Thursday, March 27, 2008

Update on the Job

It's been a while since my last job update, so I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts on how things were going (hopefully this doesn't get me fired) and how my plans for attending university from April are coming along.

(For previous updates on the ever changing job situation see updates 1: The Holidays, 2 Odds and Ends: Daily Life, Update 3 The Job, Update 4, The First Day Back, Update 5:The First couple weeks and Update 6: Visa Renewal Blues).

To sum up our story thus far: After going bankrupt this fall, the pieces of what was left of the Nova franchise were picked up by a new company, and we started working again in January.

It has been a rocky start to say the least, and whether this new company will be able to make it or not is still far from certain. I won't go into all the details here, but the whole thing has been played out on the forums in Lets Japan. Anyone interested can check out their news postings here, as well as the G-Com/ Neo Nova forum and the ominously titled forum "The End of G-Com" (G-com being the name of the new sponsor company).

One of the first shake ups early on was that all the foreign management in the company were phased out. In the old days of Nova, there used to be two different tracks of hierarchies: one for the foreign teachers, one for the Japanese staff. Now with the foreign management pushed out, it created a huge information gap. Before whenever there was some important piece of information we needed to know, the foreign management would give us a call (or sometimes we had to call them first and ask, but at least the information was out there and available.)
Now nobody seems to know what was going on, and everyday things like getting visas renewed, getting up to date contracts, and getting tax forms has become a huge headache.

This was particularly frustrating for me because I was trying to submit a request to have my schedule drastically re-arranged so I could have week day afternoons free for attending University.

Into the power vacuum left by the old foreign management was thrust the Japanese staff at each branch, who were now responsible for things like calling up teachers on standby and seeing if they wanted to come back to work. But since the staff at our branch didn't speak much English, they passed the job onto me. (My Australian co-worker has been in Japan less than a year, and for all intents and purposes speaks no Japanese, so I'm the only one who can communicate with the staff).

Our branch in Nakatsu was understaffed, partly due to the confusion over who was coming back to work and who wasn't. (A couple of my former co-workers had said they were coming back at first, but then just ended up starting up their own place instead). So it was just two of us their now, and it became my job to recruit another person.

As our branch in Nakatsu was the only branch in Oita prefecture to re-open, there were lots of teachers on stand-by in Oita city. I went down the list and called them up and asked them if they wanted to come into work in Nakatsu. It was a bit awkward because I was in the position of a Go-Between. I was negotiating and answering questions from all these people, and I was in a position of absolutely no authority. I was simply the mouthpiece for the Japanese staff at our branch. (Who were themselves just fresh out of college and really had no authority either.) This was especially awkward when I was calling up some of my former supervisors and trainers in the company.

Also since I wasn't given any extra time in my schedule to make these phone calls, I mostly did it either in the 10 minute breaks between lessons, or on my own time at home.
...All that being said, I do have to confess that a part of me did enjoy the inflated sense of self importance that comes with being an access point in the chain of information.

Most of the people I called were desperately looking for work (many of them had been in the country a long time and had families to support) but none of them wanted to move out to the countryside in Nakatsu because they had families in Oita city. And at over an hour traveling time, it just wasn't practical as a daily commute.

When I communicated all this back to the staff, it produced a fresh panic with every new rejection. "What are we going to do? If we can't get another teacher out here, we're going to have to close down this branch."

"What?" I said. "You can't be serious. Our company just laid off some 800 people last month, and most of them are desperate for work. In fact I talked to some of them personally. Many of them would come back to work in a heartbeat."

"It's no good," the Japanese staff said. "We can only call the names on the list the management sends us. We can't offer jobs to people who have already been laid off." Why they were so strict about this I have no idea. And, as someone in Oita said to me on the phone, most of the people who had gotten laid off were exactly the sort of single unattached people who could have gone anywhere at a moment's notice. All the people the company had kept on standby in Oita had families and commitments to their city.

And then, after about a month of hand wringing about this issue, a new order came in from the company. The previous ratio of 40 students to 1 teacher was now outdated. From now the new goal was 100 students per each teacher. And so overnight we had gone from being seriously understaffed to now overstaffed, and the problem of finding a new teacher was suddenly dropped.
The staff told me that a minimum of 2 teachers was needed at each branch so that one could go on break while the other was working, and things like that, so for the moment our jobs were still safe. Where this is all going in the long run is another story though. The reason the old Nova got in trouble in the first place is that students couldn't reserve lessons when they wanted to. With 100 to 1 student teacher ratio, many are wondering how long it is before the complaints begin to resurface.


In the meantime, work continues as normal. The first few weeks I had a lot of free lessons, which I liked because it meant I was able to get a lot of books read. However the word eventually came down from on high that the staff was to make sure the teachers did have any free time during work hours. And so the busy work began. At first we were stamping the address of our local branch onto fliers, folding up those fliers, and organizing free tissues. Then we started being asked to hand out those tissues.

The whole "handing out tissues" is an interesting Japanese business idea. If you go into any Japanese city, you can see several people on each street corner (usually young women fresh out of college) handing out small packets of tissues to passersby. The wrapping surrounding the tissues is all advertisements for the company, but most people will happily accept a free packet of tissues because it's something you can use, especially in cold season and hay fever season. Thus a brilliant Japanese advertising strategy was born.

Many was the time I wondered through a busy city or shopping mall, and watched those girls stand in the same place and hand out tissues over and over again to the people passing by, and I wondered what it would be like to have to do that job. It's just like the guy who stands and directs traffic all day next to a construction site: it looks so boring, it's almost fascinating. What does your mind think of all day while you do that?
Well, I guess I should be careful what I wish for, because now we were being asked to hand out tissues.

In truth I didn't mind that much. Don't get me wrong I would greatly have preferred to use that time to get some reading done given the choice, but I thought it was more than fair enough that I was being asked to work during the time I was getting paid. And with a company that's going down the toilet fast, I understand they need all the help they can get.

My co-worker was furious. "Can you believe it?" he said. "They're asking teachers to hand out the tissues now." (Before this job had only been done by the Japanese staff).

I thought it was funny he was so upset by it. "Let me get this straight," I said. "You don't mind sitting in the office and stuffing tissues into packets, but you're upset by the idea of handing them out?"

"Actually I have my issues about stuffing the tissues as well. But that's another story. What I really can't believe is that they expect us as teachers to stand out in the mall handing out these tissues as if we hadn't even graduated from college."

It was then I realized the poor fool still thought we were professionals, instead of just English speaking machines. I didn't have the heart to disabuse him of this notion, and so just let it go.

When asked to hand out tissues, my co-worker scowled so much that eventually the Japanese staff just stopped asking him. Now they just give all the free periods in the schedule to me instead of him, and I go out and hand out the tissues while he teaches. This suits both of us fine. My co-worker would much more prefer to teach than distribute the tissues, and I like having my day broken up a little bit and doing something else for an hour or so.


In the old Nova, information used to be carefully guarded. In the new Nova, it's the same, but, perhaps because we are now technically a different company, the archives have been thrown open, and all the old records are now being used as scratch paper. Old performance reports, student complaints, and instructor evaluations are now found on the backsides of the paper in the printer and copy machine. It has provided us with some interesting reading material.

...Although actually not quite as interesting as you might think. For example I found some of my old evaluations, which contained almost nothing of note and probably can be considered damning me with faint praise. The first report read something like: "Joel has been fitting into the branch really well. The staff thinks he's all right. We've received no negative comments about him."

