Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Highway Robbery

It's shaken time again...
You'll see the mechanics grin.
Shaken time again.
They know it's an easy way
To rob us forever
(sung to the tune of Cold Gin by KISS)

Ah, yes, shaken (vehicle inspection) time has just come and gone for the BLUE RAV4.


Depending on how old your car is, you have to take it to a mechanic or car dealer every two or three years so that they can get it up to the government's official standards regarding safety and performance. Many if not most Japanese don't bother; when their car's shaken time comes up, they simply trade it in and get a new machine. It's easy to see why. It tends to be very expensive.

The funny thing is that, judging by the cars that are able to pass the test, the government standards don't seem to be all that strict. It would probably be a lot easier and a helluva lot cheaper for people to bring their cars to the testing stations themselves. Nope. Only licensed mechanics and car dealers are allowed to do it. We can't have people doing things on their own, now, can we? I'm sure the bureaucrats would say (as they always do) that they're looking out for the public welfare. I think it really has more to do (as it always does) with all those little fees that wind up getting tacked onto the bill.

It's usually a lot cheaper to have an independent mechanic take care of shaken than a dealer, but I usually go with the latter anyway. Specifically, I always take my car to the place where I bought it. There are many reasons for this, most of which are based on personal experience. For one thing, car dealers here in Japan tend to go out of their way to make sure you keep coming back. (Heck, the guy that sold me my BLUE car kept driving up to my place two or three times a year, often with a seasonal present, just to make sure everything was running alright...and to remind me that I should wash the thing now and then.) Independent mechanics, on the other hand, have a bad habit of simply not giving a damn. They do the job, take the money, and say, "Next..." I've actually taken cars to fix-it shops for shaken in the past and had them come back in worse shape than before. I've also heard plenty of horror stories about how people or businesses have had their cars come back from shaken with engines that wouldn't start, brakes that wouldn't work right, and wheels so far out of alignment that the car pulled hard to one side. Of course, when those hapless souls took their car back to the mechanic again, they had to pay to have it fixed (i.e. restored to normal). No thanks. It may cost more, but I still go back to the dealership that wants my trust.

The trouble is that you never know how MUCH more it's going to cost.


The last time I took my BLUE car to the dealer for shaken it wound up not costing very much at all. The car was more or less already up to specs. The only extra charge came from one of those "while we're at it" deals. I had already been planning to get new tires (in fact, I'd been planning to go to a tire shop the very next day), and the dealer had a sale going on on the very brand and type I'd been looking for, so I went ahead with it. It still didn't cost as much as I'd expected.

That was then. This is now.

I took my BLUE machine in on Wednesday morning, and they showed me a detailed estimate plus a few options. It seemed pretty reasonable, so I went ahead with several of the options. Another nice thing about it was that my car would be all done and ready to roll the next day (another reason I prefer dealers; independent mechanics can take up to a week for shaken). I inked the form, took the keys for the loaner (a little, silver Vitz), and headed to the school feeling very fortunate.

A few hours later, I got a phone call. Suddenly I found myself thinking of that scene in the movie The MASK when Stanley goes to the fix-it shop to get his car back from its oil change and is given a whole list of expensive repairs. I was told that several components, including the alternator belt, air cleaner, spark plugs, and one of the brakes, were shot and had to be replaced. I was told I could refuse, but it was implied in no uncertain terms that my car wouldn't be passing the test (at least in the care of that dealer) otherwise. I probably could have taken my car to a mechanic for cheaper repairs and then back to the dealer for the shaken itself, but that just sounded like a lot more bother and time that I really didn't have.

A vision of my summer bonus rapidly shrinking before my eyes, I told them to go for it.


Well, the good thing was it still wasn't as expensive as I'd feared. The bad thing was that I could've bought a new Les Paul for less than that.

At least they had the kindness to clean and polish my car up, inside and out. It really looked nice when I picked it up. Nice, shiny, metallic BLUE. It also felt and sounded a lot better than before, too. I guess I should take some comfort from that...and rethink my plans for my summer bonus.

Next comes my car insurance.


