Archive for the ‘Earthquakes’ Category

Sumo wrestling is a traditional martial art that originated the 9th century and is closely associated with Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. The objective of a Sumo bout is simple – the over-sized combatants aim to force their opponents out of the dohyo (ring) or onto the ground using a mixture of slapping, wrestling and shoving. Although wrestlers grasp the mawashi (loincloth ) of their opponents in an attempt to throw them, grasping the opponent’s testicles and squeezing them is frowned upon and is, in fact, a violation of the rules.

The dohyo is considered sacred ground and is blessed by a Shinto priest before every bout. When the wrestlers enter the dohyo they perform an elaborate series of Shinto rituals, starting with a foot-stomping exercise to drive away evil spirits. Foreign visitors to a sumo tournament have been known to panic when stomping starts, mistaking the mild rumblings from the dohyo for the start of an earthquake.

After the foot-stomping, the wrestlers rinse out their mouths with a ladle of chikara mizu, or “power water,” and dry them with paper tissues called chikara gami, or “power paper.” Finally, before a bout begins, the wrestlers toss a handful of salt into the dohyo to purify it. Although as a tactic throwing salt into the eyes of an opponent would certainly give a wrestler an advantage, there is no known case this ever happening.

Once the bout begins, the action can be fast and furious with the wrestlers slapping, shoving and pushing or trying to trip each other. The winner is the wrestler who forces his opponent out of the dohyo or to touch the ground with any part of his body except for the feet. A wrestler who loses his mawashi during a bout is automatically disqualified as the sight of a male sumo wrestler naked from the waist down can be a traumatic experience for those unfortunate to experience it.

The sight of a female sumo wrestler losing her mawashi during a bout, however, has never shocked anyone in Japan. Moreover, totally naked women sumo wrestlers were once revered. In times of drought, for example, naked women wrestled in shrine precincts to provoke the anger of the Gods and cause rain.

In the eighteenth century onna zumo, women’s sumo, took off as a sport in Osaka, where it was popular in the brothel quarter. As well as bouts between women, there were also bouts between women and blind men (men who could see were ineligible as it was considered that they would not be able to concentrate on the sport).

By 1744, women’s sumo bouts featured regularly at the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Edo (now Tokyo), and they were immensely popular, especially with the owners of the nearby brothels. In 1926 the authorities eventually prohibited naked female sumo on the presumption that it promoted immorality. Female sumo did, however, manage to survive until after World War II in cabarets and beer halls, where there was no false pretense of modesty.   

In recent years sumo has been beset by scandals that have seriously damaged the reputation for sportsmanship and purity it had long enjoyed. These scandals include match-fixing, betting on baseball and golf as well as other professional sports, and drug taking. One of the top foreign wrestlers, and perhaps the greatest of his generation, Asashoryu, was forced to retire after beating up the former head of a biker gang after an argument in Roppongi. Other foreign wrestlers have been sacked for smoking marijuana.

Whether sumo recovers from the recent scandals or not is uncertain. Younger Japanese do not seem to have the spirit to put up with the rigid discipline of life in a sumo stable. There are also more attractive sporting opportunities for those with athletic ability, including careers in soccer or baseball.

One should not, however, write sumo off. As a sport, it has been around for a very long time, longer than most sports still practiced today. It is culturally ingrained in the Japanese psyche, and it has overcome crises before. Expect it to do so again.


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Akira Toyoda’s mobile started vibrating in his pocket; he ignored it and took another swig of Newcastle Brown Ale. The vibrating persisted. Shit, he thought, it’s got to be headquarters. For a moment he considered switching it off; then he relented. There was no point in getting himself into any more trouble.

He took the phone out of his pocket and checked the call number on the liquid crystal display screen. He was right: headquarters. That could mean only one thing—the end to his Friday night. He leant over the table and shouted, “Back in a minute.” Yelena stuck her tongue out.

