Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Glimpses of Shoko Part 1: At the Waterfall

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Shoko over summer break, and have begun to accumulate a lot of “Shoko stories”. None of these are big enough to justify posts in their own right. On the other hand, put together it is too long for one post. So, I've decided to split it up into a 4 part series: "Glimpes of Shoko."

At The Waterfall

I’ve been spending much of my free time swimming in the waterfalls, but Shoko has been working most afternoons, and doesn’t have the same opportunity. She repeated expressed interest in the Yabakei waterfall, and asked me to take her with her one day.

When she had a Thursday off, and when Harrison and I were planning on going to the waterfall anyway, the opportunity was perfect.

Although Shoko knew from my stories that the purpose of going to this waterfall was to slide down it, she was very skeptical upon viewing it. “You’re not really going to slide down that?” she asked.

“Sure I am,” I said, as I stripped down to my bathing suit. And with her yelling at me to be careful the whole time, I slide down just like I had done a hundred times before. Harrison arrived later and did the same thing.

It took a lot of convincing for Shoko to go down the waterfall. First of all she had to watch Harrison and I slide down several times before she was convinced it was safe. Actually, someone had died at that waterfall earlier in the summer. Although I had told this to Shoko before, I intentionally neglected to remind her of it, but I imagine it was in the back of her mind.

Finally, Shoko announced that before she was ready to slide down the waterfall, she wanted to get used to the water and go for a swim at the base.

“Is the water cold?” she asked.

Of course it’s cold, Harrison and I replied. It’s a mountain stream.

Shoko very slowly stepped in the water, complaining about the cold. Harrison and I kept telling her to just jump in all at once and get it over with, which she eventually did.

She had a very awkward, childlike swimming style, resembling a dog paddle. Had I not known that swimming classes were part of the public school curriculum in Japan, I would have thought that she didn’t know how to swim at all.

“I haven’t been swimming in 7 years,” Shoko said. Harrison and I were amazed. 7 years? How do you deal with the summers?

Shoko explained that this was not at all unusual for Japanese women, who do not often partake in physical activities, and who are worried about the effects of the outdoor sun on their skin.

I remembered my first Japanese girlfriend, Kanae, who I had met at the same waterfall 3 years earlier. I was at the waterfall with David, Harrison’s predecessor, and Kanae was a friend of his he invited. Kanae also took a lot of convincing to slide down the waterfall. She finally slid down, briefly went underwater with the force of the waterfall, and then bobbed up sputtering water and looking half drowned. I jumped into the water and swam out to get her. She threw her arms around my neck as I took her to the bank, and the rest was history.

Mindful of that memory, as Shoko prepared to slide down I swam out and positioned myself right at the foot of the waterfall. But Shoko did a little better than Kanae. She bobbed up again with her hair in her face and disoriented, and accepted my help once she noticed I was there. But once she realized she was encumbering my stroke and that I was struggling to swim and pull her along, she broke off and swam to the bank herself.

Link of the Day
I linked to the Chomsky audio archives a while back, but, lest this little gem get overlooked, allow me to draw special attention to it.

Here is Noam Chomsky being interviewed by "Rage Against the Machine". The link contains both the written transcript and the audio file.

Of course when a leading Anarchist intellectual is interviewed by a popular rock band, there is a certain amount of "Oh my god, isn't this so cool" that would make this the height of political sophistication if we were all 19 again.

And yet, if you click the link and read/listen to the interview, I think you'll agree it is a lot more intelligent than the network news.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

I Get Treated to Dinner

Since I’ve been back in Oita, I’ve gone to the old office many times, mostly to meet Chris, but I run into all the old people I used to work with. One of them, Mr. Redpine, said he wanted to treat Chris and I to dinner, and we accepted of course. After some discussion about the date, we finally settled on last Friday.   (You can read Chris’ version of the same events here).

Mr. Redpine’s real name is Akamatsu, but when I first arrived in Japan I could not, for the life of me, remember anyone’s name correctly, so the office began translating their names into English to help me. Redpine stuck in my memory a lot better than Akamatsu ever did.

Also present was Yukie, who had helped me get involved in the local Ajimu volleyball team, and the local Ajimu choir 4 years ago when I first arrived. And, Issei, probably my best Japanese friend, who worked in the same office with me for most of my time in Japan.

Mr. Redpine was a bit nervous about talking to Chris, and asked me if Chris could speak any Japanese. Chris has been here about a month now, and is picking up a bit of Japanese, so I was reluctant to say he couldn’t speak at all, but, for all practical purposes, he wouldn’t be able to converse with Redpine.

While I was thinking about how to phrase this, Redpine offered, “He’s like you were when you first arrived?”

“Yes, exactly.”

This caused some reminiscing on the part of Redpine. “I remember when you first came to Japan. You couldn’t speak any Japanese, so you couldn’t talk to hardly anyone in the office. I was really worried that you were getting lonely and homesick, but I couldn’t speak any English, so I didn’t know what to do. So I started inviting you out to play catch with us during lunch break. Do you remember that?” I answered affirmative. “But you were so terrible at catching the ball. You couldn’t do it at all. I thought all Americans were supposed to be good at baseball, so I was really surprised when you couldn’t even catch the ball.”

Redpine was now entertaining everyone in the office with this story. I did my best to laugh along with it, although I felt a bit uncomfortable at being the object of the joke. “So then I really didn’t know what to do after that,” Redpine continued. “I was so worried about you being homesick, but I felt like there was nothing I could do for you.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “The first year I was so excited to be in Japan, I never got homesick. It wasn’t until the second year that homesickness began to set in.”

On the way to the restaurant, Issei commented to me how strange my Japanese was becoming. “I think you’ve actually gotten worse since the last time I saw you,” he said.

“That’s possible,” I replied. “I spend a lot of time with Shoko, so I get a lot of speaking practice, but I’ve stopped studying almost completely. Even though I live in Japan, if I don’t keep up my studies it’s amazing how fast I forget Japanese grammar. So I think my speaking confidence is improving, but my grammar might be getting worse.”

Issei agreed with this. “It’s like you’ve invented a grammar system all your own,” he said. “It’s very funny to listen to you talk.”

We arrived at the restaurant, and the 5 of us started our meal. It was Japanese food. Despite the 4 years I’ve been here, I still haven’t developed a strong liking for Japanese food, but this was better than usual. In fact, given how expensive it is to eat out in Japan, and given the many courses the waitress brought out, Redpine must have paid a lot of money for us that night.

The conversation was fairly pleasant, although there are a couple of things about Japanese culture that I never got used to. One is the custom of using a lot of compliments. I just find it embarrassing. For instance at one point during the conversation, Redpine started talking about what a great guy I was. I knew it would have been rude to accept the compliment, so immediately denied it. He insisted on it. “When you work with someone in an office, you get to know their character,” he said. “And after working with you, I am certain you are a great person. You were always really nice, and you showed real dedication to your work. You would even come into the office on Saturday sometimes.”

At this point Issei jumped in. “Didn’t you come into the office on Saturdays just to use our computers to check your e-mail?”

I admitted this was true, but Redpine didn’t seem to think it mattered. “The important thing was you came in. I was all-alone working in the office one Saturday, and you came in to use the computers, and I was so amazed at how dedicated you were to your work.”

The other thing I find embarrassing is the Japanese custom of downgrading oneself or one’s family members. During a pause in the conversation, I asked Redpine about his daughter, who I had met when she was doing her student teaching. “Did she ever go on to become a teacher?” I asked.

“No, she didn’t make it. She failed her teaching test, and now she just works at a cash register doing check out. She’s a real stupid daughter.”

“Really? I thought she was pretty smart. She seemed like she was doing a good job student teaching.”

“Well, if she’s so smart, then why didn’t she become a teacher?”

