Friday, July 09, 2004

Junior High School Drinking Party
I was in invited out Friday by the teachers at Fukami Junior High School to go to an "enkai" or drinking party.

A Brief Explanation
I noted in a previous entry that Japan is a gift giving culture. I should add to that Japan is also a drinking culture. Even though I knew it was coming, when I first arrived this was a bit of a shock. At 23 I was still getting used to the idea that it was perfectly legal for me to drink. Then I came to Japan and discovered that drinking to the point of intoxication was not only socially acceptable but encouraged.
Work related drinking parties are considered important for bonding with co-workers, and occur several times through out the year. Since I don't have a base school, I usually only get invited to the Board of Education drinking parties.
Which is cool, nothing against the Board of Education. They're all super nice people, and I enjoy spending time with them. But since the BOE is mostly old men, sometimes I wish I got invited to the school parties more. Many of the teachers at the schools are close to my age (in fact now that I'm 26, some of them are even younger than me), and the gender is bit more even.
I suspect the only reason I was invited this time is because it is getting close to my departure. The drinking party was supposed to mark the end of a research project (don't ask me for details) the school had been doing, but at the last moment they decided to make it a send off party for me as well. Since I get along well with all the teachers at Fukami, I was happy to receive this invitation.
Oh, except I don't like drinking. Minor detail.
I'm not opposed to it per se. I'm not against it on religious or moral grounds. I'll certainly have the odd beer when I'm at Tropicoco's. But after some youthful experimentation, I've just decided I'm not a big drinker. Don't like the taste of it all that much. And I don't like getting drunk. Some people don't. I especially don't like drinking and trying to speak Japanese at the same time.
Many JETs claim they are able to speak Japanese better when they are drunk, and a lot of Japanese people certainly seem to have improved English abilities when drinking. But I guess different people are wired up in different ways, because once I begin to feel the alcohol cloud my mind, I really struggle to spit out Japanese sentences. I feel like I'm swimming upstream (forgive the metaphor), and in the end feel tired and un- talkative and not that much fun.
Although some of the women get away with not drinking, it seems to be bad form for the men to not walk away slightly intoxicated. I try get away with drinking only what seems to be the bear minimum for politeness.
It's a bit tricky. I would go in and say, "Right, I'm only going to have 2 beers or so." But the problem is your glass is constantly getting refilled before you have a chance to finish it, so it is hard to keep track of how much you're really drank. So I go with a more subjective measurement. I try and stop drinking when I begin to feel the effects of the alcohol. Which is a fine line to navigate. Especially with the harder stuff, the Japanese Sake and Shotchu, the effect can be a bit delayed, and sometimes I end up going a little farther down the line than I was planning too.

The Bus Ride
As this was a drinking party, no one drove their own cars. We met at the town hall and rode in a bus together.
The bus had barely started when someone asked me the question that I hate. "What are you going to do when you go home in August?"
I gave my usually response, "I'm going to become vice-president of the United States."
"Why not president?"
Actually the real reason I always said "Vice-president" was because I got it from a Simpsons comic book I read in 7th grade. Bart was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he answered either the guy who fishes change out of the pool at the miniature golf place, or Vice-President.
It was a throw away joke of course, the obvious humor being the contrast between the two occupations. But the reason I still remember it all these years later is that I thought there was real humor in the subtlety. Everyone says they want to be President. When Bart said he wanted to be Vice-President, it implied that he had actually put some thought into it and that he was seriously considering it, instead of just spouting off a randomly ambitious job. I thought that was pretty funny, so I always answer Vice-President now.
Of course it ruins the joke when someone asks me to explain why not President. I guess in all fairness, it is the logical follow up question, but over the 3 years I've been using this line, I've never come up with a good answer to this. But recently current events have helped out a bit.
"The Presidential nominees have already been decided. But they haven't picked a vice-president yet." (Remember this was on Friday).
"Who would you be Vice-President for: Bush or Kerry?"
"Of course Kerry. I hate Bush." The bus broke into applause. Anyone how has been abroad in the past 4 years knows that Bush is not very popular in other countries, and Japan is no exception.
I have developed a reputation among the other foreigners, much like I had back home, of someone who is always spouting his mouth off about politics. But when I'm interacting with Japanese people, I find myself often avoiding politics. The conversation, I think mainly due to the language barrier, stays very simple and can often get self-congratulatory. And it can start to feel patronizing. The Japanese person will start telling me how awful Bush is, and how important peace is, and how I'm such a good American for being against Bush.
As was the case this time. I was showered with praise from the teacher sitting next to me. "Oh, isn't that wonderful," she said to the people around her. "He's an American, but he doesn't like Bush. Bush is really awful, isn't he? If only more Americans were concerned about peace like he is." Yeah, see what I mean. I start to feel a bit embarrassed. So I changed the subject.
"I really enjoyed your class the other day," I said. I have started sitting in on other classes recently. The teacher in question was a Japanese literature teacher, so the previous day I had sat in on one of her classes. The class was about a Japanese novel in which the author was writing about his little brother, who died during World War II. The title of the novel was "He never became an adult." I had never read this story, but I enjoyed listening to her talk about the book. I said the book sounded interesting, and I would like to read it some day, and she recommended several other books to me.

