Monday, December 31, 2007

Japan e-mail: Aug. 24, 2001

(Retrospection)

Dear Brett,
Thanks for the reply. Yes, that sand bath was supposed to be relaxing, but let me tell you brother, I didn't feel very relaxed. Those old ladies were pretty crabby, and I never knew what was going to happen next. They kept us moving too. I was only buried in the sand for like 5 minutes before they were telling us to move on, and then I had to go and wash all the sand off in a shower, and all of this is still in the same small room, so I was still feeling exposed in front of the old ladies.
(And it wasn't so much a shower as a tub of water and a bucket thingy I had to use to scoop water on myself.) Anyway, it was an interesting experience, but I don't think I'm going to do it again.
(Unless someone comes over here to visit me. It would be fun to take them to the sand bath and just not tell them anything about what to expect.)
If we ever started anything up like this in the States, we'd have to make sure we only got friendly old ladies to work at the place....And then what if our Sand Bath became really successful, and all of our friends lost their jobs in a big depression or something, so we had to hire them to bury naked people in the sand. Can you imagine Butterball, Cakes, Rob, Bear, Cecil, Bosch and the rest of the gang busy burying naked people in sand? (Alright, I know all this is all getting pretty ridiculous, but a man can dream, can't he?)

I've got a car here, like I told you last e-mail, but it's a manual transmission. I was a bit intimidated by this at first, but after the initial shock I'm actually glad about this, because this is one of those things I would have to learn eventually. I went out driving last night with one of my Japanese friends Issei, and it was a disaster. I stalled at every stop light. Although mind you it was the first time I had ever driven the thing, so I'm sure I'll just get better from here on out.

*******
Dear Mark,
Being overseas I can really identify with your story about anti-American attitudes. Not so much from the Japanese. The Japanese still adore Americans in a starry eyed sort of way, and think every American is a movie star or something. But I do get attitude sometimes from the other English teachers: the Brits, the Aussies, the New Zealanders, and even sometimes the Canadians. It's interesting to gauge my own reaction, because I've never considered myself a big patriot, but it's amazing how defensive I get when an outsider is attacking my country. It's something I have to watch myself on because I've caught myself defending things about US foreign policy I would never ordinarily defend.

I once saw a Noam Chomsky video once, and someone asked him if he thought we could ever be proud to be an American. Chomksy answered we could be proud of the American people at times, but we should never be proud of the American government, because governments are inherently violent institutions.
Anyway, I'm sure you are one of the good Americans. You, and me, and maybe Nate are the good Americans. The rest are just bloodthirsty capitalists.

***********

Dear Peter,
You know that I, like yourself, am a very political animal. Unfortunately I'm a bit cut off from English speaking media at the moment, so even though I'm living in Japan I really don't know much about recent political events here.
As for where I'm living, the short answer is that I'm out in a small town in the middle of nowhere, but if you want to try and locate me on the map, I'm on the Island of Kyushu, in Oita Prefecture (in the Northeast corner of Kyushu) near the city of Usa, in a little town called Ajimu. (Although good luck finding Ajimu on the map).

Anyway, the little bit I do know about current Japanese politics is that the Prime Minister is an LDP, and even though he does have a tendency to buck his own party, I think he's still a rightest at heart. (Perhaps like the John McCain of Japan). I'm sure you've been following the whole textbook/ visit to war criminal shrine controversy, and I imagine you are better informed about it then I am given how far removed I am from English media. (I do occasionally check news sites like CNN.com, but this computer at the Board of Education is so slow that I mainly just use it for E-mailing purposes.)

I do think the whole controversy is disappointing and represents a step back for Japan, but my Japanese supervisor explained it to me in a bit of a different light. He said that the reason the Prime Minister went to the graves of war criminals was to pray for peace, and that by going to the graves of war criminals he was trying to make a point about how devastating the war had been, and how Japan must remain peaceful. I don't know how much that is worth, but I guess it does represent a different perspective.

As for the current economic depression, that is something I hear about occasionally. For example I've met one or two young Japanese people over here who moved to Ajimu to get jobs. It seemed a bit strange to me because they moved from the big city into the countryside to find jobs. I think in America during a depression the migration would be in reverse, but there's a lot of bureaucracy in Japan so they need people to fill civil servant positions in the town hall in the Japanese small towns.

Other than that it's the same old same old over here. I'm still just hanging out in the office everyday while I wait for school to start. I've met some of the other English teachers in some of the neighboring towns. Sounds like you're more physically active than me. I haven't really gotten into an exercise routine since I got to Japan.

I went to a prefecture orientation in Beppu last week, and met a few of the other JETs in the prefecture. Mostly though I just hung around with people I had already met at the Tokyo orientation. But of course at the Tokyo orientation I also met a lot of people who were going to all different corners of Japan, so it was nice to meet more people close by.

******
Dear Ben,
Things are going pretty well here. I still can't get over how beautiful these mountains are, although I suspect once I've been here a while maybe they'll fade into the background and I won't notice them as much. I did finally get a hold of the car you left for me. Issei took me out driving last night. I'm not used to a manual transmission, so he showed me how to work it. I still stalled it at every light, but I think I'm getting the hang of it.
I've hung out with Aaron from Innai a couple times. He took us to the Innai O-bon festival, and invited us to the Jamaican festival, which was a lot of fun. (By us I mean me and Ryan, (Charlie's successor)). Ryan and I have been hanging around a lot, being the only two English speakers in Ajimu. He's also managed to acquire a car.

School hasn't started yet, but I don't mind hanging around the office. For one thing it's the only place where I have internet access, so I spend half the day just doing e-mail. Secondly it's a nice place to study Japanese. I'm pretty much at ground zero in terms of language ability, so I'm trying to get as much under my belt as I can while my enthusiasm is still high. I've heard encouraging stories from 2nd and 3rd year JETs about how much it is possible to learn in the first year.

******
Dear Ryan,
Okay, here is the deal as far as I can work out. I ran things by my supervisor like I said I would, and he said it was okay for your friend to come with us tomorrow to the African Safari park, but it looks like his generosity won't extend to paying for her ticket. Not to worry though. If you pay for 1/3 of her ticket, I'll chip in 1/3 as well. I asked what time we should be ready tomorrow, and he said about 9. I think he's probably picking us up in his car, but the word bus was mentioned a couple of times. I'm not sure what it all means. For now just assume that you're getting picked up, and I'll try and drop a note off by your apartment if things change.

Oh, and while I'm on the subject I should clarify that I'm not entirely sure where the price of your ticket is coming from. My supervisor has paid for everything else we've done together so far, and as I've mentioned he said something about having a friend who worked there or something, so I'm not sure if that means he can get us in for free or not. Because of his limited English and the language barrier I'm never really sure what is going on. I'm sure you can identify.
Anyway, hope this helps.

Link of the Day
Article on Media Mouse: Art Cooperative Closes its Doors
I was never involved with the Art Cooperative, but it sounds vaguely familiar. Was this set up by people we know from Calvin, or am I thinking of something else? Can anyone fill me in?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ocean's 13

(Movie Review)

Yet-another-summer blockbuster I'm seeing on video because we don't have a decent movie theater out here in Nakatsu.

Actually Shoko, who is a big fan of these movies and their Hollywood cast, proposed one summer night to drive out to Oita city to see the movie.
I wish, i wish i wish i wish I would have just said, "Okay honey, if it's important to you to go out and see this movie, it's important to me too."
Instead, I tried to do a cost/ benefit analysis of how long it would take us to get out to Oita city and back versus how long the movie would be, plus factored in the cost of highway tolls, gas and movie tickets. Stupid stupid stupid me. Hopefully next time I'll be a little bit wiser.

Needless to say that evening didn't end well. But now that "Ocean's 13" is out on video, Shoko and I could enjoy a nice quiet evening in our apartment watching it together. (Very quiet as it turned out. She fell asleep halfway through the movie and I was the only one who stayed up to watch the ending.)

