Spring has come, and the big event of the early spring is the cherry blossom viewing festival, hanami. These are the arrangements at 9am this morning in Inokashira park, Tokyo. All the blue mats are a spot someone has reserved for their viewing party, and the people sitting on the mats are likely junior members of a company or club, who have been sent to guard a spot (basho tori) until evening. Partying under the flowers is a serious business, involving a lot of alcohol, possibly a grill or bbq, and a wide range of foods and snacks. If you look carefully you can see that the people on the mats have left their shoes at the edge: this is an important consideration in these parties. All the major parks in Tokyo will have arrangements like those pictured above, and many also lay out rubbish bins and entertainment (Inokashira park has signs up asking us to take our rubbish home, so is going for a “zero rubbish” approach to partying). The flowers we’ll be looking at are like this:


Typically one has several hanami: one with family, one with friends, one with any circle or club of which one is a member, and one with work. I am probably going to do four: two with my partner on Saturday (one in the park shown here); one with my university, on Monday, at which we will also welcome the new students; and one on Friday next week with my partner, when we head North to Ikaho to enjoy their famous cherry blossom scenes. If I had a role-playing group of longer standing, I would also be doing a hanami party with them, but we don’t seem to be planning any.

Early April is a really nice time in Japan, because everything renews: spring has come, the cherry blossoms are out, new businesses open and all the “freshmen” enter companies and universities. It has a strong feeling of renewal and energy that’s very nice. The strong party atmosphere of the hanami season really serves to reinforce the feeling of new beginnings, and it’s a famous part of Japanese culture, reflecting a strong (and some say unique) Japanese sense of the impernanence of all things. Japanese life is characterized by seasonal festivals, and the main stages of a Japanese year are not marked by fixed historical or religious dates (like Christmas or Anzac Day) but by fluid, seasonal events: the cherry blossoms, the summer fireworks, the Autumn leaves, and finally the winter equinox. It’s at these times that one is reminded both of the strong role ritual continues to play in everyday Japanese life, and the continuing connection that Japanese culture has to paganism.

It’s also at times like this that one gets outrageously drunk with random strangers, and eats too much. Wish me luck toasting the impernanence of my sobriety …

Apparently, every toilet in every elementary school in Japan has a ghost. In the girls toilet is Hanako, and in the boys toilet is Taro.

If you spin around three times and say their name, you can invoke them. Then, when you sit on the toilet, the ghost reaches out of the drain and pulls  your soul out of your arse.

Today is the day that Japanese men have to repay the largesse they were shown by the fairer sex on Valentine’s Day; and so it’s the day that I have to repay my own massive chocolate haul. The White Day “tradition” in Japan (if you can call a wicked scheme hatched by Big Chocolate a “tradition”) is for men to give chocolates to women in repayment for the chocolates they are given on Valentine’s Day. Typically the man’s responsibilities are lesser: he doesn’t have to give chocolate to women who didn’t give to him, whereas women are expected to shower all the men in their lives (friends, lovers, family and colleagues) with chocolate. I find this imbalance in gift-giving very pleasing. Nonetheless, I’m nothing if not a stickler for tradition, so today I delivered some Godiva chocolates (specially packaged for White Day!) to the Delightful Miss E, and last night I gave a small box of truffles to a friend. I also gave chocolates to the office staff at my work today: they didn’t give me anything but nothing makes life easier than small kindnesses to one’s office staff. Who me, mercenary? I’m not giving chocolates to the one student who observed the Valentine’s Day tradition, because she baked a chocolate cake (a very delicious one!) for the entire Department, which presumably means that she’s now received a year’s supply of chocolate in return, and I refuse to repay that kind of callous profiteering.

At every significant railway station in Tokyo there is at least one stall selling White Day goods, and today when I emerged from the barriers in Kichijoji I saw a long line of harried Salarymen waiting to buy White Day chocolates at the local stalls (there were two). Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned on White Day, and so they lined up … harmony in the home, harmony in the nation and all that… but I did notice a sizable number of women in the queue too. This would probably be because lots of women have taken to buying chocolate for their female friends on Valentine’s Day, which then naturally leaves them obliged to buy repayment chocolate (okaeshi) on White Day as well. Truly, women have it tough …

Though I noticed at Ochanomizu station that the florist had a sign up on Valentine’s Day, which depicted a man giving a woman a rose, and the slogan “Let’s try a new kind of Valentine’s Day.” I hope the flower of Japan’s manhood are wise enough not to let this kind of pernicious nonsense catch on hereabouts …

Yesterday a paper I co-authored was published in the British Medical Journal. The paper, available free of charge at the BMJ website, analyzes mortality among Japanese working age males between 1980 and 2005 and estimates the changes that occurred after the collapse of the bubble economy. Our main findings were that a previously existing inequality in health between professional/managerial workers and the remainder of the population was reversed in the 10 years after the economic collapse. This reversal happened not because the health of non-professionals improved, but because professional and managerial workers saw a rapid increase in mortality.