Toyoda pushed his way through a rowdy crowd of drunken foreign brokers, some of whom looked as if they’d been drinking since lunchtime, and stepped out into the balmy, grimy night air of Roppongi.

Although the second-floor terrace that fronted Inn for the Night was not as comfortable as the interior—there was no air-conditioning—it was just as crowded and just as noisy. The overhead speakers blasted out White Room by Cream. Everybody on the terrace was speaking at full volume.

One man, an American, was drowning out Eric Clapton’s meaty guitar solo with boasts about his business acumen. And a young Japanese woman, the only person trying to follow the man’s one-way conversation, was awestruck.

For a split second, Toyoda thought of giving the man a shove that would send him crashing down the stairs and knock the wind out of him. Then he relented and squeezed past him to go down to the street.

The humidity was stifling. It had rained until mid-afternoon, then the sun had come out, and the temperature had risen to thirty-five degrees. But it was the humidity—it stood at about ninety percent—that hit Toyoda the hardest. By the time he arrived at street level, Toyoda was drenched. He dialed headquarters and got an answer at the first ring.

“Where are you?” snapped Superintendent Tanaka. “I’ve been ringing for ages.”

“Roppongi,” he answered. “I didn’t hear the phone ringing.”

“I bet you didn’t,” said Tanaka. “What the hell are you doing there? Don’t you see enough foreigners when you’re on duty?”

“It’s Friday evening so I was just ….”

Tanaka cut him off. “Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself, because you’ve got work to do now. Get yourself off to Minami-Senju. And I mean now, not after another drink!”

“Minami-Senju?” groaned Toyoda, “What’s going on up there?”

“Suspicious death,” said Tanaka. “A dead foreigner, so that means we are involved.”

“Homicide?” asked Toyoda.

“How the hell should I know?” growled Tanaka. All I know is that we have a dead foreigner on our hands. Don’t ask any more questions; just get up there as fast as you can. Oh, and by the way, don’t even think about driving up there in that flashy Mercedes of yours! I’ve no intention of covering for you again.”

“It’s not a Mercedes, it’s a Porsche,” said Toyoda, cringing at the reminder of his latest, and most serious cockup, a reckless act of stupidity that could have cost him his career. Tanaka had covered up for him, but that meant he owed his boss something. And Tanaka would wait for the right moment before calling in his debt. Meanwhile, Toyoda had to jump every time Tanaka barked. And Tanaka had just barked.

“I’ll get a squad car from Azabu police station,” said Toyoda, “I wouldn’t risk taking my own car up to Senju. It would probably get stolen.”

He rang off and looked at the time before putting the phone back in his pocket. It had just turned seven o’clock; the evening had hardly begun but for him it had already ended—in tatters. He cursed his luck as he climbed the stairs back to the pub.

As he pushed the door open and entered, one of the foreigners dropped his pants and mooned him. The others cheered and howled with laughter. It was a sickening sight. The mooner was grossly overweight and carried a great part of his weight on his buttocks. Most Japanese would have froze, turned and gone straight back down the steps. But Toyoda was made of sterner stuff. Besides, he had seen it all before. He walked straight past the mooner, shoved a short, fat bald foreigner to one side and forced his way through the crowd.

One of the foreigners was slouched back in a chair with his legs stretched out across the floor. On his way past, Toyoda tripped over the legs and fell into the foreigner, elbowing him in the chest as he did so. The man grunted and dropped his glass, sending beer cascading across the floor. Before the foreigner realized what was happening, Toyoda apologized: “Sorry mate, tripped over some bugger’s foot!” He patted the foreigner on the shoulder, winked and walked into the back of the bar, where Yelena was waiting for him. As he walked away the foreigners all fell silent and stared after him.

“What the fuck was that all about?” said one of the foreigners.

“A Japanese with a Geordie accent!” said another. “I’ve heard it all now.”

“You should have decked him,” said the first one who had spoken.

