Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tombo Times: Japanese Student Movement part 1

And-Yet- another- Tombo- Times- article. I decided to continue the theme of "History Corner" which I started last time with the article on Richard Sorge.
This time I decided to write about the Japanese student movement, a pet interest of mine
ever since I wrote this paper for a class at Calvin.
The Tombo Times editor generously offered to let me do it as a two parter so I could expand on it a bit more.
Unfortunately, because of the format of the Tombo Times, even split into two pages it is still less space than I had when I wrote up my report in my Calvin days. And, because I had learned more about the Japanese student movement over the past few years, I was esseintally trying to cram more information into less space.
Anyways, here's the article. Part 2 will follow next month. This article, as well as the rest of the Tombo Times, can also be read on-line here

History Corner: Japanese Student Movement Part 1
The 1960s is often an overlooked part of Japanese history. In America and other Western countries we often mythologize the student protests in the 1960s (or, depending on our political viewpoint, demonize). But, despite the fact that 1960s were much more turbulent in Japan than in America it has been almost entirely forgotten by the succeeding generations.

It is very hard to find any reference to this part of Japanese history in the modern media. And if you bring the subject up with a Japanese friend in their 20s, you're more than likely to simply get a blank stare. It isn’t just that they don’t know about it in detail, many of them aren’t even aware that the student demonstrations even took place.
The blame for most of this can be placed on the Japanese school system, which prioritizes ancient history at the expense of recent history. Many Japanese teachers are struggling just to get to the second world war before the end of the year arrives, and anything that happened after the war isn’t considered old enough to be history.
(If we are more cynical, we might also credit a worldwide trend by the powers that be to downplay the significance of this era of mass rebellion, and instead present it simply as a time of cheesy rock music and bad fashion.)

However, if we think of the 60s as an era of world wide student rebellion, a case can be made for Japan being the epicenter of this movement. Large scale student demonstrations in Japan began in 1960, when the rest of the world’s universities were still largely apolitical. The same year C. Wright Mills wrote his famous “Letter to the New Left” in which he urged the American youth not to be discouraged by their sense of powerlessness, but to look at the example of student power in Japan. When rebellion finally did spread to America in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, Clark Kerr, the Berkeley administrator, blamed the whole thing on Japan and said it was inevitable the Japanese student rebellion would eventually spread to America.

If you talk to anyone old enough to remember the era though, it is possible you might here some interesting stories. The old men in your office might look pretty boring, but a few of them have some battle stories that they’re eager to tell if only prodded with the right questions. (Proceed with caution whenever bringing up politics in a Japanese office. But of course you know that already).

The Japanese student Movement can be roughly divided up into two waves. The first wave, at the beginning of the 1960s, is the one that influenced students in the rest of the world. By the second wave of student protests in the late 60s, things had come full circle and then Japanese students where being influenced (and borrowing rhetoric from) student demonstrations in Europe and America.

The first wave of protests grew out of two different causes: Nobusuke Kishi becoming Prime Minister, and the renewal of the security treaty between the US and Japan in 1960. Kishi was one a member of the old guard from Japan’s militaristic days. He had been the vice minister of munitions under the Tojo government, and a suspected Class A war criminal. Under the original occupation rules he had been barred from holding government office, but the allied policy was reversed in 1952. After which, partly under the guise of anti-Communism, many members of the old guard began to creep back into public life (as in Western Germany). And, as in Western Germany, there was a fear bordering on hysteric paranoia among the left that this was signaling a return to fascism.

The second issue was the security treaty between the US and Japan. This treaty was unpopular because the left wanted to preserve Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution, and they feared that close military ties with the US would force Japan into the middle of the cold war.

The result was several months of massive student protests in 1960 which ended in several hundreds of injuries on both the police and student side, burned police cars, the Prime Minister’s residence broken into twice, and one student death. In a huge embarrassment to the Kishi government the visit of President Eisenhower had to be cancelled because Japan could not guarantee his safety.

In the end it was a split victory. Kishi was forced to resign from his post as Prime Minister, but the security treaty passed despite overwhelming opposition.

The peace protesters would continue throughout the decade (occasionally featured for interviews in American magazines like Life) but after the massive 1960 protests Japan enjoyed relative quiet. Until the second wave of student protests began at the end of the 60s.

Link of the Day
Peter Bratt's take on the Democratic Primary

野良猫ロック・マシン・アニマル/ Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal

(Movie Review)

And onto the 4th movie in the "Stray Cat Rock" series. (I've decided I made it this far, I might as well work my way through the whole project. 4 down, 1 to go).

Meiko Kaji and her girl gang are back in another installment. (Although once again there's no continuity between these films. They're just similar themed movies made by the same company).
This time around the girls run into a trio of drug dealers. They initially harass and attempt to steal from the dealers, but the girls become more sympathetic once they realize the drug dealers are really soldiers who are trying to escape from the Vietnam War.
This is slightly confusing because two out of the trio of drug dealers are obviously Japanese, and Japan didn't send any soldiers to Vietnam. I think they're supposed to be playing Japanese Americans, but I'm going to have to admit that because there are no English subtitles on this DVD, my limited Japanese sometimes causes me to miss some of the plot points.
(The 3rd soldier, although constantly referred to by the rest as White or a foreigner, looks to my eyes almost Japanese. The character only speaks in English the whole movie, although the actor who plays him apparently has a limited command of the language).

Things get into trouble when the rival male motorcycle gang tries to steal the LSD. Then begins a series of double crosses, kidnapping, hostage exchanges, and (of course) motorcycle chases.

I hope I'm not giving anything away by saying it has a bit of a tragic end, but of all these Stray Cat movies there hasn't been one with a happy ending yet. If you've made it this far in the series, you're not really expecting much in the way of happy endings.

The music for this movie is great. Although the whole series is famous for it's music, (and for characters breaking into song spontaneously, in a delightfully cheesy way) this movie seems even more crammed with music than the rest of them. There's plenty of great bubble gum psychedelic pop songs mixed throughout.

Link of the DayAlternative Reporting on Bush's State of the Union

Monday, January 28, 2008

Journal: May 17, 2000

(retrospection)

(What follows is a long and somewhat rambling treatise on how I've decided I'm going to treat full names from now one. If you want to get right to the retrospection entry, just skim over this italics part.
I've been thinking a lot about the internet and privacy issues lately, and I've decided it's just playing with fire to keep referring to people by their full names in these retrospections. Sooner or later someone is going to get upset.
I know some of you are reading this and thinking, "well, duh! In fact I couldn't believe you had the chutzpah to keep using full names for as long as you did.
To which I can only reply, point taken. My defense is threefold:
1) All of these retrospections are from so long ago I couldn't imagine anyone would have a problem with them
2) all of the events in them are benign and pretty harmless
3) lastly, I thought without using full names it would lead to a lot of confusion about who was who, especially since there were so many Toms, Dicks and Harrys at Calvin. (Actually in the case of Calvin, according to the unscientific survey we conducted on Second Boer, the most popular names for boys were John and Matt. Girl were usually some variation on Christina/ Kristin/ Kristy, etc.)
Truth be told, I still have some reservations on this 3rd point. Especially since as more time goes by, our memories will fade and the the "who was that guy again?" factor is going to increase. Looking back through these journal entries I can't even remember who half these people were sometimes, and it was my life. I think a full name would trigger more memory cells firing than an initial...
...But all that aside, it can't be helped. It's just common internet sense and good manners not to use other people's full names without their permission.
Thus forth, I will either refer to people by a first name and first initial of last name, or by last name only. If they have a nickname I might try and sneak that in too.

Stylistically I realize it is going to grate a little to have all these initials and partial names popping up, but that's another sacrifice we'll just have to make.
If you have any questions about who is who, you can always e-mail me, and I'd be glad to tell you privately off the world wide web. If you recognize yourself and don't want even a part of your name to appear on this blog, you can e-mail me. Likewise, if you recognize yourself, and want full credit for all you exploits, e-mail me and I'd be glad include your full name.)

5/17/00
I woke up and took my last exam, then went back to the apartment and went back to bed. Mr. Bandringa came over, and found both Brett N. and I in bed. He called us lazy, but when we offered Cecil L's bed to him, he took it and joined us in a nap.

