Flat Earth: Nippon myths

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The Japanese are very strange people, as everyone knows. Or do they? Anyone who has ever been to Japan always finds the same few myths being repeated back to them on their return. Among the things everyone "knows" about the Japanese are:

t Their trains are so crowded that they have special "shovers" to get the commuters in. No more than the tiniest grain of truth, actually: every Japanese station has smartly-uniformed men with little to do bar blowing whistles and waving little flags. During rush hour at Tokyo Central and maybe one other station, they have been known to give passengers a bit of a push to move them down inside the cars.

t Middle-aged Japanese men are so obsessed with schoolgirls that they buy their discarded underwear from vending machines. Only about three of these machines were ever deployed. They were removed after the authorities ruled that their owner had failed to obtain a licence to sell second- hand goods.

t Half the Japanese population takes part in game shows where they are obliged to walk through pits of fire, eat live slugs and cross the Antarctic in nothing but boxer shorts. Er, no: the Endurance show so beloved of Clive James ran a long time ago on an obscure channel. No one in Japan has ever heard of it.

The Japanese are eccentric enough without having to exaggerate or make things up. It is perfectly true, for example, that you see schoolboys and men in suits alike on the Tokyo subway, reading manga comics full of rape and dismemberment. But that is for another time ...

Coalition of elks

NO wonder the French Socialists are doing well in the election campaign: their leading opponent, Jacques Chirac, is urging a "shared elk" on the voters.

The trouble is that the word elan means "elk" as well as "impulse" or "thrust". When advisers urged a similar slogan on the late Francois Mitterrand, it is said, he took a sample poster showing his face, drew a pair of elk's antlers on his head and wordlessly handed it back. But Chirac, lacking Mitterrand's understanding of popular humour, went for the slogan, "With Jacques Chirac, a shared elan", to cartoonists' glee. Le Canard Enchaine, for example, depicted the Gaullist coalition as a pair of elks mating.

Not that French sloganeering is up to much. Mitterrand won in 1981 with the line "The Tranquil Force", easily changed to "Farce", but it was better than his opponent's message. Valery Giscard d'Estaing tried to play on his experience with "France Needs a President", which voters took as an expression of the bleeding obvious.

Funny herr, herr

THE German finance minister, Theo Waigel, may be under fire for "cooking the books" to meet the targets for European monetary union, but his rare brand of self-deprecating humour often gets him out of trouble.

A group of children once fished him out of a pond, he says, and he tried to offer them a reward. One wanted ice cream, another sweets, but the third requested asylum.

Waigel: "Why asylum?" The child: "Because if my father found out I saved the finance minister, he would kill me."