Thursday, May 29, 2008

This Blog Gets Me in Trouble Again

Once again this blog gets me in trouble. This time with a slightly larger audience.

If you're reading this, it means you had to log in or create some sort of Google account. (Unless for some reason I've screwed up and this blog is still public. In which case someone tell me now!)

I got home from school the other day and checked my e-mail, and there were a surprising amount of comments on the last post. Ah, nice to know people care, I thought. Then I thought, "Wait a minute, do I even know half these people? Who knew my blog was so popular?"

And then I had yet another thought, and went over to my stat-counter account, to look at who has been reading my blog lately. And, sure enough, I'd been picked up by "the NET". Within 30 hours of posting, my previous blog post was making its way around the various bulletin boards.

There are several bulletin boards that specialize for expatriates in Japan, and at last count my previous post was the topic of 3 different bulletin board discussions, one of which was under the heading: "Check out this blog of a stereo-typical Nova loser." The following discussions on these BBs revolved around how much of a loser I was.

Gee, way to kick a guy when he's down, huh?

After 5 years of blogging in obscurity, I guess I'm finally getting my 15 minutes of internet fame. Somehow this was not quite the way I imagined it would happen.

It certainly felt a bit surreal to have all these people I didn't know taking such an active interest in my life, and even actively debating it with eachother.

So there I was, thinking to myself, "Well, it's a good thing I've got tough skin", and "That's what you get for posting stuff on the internet", when it suddenly hit me that all of this internet attention was completely unfair to Shoko.

So I decided the least I could do was take this blog underground temporarily while I re-evaluated my editorial process.

Not that it did me much good. Within minutes of my taking my blog down, links appeared on the BB sites to the Google cached version of my post. Ah, caught by the Google cache. It's an all to common story among bloggers these days.

So, for the moment, it looks like I'm stuck with my post floating around the internet. (Unless any of you tech people know a way out of this mess.)

The thing is I should have known better. I mean I had read all the blogging horror stories, and I even personally knew a couple people who had gotten burned by their blogs. Not to mention several of you have cautioned me on occasion that I was occasionally crossing the line with this blog. I guess if you want to say "I told you so", now's your opportunity.

Clearly I have a lot of personal information on this blog, not just about me but about other people. And although I was not unaware of privacy issues related with blogging, I never thought this blog would get a lot of attention. (Yeah, that's what they all say after they get burned, isn't it?) So I'm going to stay underground for a bit while I think through some of these blogging related issues. Hopefully this won't completely ruin what has been a good outlet for me over the past few years, and helped to keep me sane during my time in Japan

For the time being , I'm going to try and think about some good blogging rules with the idea of bringing this blog public again
Specifically: I'm going to try and keep personal updates to a minimum, and try keep other people's information out of it.

I'll concentrate instead on my various blogging projects: Book reviews, movie reviews , Video reviews, and (if I ever get another free day) "Better Know a City" travelogues. Hopefully all those will keep me out of trouble.

Several of you have told me you're not very interested in my various reviews, and I can completely understand that because quite frankly I'm not sure I would be interested in someone else's reading list either. But it does keep me out of trouble and although my voyeristic posts make for much more interesting reading, they obviously carry certain dangers with them as well. Now that I'm 30, maybe it's finally time to take a step towards more adult blogging.

As for the Retrospections...
I hate to stop doing those, because I really enjoy the reminiscing. And I've already got a bunch of those pre-written, which I was hoping was going to help me get through dry blogging spells as I concentrate on schoolwork.
But even after forgoing full names, I'm worried all that information about other people is asking for trouble. I've been trying to justify them on the basis that they're old enough to be beyond carrying, but you never know what someone else will care about, do you? Especially if I ever find a post of mine making the rounds on the internet Bulletin Boards again...

I don't know, what do you guys think?

Link of the Day
Jessica Yellin: Reporters Were “Under Enormous Pressure” From Corporate Executives to Support War

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Break-Up

Shoko and I broke up last week. It was probably a long time coming, but I had managed to fool myself by ignoring all the warning signs.

The cracks first began to appear about 2 years ago. After we made an informal promise to get married to each other, the plan was that I would go back to America ahead of Shoko so I could start looking for work and get a job lined up before she arrived. Shoko was very worried about the money, so she wanted to stay at her current job until July of the next summer. This would give her one year to save up as much money as she could before moving to America. It was also important for her to stay until the summer bonus in July, because Japanese companies give out a significant percentage (close to half) of the company salary in the form of bonuses.

I was not wild about the time apart. Since I was returning to America in May, this meant over a year apart until next July. I was worried about the strain that would put on the relationship, and I was worried about just being plain lonely in the interim. But Shoko was firmly decided on this point, and I did understand her concerns about the money.

(We talked about the idea of trying to visit each other during this time, but international flights would somewhat defeat the purpose of saving money. So we were looking at over a year with only e-mails and a weekly phone call. (Shoko, more so than me, was concerned about running up a phone bill, so we tried to limit our time on the phone as well)).

A few months after I was back in America, Shoko had decided to push the date back even farther. "I've been talking to my co-workers," she said on the telephone. "And they all agreed it would be so stupid to quit in July. Then I wouldn't get the December bonus. It would be such a waste to quit just 6 months short of that bonus."

"But that's close to 2 years apart," I said. "I'm not sure we could survive that. It's a lot of strain on any relationship. Plus if you decide to wait for the December bonus, then there's no cut off point. By the time you got to December, then you'd only be 6 months away from the July bonus again."
But Shoko refused to be budged on this point. She was worried about the money, so she would wait until the December 2008 bonus.

....So, I decided to go back to Japan. Well, why not? What was one more year? The decision to leave after 5 years instead of 6 years was fairly arbitrary in the first place.

And it's not like I was doing anything important back home at the time. I was overjoyed about being back in America, (and spending time with friends, eating pizza, browsing English bookstores,etc), but I still had no clearer idea of what I wanted to do with my life than I did when I left for Japan 5 years earlier at the age of 23.

