Monday, August 29, 2005

This water not be good to drink

The level of annoying background noise in Japan is somewhat unbelievable, especially for a nation that is known for its politeness and civility. I'll break it down for you by outlining what you might have yelled at you or blared at you in an average day in Tokyo:

You wake up to the sounds of some ridiculously loud traditional song being broadcast over the local loudspeaker for reasons unknown OR to some sort of earthquake / fire siren, which happens so often that people just basically pretend like it's not happening because they know it's just a drill. Walking to the train station, you pass a Pachinko parlor (Pachinko is roughly equivalent to slots, for all intensive purposes in the awful noise, smoke, and generally dehumanizing effect it has on participants), which is not only decorated with outlandishly garish, giant posters and banners of giant-breasted cartoon women and hugely muscular manga action heroes, but emits an wave of cacophonous bells and rattles every time the automatic doors slide open, which - since people are going in and out all day - happens continuously.

Arriving at the train station, you have the general rush of people and the ticket machines, but, knowing that the Japanese passengers on a train are almost invariably totally silent and the train ride itself smooth, one might be tempted to relax a little; it seems you might be safe for a moment. But the noise isn't coming from the passengers, it's from the near-constant announcements over the PA system. Just on the platform, you'll hear the grating, high-pitch, recorded voice of a Japanese woman informing you when the train is arriving, that it will arrive soon, that it is arriving now (at this point you can see the train), that it is right in front of you (so you know that the train you are looking at is, in fact, a train, that you are not in some sort of non-Cartesian world of illusion), that the doors are about to open, that the doors will soon close, that the doors are now closing (oh, and there's a delightful song accompanying the process). And she will remind you to be careful to stand behind the giant yellow lines, because it turns out that you don't want to be over those, because then you'd fall off the platform and be standing on the tracks, which is, seemingly, a bad place to wait for the train.

Once you are in the train with the doors close and you have been told that the doors are closed, the train conductor begins his dialogue with you about every goddamn stop. Which wouldn't be so bad except that he has to add three sentences of meaningless polite gratitude for your gracious choice in honorably riding the train today, which - be assured - he, as well as the train service, Japan as a country and really, all of its people, feel tremendously blessed to receive. Then he'll list the names of all the connecting lines available at the next stop, tell you all about which door will open when you stop (just in case you are unable to figure that out or need a running start to the door) and affix another blessing on you and your child for having continued riding the train since he started speaking a minute earlier. This usually starts about 10 seconds after getting on the train and ends about 10 seconds before you get off, meaning that the message basically extends from each stop, so you hear it as many times as you are passing stations on your ride. (For me last year, think 10 stations a ride, twice a day, for 9 months)

When you get off the train and out of the train station, you might be in the mood for something to eat. You exit the station but trying to cross the street suddenly are forced to literally cover your ears because someone has pulled up in a van and is yelling directly into your face about your desperate need to oppose the crazy militants who would threaten the perfect peaceful society of Japan that is a beacon of hope to all nations by re-militarizing OR to get those pussies out of power that are dishonoring Japan and its rich history by standing in the way of it re-militarizing.

Entering a restaurant, there are several waiters conveniently situated around the place who immediately begin yelling いらっしゃいませ!(irasshaimase! - "welcome!") at you repeatedly from all directions until you are guided to a table, where you can enjoy hearing them yell that at each new patron as well. Finishing your meal, you are rewarded with everyone in the restaurant now yelling "thank you!" at the same time as you scuttle out the door.

If you choose to go shopping, the shop people will first yell "WELCOME!" at you and "PLEASE HONORABLY LOOK AROUND AND TAKE YOUR HONORABLE TIME ABOUT IT!" everytime they see you, and, strangely enough, every time they see each other as well. I suspect that the job training for stores in Japan requires a sort of Pavlovian training in which the employee is trained to respond to any and all stimuli with a knee-jerk "WELCOME!" (ex: New customer? "WELCOME!"; Another employee? "WELCOME!"; Stray dog? "WELCOME!"; Errant bag floating into shop on gust of air? "WELCOME!")

Deciding to just go home (after going through the train ordeal again) you might stop at the local supermarket for something to cook for dinner. Somebody is going to yell "WELCOME!" at you while walking in the door, make no mistake. And somebody is going to yell it at you while you walk the aisles. But the most insiduous thing about Japanese supermarkets (computer stores and electronics chains are the same way) is the store jingle. Some of them are full songs, but the worst are those that are only 5 seconds, as they repeat endlessly and burrow into your mind until you find yourself walking down the street singing "Bi-ku bi-ku bi-ku Bic Camera!" Case in point, I just sang that aloud unintentionally after typing it. I can also still remember the song from my local supermarket chain, Seims, from a year ago ("Everyday~ Seims, for your body and your mind...")

