Wednesday, September 28, 2005

If you're interested in visiting me....

you'll never find tickets this cheap to Japan again. (Thanks to Brett for the link).

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

I Disagree with the British

Last week I was at a dinner party at a Japanese friend’s house. Some other foreigners were there as well, and during the dinner a few side conversations were going on. A Scottish friend was explaining to me the history of the Celts. “Scotland, Ireland, and Wales are all related,” he said. “When the Romans invaded, they pushed all the Celts back to the outlying areas. Later the Anglo-Saxons took over the old Roman colonies, which is why the Celt tribes are all on the edges.”

I didn’t know about this, and found it very interesting. “So historically the Irish, the Welsh, and the Scottish all originated from common Celt ancestors, and those boundaries were just created by the Romans?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “In fact not a lot of people know this, but Cornwall used to be separated country as well. But that eventually got taken over by England.”

“A pity you didn’t keep it separate,” I said. “Then you could have sneaked another team into the world cup.”

This apparently touched on a nerve. “Man, don’t even start,” he said. “We have four different world cup teams because it is four different countries. There are some people back home who would be really mad if they heard you. Just because we have an open boarder doesn’t mean we’re the same country. We are just as different as you and Canada are.”

This seemed to be going a bit far to me. “I’ll grant you that there are distinctions between Scotland and England,” I said. “But it’s not the same as Canada and the U.S.” And thus touched off a debate which carried most of the rest of the evening.

We debated the subject hotly all through the rest of the dinner party, probably being slightly rude to our hosts. At one point our Japanese hosts asked what we were arguing about, and I did my best to translate the discussion. “It appears there is some difference of opinion between British and Americans,” I said. “As to whether the U.K. is one country or a union of four different countries.” I did my best to summarize the arguments for both sides, and briefly brought our Japanese hosts into the discussion. But before too long the two of us were both off in our private discussion. We even argued all through the car ride home.

A few days later I was at the bar, and I was meeting some fellow English teachers. One of them, from England, was explaining to me about the rivalry between the Scottish and the English at his company. “You know it’s interesting you should mention that,” I said. “Just earlier this week someone from Scotland tried to convince me you guys are actually separate countries.” And boom, there went the whole debate again.

Believe it or not, I actually got in the same debate a 3rd time before the week was up. I was talking to another English friend, and he was saying he had been to 23 countries. “Wow!” I said. “I’ve only been to 5. And that includes my home country of America, and Canada, which is only 3 hours away from my house.”

“That’s OK,” he said. “I’m including Whales and Scotland in my list.” And there went the argument again.

Perhaps some of you have been in similar discussions. These Brits sure feel strongly about the four separate countries thing.

I hate to add up all the hours I spent debating this topic in total this week. I’d say perhaps 3 hours the first time, 2 the second, and maybe 1 hour during the last conversation. As with most long pointless conversations, we had each pretty much laid out our side in the first 15 minutes, and then the rest of the time was re-phrasing ourselves.

I argued that since the UK was under a single Queen, under a single parliament, had the same army, the same foreign policy, the same embassy, the same flag, and the same Olympic team, they weren’t really separate countries.

“But we have four separate World Cup teams,” someone said.

“That’s true,” I said. “I’ll grant you that. But I think the World Cup association is just humoring you. You don’t have four separate seats at the UN.”

The counter argument is that Scotland, England, and Whales have always been separate countries, and just joined together under an act of union for their mutual convenience. And, that each area has their own parliament and local laws.

“Ok,” says I, “You used to be separate countries, but you aren’t now. We have local state laws in the US. We don’t call ourselves separate countries.”

A large amount of this comes back to semantics and the definition of country. I was taught in my 8th grade civics class that national sovereignty, as well as the ability to conduct diplomacy, declare war, negotiate peace, and independently arrange trade with other nations is an important part of the definition of a country. “Otherwise it’s just regional autonomy,” I said. “You guys can call yourselves separate countries all you want. It’s just semantics.”

They view the definition of countries differently. Because Scotland, England and Wales were all separate countries in the past, because they have geographical (albeit open) boarders, and because they have distinct languages and culture separating each other, they are different countries. “They’ve always been separate countries,” someone said to me. “You can’t just say that a country doesn’t exist anymore just because they formed an act of union. Did India cease to be a separate country when it was ruled by the British?”

I of course argue that if historic cultures and nationalities make a country, then Northern Ireland is by all rights part of the same country as the Republic of Ireland.

The comparison is sometimes made with the European Union, which seems to be moving in the direction of a unified European Government. I point out that Europe split over the question of the Iraq war, but Scottish soldiers are now dying in Iraq because of a decision Tony Blair made.

“Yeah, the Scottish are really upset about it too,” someone said.

“See, that proves my point. If they were separate countries, they could have decided their own foreign policy.”

And round and round the discussion went. I guess I can’t possibly record everything that was said on either side. There were times when certain concessions were made. Someone once conceded that England and Scotland are not different countries in the same way Canada and the U.S. are different countries. I once conceded that comparing the four countries of the UK to the various states in the USA was unfair. But every time we came close to agreement, I pressed my point too far and we started arguing again.

In the end nothing was resolved and no one was convinced, but I feel very strongly about this. They're not 4 seperate countries.

Link of the Day
My friend Harrison has gotten an article published in Japan Visitor. Check it out here. (Bet you never thought you'd make Link of the Day Harrison, you old son of a bitch).

It's an article about Japanese cars, but the old Harrison humor is shining through, so it's worth reading even if you have no interest in cars.

The car I currently drive is probably most similar to what Harrison calls the "bubble car". It's a small car, and because of my height I get made fun of a lot.

The car I used to drive in Ajimu was a little more snazzy.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

I Cause a Minor Sensation in the Book Store

I don't want to brag, but I know a lot of useless stuff.

We all do I suppose. Each of us has our own unique areas of interest, and the art of conversation is being able to direct the discussion towards subjects we know about, and thus appear perhaps smarter than we really are.

And then every once and a while something drops in our laps.

Like say this past weekend. I was in Nagoya city looking for Japanese audio books.

Those of you who know me know that I'm a big fan of audio books. It's a good way to get more books under your belt without putting in any more time or effort. Driving, doing push ups, or brushing the teeth suddenly become excellent reading opportunities as well.

Anyway, I was looking for Japanese audio books, because I thought it would be a great way to study. Audio books never really caught on in Japan, so it is hard to find them, but someone told me about a bookstore in Nagoya that had a small audio book section.

I went to the bookstore and was looking at the audio books. One of the clerks assumed I must have been lost and tried to direct me over to the English section. I tried to explain I wanted an audio book in Japanese. To my disappointment however, I didn't recognize any of the titles. But that was probably just because it was all new releases, and I don't keep up too well on the latest Japanese novels. Some of the classics I might stand a better chance of recognizing, or even Western books translated into Japanese would have been fine. Just as long as it was something I recognized.

"This is a bit older," the clerk said. "It is Mishima's debate against the students. Of course you probably have no idea what I'm talking about."

I grabbed the CD excitedly. "The Zengakuren debate!"

Mishima is a famous Japanese artist, novelist, and right wing fanatic (and subject of a movie by Paul Schrader--for all you Chimesers reading this). In 1968 at the height of the student revolt, Mishima went to Tokyo University to debate the Leftist "All Japan Student Federation", or "Zengakuren" in Japanese. Although the debate resulted in a standstill, it is considered on of the defining moments of the 1960s in Japan. (More info on the debate can be found off of this link).

Anyway, the clerk was absolutely floored that I knew about the debate. They don't really expect foreigners to know too much about Japanese culture. I told him I would buy the CD, and he handed it over to me. However shortly afterward I could hear him talking excitedly to several other staff members behind me. "See that American over there? He knows about Mishima debate. I showed him the CD, and he knew all about the Zengakuren."

There was gasps of amazement. "What did he say?" asked one woman. "How did he say 'Zengakuren' in English?"

"No, that's just the thing," the clerk continued. "He said it in Japanese."

"Really?" Another person pronounced "Zengakuren" in an exaggerated American accent, and that got a good laugh. There was all sorts of speculation about how I would know about the Zengakuren.