We all woke up much later. Brett was supposed to go over and see Hannah M.(He was going to be leaving soon for Colorado, so he wanted to spend some time with her before going). Mr. Bandringa and I came along. We met Hannah, and the four of us went out to Yesterdog, and then afterwards went back to Hannah's house and relaxed on her porch. Everyone else had a beer, but I didn't want to drink so I just had one of Hannah's limes instead. (They had been putting the limes in with some of the drinks, but I ate it straight. I figured it was good vitamin C. The rest of the gang thought it was very funny.)

Hannah was her delightful self, and I really enjoyed spending the afternoon with her.
It was also good to spend time with both Brett and Mr. Bandringa. I think we all had a sense of how quickly our time together was slipping away from us now. Mr. Bandringa will be leaving to go British Columbia soon. Brett is also leaving to go to Colorado soon, but at least with Brett I know we'll always stay in touch. I have a feeling I'm going to end up loosing touch with Mr. Bandringa.

On the way back to Calvin, I we stopped up Meijers and I picked up film I had gotten developed. On the drive I told Brett the whole story of the little mess I had gotten myself into with the exchange student from Hungry. Brett's the first person and so far only person I've confided in about this.

For most of rest of afternoon I read my book. Brett was going with Hannah, and Esther B. to a BBQ at Ms. Skogerbie's house. He invited me to go with him, and I was tempted but in the end I decided against it because I had the feeling Brett Hannah and Esther would want to stay longer than I would (they knew the people at Skogerbie's house better than I did). We could have taken two cars, but I didn't know the way and I didn't want to mess with all the trouble of two cars following eachother out.

Instead, I helped Bosch (Ribs) clean the apartment so he could get checked out. First Cecil and I moved our outside couch from the porch and into the dumpster. Then I decided to tackle all the dirty dishes in the sink, but soon gave up once I realized Rob and Cecil were were getting the dishes dirty again just as fast as I was cleaning them.

Bosch eventually managed to get the apartment cleaned and checked out in spite of all this.

I felt a little guilty for sitting around on a Sunday afternoon reading a book instead of going to the party, but at least there was a lot of activity going on in our apartment. People were always coming in and going out and there was a big crowd playing video games, so I figured I was at least being partly social.
Nevertheless when Brett called me up to invite me to another party at Mr. Hong's house, I jumped at the chance and drove over.

It was a typical Calvin party. Mr. Lagrand and Mr. Stroboscher were performing music together for a while. Mr. Nienhuis was also there, and I talked to him for a while. He’s graduating this year, but doesn't know what he's going to do, which makes me feel slightly better about my own ambivalence about the future.
I sat in on a conversation in which Mr. Nienhuis and Mr. Lagrand complained about people who blindly support large coorperations, and are too lazy too seek out more ecological alternatives when they go shopping.

Eventually the cops came, but surprisingly enough the party was not broken up. The cops just old everyone to go inside and keep the noise down instead. Brett decided to leave around this point. I stayed for a little while longer than he did, but I got bored soon after and left myself. I talked to Jen B, who had come to the party with Brett and Ms. Schipper, but was upset to find they had left without her. I offered her a ride home in my car, but she said she wanted to stay at the party a little bit longer and would find a ride home somehow.

When we got back to the Calvin apartment, Brett was just stopping by briefly before he made his way onto Ms. Schipper's place. I told Brett before he left we should go out and have a look at the Calvin Nature Preserve. Brett was in a hurry to get to Ms. Schipper's place, but I convinced him to spare 15 minutes.

I had been out in the nature preserve the previous night during the thunderstorm, and had been amazed at the beauty of it. It was raining again tonight, so I told Brett he should come out and see what it looked like. At night the heavy sheets of rain made the normal Michigan forest look more like a tropical jungle. The lightening would come out periodically and also add to the earry effect.

We both got soaked by the rain, but Brett agreed he was glad I had made him come out to look at it. We were overlooking the pond in the middle of the preserve, and commenting on how bright and Brett said, "This is amazing." There was a pause and then he added, "I'm going to pee in it." The juxstiposition of those two statements, once Brett realized what he had said, gave us a good laugh. Brett relieved himself in the nature pond, and then we headed back to the apartment.

We ran back all the way, soaked to the skin but enjoying the cool feeling of the rain. It was still somewhat cold for a spring night, but once we started running we didn't mind it so much.

Once we got back to the apartment, Rob P. wanted in on the fun as well and said we had to go back out in the rain. He mentioned this just as Brett had finished drying himself off, so Brett took a little bit of convincing but eventually we got him to agree to go out again. Mr. Bakker (Cakes) also came along.

Eventually the as we discussed things the plan evolved into a streaking across campus. After all it was raining, there were only a few people left on campus now, and besides we were only a couple days away from graduation ceremony, so it was the perfect time.

Rob called up Mr. Boss (team Boss), who grudgingly agreed to it after some convincing on the phone. Boss had apparently been drinking that night, because he remarked several times that he would never have agreed to do this if he had been sober.

The first place we went to was the nearby soccer field. (We later heard from Cecil, Mr. Gort, and Mr. Gerken (butterball), who all opted to stay behind, that the RA from Beta had somehow got wind of our plans to streak and ran out after us to stop us, but we never saw anything of him.)

At the soccer field we disrobed and ran the length of the field. Rob sped off across the field at full speed as if he were in a race, and at the sight of his naked body speeding across the soccer field the rest of us were laughing so hard we could hardly run. Eventually we made it across the field and back but our stomaches ached from laughing too hard and trying to run at the same time.

Once we had completed the run, we realized there was absolutely no one around besides ourselves, which somewhat defeats the purpose of streaking. In fact once we looked around, there was no one even close to the soccer field. After some discussion, we put our clothes back on and walked across campus to the PE building where we again disrobed and ran naked as far as the underpass.

Since this meant running through the dorms, Boss lost his nerve at this point and decided not to streak with the rest of us. Instead he decided to serve the function of collecting our garments for us, and also ran ahead to stand guard and warn us if any parents were coming. It was the end of the year, so there had been a lot of parents on campus that day helping their children move out of the dorms. Now it was around midnight, so there wasn't a lot of activity.
Ther were a still a couple groups of people loading up their cars as we ran by. Boss tried to warn us away from the groups of parents, but once we had actually started running and got in our stride we lost our inhabitations and ran straight through. Rob yelled out, "I'm graduating," to the crowd of parents. (As far as I could tell, it was all parents and there were no one our own age, although you never know who might have been watching from the dorms). Our bare feet hurt from running along the asphalt

On the way back, a campus safety patrol car was going by and everyone mooned the car. I, feeling that I had already put in my exhibitionist time for the evening, alone refrained from the mass mooning. (Rob and Boss knew the girl who was working because of their campus safety connections, so needless to say no one got in trouble).

Even after we got back to the apartment the rambunctious mood from the evening's excursion carried over, and we spent a lot of time mooning each other, wrestling, etc.
At one point I went into the other room to change into my pajamas. While I was naked the boys caught hold of me and dragged me out into the living room. I didn't make much of an effort to resist because I figured that even though I was in an exposed condition, they were the ones who had to look at me and so they were getting the worse end of the deal. I don't think they really had planned out what they were doing. They simply assumed I would hate being dragged out of the bedroom, and when I didn't resist they weren't quite sure what to do next.

Then someone opened the blinds, and suddenly I was exposed to the whole courtyard area. I grabbed the first thing I could find for cover, which happened to be Cecil's coat lying on the floor. He was slightly upset that his coat was coming into such proximity with my more intimate parts, but I think he was just acting upset more than he actually was. I suspect he understood that I had just grabbed the first thing next to me, and it didn't represent and intended personal affront. There was a moment when I worried it might blow up in a big fight, but fortunately he let it go.

Link of the Day
Via Tom Tomorrow
Stimulus Package
and All Republicans are not assholes

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Shinsengumi by Romulus Hillsborough

(Book Review)

I became acquainted with "Shinsengumi" recently from watching "When the Last Sword is Drawn", a film one of my students lent to me. Although I initially gave that film a bad review on this blog, after talking to my student about the movie and the historical story behind it, I became more and more interested in the history of Shinsengumi. And then, the next time I was in Fukuoka it turned out there was an English book out on the subject, so I decided to pick it up.

The Shinsengumi were a collection of ronin (masterless) Samurai who were selected to form a new elite corps in the city of Kyoto, and to police the city during the final days of the Tokugawa Shogun dynasty (right before the Meiji Restoration), in the days when Kyoto was seething with terrorists and revolutionaries.

Whether or not the Shinsengumi caused more bloodshed than they prevented has been a matter of debate ever since. As Romulus Hillsborough demonstrates, the power went straight to their heads and they often killed people on a whim.

