Showa Memorial Park

The main topic of this blog will be today’s little trip out, but before we get on to that I’ll fill in yesterday. As regular readers of this blog will doubtless remember, a few months I rented a storage room near our flat. We’ve been transferring big empty boxes and the like over there, but my transfer of books was going very slowly; yesterday morning I still had twelve storage boxes full in the cupboard in my office.

So, yesterday I sorted them out a bit, and took many, many loads of books to the storage room, filling two and a half boxes over there. It took the whole afternoon, but I think I made good progress.

Of course, there are still twelve full storage boxes in the cupboard in the office. I’m not quite sure how that happened.

Anyway, it’s leaf-change time now, so today we planned a family trip to Showa Memorial Park to see the red and yellow leaves. The park is within Tokyo Prefecture, but a bit north of the main city, and at slightly higher elevation, so the leaves were in their full glory. Even better, today’s weather was absolutely perfect for a visit to a park. It’s been cold the last couple of days, but today was quite warm, with a few thin clouds to moderate the sun, and almost no wind.

The original plan was to leave the house at about 10am, so just before noon we made it out of the front door. We made it as far as the entrance lobby before being intercepted by the caretaker, who wanted to fuss over Mayuki and tell us that she is really cute.

Anyway, we finally made it onto the bus, and we went up to Noborito, to get the train up to Tachikawa, which is the nearest station to the park. You could go from Mizonokuchi, but Noborito is closer to the park, and about the same distance from us. On the bus, Mayuki started crying, but with a couple of months’ experience behind us we worked out that she was tired and fussing because she wanted to go to sleep. And, indeed, very soon after we got off the bus, she was asleep, and we put her in the push chair.

Tachikawa is the last stop on the Nanbu line, and a bit less than half an hour from Noborito. From there, the entrance to the park is about a ten minute walk. All told, it takes less than an hour and half from our door to the park, and costs about 1000 yen return, each (Mayuki is still free). Park admission is 400 yen, so it’s a very reasonable little trip.

And the park is enormous. OK, we aren’t talking “Lake District National Park” size, but for a fully managed park, it’s pretty big. It has a lot of trees; the Showa Emperor is best remembered in Japan for his love of plants, particularly trees, which is why he is remembered in a park. He’s best remembered in the West as Emperor Hirohito, so it is perhaps appropriate that the park used to be a military airbase.

The park has a number of areas, including long avenues of trees that were in glorious yellow leaf today. After walking through those, Yuriko and I had lunch at a restaurant/cafe; Mayuki was still asleep. The lunch was quite good, and entirely reasonable, which often seems to be true of the food in such places here. Then we walked on to a large pond, or small lake, which had some red maples planted around it, and some boats out on the water.

We then started walking north, and noticed the cycle routes down below us, on a different level. You can hire bikes at the park, and then cycle round, and it looks like it would be a lot of fun. It’s fairly flat, so it wouldn’t be too difficult, and the surroundings are nice. We then passed an enormous grassed area, which looks like it would be great for children to play, and more trees in flower or turning leaves, depending on the species.

Finally, we reached the Japanese garden, which was what we were aiming for today. Mayuki was still asleep, but by this point we had noticed that it was coming up to four hours since she had had a feed, so we decided to wake her up. Yuriko fed her, while I made some formula (we’d brought the powder and a thermos of hot water). Of course, the formula didn’t cool down very quickly, so it was a while before Mayuki got to drink it, but she seemed happy enough; she fussed a bit, but after I carried her for a while she was happy to lie in the push chair and look around.

The Japanese garden was very nice; Yuriko took quite a few pictures, and I took a bit of video of Mayuki there. Unfortunately, it closed at four, so we had to make our way out. In fact, the whole park closed at 4:30, and we still had to walk back to the gate, which took about thirty minutes. At first, Mayuki was happy in the pushchair, but then she started complaining, so I took her out and carried her until we were out of the park. While I was carrying her, at least two groups of ladies spontaneously said “Isn’t she cute!”. This happened again while I was putting her back in the push chair to go back to the station, and then again on the bus home. According to Yuriko, it happens every time she takes her out, as well.

