Posts Tagged ‘salarymen’

The Collective Noun Challenge – Japan Edition

Posted 15 Apr 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Entertainment, Tokyo

English has a fantastic array of collective nouns. Here are some of my favourites:

  • a shrewdness of apes
  • a paddling of ducks
  • a superfluity of nuns
  • an unkindness of ravens
  • a murmuration of starlings
  • an observance of hermits
  • a labour of moles
  • a kindle of kittens
  • a business of ferrets
  • a piteousness of doves
  • a richesse or martens

Great, aren’t they? They’re much better than a group of this or a bunch of that. It’s a shame that nobody bothers to invent new ones these days. So, here’s a little challenge for you:

Can you think of interesting collective nouns for the following Japanese words?

  • otaku
  • salarymen
  • OLs (Office Ladies)
  • tarento

Infiltrating Insurers

Posted 14 Apr 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Only in Japan, Tokyo, Work

Every day during lunchtime my office is infiltrated by the dreaded life insurance saleswomen. Their job is to hang around the entrance saying “Konnichiwa” as the hordes scuttle out to pick over their slimy katsudons and fetid bentos. These saleswomen also leave flyers on all the desks, together with a little packet of tissues (you can never have enough tissues). The flyers are usually of the innocuous “Oi! You got life insurance, punk?” variety, but today’s was something special.

This life insurer was new to the game. For some reason she was compelled to fill her flyers with information about herself, including her date of birth, hometown, hobbies (snowboarding!) and – I shit you not – blood type.

Bizarrely, most Japanese people know what their blood type is: they employ it in a creepy Nazi eugenics kind of way to determine a person’s personality. It’s a bit like star signs, only more ‘scientific’, you see? In other words, it’s total and utter bollocks. But just you try telling someone that. Go on, try it.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is why on earth would I want to know her personal details? Is she looking for a husband as well as a big commission? I was both disturbed and confused in equal measure.

Tokyo Nightlife: The Golden Gai

Posted 14 Apr 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Entertainment, Only in Japan, Tokyo, Travel

Western television reports about Tokyo tend to focus on the ultra-modern. There will, almost without exception, be shots of Shibuya’s Hachiko crossing (above), kids dressed in epileptic-fit inducing outfits and random commuter trains zipping past a neon background. A few finishing touches are applied (the occasional fancy edit and pumping electronic backing track – preferably by Orbital) and Bob’s your uncle, Toe-key-oh!

Of course, there’s more to Tokyo than techno-wallabies, Akihabara uber-nerds, passive-aggressive identikit salarymen and whale-smoking, dolphin-slapping karaoke hostess bars. Before the Americans bombed the living daylights out of it Tokyo was an intriguing mix of ramshackle streets and wooden buildings; buildings that even then struggled to hold out against the changes that modernisation brought to the country. After the war, a few Soweto-like areas that weren’t burned to cinders became hotspots for black market trading and lady-related sauciness. Shinjuku’s ‘Golden Gai’ was one of them.

Despite the whippet-like pace of change in other entertainment districts the Golden Gai has managed to retain a sense of its old-world charm. The area is home to some 150 bars stacked on and around each other in higgledy-piggledy fashion, linked together by a grid of tiny footpaths and claustrophobic alleyways. In the 1970s it became a popular hangout for artists, writers, musicians and let’s-have-a-revolution-oh-feck-it-I’ll-kill-myself intellectual Yukio Mishima. These days you’ll find it populated by an eclectic mix of old regulars, twenty- and thirty-something white-collar workers and random tourists who read about it in a Lonely Planet travel guide.

Finding a decent bar in the Golden Gai is like a game of Russian roulette, only without the spattering of brains on the wall (Tip: do it on the beach and let the crabs clean up). A lot of places are filled with regulars who like to keep things… well…regular. For this reason you’ll find that most bars charge a fee – typically around JPY1000 – just for the exalted privilege of entering. It’s the kind of twattish bag-of-wank practice that makes bar-hopping a bit of a non-starter, but if you’re feeling flush and fancy something different then forget about the price and get stuck in. After all, you only live once… apart from my mate Cecil: he’s on his fourth life. The government know about it, but it’s all kept very hush-hush.