I was at a loss to answer this, and just mumbled that she had seemed smart to me. In truth, I had met her just briefly 4 years ago, and barely remember her, but I knew that Japanese rules of politeness meant I was supposed to argue with Redpine on this point.

These are the kinds of things that a Japanese person navigates intuitively, but a Westerner is at a loss to know what the line is between disagreeing to forcibly, and not disagreeing strongly enough, thus giving the impression of tacit agreement.

Link of the Day
I've been linking a lot to Chris' blog, but I should mention there is another new JET in Ajimu with his own blog, adding to the Ajimu blog tradition of me, Mike, Josh, Chris, and now Justin.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Feeling Homesick

Phil had a post recently on his blog about missing his friends from Calvin. I often feel the same way. I'm sure we all do.

Although I was supposed to have graduated in the Spring of 2000, I took an extra semester at Calvin, and then stayed in the area substitute teaching until the following August. In many ways this extra year was wasted time, but I think it did help to give me closure on the college experience. I was talking to someone in Japan who said, "Sometimes the worst thing you can do is leave the area as soon as you graduate, because then you have the idea that everything is stuck just the way you left it in college, and that you are the only one who left. It is better to wait around a year, see that everyone else is going to be moving on and going other places anyway, and then you don't feel so bad about leaving."

Certainly a lot of good friends have left the area. But then a lot of them are still around, and I often have the feeling that I'm the odd one out because I left the area.

Of course homesickness comes and goes in waves. Some weeks you feel it, some weeks you don't. I guess I've been feeling it more than usual the past couple weeks. Probably because it is summer, and I have a lot of free time, so my thoughts wander a bit more and I think of home.

And also I've been telling Shoko a lot of stories from home. Ordinary stories just seem to amaze her. Like stories about dormitory life. There is really no equivalent to American style dormitories in Japan. People either live with their famalies or get a single apartment usually. Very rarely do you have a roommate or live in a dorm. Also the stories about the religious side of Calvin fascinate Shoko because Japan is not a religious country.

Shoko keeps saying, "Those must have been amazing experiences," everytime I tell a story, and I have to explain that they are just common college experiences.

Anyway, the whole process of retelling these stories makes me nostolgic for home and the old gang. Which is why this video on Brett's weblog really came just at the right time. He attempts to take me along on a night out in Grand Rapids by bringing his video camera along and taping the old gang. And they're all there: Gort, Bear, Butterball, Bosch.. Great to see the old gang again. The only Camelot boys missing are Cecil, Bakes, and Rob, and hats off to them as well. (Sidenote: the Bear really reminds me more and more of my younger brother.)

I don't imagine this video will be of much interest to anyone else, but just in case someone else does watch it I should put in a quick word about nicknames just by way of explanation: my nickname in college was Chewy.

People often ask me, "Why do they call you Chewy?"
to which I would reply, "Damned if I know. Ask the guys who gave me the nickname."

It happened something like this: My sophmore year I went on a weekend camping trip with the "Enviromental Stewardship Coalition." When I returned, everyone in the dorm had been given a code nickname. "We need to think of one for you," someone said.

"Chewy," Cecil said. "His name is Chewy." And as Cecil spoke, thus it came into being.

For a long time, a few years, I myself never fully understood whether it was a reference to the Star Wars character, or to the fact that I was noisely chewing a piece of gum at the time.

Then, one day near the end of college, Cecil explained that he thought I resembled the Star Wars character because I was tall, quiet, and always seemed to be hanging around.

It wasn't a particularly flattering nickname, but I preferred it to my other nickname "Benedict" which was given to me after I betrayed the "2nd Boer Secret" to another dorm floor. Ah...College memories

Link of the Day
I don't know this guy, but his blog: comes highly recommended by our mutual friend Harrison. And I really enjoyed it. I realize the blog explosion is now such that it's hard enough keeping up with the blogs of just the people you know, but give the link a click and check it out briefly, and I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Political Thoughts

I've been keeping up a bit with the news, and I have been reading recently about the pro-war demonstraters who have gathered in opposition to Cindy Sheehan.

What kind of a person actually demonstrates for a war? These people must be the lowest forms of humanity imaginable.

I'm reminded of the documentaries I saw in school about the civil rights movement. I think we all remember seeing those scenes of the white southerners demonstrating against integration, and I think we were all filled with disgust when we saw it. It's one thing to be against civil rights, it is another thing to be so filled up with raw hate that you feel the need to demonstrate against it in your spare time.

No doubt today's pro-war demonstraters have inherited the mantle from yesterday's pro-segregation demonstraters. Imagine loving war so much that you must demonstrate for it in your free time.

Check out this quote from CNN: "The founder of Move America Forward, Howard Kaloogian, accused Cindy Sheehan, the sponsor of the anti-war protest, of encouraging the very insurgency in Iraq that killed her son. The terrorists that are watching Cindy Sheehan's protest believe that this is something that might topple the current administration." Kaloogian said. "And I have a question that I want the media to begin asking Cindy Sheehan: How many more American soldiers are going to die because you are giving hope and encouragement to our enemies?"

Is this what we've come to? Mothers are supposed to give up their sons and send them halfway around the world to invade another country, and, if they question why their sons die, they are accused of being responsible for the death of their sons.

One wonders about Howard Kooligan, and why he isn't fighting in Iraq if he feels so strongly about it. Perhaps he feels more comfortable sending 19 year old kids out to die while he leads protests for the war. I'm sure it is the same with a lot of these other pro-war demonstraters. They love to send other people off to die in their foreign wars. And God forbid the mothers of these soldiers have the audacity to ask why.

My blood is boiling as I write this, and I'm probably not writing this piece as well as I could be because I keep getting overwhelmed by anger every time I try to type. I remember once reading that Dylan felt the same way when he wrote his song "Masters of War." He had not intended the song to be so angry, but he just couldn't help himself once he started. Go and look at the lyrics to this song. It's as true today as it was 30 years ago, and Dylan was not too harsh at all. Like Dylan I find myself saying:

"How much do I know To talk out of turn You might say that I'm young You might say I'm unlearned But there's one thing I know Though I'm younger than you Even Jesus would never Forgive what you do....And I hope that you die And your death'll come soon I will follow your casket In the pale afternoon And I'll watch while you're lowered Down to your deathbed And I'll stand o'er your grave'Til I'm sure that you're dead"

Link of the Day
I know I've been linking to Chomsky a lot lately, but when he's on, he's really on. Check out this excerpt:

Question: Ordinary people often confuse anarchism with chaos and violence, and do not know that anarchism (an archos) doesn't mean life or state of things without rules, but rather a highly organized social order, life without a ruler, “principe”. Is pejorative usage of the word anarchism maybe a direct consequence of the fact that the idea that people could be free was and is extremely frightening to those in power?

Chomsky: There has been an element within the anarchist movement that has been concerned with “propaganda by the deed,” often with violence, and it is quite natural that power centers seize on it in an effort to undermine any attempt for independence and freedom, by identifying it with violence. But that is not true just for anarchism. Even democracy is feared. It is so deep-seated that people can’t even see it. If we take a look at the Boston Globe on July 4th - July 4 is of course Independence Day, praising independence, freedom and democracy – we find that they had an article on George Bush’s attempt to get some support in Europe, to mend fences after the conflict. They interviewed the foreign policy director of the “libertarian” Cato Institute, asking why Europeans are critical of the US. He said something like this: The problem is that Germany and France have weak governments, and if they go against the will of the population, they have to pay a political cost. This is the libertarian Cato Institute talking. The fear of democracy and hatred of it is so profound that nobody even notices it. In fact the whole fury about Old Europe and New Europe last year was very dramatic, particularly the fact that the criterion for membership in one or the other was somehow not noticed. The criterion was extremely sharp. If the government took the same position as the overwhelming majority of the population, it was bad: “Old Europe – bad guys.” If the government followed orders from Crawford, Texas and overruled an even larger majority of the population, then it was the hope of the future and democracy: Berlusconi, Aznar, and other noble figures. This was pretty uniform across the spectrum, just taken for granted. The lesson was: if you have a very strong government you don’t have to pay a political cost if you overrule the population. That’s admirable. That’s what governments are for – to overrule the population and work for the rich and powerful. It is so deep-seated that it wasn’t even seen.