Before 1990 there was a fairly clear pattern amongst the main causes of mortality in Japanese men: the managerial and professional occupations had lower mortality rates. Mortality rates for all groups were largely declining over time, and at roughly the same rate, but managerial and professional occupations on the whole had lower mortality rates. However, after the collapse mortality rates in these two groups suddenly began to increase, while those amongst the non-professional categories largely maintained their previous trajectory. These trajectories and the changes can be seen easily in Figure 1 of the paper, and the changes that occurred at the time of the collapse are summarized in Table 4. For example, before 1995 the relative risk of all cause mortality in managers/professionals was 0.70 (i.e. 70% of that in the other occupations). After 1995 it was 1.18, about 20% higher (and this difference was statistically significant). Table 4 shows that while before 1995 managers/professionals had lower mortality across almost all the major causes of mortality, after 1995 this relationship disappeared or was reversed.

As an aside, the paper also shows that massive increases in suicide rates in all professions coincided with the economic collapse of the late 80s/early 90s.

There is a possibility that so-called “numerator-denominator bias” might have affected the results: if people registered their employment status differently on their death certificate (the numerator) to the population census (the denominator), we might over-estimate the effect of the stagnation in those occupation groups (like managers) that shrank fastest at that time. This effect might be possible if, for example, after the economic collapse managers and professionals moved into other professions or became unempoyed, but after they died their family recorded their profession on their birth certificate as that which occupied the majority of their career. However we checked carefully for this and confirmed that even the most extreme possible effect of numerator-denominator bias doesn’t change the essence of the results, only the magnitude.

It’s dangerous to ascribe reasons and causal relationships to these kinds of phenomena, but the strong implication is that there is a relationship between the economic aftermath of the collapse and this reversal in health inequality in Japan. We postulate that this might be due to the rapid shrinking of the size of the managerial/professional workforce and changes in its working conditions that did not affect the labour/service industries as much. Other possibilities include changes in insurance status and access to healthcare, or perhaps some kind of health-system effect on cancer survival. It’s probably not due to unemployment: unemployment is categorized separately in the labour market statistics and death certificates, so theoretically a person who is sacked in 1985 and dies in 1990 should be counted as an unemployed person, and since we checked for numerator-denominator bias we think we ruled this out.

Japan has very different patterns of mortality to other developed nations, but this paper gives us an indication of the possible large effects that an economic downturn and subsequent stagnation can have on population health. It also shows that an economic downturn doesn’t necessarily affect everyone equally, and doesn’t necessarily affect the poor, or non-professional occupations, more than it does the rich. I guess the results of this paper and its lessons about the role downturn and stagnation can play in health may be applicable to countries like the UK and USA, which are just beginning to experience what Japan did in the 1990s. This paper suggests that we should expect significant effects of the downturn on health, but that we shouldn’t assume it will hit the poorest hardest, and should be aware that every nation’s post-depression experience may follow a unique trajectory. It also tells us that significant health gains made over a long period of time, such as are seen in this data, can be reversed rapidly after a major economic downturn, and economic collapse can undo 20 or 30 years of health gains. In health terms, major economic events are certainly not to be sniffed at!



This is one part of my Valentine Day haul, chocolate from the Delightful Miss E. I will of course receive more, and got some more before the actual  day. This is because Valentine Day in Japan is not a festival if mutual affection and dating, but a cunnibg marketing scheme concocted by the faceless men of Big Chocolate.

And as a marketing  scheme it is of unparalleled wickedness, corrupting the western dating element and melding it to Japanese concepts of obligation and group membership – then targeting the whole  thing exclusively at women to make sure the meme manifests as fantastic profits. I love it for its sublime union of evil and chocolate.

You see, in Japan Valentine Day has been reconstrued as a day for women to give chocolate to men, starting with their lovers and proceeding through all the men in key positions in their life: family, friends, club members, colleagues, even their boss and teachers. This last set of recipients reflect the women’s oblugations to men who have helped her during the year, and is referred to as giri choco. By this point most women are so deep in chocolate that they give to female friends too.

As an example of the reach of this ritual, on saturday I went to see the band ElupiA, and their singer gave me chocolate just to show her appreciation for my support.

What’s not to love about Valentine Day in Japan? Just one thing: i have to repay the lot on White Day, March 15th. As I said, it’s a wicked scheme…

The devastated coast of Minami Soma City

On Monday I took a two-day business trip to Minami Soma City, in the disaster-affected area of East Japan. Minami-soma city was hit by the tsunami, and although there does not seem to be much online footage of Minami Soma City’s experience, the effect on nearby Soma City (just north of Minami Soma) can be seen in this terrifying video (the main wave is at about 8 minutes). Minami soma city is just 23 km from the Fukushima Number One nuclear power plant, so soon after the tsunami hit the town was included in the government’s 20-30km voluntary evacuation / limited outdoor activity zone. Its population reduced enormously in the weeks that followed, and has now returned to just over half its pre-tsunami numbers. The town is also home to about 6,000 displaced persons, living in temporary housing. My purpose in visiting – along with some of the students of my department – was to help the local hospital with some research they are doing into the health of these displaced persons and of the residents of the town generally.

