Sakura Memorial

This week, April 10 Memphis time marked the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. This week, the remains of the sakura blossoms snowed down on gentle winds, piling up in pale pink drifts, their trees gradually yellowing with growing leaves and blending back into the landscape. Sakura-fubuki they call it, “cherry blossom blizzard.” (Try googling images of 桜吹雪.)


On the morning of the 11th, still the 10th in Memphis, I dashed into the restroom at work before the 8:30 bell rang to deal with my inevitable post-commute hair, and I found that a sakura petal had chosen my head as its final resting place.

I carefully unwound my hair from around it. As I did, I remembered the wad of bubblegum, only a slightly deeper pink, that my mother had cut from my hair one morning when I was six or seven. I had sobbed for my lost locks, furious that I had fallen asleep with the gum in my mouth. Everyone at school would know!

Then I remembered another hair-pruning that Mother (still “Mama” then) did a few years later. A tick had implanted itself in my scalp on a camping trip and had gone unnoticed by me until I got home and found it bloated and knotted firmly in place. This time, I didn’t care about the hair. In fear and revulsion, I begged for Mama to get it out of me, no matter what the sacrifice to vanity–which I didn’t have much of as a preteen tomboy.

Back in the present, I dropped the sakura petal into the tiny restroom garbage can. A wave of bittersweet sorrow for my gentle mother flowed over me. Then I dashed back out to get to my office area in time for the morning circle meeting.

Last week, my older brother, my oni-ani, came to experience Osaka and its environs in sakura season. If you only visit Japan once in your life, try to visit when the sakura bloom. Other places in the world abound in varieties of blossoms and bulbs that revel in the annual return to life. But Japan is about sakura. A couple of hundred years ago, the strict Tokugawa shogunate even reduced it from sakura in general to one variety from one village, the Somei Yoshino. This is the delicate, cloud-like bloom that now ices the country’s avenues and hillsides. The nation blushes. It becomes a young girl’s birthday cake.



Variety has its wild and rampant beauty, but uniformity, when done right, washes your soul in soft sea of understated glory that can change you forever. Japan does it right.

Before my oni-ani came, my heart sank when I heard that Tokyo’s trees had blossomed a week early. Every day I watched the buds bulging out in Osaka, willing them to stay inside their bursting cocoons just a few days longer.

The trees at my office building burst open simultaneously, transforming my gray, industrial office building into a lacy fairyland. These were all planted from the same tree so that they bloom, and later leaf simultaneously. They melt my heart. I badged in the gate in the morning with my head thrown back and my jaw dropping open at their glory. Most employees marched forward with their normal, bland, ready-for-work faces, but a few other people stopped in wonder, too.

But when the flowers opened almost to full bloom (mankai, 満開), and then started snowing, I wanted so much to glue them back up for a few more days. Wait for my brother!

mankai_04 mankai_03


I sent my brother terse, worried texts, updating him on the sakura conditions. I pored over hopelessly pink and white websites mapping the “cherry blossom front” (桜煎線). (See if *you* can figure out this site: It’s beyond my powers.)

Finally, the day came. My brother left his home in Memphis and started on his 30-hour pilgrimage to my town. The tenseness in my shoulders started to relax. The blossoms had peaked at my office, but higher up on the hill in my town of Minoh, only a few blossoms had popped from their buds. Kyoto was always behind Osaka, too.

His timing was perfect. When he arrived, I kept thinking we needed to call Mother. She would be so happy to hear about his visit. And then I’d remember with a pang that we had to just enjoy it for ourselves.

My big bro did the Kansai region proud as a sakura pilgrim.

Driven and guided by my adventure-loving hairdresser, we boated down the Hozu River (保津川下り) to Arashiyama (嵐山) and watched the wild sakura (yamazakura, 山桜) sweep by.



hozukudari_02  hozukudari_04


yamazakura_04   yamazakura



At Arashiyama, we stood in awe of the graceful weeping cherries (shidarezakura, 枝垂桜) in Tenryuji, the Heavenly Dragon Temple (天竜寺).


kudarezakura_01 kudarezakura_02



tenryuji_03    petals_on_pond

Sweeping up the blossoms in the temple garden is a labor of love. Or at least a labor of many hours.  sweeping_up_the_petals

Even the construction workers in Arashiyama honor the cherry blossoms.


While I worked, commuting past my favorite statue, now bejeweled in pink…


…my oni-ani spent an afternoon with the sakura and Kansai history in Osaka Castle Park. He called me over for the evening.