If you really do need to reign in the expenses then it’s Imperative (yep, with a capital “I”) that you apply the Golden Gai Coefficient:

  1. Stick your head through a promising-looking door.
  2. Ask the barman/barmaid how much it’ll cost you to drink there.
  3. Scan the bar and weigh up the clientele. Do they look like the kind of people you want to drink with? (Remember: these bars are the size of a garden shed, and conversation is INEVITABLE.) Is there the possibility of something interesting happening? Kabuki theatre performed by a cete of impeccably-groomed badgers, for example?
  4. Apply the Golden Gai Coefficient:
    Cost ≤ Entertainment Value = Enter the bar (c≤ev=e)
    Cost > Entertainment Value = Leg it (c>ev=l)
  5. If you’re with your mates you’ll have to pool your calculations and put it to a vote. (Adopt first-past-the-post voting methods: don’t try to seek consensus on the issue, otherwise you’ll end up walking around for hours on end.)

Finding the Golden Gai is as easy as slipping on a wet bathroom floor and smashing your head open. Come out of Shinjuku station’s Kabukicho Exit and walk straight down (and I mean down as in the street that slopes slightly downwards) until you get to Yasukuni Dori. You’ll know you’re on Yasukuni Dori when you see this:

View Untitled in a larger map

Head up Yasukuni Dori for about five minutes. Both sides of the street are packed with shops and restaurants. After a few minutes you’ll spot a Mr Donuts (a cafe, not an actual man that looks like a doughnut) on the left-hand side. To the right of Mr Donuts is a small footpath shrouded by trees and the homeless. This, laydees and gentlemice, is the gateway to the Golden Gai. Only the penitent man will pass, so don’t forget to kneel when you hear the buzzing of circular saws coming out of the walls. Here it is on a map:

View Golden Gai, Shinjuku in a larger map

The best time to visit the Golden Gai is Friday or Saturday nights, preferably after 10pm, and after you’ve already had a few drinkypoos. If you’re thinking about getting a late-night train back to your home/hotel, forget it: accept the fact that you’ll be out until 5am (when the first trains start running) or paying for a taxi and you’ll enjoy yourself a lot more.

Office Life in Tokyo

Posted 03 Feb 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Only in Japan, Tokyo, Work

I’ve spent three years working in the same office, sat at the same desk, seeing the same salarymen day-in, day-out. I still don’t know who everyone is (four hundred people = a lot of names), but I have managed to come up with plenty of nicknames for the most peculiar individuals:

Man Child
This fellow has the head and voice of a man, but the body of a child. His head is absolutely massive: the fact that his neck can support it defies all the laws of physics. He also spends far too long in the toilet, rustling the tissue paper a little bit too vigorously.

The Womble
A sixty-something mumbler with all the speed and grace of a sloth. He has no internal monologue and spends considerable time saying ‘unnnn, sou ka’ (‘ahh, I see’) to inanimate objects. His job is to… well, to be quite honest, I have no idea what his job is. He spends much of the day wandering between floors with a small bag, occasionally picking bits of dust of the floor.

Named after Family Guy’s evil toddler, pint-sized Stewie seems far too small to be at work; he should still be at infant school! He sits at his big boys’ desk all day, his little legs dangling off the chair, issuing commands down the phone like Napoleon’s younger brother.

Bill Gates
Nothing much to say about this chap, apart from that he is the spitting image of Bill Gates (if Bill Gates was Japanese).

The Fifth Beatle
Long straggly hair, enormous Bose headphones and a ‘God you’re so unfair, I hate you!’ teenage pout. He also seems to be something of a hypochondriac, and spends a good portion of his day gargling antiseptic mouthwash in front of the bathroom mirror.

The Weasel
A fifty-year-old silver-haired weasel who is terrified of his computer. Every time he sits in front of it his face contorts into a picture of abject horror, as if he’s watching a streaming video of an Al-Qaida hostage being beheaded. Perhaps someone told him that if you click the mouse buttons too hard the whole internet breaks, so he’s being extra careful.

Do you remember Danger Mouse? (If you don’t, go here.) This guy is the spitting image of Penfold, right down to the glasses and hair (or lack of). The only thing missing is the occasional ‘Cripes, DM!’.

Earthquake drills

Posted 27 Jun 2008 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Only in Japan, Tokyo, Video, Work

On Thursday morning we had to take part in an earthquake drill. With Japan being one of the most, if not the most, earthquake-prone country in the world, drills like this are routine. I had expected there to be a grand system set in place in order to swiftly whisk people out of their office and onto the (relative) safety of the street – yellow inflatable slides that pop out from under the windows, for example. The reality was, unfortunately, far plainer: at 12.00 the loudspeaker announced that there had been an earthquake. Five minutes later we were informed that the lifts were out of order and that everyone was to congregate in the basement car park. With all the speed and alertness of sloths everyone left what they were doing and proceeded downstairs.

