Watching the flowers in the park

“Spring is here,” sang Tom Lehrer, “Ah-sa-pah-ring is here, life is skittles and life is beer.” And though there are usually few pigeons around, the monstrously huge black crows that live in Tokyo’s parks and caw loud guffaws, don’t kindly take to spoliation of any kind, being, as they are, equipped with such strength and cunning as to occasionally attack humans encroaching on their territory. It’s undeniable now; in the last week the weather has settled somewhat and we are blessed with glorious, warm sunshine and a definite fresh air that promises to deliver a hot and humid summer.

And over the last few days the small green buds on many cherry blossom trees across Tokyo have exploded and bloomed into tiny flowers so pink and white that when they catch direct sunlight they form a spectacle as if a thousand pure-white holes have been punctured through reality. The road across my own local station is lined on both sides with these sakura every few meters which form an almost complete arch over the street. In the evenings the streetlamps hidden within their canopies recreate in small pockets what the sunlight has done in the daytime. In a week orso these petals will lose their grip and stat snowing down on the pavements below causing a springtime snowfall that temporarily covers the gray Tokyo cityscape with pink netting.

It’s the season for hanami, “flower-watching”, not to be confused with hanabi “fire flower”, the yearly summer fireworks spectacles. For hanami people meet up with friends and colleagues, spread blue tarpaulin over jealously guarded square areas in the local park and picnic with drunk abandon. The view, on one’s back, is the pink-white spread of the flowers, but dip your eyes below the horizon and you’re confronted with an explosion of rubbish, people, queues for the public toilet and food. These are great, if somewhat hectic, events and though ostensibly an outing to appreciate the short-lived sakura blooms, it is more often a great excuse to throw caution to the wind and imbibe vast amounts of alcohol. I, for one, love it.

Working days become more Hellish as every cigarette break in the sun reminds you of beer gardens, lazy weekends and general sunny relaxation before you’re forced into the dark, hot working environment again. The mind swims unsteadily as you try desperately to focus on your work. This week is our company’s hanami, for which I gladly signed myself up; it’s a reason to come to work later than usual and leave early, chewing the fat with increasingly drunk and hilarious colleagues. It’s strange how springtime can make one more tolerant of other people. It’s just not worth getting into a fix when all you want to do is kick back and have a beer. That isn’t to say this time of year is without train incidents, but generally I just can’t be bothered. And working in a game company I have of course the luxury of freedom of fashion; I can mix easily in busy trains wearing short sleeves and, had the colour of my legs allowed it, short trousers while all around me salarymen are wiping sweat off their foreheads, wearing suits, jackets and ties as they must.

I must drink in this seasonal positivism before the summer comes. Though in my years here I have acclimatized somewhat, the humidity is still not something I look forward to. For now it’s cherry blossom season which doesn’t last long, and at work things are keeping me busy again, which is good. These are the small highs in my life, and I do appreciate them. I’m not all doom and gloom, you know. At least, not perennially, anyway.

Coffee-time Strategy

Japan’s proud boast to being a relatively safe country has on the whole been a good thing to experience; I have never really felt truly afraid for my wellbeing or personal belongings. However, it has some annoying side-effects.

As people’s first reaction to seeing unattended baggage is not “got to steal!” but “leave it well alone” a lot of Japanese, upon entering a café or coffee-shop first scout for empty tables, dump an item on the chair, a bag, coat, packet of cigarettes or strand of hair, and then take their sweet time ordering their drinks at the counter. This is what I call “toweling”, staking claim to territory by laving behind a personal item. In the west, of course, it’s an invitation to get robbed, but not in Japan, which is why it happens so much.

Now this is all fine in theory but what about those people that don’t have items to discard or, like me, are too British and adhere to the Law of Queuing? Well, we’re stuffed. Nothing is quite so annoying as to be in a long queue in a busy coffee-shop only to see some salaryman barge in, drop his bag at the only available table and then join the end of the queue. It fair boils my blood, it does.

The situation isn’t helped by loafers; as coffee-shops are favourite places for students to study or tired workers to have a nap a lot of tables are occupied for a time for in excess of that needed to have a drink. Uppity chains like Starbucks already forbid this kind of behaviour on weekends, but none of them have tackled the toweling issue yet.

Just the other day I was in a stand-off with a salaryman who came in a few minutes after me, but as I had to wait for my Mocha to be made and he only had an instantly served ice coffee he was able to enter the smoking room well in advance of me, which pissed me off no end, as it was particularly busy. When I finally had my coffee though I noticed he was milling around because all the tables were occupied. Except, that is, for one which looked occupied as a lady had put her handbag on a chair. We both approached as the woman removed her bag to make space but as I was slightly more aggressive than he I shoved my tray ahead and stole the table right from under his nose. Sweet victory was made all the sweeter by the fact he had to mill around for a few more minutes before another table came free. Though he didn’t show it, I really hope it pissed him off. Not that I’m vengeful or anything, you see.

The battle for free tables in cafes can be as bloody as that for breathing space in rush-hour trains. Always be prepared and, if you must, play as dirty as your opponent; bring at least one disposable item with you to towel your table with as soon as you come in. And don’t feel hurried if people start queuing for tables, it’s time for some payback. Drink your coffee at leisure, read a book, have a nap, take your time. It’s the way things go in these parts.

Jap’s eye for the gaijin guy

I apologise for the title of this post but it was too good an opportunity to miss in this entry which is supposed to give balance to an earlier one I did on the way Western media portrays Japan, often in sensationalist and stereotypical ways. What with western media and especially American television shows being all pervasive it would seem the Japanese don’t really have such an unquenchable thirst for insights into life across the pond; all they would need to do is turn on the television and tune into Fox Japan or watch any of the dubbed American shows that are shown on terrestrial networks and learn all about the legal profession, the harsh life of aliens hiding in high schools in L.A. or the “hilarious” adventures of five friends living in suspiciously expensive looking apartments in New York. Japan has imported more culture than it has exported so there is little sensationalist television looking at American or European life, and when there is it is usually seen as something to aspire to, not ridicule.

One show, for example, sends a minor Japanese celebrity to live for a short while with a stereotypically average family in different countries and ends, formulaically, with a tearful farewell and a look back at lessons learnt, usually involving the creation of some national delicacy. Another follows the dynamic of a group of Japanese youngsters as they travel abroad, fall in and out of love with each other in true Big Brother fashion, though with a little more decorum. And in true Japanese televisual tradition foreign cuisine pops up on regular occasions too. No, what Japan is interested in is people, and with its Culture of the Celebrity it’s foreigners, not foreign lands that intrigue them most. So let’s have a look at the people that can claim to be Big in Japan.


When it comes to local foreign talent, forget people like the onerous Dave Spector, Bob Sapp or Bobby Ologun; they are naught but performing monkeys. True idolatry is reserved for people like Bulgarian sumo wrestler Kotooshu. Though he is not allowed to star in commercials until he retires he is often features on television shows, panels and shows about Bulgaria and himself specifically. One reason may be because the Japanese look up to sumo wrestlers anyway, because he had made a very promising start in his career or because he seems to be a genuinely nice chap. And though most people are very good sports about sumo, we are all secretly hoping it is Kotooshu who’ll topple the Mad Mongol’s throne.

Still showing his mug on Japanese television trying to sell us the Motorola RZOR is Mickey Mouse voiced David Beckham, still with loving affection called Be-chan by some Japanese. Whenever he and his wife Skeletor visit these shores there will be some media hype, though nothing can compare to the high of his World Cup visit, when the Japanese just went apeshit over him and saw women copy his hairstyle. The couple appear on health spa adverts, television commercials and billboards. The football, or “soccer” as they so mistakenly call it here, doesn’t come in to it. He’s just so darn cool, apparently.