A few months later there was something more in depth: "Joel has been doing good. We've received no negative comments about him, and one positive comment. A number of students have mentioned his voice his really loud, which makes him easy to understand. [It's true actually. Perhaps because of years of being an ALT and teaching in the elementary schools, I now automatically switch into my booming voice mood when teaching English. My co-workers have often commented that they can hear my lessons perfectly from the staff room]. In a branch with no team leader, Joel has been really helpful in getting the all the new teachers settled in and showing them around. Joel tends to do most of his lessons closely following the textbook [ie-not very creative] but as he has a quiet reserved personality, the staff thinks this style suits him well."

A couple weeks later, we all went out to dinner (me, my co-worker, the Japanese staff, and Shoko). The Japanese staff, being new to the Nakatsu branch from this year, told Shoko that back in the first weeks of January, before classes had officially started and when Nova had only opened it's doors to meet with students, many of the students had inquired about me. (And I assume everyone else, but the staff only mentioned my part to Shoko).

"Is teacher Joel returning to work?" the students would ask.

"We have no idea," the staff would answer. "We haven't met anyone yet."

"Oh he's nice," the students would reply. "A real gentleman."

"Ah, so he's from England then,"said the staff.

"No, that's the odd thing," the students would say. "You would think so, but actually he's an American."

I guess this right here says a lot about the stereo-types Japanese people have about British and Americans. It also helps explain the comments my principal made when I was departing from Gifu, that although I was an American, he thought I acted more British.


Almost as soon as Nova had re-opened, I submitted my request to re-arrange my schedule so I took attend University classes this spring. (Actually I waited until I had my visa application sorted out first, and then I asked.) The staff promised to forward my request to the management, but almost immediately I got a negative answer. I had been naively hoping this might get passed through without a hassle, but everything is a hassle.

"But why?" I asked. "The times I'm still available to work, the evenings and the weeknights, are our busiest times anyway. Surely it would be better to have me work those times?"

"Yes, but all teachers must be available to work on weekday afternoons as well," the staff answered. This struck me as being rigid for the sake of being rigid.
I was reminded of what a friend told me when I first started work here last year. "Nova's a great company to work for as long as you stay inside the box. If you try and do something outside the box, you run into all sorts of problems." (And this was before all the problems and bankruptcy).

So I put on my worried face, sucked in air through my teeth, and said, "Listen, I don't know if I'll be able to stay on if I can't get this schedule."

This caused all sorts of panic, like I knew it would. At this time we were still trying desperately, without any luck, to get a 3rd person to come out to Nakatsu. I don't know what they would have done if I had left. They'd probably have to shut down the branch.

So, they told me they would take it under consideration again. And for the next couple months it bounced around in the void as upper management got reshuffled, and then reshuffled again. It was an extremely frustrating time to get a request through.

Finally I got in touch with someone who was a liaison to someone with the power to decide. And pleaded my case. And I was told it was probably not possible, and that my job should be my first priority anyway. (With it being an open secret that our parent company was thinking about pulling the plug and shutting the whole business down again, I didn't really feel like making Nova my first priority). So I said I might not be able to stay on again, and I was told it would again be taken under consideration. After not hearing back for a week, I wrote a long pleading fax and sent it in as a follow up.

"Dear XXX,
hope you're doing well and not too busy.
I wanted to follow up on my schedule request, especially since the staff tell me they will start taking reservations for April lessons from the 11th onward.
I checked with my co-worker, and he is more than happy to switch shifts with me on Friday. (In fact he prefers the 1:20 shift). Perhaps you saw his note to that effect on his fax last week. Otherwise I'm sure he could send another one.
Also our Nakatsu branch is currently open, but has no classes, on Wednesday and Thursday. I'd be more than willing to teach on one or both of these days if it will help.
And just a reminder that I'll still be able to work full schedules on public holidays. (I think most public holidays are on Mondays anyway, so maybe that will help).
Thanks for you help in sorting all this out, and sorry to add to your work load. I understand of course your position as a liaison and the limitations it carries with it. I was in a similar position a few weeks ago when I was making phone calls to stand-by teachers on behalf of the Nakatsu staff.
I hope on not coming off as too confrontational. An old AT (area trainer) told me long ago that the worst thing you could do is to phrase your requests in terms of ultimatums.
However, my priorities have shifted since October and the fall of Nova. I now realize teaching English in Japan as a long term career carries with it certain liabilities, and as I'm turning 30 and getting married this year, it is important to me to develop other skills. I've already enrolled in the school and paid my money. And at this point I'm too concerned about the stability of Nova to make it my first priority. So if it comes to a conflict between Nova and school, I'm going to have to choose the school. Again, I don't mean to sound confrontational, that's just how things stand with me.
However, if it can be worked out, I would love to continue at Nova while attending school. Last year I met someone at training who was attending University, and working at Nova in the evenings. So it is my understanding that there is some precedent for this kind of thing.

I'm more than willing to have my hours cut or go down to part time. I'm also willing to work overtime on weekends, 6 or 7 days a week, or even add on more classes in my available hours (if that would help).

I do realize that I am asking for some flexibility on the part of Nova. However in an ideal world, I don't think flexibility on 3 classes Monday afternoon is asking too much, especially after all I put up with the past half year. And plus the hours I'm available to work is when our branch is the most busy.

Anything you can do to pass this message on to the Japanese manager, or help me out in anyway would be greatly appreciated."

This was somewhat playing chicken on my part. Whether I would really have been able to quit or not was still being debated by me and Shoko. I would have been perfectly fine with quitting work and being a full time student, but Shoko would never have forgiven it. And because this is the countryside, there aren't that many other jobs around here. I was considering asking at a couple places, or seeing if I could pick up enough private students to equal out my current wage, but it was all pretty iffy.

Fortunately, Nova gave in and re-arranged my schedule. I was kind of hoping they would cut my hours, but in an effort to be diplomatic I gave them the option of doing whatever they wanted, and they chose to re-arrange them. The 3 hours I used to work on Monday afternoon will be moved to the weekend. I'll now work a 9 class shift on Saturday, and a 10 class shift on Sunday. It will be a long day, but I think I can handle it. Back last summer when we were shorthanded for a couple weeks because everyone left at once I pulled some similar shifts.

What's more worrying is the long days I'm going to have during the week. I'll be up at 6:30, an hour commute into Beppu, class from 9 to 3, an hour commute back to Nakatsu, and then work from 5 to 9.

These will be long days, no doubt about it. Although when you think about it, it's no longer than the kind of days a lot of other people put in all the time. Like working mothers who are doing 3 jobs and raising a family. Or you average Japanese business man, who routinely stays at work till about 9 everyday. Or everybody else in the world who is working while going to school, or going to school while working. (I came from a privileged middle class background where I was free to goof-off during my free hours at college, but we all know lots of people who worked their way through school).
The big question, given my famous laziness and love of sleep, is whether I'll be one of those people who's able to pull it off. Well I guess we'll see.

One last piece of news. We finally got our back pay slips in the mail this month. The Japanese government is reimbursing us at 80% for the months of September and October when Nova went bankrupt and no one got paid.

Link of the Day
Youtube clip WMD Lies

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

US Casualties Reach 4,000

Looks like I'm going to have to revise my statistics from earlier as we pass the 4,000 mark.

御法度 / Gohatto

(Movie Review)

This was one of the movies recommended by Donald Richie in his book on Japanese films.

It is another movie about the infamous Samurai Corps Shinsengumi (see Romulus Hillsborough's book or the movie "When the Last Sword is Drawn".)