“I don’t think it would have worked,” said the other. “Look at the size of the bastard. He was just hoping you would try something, and then he would have decked you. Confident bastard; he’s got to be connected.”

Yelena was talking into her cell phone when Toyoda dropped into his seat. She flashed a perfunctory smile and went on talking. Toyoda picked up his cigarettes, put them in his shirt pocket and stood up. Yelena covered the mouthpiece with her hand, “Just a moment, I’m almost finished.”

“Take your time,” said Toyoda, “I have to go.”

Yelena spoke hurriedly into the phone and rang off. “What do you mean, you have to go?” she said sharply. “You promised to take me to that new German restaurant. I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I’m starving.”

He shrugged. “Sorry. Something has happened, and I have to go. I’ll get back as soon as I can,” he promised, then he left her at the table and pushed his way through the crowd again. This time the foreigners saw him coming and moved respectfully out of the way.

He stopped at the door and turned back towards the foreigners. He looked the mooner straight in the eye. “You want to be careful who you show your arse to around here, mate. There are a lot of fellows who might find it too much temptation. And you wouldn’t want to lead anyone on, would you?” He tapped his nose and left the pub. A raucous bout of laughter followed him out the door.

He turned towards the Roppongi Intersection and set off for Azabu police station. The street was bustling. Although it was still early, the African touts were out in force. One of them grabbed his arm and tried to drag him towards a club. Toyoda shook himself free.

Another of the Africans, a gigantic man in a floral shirt, baggy trousers and a beret laughed out loud. He shouted something in Yoruba to the other African, who responded in the same language and then laughed.

“What’s the joke, Sonny?” Toyoda stopped in front of the large African, who held out his hand. Toyoda took it.

“He’s new on the street. I told him that he’d just tried to hustle a cop.”

Toyoda smiled. “That’s nothing,” he said. “A guy up there,” Toyoda pointed to the pub he had just left, “flashed me as I walked through the door.”

The African laughed “You should have flashed him…..with your warrant card. That would have brought him back to reality.”

Toyoda shook his head. “No point in giving that kind of information out unless it is really necessary.”

The African nodded in agreement. Toyoda turned and waved his hand in the air as he walked away.

Roppongi is certainly not Japan, he thought, savoring the aroma of roast chicken wafting across the sidewalk from the illegally parked rotisserie van. The Chicken Man, as the African who owned the rotisserie was known, interrupted his conversation with one of the Turks from the kebab van parked next to him to greet Toyoda. Toyoda nodded, but did not stop. A ten minute walk along Gaien Higashi Dori, he thought, and you practically go through the United Nations.

Toyoda strode into Azabu police station and went straight up to the front desk. The uniform sitting there looked surprised when Toyoda walked in. “You’re back early,” he said. “What happened, I thought you had the night off?”

“So did I,” replied Toyoda, somehow managing not to sound bitter. “The old man called me, and now I am off to Senju. Have you got a car and a driver to take me up there?”

The uniform gave a twisted smile and shook his head. “On a Friday evening? You’ll be lucky to get one before midnight. Anyway, what’s wrong with your own car? I thought you had it parked out back.”

Toyoda leant over the desk and breathed into the younger man’s face.

The uniform jerked his head back, waved his hand in front of his nose, and pulled a face. “That’s enough! I get the picture. It’s a taxi or the subway. And if I were you and I were in a hurry, I wouldn’t even bother trying to get a taxi. You’ll only end up sitting at the crossroads for the next thirty minutes or so. You’d be there by then on the subway.”

Toyoda grabbed a magazine from the desk and turned towards the door. “See you later.”

Chapter 2




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Recently as I have been walking home from Tsukiji to Roppongi, a distance of about 6 kilometers, I have had a feeling of déjà vu. For a few days I wracked my brains, but could not figure out where the feeling was coming from. Then, this morning, as I opened my eyes, I experienced satori.

