Sunday, November 30, 2003

Well, my apologies to all my loyal readers who keep coming to this site, and finding nothing new posted this week.
I was working on a new post (slash manifesto) about "Why I love and Hate teaching in the Primary Schools" but that has sputtered out now. Oh, and I know the link to the Onion Article doesn't work anymore, since they took down the article. So, sorry about that. But those of you who did check the link when it was still up and running, that was a pretty funny article, wasn't it? It made me laugh. (Update: the article is still available in the archives here).
Anyway, not too much new and exciting around here. A normal type weekend. Did a lot of sleeping. Went to a house party on Sunday night. Keep checking in here for all the new and exciting details about my really exciting life.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Another Link
I ran across this article from "The Onion", which I thought was really funny. Of course I realize this is dangerous ground, because there's a lot of funny stuff from "The Onion", and I can't start linking to them all. But, since this article has to do with blogging, I thought it was somewhat appropriate. Here's the link: Mom finds out about Blog

In the interest of full disclosure I should add that my mom does read this web log, and everything on here does go through the "What will my mom think about this" filter.
Oh, and speaking of full disclosure, I should admit that I didn't find this article myself, but it was listed on the blog server help page.

And I don't know if anyone else checked CNN's web-page today, but this story confirmed a lot of my stereo-types about the South. I haven't spent much time in the south though. Can anyone else tell me how often this sort of thing happens?
Participant at KKK initiation wounded after shots fired into sky

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Because of various changes in my schedule this week, I was at the elementary schools four times in one week. One of the elementary schools is busy practicing a play, which will be performed in English, Japanese, and "Ajimu-Ben".
"Ben" means local dialect. In America we don't really have it. We have broad regional dialects to a certain degree (Southern Accent, West coast Accent), but nothing like in Japan.
A good comparison is England. I've never been to England, but my British friends tell me they can place someone pretty accurately by their accent. In fact, they say if you are good at it, you can place someone within a block or two of their house. (That sounds a little hard to swallow to me too. I suspect there may be some exaggeration going on here, but that's what they told me).
The reason of course is that England has much longer history, and is historically a less mobile society than America, so strong regional dialects were able to develop in each town, and in some cases, in each neighborhood. Japan is the same, only more so.
For instance, my little town of Ajimu, with 8,000 people, has it's own dialect. I have a friend from Usa (only one town over) who works in the Ajimu winery, and has trouble understanding the old people in Ajimu because of the local dialect. (Only one town over!)
Anyway, the Elementary school play is being conducted in standard Japanese, Ajimu-Ben, and English. I help out with the English. The "Ajimu-Ben" part is mostly as a joke, and then the standard Japanese is also added.
The vice-principle (kyoto sensei in Japanese) has been helping me learn Ajimu-Ben. Mostly for humor value, because it is very limited in it's practical uses, but I can get a laugh out of the office every time I manage to say something in the local dialect.
At the board of Education, the woman seated across from me often makes fun of my bad Japanese, so the Kyoto Sensei of the elementary school taught me how to say, "You're acting like a cow," in Ajimu-Ben, so I could have something to throw back at her.
The other staff at the elementary school thought this was funny, but were also a little worried. One of them said, "You better be careful Kyoto. They are going to be able to guess who taught him that." (The Kyoto has a bit of a reputation I think.) The Kyoto Sensei was undisturbed, and taught me how to say, "oh just shut up!" in Ajimu-Ben. Again, the rest of the staff thought this was funny, but were cautious. "Kyoto, pretty soon you won't be able to go into the Board of Education," someone else cautioned.
Indeed, as predicted, when I went back to the board of Education and tried out my new "Ajimu-Ben", the first thing they said was, "The Kyoto sensei at Sada Elementary taught you that, didn't he?" I thought for a moment, and then ratted him out. (Which brings me to a point of advice some of you have learned already. Never trust me with any sensitive information.)
Although I suspect that secretly the Kyoto Sensei was all too happy to take credit for teaching me. He has that kind of personality.
Since there are no dryers in Japan, I always hang my clothes outside to dry. As the weather is getting cold, a lot of the insects have been taking shelter inside my clothing. My first year in Japan, I had the rather unpleasant experience of having a large, hairy spider jump out of my pants as I was putting them on. Since then, I always shake out my clothing before putting it on.
This morning I had four (4!) bugs known as "kamemushi" fall out of my pants. We don't have "kamemushi" in Michigan. Literally the name means "Turtle bug" but I suspect they are in English what is known as "stink bugs". They have a rather strong odor they emit when disturbed. My clothing was infected with the smell, but as it was early in the morning, I couldn't be bothered to worry about it, and just put the pants on anyway.
The odor made me extremely unpopular in the Junior high school today. The students complained about my smell whenever I came over to their desk to help them with their homework.
I'm not sure how the locals deal with the stink bugs, but they must have someway to keep them away from their clothing. But that's part of the problem with living in a new place, you can't do anything right.
Another example: Japan is sometimes called "a mold culture." This is because mold thrives in the moist climate of Japan. Therefore traditional Japanese houses and clothing were all designed with the intent of preventing mold. (Thus, "mold culture". The entire culture is shaped by the need to prevent mold.)
Even today in modern Japan mold is still a huge problem. The locals here in Ajimu make sure to always keep their windows open to ventilate the houses (even in cold weather), and buy various devices that help suck up the moisture in the air.
But no one told me about any of this when I first came here. It was only after I had mold growing on my walls, my clothing, and my books, that I realized this was a problem that had to be addressed.
Anyway, I try and look at today as a learning experience. And I did learn a lot of new Japanese phrases today, like, "What is that smell?" and "Someone in this room smells like stink bugs. Who is it?"

