1. GUMF


20070913

The Fall Guy

Let me say at the outset that I am not a supporter of Shinzo Abe or his policies (anyone who puts nationalistic pride before much-needed reforms to the country's social welfare system gets an black mark in my book), but I wanted to say a few things about recent events in the Diet over the past two days. The prime minister of Japan stepped down Tuesday as he sought to find a "responsible" way to resolve the public distrust that has surrounded his one-year tenure.

Abe took office September 26, 2006, as the youngest prime minister since the war, calling for what he termed a departure from the post-war regime and advocating revision of the war-renouncing constitution. He quickly managed to thaw Japan's icy ties with China and South Korea by visiting the two countries immediately after taking office. Since then, however, he has witnessed a string of money scandals and gaffes involving members of his cabinet, as well as the fiasco over public pension records.
(The Japan Times) (On a side note, the pension fiasco had very little to do with Abe, actually, and can be blamed on his predecessors – PM Junichiro Koizumi et al – for failing to manage the bureaucratic process properly)

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it is with hindsight that we are able to look at the events of the past two days in a wider perspective. Think back, for example, to when Abe won the Liberal Democratic Party presidential vote. At that time, almost one year ago today, Abe basically won the LDP election by default. The other two candidates in the party election – Taro Aso and Sadakazu Tanagaki – showed a lack of interest in the post and Abe won convincingly with 66 percent of the party vote
.

But recent events have made me wonder if Abe was ever expected to be anything more than a stop-gap measure, a move that would give the LDP time to find a more permanent successor. Japanese politicians are well-known for their melodramas and the 2006 appointment of Abe in the PM post now seems part of a long-term plan to use him as a sacrificial lamb that would eventually step aside to accommodate a political candidate of true blue LDP stock (as Abe himself was anything but, despite his rich political heritage).

Abe's surprise announcement on Tuesday seemed at face value to come from a man who was at the end of his tether. He had battled long and hard for his reforms to be accepted, but was always kept on the back foot by a Japanese media that systematically unveiled one financial scandal after another with monotonous regularity. At this point, it should be noted that many of the cabinet ministers embroiled in dodgy administrative practices had been involved in parliamentary duties for many years (most of them were part of Koizumi's government) and yet it was only now that they got caught with their fingers in the pie. Something smell fishy? Sounds like someone was given a helping hand with where to look...

And as if that weren't enough, news broke today that the LDP was going to vote on Abe's successor on September 19 – one week from the date he resigned. If the news was as much of a shock as everyone in the party made out (weeping in front of the camera etc), one week seems like an awfully short time in the Japanese scheme of things to give potential candidates time to sound out possible allies etc. Meetings in Japan can take days to arrange, let alone hold, and while this is an emergency, the impending vote seems orchestrated to vote in a candidate who has probably been groomed for the job all along. Again, it suggests the powers that be in the LDP have known for some time that Abe was going to be replaced. It was just a question of arranging the circumstances in such a way that would allow Abe to resign from his post with dignity.

Such circumstances apparently arose after the recent APEC summit in Australia. There, Abe allegedly promised US president George Bush that he would ensure the anti-terrorism bill that is currently before the Diet would be passed without a hitch, thereby guaranteeing that Japan would extend the Maritime Self-Defense Force's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean to continue Japan's support for NATO-led counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. And let's face it, Japan doesn't really have a choice in the matter. The US has put a great deal of pressure on Japan to honour its commitments in the "war on terror", and Abe seems to have come away from the summit with little option than to try to hammer out a cooperation agreement with Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, the country's main opposition party (which controls the Upper House).


Official reports says Ozawa refused to meet with Abe (it was the straw that broke the camel's back and forced Abe to tender his resignation), but word on the grape vine in the halls of Nagatacho is that the DPJ actually agreed to Abe's request on one condition – that Abe himself would resign as prime minister. Under the proposal, the DPJ would of course pretend to object to the extension of the MSDF mission, but pledged to let it slip through in the second reading if Abe stepped down.