The whole interview is on-line here

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Another One of Those Stupid Blogging Games

Right, I've been tagged by Bork to do this little survey. I'm flattered that he thought of me, but I've always thought these things were a bit stupid. I suppose it speaks to me obsession with blogging that I can't resist responding to it anyway.

1.Number of books you've owned: Owned? As in past tense? As in ever in my life? what the hell kind of question is that? Really, who designed this survey?

2. Last Book I bought: Selections a bit limited in Japan, so I'm not sure this is representative of my normal tastes, but I saw "Until the Final Hour : Hitler's Last Secretary" in the bookstore, and I bought it on impulse.

3. Last Book I Completed: Got into the habit of skimming books in University, and very rarely read a book cover to cover anymore. Last book I actually read straight through was "Women of the Paris Commune".

4. Books that mean a lot to me: I think I've more or less nailed this in an earlier post here.

4 B. Books currently reading.

Emma Goldman's Autobiography (Still...It's a long book and I'm a slow reader. I will finish it someday)
Chomsky on Anarchism by Noam Chomsky
93 by Victor Hugo

5. I'll Pass this on to...
Brett Nelson
Sarah Nelson
Aaron Flemming (about time you wrote a new post anyway)
Just Jess (um...although someone should probably tell her. I don't think she reads this blog.)

Link of the Day
Recently Bork, Matt Lind, Dan Luke and Guamo have all made posts about what an idiot Pat Robertson is. (Hope I didn't miss anyone). Of Particular interest is Bork's post, which asks the question, how does one deal with an idiot like Robertson?

"The Daily Show" has the answer. Satire. Dead on and absolutely brilliant as always. Click here, and watch the first half of "Iraq Strategy" video, and then all of "Pat Sounds."

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Museum, Fukuoka, Hit Parade, and The Waterfalls

As mentioned in the previous entry, I intentionally waited to post on this until Chris did it first, so I could make sure we didn't repeat each other, and so I could leach off of his movies and photos. If you like you can follow the links to pictures and descriptions on Chris' blog as you read this.

We started out last week Wednesday with a day exploring Usa. The first stop was the 100 Buddhas of Usa city.

Next I took Chris to the historical Museum in Usa. We weren't technically supposed to take pictures, but I didn't see the sign until we were leaving the museum. Chris wanted me to stand in a couple of pictures to get a scale for how big some of these sculptures really were.

Wednesday night I bunked at Chris' place, and then Thursday we drove back to Hita, met up with Shoko, and went into Fukuoka city. We showed Chris the high lights of Fukuoka city, namely the many bookstores and the huge shopping malls. Picture available on Chris' website here.

Thursday night we all slept at Shoko's. On Friday I brought Chris back to Ajimu. The plan was to stop at a bunch of waterfalls and sight seeing areas along the way, but we got a bit of a late start to the day so we only had time for a couple waterfalls. The first was this one right off of the main road.

Next was the big Ryuman Waterfall in Kusu, which is a great place to slide down, although not quite as smooth as the Waterfall in Yabakei. Chris and I both bruised ourselves a bit on the way down, but that didn't stop us from climbing up and sliding down a second time.

And in the evening we to Hit Parade with a bunch of other friends.

I've been to Hit Parade many times before, and I always feel like words can't really do the place justice. It's a retro night club built to imitate the style of the early 60s, complete with a Japanese rock band that does covers of English pop songs from the era.

The whole place is a bit surreal, especially for people who have just arrived in Japan and are still in that stage where everything feels surreal.

Which is why I'm glad Chris put some pictures and video on his blog which really help to capture the atmosphere of the place. There are some pictures posted here, as well as a short video of the Japanese band mangling some Beatles tunes here.

And here is a video of the same band singing "Heat Wave" complete with a shot of the crowd dancing. If you have a sharp eye you might be able to pick me out in this video. I'm a bit in the back ground, but I'm wearing the "Mind the Gap" shirt that Rob gave me, which looks like a red circle with a blue line through it.

Link of the Day
I thought I'd try a little something different for a while here, I'm not sure if it will last or not, but I thought it would be a fun idea to close each post with some sort of link I thought was of interest.

I realize a lot of you reading this have moved on from Grand Rapids, or were never there to begin with...
but if you are still in the area, I would be concerned about this detailed post on Media Mouse documenting police surveillance of anti-war protesters.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Volleyball Tournament

This last week has actually been pretty active. I've been spending a lot of time with Chris, the new Ajimu ALT. I've been showing him around and helping him get settled into the area, and he’s given me the pleasure of his company and conversation, as well as something to do during my summer break. It works out well for both of us, and I've been enjoying my time.

This past week we went to the museum of history in Usa, the city of Fukuoka, a couple waterfalls, and Hit Parade in Beppu city. Chris mentioned all of this briefly on his web log in a short entry, promising to go into more detail when he has time. Since we’d only end up repeating each other if we both wrote about it in detail, I’ll just wait for his entry to appear.

Saturday night I arrived back at Shoko's place a bit worn out from the week. I was looking forward to just spending a low key Sunday, when I got a call from Watanabe reminding me that I had agreed to join her and her friends in a beach Volleyball tournament the following day.

Watanabe is one of the younger teachers at Ajimu Junior High School. When I used to live in Ajimu, she invited me out with her and her friends several times. I ran into her at a festival in Usa a couple weeks ago. She was excited to see I was back in the area, and invited me to the beach volleyball game. I said yes of course, but then quickly forgot about it.

When I received the call Saturday night, I inwardly groaned at the prospect of going back to Beppu. From Hita it was a 2-hour drive, and I had just finished coming back from Beppu. Now was I going to head back to Beppu the next morning? And so early as well. I was supposed to arrive at 9, which meant leaving Hita at 7, which meant getting up even earlier.

“If it rains tomorrow, the tournament will be cancelled,” Watanabe said. “I’ll give you a call at 6:30 to let you know.”


“Is that too early for you?”

“Well, kinda, yeah.”

“Okay, I’ll only call if it is cancelled. If you don’t hear from me, assume the game is still on.”

It had been raining a lot the past couple days, so I at least had the hope that the game might be cancelled. The weather gods have recently been making amends for what had been a very dry rainy season.

I awoke Sunday morning to rain, but no call from Watanabe. Maybe she forgot. I called her myself. “You’re calling about the rain, aren’t you?” she said. “Is it raining over in Hita? It’s raining here in Beppu as well. But the organizers have decided to go ahead with the tournament anyway.”

Blast! Ye gods have foiled my plans yet again.

The last thing I wanted was to drive yet another 2 hours back to Beppu. I've been doing too much driving already this month. And I was short of sleep from the previous few days. And I don’t even like volleyball really.

I lay back in bed and thought about how much I wanted to go back to sleep. I imagined my day if I stayed home. I’d call back Watanabe and cancel. It would be a bit awkward, but if I said I was sick or something than I would have an excuse. I would sleep in until 10. I’d get up and watch a couple videos. I’d do a bit of exercise. I’d get restless and depressed waiting for Shoko to come back home. I’d go to the internet café again, even though I was only just there yesterday and I promised myself I’d not waste so much money there. I’d buy a bunch of candy and sweet bread and go back and eat them while I watched more videos.

So in the end I forced myself out of bed and into the car. I arrived in Beppu only 15 minutes late. The others were waiting for me.

Besides Watanabe and 2 of her girl friends, Mike, Kim, and a newbie Jared were there. Mike used to in Ajimu with me, so I know him well, and Watanabe had told me he would be coming. Mike took one look at me and said, “You've got to be kidding me. You drove all the way down here just for this? Are things that boring in Hita?”