He wasn’t just a character in Onimusha 3 by accident; Jean Reno is the face of cool in Japan, which may be due to his voice which is, admittedly, pretty damn gruff. Films like “Wasabi”, video game appearances, even voice-overs and television commercials, he has lent his image to them all. In fact, the Japanese DVD of my favourite Studio Ghibli film “Kurenai no Buta” boasts proudly on its cover that the included French dubbed version features the voice of Jean Reno!

The number one western star is probably Audrey Hepburn. Yes, that one. The Japanese still love her to bits and her image still appears on advertising and certain products, often with very little or no connection to her, her life or her films. “Roman Holiday” is still remembered very fondly by a large proportion of the Japanese and many will cock their heads, sigh wistfully and achingly claim how cute she is.

But at the top of the list, surprisingly after such a long time, is still Korean television drama actor Yong Joon, or Yonsama as he is known in Japan. Note the use of the “-sama” honorific! This grown-up Harry Potter and his big, trademark scarf have adorned television screens for, roughly, millennia now, and he was reported to have paid the second largest tax bill in all of South Korea last year. Where does he get all that money from? That’s right, Japan. His face is on all and every kind of merchandising you can imagine, from calendars to mugs, from key chains to mouse mats, from advertising billboards to having his own and reportedly very lucrative Pachinko machine. Though Japan usually discards its fashions within a few months, Yomsama has been with us for a remarkably long time, and though maybe fewer women travel all the way to the airport to welcome him on his visits to Japan with swooning and screams than there used to be, so high has this star risen that his inevitable downfall will have a long way to go. I fear he may be with us for a while yet.

As you can see, fame abroad doesn’t necessarily equate to fame in Japan, nor vice versa. Though they like to copy and import western tastes and culture they do have their own ideas about what makes a celebrity. Making it big in Japan is no guarantee of making it big world-wide, nor is being famous abroad any guarantee of a doting Japanese audience. But with the right amount of marketing and the right look and fashion-sense, who knows?

Lolicon

There is a lot to like about Japan; the food, the countryside, the history, the safety. Similarly there is a lot to dislike; the conservative streak that makes change very hard, the homogenous nature of society that leads to cultural ignorance of anything outside of Japan combined with a national pride that is often uninformed, the trains during rush hours, working conditions. But there is one thing that creeps me out particularly, that makes my skin crawl whenever I encounter it, which is often: the sexual objectification, sometimes subtly but usually not, of young girls. Aside from the culture of the celebrity Japan also seems to adore the nymphet.
Though the term “lolicon”, which with typical Japanese concision is derived from “Lolita Complex”, is used with derision the media world in Japan has no gripes with portraying young girls gyrating for the pleasure of an adult audience, with Humbert Humbert’s most desired nymphet age group being the main source for such talent. Though all-girl bands like Morning Musume, with ages ranging from 10 to 20, could optimistically be said to be aimed at kids, other bands, like the more recent AKB 48 are squarely aimed at the older male, in the latter case at Akihabara geeks, hence the name. The band’s producer organizes the website where creepy men in their mid to late twenties can adore their chosen favourite by reading up on their biography and watching little web-movies. And though actual sexuality isn’t mentioned or intoned, one has to wonder what an adult male is doing idolizing 12 year old girls.

The actual “Lolita” and “Lolita Goth” fashions are more to do with dressing up than age but it is undeniable that the ideal image of the woman in Japan revolves around youth and innocence. Grown women wear childish clothes, enjoy Disney fetishes, speak in young girl’s voices. Titillation photography books often has women of legal age dress up in school uniforms, as does, I wouldn’t presume the assumption of knowing for a fact, hard-core pornography. Underage girls pose seductively in bikinis and other revealing outfits but only remove that last slither of gauze protecting their innocence until they reach legal age.
Even the real thing is dubious, with actual schoolgirls being forced to wear uniforms with skirts that are no more than glorified belts, ending as they do just below the pelvis and forcing them to cover their behinds with their hands or schoolbags whenever they need to climb a staircase. Whoever designed those uniforms had issues.

Games enthusiasts may be aware of the syndrome with female characters in games often being terribly young despite sporting a bosom that would take far in excess of 12 years to cultivate. Again, absolving myself from any admission to factual investigation, hentai games too can feature more explicit sexual content with characters which are clearly under-age. Of course the phenomenon of skimpy outfits on busty females in games isn’t unique to Japan, but at least in the West they don’t make a big deal out of the girl being 15 years old, or even younger.

More sensationalist rags and tabloids also report on occasion the pocket money some schoolgirls spend on Prada handbags, with a stipend handsomely increased by profits from selling suggestive mobile phone photographs to perverts. Indeed the scandal of schoolgirl prostitution occasionally crops up in such magazines too, though I always feel there is a certain exaggeration and scaremongering involved in such doom-and-gloom portrayals. Let’s face it, the Japanese schoolgirl has a hard enough time as it is with perverts “accidentally” brushing their hands against portions of skin in busy trains, if not a flat and robust laying on of hands. This “chikan” syndrome is of course illegal but so ineffectual has Japanese law been in combating the problem that Japan Railway has had to resort to providing female-only carriages during rush-hour.

That isn’t to say Japan is a lawless society of pedophiles, it clearly is not. There are laws protecting underage children from exploitation and sexual deviance, child pornography is of course outlawed but lolicon manga, for example isn’t. Nor is the subtle sexual objectification in mainstream media, and most egregiously, nor are those schoolgirl skirts. The widespread availability of pornography in Japan has been said to have helped the sexual crime rate drop dramatically since the 70s and on the whole Japan has fewer such crimes than any other developed country in the world. However, there is an obvious pressure on women to be cute, helpless and act young with, if at all possible, high-pitched voices. And possibly because I feel no uncertain amount of disgust at the whole affair I am probably painting a bleaker picture of Japan’s nymphet-philia than is probably true, but it is undeniable that the media and the public at large spend a lot of time adoring young girls, and it’s not always innocent.

A time for change

One of those little traditions of Japan is that summer and winter time are mandated by calendar dates, rather than the weather. After the venal equinox Japan is officially in summer mode, after the autumnal one in winter mode. Shops change their layouts and stock, clerks change their warm woolen uniforms for light cotton ones, even time tables may change.

As I remarked before, these recent years the weather has become increasingly erratic, and though we had a few delightfully warm spring days this last week it is far from summer-y; evenings are still mighty cold and from one day to the next there will be frosty winds and rainstorms. I pity the poor shopkeepers having to wear their light uniforms in such weather conditions simply because the system demands it.

I had been looking forward to this equinox as that means our communal building will finally switch on its air-conditioner again. They don’t care if people are freezing or sweating in their workplace, before the equinox the central heating is on full blast, afterwards the air conditioner. It’s the way thing are done. These last few weeks our office has been slowly getting increasingly warm. By three in the afternoon, thanks to a mass of bodies working away at their keyboards and a bank of computers whirring away happily, conditions become uncomfortable. The windows are opened, the door to the fire escape propped open with an empty graphics card box, fans switched on. But it’s no use; the central heating and the sun shining on the flat roof all contribute to a musky, dizzying warmth that make me sleepy and gives me a massive headache by 5, still hours before I can leave for home.

But is our office in line with the times? Apparently not. After the midweek holiday to celebrate the coming of spring the central heating is happily continuing its onslaught. I wear a pull-over and thick coat to work but have to strip off as much as possible on the work-floor lest my clothes get drenched in sweat. These are hardly ideal working conditions, and things will deteriorate even more until the building’s supervisor finally decides it’s time to flip the switch, at which point we’ll have a few cold weeks until the weather catches up, which is infinitely preferable to the heat.

All my gripes with work are aggravated by the warmth. Lunchbox smells become worse and seem to linger around longer. Unwashed colleagues stink even worse than usual. The dusty environment gets even dustier as fans circulate the warm air, rather than cool the workers. Stacks of papers on messy desks get blown about and scattered periodically. Low motivation turns into downright apathy as everybody turns into a warm zombie by mid-afternoon, sit back, sigh heavily and complain loudly about how damn warm it is here. And my aforementioned headaches can’t be suppressed by coffee as any hot drink just makes things worse and even the bottled water which comes out of the vending machine ice cold turns into lukewarm spit after keeping it on your desk for a while. And due to the open windows and doors every police siren or ambulance, which seem to be in abundance around our office, starts everyone as they noisily screech past. The widespread hay fever that seems to blight Japan too doesn’t benefit from the open windows as colleagues sneeze with loud grunts every other minute.