Donald Richie summarizes the themes of this movie very succinctly, so I'll just quote him: "Gohatto repeats the theme [of director Oshima] that love destroys. Yet, by 1999, heterosexual love on screen, through repeated exposure, had already lost its transgressive power. Oshima therefore turned to another expression of desire.
The society at the film's core is the Shinsengumi, an elite group of swordsman commissioned in 1863 to counter anti-shogunate activities. They are fanatically loyal, think as a group, and attempt to subdue personal feelings. Into their midst is enrolled an extremely handsome youth. Passion grips the all-male Shinsengumi, discipline disappears, and death results."

I checked with my students about the historical accuracy of the movie, and they said it wasn't very accurate, but there was a real incident of unrequited homosexual love in the real Shinsengumi, which eventually lead to betrayal and death. The same students mention this movie is a satire on the ultra-masculine Shinsengumi by portraying them all as closet homosexuals. Another element of satire is added by portraying many of the Shinsengumi characters (most of whom died young in real life) with middle aged actors, such as Beat Takeshi.

(The movie is based on a novel by Japanese historical novelist Shiba Ryotaro, which hasn't been translated into English, but given Shiba Ryotaro's reputation for accuracy, I imagine the original novel must have been largely factual.)

Watching this movie, I was reminded of Ian Buruma's essay on Robert Baden-Powell. Baden-Powell was a British military hero, the founder of the boy scouts, all around outdoorsman, and a rumored closet homosexual. Ian Buruma examines the life of Baden-Powell, and compares it with dandyism among later Japanese samurais to ask the question: "As one gets further and further into the cult of masculinity, and more and more repelled by anything soft or feminine, is it possible that at some point all this masculinity might in fact result in its opposite: namely dandyism and homosexuality?" (All misquoted here as I have no copy in front of me, but that was the general gist of his essay.)

This question isn't explicitly addressed in the movie, but you can't help but wonder if it was in the back of the director's mind.

As this story is largely fictionalized, the larger politics of the fall of the Shogun and Meiji restoration are mostly in the background and unimportant to the story. There is enough name dropping to make me glad that I have been reading up on this period recently, but historical knowledge is by no means essential to understanding the story.

And also be forewarned ahead of time that this is one of those movies where everything is not spelled out for you at the end. You know, the kind of movie where you are like, "What? Is that the end? What is that supposed to mean?" And then, if you're like me, you get on-line and spend another 30 minutes or so reading up on different people's interpretations to try and make sense of it.
(If you log into the IMBD discussion board, there's a surprisingly lively discussion about the end of this movie and what it is supposed to mean).

Link of the Day
From Peter Bratt The Southern Strategy: Or, Better Understanding Your Local Kent County Commission District
Via This Modern World:Right wingers and the dialogue on race.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Japanese Exchange Student 11th Grade


One of my first encounters with Japanese culture was our family hosting a Japanese exchange student.
Our high school had an exchange program with a school in Japan, somewhere in Shiga Prefecture (the sister prefecture to Michigan). If I remember right a group of Japanese students came over to our school every year, and we sent a group over to Japan once every two years for a couple weeks during our summer vacation.

I was initially interested in going to Japan with our high school exchange program. I had never been to Asia at that point, and the idea of travelling to Japan seemed exotic and adventurous( it does for all people who've never been to Asia I guess).
But for reasons I don't really remember I soon gave up on it. I think I decided it was just too much of a hassle to attend all the meetings they had before leaving. It was like a 2 year process getting ready for a 2 week trip, and my usual laziness won out again.

Now that I've spent most of my 20s here in Japan, I often regret that I didn't go on that high school exchange trip. It might have given me a running start on learning the language and the culture. (On the other hand, depending on how you look at it, I've more than put in my time in this country, and there's no reason to regret the fact that I missed the opportunity to spend 2 weeks here when I was in high school).

Anyway, instead of going to Japan, I ended up hosting a Japanese student for the week. (Actually it was my mom who volunteered our family, but I was all for it as well).
His name was Hiro. I've long forgotten what his last name was. He was roughly the same age as me. (He might have been one year older, I don't remember).

He was a really nice guy, although his poor English certainly limited how much we could talk to each other. (Although looking at it now, after some experience teaching in this country I recognize that his English must have been pretty advanced for an average Japanese high school student.)

But we communicated where we could. It turned out we were both video game fans, and playing video games together didn't require a lot of communication.
The weather was still a little cold to spend a lot of time outside, but we did get a good game of catch/ monkey in the middle going in the basement, which was abruptly ended when the dog decided to take a crap on the floor. I then had to spend the next 20 minutes first disciplining the dog, and then cleaning up the mess. (Although he was normally at least tolerable housebroken, the dog had the embarrassing habit of always forgetting his training when we had company over. Several times when I had friends over from Calvin there were also incidents).
Afterwards I apologized to Hiro, but he responded, "That's OK. My dog is sometimes bad dog too."

But when we were at school, or in the car, or somewhere were we couldn't cover up the for the lack of conversation with some sort of activity, it was always a struggle. With his limited English and my poor conversation skills, we spent a lot of time just starring at each other in silence. During morning break at school I would buy him a donut, and then we would stand in the school hallway trying to find something to talk about.
At one point when I ran out of things to talk about I mentioned Godzilla as my only knowledge of Japanese culture. (I was a big fan in my youth). He didn't know what I was talking about first, (Godzilla has a completely different name in Japanese, another thing I wouldn't find out until years later), but after some gestures and sound effects on my part he was able to guess what I was talking about. Later I dug out some of my Godzilla paraphernalia, and we were able to talk about the different monsters. It was pretty much the most in depth conversation we ever had. It certainly went a lot better than when I asked him what he thought about the atomic bombings. I felt I would get a nice cultural exchange out of the conversation, but he just responded with an embarrassed silence.

During the week he was in Michigan he would accompany to my classes in the morning, and then he and his classmates would go off and do their own thing in the afternoon. He invariably slept soundly through all the classes I took him to. He didn't even appear to put up much of a fight against the sleepiness either. He sat through the first 10 minutes or so of my Latin class, decided this was not something that interested him, and was contentedly sleeping through the next 40 minutes.
(A few years ago, when I was leading my own expedition of Japanese high school students on a one day exchange at Calvin Christian High School, who should I run into but my old Latin teacher. "Sorry about this," I told him. "Hopefully these students will be a bit more attentive than the last Japanese student I brought into your class.")

In fact Hiro showed a surprising ability to sleep through everything. Not only my school classes, but also church services, and the play we took him too. Fair enough he was fighting Jet Lag and a completely different time schedule. But this is also yet another thing I understand better after having been to Japan, and seeing Japanese teachers and Board of Education officials feel perfectly content to sleep through faculty meetings whenever the topic was unrelated to them.

One of the unused school rooms had been designated as a hang out room for the Japanese students, where some of them just passed the morning talking and playing ping pong rather than attend classes. After a couple days of Hiro sleeping through all my classes, I gave him the option of staying in the hang out room and just chatting with his friends instead of going to Latin. He chose to hang out. Well who can blame him?

After one week a good-bye party was held for the Japanese students in some church or middle school gym or something. (Apparently our own high school must have been unavailable that night). Where ever it was, it was somewhere I had never been. I got directions from my mom which were almost perfect, but left out one turn, and as a result I spent over an hour driving up and down the streets of Grand Rapids before finally stopping at someone's house to ask for directions. Hopefully Hiro appreciated seeing a bit of the city.

At the party the Japanese students had some silly presentation lined up for us in which, among other things, they taught us how to make sushi. This was before sushi shops had really taken off in the midwest, and was my first experience with the food. Back then the idea of eating seaweed and raw fish was still a shock to midwesterners, but the Japanese students assured us it was all safe.

