Sunday 17 June 2018

Godzilla: The King of Monsters - and a Metaphor for Japanese Angst

The Godzilla Head in Shinjuku
Tokusatsu (特撮) live action films and dramas full of special effects, especially those featuring actors in superhero (think Kamen Rider) and giant monster (kaijū =怪獣) suits, reflect a very Japanese type of popular entertainment. Godzilla is perhaps the best known of these characters, though the original 1954 film was heavily influenced by King Kong and other Hollywood giant monster movies. Nevertheless, Godzilla (gojira =ゴジラ in Japanese, a blend of gorilla and kujira or whale) is a much loved Japanese icon that continues to fascinate movie goers: the 45th (and final?) movie starring the prehistoric city stomping sea-monster awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation was the 2016 "New Godzilla".

Godzilla cake set in Hotel Gracery, Shinjuku
Recent years have seen an explosion of new sites for Godzilla fans to visit. In April 2015, a giant Godzilla head was unveiled on top of the Shinjuku Toho Building, the film studio behind the original 1954 film. It stands around 50m above ground level which is also roughly the same size as the original 1954 Godzilla and on the hour sound and smoke comes from its mouth. The adjacent Hotel Gracery is something of a shrine to the irradiated monster with film posters (pictured), models, and even a special cake set (also pictured). Interestingly, the monster was appointed special resident and tourism ambassador for Shinjuku at the unveiling, which is the longest in a long list of non-humans, including the dress up doll Licca-chan and various sea-lions in Tokyo Bay, to be presented with residency certificates (jūmin-hyo =住民票) - much to the chagrin of foreign residents lacking such certification.

A new Godzilla statue also appeared in March this year in front of the Hibiya Chanter, the commercial complex in Yurakucho, Tokyo and the square was renamed "Hibiya Godzilla Square". The statue itself is disappointingly small though, standing at only 3m tall, but is pretty close in appearance to the Godzilla in the 2016 blockbuster. Another tourist stop on the Godzilla tour of Tokyo is the Godzilla-like image painted on the platform of Shinagawa Station marking the origin or start point (tetsudō hasshō no chi=鉄道発祥の地) of the circular Yamanote Line. If you still haven't had enough of Godzilla, you might finally try the new live-action Godzilla-themed escape game, also in Shinjuku, which opened this April.

Godzilla is actually more than just a pop culture icon - it also reveals much about the Japanese psyche and the hopes and fears of Japanese society itself. In the first place, the monster was conceived as a metaphor for nuclear weapons against the background of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 2011 earthquake and nuclear disasters gave Godzilla even more relevance as a broader metaphor for Japanese victim-consciousness and bureaucratic incompetence in the face of disaster; indeed, the key theme of the 2016 film was the lack of responsibility and flexibility demonstrated by Japanese so-called decision-makers in a nation paralysed by dependency and protocols. This is no fantasy; for example, the official report on the Fukushima nuclear disaster concluded that the fundamental causes were to be found "in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” No wonder Godzilla keeps coming back...

NOTE: I'll be taking a few weeks off, but normal service will be resumed mid-July. Watch this space! In the meantime, why not browse through any posts you missed, or search by preferred theme: there are 139 posts in total! Of course, if you have any comments, ideas, or requests do please get in touch using the feedback box on the right.

Sunday 10 June 2018

Immigration in Japan: Systems of Control and Deliberate Inefficiency

The other day, I had the "pleasure" of visiting the Tokyo immigration office (nyūkoku kanri kyoku =入国管理局) after quite a few years of not having to go. Because I have permanent residency (eijūken =永住権), I do not need to renew my visa, unlike the majority of non-permanent residents who do need to periodically extend their visa. On top of that, as part of the new 2012 residency management system, the re-entry permit system (sainyukoku kyoka =再入国許可) was streamlined so that if you return to Japan within a year, it is no longer necessary (as long as you remember to tick the right box on the Embarkation card!). Actually, I never managed to figure out why a re-entry permit should be necessary if someone already had a visa. In fact, I never even realised that such a thing was necessary when I first left Japan for the very first time for a holiday only to be told that without the permit I wouldn't be let back in! The memory of me standing in the Narita Immigration Office, which seems to specialise in unfriendly officials, and begging for help in broken Japanese is one that I shall never forget.