I am praying for the air-conditioner by now, and I’m not even a religious person. I hope Monday will herald in summer time at our office, a few days late, as more weeks of this heat will surely drive me to insanity. Maybe I should have a quiet word with our building’s supervisor before I lash out and hurt somebody.

I am Joe’s aching resentment

It seems every other post I write somehow concerns my commute, but to be honest it does take up a large proportion of my life and energy. This, however may be a final, definitive post. No, hang on, I lie; I still have an idea for a future one; I have a feeling I’ll never be able to let the subject rest. But this post revolves around a thought that struck me the other day while I was fighting for breath in an almighty crush.

Back in Britain, when things were getting on top of you, testosterone was building up and you needed a release, you’d simply go down the pub, get blotto and pick a fight. Usually it’d end in some posturing and shouting but, on occasion, blows could be exchanged, wounds inflicted and above all stress relieved. Or if work was getting too much to bear, you’d simply teabag your boss’s keyboard or hide rotting yoghurt in his office. The Japanese have no such release, so one wonders, aside from the Soaplands and Hostess Clubs, where they get rid of their pent-up stresses. Then, after a little more observing, it struck me that rush-hour train behavior is nothing less than a socially sanctioned Fight Club.

I kid you not! Sometimes the pushing and the shoving is borne from true survival instincts but more often than not it’s a dropped gauntlet, an invitation to a scuffle. I have seen it happen with my own minces: people making an effort to get in the way, to shove and be territorial when it was absolutely unnecessary. I’m not talking about them being unaware, quite the reverse; they see an opportunity for a fight and they gladly take it.

I have seen people take several steps away from their comfortable positions for the simple pleasure of getting into a shoving match. I am often pushed aside by commuters sticking out their posterior for that little extra push that guarantees a response. People try to stand wide, resting their shoe near or on top of yours and leaving it there with full knowledge of the fact. Free dangling elbows attached to arm-straps become targets as people stand, even lean back to make sure their head comes into contact with it, even if that requires the backwards flexibility that would make a limbo dancer jealous.

And it’s not just me. Often in my own exploits my dancing partners don’t even realize, at first, whom they are messing with. A backwards glance, a flash of surprise followed by a slow mask of devilish delight; a gaijin is just an excuse to continue the dance with increased vigor, not to end or start one. Once I had the life crushed out of me until I realized the guy in front of me wasn’t pushing; he was being pushed by a miserable looking sparring partner who gave him a look that in England would have read “and STAY down!” I was merely an innocent bystander in this tango they had started before entering the train. Sometimes an already quiet train descends into a deeper hush as further along the carriage everybody can hear the unmistakable sounds of two strutting peacocks aching for a fight.

With strict hierarchies, a cultural respect for the drunk and a marital institution that dictates the wife wears the trousers at all times the only anonymous release a Japanese man has is the train. By shredding their anger onto an innocent but willing victim during his commute he can manage his stress and continue his life as per usual without having to resort to actual violent outbursts. It’s the fight equivalent of those fake train carriages perverts can rent in houses of ill repute to role-play their little sexual fantasies, except, of course, that it’s real.

Rule 1 of Train Club: you do NOT talk about Train Club! The understanding is unspoken and mutual. Once you receive resistance or retaliation the fight is on. Rule 2, you do NOT talk about Train Club! There is no thanking your partner after a successful scuffle; there is no acknowledging of Train Club ever. Rule 3, only two men in a fight. Rule 4, fights end only in submission, by clearing space for the victor and ceasing the retaliatory shoving, or arrival at the destination and disembarking. Rule 5, fights may start in the queue on the platform but the main bout is always in the train itself. Rule 6, you may use newspapers and books in busy trains to provoke a fight. Rule 7, you do NOT talk about Train Club.

The next time someone shoves an elbow in your face or tries to clear space for his broadsheet while you are fighting for air, see if he gives you the look; that quiet, sideways look. If you return it and he holds it for more than three seconds you had best get ready to rumble. It is on. Oh, it is on!

Carnival

Nothing quite as nice as a mid-week holiday, apparently to celebrate the spring equinox in my case by having a long hard sit on the sofa and exhausting myself watching television. Don’t worry, I’m not pissing in the face of Japanese tradition; none of my colleagues knew the purpose of the holiday until one of them looked it up. There may be some customs attached to it, but by the look of things people will just use it as a very welcome break. This year the national holidays are much better spread out than last year, when they all fell on weekends mostly.

My post “Do as the Hollywodians” has been linked on James Newton’s new monthly feature “Carnival of video game bloggers”, a nice initiative that collects a sample of game related blog posts and presents them in an easy to swallow, bite-sized article for all to enjoy. I just wish I had thought of a better name for that post now. These kinds of carnivals seem to be gaining some popularity so I thought I had better join in on the fun. Check it out here.

Stupeur et tremblements (review)

In a previous post I took the diabolical liberty to comment on a film about Japan I had not seen yet. Of course such a journalistic or even editorial remiss weighed heavily on my mind so I took great measures to acquire this film for myself, watch it and comment on it again as an informed viewer.
The protagonist Amélie is a Belgian woman in dire need of some gamesmanship lessons. Having been born in Japan and resident until the age of 5 she holds special memories and due to a great desire to revisit the culture that she admired in her early years she comes back as a grown woman with a one year contract as a translator at the big Yamimoto Corporation in Tokyo, with, as they are keen on saying on television, hilarious consequences.

Hilarious? Well, funny it is, but funny peculiar if anything. Amélie, who starts young and keen and full of desire to play by the Japanese rules, soon finds herself in a downward spiral of misery as the system and her superiors stomp on her, try to break and degrade her while she herself, set on finishing the contract if it kills her, stumbles along with the best of intentions. If you view this film as a distant observer with little knowledge or interest of work in Japan you may find it amusing, funny even, but I found myself shocked at how little it is actually exaggerated. Of course it is exaggerated and game development isn’t half as bad as corporate office life, being less formal on rules and hierarchy, but some situations felt awfully familiar. Little consideration is given to Amélie’s qualifications and foreignness, and work quickly becomes dull zombie work with superiors stabbing her in the back, and front, at every occasion. Bosses scream unreasonable orders, working practices are inefficient and there is some manhandling which would land any western employer in a courtroom. On more than one occasion I had to fight off the desire to step through the screen and give some of Amélie’s colleagues a well-deserved slap. “Why are you taking this abuse?” I screamed in desperation as Amélie gets demoted to lower and lower positions.
The main arc of the story revolves around the complex relationship between Amélie, played by Sylvie Testud with a lot of humanity and heart, and Fubuki Mori, played by the surprisingly tall Kaori Tsuji. This relationship is solidly sadomasochistic and, to my dirty little mind at least, has some strong sexual undertones. Fubuki is clearly the antagonist, the person who drives Amélie’s downfall, despite the presence of two other screaming superiors who would seem to fit the bill better. As the film points out, if the President is God then the vice-president is clearly the Devil. And though this is true, it is your immediate colleagues or superiors one needs to be most careful with. Fubuki’s status in the company as in life, being an unmarried and unmarryable woman nearing the age of 30 is particularly well observed.
During the film Amélie talks about Japanese culture and history, about such things as honour and pride, with the same sense of awe as your usual Japanese-wannabe, i.e. in a vastly inflated way bordering on idolatry, and, in my view, false. It always irks me when foreigners talk about Japanese honour while to me it’s clear the western interpretation of the word differs significantly from the Japanese; people confuse honour with unquestioning obligation too much and to their detriment. But in this film at least Amélie seems to learn some lessons and though she doesn’t end up a bitter and twisted wreck like most people that follow in her shoes, she does realize that the real Japan and the memories of her past and the history she studied don’t really equate.