The Party
We arrived at the restaurant. After the opening speeches, congratulating everyone for working so hard during the research project, and a brief nod of the head to me acknowledging that I was leaving soon, the party began. At first people stayed in there assigned seats, but after a while people begin to move around and chat to others around the table.
Another teacher asked me what sort of things I wanted as souvenirs to take back to America. I answered things like Japanese music, or movies; stuff to help me remember Japanese pop culture. Then she asked me what kind of things surprised me when I first came to Japan.
"There were so many," I replied.
"Then just give me your top 3."
When I first came to Japan, so many things surprised me. But after 3 years, a lot of these things have faded into the background, and it is almost becoming difficult to remember which things really shocked me when I first arrived. I struggled to come up with 3.
The first one I guess was pretty obvious. "The Onsens". An Onsen is a traditional Japanese public bath. I remember the first time I went to one of these with my supervisor from the board of education. We went into the locker room, and I was feeling slightly shy about getting naked in front of a co-worker, but I changed into my bathing suit as fast as I could. Then I got a strange look from my supervisor. "What are you doing? We don't wear bathing suits in the Onsen." It was then I learned to my great surprise that everyone goes into the baths together naked. I couldn't believe I had been taken to such a strange place. But since then I've been to so many Onsens, it is hard to believe that I was shocked at first.
The teacher nodded understandably when I told her this. "You don't have Onsens in America, do you?"
"No. I was a bit shy about getting into the tub naked with everyone else at first."
"What else in Japan surprised you?"
Again I thought for minute, and answered that was surprised by the availability and social accepted ness of pornography. Which was absolutely true, that really did surprise me. At the same time though, I wondered if bringing up this topic was acceptable conversation in mixed company. A thought floated through my mind. "I wonder if I would have said that if I hadn't been drinking."
But the teacher seemed to understand, and said that she thought it was a big problem. She then when on to talk about the problem with teenage prostitution in Japan, and said it she thought it was linked to the culture of pornography. To illustrate her point, she asked, "You don't have the same problem in America, do you?"
We do and we don't. I had a difficult time qualifying my answer with my limited Japanese. Of course there is prostitution in every country, and I would venture to guess that a certain percentage of the prostitutes in America are probably under-age. But it is not really the same as in Japan. In Japan the problem is just bizarre.
Middle class girls from good families will often sleep with older men not because they need the money, but because they like receiving gifts and want to be able to buy all the latest fashion. I tried to explain that I thought this aspect of underage prostitution was unique to Japan. But I tried to soften what I was saying by adding, "Of course every country has its own problems. It is just that you don't notice the problems in your own country because you become so used to them. When you go to another country, you tend to notice the problems more. But America has lots of problems to." We then talked for a while about the high violent crime rate in America, compared to the virtually non-existent violent crime rate in Japan.
I stumbled a bit when asked to come up with a 3rd thing about Japan that had really surprised me. I ended up answering the school uniforms had surprised me. "But didn't you know Japanese students had uniforms?" the teacher asked.
Yeah I suppose I did. But I didn't know they would look so silly. "Like the girl's uniform," I explained. "Why does it look like a sailor's suit? They're not in the navy, they're students. Why are they wearing sailor suits?"
The teacher just smiled and nodded at this one. I could see I was on my own for this last observation.

