Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Grand Finale Trip: Tokyo, Fuji Rock, Mt. Fuji, Kamakura

Well, even though I've already said my goodbye, I want to round off the blog with a couple closing posts. First, I had a good trip at the end of July/beginning of August that I want to write about. Sorry about the bad formatting, but my computer dies a little bit every time I try to put pictures up here, so I can't go back and fix it because it would actually take 3 hours. On the other hand, if you want to see more pictures, please check out my flickr site, with sets conveniently named for each part of the trip (Fuji Rock, Tokyo, Climbing Mt Fuji, Kamakura).

Fuji Rock Festival
After we sent a rather ill-timed (should've come months earlier) and somewhat unprofessional email to the Sapporo Board of Education indicating our resignation, we quickly hopped on a plane down to Tokyo, running out of communication range in case our boss was mad at us!

(Wayne, looking good as always.) We stayed at a love hotel in Tokyo (best option for when you're in town, just go to Love Hotel Hill in Shibuya), then hopped on the Shinkansen out to the ski town of Naeba. We set up our tent on the resort's golf course, soon to be joined by some 15000 other campers. We had an awesome amalgamation of some 15 or 20 kiwis, brits, canadians, and one Japanese guy that made for a good crew and a good home base over the weekend (you can see some of us huddling under the tarp for shade in the middle of the picture).

For the next three days we would enjoy the sights and sounds of the 2008 Fuji Rock Festival (I was only naked for a very small part of it). The weekend consisted of: many half-hour walks from the tent to the performance grounds, which didn't get us too down, because you could hear the music the whole time; probably a couple hundred kilometres of walking back and forth between the 7 different stages; buying food and drinks pretty much every hour between sets, from one of a hundred different food stalls; cool off periods as well as morning showers / curative dips in conveniently close, mountain fresh, ice-cold creeks (pictured); endless hours of jumping, dancing, laughing and partying to a variety of awesome music; not very much sleep, but lots of taking pictures of other sleeping spectactors who didn't have a camp site.

I can't pick a favourite performance, because every time I try another memory pops into my head. We got rocked by Galactic, Primal Scream, Underworld, Michael Franti, and (surprisingly fun) the Bootsy Collins Tribute band featuring a James Brown impersonator who wouldn't let us stop dancing for three hours. Performers I hadn't heard before that also kicked butt were Hocus Pocus (French hip hop), Seasick Steve (blues/funny drunk southern USA man talking on stage), Big Willie's Burlesque, and an ongoing stream of DJ's. The dorkiest performance was probably the Presidents of the USA; the most monotonous was probably Kate Nash (not bad, just... monotonous - the girls were happy though); the most intense performance was probably Gogol Bordello. This is just the beginning of the list. You can see the whole lineup on the festival's website. The event wrapped up for us on Sunday evening with the much-loved Lee Scratch Perry, a packed performance by The Music (didn't really care much for them, though the crowd was happy and uppity), and an awesome closing set by Asian Dub Foundation, whom the crowd refused to let leave.

Other highlights include: sufficient portapotties (even though most of them were the terrible Japanese-style squat toilets, which quickly got filthy), with sinks and disinfectant soap to wash your hands (which you can't find in many public toilets in Japan); designated smoking areas so we could party without stinking, and ostracize those losers as much as possible (even though people smoke everywhere else in Japan); well-staffed gates so there was never a lineup to come and go; enough food stalls and trinket shops to keep life interesting, without feeling like stuff was being pressed on you at every moment; awesome ambience and a feel-good place through and through (look at those candles!); lastly though not exhaustively, plenty of buses to help us get away from the mess as fast as possible on Monday morning.

Recovering in Tokyo
We took it easy the next couple days in Tokyo. We strolled around Ginza for a day or two, circumnavigating the Emprorer's Palace and Gardens without seeing an entrance to anything interesting, checking out the Sony Building (see Alice in photo playing a Dragon Ball game), enjoying the variety of quality food that's simply not available in Sapporo, and being awed by the incredible amounts of wealth in this part of the city. At the end of the business day, the streets are flooded with chauffeured well-to-dos getting out of their black sedans and limos, dressed to the nines to go shop hopping. The streets here are not cracked and ugly (like everywhere else in Japan), your headspace is not filled with tacky neon signs, and pachinko parlours are not the only well-kept buildings. I'm sad to say that one of the few nice urban areas in Japan is this centre of conspicous wealth and consumerism.

Climbing Mt. Fuji
After Alice and Wayne went back to Sapporo, I raced to catch up with a couple guys we met the day before: they were going to motivate me to climb Mt. Fuji. I had had to buy some more gear in Tokyo, as I was heinously underprepared, but eventually I found the two hour bus (plus a transfer, then another hour bus) that took me to the 5th Station. If you're crazy, like a chunk of our Fuji Rock crew who climbed it the week before, you can spend two 8 hours day hiking up and down the whole terrible 3776m of Fuji. If you're smart (lazy), you can just bus to the 5th station which means you only have to hike something like 1400m.

I started hiking around 10pm. I was more or less alone for this part of the hike, so I just enjoyed the quiet, the feel of the trail beneath me (didn't bother with the headlamp), and the ridiculous number of stars over head. I caught up with my hiking buddies after an hour or two of hiking. We had some grub and snoozed for an hour or so at the hut at the 7th station (most expensive hour of sleep I've ever had).

When we got on the trail again, things weren't so pretty. It was somehow darker and much much colder - the sky was completely covered in heavy clouds. Plus, it was pouring rain. Oh, and our mate didn't have a light after the one I leant him died, and the mist from the rain made our headlamps glaring and next to useless on the dark and slippery shale anyway, and I had way too much weight in my bag, and I didn't have nearly enough gear for the weather. In this picture, Jon isn't looking so good. He hadn't hiked (or done any exercise) "in years" before this. Also, the oxygen was getting thinner at this point. About 5 feet outside the frame, somebody is leaning over the railing vomitting.

Well, things got worse before they got better. First, they got wetter and wetter. Then, forward momentum stopped. We had reached the dreaded Line Up. Yup, there you are on a trail on some mountain somewhere, and suddenly you are in a line up of hundreds of people. The reason, of course, is that Fuji is a rite of passage for Japanese people to be accomplished once in every lifetime, and it was the middle of peak season to boot. And many people hike it over night to catch the sunrise in the morning (I couldn't resist, even though I knew it would be packed.) Add to that the fact that Japanese people often travel in tour groups of about 50, wherein they are treated like children (meaning frequent stops and roll-calls and pats on the back), and the congestion was infinitely worse than it had to be.

But there was a shining light pulling us forward and giving us hope. It was about 330am when we reached the top and saw the vending machines. Luckily we were above the clouds, so the rain stopped and the sky was beautiful. However, it was too early. We still had an hour till sunrise, in wet clothes with the temperature hovering just above freezing (but with harsh wind that made it feel 5 below). Fortunately, there's also a restaurant on top of the summit (only in Japan!) that provided shelter and some warm soup, and the warmth of several hundred bodies crammed in a small space. I was glad for the extra weight in my bag now, because I put on every peice of clothing, wrapped myself in Alice's down sleeping bag (a little damp, still functional), and shivered as much as I could. For about half an hour I cursed myself for being underprepared, and feared that I had done something stupid as the cold refused to leave my limbs.

Nonetheless, as soon as hints of the sun's light started poking over the clouds, everybod flooded out of the hut to catch the action. Of course, it would take maybe an hour for the whole sun to rise, so we were being a little over earnest. I moved away from the crowd and found some place on a hill with room to breathe. With the sleeping bag wrapped around me, I continued to shiver as much as possible, periodically poking my camera out of my coccoon to take about a hundred more photos than necessary of the sun coming up. Maybe it was the cold affecting my brain, or the fact that I hadn't really slept, or I was deliriously hopeful that the minutest amount of sun would warm me up, but the sunrise was a new beauty each second fromt the first.

Eventually I warmed up enough to smile again and stop fearing for my fingers. At this point I really felt the energy of all the (hundreds) of people on the summit. As dorky as it may sound, some people had tears in their eyes, some were shouting with joy, some were laughing, and some simply sat quietly looking content. I think I did each in turn.

The hike down was long. The wide trail snaked back and forth to reduce the slope, but the shale and gravel still made it slippery and so each step required constant concentration. It didn't matter though. It was quiet and peaceful, and for hours you get to look to the hills on the horizon, float above the clouds, and kinda forget that anything else in the world exists.

I'll try to be more succint about the last part of the trip, because I know I've gone on long enough already. I promised my fellow teacher/friend Hideki (who made my life so much easier at the last school I worked at) that I would meet him in Kamakura, so I had to hike down Fuji quick, hop back on the buses back to Tokyo, then the train in Tokyo, then the train out of Tokyo, then the little monorail/shuttle/train thingy that runs through Kamakura to meet up with him after a long and stinky 4 or 5 hour trip. (With every article on me or in my bag wet and getting mildewy by the second, me stinking like sweat and dirt and lack of sleep, and looking worse than I smelled, I wouldn't get to shower till nearly a full day later.)