They weren't standing that far away from me, and being rather indiscreet, so they probably would have been keen if I would have approached and offered to continue the conversation. Who knows, some of them were old enough that they could have been part of the Zengakuren themselves. But I wasn't in the mood to deal with the attention. I pretended not to hear as they talked about me, and then bought my CD and left. Truth be told it's not unusual to over- hear Japanese people talking about me. Often it's a great conversation starter if I'm looking to make friends, but just as often I choose to ignore it and try and make my way as simply as possible. I wish I could say I was friendly and out-going all the time, but there are some days when I just can't deal with the extra attention.

A couple quick addendums to this story:
1). I am so sick of Japanese people imitating American accents. I get this all the time at school. It's bad enough from the kids, but even from my adult co-workers occasionally. Fair enough, I'm sure I talk with a bit of an accent, but you would never make fun of the foreigner's accent back home, at least not in polite company. And the woman at the bookstore never even heard me speak, so I thought that was a bit unfair.
I've seen Japanese comedians imitate foreign accents on TV, and I think that's where a lot of them get it from. Very fucking funny guys.

2). I've been listening to the CD, and it is really way too advanced for me. But I knew it would be when I bought it. I can understand bits and pieces of it, and I content myself with that. At least it's something I'm interested in, so I have motivation to try and understand it.

Link of the Day
Speaking of the student Movement, I thought I'd go back in time a little and link to one of the most provacative pieces of the American Student movement, "The Student as Nigger".

Obviously I'm hesistant to link to something with the N word in the title, but then to a certain extent I think that's part of why this piece was so famous. Does the sense in which the author intended the word justify its usage here? It's an interesting question to debate.

Aside from the provacative title, does reading this bring back memories of school days or what?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Sports Day and Me

Sorry the blogging has slowed down a little. I feel like I’m running out of stories. Maybe I should have paced myself a little better instead of posting every day.

Anyway, we just had Sports Day last weekend which, is always a bizarre event and usually good fodder for blogging material. Or at least it would be if I wasn’t sick to death of writing about Sports Day. Perhaps another sign I’ve stayed in Japan too long. This is my 5th year here now, and so this is my 5th time watching Sports Day. The first time it was really interesting, but I’m getting really tired of it. The marching, the cheesy music, the flag waving, and all the speeches and bowing…I’ve had it I tell you!!!

So, rather than go into detail about this year’s sports day, I’ll just link to the post I did last year. And anyone interested in more details on Sports Day should check out Chris’ weblog. (He has a entry on Sports Day here and pictures from practice here and here).

I’ll just briefly mention a few things:

As usual, the weeks proceeding sports day were very busy for the students. They were outside everyday practicing marching in lines and waving flags, et cetera. The 9th grade students especially were very stressed out. In my speech class I had one girl collapse into tears suddenly for no apparent reason. The teacher told me she was just under a lot of stress because she was organizing the cheering for Sports Day.

By contrast, I had a lot of free time because many of my classes were cut to give the students more Sports Day practice. That was part of the reason this blog was so prolific in the early weeks of September. (The typhoon was another reason).

On Sports Day itself, many of last year’s graduate students came to observe the festivities. Since last year was my first year in the area, obviously on last year’s Sports Day I didn’t know any of the graduated students. This year I got an opportunity to interact with my former students a bit.

But it is always a little awkward interacting with former students. Many of them seemed cold and aloof and wanted nothing to do with me. (This might just be part of teaching. You’ll notice Hannah wrote in the comment section on this entry that she had similar experiences with here ex-students.) And as for the ex-students who were friendly and wanted to talk to me, I usually embarrassed myself by failing to recognize them or forgetting their name.

That night us teachers had a drinking party as usual. It was good fun as these things go, although to be honest I think I would rather just have had the night free.

As the only non-Japanese person there, sometimes I can get left out of the conversation pretty easily, and it can become a long night. This is especially truer now than it used to be because I have been at this school for a whole year now, and am no longer the object of interest that I once was. Also most of the conversations I did have seemed to revolve around how strange it was that I wasn’t drinking. But to be fair this was not unexpected. When I made the decision to stop drinking in the middle of the year, I knew every following drinking party would be like this. If I had entered the school not drinking that would have been one thing, but to change half-way through was just setting myself up for a lot of confusion and misunderstandings between me and the other teachers.

Not to mention, the $80 I had to pay for the night out was pretty steep considering I was just sipping on oolong tea the whole night. Fortunately my company reimburses me for school related drinking parties. Otherwise I don’t think I would still be going on them. Any business related drinking party in Japan you can expect to get gouged on the price. It’s a frequent complaint among us foreigners. Why the ordinary Japanese put up with it is beyond me. I suppose it’s just one of the many things they accept without questioning or complaint. Like the ATMs which shut down at 6 PM. I mean really, what is the point of having an ATM if it is going to shut down at 6 PM? Do the ATMs need a break? Or is this typical Japanese inconvenience for the sake of inconvenience?

But I’m digressing into pointless ranting. To return to the party:

Later in the night we went out for Karaoke and more drinking. There were a few older teachers in the group, and I was eager to show off how much I knew about Japanese music. Whenever they would pick a song I would try and list off whatever I knew about the song. It didn't go over too well. I guess nobody likes a show off. I think where I crossed the line is when I tried to say something about every song. Even if I didn't know the name or the artist, I would try and make a comment about the era the song was from.

Link of the Day
They say the French Revolution is one of the most confusing events in history. I guess that's probably true. At any rate, it is really funny to listen to this panel discussion on the BBC radio. Listen to the interviewer. He tries so hard to keeps things simple, but then begins to lose his temper halfway through the interview. "Listen, I told you we didn't have time to get into that. Now we're going to do this my way or we're not going to do this at all."

Also enjoyed this program on the assassination of Alexander II. "The People's Will" is one of the most fascinating groups in history.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Wednesday Night Out in Gifu City

After the Wednesday tutoring sessions, a bunch of us usually go to “Beer Hall”, the local foreigner hang out.

This past Wednesday it was very crowded. Someone was having a birthday. I tend to avoid large crowds, but just talked with a few friends near the doorway.

My arch-nemesis Tom was present as well. It’s unavoidable really. All the foreigners hang out at the same spots, so I’m bound to run into him occasionally. At least he is as intent on avoiding me as I am him.

I went to the front to get a drink, and he went to the other side of the bar. We passed each other as I was walking back. I gave him a nod and a cocky half-smile and said, “Hello Tom,” and he gave me a nervous nod back. I went back to my group of friends smugly feeling that I had won that encounter.

Someone was talking about her Japanese boyfriend. “It was going so well for so long,” she said. “But we’ve begun to enter the weird stage of the relationship. He’s begun to treat me like I’m Japanese.” She went on to describe how he has begun to lead her around by the hand when they go out in public, to beckon her to follow him like a dog, and to expect her to clean his apartment.

“On Saturday we cleaned his apartment,” she said. “It’s what he wanted to do, so that was our date. We cleaned his apartment. He even expected me to clean the bathroom for him.”

“Listen, he doesn’t know any better,” I tried to explain. “That’s how it works in Japan. I’ve dated a couple girls, and they both would come over to my place in the evening, stay the night, and then clean my apartment while I was at work the next day.”

There were some cries of protest from some of the Western women present. “What?” I said defensively. “It’s the culture! It’s not like I said, ‘You must clean my apartment to be my girlfriend’. They just do it naturally.”

Someone else agreed. “I’ve almost had to physically restrain my Japanese girlfriend to keep her from cleaning my apartment,” he said.

“That’s how I use to be,” I said. “But it’s amazing how quickly you break down. At first I would say, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll clean it myself’. But then the next week she would say, ‘You still haven’t cleaned it yet. How about if we clean it together.’ And I would say okay. And then pretty soon, I’m just letting her do the whole thing.”

I turned back to the girl who had brought the topic up. “Listen, I think you can still salvage this relationship. But you’re going to have to make it very clear to him that you’re not a Japanese girl, and you won’t do all the things that they would do for him. And if he’s okay with that, then you don’t have any problems.”

She disagreed. “The apartment’s one thing. I can tell him I won’t clean it. But the way he leads me around by the hand in public…that is harder to change. That isn’t even something he thinks about, it is just something he does naturally. I’d have to change his whole mindset to fix that.”

Link of the Day
I don't know how many people caught this, but Jared asked questions about Japanese TV in this comment here.

