James May Misses His Mark In Japan

Recently, Amazon has produced some very good programmes for its streaming platform. James May’s new Amazon Original programme Our Man In Japan is not one of them. To be fair, where travel television concerns, I am a cruel critic. I don’t care for travel programs in which the presenter tries to be “the idiot abroad” or shows where the segments are ill-planned. This series includes both things far too often to achieve top marks but also contains just enough correct historical and cultural information for me to allow a pass, albeit begrudgingly.

Although the concept of traveling from the north island of Hokkaido all the way to southern Kyushu is a good one, they squandered the opportunity to show us the most fascinating parts of each island in favour of dog sled crashes and endless shots of May’s awkward interactions with his crew and/or diminutive robots. I nearly spit out a mouthful of umeshu when they lifted several sequences directly from Anthony Bourdain’s old Travel Channel series No Reservations. The most notable is a martial arts scene meant to recreate an old Shaw Brothers’ kung fu film. May’s voiceover comment that the producers couldn’t discern between the martial arts traditions of Japan and China speaks volumes to this production’s failure. It’s one of many mistakes the aforementioned Bourdain would never have allowed. His sequence appeared in the Hong Kong episode. Right where it should be. Why the hell the producers left it in here is baffling and insulting both to the audience and the traditions in question. At its best, travel television breaks down stereotypes and fact-checks fallacies. It should never ever reinforce them. Bourdain and his crew understood this. For the most part, May and his crew did not.

The series only manages one or two instances where May’s intelligence peaks out from behind its pandering cosplay mask. First was the inclusion of the art and history of Geisha. It was important in breaking down the misconceptions many westerners might have about their role in Edo-period Japan. The second was May’s contemplation on the influence of the indigenous Shinto religion on the popularity of modern yuru-chara mascot culture was a query the answer to which could have occupied a full episode on its own. Instead, the viewer is offered images of our host riding around in a miniature racing car dressed up as Ultraman. Most frustratingly, we see only a momentary glimpse of two Yakuza’s back tattoos inserted randomly during the series wrap-up. Evidence the crew filmed something but chickened out in the final edit. When combined with May’s refusal to enter a Maid Cafe, the series becomes the very definition of vanilla TV.

Kudos to the producer who figured out that pairing May with a Japanese person in every episode was akin to giving him a life-preserver. By the end of his first appearance, Yujiro Taniyama was far more charismatic than his uptight counterpart. He should have been the host. Hey…There’s an interesting concept! Why not have an English-speaking Japanese host? It would have been far preferable to take this journey through Japan with someone whose English was not perfect rather than to spend six episodes in a beautiful country rich in culture and beauty with a guy who still couldn’t pronounce sumimasen properly after 11 weeks.

If there is one image in the whole series that sums it up, it’s that of May’s Kyudo arrow stuck in the wall 3 feet next to its intended target. Unlike the shot of the Yakuza, they linger on this one for a good long while. It’s sad that Amazon’s producers couldn’t be more creative. Or creative at all. The result was a ripoff of superior travel shows. Going forward into a second season, it would be better to think outside the box. Or get a new host instead of placing James May inside a box entirely too big for him.

