Saturday, January 30, 2016

Documentary: Bikes vs. Cars

I love my work. Friday I had the great pleasure of interviewing Swedish documentary film maker Fredrik Gertten, who is in Japan for the first time. He had an event later in the evening at Waseda University, which is minutes from our office at Consumers Union of Japan. We had a long talk about his previous two films, about banana plantations workers in Nicaragua, who were harmed by a pesticide used by Dole. Fredrik got sued in the process of making his initial documentary, Bananas! so he promptly made another film, Big Boys Gone Bananas, about how Dole tried to stop the first film from being screened in the US at places in LA and Sundance Festival. Fredrik won, by the way.

His new film, just released, is about another powerful industry, the ones that make cars. A billion of them on the roads, as of now. And cities like LA are more congested than ever, with some 70% of the public infrastructure devoted to - cars. Sao Paolo, Brazil, the figure is 60%. And only way to combat that is to take to the streets, on your bicycle.

A very powerful movie by a great guy from my home town, Malmö, Sweden.

I remember we already had proper bike lanes when I was in Junior High, with small traffic lights for bikes... We felt safe and it was great city planning. Copenhagen, Amsterdam and other big cities have also shown that it can be done.

On Sunday, January 31st, the Cycling Embassy of Japan will host the Japanese premiere of Bikes vs Cars at Uplink Factory in Shibuya. There will be two screenings: first, the premiere at 16:00, then again at 18:45. Embassy members Byron Kidd of Tokyo By Bike fame, and journalist Yasuyuki Saito, will be participating in a 30-45 minute, post-screening Q & A along with Fredrik. Tickets will soon be available on Uplink's website.

Order it on Vimeo:


The bicycle, an amazing tool to change the world. Feature doc by Fredrik Gertten. Available worldwide on Vimeo. Hop on your bike & join the community.


Friday, January 29, 2016

TPP Minister Amari Resigns Over Bribe

Unbelievable, but then again, just what you'd expect :)

It was revealed by a whistle-blower, which I find interesting, but not much has been said about that.

The Mainichi is properly shocked:

A scandal involving money and politics has once again rocked the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Akira Amari, minister in charge of economic revitalization, has stepped down over allegations that he and one of his secretaries received cash from a construction company official in return for doing the firm a favor. The resignation of a Cabinet minister playing a leading role in promoting the prime minister's "Abenomics" policy mix and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact has dealt a serious blow to the Abe administration.
At a news conference on Jan. 28, Amari admitted that he had accepted cash on two occasions and that his secretary received 3 million yen in secret donations. As such, it is only natural that Amari has stepped down as a member of the Cabinet. However, his explanation of the scandal at the news conference is far from convincing, as numerous questions remain unanswered.
Amari emphasized at the press conference that he was resigning to take responsibility for the scandal, saying, "My position as a Cabinet member is important but it's more important to discipline myself."
Amari and his secretary are suspected of receiving a total of roughly 12 million yen in cash from a construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture, in return for using his influence to settle disputes between the company and the government-affiliated Urban Renaissance Agency (UR). The Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine reported the scandal based on a tip by a construction company official in charge of general affairs.
The magazine reported that Amari accepted 500,000 yen at the minister's office in November 2013 and another 500,000 yen in February 2014 at his private office in his constituency. Amari initially said his memories regarding the money were vague.
In his news conference, however, Amari admitted having received the cash and explained that he had instructed his aides to properly deal with the money as part of his political funds. Moreover, Amari acknowledged that he and the company official talked about a dispute between the company and the UR over industrial waste disposal when the minister accepted the second donation. Irrationally, the donations, which were extended on two separate occasions, were dealt with simultaneously, giving rise to suspicions of unlawful practices.
Amari's private office and secretary's involvement in the scandal is astounding. Amari acknowledged that the secretary accepted 5 million yen from the construction company official, of which the aide spent 3 million yen, and that the secretary had also been entertained by the construction company official.
Amari obviously was forced to step down rather than voluntarily stepping down to assume responsibility over the scandal.
UR has paid the construction company a massive amount of compensation over the disputes. Legal experts have pointed out that the secretary's act could constitute a violation of the law to penalize politicians and their secretaries for interceding with government agencies on behalf of businesses for personal gain. It was reported that the secretary has admitted having asked UR about the situation of the disputes, but denied having lobbied to the UR on behalf of the company. Thorough investigations should be conducted to get to the bottom of the scandal.
Amari is the fourth politician who has resigned as a Cabinet minister over a money scandal since the second Abe Cabinet was launched in late December 2012. Abe had made remarks in the Diet suggesting that he would allow Amari to stay on as a Cabinet minister, raising questions about his awareness of the seriousness of the scandal. The prime minister's responsibility over the case is heavy.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Ghibli's From Up On Poppy Hill (2011)