The next day I got to miss half of science class to see Hiro off at the school entrance as he and his classmates loaded up onto the bus. I remember feeling suddenly very sad that he was leaving, which was surprising because he had only been there a week and our ability to communicate had been so little. He seemed a little bit sad as well, and told me, "We'll be friends forever."

After he went back to Japan I exchanged a couple letters with him, and then, as these things almost always go, we soon lost touch. I have no idea how I would get in touch with him these days, and to be honest don't even remember what his full name is.

Which is a pity because it might have been fun to look him up while I am in Japan. Especially since I spent almost 2 years in Gifu prefecture, right next to his home in Shiga.

One last remembrance. He and his friends came to America around the same time as infamous Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Subway. Worried that he might not be up to speed on events in his own country, I showed him the cover of Time magazine (which had the picture of Asahara Shoko on it). In his limited English he was able to reply. "I know. In Japan, we think he very bad man."

In a way this foreshadowed my own entry to Japan, and the September 11th incident that occurred just one month after, forcing me to answer several questions about terrorism and America with a limited vocabulary.
I also still use this incident as an example whenever my students talk about how safe Japan is and how dangerous America is. "Well you never know," I said. "I remember when I was hosting a Japanese exchange student back in high school, and what do you think was headline news at that time..."

Link of the Day(s)
Continuing to remember the 5 year anniversary of the invasion
What Do We Owe Iraq? and Five Years of War in Iraq and A Million Iraqi Dead? The U.S. press buries the evidence and The Global Warming Costs of the Iraq War and Iraqi American Reflects on Five Years of War and Why Are Winter Soldiers Not News?

Friday, March 21, 2008

5 Year Anniversary of the Iraq War

Media Mouse has an article here on the 5 year anniversary of the Iraq War.

For anyone keeping track:
Cost of the War: $504,000,000,000
Or: $4,681 per household.
$1,721 per person.
$341.4 million per day.

And of course, this official estimate is probably much too low. Joseph Stiglitz, a Columbia University professor who won the Nobel prize for economics in 2001, and Linda Bilmes, a Harvard budget expert, estimate a total of $2,000,000,000,000. Now there's a number you don't see typed out everyday. Look at all those zeros. Guess which generation is going to be responsible for paying it back?

U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq: 3,991. You can't wonder what all those people would have done with their lives if this war hadn't come along.

Wounded soldiers: officially 29,395. Possibly as high as 100,000.

Iraqi dead because of US invasion: Well, let's face it. No one really knows. Our government decided it wasn't important to try and keep track. According to the Opinion Business Research as high as 1,200,000.

The Lancelot organization estimates much lower at about 10,000 every month. The Iraq body count, which only counts Iraq civilians reported in the English media, has about 89,760.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie

(book review)

I've been making an effort to watch more Japanese films lately, but I still feel a bit lost in the Japanese section of my video store. So when saw this book, I thought it would help me navigate my way through Japanese cinema a little easier.

This book is by Donald Richie who, according to the various quotes on the cover jacket, is single handily responsible for introducing Japanese cinema to the West. I had never heard of him before, but then there's a lot of stuff I haven't heard of.

The introduction to this book is by none other than Calvin's own Paul Schrader, who claims to have been greatly influenced in his film student days by Richie's earlier books.

Despite Schrader's high praise, I had a hard time making it through this book. So many names of directors and films are crammed into this 250 page book that it makes your head spin after a while. Some parts of the book are interesting, like when it talked about the film making policies under the American occupation, or when it talked about the contrast between American documentaries and Japanese documentaries. But often it feels like you're just reading through a long list. There were times when I seriously considered throwing this book against the wall and being done with it, but for better or for worse I struggled on through it.

For people like me who are starting out with very little knowledge of Japanese cinema, there's a lot to swallow in this book. I think someone who was already familiar with Japanese film might get more out of it as it might help to organize film information they already have.

That being said, I did learn a thing or two from this book helps me understand Japanese cinema more, and perhaps in the future I'll try and be less critical in my various reviews. For example this book helped me realize that Japanese cinema has it's own tradition and history, and shouldn't always be judged against Western films. The over acting (which I'm -always - complaining - about) is because Japanese initially viewed cinema not as a realistic portrayal of life, but as an outgrowth of theater.
Also Richie explains why Japanese TV and Cinema can be repetitive, and why the Japanese stay sitting all the way through the ending credits in a movie theater (something I've always wondered about).

At the same time though, there are a lot of truly terrible films that the Japanese film industry crank out each year. (Alexander Kerr has a few rants about this in his book "Dogs and Demons"). Richie occassionally acknowledges this in passing, but he keeps his focus on the directors who in his opinion defy the mold.

When I bought this book, I was hoping to use it as a guide in the video store. And although I'll certainly keep it around as a reference, the book contains very little information on any given film. Most films are summed up in a couple sentences, a couple paragraphs at most. There is however a small film guide in the back which I'm planning on making use of.

Because the book is more or less organized according to directors, what it does do is give a good understanding of the broad themes and approaches of different Japanese directors, and their differences from each other. In this respect the book is most useful, although again for the novice like me it's all a bit hard to keep track of.

That being said, a few movies are mentioned in this book that I have reviewed on this blog: My Neighbor Totoro, Shall We Dance, and Zatoichi.

[Interestingly enough, Richie gives Zatoichi a rather tepid review, despite the fact that Zatoichi is used as the photo for the book's cover (see image above). I'm guessing this was someone else's choice other than Richie, who writes of the movie: "lots of violence naturally, but at the same time a kind of noble pathos, which shortly becomes tiresome. The all singing, tap dancing finale is welcome but rather too short."]

Many more movies are mentioned that I saw before I started my movie review project such as Battle Royale, Godzilla, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, High and Low, Princess Monoke, Howl's Moving Castle, Akira, Steamboy, Ghost in the Shell, Brother, The Tokyo Trial, et cetera.

There are some repetitive passages in this book which are indicative of sloppy proof-reading, and the fact that someone along the way wasn't giving this book a lot of attention as it got pushed out towards publication.
Nevertheless, now that I've completed this book, I hope to be able to use it as a reference in the future as I continue my journey into Japanese film.

Addendum: according to this book there is an annual film festival in Yufuin, Oita prefecture. Amazing how I can live in Oita prefecture for all this time and not know these things.

Link of the Day
A friend of mine and former co-worker started up a new website TADA Music, documenting the independent music scene in Japan. Well worth taking the time to have a look.

Friday, March 14, 2008

White Day

Today (March 14th) is White Day in Japan.

White Day is one of the more bizarre Japanese inventions. I've mentioned it a couple times before in this blog, but it's probably worth repeating to keep everyone up to speed.

Way back in the 1950s, or whenever Western Holidays were being imported into Japan, someone managed to convince all the Japanese women that on Valentine's Day instead of receiving flowers and being treated to a nice night out, it was their job to buy gifts for all the men in their lives. (How they pulled this off I have no clue, but men all over the world should be taking notes on Japan).

The florist companies and the greeting companies must have been sleeping, because the chocolate companies got a jump on the advertising and managed to stake Valentine's Day out as an official chocolate day, where women have to go out and buy expensive boxes of chocolate for their boyfriends, husbands, and co-workers. ("Duty Chocolate" as it has come to be known here).

And everything was nice and peaceful. Until several years later the confectionery companies got greedy, and started an advertising campaign for men to return the gift a month later with some sort of white chocolate or marshmallow cake. And thus "White Day" was born.