I really suck at volleyball. And Watanabe knows that because she’s seen me play at the teacher games in the old days at Ajimu Junior High. But I had a good idea I wasn't being invited for my athletic prowess anyway. This suspicion was confirmed when Watanabe and her two friends joined us inside the tent. “Isn't this great being part of an international group here?” Watanabe said. “I feel like we’re in some sort of movie.”

The rain was really pouring down now, but the tournament kept going. Mike, Kim and Jared went out of the tent to practice. Because I had blisters on my feet from hiking, I was the only one still in my shoes and socks. Everyone else had gone barefoot so they could play in the mud. “You’re not going to play like that, are you?” Watanabe asked.

“No, when the time for the game comes, I’ll play naked.” I meant to say “barefoot” but the Japanese word for “barefoot” and “bare body” are only one syllable apart. This produced a lot of laughing, and I rushed to correct myself. “Barefoot, I meant barefoot.”

“No, it’s okay,” Watanabe and her friends said. “You can play naked.”

“No, barefoot will be fine.”

“No, we’d like to see you naked.”

It was a joke of course, but I still didn't know how to respond. I just gave an embarrassed smile.

“I know,” Watanabe said. “You only get naked for Shoko, is that it?”

“Yes, and sometimes Mike,” I answered. That got a laugh.

It was still pouring rain when we played. It was a cold rain that at first made me miserable, but became cool and refreshing once I had become used to it.

The first game Watanabe kept me on the sidelines the whole time, substituting in everyone but me. “Nice play by the way,” Mike joked with me after the game.

Watanabe’s seen me play at the school games before,” I explained.

The second two games I got substituted in, and really sucked it up. In fact I think one game we lost purely because of me.

There was an announcer wandering around the tournament with a portable microphone. There were four games going on at any given time, so fortunately he wasn't watching our game the whole time. But every once and a while he would wander over and make comments about our game.

“And we have some foreign players at this game,” he said. “And now a really tall foreigner is taking the field. Wow, that is one tall foreigner.” And he wasn't talking about me. Mike is taller than me, so I like hanging around him because he deflects a lot of the attention.

Kim afterwards complained about the announcer. “I wish he wouldn't have made such a big deal about us being foreign, and just treated us like normal people.”

Mike and I were somewhat more sympathetic. “Look, he’s got to continuously talk for 4 hours, so he’s got to comment on every single thing he sees, or he’ll never make it.” Mike imitated the announcer’s voice: “And, over in this corner we have some foreigners. Everyone look at them. And they can play volleyball. And, look, over there is a dog with a poofy tail.”

Sunday, August 21, 2005

My Listening Picks on the Internet

It's summer time now, and I'm going to the Internet Cafe's a bit more often than I usually do (and probably more than I should--the cost adds up a bit).

The frequency with which this blog is updated perhaps belies the fact that I don't have regular internet access. As mentioned in a previous post, I usually write up entries on a word processor, once a week go to an internet cafe and transfer them to my blog, and put in all the links. Then, throughout the following week, I only sneak on the internet at work long enough to hit the post button on the blog.

But when I am in an internet cafe, I always try and get the most out of my money by listening to internet radio while I surf.

I used to listen to Air America Radio, until I decided I couldn't stand it anymore.

I appreciate what these guys are doing, and more power to them, keep on fighting the good fight, and so on.

But if their goal was to create a liberal alternative to conservative radio, I think they've accomplished it too well. It's just one long bitch fest about the republicans. I don't even learn anything interesting; all I hear is ranting and raving and complaining, and if the hosts aren't bad enough, the callers are equally as vacuous.

So, I began to explore other listening options on the internet. The NPR website is absolutely brilliant. Not only do I feel that I am actually learning stuff as opposed to just listening to someone bitch, but they have all their stories organized, and I can click on anything that interests me.

And then I discovered that they have all their previous shows archived on their website, and it's searchable. How cool is that? So whatever I'm interested in at the moment I can find a show on the topic and listen to it. In the past month I've listened to shows on Emma Goldman, "The Office", The Black Panthers, Pete Seeger, John Brown, Noam Chomsky, etc. All really good quality shows as well. I'd love to link to all of them, but I guess there's no point. If you're interested, you can pull them up yourself. Otherwise you can just search NPR for whatever you happen to be interested in today.

That being said, I couldn't resist linking to this clip on Jefferson Airplane.

I first stumbled upon Jefferson Airplane when I found a greatest hits tape going through my dad's music collection. I quickly became addicted to their music, and ended up buying all their CDs.

Then when I took my CD collection to college with me, my large amount of Jefferson Airplane CDs made me a target of ridicule. Either people have never heard of Jefferson Airplane, and wondered why I had all these CDs of an old obscure band. Or, they associated Jefferson Airplane with the worst of hippy pretension and excess, and questioned my musical taste. The NPR clip I linked to above made me remember why I used to like the band so much.

One final recommendation on Internet listening: Noam Chomsky's audio archives are stored here on Z-Net. If you're surfing the net and want something to listen to while doing it, I can't recommend this highly enough. Chomsky completely changed the way I look at the world.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Africa and Japan: Putting Things in Perspective

If you've been following my comments section, you know Brett is back from Africa now.

It's interesting to read his thoughts on his blog. Like this piece:

i've had some request to post some stories of Africa. I have a couple funny ones, but mostly the experience was just hard (until we got the hang of it). hard to eat, hard to get anywhere, hard to understand, hard to get water, hard to even was a real learning experience. i've never been any place where there weren't any stores. we had to buy food before venturing into the bush...but it's not like we had a refrigerator. so it was mostly cans of stuff, macaroni and oatmeal. we could buy rice, bread, and tomato paste locally, but i mostly just felt hungry all the time. it was good for me to have to trust on God a bit more than I feel I have to at home

You ever notice that when you have something on your mind, it has the weird tendency to pop up in the conversation a lot more, even with out you doing it? Or is that just me?

Anyway, we were out the other night with a group of the boys, and we had just finished dinner, and had each ordered a Chocolate Sunday and a coffee, and someone else was just talking about their friend who had just returned from a mission trip in Africa, and I mentioned I had a friend who had just returned as well. And somebody said, "It really helps to put things in perspective, doesn't it? We complain in Japan all the time because we get confused by the language, or we can't find deep dish pizza, but is nothing like the experience of being out in the middle of the bush in Africa." As I took another bite of chocolate and whip cream, I thought about how true that is.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Oh, the Movies I’ve Seen Part 2

(A continuation from a previous post)

Just so I don’t make myself sound even more pathetic than I need to, I should note that I have been doing other things with my summer break. I just had a cracking weekend. Sunday we went to a belly dance festival at Ajimu winery with Shoko and some of the boys. (Chris wrote about that on his blog with pictures here.)

On Saturday we had a night out in Oita city. It was a pretty crazy night actually. I observed my strict no-drinking policy, but not everyone else did, and I have a few stories of wildness and debauchery I could tell…

Or actually I probably couldn’t tell them. Not without embarrassing a few people anyway. Yet another irony of blogging: the most interesting things that happen are often inappropriate to write about, and you’re left writing about boring things like the videos you watched.

Right, let’s get straight into it then:

Hard Core by Paul SchraderAs I’m sure everyone from Calvin already knows, this is Paul Schrader’s classic movie about what happens when the Grand Rapids Christian Reformed Dutch community encounters the California porn industry.

This isn’t a particularly well-known movie even back in America, so you can imagine how surprised I was to find it in my local video store during my first year in Japan.