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

I accidentally glued my slipper to my foot the other day.
In the Japanese schools, we have to take our shoes off before we enter. Most people wear slippers in the school, but the school slippers provided are too small, so on days when I can remember, I just bring my own slippers.
The slippers go through a lot a wear and tear, and yesterday, the sole of one of them fell halfway off, causing it to drag along the ground with every step I took. I knew the slippers were finished, but I thought maybe I could get another half a day's use out of them. So, I found a glue stick in the teachers lounge, and starting applying that to the inside of the sole.
Another teacher saw me, and said that the glue stick wasn't going to hold. She rummaged through the drawers, and got out something simply labeled, "Bond". I applied it very liberally to the inside of the sole.
The slipper itself was very thin, so the minute I stepped into it again, I could feel the "bond" had soaked through to the other side. I didn't care too much at the time as long as it held together.
And, as you can guess, the slipper ended up glued to my foot. It might have been only glued to my sock, except thatI had a whole in my sock that day, so it ended up stuck to my foot.
Not a big deal. It didn't require a trip to the hospital or anything. In fact I was able to peel the slipper off of my foot, but the slipper was completely destroyed in the process as I tugged to get it off.
Christmas gift ideas for me: new slippers. maybe some socks.

Monday, November 17, 2003

A Place Called Usa
Perhaps you have noticed that from time to time I refer to the town of Usa. I don't live in Usa, but it's only one town over. It's a town of about 50,000, so not a metropolis by any means. But, compared to my town of Ajimu, population 8,000, it is a lot bigger. And it has a fair amount of bars and Karaoke places to hang out in (unlike Ajimu). So on any given night, I'm far more likely to make the drive over to Usa, then to stay in Ajimu.
Of course Usa is a Japanese word, usually written in Japanese characters. But, as you can see, when it is transferred into Roman letters, it shares same spelling as the good old U.S. of A. This leads to a lot of bad jokes. For instance a resident of Usa, after consuming a bit of alcohol, might lean over to me and say, "I too am from the U.S.A. See, Usa. U.S.A." The first time I heard this, I thought it was worth a smile. Two years later, I'm ready to punch the next bastard who makes that damn joke again.
There is also a rumor among us expatriates that Usa was so named so that exports from the town of Usa could be stamped, "made in the USA." I never really believed this rumor because Usa is such a small town, nothing is really produced inside it. A drive through Usa reveals just lots and lots of rice fields. (Although again, it is bigger than Ajimu, and has a few fun bars to hang out in.)
But, wasting time on the internet the other day, I found this rumor mentioned on Snopes, the Urban Legends website. I don't know if anyone else regularly visits the Snopes website, but I was very surprised to see Usa was mentioned there. Since Snopes is an American website, it means this rumor about Usa is worldwide. I was surprised that anyone outside of Oita Prefecture even knew about our little town of Usa.
Anyway, here is the link