As part of my stay I was taken to the area where the tsunami hit, which is a stretch of coastline extending a few kms inland from the sea. These photos show some of the damage that I saw there. The full set can be viewed in my flickr account.

Entering the ruins

When we drove into the area I thought perhaps it used to be farmland, because aside from the piles of rubble it is completely flat, but in fact this whole area used to be houses and businesses. The ground is flat like fields because it was scoured clean of all but the largest structures, and the resulting rubble has been gathered together into great piles of debris (visible in the photo above). This gives the area the impression of being a moonscape or wasteland, where once houses used to be, and the area from which one enters the destruction zone is lined with these piles of rubble. If one drives for a few more minutes, one can reach the sea wall and look back over the entire devastated area, as in the picture below.

Sunset over the devastation

The sea wall itself is about 4m high on the outside, made of huge slabs of concrete. On the seaward face there is a small stony beach and then some lines of tetrapods (concrete structures that act as further wave barriers). The sea wall survived the tsunami, but was heavily damaged and didn’t serve to impede it. Parts of it were broken off and swept away, and its landward side was heavily damaged. I think the wave just ran over the top of it. We walked along this wall and the two photos below show the wall in both directions. The photo at the top of this post, of Miss A returning to our car, was taken from the top of the wall.

Looking south in the lee of the sea wall

On the sea wall, looking north

Facing North (the second picture of the sea wall), one can see the only surviving structure near the sea – that strange orange building that has been hollowed out but withstood the wave itself. I guess other smaller objects survived but have subsequently been removed in the clean up, because as we left the area we entered the rubble zone and passed huge piles of broken stone that must have been taken from this area. We also passed a graveyard of cars. In amongst all this neatly-arranged debris there were also a few boats.

A fire engine

We spent the night in the hospital, in one of the unused wards. Staff levels have declined at the hospital, though the patient load has as well, but business seems to be going on pretty much as normal there. In fact, this is one of the strangest things about Minami Soma City: once you pass over the low line of scrub and hills that separates the unscathed part of the city from the damaged area, life goes on pretty much as normal. It’s as if nothing ever happened here, except that it’s quieter than a normal town and a lot of the businesses are on reduced hours or shut. It’s not a ghost town, though, and everything is perfectly normal there – we went out drinking and having fun with the other doctors in the evening, and everything was just like any other rural Japanese town, if a little quiet.

You are 23km from Fukushima Number One plant

As the sign in the hospital says, Minami Soma City is quite close to the power plant, and the only road leading to it from Fukushima passes even closer. It’s quite hard to get to Minami Soma City – there are only 3 buses a day from Fukushima, so it’s either a long bus trip to Tokyo (probably 6-8 hours) or a bullet train to Fukushima city and then one of those three buses. The buses were also not able to run at first, because of the exclusion zone, but now they’re open and the journey to Minami Soma City takes us through several deserted towns in the exclusion zone.  I think a few people might still be staying on in these towns but they were largely deserted, and the only people I saw were a work crew in full radiation suits, cleaning an outside area in the driving snow. The only other signs of life in the area were animal prints in the gathered snow.

This whole area is obviously struggling with the triple challenges of dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy, rebuilding, and the fallout of the nuclear plant. Many people have left and the area is certainly suffering physically and economically. With the one year anniversary of the events coming up soon I imagine a lot of sad memories of the tragedy will be rekindled. But the people there are kind, friendly, and full of warmth and energy not just to rebuild their town but to turn the tragedy into useful lessons for disaster management in the future. I’m hoping through my advice and support to provide some small contribution to that process, and perhaps to be able to learn some lessons about post-disaster management in an aging society. The atmosphere there was one of hope and energy to make a better future, and despite the sad story that these pictures tell, the people there offer a great deal of inspiration to make a better future. Let’s hope that working together the people of Japan can overcome this disaster and, through their experience, offer other countries lessons they can use to overcome their own future challenges.

In Wednesday’s Guardian, Charlie Brooker continues his series of articles on his trip to Japan, and in the same tone: where he started his first article with a long paragraph that combines toilet humour and assertions about the kookiness of Japan, this article starts with a description of a computer game about bouncing turds, and finishes the introduction with

Unfathomable, futuristic madness: that’s what made me want to visit Japan.

So, in case you weren’t sure from the first article, Japan is strange and fascinated with toilets and poo.