There are two alternatives to this: One, like me, you simply wear your headphones anywhere you go, insulating yourself completely against the outside world. Two, like most Japanese people, you are conditioned by this level of noise to develop the ability to basically block out all of the outside world. The problem seems to be, however, that this only pushes the people involved - whether it be advertisers or people demanding you hear their gratitude for your patronage - to new heights of shrill annoyance to compete for your attention. But, like my supervisor said when we were in the electronics shop for an hour listening to the jingle for the 1000th time, it's not that people aren't bothered by it, it's just that nobody ever complains.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Kandou shita

A girl took me totally by surprise today and almost broke my heart.

I was sitting at my desk ramping up to go home for the day, it being shortly after 3pm. Which meant I had succesfully passed 6 hours at the office, quite an accomplishment considering I have no work and only three other teachers were in today (Side note: it often seems like all the teachers get some bulletin I miss about when to come to school, so it's like just me and two other people there in the morning and I always imagine they have some sort of early warning system I don't get, like everyone else knows the school is going to be hit by a tsunami that day or something. Side note to that note: If the Tokai earthquake hits, the school will be hit by 10 meter tall tsunami waves). So I just had to kill time for another half hour or so, then I could start slow preparations to leave. Then I could brace myself for immediate exit at 4 pm sharp, muscles tense for another 5 minutes, watching the slow revolutions of the clock.

BUT, instead I was interrupted from my vigil by an English teacher, who presented to me one female student who was apparently working on a speech for the English speech contest to be held next month, and instructed to correct it for her. Interestingly enough, though it came right before the end of my day and would make me stay late, I was somehow so touched by the idea of having actual work to do that I took it and started through it.

The girl had just returned back from a summer studying abroad in Australia, and her speech began with a conversation between her and her host father, who asked, "Don't you feel homesick for Japan?" At first, the story seemed clear, it's going to be all about her experience in Australia; she found out we're all just people, the same though appearing different, she ate vegimite and saw koalas, blah blah blah Australia. I just start correcting the grammar and explaining the problems to her.

Then I get to the end of the paragraph about her host father. Suddenly the speech shifts from "my host father was a really great guy because even though he worked hard he also did chores and talked to me" to "when I came home and compared him to my father I realized that we don't really have any sort of relationship." It was clear this was a very different kind of speech.

At this point I skip ahead and quickly read the rest of the speech, which is a single, handwritten page on notepaper. This girl explains that her father, who works for Honda, was sent abroad to Ohio when she was only 9 years old. She quickly became used to not having a father around, and didn't really feel any connection to him any more. Even when he returned, they rarely spoke, and though her mother would tell her how her father worried about her, "they had no relationship."

Upon talking to her mom about this recently, her mom remembered a letter the father had written home to the girl and her sister 9 years ago while in Ohio. In the letter, he explained that he was working hard to set up a new factory, and though he was tired, he knew he would become more successful through this work. When the girl read this letter from her father, she felt that he was "maybe a good person, perhaps the word that describes what [she] felt was 'respect.'" She respected her father for working hard to improve himself, and recognized her own work to go to Australia or to study as similar in intention as a form of self-improvement.

The end was what killed me though. Even though she felt more gratitude towards her father for allowing her to go to study abroad, she has never been able to tell him. She confessed she doesn't know what would happen with their relationship in the future. She only hoped that someday she could too become a person worthy of her father's respect, and they could sit across from each other and talk as adults. She had never been able to talk to her father about how she felt. But she invited him to the speech contest, and is hoping that by giving this speech she might somehow break through to him.

She told me this, and I was in kind of in shock. I tried to get back to correcting her paper for her. I walked her through each sentence, but the whole time I was basically trying not to get too emotional, even not to cry. We finally made it to the end of the speech. She asked me what I thought of it, and I told her, 感動した。(I was deeply moved)

She says she just wants them to respect each other, but I thought, why should that be all she can have? Is that really the most she should be able to expect from her relationship with her father, the admiration existing among peers?