This was especially true of one of their co-commanders Serizawa Kamo, who Hillsborough portrays as simply psychotic. Eventually, when his excesses got too carried away, Serizawa was assassinated by his rivals in the Shinsengumi corp.

At the same time, when recounting the sheer bravery and daring of the Shinsengumi, it's hard to hate them completely and a tone of admiration seems to leak into much of Hillsborough's writing.

Eventually the tide of history turned against the Shinsengumi, and when the Shogunate fell they found themselves on the wrong side of a revolution. Hillsborough recounts how most of the Shinsengumi fought to the death even after the last Shogun himself had resigned and made peace with the Meiji Restoration.

It has often been said that Samurai movies are the Japanese equivalent of cowboy Westerns, and I'm only just now starting to appreciate the truth of that statement. 19th Century Kyoto as depicted in this book is a lawless city filled with terrorists, assassins, revolutionaries, loyalists, and masterless Samurai. You can't help but think of an old Western town as you read about the daily street battles between Samurai, with the local authorities powerless to impose order.
Of course the comparison does have its limits. The revolutionaires in Kyoto were a lot more politically motivated than the bandits of the old West. Which is perhaps why my student, when explaining the Shinsengumi to me, chose to compare Kyoto to the insurgent situation in Iraq instead.
But I still prefer the old west comparison. And just as old west shoot outs were recorded in detail by eye-witnesses and later told and retold in various books in movies, so the epic battles of the Shinsengumi are all seem to have been recorded in a lot of detail, and many of them are retold in this book.

As this book deals with the last days before the Meiji Restoration, it occurs during the same time as "The Last Shogun". And many of the same events are recounted in both books, although with a different emphasis. ("Shinsengumi" focused on recounting in detail the various street battles in Kyoto. "The Last Shogun" focused on the broader political situation at the time, but both books have a lot of overlap). For most of the time I was reading these two books concurrently, and each helped me a lot to get a fuller picture of what was happening in the other. But I think each can be read on it's own as well.
Link of the Day

Friday, January 25, 2008

野良猫ロック セックスハンター / Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter

(Movie review)

The third movie in the "Stray Cat Rock" series. And for whatever reason, apparently the only movie in this series that got a DVD release in the USA. (Unlike the first couple films in the series, there's plenty of English reviews about this film already on-line).

Why this was the only movie out of the 5 to get released in the US is a mystery. It certainly wasn't because it was the best movie in the series. If anything the production values on this movie are worse than the first two, although all these movies are so bad it gets difficult to compare. (And when I say these are bad movies, I mean that in the most affectionate way. These are great bad movies if you like cheesy old stuff).

Meiko Kaji and the many of the other same actors from the previous movies are back, but as I said in my review of Wild Jumbo I don't think there is any sort of continuity between the different movies in the series. Everyone is playing a different character with no reference to past movies. In fact it beats me why all 5 of these movies are even supposed to be part of the same series. They could easily just have been 5 different unrelated movies with the same actors made a couple months apart. But I guess that's not as catchy of a name.

Speaking of catchy names: you can't beat a name like "Sex Hunter", huh? With a name like that, you know exactly what you're getting into: a B-class 1970s explotation flick.
The fact that the title has nothing to do with the content of the movie is probably unimportant. I'm sure it was just a catchy title designed to sell box office tickets. In fact not only is there no sex hunter prowling around in this movie, but, the name aside, it's actually the most serious of all the movies in the series so far. This movie actually attempts to take on the issue of racism in Japanese society. How well it succeeds in this attempt, however, is another question altogether.

The film is about an ongoing street gang war between a gang of toughs known as "The Eagles" and another group composed of racially mixed Halfs. (Half Japanese, Half foreinger. Their referred to as "Half" (harufu) in Japanese, so with apologies to political correctness I'll just use that term here).

Because of the war and subsequent US occupation of Japan, there were a lot of half Japanese/ half American children born. And, these children were becoming young adults at about the time this movie was made (1970). So it is interesting to watch as a time piece. In fact the music group "The Golden Halves", a group of ethnically mixed girl singers who had a string of hits in the 1970s, appear in the background in several of the scenes.

As a serious piece on race-relations though, it's absolutely laughable. It starts out kind of like West Side Story, with various rumbles between the two groups. It ends in a big shoot-out that doesn't entirely make sense.

As with more recent Japanese films like "Go" and "Pacchigi", I'm slightly uncomfortable that these serious issues are treated in a film with comic-book style violence. Maybe somewhere out there, there is a Japanese movie that actually deals with the subject of racism in a serious way. I'll keep looking.

In the meantime: for cheesy retro music, fashion, and motorcycle gang rivalry, you can't beat this series.

Link of the Day
Report: Iraq War Costs Continuing to Rise

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Last Shogun by Ryotaro Shiba

(Book Review)

I know next to nothing about the Japanese historical Shogunate, but on my last trip to Fukuoka this book caught my eye. It was marketed as an historical novel, and I've long been a big proponent that historical novel's are the most pleasant way to learn history.

Although once I get the book home and begin reading the publisher's introduction, it turns out there's some question about whether this book should be classified as a historical novel, or simply as a straight forward history which makes use of literary devices (such as pretending to know the thoughts of historical figures at certain points).

Depending on how you look at it, this book ends up being either a really dry historical novel, or a really vibrant history book. I suppose it just depends on what you're looking for.

As the title implies, this book deals with the life of the Last Shogun in Japan, who gave up power at the time of the Meiji Restoration. Similar to "The Last Emperor" film about China (if you'll forgive me for comparing two different mediums) it is a story about a nation in transition viewed through the eyes of the outgoing monarch.

There the similarities end, however. Unlike the Chinese "Last Emperor", this Shogun was not born into power. In fact the first half of the book reminded me more of "I, Claudius" in that it is the story of all the back stage political maneuverings regarding succession to the throne, and how an unlikely outsider eventually makes his way to the top.

For someone unacquainted with Japanese history (as I am) there is a lot to keep track of in these books. Lots of different clans, different factions within the clans, backstage scheming, changing alliances, etc. I studied the "Meiji Restoration" in a couple of my history classes at Calvin, but the version I learned back then was apparently a lot simpler than what actually went on. I'm reminded of the old history teacher's saying: "You can either lie to your students, or confuse them." Any period of history, particularly revolutions and social upheavals, is a lot more complicated than we're usual taught in school, and once you get into the nuts and bolts of what's going on, it requires a lot of concentration to keep track of everything.

The author acknowledges this in his afterward: "[The last Shogun] is not a story that lends itself easily to retelling. He was a politician and ...few books with politicians as their subject have met with any success. Politicians can exist only in the midst of political events and can therefore be understood only amid the whirl of politics. Page after page of detailed political information must precede a few lines portraying the man at the center of events."

Of course for us history geeks, this is all part of the fun, but this is a book that requires a certain amount of engagement. It was not the kind of book I could pick up and put down easily. Every time I started reading again, I had to go back and re-read the last couple pages to remember who was on which side again.
If you're willing to devote a few brain cells to keeping track of the changing political alliances in 19th century Japan, it can be a lot of fun, but be forewarned ahead of time. (Actually people not historically minded will probably stay away from this book in the first place).

The good news is that you don't need to have any previous knowledge to jump into the story. I certainly didn't have any.
As with any history book, it can be a bit frustrating keeping track of the names. Especially since they're all Japanese names. (Even after 6 years in Japan, Japanese names are still a bit difficult for me to remember. My brain doesn't latch unto names like Iesada, Ieyasu, and Ieyoshi as easily as Tom, Dick, and Harry).
In a history book about Japan, Japanese names are of course an unavoidable evil, but in my opinion this could have been alleviated slightly if the translator had established a consistent way of referring to each character. As it is, we're likely to encounter a character referred to by his given name in one paragraph, and his family name in the next.
Also an index might have helped me to keep track of people. There is a list of characters in the front of the book, but it's incomplete and of course doesn't include page numbers.
None of this stopped me from getting through the book, but it did mean I was constantly flipping back pages to try and remember who was who.

Link of the Day
No Questions On Global Warming Asked At CNN's Coal Industry-Sponsored Presidential Debates

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Osugi Sakae: Anarchist in Taisho Japan by Thomas Stanley

(Book Review)

Back in the spring of 2001, when I knew I had been accepted for the JET program but hadn't shipped out to Japan just yet, I tried to do a little bit of reading up on Japan based on what was located in the Calvin library.

