Sunday, October 30, 2005

And While I'm Being Cranky...

Back when I lived in Grand Rapids, I used to love reading the “Letters to the editor” in the public pulse section of the Grand Rapids Press. Most of them were so moronic that they were interesting.

Well, there are stupid people everywhere, because the “Letters to the editor” section of the Japan Times often contains the same level of deep thinking. There are plentiful examples to choose from, but I just happened to be reading this one today. Check out this little gem:

My heart goes out to the victims of the recent killer earthquake in northern Pakistan. I hope that international aid agencies work together to provide succor to the survivors. On a cynical note, however, I also hope that Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts got buried in their rat holes following the quake. If this indeed happened (although proving it would be next to impossible), then there would at least be one positive aspect to this tragedy.” From Ami S. in Tokyo, etc.

Have you ever heard thoughts on the Pakistan earthquakes so eloquently expressed? We should all do our part to help the Pakistan victims by writing letters like this.

As with the usual fare in the Grand Rapids Press, what amazes me isn’t so much that someone thought this up, as that they actually thought this would benefit other people to read, and went through the trouble of typing this up and sending it in. I would love to see the stack of letters that newspapers deem “too banal for publication.”

I usually think that if you have something original, unique or insightful to say, and you think that these thoughts would serve to educate or enlighten the readers of the paper, by all means write in a letter. But if you are just venting about how terrible the earthquake is or what a rat Osama is, then that is what blogs were created for.

Okay, as Phil would say: “I’m done being a dick now

One interesting thing I did learn from the “Letters to the Editor” was a reference to this article: “Biased history helps feed U.S. fascination with Pearl Harbor” By Charles Burress. It was very interesting reading. You can read it here. Or, for more fun, you can read it on the Free Republic, complete with intelligent conservative commentary at the end.

Link of the day
I don’t know if this has been news back in the US, but it pops up every once in a while in the papers over here:

It appears that the country of Korea was originally spelled with a “C”. When Japan colonized Korea, they changed the spelling to a “K” so that Korea would not precede Japan in the Olympic procession. (Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the extent of human evil).

Some activists in Korea are eager to change the spelling back to the original “C” but it would be a huge expense to change every single government document and sign, so it doesn’t look like it is going to happen anytime soon.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Adventures in Audio Books

As I've mentioned before on this weblog, I’m a big fan of audio books, because it allows me to get through a lot of books I wouldn't otherwise take the time to read.

For instance, I don’t think I would ever sit down and read the “Harry Potter” series, but I've really been enjoying listening to it. Harry Potter is the perfect kind of book to listen to. I would almost feel guilty for taking the time to read a children’s book like this, but if I’m listening to it while I’m doing other things it really is a delight.

(PS—If you want a good laugh, watch this video of someone who crashes a Harry Potter book release to ruin the ending of the latest Harry Potter book. The clip starts out a bit slow, but it has a brilliant finish. Along with “World Warcraft with Leroy” this has got to be one of my favorite Ifilm clips. I suppose you could argue both reflect on my unique sense of humor..)

The only problem with audio books is they are expensive. In good old Grand Rapids, I was a big fan of the library. In Japan, the options are a bit limited. A friend did me a huge favor and illegally downloaded all the Harry Potter books off the internet for me. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone). The only big problem is that they are Window files, so I can’t listen to them on my CD player. Instead I have just been taking them with me into the internet cafĂ© to accompany my internet surfing, but unfortunately that does cut into my “NPR time”.

The other option is of course book trades, and this especially is where I have been exposing myself to a lot of material I wouldn't otherwise. For instance, a friend had “Ronald Reagan’s Autobiography” on CD, read by the Gipper himself. Not something I would have spent my own money on, but it was interesting to listen to in my apartment.

It is of course the prerogative of every politician to write self-serving autobiographies. So I don’t begrudge Reagan the fact that he continually harps on his belief in the importance of cutting government programs, without presenting the other side that a lot of those programs provide helpful services to those in need. After all it’s Reagan’s autobiography, and it’s his chance to toast his own platform.

What gets me more is the blatant lying. Like when he talks about Nicaragua. Much as he did during his presidency, he portrays the Contras as freedom fighters, and the Sandinistas as ruthless dictators. And he claims anyone who disagreed with him during the 80s was proven wrong by the election of 1990.

Right, so the fact that the Sandinistas voluntarily left power after losing a democratic election proves that they were ruthless dictators? Those ruthless bastards! How dare they lose an election! That proves Reagan was right about them the whole time. I would hate to imagine what Reagan would have said about them if they won the election. “See, they still have their strangle hold on power. It just proves they're dictators.”

And of course the autobiography has a lot of noticeable omissions. Like the complete absence of any mention of Iran-Contra, or Reagan’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act.

The same friend who loaned me Reagan’s autobiography recently bought “How to think like a billionaire” by Donald Trump, and “How to find joy and meaning in your work” by the Dali Lama. He asked me which one I would be interested in borrowing first.

“What does the Dali Lama know about a hard days work?” I asked. “I’ll borrow the Donald Trump one.” I don’t want to be a billionaire necessarily (well, I do I guess, but I don’t want to work for it), but I've been reading a lot of books on finance recently, (I’m trying to do better on managing my money, something that has never been a strong point of mine), and I figured the Donald Trump book would fit right in.

Boy is that Donald Trump guy an asshole. I didn't learn a single useful thing from his book. The whole thing is just him talking about how great he is. And I mean the whole book is like that.

In fact, almost every paragraph contains in it something that evokes the memory of Monty Burns writing his autobiography. “In closing, dear reader, I would like to thank you. ‘What’s that?’ you say. A misprint? Me thank you? Yes, for you see, I have enjoyed writing this book almost as much as you have enjoyed reading it.” I’m quoting from memory, but it’s something like that, isn't it?

That, added to the fact that the guy who they got to read the book for the CD sounds amazingly like Troy McClure, makes the book an excellent parody of itself. Once I clued into that, I really enjoyed it a lot more.

(Donald Trump talks about “The Apprentice” a lot, which I've never seen, because I've been in Japan the past four years. Maybe I would have gotten more out of the book if I had seen “The Apprentice”.)

Link of the Day
Let’s get really geeky here for a minute by talking about “Star Trek” in depth. Star Trek actually has a strong fan following in Japan. Justin and Chris, if either of you are reading this, might remember the long conversation we had with Issei about Star Trek, at the close of which he remarked how glad he was that he had finally gotten the chance to talk about Star Trek with a foreigner.

And of course, there is the Japanese tie-in with Ensign Sulu from the original series.

The problem, and in all my years of being a Trekkie I never realized this until I came to Japan, is that there is no “L” in the Japanese alphabet. So “Sulu” cannot possibly be a Japanese name.

It turns out, according to this website, that the character Sulu is actually a Japanese-Filipino person who was raised in the San Francisco, hence the name. I guess, given my years of watching “Star Trek”, it’s kind of embarrassing that I didn't know that. Then again, maybe it would have been more embarrassing if I knew it.

Of course, given Japan’s historic antagonism with virtually every other Asian country, you can imagine that the idea of a Filipino-Japanese pan-Asian sort of character would not be too popular in Japan during the 60s. So they renamed the character “Kato” for the Japanese version. (Again, referencing the same website as above). This explains why Issei could talk to me about Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, but would just give me blank looks whenever I mentioned Sulu.

So there. Use that little tidbit at your next cocktail party.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Thoughts on Marx

(Geek Warning: I go on about things probably of interest only to me)

Like many other “leftist wannabes” I’ve tried reading Marx before but got scared off by the heavy philosophy. “Communist Manifesto” was a struggle to get through. I didn’t even try “Das Kapital.”

