Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2005’ Category

We’re Official in Japan Now, Too

December 15th, 2005 3 comments

The college where I work has become the first foreign institution of higher education to be granted official status by the Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), which means our students will finally be universally recognized in Japan, allowing them benefits from financial (they can now get significant savings on their train passes, the lack of which was a big drawback) to academic (their credits earned at our college will now transfer within the Japanese college system). We’ll also be able to sponsor student visas. Recognition is very good (though long in coming), and it means we’ll likely get an increase in the number of students at our college, which took a hit after the 9/11 attacks and the buildup to the Iraq War.

However, it also means that other foreign universities might start getting interested in the market again, now that we and others have stabilized it and brought it respect. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, a few score of U.S. institutions opened up branch campuses in Japan, seeing it as a way to capitalize off of the then-rich Japanese market. They usually partnered with Japanese businesses which provided administrative and financial support, many of whom were prep or other types of private schools. However, a few major problems caused the industry to implode. For one, some institutions, desperate to get applicants, significantly lowered standards and suffered from grade inflation, which devalued the currency of their degrees. But much more significantly, Japan’s economic collapse caused many of the partner institutions to go bankrupt (many had invested heavily in the bubble real estate market), which closed down schools without warning. Students who had invested a great deal of money and time suddenly found themselves with severed college careers, and in a poor position to do anything about it. The reputation of the industry sank quickly as new students wanted to avoid this fate, and as attendance plummeted, even more schools closed down, until in the late 90’s, only four American-based colleges in Japan with independent accreditation remained (not counting institutions on American military bases).

That’s when I came in, and was hired to run my college. We were one of the least-famous institutions to set up in Japan, but we did so for serious reasons based upon internationalization and the enrichment of diversity, not necessarily for profit. We had found a solid Japanese partner with serious academic credentials, and focused more on the foundation of an academic program than a money-making business (our home campus is a not-for-profit institution). So we stayed on, even through the toughest of times, taking a beating from the reputation cast on us from others–but we persevered. We steadfastly refused to lower standards or award higher grades to appeal to students in a business way (to the point where some students who graduated and later returned from American colleges they’d transferred to reported that our college was academically tougher than the U.S. institutions they’d studied at).

Still, I arrived at a turning point, where the student population had ebbed. For the subsequent several years, our student population exploded, tripling in size. I’d like to claim that as cause-and-effect, but it was more due to the recruitment teams, the rebuilding of our pre-academic program, and the fading of the poor reputation other institutions had left behind a decade before. So we prospered, even as two of the remaining four U.S.-accredited colleges in Japan shut down (they were countryside holdovers, having received substantial support from rural governments, and closed in a responsible fashion), leaving only us and Temple University as the survivors. Understanding that history, you can perhaps appreciate better the significance and reward of now being officially recognized by MEXT. It’s been a long road, and naturally I feel a well-deserved outcome.

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December 13th, 2005 5 comments

OK, so I’m getting ready to go home for the holidays. I’ve got everything taken care of, especially in light of my broken foot. I’m going to takkyubin my luggage to the airport (“takkyubin” is kind of like Fed-Ex, but a broader service in Japan; one service they provide is hauling your luggage for you from point A to point B). I’ve got Green Car reservations on the Narita Express, wheelchair reservations for the airport, a bulkhead seat (first row of Economy class, where there are no seats in front of you) on the airplane… everything taken care of.

So last night, at about 2 a.m., I look at my luggage. And I realize that I haven’t made arrangements to takkyubin the suitcase. Well, I shouldn’t worry, I think–they’ll pick it up tomorrow and have it at the airport in time, right? Except when I go to Yamato Takkyubin’s web site to check, they say that you should have it picked up two to three days before your flight. Oh, great! Come the morning, my flight would be the next day. Have you ever tried to carry a big suitcase while on crutches? I haven’t, and I don’t want to try.

So there I am in a panic, figuring that I’ve completely blown it. Yamato doesn’t open till 8:00 am, and they require 2-3 days anyway. But I find another express company, called Sagawa, who seem to take calls all night. So I call them up. No problem, the guy says. We can have your bag at the airport the next day. I make the reservation for the pickup guy to come between 12 and 2 in the afternoon the next day, and relax. It’s taken care of. Close one! So I go to sleep.

This morning, I get woken up by a phone call. Some guy at Sagawa, calling me about my arrangement. The problem is, he doesn’t speak English, and I can’t understand what he’s saying. Something about “uketori” (pickup?) at the airport, and somehow maybe I can’t get my bag “chokusetsu” (directly). I quiz him, explain that I can’t understand, please speak simply, the whole nine yards. I try to get him to explain bit by bit. But no luck–he remains maddeningly vague. He tells me to call the “skyporter” at Narita, and I do so. He also does not speak English, and he is even less helpful and clear than the Sagawa guy. He can’t explain, and says I should call Sagawa. I call the Sagawa guy back up, he’s no help either. I ask him directly if they can deliver my bag to Narita as promised, and he won’t give me a direct answer.

Here’s a big cultural tip about Japan: when someone refuses to give a direct answer, and instead switches to high-level language, the answer is “no.”

So I begin to panic again. My Japanese coworker at school kindly agrees to call Sagawa for me to cut through the language problem, and confirms my fears: Sagawa doesn’t deliver to Narita. (So why did the guy I called last night tell me “no problem”?) Sagawa has just wasted my time when I’m already way late. At least they told me (kind of) that they couldn’t deliver my bag before they actually picked it up. But that doesn’t help me much.

Hoping against hope that Yamato will do the job despite the late hour, I call them up. Again, no one speaks English. I’m able to communicate my request to the dispatcher, who assures me that they can do this for me, they can get the suitcase there in time for my flight. That would be a relief again, except for the fact that that is exactly what the Sagawa guy said eight hours earlier. But I take a leap of faith and go for it. Trying to make sure I’ve got things covered, I call the downtown number for Yamato and get an English speaker, who assures me that they can get my bag to Narita by the next day before my flight, no problem. Oh yeah, they also inform me that on the shipping invoice, in the “to” area, I have to put “Narita Airport,” my airline, flight number and departure time. Useful info, good thing I called the second time.

Anyway, just as I was writing this, the Yamato guy showed up at my door, again assured me that it would get there on time, and took it away with the $16 fee. I’m still nervous, but at least a bit more hopeful now. At worst, I’ll have to buy luggage and clothes when I get to the U.S. Could be worse.

Too late, a friend made a suggestion which would have worked much better: I should have taken a taxi to Seiseki Sakuragaoka, a 5-minute taxi ride, from where I could have taken the Limousine Bus (why is it called a “limousine” bus?) to the airport, no transfers or anything. But it’s a bit too late to switch, so I’ll stay with what I’ve got. But it’s good information to know for the future.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2005, Travel Tags:

Japanese Hospital Stay

December 12th, 2005 2 comments

I almost had to stay in a Japanese hospital, but not quite–the surgery got cancelled last week. One evening maybe 6 years ago, I got food poisoning from a sushi bar (which I of course no longer frequent), started going into shock, and got taken to a hospital by a neighbor–but didn’t stay the night. They pumped me full of fluids and I don’t know what else (not in the condition to observe at the time), and they sent me home. As a result, so far I have not had a stay in a hospital in Japan. But I’ve heard things about what it entails, and my near-stay last week got me another glimpse of that scenario, which I’d forgotten about long ago.