2013_04_05_along_the_moat 2013_04_05_castle_park

In Kyoto, my brother continued on the sakura trail. He trekked to one temple that advertised a tree in full bloom. It was a little forlorn after the glory of Tenryuji, and he chuckled when a couple of older ladies commented disgustedly that they saw leaves coming in under the blossoms. (This sullied state is called “leaves cherry blossoms,” hazakura, 葉桜.)

The pièce de résistance of the Kansai sakura experience is, of course, the Philosopher’s Path (哲学の道) in Kyoto. Robert hit it at its peak. (He’ll have to send me pictures to post, since I wasn’t there.) Many Osaka folks I know avoid that path at all costs during sakura season, but if it’s your first sakura experience, I insist…do it once. Walking four kilometers along a winding stream through Kyoto, an unending panorama of blooming and floating blossoms enveloping you in pink clouds from every direction, along with crowds of awestruck people pushing each other to photo the good ones, is an unforgettable experience.

We ate mochi (sticky rice balls) flavored with sakura leaves. We licked on sakura-flavored soft serve ice cream. We ate sakura chocolate and sakura-flavored bean paste.

If you follow the sakura from Okinawa to Hokkaido, you can keep them going for over two months. In one location, though, they last about ten days. As the sakura in our lowlands began to languish into hazakura, we made a trip to Kobe. It was a drizzly day, and the sakura were past their prime.



But as my brother said, the hazakura had a wistful, mature beauty of their own.

And we saw a baby blessing (note the sakura in the background on the right)…


…and a wedding between a German man and a Japanese woman–also plenty of sakura.



The fleeting beauty of the fragile blossoms is fading, but the green leaves follow with a more robust message of hope.

One year ago, my oni-ani woke me early with a trans-Pacific call to let me know that Mother had gone. Gentle, stubborn, upright, spiritual, endlessly loving Mother. In the whirlwind of grief and travel that followed, I barely noticed either the blooming or the falling of the sakura. This year I was ready for their message of life and death. And I can depend on somewhere in Japan to snow sakura on Mother’s day of departure, if not forever, then for a long, long time.

Love to my uncle, who lost his only sister and promptly “adopted” us orphans. Love to my siblings and in-laws and all five of Mother’s grandchildren, who lost our matriarch and guiding spirit. And especially love to my daughter, who gave me the other side of motherhood.



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Tobidashi Boy to the Rescue

Tobidashi Girl, too! tobidashi_doll_01

That was my first reaction on learning the most common name (飛び出し坊や) of the little traffic god-children who guard the intersections around my town of Minoh. Around towns all over Japan, too, it seems, but it was in Minoh that I noticed them first.

Tobidashi means fly out or jump out. (Jump out is a better translation for this context, but fly out sounds so much more fun.) The local PTAs or Youth Protection Associations (青少年を守る会) make or buy these signs to warn drivers at intersections.

According to Wikipedia (here), these signs first appeared in the Showa 30s (1955 to 1964), an era known as the “Traffic War” because of the high death rates from traffic accidents.

The very first Tobidashi boy appeared in the (then) town of Hirami-machi 氷上町 (now Tanba City 丹波市) in Hyogo Prefecture. So they are a Kansai invention (score for Kansai!), but apparently have spread all over the country.

Some of the signs read “Watch for flying out!” (飛び出しご注意!), as a caution directed at drivers, while others read “Don’t fly out!” (飛び出すな!), as a caution directed at the children. This choice of audience seems to be determined by the PTA or association in charge of the school district.tobidashi_doll_05

I keep imagining the PTA meetings. Who decides what the signs will look like and where they’ll be positioned? Who does the painting? What if a shy mother was assigned the painting of one by a powerful, bullying PTA leader, and she hated painting, dreaded seeing her shoddy work displayed on her walk to school day after day, with even her child ashamed of her? You could write a whole Japanese drama around the story of these signs.

Each town and region has its own flavor of Tobidashi Boys. And not only are Tobidashi Boys frequently girls, but also animals, imaginary creatures, adults, and famous manga characters. Other names for the signs are Tobidashi Dolls 飛び出し人形 (the only gender- and species-inclusive name), Little Tobidashi Monk 飛び出し小僧, Tobidashi Pal 飛び出し君, and Tobidashi Caution Pal 飛び出し注意君.

tobidashi_doll_03My neighborhood pretty much sticks to boys and girls, though occasionally the boy might be a devil. This Devil Boy in loincloth sends me on my way to work each morning as I cross the highway to my monorail station. And he’s there to welcome me home every night. Thank you, Tobidashi Devil Boy.