Tokyo presently resembles Berlin of the 1970s, when the city was divided in two. I lived in the West and worked in the East. The sun shone evenly on both sides of the city; so during the day there was very little difference—except for the advertizing billboards. In the West, the glitzy billboards advertised the latest in the line of automobiles such as Mercedes and Porsche, as well global brands like Coca Cola, Channel and Gucci; in the East, the giant austere billboards hosted huge photos of the Worker of the Month and text listing the achievements of the “Working Class Hero of the Deutsche Demokratic Republik.”

But when the sun went down, the difference between the two halves of the divided city was stark. The West lit up with neon while the East disappeared in darkness. In the words of the song by the singer-songwriter Paul Joses (Scottish-born but then resident of West Berlin), the red side of the Berlin Wall was like the Dark Side of the Moon.

Tokyo is by no stretch of the imagination like East Berlin of the 1970s—quite the contrary, it is still very much a vibrant and exciting city—but there are certain similarities. There are very few flashing neon lights and store fronts are dark and the interiors are on minimum lighting. But this is because everyone understands the need to save on electricity while the country is experiencing a crisis.

Towards the end of the day, many of the shelves in convenience stores are empty of milk, bakery products and the like. Large bottles of mineral water are just not available, beer is scarce and getting scarcer, and even cans of chu-hi are in short supply. The reason for the beer shortages, we are told, is that the major domestic brewers all have breweries in the Tohoku region. I have heard no excuses yet for the shortages of chu-hi.

Nevertheless, despite the dimming down (of the nighttime skyline, I mean), and the shortages of essentials like beer and chu-hi, Tokyo is not at all in crisis; nor was East Berlin in the 1970s. The difference between the two is that the situation in Tokyo is just a temporary phenomenon, while for East Berlin it was the norm, and Tokyo will light up again soon.

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I decided to collect and take provisions to the victims of the March 11 Tohoku-Pacific Ocean Earthquake and the tsunami that struck in its wake came about after discussing the quality of reporting on the event by the European media with a friend. We both agreed that much of the news coming out of Japan, especially news about Tokyo, which was relatively unscathed, was either inaccurate or false. We both found it hard to believe that people were actually starving in some of the areas that had been hardest hit. This was, after all, Japan, one of the richest countries on earth, a country with an outstanding record of donating to other countries in times of need. Then we heard from someone who had been up to the north that people were suffering badly, that bureaucracy was getting in the way of relief, and that people were desperate for many of the basic items that we all took for granted. We had no way of knowing whether this was true or not, but we decided to go ahead anyway.

First of all I had to find a driver to help me take the provisions to the disaster area, and then I had to appeal for and collect whatever I could and buy what I could not collect. A friend volunteered to rent a truck and drive, so I started collecting provisions. I put up an appeal asking for contributions in Japanese and English on the notice board in my building. Almost every family in my apartment building contributed something. I quickly noticed that some things—rice, canned food, gas canisters and charcoal—were conspicuously absent; so I started buying them. Unfortunately these items are particularly heavy and, because of a surge in demand, finding them in the shops was extremely difficult. Then there was a limit on the amount one person could buy in each shop: consequently, I had to visit dozens of shops, some quite far away from where I live, to get enough provisions. Nevertheless, among other things, I managed to buy and carry home 50 kilos of rice and 25 gas canisters as well as six boxes of canned goods and charcoal. This was not only time-consuming, but also physically exerting and I began to worry that my knee might not hold out.

Two days before departure two problems arose: the volunteer driver was refused time off work to drive up to Minami Sanriku and the rental firm told me that I could only have the truck for 24 hours. At first, both problems looked insurmountable. Every rental agency I called responded negatively because “it was the moving season so nothing was available.” I pleaded and explained the reason I needed a vehicle, but my appeals were met with a smile and a shrug. Everyone I called and asked to drive up said that they would love to but that they already had plans for the weekend. I was running out of options when I remembered that one of my friends, Geoff England, had a driving license; so I call him. He immediately volunteered to drive and to rent a van, thus killing two birds with one stone, and we arranged to meet at the rental agency just before 6 pm on Saturday 2 April.