Friday, June 24, 2005

Gastronomic Research on a Cetacean Scale

Whalemeat has been included in Japanese cuisine for centuries. No matter how chronically materialistic today's consumer culture has become, the Japanese continue to have that element of stubborn traditionalism. The very idea of eliminating even such a relatively insignificant item from the historical menu is met with disbelief if not outright hostility.

On the other hand, if that item can be repackaged and sold in a new and different way, chances are it'll become "hip" very quickly.

Japan has observed the international whaling ban, but only grudgingly and only if a small catch of Minke whales is allowed every year for "scientific study". Not long ago, the Japanese government, bowing to public pressure, pressured the IWC to start allowing low-level whaling again. They were rebuffed. The government is saying that they will continue the fight, but for now they will merely restrict themselves to the "research" quota.

It's amazing how much of that "research" ends up on the dinner table. It's also interesting just how sensitive the Japanese are about the issue. Its a topic that comes up from time to time in conversations I'm involved in. I am told again and again how baffled the Japanese are that whaling is restricted in the first place. "If they are there, we should be able to hunt them," is the gist of what they usually say. I also hear a lot of very smug, "If Americans actually tried eating whale meat once, they would get rid of the ban."

On several occasions I have had Japanese friends, acquaintances, and coworkers try to get me to try whale meat (i.e. pointedly scheduling a "mandatory" party at a restaurant in Kashima that still somehow specializes in "research-based" cuisine). Most of the time, if I find out in advance what's up, I simply bow out of the dinner party as a matter of principle. Once, however, while on a music-related trip somewhere, the hotel restaurant included whale sashimi in our meal. After I'd had more than a few drinks, I gave in and tried a piece.

Amazingly, it had little if any flavor at all. It was like eating vinyl.

"Yes, that's right," said a very enthusiastic man at our table in an I-told-you-so tone of voice. "It doesn't have much taste at all. That's what's so wonderful about it. It's SO easy to eat!"

I replied by saying something like, "Water has even less taste, and it's even easier to consume. Why not just stick with that?"

They ignored me.

Well, whale meat is back with a vengeance, it would seem. A Japanese fast-food chain has put whale meat burgers on its menu, and they claim they are selling like hot cakes. I would definitely call that some very sound "scientific study". I particularly like this line:

"We fry minke whale meat and the burger really tastes like beef," manager Miku Oh said.

This brings up the question: "If the taste of beef is really so ideal, why not just eat beef instead, since it's cheaper and more readily available?"

Especially since whale meat is higher in fat!

Then again, beef isn't a traditional part of the Japanese diet; it's a Western import. Moreover, the Japanese government is still reluctant to ease its bans on imported beef, whereas they're determined to get the rest of the world to understand their terminal need to hunt whales.


Politics, science, tradition, and the stomach. They make for a truly vile combination. As for me, I think I'll stick with fish and chicken.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Waiting on a Wednesday

I am standing at the edge of a river of sog.

Actually, I am standing at the entrance to our driveway, thankful for the new umbrella I bought just a couple of days ago. It’s a fairly good-sized one. Normally I hate these things, and I’d much rather put up with a bit of dampness than have to deal with lugging one around, finding a place to stow it, and then getting all flustered when it inevitably gets stolen. However, when the monsoon season finally arrives, an umbrella can definitely be a good thing to have.

Huddling against my knee, my son no doubt agrees.

It’s kind of nice to have this one morning every week when I can stand with him as he waits for the taxi that takes him to his kindergarten. In keeping with the recent policies of the prefectural board of education, Seishin Gakuen gives each teacher a half day of “training time” plus a half day off in addition to the Sunday holiday. Ideally, that half day off is supposed to be Saturday, since the Ministry of Mindless Bureaucracy and Meaningless Cliches Technology and Education (monbukagakusho) has been trying to do away with the long-standing tradition of Saturday morning classes. Unfortunately, ye olde academy is naughty; we do have Saturday morning classes, and that is my “training time” (i.e. I’m on call). That leaves my half day off to be placed elsewhere, in my case Wednesday mornings.

It’s bizarre having a morning off in the middle of the week. It can be very convenient, to be sure, since it’s a handy time for going to the bank, post office, or immigration office. However, it gets kind of tiresome having to explain to everybody time and time again that I’m neither sick nor on holiday.

