Africa comes to Tokyo: The Hole in the Road

This is TICAD week--Tokyo International Conference on African Development. Coincidentally, I just read an essay by the late Polish newsman Ryszard Kapucinski on what he saw when he worked in Africa: thousands and thousands of capable people with absolutely nothing to do. No resources. No jobs. No homes. Refugees who lost everything except the very last treasure, life itself.

One day, he drove a few hundred miles to see a famed marketplace located outside a scruffy village. The miserable single-track road wound on forever, until it reached the village, where it had to squeeze between mud brick huts lining both sides of the road. He was almost in sight of the village, when traffic came to a halt. Carts, trucks, rickety buses, and cars stopped in the midday sun with no place to go. No way forward. No way to back up.

He got out of the car to see what was wrong.

Many, many cars ahead of him, he spied the problem. It was a gigantic hole. Smack in the middle of the road. Deep enough to swallow a car whole, and no way around it. The only way to move was forward, into the hole.

People gathered to watch. They had nothing else to do.

The first few cars could drive in and climb out again under their own power. Each car, however, made the hole a little deeper, a little more thrilling. To make a long story short, it reached the point where a car could plunge in, but there was no way its owner could drive it out.

That's when one of the male bystanders got a rope and offered to help. Before long, he had a thriving business. Several helpers, too.

Not to be left out, the women scrambled to put together some snacks, and sold them to the drivers waiting for their turn at the hole in the road. Kids carried water up and down the line of waiting cars. Vendors on their way to the official market stopped in their tracks and set up stalls near the head of the traffic jam where there was a little room at the side of the road.

By day's end, the scruffy nothing of a village had become a bustling profit center.

If people can make something out of nothing but a muddy hole in the road, imagine what they could do with real resources. Hopes are high for good results from the TICAD.


Name that Mountain

Did you guess Mt. Fuji? It's understandable because both mountains have similar silhouettes.
This one is Mt. Yotei, and it is in Hokkaido. It overlooks the town of Niseko.
Niseko has two claims to fame. One is the incomparable powder snow in winter that draws visitors to Niseko from around the world. The other claim to fame? Niseko is probably the only place in Japan where you are more likely to hear English being spoken than Japanese. Why? Because of the powder snow. Winter in Japan is summer vacation time for Australians.
Isn't it a marvel that our planet has complementary hemispheres?
G'day from Niseko, with love!


The One-Ton Bomb Next Door

We all know lots of reasons why war is hell. Here's another one: no one cleans up afterwards.

Yesterday 16,000 people--including all the patients in the local hospital--had to run for their lives down leafy, suburban streets. Why? While digging the foundation for someone's brand new house, construction workers came face to face with an unexploded WWII bomb. One unpredictable ton of war's leftovers.

Would it explode? No one knew. So 16,000 people were asked to leave their homes, their businesses, their oxygen and IVs.

Luckily, the professionals who came immediately were able to defuse it and carry it away to wherever it is you take one ton bombs.


If there is one bomb under the vacant lot next door, can you be sure there isn't another one just like it hiding under your house?


Tell Me It Isn't So

Baseball season is in full swing. (pun warning, too late) My favorite team (Yomiuri Giants) lost today's game. My former favorite (Seibu Lions) won. They weren't playing each other, so no problem.

The problem is (pun warning) a whole other ballgame.

Seibu played in Sendai City, in a shiny new stadium that seats more than 12,000. I couldn't believe it when the name of the stadium flashed across the TV screen. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. That could not possibly be the stadium name.

See, there's a trend now to name stadiums after business enterprises. For instance, the super trendy soccer stadium in Tokyo is called Ajinomoto Stadium. Ajinomoto is a company that makes cooking oil. It is possible to ignore that fact, because at least the word Ajinomoto sounds Japanese, even though its connection to the world of soccer is, er, slippery.

But back to the Seibu Lions playing up north in Sendai. I kept my eyes glued to the screen, waiting for the name of the new stadium to appear again, and when it did, my heart sank to new depths.

The romance is gone. I cannot wrap my mind around a playing field called Kleenex Stadium. I just can't.



Earthquakes are, for practical purposes, still unpredictable. The many lives lost in China yesterday are the sad proof.

Weather may be more predictable, but it doesn't do a lot of good. Look at what happened in New Orleans and again in Burma. (OK, the military bullies want us to call it Myanmar. Yessir! Myanmar, the country its leaders are allowing to die.)

One of my favorite philosophers always said that the most elementary type of competition is in military strength. From "My Dad can beat your Dad" to "My army can bomb yours back to the stone age".

More sophisticated is economic competition. Remember "We will bury you"? That, and quarterly reports for the stockholders, market share, and so on.

So what is the highest form of competition? Compassion, that's what. Who can do the greatest good for the greatest number? Who can be first on the scene after a natural disaster?

Compassion should be the field of dreams for the leader of the free world.


The 2000 km Swim

For me, a long swim is about five successive strokes. I cannot imagine swimming 1 kilometer, let alone two thousand kilometers. Fortunately, I will never have to. If I want to travel from Guam to Okinawa, I can take a plane.

A sea turtle, however, has no choice but to swim the distance.

Recently, a female green sea turtle was tracked by satellite. A transmitter was attached to one of her feet after she laid eggs on a beach in Guam. For five months, nothing was heard from the turtle. When the signal was picked up again, the turtle was grazing on seaweed near the Okinawan island of Kume. (You can see Kume Island from the airport at Naha.)

Five months is a long time between e-mails. It seems that the satellite can only pick up the signal when the turtle surfaces. Five months is also a long time to hold one's breath. It's amazing that there exists a creature who can live underwater and also on land.

In Okinawan mythology, the turtle is the link between worlds--the world of humans and the world of the gods. Among the relics discovered at the sunken pyramid of Yonaguni is a statue of a turtle. That stone turtle is itself a link between two worlds--our world, and the lost world of whoever carved the statue.

Who? Why? And where did they go?


One Week in May Studded with Golden Days

There are so many legal holidays in the first week of May that it is called Golden Week.

May 3, for instance, honors the Constitution. May 5 is Children's Day. So that May 4 doesn't suffer by comparison, it has been dubbed Green Day. Put together, they made a lovely and long weekend. This year, because Constitution Day fell on a Saturday, Tuesday (May 6) was thrown in as a make-up holiday.

It rained on Saturday, so instead of going out on Constitution Day, I did something radical. I sat down and read the Constitution. It took about 20 minutes, and I found some items that even the erstwhile "leader of the free world" doesn't have in its own Constitution.

Article 25. All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living. (2) In all spheres of life, the State shall use its endeavors for the promotion and extension of social welfare and security, and of public health.

How cool is this? We all have health insurance and access to medical/dental care. There aren't any slums or inner cities for the unempowered in the western sense of the world.

Article 26. All people shall have the right to receive an equal education correspondent to their ability, as provided by law. (2) All people shall be obligated to have all boys and girls under their protection receive ordinary educations as provided for by law. Such compulsory education shall be free.

This, too, is incredibly cool. Everyone can read and write!

Article 27. All people shall have the right and the obligation to work. (2) Standards for wages, hours, rest and other working conditions shall be fixed by law. (3) Children shall not be exploited.

To work is to be human. To give a fair day's work for a fair day's pay does a lot for an adult's pride. There is no welfare class. Lay-offs and unemployment are not unknown, and yet they are not on the same scale as in the US, and they are not endemic to certain demographics the way they are in the US.

The Constitution: to know it is to love it. Have you read yours lately?