Meanwhile the things I was buying and the people in my apartment building were donating began to mount up, and I realized that they would not all fit in one van; so I started to call round once again. This time I managed to contact a Mr Arata who was working with an organization called OGA for Aid. He told me that he had room on his truck for more supplies and agreed to drive up with our van.

After Geoff, his wife Ayuko, and I picked up the van, we drove to Takadanobaba to pick up some of the things that Clive France, who was taking another van up north, could not fit in his van. Then we picked up Peter Blake, a professional photographer who had also volunteered to drive, and drove to my place to meet up with Arata-san and his team. We loaded the vehicles and set off at exactly 7.44 pm, stopping once before we left Tokyo to pick up Ana Shimabuku and the provisions she had collected.

Once out of Tokyo the road was practically empty, at least in the lanes heading north. The threat of radiation sickness certainly keeps people off the roads. We tanked up at every opportunity because we knew that once we got into the disaster area, there would be no gasoline available.

After we left the highway, driving became more difficult. We were in total darkness because there were no lights anywhere. We even passed through towns and villages that, although inhabited, looked deserted. It was a very strange feeling. Many of the roads we traveled were cracked and, despite the darkness, we could see damage to buildings all around. We left the towns behind and started to climb into the mountains on narrow and twisting roads that were in very poor condition. We started our descent and entered a world of destruction on a massive scale. At about 4 am we arrived at a road that was closed, and that was the road we needed to take. The guard told us that we would have to wait until 7 am for it to open, so we tried to find space to park—and that was very difficult because the whole area was covered in debris, the remains of what had once been a town were piled up everywhere we could see with the headlights.

Before we parked, however, a local man drove by, realized that we had brought provisions and offered to show us what he called a “shortcut” to the distribution center. Back up the mountain we went on roads steeper and narrower that the ones we had originally taken. Thirty minutes later, however, we arrived at Hotel Kanyo, a luxurious resort hotel that, apart from the two floors below ground level that out to see, had escaped major damage. It was 4.30 am and the temperature was below zero: we were freezing and tired, but we could not sleep for the cold. Around 6 am one of the staff brought us a cup of coffee. The inside of the cups were lined with plastic wrap because there was no running water to wash the cups with.

At around 6.30 am, Angela Ortiz from OGA for Aid, and aid agency organizing relief efforts in the area joined us in the lobby. She explained the situation and told us of the needs of the people. She said that the Japanese military was providing rice and drinking water, but that there huge shortages of just about everything else. People can survive on rice and water, but sooner or later, health problems kick in. What the people desperately needed were canned protein foods like fish, seafood, meat and chicken as well as canned vegetables and fruit. They also needed baby food, sanitary items, over-the-counter medication, fruit and energy drinks, toys and a whole host of other things that we normally take for granted but the people living in the refugee centers could not get.

Angela also told us some horrific tales of desperation in the area. She spoke about a minshuku (bed and breakfast) in a hamlet called Yoriki at which more than 20 people had been trapped for two weeks because the roads had been destroyed. There was no electricity, gas nor running water and no means of communicating with the outside world. In desperation they had put up flags in an attempt to attract the attention of the Japanese military helicopters carrying our search and rescue missions and delivering provisions. The people trapped there were on the verge of starvation when volunteers from OGA for Aid found them.

Angela also told us the story of So-kun, a 12-year-old boy who traveled in our van from the distribution center to Utatsu Junior High School that was function as a refugee center for 470 people. After the earthquake struck, he and his mother managed to escape to a school on a hill. When the tsunami raged past in the valley below, he could see bodies being swept up the valley. He lost his dog and house but, fortunately, he had survived.