My son doesn’t care. He’s just thankful that I’m there holding the umbrella.
Sporting his bright yellow class cap and Thomas the Tank Engine backpack, he’s not as energetic as he usually is. On most mornings he would be dancing around or enthusiastically engaged in pantomime battles between giant rhinoceros beetles. Today he’s being rather quiet, his banter limited to a few pensive comments about the way the water is flowing in the gravel lot or the flowers in the yard across the street.

I’m sure it’s probably the rain, but those flowers are beautiful. One of the beauties of life in Japan is definitely the ever-changing kaleidoscope of nature and botany here. From March until November, it seems like the landscape is a different color every week. In the yard across the street there are reds, pinks, whites, and oranges. On my right there is some purple flower I can’t identify. Behind me, on my left, there is a cluster of yellow and white camphor. And then, of course, one can’t ignore the rich green bursting out on all sides. Neither the gray sky nor the all-encompassing sogginess can thin the palette.

Another car passes by on the very edge of the road, sending up a spray that once again just misses us. I swear they’re trying to get us; they keep veering over as close to us as they can get on the one-and-a-half-lane road without dropping off it, but the nearest real puddle is just too far away.

Ha! Curse you, white microvan!

Finally, the taxi comes around the bend, and my son perks up. Inside, I can see the curly mop of the driver and a few colorful caps. The driver is always very cheerful and cordial. The kids always stare at me wide-eyed.

Yes, kiddies, this is what an alien looks like. You wanna see something really scary?

I say my goodbye to my son, but he is already wrapped up in the excitement of camaraderie. He especially seems to appreciate the fact that his riding mates, with one exception, are girls. Interaction between the sexes has always been a very touchy issue here. Japanese boys tend to be pretty shy around girls. Heck, in one of my 9th grade classes yesterday the boys had a bet going, and the loser actually had to do one of the practice dialogs with…*gasp*…one of the girls. (Any one of them!) The loser, a big-bodied rugby player, was very embarrassed. Open interaction with girls is something boys here tend to have trouble with. Not my boy. He thinks girls are wonderful. He not only flirts with them, he occasionally tries to kiss them…sometimes including twenty-something-year-old store clerks…


The taxi has disappeared into the misty distance. I quickly head back down the driveway, duck under the carport and pick my way gingerly around the mud back to the house. In an hour or so I’ll take my car in for its three-year mandatory (and obscenely expensive) inspection. I think I’ll just pretend I’m a piece of furniture till then.

I heave a heavy sigh as I step up into the house, which is now only occupied by our sneezy cat. It’s nice to have Wednesday mornings off, but it’s often tough to find the heart to put into my one afternoon class after that. There’s a Rush song in which Geddy sings, “Ah to yes to ah to yes…” In my case, on Wednesdays, it’s more like, “Ah to aw…”

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Kashima Philharmonic: The Third Pops Concert

It is unspeakably calm today. The air is warm, torpid, and eerily thick. The humidity hangs there with an almost tangible inertia, as if it is trying to outlaw all movement. It is typical post-typhoon weather. Strangely, the typhoon was supposed to hit us today, but, luckily, it gave us a good, clean miss. We didn’t need that storm, anyway. There’s enough heavy blowing scheduled for today.

It is the day of the Third Pops Concert of the increasingly international Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra (motto: “How can anyone say we still suck when people are paying to see us?”)

It’s not just the weather that is torpid. I was actually able to sleep in…for the first time in days and days, and my reticular activating system is telling me it still wants more. Usually, on concert days, they insist on practicing themselves to death from early in the morning. Well, since today’s show is on a Saturday evening, and all those really helpful kids from Seishin’s orchestra have morning classes, they decided to wait and practice themselves to death in the afternoon. As the orchestra’s intrepid (“ ”) librarian, I decide to pop by the school to copy off a few extra sheets. I show up a little before noon, dressed casually and looking (and feeling) like a zombie.

The kids are eyeing me warily. They’re not sure whether I’m suffering from pre-concert jitters, zonked on some weird, alien drug, or possessed by a nameless Lovecraftian horror.