Kamakura was better than I expected. I went to see the big Buddha statue and a couple of the hundred temples, but I didn't even know that it was also a beach town. So, over two and half days I walked around the town with Hideki and his lovely wife, did the touristy temple thing that I've been longing to do (though an hour here and there suffices), sampled (more) tasty cuisine that's been lacking, nearly passed out from exhuastion every hour (on top of the hike being killer, in kamakura it was over 30 degrees with what felt like 100% humidity and sun sun sun), chatted with an awesome british fellow named Ken who offered me a bed in his family's house if I couldn't find a hotel, and other than that just hung out on the beach, reading, swimming, relaxing, and soaking the feeling in.

The feeling, of course, was relief and freedom. This trip was supposed to be a mid-summer recharge, a chance to get some rest and have some fun, and hopefully get some enthusiasm to help me surive another year in Japan. Once we decided to quit though, it took on a different nature. Alice and I ran into so many people at Fuji Rock who were thrilled to hear we are leaving, that there's no way we could feel bad about it or wonder if it was the wrong choice (if we would have wondered that anyway). Fuji Rock and the entire trip became a celebration, a finale, with no thoughts of work back in Sapporo to dampen the mood, and the elated feeling that after the trip, all we had was some packing, and then new places and open doors.

I shouldn't speak for Alice I guess. Suffice it to say, she had a good time too, and I (as usual) just added in all this over-analysing and signifying. I got back in time to receive a birthday parcel from home (Thanks mom, dad, ashleah!), and was greeted with a lovely and disgusting birthday cake prepared by Alice (had to eat it all before we started a cleanse two days later), who welcomed me home in characteristic fashion.

It was an awesome trip. And it was good to be home - because we had to pack up and move all our stuff into a friend's apartment within two days!!!!!

I'll probably write one or two more posts, reflecting or something deep like that. Please stay tuned.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Byebye, as they say in Japan

[Many young people in Japan use practically no English in their day to day lives, but pretty much everybody says 'Byebye,' which with their tone and gestures kinda contributes to them seeming a bit infantile.]

Well, there's really not much left to say, is there. I guess, thanks for being devoted readers (mom, dad, thousands of imaginary fans). I wouldn't have been able to do keep up this frantic pace (once a month, or whenever) or intensity of writing (no theme or driving aim, no plot, no editing, sometimes little evidence of prior thought) without you all to motivate me.



Oh, by the way, I'm going to have to end this blog soon, because I've decided not to stay another year in Japan!!! I could give all the thoughtful and heavy, emotion-laden reasons behind that decision but for now lets just skip to the bottom line. I believe leaving Japan (as opposed to staying in the same job, place, environment) will give me a more interesting life over the next year. If I stayed, I would learn more Japanese and earn more money. However, I don't have a specific use for Japanese planned later in life, and money comes and goes like the seasons, which really depend on where you are in the world, and therefore is totally contextual and thus meaningless on its own. Oh, and I think I said before that a girl might be the wrong reason to decide to recontract another year, so I figure that same girl is probably a good reason to break that contract off and split. With irrefutable logic in mind, it's time to make like a tree and leave (keeping with the season metaphor...).

Wow, I appear to have lost all ability to write.

I quit.

One more time, Goodbye.


WAIT!!!! Please read any other blogposts after this one. I promise to put in some pretty pictures!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

sometimes ups outnumber the downs

Personal update, the bad news first:

My bike was stolen. Trusting fool that I am, I thought it would be ok to leave my bike unlocked for 5 minutes while I ran into a store. I was on my way to dinner with one of the teachers I work with, and my contribution was to be some cake (along with the wine in my backpack). I guess I took too long deliberating chocolate mousse versus strawberry cheese-, because when I came back out, my beautilful 5th hand, 3-gear, mamacheri was gone. Idiot that I am, I had also left my backpack outside. So, along with the wine and some other random stuff, and the backpack that I`ve had for ages, I lost a bright and shiny and new digital camera, used just once. (If you remember, before I left Vancouver I debated buying a dSLR, or a compact digicam, or both. Well, since I only got to use the compact once, I think fate only wants me to have the SLR.) I can just imagine the fun the thief is having with it. Probably dropping it heaps in drunk parties with his crack-addict friends, knocking it against the bricks as he scurries away after scoping out places to hit up - none of this damaging the camera because of its awesome shockproof shell; probably taking nasty pictures in the shower with his ugly girlfriend, and, when he makes it to the beach once this summer, stupid pictures of himself making the peace sign underwater - which he can do because of the camera`s awesome waterproofing. Well, some greedy amoral asshole or underprivelaged and pitiable youth is going to have a delightfully picturesque summer.

Let this be a lesson to you (meaning me). Even in CrimeFree Japan, only trust people when you can see them, and always lock your damn bike up, idiot. Alternatively, have a crappy bike that isn`t worth stealing, and don`t own expensive possessions that will hurt your wallet if stolen.

The good news. Things are pretty good otherwise. I have enough positive thoughts and memories to swing the balance in the right direction.

Let`s see, a few weeks ago I hiked Mt. Yotei with some friends, staying overnight in a mountain hut. At about 1900 metres, Yotei is one of the tallest mountains in Hokkaido. It`s also called Ezo-Fuji because of the similar conical shape to the namesake volcano in the south. On the first day, we hiked up through the mist to emerge on top of clouds as far as the eye could see (always a cool feeling). The next morning broke clear, and we took in a 360 view of the surrounding farmland and lush, green, rolling hills receding off into the distance. One of our crew wrote a detailed and thoughtful post, with pictures, about the hike. So, I just point you in that direction if you`re curious. http://happyinhokkaido.typepad.com/happy/2008/06/yosh-mt-yotei.html

What else? Well, after my bike was stolen, I continued on to the dinner anyway. The dinner was a special request from my coworkers mother in law, who studies English and wanted to practice. Plus, my coworker (Hey Mori Sensei!) is an awesome guy, really good to me at work, with whom I was glad to share a relaxed evening away from the hullabuloo. The four of us (add his lovely wife) finally did relax after I forcefully shifted focus away from my recent idiocy (losing the bike). I feel like this small family was representative of a good possible future for Japan. All three were, on top of being very kind people, open-minded and interested in broader perspectives of the world. They all see value in speaking multiple languages, and communicating with people from other places, and talking about interesting issues rather than just exchanging pleasantries. We didn`t spend the whole time talking about how old I was, or how tall I was, or how I would rank the top ten most common Japanese foods. And they didn`t compliment my use of chopsticks - though you might only understand the significance of this after you`ve lived here. Best of all there was actually some nice cheese and fruit (as well as the scrumptious Japanese foods), which I have yet to see at any other dinner here.

Anyway, it was a nice time, and it made me realise for the first time that I finally have a relationship (can you use the word friendship with coworkers?) with a Japanese person that time has helped develop, where we understand each other better than we did at the start, and I believe we actually engage with each other as people, rather than as the functions we serve for each other.

After the dinner, at 1030, I got on a train heading north out of the city. At Toubetsu, in Ishikari (small city North of Sapporo), I took a ridiculously expensive taxi ride out to an old abandoned junior highschool in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere on the edge of this town. There were candles glowing everywhere. In the gym at this most random of locations, an all day alternative (ie not shit JPOP that is the ONLY option pretty much everywhere here) music fest was quietly kicking ass. Alice (who is responsible for anything halfway youthful and exciting in my life) and co had already enjoyed the music all day, which ranged from improv spoken word jazz to people playing little bamboo mouth harps (or so I was informed). In the evening, the Ainu groups took over. I got there in time to see Oki (see earlier post) and his lovely accompanying ladies, doing their waves of rythmic, hypnotic traditional singing. I like it more every time I hear it. Regardless of whether or not there were intoxicants involved, the scene was awesome. Similar to the concert in Obihiro, there were people of all ages, little kids and little dogs scurrying underfoot. The only lighting was candlelight. There was a woman making a line/dot piece of art on the wall over the course of the night. As soon as I jumped out of the taxi at the beginning and asked where Oki was, a couple people jumped on me in conversation. You can feel the energy of this kind of place as soon you as show up, and it`s so indescribably different from anything you can find here in the city. Relaxed but charged, human, alive. The music went till 5 in the morning. Well, actually, I went until 5 in the morning (the music kept going), at which time I took in the last of the sunrise quietly, and then retreated to our tent on the school field.

Not sure if this link into Facebook will work, but my friend Emma Rowbotham has some photos of the night in her `trivia times - Ainu I knew you` photo album. They capture but a fraction of the magic, some candles, a delightful child, the drawing on the wall (and there`s nothing indecent, so dont worry).

My hiking partner from above, Michael Snyder, has two relevant posts. One is copied news article talking about a recent government panel formed to discuss ongoing discrimination against the Ainu.

In the other he talks about an Ainu Solstice festival he took in one night in Asahikawa (you just have to scroll down a pinch).

