Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Stupid things I've done Recently: I Got into a Car Accident/ Car Incident

To make this story even more embarrassing, of all the people to have in my passenger seat I had the Gifu University Visiting Professor of Chemical Engineering from Thailand.

I didn’t know this gentleman previously, but he needed a ride to the party, and a mutual friend asked me to pick him up. We talked about life in Japan on the car ride there.

Since he didn’t speak Japanese, he had to communicate with people in his English, which is always an uphill battle in Japan. “It’s amazing,” he told me. “Hardly anyone in Japan can speak decent English. It’s not our native language in Thailand either, but we study it and we learn it. In Japan everyone has at least 6 or 8 years of English education by the time they finish college, and no one can speak a word.”

That seems to be a common complaint,” I said.

He also talked about his students. “They’re very bright and they work very hard,” he said. “They even come in on the weekends to work on their projects. But their so obsessed with procedure that they just spend a lot of time doing little things that don’t need to be done.”

“You’d be surprised how much of that is true in the English education as well,” I commented.

So we were chatting away like that. I had some trouble finding my friend’s apartment, as I do every time. I knew the general area he lives in, but these Japanese apartment complexes all look the same and I was wandering down endless side streets. I was trying to avoid calling for directions because I always end up calling for directions. I tried to explain this to the Professor. “I can’t call for directions because he’ll really lose his patience with me. I always get lost on the way to his house.”

Eventually though I gave in and called for directions. My friend was gracious enough about it, and I listened to him explain it again. “Mmm hmm, okay, right, got it. Okay, thanks a lot. Good-bye.” As soon as I hung up I realized that I had only absorbed half of what he had told me. But maybe that would be enough.

So we were driving around the streets, looking out for the landmarks my friend had told me about, and I was trying to explain to the professor why I absolutely couldn’t call a second time for directions, when my side mirror hit the car coming the other way. The frame was on a hinge so it simply swung back like it was supposed to do. The glass on my mirror shattered.

In a way it wasn’t my fault. Japanese roads, especially Japanese roads in the countryside, are often not big enough for two cars to pass each other without one pulling over to the side. This road was especially treacherous as it had started out a bit wider, and then gradually narrowed. (It was the road’s fault, really).

It was my fault in the since that as I was looking for landmarks, I was blatantly not looking at the road in front of me. On the other hand, the car driving the other direction had been going just as fast as I was, and, since I was safely on my side of the road, I think the fault was mutual.

He thought differently though. He was an old Japanese man, and from the moment we stopped our cars he started laying into me about how I wasn’t looking at the road. And he had me there; I hadn’t been, so I didn’t argue this point. Then he accused me of not having a valid license, and I politely corrected him. Although I hate to be someone who cries “racism” everywhere, I’m pretty sure his attitude, especially the assumption that I didn’t have a driver’s license, was simply because I was foreign.

Because I drive a company car, the rules are pretty strict that I have to call the police after every accident. In fact the company accident report form warns ominously that “however slight you may think the accident, failure to properly report it to the police may have unpleasant consequences.”

The old man, whose car wasn’t damaged, didn’t feel it was necessary to call the police. I realized first of all that I didn’t have a clear idea of where I was, didn’t know the phone number for the local police, and besides I always have difficulty understanding the rough dialect the police usually seem to speak. I also imagined calling the police, waiting forever for them to get out to the countryside where we were, and then explaining to them that we had simply swiped side mirrors. And then I began to think to myself that this wasn’t so much a car accident as a “car incident”. We had simply bumped each other a bit in passing. So I never called the police. Hopefully that won’t come back to bite me in the ass.

However all in all, in 5 years of driving in Japan I think I’ve got a pretty good track record. There was one other “car incident” which occurred during my first year in Oita.

A bunch of us went out for a big night in Oita city. I was the sober driver as usual. At the end of the night we piled into my car, which was parked on the side of the road. I pulled out of my parking space, straightened out the car, stepped on the gas, and then immediately hit another parked car. Everyone had a good laugh about that and made jokes like, “Wait a minute, which one of us is the sober driver again?”

I really don’t have an excuse for this. It was just pure stupidity and not paying attention on my part. (Well, if I had to make an excuse, I would say that it was my first year in Japan, and I was still getting used to the narrow roads. Also I was somewhat distracted by the rowdy behavior of my drunken passengers. But both of these excuses are so pathetic that I would never bring them up.)

Again this was another unreported incident. I got out and looked at the damage to the other car. It was dark out and I didn’t look too hard, but seeing none, I simply got back in my car and snuck away.

Oh, and come to think about it there was also the time I caused an accident by driving too slow. That time I really didn’t have a valid drivers license. My international driving license had just expired, and it was a couple months before the local Japanese driving center could schedule me for a test. (They had just changed the law that year regarding international driving licenses, so a number of us JETs were caught by surprise when we returned from summer vacation to learn our international driving licenses were no longer valid.)

I still drove around anyway. Life in Ajimu for two months without a car would have been hard to take. But I was very careful to go exactly the speed limit.

Japan has an interesting system regarding speed limits. They set the limit ridiculously low, and then typically look the other way if you go 20 or 30 kilometers over.
So a car going exactly the speed limit on the expressway can cause problems (as I guess it would in America as well).

One night coming back from Oita city on the expressway, I was driving the speed limit, and a car came speeding up behind me not realizing how slow I was going. Then to avoid hitting me he crashed into the guardrail. I stopped the car to make sure he was all right. He wasn’t very talkative. I think he must have been either upset or embarrassed.

Not having a valid license, I didn’t want to stick around too long, so after I made sure he didn’t need any help, I drove off as he called the tow truck.

Link of the Day
My friend Matt sends me another bizarre article about Japan: Wicked and wanton woman seduces schoolboy same age as son

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Stupid Things I've Done Recently (A Series in 3 Parts)

Continuing stories of my stupidity in Japan. I’ve done enough stupid things lately that I’m going to break this into 3 separate posts.

Stupid thing # 1: Dropped a Bowling Ball on My Foot
I’m not exactly sure how I managed to do this. During our weekly Monday night bowling, I guess I must have had my left foot a little too far forward as I released the bowl. The ball left my hand and smacked right into my ankle.

It only hurt moderately, but it really swelled up fast. Within minutes after the incident, there was a round lump roughly the size of a golf ball on my left ankle. The paranoid side of me was remembering all sorts of stories I knew about people who almost lost limps because of internal bleeding and swelling.

My friends didn’t help any. “What if you dislodged the bone marrow?” someone suggested. “It could get in your blood stream and make its way up to your heart and kill you.”

I scoffed at this possibility and said no one ever died from an ankle injury. But once the idea was put in my head, it started to worry that this might be my last game of bowling. “Maybe I can get a few more strikes in before I pass away,” I said.

Someone got the idea to put ice on it, and it’s amazing what a little ice can do. The swelling went down almost immediately.

So I bought a re-usable ice pack and kept that around my ankle the next day at work. It worked wonders, but then I had to explain to everyone at work that I dropped a bowling ball on my foot.

With this added to the kitten bite, and injuring my hand trying to climb a telephone poll, I’ve had a lot of embarrassing injuries this term that I’ve had to explain at work.

Link of the Day
Via Jana's blog (which comes via Phil and Bork's blog) it appears my hometown has made the news when two people were trampled in the Holiday rush to get into Wal-marts

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Another Weekend

On Saturday we played video games in an arcade, and then we found an unused movie theater that we played charades in.

At around 6 we left to get some dinner. It was early in the evening, but the others had been drinking all through the afternoon and once again I was one of the only sober ones present.

We made quite a commotion as we walked through the city. Most of them were doing silly things. We passed a sushi shop that had a radio playing outside. Someone turned the volume up and then ran away. They saluted the Japanese people walking past, and began demanding that everyone they met on the sidewalk give them a high-five. They jumped up and touched the banners hanging from the shops just to prove they were tall enough to do it. In short, it was very 1st year JET stuff. They had only been in the country for a few months, and most of them were still a little intoxicated with all the attention.

Although age wise some of them were as old or older than me, everyone else in the group were all first year JETs. They were still going through the first year JET phase of playing things up because of all the attention they were receiving. Once upon a time that was me as well, but I feel like I’ve mostly moved past that.

I was both embarrassed to be part of this group, and at the same time regarding it with a kind of amusement to see what would happen. After all, I was always complaining about how boring things were. Maybe with all the trouble they were causing I would have a few interesting stories by the end of the night if I stuck with them.

In the end though nothing happened. I was somewhat reminded of the night Junior year when Brett and I were really bored out of our minds. In our quest for adventure we wandered around the campus creating little mischief. We moved barriers into the calvin street, and then hid and watched as campus safety came along to move them back. Eventually Brett commented about how silly the whole idea is. “All were doing is just annoying people,” he said. “The campus safety officer is just muttering under his breath about stupid kids, and that’s about it.” Its hard to create big adventures out of little acts of mischief.

On Sunday I went to Kyoto with a group of friends.

Kyoto is of course the most important historical and cultural city in Japan. (And, for you trivia buffs, one of the four final potential targets selected for the atomic bombing. It’s frightening to walk around all the old temples and castles and think how close it all came to just being wiped off the face of the earth in one instant.)

Regular readers of this blog might recall a re-occurring them is how pathetic my traveling is. For instance, this is my fifth year in Japan, and I’ve only been to Kyoto a total of for two days (during spring break 4 years ago). Especially now that I live in Gifu, only two hours away, there is really no excuse for not getting off my ass and exploring Kyoto more.

This time we went near the mountains on the edge of the city to explore some of the old temples and shrines there. But because it was on the edge of the city didn’t mean it was any less crowded. In fact, because the leaves were changing colors, it was packed with tourists coming to see the fall leaves.

One thing about Japan is people adhere to a schedule very strictly. At certain times of the year there are certain things you must do. In the spring you must have picnics under the cherry blossom trees. In the fall you must go out and see the leaves changing at recommended scenic spots.

Kyoto is beautiful in the fall I’ll admit that. We had a lot of picturesque moments walking around through the ancient temples under the fall leaves. But I hate fighting crowds and I hate the feeling that I’m part of a rush of people being herded to a certain spot at a certain time of year just because this is one of the things “I’m supposed to do.”