It’s not all great though. Sylvie Testud does have a little bit of a wonky accent when speaking Japanese and some of the Japanese cast are clearly not very good actors. The title sequence shows Sylvie Testud in full Geisha face make-up, which always makes me a little queasy. White face-paint never looks good on western women. That said, I don’t really like it on Japanese women either, but at least they have the history behind them. I’m splitting hairs, of course, as the overall experience of the film is great and as such I recommend it to anyone who is toying with the idea of working in Japan. For others it is just a great story and the film also shows some lovely aerial views of Shinjuku.

The important lessons to learn are that even though this film is slightly exaggerated, there is a real possibility of landing yourself in a similar situation; you must prepare yourself and know what you’re getting into. Also, playing by the Japanese rules, trying to act like the Japanese would simply does not work, ever. It’s not just that these rules can be tediously obscure, difficult to learn or understand but mostly that you’re foreign, you always will be and you’ll always be treated as such; in Japanese society this is your strength, not your weakness, but it’s up to you to make people realise this. I would never allow myself to be in Amélie’s situation, and neither should you. It can be done differently, and this film only proves that differently is the way to go.
Go watch it! It’s a charming and entertaining film that deserves a wider audience. It delivers, in my view, a much more honest view of Japan than most other endeavors, including the much touted “Lost in Translation”. I have not read the book yet, and though I won’t go hunting for it as I did the film I will probably pick it up if I see it in stores on visits home. It certainly dashed my own dreams of writing a novel about my “hilarious” working experiences in Japan. Damn you, Amélie Nothomb! Although, judging by your autobiographical experiences in the story, you have already had the pleasure of experiencing Hell.

Sharper at a cost

When my “bonus” came in at the end of last year I decided to buy myself a new television, but only because the old one was a CRT model which took up a Hell of a lot of space I didn’t have to spare. When shopping around for flat-screens I choose on size, not so much on features. Now it happens that Japan is in a bit of a switch as it is changing to a digital signal, or rather is abandoning its analog signals, in the coming few years, with 2012 being the deadline I think. All televisions on sale boast to be full HD, ready for the switch, and there are no CRTs to be found. So I end up having a full 1080 HD television more due to timing than desire, as the whole high definition race is somewhat lost on me. I know I shouldn’t extrapolate a generalized viewpoint from the small sample that are my colleagues and the few people I know, but I would guess this is the standard in Japan; high definition is nice but I can take it or leave it.

For me the extra resolution is nice, but I am damned if I’m going to spend another 100,000 Yen for a BluRay or HD-DVD player or 50,000 for a game console to be able to benefit from it. At a fraction of the price and with a much wider selection DVD is still good enough for me. Audiovisual fanatics should shake their heads in amazement when they hear I bought the cheapest, region-free DVD player I could find and attached it to my full HD television using simple AV cables. I bought a D-cable for my Wii and though it does make the image noticeably sharper, if, in some weird parallel universe, I was forced to go back to the regular AV cables then, you know, that’s fine; I can live with that. I am always surprised when game otaku berate the Wii for not offering high-definition, as if it was some crime or stone-age throwback.

When I ask around my colleagues all seem fairly unfazed by it too. Few have HD televisions and few really care. One colleague was proudly boasting that he had watched a BluRay film, King Kong I believe it was, on his PS3. “Was the picture a lot better?” I asked. “I don’t really know, it’s hard to tell.” “The difference is not that pronounced, is it?” “No, it’s just that you can’t really see the difference on a 14 inch television.” Even I was taken aback by this revelation. “Everything,” he says “looks pretty good on 14 inches”, which is very true.

As such Sony and Microsoft’s proud boasts of high-definition gaming probably had very little effect on the Japanese market. Especially when it comes to gaming it is more the products rather than the delivery which counts. Blue Dragon seems to be appreciated by those few people I know who’ve played it, but none of them mentioned high-definition as anything other than an unimportant box blurb. When I ask why some of my colleagues are considering buying an Xbox360, as I am myself, it is usually some game they are interested in and not a desire to finally see game images a little sharper. Similarly the idea that the PS3 isn’t so much a game console as a “cheap” BluRay player only makes people shrug and say “well, you know, whatever. My television isn’t HD so why bother?”

I guess the rabid fanaticism with which westerners, especially Americans, seem to have embraced high-definition is a little puzzling to me. I guess it may have something to do with having paid for a feature and damn well wanting it used. You have a fully HD television so anything that is displayed had better be in full HD or else why would you have bothered? That’s a perfectly valid viewpoint, of course, it’s just not one I share. And somewhat surprisingly Japan has always been a little behind on these kinds of matters. Don’t forget that DVD only really took off with the PS2,

For me, I’ll probably be fully hidef some time in the future, but only when things become cheap enough. As I mentioned, I have no intention on spending vast amounts of money to see a bad film in slightly better resolution when DVD still rocks my boat. I am also prudently waiting until either BluRay or HD-DVD comes out a clear winner. With the amounts of money involved I’d hate to be backing the wrong horse. Until then I am perfectly satisfied with low-definition, as long as the contents are entertaining.

Go to touristing: sumo

You may have the idea that sumo is merely two fat men in nappies shoving each other. If you hold this view then you are going to miss out on a surprisingly spectacular and engaging sport, not to mention not doing justice to the wrestlers themselves who are big, sure, but strong. To any tourist that visits in the right season I highly recommend taking a day out to visit a sumo tournament; it should be an unforgettable experience.

The year is divided into several seasons taking place alternately in Tokyo and several other locations across Japan. The Tokyo seasons are usually around the middle or early January, the middle of May and the middle of September and last two weeks each. Once you have booked your trip to Japan you should check the schedule to see if the tournament takes place at the same time near the location you’re visiting. The best times to go are either the opening day in Tokyo at the beginning of the year, so you may get the opportunity to see and be waved at by the Japanese emperor, who traditionally attends, health permitting, or the last day of any season when the decisive matches are fought for the championship.

A match day starts in the morning but most people turn up early to mid-afternoon because that’s when the grand-masters start battling. There are a variety of seat types available but my personal favourite is the tatami mat pillow type. It can be quite pricey at about 9,500 Yen per seat (US$ 80, EUR 60), and even though cheaper seats go for around 3,000 Yen (US$ 25, EUR 20) you want the pillow! If in the final bout a contender topples the reigning champion it is the tradition, along with cheering like a mad harpie, to throw your pillow into the ring. If you don’t know about this it may come as a bit of a shock the first time it happens. Make sure you’re comfortable with long periods sitting cross-legged though; it’s not very spacious. People who aren’t quite so flexible should seriously consider ordering a seat ticket instead.

Tickets are usually available on the day, if you go early enough, but the prudent fan books his well in advance! A lot of foreigners visit there so pamphlets and information is available in English and the attendants, though not being able to speak English, can help you find your seat.
Though smoking isn’t allowed in the arena itself there is a definite pub atmosphere with stalls outside selling beer, chicken on a stick and many other snacks and foods. A tourist with enough luggage space left may want to splash out on a special goodie bag, which includes not only a selection of snacks and drinks but some commemorative items too, like traditional sumo plates or cups. Other stalls also sell sumo merchandise separately, like key chains, dolls, cups and of course the year’s match line-up posters.

Though the rules and tactics, not to mention the ceremonies can be intricate and difficult to grasp the first time round, the matches themselves are excitingly simple. The thunderclap as two bull-sized wrestlers slam into each other really gives an indication of the raw power involved. It isn’t all just shoving either; there are many hand and foot techniques and I found that my personal favourites tend to be the smaller wrestlers who must rely on speed and technique to win, so their matches are always an edge-of-seat affair.

