Category Archives: Tokyo

The mass graves of Toyama Park (well, almost)

Suburban Tokyo park may hide a terrible wartime secret, The Australian, January 15, 2011:

IF you knew nothing of its sinister history, you could pass by a thousand times without casting a second glance at Toyama Park.

Situated in Shinjuku ward, in the heart of Tokyo, it is an affluent area of hospitals and universities, a place of trees and tennis courts where old ladies take slow walks with elaborately groomed poodles. A tramp dozes in the winter sun in a deserted children’s playground. A vacant plot, where an old apartment once stood, lies cleared by bulldozers. There is nothing to suggest Toyama Park’s past, and the wartime secret that may soon surface after seven decades of silence.

According to the recollection of elderly witnesses, Toyama Park is the site of mass graves, the improvised burial place of the victims of one of Japan’s most notorious war crimes.

Unsurprisingly, this article is subtly misleading in several ways. Toyama Park is within walking distance of Shinjuku if you have good legs—inside the Yamanote Line, between Waseda University and the Shin-Okubo Korean district, so not really “suburban.” It is split in half by Meiji-dori; the western half wraps around the north and west sides of the engineering campus of Waseda University, while the eastern half is crammed between apartment buildings, schools, and the National Center for Global Health and Medicine, an enormous hospital complex currently in the process of being completely rebuilt. Many of my in-laws live nearby, and the National Center is where my wife was born.

The fact of the graves is also hardly “hidden” or “secret” any more, since the article mentions that bones were unearthed in the area starting in 1989. And a quick reference to a two week old Asahi article in Japanese confirms that the graves are not actually in the park, which is owned by the city of Shinjuku, but rather at various adjacent sites which are owned by the national government.

The National Center sits on the site of what was originally the Army Medical College and Army Hospital, and so it had relations with Unit 731, which used some of the base’s land to dump bodies. The Asahi article describes three sites, the first being underneath what is now a dormitory for the Medical Center. It sticks out into the middle of the park but is technically outside its boundaries. The other two sites are on the east side of the hospital, well outside the park. One of these sites is underneath what is now the quite sinisterly-named Infectious Disease Surveillance Center, and the other is underneath another government employee dormitory.

Since the article and accompanying map will undoubtedly expire, I have made my own (clearer) map in Google Maps, with relevant Japanese quotes regarding each site from the Asahi article.


View Unit 731 gravesite map in a larger map

My own suspicion is that the issue is not swept under the rug out of spite for the Chinese, or out of lack of atonement for World War II; it is swept under the rug because the area is heavily populated (including a number of large public housing buildings) and plays an important role in Tokyo’s and Japan’s public health infrastructure. In Japan, nobody wants to live next to graves, much less mass graves, much less get a checkup or operation there. So it’s one of those things that’s easier not to think about.

Update on life in Tokyo

A lot has changed for me over the past year and a half. I won’t go into too much detail, but the biggest shift has been my new job. In September 2009 I started translating for an equity research team, which means I spend my days reading and translating reports on publicly listed Japanese companies and the stock market in general.

It’s a fun and deeply interesting job, but it’s had an impact on my commitment to blogging in a big way, for a few reasons. For one thing, I came into the job with a woeful lack of knowledge about stocks and finance. I’ve been spending many nights studying to try and fill in the gaps. Only recently have I felt ready to try and start broadcasting my thoughts again.

Also, all the background research about the Japanese corporate world has had an unexpected side-effect: it more or less satisfies my urge to do the same thing on MFT. I mean, why blog about how Saizeriya serves TV dinners as restaurant food, when I already spent the better part of a day writing the same thing in an analyst report? It feels redundant. Most times, I can’t even be bothered to post something on Twitter.

Recently, I have felt a little more confident in focusing on blogging again. But when I opened the WordPress site, I had a bit of writer’s block. My thinking and interests have changed since the time when I was blogging about pillow-girlfriends and the like. At this point, I don’t know what future posts will look like, but at the very least it now seems kind of pointless to snipe at foreign press coverage of Japan. Working in the investment world with a team of veteran translators has probably skewed my perspective.  I will probably spend more time talking about things like the Gyoza no Ohsho training scandal.

Life in Tokyo in 2011

It’s been almost four years since Mrs. Adamu and I moved to Tokyo, and this September will mark the 12th anniversary of my first landing in Japan at Kansai International Airport. The me of 12 years ago probably couldn’t imagine how I’d be living today. Of course my life has taken many unexpected twists and turns, but more generally, the life of a gaijin in Japan seems much more comfortable and less alienating than it used to be, at least from my perspective.