OK. Back to the the good stuff. I`ve had a good week at work.
On Monday, I spent the day at the school I will be moving to in August. It is a highschool. It is a very big, flash, advanced highschool with students who can understand quite a lot of english. I followed around the JET who I will replace, met the teachers, and saw a few classes. Just about everything about the situation there looks different from the situation I`ve found so far in Junior Highschools: the ALTS are used far more effectively, far far more extensively, and the focus on actually communicating in English is very high. I`ve only got three weeks left at my current school, which I will be sad to leave in a lot of ways. Nonetheless, I`m pretty excited to test out the new scene of highschool.

Then Tuesday was Canada day. After a rare delicious and filling breakfast, courtesy the lovely Canadian Emma and the lovely Alice Alice, I went to school with lots of energy, a good out look, a canadian flag worn as a toga, and lots of Canadian stickers to hand out (thanks for buying those and sending them to me mom). I surprised a lot of kids out of their apathy with my enthusiasm all day, plus it just so happens we were actually doing a fun class activity that day, so, all in all I just felt great about being at work, and unequivocally enjoyed my job. Forgive the cheese factor, but I think I will always remember the smiles on those kids faces, and the energy with which they shouted `Happy Birthday Canada!` Shiny stickers and energetic bribery: have to employ more of that.

Today is a bit of a quieter day, so I have time to write this here blog. Yet, I`m still riding the energy from the past couple days, and I feel pretty content with my work situation at the moment. I feel like I have continued to relax more, and figure out ways to connect with these kids (meaning illicit a few more precious words here and there). Partly I think they are just becoming more comfortable with me, after three months together. So I do have mixed feelings about leaving, as I look forward to change and new things, but also feel I`ve started to find my place here.

I`ve got much to look forward to in the near future as well. We are taking off a couple days before the end of term to head down to Fuji Rock Festival (which I `ve mentioned before). After that, I`ve got a week to explore the area. I think I`m going to do a day or two in Tokyo, then hop down to Kamakura and see some old temples and a big budha and take pictures that a million other people have taken before me, followed by a wee hike up that well-known mountain, you know the one, that a million other people will probably be hiking at the same time as me. Yup, I`m meeting up with a friend (Lexis Lum) to hike Fuji on August 2nd, then returning home for some down time before starting a hopefully exciting and fulfilling year as a highscool ALT.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bushido: The Way of the OverWorker

I am constantly struggling with the mentality toward work here. Most teachers spend a minimal amount of time AWAY from school, lucky to get their weekends free - and that`s only if they don`t have a club team to run. I think the service industry is the only sector that has fairly rigid set hours, and allows its workers to leave promptly when their shifts are finished. Anything more involved than a job at Tully`s, you`re putting in 12 hours (not counting travel) and catching the 9pm train home. Why? Why!? WHY!!!

According to `The Japanese Mind,` this workoholism relates to the tradition of Bushido, the way of the warrior, which is a blending of previous Zen Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian beliefs (all from China) rehashed to become the samurai`s ethic during the Edo Period (bushi is another word for the samurai, the warrior class). Most relevantly, this ethic involved exhaustive repetition and training to acheive perfect forms (which I`ll return to in a later post), complete devotion to your lord, and above all exertion. What`s most interesting, as the book points out, is that exertion itself is not sufficient. The goal was not merely sufficient exertion to acheive a certain goal, as might seem most reasonable. The goal was to be seen over-exerting yourself. Combined with honour gained by self-sacrifice in the name of your leader, this meant that the ultimate goal of the ethic was in fact death. Essentially, you work yourself so hard, constantly, that you`re bound to die in a scuffle or battle eventually. There is the paradoxical focus on acheiving honour (for your self) through self-effacement, working your self to death for another`s sake.

This might explain a lot of things about modern Japan. Not that it`s so simple as smacking a `bushido` label on modern phenomenon, or that every Japanese is daily looking for ways to die through their labour. However, the mentality of self-sacrifice and over-exertion surfaced in the WWII soldiers who killed their own offspring to free themselves to go to war, perhaps even as a kamikaze pilot. This mentality surfaces in the executives whose lives are inseperable from the companies they run, and who kill themselves if the company falters or a scandal is discovered. `karoushi` is the Japanese word for death by overwork.

The conundrum is that in a way, the excesses and the tragedy are admired, or at least expected. If you ask teachers why they don`t take a holiday, usually they make up excuses. Apparently taking leave or working only regular hours can hurt your career`s progress. Our Manager at the Board of Education has repeatedly but without justification emphasized that, though we are allotted 20 days paid holiday, `true` Japanese workers don`t take holidays. In fact, only when they are sick do they use their paid holidays (instead of using their stack of sick days). If you suggest that holidays might have a positive impact on people`s lives, you`re likely to hear the common refrain that there isn`t time, work is too busy.

So, what are people here doing that people elsewhere aren`t? If you look at per capita output, (I`m gonna go ahead and not back this up with a source, please correct me if you have one) Japan no longer outproduces most other wealthy nations. If you ask people on the ground, like JETs, you might discover that people waste a lot of time at work. Teachers unnecessarily rehash materials just to create something to do. Then there`s the endless meetings and creating published reports for the meetings (which wastes an unimaginable amount of paper), which usually cover information that people already know. Other than that, teachers kill time by clipping their nails, perusing newspapers, and occasionally watching some TV or a movie in the evening. I`m not saying teachers don`t work hard; they do! Only, they have to somehow come up with stuff to do on top of the sufficient amount of work they do.

Of course, the biggest extension of work hours has got to be the clubs. Club attendence is pretty close to mandatory, mostly enforced by social pressure. What boggles me though, is that you don`t get to grow out of this pressure when you grow up. Teachers are expected to join clubs too, which is why you get overlapping (many coaches to a team), and worse, teachers having to sponsor clubs for which they have no experience, expertise, or even liking. Because the ethic extends to the students, these clubs run for insane hours - four hours after school everyday, and possibly both days on the weekends (usually just one), with games and tournaments showing no regard for public holidays. And, watching these clubs, you see that a lot of time wasting goes on there too. So, a hard-working teacher who does her best to educate the students, and stay on top of her work-load, has to stay at school long past the contracted hours, coming in on most weekends, even if this means creating busywork, or joining a club in which she has no interest whatsoever.

I point out the inefficiencies because they are what frustrate me most about the overworking. People at work (I`m gonna go ahead and assume this is true in all sectors), teachers at school, students in club: everybody could acheive the same amount of work, output or improvement (in clubs) with the same or possibly less effort spent more efficiently in less time.
I somewhat grasp the often-cited `group mentality`, which could potentially mean nobody wants to leave their institutional group and go off to do something else. But the practice of overworking contrasts with so many people`s complaints (for example, by the teacher`s union), and ignores the high rates of depression, suicide, and alcoholism among what should be otherwise well-off workers. I keep struggling to understand...

...but, a slight turn of phrase makes it make sense. The goal is to be seen not only exerting, but over-exerting. The goal is not even to acheive or to complete, but to exert. And so, if you stop to take a holiday, or even go home at your designated hours, or when you`ve finished a task, you`re not really pushing yourself, are you?

This still isn`t enough for me though. Who are they trying to impress? It`s not much of a sacrifice for the group if the group as a whole is less efficient and produces less as a result. Why does the system pressure people to expend all their time and energy at work, when nobody really wants to do this? When the government legislated a 6- and then 5-day school and work week (presumably for the sake of people`s well-being), enrollment in cram schools shot way up, and school clubs expanded to fill the slack time; time spent at work did not drastically decrease. But if the highest official authority, the government, is asking people to lead more balanced lives, who keeps insisting on the unnecessary standard of over-exertion?

People do it to themselves, for nobody, the worst possible option.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Oki Dub Ainu Band in Obihiro

As promised, in order to alternate between rambling ruminations and personal updates, this post will be one of the later. If the tone differs from my usual, that may be because I`m writing at work. I`ve gotten to the place where I no longer feel bad doing personal stuff at work, providing I`ve done all the work-work I could have done or could be doing. Also, if the tone is strange, I`m composing this at my desk on a scrap piece of paper, with my left hand. So much brain in there, gotta keep it active somehow.

If you don`t want to read this post, long story shot: we had a great time seeing the Oki Dub Ainu Band in Obihiro, about three hours from Sapporo, a few weeks ago.
This is the Band`s site (in Japanese): http://www.tonkori.com/profile/index.php

You can find some mediocre clips on YouTube, but they don`t do the band justice.

So, what`s exciting in my life recently? The best recent experience was a trip to Obihiro, a small city (~100,000) in South-Central Hokkaido. Alice and I wanted to get out of the city and so took the excuse of seeing a wicked local band performing there.