Personally I try to go at least once a year, if at all possible. It’s a good day out and seeing the event live not only steeps you in Japanese culture but really gives you an insight into the brute strength and tactics the sport revolves around; something that television just doesn’t convey properly. If you are planning to attend a Tokyo match day, the arena is conveniently located next to the Edo museum, so you can kill two birds with one stone. Afterwards you can either eat dinner at one of the sumo restaurants in the area or walk, roughly 20 minutes to half an hour, down the river to Asakusa, where you can go for the trifecta with that bird-killing stone of yours.

Check the official website for a lot of information, history and tournament details.

Location: The Tokyo season takes place in the Ryogoku Kokugikan, a short walk from Ryogoku station on the Sobu line..
Webiste: http://www.sumo.or.jp/eng/
Map: here

The letter of the Law

Despite what you may think and in the face of all evidence to the contrary Japan actually has a set of laws to protect the employee in the shape of the Labour Standards Law which is provisionally translated into English and available from such websites as the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training. The biggest problem is of course Japan’s cultural attitude towards making waves, as in it being best not to. This usually ends up as the victim’s albatross, with police, lawyers and judges trying to get, say, the victim of a car accident to accept the official apology and the free luncheon voucher because, you know, lengthy litigation would just be so embarrassing for all parties involved and we don’t want that now do we?

Though I’d hate it for Japan to become as litigious as America I do think some cases need to be made. Employers are not going to change things for the benefit of the employees unless they are absolutely forced to do so, are they? Take for example the case of a dozen developers at Sega Japan who were confronted with the “empty room” treatment. This trick was a favourite of corporations all over Japan when they needed to get rid of people; they would change their job description and have them sit in an empty room with a telephone, ostensibly to answer it. No notebooks, no books, no coat or bags were allowed in until eventually the employee quit out of bored desperation but, importantly, of his own “free” will. These developers started a lawsuit against Sega which they won; I’m not sure if it was settled or the company lost in court, as information is a little thin on the ground even though the case was widely reported, but the corporation hasn’t used this trick since, almost no game company has.

Another problem with the Labour Standards Law is that the punitive measures are a bit on the low side, making it sill very much an attractive proposition for shady employers to try and circumvent the law. If only a few people bother to complain or take them to court they’re still better off than playing by the rules. Every year the government hands out fines to a lot of companies that have violated the working hours and overtime pay rules, but the list doesn’t seem to get shorter by the year. Of course a lot depends on the employees themselves taking responsibility and daring to complain, but in a country like Japan that is obviously not a strong point, shifting the balance of power firmly to the employers’ side. Still, it’s nice to know that if you’re being screwed at least you have a law behind you. Not that it is any consolation or safety net but at least you can rest assured you’re being screwed illegally. Here are some of the more interesting Labour Standard Laws:

Working conditions shall be those which should meet the needs of workers who live lives worthy of human beings.

This is a doozy, isn’t it? Obviously this provision is aimed at those working in harsh conditions and probably do manual labour, but the fact they included the “worthy of human beings” part makes it perfectly applicable to game development if, like me, you think it’s worthy of being human to see your kids and family at least every day or aren’t forced to eat convenience store food for dinner every night.

An employer shall not engage in discriminatory treatment with respect to wages, working hours or other working conditions by reason of the nationality, creed or social status of any worker.

I can’t comment on this too much. Every time I felt I was being held back for being a foreigner they throw some good excuse in my face like “your Japanese isn’t good enough”, which is a very hard fact to refute or disagree with. On top of that I get away with more and get paid more by simple virtue of my foreignness and my abrasive foreign ways. We should look at how the Chinese and other Asian colleagues are paid and though I have no hard evidence, proof or any information of any kind I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up at the lower end of the curve.

An employer shall not engage in discriminatory treatment of a woman as compared with a man with respect to wages by reason of the worker being a woman.

I have written before on the status and treatment of women in not just our industry but any kind of working environment in Japan. They are still seen as part-time workers until they get with child and inevitably quit. Why invest time and money in the career of an employee you know is going to step out as soon as she gets one in the oven or finds a lucrative husband? Sadly a lot of women actually encourage this kind of thinking by living up, quite willingly, to the stereotype. However, this makes it all the harder for those women who want to build a career. Though things are changing slowly I doubt Japanese businesses are fully compliant with this law yet.

A dismissal shall, where the dismissal lacks objectively rational grounds and is not considered to be appropriate in general societal terms, be treated as a misuse of that right and invalid.

Another strangely worded law, this seems to imply that you can’t just fire someone willy-nilly. These kinds of laws led in the past to the aforementioned “empty room” tactics and other strange ways to circumvent having to explain in court why your reasons are objectively rational. Still, compared to the west I see far less creatively staged dismissals than you’d expect. With a full-time contract most people seem to expect a certain level of job security which may or may not be warranted.

An employer shall not have a worker work more than 40 hours per week, excluding rest periods.

Excluding rest periods, which a later paragraph tells us is at least 1 hour for a working day of eight hours or more, which, believe me, is the standard in the game industry. So that makes a 45 hour week the accepted maximum, by law if not by your employer. Combine this with the following statement:

In the event that an employer extends working hours or has a worker work on rest days, pursuant to the provisions of Article 33 or paragraph 1 of the preceding Article, the employer shall pay increased wages for work during such hours or on such days at a rate no lower than the rate stipulated by cabinet order within the range of no less than 25 percent and no more than 50 percent over the normal wage per working hour or working day.

The Articles and paragraphs referred to concern trade union approval or the consensus of a committee or body made up of or representing the majority of employees, which, in all truth, I have never seen happen. But that’s besides the point. By law you have a right to expect overtime pay, so why aren’t you getting any?
A lot of companies get away with this with some semantics. Salaries, as stated on the contract, usually say something like “including overtime” or a portion of your monthly wages may be paid under the “overtime” header. It’s not overtime pay, of course, just a small percentage of your dues with a different name, but they can show that they do pay “overtime” this way. Even in the most optimistic interpretation it shows the mentality of this industry; overtime is a given, scheduling isn’t.
I am curious what would happen if an EA_Spouse kicks off a similar shitstorm in Japan; the chances of winning would appear good, especially as this is the one area where the government is slowly and, until now, ineffectually taking measures into hand

An employer shall provide workers at least one rest day per week.

The law has a proviso that states that alternatively it should amount to four days per four weeks. Here a big exclamation mark pops up over my head, Metal Gear style, that reminds me of the three months of weekends and continuous work I've done last year. Except, of course, I was not made to work weekends and holidays, merely “asked”. I could have declined and be perfectly in my right, but that would have cast a shadow over my continued employment. I would be the troublemaker not playing by the unwritten rules, not a team-player by dumping the extra work on my colleagues, etc. There are many devious ways to interpret this so to avoid getting into illegal trouble we often find ourselves just going along with it and foregoing a few free weekends and holidays. We’re all idiots.

When a woman for whose work during menstrual periods would be especially difficult has requested leave, the employee shall not have the said woman work on days of the menstrual period.

This one was an interesting surprise to me. Not being a woman, of course, I can’t really comment on it but from experience I see this is a little used excuse. One wonders why my female colleagues don't (ab)use this law.

An employee shall not exploit an apprentice, student, trainee or other worker, by whatever name such person may be called, by reason of the fact that such person is seeking to acquire a skill.

Maybe the word “shall” should be replace by “shouldn’t” as it certainly happens if you interpret “exploit” as “pay terribly low wages”. I’ve seen a lot of graduates enter this industry, often with a few months’ work placement to pave the way to their first contract. For the employer it means cheap and willing labour, for the graduate it means a foot in the door. Though both parties benefit to an extent, fair it is not and neither is it legal, apparently.

~ ~ ~

As you can see, there are plenty of laws out there to protect an employee’s interests. It’s up to us to make our employers adhere to them. We must speak up if these laws are broken, even if it endangers our short-term employment prospects. Without people willing to stand up for positive change things simply aren’t going to happen, and even in Japan where formal apologies can excuse the worst crimes and people are encouraged not to make a fuss because it’s generally embarrassing, there are avenues to protect your rights. Use them!!