And well we're wasting time: the same sight also has an interesting, if rather disturbing, article on the Japanese Lolita complex. (Here's the link: Lolita Complex)
The Lolita problem in Japan is perhaps somewhat akin to the Gun violence problem in America in the sense that it is a big social problem, but it is something you hear about mostly on the news as opposed to observe in person. For instance, since I've been here in Japan there has been a lot of things reported in the news. There are problems with under-age prostitution, and high school girls sleeping with older men in exchange for gifts. And in my own prefecture, there has been a number of incidents last year of teachers who were caught sleeping with their high school students. A stricter code of conduct for teachers in Oita Prefecture was created as a result of this.
But have I observed any of this personally? Well as the article mentions, Japanese women in their 20s and 30s will often act like young girls, and this is very noticeable. But as far as sketchy relationships between older men and young girls, I haven't seen any of this in Ajimu. (Although some of the literature available at the local convenience store is very disturbing.)
Christianity in Japan:
Ajimu Elementary school is preparing for the Culture Festival next month. As part of the Human Rights curriculum in the Japanese schools, the culture festival usually features a drama dealing with problems of discrimination in Japan. This year the topic is persecution of Japanese Christians during the Edo Period. I was called in today to answer the children's questions about Christianity, and also to show them how to pray for the purpose of the drama.
There is a lot of ignorance about Christianity in Japan, and most of what is known is gleamed from American movies. Now, I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but for a predominately Protestant country, we have a lot of Catholic imagery in our movies. (I suspect because the rituals of Catholicism make a better visual on the big screen). Thus Japanese people associate Catholic rituals with American Christianity.
For instance whenever the subject of Christianity or prayer comes up, a Japanese person will usually gesture by crossing themselves the way Catholics always do in the movies. When I first came to Japan, I tried to explain that we Protestants don't usually make the sign of the cross when we pray. But most Japanese people don't know the difference between Catholics and Protestants, so this usually leads to discussion about the reformation that is very difficult to conduct across the language barrier.
The other difficulty is Japan, as a country which has historically been isolated from the rest of the world, often has a lot of stereotypes about the outside world. These stereo types can be very difficult to break. It's almost impossible to convince a Japanese person that Protestants don't cross themselves, when that Japanese person "knows" for a fact that all Christians make the sign of the cross when praying.
So, this is a battle I gave up on a long time ago. If a Japanese person asks me if I pray everyday, and then makes the cross sign, I just go along with it and say, yes, I do make the cross sign all the time when I pray. I also go along with all the other stereotypes about Christians that come from Hollywood. For instance, we all wear crosses around our neck, which we pull out at various times during the day and clutch with both hands while we kiss it.
And today followed much the same pattern. When I was asked to teach the children how to pray, I just taught them to cross themselves like they see in the movies. There was a question about whether to cross from the right shoulder or the left shoulder, and I didn't know, so I just guessed, but pretended I knew what I was talking. And when asked what they are supposed to say while they cross ourselves, I just made that up as well. ("In the name of the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen"--I think that's right, but I too am just going by Hollywood movies).
I'm a little nervous about how much time I added to my stay in purgatory today by lying about prayer, but it was so much easier to just tell them what they expected to hear. Even in my own English conversation classes, where I am preparing the Junior high school students for a trip to America, I followed this pattern. We were talking about Church, and after initially trying to explain that we don't cross ourselves in my church, I just gave up on it.
So, I'm a little worried my credibility will be at stake when these Junior High school students come to America with me this December. So if it's not too much to ask, I need a little help from anyone who happens to encounter me and these students over Christmas break. If you could just please cross yourselves from time to time, and every once and a while pull out a cross from around your neck and kiss it, I would really appreciate it.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Mid year conference:
Twice during the school year, all of us ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) in Oita prefecture have a mid year conference. (And yes, we do call it a mid-year conference, despite the fact that we have it two points during the school year. I know it is a bit of a misnomer, so no need to e-mail me to point this out (this means you, Gerken)).
Anyway, Tuesday and Wednesday was our "mid-year conference." This thing is widely regarded by most of us as a waste of time. We just go to workshops on various topics presented by other ALTs, and it very quickly turns into a gripe session about our jobs. I think all of us realize that we do lead very privileged lives here in Japan, but it is to some extent human nature to complain. So when we are all thrown into a room and asked to talk about our jobs, it is inevitable that everyone starts complaining.
I led a workshop on "Educating Global Issues in the Classroom." Because of the inflexibility of the curriculum, and because of the low English level, it is definitely a challenge to introduce social issues into the English class, but I talked about various things I had tried, and the talk went fairly successful.
The rest of the workshops I was just a participant in. I was in one workshop on "lesson planning." In this workshop, we were divided into smaller groups, and asked to prepare a lesson on the passive voice, using the text book we were provided.
The purpose of this lesson was to try and take a rather dull passage from the text book, and make it interesting. This is a daily challenge we face in the classroom, because the text book is like the Bible in the Japanese schools, and so we always have to teach from the text book.
In this case, the textbook used a passage about Okinawa to illustrate examples of the passive voice. I suggested to my group that we try and invite some actually Okinawans into the classroom to make the text seem more alive. Beppu University in Oita prefecture actually has a high number of students from Okinawa, and I've met some of them before. Many of them actually speak good English, so it seemed like a good idea to bring some of them into the English class room.
My group was receptive to the idea, but as we got farther and farther into the idea of Okinawan culture and guest speakers, we strayed far from the original intent of introducing the passive voice. The moderator of the work shop was quick to criticize this when we presented our ideas to the rest of the work shop.
And again, these workshops are all run by fellow ALTs, so we all know each other socially. Although I wasn't presenting for our group, the moderator singled me out as the reason our group had been led astray. "This was Joel Swagman's idea, wasn't it?"
I tried to play innocent. "I'm just sitting here. This was a group idea," I replied.
"This sounds like something you would think off," he said. He then added, "It's a shame your going to be leaving next year. We'll be loosing one of the greatest minds of our ALT generation."
I'm always curious as to what other people really think of me. I suppose all of us are. Apparently I'm developing a reputation as someone with a unique thought process. Hopefully that's a good thing.
Oh-and one more thing: the key note speech for this whole conference was delivered by a graduate of Hope College. These West Michigan connections pop up all over the place.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