Additionally I felt like, despite my best efforts, I could not help but play the clumsy bumbling foreigner. Old hunchbacked ladies half my size were scurrying about the road below my field of vision, and I repeatedly knocked into them as my eyes were focused on the next site I was heading too. I stopped at a shop to admire some shirts, and was the shopkeeper yelled at me not to block the entrance.

The group we were with was about 12 people, which is a lot of people to keep track of in a crowded tourist destination. At the beginning of the day, Adam commented to me that he just wanted to relax and he didn’t feel like spending the day trying to keep track of everyone in the crowds. I responded that it wouldn’t be that bad, but in the end Adam was right.

We had a hard time moving anywhere because we couldn’t decide where to go. Finding a place to eat lunch took forever, and by the time we finally got some food we were all hungry and cranky.

At several points we stopped to take photos. Several of us murmured about how we were blocking up the road, and how the people on either side of us were getting angry, but for some reason we stayed where we were until a picture had been taken with everyone’s separate camera.

But that’s just me complaining. Big groups are always a hassle, but at the same time can be a lot more fun. Once we got to where we were going, we had a good time. And the train ride there and back was made a lot more fun because of everyone there.

Link of the Day
Wow! Damn it now this is cool. Video of John Lennon and Bob Dylan riding in the back of a taxi in 1966. Sure they don't say anything intelligent. Sure they mumble a bit, and appearently are stoned. And yet, seeing these two legends together in the back seat, you can't help but feel like they just don't make rock stars like this anymore.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Chorus Festival

The past two weeks the students have been busy practicing for chorus festival. And last Saturday we all came into school for their performance.

Much like sports day, Chorus festival is a pretty big deal in Japan. But it doesn’t involve me too much. My only job is to come in and watch.

Much to my disappointment, all the songs were the same as last year. There was a small part of me that was tempted to say to my Japanese Colleagues: “for goodness sakes people, couldn’t you have found some new songs for the kids to sing? Do you know how boring it is to sit through the same performance for the second year in a row? Aren’t there any more songs in Japan that you could have chosen from?”

But instead I kept my criticism mute. I said things like, “weren’t all the songs the same as last year?” And they were just pleased that I had paid enough attention to notice.

And after chorus festival was the usual drinking party. Although I complained on this blog about the previous school drinking party, I actually had a good time on this one. A large part of it is seating assignments. This time I was seated by the younger teachers, and it was a lot more like hanging out with friends than work colleagues.

In fact I even stuck around long enough to go to a second bar with some of the younger teachers. Before we entered the bar, one of them explained to me: “the forbidden word inside this bar is ‘teacher’. None of us are teachers inside this bar. You never know where parents might be, so just in case the parents of our students are inside, don’t say teacher. Call everyone by their name, don’t say ‘sensei’.”

Although there was great concern by my colleagues that I would mess this up, it actually proved easier for me than everyone else. Partly no doubt due to the fact that I was the only sober one. But also in Japan it is usual to address people by their title instead of their name. At school my name is not Joel, it is “Joel sensei”. But of course as an American I can slip out of this a lot easier than the Japanese can.

So I spent the rest of the evening watching for them to mess up, and then calling them on it. “Ah, you said the forbidden word!” I would shout out at various times. Eventually I proposed that a penalty should be imposed for saying the forbidden word. We agreed that anyone caught uttering the forbidden word would get a finger flicked against their forehead.

“But that will hurt,” one of the woman complained.

“Well, than just don’t say the word,” said the man to my left.

I began to play with this. “What’s your job again?” I asked her. She was on the point of answering when she caught herself. A while later I showed her a picture on my cell phone. “Who is this man?” I asked.

“It’s Ando sensei,” she answered automatically.

But it was agreed that there would be no penalty since I had tricked her into it.

Right before we left the bar, the hot tea was brought out. “What is tea in Japanese?” I asked.

“Tea wa cha,” she answered


“Tea cha” she said slightly louder and omitting the verb.

I can’t take credit for that joke, I learned it from Eoin. It doesn’t always work, but this time it played out beautifully. Although again, it was agreed there would be no penalty because I had unfairly tricked her.

My colleague on my left passed out. His head knocked his beer glass over and it spilled perfectly into the lap of the teacher across the table. Since everyone was still in their business suits, it caused a bit of commotion and there was a lot of passing napkins and cleaning up. We decided to call it a night shortly after that.

Link of the Day
Watch this video of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Rio in 1983, and then ask yourself what the AM radio would be saying if he had run as a Democrat.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

More Thoughts on Discipline in Japanese Schools

I hate to return to a topic that I’ve harped on so many times in so many previous entries, but there was an incident at school today which caused me to further reflect on the discipline in Japanese schools. And by that I mean of course the complete lack of discipline in Japanese schools.

The 8th grade students were working on writing their English essays on “My Dream”. I was wondering around the room and correcting problems and troubleshooting.

As usual during free work time, there was a certain amount of chaos going on (see previous post). Very few students were actually working on their compositions. Most were talking to each other. A few were reading comic books, and some were sleeping.

(Students very often sleep during class in Japan, and this has always seemed a little strange to me. I mean it’s strange that they get away with it for one, but it’s strange that they even have the urge. When I was in middle school and high school I never really felt much of an urge to sleep in class. By the time I got to college my roommates kept me up till all hours of the morning, and I was nodding off in classes left in right. But in junior high school I was still on a fairly regular sleep pattern, and never really had a problem with sleeping in class.)

Anyway, the usual chaos was going on. A couple boy students started wrestling. It’s not unusual for this to happen during class, and I’m generally inclined to follow the Japanese teacher’s lead. If she lets it go (which she usually does), then I don’t feel much of a need to take it upon myself to step in.

The trick of course is telling when the line has been crossed from playful wrestling to actually fighting. And this is hard to tell because often I think the participants themselves are unsure. They had strained smiles on their faces and they were even attempting to laugh but the wrestling was becoming a bit vicious and starting to look a bit less like play.

The Japanese teacher was busy helping other students. She looked up at the wrestling briefly, and then went back to what she was doing.

The combatants had their arms locked so neither could throw any punches, but one of them head butted the other. I decided I should probably do something. “Um, boys, shouldn’t you be working on your essay’s now?” I went over and gently directed them back to their desks. They went back surprisingly willingly. I think they had almost been waiting for someone to break them up before things got anymore violent.

I sat down briefly with one of them. “What are you working on now? Oh, your dream is a computer programmer. Good job. Okay, just keep writing then.” I then went and had a similar conversation with the other one.

I was just walking away, and thinking to myself, “Good job Joel. You handled that very well. Just goes to show how sometimes being a little bit proactive can go a long way…” When suddenly there was more commotion behind me. I turned around and one of the combatants had leaped up from his desk and ran across the room to punch the other one in the face. At this point their classmates separated them, and the Japanese teacher at last got involved.

One of the students, who had a bit of a black eye from being head butted, and who was bleeding from being punched in the mouth, started crying. He was trying not to because its embarrassing to start crying in front of the class when you’re in 8th grade, but he was loosing the battle to himself. The other student was still upset about something, and was kicking desks angrily as the Japanese teacher tried to sort out what had happened.

Now to be fair to my Japanese colleague, once things reached this level she did take it seriously. Another teacher was called in to help her sort out what happened. But as far as I could tell, no disciplinary action was taken. They were simply concerned with making sure that the fight was over and that no more problems would happen.

I’m not sure if this is the worst case I’ve seen yet, but it definitely ranks up there. There was also the time this spring when I saw one student (who was standing up) kick a student (who was sitting down) in the face over some argument. The Japanese teacher saw it, but didn’t do anything, so I took upon myself to escort the bleeding student to the nurse’s room, but no disciplinary action was taken.

And then there was the time back in Ajimu when the Japanese teacher actually got in a physical alteration with a 9th grade student. She was fighting with him, and I was just watching this with my jaw dropped wondering what I should do, when she broke away and just nodded with me to go on with the model reading.

What makes all this surprising is that it does not fit the myth of Japan which I was fed as a student. I remember one of my church youth group leaders saying, “In Japan they never have any discipline problems in the schools. If a student is misbehaving, the government simply says, ‘we don’t believe you appreciate this education we’re giving you, so you can just get a factory job instead’. So the teachers never have to deal with any misbehaving students.” Boy, what a lie that was.

In high school also teachers always talked about how strict Japan was. One teacher told a story to illustrate. “I asked the Japanese exchange student about misbehavior in Japanese schools. She said that once as a joke they all sat cross-legged in class. They were very nervous, but fortunately the teacher had a sense of humor and didn’t punish them. It just goes to show you the difference.”

I’m not sure if these stories are still being told to the younger generation of American high schoolers or not. I suspect that now that the Japanese economy has tanked, the refrain of “The Japanese are going to take over everything, and it’s all your fault for not studying hard enough” has probably fallen with it as well. But if you hear anyone still saying it, do me a favor and call them on it.

For what it’s worth, the myth persists on the other side as well. Japanese people believe that their schools are much better than the American schools, and are often surprised when they visit an American school and learn it is actually stricter. This August some of my students visited their sister school in California. They were really shocked. “When the students were talking in class, the teacher really got angry at them,” they said in amazed voices.

Link of the Day
Once again I'm going to have to plead ignorance because of being in Japan. Perhaps this story has already gotten more than enough coverage and I'm just being reduntant by linking to it.

But I read in the paper yesterday that the IRS has threatened the tax exempt status of a church in California because of an anti-war sermon.

Of course this presents obvious concerns about the freedom of speech and religion. Also it seems like a bit of a double standard to me. I grew up in an enviroment, and many of you did too, were right wing politics and Christianity were commonly fused together.

Don't forget Buy nothing day is coming up. The Japan Times has an article on Buy Nothing Day in Japan.

And finally...
Matt Lind goes on the attack after Bush says critics are re-writing history. Media Mouse has a very thorough rebuttle as well.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Daily Frustrations

The seventh grade class is currently working on making video letters, explaining various aspects of Japanese school, which they plan to send to their sister school in California.

Right now they’re still in the writing process. They’ve each picked topics, and they have to write English sentences, which they will later memorize and say in front of the video camera.