To answer the questions briefly:
I actually no longer have a TV in Japan, so I may notbe the best person to ask anymore. But...there is one Japanese station that does just run translations of foreign news shows yes. It's not terribly popular,and I think might be cable or satellite only. Lots of bizarre game shows, yes. And, Kendama is the name of the thing with the balls in it. It is a popular Children's toy in Japan.

For further info on Japanese TV: it's a bit easier to show than to describe. Ifilm has some clips archived on their website.

For instance this clip: Japanese Bitch Slap--containing girls slapping each other in the mall. It's sort of ripped out of context, so I'm not sure what to say about it other than this kind of stupid stunt live TV is quite typical of something one sees after midnight on Japanese TV.

This clip: Japanese Tight Ass also is very typical of a Japanese variety show.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I Get Bitten by a Cat

(This is amazingly similar to a story I just posted last week. And it's the same hand that got injured as well).
So there I was, minding my own business, just walking throw Gifu city, when I saw a girl, maybe about 12 years old or so, trying to get a kitten down from a statue.

I must confess I’m not much of a cat person and I don’t know much about feline habits, but we all know the stereotype of the cat who climbs too far up the tree and then can’t get down again, and the fire department has to be called, etc.

This appeared to be a case in point. Albeit substitute statue for tree, but this little kitten was holding on to the top of the statue for dear life, not moving anything except it’s head, which was looking every which way with an absolutely terrified look on its face.

The 12-year-old girl was trying to get the kitten down, but she couldn’t reach up to the top of the statue. A woman was trying to help her, but the woman couldn’t quite reach to the top of the statue either. An old man pulled up on his bicycle to help, but he couldn’t reach the top either.

Of course, I’m a bit taller than the average Japanese person. I was pausing to wonder if I should offer my help or not, when the old man saw me. “Hey, he can probably reach the top,” he called out. But the top of the statue was just out of reach of me as well.

Nevertheless, I decided to stick around to see what would happen. “It’s not my kitten,” the girl explained. “I think it’s a stray. But I just feel so sorry for it. It looks so scared up there.” The old man as well was talking about how much he loved cats, and how he could never stand to see a cat in trouble.

The old man brought his bicycle over, and I helped to steady the bike while the girl climbed up it. She still couldn’t reach kitten. All she could do was tug on its tail and encourage it to come to her, but the kitten was too terrified to move.

“Why don’t you give it a try,” the old man said to me.

“Oh no, I’m too heavy. I’d break the bicycle if I tried to stand up on it.”

“No you won’t. It’s a strong bike. How many kilograms to you weigh anyway?”

Yes, how many kilograms do I weigh? I’ve been in Japan for 4 years now, I should know this….

“He doesn’t know kilograms,” the woman said to me. “They measure with pounds in America. Isn’t that right?” Actually this was pretty rare. Usually Japanese people don’t realize Americans have an entirely different set of weights and measurements, and I was worried I would have to explain the whole thing. Now we could skip all that.

“You should be fine,” the old man insisted. I stepped cautiously on the bicycle, and sure enough, it held my weight just fine as I stood up on it. I was now plenty high enough to reach the cat, but my balance was a little precarious because I was just standing on a bicycle seat. I leaned against the statue, and picked up the kitten.

For whatever reason, the kitten was fine until I started to hand it off to the girl, and only then did it begin to panic. It started scratching and biting. Its mouth was small, so none of the bites were very deep, but I wanted to get rid of the thing as soon as possible.

I passed the kitten onto the girl, and it turned on her next. She froze momentarily in panic, not sure of what to do. “Quickly but gently put it on the ground,” the old man shouted. She lowered it on the ground. The kitten hissed at everyone, backed up against the base of the statue as if unsure of which way to turn next, and then bolted into the bushes.

Although my hand was bitten up much worse than the girl’s, I did my best to conceal my injuries and ask her if she was all right. I thought this was very gentlemanly of me. It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me that it had been very unchivalrous to hand off a biting kitten to her in the first place. My brain always seems to have a bit of a time lapse on these things.

The old man briefly criticized our holding of the kitten. “You always hold a cat by the back of the neck,” he said. “I’ve had many cats, I always hold them by the back of the neck so they can’t bite me.” The woman thanked me for my help, and then we all parted company.

I was beginning to worry about what sort of diseases a stray cat had in its mouth. I made a beeline for the nearest convenience store, and bought a bottle of anti-bacterial hand soap and a package of band-aids. I then locked myself in the bathroom for the next ten minutes and did my Howard Hughes impression.

Shoko called my cell-phone during this time. “Hey, how’s it going?” she asked.

“Not too good. I just got bit by a cat.” She thought that was very funny

Link of the Day
My friend Matt sent me a couple good links recently. There is this link on the American Taliban, which is great for a good laugh. Make sure to read the last one especially.

And then there is this link on the over crowded trains and commuter outrage in Japan. I should make the disclaimer that, although this isn't typical of my part of Japan, it is true in parts of Japan. I'll never forget rush hour in Yokohama.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Mark Your Calendars

It’s official now. The plane tickets have been reserved. I will be coming home for Winter Break.

The big problem, and this comes up every year, is that in Japan Christmas isn’t a recognized holiday, so Winter Break is always tilted towards New Years Day instead.

Last year the last day of school was on Christmas Eve, and I spent Christmas day on the airplane. This year, the last day of school is December 26th.

As I’ve written before, I get very generous vacations with my new job. As opposed to the usual Japanese custom of coming into the office every day even when school is not in session (which most ALTs have to do), I am given the summer, spring, and winter holidays completely off. The trade off though is that I don’t have any flexibility, and I am not supposed to ask for any days off in addition to the scheduled vacations.

In this case, I was severely tempted to try and weasel a couple more days off, but, after consultation with the parents, I discovered that it is much cheaper to fly a couple days after Christmas than it is to fly a couple days before Christmas.

Anyway, to get to the point: I will be home from December 27 till January 8th. My family excepted, for most of you this will probably be better anyway because I know you’ll all be occupied during Christmas, but (hopefully) free to hang out after.

It is a short break I know. Not even a full two weeks. But come March, I’ll be coming home to stay, so you’ll see plenty of me then.

The fab Shoko will be accompanying me for most of Winter Break. She’ll be returning to Japan a few days ahead of me on January 4th, but otherwise she’ll be around for most of the time.
Rest assured I will be reminding you again as the date approaches, but mark your calendars and start planning now.

Link of the Day
From Media Mouse-the top 25 censored news stories of the year. If you only read one of my links, read this one. (oh, and read the Schrier one as well).

Monday, September 12, 2005

Adventures at Lake Biwa

Last Sunday I made plans to go to the Ocean with some Japanese friends from Spanish class.

Gifu, where I live now, is one of the few land-locked prefectures in Japan. But no matter where you are in Japan, the Ocean is always somewhere close. Even from Gifu it is only about 2 hours. In fact, Japanese friends are always shocked when I tell them I never saw the ocean until I was 19.

We met first at a friend’s house, loaded up his car with food and barbeque supplies, and headed out for the ocean.

We were already driving, when someone said, “I’m getting hungry already. Isn’t there some place closer we can go?”

And so, we decided to go to Lake Biwa instead.

Lake Biwa is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. It’s not quite as big as the great lakes, but from the shore it looks just like Lake Michigan. In fact as I was swimming in the lake, the only thing to remind me I wasn’t back home were the mountains in the background.

In fact because of the similarities to the Great Lakes, Shiga prefecture, which boarders Lake Biwa, is sister state to Michigan. Omihachiman, in Shiga prefecture, is the sister city to Grand Rapids. I have yet to go to either the prefecture or the city, but I did see a sign for “Center for University of Michigan Studies building” on the way to Lake Biwa.

Anyway, I had a good swim, we splashed around in the water for a while, and then we came in to do a barbeque. And it started pouring rain. Wouldn’t you know it? Murphy’s Law I guess.

It’s funny how we react to rain sometimes. I had no problem getting wet when I was in the lake. In fact, the warm lake water was a nice change from the cold mountain waterfalls I was used to swimming in down in Oita. But for whatever reason, I found the rain completely miserable. Someone had had the foresight to erect a tent awning over the barbeque to keep out the rain, but as the rain started pouring down harder and harder the awning didn’t do much good at all. In the end we decided if we were going to be wet anyway, we might as well be wet while swimming in the lake. We packed up the barbeque set, and jumped back into the water.