More about the Australians:
Actually it's been a pretty busy past week. Saturday and Sunday I was busy playing tour guide for the visiting Rotary club from Australia as they traveled around Oita prefecture.
How did I get into such a position? The answer is a long and boring story, so feel free to skip this paragraph if you don't care. But the Usa city Rotary club here in Japan has developed an exchange with a sister city rotary club in Australia. Every two years, either the Usa Rotarians or the Australian Rotarians visit each other's city for sight seeing and cultural exchange.
I don't live in Usa, but someone from the Usa Rotary club is friends with the directory of the Ajimu Board of Education, where I work, and so I was asked to help show the Australians around for the weekend.
What exactly is a rotary club? As it was explained to me, it's basically a business men's social club. It was started in the United States, but it is now world wide. To be eligible for membership, you have to either own a business, or be in a management level position. The members meet for socializing and community service projects.
Of course it is wrong to stereo-type people, but if you were inclined to do some stereo-typing, what kind of people would you think would be in this kind of club? Close your eyes and try to imagine what these Australians were like. You'd probably stereo type something like fat, middle-aged, white men, who like to smoke cigars while complaining about Unions and minorities (in the Australian case, complaining about Aborigines on Welfare).
Now to be fair, I never observed any of these Rotarians smoking. But everything else you might stereotype was pretty dead on. And it was very apparent from what they said that they did not travel in the most politically correct circles in Australia. They always used the word "Negro" to refer to people of African descent, and seemed very surprise when I said we didn't use that word in America anymore. One of the wives said (in a sarcastic voice), "Well what do you call them then? African Americans?"
I answered, yes, sometimes, or even just "black" was preferable to "negro." At this point someone said, "I guess that's just like Australia. We call Aborigines 'Dark Greens.'"
I actually thought for a moment this was the preferred term. "Do you really?" I asked.
"Well, not to their faces of course mate," he answered.
So they said a lot of stupid things, but all in all not a bad group. Perhaps because they were from a rural area their accents were somewhat thicker than my other Australian friends in Japan. I did have trouble understanding them. And there was a bit of a generation gap that perhaps made it difficult to find common interests in conversation. But a couple of them made me laugh. One of them had been to Japan in the 1960s, and when I asked he was able to give me a few stories about seeing anti-war demonstrations and the Zengakuren (student movement).
By Saturday night, I had gotten a bit sick of the whole thing. Again, they weren't really a bad group, but there was a generation gap, and I couldn't help but think of all the parties I was missing by being with these Australians. (Murphy's law, the one weekend I was playing tour guide, there were about 4 different parties I was invited to. I suspect this next weekend, when I'm going to be free, nothing will be going on. )
So, I was thinking about trying to wiggle out of my commitment on Sunday, and meet up with my friends instead, but then I decided that perhaps the problem was just my attitude, and if I let myself, I could have a good time sight seeing with the Australians. Also on Saturday night I met the daughter of one of the Usa Rotarians, and was informed she would be joining us the next day. That might have had some small part on my change of attitude as well.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Language problems
By far my biggest language problem is communicating with the Japanese, but sometimes other English speakers also present difficulties. This weekend I had volunteered to help show the Australian rotary club around my town. I was also supposed to act as a translator, which was a disaster because my Japanese is no where up to translating standards. (I have a hard enough time just getting by myself, without translating for somebody else.) And with the thick down under accents, I had a hard time understanding the Australians sometimes as well.
After lunch, someone was handing out ice cream, and I refused saying, "No thank you, I'm stuffed."
There was a pause in the conversation, then one of the Australians asked, "what did you just say?" I repeated myself, and they broke out laughing. "If you come to Australia, don't ever say that," one of the women told me.

