Monday, May 31, 2004

My Weekend
Mike (the other JET in Ajimu) was turning 26 this week, so he and his friends celebrated by going out to Himeshima Island.

Himeshima Island is a small island off the coast the North East tip of Oita prefecture. Famous, apparently, for nothing. Every person I've ever asked about this Island always tells me there is nothing out there.

Which in my mind was part of the appeal for going out. Seeing this nothingness that everyone is talking about. Besides, Islands are cool.

But in the end I didn't end up going. Same old story as always, I just didn't get my act together in time. By the time I called up Mike, he and his friends were already on the Island. I asked if anyone was running late as well, and Mike directed me to Chris and David in Usa and Bungo Takeda. I met up with them, but we only succeeded in delaying eachother. You know how it is. Once you start getting a small group together, it is almost impossible to get everyone moving. Someone always is holding the others up. (Actually in this case it might have been me again, but let's not quibble over details).

By the time we were all ready to go, it was so late in the day that I figured it wasn't worth it. I told the other two to just go ahead without me, and I ended up spending my Saturday night at a pool table tournament in Tropicocos instead.

Sunday was a church picnic to celebrate Pentecost. The Pastor started out by saying thanks to God for giving us such nice weather for the picnic. 10 minutes later it was raining. Fortunately there was a pavilion we could take cover under, but it did kind of ruin the picnic.

At some points the rain was really coming down pretty heavily. During this period, one of the little kids decided he had to go to the bathroom. The toilets were at the other end of the park, but the pastor ran out to get his car, and then drove up to the pavilion. The mother and kid hopped into the car and they drove to the toilets.

They came back about 15 minutes later. The kid was hiding behind his mother, but his mother sternly said, "Go on, tell everyone you're sorry. Tell everyone you're sorry. Say to everyone, 'When I said I had to go to the bathroom, I was lying.'" The kid stayed huddled behind his mother's dress, and when the shame of the public apology became too much, he burst into tears and she relented.

Since the mother seemed a bit upset about it, I tried not to laugh, but I thought it was pretty funny. The kid in question is a bit of a handful, so I can easily imagine he would say he had to go to the bathroom just because he wanted the attention of being taken there. Still, such an odd thing to lie about. And I thought it was funny that the mother was so upset about it.

Whatever, I guess you probably had to be there.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Oh yeah, and when I was in Nagasaki last weekend, I saw “Troy,” which is just opening now in Japan.

I've written previously on this blog that, as someone who loves the original Greek myth, I was worried about what the movie would do to the story.

I’m somewhat tempted to go into geek mode now and list everything that was wrong in the movie, but I’ll refrain. For one thing a quick visit to rotten tomatoes will demonstrate that every other critic in the world has already written about this.
Secondly, there is just too much stuff to go into. The complete absence of any gods or goddesses in the movie means that everything that happened by divine intervention in the myth had to be explained differently in the movie. Who lived and who died was different in the movie and the myth, and even when it wasn't, how they died or who killed who was often wrong. And many of my favorite characters didn't even appear in the movie.
And 3rdly, what does one expect from a 2-hour Hollywood movie? They couldn't have been faithful to the myth even if they wanted to-- there is just to much material.

However to my pleasant surprise, I thought the movie did a good job of staying true to the flavor of the myth. Most of the characters were just as I had always pictured them. The movie resisted the temptation to make Achilles into a whitewashed hero, and showed him with many of the same faults and motivations he had in the myth. Agamemnon’s character as well seems very similar to the Agamemnon portrayed in the Iliad. Like the original myth, the movie makes an attempt to show both sides of the war as sympathetic at times.

Now whether this works as a summer blockbuster sword and sandal popcorn epic is another question. But I thought they were making an effort.

Video Version Troy

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

My Weekend in Nagasaki
As my time in Japan is winding to a close, I’ve been trying to visit all those places I’ve always wanted to see, but never got around to going to. Last week it was Shikoku. This week I went to Nagasaki.

Most people know Nagasaki only as the site of the second atomic bombing (or perhaps I’m just inferring my own ignorance onto the rest of you). However besides the peace park and the atomic bomb museum, there are a lot of other things to see in Nagasaki. In old times it was the only port Europeans had access to, and so is the place of the first Western influences in Japan. Today there is a theme park and replicated Dutch village to remember the Dutch influence in Nagasaki. And the Glover Gardens in Nagasaki is the site of an old European settlement, which was the inspiration for “Madame Butterfly.”

Christianity was introduced to Japan through Nagasaki, and so Nagasaki contains many old European style cathedrals, as well as monuments commemorating the persecution of the early Japanese Christians.

In addition there’s also a Chinese town.

And lastly because much of the city of Nagasaki is located on the sides of the mountains surrounding it, it is famous for its night view of the city lights.

It is a difficult city to do adequately in one weekend. And probably just as difficult to summarize in a blog post, but I’ll try and hit the highlights.

Atomic Bomb Museum
I have mixed feelings about writing this.
On one hand it would seem wrong to write about a trip to Nagasaki and not include anything about the Atomic Bomb or the Peace Museum. On the other hand, so much has been written about it already, I’m not sure what to say without slipping into clichés.

Although I’ve debated some of you before about the morality of the atomic bombings, I won’t get into that on this post. You all know how I feel about it. Many of you have had this discussion with me already, and I won’t drag it all up again now. Anyone interested can read this essay by Howard Zinn, in which he makes a very compelling case against the atomic bombings.

But for now I’ll just focus on the museum itself. Although this was my first time to Nagasaki, I have actually been to the Hiroshima museum three times before. Occasionally us JETs will discuss which museum is better (as morbid as that is). I’ve had some people tell me they found the Hiroshima museum more moving. I had one person tell me he wasn’t all that moved by the Hiroshima museum, but lost it and started crying halfway through the Nagasaki museum.

