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by Hugh Cook

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Typical Japanese countryside

Websites and privacy      Air pollution in Tokyo

Invaded by ants      Ants at midnight      Ants like a screensaver

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Section 1 Entry 0001. Date: 2002 June 9 Sunday.
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Dear Diary, it's hot today and I feel sleepy.

Section 1 Entry 0002. Date: 2002 June 10 Monday.   (diary)    (previous)   (top)   (bottom)   (next)  (topics)  (contents)

On the train from Gunma Prefecture to Tokyo. Cool in the train -- too cool -- but very hot outside. Imbricated tiles glistening in the sun. Granite of graveyards, gray and black, slick with sunlight. Typical Japanese countryside: wires, power pylons, little patches of cultivated land interspersed with housing developments and service stations and occasional outcroppings of industry. Occasional trees. Now a swathe of rice paddy, wet and green ....

Section 1 Entry 0003. Date: 2002 July 26 Friday.   (diary)    (previous)   (top)   (bottom)   (next)  (topics)  (contents)

A really hot day, the temperature in Tokyo forecast to climb to 34 degrees Centigrade (about 93 degrees Fahrenheit.) I have been working on my website, which I expect to have up and running within the next month or so.

As usual, I bought a copy of the International Herald Tribune at the railway station today. It's always been one of my favorite newspapers, and it's published here in Japan in conjunction with an English-language edition of the Asahi Shimbun, meaning that I can conveniently get a range of local and international perspectives in a single package.

I found an interesting article headlined "Going incognito on the Internet?" with the subtitle "Web search tools make it harder to elude online snoops". It dealt with the anxieties of people who are facing the erosion of their privacy because of the Internet, sometimes as a consequence of information (such as family information) which they put there themselves.

This made me think back to something that struck me when I first began to use the Internet, two or three years ago: how naively self-revealing so many people are.

I'm not thinking here about "revealing" in the sense of disclosing data to the world (though the newspaper article which prompted these thoughts was firmly focused on the question of what data is out there on the Web.) Rather, I'm thinking about how clearly the raw architecture of the person's true personality discloses itself, artlessly and defenselessly.

One of the tasks facing the writer is the construction of a mediating persona which stands between the naked personality and the observing gaze of the world. A classic instance of this, taken to extremes, is the case of Ernest Hemingway, a highly literate man who owned a library containing thousands of volumes, but who mediated his contacts with the world through the persona of the almost sub-literate "Hemingway", a hard-drinking hard-fisted tough guy.

Looking at some people's personal web sites is like looking at some people's first efforts at writing fiction. The person who is so openly disclosing themselves to the world has not even begun to think about the problem of constructing a psychological firewall between the interrogating gaze of the observing world and the coded universe of the innermost self.

Section 1 Entry 0004. Date: 2002 August 04 Sunday.   (diary)   (previous)   (top)   (bottom)   (next)  (topics)  (contents)

The must-be-avoided temptation for writers is to write about writing. As I struggle to put together my own web site, I'm discovering a new temptation. The must-be-avoided temptation for web masters is to write about web making. I'm resisting this temptation. As best I can. But it's NOT easy.

Section 1 Entry 0005. Date: 2002 August 29 Thursday.     (diary) (previous)   (top)   (bottom)   (next)  (topics)  (contents)

The heat of summer continues to linger on into what is technically autumn, and it was already 27 degrees Celsius before 7 am. However, this is a step down from the crushing heat of recent weeks. Even so, on the platform at the train station, a couple of people were still using fans.

A couple of weeks back, there were days when so many people were using fans that the orderly lines of people waiting in utter silence for the trains momentarily gave the hallucinatory impression of being some kind of marine lifeform, its multi-fanned extrusions sifting the hot wet currents in which it lived.

To add to the discomfort, there have recently been a string of days in which the city has suffered from photochemical smog. This goes unmentioned on the weather reports; these days, it seems, the policy of Those Who Rule is that no public mention should be made of smog, because back in the days when smog reports were broadcast to the entire population, a certain number of people understandably got upset to learn what they were breathing.

My understanding is that in cities like Los Angeles there are days when the public will be told to stop breathing, since the quality of the air makes this practice hygienically undesirable. The air in the Tokyo-Yokohama area can get just as bad, but you have to work this out for yourself ... not particularly difficult when you look outside and see that houses only a stone's throw away are looking a little bit hazy.