We were swimming around for another hour or so until it stopped raining. It was good fun. I tackled one of the Japanese guys, and we were wrestling around in the water, and one of the girls made the comment about how grown men always look like children when they play, which I suppose has a lot of truth in it.

The car ride back was a little uncomfortable because all of my clothes had been soaked by the rain, but I managed.

Link of the Day
More listening picks, for those of you who like me to like to listen to something while surfing the Web.

This is a bit old, but in the NPR archives can be found a very interesting program on the age old political science question: "Why Socialism Failed in the U.S"

And from the BBC, a lecture entitled "Rhetoric that Binds and Blinds", which is a comparison of modern terrorism with the leftist terrorism of the 70s. (Text version also avaliable.)

I didn't agree with everything in either program, but very interesting listening.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Hurricanes and Typhoons

Red Cross volunteers and Japanese students can be seen on the sidewalks these days collecting money for the American Hurrican victims. As an American, it's always a little weird to see this, as if America was some poor 3rd world country. The only other time I saw Japanese students collecting money for America was after 9-11.

A few months ago I wrote about my tendency to mix up similar sounding Japanese words. Of course phenomenon works in reverse as well. For instance, you wouldn’t believe the amount of Japanese people who are unable to tell the difference between “Mississippi” and “Michigan.” I am constantly being asked if my home and family are ok during the hurricane.

Another frequent topic of discussion is the American custom of naming hurricanes, which the Japanese find endlessly amusing. In Japan, typhoons are identified by number, not name.

I’ve witnessed a few Japanese teachers tell their classrooms that Americans believe the fury of a woman is the same as the fury of a hurricane, so Americans name all their hurricanes after women.

I’m not sure if that’s true or not. I at least try and make the small correction that some women did complain to the National Weather Service, and now the hurricanes alternate between men’s names and women’s names.

Again, the Japanese find this very funny. “So someday there could be a hurricane named Joel?” someone asked me. Yeah, theoretically, I answered.

“Oh no! Run! Joel is coming!” my Japanese friend said, imitating how bizarre he thought the whole idea was.

Right now in Japan, we are currently in the midst of typhoon 14. It’s not a huge deal. Japan has hurricanes come through all the time, and, at least in my area, they are seldom very dangerous. I didn’t leave my windows open this year, and I’ve been staying in my apartment during the evening, so I’ve been all right so far.

School classes were cancelled on Wednesday because of the typhoon. We teachers still had to report into work though. I just sat at my desk all day doing things like writing this blog.

(If you are looking for more information on the Typhoon, as usual Chris' blog is better than mine. Here is a Typhoon weather map, and here is a picture, and he's even got a movie up here).

I suppose some of you are probably wondering: “What’s the difference between a hurricane and a typhoon anyway?”

I’ve often wondered the same thing. I’ve long suspected that it was just a different word for the same phenomenon, but never bothered to look it up.

I was in class the other day, and the Japanese teacher said, “Why don’t you tell the students what the difference is between a hurricane and a typhoon.”

And I was like “Um…I don’t know.”

At this point the Japanese teacher jumped in and told the class that the phenomenon is the same, but the word depends on what ocean it comes from. Apparently if it comes from the Atlantic Ocean, it is a hurricane. If it’s from the pacific, it’s a typhoon. And I think cyclone is from the Indian Ocean, although the teacher wasn’t 100% on this last one. So, feel free to use this info to impress friends at your next party.

And here’s another bit of useless trivia to impress friends with: typhoon comes from the Japanese word “taifu”, meaning “great wind”, and, along with “tsunami” is one of the few Japanese words that has become commonly used in English.

There are thousands of English words that have become Japonized and are now in common use in the Japanese language, but very few words have gone the other way. In fact, if we exclude all the nouns that refer solely to elements of Japanese culture (karate, judo, sushi, karaoke, kimono, kamikaze et cetera), then the only Japanese words that have crossed into English are the aforementioned “typhoon”, “tsunami”, and “head honcho” from the Japanese “hancho” meaning “group leader”. (And “banzars” if you’re Australian, which apparently Australian POWs picked up from the Japanese “banzai” during World War II).

Or am I overlooking something? Feel free to write in if you can think of something else.

Link of the Day
Speaking of words…
I’m not a linguist, and my interest lie elsewhere, but every once and a while you come across a word with a really fascinating etymology.

For instance, the word “OK.” It’s considered to be the most successful of all Americanisms, and not only invaded other English speaking countries, but hundreds of other languages as well. For instance, the Americans invading Japan during the war found that the word “OK” was already in common use among the Japanese. And “OK” was the fourth word said on the moon.
And the origins of OK? It is from a mock rustic spelling of “Oll Korrect”, popularized during the American Presidential campaign of 1840. Read more here.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Learning Spanish in Japan

For no particular reason, I’ve started taking Spanish classes on Saturday mornings.

I couldn’t care less about learning Spanish. I’m sure it would be useful to know and everything, but at the moment I’m interested in learning Japanese, Korean, and French, and you have to draw the line somewhere.

So, at best these Spanish classes are a waste of time, and at worst, I’m worried it might even confuse me with my studies in the other 3 languages.

But I’m taking the classes because the teacher, Jorge, is a friend of mine, it gets my ass out of bed on Saturday mornings, and there are a lot of cute Japanese girls also taking the class.

I never took any Spanish courses in high school or college (I opted for Latin instead). The extent of my previous Spanish study was Spanish club, which I was a member of during 7th and 8th grade. And a couple after school classes I remember taking as an elementary student. And of course the Spanish language segments of “Sesame Street”, which I watched as a youngster. And the kind of broken Hollywood Spanish I learned from watching re-runs of Zorro, Speedy Gonzales, and other pop culture figures. Actually, when you add it all up, I probably know a lot more Spanish than I realize.

It’s all point of comparison. I don’t know any more Spanish than the average American, probably less actually. I know daily greetings, which were burned into my head by saying them every morning in Spanish club.
(“Hola, Como estas? Mui Buen, Gracias. Et tu? Mui Buen, Gracias.”)

I know how to count to ten in Spanish (just like everyone else). And then various other words that have become part of our popular culture. (Amigo, Gracias, Si Senor Zorro, Vamos, siesta, gringo, et cetera.)

And that’s about it. Pretty pathetic really. I’d never go around back home claiming that I knew any Spanish.

But in Japan, most Japanese people don’t know a single word of Spanish at all. In fact many of them don’t even know what a taco is, and often think Mexico is an English speaking country.

Foreign language education is English only. To the Japanese minds, there are only two languages in the world: English and Japanese. Therefore simple things like being able to count to ten in Spanish, or knowing simple Spanish greetings, make me all of a sudden appear international and cultured.

My first time abroad was when I went with my family to Korea when I was 19. That was my first time in a country where I didn’t speak the language. As I think is normal in those circumstances, after a week I began to fantasize about speaking fluent Korean. But the odd thing was even in my fantasies I wasn’t speaking anything that sounded vaguely like Korean. I kept speaking Spanish.

I didn’t know a lot of Spanish, but what little I knew kept popping up in my fantasies. I’d imagine myself walking into the hotel and speaking fluent Korean with the hotel staff, but Spanish words and Spanish greetings kept popping into my head instead.

Since I was studying Latin at the time, I suppose it is odd that Spanish was popping into my head instead of Latin. But Latin was always taught as a language of text, not as a living, speaking language. When I pictured a foreign language in my head, I pictured Spanish.

Halfway through my first year in Japan, I began to notice the reverse had happened. I couldn’t count to 10 in Spanish without switching into Japanese.

“Uno, duos, tres, shi, go, roku…wait a minute, that’s Japanese. Uno, duos, tres, quarto, go, roku…damn it!”

Even though there was absolutely no reason why I needed to count to 10 in Spanish, I suddenly found myself incredibly frustrated. I had been able to count to 10 I Spanish ever since I was 5 years old and learned it off of “Sesame Street”. Now I had the feeling of it being just on the tip of my tongue, but unable to recall. It’s like the feeling you have when you have a song in your head, and you can’t remember where you heard it from, and you suddenly find yourself paralyzed and unable to do anything else until you figure out where that song came from…. It was kind of like that. After a while I remembered what the rest of the numbers were, and then I was able to go about the rest of my day.

Occasionally I discover the same thing with Latin. In high school I had to memorize “The Lord’s Prayer” in Latin, but when I try and recall it now, I get about halfway through before it becomes all Japanese.

