The man who hired himself out to do next to nothing

Have you ever dreamed of just giving up? Doing nothing? Shoji Morimoto went ahead and did it: so much so that he didn’t even write the memoir that bears his name. Rental Person Who Does Nothing is the story of how he stopped working as a freelance writer and offered himself – just his basic presence, no extras – to strangers in Tokyo, being paid only travel expenses to do nothing, or more accurately next-to-nothing, from waiting in queues to watching people work. The book, he explains in the foreword, is the fruit of conversations with a writer, S (‘not a particular fan of Rental Person’), and an editor, T.

The trials of a Tokyo housewife: Mild Vertigo, by Mieko Kanai, reviewed

Natsumi lives in a modern flat in Tokyo with her husband and two young sons, her life comfortable but circumscribed by the tedium of household chores. Washing dishes in the sink, she finds herself transfixed, gazing at the ‘rope of water’ falling from the tap, twisting like a snake: ‘There was something Sisyphean in the nature of the roster of simple domestic tasks… never an end in sight.’ Things are at once too easy and too much for her; the kitchen is so perfect she hesitates to spoil its pristine condition and ends up buying ready-cooked meals, her life shrunk to what seems stifling captivity.   She memorises the layout of

Farewell, Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s unloved leader

Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga has fallen on his sword. Suga announced today that he will not be seeking reelection as leader of his party (the LDP), in effect resigning as prime minister in the process. The decision came without warning but wasn’t a huge surprise: Suga’s government is polling horribly at the moment and it was feared that the dour and unpopular leader would be a significant drag on his party’s prospects in the upcoming general election. Suga’s farewell after just a year in the job makes it feel like the good old days again, when a revolving door at the prime ministerial residence in Nagatacho saw Japanese premieres enter and exit

Was the Tokyo Olympics a success?

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Prime Minister, is a hard man to read. He has a sum total of one facial expression and lives up to the national stereotype of inscrutability. Still, I’m pretty sure I know what was going through his mind at the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday night: ‘Thank God, that’s over.’ The games were not the disaster that many, including this writer, feared. Two weeks’ ago in Coffee House I wondered if Tokyo 2020/1 would be the worst ever Olympics – and for a brief panicky period, when an astonishing 11th hour cancellation was mooted, that actually looked optimistic. But in the end, the show

The strange veneration of Simone Biles’s Olympic exit

An opinion columnist should have some self-awareness in life. When your job is to sit behind a laptop droning on about politics, for example, one should be very careful before casting aspersions on the mental and physical performance of one of the most decorated Olympians of all time. Simone Biles, who transcended poverty and abuse to become in all likelihood the greatest gymnast ever, with 19 gold medals in World Championships, clearly has nothing to prove when it comes to mental toughness and physical excellence. You can’t hurl yourself head over heels, through the stratosphere, in front of millions of viewers, without both — never mind doing it better than

The dangers of post-Covid isolationism

There is something bizarre about a sporting event designed to bring people and nations together but from which spectators have been excluded. Most foreigners are currently forbidden from setting foot inside Japan, let alone inside the Olympic stadium. In many senses, Tokyo 2020 — which like the Uefa Euros retains its original name, despite a year’s delay — encompasses the worst of our pandemic-ridden world: the global elite can attend while the rest of us have to settle for watching it on TV. Yet a successful Olympics — even a week in, it looks as if the Tokyo Games will be judged a kind of success — could provide the

What’s changed since the last Tokyo Olympics?

Waiting Games What did Japan, and the world, look like the last time Tokyo held the Olympics in 1964? — As this year, Tokyo had to wait to hold the Games. It was awarded the 1940 Olympics, but the offer was withdrawn after the Japanese invasion of China (before the 1940 Games were abandoned altogether). — South Africa was banned for the first time for refusing to send a single, multiracial team to the Games. — In spite of it being three years since the building of the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany entered a single ‘united’ team. — They were the first Games broadcast around the world by

The ancient Greeks had no time for losers

Every red-blooded Englishman has believed that exercise in the open air is the finest prophylactic against popery, adultery and the fine arts. Baron de Coubertin, who dreamt up the modern Olympic Games, took a different view. He admired the spirit of games on the playing fields of Eton and thought that they might provide a model for games of the sort he imagined the ancient Greeks enjoyed at Olympia: competitive but amateur, fair, wholesome, played for the sake of it and also, he hoped, acting as a stimulus to world peace. Up to a point, Lord Copper. The Olympic Games, founded in 776 bc, celebrated Zeus, god of Mount Olympus,