No, I just want another hour or two of shuteye, but I know I’m not going to get it. I have too many important parts in this concert, and I want to break one of my own long-standing rules by actually practicing on a concert day. The fact is that, somehow or another, I have ended up with more than my share of spotlight this time. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Yes, I admit I can be a bit of a ham onstage. Well, maybe even quite a bit of a ham. Oh, all right…I’m a total ham, and I know it. The problem is that few if any others in the group are getting any spotlight time, and I seriously wonder how they’re feeling about that, especially since I’ve wound up stealing two other members’ solos. Do they endear me as a sort of off-kilter hero, or do they see me as a vain, stuck-up, overindulged, and overrated wad of misplaced gaijin ego? Either way, it doesn’t feel very good.

Oh, well. I should be thankful for the experience…and the exposure.

I arrive at the Kashima Workers’ Culture Hall at the scheduled “optional practice time” to find almost no one there but the stage crew. I’m suddenly hit with an inexplicable bout of self-consciousness. I shut myself in the (unoccupied) conductor’s changing room, put together my trusty Bb clarinet, and noodle around a bit.

When people start showing up, and more and more of them start shoving their noses into my practice room, I put the “licorice stick” away and head off for lunch. Hamburgers and French fries are on my official list of dietary no-nos, but today definitely qualifies as a McGrand day. I definitely need the energy.

The afternoon dress rehearsal (without the dress) begins, and the group that we’ve amassed is truly amazing. All the (surviving) regular members of the Kashima Philharmonic are there. In addition, as usual, our string and percussion sections are well padded with faithful volunteers from the Seishin Gakuen (my school) music club. There are also a number of extras scattered about here and there, many if not most of them professional orchestral musicians and/or music instructors from performing arts colleges. I’d feel intimidated if I didn’t already know all of them so well.

The rehearsal goes brilliantly, and I’m amazed at how far this group has come, even without the extras. I still remember our first regular concert four years ago. As proud as I was of our achievement back then (i.e. that we had managed to pull it off at all), we still sounded pretty lame. The first piece we performed back then was William Tell Overture, and, although it didn’t feel like it at the time, it was, quite frankly, a complete disaster. I listen to that recording now and feel embarrassed. We’re doing so much better now. It’s hard to believe that we’re the same amateur orchestra whose first chairman resigned and left in a huff after only three months.

Speaking of huffing, we’re committing the usual, grievous sin that just about every music group in Japan is routinely guilty of. We blow ourselves out in the rehearsal. During the two-hour break before the performance begins, many if not most if not all the members look like they’ve gone off and left a vital organ somewhere. We do this every, bloody time, and I keep hoping against all odds we’ll eventually figure it out. Oh, well. It’s too late. It’s almost H-hour.

And, for better of worse, the house is packed.

Our program this time is a movie tribute. Every piece we are to perform is taken from a soundtrack somewhere. It’s an interesting repertoire, and it starts out in a very interesting manner.

The stage remains dark. Instead of making a grand entrance, Mr. Ogawa sneaks in with the violins, creeps up to the platform, and gives a signal.

Over in the percussion section, Ms. Oshima, the talented, young flautist/pianist who tickles the ivories for my Seishin Flying Eggheads jazz ensemble, plays a low, sustained pedal tone on my Roland synth. She is joined by a low bass drum rumble and a deep, quiet growl from the double basses.

As the lights come up, the trumpets intone the opening tonic-dominant-octave of Also Sprach Zarathustra. It’s a heckuva way to start a show, and I love it! (Now, if only we’d been able to tune up properly beforehand…) After that last, blazing chord is done, we immediately segue (“continue”, for those of you that aren’t up on musical lingo) into The Blue Danube. That’s right; we’re doing a tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This sci-fi buff is most definitely pleased. Next, we come back to Earth (aw…) and play a nice, sentimental arrangement of Moon River. Now that everyone’s all nice and relaxed, we kick out all the stops and play a cool suite from Jurassic Park. It includes some really nice work from the brass section in addition to a lovely piano interlude from Ms. Oshima accompanied by glockenspiel and xylophone. The tune is followed by more John Williams, a barn-burning medley from E.T. (*+$$#%&!!!* Williams is a SADIST!!!!) We’re still sounding great, but the creaks are starting to pop up.