We used the formula to keep her quiet on the train home, and then fooled her with the empty bottle to keep her quiet in the bus. Over all, though, she was a very good girl all day, and at least she was awake and looking around for part of it. Obviously, she won’t explicitly remember any of it, but it might shape her attitude to parks, or something.

We are planning to go back. It might only be three times a year (spring, summer, and autumn), but it’s probably the easiest really big park for us to get to. I can see it playing much of the same role in Mayuki’s childhood as Etherow did in ours.

All in all, Yuriko and I had a really good day. We think Mayuki enjoyed it too.

Lunching

A couple of days ago I had lunch with Declan Murphy, the head of the international office at Yamasa, the Japanese school where I studied. I did mention to him that it might be a good idea to update the “fortnightly” newsletter on the home page, but apparently he’s been short of staff again after having one of his staff poached by Waseda. And Yamasa isn’t leaving him much free time, as they are full, and so there are lots of students sending him lots of emails, just like I did, about whether they can come to the school. Apparently, they’re about to make the decisions for April student visa admissions.

We spent most of the time talking about Yamasa and life in Japan for long-term foreigners. Declan has been here far, far longer than I have, but after four years I think I do qualify as long-term. One thing that we’ve both noticed is that, at least in Okazaki and Kawasaki, foreigners are no longer remarkable. There are still relatively few, but we are part of the expected scenery. In Kawasaki, some people even spot that Mayuki is half-Japanese when I’m not there, which suggests that it’s common enough for them to know what it looks like, and to think it’s a sensible hypothesis.

The other thing I notice, keeping in touch with UK newspapers as well as Japanese ones, is that the Japanese media seem, if anything, to be less hostile to immigrants than the UK equivalents. Partly, this is a matter of scale. There just aren’t as many immigrants in Japan, so claims that they are taking all the jobs and housing are implausible. On the other hand, a lot of the articles about foreigners in the Yomiuri podcast are “normal”; they are just about a foreigner or group of foreigners in Japan doing something interesting, such as running a restaurant that brews a particular Korean speciality.

Japan’s reputation for being unwelcoming for foreigners really doesn’t seem to be deserved.

Certificates

Today I was back into Tokyo to do more bureaucratic business.

First, I went to the UK Embassy to pick up Mayuki’s British birth certificate. We now have documentary evidence of both her nationalities, which is good, because it means we can apply for both passports. Given that they have expiry dates, and are not cheap, we won’t be doing that until we actually need them, however.

One thing I don’t think I mentioned about the security procedures last week is the fact that you have to search yourself. You pat down your own pockets to demonstrate that you don’t have any dangerous objects hidden in them. Of course, the security staff watch you do that, but they only watch.

Then I had to go to the Miyamae Ward Office to renew my gaijin card. Because it has a photo on, you need to have it redone every few years, so I had to get new photos taken (there was a machine in Shibuya, so that was easy), and take my passport in so that they could double check my visa and passport number. Now I have to wait four weeks for the new one to be issued, but it appears to be free. At least, they haven’t issued a bill yet.

When I first received my gaijin card, I remember looking at the expiry date and thinking, “Well, that’s completely irrelevant to me. I’ll be gone years before that.”. Now I’m looking forward to getting a card that has my current visa status on the front, rather than written in on an already-crowded back. Oh, and my current address on the front, too. And I’m hoping to have permanent resident status before I need to renew it again, which I’m now pretty sure I will need to do.

Other than the hassle of having to go to the offices, both bits of bureaucracy were painless. Mind you, if it took more than one train to get to the UK embassy, that would have the potential to be substantially more painful. I’m thinking that we won’t move out of Tokyo until the necessary visits there are all done.

A Number of Firsts

It is true that a small baby in the home takes up quite a lot of time, even when your wife is doing most of the child rearing. This is my excuse for not writing very many English blog entries recently. However, Mayuki is growing up nicely, and she’s passed a number of really important milestones in the last week or so.