Life Coaching and the Capitalist Cycle

The business of Life Coaching didn’t exist until recently. In the old days, we called them parents. In the very old days, we called them sages. They didn’t demand payment for their services. It is a vocation created wholly within the petri dish of unregulated capitalism and could not exist without it. Parents now have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet and can’t adequately coach their offspring through life. When these kids grow up, they have limited prospects themselves. Many from modest backgrounds bought into the scam that education is the key to upward mobility and are now saddled with high levels of student debt. Rather than tread water in a sea of underpaid retail jobs, some go into business for themselves and become life coaches. Those from wealthier backgrounds with connections graduate with no debt, go to work at a Hedge fund and a few years into scamming people, find themselves rich. Soon, they become bored and directionless because their parents weren’t around to teach them how to function like adults and get a library card. They hire a life coach who gently guides them to emotional fulfillment through an overly-complicated series of stringent walk-in closet organization techniques. I can think of no better way to relieve such a person of their ill-gotten gains than a proper hour-long discussion over the best way to store socks. Rolled or folded? It’s a conundrum well-worth the £700 per hour some coaches charge. In a wonderfully ironic ending, the newly-scammed rich end up paying the previously- scammed poor to guide them on how to live a fulfilling, independent existence. How do we break the cycle? Some say the first step is to realize that contentment is not transactional. It exists only within experiences. Just ask Timothy Treadwell who spent his life savings on a bunch of camping gear and a plane ticket to Alaska to find peace within the wilderness. He got eaten by a bear. Circle complete.

Home is in the heart

Eight years ago this week, I arrived in London with nothing but a laptop, a student visa and one bag of clothing. I’ve been called intrepid, though I’ve never felt that way. It was the second big move in life. The first was from my small hometown in upstate New York to Los Angeles in my early ‘20s to find work in the film and television industries. I did so and stayed for 15 years.

Both times I took my adventurousness for granted and thought everyone would be as excited as I was. The people I knew who had also moved away reacted positively and were an endless source of emotional support during each initial adjustment phase. Others reacted with shock and trepidation. At first, I just didn’t get it. What were they afraid of? Then it occurred to me, they had something growing up I didn’t. Stability. Ironically, it was this lack of stability that turned me into an adaptable person. An important characteristic necessary for any successful re-location endeavor.

Their fear (and what I interpreted at the time as a lack of faith in me to succeed) was born from a lack of experience on their part. The people who were the most concerned were the ones who had only lived in one place their whole lives with only one set of people who were always there to support them no matter what. Growing up, they always knew where they would sleep and that there would be food in their bellies. They always knew what school they’d go to and that they’d see the same friends every day from Kindergarten through high school.

Many things went through my 8-year-old mind as the policeman physically removed me from the only bedroom I’d ever known. Perhaps the most important thing was that the concept of home is a complete fallacy. The place I thought was home – the place I laid my head every night since before recollection – it was never my family’s. It always belonged to someone else. After several moves and school changes, I learned that “home” is mutable. For some, it means Thanksgivings and Christmases and family gatherings. For me, the word means little more than a roof over my head and a place to store my stuff.

The moves to L.A. and London have reinforced this notion. Good and bad things can happen beneath any four walls and roof and in any city or country. We need much less to survive than we think we do. A large house with a ton of unused stuff in the basement or garage does not equal happiness. It’s people who matter. With technology, it’s easy to keep in touch with people. The people who care will return your calls. Those who don’t will fade away. Several have drifted in and out of my trajectory on their own venturesome journeys like waves on a beach. Some have generated tsunamis.

I’ve seen and experienced things I never would have had I stayed in Fulton, New York. In both L.A. and London, I’ve met amazing people and learned invaluable lessons in work and life that have changed me in ways I cannot begin to explain in a short blog post. Some of them have moved away, leaving me feeling a bit sad as my friends once were. They say “home” is where the heart is. I believe home is in the heart. People who move around carry it inside us wherever we go. Each time we move physically, our hearts grow bigger carrying the experiences and people we love within it. Like our own personal excess baggage.

A Citizen of Earth


7 years ago today, I spent my last day in Los Angeles. Alone, I went to Venice Beach. I had lunch and walked along the boardwalk, reflecting on my 15 years there. I was born and lived the first 24 years of my life in Central New York, a very provincial region close to the Canadian border.

When I lived there, the area was largely inhabited by the descendants of Polish, Italian and Irish immigrants. The community celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, ate corned beef, lasagna and Golabki. The majority of my friends and co-workers were Catholic and Evangelical Christian and many of them hunted or fished for sport.

