tell them, “we don’t have any large tables right now.” A few of the group looked over at the large table with the sleeping man, but said nothing. They, and their money, walked out. By this time, the rest of the place had filled up. Still, no one made any effort to ask the old man to move along. Other groups came in and had to be turned away or were asked to wait until another table was free. And still he snored away. By the time we left, at about 9:30 (they loved us – we were easily their best customers of the night), he had sprawled out on the bench and had his cap over his face. And no one said a word. “Wow,” I said, “he must be the owner’s grandfather or something.”

The other day, I ran into Tom. In the course of our conversation, he told me that he had mentioned the curious old men to his partner Kazue, who is Japanese. She rolled her eyes immediately. “That’s one of the oldest tricks in the book,” she said. “Nagai is in south Osaka. They’re famous for it there.” Tom was mystified. She explained. The old men had probably been sent by the local yakuza, and had probably come back the following day, and the day after that. If the owner wanted them to go away, he had only to offer them protection money. But of course once he had, it would become a monthly payment, and God help him if he missed it. The men would probably become the collectors, and get a pathetic monthly commission from the gangsters (that someone would be so greedy or hard up for pocket money that he’d feign sleep in a bar all night is another story).

But why not just ask them to leave? After all, they were losing business for the shop. Ah, but then they could cause a scene, say they were paying customers who were being discriminated against by the greedy manager, and embarrass the other patrons into leaving. They would stand outside, if need be and warn people away from the premises for a few days. If that failed, a few more obviously thuggish yakuza would go to the shop and be drunk and raucous, frightening patrons away. By the time the owner agreed to pay up, the protection fee would have risen, and the shop would be known as a yakuza hangout – not a good reputation to have.

Wait a minute, you say: aren’t there any laws against this kind of thing? Oh, probably. But the owner has to prove he’s been extorted from. That sounds fair, but the laws are so ambiguously worded that, unless the incident more or less happens in front of a uniformed police officer, the owner is screwed (and would probably be threatened with a lawsuit for defamation of character). There are ways around it, but usually small bar owners just settle up. It was such a commonplace situation that Kazue was astonished that we hadn’t spotted it right away.

So, on a busy Friday night, the izakaya staff let the old git doze away, hoping that he might just give up, as they’d given him no reason to complain. The place was a going concern, and they were hoping to keep it that way. I hope they do – without ‘protection’.

The Little Nabé That Could

My rice cooker died of old age last year. I got it secondhand ten years ago from a Japanese guy who was probably given it by his mother when she bought a new one of her own some time before that. The timers didn’t work and the digital clock, which couldn’t be reset, displayed in the dark of the night kitchen the correct time for, perhaps, Bucharest. It was big enough to hold the day’s meals for a Japanese family, but the measly cup of brown rice I threw in it now and then ended up, in the end, being chewy or mushy, although I used the same measures of rice and water every time. Desperate last summer to get rid of some unwanted furniture (which you have to pay a nominal sum for the city furniture/household appliance disposal dudes to haul away), I threw out four things:a small defunct clothes dryer (which was stolen not two hours later by someone who was probably unpleasantly surprised); a TV stand/VCR-DVD cabinet (which survived until the next morning); another, shabbier TV stand (don’t ask; I waited to see if anyone would take it before calling the collectors: nobody took it, but after the first rain it more or less fell apart and the regular garbagemen took away the pieces); and the lowly rice cooker – the only thing I actually had to pay (300 yen) to have carted away. Could have been worse.

So for six months or so, I was cookerless. Since I wasn’t raised to need rice with every meal (in fact, the Japanese word for cooked rice – gohan – and the casual word for meal –meshi – are different readings of the same character, 飯) , that wasn’t a problem at first. Besides, I eat quite enough of it when I eat out. There were times, however, when I’d have a craving for one dish or another, and realize I didn’t have the wherewithal to cook the required rice (I say rice, but at home, I tend to eat brown rice, or genmai – 玄米). I had no idea how to cook real rice in a pot. I grew up in a meat/fish-potato-two veg household (all very tasty), and rice, when used at all, tended to go into soups or with sauces (or rice pudding) and was of the Uncle Ben’s/Minute Rice variety (I’m proud to say, however, that I did convert my parents to basmati some years ago). I only really began eating rice in earnest in Japan, but even then, not every day. I inherited the rice cooker, and never gave the production of it another thought until it faltered and died. Wouldn’t it be hard to cook? Isn’t that why God and Toshiba made rice cookers?