What’s different? Well, there’s a lot of stuff you have to bring. Stuff like pajamas and your toothbrush are not so hard to understand. But kleenex? And soap? True, hospital rooms don’t cost as much in Japan as they do in the U.S., but really, they can’t spring for tissues to blow your nose with?

Here’s the whole list of things you have to bring, aside from your papers: toothbrush, soap, shampoo, hair brush, shaving utensils, etc.; chopsticks, chopstick holder, spoon (a spoon?), teacup, and other eating utensils; pajamas, underwear, hand towel, bath towel, slippers, kleenex, and other overnight stuff. Anything you forget you can buy at the hospital shop.

The room I had a choice about: if I just go with what the insurance paid for only, the room would be free–but shared by four people. A semi-private room would set me back ¥4,200 ($35) a day. A private room would be ¥7,350 ($60). And a “big” private room would be ¥12,600 ($105) a day. And you get charged not by how many nights you stay, but any daytime stay–so though I would have been entering on Wednesday afternoon and leaving Saturday morning, I’d be charged for both Wednesday and Saturday, or a total of 4 days. But I guess that’s to be expected.

Whatever you may say about Japanese medical care, however, you can’t say that the care itself is too expensive. The national insurance, maybe (though I’d like to see how it compares to U.S. insurance), but the care itself is cheap–mainly because the government dictates prices, which keeps costs down significantly. The prices I quoted above for rooms are probably cheap compared to a U.S. hospital. Last year in the U.S., I got a bad nosebleed and had to get hospital care, which added up to about $1500 for only a half dozen visits (no stays). When I got back to Japan, I found out that my national insurance would cover it–but only up to the amount they would pay a hospital in Japan. That turned out to be ¥20,000 ($165). Considering that they pay 70% of medical fees, that means the total government-controlled cost of hospital care would have been ¥28,600 ($240), or about 1/6th of the U.S. costs.

True, Japanese hospitals aren’t as nice or as well-equipped, but they certainly are good enough. The lobby is not as plush, but the system works. And frankly, I experienced wait times at the U.S. hospital that were equivalent to what I experienced here in Japan.

So all the foibles about bringing your own kleenex aside, it’s really not so bad a deal here–U.S. health care could learn some lessons, particularly in cost control.

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December 11th, 2005 Comments off

Well, I’m getting things wrapped up. I just finished grading for the Fall 2005 semester (four sections of “Introduction to Computers,” so it was a bit busy). The last part of grading was to review the students’ blogs. I start them on blogging (using Google’s Blogspot, of course) in the first month of class, and have them blog on the topic of computers once a week for ten weeks. This semester, they learned how to use Blogspot’s image capacity, so that really jazzed things up. Go ahead and look at what they blogged on if you like (blog links are halfway down the page); they were given topics like “The Future of Computers,” “My History with Computers,” “What Computer Gifts Would I Buy Family and Friends,” and so on–as well as some free-topic weeks. They also came up with some creative stuff, including the names for their blogs–like “With Rabbits,” “Egg & Vinegar & Oil,” “Froggy’s Trash Can,” “Hand in My Pocket,” “Without Thinking,” “Hello! Hello? Hello!” “Blog 101,” and my personal favorite, “Don’t Read!” If some of the later entries seem effusive with praise for the class, keep in mind that I hadn’t given them grades yet…

I also just finished the main page for their web page projects, which I host on a domain which I otherwise don’t use but has lots of disk space and bandwidth. A few of them just do the minimal prerequisite, but some went to a great deal of trouble, and a few had designs so nice I almost thought they stole it from somewhere. They used a lot of graphics off the web (I warn them about lifting copyrighted material, but for the purposes of practice I give them leeway), but a lot of the design and content is pretty good, considering that few if any of them ever made a web page before they came to my class.

As you can see, they get pretty creative. The blog and web pages are two of three projects they do in the class–the third being a PowerPoint presentation. I intentionally do not show them how to use wizards or templates, and require them to start with a blank slide show–and they come out with some fantastic presentations.

It can be a fun class to teach.

After Further Review…

December 6th, 2005 5 comments

That’s what my father suggested I should use as a title, the same phrase used in football games after a ref’s call has been challenged. And so, as it turns out, I’m not going in for surgery.

I figured surgery was necessary, as did my parents, my aunt (who is a GP), and her husband (who is an anesthesiologist). I mean, look at the x-ray. How could that heal correctly? I thought the doctor at the E.R. was nuts for suggesting it–he didn’t even suggest surgery, I had to bring that up.

But my aunt’s brother-in-law is an orthopedic specialist, and he said I should not have surgery. That the intervening area will fill with collagen, and then with bone, and it should not impede my abilities. If I were a runner, then maybe, but I’m not. There would be too little to gain, and the risk, hassle and expense of surgery on the loss side. The doctor said he would be giving me a spinal block, not an ankle block. There would be a risk of infection. And then, the pins would have to come out next April, which would mean more surgery.

So I’m not going in for surgery. Go figure. That’ll leave me more time to do what I need to one-footed. But it won’t let me travel into Shinjuku for the remaining final exam nor the graduation ceremony–I’ll have to leave a note to be read to everyone. I’m ordering pizza a lot more, and am putting off going to the store until I really need to. So it’s immobile in bed for me for the time being, which means I’ll be getting my grading done a lot faster this semester.

Not that fate isn’t having fun with me in the meantime. The gas system in Japan is such that if there is any irregularity, the system shuts down automatically. I have to go out my front door, open a cabinet in the wall, and hold down a button for three seconds, then wait a few minutes before I attempt to turn on the gas again. I thought it only got tripped by earthquakes and the like. But I believe I have just figured out that another condition for tripping is if you use too much gas for too long–on the assumption that there’s a leak therefore. And because I’m now home all the time and prefer to use gas heating instead of the air conditioners, the gas heater is on all the time (I have a big place). So every 24 hours or so, the gas trips off. It just did it for the second time as I was just starting to shower. Imagine the prospect of getting dressed, walking out the front door, holding down a button, then coming back inside and waiting–when you have a broken foot and are buck naked just about to take a shower. Not an easy task, and frustrating as hell, particularly with the timing.

I caught on to the possibility that prolonged gas use triggers the stop mechanism when this morning, at 8 am, while I was still sleeping, the doorbell rang. I couldn’t ignore it because it could have been my airline ticket for next week, which the travel agent said he’d deliver sometime soon. It turned out to be the gas meter reader, enquiring why my gas use was more than double what it was last time. It was because I started using my gas heater, that’s why. So I had to wake up and crutch my way to the front door for that. Lovely.

Well, enough of my whining and moaning. I’ll still post soon on what’s involved in a hospital stay in Japan, despite my not going now. I’d heard about it before but had forgotten. Coming soon.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2005, Main Tags:


November 6th, 2005 2 comments

Okay, trivial whining time again. About pizza toppings in Japan. Last time I ordered a custom-made pizza with specified toppings, one of the toppings was black olives. When the pizza arrived, a 10-incher with 8 slices, there were all of two black olive slices on any given piece, though a few pieces had three slices. Those slices were thin to begin with, and had shrunk with the cooking. Now, back in the states, when I add a topping, I expect there to be actually enough of it that I can taste it. Call me greedy.