When I was a high school exchange student, my contacts with the home country were basically limited to monthly visits with other exchange students and the occasional rented movie or episode of Full House on Japanese TV. It didn’t matter much because I was concentrating on learning Japanese to fulfill my newfound dream of one day appearing on one of those shows where Japanese-speaking foreigners argue about politics.

But on the flight home something odd happened. Chip N Dale Rescue Rangers was showing on the in-flight entertainment, and for some reason I couldn’t stop laughing at all the cheesy jokes. I had been away from American humor for so long that even a little taste of it made me crack up. It happened again during my Kyoto study abroad days, when about six months in I watched Ace Ventura Pet Detective.

I don’t have those moments anymore.

I am typing this post on a laptop connected to my home WiFi connection, a few minutes after catching up with The Daily Show and Colbert Report. I can download/stream any movie or music I want using one of the world’s fastest Internet connections, while my cable TV opens up even more possibilities. The Net has all the world’s news. Skype lets me video-chat with my parents at holidays. There are two Costcos within a reasonable driving distance, and a decent amount of import stores that allow me to easily and cheaply cook American food if I so desire. I bought a queen-size bed at Ikea. Hyogo and Kyoto in 1999 and 2002 offered none of these, for both financial and technological reasons.

In so many ways, living in Tokyo in 2011 lets me keep my feet in both Japanese and American cultures. Obviously, I would not trade these comforts, but in a lot of ways it muddies the idea of assimilating into Japanese culture and fundamentally feeling like I live in a foreign country. If it mattered to me, I guess I could tilt the balance of my media/entertainment more toward the Japanese side, but it doesn’t. When I was younger I was all about learning to understand Japanese TV and movies and reading manga. But these days I know most Japanese TV is utterly stupid, and it’s rare for me to encounter a manga title that really grabs me (the last one was Ishi No Hana). Who knows, this might be another reason some of my old go-to blog topics seem less interesting now.

Japanese expats

This chart on Japanese living abroad from Nikkei was too good not to share. When I was going to school in Washington and living in Bangkok, I had a fair amount of experience dealing with Japanese expats. I knew mostly students in DC, so these were by and large people who just wanted to learn enough English to either help them in their get a job after graduating from a Japanese university or earn some promotion points at their companies back home, if they were older.

Bangkok, however, was a different animal entirely. Perhaps because I was looking for work, I had the chance to speak with a lot of recruiters and translation agencies. Many of the Japanese people I met came to Bangkok with long-term plans to stay. For some of the younger people, working as a local employee of a Japanese company was a way around the shukatsu system, while some older men apparently just fell in love with the country (and probably its women as well), not so different from the throngs of British/European men with Thai wives that are common in the city.

There was another recent article in Asahi about how young Japanese are flocking to Shanghai for the job opportunities. I can certainly understand the draw. A big city in a fast-growing, developing country like Bangkok and Shanghai can be very exciting. Bangkok was bustling, full of interesting people from all walks of life, loud, had great food, and was just a treasure trove of new experiences, sights, and smells (some better than others). Add to that a well-paying job and for many it won’t compare to life back home. Compared to that, Tokyo can seem downright dull.

Chart source: Nikkei.com (sub req’d)

First impressions of Katsushika-ku

Gaudy bunnyman laundromat near my place

It’s been about two months since I moved from Ayase to Shibamata, an area of Katsushika-ku about a 20-minute drive away. My life since then has been a mix of busy and overwhelming, but as a way to ease myself back into blogging I’ll offer some first impressions of the new neighborhood.

Shibamata is well-known as the setting for the Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo film series. It’s about a guy named Tora-san who works as a traveling salesman whose cantankerous attitude and pratfalls cause mayhem and drama for his family in Tokyo who sells rice dumplings outside Taishakuten, a big temple in the area. He is considered something of a hero to Japanese men who grew up a generation or three ago.

My apartment is maybe 15 minutes on foot from Taishakuten. The main attractions are the exquisite temple and a run-up of shops selling souvenirs and dango rice dumplings. If you had no clue about the movies, the general atmosphere would seem like a scaled-back version of Asakusa except for all the trinkets featuring a guy in a cheap suit and fedora.

