Atomic Sushi

Atomic Sushi

by Simon May

As the first British professor of philosophy since 1882 to be invited to teach at the prestigious and enigmatic University of Tokyo, Simon May enjoyed a degree of access denied to other commentators. Each chapter of the book focuses on some everyday human matter, such as love, death, bureaucracy, hygiene, food, commuting, education, marriage, and memory. Japanese


As the first British professor of philosophy since 1882 to be invited to teach at the prestigious and enigmatic University of Tokyo, Simon May enjoyed a degree of access denied to other commentators. Each chapter of the book focuses on some everyday human matter, such as love, death, bureaucracy, hygiene, food, commuting, education, marriage, and memory. Japanese attitudes to such issues are explored through a mixture of light-hearted anecdote and trenchant analysis, and through his vivid accounts of flying goldfish, gangsters at funerals, businessmen paying good money to be whipped, doctors faking death certificates, and cover-ups at all levels of society, Simon May provides a unique first-hand account of immersion into a fascinating culture.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A sympathetic portrait, prescient about Japan's recovery as a major economic power."  —A.C. Grayling, author, Toward the Light of Liberty

"The anecdotes are often hilarious, sharply drawn and told in a droll tone that contrasts with the eccentricities being conjured up. The interpretations are sometimes amusing and sometimes astute . . . May has a delicious, if sometimes cruel, take on things."  —The Financial Times

"May goes to weddings, funerals, meetings with high-powered businessmen and New Year's Eve celebrations with Zen Buddhists, providing a series of brief but well-observed and often funny snapshots of life in Japan."  —Times Literary Supplement

Product Details

Alma Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
New edition
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Atomic Sushi

Notes from the Heart of Japan

By Simon May

Alma Books Ltd

Copyright © 2006 Simon May
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84688-282-1


Kafka's Nightmare

The academic New Year started on 1st April, International Fool's Day. One brilliant morning a few days later, the wind caressing and the sky a deep blue, I made my way to Tokyo University's Department of Philosophy as a new visiting professor. I found myself fondly, and perhaps a little vainly, imagining the rousing welcome I might be extended by my future colleagues and students, but what I actually encountered was more like a crash course in the nightmarish excesses of Japanese bureaucracy – that noose around the neck of the nation which the Japanese not only tolerate, but even seem to crave. For before I could be allowed to do anything so incidental to a professor's life as exchange ideas with colleagues and teach students and worry about the curriculum, it was my inviolable obligation to become a real person in the Japanese sense by compressing my life onto a bureaucrat's hard disk, gaining my virtual reality.

The administrators began by demanding that I sign a declaration promising to be a loyal and honourable servant of the Japanese State. Submitting to this demand immediately unleashed a torrent of further requests. Among other things, I needed health tests to certify that my body fluids were unobjectionable and my body solids in good order, a declaration from my landlady about my accommodation costs, a certificate proving that I had attended primary school, a document registering me as an alien, and a diagram to illustrate the exact route I intended to take when travelling from home to university, and then from university to home again.

I hastened to provide the last of these on the spot, in the naive hope of stemming the bureaucratic onslaught with a relentless display of loyal goodwill. Like most appeasement strategies, it was doomed to fail. Three officials bent over me, intently scrutinizing my efforts to produce the vital diagram. After a moment or two they started to confer. The tone was disapproving. Politely, but strictly, I was told that although the drawing of a single arrow was an appropriate method of depicting my train journey into central Tokyo, it certainly wouldn't suffice when it came to representing the walk from my house to the station; indeed, for such a purpose it became clear that a single arrow was not only inappropriate, but derisory. That part of the route would need to be more accurately drawn, and to scale, so that the exact spatial relations of the streets would be clear. I was advised to ask my landlady to provide this map, since a foreigner who had made the journey only once would be unable to achieve the necessary precision.

The matter of the health tests had been ongoing for several months. While still in London, I had received an email spelling out in detail what was required from me, from stomach and lung X-rays to blood, urine and faecal analyses. My local doctor had dispatched a clean bill of health to Tokyo long before I arrived, but the state-employed medical technicians who pored over it hadn't been fobbed off by his summary report. Now, on my first day in my new position, I was asked to submit to a battery of follow-up investigations: for example, I was to provide a sample of my stools for comprehensive chemical analysis. This sample, I was told, should be obtained by carefully scraping a turd along its entire length – "not just one centimetre, Dr May". We also came to a consensus that I would scrape the turd around its girth, at three equidistant points. I was supplied with a little coloured diagram that graphically illustrated the most effective way to undertake this complex operation, in which a smiling Teletubby-like figure deftly sampled something that looked like a withered brown banana with a device resembling the little plastic spoon on a tub of ice cream at the cinema. I burst out laughing, not just at the bureaucrats' pedantry, but also at the professor rendering all these technical instructions into English, who was looking steadily more tortured by the task. But it was no laughing matter, as I was firmly told by one of the administrators.