And then I remembered a previous conversation I had with a British friend, who was talking about his sexual frustrations with his girlfriend. "She probably wants to be stuffed by me just as much as I want to stuff her, but the opportunity has not presented itself." I had understood the imagery well enough at the time, but I guess it had not occurred to me this was a phrase I would want to be cautious about.
So needless to say I felt a bit embarrassed when I realized what I had said. It was one point for the Australians.
But I was able to laugh at them later, when they were talking about "the negro on TV last night." And I told them if they ever went to America, it was best to avoid using that word.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Kill Bill update
I was talking to a some friends last night, and a couple things were brought to my attention in relation to my previous post on "Kill Bill".
1): I've been living under a rock. My friends who teach in the high school say that all their students are super excited about the new “Kill Bill” movie. Partly because high school students always like these kind of violent movies, but the Japanese theme of the movie is also important to them. “Kill Bill” is filled with a lot of little references to Japanese cinema, which were all over my head, but not lost on the Japanese viewers. Also, I guess Tarantino has been on Japanese TV and Japanese game shows recently, because of this new interest in him and his movie. I suppose since I work in the Junior high and elementary schools, a certain amount of my ignorance towards the attitudes of High schoolers can be forgiven. I don’t really have a good excuse for not knowing Tarantino has been on Japanese TV regularly. Just goes to show I don’t always know what I’m talking about, and you should always take what I say with a grain of salt. But I still think there was some truth in my previous post, so I've chosen to write this addendum rather than go back and edit the original. The two different posts should perhaps balance each other out.
2): Also (and this is interesting), apparently the Japanese version of "Kill Bill" contains some scenes that were deemed too violent for American audiences. Specifically I guess the animation sequence was longer and more violent in the Japanese version. Also the climatic fight sequence at the end was apparently in black and white in the American movie theaters. Is this right? It was in color here in Japan. And also twice as long, with again more blood and violence than the American version.
So, if you read my previous “Kill Bill” post, and you thought, “Boy, he’s getting a bit squeamish, isn't he? I saw the movie, and I didn't think the violence was that bad.” Then this is possibly because we saw two different movies.
Which brings me to a bit of social commentary: Do you remember the movie, “Bowling for Columbine” when Michael Moore makes the point that it is kind of silly to blame violent media for the violent crime in America, when Europe and Japan have the same violent media, and a fraction of the violent crime? It was a good point I thought, and this is a good example. Another good example is the Japanese film “Battle Royale”, which was a huge hit in Japan. But because of the graphic depictions of high school students killing each other, no major distributor in the US would touch it, and it was essentially unreleaseable in the US. And yet Japan has barely any violent crime, and violent crime in the US is off the charts. Just some food for thought.
Although to be fair, violent crime in Japan has gone up slightly in recent years (still nothing compared to the US, but it has gone up slightly). And some politicians in Japan have blamed violent media like “Battle Royale”. Also refer to point number one--always take everything I say with a grain of salt, because I don’t always know what I’m talking about.
Finally quick movie trivia: Did you know the really evil high school girl in “Kill Bill” was played by the same actress who played the really evil high school girl in “Battle Royale”? No you probably didn't, because it’s almost impossible to find a copy of “Battle Royale” in the US. But it's true.
[My spell checker is telling me "unreleaseable" isn't a real word, but I'm using it anyway].

