My girlfriend and I moved to Japan in the autumn of 2008. We had our reasons, and they boiled down to boredom. I’m Irish, she’s Scottish, we were both sick of living in the UK – the sort of middle-class Westerners who suppose that their lives might be more meaningful as foreigners in some faraway place. Japan seemed so distant and different as to make us look brave, but also secretly appealed to us as one of the safest, cleanest nations on Earth.
I FELT the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, in the same way that you might get a spot of drizzle from the tip of the tail of a hurricane. At 2.46pm on Friday, March 11, I was walking home from the library in a small, quiet town called Daishoji, some 400 miles west of the epicentre. The pavement shifted side to side, ever so slightly. I had been drinking the night before, and my first thought was for my lost youth, when I could handle a few beers and a couple of shots without wobbling off a footpath the following afternoon. It took a full five seconds to register that this movement was occurring outside my skull, and a little longer to recognise the sensation.
WITH hindsight, I realise that I was naive when I set out to read all the novels on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist in a single week. I accepted the assignment for reasons of intellectual vanity. Not even the great writer and critic Gore Vidal had ever pulled off such a wheeze, although he did once famously go through the top 10 American bestsellers and write a characteristically imperious essay about the experience. Now, it would be my turn to become a book group of one, a judging panel unto myself. I would read 17 novels in seven days. Starting the week as diligent as a librarian’s apprentice, I would end it halfblind, sad-faced and walking into walls, like a pit pony down a Chinese coal-mine.
THERE is no place on Earth where a person can say with absolute certainty that they are not being stalked by ninjas. Common sense suggests this is unlikely, but pure logic dictates that you cannot prove a negative, and the art of the ninja is to go unperceived. I have been around the world to look for them, to shadow them in reverse, and whenever I find a possible candidate, he or she tends to deny it. “No no no,” said Mats Hjelm, a web-designer from Stockholm, during a short break from his ninjutsu class in Tokyo. “I don’t like to call it by that name, although I know that some other people do. And I definitely don’t call myself a ninja.” This was, of course, exactly what a ninja would say.