Sunday, January 19, 2003

Just finished reading Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, by Alex Kerr. Wow. Thought provoking. The title comes from a story from China. The emperor asked his court painter, "What are the hardest and easiest things to paint?" The artist replied, "Dogs are difficult, Demons are easy." Quiet, everyday things like dogs are hard to get exactly right, but anyone can draw a demon. The author relates this to Japan by saying, "Basic solutions to modern problems are difficult, but pouring money into expensive showpieces is easy.

For example, if you go to my photo album and click on the Kyoto picture, you'll see that I described Kyoto as "an interesting mix of historical culture and modern ideas." However, more and more, you'll find the "historical culture" part of the equasion either pushed aside or bulldozed under. Take a look at the pictures of Kyoto Station. When Japan Rail began soliciting designs for the new station, many people hoped that it would be a chance to create something which reflected the historical significance of Kyoto, which would hopefully call to mind the kind of architecture that hadn't been built in Kyoto for a century and a half. Perhaps the new station could have served as a catalyst for the return of the kinds of buildings that most people come to Kyoto to see, especially since a large number of the many temples, shrines, and other old buildings have been destroyed to make way for "modern" constructs.

Instead...well, look at the pictures. Kyoto Station has nothing to do with traditional Japanese culture.

I was reading a story the other day that described one character's apartment as being decorated in "Japanese style." The author went on to describe bare corrugated metal walls, harsh flourescent lighting, and exposed metal supports. My first reaction was, "That's not Japanese style!" But alas, the cutting edge of trendy here doesn't incorporate any of the historical influences, instead going for that post-modern, no natural stuff involved look.

Reading this book puts an interesting spin on some of the things I've seen while living here. An example from a couple of days ago: According to the book, a large number of people find fallen leaves in the autumn to be a nuisance; the solution, which I saw being implemented outside of West Kagoshima Station the other day, is to cut most of the branches off of the trees. It could be worse, I suppose...sometimes they just remove the trees entirely.

Don't get me wrong, there are still lots of wonderful things to see and do here, and I still think it's an interesting and valuable experience for me. But...I guess I have more to think about, now.

And yes, it's 1:30 AM here, and I don't know why I'm still awake. The past week was somewhat...frustrating, I guess, and the resultant stress (along with one or two attempts at stress relief) have messed up my sleep schedule something fierce. So, for now, good night.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Some of the teachers at Kamiichiki Junior High School have been tossing around the idea of the whole staff visiting Minnesota during summer vacation. I have no idea how serious they are about this. They began talking about it during the After-Culture-Festival party last November. I thought they'd have forgotten about it by now (what with the usual enkai activities (yes, drinking) and all), but they still bring it up every now and then. So, there is a high probability that I'll be visiting home again this summer...and a slim possibilty that I'll have about a dozen Nihonjin in tow. (And, alas, none of them being the one I'd really like to have with....)

...Ahem. Anyway, yesterday, a couple of teachers were asking me about how much various activities would cost. They asked about tickets to baseball games, and were satisfied with the answer. Next, they asked about basketball and football, and were completely shocked by those answers. (Gee, I wonder why?) Finally, the two staff golf nuts asked about greens fees for a round of 18. Since I didn't have a clue (does mini-golf count?), I made a guess of $25 to $30. (Upon checking w. Derrick later, I realize that my guess was a bit on the low side, but okay.) That really floored them. They showed me a coupon from a golf club near here, listing these prices:

Weekdays: 8,000 Yen (about $67)
Saturdays: 11,000 Yen (about $92)
Sundays: 13,000 Yen (about $108)

From there, the conversation moved to how Japanese schools and American schools are different.

The math teacher asked, "Do you study Japanese history in American schools?" Of course, I said, "No," and that surprised them almost as much as the cost of a ticket to a Wolves game did. They showed me a history textbook, which had concurrent timelines of Japanese, American, and European history. Another teacher quoted a few facts from American history that he remembered from school, then asked me, as if to make sure, "You didn't learn about Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, Tokugawa, before you came to Japan?" I again answered negatively, not wanting to mention that I knew the names from some old Nintendo games.

I then allowed that actually, we did learn a little bit of ancient Japanese/Asian history in high school, and a little bit of modern history as well.

"Ah, World War II, Pearl Harbor, right?"

"Um. Yeah."

So, we discussed that for a little bit. Then, the conversation turned to current events, and Kita Chosen/North Korea...

It's interesting (at least to me) to note that in Japanese, South Korea is written with a kanji that historically refers to Korea (Kan, Kan-koku), while North Korea is written with the name that Japan forced on all Korea when Japanese forces occupied the peninsula during World War II (Cho-sen).

Anyway, although the rest of the world is concerned with the return of North Korea's nuclear program, Japan has also got the issue of the abductees to worry about. (quick recap -- about 20 years ago, North Korean spies kidnapped several Japanese people) I had to explain to the teachers at Kami-chu that practically noone in America knows about this. Yet another reason to think less of America, I'm afraid....

It seems that DoCoMo has initiated a policy that foreigners who start a new cellphone account with them must pay a refundable deposit of 30,000 yen ($250). The reason they give is that losses from foreigners (for example, military personnel who are posted here for a year or less) who skip out on their last few months' bills are reaching an unacceptable level. This would be all well and good, but for the fact that independent observers have shown that Japanese deadbeats far outnumber foreigner deadbeats, the debt from Japanese deadbeats is much higher, etc. When asked to show the figures that justify making only foreigners pay this deposit, DoCoMo refused to comment.

Now, apparently, this policy has been in place since April of last year. I bought my cellphone from DoCoMo last June, and I did not have to pay any kind of deposit, so I don't really know what's going on.