Calvin had a copy of the autobiography of Osugi Sakae, the Japanese anarchist. (It was in their political theory section, not in their Japan section, but as I often frequented the political theory section I stumbled upon it by accident).

Now 7 years later I don't remember much of Osugi Sakae's autobiography to be honest, but the name at least has stuck with me. In fact it's been about the only name from Japanese history that I've managed to remember over the years. So for the 6 years I've been in Japan, whenever I get in any sort of discussion about history with a Japanese person, this is the only name that I'm able to contribute to the discussion.
(I've noticed Japanese people my own age or younger have no idea who Osugi Sakae is, but the name usually gets a reaction from slightly older Japanese people . Since Osugi Sakae died way back in 1923, I think this generational shibboleth represents the difference between the politically educated generations, and the politically apathetic one, rather than some people being actually old enough to remember the events).

Because I've recently decided to make an effort to explore areas of Japanese history I'm interested in, I ordered this book off of amazon.
Thomas Stanley, the author, is also the translator of Osugi Sakae's autobiography, and probably translated the version I read 7 years ago (although there's no way I can remember). He makes the comment that, because Osugi did not want to betray his fellow comrades to the police, he wrote very little in his autobiography about his activist career and focuses instead on childhood incidents.
...And as much as I can remember, that was more or less my impression of the autobiography. I learned very little about the Japanese anarchist/socialist movement by reading it. (Although the translator's introduction did provide some of the background.)

This book gives a much more thorough picture of Osugi Sakae's life and through it a glimpse into early the early 20th Century socialist movement in Japan.

The book begins with Osugi's strict upbringing in a military family, and traces his anti-authoritarian tendencies from childhood. The narrative then follows Osugi through his flirtations with socialism, and his first arrest, which confirmed him into the socialist movement.

In prison Osugi became exposed to a number of socialist and anarchist literature, and emerged from prison as a committed anarchist. Although Thomas Stanley contends that even though Osugi Sakae was well versed in anarchist theory, and borrowed heavily from Kropotkin, Osugi was at heart an individualist first, and a syndicalist second.

In the days before the Bolshevik revolution, the distinction between socialists and anarchists was sometimes blurred, and they often worked together within the same organization. After the Russian revolution, Thomas Stanley devotes a whole chapter in his book to the anarchist-Bolshevik split in Japan. Many former anarchists ended up siding with the Bolsheviks, and Osugi himself initially supported the Bolshevik revolution. He later became disillusioned with the Bolsheviks after experiencing the authoritarian style of Comintern, and reading the reports from about the Russian revolution by Russo-American anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.

Roughly half of this book is devoted to trying to follow the political evolution of Osugi Sakae and to explain his unique ideas. The other half is narrating the events of his life. Similarly to my experience with Marx- biographies, I found the historical narrative parts fascinating, the philosophical parts really hard to get through. It must be just the way my brain is wired.
That being said, the author's style didn't help. The theoretical parts of this book were dryer and denser than they needed to be. But I guess that's what I get for buying an obscure academic book.

Leaving aside the chapters on theory, there were several interesting events in Osugi Sakae's life, including his experiments with free love, which lead to a soap-opera like love affair with three different woman, culminating in one of them stabbing him in a highly publicized scandal. As a result Osugi Sakae was largely ostracized by the Japanese socialist movement for the rest of his life. It appeals to the tabloid reader in us all.

Osugi Sakae was murdered by the police in the chaos following the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, along with a handful of other socialist and labor leaders. Thomas Stanley argues that this was an isolated incident by some overzealous policemen, and did not represent government policy at the time, but that through the lens of history we can now recognize it as an ominous foreshadow of the crackdown on dissent which was to follow in Japan from 1925.

A cleaned up and less bloggy version of this review has been posted on Media Mouse here.

Link of the Day
Climate Change is Now... Is the Left Ready?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Last Card by Hans Hellmut Kirst

(Book Review)

Also published as "Death Plays the Last Card", this is an historical novel about everyone's favorite Soviet spy in wartime Japan: Richard Sorge. I became aware of this book while doing internet research for my Tombo Times article on Richard Sorge.

This is one of those old books long out of print, but fortunately in this day and age you can get anything off of Amazon. So, being a big fan of the historical novel, I thought it might be fun to read a fictional retelling of the life of Richard Sorge.

I've always thought historical novels were the most pleasant way to learn history, although it does leave you wondering how much is true and how much is not true. And I wish I was better informed on the life of Richard Sorge so that I could better distinguish this. As it is all of my knowledge on Sorge comes from either internet research, conversations with Shoko, or the Japanese movie "Spy Sorge". I'm hardly an expert.

However based on what little I did know, parts of this book didn't feel right to me. For instance I was led to believe that Sorge went to great lengths to make sure his cover as a loyal Nazi party member was flawless. The Sorge in this book is an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime, and even gets into fist fights with Hitler's supporters.
Which version is the truth? Alas, I'll have to leave that question to someone more knowledgible than me.

Although this book is set in Japan, it is not really a book about Japan. Similarly to "The Time of Dragons", this is a book which uses Asia as a backdrop to write a book about the espionage exploits of Europeans. However members of Sorge's Tokyo spy ring such as Yotoku Miyagi and Hotsumi Ozaki appear in this book.

Perhaps because this book was written by a German author (later translated into English) the book doesn't portray Sorge as simply a spy who sold his country to Moscow, but rather a patriot who tried to put Germany on the right course and had hoped to avoid the war by sending advanced warning to Stalin. Again how accurate this is will have to be judged by someone more knowledgible than me.

Still, a good read, especially if you like a good spy story.

Link of the Day
Right-Wingers Can't Cover Up Iraq's Death Toll Catastrophe

Monday, January 21, 2008

Update 5: The First Couple Weeks

As of this writing I've put in just under 2 weeks, so I'll jot down a few thoughts here and then I'll stop doing these updates and return to regular blogging.

The first 3 days were almost completely free of lessons. Not for lack of student interest: we saw students coming in all the time to talk to the staff and ask about reservations. Rather it was because the staff hadn't been taking any down any reservations before because of the confusion regarding our schedule (see previous posts).

My co-worker and I continued our cleaning of the staff room for a second day, and then once we felt like we had largely done the job lapsed back into lethargy.

I thought it would be a good idea to use all our free time at work to get some reading done. Turns out my co-worker isn't much of a reader, and wanted to spend the time in idle chatter. After dropping a few hints, I made a not so subtle move to turn to my book. He spent most of the afternoon sitting in his chair and fidgeting and starring at the wall. I pretended not to notice his boredom as I kept my head stuck in my book.
It was perhaps not the most Christian thing I've ever done in my life, but it seemed to me it would be a tremendous waste not to use all this free time at work to improve my mind a little and get some reading done. Expect some book reviews coming soon on this site. (There was a time in my life when I would have thought that communicating with another live human being was more important than burying myself in a book, but I guess priorities change as you get older. That, plus since my job now is to teach English conversation, I guess it somewhat loses its appeal in my free time).

After a while, students started coming again. Now we're back to a pretty full schedules, although we see a lot of the same faces as its usually the same students who are reserving lessons.

Because only two of us teachers ended coming back to work, the Japanese staff is looking to find a 3rd teacher. You wouldn't think this would be such a big problem with all the teachers who have recently been laid off, but I guess everything boils down to location. There having a hard time finding someone who wants to come out to Nakatsu.

For instance, I was given the phone number of an old colleague who had transferred out to Fukuoka (and then subsequently gotten laid off with most of the people in Fukuoka), and I was told by the Japanese staff to call him up and offer him a job. We chatted briefly on the phone.
"How are things over there," he asked.
"Yeah, same as usual," I said.
"How's the new Japanese staff?"
"Um...they're good."
"There standing right next to you aren't they?"
"You're a smart man," I said.

In the end he turned down the job. He had just got done moving to Fukuoka, he didn't want to go back to Nakatsu. Plus he was with his girlfriend over there, and the job was only offered to one of them.

When I told the staff about his refusal, they panicked. "What will we do?"

"Look," I said, "the company just laid off hundreds of English teachers. There's got to be other people looking for work."

"That was the only name we were given," they answered. "We have to ask our boss for another name now."

There was also some concern about my expiring visa. (The Japanese staff was worried about it just as much as I was because I represented half the teachers at the school). After repeated phone calls and getting the usual run around, I was told the necessary papers were being sent out in the mail. I got them a few days ago, and am going to go down to Oita city on my next free day to try and renew my visa. I've only got a couple more days left before it expires, so it's really down to the wire, but assuming nothing goes wrong I should be alright.