When I first came to Tokyo I got the impression that my eyesight had deteriorated, because things were no longer as sharp as they used to be, and colors no longer as vivid. Then, one day, after a passing typhoon had washed the air clean, I saw the world in all its true detailed brilliance and realized that, hey, it's not my eyes that are the problem.

In this hot weather, it's difficult, at times, to work up much of an appetite, and some of the meals that I have prepared have been on the skimpy side. (I've also been very busy, which has not encouraged elaborate exercises in the culinary arts.)

A few weeks ago, when it was my turn to cook, I put together a meal by steaming some rice, making a salad, and putting a couple of plates of supermarket sashimi on the table. It was observed that I made some tanuki ryori.

I was charmed by this expression, "tanuki ryori". The word "ryori" (with a long "o") means "food". And the tanuki is a kind of Japanese raccoon, a ceramic effigy of which is often seen standing at the doorway to Japanese restaurants. The tanuki is a magic animal, but its magic is a low-grade magic, unsophisticated and unskillful, capable of deceiving but not for long. (Unlike the magic of the kitsune, the fox, which is possessed of an alarmingly powerful wily sophistication.)

A few days later I used this expression myself, only to be met with baffled incomprehension. It turns out that in Japanese there is no such expression as "tanuki ryori" - rather, the expression I had misheard is "tenuki ryori", the literal meaning of which, I think, is something like "food without hands", "te" being "hands" (the "te" of "karate") and "nuki" meaning "without".

(Other pieces of Japanese I have learnt recently, from watching television, include the expressions "adios" and "private time" ... some elements of the Japanese language, such as "bye bye" and "sank you" are not too difficult for a native speaker of English to pick up.)

Speaking of food, I recently turned down the opportunity to have a little culinary adventure. I was in an Italian restaurant and there was a cannister of an American-made topping which advertized itself as being suitable for sprinkling on pizza and spaghetti and the like.

Like all foreign food sold in Japan, this cannister came complete with a Japanese-language label specifying the nature of the contents. However, it also came with the original American labels, which were fascinating.

According to the labels, the topping contained, amongst other things, cheese and sugar, the ingredients of the cheese including milk and salt. Somehow, however, despite containing cheese and sugar, a single serving of this product contained zero calories. It also contained zero sodium, despite the fact that it contained salt - and, unless I misremember my high school chemistry, salt is a compound of sodium and chlorine. To add to the mystery, although a single serving allegedly contained zero sodium, the fine print indicated that this was NOT a sodium-free food.

I puzzled over these confusing and conflicting labels for some time before it occurred to me that, since America is famous for being a nation of law, presumably there is some legal loophole permitting a manufacturer to specify a limited number of calories as equaling zero, and to treat sodium similarly.

Over the last year or so, I have read a number of newspaper articles about the growing problem of obesity in America. Nobody really seems to know the root cause of the problem, but maybe one contributing factor is people who regulate their diet by counting legal calories rather than scientific calories ... it might be possible to assemble a collection of foods which would let you double your weight in a month without consuming a single legal calorie.

Anyway, I didn't try the topping. I abandoned the practice of putting sugar on my food when I was twelve years old.
Section 1 Entry 0006. Date: 2002 August 29 Thursday.
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We have been invaded by ants.

Section 1 Entry 0007. Date: 2002 August 29 Thursday.   (diary)   (previous)   (top)   (bottom)   (next)  (topics)  (contents)

Against my better judgment, I was persuaded to use the vacuum cleaner on the ants. This proved every bit as useless as I had expected. Thirty-seven seconds after you have finished with the vacuum cleaner, fresh ants are swarming out from the cracks where our universe joins theirs.

A new solution was proposed:-

"Don't look and don't tell me."

Dutifully, I ignored the ants, until I was summoned by a cry:

"Hugh! Hugh! Honey! Honey jar!"

The ants had evidently found the honey jar some time earlier. When I brushed them away from the exterior, so many ants fell to the kitchen floor that the polished wooden boards on which I was standing in my bare feet became positively gritty with ants, a rather disturbingly unpleasant sensation. As I removed the plastic lid from the honey jar, ants boiled out of its curved topography. Quantities of ants were inside the jar, and these showed no immediate interest in leaving.

An interesting intellectual problem: how do you separate a large quantity of ants from a jar two-thirds full of honey? The solution, I decided, was to put the jar under a running tap and keep it there until the ants had been washed away. This proved remarkably effective, except that the topmost portion of the honey became sloshy. I spooned the sloshy stuff into a plastic bag, put that inside another plastic bag, and consigned this to the garbage. The honey jar I put inside the fridge.