My job is basically to go around the room and correct mistakes or answer questions.

It is really amazing what these kids would rather do than study. The more rambunctious of them are of course throwing things and wrestling with each other all through class. But even the more quiet ones would often prefer to stare off into space for 50 minutes rather than do any work.

Near the end of class, I came across a student who had just written “SEX” all over his paper in large English letters. “What is this?” I asked. He and his friends started laughing.

“You’re supposed to be working on your video letter, and all you’ve done for the past 45 minutes is write sex on your paper?” There was more laughing. “What’s your topic?” I asked.

“Basketball club.”

“There’s no sex in basketball! This has absolutely nothing to do with your topic!” And at this point they really lost it. Howling laughter. Kids slapping their desks. One boy fell out of his chair and was laughing on the ground.

Well, I guess if I can’t motivate them to learn, at least I can keep them entertained. I shrugged my shoulders and frustration and started moving on to the next group, when one of the boys showed me his English workbook. Instead of answering any of the questions, he had simply written: “Sex very good nice” in its place.

I tried to focus on constructive criticism. “First of all, once again this has nothing to do with the questions in the workbook. Secondly there are no verbs in this sentence. In English you always need a verb for every sentence. [In Japanese you can omit the verb when it’s understood.] What verb do you think should go here?”

My attempt to turn this into a “teachable moment” failed horribly as there was just more obnoxious laughter and students slapping their desks.

The Japanese homeroom teacher came over to see what the commotion was. “What’s going on here?” he asked.

The students showed him the workbook with sex written all over it, and I struggled to explain what I was doing. “Um, there weren’t any verbs in this sentence, so I was just trying to correct the…”

“Just don’t encourage them,” the Japanese teacher said to me sharply. “Go work with some other group.”

I still have enjoyable days and good classes here in Japan, but there are also days when March just can’t seem to come soon enough.

Link(s) of the Day
The Japan times had an article on the effect of Depleted Uranium Weapons in Iraq. I know I link to a lot of junk on this blog, but this article is really worth checking out.

I've touched on the issue of Depleted Uranium on this blog before, but the Japan times article has more frightening information. To quote briefly:

"Whatever the strategic benefits of DU ammunition, critics -- including many in the scientific community -- claim that particles of it released upon impact are easily inhaled by humans, either then or much later, and remain in the body for years, possibly causing cancers and many other health problems. With local Iraqis in mind in particular, Matthew said: "We're hurting innocent civilians, and we don't need to do that."
The United Nations would seem to agree.
A 2002 working paper by the UN Commission on Human Rights itemized a long list of diseases and birth defects among Gulf War veterans, Iraqis and the offspring of both -- linking them strongly to the use of DU.
The same UN working paper concluded that use of DU in warfare contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Charter of the United Nations itself; and, "in certain situations of armed conflict," the Genocide Convention. The working paper, if read closely, also suggests violation of the Hague and Geneva Conventions."
Most pertinent to his audience at the FCCJ: Matthew worries that radiological contamination may be afflicting Japanese troops posted to Iraq -- not to mention local Iraqis.
"I came all the way to Japan to convey the message," said Matthew, who, with his wife Janise was the guest of Tokyo-based activist group Campaign for Abolition of Depleted Uranium Japan. In other words, he believes that Japanese troops should be warned: "They may be susceptible to it."

With the other reasons for the war in Iraq rapidly evaporating, I suppose it goes without saying that if we are claiming to help the Iraqi people, Depleted Uranium weapons are not helping.

And now, onto linking to the junk
The relationships between Western men and Japanese women has probably been written about to death already. (My personal favorite is the "Charisma man" comic). But for what it's worth, the Japan Times has another article.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

More Political Thoughts

It's always a bit dangerous to comment on US political events from Japan. Of course in this day and age it is relatively easy to stay informed and follow the main stories. I can read "The Japan Times" or find stuff on-line, but I have a hard time gauging the degree of coverage things are getting back home. I don't know what the talking heads are saying on the news networks anymore.

There was an item that struck me as a bit buried on page 5 in yesterday's Japan Times. I don't know how much coverage this has gotten back home, but I have a feeling it isn't getting enough. This is the kind of thing that, as Allen Ginsburg would say, ought to be screamed from the rooftops.

Specifically, the Pentagon has admitted using Chemical Weapons in Fallujah Offensive. After at first denying initial reports (or lying, as we those of us famaliar with the 10 commandments say), the Pentagon has now admitted that they used White Phosphorous on insurgents in Fallujah. "The form of WP used by the military ignites when exposed to oxygen, producing such heat that it bursts into flame and produces a dense white smoke. It can cause painful burn injuries to exposed flesh."

You'll recall of course that in the lead up to the Iraq war one of the things we heard over and over again was how evil Saddam was because he used Chemical weapons. I'm not sure what the difference is when we use it. Now that we know Saddam had no ties to Al-Quada, and that no WMD, it seems that yet another pre-war rational has bitten the dust here.

Even worse, the Italian state media is now claiming that the US used White Phosphorous against civilians in Fallujah, and appearently has footage of burned victims to prove it. If this last item turns out to be true, the outrage quotient has got to be through the roof.

Now the story I just referenced was off the AP wire, and on the print verion only of the Japan Times, so I can't link to it directly, but here's the CNN article on the same story. Media Mouse is also all over this.

Of course, these days its hard to know which story to get most upset at. Here is a CNN story that says: A whistleblower's claims that reconstruction in Iraq has been rife with waste, fraud and abuse -- particularly in regard to a division of Halliburton -- will be turned over to the Justice Department, a U.S. senator said Friday.

And of course there is the story of the secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, and the fact that Cheney is actively lobbying against an amendment forbidding torture. Has there ever been a worse time to be an American?

At the risk of sounding like I don't have my own mind, I thought I'd quote some editorials that struck me as particularly dead on. Again, I can't link to these directly without going through a log-in procedure, but The Japan Times on Friday ran an editorial from the Washington Post by Michael Kinsley:

"Meanwhile, the U.S., running prison camps in Eastern Europe and telling nobody about them until The Post found out. Bush says that we don't and never would practice torture, but he is against outlawing it, for reasons he is unable to articulte, but that must add up to "just in case." And Vice President Dick Cheney lobbies to exempt the CIA.
It could be that all these developments are constitutional. Maybe you can't enforce the U.S. constitution in Poland. But the Constitution is not supposed to be just an obstacle course for officials who are trying to get around it. It ought to inspire policy even when it doesn't impose policy. Ditto the Geneva conventions. Why would you even want to be clever about reasons it might not apply here or there?"

Also Bierma sent this editorial to the Chimes Listserve, from November 8, NY times, which starts out:

"After President Bush's disastrous visit to Latin America, it's unnerving to realize that his presidency still has more than three years to run. An administration with no agenda and no competence would be hard enough to live with on the domestic front. But the rest of the world simply can't afford an American government this bad for that long."

Unnerving indeed.

Lastly, there was an editorial by former SDS leader Mark Rudd in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday (I came across it because it was also run in the Japan Times): Mark Rudd asks the question:

"What's hard to understand--given the relevations about the rush to war, the use of torture, and the loss of more than 2,000 soldiers--is why the antiwar movement isn't further along than it is."

Again, I couldn't agree more.

Link of the Day
I don't know this person Meg (one of Bork's friends appearently) but her blog post on sexism in the Calvin Seminary has caused a bit of ripples through my corner of the internet. Phil and Matt both wrote entire posts discussing it.

Of course by the time I get around to linking to it, it's always old news. But if you haven't checked it out yet, it is interesting reading.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Wine Party

A few weeks ago I got a call from a friend inviting me to a wine party. “I’d love to come,” I said. “There’s just one problem. I don’t drink.”

“That’s okay,” he assured me. “We have a lot of people coming who aren’t drinking. You’re more than welcome just to hang out with everyone even if you don’t want to drink.”

So I went. I agreed to bring a bottle of wine to share, just like everyone else, because I didn’t want to appear stingy. We went to an Italian restaurant where we all paid for an all you can eat course.

The food was pretty good, but when I tried to order an Oolong tea, I had to pay $5 extra. Japan does not cut you any breaks at all for not drinking. Sometimes I think I’d save more money if I was a big drinker.

As a non-drinker, I’m used to being one of the few sober people in the room. I don’t mind it if everyone is only having a couple drinks, but at a wine party, when most people come with the intention of getting tanked, there does reach a point where I feel I can no longer participate in the conversation.

The Japanese girl next to me, after finishing her 5th glass of wine, explained to me that, “I get drunkard”. I tried to continue to hold her in conversation, but the response was continually “I get drunkard”, and eventually she wandered off.

A businessman intent on practicing his English seized the open seat.

Dealing with inane conversation from “English leeches” is one thing that every foreigner in Japan has to deal with. As with many things in Japan, this is something that the longer I’ve been here, the less tolerance I have for it.

When I first got to Japan, I thought it was so cool that people I didn’t even know would just randomly strike up a conversation with me. But after 4 years, I can feel my head swim with boredom before the Japanese businessman even opens his mouth.

I’ve discovered that I have a bit of a double standard. If the English leech is a pretty Japanese girl, I can talk to her for hours without boring of the conversation. If the English Leech is a middle-aged businessman, I can’t get ride of him fast enough. Perhaps this is just human nature or “the way of the world” but I always feel a bit slimy when I catch myself applying this double standard. So, I make an effort to try and talk to the businessmen as well.

He starts out with all the usual questions. “What’s your name? What country are you from? What are your hobbies?” I’ve had this conversation a million times before, but I do my best to answer politely.

The previous weekend I had been in a bar with John. When an old Japanese man tried to talk to us, John just turned around and ignored him. I thought this was incredibly rude of him at the time, but, because I could not find a polite way out of the conversation, I ended up spending the whole night speaking in inane English to an old man I didn’t know. Sometimes you have to be a bit rude. I began to think of escape routes out of this conversation.

To make things worse, the businessman was very drunk, and had the habit of grabbing me around the shoulders in a friendly brotherly way after every question. I was too sober to put up with it. “How long have you been in Japan?” he asked.

“4 years,” I said in my best simply English, even holding up four fingers to aid in his comprehension.

