Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

(Book Review)

Another book I picked up from the Oita prefectural library the last time I was in Oita city.

Actually I was happy to find a copy, because this book’s been on my reading list for a few years for a couple of reasons.

This book continues my journey through the classics of pulp fiction. (See also “Sherlock Holmes”, “The Martian Trilogy”, “The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu”, “Conan the Barbarian”). In fact, I read somewhere on the internet that “The Scarlet Pimpernel” is considered the first real antecedent of today’s modern superhero, so this book ties in with my interest in comic books as well.

At the same time, the fact that this story is set during the French Revolution satisfies the historical geek in me.
…Baroness Orczy wasn't a huge fan of the French Revolution, by the way, but I’ll get to the politics of the book in a minute. First I want to address the plot.

To my disappointment, there wasn't as much swashbuckling in this book as I was hoping for. In fact there was barely any. Most of The Scarlet Pimpernel’s exploits took place off stage, and the camera lens (so to speak) of the writer’s pen stays almost exclusively focused on our heroine Margaret Saint-Just, and takes place at ballroom dances and Opera houses.
(Saint-Just is the maiden name of the book’s heroine, as well as the surname of her loving brother, Armand. It’s an odd choice of names for a book as anti-revolutionary as this, considering Saint-Just was also the name of one of the more infamous Jacobin radicals, and Robespierre’s right hand man. As Baron Orczy must no doubt have known.)

Margaret Saint-Just is the queen of London’s fashionable society. She attends the best parties and wears the finest dresses. She often hears stories of the deeds of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and admires his daring while she wonders what his true identity might be. She is also confused about her husband, and wonders why he seems so cold and distant and dull.

For over half the book, the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is unknown, and the suspense of the book revolves around Margaret trying to find out who the Scarlet Pimpernel is.
This may have been suspenseful to the book’s first readers, but by now the Scarlet Pimpernel is so much a part of popular culture, I suspect most people already know who he is before even picking up the book. (And if that wasn't enough, the cover jacket on my edition gave the name away anyway).
Perhaps it’s just as well, because the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is so obvious that all but the most dimwitted of readers will have figured out the mystery long before Margaret. Thus for the first 175 pages of the book, the reader is simply waiting for Margaret to figure out what they already know.

The second half of the book takes place in France, where Margaret journeys to France to try and warn the Scarlet Pimpernel of the French police who know his identity. Margaret is captured by the French soldiers as they are hunting the Scarlet Pimpernel. The soldiers are led by a mysterious Jewish man, who claims to know the Scarlet Pimpernel’s hide out. The Scarlet Pimpernel himself (who is well-known to be a master of disguises) is nowhere to be seen.

Once again, I think most readers will figure out what is going on long before Margaret does. (Margaret Saint Just isn't one of the most intelligent characters in the history of literature). And once again, it becomes a bit tiresome having to wait for several chapters until Margaret finally realizes what the reader knew all along.
(Although to be perfectly fair, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” is supposed to be a children’s book, so maybe if I had read this book 20 years ago I might have been a little bit more taken in by the story. I think I was a lot easier to fool at that age).

Although the Scarlet Pimpernel dons several disguises in the course of this book, nowhere does he ever appear in the infamous mask and cape that have become his trademark. Maybe that costume pops up in one of the many sequels. Or maybe it’s just a Hollywood invention.

Now, onto the book’s politics…
“The Scarlet Pimpernel” takes place during the Reign of Terror phase of the French Revolution, at the height of which 60 to 80 people were killed on the guillotine each day. Writers like Mark Twain have pointed out that the Reign of Terror has achieved a place of infamy in the history textbooks not because of the number of people killed (which is comparatively low when compared with a lot of other historical massacres and atrocities) but because it was a time when the poor were killing the aristocrats instead of the other way around.
(Authors like Guy Endore point out that in 15 months the Reign of Terror executed 2,596 people, while during the suppression of the Paris Commune Versaille troops killed 20,000 commoners in one week—to give but one comparative example).

Nevertheless, comparisons to greater atrocities aside, I don’t think any sane person would argue that the Reign of Terror wasn't an awful episode of history, and the Scarlet Pimpernel efforts to save people from the guillotine is something we can all cheer. (If only an historical Scarlet Pimpernel had actually existed…)

Furthermore, it would be hard to accuse Baroness Orczy of being either anti-French or anti-Republican. After all the heroine of the book, Margaret Saint-Just is French (albeit one who immigrated to England and married an Englishman) and she and her brother both have moderate Republican views.

And yet the French police and French spies in this book are described in such exaggerated terms of pure evil. To take one example:
I had forgotten,” repeated Chauvelin, with a weird chuckle, as he rubbed his bony, talon-like hands one against the other with a gesture of fiendish satisfaction…. He laughed, as Dante has told us that the devils laugh at sight of the torture of the damned…That fiend there…was too much of a devil to allow a brave man to die the quick, sudden death of a soldier at the post of duty.”

England, by contrast, is described as the home of everything good and free. The young aristocratic gentleman belonging to the Scarlet Pimpernel’s league are described as virtue incarnate.

A friend of mine, when describing the reaction of the civilized world against the French Revolution, once said, “It was the Soviet Union of its day.” No doubt if Baroness Orczy had lived 100 years later, she would have fit right into the cold war spy story genre, and would have been writing stories about how the Scarlet Pimpernel battled the dastardly evil Boris and Natasha.

It has always been a feature of pulp fiction, especially superhero fiction, that the villain is the representative of everything evil, the hero the embodiment of everything good. This is perhaps all part of the fun when it’s Dr. Octopus battling Spiderman, but it gets a bit more problematic when the villains represent people from another country or another ideology. Especially when it is aimed at children.

Of course the fact that the French Revolution had been already over and done with and consigned to history 100 years before Baroness Orczy put pen to paper makes this book less morally problematic than say, “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” or World War II era Warner Brothers cartoons, or any other kind of propaganda aimed at children (in a shameless attempt to get them to start hating the right people from a young age).
But it still makes me uneasy.

Link of the Day
Army Recruiter Threatens High School Student with Jail Time

Friday, August 29, 2008

Robespierre by S.L. Carson

(Book Review)

I picked up this book at the Oita Prefectural Library the last time I was in Oita City. This book is part of a larger series entitled: “World Leaders: Past & Present”. Since I checked out 7 books in this series, I’ll start by saying a few words about this series itself, before reviewing this book in particular.

“World Leaders: Past and Present” Series:

I’ll be honest, I don’t think I would be reading these books if I had more reading material to choose from around here. But in the Japanese countryside, beggars can’t be choosers, and the books in this series were the only European history books I could find.

This series of books was published back in 1987-88, which was a few years ago now, but then the Oita Prefectural Library was never famous for its collection of new books. It is a series of 157 biographies of world leaders from all time periods and all places.
(Hmmm. Bit of an odd cut off point there, 157. Why not 294, or 129? Perhaps there were other books in this series that came out later. Oita library only has through 1988).

Each book contains a 5 page introductory essay on leadership by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. And it’s always the same introductory essay in every book, which can feel like a bit of a waste of paper when you have several books from this series in your library. The essay argues against the idea of historical determinism, and instead argues that:
1). Individual actions, not historical determinism, shapes the course of history and
2). Leaders are necessary for society.
(The first point I agree with, the second point I disagree, but I won’t get into that now).

The 157 profiles of leaders chosen for this series are chosen in part to demonstrate this thesis. And I have to admit that whoever was in charge of this project did a great job of choosing some of the most fascinating people from history for this 157 list. It’s not just the usual suspects either, there are some really interesting names chosen. It makes me wish the Oita Library actually had the whole set, because I’d love to read more about a number of these people such as Sun Yat-sen, Robert Mugabe, Che Guevera, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Leon Blum, Willy Brandt, Oliver Cromwell, Lech Walesa, Leon Trotsky, Pericles, Daniel Ortega, Emiliano Zapata, Zhou Enlai, Layfayette, Anwar Sadat, Golda Meir, Yasir Arafat, et cetera.

The books are all just slightly over 100 pages, which prevents you from getting in depth, but on the other hand it is just long enough to give you a few interesting facts you didn't know, and yet short enough that you can get through several of them in a short period of time.

They’re classified as Juvenile Literature in the publication data, and Young Adult literature on the back cover. And indeed the picture book proportions (about 25 cm by 20 cm) of the book and large illustrations ensure that no self respecting businessman is going to be caught dead reading this in a coffee shop. However the short length and large pictures in this book aside, I didn't find it a particularly easy read. There’s a lot of information packed densely into a small amount of space, and you have to read very slowly and carefully so as not to miss anything. Consider for example the passage on the beginning of “The Reign of Terror.”

Believing he had been ill treated by the Jacobins, Herbert presented himself to Paris as the new guardian against corruption. His sweeping program called for cracking down on suspects, trying the queen, and ridding the military of aristocrats. Followers of both Herbet and Danton wanted the Committee of Public Safety to take on more tasks and responsibilities. Under this pressure, the committee extended its control over the state. Danton resisted having anything more to do with the committee, although he urged it to expand its work. Couthon, Sechelles and Saint-Just were frequently away from Paris on various assignments and their absence left Robespierre to become the vital link between the National Convention and the busy committee. In September, the committee was joined by the more extremist supporters of the left: Jean-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne and Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois. The only moderate on the committee was the engineer Lazare Carnot, who quarreled bitterly with Saint-Just.” (p 103)

…Now is it just me, or is that a lot of information for your average “Young Adult” (which is what? 10-12?) to absorb in one paragraph? I’m not saying the brighter ones couldn't do it, but those kind of kids could probably go right into the regular length popular histories anyway.
And as you can see from the quoted paragraph above, there’s also a lot of name dropping in this book—another side effect of cramming a lot of information in a small amount of space. Sometimes a name will be introduced briefly on one page, and then won’t pop up again until 50 pages later, at which time you've completely forgotten who they are. Fortunately, there’s a good index to help you keep track of the names, but it still meant a lot of flipping back and forth for me.

Interestingly enough, not one of the books I checked out in this series was written by a trained historian. This book on Robespierre was written by a Presidential speech writer. The book on Lenin was written by someone with a honors degree in classics who plays in a musical ensemble. The book on Queen Victoria is written by someone described simply as a “mother of three”.

…Well, this series may not be ideal, but it will at least allow me to get a broad understanding of these historical figures. At this point there are so many gaps in my historical knowledge, that I’m sure I can learn a lot from even these brief biographic overviews.

…Now, onto this book itself:

Robespierre
Robespierre is one of the most fascinating historical figures, and if I ever get the chance I’d love to sink my teeth into an actual full length biography instead of the Young Adult summary version. For now, however, this will have to do.

What makes Robespierre so fascinating is the difference between the young Robespierre and the old Robespierre. (Well, since Robespierre died at 36, maybe it would be better to make the comparison between the reformer Robespierre and the tyrant Robespierre.)