There are several other rumours in circulation regarding Abe's resignation (poor health, embezzlement etc), but whatever happens from this point on, I would call on the Japanese electorate to think a lot more about the issues at stake than the personalities involved. The cult of personality can only stretch so far.

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2. HOT OFF THE PRESS


Boxed Into A Corner

Tokyo, Japan– More than two-dozen cardboard boxes were taken into police custody this morning as investigators from the National Fraud Squad scrambled to trace the present whereabouts of investment funds worth ¥7 billion that went missing from the Social Security Centre’s weekly bingo kitty last week.

Investigators suspect that one of the cardboard boxes now in custody concealed the funds during a regular stationary inventory before walking out of the building through the front door after passing through a handful of security checks undetected.

A spokesperson from the Fraud Squad would not divulge any information regarding the expected duration of the boxes’ stay.

“There are many issues we need to address before we simply let them go,” said Detective Sugimoto. “ The first question we want answered is: Where is the money?”

No cardboard boxes were believed to have been drenched with water during their ordeal.

3. ARCHIVES


The Significantly Grumpy Italian Waitress

(Fish & Chip Jokes for Beginners)

Sometimes you encounter a person with a real chip on their shoulder, sometimes they seem to have an entire scoop.

“Do you have any pineapple rings?” I asked the broody waitress as she made a note of my drink order – beer – but as this was an Italian-style pizza establishment I doubted whether she understood the joke.

“Sorry but we only have pizza,” she replied with a snarl, “With cheese or without?”

It was a limited menu but one that made cents – in both senses of the word. There were four of us, so we decided to really chance our arm and order one of each.

As we waited, the waitress muttered something that sounded like “Last drinks!” but we decided to decline her kind offer, as we were a little embarrassed to take further advantage of her generous hospitality.

Ironically, the Cheese Pizza arrived before its cheese-less counterpart and we were just debating how to attack the steaming rings of dough when the waitress came over and told us very matter-of-factly that it tastes better if eaten when piping hot.

“But–,” started my companion, as he sought to draw attention to what was missing from the table.

“No buts,” the waitress snapped. “Eat them while they’ve still got some fire left in their belly.”

“But,” continued my companion, ignoring her specific request, “it would help us to have a knife or something to cut the pizza into smaller pieces. There are four of us after all.”

The waitress was tall to begin with but she drew herself up to be her full height and towered above the table like Roppongi Hills at dusk. She stood as all matriarchal woman stand when they want to make sure their statement is clearly understood, which seemed surprisingly natural from a person who looked to be pushing thirty-two. She wiped her hands on a grubby apron before placing both on her hips.

“All you had to do was ask,” she finally blurted out, and with that she turned on her heels and disappeared in a trail of table dust. A few loud thumps could be heard resounding from the kitchen and by the time she returned, the pizzas were looking decidedly cold and forlorn.

“Remember to pay at the counter on your way out,” she said as she placed the knife on the table, looking at the four of us as if she knew we were planning to sneak out the bathroom window between our dessert and digestive. She might have been unfriendly to the point of being rude but her intuition was pre-programmed to foil such plots long before they occurred.

“Have you got any vinegar?” I gulped, unable to restrain myself from a last subtle dig. My companions looked at me with a mixture of horror and disbelief.

“We close in twenty minutes,” she said bluntly. “If I were you, I’d get a move on.”

And believe you me, we did.

Mental Note to Self: Fish & Chips always taste better by the sea; save Italian for Italy.

copyright elliott samuels [08/01/07]

The Piece of Paper

It was a day like none other, a Hanoi day. I was standing in a grubby police station near my house. The man I suspected I needed to talk to was fast asleep under his desk. He was using a plastic shoe as a pillow. A copy of the latest Newsweek rested on his nose.

I had come down to the station to report the loss of a piece of paper. Not just any piece of paper, but the immigration form I filled out when I arrived at Noi Bai international airport. Alongside your passport, this yellow piece of paper is one of the single most important pieces of paper you will ever receive in Vietnam. I mean, you will get other fairly meaningless pieces of paper – tickets, bills, love letters and so forth – but your immigration form is of utmost importance. Lose this and you will not be allowed to leave the country – even if you are deported.

