紅白—red and white

We’re watching the New Year’s Eve TV show called 紅白歌合戦 kouhaku uta gassen—the red and white song contest. This is the 66th annual contest. It’s a variety show featuring all kinds of music from this year’s J-pop hits to enka ballads to hard rock.

X-Japan “Born to be Free”

Many of the participants appear year after year; it’s Arashi’s 7th time to perform and some stalwarts have been on the show for 30 or even 40 years.

It's Perfume's 8th time to appear on Kouhaku
It’s Perfume’s 8th time to appear on Kouhaku

The show is structured as a competition between the akagumi “red” team (female performers) and the shirogumi “white” team (male), red and white taking turns to perform, with the result decided by popular vote. The staging and light shows are reminiscent of the Eurovision. I would have liked to see cross-dressing death-metal wrestler Ladybeard included, but inexplicably there is no sign of him in this year’s line-up!

Most of the performances are on stage in a concert hall in Tokyo, but one song was an outside broadcast from Nagasaki.

Misia performing at the Peace Park in Nagasaki
Misia performing “Tears of the Orphans” from the Peace Park in Nagasaki

You’ll see from the screenshots that the lyrics are shown in subtitle for all of the songs. This is very helpful for a struggling Japanese learner like me!

The most prestigious spot is the last to perform and is called 大とり ootori. This year the ootori slot is awarded to “eternal idol” Seiko Matsuda.

SMAP were ootori in 2010; this year they are 5th from the end
SMAP were ootori in 2010; this year they are 5th from the end

Then the show finishes Japanese-style with an ensemble finale performance of Hotaru no hikari (“Auld Lang Syne”).


Update: This year the red team (the girls) won by a tiny margin: 356,000 votes to 346,000.

Happy New Year everybody! 明けましておめでとう!


おっさん—middle-aged man

One day in Osaka, I went out for lunch to a nearby restaurant with a colleague. On arrival, we discovered that every Tuesday was  おっさんデー (ossan-day); discounts were available to middle-aged men. The notice didn’t specify what age you have to be to qualify as “ossan”, but after a brief discussion we somewhat ruefully concluded that 40 was probably the cut-off, and that we were both entitled to a discount.

“ossan” is a shortened and uncomplimentary version of ojisan meaning “uncle”. To be an ossan is to be irredeemably uncool.


An ossan-gyagu (ossan gag) is a terrible, unfunny joke of the kind an uncle would tell. He may even sport a “bar-code” hairstyle (a comb-over).


But the ossan can’t be entirely useless, because there is an ossan-rental service, where you can hire a middle-aged man for only ¥1,000 per hour (less than €10).  One 47-year-old “assari ossan” says that you can talk to him as if you were talking to a potted plant and he will listen and absorb like a sponge. You can talk to him about your divorce or other issues that may be troubling you. Another aspiring ossan is only 39 and may not be quite ready for ossan duties – he says his favourite food is gummi bears.

Apparently your rental-ossan is more than just a listening ear; you can also get him to help with test-driving a car, viewing an apartment or general advice, or even just send him to the shop or the post office.

The word oji, meaning uncle, is written in kanji as 伯父 if he is your parent’s older brother, and 叔父 if he is your parent’s younger brother. It is an example of a distinction that appears in the written language and not in the spoken language (a distinction imported from China, along with the characters – the Sino-Japanese pronunciations are hakufu and shukufu). This is a point I want to come back to in a future blog post about the advantages of the kanji-based writing system.

Different languages distinguish different kinds of uncles. In Latin, your father’s brother is patruus and your mother’s brother is avunculus. The two words have very different connotations: patruus is a “severe reprover” whereas avunculus is, well, avuncular. Similarly in Finnish, your father’s brother setä is strict and austere, while your mother’s brother eno is fun and indulgent. Of course, in any family the same man may be patruus to one group of people and avunculus to another; will the two sets of cousins perceive him differently? I believe that some languages (Indian languages, Thai) have different words for as many as five or seven different kinds of uncle; for those cultures the English word “uncle” must seem hopelessly generic.

Spittelau—Hundertwasser at home

Back in July 2012, I wrote about this building, the Maishima waste incineration plant in Osaka, Japan, designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser:

Maishima waste incineration plant, Osaka

In June of this year, I was in Vienna for a conference. One afternoon when I had some free time, I took the underground to Spittelau, a suburb on the banks of the Donaukanal.

Döblinger Steg, a pedestrian bridge over the Donaukanal, linking the suburbs of Döbling and Brigittenau

My destination was the Spittelau waste incineration plant, the exterior of which was designed by Hundertwasser in the late 1980s.

Müllverbrennungsanlage Spittelau, Vienna, Austria


The facility, owned and operated by Wien Energie, turns municipal waste into heat and electricity for the city.

Vienna district heating office building, Spittelau

This was the building that inspired the mayor of Osaka to invite Hundertwasser to design the new waste incineration and sewage treatment plants in Maishima.

Spittelau façade 1

The building in Vienna has many motifs in common with its younger sibling in Osaka. For example, the chimney disguised in the style of a minaret, the irregularly-placed windows, the use of child-like blobs of primary colour and the trees and plants on the roof.

Spittelau façade 2

However, I felt somewhat disappointed. Unlike the Japanese building, designed from scratch by Hundertwasser, in this case the whimsical design features had seemingly been added on to the façade of an existing industrial structure. The result is surprisingly drab by comparison.

The setting is also quite different: while the Japanese building stands proudly on a brand-new artificial island in a bay spanned by modern bridges, its elder sister in Vienna is hemmed in by urban clutter and traffic.

Vienna district heating office building, Spittelau

It didn’t help that renovation works are currently underway, attended by Portakabins and construction materials and machinery.

“We’re renovating the Spittelau thermal waste treatment plant for you”


Maybe next time I have some free time in Vienna, I’ll visit the Schönbrunn Palace instead!