One example is the Applewood pizza I would order at when back home. You order black olives as a topping, they actually put more than just a few olive slices on every piece. And they charge a dollar per topping on a 10-incher. Here in Japan, any given pizza place will put on a scant few pieces, as I described, and each “topping” costs three dollars. The pizza itself costs about 25% more than in the U.S., but the toppings is where they kill you here in Japan.

When I ordered a pizza tonight, I asked if their usual topping amount was like I’d experienced before, two olive slices a piece. They couldn’t answer except to say that a topping was determined by grams. $3 of black olives was 30 grams, before cooking of course (I can get a whole can, maybe 4 or 5 times as much, from Costco for less than half that price). Having olives available, I weighed out 30 grams, and lo, it came out to less than three slices of olive per one slice of pizza.

Can’t wait to get back to America so I can have a real pizza. And hey, have you found a real sub sandwich in Japan yet? I mean like a Togo’s Hot Pastrami with an inch of pastrami? Nothing even close to it here. And cold cuts–what’s with Japan and no cold cuts? The best you can hope for is the pre-packaged “Roast Ham” dreck sold in the supermarkets–there’s no such thing as a supermarket deli here that I’ve found, unless there’s a special one in Azabu or something. They sell something here called “chorizo,” but trust me, it has no relation to its namesake. Does anyone know of a place with real sliced meats? Or is that illegal in this country?

By the way, a bacon update: as I’d reported, what is called “bacon” in Japan is nothing but pre-cooked, flaccid, unsmoked ham, which some actually say is injected with a sugar substance of some kind. It’s certainly not bacon as Americans know it. But Japan does sell bacon, it’s just not called that–it’s called “pork bara,” commonly sold in supermarkets, in strips for yakiniku. I don’t know if it’s the same cut as bacon, but it certainly seems like it. With salt and smoked paprika (pimenton), it tastes as close to bacon as anything else I’ve found in Japan. It doesn’t crisp the same way, but otherwise it’s a close match.

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Rosu no Dai-Ikkyu Satsujin

November 2nd, 2005 6 comments

I was just recently reminded of a story I haven’t told on this blog yet, so here goes. There was a case twenty years ago concerning a Japanese woman living in Los Angeles named Fumiko Kimura. In 1985, Kimura, her husband and two children were U.S. immigrants in Santa Monica, CA. At one point, Kimura discovered that her husband was having an affair. Distraught, she eventually decided to commit suicide. She took a bus to the beach with her two children and walked them into the surf. The children drowned, but Kimura was rescued before she died. Back when I lived in Japan and this was a story in the news, I read about it and was more familiar with the case than I am now; I know there were more details (for example, I believe she was found by a couple jogging on the beach, one or both of whom were med students), but I can’t recall them all nor can I readily find more details on the Internet. But the story still has very interesting aspects.

You see, Kimura was charged with the first-degree murder of her two children, and it was argued that cultural considerations should be taken into account: in Japan, oyako shinju (親子心中) sometimes happens when a woman decides to commit suicide and takes her children with her. I’ve heard it explained in two ways: the first is that the mother feels so strongly that her children are a part of her, if she decides to commit suicide, leaving her children behind would be like leaving her arms or legs behind. The second, most commonly recounted on the Internet (which may have a single common source that just got repeated) is that it would be unthinkable to leave her children to suffer the shame she is leaving. Both may be true, I don’t know. But it does happen, and in Japan, it has been known to merit a lenient sentence.

The case prompted an outpouring of support from the Asian-American community, where her feelings and actions, if not necessarily approved of, were at least better understood; a “Fumiko Kimura Fair Trial Committee” was formed, 25,000 names were signed to a petition asking for leniency. It was argued that it was her culture, the way she was brought up, the way she thought and believed.

Her lawyers, however, argued this not wholly as a cultural defense (which would have required Kimura to be thinking clearly and believing what she did was right, not a good legal argument in the U.S.) but that it was a case of temporary insanity with cultural connotations. Six psychologists testified to that effect, using in part as evidence that she could not differentiate her life from her children’s. (Interesting–were they stating that a cultural view was a type of insanity?) The culture/insanity defense sounds like a wink-wink kind of strategy, trying to have it both ways–I’d love to see the court transcripts to see how it was argued.

In the end, the court did not decide: a plea bargain was worked out, where Kimura pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter (on the premise there was no malice), and was released on time served (she had spent a year in jail while her case was prosecuted), with five years’ probation and mandatory counseling. She later reunited with her husband.

A few years later, a Japanese television network decided to make a TV movie based upon the incident; it was broadcast bilingually, with an English audio track over a Japanese-language television movie, something that rarely if ever happened. I looked forward to the movie. At that time, I was still in my funk about foreigners being looked down upon in Japan, seen all too often in the media as violent criminals or disease carriers. One drama show had a couple visit Hawaii, only to become victims of five violent crimes within a few days. My students back then were fearful to travel to the U.S. because of the idea of the U.S. being too violent–more fearful than they are today about terrorism, in fact. There was even a Japanese man who wanted to kill his wife, and so traveled with her to America; he had her killed there, counting on the specter of a violent America to remove suspicion from himself (I can’t find this anywhere, does anyone remember his name?). At first it worked, with Japanese and Americans believing it, until the truth was found out.

[Update: found it. It was Kazuyoshi Miura, who first allegedly tried to kill his wife, Kazumi, in 1981 in Los Angeles by having his soft-porn actress girlfriend beat Kazumi over the head, and then a few months later Kazumi was shot dead (with Kazuyoshi lightly wounded in the leg). Kazumi lingered in a coma for a year and then died, and Miura received 80 million yen from two insurance policies he’d placed on his wife with him as the beneficiary. The case, as I recall, spurred a great deal of “America-is-violent” reactions in Japan, which Miura allegedly used to divert suspicion from himself. It seems to have worked, until in 1984 when a weekly magazine identified him as the killer. He also allegedly had a girlfriend killed in Los Angeles in 1979. He was charged with the beating incident in 1985 and the murder in 1988; he was eventually sentenced to life in prison in 1994, but was acquitted on appeal in 1998, which was upheld by a higher court in 2003. Last heard from, he was arrested for shoplifting in 2003.]

So at that time, I looked forward to the dramatization of the Kimura case; it had a good many positive aspects that could be brought out in the telling. The personal drama and the cultural differences would have been compelling–but it could also show America to Japan in a better light, as a country trying to understand and accept various cultures, in contrast to stereotyping and discriminating.

Boy, was I let down. The movie, titled “The First-Degree Murderer of Los Angeles” (ロスの第一球殺人, or Rosu no Dai-Ikkyu Satsujin), was “based upon a real story,” but trashed the reality, changing everything to reinforce the stereotypes I had hoped it would help dismiss. I know, what should I expect and all, but I didn’t think they’d go as far as they did. The central elements–a Japanese woman in America, her husband wrongs her, she commits oyako shinju and is charged with murder–were still there. But the rest was unrecognizable.