But the Gifu Prefectural Library has collections of Marx’s political writings (published by Penguin Classics). These are a lot different and easier to read than his philosophical writings. Depending, I suppose, on how your brain is wired. My brain has a hard time digesting philosophy, but the political and historical readings are very interesting, and pretty easy to read as well. I’m really having a hard time putting it down once I get into it.

It’s interesting to see a different side of Marx than the philosophical side we are so used to hearing about. In the political writings, he emerges as the “Noam Chomsky” of his day. Contrary to what most people believe, Marx wasn’t the first socialist. He didn’t invent Socialism or Communism. But he was able to express the ideas of the socialists and communists better than any of the other intellectuals of the time, much perhaps like Chomsky today.

I’ve recently been reading Marx’s writings on “The Franco-Prussian War” and “The Civil War in France” and it strikes me as extremely similar to Chomsky’s writings. Aside from the fact that one is history and one is current events, they could almost be interchangeable. Just like Chomsky does, Marx has an ability to cut very cleanly through the hypocrisy and expose the ridiculousness of whatever position he is arguing against, whether he is arguing against the Second Empire in France, the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany. When England was considering intervening in the US civil war on the side of the South, Marx was influential in organizing demonstrations against it. And, of all the things Marx got wrong, there is one passage where he predicts World War I with shocking accuracy way back in 1870.

“Whoever is not completely deafened by the clamour of the moment, or does not have an interest in deafening the German people, must realize that the war of 1870 is just as necessarily pregnant with a war between Germany and Russia as the war of 1866 was with the war of 1870. I say unavoidably except in the unlikely event of a prior outbreak of revolution in Russia If this unlikely event does not occur, then a war between Germany and Russia must be considered a fait accompli….If Alsace and Lorraine are taken, then France will later make war on Germany in conjunction with Russia. It is unnecessary to go into the unholy consequences.”

I suppose it is probably much easier just to illustrate by quotation than by explanation, so here are some of his arguments against the German expansion:

“They dare not pretend that the people of Alsace and Lorraine pant for the German embrace; quite the contrary. To punish their French patriotism, Strasbourg, a town with an independent citadel commanding it, has for six days been wantonly and fiendishly bombarded by ‘German’ explosive shell, setting it on fire, and killing great numbers of its defenseless inhabitants! Yet the soil of those provinces once upon a time belonged to the whilom German Empire. Hence it seems the soil and the human beings grown on it must be confiscated as imprescriptibly German property. If the map of Europe is to be remade in the antiquary’s vein, let us by no means forget that the Elector of Brandenburg, for his Prussian dominions, was the vassal of the Polish republic.

The more knowing patriots, however, require Alsace and the German-speaking part of Lorraine as a ‘material guarantee’ against French aggression. … But, in good faith, is it not altogether an absurdity and an anachronism to make military considerations the principle by which the boundaries of nations are to be fixed? If this rule were to prevail, Austria would still be entitled to Venetia and the line of the Mincio and France to the line of the Rhine, in order to protect Paris, which lies certainly more open to an attack from the north-east than Berlin does from the south-west. If limits are to be fixed by military interests, there will be no end to claims, because every military line is necessarily faulty, and may be improved by annexing some more outlying territory; and moreover, they can never be fixed finally and fairly, because they always must be imposed by the conqueror upon the conquered, and consequently carry within them the seeds of fresh wars….History will measure its retribution, not by the extent of the square miles conquered from France, but by the intensity of the crime of reviving, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the policy of conquest!

But, say the mouthpieces of Teutonic patriotism, you must not confound Germans with Frenchmen. What we want is not glory, but safety. The Germans are an essentially peaceful people. In their sober guardianship, conquest itself changes from a condition of future war into a pledge of perpetual peace. Of course, it is not Germans that invaded France in 1792, for the sublime purpose of bayoneting the Revolution of the 18th century. It is not Germans that befouled their hands by the subjugation of Italy, the oppression of Hungary, and the dismemberment of Poland. Their present military system, which divides the whole adult male population into two parts—one standing army on service, and another standing army on furlough, both equally bound in passive obedience to rulers by divine right—such a military system is, of course, a ‘material guarantee’ for keeping the peace, and the ultimate goal of civilizing tendencies! In Germany, as everywhere else, the sycophants of the powers that be poison the popular mind by the incense of mendacious self-praise.”

It goes on like that for several pages, but I think this serves as a good taste. After reading this, several thoughts spring to mind.

1). Marx wasn’t just sitting around waiting for the Revolution. He was involved and had opinions on contemporary events like international politics and the balance of power in Europe.

2). This is a lot different than the philosophical Marx most of us are used to, who goes on about abstract concepts and talks about confusing things like the relationship of capital to workers. Here is talking about very concrete easy to understand simple political concepts. And he’s sounding very reasonable and clear headed doing it.

3). And what’s more, he completely demolishes the other side here, doesn’t he? It’s hard to imagine anyone still being able to argue that Germany should be given the Alsace-Lorraine after reading this.

I don’t necessarily consider myself a Marxist, and I agree with the traditional Anarchist criticism that Marx’s philosophy of “dictatorship of the proletariat” led to some of the horrors in the Soviet Union. But man, did he ever kick the Bismarck’s ass in this essay.

Marx was always being asked to draft this or that resolution by this or that committee, and it’s easy to see why. He could argue very clearly and very convincingly. Just like we usually think to ourselves “I wonder what Noam Chomsky has to say on this or that…” so the 18th century radicals must have been eagerly awaiting Marx’s word on new political developments. Add to the fact that Marx himself was of German origin, and was arguing against his own native land, and the comparison between him and Chomsky becomes even more striking. (And both are secular Jews, although I suppose that’s really here nor there).

My point in bringing up all of that stuff is simply this: As Noam Chomsky advances in age, I hear a lot of people worry about what will happen to the movement after he’s gone. But it strikes me that every age has had a Noam Chomsky of some sort, and that undoubtedly someone else will rise to fill Chomsky’s shoes after he is gone.

For more Marx looking very Chomskyesque, be sure to check out "The Civil War in France"

Link of the Day
I suppose after giving all this time to Marx, I should probably link to some Anarchist stuff.

Bakunin also wrote a piece on the Paris Commune (Civil War in France), but, I hate to say this, its not near as good as Marx's piece.

There's a lot of stuff online these days about the Anarchist movement in Japan, but this article seems to be the most thorough.

And I'm sure most of you heard of the death last week of famous Chinese Anarchist Ba Jin.

Also, along the same lines of the video linked to last post, be sure to check out the following Aw Dude video:
This is a clear war crime, and one that begins with the commander's stated intent in the operations order. The pilot's exclamation of satisfaction, 'Aw dude!' at the end just underlines how this casual sadism comes to dominate the psyches of those who are part of a military occupation force, and how the ground reality become 'race war.'"

Monday, October 24, 2005

Nature's Wonders

The students in my 6th grade class are collecting insects for one of their science projects. I’m not exactly sure what the goal of the whole project is, but recently they have been busy collecting insects and other small animals during noon break. They put all of these in little plastic cages in the classroom.

Some of the insects don’t get along together too well. During cleaning time the Praying Mantis ate one of the ladybugs. I don’t know what it is about insects devouring each other that fascinates us boys, but the 12 year old inside of me thought it was the coolest thing ever. I called out to the other students. I had a temporary blank on the Japanese word for “Praying Mantis”, so it was a bit of a communication gap, but I called out:
“the lady bug is being eaten. The big green thing with the long arms is eating it. Hurry, you’re going to miss it.”

About 3 boys came running over. We watched the Praying Mantis munch away at what was left of the ladybug for a while, and then the homeroom teacher reminded the students that it was cleaning time.

Minutes later, the Praying Mantis started eating a frog. It was really interesting to watch. I wouldn’t have thought Praying Mantises ate frogs. I mean it was a small frog, but still…

The frog had been in the corner of the cage, and was trying to climb up. Maybe he thought it was a way out. The Praying Mantis was hanging upside down from the ceiling and watching the frog. At first it seemed afraid of the frog and would back up whenever the frog got too close. The frog didn’t even seem to take any notice of the Praying Mantis.