I'm not trying to say this is a problem solely of Japan - clearly it is a problem that occurs in every culture and every time - but it is something reinforced or exacerbated here by murderous work hours that make it nearly impossible for even the most devoted father to spend enough time with his children and a culture that discourages any sort of open communication of emotion by men to others. It's a harrowing situation to live in, and likely part of the reason Japan has as many suicides as the entire United States despite having less than half the population; the suicide rate is more than double that of the US or most EU countries.

The point is that this lack of paternal involvement is something I have read about, even told people who asked me about the work environment in Japan. I even speculated about the effect it would have on the lives of my host family; the two young kids were only 4 and 8 but still didn't seem to see enough of their father. But hearing a 17 year old basically confess to me that everything I had heard was personalize this loneliness for me and stand in front of me at once both meekly and was hard to be so glib about the topic. To speak summarily on a topic or treat it academically always involves a sense of distance, but there was no distance from this girl. She was there, and she was so goddamn honest and open about how she felt that I had no way of not dealing with it.

I told her that this is common in the US as well, that it happens everywhere. She was not the only one who felt distance from her parents. Hers was not the only parent who could not tell their child how they felt. That I too once felt distance from my father, but we found a way to communicate with each other and now can actually tell each other how we feel. That there could be something better for her, that it doesn't have to just be too successful workers sitting across a coffee table from each other. That he's not your colleague, he's your father, and I'm sure he wants you to be his daughter as well, not his peer.

I was there until nearly 6, and today I felt like I actually might have earned my money for once.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Politics at the bus stop

When placed in a foreign land, at first the cultural and political landscape appears rather impermeable. One must follow the mindset of the people to understand their chosen avenue of expression, but this can be daunting without a guide. Navigating the world of Japanese society is a path fraught with difficulties, so I will explicate this particular instance of protest speech for the uninitiated.

This young man makes a rather cogent argument in t-shirt form, suggesting that it is the "public" that hates minorities, for "human" are relieved to "exist in majority." It is this characteristic of humanity writ large that makes them "such weak life." The sheer size of "PUBLIC" serves as a cry out against the immolating forces of conformity, and the desperation expressed in the final statement, "human is such weak life", should be viewed as embodied in the bold type itself. Taken as a whole, the shirt serves to both shock and inform, and performs admirably in both respects.

One only wonders, however, if this young man has anything to offer to this discussion besides criticism, and whether his cynicism might actually alienate others and contribute to the problem rather than allieviate it.

Monday, August 22, 2005

I made $150 today

Today began late, with me arriving at school at around 9:30.

The teacher who invited me over to his house for dinner comes over to thank me for the two Beach Boys cds I burned for him, Pet Sounds and Smile. We have an hour-long conversation about our favorite Beach Boys songs (he loves "Sloop John B" and I love "God Only Knows") and discuss the possible causes for Brian Wilson`s breakdown (I explain the rivalry between Brian Wilson and the Beatles and he expounds upon his theory of the "tangled" quality of the Smile songs hinting at the confused nature of Brian Wilson`s mind).

The young female PE teacher who sits next to me notices me listening to music on my laptop and comes to look at my music. She gets really excited suddenly and runs out to her car to get two cds she has recently bought, returning with the new Gwen Stefani cd and the new Babyface album. She then plays me her favorite Babyface song and I dutifully transcribe and attempt to translate the lyrics for her on her request. This takes an hour, Babyface lyrics proving more obtuse than you would expect when you have to explain expressions like "the grass is always greener" or "sometimes you don't know what you have until it is gone". The cliches and awful wordplay seem to attain a certain profundity in translation.

Lunch. I walk to the 7-11 near the school to buy a drink and eat some spaghetti a teacher cooked for me the other day. I watch an episode of Late Night with Conan O`Brien on my laptop. Laughing aloud, I am prompted by the teacher across from me to repeat this funny joke: "A recent survey conducted in Mexico found that 40% of adults in Mexicans would move to the US, given the opportunity. Researchers explained that the numbers would have been higher, but the other 60% is already living here." Said teacher likewise found our immigration problem most amusing.

A Chemistry professor approaches me tentatively and introduces himself in better English than any of the English teachers. Apparently he has listened to English broadcasts on the radio for nigh on 10 years and is entirely self-taught. He shows me a book of English sonnets he is reading and we talk about our favorite British Romantic poets (He likes Browning and I like Shelley). I show him one of my favorite poems, "To My Coy Mistress" by Marvell.