As soon as I had my paper work for my visa in hand, I gave my next big request: I want to re-arrange my schedule so I can attend Japanese classes from this April.
Because the company is being re-organized, the chain of command is far from clear and it's a bit difficult to know who to ask these days. So I told the Japanese staff my request first, and showed them on paper how I could teach the same amount of classes as before, I'd just re-arrange everything to the evenings and weekends. (These tend to be our busiest times anyway, so I was crossing my fingers it wouldn't be a problem).

They in turn asked around, and then they came back with their answer.
"We can't do it," they said.
"Really?" I said. "But we worked it all out on paper. I'm teaching the same amount of classes."
"But we can't give you all the afternoons free. It goes against the rules."
"Oh," I said.
"What will you do if you can't get it free?"
"I'm not sure."
"Would you quit?"
"I'm not sure."

This caused another round of panicking (again, I represent half of their teachers right now) and so they told me they would try and make the necessary inquiries and try and plead my case.
We'll see where this all goes. As I said, it is a bit confusing with the company being re-organized and the chain of command unclear. Also, with massive lay-offs going on, it's not the best time to be making demands of the company or asking for special requests.
...And yet at the same time, all the stuff that has gone on with this company has shown me very clearly that if I do stay in Japan, I'm going to need some qualifications other than just being able to speak my native language. So I'm going to do whatever it takes to clear out my schedule, even if it means looking for employment elsewhere. Hopefully it won't come to that.

The other two guys have started up their own school, and held an opening party last Wednesday. They've completed construction on the new building and I was very impressed with how sleek and professional it turned out. They also have a coffee shop combined with the English school, which is a nice touch. (There's some debate about whose idea the coffee shop part was originally, but I guess it's not that difficult of an idea. I think everyone who has thought about setting up their own place in Japan has thought about combining a coffee shop with English teaching, but these guys are the first ones I've seen who've actually gone ahead and done it).
Now I guess we just have to wait and see how their business picks up. It sounds like they're off to a slow start, but that's inevitable. If they go on to wild success, no doubt I'll feel slightly envious that I missed the chance to get in on the ground floor with this. If they go bankrupt, I'll feel like I've dodged a bullet. Either way though I guess you can't put a price tag on the business experience they'll get out of doing this.
If, in the end, Nova can't give me the flexibility I need with my hours, I'm even considering trying to work for them. First we need to see if they get students though, then I need to see if Shoko will allow it, or if Shoko is still upset about the fact that I didn't start up my own school.

Link of the Day
Anti-War Ad in 60 Seconds or Less
Two activists in the Grand Rapids area are hosting the following video contest:
Tell us what you think about the US War/Occupation of Iraq in 60 seconds or less. Contestants can submit one anti-war video that will be shown at a community event on March 15. The audience will vote on the best anti-war ad and the winner will receive fame and fortune...well, at least they will receive $100.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Update 4: The First Day Back

On Friday January 11th, I reported in for my first day back at work.

I had been told my schedule via telephone by one of the area managers, and arrived to work in my shirt and tie for the first time in over 2 months, hopeful that we would have enough students to justify keeping the school open.

The staff was surprised to see me when I walked in the door. Apparently they weren't expecting any teachers to show up that day. "I was told to come here today," I assured them.

The old Japanese staff was gone. I had heard rumors that they weren't coming back, but hadn't stopped in to see for myself. (During the first few weeks after Nova's collapse we kept in touch with the Japanese staff and still met socially occasionally. Gradually I lost contact with them. Which is too bad because I considered -them friends, but so help me I guess I've never been good at staying in touch. I had heard through other people though that the old Japanese staff had been either transferred to other branches or were seeking jobs elsewhere.

The new staff explained to me that the fax machine had been down for several days now, so they hadn't received any information and didn't know when us foreign instructors would be showing up for work. (Why it never occurred to anyone to pick up a telephone I'm not quite sure). As a result they hadn't taken any student reservations, because they didn't know what our schedule was. I jotted down my schedule on a piece of paper and gave it to them.

They were also unaware that only 2 of us, not 4, were going to be returning to work. And, as they were new to the branch, didn't really have an idea of what went where, or when classes start, or what we could throw out and what we needed to keep. They really didn't seem to know much at all.

But they seemed nice enough at least. They were slightly cold at first, but warmed up to me after a while. (I think we both took each other off guard. I came in expecting to work only to learn that they hadn't reserved any classes, and they weren't expecting me to come in yet at all).

Since I had nothing to do for the day, I set to work cleaning out the staff room.

This was no easy task, as years of junk had been accumulated.

Also, the way the company had shut its doors in October suddenly and without warning meant that nobody had a chance to do simple things like clean out their lunch out of the fridge. And some lazy soul had left unwashed dishes in the sink, no doubt thinking they'd just be able to get it the next morning.

I rolled up my sleeves and started on the disgusting work.

Actually to be honest, it was a bit gross but not near as bad as cleaning out my own apartment during my bachelor days. However it was probably not a job I would have thought necessary to wear a shirt and tie to.

I made slow but steady progress. The staff eventually found a free moment to show me where I could take the garbage to dispose of it (something that the previous Japanese staff had kept hidden for me) so I walked back and forth through the mall carrying several bags of garbage and went into the back room where I interacted with all the other Japanese mall workers. It felt just like Meijers again.)

We ended up having only one lesson the whole day.

My co-worker came in at 5, and I showed him my progress. "All the frost ice in the freezer is still melting," I said. "I've had it unplugged with the door open for 4 hours now, but apparently ice takes a really long time to melt."

"Yeah, it does that. Usually you have to leave it off overnight. You should be old enough to remember the days before freezers had automatic antifrosting."

"Apparently I've had a privileged upbringing," I said.

"Apparently," he said.

Snarky comments aside, he took over the cleaning where I left off.

Link of the Day
From the Washington Post: U.S. Boosts Its Use of Airstrikes In Iraq
The U.S.-led coalition dropped 1,447 bombs on Iraq last year, an average of nearly four a day, compared with 229 bombs, or about four each week, in 2006...UNAMI estimates that more than 200 civilian deaths resulted from U.S. airstrikes in Iraq from the beginning of April to the end of last year, when U.S. forces began to significantly increase the strikes to coordinate with the expansion of ground troops

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Update 3: The Job

Ah, yes, the Job update. Where to begin on this one?

Okay, the last time I wrote about the job situation there was a couple months ago, when there was this meeting which came out of nowhere and nobody had bothered to even tell us Nakatsu teachers about. And you might recall at the time the big question was whether to resign from Nova and sign up with the new sponsor company, or do nothing and be terminated from Nova when it collapses, thus being eligible for termination compensation. (Which we wouldn't have been able to collect because Nova had gone bankrupt, but it would be added to the back wages that, under Japanese law, we would have been able to collect from the government at some day in the future. Along with our two months of unpaid work).

There was a lot of confusion about which choice would be the best. The new company said they would be willing to pay 60% of our wages for us to just stand by and wait for the new schools to open, but none of their representatives were able to answer any questions about how long this would go on for, or how legally binding these promises were.

There was a lot of debate among various people about what to do, but I ended up resigning from Nova and signing up for the new company. Sometimes I figured you have to just take a chance, and I figured if I could get just one months pay out of them before they changed their minds and reversed policy, it would be about equal to what my severance pay would have been anyway.

As it turns out I didn't even get that. They didn't pay anyone for waiting around in the month of November as they said they would. I was furious when I first heard this. I had taken the precaution of photo-copying the "request for re-employment" form before I left the building, and this clearly stated we would be paid 60% of our wages for stand-by. The question was how legally binding was this document.

My anger subsided a little when I learned none of our resignations had been officially processed. They weren't legal resignations, but they represented an intent to resign. So, apparently, we are all still getting a severance pay (or 60% of it) when we collect our back wages from the government.

It was a reversal of policy, and a change on a promise, and more than slightly dishonest, but in the end I decided not to make a big deal out of it because it didn't appear like I had been tricked into sacrificing my severance pay after all. (The severance pay, along with the rest of our back wages, we were told we probably wouldn't see for another year. Apparently it takes that long for the government bureaucracy's wheels to turn.)

What to do in the meantime? As Nova represented the biggest English Conversation school in Japan (the McDonalds of language schools) suddenly everyone was looking for a new job at once. The market was flooded with over 2000 unemployed English teachers. Every job posting had hundreds of applicants.
The Japanese media ran stories about Nova teachers being kicked out of their homes, no money to buy food, and collapsing on the street. Fortunately I avoided this because of living with Shoko, but she showed me the newspaper and magazine articles. "Isn't life funny," she said. "We Japanese people usually think of Americans as rich and powerful, but now a whole bunch of them are jobless and out on the streets in Tokyo." Apparently this little appreciation of irony has been flowing through many Japanese circles lately, but in defense of us Americans (and British, Aussies, New Zealeanders, and Canadians) we were all brought into a foreign country by a Japanese company in good faith that we would get paid for the work we did.

In my case, because the whole reason I returned to Japan in the first place was to be with Shoko, I was not free to just pick up and move anywhere in Japan. I narrowed my job search to the Nakatsu area, and there are not a lot of other jobs around this area. (This being a small city).
There used to be a Geos School here, but they closed down their doors at about the same time as Nova did. (Although in Geos's case, they had planned on closing their Nakatsu branch for a while. Nova's shutting down was a lot more sudden).

There is one more school English school in the area. A private family run place that employees a few foreigners (and to whom I sent my infamous video introduction when applying for jobs last fall). I actually got a job offer from them, but ended up deciding to go out with Nova instead because Nova could employee me sooner. (Who knew at the time? Nova was such a big company we never dreamed it would be bankrupt within a year).
Since then, I had heard a number of things about this company from both former and current employees, not all of it positive, but beggars can't be choosers, so I e-mailed them to let them know I was in the area, unemployed, and wondering if that job offer was still available.

In the meantime, Shoko was pressuring me to think about my long term future. (Which I suppose is good for me, although I have to confess I'm not always appreciative of it at the time). Shoko pointed out to me that English language schools like Nova were a dead-end job, even if they didn't go bankrupt. The money wasn't all that good, there were no bonuses, and not much opportunity for advancement. The real money was setting up your own English teaching company. (Students pay through the nose for English lessons at Nova, but only a small portion of that actually goes to us instructors. The pay is okay for people coming to Japan for a one year adventure, but it's nothing you'd want to settle down and raise a family on.)

I was very reluctant to bite off starting my own company. Doing a few private lessons here and there is alright, but if there was one thing I didn't want it was all the responsibility and stress of running my own company. Especially since I'm still considering (realistically or not) going to graduate school some day.

It turned out one of my co-workers, married to a Japanese woman, was in the exact same position. His wife was really pressuring him to set up his own language school in the absence of Nova. He didn't want to do it. He also had in his mind the idea of returning to school at some point, but was unsure of what he wanted to do. It was like looking into a mirror. He was even the exact same age as I was.

We would keep each other's spirits up by exchanging our various worries and frustrations. One day we decided since we were both married/engaged to Japanese girls we should go on a double date. Us guys in all honesty did not even think of this as a business meeting, but we should have known better. Once the girls got together and realized each one was interesting in pressuring her husband/fiance into setting up his own English school, they gabbed away in Japanese the whole night, while me and the other guy made small talk while nervously monitoring the other conversation and trying to make sure we weren't being committed into anything.

After that over the next few weeks the girls were e-mailing back and forth between each other plans for setting up the new school. At Shoko's request, I retracted my request for employment from the family owned English school in Nakatsu. ("You can't work for the competition and expect to help start up your own school at the same time," she said.)
I was still slightly ambivalent about the whole thing, but the fact that I was going into it with another guy helps to shoulder the responsibility, and also gives it a sense of comradely. There was talk of getting our other remaining former co-workers involved as well.

Then one night Shoko had a long phone conversation with the other girl. They were on the phone, so I couldn't hear what she was saying, but I could tell it wasn't going well. After the phone call was over, Shoko came and said to me, "It's no good. That other couple wasn't planning on opening this school with us as equals. They wanted to open the school as sole owners and just use you as an employee."

"Oh," I said.

"Did you know about this?" Shoko asked accusingly.

"I didn't know anything," I said. "You girls were doing all the talking. Me and the other guy never even brought it up."

"It's no good," Shoko said. "We can't go into business with them. You're going to have to open up your own school."

I felt the walls closing in on me. "But I don't want to open my own school," I pleaded.

"It's no good otherwise," Shoko said. "I really wanted to go into business with the other couple just as much as you did. But there's no sense in working for them as just an employee. You'll be no better off than you were before. In fact you'll be worse off because at least at a large company you'd have job security. At a small company you'll never know what would happen from month to month. You'd be taking all of the same risk as them and getting none of the benefit. If you're going to take a risk, you might as well open your own place."

At the time I said yes just to avoid a long argument. But in my mind I was trying to find a way out of this. I'll talk to the other guy man to man and we'll sort this all out, I thought. The girls couldn't agree, but us men will think differently. I'll explain everything to him, and he'll agree that it's silly for us both to open up two competing companies in the same small town.

...Only I didn't. I intended to bring it up casually, but the right moment never came. Now that we weren't working at the same company, we didn't see each other every day and our meetings were more and more infrequent. And when we did meet, I wasn't sure how to phrase it so it didn't sound like an ultimatum. "Cut me in 50% or I'll go and open up my own school right down the street from yours."

Instead Shoko continued to make draw up plans for my own language school, while I continued to think about my future.
On a question of profitability, there was no question that it was more advantageous to go into business for myself. At Nova, for example, students pay about $70 dollars for a private lesson. The teacher (me) sees about $14 of that. The rest goes into maintenance of the company.

I would have been more than content to travel around house to house as a private English teachers (I know a few people who make their living that way) but Shoko pointed out that in addition to the difficulty of accumulating students without a neutral meeting place, it would be impossible to do group lessons (which is where the money really is in the English teaching business).

The question I needed to ask myself before I invested a lot of time and money into setting up my own English school is whether I was passionate about teaching English, or if I was one of those people who just teach English as an excuse to make easy money while living abroad. It was a hard question to answer. On days when classes are going well, I feel like I have the best job in the world. On other days not so much. I was an education major at Calvin, but I was never passionate about any of my educational theory classes. In fact they bored me to tears. As for ESL, I enjoy the human interaction side of teaching but I have no interest in theories of language acquisition or language teaching. Again it bores me to tears. I'm a terrible procrastinator preparing lessons. (In fact one of the reasons I enjoyed teaching at Nova was because we didn't have to prepare any lessons in advance).

I was more interested in history. And so I've always had it in the back of my mind to pursue an advanced degree in history. But I am well aware of the practical problems of this, and the fact that 4 years of graduate school does not guarantee you a job at the end of it. In fact the world of "teaching English in Asia" is filled with grad school drop outs, so I've heard all the horror stories.

Moreover the area of history I'm interested in (19th Century Europe, French Revolution, 1848 Revolutions, Paris Commune) is hardly very practical. The field is already crowded and as an American I'd have an inherent disadvantegous against European scholars. Not to mention I don't speak a single European language, and I'd need to learn at least a couple of them to pursue this field. Plus I've been out of school for about 7 years, so I'm a bit rusty. Plus I would need to move back to America, which would make it difficult to move back with Shoko. (Her limited English would make it hard for her to find employment, so I'd have to support her).

The more you add it all up, the more it really does just seem like some sort of crack pipe dream.

On the other hand, I began to think of trying to put my 6 years of living in Japan to some sort of use, and wondering about pursuing Japanese degree. This has always been something I've been resistant to do, because my passion has been European history. I can identify with the ancient Romans, and I liked studying them because I knew my own culture came from Rome. Likewise I could identify with the Revolutionary 19th Century Europe, and I knew how much of the modern Western world was shaped by the doctrines which emerged during that time.
By contrast Japanese history, the code of the Samurai and the ethic of loyalty, subserviance, group think, ritual suicide, et cetera, have always seemed strange and foreign to me.

But there are certainly areas of Japanese history and culture that interest me. The Japanese student movement, for example. Or the labor movement around the turn of the century. And there is a poverty of English sources on both of these which might make them interesting fields to go into.

There are graduate programs that study Japanese history in English, but I can't imagine being competitive in this field without having first mastered Japanese. (If indeed it is possible to master Japanese).

But, I reasoned with myself, if I enrolled in a Japanese language school, I would have nothing to lose. Learning Japanese would be a huge benefit in itself and could open many other doors.

One has to be somewhat careful on this point of course. Learning Japanese is the great fools gold of all English teachers in Japan. As a friend once said to me, "Most people come to Japan teaching English, and try really hard to learn Japanese so they can get out of the English teaching ghetto and get translating jobs. And the successful ones discover that the translaters ghetto isn't any better off". Indeed I myself stopped studying Japanese a couple years ago when I thought I saw the light. But at the very least I figure becoming fluent in Japanese would do me no harm. It would allow me greater access to Japanese culture, media and movies, and make daily interaction with Japanese friends easier. Not to mention communication with my Japanese fiancee.

So, I began to talk to Shoko about enrolling in a Japanese language school. "Fine," she said. "But if you're going to do that you need to start your own company. How else will you create the flexible hours you need in order to go to school?"
And so we were back to square one on the company.

"You know I was thinking," I said. "If I'm not going to pursue a career in English teaching, I'm not sure continuing on is going to be a lot of benefit for me. Teaching in the English conversation schools doesn't help my Japanese any, and because of all the pidgeon English I have to use to get my students to understand me, it actually makes my English worse. I was thinking once we got married I could get a spousal residency visa for Japan, and then I could work any type of job. For instance working at a fast food restaurant or a conveniance store would really help my Japanese."

"You want to work at a fast food restaurant? We're going to get married and you want me to introduce you to all my relatives as my fiance who works in a fast food restaurant?" Shoko didn't speak to me for two days after that.

Meanwhile back at Nova...
After the first broken promise by the new sponsor company, we were all phoned up about employment in December, and given two options.
Option A: start working in December.
Option B: Wait until January 10th to start work when more branches re-open. Receive about $1500 in return for being willing to wait for the branch openings next month.

I and Nova teachers all over Japan were doing calculations to figure out which option was to our advantage. I would have gone with Option A if I could have been sure it would mean work in Nakatsu. As previously stated, I didn't want to get shipped all over Japan because my reason for being here in the first place was Shoko. Because no one knew when the Nakatsu branch would open up, I took option B. (Option B also had the advantage of being money in hand. We got the money immediately. Option A people had to work through December, and would then get their pay check in January).

At any rate, I was confident that a job was awaiting me in January. Why else would they pay me and $1500 to wait around unless they really wanted to keep me on staff. It made sense. They planned to open lots of branches, they couldn't do it all at once, and so in order to keep their employees from leaving or getting other jobs they give us some money to tide us over and keep us loyal. After all, as many people observed, it was probably cheaper for them to give us a little money now than to spend thousands on overseas recruitment later.

...How naive I was. Another friend gave me an alternative explanation. "This is what I think. And it's not just me, I've been talking to a lot of people who are knowledgeble about business and they all seem to have the same opinion.
One of the conditions made when the new company bought out Nova was they had to re-employ all the employees. And they agreed to that condition because they didn't think many people would want to come back. Instead they were overwhelmed by how many people came back asking for their jobs back.
So they've given people the option of taking this money in December, and they've made it quite clear to everyone that there's absolutely no strings attatched for this money. For all the people who were left stranded in Japan, it's just enough money for them to wrap up their affairs and buy a plane ticket home. And they're quite happy to see you go. Other people I know used this money to go to Tokyo and look for other jobs. And they were quite happy for that as well. And they're not even starting regular work until after the Christmas holidays, because they know people will be going home, and some of them are probably going to think twice about going back."

Back in Nakatsu
My one year visa is coming up for expiration in January. In order to be able to launch my own company, Shoko and I decided to fast forward our marriage a little bit so I would be eligible for a spousal visa. We weren't going to have the ceremony until this summer, but we thought we'd submit the paperwork at town hall.

In order to be married in Japan I needed a certificate from the American embassy that said I was eligible to be married (ie I was of legal age and not already married to anyone else back home). This entire thing is just another meaningless beauracratic hoop to jump through, because the entire paper is just based purely on my say so. I filled out the papers, I got on the train all the way to Fukuoka (an hour and a half each way), I went to the American consulate and presented my papers. The guy looked at me and signed it without saying a word. And I paid about $50 for that privalege.

Once I got back from Fukuoka, Shoko had changed her mind. "I don't want to rush the marriage just for the sake of the visa. And besides, I've been thinking about it and I know you don't want to start your own business. And this is the kind of thing you really need to be dedicated to if you're going to do. So it's probably best if you just went back to Nova or tried to get employed with another company."

Meanwhile my former co-workers were proceeding with plans to open up their own school. I still hadn't had the talk with him, but I hadn't told him I was out either so I assumed all options were still on the table and we'd talk about dividing up the shares in the company when the right moment arrived. I was slightly concerned because he and the other guys were making a lot of plans and scouting out locations without me, and I thought that the less involved I was in the preperation, the less right I would have to ask for an equal share in the profits. I however assumed my absence was an honest oversight. These guys all lived on the same block. I lived down in another part of town with Shoko. They were probably over at eachother's apartments all the time and these kind of plans were just developing naturally.

I was talking to one former co-worker, and he was describing that they had called a meeting at which they had decided what the salary and working conditions would be like. "What?" I said. "How come I never get invited to these meetings?"

He gave a snarky laugh. "Because you told us you didn't want to work with us."

"I never said anything."

"Well you're fiancee did then."

And then it all became clear. I assumed all my options were still on the table, and it was just an oversight I was never involved in the planning. When I got back to the house I asked Shoko what exactly she had said on the phone.
"I never said you weren't going to work with them, but she probably inferred it from what I was saying," Shoko said. "We Japanese people can be like that."

"Why would you do that?" I said. "We need to keep all our options open right now."

"Look we've discussed this," Shoko said. "You can't go to work for them there's no sense in it. You might as well just go to work for yourself if you want to strike out away from an established company."

"I just wish I could make some of these decisions in my own life," I said. "Without everyone knowing I wasn't part of this company but me."

"Yes," Shoko said, "I wanted you to make your own decisions. I wanted you to take the initiative in setting up a company. But when you didn't do that I and the other wife had to take things over."
With this verbal lashing putting me in my place, I shut up.

Back at Nova again...
How right my friend ended up being about that money being intended not as a retainer for employment, but as a buyout. On Christmas day, when presumebly many people were out of Japan and thinking about not coming back, the new company sent out hundreds of e-mails laying off people. (As always, Let's Japan covered this mass lay-off event). This probably violates the company's agreement to rehire all those seeking employment, but whether anyone will be able to take them to task on it remains to be seen.

...Fortunately I was not among them. And as much as I'd like to say it was due to my great work ethic, the fact that everyone in our city got re-hired means it was obviously due to locational issues. They decided to re-open our little school out in the boondocks here in Nakatsu, and we all got our jobs back. I didn't even know everyone else got laid off till I heard about it at the Christmas party in Fukuoka.

As of January 10th, our branch re-opened. Out of the 4 of us who weathered out these past couple months in Nakatsu, 2 of us (me and one other guy) have returned to Nova. 2 other guys ended up setting up their own language school (with one presumably being the employee of the other).

For the time being, I have my old job back. But we'll see how long this lasts. The internet is full of rumors once again. Apparently many of these branches are being opened on a trial basis. I could well be laid off at some point.

Right now my primary concern is renewing my visa, which expires in a couple weeks. I've been told repeatedly that they're just waiting for the paper work to come through. I guess I have no choice but to trust they'll come through on that, although it's hard to trust these days. (I can't imagine it would be in there best interests to let me go now though. I'm one of only 2 teachers who came back to our branch).

I applied for a Japanese language school in Beppu. Shoko did all the work on the phone actually. We technically missed the application deadline, but after a bit of pleading by Shoko they agreed to take me on anyway.

I'll start classes in April. I'm hoping to re-arrange my schedule with Nova so I can work evenings and take classes during the day time. I'm not sure if that will be a problem or not, but I'm not even going to ask about it until I get this visa sorted out.

The other two guys were worried when they heard Nova was going to re-open, and temporarily suspended plans with opening up their own school. They decided to take a chance and go for it anyway. Hopefully there's enough students in Nakatsu to support both schools.

Despite all that's happened, I would like to see them succeed. And if they can offer me a more flexible schedule, I'm even considering working for them (and I've told them as much. We're all trying to stay on good terms with each other despite the split here).

Now I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens in the coming weeks.

Link of the Day
"Iraq Summer" Group Working to Help Elect Democrats

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Update 2: Odds and Ends--Daily Life

We've continued to teach lessons four times a week at the Buddhist temple, and we've all made a bit of pocket cash doing that which has helped this time of unemployment be a bit easier. (Other than that I've been mostly living off of Shoko).

