Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Reactions - August 2008"

Towards the end of the day at work, I began to imagine myself going out to Mt. Takao. The closer to quitting time, the more it seemed like a good idea, so after work, I took a Keio Line Jun-Tokkyu train ("Limited Special Express"; one step slower than a "Tokkyu", or Special Express) out as far as I could, before changing to a local train near the end that veers off the main line and goes to the foot of Mt. Takao (Takaozan-guchi Station), and thus began a string of encounters that were ordinary in a way, but conveyed a lot on reflection and in context with the past 24 years I've spent in Tokyo.

There were a number of people who walked across the platform from the express to the local, but after the next stop, most people got off and I became aware of empty seats and a woman (around 20?) sitting next to me. She stood up and walked down the car and took another seat. I thought "I hope that isn't because I smell sweaty or something..." but then I noticed that we were the only two people in that train car, so had to admit that if I were a 20-year-old woman and found myself alone with a post-forty man in a train car, I would either actually move, or at least want to move, so... I couldn't complain.

As the train began the last leg of the trip, I turned around, opened the window, and kneeling on the seat, I contemplated the dark forested mountain passing by outside. Nearly always in the unhealthy glow of florescent lighting, the lack of that much-hated form of lighting (I know - it's energy efficient - but I really hate the quality of light florescent tubes generate) is something I often dream of, but faced with the concept of walking into that light-less (other than whatever light there was from the moon) night forest, I had to admit the attraction of city life as opposed to something more primitive.

As the train pulled into the last station, I shut the window and got off as soon as the sliding doors opened. Exiting the ticket gates, I turned right and walked up the path beneath the trees in the night, with the sky above (not to be taken for granted in Tokyo) to the cable car station. This path was quite nice - just enough light to see, without damaging the ambiance of the night, and just enough other people about that there was no urge to look over your shoulder while walking along a lonely path in the night.

As I neared the cable car station, it was apparent that the cable car was about to depart - and since they don't run very often, I hoped to make it to avoid the wait for the next one. There were three people in front of me - a man and a couple. There was only one ticket machine on (the others turned off because it was late I guess), so by the time I was stuffing a bill into the machine, I heard the chain go up behind the couple, but I grabbed my ticket as it came out of the machine and ran up to the gate "Dame desu ka...?" I asked the guy ("No good?") and he gave me a rather unfriendly look, but wordlessly took the chain down again, so I gave him a "Sumimasen" ("Sorry!") as I had him punch my ticket. Slightly wondering about the scowl and the fact that he had put up the chain after having seem me behind the others, I was nevertheless happy to not be left behind, so I ran to the cable car to avoid any more delay than necessary.

The ride up went about as well as it might - I was lucky to get a standing spot at the back where I could look back down the mountain out of the open window as the cable car climbed. Midway up, a child sitting nearby wanted to stand by the window as well, but their parents told them it was dangerous - which got me to thinking "How? Leaning out a side window can be dangerous, but the back window isn't so low that someone might fall out, and even if you completely hang your head out the window in back, there's nothing to hit it." It's an old fault of mine - I like real reasons, not convenient and lazy lies.

The cable car goes through a tunnel, and then as it begins to climb more steeply, the lights of Tokyo appear from over the top of the mountain that the cable car just passed though. Many of the people in the car seemed to be taking it up the mountain for the first time - while I've done so... ten times? Fifteen times? I'm not sure, but in any case I'm familiar with the ride and exactly when it ends, so as it was coming to a stop, I grabbed my backpack and walked up to the front of the car so I'd been one of the first ones off. Once off, I skipped the (slightly expensive) beer garden and speed walked over to the free benches which still have a pretty decent view. I was pleased to see that one of them was open (on the far right, next to the pay-binoculars), so I sat there and took out the food and drink I'd bought on the way (at a grocery store back in central Tokyo), and put it on the table-like shelf in front of the benches. "Perfect" I thought....

