Life and Death in Japan

First published in 2008

Life and Death in Japan
Playing the Shovel

Whilst at a station waiting for a train, at Atami I think, I was amazed by a very large billboard that was on the building immediately adjacent to the platform. This was obviously a games arcade of some sort and had taken the opportunity to try and attract customers from the many salary men as they stood waiting for their train.

“Why not enjoy a game of
pocket billiards whilst you wait”

……………….the sign encouraged.

Comfortable pizza all round I think!

This relationship with the English language is a very odd phenomena and, as with most things, I like to blame the Americans! The reasoning behind this guilt is that the dominant use of English in Japan is in advertising, corporate branding and superlatives.

“Oh tee nako har a kan nee sashi ta golden opportunity si tik na kano..”*

As a football commentator said about the recent Gamba Osaka’s miss of an open goal against Manchester United in the World Club Championship.

This leads to a hotel chain called “Big Week”, you sort of know what they mean but it is a parallel universe of English in which the words are strangely recognisable but the context seems flawed in a hard to define manner: much like American culture.

Then there are words which give an impression of something they are not. For example, what is a “Pocari”? I thought it was a small wild pig that snuffled about the dank undergrowth of the Amazon rain forest. You see the problem here, we associate ideas with sounds and then compile imagery within our grey cell silver screens. A missed vowel, an extra consonant, it doesn’t matter, it is the sound that flashes an image into our consciousness.

Pocari Sweat.

So to with the artist who appeared on a programme I can only describe as “wholly incredible”. I found myself in an idle moment (no pocket billiards hall available) transfixed like a rabbit caught in the glare of the lights of an articulated lorry as I observed in horror a “light entertainment” programme.

The performers who drew my disbelief were a singing ‘combo’. The men were wearing those turquoise velvetine jackets with long black velvet lapel collars, the type favoured by music acts in the 1950’s such as Albert Allstar and his Palm Court Roof Top Quintet. They all had the white shirt with a sea of ruffles leading up the chest to crest nicely into the sparkling bow tie. Drummer, bass and guitar players discretely in the background whilst the singers, a man and a woman, took front and center.

The male singer wore a crystal blue velvetine jacket to distinguish himself from the lessor members of the band. He also sported the type of hairdo that attracts women of a certain age in droves as their grey cell silver screens recognise a pre-elvis style icon. The female singer was a triumph of smile over sincerity.

She wore a pink flowing ball dress resplendent with hugely excessive bows and managed to retain a fixed Hollywood smile continuously throughout her singing. This was either the product of some disasterous plastic surgery or the misplaced belief that somehow it made her look professionally attractive. My silver screen kept flashing up the image of a great white shark moving in for the kill.

This is a type of “light entertainment” (big issue with the word ‘light’) that is very popular with the ever growing senior citizen population of Japan. A stream of highly dubious looking entertainers appeared on the set which resembled a 1950’s car sales showroom without the cars. Yes, hard to imagine eh! Anyway, these drifting minstrels were only the entree, a titilising taster for the pleasure yet to appear.

On walks the main act. Come on now, have a guess…. you wont forsee this I guarantee you. I was absolutely shocked, gobsmacked, bamboozled, completely stymied. I almost dropped my beer!

Onto the set walked a 25 – 26 year old black American in full rapper dress code. The high domed baseball cap emblazoned with NYJ and set at an angular disposition as it sat on the white head scarf tied neatly at one side. An oversize base ball jersey and the gravity defying low slung jeans completed the look which was liberally decorated with chunky gold jewelry on every available digit and neck space. This was the baddest boy of bad boy rappers or so it appeared to be until he began to sing.

With the voice of a marmoset and in perfect Japanese our man from the projects then laid out a heart rending ballad that brought a tear to the eye of the octogenarians in the front row. I can’t speak Japanese, as you know, but I am sure that the song was about a young man, wrongly and maliciously accused of such a terrible crime that he had to leave the young girl he loved lest he brought shame into her life. After years of wandering trying to prove his innocence he eventually commits suicide as the only way to prove his love is true.

To a standing ovation he was then joined on stage by the velvetine army and a spontaneous karaoke session appeared to be the closing number with the audience joining in.

Fortunately my sanity was saved when the programme following highlighted the progress of an orchestra touring the country trying to promote their instrument of choice: a shovel.

Yes, row upon row of ‘musicians’ playing shovel guitar like and using a bottle opener as the striking implement. We were all treated to the ‘orchestral’ version of “Tie a yellow ribbon around that old oak tree.”

Anyone for pocket billiards?

*of course this is not real Japanese (but then you didn’t know that did you) but an example of how English is used within Japanese speech.

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