In the TV movie, Kimura had only one child (the reason will become apparent later), a small boy, and had come to America with her husband, who ran a construction firm or some other kind of like business. She spoke no English and was totally isolated, alone with her son. The filmmakers went to great length to make her into a heroine; for example, in one scene, she rescued someone else’s child from being run over by a motorcyclist (more on that later). One day, her husband did not return home. In the story, he ran off with the payroll for his business, leaving the American workers without pay. She hoped and hoped and hoped he’d return, but he never did. She started to run out of money, and the blue-collar workers at her husband’s firm came by all the time, banging on the door and screaming for their money, with our protagonist huddling fearfully with her small boy inside the locked house.

Finally, without anyone to help, her money running out, losing hope her husband would ever return and living in fear every day, she decided to commit oyako shinju, killing her son first and then killing herself. So she went to her boy’s room to smother him with a pillow. But while she was doing it, her boy laughed, thinking it was a game. Suddenly, she was overcome with love for her boy, and so instead of killing him and committing suicide, she heroically decided to brave it out and persevere. So she went to the kitchen to prepare her son’s favorite deep-fried dish. After she got the burner going under the pot of oil full-blast, the doorbell rang. It was her husband! she thought–he’s back and everything will be fine now! But when she went and opened the door, it was two big, burly American men who were looking for her husband. They threw her roughly to the floor and after not spotting her husband around, naturally decided to violently rape our protagonist.

As they were doing this, the pot of oil boiled over, and within half a minute the entire kitchen was on fire. When the two blue-collar-workers-turned-rapists saw the smoke, one shouted “let’s get outta here!” and they both fled, leaving our heroine beaten and senseless on the living room floor. As the smoke filled the house with incredible speed, the son called out for help. This brought our heroine out of her stupor; she valiantly got up and tried to rescue her son, putting her hand over his mouth and nose to protect him from the smoke. However, somewhere along the fifteen feet from his bed to the front door, she collapsed, her hand still covering his mouth.

Firefighters came and pulled them out. The boy had died from suffocation. They found her suicide note and assumed she had killed her son. She was charged with first-degree murder, and despite her story of the rapists and her sterling reputation as a child rescuer, an American jury found her guilty and sentenced her to two years in prison.

So you can see how I was disappointed. The relevance of oyako shinju and the cultural relativism were completely removed, and instead of an America sympathetic to other points of view, we again see a violent America inhospitable to Japanese who would dare go there. The motorcycle incident was one element of this, though indirect. The scene was shot so that the small child in danger was in the middle of the street, and the motorcycle was bearing straight down on the child from a distance, with no turns or obstacles to make it seem like an accident. It was not a car with the driver distracted; it was not a case of the child suddenly running out into the street from behind a parked vehicle. It was a motorcyclist apparently intent on running down the child. Why do that, making it seem as malicious as possible, when it would be far easier to make it seem like an impending accident?

The film recast the Japanese character into a heroic, selfless, and sinless heroine with few if any faults, and Americans as the villains (her husband simply absent from the scene). The guilty sentence at the end does not make sense and seems a callous slap in the face, and all possible positive or redemptive qualities of the story were removed and replaced with base, discriminatory stereotypes. And unfortunately, it was more or less the rule and not the exemption for Japanese media at the time.

Today, things are a lot different, as I have pointed out before. It would be interesting to see the same story told again, this time from a more constructive and realistic point of view.

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The Kerosene Sellers Are Back

October 22nd, 2005 3 comments

Crap. It had to happen sometime, with winter not too far off. Already I’ve got a headache with the new Yaki-imo (hot sweet-potato) seller, who has a new loudspeaker on his truck and blares away at volumes deafening even by politicians’ standards, stopping for three minutes right outside my window every time he comes by. No one buys from him, but he comes always nonetheless.

But the kerosene seller, while projecting less volume, is even more annoying. The tune the truck plays is a god-awful, mind-numbing abomination of single-electronic-note “musical” dreck. But what makes it worse is the winding path it takes; while the yaki-imo seller passes through with only one stop, the kerosene truck drives at walking speed through every last driveway in the entire complex. Worse, people buy from the truck, which then stops for a few minutes, never turning off the tune. It can be a half hour before the truck is gone, and even then you can’t be sure–it seems to have left at times, but really it was behind a building and the noise was only temporarily blocked, and then it comes back out again.

At the very least, why can’t these people choose some sound that isn’t so jarringly, stupefyingly odious? How about some nice shamisen music? Something like that, which makes a nice background sound, and is easily heard and distinguished? Why do these loudspeaker trucks have to use the worst possible music–as if blaring noise all the time itself isn’t bad enough?

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Quake at Work

October 19th, 2005 1 comment

I was just wrapping up things at the office when we all felt a strong, long swaying quake. The swaying seemed to indicate it was distant, and so it was–and it was strong, a Magnitude 6.2 on the Richter scale, located about 40 km off the coast of Chiba and Ibaraki, about 140 km distant from central Tokyo, where I am now. Looks like it was a “4” or so in Tokyo.

Update: turns out it was a 6.5, and the damage was minimal. There have been quite a few medium-sized quakes in the recent past, prompting me to wonder: does an increase in the number of quakes mean that pressure on tectonic plates is being relieved, increased, or is not being affected one way or the other? Are these smaller quakes alleviating pressure that would otherwise be released all at once in The Big One? Or are they precursors to The Big One? Or am I just putting too much into all this?

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Fun in Japan

October 16th, 2005 3 comments

First, an ad for a gas station in Japan called “ENEOS.” Here is an ad for a car-related product which might seem reasonable in Japan, but which has quite obvious negative connotations in America:


To an American, the probably impression is that of a “lemon” car. This ad, however, is intended to express a sulfur-free gas–yellow for the sulfur (presumably), and the green outline and the leaf design to show environmentalism.

Next, from my early travels in Japan in the early 80’s, and from an era of much funnier T-shirts and sweaters:


It speaks for itself. Other T-shirt and sweater English from the time: “Retro-Dandy BIP MEN,” “Hysteric DOG,” and the ever-popular “SLURP! Is that your foot?” One shirt had a bit of English on it, with one part reading “Beat his monkey ass till it ain’t no fun.” We didn’t know at the time that these were Public Enemy lyrics, and so on a Japanese T-shirt they were hilarious.

And then there was this sign in a train station in Aomori which seemed to also be a political statement:


More of this coming very soon.

Medium-Sized Quake

October 16th, 2005 Comments off

From the reports I’ve seen, a 5.0 or 5.1 M quake hit southwest Ibaraki Prefecture (36.048N 139.932E) 5 minutes ago at 4:05 pm Japan time. That’s about 40 km perhaps north of Central Tokyo. It was felt as a Japanese “4” in northern Kanto, and as a “3” in Tokyo. Some parts of Tokyo felt it as a “4,” and frankly, it was pretty strong where I am. Maybe not a “4,” but very close to it.

No reports of great damage so far, or warnings of Tsunamis.

For reference: two good Japan quake reportage sites include Hinet and Tenki. They tend to have quake reports up within a few minutes of the quake. The Hinet site has copy-and-pastable map coordinates which you can then plug into Google Maps Japan to see where the epicenter was.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2005 Tags:

Happy Anniversary

October 8th, 2005 2 comments


By the way, today was the 20th anniversary of my coming to Japan to work and live. Hope you enjoyed the recent posts, and if I think of anything more to say on the topic, I will.

