Last laugh

Buena Vista Social Club
Buena Vista Social Club

John McGee takes a stab at 2000

The proliferation of Christmas lights and squashed rice-ball snowmen (kagami-mochi) indicates that, yes, another year has passed in Tokyo. As the winter wind blasts the haze from the city, let's gather around the fire, uh, kotatsu, and reflect on some of the defining moments of this year of the dragon.

First of all, while many countries recognized the end of the millennium last December 31, Japan held out for this year, leaving a lot of us here wondering if the second millennium is coming or already going. The only reasonably sure thing is that this was the year 2000. Except in Japan, where it was Heisei 12.

Either way, despite myriad predictions to the contrary, and in case you hadn't noticed, the world did not end on January 1. Even the Y2K bug wasn't much more than an annoying little gnat - no major disasters, no apocalypse.

Love thy neighbors
Early in the year, as if to ameliorate the disappointment of jilted doomsday cults, a Filipino computer student concocted a "love bug." It was quite a virus, spreading through email accounts worldwide and demonstrating that, in cyberspace anyway, love conquers all.

Meanwhile, not a dry-eyed OL was in sight with the news that SMAP member Kimutaku (Takuya Kimura) conceived a love child with fiancée Shizuka Kudo(in November) and that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were more than just "Friends," tying the knot in July.

Earlier in the year, a counterpoint to Brappi and Jennifer's American Dream was presented by the film American Beauty. And The Matrix confirmed that all of us, not only Keanu Reeves, are actually soulless, brainwashed androids.

Buena Vista Social Club showed us that you're never too old to be funky, sparking a keen interest in Latin music in general and Cuban music specifically. You might have heard Hiromi Go's remake of Ricky Martin's "La Vida Loca" which swaps the English refrain for the catchy "ah-chee-chee...ah-chee." This apparently means " hot!" though the Japanese-English dictionary translates it as something like, "hey dad, over yonder."

Elsewhere in music, Napster scared the bejesus out of the recording industry by demonstrating the power of free-market anarchy. But after a copyright infringement trial and, later, acquisition by German publishing giant Bertelsmann AG, the industry had the last laugh. "MP3" (which last year became the most popular online word search-overtaking the position long held by "sex"), helped propel Napster and spelled out the digital future of personal music recording.

In a victory for eye-contact-free train travel, the power of technology to bring us together led to further alienation, introversion and navel-gazing as the popularity of DoCoMo's i-mode mobile phones erupted. The wireless umbilicals enable users to hop onto the Internet with a flick of the magic wand.

In March, thousands lined up to buy PlayStation 2 (PS2). Sony's game technology incorporates not only arcade-quality graphics and a DVD player, but apparently could be used to launch ballistic missiles (no joke). This delayed export of the game console, frustrating overseas shoppers. Does last year's failed North Korean missile shot suggest they got a bogus advance copy?

Meanwhile, tensions within the Korean Peninsula eased following the June 14 summit between South Korea's Kim Dae Jung and North Korea's Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. North and South even joined forces for a united Korean Olympic squad in Sydney. And, in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup, South Korea and Japan enjoyed warming relations across the usually chilly Japan Sea. Japanese pop music groups entertained throngs of cheering Korean youths in Seoul, while Japanese movie theaters screened Shuri, a Korean spy thriller.

Miyakejima Island
Escaping Mt Oyama on Miyakejima Island

Explosive developments
Easing different tensions here at home, Mt Usu in Hokkaido and Mt Oyama on the island of Miyakejima belched to volcanic life in March and August, respectively. While Mt Usu's activities were relatively short-lived, Mt Oyama rumbled throughout the summer, interrupting TV programs with news flashes about seismic activity. In light of Tokyo Governor Ishihara's broadminded, insightful and diplomatic message that, in the event of a major earthquake, foreigners can be expected to riot, these announcements kept gaikokujin everywhere on the edge of their collective seat.

