Thursday, June 30, 2005

I Finally See "Star Wars"

As I wrote earlier , Star Wars doesn’t officially open until July 9, but a friend and I found out about a sneak preview showing on Saturday, June 25th. (Which is already almost a week ago now, but I’ve been busy blogging about other things).

Interesting thing about going to the movies in Japan: it costs more to go to the matinee showing than it does to see the evening show. For whatever reason, Japanese people have come to regard going to the movies as an afternoon activity, and so they are priced accordingly.

(My friend Aaron has a theory that Japan has become an "inside culture". He notes that on sunny Saturday afternoons, when most Americans would be outside, Japanese people flock to indoor shopping malls or bowling allies or movie theaters).

Both my friend and I were busy during Saturday evening, so it was the matinee showing or nothing. A matinee showing in Japan costs about $18, which is more than I usually like to pay for a movie, but I was willing to do it for “Star Wars.” As I said to my friend, “If this was opening day, then we would just wait until the next day when we had a free evening and see the late show. But this is a sneak preview. If we don’t see ‘Star Wars’ this afternoon, we’ll have to wait for two weeks before opening day. And that’s not really an option. Imagine having the suspense of wondering what the new ‘Star Wars’ is like bugging us for two more weeks.”

(At least I now live in an area with a movie theater close by. In the days when I lived in Ajimu it was an hour drive each way to get to the theater. In those days seeing a movie was not something we did for a couple hours in the afternoon. If we wanted to see a movie it was essentially an all day event.)

Anyway, being one of the privileged few who saw ‘Star Wars’ before opening day, we are now making the most of it by exploiting our position over the other hungry ‘Star Wars’ fans, who beg us for knowledge about the movie.

As for my personal review: Lucas is at his best when he is imitating the action serials of the 1940s. He seems to be at his worst when exploring human relationships or character motivations.

The original trilogy was highly tilted towards Lucas’s strength. The prequel trilogy, being essential one long attempt at a psycho-analysis of Anakin Skywalker and the question of what makes a good man turn bad, seems to be tilted towards Lucas’s weaknesses. (Also apparently romance stories are not his strength either.)

The opening sequence of Episode III, and indeed most of the first half of the movie, is playing towards Lucas's strengths. In fact, dare I say it, the opening sequence is on par with the original trilogy. It’s good action adventure fun, with just the right amount of cheesy dialogue to evoke the image of the 40s serials, and the original trilogy itself. General Grevious in particular is a perfect villain. He seems ripped right out of the pulp science fiction of the 1940s or 50s.

But once the Clone Wars started to wind down, and the transformation of Anakin to the dark side began to happen, the movie really began to suck. Did anyone think that the transformation was remotely believable? Does anyone you know think to themselves, “I’m on the side of good. I’m on the side of good. I’m having a few doubts now. Oh, what the hell, I’ll be evil for the rest of my life.” ?

It sort of works within the Star Wars universe because we all know it is divided into the duelist spheres of light side and dark side, and the more nuanced features of human nature don’t seem to exist. And we all know the story has to end Anakin has to go from one side to the other. But at the same time, that is exactly the problem. This is clearly a story where the plot is driving the characters, and so as a consequence very few of the characters are believable. In fact one can even see the strings of the characters being moved along by the plot.

That also creates numerous other semi-unbelievable turns of events and plot holes. Yoda fails once at defeating the Emperor, and then just gives up and goes into exile for the rest of his life. Obi Wan Kenobi travels all the way to kill Anakin, and then just leaves him maimed and half dead. But how could it be otherwise, or it wouldn’t be set up for the beginning of the original trilogy?

About the politics: Being a political animal myself I appreciate what Lucas was trying to do. And I share his interest in the transformation of Republic to Empire, and his concern that the Bush administration is taking us down that path.

That being said, the framework Lucas has set up in his Star Wars universe of the mythological struggle between good versus evil does not lend itself to nuanced political commentary. The whole thing about the dark Sith lord secretly manipulating events so as to cause the destruction of the republic seemed a bit silly.

I'm told that the original trilogy was politically motivated , and apparently based on the Vietnam War. The Empire represented the United States, and the Ewoks were the Vietnamese.

If true this is an interesting twist on the Star Wars saga. The story I usually hear is that Star Wars was responsible for re-militarizing the toy industry. After the Vietnam War most toy companies balked at the idea of war toys, but after the success of the first line of Star Wars toys, the door was opened and G.I. Joe and the rest soon followed through.

But, if Lucas based his story on the Vietnam War, then did this mean we all grew up playing with toys that glorified the Vietcong? At the height of the Reagan era?

At any rate, when the world’s largest military travels all the way around the world to bomb the hell out of a rice-field peasant nation, perhaps that is a story that does lend itself to being told in good/evil terms. The fall of a republic does not.

Video Version

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Because I'm bored at School and I have Nothing Else to Write about...

I thought I’d throw the following topic out: Recently I was talking to a friend and he posed the question to me, “which books would you say have changed your life?”

Of course this is the type of question that requires a lot of thought and is impossible to answer adequately on the spot. So I thought I’d turn it into a blog entry instead. Ideally I would hope to inspire other people to think and write in with their list as well, but if I end up all alone on this one, then at the very least this will have kept me occupied for the afternoon.

Book 1: “The Trojan War” By Olivia Coolidge.

When I was in 6th grade I was at my cousins’ house, and they had several picture books on Greek Myths on loan from the library. They encouraged me to read the book on Troy, but I was more interested in Hercules. After all, how interesting could Troy be? Even at that age I was familiar enough with pop culture references to know the war ended with the Trojan Horse. What else could there be to the story?

So I never did read the book on Troy, but it began to bug me afterwards. Why did my cousins’ like that story so much? What did I miss?

My school library had a copy of “The Trojan War” by Olivia Coolidge, and when I stumbled upon it I was impressed by how thick it was. My cousins only had a small picture book about Troy. Could there be enough story to fill up a thick book like this? Now I was really curious. I checked the book out and started reading it.

Of course I soon discovered that there was much more to the story of “The Trojan War” than just the Trojan Horse. I was fascinated with all the stories of heroes and gods fighting side by side on the battlefield.

I thought that because Olivia Coolidge’s book was so thick, it would teach me everything about the Trojan War. But I soon discovered that Coolidge’s book was only a summary, and that there were volumes upon volumes written about the Trojan War by Greek, Roman and Medieval authors. I tried to read everything I could about the Trojan War. As a 7th grade boy, I was at the perfect age to enjoy all the gory battle stories in “The Iliad.” Other books like “The Aeneid” and “The Odyssey” were somewhat slower going, but I struggled through them.

Eventually my interests spread from The Trojan War to Greek and Roman Mythology in general, and then to Greek and Roman History. For many years I was convinced I wanted to become a classical scholar. This interested faded out halfway into my second year of Calvin, when I decided my interests had moved on to more contemporary history. But even though I ultimately gave up on the classics, the interest still had the following effects on my life:

1. For a good six year period almost all of my leisure reading was in someway connected to classical history or classical mythology.

2. My decision to take Latin in High School and College instead of something more useful like Spanish or Japanese. Actually since the idea of going to Japan didn’t occur to me until my last year at Calvin, I probably still wouldn’t have studied Japanese. I would probably have taken Spanish. And every now and again, even in Japan, I do sometimes realize that I am at a disadvantage for not knowing Spanish. Like, in a previous blog post, when Tom was able to cut me out of the conversation by switching into Spanish. At that moment I realized that my current linguistic disadvantage was a direct result of my having studied Latin over Spanish.

3. My decision to attend Calvin College was partly based on the strength of their Classics program. Of course being from Grand Rapids Christian, I may well have ended up at Calvin eventually anyway. But then again, you never know, I may not have. And then who knows how different my life would have ended up?

4. Staying the extra year at Calvin was partly because of switching majors halfway through. Again, maybe this is stretching things a little because everyone switches majors, and if I hadn’t switched from Classics to History, I would probably have switched from something to something else. Or than again I might not have. And then that 5th year at Calvin, and everything that happened in it, is again a result of this book.

5. Strange as it may sound a lot of my politics were formed by reading about classical history. This was especially true around 11th and 12th grade when I was reading a lot about the last 100 years of the Roman Republic, and the rise of Julius Caesar.

Of course the obvious lesson from this period is that republics have a way of turning into empires very easily. All governments are human institutions and are not eternal. The Roman republic lasted for 500 years before becoming an empire. We sometimes think that because our republic has lasted for 200 years, we have created the best system of government ever invented and nothing could ever destroy it.
It is always the natural ambition of those in power to seek more power. It was true in the roman republic and it is true today, and we need to be very careful about our elected officials.

But aside from the whole “collapse of the republic” theme, I found the intense class warfare of the late republic almost more interesting. For example, the attempted reforms of the Gracchi brothers and the intense opposition of the patrician class to these reforms.

This made me realize that all governments always exists for the benefit of those in power, and that the poor are always being screwed over by the rich. It’s a theme that was true in the Roman days and has been consistent all throughout history.

I started to think about how American history will look to historians from 2000 years in the future. I decided I wanted to be on the “right side” of history, and be on the side of the poor and the oppressed.