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Japan, Expectations, and Food

October 6th, 2005 6 comments

Recently I saw an American late-night talk show interview in which the guest had recently visited Japan, and the subject of raw food came up. As if it’s hard to find anything but raw fish in Japan. I mean, sheesh, come on, guys. Let it go. It’s like saying that it’s hard to eat anything but hot dogs in America.

But these are difficult images to swat down, just like the images of Japan I had when I first visited–Mt. Fuji, shrines, being one with nature. Hah. On the Limousine Bus ride from Narita to Ikebukuro my first evening in Japan, what I saw out the bus window was not what I expected. Neon. Lots and lots of neon. Pachinko parlors, yes, but lots of other stuff too. It felt like Las Vegas, but not in English as much. The following morning, as I was at the age of 19 less prone to jet lag, I got up early and walked around the neighborhood of the Sunshine City building and ran into other stuff I didn’t expect. A wedge area cut out of a corner building, empty flat concrete where space was at a premium. It wasn’t until I looked up that I saw the hoses for pumping gas hanging from the ceiling and realized I was standing in a gas station closed in the morning. Then I found a vending machine on the street which I could not figure out, selling three different types of flat square boxes, about three inches square by half an inch thick, each a different color. I stared intently at the boxes in the machine for several minutes, trying to work out the nature of the products from the little katakana and hiragana I could make out, until I realized that I had spent several minutes staring at a condom vending machine.

That’s the kind of experience you have when you wander into a completely new context. You can’t figure things out at first. The first time I stayed in a Japanese home and had to go to the bathroom, I spent a few minutes trying to figure out where the light switch was. I looked all around inside the small half-bathroom after not finding the switch at hand-level on the inside wall on right side of the door, where the switch is supposed to be. It was dark in there, so I just figured that I missed it somehow, until a host family member showed me the light switch panel outside the bathroom.

So a lot of stuff is unexpected, but more importantly, a lot of the strange stuff you do expect is not really there as much as you think it will be. It’s not all raw fish. But it most certainly is not home when you first get here, either. You find that out quickly enough when you try to find things that you’ve become used to most of your life.

On my first trip to Japan, I stopped by a McDonald’s and ordered a medium root beer (they still served it at McD’s in the U.S. then), only to be told that they did not serve alcohol. I had to explain, and still the girl behind the counter did not understand. My mistake. Just like most westerners come to Japan find they cannot stomach natto and umeboshi, most Japanese cannot stand the tastes of licorice or root beer, and both are very hard to find here.

There are a lot of things that you come to miss. Chocolate is different here. Japanese chocolate, that is; it tends to be less sweet or rich, and sometimes more waxy. And remember, back in the 80’s, stores carried far, far fewer imported goods or foreign brands than they do today. Hell, you can even get boxes of After Eight mints in supermarkets now. That’s not the Way It Was. And having a sweet tooth, I was in trouble, since what passed for “sweet” in Japan was not what I had in mind. Consider that you are reading the words of a See’s Candy addict, and if you don’t know See’s, I feel sorry for you. Mmmmmmmmm. Seeeeee’s. [insert sound of Homer Simpson drooling here] Decadent. Godiva? Give me a break. It’s not the same thing. But See’s is way too sweet for many Japanese. Should I try the local color? I’m sorry, but I just can’t get into sweet bean paste.

Other things were different or missing. Like breakfast cereal. No Cap’n Crunch, that’s for sure. Corn flakes have been here for a while, and recently they’ve gone wild and added even Fruit Loops to the store shelves (those nutty guys), but for a long time it was flakes or nothing. And the milk tastes strange too, even if you can find the rarely-sold skim variety. So what can you have instead? Vegetables. Come again? For breakfast? The first trip I came here I had a one-day homestay in Okayama and was served Okra with natto sauce. It looked like someone sneezed on a skimpy salad. Yech. Vegetables and soup just didn’t go with breakfast for me. You could get toast, if you liked it sliced two inches thick. I’m not kidding.

Things have changed. More of what I missed is available now. Many of the candy bars being sold now are more to my liking, much to the detriment of my health. I mean, you can get white-chocolate Kit-Kat bars with maple syrup flavor now. That would have sent many Japanese of 20 years ago into diabetic shock. And the more-meat, more-bread, more-sugar diet is changing the shape of people. When I first came to Japan, I could stand on a crowded train and see clearly in every direction. Not so today. In 1983, in a small tourist town, some young ladies’ toy airplane had landed on a roof awning, and a local store clerk was madly jumping up and down, arms stretched up high, not even reaching the awning; I came up and simply plucked the toy plane down without even reaching up too high. And I’m five foot ten. And a half. Today, my view is blocked in crowded places, even with that extra half inch working for me. And while Japanese people are still thin enough to make me feel fat (in contrast, when I visited Wisconsin, I felt downright skinny), Japanese people today, in general, are larger in girth as well as height.

I’m okay with it. Seriously, we’re talking white chocolate with maple syrup here. Mmmmmmmm.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2005 Tags:

Media, O English Media, Where Wert Thou?

October 5th, 2005 2 comments

Okay, now on to the topic I first promised some time ago. Sorry for getting sidetracked. Three days until the 20-year anniversary, though, so there’s still time.

When I arrived in Toyama in October of 1985, I simply did not know what to expect in terms of living there. Does it snow? Yes, so bring warm clothing. I could predict simple stuff like that. But what about the fact that Japanese shoe stores stock sizes that end three centimeters short of my size? How about the (then) ludicrous prices for eyeglasses? I could tell stories about those, but what really got to me more than anything else was the dearth of media.

Today it is far, far different. Today there’s cable and satellite TV with CNN, Super Channel and so on, endless English TV. But back in 1985, even the aptly-named BS TV (alas, it stands for “Broadcast Satellite,” though the obvious alternative does apply) was not there yet–at least, I believe it started in 1987 with minimal service. I recall getting bad piped-in reception in my last apartment in Toyama just before I left, mostly just beginning programming with Yu Hayami’s “Let’s Get Happy” repeated endlessly as the theme song for the new service.

So mostly television was not English-friendly. Yes, the TVs even then had “bilingual” ability (essentially, the left audio channel of the stereo broadcast carries English while the right channel carries Japanese), but it was not used enough for English speakers to depend upon as a media carrier. In fact, aside from the English translation of NHK news, sometimes the only bilingual broadcast you could look forward to was the Wednesday Foreign Movie Roadshow (or some title along those lines), a weekly showing of foreign films that all too often featured dreck like Death Wish III, which I swear to God I saw broadcast several times in my first several years in Japan. There may also have been the Sunday Movie Theater, hosted by Nagaharu Yodogawa, the little grey-haired guy who spoke in a birdlike manner and always signed off with his famous “Sayonara! Sayonara! Sayonara!” But those broadcasts were not always foreign movies, as I recall. And what movies were broadcast were usually crap. And we watched every one of them, usually all of the teachers from the Y together, like a weekly event. It reminds me of the Woody Allen joke where he recounts two elderly ladies complaining about the food they were served; one said, “such terrible food!” and the other chimed in, “yes, and such small portions!”

My TV addiction may also have been frustrated by the fact that I lived in Toyama. Now, even in Tokyo there were only 8 or so channels, including the two obligatory NHK channels (General and Educational), which would have been considered sparse for any metropolitan American area. But Toyama was limited to four channels, two of them NHK. So that left the video rental store, which probably kept most of us foreigners from going mad from lack of English entertainment.