Away from the touristy spots, my new place is in many ways not that different from Ayase. Katsushika-ku and Adachi-ku are both considered “shitamachi” (lower-class outlying Tokyo neighborhoods), and my neighborhood does not disappoint on this front. In fact, I live amidst a surprisingly thriving shotengai business district which offers competitive and attractive alternative grocery options to the Ito Yokado by the station, provided you’re willing to visit multiple stores.

You can see the Sky Tree from my apartment. When completed it will be the world’s tallest… something

Another related similarity is the general slumminess (for Japanese standards). I feel bad saying that though because even though both places feel kind of run down, the people and atmosphere in my new neighborhood are much sunnier. The police say Katsushika-ku has less crime than Adachi-ku (PDF), but by population the smaller Katsushika is pulling its weight just fine (2/3 the population with 3/4 the number of crimes).  At the anecdotal level, I have witnessed:

  • A crippled old guy escaped from a nursing home, sitting on his butt and pushing himself along on his hands trying to get somewhere (long story short, he had his facility name on his slippers, so I called to make sure they got him).

  • Obvious yakuza held a boisterous mikoshi parade around my station.

  • Something (probably human) left an enormous crap on the sidewalk one night.

  • A local dentist I visited was like something out of the Addams Family or the Saw movies – it was just in this guy’s house, and the office was dank, dark, and cluttered with unused equipment. Half the counter space was taken up by a bonsai tree and a fountain that he must have set up in the 80s.

  • Some drunk guy puked in my building’s lobby (oh wait, that was one of my guests…)

To offer a positive spin, these elements add lots of character and should keep our lives interesting. For the most part, it’s a great place to live so far. It’s a quieter neighborhood, many of the local people are friendly, and there’s a really nice public pool and a state-of-the-art central library nearby. And the best part is I am living in a much bigger place, for about the same rent. Having room to swing your arms around is extremely comfortable!

Also, for some reason my new commute on the Keisei line is so much less crowded than most of the other routes into Tokyo. From where I ride it’s often possible to get a seat, and it’s just about never uncomfortably packed.

Anyway, I will keep my eyes open! I have been meaning to go around with my camera to capture some of the local color.

The Haneda trick

Haneda Airport has been all over the Japanese news lately, so it’s about time that I write some more about it.

The new international terminal opened today, and long-haul flights will commence at the end of this month. The catch is that they will all have to operate between 10 PM and 7 AM, the hours when Narita Airport is closed. Only flights to certain cities in East Asia are allowed to operate during the day. This is commonly interpreted as a compromise to keep Narita traffic up, but there is a more subtle and less reported effect of the schedule: it helps Japanese airlines and screws over foreign airlines. Here’s why.

Within this rule, the most attractive schedule from a passenger’s perspective is to leave Haneda between 10 PM and 1 AM, and to arrive at Haneda as close to 7 AM as possible. If you leave Haneda in the early morning hours, you either have to get there on the last train the evening before (requiring a wait) or take a car or taxi in the wee hours of the night (expensive). If you land at Haneda after 10 PM, you have to hustle to get ground transportation to your final destination in Tokyo.

It’s easy for JAL and ANA to offer such schedules because they have operations at Haneda during the day. If a JAL plane comes in from Europe at 6 AM, it can be cleaned, refueled and sent on a round trip to Seoul, Beijing or Shanghai, and still get back in plenty of time to take people overseas at 10 PM. On the other hand, if a foreign plane flies in at 6 AM, they have to sit at Haneda for fifteen hours until they can fly again. The best compromise that non-Japanese carriers can come up with is to have their flights arrive at Haneda around 10:30 and depart around 6:30—meaning that most Tokyoites will have to get up very early and catch the first train of the morning, then catch the last train home after their trip. A couple have managed to put together flight schedules that leave Haneda around midnight, but this is not always realistic because of time zones and the longer turn-around times for long-haul aircraft.

JAL and ANA will run their first long-haul flights on October 31, but American, Delta, Air Canada and British Airways won’t start flights until next year, and might even decide that Haneda isn’t worth it unless the hours are relaxed further. The only non-Asian carrier that will serve Haneda this year is Hawaiian Airlines, who will bring their daily flight into Haneda right at 10 pm, then turn it around back to Honolulu after midnight. They can get away with this because Honolulu is only a few hours ahead of Tokyo (minus a day), so the midnight departure translates to a lunch arrival, and the 10 pm return arrival translates into an afternoon return departure—both good timings for vacationers. On the other hand, American’s proposed HND-JFK flight is horribly timed, leaving HND around 6 AM and arriving at JFK around the same time, virtually guaranteeing that every passenger on it will be jet-lagged out of their mind for a week. But they don’t have much of a choice.