I had hoped that once I got back to America and started settling into life, things would sort themselves out. And even now I like to think that if I had stayed in America and given it a serious effort, eventually it would have worked out. But at the time I was still struggling, and so it seemed an easy decision to go back to Japan. I sent out a couple of applications and video introductions and went for an interview with Nova in Chicago. And decided in the end to go with NOVA. (There were really only a couple choices in Shoko's area). Having lived in Japan, I had heard all NOVA the horror stories of course, but a job was a job, and I figured it would do well enough for a year or so while I decided what I wanted to do with my life.

In the meantime I got a job working at Meijers (just as something to keep me busy). Once the fall started, I got a job teaching English to migrant workers, and dropped Meijers down to part time. When the teaching job finished after a couple of months, I remained part time at Meijers. They had already hired more staff, so it wasn't easy to return to full time. And to tell you the truth, I didn't mind so much. That job bored the hell out of me anyway, and I was perfectly happy waiting out my last couple months on cruise control until NOVA would be able to ship me back to Japan in January.

Shoko was not so happy about it. She began to get increasingly uneasy and say things like, "I really hoped your laziness would improve once you got a change of scenery. But now you're just living at your parent's house and working part time at the supermarket. This is almost as bad as when you were staying at my apartment and watching videos all day. How are you going to support me in America when you can't even find a real job?"

I got angry about this, and it must be admitted that part of the reason I got upset was that it was partially accurate. I was overly complacent to be under employed. If I had really gotten off my ass, maybe I could have found another job in the 2 and a half months I had left in the U.S.

....One the other hand, she knew very well the reason I didn't have a real job is because I had turned down 2 teaching jobs offers in order to return to Japan and be with her. And she knew it because I had consulted about this with her on the phone ahead of time, and we both agreed that the best thing for the relationship would be for me to return to Japan for the time being. So the accusation that I couldn't find a job in America was totally baseless. I tried to remind her of this several times, but it never seemed to sink in. Every time she got worked up she would forget about it. I would point it out one week, but the next week I would still be back to "the boy who couldn't find a real job in his home country."

As for the accusation of watching videos all day in her apartment: well, again, there is an element of truth here. There were four times when I was staying at Shoko's apartment for extended periods of time. (August 2004 when I was between jobsSpring Break 2005August 2005-summer break, and April 2006, after finishing my job in Gifu. ) During this time it must be admitted that I was somewhat at loose ends for how to occupy myself. For the record I didn't watch videos the whole time. (You can search my blog archives for detailed descriptions of my various other activities). But I did - watch - a lot of videos, about one a day, sometimes more.

In my defense:
*There wasn't a lot else to do in Hita. It was a rural town, there was nothing there and nothing to do, I knew absolutely no one there, and it was too hot to go hiking around in the blazing Kyushu summer heat.

*This was scheduled time off of work because of the school year. I didn't ask for this much time off, it was just given to me. Whether I used this time to relax and watch videos, or whether I was wrestling polar bears in the Arctic, my pay and financial stability would be the same. (In fact arguably the staying put and doing nothing vacation was a lot better for my finances).

* I had gotten rid of my TV in my own apartment long ago. So this was literally the only time during the year when I even had the option of being able to watch videos.

*...and lastly, being stuck in Shoko's apartment in a hick town in the middle of nowhere wasn't a barrel of monkey's for me either. The reason I did it repeatedly is because I thought it was important for the relationship. Those 4 times were the only periods in which we spent any significant amount of time together. Even when we both lived in Oita prefecture, her apartment in Hita was an hour and a half drive from my place. Plus even if one of us made the drive, I worked during the week days and she worked weekends. Once I went up to Gifu, we managed to see each other no more than once every two months. If we were lucky. Sometimes it was as long as half a year between meetings. I figured the relationship would never have survived without me spending the summers at her place.
So, I sacrificed my paid holidays to hang out with Shoko in the middle of nowhere. I did my best to occupy myself during the day without complaining, and I was happy just to have the evenings with her and her days off.

.... As I talked to Shoko on the phone now, I began to realize that far from appreciating this gesture, she had actually resented it. I knew that because she said, "I really resented the way you got to stay home and watch videos all day while I had to go to work."

If I had only known my sacrifice was not only going completely unappreciated, but it was making the relationship worse. Think of all the other things I could have done with that time off! I mean, the mind boggles at the possibilities. I think of what my co-workers did: the scuba diving, the trips to Thailand, the backpacking in Europe! And here I find out, long after that vacation is gone and used up, that she resented it! And she waits till now to tell me this!

But what can you do? It's not like you can appeal to an outside authority on the matter: "Your Honour, I move that since I was under the impression it was what she wanted, and since the statute of limitations has clearly expired, the court has no choice but to count the time spent as a credit to the relationship, and not a detriment."
No, when you're in a relationship, and all you want is the other person's approval, all you can do is apologize. I made a brief attempt to make her see my point of view, and then I had to apologize to her for sacrificing my vacation time at her apartment.

Nor was this the last word on the subject. Shoko had been reading several books warning about the dangers of international marriages. According to these books, many Japanese woman marry American English teachers in Japan, and then return with them to America only to discover that the whole reason they had been in Japan in the first place was because they can't find good jobs in their own countries. I had to spend a lot of time reassuring her on these points, even though I was already planning on coming to Japan.

All of this resurfaced the first night I came back to in Japan. Shortly after we moved me into our new apartment, she started crying. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"I'm not sure if I love you anymore," she answered.

Oh, great! You couldn't have mentioned this before I turned down to teaching offers, quit my job (such as it was) said good-bye to all my friends and family, bought a plane ticket, and flew half way around the world! And now I'm supposed to try and comfort you on this point?
But what can you do? So I rubbed her back and gave her the usual "there, there's" and only afterward suggested to her she was being unfair to me: that she should have mentioned this before I came to Japan, or else kept her mouth shut about it for a few more weeks until she had made up her mind one way or the other.

