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.