Shoko’s recently developed an interest in the subject. “The Da Vinci Code” has been translated into Japanese and has become a best seller over here, and Shoko has gotten quite into it. Of course the Japanese readers are a lot less familiar with the subject matter. For instance Shoko had previously never heard of “The Last Temptation of Christ” which was mentioned in “The Da Vinci Code”, so she rented the movie. I of course did my little Grand Rapids plug, and said that the screenwriter for that movie was from my hometown and had gone through the same high school and college several years before me, and that there is actually a reference to Calvin College in “The Last Temptation of Christ”. (When Jesus takes his heart out and offers it to the crowd, it is a dig at Calvin’s motto).

I then mentioned that “Hard Core” was actually available at Usa video store, and Shoko and I rented it and watched it together. I’d already seen it of course, but I pointed out to Shoko the various Grand Rapids locations that showed up in the movie: the downtown area, the park where I had Cross Country races in high school, the Church where my grandmother attends, etc.

Because I had already seen it before I fast-forwarded through a lot of the California scenes where, in my opinion, the movie tends to drag. But Shoko was quite amazed at the portrayal of Grand Rapids. Japan is not a very religious society. And most of the American media that they watch gives them the impression that America is not religious either. So the idea of people holding strong religious beliefs is almost a completely alien concept to the Japanese. “Do people really pray like that before meals?” Shoko asked. “Really? Do people really sit around the table debating the Bible in Grand Rapids? How come I haven’t seen this in any other American movie?”

Well I'm on the subject of Shrader, it's worth noting that some of his other films are popular in Japan. "The Yakuza", although an older film, is famous in Japan for the same reason that "The Last Samurai" was enormously popular: the Japanese were very excited that big name Hollywood actors were recruited to star in a film about Japan.

Another Schrader film about Japan, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, did less well. In fact it was banned in Japan because of the controversy over the way it portrayed Japanese literary legend and right wing fanatic Yukio Mishima.

The Office
A British JET loaned me the DVD set, and I was immediately addicted. I was up until 6 AM the other night watching “The Office”. Ah, summer break.

Because I’ve been out of the country for so long, I’m going to have to plead a bit of ignorance on this one. I’ve heard that this show has been popular in America as well, so maybe many of you have seen it already. But if you haven’t seen it already, rent it tonight. Absolutely brilliant. Funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

It’s a British show, and at first glance it appears to be a classic example of the difference between British and American humor. As opposed to the American sitcom formula of: “line, line, joke, line, line, joke”, “The Office” is based on more situational humor. It’s awkward or funny situations as opposed to punch lines.

But then I heard this interview on NPR in which Ricky Gervais (the creature of “The Office”) says that he isn’t at all surprised that “The Office” has such a large American following, because all of his influences, like “Laurel and Hardy” "The Simpsons" and “Spinal Tap” have been American. He says he is more surprised that the show was such a hit in Britain.

(I also understand, via Matt Lind’s blog, that there has been an American re-make of “The Office”. Is that any good? Can anyone fill me in on that?)

How to Steal a Million Dollars
I don’t know if anyone else has heard about movie critic Steve Johnson. He seems to be making the rounds. Just in my little internet surfing I saw him on CNN, NPR, the Daily show, and their was an article about him in the Japan Times.

Anyway, if you haven’t already heard of him, his basic premise is that even though everyone is always complaining about how pop culture is going down the tubes and dumbing our society down, popular entertainment is actually getting more and more sophisticated. Steve Johnson compares the complicated plot of a lot of today’s movies and TV programs with the simplicity of older movies and shows.

If you believe Steve Johnson, than “How to Steal a Million Dollars” is a perfect example of his theory. The plot of the movie is that Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole have to steal a heavily guarded statue from a museum, to avoid Audrey Hepburn’s father being exposed as a forger.

Imagine if this movie were made today and think of all the elaborate “mission impossible” style schemes and deceptions that they would have to use to steal the statue. Just think of any of the recent stealing movies, “Ocean’s 11”, “The Italian Job”, “Matchstick Men”, etc, and remember all the elaborate plots they used.

How do Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole steal the statue? They hide in the broom closet after the museum closes, and then throw boomerangs to set off the museum’s security alarms. The guards eventually get tired of the false alarms, and turn off the security.

Still worth seeing though, if for no other reason than to see two Hollywood legends at their peak.

Video The Office

Video How to Steal a Million Dollars

Sunday, August 14, 2005

New JETs Come In, Old JETs Go Home

August is always the time of the year when the old JETs go home, and the new JETs arrive.

If the JET program is like university (and in a lot of ways it is) then this is just like the beginning of school year when the freshmen come in. And as the new people come in and the social order readjusts itself, there is some tension between the freshmen and the upper-classmen.

If we continue the University analogy, then obviously I’m the pathetic old guy who still hangs out on campus long after he’s graduated. But I do remember my first year on JET. The feelings I had when I arrived in Japan for the first time, excitement mixed with nervousness and a little bit of homesickness, were not unlike the feelings I had when I entered university.

I felt like I really bonded strongly with the other first year JETs. We were all in the same boat. We were all nervous and excited together. We all arrived with no knowledge, and then gradually figured things out as the year went on. We would get together sometimes and exchange stories about all the things that we’d discovered.

I was very wary of the 2nd and 3rd year JETs. They were always telling me what I was doing wrong, or correcting me. They were always talking with the air of an expert, or showing off their Japanese skills, or otherwise making me feel inferior at every chance they got.

And then in August, the end of the year arrived, a lot of the old lot went home, and a batch of new JETs arrived.

In Japan, we foreigners sometimes get a bit of attention. Sometimes it can go to a person’s head, especially when they first arrive.

I remember the beginning of my second year a bunch of us were out in the city helping to welcome the new first year JETs. Some of the new crowd, well aware that as we walked down the street all eyes were looking at us, began to show off and talk in loud voices to each other, swearing loudly, and even mock fighting or doing all sorts of stunts or gestures to get more attention. I’m sure the alcohol was a factor as well, but I remember thinking I was just so over it. I had lived in Japan for a year, I had carved out a niche for myself, I had friends and a routine, and places I liked to hang out, and I was just living life, and I was over the whole scene of acting obnoxious in the streets to get more attention. I felt like all the new JETs were just annoying little pricks who had been in the country for two weeks and thought they owned it.

And then in a couple months everything had seemed to settle in to place again, I discovered that I actually did like a lot of the new JETs, and life continued on. But there is that initially culture clash between the people just arriving and the established group.

A lot of it is just territorial. These new people didn’t know anything about the past year. They didn’t know about the little dramas and the soap operas and the romances and the funny things that happened. They didn’t share any of those memories. And then all of a sudden they just arrived one day and were hanging out at the same places I was, and I wanted to say to them, “You can’t possibly understand what the last year meant. You and the new lot can’t expect to just come in here and take over everything.”

But there are also other factors. When we first arrived in Japan, we were amazed and surprised by everything. We wondered around wide-eyed saying, “Oh my god! Have you noticed Japanese people always do this or that?” And then after a few months or so you get used to it, you accept it, and the conversation begins to move on to other topics. Then in August a new group of people arrive, and the conversation gets knocked back down to the beginning.

That was 3 years ago. This is now my fourth time seeing the new JETs arrive, and I like to think I’m a bit more chilled out about it. I try not to be like some of the older JETs who were around when I first arrived, but I do catch myself every now and then showing off a bit on the Japanese. Also if I’m with some new arrivals, sometimes I do feel the urge to insert my “expert” veteran opinion on every single topic that comes up in the conversation.

It is good to spend time with the new arrivals because it helps me remember what it was like when I first arrived. I was explaining to a friend yesterday, “When you first arrive in Japan, everything is pretty overwhelming, but eventually a lot of it starts to fade into the background. It’s like if you move into a house by the train station. At first you go nuts because you hear the trains all the time, but eventually you get used to it and then you don’t even notice that they are there. And then one day someone comes over to visit and they say, ‘Bloody hell, how can you concentrate with all these trains zooming around?’
and you say, ‘Oh, I forgot they were even there’.
That’s what it’s like for me talking to the new 1st year JETs.”