First, she’s said her first consonant. Up until now, she’s been saying “aaa” and “oo”, but a couple of days ago, after her bath, she managed “goo”. This is the first time I’ve actually heard a baby say “goo”, popular representations notwithstanding, which added to the amazement. She still prefers “aah” and “ooh” noises, though.

Second, she’s laughed for the first time. She’s been smiling for a while, but yesterday and today she actually laughed, complete with sound effects. Mind you, there didn’t seem to be anything obvious for her to laugh at, so I suspect she was just practising for the future. She will need to do develop that skill if she’s going to cope with Yuriko and me as parents.

Third, today I got to look after her for a whole day by myself for the first time. Yuriko has gone off to Ikea, and won’t be back until this evening. So far, it’s been fine. She slept after the iChat with America this morning, woke up to be fed, played for an hour or so, and then went back to sleep, which is her current state. Looking at the clock, she’s about due for another feed, so I’ll have to see whether she looks like she’s waking up when I’ve written this. Assuming she doesn’t make that entirely obvious before then.

While spending time with Mayuki is fun even now, I am looking forward to her getting a bit more responsive and interactive. It’s a bit hard to play with her, at the moment, since most of her play involves lying on her back and waving her limbs around while making noises (this is easily distinguished from the crying version of lying on her back and waving her limbs around by experienced parents — and I can tell the difference, too), or lying on her front and trying to do press-ups. She can’t quite manage that yet, but she can hold her head up for quite a while.

She seems to be doing that more than most babies her age, and I wonder whether part of the reason is that she is relatively light. She is over four kilograms now, though, and just creeps into the “normal” band on the graph we were given in the health record book. So, nothing to worry about, and maybe it’s a sign that she’s going to be naturally slender.

Changing the subject, there was one other first this week. For the first time, I started reading a Japanese magazine article without thinking. I do this with English all the time; my eye falls on some text, I read it, and then I realise that I should be doing something else. But until this week it didn’t happen with Japanese; reading Japanese required a bit of concentration, because otherwise the kanji didn’t become meaningful. Another sign of progress. I think my reading speed in Japanese is slowly picking up, but it’s still a long way behind English. Still, I’ve had a lot more practice in English. Maybe Japanese will catch up eventually.

Waiting for Wolves in Japan

This is a very interesting book, concerned with attitudes to wildlife in the mountain villages of a small region in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. It’s more interesting than that makes it sound, because that draws in attitudes to nature more generally from all across Japan, although the focus is on the one small region where the author did fieldwork.

Throughout the book, he considers the perspectives of three groups; farmers, foresters, and hunters. However, he makes it clear that a large number of people belong to more than one of these groups, because it is very hard to make a living doing any one of them exclusively. Indeed, many residents of the villages have other sources of income as well. The central focus of local attitudes is the damage that wild animals do.

After an introductory chapter explaining the basic situation in Japanese mountain villages, the following chapters consider one type of animal each: Wild Boar, Monkeys, Deer and Serow, Bear, and, finally, Wolves. Wolves stand out because they are generally believed to be extinct in Japan, although there are a few who believe that they are still there in the deep mountains, and the debate is largely about re-introducing them.

None of the animals are subjects of pure hostility, although the damage they do to crops and tree plantations is enough to inspire farmers and foresters to commission hunters to employ lethal force. There is still a recognition that post-war forestry policies have left the animals with little choice about where to get their food, and the declining and aging population of the villages means that it is increasingly difficult to simply scare the animals away.

The clearest message that came from the book was that the rural areas of Japan need a new approach. Since no Agriculture and Forestry Minister has lasted longer than a couple of months this year (one suicide, two resignations, and one who lost his job when the Prime Minister who appointed him resigned), it seems rather unlikely that any leadership will come from the centre. This may be all to the good; it seems that the people living in the mountains believe that the people living in the cities neither understand nor care about their problems, so it is probably better for them to change things for themselves.

