Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, February 21, 2010

My Snowy Valentine

(Yes, I know this post found its way online a bit behind schedule...)

In the USA it's normal to associate Valentine's Day with pink hearts and white lace. White snow, however, doesn't usually enter the picture, at least not in my old Western Oregon stomping grounds. Snow was exactly what greeted me when I got up in the morning on Valentines Day and headed off to Ye Olde Academy. Even more bizarre was the fact that it was the third time that month that I headed out in the morning with new snowfall on the ground.

(You have to understand that any amount of accumulated snow is unusual in my part of Japan. Once in a given year attracts a lot of attention...but three times in one month?)

Yes, Valentine's Day was a Sunday, but I still had to go to the school. You see, the Seishin Flying Eggheads jazz big band had been asked to play at Kashima's local shopping mall. Our school's string orchestra had performed Valentine's Day concerts there two years in a row and had been warmly received. However, this year both Mssr. Maestro Ogawa and the man in charge of special events at the shopping mall agreed that it would be nice if the Eggheads could do it this time instead. I jumped at the chance; we don't get that many opportunities to play for people except at school-related functions or the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival. Here was a chance for the kids to strut their stuff for the local community at one of its biggest gathering places.

There was no snow at all on the ground across the lake in Kashima, but it was anything but easy going. I'd allowed a good hour and a half for lugging kids and gear to the mall. I probably needed about twice that much plus a couple of time warps. Although it's only about two or three kilometers from Ye Olde Academy to the shopping mall, it seemed to take forever. Last summer, when we played at the Kashima Soccer Stadium, all the transportation was taken care of in fifteen minutes. The reason was that all the gear was loaded in the vans by stadium staff, and they treated it more or less like sports equipment. ("Any room left?" "Yeah, sure!" CRUNCH!!!) The kids in our music club, on the other hand, have been trained to treat the instruments and things as if they were all made of delicate crystal. They spent more time arguing about how to put things in the van than they did actually doing it, which got to be a problem. We literally had to dump the last load out of the van, run it to the stage, and start playing as soon as it was out of the cases.

The center of the shopping mall is called the Zico Hiroba (Zico Square), and it is basically a shrine to soccer legend and local hero Zico. It was more than a little weird and even disconcerting (no pun intended) setting up the Eggheads in and amongst all those statues and pictures of Kashima's favorite Brazilian (How'd they get so many statues in there?), but the show got underway. The kids opened with Count Basie's famous version of "April in Paris". Then we did a cool, shuffle-funk arrangement of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" followed by Glenn Miller's "Little Brown Jug".

After that, the kids took a break while I played one solo number, "My Funny Valentine," on my alto sax with just a piano accompaniment. Since I'd had no warm-up time and was playing a cold horn, I was thankful just to get a note out of the thing. As it turned out, the new, silver mouthpiece my wife gave me for my birthday last month worked beautifully, and I really got caught up in the passion of the piece. When I was done, my face was dripping with sweat. I allowed myself a few seconds to cool off before kicking off the Eggheads again with a 50's-ish tune called "Run With It" followed by traditional swing favorite, "It's Only a Paper Moon". We then closed out the set with Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" followed by our favorite encore piece (and a sort of de facto theme song for the band), "Over the Edge".

Then, after about a twenty minute break, we came back into the Temple of Zico and did it all again! The kids and I were more relaxed the second time, which meant smoother playing but a lot less energy. The crowd was also smaller, but no less enthusiastic!

It's always nice to play at small, local events. It always feels like we're giving something back to the community. It's also nice to have smiling, appreciative faces right up close and intimate. Big stage performances are always exciting, but it's hard to beat such things as having "Bravo!" shouted at you from only a few meters away or having children and elderly alike wanting to shake your hand afterward and ask you to please come again. Ye Olde Academy is well isolated from the surrounding city. It's nice to be able to be in the thick of things for a change.

It just seems so much warmer.

Speaking of which...

The night before and morning of Valentine's Day were February snow accumulation number three back home in Namegata. Let me show you what greeted me the following Thursday morning:

Feb 2010 snow 1
Number Four was even worse. This time there was actually snow (slush, really, which is even worse) on the street.

Feb 2010 snow 2
And if the little lane I live on was bad...

Feb 2010 snow 3
Route 50 wasn't much better.

Feb 2010 snow 5
And since it doesn't usually snow here, people here don't know how to deal with it. Driving through town was pure confusion.

Feb 2010 snow 7
Wouldn't you know it, though; once I got close to Lake Kitaura the snow accumulation quickly tapered off. There was no snow at all on the other side of the hills in this picture. Kashima itself (on the other side of Lake Kitaura) got only rain. I felt silly coming into the school parking lot with snow all over my BLUE RAV4...about ten minutes late. Oh, well. at least it's warming up now.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

They Might Have Been Giants

This really seems to be Giant-Killing Season...or at least Giant-Tripping Season. DPJ president Ozawa wasn't the only big name to find himself suddenly suffering from egg-in-face syndrome.

Part One: Cars
(Cue Gary Numan soundtrack)
Not so long ago it seemed that Toyota Motors (slightly tinny fanfare) was an unshakable fortress. It was a consistent leader in both quality and consumer satisfaction. Not only did it outperform the US Big Three (wavering fanfare) in sales from at least the mid to late 1980s, but its flagship Prius hybrid was without a doubt the single best-selling car of the past few years, with waiting lists of up to several months. From the latter part of the 20th century, it seemed that Toyota was the standard by which all car makers were measured.