Book 2: “A Tale of Two Cities” Charles Dickens

I guess when I talk about the changes in my life resulting from previous book, “The Trojan War”, I’m referring not so much to the one book itself as to all the books I read during this period, and just identifying “The Trojan War” as the one that sparked it all.

In the same way, “A Tale of Two Cities” didn’t really change my life by itself so much as it just opened the way for a new interest.

I’ve re-read the book several times, but when I was in 12th grade I was doing it for a book report. The depiction of the French Revolution fascinated me, and I thought for the first time that perhaps I might be more interested in recent history than I was in the classics. It was a couple years later before I finally decided to switch over, and it certainly was not the result of this book alone, but it was one of the first sparks. Otherwise who knows? Maybe I’d still be studying the classics right now, in graduate school or something.

Book 3: “The Manufacture of Consent” Noam Chomsky

Unlike the previous books, it is hard with this book to point to so many concrete examples of my physical life being changed. But as far as my mental thought processes or the way I look at the world, I can’t think of any book that affected me as much as this one.

I was in my fourth year of Calvin and doing a research paper on Nicaragua during the 1980s. As part of the research I was interviewing a Calvin professor who had spent time in Nicaragua during the period and written articles on the subject for “Christianity Today”. Near the end of our talk, he said something to me like, “Have you read any Noam Chomsky?”

Given my politics, I should probably have come across this name earlier than I did, but even at age 21 I still had no clue who Chomsky was. The professor told me that Chomsky had written a lot of interesting things about Nicaragua, and that I would definitely want to check his writings out.

I went to the library and checked out what I could find. It absolutely blew my mind. Although “Manufacture of Consent” is the book that sticks out in my mind the most, any book by Chomsky is quite shocking to someone who is not familiar with his work.

As a result of reading Chomksy, I’ve certainly become a lot more critical of the information I find in the mainstream news. Also my decision to get involved with independent media groups, like “Media Mouse” was largely motivated by Chomsky.

Books 4: “War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells.

As with Chomsky, this entry is more of an author than a single book. In addition to “War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine”, I also read and enjoyed “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, “The Invisible Man” and “In the Days of the Comet” by H.G. Wells.

I was already leaning towards science fiction before I discovered H.G. Wells, but after reading his books I started calling myself a science fiction fan without any embarrassment. The end result was hours and hours of wasted time watching science fiction movies on TV, and reading pulp science fiction paperbacks. Also for a long time I incorporated science fiction themes into everything I wrote, (such as the “Fabulae” story I wrote in 9th grade.)

Also H.G. Wells was my first exposure to socialist ideology. In particular his (somewhat heavy handed) socialist novel/manifesto “In the Days of the Comet”, which I read in 8th grade. At the time I had no idea what socialism was, and the story largely confused me. Yet it stuck out in my mind and for a long time afterwards I remembered his depiction of a socialist utopia.

Well, that’s my list. At least that’s my list as it appears to me at the moment. I’m sure I’ll think of another book as soon as I post this, but these are all the “life-changing” books I can think of at the moment. If anyone cares to take me up on this challenge, I’d be curious to see your list.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Life in Japan

Recently there have been a whole lot of American movies dealing with Japan. Or, more specifically, dealing with Americans in Japan, such as “Kill Bill Part 1”, “The Last Samurai” “Lost in Translation” and “The Grudge” (all reviewed on this blog at the links indicated).

But the movie that I felt I could most identify with was “The Incredible Mr. Ripley”, which had absolutely nothing to do with Japan. However it’s portrayal of the American and British ex-patriot community in Italy could easily be transferred to the ex-patriot community in Japan.

The movie is set in Italy, but most of the Italian characters are just background. The characters we run into again and again are the Americans and the British living in Italy. They have their own separate parties and social circles. They keep running into each other at different spots in Italy. And they seek each other out. In a crowd they ignore all the other Italians and seem to find the other Americans.

There are, proportionately speaking, very few foreigners in Japan, especially outside of the mega cities like Tokyo. And yet in Gifu prefecture I keep running into the same people over and over again. Whenever we go into a “Saizeria” restaurant (a chain fast food Italian place), there’s sure to be another foreigner we know. When I go into Starbucks in Gifu city, it’s almost a guarantee I’ll see other English teachers there. Even if we leave Gifu prefecture and we go out for a night in Nagoya, we always go to the same two or three bars and we always meet other foreigners from Gifu.

In a way I guess it’s kind of sad that I don’t integrate myself better with the Japanese people. I’m sure this is one of the main reasons my Japanese isn’t as good as it could be after 4 years. And I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot of great cross culture experiences. And it is pretty pathetic how much time we spend in groups complaining about Japan, especially considering how good life is here from any sort of objective standpoint.

But I spend all week in the Japanese schools and in my free time I want nothing more to meet other Westerners and speak English and vent our mutual frustrations about Japan. That, and I kind of like the feeling of community that is in the ex-pat circles. I like going into certain bars or certain coffee shops and knowing I’ll see people I know. And, because most of us are in our 20s, it sometimes feels just like an extension of University when you surround yourself with people your own age. It was a little rough when I first arrived in September because I didn’t know anyone, but now I feel like I’ve made connections a bit more.

For instance the other day I was unexpectedly let home early from school because of schedule changes. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I just grabbed my book and went into Gifu city. I went into Starbucks where I saw a bunch of people I knew studying Japanese at the tables, and joined their study group. After that broke up, I went into a local bakery, and was eating some pizza when someone else I knew came in. “I’m so glad to see you here,” she said. “I just had a terrible day and I need someone to talk to.”

To keep our spirits up we went to the local video game arcade. We noticed the sign outside that said it was a “girl’s only” arcade, and men could only come in if accompanied by a female. Why anywhere would have a "women's only" video game arcade was beyond us, but we theorized that since in Japan video game centers are often the equivalent of singles pick up bars, maybe this was for women who just wanted to play video games and not be bothered by men.

Since my friend was female we figured we were all right, but I felt slightly uncomfortable in the place. Kind of the way you feel in a women’s underwear shop. I was also embarrassed by remembering that I had been in this place last week with a male friend, and both of us had somehow missed the “women’s only” sign. That explains some of the stares we had gotten.

Besides, this place had a lot of “girl games” in it, like music games or UFO catchers, and not a lot of first person shooting games, which is one of our favorite ways to relieve stress and take out aggression. So we went to another arcade that suited our more violent tastes. Before I knew it, it was 11 O’clock and I had to move my car before the parking lot shut. (The pitfalls of getting free parking by stopping in the Supermarket Parking lot.)
Anyway, it doesn’t happen all the time, but I was pleased that I could just head into Gifu city without any sort of plan and run into all sorts of people I know to keep me occupied. That’s one of the things I like about Japan.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Another Night Out

Nothing too special on this post. Just another story of another Saturday night out.

I went with a couple of friends to an international party in Nagoya. These parties are designed to meet people, and they are fun to go to because they have such a friendly atmosphere. Everyone goes there with the intention of meeting new friends, so everyone you talk to is so friendly.

The bad thing is that, because it is international, it can also attract a lot of Japanese “English leeches”. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “these things become just a huge English conversation lesson.”

It might sound like a petty thing to complain about. Of course I don’t mind speaking English, but I don’t enjoy the feeling that the other person is talking to me only because they want to practice their English. Those conversations also get really boring fast. They often focus on things like what my favorite colors are, or how many people I have in my family, or other equally fascinating topics.

Of course if you can maneuver past the English leeches, there are also a lot of Japanese girls who come to meet foreign guys, and I like talking to them. Not cheating on the girl back in Kyushu, but it is just a good feeling to bask in the attention. A good boost for my fragile ego I guess.

After the party we bar hopped for a little bit. We went to a British bar. I met an Australian, and when I told him I was from Michigan he became very excited. He had dated a girl from Michigan for two years and had spent a lot of time traveling the state. We talked about Michigan for a while. I expounded on diversity of Michigan.

“See the thing is,” I said, “as you know from having traveled in Michigan, it’s a very diverse state. Detroit is nothing like Grand Rapids, which is nothing like Ann Arbor, and the Northern part is something entirely different. But it’s very hard to explain this to Japanese people. No matter how many times I say Michigan is a state, they still are thinking like it’s a city…” This whole issue has, I suppose, become a pet peeve of mine since I arrived in Japan.

We moved on to an outdoor beer garden. We met a crowd of young Japanese guys, about our age, and they invited us over to all table. They seemed thrilled to have us sitting with them, and very eager to make friends.

This kind of thing happens all the time in Japan. However, as my Canadian friend later pointed out, it’s always hard to tell if these guys genuinely want to make friends or if they just regard us as a source of amusement. For instance, we had hardly sat down when one of the Japanese guys leaned over and asked us in his vulgar English, “How much Japanese pussy have you fucked?” This sort of awkward question seemed more designed to make us an object of the joke than to genuinely strike up a friendship. My friends handled it well, laughing it off and turning the question back on them.

We were considering staying the whole night in Nagoya, but we heard that there was a party going on in a bar in Gifu and so we headed back to Gifu for the end of the night.

