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The day I saw the Emperor April 28, 2019

Posted by ayasawada in Culture, Japan.
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The Emperor is abdicating. Long live the Emperor.

A year ago, I was lucky enough to share airspace with Emperor Akihito of Japan, a person who’s bloodline was, until not long ago, considered living, breathing deities. But what I remember most is not his grandeur but his humility.

I was in Tokyo for the Japan Prize, the Japanese Nobels. This would be no ordinary celebrity siting. It was history before my eyes. At the age of 85, Emperor Akihito is way past retirement age and understandably tired after nearly 30 years on a relentless schedule of official duties, and a lifetime under a spotlight that began a decade before World War 2 even began.

This would be one of the last times anyone in the public would see him, and the weight of their presence was heavy before they even arrived. Half a century since Akihito’s father officially denounced divine links as a part of the peace process, the myth – or at least the history of it – lingers. And even if you can put that aside, this is still royalty.

My seat was sat right next to the red-carpeted runway (this was on normal days a kabuki theatre). Ceremony is everything. Everyone seemed to sit up straight even when they were standing.

I had a good view as they arrived. A shuffling entourage of 10 entered moving, in perfect sync around the quiet, unhurried shuffling of a grey-haired couple. I saw the fine polished shoes of the Emperor a few metres from my face and looked up, trying to absorb the weight of history.

What surprised me was how honestly delighted they seemed to be there. They stopped on stage, just before taking their seats, and looked around. Warm smiles, dignity, genuine class.

What struck me for the next two hours was their attentiveness, particularly the Empress Michiko. No signs of tiredness, boredom, barely even a blink. Just focus. For the whole two hours, whoever was speaking, whatever video was showing. A measured smile, full attention, gratitude to each speaker and each person around them.

Later, they moved to the balcony. They again stopped to receive the applause. How odd that you should applause people for just entering a room and taking their seats. But how polite to properly receive what people are so eager to give. I saw the Emperor take in with wider eyes the whole room, as if offering a second of his full attention to each and every one of the hundreds of people locking eyes on him.

A few hours later I stood at a front of a rope barrier, grinning as they strode gracefully out of their black car, the same warm smile and delight at seeing people there to greet them. The Emperor looked in my direction as he passed my way. I felt compelled to avert my gaze.

Later, from a quiet spillover room in the Tokyo Palace Hotel, I watched from a monitor their table, the camera fixed on the Emperor – himself a scientist – in deep conversation with Dr Akira Yoshino, one of the laureates. This event is one of the only time, I was told, that royalty dines in the company of others. The Emperor seemed in his element, delighted to be talking to other men of science. To be speaking as an equal, not a God.

48groups pilgrimage January 19, 2014

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On my most recent Japan trip I visited Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. Seeing as that’s three out of the four 48 Groups locations, I couldn’t very well do that and not stop by hallowed ground, right? Here follows impressions and directions to sating your AKB/SKE/NMB thirst while on the move in Japan. (more…)

Perfume city Tokyo January 2, 2014

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Perfume でした。#prfm

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The last year or so has been, without a doubt, the best 13 months of my life. Capping off what can only be described as ‘Perfume year‘ was the holy grail: a pilgrimage to see the group in the motherland of Japan. 

The date: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The location: Tokyo Dome – the capital’s legendary baseball stadium and one of the biggest venues in the country. Perfume played here once before in 2010, but this time returned for 2 days, part of a 4-date ‘4th Tour in Dome’ that including a couple of nights previous in Osaka’s Kyocera Dome. 

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:) #prfm

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Yet it was Tokyo that was the ‘homecoming’ of sorts, and the one that most international fans decided was the one to gather for (probably in no small part due to the coinciding Christmas holidays). Thanks to the World PTA fan club, for the first time we had a relatively easy way to purchase tickets to a Japanese concert. It was a lottery, but though many of us worried, practically all got tickets (and for those that didn’t, most of us had spares). I was lucky enough to draw a pair for both nights and booked my flight right away. (more…)

JLPT Dec 2013: Reflections and resolutions December 2, 2013

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行きましょう #JLPT

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I sat N3 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) yesterday. It’s the first test I’ve done in the new format. The last time I did it was passing the old 3kyu 5 years ago, back in the dark ages when there were just 4 levels and the test was just once a year.

A lot of things have changed since then – we now, thankfully, get to take the test twice a year and there is now a new intermediate test level bridging the chasm that used to sit between 3kyu and 2kyu. Still, some things never change: the whole thing still takes 5 hours – at least an hour longer than necessary – due to endless amounts of unnecessary faffing caused by Japanese bureaucracy. Why we have to rigidly be in our seats at the start only to then sit for 25 minutes staring into space is beyond me.

It was nice to get back into the swing of things though, and having a test to aim for certainly sharpened my focus over the last year of study, particularly these last 2 months.