I wander the halls for a while listening to music on my ipod, stopping some students dead in their tracks who apparently have not heard about the existence of a new ALT. Dropping by the library to check out a book of Japanese poetry, I am suddenly accosted by three first year boys. Blocking my exit, they interrogate me in Japanese about the finer points of American culture, like whether people really have parties at their house like in "American Pie" (and to a lesser extent, "American Pie 2"). I assure them that not only do people have these parties, but it is so common as to be rather passe. They are suitably impressed.

I come back to the teacher`s room to use the internet and write my blog.

I will be paid $150 for today.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Then she gets chikan-ed...

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I was "invited" to a 2-day English Seminar for a local high school, Konan (湖南=lake-west, not Conan the Barbarian / Destroyer / Governor, or of Late Night with _), invited being in quotations since this is what my supervisor said. Really, it is part of my contract, so this was one of those Japanese mandatory "invitations"; delivering an order but couching it in polite language.

The seminar was held at a hotel in the city and consisted of two days of English conversation classes, workshops and activities, the slogan of the camp being "Japanese is not allowed!" 10 ALTs and 40 something first year high school students - mainly girls, since they dominate the English department - from the Konan English program attended the voluntary seminar. I taught 10 50 minute classes with 5 students to a class, and then spent a few additional classes working with one group to develop a skit for the competition held at the end.

At first, adhering to the "no Japanese" policy, I spoke only English to all of the students. They, in return, rewarded me with blank stares and monosyllabic replies. The awkwardness of the situation was enhanced by the fact that each class was held in a large meeting room at this business hotel with a small table placed exactly at the center that served to make us feel more isolated from each other and the silences that much more devastating. I felt like my life was bleeding out of me right there in front of them, their silence swamping my enthusiasm and energy.

So afterwards, I decided to start speaking a little Japanese with the kids, and that made all the difference. Once they knew I could speak, they would come up to me outside of class to chat or ask me to explain certain words to them, rather then spending the class leafing through a dictionary. Kids also probably became more comfortable speaking to me in their poor English once they heard my own bastardized version of their language. Really, they started talking to me a little too much, especially after I had lunch with the students and happened to find myself sitting next to the popular clique with the two loudest, most outgoing girls. Afterwards, they followed me around for most of the seminar, giggling and taking pictures of me with their cell phones.

The best part of the seminar though, was writing the skit. My group was assigned the scenario: "Someone is being annoying on the train. Tell them to stop" So we brainstormed what would happen like that on a train, and for the students, the obvious response was chikan, or the perverts that grope women on trains. This is a bit of an epidemic in Japan, with trains being so crowded that men at night sometimes take advantage of the cramped trains to try to grope women. ( It's amusing that the girls were making a skit about grabbing each other on a train, but it is doubly amusing to me that it is so commonplace in the culture and basically taken as a matter of course that it is something that can be joked about.

My group was four girls, Yurie, Yumi, Kumiko, and Kyoko, and a boy, Yuuki. Yurie (left) was an extremely shy girl, rather tall, who barely spoke at all, and never in English, and spent most of the time in class covering her face with her handkerchief. Yumi (right) was this tiny little nerdy girl with glasses and hair that came down over her face. Kumiko (middle) had lived abroad, was a bit more confident speaking than the others and the only one who could really speak English. Kyoko was one of the previously mentioned chatty popular girls (the one not wearing my sunglasses), really loud and hilarious, very cute. Yuuki was really a shy little boy basically, but tried to hide it by acting cool and nonchalant about everything. Like most Japanese boys, he bored the hell out of me with his lack of personality.

Try to keep a picture of these kids in mind when reading this, and keep in mind they are all wearing their school uniforms too, which makes this even more amusing. So the skit that they eventually produced ran as follows:

Yurie - Chikan victim
Yumi -Chikan #1
Kyoko - Chikan #2
Kumiko - Chikan #3

[Yurie walks into the train car and grabs the overhead handle]

Yurie: I am so glad I caught the last train

[Yumi is a few yards to the side of Yurie in the train and eyes her]

Yumi: Oooo! That girl is so pretty, and alone!

[Yumi shuffles to the side to get a little closer. Yurie notices and moves away. Yumi scuttles closer; Yurie inches away again.
They chase each other around the train until Yurie, trying to escape Yumi, unwittingly backs right into the waiting Kyoko, who then grabs her ass instead]

Kyoko: Ohhh yeah! And nobody is going to stop me!

[Kumiko walks on the train and arms raised, yells]

Kumiko: I will stop you! Me and my two guns here (poses, flexing biceps and then kisses each fist alternately) are going to take care of some business.

Kyoko: Bring it on then, punk!