Ongoing eruptions eventually forced the complete evacuation of Miyakejima's inhabitants, most of whom have settled in refugee camps here in Tokyo. Lucky for them, the "Happiest Place on Earth" will be opening its newest attraction, "DisneySea," next year with a huge fuming volcano as its centerpiece. Miyakejimans everywhere will no doubt sigh a collective "natsukashii!"

Kenshiro Matsunami demonstrated that even conservative politicians can erupt, though his flying glass of water did little to cool off the Diet.

Leisure time and hobbies
Further on the subject of displaced individuals, the International Space Station finally got its first inhabitants in October - two Russians and an American. They are scheduled to live there for 117 Earth days. Hope they've got PS2 (but not the missile-launching version).

In a low-budget, land-based parallel to the cramped quarters, poor food, and hostile surroundings of space flight, Tokyo taxi driver Takemasa Irie and his son took actor Shin Takuma to London the long way, across Asia and Europe. The 12-week trip covered ten countries and 30,000 miles. Miraculously their cab didn't break down once. Rumor has it that it didn't stop at any red lights either.

Clinton and Mori
US President Bill Clinton and Japanese PM Yoshiro Mori

Anyway, back to disasters. In Okinawa, Japanese Prime Minister Mori hosted a US$1 billion G-8 summit. The much ballyhooed meeting of the leaders of the industrialized world was hardly noteworthy save for the introduction of the new 2000 yen bill and the opportunity for PM Mori, a mediocre student of English at best, to make up for his rather embarassing exchange with President Bill Clinton earlier in the year. In the weeks leading up to his first official visit to the US, Mori aides carefully drilled him in the subtle nuances of polite English social chit-chat-"How are you?" "I'm fine, and you?" "Me too." Nonetheless, in a globally publicized dialogue with President Clinton (which the PM's office denies took place) he spouted, "Who are you?" To which Clinton, in one of his finer moments of statesmanship, quipped, "I'm Hillary's husband..." Mori, of course, replied, "Me too."

February's leap day gave everyone an extra 24 hours to take care of business this year, but some people already seem to have too much time on their hands. In Niigata, the Prefectural Police Chief was playing mahjongg with a Kanto police chief when a girl who had been missing for nine years suddenly turned up.

It's a woman's world...
Elsewhere in the schoolgirl department, everyone was as sad to see the ganguro look fade as they were to see the rise of para-para. For an all too brief moment, the two overlapped, giving us those wonderful black-faced teenagers performing airliner guidance ground crew/football referee signal Bon-odori on TV commercials nationwide.

Naoko Takahashi
Naoko Takahashi, winner of a gold medal in the Olympic women's marathon

Giving stiff competition to the hyper Eurobeat fueled para-para explosion, hip hop & R&B swept the airwaves and open spaces of Tokyo with more head spinning than Linda Blair in The Exorcist, more moonwalking than Neil Armstrong and more big hair than a Texas debutante ball.

Separately, Ayumi Hamasaki (Ayu-chan) eyed us from the 109 building, the TV and every Tu-ka corner in the city. And that screeching pack of feral 14-year-old girls known as Morning Musume (or Moaning Misery) released a number of songs, all of which seemed loosely based on air-raid sirens.

This year, a surprising number of non-idol Japanese women made headlines. In February, Japan's first female shinkansen driver took to the tracks. Sexually harassing a 21-year-old campaign volunteer Knock-ed the Osaka governor out of office, making way for Fusae Ota, the prefecture's (and the country's) first female governor. In the August Diet elections, women captured a record 35 seats, the most ever under the post-war Constitution. And at the Sydney Olympics, Japanese female athletes made significant strides as Ryoko Tamura took the gold in judo and Naoko Takahashi became the first Japanese women's marathon gold medalist, setting an Olympic record in the process. Additionally, the Japanese softball and synchronized swimming teams both took silvers.

Sports field
After watching the Japanese TV coverage of the events Down Under, you may be surprised to learn that the Olympics were, in fact, an international competition, involving athletes from all over the world, not only Japan. Biased coverage aside, there were some exciting, even educational moments. If you never understood the full meaning of "kuyashii" (mortifying) before, Japanese soccer star Nakata gave us a choice illustration by missing his goal in the shoot-out against the US soccer team in the men's soccer quarterfinals. In October, however, the Japanese team regained their composure by defeating Saudi Arabia to win their second Asia Cup.