“Wow? 4 years? Why so long? Maybe I think you want be Japanese.” He grabbed me around the shoulders again as he laughed.

I was way too sober for this. I suddenly had the feeling that I could not continue in this conversation another single minute. I didn’t even care how rude I was being. I just stood up and walked away to the other side of the room.

I didn’t know anyone on the other side of the room, so I just read the news on my cell-phone. I wasn’t alone for long though because a Japanese girl, so drunk she could barely stand, came stumbling over to me. A guy from New Delhi was pursuing her.

“What country are you from?” she asked me.

“Mexico,” the guy answered for me.

“Really, he doesn’t look like he’s from Mexico,” the girl said, to drunk to understand it was a joke.

I decided this might be an ideal time to use some of the Spanish Jorge had taught me. “Habla Espanol?”

Neither of them understood even that much Spanish, so it fell flat.

Under normal circumstances I would have had much more tolerance for the drunk girl than for the drunk businessman. But she was being pursued by another guy, and besides had already passed from the amusing stages of drunkenness to the liability stages. She needed assistance just to walk straight, and I was more than happy just to leave it to others. I returned to reading my cell phone.

She switched into Japanese to her limited English. “Pretty,” she said as she reached out to touch my face. It was not quite the compliment I would have hoped for, but at least maybe it can probably be ascribed to a translation error. “Are you e-mailing your girlfriend now?”

“Yes.” Usually I lie to deny the girlfriend. Now I was lying to confirm it.

“Of course he would have a girlfriend,” she said to the other guy as he led her away.

I said my good-byes and made my exit shortly after that. I was glad to have been invited, but I don’t know if I’ll attend the next wine party.

Then again, these things all depend on your mood. Maybe if I’m feeling a bit more energetic or sociable, I would have a great time.

Link of the Day
I went to a mix bathing place in Japan only once. It was in the days before blogging, so it never got written about on this blog, but it was an interesting experience.

I was assured that there was nothing sexual about it, and that it was so ingrained into Japanese tradition that none of the Japanese took it sexually.

As is often the case in Japan, the reality was a lot different than the myth. The place was filled with perverts trying to get a glimpse of women emerging from the women's entrance. As a result, no women were coming out, and it was just a bunch of horny guys.

That was only one experience of course, but the Japan Times has an article on mixed bathing and how perverts are ruinning it nation wide.

Monday, November 14, 2005

This Past Weekend

Went out for a night on the town in Gifu city. Tried, with my friend Adam, to get away from our usual spots and find a really cool, undiscovered place, but had minimal success.

On the way back we saw three police cars with flashing lights stopped at the park. 3 policemen were trying to deal with some sort of disturbance. Public disturbances are rare in Japan, but you see them every once in a while. A group of guys, probably all in there early 20s, were yelling at the policemen.

Fighting Japanese is often uttered in a low guttural tone and it is hard for me as a learner to make it out, but it was something about a photograph. The guys were upset because the policemen had taken a photo of them I guess.

“Why did you take my photo? Why did you take my photo?” One of the men said as he pushed the policeman around. His friends crowded around to assist. The three policemen did nothing. They just let themselves be pushed around.

Adam and I couldn’t believe it. “Man, you could not get away with that back home,” I said.

“You’d be on the ground,” Adam said.

“You’d have your jaw broken,” I said.

Adam considered it. “But, really, what are the policemen going to do?” he said. “They’re only 3 of them, and they all look really old.”

We stood around for a while to watch. There were a lot of gawkers standing around watching the scene, but we stood out because we were foreigners. Some of the men arguing with the policemen began pointing at us, and we suddenly felt uncomfortable and wondered what would happen if all their aggression was suddenly channeled in another direction. We left.

Some Japanese friends took me up to visit Takayama in the northern part of the prefecture. I’d been there once before, but it is a beautiful and historic area, known as the “Kyoto of Gifu”.

It rained the whole time. In fact lately every time I’ve done anything, it has been raining.

I’ve come to suspect that I am what the Japanese refer to as “Ame Otoku” or “rain man”. A rain man is someone upon whom the rain always falls whenever he does anything outside. It’s not a discovery I’m pleased to make, but the recent evidence is hard to refute.

Saturday night my friend Matsunami took me to a hip-hop dance contest. This time we just watched and didn’t participate, so I didn’t have any more opportunities to embarrass myself.

The club was pretty amazing though. And by that I mean not the building itself but the people in it. The imitation of American urban street fashion had been perfected to an art. It seemed like a cool place where a lot of other foreigners would want to hang out, and yet I was the only non-Japanese person in the whole place. I had the impression that the dance event and the whole club were a well kept secret within the Japanese community, that I had just been allowed a quick glimpse of. It made me wonder how many events like this go on nearby all the time, but just fly under the radar of the foreign community.

One of my Japanese co-workers, when she found out I liked hiking, invited me to go mountain climbing with the “Gifu Workers Hiking Association”. Sounds great, I thought. Hiking is always more fun in a big group.

The catch? We set out at 5:30 in the morning. Japanese people, and especially Japanese old people, love to get up early.

In order to make the 5:30 meeting time I had to wake up at 4:45, which is the earliest I’ve woken up in years. I don’t know how long. And after being at the hip hop club late the night before, it was a hard morning.

To add insult to injury, there was absolutely no reason why we had to start so early in the morning. The early hours of the morning were filled with meetings, speeches, opening ceremony, numerous bathroom breaks and equipment checks (completely unnecessary for a day trip in my opinion). It was a very Japanese expedition. It was close to 8 by the time we actually started to ascend the mountain. I really appreciated the invitation, but I don’t think I’ll ever go hiking with this group again.

The hike itself was all right. I was the youngest person there by far, and so I didn’t feel a lot of connection to the other hikers. They were friendly enough, but I was too tired and cranky to be sociable.

The exception to this was of course the teacher who invited me, and someone who was a professor of Indian history at the local University. I talked with him about Indian history, and not only did I learn a lot, but it was great Japanese practice for me. Later in the hike though I realized that everyone was talking to him about Indian history. “Oh, you teach Indian History huh? Well I was wondering….” And then I felt a bit bad for making him talk about his subject on his day off.

I also had some interesting conversations with the Japanese teacher who invited me. “How old are you again?” she asked.


“You know in Japan, sometimes younger teachers marry their students at the junior high school.”

Naturally I assumed she had mixed up high school and junior high school (a common mistake in Japanese English). I already knew that in Japan it was not uncommon for teachers to marry high school students. “Um, you mean high school, right?”

“No, in the junior high school also. Sometimes there is as much as a 12 year difference.”

Don’t worry folks, I wouldn’t dream of it.

I was pretty worn out from the day’s hike, but a Japanese friend had invited me and another American to her family’s house for dinner. The food was very good. Hospitality in Japan is something you can always count on. I’ve never left a dinner invitation and not been stuffed. And the family was so thrilled to have foreigners at the dinner table. “This is the first time my father has ever talked to a foreigner,” our friend explained. The father even got out the video camera to record us eating the meal.

Link of the Day
My friend the Tyger is back on-line now.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


It’s interesting how our perspective on things changes as we go through life.

For instance, years before I was interested in Japan, or before it even occurred to me that I might someday live in Japan, I spent my summers on the Calvin College cleaning crew.

The first year was the summer after my sophomore year. Our team leader was at the time was a genuine Japanophile. Ethnically he was Dutch like the rest of us, but he had been studying Japanese, spent a year in Japan as an exchange student, and even had a Japanese girlfriend.

Again, this was long before I had any interest in going to Japan, so at the time we enjoyed making anti-Japanese comments just to try and rile him up. He never failed to take the bait.

One time when we were on the subject of Japan, I stared off into space with what I hoped was a profound look, and said in my best philosophical voice, “You know, it’s difficult to imagine a culture so primitive that they still use chopsticks.”

Without even pausing to consider if I was being ironic, or without asking to see if I was serious, he took the bait and was off running. At first he was so enraged he could hardly speak, and then he sputtered something about how the Japanese were writing haiku poetry while our ancestors were still slaughtering each other in the forests of Europe.

I’ve since lost track of him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if by now I’ve logged in more time in Japan than he has.

Anyway, I a while ago I remembered this incident for no particular reason, and had another little chuckle to myself as the image floated back into my memory. I tried to relate the story to Shoko. As usual, she missed the point.

“But there’s nothing wrong with eating with chopsticks,” Shoko said.

“I know, I know, but that’s not the point of the story. The point is he over reacted to the bait I gave him.”

“You know,” Shoko continued, “In Japan we think the cultures which use chopsticks have more intelligence. Any idiot can use a knife and fork, but chopsticks take skill to use. Japanese children learn to use chopsticks at an early age, and so they develop their brains earlier than Western children. That’s why the Japanese are some of the smartest people in the world.”

And all of a sudden her logic made a lot of sense. I had never considered it that way before. I had always just thought, like many Americans, that the Japanese historical use of chopsticks only meant that no one in their country was smart enough to figure out the idea of a fork and spoon.

It’s interesting how every culture seems to be so convinced of their own superiority. A couple weeks ago I was at a JET party which, as it got late into the night, the conversation turned to the difference between British and American spelling.

One of the British JETs in particular was upsetting a lot of people. “Look,” he said apologetically, “all I’m doing is telling you what the perception is back home. The perception is that Americans are too stupid to handle the concept that a word might be spelled differently than it’s pronounced, so Americans have to spell everything exactly the way it sounds.”

He was, for that night at least, outnumbered by Americans, so he didn’t continue the argument. But again, it showed me a completely different way of looking at the spelling debate.

Link of the Day
Tom from Guam writes a post on turning 27. It reminds me of the post I wrote myself when I turned 27 in April.

27 sneaks up on you a bit. At least with 30 you can see it coming from a long ways away, but with 27, it's a shock to wake up and suddenly realize you are officially in your late 20s. Not only are you an adult, but well into your adult years. And suddenly it's like "Wow, what have I accomplished in my life?" In my case, not too much.

Friday, November 11, 2005

I Investigate a Strange Noise at Night

Since I’ve moved up to Gifu, I’ve left the quiet Ajimu countryside nights behind.

