Monday, March 21, 2011

The Drift

If Japanese streets are emptier than usual, it's more likely because of the sodden weather than fears of irradiation. Cabin-feverish though we may be, today's national holiday couldn't be better timed. Those of us lucky enough to live outside of eastern Tohoku are depeleted from a week of incessant dread - a hangover minus the happy hedonism that usually precedes the headache.

By now, the excesses of mass-media Cassandras appear obvious even to audiences abroad. The irascible Charlie Brooker did a marvelously caustic take-down of last week's sensationalism. Confessing to some cognitive dissonance from the barrage of conflicting analysis & reportage, Brooker succinctly nailed why all anchors & analysts ought to be taken with a metric ton of salt:
Like most of us, I've no idea whether the fear is exaggerated or not. All I know is that I'm having advanced atomic theory explained to me by people who, last week, were struggling to describe the colour of Kate Middleton's dress.
The chief concern remains assisting the stricken in Tohoku, but throughout the rest of the country, life has largely picked up where it left off ten days ago. From where I sit in central Tokyo, the most immediate threat to my well-being is the precipitous rise in coffee prices.

And so Japan has fallen below the fold. Fair enough that the eyes of the world have drifted elsewhere. Sectarian violence continues in Côte D'Ivoire, the West continues its feeble bet-hedging regarding the democratic uprising in Bahrain, and then of course there's that other oil-rich autocracy descending into blood-swamp anarchy: Libya. Having been a second-banana boogieman for forty years, Qaddafi is finally the world's top-billed despot. If the wanton slaughter of his own citizens wasn't enough to turn news network talking heads, then NATO nations' swift assault on Libya guarantees round-the-clock coverage. After all, when was the last time the French took the lead militarily? That itself is news-worthy.

The speed with which France attacked Libya while fleeing Japan seems paradoxical, but it's all part of Sarkozy's renewed effort to appear authoritative in the run-up to next year's election. Sarkozy's credibility hinges upon his actions in Libya: not only was Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie forced to resign after vocally supporting the since-deposed Tunisian regime, Qaddafi's son is now claiming to have contributed to Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

Furthermore, the French government was "stung by criticism they were slow to react to the crises in Egypt and Tunisia." Not only did this ensure military dick-swinging that would be lauded as bold & assertive, it explains why French citizens were the first to be evacuated from Japan following the hydra-headed disasters of March 11. Sarkozy could afford to be ambivalent towards the tumult in Tunisia and Egypt, but he would not survive being perceived as indifferent to French citizens caught in one of the greatest natural disasters in recorded history. However, now the evacuation seems premature and even the aerial assault upon Libya has been called "impromptu." Instead of swift-thinking and determined, Sarkozy risks appearing like (in The Economist's words) he is "policymaking by impulse and improvisation."

Meanwhile, as the newshounds sniff out new scents, a different kind of drift may be occurring in Japan: intercultural estrangement. This is arguably the first Japanese disaster with international consequences since the Second World War, a side-effect of which will be a warp in Japanese-foreigner relations. As countless others and I have noted many times, Japan is arguably the most homogeneous & xenophobic of developed nations (which is really saying something). As such, it's a delicate high-wire act for both Japanese and foreigners to engage each other's culture without retreating to unflattering stereotypes. The foreign community simply isn't large enough to stake its own turf unapologetically, and the Japanese have to tolerate - however grudgingly - those among them who are different.

So it does neither side much good when foreigners collectively lose their cool and stampede the exits like laggard rats. The libidinous pessimism of western media has been perhaps the biggest push out of Japan:
The heightened sense of fear may be due to foreigners consuming an "unfiltered diet" of panic-stricken Western news and worries that the domestic news isn't trustworthy.
Unfortunately, this media-spawned panic spreads virally from foreigners to the Japanese too. After all, when 3,000 Chinese from Tohoku alone have gone home, and the embassies of Japan's major allies - France, Germany, and America - are all encouraging their citizens to evacuate, of course the Japanese are going to wonder what decisive information foreigners are privy to that they're not. Widespread mistrust of the government's candor has persisted since they took several hours to issue a statement after the first explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, leaving a vacuum the collective imagination filled with all manner of apocalyptic fantasy.

