July 2018


Postcards I bought of paintings by Seiji Togo on permanent display in the 42nd-floor Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on Sunday.

Gentlemen of the Joban Line

One of the advantages of living in Abiko, 40 minutes by rail from Tokyo, is you have a 50/50 chance of finding a seat on a rapid to Ueno. Two stations along, at Kashiwa, the odds dwindle to maybe one in 100 that among the press of pensioners, salarimen and high-schoolers you can find a seat. At all stations after that you can safely assume you’ll be standing, barring an act of God.

So it stuck out in my mind when a white-tufted man in his 70s eased himself up from his corner bench seat across from me and gestured to the younger woman standing in front of him to take his seat. What made his act even more surprising was the woman had been engrossed in conversation with her two middle-aged female friends who were also standing. The man could have safely kept himself to himself and no-one would have blamed him.

Cue a lot of restrained bowing. And while I couldn’t hear what was said, I could guess.

“Oh please, keep your seat, I’m quite happy to stand.”

“No, no, I insist, I’m getting off soon and it’s really no trouble.”

“Well, only if you insist.”

“Oh, but I do.”

So the older man stood and the younger woman sat. But this meant her two friends were left standing.

A cloud crossed the face of a middle-aged salariman who now found himself sitting next to the newly seated woman. How could he remain comfortably seated when a 70-year-old man and the woman’s two female friends were standing? He could not, and with an ironic smile and shrugged shoulders, he struggled to his feet, hoisting his briefcase from between his knees onto the luggage rack above. After the perfunctory refusals and insistences, the second woman sat.

By now of course, all eyes in the carriage carefully, but perceptibly, fell on the next person seated along the bench, a high school boy who, looking along the train could see standing a white-haired man, a middle-aged salariman and a woman. He promptly shot up to allow the last of the three women friends to take his seat.

I chuckled and turned to my wife sitting next to me. “See, this is a classic example of the problem of over-politeness. Because of one man’s polite gesture, two others were inconvenienced. So in a way, his politeness was quite inconsiderate of others’ feelings. He is an accidental villain.”

“Maybe,” my wife said, “but have you considered that the man knew exactly what he was doing?“

“What do you mean?”

“His intention all along had been to teach the younger men a lesson in manners. He is no villain, he,” she said looking across the aisle and cranking her head back to gaze at the back of the man’s willowy silver hair, “is a hero.”

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  1. My latest project this month is editing a traditionally published Japan-based author’s first novel that I’m helping him to self-publish. The working title is “Kamikaze to London.” See me here talk about the editing process (from my divinely windy bunker).
  2. As of writing this, all my favourite teams are still in the World Cup, but given that there can be only one winner and it probably won’t be England or Japan, let me share with you this month’s freebie, a short science fiction/fantasy story I wrote on the occasion of Leicester City’s 5000-1 odds against victory of winning the 2016 English Premier League. There are worse ways to spend 12 minutes.
  3. This was the best Japanese mystery I read last month, but if you are looking for something unrelated that you can read again and again, may I suggest this.
  4. Loyal OMIA newsletter subscriber Matt Dons chats on the Learn Japanese Podcast about Japan travel tips.    
  5. Roland Kelts gets to grips with post-Murakami Japanese writers here, seeing their angst with modern life as more universal than the US identity politics schtick.
  6. These are the books, many of them liberated from the amusingly titled Book Off secondhand bookshop chain, that I’m planning to read this month.
  7. This looks like a good samurai flick, if such things tickle your fancy.
  8. I’m in the throes of adapting Macbeth for a kids’ performance here In Abiko. So I listened with interest to Nordic noir star Jo Nesbo’s adaptation here. Really good. Really not for kids.
  9. A freeware Japanese dictionary with 180,000 entries? Read all about its founder here.
  10. Question of the month: HAVE YOU READ ANY GOOD MYSTERIES OR THRILLERS SET IN SPORTING EVENTS? I only ask as I’m thinking the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would make a fantastic backdrop for a murder mystery or two.

    To answer, just hit reply on your email and I’ll piece the bits together and post them next month for all subscribers to see.