So, we went to Sapporo Station (the main mall and train station, downtown) to buy tickets. As you walk into the JR (Japan Rail) Counter, a woman in a red stewardess outfit swoops into action. Now, this red is so bright and red that it isn`t actually part of the spectrum, you just have to imagine it. And the outfit, incongruous in a mall, to say the least, is such an exemplar `50s Stewardess outfit that you swear it`s the ideal form and doesn`t exist except in God`s imagination. It`s too perfect to belong to any Airline in the real world. Anyways, as soon as she sees you are not Japanese, ie performs a quick biometric survey, she swoops toward you to most kindly offer assistance and information in English. I feel confident we could have conveyed our purchasing wishes to the monolingual man behind the counter without her aid, but I suppose it is nice to receive extra help. (If you`re reading between the lines here, you`ll note that occasionally, as my Japanese slowly improves, I get frustrated when people remove the opportunity for me to practice, just as I get frustrated when people with limited english abilities give up on communicating with me.)

So, we payed the bill. Let me tell you about bills in Japan: They suck. Utility bills; Food bills; Entertainment bills; Most relevently, train bills: they all suck. It cost us about $120 each, round, to take this 3hour trip on one of the main lines across the island. Basically, train fares don`t make it that pleasant to hop around the place and explore.

That Friday night, I went to a Hanami (a picnic in Cherry Blossom season) party organised by another ALT`s school, though the open invite meant it was mostly overrun by JET`s always eager for a party. The standard (meaning rather expensive) price bought access to cans of beer spilling out of bags and baskets onto the ground. However, though the Invitation proffered Vegetarian options, this consisted of the cabbage and onions that act as the sideshow of `Genghis Khan` (lamb), as well as a few seafood items that don`t make the transition to BBQ so well. Someday Japan will understand Vegetarianism, and I will be proud to have contributed my proselytizing/whining to that development.

--On a side, note, I`m trying to mostly cut fish out of my diet as well, as I keep hearing about how devestated fish stocks are EVERYwhere, and how much we mess up the oceans in our efforts to scoop up what remains. Industrial fishing (as it is practiced anywhere in the world today) is simply not sustainable. Basically the only meat-based protein I`ll be getting is from the free-range chicken eggs Alice has managed to find--

Despite the fact that my stomach rumbled, and there weren`t actually any blossoms at this Hanami (they had already fallen in Sapporo, by that point), I still had a good night. The drinking culture seems to allow spontaienous crossing of party lines, so, without the nervousness that would have accompanied the act back home (because of my somewhat shy nature), I ambled over to a big party of what could only be University students having a good time. Within a minute, a big group had huddled around to hear the funny foreigner. [I`m not sure if a Japanese person making the same sudden intrusion is greeted with the same interest. For groups of foreigners, it is as easy as lifting a glass in a kampai (cheers) to another table at a restaurant, or wandering to another room at a karaoke bar, to find a group ready to welcome and chat and laugh and (always) drink.] After five minutes I told them I just wanted to say hello, and that they were welcome to come over to our party and chat if they wanted, and then I turned to return. When I got back to our picnic, I realised that ten to fiteen of them had followed me! If a not very exciting or outgoing person like me can cause this, Japanese (youth at least) are clearly either eager to talk with foreigners, or just to share beer and a good time in general.

Anyway, the party led to early morning packing before rushing to the train station. Now, the train. The most interesting thing about the train was the most annoying thing about the train, this being the PA Announcement from Hell`s aural department. Everywhere you go in Japan you are incessantly bombarded with electronic and prerecorded messages, and sometimes public transportation is the worst. The high-pitched (being extra polite) voice droned on for between 5 and 50000 minutes to inform riders of the entire list of stops across the whole line, their sequence and spacing, as well as the rules of etiquette aboard the train, and the options at the snack bar and each individual item`s variety of flavours and accompanying costs. I couldn`t catch all of this in Japanese, but I didn`t have to because the message was then repeated in English - though somewhat more succintly. Worst of all, both recordings were repeated after every single stop the train made. Sigh.

We got to Obihiro not knowing anything about the town or anything about where the concert was. As we pulled into the station, we realised that this town was not in any way interesting or unique looking, and someone might as well have just grabbed an indifferent district from Sapporo and plopped it down in the middle of otherwise pretty countryside.

So far it doesn`t sound like I`m that positive about this weekend trip... but really, I am! Mostly the experience was enriched by the people we saw and met. After arriving, we called the concert info number and I tried to ask for directions. Whoever I was talking to declined that request, and instead told me to wait at the station for someone to come pick us up! The operator`s friend, a volunteer setting up for the concert, drove us the 20 minutes out of town, to a quaint commercial Garden/Park/Touristy Place. The concert was at the Park`s Town Hall style building.

With time to kill, and not knowing where we would stay that night, we probably looked lost. Somebody came up and asked if he could help us - turns out he was running the Garden Centre (whose name I should probably look up). In the office, he started to look up hotels in the city, as a coworker brought some snacks to share (we couldn`t eat the Instant Ramen because of the meat). Soon, though, he just told us that if we were trustworthy people, we could sleep in the concert hall with the band crew, after the concert!! So, we stumbled past wires and drum sets and a few confused stares, and stowed our packs in a loft in the hall.

In order to offer some payment for this generosity, we insisted on doing some work. This consisted of scraping and cleaning the park`s stack of BBQ grills. Eventually, Shinya, an employee at the park, drove me into town with him so I could buy some food.

After killing 5 hours at the park, it was finally time for the concert. Numbers slowly swelled as a huge range of people arrived. A large portion of the audience was Ainu, with old people and young people alike. The band leader, Oki, is a vocal but not violent activist for Ainu music and culture. The band incorporated modern and traditional instruments, and that night co-performed with an Ainu women`s group, which sang beautiful echoing and throat-wobbling songs. The mucic`s tone was deep, befitting the Dub in Oki Ainu Dub Band, the mix of dub, reggae and traditional styles unique . The show was essentially dry, with everybody (toddlers and grandmas alike) loving every minute. To end the show, everybody in the audience gathered round in a circle dance to the last number, holding hands and weaving back and forth to the rythm, before the band came down and chatted.

The music and the atmosphere, along with the genuine and genuinely kind people we met all day, made it an awesome experience.

Oh, but we didn`t end up staying with the band that night, which was a bit of a relief (because we didn`t want to impose). Instead, we ran into another JET at the concert, who let us stay in his place that night. It was a mere 45 minutes away by car!!! Thanks Austin! Only on the JET program can you wander pretty much anywhere in Japan and find someone you (sort of) know, who`s willing to take you in, on the spot.

The next day, after a slow morning (not everybody was dry at the concert), we took in an onsen (first mixed onsen I`ve been in, men and women allowed, though we were the only ones there. It was a big garish hotelish-thing built in the 50`s, with about 7 different onsen baths. It looked like it hadn`t seen a cement patch kit or a drop of paint since the 50`s.), had lunch in a cosy tatami-floored soba-etc shop, and then caught the three hour train back to Sapporo before work on Monday.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Japanese Mind: an ambitious title

After reading `Shutting out the Sun,` I wanted to read something a little more biased toward an insider`s perspective. My library consists of what previous JETs have left behind, and what current JETs are willing to share, so what I came up with is `The Japanese Mind.` This is an ambitiously titled A to Z of some guiding principles of Japanese life, a collection of essays written by University students studying in English. I think it`s overly simple to analyse culture based on a few select vocabulary words, and indeed some of the essays seem eager to see a reflection of mainstay stereotypical concepts, rather than to observe society and comment appropriately. Similarly, the history of a few words is not synonomous with, or sufficient to explain the development of an entire society. Nonetheless, some of these basic essays do shed light on behaviours I`ve encountered since coming to Japan. I want to comment on some of the concepts, as they relate to my experiences here. In the next few posts, I`ll probably alternate back and forth, giving personal updates and then discussing these concepts.