And then, when the frog was jumping up in the air, the Mantis reached out and grabbed it. There was a short struggle, and the Mantis twisted the frog’s body in several ways with its prongs. I thought this was the end of the frog, but it remained alive for a long time afterwards as the Mantis slowly ate it. From time to time the frog would get a fresh burst of energy and try to fry itself, or twist its legs around to try and push the Mantis’s head away. But each time the Mantis simply tightened its grip on the frog and continued eating. It seemed a bit cruel, but I figured this scene is played out thousands of times in nature everyday, so we didn’t intervene.

(I know I’m hardly the first person to say this, but nature is really violent, isn’t it? Makes you wonder about the true character of the universe a bit, doesn’t it?)

I called the boys over to see it. We watched the frog get eaten for a while, and then the homeroom teacher ordered the boys back to work cleaning. Every so often we would come back and check to see how the two were doing. It was really disgusting, and yet really cool to watch at the same time.

The following day, the cage was filled with six Praying Mantises, and we watched them eat each other

Update: The Japan times and me must be on the same page, because they have an article on how interesting it is to watch fall predators in Japan.

Link of the Day
I'm sure most of you have already heard about this, but here is a video of a U .S. Marine shooting and killing an injured, unarmed Iraqi insurgent in a Fallujah mosque. A must watch

Saturday, October 22, 2005

This Past Weekend

Some of the other ALTs in the area organized a sightseeing tour around Gifu city. I figured I had already seen all the sights, but I signed up anyway just for the social aspects.

And wouldn’t you know it? Rain all day. There seems to be a real pattern of rain on the weekends over here.

We were supposed to meet at the station. I followed my usual custom of getting free parking by parking at a supermarket far away from the station. So I arrived at the station late and with my pants (or I suppose I should say trousers) soaking wet. My upper body at least was protected by the umbrella.

Gifu is a city with a bit of history to it, but pretty much everything was flattened during the war. Most of the “historical” sites have been rebuilt since then. Most of the temples and castles in the area are just replicas. So it is a bit disappointing in that respect.

But we saw the usual stuff. Gifu Park is quite beautiful. There is “daibutsu” or a giant statue of Buddha. It’s not quite a big as the one in Nara, but it was still pretty damn big. I couldn’t help but imagine what would happen if it were struck by lightning and came to life and started terrorizing the town. When I voiced this concern, some people argued that a giant statue of Buddha would be inherently peaceful, but I believe that if giant statues suddenly came to life they would take on a personality of their own, and not simply imitate their likenesses. I’m open to debate on this issue though.

(BTW, the neighborhood I used to live in during the Ajimu days was called “daibutsu”. This led to a fair amount of confusion and bad jokes, that in addition to all the bad “Usa” Jokes. I used to tell people, “I live in Daibutsu”, and they would say “What? You live inside a giant Buddha?”…But, I suppose that’s neither here nor there.)

We also saw Cormorant fishing again. This makes the fourth time for me, although we watched it on the bank this time as opposed to paying money to ride in the boats.

Sunday I didn’t have any plans, so I climbed up the mountain to see Gifu castle on my own. As mentioned above, the castle itself is a replica, so it’s kind of disappointing, but it’s a nice hike, and a good view of the city from the top of the mountain. I think I’m really getting out of shape though, because I was really huffing and puffing on my way up that mountain, and there were all sorts of old men and little children who were doing the hike with ease.

Link of the Day
Justin puts a blog post about driving in Japan. I can really identify with a lot of this.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Halloween

There was an interesting article in the Daily Yomiuri (Japan based English newspaper) about how Halloween is becoming more and more of a global holiday. I don’t have the link, but the thrust of the article was that Asian countries, which don’t traditionally celebrate Halloween, are getting more and more interested in the holiday.

With the exception of Easter, most Western holidays have been imported to Japan in some form or another. Mostly in very superficial ways. For example in shopping malls and parks in Japan there are just as many Christmas decorations as back home (more sometimes), and yet Christmas itself is still a working day.

Without making any superficial comparisons between class A and class B, Halloween is much the same way. Lots of decorations up around Halloween time, but no one observes trick-or-treating or other Halloween traditions.

I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, or the fact that I’m now in a different area of Japan, but it does seem to me that recently there is a lot more interest in Halloween than there was in my first year, which would correlate with the Yomiuri article. I see a lot more decorations in stores now, and I’m being asked to coordinate Halloween into my October lessons more and more.

For instance last week we did a series of lessons on Halloween for the elementary school. We also did some demonstration lessons in front of a large group of other teachers.

(Because of the pilot program this year, we do a lot of demonstration lessons. I don’t like doing them because in the elementary school it’s necessary to jump around a lot and make a fool of myself to get the kids attention. This is hard for me to do when there are adults watching.)

Anyway, I was asked to wear a Halloween costume. I guess it was just assumed that because I was an American I had all sorts of Halloween costumes laying around in my closet.

I used to have a mask of President Bush which I used for Halloween, but I’m pretty sure I gave that away to someone when I left Oita. Just as well because it was the kind of mask that covered my whole face and muffled my voice, and I couldn’t really have taught a lesson in that thing anyway.

In junior high I used to dress up as the invisible man. I used to wear dark sunglasses, wrap my face in bandages, put on a hat, long coat, gloves, etc. Just like the invisible man from those old black and white movies.

I could have reconstructed that I suppose, but again it would have been hard to do a lesson dressed like that. So I decided that simple is best.

I already have a straw hat that could perhaps pass as a cowboy hat. I figured all I needed was a mask, and I was the lone ranger.

(My kids didn’t know who the Lone Ranger was of course, but the Principle and Vice-Principle and some of the older teachers got real nostalgic when I mentioned it. I guess back in the old days the Lone Ranger must have been very popular in Japan.)

With all the Halloween decorations in the stores these days (see above), I was fairly confident I would be able to find a simple eye mask with ease, but after an evening scouring all the stores with Halloween decorations, I couldn’t find anything useful.

So I ended up making my own. I cut a bandanna up into strips, put eyeholes in one of the strips, and tied it on.

It seemed like such a simple idea in theory, but you would be surprised how much trouble a little mask can cause sometimes. The thing would not stay steady on my face. It would move slightly up or down depending on my expression, and I constantly had to be adjusting it to avoid having the bandanna rub against my eyes. Rather embarrassing in a demonstration lesson to be always adjusting my costume when I was trying to teach.

After the first lesson I thought I just needed to make the eye wholes bigger. It turned into big raccoon type eye wholes, but that still didn’t stop the bandanna from sliding around on my face.
I still have a few more Halloween lessons to do before the month of October is over, so I might have to rethink this costume.

Link of the Day
More Links from Japan times: This article makes fun of Bush's idea that he gets his directions straight from God.

And here is an article that describes the origins of some of Japans more bizarre customs.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Ups and Downs

A lot of people who have been reading this blog often say to me, “Boy, sounds like you’re not doing too well in Japan.”

My standard response is, “I have good days and bad days. The bad days tend to make it onto the blog a lot more.”

In fact even within a typical day, I have a lot of ups and downs. I realize that’s probably typical of life in any situation.

Anyway, I thought I’d present a day in the life as a case in point of the ups and downs.

This past Tuesday I was at the elementary school. We’ve begun teaching about Halloween, which is always a lot of fun.

My supervisor came to observe me, and I suppose it goes without saying that no one likes to be observed. But what I really like about my company is that I don’t feel that they’re trying to crack down on me with the observations, only offer helpful suggestions.