The reformer Robespierre was an opponent of the death penalty, who “once spent two sleepless nights struggling with his responsibility as a magistrate to impose the death penalty on a convicted murderer”. (p 34).
The tyrant Robespierre was the master of terror, who “caused 60 to 80 people to die on the guillotine each day during the dreadful summer of 1794.” (p. 106)

I am not, of course, the first person to point out these contradictions, and when talking about Robespierre one is always in danger of slipping into clichés. When people say, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” they are usually thinking about Robespierre.

Robespierre was one of the first revolutionaries who exposed views on freedom and equality, and then became an absolute tyrant when in power. Unfortunately he was not the last. Lenin, Castro, Mao, Daniel Ortega, Robert Mugabe, and many others later followed his example. (Many conservatives claim that Lenin, Mao, Castro, et cetera, became brutal dictators because they were communists, but Robespierre’s example shows that even republicans are not safe from the temptations of power.)

Had these revolutionaries been wolves in sheep clothing all along, desiring nothing but power from the beginning and managing to fool everyone around them? Or is there something about the nature of power that manages to corrupt even “the incorruptible”.
The answer to these questions can not be found in this brief biography, but I was able to learn several interesting biographical tidbits.

For example, I learned about the cases that Robespierre argued as a young lawyer. (“Accustomed to living modestly, Robespierre took on cases that allowed him to display his high regard for social virtue and justice.” (p.33))

I also learned that Robespierre started out as a poor public speaker, and at first was constantly overshadowed by Mirabeau. “When Mirabeau entered the chamber, other deputies drew away in disgust, but he nevertheless commanded their attention whenever he spoke. As for Robespierre, however, it was reported that on one occasion he was so flustered that he was forced to leave the rostrum in tears. Mirabeau gave more than 100 speeches from 1789 to 1790. Robespierre managed to give fewer than 30.” (P.62).

The French Revolution, with all its various stages and with all its competing factions, is a lot of information to cram into a small book like this. As a consequence, the book focuses mostly on the stages of the Revolution, and doesn't go into detail on Robespierre’s life at this time. However the book does note his position on a number of issues.
* Robespierre argued in the assembly that all citizens, not just property owning citizens, should have the right to vote (and he eventually won on this point).
*The argued that the French slave trade should be abolished, but lost out to strong deputies in favor of the slave trade.
*He was unequivocally for freedom of the press.
*In an effort to prevent power from being established, Robespierre argued that the new Legislative Assembly should consist of entirely newly elected members, and none of the members of the old Constituent Assembly should be allowed to stand for election.
*Robespierre opposed the war with Austria, correctly cautioning that Revolutionary zeal was no substitute for military strength (although he lost out to Brissot on this point).

In short, Robespierre appears to be a reasonable man of pure democratic principles. He was considered radical at the time, but by the standards of today he stands as a moderate classical liberal. And then, he begins to lose his mind with power.

Unfortunately, because of the brevity of this book, there isn't space to do much more than list Robespierre’s positions, with little insight into why he began to harden into a dictator, and almost no information about his personal life.

Hopefully someday I’ll be able to find a more in-depth biography. In the meantime, this was a very interesting short book for the amount of time it took to read.

Link of the Day
Targeting Civilians: The Path to Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Affair of the Necklace

(Movie Review)

I had never heard of this movie before I saw it in the video store. It apparently came out a few years ago, but it was one of those movies I missed because I was living out in the Japanese countryside.

I was, however familiar with the historical incident the film is based on, at least in broad terms. And so I had mixed feelings about renting this movie. Since I already knew what the outcome would be, I feared the movie would simply be a slow and boring 2 hours as it retread old ground.  Especially since the last movie I rented about Marie Antoinette I found pretty dull. But, after some debating with myself at the video store, I decided to rent this movie and give it a chance.

To my pleasant surprise, the movie actually turned out to be quite entertaining. And I even learned a lot from it.
“The Affair of the Necklace” is the story of an extremely expensive diamond necklace, that was originally made for Madame du Barry, Louis XV mistress, and Marie Antoinette’s rival at court. By the time the necklace had been completed, Louis XV was dead, and Madame du Barry had been expelled from Versailles. The jewelers were desperate to find another buyer. Marie Antoinette refused, but a gang of swindlers were able to convince the dim-witted Cardinal Rohan that Marie Antoinette secretly wished him to purchase the necklace for her, and to act as a guarantor.
When the affair came to light, an outraged Louis XVI arrested Cardinal Rohan, and put him on trail. The whole affair was yet another blow to the monarchy’s already tattered image.

Although I had been already familiar with the basic outlines of this story, I knew nothing about the gang of swindlers themselves. So I was able to learn a lot about their history and motives. (A little research on wikipedia reveals this movie isn't perfectly historically accurate. I guess here I’ll have to admit my ignorance.
...But really, did you ever know a Hollywood movie that was perfectly historically accurate? I wasn’t really expecting textbook accuracy anyway.)

The acting is pretty good in this movie as well. Christopher Walken does a good job as Count Cagliostro. Adrian Brody is brilliant as Nicholas de Lamotte, the estranged husband of Jeanne, portraying him as the perfect lovable scoundrel.
And what really makes the movie is Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Rohan. He plays the character with just the right mixture of arrogance and stupidity.

Unfortunately the weak link in the cast is the title role itself: Jeanne du Valois played by Hillary Swank. But the strength of the surrounding cast is more than enough to carry her through.

Link of the Day
Prepare For Global Temperature Rise of 4C, Warns Top Scientist

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore

(Book Review)

When I stumbled upon this book title while searching through Amazon, I thought, “Now here’s a book that should be really up my alley.”

It manages to combine my childhood interest in classic horror movies and werewolf stories, with my interest in the Paris Commune. You wouldn't think those two things would go together, but Guy Endore does a good job of combining them into a fascinating story.

Unlike the works of Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley, the werewolf legend has no one classic definitive novel that it is based on. But if there was a novel that was responsible for entrenching the werewolf into popular culture before the Universal Monster movies, this would be it.

It was first published in 1933, and was shortly thereafter the inspiration for the movie “The Werewolf of London” (a movie I actually saw as an adolescent, when it was re-run cable), although the Hollywood version shares almost no similarities with the book other than the parallel structure of the title.
It was filmed again a few years later as “Curse of the Werewolf” (which I haven’t seen, but which is apparently not much more faithful to the original book than “The Werewolf of London”). This book had little to no direct influence on the Lon Chaney Jr. “Wolfman” movie, but perhaps indirectly paved the way by helping to make werewolf movies fashionable at the time. (Or at least you can find some people on the internet arguing this. I’m no expert myself.)

The Paris Commune seems like an odd choice at first to set a werewolf story, but as you read through the book you find it works on a number of levels.
First of all the 19th Century time frame gives it a classic Victorian Era setting contemporary with the “Dracula” or “Frankenstein” stories.
Secondly the starvation accompanying the siege of Paris, and the massacres during the following civil war give the book an additional macabre tone that adds to the grimness of the story.
Also the social upheavals and chaos of the Paris Commune create an explanation as to why the werewolf attacks went largely unnoticed by the public and undetected by the police.
And the fanatical anti-clericism of the Paris Commune’s leaders means that even when they come face to face with evidence of werewolf attacks, they refuse to believe in medieval Catholic superstitions. (Like most Western horror stories, this book makes use of old church superstitions as its basis).

Lastly, and most importantly, the fall of the Paris Commune becomes very important to the theme of this book. This is revealed when the focus of the book shifts in a subtle, but very clever way, at the end. Up until the end of the book the reader is only concerned with the story of the werewolf, while the events of the Paris Commune are going on in the background.
At the end of the book, the writer takes a moment to examine the great massacres that were inflicted during the civil war, and suddenly the reader is confronted with the question of whether the handful of deaths caused by a werewolf really matter when confronted with the huge amount of evil humanity is capable of all by itself.

Aymar soon discovered that he was talking nonsense. The Commune shot fifty-seven from the prison of La Roquette. Versailles retaliated with nineteen hundred. To that comparison add this one. The whole famous Reign of Terror in fifteen months guillotined 2,596 aristos. The Versaillists executed 20,000 commoners before their firing squads in one week. Do these figures represent the comparative efficiency of guillotine and modern rifle, or the comparative cruelty of upper and lower class mobs.
[The werewolf] it now seemed to Aymar was but a mild case. What was a werewolf who had killed a couple of prostitutes, who had dug up a few corpses, compared with these bands of tigers slashing at each other with daily increasing ferocity! “And there’ll be worse,” he said, and again he had that marvelous rising of the heart. Instead of thousands, future ages will kill millions. It will go on, the figures will raise and the process will accelerate! Hurrah for the race of werewolves.


(This seems very prophetic indeed when you consider the book was published in 1933, before World War II, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, Pol Pot, Communist China, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera).

Guy Endore was an established historical novelist in addition to being a horror writer, and he had written historical novels about Dumas, Voltaire, the Marquis De Sade, and others. So he is very much at home writing about a historical time period, and his novel is dotted with names and events from French history.

Many actual historical figures from the Paris Commune, like Raoul Rigault, the Commune’s head of police and Gustave Courbet, the Commune’s head of art, make appearances in this novel. The Picpus affair, in which the Commune discovered what appeared to be a secret prison and a secret graveyard in a Catholic Church (an issue still somewhat controversial to this day) is covered in detail. And Rigault’s famous conversation with a Jesuit priest is also faithfully recorded:

Rigault examined them personally.
“What is your profession?” he asked a Jesuit.
“Servant of God.”
“God? What is your master’s address?”
“He is everywhere.”
“Write,” said Rigault to one of his secretaries. “So-and-so, styling himself servant of God. Citizen God, a vagabond without fixed address.”


Guy Endore was a leftist, and blacklisted by Hollywood during the Red scares of the 1950s. This is perhaps yet another reason he chose the Paris Commune as a setting for his book. And yet he is not overly sympathetic to the Commune leaders, and tends to portray them mainly as out of control madmen and ego maniacs. However, as shown in one of the above quotations, he does make a clear distinction between the relatively little amount of blood shed by the Commune, and the large scale massacres conducted by the forces of Versailles.

Link of the Day
Buying Votes

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Learning from Shogun, edited by Henry Smith

(Book Review)

This book is a commentary on the novel “Shogun” (for which see previous post).

Since this book is long out of print, its editors have kindly made it available for free on-line. However, if you’re like me and you can’t stand the idea of reading anything off a computer screen for a long period of time (this blog being an exception of course :) ), then you can find used copies at a reasonable price easily enough through sites like Amazon.

“Learning from Shogun” was originally written in 1980, just before the “Shogun” TV miniseries was aired. Its various authors had not yet had an opportunity to preview the TV miniseries, and so the book addresses itself exclusively to the novel (although with the exception of a 3 page postscript at the very end).