Not long after I sat down, a group in their forties or fifties materialized to my right - and one of the men wanted to put Y100 in the pay-binoculars, but was dissuaded from doing so by someone in the group. I thought "Aw, come on, let the guy give it a try". I have spent my life seeing those pay-to-use binoculars, but have never actually used one (not that I can remember anyway), so I was sort of hoping to see one in action. Since the binoculars were right next to where I was sitting, the man seemed to notice my radio waves, and he looked over - seeing a foreigner, he asked me "Good view?", to which I answered "Tashikani" ("Indeed"), which produced a laugh from the group, which seemed to expect me to be a tourist. One of the men said "Yokeina koto wo shite..." to the man (not easy to translate, but something like "You should mind your own business"). They headed off, and a woman in the group turned around and said "Have a good time", to which I wordlessly nodded. She may have intended it to be friendly, but it didn't feel friendly and I took it to mean something like "You may have gotten one of our expressions right, but you are not one of us." [What's that sound I hear - groaning? Booing? You think I'm wildly imagining things? Whatever - you jump in a time machine, go to 1984 Tokyo, live here for 24 years, and then see if you still have the same opinion. I've met all kinds of people here over the past 24 years - and there are good and bad - just like everywhere in the world.]

After that, I tried to forget about the group who were young in Japan in the eighties, when it was more insular, more xenophobic, and more narrow minded than it is now. As I had some more wine & dried mangoes (I know - weird - but they actually go together for some reason), the happy sounds of a young couple (with the woman pregnant) sitting to my left drifted over and I got back into the mountain vibes....

Later on, the couple stood up, pulled out a camera and proceeded to take their own picture (at arm's length). I considered asked them if they'd like to take their picture, but stopped myself with "They're perfectly able to take their own picture". They took a flash picture, then another, and by their third picture, and with the answer in mind, I said (in Japanese) "You should turn the flash off" - which produced blank stares, so I realized they didn't know how. "Is that an Olympus?" The man continued looking at me, but the woman acknowledged that it was indeed an Olympus (it was her camera I guess), so I told them "It should have a circle of four buttons, with a button in the center of the circle. One of the four buttons should turn off the flash..." The woman found the button, got to the "No flash" symbol, and I said "Now, push the middle button..." which worked.

The setting changed, I asked them if they'd like me to take a picture - which they did, so they handed the camera over. The resulting picture showed the two of them in front of the lights of the city in the background (which the flash pictures didn't). I briefly explained that while the exposure was good, since the flash was off in such a dark place, the shutter speed was bound to be slow. I got them to expand the image a bit to see if it was sharp, or motion blurred. It seemed to be sharp, and they indicated that they liked it (expressing surprise at how bright the picture turned out without the flash). They said their (friendly) good-byes and headed off to the cable car.

I sat there and tried to piece it all together - the more relaxed young generation (with some dangerous hot-head exceptions) and the more up-tight older generation that I've spent 24 years here with (who tend to be more responsible than the current twenties people). Basically, it must just be a situation where some things get better and some things get worse. It's a blazingly-bright obvious concept, but still you expect things to get better without the good parts deteriorating, so it's an unpleasant surprise to discover the loss of an aspect to life that you thought was unshakably constant and solid....

After a while, I noticed a pair of twenties men (probably college students) explaining about camera ISO settings to a group of five twenties women. After the men left, I could hear one of the women asking what they were going on about, and another woman said "something about ISO this and that..." so I ended up (stupidly) jumping up and explaining that the numbers tied in with shutter speeds at f16 (what used to be the smallest aperture on most proper cameras), thus ISO 400 would basically mean 1/400 of a second shutter speed in bright sun at f16. They politely tolerated my lecture and then went on there way - joking that the night was full of camera education. I sat there and thought to myself, "What you did for the couple was good, but jumping up to explain the meaning of ISO settings to the group of five was really a dumb thing to do...".

By and by, I decided to go back down the mountain, so I got on the cable car and ended up talking with a man who was part of a group from the beer garden (on the roof of a building up behind where I was sitting). It was a friendly enough conversation, but he called me a "henna-gaijin" ("strange foreigner") apparently because I spoke Japanese. I used to get that from time-to-time (another eighties thing). If you were comfortable in the culture here and spoke the language, you were strange. If you didn't understand the language or culture, and you bumbled around expecting everyone you came in contact with to help you in English - well... that was a normal foreigner!

Back on a train speeding towards central Tokyo, I sat down and found myself in one of those on-a-stage situations that the bench seats against the windows facing each other generate. There was a group of about five men across from me who were interested in who was sitting across from them - so they were taking surreptitious looks. Not staring mind you, but the interest was in the air and I couldn't relax, so at the next station I casually moved over to another seat without an audience (late night trains headed towards Tokyo are not crowded and you can nearly always sit down - in contrast to the usual situation of always standing.