One of my Japanese bandmates told me tonight that I've become the canary-in-the-coal-mine for our circle of friends. During the peak of last week's confusion, he received a phone call from a friend outside of Tokyo:
"You're alright? Is your girlfriend okay?"
"Yeah, we're both fine."
"And Kentaro? Satoshi?"
"Yeah, they're fine too."
"What about Seb? Is Seb still in Tokyo?"
"Uh, yeah."
"Whew! Well, then, we've got nothing to worry about!"
It's nice to know that I'm thought of as a solid judge of circumstance. But the quickly-decamping foreigner has fast become such a stereotype that it's earned its own ignominious bilingual nickname: the "bye-jin". Clearly, the expat community suffers a considerable deficit in credibility. Ergo, another friend has wisely made his cataclysmal barometer a group of old ladies at his local community center - all with long memories and life experience to match. Once they begin to get rattled, it might be time to get the fuck out of Dodge.

But for now, abandoning a country in its darkest hour does not leave much in the way of goodwill. I wonder how little those that have left really have invested in their lives here, and I can't imagine their Japanese friends will be terribly impressed with their fitful selfishness. If actions speak louder than words, then the point at which someone tucks tail and runs speaks with a megawatt bullhorn. The one possible benefit is that those of us who've stuck it, who've neither headed home nor even withdrawn to some western Honshu hotel, could earn some extra respect from the locals for our solidarity & stoicism.

Who knows. Depending on how this whole episode finishes, our stoicism might very well end up being stupidity & sloth.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Situation Normal, Albeit Fatigued & Uncanny

The mouse-click marathon through a dozen different news sites is now as essential to our rise-'n'-shine ritual as the first cup of coffee. "Welcome to day eight of our live coverage," the BBC live feed greeted me yesterday. Wow, already a week? It feels more like an impossibly protracted bad day. Imagine how long it feels to the folks up north.

Given the tenuous & mercurial situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, we're all but enslaved ourselves to the news cycle. By the time we've checked our various e-mail accounts, friends' blogs, live streams, and embassy websites, it's time to recommence the rotation - after all, something might have changed in the past four minutes! But a snake can only swallow its tail so far before it wants to vomit. The cost of constant connectivity is ceaseless stress. This paranoia has prompted a mass exodus of foreigners fleeing Tokyo for Kansai and Kyushu - which strikes me as an ill-advised strategy. Not only are hotels out west packed like sardine tins, but what will happen if (god forbid) a major aftershock strikes the other side of the country? The ensuing panic & local strain upon resources would be double what it would otherwise be.

We've already seen how quickly support systems can be stretched to the breaking point by a shell-shocked populace. The above photo, snapped this past Tuesday by my friend Lee, captured a sight common to every convenience store & supermarket in the Tokyo metropolitan region. Everyone now has their pet story of some asshole panic-buying. I saw two young women march out of my local mini-mart with eight loaves of white bread and a half-dozen boxes of Frosted Flakes. A day later, a friend witnessed a single woman lugging 15 kilos of rice through checkout. My neighbour Jonny watched one man sweep a whole shelf clean of tofu, and later saw a couple wipe another store out of their entire supply of diapers. (Maybe all that Wonderbread was giving them the sugar-shits?)

Selfish shoppers, however, have marked the nadir of post-catastrophe panic in Japan. Many an overseas commentator has noted the lack of looting, rioting, or other such bedlam that typically rides disaster's coattails. Explanations for the near-undisturbed order of Japanese society have tended to note the culture's homogeneity, immense pride, and innate collectivism. (There's also the ubiquity of authority figures, both legal and, er, other.) But Jonny feels these interpretations ignore the taciturn unease that can be felt around the city: "This feels more like resignation than stiff-upper-lip stoicism to me." This would explain all the panic-buying minus the panic; it does feel as though we've surrendered to the dull inevitability of the worst-case scenario and are merely acting accordingly.