Books were even more scarce. Kinokuniya was the place you went to for English books, and out in the countryside I had to travel to Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture to get to the Kinokuniya bookstore which had an English-language rack, sparsely populated of course. Not ideal. Even in Tokyo, where the whole 6th floor of Kinokuniya was dedicated to English books and magazines, you had to deal with usurious prices. Kinokuniya posted an “exchange rate” by which you could take the price of an English book in dollars and translate it to yen. It was about double the real exchange rate, making any book cost twice as much as the list price. And forget about magazines or newspapers.

Even as late as the mid-nineties, the book situation was not all that good; the alternatives included English-language used book stores and the Foreign Buyer’s Club, and I seem to recall there was a book seller by mail order somewhere, but most of those got knocked out when Amazon Japan started up after the turn of the century. But back in the 80’s, the best way to get books you really wanted was to go book shopping when you went back home on holiday. That’s what I did, stuffing perhaps half of my suitcase with paperbacks. And maybe the sparsity of books is how I got into the habit of re-reading books again and again and being happy with it.

Today, there is the Internet. and other stores for books. Cable and satellite TV. As much media as you can eat. It’s hard to express what a difference there is. And I have to admit that it may not be a completely positive one, and not just because of the media itself, but because of the draw it provides away from the country in which we live. It allows us to keep perhaps too strong a tether to home and to our native media. I should watch Japanese TV more, but I don’t so much. But frankly, if it’s a choice of too little or too much, I choose too much. There ain’t no ginger*.

Next: food and other stuff you buy.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2005 Tags:

Japan, 1985 – Conclusion

October 1st, 2005 7 comments

This is not the conclusion to my looks back to twenty years ago, but rather the conclusion to the story of how I came here in the first place. As you’ll recall from my previous two posts, I found out about teaching in Japan during a summer trip in 1985, and later was contacted by the YMCA, who then sent me the wrong info about how to get a visa.

So on Monday, October 7th, I set off on my journey. I would rather have taken a direct flight to Seoul on Korean Airlines and then a quick jump from Seoul to Tokyo (Korean had no direct SF-Tokyo flights), but the ticket I had bought was non-changeable. (It had to be Korean because after the 1983 downing of Korean Air flight 007, their prices were very low and their service great, so I preferred that airline.) I had, in fact, paid more for the multi-leg ticket, on the YMCA’s advice.

So the airplane trip began, the longest I have ever taken, and an outstanding example of why I now demand direct flights. The first leg was not even Korean Air, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I’m pretty sure it was PSA, the fun airline that used to paint smiles on the front of their planes. I recall the pilot cracking jokes before take-off (“I’d like to request that the flight attendant move out of the aisle so I can see out the rear window”), and on landing (“If you enjoyed your trip, remember you are on PSA flight 274. If you did not enjoy your flight, then remember you are on South West flight 781″).

At Los Angeles, I switched to a Korean Air Flight to Seoul with a layover in Anchorage. By the time we arrived at Anchorage, I had run out of reading material and still faced many hours ahead on the trip. I went to the kiosk at the airport (it was late at night, so the regular fully-stocked book store was not open), but could not find much that I would like to read. The only thing I could find was a Playboy magazine with articles that seemed of interest. (It was a near-empty flight, no adjacent passengers to offend.) Now, I’m not saying I never bought that particular magazine for the pictorials, but I swear to God, this time I really, actually did buy it for the articles. In fact, I didn’t even think of it as pornography, but as reading material–which is why I took no special care hiding it deep in my carry-on. When I was finished reading (stop snickering), I just laid it on top of everything else in the bag and closed it.

And so set up my rather interesting entry into Japan.

You see, Japan has always had rather interesting pornography laws, in that you could show bare breasts on prime-time television, but you could not show pubic hair anywhere. It was strictly verboten. And don’t even ask about genitalia. Severe violence and sexual situations were all fine in practically any media, but that one specific place always had to be airbrushed out. Now, Playboy was no Hustler in those days, but even it was in excess of what Japan’s laws would allow.

So by the time I arrived in Tokyo, after more than six hours sitting in Seoul Airport, and after the trip that lasted more than a day, I was dead tired and still had quite a bit of traveling left to do. I had put away the magazine when we were pulling into Seoul maybe 8 hours earlier and had completely forgotten about it. And so I sauntered up to customs unaware of the trouble I was about to get into.

Sure enough, the customs agent asked me to open the carry-on, and out popped the Playboy. As the agent picked up the magazine, I remembered the Japanese laws and realized I was in trouble. So I automatically switched to stupid-gaijin mode with the agent, who could not speak English. Kore wa dame! he told me, holding up the magazine. I played dumb, as if not understanding that he told me the magazine was not good. I hoped he would just take the magazine, put it into a drawer, and wave me on. But this guy was insistent. When I feigned ignorance, he wanted to show me exactly why the magazine was no good. So he opened the magazine and started looking for a photo with the offending patch of hair.

Comically enough, he couldn’t find one. He tried the centerfold, no luck; he riffed through many pages, landing all too often on pages with text or photos that would not serve as an example. Meanwhile, a line started backing up behind me as the agent searched more and more intently through the Playboy. Finally, he found a page with what he wanted. Kore! he exclaimed triumphantly, pointing at the model’s nether region. Kore wa dame! This part is not good!

It took every ounce of my self-restraint not to switch into my basic Japanese and tell him that it was, in fact, very good! Somehow I kept a straight face, nodding sagely, saying, “Ah!” to show I now understood. Then the agent got his assistant to take over while the agent walked me to the men’s room at the back corner of the luggage claim area, where he showed me a trash can styled like a mail box, so that you could not reach in and get anything out. He then handed me the magazine and gestured for me to drop it in, which of course I did. Crisis resolved, and he let me go.

So I left the airport, got to Ueno station by the Skyliner (a different trip back then), transferred to JNR to get to Shinjuku, from where I caught the express train to the Japan Sea coast, and Toyama city. I seem to recall that I arrived there early evening Japan time, and after my bags got stowed, the gang immediately took me out to have yakitori at Akiyoshi, a restaurant chain from Fukui which I still frequent today.

TyportSoon afterwards, I was introduced to my apartment (a bare-concrete-walled 6-mat room with a unit bath and a hallway kitchenette, with no windows except the balcony doors, and was soon to be overcome by mold) and my job. It offered a minimal salary–210,000 yen a month, plus 40,000 yen for the apartment rent. And the Y never compensated me for the extra few hundred bucks that the longer-flight ticket cost me, despite the fact that they not only caused me that excess expense but very nearly cost me much, much more. I wanted to rant at them, but it being my first time living and working in Japan and wanting to build a good relationship with my employer–not to mention that they made it clear they would never pay–I decided not let it go. Alas, that was not my last problem with that particular branch or its management at the time. Like when they ripped me off on the apartment’s key money (they said I would pay “half,” but didn’t tell me that I was paying the non-refundable half while they paid the refundable deposit–though they made me move when I left their employ, retaining ownership of the lease), or when they essentially stole $700 I made teaching on a side job (“Thank you for the donation”), or when they threatened to deport me when I complained about the lost wages. I could make a whole other blog post about it, but I probably won’t.