When we got to the bar, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen for a while. “I don’t think I’ve seen you since the night of the big fight at ‘Bottom’s Up’, I said.

“Yeah, I remember that,” he said. “That was a nice move when you grabbed the bar stool.”

“Really? You saw that?” I said. “You know that night was months ago, and this is literally the first comment I ever got on that bar stool grab. I was beginning to think no one had seen it.”

“No, I remember it,” he said. “That guy was charging forward with the bar stool and it looked like someone was going to get their head smashed in, and then all of a sudden your arm just shoots out and grabs the stool.”

I shrugged. “It didn’t really solve anything. The guy just plunged back into the fight anyway.”

“Yes, but without the bar stool. You stopped the situation from getting worse.” Amazing. All these months I thought the act had gone completely unappreciated. Now that I finally got the few words of praise I had so long craved, the whole night seemed worthwhile. I hate to admit I’m this kind of person, but any good deed almost seems worthless to me until someone else acknowledges it.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Batman Begins

I’ve bitched before about new movies having delayed releases in Japan, but there’s no consistency really. Most movies are only a few months late. Some movies, like “The Quiet American”, are over a year late. (Although, as the Japan Times review noted, in this case the Japanese audience almost benefited from the late release because it made it more relevant to current events.)

And some movies like “Batman Begins” are released in Japan only a couple days after their US release date. So, while I’m STILL waiting for the new Star Wars to come out, I’ve already been able to see the new Batman.

(What accounts for this inconsistency I can’t say. Rumor has it that Japan has a tradition of releasing Star Wars movies in July. And come to think about it, when “Attack of the Clones” came out a few years ago, I had to wait until July to see that as well).

Anyway, Matt Lind posted a good review of the new batman movie. I thought I’d add my thoughts to it. Not necessarily disagreeing with Matt Lind, but just using a different take.

I agree with Matt Lind when he says comic book super heroes are like the mythology of America. So to a certain extent we expect the movies to treat these super heroes as legends. We don’t want “Batman Begins” to be just another action movie, we want to be able to immerse ourselves in the mythology of his character.
I think the original Superman movie was able to do this in exactly the same way that Spiderman didn’t. The first two parts of the original Superman (it has serious 3rd act problems, but we’ll get to that later) felt like a movie where the creators knew they were dealing with an American legend, and treating it accordingly. The story didn’t rush through the story of Superman’s origins, and there was an incredible sense of drama about everything that was happening for the first time.
Lex Luther may not have been much of a villain. He didn’t have his own super powers or own origin story. But it didn’t matter because it was Superman’s story. And in fact, the simpler the villain was the better, because it took less away from Superman’s own story. The more complex villains could be introduced in the later films.

Spiderman, by contrast, felt the need to cram Spiderman’s whole origin in the first half of the movie, combine it with the Green Goblin’s origin, and then use the second half of the movie for the standard action sequences and 3rd act climax. There was nothing that really felt special about the Spiderman movie. It was just like any other action movie. Given how recognized Spiderman is as an American icon, the movie should have felt more special. We should have felt the drama of witnessing the birth of an American legend.

By this criteria, I think the first half of “Batman Begins” is a success. It’s not exactly the same feeling as the “Superman” movie, but then again Batman is a different kind of superhero than Superman. Batman is a bit darker than Superman, and the movie gives us a good feeling of the dark comic book mystic of Gotham city.

The problems were the largely with the villains, which is the same problem with the Spiderman movie. I also thought there were a bit too many villains and their stories threatened to crowd out Batman’s own story. After all, in the comic books the superheroes don’t take on the super villains from day one. There’s a learning curve.  At first they struggle to take on just the average bank robbers. After they’ve established their identity, then some super villain arch nemesis shows up. They spend a while fighting just average crooks before they are paired up against a super villain. In the movies this learning curve is always accelerated.
Admittedly “Batman Begins” is better in this regard than Spiderman. “The Scarecrow” is regulated to a minor character, and the main villain is someone, like Batman, without any superpowers. And yet it seemed to me a bit strained that Batman, straight off the block, was taking on a huge super organization filled with people who were much more experienced than he was, and winning.
If I were making a “Superhero” movie, I wouldn’t have any major villains in the whole first installment. It would all be about the hero’s own story. Of course I know this would never work in Hollywood, because everyone expects a dramatic climax and an all out fight scene at the end between a superhero and a super villain. Which brings me to my next point…

Obviously movies based on comic books do very well financially, which is why Hollywood keeps cranking them out. But for all the money they make, there are very few good “comic book movies”. This, I believe, is because of the inherent difficulties in transferring a story from one medium to another. For instance in the world of comic books, Batman looks perfectly normal. When the story is transferred to the big screen, you can’t help but think to yourself how ridiculous it looks seeing a man in a bat suit jumping around and fighting criminals.

But that’s just a cosmetic issue. More problematic is that the very stories of the comic books themselves don’t transfer well to the big screen. Although comics are violent, the violence is almost secondary to the story. Comics often have ridiculous stories that, if they were produced in any other medium we would just laugh at them, but somehow they seem to work within the realm of comics. We forgive the ridiculous story lines because we become involved in the silliness of it all and want to see what will happen next month. Comic book stories do not work like a Hollywood movie, starting with an exposition, building to a conclusion, and then finishing off with a climax. Instead each comic book is a continuation of the one before it. The story often does not really ever finish, but just evolves into another plot. And the ending of a comic book is not a climatic action sequence, but a cliffhanger until next month.

Now, call me a purist if you want, but I get a little uneasy when a comic book adaptation starts working towards a Hollywood style climax. During the final climatic battle on the train (Oh, yeah, spoiler alert by the way) I thought to myself, “Haven’t I seen this a million times before in other movies like, ‘Speed’ or ‘XXX’? The only difference is that this time the hero is in a bat suit. And somehow instead of adding to the story, that just makes it seem all the more silly. The whole comic book mystic seems lost.”
Of course by this criterion it is hard to find a comic book movie that works. After all that is what movies do; they work towards a climax. Spiderman 2 and X-men 2 perhaps both came closest because both movies had the sense of the same story that was continuing from the first movie, and would continue in the 3rd, but even these movies fit into the 3-act structure. If Hollywood would decide to return to the serial matinee style of the 1940s, that would seem like the structure truly suited to handle the comic book. I won’t hold my breath though waiting for that to happen though.

Video Version

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

I Stay Too Long in Japan

(Every now and again I have to do one of these “bitch about Japan” posts. I’ll try not to repeat myself too much from last time.)

More and more I am starting to regret my decision to stay for a 5th year in Japan. I’ll finish the year out anyway. I signed a contract and made a commitment. And besides, if I were to go home tomorrow I wouldn't know what to do with myself anyway. I still need to sort out what I want to do in the future, what kind of a job I want, where I want to live, and what I’m going to do about the Japanese girlfriend.

But I do definitely have the feeling of having stayed in Japan too long. The initial awe and wonder over everything that I had my first year has long ago worn out. There was also a feeling when I first arrived in Japan that any frustration I encountered would only get better with time. As I became more used to the culture, and language, I would have a more fulfilling experience in Japan.

But after 4 years, instead of adjusting to the culture, I’m finding that my patience is now gone for things I used to laugh off. And the more Japanese I learn, the more I become aware of the fact that I’ll never become fluent.

More than anything I have a feeling that I’m stuck treading water while everyone else is moving on with their lives. I've seen my students grow older and graduate, my friends in Japan get other jobs and move on with their lives, and my friends back home advancing through graduate school or employment.

By contrast I’m in a position now that has no future, and is by nature a temporary position. I have very little responsibilities and am not developing any skills that I will be able to use in the future. When I return to America next March I’ll be close to 28, and whatever course I embark on from there I’ll be just starting it. For instance if I decide to go to graduate school like a lot of my friends are doing, I’ll be just starting by the time they are finishing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I came to Japan. It was a great experience. But one or two years would probably have been plenty. 5 years is overkill.

Indeed the obvious question is: why did I stay so long? Well I was having fun the first couple years. Also I (like a lot of people who stay too long) got caught chasing the elusive phantom of fluent Japanese.

I thought if I would stay in Japan and learn Japanese, it would almost be equivalent to having another degree. And so in a sense I thought it was like being paid to go to school.

Even if I did manage to become fluent in Japanese, I’m not sure what career paths this would open for me. The two most obvious outlets for Japanese language are business or government, neither of which appeals to me. But I just thought, “I’ll learn Japanese, and then everything will fall into place.”

But Japanese is an incredibly difficult language to learn. Apparently the State Department ranks it among the most difficult languages to learn for Americans. And here I am, having no language skills what so ever, thinking I can master it in a few years.

Now I've largely given up on Japanese. Which makes the final year here largely purposeless. I have no goals or future in Japan, so I’m largely just waiting the clock out until it is time to go home. Worse, all the free time that I have at my job, which I used to think I was spending productively studying, is now beginning to weigh heavily on my hands. To keep sane, I’m using this word processor to channel a lot of my energy into blogging. (You may have noticed). Also, I find that it depresses me to even write about Japan a lot of the time, so I've been increasingly writing about other things or reminiscing about Calvin days instead. (Thanks for putting up with it).