The problem with local change is that, when half of the village population is over 60, there isn’t a great deal of surplus energy, and the villages tend to be poor. Since an effective policy is likely to involve tranforming the forests on the mountains, among other things, it’s something that needs long-term commitment, substantial resources, and a lot of energy.

It seems quite possible that people will simply cease living in the mountains of Japan. There are already a number of villages that are completely abandoned, given back to the wild. I’ve seen a couple of documentaries visiting them, and they’re rather eerie. There were no disasters; everyone simply left, when the local authorities could no longer afford to maintain basic services, or when there was no-one else willing to live there. I’m not at all convinced that this is a good trend; the cities are already very crowded. But the imagination and leadership necessary to reclaim the mountains, and create a way of life in which both people and animals can survive, seems to be almost completely lacking.

Life Insurance

Yesterday, I applied for life insurance. Now I have a daughter, this has become rather necessary. As is normal with these traditionally complicated and intimidating things, I had to do it in Japanese. (At some point, I will have to make a will in Japanese as well. The main reason that hasn’t happened yet is that I have no idea what I have to do, and I know it will take me some time to find out. Given that I do know that the basic rules will give everything to Yuriko and Mayuki, it’s not yet urgent. Anyway, back to the other death topic.)

Some bits of the form were partcularly odd. For example, one of the declarations I had to make was that I was neither a US citizen, nor possessed of the right of permanent residence in the US. Not sure why it’s impossible for this company to insure the lives of USAnians.

Another really odd bit was the box to authorise people other than the insured person to claim the insurance money. This is for use when, due to exceptional circumstances, the insured person is unable to make the claim himself.

This is life insurance. If I can make the claim, they are unlikely to pay out.

So, anyway, I filled that in, figuring that it was probably the result of some not-as-well-thought-out-as-it-might-be regulation. I really don’t want a legal technicality to get in the way of any applications.

Life insurance is an odd product. After considering the full range, I’ve gone for one that doesn’t pay money back while I’m alive, because I can’t afford enough cover if I go for one that does pay back. Thus, I am paying out lots of money from which I will never see any benefit. I will never even get to see anyone else benefitting from it. And, of course, I really, really hope that all the money I’m paying out will simply disappear and be completely wasted. And yet I still think I’m doing the right thing.

Yes, definitely a very odd product.

The one I’ve gone for is a bit different to the standard. Instead of paying out a lump sum on death, it pays out a monthly sum for the rest of the term of the insurance (up to my 60th birthday), or five years, whichever is longer. This means that the payout drops as time goes on, but then so should the amount of money necessary. By 2031 Mayuki will be 24, which is old enough to become independent.

The main benefit of this is that I can actually afford to take out enough insurance to cover Yuriko and Mayuki’s needs. On the lump sum plans, I can’t afford the premiums.

Anyway, as long as they accept my application, that’s now done, and the money will just go out every month, so I don’t need to worry about it. I can concentrate on trying to make sure that it’s completely unnecessary.

Registration, Part One

A couple of days ago, I went to the Ward Office to get Mayuki properly registered in Japan. She now has her Japanese birth certificate, and is, or will soon be, registered on Yuriko’s family record, which proves that she is Japanese. (I don’t get properly registered there; I’m just a footnote.)

The next step was applying for child benefit, at the next window along, which is 10,000 yen per month until the age of three, and then 5,000 yen per month until the age of 12, with an income limit. I’m not particularly close to the income limit, so we’ll be getting it. It’s paid three times per year, and, conveniently, one of the standard payment dates is in October. For some reason, payment starts from the month after you apply, so ours will start from October. The child benefit window is the same as the foreigner registration window. I have no idea why.

Then I had to apply for the one-off payment for the birth, which was another different window, because this comes from the health insurance. It’s 350,000 yen, which doesn’t actually cover the cost of the birth, but does cover about half of it, all told, and so it not to be sneezed at. That should appear in my bank account next month as well.