Except, really, it’s Brooker who is fascinated with poo. He seems quite taken with the abject, if his first article was anything to go by. But once again, after he’s got the obligatory toilet humour and stereotyping of Japan’s “futuristic madness” out of the way, he carries on with a valid observation about this place:

it’s a place where being a geek (or otaku) is comfortably mainstream. Former Prime Minister Taro Aso is an enthusiastic manga-collecting otaku, the TV ad breaks heave with glossy commercials for collectible card games, and multi-storey games arcades are commonplace.

This is very true. Of course, he immediately follows this important observation with another example of drawing the wrong conclusion due to limited data:

the subway is eerily silent: thanks to a strong underground signal, everyone’s staring at their smartphones, texting, playing games, or reading. Only after a fortnight did it strike me: not once did I hear a single person actually speaking into their phone on the Tokyo subway. Everyone – and I mean everyone – seemed to be perpetually tapping and swiping in silence. Unnerving to many: to a geek like me, it felt strangely comforting.

This, Charlie, is not because everyone is madly playing some game or other. You might actually have noticed a lot of people reading these things called “books.” But the reason they’re not talking into their phones is because there are signs and announcements asking people not to. It is considered very poor manners in Japan to talk on your phone in restaurants, cafes, bars or trains. i.e. in public. And people in Japan follow these rules. If it’s “unnerving to many,” this is because that’s another one of those things about the west that don’t make sense once you haven’t lived there for a while. Those people you saw on the subway being quiet aren’t doing so because they are obssessed with a game; they’re doing so because they are refraining from offending others. That’s not “strangely comforting,” it’s perfectly ordinarily comforting.

The rest of the article consists of a fairly nice description of one of Japan’s bigger game arcades, from the perspective of someone who is familiar with what should be going on but can’t understand it because he is in a foreign land. Again, though, he pushes the unfathomable nature of the thing too far, and again reminds us that Japan is exotic and incomprehensible:

a roomful of sombre youths vying for individual supremacy using some form of networked arcade strategy game that uses collectible cards. Imagine witnessing a game of bridge being played in the Cabinet War Rooms in the year 2072 AD … whatever the theme, the nature of the action is absolutely impenetrable to the casual onlooker.

Charlie, here’s a real-life hint for you: to people outside the nerd world, this kind of stuff is absolutely impenetrable in their own language. Now that you don’t speak the language, you can be reminded of how people feel when they watch you at your normal hobby. Eye opening, isn’t it?

Other than this, the article struck me as a missed opportunity. There’s a photo of an “otaku girl” at the top of the article but she doesn’t look otaku to me, and (probably because he hasn’t had time to notice), Brooker hasn’t mentioned how different gender relations are amongst nerds in Japan compared to the West. To wit: in Japan, being a nerd is not only more acceptable, but it’s especially more acceptable for girls. There are adverts on the trains targeting Wii at old people, and the latest computer games (like Mario Land and Monster Hunter) at young women. There is an advert for a trading card game in which a member of a currently-popular boy band goes to a game shop and plays the card game with the lonely kid in the corner; there are adverts for a new trading card game where some of the cards are based on members of a famous boy band (Exile, I think). In Ikebukuro there is a whole series of shops devoted to targeting pornographic manga at women. This is a hobby world that is not just mainstream, but mainstream for both genders – and this is why Wii was invented in Japan, not the USA. It’s a shame that Brooker didn’t find a way to comment on this, and on how much easier that makes being a nerd in this country. He also didn’t find any opportunities to talk about the darker side of the nerd world in Japan: pachinko, or AKB48. Instead, he just took a last chance to remind us that Japan is crazy and incomprehensible. Just in case we didn’t know that.

I wonder what his next article will tell us? Feel free to put your predictions in the comments …

Charlie Brooker, the British screenwriter, zombie reality TV expert and culture commentator for the Guardian, is doing a series of articles on Japan. I wouldn’t usually care but I quite like Charlie Brooker’s style of criticism, usually directed at television culture, which is ascerbic and filthy but also well educated and very fond of the medium (TV) that he mostly writes on. His cultural commentary can be a lot of fun and occasionally insightful, and certainly his first article on first impressions of Japan contains a few, such as his description of a lot of Japanese TV:

Imagine watching an endless episode of The One Show with the colour and brightness turned up to 11, where all the guests have been given amphetamines, the screen is peppered with random subtitles, and every 10 seconds it cuts to a close-up shot of a bowl of noodles for no apparent reason. That’s 90% of Japanese TV right there.