Most of them, though, are standard children. They are almost always yelling, sometimes with their mouths open so wide you can see the soft palate in the back of their throat–a red dot in the red circle of their mouth. I can’t tell if they’re yelling in anger, pain, fear, or glee, but in any case with heedless abandon.

And here is one that my big bro (AKA Onini) noticed, because she marks the way to turn up the hill when walking back from the monorail station to my apartment. (With no street names here, signs become crucial navigation guides.) She glows in the light of the parking lot sign from across the street and swings her fists in the right direction for home. Thank you, Tobidashi Girl.tobidashi_doll_02

I remember my father talking about the Wild West of traffic from our visit to Japan in the 1960s. He was most impressed at how the right of the road always went to the biggest vehicle. I myself was hit by cars twice in Osaka in the 1980s while riding my bicycle along the sidewalk, though the traffic had become much tamer by then. But traffic deaths have fallen steadily, and these days, if you believe Wikipedia’s country comparison (here), Japan has some of the lowest rates in the world. It’s comparable to Iceland and much lower than the U.S.

Yes, I wish there were sidewalks in my town. I wish there were clear divisions between pedestrian, bicycle, and auto traffic. I wish there weren’t so many completely blind intersections, with narrow streets blocked by buildings right at the edge of the road. I get scared sometimes, especially on my bicycle, by the deep, open drains on the sides of the road. (Lawsuit waiting to happen, says my California mind.) And I get shocked when I encounter big vans on some of these tiny roads that don’t seem much more than rice paddy trails that have been paved over. But despite, or perhaps because of, the video game-like traffic infrastructure, drivers here in this decade seem more skilled and more polite than any I’ve encountered anywhere.

Good job, Tobidashi Boy.

Ahem… good job, Tobidashi Girl!


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Sunday Blues Musing

Friendly neighborhood sign telling you to carry your trash back home with you. (Both “frog” and “back/return” are pronounced “kaeru,” so it’s a visual pun.)

Earlier today, I passed a group of good citizens in charcoal gray woolen sweaters picking up little bits of trash at a local park, and a sense of futility washed over me. So many people fighting over so few bits of plastic in this pristine environment. So much trash awash in the world.

That should have warned me that the Sunday blues were coming on.

This evening they hit with a vengeance. I thought I couldn’t face one more day of commuting in the crowded, silent monorail, walking in the chain of suits from the station to the office while dodging killer bicycles, shuffling with the masses to badge in at the gate, walking through the silent, white-tiled hallways to my gray desk in our gray office. Where we sit and make PowerPoint slides, desperately fighting to save our company.

With the latest restructuring, we will lose two of our five women to a different office. And we will move locations. Now we are in a compact office with its own two conference rooms and a snack corner with a coffee pot–our spot of cheer and chaos in the pale grayness. When a new group’s director asked if he could have our space for a demo room, our director, always obliging, said okay. Just like that. Or so the story goes among the women. In any case, we are moving to one of the massive rooms downstairs, where we will be with other groups.

You’d think that would lead to more sharing, but in fact it will probably lead to more silence. No one can say anything now, because they might be revealing a secret to other groups.

Also, no more coffee. No open cups allowed on the desks. No snacking. No joking around.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to bear it.

How can we possibly innovate and survive if we don’t even talk to each other?

I’m witnessing Clayton Christensen’s innovator’s dilemma happening live, in painful, slowmo, blow-by-blow action. The cash cow of Japanese consumer electronics, TV, has been drying up for years. We let the cheap bottom end go to low-cost competitors, because it made financial sense, and ourselves became higher and higher end. Until finally that was taken, too.

We, and other Japanese CE companies, have other business areas that are promising and may make it, but will they make it well enough to support the numbers of people who work in CE? A lot of people are scared. Some people have become frantically busy. Others have given up and stopped working at all; they just come to the office and sit. Others continue the same as always, as if nothing has or ever will change.

Ganbarimashou! In the end, that’s all you can say. Let’s keep fighting!

But on Sunday evening, sometimes a dread of the office comes over me. So tonight when it hit, I took out on a bike ride, going to an area of Ibaraki City I’d never been to before. I climbed up a winding hill through bamboo groves and red-leaved trees, the pale autumn sun fading into the horizon. And then I coasted down into a valley of run-down apartment buildings, old Japanese style homes patched up with modern methods, small factories, vending machines lining the roads and glowing in bright colored lights–the only color in sight. I passed a group of smiling and laughing men who looked Indian or Pakistani, the eldest of them with a long, white beard and wearing white flowing cotton.