That's not to say that Toyota was perfect. After all, my BLUE RAV4 got recalled twice during the first year after I bought it. On both occasions it was a quick, ten-minute job replacing something that seemed rather trivial; I had certainly had no problems of any kind. However, I was told that there had apparently been some customer complaints about the part in question, so Toyota had improved it. Far from being outraged, I took it as proof that Toyota cared about both its products and its customers. They wanted to be the best, so they did their best.

I remember reading an article last year describing a few incidents where a Prius' throttle apparently got stuck, causing the car to accelerate uncontrollably. The number of such cases was very small, and luckily only one of them resulted in serious injury, but Toyota didn't seem to take it very seriously. They claimed that the problem resulted from the owners' using "non-standard" floor mats (even during one case involving a dealership's own stock test-drive car). Investigations were (said to have been) conducted and warnings issued, but the company ruled out taking any real action. Again, it was claimed that the owners themselves were mainly to blame. It wasn't long before the number of such incidents not only increased, but spread to other Toyota models. It was only then that the company really sat up and took notice.

Thus began the Great Recall of 2010. Toyota endeavored to replace an accelerator pedal part that was prone to swell in high humidity, causing it to stick. That type of accelerator was used in several highly popular Toyota models including the Prius, Camry, and a couple of pickup truck models. As if the sheer volume of the recall, and the tremendous expense that no doubt goes with it, weren't amazing enough, the reaction of the media and a lot of the buying public has been just plain unbelievable (though not really surprising).

Just as DPJ president Ozawa's once-astronomical popularity went straight down the shaft after the first funding scandal, Toyota has suddenly gone from steadfast standard to resident doormat. The media is milking the issue for all it is worth. Not surprisingly, Toyota's sales have plummeted just under 20% during the past month, falling behind Ford in the US for the first time in ages. Then there are all the customers that are being less than enthusiastic about the recall; instead of accepting the free repair and coming away with a better machine, some people have tried, often frothily, to return their car and get their money back. Some have even gotten violent when told that they couldn't do so. It's classic human overreaction and developed-nation conceit amplified a thousand times over.

And now a new, potentially worse problem has cropped up in the brake system of the latest Prius model plus two types only sold in Japan. The Great Recall is due to become even greater.

I remember well that, within the last decade, both Mitsubishi and Ford had similar problems with defective cars (bad brakes in the case of Mitsubishi, bad tires in the case of Ford). However, unlike Toyota, both cases involved several if not dozens of deaths, and both companies tried very hard to cover it all up. It wasn't until investigations rooted out the truth that the companies acknowledged it at all. I remember the resulting media hype and public boil-over, but it seemed very short lived compared with what we're seeing now. At any rate, the public seems to have forgotten. Now Toyota is getting publicly battered even worse despite the less seriousness of the problem. I'm sure they'll come out of it just as Ford and Mitsubishi did, but their reputation may never again be what it was.

Part Two: Sumo
(cue Oingo Boingo)
As a Yokozuna (Grand Champion), sumo rikishi Asashoryu has never had an easy time of it. A lot of it has always had to do with the simple fact that he's Mongolian; as Hawaiian rikishi Akebono first found out back in the '90s, the Japanese tend to be rather unforgiving toward foreign Yokozuna, especially if there are no native rikishi of equal rank. However, Asashoryu always seemed determined to reinforce if not create negative stereotypes by taking a lot of silly risks.

Most of it was a simple matter of money. Unlike most high-ranked rikishi, Asashoryu wasted no time in cashing in on his success. There was no question of his domination of the sport of sumo (at least at first) as he racked up a historically impressive tally of wins. What most people didn't know, however, was that he was using his salary and winnings to invest heavily in businesses back home in newly-capitalist Mongolia. Moreover, instead of spending his time between tournaments training at his stable, he was flying back to his native country to manage his new holdings. When news of his profit-oriented activities finally broke, a lot of people felt he was taking his position as Yokozuna far too lightly. Even worse, sumo fans noticed an obvious decline in his performance in the ring, and yet he continued to win. It wasn't long before accusations of match-fixing began to emerge. Things finally came to a head when, in the midst of the scandal, he suddenly announced he was going back to Mongolia to recover from "injuries"...and then was shown on TV playing in a charity soccer match, apparently none the worse for wear. The resulting suspension did little to daunt him, however.

In the end, it was Asashoryu's own personality that finally did him in. Unlike Japanese rikishi, who tend to be quiet and reserved, he was brash, even raucous. He was prone both to boast and to talk trash in a tradition-dominated sport that frowns on both. He was also notoriously aggressive outside the ring. Most people acquainted with him knew that it was generally a good idea to stay out of his way. Apparently somebody didn't. The story broke (and was covered to DEATH by the media) that the Yokozuna had punched someone in the face and broken his nose outside a Tokyo nightclub, apparently in a drunken fit. Asashoryu's own story quickly changed from, "Someone is trying to frame me," to, "I don't remember what happened because I was too drunk." Facing historically unprecedented punishment, the Yokozuna decided to throw in his mawashi (loincloth) and call it quits. Despite his impressive record, no one at all is surprised that his career ended on such an ignoble note.

Now that the giants are falling, I guess it's time for someone else to take over. The question is who.