For instance, being an “Assistant Language Teacher”, especially at the elementary schools, usually involves a lot of energy and jumping up and down and being dramatic in front of the class. This isn’t always me, and so often I feel bad that I have one of the easiest jobs in the world, and I still can’t do it very well.

But my supervisor focused on my strengths. “Schools want an ALT who can do everything and take over the whole lesson, but none of us are trained teachers.” (I actually have a degree in secondary history education, but not a lot of that carries over to ESL in elementary schools). “The important thing,” he said, “is just to bring what you can to the lesson. For instance you went around to all of the tables to talk to the kids, and interacted with them very well. And you looked like you were having fun doing it. Are you sure you want to leave in March?”

And all of a sudden I thought to myself: yeah, I was having a lot of fun. Maybe I do have another year left in me. And then the thought passed. “No, it’s a great job, but it’s time to go home,” I said. “Come March it will be almost 5 years in Japan.”

The rest of the day was pretty good. Once the observation lesson was over, I felt relieved and I could really get into the other lessons. Noon hour was a lot of fun playing with the kids. They always all swarm forward and hug me. I was a little squeamish about this because a lot of them have dirty hands or runny noses, but in the end if you work in an elementary school you just have to learn to ignore that stuff. Some of the kids wanted me to go to the library and read to them in English. I did that for a while, but I had also promised some of the 2nd grade students I would play soccer with them, so I left the library early.

I did get a few kanchos, as I do every time I go to the elementary school. I tried to deal with it sternly. I grabbed the kids and made them apologize them to me in English before I let them go. But Kanchos are like runny noses and dirty hands…It’s just something you have to deal with in an elementary school.

I kept busy most of the day, which I guess is good. It’s usually only when I have too much time to think that I get really depressed about how I’m wasting my life away in Japan.

It was only during 6th period, when I joined the sports club for a game of dodge ball, that my thoughts began to wonder. One of the reasons I never became a great athlete (aside from my utter lack of coordination, or athletic ability of course) is my inability to concentrate on sports. It just never has been able to hold my interest. I always use to find my thoughts wandering in PE class when I was a student, and it’s the same now.

As the dodgeballs flew past me, I began to reflect on how I was 27 years old now, and began to think of all the people who had done great things already by the time they were my age. The French Revolution was largely conducted by men in their mid-twenties. But then I let the thought go. Even if I wasn’t in Japan, I’m probably not the kind of person who would be doing great things anyway. I can barely run my own life.

After school I went back to my apartment. I thought about doing some push-ups or something. I’ve been trying to do more exercise lately. I’ve been getting out of shape recently, and my junior high school students and co-workers have even begun commenting on the gut I’m developing.

(Personally I don’t think it’s that bad. I think all the attention on my stomach is due to:
1) The fact that Japanese people are very skinny. If I were back in America no one would look twice.
2) I’ve gotten out of shape since I got to this school, and people, Japanese people especially, notice physical changes. If I had come into the school with the gut already, no one would have said anything.)

Anyway, I did a half-assed attempt at exercised, then began to feel lonely in my empty apartment. I called up a few friends. No one was around, so I just drove 30 minutes into Gifu city and went to the local Starbucks with a notebook to keep me company.

One thing I love about Japan: If you go to the right places, you’re sure to meet people you know. A place like Starbucks is a magnate for foreigners. I don’t know why because there are plenty of other coffee shops around, but I guess we all feel attracted to places that look familiar.

And it’s very easy to make friends. All of us foreigners have a feeling of being in this together, and everyone is usually pretty friendly. The ease with which social life comes together is another thing I’m going to miss about Japan.

I ordered a chocolate Rhumba, my usual order. I’m still not sure what it is exactly, but it has a lot of chocolate and whip cream and I think a bit of caffeine as well. I had barely sat down, when a couple of girls in high school uniforms walked in the door, and one of them began waving at me excitedly.

One of them was a former student who had graduated junior high school last March. I don’t usually expect to run into my students in Gifu city, but selecting a high school in Japan is like college in the US. They don’t automatically go to the school in the neighborhood; they can apply to any high school they like. Most of them stayed local, but some of them went to school around Gifu city.

The other girl was a new friend my student had made at the new high school. They were both very excited to see me, and came over to talk.

At the risk of sounding like I have a fragile ego (and I do), I really enjoy the “Charisma Man” popularity that being in Japan gives to me. They were so overjoyed to see me. It’s good to feel popular sometimes.

That being said, they did overstay their welcome somewhat. I deliberately avoided offering them a seat, because I thought they would just talk to me for a few minutes and go off by themselves. Instead, they ended up bringing their drinks over to my table and helping themselves to a seat. They stayed for over 3 hours (I checked my watch afterwards), and during that time I was slightly uncomfortable because people I knew were coming in and out of the Starbucks, and the last thing I needed was for people to think I was trying to chat up these high school girls. Maybe at some point I should have said suggested they move on to another table, but I couldn’t think of a polite way to do it. Near the end of the time, I managed to call my friend Adam over to our table to take some of the attention off of me.

And yet I really enjoyed talking to them. The conversation itself was somewhat banal, but I enjoyed the feeling that they were hanging onto my every word, and completely fascinated with what I had to say, and even considered it a privilege to be able to talk to me.

And at the same time, besides boosting my ego, I had the sense at times that I was doing good by helping them out with their English. My student had never talked at all in class, but now was showing incredible motivation to communicate with me, and using all the English she could. It took her a while to say some things, but she didn’t give up. I wish they could be like this in class, but it still is nice to see them motivated outside of class as well.

It reminded me of when I had first arrived in Ajimu, and went to the high school to help out with the “English Speaking Society”. The students there were always so excited to talk to me as well, which was why I enjoyed doing it.

I asked them why they had chosen their high school. One of them said because the school uniforms were very cute. “Yes, that’s a very important reason,” I said. Sarcasm doesn’t really exist in Japan, so they took me at face value. I thought it was funny though, because I had heard from other people that this was a standard reason for Japanese girls to select a high school.

They told me how they had met each other. Despite coming from different junior high schools, a teacher had been able to introduce them. My old student pointed at her friend, and said, “she is teacher’s favorite student. He likes her because she is so beautiful.” The student in question was embarrassed, and strongly denied it, but I believed it because it is not uncommon to see Japanese teachers show favoritism among their students. And she really was quite beautiful. She was only 16, but could have passed for much older.

But then the conversation took another turn, and I suddenly remembered how young the girls really were. We were talking about Japanese animation, and they mentioned the movie “Sen to Chihiro” (“Spirited Away” in English) and they remembered seeing the movie in the theaters when they were in 6th grade in elementary school.

That movie was new in Japan when I had first arrived. Which means these girls were the same age as my former 6th grade students when I had first arrived. And in the time that I’ve been in Japan they had graduated elementary school, graduated junior high school, and were now high school students. And the high school students I used to talk to in Ajimu were now all either graduated or halfway through University. And I was four years older as well, but what did I have to show for it? If my only purpose was to enjoy being popular in Japan, that’s not the kind of thing I can build on.

The girls eventually left. Adam and I went out for a bite to eat, and then called it a night. After being the object of so much fascination by the high school girls, I had a brief moment where I thought any girl I met on the street was mine for the taking if I only asked her name. But it doesn’t work that way. Although I like to believe that all girls think the same, high school girls are, for whatever reason, much easier to impress than girls my own age.

(I should mention that after writing this, I had two really boring days at the junior high school where I had a lot of time to question what I was doing with my life. And then I had a really fun weekend. The weekends are always good. You’ll never catch me complaining about the weekend. Perhaps its not so much Japan I’m tired of as just my job as an ALT. There’s only so long you can do a job like this for, and I think going into my 5th year now I’ve stretched it out to its limit.)