Kill Bill Update update: Since I originally posted this, I did some surfing around on-line, and confirmed what my friends had told me. Indeed, as mentioned above, the Japanese version is more violent and bloody. You can surf the net and see for yourself if you like. I found conflicting reasons given on line, so I'm not sure which is accurate but either
1) It was trimmed down to secure an R rating in the US or
2) It was decided the Japanese audiences could handle the extra blood and gore better

Video Version

Book recommendations
So when I was in Fukuoka the other day, I took advantage of being in a big city to pick up some English books. I got the new Michael Moore book, "Dude, where's my country?" and Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying liars who tell them. A fair and balanced look at the right."
I guess I'm just a sucker for a good polemic. But although I'm dumb enough to like this stuff, I am smart enough to take it with a grain of salt. I realize that Michael Moore is "The Rush Limbaugh of the left" and probably every bit as sneaky and misleading as Rush. But Al Franken's book was really interesting.
Al Franken essentially goes through a lot of the stuff written by Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, etc, and points out all the sneaky tricks they use. Now again, I'm smart enough to realize he's picking on the weakest links in the right wing chain here. (Ann Coulter? Does anyone take her seriously?) And I realize that someone on the right could probably write a similar book about the idiots on the left.
But, it is interesting the way he shows all the sneaky tricks that these people use, such as slight of hands with footnotes and misleading phrases . And being aware of all these tricks that are out there I think leads to good critical reading skills, whether one wants to critique the right or the left. So for that reason, I recommend this book to anyone, right or left.
That reason, and it's just pretty funny. One of the few books that made me laugh out loud when I was just sitting alone in my apartment reading it.

Video Version

Halloween party was this Saturday. Now in Japan no one really celebrates Halloween except for us expats, and we had a little party at Tropicoco's. (Tropicoco's is a Mexican bar here in Usa, at which I frequently hear a lot of Salsa music-see previous post). And it wasn't just foreigners, a lot of Japanese people got into the fun as well.
Last year I went as George Bush, and tried to do some political humor, but unfortunately I'm not as clever and quick witted as I like to think I am, and most of my little jokes died. This year I was planning on doing the same thing. I had the Bush mask all ready to go, but at the last minute I decided wearing that suffocating mask all night was more trouble than it was worth, and I decided to just go without a costume.
Have you ever been to a Halloween party in which you're the only one without a costume on? You feel pretty stupid, don't you? I tried to make up for my lack of costume by just turning on the old Swagman charm. Although I did feel a little bit out of place, I didn't let that stop me from having a good time.
I don't usually drink at these events, and as the night gets late, a sober driver is often a very popular person. I ended up agreeing to give 3 different people rides home. I'm a nice guy and don't mind doing this usually, but it does mean all 4 of us have to agree to leave at the same time, which can be kind of a head ache. And especially when someone has been drinking, it can be very little difficult to pry them away from the party. It was after 3 AM by the time we got everyone together and out of there.
Dropping off my last friend, she invited me in for a cup of tea. (Honestly, it was just a cup of tea!). Sometimes it's the subtle things in life that really make a huge difference. She lives in an apartment on the second floor, and like me she lives out in the countryside. There is very little light pollution, so we could see the stars very clearly from her balcony. It had been raining early that day, and it was still a bit misty, but we could see very well. And, also from her balcony, we could see all the roofs of the neighboring houses in the mist. And in the country side, the traditional Japanese architecture is still used, so it was a beautiful 4 AM view of these Japanese country houses in the mist with the stars out.