The Japanese Mind: Amae.
In Shutting out the Sun, Zeilenger discusses hikikomori recluses and parasite singles, who live at home into middle age. Both might be seen as extreme cases of abuse of dependency, or amae. Amae refers to relationships of dependence between individuals, as well as layers of decreasing dependency in concentric social circles (which, as Zeilenger notes, relates to Japanese people not helping strangers unless directly asked). The strongest example of expected dependancy is between a mother and her child. Parents expect children to rely on them heavily, and to be at the disposal of the child for as long as the child/adolescent/adult requires. Parents probably want to help their child in all cultures, but the view strongly contrasts with one that seeks to create independent children, able to stand on their own as soon as possible. Parents here often support children who live away from home, attending expensive schools with no employment, even through graduate or doctoral studies, even into their working years. Alternatively, many youth live at home through school, and continue to do so until well into their careers.
There is also the continuing conservative duty for children (traditionally the eldest son) to maintain the household and look after the parents when they age. To that end, many children live close to their parents throughout life. This shows the reciprocal nature of the dependent relationship, which is never supposed to be one way. Even children are supposed to fulfill certain expectations in treatment of their parents, as well as social development. Following this, the support is supposed to be repaid in parents` old age.
Zeilinger seems disappointed by parents who hide their recluse offspring and continue to support parasite singles, but viewing it with amae in mind fills out the problem some what. There is no mechanism in place for parents to significantly alter or remove the support for their children, barring a severe schism in the family. So, hikikomori and parasaito abuse the dependency relationship, perhaps without fulfilling their part of the bargain regarding social development and treatment of the parents. We can`t dismiss the parents or the dependents as weak because this relationship has long been cultivated in both public and private spheres. In public, in close circles at least, as a result of amae, `No` is not usually an acceptable answer. Meaning if an individual struggles with parts of social life, he is not able to decline or refuse it in an overt way. Likewise, women who have been taught to depend on their own households until finding marriage and transferring their dependency/responsibility, yet do not wish to marry, might avoid an awkward social situation by simply staying at home. This tactic of hiding essentially precludes the need to say no, and is not surprising in a society that abhorrs diffidence and dissonance. The implication is that hikikomori, who Zeilinger sees as protestors against what is wrong with modern Japanese society, are taking a very Japanese approach to avoiding the problem, further embedding themselves in their childish roles of dependency.
I also encounter consequences of the concept of amae in my daily life. A sense of dependency is encouraged in students in Japan, and many observers note that students here are less mature than their cohorts in other countries. The differences are a noticeable lack of self-awareness or assertiveness, creativity, descisiveness, and a surplus of dependency and docility. Teachers and students have very intimate relationships (at least, from my perspective), nurtured by the homeroom system. Homeroom teachers are responsible for their students in all classes, clubs, and in or out of school time alike. Students come to teachers with all range of problems, and teachers have an obligation to help, pretty much no matter what. Teachers don`t expect that students are able to learn on their own, or work on their own, and regularly supply answers that were supposed to be discovered. Class lessons proceed with the assumption that all students already know how to complete the work, rather than the hope that through challenge the students will learn. It is up to teachers to spoon feed all the information that will be on standardized tests at certain points throughout the youths` lives. It is not expected that students engage with the material, stay on top of new information, work through problems to challenge themselves, and actively learn. The other day, I spent an hour after school with another teacher, essentially writing speeches for students who hadn`t finished the work at home, or in the ample extra time which was given in class.
I struggle with this type of teaching, as I continually want to challenge the students more. I repeatedly make exercises that cause the students difficulty, because I expect them to be able to pull together information they have learned to realise an answer, rather than simply fill in a blank. Moreover, even after three years of study, the students` average level is surprisingly low, even on materials essential in the curriculum. I feel this is because teachers refuse to challenge their students, and consequently must always proceed at a slow pace, to avoid threatening student`s comfort zone.
However, this is above all an example of my inability to internalize a cultural concept. My personal view is that students should be taught, and then challenged. Here, that students feel supported is perhaps equally important to them learning and demonstrating new knowledge. I always viewed teachers as a source of augmentation and clarification for me to tap and drain as needed, whereas most of my learning was from studying material on my own. Here, students spend a lot of time in cram schools, indicating that there is little faith / expectancy in them learning on their own. Teachers are here to support them exhaustively, and to provide all the information they will need. Even though I recognize the different mentality, it`s hard to internalize. I still get frustrated when it seems the students are being coddled... and they don`t do their homework... again.

Friday, April 25, 2008

new season, new school, more smiles

Randomata: Useless Talent #5 - Pen Twiddling. In Tarantino`s `Grindhouse,` one character portends that you discover a use for every random useless talent, eventually. I spent most of my 3rd and 4th years at University working on my pen-twiddling in class. Since I`m a very punctillious student, I actually attended my classes and thus had ample pen-twiddling perfecting time. The upside of me not paying attention in class is that I now have an `in`, something to connect me with the students when nobody much feels like talking. Flicking the pen across my knuckles, around my fingers, dropping it as they teach me new tricks: class time-wasting distractions are truly the universal language english aspires to be. (I`m not sure what my useless talents #1-3 are, but I`ll let you know when I discover them. Juggling is number 4.)

Positivia: Following a couple blogposts in which I detailed what might be seen as Japan`s many problems, I`d like to offer a personal update. And I`d like to keep it mostly positive, if that`s all right with you (meaning me, my most devoted reader).

I have been doing better, probably because it is spring. That was by far the longest, coldest, and darkest winter of my life, literally though perhaps not figuratively speaking. But now we`ve had some early warmth and sunshine, and I`m starting to feel alive and awake again after 6 months of lethargy and mental hibernation.

The Cherry Blossom Wave has finally hit Hokkaido -

ASIDE: Every year, at the end of winter, news channels and papers start issuing Blossom Forecasts, with nifty graphics portraying the progress of the Nation`s most symoblic bud (though it`s not officially the national flower). People talk about the coming of Pink like an impending sports extravaganza. News cameras flash around the nation`s hotspots as a branch sprouts here, and there, and over there just a little. I only just learned how shortlived the blooming season is, as short as two weeks or even ten days. So, people schedule `hanami` parties, basically picnics in parks with lots of Cherry Blossoms, involving appreciation of the ephemeral and wondrous nature of nature as well as food and booze.

- so tomorrow I should be going to a hanami party with my Japanese tutor and some of her other students, as long as the weather holds. And just now I got a fax on my desk (yea... they still use faxes for some reason) inviting me to a party next Friday. INSERT PICTURE HERE - OR WAIT TILL NEXT POST AND INSERT IT THERE :)

With the better weather I`ve been able to spend some time outside, and to start training for the Sapporo Marathon in September, which is way too close and way too far away. Physical exertion + sunshine = happy. It`s much harder to be negative when you`re jogging along a river through the city, listening to music, surrounded by kids playing soccer, baseball, or tuba, and people playing in packs, pretending only the dogs need the run-around.

Oh, I`ve moved into my girlfriend`s apartment. That should significantly cut down the amount of time I waste on subways. Previously I was spending as much as three hours just moving around the city in the stuffy subways, from work to home and to her place and whatnot. Yuck.

ASIDE: When I build a city, I`m definitely sticking to above ground public transit, like Vancouver`s Skytrain. That lets you get to know the city better, and also lets you see the sun and daylight, and not feel like you are trapped in a dark and dingy tunnel (read cage). Any commute is weary enough without that extra hemmed in feeling. Tangentially, there will also be paved bike paths weaving through the city, with three lanes (one for passing), lights for the night, and plants or bushes lining its lengths.

Also beneficial to my health has been the change to a new school. Making a change of scenery has allowed me to see some of the changes in myself. I have learned how to fit in better in this work environment, how to deal with the teachers and students, how to stay relaxed but also eager to get more involved. My Japanese is also immeasurably better than when I arrived at my previous school, fresh off the JET.
Largely, though, the improvement is due to the different atmosphere at this school. I was warned that this school would be a rougher, lower classed, less academically able school. What I have found, so far, is very real people who engage with me much more openly than I`ve been used to in Japan. The students talk to me and joke around with me even if they dont`t know the words to say in English. At my previous school, with very high academic standards, it seemed that many students were afraid to talk to me if they couldn`t say something exactly right. Here, they use a delightful mix of both languages and nonsense, which is rather more interesting for me. Perhaps it is premature to say this, but I think the personality and behaviour displayed here would be more conducive to communicating in English in the real world, and in the future, even though students at my previous school score better on tests.
Anyways, the teachers are more relaxed, more human and less stonewalling. It helps that I am more relaxed as well, as I`ve become accustomed to being here and somewhat more confident. We had a hilarious enkai to start the term, including the traditional school dance performed (as per tradition) by male teachers in female lingerie. The other day I played volleyball with teachers and students for three hours until the dark of night. After lunch today, a bright young student who wants to be an astronaut was trying to teach me some physics.
The result is that I feel way more content about my place and my role here so far, and my body has been absolutely aching with relief (I`m pretty darn weak when it comes to volleyball - owwww).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Summary of Japan: "Shutting out the Sun," Book Review