I’m still not in a dense urban area, but I’m no longer in the countryside. Instead of being surrounded by rice fields, my apartment building is right on top of a Yakiniku (Korean style Barbeque) restaurant.

Also sharing the same parking lot as my apartment is a “Philippine club.” And unfortunately this doesn’t mean a place where people come to learn about Philippine culture. The benevolent Japanese businessmen have decided to take advantage of the poverty in the Philippines by bringing Filipino girls to Japan to work in the sex trade.

When I first realized I was living next to a Philippine club, I thought, “Oh oh, this is going to be trouble.” But on the contrary, I hardly notice it’s there. The place is very secretive, with two guys in business suits standing in front of the door at all times to guard the entrance. I never hear any noises from it. I never see any one go inside. And in over a year of living there, I’ve never once seen the girls who work inside, despite sharing a parking lot.

What causes a lot more trouble is the “izakaya”or Japanese bar. Very late into the night I can hear people coming out of the bar. On a summer night with my windows open I can hear their footsteps, and can tell who is wearing high heels.

Most of the time it is just the usual singing or good-byes being shouted across the parking lot that wakes me up. But lovers’ quarrels are not uncommon either. Sometimes angry shouting matches. Sometimes just the sound of the girl weeping in the parking lot. Once I was awakened at 3 in the morning by someone loudly professing his love. “Asuka, I love you!” It’s good that he loves her of course, but I don’t know why he had to shout it so loud.

So although I’m not in what the Japanese people would consider “the city”, the tranquility of the countryside is definitely gone.

Besides my apartment, there are several other apartment buildings around the same parking lot. Last week, as I was returning home and walking into my apartment, I could hear loud cursing and the sound of breaking glass from one of the neighboring apartments. The Japanese equivalent of “You son of a bitch! You goddamn son of a bitch!” sound of breaking glass, something smashing, etc.

Because it was the neighboring apartment, it was a bit far away and not quite so loud that it was disturbing me, especially now that it has gotten a bit cooler and I sleep with my windows closed. But if I stood by the window I could still hear the loud cursing.

I thought someone should go and say something, so I went out of my apartment, walked down the stairs, walked all the way across the parking lot to the neighboring apartment, and then suddenly decided that I didn’t really want to get involved, and walked all the way back. After all, what was I going to say? I was a foreigner here, and I could barely speak the language. If there was a domestic disturbance it was not my place to straighten it out.

But the yelling and smashing continued. Someone one has got to do something, I thought. And Japanese people are notorious for just ignoring problems like this. That’s why there is such a big problem with train molesters in Japan. On a crowded train, usually not a single Japanese person who will make any move to help the lady, and the molester is able to act unhindered.

I thought I would call the police, but I wanted to see what was going on first so I didn’t sound stupid on the phone. So, I went back to investigate. I walked back to the other apartments, and there was a man standing outside. I just watched him to see what he was doing.

He noticed me and yelled the Japanese equivalent of “What the hell do you want?”

I immediately lost all nerve, and just kind of stuttered out in my poor Japanese: “Um, I’m terribly sorry to disturb you sir, but it’s just that I live in that apartment over there and I couldn’t help but hear some of the noise, and I wanted to see if you were alright and if there was anything I could do to help.”

He suddenly became very friendly. Given his sudden change in attitude, I can only guess that he hadn’t noticed I was a foreigner until I spoke in my accented Japanese. It was dark out at the time, and we couldn’t see each other well. (Although you would have thought my height would be a dead give away, but I was standing at a distance).

“What country are you from?” he asked. He came forward and extended his hand and I shook it. “I’m sorry about the noise,” he said. “I’m just upset about all the garbage here.” And he indicated all the garbage lying around the place. I realized that the smashing and crashing sounds I had heard was just him smashing up the various garbage lying around. For what purpose and to what end I couldn’t say. I was happy to realize he was smashing garbage instead of people, but he might still have been threatening someone inside the apartments. But after he assured me there was no problem, and he said he would keep the noise down, I could find no other reason to stay around, so I returned to my apartment.

And true to his word, I never heard any more noises again. Once again my being foreigness seems to have difused a tense situation. So I like to think I helped the whole apartment block get a quiet night’s sleep. But I still don’t know what all the noise had been about in the first place. Maybe he really was just upset about all the garbage.

Links of the Day
Ordinarily I try and only read the blogs of people I know. But sometimes I find myself following links and end up reading and getting addicted to blogs of people I don't even know. From Phil I found this Whisky Prajer blog, which, as Phil says, writes better reviews on movies and TV than most any professional reviewers I've read.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I Get In Trouble For Talking About Samson Too much During Cleaning Time

The other day I was eating lunch with some of the 9th grade students, and as I was clearing away my lunch tray one of them asked me, “Do you know Samson?”

“Yes,” I answered. “In America we learn about Samson in church.” But after having answered automatically, I now began to wonder how they found out about Samson. The Bible stories, that we take for granted as just being common knowledge in the West, are largely unknown in Japan.

I asked and they responded they had come across Samson’s name in their dictionary, and were interested in knowing more about him. I gave a brief explanation. “Samson was a strong man. He was the strongest man. But he died very young, because he was defeated from by a woman. And from Samson’s story we learn a very important lesson. Women are dangerous.”

This got a good laugh.

Later, during cleaning time, as I was helping the students sweep up the hallway, more students came up to talk to me. “Tell him about Samson,” they said.

So I told the same story again, this time adding in a few more details. “He was really strong. He once killed 300 men with just the jawbone of a donkey. But a woman betrayed him to his enemies, who cut out his eyes and took him captive, so he died very sad. Women are very dangerous. If you don’t understand that, you’re life will be very sad.”

Again, this got a big laugh. So pretty soon big groups of students are coming up and asking to hear about Samson, and I’m adding more and more details until I’m pretty much repeating the whole bible story. And meanwhile no one is doing any cleaning, so finally a teacher comes over and yells at everyone to get back to work.

So we’re back to sweeping the floor. But now some of the girls are a little angry at me. “Why do you keep saying women are dangerous?” one of them asked me.

I guess maybe I should have just said, “oh, that was just a cheap joke,” and left it at that, but I felt the need all of a sudden to back up my statement, so I retold the story of Samson, emphasizing how he should have known this woman was trouble, but instead he let her use him. I was going to say that you have to be careful about any relationship, man or woman, because a lot of people will just screw you over if you give them the chance, but before I could finish the teacher came over and yelled at us again.

So, the rest of the time I just did my best to clean diligently.

Link of the Day
I don't write too much about religion on this blog, not because I'm not interested, but because I don't have anything intelligent to say. But I enjoy reading the thoughts on my friends blog. Particularly Borks recent post on critiquing The Darwin Left.

Monday, November 07, 2005


I’m a bit late in posting this obviously, but in the last few days before Halloween we continued to do Halloween themed lessons in English class.

One of the English teachers at the Junior High School wanted to teach the students how to carve jack-o-lanterns for the elective English class.

Pumpkins in Japan are different than the pumpkins in the US. In Japan they are green, and small, and almost resemble squash more than pumpkins. So they’re not ideal for making jack-o-lanterns. We looked into buying imported pumpkins, but it was too expensive so we just got Japanese style pumpkins and decided it would be good enough for the kids to just get the idea.

The first two classes I team-taught with the Japanese teacher. The last class the Japanese teacher was absent, so I was sent in to teach by myself.

This was the “low-level” selective English class, filled with all the problem kids. The Japanese teacher was worried about how things would go. “It will be okay,” another teacher said. “The students will be so frightened to see a foreigner that they wouldn’t dare misbehave.”

“No, those days are long gone,” the English teacher said. “Students these days are so used to feeing foreign teachers that they’re not intimidated by them at all anymore.”

Ain’t that the truth. If those days ever did exist, they must have disappeared long before I ever got to Japan. (Again, reference Justin’s post.)

Japanese kids know nothing about carving jack-o-lanterns, so even the simplest things need to be explained. For instance “be sure and cut the top big enough because you’re going to need to fit your hand in afterwards to scoop out the insides.” Or “make sure the top is all in one piece. Don’t just hack at it when you cut it out because you’ll need to fit the top back on later when you’re all done.” Or “it works better if you draw the face on with a marker before you start cutting.”

The problem though is, like kids anywhere else in the world, they just don’t listen. I tried to explain but they were just talking to their friends or daydreaming, and then when the pumpkin carving began, it was mass chaos.

I was going everywhere at once trying to answer questions or tell kids to be careful with the knives. In spite of my warnings, one of the girls cut her finger with the knife. She asked to be allowed to go to the nurse’s room.

It wasn’t a deep cut. Only a trickle of blood was coming out, and that only when she squeezed the tip of her finger to squeeze it out. Obviously this was just an excuse to get out of class, but I didn’t feel like arguing about it, and I figured one less student in the classroom would only make my job easier.

Permission slips for the nurse’s room were kept on a pouch by the door. I filled on of them out and gave them to the girl. “This is all wrong,” she said. “You put your name where my name was supposed to go.”

I know enough Japanese where I probably should have caught that one, but I wasn’t paying close attention. I threw away the first slip and filled out another, and she was on her way.

“Okay, now no one else cut their fingers, okay? Okay?”

Five minutes later, a boy gave himself a nasty cut on the side of his finger. It wasn’t life threatening, but it was bleeding a lot.

He was actually quite proud of himself. He had a big grin on his face as he showed his wound off to his classmates. Blood was getting on the floor. I grabbed some tissues and gave them to him. There was a sink out in the hallway, and he went there to wash his cut. A number of the other students followed to watch. Since the scene had carried over into the hallway, it was now in full view of other classrooms, and I was now not only given the impression of incompetence in front of my Japanese peers, but disturbing other classes.

I filled out a slip for the nurse’s room and handed it to the boy. “You put your name where my name was supposed to go,” he complained.

“That idiot. It’s the second time he’s done this,” I overheard another student saying behind me.

“It’s fine. Just go.”

“I can’t go. You filled out the form all wrong.”

“It will be fine. Just show this to the nurse.” What was she going to do? Refuse to treat him because I had filled out the form wrong. I pushed him in the direction of the nurse’s room, but he decided to stay and wash out his hand a little bit more and show off his wound to the other classrooms. Eventually he left.