I suppose I better start out talking about the Star Power in these Ocean's movies because, let's face it, if it weren't for the impressive cast I don't think anyone would be talking about these movies at all, and I highly doubt it would have gotten to 2 sequels.
I remember when the first "Ocean's 11" came out. I was in Japan already, but a friend e-mailed me about a new movie that had just came out which stared George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia (and the rest of the cast made up of up and coming famous actors, old famous actors, and relatives of famous actors).
And of course I had the same reaction most other people did. "Is such a thing possible? To have all those famous actors in one movie? This movie will stand as a landmark for future generations to look back upon and marvel at our Hollywood star power."

Since then, I've noticed when ever I rent an older movie, how many old classic movies are just packed with screen legends. I swear in the golden age of cinema you couldn't even make a film unless you had 7 stars signed up for it. Go ahead and have a look yourself, if you want, to put this "Ocean's 11" phenomenon in perspective. Cruise down the classic film section of your video store and see how many famous names are packed into each film.

But that's not to say these films don't have their charms.
On the plus side:
* I enjoyed the retro feel in the credits and the music. I never got into the old Rat Pack movies, but you know me I'm a sucker for anything with an old retro feel.

*I was glad to see my favorite British Comedian Eddie Izzard was back with an expanded role in this movie. He doesn't have any particularly funny lines or anything, but I'm happy just to see him breaking into Hollywood.

* I thought the sub-plot about the two members infiltrating the factory in Mexico, and then become involved in leading the strike, was pretty funny. The references to Zapata also gave me an opportunity to pretend I was smart and use some of my useless knowledge to explain to Shoko who Zapata was.
And then of course I realized that I was sitting with a full belly in a warm building in a nice apartment laughing at working conditions in Mexico. And that made me feel pretty guilty. (Ah, ineffective liberal guilt).

And last what else can I say? I enjoy seeing all the big stars on the screen as much as everyone else.
Despite the fact that these films are overly reliant on their star power there are a lot of genuinelly funny moments mixed in. And I always enjoy seeing how they will pull their capers off. (Even if the plot about ripping off a Casino did seem a little bit too familiar from the first movie).

At times I felt the writers cheated a bit. Using seduction as a tool is a bit of a low brow move, and they use it twice in this movie: once to seduce the powerful business woman and once to seduce the daredevil stuntman, so at least they're equal opportunity offenders.

Al Pacino did a great job acting. He resisted the temptation to just crest along on the star power of this movie, but he didn't over-act either. Hit it just right.

Link of the Day
Ford Media Coverage Redux

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Young Guns 2

(Movie Review)

Right, so I guess I'm only 18 years late reviewing this movie.

When these young guns movies came out in the late 80s, I wasn't allowed to see them. (I wasn't allowed to see much as a kid).

Eventually I caught up with the original "Young Guns" movie my Freshman year at Calvin. A group of guys were watching it in the dorm room one Sunday afternoon and I got sucked into it. And I thought it wasn't a bad movie. But of course what's more fascinating than the actual movie though is the real story behind it, especially for a history geek like me.

Like most American boys I was fascinated by the story of Billy the Kid ever since my grade school music teacher introduced us to the story through Copeland's Ballet. (As strange an introduction as that may be, I don't imagine I'm the only one who first learned about "Billy the Kid" in music class. Anyone else have a similar experience?)

This week though I was listening to NPR radio (via the magic of the interent) and they had on an interview with a gentleman talking about his book about Billy the Kid. (I don't know if anyone else heard the show or not. The archived edition is here if you want to give it a listen. I thought it was pretty interesting.)

My interest in Billy the Kid was temporarily re-awakened after hearing this interview, and I wasted some time on the internet looking at various sites. (Unfortunately this seems to be the way my brain is wired. Sometimes the littlest thing can set off huge amateur internet research projects).

Anyway, as part of this little kick I was on, I decided to watch the movie "Young Guns" again. And of course watch it while keeping an eye on it's factual accuracy.

I'd probably get laughed out of the blogosphere if I claimed "Young Guns" was historically accurate, but it is at least more historically accurate than you might think it is. These types of things all depend on expectation. If you go in expecting an historically accurate movie, then you're going to be disappointed. But if, like I did initially, you go in expecting this movie is just Hollywood's attempt to make a hip new Western movie that throws in a bunch of young up-and-coming stars, then it is interesting to see how much of the movie actually checks out.

For example I watched the first "Young Guns" movie alongside this website. After every scene I would pause the movie and go and check out this site to verify the historical accuracy of what I had seen. And although there are huge liberties taken with chronology, ages of the characters, et cetera, basically every character in the movie and every scene in the movie has a basis in real life.

Feeling like I was on a roll, I went on to "Young Guns number 2" which I had not seen before (somehow I never got around to it back in my Calvin days). Thus, according to the rules I set out for myself, it gets a write up on the blog as a movie review.

As with the first movie, I used the internet to help keep an eye on the historical accuracy of this movie while I watched it.
As far as I can figure out, pretty much every event in the first "Young Guns" movie actually happened. Not always exactly the way it was portrayed in the movie, but every scene at least had a basis in real life.
"Young Guns 2" adds several scenes of pure fiction to the story. As the author of this site says about one scene: "In real life the whole thing did not happen. The screenwriter's imagination got a little carried away here, but after all, it is a movie."

Most of the added scenes seem to be for the purpose of reuniting the surviving characters from the first movie. Who, as the internet points out, weren't actually together for the events of the second movie. But if you have an all star Hollywood cast, I guess you'd pretty much have to re-unite them, wouldn't you?

If you'd strip away all these added scenes, I think you'd still be left with a fairly accurate (by Hollywood standards) story of "Billy the Kid". In fact some of the things you would think would be pure Hollywood, such as Billy's miraculous escape from the jail house, or the mob accidentally shooting deputy Caryle and then running off, all have their basis in fact.

This movie features James Coburn (one of my favorite underrated actors) in a bit part, which is no doubt a nod to his role as Pat Garrett back in the 1973 Billy the Kid movie. (The one co-starring Bob Dylan). I haven't actually seen that movie, but I should probably add it to my viewing list at some point as it would combine my interest in James Coburn, Bob Dylan, and Billy the Kid. (Has anyone out there seen that movie? Is it worth seeing?)

Link(s) of the Day
I'm a bit late linking to this post, but I didn't want to let this one go by completely un-noticed because I felt the same way....Um, that is almost the same way. I'm a bit uneasy about using "soccer moms" as a derogatory term, but other than that I was just as bewildered as this blogger.
I subscribe to CNN on my cell phone and for over a week this story about Britney Spear's sister was one of their top stories on the cell phone page.
Honestly I don't know why the hell I still have the subscription anymore. I should have learned my lesson two years ago when I wrote this post: "I lose my Faith in CNN" .

Whilst I'm giving out trivial information:Did you know the Christmas song "O Holy Night" was written by a French Socialist, and then translated by an English Abolitionist? Hence the words:
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Video Greeting

I'm not going to be home for the holidays this year. (The first year since 2002 I've been away for the entire holiday season, although technically in 2004 and 2005 I only made it back for New Year's due to the fact that winter break in Japan centers around New Years and usually starts on or after Christmas).

So I thought I'd forget about my usual gripes about Christmas and post a Christmas video....
It seemed like a good idea until we turned on the video camera and I realized I didn't have anything intelligent to say. But then again because google video is a free hosting service without any limit on the number of videos, I figure why not share this with you anyway (for what ever little amount it may be worth.



Shoko, who is recovering from a cold, asked not to appear on camera, so she just did the taping. There is the usual "Are you finished? Do you want me to stop taping?" confusion at the end, which Shoko wanted me to edit out but I thought it was the best part of the video so we left it in.

I may have come off as flippant in the video, but I really am sorry not to be home for the holidays this year. A result of being semi-Unemployed is I tend to have a lot of time alone in my apartment with my thoughts, which in turn leads to occasional severe bouts of homesickness. At one point I was considering trying to come home for the holidays but I decided against it because:
1) Plane tickets are expensive, and right now I'm without a steady job so I shouldn't be spending a lot of money
2) I was just home this summer for my brother's wedding, and I will be back home next summer for my sister's wedding.
3). Despite the fact I have a lot of free time on a day to day basis, there are a number of things I do need to keep an eye on, such as figuring out what I'm doing next year, getting my visa renewed, etc.
4). And lastly, I didn't want to come back to the US and just have to have the same conversation over and over with everyone where I told them I didn't really have a job at the moment. That would be a little bit too familiar. As F. Scott Fitzgerald might say, "We want to come back to America, but we want to come back to America with something to show for it."