So how did the test itself go? In all honesty, I’m disappointed at my performance. Devastated even. (more…)

BBC please, we’re Japanese October 24, 2013

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Female wota, where art thou? Not in the BBC doc that’s for sure.

Over the last week or so there have been a number of articles about Japan, its declining population and, as one of the reasons for that, the Japanese people’s attitudes to sex. These are linked to a BBC documentary, ‘No sex please, we’re Japanese‘ that aired tonight (if you’re in the UK or *coughproxycough* watch it on iPlayer here). While I’m always pleased to see coverage of Japan on our flagship broadcaster, the way some of this has been handled by the crew left me somewhat bemused and despairing.

It’s not that the programme itself is bad on the whole. On the contrary, it makes an effort to cover many of the important points in the topic, such as the changing attitudes of men and women, Japan’s economy, the problems caused by an ageing population and the Japanese attitude to immigration. Particularly in the second half, it offers some thoughtful and interesting insights, visiting a prison for over 60s, an immigrant Philippino nurse, a Japanese-American economist, and some eye-catchingly desolate ghost-towns in rural areas long abandoned due to changing industries and the migration of young people seeking work. There’s certainly enough to make a viewer think and catch a good glimpse of the perfect storm that’s approaching Japan – one every bit as worrying to the government as the constant threat of natural disasters.

Yet, such good work is almost (almost) completely undone by some lazy foreigner-in-Japan and sweeping ‘look at the freaks!’ reporting. When making serious and considered narration, the script and presenter Anita Rani’s delivery is fine. But when she’s out and about the attempts at ‘fun colour’ are just plain annoying and, frankly, rather offensive. At the lighter end of the scale, remarks like “I think we’d all agree Japanese babies are the cutest” and prancing about with retired cheerleaders can be forgiven for silly gaijin naiveté. I can even forgive the pseudo-Lost In Translation music an imagery at the end. But the implicit disdain of otaku culture in the Akihabara sections I cannot. Obviously, I take issue as someone who identifies with that community, but the programme makes no effort to dial down its judgemental tone when meeting a couple of Love+ fans, contrasting completely the more objective tone adopted when later discussing immigration or the economy. It’s all very well to see these bits as light colour, but front-loading the programme with these throwaway sections – and literally blaming otaku culture – or rather male otaku – for the declining birthrate (even going so far as to say that the ‘silly Japanese should just pull their finger out, grow up and start making babies for the sake of the nation’ – not in those exact words, but almost in those exact words) is a bit of a step too far. Who are you as visiting Westerners to offer such an opinion?

I don’t expect the whole programme to focus on otaku for the sake of balance, but it wouldn’t have taken much to film some of the female wota clearly in evidence in Akiba itself and much more in force in Otome Alley in Ikebukuro. Admittedly the majority of Japanese otaku are indeed male, but that’s to ignore the significant number that are female. Where were the yaoi lovers in this segment? And where was the coverage of ‘herbivore’ men and parasite singles? Or Japanese womens’ attitudes to men (at least covered in this article The Guardian and even the Huffington Post, even if the latter blew one survey’s results completely out of proportion). The BBC team did at least have a few minutes on Japanese career women, though this was rushed in order to segue into Japan’s lack of family allowances.

Overall, the programme, and the coverage around it, has been interesting and brought this issue – and Japan – into the UK media spotlight this week. I just find it disappointing that some good work on a good subject ended up tainted by some lazy point-the-finger reporting.

A week in Tokyo August 28, 2013

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Harajuku signage

Back in June, I had a “short, relaxing break” in Tokyo. This was my fifth time in Japan, my fourth in Tokyo, having stuck entirely to Kansai and Kyushu on my last trip. Seeing the Japanese capital again after 4 years, it’s interesting how much has changed – and not changed – both in the city and myself.

On the one hand, nothing much has changed. This is still the same Tokyo I’ve found my way around several times before. Convenience stores and vending machines still sell my favourite bottled green tea. I still know the Yamanote line like the back of my hand. Suica is still the way to travel, Ueno station in rush hour is still a nightmare. My favourite haunts of Ikebukuro, Shibuya and Akihabara remain largely the same. And unlike much of the western world, there are still physical record stores you can browse CDs and DVDs in. On the other hand, it’s amazing how much can change in 4 years, like the entire Radio Kaikan building being demolished or the Japanese population finally embracing the smartphone revolution.

I spent the days walking around my favourite parts of the city, doing the things I love and, unlike previous travel-rushed trips, just experiencing life as a Tokyo-ite. (more…)

Saitama and the Bonsai museum August 27, 2013

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Omiya Bonsai Art Museum

Toro is a small town in Saitama prefecture, about 30 mins from Tokyo. It’s a peaceful little place: station, supermarket, 100 yen shop all within a few metres of each other and then just sprawls of houses. But in amongst this is a little gem: the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum.