Blood on the tracks: the unsolved murder of the Japanese railway chief

‘There is no end to influence,’ says Harold Bloom in his seminal 1973 work, The Anxiety of Influence — and without getting into the detail of his argument, we can say that the impact of having read and admired others is always an issue for all but the most naive writers. And while Bloom’s attempts to ‘de-idealise our accepted accounts of how one poet helps to form another’ may seem a far cry from the workings of the current literary thriller, even a passing consideration of the influence of James Ellroy, master of LA noir, on his admirer David Peace quickly raises some interesting questions on how we perceive authorship,

Philip Patrick

Even a robot assistant can’t help you make sense of Japan

Tokyo The late A.A. Gill, in his notorious ‘Mad in Japan’ essay, concluded that the only way you could make sense of Tokyo was to think of it as a vast open-air lunatic asylum, with inmates instead of residents. Gill would have loved Arisa. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything more stereotypically Japanese than Arisa. She’s a multilingual robot concierge at Nishi-Shinjuku station in central Tokyo, one of the thousands of new automatons installed in the city ahead of the Olympics next month. She has a rather creepy Doctor Who look to her — she could be Davros’s girlfriend — and she’s there to assist tourists. I considered testing

Japan Olympic chief resigns over sexism. But did he have to go?

Yoshiro Mori the 83-year-old former Japanese prime minister has resigned from his position as president of the Tokyo Olympic Organising Committee less than 6 months before the games are due to start. Mori’s crime? Making spectacularly unwise comments during a discussion of how to increase women’s representation on the committee. ‘When you increase the number of female executive members, if their speaking time isn’t restricted to a certain extent, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying,’ he was reported as saying. Along with a litany of other problems and embarrassments, Mori is the second senior Olympic official to quit due to a scandal. Mori-gate bookends neatly the resignation of the

Is it all over for the Tokyo Olympics?

Any long-term resident of Japan will know that ‘reading the air’, as the locals put it, is an essential skill for understanding what is really being communicated behind the glossy lacquer box patina of courtesy and understatement of Japanese discourse. Bad news is never expressed directly and you need to decode the subtle hints embedded in seemingly anodyne comments to get to the truth. For example, if a Japanese doctor ever tells you ‘it’s hard to say’ when you ask about your test results, it might be time to start getting your affairs in order. As for the Tokyo Olympics 2020/21 (a saga approaching the length and complexity of the

An unquiet life: There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, by Kikuko Tsumura, reviewed

Kikuko Tsumura is a multi-prizewinning Japanese author whose mischievously deceptive new novel takes us into what purports to be the office world of Tokyo. The routine at first seems familiar, but intriguing disparities emerge: the present is also a foreign country. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job gives us the minutiae of everyday working life — but not as we know it. Think Diary of a Nobody without the Pooterish self-regard. Or Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine, freed from lunchtime restrictions. A burnt-out young woman wants a job without responsibility — no stress, no demands. First up: a surveillance assignment observing a novelist suspected of receiving contraband goods. Via hidden

Is Yuriko Koike the Nicola Sturgeon of Tokyo?

Few politicians have come out of the corona crisis as well as Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. As the face of the metropolitan area’s official response to the pandemic, the 68-year-old former cabinet minister has won plaudits for her nightly face-masked updates and guidance briefings. For her efforts, she was rewarded with a landslide in last week’s gubernatorial election. But with a recent surge in cases in the Tokyo area, Governor Koike has become embroiled in a war of words with the national government that could have long-term implications. The latest infection figures in Tokyo (which have risen to around 150 cases a day) have alarmed many, but as ever with

Japan’s Covid success is a mystery

Japan’s Covid ‘State of Emergency’ is now officially over. Tokyo, the last of Japan’s 47 prefectures to be officially released from restrictions, was declared safe(ish) on Monday, meaning its cautious three-step programme of reopening all commercial premises and entertainment venues can begin. The war over Corona may have been won here, but with a host of competing theories and interested parties hoping to claim credit, the battle to decide how it happened is just beginning. Japan’s official death toll from Covid-19 has not yet reached 1,000. This is in a country of 126 million people with densely packed cities, where people live a cheek-by-jowl existence on public transport, in compact