I should point out here that our emcee for today’s show is a popular TV/radio personality. Mr. Ogawa brought in media figures to host our previous two Pops Concerts, but the guy who’s here this time seems to have the most profound effect on the audience. He’s a bit more current, so he’s better known to the younger set than the last two Pops hosts. He’s also funny as heck…though his monologues do tend to go on and on. The reason I’m pointing this out now is that, after E.T., Mr. Ogawa leaves the stage and I go to the front to take the first of my spotlights this evening. I end up standing there in front of the orchestra looking like a total drip (ha ha ha…I left myself wide open for that, didn’t I?) until the emcee acknowledges my existence and asks me a few questions in English.

Finally, he asks me (in Japanese), “Do you speak Japanese?”

I reply, “Depending on the condition my head is in, I can.”

He has a bit of fun with that, and then he leaves me in the spotlight.

The sax section (more kids from Seishin) and guest drummer Mr. Hasegawa (who brought down the house when we performed Benny Goodman’s Let’s Dance at last year’s Pops Concert) emerge from the shadows, and we play Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade. It goes beautifully. (Actually, I hit one clinker, but I ad-lib out of it so it sounds like a clever turn. Heh heh…I love jazz!) After that, we launch into Sing, Sing, Sing. Of course, Mr. Hasegawa’s drumming is brilliant. The piece swings along nicely. Then it’s time for my open, extended ad-lib solo.

At first I’m definitely feeling locked in the groove, and I’m having a wonderful time riding the wave of the audience’s energy as they clap along with Mr. Hasegawa’s beat. First I play around in the upper octave, and then, on a whim, I drop it down low and quiet and try being mysterious…sultry. For a while I'm having a whole lot of fun, but then something bizarre happens. I actually feel dizzy, and I swoon for an instant, losing both the beat and my groove. There follows a couple of seconds of panic as I desperately try to figure out what to do, and then I flop around a bit with my fingers suddenly feeling numb. I’m still prowling around in the low octave, so I can afford to take it a bit slow, but I know I have to get out of it sooner or later. Listening carefully to Mr. Hasegawa’s beat, I think a silent “1..2..3” and then jump back into it, climbing back up on a swinging phrase to the higher octave and then suddenly flying into a burst of high-speed triplet arpeggios (based on a sort of practice etude I came up with recently…sort of a Benny Goodman meets Eddie Van Halen), twisting it into a diminished 7th climb, and then going immediately to Benny Goodman’s famous ending.

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that kind of audience response from a jazz solo. I guess I’ve done it.

(Author’s note - Actually, when I listened to the recording of that solo afterward, the part where I spaced out and lost it actually sounded kind of cool. It added a bit of depth…or at least some eccentricity. It was, well, musical! I guess nobody knew I was flopping around in the dark on the verge of panic except me. Hey, as long as it made the audience happy, everything was fine. I love jazz!)

The whole orchestra comes in for the last phrase of the song, and then I cue the last fermata, crank out a cadenza that ends on a high altissimo C, and end it. The crowd gives a hearty cheer. The first set is over.

Lordy, lordy…I am totally burnt out. I hope the others are faring better, but judging from the complaints and moans I’m hearing, I doubt it.

The second set starts out quietly, with Over the Rainbow. After that, we play a kind of simple but very fun and action-packed medley from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Yep, we are definitely starting to sound creaky now. That’s not good, because next is the evening’s penultimate piece, a medley from Titanic.

Titanic opens with me sitting in a spotlight playing an unaccompanied solo on an Irish tinwhistle (C). After that, Nao Ikeda, a former opera and TV singer who now lives in Kashima and performed with us at our first Pops Concert, comes onstage and sings that hauntingly beautiful (though many would say hackneyed) main theme accompanied by the harp. Halfway through, I double her on my D-tinwhistle. As the piece progresses, there is a lot of lush brass harmony (a characteristic of James Horner’s music…remember Star Trek II & III?), but, unfortunately, our brass section is starting to buckle under the pressure.

It’s a shame, too. Our horn section used to be our worst Achilles’ heel and tended to earn a lot of wrath in the audience surveys. They’ve come a long way, and they’re sounding so much better now. The first horn player, Mr. Osuga, has a couple of solos in Titanic that are beautiful, high, soft, melodic, expressive, and hideously brutal. They are the French horn equivalent of walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon. He never thought he’d be able to play them at all. Neither did Mr. Ogawa. Well, he was, and he did. In fact, he did it well. During the dress rehearsal he sounded perfect. Unfortunately, the dress rehearsal was then, and this is now. He still does a good job on a tough solo with a tough instrument, but you can tell he is fighting hard all the way, and he struggles to get the high notes on the right pitch. I feel sad, because the audience can’t really see just how much he has improved. I just know he’s probably going to get slashed in the surveys again, and he doesn’t deserve it at all.