So maybe it’s just as well that I’m taking Spanish classes. There are a lot of Peruvians in this area, so I do met Spanish speakers from time to time. I always try and greet them with, “Hola, Como Estas?” Unfortunately they never respond the way their supposed to. I always wait to hear “Mui Buen, et tu?” in vain. Instead I get some other words that don’t make any sense to me, and I never have an opportunity to finish off with “Mui Buen, Gracias.”

Link of the Day
Jeff Smith, one of my old comrades from Media Mouse, and a local media critic, has written this article reflecting on his experience monitoring the local media in West Michigan. Of course it's always good to be critical of media, so Jeff's article is well worth taking a look at.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Wrong Way to Climb Telephone Polls

As anyone who has been to Japan can tell you, the cities are a mess of wires going everywhere. Unlike the States, which buries most of its telephone wires and electric cables underground, Japan suspends everything from poles in the air.

It is an incredible eyesore, and a frequent complaint from aesthetic minded foreigners. Most Japanese reply that it is necessary because of frequent earthquakes and the quality of Japanese soil. This explanation is debated by Alexander Kerr in “Dogs in Demons”, in which he argues that there is no good reason why Japan can’t bury these cables underground like every other country, and that this is simply another example of Japanese stubbornness and refusal to change.

But I’ll leave the aesthetics alone for now, as it really has nothing to do with this story.

I was in Gifu city with a couple of Japanese friends, and we were walking past a telephone poll, when I noticed I could just about touch the lowest handgrip.

The telephone polls have various hand and foot grips that are sticking out along the side of it, so that a maintenance man can climb up to the top if there is a problem. But, to prevent random people from climbing up and putting themselves in danger, the grips don’t begin until a few meters in the air. To reach the first grip, you need a ladder.

“But,” I thought as I walked past, “this was designed for Japanese people. They weren’t counting on someone as tall as me.” When I stood on my tiptoes, I could just barely touch the first grip, but not quite get my hand all the way around it. If I jumped, I was confident I could grab the whole thing.

I don’t know what I was thinking really. The next grip on the opposite side was even higher up, so I would only be able to get my hand around one grip. I would need at least two to pull myself up. In fact, even if I had two, I might be able to do a pull up and get my chin to the same level, but I’d never be able to pull up my whole body. The most I could have hoped to do would be to hang by one hand for a short time before letting go. In fact, even before I jumped I had sort of a preminiscent feeling of the pain in my shoulder that would be caused by the sharp jerk of my body weight suddenly supported by one arm. And yet I jumped up and grabbed the grip anyway.

I guess my mind was just in the sort of dream like cloud that sometimes causes us to have incredible lapses of judgment. I tend to spend a lot of time in this cloud.

I jumped up, grabbed the grip, and felt the sharp pain in my shoulder as my body came back down again and the whole weight of it was suddenly thrust on that joint. Then my hand slid off the grip.

The big problem was that the grip consisted of many miniature plastic spikes designed to prevent slipping. As my hand slid off them, it tore off bits of skin.

Coming back to the ground, I immediately came out of my cloud and realized how stupid I had been. I was too embarrassed to let anyone else see I had injured myself, and so I did my best to conceal my palm throughout the rest of the evening.

When I finally parted from my friends, I had a chance to look at my palm. It actually wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. Just a couple places where the skin had been rubbed a little raw and was bleeding, but that was it.

Of course, with bloody hands, you’re pretty useless. No one wants to loan you anything. I put a bunch of band-aids on my hands for the next day of school.

I was past the embarrassed stage now, and beginning to see the humor in the situation. When teachers at school asked me what happened, I did my best to describe it accurately. I didn’t know the words for “handgrip” or “telephone poll”, so I drew pictures on the board, and did my imitation of me jumping up and trying to climb the telephone poll. Everyone got a good laugh out of that story. And some of the students gave me cartoon character band-aids, so everything turned out okay in the end.

Link of the Day
A great new way to waste time: this web page has a program that exploits the defaults of electronic translaters by translating a phrase back and fourth ten times over.

For instance Dicken's classic "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" becomes...
"The time is, the this chronometers the thing more better possible,when it is falschsten"

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Drunk Talk

Last Saturday night I was out at a bar with four other friends: two Canadians, a Brit, and a Japanese. As usual, I was the only one not drinking, and the only sober one listening into all the drunk talk.

The Brit was talking about his car, and referred to the storage space at the back of it as “the boot.” This then caused a debate as to whether the correct term was “the boot” or “the trunk.” The Brit found himself outnumbered by 3 North Americans, so he changed the subject.

“Do you know what’s interesting?” he asked. “If say ‘car boot’ to a Japanese person, they haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about because they’ve adopted the American English, and they call it a trunk. But, if I’m talking about the front of the car, the Japanese understand ‘bonnet’ perfectly, because for the front of the car they use British English, for the back of the car they use American English. Isn’t that strange?”

“The Japanese use British English for a lot of things,” someone else commented. “For instance, they use the word ‘pants’ in the British sense, meaning underpants. For actual pants they use the French word ‘zubon’.”
(Oh, man, the number of times the failure to remember that distinction has gotten me into embarrassing situations here in Japan….)

“Do you say ‘pants’?” someone asked the Brit. “I thought you used ‘knickers’ for undergarments.”

“Yeah, it can mean that. Although usually when I use the worded ‘nick’, it means steal.”

“Like, ‘nicking knickers’ I said.”

“Um…Yeah, I suppose you could say that.”

“Or you could say, ‘Nick was nicking knickers,” I continued.

“Oh, but come to think of it,” the Brit went on, “the word ‘nick’ can also mean ‘be arrested’. Like, ‘he was nicked by the cops’.”

“Or….” I said, “‘Nick was nicked while nicking knickers’.”

“What about ‘nippers’?” asked the Brit. “Do you say that back in North America?”

“Well, in Canada ‘Nip’ is actually a derogatory term for the Japanese.”

“Wait! I’ve got it now. ‘Nick the Nip got nicked….’”

“No, not ‘Nip’. ‘Nippers’. Like children. Like, ‘All the little nippers running around’”.

“Nick the Nip got nicked while nicking knickers from nippers,” I blurted out. “Or Nick the Nip got nicked while nicking nippers’ knickers.”

Now, aside from:
1). the fact that I don’t usually approve of using racially derogatory terms and…
2). There aren’t that many Japanese people named Nick (although you could argue this second point is nit-picking). I suppose you could fix this by just switching Nip and nippers around. “Nick the nipper got nicked while nicking knickers from Nips.”

Aside from that, I think this little poem is sheer genius.

Link of the Day
You've got to love the Japan Times for their eye for the more bizarre aspects of Japan. Like this article on the new industry renting out sex dolls.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Japanese Engrish

I don’t mention it a lot on this weblog, but I am awash every day in Japanese English.

I guess the reasons I don’t mention it too much are:
1). I see so much of it that after a while it doesn’t even affect me and
2). If I tried to list every bit of Japanese English I saw, it would take over this blog.

Not to say I haven’t dabbled in it from time to time. I’ve touched on the subject in one of the first entries I wrote, as well as here and here.

I think my favorite example of Japanese English is my friend Brenda’s shirt, which reads, “I want to wake up next to you, isn’t it?”

“Did you buy that in Japan?” I asked.

“Of course I bought it in Japan,” she replied. “Why does everyone ask me that? Where else could I have gotten a shirt like this?”

My second favorite was a cigarette vending machine I once saw, with a long English message written on the front. Unfortunately I didn’t write it down, and I can’t remember it verbatim, but it was something like this:

“ ‘Have a smoke’ is a popular Japanese greeting. Many Japanese say to each other, ‘How is your smoke today?’ which is Japanese way of saying ‘How are you?’ Many young Japanese enjoy smoke in the afternoon. So, relax and have smoke with Japanese people.”

In comparison to those beauties, I’m not sure this next one lives up. In fact I feel a little guilty writing it, because once this is posted, I’m going to have opened the floodgates and will feel obligated to post every funny bit of Japanese English I see.

At any rate, I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge, and I noticed the teacher next to me had a desktop calendar with a picture of a dog in a cute pose on each month. At the bottom of the calendar was written: “Bow Wow Doggy: Many dogs are in this calendar.”