Of course it is a stupid conversation. Both museums are quite moving. Each one gives you a sense of the horror of the event, and the extent of man’s capability for evil, and for man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. In my opinion, after viewing either museum no one could possibly still approve of the decision to drop the bombs. But of course I was against the atomic bombings before I even went in the museums, so my opinion is not unbiased.

I do think the focus is a bit different. The Hiroshima museum was filled with a lot of visual images, such as wax statues of atomic bomb victims walking with their skin hanging off, or the remnants of school uniforms of junior high school victims. (Since the school uniforms then are similar to what my students wear now, I found that the most difficult part of the museum).

The Nagasaki museum didn’t have as many visual images, but contained a lot of stories written about survivors. A father who comes home to find his family completely wiped out. A boy who watches his mother try and save his two year old sister trapped in a burning house. A child who doesn’t understand why his mother is dead.

But some of the visuals in Nagasaki are impressive as well. As mentioned above, Nagasaki was the site of the introduction of Christianity. At the time of the atomic bombing, Nagasaki had the biggest Cathedral in all of South East Asia. The atomic bomb was actually dropped during mass, killing all the worshippers inside. But the ruins of the Cathedral are in the museum. The images of the ruins of the Cathedral make for a very apocalyptic look.

Huis Ten Bosch
In the pre-Meiji era, the Dutch where the only Europeans allowed to interact with the isolated Japan, and only through the port at Nagasaki. Therefore Nagasaki was the site of the Dutch influence to Japan, and a Dutch village theme park named “Huis Ten Bosch” is now in Nagasaki to remember the Dutch influence.

Being of Dutch descent, and coming from the Dutch community in Western Michigan, I thought it would be fun to check out the Dutch village in Nagasaki. I expected something very similar to the Dutch village in Holland, Michigan, only a cheesier and more Japonified version. I was caught off guard by how impressive this place is.

I’m not sure my description can do it justice. It probably has to be seen to be believed. But to start with, it is nothing like the Dutch Village in Michigan. A more accurate comparison would be Disneyland.

For one thing there is the size of the park. The previous Amusement parks and attractions I’ve been to in Japan have been very small and cramped, but this park was the same size as a large American style theme park. The guide book recommended taking two days to visit “Huis Ten Bosch”. Certainly the four hours we had allotted turned out not to be sufficient.

Secondly the effort which has gone into replicating Victorian era Netherlands is amazing. I’m not sure when the park was built, but it most have been during an economic boom period, because a lot of money has obviously been spent on this place. It contains replicas of Dutch Cathedrals, bell towers, and palaces that don’t look like cheesy amusement park recreations, but look like the true thing. In fact I half expected to see a sign in front of some of these buildings saying they had been imported from the Netherlands. The park is on the ocean side, and rivers and boats flow through the park between the different sections of the Dutch village. European style gardens have been reproduced, the road is paved with bricks and all the buildings resemble Victorian era Europe. This place is really something.

And then there are all the things you expect to see in a Dutch Village. We had arrived to late in the year to see the Tulip festival, but there were plenty of windmills and wooden shoes everywhere. The shop names were all similar to the last names of people I know back home, and the gift shops were filled with Dutch Chocolate and Dutch porcelain, those little statues of the Dutch boy kissing the Dutch girl (you know the one), and of course T-shirts saying “Amsterdam, Marijuana capital of the World” and various Marijuana paraphernalia. Everything you expect when you think of the Dutch.

Monday, May 24, 2004

E-mail from a Friend

I got an e-mail from a friend today, a Canadian JET who makes some interesting points about the comparative prison system in the US, Japan and Canada. I thought it deserved a larger audience, so I'm posting it here. Here it is:

Doing my usual surfing and found some interesting stuff regarding Bush and the job situation in the States. The author also makes some interesting connections between the guards at the prison in Iraq and their lives prior to entering into the military.

"But the main purpose of the “Yes, American Can” bus tour, of course, was to shift the attention of U.S. voters away from the Iraq prison scandal toward safer ground: the recovering job market. According to a U.S. Labor Department Report, 288,000 jobs were created in April. Bush’s campaign has seized on these numbers to further cast John Kerry as the dour New England pessimist, always droning on with the bad news. Bush, on the other hand, is the bouncy Texan optimist, always flashing an easy smile and a thumbs-up. “The president has to make sure that we’re optimistic and confident in order for jobs to be created,” he told a carefully screened crowd in Dubuque, Iowa.

Some jobs, however, are more responsive than others to the power of positive presidential thinking. More than 82 per cent of the jobs created in April were in service industries, including restaurants and retail, while the biggest new employers were temp agencies. Over the past year, 272,00 manufacturing jobs have been lost. No wonder the President’s Economic Report in February floated the idea of reclassifying fast-food restaurants as factories. “When a fast-food restaurant sells a hamburger, for example, is it providing a ‘service’ or is it combining inputs to ‘manufacture’ a product?” the report asks.

But not all of the job growth in the U.S. has come from burger flipping and temping. With more than 2-million Americans behind bars (one of the ways unemployment stats are kept artificially low), the number of prison guards has exploded ­ from 270,317 in 2000 to 476,000 in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Watching Bush give the thumbs up in the face of so much economic misery put me in mind of a certain widely circulated photograph taken in Iraq. There are Specialist Charles Graner and Private Lynndie England, the happy couple, standing above a pile of tortured Iraqi inmates, grinning and giving the double thumbs up. Everything is fine, their eyes seem to be saying, just don't look down."