Everyone has a different breaking point. I talk to some JETs who have only been in Japan in a year, and are sounding as bitter and tired out as I am now after 4 years. When I was here for my first year I was having the time of my life. I think some of that is because I had lived such a sheltered life before arriving in Japan that I spent the whole first year wide eyed and opened mouth. People who are more well traveled tend to get tired of Japan quicker. (Another irony that I realized a long time ago is that people who have studied Japanese before arriving in Japan tend to be the ones who burn out in Japan the quickest. Few of those people stay all 3 years on the JET Program. I think it is because they realize sooner than the rest of us the futility of staying in Japan to try and master the language.)

So, what am I going to do for the last year I am in Japan?
Well, study Japanese of course. (Might as well, as long as I’m here).
Keep up blogging.

(Actually I’m still debating if blogging is a healthy habit or not. I’d like to think all the practice writing is good for me, but sometimes I wonder if the fact that I just type stuff up and throw it on the internet is actually encouraging lazy habits in my writing. Perhaps focusing on a tighter article would be better than these wandering, rambling posts that never have to pass through any sort of editor before I post them on the net. Do any of you other bloggers wonder the same things?)

I’m actually not coming home this summer. Given my depressed status you would think I might be jumping at the chance to escape Japan for a month, but I've decided to stay in Japan because:
1). Lots of you have already indicated you’ll be gone for the summer anyway
2). I want to save money
3). I want to come home again for Christmas in December, so I want to make that my trip back instead
4). Since this is my last year in Japan, maybe take advantage of summer break to explore all the places I never got around to seeing yet. And
5). Spend time with the girl. Since I moved to Gifu I've been more or less away from her all year, so, aside from times like Spring Break, it’s been an entirely long distance relationship. And since this is the last year, it will be good to spend time with the girl before it is time to leave Japan, so I have a better idea of if I want to pursue this relationship across the sea, or cut it off when it is time to go back.

Also, I suppose it goes with out saying that if any of you have been thinking about coming out to visit me and see a bit of Japan, this would be the year to do it. Japan isn't going anywhere, but if you’re looking for free lodging at the hotel Swagman, this is the last year.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Team Teaching and Me

As the very title of the position implies, part of being an “Assistant English Teacher” is team teaching with the JTE or “Japanese Teacher of English”

I remember during my first year on JET, I was at a mid year conference and one of the 3rd years was explaining why he had refused to give a presentation on “Effective Team Teaching.”

“I told them there’s no such thing as ‘Effective Team Teaching’,” he said. “If you are doing team teaching, you are not being effective. If you are able to be effective, you’re not team teaching.”

This is a cynical view, but there’s a lot of truth in it. To a certain extent the way the whole program is set up, there is a lot of natural antagonism between the AET and the JTE. The JTEs often view their jobs as sticking as closely as possible to the textbook, doing no improvisations, and focusing on memorization. The AETs often view their job as trying to move the classroom away from this kind of teaching and create activities that make the students think more, but this is constantly in conflict with the JTE. Often the best thing for the AET to do is to be less ambitious and stay out of the JTE’s way. Or, as I remarked to a friend recently, “AET has got to be the only job where being lazy is actually an asset. I think that’s why I’ve survived so long doing it.”

Not to say I haven’t had some frustrating experiences with JTEs. During my time as an AET, both here and during my 3 years in Ajimu, I’ve taught with a lot of JTEs, and some of them I got along with better than others.

For instance when I first arrived in Ajimu, a couple of the JTEs I taught with who would seem perfectly content not to have me in their class. They would often leave me in the teacher’s lounge while they went off to teach. Since there was a fair amount of coming and going in the teacher’s lounge, as well as homeroom and moral education classes that they taught, I didn’t know when I was supposed to be teaching or not until I learned to read Japanese a bit and could decipher the school schedule.

Another teacher seemed to treat me just like a tape recorder. Not only did I have no creative input in the lessons, but my pronunciation, volume, rate of speaking, and even posture would be criticized. It was just like she was working a machine. One lesson she even started kicking at my legs. After a bit of confusion I realized she thought my legs were too close together, and that she thought a wider stance would be more appropriate.

Actually I could go on with story after story, some of them maybe trivial complaints on my part. But this week I had an incident which seemed to top them all.

I was teaching an elective English course for 9th grade students. This class has been a bit of a head-ache, because it is supposed to be a conversation class, but the Japanese English education system is not geared towards conversation, so it is difficult to make activities that the students are able to do, and yet at the same time conversation based. The JTE I teach with in that class is a bit of a crank; maybe you know the type. If I make an activity that the students can do, he grumbles that there is no conversation. If I make one with conversation, he grumbles it’s too hard. There’s a lot of grumbling from him, and it makes for tension in the class because when the students can’t answer a question he starts to mumble to himself, and I feel under pressure to get the students to answer quickly, so it is pressure on both me and the students.

Last week we were doing an activity on directions. There is a popular game used by many AETs in which one student closes his or her eyes, and the rest of the students direct him or her around the room shouting directions in English. We did it with one student and I thought it went pretty well. Most of the students in the class shouted out directions in English, and I jumped in to yell out, “Stop!” whenever she was in danger of hitting something. She bumped her hand against a desk a couple times but she was walking slow enough it wasn’t a problem. But when I asked for another volunteer he suddenly exploded, yelling out, “Yamero! Abunai no de!”

Which means, “Stop it! This is dangerous!”, but that’s not really an adequate translation, because it doesn’t take into account the different levels of politeness in Japanese speech. He was using the harshest level possible, probably something along the lines of, “Knock it off you idiot.” But, as with English, what he actually said was only half of it. The way he said it, yelling out suddenly, really shocked me.

At the time I was just thinking about maintaining composure and keeping the class going, so I just said, “Uh, okay, well let’s do this work sheet instead then,” and starting passing the sheet out.

It was only afterwards that I had time to think, “Did that really happen? Am I exaggerating things in my mind, or did he really explode like that? What was he so mad about? Wasn’t there another way he could have reacted?

The students were whispering about it after class as well. I overheard things like, “boy, the teacher really got mad at Joel,” and things like that.

I have no idea if this is normal behavior or not. Although Japan is stereotyped as being a polite culture, seniors are permitted to talk to their subordinates in harsher terms than would be accepted in America. On the other hand I’ve never seen anyone explode like that in class before. And over such a little thing.

I related the incident to Shoko on the phone and asked her opinion. She didn’t think it was normal, but she did comment, “You always have such interesting stories from your school day. Nothing interesting ever happens to me at my job.”

That’s true. At least I get another story out of the whole thing.

Interesting Update: since I first wrote this post I ran into another AET who used to teach with this same teacher, and appearently had the same kind of problems. Appearently this particular teacher just doesn't like AETs, and has the habit of blowing up sometimes. Good to know it's not just me.

Friday, June 17, 2005

More Thoughts on Japanese Music

Think of this post as a follow-up to something I posted back in March entitled, “Japanese Music and Me”.
In the previous post I wrote about how I’ve been listening to a lot of Japanese oldies. In this post, I ask the question: why doesn’t anyone else?

Absolutely no one in Japan listens to old music, aside from the people old enough to have actually been alive when it was popular.

In the US I think old music gets a certain amount of respect. And I don’t think I’m just inferring my own tastes onto everyone else when I say that. It’s a fair statement, right?

Granted the 14 year old teenybopper crowd might not be into classic rock. I was a closet Beatles fan when I was 13 and 14 years old. But around the time I was 17, I noticed that a lot of my high school classmates were big fans of Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and other old musicians.

And by the time I started college I realized any serious music fan had a lot of older music in their collection. In the Delta 4 apartment we used to have long arguments between the Aerosmith and the Beatles partisans, and finally agreed that Led Zeppelin was the only group that could bridge the differences between our two sides.

I remember one night we got in a long, heated, and near the end somewhat emotional debate on whether Jimi Hendrix was over-rated and if perhaps Pete Townsend was just as good a guitarist. Or another night we discussed whether Sergeant Pepper’s was the greatest album ever, or just advantageously timed. And that’s not even counting all the conversations we had about music to kill time during the dorm cleaning days.

But in Japan, old music gets absolutely no respect. The only people who buy old music are middle aged or elderly, and so it is packaged accordingly. In fact you can’t even buy old albums on CD. They don’t re-release them. The only CDs are “Greatest Hits” of a certain artist, or “great sounds of the 60s” type CDs. They are always sold in the cheap section, and have really cheesy packaging and often sold only on cassette tapes for people who haven’t gotten around to buying a CD player yet.

Young Japanese people have absolutely no interest in old Japanese music, and they think it is the funniest thing ever when I attempt an old Japanese song at Karaoke. “We don’t even know that song and we’re Japanese,” they will say. “How old are you really?”
It’s always good for a laugh. When a Japanese person asks me what music I like, and I list off all the old Japanese groups I know, it is always fun to see their reaction. But in America you wouldn’t be knocked over with disbelief if someone cited, say, “The Rolling Stones” and “The Beatles” as their favorite bands, right? You’d just say, “Oh, I guess they like old music.”

