I was never a big fan of wrestling when I was younger. I played some of the video games with friends, and knew the biggest stars, but I rarely if ever watched any actual matches.
Recently, though, I've been introduced to the wrestling going on right now and started to get involved in the funny storylines of heels and faces, grudges and partnerships, and found it more and more fun. So when there was a chance to go to see a show live in the Ryougoku Kokugikan as a birthday excursion, I got the ticket and got hype!
It's a bit of a shame I'm a bit late to see the legends of the show. The Undertaker just retired and there's no chance to see the likes of The Rock, Stone Cold or Kane. Golddust was scheduled to be part of this show, but when his tag team broke up. his slot got replaced. Of the older wrestlers, there were only Chris Jericho - who put on a great opening performance against a Japanese upstart from NXT - and I guess Rhyno. But watching wrestling live isn't about nostalgia - it's probably better to see new talent, and it's the wrestlers I have never paid that much attention to, like Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Neville, who really put their all into this show.
There were some other storyline-based disappointments. Enzo Amore and Big Cass were another tag team that just broke up, so all we saw of them was a 1-minute scene continuing that storyline that made it feel like a big waste that they came to Japan at all. While it had its moments and it was great fun to see two women's champions facing off against each other, the bi 6-woman tag team match was a bit less impressive than I'd hoped, with no big grappling throws or aerial showboating and a whole lot of Asuka's obsession with her butt spreading to the other women. In particular, Nia Jax didn't get to do enough.
But the overall show was incredibly enjoyable. What surprised me was how exciting it was to LISTEN to the show. I expected the pumping music with fantastic bass coming through an arena sound system, but the surprise was how great the ring itself sounds, the stamping and slamming and heavy landings. Plus getting involved in all the crowd chants and claps and waving of phone lights for Bray Wyatt's entrance is undeniably fun.
Honestly, I lost track of who's heel and who's face most of the time, and don't understand why Roman Reigns attracts such polarised reactions - the crowd was very vocal over whether they loved or hated him - and it's interesting how they seem to be building up Finn Balor as a major up-and-coming character.
This was a great show to be caught up in, one i never thought that I would enjoy as much as I did, but it's definitely something I'd like to do again.
In a few days, it will be my two-year Japanniversary. Two years since I arrived in Japan and moved into my apartment in Shinjuku. I’ve had good times in the little place in the centre of town, but there are some big drawbacks to living in such a convenient place. First, my apartment is expensive but small – I only have a mini-fridge and a single hob, with no food preparation area. Second, Shinjuku gets a little too busy for comfort, especially on weekends. And lastly, the most important thing – in Tokyo, there’s an annoying system where if you stay in an apartment for 2 years, you get charged a ‘renewal fee’, or double rent for one month. No thank you!
Last year, my grandmother passed away. She was a real character and I miss her presence in my life, especially when Christmas comes. She had enough savings squirreled away that when it was distributed between family members, it became a possibility that I could buy a cheap house in Japan. I’ve been working in Japan since I arrived, with several sidelines like proofreading and random TV work, plus made some well-timed investments into Cryptocurrency, so for the first time in my life, I’m ready to get onto the property ladder. Thank you, Grandma!
Buying in Japan is in some ways surprisingly simple, and in others surprisingly difficult. Firstly, there are no legal restrictions on foreigners buying property, which makes sense when you consider that the Japanese economy will benefit from foreign investment, especially from China. On the other hand, someone like me who has been here for just two years on a working visa, unmarried and with an uneven income, has no chance of getting a mortgage. So while it was possible to buy a place, I couldn’t look at anything very luxurious that I would ordinarily fund with a mortgage.
On the other hand, I feel that if possible, buying outright is a much better investment choice. The debates between buying or renting largely revolve around whether mortgage interest repayments are effectively the same as renting anyway, with various inconveniences. Buying outright has very few disadvantages in investment terms.
So I began the property search. Helpfully, there are various agents in Japan that are eager to help foreign-language buyers, especially in English or Chinese. My Japanese is getting…passable by this stage, but I didn’t feel prepared to deal with the complexities of contract negotiation without someone to interpret! I found various agencies who were helpful, but ultimately a relatively new company called Beyond Borders was most helpful, bilingual agent Mori-san having been very helpful and accommodating throughout the process.
I started out by looking at apartments near where I was living, but didn’t fall in love with any of them. Everything changed when I viewed a house a little further out from the city, in Koenji. It was a great little property by the side of a river – and it reminded me that buying land is far better than an apartment in Japan, where property depreciates but land holds its value.