In a much anticipated rivalry between managers Nagashima and Oh, the Yomiuri Giants defeated the Daiei Hawks 4-2 to claim the Japan Series title for the first time in six years. Recent talent recruitment, including former Hawks' pitching star Kudo (who helped carry Daiei to last year's title) no doubt helped tip the balance in the Giants' favor. Some had speculated that a Giants win would boost the stagnant economy as gleeful fans rushed out on post-victory spending sprees. With the economy still wallowing in the doldrums (despite the win), count your blessings the Giants didn't lose.

Yokozuna Wakanohana retired from sumo this year and followed fellow heavyweight Konishiki into the television arena, signing on as spokesmodel for Malt's beer.

Science and commerce
Back on the subject of embarrassing failures, the US and Japanese stock markets, after posting unbelievable gains early in the year, emulated the famously despondent euro by dropping double digits in percentage value.

In June, department store chain Sogo filed for bankruptcy. In September, Mitsubishi Motors revealed it had systematically covered up consumer complaints. And the American branch of Bridgestone/Firestone admitted they had known about certain tire safety problems yet failed to notify consumers.

In another great and thoroughly predictable cover-up, a full lunar eclipse occurred on July 16. The eclipse may have appeared brighter than usual owing to the largest-ever hole in the ozone layer, discovered this year over Antarctica.

On an ecological note, recycling caught a wave of popularity following the PET bottle phenomenon that invaded the country last year. Like Mt Fuji, growing mountains of empty PET bottles in Kawasaki recycling centers may even be visible on a clear day from central Tokyo.

Unfortunately, Snow Brand followed this recycling trend in the production of their milk products, with predictably lackluster results. Bacteria sickened thousands in Kansai when past-due milk was re-processed with new milk.

In yet another example of dubious recycling, Shinichi Fujimura, the deputy director of the Tohoku Paleolithic Cultural Research Institute, nicknamed "God's hand" and "divine digger" for his unusual archeological success, admitted to planting artifacts, later "discovering" them, and then making remarkable claims regarding their age and provenance. Secret video footage taken by the Mainichi Shimbun caught him reburying artifacts found on previous digs.

And fetishists were saddened to see the dismantling of the foot cult (in which one's future is divined by reading the soles of one's feet) amid allegations of fraud.

Elsewhere in science, Japanese chemist, Dr Hideki Shirakawa won the Nobel Prize in October for the discovery and development of conductive polymers, and was awarded the Order of Culture by the Japanese Government in November.

Issey Miyake
Issey Miyake

Art and fashion
In art, Tokyo area museums held joint exhibitions of "the world's four great civilizations"-Chinese, Egyptian, Indus, and Mesopotamian. If Fujimura had been involved, there no doubt would have been five.

At the National Museum in Ueno, the National Treasures show packed in lots of Japanese cultural history and visitors. Issey Miyake's innovative clothes bounced around the Museum of Contemporary Art this summer. And the Philip Morris Art Award exhibition in Ebisu highlighted upcoming talent.

Japanese cinema got lucky again with another prize from Cannes for Eureka. Actor Koji Yakusho really should let someone else get an award sometime.

In fashion, one word: "pashmina."

The end
What does it all add up to? Let's look to the US state of Florida for the two valuable events it hosted this year. First, the battle over Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez demonstrated again that both love and justice are blind. The other contentious Florida affair, that chaotic civics lesson known as the US presidential elections, offered an analog version of the Y2K-borne digital mayhem predicted (coincidentally?) by Al Gore himself, showing us that even careful preparation can't prevent the inevitable.

One final thought-given that Japan has adopted this year to celebrate the millennium changeover, better back up those files, store some supplies, turn off the gas and hide under your futon (or pashmina) again, just in case 2001 turns out to be the real bug. Things always arrive a little later here, right?