Although to be fair, in Japan if you mentioned “The Rolling Stones” and “The Beatles”, they wouldn’t be surprised either. Old American and British music does get more respect than old Japanese music. In fact Shoko, who laughs at me because I like old Japanese music, is a huge Rolling Stones fan. This may be because there is the idea that Japanese pop sucks, and there is no excuse for listening to old Japanese pop unless you were alive and living in Japan during the time it was current.

Which is probably true. (I actually enjoy old Japanese music largely because it is so cheesy, but that’s just my personal taste). Although I think the folk music boom of the early 70s in Japan produced a lot of good music, but again, that’s just my personal taste.

But speaking of old Western music in Japan, here’s another complaint I have. The two most popular foreign groups in Japan are:
First “The Beatles” (no surprise there, right? Love them or hate them, they are undoubtedly the most recognized pop group in the world)

And then …”The Carpenters”.

I know. The Carpenters?

I had never even heard of the Carpenters until my 12th grade Psychology class, when our teacher showed us a movie about the life of Karen Carpenter as a way of introducing us to the concept of anorexia. (Karen Carpenter apparently suffered with eating disorders all her life.) And I don’t really recall hearing much about “The Carpenters” after that movie either. So, I suspect that if it were not for that movie, I wouldn’t have even known who “The Carpenters” were before coming to Japan.

And yet in Japan they’re the most popular group of all time. I sometimes will try and explain to Japanese friends, “The Carpenters really aren’t cool in the US. Really. Hardly anyone listens to them anymore. If you put on a Carpenters CD on at a party, people will get angry at you.” This is always a huge surprise to a Japanese person. Sometimes they don’t believe me. This is one of the many fights I’ve largely given up on.

(Some other fights I’ve largely given up on are explaining that: Not everyone in America has a gun, life in America is not one big sex orgy like you see in the movies, four seasons in a year is not unique to Japan, and Michigan is a state, not a city. We have many different kinds of cities within Michigan the state).

During my time in Japan I’ve heard enough “Carpenters” music to last me my whole life. I can’t wait till I get back to America where I don’t have to listen to “The Carpenters” all the time.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

A Drive

A friend and I both had a free Saturday and were debating what to do when he suggested heading up to the North of Gifu to see Shirokawa village. It’s a world heritage site in the North of the prefecture that preserves old Japanese houses. Supposed to be very beautiful, neither of us had gone yet, so we decided to go check it out.

The only problem was that neither of us knew how to get there, and we didn’t have a map. “It shouldn’t be a big problem,” my friend said. “Whenever I go north I always see signs for it. If we can just get far enough north we should see all sorts of signs.”

So we decided to just get in the car and head North.

Actually that works a lot better back home than it does in Japan. In Japan there are a lot of mountains and valleys and rivers and other topography that makes it a lot harder to just pick a direction and go in it.

Also the roads in Japan very seldom go where you think they will. They don’t go in straight lines, but wind all over the place. You can start heading North on a road, and then very easily end up going south.
(Oh, and well I’m on the subject, you know what else doesn’t work too well in Japan? When you’re driving, and you miss a turn, and you’re still thinking like you’re on a grid system, so you say to yourself: “That’s okay, I’ll just turn on the next street and then double back.” Man, the number of times that’s gotten me lost…)

Anyway, we set out heading into the North from Gifu city. We left from a pretty congested area, but gradually the stores got more and more farther apart from each other, and we saw more and more rice fields, and soon we were deep into the countryside.

Because of my 3 years in the countryside in Kyushu, I have the (probably annoying) habit of always playing one-upsmanship when it comes to the countryside. For instance when my friend said “Wow, we’re really in the countryside now. I bet these people aren’t used to seeing foreigners,” I said…

“This isn’t really the countryside. I mean it looks like the countryside, but we’re only 30 minutes outside of Gifu city. And barely an hour away from Nagoya. These people probably see foreigners all the time. Now in Kyushu where I lived I was in a small country town surrounded by other small country towns. There wasn’t even a train station in my town. Or in the neighboring town. To get to the nearest train station was a 30 minute drive…” My friend put up with this rather well.

We didn’t really have a clear idea of where we were going, so we just stopped at everywhere that looked interesting. We stopped by scenic points overlooking the river, saw a few temples and a 300 year old cherry tree. We did a bit of hiking, but neither of us were in hiking gear (or in that good shape), so we always just went a little up the trail and then turned around and headed back towards the car when it started getting too steep.

We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant by the river. Despite my earlier prediction, it was quickly evident that this place was not used to having foreigners. The old ladies who ran the place at first didn’t seem to know what to do with us, but then after discovering that we spoke some Japanese they were relieved and became very friendly. They sat down at our table and started talking to us.

Not only did they give us all sorts of free food, as we were leaving one of them said, “Please, take this as a gift from all of us,” and gave us some bread from their bakery to take home. Ah, countryside hospitality.

“It’s nice to be so popular,” my friend said to me after we left.

“Just think,” I said, “We could go home and spend our whole lives working for fame and recognition, and never be as popular as we are right now just for being here.”

After lunch, we continued heading up in the direction of what we thought was north. Pretty soon we were climbing up the mountain, and the road narrowed from a wide road into a small and curvy road. It was a scenic drive through the mountains, but we began to wonder if this was going to lead to anywhere we wanted to go. We kept going under the hope that around the next bend the road would straighten out and widen and we would be once again cruising north. After a while we kept going up the road just because we hated the idea of turning around and back tracking all the land we had already covered.

“It’s got to lead somewhere,” my friend said. “They wouldn’t go through all the trouble of building a road like this unless it led somewhere.”

I, being somewhat more familiar with Japanese roads, began to consider the possibility that it indeed might not go anywhere. “Sometimes in Japan they do build roads that go nowhere,” I explained.

We kept up the road until we round our way blocked by construction. We talked briefly with the construction workers who confirmed our suspicion that the road, in fact, really didn’t go anywhere. Then we turned around and headed back.

On the way back down we stopped at a temple with a huge statue of Buddha. The statue was pretty impressive, but we had both seen so many temples during our stay in Japan that this wasn’t anything exciting anymore.

We headed East for a bit, and then made another stab at trying to get North. We never made it to Shirokawa village, but we did find a nice spot by the river to grab dinner. We also a small zoo with the animals being kept in what seemed like horrible conditions. (The animal rights movement never really made it to Japan). I remembered a quote someone had said to me once: “I hope we never get in another war with Japan within my lifetime, because the way they treat their animals, I can’t imagine how they would treat their prisoners of war.”

My friend countered that this would disturb him a lot more, except he had been to plenty of countries where the conditions animals were kept in were even worse, and so Japan didn’t seem too bad by comparison.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Discipline in Japanese Schools

Recently another ALT was recalling the differences between the myth and the reality of the Japanese school system. “When I was growing up,” she said, “we heard so many stories about Japanese schools. How they were so strict, and if the students acted up in even the littlest way, they were disciplined severely. Man, what a pack of lies that was.”

Indeed I have the same memories. When I was in middle school and high school, my teachers loved to talk about how lazy and spoiled we American students were in comparison to our Japanese counterparts. Whenever we complained about too much homework, we were told that Japanese students did twice as much as we did and didn’t dare complain about it.

I don’t know if those stories are still being told, or with the burst of the bubble economy some of those myths have been burst as well. As with all myths, it does have some basis in truth, but there is a lot of exaggeration and misunderstanding.

I’ve broached this topic before, but it is hard to compare any aspect of Japanese culture in relation to Western culture. For instance you can not say that Japanese are more or less polite than Americans, because that comparison implies there is an agreed upon universal standard of politeness, which there is not. Some Japanese manners strike Americans as overly polite, others as down right rude.

It is the same way with talking about discipline in the schools. You would be amazed what these little buggers can get away with over here. At the same time, you would also be amazed at the minor infractions that seem to cause all hell to break loose.

Of course it is difficult to make generalizations. As with America, every teacher is different. Some teachers are real battle-axes and don’t let the kids get away with anything. Other teachers are really soft and the kids run all over them. And some teachers are pretty cranky, too lazy to discipline the kids on a lot of matters, but then every so often will unpredictably explode.

That being said, here is a brief summary of what the kids seem to be able to do with no consequences, or at least a slight verbal reprimand: talking during class, sleeping during class, reading comic books during class, bullying between classes, fighting between classes, fighting with the teacher, fighting in class, and of course kanchoing the American
I’m exaggerating only in the sense that some of these I’ve seen only once, and not repeatedly. I once saw a teacher engage in a physical struggle with an 8th grade boy. She wanted him to sit down, he refused, they grabbled, and then she gave up and just nodded to me to resume the class. I also once saw a boy get kicked in the face by another boy between classes, with absolutely no punishment for the offender. The Japanese teacher pretended she just didn’t see it.

Now, here is a list of offenses that will really get you in trouble: not standing up straight at the beginning of class for greetings. Not wearing the right school uniform. Not participating in the beginning of class greeting. Not singing the school song right. Missing a button on your uniform. Not standing up and bowing right at the big school ceremonies.

Or in other words, there seems to be a big emphasis in Japanese schools on form over function. Given what the kids get away with, I can’t believe what they get in trouble for.