Once the matter of my stools had been dealt with, the officials turned to a subject of almost equal significance – my financial situation. It seemed that my first month's payment was, unfortunately, "very complicated, very difficult", because I had failed to register myself with the Faculty Office by the first day of the academic new year. I felt I'd had reasonable grounds for not turning up on that day, given that it had been a Saturday, and there would have been no access to the buildings, no colleagues to induct me, no students to teach, and no bureaucrats to make me real. Reality, however, was of marginal interest to the university administrators. The fact was, not to be registered with them on the day that the general academic year started was problematic financially, even if at that point I had no duties to perform. It meant that the necessary authorizations and paperwork couldn't be completed in time for payday on 17th April. Nor could I be paid my first month's salary as soon as the administrative difficulties had been surmounted, because payments could only be made on the 17th of each month. I would therefore have to wait until the 17th of May for my first payment.

Any financial exigencies this might have caused me were relieved by the resolution of another tricky aspect of my financial situation: my expenses. I was told that although my air fare to Japan would of course be refunded, a refund of my £24 taxi fare to Heathrow Airport in London was an impossibility and could not be permitted under any circumstances; the administrators were adamant that the rules for transportation of foreign professors were quite clear on this, and they appeared to have copious documentary evidence to back up their convictions. To rectify my financial loss, however, they proposed issuing me with £2,000. This £2,000 comprised "moving expenses", and moving expenses – unlike taxi fares – were there in black and white in their fat rule book on employing foreigners.

I tried to tell the officials that I hadn't incurred any moving expenses, since I was merely renting a furnished house for a year. And that I wasn't asking for an extra £2,000. Vaguely alarmed that I would be seen as a grasping opportunist, I protested that £2,000 to cover a £24 taxi fare seemed, well, on the steep side ... But there was no arguing with the rules and regulations, and eventually I succumbed to them out of relief at having cleared another administrative hurdle, amazed but undeniably content to have made a profit of £1,976 on twenty minutes in a London cab.

Other demands followed, the most important of which was that I should order my hanko – a personal stamp that authorizes and dignifies one's signature on all official documents, for example when opening a bank account or simply when sending a letter through the university mail system. But even the hanko's magic has only limited powers to overcome bureaucratic roadblocks. I quickly discovered that sending a letter through the university mailing system was merely one aspect of sending a letter through the university mailing system: the other aspect involved filling in, signing and stamping a special form that documented the existence of the letter, precisely when it was sent, and the correct identities of the sender and the recipient. It was somehow taken for granted that the physical artefact of the letter itself was insufficient grounds for assuming that the letter definitely existed.

All this left me in no doubt: the administrators of Tokyo University were my nemesis. Even before my arrival I had been inundated with emails for months, emails requesting arcane details of every stage of my life, from my first kindergarten frolics to the last gasps of my previous employment and beyond, and almost every piece of new information I supplied provoked a request for an official certificate to prove it was true. When I discovered that my primary school no longer existed, I was asked to present an official certificate to show that it had been "abolished". When I supplied the months in which I had probably entered and left it, I was told that I needed an official certificate that stated the exact dates. When I protested that I simply couldn't provide this, because there was no record of the dates and therefore recovery of such information was impossible, they requested a further official certificate stating that in Britain it is at times impossible to certify such information. And when I replied by pointing out that in Britain there is no certifying authority that exists for the purpose of certifying that something is impossible to certify, they asked me to state this with a certificate, certified by myself.

That I would have been unlikely to end up with a doctorate in philosophy without successfully making it through kindergarten didn't strike the bureaucrats as relevant. Each step of my education and professional career required verification, and every time they encountered a procedure that differed from Japanese custom, they asked for an official certificate to explain it. Why were my degree certificates from Oxford University signed by someone called the "Assistant Registrar", rather than by the "President"? Did this mean that my degrees were faulty? I desperately tried to evade the request for another official certificate by saying that the signing of Oxford degree certificates by Registrars had probably gone on for centuries, and I made up a story about the "President" being too busy to sign thousands of certificates every year ... but it was no good. They wanted a certificate – an official certificate – to certify that certificates from Oxford University were always signed by Registrars, even if this task was occasionally delegated to Assistant Registrars. It was requested that the certificate should be accompanied by a formal definition of the functions and responsibilities of Registrars, and that this definition should be signed by the "President". I replied that Oxford didn't have a President, only a Vice-Chancellor, and that he was much too busy to provide signed definitions of the functions and responsibilities of Registrars. This was a real mistake, for it provoked the obvious demand to explain why a paltry Vice-Chancellor was involved in all this; surely it should be the Chancellor of the university who is much too busy to provide signed definitions of the functions and responsibilities of Registrars? Once I had been administrated into a gently keening despair on any single issue, the stalemate was broken by another request for a certificate, if necessary signed by myself, to prove that what I was explaining was true.