[They circle each other, Kyoko looks ready to hit her but instead suddenly whips around and runs off]

Kumiko: I saved you. [Puts her arm around Yurie (who is actually maybe 5 inches taller than her, which is hilarious)] How about a drink?

Yurie: As IF! I didn't need your help anyway, you pervert!

[She walks off the train and Kumiko chases after her]

[Yumi is still standing in the train the whole time and after a few seconds sighs]

Yumi: ...I am so alone.

End scene.

The skits were all supposed to have a moral or message at the end. I guess our's was "Everyone on the train is probably a pervert"? But God, I laughed so hard and was so proud of these kids for their guts. I couldn't believe that Kumiko actually stood in front of all her classmates and flexed and kissed her fists, and Yumi's downtrodden look and slumped shoulders when she delivered her final line just killed me.

Unfortunately, though our skit was by far the most amusing, we were having such a good time thinking of lines for the skit that we didn't finish writing it until 5 minutes before we had to perform, and so nobody had their lines properly memorized. So we didn't win this contest based on delivery and grammar, but we made everyone else competing look boring and lame, which in the end, is all that really matters.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Del Mar is indeed a real place

Sunday night I was invited over for dinner at the house of one of the teachers I will be team-teaching with. He picked me up at my apartment and drove me back to his place, about 40 minutes away, where we ate with his wife, daughter, his father and mother, his brother-in-law, sister, and their daughter. As he warned me as we walked up into the alcove of his house, "You're going to have to speak all in Japanese tonight, because nobody else speaks English." Indeed, he was quite right. But of course it's not just the difficulty of speaking Japanese; entering into a family dinner is always tricky businesss - navigating a web of already joined exclusive relationships - but this is just exacerbated by the over-arching Japanese cultural system that puts one further on the outskirts. Walking into the dining room, despite the teacher having told his family a foreigner would be coming over for dinner, it was still hard to miss the barely-concealed shock on all of their faces upon greeted with me in all my glory. I suppose describing a foreigner to a Japanese person is kind of like trying to describe the face of God; words fail to do justice to its power and magnificence when one finally does see it, the experience reducing a person to a sort of gasping fetal state. Or perhaps a more apt analogy that more accurately captures the fear inherent in this experience while also commenting on my general relatively outlandish appearance here would be coming face to face with a grizzly after only looking at photos of grizzlies in National Geographic, standing quivering at the foot of the giant beast as it rears up on its hind legs to its full height, towering so far above as to block the very sun itself!


So dinner was a rather good mixture of sushi, barbecue, and fried fresh fish, but a rather stolid affair at first as everyone acclimated themselves to my sudden appearance in their home. But as usual, a bit of alcohol was all we needed to loosen my tongue and concurrently the atmosphere. The teacher grabbed a few beers for me and his brother-in-law, then he grabbed a couple more when we finished those. He told me he used to be a strong drinker when he was younger, but not anymore. Then he went and grabbed an old bottle of scotch and pretty soon the three of us were drinking scotch on the rocks. Yeah, sure, when you were younger.

After the scotch, he ran out to the back of the house, suddenly reappearing with a guitar and a songbook. Of Beach Boys songs. Which he then started playing at the table for all of us, to the delight of his family and to my great amusement. The Beach Boys, as part of the increasing trendiness of surf culture in particular, as well as the continuous fascination with American rock in general, are huge in Japan. The teacher said his favorite Beach Boys song was "Surfin' USA", and then asked me to sing along to the song with him as he played it. So we sat around the table singing the song. He was impressed that I knew the lyrics, since the song came out so far before I was born. So I explained, "Well, you can't really grow up in California, as the Beach Boys were from there, without hearing all the Beach Boys songs a thousand times." First, he said, shocked, "Wait, the Beach Boys are from California?!" I said yes, and then afterwards I pointed out that both Del Mar and La Jolla, mentioned in the song, were in fact in San Diego, quite near my house. To which he replied, incredulously, "Those are real places?!" Apparently he thought the Beach Boys had just made up all the names they were singing...