Supposedly, a JET CIR (that's Coordinator for International Relations, one of the other JET positions) in Kyushu was asked to prepare signs in English for a local business that said, "Foreigners Not Welcome." Of course, that's not what the signs ended up saying.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

It's been quite cold around here lately. I'm glad that all of the heaters (one electric, two kerosene) have timers that allow me to have them kick on just before I wake up in the mornings. It's too bad that I can't leave them on all the time, but the electric one eats too much power, and the kerosene ones make me a bit loopy every once in a while.

Even though Christmas was a blast, New Year's was kind of a drag. Like I mentioned before, just about everyone I knew was either out of the country or otherwise occupied on New Year's Eve. On New Year's Day, a local doctor invited me to visit his family for a few shinnenkai (new year parties). We visited three of his relatives in and about Kagoshima City, and at each place, I was badgered about the fact that I don't have a girlfriend. This is not a fun way to spend New Year's. The availability of copious amounts of alcohol only partially made up for this.

One thing I forgot to mention about my Christmas trip to Tokyo was the fact that I got a really good deal on plane tickets. About $200, round trip. I flew on a new airline, Skymark, which flies two routes: Kagoshima -- Tokyo, and Fukuoka -- Tokyo. I suspect they only own two planes. Anyway, although the price was right, there were a few drawbacks to flying Skymark. The most annoying of these was the way that they pack the planes as full of passengers as they can. Picture, if you will, an average/smaller than average jet aircraft, such as you might find flying between MSP and Chicago. Now, picture it with eight seats in every row.

These seats were a bit narrow even for Japanese people. As a higher than average (you know what I mean) American person, I didn't have a chance. The flight up was...uncomfortable. On the way back, I decided to shell out the extra �10000 to upgrade to business class. In addition to a wider seat, that extra money bought me a really bland box lunch, and all-you-can-drink ZIMA. (I stuck with the apple juice.)

Speaking of (writing of? Typing of?) "seat size," I seem to have actually lost some weight recently. Woo-hoo! Time to haul out the "somewhat-lighter person" clothes!

Wait a minute....

I don't HAVE "somewhat-lighter-person" clothes!

This could be a problem. But it's not a bad problem to have....


Monday, January 06, 2003

Greetings to you all. Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!

And so, another year has begun...and, oddly, here in Kagoshima it began with about three inches of snow falling last weekend. My colleagues at the school board told me that this is the most snow that Kagoshima has had in the last ten years. What was even odder was the fact that for a while, there was more snow on the ground here than in Minnesota. There's something wrong with that, I think....

Christmas was a lot of fun. I visited my college buddy Jonny Rasmussen, up in Tokyo. He and his family basically adopted me for a week. It was a lot of fun, for example, shopping in Akihabara, with my limited knowledge of Japanese. Every once in a while, I found myself interpreting for American tourists:

"Anou, kono furashu kaado wa ikura desuka?"
"He wants to know which one you want."
"Aa, hyaku nijuu hachi MB, onegaishimasu."

But of course, when I wanted something, my Japanese failed me. I was shopping for an electronic dictionary (expensive, but a heck of a lot easier to tote around than my hardcover Kodansha Jisho) and was looking for specific features, but I just couldn't communicate.... Finally, after about 10 minutes of futile gesturing and bad grammar, I told the shopkeeper that I would come back later with a friend who spoke Japanese.

Much to his surprise, I did. However, he was dismayed when he saw Jonny, who looks even more gaijin than I do. The shopkeeper's dismay changed to astonishment as Jonny quickly rattled off what I was looking for, in fluent Japanese. (Did I mention that, although he was born in Iowa, Jonny has lived most of his life in Japan?)

It's kind of funny, but in some ways being in Tokyo doesn't exactly feel like being in Japan. (Remember, I live way out in the sticks.) For example, there is a much higher chance of meeting a store clerk or shopkeeper (or fast-food employee) who actually speaks English. There are a lot more foreigners wandering around, and chances are they aren't even trying to learn Japanese. Of course, sometimes they are fairly desperate to speak to someone in English!

In Harajuku (where all the latest trends for teens are born), I was accosted by a big black guy, asking me if I was out shopping. He felt sure that the hip-hop shop that he worked for was the only place in town where I would find clothes that would fit me. He was probably right, but man, Fubu just ain't my style, dig? Between this and the Japanese teen Goth-wanna-bes, Harajuku was...interesting. I took a few pictures, but my camera was filling up, and I foolishly failed to buy a new flash card at Akihabara....

Speaking of pictures, I only took about 120 of them during my week in Tokyo. What does this mean? Well, I'm finally getting around to updating my web photo album! Really! It should be done by the end of the week! Promise! I'll even throw in a few photos of "Snow Falling on Bamboo".

I have just found out that if I have my air con/heater, kotatsu, and both kerosene space heaters on at the same time, I run the risk of tripping the circuit breakers. I found out last week that in the mornings, the kitchen is colder than the inside of the refrigerator. Of course, it could be worse -- I don't have problems with dampness.

o/\"Always look on the bright side of life..."

The pizza place that delivers to my area seems to have closed. Whether it's temporary or not I can't tell. This is both good and bad. Good, because I won't be eating pizza that often anymore. Bad, because I won't be eating pizza that often anymore....

Today was the first day of work in the new year, and just like last year, we had the big group photo, the (multiple of five equal to or greater than 20) years long-service awards, and the speeches thanking us for last year and exhorting us to work just as hard this year. Also, my supervisor just casually happened to mention that I should be getting to the office maybe five minutes before work starts, instead of the 2 to negative 1 minutes I've been averaging. Oops.

Also, I turned in the form officially stating that I'd like to work here another year.


When are more of you going to come visit me? ( ^_^)