The reference to prisons perked my interest in how Japan, Canada and the US compare in prison populations. The difference is staggering - 730/100,000 in the States, 115/100,000 in Canada and a lowly 37/100,000 in Japan. The incarceration rate is dropping by about 3% per year in Canada while it is increasing by the same amount in the US. Also, California has built about 21 prisons in the last 15 years compared to just 1 university with increases to the education and prison budgets also being similar in their disparity. Sounds like you should retrain for a job as a prison guard!

Friday, May 21, 2004

I Create a Delicious new Beverage

I went out to dinner last night with a couple friends, and the dining establishment had what is know as a "drink bar" in Japan. One of those all you can drink-self serve things.

Mixing soda in various combinations has become a favored past time, but I was feeling slightly more experimental last night, so I took a tea bag from the drink bar, and instead of brewing it in water, let it sit in my glass of Pepsi for a few minutes.

And the results: surprisingly delicious.

I proposed to call my new creation "My Mixture number five". My dining companions suggested "Madman's drink" and "Halfwit Brew".

Whatever you call it, you're missing out if you don't give this delicious creation a try.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Photo of me: I'm gradually figuring out how to use this weblog thing, so this is my first experiment with posting photos. Maybe more to come if I can figure this thing out. Anyway, this is someone I met in the Ferrie terminal on the way back from Shikoku on Sunday. He was so amazed by how tall I am and insisted on taking a picture. If I look tired it's because I am. I had to wake up damn early to catch this Ferrie out Sunday morning  Posted by Hello

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

A Day in the Life of a JET
I was at the elementary school today.
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the elementary schools. On days when I'm in a good mood and have a lot of energy, it can be a lot of fun. On days when I'm feeling tired or my attention is distracted, it can be really rough. But on a good day I feel like I'm just getting paid to play games and have fun with the kids.

Today was a good day.

Also, I went to the Kindergarten today. The new school year has started over a month ago now, but I haven't met all the incoming Kindergarten students yet. One of them wanted to be picked up, so I hoisted him up in the air. Immediately a line formed, and I had to pick all of the kids up. I had a sore back for the rest of the day.

Some of the Kindergarten students were really amazed to see me. "You're even bigger than our teachers," one of them said. This is not surprising, since the kindergarten teachers are two petite Japanese women, but I guess when you're a little kid you have a different perspective on things.

My favorite comment so far though has been from the pre-school children in the first year I was here. One of the girls looked at me, and then said, "You're not Japanese, are you?" I answered no, I was not. Then she asked, "Are you Korean?"

Saturday, May 15, 2004

My Weekend in Shikoku
This weekend I went to Shikoku, the only one of the four major islands of Japan I hadn't visited yet. Considering the fact that it's right across from Kyushu, I really should have gone there a long time ago, but I've been terrible about traveling.

The purpose of my venture was to visit a good friend from my Calvin College days, who is teaching English in Matsuyama in Shikoku. Which is another thing I've really been terrible at: visiting friends in Japan.

I had another friend from Calvin who was in Kagoshima for a year (which is even the same island that I live on) and I never got my act together enough to go down and visit. And I had a cousin who spent a year as an exchange student in Nagoya (or was it Nagano-I keep getting those cities mixed up). I made a couple half-hearted attempts to contact him, but never organized a trip to visit him.

My Calvin friend in Shikoku has been there for a year now, and is leaving this week. So this was the last opportunity I had to visit. So it was now or never, and I said to myself, "Damn it Joel, this time I will go and visit."

Of course because I had waited till the last minute, my timing was not ideal. It was just a normal weekend rather than a long holiday weekend, which means it was a bit of a rushed trip (caught the ferry out Friday night, and returned Saturday morning). Also my friend was working whilst I was there.

But I was able to entertain myself during the afternoon. Matsuyama is a decent sized city, and you know me, I'm a country boy out in Oita Prefecture. So I was able to enjoy all the nice things about a big city. I went shopping, went to an English book store (watch for more book reviews and recommendations in this space coming soon).

I went into an internet cafe for a couple hours and got some work done on my job search application front, (which is another thing I've been terrible about) while listening to Air America via the internet.

And then I played tourist for a while and went to visit Matsuyama castle, where I (dig this)

Got my picture taken with a model
(not making this up I swear)

Matsuyama castle is on top of a big hill. There's a rope lift up, but I opted to hike it. My timing was a little bad, because arriving at the top I got there the same time as a senior tour group. The castle was pretty small and cramped, and I was competing for space with these seniors (some of whom seemed a bit pushy to me).

On the way down I decided to take the back way. I came to a Japanese garden at the back of the castle, which I thought I'd check out. There was a sign saying not to enter, but the door was wide open so I thought I'd poke my head in anyway and look around.

I ended up interrupting some sort of photo shoot. I don't know who those people where or what it was for, but there was a whole team of people, a photographer, people holding up stuff to reflect the lights or something, and a Japanese model doing various poses around the garden.

I heard someone yell out, "hold on, a foreigner's just entered." Someone ran over to tell me the garden was closed. They were pretty polite about it, but people in Japan are usually tolerant of foreigners who don't know what's going on. I apologized, but then as I was leaving the photographer shouted for me to wait, and said maybe they could use me for a few photos with the girl.

I have no idea what I looked like through the other end of the camera lens, but I imagine those pictures couldn't have turned out to great. I was caught a bit off guard, nervous about being thrown together with this pretty Japanese girl, and besides I was never great at posing naturally for pictures anyway. So I doubt these pictures will ever see the light of day, and even if they do I have no idea what they were for or what publication they would appear in.

Still, it ranks as one of my more interesting stories in Japan.
My Article
Here is another article by me in the Tombo Times (the English magazine for Oita Prefecture). It's an article on the Japanese national anthem, and the contraversy surrounding it, which was of interest to me for a couple of reasons.