Set in Yokohama, up in the hills that overlook the busy deep harbour, this anime is about a girl who misses her father who is away on a war mission.

Tokyo doesn't have a harbour that can provide access to large ships, thus Yokohama was built in the late 19th century. Thus Poppy Hill, and the houses up there, overlooking the bay.

Umi raises the naval signal flags each morning, every single day, hoping father will be back from Korea, hoping it may help him find her, hoping for a safe journey for all the sailors

... - I didn't know that there were a lot of civilian Japanese boats and supply ships used by the US during the Korean War. But this timeline is slightly ambiguous, Tokyo has already been awarded the 1964 Olympics.

Hey, did you know that Tokyo was actually set to have the 1940 Olympics, after Berlin (1936). Small world.

The hit song "Sukiyaki" features, but it was not about the food at all. The lyrics has the singer as a lonely guy, holding his head high, remembering the large protests against the AMPO around 1960, which seemed to have faded away around 1963 or so.

I love the way the students' messy dwelling is depicted, that must have been a fun dorm/club house. The say Miyazaki has retired, but I think he is just looking for a really good script about the protest movement in the 1960s.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Ghibli's The Racoon Wars (1994)

Nope, I'm not going to turn Kurashi into a Ghibli fan club, but this is a film I very much wanted to see so when it suddenly appeared on Youtube I was delighted. Pom Poko tells the story of Tama New Town and its "development" in the late 1960s, from the point of view of the racoon dogs living in the huge forest there. Soon, there wasn't much space left for them, or any other living creatures either.

What's so great about Ghibli is the way they incorporate ancient Japanese myths into modern tales. I didn't know that tanuki, the racoon dogs, were such a prominent part of folk tales here, and that they are said to have transformation skills. Watch some anime, learn a lot.

But while it is also a very sad story, it encourages us to fight, perhaps violently, but more cleverly. Anime and "comics" in the West - I'm looking at you, Disney - creates fluffy make-believe with romance and happy endings only. Frozen seems to be just the latest in a long line of popular masterpieces mentally disturbing kids all over the world. Disney's Jungle Book (1967) was planned to be much more dark and sinster, something Walt Disney didn't want for a family movie.

Anyway, having recently read Kipling's The Jungle Book(s), I was delighted that his real stories are much more Ghibli-like, giving me hope that there could be a re-make of the original film - by Studio Ghibli, of course! Kipling's novel is exactly this: animals reacting to human folly and exposing the hidden magic of the life of all the creatures in the wilderness.

Tama New Town didn't turn out so bad in the end, and The Racoon Wars (Pom Poko is the confusing English title, the Japanese original is 平成狸合戦ぽんぽこHeisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko or The Heisei-era Racoon Dog War Ponpoko) ends making me feel a little better, in spite of it all. I like how it takes a stand, showing environmentalists and tree huggers in a good light and yes, by 1994, there are still racoon dogs around as Wikipedia notes

They blend into human society one by one, abandoning those who cannot transform. While the media appeal comes too late to stop the construction, the public responds sympathetically to the tanuki, pushing the developers to set aside some areas as parks. However, the parks are too small to accommodate all the non-transforming tanuki. Some try to survive there, dodging traffic to rummage through human scraps for food, while others disperse farther out to the countryside to compete with the tanuki who are already there.