I startled an older lady when I turned my bicycle onto the sidewalk where she was walking. Short no-nonsense permed hair, sensible putty-colored walking shoes, paisley patterned fleece jacket and all, she gave me a long, dirty stare before finally turning her head back to the front and continuing her perambulation. I wanted to stick my tongue out at her, but refrained.

The reason I so rudely assaulted her space was to get a better look at this house:

My phone camera doesn’t do it justice, but it was gloriously dilapidated, crumbling at the edges. I thought it must be abandoned, and then I saw the light come on on the second floor and figures move around behind the veranda doors.

And suddenly my mood lightened. Maybe it was because the external world had matched my internal sense of things once strong and new now old and returning to the earth. I felt at home, as though I was in rural China or on a Mississippi farm. Here is a Japan with no pretensions or bureaucracy–at least not from the distance of the road. Possibly simply because those luxuries are unaffordable in this neighborhood. Possibly the inhabitants are from Vietnam or Mongolia and the owner is a slum lord. But here is a section of society, mostly hidden in the world I live in, that seems real to me, not surreal and grimly cute, like my office commute and environment or the newer part of Minoh.

But that’s my Sunday night mood. Ask me tomorrow when I’m in full swing at the office and I might say something completely different. Ganbarimashou!

Posted in Consumer Electronics, Innovation, Osaka | 2 Comments

People with a Little Bit of Power Abuse It

Date: November 1, 2012
Subject: Request Regarding Missing Laser Pointer NO. 3 from the General Affairs Lending Equipment

Dear July McAtee-Sama,

Today during the first morning check of the lending equipment, it was found that the NO. 3 laser pointer had not been returned. I am emailing you because you reserved it yesterday. (You simultaneously reserved the NO. 3 projector.)

The NO. 3 laser pointer was found stored in the case of projector NO. 4.  We request that when you return lending equipment, you place it in the proper location. I do not understand why it was stored with projector NO. 4 (reserved by someone else), but I thank you for your cooperation in the future.


Date: November 1, 2012
Subject: Re: Request Regarding Missing Laser Pointer NO. 3 from the General Affairs Lending Equipment

Dear XX-Sama

Yesterday laser pointer NO. 3 was not in the room, so I didn’t use it.

Best regards,

P.S. You might at least have found out the facts before accusing me.

P.P.S. You really remind me of the people working in my daughter’s middle school office in Cupertino.

P.P.P.S. Life is miserable in the General Affairs department, isn’t it? Get out and look up at the sky every once in a while.

Posted in Osaka | 2 Comments

Hefei Heist, or July Gets What’s Coming to Her

I’m back in Osaka, after two weeks in London, Berlin, Shanghai, and Hefei.

I should probably start with the lovely countryside inn I stayed at outside of Berlin, on the way to Brandenburg–golden fields of ripe grain dotted with white farmhouses, one train ploughing through every hour or two during the day, picturesque graffiti on the boarded up station house. People who stopped their cars to ask an obvious stranger if she needed directions and then managed with gestures when it turned out that the stranger didn’t speak German, though she looked like she ought to have.

No, let’s go instead to Heifei, where I arrived late in the night after 24 hours in three airplanes and four airports.

I visited a friend in Hefei in 1987. I remember tree-lined streets, ringing bicycle bells, and second-hand bookshops next to teahouses with song birds warbling in bamboo cages that dangled from the rafters.

Here is Hefei in 2012. (The building with the coastal mural is a Walmart.)

The very first thing I did in Hefei in 2012 was get myself (or my company, rather) swindled. I knew I would as soon as he came up to me, acting as though he owned me, as I stepped outside the airport doors. This was not a legitimate taxi driver. When he quoted me “100-something” RMB for my ride to the hotel, I knew as the words fell with blasé confidence from his mouth, his eyes averted, that this was probably three times the true rate, and that when we got there, the “something” would become close to another 100.

Why did I get in? Why didn’t I haggle? Why should I be angry at him for, ahem, taking me for a ride, when I knew exactly what both he and I were doing? I suppose I didn’t want to care, because in my world even 200 RMB (about US$30) is not that huge a deal when you’re exhausted and yearning to get to a bed. (And what a lovely bed it turned out to be.)

On his side, I was an easy target–foreigner and woman to boot. I was asking to be ripped off by my mere existence, and he was doing me the favor of helping me fulfill my prescribed destiny. My speaking Chinese only made the fleecing procedure that much easier.

But I’m not bitter…

After about half an hour in the car, it occurred to me that he might have more in mind than relieving me of 20 or 30 bucks. I was there with no functioning phone but a lot of cash, a U.S. passport, Japanese resident ID, and quite a collection of electronics that might be worth a life to someone desperate or callous enough. I began scanning the road signs for any clue that we were going towards my intended destination. What had I been thinking, getting into an unmarked black car in the middle of the night with a young man in a shimmery black shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest and an expression of listless ennui that he must have picked up from gangster movies.

I watched the fat, smiling Miluo Buddha jiggle on his dashboard, beefy thick wooden and gold-painted sutra beads dangling over it from the windshield mirror. He was surely, I told myself, what Chinese people affectionately refer to as “小流氓,” a “little rogue”–annoyingly smooth and cocky, but generally more in the small-scale conning than the murdering business.

Eventually, I was relieved to see the name of the university I’d be visiting. And then, even better, the sign for my hotel.

“That’ll be 200.”

Yep, just as I expected. Though grateful not to be murdered, I still balked.

“Come on, you said 100-something.”

“Okay, okay, I meant I’d give you 200 in receipts. You pay me 150.” He began tearing off 50-RMB receipt slips from his thick stack of them and shoving them at me.

I sighed. I rolled my eyes. If my daughter had been there, she would have risen to the challenge, but I just couldn’t. “Fine,” I said, feeling very foreign.  (I found out the next day that 150 was four or five times the true rate of 30 to 35.)

“Here, here, here, have 300 in receipts.”

“I don’t want extra receipts, and I won’t use them.”

“No, don’t be polite, go ahead and take them.”

I felt the utter difference in our vantage points. He thought he was doing me a favor and that I was being polite, so he pushed them on me. In fact, I felt insulted, mortified to even imagine stooping to committing fraud for 10 or 20 dollars.

For him, I suppose, the company is the Man, an endless source of money and repression that must be tricked if one is ever to get ahead.

I looked into the chasm of perspective that gaped between us and suddenly felt immensely depressed to think of people who eked little bits of extra money from their company over and over through the years, imagining it was getting them somewhere or perhaps getting them back what they had been unfairly denied.

I thought, “I am spoiled.”

Then I thought, “I didn’t do that even when I had a baby and a secretary’s salary in a poorly funded startup and could barely make rent month to month.”

Then I thought, “But I always had family who wouldn’t have let us starve or freeze, if it came to that.”

Then I thought, “Sigh. I’m really ready for that spoiled-businesswoman’s bed.”

No matter what conversations I have with myself in the privacy of my own mind, I most certainly won’t be caught off-guard a second time when I return to Hefei. It’s clearly marked, government-run, metered taxis for me from here on out.

Here’s the central garden in the lovely campus I visited the next day, driven there by a kind and chatty taxi driver who charged just what the meter said.

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Two of My Friends Are Fighting

This weekend, violent protests broke out against Japan and Japanese businesses in dozens of cities in China. People are furious that Japan’s central government bought the Senkaku (Japan’s name)/Daiyu (China’s name) Islands. China’s State newspapers are fanning the flames and Japan’s newspapers are acting the innocent victim. Japan’s claim is that its purchase was to calm rather than foment concerns, to prevent the Tokyo government from buying and developing it, as had been the impending plan. China claims that this is a slap in the face, coming just before the September 18 anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident, which Japan’s army staged as a pretext for invading and occupying Manchuria.

I am heading on a business trip to Europe tomorrow, and then to Shanghai next weekend.

I wonder what it will be like this trip to China as an American representing a Japanese company. Already, I frequently get, “Why are you wasting your talents with a Japanese company? Come work in China!” I imagine that will get worse now.

Shanghai will most likely be much milder than Beijing. It’s more a commercial than a political metropolis, and there are many Japanese ties. And I’ll be traveling with a Chinese coworker most of the week, not any Japanese coworkers except for one day, so it’s unlikely that we’ll be targets.

My main objective this year is in China, though, and I wonder how this will be affected. My mission this trip is to sell our project to students for the upcoming academic year. Will any students want to be associated with a Japanese sponsor now? We will talk about our founder’s meeting with Deng Xiaoping in the 70s, and how our company has become essentially a local entity for 35 years, with locally owned and run design and manufacturing. I don’t know if that will be enough, or if my Chinese coworker will simply come across as a traitor.

Another of my coworkers, a Japanese-American, is in Beijing right now, and our Chinese colleagues shielded him every moment of his time there. He was tucked in bed by 9 every night…and this is a fellow known for near nightly drinking parties, never heading home before midnight, no matter what country’s he’s in. He declared he’s having the safest, healthiest time of his life.

He said that Chinese news was emphasizing the illegality and invalidity of the purchase, and minimizing news of attacks on Japanese entities, while Japanese news (available in his hotel) emphasized the violent attacks above all else.

CCTV headlines from today:

  • Chinese army remains tough on Diaoyu Islands
  • Diaoyu Islands coordinates released
  • Rights of Japanese citizens protected
  • China´s historic links to Diaoyu Islands

Japan Times headlines from today:

  • Anti-Japan protests spread across China, turn violent
  • Six Chinese ships crowd Senkakus
  • Candidate Ishihara talks tough on Senkakus
  • U.S. return of Senkakus in ’72 upset Beijing, Taipei

Apparently, the U.S. “returned” the islands to Japan in 1971 as part of Okinawa, but said that Japan, China, and Taiwan (which also claims them) had to figure out the sovereignty issue on their own.

I know people in China still burn with resentment at Japan. My Chinese ex-husband seethes with it, even though he loved his time actually living in Japan, and he was moved by the kindness he was shown by friends and clients and the occasional remorseful war veteran. He’s threatened to disown our daughter if she ever shows up with a Japanese boyfriend. (Which, naturally, provokes her to consider a Japanese boyfriend.)

Meanwhile, my company’s sales have dropped by 50% in China.

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The Big Kusu Tree of Kayashima

“That tree’s not there because Japanese people love nature or eco or want green or anything,” said my colleague, who has been working in Boston for years. We stood on the Kayashima station platform on the Keihan line, the green trains that run between Osaka and Kyoto. We looked across at the tree branching up through the platform roof, and the extra dome over the escalator, presumably protecting people from tree droppings. “Japanese people don’t think that way,” he said.

“Really?” I was a little incredulous, thinking of all the Japanese people I know who take pleasure in a quiet moment with autumn leaves and cherry blossoms and the rippling sound of a stream over rocks. But he was Japanese himself, so who was I to argue?

He practically stomped his foot in disgust. “It’s just fear. Fear and superstition. Twice when they tried to cut it down to build the station someone died. So they decided that it was a dangerous, powerful spirit, that the gods wanted it to live. They gave up and built the station around it. That’s how Japanese people think.”

Yesterday I was riding on the Keihan line and decided to check out the tree.

Sure enough, the station is built around it.

Here’s what the plaque reads (my rough translation):

Kayashima’s Big Kusu Tree

This big kusu tree (camphor) is about 20 meters tall, and its trunk is about 7 meters around. It’s estimated to be 700 years old, and it’s been known to all locals since olden times as the Big Kusu Tree of Kayashima.

In November of Showa 47 (1972), to increase transportation capacity, construction had started on an elevated four-track line (高架複々線) between the Doi and Neyagawa signal stations, when it was decided to respond to the feelings of respect all the local people had for the kusu tree, and to keep the tree for posterity while still building the new Kayashima station. Nowhere else in the country will you find such an example as you see before you of a tree piercing through a station platform and roof, being carefully nutured for posterity as this kusu tree is, so that its distinctive fragrance and rich greenery can luxuriate and always bring serenity to people.

At the base of the tree, just as you exit the station, is the Kawashima Shrine, restored in Showa 55 (1980) so that the locals could become familiar with it along with the sacred kusu tree.

Keihan Electric Railway Co., Ltd.

Certainly that’s the cleaned up version of the story. That part about “responding to the feelings of respect of the locals” sounds a little glossed over. Especially considering it was 1972. Still, my colleague’s version seems harsh.

I went out of the station and to a regular station road…

…and then around to the tree’s base. There was the Shinto shrine.

A friendly welcoming statue.

The place to purify your hands before praying.

Instructions for praying.

And the fence of sacred plaques and donations surrounding the tree itself.

The huge trunk wears a sacred shimenawa (注連縄) rope strung with shime strips, the symbols of purity. The shimenawa both declares the presence of a deity and wards off its curse.

700 years old.

As I climbed back to the station platform, the sun sank between the tracks, a swollen blood red eye staining the humid sky. Its orange light settled onto the concrete of the platform and into the kusu leaves with a dull, weary glow. If there is a malignant spirit here, I thought, it is old and tired. It is an ancient, brutish beast that we humanity have trapped and shackled, isolating it in an ocean of concrete. We dress it like a doll and suck its power from it one prayer at a time.

But maybe that was its trickster spirit playing with my mind.

I would very much like to climb that tree.