The strange thing is that most Japanese people are completely oblivious to the fact that White Day originated in Japan, and think that, along with a lot of the other recent holidays, it was imported from America. Over the years I've wasted untold hours of my life explaining over and over again that we don't celebrate White Day in America. (This is especially curious since, according to Wikipedia, White Day wasn't established until 1980. So it's not exactly an ancient tradition lost in the mists of time).

Unfortunately because of the belief that it is an American tradition, I don't get any grace for screwing it up. And I manage to screw it up every year.

My first year in Japan it took me completely off guard (like most things did my first year). On Valentine's Day I received a nice box of chocolate from the pretty librarian who worked in the same building I did. I was very pleased with this because I liked chocolate, and because I thought she was quite cute and was trying to work up the courage to ask her out.

Then "White Day" came around and she asked me why I hadn't returned her gift. I didn't know I was supposed to, but when all my co-workers let me know I had blown it, I went to the store the next day to try and find something nice.

The previous couple days the stores had all been filled with beautifully wrapped boxes of White Day chocolate on display, but one day after White Day they had all promptly disappeared. So instead I got a regular everyday 50 cent vanilla chocolate bar to give to her.

Since it was so obviously an unimpressive gift, I tried to make a joke about it. "Here you are. This is very expensive chocolate. Very expensive. Why don't you believe me?" But it was too little too late. After that my relationship with her went down hill.

In an effort to try and cover all my bases, I bought a chocolate bar for her co-worker, the other young pretty librarian in the city. Which just created more awkwardness. "You weren't supposed to buy me anything," her coworker said. "White Day is when you return gifts from Valentine's Day. I didn't get you anything for Valentine's Day, so you're not supposed to get my anything for White Day."

"Oh," I said. "Well, look, I already bought the chocolate, so why don't you just take it anyway." Or something like that.

Over the years my smoothness has not increased. Last year for Valentine's Day, Shoko asked where her present was. "What?" I said. "In Japan the man doesn't have to give anything on Valentine's Day."

"But you're American," Shoko said.

"But this is Japan," I countered.

Shoko sighed. "Okay, fair enough," she answered.

One month later White Day came around. "What did you get me for White Day?" Shoko asked.

I had completely forgotten. "What?" I said. "White Day is a Japanese holiday. I'm an American." Oh boy was that not a smart move on my part. I still haven't lived that down.

This year Shoko decided to take things into her own hands. She let me know far in advance of White Day that she would be expecting a present this year. And she even let me know what to get her. (Instead of chocolate she told me I could buy her a couple CDs, some flowers, and take her out to dinner).

Shoko also took control of my other gifts. She made sure I kept track of what students and friends gave me what for Valentine's Day, and returned all the gifts with White Day presents of equal or greater value.

A few days ago she was double checking with me to make sure I remembered everything. "Remember to get gifts for Aya, Chiaki, and Maya," she said. "What about Ms. Tanaka? Did she get you anything?"

"Um..." I said.


"Hold on, I'm thinking."

"Argh! I knew this would happen. Didn't I specifically tell you to remember this year?"

"Wait, don't get angry. Yeah, maybe she did. Yeah, I'm sure she did." To be honest I had no clue, but I figured if in doubt it was better to error on the side of getting a gift.

I talked to my Australian co-worker the next day at work. "Which students did we get chocolate from?"

"Let's see, we got chocolate from Makiko, Satoko, and I think from Nahoko."

"Did we get chocolate from Ayako?"

"I don't remember."

"Damn it man! Think!" I said. "If we return all the other student's gifts, but forget her, then it will be a huge faux pas. But if we get her something and it turns out she never gave us anything, then all the students will be expecting a gift."

Like all gift chocolate, White Day chocolate consists of incredibly overpriced pieces of chocolate that are sold inside elaborately wrapped boxes which, when you finally get passed all the wrapping, consist of about 6 incredibly tiny pieces of chocolate that taste more or less the same as ordinary chocolate. It's a huge scam. And at about the equivalent of $6-$10 a box of chocolate, it's a huge dent in the wallet. I think I'm close to spending more money on White Day this year than I spent on Christmas.

And the kicker, when I thought about it, was that I didn't even enjoy the Valentine's Day chocolate I got all that much. It tasted all right, but it was the kind of expensive chocolate you feel guilty for even eating. "There goes another $2," you think with every bite.

Plus I got in a lot of trouble for eating my Valentine's Day chocolate. Shoko, at one point in the evening said, "You've eaten enough chocolate for the day. You're too fat already." (I don't think I'm all that fat by American standards, but it has been made very clear to me by several people that I'm getting fat by Japanese standards).

I abided by this for a little while, but I was in the middle of a marathon Japanese study session, and as every studier knows there's nothing like a little chocolate to give you the energy to keep on going when you get a little tired. So I reached for another piece.

"I said you've had enough," Shoko said.

"I'm an adult, I'm 29 years old, and I want the freedom to have another piece of chocolate," I said. And I did. And I spent roughly the next week paying for it.

That extra piece of chocolate ended up being one of those small things that turns into a huge fight. And then gets brought up repeatedly throughout the next week as an example of how the other person always turns small things into huge fights. And debates about who is responsible for always turning small things into huge fights. And ends up causing even more fights. Until you're sorry you ever laid eyes on the chocolate.

Hopefully my White Day presents won't cause any fights like that. But I'm sure it will ruin people's diets, and cause many of them to feel guilty about eating it, and cause others to secretly plot ways of getting rid of it. In the end it's a whole lot of money spent without making anyone really happy. The whole custom is a huge excuse for people to just throw money down the drain for the sake of keeping up appearances. (Much like every other commercialised holiday I guess. Don't even get me started about Christmas.)

....While I'm at it, I've always hated Valentine's Day back in America as well. If you were single on Valentine's Day (which I usually was) it was just like society was kicking you while you were down and making you feel more lonely. And if you had a girlfriend, then there was some huge pressure to produce this unbelievable romantic evening, that most guys could never live up to. It's amazing how much effort, time and money we as a society to make ourselves miserable.

Link of the Day
Federal Government Shelves New Coal Plants, Why Can't Michigan?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

(Book Review)

After "The Golden Compass" and "The Subtle Knife" I come to the end of Philip Pullman's Dark Material's trilogy.

These books get more and more bold and controversial as you read through them, and after finishing the 3rd book I've got to say I'm astonished that there hasn't been more of an outcry against them. (Not that I'm trying to encourage the voice of censorship, I just don't understand their patterns).

By the 3rd book, the characters are fighting a war against God. And not just any god, but quite explicitly the God of the Old Testament (and his regent Enoch, another Old Testament character who becomes a character in this book).

I know these books were never on the favored reading list of the religious right, but I don't remember the outrage against them being anywhere near what got directed against poor Harry Potter.

(Maybe these books have gotten more publicity and thus more controversy since the movie came out. I don't know. Those of you who have been living in the States will have to help fill me in).

Interestingly enough, according to Wikipedia the author Philip Pullman is just as surprised by the reaction as I am.

"I've been surprised by how little criticism I've got. Harry Potter's been taking all the flak… Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God."[19]

The books also get more and more preachy as you read through them. At first themes were just in the background of the first book. By the time you get to this book, several characters are standing up and making speeches against God.

If it is possible to look past the controversial subject matter, there is also a pretty good story going on in this book as well. As in the previous book, the action continues to jump through several different Universes (reminding me somewhat of the old multiverse system from DC comic books, but much more imaginative and thought provoking). With all the different universes to keep track of, the plot becomes more complex and its easy to forget this is a children's book. We encounter lots of interesting creatures from many different worlds.

