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):

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.