After I wrote that last post complaining about various aspects of life here in Japan, I discovered a book that summed pretty much every observation I've had since I came here. In "Shutting out the Sun," Michael Zielenziger discusses a confused and stifling society that was unprepared for the modernity it encounters today. He explains everything from why Japanese people don't help strangers who slip on the sidewalk to why middle aged, middle income people who can't afford their own homes spend hordes on Louis Vuitton bags.
Japan thrived in the democracy and capitalism thrust upon her after World World II through highly bureaucratic and rigid structures, without undergoing transformations in understanding Japan's place as part of a broader world. Japan's rigid triangle of bureaucrats, politicians, and government-sponsored corportions combines with a closed mindset regarding Japan's uniqueness. The government continues to refuse or make it difficult for foreign investors and firms to get a hold in the economy. In the new world, amidst the globalization accelerated by the internet, Japan's economy is in decline (though it's still the worlds second largest).
People live a consumeristic life rife with foreign products, without truly envisaging a Japan that exchanges both products and ideas with the rest of the world. A confusing blend of rituals and beliefs of the past incongruosly vie with modern life. A focus on national economic ends means people give all their time and energy to corporations, creating their identity from who they work for. A decline in the economy has been associated with disillusionment of this idea. Now, people don't have an intense connection to beliefs of the past, nor an intimate enough understanding of any modern ideas that could replace them. People continue to act as if only the corporate body matters, even though a career no longer brings with it a life-time community, or a hermetic group identity as it once did. People have the concept of individuality without the societal sanction and personal means to explore it. Hence the million or so young men who lock themselves in their rooms in favour of facing the corporate world. Hence the tens of thousands who kill themselves each year because they let the group down in some way, or simply couldn't express their individual stress or depression.
The society that so stresses homogeneity and group identity has yet to come to terms with individuals who selectively commit to group values - such as women who choose to work and not have children. The society that so stresses division of the sexes provides no networks for men and women to develop casual (and romantic) relationships, despite the fact that people no longer have the institution of arranged marriage to assist them. The closedminded society continues to aggressively limit immigration, despite the low birthrate that decreases the population by ten thousand people each year. Intelligent, creative, emotive people commit themselves to slow-moving, lifeless drudgery of innummerable professions at the expense of a developed network of family and friends, and creative and challenging personal lives outside work. People no longer feel a strong enough connection to their select groups, and yet cultural mores continue to inhibit the ability to trust outsiders and make new connections (people who slip on the sidewalk are outsiders, and so not one's responsibility to help).
Fear of dischord makes it difficult for any one (at university, in the government, in the press) to invite ideas of significant change. Nobody particularly desires whale meat, but the government refuses to cease hunting. Rigidity and fear of change mean that, even once proposed, changes are frightfully slow. Zielenziger sees a cultural malaise that stifles personal intellect, creativity, and meaning in life through anything but consumerism, hence the Louis Vuitton bags. The same malaise prevents the nation from truly opening up to new ideas, foreign investment, and immigrants who could help support the decreasing and rapidly aging population.
The dissonance between stated ideal and reluctance to change means Japan spends the most of all Asian countries on English studies, and yet continually scores among the lowest. Most people don't seem able to actually consider english a tool to connect Japan with much of the rest of the world. English tudors and extra lessons are just one more thing to buy.

[Japan doesn't have to 'open up' to the world if it doesn't want to. However, Zielenziger points out that the trends he sees are detrimental to many of the individuals who make up the Japanese nation.]

Friday, March 7, 2008

life is boring here

In a training seminar before we left home, they warned us that halfway through the first year in Japan you might feel like ranting about all the stuff that is wrong, all the stuff that is different from home. They advised keeping these rants to a minimum, and trying to shift focus. Naaa. Here's the rant.

Life for people here is entirely work, which I’m not thrilled about. Working overtime is expected, or assumed. People identify themselves by who they work for. Everybody talks about work like it is the only important thing in life. People ‘sneak’ short holidays in, talking the rest of the time about how they are too busy to take real holidays. Even if there is little work to be done, or it would be possible to do the work more efficiently, existing tasks are spread out or new tasks created to take more time and effort to give an excuse to stay at work, not leave on time and not take holidays, and to have more work to work on. Not that this burden is placed on me, only it’s sad to be surrounded by it all the same. I feel like I am inconveniencing people when I ask them to do something fun, like see a movie, because they are so consumed by and tired from work. Simple events like that, or a dinner, are planned a month in advance, with humming and hawing. From the sounds of it, such events (ie NOT work) only take place perhaps once a month!
It’s hard to say if the work ethic is actually so extreme that people only take one half day off every week (ie Saturday morning) to rest, and do nothing else the rest of the time but work… or if the ethic of talking about work is simply so extreme as to make it sound that way. Either way, there is no comfortable struggle against the reality that work takes up most of our lives. It might be a flimsy and illusory struggle anyway, but I miss the eagerness to get home at the end of the day, to split early for the weekend, to talk about all the stuff besides work that is going on, so we can all pretend we don’t only live to work. (HUGE bias, I know. But is there not some fundamental distinction between individuals and institutions that suggests space for a fulfilling identity outside the institution?)

It’s a sexist place. Statistically speaking, wages and status are still hugely askew in favour of men. Leadership, politics, authority: man’s duty. Though female participation has increased in many industries, that fact hasn’t changed. Women have gained some freedom to focus on work, and many marry and have children later (or don’t at all). Yet, there still seems a comfortable acceptance of women’s subservience, and her domestic duties to clean the house and feed the family, etc. I did meet one female principal, but the percentage of female office assistants (ie Tea Ladies) is far higher than that of female principals. The banks, too, seem to assume the wife is still free at home and in charge of household finances, capable of getting to the bank before 3pm, by which time nobody is finished work.
It’s more than just unequal wages. Female friends (sorry to steal so many of your observations) tell me they feel the pressure to be meek and subservient (which none of them are, by Japanese standards). There is an informal hierarchy that places old people and oldish men in suits at the top and women and handicapped people at the bottom, though foreigners mostly confuse and surprise everybody. Again, this is based upon my friend’s noting of those whom older men in suits feel the least hesitation in (literally) shoving out of their way.

Worse, the sexism plays into the hypersexualization of women. Besides hostesses and prostitutes, and besides the endless pornography in magazines and manga, there are the actual women who stand next to you on the subway. At the very least, most of these women are intensely made up, every inch of skin smeared with some product, their hair coiffed at exorbitant prices with exorbitant amounts of cream or spray or gel or mouse holding the hair frozen in unnatural perfection. Then there are the outfits. Most look like mannequins from magazines, carefully tailored to the perfect image of feminine business women (emphasis on the feminine) meets life-size doll. Many others actually look like prostitutes. Of course there are the familiar fishnets and knee-highs, and other ridiculous shoes that nobody can walk in. It is painful to watch the women walking here. The shoes are shaped wrong or their bones are shaped wrong or the heels are simply too high, but there is a terrible ankle-wrenching gait that makes one hate the fact that women could do that to themselves just to look good, to look taller. Winter’s snow and ice exacerbates perambulator difficulty, but I assure you there is no reduction in the number of heels on the road.
Likewise, -10 weather did nothing to change the number of women (and girls) wearing skirts. It’s a skirt culture. Starting in Junior Highschools all girls wear skirts, which they learn to roll and hike higher and higher, perhaps taking their cue from their mirror images in manga and other media. I’m not saying I wish women wouldn’t wear skirts, especially in summer, and even short skirts, if the occasion calls for it. However there is something disturbing about seeing completely fake looking, uncomfortable, over-sexualized women heading to work in all sorts of jobs, day after day. It seems appropriate that teachers, at least, wear pants that don’t show that enticing little bit of ass cheek below the bottom hem.

To mention schoolgirls in short skirts is to segue into a wider characteristic of the culture: it’s love for the infantile. Young is sexy - true everywhere, I know, but exaggerated here. There’s a certain look that many girls seem to go for, that makes it hard to differentiate between the ages of 13 and 30. Media is full of grown women dressed like young girls, acting like children, speaking in childish voices, which is quite disturbing when tied to the sexual. The dolled up schoolgirl with the hiked up skirt is the icon of sexuality, leading many a grown man to buy the corresponding manga, leading some men and at least one principal to start stealing and collecting girls' underwear.
I don’t believe most people here think about the extent of this blend of infantilizing and hypersexualizing. I mentioned going to Satoland during the Snow festival. Satoland was the children’s area of the festival, with slides and mascots and thousands of kids. On the pamphlet and map was a picture of a 6-12 year old cartoonish, half-doll girl in a short skirt with her knee turned in, looking coy. This was a pamphlet for kids and their parents.

Even divorced slightly from its sexual component, the focus on the infantile is worth its own comment. Media is full of cartoony adds and actors that seem targeted at 8 year olds (but they’re not). In daily interactions you immediately notice the high-pitched, childish voice that is associated with politeness (used in much conversation), as well as facial expressions, over-acting, huge emphasis on things cute and comic that can make any one seem like an overgrown child. Cartoon figures and diagrams adorn every wall. Cartoons and a recorded voice inform you that you are riding an escalator and that doors open and subway trains tend to stop and start. I have the sneaking suspicion that as long as everyone is over-enthusiastic in response to a few key simple or cute things, nobody will notice the lack of genuine intellectual challenge or stimulation. Everything is safe, rather uninteresting. It’s just an escalator. (Someone did die on one, despite the warnings.)
More than simply avoiding conflict, what the politeness and infantile mean is that nobody has to let down their fronts and actually engage with the people around them. The extreme politeness is intended to formalize, depersonalize without disrespecting. It is very nice to be treated politely, definitely. However, it grows tiresome to have countless interactions day after day and never feel like your are butting up against real people. The infantilizing and over-enthusiasm work to the same effect, allowing everyone to meet on this hyper-polite, cutesy and bubbly plain where nobody actually has any personality. [I’d like to stop and say that this paragraph sounds way harsher than I mean it too. Japanese people most definitely have personalities, only this certain way of acting – especially in short exchanges with work acquaintances or strangers, even in beginning friendships – works to avoid acknowledging that fact.]
I tend to lean toward the over-polite, which back home lead me to feel more like an old man than the teenager I recently was. When I worked at a coffee shop, I held up the ‘polite-employee’ front far longer than coworkers, even after developing fairly casual friendships with some customers. I like polite. I like acting ‘professional’ when it is called for. I even like enthusiasm.
Nonetheless, there is such a thing as being too careful and too forcibly enthusiastic. I know: it takes learning and patience to wade through the politeness and distancing techniques that people use here, and I know I simply don’t understand how to connect with people very well. That’s my own fault. But I still feel like people shouting “CUUUUUTEEEEE” as if it were a substantial divulgence of personal import impinges rather than furthers the development of a relationship, especially when the cuteness of a given object is the subject of definitive import for the entire conversation. True, I can’t understand what people talk to each other about, because my Japanese is so limited. Yet, from me at least, few people seek anything more than superficial conversation. In journalism and sociology it is constantly reiterated that Japanese people seek to avoid tension or conflict and are less analytical, all of which are components of what I consider interesting and challenging conversation. In so many [but by no means all] interactions, the cutesy pretence is the substance of the interaction.