Over the next few days, I turned on the Swagman charm and within days she was feeling a lot better about the whole thing, and after a few weeks we were even joking about it. "Remember that time I came all the way back to Japan to be with you, and I had barely even gotten off the plane when you told me you didn't think you loved me anymore? Ah, fun times!"
When I first came back to Japan, the original plan was we would still return to the States, just delay it by a year. Shoko exacted one promise from me: that I wouldn't ask her to quit her job unless I had some stable income already lined up in the US. She had a job with a large salary (a lot more than I made teaching English) and in Japan once you leave the workplace, it is very difficult to return, and almost impossible to return at your previous salary. So she needed proof of stability before she made that jump on faith.

And it was an entirely reasonable request. I couldn't reasonably ask her to quit her job unless I knew what I was going to do in America. It was now time to face the age old problem that has haunted me all my adult life: what do I want to do?

My degree was in teaching, but I had never been very enthusiastic about that from the start and now I was positive I didn't want to do it. After teaching English for so long in Japan, I was sick of kids, sick of classroom control, sick of yelling. And this was Japan! God knows what would await me at some inner city school in the US. Plus every one I knew in education was complaining about government bureaucracy, No Child left Behind, and endless paperwork.
But most of all, the idea of being a teacher was something from my younger days, when I had imagined my shyness and social awkwardness would shed off as I became an adult, and I would become an energetic, extroverted, decisive adult figure who could handle rowdy kids, angry parents,and the other stresses of teaching. Now well into my adult hood, I'm just as shy and socially awkward as ever, and perhaps teaching isn't the best route for me.

I had no interest in the world of business. Although at this point I would certainly have done it eagerly enough for a decent paycheck. But I knew plenty of history majors back home who were struggling to get jobs, and applying instead for telemarketing jobs. (For that matter I knew business majors who couldn't get jobs in business, and joined the army instead).

I had long fantasized about social activist work, but when I was back in the activist scene in Grand Rapids last year I realized most of these people were working for almost no money at all. It was not the kind of job that would promise Shoko the life she wanted. (And that's even if I did get hired. Despite my enthusiasm for various causes, I have little practical skills to offer these organizations).

Then there was the old dream of pursuing a graduate degree in history. Which most of the time I recognized for what it was: a dream. It was 4 years of hard work and financial instability, at the end of which was no guarantee of a job. I had heard the horror stories from all the graduate school drop outs who teach English in Asia. I had even mentioned it to Calvin career services when I made an appointment with them last summer, and they tried to talk me out of it. Still, history was the only thing I was interested in, and whenever pressed about career goals, I would usually answer I had graduate school in the back of my mind.

On the whole, it looked less and less likely I would be able to get away from Japan. But maybe Japan wasn't that bad. My job had its ups and downs, but on the whole it was a nice combination of all the pleasures of teaching (human interaction, helping people) with few of the downsides (classroom control, paperwork, lesson preparation).

Every once and a while I would get homesick, or get a dangerous delusion of self-importance that I was destined for greater things than teaching English in a small rural town in Japan. But more and more I was beginning to resign myself to life in Japan. If I could be with the person I loved, how bad could it be?

The first bump in this road happened when Shoko began telling me she would love to quit her job and become a housewife, if only my salary could support it. And my current salary (roughly $25,000 a year) couldn't support a family, as Shoko repeatedly pointed out to me. She also contrasted my salary with the other eligible Japanese business men she knew, and how much more money she would have if she was marrying one of them.

This was a bit of a surprise, because up until now Shoko had always maintained she wanted to have a life outside of the house and it was important to her to continue working in some form or another where ever our lives might lead us. So, in all my economic calculations until now, I had only worried about supporting her in the event we moved to America. The idea that I should support her in Japan really complicated things. Especially since the job options for a foreigner in the Japanese countryside are rather limited.

There was also another misunderstanding that would grow more and more serious. Shoko saw my chances for success in grad school and eventually a University professorship. I saw grad school as a pipe dream I would talk about whenever I felt tired of the job I was doing now. This turned out to be a serious communication error.
I had mistakenly thought that the desire to return to America and go into grad school was mine entirely, and that Shoko would be just as happy (probably more happy) to stay in Japan. I never realized that she viewed my going to grad school as her ticket out of the work force.

Thus throughout that year, Shoko would ask me, "Are you researching grad schools like we talked about?"
And I would answer something like, "Yeah, yeah." By which I meant I was occasionally thinking about it in a dreamy eyed way over a cup of coffee during my noon lunch. Sometimes it seemed tempting. Usually all the difficulties associated with it convinced me I'd be just as happy staying where I was. Again, I was thinking this was entirely my decision to make, and Shoko would just sigh with relief when I told her I had decided against grad school after all.

Then, one day in the fall, she asked me what schools I was thinking about attending next year. "Next year?" I said. "Oh no no no, next year is way too soon. Now is the time of year where I would have to be wrapping up applications, and I haven't even started. And I would need to get letters of recommendation, study for the GRE test, take the GRE test, talk to professors, etc. I couldn't possibly apply for next year already."

This lead to fireworks like you wouldn't believe. I was never fully forgiven for this. "You told me all these months that you were researching this," Shoko yelled. "And I believed you. What you were really doing was just thinking about it! Anyone could think about it! A smart person researches it while they think about it! I had everything all planned out. We were going to get married this year. Then you were going to start grad school in the fall! I was going to pregnant right before you started studying, so that by the time the baby came around you would already have one year done, and then I could get a year maternity leave and come to America with you. Then I would go back to Japan the third year and get pregnant again....
But all this is ruined now because you lied to me when you said you were researching this. I can't trust you at all."

This was, by the way, not a fight that lasted just one night. This went on for weeks during which I had to beg forgiveness nightly. She threatened to leave me then, unless I would promise to somehow manage to apply for grad school this year. So I promised. I ordered a whole bunch of books off of amazon about GREs and grad school and started working my way through them.

And, if things aren't bad enough, Nova goes bankrupt in October, and for the next 3 months I am officially the unemployed boyfriend, sponging off of his girlfriend's salary.

I already detailed the drama that went on in those months in a seperate post over here:
How none of us were sure if we would get our jobs back or not.
How Shoko wanted me to start up my own company, but I was resistant to doing it.
How we were going to work with another couple to set up our own company, but then Shoko had a falling out with them and wanted me to go solo.
And how finally, when she gave me the option of starting my own company, going to grad school, or getting kicked out of the apartment, I chose to go to grad school.