Back in the city... back to normal....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Hibarigaoka - a Typical Suburb of Tokyo" (August 1991)

One quiet August afternoon in Hibarigaoka, on the mid-western fringe of Tokyo, in suburbia, Lyle's camera flew of his bag, into his hands, and began recording....

It was a typical quiet afternoon - not what you might expect if you had only seen the same area in the morning frenzy of commuters rushing to the station to get to work on time.

In fact, this highlights a mystery of Japan - how people seem to have cast-iron ears at some times (shopkeepers shouting "Irasshaimase!" into customers' faces), and then are hyper-sensitive to noise at other times (a woman living next to a park complained to the city because she could hear the sound of small children playing in the park!).

In any case, the city is actually quite quiet - and certainly much more quiet than a lot of people seem to imagine it overseas.

Anyway - here's a view of August 1991 Tokyo suburbia:

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"Walking the Streets of Ikebukuro in July 1991"

For someone who is sixteen; seventeen years ago is the far distant dark ages before the beginnings of time. For me, it's the other way around. It doesn't seem like enough has happened over the past seventeen years for things to have changed very much, so it keeps coming as a shock to me to notice how different my long-sleeping, recently revived video recordings from 1990-92 (digitized from analogue 8mm tape) look. Without dwelling on the changes too much (or maybe too much, we'll see), here is a description of my video clip (at YouTube) entitled '"Free Tissues, Crosswalks & a Speech" (July 1991)'.

Coming up one of the narrow stairs from the underground part of Ikebukuro Station, walking past a platoon of schoolgirls wearing "sailor" style school uniforms. This was before Japanese school uniforms became - in just a few years - mini-skirts (they had to be below the knee before), and the sailor style uniforms were considered to be the most stylish (and generally used by private schools, while public schools were more conservative).

The most striking part of this section of the clip for me, was the fact that I'm taking pictures while walking up public stairs. Two things have made this an overly dangerous thing to do. Cell phones & mini-skirts. There were several very public incidents of people with cell phones caught taking (or attempting to take) pictures up young women's skirts as they climbed stairs. Several things happened - among them; cell phone manufacturers made cell phone cameras so that they make a rather loud and obnoxious artificial shutter sound form the phone's speaker when a picture is taken; and there was a university professor caught, who was publicly and professionally ruined for his idiotic actions. So I never take any pictures while going up stairs any more (unless the whole flight of stairs is empty)! Best to be on the safe side.

The free packs of tissues (with advertising on the packs). Those haven't changed much. They still pass them out, and they still target certain people when passing them out. Most are for loan companies (or real estate companies) and - generally, not always - they will give them to anyone. The man who reluctantly handed over a pack I later saw very energetically passing them out to women. I don't remember exactly what it was - I have some other video I took of close-ups of tissue packs I'd been given - I'll try to find that and see what they were exactly.

Right where the over-amplified man giving a speech says "Ittai, Nippon wa do natte'ru daro?!" ("What in the world is happening to Japan?!"), I walk past a... monk(?) who is ringing a bell and awaiting donations. You used to see one of these guys pretty regularly, but it's become rather rare. I did see one in Shinjuku a few weeks ago.

Speaking of the over-amplified speech (coming from a loudspeaker truck parked in front of the station - not visible in the clip - with the shouting man standing on a platform built onto the roof), there used to be a lot of those, and they were generally right-wing people urging the country to move to the right. That you don't hear these people in public much these days may have something to do with things having gone to the right somewhat - just as they wanted - so maybe they see no need to make public displays now? I can't quite catch most of what the guy was saying, but there is the sentence very clearly heard that I mentioned in the preceding paragraph, and later on he's saying something about the military.