So I'll be staying in Japan for the holidays this year. Don't worry about me too much though, we do manage to stay busy. I've been to a couple get togethers already and I've got a few more Christmas parties lined up the next couple days.
But I hope all of you back home (or where-ever you are), have a happy holiday season.

Link of the Day
Now this is Funny! A friend showed me this youtube video on eating sushi the other day. Apparently it already made the rounds on the internet, and I'm just playing catch-up now. But if you haven't seen it yet, it's worth the five minutes or so it takes to play.

Someone once said to me, "It's a huge myth that Japanese people don't understand sarcasm. Whenever someone tells me that Japanese people don't get humor or sarcasm, I just show them this video". (He was actually talking about something different, the infamous "Yatta" video, but I think it applies equally if not more so to the Sushi video).

This great leap forward in Japanese humor was undercut slightly by Shoko, who refused to get the joke when I insisted she watch the sushi video and spent the entire time saying things like, "That's not right at all. Why are they teaching the foreigners all this wrong information?"

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

(Book Review)

Yet- another- book - in- Terry -Pratchett's Discworld series. (What can I say? I'm a fan.)

This book is actually in a slightly different than all the previous books in that it's marketed as a young adult book. And instead of being labelled as a Discworld series book, it is labelled as "A story of Discworld."

What does this semantic juggling mean? Nothing as far as I can tell. This book is firmly within the Discworld universe.
With the exception of a brief cameo by Death (and "The Death of Rats" ) it centers around a new set of characters not previously introduced, but many of the books in the Discworld series are like this.
The writing style of the book doesn't seem any different to me than any of the other Discworld books (although it has been a good half a year or so since the last Discworld book I read, so maybe my memory is getting bit rusty.)

The plot of the book involving a couple kids, a talking cat, and a bunch of intelligent rats may appear to be Disney-esque on the surface, but Pratchett doesn't tone down or clean up his style of irreverent humor.

In fact, the more cynical part of me wonders if the only reason this book is labelled "Young Adult" is because Pratchett's publisher was looking enviously at all the money books like "Harry Potter" have been making lately.

Anyway, marketing and labelling issues aside, this book is pure Pratchett at his usual funny self.
The book is about a group of rats and Maurice, the cat, who become intelligent and gain the power of speech after hanging around a magical dump beyond the wizard's Unseen University. With Maurice as manager, they acquire a kid to pretend to be a pied piper, and go from town to town trying to scam the townspeople out of their money. Until they come to a town where things begin to go a little strange...

As with all Pratchett books, simply describing the plot doesn't do justice to all the quirky humor and personalities he's managed to create within this book. From Maurice, the cynical manipulative cat, to Dangerous Beans, the rat with Utopian dreams, to Hamnpork, the rat who is having adjusting to the change and doesn't understand why widdling on things is bad, to Malicia, the mayor's daughter whose read a few too many fairy tales for her own good.

All in all a very funny book.

Link of the Day
Via Let's Japan: Nova: The Movie. A humerous look at the fall of Nova.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

壬生義士伝/ When the Last Sword is Drawn

(Movie Review)

This film was recommended to me by a student. In fact he's recommended it to several of us Nova teachers. His dedication to this film is so great that he brings his own copy with him to class and will thrust it into our hands at various points saying it is his favorite movie of all time. When he mentioned it had English subtitles, I decided to take him up on his offer to borrow the DVD.

Hopefully he's not reading this, because I'm going to give it a bad review. (Although I did quite enjoy "The Choice of Hercules", which had been another one of his recommendations.)

Essentially this movie follows the "Odd couple/Buddy movie" format. Two different Samurai with different world views and clashing personality are forced to fight together and eventually develop respect for the other. If this had been a Hollywood movie it might have been played for laughs, but instead this movie takes itself very seriously.

My student claimed the movie was historically accurate, but I assume he meant the over-arching background story about the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, and not the buddy Samurai story.
If you don't know what the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate refers to (and I'm just learning a lot of this myself) the short answer is that it's more or less the same story that was told in the Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai". It's the last great battles as the Samurai era was ending in Japan. But because this is a Japanese movie, and focuses on the conflict between Japanese and Japanese (as opposed to focusing on Tom Cruise's journey) the movie adds a bit more depth to the events.

If memory serves this is the first proper Samurai movie I've ever seen (excluding of course American movies like "The Last Samurai" and some off-beat Kurosawa films like "The Hidden Fortress"). But of course Samurai movies are, and remain, very popular in Japan. The code of Samurai ethics (obedience, duty, endurance) still plays a very important part in Japanese masculine culture, but it's a bit more difficult for a Westerner to identify with the movie.

As far as narrative structure, this film is a mess. It's told entirely in flashbacks, but not just one flashback. It alternates between the flashbacks of two different characters. And then to add in the back story, the flashbacks scenes have flashbacks.
All that being said, it's not quite as bad as it sounds. The story never gets so confusing you can't follow it, but it does take away a lot of the forward momentum of the story.

...And the sappiness! What can I say about the sappiness! (I complain about this with just about every Japanese film I review. Maybe I'll just have to learn to suck it up and accept it as part of Japanese cinema). Suffice it to say, they really pile on the tear-jerking scenes in this movie

My biggest complaint is that the film just goes on for two long. It's 2 hours and some 10 minutes, but it feels a lot longer, especially since the last half hour or so is more or less just one long drawn out death scene for the main character. (Especially after learning that the American DVD edit of "Shall We Dance" cut out a lot of scenes, I'm beginning to think the Japanese audiences must have a lot stronger attention span than us Americans. It was all I could do not to repeatedly hit the fast forward button as I made my way through the last 40 minutes of this movie).

Update: After talking with my students, it turns out that this movie is more historically accurate than I initially gave it credit for. I had assumed that it was a fictional story taking place against a historical background, but it appears that all the characters (or most of them at least) appearing in this movie are historical people. For instance check out Wikipedia articles here on the Shinsengumi (the Samurai police force this movie centers around) and Saito Hajime (one of the two main characters in the movie).

Being a history geek, this means I'm going to have to upgrade my evaluation of the movie slightly. In retrospect it was interesting seeing the story about the factional infighting within Shinsengumi. But this movie could still have spent a lot more time in the editing room, and chopped away a lot of the sappiness.

Link of the Day
(Via This Modern World)
90,000 Sign Onto Wexler Call for Impeachment Hearings
Wexler Wants Hearings, where Judiciary Committee members Robert Wexler (D-FL), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) call for impeachment hearings for Vice President Cheney, has almost 90,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to sign it—the more people who do, the more likely it is big online groups will jump in and make it a cause of their own. Then we could be talking about 500,000 signatories…which in turn would make room for all kinds of good things.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Childhood Home Movies

(Retrospection)

Now that I've converted all the old videos onto DVD, here are a few more retrospection videos.

These are the old silent 8 MM video tapes from childhood. There of pretty poor quality because of their age and because this tape is a few generations old (8 MM to video tape--video tape to DVD--DVD to google video). So if you can make out something and it's interesting to you, great. Otherwise I guess don't feel like you have to watch them.

Also somewhere along the line (I guess when the photo store converted the old 8 MM to VHS) the order got a bit screwed up. There more or less in chronological order, but every now and then you can see a jump.

These are family videos and aren't strictly all about me (siblings and even some aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents can be seen). But as the oldest child I can't deny I get more than my fair share of screen time.

Most of this video was shot in those hazy days of early childhood before my long term memory really started kicking in, so I can't really offer too much insightful commentary.

I am surprised by how short all of the clips are. Especially imagining how much trouble it must have been to drag that old video camera out and feed the film into it, you would think once you got it up and running you would want to shoot for a bit longer. And I'm not just picking on my parents, it seems like everyone's old 8 MM movies look like this. Maybe someone can explain that to me.