In the basement a large blue sheet had been strung between the walls; a cardboard sign with the kanji “fire” was stuck in its centre. In front of the sheet stood twenty small fire extinguishers and ten triangular buckets of water; in front of them stood two middle-aged, beige-overalled men with megaphones. They were… The Instructors.

The instruction was far from rigorous. One of the men asked for volunteers to spray the “fire”. People were hastily pushed out from among the crowd by their friends or superiors. Some of the older salarymen, relishing the opportunity to muck about like ten-year-olds, had already scrambled for the fire extinguishers.

The instructors gave one blow of their whistles: the volunteers sprang to life!

The older salarymen took to it with gusto, waddling towards the sheet, shouting “Kaji desu!”, deftly removing the safety clip then, bracing themselves for the expected recoil, aimed the nozzle at the (imaginary) inferno before them and squeezed the trigger. The result? One wet sheet, and several very smug-looking salarymen. Annual earthquake drills appear to be one of the high points of their otherwise routine working life.

Next up for demonstration: the buckets. They were strange, triangular-shaped things with one circular hole in the corner. Was this to help direct the water? Was it stronger? Was somebody having a laugh? Nobody seemed to know, but I’m sure thousands – if not millions – of test buckets had been created, debated, blown up and prodded with weasels in order to reach this final design

At any rate, more volunteers came forward and the buckets were duly put through their paces. Despite the strangeness of their shape they performed admirably, dispensing their moist goodness in a consistent manner, which was the best you can expect from any bucket, really.

With the demonstrations over, one of the instructors concluded by muttering something incomprehensible through his megaphone. Knowing my luck, it was probably the most important part of the training, something along the lines of: “If there’s an earthquake don’t forget to leave through Door X because all the other doors will be closed and you will die a horrible painful death and nobody will come and help you at all, so there.” Nobody else seemed to be listening, but of course they’d heard it a thousand times before and probably knew it by heart.

While the whole experience is difficult to sum up in words, this scene from Big Train sums it up very well indeed:

Monday mornings

Posted 29 Aug 2006 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Only in Japan, Tokyo, Work

I wake, and turn my head to face the alarm clock on top of the bookshelf. It’s 7.30am.

7.30? Bollocks. My alarm went off twenty minutes ago. I don’t even remember waking up and turning it off.

Faster than a weasel on speed, I throw myself out of bed and blindly pick out a shirt from the wardrobe. Have I even ironed this shirt? Probably not, but it will have to do. The trousers go on, and as for a tie, well I’ll just throw this blue stripey one in my bag and sort it out later. Jump into the bathroom, brush my teeth and wash my face. Now I’m ready to face the world.

Heading out of the door, I slip my shoes on in one fluid movement that can only come from months of waking up late for work. No time to bend down and put my heel in properly, I’ll do it in the lift.

The lift doors open. There’s already someone inside, it’s the small chubby fella, I think he lives on the seventh floor, probably with his parents. Crikey, he looks even worse than me. Strands of his hair reach out in all directions, as if they’re trying desparately to escape from his scalp. His suit has creases in places I’d never thought possible, and his tie is hanging round his collar like a dead snake. Possibly an adder, I’d say.
Then I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror….

Jesus Christ, I have an afro quiff!

The lift doors open again. We’re on the first floor, the afro quiff will have to remain. Snake Tie Boy snaps out of his morning trance and lunges out first. I fall out second, hopping around on one foot, trying to fit my heel inside my shoe with my left hand. I must look like a drunk flamingo. BUT, no time to worry about appearances, I have a train to catch.

Bursting through the front doors of the apartment block entrance, I spy Snake Tie Boy, already a good ten metres ahead of me. I step up a gear and begin speed walking towards the station. Snake Tie Boy gives me the slip by taking a side alley. Coward. The streets are busy, not with cars, but bicycles. As I head up the road waves of cyclists speed by every minute or so, flowing in time to the pattern of the traffic lights – High school boys carry impossibly huge sports bags full of baseball gear on one shoulder. Salarymen, their briefcases wedged into the shopping basket, weave deftly past the uni students, who have decided that cycling is a perfect time to also send text messages on their mobile phones – amazingly, every day this happens, and no-one crashes into each other.

I make it to the station. No, wait, I’m across the street from the station, waiting for the green man to let me cross. I’m surrounded by what seems like half the population of Tokyo. We’re all waiting to cross, like one big happy family of half-asleep, pissed off office workers. Some part time workers are handing out small packs of tissues with a flyer inside to we, the waiting masses. They’re advertising yet another pachinko parlour. Great, that’s all we need. And anyway, I think to myself, why do they bother giving out tissues in the middle of summer? If I try and wipe away the sweat with those, I’ll end up with bits of tissue stuck all over my face.

That particular thought comes to an abrupt end when the green man signal lights up. My happy family and myself swarm across the street and separate out through the various station entrances, like worker ants searching for the best route home. I take the quietest route and stride up two sets of escalators. I check my watch, it’s 8am. Just in time.

The ticket barrier looms before me, I reach into my trouser pocket to take out my wallet and… shit! Where’s my wallet? I stop dead in my tracks just a couple of steps from the barrier, but the mass of people following behind me don’t notice and thump, thump, thump… a human pile up develops in seconds. I franticly fumble through my bag for my wallet, finally finding it wedged inside some awful Franz Kafka book I’ve been forcing myself to read. I pull out my train pass, and stuff it into the ticket barrier. The machine greedily accepts the pass, and spits it out on the other side for me to swipe up and slide back into my wallet.

Two trains are waiting, both bound for Shibuya, the only difference is one leaves in four minutes and the other leaves in… let me check my watch… bloody hell, right now! At the same time, the all-so-familiar “breeeeeeee” sound leaps from the tannoy system, indicating the train doors are about to close. Quicker than a cheetah in spandex I fly towards the nearest door. The train is already full to more than capacity, but this is Tokyo, where no-one’s ever heard of “full to capacity”.

Like a true salaryman, I squeeze my body into the last remaining free square inches left aboard the train. The doors begin to close, everyone holds their breath as yet another person flings himself at the rapidly shrinking opening. Who does he think he his, Indiana Jones? He manages to get his lower half inside, but the top half is still outside, and the doors slam against his shoulders. For a second the doors open again, allowing him to brace his hands on the door frame and push the rest of his body inside, I hear other passengers groan as the air is squashed out of their lungs.

I can’t breathe, I think I’m going to die soon, but the doors finally slam shut, and everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief. Indiana Jones can’t help but display a smug grin at having managed to make it on board. Personally, I’d love to smack him in the face, but am so squashed that I can no longer feel my arms.

Ten minutes and three stations pass by. A few passengers get off and I claim a space near the doorway. There’s a middle-aged executive type stood next to me. Despite it being the middle of summer he continues to wear a heavy looking navy suit, and has to frequently wipe the sweat from his brow using a cute little light blue hankerchief from his top pocket. Of course, this does nothing to alleviate the huge sweat mark covering half his back, but he doesn’t seem too bothered about that. All of the passengers who managed to get a seat are sleeping, or at least pretending to sleep. There’s a teenage boy – probably a university student – who is out like a light, his head lolling back and forth like one of those plastic dog ornaments. The woman next to him is clearly pissed off by this, gives him the occasional elbow to the ribs and quickly closes her eyes and pretends to be asleep.

Twenty minutes after departing we arrive at my stop. After a little bit of pushing, pulling and sumimasens (“excuse me”), I manage to extract myself onto the platform. I walk towards the stairs, going against the tide of people trying to get on board the train I just left. At this point on the train line, they have to employ station attendants with white gloves to push people inside the train, which is such an amusing sight to behold I could spend hours just watching them. But there’s a connecting train to catch, so I continue walking.

My connecting train is delayed. Again. This seems to happen every Monday, and probably means some poor, down-trodden office worker couldn’t take it any longer and decided the best way to end it all was by chucking himself in front of a train. My train turns up ten minutes late, with a couple of bloodied fingers wedged under the windscreen wipers (probably). I step on board and finally manage to sit down for the final ten minutes of my journey. As per usual, I end up sat next to a teenager listening to some God-awful Japanese punk rock band on his iPod. I know he’s listening to this because he’s got the volume turned up so loud that kids in far side of the carriage are nodding their head to the beat. I decide to fight fire with fire and listen to “Run to You” by Bryan Adams at full volume. That’ll teach him.

The battle of the iPods ends when we both get off at the same stop, he catches sight of some of his friends and goes to say “Osu..” (“Hey..”). Everyone getting off here seems to belong to the university I work at, meaning I spend much of my walk to campus either saying “hello!” to various students, or trying my best to avoid the ones I don’t like by pretending not to see them, which is quite hard considering we all follow the same narrow street.

The campus gates are guarded by The Protectors in Blue, a set of mean-looking 60 year-old security guards in uniform, faces carved out of solid granite, bodies carved from rapidly melting ice cream. I greet them with “ohayo gozaimasu”, they reply with “uhyogzamass”, which means they’re double-hard bastards and not to be messed with.

I leg it up four flights of stairs and sign in to work. 8.55am. Phew! So far I’m the only one in the office but I haven’t prepared a damned thing for lessons today, so quickly check today’s lesson schedule. I find the lesson plan, it reads:

“Lesson 25 – Teachers Choice”

Teachers Choice? Oh bollocks, that means I have to knock something together entirely from scratch and I only have… forty minutes left to do it. Aaargh!

Chaos ensues, bits of paper fly everywhere, resource books lie strewn open across desks like they’ve been recently slaughtered in some kind of Zulu War for Books Recreation Society meeting. I don’t even notice the other teacher enter the office until I accidentally stab him in the arm with a pair of scissors while cutting out a photo of Lara Croft (I need it for, erm… teaching purposes. Obviously). He hasn’t prepared anything either, so the panic level moves from amber to red. I furiously try to find the correct CD for a listening activity… I look at the big clock on the wall… five minutes late for class already. I abandon my seach, grab everything I’ve prepared thus far and shoot off down the corridoor in the direction of my classroom.

I open the clasroom door. Only four students, two of whom are sleeping, seem to be present. “How are you?” says I. “Sleepy” they reply. Every day they say this, without fail. If only their parents laced their breakfasts with cocaine, we might get a little bit of variety in the greetings that way… Anyway, the lesson flies by, and I only need to utter the phrase “now, what I want you to do is…” twice. Any time I say this, you can be absolutely sure I have no idea what I want them to do, I’m just making it up on the spot.

The students leave, leaving me with an hour to sort out my lesson. Properly, this time. I go to the bathroom and splash cold water on my face, in a vain attempt to restore some life into my brain.

I look up from the basin and catch sight of myself in the mirror. I forgot to put my tie on, I still have an afro quiff and, best of all, I notice my flies have been un-zipped for the entire morning.

Hitting the izakaya

Posted 25 Aug 2006 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Only in Japan, Tokyo

These days drinking is painful. Admittedly, for me it’s always been painful, and my morning-after hangover became something of a legend in my uni days. But now it takes me, on average, three million years to fully recover.

Last night then, I met up with some of my students for a drinking “party”. I’m not sure if calling it a party is really justified, but my students all seemed to think so, so I’ll let it stand. We had a two hour all-you-can-drink reservation at one of my local izakayas. Can you imagine a pub back home doing the same kind of thing? Nope, didn’t think so; there’d be no booze left after the first hour. I’ve been party to an all-you-can-drink session with my fellow Brits on several occasions since I’ve been here, and I am proud to say the system was well and truly abused. Nice!

Japanese people – the salaryman hardcore excluded – are pretty light drinkers on the whole, so one beer left half of my students looking somewhat… radient, about the face. My Japanese has suffered a relapse since coming back, but a few drinks seemed to help loads, and we had no awkward silences (which happens a LOT here. If awkward silences turn you on, then this is the place for you). I always feel responsible for them, seeing as they’re my students, but thankfully no one spewed over the table or collapsed in the toilet (that’s usually my job anyway). After we got chucked out of the izakaya we went for a wander down to the park – suprisingly busy considering it was 10pm, I suspect there were a lot more “couplings” going behind the trees an’ all – they all went off to do karaoke, but as I didn’t want to incur the wrath of my wife I sauntered home through the back streets.

Today I’ve not been feeling to great, for obvious reasons, but had some stuff to do around the shops and hauled my carcass out of bed and into town. I happened to be walking behind a seemingly ordinary, middle-aged man on my way towards the station. He was carrying two large carriers from an expensive import foods supermarket. “Maybe he’s going to cook sommat special for his wife tonight?”, I thought. But then, without any word of warning, he makes a sideways glance at an innocent, unsuspecting vending machine and… kicks the living shit out of it! It was the kind of sudden, unexpected outburst of rage that leaves your brain saying to itself “err… I have no prior information on how to handle this situation, so you’ll just have to stand there and look gormless”. Which is exactly what I did.

Luckily, the lunatic didn’t spot me, or maybe he did but couldn’t give a toss. Anyway, rather than finding another, less dangerous route to the station, I thought I’d keep following and see if anything else happened. No less than two more vending machines got the kicking treatment before I lost sight of him. God knows how many electrcial appliances will die by his hands tonight.