1980 was slightly before my time (or, at the very least, before I was conscious enough to be aware of cultural trends), but one gets the impression from reading this book that 30 years ago “Shogun” was quite a cultural phenomenon, and the book to read at the time. Assuming the authors are not exaggerating the importance of their subject material, I got the impression that the buzz around “Shogun” must have been similar to the buzz surrounding “The DaVinci Code” a couple years ago.

Because this book contains a lot of spoilers about the plot, it is meant to be read after first completing “Shogun”. However, since I was more concerned about the history than the drama, I found it useful to read this book concurrently with “Shogun”. Shogun is a very long book (1152 pages) and it so full of historical Japanese politics and complex alliances that I was willing to sacrifice some of the suspense of the story in order to be able to sort out as I read how much of it was true and how much was fiction.

“Learning from Shogun” is not a complete history lesson in 16th Century Japanese politics, but it is at least a good general overview. And for anyone who wants to delve further, there is a very thorough section on “Further Reading”. (Although I suspect it’s a bit dated by now, but still…).

It was interesting reading this book to find out how many things I had assumed James Clavell must have made up (like some of the amazing battles, escapes, intrigues, and gruesome deaths) actually had a basis in history.
By the same token, it was also interesting to read about how much Clavell got wrong. The whole theme of “Shogun” is based off of the culture clash between 16th century Europe and 16th century Japan, but as the writers of this book show, there’s a lot Clavell got wrong or misrepresented. For example 15th century England wasn't quite as uptight about sex as Clavell makes out (that came later during the Victorian period) and neither was ancient Japan quite as free regarding the body and bodily functions.

This book admittedly has a very limited audience (probably one of the reasons it’s no longer in print). For one thing you have to have read “Shogun” first. Secondly you have to be enough of a historical geek to care about finding out which details are wrong and which are true. But if you fit that profile, like I did, then reading this book is worth the trouble it takes to track down a used copy.

Link of the Day
Ho-Hum, Just Another Day In The Craziest Country On Earth
So Seymour Hersh says that Vice President Cheney and his staff sat around back in January and discussed having Navy SEALS dress up as Iranian sailors and then attack American ships. This would fool Americans into supporting a war with Iran, you see.
In non-insane countries, this would merit screaming headlines and congressional investigations, all leading to mass resignations if it turned out to be true. In America, it merits a few blog posts. (Full article here)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Shogun by James Clavell

(book review)

It seems like all Japanophiles read this book sooner or later. Most of them sooner. So, I decided I might as well get it out of the way now.

If you travel in any Japanophile circles, chances are you've already heard of this book. It was also made into a TV miniseries in 1980 which, according to wikipedia, was one of the highest rated TV miniseries in television history.
(I never saw the TV series, but I hung out with a lot of geeks in high school and college, and I would occasionally hear about it from them.)

This is one of those books that’s difficult to classify. It contains too much history to be called pure fiction, and yet it takes too many liberties to strictly be called “historical fiction” either.

“Shogun” is loosely based off the story of William Adams, who was the first Englishman to set foot in Japan in 1600. He wasn't the first Westerner--the Portuguese and the Spanish had beaten him by about 50 years--but he was definitely the first Englishman, and he and his Dutch shipmates were the first Protestants. (Much to the annoyance of the Portuguese Jesuit priests, who had already established churches in Japan).

By incredibly historical coincidence (a gift from Clio to history writers) William Adams managed to arrive in Japan the same year Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his enemies at the battle of Sekigahara, ended the era of warring states, established a unified Japan, and began the Tokugawa Shogun era, which was to last until the resignation of the last Shogun and the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
William Adams managed to become a friend and confident of Tokugawa Ieyasu during this period.

James Clavell is not an historian by trade, but he did a tremendous amount of research on 16th Century Japan for this book. And then he apparently decided not to write it strictly as a historical fiction, but to change everyone’s names, and write it as a pure fictional novel to give him more freedom with the characters. Thus William Adams becomes “John Blackthorne”. Tokugawa Ieyasu becomes “Toranga Yoshi”. Et Cetera.

There are whole separate books written on what is true and what is fictional in “Shogun”. And in fact, I even read one of them. (“Learning from Shogun”--which I’ll review separately). In broad terms, Shogun simplifies the complexity of Japanese politics a little bit, creates a few characters that are amalgamations of 2 or more historical characters, condenses the action into a shorter time frame, and increases the importance and role of William Adams (John Blackthorne) to the struggle for the Shogunate.

In minute terms: if one were to list all the anachronisms, cultural mistakes, and even the linguistic mistakes Clavell makes in this book it could take quite some time. People who've spent time living in Japan should be able to pick a number of these out without any assistance.
(For example Clavell occasionally has his Japanese characters use Western gestures, like shrugging their shoulders. He also never really understands the difference between the Japanese words “Dozo” (please receive) and “Kudasai” (please give). (It’s surprising the publishers never had anyone with a knowledge of the Japanese language proofread this book before publication)).

If you’re enough of a geek to be concerned about the history, it’s always a good idea to read “Shogun” alongside a more historically accurate book. For example, I started reading “Shogun” at the same time I started reading “Samurai William” by Giles Milton (which tells the real story of William Adams). Of course I finished “Samurai Williams” months ago, but I’m only now finishing up “Shogun”. That’s partly because school intervened, and for 4 months I had almost no time for reading. And it’s partly because “Shogun” is a monster book at 1152 pages.

Fortunately, “Shogun” is one of those books that, though it may be long, never gets boring. In fact the story keeps getting more and more complex so that when I neared the last 100 pages, my thoughts were not:
“When is this going to be over already?”,
but rather,
“How is he possibly going to wrap up all these plot threads with just 100 pages left?”

There are, as the saying goes, wheels within wheels in this book. For example, the most obvious culture clash that dominates the whole book is the Japanese versus the Western barbarians. But the Western Barbarians are sharply divided into Protestant and Catholic camps. On the Protestant side, William Adams (John Blackthorne) is the only Englishman on an otherwise all Dutch ship, and his shipmates occasionally resent him for that. But the quarrelsome Dutch show just as much inclination to fight amongst each other.

On the Catholic side, the Portuguese and the Spanish have arguments over whose domain Japan belongs in. The Jesuits and the Franciscans have arguments over the proper way to proselytize the Japanese. The church clashes with the Portuguese Navy and merchants over who has ultimate authority. And of course the Jesuits often argue among themselves.

…And all that is without even beginning to get into the Japanese side of things: the complex political situation, the varying alliances, fiefdoms, ambitious daimyos and treacherous vassals.

The whole book is a mess of changing alliances, backstabbing, and betrayals.

James Clavell is famous for his long books, and reading this my impression is that he is one of those writers incapable of writing a short book. There’s not a single flat character in “Shogun”. Every character who enters into the action, even the minor characters, are fully developed, have a back story, and have conflicting loyalties and motivations.

Clavell thus pulls off a difficult feat for an historical novelist. Despite the various liberties he takes with the story, almost all of the characters end up with the same fates as their historical counterparts. And yet the story feels completely character driven. Even though the outcomes are predetermined by history, the reader never feels like the characters are pulled along by historical threads. Instead it feels like the characters are choosing their own destinies.

Finally, there is a large amount of historical backstory in this novel. Tokugawa Ieyasu (Toranga Yoshi) was only able to succeed in unifying Japan because of the political situation created by two military strongmen before him: Nobunaga Oda(or Goroda, as he is called in “Shogun) and Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Nakamura), and James Clavell will occasionally go off for a few pages re-counting the backstory of Goroda and Nakamura.

The backstory is my only criticism of this book. In a pure historical fiction, one puts up with the occasional information dump necessary to set the backstory, because it is historical fiction after all, and even if it does interrupt the narrative you are learning some history at the same time.
In a novel, one is less inclined to put up with these things. Especially if all the names have been changed. The backstory of Goroda and Nakamura, as retold by Clavell, is true to their historical models of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, but I somewhat resented having to read pages of historical backstory only to have to learnt names that were all wrong anyway. (It is at this point that a companion book, such as “Learning from Shogun” becomes helpful to decode the fact from fiction. I’ll be reviewing that in my next post).

**********************************
According to John Updike’s rules for fair reviewing, here is an extended quotation from the book to give you a feel for it.
This takes place very early on in the book (P.37 out of 1152). John Blackthorne, the pilot, and his Dutch shipmates have just landed on some strange land, and are recovering from their scurvy and other sea illnesses. Blackthorne finds out that they are in Japan, and that the Catholics have already established there, and goes to report this to his shipmates. Notice in their conversation how the fact they've arrived in Japan is only of secondary importance, almost like an afterthought, to their horror at finding themselves stranded in a Catholic domain:

“Listen,” Blackthorne said. “There’s a priest here. A Jesuit.”
“Christ Jesus!” All banter left them as he told them about the priest and about the beheading.
“Why’d he chop the man’s head off, Pilot?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’d better get back aboard. If Papists catch us ashore…”
There was great fear in the room now. Salamon, the mute, watched Blackthorne. His mouth worked, a bubble of phlegm appearing at the corners.
“No, Salamon, there’s no mistake,” Blackthorne said kindly, answering the silent question. “He said he was Jesuit.”
“Christ, Jesuit or Dominican, or what-the-hell-ever makes no muck-eating difference,” Vinck said. “We’d better get back aboard. Pilot, you ask that Samurai, eh?”
“We’re in God’s hands,” Jan Roper said. He was one of the merchant adventurers, a narrow-eyed young man with a high forehead and thin nose. “He will protect us from the Satan worshipers.”
Vinck looked back at Blackthorne. “What about Portuguese, Pilot? Did you see any around?”
“No. There were no signs of them in the village.”
“They’ll swarm here soon as they know about us.” Maetsukker said it for all of them, and the boy Croocq let out a moan.
“Yes, and if there’s one priest, there’s got to be others.” Ginsel licked dry lips. “And then their God-cursed conquistadores are never far away.”
“That’s right,” Vinck added uneasily. “They’re like lice.”
“Christ Jesus! Papists!” someone muttered. “And conquistadores!”
“But we’re in the Japans, Pilot?” Van Nekk asked. “He told you that?”
“Yes. Why?”
Van Nekk moved closer and dropped his voice. “If priests are here, and some of the natives are Catholic, perhaps the other part’s true-about the riches, the gold, and silver and precious stones.” A husk fell on them. “Did you see any, Pilot? Any gold? Any gems on the natives, or gold?”
“No. None.” Blackthorne thought for a moment. “I don’t remember seeing any. No necklaces or beads or bracelets. Listen, there’s something else to tell you. I went aboard Erasmus, but she’s sealed up.” He related what had happened, and their anxiety increased.
“Jesus, if we can’t go back aboard and there are priests ashore and Papists….We've got to get away from here.” Maestukker’s voice began to tremble. “Pilot, what are we going to do? They’ll burn us! Conquistadores-those bastards’ll shove their swords….”
We’re in God’s hands,” Jan Roper called out confidently. “He will protect us from the anti-Christ. That’s His promise. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
….

(The conversation continues for several more pages, but hopefully this gives you an idea).

Link of the Day
Michigan State House Primary 2008: What to Watch

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Waterloo

(Movie Review)

I saw this movie in my video store, and I thought it would be a good way to learn some history. (The old couch potato’s method of studying).

There are a still a lot of gaps in my knowledge of history, and the period of the Napoleonic Wars is one of those gaps.
And actually I felt like I did learn a lot from this movie.

This 1970 movie opens with what looks like the end. Napoleon’s lost the Russian campaign, and Paris is now surrounded by a coalition of British, Prussian, Russian, and Austrian armies. Napoleon is forced to abdicate, agree to exile in Elba, and the Royal family is restored to the French throne. (Louis XVIII is played by Orson Welles, who appears to be well into his fat and grumpy years by this time).

But 10 months later, Napoleon escapes from Elba, and returns to France. Louis XVIII sends an army out to capture him, but the troops refuse to fire on Napoleon, and join up with him. Then Napoleon is once again Emperor of France, and Louis XVIII has to flee.

All this takes place within the first 20 minutes or so of the movie as but a prologue. The rest of the movie deals with the build up to, and the fighting of, the Battle of Waterloo, at which Napoleon fights his last great battle against the combined forces of the British (led by the Duke of Wellington) and the Prussians.

I don’t know enough to critique this movie, but it certainly felt like it was trying very hard to be accurate. As the armies clash, lose and gain ground over the field of Waterloo, the subtitles mention the time of the day this is going on, and identify which part of the battlefield the action is on. This gives the movie a very historical feel.
It reminded me of that “Gettysburg” (W) epic movie that came out about 15 years ago.

The big problem with “Waterloo” is that the director seems to have been too ambitious for his own good. You get the impression watching this movie that he wanted to create the “Citizen Kane” of war movies. Something that would sweep the academy awards and be analyzed over and over again in film schools.

But there’s a thin line between greatness and pretentiousness. A lot of the more inventive camera shots or angles just struck me as a director trying too hard. For example when Napoleon is confronted by Louis XVIII’s army after returning to France, he walks out slowly to talk to them with his hands held out. The camera zooms in and stays on his hand as he walks, then continues the close up as Napoleon puts his hand behind his back.
And there were a lot more creative shots like this. Maybe I’m just a bit of philistine about these things. I’m sure a film school student would have appreciated it more. But it struck me as pointless.

Also there’s a lot of overacting going on. At times you get the impression the actors think they’re on the stage acting out a Shakespeare play. An actor will start talking quietly, and then abruptly start shouting dramatically with their arms raised out in front of them, and then abruptly lower their voice again for dramatic effect.

Plus this is a long movie. Not quite “Lord of the Rings” long, but over 2 hours (long at the time). And a lot of the length of the movie seems to come from things like long zooming in shots, or dramatic silence between characters, or just a lot of other artsy things that could probably have been left on the cutting room floor.

When the Battle of Waterloo finally begins, the battle scenes are exciting, but they’re nothing special either. Obviously in the 1970s they couldn't compete with all the computer graphic battles of Hollywood today, but even by the standards of the times it seems a bit lacking. I remember watching “Spartacus” as a kid, for example, and those battle scenes can still hold their own against anything Hollywood has today.
(Granted the purpose of the two movies was different. “Spartacus” was intended as pure entertainment, “Waterloo” seems to be striving more for historical accuracy, for example showing which cavalry charge took place when and under what circumstances.)

Probably because this movie was made during the height of anti-war feeling during Vietnam, there are a few scenes which seem inserted just to placate the anti-war crowd. The most obvious of which is when a young British soldier suddenly loses his cool during a battle, breaks out of formation, wanders around during the French cavalry charge shouting out repeatedly, “Why are we killing each other? We don’t even know each other. Why must we kill each other?”

Now, given my pacifist politics, I have no problem with anti-war messages in movies. But this was a bit too cheesy even for me. Plus, it didn't really fit with the rest of the movie, and felt like it had just been tacked on.
(Still, at the same time you do have to feel nostalgic for the days when Hollywood couldn't make a big war film without trying to acknowledge public opposition to war. Things sure have changed.)

Update:
Reading the wikipedia article, it appears this is actually a Russian film. Which is strange because it's all done in English with American and British actors (even the French characters speak English) but I guess it was a foreign film that was aiming for a larger audience. This perhaps explains why the battle scenes can't quite compete with Hollywood. (That's what I get for writing the review first, and doing my research second). It may also explain the different style of direction.
Also this review here points out a lot of the historical inaccuracies in the film.

Update Update March 15, 2016
This video review here is much more interesting and much more informative than anything I would ever write.  Watch this instead of reading my review.



Link of the Day
4,000 U.S. Deaths and a Handful of Images

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan by Thomas Havens

(Book Review)

This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only book about the anti-Vietnam War movement in Japan. (The topic's not virgin territory by any means. There are lots of articles in academic journals. But this is the only full length book that I’m aware of).

Japan was very much involved in the Vietnam War because the bases in Japan and Okinawa were used as launching points for the U.S. army. (Okinawa was not returned to Japan until 1972, and was essentially a US colony until then.) Also Japanese manufacturers were very involved in the business side of the Vietnam War, and doing lots of trade with both the US and South Vietnamese army, and perhaps even supplying the materials for the US napalm bombs.

Despite all this, there was great anxiety on the part of the Japanese people and government about the Vietnam War. At the beginning of the War, when it looked possible that China might get involved, Japan feared they would be drawn right into the middle of another World War if China attacked the US bases in Japan.
Even after the threat of China joining the war diminished however there was concern that Japan’s involvement in the Vietnam War violated article 9 (the no-war clause) of their constitution. The nightly news showed images of the War, and many Japanese began to see parallels between the Americans in Vietnam, and their own quagmire in a guerrilla war in China 30 years earlier. As the American bombing campaign escalated, the Japanese, who had themselves experienced heavy bombing, began to sympathize with the Vietnamese people even more.
(As Havens points out, more bombs were dropped on Indochina during the Vietnam War than in all the years of World War II combined).

There are a lot of contradictions and ironies concerning Japan’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Despite the tremendous opposition to the War at the citizen level, Japan’s economy prospered greatly as a result of the increased trade that the War created. Havens writes: “Possibly the greatest long term effect was also the most ironic: halfway through the war Japan replaced the United States as the leading economic power in Southeast Asia, so that one of America’s most reluctant allies ended up as the chief beneficiary of the eight-year war to save the Saigon regime.”

This is a short book (only 264 pages plus endnotes) but it tries to cover a lot of ground. For example the book deals with the legal issues surrounding Article 9 of the Japanese constitution and its involvement in the war, the diplomatic issues with the United States, the opposition parties in the Japanese Diet and the parliamentary politics played out over the War, the economic side of the Vietnam War in Japan, the issues surrounding the return of Okinawa, the citizen opposition groups, newspaper editorials, Japanese reporters in Vietnam, public opinion and even Japanese pop music related to the anti-War movement. (As a big fan of Japanese oldies, this book tries to answer a question I had been wondering about for years: with massive protests and anti-war sentiment in Japan, why were there no anti-war songs on the pop charts?)
As such, much of the book feels like it is only skimming over broader issues, which in fact it is. It does, however, provide an excellent bird’s eye view of the whole conflict.

The style of the book is a bit on the dry side. It reads a bit like an academic paper which someone decided to publish as a book. But the subject material was fascinating enough to keep me interested.

As in many other parts of the world, the 1960s in Japan were a time of conflict between the old established left and the New Left. This is a major theme of Haven’s book, as he highlights the ineffectiveness of the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), and contrasts them against new citizens groups like Beheiren (Citizens’ Federation for Peace in Vietnam).

Beheiren, organized by Japanese novelist Oda Makoto, was a new kind of group which was based on decentralized, almost anarchist principles, in which any group who agreed to their basic principles could organize events on their behalf. It was based on getting ordinary citizens involved in the political process, and creating a new kind of participatory democracy, but it was unaligned with any political party.
The JSP, and the JCP, which both looked at opposition to the Vietnam War as a way to increase their seats in the Diet and expand their own political power, were very hostile to Beheiren.

Although Haven’s book touches on a variety of issues (see above) the story of Beheiren forms the backbone of the narrative. The more radical student protests, that were paralyzing Universities and leading to pitched battles in the streets of Tokyo, are mentioned only in passing. This is partly because Beheiren was a one-issue organization, dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam whereas the student protests in Japan (as in Europe and the US) were not limited solely to Vietnam, but spurred on by an amalgamation of issues including University reform, opposition to tuition increases, and anti-establishment sentiment.

To the extent the student protests are mentioned in Haven’s book, it is usually only for the purpose of contrasting them to Beheiren’s more peaceful approach.

For example the week long battle between police and student protesters at Tokyo University over Yasuda auditorium, which was broadcast live on Japanese TV and is sometimes referred to as Japan’s “Kent State”, is only mentioned in one sentence in this book, and that only to contrast with the tactics of Beheiren. (… “the delegates [of Beheiren] thought it would be wise to diversify in light of the campus violence that culminated when the police recaptured Yasuda auditorium at Tokyo University on January 19”.)

Beheiren gained international attention when it began hiding deserters from the US army, smuggling them out of the country, and arranging their passage to Sweden. After reading about the huge media furor this caused at the time, I was able to better understand the culture issues surrounding “The Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal” movie in which the whole plot revolves around helping two U.S. soldiers escape on a boat to Sweden.

*************************************

There is a lot in this book which parallels with the Iraq War, much of which is so obvious it scarcely bares mentioning. Despite the lessons of the Vietnam War or the Japanese in China (not to mention the French in Algeria, the Russians in Afghanistan, and a host of other similar situations) United States has once again involved itself in another foreign policy disaster.

Havens mentions how the Vietnam War destroyed America’s image in Japan. Despite the destruction of the Great War, in the years immediately World War II most Japanese people looked upon America as the great liberator and strong house of democracy and freedom. After the Vietnam War, most Japanese had a negative image of America. The parallel of America’s tarnished image after the Iraq debacle is, of course, all too obvious.

*****************************************************

I mentioned this book in my Tombo Times article, despite the fact that I hadn't yet read it at the time. In my defense, I had fully intended to read it by the time I wrote the article. I had ordered it off of Amazon months previously, but kept getting messages that it was out of stock, or that they couldn't locate a copy for me.

After waiting over half a year, I switched my order to an older edition (used copy) and then immediately had a copy shipped out to me. This book was originally published in 1987, and then later republished after 2000. I’m not sure if I missed any important updates by reading the older edition or not. I’m also not sure if my frustrating experience trying to get a hold of a copy is unique or not. If you’re interested in the subject material, however, it is worth the trouble it takes to track down a copy.

Update: I've sent a version of this review to Media Mouse. They posted it here.
Link of the Day
Air in northwest Michigan sometimes among worst in nation

Monday, August 11, 2008

Hellboy

(Movie Review)

This movie was flying completely under my radar when it first came out. I was vaguely aware that a movie with this title was playing in theaters, but I had absolutely no interest in seeing it.

(Despite being a comic book fan in my youth, I was, for better or for worse, exclusively a fan of the 2 major publishers, and bothered to look over at any of the minor companies like “Dark Horse.” My loss, I’m sure.)

I first began to take an interest in this movie when “Pan’s Labyrinth” came out, and critics began comparing it to director Guillermo del Toro’s earlier work, “Hellboy”.
(I still haven’t seen “Pan’s Labyrinth” actually. It wasn't out on DVD yet when I left the states, and I can’t find an English subtitled version in Japan. It’s on my list of movies to see someday, however).

Now Hellboy II is out in theaters. And I've been noticing it has been getting great reviews. (Time magazine, which I have a subscription to out here in Japan, gave it a very nice write up, and again compared it to Guillermo del Toro’s earlier works--read it here).

As long as I’m living out in the Japanese country side, it will be a while before I get around to seeing new movies like Hellboy II, but for the moment I thought I’d content myself with picking up the original Hellboy from my video store.

The very name of this movie assures that it would have been on the blacklist at the Christian schools I attended growing up. And indeed a small part of me did feel guilty for enjoying a movie in which a demon is the hero. But once you get past that hang up, it is a great ride.

(If one were inclined to become philosophical about this, I guess the whole premise of the movie does bring up some interesting issues about whether demons are irredeemably evil, or if they posses the power of free will just like humans. [I remember Bork once explaining to me how The Rolling Stones anthem “Sympathy for the Devil”, another song hated by the Christian right, was actually a deep theological song about whether it was okay or not to feel sympathy for Satan’s plight, and if Satan had the possibility for redemption.]
And although the movie does hint at this issue, it is not at heart a philosophical movie. So I’ll just leave it.)

Not having read the comic, I’m not sure how much of the story should be credited with screen writer/ director Guillermo Del Toro, and how much originates from the source material, but right from the beginning it is a wonderfully bizarre story. During World War II, the Nazis are working on a top secret project to summon the powers of hell. They are interrupted by US soldiers accompanied by a somewhat eccentric Catholic scientist who specializes in the paranormal. The demon, only a baby at the time, is found by the U.S. army and brought up to be on the side of good: a crime fighter for the FBI.

One of the things that make this movie different than your average superhero movie is that the title character doesn't hog all the screen time. There are several other interesting characters in the movie, and the story is just as much about them as about Hellboy himself, such as the paranormal scientist who finds Hellboy in the first place, the mysterious Aquaman named Abe Sapien, the fire girl Liz Sherman, and the young FBI agent newly transferred to the bureau of paranormal activities, who has no idea what he is getting into.

The action sequences themselves are okay, but they’re nothing special either. In fact, since Hellboy is repeatedly fighting the same demon throughout the movie (the Hound of Resurrection, how repeatedly rises again no matter how many times Hellboy manages to kill him) things can even get a bit repetitive.

But the real draw of this movie is the fantastically bizarre creatures who populate its world.

Someday, perhaps a couple of years from now when “Hellboy II” finally comes out in Japan, I look forward to seeing that as well. I’m also looking forward to seeing Del Toro’s version of “The Hobbit”.

Link of the Day
Study: Global Warming Could Cost Michigan Billions

Monday, August 04, 2008

Oita City / 大分市

(Better Know a City)

This is not my most exciting "Better Know a City", but it was a "Better know a city" for summer.

This is an outing designed for baking in the hot humid dog days of a Kyushu summer, when it feels to hot even to move.

The weather forecast was for 35 degrees. Not exactly weather where you want to be out hiking around exploring a new city. More the kind of weather where you want to be sitting inside an air conditioned shopping mall browsing through some books.

Down here in the country side, there was only one city in Oita prefecture I could think of where I could spend a whole day exploring air conditioned buildings: Oita City.

Oita City is the capital city for Oita prefecture. With a small handful of exceptions, almost all the capital cities in Japan have the same name as their prefecture. In Fukuoka prefecture, it is Fukuoka city. In Gifu prefecture, it is Gifu city. And in Oita prefecture, the capital is Oita city.
(….More than once, this has caused a bit of confusion for me in conversations, where I kept having to double check to see if the speaker was talking about the prefecture or the city.)

Oita city is kind of like a poor man’s Fukuoka city. It’s not anywhere near as big or as impressive as Fukuoka city, but for those of us living in Oita prefecture it’s often a lot closer. And if you can’t drive all the way out to Fukuoka, Oita city can supply most of your big city needs. It’s got lots of stores, English books (something you never take for granted in the Japanese country side) a Starbucks, and it’s own nightlife scene.

When I was originally envisioning this “Better Know a City” project, I told myself when I did get around to Oita city, I would get away from the city center and the shopping malls and do some exploring. And, once you get out of the downtown area, there is actually a bit of hiking to be found even within the borders of Oita city. (This being Oita prefecture, you’re never far away from the countryside even in the capital city).

But here I decided to compromise with reality. It was too hot to go hiking around. Last year I didn't to a single “Better know a city” during the summer months, and instead spent every free day I had swimming at the waterfalls. This year, I decided if I was going to go to Oita city in the summer, I wouldn't force myself outside. I’d spend the whole day in air conditioned buildings, looking at books in the library and reading books in coffee shops. It was a compromise with myself.

…And that’s more or less what I did. I’ll admit at the outset that this isn't one of my more exciting “Better Know a City”s. Almost the whole day is me inside reading books. But, for what it’s worth, this is my day in Oita:

Not taking the expressway, it’s about an hour and a half drive into Oita city from Nakatsu. I left my house shortly after 7, and arrived in Oita right about 9. My first stop was the Oita International Center. I had a whole carload of books I needed to get rid of.

Two days ago the Nakatsu Nova had shut down, and there were 9 years of English books that we needed to get ride of. (Books that former Nova teachers must have left behind when they left Japan, over 9 years accumulating into quite a small library).
I had a feeling the Nova staff, if left to there own, would just have thrown these books away, so I made a point of rescuing them on the last day. There must have been over 200 books. I filled up my whole trunk, and then my whole back seat.

The books were absolute junk by the way. There was a reason most of them had been left behind. My co-worker and I, Mr. K, had long ago picked through these books to see if there was anything we wanted for our own reading, and I couldn't find a single book I wanted. Each year Nova teachers must have gone over these books and picked out what they wanted, and just left the rest. These were the books nobody had wanted over 9 years. Lots of Robert Ludlum, fantasy books no one had heard of, old travelogues and cookbooks.
(Actually, that’s not completely true. When I first arrived at Nova, I did snag a couple books from this collection. “The Truth” by Terry Pratchett, for example, came out of this collection, and I always enjoy a good Pratchett book.
“Magician” by Raymond Feist was another book I got from the Nova library. I had never heard of it before, but I was trying to vary my reading habits a bit so I thought I’d give it a chance. It ended up being extremely mediocre. After that I didn't bother with any of the other various books I had never heard of in the stack).

My first thought was to donate these books to the Nakatsu library. I had donated all my old English books to the Nakatsu library before. They didn't really have an English section in their library, but I thought it would be kind of cool to build one up (something that English teachers and other foreigners will be able to use for years to come). And thus far, the Nakatsu library had always been glad to take my books, and had even been sending me thank you letters afterwards.
…But I thought maybe 200 books might overwhelm then a little bit, so I decided to take this stack to the Oita International Center.

The Oita International Center was located in a big grand building called “Oasis 21”. (Why “Oasis 21” I have no idea. One of the many strange names that pops up in Japan). I parked my car in their parking lot, and went to the International Center (which was hidden away in a little corner on the basement floor). The door was still locked, and a sign said they opened at 9:30. I glanced at my watch. It was 9:10. I had 20 minutes to kill. Time to explore the building.

Oasis 21 was one of those big impressive buildings that seemed to dominate the city center. And driving down the road, there were all sorts of signs pointing it out so that it was hard to miss.
And yet, like a lot of big impressive buildings, it was hard to figure out what exactly it was for. I had been in it several times before, and, aside from the International Center (hidden away in a little corner in the basement) I never figured out what the rest of the building did. Well, now seemed like a good time to find out.

I wandered up to the 1st floor, and walked around. Not finding anything really I walked up to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors as well. NHK, or at least the Oita branch of it, was stationed in this building. (NHK is the publicly funded broadcast station in Japan, like PBS in America or BBC in Britain). Each floor had an door leading to the NHK offices, but most of the doors were shut, and the doors that were open looked like just a reception desk and a waiting area. I was half hoping to find some sort of public exhibit, or gift shop, or something like that, but I didn't see anything. Maybe I was just too early in the morning.

The other side of the building was called Iichiko Hall. The doors to this were all closed, but it appeared to be some sort of big auditorium. (Iichiko is a local company that specializes in making sake and other types of alcohol. It’s based out of Usa city, and is the parent company to the Ajimu Winery).

9:30 came around, I went back to the International Center. The doors were unlocked by now, so I let myself in and gently knocked on the door.

Mike, the local CIR (Coordinator for International Relations), was there. I had never met Mike in person before, but I had been around long enough to expect he would be there. The Oita CIR was always stationed in the International Center. And I knew Mike was the Oita CIR, because the Oita CIR is also the editor for the monthly Tombo Times. And since I had written several articles for the Tombo Times over the past year and a half, I had corresponded with Mike over e-mail.

“Mike, right?” I said extending a hand. “I’m Joel. We've corresponded over e-mail before.”

“Ah, right,” he said, perhaps a bit startled by my sudden entrance into the office, but shaking my hand in a warm and friendly manner. “What can I do for you?”

“I was wondering if you needed any new books for your library.”

“We’re always looking for books.”

I glanced at the small amount of bookshelf space the Oita International Center Library occupied. “Actually, I've got a whole car full of books. I don’t know if it’s more than you can handle or not.”

“No, actually, it’s okay. What we do with the extra books we get is….” (Here for some reason, my mind completely spaced out and I missed his whole explanation. I guess I must have been already thinking ahead in the conversation, and thinking about how I would explain to him why I happened to end up with a whole carload full of books. It must be admitted I do this with disturbing frequency--zone out in the middle of a conversation and miss important information. It used to drive Shoko crazy. It’s not something I’m proud of, but there it is).
Anyway, the point is they had a plan for extra books. I didn't need to understand what it was, just as long as they knew what they were doing.

Mike grabbed a rolling cart from the office so we could load everything up in one trip. We took the elevator down to the parking lot to get the books, and traded stories about what we had been doing in Japan.
“You were a JET in this area once before, was that right?” Mike asked me.

“Yeah, well I’m one of those guys who came to Japan and just never left,” I said. “I did my 3 years on the JET program out in Ajimu. It was a 3 year limit back then. I understand they've raised that up to 5 years now?”

“In most cases,” Mike said. “There’s a bit of tricky legal wording in the contract. Basically the school still has the right not to extend your contract past 3 years if you’re causing problems. But as long as you’re not a complete jerk, most people can extend up to 5 years.”

“Well, back in my day, way back in 2004, there was a 3 year limit. And so I did my 3 years on JET, and then did a couple more years up in Gifu prefecture as a private ALT. Then I went back to the States, but ended up coming back to Japan because of my fiancée. She was living out in the countryside in Usa Nakatsu area, so there weren't a lot of jobs to choose from. So I applied with Nova. Having lived in Japan, I had heard all of the complaints from Nova teachers, but I thought it was only a short term job, what’s the worst that could happen?”

“And I guess you had that question answered,” Mike replied.

“Yeah, and then I’m here for half a year, and then they go bankrupt on me last October.”

“Well, at least you found out what the worst that could happen was.”

“Yeah, I guess I did. And then they started up in January again, and now they’re shutting down again.”

“Really, again?”

“Well, just the Nakatsu branch. Still, we were the only branch that got re-opened in all of Oita prefecture. Now students are going to have to commute all the way out to Kokura just to take lessons.”

“Are they going to?”

“They have to. They never got a refund on their points.”
We started loading books onto the cart. Some of them I had bagged, but a lot of the books I had just carried out to the car in stacks, and now we had to arrange all of these on the cart so they wouldn't fall off. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have mentioned this when we were back up the office. We could have brought more bags or something.”

“We have lots of boxes up there we could have used.”

“Sorry, my bad,” I said.

The stacks of books teetered on the cart the whole way back up to the office, always giving the impression they were about to fall off. But they didn't. We made it back up to the office without any disasters.

“Hey, as long as I’m here, I think I might browse through your library and see if there’s anything I want to check out myself,” I said.

Mike explained the system to me. “You need to fill out this form, then we’ll get you a library card. You can check out up to 10 books for 2 weeks. There’s no penalty or anything for late books, you just can’t check out any new books until you've returned any overdue books.”

“Yeah, actually to be honest, since I live all the way out in Nakatsu, there’s probably a good chance I’d be returning the books a bit on the late side.”

“That’s fine. That’s perfectly fine. We have people from all over the prefecture checking out books, and we understand sometimes it’s difficult to make it back to Oita on time. We have no problem with late books. The problem is that some people were checking out books and just never returning them ever, and then continuing to check out more books. Late is okay, just as long as you don’t use us like a free book store.”

I told Mike I’d wait to fill out the form until I checked to see if there were any books I was actually interested in or not. (I always like to avoid filling out unnecessary forms, if at all possible).

I spent a while scanning the shelves, and in the end picked out “War and Peace,” a biography of Tsar Nicholas II, and a biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton. (I remember Bear had told me about Sir Richard Francis Burton, apparently a great historical explorer and also a character in the “Riverworld” book series. He sounded pretty interesting).
No guarantee whether I’ll actually read these books or not you understand. If I do read them, then I guess you’ll see them appearing in my book reviews. Otherwise they’ll just be among the many, many books I check out or buy, and then never get around to reading. But it was free to check them out, and there were no English book stores in Nakatsu, so I felt I might as well load up on books while I was in Oita city.

Speaking of loading up on English books, the next stop was Oita prefectural library. I tried to take a short cut there, which is always a bad idea in Japan (because you can seldom rely on the roads continuing straight. You will start heading West, but pretty soon find yourself heading North or South, or maybe even back East before you know it) and so this lead to a bit of frustrated driving around, but eventually I got to the library.



For 10:30 on a Thursday morning, the prefectural library was surprisingly busy. The regular parking lot was already full, and I had to go park in the overflow parking. (There were about 5 cars lined up waiting to get into the regular parking lot. They were just sitting their by the gate idling their engines, and waiting for someone to leave so that one of them could enter. I thought this was a bit strange, especially since overflow parking was just right across the street. Maybe they didn't want to park their cars in the hot summer sun, and thought it worth the wait to get a space in the underground parking garage. I don’t know.)

When I entered the library, I saw a lot of Japanese business men doing work at the various desks, and then I remembered my students telling me they always went to the library to work or study because of the free air-conditioning. And this explained why the main parking lot was already full.

Oita prefectural library has a decent English section (3 whole rows of books) but it doesn't compare to a full library by any means. If you walk in hoping to browse for something interesting, you’ll probably find something. But if you go in with a specific book or purpose in mind, you might end up frustrated.

I was going in with a specific purpose. I had decided I was finished studying Japanese history, and instead wanted to study 19th Century European history. Unfortunately the history section was a bit thin.

There was a series of books called “World Leaders: Past and Present” which was a series of short sketches on famous world leaders. They were all only about 100 pages long, so none of them were very indepth, but I figured I know so little that I could probably learn some from them anyway. So I picked up the biographies on Robespierre, Queen Victoria, Danton, Thomas Paine, Napoleon, Clemenceau, and Lenin. Again I can’t guarantee I’ll actually read all of these, but since they were all quite short I’d say the odds are probably better than usual.

In the section on arts and music, I found a biography of Richard Wagner that looked interesting. And lastly from the fiction section I got “The Scarlet Pimpernel”.

And although I had just picked up a copy of "War and Peace" at the international center, I found a copy at the library with larger more readable print. So I picked up a second copy. (I figured large easy to read print is important if you're going to attempt a book like this.)

There were a few comic books as well. I didn't feel like going through the trouble of checking these out, but before I left the library I sat down at one of the desks and leafed through a couple. (Actually the desks were all taken up by Japanese business men enjoying the free air-conditioning, so I took the comic books to a round table instead. I read a “Far Side” collection cover to cover (I read so much “Far Side” as a kid that I had trouble finding any new cartoons, and the comic began to lose it’s appeal for me. But it’s been so long now that I've forgotten most of it, and I’m now able to read these comics as if they were new and fresh again.) I flipped through a Dilbert collection, but I wasn't not enough of a Dilbert fan to read it cover to cover.

I heard bells ringing, and glanced at my watch. It was 12:00 already. And I had done nothing my whole morning but look at books. Clearly this was shaping up to be one of my less exciting “Better Know a City” days.

****************************************

The last time I had been to Oita Prefectural library was almost a year ago. Sometime in August 2007, I had gone into Oita City for the purpose of obtaining an application for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. (For some whoknowswhat stupid bureaucratic reason, these things aren't available through the mail. They’re only sold at designated book stores. Which means people who live out in the countryside, like me, have to drive an hour and a half into the city just for the privilege of paying 500 yen to buy an application packet).

Anyway, I had to get an application, and my co-worker Leanne agreed to keep me company on the drive, and in return I showed her the sights of Oita city. Since Leanne was a fellow bookworm, I took her to Oita prefectural library so she could stock up on English books. I helped her fill out the application form and get a library card. Then we were both in line to check out our books, and I opened my wallet to get out my library card, and I couldn't find it.
It’s easy for stuff to get lost in your wallet in Japan. Every store I patronize has their own point card, so my wallet is so thick with cards I can hardly close it. So at first I thought my library card must be hiding between two other cards, but I looked again and again and I couldn't find it.
Finally, Leanne offered to check out my books on her card. Which was very nice of her.

I never did find my prefectural library card. It was one of the many things I manage to lose all the time.

So, now I had to (sigh) fill out another form to get a new library card. I dutifully completed the form, wrote my name, birthdate, address (in Kanji), et cetera, and brought it to the front desk.
“Actually I had a card before,” I said. “I just lost it.” In the back of my mind I was slightly worried that there would be some sort of walk of shame for people who had lost their library cards. She would angrily tell me that I couldn’t check out any new books if I had lost my first card, and I would have to walk back and reshelve the stack of books I was holding in my hands.

But of course there wasn’t. She just pulled my information up on the computer, checked to see if there were any changes to my information (in fact there were. My old Ajimu address from 4 years ago was still listed as current, so she changed that) and then gave me a piece of paper. “You can use this to check out books with for now,” she said. “And then come back anytime after August 14th and show us this paper, and then you can get a new card.”

I was a bit surprised by this . I thought I’d be given a new card then and there. When Leanne and everyone else registers for a card, they get a new card given to them right on the spot. Apparently the system is a bit different for people who have lost their cards.
I didn’t expect to be back to the library on August 14. It had been a year since I was here last, and it might well be a year until I go here again. I can return the books back at the Nakatsu library, so I probably won’t need to make the drive back out to Oita for while. At which point, I’ll probably have lost the piece of paper they gave me, and have to go through the whole process all over again.
But at least I was able to check out books for today.

Next, I drove my car right into the center of Oita City, and parked my car by the station.


As I was walking, I noticed a building top was still carrying an advertisement for my former employer, despite the fact that there hadn’t been a Nova open in Oita city since the original bankruptcy in October.


(The branch in Nakatsu had re-opened for half a year, but none of the 3 former branches in Oita city had been re-opened.) This caused me to wonder briefly if anyone had been paying for this sign the whole time. Or perhaps it said something about the speed of business down here in Kyushu. I’m sure in Tokyo that precious advertising space would have been snatched up within a week of Nova closing its doors.

Since this was supposed to be a day spent inside in air-condition, my first stop was the “Popeye’s Internet Café” next to the train station.
It occurred to me as I walked through the doors (and was immediately hit by a welcome cool blast of air conditioning) that I had never once been to an Internet Café back in my native country of America. In fact, to the best of my memory, I couldn’t remember even seeing an Internet Café in America. If I were back in America, and found myself without Internet access, I’m not sure what I would do.

My thoughts continued: Was this simply because I didn’t know the right places to go? Or was it because I was from Michigan? If I lived, for example, in Seattle, would there be Internet cafes on every street corner?

Or, could it be that there are almost no internet cafes in America?

In Japan, I’ve practically lived out of Internet cafes. The majority of the time I’ve been in Japan, I’ve been without Internet access in my home. Which means almost all of the work I’ve done on this blog over the years has been done from an Internet café. (Or more accurately, I type it up on my word processor, and then just go to the Internet café to post it).
In Japan, there are always internet cafes in any decent sized city. In the countryside like Ajimu it can be a bit inconvenient of course. But in Oita city, in Beppu, in Gifu, even in Nakatsu there are always Internet cafes. If it weren’t for Internet cafes, I guess I would have had to give in and buy a decent computer a long time ago. (Actually, by now I probably would have had to go through a couple of them, since they need to be upgraded every few years.)

Internet cafes in Japan are very reasonably priced. Usually around $3 to $5 for an hour. And that always includes all the free drinks you want. I’ve never been to an internet café in Japan yet that didn’t serve free drinks. In the nice internet cafes, they’ve got quite a selection as well.

I grabbed a coffee, a grape soda, and an orange slushy. (They’re all free after all, so I figure why not load up on 3 different kinds of drinks at once? Give my taste buds some variety as I surf the net).

I checked my e-mail. Since I’m once again without e-mail access, it had been a week since I last checked my e-mail. There were several messages from friends that I should reply to, but I didn’t feel like it.

Despite my graphomania on display on this blog, I have a hard time keeping up with e-mail from an internet café. Maybe because I come into an Internet café to relax, and then it feels like homework to have to sit up and write off a bunch of responses. Plus the time frame of being in an Internet café adds a bit of pressure.
99.9% of the population prefers receiving mail rather than writing it, and I guess I can count myself among them.

Next stop, Forus Department store.


I always stop by Forus department store because they have a Bookstore which has a couple shelves of English books. Most of my visits into the big city revolve around looking at books. Which I guess is pretty pathetic, but when you live out in the Japanese countryside, you’d be surprised how desperate you get for a good English book selection.

The Junkudo bookstore is located on the 7th floor of the department store. The other 6 floors are made up of brand name clothing stores, and filled with fashionable young Japanese girls with Louis Vitton hand bags wandering around. It’s the kind of place I normally wouldn’t be caught dead in, and I always feel dreadfully out of place until I get up to the 7th floor. I am constantly worried one of the mall staff is going to come up to me and say something like, “Are you sure you’re in the right building? You don’t look very fashionable.”

Going up the escalator, I passed not one, but two Japanese girls with perfume so strong it made my eyes water.

“Harry Potter” was on display at Junkudo bookstore. The Japanese translation of the 7th book had just got released a couple months ago, and many of my students are in the middle of reading it right now. (I can no longer brag to them that I know the ending and they don't).

I headed to the back where the English books were kept. There was another foreigner couple already there. The girl was sitting on the ground reading, the guy was leaning against the bookshelf reading. In fact the guy was leaning right against the bookshelf I wanted to look at.
I tried not to be too rude about it. I looked at everything else first, and then gradually moved over to the bookshelf he was looking at, and tried to hint by my body language that I wanted to see what was behind him. He tried to ignore me for a bit, and then slowly moved away.

Having already been to 2 libraries that morning, I didn’t feel the need to waste a lot of money at the bookstore. Usually I can’t leave without buying something, but I was able to mostly resist. I did however buy an application packet for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this year. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to take the test this year or not, but for the 500 yen it costs, I certainly don’t want to have to drive all the way back to Oita city again if I change my mind.

Next, I went to the Starbucks at the bottom of Forus department store to read my books.
Whenever I get into a big city in Japan, I always visit a Starbucks. I’m not sure why, I just tend to gravitate there because it seems like a part of the big city experience. (Starbucks haven’t quite made their way out to the Japanese Countryside yet, but in a big city you can find them on practically every street corner.)
I’ve noticed other foreigners who live out in the countryside share the same pattern. When ever they go into a city, they always make it a point to drop into a Starbucks. Nobody knows quite why we do it, but we all end up there.

I got a large cup of coffee and went up to a table where I flipped through some of my books. The foreign couple who I had just seen in the bookstore ended up sitting at the table next to mine.

After I finished my coffee, I made my way across the street to Parco Department store. Parco is just like Forus. It’s 7 floors of clothing and fashion, but if you can hold your breath and make it up to the top floor, you can find the books.
On the top floor of Parco is a shop called “Village Vanguard: Interesting Bookstore.” And interesting bookstore it is. Issei, my friend/supervisor at the Board of Education in Ajimu first took me here way back in my first year in Japan, when the 2 of had to go into Oita city for some bureaucratic reason. (I forget why exactly. I probably needed some stamp on my passport, or some alien registration form).

The assortment of stuff in Village Vanguard is so random it’s difficult to classify. It’s kind of a pop culture shop, with everything from Disney to Che Guevara lining the shelves. Some of the stuff is very innocent and childish, other stuff is blatantly offensive. (In Gifu, when I argued with the store clerk about the big Nazi flag he had on display, that was in a “Village Vanguard” shop).

It’s not a particular English friendly shop: all of the books are in Japanese. And my Japanese is just good enough where I can read the cover of the book, but not much else. But actually I’ve always preferred browsing book covers than slogging through the whole book anyway, so I can spend a lot of time in Village Vanguard just looking at the covers and thinking about all the interesting books I would be able to read if only I studied Japanese more. Books on Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Che Guevara (whose been experiencing a bit of renewed popularity in Japan the last few years) and John Lennon (whose always been a favorite in Japan, probably because of his relationship with Yoko Ono).

There’s always a lot of interesting music in “Village Vanguard”. Although unfortunately its usually music I’ve never heard of, so it’s difficult to know what to buy. Occasionally in the past I’ve taken gambles just based on how cool the CD case looked. A dangerous (and expensive) gamble, but it did introduce me to a number of great Japanese artists and CDs. Kojima Mayumi, for example, is an artist I really enjoyed who I found through Village Vanguard. Also the soundtrack to “The Stray Cat Rock” movies turned out to be another good Village Vanguard gamble.

In the past, I’ve made a lot of impulse buys at Village Vanguard, hoping I guess, in my more desperate moments, that the cool atmosphere of the shop would rub off on me if I only made the right purchases. Today though, I walked away without buying anything.

There were a couple more shops in the area I knew that had English books, and I wandered around and poked my head in them. They were, like I knew they would be, the same books I had seen before at Junkudo bookstore. All bookstores in Japan must get all their English books from the same supplier, because it’s always the same from store to store. Probably the owners of these bookstores can’t even read English, and just subscribe to the same list of recommended English books from a common distributer. Who knows.

It was after 4 by this time, and I thought maybe it was getting late enough in the afternoon to try and venture out into the summer heat.

Not far from the department stores is a Japanese castle surrounded by a moat and small garden. Every time I come into Oita city with a Japanese friend I always ask about the history of the castle, and no one seems to know. There are no signs around the castle explaining it, nor guides around to question. It may well not even be very historical, but at least it's free. The gates are wide open, and there’s no one collecting ticket fees, so you can just walk right in and wander around.

I did a bit of video taping and I took a picture, so maybe you can get the idea.





It’s not the world’s most scenic area, but it is a nice little park in the otherwise sea of concrete that is central Oita. It perhaps demonstrates the Japanese ability to build little tranquil areas in the midst of a busy city.

I tried to walk around the castle. For some frustrating reason, it’s built like a maze. There is a long wall, and then several other fences, so to get inside you have to make a long detour around the fence, over a bridge, along the moat, and then across another bridge again. It’s a bit aggravating at the best of times, but in the summer heat it feels really unnecessary.

I did make it all the way around the castle, and I didn’t die of heat stroke. Although my clothing was thoroughly soaked through with sweat. I looked like I had just been caught out in a rain storm. And the humidity of the Japanese summer meant it would stay soaked through like that without drying off.

Nonetheless, since I was as hot as I was going to get, I thought about leaving the center of Oita, getting in my car again, and driving off maybe to the edge of the city to find a park, a beach, or even just another shopping center. I felt like I had done all there was to do in the city center.

Then I glanced at my watch, and saw it was just turning 5 O’clock now. If there was one thing I did not want to do, it was get stuck in my car during rush hour traffic in downtown Oita on a hot summer afternoon. Anything would be preferable to that.

So, I went back into Starbucks. Not the same Starbucks as before. I decided to go to the one across the street, and give my life a little variety. I ordered another cup of coffee, and got a sandwich and a cookie, and decided to continue reading my books.

After about a half hour or so, I heard someone call out “Sensei, sensei!” I looked up, and one of the Korean girls from Beppu University was waving at me.

She came over and started talking to me. “I’m surprised to see you here,” she said. “Don’t you live all the way out in Nakatsu, or something? I didn’t think I’d see you here. But I thought I saw someone who looked like you, so I walked around the shopping mall one more time just so I could get another look at you. And it really is you. What are you doing in Oita city?”

I explained I was visiting the libraries and the bookstores. I thought it made me sound somewhat pathetic even as I said it, but it was the truth. I invited her to have a seat and join me, but she declined. “I’m here with my friends,” she said. “They’re over there waiting for me. I just wanted to say hi.” She left, and I returned to my book.

By 7, it was getting dark already. Even in the summer, the Japanese sun sets very early. Mainly because there’s no daily savings time. The sun rises ridiculously early at 4:30 in the morning (or so I’ve been told) and then sets very early in the evening.
It drives us foreigners, who are used to long summer evenings, crazy. But the Japanese don’t seem to mind. Every year the newspapers bring up the issue of daylight savings time, and every year the Japanese public seems strongly against it. (I think the main reason given is because changing everyone’s sleeping patterns messes with biorhythms, or something like that).

I set out from Starbucks, and while waiting at a crosswalk for the light to change, ran into my Korean classmate again. She was with a male Korean friend, who I thought might have been her boyfriend. “Sensei,” she exclaimed.

“Hello again,” I said. “Fancy running into you twice in one day.”

She told me all of her Korean friends had gone back to Korea now. “I’m the only one left,” she said sadly. “But I wanted to learn more Japanese, so I decided to stay on for one semester.
“By the way, your speech was very good,” she said, referring to the speech contest on the last day of school (in which I had taken 3rd prize.) She turned to her friend. “Isn’t his Japanese very good for an American?” she asked.

“Are you a teacher at Beppu University,” he asked me.

“No, I’m just a student there. I teach out in Nakatsu,” I said.
(The Korean students insisted on calling me “sensei”, even though I told them at Beppu University I was off the clock and was just another ordinary student, so they could call me by name. For some reason this never got across, and I think it may have confused some of the other students, as it was now confusing her boyfriend.)

The light changed, and we went our separate ways.

It was now night time, and too late to go exploring another part of the city. Before I got in my car and went home though, I decided to visit Miyako Machi, the night district in Oita city.

I have a lot of memories about Miyako Machi and night life in Oita city. I’ve written about a few of them on this blog. (Although by far and away my best stories are the ones that never made it to the blog.)

And I have a lot of mixed feelings about the whole place. One on hand, I loved the idea of the night district. There’s a certain romance in the tackiness of having all the bars, ramen shops, karaoke parlors, and snack bars stacked on top of each other. Neon lights are flashing everywhere. The cool night air makes you feel alive, and the dark sky makes you feel mysterious.
And on a Friday or Saturday night, the whole area is packed with people. Taxi cabs move slowly through lanes that are swarming with pedestrians. Drunk Japanese business men stumble along the street. Pretty girls talk loudly and giggle together as they walk out of a bar. Guys stand on a street corner to try and look for pretty girls.