Link of the Day

Shout out to the old Calvin gang. My old Camelot Roommate (butterball) 's sister was interviewed on NPR. The link to NPR interview is here. Of course Butterball and the old gang can be seen here.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Old Friends, New Places Part 2

I suppose being in your 20s in general is a time in your life when people are moving around and your circle of friends is never to stable. This is especially true in an expatriate community. Over the four years I’ve been here I’ve seen a lot of people come and go.

And a lot of them, oddly enough, end up coming back again. I guess for all the complaining we do about Japan, none of us can stay away too long. Eoin’s back in Nakatsu teaching English again. Good old Johnny was back at the expo. Greg was back to visit this summer. And now Heather is in Tokyo for an internship.

Heather is an old friend from the days in Oita. She left after two years. I didn’t start this blog up until my 3rd year in Oita, so Heather was already gone by that time. Although once and a while she does pop up retrospectively, like in this post here.

Anyway, she’s back in Japan, and a mutual friend put us back in touch.

Despite my four years in Japan, I have yet to fully explore Tokyo. I’ve changed planes there. Greg and I rode through there on our hitchhiking trip. I was there for orientation when first arriving, and during my 3rd year, I made a brief foray into Shibuya to get some of the world’s most expensive Ramen. But I’ve never explored Tokyo sightseeing. I was tentatively thinking Heather could show me around, but she e-mailed back saying she wasn’t in a position to host at her place, so she came down to visit me.

That actually suited me just fine, since I’m a lazy bastard and hate making preparations for travel. But I did warn Heather in advance that the sightseeing in Gifu was limited. She was okay with that. I got out my guidebook and tried to find places of interest. There were a few outdoor places that might be fun to visit.

And wouldn’t you know it? Pouring rain on Saturday.

It was mass chaos picking Heather up from the train station. No parking anywhere. No one wanted to get out of their cars. 3 woman were so concerned about not getting wet that they weren’t looking where they were going as they ran into the street. I slammed on the brakes. A girl in a high school uniform was racing on her bike trying to get out of the rain. As she took the turn the bike slipped on the wet pavement. She hit the ground hard, scattering her books all over. It was a nasty fall, and I felt like someone should go over and see if she was all right, but I was in my car in the middle of the road. The girl appeared to be more embarrassed than hurt. She tried to pick herself up with dignity, seeming to be very aware that the whole street had just seen her wipe out.

And then I met Heather. We had a great time catching up, reminiscing about Oita, and exchanging stories about the people we used to know back there. It’s exactly the same kind of conversation you have when you run into someone from high school or college. “So and so’s doing well, so and so’s not doing very well, so and so never left the place and is still in Japan, and so and so completely dropped off the face of the earth, and no one has so much as gotten an e-mail from him since he left Japan.

After catching some lunch, we decided to try and make the best of the rainy afternoon. We went to check out the air force museum in Kakamigahara.

Kagamigahara, just slightly east of Gifu city, is the sight of an old air force base. During the war it was heavily bombed by American planes. Because the planes carried more bombs than they could possibly drop at once, their commanders told them to start the bombing once they reached Gifu city. By the end of war Gifu city, despite the fact that it had no military targets, was completely demolished. Which is why anti-war activists sometimes refer to Gifu city as “the forgotten Hiroshima.”

But by the time we got our act together and made our way into Kagamigahara, and then found the museum, it was already closed. And it was back to the drawing board.

A friend of mine called to tell me about a Japanese Lantern Festival in the town of Mino. We decided to check it out. I didn’t have a good idea of where Mino was, but we got out the map and followed the street signs. Once we got to Mino it was already dark, and we drove around the dark streets trying to find where this festival was. Once we finally found it, it was a major disappointment. There was hardly anyone there at all. Maybe the rain kept people away. In the end we ended up at a party at someone’s house that we didn’t even know. A friend of a friend of a friend.

I apologized for the way the day turned out, but Heather said that it reminded her of the weekends in Oita Prefecture: driving all around these obscure country roads looking for the party, winding up at someone’s house that we didn’t even know, these were all part of the English teacher experience.

At the party, another friend gave us recommendations for Sunday. “Check out Yoro park and Yoro waterfall,” she said. “And then while you’re there, be sure and check out ‘The Park of Reversible Destiny’. That was created by a bunch of artists who got cancer and then recovered, and wanted to make a park that makes people examine their relationship to destiny.”

“Wait, they collectively got cancer, and then collectively recovered?” I asked.

“I don’t know; it was hard to tell because the explanation was all in Japanese. But it’s a really bizarre park. It’s just like Alice in Wonderland. You wander through all these mazes, and you go into a house where the furniture is on the ceiling or stuck halfway through the wall. It’s really amazing.”

And so we went to Yoro the following day. The waterfall is apparently very famous in Japan because of the legend that the water can turn into sake. But I thought as a waterfall it was only so-so. “I guess having lived in Oita, we’re pretty spoiled for nice waterfalls,” I remarked. “There’s beautiful waterfalls in just about every town.”

“Still, I haven’t been to Oita in a long time, so this is nice for me,” Heather said. I of course was just back to Oita during the summer, so the memories of the Oita waterfalls are still fresh in my mind.

The Park of Reversible Destiny” was very interesting. I had suspected my friend was exaggerating, but it was very much as she described it. We wandered through mazes, saw houses with furniture stuck into the walls halfway up. We wandered around some mazes in the dark, keeping our hands on the wall and walking slowly so that we wouldn’t bump into anyone. I accidentally put my hands all over some one’s face when trying to figure out where I was.

We went through a long tunnel only to find that at the end it turned around, and we had to head back the same way. It was a very narrow tunnel, so whenever we met people coming the other way, it was always a squeeze to get past them. Especially for someone like me, who’s probably a little bit bigger than most of the Japanese customers who frequent the place.

In the end it was a very interesting afternoon, although I’m still not sure what it all means, or what my relationship to destiny is.

Link of the Day
Anyone who's been to Japan can attest to the strange obsession Japanese people have with "Rock, Paper, Scissors." It is used at any time and at any opportunity. Divide sports teams, decide who gets the first kick off, decide which student goes first in a speech competition...Everything is decided by Rock Paper Scissors. There are also numerous games, pop songs, ect, based around Rock, Paper, Scissors.

It is so popular here I began to wonder if the game actually originated in Japan or in Asia. Also, interestingly enough, my Peruvian friends here in Japan tell me that in Peru the Japanese words are used, indicating in Peru at least the game was imported from Japan.

I did a quick yahoo search and, according to these internet sites on the History of Rock, Paper, Scissors, it is Chinese/Japanese in origin.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Dancing in the Streets

I have my fair amount of complaints about Japan, but one thing I really like is how lively the streets are in the evening. After school gets out high school and college age aspiring musicians take to the streets and serenade the walkers by. And un-like the US, people don’t even throw them money. They do it for sheer love of the music (and perhaps a little exhibitionism, but who am I to criticize?)


Also it is not uncommon to see girls outside with their boom boxes dancing on the sidewalks. Because of the cramped living quarters and limited amount of indoor space in Japan, this is the only place they have to practice their dancing. And so traditional Japanese reserve be damned, they have to abandon all shyness if they want to continue practicing.

They often practice in front of buildings with glass windows, so that they can see their reflection and practice their dance moves. There’s a group that practices in front of Gifu station, and I often walk pass them as I’m heading back to my car. I enjoy seeing them dance, but I usually just hurry by them without and try not to disturb their dancing.

As a big tall foreigner in Japan, often I’m as much of a curiosity to them as they are to me, and occasionally I’ll catch them staring at me, at which point I just wave or smile and nod, and that’s about it.

A couple months ago I was walking with my friend Matt, who’s less shy than I am, and wanted to get a picture of the girls dancing in the street before he went home to Canada. I was a bit nervous about the idea of approaching girls we didn’t even know and taking their picture, but, like I said, he is a bit less shy than I am, and the girls actually were delighted with the idea. They posed eagerly for the pictures, and were very keen to talk to us, and even tried to get us to come to their dance class.