There are hundreds of examples of this, but one obvious one is just the language. My Japanese isn’t as good as it should be after 4 years, and when I compare myself to some of my peers I get a bit depressed sometimes, but when I meet the 1st year JETs, who can’t speak a word of Japanese, I realize exactly how far I’ve come.

For instance, Chris is learning the Japanese alphabet now. After about a year of living and studying in Japan, I’d say the Japanese syllabic alphabet comes almost second nature. You can read and write it without even thinking about it. But I had forgotten how frustrating it was for me to learn it those first few months. I felt like I had re-entered the first grade and had to learn to read all over again. Every word I had to sound out painfully and slowly. Similar looking letters I would often get mixed up, and different styles of font would throw me for a complete loop.

Another quick example (and again, there are hundreds I could list, but only one more example will have to suffice for now):
this sounds a bit silly putting it down into words, but when I first came to Japan, normal everyday activities would often seem completely surreal. Going to a tea ceremony wouldn’t faze me, because I expected it to be Japanese. But going to a reggae concert, and realizing that the whole band was Japanese, and all the people dancing around me were Japanese, seemed completely bizarre. I had a certain image of what I expected a reggae singer to look like, and it was not a Japanese man.
Or when we went to a baseball game last summer, I remember someone commenting, “It’s weird to watch a game I’ve grown up with my whole life, and suddenly seeing that all the faces are Asian. It just doesn’t seem right.”
Or things like going to a dance club, or a trance party, or playing volleyball, or any of it just seemed strange because it was in Japan, and there was an element of surrealness doing everyday normal activities, but being surrounded by Japanese faces.

And then…you eventually get over it, and it’s weird to think that there was ever a time when it fazed you at all. And you begin to forget that it was ever something you thought about. Until the new JETs come, and you see it again through their eyes.

Friday, August 12, 2005

More Damn Links

I'm reluctant to link to something I disagree with so strongly, except that the author of this post is a friend of mine and he's obviously done a bit of work on this, so I thought the least I could do is send some traffic his way.

Alan Waddilove was a frequent debating partner of mine at Calvin College, and the fact that we disagreed about so much always made the conversation interesting. But I've given up on the debate. I've concluded that there is just no common ground we can argue from, so all the discussions are doomed to just end in confusion. So I'm going to give a pass on this one. But if any of you want to challenge Alan on any of these points, I'm sure he's always looking for a friendly debate.

Chris has posted even more pictures of Ajimu. I guess I'm probably the only one who cares about it. But if any of you want to see where I used to live, check it out.

And finally, some interesting articles in the Japan Times. My tongue is always hanging down to my knees in the summer because of the skimpy clothing a lot of the Japanese girls wear. This article attempts to explain the phenomenon.

And moving from the frivilous to the serious, here is an article on the continuing problem with racism in Japan against ethnic Koreans, 60 years after the war.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Odds, Ends, And More Thoughts on Being Back in Oita

So what else have I been up to during Summer break, you ask? Well, one thing’s for sure: a hell of a lot of driving.

I felt kind of guilty even taking the company car down to Kyushu in the first place, and I told myself once I got down here I was going to limit the amount of miles I put on it. But it’s unavoidable really. I’m staying in Hita with Shoko, and all of my friends live on the other side of the prefecture.

I’ve already gotten quite a nice “trucker’s tan”, from always driving here, there, and everywhere in the heat of the day. My right arm is burned from always being next to the window. My left arm is nice and pale by comparison. (In Japan we drive on the other side of the road). At least I’m making a lot of progress on my books on tape listening.

Things I Didn’t Do
Not everything has gone exactly as planned. Shoko had planned to rent a cottage near the sea for a long weekend, but at the last minute we both decided we didn’t want to do that. I’m a Michigan boy, so I never really got used to the feel of salt water. On a hot day, swimming around in the ocean sounds like the worst thing ever to me. So we went to the waterfall instead, and I swam in the fresh mountain water.

Also, I mentioned to some of you that I was planning on going to Hiroshima on the day of the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing, and checking out what was going on. That ended up not working out as well. It was primarily money. The anniversary, August 6th, was just a few days before my payday, and funds were a little thin as they always are that time of month. There were other reasons as well. I had a busy couple days leading up to August 6th, and so was a bit tired out. Also, as well as I could tell from my research on the internet, not too much was scheduled to happen anyway. Also, I knew it would be another blistering summer day in Japan. But primarily it was the money.

In fact, as for the whole 60th anniversary of the end of the war going on this month, I really haven’t seen anything special aside from what I read in the papers. So I guess I'm not a good person to ask. Media Mouse has a good post though.

Considering the heat, I’ve been swimming in the waterfalls whenever possible. A group of us went to the Higashishiya waterfall in Ajimu last week Friday. There are lots of waterfalls in this area, but Higashishiya is very touristy. Because it’s in my old town, I’ve been there loads of times, and, as I explained to the other people, “I don’t think there’s any rule against swimming here. I always go swimming here, and no one has ever told me not to. But none of the Japanese people ever go swimming. So you are a bit on display if you do jump in.”

There was a busload of tourists. We were a bit shy about jumping in with everyone watching. “I’d feel bad about all the photos I’d ruin if I jumped in now,” someone said.

“My experience is we usually create just as many photos as we destroy if we jump in,” I said. Sure enough, when we eventually overcame our shyness and started swimming, we got our pictures taken by several people.

Time with Shoko
Shoko caught a cold last week and has been taking it easy and spending most of her free time in bed. I thought she was babying herself a little bit too much to be honest, but it’s her apartment and if she wants to take it easy she can take it easy.

My problem was that I felt like I was spending too much time in her apartment watching TV anyway. I’d wait for her to come home from work so we could do something, but then she would just want to stay in and watch TV. After a while I thought like I was crawling off the walls. I made an effort to get out and do stuff independent of Shoko, but I did lose my temper a little bit one day when I really was itching to get out of the apartment, and I felt like she was taking too long putting on her make up. She asked why I was upset, I confessed that I was feeling a bit cooped up in the apartment, and she asked me if my trip back to see her again had been enjoyable. I said it wasn’t as fun as I thought it was going to be.

A stupid thing to say of course. And she took it a bit rough of course. But she’s really been making an effort to get out more with me. We went to a Jazz festival in Beppu on Sunday. And we’ve done a bit of light hiking and sight seeing together as well.

Other Stuff
This time of the year is always a lot of good-bye parties. I’ve already said good-bye to a couple friends, and a few more are going to be leaving soon. I hate saying good-bye, but I like the parties.

As mentioned in the previous entry, I’ve also been spending time with Chris, the new ALT in my old position. Yesterday we went down to Oita city together. I helped him get a library card, and then showed him around the places to get English books, and other cool stuff.

I really dig the beautiful scenery in Oita prefecture. I’m starting to remember why I stayed here as long as I did.

On the other hand, I’m also starting to ask myself what I accomplished during my 3 years here. I’ve got a lot of memories, but they seem all lumped together in my brain without any sort of organization. Sometimes it’s hard to believe I was actually here for 3 years. It seems like I only really have one year’s worth of memories. It’s as if my memory was some sort of accordion. During the time I was actually living here, the accordion was stretched out and filled with memories. Now the accordion has closed, and all my memories are squashed into a small space, and it seems like my memories only take up a small amount of time.

I was talking to someone about this earlier. “When you live in one place for a long time,” I said, “sometimes your memories all get mixed together. Of course in University we live in the same place for 4 years. But University is different. You proceed through different levels, so you have different ways of codifying your memories. You can think:
‘Ah, yes, I remember that. That happened when we were Sophmores, and we were still living in the dormitory.’
But when you stay put for 3 years and nothing really changes, all your memories run into each other, and it’s hard to sort out what happened when.”