I made a bid on the house. In fact, I was the highest bidder. Sadly, the seller thought that dealing with a foreigner was too scary and turned down my bid. In other countries, this might be illegal on grounds of discrimination, but there’s no protection against this kind of decision in Japan. Whether renting or buying, watching out for ‘no dogs, no gaijin’-style messages is a necessity. I was angry at the time, but it’s the current social reality here.
That experience totally changed what I wanted in my property search, though. I had been putting price first, then location, with size last. I realised I would be happier commuting for a longer time every day if I could get a much bigger place. That’s why I decided on Edogawa, where land prices are cheap but the trainlines are well-connected. Plus there’s a famous fireworks festival there every summer, and it’s halfway to the airport. I made sure to look for places on relatively high ground because Edogawa is at risk of flooding, and eventually found a house that was big, sturdy, but because the road approaching it is too narrow, cannot be completely rebuilt – something that in Japan sends the property price tumbling. I can reinforce it against earthquakes, even entirely rebuild the structure within the same blueprint, but can’t tear it down and build something new. If a natural disaster completely destroys it, I’ll be in trouble, but that’s a risk I decided to take.
The actual process of buying has not been straightforward. Japan has a lot of odd traditions connected to buying property. For example, the 10% deposit at the beginning of negotiations has to be made in cash. For my house that was a fair wad of banknotes, but I imagine luxury apartments in the city centre must involve briefcases full of them. It’s lucky Japan has such low crime rates, because that’s a very risky system!
I also had to have a jitsu-in, an officially-registered wooden seal, made in my name. This was surprisingly fast and inexpensive, and it’s probable that it would be waived in most sales to foreigners, especially those who don’t even enter the country for negotiations, but it was something of an oddity.
Now, I’m waiting to move in. Unfortunately, the seller can’t hand the property over in good faith until the land has been surveyed, and it’s taken a very long time to schedule that survey. But it’s finally around the corner, my belongings are all packed, and all that remains is the final settlement – which will be slightly surreal. The seller, her agent, my agent and me will all gather in a bank, where I will make a transfer to the seller and a transfer to my agent under the watchful eyes of everyone involved. Then comes registration, connecting utilities, getting insurance and all the other necessities.
It hasn’t been a simple process, and there have been some big bumps along the road, but I’m about to move in and get decorating. Frankly, I can’t wait!
Though many good things happened in my professional life, the past year has been a sad one for my family. My aunt died much too young in November, 2015 and then last month her mother, my grandmother, also passed away. By unfortunate coincidence, both were while I was in Japan, and at times I was unable to return to England to attend their funerals, so I haven’t honestly been able to feel I’ve had a chance to pay my respects or fully reflect on their lives. Next month, I’ll be returning to England, and will be able to visit their graves, but fortunately there was also a memorial event for my aunt yesterday in Tokyo University.
My aunt was a prominent scholar of French literature and had attended a number of academic conferences here in Japan, as well as hosting many Japanese scholars who were interested in visiting the Samuel Beckett archives at Reading University. So her kind friends and colleagues over here in Tokyo arranged a memorial day, in conjunction with a memorial symposium a year after her death over in England. Since I’m living in Tokyo, it made sense for me to attend and deliver a message from my uncle, giving me a chance to pay my respects.
My hosts set up a lovely event. This was my first time in the University of Tokyo, and the Komaba campus is small and pretty. After finding the correct building, I was led to a room full of scholars, some young but most older, with the somewhat languid air of lifelong academics. Most were Japanese, though there was one other Westerner, another Brit named David whose life, it seems, was intertwined with my aunt’s right from their undergraduate days.
I was greeted very warmly, and though the event was in a typical academic meeting room, there was a smiling photograph of my aunt, a display of her books and pretty floral displays.
The opening memorial service was touching. Friends of my aunt from her academic circle ran through her biography, and then gave their personal reminiscences, often with photographs - both of her visits to Japan and their visits to England. They found a particular significance and comfort in her last words being, ‘It’s exciting.’ I was invited to read my uncle’s message, which was received with appreciation, and later had a chance to give my own account, centred on memories of the family gathering at Christmastime. Even though I was in a room of strangers, we were all connected through my aunt, so I was grateful to have such a chance to pay my respects.
This was followed by an academic symposium responding to my aunt’s legacy. Admittedly, while I could follow the personal reminiscences, which other than my own had all been in Japanese, when it came to academic vocabulary and analysis I was mostly lost, really only able to follow one lecture on Samuel Beckett and Music. Nonetheless, I was pleased to be part of the event.