Finally, at the same window, I had to apply for Mayuki’s free medical treatment certificate. On the national system, we have to pay 30% of the costs. However, Kawasaki City will pay that 30% for all children in their first year, and up to the age of 12 if the family has under a certain income level. I got that certificate while I was there, which is useful.

However, because this isn’t a national certificate, it only works at hospitals in Kanagawa Prefecture. If Mayuki gets ill somewhere else (her grandparents’ in Nagoya, for example), we have to pay and then claim back from Kawasaki. It seems like a little unification of the system would save money.

Indeed, that struck me as being generally the case. I had to do four separate applications at three separate windows, but in the overwhelming majority of cases people with a new baby will do all of them. It would surely be a lot easier for everyone if there were just one application procedure. This sort of vertical division is a widely-recognised problem with Japanese bureaucracy, so I don’t imagine it will be getting fixed any time soon.

The next step is to register the birth at the British Embassy, for which I apparently need my passport and my birth certificate. I have a strong feeling that I didn’t get the copy I needed when we got married back, so I may have to order another one from the UK. I have one more box to check before I do that, though.

Fortunately, there is no legal obligation to register the birth; Mayuki is a UK citizen automatically. To get any of the benefits, though, she has to be registered, and it’s likely to be easiest for us to do that now. Especially as she might well need a British passport in the near future. Still, it means that there is no tearing rush to get it done.

Anyway, she’s properly registered here, and we’ll be getting the benefits we’re entitled to, so that’s good.

She’s also got better at crying over the last couple of days. I suppose she has to grow into it before she can grow out of it, so it’s a good thing, really.

What’s in a Name?

Quite a few people have asked me where Mayuki’s name came from, and Japanese names work a bit differently from Western ones, so I think it might be worth explaining here.

Japanese law only allows people to have two names, a given name and a family name. The family name is determined by the name on the family register. The given name is chosen by the parents, but once registered, it is very difficult to change, unlike England. In addition, there are limits on the characters you can use in a name. You may only use hiragana, katakana, and particular kanji. (The kana are the syllabic scripts, like alphabets, and kanji are the ideograms from China.) There are over 2,000 kanji to choose from, but you can’t, for example, use the kanji for “cancer” or “corpse”, if I recall correctly.

Within those limits, however, you have almost total freedom. What is more, if you write the name in kanji, you can choose the way that it is pronounced freely, because the pronunciation is not officially recorded, and thus not officially regulated. It is sensible to choose a pronunciation that naturally goes with those kanji, but that practice is not universal.

Thus, choosing a name for you baby is not a matter of choosing from a list of names. There are popular names, but creating your own is also quite common. Even for the popular names, you can choose the kanji you want to write it with; there are double lists of popular names, one for the pronunciation, and one for the written characters. It is not uncommon for a name to be in the top ten on one, but right down on the other. If a popular sound has a lot of possible, and sensible, kanji, its numbers might be evenly split six or seven ways on the written list. On the other hand, a moderately popular pronunciation with only one sensible set of characters could appear very high up the written list.

One side effect of this is that it always makes sense to ask someone how to pronounce or write their name in Japan. There are many names where you can make a good guess, particularly going from the written form to the spoken, but not always. For example, Megumi, a popular girl’s name, can be written 恵美 or æ„›, but the second character can also be read “Ai”, which is another popular girl’s name. Girls names, in particular, might be wholly or partially written in kana, because they are perceived as feminine. Yuriko writes her name with two kana, for the first two syllables, and then kanji for the final “ko”.

The other thing that some people consider is the number of strokes that it takes to right the name. There’s the practical issue of not requiring a young child to learn lots of highly complex kanji right at the start, but there’s also a form of fortune telling based on the absolute number of strokes, and the number fo strokes combined with the number in the family name. Some people apparently take it very seriously, to the point that baby name books include advice on getting round grandparents who don’t like the name you’ve chosen because it has the “wrong” stroke count. The best way, apparently, is to say that you’re relying on a different regional tradition, because there are lots of different rules for which combinations are good and which are bad.

Anyway, we completely ignored that one.