As I walked along the boardwalk, past all of the shops and performers, I became aware of just how much Southern California had changed me. Upon first arriving, in many ways, I felt like an immigrant. Despite being in the same nation, L.A. offered a far greater amount of diversity. Along with Irish and Italian traditions, I came to love the art, culture, music and cuisine of cultures I had heretofore not been exposed to. I experienced Chinese New Year, Dia de Muertos, ate Kimchi, sushi and mole pablano. I worked and hung out with Jews, Buddhists and Wiccans. There were very few hunters or fisherman but plenty of surfers and mountain bikers. It is one of her greatest assets that America is comprised of such diversity both culturally and geographically.

Yet, despite all being American, we are chronically obsessed with identifying our ancestry. Particularly on the East Coast, we often ask each other “What are you? Are you Irish, Italian, Latino or what?” I’ve never been certain of the purpose of this exercise other than to categorize people so that we might judge them based on our own pre-conceived notions of what it means to be a member of a particular group.

In 2011, I moved to London – ironically to get my Masters in Japanese Studies. In a few short months I will be applying for British citizenship. My new home has once again transformed me. Instead of basking in the sun, I take vitamins B12 and D to stave off the seemingly endless months of dreary weather. I can still get Japanese and Korean food, but instead of eating Mexican food (which I miss terribly), I eat Spanish tapas and Indian cuisine. I still go to great museums and probably enjoy an even greater degree of different types of music and art.

Living outside my homeland has changed my outlook as to what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to be American and most importantly, what it means to be human. Rather than being asked about my ethnicity, I am now seen by all British, regardless of their own ethnic heritage, as simply “American.” Because the UK has a long-standing tradition of judging people by the economic class they are born into, I am an enigma to many. Normally, it’s easy to judge a person’s education level based solely on how “posh” their accent is. With me, they hear only an American accent. What follows is usually a covert conversational operation peppered with questions designed to reveal my family’s socioeconomic and educational status.

I’ve never been certain of the purpose of this exercise other than to categorize people so that we might judge them based on our own pre-conceived notions of what it means to be a member of a particular group.

Interestingly, I have experienced this in my dealings with both the upper and lower classes, each deciding what kind of person I am based solely on what my parents did for a living and where I grew up. Both ends of the spectrum are equally guilty of their own forms of snobbery.

In the time that I have lived here, I have seen an increase in outward hostility and even violence towards immigrants. At the same time, I have watched in horror as the same dynamics play out in my home country.  I don’t get it. Outside of Africa, there are very few humans on earth whose distant ancestors do not come from lands further afield.

As long as we have been to walk, people have sought out new places to explore (generally in search of new resources.) It is human nature to migrate and bring with them the art, music, language, cuisine and customs of their homelands. Thus, there is no such thing as “cultural purity.” Each only exists in relation to a moment in time.  Over time, as different cultures come into contact with one another, each evolves into something new. As people move around, they make friends, fall in love and create new generations whose culture is built on everything that came before it. That pasta that Mrs. Vecchio used to make? It came from her grandmother in Italy. Going back many years further, we discover that pasta came from China in the 13thCentury. There are no absolutes ever. What we are left with instead, are commonalities.

Of the two countries I have called home, the common element seems to be the tendency to label and judge “the other” despite all we have in common. Whether the judgment is based on race, class or immigration status is irrelevant. We inevitably form ourselves into little groups and scream “intruder” at the first opportunity. Because this characteristic lies in direct conflict with our inclination to move around on earth in search of new horizons (and resources) the results are very often violence, oppression and war. Carl Jung would perhaps describe this dichotomy with the human psyche as a collectively unresolved “shadow-self.”

After seven years, I am now only a few months away from applying for permanent residence and then full citizenship. If both are accepted, I will be able to fully participate in many aspects of British society previously restricted from me, while still retaining all of my American rights. On paper, I will be both British andAmerican.

In the future, when people ask, “What are you?” or “What does your family do?” rather than indulge the shadow, I will answer simply, “Me? Oh, I’m human. Been that way forever.”