That’s what I love about Miyako Machi: the energy you can feel pulsating in the street. My favorite part of the night was not the dance club or the bar we went to, but just getting to the dance club or the bar that we were going to.

….Which brings me to my least favorite part of the night. Once we actually got to the bar or night club we were going to, I hated being stuck inside a small room all night. Space is at a premium in Japan, so even the dance clubs we went to (like “Cool Bananas”) had a bit of a claustrophobic feeling.

I was never a big fan of the night club scene. I was too shy to pick up girls. I might work up the courage to talk to them at a bar, but I could never pick them up on the dance floor. And I hated having to yell over the music to try and talk to people.

The actual dancing itself was alright, if I let myself get into it. But the kind of music they play at these kind of clubs has never been my cup of tea.

Because I rarely drank, I was always the designated driver. Which meant I stayed sober as the people around me got more and more drunk, and the conversation got more and more inane.

I would often excuse myself from the bar, wander outside, take a walk around the town, and come back to the bar to see if my friends were ready to go home yet. Then I would come back in the bar and sit with them until I could stand the claustrophobic feeling no longer, and go outside and wander around again.

Clearly, I’m not much of a night club person. Somehow I always ended up with a group of friends who wanted to get drunk and stay out all night.
I remember spending many a bored night at a small bar or dance club, waiting for my friends to sober up or finally get sick of dancing . And I remember more than once driving home from a dance club with the sun already up.

Of course, staying out all night at tacky dance clubs and claustrophobic bars is just part of the ex-pat scene in Japan. And to a certain extent, maybe just part of being in your 20s. Now that I’m 30, I think I’ll leave that part of my life behind. I won’t guarantee I’ll never set foot in a dance club again, but I certainly don’t feel a sense of obligation anymore. Before I felt like I had to go out and party with everyone to prove that I wasn’t an anti-social hermit. Now, I’ve come to accept the beauty of a quiet Friday night.

I walked past the place where the old “Cool Bananas” used to be. That was the dance club we always used to go to back in the day. The building was empty now, and a for rent sign was on the wall.
…During the past few years, “Cool Bananas” had changed locations a number of times. There were all sorts of rumors about troubles and scandals that had befallen the place, and I wasn’t sure where it had ended up, or even if it was still open.

A few doors down, there had been another bar popular with the foreign crowd: El Gauchos. This too had apparently closed down, because there was now another bar there with a different name: “70s Music Bar” (or something like that.)
Although the bar had apparently changed ownership, it still appeared to be foreigner friendly. The outside window was covered with Western music album covers. Many of them from around the 70s. (Being a classic rock fan, I noticed that about half the albums featured were from the middle or late 60s, but you can’t be too picky about these things in Japan).

I had taken a moment or two to linger by the window, so the two Japanese men standing by the door called out to me. One, who I assume was the owner, began explaining the theme of the bar to me. “Everything is from the 70s. How old are you?”
“30,” I answered.
“Ah, I’m 45. You’re probably not old enough to remember all of these groups from the 70s.” He pointed to an album. “Like ‘The Allman Brothers’. Do you know ‘The Allman Brothers?’”

“Actually, yes. I saw them in concert back when I was in college. Twice.”

This didn’t appear to impress him very much, because he continued right on talking as if he hadn’t heard me. He asked me how long I had been in Japan, where I was from, what I was doing in Japan, et cetera. The standard questions.

I entertained the idea of going into the bar and trying to make friends with whoever was inside, but then ruled it out. More likely than not it would be just drunken Japanese old men, and the conversation would be very predictable and boring. “Wow, aren’t you tall? You speak Japanese very well. Can you use chopsticks? Can you eat sushi? What do you think about Japan?”

Instead, I thanked the proprietor, made a rather awkward good-bye, and just continued down the street to Jungle Park, at the center of Miyako Machi.

Jungle Park is a stroke of genius--I tip my hat to whatever urban planner thought of the idea. Right in the middle of all these neon lights, snack bars, and karaoke parlors, there is a small oasis of greenery. A large water fountain cascades over down several steps. Lots of trees line the middle of the park, and street lamps shine light onto the green leaves. In the middle of the night, the whole place almost does look a bit like a jungle.

I once wandered over to Jungle Park in the daytime, just to see what it would look like, and found that it looked completely different in the light. The trees, which at night had seemed to cover the park with green foliage, were actually thin and spread out from each other. They looked sick and scraggily in the sunshine. The ground was covered with all sorts of cigarette butts and trash I had never noticed at night.

I tried to take some video of Jungle Park and Miyako Machi. Unfortunately my video camera doesn’t work well at night, so I had a hard time getting Jungle Park to even show up on the camera. (Also keep in mind this was on a Thursday night. Things are a lot more lively down here on the weekend).



I was just about to call it a night when I remembered Sean, a friend of mine from my JET days, was working in a club around here. Sean had gone back to America, then returned again to Japan (everyone always goes and comes back here) and had gone into business for himself by buying P.E.I., one of the foreign bars in Oita. (It had previously been a Canadian themed bar, but I guess since Sean was an American, he might set about to changing that now).

Sean had sent a message announcing his return to the Oita JETs listserve a few months ago. It had been years since I’d seen him, so I thought I’d drop by PEI and see if he was working tonight.

It had been a few years since I had last been to PEI, so I had a bit of trouble finding it, but eventually I got the right door. And sure enough, Sean was standing behind the bar. So I walked over and gave him a punch in the arm.

Sean’s one of the friendliest guys in the world. I barely know him really, hardly have hung out with him, but he always acts overjoyed to see me. “Hey,” he says warmly. “What are you doing here?”

“I thought I’d remembered something about you working here now,” I said. “So I thought I’d drop by.”

“Man, it’s been ages. I think it’s been a couple years since you even sent me an e-mail.”

“I know,” I said sheepishly. “I kept meaning to e-mail, but I never got around to it.”

Sean grabbed my hands and examined them closely. “What’s this? No wedding ring? I thought you’d be married by now!”

“Yeah, that’s a long story.”

“Weren’t you e-mailing me for advice on how to get an international marriage visa?”

“Yes, well, like I said it’s a long story.”

“Oh, well sorry if I brought up a sore subject.”

“No, not so much a sore subject so much as a long story.”

It’s difficult to have a long conversation with a barman when he’s on duty, and Sean’s attention was soon distracted by orders from customers down at the other end of the bar, and I didn’t really have time to go into my whole sob story about the break-up at the time.

There were a few other people at the bar I recognized. Like Joel, who had been a JET in Oita City and whose first name I’ve always admired. I played catch up with Joel now, and he told me he had finished out his JET days, and was now working as a private Assistant Language Teacher (ALT).

There were several other foreigners at the bar, who I couldn’t quite place names to, but who looked vaguely familiar. One of them thought the same about me, because he said, “We’ve met before somewhere, haven’t we?”

“I think so,” I said. “You look familiar.”

“I can’t remember where though.” He said.

I couldn’t either. We spent a few minutes trying to figure it out. He had come into Oita as a JET in the fall of 2004, which was just when I had been leaving Oita prefecture to head to Gifu. But of course since I had left a girlfriend behind in Oita prefecture, I had made several trips back to visit during Summer and Spring breaks, and had probably run into him one of those times.

“Did you hang out with Mike from South Africa?” he asked.

“Yes, I did,” I said.

“That must have been it then,” he said. “Did you stay over at Mike’s apartment in Oita city sometime?”

“I did once yeah.”

“That’s it then. I think I was there the same night.”

Having established a connection, we played expat bingo (just like Dutch Bingo) for a while longer to see how many people we could find in common. Which school did you work at? Oh, yes, so and so was your predecessor there, right? I heard she didn’t like it that much, did you have any problems?
Et cetera.

There was a bit of humor during the night as one of the guys wanted desperately to use the toilet, but couldn’t get the door open. He assumed the toilet was occupied, and kept waiting for someone to emerge. He then asked Sean if maybe someone had passed out in the toilet, and there was some concern about what we should do if that had happened, and how we would get the locked door opened.
…And then it turned out the toilet was a push door, and he had been pulling on it the whole time. This created our humor for the evening, and was the basis for some other people to branch out and reminisce about other stupid things foreigners had said or done in Japan.
“That reminds me of Gareth,” someone said. “We picked him up from the airport his first day in Japan, and as we were driving him he said, ‘Wow, there’s so much bamboo everywhere’. And we said, well, yeah, it was Japan, and he said, ‘But then why aren’t there any pandas?’”.
This produced another round of guffaws.

Since it was the beginning of August, it was right about the time when the new JETs arrive, and the Old JETs go home. Someone at the bar was getting ready to go back home to England the next day, and there was a lot of talk about his future, especially since he was bringing his Japanese wife home with him.

“So this is the situation,” Sean told me. “He’s going back to England tomorrow. He’s got no job, no apartment, no place to live, and he’s bringing with him a Japanese wife he’s going to have to support somehow.”

The conversation then turned back to me, and I had to tell me tale of woe about how my Japanese fiancée had broken up with me. “Wow,” someone said. “That’s unusual for the Japanese girl to break it off. It’s almost always the foreign guy who calls it quits. I’ve never heard of the Japanese girl breaking it off.”

I couldn’t really think of a reply to this remark, so I just shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “Well, here we are.”

“You dodged a bullet man,” someone else said. “You’ll be thankful for this one day.”

“It does solve a lot of problems all at once,” I admitted. All the issues of international visas, paperwork, how to support Shoko in America or how to make a decent living in Japan, all of those problems just disappeared with one stroke. When I get over my heartbreak, maybe I will come to see the good side of this.

I talked to Sean about the bars around Oita, and he confirmed for me what I had already suspect. "Cool Banana" was officially no more. But he was looking to fill the void left with his own place.

"We have nomihodais on the last Saturday of every month," he said. "You ought to come down."

"I'll try," I said. "But its rough coming all the way from Nakatsu. Plus working in an Eikaiwa school, we tend to be the busiest on the weekends."

Joel ordered a PEI burger, and it looked so good I decided to order one myself. And it was very tasty.
"Don't forget to chew, man," Sean told me as he saw me wolfing down the burger.

"My father always used to tell me the same thing," I replied.

I said my good-byes eventually and headed back to my car (where I payed roughly $10 in parking for the day). On the way back, I saw some of the preparation for the Tanabata festival that weekend, so I video taped some of it.



Bonus Videos When Brett visited Japan

Here are some videos we shot of Takasakiyama Monkey Mountain.  (Which is right on the border of Beppu and Oita, but I believe technically inside Oita's borders.)  The first visit is a drive through Beppu on the way to Monkey Mountain in which we discuss Monkey Mountain.  The second video is Monkey Mountain itself.






Also, video of Brett and I driving through Oita City.



Link of the Day
What's mine is yours at 'Really, Really Free Market' in Grand Rapids