In gratitude for this, we offered to help the priest clean out his temple and prepare for a big festival he was hosting in November. He accepted our offer, although how much help we actually were to him is another matter. Because none of us knew what we were doing, I felt like I spent most of the time standing around watching him work. And then to thank us for all of our "hard work" he had us stay for dinner in which his wife had prepared a huge feast.
At least it was an interesting experience for us. And I figure the exposure to Buddhism can balance out the visits I've been getting from the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Speaking of which, they've been continuing to come to my apartment. And we've been continuing to hold our little debates. (Shoko was furious with me at one point because I forgot to clean the apartment before they came, and then invited them in anyway. I had to promise to always clean before inviting anyone in).
A couple weeks ago they invited me to their Church service ("Kingdom Hall") they called it. There was some kind of special speaker coming that Sunday and they really wanted me to come. I was reluctant to give up my Sunday morning but they were so eager for me to come and hear this speaker and meet everyone that I didn't have the heart to say no. In the end I decided at the very least it might be an interesting experience.
Which it was. Everyone in the Kingdom Hall was so eager to meet me, I had people lining up to talk to me. Some of this is probably just the natural friendliness extended to a new face in church, but I suspect most of it was the celebrity status most foreigners have in Japan. This wasn't the first time I've experienced this, but it's something you never really get sick of.

The Church service was more similar to a protestant service than dissimilar. They had hymns, announcement time, more hymns, and then a sermon. There were various small differences. (There's no offering taken during the service. Instead I was told people go to the collection box on their own initiative. The idea being you are supposed to give in secret. Also there were no crosses anywhere in the church, as Jehovah's Witnesses believe the cross counts as a graven image or idol. Plus they don't believe Jesus died on the cross, they believe he died on a stake. This is another point we've debated in the past).

All in all though, the members of the church all seemed surprisingly like nice normal people. Which maybe goes without saying, but since I've started these weekly discussions with the Jehovah's Witnesses, a number of Japanese friends have tried to warn me that Jehovah's Witnesses have a bad reputation in Japan, as almost like a cult. Which is probably more or less their reputation back in the US as well.

In order to balance this out, I even attended one Church service in Japan. I had a Japanese friend who went to church every week, and I asked to tag along, I had forgotten how great attending a Japanese church service was for my Japanese practice. I thought about getting back in the habit of weekly attending, but work starting up has tabled that plan (more on that next post).

Health Insurance
When Nova went bankrupt, our health insurance, which was a private company run as a subsidiary of Nova, also went under. Leaving everyone looking for new health insurance.

Among the many shady business practices of Nova was a way they found around the National Health Care System. All of their employees were enrolled in an overseas travellers insurance system, of dubious legality.

I had heard stories from other people who tried to enroll in National Health Care system after Nova, and were told that they had to pay the back fees for all the months they had been in Japan (despite having already paid into Nova's system during this period).

Because I was already aware of this going in, I had tried to gear myself up for battle. Shoko went with me to help explain some of the Japanese, and when the official began explaining we had to pay back fees since I arrived in Japan I started shaking my head and saying, "No, no, no, no, no!"
I used all the arguments I could. It wasn't fair. What is the point of pointing for health insurance in the past? And if the Japanese government wanted those fees, why had they allowed Nova to set up its own health care system? Why should I have to pay twice for health care insurance I never even used once? I glared, I stared, I growled.

Typical Japanese, they were very apologetic, but they couldn't budge on this point. And it wasn't really there decision anyway. They didn't make the rules, they were just helpless bureaucrats. Which is why they say you can never beat the Japanese bureaucracy.

A couple weeks later I actually met one of the bureaucrats again at the new year's eve party. She was one of the friends of the priest's daughter. I apologized for giving them such a rough time, and she was able to just laugh it off.

Link of the Day
The Commons, The State and Transformative Politics

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Update 1: The Holidays

No one would ever accuse me of neglecting this blog. Although the past couple months have been heavy with movie reviews and book reviews, and I've not really given any news on my life or developments on the job front since my last update a couple ago months now.

Information has been changing so fast, and it has become difficult to separate facts from rumors, so I wanted to wait until things had sorted themselves out before writing a post. Otherwise whatever I wrote I would have had to correct in a week.
As it is there are still a few loose ends that have yet to be tied up (isn't that life?) but I think enough has developed that I can make a post on it.

But before I get into all the messy details about my job and the employment situation, I thought I'd give an update on what I've been up to socially the past couple months. I'll start with The Holidays

I suppose you've been wondering, aside from posting this video, what was I up to for Christmas?
A few days before Christmas a couple friends from Fukuoka came down to visit us. (They were both people who used to work with us in the Nakatsu branch, but transferred to Fukuoka). Shoko and I put up one of them in my apartment. While they were in town we called the whole gang together and went out a couple nights. They viewed this as the start of their Christmas celebrations, so I'm including it in mine.

Christmas Day Shoko had to work (Christmas being a normal working day in Japan). But I went into Fukuoka city where my same friends were holding a bit of an ex-pat Christmas party. It was the standard mix of cultures. There was the British, Americans, Canadians, Chinese and Japanese. We enjoyed traditional British Figgy pudding alongside the infamous Japanese kurisumasu Keeki. And we took turns wearing the Santa hat.






For New Year's eve Shoko and I went for dinner at her mother's house (who I had only met once before). I was hoping to meet her younger brother, but he was out with friends that night. I guess I'll have to meet him another day. (It is strange that I've never met Shoko's brother given the fact that we've been dating for 4 years, and are now engaged. Especially considering he lives only one town over. I am curious to see what he is like, but I've determined to wait for the invitation to come to me, and Shoko seems to be in no hurry )
We had a quiet dinner with just the three of us. Shoko's mother grilled me on what my plans for the future were while we watched the traditional Kohaku Uta Gassen.

Around midnight we went to the local Buddhist temple to ring the bell and welcome in the new year. The same priest who had opened up his temple for us to teach English lessons in invited us over for the ringing of the bell ceremony. All of my co-worker were invited, but only Shoko and I ended up coming.

This is a traditional part of Japanese culture I've somehow managed to miss out on all these years. Much of the time I've managed to be back home during New Years. There were two previous times I spent New Years in Japan. One time I just partied with other foreigners. And one time I was invited for a brief homestay into a Japanese house, which was very nice, but we never made it to the temple. We just watched Kohaku Uta Gassen and then everyone went to bed.

So, I was excited to go to the temple for the bell ringing. Although it was a bit anti-climatic. All we did really was ring the Bell. Apparently Buddhist temples are supposed to ring the bell 108 times to remind us of our 108 wordly desires, but the priest told us he had stopped trying to keep track years ago. It just took too much effort to count all the bells.

I waited in line, and then rang the bell once. Then Shoko told me I was ringing it wrong, so I gave it another hit. Then Shoko told me I had to wait for the sound of the first ring to fade away before I hit it again, but unfortunately all I heard of this sentence was "hit it again". So I did. At this point the priest came running over to tell me I had to wait for the sound to fade between rings.
So I screwed up yet another Japanese ceremony. But fortunately no one expects to much from us foriegners, and the priest was laughing as he corrected me.

After all the other people had gone and left, the priest invited Shoko and I to a New Year's Eve party with his family.

His children were all home from school during winter break. He and his wife have four children between the ages of 19 and 25, and there all just delightful people. Shoko and I had a great time talking to them, and it was one of those nights where the time just flew. We looked at our watches, and all of a sudden it was 6 in the morning. Once we realized what time it was, we quickly gave our good-byes, and went back to our apartment to try and get some sleep.

The three days following New Year's day in Japan are all holidays traditionally spent with ones family. Shoko went back to her mother's house to spend the holiday, so I made plans with my friend in Fukuoka to do some hiking.

I was at his house for 3 days, and in the end only one of those ended up being a hiking day. We had all the best intentions of putting in 3 good days of hiking, but in the end we succumbed to the luxury of the big city. We went to Starbucks and browsed through English bookstores (where I spent money I didn't have on books I probably don't need. But, hey, it's the holidays). We watched a couple videos at his place. All in all it was relaxing, if not the hiking adventure we had originally planned.

Okay, that's all for this update. Next time I'll try and tackle some odds and ends.

Link of the Day
Despite Failure To Meet Bush's Original Goals, McCain And Lieberman Declare "The Surge Worked"