So important is this piece of paper that should you lose it you are expected to head down to your local police station and report it missing. The boys in peach are expected to file a written statement on the matter. And that’s just what I had gone to do.

But I had made the fatal mistake of going a little bit too early. It’s common in Vietnam for people to take a nap after lunch. Something to do with assisting the digestion process, I believe. Try to do anything during this period of the day and you will only be met with a solid wall of open mouths (a little bit like that revolving head game at the fairground, minus the clowns). Even if you do manage to stir someone from their slumber, they will generally only be able to point outside and mumble something that sounds like, “what does it look like I’m doing?”

Anyway, in my case (actually case number CSGT/197608327-11-03) I was fortunate because the policeman woke as I stood there, uncertain of my next move.

“What do you want nephew?” the rotund man asked. He had definitely had one too many banh baos, the local version of a meat pie.

“I lost my customs form,” I replied, taking a step towards the desk that, just moments ago, was used as an incubator.

“Lost it, huh?” the man asked. “What were you doing?”

I thought briefly about telling him the full story, that my immigration form had actually been lost by my embassy, which perhaps should have known better in such circumstances. But I merely shrugged my shoulders and pursed my lips together in mock confusion.

“Nothing.”

“You should be more careful,” the policeman retorted.

I had been anticipating a comment such as this. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt during my time in this godforsaken country it’s never ask an older person for help and expect to avoid a lecture.

“I understand,” I said. “Want do I need to do?”

“You must fill out these,” he said, and threw three forms in front of me.

“So you’re telling me that I have to fill out three pieces of paper to say that I’ve lost one piece of paper?”

“Yes.”

“And…”

“And pay money.”

“Of course. How much?”

“How much do you think?”

“I don’t know. Aren’t you a policeman?”

“Yes. I must work hard, you know… filling out paper work all the time.”

At this last remark I choose to bite my tongue, swallow my pride and leave it there. I didn’t think it was such a good idea to point out that I was the one who was actually going to fill out the paper work.

I answered the questions in the spaces provided, which were generally insufficient for the screeds of information requested. But as with all forms in Vietnam, it’s not the information you give that is important, it’s the fact that the piece of paper exists in the first place.

Existence, as Albert Camus once said, is everything.

copyright elliott samuels 2003

Conversation with a Pharmacist

Author's Note

This story is based on actual events that occurred on August 17, 2003. However, please note that certain liberties have been taken in the English translation of the conversation that may or may not have been intended by the participants. As a result, the author may have distorted some of the phrases used in the course of this encounter in a bid to capture the essence of a typical conversation that takes place in numerous small retail outlets in Hanoi on a daily basis. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in Vietnam will know what I’m talking about; anyone else will make of it what you will…

But first, let’s introduce the conversation’s participants…


Pharmacist

Name: Nguyen Oanh

Age: 51-ish

Occupation: Pharmacist

Nationality: Vietnam

Marital Status: Married

Eyesight: Failing

Hair Colour: Black-black

Hairstyle: Parted perm

Make-up: Heavy


Customer

Name: James Sycamore

Age: 29

Occupation: International Man of Mystery

Nationality: New Zealand

Marital Status: Single

Eyesight: 20/20

Hair Colour: Black-brown

Hairstyle: Short back & wide

Make-up: Light


Scenario

James Sycamore strolls confidently into a chemist that sits prominently on the corner of a major intersection in Hanoi. The street outside bustles with myriad motor vehicles and little can be heard above the cacophony of horns. He is greeted by a ruddy-cheeked, middle-aged woman standing behind the counter wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a spotlessly white tunic. The name-tag pinned onto her uniform introduces her as Nguyen Oanh.

Nguyen Oanh: [Hears footsteps, looks up] Oh nephew! Aunt help nephew how?

James Sycamore: Hello Aunt. [Steps towards the counter, accidentally startling the middle-aged woman by moving “too quickly” ] Aunt has health, no?

NO: Have. Nephew buy what?

JS: [Remembers the time] Aunt eat rice yet?

