Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Sakura, Sakura...

Cherry blossom is everywhere now, at least in Western Japan. Always a welcome sight, letting us know that Spring has truly arrived. We had a slight cold snap after my last blog entry on March 4th, reminding me that the old saying of ‘Ne’er cast a clout, till May be out’ should be modified to ‘… till March is out’ to suit the climate of Japan. This does show us that the world was indeed a colder place in 1732 , when the saying was coined. There is some dispute as to whether May refers to the 5th month or to the May tree or hawthorn, which blooms in late April, but in either case if you leave your winter woolies on that long you are going to be somewhat sweaty. Another, less welcome harbinger of Spring is the phenomenon of kohsa, or fine yellow sand loess borne on the prevailing wind from the Yellow River region of mainland China. It makes formerly clear views very hazy and settles everywhere, making freshly washed cars look dirty. Perhaps the Three Gorges dam will make a difference by irrigating desert areas, but I doubt it. For those who suffer from it, this is also the season of kafunshoh, or pollen allergy, a condition similar to hay fever. The main culprit is the cedar tree, which is found everywhere in Japan in vast monoculture forests. These were planted as part of a post-war government scheme to become self-sufficient in timber for construction purposes, displacing the natural mixed-deciduous forests to a large extent. As millions of households had been destroyed by American bombing during the Pacific war, this would seem to have been a sensible policy. However, no-one foresaw the vast boom in Japan’s GDP and the gradual appreciation of the yen vs the dollar that was coming. As a result, it is cheaper to import lumber from North America and the domestic industry can hardly be described as a going concern. Most of the labour force are close to retirement age and lumber is not an attractive proposition for the young techie generation, along with agriculture in general. So the cedar trees stand uncut on the hills and mountains in serried ranks, giving off pollen by the bucketful in Spring to irritate the eyes and noses of sufferers. It even affected me to a certain extent last year, bringing on sneezing fits two or three times a day. So far in 2007, I have been OK but there is a way to go yet. I did hear that some enterprising botanical researcher had developed a kind of vaccine for the cedar tree which will suppress its pollen-producing tendency, but the size of the task in inoculating each individual tree must beggar belief.

Last time I blogged I was hopeful that Newcastle United were going to bring some joy to their long-suffering supporters and get into the last eight of the UEFA Cup. They started off well enough on March 8th, beating the Dutch side AZ Alkmaar by four goals to two at SJP in the first leg. Surely, we all thought, surely they can defend a two-goal lead next Thursday. Well, they could not, going down 2-0 to allow AZ the passage on the away goals rule. Since then, they have lost twice in the League, 2-0 away at Charlton Athletic and 0-1 to Manchester City at home last Saturday. This latest reversal has seen the fans turn against the manager and chairman in great numbers. One man marched onto the pitch and tore the remainder of his season ticket to shreds in front of the dug-out. Another did the same thing with his replica team shirt, not a cheap item. Some people take the fortunes of their team very seriously indeed. To make matters worse, the rival team Sunderland have been sweeping all before them and are now being given odds of 1-2 for promotion to the Premier League. It is not the best of times to be a Toon supporter, but (according to The Sporting Life) the club have just announced plans to increase the capacity of SJP to more than 60,000 along with some very posh housing development as part of a £300-million development scheme, at almost the same time as announcing an operating loss of £6.9 million, mainly due to inept player trading and amortisation. All of this will be done by ‘external financing’ and is still subject to official approval. They are obviously looking into a rosy-pink crystal ball or they are on some wondrous kind of hallucinogenic.

‘... But who has won? … At last the Dodo said “Everybody has won and all must have prizes...’

The Six Nations Championship turned out to be a kind of Lewis Carrollian caucus race in the end, with the Frenchies nicking it at the death by 3 points but every team ended up with something to shout about, even the wooden spoon men, Scotland. All good stuff and a good advert for the noble ‘game for hooligans played by gentlemen’.

England are in the Super Eight stage of the Cricket World Cup, being contested in the West Indies. Having won one and lost one match, they are being given odds of 14-1 to win outright. On the other hand Australia are at 11-10. I think the bookies know what they are doing... However, the series has been overshadowed by the murder of the Pakistan coach, Bob Woolmer, after they were eliminated from the competition by Ireland, not normally thought of as a cricketing powerhouse. There is heavy suspicion that a gambling syndicate were involved, possibly because the dead man was about to blow the whistle on a vast global match-fixing syndicate. A very dirty business, however you look at it.

Here in Japan, we have all been horrified by the grisly murder of a young English teacher, Lindsay Ann Hawker, in Ichikawa, near Tokyo. She was found naked and battered in a bathtub filled with sand on the balcony of an apartment inhabited by one Tatsuya Ichihashi, who is now the chief suspect. According to the reports he fled barefoot when the police came to the apartment, acting on a tip-off. Quite how he managed to evade capture is anyone’s guess, but he is still at large. Ichihashi is the one pictured left below. If you see him, please inform the police as to where and when. They really need to talk to him.

The most recent news is that the suspect Ichihashi was involved in the stalking of another female English teacher last year, whose complaints to the police fell on deaf ears. The young woman was sufficiently traumatized to quit both her job and the country. Unbelievable incompetence by Chiba’s finest. Sitting on their hands while a genuine threat was reported and allowing a barefoot suspect to get clean away. Shinjirarenai!
The unfortunate Lindsay appears to have been under the impression that Japan is a perfectly ‘safe’ country and there was no risk in going to the apartment of a total stranger to give him a private English lesson. Foolhardy, to say the least. Japan is quite ‘safe’ on the surface but there are dark undercurrents to the society which manifest themselves from time to time. Some five or six years ago, a British night-club hostess, one Lucie Blackman was murdered in similar fashion and then dismembered and dumped in a seaside cave, crudely encased in concrete. The trial of her alleged killer, one Joji Obara is still going on, though an official ruling is expected soon. Unfortunately, this latest terrible event has given the lower-end English tabloids (like The Sun) an excuse to print all sorts of garbage about how Japan is a nation packed with sadistic male perverts whose main jollies are got by humiliation and torture of women. I’m not saying that people like that don’t exist here but really, this is pretty rich stuff from a country which produced Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) and Dr Harold Shipman (Doctor Death)...

The words ‘glass houses’ and ‘throw stones’ spring readily to mind. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story...

I should try and finish on a cheerful note so it is with a glad heart that I note the ‘Prods’ and ‘Taigs’ of Ulster (Norn ’Iron) are finally in sight of a lasting agreement. Former bitter enemies, the DUP's ‘Reverend’ Ian Paisley and his Sinn Feinn counterpart, Gerry Adams have finally agreed on a devolution deal and will sit together in Stormont Castle starting May 8th.
To quote the good Reverend:

We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future.

In looking to that future we must never forget those who have suffered during the dark period from which we are, please God, emerging.

We owe it to them to craft and build the best future possible and ensure there is genuine support for those who are still suffering.

Now that’s more like it lads! The Lion can lie down with the Lamb after all...
For some strange reason, I think it is really going to work this time. We shall see.