How to quit like the Japanese

Tokyo For many, the idea of quitting a job they hate, of walking into their boss’s office and telling him or her in no uncertain terms what they think of it (and them perhaps), and then striding out without a backward glance, is a delicious one, a pleasant daydream to be enjoyed on the dreary daily commute. But for the Japanese, the idea of resigning from your company is positively traumatic, so much so that the latest boom industry here is agencies who will take care of the whole messy business for you. For the Japanese, the idea of resigning from your company is positively traumatic There are now dozens

Are we all becoming hermits now?

Long before Covid, wi-fi and Deliveroo, Badger in The Wind in the Willows showed us how to live beyond the manifold fatuities of this gimcrack world. Cosily tucked into his burrow with a roaring fire and well-stocked cellar, he was unbothered by importunate weasels and other denizens of the Wild Wood. He padded his underground realm for six months a year in dressing gown and down-at-heel slippers not just because he was a hibernating animal but out of existential temperament. ‘Badger hates Society,’ explained Rat. But, really, don’t we all? Not for him the ‘Poop! Poop!’ of Mr Toad, always going places and doing stuff. More Badger’s style was the

The problem with westerners seeking oriental enlightenment

Call it a prejudice if you like. Living in Japan in the 1970s, I had a slight aversion to a particular type of westerner. He – for it was mostly a he – usually lived in Kyoto, sometimes wore a kimono and liked to sit in ancient temples chasing after that presumably blissful moment of enlightenment, awakening, satori, or whatever one wishes to call it. These seekers were less interested in Japan as a society of human beings. They wanted to float in higher spheres. As Christopher Harding explains in The Light of Asia, the Zen adepts, the Buddhist chanters, the rock-garden worshippers, the kimonoed fools (in my no doubt

Why are the Japanese so obsessed with the cute?

Joshua Paul Dale is a professor of American literature and culture at Chuo University in Tokyo and a pioneer in what is apparently a burgeoning academic field called ‘Cute Studies’ – or what Damon Runyon might have called ‘Pretty Cute’ Studies, as in ‘“Are You Kidding Me? You Study This?” Studies.’ In fairness, Dale makes a strong case for his subject to be taken seriously. Irresistible is packed with references to all sorts of neuroscientific studies and cultural studies and studies about theories of animal domestication and the evolution of ‘affiliative social behaviour’, which lead Dale to posit that cuteness is a ‘species-wide emotion’. Is it an emotion? I don’t

What Jesus taught us

This is the 47th year in a row that I have written a column for The Spectator’s Christmas issue. It began when I was a young 40-year-old, and is at present being written by an 87-year-old vet. The years have passed in an eye-blink. Recently I asked myself why do bad things happen to good people? (Well, not very good people, but well-intentioned.) This question has occupied thinkers throughout the ages. People who do not believe in a good God should logically have no problem with the existence of evil. In my case, I very much believe in God and it has served me well during a very long and

Unequivocally Japanese: The Premonition, by Banana Yoshimoto, reviewed

Who are you without memory? This is the question that sits at the heart of The Premonition by Banana Yoshimoto, best known for her 1988 novella Kitchen, which was a smash hit in Japan and adapted for film. The Premonition is a similarly slender work and one that casts a delicate spell. Nineteen-year-old Yayoi has the perfect family – doting parents and a brother she adores – but she feels unsettled, as if she’s forgotten something vital in her past: ‘There, in the midst of such a beautiful evening, my heart must have been full of that premonition.’ Looking for answers, she goes to live with her eccentric aunt Yukino,

Arresting visual spectacle and superb fight scenes: Netflix’s One Piece reviewed

What would you say is the most successful comic-book series in history? If you’re thinking Tintin you’re not even close. (Curiously enough, even the now largely forgotten Lucky Luke scores higher.) If you’re thinking Peanuts, you’re getting warmer. And if you named Asterix, good try but that’s only number two. No, the hands-down winner, with total sales exceeding 516 million, is a Japanese manga called One Piece. One Piece? Me neither. It’s quite unusual these days to chance upon a massive cultural phenomenon – the series has been going since 1997, with 1,093 chapters so far – of which one has never once even heard. But this, I suspect, will