Otherwise, here are the movies (divided into 3 parts for ease of uploading).







Link of the Day
Blank Check Democrats: The Great War Funding Conspiracy

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

(Book Review)

Perhaps your wondering if it's just a coincidence that I'm reviewing this book at around the same time the movie is getting released. And of course it's not. I've not seen the movie yet (it's getting a delayed release in Japan (as often happens)) but I will admit to being influenced by the advanced marketing campaign. And much as I hate to admit my reading choices are influenced by Hollywood advertising, I'm only human. The bookstores in Fukuoka are already stocked with multiple copies of this book, complete with the movie poster tie-in covers.

I was in Fukuoka last week for the Japanese proficiency test, browsing through the bookstore and feeling guilty because I hadn't read this book yet, and all the advertising was making me feel like this was a great fantasy epic I was missing out on. And yet at the same time I wondered if I really wanted to spend so much time working through a children's book series when there were so many other books on my reading list.

So before I plopped down the money, I decided to ask around first. I asked some friends if they had read the series and if they thought it was any good. "Actually I've got the whole series on audio book," one friend said. "I'll loan it to you."
Problem solved! Hurray for audio books.

Although this is my first time reading Philip Pullman, he has briefly entered this blog before via a useless wikipedia fact and Phil's helpful comments following up. I'm a bit out of what the media has been like back home (as always) but I assume with all the usual press surrounding the release of the movie, Pullman's views about religion are probably common knowledge now.

One of the reasons I was curious to read these books was to see how well Pullman managed to integrate his philosophical themes into a children's book. And unfortunately the answer is not well. But of course this is only the first book in a 3 part series, so I suppose I should reserve judgement.

This book is vaguely anti-Christian in the same way that the Narnia series is vaguely pro-Christian. While reading it you can definitely get a sense of where the author's sympathies lie, but there's no heavy philosophical lifting that would be necessary to win converts to the cause.

Instead the book rests on cliches of creepy priest type characters and cold strict nun type characters. The book takes place in an alternate universe where the reformation never took place and the Catholic church has run amok. An interesting concept for a story, but from a philosophic standpoint the Catholic church, especially the historic Catholic church pre-reformation, is just too easy of a target. Even Christians write stories that vilify the old Catholic church.
Near the end of the book there 's an alternative version of Adam and Eve and some discussion about original sin, which is also adds to the interest of the story, but is only a hypothetical.

But like I said, I'm going to have to reserve judgement until I find out what happens in the next couple books. (I got the whole series on audio book now so stay tuned for further reviews as I continue through).

As for the story itself, the book starts out with many cliched elements from children's literature: an orphaned child who, as the story progresses, finds out everything she had been taught about her parents wasn't true, and finds out who her parents really were and what happened to them. Also there is a prophecy concerning her that the other characters talk about.
All of this is of course similar to the "Harry Potter" series, not to mention numerous other children's stories. But the wonderful thing about this book is it takes the cliched beginnings and then adds elements of pure imagination to them.

But once the story gets going, it creates a wonderfully imaginative world with boat people, a polar bear kingdom in the North, warring witch clans, and animal spirit companions (all of which you're probably aware of by now if you've seen the movie previews I guess). Near the end of the book there's lots of talk about multiple Universes, and I hope this will be explored in the further books.
And wow, what an ending! Something that really makes you want to continue reading the next book.

The characters, even the villains, have a rich complexity unusual for children's books. (Compare with say "Harry Potter" in which Voldermort and the rest of the death eaters are just evil for the sake of evil).

The tone of the books is a bit darker than many other children's books. And there are some violent scenes as well. The most graphic being when another character gets his lower jaw torn off. (I know I say this all the time, but standards for children's books really seem to have changed since I was young).

In short, I'm pretty hooked on these books and am eager to keep plunging into the series to see how it turns out.

Link of the Day
Junk Media Makes Us Sick

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Life and Times of Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

(Book Review)

I was at a friend's apartment and this book was just lying on the floor. (Most of the Bill Bryson books I read I tend to read because someone else left it lying on the floor.) I flipped through it and it looked kind of interesting, so I asked to borrow it.

"Go ahead," my friend said. "I think you'll enjoy it. That's the only book I remember laughing out loud while I was reading."

This book is Bill Bryson's memoir of growing up during the 1950s.

By the way, strange, isn't it, how even those of us who were born 20 years after the 1950s still feel a kind of nostalgia for the decade? Is it because of some sort of Jungian collective unconscious? Or is it because modern American conservatism has created a mythology in which we are told that the 1950s is some sort of golden age that we must always be trying to return to?

At least in my case (and maybe this holds true for some of you as well) I was not allowed to watch regular TV until I was well into my teens, and so grew up watching re-runs of "The Mickey Mouse Club", "Davy Crockett" "Zorro" and other old shows on the Disney channel, and then once I got a little bit older I graduated to Nick at Night reruns. As far as my TV viewing habits went, I might as well have grown up in the 50s.

(One last thought on the subject: if Japanese movies like "Always" are any indication, the feeling of collective nostalgia for the 1950s is not a phenomenon limited to North America).

In this book Bryson takes us through the decade we all feel like we sort of remember anyway. And there's no better guide than Bill Bryson. I don't read a lot of Bryson (none since I started up this book review project) but every time I do read him I find myself wondering why I don't read more. He's a funny guy. Like my friend, I also found myself laughing out loud several times throughout this book (much to Shoko's annoyance).

(I exaggerate not, by the way, the funniness of this book. Go to the review section at amazon.com and see if you can count how many people claim this book literally made them laugh out loud.)

It is definitely easy to romanticize the 50s as the last decade when kids were allowed to be kids. When you could roam all over the neighborhood and ride your bike everywhere without anyone worrying over your safety. When children actually went outside to play instead of being stuck inside with cable TV, DVD players, myspace and the internet.

"The most striking difference between then and now was how many kids there were then. America had thirty-two million children aged twelve or under in the mid 1950s, and four million babies were plopping onto the changing mats every year. So there were kids everywhere, all the time, in densities now unimaginable, but especially whenever anything interesting or unusual happened...
...The other difference from those days was that kids were always outdoors--I knew kids who were pushed out the back door at eight in the morning and not allowed back in until five unless they were on fire or actively bleeding--and they were always looking for something to do. If you stood on any corner with a bike--any corner anywhere--over a hundred children, many of whom you had never seen before, would appear and ask you where you were going."

What a difference between now and then. Growing up in the suburbs in the 1980s the houses were so far apart you hardly knew anyone, and my mother was so terrified of cars speeding by we weren't allowed out to go out of our own yard until 3rd grade. I didn't even know most of the kids on my street (this was partly because we were sent to private schools). And, as Bryson notes during the end of the book, these days no one is outside.

Other parts of the book though are timeless and not related only to the 1950s but to childhood in general. Such as Bryson's description of how time passes:
"One of the great myths of life is that childhood passes quickly. In fact, because time moves more slowly in Kid World--five times more slowly in a classroom on a hot afternoon, eight times more slowly on any car journey of over fives miles (rising to eighty-six times more slowly when driving across Nebraska or Pennsylvania lengthwise), and so slowly during the last week before birthdays, Christmases and summer vacations as to be functionally immeasurable--it goes on for decades when measured in adult terms. It is adult life that is over in a twinkling."
So true.

Many other universal truths of childhood life, no matter what the decade, are also found within the pages. Bryson's all too true description of trying to go to the bathroom while bundled up in winter clothing had me laughing out loud in the middle of the shopping mall.

Typical of Bryson, he manages to mix in some serious points along with the humor. He has an excellent chapter dealing with the dark sides of the 50s, the racism, the anti-communist hysteria, the love of nuclear bombs, and the CIA assisted Coup in Guatemala. All of which he does an excellent job retelling and all of which should be read by every American. (The Guatemala episode especially has a tendency to disappear down the memory hole these days).

