Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Well, yesterday morning the 8 students left to go back to Japan, so now I finally have some free time on my hands again and can update this blog. What to say about the experience?
As I said in my previous post, really every day of this homestay experience could well have been a long post in its own right. Now that the whole homestay is over, I'll try and condense my stories and thoughts into something readable.
First of all some back ground, because I guess I haven't kept everyone updated on this as well as I could have. Because I went to Sapporo this summer to study Japanese, I had used up just about all my vacation time from my job. When I asked to go home for Christmas, the board of education pointed out that I had no vacation time left. At which point I came up with the idea of taking some students back to America with me, and thus turning it into a "working vacation."
I decided to accept students on a first come first serve basis. We sent out notices to the Junior high and high school, and ended up having 6 students sign up. I had previously said five students was the limit, but when only 6 students signed up, I figured I could sneak another student in.
Later the board of Education wanted to insert 2 University students as well, bringing the total up to eight students. At this point my mother started getting a little worried about spacial concerns, having 8 Japanese students all staying at the Swagman house. This was in addition to all the Swagman Children coming home for the holidays (besides me I have two younger sisters, and one younger brother). It was no doubt a very packed house for the ten days everyone was over here. At the same time though the Japanese students were all great and were a pleasure to have around the house, and I think everyone in my family was sorry to see them go.
Being entrusted to take these eight students to a foreign country and chaperon them for ten days was the most responsibility I have ever been given in my life. As we were preparing for this homestay back in Japan, I began to realize the awesome amount of trust these students parents were placing in me, and I was determined to live up to it. The first few days of the homestay especially I was out to prove myself as a responsible adult.
And I got off to a terrible start. At the airport in Osaka there were at least two occasions when I almost left a student behind at a restaurant or a book store. The university students (who were in many ways more responsible than me, even though they were 3 and 6 years younger) had to stop me on both occasions to make sure we didn't leave anyone behind. After that I started counting heads before we went anywhere, but it was an embarrassing start to the event.
The weather in Kyushu is much warmer than Michigan, so I wanted to make sure everyone brought warm winter coats. And everyone did. Except me. I, the Michigan native, forgot my winter coat in Japan, even though all the kids remembered theirs.
But actually, as those of you who have been in West Michigan for the past week know, the weather was unseasonably warm. In Kyushu we rarely get snow, and so I've been telling stories about Michigan winters for the past two years, and I think I perhaps lost a bit of credibility when the students arrived and there was barely any snow on the ground.
The two university students could speak quite good English. The High school and junior high school students not so much, so I was doing a lot of translating this week. How good is my Japanese? Honestly I think it depends on the day. This may be true of anyone learning a foreign language. I have days when I can string sentences together with ease, and days when I have to work really hard to say the most elementary of things. I had good days and bad days this past week. Some days I got sick of speaking in Japanese, and talked to the kids mostly in English. Somedays I was trying to show off what I knew, and spoke mostly in Japanese. I did a lot of switching back and forth between the two languages, and sometimes mixed up what person goes with what language. Often I would say something in English to a student, get a blank look from them, and then have to repeat it in Japanese. And once I accidentally addressed a question in Japanese to my mother, which got a big laugh from my students.
We had a busy week. The students spent one day at Calvin Christian high school, one day at the Inner City Christian Federation (teaching origami to the children there). We went to Woodland Mall and River town crossings mall and the IMAX theater, and we went to Meijers 4 times. I took them to Lake Michigan for a day, and Cannonsburg ski area for a day, and we played laser tag.
Also they went to church with our family the first Sunday. None of the students are Christians, but I told them it was an important part of American culture. The next Sunday we skipped Church, and I told them skipping Church is also an important aspect of American culture, so I think they got a well rounded experience.
And of course Christmas.
Christmas exists in Japan, but it isn't a major holiday. The comparison I like to make is with Valentines day in the U.S. Everyone knows when in it is and the decorations are up in the stores, but you don't get the day off from work or school, and don't usually do anything special.
So the students were very amazed that Christmas was such a big deal in the United States. And we showed them the whole Christmas experience: Two big Christmas dinners on two separate days with both sets of relatives, a family gift exchange (don't worry, we gave the Japanese students gifts as well) and we took them to our Church's Christmas eve service. One student in particular told me she had no idea Christmas was so important in America.
It was really a lot of fun having the students here for the past ten days. I enjoyed showing them around my hometown, and showing them what life is like in America. But as you can imagine, I haven't had any time to myself while they were here. And I hadn't really had any time to reconnect with any friends.
I ran into an old friend from Calvin at the Griffins Hockey game (which I also took my students too). I won't post her name online without her permission, but lets just call her M.G.. She said she knew I was back in town, but wasn't going to call me because she thought I would be too busy and wouldn't want to hang out with her.
Well M.G., I was pretty busy, but the students have gone back now, so I have some free time until January 10, when I head back to Japan. And am interested in getting in touch with you and the rest of the old gang, so give me a call (I'm at my parents house), or e-mail me (joelswagman@yahoo.com). Hope to see a lot of the old gang in the next few days.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Philosophy of web logging
I've discovered a little irony about web logging recently. When nothing exciting is happening to me, I have lots of time to write on this web log, but not too much to say. On the other hand, when I'm really busy and doing interesting things, then I don't have time to update the weblog.
The reason I haven't updated in a week is because I'm pretty busy right now. I'm back in Grand Rapids, with 8 Japanese students, conducting a one week homestay over the holidays. (Perhaps you remember I had a couple of previous posts about getting ready for this homestay).
And really each day of this week so far has yielded a number of interesting stories that I really wish I had time to put up on this blog. Each day by itself should be a full entry.
Unfortunately all I have time for right now is this lame message apologizing for not posting more messages. And this will probably be true until the end of the week. At which time, hopefully I can put together a nice summary of the week and post it here.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Last Samurai
I saw "The last Samurai" this weekend, which is yet another Hollywood film dealing with Japan. Since I wrote at length about "Kill Bill" in this regard, I feel I would be somewhat inconsistent if I didn't put down a few thoughts about "The Last Samurai".
Those of you who read my posting on "Kill Bill" will recall I at first wrote about how there was curiously very little "Buzz" about the movie. Given Japan's love affair with American movies, and given that "Kill Bill" was a big blockbuster American movie that dealt with Japan, I expected more of a "buzz". And then you'll recall I updated myself a couple days later and said that I was perhaps mistaken, and that perhaps I had just been oblivious to "The buzz". (Perhaps I'm slowly loosing my command of the English language, as I'm using "buzz" here for lack of a better word, but I trust everyone knows what I mean.)
Anyway, this was not the case with "The Last Samurai", as this movie was clearly aggressively marketed to the Japanese audience. There were posters and advertisements everywhere. Most of my Japanese friends have seen it or are planning on seeing it, so I imagine the movie must be making a lot of money in Japan. The advertisements in Japan also feature the Japanese cast on equal billing with Tom Cruise, as the movie contains several actors who are domestically quite well known.
I don't know how many people know this, but the movie was filmed in New Zealand, not Japan. Fair enough as New Zealand is a very scenic area, and seems to be a popular place to film movies recently. However the tragic fact is that it is more than just a case of New Zealand being more scenic. This movie could not have been filmed in Japan, as there are virtually no untouched natural areas left.
Alexander Kerr has written about this problem at length in his book, "Dogs and Demons", which is recommend reading for anyone interested in modern Japan. Although Alex Kerr should be taken with a grain of salt, because reading his book one gets the impression that there are absolutely no beautiful places left in Japan. And in fact the country side where I live is still very beautiful. BUT, Kerr is right when he says there is almost nowhere you can go where you don't see some sort of eyesore of modernization: a telephone poll, power lines sticking out, some pointless road somewhere.
As Kerr mentions in his book, this is a problem for the Japanese film industry, and they usually have to resort to either fake indoor sets, or just hope the viewer will bear with the anachronisms of power lines being visible in the background of Samurai movies.
Now, as to the historical accuracy of the movie:
The Japanese friend I saw the movie with said it was very strange for Ken Watanabe's character to be speaking English, because at that time Samurai lords did not study such things, and it was the work of people beneath them to deal with translating. Also the Emperor would not have spoken English during that time. Although you could argue that this is nit-picking....
So on to the bigger problem of the Meiji Restoration and it's depiction in this movie:
I'll try not to go on too long about this because #1) people much smarter than me have already written about this movie and it's accuracy (or lack there of) in depicting the Meiji Restoration and the Samurai Rebellion. (For instance check out Tom from Guam's post here. He's a fellow history buff and has some thoughts on this movie)
and #2) The Meiji Restoration is very complicated, and I'm no expert. In fact all my knowledge is based on a couple courses I took at University, which I'm doing my best to remember now. But these disclaimers aside, here are my thoughts:
The Meiji Restoration was undoubtedly a mixed bag. It brought some good things, and it brought some bad things, and some of Japan's culture was lost during it and of course this is always a tragic thing. You could also argue that the Meiji Restoration was responsible for the rise of Fascism in Japan (as Mr. Tom from Guam hints at). Personally I think this is unfair, just as it would be unfair to say that the advocates of a unified Germany in the 19th Century were responsible for Hitler in the 20th Century.
Lenin wrote about the Meiji Revolution, and compared it to the French Revolution in Europe, and I think some of the comparisons he made were accurate. Like the French Revolution, the Meiji Revolution was primarily a bourgeois Revolution, and it furthered the interest of the bourgeois class. And so we should have no disillusions that, as the movie shows, the Meiji revolution was primarily in the interest of the capitalists. But as any good Marxist knows, the conditions of the proletariat improve under the bourgeois revolution, because a modern capitalist state is still an improvement over feudalism. Lenin wrote that the Meiji Revolution showed Japan's revolutionary potential, and that the groundwork for becoming a socialist state had been created during the Meiji period.
It is easy to romanticize the Samurai, but during Japan's feudal period the lives of the common people were worthless, and the Samurai could kill them at will. The class system in ancient Japan also was extremely rigid, and the lowest class, "The Burakumin", were comparable to "The untouchables" in India. They did the most dirty work, and had absolutely no rights. There was no hope of advancement.
In short, Hollywood aside, no Japanese person wants to go back to the pre-Meiji feudal system. Although the code of the Samurai was lost during the Meiji restoration, a new value of equality replaced the rigid feudal class system. I think Tom Cruise was fighting on the wrong side of history in the movie.
And so far all the Japanese people I've talked to share this view. But perhaps the film makers were counting on the fact that the average American viewer would be unfamiliar with Japanese history, and could be persuaded to sympathize with the Samurai rebellion.
As we left the movie theater, I asked my Japanese friend what she thought about the movies depiction of Japanese history. She answered that of course the movie was from the Samurai's point of view, and glossed over the reality of the actual Samurai feudal system. But it was possible to enjoy the movie by forgetting about history, and pretending to sympathize with the Samurai. And that is the key to enjoying the movie I think.

Video Version

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Okay, as many of you already noticed, the previous post is a story I stole from Jared English's weblog, and just inserted my own name into it. Cheers to everyone who caught on and e-mailed me. It's Jared's story, it didn't really happen to me.
But I do have a couple stories of my own:
This week the Junior high school students are doing a work experience program, where they spend two days working at some sort of job in order to learn about the real world or something like that. Anyway, nobody told me about it, and I was at the Elementary school early in the week, so I didn't realize the Junior High School students had infiltrated all the gas stations and convenience stores in Ajimu.
So you can imagine my embarrassment when I went to the check out counter at the convenience store with my arms full of pornography and condoms......
I'm kidding of course. Just thought I'd throw that in there to help keep things in perspective in case anyone is too appalled at what comes next.

I went to the cash register to pay for my food, and to my surprise my students came out to work the register. And it was very obvious that my dinner that night was going to consist mostly of candy bars and chips, with a salad and a hamburger (I got the salad to try and balance things out).
In the Junior high school there is a big campaign to try and get the kids to eat healthier. Posters are everywhere, health classes take up school time, etc. So I felt a little silly about my purchase. I said something about how I usually only buy healthy things from this store, and then quickly left.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Have you ever seen someone else's small child in a restaurant and started making faces at it to make it smile? Well, I, Joel Swagman, always try doing this. The other night I, Joel Swagman, living in Japan, made a child cry. Ooops! The family didn't know who was sitting in the adjacent booth making faces, so they got up and looked at me. I acted like I had no clue what was going on (sort of reminds me of Ralphie in "A Christmas Story" when the teacher is looking for culprits to blame for Flick's tongue being stuck to the pole). This one guy stood up and sat down at least 3 times to get a good look at me. I imagine his thought process was:

"Who's making my baby cry?" Stand up. "Hey it's a foreigner". Sit down. "Well he cant make my baby cry. Who does he think he is?" Stand up. Scowl. Sit down. "I wonder how big his nose is." Stand up. "No wonder the baby cried". Sit down.

Ok, maybe not. But I imagine it couldn't have been much different. :-)

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

More linguistic trip ups
Things have been busy at Ajimu Junior High School recently. In the past week, two different teachers have gotten married. However when this was explained to me today, I must have missed a preposition or something because I thought they had gotten married to each other.
Which seems plausible enough, right? I thought some secret office romance had been going on, and I had just been left out of the loop.
Except that both of the teachers in question were men. Which I should have realized, except I'm such rubbish with names that I didn't catch it when this was first mentioned. Needless to say my assumption that they married each other gave every one a good laugh.
The first time it was an honest mistake. The rest of the day I just played dumb. When someone would say, "Did you know Magumatsu Sensei and Abe Sensei got married last week?" I would respond with something like, "Can you do that in Japan?" or "Wow, Japan is so great!" And then I'd watch them rush to correct me.
Tombo Times
Tombo Times is the English newspaper in Oita Prefecture. It comes out once a month, and is mostly composed of contributions from us JETs. It's also available on line.
A couple interesting things. First of all the most recent issue contains a review of "Kill Bill" which contains some of the same observations I posted on this Web Log last month. So just in case anyone thought I was just making up stuff, you can check it out at this link. Just scroll down to the "Kill Bill" review.
And my article on Tezuka Osamu was published in last month's issue. You can see it at this link here.