WARNING! Reading up on laws and your rights is not enough. Contact the Labour Office or ask a lawyer for information before taking any action. Do not rely on internet-published PDF files or mouthy blog writers when it comes to matters of law!

A new toy

One of the more stringently observed rules in development is that you don’t upgrade your software during crunch or near the end of a project. You stick with what you have and what has proven to work. New versions of software packages may play havoc with your already wonky exporters, there may be problems loading older assets, there is no end of possible misery just waiting to slow development to a screeching halt. But once the project’s madness has died down and your bugs are taken care of it’s time to shop around. As such I have finally installed Maya 8.5 and have given it a whirl. I’m loving it.

My hate-hate relationship with 3D Studio Max is not something I shy away from talking, or indeed writing, about. That software is no friend of mine. I was introduced to it as a young development pup and it has caused me grief ever since. In fact, I was always convinced I was rubbish at 3D until I stopped using 3DSMax. When I started using Maya a sudden love for and skill in 3D and modeling bloomed up inside me like an oasis I never knew existed. The open-ended interface, the viewport controls, the modeling, it all felt right, and I haven’t looked back since.

Not, that is, until Autodesk bought Alias and the “Evil Creators of 3DSMax” were suddenly in control of their main rival. From that moment I feared Maya would either die or turn into Max, which is the proverbial “fate worse than”; I’d wake up in a cold sweat about it. And though some decidedly Max-y things have crept into this new version of Maya it is still my old friend.

I’ve only played around with it a little but what I’ve experimented with so far all seems neat-o. Firstly the subdivision in menu sets means I can get rid of all that Nurbs crap I never get to use, freeing up some space or at least keeping it less cluttered. Some of the most used tools are now a few steps up in the menu hierarchy, though previously custom MEL scripts had taken care of that already. An extended set of polygon editing tools, and here is where Max rubs its dirty undead corpse against my lovely clean Maya, do actually help tremendously, though I am not yet convinced of the new way shapes are created; like Max you draw them into your scene, but I kind of liked the world 0 numeric input way Maya had always allowed me to create a new cube. This is small potatoes, though.

The extended Hypershade options, especially the buckets, or container, whatever they are calling the grouping, are a Godsend, as are the improved viewport rendering options. I iwsh I could play around more with dynamics, cloth and fur/hair I never get to use those in the creation of in-game assets, though I would like to use them for texture/surface transferring. I’m not too impressed with the integration of Python; it feels a little like a usurper, making MEL look a little anemic and sad, and when I was looking for scripting/programming languages to study I didn’t end up picking Python, dammit.

Mostly, to the delight of my lazy colleagues, Maya now finally is localized in Japanese. I am not touching the option, of course. I need to learn where all the new buttons are and I don’t want to be squinting at incomprehensible kanji while I do so. Max has been localized for a while now, so I guess that is one of the good things Autodesk is doing with Maya. I may have to reconsider my opinion of them.

Sorry for this deluge of uselessness. Installing brand-spanking new software always feels a little like a treat, especially as the Maya 7.0 to 8.5 upgrade sees some significant improvements, allowing me to streamline my workflow even more. Students and those wishing to become a game artist should, by all means and post haste, download the free Personal Learning Edition. Especially in Japan Maya is fast becoming the standard 3D tool for game development, if it isn’t already. You could do a lot worse.

NOTE: If you’re a big fan of 3DSMax, I’m not interested in discussing the pros and cons of either package or, indeed, which is best. Horses for courses, and all that. Each to their own. If you think 3DSMax is better then good for you! You’re completely deluded, of course, but good for you nonetheless!

An inconvenient inconvenience

Loathe as I am to resort to writing about the weather, of all things, it does merit some attention. The very first year I lived in Japan the weather was fairly stable and followed the pattern I had been warned about. “Japan,” I was proudly told by several sources, “has four distinct seasons; winter, spring, summer and autumn.” For some reason a lot of Japanese think this sets them apart from the rest of the world; it probably has something to do with many of them visiting Australia. Even so, it isn’t the full story. My first winter here was bright, crisp and cold; there even was snow! The spring warmed up nicely, like an English summer. A brief rainy period brought the standard number of typhoons to Tokyo, strong, windy rainstorms I had never experienced before. The summer was blazing hot and so humid that it was almost futile to dry yourself after a cold shower. The autumn was cooler but still pleasant before making way again for the brisk winter.

Every year since then the seasons seem to have been mixed up more and more. This last year, for example, spring flew by, with the cherry blossoms blooming a couple of weeks before they were due, causing a mad rush of hanami, flower watching, drunken picnic parties and a local sakura festival amongst the green remains of the cherry blossom flowers, which were strewn across the streets where the last of them had fallen days before. The rainy season was rainy, but not exceptionally so. I haven’t experienced a typhoon as I have in my first year. The standard was simply to leave the house with an umbrella every day, without the assurance of needing it at all. The summer, though fairly humid, seemed a lot more bearable than before and certainly was typified more by gray smog days than blisteringly sunny smog days. You only knew it was autumn because the trees lost heir leaves, but temperature wise it seemed a shaky transition. Even the winter had a few warm, almost spring-like days and only one morning of soft white snow which lasted only a few hours and never hit the ground. Now the weather lady ells us it’s not spring yet, despite the few sunny, warm days we’ve had since, let’s face it, late December. The weather is cold again and rainy, even though last weekend I was almost tempted to start wearing short sleeves.

The fact it seems colder could be attributed to a few things. One is that I’ve acclimatized. This is probably true, as going home now requires heavy suitcases packed with sweaters and thick socks. The cold of Europe seems almost unbearable these last few years. I see tourists, obviously British, wearing T-shirts and even shorts while I’m still wrapped up in my winter coat, wearing gloves! Another reason is probably my weight loss. The Japanese call it “nikku juban”, meat underclothes, a funny and derogatory term for your spare tire. Remember this word; you’ll delight your Japanese acquaintances by knowing it. Without these layers of fat, or rather with fewer layers of fat, I’m bound to feel the cold more. But even so, it seems a little extreme.
The worst thing a paranoid hypochondriac like me could have done was watch Al Gore’s “An inconvenient truth”. The man, whether you like him or not, speaks with obvious passion, and though the film can’t make up its mind on whether it is a documentary on Mr. Gore himself or a scary lecture about global warming, its message is stark and frightening. I am not inclined to believe everything or anything told to me on television or in films, but simply seeing how the weather has changed in Japan over the last few years I find myself probably believing everything he says. My personal observations match his message, so I have little to doubt its truths. I certainly lean towards his views more than those of the conservatives whose main global warming policy seems to revolve around the tactic of covering their ears and shouting “Lies! LIES! I tell you! You could prove anything with ‘facts', don’t trust them!”

It seems global warming is a real issue and is having immediate, noticeable effects all around the world. It’s scaring the Hell out of me, but I am trapped in my lazy life of not caring enough. The excellent Mitchell & Webb did a sketch about this in their radio show where a passionate global warming enthusiast is trying to convince an apathetic man about the dangers. “We lease the planet from our children.” “Is that some kind of tax dodge?” It continues “So what can I do without having to give up all the good stuff?” “Good stuff?” “You know, driving, plastic, ready-made meals, that kind of thing.” The best line comes up in the conclusion, which I’ll paraphrase here from memory, “So you’re saying I should stop driving, using plastic and electricity so a hummingbird in Africa can live for a few more generations when it’ll die anyway when the sun goes mental in the future?”