This absurd flood of bureaucratic requests about turds, kindergartens and the certification of the uncertifiable, whose purpose was wholly impenetrable but certainly had nothing to do with educating the youth of Japan, had been cascading over me for eight months. Until my arrival in Tokyo, I had naively supposed that these ludicrous procedures concealed some meaningful purpose, such as to test my endurance, to probe my team spirit, or to verify the claims in my curriculum vitae. Surely, once the university had gained some confidence in firstly my material existence and then afterwards my basic integrity, the deluge would abate? I could not have been more misguided. Accommodation stimulated the bureaucrats' appetite rather than checked it.

Since 2004 halting attempts have been made to free Japan's public universities from the tyranny of government officials. Not before time. The administrators of Tokyo University, one of the country's most illustrious national institutions, represented officialdom run amok. Appointed by the Ministry of Education, they were unaccountable to, and uncontrollable by, the academics whom they supposedly served. The Byzantine formalities to which they were so fanatically loyal had remained largely unchanged since the nineteenth century, when they were imported from Bismarck's Germany, a country whose culture, temperament, and philosophy have extensive affinities with Japan, for good and ill. The pen-pushers who still fill so many Japanese institutions and corporations do not, of course, represent the cutting edge of Japanese culture – but nor are they merely a harmless throwback. They are emblematic of the massive resistance to change that besets Japan at all levels of society, which has delayed, if not paralysed, thoroughgoing social, economic and political reform for many years.

They were my welcome to Tokyo.


Commuting with Michelin Man

Of the hundreds of trains that I took between Tokyo and my home in Kamakura, few were delayed by more than a minute or two. Other lines, however, could be more unpunctual, and some extensively so, not because they were cursed with worse management, but because of the jumpers – those unfortunates who had lost the relentless battle for a secure position within Japanese society and were intent on doing away with themselves.

Certain key spots on the network were particularly in fashion, so you could predict where the delays would be worst. A rush-hour suicide might hold up over a million commuters for two or three hours, though the rail companies are so efficient at dealing with the mess of bodies on the tracks that they often have the trains running sooner than that. "Service temporarily suspended" or "human accident on the line" is the official announcement; everyone knows that yet another overworked or unemployed salaryman has succumbed to the strain and leapt. Suicide is still the best exit from overwhelming shame – and the shame of losing your job or being unable to pay off your debts can wipe out your social status and self-respect at a stroke.

Aside from the jumpers, the aspect of Japanese commuting that is most striking to the foreign eye is the ubiquity of the comic book. Many adults, mainly men but increasingly women too, whether wan-looking junior clerks in their blue suits or silver-haired captains of industry in power grey or senior government officials wearing permanent airs of importance, are poring over manga as thick as War and Peace. They appear transfixed by the images of bikini-clad girls (some of them looking decidedly under-age) in provocative poses: girls being betrayed by their lovers, or ritually abused and humiliated, or abducted by aliens. Most manga characters are stuck in two basic emotions, shock and lust, and their lives seem strictly limited to domestic feuds, office romps and clandestine affairs. In the really hardcore material you can see young women being gang-raped by crazed-looking villains wielding swords, red-hot pokers, and other motley instruments of torture. The reserved and peaceful citizens perusing these sadistic tracts are flipping over the pages with the same nonchalance, the same relaxed curiosity, as the other passengers with their newspapers and books and corporate reports, whiling away the long commute home.

Many Japanese tell you that manga are "safety valves" for brutal impulses, or that they're "works of art"; others decry them as perverse and corrupting. But whatever one's view, this immense appetite for manga reflects the powerfully erotic, sado-masochistic and violent fantasies that lie just below the surface of this extraordinarily ordered and subtle nation – fantasies to be found, perhaps, in all countries, but seldom so violently repressed in some contexts, and openly expressed in others, as in Japan.

Whatever reading material the commuters around me opted for, their favourite pastime was clearly not reading but being unconscious. Most people, from schoolchildren to senior citizens, are napping. Even in the morning rush hour, when the majority of passengers scarcely have enough room to stand on one leg, and when each packed carriage resembles a mass game of twister or some improbable species of human installation art, people sleep. It's quite common for your neighbour's head to dip gently onto your shoulder, for their back to slump against your chest, or indeed – if you're fortunate enough to be sitting down – for their whole body to collapse across your lap, as though such intimacy is a natural courtesy among passengers. Although the general rule in this society is that touching a stranger is a taboo loaded with impropriety and menace, on the trains such abrupt physical contact isn't found odd at all – unless, of course, one of the parties is a foreigner, in which case the taboo applies with double force. To be collapsed over an unknown foreigner's lap would be among the most embarrassing and even repulsive situations that any Japanese commuter could experience.


Excerpted from Atomic Sushi by Simon May. Copyright © 2006 Simon May. Excerpted by permission of Alma Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Simon May is the author of From Behind the Akamon Gate: Snapshots of the Fall and Rise of Japan, The Little Book of Big Thoughts: A Handbook of Aphorisms, Nietzsche's Ethics and His War on Morality, and The Pocket Philosopher: A Handbook of Aphorisms.

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