Not to make a point after every post, but that's a good illustrative lesson on the level of absorption of even American popular culture in Japan. If the Beach Boys can't make inroads here, what the hell am I going to be able to do?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Reddish-Black Ship

Dialogue today with hilarious Japanese colleague:

Luke: I don't have anything to do during the day...
Sensei: You should go visit other teachers
L: Are you sure? It seems like people are kind of busy and besides, I disrupt every class or activity I get near.
S: I told you, nobody is actually busy here, they are all just stupid Japanese who have to pretend. Anyways, the teachers really want to talk to you but they are too scared and nervous and they don't know how to start.
L: Oh yeah? What should I do then?
S: You just have to walk over and force your way in like you are Perry and the Black Ships!
L: (Laughs) So I should maybe come in and demand they open their class to me? Then come back the next day to make them sign a formal agreement?
S: そうそうそう! (yeah yeah yeah!) But instead of warships and guns you will use your height and blue eyes.

Info on the Black Ships:

An education in the way of the sword

This is the office I work in, the teacher's lounge at the high school. Japanese offices are not separated into separate rooms or even into cubicles, just one large room with all the desks next to each other. All of the teachers have desks in this room, along with the two vice-principals, with only the principal having his own office. I suppose it's to promote unity in the workforce, or to make sure that the vice-principals can observe everyone working. The end result is that everyone has to be busy all the time, but since nobody really has anything to do, basically everyone has to pretend that they are busy all the time. I however, having finished my assignments for the whole month already, have taken instead to watching movies or listening to music on my laptop; since Japanese people don't really know anything about computers, nobody knows what I'm doing on it. Otherwise, I wander around the campus listening to mp3s on my cell phone.

Even though it's summer vacation, the students still come to school almost every day to take part in club activities. Each student joins at least one club - out of sports, martial arts, English, chess, calligraphy, etc - and this club is basically their main social group throughout high school. Teachers volunteer their time to be in charge of these various clubs. Having time to wander around, I also started visiting various club meetings. Yesterday I went to watch the kendo club practice, on the invitation of one of the teachers I'm working with, who happens to be in charge of this club.

Kendo 剣道 (literally, way of the sword) is the modern martial art of Japanese fencing based on traditional Japanese sword fighting, but formalized into a competitive sport with specific equipment and rules. Each participant wears a kind of protective cloak with armor along with a helmet, and they fight with bamboo practice sword called a shinai. Points are awarded in competition only for strikes to certain areas of the body, and each strike is accompanied by a loud kiai, or shout, kind of like a battle cry. So kendo practice is a bunch of kids in these elaborate outfits running and smacking each other while shrieking loudly.

Enter this teacher, who pulls out students during the two-hour practice for individual sparring. Usually this guy is really well-mannered, almost timid, in his 30's. He walked me over to the gym wearing his robe and I had to stifle a laugh because I just couldn't picture him participating in, let alone teaching, an activity involving violent confrontation. However, once he put on his mask, everything changed. He pulled out this kid and after they bowed at eachother, proceeded to BEAT THE SHIT out of him for about 20 minutes. He would rush at the kid with this samurai war cry - weakly returned by his opponent - and then just whack the hell out of him; on the facemask, on the wrist, on the shoulder, and once, ducking under the swing to hit the guy full on in the stomach. The best part though, was when they would get too close to swing at each other and would start grappling, swords pressed against eachother near the hilt and masks close together. The teacher would get in the kids face and just start yelling his kiai at the kid over and over, while the kid - who I imagine is by this point weeping underneath the mask - would reply weakly with a squeal that sounded more like a stuck pig. He got so in the kid's head, it was just awesome to watch.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Hated Otaku

This is the hated オタク, "otaku": a person who is obsessed or devoted to a particular hobby or activity, especially on an individual basis. These hobbies include anime (Japanese cartoons), manga (Japanese comics), video games, computers, and collecting of all sorts. And so, here he is, 35 years old, in a toy store, buying model kits for giant robots from the "Gundam" cartoon series.

From the fact that almost all video games come from Japan, and the huge worldwide success of anime movies like "Princess Mononoke" or "Spirited Away" and Pokemon, you might suspect a lot of people would be into playing video games like they are in the US, or watch these anime shows occasionally; it would seem that there might be more of a tolerance for nerdy activities in the culture of Japan. But there is no tolerance. In fact, most people I know greet these types with a particularly virulent disgust. If you mention otaku to a Japanese girl, the response you will almost invariably get is きもい!"kimoi", which is something like "gross!" Girls would never date a guy interested in any of these things, and self-respecting guys are not into them at all. So out of all the guys I knew at Waseda, not a single one of them played video games, or at least, would admit to it.

I take special pleasure in seeing all the lame Americans who came here purely because they like anime made for little kids discover this fact upon their arrival in Japan, and how by revealing their interests they immediately sabotage their chances of ever making any friends or getting any girls. Seeing a Japanese girl crush an anime guy by saying, "No, but my baby brother watches that show..." is pretty priceless.