But, as I also wrote before, I changed the plan. This time I was thinking about going into Japanese history. It wasn't my first love, but it would allow me to build on the past 6 years of living in Japan, it would allow me to study in Japan (taking the financial burdern off of supporting Shoko) and if all else fails, hopefully the Japanese language skills might lead to other job options if I failed as an academic.

This was assuming of course I had Japanse language skills. The programs I looked into were English based, but I tried to convince Shoko it would be pure folly to attempt to study Japanese history at the graduate level without some fluency in the Japanese language. "But it says right on the website it's an English program," Shoko said.

"Trust me," I said, "I can't expect to be competitive in the field of Japanese history without being first competent in the language."

Shoko was very reluctant to agree to this because it meant delaying grad school by yet another year. "Remember we're not so young anymore," she said. "You'll be 30 this spring. You can't delay any longer."
She also refused to believe that Japanese language proficiency would in itself be beneficial. "I hope you're not thinking if you learn Japanese you can get a lot of jobs," she said. "Because you can't. Japanese fluency by itself will at best just get you some low paid entrance position in a Japanese company." (Well, on this point she might well be right. I can't begin to count the amount of people who have much better Japanese than I do and are little better off financially).

Eventually Shoko agreed that I could take the Japanese language course. With the promise that I would continue working while I did it.

Regular readers of this blog of course know that I was eventually successfully in re-arranging my schedule at Nova, and the Japanese language course began about 2 months ago. I have since been exhausted just about everyday.

You would think all this hard work on my part would have alleviated our problems somewhat. But instead things only began to intensify. Shoko began to become more and more uneasy about my prospects at grad school. She repeated to me all the things I had said the previous fall about why I was ambivalent about going, and the horror stories about trying to find secure work as an academic. I shared these concerns, but at this point I had decided this was the path I was committed on, so I gave half hearted rebuttals. It was extremely discouraging to have committed to this course, only to have someone at your side telling you constantly why you couldn't do it. Shoko, for her part, was being continually set upon by her friends and her mother, who were telling her to break up with me because I couldn't possibly have a reliable future.

"But you don't know anything about Japanese history," Shoko repeatedly reminded me. "How do you expect to get into grad school?"

I countered that I was trying to study it in my free time now. But this was a weak argument, because I had no free time.
The irony was I would have loved to sit down with a bunch of textbooks and some snacks and really read up on Japanese history. But I had absolutely no time to do this. I didn't really even have time to keep up with my daily homework. Shoko was also reminding me that I should be researching grad school departments and studying for the GRE test at the same time.

I was searching for various ways to cut my work load down. My first proposal to quit my job was rejected outright and angrily by Shoko. (I wasn't thinking I'd quit working all together, but simply trying to make a go of it teaching private lessons. Shoko was strongly against this.)

Next I asked Nova if they could at least scale down my hours. They said since they were sponsering my visa, I would need to work full time. However If I got my visa changed to a student visa it might be possible.
But In order to get a student visa I would have needed to pay $1000 in entrance fees to the school. (This had been initially waved for me because I was on a working visa). The school suggested that if I was planning on getting married this year anyway, I get a spousal visa instead.

Shoko was strongly against cutting down my hours by even one lesson. Nor did she want me to quit the private lessons I was currently doing. (I have been teaching the daughter of one of her co-workers, and I had picked up a few more private lessons during the time Nova was bankrupt). I tried to tell Shoko I couldn't keep this up and I would have to quit one or the other.

Shoko, on the other hand, was having more and more doubts about the relationship, and would at times cry, at times angrily burst out at me about how little progress I had made researching grad schools, and at times just be stonily silent.

On top of all this, the car broke down and we had to go shopping for a new car. By which I mean primarily Shoko had to go shopping for a new car, because I was busy from 6 Am to 9 PM pretty much 7 days a week.

I began to feel like something had to give. Either I had to cut down on my hours at work, or I had to give up my private lessons, or I had to move closer to Beppu and cut out this 2 hour and 40 minute commute that I was making 5 days a week.

One Friday I got home after an exhausting day of driving back and forth to Beppu, going to school from 9 to 3, and teaching 5 classes in the evening. I wanted to talk to Shoko then, but she was already asleep when I got back.

So I waited for the next day. It was Saturday, I taught 9 lessons at work, and then had to go teach Shoko's co-worker's daughter. I came back again exhausted. Shoko was again asleep, but I woke her up to ask how the search for the car had been. Then I said maybe it would be better if I just got an apartment closer in Beppu so I didn't have to drive a car at all, and maybe the money I would save on car, gas, and insurance would even itself out. Shoko began getting upset again. So finally I said, "Look, if you want to break up with me, it's okay. I'm tired."

She agreed with amazing rapidity. And immediately begin talking about how soon I would move out of the apartment.

I regretted the words as soon as they had been said, but they were said. I guess I'll always wonder what would have happened if I hadn't opened my mouth.

I tried to put the break on things a little bit. "Look, there's no need to move out tomorrow," I said. "Why don't we think about things for a week? We can always break up later." But she responded firmly that she was decided.

While I figured out where I would live, she decided to move back to her mother's house and leave the apartment temporarily to me. But it took her a week before she decided she had enough energy to put up with the hassle of moving. It was a long painful week in which we were living in the same apartment, but she avoided talking to me as much as possible, and I felt like my guts were slowly being ripped out of my stomach. I couldn't concentrate on school, I couldn't concentrate at work, all I could think about was, "she's leaving me, because I don't make enough money."

It was a painful situation to begin with, but the sense of powerlessness made it worse. I tried everything I could think of. I promised to never complain about my work load again. I promised to cut down on my sleep even more, and use the extra time to research my future for an hour every night before going to bed. I made up a list of 15 promises, promising ever single thing I could think of. At every point Shoko just responded, "I told you my mind is made up. The only reason I haven't moved out already is because I haven't had time."

I tried pleading with her, but Shoko said, "Look, if you lose your confidence over this and become pathetic, you're only going to get more unattractive."