At the top of each dog picture were the words: “The sight of its back of the little doggy which goes up stairs.”

And each picture was captioned with the words: “I like the dog which listens to what said.”

Okay, now with that little guilty pleasure out of the way, I promise not to write about Japanese English for at least another couple of months.

Link of the Day
Forgive me from changing moods from the trivial to the very serious:

Many of you reading this know of Andy Schrier, a friend from Calvin College, who died of Cancer a couple years ago.

Before Andy died, he sent out a series of mass e-mails describing his faith as he struggled with the prospect of death. They have all been archived on the net here.

If you have the time and inclination, they are probably all worth reading, but of particular note is the e-mail dated Dec 14, 2002, which begins with these words:

I’m not going to apologize for the length of this email, but it is a lengthy
one. You may not want to open it work because it may take you awhile to read
Idon’t want your boss to get mad at you. But I would appreciate it if you
wouldtake the time to read it. I think I’ve been waiting to write this my
wholelife; it has been an entire lifetime of stuff that God has been teaching
me. In short, I feel that I’ve poured my very soul into this writing. I truly
hope andpray that it will point to God and not to me.

I remember this e-mail particularly well because I recieved it at a time when I was struggling with my faith, and I really took a lot of inspiration from it. It didn't clear everything up like a magic bullet. I'm still struggling with a lot of the same things I was struggling with two years ago, but I always thought it was very strange the way I found this e-mail in my inbox on the same afternoon that I had been thinking a lot about these type of issues.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Speech Contest First Prize

Turns out that over summer break, while I was down in Oita prefecture, one of my students up here in Gifu took first prize in the prefectural English speech tournament.

I’m not sure how much I deserve to take credit for this. I guess teachers are always trying to claim credit for their students’ successes.

The speech class is pretty small; only 3 students. So the speech teacher and I get to do a lot of one on one work with them. I ended up more or less doing most of the writing for each student’s speech.

The students all originally wrote their speeches in Japanese, then translated it into awkward, ungrammatical, and essentially unintelligible English. Then, working with the speech teacher and me, re-wrote it into proper English. So most of the words and phrasing in their speeches are actually mine. In a way I feel like it’s my first prize.

In addition, with this particular student, her speech was originally too short, so the speech teacher asked me to write some filler to lengthen it. Then the speech became too long, but the speech teacher opted to cut out parts the student had written, rather than my additions. I argued against this, as I imagine all of you would as well. I said it wasn’t my speech but the student’s speech, but the speech teacher thought the student had a better chance of winning with my additions.

So, if I were to take credit for this first prize, those would be the arguments I would use.

Of course that being said, to the extent that a speech contest is just as much about delivery as it is about content, I can’t take credit because I did very little speech coaching. Most of the speech coaching occurred during summer with the regular speech teacher, while I was gone on vacation. Before I left for Oita I did a couple model readings, and recorded an audiotape of myself modeling pronunciation for the student to practice with, and that’s pretty much it.

And because I didn’t actually witness the speech tournament, I have no idea how big it was, or what the competition was like. And so I don’t know how much to be impressed by the fact that my student won.

I remember my own days as a member of the Forensics team in High School. The top two members from each event were chosen to represent the school at the district competition. The top two people from the district went on to the regionals.

At the time I was in “Informative Speaking”, doing a speech about the Etruscan War. Not only was I the only person in my school doing “Informative Speaking”, it turned out I was the only person in the whole district. So, I got first place in the district for “Informative Speaking,” which is pretty meaningless when you consider the circumstances.

Still, I got a nice award, and a round of applause from everyone at the award ceremony, and my name was listed in the school announcements along with other people who took first place in their event.

And I was able to list that award on resumes and college applications.

Link of the Day
A while ago I mentioned I enjoyed listing to NPR while in internet Cafes. I've been making the same pitch over here in Japan, but a number of people, mainly British JETs, have been telling me to switch over to the BBC instead.

The BBC site is quite impressive. There's a lot of stuff on their to listen to, particularly if you search their archives, it's almost overwhelming.

You can go through 50 years of archived BBC stories on this site. Time prepare to be wasted.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Reflections on Summer Break

Already my summer break is over and I find myself asking, “Wow! Where did that time go?”

Somewhat ironic I suppose because I spent a good deal of my summer break complaining about how bored I was. But I think we’ve all had this kind of experience: You start out the summer feeling like you have all the time in the world. You feel like you can waste whole days sitting in front off the TV and doing nothing, and still have all the time left to do everything you wanted to. And then you blink and all of a sudden summer is half over, and you realize you have to get busy and make the most of time. And then you blink again, and suddenly summer is over completely. And that’s pretty much what happened to me.

I started out my summer break by writing on this blog

Since I usually do most of my writing at work, you perhaps can expect a bit of a drop off in the blogging during the next few weeks. Either that, or you’ll know for sure that I’m hopeless addicted to the internet and there is no hope for me. One or the other should reveal itself. Stay tuned to this blog to find out which (if you can stand the suspense).

I guess that question has been answered. I think I probably blogged more during my summer break than I do during the usual year. I guess I truly am an internet junky.

Therefore anyone who has been following this blog already has a good idea of what I’ve been doing this summer, and there is no need to recap everything.

I do feel however that a blog, even one updated as frequently as this, is never an accurate reflection on real life because it is just a series of snapshots. When I would write about the exciting things I was doing this summer, I felt like I was leaving out the boring stuff and making my life sound more exciting than it was. And vice versa when I wrote about the boring things.

So…I’ve undertaken to write a little summary of my summer break: what I accomplished, what I didn’t accomplish, and what I perhaps could have done better. We’ll start with the negative to get it out of the way.

Things I Didn’t Do

I brought all my Japanese study materials with me to Shoko’s place, and had every intention of using some of my free time to really bone up on my Japanese language skills. I didn’t touch the study materials once.

I intended to get a lot of reading done and finally finish Emma Goldman’s autobiography. I barely touched that book as well.

I was planning on getting in shape this summer by doing a lot of push-ups, going jogging everyday, and really watching what I ate. The push-ups were somewhat off and on. The food thing was a disaster. And I only went jogging one day.

I was planning, in fact very much looking forward to, traveling to Hiroshima for the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing. I wanted to be a part of the historic commemoration, but time, money, and weather ended up not working in my favor. I do note however, that from what I saw on TV and read in the papers, it seems like there was nothing going on except the usual boring speeches in the hot sun. Maybe it’s just as well I didn’t go. On the other hand, it would have been interesting to see what the feeling in the city would have been like on that historic day.

I didn’t spend as much time with old friends as I wanted. This was largely due to factors beyond my control, such as the distance between Shoko’s place in Hita where I was staying, and the Usa-Ajimu area where most of my friends were, and the fact that I was really the only one sitting on my ass all summer with nothing to do. Most of my friends either had to report into work, or were taking advantage of the summer holiday to travel themselves.

I did let some time escape from me. I could have spent more time with friends if I had perhaps been more aggressive about calling people up and making plans, but even then, I would probably still have left thinking it hadn’t been enough time. When is it ever enough? You never leave an area thinking that you had spent all the time you wanted with friends. I should probably just be thankful for the time I was able to spend with them, and we did have a lot of good moments.

Things I Did Accomplish
Although it is ironic that I came down to Oita expecting to get back in touch with old friends, and then ended up spending most of my time with the new arrivals, I do feel good about the time I spent helping the new JETs to get settled in. I remember Greg saying last year, as we were both helping our successors to get settled in, “It really is a great character building thing if you can take the life you built here in Japan over 3 years, and pass it on to another person so that they don’t have to start from the beginning all over again.”

Of course the danger is that you can become too overbearing, trying to re-make the new JET in your own image and trying to get them to do everything just like you did it, and intruding too much into their new life. I may have walked the line a bit, but I like to think in the end I was more helpful than I was intruding.

I did spend a lot of time with Shoko, which was my main reason for coming down to Oita in the first place. And, since I leave Japan in March and we need to decide where our relationship is headed, this was important time.

Although admittedly not all of it was quality time. I was a bit crabby sometimes because I thought I was cooped up in her apartment with nothing to do, and I did snap at her at times.

This doesn’t speak particularly well of me, but the patience she showed with me when I was at my crabbiest speaks very well of her. I think I’d be hard pressed to find another girl this patient.