The next day was also a bit rainy. I had plans to go to another "Okagura" (See a few posts ago for a description of Okagura). This particular Okagura was supposed to be at the five storied Pagoda in Ajimu.
This Pagoda itself is pretty interesting. Usually outside of Kyoto you don't see these big beautiful Pagoda structures, and certainly not in Kyushu, but this one was built by a wealthy resident of Ajimu about 20 years ago, as his attempt to buy his way into heaven (according to town legend). So again, it's only 20 years old, not particularly historic, but it looks like an old beautiful building.
Apparently the Okagura had been called off because of the rain, which was slightly embarrassing for me because I had invited a friend to come out and watch it with me, and when we arrived no one was there. It was about 6 PM, already dark out, with the mist from the day's rain still around. But the pagoda had lights around it, so we could still see it through the mist. Really beautiful seeing it at night through the fog. And with no one else around, it was quiet and peaceful. Subtle things I guess.
Kill Bill
So I saw the new "Kill Bill" movie this weekend in Fukuoka. (Which is just recently opened in Japan). Because it is an hour drive to the nearest movie theater, and because movies are so expensive in Japan, I very rarely go through the trouble of seeing anything in the theaters. In fact, I can count on my hands the number of times I've gone to the theaters in the 2 plus years I've been in Japan now.
But I thought I had to see this movie, as a long time Quentin Tarantino fan, I felt I had to......
No that's a lie. The truth is I'm more of a band wagon fan. I started getting into his stuff in high school, when everyone thought he was the coolest thing ever. And my favorite film of his is "Jackie Brown", which all the "real" Tarantino fans aren't so hot on.
But I admit his films are pretty clever. And since a lot of "Kill Bill" took place in Japan, I was curious to see how this was done.
Japanese people, like people all over the world, are in love with Hollywood and American movies. And at times can get pretty excited when their own country is referenced in an American movie.
I myself have taken a new interest in "Japan as it is depicted in American movies" since I arrived here. All those references to Japan which used to go in one ear and out the other suddenly make me sit up and take notice. And unfortunately, I've noticed that the way Japanese, and Asians in general, are portrayed in Hollywood is often in either a villain role, or stereo typical role (Japanese tourist with camera, etc). So I've got a new issue to whine about now, but perhaps I'll save my rantings for another post.
Anyway, I was really expecting a lot of hype in Japan about the new "Kill Bill" movie, since it does deal a lot with Japan. And to be fair the movie is doing pretty well in Japan. All my Japanese friends of around the same age have either seen it already or want to see it. (As with in America, Tarantino's ultra-violent style doesn't appeal to the older people so much). And the theater I went to was certainly filled to capacity.
But again, given the love affair with hollywood in Japan, I was expecting more excitement about how prominently Japan is featured in a big blockbuster American movie. For instance, I mentioned the movie to a teacher at my school, who saw it on my recommendation. Now at the time I recommended it to her, I hadn't seen it yet. I just said it had already been out in America for a few weeks, and most of my friends seemed to really like it. She said she watched most of the movie with her hands over her face because of all the blood and killing, and I apologized for recommending it to her, but tried to talk about the Japanese connection. Wasn't a lot of the movie filmed in Tokyo? Wasn't a lot of the dialogue in Japanese? Weren't famous Japanese actors featured in the movie? And she just shrugged most of these off, which is typical of most of my conversations about this movie.
Another example: after leaving the theater, I was talking to the Japanese girl I had seen the movie with. Isn't it interesting how much Japanese language was in that American movie? And again, she just kind of shrugged it off as well.
Of course this was after I had seen the movie, so I can understand a little better at this point. It is yet another movie in which the Japanese are portrayed as villains. And rather clumsy buffoonish villains at that, given how easily Uma Therman slices through them.
Now, lest anyone think I'm getting a little overly sensitive in my old age, I do acknowledge that the movie is a satire. The unrealistic fight scenes in which Uma Therman slices through a whole army of Japanese Yakuza, and the ridiculous amounts of blood, are a satire on this genre movie. As well as a satire on how Japanese people are usually depicted in hollywood, everything from the Kato masks to the green hornet music is a satire.
I'm just saying that if there was a Japanese movie, with a Japanese protagonist slicing through as many Americans as easily, and a Japanese friend said to me, "Isn't it great that our movies are taking such an interest in your culture? Look, there was even some English and some American actors in that movie." I probably would have told him to go blow it out his ear.
But about the movie in general: A little too violent for my tastes. Although if I think about it, Tarantino's movies have always been pretty violent, huh? I mean that scene in "Reservoir Dogs" when the cop gets his ear cut off and is then doused with gasoline...that wasn't really easy to watch either, was it? But there was enough other clever stuff in that movie to make me overlook it, and to want to not only watch the movie, but re-watch it as well.
I thought in "Kill Bill" a lot of the cleverness was gone, and just the violence was left, but if you want to disagree with me, send me an e-mail (or comment below).
Of course with any Tarantino movie, half the fun is always the sound track. And in this case, Tarantino's choice of having Mexican sounding music in a lot of the scenes involving Japan seemed vaguely fitting to me. A lot of people might not think so, but it makes me think that Tarantino might have had a similar experience to mine: He was in Japan for an extended period of time, and then all of his friends joined a Salsa band, and he had to listen to them practice every damn night of the week, and for ever after Japan and Salsa music were fused together in his mind.
Oh, also I assume in the American theaters all the Japanese was subtitled. In the Japanese theaters the English was subtitled, but all the Japanese dialogue was left unsubtitled. So it was a bit of a struggle, but I'm fairly pleased with how much I was able to catch (if I can be allowed a moment of patting myself on the back).