395: Generation Next
The world-first launch of NTT DoCoMo’s third generation mobile phone network represents a quantum leap into mobile cyberspace. Stuart Braun goes online.
394: Sister act
Celeb sisters Kyoko and Mika Kano have taken Japan by storm, but can they win over the West? Chris Betros and Maki Nibayashi spend an evening with the divine duo.
393: Reel time
Matt Wilce gets a close-up of the Tokyo International Film Festival's hottest tickets.
392: Lap it up
Michael Schumacher is champion again, but the unpredictable Suzuka circuit is still set to offer up a surprise-packed Japan Grand Prix on October 14. Stuart Braun goes trackside.
391: Everything old is new
You might think Azabu Juban is all swanky dining and dancing 'till dawn.....
390: Cooking the books
Celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s in town with his new book in hand.....
389: Up from the underground
Japan's literary superstar Haruki Murakami is home for the duration
388: First wave
John McGee dives into Japan's art extravaganza
387: Water world
Matt Wilce explores Tokyo DisneySea
386: Open house
Many people are sleeping on the streets of Tokyo
385: A moveable feast
Some of the city's best yatai fare
384: Hair
A look at Tokyo's salon industry
383: Summer in the city
20 ways to make August a little more bearable
382: Tokyo Tomorrow
Stuart Braun tracks the future of the metropolis
381: From zero to hero
81-year-old Zero fighter Sadamu Komachi looks back
380: Island escapade
Journey to Odaiba
379: Open-air fare
Tokyo's alfresco dining spots
378: Reel story
Reel in the summer's hottest movies
377: Sonic relief
Gear up for the summer's hottest music festivals
376: All at sea
No shortage of fun in the sun on the beach
375: Your cup of tea
Tea time in Tokyo
374: No time to waste
Tokyo's mounting problems with garbage
373: Freetown
Tokyo's stylish suburb, Jiyugaoka
372: Broken record
Tokyo's ecclectic array of record stores
371: Bottoms up
Tokyo's finest martini bars
370: Admit one
Regulations for foreigners wanting to live and work on Japan
369: After a fashion
Spring trends from the catwalks to the streets
368: Bandwidth wagon
Japan's move towards DSL
367: Just for sports
How to play ball this summer
366: Life's a hitch
Helpful hints for hitch hiking in Japan
365: Altered state
Try Tokyo's tailors on for size
364: The Fringe Club
Shinjuku's infamous Golden Gai bar district
363: Take two Tomatos
Design gurus Michael Horsham and Steve Baker
362: Stage left
Innovative and intimate shogekijo (little theaters)
361: The lowdown on TC
Everything you ever wanted to know about TC, but were afraid to ask
360: A reversal of fortune
Tokyo's home of racing, Fuchu Racecourse
359: Funny Valentine
How to do Valentine's Day in Japan
358: Two-faced
Heartthrob Katsunori Takahashi
357: Read all about it comes to Japan
356: Daikanyama
Central Tokyo's hippest hood
355: Wash out
Heaven Sento
354: Means to an end
Some good ideas to inspire you
352/3: Last Laugh
TC's rosey re-cap of the year
Signs of the times
Horoscopes for 2001
351: It's a wrap
TC's holiday gift tips
350: Cable ready
Cable and satellite broadcasting renaissance



Acronyms - PS2, G - 8, MP3, DVD and others vied for MVP in Y2K

Natural disasters - volcanoes, typhoons, flooding, a big earthquake in Tottori, a waterspout in Chiba, and PM Mori all wreaked havoc on the country

Florida - Elian Gonzalez, US Presidential elections. Ponce DeLeon got lost there too.

Recycling - Diet ministers, Snow Brand milk, archeological artifacts. What’s old is new again.

Scandals - Snow Brand milk, Mitsubishi Motors, Bridgestone/Firestone, Osaka Governor Knock, Niigata Police Chief - see “Trend: Recycling

Things to look forward to next year:

go1.gif (62 bytes)Yokohama Triennale - huge art exhibition next fa

go1.gif (62 bytes)Disney Sea

go1.gif (62 bytes)Shibuya's new garbage incinerator

go1.gif (62 bytes)More scandals

go1.gif (62 bytes)New phones