In fact, because so many people seem to be unaware of this episode in American history, perhaps it's worth taking the time to quote it at length here:

"In 1950, Guatemala elected a reformist government--'the most democratic Guatemala ever had', according to the historian Howard Zinn--under Jacobo Arbenz, an educated landowner of good intentions. Arbenz's election was a blow for the American company United Fruit, which had run Guatemala as a private fiefdom since the nineteenth century. The company owned nearly everything of importance in the country--the ports, the railways, the communications networks, banks, stores, and some 550,000 acres of farmland--paid little taxes and could count confidently on the support of a string of repressive dictators.

Some 85 per cent of United Fruit's land was left more or less permanently idle. This kept fruit prices high, but Guatemalans poor. Arbenz, who was the son of Swiss immigrants and something of an idealist, thought this was unfair and decided to remake the country along more democratic lines. He established free elections, ended racial discrimination, encouraged a free press, introduced a forty-hour week, legalized unions and ended government corruption.

Needless to say, most people loved him. In an attempt to reduce poverty, he devised a plan to nationalize, at a fair price, much of the idle farmland--including 1,700 acres of his own--and redistribute it in the form of smallholdings to a hundred thousand landless peasants. To that end Arbenz's government expropriated 400,000 acres of land from United Fruit, and offered as compensation the sum the company had claimed the land was worth for tax purposes--$1,185,000.

United Fruit now decided the land was worth $16 million actually--a sum the Guatemalan government couldn't afford to pay. When Arbenz turned down United Fruit's demand for the higher level of compensation, the company complained to the United States government, which responded by underwriting a coup.

Arbenz fled his homeland in 1954 and a new, more compliant leader named Carlos Castillo was installed. To help him on his way, the CIA gave him a list of seventy thousand 'questionable individuals'--teachers, doctors, government employees, union organizers, priests--who had supported the reforms in the belief that democracy in Guatemala was a good thing. Thousands of them were never seen again."

Link of the Day
What's Really Happened During the Surge?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

(Book Review)

I probably shouldn't make what is going to be a long review even longer by adding a long introduction, but as this is a bit different from the kind of book I usual read, I feel it would be appropriate to write about how this landed into my hands in the first place.

Richard Dawkins is of course a household name (famous enough to even get mocked on "South Park") and I've been vaguely aware of him and his work since my Calvin days, in the way we're all vaguely aware of several authors and thinkers we never actually bother to read.

I started to become interested in him during the days of TV Links (may it rest in peace) as I mentioned earlier. TV Links had some links up to his lectures, along with lectures of creationist programs, and, although science was never my strong point, the back and forth on philosophical issues was pretty interesting and it seemed like just the perfect thing to have on in the background while doing some mindless task like washing the dishes or cleaning the apartment.

Although I wasn't always comfortable with what Dawkins had to say, I found him a fascinating figure to listen to and began to seek out his lectures on the net. He was thought provoking, quick on his feet during a debate, articulate, and seemed extremely bright.
--Although perhaps we Americans are a little too captivated by a British accent. If something is said in a crisp clean British accent it sounds incredibly intelligent to us no matter how bizarre the actual content is. I call this the "Christopher Hitchens Syndrome". (Speaking of which, I was recently talking to two highly educated, well read, political aware Brits, who had no idea who Christopher Hitchens was when I brought him up. Could it be he's a complete unknown in his native land?)

Anyway, in most of the videos he was speaking in, Dawkins kept referencing his book. "This is explained in more detail in my book." "I cover that in my book", etc. You know how these book tour videos go.

So, whilst in Fukuoka for the Japanese Proficiency Test last week, I was browsing through an English bookstore looking for an interesting book that I could enjoy over a cup of coffee in the neighboring Starbucks, and this one caught my eye.

I don't write a lot about my personal faith on this blog because my religious beliefs aren't as strong or as set in stone as my political ones. If you asked me if I believe in God my answer is likely to vary depending which day you catch me on. In my more optimistic moods: yes, in my more pessimistic ones: no.

I was worried that this book would take away even the slight hope I have, and I was hesitant to buy it. But in the end, the curiosity to see what was inside won out. (I also thought it might be a nice counter weight to my weekly discussions with the Jehovah's Witnesses).

It is a very interesting read, and if I were to consider this book simply on how enjoyable it was to have in a coffee shop with me, it would rate very high.

It did not make a complete atheist out of me though, which was Dawkin's intention in writing it.

I'd love to go into detail and write my opinion about every part of this book, but a complete review that examined every argument Dawkins's makes would end up being just as long as the book itself. So in the interest of brevity I'll just say that as I read the book at various parts my reaction was either:

A). Hey, that's a really good point.
B). That's an interesting point, but I already know what the religious response is going to be.
C). That's not really a strong argument.
or occasionally D). Thinking about this is giving me a head ache. I'll come back to this part.

The strongest parts of this book are, as you would expect, the scientific parts. And fear not, this is science for the layman. Fascinating reading even for people like me who decided long ago that science was not my friend.

The philosophical parts are also interesting, but slightly disappointing in that Dawkins at times doesn't seem to fully understand the theological ideas he is arguing against, or fails to anticipate the theologians' response. In this respect it is obvious that Dawkins doesn't come from the hard Christian education background most of us (me and my regular readers) did.

I must not be the only one who noticed this, because Dawkins addresses this criticism in the preface to the paperback addition, but he brings it up only to dismiss it. He quotes a long section of "The Courtier's Reply" and says, "to expand the point, most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, without first emersing ourselves in Pastafarian theology, etc." All this holds good as long as Dawkins is in the realm of science. When he enters into philosophy/theology, a bit more of a religous background would not hurt him at all.

Admittedly part of the problem is that religion in all its incarnations and competing belief systems is too much of a moving target to nail down effectively. Dawkins can't resist taking aim at the biggest juiciest part: the people who not only believe that God exists, but believe that they know exactly what he wants and force their own narrow view of God onto everyone else, and even invent a horrific eternal hell for disbelievers. Most of the book is focused against those people.

However in the strongest part of the book Dawkin argues against the existence of God full out, expanding his range to include deists and agnostics as well.

The core of his argument against God is the same one Betrand Russell used in his essay "Why I am not a Christian" (which I, and I'm sure many of you, had to read in my introduction to philosophy class at Calvin). Dawkins admits there are many things about the beginning of the universe which we don't understand and may never understand. He, like Russell before him, however argues that the problem is not solved by simply referring back to God, because now we have to explain where God came from. And since God is a complex intelligent being, we have just increased the complexity of the problem not simplified it.

...And this is where my headache begins to come in, because I already know what the religious response is. That God is outside the laws of time and space and cause and reaction, and always has existed and always will and doesn't need to have his origin explained. Dawkins of course would counter that this is just declaring something by fiat and doesn't even make sense at any rate. And he's right but...

But then how did everything get here? Where did the big bang come from? And even if science could answer these questions, wouldn't that leave us with just a new mystery to solve ad infinitum? At some point wouldn't we have to revert to some sort of God figure? But then where did God come from? Is it legitimate to claim that God doesn't need a cause? And my headache continues.

And although I enjoyed having Dawkins force me to think about these issues, I still maintain my agnosticism at the end of all of it.

(I'm not doing justice to his argument by the way. You should read the book for full effect).

The last 3rd of the book deals with the social problems caused by religion. Not surprisingly Dawkins again levels his aim primarily at the extremists, but he also claims that the moderates are responsible for fostering a climate in which the extremists are allowed to breed.

Although I'm oversimplifying Dakwkins, the argument that the moderates enable the extremists is an argument that can be used against any belief system or political philosophy. When I was hanging around in conservative circles back at Calvin I was all but accused of complicity in Stalin's death camps because of my beliefs in democratic socialism. Around the same time I myself tried to convince my church pastor that preaching about the sinfullness of homosexuality enabled hate crimes. (Hmmm, although upon reflection I have to say I'm actually not sorry I said that. I do believe a lot of the hate crimes against homosexuals would disappear if the Church reversed it's stance. Still it is dangerous logic.)

Dawkins would like for society to stop regarding blind faith without evidence as a virtue, and subject people's religious beliefs to the same kind of scrutiny and debate that everything else in society is subject to.