Another teacher, after a few drinks, wanted to talk to me about the situation in Iraq. "Why does America like war so much?" he asked me.
I get asked this question a lot in Japan. And I never really know how to answer it. Sometimes I go into my speech about how the news coverage in America is different from the news in Japan, so Americans don't often think about the consequences of the wars they fight. But often I just have to admit there is no simple answer, as I did this time. I just shrugged and said, "I really don't know."

After the Party
At the end of the dinner, we all sang the Fukami Junior High School song. (Well, not all of us. There was at least one American who just mumbled the words). And then we got back on the bus, and headed back to the town hall.
Those of us who lived in walking distance from the town hall were just dropped off there. Which turned out to be me, the principle, the vice-principle, and one other teacher. I was back with the old men.
We started walking to the next bar. At one point the vice-principle pointed to the side of the road and remarked, "There used to be a movie theater there."
I couldn't believe there had ever been a movie theater in Ajimu. I opened my mouth to ask him if he was serious, but the other teacher beat me to the question. "Really? There was a movie theater here?"
"Yes, when I was a boy."
"Was this before the war?"
"What! How old do you think I am?"
So the others were just as shocked as I was to learn there had once been a movie theater in Ajimu. I have heard that the countryside areas in Japan have been rapidly depopulating the past 50 years as all the young people have been pouring into the city, so I suppose 30 or 40 years ago, Ajimu might have had enough people in it to support a movie theater.
What I wouldn't give for a time machine to be able to go back and see what things looked like back then. Back when there were enough people in the countryside areas to have a real living town, instead of these retirement communities the countryside has become. And back before there were all these pointless construction projects everywhere. Life in the countryside must have been pretty idyllic back then. I often try and imagine what it must have been like.
Perhaps that is why I like old music so much. It offers a glimpse into what life was like before you were born. I like to listen to the cheesy pop tunes of Japan from the early 60s, and try and imagine what the country must have looked like back then. With some of the really classically dated sounding stuff, like the Japanese version of "Do the Locomotion", I can perfectly visualize night time in the countryside, the whole family watching the new music show on the black and white TV, Grandpa yelling to turn in down in the other room, and the cicadas chirping outside.
We went into a small bar. There was nobody there of course besides the owner. This is the countryside after all. We sat down, and they asked me what I wanted to drink.
It had been a while since the last beer. Also I think the green tea that I drank at the end of the party had helped to clear up my head. I didn't want to cloud it up again. I asked if they had any cola.
"Cola?" the principle asked indignantly. "Cola? Here," he poured me a cup of warm sake, "Japanese cola." I smiled politely and drank it.
As the 3 others began talking rapidly among themselves, I started to feel excluded from the conversation. The news was playing on the TV in the corner, so I started watching that. There was a news segment on the leader of the Japanese Communist Party, and how he was becoming popular with young people lately because of his opposition to sending Japanese troops to Iraq. The JCP official himself looks like a real geek, a typical middle-aged Japanese man in a business suit with a fat face and thick glasses. But the news showed him at peace rallies, and showed all the young people eager to meet him, and girls giggling nervously when they talked to him.
Although the communist party has always been marginalized nationally, I read once that it was popular in the countrysides. This appears to be true in Ajimu since the whole town is covered with posters for the Communist Party. But it is hard to tell. Does this mean the Communist Party has a lot of support, or that its few supporters have a lot of posters? I decided to test the waters and see how much support he had in this bar.
"Is that man very popular in Japan," I asked, forcing myself back into the conversation. They stopped whatever they were talking about briefly, looked up at the TV for a second, then mumbled something I didn't really catch, and then resumed their conversation. Clearly they were busy talking about something else.
A short while later the principle got a phone call from his wife, and left the bar, leaving enough money to cover everyone's tab. Taking this as my cue that it was okay to go, I excused myself shortly after and headed home.

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