For sure, Japan has suffered a miscellany of worst-case scenarios over the past century. The relative calm of the Japanese amidst misadventure may be part Pavlovian, part harrowed familiarity, but it certainly doesn't stem from an abiding faith in state power. Mistrust of the government has clearly crested when even MTV is accusing Prime Minister Kan of diffidence. Emperor Akihito's five-day-late* televised address provided the perfect analogy to the country's administrative & corporate leaders: in a suit more rumpled than Japan's topography sat an aged man, shielded by privilege and power, with a prehistoric grasp of P.R. offering platitudes instead of strategic substance.

There's certainly panic to be found if you're looking for it - just not amongst the Japanese. Thousands of foreigners have either fled westward or are seeking safe passage out of the country. On Tuesday, the French were the first to loudly shit themselves by calling for their citizens to evacuate; the Germans weren't far behind, spurred by scaremongering news sources like Der Spiegel.

Which brings me to the current bête-noir of every foreign resident: alarmist mass media. To hear it told by the Western media, everyone not yet dead is vomiting blood from radiation poisoning and this airborne death will gradually blanket the globe, crippling mankind and leaving us vulnerable to invasion by Venusians who will kill your grandmother and punch your baby in the face.

By now, every foreigner I know has received a frightened & tearful phone call or e-mail from abroad, pleading with them to leave the country. What else would our families think when every report suggests an outcome of, at best, a cancerous time-bomb, or at worst, "bigger than Chernobyl." Consequently, there's been a massive push-back amongst local bloggers to combat media delerium, emphasizing the relative (and it is relative) normality reappearing across the country. After all, how immediately desperate can the situation be when Japan's already been replaced by Libya, Bahrain, and Côte D'Ivoire for above-the-fold coverage?

Yesterday, my wife & I strode out across Western Tokyo to assess the level of local pandemonium that CNN et al. were reporting.

As you can see, it was utter ataxia, total societal dissolution. Granted, there's an uncanny pall created by the number of still-shuttered shops; electrical shortages have dimmed the neon glare and silenced commercial loudspeakers. But by the most important measures, life continues undaunted.

The most infuriating side-effect of the nuclear neurosis is that it's distracting from the true disaster still unfolding in Tohoku. So displaced is the world's worry that donations are currently a measley sixth of the amount pledged towards the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Of course, playing up the nuclear problem appeals to the solipsism & self-interest of the West: what happens when/if the radiation hits there? Could a similar catastrophe strike their nuclear facilities? News outlets can't sell ad placements at premium prices while reporting that the Fukushima meltdown is strictly a localized danger. Meanwhile, the American government (and others hoping to avoid Katrina-style embarrassment) is covering its ass by overplaying the urgency of the situation - while nevertheless requiring disaster-stricken American citizens to pay for their own evacuation. Consequently, as opposed to helping the suffering in Tohoku, many in the West are crying narcissistic Chicken Little, weaving the calamity into their own twisted agendas, or retreating into masturbatory navel-gazing.

The bottom line is this: there are 50 selfless workers literally giving their lives to ensure that the nuclear problem remains a limited & local one, while over 10,000 victims remain unaccounted for and 380,000 people have been left homeless. There is little, if any, clean water, fuel, or electricity in Tohoku. These people need help, not impotent hand-wringing.

As for the rest of the country, we're no longer waiting for the other shoe to drop. We've got our lives to get back to, though after a full week of confusion & tragedy, it's nice simply to stop and smell the roses. Or ume blossoms, as the case may be.

* - Interesting trivium: this is also how long it took George W. Bush to reach New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Shuffle-Play in Dark Days

We're at a bit of a loss for what to do. On the one hand, there's elevated amounts of Godzilla snot floating over Tokyo; on the other hand, the UK's chief science adviser and a moron who once declared war on crows say that it's perfectly safe to be out & about. What's a media-gorged foreign resident to do?