The obvious solution to the ant invasion is to get some poison and commit a crime against the local ecology, but this will have to wait until the weekend.

"They endlessly marching! They are marching to the kitchen! Are you happy to sleep to know they are marching beside you?"

"Yes. They don't eat people ... I am writing about the ants for my website."

"Today's golden rule. Put your honey in the refrigerator."

Personally, I blame global warming.

Section 1 Entry 0008. Date: 2002 August 30 Friday.   (diary)   (previous)   (top)   (bottom)   (next)  (topics)  (contents)

I was awakened shortly after midnight by an ant crawling on my naked forearm - because of the lingering heat, I was lying on top of the sheet rather than under it. The fan was on, which keeps away any stray mosquitos, but the ant was untroubled by the fan. On top of that, the air was fragrant with the smoke of a mosquito coil, but it seems that this, too, is ineffective against ants.

After that, it was hard to get back to sleep. As far as I could determine, only one real ant made it all the way to the futon, but the one real ant was followed by a succession of imaginary ants.....

Section 1 Entry 0009. Date: 2002 August 30 Friday.   (diary)   (previous)   (top)   (bottom)   (next)  (topics)  (contents)

This morning, there were fewer ants ... dispersed, scouting. I went outside to water the lawn. A bit ragged from lack of sleep, and made uneasy by the ants, I was vulnerable to the shock of the thing which immediately started sliding down my back. Reflexively, I slapped a hand round to the small of my back, only to discover that the thing which was sliding over my flesh was sweat. My whole body was greasy with sweat, even before seven in the morning.

The temperature in Tokyo is forecast to climb to 33 degrees Celsius today, and the fans were busy on the railway station platform this morning - more of them than yesterday.

One of the plants I watered this morning is an eggplant growing in a pot. Maybe there are eggplants in New Zealand, but I had never seen one growing before I came to Japan. In fact, this year was the first year in which I got to see an eggplant doing its stuff.

Earlier in the year, in the hottest days of summer, the eggplant was growing furiously. But it was incompetent to cope with the heat. I would water it in the morning then come home in the evening to find its big broad leaves had flopped downwards and shriveled.

The interesting thing is that now, weeks later, its current set of leaves are much smaller, and it is bearing up to the heat much better. I don't know whether this is a standard growth pattern for eggplants, or whether repeated heat shocks have encouraged this particular plant to adapt its architecture.

Section 1 Entry 0010. Date: 2002 September 01 Sunday.   (diary)   (previous)   (top)   (bottom)   (next)  (topics)  (contents)

On Saturday, early in the morning, I noticed the ants as I stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil. I watched them without any particular emotion. A bit like a screensaver - the ants go forward and the ants go back.

There didn't seem to be many ants about. And then I had occasion to shift the dish rack in which wet dishes sit after being washed. Some water had pooled beneath it, and this had become a hangout for hundreds of ants. They boiled away in all directions as their protective cover was removed, creating, for a moment, the impression of a mobile Rorschach inkblot.

In the morning, I emptied the vacuum cleaner. It was bought second-hand back in the 1990s and does not use vacuum bags. Rather, the accumulated dust gets emptied onto pages from an old newspaper, which are folded and put in the trash. This time, there were two or three hundred ants, mostly looking dessicated, lying on their backs, feet up.

Saturday afternoon I made a foray to the home center. An amazing array of stuff for killing things - slugs, rats, weeds, caterpillars, mites. And ants. Painfully, I decrypted the ant-stuff data, all in Japanese. "Don't feed this to your pets, don't use it inside, don't pour it in rivers." (I think.)

At last, with the greatest reluctance, I asked a saleswoman for help, and she pointed me to some use-indoors stuff, mostly honey and water, but with a little poison thrown in.

The little bottle came with two tiny plastic saucers. Once these ant restaurants were opened to the public, they immediately became popular. Inside of five minutes, both were thickly fringed with mascara-black ants.

Shortly, however, the restaurant nearest the door to the garden - nearest the ants' point of ingress - had become far more popular. I was impressed by the ruthless speed with which the ants abandoned the remoter restaurant. It was like a textbook example of the logic of the marketplace in action.

Only not quite. Even after the remoter restaurant had been largely abandoned, a few ants were hanging out there. Why? While thinking about it, I noticed that some ants were doing totally pointless things. One was scouting in a wide arc which ultimately took it out across the polished wooden boards of the living room and onto the traditional tatami mats of the bedroom.