Oh, well. I keep saying, “Save the chops.” Maybe someday someone will listen.

Titanic gradually fades down into an ending that is unique, mysterious, and beautifully sad. For effect, the light crew dims the lights along with it. Unfortunately, the audience misunderstands, and several of its members start applauding heartily just before that last, gorgeous, low chord played by the violas, cellos, and double basses.


After that comes the “final” number, a medley from West Side Story. This piece has probably gotten the most practice, so it should sound the best. Unfortunately, we’re pretty much spent by this time. Our performance is a little too reminiscent of the way we used to sound. We still put plenty of heart in it, to be sure, but there are a lot of splats, mismatched phrases, and out-of-tune notes. A couple of woodwind solos frap out. Mr. Ogawa’s 14-year-old son, who is playing lead trumpet (and is actually a pretty strong player), has finally lost his chops completely; toward the end he is still playing loudly, but almost a quarter step flat. The audience still sounds appreciative, but we are clearly blown and need to get the heck off the stage.

Fat chance. Do you really think we’re going to go without doing an encore or two, especially with the audience (spurred on by the emcee) chanting for one?

We play "Cha-Cha" and "Mambo" from the (MUCH more difficult) Symphonic Dances version of West Side Story. "Cha-Cha" sounds great (largely thanks to the bass clarinetist finally nailing her solo right on the money). "Mambo" sounds like it’s spinning out of control at very high speed on an icy track.

And after that?

What else? Our traditional encore for the last four years! THAT tune!

Pomp and Circumstance !

(That tune is kind of like herpes…it just KEEPS COMING BACK!!!!!)

As before, Mr. Ogawa has put plants in the audience. When we come to the final Grandioso, they not only stand up and clap along as before, but they start tossing streamers and launching balloons from the balconies. It’s a spectacular sight. It takes the audience a bit to catch on, but once they do the level of energy in there is amazing. Seven hundred people can still make a big sound if properly motivated.

It’s all done. It was wonderful, but I'm relieved it's over. Time to go find a convenient corner to melt into for a while…

In December, we’ll be playing Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition. It should be fun.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

I Am Hiroshi

Is it possible to judge a culture by its comedy?

I remember the Reagan 80s very well. Never mind that I spent that entire decade in high school and college (mainly the latter). We saw a lot of the same sort of trends then that we are seeing in the W. Bush 00s now. Jingoism was in. Flags were everywhere. You were either with “us” (i.e. America) or with “them” (i.e. the U.S.S.R.). Free enterprise was the rallying cry for a whole, new class of young, up-and-coming professionals that considered greed a virtue and insisted that unrestrained consumption was an inalienable right. These “yuppies”, together with the suburban aristocrat (wanna-be) “preppies” and cultural revolutionary (wanna-be) “wavos” made artificial beauty and feigned refinement the name of the day. Pretty, plastic faces surrounded by immaculate hairstyles voiced intolerance and suspicion of the outsider. Meanwhile, despite the spread of the so-called “new age” movement, there was a rise in Christian fundamentalism. Large, fancy “community churches” began popping up all over and drawing people in with their new and modern face and then giving them a very, very old message of fire and brimstone. Soon their members were picketing “adult” stores and Toys R Us, harassing (albeit in a very low-key way) certain members of society, and moving to take over civil committees and school boards so as to force their views on the rest of the “misguided” public. One thing was certain in the 80s: even though it was the age of Madonna, ugliness and indecency were not to be tolerated in general society.

So, what sort of comedy was popular in 80s America? Comedians such as Eddie Murphy and Sam Kennison, who worked very hard to take “offensive” to a whole new level. In an age of beauty and decency, they were gross and tasteless, and people loved them for it.

Opposites attract, I suppose.