I made another announcement for everyone to be careful. “I don’t want anyone else cutting their fingers. Two students to the nurse’s room is enough.”

Of course it is always embarrassing to be the teacher of a class that sends not one, but two students to the nurse’s room. But on the other hand, jack-o-lanterns weren’t my idea. And these kids were all 14 or 15. They were old enough to watch out for their own damn fingers.

But, the following day several Japanese teachers mentioned the incident to me. All I could really say was “I’m sorry. I tried to tell them to be careful.”

Link of the Day
You've probably heard about the US troop cuts in Okinawa. The Japan Times has a good article on the Okinawan perspective

Friday, November 04, 2005

I Make Peace With My German Friend (I Guess)

(If you have no idea what any of this is about, read this post first)

As I mentioned in a previous post, because my German arch-nemesis Tom frequents Beer Hall (the local foreign hang out), I decided to avoid dropping in by myself when I was bored, and instead only go to Beer Hall when I had specific plans to meet people there. This helped me avoid awkward situations, but eventually I decided that even this was giving into Tom too much. After all, I had some really great nights, and met some really fun people, by simply dropping in randomly.

On nights when I could see Tom sitting inside, I would just keep on walking and by-pass Beer Hall. This system worked for the summer and September when the doors of Beer Hall were wide open, and I could see clearly who was inside and who wasn’t. Now that the weather has cooled off a little, the doors are shut, and I can’t tell who is at the bar without going inside myself.

And so it happened that the other night I had no plans and so just swung by Beer Hall by myself. I opened the door and walked in, and there was Tom sitting at the table. He didn’t see me at first; his back was to the door. I contemplated turning around and walking right out, but other people had seen me now, and I didn’t want to show any signs of weakness that would give Tom an advantage in any future encounters. So I walked up towards the front counter.

As I passed Tom I nodded my hello. “Hey,” he called out to me. “I’ve forgotten your name. You always greet me by saying ‘Hello Thomas’, but I don’t know your name.”

He said it in a friendly way, but I was sure he was just trying to get rid of my advantage (see previous post). But what could I do? It would have been incredibly childish to refuse to give him my name, so I shook his hand, patted him on the back as if he was an old friend, and re-introduced myself. Then I said, “excuse me just a sec, I’m going to order something from the bar. I’ll be right back.”

To me it seemed the worst thing to do was have an awkward conversation when I was halfway to the bar, and still hadn’t ordered or taken a seat yet. If I was going to talk to Tom, I would rather do it once I had already ordered my food and sat down. Once I had my food I sat down right next to Tom. It was a bit of a bold move, but I didn’t really care anymore. Things couldn’t get any worse between us, and if he reacted with hostility than at least I’d have a new story on the encounter. Things had been a bit boring around here recently anyway. On the other hand, if he wanted to continue in the friendlier tone he had started in on, than maybe we could end this silly feud once and for all.

Tom was talking to someone else at the table, so I just read my book. Then when he wrapped up his previous conversation, he turned to me and asked what I was reading. I showed him the cover of my book, “The Debacle” by Emile Zola. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with this book or not,” I said. “I’m just starting it myself.”

He knew the book. “Ah, yes, the Paris Commune. This is an excellent book. So you like history?” He then reached into his bag and pulled out Napoleon’s Autobiography (in the original French. Damn multi-lingual Europeans). “I’ve been very interested in the French Revolution for some time now,” he continued. “I’ve been studying Napoleon for the past 12 years.”

“12 years?” I said in surprise.

“Well, I’m a few years older. I’m 29.” He must have assumed I was fresh out of University like most of the other English teachers here. “My first love was Greek and Roman history, but recently I’ve been more interested in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.”

“Well, we’ve got that in common,” I answered. “I entered University as a Classics Major, and then switched to European History once I got interested in the French Revolution.”

He then proceeded to lecture me at length about the importance of Napoleon on European history. At first I tried to get a few words in edgewise, but after a while gave up and let him talk. We were still uneasy around each other, and I was unsure of his motive for doing this. I didn’t know if this was a genuine love of history coming through, or if he was showing off, and I had just entered a pissing contest on who knew more about the French Revolution.  And then he continued from Napoleon into a lecture on the Greek Persian war, and how 300 Spartans had saved Western Civilization. “That’s why I joined the Navy,” he said, “because I was inspired by that story. I wanted to protect my country. And I spent 3 years defending Germany and it was an honor to do so. But I came to Japan because I wanted to experience new things.”

“But,” he continued. “It’s so frustrating in Japan. You can’t talk to any Japanese people about history or politics. They don’t have any interest, and they don’t know anything at all. Most of them barely know about Japanese history or politics, let alone world history or politics.”

You know I feel exactly the same way,” I responded. We talked in this vein for a while, complaining about how ignorant the Japanese were. I would have been perfectly content to just avoid the awkward topic of our first encounter, but he brought it up eventually.

“I want to talk about what happened 6 months ago, because I think it’s important we clear this up,” he said. “First of all I want you to know that I never, never raped anyone. I’m a gentleman. I would never do that.”

This was a bit out of the blue. Aya had never said anything to me about rape, and the fact that he was now vehemently denying it suddenly made me wonder if he had actually done it, and things were even worse than Aya had told me. But I kept my mouth shut and listened to what else he had to say.

“Secondly that girl, she came to me. I was sitting in the coffee shop minding my own business just trying to read my book, and she came up to me and asked me to teach her English. And I tried to help her as best I could because I felt sorry for her. She was going through a lot at that time. She was moving apartments, and I helped her move all her stuff just because I felt sorry for her. I didn’t even want anything out of it. But she used me and she played with my feelings. She thinks foreigners are just toys she can play with. I tried to tell her that foreigners are people too, and she can’t just move from one to the other like we don’t have feelings, but she just wanted to play with foreign boys.”

There were a number of red flags going up in my mind. For one thing he seemed to be making himself out to be to good. Secondly, I knew from talking to other people that Tom often does try and pick up random Japanese girls in coffee shops by using his angle as an English teacher. But again, I just kept quiet and listened to what he had to say.

“And then on that day we met, she had come to me and asked to meet with me in the coffee shop. That was why I was so upset when I saw her walking away with you. I wanted to tell her that she can’t do those kind of things. She can’t set up a meeting with one person and then just walk away with another. I wasn’t upset at you, you understand. It was just the situation. I was upset at her and it came out at you.

“But since that time I’ve seen you many other times, and I know you’re not a bad person. I can see it in your eyes that you’re a kind person. And I often see you here at beer hall and you’re very friendly with everyone else, so I know you’re not a bad person. It was just the situation. I was angry and the Latin part of me” (apparently Tom had some French blood in him) “was going a bit crazy, and I said things I shouldn’t have. So I’m sorry if I hurt you or your country by what I said.”

I tried to explain my perspective on things. “Look, all I know is what she told me, and I have no way of knowing whether what she said is true or not. I suspected she wasn’t being completely honest with me. I never caught her in a direct lie, but she was so concerned that I don’t pay attention to what anyone else says that I suspected she was hiding something.

“I had only met her a week before that incident. We live in the same town, so she had seen my picture on a school publication, and picked me out in Gifu city. She just approached me in Gifu city one day and asked me to teach her English.”

“Ah, so she did the same thing to you,” Tom said. “I figured. That’s exactly what she did to me. She just came up to me and asked me to teach her English.” Come to think of it, it was the same. Maybe Tom was telling the truth about that after all.

“Anyway, I didn’t know how to go about teaching a private lesson,” I continued. “So I just had her keep an English journal and told her I would look at it once a week and we would focus on what seemed to be problem areas. And the next week when I met her, the journal was all about you. Now of course I have no way of knowing whether it is true or not. All I know is what she wrote.”

“It’s okay,” Tom said in an almost paternalistic voice. “You can tell me.”

“Well, she said you had picked her up in a coffee shop using the hook of teaching English.”

Tom shook his head as if to say: “it figures.”

“And she said you were harassing her ever since then. And when she tried to break it off, you came to her place of work and yelled at her until the police escorted you away.”

Tom threw his hands up in the air as if to say: “what will this crazy woman think of next?”

“Of course I didn’t know you at the time. I had you confused with someone else, and so I told her I would get this all straightened out. And then it was the very next day that we all met by the bookstore. She didn’t say anything about having previously arranged to meet you at the coffee shop. So when you showed up I thought it was just because you were stalking her. She wanted me to go into the coffee shop and talk to you, but I said I didn’t even know you, so I would just walk her as far as the station to make sure you didn’t bother her. And that’s when you came out. But of course you were thinking she was going to meet you in the coffee shop, and you didn’t know what she had been telling me…”

I was kind of getting into the rhythm of my own story, and wanted to keep going, but Tom was eager to explain his side of things again. I guess we were both more interested in explaining ourselves than in listening to the other person.

I still had no way of knowing who was telling the truth. As Tom threw shook his head and threw his hands up in the air, I thought to myself, actually yeah, the whole thing, especially the idea of him yelling at her until the police came and escorted him out does all sound a little bit too ridiculous to be true. On the other hand he didn’t act particularly surprised at anything. He did gesture to indicate how ridiculous he thought it was, but there was no element of shock or surprise when I related what Aya had told me. It was almost like he was expecting these allegations to appear.

What’s more, on our first encounter when I had said to Tom: “I’m concerned that you’re harassing her at work”, he didn’t deny it. In fact he acted as if I had struck a nerve by saying it.

As for the coffee shop: who knows whether there had actually been some sort of meeting set up, or if Tom had been stalking Aya. He did even at the time make references to a promise to meet in the coffee shop, so he was obviously under the impression that there was an agreement. On the other hand, she was obviously not happy to see him. She had become frigid at his presence, and even hid behind me when he came over to remind her about the meeting in the coffee shop. So he could have been under no illusions about her feelings on the matter. And it seems very unlikely that Aya had set up the meeting like he said, unless she was an incredibly good actress.

On the other hand, Aya later told me that there actually was an agreement to meet in the coffee shop, but that Tom had pressured her into making it, and that she really didn’t want to go. It didn’t change things so much, but it was something she didn’t tell me until after the confrontation with Tom was over. Again, not a huge deal, but why not tell me immediately so that I would know what was going on when I was trying to defend her against Tom? And once you discover that someone has withheld some information from you, then you begin to question everything else they say.