However, I’m concerned that he’s going to fall back on the same tired tropes that always get trotted out to describe Japan by westerners, especially those just visiting or who don’t have at least a passing familiarity with the language, and especially especially British and American commentators, whose level of introspection about their own cultures is, in general, profoundly lacking. The common tropes tend to be a combination of weirdness, exoticism, and a sense that you’ve stepped back in time to an earlier cultural period in the west, which almost certainly never actually existed. He certainly doesn’t start or end well, with both the opening and closing sentences describing Japan as “another planet.” He goes on in the first paragraph to say

while the world around you is largely recognisable, it somehow makes little sense

This is the classic expression of the cosseted western view. When did western cultural commentators decide that their own country is the arbiter of what “makes sense”? Once you’ve lived in Japan for a little while you start to see a lot of things about western life that definitely make no sense: when I watched TV in the UK and saw adverts for furniture, for example, inevitably some idiot actor would flop onto a couch and put their fully-shod feet up on it. Since I’ve lived in Japan I’ve come to realize that this is a truly disgusting habit, and it makes no sense that we in the west ever conceived of wearing our shoes into the house as a good idea. Perhaps, then, instead of phrasing things in terms of a culture that is full of “sense” (the one Brooker came from) and one that isn’t, Brooker could talk merely in terms of difference? And while he’s at it, learn to take his shoes off inside.

So already Brooker has established Britain’s cultural mores as the background from which all else deviates, and has portrayed the Japanese as alien and strange (incomprehensible, even). His green kit-kat comment follows the same pattern: kit-kats as representative of British cultural norms, are rendered green in Japan for no apparent reason. It’s left to the people in comments to mention that the chocolate is green because it is tea flavoured, a common practice in Japan, but from the body of the text we’re left to assume that the Japanese just like to make western chocolate green for no reason. Here we see the essence of the depiction of the other as strange: present something they do as an idiosyncratic or incomprehensible phenomenon and avoid a description of the extremely simple reason for the action.His description of TV also contains an element of this: those subtitles aren’t random, Charlie, because by definition sub-titles are not random. They are the words that the person speaking is saying. As the Suicidals once famously said: “Just beause you don’t understand it don’t mean it don’t make no sense.” In this case, the thing you don’t understand is this thing called “language” and you should ask yourself how you would feel if an Asian were commenting on the “randomness” of elements of your own culture’s TV without knowing a single word of English.

This perhaps also is what underlies his segue to a full two paragraphs of quite gross description of Japanese toilets. Why are the British focused on toilets? And whatever gave Brooker the impression that, as a member of a nation whose public toilets (not to mention its chocolate!) are universally poor-to-terrible, he is the best person to judge Japan’s extremely high standards of hygiene? Of course, toilet habits are a fundamental example of the way in which cultures differ, and a culturally introspective look at Japanese toilet habits could be an ideal opportunity for a Londoner like Brooker to discover that actually, his own culture has a lot to learn on this front. But instead it’s again a way of depicting the Japanese as weird and different, and these two paragraphs manage to incorporate a nod to the classical/modern binary of Japanese life, a good bit of British toilet humour, and bemusement at Japanese weirdness, all in one. To his credit Brooker finishes it with a sentence about machines overthrowing humans that serves to reunite Japanese and British as having cultural commonality; this is nice. But there is no chance to compare this with a British pub toilet – I bet Brooker doesn’t dare take a crap in your average British pub toilet, as just the stink alone would hurt his brain.

The remainder of the article, however, is good stuff, giving impressions of TV from the perspective of someone who apparently doesn’t speak any Japanese. Once he’s on his favourite ground (TV commentary) Brooker ditches the cultural-analysis stereotypes and manages to give a fairly nice description of how Japanese TV looks if you don’t understand Japanese. He also is much more introspective here, making jokes about crazy Japanese game shows without missing the point that reality TV is just as degrading and terrible a phenomenon. The use of the word “yelping” is a bit unfortunate in the context of a man in a country where he doesn’t understand the language, but overall it’s good. I think he’s wrong about the content of Japanese TV ads though: they aren’t mostly about food, they’re mostly about hair products.

Anyway, I’ll be watching this series of articles by Brooker with interest to see if he can rise above his colonialist heritage to give a genuinely interesting analysis of Japanese cultural life. I think he can do it, though I’m doubtful about whether he’ll be at all aware of how much he privileges his own cultural viewpoint. Japan is an almost completely blank slate to the British – the “far East” is something they know almost nothing about, in my experience. If he can give them a slightly deeper insight into Japan than “they’re weird and nothing makes sense” then he’ll have achieved something. Here’s hoping …


Praying While Tokyo Burns

Takao Mountain (高尾山), on the western edge of the Tokyo metropolis, is a low (approximately 500m high) peak on the edge of a small nature reserve, easily accessible on the Keio line or the Chuo line. The mountain top hosts a temple, Yakuoin (薬王院), and some hiking paths, and although it is a steep climb it is easily reached by foot in 40 minutes, on paths that zig-zag through light forest. It’s also accessible by a ropeway (essentially a ski-lift) or a cable car (that is really a type of train). At the base of the mountain is a small and cute village of tourist shops, noodle stores and another small temple. As such it is a popular tourist destination, and also popular as a place to do hatsumode (初詣), the traditional new year shrine visit. My friend went with a billion other people to see the first sunrise of the new year, and I went with some friends in the afternoon for the traditional shrine visit.