Japan is ever so slowly turning round its “who gives a damn about some hummingbird” attitude, but it has a long way to go. Though supermarkets only offer plastic bags they do, weakly encourage people not to use too many of them, offering a kind of stamp-card loyalty system if you don’t require one. But regular packaging, however beautiful it usually is in Japan, is still extraordinarily profligate; a plastic bag opens to reveal an inner plastic bag containing individual cookies on a plastic tray, yet each cookie too has its individual wrapper and, if necessary, a small bag of chemicals to keep the moisture out. Be warned, people, these bags are not salt and shouldn’t be eaten, as I told a visiting friend once, in the nick of time, as she prepared to open the little sachet with her teeth. No, Japan, like many nations, has a lot of bad habits to change. At least it has a decent waste disposal system where PET bottles, cans and glass are separated from the main garbage, and a lot of corporations are playing around with fuel efficiency and alternate fuel sources. A Japanese university was the first, for example, to create a battery powered race car capable of great acceleration and speed.

I do what little I can; I try not to use too much electricity, recycle plastic bags, buy filtered water in refillable jugs rather than large plastic bottles, separate my rubbish and don’t buy too much plastic-wrapped unhealthy foods. I wish I had the conviction to do more, but as a typical Modern Man I am waiting for governments to make things more affordable or mandatory. In the meantime I am suffering many little head colds, as the weather changes from day to day and I am never sure what to wear. One day I’ll be sweating in my winter clothes, the next freezing in an icy, windy rain. I’m not making plans for hanami this year as you won’t know in what small window of time the flowers will blossom and you won’t be guaranteed the picnic won’t be ruined by strong, icy winds and a heavy downpour. Japan doesn’t have four seasons anymore, just one long one all mixed up.

The Pit Pony Awareness Trust

Writing a blog can be dangerous. It’s easy to get dooced, and though I write anonymously and have given no details about my employer or the projects I have worked on I somehow don’t think my boss will be all too happy should he ever find out. Still, I make great pains to keep the details of my work out of my posts as my company and the project really don’t deserve any aggravation that may or may not arise from this blog. And though my company certainly has some issues that I think it needs to sort out it most certainly isn’t the worst place I’ve ever worked, far from it. And the project too, though it has had its hiccups should be fun and I have no doubt it’ll do a nice number of sales and delight the fans. But still, employers do not like developers to speak publicly.

There are some obvious reasons for this. A lot of work related talk can be sensitive and covered by Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). Giving free reign to developers to talk to the press, for example, could lead to leaks, information that competitors may find useful or just a bad image if said developer isn’t, let’s say, the best personality to be talking to people. There are also a lot of industry employment issues, but luckily the blanket ban on public speaking usefully covers that up too. You think working in games is all fun and, um, games? That’s probably because there have been few developers telling the world it is actually damn hard work. As such any contact usually goes through marketing and PR.

And herein lies a problem. Unless you work in the game industry yourself, how many actual developers do you know by name? There are a few high-profile designers, even a programmer or two, but what about generally? Do you know any programmers, artists, planners, audio designers, even testers by name? There are an awful lot of us, so not everybody can be famous, but it’s a little irksome that the only people that get press coverage are producers, directors and marketing bods. You can’t imagine the feeling when you’re deep into crunch mode, working nights and weekends, and you see some footage of a guy at a trade show, glass of wine in hand, talking about your game, saying things like “we worked very hard on this” or “we’re very proud to be bringing you this”, but you’ve never seen this guy before; he’s probably some marketing guy from the publisher’s side. Or when game retailers get awards at game shows, yet nobody knows the name of that one programmer who implemented that genius bit of code on a late night one weekend that not only made the game but saved the whole project.

I certainly hope more developers break the silence and speak out. They don’t have to rant or complain, and they certainly mustn’t malignantly bring disrepute to their employers or break NDAs, but just write about things that are of interest. A few blogs I have linked to in the sidebar are just that: developers writing about things they care about, think are important or simply want to share. None of them are giving away sensitive information or revealing details about their projects that shouldn’t be revealed. And though a lot of us, myself included, still fear reprisals from paranoid employers, we mostly write anonymously. It’s a shame, but it will have to do for now. Maybe this is a small step to bring developers a little more into the limelight. Not to take away from the hard work marketing or managers do, which is also an important part of the whole development process, but simply to seek a little recognition for the people who sweat away in the trenches month after month to not bring you but actually create those games that have thrilled so many of you.

That said, you mustn’t think I am writing this blog in a desperate bid for fame; I’m writing under a pseudonym after all. No, for me it was a genuine desire to let people know that working in Japan is simply like working in any country, with its quirks, lows and highs. But also to help those who really want to work here. I know that when I was looking to move there was very little information out there and the idea it was a “giant, almost impossible task” seemed very real. Hopefully with this blog I can let people know that it really isn’t such a big deal and if you’re willing to put in the effort to study the language then there is nothing really stopping you.

On a more selfish note, another reason for the blog was to bring out my latent desire to write. My mother always told me I had it in me, but she has to say that; it’s genetic law or something, so mothers’ opinions cannot be trusted. I am finding that writing is something I enjoy a lot, and maybe should consider doing something with it. In that sense the blog has been a very good exercise for me and also a bit of a boost for my confidence. I’ll try to keep it up as long as I can.

In the meantime, I hope more developers start blogging. We need to step out of our shells where we willingly suffer the imposed silence that our bosses hang over us. If we write responsibly and not compromise our employers there is no reason why we shouldn’t step into the limelight a little more. Without us, after all, there would be no game industry, no awards, no trade magazines or product for the punters to enjoy.

Japanese for gesticulators

Every foreign language comes with its own gestures. I’m not talking about the peace sign the Japanese simply feel compelled to flash whenever a camera is nearby, but the general gestures and signs people make in daily life and conversations. Japan has a few peculiarities in this field, which I’ll try to explain herein.To point to yourself you point to your nose, not your chest, and using your index finger, not your thumb or any other. Often the finger comes close to touching the nose but usually it doesn’t. The “ji” kanji in the word “jibun” (“self”) actually, historically, is based on the shape of the nose. You’ll have to be shown the transition to see the link, but it’s there.
To point to someone with your index finger is not cricket. In stead you hold out your open hand, palm up, as if offering a tray of fresh Pimms or a nicely stacked pyramid of Ferrero Rochets.. This doesn’t just go for the person you’re talking to but anyone and often even anything you’re pointing to, but especially the person directly in front of you.
To call someone over from, say, the opposite end of a room you hold out your open hand, palm down, and wave it up and down. Often it is jokingly said foreigners who do not know this get the impression they are shooed away in stead, though you’d have to be pretty dim to think someone who is far away from you and eagerly calling your name wants to increase the distance between you two.
To slip past a person, through a conversation or anywhere where your route is blocked by other people you hold out your open palm, karate-chop style or, if you wish, in a “why I oughtta!” slap-ready stance Historically it showed the other persons you were unarmed (not carrying a sword) and were no threat. I personally reinterpret it as “if you don’t move I’ll slap you!”
On paper one doesn’t tick off good things, like for example the correct answer in a test, but draw a circle. Games players may have seen this in imported games. The red circle means “good”, “okay” in the same way a green tick would do that in Europe. So instead of giving the thumbs up if asked if you’re okay, or if something was done properly, you make a little circle with your thumb and index finger. You usually don’t fan out the rest of your fingers though, as in holding an illegal cigarette, but keep them fairly close together giving the effect of holding a small pole.
If something is bad, though, the universally accepted sign of badness is used in Japan too: the cross. Using either both index fingers, your flat, open hands or, if you want to be melodramatic, both your arms you make a cross to show something isn’t hunky-dory.
If you want to show someone he is being sucked up to, or indeed that you know the person speaking to you is sucking up relentlessly, you can make this known by rubbing a first on an open palm, mortal and pestle style. Where this comes from I don’t know, but it’s an easy way of saying “You’re not really handsome, JC. She was just sucking up because she wants free English conversation lessons”. Damn.
If you are referring to someone with a dubious background, say a pachinko hall proprietor, you can indicate your assumption by dragging a pinky finger over your cheek. This implies a scar, and as we all know all yakuza have scars on their cheek.
Similarly, if someone is exceptionally dandy and you expect a certain limp-wristedness you can indicate this by holding your open hand to the side of your face. This looks like you’re shielding your mouth as you say the word “homosexual” to the person you are talking to, but I have no idea if that is where it comes from.
If you’re stuck in the middle of an overcrowded train carriage and your stop is about to come up there is a handy way of telling the persons in front of you. By roughly showing a fist in the small of their back you can communicate all of “sorry, old bean. I know he train is still moving and the doors haven’t even opened yet, and though you yourself have absolutely no place to go I am letting you know right now that you need to make space for me so I can disembark without filth like you getting in my way”. Similarly a rough shove of the elbow backwards can communicate all of “you can bleeding well wait for the doors to open and everyone else to get off, you rude feck, and if you push me again I’ll give you a dry slap”.
Sometimes body language is a wonderful thing.