I tried to do everything for her I could think of, but she said, "stop treating me like a princess. The problem was never how you treated me. The problem is about your future."

"Look, graduate school isn't that important," I said. "I'll just stay and work at Nova. Lot's of Nova teachers get married to Japanese women and raise a family here in Japan and are perfectly happy doing it."

"On that salary, their wives must have to work also," Shoko responded.

The more I tried to talk to her about what was going on, the angrier she got whenever the subject was brought up, and told me she was sick of talking about the same things over and over again.

"Please try and be a little bit nicer to me," I said at one point. "I came all away around the world and re-arranged my whole life to be with you."

"I know," she said, "and that was so stupid. A man should never re-arrange his life for a girlfriend."
...Well, at present I guess I'm in no state to disagree with this. But I said to her that if she felt so strongly about this, the time to have mentioned it was BEFORE I had come over.

"A Japanese man would never have left everything for a girlfriend," Shoko continued. "The man's purpose is to find a good job and beome financially stable. Then the girlfriend will come to him."

Obviously this is a partially a culture clash, but part of this is universal as well. I seem to have severely underestimated how big a part financial stability plays in being able to form long term relationships. How naive I've been all these years. (Feminist jargon may make a man sound enlightened at a cocktail party, but woe be to the man stupid enough to actually take it seriously).

I wish to hell the break up had been over any other reason besides money, and my inability to promise her financial security. It makes me feel like a failure at life.

Although she did add at one point, "It's not your fault. Partly I'm just tired of dating a foreigner. You can't do anything by yourself in this country. When you get registered for health insurance, or when you buy a car, or when you do anything, I always have to come along to help you understand. In most relationships the man is supposed to do things for the woman, not the other way around."
This didn't make me feel any better actually. In fact it made me feel worse because it was another factor outside of my control.
I said I had asked for her help because I thought it would be easier to have a native Japanese person by my side, but I could probably have struggled through alone. I promised in the future I would never ask her help for anything, but, like all my other promises, it didn't do me any good.

I'm not exactly sure where things stand right now to be honest. Shoko told me that part of her still loves me, and she wants some time apart to think about things. As part of this arrangement, I had to promise to continue at my present job, continue going to school, and continue all my private lessons as pre-conditions for her even considering getting back together with me. So I promised to continue.

However during this time she also said we were officially broken up, and free to date other people while we thought about the future. (Which, may I just say, is a lot nicer deal for her than it is for me. Under the schedule I've agreed to continue, she knows damn well I wouldn't have time to date anyone else even if I wanted to.) I told her I didn't think I could handle her dating other people, but she said, "Think of us as already being broke up and finished. With just the possibility of getting back together. If I wasn't free to date other people, that would defeat the whole purpose of being broke up."

She then added, "If I look at things from a coldly rational standpoint though, I can't see any reason why I should get back together with you."
The frustrating thing is she's probably right.

Link of the Day
On the off chance you haven't seen these already:
John McCain vs. John McCain and John McCain's Youtube problem

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

E-Mail: October 12, 1996


Another e-mail from the retrospection files. This is a slightly edited version of an e-mail I sent out to a friend on October 12, 1996, shortly after starting Calvin.

How are things going? I imagine by this time your classes have started. Are they going okay? Do you have a lot of homework?
Things are pretty good over here. I've got a lot of homework, but it's not so much that I can't keep up with it.
It's been raining a lot over here, and beginning to get pretty cold. I got completely drenched on Tuesday, because I had to bike through the rain . (For my English assignment, we all have to interview and write about people in retirement homes. I went there by bicycle and got absolutely drenched in the downpour).

Today was an exception though. We had our first warm day in about a week, and it got almost up to 70 degrees. (I think someone told me 67 degrees).
I haven't done any swimming for about a month now. I really don't intend to keep it up either. I'm done swimming competively.

Link of the Day
FBI Looking for Informants to Infiltrate Vegan Potlucks

Friday, May 16, 2008

Beppu University: 100 Year Anniversary

This Thursday was the 100th Anniversary of Beppu University. Initially we were all told we would have the day off from school, which made us very happy. Then we were later told we would have to attend a special ceremony that day instead of school (at which attendance would be taken) for which we were not so happy.

A Korean friend complained to me. "I hate these Japanese ceremonies," he said. "They just go on and on with speeches. In Korea we try and wrap everything up in a half hour, but in Japan they just go on and on. The opening school ceremony was awful."

Actually I had missed the opening school ceremony, because it was on a Saturday and I had a conflict with work. But over the years I have attended more than my share of ceremonies in Japan, so I knew what he meant.

The day before the ceremony, the principle gave a short talk in which he told us what to wear (suits), where to go, and what time to show up. He mentioned the first hour would all be speeches, and then the rest of it would be a concert by Minami Kosetsu. "Of course you're all quite young, so I doubt any of you know who Minami Kosetsu is," he added.

...unless of course you have some sort of strange fascination with Japanese oldies like me. So I knew who Minami Kosetsu was. (In fact I mentioned him by name is this article). I even have a couple of his CDs in my apartment. (Well, if you want to get technical, they're actual mini disc copies I made. But the point is I'm a fan).
Minami Kosetsu was part of the folk music boom in Japan in the early 70s. He's also a native son of Oita prefecture, which is his connection to Beppu University.

And he put on a really good show. He played several songs I knew, and told lots of interesting stories between them. (My Nova students tell me that lots of talking is characteristic of his concerts). And even though he is an aging pop star, his voice still sounded as clear and as clean as it did on his old records. In fact even more so because it was a live performance.

The thing that was too bad was that it was a mandatory school event. So the auditorium was packed full of people who didn't really want to be there. And all around me there were people who would shift in their seats or groan whenever he started a new song. But many other people really got into it. Several of my classmates later said they had never heard of him before, but really enjoyed his music.