While half of me thinks this is a good idea, the other half of me worries about identity politics. This is probably an example of something that works when we criticize the majority, but could offset a lot of problems when applied to minority religions as well. For an example of what I mean watch this video on youtube in which Dawkins expresses his opinions on Mormonism. Truth be told it's somewhat similar to my own beliefs, and yours as well (although you would never say it so bluntly, let's face it this is more or less what you believe or otherwise you'd be sending in for your free book of Mormon and asking how to apply for membership). The reason you and I don't go around saying this all the time though is because we remember the religious persecution the Mormons faced, and no-one wants to go back to that period. So out of respect for the identity politics of religion, we hold our criticism mute.

...Or am I being unfair to Dawkins? Yet another issue I go back and forth on, as do most of us, about how to deal with various religions in a multicultural society. If the issue was clear cut, I guess we wouldn't have been having the culture wars for the past 50 years. At any rate, Dawkins offers some interesting thoughts.

As with his philosophic arguments, I'm truncating Dawkin's arguments here out of necessity. There's a lot more stuff in his book , most of which I agree with actually. I'm tempted to comment on it all, but I can't go on with this post forever.

In closing: I'm always reluctant to give out book recommendations because I think people need to read books for their own reasons and not someone elses. But several of you in my blogging circle regularly touch on religious issues with a lot more insight, subtlety and intelligence than I can usually muster (Christman, Guam, Whisky, Bork, Meg). Should you ever come across this book and find time to read it, I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

Update: the amount of red ink spilled over this book, book reviews and critiques, is a bit overwhelming. For that reason I stayed away from reading a lot of book reviews on the net. For better or for worse, the ideas on this book review are entirely my own, and not formed with the benefit of informed reading. After writing this, however, I did come across a review of this book by none other than Alvin Plantinga. Worth reading here.
Link of the Day
A Double Standard on Migrants?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

女番長! 野良猫ロック / Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss

(Movie Review)

I'd be somewhat embarrassed to tell you how long I've looked for this movie, and how excited I was to see it in my local video store.

A few years ago I was in a retro book store here in Japan, and I found the soundtrack to the "Stray Cat Rock" movie series. I didn't know anything about the series or the soundtrack, but the pictures looked really cool so I bought it as an impulse buy (and I wonder why I can never save any money!)

Turned out to be one of my favorite CD purchases. Kind of a cross between cool jazz and psychadelic rock. Really fun music to put in the car and go for a drive.

As for the movies: all I could tell from the picture book included with the CD is that they looked really old, had lots of guns and sexy poses, and were probably part of the Japanese explotation movies of the early 70s.

Ever since then I've scoured the DVD rental shops in Japan to try and find these movies, but never with any luck. Then one day, I walk into my local rental store, and there they are, all 5 movies. (It turns out they were just newly re-released this month). This is the first movie in the series: Delinquent Girl Boss from 1970.

This film stars Meiko Kaji, who was a standard fixture in these 1970s explotation films, and in fact also stared in "Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion". And while this film is not nearly as offensive as the Female Prisoner series, there are a few elements of sadism mixed in it that give me pause before I go on record as recommending it.

And yet, there is a lot to love about this film as well. Especially (or perhaps I should say 'only') if you think old retro stuff is really cool like I do. Everything from the cheesy music to the outlandish fashion to the psychadelic light scenes to the motorcycle chases with the rock music playing in the background.

Speaking of music...
A lot of old Japanese movies were often partly designed as vehicles for pop musicians to make the transistion to the silver screen, and this movie appears to be no exception. The Group Sounds Band "The Mops" can be seen playing in some of the club house scenes. And the legendary Japanese singer Akiko Wada actually co-stars in this movie alongside Meiko Kaji.

Akiko Wada is one of those rare musicians that has managed to survive several different trends and is still often seen on Japanese TV today. At this time in her career she mostly did a sort of psychadelic music combined with Las Vegas type Tom Jones music (think lots of power saxophones in the back ground). Her character in the movie will shamelessly break into song at odd moments, but she has a great husky voice, and the music is delightfully retro-cheesy.

Link of the Day
Trial By Fire Hose

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

亡国のイージス/Aegis

(Movie Reviews)

This film came out a couple years ago in Japan and, like "The Men of Yamato" (which came out roughly about the same time) it sparked a lot of concern among Japan's neighbors, and there were a few articles in some of the Japan based English publications.

On the face of it, this is a pretty harmless movie if we only look at the plot. A terrorist of foreign origin (I could never tell if he was Chinese or Korean, perhaps I missed something) takes over a Japanese Self-Defense-Force ship, together with a group of disaffected senior Japanese military officers. They have a secret weapon called Gusoh, some sort of super chemical weapon stolen from an American base. They threaten to release it in Tokyo unless their demands are met.

Fortunately, we have two heroes who are on the boat who battle through the decks. The whole thing is so amazingly similiar to the plot of "Under Siege" you almost wonder why a law suit was never filed. (I've also seen this movie described on the Internet as "Die Hard on a boat").

Like "Returner" this is a Japanese movie that seeks to compete with Hollywood by emulating Hollywood. You can almost count off on your fingers the Hollywood cliches this film follows. There is the bad guy who owes his defeat to only wounding our hero, and then walking a few feet away and assuming for some reason he won't be attacked from the back. (In fact does this not once,but twice.) There is also a "Terminator" like ending in which the principle bad guy can't seem to be killed no matter how many times he is shot.

Also near the end the ship is slowly creeping into Tokyo bay up to the point of no return. There is a discussion in the "War Room" back in Tokyo whether to bomb the whole ship or give our heroes a chance to compete their mission and retake control of the ship. The seconds tick by. Finally planes our sent out to bomb the ship but just at the last moment....

...Well, I don't want to spoil the end for you. Suffice it to say I think we've all seen this kind of thing a million times before in a million different movies.

Tired Hollywood cliches aside, the reason this movie caused so much unease in Korea and China at the time of its release was not because of the plot but because of all the speeches made throughout the movie. There's a lot of talk about the what Japan as a nation stands for, and what the future of Japan should be.

Japan as a nation is obviously experiencing an identity crisis. They used to be a strong militaristic nation, but they got absolutely creamed in their last war. So they adopted a pacifist constitution and focused on becoming an economic powerhouse. And then the bubble economy burst. Right now they're really not sure what they stand for.

As a cinematic example of the current zeitgeist, this film might have some value. One can easily imagine it being cited in research papers years from now as an example of the Japanese attitude towards themselves at the beginning of the 21st century.

However viewed in its current context, I'm not sure how much the film really adds to the debate other than to simply ask the question. There's a lot of scenes with characters standing around talking about the problem of Japan's identity, but no solutions are put forward. And even as far as stating the problem not much is ever said in concrete terms. (Maybe a domestic Japanese audience would catch onto the subtleties of these discussions better than I would).

The best I can say for this film is that if you ignore all the Hollywood cliches and if you ignore some of the plot holes, there are some halfway decent action sequences. It has some mild entertainment value.

Link of the Day
(via This Modern World)
Family of those in Iraq more opposed to war than anyone
According to a new LA Times poll, 69% of family members of soldiers in Iraq, and Iraq veterans themselves, want U.S. troops brought home within the next year. This compares to 64% of Americans overall. Details here.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Jehovah's Witnesses and Me

(I mentioned this in passing a few weeks ago, but here is the follow up).

A couple years ago Justin wrote a post about his encounters with Jehovah's Witnesses out in Ajimu. Truth be told, I had the same experience back in the days when I lived in Ajimu.

I was spending a lazy Saturday afternoon in my apartment when the doorbell ring, and it turned out to be two Japanese Jehovah's Witnesses handing out "Watch Tower" pamphlets.

This was definitely an "Even in Japan" moment. When you come to Japan you expect to see Buddhist temples, 5 story pagodas, dragon's being killed with magic swords, et cetera. The last thing you expect is to have two Jehovah's Witnesses show up at your door. That's a little too close to home for comfort.
There are lots of Mormon missionaries in Japan, but they're all white bread American boys here for their two year field work. The Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, are home grown genuine Japanese.