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Kumazemi Crisis

At the height of summer, I thought I couldn’t stand one more day of incessant, ear-splitting cicada screaming. “Miiiin min min miiii,” as they spell it here (pronounced “mean”). I noticed when I came back this week that the sound was quieter, less frantic. A fat, metallic green corpse lay belly up on the bike path in the morning. Then I had to step to the side to avoid a black carcass on the station escalator, the rolling motion rocking it back and forth like a baby against the guard cover at the top.

I wanted to get a beautiful picture of a cicada for this post, and if you google them you can find plenty, but when I went out to the park today, I couldn’t find a single one. I didn’t hear one, either. Only crickets and birds–much gentler sounds.

My brother, Onini, came to my rescue, though, with this shot he took when he was here in the summer. He said it nearly deafened him as he walked by.

Here’s one in a tree in my park, if you squint a little to see it.

And here’s a recording I took of one very excited fellow calling for a mate. See if you can last through the whole thing, and then imagine that multiplied by 100s, all day every day for a whole summer.

Japan has many varieties of cicadas, but one variety, the kumazemi, or “bear cicada,” is growing in number in western Japan (the area from Osaka down). These black creatures are the biggest, baddest, and loudest of the species, growing to 7 cm and buzzing at up to 94 decibels, enough to cause permanent hearing damage in humans.

What’s more, they think that the optic fibers dropping from poles to houses are dead branches just perfect for burying their eggs in. Over 1,000 homes per year in Osaka report lost Internet connectivity due to cicadas, or at least they did. NTT researchers have now developed cicada-proof cables, after observing that the females first scratch the bark off with their ovipositors before drilling their holes. If they can’t scratch through the surface, they won’t drill.

Ah well, whether they’re drilling into tree branches or fruitlessly scratching at optic fiber cable, I guess that frenzy of mating and ovipositing is just about over now. The cicadas drop, and then the leaves begin to change. Autumn is coming.

It’s a lonely, nostalgic time, as the darkness falls earlier and earlier at the end of the work day. But let’s enjoy the flaming leaves before they fade and the reemergence of the cozy kotatsu blankets. Let’s remember that we can’t have beginnings without endings.

A friend of mine read my post about returning to Japan alone this week and sent me this quote to comfort me:

“But your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke

Here’s to new paths. I’m rather grateful that I don’t need to burrow through optic fiber cable to find mine.

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Singing the Osaka Dialect Blues

Last night I dreamed I was sitting across a huge conference table from one of my company’s high-level executives. He was in the place of honor in the middle, of course, and I was one chair off from the middle on the other side.

He spoke to me in chatty, informal Osaka dialect. He was one of those “Osaka ojisan” AKA “Osaka ossan,” the iconic middle-aged Osaka guy. Many of my coworkers are Osaka ossan.

Even if you don’t read Japanese, you can get a nice impression from the photos in this article called “Osaka Ojisan Psychology”:

Anyway, in my dream, even when he spoke to me in the most down-to-earth, guttural way, I responded in perfect, standard, humble-polite, women’s form.

I woke up with tears of triumph misting my eyes.

Then my bubble popped.

I’m an eternal optimist, but when it comes to my ability to ever accomplish this feat outside of dreamland, I’m also a realist. Faced with Osaka ojisan talk, it seems I will always slide into Osaka ojisan responses. Not to mention that almost all of the people I work with directly are men, so I rarely hear how women talk in these situations.

My current manager speaks with one of the strongest Osaka dialects of anyone I know, but unlike the archetypal Osaka ossan, he clearly enunciates every syllable. Most of the guys slur their syllables together and trail off in the middles of their sentences with suggestive naa’s and maa’s, leaving their listeners to fill in the rest. Not so my manager. Every syllable is crisp and loud, every sentence complete. He performs his Osaka dialect like a Shakespearean actor.

Unfortunately for me, this adds fuel to my tendency to mirror his Japanese.

“Sugu sen t-akan,” he says. (“We gotta do it right away.”)

In my dream, I would have responded something like, “Soo desu ne. Sugu shinakute wa ikenai no nee.” A nice long and flowing confirmation, feminine and respectful and confident, without being obsequious.

In actuality, I say, “Soo yo. Sugu sen t-akan wa.”

Then I cringe inside. He gives me one of his quizzical looks, and the conversation is no longer about the work but about my odd Japanese. Anyone in the vicinity overhearing me gives a little snort of laughter.

When Americans hear that men and women have different language forms in Japanese, and that people use different forms depending on the power relationship, they tend to jump to the conclusion that this locks women into a subservient role. The reality is much more complex than that.