What else? Fashion and hairstyles I guess - mostly evident with the women. Oh yeah! Many people in 1991 in Japan actually had black hair! So many people (especially women) dye their hair now, that when you see someone with jet-black hair, it's actually striking! "Wow! Look at that! Actually black hair!" If you don't believe me, take a look at the dozens (hundreds maybe?) of shades of hair dye sold in drug stores, and then take a close look at the color of women's hair out in pubic. Another thing you didn't see in 1991, was men with plucked eyebrows and makeup. No comment on that one.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Saturday, August 16, 2008

"Hiroshima - Before 1945, In 1945, and in 2007"

Way back last year, I posted a story about my trip to Hiroshima, and someone asked if there were pictures. I replied that I was working on it and would post something later. So - here is my new page of photos and text about Hiroshima:

I used (with slight editing) some blocks of text from my post a year ago, but also wrote new text to go with the photos. Writing about historical is time-consuming! I spent a lot of time looking into things and still feel like I would like to spend more time researching this - but it's not my goal in life to be a specialist on Hiroshima, so I'm calling it a wrap.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Saturday, August 09, 2008

"Casual World? (Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies)"

I just got through watching the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics (about three hours worth). They were pretty interesting... with lots of fireworks and cultural scenes, music, etc. And then the athletes were introduced at the stadium. It was the usual deal with them parading out in different uniforms/costumes, and waving to the crowd. I was watching absentmindedly when I noticed that one of the athletes was videotaping the stadium with their left hand while waving with their right! And then there was another - and another! Some countries' athletes looked more like camera crews than athletes! In other groups, there was not a camera to be seen. And... what's this? A cell phone! "Look at that! That athlete is walking along like he's in the park, having a conversation on his cell phone! - Hee-hee!" Another athlete came out with a big single lens reflex camera, pausing to focus on things and take pictures! Ha-ha! So much for solemn ceremonies!

And then there were the crowd scenes! As expected, they focused on world criminals... er... leaders... from various countries as "their" athletes walked by, but then there was a large man who stood up, the camera zoomed in on him, and he adjusted his trousers up higher - probably not imagining that he was doing so on countless screens around the world! Another group the camera focused on looked blankly back at the camera, and there was the boy who looked like the long ceremony was almost more than he could bear as his parents got him to (reluctantly) wave for the camera, etc.

So - my first impression was that the world has become loose and sloppy. Partly this seems like a good thing - why not relax? I like taking pictures and I probably would have liked to take a camera out there myself if I had been in their place. But... there's something disconcerting about everyone taking pictures of everything all the time.

Also possibly worth pondering, is regarding the lingering camera close ups on athletes talking on their cell phones, or walking staring into their camera's viewscreen (which most didn't do actually - they just blindly aimed it while looking up at the crowd), makes me wonder a little at whoever was in charge of choosing which camera images to use during the live broadcast, and also at the camera operators who zoomed their cameras in on some of those scenes. Maybe that's what you get with a live broadcast if you put it together with so many cameras? It's no big issue - I had just thought that the opening ceremony would be slightly more formal than that, and that the camera operators would have chosen a different aspect to emphasize. (You don't suppose they're trying to show the world what a relaxed and fun place Beijing is?).

Another thing that occurred to me is that we'll probably be seeing a lot of those personally taken videos on YouTube! Some will be really hard to watch - with the screen at an angle and bouncing up and down.

Well, it's late.

Sore dewa!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Thursday, August 07, 2008

"Defective Learning In - Bad Actions Out"

Watching yet another Nintendo Wii advertisement on the train this morning (one of the two over-door displays runs soundless TV advertising - along with made-for-the-train ads), I contemplated scenes of people standing on a board, playing virtual soccer, walking a virtual tightrope, balancing virtual this or virtual that - and it occurred to me that people are basically giving their bodies & minds defective programming. Standing on a board that is very nearly motionless, they watch a screen showing a soccer ball come zooming in - which they virtually hit by moving their head as though they are knocking it back out onto the field on the screen (no impact, no pain); or virtually ski or perform virtual balancing acts, watching the screen indicating steep angles (while their feet are in fact resolutely parallel to the firm floor of their living room); etc. etc.

Great fun, sure. But what happens to people over time when they have ever less interaction with the physical world and ever more interaction with a heavily flawed virtual world? If kids are on a swing set, they learn what happens when they jump off of a moving swing - how far up they go, how far out, how hard down (Gravity-101). If they climb on a jungle gym, they learn how much time they have to grab a bar if they begin to fall. They learn the pain of hitting their heads on actual steel bars (hopefully not hard enough to be actually dangerous), and they learn a whole range of physical facts related to motion and balance. All real and applicable to other physical things in the world.