I can’t think of a good segue, but food doesn’t really need one, does it. Food. I like sushi, I like nabe (boiling some veggies in a pot on the table, with friends gathered round), I like tempura; hell, I even like rice and seaweed. I like most Japanese food. All the same, the food situation here is kind of lacking. First problem: fruit is expensive in the stores, and that SUCKS. Fruit is not a major focus of the diet here. Perhaps it ties into the fact that limited parts of Japan are suitable for growing a small variety of fruits, and the country has a strong history of emphasizing local food-production rather than importation. Each region eats its own products first and foremost (traditionally, and somewhat still true), which means vegetables, meat or fish, and (of course) rice: that’s the stuff. As I said, I like all those things, but I do miss quality and affordable fruit, and being surrounded by people who like fruit. I realized the other day that I felt awkward because I was sitting on a bench eating an apple. I felt awkward because I wasn’t eating something wrapped in plastic, purchased from the nearest conbini (like everybody around me). That’s messed up.
Further, even the common foods – hell, even the exquisite foods – are characterized by simplicity and uniformity. Sashimi, admittedly delicious, is a lack of cooking and adornment. There is a limited selection of sauces and spices, mostly just some salty soy sauce or spicy wasabe, and then variations and combinations of similar. Rice, which is everywhere and always, is rarely seasoned in interesting ways. Pretty much everything is either not cooked at all or boiled slightly, without much flavour. Otherwise, everything is fried, whether in tempura batter or just drenched in oil. I have watched friends eat some disgusting looking fried chicken from what I thought were pretty classy places.
As for restaurants, there is an assortment in a big city like Sapporo. However, the vast majority of restaurants produce exactly the same food. A million ramen signs adorn the street, because Sapporo is famous for that formerly Chinese, noodle-soup. It’s always the same ramen. All other genres of Japanese food are repeated with exactitude in the multitude of venues strewn about the streets and endless floors and basements of labyrinthine department stores. As with Starbucks’ ubiquity back home, it’s nice to be able to expect consistency and uniformity with what you order, no matter where you are. Sometimes though, a little variety would be nice. Sometimes, it’s boring as hell.
There are some international options, perhaps even ‘lots’ compared to many places in Japan. Yet, the food is not always high quality, even if the prices are high. Funny things happen to adopted foods…omelet gets misidentified as a rice dish, pasta gets slimy and lacking in vegetables and flavour, pizza gets cheap cheese and who knows what put on it, and bread…
Better not get started on bread. A thousand identical bakeries with different names all sell the same endlessly, sickeningly buttery, sugary, bleached bread with no nutritional value whatsoever, with no whole wheat bread available practically anywhere…
…that’s not to say there are no good restaurants. We’ve found a couple of Indian and Thai restaurants that continually satisfy (more than satisfy). Umm, the gaijin bar TK6 has fish ‘n chips and a good quesadilla... You can go Chinese, but usually those restaurants are suspiciously Japanese seeming. Let’s see… well, yeah, curry has become quite popular, so it’s not to difficult to get tasty curry. But if you want to broaden your horizons beyond that, you really have to dig. Yea, I’ve been spoiled by the endless variety of restaurants at arm’s reach in Vancouver. We’re going to try a Turkish place tonight for the first time… maybe I’m being too hard on Sapporo’s options. I definitely have to search more.

Oh, did I mention that restaurants and bars and coffee shops all leave you stinking like smoke? I know most places in the world don't have the smoking ban from back home, but it would be nice if the restaurants at least had ventilation. Sometimes for kicks they have a separate, sealed room with high tech air modifiers; but usually the air is thick with smoke.

That’s the thing, if the Japanese decide to do something, they will do it precisely, and with baubles. Rituals formalize every interaction. Food aesthetics are incredible. Cell phone technology is amazing. The department stores are vast and boggling. People are all made up to look like people in pictures.
However, the problem is that once something is done a certain way, things are very slow to change. [I know, change is hard for everybody, hence QWERTY keyboards.] Japan was slow to take broadband internet, even though it is supposed to lead the world in technology. Offices still don’t use email, because of the importance of hand-stamping every document. Banks close at 3pm, ATM’s close in the evening, there’s no interact or POS debit, there’s no online banking. As for food, there has been little fusion. Foreign and Japanese foods have not created new ways of cooking or new delights; old ways of cooking stand side by side. And it is enough to offer mediocre foreign food, because it is the option of foreign food that counts, not the quality of that food.
Furthermore, if something is not officially labeled as important, it doesn’t exist. I’m thinking especially of the awful aesthetics of the cities here, which I’ve mentioned before. Cities are admirably free of litter (especially considering the dearth of trashbins and the amount of disposable packaging from all food products), but trashy all the same. Since the depression, government-led construction has placed no importance whatsoever on aesthetics. Brutalist, megalithic apartment buildings marr ever city. Hodgepodge houses that seem to lack even individual coherence fill the residential areas. Hideous pachinko parlors are far more frequent than those beautiful temples you see in magazines. It has been decided that temples should be clean and beautiful. It has not been decreed that cities should be nice to look at, therefore, they’re ugly (-I hyperbolize, but not without some basis).
Oh, another example would be domestic violence and spousal abuse. Until very recently no thought was given to the topic whatsoever. It wasn’t reported, it didn’t exist. If anything, a degree of abuse was expected. With their penchant for focusing on catchy engrish borrowings, the term ‘D, V’ eventually crept into public discourse. So, now, even though some people might not know what D, V stands for in English, awareness of domestic violence is slowly increasing. It is now something that people are officially allowed to talk about, so it exists. From the sounds of it, though, police still often refuse to intervene in households that report abuse. Old ways are best…
Unbelievable amounts of polluting energy and materials are created in packaging food and all products. Millions of disposable chopsticks are used everyday. These areas haven’t been taken into consideration in widespread conservation rhetoric. Nobody thinks about it. They haven't been told to consider these things wasteful.
Then there’s that whole whaling thing…

Close mindedness is reinforced in a lot of ways.
Japanese spend a lot of time reading (highly literate population) and learning about the outside world. From what I can tell, though, the focus is the outside world’s wars and turmoil. The world is painted as an unsure and unsafe place. Perhaps that is why people only sneak quick getaways, or rather excursions. Few people travel extensively, few people live abroad. Few people consider the possibility of living elsewhere. It is better only to borrow from abroad, and stay at home.
Only Japan is safe and consistent. Furthermore, Japan is… enough. It already does things properly and has everything you could want. Why go any where else?
Above all, Japan is ‘different.’ I constantly hear people speaking of things that are only done in Japan, or are characteristically Japanese, even if neither is true. Evolutionary theory struggled to gain footing here – surely Japanese people are different? Common sense once dictated that AIDS couldn’t be contracted by a Japanese person, because it wasn’t a ‘Japanese disease.’
The same thinking (and coincidental legislation) continues to make it impossible for immigrants to feel like true citizens. No matter how long you’ve lived here, you still have to get your fingerprints checked at customs. Because you’re not Japanese (pretty sure… should probably double check that factoid).
The same thinking allows the government to keep spending money to bring in foreign ALT’s, who are essentially fancy, expensive baubles of foreigness to be safely monitored, touched and gaped at by students, and then sent home. ALT’s rarely acquire the respect of an equal, because we are rarely given responsibility and full trust. We are here partly to teach, mostly to simply be specimens of difference.

Music consists of mass-produced, thoughtless J-Pop, which inserts non-sense snippets of English at random. Alternative music is more J-Pop. People will speak with a twinkle-in-eye about the group with the most staying power (money, records, products, appearances everywhere) over the last decade, SMAP, a fabricated pretty-boy group with no distinctive talent. SMAP, indeed.

TV, despite the cool hair styles in anime, is cheap in the low-quality way. For kicks, people watch cheap Korean dramas instead. News is high-pitched and vacuous (you can tell just by looking at it) with video-journalism that mimics the cheap dramas.