For instance, women managers can wield women’s Japanese like a sword. One woman in my office, who’s at the manager level, can turn any of the Osaka ojisan in the room into a quivering bowl of jello with a single polite-yet-firm turn of phrase. Gender inequities in the workplace may have kept her from being a company president by now, but not women’s Japanese per se.

I also wonder if the codified politeness forms that make power relationships explicit are one of the reasons Japanese people are often so hesitant about speaking English, even when they’ve studied it for years and have a strong grasp of the language.

The same power relationships exist in the U.S. (I won’t speak for other English-speaking countries), but they aren’t expressed explicitly in the language, or at least the ways they are expressed are less obvious, perhaps more in body language than in verb conjugation. A Japanese person must have the opposite problem from me–of having an innate tendency to explicitly differentiate the relations, but on finding themselves unable to, becoming tongue-tied.

I’ve been asked a lot about the different nuances of might and may, and would and could. As if cracking the code of these verbs would give them the answer to this conundrum.

Well, I’m going to strive this week, just once, to pause when my manager says something to me, to breathe for a second and focus on not mimicking what he says when I answer. Practice, practice, practice.

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Let’s Twist and Shout Instead

Nothing gives you more insight into your own culture than seeing someone from a very different culture adopt it wholesale and express it as-is in his own language.

Recently, a famous Japanese professor from MIT came to speak at my company, inspiring us to be freer, more creative thinkers. His slides flourished one or two giant kanji characters, screaming “FUTURE (未来)” and “CRISIS (危機)” and “EXPRESSION (表現),” and flashed photos of a hurricane vortex sweeping toward a continent or a blue-white iceberg piercing deep into an arctic sea. I felt slapped in the face by the American trope.

His message was the same, essentially, as the one that I preach day after day: that operational efficiencies and incremental innovations, based on visible trends and big data, are crucial for big companies. But just as crucial is nurturing disruptive innovation approaches, trying to understand and collaborate with individuals and extreme users hanging out at the frayed edges of the normal curve, living in the land of low probability. Because that’s where the thing to topple all of the big data and redefine the curve will come from.

Anyway, fabulous. He had an inspiring, exciting message, and he made people feel bad about themselves. As if what they’re doing now is worthless. In a more exclusive second meeting, he looked at some of our latest innovations and declared them boring. He thrilled us with his verbal slaps and derisive laughs. His magnetic presence and bold criticisms sent an electric shock through us.

Which we probably needed. Sometimes I, too, feel we are too humble and cautious and, dare I say it, just possibly a wee bit boring. (But so very nice.)

I’m afraid, though, that he rubbed me the wrong way. What struck me was his use of the macho metaphors that pervade American technology and business strategy. Metaphors I don’t normally hear in Japanese innovation and strategy meetings, or at least not as brazenly. Conquering, battling, charging the mountain peak. War Western style, blunt and in your face, not the intricate maneuverings extolled in Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, where sidestepping can have as much power as a direct attack.

These confrontational war metaphors were more appropriate for the industrial age. You know, back when you actually knew where the boundaries of a product’s stakeholders lay. (Here are the developers, the suppliers, the manufacturers, the competitors, the customers, etc., all neatly laid out in a linear chart.) That was before high-tech product lifecycles ramped up to lightening speed and information flooded the world.

Many companies are moving towards codesigning products and services with as well as for customers, whether the customer is an individual, a business, or a government. New kinds of partnerships are forming, companies are sharing and leasing intellectual property rather than simply hoarding and guarding it, and platform-based horizontal ecosystems (example: Android apps and devices) are emerging as more the norm than rigid, capital-intensive vertical integration (example: Sony Playstation and its games).

Apple, of course, is always the elephant in the consumer electronics room these years, with its powerful success in controlling its whole value chain.

Let’s all pause, now, for a little Apple envy…


Remember the old days, when only your nerdy older brother loved Apple?

Anyway, in an environment where your competitor is potentially also your partner, your supplier, and your customer, is war really the right metaphor? In this situation, conquering is less the challenge than coordinating. Who owns what, who is responsible for what, how do we communicate?

I vote for dance as the new metaphor. On my train ride home, I fantasized about rewriting the professor’s presentation. Innovation would be about choosing the ideal partner, feeling the rhythm of the landscape, leading and following, choreographing moments of stillness between frenzied crescendos of interaction, creating patterns together, and finding the right touch–light enough so that no one freezes or stumbles, yet firm enough to keep the movement flowing.

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