But, happily, our ward is currently exempt from the rolling blackouts, so we've the internet & a handsome record collection to keep ourselves occupied as we fortify ourselves against radioactive intoxicants with spinach (high in iron!) and hard liquor (a.k.a. "The Chernobyl Method").

...Hey, another aftershock! Ain't no party like a tectonic party because, evidently, the party don't fucking stop.

Anyway, in our idle hours under self-imposed house arrest, we've come up with a kind of apocalypse playlist, reproduced below. Each link leads to a YouTube clip, so you can enjoy each song discretely.

And the Earth Died Screaming

1. AC/DC - "You Shook Me All Night Long"
2. Tom Waits - "Misery Is the River of the World"
3. The Fall - "Lay of the Land"
4. David Bowie - "Panic in Detroit"
5. Tricky - "Aftermath"
6. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - "City of Refuge"
7. Talking Heads - "Life During Wartime"
8. Kraftwerk - "Radioactivity"
9. Loop - "Burning World"
10. Black Sabbath - "Into the Void"

Postscriptual Requests
11. James Q. "Spider" Rich - "Yakety Sax"
12. Spacemen 3 - "Things'll Never Be the Same"
13. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - "Cabin Fever"
14. John Lennon - "Nobody Told Me"
15. The Mothers of Invention - "Any Way the Wind Blows"

Tuesday Morning Theme For Japan's Pacific Coast

I can't tell if I'm being ironic or not.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pick Up the Pieces

Well, I was about two edits away from completing posts about the ongoing guitar-solo battle and America buttoning up its brownshirt - but given current local circumstances, both those topics seem, if not irrelevant, low-priority.

When the quake hit Friday afternoon, it took me about 20 seconds to realize this was not an average tremor: instead of the normal side-to-side shimmy, the ground was undulating in an unnervingly fluid manner. That it hadn't stopped after 20 seconds was an even worse sign. Not wishing to die pancaked under concrete, I dashed out into the street. I couldn't immediately tell quite how frightened I should've felt: my neighbourhood is populated largely by stoics, slackers, and seniors, all of whom were stolidly standing around watching the streetlights & stop signs rattle and groan. Taxi cabs and bicyclists obstinately struggled to steer straight as the asphalt warped beneath their wheels. Was this a fucking disaster or not?

Once the shaking stopped, I ran back inside to find my apartment totally intact - a minor miracle, considering its seemingly-shoddy construction and our laissez-faire approach to storage. Returning to my computer, I noticed my Caltech scientist friend had just logged on. I broke the news, to which he replied with the appropriate amount of incredulity:
me: Dude, we just had the biggest earthquake I've ever felt.
Scientist Friend: !!!
you ok?
hasn't shown up on my feed yet
me: No, I mean like JUST hit.
Scientist Friend: oh shiiiit
We then spent the better part of an hour swapping links & updates as information began flooding in... 7.9, epicenter near Sendai, 8.8, tsunami warnings, 8.9, the largest earthquake in Japan's history. This was a fucking disaster.

Wow, what an grossly unsuitable turn-of-phrase I just used. "Flooding in..." Less than an hour after the quake, I sat slack-jawed & stupefied watching live coverage of tsunamis bulldozing whole towns along the Pacific coast. There's no point in trying to describe the sight. Not only has the 24-hour news cycle chiseled these images into everyone's retinas, but there's no joy in, uh, eloquently and succinctly relating the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands of people.*

Having had my fill of calamity-porn infotainment, I stepped out for some fresh air. The streets were eerily empty for a Friday evening. With mass transportation at a stand-still, everyone was still stuck at work. The signs of catastrophe were quietly obvious, as most shops were either shuttered or sweeping up their shattered wares. (As unpleasant as it is clearing away smashed liquor bottles or ceramics, I can't imagine how exasperating it must be to tidy up a pachinko parlour after an earthquake - ball bearings all over that sumbitch...) A couple of billboards threatened to fall from their perches. The ferroconcrete facade of one shop had collapsed, exposing the building's dainty wood skeleton. But mercifully, Koenji had escaped the quake largely unscathed.

