May 12, 2008
Tokyo Reporter Fights Mob
One of the highlights of my recent Tokyo trip was meeting Missouri-born cop reporter Jake Adelstein, who covered police for a daily newspaper in Tokyo, and has run afoul of the mob there.
I didn't want to write anything until this article came out.
You can see why when you read it. Adelstein says he thinks this story may save his life, getting attention on the hit that has been ordered on him, and on the lack of response from law enforcement. I hear other newspapers, including the LA Times, are following the story today.
Adelstein took me and my friends around Tokyo, to a Euro-trash bar opening party and to a quaint jazz club. He had cops living in his house and watching him 24/7....but never mentioned, as he does in this story, that the Japanese mob likes to take out people around their victim as well.
I knew I felt a little twitchy around him for a reason.
Regardless, radio hosts will want to book him when his book comes out...He's a great story teller and has views of Japan that no other American has seen. At his home, he showed me a tape of a mob ceremony that members had to pay $10,000 a piece to view.
Adelstein says the difference between the American and Japanese stock markets is that in Japan stocks are manipulated by the mob. He now has a business investigating companies for potential investors to determine which are mob-owned.
Maybe it's not so different here. But the criminals don't have mob fan clubs here.
May 07, 2008
Japan Knows its Electronics & its Toilets
As I walked around the biggest electronics store I've ever seen in my life in the "Electric City" district of Tokyo (also called Akihabara), the strains of a familiar song kept jumping into my brain.
It had happy Japanese words and was repeated over and over. What was that tune?
OMG: It's the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" with new peppy words that sounded like they were saying this is a happy place to shop. It's the theme song of Akihabara, which is a huge Times Square-like district devoted to electric necessities and toys ,and it has me wondering: is the Battle Hymn based on some ancient samurai tune, or did they rip this once solemn song from the public domain?
On weekends costumed anime characters wander around. The rest of the time, people with bullhorns shout out the latest sales.
Imagine the biggest Fry's you've seen. Add seven stories to it and high end products with testing rooms and then multiply it by 30 buildings and you have Akihabara. Don't forget to throw in a handful of goofy restaurants where Japanese women in Merry Maids costumes will bat their eyes at you and talk to you, if you buy a $20 cup of coffee (no pictures allowed, the signs say).
Basically, I wanted EVERYTHING there except the maids. The new tube amplifiers for iPods are genius. An iPod never sounded this good. I went back three times to listen, just waiting for the day I can afford one (a great system would be $3,200). They make the music sound "anarogue," as one of the jazz cafes I visited, that played only vinyl records boasted.
And, oh yeah, the toilet seats.
They may not be a big conversation piece in the States, but 70 percent of the homes in Japan have heated toilet seats with built in nozzles that shoot warm water at your private parts.
It seems that every foreigner who tries them thinks about buying one, and there are big toilet seat sections in the Akihabra stores with directions and advice in English for foreigners. There was a steady stream of them in Akihabra, including a Russian cardiac surgeon I talked to, asking about toilet seat voltage.
For a minute, I thought that this could be my fortune, bringing the greatest toilet seats the world has known back to the U.S.
Then, I found out San Francisco entrepreneur Scott Pinnozzotto has done even better, building his own Swash seats for Brondell, and selling them at Bed, Bath and Beyond.
There goes my shot at the anarogue system.
May 06, 2008
The Japanese Mind: An Inch Wide, Two Miles Deep
So says my friend Andrew Morse, who covers Japanese companies for the Wall Street Journal.
Morse gave me an awesome tour of Tokyo, including a series of small bars in districts tourists rarely find. The bars seat nine or 10 people, and each has a specialized theme.
We saw three that did nothing but play blues music; one that only played the music of the Who; one that just played old jazz on vinyl records.
They were glorious, my favorite things about the spotless, thriving city of 12 million. You could walk in and communicate with music, the universal language, even when there was no common verbal language.
At one bar called Bar Comforts, the owner picked up a guitar and jammed with me on harmonica. All by telepathy. Then, he played the music of harmonica player Little Walter, on whom he was an expert.
That's when Morse made his comment about the Japanese mind.
"He won't know other music. He won't know rock, or reggae. But he will know everything about the blues. And maybe just a small piece of the blues, like 1938. But he will know everything about that. One inch wide, two miles deep."
I had some further proof of the Japanese love for music when I visited Tower Records there (it survives there; Japanese still buy disks and don't steal the music with downloads). There were two obscure Delta Groove albums I wrote bios and liner notes for, displayed prominently: "Command Performance," by the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Band; and "We Can Be Together," by Sean Costello, who died in mid April.
I've never seen them displayed stateside and had to buy them with the Japanese writing. I can't believe I had to travel 9,000 miles to find some great Delta blues.
I'll take the two miles deep, if it means that you get into what you are into with this kind of passion. Even, if it means you have to dress up like the Mariachi on this page.
April 24, 2008
Not That Lost in Translation
A few funny quirks I've been learning about Tokyo:
1) It's much more western than you'd expect. Walking the streets, I have to remind myself at times that I'm not in Brussels or Amsterdam. Who knew there would be so many crepe places, amazing croissants, and, alas, so many Starbucks?
2) There is a district devoted to consumer electronics products, with block wide buildings seven stories high, featuring nothing but technological goods. The stores in Akihabra ("the electric city") are a bit like Fry's on crack. Then, you add block after block of them, as big as a Fry's, but Fry's is just the ground floor. Up and up, with both low end and wonderfully high end products.
My most lusted for product? Tube amplifiers for your iPod, to give warmth to the digital sounds. I had read about them in the New York Times. Here, there were five different models for sale, with wonderful quality small wooden speakers, at a cost of less than $1,000. The perfect small room stereo.
3) Social networking makes for a very quiet place. The signs on the subways here forbid talking on cell phones...but that doesn't mean people can't text.......and that's all they do on trains. Four out of five people stare intently into their cell phones (which are larger than ours, maybe because of the kanji?). The fifth is listening to an iPod. There is zero real time face-to-face communication. You feel like a freak if you talk.
4) The sushi really does taste better in Japan. Not because the fish is fresher. Not, as I suspected, because the soy sauce and wasabi are better, but because the rice is more flavorful, my friend who lives here explains.
5) The big picture billboard you see in the movie "Lost in Translation" is playing an Usher video today. American cultural influence has spread throughout Japan, even if Americans themselves are viewed as somewhere between a nuisance and an afterthought in this still very insular culture.