Video Version

Town culture festival was this weekend. Among the art displayed was various wood carving stamps created by the junior high school students.
These stamps featured calligraphy that the students had carved into the wood, and then stamped onto a piece of paper. Many of them are very elaborate and beautiful Chinese characters. (Japan also uses the Chinese characters in their writing system). Some are a little more simply done, which I can really dig because that would have been me if I was a Japanese junior high school student.
And then there are a couple more interesting ones. One reads "I am a pervert." The other one says, "today, sex."
There's a saying that the longer you've been in Japan, the less you understand it. I'm somewhat inclined towards this view, so I'm not going to pretend I understand exactly what the limits of artistic freedom in the Junior high school are, but I certainly couldn't have gotten away with that in my school days. Although granted my education at a fundamentalist Christian school was probably a little bit stricter than most. I still remember in 8th grade a fight one of my classmates had with the art teacher over the words "party on." My classmate wanted to insert the words in her painting, but the art teacher told her "Christians don't say 'party on'".
So I guess it's hard to get stricter than that, but in Japan the limits do seem to be a bit more flexible. That would certainly explain the "dog taking a crap" theme that is present in a lot of the elementary school art that is also being displayed at the culture festival. I suspect one kid had the idea, and the rest just copied it. Or perhaps this is a common theme every year. Nonetheless, I think my elementary art teacher would have put a stop to it.
But getting back to the wood carvings. Apparently the limits are different, but I imagine the art teacher wasn't overjoyed to see it.
"So, Yosuke, what are we working on here? "
"You realize this is going up on display in the town festival? Everyone is going to see it?"
Sigh again.
"Okay, fine, whatever Yosuke."
I imagine it went something like that.
And on a similar theme: this is something that is actually dated from graduation this spring, but I only just noticed it while walking around the school on Friday (see previous post, I had a lot of spare time on Friday to look around the school and read things). The outgoing 6th grade students, who were entering Junior high school, each wrote a little touching tribute to their parents in the school newspaper. Next to each kid's smiling picture was a little note saying something like, "Mother, thank you for always encouraging me. I'm sorry I didn't study as hard as you wanted me too, but I'm going to do my best in Junior high school. Father, thank you for always teaching me how to be strong." Something touching like that.
But one kid wrote in his space, "Father, cigarettes are bad for your body. Please stop smoking so much. Mother, I'm sorry I didn't always listen to you." What was funny was that I knew the kid, and he had a pretty serious personality, so I doubt he was just taking the piss.
It made me laugh a bit on Friday. Imagine being that kid's father, opening the school paper to eagerly see what words of thanks his son had written him, and then finding that. And then at the next PTA meeting, having to put up with all those, "Hey, I read in the school paper you've been smoking a bit again, eh? How's that going?" comments.
So I had a little quiet laugh to myself reading this. When I saw the kid that afternoon in the hallway, I was tempted to ask him how his father's smoking was going, but I thought it might be perceived as making fun of him, and it was probably a little unprofessional to mock my students. I did point it out to some of the other teachers in the staff room, but to my disappointment, no one else found it as funny as me. "Does his father smoke a lot?" I asked one of the other teachers.
She read the paper, assumed a thoughtful position, and said, "hmmm, apparently."