In a touching coda, one day, Shoukichi, who also joined the human world, is coming home from work when he sees a non-transformed tanuki leaping into a gap in a wall. Shoukichi crawls into the gap and follows the path, which leads to a grassy clearing where some of his former companions are gathering. He joyfully transforms back into a tanuki to join them. In an emotional final scene, Shoukichi's friend, Ponkichi addresses the viewer, asking humans to be more considerate of tanuki and other animals less endowed with transformation skills, and not to destroy their living space; as the view pulls out and away, their surroundings are revealed as a golf course within a suburban sprawl.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Drone Footage of Amazing Islands in Kagoshima, Japan 4K (Ultra HD) - 鹿児島

Ancient Trees

There is, I'm told, an ancient Greek proverb, that is most likely much more ancient than the Greeks, that adores the man who plants a tree in which shadow he will never sit.

I have been to Yakushima three times, and there are some very old cedar trees there, but also many stubs, as temples had to be built in Kyoto and such places. There is even the memory of a certain Buddhist monk who educated the islanders that felling ancient trees was not a sin. I wonder what he personally gained from such advice. How tragic for the ancient trees, but, perhaps the monk was more concerned about the welfare of the human souls trying to survive on that remote Satsuma island.

I got a small bonzai peach tree on a visit to Mito, in Ibaraki prefecture. It is a famous site, and I was happy to have the tiny tree in its Mito pot in my garden. Then I planted it and it took root, and by now several years later, the tree has grown to about three meters tall. What a joy for that tiny bonzai plant. I cut some branches earlier this winter, I'm looking forward to its pretty flowers that signal the early event of spring. But really, I wish I had more fruit trees, and what we Westerners tend to think of as useful, rather than poetic, or make that something connected to the ancient lust for lyrics...

I loved this story over at the Mainichi, about some 800 year old orange trees that still "produce" ie the live their lives to the fullest. Great reporting and I may even go and try to get a mikan or two in Ginza (nope, can't afford it!)

'Miraculous' 859-year-old mandarin trees still producing bumper crops in Oita Pref.

TSUKUMI, Oita -- The mandarin orange trees standing on a gentle slope in this city's Kamiaoe neighborhood have survived a lot in their lives, now in their 859th year. In that time, the oldest "ko-mikan" (small mandarin) trees have been assaulted and nearly killed repeatedly by winds and storms, but some deep vitality always pulls the venerable old trees back from the brink to live and thrive again.

Today, their owner treats them with the loving care of a doting parent, and the oranges are sold at a high-end fruit shop in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district as charms for longevity and a healthy line of descendants.

There are 11 of the old trees in the orchard, each a few meters tall, and they are known familiarly as "Ozaki's ancestor trees," based on the name of a local district. Owner Naoyuki Kawano, 65, told the Mainichi Shimbun that the trees had been passed down in the family with the instruction never to cut them down or sell them, even if the family sold their home. He added that he treats "protecting the ancestor trees as a life mission."

According to the book "Tsukumi kankitsu-shi" (a history of Tsukumi citrus fruit) written by a group of local ancient historians and published in 1943, among other sources, the orange trees were first planted by Fujiwara Nizaemon in 740 A.D., while he was under house arrest in Tsukumi following a serious military defeat. The trees were then allegedly transplanted to their current location in 1157. They withered after being badly damaged in a major storm in 1612, but some of the branches touching the ground actually took root. The trees grew new buds, and survived.

"Ko-mikan" mandarin oranges from trees said to be more than 800 years old are seen on sale in the Ginza Sembikiya fruit shop in Tokyo. (Mainichi)

Around 1935, there were 48 trees in the orchard, producing 3 metric tons of fruit in good years. They were designated a national natural monument in 1937, but their numbers were thinned badly by bad storms between 1945 and 1949.

Ko-mikan trees usually grow weak after 40 to 50 years, and it's considered very nearly miraculous that this bunch have been producing oranges for more than eight centuries. The closest comparable tree was a specimen in the town of Tsunagi, Kumamoto Prefecture, which had stood for 350-plus years. However, it apparently died more than 10 years ago due to insect damage and other problems.

The Tsukumi trees, too, had a relatively recent close brush with the arboreal Grim Reaper when, about 40 years ago, they were essentially abandoned. Tadashi Mimata, from the prefectural citrus fruit research center, took stewardship of the trees and restored them to health. There was no precedent for tending to such ancient trees, so the work was a hit-and-miss affair. The bark was coated with locally produced milk of lime to protect it from direct sunlight, and holes were dug near the trees and filled with a compost mix to allow them to grow deep, healthy roots. Mimata, now 83, still visits the orchard and tends to the trees.

