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Saturday, June 28, 2003


Extinction ahead for odd Japanese beasts

A news item earlier this year cited the upcoming extinction of the banana, giving the slippery fruit a life expectancy of but 10 more years.

A few days later, another news item announced similar doom for the shark, especially in the waters of the northeast Atlantic. At this point, there is no known food-chain tie with the bananas.

Yet, who knows? What goes around comes around, and catastrophe is often catching. As chaos theory states, when a butterfly burps in China, we may all feel the effects.

Thus to my observant eye, the wave of newly endangered species includes a lot more than bananas and sharks. I especially note a variety of Japanese wildlife marching grimly down the path of the dodo.

Twenty-four years ago, when I first arrived in Japan, all of the animals on the following list were as vigorous as dinosaurs on the Jurassic savannas. Yet now their days are clearly numbered. Some will be missed, but to most I can only offer this: Sayonara and good riddance.

Theater Snakes: Those who believe modern-day Japan is a smokers' paradise should have seen it 20 years ago. Everyone smoked, even after death (cremation Eget it?). Yet of all these nonstop puffers, the worst were those who took their habit into movie theaters.

Yes, there were "no smoking" signs, but there might as well have been "no breathing" signs. People Emostly men Esimply smoked right through the feature, so if you were a nonsmoker you sat there and smoked with them.

While the "no smoking" signs remain, I have not seen a smoking Theater Snake in well over a decade. Something has wiped them out. In all likelihood, lung cancer.

Platform Packhorses: It used to be that a person could not cross a train platform without having to dodge at least one little old lady carrying an enormous bundle upon her perpendicular back. "Dodge" is the correct word, too, for with a quick spin these ladies could easily knock passengers into trains Eor vice versa.

I used to wonder where these ladies came from and pictured some factory on the outskirts of town that would wind them up each morning and send them off to waddle about the city. Now, however, it seems the factory is out of business. For Platform Packhorses are really rare.

English Bugs: "Hello. Can I speak English with you?" These words used to send chills down my spine. For a long time, such encounters were fun. Then I had to be in the mood. Then I had to be in a super mood. Finally I would go out of my way to avoid such pests. But in the old days, English Bugs would come right to your door Eat my house, at several times past 11 p.m.

I can't imagine showing up at a Japanese home late at night and saying: "Hi. Can I practice Nihongo?" Now, thank goodness Eexcept for the tipsy variety on late-night trains EEnglish Bugs are scarce indeed.

Autograph Puppies: On one of my initial days in Japan, a grammar-school boy asked me for an autograph. I at first supposed he mistook me for a celebrity, perhaps some missing member of The Three Stooges. But through the years I came to give many such autographs, always to eager school kids who would slobber over my name as if it were written with bean paste.

What did the kids do with all those signatures? Practice forgery? Mail the names to Santa under their own addresses?

Recently I came across an Autograph Puppy in Asakusa in Tokyo. I was stunned. I thought they had all disappeared years ago.

Groper Fish: I myself have never seen (nor felt) a Groper Fish, but most women have Eenough to prove that Groper Fish once flourished in the vast commuter seas.

Groper Fish like to swim into packed train cars and then pinch helpless females in their soft spots. Heightened awareness, gender-segregated cars and old-fashioned legal action have rapidly reduced their numbers.

Yet of all the doomed critters on this page, this is the one that is most likely in false recession. For such animals are expert at camouflage and have long life spans. Be careful, for the odds are high that some trains are still filled with Groper Fish.

Talent Skunks: Somewhere in Japan is a TV producer who once felt that foreigners who speak Japanese would be a clever addition to the singers, actors, comics and other stars of the small screen. Thus the airwaves became dotted with long-nosed, light-haired individuals who had no qualifications or justifications for their opinions other than the fact they could state them in Japanese. These talentless souls became known as "talents."

Imagine, if you will, any other country inserting a Japanese resident on a prime-time talk show merely because he or she could speak a glib version of the local language.

A few of the old Talent Skunks are still around, and probably will be until they are cast in that great TV show in the sky (or are reborn as print columnists). Most of the newer "gaijin" on TV have something the old kind never had Eskill. Plus some learned expertise in the areas on which they give commentary.

I am sure the list is incomplete. Japan has always been blessed Eor cursed Ewith quaint and unusual characters. Yet, only the fittest can survive, and many of the odd creatures of decades past are swiftly swimming the way of the banana-chomping sharks.

Care to add to the endangered menagerie? If so, drop me a line. There's always an empty cage for just one more.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com

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