On entering the Tachikawa branch office or shucchōjo (出張所) just before 9:00 when it opens, there were already a lot of people milling about and my ticket number in the queue was 31. I was hoping that given the rapid rise in foreign workers in recent years, things may have changed. But no. There was no reception or help desk - you just waited your turn until your number was called. I waited two hours (getting all my Spanish homework done!) only to told that what I wanted to do couldn't be done. The people next to me had the same problem. There were surely many others who had filled out the wrong form or were confused about what documents or payment was needed, including people who had filled out the re-entry permit form and bought the stamps without realising that, if they came back within one year, it was unnecessary (no signs pointed this out). In sum, with no help desk to check and a pretty useless telephone enquiry service the only thing to do was wait and hope - and then go to the back of the queue and start again. When I asked the official whether things wouldn't be more efficient (for both sides) with a reception to screen and help people he simply said it couldn't be done (dekinai).

An "information" board containing no useful information
Why such deliberate inefficiency? Previous posts on immigration provide a hint, in particular the reality that Japan lacks a proper immigration policy despite a falling population and rising labour shortages. Today the number of foreign residents is at an all time high (around 2.5 million), which includes 1.27 million foreign workers. But despite the rapid rise - and need for - workers, the system remains one of control (kanri) of foreigners (gaikokujin) and the word migrant or migration (imin) remains taboo: Japan does not officially accept migrants nor does it have an immigration policy, as politicians frequently take pains to point out. So the system remains one of stop-gap ad-hoc measures (mostly focused on expanding the "trainee" system) coupled with strict controls, such as the fingerprinting and photographing of almost all non-Japanese passport holders, including permanent residents like me, each and every time they re-enter the country. These kind of "anti-terrorist" measures (as they are called) - now including facial recognition which was unveiled at Narita Airport on Friday - means Japanese border controls are even stricter than those in the US, who, unlike Japan, has good reason to fear terrorist attacks. On top of this, while living in Japan, non-Japanese have to carry their resident card (zairyū kādo =在留カード) with them at all times - woe betide you if you pop out to get a drink from the vending machine without your card and get stopped by a "friendly" police officer for questioning (known as shokumu shitsumon =職務質問).

FOOTNOTE: On June 5th, the government announced, in a draft on reform presented to the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (経済財政運営と改革の基本方針), plans for a new visa status which it hopes will attract "tens of thousands of foreign workers a year." The front page of the Yomiuri (June 6th) headlined this as "accelerating the acceptance of foreign human resources" (外国人材受け入れ促進). This is a classic case of "wanting to have your cake and eat it": desperately needing foreign labour but studiously avoiding creating a proper immigration policy to support them. In the final analysis, a system which tries to attract foreign workers but which makes them feel unwelcome once they do arrive is a system which is destined to fail.

Saturday 2 June 2018

Fireflies in Early Summer: Love, Returning Spirits, and the Ephemerality of Life

Early summer (shoka =初夏)is a beautiful time of the year in Japan: perfect temperatures, gentle light breezes, and clear blue skies. It is all the more beautiful for its transience, since the rainy season will arrive soon and with it humidity, dampness, and mould. I took the opportunity to air the futons today as it could well be the last chance for a while.

One symbol of the fleetingness of early summer are the fireflies (hotaru =蛍). Fireflies have a special cultural significance for the Japanese and feature in many idioms, haiku, tanka, novels, films, songs, stories, and place names. They symbolise everything from passionate love to returning spirits and the ephemerality of life. Even the names of the two most common fireflies - Genji and Heike - echo back to the fighting clans of the Kamakura period. Now is the prime-time for viewing (kanshō =観賞) these lightning bugs. Like cherry blossoms, there are firefly front maps that calculate the appearance of fireflies across the nations with scientific precision. Fireflies can usually be seen in Eastern Japan from mid-May to early June but, due to the warm March and April, this year they are being seen slightly earlier than in previous years.

Having never actually been to view the fireflies before (!) I decided to go to a local viewing spot (hotaru kanshō supotto =ホタル観賞スポット) and see what I was missing out on. Actually, just locally there is a small aqueduct dating back to 1655 which in the past was used for irrigation purposes and drinking water called Nobidomeyōsui (野火止用水) which literally means "water for stopping field fires"! Today it is a rural community development (ホタルの里づくり) spot known as seseragi where fireflies are raised; cages protect the larvae by keeping the water free from pollutants and rubbish (pictured). Unfortunately, I didn't spot even one firefly when I visited, something which raises serious questions about environmental degradation.

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For those living a little closer to the centre of Tokyo, Kugayama, just 15 minutes from Shibuya, holds a firefly festival from June 9-10 in which you're pretty much guaranteed to see the dancing lights since some 2000 captive bugs will be released. Festival organisers suggest 8pm as the time when the fireflies are most active though the homepage says it is even possible to see them at lunchtime! See some hints on firefly watching, in Japanese, here. Definitely worth checking out if you're in the Tokyo area - though looking at the Meteorological Agency forecasts, the rainy season may be upon us even before then and the time we get to spend with the fireflies will be even shorter than usual.