The extraordinary – and haunting – life of Lafcadio Hearn

It’s a convoluted title for a book, but then Lafcadio Hearn – a widely travelled author and journalist who earned his greatest fame as an interpreter of Japanese horror stories – led a convoluted life. Born in 1850 from a difficult marriage between an Irish officer-surgeon and a wildly unpredictable noble-blooded Greek woman (his middle name, Lafcadio, was adopted from Lefkada, the name of the island where he was born), he was quickly abandoned by both. His mother ended her life in an asylum; his father remarried and died young of malaria. Hearn went on to be yet again abandoned by the great-aunt who raised him, and spurned by the

The ‘historic’ national dishes which turn out to be artful PR exercises

In 1889, Raffaele Esposito, the owner of a pizzeria on the edge of Naples’s Spanish Quarter, delivered three pizzas to Queen Margherita, including one of his own invention with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, their colours taken together resembling the Tricolore. The Italian queen loved the pizza, and Esposito duly named it after her. In that restaurant today hangs a document from the royal household, dated 1889, declaring the pizzas made by Esposito to be found excellent by the queen. And so was born the Pizza Margherita, a dish now synonymous with Naples. The queen’s seal of approval in the wake of Italian unification, which had proved difficult for Naples, came

Against the grain: why the Japanese are losing their taste for rice

It would be an insult to call rice the staple food of Japan. For centuries it has been so much more than that. In Japan, rice has long been treated with a respect that borders on reverence. The emperor blesses the rice crop each year and in Shinto culture rice and rice-based sake are two of the most common ceremonial offerings to the gods. Rice has supernatural power: the red glutinous variety will protect you from evil and bring good luck. And it must be handled with great care: the worst thing you can do during a Japanese meal is plant your chopsticks in the rice – a symbol, if

What Japanese cities can teach us about architecture

There are three things that occur to you when you travel the length of Japan: that kimonos are surprisingly good for any occasion; that the country’s reputation for cruelty may partly derive from breakfasts comprising tea porridge and prawn soufflé; and that the hordes of camera-wielding Japanese tourists taking thousands of snaps – a comic trope in the 1980s, at least – were really just ahead of their time and the rest of us are only now catching up thanks to our iPhones. First impressions of Tokyo might persuade you that you’ve accidentally fallen into a dystopian future: the march of skyscrapers and mesh of streets sprawls greyly on for the best part of

The wonder of the marine world is in serious danger

Streamlined, musclebound, warm-blooded and with fins that retract into body slots like a switchblade so it can attain swimming speeds of more than 40 mph, the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna is a wonder of the marine world – the Clan Chief of the Scombridae, that can weigh up to 1,500 lb. It has long been prized by sport fishermen, from Charlie Chaplin to the dentist-turned-bestseller Zane Grey, and there is nothing tentative about a tunny strike. In 1927, after a four-hour battle with one eight-foot giant, Grey wrote: ‘If it were possible for a man to fall in love with a fish, that was what happened to me. I hung over

Spooky, classy dystopian sci-fi: Apple TV+’s Silo reviewed

Back once more to our favourite unhappy place: the dystopian future. And yet again it seems that the authorities have been lying to us about the true nature of reality. This time – in Silo – the lie concerns the nature of the world outside the enormous silo in which our heroes and about 10,000 other survivors have been hiding for the past 100-odd years since some nameless apocalypse. Is it really as dangerous as the Powers That Be say? Or is this an illusion, maintained over a century of relentless official propaganda, designed to keep the enclosed populace frightened and in check? Silo began life in 2011 as a