Next, we went to nearby Shibuya to enjoy a meal in my aunt’s honour. As is traditional after a symposium, we went to an izakaya, a Japanese restaurant where the emphasis is on drinking, and my hosts had selected Gonpachi. Gonpachi is a famous chain in Japan with very traditional décor, a different branch made particularly famous recently as a location in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Kill Bill. We had a private room where we enjoyed an extended ‘Nabe course’, which culminated in a hot pot but mostly delighted me with the smaller dishes that came first – delicious sashimi, large korroke and a kind of Chinese-style dish slightly reminiscent of hairy prawns. It was a superb meal, accompanied by plenty of beer with which to toast my aunt.
I didn’t speak much Japanese that evening, as I sat with David and listened to his stories about my aunt and his own interesting career. Like me, he studied at Cambridge, plays in a band and has a keen interest in progressive rock. I learned alot about Samuel Beckett, particularly regarding his interest in sport, and felt quite emboldened to be able to talk about my thesis for the first time since finishing it, as well as my book. I am grateful I had a chance to meet such an interesting group of people, and this was really my first time interacting with academia in Tokyo, so I feel quite grateful to have had the opportunity.
I’m not sure if I will ever return to the university, or see any of the other campuses, but who knows? Perhaps in the future I’ll be able to return.
Japan has a strong tradition of cross-dressing, from the female roles in Kabuki to the okama bars of Kabukicho, plus of course the elegant males of visual kei who with the help of huge amounts of makeup and far more photoshop are as convincing as any Thai ladyboy, plus more glamorous (though the illusion tends to shatter up close). But while josou – boys dressing as girls – tends to dominate, the opposite, referred to as dansou, is not uncommon. Prominent cosplayers are celebrated for pulling off the male look well, singers like Valshe look and sound like attractive pretty-boys – and then there is Takarazuka.
In front of audiences that are at least 98% female, the various troupes of the Takarazuka Kageki-dan are all female. Half of them play female roles, half male. These all-female troupes put on high-camp musicals that take their melodramatic love stories very, very seriously, and showcase some extremely powerful voices. In heavy makeup and often elaborate costumes – usually sparkling with many, many sequins – the girls tease their audiences with love stories and over their 101-year history have of course courted controversy with overt homoeroticism. The audience is certainly not filled with lesbians, but something about the masculine otoko-yaku being a woman, clean-cut and charming and understanding the feminine heart, is deeply attractive to the adoring female fans. The idea of young female students having a crush on an older girl at school is very common in Japanese media, and in some ways this is an extension of that mildly thrilling bit of transgression.
Interesting though the sociopolitics are, the performances themselves are very straightforward. Emotions are bombastic and direct, performances hammy and sets and costumes opulent. It’s romantic and overwrought and revels in that campy excess. In many ways the result is like a British pantomime, only less twee and more erotically-charged.
Love & Dream was somewhat atypical – rather than a single story, this revue was divided into a Disney tribute and then a kind of best-of compilation from Takarazuka’s long history. Dealing in grand, overwrought emotions, Disney material is somewhat ideal for Takarazuka, and it was big emotional numbers with the chance for the singer to belt like ‘Part of Your World’, ‘Go the Distance’ and of course ‘Let It Go’ that showcased some extremely impressive singing talents. Songs that allowed the otoko-yaku to show some personality worked well, too, like ‘Friend Like Me’, and it was fun hearing these familiar songs in Japanese – it’s somewhat gratifying that they call Hercules ‘Heracles’, like we should.
Some parts were misfires, but the pacing was brisk enough that the awkward parts quickly segued into something else. Whoever thought ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’ needed a hard rock remix with guitar solo was misguided, and Mary Poppins numbers were a bit of a mess, needing much more elaborate choreography to work. But hey, when a dozen highly enthusiastic women come running out dressed as extremely camp pirates (to the theme from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’) and launch into ‘Under the Sea’, one really has to embrace the absurdity of it and enjoy the silliness.
The second half of the show was more of an authentic representation of what the Hoshigumi usually does, with various songs apparently familiar to Takarazuka aficionados that were as camp as just about anything Disney could put forward. The song I remember best was about being a vampire, though most of the content wasn’t quite that silly. There was a very funny comic interlude with a domineering sempai figure in a huge and absurd ballgown getting fussy about being upstaged by a young and cute idol-like group of girls, which quite bizarrely called heavily on the humour and tropes of drag – it was very much like having a drag queen or pantomime dame onstage, only in a female-only company.
In addition to the interesting gender divide, watching the audience was quite fun. In common with most Japanese musical performances, there was what seemed to be a correct way to behave – everyone clapped together, and large numbers of fans had brought glowing Hs much like the glowsticks of idol concerts to swing side to side with the beat. The appearances of the main otoko-yaku stars also inspired much excitement and febrile attempts to get noticed with a two-handed wave.
High camp, very silly and occasionally baffling, I’m pleased to have been to see Takarazuka in action.