Last week I was teaching a 6th grade class. We were doing a warm up song, and one of the boys wasn’t singing it in a loud voice. The teacher stopped the class and made the kid do a solo. Then he yelled at him for a half hour. No kidding, a full half-hour. I was watching the clock because I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to even have to teach, but then he gave me the last 15 minutes to do a game. So now we’re one whole lesson behind with the 6th grade class because someone wasn’t singing the opening song properly.

Again, this is a lot more puzzling in light of what they actually get away with. I thought of all the times a lesson of mine turned into a disaster because the kids would not stay quiet or stay in their seats. Or sometimes they even run up to the front of the class to grab my teaching materials when my back is turned. None of this seems to invoke the wrath of the homeroom teacher, but messing with the opening song, like messing around with the opening or closing greeting, is something that really invokes a lot of yelling.

And when they yell, they really yell. Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes a teacher has to yell. I learned that very quickly. You can’t be a nice guy all the time.

But my personal philosophy is that you should only yell when you need to restore order. When the kids are already being submissive, I don’t think you should continue yelling at them. And to continue yelling at the top of your voice for a half hour is just weird. Especially given the trivial offences that seem to set them off. But that’s how they do it in Japan. I’ve had similar experiences in Ajimu. One teacher took up a whole class to yell, (really yell) at one girl student. I still have no idea what she did. I think it was something related to not doing the opening greeting properly. I just stared at the ground with the rest of the students while this was going on. Then after 40 minutes of yelling, the homeroom teacher abruptly left the room and I was alone to entertain the kids. I tried to do a game, but the class wasn’t in much of a game-playing mood. And then while I was trying to engage them, the homeroom teacher suddenly came back in and started yelling again.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

My Speech

I guess this falls under the catagory of "because it's my blog and I can."

This is a model speech I had to give to my speech class to give them idea of what a good speech should be. The Japanese teacher suggested I write about my experience in Japanese schools. I figured since I went through the trouble of writing it, I might as well post it.

It is incredibly simple English because it had to be understood by 9th grade Japanese students. I also did my best to hide my criticisms by saying, "isn't such and such really interesting?"

Anyway, it's not a great speech, so I'm not going to waste a lot of space introducing it or apologizing for it. Without further ado...

Japanese Schools and Me
Long, long ago, when I was a junior high school student, we often heard about Japanese schools. “In Japan, the students study very hard,” our teachers told us. “They even study on Saturday and Sunday.” I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to come to Japan to see for myself.

Japanese schools are very different from American schools. For example, most schools in America do not have school uniforms. I thought uniforms were bad because they made everyone look the same. I thought Japanese students would hate school uniforms. But many Japanese students say that they like their uniform because they don’t have to choose their clothing every day. I never thought about this before. Maybe uniforms are good.

The only thing I don’t understand is why the school uniforms look like sailors uniforms. Students are not in the navy, but they are in school. So why do they dress like sailors? I don’t understand it.

Japanese students do spend a lot of time in school. But I was surprised to learn that not all of this time is spent studying. For example, there are a lot of school meetings in the gym. In the fall the students spend a lot of time practicing for the sports festival. They also practice for the chorus festival.

Greetings, or aisatsu are very important for the Japanese people. Every class must start and finish with the right aisatsu. In the gymnasium, the students spend a lot of time practicing their aisatsu for special events like graduation or sports festival. I was very surprised. In America, we only study school subjects. But in Japanese schools, they spend so much time learning Japanese manners.

So, when I go back to America, I will tell my old teachers, “Yes, it is true. Japanese students do spend a lot of time in school. But they are not studying school subjects all the time. They are practicing aisatsu, and having class meetings, and learning how to be Japanese.”

Japanese schools are very interesting for me. I hope to teach everyone about Japanese schools when I go home.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Conversations at a BBQ

Now that summer has arrived and the weather has started to get nice around here, there have been a lot of BBQs recently. They are usually international events, where foreigners and Japanese people mingle.

I usually get into a lot of interesting conversations there, so I thought I’d jot a few of them down.

There is a group of what may be described as “Japanese hippies” there. Actually “hippy” might be the wrong word. These guys have nice clothes, good hygiene, and only slightly long hair. Maybe a better description might be what Phish called, “prep-school hippies”, although even that is slightly inadequate because they’re no longer in school, but about my age. They do remind me of some of the people I went to high school with though.

They are always listening to music or playing drums, and seem to have an aura of coolness around them that attracts a lot of girls. They are very friendly to me, but to be honest I am more interested in the girls hanging around them than I am in talking to them. I am friendly and talk to them only so that I can be around the girls. I engage them in conversation only to the bare minimum that I can still be on friendly terms with them, and then talk to the girls around them.

I feel slightly guilty about this, and it strikes me that these are the exactly the kind of guys I tried so hard to attach myself to in high School. I wonder why now I am only concerned about using them for their access to women. Perhaps since I have come to Japan I have become spoiled by attention. I have met countless Japanese people who have been looking to make foreign friends or practice their English. Perhaps I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve stopped appreciating gestures of friendliness, and now blow off people I would have jumped at the chance to hang out with ten years ago.

Or perhaps I’ve just changed since I was in high school. In high school I thought if I could just hang out with these people enough their coolness would rub off on me, but now I’ve more or less given up the pursuit of cool, and like to hang out with people whose conversation I genuinely enjoy, and who have similar interests to me. This tends to be largely other geeks like myself.
I am introduced to another English teacher like myself. She has just been in Japan for 6 months. I mentioned I have been here for almost 4 years now, and she couldn't believe it.

At 4 years, I’m starting to become one of the old men here. Very few people stay that long, and if they do, they are usually the “lifers”. People employed in an English conversation school get burned out quick and seldom make it more than a year. Even JET has a 3-year cap. 4 years seems like an incredibly long amount of time to everyone else.

“Your Japanese must be perfect,” she exclaimed.

“You would think after 4 years it should be, wouldn’t you?” I said. It’s not as good as it should be, and sometimes people who have only been here for 2 years have better Japanese than me. It’s a depressing topic, and I don’t like to talk about how bad my Japanese is, so I left it at that.

“After 4 years, you must have had all sorts of great experiences,” she said. “What’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever done? The thing that you can go home and tell everyone about.”

When the question is put to me like that, it seems like I’ve done very little during my 4 years here, and I don’t have any interesting stories. I thought for a moment, then mentioned the across Japan hitchhiking trip Greg and I did a couple years ago, and that seems to impress her a bit.

Although to be honest even that sounds more impressive than it was. The trip went so smoothly, and the rides came so readily, that it can’t really be called much of an adventure. In fact in our journey across Japan we never even got off the highway until the very end. And besides which, I can’t really take credit for that trip because I would never have done that trip if Greg hadn’t pressured me into it.

I was near the grill and a Canadian friend of mine was entertaining several Japanese girls. He decided to direct some of the attention towards me by saying, “Joel actually is from Iran.”

There were coos of amazement, but I quickly denied this. My friend changed into English long enough to say, “Ah come on man, you’ve got to play with it a little.” I apologized for blowing the joke.

A Japanese girl with a big tattoo on her back came over. She was wearing a short top, so large parts of the dragon tattoo were visible.

Historically tattoos in Japan are usually only worn by the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. I think this is changing somewhat because the girl in question did not appear to be involved in organized crime, but her tattoo was an object of interest to everyone present.

My Canadian friend started to set me up again. “Actually Joel has a tattoo on his ass.”

I tried not to blow the joke. “It’s true,” I said.

“Let us see it,” someone said.

“No, you can’t see it,” I answered defensively. And then I tried to recover, “I mean, I would show it to you but…”

Someone else asked what the tattoo was. I tried to think of the most random thing I could think off, and thought of Mike Tyson’s tattoo of Chairman Mao on his bicep. “It’s Chairman Mao,” I said. Actually for people who know me, maybe that is a bit predictable, but these people didn’t know me so I thought it would still have a random funniness to it. No one laughed, and I thought that maybe because of the recent tension between Japan and China it was a bad joke.

I am introduced to another girl, this one Japanese. She wants to learn German, and asks me if I can teach her. “I don’t know German,” I said. “You would have to find a German person to teach you that. I only speak English.”

“But there are no German people in Gifu,” she complains.

“There’s at least one,” I said. “I’m sure of that.”

“Can you introduce me to him?”

“He’s not really a friend of mine,” I said. “Actually he’s more of an enemy.” I almost liked the way that sounded as it rolled off my tongue. I never really had an enemy before. The girl just nodded in a confused way, and changed the subject.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Thoughts on Emma Goldman

The library in Gifu prefecture actually has a copy of Emma Goldman’s autobiography, which I’ve managed to get my grubby hands on. I’ve not finished it yet, but I can’t recommend it highly enough if any of you are near a library that holds a copy. (There's a free copy online here actually, if you like reading books on computer.)

When I finally finish the whole thing, I’ll probably write up another review for Media Mouse. In the meantime I’ll abuse the patience of my readers by just posting thoughts as they come to me.

In her book Goldman describes the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick in 1892 by her lover Alexander Berkman (for which Emma provided the money for the gun). Emma defends this with the following quotation, “…did not the end justify the means? Our end was the sacred cause of the oppressed and exploited people. It was for them that we were going to give our lives. What if a few should have to perish?—the many would be made free and could live in beauty and in comfort. Yes, the end in this case justified the means.” In fact the words “the end justifies the means” appear several times in Goldman’s book.