(I had lost contact with Aya shortly after the incident anyway. I suspected she might be attracted to me, and I had one of those: “Just so nobody gets hurt feelings, we better clear this up now” type talks, and she stopped contacting me shortly after that. I didn’t mind because I was the one doing her a favor by giving her free English lessons, so I simply let it go.)

But, after having gone through the trouble to list all this, I come to the conclusion that I don’t care. When a relationship goes bad, there’s always a lot of “He said/She said” bullshit. Who was using who, or which person had to be escorted away by the police. As long as this thing is in the past, what happened between them is none of my businesses really.

Certainly nothing drives a man crazier than the feeling that a girl you once had is slipping away from you. I think we’ve all been there at one time or another. Back when I lived in Oita I myself had a similar experience, and ended up yelling at a guy I shouldn’t have yelled at, and saying some things I regretted. I knew I was in the wrong, but I felt like I couldn’t help myself. So I understand the feeling.

Of course Tom crossed the line when he compared me to George Bush, but he had apologized for it now, and there was no point in holding a grudge.

Even assuming everything Aya had said about Tom was true, it would be no reason why I couldn’t be on friendly terms with him. I might want to keep him at arms length of course. He wouldn’t be the kind of person I would want to introduce to my sisters, or ask to water my plants when I went on vacation, but there was nothing to prevent me from greeting him in Beer hall or talking with him about history. Certainly glaring at him every time I passed him in Beer Hall wasn’t going to help anything. Besides, the Bible calls upon us to treat our enemies with kindness. Even if Tom is a horrible person, I should still be friendly to him when I meet him. And besides, we foreigners move in too small of circles for Tom and me to continue this feud.

So I guess were friends now. We parted on good terms. I suppose I’m just too nice of a person to have enemies :). And, as I have noted on this blog before, there is something odd about how people we argue with always end up becoming friends sooner or later.

But if (and this may be a pretty big “if”) Tom really is everything Aya made him out to be and is preying on young Japanese girls, then there is a small voice in the back of my head that says someone ought to confront him on it, and I am simply taking the path of least resistance by choosing to be friendly with him instead.

Link of the Day
Peter Bratt links to some images of Fox news throughout history. It's not intelligent political commentary, but good cheap laughs.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

More Ups, More Downs

Continuing on the theme of a previous post, I thought I’d list some of the ups and downs from a last weekend.

There was a “Mexican Taco” party at someone’s apartment. Tacos are hard to get in Japan (unless you know the right places) so I was glad someone hosted this event.

Nevertheless, I’m surprised we got away with it. Big Western style “house parties” are not very popular in Japan, and I didn’t think we’d make it through the night without the neighbors complaining or the police coming.

Back in Oita Prefecture Mike used to host a lot of big parties at his place and we would never (and I mean never) make it through the night without the police coming. And then the next morning Mike’s Board of Education would always take him around to all the neighbors to make sure he apologized. But, bless his soul, this never stopped Mike from throwing another party a couple months later.

(I once read an article that said claimed of the “cultural conflict” on the JET program is actually generational conflict, resulting from all these of JETs fresh out of University being placed in the aging countryside).

But I digress. Back to the party at hand. I had spent all Saturday afternoon doing nothing but laying around my apartment. I felt a little guilty about it, and was eager to confirm no one else had been doing anything exciting. To my relief, most of the people I talked to had days that were just as boring as mine.

Most of the people at the party I knew, but I met a few for the first time. One girl refused to believe I was from America because she didn’t think I had an American accent.

This doesn’t happen often, but it happens occasionally. Back in Oita there was a Korean girl who was convinced I had a British accent. I tried arguing with her, then figured: “Well, what does she know? She’s Korean.” But then some other people joined in to confirm that I didn’t sound like an American said. Even my British friend Greg was slightly on the fence. “I can understand why you say that,” he said to the Korean girl. “But no, in the end I don’t think he sounds British.” I began to wonder if all the time I spent hanging out with Brits had altered my speech patterns.

Now a fellow American was refusing to believe I was from America. “Where are you from really?” she said. “That’s not an American accent.”

“I don’t know what to say,” I answered. “This is how we talk in Michigan.”

I spent a good deal of the party standing, but once a spot on the couch opened up I grabbed it. My friend Mary was sitting on the couch, and a Japanese girl Miho was sitting on the floor.

Nobody in Gifu knows I have a girlfriend. I’ve kept it a secret in order to enjoy more social flexibility. And Shoko has been keeping me a secret from her co-workers back in Oita, so I figured it was fair game.

In a way it’s kind of lying, but Japanese people are often very guarded about their personal lives, and a Japanese person wouldn’t think twice about denying a girlfriends existence. So, when in Rome…

It does make things a bit more complicated though. For instance Jorge had been trying to set me up with Miho for quite some time now, and I was currently in the process of “trying not to be rude by ignoring her, but at the same time not give her the wrong idea by paying too much attention either.” (We’ve all been in those situations I’m sure.) Miho on the other hand, perhaps aided by the alcohol, was a little bit more friendly than usual, and at times almost seemed on the point of climbing into my lap while I was talking to her. I tried to concentrate my attention on Mary instead.

Mary was showing me all the pictures she had stored on her cell-phone (did I mention all the cool things Japanese cell-phones can do?) I thought it would be funny to show her the picture of my nipple that I had taken with my own phone. (This was back on a visit to Oita when I had taken this picture as a prank to send to Holmes. I never got around to deleting it though).

Mary recoiled in disgust. “That’s the grossest thing I ever saw,” she said. “It’s so hairy. And what makes it even worse is that you’re cupping it with your hand. That’s just disgusting.” I thought this reaction was pretty funny, so I e-mailed Mary. She was less than pleased when it popped up on her phone screen.

She showed Miho. “Look at this. Isn’t this disgusting?”

Miho recoiled from it as well. Miho then looked back at me, and there seemed to be a visible change in the way she was regarding me. “This is probably for the best,” I thought. “It will make things a little less complicated if she looses her affection for me.” And yet, I liked it a lot better when she was looking at me with affection. I was somehow addicted to the attention. I found myself trying to explain away the nipple picture as just a silly joke.

After I had looked through all the pictures on Mary’s cell phone, she asked to see mine. “Okay, fair’s fair,” she said. “You saw all the pictures on my phone. I get to look at yours.”

I was just about to hand the phone over when I remembered all the pictures of Shoko and me. “I can’t let you see these pictures,” I said.

“Why not?” Mary demanded.

“Um, because the nipple picture is just the beginning,” I lied. “There are a lot worse pictures on my phone.”

“What? No! I didn’t think you were like that.”

“I’m like that.”

“You can’t be like that. You were supposed to be the one friend I had who was semi-normal.”

I shrugged. “Everyone has their quirks.”

“Well let me see them then.”

“I’m sorry. I just don’t feel comfortable sharing those pictures of myself.”

“Well, I’ll just look at your phone the next time you leave it lying around.”

“Suit yourself. You’d only be scaring yourself for life.” There were no more requests to see my phone pictures.

About 1:30 AM my cell phone started ringing. “Who in the world could be calling me at this hour?” I wondered aloud as I pulled my phone out of my pocket. It was Greg calling from England. I stepped out on the balcony to talk to him.

“Hope I’m not calling at a bad time,” he said.

“No, I’m just at a party,” I said. “I needed a breath of fresh air anyway.”

“Who’s at the party?”

“It’s all Gifu people. You wouldn’t know any of them.”

It was good to hear from Greg. I hadn’t talked to him since he back to visit Japan this summer. And since I had said good-bye to him at the Nagoya station, I never heard how the Oita half of his adventures went.

“I was really hoping this trip back to Japan would bring closure to everything, and allow me to get on with my life,” he said. “But that didn’t really happen.”

“That never happens,” I said. “You never really get closure to anything in life.”

“Have you decided what you’re going to do when you go back?” Greg asked.

“No still thinking about it.”

“Well, you’ve got time yet. But you want to have something going. The worse thing you can do is go home and just sit around.”

“Yeah, that’s what everyone tells me.”

Greg talked more about his difficulties re-adjusting to life in Britain, which made me worried about how I would adjust when I came back to America. “I find I have a hard time relating to my old friends,” Greg said. “But when I meet someone I knew in Japan, I can talk to them for hours. Which is sad really, because my old friends are really my better friends. I feel like Japan has changed me in ways I didn’t want it to. And I really miss all those adventures we had in Japan. Just the way everything was an adventure.”

“Yeah, I’m really going to miss that to,” I said. “I’m sick of my job though. I feel like I’m through with teaching English, but I like the adventure of Japan. I’m both looking forward to going back home and dreading it.”

“While, Japan will still be there if things don’t work out back home,” Greg said. I agreed.

Around 2:30 I decided to call it a night and head home. But it turns out the night was far from over. Before I went home, I still had to play taxi for several people.

In the countryside of Oita almost everyone, out of necessity, owned a car. In Gifu most people are content to take the trains. But when the last train has left, I’m one of the only foreigners around with a car, and so I usually end up playing taxi.

I don’t mind it too much as long as I’m not driving ridiculous distances. I figure I can socialize at a party, or I can socialize with people while I’m driving them home, and it’s all the same in the end. I try and avoid anything that’s in the complete opposite direction of where I lived, but when the trains have stopped running and a friend is in a pinch, what can I say? Sorry, just stay here for the night and I’ll see you tomorrow?

Sunday was Yuka’s Halloween party. Yuka is a Japanese friend who tutors children in English part time. She was having a Halloween themed party for her students.

She had asked me to help her out long ago, and I said yes as I always do to things which seem far enough off in the future that I don’t have to think about them. As the actually party approached though, I began to think that I didn’t want to spend my Sunday afternoon doing this.

I talked to Mary about it the night before. “Oh, are you going to that party?” Mary said. “I told Yuka I wouldn’t do it. I might have been a bit rude, but I was very firm that Sunday is my day off, and I don’t teach English on my day off.”