Later Friday night, my wife & I were interviewed by CBC Radio as "eyewitnesses" to the disaster. We were dramatic enough to keep our account interesting, while at the same time emphasizing how little we could justifiably complain. Our misadventure wasn't a pale shade of the terror experienced by residents up north. We were speaking from a heated apartment with hot coffee and clean socks - how bad off could we really be?

Yesterday was a gorgeous blue-sky day with the resiny chill of early spring in the air. A friend & I enjoyed a lengthy hike across Western Tokyo to cure ourselves of cabin fever and the lingering stink of apocalyptic presentiment. However, whatever cheerfulness we'd won during the walk evaporated upon arrival at a friend's house, where we learned that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor had just popped its top. Our immediate course of action was obvious: start drinking like a bastard and pray the jet stream would whisk any & all radioactive toxins up over Siberia, because fuck reindeer, man.

I was spurred to an early retreat home by sudden rumours of rolling blackouts and supply shortages. I must have been slow off the blocks because already there was not a slice of bread, not a carton of milk to be found in any shop I entered. Faced with such a depleted selection, many shoppers had opted for foodstuffs that would strike a penniless college student as grossly unhealthy: boxes of Frosted Flakes, microwave pasta, chocolate-covered potato chips, and enough six-packs to make the U.S. marine corps plotz. I suppose diabetes kills you slower than starvation.

Today, further steps towards normalcy have been made. Electricity, gas, and water are still running. Bread & milk are back on the shelves and the trains are on time. But again, I speak from the privileged position of the resource-greedy capitol almost 400km from the epicenter. The slowly-unfolding horror of nuclear meltdown continues, and the people of Tohoku are in desperate need of assistance. If you're so inclined, donations can be made to the Red Cross and It may seem unlikely that a first-world nation would so be in need, but remember: this is a first-world whose debt is over twice the value of its GDP with a population so aged that it makes the SCOTUS look like spring chickens. If the West still wants someone to manufacture semiconducters and service the American national debt, then help is absolutely necessary.

* - Having neither a television nor the interest, I haven't really watched CNN outside of hotel rooms until this weekend - wow, I had no idea they were such a lousy network. Not "lousy" meaning "transparently propagandist," à la Fox News, just straight-up bad. They've got analytical prowess of a 10-year-old and the emotional tenor of Woody Allen after a bout of heavy drinking. The spectacle will no doubt reach its faked climax Monday night when Anderson Cooper will stroll around the demolished mise-en-scène where the news used to be, feeling the story at us. Ugh.

And I swear, come Monday, if Stewart or Colbert falls back on one goddamned Godzilla joke...

Friday, March 11, 2011

All Shook Up

Well, I'd have a lot more to say about this if there weren't still aftershocks rattling my apartment. Watching live footage of tsunamis wipe whole towns off the map in Miyagi prefecture. Absolutely terrifying. (Roland Emmerich really is a fucking pornographer, isn't he?)

8.8, they're saying - larger than the Great Hanshin Earthquake of '95, one of the largest in recorded Japanese history. Carl, hope all is well down your end of the country.

This planet is bullshit, man.

Thursday, March 03, 2011


Labour's last stand in Wisconsin, turmoil in Libya, unsubstantiated xenophobia in the financial sector - how much horror can one ingest during the first cup of coffee? How angry can you get at breakfast? For want of any meaningful contribution to the conversation (and to preserve what fewed frayed nerves I've left), I gladly pick up the gauntlet cast by Simon Reynolds for a li'l musical frivolity.