After one and a half years with the Y, I left to go full-time (if only for six months) with evening classes at a local 2-year public college, and company classes. Though I worked only a few hours a day (the YMCA had me on morning to night, with lots of idle time with nothing to do), I made a lot more than the Y ever had paid me. But I couldn’t get local visa sponsorship after the end of the second year in Japan, and so went to Tokyo, where I found a job for the next three years. It was after the fifth year that I decided it was about time I went back to get my A.A. and my B.A. I had also found out from my first few years in Toyama that if one could get a job at a university, the salary and working conditions were excellent–and thus began my initial interest in living in Japan permanently. That, more than anything else, was the life-changing part of that first few years in Japan, which stemmed from the initial offer to work there.

I got my B.A. in 1992, went back to Japan until 1995, when I returned again to get my M.A. in TESOL. In 1998 I came back for good. There’s another story about my arrival, but it’s not a 20th anniversary thing, so maybe later.

In the next post of this series, I’ll get back to the original topic, which was about what things were like in Japan back then–don’t worry, I didn’t forget. I just thought it would be appropriate to preface that with the story of how I got there. Seeing how this story has fleshed out, I’m beginning to think that the original post idea will not be nearly as meaty… but I’ll try.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2005 Tags:

Japan, 1985, Fall

September 30th, 2005 6 comments

In a recent post I told about my summer trip to Japan twenty years ago. Here is the next part of the story.

I came back home from the 6-week trip to Japan in late August of 1985, with an acceptance letter in hand from U.C. Berkeley to get my B.A. degree, and from there, who knows where I would have gone. I was to start at Berkeley in January, and so started to look for housing, hopefully international housing so I could have some Japanese housemates and we could have language exchange. That was the general idea. At least until I got the phone call.

The phone call came from Toyama, Japan, where I had stayed for a week or so, “teaching” some classes at the YMCA in exchange for a homestay and the countryside experience. The phone call was from the YMCA. One of their teachers was leaving, They wanted to know if I could come and work for them. In less than ten days.

I was wholly unprepared. I was setting up to move to the East Bay, not the the Far East. I was being asked to wrap up my whole life and move to a completely new and foreign one, in just over one week’s time. To take on a job as a teacher, for which I had no training or experience. One might wonder why they asked me to do the job in the first place, and the answer, as I was to find out later, was that it was extremely difficult for them to find anyone willing to live and work that far out away from the central areas of Japan, for the paltry paycheck they were offering.

But I was ready to make my decision. I figured that life experience overseas was the trump card–to live and work in Japan, in the culture and with the language I had been studying for more than two years so far, that seemed like a good decision. Before going on and getting my Bachelor’s degree in Japanese, why not pack some real experience under my belt first? So I made up my mind to go.

I sent a letter off to U.C. Berkeley explaining why I was not going to attend. I informed the YMCA that I would take the job. And they express-mailed to me the documents I would need. And at the same time, I packed up my life–stored what I could of my possessions in my parents’ garage, got the gear I felt I would need for my trip, and got ready to go.

But it is never just as simple as that.

The YMCA mailed the visa documents to me and explained what I would have to do. They told me I would have to go to Korea first, and while there, drop off my work visa application at the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Then I would go to Japan and wait for the visa to come through, go back to Korea, pick up the visa, and then go back to Japan and get to work. So I bought a ticket via Korean air, one which would constitute a 24-hour-plus flight: San Francisco to Los Angeles, with a two-hour layover; Los Angeles to Anchorage, with a two-to-three-hour layover; Anchorage to Seoul, with a six-to-seven-hour layover (during which I foolishly imagined I would be able to get to the Japanese embassy to make the application and then get back to the airport–I was not aware this was impossible); and then Seoul to Tokyo, from where I would board a train to Toyama. All seemed set.

Little did I know that the Toyama YMCA had absolutely no idea in the world what they were doing, or what they were setting me out to do.

I was scheduled to fly out in the morning on Monday, the 7th of October, 1985, to arrive in Tokyo on the 8th. On Friday, the 4th, I decided on a lark to drive up to San Francisco and check out the Japan Center to see if the Kinokuniya Bookstore there had anything I might want to get first. While there, completely on a whim, since I saw the signs showing the way to the consulate, I decided to drop by and confirm that my visa plans were solid. Boy, was that a good move.

You see, it turns out the plans were completely wrong. The YMCA had led me astray, and had I not checked in with the consulate, I would have been out of a job, out more than a thousand dollars in airline tickets, maybe even my life savings in a futile long stay in Seoul, and I would not have been able to get back in to U.C. Berkeley. In short, I would have been screwed, royally. Because when I checked with the consulate, they told me that there was no way the YMCA’s plan would work. I would need to stay in Korea while the visa was processed, which could take months. And that would most definitely not have worked.

I found this out on Friday, at about eleven a.m., with my non-refundable one-way ticket to Japan set to take me out Monday morning. Upon first discovering this, it seemed that I was indeed screwed in the regal sense.

But then the consulate people, obviously taking pity upon me, told me that while there were no guarantees, maybe they could do something. I don’t know if it was the reputation of the YMCA or my panicked 21-year-old puppy-dog eyes, but they said to get the basic materials I needed to apply for a visa and bring them back to the consulate as soon as possible.

Now, remember, I was in San Francisco, near downtown. My house was in the south peninsula, near Palo Alto, a good 45 minutes’ drive in good traffic, each way. I needed the papers from the YMCA, my passport, passport photos, and my college diploma. Diploma? I asked them, and they said, yes, you need a bachelor’s degree for a work visa. Um, I don’t have one, I replied. What do you have? they asked. I studied at community college for more than two years, I replied. Then bring your A.A. degree, they said. Um, I don’t have one, I replied. A few courses short on that. Well, they answered, get your transcripts of what you do have and show them to us.

So off I went, knowing that the consulate closed late but not late enough that afternoon. I must have gone I-don’t-know-how-many miles per hour, it felt like warp ten, down highway 280, all the way to Los Altos Hills, to get to my college and wait in line to get my transcript printed and sealed. Then up to Stanford Shopping Center to get some passport photos taken. Then home to get the papers the YMCA had sent me to use in Korea, with my passport of course. Then back up 280 to Japan Center to the consulate. I may have broken several laws of physics to get there in the time I did, for somehow, I got back up there by maybe 1:30 pm, and handed them what I had. They took the sheaf and told me to come back by 4:00.

Boy, do I owe those guys one, wherever they are now. I came back at 4:00, and sure enough, they handed me back my passport with a one-year work visa. I didn’t need to go to Japan via Korea, but the ticket was non-refundable, so I went that way anyway. And I was grateful. Had the S.F. consulate people not taken pity on me, all would have been lost. Even if I had decided to sweat out two or three months in Seoul and had the Toyama YMCA been willing to wait, the embassy there probably would have turned me down because I didn’t have the proper degree. By chance, I had stumbled coincidentally into the only way I could have ever gotten to work in Japan, not having the prerequisites to do so officially. To this day, I do not know what the people at the Toyama YMCA were thinking. They were not thinking enough, that much is for certain.