I came to Japan in 1990. When I did, society here still generally valued politeness, moderation, public decency, education, status, and cuteness. On the other hand, most of the comedy I saw then was groups consisting of an obnoxious, loud-mouthed jerk with a gravelly voice accompanied by one or more sidekicks that were total morons. The routine invariably involved the jerk yelling a lot and hitting his companion(s) over the head with something. The only notable exception was one widely-popular comedian (whose name I don’t recall at the moment) whose TV program reminded me a lot of Benny Hill. His sketches were either dirty or just plain silly, but usually in a rather cute, dry way. Even so, his most famous regular routine was an act known as “Hen-na Ojisan” (“weird guy”) which involved him dressing up as an ugly, dirty man and suddenly popping out of strange places (a girl’s P.E. locker, a laundry basket, a pillowcase in a girl’s bed, etc., always accompanied by a diminished 7th chord) whereupon he would grab an apparently underage girl and haul her off.

In the age of refinement and status, obnoxious and vulgar made for a good laugh.

Things changed in the mid to late 90s. Suddenly politeness and moderation started to give way to a more in-your-face attitude. Young people were becoming more self-centered and assertive. Dress fashions started becoming louder and more individualistic. Even so, there was still a certain level of public decency. Even if boys and girls alike were wearing clothes that exposed their underwear on purpose, they usually wore a second pair over them to defend their sense of modesty.

What kind of comedy was popular then? Well, strangely, an awful lot of it involved relatively polite, mild-mannered guys that kept taking their clothes off. Many if not most comedy programs on TV had to have at least one scene where a soft-spoken guy came in wearing nothing but a superimposed black dot over his privates (if he wasn’t very obviously playing with them). One such “comedian” even had to be rushed off the stage by the police at his first and last performance in an Islamic country (Turkey) because the crowd went rabid and charged the stage when he dropped his drawers and did a little dance. Strangely, people here didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

Then came the turn of the century. There were sweeping changes in the government that somehow left the bureaucrats even more entrenched and corrupt than before. A new sort of snobbishness seemed to pop up among young people as they asserted their right to choose their own path in life, which often included such wonderful things as telephone date clubs and websites (read “teen prostitution”). The indie punk groups that were becoming popular in the late 90s gave way to big-label pop artists once again, and both the new idols and the recycled old ones were suddenly being a lot more blatantly sexual…but still pretending to be classy. It was clear that the establishment was back with a vengeance, only without the pretense of morality.

Interestingly, the most popular comedy acts during this period made fun of said establishment, either by parodying established media figures or singing catchy songs about the absurdities of modern life. (Nan de darou…nan de darou…na-na-na-nan de darou…)

Now we are in the mid 00s, and slacker culture has definitely taken hold here. Young people are losing their direction in life. There are increasing numbers of kids dropping out of school and/or becoming “freeters”, i.e. people who hop from one part-time job to another because they’re too lazy and/or spoiled to get a real job. Even the kids that stay in school seem eerily lacking in any kind of interest. A lot of the time they just kind of sit there waiting for someone to come and take care of them. They don’t know who they are, and they don’t really care.

That brings us to our current comédien du jour, Hiroshi. He is extremely popular right now, to the point that even politicians are quoting him. He is also most definitely unique.

Every time I’ve seen him on TV, he has always stood on a dark, cheerless stage, his face frozen in a sad look under his shock of dyed-blond hair, his voice low, quick, and whiny. His entire routine consists of him introducing himself. It is a string of one-liners, every one of which starts with “Hiroshi desu” (“I am Hiroshi”) followed by a short claim or anecdote, usually a testament of bad luck. Sometimes it’s not clear whether he’s really bragging or feeling sorry for himself. Sometimes it’s just plain bizarre:

“I am Hiroshi. I just spent 10,000 yen ($100) at a 100 yen ($1) a bowl noodle shop.”
“I am Hiroshi. No matter how much chocolate I eat, my nose just won’t bleed.”
“I am Hiroshi. I said hello to my mother yesterday, and she called the police.”
“I am Hiroshi. I went to the doctor, and, unfortunately, he cured me.”
“I am Hiroshi. I tried to clean my apartment, but the cat got away.”

If prevailing comedy trends tend to be a sort of upside-down reflection of current social trends, what does Hiroshi say about Japan right now? I’ll leave it to you to decide.