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Japan Diary

A Polite Society

Travelling from the land of the cold toilet seat to the land of the hot one, it is not only the toilet seats that are warm. To be in a world where everyone is polite, is to be in a parallel universe – one that you can conceive of, but never expect to visit. The deep and many bows, from waiters to shop-girls, flatters the slovenly westerner into believing in his superiority. In fact it is the bower, not the bowed, that is superior. For a while it seems possible that the habit might travel back home with me, as much as eating with chop-sticks – a means that, by being less efficient, shows restraint and makes eating both pleasurable, polite, and last longer.


Apologies for bringing up this matter again – but a related matter to politesse is the much written about subject of Japanese loo culture. My wife likened the control panels in our hotel toilets to the experience of Tim Peake in the cockpit of his spacecraft. While the Japanese obsession with ablution is mildly interesting, psychologically, one wonders whether the heating of the seat electrically is really such an advance. The traditional English public school method of getting the youngest fag in the dorm to perform this function had far less fanfare. But where the Japanese truly score is in their public provision. The erosion of this basic service in the UK, which we might call the ‘The Great British Bog Off’, has been an awful measure of our decline as a society. Indeed, the toilet index might be a far better measure of civility than other economic models. Our Victorian forefathers, who believed that cleanliness brought us closer to godliness, would have been horrified by the destruction of the glorious brass, copper and ceramic structures that were once our cathedrals to ablution. Reduced to buying a Starbucks Coffee in order to use a loo is not progress and, in the case of Waterloo Station, where they turned a Victorian toilet into a pub, simply disgusting.

Our Agent

Our agent (who I shall call Yoshio to preserve his anonymity) is a remarkable man. Aged 66 today, in his youth in the 1970s – and without much money – he decided to travel and see the world. In those days that meant a ship to Nakhodka and then the Trans-Siberian railway. Another passenger who travelled the same route two weeks later with our agent’s friend was David Bowie who – at that stage anyway – had a fear of flying, and was returning from a concert performance in Tokyo. One of the things that makes him such a great agent is his deep understanding of our culture and our times. Stopping in Moscow he was surprised to be asked to sell the jeans he was wearing and then found himself, upon reaching the West, rather over-long of non-transferable Roubles. A good lesson in international trade. Then, coming to London, he worked in the Marquee Club one of the great music venues of the era, where he got to see acts like John Mayall and the Blues Breakers. In Football he got to see George Best at his height and, when he got to Canada, he didn’t just get to work in KFC but met Colonel Sanders who turned up in his white suit and matching Rolls-Royce to check out the fries. These days Yoshio opens doors for us that might otherwise remain closed and is a wonderful raconteur and travel companion too.

My Daughter

I am sure that when my daughter decided to take her optional year out from Kent University to study Anthropology at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University on the southern island of Kyushu, she did not think she would be back 10 years later as the Japanese-speaking member of our company visiting the oldest Japanese copper smelter on the same island. Built in 1916, Saganoseki produces about 450,000 tpy of copper cathodes today from imported concs shipped in from Japanese interests in Chile. Together, we are courteously taken around the whole complex – we see the 200 metre stack, the wharf with concs being off-loaded from dual purpose vessels specially designed to deliver concs inwards and take back sulphuric acid. We see the flash smelter, blister and anode making, and, finally, the refinery where the Japanese use stainless steel starter-plates for the cathodes, rather than ones made of copper, for the process. But we’re here to talk about rhenium – just 2-10 ppm per mt on average, which on this throughput, if captured, is enough to produce 2mt per year of this rare and valuable by-product.

Achingly beautful. The bridge at Nikko.


At the Japanese Aerospace Exhibition in Tokyo, held once every four years, apart from the talks by Airbus, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, GE, Rolls-Royce and others, I come across the exhibition stand for the Prefecture of Fukushima. It hits me that the earthquake and Tsunami, in which 3893 people died immediately, and 2065 later, took place not more than 100 miles from here. If any reminder is needed, it is a moment to reflect again on Japan’s stoic ability to build, re-build, and build again. Apart from the deaths, 164,865 people were evacuated in 2011 but now businesses are re-opening and the exhibitors want the world to know this. Already a new rail extension has been completed and 4890 new houses built. Topsoil containing contaminants has been removed and, mercifully, the half-life of one of the main radioactive elements – Caesium 135 – is just 30.17 years. But there is a metal angle to all this too – especially in my trade of minor metals. The disaster and closure of Fukushima stopped the worldwide nuclear renaissance in its tracks. Overnight, Japan’s 48 reactors were closed and have not re-started. Germany, likewise, took the decision to instruct the orderly closure of all theirs by 2022. The effect on the Zirconium market was parlous, as this element is needed in the present generation of reactors to house the Uranium granules in the fuel assembly. Zirconium’s property of being a low neutron absorber is required to allow the neutrons fired at the uranium to pass through the tube structure unobstructed and split the weak uranium atoms to cause the controlled chain reaction whose purpose is to release energy – and heat the water, that turns the turbine to generate electricity. However, what few realised at the time, was that the definition of ‘nuclear grade zirconium’ is Zirconium that is free of the element that rides along with it – Hafnium. A reduced demand for nuclear grade Zirconium thus, five years later, has caused a shortage of Hafnium in a market that is only about 50-60tpy at best.  It is an element much needed, ironically, in another energy producing technology – Industrial Gas Turbines. Here, Hafnium is used within complex nickel super alloys for melting into directionally solidified turbine blades. In this way, this was therefore the Tsunami that caused a ripple. One very far removed from its epicentre.

Published November 16th 2016 on


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