I wanted Mayuki to have a very Japanese given name, because she’s half Japanese and half English, but already has a purely English family name. Western-derived names, like Anna, are quite popular at the moment, but Anna Chart doesn’t sound at all Japanese. I finally managed to win Yuriko over on this point.

So, the next stage was to think about the sound we wanted. Obviously, it had to be something that English-speakers could pronounce correctly, and that would be fairly easy to spell, and have only one sensible English spelling. However, it also had to sound nice.

That left far too much choice, so we narrowed it down by looking at kanji. Because kanji are ideograms, they give the name its meaning. Thus, I wanted to give her a kanji name. I didn’t want a name ending in “ko”, even though that’s very common for Japanese girls’ names, because the kanji means “child”. Similarly, I wanted to avoid cute names like “Flower bud”, which are fine for young girls, but less appropriate when she’s fifty and trying to become the first female Prime Minister of Japan. For example. The kanji meaning “beautiful” is also a very common component of girls’ names, but I was a bit ambivalent about that. I mean, obviously she will be, but I felt I’d prefer a name that didn’t focus on appearance. For similar reasons, I wanted to avoid flower names.

So, I went through a drew up a list of characters I liked. One I really liked was 真, which means “genuine, real”, and, in names, is commonly read “ma”, which is the first syllable of my mother’s middle name, “Mary”. Yuriko decided that she wanted to include ç”±, which means “reason”, and is the first character of her mother’s name.

That gave us “ma” and “yu”. “Mayu” and “Yuma” are both possible, but we decided to play around a bit with the sounds. “Mayuko” has that “ko” character, so that was out. “Mayumi” is quite a common name, and has the beauty kanji last. “Mayuna” was another candidate; the “na” would normally be written with the “na” from “Kanagawa”, and is a very popular final syllable for girls’ names right now. But then we thought of “Mayuki”. We liked the sound, because it seemed somehow bright, and it manages to be a bit unusual without being strange. “Mayumi” and “Miyuki” are both common girls’ names, but “Mayuki” is not (yet). So, it sounds like a girls’ name, but not like one that everyone has heard a million times already.

When we looked at candidate kanji for the final syllable and discovered that we could use the kanji for “joy”, which is my father’s wife’s name, that settled it.

真由喜: “genuine reason for joy”.

Koshien

High school baseball is really, really popular in Japan. It’s not just that lots of boys play it, although that’s certainly true; the annual national competitions are televised live, and are often the main news items while they are happening. There are two, one in spring and one in summer, and the summer one is, I believe, the main one. This year’s has just finished.

The competitions are held at Koshien (甲子園), a place near Osaka. One team represents each prefecture, so before the main contest there are competitions in each prefecture to choose the team that will go to Koshien. Just going is a difficult goal for many high schools.

There are a number of private high schools, and a few state ones, with famous baseball clubs. They recruit from all over the country, with baseball scholarships, to build the strongest team possible. Indeed, a couple of months ago some of them got in trouble for being a bit too enthusiastic, and breaking the rules limiting what they are allowed to do. It’s very competitive, and one of these schools nearly always wins. Naturally, as they draw from across the country, they are mostly located in the major metropolitan areas. Waseda High School, in Tokyo, is one such, and they won last year.

This has led to popular manga featuring the tournament. The plot is as follows. A completely ordinary state high school somewhere out in the sticks (Tohoku, Shikoku, Kyushu) puts a baseball team together under difficult conditions (no proper club house, for example), and wins its way to Koshien. At the main tournament, they have to fight hard through all the rounds, but make it to the final. In the final, against a very strong school, they go three points behind. In the bottom of the ninth innings, the main character hits a home run with all the bases loaded, gaining them four points at once and meaning that they win Koshien.

This year, North Saga High School, a perfectly ordinary state high school from northern Kyushu, where the baseball club uses a shipping container as a storeroom, won Koshien after being three points behind in the final. In the bottom of the eighth innings, one player hit a home run with the bases loaded, so they won when they got the other team out for nothing in ninth.

As you might expect, such a storybook ending made the news in a big way.