It occurred to me that if the ants were totally machine-like, totally obedient to some kind of rigid logic, then they would never discover anything new. Would never discover a jar of honey in the kitchen, for example. Presumably, their inbuilt programming comes with some kind of randomizing element to make sure that at least a certain number of ants are always doing something which is not optimally productive - hanging out at the remoter restaurant, or venturing out into the nowhere of the unexplored.

Programmed dissidence as a survival strategy for the species.

It is amazing how long you can spend watching ants. We have a radio, a stereo, a TV with a cable TV hookup which includes movies, sports and CNN, and on top of that we have a broadband Internet connection, not to mention books and magazines. And yet all of this was going disregarded.

I guess the ants had two advantages - first, they were local, and, second, they were real. I write in the past tense because it seems the ants have suffered a communal tragedy, as the restaurants have gone pretty much unvisited today.

Section 1 Entry 0011. Date: 2002 September 10 Tuesday.   (diary)   (previous)   (top)   (bottom)   (next)  (topics)  (contents)

After the ants, the cockroaches. Well, so far, only one cockroach. But, logically, there is no such thing as "just one cockroach". Although there are a number of cockroach traps scattered around the house, this was an exceedingly big cockroach, at least by Japanese standards - way too big to have even a hope of fitting inside the itty bitty traps. I went to local supermarket and bought bigger ones.

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Cockroaches in Japan

Question: What is cockroach in Japanese? Answer: "cockroach" is "gokiburi" in Japanese. (The dictionary also contains the word "aburamushi," literally "oil insect," but calling a cockroach an "aburamushi" is a bit like calling a "horse" a "steed" or referring to "nuclear war" as "atomic warfare".)

Cockroachs are fairly common in Japan, but not particularly large. The ones I've seen have been no bigger than a man's thumb. My own experience during five years in Japan has been that the occasional cockroach will find its way into cockroach-free premises, but that a suitable number of strategically-placed cockroach traps will prevent the invaders from getting established locally.

When you buy the cockroach traps from the hardware store or the supermarket, you will find precise instructions on the packaging. (In Japanese, of course.)

I've seen a piece of propaganda from a certain organization claiming that cockroachs are "normal" in Japan and that therefore you should not worry about the cockroachs you find in the squalid slum into which your new employer has dumped you. However, this is just so much jolpswaddle, as they say in Ikathapata.

It's true that cockroaches are "normal" in the sense that they're found all over the world, just like rats. However, if you have a nest of rats in your ceiling, there's no reason for you to passively accept this situation as being "normal" (although that is the advice that one Japanese landlord blandly gave to his American tenant, who was complaining about the rats keeping him awake at night). Similarly, if you have cockroaches, it's perfectly reasonable to do something about it.

Japanese people obviously think so. Otherwise there wouldn't be cockroach traps so readily available in so many places. The Japanese response to cockroaches is to kill them. Mine too.

Section 1 Entry 0012. Date: 2002 September 29 Sunday.
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"Hugh, Hugh!"

So what is it now? What it is is ants, a squadron of them, large ants with wings. They are out there in the night, clinging to the glass of the french doors which lead to the lawn. (When you think "lawn", think of a postage stamp, not a prairie. This is Japan, after all.)

Question for Hugh:

"Where did they come from? Suddenly?"

Sagacious answer from Hugh:

"I have no idea."

But I can see the possible continuations to this story. They are (to give the most obvious):-

(a) The ants eat through the glass of the doors and devour us in our sleep.

(b) We die and go to hell and find the whole place run by ants, who are delighted to see us.

(c) We die and go to heaven, where we discover that God is actually a Great Ant, and is not happy to see us.

(d) While the ants are trying to eat through the glass, there is a huge earthquake, and the earth cracks open, and thousands of rabid giraffes pour forth from the bowels of the earth. We are forced to defend ourselves against the giraffes using rifles, shotguns, machineguns, flamethrowers and anything else that comes to hand. After twenty days of intense combat, we survive, triumphantly, only to be arrested by the police for assorted firearms offences.

Section 1 Entry 0013. Date: 2002 September 30 Monday.   (diary)   (previous)   (top)   (bottom)   (next)  (topics)  (contents)

If this were fiction, I would be anxiously checking to see if the ants had succeeded in breaking into the house. However, it's the start of the working week and I'm too busy. The same things happen in real life and in fiction, but the people in fiction, as a rule, have more time to attend to what's going on.

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Hugh Cook