Sapporo is really cold (Now I am just whining.) in the winter and humid in the summer. The city crews continually turn the streets into a deathtrap by not clearing away enough snow, or clearing too much and instead packing down razor thin or foot-thick sheets of ice all over the roads.

Homogeneity. There are few variations in hair, eyes, build, dress and life backstory. Yes, despite this Japanese people do all look different, and have completely distinct faces and identities. And they are beautiful people (and ugly, etc.) However, the people don’t look as different and interesting as different people from different races all put together in the same place. I’m not saying I miss being surrounded by white people, or people of my heritage, because I don’t particularly. I miss being surrounded by a variety of people with different faces and backgrounds, different stories to tell.

I have no summary to bring all these things together into one cohesive comment on Japan. I wouldn’t want to. Again, this is an incomplete list of things I don’t enjoy about this place, I could probably add more. It is extremely subjective, limited in evidence, culturally ignorant, at times exaggerated. Nonetheless, I didn’t write any of this out of the blue just for complaint’s sake. All of it has some experiential basis, however flawed.

It is most of all incomplete in the sense that this post lacks the “Pros” column. For the most part, I am positive about my surroundings. For the most part, I take blame for any dissatisfaction with my situation, while I am thankful to my situation when it brings me happiness – and that negative self-criticism and positive diffusion of credit is very Japanese of me. There are heaps of reasons why this is a good place, and I continue to discover these reasons.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

sapporo snow festival (vegetarians not allowed)

Randomata: a word unheard. Last week when ordering a pizza I confirmed four or five times that the selection I was making contained no meat. When the pizza arrived an hour and a half later (because we gave wrong directions... woops), my teeth just touched the cheese when my friend noticed the beef minced throughout the sauce. I blamed myself for not double checking one more time and specifically asking if the sauce had any pre-added meat. On the weekend, at a nice tapas bar, I scared three or four servers by asking for vegetarian recommendations. Finally we picked something that the head server said had no meat in it. I explained that I didn’t eat any meat whatsoever, and he confirmed after a direct question that there wasn’t meat in it. When the omelette-ish dish arrived, I took one bite and tasted sausage, chunks of which were spaced throughout. These are just two examples of an ongoing battle vegetarians face here.
Supposedly the word ‘vegetarian’ is one of those adopted into Japanese without a change to its meaning (just change to hiragana syllables). There are also, of course, ways to say that one doesn’t eat meat without reaching outside Japanese vocabulary, such as ‘nikku o tabenai.’ Nikku is a catch-all for beef (gyunikku), pork (buntanikku), and bird meat (torinikku). But no matter how you say it, you’re likely to provoke a surprised reaction from whoever is taking your order. In fact, they might seem downright scared (that they won’t be able to find any food for you, and that you are some strange anomaly they can’t fathom).
More confusing, however, are the people who nod in agreement, for they make it seem like the concept of vegetarianism is actually crossing the cultural-linguistic border. In reality, even if the word is known in a basic way, few people seem to understand the mentality behind it. People find it hard to understand why someone would choose not to eat meat, and it seems to suggest that that person is religious, allergic, simply doesn’t feel like eating meat at that moment, might just want a little bit less than usual, not a meat-focused dish, or perhaps doesn’t eat a lot of meat in their diet but might want to eat some now. Above all, that person is downright strange.
Japan might have been prescriptively vegetarian at some point in Buddhism’s heyday, but that time is long gone. Now it is very difficult to convince people that it is possible to not have meat, to remove it from a certain dish or, better yet, to cook without it in the first place. Difficulty arises when servers too quickly signal their understanding because there are many times the meat doesn’t even register in their minds as part of the dish, likely if it is: pre-mixed in a sauce, part of soup broth, minced finely, or placed amongst other ingredients (so that the meat doesn’t stand out as a main feature of the dish).
Sometimes I think that everywhere I go, me being vegetarian gives people a new view to think about; other times, I’m just hungry.

I haven’t checked in for a while now. I don’t think anything worth mention has happened –

– except the WICKED Snow Festival. At several sites throughout the city, ice and snow sculptures coupled with festivities and performances to provide entertainment to the hordes of visitors. Odori Park, the large Boulevard that runs through blocks and blocks of the city centre, was covered with massive displays of skilled carvings of temples and imagined scenes, as well as blocks of familiar and comical characters, and an amateur section, where some of my chums tried their hand. Susikino (the party centre of town) had a long line of sharp ice sculptures as well as an ice bar (a popular gimmick in Hokkaido). Perhaps most fun of all was Satoland (trans: sugarland), which was the kids’ section of the Festival. I went with three guys who were staying with me over the weekend. Sure, we’re all 22/23/24/27, but that doesn’t mean we can’t admit to still being kids…

Highlights include an ice maze, an ice tube slide, insanely enthusiastic dancers everywhere who periodically gathered on stage for a more official performance, and an organized yukigassen. Yes, in typical Japanese fashion, the snowball fight had a court, pre-made barricades, deployment tactics, stringent rules, helmets and bibs, and uniform pre-made, pre-counted snowballs (made with these awesome and awesomely simply snowball makers that every kid should want).

Having buds at my house was great, not so much because the four extra male bodies stank up the place almost beyond tolerance, and not because they bought me booze, but because their perspective on my apartment and the city was refreshing. They were thrilled with what the city has to offer (as compared to the small town they live in at the very opposite end of the country, southern Kyushu), and ensured me that I am very lucky to have such a comfortable apartment, close to anything I might need.

Also, my friend Lex is halfway through his second year as a JET. I enjoyed seeing the progress he has made with the language, and the fact that his enthusiasm for living here has not waned in the least. He has nothing but good things to say about the living, working, and playing situation of a JET: decent pay, heaps of paid time off, the chance to travel, the chance to learn about a new country, and relatively straightforward demands – just hang out with the kids a bit! All these things I know, but sometimes don’t think on. Course he speaks fluent French as well, and he’s just an enthusiastic guy in general, but it still gives me hope for my second year here in Japan.

Not everything gives me hope and excitement for that second year. Next post: 'life is boring here.'

Friday, February 8, 2008

struggles in the school system

Randomata: Unsatisfied student. A third-year student at my junior high is applying to go to a high school in the United States. He asked me to check over his application paragraph, as did his teachers ask me to read over the review they must write in English. His justification was frustration with the close-mindedness of the Japanese school system, where teacher’s “don’t want to hear [his] opinion.” Junior high school does seem to stress repetition and retrieval of sanctioned information, rather than critical thinking. I think everybody (across the country) is expected to acquire basically the same knowledge, and not necessarily to analyze or dissect it. However, I’m not sure if this characteristic changes as the students age and move into high school. In a line that stood out for me, his teacher’s review presents the converse sentiment that the student has a “lack of patience and over-optimistic thinking.” I think the difference between the two comes from a lack of challenge for the student, who is eager to engage with English, not just reiterate required segments (‘regurgitate lifeless snippets on cue’ I would say in more polemical tones). He wants to practice speaking English, perhaps about real ideas relevant to his life, which actually happens very little in English class. I’m certainly not going to make any overarching comment on education in Japan being homogenous, suppressive, or ineffective. Yet, I think it unfortunate that a teacher should ever think a student ‘over-optimistic,’ his eagerness a ‘lack of patience.’

Randomata 1: Respect for authority and government control. The teachers in Hokkaido have had consecutive drastic pay cuts over the last several years (including one of 10%). Understandably, teachers are somewhat frustrated by the situation, considering their commitment and involvement at work has not lessoned accordingly. Months ago, at a conference of JETS (like me) and Japanese Teachers of English, one teacher took the opportunity to stand up and comment that the pay cuts were unacceptable and teachers should no longer work a minute past their contracted hours. Coincidentally, one of the managers from the Sapporo Board of Education was in the same seminar room and he directed a sidelong response that teachers don’t work as hard as they make it seem. You could feel the antagonism in the air, which is pretty much unthinkable here.
The teachers do have a union, but it is characteristically Japanese in key ways. Central tenets of life here seem to be acceptance of the status quo, respect for hierarchies of authority, and avoidance of overt social (and political) discord. Unsurprisingly, legislation bans disruptive strikes. I heard the word whispered amongst the teachers at my Junior High School. At my friend’s High School, the teachers took the only strike measure they could, again, one very characteristic of these hard working and devoted teachers:
After regular class hours (when they’d normally still be working), the teachers took 29 minutes to stop all work, have some drinks and cakes, and in such a way send a message to the government. Anything 30 minutes or longer would constitute an illegal ‘disruptive strike’. Their protest, then, did nothing to interfere with the educational system, and did not actually cause the authorities that much difficulty. Hopefully, if teachers continue to protest within their means, the government will lose face due to their undervaluing of teaching, a profession generally respected and prestigious.
In this place where respect for authority is paramount, a quiet struggle continues, an experiment to test the responsiveness of government to a largely docile populous. So, barring the threat of strike, what power has a union?