After we had been briefed by Angela, we unloaded our provisions and set out to see the damage in the light of day. I had read all the reports in the newspapers and seen all the images on television, but what I saw with my own eyes was much worse than anything I was prepared for. The town of Minami Sanriku and its surroundings looked like the aftermath of a nuclear war. Very few buildings had survived intact; there was rubbish and refuse where houses, hospitals, schools and shops had stood. Bridges were battered and broken; railway lines were ripped off their pilings and lay twisted like strings of wire; lamp posts were bent, buckled and snapped in two; and even the road surfaces had been destroyed. Wrecked cars, buses, tractors, and ships were everywhere, some on the roofs of the buildings that still stood, others high up on the hillsides or up trees. But the most disturbing sight was that of the personal belongings—photos, notebooks, pens and pencils, CD players and the like—scattered among the debris or hanging from trees—clothes, sheets, blankets and futons—on either side of the tsunami-ravaged valleys in a macabre caricature of festive decorations.

We returned to the distribution center and then drove to Utatsu Junior High School, where OGA for Aid had organized an hour of games for the children to celebrate a birthday. The children were happy for an hour at least, but the elderly did not have anything to cheer about. Some sat around in small groups on the mattresses on which they slept, others came and went, but I noticed one old man sitting alone. He never moved a muscle the hour we were there. His eyes looked straight ahead, but he was not seeing anything in that gymnasium: he was surely looking into the past. I had to struggle to keep back the tears for I did not want to upset any of those unfortunate people who have lost everything except their dignity. They have been living in appalling conditions since March 11. They have no electricity, gas or running water. There are a few kerosene heaters here and there; so it must be absolutely freezing at night.

It is difficult for me to come to terms with what I saw in Minami Sanriku. The violence and havoc wreaked upon an unsuspecting community in the space of a few minutes by the unstoppable forces of nature is not easy to comprehend. I was not there the moment nature struck; so I will never be able to understand the fear and shock of those who were. But now that I have met and spoken to some of the survivors I will never be the same again.

The survivors will need help for some time, so those of us who took provisions at the weekend are resolved to continue delivering them. We are planning our next trip for April 16 and so far we have arranged for two vehicles. If we can get financial support of any kind, we will be able to take more. We are also looking for Japanese companies that could help us buy products like toilet paper, gas canisters and the like in bulk. We gratefully appreciate any support we can get.

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Despite the hype and the hysteria in the foreign press, Tokyo is still functioning fairly normally. It certainly is not the City of the Damned that some media are painting it. If we are to believe all we read and hear, we are just waiting for the “Big One” that will erase Tokyo from the map. And if that were not bad enough, there is supposed to be a radioactive cloud headed our way. Sure, there are a few problems like shortages of certain goods in the shops, the shutdown of elevators and escalators, a reduction in the number of trains and subways, threats of a blackout and the odd aftershock or two. But the Japanese and the foreigners who were not scared out of town as soon as the tremors died down are going about their business as usual.

According to one UK daily, on one day last week, “You could find a few die-hard Brits and other expatriates who wouldn’t leave their beers on the counter in the party-time district of Roppongi for any threatening radioactive cloud, but mostly Tokyo has become eerily quiet.” Well, I was one I was one of the die-hards drinking in Roppongi that evening and I neither saw any threatening radioactive cloud nor heard of one. Moreover, I walked to Roppongi from Tsukiji, which took about 45 minutes, and passed thousands of people walking (some fairly quickly, I admit) to the stations, but there was no sign of panic. I admit, though, that there was a heavy dust cloud hanging over the city. But that was caused by the rush to Narita as the rats scuttled away from what they thought was a sinking ship.

The biggest losers in the aftermath of the Tohoku Pacific Ocean Offshore Earthquake are going to be those foreigners who scampered away from Tokyo, their tails between their legs. None of these fleet-foots will ever be able to look a Japanese in the eye again if they come crawling back to Tokyo when the media give the all clear. None of them will ever be trusted again, and I would be very surprised if any Japanese would have anything to do with them. But who could blame them for running away? After all, the media had predicted the worst. And let’s just hope they are wrong as usual!

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