In addition to being an excellent tourist day trip, Takao Mountain is also a viable zombie survival spot, offering short term defensibility, an easy escape route, and some possibility of sustainability. It’s probably not entirely suitable to a solo survivor, but a good choice for a group.


Defensibility: The mountain itself is accessed by three pathways on the Tokyo side, at least one of which is wide enough to drive cars up. As far as I know there are no direct pathways on the Western side, which in any case faces onto low population density areas and a wide range of bushland. There is a single railway line leading up to the summit (for the “cable car”). All three pathways have a series of steep switchbacks interspersed with periods of long, straight, steep climbs, they are narrow, and there are regular viewing spots on the higher sections of these paths from which defenders can look down on the lower sections of the slopes. Other hillsides are steep, heavily forested and slippery, scattered with sheer climbs or scree slopes that make climbing extremely difficult for mindless undead. Any of these paths would be easy to block off at lower sections, and easy to defend with suitable firearms. From higher vantage points, with a large supply of ammunition, it would be easy to pick off approaching zombies in complete safety. The main difficulty with defensibility is in monitoring all these approaches: to properly defend the mountain would require maintaining constant vigilance over all the access paths and the forests of the western side, and opens the risk that occasional lone zombies would make it up to a higher location without being identified. This would necessitate continuous caution and the establishment of safe inner bastions. Fortunately the Yakuoin temple offers just such a bastion, as does the monkey park. Overall, the area is highly defensible, if your group contains more than 5 people.

Escape routes: Although not ideal, the forested slopes of the western face offer a last-ditch escape route in the event that the temple and the path to the higher slopes are cut off simultaneously. Furthermore, the ropeway offers an ideal rapid escape route. In the absence of electric power, one could use a simple flying-fox type arrangement to return to the base of the mountain in just a few (hair-raising) minutes, and it’s likely that zombies will lose track of you due to the speed of descent. Even if a zombie horde had come up from the base station, it’s likely given the defensibility of the setting that the zombies would have all left the base area by the time evacuation became necessary; thus, one would arrive at a relatively depopulated lower camp area, and be able to escape rapidly – possibly to a pre-established safe house in the lower town, there to wait until the mountain could be retaken after the horde dispersed or moved on.

Location: Far removed from central Tokyo, Takao Mountain is also slightly separate, being located on the far side of a small rural area. This means that its local zombie population is likely to be small and scattered, and it is less likely to have been raided extensively by non-local populations. Additionally, it contains significant supplies for the tourist industry, as well as a non-transient local community likely to have themselves stocked up on food, leaving more supplies for scavenging. The mountain is not on any major road transport routes, though it is near(ish) to an expressway. It’s also on the end of a train line, which is likely to be the only way to get to the location – roads in Tokyo will be blocked and car transport over long distances likely impossible. But a railway line is a relatively safe and easy way to move across Tokyo – it is elevated and likely clear of obstacles. The mainline to near Takao is the Central Line, which is about 8 tracks wide – it may be possible to drive small cars along this line, enabling transport of supplies and rapid escape from central Tokyo. The mountain also has a tourist centre and various restaurants at different elevations, so even if one arrives without supplies it may be possible to go straight to the top and subsist on scavenged foods for a few days while the world goes to hell.

Concealment: From the base of the mountain, almost nothing is visible of the human habitations higher up, and many of the main tourist attractions – especially the temple – are set back from the slopes of the hill. The sounds and sights of a functioning group of survivors would be virtually unidentifiable from the ground, especially in the temple, so it would be possible to have lights, cooking and reasonably normal human interaction without fear of alerting zombies or humans. This means the necessary preparations for survival over a Japanese winter could proceed fairly smoothly, and even an electricity generator could be used without alerting zombies. Movement between locations on the mountain would also be fairly unlikely to attract attention from zombies at the foot of the mountain, which would make defending the mountain very easy.

Sustainability: The mountain holds several tourist restaurants, a monkey park, visitor centre and temple. Even if a group arrived on foot carrying only the supplies in their backpacks, it would be fairly easy to subsist on the mountainside for a few days. The temple almost certainly contains a generator, and it’s likely (though I didn’t see any) that there is at least some solar power somewhere on the hill, so at least some lighting would be possible. There is a parking space containing some snow ploughs, which means that they also have batteries and fuel (and probably some spare fuel). The mountain is riddled with vending machines, but the restaurants sell dango and fresh soba, so likely hold stocks of buckwheat and barley flour, oil and – if they had been evacuated rapidly – eggs. For the first few days, supplies of water could be obtained from vending machines and kettles, until the first rain filled up some buckets. Of course, buckets and water storage mechanisms are commonplace in a temple, and easily converted to survival. There is enough flat space higher up the mountain to plant potatoes and possibly even a rice crop, and the monkey park comes readily supplied with cages for raising and protecting chickens and goats. In the longer term, the area is already supplied with buildings and a defensible temple, but there is one significant long term problem: water. Being on the top of a mountain, most water will be flowing down, and in dry periods there will be little freestanding or potable water. The best solution to this is to use the higher parts of the mountain to set up a water course for trapping and channeling water. Nonetheless, water storage – in a tank of some kind, and perhaps also in containers looted from the restaurants – would likely be a very wise plan. Otherwise, regular trips down the mountain to collect water would be required, and this would be both dangerous and exhausting.

Longer term, the mountain offers a lot of opportunities to establish a sustainable community. It is reasonably close to Tachikawa, a suburb with large stores, and houses in the nearby town could be looted for solar power supplies. With the elevation of the mountains, it could be possible to set up a solar storage system using pumped water. Plentiful wood means that even when fuel and electricity ran out it would be possible to stay warm for at least the first year, and to build fairly solid barriers against zombie and human infiltration – some forest clearing would even be necessary to establish kill zones. The higher viewing points hold a number of coin-operated binoculars that could be used to ensure that zombies can be spotted at very long distances and monitored, and gun nests with good viewing points could be built around these viewing machines. The mountain holds all the necessities of medium-term survival for a reasonably large group, provided that the water problem can be solved fairly rapidly.

Natural Hazards: Although it contains no sizable buildings capable of collapsing in an earthquake, Takao mountain is obviously vulnerable to landslides, which could be dangerous for those on the lower slopes. However, it’s most significant problem is the risk of forest fires, which could wipe out a community very rapidly. The rope way provides a method for rapidly escaping during a significant fire, but keeping it clear of trees would be essential in order to use it successfully. With roaming gangs of humans likely to spot them, back burning to reduce fire risk is not likely to be an option at first, and in any case water supplies may not be sufficient to do this safely. Constant caution and evacuation planning would be necessary to keep this risk under control. The best solution to this problem would be water and forestry management, and any group unable to do these two things would likely ultimately be driven off the mountain by the difficulties of supply and the risks of fire. But if this problem can be solved, the mountain would no doubt be safe for habitation by even up to 100 people.


Takao Mountain is highly defensible, and with suitable tactics potentially close to impregnable in a zombie holocaust. If defenders are armed with rifles, it would be easy to defend against a very large horde of slow-moving shambler zombies. Even if guns were not available, a suitable set of barriers could be established on steeper pathways to enable, for example, a single person armed with a pike to kill struggling zombies in relative safety. At the switchbacks, it would be possible to stand in the crook of the switchback and beat down zombies with a pole or pike. Alternatively, traps could easily be set for mindless undead: establish a barrier at a point on the path just past one of the steeper slopes, and present oneself on a high point of one of the slopes to the side of the path just before the barrier. Zombies then reach the barrier and, unable to pass it, attempt to climb the slope on the side of the path. While they slip and fall on the scree, the defender can easily kill them using a suitable pole weapon.

The railway line is even easier to defend, because the top- and bottom-most extents pass through a smooth tunnel. Using a human target, zombies could be funneled into this tunnel and then trapped against a barrier on the upper side; from there, fire could be used safely inside the tunnel to kill large numbers of them. Alternatively, if active defense is not desired, the lower tunnel could be filled with scree, logs and debris, and a series of large rocks – or even, possibly, the train car itself – used as weapons to clear the upper tunnel. The upper platform itself also has a series of fairly solid barriers for passenger control, and is on a steep slope, so it’s possible that even large numbers of zombies wouldn’t be able to get the momentum necessary to push through them. The station itself thus forms another strong defense point, and suitable use of human bait could enable zombie hordes to be funneled into this killing zone, then beaten, burnt and shot into oblivion.

As the linked map shows, there are multiple stages on the mountain; first the lower peak with the temple, then an upper peak with visitor information centre, and then several more, higher peaks, each accessible by a decreasing number of paths. If a zombie wave overwhelms the lower slopes, the higher sections are all highly defensible, enabling even the most exhausted defenders to repel a numerically superior zombie horde with relative ease. With proper preparation, barriers could be set here and used to slow zombie approach while fleeing. With the steep sides of the mountains a constant threat, it could also be possible to break up hordes by throwing members over the slopes, or using rope traps to drag large numbers off the trail. This wouldn’t stop them permanently, but would break apart the horde so that it would be easier to kill as its members attempted to stagger up the steep mountainsides.

Finally, if long-term defenses were needed it might be possible to use back-burning techniques to establish zones higher up the mountain that are safe from fire. In the worst case scenario, with a huge horde approaching, the lower slopes could be fired – possibly using projectiles lobbed beyond the zombies – and the defenders could then retreat into the back-burnt zones. The zombies, struggling up the steep slopes, would be overrun by the fires and potentially destroyed en masse. This is an extremely risky tactic and only useful in summer, and would obviously attract attention from nearby survivors.