I started pricing rice cookers (suihanki,炊飯器) at the big-box appliance stores in Namba. Now, Japanese rice cookers are brilliant things, and since my old one was manufactured, they’ve become more compact and convenient to use. Did I want to throw out 90 bucks or more, though, for an appliance I wouldn’t use every day? I couldn’t decide (God knows, I’ve wasted more on things I’ve used less over the years, but I’ve been trying to break myself of that wicked habit and utility is my new mantra). I pondered this one day while eating lunch in class with some of my students. They noticed my rice-free meal and the subject came up.  Several could not understand how I’d survived as long as I had without an immediate source of cooked rice within reach 24/7, but one woman, from Fukuoka, assured me that all I needed was a 100-yen donabe. Nabe (鍋) means cooking pot, in particular a traditional earthenware hotpot. Like casserole, the word nabe can refer to the pot itself or the meal cooked in it. To avoid abiguity – there’s enough of that in Japanese – one says donabe ( ‘earthen pot’, 土鍋), although with my pronunciation I tend to sound like Homer Simpson when I do.

The next day, the woman from Fukuoka gave me a printout from a Japanese cooking site on how to make good rice in a cheap clay pot (bought at the equivalent of The Dollar Store) without having it (and the pot) ending up all over your stove. I was dubious about my chances. I was especially dubious because the printed-out instructions, although illustrated, were completely in Japanese. Well, she’d gone to so much effort tht I felt obliged to at least try. So try I did.

First I had to buy the donabe. I already owned one, but it’s party-sized – great for cooking various nabes and oden in the winter, but I didn’t trust myself to adjust the recipe to its size. I went to the 100-yen shop in OCAT (another failed, half-empty monolith built by the Osaka government in the 90s), near Namba station and, lo and behold, $1 hotpots (incidentally, for all the periodic complaining about China in the Japanese media, most ordinary Japanese couldn’t manage without these shops, which feature cheap, mostly Chinese-made household goods).

The results were not unimpressive. I cheated a bit in mid-cooking, by finding a good recipe in English for brown rice. Of course, I was terrified that the rice would either boil over or dry up and burn and so I stood over it like a stage mother until I sensed it was ready, listening for just the right time when the sound of  bubbling water stopped. I then let it sit for half an hour, as per deciphered instructions (it was at this point that I found the English instructions and realized I was doing things correctly and needn’t have worried). The resulting pot of brown rice was light and fluffy and not at all sticky; if this were to happen to white rice, I think a Japanese cook would deem it a failure, because sticky short-grain rice is the ideal in Japanese cookery. I’m less fussy: it tasted great.

Here is what I made with it:

Mediterranean Yakimeshi (adapted from the Mediterranean Herbed Rice recipe in my well-worn copy of Lorna Sass’ Complete Vegetarian Kitchen, a cookbook I heartily recommend even though it’s so earnestly vegan that it doesn’t have any pictures).

Sauté a leek or large onion in a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan. When the leek/onion is soft, stir in 1 tsp sage (the original recipe calls for summer savoury; good luck finding that in Japan), 3/4 tsp dried rosemary, 1/2 tsp of dried oregano (actually, crazy-go-nuts with the herbs, if you like), and a drained can of chick peas (I didn’t happen to have any dried ones at hand; the original calls for 3/4 cup of dried chick peas, soaked and cooked). Take your 100 yen nabe-cooked brown rice (this 100-yen nabe method yields about 2.5 cups of rice) and add it to the mixture. Reduce the heat a bit. When it’s warmed through, add 1/3 cup of chopped, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (and/or pitted olives; the original recipe specifies oil-cured black olives, but I’ve used chopped, canned green ones in the past with no regrets). Good as a main dish, on the side, or warmed up for lunch.