My friends tell me that years ago after the Second World War the bonsai craftsmen of Tokyo were forced out of the city centre, I think by a combination of rebuilding, expansion and rising property prices. They decamped to Omiya in Saitama (just up the road from Toro) and the area is famous for many stellar bonsai dealers. Hence the opening of a small but plush and very technologically furnished (in terms of touchscreens and the like).

I didn’t really know that much about bonsai, so I didn’t know what to expect when my friends suggested visiting. To the ignorant foreigner ‘bonsai’ just means those little dinky trees about the size of a bowl. But bonsai actually means miniaturising and taming any tree into a smaller vessel. Certain trees work better than others of course, but I was stunned at the variety of species, colours and patterns. Most were the size of my iMac, some even larger, but all showed tremendous craftsmanship through the use of gentle wiring, careful pruning, repotting and applying just the right amount of light and water (I learned all this from the display videos, though not much since everything – even the signage – was in Japanese).

The well-furbished interior showcases how bonsai has been used throughout the ages to bring nature into the Japanese home, and this is supplemented by an outdoor garden with further trees that are in preparation. You can’t take photos anywhere other than a small area of the garden, so I can’t show you much of the museum, but it’s definitely worth your time. The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum has a 300 yen entrance fee and a tearoom on the first floor with a great view of the garden for you to maintain that zen feeling at the end of your visit.

Thanks to my friends’ local knowledge, I also got to visit one of the local bonsai dealers, one of the few that would allow visitors to browse their collections without necessarily purchasing. Again there were some stunning specimens retailing for upwards of hundereds of thousands (probably millions) of yen.

Not many people head out to Saitama, but it’s a nice place. And if the hustle and bustle of tourist-trap Tokyo is getting you down, a trip to the bonsai museum in the perfect antidote.

Yokohama August 26, 2013

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Yokohama bay

Just a 30 minute train ride from Tokyo, Yokohama’s one of those places that I’ve always wanted to visit. Not for any particular reason other than its prominence in numerous Japanese media (a famous chapter in Honey and Clover for instance). Well, okay, maybe this time for one particular reason.

It was well worth the visit because Yokohama is a really beautiful city. From the modern architecture of Minato Mirai to the peaceful harbour-side Yamashita Koen and the bustling Chinatown (pretty much like any other Chinatown), there’s variety in both scenery and activities (including a famous ferris wheel) that makes Yokohama the perfect date spot. In fact, that’s what it’s known for – I hadn’t realised it before this trip, but all my friends were surprised when I said I was taking a day trip to Yokohama by myself. I thought they were exaggerating about it being made for couples, but it’s somewhat true – there were couples EVERYWHERE.


Yokohama’s easy to get to from Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro and costs about 500 yen one way. I rode the Keihin-Tohoku line from Shibuya all the way to Motomachi-Chukagai so I could stop off at Minato Mieru Koen, a spot immortalised in Studio Ghibli’s recent Kokurikozaka Kara (From Up on Poppy Hill).

Kokuriko-zaka Kara no hata

Kokuriko-zaka Kara

I then had a pleasant few hours stroll through the city centre, Chinatown, Yamashita Koen and Minato Mirai, before heading to the Nissan Stadium for an afternoon of AKB. (^_^;)

Yokohama Chinatown


Yokohama Stadium

Yokohama bay

The one thing I didn’t get to do was the Cup Noodle Museum in Minato Mirai. I guess I’ll save that for my date next time. (^_^)

More from Yokohama in this Flickr set.

Souzou: outsider art from Japan March 30, 2013

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Untitled (2013-03-26 21:20:53)

It’s not often (read: NEVER) that anything in my workplace crosses over with my love of all things Japan. So when my colleagues at Wellcome Collection told me that they were bringing a Japanese exhibition over I got very excited. What I actually saw when the exhibition opened this week blew my mind.  (more…)

Hyper Japan 2012 February 26, 2012

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Culture, Film, Japan.
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Fusion HAH!World Cosplay Summit tryoutsWorld Cosplay Summit tryoutsWorld Cosplay Summit tryoutsWorld Cosplay Summit tryoutsIron Man
World Cosplay Summit tryoutsWorld Cosplay Summit JudgesNichijouPERSONA!Enka singerEnka singer
DrummerHibiki Ichikawa shamisen playersHibiki Ichikawa shamisen playersGokuChopperGiant Chopper!
Satoshi Miki and Eri FuseMike SatoshiMiki Satoshi and Eri Fuse Q&ANatsuko AsoNatsuko AsoNatsuko Aso

keatl’s photostream on Flickr.

I spent my Saturday at the Hyper Japan event, which came a little early this year.

Slightly bigger, but still with the distinct smell of slight disorganisation, it was a lot of fun. Not so many bargains (though I did end up spending more than last year, mostly on DVDs >_<), and missing some folks from previous Hyper Japan’s like Good Smile Company, Hobby Japan, Square-Enix and the maid cafe, but nevertheless there were a good range of stalls and some excellent shows. (more…)