One reason I've been interested in the contraversy is because it is a good insight into the Japanese culture wars. I think sometimes we have a tendency to view foreign countries as a whole, instead of seeing the complexity inside the boarders. We recognize that America is a complex place with competing view points, but not other countries.

Perhaps a classic example is the right wing hatred of everything French, including French restaurants and French wines, after the French government refused to support the Iraq War.

But there are good examples relating to Japan as well. Some of you might remember the "text book" contraversy about 3 years ago. The Japanese Education Ministry created a new text book which glossed over the Japanese war crimes during World War II.

The text book caused set backs in Japan's relations with Korea and China, and Japan was criticized in the American Press. But missing in much of the discussion in the American media was that this text book was created by the right wing party in Japan, and the intended target was the Japanese left (the contraversy over the history of the war being a big right-left issue in Japan). The fall out with Korea and China was an unintended consequence. Also not given enough coverage was the fact that all the local boards of education rejected the textbook, and a left wing Japanese group exploded a bomb inside the text book author's office.

But rather than see this as a battle within Japan, I think the Western Media choose to portray it as a battle between Japan and Korea, with Japan being represented as having a monolithic view point.

So the "national anthem contraversy" in Japan seemed like a good place to emphasize that Japan, just like the U.S., has it's own culture wars.

The second reason this was of interest to me was because it deals with the politics within Japanese schools. I don't really claim to understand everything yet, but what I've observed while I've been here has been of great interest.

When I arrived in Japan, I was coming fresh from my student teaching experience at Tri-Unity Christian High School, which was an ultra-conservative Christian high school. (Oh, the stories I could tell... But I'll have to save that for another occasion).

Arriving in Japan, I was cautious at first about voicing my own political opinions. But slowly I began to notice things. As I began to learn to read a little Japanese I realized that the director of the board of Education was always reading the Japanese Communist Party Newspaper. I realized the schools also had this newspaper in the teachers lounge, and in Ajimu Junior High School, the principle would even cut out articles from the JCP Newspaper and paste them on a bulletin board for students to read. I noticed several posters in the school were very political. In the teachers "relax room", signs left over from a demonstration opposing the Iraq war are being stored.

Like I said, I don't claim to understand everything yet, but there is an interesting political climate in the Japanese schools around here, and this is reflected in the contraversy about the National Anthem.

So, for these reasons I volunteered to write an article on the National Anthem. I didn't know that much about it when I started it, but it gave me an excuse to do a little research (via the internet of course).

Unfortunately my timing was a bit bad. Perhaps because I don't have a TV, I'm a little out of it, but unbeknownst to me at the time I volunteered to do the article, the National Anthem was making headlines again because of new rules adopted by the Tokyo metropolitan board of Education. (These rules were for Tokyo only by the way, but news all over Japan). The headlines continued after I had written the article, and even attracted the attention of the Western Media.

So, by the time my article was published, it was simply parroting what was in the headlines already. Somebody said to me that they read my article, and then the next day read almost the exact same thing on CNN's website. It was a bit discouraging to go through the trouble of researching an original article, and then have it be old news, but oh well.

Also of interest in the Tombo Times
There is an interesting series being published called, "Diary of a JOT". The idea behind it is a that a Japanese person goes to England to teach Japanese, and records his observations. It's written by a JET, so it is obviously a westerner trying to imagine what a Japanese person would think. It can be quite funny. I didn't like it at first, but the series has been warming up on me. If you think it's funny, check out the back issues for more of this series.

Also in last months Tombo Times was a funny article on Morning Musume. I don't hear quite so much about Morning Musume anymore, but they seemed to be very big when I first came to Japan. If you want to learn about Japanese pop music at its very cheesiest, it doesn't get any better than this.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Inhofe's qoute

I have a feeling a lot of people have seen this already. A qoute from Republican Senator John Inhofe. Talking about the recent prison photos he said,

"I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment"

and then later

"I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over these prisons looking for human rights violations while our troops, our heroes, are fighting and dying."

Those damn humanitarians. Why do they hate America so much?
Stealing from Tom Tomorrow

I promise I'll try not to steal from other web logs too much, but this goes under the catagory of "couldn't have said it better myself." I have a link to the Tom Tomorrow's weblog This Modern World on the right, but just in case anybody missed this:

Tom Tomorrow starts out with this quote from David Brooks (who was a supporter of the war)

We went into Iraq with what, in retrospect, seems like a childish fantasy. We were going to topple Saddam, establish democracy and hand the country back to grateful Iraqis. We expected to be universally admired when it was all over.

And then he adds,

"Well, you know, hindsight is wonderful, but some of us were trying to point out that this was a "childish fantasy" a couple of years ago. I mean, did these morons really believe that millions of people were demonstrating in the streets of major cities across the planet because we all hated democracy and secretly supported Saddam?
The pathetic thing is, some of them probably did."

Couldn't agree more.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Lost in Translation
I saw "Lost in Translation" this weekend, which is a movie I've been curious about for sometime. It hasn't been released in Oita Prefecture, but a friend of mine had the DVD sent from Canada, so I was able to watch it at his place.

This past year has seen several American movies with Japanese themes, such as "Kill Bill" and "The Last Samurai". The Japanese domestic film industry is struggling, so the Japanese movie going public thrives on American movies, which easily outgross the domestics. Japanese people love American movies, so it has been interesting to see the buzz behind two American movies with Japanese themes.

Which is what makes "Lost in Translation" so interesting. To say there is no buzz about this movie is an understatement. It really doesn't even exist in Japan. I would never have known about it if several of you hadn't mentioned it to me. This article (which I've linked to before) does a good job of explaining why.

