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Taking stock of a generation of changes

Michael Hassett turns and faces the strange as he looks back at the way Japan was when he arrived here in 1990

by Michael Hassett

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
Pretty soon now, you’re gonna get older

Rolling Stone suggested that the lyrics to “Changes” by David Bowie could be “construed as a young man’s attempt to reckon how he’ll react when it’s his time to be on the maligned side of the generation schism.”

A generation is often marked by the passing of 20 years, and as we begin the second decade of the new millennium and complete my own personal “generation” in Japan, journey back with me to the way things were when I first arrived in this country on Nov. 14, 1990.

Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister of the United Kingdom. Mikhail Gorbachev was president of the Soviet Union. (Yes, the Soviet Union was still around.) Iraq occupied Kuwait. Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas. Monica Lewinsky was 17. Barack Obama was a student at Harvard Law School. And a U.S. president had never vomited all over a Japanese prime minister.

Akihito had been emperor for two days. Crown Prince Naruhito was Prince Hiro. And Crown Princess Masako was employed in the Second North America Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Japan’s prime minister was the “clean puppet” Toshiki Kaifu, who had just recently been installed to replace Sosuke Uno after it had been revealed that Uno had not supported his geisha mistress with an appropriate sum of money.

The exchange rate was ¥129.45 to the U.S. dollar (it’s about ¥83 today), ¥99.9 to the Australian dollar (about ¥82 today) and ¥253.59 to the British pound (about ¥129 today).

The Nikkei closed at 23,937, nearly 15,000 less than what it started 1990 at, and 13,000 more than where it is now. Gross domestic product was growing at a 7 percent pace, interest rates were at 6 percent and unemployment was at 2 percent.

The country’s 3 percent consumption tax had been in effect for a year. Before that, there had not been a consumption tax.

Eastern and Pan Am flew airplanes. There was no Chunnel link between France and Britain. Rodney King was a relatively unknown construction worker. And the first McDonald’s in Moscow had been open less than a year.

The top-grossing films for the year were “Ghost,” “Home Alone,” “Pretty Woman” and “Dances with Wolves.” The top five songs on Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 were “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, “It Must Have Been Love” by Roxette, “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor, “Poison” by Bell Biv DeVoe and “Vogue” by Madonna. Freddie Mercury was Queen’s lead singer. The Dave Matthews Band had not yet formed.

Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel “Rising Sun” had yet to be published. And “Jurassic” was only a geological period, not a park.

Inside the country, the top-grossing movie for the year was “Ten to Chi to” (“Heaven and Earth”); second was “Back to the Future II.” The country’s top-selling international single was “If We Hold On Together” by Diana Ross.

Saitama was a prefecture, not a city. Odaiba was landfill No. 13.

Tokyo phone numbers had seven digits. NTT charged ¥72,000 to install a phone line. And public phones came in a variety of colors, including red, aqua, pink, yellow and green.

There was no Narita Airport Station. There was no Narita Express. The part of the Den-en-toshi Line that extends from Shibuya to Futako-Tamagawa was called the Shin-Tamagawa Line. Futako-Tamagawa Station was Futako-Tamagawaen Station. The Saikyo Line stretched southward to Shinjuku. There were no Namboku, Oedo, Rinkai, Shonan-Shinjuku or Fukutoshin lines. There was no Yurikamome. “Ladies only” cars did not exist.

There were no Nagano, Akita, Kyushu or Yamagata shinkansens. Ueno Station, not Tokyo Station, served as the Tohoku Shinkansen’s southernmost terminus. And shinkansens had dining cars.

Station attendants manually punched every ticket on your way to the train platform. The “click, click, click” sound of the “punchers” rang throughout virtually every station.

Tokyo Dome was 2 years old. There was no Fukuoka Dome, Osaka Dome, Nagoya Dome, Seibu Dome or Sapporo Dome. The Makuhari Messe convention center and the Yokohama Bay Bridge had been open for a year. And Tokyo’s Shuto Expressway No. 11 Daiba Route-Port of Tokyo Connector Bridge was three years into construction, and its name had yet to be wisely abridged to the more jovial “Rainbow Bridge.”

There was nothing new or modern about the Marunouchi and Shin-Marunouchi buildings. The tallest building in the Marunouchi area was the 100-meter Tokyo Marine and Fire Insurance Building. Roppongi Hills was TV Asahi, Tokyo Midtown was the Defense Agency, and Ebisu Garden Place was a beer factory. The Sunshine 60 Building was the tallest in Japan. And the Tokyo Metropolitan Building (“Tocho”) didn’t exist.

There was no Juliana’s Tokyo discotheque.

Asahi’s English newspaper was delivered in the evenings. WOWOW had not begun commercial broadcasting. There were no commercially available Internet services inside the country. There was no Tokyo Classifieds magazine (now known as Metropolis). And AFN (the American Forces Network) was FEN (the Far East Network).

Morning readers were yet to be jolted awake by photos of an unclothed 18-year-old idol (Rie Miyazawa) in full-page advertisements in the Yomiuri and Asahi newspapers.

TV screens had curves. Japanese was typed using bulky word processors. Microsoft was selling Windows 3.0. Apple had just discontinued sales of its first “laptop” (or “luggable”), the Macintosh Portable, which weighed 7.2 kg and came with a whopping 1 MB of memory. “Google” had no meaning. “Yahoo” referred to an uncouth brute. And a “blackberry” was, well, a dark-colored berry.

Restaurants in Japan had “smoking” or “smoking” sections. The country had no Burger King, Subway, Starbucks or Tully’s. But there was a chain of Morinaga Loves. And Mos Burger sold a yakiniku rice burger.

The country’s top-selling beer was Kirin Lager. Sapporo Draft was Sapporo Black Label. And because of taste concerns and uneasiness about use of the word “diet,” a sweeter, 12-calorie version of Diet Coke was marketed as Coke Light.

Children went to school every Saturday. There was no puri-kura, Pokemon, Hamutaro or Crayon Shin-chan.

There was no national holiday in July.

Sneezing in public was considered rude. And it was common to see a woman hold a handkerchief over her mouth whenever she smiled or laughed.

Anyone needing to use a public toilet had to be prepared to squat.

On Japanese television, it was not uncommon to see Sylvester Stallone hawking Ito hams, Mike Tyson peddling Suntory Dry 5.5 and Arnold Schwarzenegger promoting Alinamin V energy drinks.

Tokyo Disneyland was the only Disney park outside the United States.

Evander Holyfield was boxing’s world heavyweight champion and still had all of his ears.

There was no J. League soccer, and Japan had never appeared in a World Cup.

There were no Japan-born players in Major League Baseball. The Orix Buffalos were the Orix Braves and the Kintetsu Buffalos. The Chiba Lotte Marines were the Lotte Orions. The Yokohama BayStars were the Yokohama Taiyo Whales. Tokyo Dome was home to the Nippon Ham Fighters. And Ichiro was known as Ichiro Suzuki, a short, skinny pitcher for Aikodai Meiden High School.

Sumo’s first foreign-born yokozuna, Akebono, had just been promoted from the juryo division to the makuuchi division. Yokozuna Chiyonofuji was in the midst of winning his 31st tournament, second only to Taiho, who won 32.

The Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ was the Bank of Tokyo, Mitsubishi Bank, Sanwa Bank, Tokai Bank, and Toyo Trust and Banking. And Mizuho was Dai-ichi Kangyo Bank, Fuji Bank and the Industrial Bank of Japan.

And onward we go toward the next 20 years and another generation of changes and memories.

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