And then I saw someone I actually knew in the group. A Japanese friend named Matsunami, who had apparently joined this dance class earlier in the year. He encouraged us to join as well.

The fact that I actually knew someone in these dance classes made me feel a lot more comfortable. And now that my Japanese teacher had gotten sick, and the classes cancelled, I did need something to occupy me during the weekdays. And I was very excited by the idea of getting to know all of these girls a lot better. They were a lot different than most of the Japanese girls in my normal social groups. They were decked out in American urban style hip-hop fashion, had on a lot of make up, and just looked like a lot of fun to be around. They’re the kind of girls I see everywhere in big cities in Japan, but never end up actually talking to.

But this was shortly before summer vacation when this all happened. Matt couldn’t join the class because he was getting ready to head back to Canada, and I didn’t want to join right before I took a 5-week holiday to head down to Kyushu. So I told Matsunami I’d give him a call once I got back from summer break.

Once I got back from summer break though, I more or less forgot about it. I would meet Matsunami in the bar, and he would encourage me to come, but I just kept putting it off. “Next week,” I always told him. “I’m a bit tired this week.”

Finally, Matsunami sent out an open invitation to all the ALTs via e-mail. “You should come this week,” he told me. “There will be lots of other ALTs trying it for the first time.” I decided that if I was ever going to try it, this would be the time to do it. Other people would be trying it for the first time. I wouldn’t embarrass myself too much.

And wouldn’t you know it. I was the only one who showed up.

Matsunami and I waited at the meeting point looking for other people. “This is strange,” Matsunami said. “There were at least two other people who told me they were coming tonight. They told me they really wanted to come.”

I’ll be honest: I was a lot more interested in the girls than I was in the dancing. In fact I really wasn’t that interested in the dancing at all. All of my previous experiences with dancing (being in “West Side Story” in my high school play, Airband at Calvin, and Dream Ball two years ago in Oita) had convinced me that dancing was not my strong suit. Sure I had fun at all these events, but it was in spite of the dancing and not because of it. The fun I had was because of the people around me and the social aspects. As far as the dancing, even the simplest steps I had trouble mastering. After weeks of practice I still was prone to suddenly forget what I was doing. And I was always the slowest one to master any dance step.

So I had mixed feelings going into it. I wanted to meet all the people in the dance class and expand my social circle that way, but I had a pretty good idea I would embarrass myself doing the actual dancing, and that’s never a great way to meet girls.

In the end I decided to go just because I thought it was a good character building exercise to push myself to do something I was uncomfortable about, and because things have been so boring around here lately I figured if nothing else I would have a good story to tell afterwards. But it did turn out to be more or less a disaster; pretty much the way I could have guessed it was going to go.

The very first move we had to do was really simple. Move our head to the music while keeping our bodies still. I couldn’t even to that. As I moved my head forward, my whole upper body followed it. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I saw myself in the mirror. I concentrated really hard on keeping the rest of my body straight, but it was a lot harder than it looked.

Then we moved our heads to the side. Again, my whole body kept wanting to move to the side.

And the class went down hill from there. I had a deja-vu feeling from my childhood of being in one of those gymnastics classes my mom used to sign me up for, in which I just could not do anything right for the life of me. But now I was in this dance class of my own free will, and couldn’t blame it on anyone but myself.

In addition, I began to get increasingly self-conscious about our open location. Anyone walking by the station could see us. And I didn’t exactly blend in to the rest of the dance class. I was a huge foreigner towering over the rest of the class, and always one step off from what everyone else was doing. And it was probably only a matter of time before someone I knew was going to walk by. I tried not to think about it, because the more self-conscious I got the worse my dancing was, but was pretty hard to clear that thought from my mind.

This became even more embarrassing when we got to the pelvic thrusts. I’m not exactly sure what I was doing, but I guess I wasn’t doing it right. I wasn’t keeping my back straight enough, or not thrusting enough, or something. The instructor came over to work with me, and I wondered what if my arch-nemesis Tom (who I’ve been running into more and more around Gifu city these days) would suddenly walk by the station and see the instructor trying to show me how to do pelvic thrusts. I would never be able to try and stare him down again.

On the plus side, everyone at the class was very friendly, and I left things open ended, saying I would like to come back if I have the time. (I have the time, but you know... got to leave myself a way out as well).

If I do go back, it won’t be because I enjoy the dancing, but simply because it is probably a good character building exercise to humiliate yourself once a week. If you can stand that, then everything else in life is easy.

Speaking of those gymnastics classes I was forced to take as a kid: it’s amazing how sometimes the memories of what you do when you’re little stick with you. I still hate gymnastics because of those classes I took when I was 4 or 5. Even as a youngster I guess coordination and flexibility were not my strong point. It seemed like I was the only one who couldn’t get it right. I could not do anything to make the instructor happy. He began to loose his patience with me more and more as the classes went on.

One day, I think I was about 4 or 5 but I remember this pretty well, I decided that if I couldn’t impress him with gymnastics, I would show him how fast I could run. And besides, running was something I could do. It didn’t require any coordination; it was just strength and will power. You decided you were going to run fast, and then you just went ahead and did it. I’m not sure if I was a fast runner in those days, but like all little kids I at least thought I was a fast runner.

At the end of class we had a time where we all ran across the gym to meet our parents, and I had the idea that as soon as the class was over I was going to sprint as hard as I could. Everyone would be so impressed. The instructor would say, “I thought you had no redeeming qualities what so ever, but man can you ever run fast. You’re all right after all kid.” Or something like that.

Anyway, the class was over, I ran as fast as I could, and got to where my mom and all the other moms were waiting, and waited to be congratulated on my speed. Instead everyone was furious at me. I had no idea why. It turned out that in my eagerness to run across the gym, I had knocked over and then trampled the little girl in front of me. I was so focused on running fast that I hadn’t even realized I had done it.

Anyway, everyone was standing around the girl to make sure she was all right. The instructor was really upset with me, the girl was sobbing. My mom made me apologize to everyone.
I guess looking at it now it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but it’s amazing how those events can seem so out of proportion huge when you’re a little kid. It’s something I always remembered, and often times it seemed like a metaphor for life: “the harder you try, the more you screw up.” I don’t know if anyone else feels this way about life, or if it’s just me.

Link of the Day
I'm a bit late in linking to these, but there's been some good blogging on my friends' pages. Phil uses his blog for good by to spread information on the problem of violence against Women.

Mr. Guam does an excellent job of framing the debate over Bush's threatened Veto of the McCain sponsored bill to end forbid torture by the U.S. military:

Sen. McCain is a highly respected Vietnam War veteran who served almost five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. President Bush is a veteran of the Texas Air National Guard for which he did no fighting whatsoever. The irony of a war hero fighting against the use of torture for information and a president with no war experience fighting for the use of torture as executive privilege becomes fairly evident

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Field Trip

I don’t think I’ve written about it a lot in this blog before, but part of my job from time to time entails going on school field trips with the kids. Last Tuesday I went to the Honda Car factory, and then the amusement park with the 5th grade elementary students.

I know I’ve been complaining a lot about my job lately, but field trip day is a day where you won’t hear any whining from me. I hadn’t ridden a roller coaster in ages, and I had a blast at the amusement park. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for it.

More fun with than ridding the roller coaster itself was riding it with my students. Going with a bunch of 5th grade students makes riding the roller coaster an entirely different experience.

For one thing they need so much prodding before they’re even willing to get on the damn thing. “Let’s go!” I said. “It’ll be fine.”

They wanted to watch it several times first, and then insisted on hearing the reports of people who had already ridden to make sure it was safe. I think 5th grade is an age where the girls are almost braver than the boys, because several of the girls were keener to ride with me than the boys were.