Fortunately, they were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. They quickly began stuttering and apologizing for the fact that they didn't speak English. My Japanese at the time was also pretty non-existent, so we didn't communicated much. Eventually they managed to ask me if I went to church. I answered yes (technically a lie at the time) and showed them my Bible, they gave me some literature, and went away.

...I know, I would never have gotten off so easily back home. But in Japan less than 1% of the population is Christian, so I guess they figured I was close enough and left me off the hook.

A few months ago, I had Jehovah's Witnesses show up at my apartment here in Nakatsu. I invited them in.

Truth was, I hadn't had any good religious discussions in a while, and I was beginning to miss those late night dormitory debates at Calvin. Plus I thought it would be a great way to test out my Japanese (one of the major reasons I started reading the Bible in Japanese and attending Japanese church services was that I wanted to build up the vocabulary to talk about religious matters intelligently.) Could I successfully debate the Jehovah's Witnesses in Japanese?
Lastly, I must confess, it was partly because of my ego. As a left over from so many years of Christian schooling, I have a pretty thorough knowledge of the Bible (if I don't say so myself) and lately living in Japan hasn't given me much of an opportunity to show it off. Not many people over here really care.

So, I invited them in...Actually they wouldn't come into my apartment. They must not get a lot of invitations to come in, and traditional Japanese reserve and reluctance to enter someone else's dwelling came over, and they insisted on talking to me in the doorway. It was only as the weather gradually got colder that they began to accept my invitations inside. (I figure I had got to be the only person who was actively arguing with Jehovah's Witnesses to get them to come inside my house).

The first time they came over, I had to begin by confessing my ignorance. "You know," I said, "They always told me to watch out for Jehovah's Witnesses in Sunday School, but to be honest I don't even know what you believe. What is the difference between my Protestantism and Jehovah's Witnesses?"

"We use the same Bible that you do," they answered. "Only we interpret it literally. For example we believe that believers should never go to war. We would never have supported this Iraq war that your Christian president got into."
Well, did they know how to get off on the right foot with me or what? Point one for the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Over the last couple months they've been coming weekly, and we've been going through their brochures. I make a game of it to try and debate them on every single point possible. Even the little points, like whether animals have souls or not, turn out to be big discussions. (I defended my Sunday school lessons that animals do not have souls. Jehovah's Witnesses argued that they did).

The problem is I don't have a clear idea of what I believe these days. So sometimes I challenge them from a doctrinal Protestant view. Sometimes, for example when we talked about the age of the earth, I challenged them from a Darwin Evolutionary view, and sometimes I even resort to defending Catholic doctrine.
For example when they urged me to look at what the Bible truly says instead of what I had been taught to believe in church, I responded with the traditional Catholic argument that since the Bible canon had been decided by the Church fathers, didn't that mean the Church had to be on equal authority with the Bible? (I'm sure my Protestant forefathers were rolling over in their graves on that one).

(At times I ask questions I already knew the answers to just to try and trip them up a little bit. Like when they made a big point of emphasizing that one man should be married to one woman, I brought up all the wives the old testament patriarchs had. And when they said that Jehovah was a kind God because unlike all the heathen gods, Jehovah forbid human sacrifices, I of course brought up the case of Jephtha in Judges).

And then, after a month of debating little points, we got to the divinity of Christ. I had completely forgotten about this, but as soon as we touched upon the point the past forgotten warnings of old Sunday School teachers immediately rushed back into my head. "Oh yeah, so this is why Jehovah's Witnesses are different. I should have remembered that."

I, of course, immediately pointed out to them John 1:1. Which, oddly enough, took them completely off-guard. No doubt Jehovah's Witnesses back in the United States are ready for that one and have a defense all lined up, but in Japan they witness to a non-Christian population, and they had never even considered John 1:1 before. "Um," they said. "That is quite interesting, isn't it? We'll have to check back with some of the Church elders and find someone who can address that verse better than we can. But in the meantime we want you to not just take this one verse out of context, but instead consider the Bible as a whole."

They then responded with a whole bunch of Bible passages when it looks for all the world that Jesus and God the father are two completely separate entities. You know them as well as I do. Jesus being tempted in the desert. Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus crying out to God on the cross.
And of course all I could respond with was, "Um, yeah, we were always told just to ignore that part in Sunday School." Or, "We were told man wasn't meant to understand that part."

Feeling like I was loosing the debate, I decided to get some back up for the next week. I put in "Debating Jehovah's Witnesses" into a Google search engine, and found some sites like this one. I scribbled down a bunch of bible verses on a piece of paper, and the next week when they came over we played, "Trade the Bible Verses".

"Look at this verse here."

"Ah, yes, that's a good point, but look at this verse here."

"Um, that is a bit difficult to explain. But forget about that, look at this verse here."

And so it went. But I do have to admit, they have a much easier time of it than I do. I'm defending a doctrine that goes against the laws of physics and all common sense. And all I have to back me up is a few Bible verses that seem to stand awkwardly on their own. For every Bible verse I find suggesting Jesus and God are one, they seem to have 5 ready in which Jesus appears to be talking to God, or arguing/ pleading with God, or referencing God as a being other than himself. And I do begin to wonder if they are twisting the Bible around to meet their doctrine, or if we Protestants might be more guilty of twisting the Bible around to meet ours.

I suspect that most of us who grew up in Christian homes and schools had an experience with the Divine Trinity that was similar to mine. I remember being in Kindergarten and the teacher was explaining to us that Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy spirit were all one in the same. (The Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the Holy Spirit isn't an actual being, but simply a metaphor for God's power. And to be honest, I always did feel that he was kind of being snuck into the Trinity without a lot of Biblical support).
Anyway, the whole class of Kindergartners immediately protested that it was impossible. You can't be three different things that are one in the same at the same time. So the teacher got out her diagram of the apple, and explained about the core, the middle, and the skin being three different parts of the apple. But of course even as Kindergartners we realized the analogy was incomplete. God wasn't an apple, so what did that really mean in real terms? And finally the teacher said, "Look, I know this is very hard to understand. Adults don't even fully understand it. This is one of those things you just have to accept on faith."

And so we did. Because she was the teacher and we accepted unconditionally anything parents and teachers told us. We might struggle to make sense of it, but if we couldn't work it out in our brains we assumed the fault was in our own mental capacities, not in the doctrine itself.

Of course growing up in the Church you know all the "problem" Bible passages with the Trinity, but you're taught to look at these as theological problems to be overcome, or at most, problems forever outside the understanding of man. You're never taught to just use your common sense about these passages to take you to the obvious conclusion.

As we grow older, we all have our moments of doubt about the truth of Christianity. We wonder why we are so sure the Bible is superior to other religions, or if there is a God at all. But never once do we question the core doctrines of the Church as misguided. We take an all or nothing approach to Christianity, either it is all right or it is all wrong (or at least I do, I'm not sure if I'm still speaking for everyone at this point, but I suspect I am). We know of course that some crazies out there actually believe in the old heresies that were "disproved" hundreds of years ago by Church fathers, but we just shake our heads and wonder how they can be so foolish.

And these old prejudices are so fully ingrained in you until you actually go through the Bible with some of them and realize they have all of common sense arguing on their side, and in fact it is you who are trying to do all the fantastic twists of logic.

But throughout the whole thing, a larger point occurs to me. The absolute absurdity of it.
I mean here we are, putting the Bible under a magnifying glass and throwing verses back and forth at each other because they believe my very salvation is at stake in getting me to interpret certain verses a certain way. And I believe (or at least I should if I was an orthodox Christian) that their salvation is equally at stake unless I can get them to accept my intellectual doctrine about the verses I select. I think South Park satirized this whole thing nicely with their "Final Exam" clip.



Also Richard Dawkins with the "What if you're wrong?" question


As Christians we all find the belief that we are saved by faith and not works comforting for all the obvious reasons (I personally would be screwed if salvation came through works), but it does have its downside. It is the proverbial elephant in the corner of our religion that we all know is there, but try and ignore as much as possible. Every so often it gets brought up at a Bible study, but then swept back under the rug with the usual platitudes, "Well, somethings are just beyond our understanding." "We'll just have to trust that God is doing what is best" (at least in my experience growing up).