A highly defensible, concealed community can be established on Takao Mountain, capable of defending itself capably from even very large zombie hordes, and able to escape rapidly if overwhelmed. The community could potentially be sustainable and even maintain some of the luxuries of modern society – especially, hot water and some lighting – and, although the early years would be hard work, could become a thriving base for recolonization of the world after a zombie apocalypse. If you’re living in Tokyo and worried about the zombie apocalpyse, you should visit Takao Mountain and familiarize yourself with an escape strategy to this excellent post-apocalyptic base.

A Damsel, not in Distress

Today I visited the exhibition of Ukiyo-e prints by Kuniyoshi, at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills. Kuniyoshi is apparently one of the less famous of the Ukiyo-e artists, but his work has been coming back into vogue lately and the exhibition was staged to mark 150 years since his death. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Ukiyo-e, or “images from the floating world,” is a style of print-making and art work dating from pre-Meiji Japan, that focuses on “impermanent” themes detached from the everyday world. It has been credited with influencing the European impressionists, and also was probably the earliest example of mass-produced art. The Mori Art Museum introduced Kuniyoshi as “probably Japan’s greatest graphic designer,” which is an interesting way of thinking about ukiyo-e, and a sign that Japan was quite ahead of the west in this area: I don’t think anyone would really make claims to the existence of graphic design in the West before the 20th century. I think that the ukiyo-e artists were also influential in the development of manga (but don’t quote me on that). I think a lot of ukiyo-e in the later period also served an advertising role.

In Kuniyoshi’s case, images that are detached from everyday concerns seems to have meant that he produced fantastic stories, a smattering of horror, a range of prints on classical Chinese mythological themes, and lots of pictures of actors. The fantastic stories included 108 images of famous warriors, usually in battle or getting up to mischief. The print on this post is an example of his horror, and he also has fantastic themes: a classic adventuring scene of a warrior entering a dank cave on the slopes of Mt. Fuji (through a waterfall curtain – pictured below); Matsumoto Musashi slaying a whale on the open seas (in full battle gear); and various demons in combat with mighty champions. The fantasy and horror images were largely in the middle section of the exhibition, and there were quite a few.

Best not fail this stealth check

Some of Kuniyoshi’s later landscapes were apparently influenced by Dutch masters, and led him to break with some of the contemporary artistic traditions of the time to create a more naturalistic style, and these pictures gave a very nice combination of western aesthetic with classic ukiyo-e colours and imagery. But ukiyo-e is best on its own terms, and best when it is depicting the slightly fantastical. Its slightly strange perspectives and vibrant colours, combined with vaguely (or obviously) supernatural elements, give rise equally well to stunning scenes of battle or quirky re-imaginings of the ordinary lives of the Japanese of the era. I think Kuniyoshi was probably not a master of the style like some of his slightly later colleagues, but he had the ability like them to use patterns of the weather and the landscape, or slight changes to the ordinary perspective of the setting, to turn even something trivial like a couple of peasants walking through the rain into a magical, slightly surreal scene.

Much of Kuniyoshi’s artwork was driven to surrealism by another, more mundane element of life in pre-Meiji Japan: censorship. Banned from depicting the lives of courtesans, entertainers and rowdies directly, he began painting pictures of foxes, monsters, or even goldfish engaged in these activities. There are a whole series of images of cats doing slightly night-lifey things, and also of various supernatural creatures up to no good. The cats are very lifelike and entertaining, and he must have been inspired by this type of satire to simply experiment with the style: there is one picture of cats curled up and bundled together to look like blowfish that is extremely clever, and another idyllic country scene of two goldfish punting their way downriver on a raft, looking for all the world like fishermen returning home at dusk. These images are both surreal and beautiful, and I can’t imagine they have any satirical or political meaning – they’re just examples of the artist experimenting with a style he developed to escape the censor.

The pictures, then, are excellent, and there are a lot: I think there were over 400 on display, so you get to see a lot of work for your 1500 yen. The exhibition was very busy when I went, so you have to line up and move slowly along from picture to picture – the pictures aren’t big enough to take in from a distance, and the Japanese looking at the pictures obviously found a lot to take in that I didn’t – reading the text within the pictures, or picking out various iconography and classic symbolism that I would have missed. In combination these queues for this many pictures make the exhibition a slow and absorbing process, well worth taking your time on. It’s laid out well in sections, so you can understand what the theme of each section is and where it fits in Kuniyoshi’s career. There are also brief English explanations on each picture, which is good because the language of 150 years ago is well beyond my ken. Indeed, if I have any complaints about this exhibition it’s that there is just too much to take in, and you start getting the urge to skip bits (I skipped the “beautiful women” bit). Other than that, though, I would say that this exhibition is worth the money and well worth hiking to Roppongi Hills for. If you’re in Tokyo before February and looking for a decent retrospective of a single influential artist from the ukiyo-e period, I recommend visiting this exhibition.