I, like most people, flinch whenever I see the phrase, “the end justifies the means.” But my first thought was that 1892 is different than 2005. Certainly the bloody history of the past 100 years, the holocaust, the gulags, the atomic bombs, and the terrorists attacks, have taught us that however noble you believe your cause to be, you have to be careful about the means you use to pursue it. In 1892, perhaps this was less clear.

My second thought is that most people actually do believe “the ends justify the means.” Of course we all recoil when we see it unapologetically in print, as it seems to recall Machiavelli, the Soviet 5 year plan, and all the worst aspects of Western philosophy. But if you closely examine the political philosophy of the average American, they believe very strongly that the ends justify the means. They just lack the intellectual honesty of Emma Goldman to state so directly.

For instance almost no one believes that war is inherently a good thing. Even Hitler declared that he wished nothing but peace. But many people are willing to support war to achieve what they believe is a greater good. Therefore the 75% of Americans who initially supported the Iraq War believe on some level that the ends do justify the means. Anyone who supported the carpet-bombing of North Vietnam, or the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan, believes the ends justify the means. Of course we all flinch when we see the phrase boldly and unapologetically stated, but for most people this belief underlies their philosophy.

But of course, anarchists make easy targets when they state so directly. When I was a Calvin student, “The Banner” ran an article criticizing Emma Goldman. The article seemed to come out of nowhere (Emma Goldman was not exactly a hot news topic at the time, and the quote was 70 years old) but anarchists made easy targets.

The article cited a anti-government quotation from Emma Goldman during the 1930s, and then said that Emma Goldman seemed like a spoiled child who only wanted the freedom to do what she wanted, and that she didn’t understand her responsibility to society went hand in hand with individual freedom.

I wrote a long letter to the editor saying that Emma Goldman was a social anarchist, and so to criticize her for excessive individualism showed an appalling lack of understanding about the difference between social anarchism and individual anarchism. Also the 1930s saw the rise of Fascism and Stalinism, so Emma Goldman’s fears about excessive government powers should be put in context.

The Banner actually printed a portion of my letter. It also printed a couple other letters arguing similar points. Buma, who worked as an intern for “The Banner” that summer, told me they were actually flooded with letters saying the author of the article didn’t know what she was talking about. Who knew so many anarchists read “The Banner”?

Anyway, the point is people like Emma Goldman seem to make easy targets whenever a magazine like “The Banner” is looking for a soft punching bag. Since “The Banner” seems to be in the habit of resurrecting obscure quotes from Emma Goldman and writing polemics against them, one can easily imagine, “the ends justify the means” being held up as an example of the violence of anarchism, without any corresponding reference made to state violence.

This is the way we are trained to think. In the recent documentary “The Weather Underground”, Mark Rudd says that the Weathermen failed to gain support because it is so strongly ingrained in the American psyche that institutional violence is acceptable, individual violence is not. That is why the massive bombing of civilians in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia did not disturb people as much as the Weather Underground’s symbolic bombing of the Pentagon (which killed no one).

Or in Japan, the anarchist movement was characterized as violent because of attempts to assassinate the emperor, and the actual assassination of a few government officials in the 1920s. But a few years later the US, in its war against Imperial Japan, would kill millions of men women and children, and this is thought to be the acceptable cost of war.

So which is really more violent, anarchism or bourgeois democracy? Anarchists have not dropped nuclear bombs, or carpet-bombed civilian populations. And yet the dominant perception of anarchism is one of violence.

This was true in Emma Goldman’s time as well. There was widespread repression of anarchists after the assassination of President McKinley by nominal anarchist Leon Czolgosz. (Although Czolgosz was only on the fringes of the anarchist movement. He had failed to integrate himself into any actual anarchist groups because they thought he was a police spy).

Emma Goldman was imprisoned and tried in connection with McKinley’s assassination. When reporters interviewed her about the death of McKinley, she replied “is it possible that in the entire United States only the President passed away on this day? Surely many others have also died at the same time, perhaps in poverty and destitution, leaving helpless dependents behind. Why do you expect me to feel more regret over the death of McKinley than of the rest?”

But given the way anarchism has been villianized in the mainstream press, both in Emma Goldman’s time and in ours, the attitude of the mainstream USA seems to be anyone who supports a philosophy that leads to the assassination of one man is inhuman, anyone who supports a philosophy that drops two nuclear bombs on civilian cities is a patriot.

Video Version

Thursday, June 09, 2005

I encounter my German Friend Again

It’s always a bad idea here to get in a quarrel with another foreigner, because in the small circles we foreigners hang out in, it can be difficult to avoid meeting the other person.

My previous blog accountdetailed my first meeting with “Tom”, but in repeating the story I have discovered a lot of other people know him, and that Tom and I probably share a lot of mutual friends and acquaintances.

The information I hear about Tom is somewhat mixed. Apparently at times he can be the friendliest guy in the world, and who knows? If I had met him under different circumstances we might have become good friends.

On the other hand John had a story about how his Japanese girlfriend had to stop coming to a certain coffee shop because Tom would always harass her there. This is somewhat more consistent with the view of Tom I had acquired. And yet another friend is absolutely positive Tom is married to a Japanese woman, which makes the fact that he is harassing all these other girls even creepier yet.

I had found out that Tom is a frequent patron of “Beer Hall”, one of the local foreign hang outs here in Gifu city, and after hearing that I came there less often. Some of my friends felt I was being a bit of a wimp about the whole thing. “Look, you shouldn’t rearrange your social life because of this creep,” someone told me. “He was the one who was in the wrong, let him find a new place to hang out.”

But to a certain point, who was in the wrong is almost irrelevant. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid of Tom personally, as the fact that encountering him again in a bar seemed like an awkward situation that I’d just assume avoid if at all possible. I continued going to Beer Hall if I had definite plans or was meeting friends, but I decided to stop just randomly dropping in on slow nights to see what was happening.

I encountered Tom once on the streets of Nagoya just by freak chance. I was with another friend, and I saw Tom coming the other way. I thought if I just ignored him it might be perceived as a sign of weakness or fear, so I just simply nodded at him as we passed each other. He glared at me in return. “Wow, he was not happy to see you,” my friend said after Tom had passed. “I know Tom as well, but he didn’t even acknowledge me. He just glared at you the whole time.” And then he added, “I’m pretty sure he’s married, by the way.”

That was about a month ago. And then I encountered Tom again last night at “Beer Hall”. Given the fact that we both frequent the bar, I suppose that I was just lucky before not to run into him.

Jorge, a Peruvian friend working in Japan, had organized a bit of a get together at Beer Hall. I had come early in the evening when there were just a handful of people there, but more and more people began coming in. Given how wide Jorge’s connections seemed to be, I was not entirely surprised when Tom arrived as well.

As I had written previously in this blog, my aversion to tense situations had caused me to be a bit flustered when I first met Tom. But, replaying the incident in my head, I think he had been slightly intimidated by me as well. If I just kept up a strong front and didn’t let Tom know his presence was unnerving me, I could keep the advantage. But, unfortunately the pressure of not becoming nervous made me all the more nervous.

Tom didn’t seem to have any more desire to encounter me, than I him. We were both in the same bar, but avoided each other the whole evening. Since I have been getting good mileage out of the story of our first encounter, and had retold it several times, all of my friends knew about the antagonism between us. “Hey, did you see who’s here?” someone would say to me. Or, “Did you notice your best friend is sitting over there?” I would just respond that as long as he stayed away from me, everything was all right.

At the end of the evening there was talk of going to another bar. I was a little uneasy about this. Avoiding Tom when we were in the same bar was one thing, but if I was in a group with him walking to the next bar, that was something that could not be done without awkwardness. When I heard Tom’s name in a list of people who would be going to the next bar, and when most of my friends decided to call it a night and head home, I gave my apologies to Jorge and said I was too tired to go out to another bar. Everyone sort of left at once, and to avoid bumping into Tom outside I stayed and ordered another Oolong Tea. (All my friends think I must save a ton of money by not drinking, but I swear I must spend almost as much money on tea as they do on alcohol. It just feels awkward to be in a bar and not be drinking something.)

As I got my tea I realized that everyone I knew had left the bar. Fortunately in Japan there is always an escape from the awkwardness of standing alone: the cell phone. Japanese people love to play with their cell phone. I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and began surfing the net. Some drunken Japanese businessmen I was standing next to started practicing their English on me, and I sat down with them while I finished me drink. At one point Tom walked back into the bar for whatever reason, but I was engaged in conversation with my new friends and so was able to avoid him. He left again, but it did occur to me that me might realize I was deliberately staying behind in the bar to avoid him, and that might be taken as a sign of weakness. I finished my drink quickly, said good-by to me new friends, and then headed out the door.

I started walking towards my car, and then saw Jorge and Tom and a few others waiting at the crosswalk. Despite the head start I had given them, they must have milled around by the door for a while. I thought about heading the other way, but again I didn’t want Tom to think I was deliberately avoiding him. I arrived at the crosswalk and talked with Jorge over Tom’s head.