How to spend 48 hours in Hiroshima

Tourism is well and truly back in Japan, with packed flights and full hotels during the popular sakura (cherry blossom) season last month. And from today, all eyes will be on Hiroshima as it hosts the 49th G7 summit – an event that Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has promised will showcase the ‘charms of our country’. So what can visitors expect from the city best known as where the world’s first atomic bomb was used in warfare in 1945? While Tokyo will no doubt be top of the to-do list for anyone on a flying visit to Japan, during a recent tour of the country it was western Honshu,

Letter from Taiwan: life in the shadow of ‘The Bully’

The Grand Hotel sits on the outskirts of Taipei, at the edge of Yangmingshan national park. Overlooking the city, the 14-storey building is designed like a Chinese palace. It was built in the 1950s to host dignitaries when Taiwan was under authoritarian rule. Today it operates as a five-star hotel and is open to tours from the public. Photos of foreign leaders and celebrities who have visited are displayed on the walls: Bill Clinton in 1979; Elizabeth Taylor the same year; Nelson Mandela in 1993. If this were any other hotel, you’d think it was simply boasting about its clientele. But there is something far more poignant about this display

Deeply moving but bleak: Plan 75 reviewed

Plan 75 is a dystopian Japanese drama about a government-sponsored euthanasia programme introduced to address Japan’s ageing society. Aged 75 or over? Agree to die and we’ll give you $1,000 to spend as you like in your last days! With a collective funeral thrown in for free! Actually, it’s not sold aggressively like that, as this is an understated film. But, despite the hopeful ending, it is so sad and bleak that if you didn’t feel minded to take $1,000 before, you may feel like taking it afterwards. You could spend it on a spa break and a deluxe sushi platter, which is one of the options, if that takes

Japan’s role in the making of modern China

49 min listen

Just before Christmas, it was reported that the billionaire Jack Ma had moved to Tokyo after getting into trouble with the Chinese authorities. If he’s still living there, he’d be one of several well known Chinese who seems to have made Japan their home after run ins with Beijing. In so doing, they’re following in the footsteps of those who came over a century ago – other Chinese exiles who holed out in Japan because of a hostile political environment back home. This episode is all about how important it was that Japan served as a safe haven for these exiles – both reformers and revolutionaries – at the turn

Another grim reminder of Japan’s violent politics

Has Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida just survived an assassination attempt? Kishida was evacuated from the site of a stump speech in the fishing port of Sakizaki in Wakayama western Japan after what appeared to be a pipe bomb was thrown in his direction. No one was injured but people fled in terror after the attack, which occurred at around 11:25 AM shortly before the PM was due to speak. A man was wrestled to the ground clearly holding a cylindrical metal object identical to the one thrown at Kishida before being arrested and taken away.  That’s as much as we know for now. It is not clear yet whether the ‘explosive’ was capable of killing anyone. From dramatic footage of the incident a loud

Is Japan doomed?

Japan is heading for trouble, the country’s prime minster Fumio Kishida has suggested. ‘Our country is on the brink of being unable to maintain the functions of society,’ he said in a speech earlier this week. Japan’s birth rate, the average number of children a woman will have, is too low, and still falling. It’s 1.3, and needs to be 2.1 to keep the population stable. With every year that passes, there are hundreds of thousands fewer Japanese people.  Economics is mostly to blame. Once, there was a secure and predictable life was for the average Japanese person. The men would toil away at a big company in return for the assurance of

Why did North Korea fire a missile over Japan?

It was a new dawn, a new day, and a new North Korean missile test. The land of the morning calm – as South Korea is affectionately-nicknamed – awoke to the launch of the fifth North Korean ballistic missile in ten days. Over the past ten months, the international community has become accustomed to a growing number of North Korean missile launches, of an increasingly diverse range of missiles. Kim Jong-un’s determination for North Korea to become a nuclear state, and be recognised as such is only heightening. Russia and China are now more reticent than ever to side with the West and support sanctions on North Korea Last night’s