But as soon as we had strapped ourselves in, and the roller coaster started up the ramp, they began having second thoughts. The whole way up to the top the girls around me simply repeated over and over again “Kowai, kowai, kowai, kowai” which means, “I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared.” And once the roller coaster started going down, then they started screaming for their little lives.

I quite enjoyed myself, and feel like I long ago passed the point where roller coasters held any fear for me. This was somewhat debated by my students, who insisted that I looked terrified on the drop down. I maintain that they mistook excitement for fear.

Oh, yeah, and there was this car factory we went to as well. That was kind of cool I guess. I’m not a huge car person, but it was cool to see the machines put the car together. Also, seeing rows and rows of cars come off the assembly line, it hit me for the first time the huge amount of cars that must be made every day. Who buys all those cars? When you add up all the car factories in the world, there must be a huge amount of brand new cars purchased every day.

At the amusement park we got to see a special showing of the “Honda Robot” named Asimo. He is very famous because he is a human shaped robot that can walk, stand on one leg, climb stairs, and even kick a soccer ball. He is very similar to the famed Toyota robot that was on display on the world expo. Since I missed the world expo, I thought that this was a nice chance to see the main attraction.

Boy did it suck. I have no idea what the big deal is about a robot that can walk, climb up stairs, and kick a soccer ball. And after all that build up too.

The show was supposed to be 45 minutes, but ended up being only a half hour. One of the other teachers apologized to me. “That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t think I could have taken another 15 minutes.”

Aside from a really boring robot show, the only thing that kept it from being an otherwise great day was the 2-hour bus ride each way.

For whatever reason, I’ve never handled buses well. I always hated riding the bus when I was in school. I get motion sick really easily. (Why I get motion sickness in buses, but not when I’m driving, is a question I’ve always wondered. I’m sure there’s a reason).

Anyway, riding in the bus with all the students did not help my disposition. I tried to earn my pay and be friendly and play with them as much as possible, but in the end I just got a headache and retired to a seat by the window, and just zoned out for the rest of the trip. It was a long bus ride.

One of my favorite field trip stories happened either the first year or second year I was in Ajimu. I don’t remember exactly, but at any rate it was before I had this blog up and running, so I never wrote about it.

This was also with a class of 5th grade students. We went to the “African Safari Park” in between Ajimu and Beppu. It’s an interesting park because they take you on a bus ride through the animal exhibits, and you can actually feed the lions and tigers through the grates on the bus. I had done it before, but there was a lot more screaming this time around.

And then we went to see the ponies, and the kids were so excited to see the ponies, and the zookeeper was showing the kids how to brush the ponies.

Then I could hear the zookeeper explaining something, and pointing around the stable. My Japanese still wasn’t that good at that point. It sounded like the zookeeper was telling the kids how to clean the stable, but I thought “that can’t be right. They’re not going to make the kids clean out the stable on their field trip, are they? Surely they have people at the zoo who do this kind of stuff.”

Sure enough, the next thing I know the kids are shoveling shit into the wheelbarrows and cleaning out the stables. There was no complaining, and they even seemed pretty happy to do it as if this was all part of the fun. Nobody asked me to pitch in, and I didn’t volunteer. I just stood around and watched and gave encouragement to the kids.

The main problem was that the kids were so affectionate. They’re always pretty affectionate, but after they had been cleaning the stables I didn’t wanted to be hugged or touched until after they had washed their hands. So while they were cleaning, I backed away from any kid who tried to shake hands or give me a hug. After the cleaning was finished, a group of kids ran towards me, but I escaped, and told them to go wash their damn hands.

Link of the Day
Anyone who follows Japanese baseball (probably no-one outside of Japan I guess) knows that the Hanshin Tigers have finally won, breaking the long standing Curse of the Colonel.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Not Attending the World Exposition

While I’m talking about things I’m not doing, I suppose I should mention that a few weeks ago the World Exhibition shut down, and I officially missed my chance to attend.

For the past 6 months, the world Expo was just outside of Nagoya city, only an hour from my apartment. Since people travel from all over to attend, it seemed a shame not to go when it was so close to me.

And yet in the end, I let it just pass me by.

The Japanese have a saying: “jibun ni makenai” or which means “not lose to yourself” or not give in to your weaker instincts. Sometimes with these type of things it’s difficult to know which way you would be losing to yourself.

For instance on one shoulder was a little voice saying to me: “there you go again Joel, wasting your life away and letting all these opportunities slip through your fingertips. This is a classic example of how your laziness is allowing another great opportunity to slip away from you. You should get out there and enjoy the expo.”

And yet on the other shoulder, another voice was saying, “there you go again Joel, just doing things because other people tell you to. The expo probably sucks. It’s probably a lot of people just standing around in long lines for cheap little tourist trap pavilions, but you want to go anyway because you’re a lemming and you just follow the crowd.”

Both laziness and a tendency to follow the crowd are part of my weaker characteristics, so it seemed that either by attending or by not attending I was giving in to my weaker characteristics.

Almost all the reports I heard from the expo complained about the heat, the crowds, and how boring the expo was. And yet part of me felt I should go to the expo anyway just because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to have it right at my doorstop.

The expo was supposed to be crowded everyday, but insanely crowded on the weekends and public holidays, so these were to be avoided. I worked on every other day. The solution seemed to be summer vacation.

Every Japanese person I ran this by seemed to think it would be a terrible idea. “It will be even more crowded during summer vacation,” they said.

“Really, but the average person doesn’t have summer vacation,” I argued. “It’s just people who work in the schools. Even then, the Japanese schoolteachers and the students are busy with sports and club activities. It’s just the ALTs who have the summer vacation.”

Most Japanese people were unable to rebut this, but remained firm in their belief that summer vacation was the worst time to go. Sometimes someone would mention housewives bringing the younger kids, or old people traveling more during the summer.

At any rate, it turned out my desire to see the expo was not as great as the desire to see the girl friend, so I headed down to Kyushu as soon as school finished. I toyed with the idea of returning a day early to see the expo, but that was just idle thinking. No one ever returns from summer vacation any earlier than they absolutely have to.

And so I missed the Expo. Maybe someday I’ll regret not taking advantage of it when it was so close, but all reports I heard were simply about long lines, heat, and disappointing exhibits. At the moment, I’m not too upset.

Link of the Day
The Japan Times had an interesting article remembering Lenny Bruce. It got me really curious to hear some of his stuff. Of course I'm much to young to remember Lenny Bruce, but you can find anything on line these days. Click here to hear some of his comedy.

On a completely different note, I always try and give a shout out to my family when I find them online. Here's a shout out to my younger brother, from the Colorado Police Blotter.:

Saturday, Sept. 3
12:25 p.m. - Speeding. Kyle Scott Swagman, 22, of Grand Rapids, Mich., was issued a summons for driving 44 mph in a 30 mph zone in the 100 block of Main Street.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Not Studying Japanese and Me

I’m going to get a big geekish for a minute and talk about my Japanese studies.

I’ve decided NOT to take the Japanese proficiency test this year. This will mark the second year of non-taking the test, after 2 years in a row of taking it. Last year I missed out on it by mistake. This year it was a conscious decision.

As I’ve mentioned on this weblog previously, I’ve more or less given up studying Japanese. I was going really hard at it for a long time, and then I just lost enthusiasm last year.

I kept taking Japanese classes however. Class by itself will only get you so far without private study, but just by virtue of the fact that I was taking classes 2 times a week plus attending tutoring sessions on Wednesday night, I was still somewhat making progress despite the fact I wasn’t officially studying.

Now that my teacher has fallen sick and the Japanese classes suddenly canceled, I’m left with only the Wednesday night tutoring sessions. And I’m trying to keep up on my listening as well with various tapes and CDs I have: Japanese music, the New Testament in Japanese on tape, the Mishima/ Zengakuren debates, etc.