The time I did spend with old friends, although not as much as I would have liked, was quality. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the send off we gave Holmsey in his last night in Oita city (don’t worry Holmes, my lips are sealed). It was good to see a lot of the people from my old office again as well. And I got to spend a lot of time swimming in waterfalls, which is my idea of a perfect summer vacation.

Things I Could Have Done Better

I had some active days, but then I had some boring days as well. And it’s those boring days that eat at you. I mean, what could be worst than being in your youth, having a long summer break, and wasting a lot of it by being bored? That’s time I’ll never get back.

There’s a part of me that thinks that being bored some days is just part of a 5 week vacation. It would have been close to impossible to fill every single day brimming over with excitement. I know that if I had gone home for those 5 weeks, I would probably have spent just as much time being bored, because all my friends would have been at their day jobs. Even if I had done something like backpacked around Europe for 5 weeks (which I wouldn’t have been able to afford anyway) some days would probably have gotten a bit slow.

Also a lot of factors were beyond my control. As mentioned above, many of my friends were working or gone during the summer, and the distance from Hita was a factor. I did do a couple days sight seeing by myself, but then decided that sight-seeing by myself is the most boring thing imaginable, and I’d rather be in front of the TV than do that.

However I am reminded of my high school teacher who said, “Bored people are usually boring people.” In other words I probably bear responsibility for not being active. Even though it seemed like nothing was going on, if I was someone else, I would have made something happen. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if it was someone else in my position, things would have been a bit more excited. For instance if I was Eion, I’m sure I would have organized a huge party, or a cycling trip, or formed a band and started playing music, or probably all 3. And yet for the life of me, I couldn’t think of anything to do to make my summer break any more exciting.

Of course the TV was my arch-nemesis. I don’t know if the absence of TV would have made my break any more exciting, but I’m certain it would have made it more productive. All the things I listed above that I wanted to do but didn’t (study Japanese, exercise regularly, read more), were a result of the TV.

On the other hand, most of the movies I saw, I’m glad I took the time to see, so it’s a bit hard to draw a clear line. If good movies, like good literature, have something edifying in them, and I believe a lot of them do, then we can become a more rich and developed person by watching some of them.

And in a way, even some of the bad movies I saw this summer, like “Highlander” or Liz Taylor’s “Cleopatra”, I’m sort of glad I saw if for no other reason than now I can appreciate a lot of the pop culture references to them.

And if we take Bertram Russell’s maxim that: “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time,” then perhaps much of it was time well spent in deed.
After all, there is nothing more pleasant then having the girl come home from work, spending some quality time and getting some good loving, and then, after she falls asleep, sneaking out to the convenience store for some cookies and potato chips and settling in for a couple late night videos, with the full knowledge of not having to wake up the next morning. That, to me, is the essence of summer break.
(Perhaps Russell might have thought differently if he was living in the age of TV, but I'll leave that alone for now.)

I think the key to all this, as to all things in life, is moderation. And, alas, moderation has never been my strong point. I tend to have to make rules for myself, or otherwise things just fall apart. I can never say, “I’ll just watch TV when I feel like it, and try not to overdue it,” because I’ll inevitably overdue it.

This is why I got rid of my TV in Ajimu, and why I have not gotten a TV in Gifu. And, if nothing else, I have that as my consolation. I may have wasted a lot of time in front of the TV during the month of August, but the next 11 months are going to be TV free.

Link of the Day
The focus is slightly different, but I think Brett touches some similar themes about the importance of not wasting your life away on this post.

While I'm linking to Brett's blog, I really enjoyed this post he did about his cat getting into the oil. It's a funny story, but on top of that he tells it very well. I can't help but compare it to my own writing. I like to think I have a lot of funny stories here in Japan, but often I tend to kill the joke by over-emphasizing it. Compare that to the light-hearted touch Brett uses in his writing.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Returning to Gifu

Summer break has come to an end, and I returned to Gifu last Wednesday.

Although I came by driving all the way down, on the way back I took the ferry.

I had avoided taking the ferry on the way down because, although normal tickets are quite cheap, it is very expensive to take your car with you. But a friend in Oita informed me that, if you know how to do it, you can actually get a cheap ticket. It’s just a matter of knowing where to go.

For instance, if you buy your tickets in Fukuoka, and buy a package, you can actually ride the ferry (and take your car with you) for a cheap price.

And so, I took the ferry to Osaka, and from Osaka, it was only about 3 hours back to Gifu.

Taking the ferry doesn’t shave any time off of the trip. In fact it is very slow going, but it does afford a lot of freedom of movement, which makes it preferable to other forms of transportation. You can walk out on deck and see the view, go down to the cafeteria and eat some food, even play video games and take a bath. And get in some quality sleep on your cot, which is good because it’s a night ferry.

But it’s a lot more fun with friends. I remember taking the Ferry down from Hokkaido with Greg and Jess, and even though we were stuck on the boat for 2 days, it was a ton of fun. I didn’t want the Ferry ride to end.

But nothing is more depressing than standing on the deck of the ferry all alone as you see the coastline fade off into the distance.

It also occurred to me that usual when I take the Ferry, I’m excited because I’m going on vacation. This time the vacation is ended, and it’s time to start work again. Can you imagine anything more depressing than that?

Link of the Day
I'm not sure why I didn't link to this ages ago, but Dean Dozeman wrote a nice little piece back in January on why it is that we always wish we were somewhere else than we are.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Glimpses of Shoko Part 4: Motorcycle Manuel

One of Shoko’s close friends has a father who is a motorcycle enthusiast. The father is so into his motorcycles that he special ordered a special piece of equipment from America. It came without any Japanese instructions.

The friend, aware that Shoko had a foreign boyfriend, asked Shoko to translate the instruction manual for her father. Shoko agreed.

“You think we can translate this together sometime?” Shoko asked me.

“Sure, sure,” I answered, without even bothering to look at it. “Now, will you hurry up and get ready? We’re going to be late again.”

“Sometime” became later and later, until suddenly it was the end of summer. “We have to do this,” Shoko said. “I promised my friend I would, and now I’ve kept her waiting for 3 weeks.”

So we sat down to do some translating. I was beginning to regret promising to do this. It would be a lot of work, and I didn’t even know the person we were doing this for. I had kind of been hoping Shoko would forget about it, but she didn’t.

The instruction kit was a nightmare. It was filled with techno-speak like, “Slide the wicket past the fork mount and turn the screw 3 threads in” or something like that.

“Shoko,” I said at the beginning, “to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think we’ll be able to translate this. This is beyond our abilities.” She ignored the initial warning. I didn’t argue the point, as I was confident she would come to the same conclusion once she actually got into the thing.

Like a lot of Japanese people, Shoko’s ability to read English is a lot better than her ability to understand it when spoken. She was actually able to get through a fair amount of it. At first we were translating it together, and then she gradually she took over more and more of it, until I was just lying on the couch next to her and watching TV. She would consult me ever time she had a question, which was mostly about technical terms or English idioms. The idioms I could help her with. The technical terms I just had to shrug off. “I don’t know Shoko. It’s motorcycle terminology. I know nothing about motorcycles.”

As I got more and more into the TV, I became increasingly annoyed whenever she had a question. I had also expected her to give up a couple sentences into it, and was annoyed that she was still working on it two hours later.

“You should stop,” I said. “You’re just going to strain your eyes. And I told you that you won’t be able to do that anyway.”

“Well then why didn’t you tell me that before I started on it.”

“I did. Right when we were on the first sentence I told you we weren’t going to be able to translate this.”

“No, I mean why didn’t you tell me that when I first accepted it from my friend? Now I’ve had it for 3 weeks, and her father has been waiting all this time for me.”

“Because I didn’t look at it carefully.”

“Well, now I have to translate it first before returning it.”

“Look, Shoko, if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. You can have all the best intentions in the world, but if you can’t do it, there’s no point in wasting time on this.”

“Fine. If you think we can’t do it, then I’ll do it myself,” she said, and went back to her work. I went back to my television watching.

Naturally, after 5 minutes or so I began feeling guilty, and asked her how she was coming along. Then I said, “Look, Shoko, you’re acting like a child. You’re angry at me because I said you couldn’t do it, so now you’re trying to prove me wrong, and you’re not thinking this through rationally. That’s how a child acts.”