“Did you decide to come with us after all?” Jorge asked.

“No, not tonight. But shouldn’t you guys be headed in the opposite direction?” I asked.

“We’re going to get his car first,” Jorge said, gesturing to another friend who had a car.

“My car’s parked over in the same direction,” I said. “I’ll walk with you a little ways.” Actually the last thing I wanted to do was walk with this group a little ways, but I was making a point of acting like I was not at all disturbed by Tom.

Jorge didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish, so we communicated in Japanese. At this point Tom, who apparently spoke several languages, launched into Spanish and cut me out of the conversation. I wasn’t able to understand what was being said, but because I caught my own name and I could see them gesturing to me, I knew I was the subject.

I could tell Tom was asking a lot of questions about me, and I could tell that Jorge, by his smile, and his friendly gestures towards me, was saying nothing but good things.

Eventually we came to the spot where our paths diverged. Although I had been walking right next to Tom, we hadn’t said a word to each other the whole evening. Instead I reached over Tom to shake hands with Jorge and said my good byes. And then I left.

The following day I was talking to a friend who was also at the bar, who mentioned how much Tom was glaring at me. I really didn’t even notice it at the time, but found it somewhat disturbing nonetheless. “Boy, what is he still mad about?” I asked. “The way he’s still acting upset after all these months, you would think I was the one who had been out of line.” Actually, from Tom’s perspective I probably was.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Deep Throating and Me

Three nights a week after work I take Japanese classes with some other English teachers, but we are often tired from working all day and it can be hard to study at night. Our teacher understands this, and so she sometimes just lets us practice our Japanese by conversation instead of studying grammar points.

“Has there been anything interesting in the news recently?” she asked.

“They finally found out who ‘Deep Throat’ is,” I answered. Because our teacher was Japanese, she didn’t understand who Deep Throat was, and we had to struggle to explain it in Japanese (good practice).

After class, I was talking to a girl who had arrived late. “What did I miss?” she asked.

“Absolutely nothing,” I responded. “We just talked about ‘Deep Throat’ for the whole first half hour.”

She turned to me shocked. “You're joking!”

“No, I’m serious.”

In an accusatory tone she demanded, “What were you guys doing talking about deep throating with our Japanese teacher?”

Even though she was a fellow American, it turns out she had no idea who the historical “Deep Throat” was, and had only known the term in connection with the sexual act. I compared this with my own development, in which I had known about “Deep Throat” the person long before I realized the word actually had sexual connotations. In fact it wasn’t until my history class at Calvin, when the professor said the term “Deep Throat” came from a popular porno movie at the time, that I finally made the connection. Shows what a geek I am.

Ah, Nixon…All the people he killed in Vietnam, and now his most lasting legacy is that a pornographic movie has become forever part of our history books.

Of course the same irony is true for Clinton. He presided over the period of greatest economic expansion, and now he will be remembered for an X-rated special prosecutors report dealing with cigars and interns, that is also now part of the historical record.

Thoughts on Orwell

Other books I’ve been re-reading lately are “Animal Farm” and “1984” by George Orwell. (All right, I’ve got a small confession to make. I’m not physically reading all these books; I’ve got them on CD. Same with the previously mentioned “Tale of Two Cities”. But I’m absorbing them nonetheless.)

Orwell has got to be one of the most quoted and least read authors around. He has become the darling of the American right, many of whom don’t even know that, although Orwell’s later works were certainly anti-communist, Orwell himself was a democratic Socialist. For instance Ann Coulter, right wing columnist, quotes Orwell in her books without ever mentioning he’s a Socialist.

I should admit I’m no expert on the exact state of Orwell’s political evolution at the time he wrote “Animal Farm” or “1984”, but a simple reading of the books is evidence enough that Orwell would be in awkward company with today’s right wing.

For instance his main criticism of communism in “Animal Farm” is that the communist abandon their original ideals to imitate the capitalists. The return of organized religion is what Orwell regards as the final corruption of the communist regime. And at the end of the book, the ultimate horror is that the communists morph into the capitalists they replaced.

As for “1984”, a large part of this book deals with the sexual suppression enforced by the totalitarian regime. The first step towards rebellion against totalitarianism is sexual freedom. Hardly the ideology of today’s religious right.

Conservatives love to apply “1984” to liberal big government programs, but from my re-reading of the book, the most shocking comparisons are to the Bush administration. I know I’m not the first person to point this out, and that the whole debate about “Who does ‘1984’ apply to more?” is a childish game, but just for fun consider these comparisons:

1. Anyone who has actually read “1984”will remember the 3 slogans of the party, “War is Peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength.” Now is it just me, or does this sound remarkably similar to the speech George W. Bush gave in which he actually said, “When we talk about war, we are really talking about peace.” Of course this was a reflection of a larger conservative argument which was popular at the time. The argument went that anyone for peace was really only delaying an inevitably conflict, and so those of us for peace were really “pro-war.” Now how Orwellian is that? The only way you can be for peace is to support the war? The people in favor of invading a foreign land that had never attacked us, were actually the people for peace?
(Appearently I'm not the only one who thinks this is a bit too close to 1984)

2. In “1984”, the government deliberately keeps the country in a constant state of warfare in order to be able to appeal to the spirit of patriotism and self-sacrifice as an excuse for giving up freedoms. Sound familiar?

3. In “1984” the world has been reduced to only 3 super powers. At any given time the government is always at war with one of them, and at peace with the other. Since enemy at the time is always defined as the definition of pure evil, it stands to reason there could never have been any alliances in the past, and so the history books are always being changed so that the country the government is currently fighting becomes the country the government has always been fighting, and has never been aligned with.
Now, granted in the US we aren’t physically changing the history books yet, but it does seem that in preparation for the Iraq War, and in the need to define Saddam as the ultimate evil, US support of Iraq during the 1980s was brushed under the rug a bit.

4. And of course there is the comparison between the “1984” government’s campaign to abolish the sex drive, and Bush’s push for abstinence education. (All right, admittedly this last one is a bit of a stretch. If you think I’m stretching here just go up and re-read the first 3).

So, I put it to you, of all the conservatives who love to quote Orwell, how many of them do you think have actually read his books?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Wasting time on the Net

A Canadian friend of mine sent me this link to a video of George Galloway testifying before the Sentate. I am told this has gotten lots of coverage in the Canadian and British media, but very little in the American. I'm not in a position to vouch for either, but if you haven't seen it yet, click on it. As my Canadian friend said to me, it is a sad state of affairs in the American democracy when a foreigner is the only one with the courage to point this out.

And moving to the low brow: This is the funniest video I've ever seen on line. If you need a good laugh, watch World of Warcraft with Leeroy. It's about "An overly enthusiastic gamer goes full force and pisses off the rest of his team." Hard to tell who the bigger nerd is, these guys for playing it, or me for watching it so many times.

Monday, June 06, 2005

I Encourage Japanese Nationalism

I was in the teacher’s room at the elementary school one day, and looked out the window to see the students lowering the flag after school. After they removed the Japanese flag from the pole, they simply threw it in a heap on the dirt ground while they lowered the town flag. Observing this, I asked the other teachers if flag etiquette in Japan was different than in the US.

The site of seeing the flag dropped on the ground was so common to them that it took them a while to understand what I was talking about. Then they debated briefly among themselves what the proper etiquette was, and finally a teacher said, “Actually, it’s probably bad manners even in Japan.”

“I don’t care,” I quickly said. “I was just curious, because this seems to be a point of difference between our two countries.”

But the teacher was already at the window, where he shouted to the students that they shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground. “Joel is very disturbed by the way you are treating the Japanese flag,” he told the students.

“No, really, I don’t care,” I tried to say. “I was just asking.”

The following week the principle apologized to me. “I’m sorry about what happened to the flag last week,” he said. “I heard you were upset.”

“Honestly, I didn’t care,” I said. You have to be careful what you say in Japan because of the tendency Japanese people have to read into your comments.

But it is interesting the difference in flag etiquette. That very evening I was in a bar with some other AlTs, and, without me even bringing the subject up, someone recounted what they had observed at their school that afternoon.

Interesting enough his story takes place in a high school, so the kids are that much older. Apparently a Japanese high school girl is lowering the flag at the end of the day, and then drops it in a pile in the dirt. Walking over to lower the school flag, she steps on the Japanese flag and gets her foot caught in a hole in the flag. She then does a bit of a dance trying to shake the flag off of her foot, and eventually succeeds in freeing her foot by stepping down on the flag with the other foot. Apparently no one else in the teacher’s room watching the scene thought it was the least bit out of the ordinary.

So there does appear to be some difference in etiquette. The teachers at the elementary school told me that since Japan lost the war, they don’t take pride in their country as much as we Americans do.
Shoko also offered a bit of an alternative explanation. As with the National Anthem, the Japanese flag is associated with the right wing and with the Wartime atrocities. There are a lot of people who think it shouldn’t even be at school in the first place, and so flag etiquette is not strictly enforced. “In America you love your flag so much,” Shoko said. “When I was in America, everywhere I went I saw the American flag. We Japanese are ashamed of our flag.”