In my opinion, the story lags a bit during the long section that involves the journey to the land of the dead. Even though a do realize the "journey to the land of the dead" section has a long history in classical literature like "The Odyssey" and "The Aeneid", et cetera. (Although to be completely honest, even in Homer I thought the land of the dead part was the weakest part of the book. It stops all the momentum of the story and gets just gets too weird and abstract).

Most of the questions brought up from the first two books are finally answered in this last book. (A friend of mine said it was like seeing all the pieces of the puzzle finally fit together). There are however still a few unanswered questions left at the end to leave room for further books. (According to wikipedia Pullman is working on more books in this series).
Link of the Day
Warfare and Health Care

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

ロミオ×ジュリエット / Romeo X Juliet

(Japanese Video Series)

In an effort to learn more about Japanese culture (and learn more Japanese language as a bonus) I thought I should probably work my way through some Anime series and bone up my otaku credentials.

Your average video rental store in Japan is made up of almost half anime series, so there's no lack of choices. What caught my eye about this series in particular was it was a familiar story. And plus Shoko and I have been having a lot of arguments lately about the merits of Shakespeare. (She doesn't think he's all that great). So I was curious to see what the Japanese Anime take would be. I was also curious to see how they would stretch Shakespeare's story over 12 DVDs.

The series opens with the little child Juliet watching her parents killed by the house of Montague. And then escaping out of a castle in the sky via a winged horse.
It was at this point that I began to suspect what I was watching was not the official Shakespeare version.

Indeed, this was an entirely new re-imagining of Shakespeare's story, where the creators apparently felt free to borrow whatever they liked from Shakespeare's story, and then add and remove elements at will. Many of the same characters, like Tybalt and Mercutio appear, but often in completely different roles. Shakespeare himself (or a thinly disguised caricature of him, a playwright named Will) becomes a character.
It's a bit jarring at first, but once you suppress your inner purist, it can be a lot of fun.
Will the young lovers meet with a happier end then they did in Shakespeare's tragedy? I guess you'll just have to watch the series and find out yourself. (Here's a hint though: remember it's a Japanese version of the story. Expect a big emphasis on duty and sacrifice near the end).

This anime series can probably be safely classified as "Shojo". That is, comic books or animation targeted at Junior high school or elementary school girls. This represents my first foray into the genre. And the big surprise is that it's not half bad.

I don't mean to be sexist here but...Well, I have always been (and my sisters and past girlfriends will vouch for this) eternally a 12 year old boy in terms of my entertainment choices. Action, superheroes, and giant monsters: Yes! Anything remotely emotional or feminine: No!

But I really enjoyed this series. The setting seems to be roughly 19th century Europe...taking place in a city in the sky with flying horses. It has a wonderful feel of a fairy tale.
There's plenty of action to spice things up. Juliet fights injustice in the town disguised in a mask as "The Red Wind", which gives the series something of the 1700's swashbuckling feel of the Scarlet Pimpernel series.
There's lots of subplots, narrow escapes, betrayals and intrigues between the two battling families.

The main story is of course the romance between Romeo and Juliet. And at times it does get a bit sappy, although more often it is likely to resemble a teenage romance a little too much. ("Oh my god! He actually likes me! What do I do? I better run away before I say something stupid!")
However, once Romeo and Juliet finally work up the courage to talk to each other and develop a relationship, their relationship progresses in a linear way from there. I can't help but feel that if this had been an American TV show the writers would have spun out the time by having them get together, and then break up, and then get back together again, and then break up again, and then develop feelings for other people, and then get sort of back together again, et cetera. (Shoko has been renting a lot of "Grey's Anatomy" and "The O.C." recently).

Every American who has ever commented on Shojo comic books or animation has with out fail said something like, "Aha! It is possible to make a comic book fantasy/ adventure story for girls that doesn't suck! Why can't the American comic book companies learn from this?"

...And yet at the risk of being repetitive, I can't help but ask the same question. What are you thinking, American comic books? Don't you realize girls represent half the population? Wouldn't you like to get just a little bit of that market?
Recently I've been probably spending more time than is good for me reading the musings of former comic book insider and female comic book geek "Occasional Superheroine". And one of her frequent complaints is the way American comic book companies completely write off or ignore female fans in an effort to make comic books pure male adolescent fantasy domain. I couldn't help but think of her blog as I watched this series.

Link of the Day
Shades of 1976

Monday, March 10, 2008

Japan E-mails: August 26, 2001

(Retrospection) (Edit slightly to reflect full name rules)

This first e-mail was a message to Media Mouse. They had sent out a mass e-mail that name dropped me briefly:
"Media Mouse needs you because we have some stuff to do!!!With record low attendance (is it because Joel Swagman has left us for greater ambitions???)...."

Well, I did have a pretty good attendance record back in the day, if I do say so myself, even if I was just a bump on the log with nothing useful to contribute for most of those meetings.
Anyway, I took advantage of their opening to send back my own report about what I had been learning about Japan so far. It is fairly long and self indulgent, but this was in the days before school had started, and I was still trying to kill 8 hours every day at the board of education.

Dear Media Mouse,
Hello, and greetings from your fellow correspondent. Glad to see from the last message that I am not forgotten. I thought I'd write in and tell you what I've been up to. Sorry in advance for filling your inboxes with a long and rambling e-mail, but for those of you who couldn't care less about what follows, just hit the delete button.

Well, here I am in Japan. I'm a bit cut off from activism at this point, although while I was staying in Tokyo, apparently there was a protest against the new textbooks (for those of you who have been following that story) and a leftwing Japanese group bombed the author's office. I was completely oblivious to all of this while it was happening. (Tokyo is a big city, and besides sometimes its hard to find English media.) Instead a friend e-mailed me about it afterwards, and I read about it much later on CNN's website.

Now that I'm in a rural area very far from Tokyo (on the Island of Kyushu) so very removed from anything political. (Although I guess it doesn't matter anyway, because as an employee of the Japanese government, and a foreigner as well, I have to watch my step very closely). School hasn't started yet here, but I have to come into the office everyday because that's just how they do things here. I need to show I'm part of the team.

Anyway, my supervisor was worried I would get bored, so after I told him I was interested in Japanese history, he told me to write down which areas of Japanese history I was interested in, and he would help me find the sources. Naturally my first inclination was to say I was interested in the Japanese Anarchist movement (and Japan did have a decent Anarchist movement during the first quarter of the 20th Century, until the militarists came to power), but I was a little nervous about revealing an interest in anarchism, so instead I said I was interested in the Japanese Peace Movement (which seemed liked a non-threatening way to get into Japanese anarchism) and the Japanese student movement.

Activism (as we well know) is currently undergoing a revival in Europe and America, a revival which has yet to hit Japan. However during the 1960s the Japanese student movement was much more active than the American student movement that we are familiar with.

After WWII, during the allied occupation of Japan, the United States followed some interesting policies. Because China had just fallen to the Communists, the US was nervous about the same thing happening in Japan. MacArthur instituted the "Red Purge" which meant anyone with leftist ties in the newly constituted Japanese government was dismissed. Of course it was the Japanese left that had fought against the imperialism of the fascist government, but because of typical cold war thinking the US tried to jail the leftist dissidents and allow the fascists to creep back into their former positions. (This was also true in other parts of Asia, but that's another story). During the 1950s, the CIA even secretly funded the Japanese rightest political party.

Also, after the devastation World War II had caused to the Japanese people, the Japanese government proposed to outlaw war in their constitution. The occupation was worried about this, because they wanted a strong Japanese military as a counter-weight to Communist China. The US pressured the Japanese to set up a small self defense force instead of abandoning their military all together. The US has continually pressured Japan to increase its military ever since, especially as memories of WWII grow dimmer. Today Japan has the 4th largest military in the world.

There was a demonstration against US imperialism in Japan on May Day 1952, but the big demonstration came in 1960. One of the former militarists, Kishi, became prime minister, and the Japan-US security treaty was up for renewal, signalling even stronger military influence in Japan. Tom many students it meant their government was creeping back towards fascism. They staged a huge protest, some 330,000 people strong. They forced their way into the Diet building, and smashed many cars. The Japanese government was forced to cancel Eisenhower's visit because they could not guarantee his safety, and Prime Minister Kishi resigned.

The incident had a strong influence on American students. Clark Kerr, who was unfortunate enough to be President of Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, later remarked that the American student movement was inevitable given what was happening in Japan. Later, during the end of the 1960s, the Japanese government supported the United States during the Vietnam War, and a second wave of student protest began. Japanese students engaged in violent struggles with the police in which both students and police were killed. Japanese radicals barricaded themselves in the Universities, and the University system was shut down during the academic year of 198-69 while police cleared the radical students out of the buildings.

Anyway, it turns out my supervisor, being a student at the time, was very sympathetic to the goals of the movement. He had studied in the United States, so had not taken an active part himself besides occasionally participating in demonstrations. However, Tokyo University was organized into dormitories according tho the prefecture the students were from. I live in Oita prefecture right now, and apparently Oita dormitory was a haven for radicals. So much so that the Governor ended up shutting down the dorm and dispersing the students. This means that 1) my supervisor had connections to many people who were involved in the student movement and 2) probably many of the people I will be working with in Oita prefecture had radical pasts. For instance I am told that some of the principles in the schools I had teaching at had been involved with the zengakuren (the Japanese student federation) and I'm also told that the superintendent of the Board of education had been arrested 5 times in the past for political activities.

So where am I going with this long and pointless message? Well here's the thing: if any of you have been to the library recently, and tried to do a little reading on Japan, you'll notice there are books and books on Japanese aggression during WWII, but nothing on the Japanese student movement or the Japanese peace movement. My supervisor was astonished when I revealed to him the depravity of English sources on the Japanese peace movement, and asked me why this was. My best guess is that Americans love to write about WWII because it is important to the American mythology to see ourselves as shining knights defending the world from evil. We are less eager to write about Japanese students protesting American imperialism in Vietnam. So, what I would love to do is collect some stories from people I am working with, and perhaps post them someday on the Media Mouse website. The big problem at this point is the language barrier. I'm trying to learn a little Japanese but it is coming along very very (very) slowly, so I don't know if this is a realistic project at this point, but I thought I would just bounce it off you guys anyway.

Well, sorry once again for the long message. Hope everything is going well. I would love to get personal correspondence from any and all of you. (Except of course Joe L., but I think that goes without saying :) ).


Actually I haven't heard from Bork or TJ yet. I should probably send TJ a message or say hi or something. I sent a message to the Chimes listserve when I first got here, which I assume Bork got, but I haven't heard back from him yet. How are those guys doing?

Well, I've got a bit of a "dumb American" story for you. I didn't have much going on this Sunday, so I walked into town to buy some chocolate. While I was there I saw a sign that said "Waterfall--12 Km this way." Of course I don't have a clue how much a Km is. I know it's less than a mile, but that's about all. So I thought, "12 Km, that sounds like a nice little walk to the waterfall." Well, two hours later I was only halfway there, my chocolate was melted, and I was beginning to think 12 Km might be longer than I had originally anticipated. Fortunately a Japanese friend was driving by, and he gave me a lift the rest of the way.
[Ed. note: actually given my high school history in cross country, I should have had more of an idea about the length of a kilometer. I think the big problem was the difference between walking and running. I figured if I could run 5 Km in 21 minutes, a 12 Km leisurely walk would be nothing.]

As for our discussion about anti-American attitudes, No, American history isn't pleasant, but you know what I'm discovering while I'm over here? No one's history is perfect. I mean I'm hanging out with a number of British people, and they have a really ugly history of imperialism. And Japan has some dark spots on its history too. And as for Canada they've...they've ah...Well, I'm sure they must have done something nasty in the past.

I think there are two kinds of idiots. The first kind is like the Canadians you described, who think Americans are pure evil. The second is Americans who think they live in the best country ever. I think of the two, the second is more irritating. First of all because there seem to be an overabundance of these idiots at Calvin, and secondly because I think one has a duty to be extra critical of one's own government. After all, all the historic atrocities might not have happened if people hadn't just blindly gone along with it while saying, "Ah, what a great country we live in."

Say hi to those guys for me. Tell Bork not to be mad because I lost his ID. And let me know how your weekend went.


Well Hannah, if you recall my latest hair cut before I set off for Japan, it's a little on the short side to weave dreadlocks. So I had to buy dreadlock extenders at the Jamaica festival and weave them into my hair. It was a lot of fun at the Jamaican festival, but now I have to brush them out of my face a lot, and it a rather humid climate here, so the dreadlocks are a bit of a pain. I'm thinking about taking them out, but what do you think? And yes, I love Japanese ska. (Although there didn't seem to be much of a difference between Japanese ska and American Ska. The Japanese even sing most of their songs in English.)

No school yet. We start this Saturday. (That's right, I said Saturday. What a country!) I took the car out driving with one of my Japanese friends last week to try and learn how to drive a manual, and I stalled at every traffic light. It was a little embarrassing. (No, it was very embarrassing. Especially since we live in a small town, all the cars stuck behind me at every light were probably all people I knew too.) But I think I'm getting the hang of it slowly.
And no roommate, so I've got the apartment all to myself. It's kind of nice, but there is no one else to blame my mess on. Before I could always delude myself into thinking that it wasn't me, but my roommates who were the messy ones. Now I am faced with the truth. I am a slob.


yeah, it's interesting how defensive I can get when an outsider attacks America. I find myself defending all sorts of things I would never usually defend, like Southern mob lynchings, the relocation of Indians, the Vietnam War, and the Philadelphia police department. Who knows, maybe I'll have a new perspective on politics when I get if this comes up.

I had an okay weekend. Spent most of the time with my supervisor. Ryan (the other JET in town) had a friend come and stay for the weekend. (Which reminds me, I haven't gotten any visitors the whole time I've been here. I can't believe it). No, just kidding. Actually Ryan's friend was another JET, so she was already in Japan anyway. anyway, I did some sightseeing, we went to a waterfall in Ajimu on Sunday, an African safari on Saturday, and I just did some hiking by myself on Friday. (There are so many places to explore out in the mountains. I'm getting in my fair share of hiking).
Glad you liked the political test. There's a string of disclaimers that really should accompany it, but I think I've talked to you about most of them. Next time I revise it I would really like to change the wording on a lot of those questions. I think it's rather akin to intellectual masturbation, as it uses more big words than it has too, and isn't very subtle on other points.


Dear Mom,
Sorry I've been a bit lax in communication over here lately. Things are still going well. I get a phone installed this Wednesday and it should be much easier to call after that, so I'll talk to you soon.