Another example of defective learning so obvious, that it is simultaneously laughed off and underestimated - TV & movies. I hadn't thought about this for most things, but a couple of events prompted me to give the concept some serious thought. First there was the incident at Shin-Otsuka Station some ten to fifteen years ago in which a drunk man fell off the platform. A train was approaching the platform and there was no time to do anything, but a man jumped down to help the man who fell, and another man (a friend of the second man) also jumped down. There wasn't time to get out of the way of the train, and all three men were killed under its wheels.

While it's admirable that they wanted to help the man who fell, you have to wonder if they would have committed suicide with him if they had known there was no possibility - even remote - of actually saving him. I have grown up seeing movies in which people are remarkably saved from being hit by a speeding train/truck/bus/car/skateboard/explosion(!)/bullets(!) at the last possible moment. Sometimes it's clear that with the speed of the train/car/bus, whatever, the person would be dead - 100% dead. But no! Rejoice movie viewers! For the laws of physics have been suspended once again, and our hero is saved!

Aside from the fact that I very greatly detest that sort of dishonest trick in movie-making (how much happier the audience is to discover the hero alive after having given them up for dead), after seeing that for two or three or four decades, what sort of answer does your brain throw back at you when you suddenly find yourself in a similar situation, when you need to make a microsecond decision about what to do - as the man who jumped down to save the other guy did? In his case, his brain - in pre-thinking automatic mode no doubt - went with Hollywood screenwriting, and now he's dead. Who knows, maybe the guy had never seen a TV program or movie in his life (coming from a modern society, there's a very slim chance of that), or maybe he would have done it anyway, but you have to wonder.

There was a news story about a man in a parking garage who saw a couple of car thieves beginning to drive off in his car. What to do, what to do.... But of course! Jump on the hood! It always works in the movies! "But wait... these criminals don't look upset that I'm on the outside of the car, looking through the windshield at them... they're laughing at me! Speeding up! Turning on the windshield wipers and washers! Laughing! Swerving and speeding up still more! Oh no...." And the guy ended up pleading for his life - telling them they could keep the car, but please let him live!

There was a hijacking in Japan something like fifteen years ago, in which a man who had spent long hours virtually flying a game airplane took the controls of a 747. The pilot tried to get him to make the necessary actions to keep the plane in the air, so the idiot with the virtual brain and real knife, stabbed the pilot to death and kept on operating the real plane the way he had learned to fly the virtual plane (which was too slow to actually keep a real 747 in the air). Fortunately, there were two off-duty pilots on board who realized that the plane was on the verge of stalling and falling from the sky, so they forcefully broke into the cockpit and wrestled the real idiot with the virtual brain away from the controls, and then flew the plane as it needed to be flown - saving the whole planeload of passengers and crew from certain death (except the murdered pilot).

From live news shows - in helicopter views of real car chases in which someone is trying to speed away from the police in Los Angeles, I've seen several where the car tries speeding straight through a red light and then hits a car in the intersection. Could the adrenaline decision to speed through the red light be influenced by a lifetime of watching heroes speeding through red lights in the movies (and miraculously just making it, while the pursuer doesn't)?

Admittedly, those are mostly extreme circumstances, but my point is that with ever more virtual reality exposure, people are going to be making ever more misinformed and bad decisions, performing sloppy actions that work on electronic sensors in games/machines but don't fly in the real world. Perception is reality? No. Reality is reality. Some reality bites and some doesn't, but what's real is still real, even if people don't realize it.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Monday, August 04, 2008

"The Shinkansen Super Express Trains"

The Shinkansen train system in Japan - for a long time, known only as "the bullet train" - is finally beginning to be known by it's proper name "Shinkansen". The name itself is better sounding than it's translation - "new main/trunk line". (Even in Japanese, "Shinkansen" conjures up images of the train, not the mundane component parts of the name.) Initially, the "bullet train" name made some sense, as the first version of the train looked like a bullet at the front, and was fast like a "speeding bullet" (in comparison to other trains).

I bring this up, because I posted a video at YouTube of one of the original type Shinkansen trains pulling into Tokyo Station in 1991, and then one of the newer (at the time) Shinkansen trains leaving the station. The video also takes a quick walk inside one of the old type train cars and looks into the cab:

And this page has some pictures and information about the current Shinkansen train system:

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon