Thursday, December 30, 2004

Some stuff I wrote
So, how have you been spending your Christmas vacation?

Among other things, I took advantage of my trip home to go through my floppy discs, and take some stories I wrote when I was younger and post them on line.

I don't really have a good reason for doing this. Both of these pieces were written in my youth, and do not by any means represent great works of literature.
Besides which, I know that when I write a long post on this weblog, very few people actually read the whole thing to the end. So I have no illusions that anyone is going to sit down and read a whole novel posted online.

On the other hand, I really didn't have a good reason not to do this. Everything was saved on disc already. It was just a matter of opening a couple new blogs, and then a lot of copying and pasting. If I really thought anyone was going to read the whole thing straight through, I probably wouldn't have the courage to post it on-line anyway.

Posting stuff on-line was just a little project to keep me busy while I was home. It gave me an excuse to go over stuff I wrote a long time ago, stuff I haven't re-read for years now. I thought it would be fun to post it on-line and see what happened.

The only concern I have is that it might seem somewhat presumptuous. I have several friends who are professional writers, some of whom perhaps drop by this web log from time to time. Some of whom I know are working on novels of their own. The concern I have is that by posting my stories I might appear to cheapen their efforts by having a "Me Too" attitude.

I've been thinking about what the best solution to that is. I would go on about how awful and childish my own writing is, but everyone is so modest about their own writing, I thought it might be difficult to discern real modesty from politeness. Or worse yet, it could seem like I was degrading my own work in an effort to fish for compliments.

To a large extent these pieces speak for themselves. Anyone who reads them should immediately recognize that one is obviously the work of a 14 year old boy trying to imitate his favorite comic books and fantasy novels, and the other is just fooling around.

The first story, Fabulae, I started the summer before I entered 9th grade, and worked on somewhat on and off throughout most of High School. It ends on an unfinished note.

The second story was written during my last year at Calvin. It is an unfinished, unpolished rough draft. It also ends on an unfinished note. I never did decide on a title for it, so I just labeled it "Working Title."

I'm somewhat worried that these stories are so poorly written that they might not even be understandable on their own, so when I get time I plan to write up commentaries explaining what was going through my head as I wrote these things. But for now one project at a time.

Update: I've also decided to add some of my childhood writings on this blog here. For whatever they may be worth.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Back in the USA

I'm back in the USA at the moment. No students to chaperone this year, so I'm free to hang out. Having a hard time getting a hold of people because I don't know anyone's current phone numbers. So if you're reading this, and you want to hang out, give me a call. I'm at my parents house, so same number that it has always been. Or send me an e-mail.

Friday, December 24, 2004

More odds and ends...
First up, I saw the New Godzilla Movie last night.

This is supposed to be the last Godzilla movie ever (although they've said that before, so I guess you have to take it with a grain of salt). Anyway, having been a big fan of the franchise in my youth, I thought I'd see Godzilla's last appearance for nostalgia sake.

apparently Godzilla hasn't been doing too well in the box office lately, so Toho studios decided to make one big final movie and then lay the series to rest. The new movie brings back all of the old monsters from all of the previous movies, as well as aging actors from some of the early films. I'd go on about it, but since The Japan Times has a series of articles about the new movie already, there's probably no need for me to repeat it. A review and description of the new movie can be read here. There is also a short history of Godzilla available here.

Did you ever have it where you had a really cool idea for a movie, and then you saw a movie that was just like your idea, and you thought to yourself, "Dude, it's like these producers are reading my mind!" That's pretty much how I felt about this new Godzilla movie.

I was a big fan of Godzilla in my middle school days. I think I was at the right age where the idea of a big lizard stomping on model sky scrapers was pretty cool. In fact I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I had been a few years younger, but my parents were pretty strict about TV. Even by the age of 14 it was sometimes still a battle to be able to watch the movies.

But the thing about Godzilla movies is that there is only so much of a man in a lizard suit stomping on model cities that you can stomach in one sitting. Even as a 14 year old boy it would get boring after a while, and as an adult you would almost prefer to get kicked in the balls than sit through the whole movie. Which is why the Godzilla movies of the mid-60s (in my opinion the golden age of Godzilla) were so brilliant. Because there was always a sub-plot going on that was more important than the actual monsters themselves. The sinister Aliens from Planet X would sometimes show up to try and conquer the earth, or there would be the story of a princess trying to escape from assassins, or those miniature twin fairy priestesses would always be getting captured and then have to be saved. In some of the older Godzilla movies, Godzilla would sleep through almost the whole movie, then wake up and make a brief cameo appearance at the end and stop on some buildings before the ending credits rolled.

Unfortunately, after Godzilla was revived in the 1980s, the movie studios seemed to have forgotten about this. The movies would go back to the format of big giant lizard spending two hours stomping on buildings, and really, there is a limit to how much of that you can watch.

I used to think that if I was ever put in charge of making a Godzilla film, I would go back to the 1960s format. Sure, Godzilla's in the film stomping around somewhere, but you almost forget about him as you get absorbed in watching all these other gun battles and car chases and kick boxing or what ever. The main focus on the movie would be on the human action. Or you could bring back those aliens from Planet X, and they and the humans could have a big battle and the monsters would just be fighting in the back ground.

And when I watched the new Godzilla movie it was just like what I had imagined. They even brought back the aliens from Planet X, just as I had planned to. My only complaint was there was no scene were the twin priestess fairies were kidnapped. How can you have a Godzilla movie without those those two being kidnapped? Although they did make an appearance, I thought they should have been utilized more. I mean, there just so small and cute.

To be perfectly honest it wasn't a great movie by objective standards. Much of the action sequences seemed ripped off from "The Matrix". Japanese special effects can't quite compete with Hollywood. And, as the Japan Times review indicates, "`Godzilla: Final Wars' is less an integrated film than a series of gonzo action-sequences that, after the initial rush, have much of a sameness".

And yet it is nice to see a Godzilla film done right for a change. Almost a pity they are laying the series to rest just when they are remembering how to do it right. When they revive Godzilla again in another 10 or 15 years, they'll probably go back to the "2 hours of stomping on buildings" format.

anyway, moving on to other topics...
Christmas in Japan

Christmas in Japan is a bit of a contradictory affair, as I suppose everything is when compared to Western Standards. Christmas isn't really a holiday over here, since Japan isn't a Christian country. People don't even get the day off of work on Christmas. Children might get gifts, but there are no family celebrations like in the West.

And yet they really go all out on the Christmas lights and decorations. The Malls in Japan are even worse then they are back home, and city parks become little mini-tourist attractions as people come to see all the Christmas lights. I went to a park in Gifu city last night with friends to wander around and look at all the decorations.

Why a country that doesn't celebrate Christmas gets so excited about Christmas decorations is a mystery to me. And I think a mystery to many of the Japanese themselves, since I have had Japanese friends pose the question to me, "Don't you think it is funny that we have so many Christmas decorations in a Buddhist country?" It does seem to fit the stereo type of Japan as a country obsessed with decorative and shiny things, however, and that's the best explanation I can think of.

What is interesting to me is a lot of Japanese friends will indicate a desire to experience "Christmas in America". The conversation, like many of my conversations in Japan, will often follow a predictable pattern. I'll usually say that, yes, Christmas is very impressive in America. But than the Japanese friend will usually indicate a desire to see all the Christmas lights in America, at which point I usually have to say, "Well, if it is just the lights you're looking for, I think Japan has us beat." And the response is invariably, "But isn't New York city decorated with a big Christmas Tree and lots of lights?" And I say something like, "Yeah, I guess it is."

I've never been to New York city around Christmas time, but my guess is it must be absolutely packed with Japanese tourists. Perhaps someone else can fill me in.

Video Version

Saturday, December 18, 2004

A few odds and ends today. First of all a
Cell Phone Update

I wrote not that long ago about the Japanese and their cell phones. After reading about the health risks involved I've been trying to limit my usage, but have yet to give it up entirely. I went into the shop the other day to pay my bill, and the clerk told me because I had been using the same model for so long, she could upgrade me to a new cell phone for free. I thought, "Well, as long as I'm using a cell phone anyway, why not get a new model?"

Now again I've written before about how surprised I was 3 years ago when I first came to Japan, about all the amazing things their cell phones could do. Well technology marches on, and it is amazing what the new models can do. I must confess I'm a little out of it in terms of what is available back in the US, so maybe this won't impress anyone back home anymore but the new cell phone I have is amazing. In addition to being able to do all the usual stuff (access the internet, send and receive e-mails, take pictures, play video games, do calculations, keep my schedule, etc)...

this new model I can use to film short movies, and listen to the radio and watch TV. And aside from the obvious problem of a small screen, the TV function really works. The pictures comes in clear, the sound is very good, and watching TV is at no extra cost.

And again, let me emphasis this cell phone was the standard model I got with the free upgrade. There were plenty of more expensive cell phones with more bells and whistles.

But again, I've been gone so long I don't even know what's standard in the US now. Maybe no one is impressed anymore.

Quick Update on Japanese Classroom Debates

I had written a couple months back about having to sit through a class debate on whether electronic or hand written schedules were more convenient. I had then moaned about how boring Japanese debates are.

Recently I repeated this complaint to a Japanese friend, and she nodded sympathetically. "When I was in school," she said, "We had a class room debate on "Which is more delicious, Apples or Oranges?"

Now that almost strikes me as something so boring it would have been interesting. I would have liked to see that debate just to see how a topic like that could be turned into a debate project.


This week the father of one of the other teachers at my school passed away. I had never met the father, and in fact this particular teacher was not someone I knew very well. So I was not planning on going to the funeral, but it turns out that it is Japanese tradition for the people from work to make an appearance to wish the family well.

It was the first funeral I've been to in Japan, and come to think of it, the first funeral I've been to period (although I suppose it's a bit morbid to keep track of it like that). Although making faux pas have become a way of life for me here in Japan, obviously something as somber as a funeral I'm a bit more nervous about messing up.

Although Japanese Christians are very rare, there is one other Christian teacher at my school, and she opted not to go to the funeral because it was a Buddhist Ceremony. I wasn't too concerned about it myself, and so went along with my co-workers because it was their custom, but I did feel that her absence put more of an emphasis on me as the "non-Buddhist" in the group. For instance at the end everyone filled passed the image of the deceased and did a short prayer. I was concerned that imitating the Buddhist prayer might be seen as insincere or a mockery of the process, so I opted to go for the sign of the cross. Which, since I'm not Catholic, I felt equally silly doing, but I thought since I wasn't Buddhist either one fake sign was as good as the other.

And finally from the irony department...

I came across this article while surfing the web on the old cell phone, and thought the irony was interesting. For years Japan has developed a reputation for importing sex workers from other countries, but it turns out Japanese women going abroad to work in the sex industry is a rising trend. Interesting reading if you've got a free minute.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Follow up From Previous Post

I got a lot of feed back on the previous post, so I thought I'd expand on it briefly. Some of you are no doubt way ahead of me on this, but the examples mentioned in the previous post are just a few among many. In addition to the CIA coup in Guatemala in 1954, a similar incident occurred in Chile in 1972 where the CIA and the Nixon administration overthrew a democratic government in Chile. And then there was the CIA coup in Iran in 1953.

Another often repeated lie is that the Korean War was a struggle between the forces of Democracy and freedom versus tyranny and oppression. In fact the US supported South Korean Government was a brutal right wing dictatorship during the Korean War and for much of this century. In 1980 the US gave the green light for South Korea to violently crush pro-democracy demonstrators in the Kwangju Massacre. The incident is often referred to as the South Korean Tiananmen square. But of course the obvious difference with the event in China is that you've heard about Tiananmen Square. You probably never heard about Kwangju.

And there are further examples, and examples, and examples. Anyone interested in further reading would do well to check out Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. Portions of this book were assigned for my "History Education" class at Calvin College, and it is a fascinating read. Also "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn is another fascinating read, and also part of my assigned reading in a Calvin College history course.

Anyone interested in reading about the extent of American war crimes during the Vietnam War, (especially concerning Laos and Cambodia, two countries not even technically in the war), should read "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" by Christopher Hitchens or "Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia" by William Shawcross. Large portions of both books are actually available on line here and here respectively, although if you're like me you prefer a hard copy in your hands.

And as always, I can't recommend Noam Chomsky enough. I have a link to his weblog on the right, but to be honest his weblog does not represent his best writing. But if you have yet to be introduced to Noam Chomsky, pick up one of his books at the library or book store. Guaranteed to blow your mind.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Down the Memory Hole
With all the terrible stuff that is going on today, I suppose it may seem like a waste of energy to be upset about what happened 30 years ago. But as George Orwell said, "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."

I was having a conversation today with Monika, who is the other English teacher in my town. Monika is one of those world traveler types who spent time teaching English in Laos and Cambodia before coming to Japan. Monika was talking about her time in Laos, and describing how the destruction from the Vietnam war is still very visible. In most places, she said, it would be impossible to walk in a straight line across a village with out having to zig zag to avoid bomb craters from long ago.

And then there is the problem with bombs that were dropped during the Vietnam War, but never exploded. These Bombs will occasionally be accidentally triggered by farmers or children playing nearby with predictably deadly results. The United States has given little to no aid in removing these left over bombs, but NGOs and bomb removal volunteers from other countries are doing what they can.

Monika described some Irish volunteers she met, and her conversations with them. These volunteers have contacted the United States pentagon asking for the "render safe programs" to defuse these bombs, but the pentagon has refused to give these materials out because the bombs, although 30 years old, were often proto-types for bombs still in use. (I found this article on line which backs up Monika's story). Therefore the NGO volunteers, to defuse the bombs, must take their lives into their own hands with each bomb they attempt to defuse. Monika said the night before one of their missions she went out drinking with some of them. "Should you really be drinking the night before you defuse a bomb?" she asked them. "It's the only way we can get through it," they answered. She said the stress of the job was visible in their eyes. She also added, with apologies to me, that they were vehemently anti-American.

As the conversation continued, Monika contrasted the attitude of the NGO workers she met with the attitude of Americans. She described a bizarre episode in which she was near the Vietnam Laos boarder, where a lot of the bombings had taken place, with two Americans who had joined the military to get money for school. She said they were very patriotic, and refused to acknowledge that the secret illegal bombings of Laos and Cambodia had even taken place, despite standing beside bomb craters that would appear to be evidence indicating otherwise.

In fact, the US bombings of Laos and Cambodia is one of those events that has disappeared down the memory hole. Obviously people old enough to have actually lived through those events might remember, but there is no reason anyone of my generation would know about it. It has been completely erased from the history text books. I noticed this during my History Education courses at Calvin College. We compared various High School text books. None of the text books mentioned the illegal bombings of Laos and Cambodia. None of them mentioned the carpet bombings in North Vietnam. None of them mentioned the My Lai massacre.

Unless someone is a bit of history nut like me (or perhaps you) someone of my generation is more likely than not completely unaware of these events. Try a little experiment. Mention "The Pentagon Papers" to someone under 30, and see if they have a clue what you are talking about. My experience is that most of the time I'm the only in my circle of friends who even know what they are. It has been erased from our collective memory. Not only to history text books omit the Pentagon Papers, they often repeat the lie debunked by the Pentagon Papers 30 years ago, that US soldiers were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Indeed our collective memory of Vietnam has been so white washed that most young people have no idea of the extent of US atrocities in the area, and most older people are content not to remember. This attitude was seen very clearly in the past presidential election when attempts were made to demonize Kerry for opposing the war upon his return home. There were attempts to link Kerry to Jane Fonda, but where was the outrage when President Bush appointed Henry Kissinger, one of the world's worst war criminals, to head the 9-11 commission?

Which brings me to a pet peeve I have. As anyone who reads about Japan knows, Japan has a problem with writing honest history books about atrocities during World War II. And it is a real problem. The atrocities did happen, and the history text books used in Japanese schools do often breeze over them. But what bugs the hell out of me is when people talk about this as if it were only a problem in Japan.

I once met an English teacher in Japan who was a former Mormon, but lost his faith in Christianity after reading about American atrocities in the Philippines during the American-Philippine War 1899-1904. As this war is not even mentioned in history text books, he didn't even know the war existed until he came to Japan and meant some Filipino friends.

My sister had a similar experience while studying in France. One of her French friends was talking the how the CIA overthrew a democratic government in Guatemala in 1954, but my sister didn't have a clue what that was. After realizing this, the French friend just replied in disgust, "Well, it figures they wouldn't teach you that in the American schools." They teach it in the French schools. They damn sure teach it in the Guatemalan schools. But to be fair, we Americans can't be bothered to keep track of all those little countries we've over thrown this century.

At this point I'm tempted to go into a little rant about the American attitude, "I can't understand why the rest of the world hates us so much," but this post is long enough already, and I think everyone can connect the dots on their own. History is a very slippery thing. If you don't watch it, it can change on you very fast.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Che Lives
Che Guevara is experiencing new popularity with the youth of Japan. At least according to this article in the Japan Times. My own personal experience is that although Che's image can be seen on T-shirts everywhere in Japan, very few people wearing the T-shirts actually know who he is. But maybe they're a little more sophisticated up in Tokyo.

Also of note: found out via Josh's weblog that our mutual friend Harrison has started his own weblog. Of particular interest is Harrison's dissertation on the Japanese traditional "kancho" or the habit Japanese children have of poking their English teacher in the rear. Regular readers of this blog will perhaps remember I have discussed this problem before. Oddly enough for what ever reason it has not been a problem in my new environment. This is perhaps because the company I work for instructs the schools that foreigners do not like being "kanchoed". However in Ajimu it was something I had to deal with every time I visited an elementary school. Harrison and I used to complain a lot about Kanchos, and you'll notice he references me a couple times in his post. Specifically he calls into question the effectiveness of some of my methods of dealing with the Kancho, like my "hat out the window policy" or "bringing a water gun to school".

The latter is one of those stories that I probably should have posted on the weblog a long time ago, but at the time it happened I was a bit busy and behind on my posting. I won't go into all the gory details here, but the short version is I thought it would be a good idea to bring a water gun to school and soak any kids who gave me trouble. I bought the biggest super soaker I could find because I wanted to really nail any kid who tried anything. It wasn't as big as an investment as you might think. Those things have really come down in price since I was a kid, at least in Japan. I got it for under $10.

anyway, worked great at first. Really nailed a few kids and sent them back to their seats in soaking clothing. Then the kids got me in a rush and tried to take the gun. Although I held it in my grip, the kids were able to manipulate the trigger and water was going all over the classroom. I eventually managed to free the gun, and using my height as an advantage held it out of their reach. One kid that I didn't see climbed up on the the teachers desk behind me and grabbed the trigger. Since the gun was pointed at an upward angle, water sprayed all over the class room, soaking some of the art work on the wall. Needless to say, this was an experiment I did not repeat.

And finally: while I'm making plugs, my friend Dean Dozeman has started a weblog as well. Check it out if you've got a free minute.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

I didn't agree with every word of this article, but I certainly agreed with a lot of it.
Christian Killers by Lawrence Vance. Also of interest by the same author, Should a Christian Join the military?

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Oh, and before I forget to mention it...
I'll be home for the holidays
...sort of.

I'll be home Dec. 25 to Jan 8, so I'll actually be on the plane Christmas day. Which does make for somewhat of a rushed Christmas. Unfortunately it was unavoidable. Christmas isn't a holiday in Japan, so my work schedule has me working up until Christmas Eve. I was a bit upset about this, until I remembered I don't like Christmas.

Well, as I get older I do appreciate the time with family more. And the longer I stay in Japan the more nostalgic I get for American style holidays. But in the past I have felt that much of Christmas was too materialistic, that the sappy morality of "Christmas spirit" espoused in TV specials was worthless, and that calls to remember "the true meaning of Christmas" were just another front in the culture wars, as in "this is our holiday and we're going to take it back from those secularists". That's obviously an abbreviated version, but those are my main points.

But I digress. The point is I will be back in Grand Rapids during those dates. So if you're reading this, and you will also be in town during those dates, by all means give me an e-mail and let's get together.

There is also a possibility that I may be playing host to Japanese co-workers. A couple teachers have asked if it would be okay if they came to visit with me in America. Despite the promixity of the date, they have yet to confirm their plans, but I'll keep you all updated. If they do come that will obviously tie down my schedule somewhat, but we'll work around it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Iraq and Vietnam
I'm sure many of you have already seen this, but Noam Chomsky wrote an interesting piece a while ago saying the situation in Iraq was not at all similar to the Vietnam war. There are some good points in it, but I certainly find that when ever I read about the Vietnam War it sounds like something from today's headlines. Although I think Chomsky is somewhat right in the sense that "you never step in the same river twice", history does repeat itself. And repeat itself. And repeat itself. For instance the other day I was reading an article "Vietnam and the Dynamics of Guerrilla War" written by historian Eric Hobsbawm in 1965. At this early time, well before the height of the anti-war protests, Hobsbawm predicted the US would lose the war in Vietnam because they had not learned the lessons from the French in Algeria. It's interesting reading, so I thought I'd take the trouble of typing it out. Read it and see if you can't see any parallels today.

"What remains in such a situation are illusions and terror. The rationalizations of today's Washington policy were all anticipated in Algeria. We were told by French official spokesmen that the ordinary Algerian was on the side of France, or if not actually pro-French, that he wanted only peace and quiet but was terrorized by the FLN. We were told, practically once a week, that the situation had improved, that it was now stabilized, that another month should see the forces of order regain the initiative, that all they needed was another few thousand soldiers and another few million francs. We were told that the rebellion would soon die down, once it was deprived of its foreign sanctuary and source of supplies. ... We were told that if only the great centre of Moslem subversion in Cairo could be eliminated, everything would be all right. ... In the last stages we were told that there might just conceivably be some people who really wanted to get rid of the French, but since the FLN obviously did not represent the Algerian people, but only a gang of ideological infiltrators, it would be grossly unfair to the Algerians to negotiate with them. We were told about the minorities which had to be protected against terror. ... What was the result? Algeria is today governed by the FLN."

Monday, November 22, 2004

What I've been up to lately
I've been doing a lot of writing on this weblog lately, but I haven't really wrote about my own life or what I've been up to in the past couple weeks.
Not, of course, that it's any information anyone couldn't live without, but since this is my weblog after all I thought I'd just write up a bit.

post election blues
Needless to say all us liberal expatriots were a little upset after the election. We've all been complaining to each other about it.

I was also called upon to talk to one of my 9th grade classes about the election result. As with the previous time something like this had happened, I was given no advance notice. I went to class like normal with the Japanese teacher, and she said to me, "Why don't you talk to them about the election in America." So, as before I was caught a little off guard but I did my best. I said a lot of the same things I've written on this weblog (well, minus the swearing). The students listened nicely.

Funny things that have happened
The first of these is only funny to me in retrospect, but I really nailed my head on the door frame on the way out of school a couple weeks ago. These fucking Japanese doors are always so low.

I think I've actually hit my head less than many of my other ex-pat friends here, which I attribute to the fact that since I'm tall even by Western standards perhaps I'm just a bit more used to watching my head. But the thing is you can be careful almost every day of the year, but it only takes one time of not paying attention to really whack your head on the way out the door. (Okay, and I'm just a Clumsy idiot who tends to be prone to do this stuff).

Most of the door ways in the school are actually okay for me, but the entrance way in and out is very low. Some days I have to leave the Junior High School after lunch to teach classes at the elementary school. The transition time doesn't have as much cushion as I would like, so often I'm in a hurry. It was cleaning time as I was leaving, so I was in a hurry, juggling all my books, and trying to say good bye to all the students who were cleaning as I rushed out the door. WHACK.

I actually hit the door hard enough that I fell down, and my head starting bleeding a little. The students initially started laughing, but then noticing that I wasn't getting up very fast, and wasn't being very talkative, they asked if I was angry at them for laughing. Which I wasn't really, but at the moment all I could think about was how much my head hurt, and I was in no mood to be like, "No, it's okay kids. I feel great."

I told a friend here about that story, and he agreed that there really is no graceful way out of that situation. "You just have to cover your face and go to the car," he advised.

On an unrelated note: my cell phone bill has been a bit higher than normal recently. I went into the shop to ask why. The clerk punched in my data, than she agreed that my cell phone bill the past few months has been a bit high. "Have you been using the cell phone more than usual?" she asked. Yes I had. "Well that's probably the reason it's a bit higher than," she responded.

Again, I related this incident to a friend, and he commented, "Boy, you must have felt like a real idiot then. Did you just get up and leave at that point." Pretty much I answered. "And then you hit your head and fell down again on the way out, right?" That would have been the perfect ending.

One more story: I was on a crowded train last weekend heading into Nagoya city. Fashion in Japan, as I've written in the past, can be a bit over the top and it is very interesting to watch. So I wasn't surprised when 3 high school girls dressed as hamsters got on the train. It quite frightened the young child next to me though, who kept crying out, "They're scary! They're scary!"

Her mother tried to calm her down. "It can't be helped. The train is too crowded. There's no where else we can go." But the child got more and more upset until the mother had to appeal to some of the other passengers to switch places with her.

So, there I am, standing on a packed train, 3 girls dressed as hamsters to my left, a terrified child to my right. I guess maybe you had to be there, but I was laughing to myself about that scene for the next couple days.

Friday, November 19, 2004

I've recently gotten into the habit of reading "The Japan Times" on my cell-phone. I find the articles in their life and culture section especially interesting. You may notice I've linked to a couple of them already. Perhaps one of these days I should just establish a permanent link. If you're interested in learning about the oddities of Japanese culture, this would probably be a lot more informative than my blog is.

Anyway, here is another article I found interesting about a love story between a otaku (Japanese for geek) and a beautiful woman. One of the things I thought was most interesting was the assertion as a result of the digital age a generation gap has developed even within people in their 20s. "Twenty-eight-year-olds are the pocket-paper generation; they tend to write long, letter-style e-mails. Twenty-four-year-olds were raised on cell phones (but during the transition period to broadband Net access), while 20-year-olds have only known fixed-fee, broadband access to the Net."

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Cell Phones and Japan
Perhaps the biggest thing that surprised me when I first arrived in Japan was all the cell phones. I think the US has caught up some since, but when I came to Japan in 2001 very few people I knew had cell phones. In Japan everyone had a cell phone. And not just that, but it was amazing what these cell phones could do. Surf the internet, send e-mail, take pictures, play video games, do calculations, store schedules, etc. Again, I think the US has caught up since then, but in 2001 this was very surprising to me. I thought the US, as the world's super power, had the best of everything, and I didn't expect some of Japan's electronics would be more advanced. And then I wondered, "If they have all these advanced electronics, why are the toilets and the houses so primative?"

Being a bit of a hypochondriac, I was very cautious about getting a cell phone at first because of the health risks. But when you are the only one who doesn't have a cell phone, you really get left out of the loop. Plus cell phone use was so prominent in Japan, I figured the health risks couldn't be that bad. I mean if cell phone's cause brain cancer, the whole island of Japan is pretty much doomed.

And then once and a while you read articles like this which make you cautious again. This is an article from the Japan times (Which, ironically enough, I first read while surfing the net on my cell-phone).

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Responding to Comments
[Editor's note: In spring 2005 I changed my template on blogger, and lost all the comments that had been made on this blog up until then. (In the early days of blogger, there wasn't a comment section built into the template, and like many people I used Haloscan's comments as an added feature. All these comments were erased when I changed templates.) Therefore, the original comments that I was responding to in this entry are no longer present. Although it is probably easy to infer their nature from my response.]

The last few entries I've posted have attracted a few comments (just when I thought no one was reading this thing). I really enjoy getting feed back on what I write, so thank you to everyone who took the time not only to read this blog, but found what I had to say worthy of thinking over and commenting on.

I thought I'd take a moment to respond to some of the concerns raised. I hope I'm not breaking any rules of blogging etiquette here. I've noticed from reading my friends' blogs that standard practice seems to be responding to the comments in the comment box itself, but since my comment box apparently can't handle long messages without breaking it up (I'd fix that if I knew how), I'm responding by blog entry.

Election Day in Japan
I'm going to have to improve my writing, but that entry was actually my attempt at humor. The joke being that all the liberals get together and discuss why there are no conservatives, and inevitably arrive at the conclusion that it is because conservatives are so close minded. If there was a conservative present, a different conclusion might be reached, but if there was a conservative present the question wouldn't exist, and so it's a bit of catch-22. I was trying to poke a little fun at myself by saying I also agreed with the consensus, but what do you expect from me?

As to why actually there are no conservatives in the expatriate community, I'm still stumped on this one. You'll notice, however, if you read the comment box, that Chris Baker backed me up on this one. I wasn't jiving you kids.

comment: "More likely than not, those evangelical voters were trying to vote in a president who would fight for less abortion rights rather than Kerry who is for more rights like partial birth abortions.”

This is actually a really good point if taken simply on its face value that undoubtedly a lot of people did vote this way, and this was something I think Bork and I both missed initially. (As I've been reading more about the election, it appears I in particular under-estimated the impact of values on the result.)

But let's keep reading. More comment: "In this sense, there have been millions more deaths domestically vs. Iraq. I believe that many of us are more concerned with these murders from abortions because the numbers are so much higher and therefore more significant than the deaths in Iraq"

And here I have some disagreements. Abortion is a tough issue to discuss because it is so polarizing. In my year and a half of writing crazy left wing articles for the Chimes, the only article that really got people mad (aside from the Rehnquist affair) was this article on abortion, which which resulted in both harsh verbal and written criticism. (In my opinion much of it unfair.) Although I do note with a bit of pride that someone found it worthy to link to.

Where was I? Sometimes I get so carried away talking about myself. Right, abortion. I still believe what I said in the introduction to my Chimes article. If I may quote myself:
"It is with a tired attitude that most writers now approach the issue of
abortion. After being a controversial topic for the past 30 years, what is left to say that has not been said already? You have heard all the arguments; if you are not already convinced of one position or another, who am I to think my rhetoric will win you over?"
But let's go through the motions anyway.

Bork already laid out some of the ground for this, but look, nobody likes abortions. We just need to ask the question: will making abortion illegal stop or even diminish the practice? If you believe the statistics Bork and I have put forward, (although admittedly not everyone does), the answer is no. The result is only to put in danger the life of the teen-age girl with the coat hanger.

Secondly (although I again stress I do not like abortion) I have problems equating a fetus with a fully developed human being in Iraq. Most abortions occur in the first term when the fetus has neither a brain or developed nervous system and no sense of self-existence. Now I do understand the concern of the pro-life movement that the moment when a fetus receives a soul is not something humans know, but I still find it hard to equate these abortions with the deaths of children in Iraq.

If one really believed this, that a fetus was equal to a human life, than wouldn't the logical conclusion of this be to shoot abortion doctors and bomb abortion clinics? Wouldn't killing a few doctors be justified if it saved more lives?

Although the newspapers tell us that indeed some have gone down this path, the majority of people are still repulsed by the murder of abortion doctors. Furthermore let me suggest that in all other aspects of life a fetus is not equated to the life of a human being. When a miscarriage occurs, the fetus is not given the last rites by a priest. Miscarried fetuses are not buried in grave yards. Mothers who drink and smoke while pregnant are not charged with child abuse.

It is only recently with in the past 30 years that this concept of "fetus equals human being" has arisen, and in my opinion largely for political gain. If the Republican party really cared about the life of a fetus, than why isn't the Republican party concerned that currently 1/5 of expectant mothers do not receive pre-natal care? This is one reason why the US has the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world (twice as high as Japan's). Furthermore every fifty minutes a child in the US dies of poverty or hunger. (Source-Saasta; Institute for Policy Studies Harvest of Shame; Ten Years of Conservative Misrule Washington, D.C. Institute for Policy Studies 1991 page 11).

Now it has been estimated that for $1 billion dollars the US spends to maintain just one of it's aircraft carriers for a year, free natal care could be provided to 1,600,000 expectant mothers, saving the lives of thousands of babies (Source: Prenatal Care costs $625 per mother: Background Material and Data on Programs with the Jurisdiction of the committee of Ways and Means Washington DC, US Congress 1990)

So if the Republican party is so concerned about the well-being of fetuses, why have they so strongly opposed all measures for mothers in poverty? And why is the party that is Pro-Iraq war, pro-capital punishment, pro-guns and anti-National Health Insurance, take such a strong stand on pro-life when it comes to opposing abortion? Allow me to suggest (even though I know I'm going to get in trouble for it) that the pro-life movement is not so much concerned about the fetus as it is about combating sexual liberation.

I know every pro-life advocates strongly deny this in public, but having grown up in a conservative religious environment I'm well aware of what they say in private. And the lectures I heard at my Christian schools growing up always railed against sex and abortion in the same breath. Furthermore I'm not convinced it is a coincidence that people who have strong religious views against pre-marital sex are the same people who tend to be the strongest anti-choice. This last point is anecdotal, so I guess no one has to accept it who doesn't want to, but I suspect many other people who grew up in conservative environments are nodding their heads in agreement at this. As for stem cell research one could take that either way. You could look at the half of the Republican party who opposes it and say, "Well, at least there's ideological consistency here." Or you can look at the half of the Republican party who is in favor or it and say "I knew that anti-abortion thing was just about the sex anyway."

I've probably gone to far now and alienated any moderates I could have hoped to win over. Look, the basic point is what Bork already said. When all is said and done, the Democratic party, which tries to provide medical benefits to the poor, is much more pro-life than the Republican party. Until we can provide adequate medical coverage for all expectant mothers the abortion issue shouldn't even be on the table.

comment: "And, doesn't the Bible clearly state to not swear at all? Maybe I am pushing too far today, but you do have a comments section to expose my feelings and right now I am annoyed with your Blatant lack of considerate language you used."

No specific verse is given, but I'm assuming this is a reference to Matthew 5:33-37. Correct me if I'm wrong. I'm sure you all have that verse memorized already, but I'll quote it in case there are any heathens reading this.
"33"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 34But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."
I'll admit that I don't know Greek, so I will open myself up to correction on this, but my interpretation of this passage has always been that it is a reference to swearing in the sense of "I'll clean my room tomorrow, I swear it." And not referring to any specific four letter words in a language that didn't even come into existence until 1000 years after Christ's death.

There are many "swear" words in English, but for the sake of discussion let's use the word "Fuck" because it is the most offensive and because it's the word I used.

What is so offensive about this word? It is not the letter F or U or C or K. Dare I say that it is not any of these letters or even their combination together. And it isn't the sound. After all the Vietnamese name "Phuck" is not offensive. Is it the meaning of the word that makes it offensive?

But often when we use this word it is stripped of it's meaning. You'll note my usage of it was once as an adjective and once as an exclamation, both usages being far removed from the original meaning of the word as "to have sex". But even the literal meaning of the word, is it that offensive? After all, if I said, "I slept with her," or "I fucked her" what is the difference, really?

May I suggest that "Fuck" is just a word like any other word and is only as offensive or as inoffensive as we care to consider it. May I suggest that the taboo surrounding the word "Fuck" is a matter of societal custom, and not a moral issue.

But if we are going to choose to be offended by the word, then let's at least be consistent about it. The FCC was flooded by letters of complaint after Bono said "Fucking" on TV, but after Dick Cheney said, "Go fuck yourself" on the floor of the US Senate, most of the letters that arrived at his office expressed support. It's as if people thought to themselves, "Of course the Vice President of the United States is going to talk like that, but I expected better from a rock star." Dare I say this is another example of the Right-wing being extremely reluctant to criticize anything this administration does ever.

As for me, I've chosen not to be offended by the word. And so I do make frequent use of the word "fuck" among like-minded people. In fact I quite enjoy the many different ways the word can be used in various linguistic functions. I am aware that the word does offend some people, and so generally speaking I make a point of trying not to use it on this blog, but sometimes there are points where it is hard to find a good substitute. I actually originally had typed "Ah nuts" on my blog, but it just didn't seem to have the punch I wanted, so I deleted it and wrote fuck. Sorry if this offended anyone, and I'll try not to make a habit of it.

Okay, obviously I have too much time on my hands tonight. After this entry I probably won't be updating this blog for a while again, but if anyone has any thoughts on anything, as always feel free to use the comment post. I do enjoy feed back.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Making sense of the Election
I'm not going to apologize for this entry, because it's my blog and I think it's fair to use it as an outlet for self-expression. I can, however, think of several reasons that you may not want to waste your time reading this. For one thing the election has already been analyzed to death by everyone else. For another thing I've been out of the country for the past 3 years, and probably not the most qualified person to analyze the mood of the country. And also I'm very bitter about the election results, and that bitterness is seeping into what I'm writing.

Let me also say that several of my friends have also written pieces on the election, all of which are much better than mine, so if you only have the time or energy to read one of these things, read theirs instead of mine.
Brian Bork wrote this piece which I think is the best thing he's written on his blog so far.

My friend Aaron here in Japan, although not an American, does a good job of capturing the frustration I also feel.

Phil Christman apparently had his piece wiped out by his computer, but maybe by the time you read this he'll have written some of it again. Whatever it is I'm sure it will be better than mine.

Still with me? Okay, then for anyone who wants it here is my two cents...
For organizational purposes I've divided this into the Right, the swing voters, and the South. Let's start with
The Right
I've mentioned before on this weblog, but I recently read an interesting book called "Take Back the Right" by Philip Gold. In the book Gold, a life long conservative, describes what he feels is wrong with the conservative movement. Obviously I'm coming from a slightly different angle on things than Gold is, so I don't agree with everything he says but I think he has a few good points.
Gold says that the right is so antagonized by the left that it has long ago adopted the policy of automatically reacting against what ever the left is for. For instance Gold says that no one intelligent person in their right mind could be against the basic principles of environmentalism, feminism, or gay rights, but conservatives have become so infuriated by the confrontational tactics of the left that they have adopted as their motto, "we are against whatever they are for."
Gold says this trend began during the Vietnam war, and states that "It is arguable that popular support for the war would have faded years before it did, had not supporting the war become a form of protest against the protestors." The war in Iraq has already been compared to the Vietnam War in many ways, but perhaps this is another area where similarities are apparent. And if we can extend this to include support for not just the war but the administration as a whole, I think this is in fact why a lot of conservatives voted for Bush.
Janeane Garofalo in her appearance on the daily show (which you can watch here), puts it somewhat differently when she says that at this point a vote for Bush is no longer an indication of an ideology, but of a character flaw. At this point there are so many flaws evident in the presidency that anyone who is still supporting Bush is just doing so out of pride and ego and a refusal to give into the left.
But never under estimate the human capacity for stubbornness. And this is I think a large reason why Bush won the election.
The lessons for this are two-fold. First obviously we on the left need to improve our dialogue with the right, and to try and talk to them in a way that won't have automatically put them on the defensive. Perhaps it is time to soften the rhetoric a bit in the hopes of coming to an understanding, and try and talk to the right in a way which lets them know we respect them even as we disagree. And secondly those of you on the right need to stop being such fucking idiots and grow up. (Yes, that is humor, just so there's no misunderstanding).
As for the swing or moderate voters who went with Bush: hard to say obviously. When I was watching the election coverage on TV Wednesday afternoon (my time) I heard the talking heads say over and over again that the poor showing for Kerry is an indication of how much the Democratic party has lost touch with the American people.
Somewhat maybe, but let's keep things in perspective. This is the first election Bush actually won. Four years ago the popular vote went to Al Gore. If you add the Nader votes to the Gore votes in 2000, the popular vote was heavily weighted to the liberal side.
Now you can spin this several ways of course. Nader in 2000 to a certain extent functioned the way any popular 3rd party candidate functions in the sense that he drew support from many people simply frustrated by the two party system. However he undeniably ran on a liberal platform, and it's probably fair to say at least a majority of people who voted for him agreed with his platform.
As for Al Gore: I wrote an article for Chimes after the 2000 election commenting on the Gore votes. Chimes actually declined to run the article, so it never saw the light of day, but in the article I argued that Al Gore was a terrible candidate. He was stiff and cold. He had a reputation for dishonesty. Historically sitting vice-presidents have difficulty getting elected president, and on top of that Clinton was one of only two impeached presidents in the nations history and his administration was plagued by scandals (real or imagined). Therefore, I argued, the votes for Al Gore can not be attributed at an Al Gore charisma, but instead perhaps indicated the majority of Americans simply agreed with Al Gore on the issues.
Again I do realize you can spin that election different ways, but that's the way I see it. So what changed between 2000 and 2004? Did the majority of Americans suddenly have an epipheny and realize they agreed with the Republicans? Or was this election more about terrorism and security than about domestic issues?
Richard Clarke in his book "Against all Enemies" argues that the Bush administration carelessly ignored the terrorism before September 11th. Afterwards, Clarke says, Bush took the obvious measures that anyone in his position would have taken, and got enormous political credit for it. And then Karl Rove shamelessly advised the Republicans to run on September 11 for during the midterm election.
I obviously don't need to clarify my views on this. But there's no denying that the Bush administration played the terrorism card for all it was worth. Dick Cheney even said repeatedly that if John Kerry was elected president it would make another terrorist attack more likely.
So I think we need to ask if this election indicates agreement with the Republican issues, or simply shows that the Republicans were successfully able to scare the swing voters into line.
But when I say that this election was about security and terrorism, I mean that it was about security and terrorism to the extent that it was about anything at all. I think about what issues dominated the news in this election. Kerry's service in Vietnam and the swift boat veterans. Bush and his lack of service. Kerry and his flip-flopping. American politics are always a circus, and this election should almost be seen more as a competition between two men rather than people voting to advance the issues they care about.
The South

I'm going to try and keep this short because, let's face it, I know nothing about the South. Aside for a couple Spring Break trips I've spent no time in the South. But the "Solid South" as a reliable Republican voting block is a significant handicap to any Democrat candidate. All Bush had to do was pick off a couple Northern states and he could win the election.
If you've been reading the same newspaper articles and websites I have, you have seen the accusations that the Bush administration has revived Nixon's "Southern Strategy" to cater to some of the more ultra-conservative (read racist) elements of the South. But I'll just bring up the point and leave it at that. Someone who knows more about the South can perhaps comment on this more. You can send me an e-mail or post a comment on the blog.

Anyway, that's my take on the whole thing for what it's worth. Needless to say I'm pretty crushed by the outcome of the election, but... Ah fuck. I can't think of a silver lining right now.

Video Version

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Election Day in Japan

Before I start this story, there's an oddity about the ex-patriot community here I should explain. Namely there are no conservatives here. None. There are none in Oita, none in Gifu, none in Sapporo. In my 3 years plus here in Japan I've only meet one conservative I can think of.

Some of you may be thinking, "That's just Joel's liberal bias", or "He's just hanging out with the wrong people". But I assure you it is not I alone who have made this observation. Several other American expatriates have observed to me, "There's so many Bush supporters back home, how come we never run into any of them here in Japan?" Even Japanese friends have occasionally commented, "The news reports say Bush is very popular, but how come every American I meet hates him so much?"

Now as to why this is I can't really say. The expatriate community, or at least the English teaching expatriate community, is almost entirely composed of people in their 20s, and as an age demographic that is obviously pre-dominantly liberal. Also in order to get into many of the English teacher programs a university degree is required, and statistically people with higher education degrees tend to be proportionately more liberal than the population as a whole.

But of course there are plenty of college educated young conservatives, and indeed I knew many of them at Calvin College. Why do none of them seem to end up in Japan?

It is a question we Americans here in Japan have often pondered among ourselves. The usually answer is that conservatives are very small minded and so don't tend to want to travel outside of their own country. Or, as a corollary, any one who does a lot of travelling can not help but become more liberal as they are exposed to different view points outside of the American media.

I imagine this is an answer which would infuriate many of my conservative friends back home, but in the absence of any conservatives to refute it over here, it has become a sort of conventional wisdom.

And I will confess to believing it as well. I say this at the risk of making my conservative friends angry, but also with the knowledge that they probably expected me to say something like this anyway.

However if anyone else has any thoughts on the matter (whether you've been to Japan or not) feel free to post a comment on this blog or send me an e-mail and I'll try and give all view points a fair shake.

Right, the point of that all that is this: in Japan, among the expatriates, it is assumed you hate Bush. You don't even need to feel people out over here, you can just start into an anti-Bush tirade and all people will say is, "Amen brother," or "Tell me about it."

November 3rd in Japan is a public holiday, so we all had the day off. Since Wednesday morning here is Tuesday night in the states, someone who had satellite hosted an election party to watch the results come in.

I heard about the party through the grape vine. I'm still new here and don't know a lot of people, but I knew before I even showed up that everyone would be for Kerry. And I was not disappointed.

At the time of this writing the election results are still not final, but we spent most of the day at the party glued to the TV and munching snacks. It was a fun social occasion, despite the results.

We were all pretty lively and excited in the morning. As the afternoon dragged on the mood became sluggish and depressed, but I'm not sure if that was because of the disappointing results or because of the zombifying effect of watching TV all day. People were definitely feeling very down at the end of the day. Myself certainly among them.

I save my thoughts on the actual election itself for another post though.

Monday, November 01, 2004

I had an interesting experience last week in the classroom.

I went in to team teach a 9th grade class with a Japanese teacher. She's a bit of a comedian and always opens the class up with a bit of a monologue unrelated to English. Much of what she says is lost on me, but it must be quite funny because I've never seen kids laugh so hard.

Anyway, we go into class and she goes into her usual routine. I couldn't catch all of it, something about a Japanese friend of hers that was staying in America, and gave out rice biscuits to trick or treaters on Halloween, and had to deal with a bunch of angry children. The students were just pissing themselves laughing.

Then, once the story is over she turns to the blackboard and starts writing down the grammer point for the day. "Talk to the students while I'm doing this" she says.

"Uh, okay," I say. I turn to a student in the front row. " are you today?"

"No,no," she says. "Talk to them in Japanese. They want to hear your Japanese." So I repeated the same question in Japanese, and while the grammer point was being written on the board I just proceeded to talk about various aspects of my life in Japanese. When the teacher had finished writing everything down, she turned to the students and said, "It's interesting listening to him, isn't it? We don't have to study today. You can just listen to him talk."

Right, so there I was. Up in front of the classroom. No remarks prepared. Speaking in a language I was not proficient in. And I had to take the fill up the next forty minutes. What did I talk about?

Whatever came into my head. Talked about my daily routine a little bit. I mentioned I had seen the Japanese movie "Devilman" last weekend. (By the way, worst movie ever). That got me talking about comic books and their film adaptations for a while. (The kids really eat that stuff up). Eventually someone asked me about the upcoming election, and that got me talking about American politics for the rest of the time.

What was amazing was how fascinated the students seemed to be with what I had to say. I did have a few high points and interesting things to say (if I do say so myself), but as I had not prepared for this, I had easily just as much time where I was just rambling about nothing and struggling to think of what to say next.

Add to that the fact that my Japanese is so terrible. At JET meetings in the past I've had to listen to speeches in English by Japanese people. I've discovered no matter how good the English is, invariable the rythem and tone are somewhat off and it is grating to listen to for long periods of time.

So I'm a bit confused as to why my speech was so well recieved, other than the fact that these students still do not know me very well yet, and the foreigner is always an object of fascination in Japan.

Actually I've had a few similar experiences back in my days in Oita. I once was asked to explain American politics to a social studies classroom in Fukami Junior high school, and the students listened very well despite my stumbling Japanese.

Also the ESS club at Ajimu High school. Albiet that was in English, but the same principle applies about me blathering on about something inconsequential, and the students seeming fascinated by my every word. That was one of the reasons I enjoyed coming to that club so much. The high school was Ryan's territory, but on days when he was absent from school I would teach the club myself. The Japanese teacher would say something to me like, "The students don't want to study today, just talk to them for a while." I'd go into the classroom, and just talk, and the students would hang on my every word as if I was the most interesting person alive. It was a great feeling.

Now why won't students listen like that when I'm actually trying to teach a class?

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Couple of quick links

The Japan Times recently featured a couple interesting articles on the "Hello Kitty" craze in Japan. Kitty collector plans afterlife together as well

and The cat's whiskers of Kawaii

Any one who has spent any time in Japan is already well famalier with the Japanese obsession with cute, but for anyone who has not been to Japan these two articles provide an interesting glimpse into the madness.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

I'm Okay!

Those of you who have been following the news know that it has been a rough week for natural disasters here in Japan. First a high death toll from an unusually strong typhoon. Then several people killed by an earthquake.

The area I live in wasn't hit hard by either the earth quake or the typhoon. But I appreciate all the e-mails asking if I was okay.

Actually I only recieved on e-mail asking if I was okay. Thank you mom. As for the rest of you....

The earthquake was far enough North that we didn't even feel it down here. The typhoon on the other hand was a little closer to home. It caused some mud slides in my prefecture and knocked out a few train lines, but my town itself was okay.

One of the stronger typhoons I've experienced since my time here though. I actually was stupid enough to go out driving in it Wednesday night (for no other reason than I was tired of sitting in my apartment). Several of the roads were flooded, and I thought for a while I might have to leave the car stranded on the road, but I made it back eventually.

The kids got sent home early from school on Wednesday because of the typhoon. I was hoping I would get sent home early as well, but the school didn't offer so I just stayed at my desk and studied Japanese. The company I work for made it very clear that if the school does not offer to send us home early, we should never suggest it.

Thursday was another good example of this. The students went home at noon because there was a teacher's "research meeting." Now this is the kind of thing that has "send the assistant English teacher home early" written all over it, but no one offered so I just went along to the research meeting.

The research meeting consisted of going to a neighboring elementary school and observing a lesson in progress. Afterwards we assembled in the gymnasium to talk about the lesson we had just watched.

The lesson we watched was a classroom debate. I think these classroom debates have gotten more popular in recent years in an effort to reduce the image of the Japanese educational system as stiffling all independent thought. Which is a good effort their making, but the topics of debate have got to be improved.

The topic of the debate I watched was, "Which is more convenient, conventional daily planners or electronic daily planners?" So the students were getting up and presenting their findings on the issue, showing the graphs they made and talking about the relative merits of a daily planner or electronic planner. And the disadvantages of both. And I'm just in the back of the classroom observing and getting ready to bang my head against the wall out of boredom.

Now granted this was only a 6th grade class, so it could be argued they weren't ready to debate world issues yet (although we did in my 6th grade class), but I've heard similar reports of mind-numbingly boring debates from other Assistant English teachers all the way up through the high school level.

As always I tried to disguise my criticisms as compliments. When talking to some of the other teachers afterwards, I would say something like, "That was really an interesting debate. When I walked into the classroom, I had no opinion on the subject. But as the class went on I began to realize that conventional daily planners really are more convenient. How do you feel about the issue? Which do you think is more convenient?" The irony seemed to be completely lost on my Japanese colleagues.

I also mentioned it to my girlfriend on the phone later. "That's the difference between Japanese and American thinking," she explained to me. "Americans always think they have to do everything so big, but Japanese people like to take time to make sure the little things are taken care of."

I tried to explain that my irony was lost on my colleagues, but I didn't know the Japanese word for irony, so I needed to pause the phone conversation to find my dictionary. After searching for a few minutes, I returned to the phone and said I couldn't remember where I had put my dictionary. "Aha," she said. "See? That would never happen to a Japanese person!"

Monday, October 18, 2004

What I've been up to this Week

I actually spent this whole weekend on various social excursions with the teachers I work with at the Junior High School.

I'm spending a lot more time socially with my Japanese co-workers here than I ever did in Ajimu. I'm not exactly sure why that is, but I think that the fact that I am primarily anchored at just one school now means I establish closer relations with the other faculty here. And I think the greater number of younger teachers also helps.

Friday night I went out drinking with one of the Japanese English teachers I teach with. Although I say "went out" we actually decided it would be cheaper to just drink in, so after hitting a ramen shop we went back to my place for beer and potato chips.

Since he lives in another town, and because of the strict drunk driving laws in Japan, he wanted to crash at my place. Which I was cool with, but I did my best to warn him that my place was very dirty, and didn't have very many furnishings, and that in fact I did not have spare bedding. "It's okay. I can sleep anywhere. The floor is okay," he replied. I ended up picking up some more blankets and a pillow before he came over, so we were all right on that account, but I still have no tables or chairs in my apartment so we sat on the floor and ate the potato chips off of the floor. He was okay with all of this, but reacted with the most surprise when he found out I didn't have a TV.

Regular readers of this blog may recall me saying several times that I don't particular like drinking, but will occasionally do it for the purpose of social interaction in Japan. This was one of those times. He really wanted to drink a lot, and I had a beer or two more than I wanted. He was used to this kind of thing and up bright and early the next morning looking none the worse. I felt a bit queasy the following day, but I'm not entirely sure if it can all be blamed on the beer, or if all the ramen and potato chips and chocolate cookies swimming around in my stomach might hold part of the blame.

At any rate, in 3 years at Ajimu I never had a co-worker from school crash at my apartment, so I feel already I'm starting to bond with my new co-workers very well.

On Saturday I went with the husband of one of my co-workers to his company barbeque. This couple has been extremely kind to me since I've arrived in Gifu, and has often taken me out on the weekend. I did think it was a bit strange that I was invited to the husband's company barbeque, however.

What makes it a little more strange is that I initially recieved the invitation to this barbeque shortly after I had first arrived in Gifu, before I had even met the husband. His wife, who teaches with me, said to me during my first week of teaching that her husband would like to invite me to his company Barbeque. I wondered why someone I had never met would want to invite me to a company BBQ I had no connection to.

If I was cynical about it, I might say this was an example of a phenemon I learned about at the Tokyo JET orientation 3 years ago called "Gaijin Trophy" or the foreigner as a Trophy. The idea that having foreign friends will increase a Japanese person's status among their peers, so the foreign friend finds himself invited to all sorts of randomn events. However since this couple has been very kind to me since my arrival, there is probably no need to be cynical about it, and I can assume they invited me just because they thought I would enjoy it.

The other people at the company barbeque, however, appearently also found my presence a bit strange. I could over hear them joking about it at times.
"Who is that guy and why is he here?"
"I don't know. He's connected with Yokoyama's wife somehow."
"What kind of connection? Is it his wife's boyfriend?"

Despite feeling slightly out of place, I was able to meet many nice people at this company barbeque, and afterwards some of us went out for coffee and miniture golf. (Most expensive game of miniture golf in my life by the way. $15-only in Japan).

Sunday yet another teacher took me out to Takayama. (Okay actually it was the same one who crashed at my place on Friday night). Takayama is sort of like the Kyoto of Gifu prefecture, filled with old castles and temples.

Anyone who has been to Asia even for a short period of time has probably gotten sick of seeing temples very quickly, but to a certain extent sight seeing is like everything else people do for fun: It's not the sight seeing itself, it is just an excuse to interact with friends while doing something.

The high light of the day for me was a folk village we entered. My Japanese co-worker and his friend, both the same age as me, were somewhat reluctant to enter, but decided to check it out. "This my be the first and last time we go here," he said to me on the way in. "There's nobody here but old people."

Indeed, the place was filled with elderly tourists and a few other foreigners, thus seeming to prove the old joke that the only people interested in Japanese culture are the very old and the foreigners.

The folk village was however very picture-esque, and I think the Japanese friends I came with did appreciate that aspect of it at the end. The park was a recreation of an old Japanese mountain village. It had old moss covered straw roofed houses around a pond on a hillside, and a water wheel that was powered by a stream that flowed into the pond, and even swans swimming around.

The drive their and back consisted of going through what appearently was geographically the exact center of Japan. "The people in this town want to make this the new capital of Japan," my friend explained to me. "But the rest of us think it would be a terrible idea." I looked out the window at all the rice fields and country side, and considered his point.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Outrage Overload
If you've been following the same websites I have, you've probably already seen these stories. But these are so outrageous they deserve to be screamed from the rooftops until everyone has heard about it. If you have a blog, post these stories. If not, e-mail or tell a friend.

From Eye Witness News (Via This Modern World).

Employees of a private voter registration company allege that hundreds, perhaps thousands of voters who may think they are registered will be rudely surprised on election day. The company claims hundreds of registration forms were thrown in the trash.
Anyone who has recently registered or re-registered to vote outside a mall or grocery store or even government building may be affected.
The I-Team has obtained information about an alleged widespread pattern of potential registration fraud aimed at democrats. Thee focus of the story is a private registration company called Voters Outreach of America, AKA America Votes.
The out-of-state firm has been in Las Vegas for the past few months, registering voters. It employed up to 300 part-time workers and collected hundreds of registrations per day, but former employees of the company say that Voters Outreach of America only wanted Republican registrations.
Two former workers say they personally witnessed company supervisors rip up and trash registration forms signed by Democrats.
The company has been largely, if not entirely funded, by the Republican National Committee. Similar complaints have been received in Reno where the registrar has asked the FBI to investigate.

Also see here: "The company has been largely, if not entirely funded, by the Republican National Committee." And here.

Also Phil wrote this post. I think he'd agree it needs to be seen by as large an audience as possible, so I hope he'll forgive me lifting it entirely from his web log:

This is too important to ignore. Seymour Hersh, one of the most important living investigative journalists, has been telling this story in speeches and on the Diane Rehm Show.

HERSH: I got a call last week from a soldier -- it's different now, a lot of communication, 800 numbers. He's an American officer and he was in a unit halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border. It's a place where we claim we've done great work at cleaning out the insurgency. He was a platoon commander. First lieutenant, ROTC guy.
It was a call about this. He had been bivouacing outside of town with his platoon. It was near, it was an agricultural area, and there was a granary around. And the guys that owned the granary, the Iraqis that owned the granary... It was an area that the insurgency had some control, but it was very quiet, it was not Fallujah. It was a town that was off the mainstream. Not much violence there. And his guys, the guys that owned the granary, had hired, my guess is from his language, I wasn't explicit -- we're talking not more than three dozen, thirty or so guards. Any kind of work people were dying to do. So Iraqis were guarding the granary. His troops were bivouaced, they were stationed there, they got to know everybody...
They were a couple weeks together, they knew each other. So orders came down from the generals in Baghdad, we want to clear the village, like in Samarra. And as he told the story, another platoon from his company came and executed all the guards, as his people were screaming, stop. And he said they just shot them one by one. He went nuts, and his soldiers went nuts. And he's hysterical. He's totally hysterical. And he went to the captain. He was a lieutenant, he went to the company captain. And the company captain said, "No, you don't understand. That's a kill. We got thirty-six insurgents."
You read those stories where the Americans, we take a city, we had a combat, a hundred and fifteen insurgents are killed. You read those stories. It's shades of Vietnam again, folks, body counts...
You know what I told him? I said, fella, I said: you've complained to the captain. He knows you think they committed murder. Your troops know their fellow soldiers committed murder. Shut up. Just shut up. Get through your tour and just shut up. You're going to get a bullet in the back. You don't need that. And that's where we are with this war.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

I'm going to have to be more careful about what I write...
because I got in some trouble from that last post. Not least of which from my girlfriend, who wrote, "I DIDN'T COMPLAIN OF YOUR WATCHING SERIOUS MOVIES. MY TALKING ABOVT YOU TO OTHER PEOPLE IN THAT NIGHT IS JUST LIGHT JOKE FOR GOOD CONVERSATION. I COULD ENJOYED THE MALCOLM X MOVIE VELY MUCH TOO." (It's all in caps because I copied and pasted directly from the cell phone e-mail). I have to confess that I did know she was joking at the time, and so perhaps my saying that she had complained was a mischaracterization. And, as you can imagine, my admission that I have been saying that I have no girlfriend in order to chat up girls has done me no favors.