Link of the Day
Linda Bilmes on Our 'Three Trillion Dollar War'
And Joseph Stiglitz on Our 'Three Trillion Dollar War'

Thursday, March 06, 2008

野良猫ロック 暴走集団'71 / Stray Cat Rock: Wild Measures '71

(Movie Review)

And I'm back with the last movie in the "Stray Cat Rock" series. For the other reviews see:

*Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss,
* Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo,
*Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, and
* Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal

...In fact now that I've finished the series, I thought I'd include some bonus links for anyone interested. For example Stray Cat Rock on youtube. See the trailer for Delinquent Girl Boss here, the first 53 seconds of Sex Hunter here, the trailer for Sex Hunter here, the trailer for the box set here...
There are more videos on line if you search around, but this should give you a good flavor for the cheesiness of the series.

Also this guy here puts up a good summary of the whole series on his website.

My own opinion is still unchanged. I think these are terrible films from any objective cinematic point of view, but they still have some charm to them. And if you're the kind of person who likes cheesy old movies, you can have a lot of fun with these.

So, onto the review of "Wild Measures '71."
In this episode, the son of a corrupt mayor, is living with a hippy commune. His father hires some thugs to bring him back home, and in the ensuing fight the son kills one of them.
His girlfriend (the lovely Meiko Kaji, as always, is in the starring role) takes the blame for the murder, and is sent to prison. Later she escapes. She is eventually captured by the same motorcycle thugs and the corrupt mayor, who imprison her in the mayor's house as a precaution against her telling someone the truth about the murder. Meanwhile her friends, the hippy commune, find out where she is imprisoned, and start protesting to get her back.

More than any other movie in the series, this film carries themes of generational conflict as the young hippies clash with the old Japanese political guard. However as with most big studio films on generational conflict, the politics are removed so it simply becomes a film about fun loving young people against stuffy old men.

Of course the story has tragic consequences. The creators of the "Stray Cat Rock" series must have had an aversion to happy endings.
(I don't mind an occasional shocking ending. Especially as a way to keep me on my toes and keep me from taking happy endings for granted. But when you have too much of them, it starts to get just as predictable and boring as the formulaic hollywood happy ending. It might have been nice if the "Stray Cat Rock" series had varied their style a little bit on this point.)

There is an interesting scenes with the young people taking a hostage, and then end up being holed up in their house with the police surrounding the outside. Considering this film was made in 1970, scenes like this seem eerily prescient of Asama Mountain Lodge Incident which would be broadcast live into every Japanese home two years later. The parallels become even more pronounced near the end when the police move in using a bull dozer. (In Asama Mountain, the police used a wrecking ball).
Makes you wonder if the Japanese Red Army ever saw this movie.

As usual there's a great soundtrack in this film. Group Sounds bands The Mops and The Spiders both make an appearance.
Although the low production values are evident on the terrible job lip syncing.
And while I'm complaining about production values, there are a couple scenes were the light changes from evening to afternoon a few too many times to ignore....But of course this is all part of the fun with a film like this.

Link of the Day
I saw this editorial a couple weeks ago, but it is seeming much more relevant now.
Hillary Clinton can either lose gracefully or win ugly

Sunday, March 02, 2008

昭和 朝日ニュース映画 / Asahi News Reels, The Showa Years

With apologies, I'm going to start yet- another -ongoing-blogging project. With a view to improving my knowledge about Japan and Japanese culture, in addition to watching Japanese movies, I've recently been working my way through several Japanese video series in my local rental shop. I'd like to put reviews up of them as I finish.

With several ongoing projects already, there is of course the danger that this will be overkill. But since it takes me several weeks to work through all the DVDs in a series, at least it shouldn't take over my blog in quite the way the movie reviews have.

Anyway, onto the first video/ DVD series I've finished: The Asahi News Reels from the Showa Years.

Showa is the alternative name for emperor Hirohito, who reigned from 1926 to 1989. Due to the Japanese custom of numbering the years based on the emperor, that entire period is known as the Showa years, and even though from our perspective in the West those years actually makes up several different periods, each with their own zeitgeist.

I first rented a few of these DVDs about half a year ago, mainly just to watch the scenes with the student protests in them (continuing my interest in the Japanese student movement).

...And then later I thought to myself, "Just think how much recent Japanese history I could learn if I watched the whole series." It was of course, largely broccoli, making myself watch 8 DVDs of newsreels. And yet, although it may not have seemed like the most exciting thing to watch on a Friday night, once I popped the DVD in and settled down on the couch, more often than not I found it was really interesting to watch once it got started.

I've got to admit, my Japanese isn't nearly up to scruff to understand everything on these DVDs. In some of the more complicated political parts, I was just largely watching the images on the screen without a clue as to what the words meant. But although I understood some parts better than others, I like to think watching these DVDs at least gave me a feel for the atmosphere of the Showa era. And I'll have to go back and re-watch these DVDs some day when my Japanese is a little better (if that day ever comes).

I should admit there are also several things I don't understand about these newsreels, such as:
* Where were these shown? Were these shown in the movie theaters? If so, why does the series begin in 1955, right around the same time newsreels were going out of style in the US? (The series goes from 1955 to 1979. Except for the last 3 years, it's all black and white).

* Do these DVDs include the highlights, or are they all the news that was produced that year? If the latter is true, there must be an awful lot of stuff that never got covered. Each year only has about 5 or 6 news stories, and about half of those are soft human interest or sports news.

* Why does the audio track never sync with the people's lips moving? Was this a result of carelessness in making the DVD? Or is there some reason why in 30 years of newsreels they could never once get the audio track in sync with the visual?

I guess for the time being we'll have to leave those burning questions hanging. In the meantime, I'll try and jot down a few observations about what I did see.

Obviously it's difficult to summarize 30 years of newsreels in one blog post. Especially since, as I watched this over a 2 month period, I'm already beginning to forget what was in the first few DVDs.
*Much of the stuff that stuck with me was the stuff I already kind of knew about anyway. Stuff I had learned from "Tokyo UnderWorld" for example, like the Lockheed bribery scandal, or the Rikidozan pro-wrestler craze.

*Other clips reminded me of the Japanese movie "Always", such as clips from the 1950s about Japanese families acquiring refrigerators, washing machines, and televisions.

*The clips about the student movement were fascinating to watch. I've already written at length about the Japanese student movement elsewhere on this blog, so I won't go into this so much here. Other than to say that even though I knew the history, it's always a bit shocking to watch the newsfootage. It goes against everything I've grown to associate with Japan as a quiet, peaceful country with a politically apathetic youth. Seeing the scenes of violent guerrilla fighting on the streets of Tokyo and in Narita airport made me think it must be another country. But I guess a lot can change in 40 years. And Japan is hardly the only country which has calmed down a bit since the 60s.

*About once a year there was some sort of clip about a natural disaster or a winter blizzard. I'm sure this was important at the time, but in my opinion watching lots of clips of snow storms from 40 years ago gets old fast. But that's just me. I'm sure other people find politics from 40 years ago just as boring.

*Ditto with all the sports news. But then I was never a sports fan.

*I learned there was a plane crash in Oita airport (my prefecture) back in 1964.

* I learned Grand Rapid's own Gerald Ford was the first sitting US president to visit Japan.

* There were a number of clips in the late 60s/ early 70s about how crowded Tokyo was becoming, with images of people fighting for the train and being pushed in by men in white gloves. It looked even worse than I remembered. Maybe they've done something to ease the congestion since those days.

* In the late 50s and early 60s there is a lot of celebration about the industrial boom in Japan. By the 1970s, all of a sudden gloom and doom stories about pollution start appearing. I guess it's kind of ironic in retrospect.

* Speaking of ironic, the series ends with Prime Minister Fukuda visiting Iran in 1978 and getting his picture taken with the Shah. There's some bland commentary about what an impressive guy the Shah is, and how peaceful and pleasant Iran is.

Link of the Day
Vets Break Silence on War Crimes