    MARTIN FRID: “The Piano Tuner” by Daniel Mason, a great read about a man who tried to make peace with local tribes/nations/kings in Burma, by ordering an Erard piano, then had to get a London based piano tuner, to that part of the world. It is as much about being lost in time as in distance. Books only can do that to you. When we find ourselves in a novel location, we have very little to rely on, but our sense of humanity. Second best, “Silk” by the Italian writer Alessandro Baricco. It was translated into English in 1997 by Guido Waldman. About the son of a silk trader who had to travel to Egypt, then to late Edo Japan for silk worms, as they were having diseases and problems in Europe. Biological diversity, or the lack of it, will ruin many. A love story, far from home. About being totally lost, did I mention far from home, yet completely at home? Not your usual Madame Butterfly, either, but a real good yarn (ugh, see what I did there…?)

    LARRY PIPER: Not quite what you were asking, but close. When my brother — a real writer not just a “published author” like me (no one counts things in the Journal of Chemical Physics as real writing) — found out that I was to visit Japan for the first time, back in 2000 I believe it was (the year Takatoriki incongruously won the Haru Basho), he had me read James Clavell’s “Shogun”. He figured it would get me up to speed on Japanese culture.

    TONY KEYES: “On the Road” by Jack Kerouak.

    JULIE KUMA: Last month’s question about my summer reading: “Manhattan Beach,” by Jennifer Egan (hefty at 500 pp., but it really intrigues me and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    MARIA GODEBSKA: I can’t think of a novel that fixes problems, but I find that travel books – be they fact or fiction – are a great balm when feeling weighed down by Life:  “I am away from home,” you think, “so I shall read about other people being away from home”. I can’t recommend any in particular, just whatever grabs your interest, and not necessarily travel books related to the place you’re from.  The one I read most recently was “100 Days of Solitude” by Daphne Kapsali, who spent a year living and writing on a small Greek island. She ended up making her daily blog into the book. I read it because it was cheap on Kindle, and because all the negative Amazon reviews which slammed her for being too into herself, were by men. Nobody likes an uppity woman, eh? I have also read books by people travelling through Japan, and while they can help with objectivity, a too-perky traveler can bring you down. Case in point, I wrote to Josie Dew after reading her books about cycling through Japan and other countries, when I was being a bit negative (this was back in the 90s or early 2000s). I asked her how she managed to be so [expletive] positive about it all… She wrote back, and was ever so kind, and didn’t once call me a moaning Minnie. Alan Booth, although he wrote about 1970s Japan, was perfect for me – he walked the length of Japan, met a bunch of people, drank with them all, and was a bit testy. I would never consider that kind of activity – especially the walking and meeting people bits – so his books  are an enjoyable read. I have also found mountaineering books a greatly uplifting (forgive the pun) read. Don’t get me wrong – I have absolutely no interest in mountaineering or indeed any extreme sport, none whatsoever, but after I reluctantly started to read  “Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson (it was a gift from my brother, and had lain unread for too long, so I thought I oughter give it a go), I was gripped. All of his books are fantastic, as are (for me) all mountaineering books, and after reading all of his, I moved on to other books about and by mountain climbers. Another good one is by Jon Krakauer, who wrote about the 1996 Everest disaster: “Into Thin Air: Death on Everest”. So, I would say, read something that has nothing to do with you and your life and your problems, be they homesickness, difficulties adjusting, or what have you. Get out of your head and into someone else’s (but not in a creepy way).

    GUY YATES: I think the closest I would get to books which would take me back to England given my reading tastes would be Ben Aaronovitch’s “Rivers of London” series or Christopher Fowler’s “Bryant & May” series. However, both of these series are primarily London-based so they’d only get you back to the capital. But in their defence they do have comic books of the series too — but tracking down a copy of the Bryant & May one at a reasonable price is proving somewhat challenging. I mention this as comics would ultimately be my recommendation to someone living far from home: a good comic book or strip to immerse yourself in. And for that reason, what’s not to like about the Calvin and Hobbes strip? In times of need, I am always happy to revisit their escapades. They certainly have a choice of words which puts many a problem back in its right perspective.

* * *
Thanks for reading, have a good month. And if you have enjoyed reading any of my stuff, be a sport and leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads or your own blog, or drop me a line on Twitter or Facebook. You can find past issues of this newsletter at Letter from Abiko. If you appreciate this newsletter feel free to forward to a friend, post it on social media, or, perish the thought, buy one of my books. Abiko salutes your sacrifice.

Next month, I hope to nail Macbeth for a Japanese audience and live to tell the tale.

All the best,



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