Hanabi Taikai

Tonight I met up with my old history teacher/debate coach from high school, Kerry Koda, and went to see a fireworks show. Koda actually was assigned to the same town as I am, but as she just finished her year teaching in the JET program, it was her last night in town. Kind of a shame, would have been fun to hang out with her as a fellow teacher.

Fireworks, or hanabi, are a big deal in Japan during the summer time. Girls put on their 浴衣 yukata - light, colorful cotton robes that were originally worn after bathing - their sandals, and carry these ridiculous tiny bags on long string handles that somehow serve to make them look even cuter. Guys sometimes also wear yukata, or sometimes a sort of loose cotton coat along with shorts and sandals. Of course, as usual in Japan, usually it seems like only the girls are dressed up, and the guys just wear whatever. Anyways, people go out with their friends and families to the big fireworks displays - 花火大会 hanabi taikai - held all over the country. Here is a picture of two girls yesterday on their way to hanabi wearing yukata. They are both taking pictures of a guy in a monkey suit, and I am taking a picture of them, since they might as well be wearing a monkey suit to me.

I was so so about the idea at first, because fireworks don't really do it for me so much, but I figured at the very least there would be a ton of cute girls all dressed up. The display was held in Fukaroi, a town 20 minutes by train from central Hamamatsu. And the place was packed, at least five thousand people there, with the roads blocked all the way there and back. We walked down the path to the main field, lined with the red lanterns on the left side and people who had simply sat down and staked a place along the road to watch. Arriving at the main field, perhaps another three thousand people covered the grass clearing, making it essentially a sea of black heads and flowered-print bath robes. Circling the clearing were all the stands you find at every Japanese festival: yakiniku (grilled meat kabobs), okonomiyaki (sort of a pancake with vegetables and meat inside), kara-age (fried chicken), and of course, lots of beer. We grabbed some food and, wading our way through the crowd (with me leading, since Japanese part before me like Moses at the sea) and found a spot to watch up on a hill behind the clearing. Despite my initial misgivings, it turns out these Japanese take their fireworks pretty seriously; this was a pretty damn impressive display, especially considering it was held in a pretty small town outside the city. They had been going off the entire time we had been in the area, and it went on for another half hour, culminating in a giant Mt. Fuji made out of fireworks going off low to the ground. This was, strangely, accompanied by the song played at school graduations. Well, strange if I weren't in Japan, I suppose.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Hiroshima 60th anniversary

Tomorrow, August 6th, will be the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Some 80,000 people died instantly, and more than 200,000 died in total as a result. It was a terrible event, and hopefully one that will never happen again.

I just finished watching a two-hour news special on Japanese television about the event. Beginning with the war, it detailed the Manhattan Project, the fight within the US over whether the bomb should be used, and the fight between the Japanese military and civilian government over Japan's surrender. Afterwards, it gave an in-depth explanation of the effects of the bomb, the suffering of the people who died that day or survived only to suffer cancer or other diseases. Finally, it followed one of the bombers on the Enola Gay as he visited Hiroshima for the first time since he dropped the bomb as he visited the peace museum that now sits on a building that survived the blast. The climax was a conversation between this man and a married couple who survived the attack. They asked him to apologize for the bombing, and he steadfastly refused to, having lost too many of his own friends at Pearl Harbor and in the war itself. The ending was a call for peace, splicing current and more recent war footage with shots of the aftermath at Hiroshima.

But being in Japan, I am struck by how the focus in this country on the anniversary is in entirely the wrong place. The problem is, I see absolutely no reflection in Japan about why it came to this. Sure, there were military and political analysis of the situation leading up to the bombing, but where is the questioning of what lead to the war? The coverage is always about how bad the bomb was, and how much people suffered. But the fact that the bomb was awful, and that people suffered, that's clear already. Emphasizing this is just to shock people and warn them of the brutality of nuclear war in particular and war in general. It teaches us nothing about how to proceed as a nation or people. Japan has this knee-jerk reaction to the war and the bombing of "No War, just peace" which isn't a coherent or tenable ideal at all. Worse, this constant attention to the bombing and the suffering of the Japanese people has given them a sort of a victimization complex. Each time I saw the pictures of the people who died at Hiroshima, it was so awful it brought tears to my eyes, but by the end of the program, I thought, "Yeah, but where are the pictures of the American prisoners that the Japanese experimented on? Where are the thousands of Chinese women that were raped and bayoneted to death?"