Support this starving artist

As Google Ads isn’t quite turning out to be the pension plan I had imagined, with a CTR lower than my bank’s interest rates, I thought I’d try a different tactic. I’m now getting a fair amount of readers and hits a day*, a steadily growing stream of curious and consequently demoralized parties, and at least some of you must be interested in cheap, facetious tat. So as if starting a blog wasn’t enough of a bandwagon to jump on, I’ve also opened up a CafePress shop offering a small range of exclusive, hand-designed goods using only the finest Adobe and Autodesk software for your pleasure.

On offer are a selection of T-shirts featuring Mr. Mr. and Mrs. Mrs. characters, made famous by the Hollywodians post, for the boys and for the ladies respectively. For the latter also a nice T-shirt explaining how to pose like a true professional talento and a series of unisex apparel featuring square barcodes; walk around as free advertising for this site without knowing it!
Also for sale are two sets of mugs, featuring bowing instructions and the Game&Watch interpretation of working life and a motivational clock and mouse mat.

I’ve added a link to the sidebar so if you’re not already rushing off to purchase these items you could redeem yourself by doing it at a later date.

Should this prove sufficiently popular I plan to spend the first earnings on expanding the CafePress shop to allow for more varied goods, to which end I’ll be accepting design suggestions which can be communicated by e-mail using the link in the side bar.


* In no small way thanks to sites like The Chaos Engine, GameSetWatch, Kotaku, Wired’s Game Life and the numerous personal blogs who have been kind enough to link here.

Break time

Mount Fuji, magnificent though she is, is an active volcano and will one day KILL US ALL. Until such a time she provides us with volcanically heated spring water, which is absolutely great to bathe in. These baths go by the term “onsen”. A great aspect of Tokyo life is that within a couple of hours you can be in a lush green environment, away from the hustle and bustle with a choice of onsen to stay at. Which is exactly what I’ve been up to this weekend. As I have already stayed at hotels (western style), hotels with tatami sections and ryoukan (Japanese style hotel) this time we decided to stay at a minshuku, the Japanese version of a B&B. Price may also have been a factor, as a game artist’s salary doesn’t really provide for five-star hotel stays. In the same vein we saved a few pennies on the bullet train and took a local line in stead, which only took about three times as long. The destination this time was a small station just past Atami on the southern peninsula of Shizuoka.
It’s surprising how little the scenery changes for the first two thirds of the trip but then the densely packed urban sprawl makes way for smaller pockets of densely packed suburban sprawl interposed with the occasional green hill. Once you get to the peninsula the scenery alternates between dark tunnel and small bay village all the way south. Atami and the surrounding areas were once the destination for honeymooners and people wishing to holiday, but it has seen better days. There is a strange atmosphere in this one-time Riviera in the off-season, a strange dilapidation with hints of a former glory; palm lined avenues, old Japanese hotels with facades turned green with growth. The villagers, traditionally reliant on the fishing industry, have taken back their land and hang fresh seaweed to dry on a beach front where once young couples bathed in trendy 60s bathing suits.

The minshuku, once we found it, was exactly what you’d expect from a B&B: a large house with several tatami rooms on the top floor and a bathroom housing the purpose of our visit: a private onsen. The room was a single 6 tatami affair with hardboard walls shielding us, if in sight only, from the neighbours who could easily be heard. The onsen was shared between the occupants, which numbered quite a few on the Saturday night but only us on the Sunday. Apart from the world’s smallest television, a kettle and a fridge the room, as all hotel rooms in Japan, also contained a green tea set to make your own ocha with whenever you please. The futon, hidden in the cupboard, had to be laid out yourself, but that is hardly an issue.

There is a whole tradition of etiquette when it comes to bathing. Once you enter you are greeted with a Japanese shower; the same as a western shower but lower, you’re meant to squat on the stool provided. Soap and shampoo are usually free. You wash yourself rigorously, wash your hair and your body, then rinse off to make sure there is no dirt or errand suds. Only then do you lower yourself in the piping hot natural spring water, where you sit quietly until your body and mind give up. After a quick rinse you get dressed, in your yukata probably, go back to your room and collapse on the tatami, your head dizzy and pounding from the heat. At these times beer becomes as easily drinkable as water, and a few snacks disappear with relish until you fall asleep in a hot stupor, your skin smooth and clean from all the minerals in the water, the room slightly farty from the sulphur. I, personally, love it.

The Sunday we followed up on various recommendations by going down to Kawazu. As the weather was exceptionally fine and the area is itself a few degrees warmer than Tokyo the cherry blossom were already in full bloom; everybody was going down to see it. And by “everybody” I mean every aggressive little old lady you can image piled into the “sight-seeing train”. This train has one slightly undulating row of seats facing outwards towards big windows so the passengers can see the ocean, the villages and the mountains. The battle for a seat was bloody and exhausting. At one point one old lady walked towards a recently vacated seat and was about to sit down when another almost threw her handbag there and said “sorry, taken!” In stead of picking up the bag and throwing it away the first lady merely admitted defeat. Hell hath no fury as an old Japanese lady. Not scorned, just as is.

Kawazu was busy but beautiful. The sakura was not only in full bloom, but some trees had already greened, which even for the south is unseasonably fast. Back in Tokyo we have yet to wait a few weeks. The glory of a sakura-lined street in full bloom is not something you can appreciate until you’ve seen it up close and personal. The pink flowers snow down upon you as you sit there in the sun getting drunk and stuffed with food. Kawazu was one endless row of stalls selling fruits, roasted shellfish on a stick, sliced and fried sweet potato, Japanese sweets, dried fish and squid and oranges. Shizuoaka is famous for its oranges, apparently, so we had no choice but to buy some, though there were many private trees in full bloom which could have provided had the wife not been so keenly aware of scrumping laws in Japan.

Kawazu also boasted a 1300 year old temple next to a 1000 year old tree, which to me looked impressively gnarled and majestic; a real “tonari no Totoro” affair. Atami, however, boasts a 2000 year old tree, which we didn’t get to see this time. The temple looked deceptively new though. The Japanese have an “old broom” approach to history. Sometimes you replace the head, sometimes the handle, but it always remains the same old broom. Likewise this temple obviously did not contain any original materials and had seen numerous renovations but was still the 1300 year old temple.

For lunch we had to whip our way through a sea of old ladies to a soba restaurant where, after a badly chosen but delicious curry soba I was forced to experience the Japanese squat toilet; usually not an adventure I seek out. Luckily the minshuku provided both a squat and a flush toilet, the latter flushing so fantastically rigorous the first time I used it I jumped back in surprise and hit my head on the doorframe.

For a two-night weekend I managed to have a dip in the onsen 4 times, which was exactly the aim of this little break. I highly recommend any foreigners moving to Tokyo to organize periodic trips to one of the many onsen resort areas around the metropolis. It’s a great way to unwind and relax, even if the sightseeing eventually sees you back home tired and exhausted; but at least you’re exhausted by good, fun things rather than work, which makes all the difference.

The way back was a race against the weather, with the forecasts predicting a heavy storm. We didn’t want to get caught out in the middle of nowhere; I know what Japanese storms can be like. Indeed, when we arrived back home the wind was licking at our clothes and the clouds were swirling dangerously. Now it has started raining too. It will be a dark and stormy night.