AOYAMA VIEW 15.10.2019


The strongest typhoon in 60 years and a fantastic sports win on same weekend: what an emotional combination! First highly fearsome storm on Saturday night, then Sunday morning blue skies but depressing scenes from around the country – much wider damage than we thought in Tokyo – then highly positive, uplifting rugby match Sunday night that cheered up the nation – the most watched TV program this year! – a triumph we could only dream about. Such big contrasts in just 24 hours!

This was the scene for several prefectures after Hagibis; normally narrow river suddenly taking
over the whole valley (国土地理院 (GSI) [CC BY 4.0 (])

The storm No.19 brought winds and rain in Tokyo and East Japan not experienced since 1958 when 1200 people died. Tokyo was on edge to be flooded by rivers overflowing, but survived with just “scratches” here and there. Instead, wide areas in six prefectures to north got full hit – Saitama, Nagano, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Fukushima and Miyagi where all badly flooded when no less than 47 rivers broke their walls. Gigantic repair and cleaning work has just started when writing this – road and rail remain cut off in places. 74 bodies have so far been discovered and another 16 remain lost under mud. Thousands have lost their homes and economic damage will be remarkable.

At its highest, in Hakone, the rain poured down 1000 mm in 24 hours – that‘s one meter! More than most places elsewhere have in one year. It’s impossible to prepare sure proof defenses against anything like that. Yet, when compared to toll in 1958, it’s clear Japan has learned and improved remarkably to protect its people.


In rugby, beating Scotland and qualifying first time ever to World Cup play-offs came after beating Ireland, another top team, and two others, so it was clean slate 4 out of 4, something only NZ and Wales managed. (England and France could not play their fourth game due to typhoon.) This morning news tell Japan is now ranked World No.7, one of the 8 Top Tier teams. Finally respect, no more 145-0 in Big Boys’ hands!

Winning Scotland was special sweet after loss against them in WRC 2015 cut Japan’s early success short. The quarter final against South Africa will be another revanche from 4 years ago when Japan won.

More than just sport, Japan team’s mixed line-up of national backgrounds – something common in rugby – emphasizes the social change taking place in Japanese society today. Some of the players are “full” Japanese, some “half” Japanese (one parent foreign born) and some just long time residents, who have made Japan their home – a change into insular island society of “pure” Japanese that you can see happening when you move around the town.

No better example than the veteran team captain Michael Leach, a NZ maori, who settled in Hokkaido when he was 15 and speaks now better Japanese than English. Same for team manager Jamie Joseph, another proud maori, who came here in 1995 and one young star player, fast running winger Kotaro Matsushima, who was born in South Africa with Zimbabwean father and Japanese mother before moving to Japan when he was six years old.

“This is the future face of Japan” countless spectators commented and succesful sport stars with such background help to make the change accepted against old people’s insular mentality. It’s not how you look, but that you can adapt into the culture. Even foreign teams took up Japan’s example to line up and bow, not just wave, to fans for their support at full time. As well, many teams cleaned up their locker room before leaving, a Japanese practice that made news first time in FIFA Soccer World Cup 2018.

Kameishi, Iwate, a town totally destroyed in the 2011 tsunami, who re-built their rugby stadion with voluntary work and donations, was hit again by Saturday’s typhoon so badly that the Sunday match had to be cancelled. Unable to play, Canada team helped in cleaning up the mud around the town, a move that greatly impressed the local people. Happily, Kameishi got reward for their rebuilding with one World Cup match earlier that Crown Prince and Princess honored as spectators.

Kotaru Matsushima, one of the best performing players of this tournament (Japanese
Rugby Team Official Instagram
With these two guys shaking hands, you never know what deal awaits
in the end (The White House from Washington, DC [Public domain])

News of Middle East conflicts are getting more and more alarming: following “deal” between Trump and Erdogan, US left the road open for Turkey to attack USA’s earlier allies Kurds in Syria, who in turn made deal with Assad to come help against the Turks move. Meanwhile, hundreds of ISIS families and fighters escaped from their prison in the confusion – the mess in Middle East is getting even messier with more lives lost and more desparate refugees.

In the latest switch, Trump claimed he never agreed to Erdogan attacking Kurds and will put up sanctions for Turkey for doing that. In Kreml, Putin must be stuffing up his piroshki in “wrong throat” for laughing so much on Trump’s turnarounds. “He is God’s gift to Russia that keeps giving”, he once said of The Donald.

Further down in Hormuz, it was this time an Iranian tanker that got attacked: makes you think its was their “Mainila shots”, the 1939 incident in Karelia where Russian artillery shot its own troops to blame Finland as an excuse to launch its Winter War attack. It’s same in Mid East with each side blaming the other and US mobilizing new troops while withdrawing them from another area.

Call it Trump “policy”: anything will do to take away attention from his impeachment scandal and boost popularity in preparing for the 2020 election. The new limited trade deal with China followed the pattern with Japan last month: anything can be claimed “big victory for America” if it includes buying US farm products from Mid-West, an important voter area for Trump. 

Stay tuned for the next Trump spectacle: another “summit” meeting with Kim. No content is needed again and even giving up international sanctions against old lies from North will do as long as he can claim it “big victory for America”. The role of Kurds, forsaken on their own, is given to Japan in this tragicomedy.


With such political typhoons blowing from USA and Middle East, Japan’s worries look harmless. Same for news from Finland: our new Prime Minister has been shooting off big things from his mouth when meeting other European leaders as six-month “EU President” that he has had to take back next day. Yet, don’t think others have been taking his claims too seriously. Hey, of course, he wants to sound big when he has a rare, short opportunity!

The nice news from Finland for Japan is that Muji will open a big store in Helsinki, its biggest in whole Europe. In addition to Muji’s normal wide product range of subdued, sensible design it will include a large restaurant headed by a Finnish “charisma” chef that will offer healthy foods in line with Muji image – Japanese or Finnish or combination of both. No cheap faux sushi fits in the Muji image!

In return, when browsing through Muji store in Shibuya the other day, noticed that the company has taken Finland in its heart here, too. It was the BGM: traditional Finnish folk music! Could not make out if it was the original Kaustinen Players or another younger violins-plus-harmonium outfit, but it definitely fitted in well.

Prime Minister Rinne and President-elect of the European Council Michel
meet in Helsinki 14.10.2019 (Lauri Heikkinen/valtioneuvoston kanslia)

Timo Varhama

Tokyo, October 15, 2019