But as far as sitting down and seriously memorizing kanji or learning grammar, I feel those days are over.

There are a million reasons why I’m easing off. I’m fairly certain I’ll leave Japan in March, so now that the end is in sight, a lot of motivation is lost. I don’t foresee seeking employment in any field related to Japan, and even if I did I would need years more of study to get my Japanese up from daily conversation to professional employment level.

Also as I’m feeling like I’ve stayed too long in Japan, I’m starting to lose interest in all things Japanese. Reading an English book or writing on this weblog seems like a much better way to keep sanity than studying kanji figures.

Certainly when I compare myself to four years ago, when I first arrived in Japan and didn’t know a thing, I’ve made a lot of progress. I realized that especially this summer when I saw the new JETs come in.

But I’ve also reached a point where I’m realizing my limitations as well. When I first arrived in Japan, I thought that if I would just study hard enough, fluency was achievable. Now 4 years later I find myself realizing that I’ll never be fluent. I still find myself flubbing basic grammar patterns I should have learned long ago. No matter how much I study them, they never become second nature as my native language does, and I frequently mess up when I’m speaking quickly. I still speak with a heavy American accent that makes it hard for Japanese people to understand me sometimes. And after 4 years, I’m still a long ways away from understanding everything that goes on around me, or doing things like reading a Japanese newspaper or magazine.

I’m sure if I studied more it would improve slightly, but right now I just don’t feel like dealing with it.

Link of the Day
I know I've been linking to a lot of audio files. My apologies to you who are reading this at work or don't have high speed internet or can't join in the fun. But there's just so much good stuff to listen to out there.

This NPR show in which Christopher Hitchens talks about Thomas Jefferson is absolutely fascinating. I know, I know, Christopher Hitchens isn't my favorite person right now either, but he has some interesting thoughts on Jefferson.

When you're done with that, give your inner-geek a treat with this interview with Stan Lee. (The creater of Spider Man,...But of course you knew that.)

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Blogging About Nothing

I got an e-mail recently from a friend saying he missed the daily updates on this blog, and wondered if my work had begun cracking down on me.

On the contrary. The time I have plenty of. It’s the stories I’m running out of. I sit down at the computer and think, “Right, time to update the blog,” and nothing pops into my head at all. I guess I need to go do something really exciting this weekend so I can start writing again.

In the meantime, here is a bunch of random stuff with no relation to each other (ala Brian Bork’s latest entry). None of these would be worth writing a blog entry about in their own right, but put together maybe they can give an idea of what I’ve been up to.

Return to Lake Biwa
Last weekend I went back to Lake Biwa with the same group of friends from Spanish class. We intended to do another Barbeque there, but again the weather was problematic.

I guess none of us checked the weather report in advance. A typhoon was coming in that day. It missed our area of Japan and went North, but still the winds were very strong. It was really cold and miserable and we had a hard time even setting up the Barbeque set. For some reason, I guess because we had made the trip all the way out there, we felt the need to persevere and carry out our barbeque anyway, but it was the worst Barbeque ever.

Speech Contest
As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the students in my speech class won the district competition, and has moved on to regionals. The speech teacher asked me to work with that student every day to get her ready for the contest.

I was more than happy to put in the time, but my big worry is that I know little to nothing about public speaking. And even less about teaching public speaking.

Also I had made the mistake of mentioning to the school that I did Informative Speaking in the forensics club in High School, which made my school think that I was much more qualified than I was.

Nonetheless, both I and the student worked very hard, and she made a lot of improvements by the end of the two weeks. She did not advance into the semi-finals at the regional competition, and she felt bad about that because I think the speech teacher had been putting a lot of pressure on her, but she did a good job.

Pen pal exchange with Israel
I’ve been continuing the pen pal exchange with Israel that I inherited from Monika. It’s a bit of extra work for me. Since my kids don’t have computer access, I have to type up all their letters and e-mail them. But the whole exchange is a good cross culture experience for all involved. It’s good for my kids, hopefully its good for the students in Israel, and I’m certainly learning a lot from it.

My students know absolutely nothing about Israel. And I mean absolutely nothing. They have no idea it exists, they can’t find it on a map, they’ve never heard of Jews or Judaism, etc. And the Israeli students are writing about their bar mitzvahs and Rosh Haanan. It means I have a lot of explaining and translating to do.

In my more cranky and stereotypical moments, I take this as more proof of my thesis that Japanese people don’t know anything about anything.

Granted of course my students are only in junior high school. But I knew about Israel when I was in junior high school. I remember discussing Israel in current events classes, and I remember where I was when I found out Rabin was assassinated. You probably have similar memories.

Of course to be fair in the West we feel more of a connection to Israel because of our Christian tradition. And Japanese students know more about China and Korea than the average American. But still…

Barbeques and Dinner Parties
People have been taking advantage of the fall weather to hold a lot of Barbeques and dinner parties. These are good fun, although they don’t always make good blogging material. Basically everyone just stands around and talks.

There was a really good barbeque a couple weeks ago. What made it so beautiful is it was right along side the river where the cormant fishing happens. At night the river was filled with Japanese lantern boats watching the cormant fishing. It was very beautiful to see from the riverside.

It was one of those moments that you just want to capture in time and hold forever. It made me really glad to be in Japan.

I tire of Japan
I should say, however, that those “glad to be in Japan” moments are becoming fewer and farer between all the time.

I know that recently I’ve been bitching a lot about Japan on this web log, and I don’t want to keep repeating myself ad nauseum, but every so often I feel the urge to vent again.

The problem is mainly at work. Living in Japan itself, if it was just the simple act of living here, wouldn’t be so bad, but I am really feeling like I’m over the ALT experience. I feel really isolated at school. I can’t talk to anyone in English because they don’t understand, and if I try and speak Japanese half the time they reply by mimicking my accent instead of giving me a serious reply.

As a result I feel really isolated, and I’m spending a lot of time in my head developing a very strong inner-monologue. I worry sometimes that I’m loosing a lot of my social skills, and that it is going to be difficult to re-adjust when I return home to America. Sometimes I worry that my very sanity is slipping away.

I’m also becoming more and more detached from my subject material. I really have lost all my enthusiasm for ESL or teaching English as a second language, and I view the classes I have to teach as more and more of a chore.

Why this is, and why it’s hitting me so hard now, after having enjoyed Japan for so long, I have a hard time saying. Other English teachers and ALTs who have stayed in Japan for a long time, as I have, often talk about “hitting the wall.” You are in Japan for a long time, you are having a great time and enjoying yourself, and then suddenly you hit the wall and you can’t stand Japan any longer. Most people agree that it seems to hit at about the 4 or 5-year mark, which is right about where I am now. Even my company supervisor, when I told him I wasn’t going to renew another year, told me, “That’s very typical. Most ex-JETs that we hire think they want to stay in Japan for a long time, but then after one or two more years they can’t wait to go home.”

Like all generalizations about human nature this is flawed. Some people hit the wall after only one year. Some people stay their whole lives in Japan and are very happy. But it sounds like for most people “the wall” is at about the 4 or 5-year mark. Which would make me about average.

Although sometimes I wonder if the fact that my attitude about Japan has deteriorated so rapidly is due to my change in location. In Ajimu I was in the countryside in the middle of nowhere, but the students were very good and the teachers seemed to enjoy their jobs. The atmosphere at this new school is a lot different. Every teacher in my school now is constantly complaining about how overworked they are. And the students all sleep or talk through English class.

Then again, if I think back to my last year in Ajimu, I felt really ready for a change then. And perhaps that is the main problem. Things haven’t changed enough. I’m still doing the same things I was doing in Ajimu, and really getting bored of it.

I have a lot of days where I sit in the office and just feel like my brain is turning to mush. But maybe every job becomes like that after a while.

Link of the Day
I really like Peter's post here, particularly the accompanying graphic.