Great guitar solos! Man, what are the odds of anyone under the age of twenty-five joining this debate? If the Great Riff War of 2010 was troubled by the recent restriction of the guitar to a supporting role, then the solo is an expressive mode dead & buried for two straight decades. Perhaps the last memorable moment a guitar stepped front-and-center was Kurt Cobain's minimal reiteration of the verse melody in "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Certainly, guitar solos have forever been stained with the nut-bustin' excesses of '80s metal. Whether you're an eyebrow-arching ironist or an melodramatic raconteur, the human voice is an unmediated, more easily-understood means of expression. You're not going to talk through your guitar. (With due respect to the possible exception of Stephen Malkmus.)

Yet many of my favourite guitar solos came after the finger-sports Olympics of the 1980s. This is partially due to my age: 1990 was the first year I paid attention to contemporary music in a conscious way. Granted, the window hadn't quite closed on masturbatory machismo at that time. Slash & Kirk Hammett were unarguably the most popular guitarists on the planet, and the friend who first encouraged me to pick up the instrument was still spending his days deciphering the flurried fretwork of Steve Vai and Nuno Bettencourt. But such pyrotechnical playing was a bridge way too far for an eight-year-old still struggling to form a bar chord. It also struck me as a kind of silly - but silly in that awkward way that is totally unaware of how silly it actually is. If I was going to go silly, I wanted to enjoy it overtly.

Enter Primus. My parents, bless 'em, bought me The Beavis & Butthead Experience on cassette for Christmas '93. A bunch of my favourite bands were on the dodgy cash-in compilation (Nirvana, Anthrax, et al.), but what seized me by the cerebellum were the first two tracks on the second side: "I Am Hell" by White Zombie and "Poetry & Prose" by Primus. White Zombie were gloriously coarse, like Metallica deprived of any artistic pretense, and Rob Zombie had the most resolutely unpleasant voice I'd heard - mesmeric in its repulsiveness. (You can imagine how excited I was when I finally heard Ministry six months later.) But Primus were just baffling: a nasal redneck spitting syllables at auctioneer speed over the Ren & Stimpy house band. And what was up with the guitar solo (which hits around the 1:30 mark)...

This fleet-fingered loon was desperately snatching notes all over the neck and grabbing the wrong one every time. I had no idea what to make of it. I'd never heard playing so willfully unhinged.

...That is, until I discovered Marc Ribot and Frank Zappa. Evidently, Larry Lalonde's two greatest influences were even further out in orbit that he was. Ribot's playing, particularly his more restrained performances behind Tom Waits, was what I thought the blues should sound like: gnarled, lacerating, and not quite on key. His solo on Waits' "Way Down In the Hole" has long been a favourite.

And Zappa - well, the first spin of Zappa's Apostrophe(') was my Damascene moment as a young musician. As I've written before, "it defied every rule that Top 40 radio had imposed on my impressionable mind: it was virtuosic but hilarious, it was orchestral but whimsical, it was psychedelic but cynical." His guitar playing was stupefying, especially for its near-total aversion to rhythmic regularity. Many people find his three-volume instrumental tome Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar overly indulgent, but I still think the opening salvo of "Five Five Five" is a terrifying piece of modernist improv.

After my prog-head period, I began gravitating towards more textural, deconstructive guitarists like Kevin Shields and Ian Williams. Still, players whose concepts exceeded their chops can surprise with the occasional searing solo, like Lee Renaldo's fuzzy freakout in "Kissability" or Chris Woodhouse's confounding blitzkrieg during the late, great Mayyors' "Metro". And I have to admit, two-meter sentient phallus though he may be, Billy Corgan killed it during the solo on "Zero".

But, as so often comes to pass with rock history, you gotta go old school for honest-to-god, as-yet-unmatched genius. The solo that scorched, then salted the earth so that nothing could grow in its wake was Robert Fripp's six-stringed exorcism on Eno's "Baby's On Fire". There's hardly a more exciting three-minute instrumental span in rock music, and its serrated howl echoes in every other solo I've cited above. Every time I listen to it, I simultaneously want to throw off my instrument in futile disgust and to kick on the Big Muff and run through Lydian scales until my fingers bleed.

Your move, Mr. Neville.