NO: Not yet, [states the obvious] I am working. [Puts down her clipboard] Nephew buy what?

JS: Umm… Nephew wants to buy, er… [Looks around and sees no-one – at least, not yet] …er, nephew no know what call that thing in Vietnamese.

NO: Medicine? [Reaches for vitamin C tablets]

JS: No… er, [Glances over left shoulder, then right] …er, OK?

NO: OK?

JS: Yes… OK. How much? [Reaches into pocket and unfolds a big wad of cash, which has been arranged before arriving in order to make the purchase snappy]

NO: OK… mmm [Looks him up and down] Friend a boy or a girl?

JS: [Deepens voice] A boy.

NO: Is nephew sure? Nephew looks pretty like a girl.

JS: Thank you. [Bows, curses]

NO: Nephew, this year how much old?

JS: Er... [Looks her straight in the eye] Thirty. But aunt also looks young, pretty even.

NO: True, no?

JS: True. [Shuffles feet politely]

NO: Nephew person country which?

JS: New Zealand, and aunt?


NO: [Chortles] Vietnam.

JS: Yes, er… [Begins fidgeting, tries to change tack] Sky beautiful. [Nods assuredly, as if to convince himself. It is, in fact, grey and overcast]

NO: Beautiful. [Begins to think aloud] Nephew like woman Vietnam, no?

JS: [Expecting this] Of course. Woman Vietnam very beautiful, beautiful very [Pauses slightly for effect, a well-rehearsed line] …a little bit beautiful.

NO: A little bit beautiful. [Beams] Nephew take wife Vietnam, no?

JS: No. [Squirms]

NO: Why nephew no take wife Vietnam [Looks personally insulted]

JS: No have money.

NO: Oh… [Understands & slowly nods head] Oh… so nephew buy what?

At that moment, another woman dressed in a white tunic enters. Her name is Yen Anh, but she has the same hair, same make-up, same uniform and same all-knowing eyes. Sycamore’s ruse has been rumbled.

JS: Uh… er…

YA: Nephew capital city which come?

JS: Sorry? Nephew no hear Aunt clearly?

YA: Person country which?

NO: New Zealand, near America. [Pauses slightly] Nephew wants to take wife Vietnam.

YA: Really? But wife Vietnam ugly very.

NO: That’s why nephew wants to buy OK.

YA: OK? [Looks startled, places hand over mouth]

NO: But nephew no have money.

YA: Really? But person country foreign has much money [Looks accusingly at him, daring him to deny it]

JS: Er… well… sometimes person country foreign has money, sometimes person country foreign has no money.

YA & NO: Oh... [Both nod in understanding]

JS: [Becoming flustered, blushes] OK, how much?

NO: OK? Oh, wait a moment… One thousand Vietnam dong a thing. Three thousand Vietnam dong a box. [Reaches into a box that is already open].

JS: One box [Looks over left shoulder and catches sight of a man selling baby rabbits on the footpath outside the pharmacy] Sorry… fifteen boxes.

NO: Fifteen? [Looks surprised but grabs a plastic bag]

JS: Hey Aunt! Nephew no need bag at all.

NO: No need bag eh? [Looks him straight in the eye] Nephew no want have problem yeah.”

JS: No, nephew no.

Sycamore crams the boxes into his shoulder bag, pays the pharmacist a twenty thousand dong note, turns on his heels and heads for the door.

NO: Hey nephew! Five thousand Vietnam dong price back again!

Sycamore chooses to ignore her, but in his haste a box falls out of his bag and skids across the floor. By chance it falls at the feet of a traffic officer who has just stepped into the pharmacy for a quick rest in the shade while on duty. The traffic officer bends over and picks the box up.

TO: OK of young brother?

JS: Yes.

TO: [Looks amused] Young brother… person country which?

JS: [Limply holds out his hand] New Zealand.

TO: [Placing box in his outstretched hand] Young brother go play yeah.

JS: Yes, young brother go play.


A little background...

OK is a popular brand of condoms sold by chemists in Vietnam. Chemists are almost always staffed by middle-aged Vietnamese women with perms.


copyright elliott samuels [2003]