Hu and Me

Wednesday 7th May 2008

As I type this the Today program on Radio 4 is covering the upcoming Ping Pong match between the Chinese president and Japanese Prime Minister, covering diplomatic niceties and pro-Tibet protests. Here are my experiences of almost meeting President Hu and protests in Japan.

Certainly there are pro-Tibet protests going on, earnest Japanese of all ages can be found outside the major stations wearing “Free Tibet” t-shirts and industriously handing out leaflets in competition with the army of young shop promotion staff who stuff packets of tissues bearing adverts into your hands everywhere you go here but the volume is, well, low – the penetration of the pro-Tibet message is no deeper than any other advertising which – on the back of the sheer volume on display here due to an almost complete lack of regulation – is almost nil, it all gets tuned out as background noise.

And that was as much contact as i thought I would see nor insight i would gain on the matter, until I happened to visit the Rikugi-en garden in the Bunkyo-ku area of Tokyo. This garden is reputedly one of the best in the area, founded in 1695 on land gifted to a feudal lord by the fifth shogan it was modeled to evoke eighty eight scenes, real and imagined, from famous poems. It’s name means the “garden of the six principles of poetry” which form 31 syllable waka poems, a form imported from China. Iwasaki Yataro, founder of Mitsubishi, bought the dilapidated gardens in 1887 and donated the restored versions to the city in 1938. It is indeed a peaceful and beautiful place, from no place is there not a glorious and tranquil view and there are very few visitors today, being the day after the end of the Golden Week holiday. The Volunteer Guides in fact outnumber the visitors by about four to one, they hover at every corner and every baricade into inaccessible areas which include today the famous Fukiage-Chaya tea house where I was hoping to indulge in a cup of matcha – thick green tea.

A closer inspection of the Guides reveals that there are in fact two different sorts: 1) Genuine 2) Thinly disguised security brutes. Making the distinction turns out to be simple – they may all be wearing the same dark suits, arm bands and badges but those who also sport radio earpieces, stab vests and curious bulges at the back of their suits are the latter. Just as I feel I’m nearly done with the garden and closing time is approaching, i pick myself up from the Teahouse for Watching the Dragon, a little pavilion overlooking a bubbling brook where crayfish scuttle about in the clear water around a large rock that, if you screw up your eyes the right way, looks a bit like a dragon, and head for the exit only to find my way blocked by a selection of assorted variety of guides as a gaggle of politicians make their way around the central lake towards me. I step back, intending to watch the party pass by but this is insufficient for a type #2 who, after a quick critical analysis of my pale western features, instructs a type #1 to get this foreigner out of the way.

The type #1 very politely escorts me back to the tea house I just left, explaining in rapid Japanese that he’s very sorry and if I could just wait here for a few moments in what he insists is the best part of the garden (which is true) he would be most grateful (or at least that is what I take him to mean, my understanding of Japanese language is very limited). Wait I do, and from this vantage point I see the gaggle of security, camera-wielding press and politicians cross the bridge safely downstream from the foreigner and head round to the Fukiage-Chaya where they, presumably, are to be served some tea.

As I begin to leave the garden a second time, a cacophony of noise emanates from beyond the walls. This turns out to be a protest, not by pro-Tibet people but in fact by ultra-nationalists whose demands include a change to the constitution not just severing all links with China but with a good deal of the rest of the world as well. This protest can not be missed – a small army of Police are stopping the traffic to allow the megaphone clad vehicles to crawl past the garden wall shouting slogans at deafening volume.

Deafening volume and ultra-nationalist propoganda are not new here and strangely is very well tolerated but the Japanese government’s recent mistakes with petroleum product legislation are fueling (if you’ll forgive the pun) a good deal of resentment – with no imports from China and a nonsensical embargo against direct imports from Korea, already high oil prices world wide are having an even bigger bite here – they tried to rectify the situation with tax cuts but these were so badly implemented that price changes are yet to filter through. Japan needs a better relationship with China, certainly, but the timing of the visit could not be better to play into the hands of less than desirable political elements here. Pro-Tibet protests are quiet and reserved outside train stations, Anti-Foreigner protests get heard by the President of China and a massive police escort.