My friend answered, “Yes, but that’s what real life is like. Since we came to Japan straight from University, we expect real life to resemble University life, but in real life you do stay put in one place for many years, and you don’t always notice yourself progressing from one level to another, and so your memories do all run together. But that’s the way life really is.”

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Addendum: New Guy's Blog

Quick addendum to the previous post: I was saying to Chris the other day, "I'm sure Josh already told you, but it's part of your duties as the Ajimu ALT to keep a blog going. Both Josh and I did it, so you have to continue the tradition."

Turns out he's way ahead of me on this one as well. And, I hate to say it, but his blog is better than mine. At least visually.

Regular readers of this blog of course know I'm not much for posting pictures. Fortunately Chris is making up for my slack on his blog.

For instance, if you want to see some pictures of my old apartment (now Chris' apartment), here they are. (It was a lot more messy when I lived there, but you get the general idea of the layout). And here is the outside view.

Also, I've written a lot about Shoko but never posted a picture. Chris has a picture of me and Shoko posted here.

Also Chris' take on the previous days outing can be found here. With pictures of the Ajimu waterfalls here, a description and pictures of Heaven and Hell here, the five story pagoda here, the sea cliffs here , the stone Buddhas here, and the Ajimu Winery here.

Helping Out the New Guy

This time last year, I was making preparations to leave Oita, and helping my successor, Josh, get settled in.

It’s amazing how time flies. Now Josh has finished out his year in Ajimu and decided to head back to Australia, and there is a new person, Chris, in the position.

For about a week and a half, all 3 of us were in the area at the same time. We joked about having “3 generations of Ajimu ALTs” all gathered together. And then we had a good-bye party for Josh, and he left to go back to Australia.

Josh already did a pretty good job of helping Chris to settle in, but now that Josh has returned to Australia, I’ve been taking Chris out and showing him around.

It gives me a certain amount of satisfaction to make sure the new ALT gets off to a good start. My predecessor was long gone when I first arrived in Japan, so there was no one really to show me around or teach me the ropes. As a result the first few months I was in Japan were very lonely.

When Josh came last year I tried to make sure it would be different for him. From the moment he arrived I did my best to introduce him to people and show him places to hang out. And Josh did the same for Chris. But now that Josh has gone home, I’m trying to pick up where he left off. The other day I took Chris out on a tour of Ajimu to show him all the interesting stuff.

I’m beginning to be quite an old hand at this Ajimu tour thing. I’ve done it for both Chris and Josh now, and when I was actually living in Ajimu I did it countless times whenever someone came over to visit. There are a couple waterfalls that are good to swim in this time of years. There are a couple look out points where you can get a good overall view of the whole Ajimu basin. There are some historical temples and stone carvings of Buddha. There is an underground cave filled with statues of hell, which leads out into a hillside that is supposed to represent heaven. There are some interesting cliff formations that apparently were formed millions of years ago when the whole basin area used to be a lake. And there are the Ajimu grape fields and the Ajimu winery. Shoko, who used to work at the Ajimu winery, helped show us around there.

But I must confess that I am not motivated entirely by altruism. Showing Chris around gives me an excuse to get off my ass and stop wasting my summer vacation stuck in front of Shoko’s TV.

It also gives me an opportunity to play the expert, dispensing pearls of wisdom to the new comer as I see fit, and enjoying my status as the all-knowledgeable Ajimu veteran. The 3 years I spent in Ajimu may seem wasted in other situations, but showing the new guy around is the one time where that knowledge is suddenly pure gold.

And I do make the most of it, giving expert opinion on everything from the weather to the office environment. We swung by my old apartment (now Chris’ apartment), and I tried to make the most out of that as well.

“Let’s see, what stories can I tell you about this place?” I wondered. “Oh, see the large stain on the floor? That is from me. I didn’t clean air out my futon for 3 years straight, and all sorts of mold grew on the floor.”

“Yeah, they all ready explained that to me,” Chris said.

“It’s perfectly sanitary now,” I said. “We really scrubbed it when I moved out. We used all sorts of disinfectant and stuff, and we even re-stained the floor, but it just never got back to its original color. I guess the lesson here is not to leave your futon out on the floor all the time.” I looked around and noticed that Chris had already put his futon away. “Well, I guess you’re ahead of me on that one, huh?”

“Wow, this place looks really clean,” Shoko said. “How come it never looked this clean when you were living here?” she asked me. She found a broom and dustpan and other cleaning supplies. “I gave these to Joel for his birthday,” she said to Chris. “But he didn’t take them with him to Gifu.”

“Well, you can’t take everything with you,” I explained. “I had to leave a lot of stuff behind in this apartment.” I looked around. “Actually a lot of the cooking and cleaning stuff in this apartment is from Shoko.”

“Yes,” Shoko agreed. “I bought this, and this, and this…”

“But not these mats on the floor,” I said. “Those were from my previous girlfriend.” Shoko glared at me.

“What about these canned blackberries in the cupboard,” Chris asked. “Whose are those?”

“Are those still around?” I said. “I bought those ages ago. I was so exited to find blackberries in Japan. Paid through the nose for them too. And then I discovered I didn’t like canned black berries, so I never opened up the other cans.”

“You can have them back if you want,” Chris said.

“No, I had a whole year to eat them, and I decided I didn’t want them.”

“Are they still good?”

Shoko checked the expiration date. “They expired last month,” she said. “But canned food lasts for years, so I think it should still be good within a few months of the expiration date.”

Shoko did her best to communicate with Chris as well, even though she’s not used to speaking English. (Chris is fresh off the plane, so he doesn't speak a lot of Japanese yet.)

“I thought when I got an American boyfriend, my English would become so good,” she said to Chris. “But instead Joel speaks to me only in Japanese. I thought he wanted to practice his Japanese, but then last night I caught him speaking in English to Keika.”

“Oh, yeah I got in a bit of trouble for that,” I broke in. “But Keika’s English is quite good, so it just seems naturally to talk in English. I just naturally slip into whichever language makes the conversation easiest.”

At one point we were swimming at the waterfall, and Chris noticed a bunch of small rocks stacked on top of each other. “Does that have any significance,” he asked, “or is that just kids playing around?”

“I think it’s just kids playing around” I said. “Let me ask Shoko a minute.”

I asked Shoko in Japanese, and she began talking very fast. “I don’t think it has any significance. I think children like to place the rocks on top of each other. Because it is not very easy to get the rocks to sit like that is it? So it’s a bit of a challenge for the kids. They get to test out their balancing skills. Those rocks weren’t like that the last time we were here, were they? So I don’t see how it could have any special significance. At least none that I would know off. I’ve never heard of rocks stacked like that having any sort of meaning. So the only thing I can think of is people stacking them for fun like that.”

“Yeah, she says it’s just kids playing around,” I translated for Chris.

“Oh,” he said. Then after a few seconds of silence, “Did you ever see that movie ‘Lost in Translation’? You remember the part when the Japanese guy goes through that whole long speech, and then the woman just translates it into a couple sentences for Bill Murray?”

“Uh, yeah I suppose this does resemble that. But Shoko repeats herself a lot when she talks, so sometimes I can sum it up in a sentence or two.”

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Passport Goes Through the Washing Machine

So there I was: sitting on the couch watching movies, when Shoko says, “Oh, yeah, there was something that happened earlier to day that I forgot to tell you about,” and she holds up my soaking wet passport.

“You left it in the side pocket of your pants,” she continued. “I checked the front and back pockets, but somehow I missed the side. So it went through the washing machine.”

“That’s awful,” I said. Shoko was laughing quite hard at this point. I was examining my soaked passport, and trying to determine if it was all right, when I became very upset at her laughing.

I didn’t yell at her. I didn’t need to. There are times when a quiet voice can convey anger better than a yell. “Shoko, this isn’t funny,” I said.