At any rate, I have been very happy with the Japanese practice. Being able to debate the divinity of Christ in Japanese is probably a significant accomplishment, even if I did blow the Japanese Proficiency Test.

Link of the Day
Iraq Veterans Against the War: The Winter Soldier Campaign

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Stargate

(movie review)

Since I am a self-confessed Science Fiction Geek, I guess the big question is why I waited so long to see this movie.

It was partly because of the bad reviews it got. It was partly because I always thought the previews looked stupid. But mostly it was tribe loyalty. This movie came out the same summer as "Star Trek 7", and in the summer of 94 I was a huge 16 year old Star Trek nut. And so I boycotted the competition.

Had this film gone one to become a huge hit and a modern day classic, I'm sure I would have eventually outgrown my tribal predjudices and rented it long before now. But instead this was one of those lesser films that kind of quietly disappear after a less than spectacular theatrical run.

...Or so I thought...

The other day I was wondering through my local video store and I noticed there was a whole row of DVDs for the "Stargate" TV show. This is something that had been flying beneath my radar, no doubt partly due to my having been in Japan (my standard excuse for everything). But I thought if this movie was popular enough into so many TV shows, maybe it was worth checking out.

And then when I found out Kurt Russell was starring in the movie, that was the clencher for me.

As a kid I was forbidden to watch anything except the Disney Channel or PBS. Therefore I grew up watching all those old Disney Kurt Russell movies. In fact I didn't even know Kurt Russell had a career as an adult actor until "Tombstone" became a cult hit on my college dorm floor Freshman year.
Mostly for nostolgia value, Kurt Russell is one of those few actors whose presence alone in enough to recommend a movie to me. (I should have added him to my list in this post)

So, I rented the movie.

WOW, does this movie suck or what? Somebody will have to explain to me how this movie managed to generate 3 spin-off TV series, because this movie contains some of the laziest writing I've seen in a long time.

The premise in this movie is pretty far-fetched, but of course in a lot of science fiction/ fantasy movies you have to give the basic premise a little space, and assume that if you do that everything else in the movie will follow logically. In this case the writers abuse that good faith to pack the movie full of improbably coincidences and leaps of logic. Either the writers of this movie are idiots, or (more likely) they simply assume we are. If this movie had been 50 years older and filmed in black and white, I'm sure it would have been featured on "Mystery Science Theater 3000".
To list all the plot holes, leaps of logic, and unlikely coincidences would take too long, but my favorite was when James Spader's character accidentally discovers a wall panel which has written down the whole history of Stargate (just in case I guess foreign travellers stumble upon it and need a succient summary of our story so far) and among other things find out that the god Ra has forbidden writing things down to prevent rebellion. Leaving aside the fact that throughout history numerous slave rebellions have occured among illiterate slaves, if things are forbidden to be written down what is this whole history doing in the first place?

The action scenes often make as little sense as the plot. (At one point one of the baddies dons long nails so he can give Kurt Russell a slight scratch on the back during the fight.) With lots of poorly designed or improbable science fiction space devices.

Besides Kurt Russell, this movie features French Stewart in the unlikely role as one of the soldiers (before he was typecast in squinty eyed comedy roles). Other than that I can't find a lot to recommend this film.

Link of the Day
It's Our Web
Media Mouse has endorsed a new campaign launched by FreeSpeech TV to challenge the corporate dominance of the Internet. The campaign features a video (see below) and a website promoting truly independent websites and open source software. The campaign coincides with recent announcements of new profiling and data-mining initiatives from Facebook and MySpace as well ongoing debate over net neutrality.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Japanese Proficiency Test and Me

This past Sunday was the Japanese Proficiency Test. After a couple years absence, I decided to take the Japanese Proficiency Test again.

My history of the Japanese Proficiency Test goes like this:
2002--Took level 4 and passed it.
2003--Took level 3 and passed it
2004--Was planning on taking the test, but missed the application deadline.
2005--Didn't bother taking the test because I had given up studying Japanese
2006--Didn't bother applying because I was back in America (I've heard it is possible to take the test outside of Japan, but what's the point?)

A while back I listed off a bunch of reasons why I had become disillusioned with studying Japanese. All of those reasons still hold, and in fact I've thought up several new ones. Even if I did manage to master Japanese (and I'm no where near it now) I'm not sure what I'd do with it. Translating work is often few and far between, and not necessarily all that much better paying than the ESL I'm doing now (well, not NOW now, but that I usually do). My historical and cultural interests are mostly Western based, and often I wonder if I have an interest in continuing to study Japan for the rest of my life. Plus, now that I have a basis of the fundamentals of conversations, all the blood sweat and tears I put into studying only increase my communication abilities incrementally.

Not to mention Japanese is an incredibly difficult language. To quote from the introduction to one of my textbooks: "I well remember how discouraging it was not to be able to read freely in Japanese even after three or four years of study at an American university, especially after having been able to read plays and novels in my second year German class. I used to think that this was solely a Kanji problem, but later realized that my limited vocabulary and knowledge of idioms was equally to blame. One literally starts from zero when one learns Japanese, a fact brought home to me when I returned to the study of French after a few years in Japan. It is only after studying Japanese that one appreciates how close English is to other European languages in vocabulary, sentence construction, and way of thinking. Of course that's what makes Japanese so fascinating as well as so frustrating."

But for all that, I decided that since I'm back in Japan now, and don't know when (if ever) Shoko and I will be able to make a permanent move back to the States, I decided I had nowhere to go but studying Japanese.

And so the struggle begins again.

This fall I signed up for the Japanese Proficiency test. (And by the way, what a pain in the neck that was. Go re-read Aaron's post for a great summary of all the trials and tribulations one has to go through just to get the application packet for this thing).

Deciding what level was easy. I had already passed 4 and 3. The only place to go was up to 2.

What do all these levels mean, you might ask? Well level 4 is dirt easy. If you've been in Japan for a year, and you've made a little effort to learn the basics of the writing system, it's essentially a give-me.

Level 3 requires a bit of hard studying and putting the nose to the grindstone, but it's not hard at all to pass if you put in the effort.

Level 1 is notorious for being impossible to pass. Japanese people can't even pass it.

You'll notice I skipped level 2. Somewhere in there between level 3 and level 1 (obviously) but probably closer to the level 1 side. The test levels don't always make equal jumps in difficulty you see. The jump from level 3 to level 2 is much bigger than the jump from 4 to 3.

It is possible for some people to be in Japan for several years and not be able to pass level 4, but it's rare and almost takes an effort. You have to intentionally avoid all exposure at all to Japanese and keep yourself surrounded by an English ghetto (some people do manage to pull this off).

By contrast, I also know a couple JETs who have gone from zero Japanese to passing level 2 in a year and a half. It is very rare, but it does happen. (Although at least one of them did so at the cost of his eye-sight, and has had problems with his eyes ever since).

Six years into it now I'm obviously taking the slow route. It's not for lack of effort I can assure you (at least not during the first 3 years anyway). Partly it's because foreign languages don't appear to be my strong point. And perhaps partly because my anal-retentive style of studying (making sure I completely master the basics before moving onto the the next level) slows me down.

Even at my peak I couldn't have passed the second level. But since I stopped actively studying Japanese my level actually went down, even while living in Japan. And then the 8 months I was in America, and didn't do any studying other than the occasional phone call to Shoko, really hurt me.

But there was certainly no point in re-taking the easier levels I had already passed. So, with full knowledge that I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of passing, I signed up for the level 2 test. It would be a good motivator for me to study. And it would be good practice for when I actually did have a chance of passing the test (perhaps next year, if I study hard).

How did the test go? I can't say now. Check back in a couple of days.

Link of the Day
City Commission Passes Resolution against Iraq War
December 5, 2007: After months--or even years of debate depending on how far back you trace its origins--the Grand Rapids City Commission has finally passed a resolution against the Iraq War. The resolution will be sent to Grand Rapids Representative Vern Ehlers and Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow