Letter from Japan: A curious, but fascinating culture

‘The locals are weirdly helpful. They’ll board a train with you to ensure safe passage’

Ireland rugby squad en route to  Hamamatsu. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Ireland rugby squad en route to Hamamatsu. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

The obvious difference at Haneda airport, arriving from Newark, was a lack of guns. Every American cop, every security guard, has them loosely holstered with civilians signposted “to unload and check firearms” with their luggage.

Opposition leaders and academics accused Abe of wanting to be away on holidays, stating this could turn Japan into a “surveillance society.”

Not that any country feels safe these days. Japan’s scandal haunted prime minister Shinzo Abe “rammed” through a Bill on Thursday to criminalise conspiracy with fears of a terrorist attack at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics cited as the primary reason.

Opposition leaders and academics accused Abe of wanting to be away on holidays, stating this could turn Japan into a “surveillance society.”

We presumed it was already.

Sport has become a powerful political tool simply because, unlike Rio, the Japanese care about image. In fact, it’s always been a national obsession.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup arrives a year before the summer games but the only evidence of that global event came on the incline to the beautiful Ecopa stadium for the Captain’s Run beneath an abusive midday sun.

The Ireland squad leave Tokyo for Hamamatsu. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The Ireland squad leave Tokyo for Hamamatsu. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Much needs doing but, undoubtedly, this country of rigid order will get there.

Those intent on travelling in 2019 should brace themselves for a cosmetically flawless society. Strolling down Ginza, Tokyo’s premier shopping district, many of the moving images along O’Connell Street to St Stephen’s Green are absent. Not a junkie to be seen. No homeless.

The transport system is phenomenal. Relax and figure it out. All commuters look sad

None. Not even down the side streets. No construction either (well, look up). Spotless. Nobody crosses before the green light either.

The transport system is phenomenal. Relax and figure it out. All commuters look sad. That’s everywhere in the world. Except Manhattan, where they are positively ebullient.

Crucially, in Tokyo I’m tall. In New York I’m shorter than usual but an Irishness radiates to mean small in the Napoleonic sense. Another Bill may be lashed through The Diet (parliament) to provide 24-hour surveillance of Dev Toner.

Devin Toner on his way with the squad to Hamamatsu. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Devin Toner on his way with the squad to Hamamatsu. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

A coffee costs ¥700 (€6) and rising. This place ain’t cheap but it seems so after a week pottering about the East Village.

The locals are weirdly helpful. They’ll board a train with you to ensure safe passage. You can mess with them all day long. Bowing never grows old. They have to do it back.

Their societal norms make common sense an issue.

“Can I have this in a takeaway cup please?”

Utter confusion. A manager is summoned.

“Excuse me sir, very sorry, no takeaway cup.”

Say nothing. They stew like no other tribe. Eventually he offers to replace my fuel with ice coffee, “so you can drink it quicker?”

Green light go, red stop. Rebellion’s unlikely.

Warning: Debit Cards don’t work in Japan. Not in hotels or most ATMs.

Credit Cards may be cancelled if you don’t tell your bank you are going.

No tipping. After New York’s aggressive insistence on a 25 per cent cash bonus, this felt odd but the pendulum swings fully, the insult reversed.

White surgical masks are everywhere. Mostly worn by women. Initially, this was to ward off disease, what with millions inhabiting the same tiny space on daily commutes. Then it was to highlight influenza while still showing up for work. Now, a young woman told us, she wears it so men don’t bother her.

You must remove all your cloths but they lend you samurai garb. The baths are separated by gender

It’s a stop sign.

A visit to the Onsen is highly recommended. Soak them bones in volcanic hot springs. Avoid recommendations by hotel concierges. They push tourist trap, generic versions. Dig a little. You must remove all your cloths but they lend you samurai garb. The baths are separated by gender.

A strict no tattoo policy still exists. This, we read, was due to the Yakuza (Japanese mafia who have full body irezumi even on their genitalia) but, to be sure, we ask for an explanation.

“Japanese rule.”

But why?

“Japanese culture.”

Okay, what’s the reason?

“Bad image in Japan.”

The young man shrugged his shoulders apologetically but as I walk away he whispers, “Gaijin . . . ”

Foreigners will never fully grasp the Japanese mindset but the mass Gaijin invasion has them worried. The influx of Maori rugby players has already marked their cards about the naivety of tattoos being taboo.

This issue brings modern Japan into direct conflict with a society that finds it incomprehensible to bend on traditional values. Tattoo artists have been fined under the medicinal practitioners law as they are unlicensed doctors. It’s not illegal to be a tattoo artist, but if the judiciary upholds an upcoming case where 29-year-old Taiki Masuda is contesting a police fine the profession will be forced underground.

Again, the 2020 Games is forcing this issue, as many competing athletes will seek Tokyo parlours to ink the five rings on their body.

The Ireland rugby squad visits Sumo stables in Tokyo, Japan. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The Ireland rugby squad visits Sumo stables in Tokyo, Japan. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Cultural jolts at every turn, the Ireland squad got a glimpse into Japan’s most revered sport,Sumo, and its strict hierarchy. How young boys dreaming of becoming Yokozuna (grand champion) have to wipe senior colleagues’ arses. The bigger Sumo rikishi can’t reach around.

(Incidentally, heated toilet seats are all the rage.) “It’s crazy – almost like a prison,” said Quinn Roux on return from a sumobeya, or stable, where the wrestlers exist throughout their torturous existence. “It’s very interesting to see how they live for years and years like that; the dedication and effort they put in for something when they might not even reach the top.

Like other contact sports, the unseen story rarely ends well. In a survey conducted from 1980 and 2002, the average sumo rikishi dies aged 63

“We saw the training and I couldn’t imagine going through that,” Roux continued. “They did about three hours in a squatting position. I’d say the effort that goes into their legs must be so powerful. You have to respect them for the work they do.”

Like other contact sports, the unseen story rarely ends well. In a survey conducted from 1980 and 2002, the average sumo rikishi dies aged 63. The World Health Organisation have Japanese people top of their list with an average life expectancy of 83.7 (Ireland is 19th on 81.4).

To avoid finishing on that note, our first port of call on return to Tokyo from Hamamatsu, via a rapid bullet train covering 260km in 117 minutes, will be Andy’s fish restaurant under Yurakucho station.

Training at the Sumo stables in Tokyo, Japan. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Training at the Sumo stables in Tokyo, Japan. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Andy, who used to do backing vocals for Elvis Costello, welcomed us into his small Izkaya last Wednesday. Clearly a Leicester City fan, he cut to the chase: 6,000 Yen (€50) each for some warm sake, all the beer we can swallow with a vast array of freshly caught sea food and shellfish. Delicious.

Mother and unnamed baby are doing well but concerns remain as Shin Shin’s previous cub died in 2012 after just a week

Outside, still under the train tracks – and the Japanese will regret this – we were directed to a dispensary machine stocked full of alcohol. The mostly office attired revellers were politely sipping cans on the curb as we discussed the first Giant Panda birth at Ueno Zoo in five years. Mother and unnamed baby are doing well but concerns remain as Shin Shin’s previous cub died in 2012 after just a week.

Ri Ri, the notorious papa bear – we know he’s the dad because they were seen mating in February – was put back on display earlier that day, to wet the baby’s head with a belly full of bamboo.

Prisons everywhere. Don’t forget to bow.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.