Link of the Day

The World at 350A Last Chance for Civilization By Bill McKibben
Even for Americans, constitutionally convinced that there will always be a second act, and a third, and a do-over after that, and, if necessary, a little public repentance and forgiveness and a Brand New Start — even for us, the world looks a little Terminal right now.
It’s not just the economy. We've gone through swoons before. It’s that gas at $4 a gallon means we’re running out, at least of the cheap stuff that built our sprawling society. It’s that when we try to turn corn into gas, it sends the price of a loaf of bread shooting upwards and starts food riots on three continents. It’s that everything is so inextricably tied together. It’s that, all of a sudden, those grim Club of Rome types who, way back in the 1970s, went on and on about the “limits to growth” suddenly seem… how best to put it, right.
All of a sudden it isn't morning in America, it’s dusk on planet Earth.
There’s a number — a new number — that makes this point most powerfully. It may now be the most important number on Earth: 350. As in parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
A few weeks ago, our foremost climatologist, NASA’s Jim Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several co-authors. The abstract attached to it argued — and I have never read stronger language in a scientific paper — “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.” Hansen cites six irreversible tipping points — massive sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns, among them — that we’ll pass if we don’t get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them, judging by last summer’s insane melt of Arctic ice, may already be behind us.
The rest.

Friday, May 09, 2008

太陽の子エステバン / The Mysterious Cities of Gold

(Japanese Video Series)

When I saw this Anime series in my local video store, I thought: what a great way to combine Japanese study with childhood nostalgia.

Remember this show? Of course you do. If you grew up in the 1980s, and if you lived in a house with basic cable, then I have no doubt this show has a special place in your heart.

And it turns out not only for Americans. I mentioned to my Australian co-worker that I was working my way through the series, and he said, "No kidding. I'm a member of the 'Mysterious Cities of Gold Webring'," (apparently such a thing exists) and then he proceeded to wax nostalgic about the series himself.

For anyone not familiar with this show:
It was a French / Japanese co-production. (My co-worker tried to tell me it was primarily a French project, so I couldn't really count it as Japanese anime. My own internet research leads me to believe it was mostly initiated by the Japanese side. I'm not going to waste a lot of space here on the debate though. Suffice it to say I'm counting it as a Japanese anime series for the purposes of this blog.)

It was then translated into English, and broadcast on Nickelodeon from 1986 to 1990. Which is where I, and many of you, saw it as a child.

In fact for much of my childhood I wasn't allowed to watch normal TV, and my viewing was restricted to just 3 channels: PBS, The Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon. So I used to watch this show a lot. And yet I never managed to make it all the way through to the end. I remember one summer when I had watched the show almost to its end, and then I was forbidden from watching TV for one week because I forgot to weed the garden. Another time I missed the conclusion because we had to all go pick my sister up from camp at Spring Hill, and I was given no choice about coming along for the afternoon.
(Also if memory serves correctly, this show used to be on at 2:30 in the afternoon. Which meant I couldn't watch it on a school day, and it was mostly a summer vacation show. But my memory grows hazy on this point. Does anyone else remember more clearly?)

Anyway, it was nice to sit down and watch the whole series on DVD from beginning to end. And of course watching it in the original Japanese helped me with my language studies.

For comparisons sake, I was just watching some of the English episodes on google video (there seem to be a lot of episodes floating around on the internet), and I realized how horrible the English dub actually was. This was something that never bothered me as a child, but I notice it now.
First off is the way all the dub voice actors are always rushing to finish their lines before the character's mouth finishes moving. For whatever reason, this seems to be a common problem when dubbing Japanese anime to English. (A phenomenon spoofed excellently on South Park).
That may be an unavoidable evil when dubbing from one language to another. What is less excusable is that the English voice actors seem to be sleepwalking their way through the performance. "Oh no. Oh let me go. Oh Esteban help me" (All spoken in a monotone).

Neither of these bothered me as a child. In fact I don't recall ever noticing it. But I notice it now.

So for voice acting, the Japanese version is far superior. Unfortunately the Japanese sound track is a big disappointment.

Remember the theme song from "Cities of Gold"? It had a mysterious feel to it, which really set the mood for the show.
Granted I was easier to impress back then, but go over to youtube and watch the opening sequence again. It still sounds pretty cool. And the French version is pretty much the same.
....And then, watch the Japanese opening theme. I'm a big fan of Japanese music, but the J-pop scene has more than it's share of cheesy pop ballads, and this is a prime example.

The series consists of 39 episodes. (Apparently 39 being the magic number needed to accommodate the Japan Broadcasting Corporation airing schedule during a year).
39 episodes is a lot to sit through when you're trying to watch them all on DVD. (Especially with school starting up , it took me about 3 months to work my way through this series). And yet at the same time, part of me was surprised there weren't more episodes. After all, 39 episodes is nothing really, considering Nickelodeon aired this show 5 days a week for 4 years. They must have run through the whole series every 2 months, and rerun the whole a thing a total of (...hold on a minute here...) 24 times in total.

But somehow it seemed a lot longer back then. If I missed the ending episode, it would seem like an eternity before the series would cycle around again to the conclusions (I would have guessed about half a year). I guess time really does pass slower when you're a child.

Anyway, I've gassed on long enough. I suppose I should finally get around to reviewing the actual content of this series.

This cartoon is clearly not adult entertainment for any number of reasons:
*the slapstick cartoonish humor is aimed straight at a child's sensibilities (as well as the buffoonery of the comic relief characters Sancho and Pedro) ,
* the action sequences take a lot of liberties with the laws of physics,
* the whole premise of the show requires a suspension of disbelief on a level more readily achieved by a child ,
* the adults defer to the decisions of the children in a way that only happens in children's cartoons,
et cetera.

So it's no good watching this show from the perspective of an adult. However, if you can try and watch this show from the perspective of a 10 year old child, it has aged surprisingly well. Especially compared to all the other junk we used to watch during the 80s.
Have you ever tried re-watching 80s cartoons as an adult? Superfriends, He-man, Thundercats, all the stuff we used to love back then is hard to sit through now. (When I was living back in the states 2 years ago, I was overjoyed when I discovered the cartoon network was re-running Superfriends, only to discover I couldn't even make it through a whole episode).