“Well, think about the way you’re acting,” Shoko said. “You’re just lying there on the couch doing nothing but saying ‘You can’t do it. You can’t do it.’ Have you thought about how that makes me feel?”

“But you can’t do it,” I said. “Look at this! I’m an American, and I don’t even understand half the stuff in these instructions.” It was on the tip of my tongue to add, “and besides your English isn’t really that good,” but I decided against it.

Instead I said, “People who translate technical manuals like this are professional translators who have translating licenses, and preferable some knowledge of the subject matter in question. And they get a lot of money for doing it.”

“That’s my point,” Shoko said. “My friend doesn’t come from a rich family, and her father already paid a lot of money for this to be shipped from overseas. Do you realize how much money he would have to pay to get this translated in addition?”

In the end, the desire not to get in a big fight right before I left for Gifu overwhelmed my desire to prove I was right. I made Shoko promise to be careful and not to strain her eyes too much. She decided to stop for the day, but planned to finish translating throughout the week. I told her I would be glad to help her whenever she had a question, and that she could ask me questions even after I had returned to Gifu.

Link of the Day
Wasting time on i-film:
If you like watching old stuff, like I do, check out these vintage newsreels from the world War II.
Interesting how they used the word "Jap" not only in collequial language, but even in the news back then.

And, along similar lines, check out this now banned Popeye film: "You're a Sap, Mr. Jap"

Friday, September 02, 2005

Glimpses of Shoko Part 3: Meeting the Co-workers

Shoko has done her best to keep me a secret from her co-workers at the Shochu brewery company. I’ve returned the favor by keeping her a secret from my new friends up in Gifu.

However, recently she has begun to confide in some of her closer friends that she is dating a foreigner. The friends have expressed great interest in meeting me, and so Shoko arranged to bring me by to see the brewery one day when she knew only her close friends would be around.

“Now if I bring you in to see my work, it’s very important that you act normal, and not do any of those weird things that you sometimes do,” Shoko prepped me. “And remember, this is a Shochu making company, so don’t go off on your little speech about how bad alcohol is.”

“But it is bad for you,” I protested.

“People who work at a Shochu company don’t see it that way,” she said. “Just keep your opinions to yourself for one day.”

The debate about the benefits of alcohol is an ongoing discussion between Shoko and I. It started out over a year ago as a discussion about the American and Japanese attitudes to work.

Shoko informed me one day that she would not be able to meet with me as planned because she had to go into work. “I thought it was your holiday,” I said.

“It is my holiday.”

“But if you’re going into work, it’s not a holiday.”

“Well, technically it is, because I’m not getting paid for it.”

“What? Then why are you going into work?”

“Because there are things to be done. It’s the Japanese way.”

I refused to accept this. “That’s not your problem. It’s your employer’s problem. He needs to hire more help, or pay you overtime.”

“No, this isn’t America. We Japanese don’t complain when we’re asked to work extra.”

“Well, that’s a great deal for your employer then, isn’t it? He should just make everyday a holiday for you.”

“I’m part of a team. If I don’t go in, my co-workers will think it’s selfish,” Shoko replied.

I became a little patronizing at this point. “Okay, Shoko, why do you work? For what purpose do you go into work everyday?” She declined to play my game, so I answered for her. “It’s to get money, right? That’s the only reason you have a job. So if you go into work without receiving compensation, you’re screwing up the whole system.”

Shoko countered that I often went into work without being paid. I taught volunteer classes in the evenings and on the weekends, and I sometimes attended school sporting events on Saturdays. “That’s different,” I said. “I’m a teacher. I’m doing good work. You work at an alcohol company. Every day you go into work, you’re making the world worse.” And so began the debate.

Shoko maintained that alcohol in moderation was not bad at all, and was actually very good for creating social situations, and so she believed in the work she was doing at the Shochu company.

I countered that for every person who drinks alcohol moderately, someone else abuses it. When all is taken into account, drunk driving, alcoholism, drunken fights and abusive relationships, the world is much better off without alcohol than with it.

(Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not arguing a return to prohibition. But let’s not delude ourselves by thinking that working at a brewery is doing the world a service).

The debate has escalated since I started my “no-drinking rule”, and have begun criticizing Shoko’s occasional choice of wine with a meal. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, but Shoko is apparently under the impression that alcohol has no bad effects at all, and is very reluctant to believe my tales of dead brain cells and damaged livers.

Anyway, I promised not to criticize alcohol for the brief time I was in the brewery. Shoko brought me in and showed me around, and introduced me to two of her friends.
The friends, from what Shoko tells me, were quite impressed with me. I don’t put too much stock in this, because I assume they were just being polite and telling Shoko what she wanted to hear. I mean, how often do you hear a girlfriend say, “I was just talking to my friends about you, and they all agree how awful you are.” I do notice however that every time I get a favorable review from her friends, her affection for me, and patience with my antics, seem to increase accordingly.

Link of the Day
My friend Rob joins the blogosphere. That's one fine looking lime indeed.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Glimpses of Shoko Part 2: Silent Movies and Shoko

I like Shoko a lot, and she’s an intelligent girl with an inquiring mind. She’s always eager to learn new things, and her brain remembers new facts very well, so that I seldom have to repeat myself when I’m explaining things to her like American politics or government.

That said, it’s amazing what she doesn’t know. Like the time she expressed confusion over the origins of World War II. “You Americans attacked us first,” she once said.

“No we didn’t. You Japanese attacked us. Haven’t you ever heard of Pearl Harbor?”

She had heard of it, but thought that happened after the war had already begun. “No,” I insisted. “That was the start of the war. You attacked us first.”

“Really? But why would we do that?”
I had actually done a report at college entitled, “Japanese Reasons for the Attack on Pearl Harbor”, so I was able to field this question somewhat, but it just seemed like a bizarre conversation.

(I later read an article in the Japan Times that said the whole debate over controversial history textbooks in Japan misses the point that most history curriculums don’t even make it to World War II before the end of the year anyway, and the younger generation is primarily educated by television specials).

I was again shocked at Shoko’s ignorance when we watched the video of “Phantom of the Opera” together. I mused that I thought the musical was only so-so, but that, in my youth, I had been a big fan of the 1925 silent movie version.

“What’s a silent movie?” Shoko asked.

“It’s a movie without sound,” I explained, thinking at first that the misunderstanding was only due to the language barrier.

“Well, then, it’s not really a movie is it?”

Again, I thought maybe this was because of the language barrier, or confusion over semantics. “Sure it is. The Japanese word for movie, “eiga” dates back to the turn of the century before movies had sound in them.”

Turns out she was unaware that there was ever a time when movies didn’t have sound in them. I was amazed. “You’re telling me you have no idea what I’m talking about? You’ve never seen a silent film? You have no idea that silent films even exist?”

“How would they tell the story without words?” Shoko asked.

“By acting and gestures mostly. Sometimes written words would appear on the screen. And there would be a piano in the movie theater, and there would be a musical score that went with the movie, and when someone was tied up on the train tracks, someone was always getting tied to train tracks in silent movies, the piano music would be real fast and exciting.”

“Now you’re just making stuff up,” she accused me.

In my determination to convince her that there really was such a thing as silent movies, I started to get a bit emotional. “Really, it’s appalling that you don’t know any of this.”

Because I don’t know the Japanese word for “appalling”, I had slipped into my English. She didn’t understand, so I looked up the word “appalled” in my Japanese-English dictionary, and began listing off Japanese synonyms. “Mukatsukaseru. Unzarisuru. Aisougatsukiru…”

“Okay, okay, I get it. But why is it so bad that I don’t know any of this? It should be a point of pride really. It shows that I do other things with my time besides sitting in front of the TV all day like you do.”

I (still slightly worked up) blurted out, “It’s not just that. It’s that you Japanese don’t know anything about anything. You know all about ‘Hello Kitty’ or ‘Pokemon’ or video games, but you have no clue about anything that’s not animated or a comic book.”

Shoko responded that Japanese people have a lot longer history to keep track of than us Americans, and can’t be expected to remember everything. I eventually calmed down. Shoko, when pressed, did seem to remember something about once seeing a Charlie Chaplin movie without sound. Eventually, we decided to set aside our differences, and watch “Phantom” together in peace.

Link of the Day
Put this down under: the things you find when you have nothing better to do but search Google for your own name.
I don't know this guy, but appearently I inspired him to start his blog. Ah ha! I do have some influence after all.