There is, of course, a strain of thought in Japan that refuses to take responsibility for what the Japanese did during the war, if not just denying it outright. There has been a constant fight throughout the post-war period to make the Japanese textbooks accurately depict history, including Japanese atrocities. The problem was that the sort of purging process that took place in Germany with de-Nazification never took place in Japan; token people were tried and punished, while those truly responsible (say, anyone in the Imperial family) were never held responsible. This was done with the complicity of the Americans, who were more worried about a strong ally to resist the Chinese and Russians than they were about changing Japanese society fundamentally. And so the same group of giant companies that essentially ran Japan before the war continues to run it today, the same people in charge of politics and the economy. Obviously they have no interest in anything that could challenge their power in the country, and this effort to evade or rewrite history is reflected in the educational curriculum and the behavior of the government writ large. They say they've apologized for what they did, but apologies repeating how they have "feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology" mean bullshit, and even less when you are aware of the Japanese concepts of "tatamae" - the face people put on for the outside world - and "honne" - one's true thoughts - the two of which are basically assumed to always be at ends with each other. So, Koizumi, the prime minister, makes this sort of apology and then goes and visits the Yasukuni Shrine housing the souls of Japanese war dead including 14 Class A war criminals. A true apology requires real remorse, and real remorse is not just an attempt to evade responsibility and put the past behind them.

My point is that for all its semblance of ultra-modernity, Japan today resembles very much Japan after WWI. That is, the same sort of dangerous nationalist country, insular and incapable of thinking of people outside of Japan as the same as Japanese. It is my opinion that this is a result of the power base of the country not really changing at all. 60 years after WWII, the Japanese I meet here should be a lot more open-minded, but a McDonalds and a 7-11 at every train station has not made this country truly open, and kids who listen to Blink 182 and carry Louis Vitton purses do not really feel connected to the foreigners who's style and clothing they latch onto. The country has moved through its past without every dealing with it, and nobody really seems to give a shit.

The politicians are already building up China as the next big threat, and this coupled with the image of a victimized Japan that now has suffered long enough...Maybe after this next war with China people will realize they have to confront the lack of recognition of the humanity of the Other that lies at the inability of nations and their people to coexist peacefully.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

First week in Hamamatsu

So here I am again in Japan, though this time in a place far removed from Tokyo. Though ostensibly in the city of Hamamatsu - population some 800,000 people, rather diverse for a Japanese city as it has a sizeable population of Brazilian and Peruvian workers to man the many local factories - I actually am now living in Enshuhama, which is what the Japanese affectionately (or, in Tokyo, disdainfully) refer to as the inaka, or "countryside." So, rice fields, old women in straw hats. Of course, this still takes place in areas criss-crossed with major roads and lined with vending machines, and I am still only less than a half-hour by bike from the city.

As for the job, I'm working at Hamamatsu Minami Koukou (Hamamatsu South High School), which is one of the better public schools in the area. Though, it is a little misleading at this point to say "working" as school is on break until the first of September, so work consists of me going to the school and sitting at my desk listening to music on my laptop and gossiping with other teachers. My only assignment for this month was to prepare a schedule of classes, which I finished this afternoon. Lesson plans being essentially the same as last year, I don't have much else to occupy my time. Eventually I'll be team-teaching with 7 different teachers, 10 classes a week, basically trying to give these Japanese to the only real speaking practice they'll get in school and perhaps the only real chance to interact with a real honest to God Gaijin on an individual basis. So this program already seems rather futile before I even start. You know a country has problems with diversity and internationalization when they have to enact a draft for foreigners.

Sidenote: A teacher today came down and sat with me while I was having tea. He tried to explain the front page story in the Japanese newspaper (which is, amusingly enough, about the attempt to privatize the Japanese postal system, can you imagine a country where that's front page news?) - rather unsuccessfully, since I could only recognize the words "mail" "company" and "prime minister Koizumi". Afterwards, he told me I looked like the actor from one of his favorite movies, "The Sting." He struggled to remember the name, and for some reason I remembered it was Robert Redford. He got really excited, but almost personally offended when I told him I'd never heard that before. He refused to believe I wasn't told that daily by other Americans.

Anyways, I'll write more later on the exciting topics of Japanese school bureaucracy and my awesome Japanese colleague here who told me today that the vaunted japanese busyness is really just a tool that allows the people in power to limit individual thought and dissent in the populace.