"Cities of Gold" on the other hand, was an absolute pleasure to re-watch. Sure I had to work hard to suspend my adult reasoning at several points throughout the series, but the story is well written, and a sense of exotic adventure pervades the whole series. Whether you're navigating the straits of Magellan, shipwrecked on the Galapagos Islands, in the jungles of South America, in the forests of the Amazon women, or deep in the caves of the Olmec's, you have a sense of being on a classic adventure in the tradition of the best pulp fiction writers. Burroughs would have been proud.

When I was a child, I had read in the school library about the real life historical Spanish quest for the cities of gold. At the time, that was yet another attraction to this series, as it gave it a real historical connection.
Watching it now, the historical connection seems very loose indeed. Especially once the series turns to science fiction and fantasy and blatantly abandons any pretense what so ever of historical accuracy. Still, it was a stroke of genius for someone to turn this ancient Spanish myth into a children's cartoon. The whole series has an air of ancient mystery to it.

The characters are surprisingly complex as well, by the standards of children's cartoons. Mendoza is the action swashbuckling action hero of the series. If one of the children gets in trouble, you can bet it will be Mendoza who swings in on a rope (with the dramatic music and his cape fluttering behind him) to save the day. In any other series, Mendoza would have been the title character of the show; like "He-man" or "Superman", or any other 80s cartoon, where the strongest and bravest character is also not only the lead character but also the moral strong point. (Didn't He-man even give moral lessons at the end of each episode?)

But in "Cities of Gold" you're never quite sure until the very end where Mendoza stands. You know part of him wants to protect the children, but another part of him just might sell them out for the gold if he ever got the chance. And the children, especially Zia, never fully trust Mendoza for most of the series.

And of course there's the whole concept (completely new to all of us 80s children) that this was an on-going story. Not everything was wrapped up and finished in 25 minutes, and then completely restarted the next day. The story developed, and the characters and their relationships also developed with it.

Finally, despite the fact that this series was produced in the early 80s, the animation has also aged very well. None of the cheap stop motion techniques you might expect from cartoons of this period. It could hold it's own against anything on TV today.

In conclusion: watching this video series straight through was a very pleasant trip down memory lane. It might have been a children's cartoon, but I never thought to myself, "how could I have liked this crap as a child?" Instead the thought that constantly went through my head while watching was, "No wonder I loved this show as a child. It's the perfect show for an 8 year old boy."

And plus I finally found out how the series ended!

According to wikipedia, a film based on this series is currently in production. If true, I'll be looking forward to seeing that when it comes out.

Link of the Day

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Golden Week

It's Golden Week again in Japan. (For a description of what Golden Week is, see this post here. Or this post here as well).

I don't actually get any time off from NOVA during Golden Week. But I did at least get some time off from school. I ended up with a total of 3 days off from school this year. I only had to work 5 hours at Nova, and then had the rest of the day off. It wasn't enough time to go on any big hiking adventures, but it did give me time to relax, do some reading, catch up on my homework and, of course, some blogging. (I also had time to finish watching another Japanese video series, one which I had started months before but put on hold when school started. Expect a review on this site in the next couple days).

In the meantime, since I have the time to blog, I thought I'd throw up a few more thoughts about school the past couple days.

School Field Trip: Kuju Flower Park

The school organized a field trip out to Kuju Flower Park last Friday. This had absolutely nothing to do with Japanese studying, but it was a fun little trip and a nice idea on the part of the school. Apparently they do something like this once a semester. This is more for the benefit of the regular students, who are freshly arrived in Japan and haven't had a lot of time to sight see, then for someone like me. But I thought it was a great idea as well. And although I had been hiking around in Kuju mountain before, I had never been to the Flower Park.

It was nice. A lot of flowers. I thought it bordered slightly on being a tourist trap. The French students remarked the same thing, saying they didn't see what the big deal was because you can see flower gardens all over the place in Europe. But the Chinese students were absolutely amazed and said you can't find anything like this in China.

To me, what saved the whole experience from being just another cheesy tourist trap was the beauty of the mountain side on which the flower park had been build.

I had a nice walk around the place, and ate lunch with a bunch of Chinese students, who generously shared their lunches with me. I had brought with me a convenience store lunch, but it didn't compare to their home cooking. I'm always amazed at how much work they put into making their lunches. And they in turn are constantly amazed by the fact I'm perfectly content to buy my lunch at a convenience store.

...What you don't see on these pictures however is the 2 hour bus ride it took to get here. And the 2 hour bus ride to get back. I had almost forgotten how much I hate buses.

I suffer easily from motion sickness. And like a lot of people who suffer from motion sickness, there seem to be a lot of influencing factors. For instance if I'm behind the steering wheel, it's almost never a problem. If I'm the passenger, it becomes a bit more pronounced. But it's slightly better if I'm in the front seat instead of the back seat. (Why all these factors make a difference I couldn't explain to you rationally. But they do).

What I do know is that there is nothing worse for motion sickness than riding in the back of a bus. (Oh, how I hated those yellow school bus rides from in childhood).
And being in the back of a bus on a 2 hour drive winding up and down the mountains is the worst case imaginable.

It sounded like a fun outing with my classmates, but by the time I actually got to the flower park my head was pounding and my breakfast felt like it was just one good bump in the road from coming up again.
At least I can take comfort from the fact that I wasn't the only one suffering. Halfway there, one of the Chinese students behind me asked for a bag to throw up in. And once we arrived, another threw up outside the bus.

...We had slightly less than 2 hours to enjoy the park, after which, to everyone's dread, we had to load up in the bus and go back again. By the time it was all over, I reflected to myself I would have been a lot happier to go somewhere a lot less scenic that happened to be walking distance from the school. (I guess I just don't travel well. This is no doubt why I've gone on so few trips during my time in Japan).

Nor was the day a lot of use practicing Japanese. On the trip to the flower garden a Bangladesh student who wanted to brush up on his English sat next to me. On the way back, a Chinese student who also wanted English practice filled the open seat.
In Asia, an English teacher is never truly off duty. And generally I don't mind. After having received so much kindness here in Japan, I figure the least I can do is let people practice their English on me.
But you can imagine it didn't do much for my headache on the bus: having to use excruciatingly slow and simple English, and having to repeat everything I said several times. At last I just put my head down and pretended to sleep the rest of way back.