Also, in the previous post I wrote that "There were a lot of people I really wanted to see this weekend, and also a lot of people that I wanted to see if it worked out, but I wasn't too fussed about it." This was a horrible choice of words on my part, and I've received a few comments on it. It was not meant to refer to friends, but rather people I felt I had social obligations to but no deep friendships. For instance the board of education where I worked the past 3 years. I would have liked to see them if it worked out, but I wasn't really upset about not seeing them this weekend. Although it might sound like I am back-peddling now, I honestly did not mean to trivialize the friendship of anyone I wasn't able to see. Because I was essentially only back for two days (Friday and Monday being mostly travel days) I did attempt to cut some losses around geographic areas, and limit myself to people in the Usa-Gun Area. (Of course if I would have known I would have spent a whole day on Sunday going back and forth on the trains, I might have planned things differently, but that's in hindsight).

I did, in my defense, write a couple posts back that I would be back in Oita, and anyone interested in getting in touch should call me. And I would have made every effort to meet up with anyone who had contacted me on this note. Of course I do realize that not everyone reads every word that I write on this blog, and that half the burden for getting in touch is on me.

I apologize and I hope we can get in touch next time.

Monday, October 11, 2004

My Weekend in Oita

When I left Oita at the end of August, I assured everyone I'd be back again before to long. After all I'm still in Japan. It would be a pity not to make the odd trip down on a long weekend. The first long weekend I held off because I didn't have the money, and what's more I had Sports Day to contend with. This weekend though I took advantage of the Monday off to head down and see the old gang. (Ideally I would have taken along some gifts to repay all the gifts that I had recieved during my farewell, but you know me. It was all I could do to get organized enough to pack my suitcase and catch my flight.)

First lesson: I'm not going to be able to afford to do this every long weekend. It costs about $400 dollars just for me to get to Oita and back, far more than I had planned on paying at first. But travelling in Japan is not cheap, and it is well known that it is cheaper to travel from Japan to another country than it is to travel within Japan itself. (In fact I think things may be to the point where a lot of Japanese people accept this as the way things should be. Last week I had a Japanese woman ask me why it costs her so much to get a plane ticket to San Francisco, but it was so cheap to travel from San Francisco to Minnesota. She reacted with great surprise when I said in America it is cheaper to travel within the country than it is to travel abroad.)

I took a plane from Nagoya airport down to Kyushu. As always, all the instructions were broadcast both in English and Japanese, but somewhere during the course of the flight I realized I was the only foriegner on board, and all the English broadcasts were for my benefit only. I do of course realize that they do the bilingual broadcasts as a matter of habit, and would probably do them even with no foreigners, but still it made me feel a bit special. The only thing was when they got on the speaker and said things like, "Ladies and gentlemen, the captain asks that you please prepare for take-off..." I thought it would be more appropriate if they would just say, "Joel, the captain asks that you would please prepare for take-off," etc.

After 3 years in Oita I have, as you can imagine, many friends and contacts down there. Even though the ex-patriot community is in a constant state of flux, I still know a lot of people, and then there are all the Japanese friends. There were a lot of people I really wanted to see this weekend, and also a lot of people that I wanted to see if it worked out, but I wasn't too fussed about it. Since a 3 day weekend is too short of a time to see everybody, I decided to keep a relatively low profile lest I cause hurt feelings by having people hear I was in town but didn't contact them. As such I didn't make most of my phone calls until after I had already arrived.

I came in Friday night and spent Friday night and Saturday with my girlfriend. It was a great relaxing time, and I feel we really have a good connectiong. She showed me some pictures from her trip to China. Sensing an opportunity to use one of the Japanese phrases I had learned recently from my textbook, I commented, "No matter what they may say, the Great Wall of China is very famous."

She paused, then started laughing as she said, "You learned that from one of your Japanese language textbooks, didn't you? YOu're just like a parrot sometimes."

We did a relaxing Saturday night in by just watching a video. I got her to agree to watch "Malcolm X". I had already seen it, but having just read his autobiography I wanted to see the movie again. She was a good sport about it, although I found out later she complained to other people that I always watch such serious movies. I tend to take pride in those sort of complaints though.

Quick sidenote: I believe "Malcolm X" is the finest biographic movie ever made. But watched in a vacuum (say by a Japanese person with limited knowledge about American history) one can get the impression that Malcolm X "was" the civil rights movement. In reality of course one of the reasons he got so much press was because he was in opposition to many of the other leaders, and I tried to explain this point after the movie, but it got me thinking..."Why aren't there any other movies about the civil rights movement?" Discounting the appallingly historically inaccurate "Missippi Burning" and the comic book like "Panthers", "Malcolm X" stands on its own as the only movie about the movement. Or am I missing something? But why aren't there more movies made about this?

Okay, back to my weekend: The girlfriend was working on Sunday in the Ajimu Winery in my old town of Ajimu. The Ajimu Winery was putting on a wine festival that weekend.

Japanese people gaurd details of their personal life very closely to the extent that during the time we've been going out my girlfriend has gone to great pains to make sure her co-workers at her company know nothing about me. I'm not entirely sure if I like this policy, but I've been retailating by telling everyone in my new residence of Gifu that I don't have a girl friend. As it allows me great freedom to chat-up girls and not feel guilty, it is quite nice when it works in reverse.

Right, anyway: The girlfriend made it very clear to me that if I was to go to the wine festival I was to keep a low profile, and under no circumstances was I to acknowledge her at all. So I was on my own to entertain myself most of the day. The original plan was she would take me into Ajimu with her, and then drop me off and I would make plans to meet my friends from there.

But as I made a few phone calls on Saturday night I found out that a consequence of my keeping such a low profile on my return was that most of my usual contacts in the Ajimu area had other plans on Sunday.

I knew from 3 long years of experience that there is very little to do in Ajimu on a Sunday afternoon by oneself without a car. And there is no train station in Ajimu, so once I was there I was stuck there. Much better, I thought, to get the girlfriend to drop me off by the train station in Hita before she left for Ajimu. By train I could travel around the Usa-Nakatsu area and hit up all my contacts there.

The girlfriend just laughed when I mentioned my new plan. "The train doesn't go from Hita to Usa," she said. "You'd have to go all the way to Fukuoka first to change lines."

"Oh" I said. Still I was reluctant to give up on it completely. "I could go to Oita city," I said.

"Yeah you could do that, but I don't think that's much better," she replied. I decided to give it a go anyway. I slept in when she woke up at 5 in the morning to go to work (that was the only good part about my plan).

I spent a leisurely morning . I finally wrote some thank you notes to the students from the homestay, who had presented me with gifts at the end of July. Long overdue obviously, but again this is me.

I walked to the Hita station later in the afternoon. When I looked at the train schedule I saw what she meant. From Hita Fukuoka was actually cheaper and closer than Oita city. But at this point I was really low on options, so I hopped on the train in the direction of Fukuoka. "I'll just keep my eyes open" I thought, "I'll run into a place to change trains before too long."

Next thing I know I'm all the way in Fukuoka. And then I change trains and begin the long journey back to Usa. In the end it was one of my stupider decisions. When I only had a couple days to spend with old friends, I spent an entire day riding trains and then coming back.

There was a dinner organized Sunday night by the Usa gang as an excuse to see me. I ended up arriving an hour late for my own dinner after all the monkeying around with the trains. "Why are you so late?" someone asked.

"I ended up taking the train all the way to Fukuoka. I don't want to talk about it," I said.

"Why didn't you just take the bus from Hita?" someone else asked.

Bus? GRRR. Why didn't I take the bus?

It was good seeing a lot of the old gang again in the end. I just wish I would have had more time as I spent most of the evening just having token conversations and trying to make sure I had said hi to everyone. Next time I'll have to spend more time with friends and less time riding the trains.

Addendum: Whilst in Fukuoka, I tried to make the best of a frustrating afternoon by visiting the English book store there. I stumbled across a book called, "Take Back the Right" by Philip Gold, which I bought on a whim. It's the story of a life long conservative who talks about how he left the conservative movement after being so frustrated by the Bush administration. Since I don't consider myself a conservative, this isn't the kind of book I usually read, but I like to keep an open mind by exposing myself to anti-Bush books from all across the political spectrum.

It's an okay book, nothing I'd recommend too highly, but the author has a good sense of wit and humour, and the book had a couple gems I couldn't resist re-telling here on this blog.

One is he talks about he's years working in a political think tank, and says that pity be unto the think tank analyst who forgets the maximum: "Here's your money, here are your conclusions, now go do the research."

And then there was this story that made me laugh: Appearently after the cold war the CIA was trying to figure out why they never knew how weak the Soviet Economy had really been. It turns out the CIA economist had been using Soviet numbers for their analysis. The Soviets by contrast knew that their own numbers were junk and they didn't rely on them. Instead they were looking to the CIA's data, which kept telling them what good shape they were in.

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