After reading that article, I was curious to see the movie. I was also curious about the charges of racism, as some people (like this fellow) (and this site) have accused.

As others have written, the film is not so much about Japan as Japan is just used as the back drop for a sort of pseudo love story. So maybe it is kind of silly to over-analyze the Japan parts of it too much. But that said I'm going to anyway.

I think the Japanese references in the movie I could put into 3 categories

1). Stuff that seem to come completely from left field. Like the part about the call girl. What was that about?

2). Stuff that I could really identify with. Like the shower head being too short. And the cell phones with the bizarre ring tone. And those damn election vans.

3). Stuff I could identify with but had been exaggerated for comic effect.

This 3rd category was by far the majority. Such as the Japanese mis-pronunciation of English names. Sure it was exaggerated a bit, but it was something all foreigners in Japan notice, and sometimes (as in the movie) the names of Western celebrities become unrecognizable when pronounced in the Japanese syllabary.

The Language barrier is something everyone in Japan has to deal with, as with in any non-English speaking country. It was exaggerated in the movie. If "The Last Samurai" was guilty of historical inaccuracy by portraying Samurai Lords and the Japanese Emperor speaking fluent English, "Lost in Translation" errs in the other direction.

Tokyo is an international city, and is actually pretty English friendly. My friend and I agreed that the scene in the hospital was pretty unrealistic, because educated people like doctors speak a bit of English, and would never blab on in Japanese and expect to be understood by a foreign person. Nor would the person behind the reception desk just launch into Japanese and expect to be understood.

If anything, the opposite frustration exists for many foreigners. Because of the perception that foreigners are unable to speak Japanese, Westerners who are fluent in Japanese will often complain that Japanese people insist on talking in their stilted English rather than converse in their native tongue.

But, of course, the movie was just exaggerating the language barrier for comic effect, and I can dig that.

Although the movie has been criticized for being about 2 whiny Americans always complaining about Japan, I thought even that was forgivable. When we JETs get together, all we do is whine about Japan.

Of course we JETs all understand how privileged we are here. We get payed pretty well for essentially just speaking our native language. And most of us are shown nothing but kindness from the Japanese people.

It is just that living in a different culture creates pressures. All the little things build on you. It's difficult to vent these feelings to Japanese friends, so on the weekend we JETs will often get together, and someone will start complaining about something about Japan, and before long everyone will start to vent and it will launch into a huge bitch session.

And then when it is all over and everyone has gotten everything off their chest, everyone will take a deep breath and someone will say something like, "Of course, really, I guess we have it pretty good here." And people will start talking about things they like about Japan, or ways in which Japan may be better than our home country, or even take back or modify some of the things we have just said.

And that I think is what was missing from the movie. It think it's okay to make a movie about things a foreigner would find frustrating in Japan, but it would be nice if somewhere in the movie there would have been that deep breath, and then a look at what is enjoyable about Japan. At the end of the movie one got the impression that Japan is just an horribly bizarre place that no American could enjoy himself in.

The other thing that was that there were no Japanese characters presented as human beings, or as someone the main characters could have potentially formed a real relationship with. At times the viewer gets the impression that in this huge city of Tokyo, the only meaningful relationship these two lonely Westerners can possibly form is with each other.

When you first get to Japan, you are overwhelmed, and tend to focus exclusively on, the differences. This is probably helped by prepping for the trip by reading guide books which also tend to emphasize culture differences.

And the differences are formidable. But the longer I've been here, it is the similarities I notice.

When I teach in the Junior High Schools, I look at the kids and think to myself "that was me at that age." Or "that kid reminds me just of so and so back home". Now that I understand Japanese a bit more, I can listen in on the conversations, and they sound very similar to conversations people have back home. The way someone will accidentally say something stupid, and be gently teased by every one else. The way two people will bat a joke back and forth between the two of them, each building from where the other leaves off. The way inside jokes develop, and are brought up in larger crowds, causing only "in people" to laugh.

When I'm out with Japanese people my own age, and I'm listening in on the conversation and watching how they interact, I think to myself it's exactly the same way my friends play off of each other back home. In my relationships with Japanese women, I've found I have to be careful with their feelings because they can get hurt just like American women can. Although Japanese TV seems bizarre at first, after watching it you realize it is aiming for the same set of emotions as American entertainment. I suppose that all sounds a bit cheesy when I try and put it into words, but although we all realize these things, we sometimes don't think about them when we focus in too much on the differences.

I don't want to say "Lost in Translation" was a racist movie. I think the people who made it had good intentions, and just wanted to have a laugh at some of the oddities about Japan, and the frustrations about being abroad. But from an idealistic standpoint, the movie would have been better if we had gotten just a glimpse of Japan's human side as well.

Video Version

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Book Recommendations
I've remarked on this blog before how pointless it is to recommend books because no one has time to read all the books they want to as it is.

But sometimes you read a book so interesting you just can't help want to recommend it to others.
I'm just finishing up a fascinating book called Tokyo Underworld : The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan.

As the title indicates, the book is at least nominally about an American who became involved with the Japanese Mafia. This primary story is only somewhat interesting in itself, but the author cleverly uses it as a branching point to go onto several other side stories about the Japanese Mafia, which are really interesting.

In Japan, the Mafia is political affiliated with some of the right wing parties, so the book deals with issues such as the CIA and the Japanese Mafia, Richard Nixon and Prescott Bush and the Japanese Mafia, Lockheed weapons manufacturers and the Japanese Mafia, et cetera. Really interesting book, highly recommend.

Video Version

Monday, May 03, 2004

Joel’s Movie Reviews
As indicated in the previous creative writing experiment, I’ve been using my Golden Week vacation to visit the cinema a few times, so I thought I’d include a few thoughts on what I’ve been watching.

Kill Bill 2
I walked out of “Kill Bill 1” not sure I wanted to go back to and see “Kill Bill 2”. But it had gotten such good reviews, and I was somewhat curious to see the conclusion, that I thought I’d give it a try. And I did enjoy it actually.

Those of you who have seen the movie (and since it was released later in Japan, I’m sure by now everyone who was planning on seeing it has seen it) will remember that unlike the first volume, the second one did not have such a prominent Japanese theme. There were a couple throw away references though, which did seem to be appreciated judging by the laughs of the Japanese audience I saw the movie with.

And a bit of little trivia: I’ve mentioned before I’ve started to get into Japanese oldies over here. The Japanese music group “The 5,6,7,8s” featured in Kill Bill 1 and in the credits of “Kill Bill 2” is a real Japanese group from the 1960s. I haven’t been able to find them on CD yet, but I’ve seen their old records in used Japanese record stores. Anyway, those women must be getting pretty old now. I’m guessing that Tarantino did a good job of making them look young by using a lot of make up and no close ups.

The Passion
I’ve been reading with interest about the controversy this film had caused back home, so when I found out it was now released in Japan, I came out the next day to see it. I had wanted to weigh in on the issue a long time ago, but was trying to restrain myself from forming an opinion until after I had seen the movie.

Of course as with a lot of the political/social commentary I put on this blog, my timeliness has been handicapped by the fact I live in Japan. I know this is old news now in the States, and everyone is talking about other movies now, but I thought I’d post my two cents here anyway.

As noted in the previous entry, I had some criticisms in mind, but the wind was somewhat taken out of my sails by the fact that the film actually did not included the “blood curse”. (I could have sworn I read in a Washington Post article that the blood curse was included, but apparently I was misinformed.)

Some of you know I am a big fan of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.’ I admit this somewhat sheepishly because it is a guilty pleasure. As with any musical, the music is probably the most important thing, and one of my guilty pleasures in the cheesy rock musicals from the late 60s and early 70s. I’m also a big fan of “Hair” and “Tommy”.

As with other people who are raised Christian, I was very familiar with the story of the crucifixion, and had seen numerous Church passion plays growing up. They were always boring affairs, trying to emotionally drain the audience as much as possible in an attempt to make you realize the sufferings of Christ.

I think “Jesus Christ Superstar” helped me realize for the first time what an exciting story the whole thing really was. Jesus was born into a politically turbulent time. He outraged the existing religious authorities. He was surrounded by people who didn’t understand him, and even his closest followers didn’t get it. He was betrayed by one of his inner circle, and saw all support fall away from him at the end by both his disciples and the crowd. The story was always there, but most Christian movies and plays stifled it with boredom and reverence and overkill. "Jesus Christ Superstar" was able to do away with all that, and leave just the excitement of the story behind.

It really is an amazing story if you think about it. But Mel Gibson’s movie, like many of the Passion plays I’ve seen in my youth, seemed determined to sap all life out of the drama. Every moment seems to be over acted, over emphasized, and over emotionalized.

This is true right from the beginning in the scene in the garden of Gethsemane, when Judas betrays Jesus, and Peter subsequently cuts off the ear of one of the guards, only to have Jesus rebuke him and heal the man. The slow motion, the long close-ups, and the sappy music all seemed to rob the story of what could have been a very vivid scene if the director was not determined to drain every emotion out of it. This was true of the long walk to Calvary as well, all the sad music and slow motion seemed emotional overkill.

And, like a lot of people, I was left somewhat wondering what the point of the movie was. It didn’t seem an effective missionary tool. Surely if that was the point, a movie on Jesus’ life or resurrection would have been better than his death.

It may have been aimed at the faithful instead, but if that was the case perhaps a theater release was inappropriate. Maybe screenings at local church’s would have been better. (Although it wouldn’t have made as much money). I’m sure I’m not the only one who encountered a moral dilemma at the concession stand.  Normally I buy popcorn when I'm at the movie theater.  But did I really want to be munching on popcorn and drinking coca-cola while I watched Jesus be crucified.  It seemed inappropriate somehow.

Perhaps (and I’m just throwing this out as an idea), the debate over this movie was an example of a larger phenomenon in the American culture wars, in which religious conservatives are so eager to put Christian images in prominent places they don’t stop to think about whether God is truly being glorified. Is God truly being glorified when we force unbelievers to recite “under God” in the pledge of allegiance? Or the debate over Jesus’ picture in public schools. Sometimes I think Jesus doesn’t really care if his picture is displayed in public schools or not. Or the 10 commandments in the court room, etc etc etc.

Perhaps some religious conservatives where so excited to have a box office hit about the crucifixion, many of them didn’t stop to think if it was appropriate. (You’ll notice I’m qualifying my remarks with "some", as I am aware that many of them did consider these concerns).

At any rate in Japan, a land with a great ignorance of Christianity, it will be interesting to see how this film is received. After viewing the movie, I spent the next hour trying to answer the questions of the Japanese friend I saw it with. Whether such a graphic and bloody movie is the best possible introduction to Christianity is another question.

I’m going to contradict myself somewhat here in that in this case I am going to comment on a movie I haven’t seen. I’m also going to make a disclaimer that what followers probably deserves a “Geek Alert.”

I’m eagerly awaiting, but somewhat worried, about the upcoming “Troy” movie. Those of you who knew me in my youth (around 7th and 8th grade) will recall I went through a phase of great interest in the Trojan War.

Anyone familiar with this ancient Greek legend knows the amount of literature produced on the Trojan War is just overwhelming. If I remember right, it was something like half of all ancient Greek literature, not even counting the Romans and Shakespeare and Chaucer. How this will all be crammed into a 2 hour film I shudder to think about.

I’ve always thought the Trojan War would be very difficult to transfer into a movie. For one thing the subject is much too vast for a 2 hour film. For another thing it will be difficult for modern audiences, as there is no discernible “good guy” or “bad guy”. In some ancient works, the reader is made to feel sympathetic for the Greeks. In other ancient works, the reader feels sympathy for the Trojans (in the latter case usually works by Roman authors, since the Romans believed themselves to be descended from the survivors of Troy). In the hands of most authors, the reader feels sympathy for both the heroes of Greece and of Troy. It is a story that can not easily be made into the standard “sword and sandal” epic.

I do think that “The Iliad” if done right, could have been a good film, because the focus of the story isn’t the about justness of the war as much as it is about the conflict of egos in the Greek camp and the parallel quarreling of the gods in Olympus. But “The Iliad” deals with only a few months during the 10 year war, including neither the beginning or the end of the war. It is asking a lot of audiences to be dropped into the middle of the war, and then to finish the movie without a conclusion.

Perhaps, like Tolkien’s works, Troy should have been made into a Trilogy. There would certainly have been enough material to do it. But I’ll wait and see what happens with the new movie.

Video Version Kill Bill 2

Video Version The Passion of the Christ

Video Version Troy

Golden Week
It is now what is known as “Golden Week” in Japan, a string of 4 national holidays in the space of about a week that, depending on how they fall in relation to the weekend, usually represent the most consecutive time off that the overworked Japanese employee has in a year.

Plane tickets, hotel reservations, and even karaoke booths sky rocket in price during this week. Expressways are jammed packed, and tourist areas are flooded with people. For this reason, Golden Week is considered the worst possible time to travel in Japan. One the other hand, it is a lot of time off of work that everyone wants to make the most of.

True to form, I have once again failed to make any plans, and somewhat let Golden Week get away from me. I made a half-assed inquiry into going up to Tokyo. (I know I was just up there, but that was for a meeting, and I still have yet to truly “do Tokyo” as a tourist). But when I heard a couple reports of how crowded and expensive Tokyo was during Golden Week, I quickly shied away from the idea.

A number of my JET friends from the area were going on a cycling tour of the Island of Shikoku, but as I don’t have a functioning bike at the moment, I had to give that a pass. Other friends are doing various other activities, but I have just ended up with a lot of time on my hands.

In retrospect maybe I should have just bit the bullet, fought the crowds and paid the money, and opted to go sight seeing somewhere. On the other hand, I made the mistake of getting on the express way yesterday, and had to wait in a huge traffic jam with all the cars trying to go to Beppu (the local tourist destination in Oita), and I thought then that maybe I had made the right decision to lay low.

I got a call from Randy (a friend in Oita city) the other day, asking what I was doing for Golden Week. I initially paused, unsure if I wanted to admit it. “Actually this is going to sound a little bit pathetic…” I started out.

“But you’re not doing anything,” Randy finished for me. “Yeah, neither am I. I was thinking about getting together everybody who’s still around and organizing a camping trip. Would you be interested?” I responded that yes, I was. “Okay, great. Also some of us are getting together on Saturday night to go see ‘Kill Bill 2’.”

“Oh, really? I didn’t realize that was out in Japan already.”

“Have you not seen the first one?”

“No, I’ve seen the first one. I just didn’t realize the second one was out already. Yeah, I’d be interested in seeing that with you guys.”

So on Saturday night I went to see the movie with Randy and 4 other friends. The others were all Japanese friends from Oita city, people I consider myself good friends with, and can’t remember their names.

I’ve always been pretty terrible with names, but in Japan my problems are magnified. In America everyone had a name I was familiar with, it was just a matter of remembering which name went with which face. In Japan, each name represents a series of syllables which have to be remembered in correct order, and then matched to a face.

I was one of the first to arrive at the theater, where I saw of the Japanese friends waiting. I then began one of those awkward situations where I had to initiate and carry on a conversation, all the while trying to dance around the fact that I couldn’t remember her name and didn’t know how to address her. She asked me what I was doing for Golden Week. I responded that I had no plans yet, but I was sure I would think of something. “But there are only four days left,” she said astonished. I just shrugged. We looked at the movie posters and talked about what movies we wanted to see until the rest of the group arrived.

After buying the movie tickets, we had some time to kill so we all went to a neighboring restaurant to get a bit of food. I was in a mood where I didn’t particularly feel like speaking Japanese, so I focused in on Randy for English conversation.

“What did you do today?” Randy asked me.

“Absolutely nothing,” I shot right back, hitting the table to emphasize.

“You know people always say that,” Randy commented. “But what exactly does it mean when you say you did absolutely nothing? Surely you must have been doing something all day.”

I smiled. He was going to sorry he asked that. “Well, I slept in until about 11ish. I took a rather long and leisurely shower. I studied Japanese a bit. Then I walked down to the local supermarket to buy something to eat. I walked back. I made a half-assed attempt at doing some cleaning. I did some exercise.”

“You exercise?”

“Ah, just some push-ups and stuff.”

“Do you do that regularly?”

“I’d like to but I can never keep with it. The spirit is willing but the body is weak.” I paused to consider whether I had used that expression correctly, since in this instance the weak spirit seemed perhaps more to blame. Randy jumped in again while I was thinking.

“Did you ever exercise regularly?” he asked.

“Yeah, I was pretty good about it in University, but the circumstances were different then.”

“Yeah, there’s probably no weight room you can go to in Ajimu,” Randy commented.

“That is definitely a factor. But also the schedule doing University is very conducive to exercise. You have a class in the morning, a class in the afternoon, and a couple hours in between where you have nothing better to do but go to the gym. After working the whole day, it’s a bit different. When you finish work, the last thing you feel like doing is exercise.”

Randy agreed. “When I finish a hard day of work I just want to go home and relax.”

“Even if you don’t work that hard, just the fact that you are at work all day takes something out of you. Even when I barely do anything all day, I hate exercising after work.” Having made my point, I attempted to return to my narrative about doing nothing all day. Randy had asked the question, and he was mistaken if he thought he could get me off topic now. “Anyway, where was I? After I did a bit of exercise, I tried cleaning again but ended up just reading the books that I had just bought.”

“Do you buy a lot of books?”

“I try not to on principle because there is a library I can go to, but every once and a while it is nice to just buy a book. I was in Forus department on Thursday and I bought a couple of books that had just been staring at me for a long time.”

“Really, what books?”

“One I don’t remember the name of, but it is about an American gangster in Japan. Perhaps you’ve seen it at Forus yourself?” Getting no response, I just moved on. “The other was called, “The Two Koreas”, which is a history of Korea. It’s really interesting, I’m almost finished already.”

“It’s a history of Korea?”

“Well, since the division really. Fascinating reading. For instance you know Kim Dae Jung? The President of South Korea until a couple years ago?” I just got a blank face, so I launched into my monologue anyway. “I had no idea what a fascinating life the guy had lead. Do you know they call him the Nelson Mandela of South Korea because he spent so much of his life in and out of jail before he finally became President.”

“Really?” I could tell he wasn’t interested, but I tried to press on anyway.

“Yeah, in fact he was once kidnapped in Tokyo in 1972 by the South Korean government. South Korea was a dictatorship at the time, and Kim Dae Jung had been criticizing it in exile from Japan, and so they kidnapped him, and Japan was furious that it’s sovereignty had been violated, especially since it had been violated by the Koreans, right? And it looked like it was going to be a huge international incident, so the US ambassador told the South Koreans that there would be serious consequences with the US relations unless Kim Dae Jung turned up alive, so the next day he was released outside his apartment.” I was eager to share all the fascinating details of this book, but figured I had pushed this as far as I could in the face of blatant disinterest. “I guess you have to be a bit of history buff like I am to really get into that stuff though,” I admitted. “What kind of books do you like?”

“I like history, but I like to learn it from stories more, like a novel set in the past,” Randy said.

I still had more boring details from my day of “doing nothing” to share, but decided to I had proved my point, and moved on to a different subject. “I noticed that “The Passion of Christ” is now playing here. I didn’t know that had opened in Japan yet.”

“I think it just opened,” Randy answered.

“Have you been reading about the controversy it has been causing back in the U.S.?” I asked.

At this point our Japanese friend Hanae, who was sitting on my other side, jumped into the conversation. Hanae’s English is very good, but for some reason she seems to prefer speaking in Japanese. I, on the other hand, can understand most of Hanae’s Japanese, but often prefer to shoot back my responses in English rather than struggling to formulate sentences in another language. Thus our conversations tend to have both of us talking in our native language and just assuming we are being understood by the other.

Hanae said in Japanese that in the U.S. some people had died from shock after viewing “The Passion” because of the film’s graphic nature. I hadn’t heard this, and in fact was somewhat skeptical of the claim, but decided not to challenge it. “I was thinking more of claims that the film is anti-semantic.”

Of course I meant anti-Semitic, but I always get those two words mixed up. I briefly confused Randy. “Uh, that means anti-Jew, right?”

“Yeah. Lots of people have been claiming the film is anti-Jewish, so I’d be curious to see it just so I could form my own opinion on it. I’ve been holding off on developing an opinion until I could see it for myself.” I stopped and there was no response from Randy. I was once again embarking down a path of conversation that was of interest to me only, but wanted to finish my line of thought. “Apparently the film contains the ‘blood curse’ from the bible.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s where Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ blood, and says let it be on the heads of Jews, and the Jews answer ‘let it be on our head and on our children’s head’. Now I’m sure Mel Gibson would argue that he is only following the Bible, but I would argue that he should have left that part out of the film. Especially if he cut out other parts of the story. Which I’m almost certain he must have. I mean you can’t fit everything in, so you have to cut some stuff out, and if you do that, then you undermine the argument for including the blood curse. So I’d like to watch the movie with a critical eye and see what he included and what he didn’t include.”

I then let the subject drop at that, since it was clear I was the only one interested. The food came shortly there after. Randy discovered that he had mistakenly ordered a pizza with meat on it. Being a vegetarian, he tried to send it back, but I thought it was a crime to waste a pizza, and said I would eat it in addition to my dish. To further my unhealthy eating habits, I was the only one at the table who ordered a desert and a coffee afterwards, but we had the time to do it, and the other didn’t seem to mind waiting.

We went into the theater and found our seats. While waiting for the movie, I was playing with my cell phone when I happened to notice the date on it. “Hey, it’s May Day today!” I turned to make sure Randy had heard me. “Did you realize it is May Day today?”

“Now what exactly is May Day” he asked.

“I launched into my history of May Day. Hanae, interjecting in Japanese, supplemented much of what I was saying. May Day is an ironic holiday in that it originated in the United States, but is now celebrated almost everywhere else BUT the U.S. Japan is included that “everywhere else”. May Day is usually a day for Unions to have parades, or bazaars of some sort.

Randy, a Hawaiian native, said that in Hawaii May Day is also celebrated, but he had previously had no idea why or where it came from. He said in Hawaii a common expression was, “May Day is lay day.” I assumed this was referring to the Hawaiian wreathes placed on tourists. As the movie started, it occurred to me there might be a different meaning, but with the movie underway it was too late to ask for clarification.

Video Version The Passion of the Christ