Interesting Conversations
The Japanese school continues to be an interesting source of cross cultural exchange.
On May Day, the Chinese students asked me if it was a big holiday in America as well. When I said no, they were very surprised. "But it's a world holiday," one of them said. "Not just China. The whole world celebrates it."

"Not in America," I said. (In Japan it's not an official public holiday either, but they are at least aware of it over here, and the labour unions always hold some sort of May Day rally. In America of course the US government created Labour Day to co-opt May Day, and the Unions hold their marches on Labour Day instead. I doubt very much if the majority of Americans could even tell you what May Day is.)

"You know what's even stranger," I continued. "May Day actually originated in America."

This resulted in a number of blank stares, until one Chinese girl clapped her hands with recognition. "Yes, I remember now," she said. "We studied this in junior high school history class. Long long ago, the Haymarket martyrs in Chicago."

Of course they all wanted to know: since May Day originated in the US, why didn't the US celebrate it? I couldn't answer that question easily, so I just let it go.

....Really though, who wants May Day to become an official state recognized holiday? Can you imagine it? It would be just like Martin Luther King Day. People would wave American flags and talk about what great patriots the original labour leaders were. Right Wing pundits would get on TV and talk about how they are the ones keeping the true spirit of the Haymarket martyrs alive. The whole thing would get ridiculous in no time at all. It's much better to keep May Day as an unofficial holiday.

In other news...
Justin wrote in his blog about a few months ago about a Japanese woman who came by to his apartment to advertise her English class, and ask if he wanted to enroll his kids.
I don't know if it's affiliated or not, but I just had the same experience just now.
I'm sure the girl doing the job had to ask everyone on the block for the sake of completeness. Still, isn't it a bit bizarre to ask an American if he wants to enroll his kids in an English class taught by a Japanese woman?

Link of the Day
From the Media Mouse website: Re-launching the Progressive Directory of Western Michigan. (I just wanted to link to this so I would have an excuse for saying that I was part of the team that put the original together).

also: How The Rich Starved The World and Heartland Institute Condemned for "Major Ethical Transgression"

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Japan E-mails: Aug 27, 2001


After my little manifesto e-mail I had sent out to Media Mouse the previous day, I got individual responses back from 4 of them. I composed individual e-mails to each one, but as there is a far amount of overlap in the material, I am editing them down and condensing them into one e-mail for the sake of this blog.

Thanks for the speedy reply. We're right in the thick of the dog days of summer over here too. It's very hot and muggy on this little island that I'm on. It has its nice moments occassionally, but usually it's just hot and humid.

Hey, one thing I forgot to mention in my last e-mail: Tokyo had some nice bike lanes in it....Well, OK, actually they're not all that nice. And there a little on the small side. And the only thing to seperate them from the rest of the traffic is a painted white line and the words "Bike Lane". But still, it shows they're making an effort at least. If a city as crowded and congested as Tokyo can find room to put in some bike lanes, surely Grand Rapids could do something for its bikers, right? Well, good luck with continuing the campaign at any rate.

(Ed. note: The summer of 2001 Media Mouse was actively campaigning to make the city of Grand Rapids more cyclist friendly. It was our big focus that summer, but since then there have been a lot of changes in the world, and bigger events have taken precedence. As far as I know, it's not one of their top priorities anymore.
But maybe the issue should be picked up again. As we enter into the age of global warming and the coming energy crisis, the least, THE LEAST, the city government can do is to give people the option to ride their bicycles to work if they want to

I really wish I could go with you guys to Washington DC [for the IMF/World Bank Protest] next month. And I'm not just saying that either. I really wish I could go. It's hard for me to be sitting in a stuffy office on the other side of the world reading about the protest movement without being able to participate. I toyed with the idea of trying to fly back to the US for a couple days for the DC protest, but it's just not a realistic option. Maybe after I've saved up a bit of money over here I can join you guys on the next big event. (Incidently, what is the next big event?). Either way, it comforts me to know that Media Mouse will be there to raise their voice and document the events. [Ed. note: In the end this protest never happened, because the event got called off after 9-11].

I'll try and forward you anything I can find on the Japanese student movement for the Media Mouse "history of leftist political movements page". I haven't had a lot of luck finding stuff on the net so far, but I'm sure there's got to be stuff somewhere. As a history major, I really like the idea of a leftist history page though. That sounds like something I could really get into, and I'll try and contribute what I can from Japan.
[Ed. note: this leftist history web page was one of several media mouse projects we talked about, but in the end never got off the ground].

I'll try and collect what information I can over here as well. It is, I agree, an ambitious project, especially considering my Japanese at this point is pretty much non-existant. I can say "good morning" and "thank you" and that's about it. However hopefully in a year's time I'll be able to develop some speaking skills. That way I'll be able to contribute to Media Mouse even from Japan. We'll see what happens. At any rate, thanks for the offer to do a presentation. If I'm able to collect enough material this year, I might be interested in it.[ed. note: If I had only known 7 years after I wrote this e-mail I would still be struggling with Japanese]

I'll try and follow what you guys are up to from here in Japan via the Media Mouse website. I notice there are a lot of new names and e-mail addresses on the Media Mouse e-mails, but you say attendance is down? Any luck with our recruiting efforts, or is it the same old faces?

Sincerely Joel (Your Media Mouse Foreign Correspondant)

To Ben (my predecessor)
thanks for the e-mail. I'll keep your warning about Ajimu wine in mind. I actually haven't developed my palate to the point where I can distinguish good wine from bad, so it's all the same to me anyway. My ignorance will probably come in handy at the wine festival. Otherwise, if it's really that bad, I guess I can always force it down for the sake of social protocol.
Thanks again for the heads up.

Link of the Day
I was listening to Michigan Public Radio the other day (via the magic of the Internet) and heard the program on the My Lai massacre. I don't know how many of you heard the same program as well, but if you haven't heard it, I can't recommend it enough. Really. You'd be doing yourself a disservice not to go over and check it out.
You can listen to it at The Changing World Website.