"These things are far older than me, but they're like my kids," he says. "I won't let them die as long as I am alive to tend to them." Mimata says that he can tell right away if the trees are malnourished just by looking at the bark and leaves. If they're well cared for, the trees can produce 1-1.5 tons of fruit per year, all with a hallmark concentrated sweetness.

Tokyo's Ginza Sembikiya, a high-end fruit shop founded in 1894, has been selling the "mikan from an 800-year-old tree" close to the end of the year for about 80 years. They sell out most years, and "there are a lot of people who really look forward to them and buy them every year. They're a popular item," a shop representative said. 

More ancient trees, anyone?

I published a food book back in 2009 and back around then had a very serious change of thought. If I could not do what I told others to do... Well, I had better give it a try. I started looking around for land to grow vegetables on, and surprise, surprise, one thing led to another. I also started to notice that there were others here who had similar ideas. Not only in rural Japan.

The Keyboard and The Spade is the story of a man who tries to plant trees, or slit-planting. From The New Statesman, I give you:

In the overdeveloped West, technology is making us forget what it truly means to be human.

Slit-planting is the easiest way to plant a bare root tree. It needs to be done in winter, when both the tree and the soil are dormant. We planted ours in February, and it was hard work: harder than I realised at the time. I am writing this in June, and my body still hasn’t recovered. My left arm is partly crippled by tendonitis, and my lower back is bad on some days and not so bad on others. My fingers and wrists begin to ache and tingle if I demand too much from them. This means that the acres of grass I have to scythe on my land are going uncut, and the place is running wild. I think I’m going to need to ask our neighbour to graze his horses in our field again, because I can’t do much else with it this year. My hands and my arms are currently not suited to serious physical work, as a direct result of my winter toils with the trees. That, and over twenty years of typing words like this into computers, which has frazzled the tendons and the nerves in my forearms possibly beyond repair. The spade and the keyboard are very different tools, but one thing they have in common is their ability to break the human body.

We planted around five hundred small trees here on our couple of acres in the west of Ireland. Most of them will end up in our woodstove: the idea is to be self-sufficient in heating as soon as possible. For this purpose, we’ve planted several blocks of birch, poplar and willow, which should have a coppice cycle of six or seven years. On top of that, we’ve put in about a hundred sticks of basket willow, in differing colours. We’ve also planted three hedges of native trees – rowan, more birch, spindle, holly, wild cherry, hazel, oak – to create windbreaks, shield us from the lane in front of the house and make some kind of offering for the birds around here. Perhaps it will distract their attention from our vegetable garden, which they are currently digging up daily.

The real work was in clearing the ground, most of which was covered thickly with a deep tangle of brambles and suckering blackthorns. When we moved to this little patch of land, we came with ideals, and one of them was to do our work by hand, with as little impact as possible. So we laid into the thorns and brambles, which must have been growing for decades, with scythes and mattocks and spades and machetes. It took weeks and weeks. The scratches were deep. The industrial-strength gloves we bought were torn to shreds. More than one mattock handle was broken. I have never seen suckers so thick or long, nor root balls so deep and woody. Even after weeks of clearing the ground by hand, we still had to hire a digger for a day to tear out the deepest of the roots and make the ground fit for planting.

After that, the planting itself was a doddle. To slit-plant a tree, you just push your spade into the ground up to the end of the blade, wiggle it back and forth until you have a wide enough slit and then drop the tree root into it. You cover the ground around the tree with newspaper, and then pile wet straw on top of that to mulch it. Finally, if your land attracts both rabbits and hares, which ours does, you wind a plastic spiral tree guard around the tiny trunk, and fortify it with a garden cane against the Atlantic winds.

Do that five hundred times, and you have a little forest. Better, you have a forest planted in a low-impact and ecological way. You have an endless supply of sustainable fuel for your sustainable household, and you have used minimal dirty fossil fuels in order to create it. You have taken some wasteland and made it into a diverse ecosystem. You have created a closed-loop system, and a mini carbon sink. You have also crippled yourself. But it was worth it.

At least, that’s what I thought I would be telling myself at this stage. But I’m not so sure any more.