Seeing that I was upset, she tried to cheer me up. “Don’t worry. I’ll call the Hita town hall tomorrow and ask them if the passport is alright.”

“They won’t know.”

“Sure they will. They deal with all sorts of government documents there.”

“No they won’t. The Hita town hall won’t know anything about an American passport. I’ll have to go to the American embassy and show them. And then if the passport is no good, that means I’ll have to re-apply for my visa. And that means I have to get documentation papers from my job to prove I’m working in Japan. And it means I’ll have to get a re-entry permit again as well.”

I listed off all of these with bitterness to try and impress on Shoko that I didn’t think this was something to laugh about. She became a lot more somber.

Two days later we were at a party with a bunch of friends, and Shoko was re-telling the story. “Joel was so mad at me when I accidentally washed his passport. I mean he was so-o-o mad. But it was his own fault really. He should have checked his pockets himself before giving me the pants. And if he was really concerned about it, he should have been laundering his own clothes. How was I supposed to know there was a passport in his pocket?”

That wasn’t why I had gotten upset. I did understand that I was to blame for not checking my own pockets and not doing my own laundry. What had upset me was that she had been laughing. I tried to make this correction, but Shoko already had a large audience for this story, and no one really listened to my statements. Whenever we get together with mutual friends, Shoko always enjoys telling “Joel stories” about all the funny things I do. There always seems to be a large audience for these stories, and they are always much more interested in Shoko’s stories than in my little corrections.

I’ve decided, however, that Shoko’s laughing is just her reaction to stress, and that I shouldn’t take it personally. For instance when I dropped the watermelon in the parking lot and it split open, her first reaction was to laugh at the situation. Or when I accidentally stepped on her charcoal candle in the doorway, and then decided that, rather than clean it up, I would just not tell anyone about it, and later stepped on it again and tracked charcoal all through her apartment, her first reaction was to laugh at that too.

I suppose if your first instinct is to laugh at bad situations, maybe that’s not all that bad of a characteristic. There are certainly a lot worse ways of reacting.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Oh, The Movies I've Seen

So, just to quickly recap where I find myself this summer: I’ve been given a 5 weeklong summer vacation, which is very generous. And I’ve chosen to use those 5 weeks to go down and visit Oita, which is probably a very unadventurous and boring way to spend those 5 weeks, especially considering all the other things in the world I could be doing.

But, whatever, I had my reasons. Chief reason was to spend time with the girl, and there were some other things I went into in a previous post. Besides, adventurous vacations have never really been my thing anyway.

But I’m trying to avoid wasting the time completely by making an effort to get off my ass and not watch so much TV. During the previous Summer and Spring break holiday one of the things I feel a bit bad about is wasting so much time vegging out in front of Shoko’s TV.

That being said, so far I’m not off to a great start. The problem with returning to an area you’ve already lived in is that there is not so much of an urge to go and explore. Besides I’m not much for going out by myself, and many of my friends are busy with work or other things during the summer. And the summer heat is doing its fair share to keep me inside. If the weather was slightly cooler I’d be hiking more, but I don’t know who would be out in this heat if they didn’t have to be.

So, gear up the VCR. Pathetic I know. I do have my excuses. I don’t have a TV in my apartment in Gifu, so I figure the rest of the year makes up for this. Also I’ve been in Japan for 4 years now, so sometimes I do feel out of touch with the media back home, and it is nice just to run through the video store and catch up on everything I’ve been missing out on. For instance I understand that a new show called “24” has been popular in the US. I’ve never had an opportunity to see it because I’ve been in Japan this whole time. So I rented the whole first season and watched it at Shoko’s place.

I was a little disappointed, but to be fair I suppose the whole season was not meant to be watched in a couple sittings. I was like, “Oh no, the wife and daughter are being kidnapped, again. Weren’t they just kidnapped a couple hours ago?”

I’ve also been trying to make some inroads into Japanese cinema by renting some Japanese flicks. The most interesting one I’ve seen so far was called “Spy Sorge”.

Richard Sorge was a communist spy who worked at the German embassy in Japan during World War II. Although Stalin ultimately ignored his warnings, he was able to predict the Nazi blitzkrieg and tried to warn the USSR accordingly. He also was responsible for discovering that Japan wouldn’t invade Siberia, and this information allowed Stalin to transfer all his troops to the Western front. Sorge was eventually caught by the Japanese and hanged.

Despite the fact that Sorge was a spy against the Japanese, his story has been mythologized to a certain extent in modern Japan. I first heard of Sorge while reading Tezuka Osamu’s famous comic series, “Adolf”. (Well, it’s famous in Japan.)
Also, for a country that has a problem facing up to its war history, a sympathetic portrait of a spy against Japan seems like an odd choice for a motion picture. There were a couple moments that marked this as a Japanese movie. For instance the insistence that British and American imperialism in Shanghai was just as bad as the Japanese. And there was a news footage collage on the fall of communism tacked on at the end to drive home the point that Sorge dedicated himself to a doomed ideal (in contrast, I suppose, to Nazism or emperor worship). And yet on the whole it was a sympathetic portrait of Sorge and the Japanese people who gave him the information.

The Japanese movie about him was fascinating as well, for a number of different reasons. Despite being a Japanese movie, it is mostly in English with Japanese sub-tittles. All the foreigners, the Germans, the Russians, the Czechs, all speak English. Even for the scenes that take place back in their home countries.

If this were an American movie, I suppose that wouldn’t be surprising. We Americans can’t stand reading sub-tittles. Oscar Schlindler and Joan of Arc all speak fluent English when in American movies. But then we regard English as the universal language. I suppose the Japanese think it is a little funny to have Stalin speak Japanese during the Moscow scenes.

But why have him speak English instead of his native Russian? The Japanese seem to believe that there is only one foreign language in the world: English. This is a result of an educational system that only pushes English, and perhaps an insular world view that has an us-them mentality. (There is the Japanese culture, and then every other foreign culture is more or less the same).

But the dialogue and acting are absolutely horrible. I’m fairly sure the script wasn’t written by a native English speaker. The cheesy lines could easily be a parody of themselves. The director apparently didn’t know how to direct foreign actors either. I can only imagine the direction: "Remember, the Japanese audience doesn't understand the words coming out of your mouth, so make sure to overact as much as possible to get the point across."

I’m reminded of another Japanese movie involving American actors, which went much the same way. “Brother” a Beat Takeshi film co-starring Omar Epps, about a Japanese gang war that spills into LA, also had incredibly cheesy dialogue and bad acting.

Of course we Americans can be just as bad. A friend once said to me, “If you want to see a comedy, and I mean a comedy comedy, rent “Rising Sun” with Sean Connery. You’ll laugh your ass off.” Although “Rising Sun” was meant as a serious movie, it will appear hilarious to anyone who actually spent any time in Japan.

But if we Americans do such a laughable job at capturing Japanese culture, their every bit as bad on the reverse.

All that being said, if you’re a history nerd like I am, and you can find a copy, I’d recommend “Spy Sorge” just for the story. From what I can tell on the internet, the historical accuracy of the movie checks out pretty well.

Video Version

Monday, August 01, 2005

Swagman Family Blogging

Spoke to my sister Jess on the phone last night and found out she was web-logging and got her permission to link to it.

I guess most of you are reading this blog because you know me, and don't really have any connection to my sister, but (if I can say this without any brotherly bias) this is one of the most brilliant blogs I've ever read. Well worth your time to check it out.

She refers frequently to her brother, but keep in mind I'm still in Japan so most of these stories are referring to our other brother. Unless when she says "brothers" in the plural. Like in this entry, when apparently we ruined our grandmother's birthday ten years ago. (I don't remember this, but it sounds like something I would do.)

(The choice of colored font is a bit visually unfortunate in my opinion, but if you copy and paste it into another format it is easier to read.)