The new division of duties between the airports won’t be sustainable, and I believe Kasumigaseki will eventually open up HND to flights around the clock—in which case Tokyo’s airport situation will eventually look like London’s. Haneda will be the equivalent of Heathrow: close-in, popular, charging a premium, and a key intercontinental hub. Narita will be the equivalent of Gatwick or Stansted: a haven for cheap flights to holiday destinations, mainly serving Tokyo locals.

Japan’s execution chamber opened to the press

Japan’s justice minister has allowed media to come in and look at the gallows where the executions take place:

Here is a video from TBS with more details. Apparently, the whole place smells like burning incense. The reporter has a good description of the room – 無機質 which literally means “inorganic” but I guess would be more naturally conveyed as sterile and banal.

The room is located at Tokyo Detention Center, which is a 20-minute or so walk from my house. It’s always a little disturbing to think this is where it all goes down.

I would strongly encourage people to read the NYT’s article, written by superstar Japan reporter Hiroko Tabuchi who should go down in history as their best ever Japan correspondent.

According to accounts in local news outlets, journalists were taken to the execution site in a bus with closed curtains, because its exact location is kept secret. There are seven such sites across Japan, the Justice Ministry said.

The journalists were led through the chambers, one by one: a chapel with a Buddhist altar where the condemned are read their last rites; a small room, also with a Buddha statue, where a prison warden officially orders the execution; the execution room, with a pulley and rings for the rope and a trapdoor where the condemned inmate stands; and the viewing room where officials witness the hanging.

The inmate is handcuffed and blindfolded before entering the execution room, officials said. Three prison wardens push separate buttons, only one of which releases the trapdoor — but they never find out which one. Wardens are given a bonus of about $230 every time they attend an execution.

Satoshi Tomiyama, the Justice Ministry official who later briefed the foreign news outlets and others excluded from the tour, said that wardens take the utmost care to treat death row inmates fairly and humanely.

The Buddha statues can be switched with an altar of the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion for followers of that faith, he said. For Christians, the prison provides a wooden cross. Inmates are given fruit and snacks before their execution, and sentences are not carried out on weekends, national holidays and around the New Year.


What amazes me is that this system has been in place for so long even when just about everyone, including death penalty supporters, knows there are serious problems. If nothing else, the government needs to reform the itinerary for carrying out executions. It just seems exceptionally cruel and Kafkaesque to keep the execution date secret for so many years and only tell them at the last minute. I also see no reason why the justice ministry should be allowed to hide their decision-making process on when to execute people.

Slate weighs in on missing old people, can’t manage to stay on topic

Slate has an article on the missing centenarian scandal, and it could have been better. Go read the writer’s take. Unfortunately, the subtitle is wildly inaccurate, “macabre Japanese trend – mummify grandma and collect the pension – what America can learn from these macabre tales of mummified Japanese centenarians.”

I will concede that she is more or less right on most of the facts, taken separately. But ultimately this article leads nowhere and tells very little. It tries to combine many separate issues – the missing old people issue and the “parasite single/aging society” common explanations for the Japanese malaise – without really making the case for why they go together.

What bugs me most, though, is the detached approach. In reviewing her book The China Price, a Bloomberg writer called her style “breezy, almost florid” – spot on, if this article is a guide. I wish more writers would actually try to have some empathy for the situation here rather than looking down on Japan from a distance.

Adachi-ku is really not that bad

Many of you know that Adamu lives in the Ayase neighborhood of northeast Tokyo. I also lived there for two years until moving to the west side of town earlier this summer, mostly at the behest of my new wife.

Adamu and I have both mentioned Ayase on the blog from time to time, mostly in relation to local crime-related happenings. So a reader recently asked us:

I am currently looking to move to the Nishi-Arai area, but it seems that when I ask a Japanese about Adachi-ku they all say that it is dangerous and low class. I asked a Police Officer in Kita-Senju and he said that there isn’t much violent crime, but maybe I would have to deal with loud bosozoku or getting my bicycle or umbrella stolen. For me, that is a fair trade off for drastically reduced expenses and good access around Tokyo. Anyway, I did check out the Nishi-Arai area with my own eyes and it seemed quite nice and all the people were friendly and polite. So am I missing something here or is it just the over paranoid Japanese who think more about image vs. reality?