“I wish I would have said that,” I moaned. “Hopefully this won’t take up more than two hours. In fact, why don’t you phone me at the two-hour mark so I have an excuse to suddenly leave. Tell me our friend Adam has fallen down the well or something, and I need to come at once.”

And so, the following day, I went to the party. Yuka lives in my town, so most of her students I actually knew from school, which made the party seem even more like work. Some of the kids were really hyper as well. They weren’t bad kids necessarily, they were just kids, and I didn’t want to deal with it on a Sunday.

We split into different groups, and walked around the neighborhood “trick-or-treating” at different houses which Yuka had arranged beforehand. I had a particularly rough time keeping my group together.

I had six students of which there was a noticeable gap in ages. Three of the students were pre-school aged; three of them were 3rd graders. The older kids were eager to get to all the houses and kept running ahead. The younger kids kept straggling behind. Yuka kept reminding me to keep my group together, and I in turn was always yelling at my kids to either speed up or slow down.

Nothing gets me angrier than telling a kid to do something, and then have them either completely ignore me, or go back to doing the same thing 5 minutes later. I had one student in particular, Kateshi, who was constantly running ahead in violation of our “no-running” rule. “Kateshi slow down! Kateshi slow down! Damn it Kateshi will you slow the fuck down?!” I guess I’m just not cut out to work with kids.

As a side note, I’ve touched on this issue before in my blog, but there is no discipline system in Japanese schools. Back in America, my Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers used to make us put our head down on our tables or sit in the corner if we misbehaved. My 3rd and 4th grade teachers used to make us stay in during recess and write lines. In Middle school we were issued demerits, and we had to come into school early for a “zero-hour” if we acquired three of them. And in high school, the teacher would just send us out of the class if we misbehaved.

In Japan there’s nothing. No time outs, no heads down, no detention or line writing or demerits, and it is illegal to send a child out of the room. The only means a teacher has of enforcing class control is by verbally trying to either shame the class into discipline, or positively encouraging them.

Because of the strong emphasis on group unity in Japan, this works better here than it would work back home. And when it works good, it is a wonder to behold, but when it goes bad (and it often does) the teacher is left floundering. At the elementary school in particular it often goes bad. Also for the foreign teacher, who doesn’t understand the inner workings of Japanese culture and has no authority, it is impossible to enforce class discipline. (For more confirmation on this, see Justin's entry here).

This Halloween party was an extra-curricular activity, but the same rules seemed to apply. I yelled at the kids, and when they didn’t listen, I just yelled more, and eventually I wanted to strangle all of them, but there was absolutely no consequence for them not listening to me.

Besides trying to get the older kids to slow down, I was trying to get the younger kids to speed up. One of them whined to me, “Yes, I’m trying to go faster, but you see I don’t think my shoe fits quite right and it’s really slowing me down.” I could see he was trying his best to keep up, and to a certain extent, he reminded me of myself as a kid, someone who was trying to do his best but kept screwing up.

But at this point I was too cranky to be sympathetic. “Look, you need to go faster,” I said, and gently pushed him forward despite his complaints about his shoe.

The party ended at the two-hour mark just like Yuka said it would. There was a lot of cleaning up to be done afterwards, but I had the feeling I really needed to get out of there. “Um, I’m really sorry, but I made plans to meet someone in a half hour, so I should probably leave now,” I lied.

“Oh, really?” Yuka said. “But I was going to take all the volunteers out to Yakiniku (Korean Style Barbeque) later”.

Actually that did sound pretty good. But I had already said I had plans and it was too late to go back on it now. “I’m sorry I have plans,” I said. “Some other time.”

I ended up just going into Gifu city and reading my book. It was a slow Sunday afternoon, and I didn’t run into anyone I knew, so I ended up just eating a lonely dinner by myself, and then going back to my apartment. That’s what I get for lying I guess.

Monday is usually bowling night. It used to be organized by Monika, but since she has left the task has largely fallen to me. I know have to call everyone up, confirm times and where we are going to eat, and then arrange transportation for everyone who doesn’t have a car.

I like the bowling, but coordinating it can be a big headache. I tend to do a really good job of organizing it one week, and then rest on my laurels and forget to organize it the next week.

This week I forgot to coordinate it. Mary called me to ask about bowling. “I’m sorry I forgot to organize it,” I said. “It’s probably a little late to rally all the troops now, but if you wanted to just catch dinner or something I’d be up for that.”

Mary and I went to Gifu. She sent me a text message asking where I was. I told her to look for me by Gifu station. “I’ll be the man smoking two cigarettes,” I said.

This only served to confuse Mary, and when she finally met up with me her first words were: “when did you start smoking?”

“No that was a joke,” I explained. “That’s from ‘The Great Gatsby’. Didn’t you ever read ‘The Great Gatsby’?”

“Yes, but it was a long time ago,” she said defensively. “Alright, if you’re such an expert on ‘The Great Gatsby’, then where does it take place?”

“Um, New York?”

“Yes, but where in New York? Long Island, my hometown. So there!”

We went to a fast food place to get dinner. “Tell me, do you think I sound like an American?” I asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“Someone at the party the other night said I didn’t sound like an American. She refused to believe I was from America?”

“What? Who was it?”

“I don’t remember. I just met her that night for the first time.”

“Well, whoever it is they’re an idiot. You have the most stereotypical midwestern accent I’ve ever heard. In fact the other day I was listening to a CD where the narrator was from the Midwest, and he sounded exactly like you.”

With this question solved, we moved on to talk about life in Japan. I suppose we were both feeling a little depressed, because we largely focused on how much we hated Japan. “It’s interesting,” I said. “Back in Oita, most people were pretty happy with Japan. In Gifu all the people I talk to can’t wait to get out of here. Even the people who’ve only been here one year or two years can’t wait to leave.”

That’s because Gifu’s such a shit hole,” Mary commented. “Even the Japanese people who aren’t native to the area hate it here. It’s just such a depressing area to be. Sometimes I wonder what all our friends would be like if we had known them outside of Japan, because I’m sure everyone would act a lot different.”

“Yeah, for instance Alan is probably always in a cheerful mood and is a real party animal.” Alan was a friend of ours who had been in Gifu last year, spent most of that time complaining about how depressed he was and how he hated Japan, and then left after only one year. And there seems to be a lot of those types of people in Gifu.

“No, Alan was genuinely just a depressing person to begin with,” Mary said. “I still keep in touch with him, and now he’s depressed about being back home.”

“But it does seem like all of the people I know who have gone back home to do through a period of reverse-culture shock when they get back,” I said. “Maybe that’s just normal.”

Mary talked about how she was nervous about returning home, and not sure she would fit in anymore. “In Japan everyone’s so polite,” she said. “When I went back to America on holiday, I couldn’t handle people being pushy with me.”

I commented that maybe all of our friends seemed a bit odd because Japan attracts odd people to begin with. “The normal people all get serious jobs after graduating from University,” I said. “All the people who don’t fit into the normal world end up going overseas. That’s why all the people we know in Japan have so many quirks.”

We finished dinner, but it was still too early to call it a night. “Are you up for some video games?” I asked. We started walking towards the video game arcade.

On the way there I ran into my German arch-nemesis walking the other way.

I’ve discovered something interesting about him. When I ran into him, I used to just give him a bit of a sarcastic smile and a nod, but then after a while he just started doing the same thing back to me. But I discovered if I actually said something like “Hello Thomas” to him, then he just avoided eye contact and slunk away.

I think it is because in all the times we’ve run into each other, he never learned my name. I had given it to him, but he must have been too upset to be listening closely. So if I called him by his name, I suddenly had him at a disadvantage and he couldn’t return the greeting, so he would just look the other way.

Ideally I wanted to keep talking to casually to Mary up until the last minute, and then shout out my greeting to Tom as if it was no big deal. But his presence unnerved me enough, and I was unable to talk casually, and so temporarily broke off conversation with Mary as we approached Tom. “Hello Thomas,” I called out in my best confident voice. He mumbled something softly and just looked away.

As soon as we passed, Mary asked, “Was that your German enemy?”

I would have actually preferred Mary didn’t make a big deal out of it until Tom was well out of earshot, but I guess she wasn’t as concerned about it as I was. I answered quietly in the affirmative. “Wow, I could totally tell. Isn’t it amazing how you can tell these things? He just looked German. I can’t put my finger on it, but he just looked German. The way he was really tall, and the way he had a sloping forehead, and pasty white skin, and was going slightly bald; all the other Germans I know have looked like that. And your shoulders really tensed up when you saw him, so I knew there was something between you two.”

We played video games for about an hour, until I declared I wasn’t wasting another single coin on that damn machine, and then we headed back to the station. We still had some time before Mary’s train left, so we headed to “Mr. Donuts” for some late night donuts and coffee.

We were still complaining about Japan. “It’s not so much that I hate my job now,” Mary said. “I think I would just hate any job. It’s my parents’ fault. They didn’t mean to, but they spoiled me and my siblings. We had everything we ever wanted when we were kids growing up, so we never learned how to work hard for anything. And now suddenly we’re like ‘we have to work? We don’t know how to work. Can’t we just stay home and play computer games and have everything given to us like it used to be?’”

“You know, I think that describes me exactly as well,” I said.

“Really? Did you grow up upper-middle class as well?”


“Well there you go then.”

“In fact,” I continued, “I hate to admit it, but there’s been nothing in my life so far that has made me grow up. I just spent four years goofing around in college, and I liked to study so that didn’t even really count as a hardship. And now I’ve spent four years in Japan just goofing off. There’s been no responsibility in my life.”

“That’s how it is with everyone,” Mary said. “No one really grows up until they have kids.”

“Not in the old days,” I said. “It used to be when you turned 18 you went out to work on the farm.”

“Whatever. Maybe in Michigan.”

Ten minutes later she ended up catching her train, and I drove back home.

Link of the Day
Regular readers of this blog may remember my frequent references to "Dogs and Demons" by Alexander Kerr. It's a book about everything wrong with Japan, very popular with us bitter foreigners living here.

I'm not sure how many times I've linked to it, but for instance here (when talking about the Last Samuri), and here (talking about World War II) and here (talking about all the wires in the air).

Anyway, the Japanese times published an interview with Alexander Kerr to ask what his assesment of Japan is four years after he published the book.