I would say “you are not missing anything here.” Adachi-ku is, objectively speaking, a pretty good place to live. It’s convenient to central Tokyo, has many good local amenities like parks and shopping centers, and is quite cheap even compared to more distant suburbs. The perception of a high crime rate probably has more to do with the handful of high-profile incidents that have occurred there, but this is hard to avoid in any highly-populated urban area. That said, Adachi-ku is predominantly a working-class area, and this leads to some non-obvious drawbacks to living there, mainly if you plan to have a family.

One of the biggest black marks against Adachi-ku is apparently its public school system. Working-class areas of Tokyo are known for having very crappy schools which teach at such a low level, and have such a working-class student culture, that their students rarely go on to meaningful higher education (there is a discussion of this phenomenon in western Tokyo here). My wife claims that her mother once told her “If you don’t study harder, you’ll have to go to school in Adachi-ku.” It isn’t a great place to have kids.

Likewise, it can be very uncomfortable for middle-class Japanese people to socialize with their neighbors because of the class gap. This isn’t a big deal if you are a single foreign person who can socialize away from home, but if you have a Japanese stay-at-home spouse it can be problematic.

Those two factors are probably the biggest reasons why rent is comparatively low in Adachi-ku: people who are well-off enough to have families tend to avoid the area in favor of “more genteel” suburbs like Setagaya.

On another note, Adachi-ku is overpopulated and its infrastructure sometimes hasn’t quite gotten up to speed. Some train stations were built when the area was largely farmland, and don’t really have the capacity to deal with a crush of tens of thousands of people every day. Commuting to and from Ayase Station was something of an ordeal: in the morning, the outbound platform would always be full to the brim with people waiting for the next originating train to the city, and in the evening, you had to be right by the staircase when the train stopped, or else you would quickly get lost in a mob of wobbly salarymen and women clogging up the stairs. The Tobu Isesaki Line seems to be similar but perhaps a bit better (it’s comparatively easy to get a seat on an originating Hibiya Line train at Kita-Senju, even during rush hour).

Is it dangerous? Not really. Lock your doors and windows, lock your bike, keep your umbrella with you, and you will probably be fine. If you want to verify this, check out the Metropolitan Police’s violent crime map.

Japan’s second-oldest man actually a 30-year-old “partially mummified” dead body

This is already widely reported, but just thought I would share an amazing, terrifying story that happened pretty close to where I live.

Basically, the headline says it all. Back in June, some local workers visited the home one Sogen Kato to present him with an award - at 111 he had become the oldest resident of Adachi-ku, Tokyo, and the second-oldest man in Japan (on paper at least). However, his 80-year-old daughter wouldn’t let them in – “He’s upstairs but doesn’t want any visitors,” she said.

Undeterred, the officials complained to the police, who eventually got to the bottom of things – according to family members, in 1980 the then-octogenarian Kato declared he wanted to become “enlightened through mummification” (pic possibly NSFW - 即身仏), so would they please leave him alone in his room forever with no food or water, thank you very much.

Apparently, this claim might be a ruse – however Kato died, it’s possible they failed to report it in a ploy to keep receiving his pension. If true, that’s an incredibly stupid way of providing for your family after death. If he had bought a life insurance policy the survivors could have paid for a proper funeral (and therefore “proper” Buddha-fication) and still had enough left over to provide. And the biggest upside would be no skeletal corpse in the house for 30 years! I mean, just think of what you could do with that extra bedroom.

Watching for thieves in Ayase

This is the scene outside my apartment these days. Apparently, the Tokyo police are using a new tactic in efforts to catch bicycle thieves and purse snatchers near Ayase station.

The van is equipped with high-powered cameras that can take hi-res images with a 100m range in all directions. I saw them conducting tests a few months ago. The report emphasizes that the cameras are not running while the vehicle is in motion, and that local residents were duly warned about the cameras.

The van really stands out, as you can see. It looks like the FBI is staking out a mob boss’s house. When I first saw them testing the thing a few months ago I thought they might be preparing to film a movie. Looks like I was only half right.

The police must have invited the media to report on this new initiative because there’s also this video report. It’s cool to see my neighborhood in the news, but knowing the cops think Ayase is a hotbed of crime, while not surprising, isn’t exactly comforting.

It’s worth noting that Adachi-ku (where Ayase is located) has launched a so-called “beautiful windows” campaign. In an attempt to reduce crime in Tokyo’s most dangerous area, the government is trying to mimic the success of NYC in the Giuliani years by encouraging citizen patrols, banning smoking on the street, and painting murals on shuttered storefronts. This may dovetail with those efforts somehow.