So I landed in Tokyo and got my visa stamped on Tuesday, October 8th, 1985. But not before my 24-hour-plus flight, on which something else quite memorable happened. Which will be the topic of part three of this story, coming soon.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2005 Tags:

Japan, 1985, Summer

September 26th, 2005 2 comments

On July 11, 1985, I set out on my second trip to Japan. I had gone once before in the summer of 1983, taking a wonderful 3-week trip along the Tokaido coast with a group led by my Japanese Language professor, followed by a month of homestays in Shizuoka. The second trip was by myself, and included a short internship in a Japanese company in Shinjuku, another homestay in Shizuoka, a new homestay in the Japan Sea coast town of Toyama, and further travel, particularly to Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kagoshima.

When I arrived in Tokyo, I did the internship at a company called Sophia Systems, and first experienced something that was rather endemic on that trip: people seemed to think I knew what was going on when I didn’t. I should have asked more, but being young and less than industrious in some ways, I failed to ask. And so I muddled through a week or so working in this office without really having any clue of what I was doing there–what I was supposed to do, to produce. They set me up in an apartment building/dormitory in Kitano out near Hachioji, and every day I commuted in to Shinjuku with the other workers, to an office in the NS Building. At that time, West Shinjuku was only half-developed, some of the now-signature buildings not there, only empty lots in their place.

I would come in to the office and they would give me English translations to proofread. I did that for the time I was there, but not having been given instructions by my professor, who had set this up, and not told more than the basics by the people at the office in Tokyo, I just did the work and muddled along. Years later, my Japanese professor asked why I had not filed the kind of report she expected, and the only reply I could give was, you never told me what I was supposed to write about. I did what I could, commenting on what I could observe of the cultural differences, but it was not much. The main detail that sticks out after all these years was my ongoing race with the office ladies and the refreshments cart. I was uneasy being served by others, but they were uneasy having any of the office workers get things for themselves. I would usually wait until they were otherwise occupied, and then dash off for a drink before they could intercept me and insist on getting it for me–which they usually did.

After Tokyo, I went to the town of Iwata in Shizuoka Prefecture. The town is now famous for the soccer team Iwata Jubilo based there, but when I was there (both in 1983 and in 1985), it was just a countryside suburb of Hamamatsu City. The only event of note when I was there was that when I announced my plans to travel in Kyushu later on, my host mother insisted on arranging me to take a bus from Nagasaki to a transit point I forget the name of, on the way to Kagoshima.

ToyamalessonFrom Iwata, I made my way to Toyama, where my professor knew the head of the local YMCA. In exchange for a homestay at the homes of a few students, I guest-lectured at the Y’s English school, which is to say I just stood up and talked, providing language practice for the students there. It was there that I learned about careers in language teaching, and that experience changed my life. At that point, I had just finished more than two years at a community college, majoring in Japanese Language, and had been accepted to U.C. Berkeley for the following January. But the idea of being able to spend a year in Japan, living and working, greatly appealed to me; I was much interested in applying and adding to what I had learned already. However, I did not make any serious plans to do so–it just appealed to me, and I mentioned that to the staff when I was there. More on that later.

While there, I again experienced the no-one’s-telling-me-anything malaise. During my stay, there was a YMCA event, a nature camp outing for mentally handicapped children. It was quite enjoyable and the children were sweet, but I was not given the slightest clue of what I was supposed to do. One evening, there was a long meeting I was asked to attend. However, the meeting was completely in Japanese–I was the only non-Japanese there–and there was no mechanism to translate for me. After about a whole hour of being unable to understand what was going on, I got tired of the uselessness of it all and wandered back to my room. I was later chastised for leaving the meeting, but I had a good excuse: there was no point whatsoever for my being there. Between that event and the internship uncertainty, I developed a feeling that it is assumed in Japan that you always know what’s happening, and no one tells you anything unless you ask, even when you might not even know to ask. I did experience that some times in Japan in the early years, but never figured out if it was just me, which it probably was.

BreakdancingAfter Toyama, I traveled down to Osaka. I forget what I planned to do there because I was not able to get it done; I had picked up some nasty bug from one of the kids at the camp, and was confined to bed for my few days in the city (I stayed at a youth hostel while there, mostly sticking to my bunk). Fortunately, the malady abated in time for my scheduled departure. From there, I went to Hiroshima. I had been there before in 1983, but had departed from my tour to meet a pen pal from that time. My pen pal had shown me the Hiroshima Atomic Park and the Peace Dome (the preserved remains of the domed building near ground zero), but that was it. I had not even been aware at the time that there was a museum on the site, and so I had missed it. This time around, I wanted to get the whole tour. I did, and I am glad I made the stop.

The museum is not a pleasant place, but then it is not supposed to be. Quite grim, but significant and sometimes fascinating, the museum displayed the story of the bombing through models, photographs, and exhibits of melted and twisted items, as well as other objects like the bank steps where the shadow of someone who sat there when the bomb went off is preserved. It’s a stop that should be required for anyone, but especially for Americans, whatever your opinion is about whether the bombing was justified. This is not something you can just find out about in a removed sense. Coming out of the museum, I was greeted with a scene of almost jarring discordance: break dancers were performing near the exit. This was the mid-eighties.

Nagasakiobon85After Hiroshima, I made my way to Nagasaki, not just for the second atomic bomb park and museum, or for the historical tour regarding the city’s long past contact with the West. It happened to be O-Bon time in the city, and I got to experience the festival, from the parades and floats in the evening streets exploding with firecrackers, to the issuing of the candle floats in the water to memorialize the spirits passed. I believe I still have a primitive wooden mallet used to hit gongs in the parade that someone presented to me.

Leaving Nagasaki, I took the bus tour that my Shizuoka host mother had arranged. In our spotty communications, I had tried to impress on her that I needed to get from Nagasaki to Kagoshima by a certain time, that the hostel where I was staying only accepted visitors up to a certain hour. She insisted that I take the bus, saying it was the fastest way to where I was going–so naturally I assumed it was a transit bus. It wasn’t. It was a tour bus that made frequent long stops along the way, at tourist spots I neither understood nor was interested in in the slightest. So I spent much of the time looking at my watch and bemoaning the fact that the tour was taking me not only too much time, but was circuitously taking me away from any train stations where I could depart the bus and get back on schedule. I am sure that my host mother meant well, but she did understand well enough to know that I was on a tight schedule, and despite her ability to speak English just well enough, she never told me that it was a sightseeing bus or what exactly the sightseeing was about. I don’t know, maybe even she didn’t know.

FInally, the tour ended and I got on a train for Kagoshima and I believe I made it there on time. Kagoshima was fine, but dusty–the nearby volcano was pluming and there was ash everywhere. You would have to shake it out of your hair every time you came indoors. After Kagoshima, I went home via Tokyo and a four-day stay in Hawaii. It was the end of August.

It was a few weeks later that the Toyama visit came back to change everything I’d planned, setting me on a completely different path in life, but that story is for another post soon.

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20 Years in Japan

September 25th, 2005 2 comments

I just realized that I have an anniversary coming up: my 20th anniversary of my coming to live in Japan. I thought I had let it slip past in August, but after checking my old passport, I found that it is instead coming soon: October 8th. I haven’t lived here for 20 years straight–I went back twice for a total of about five years to get my higher degrees. So I’ve lived here for 15 years, but it will have been 20 years since my first working visa became active, in a few weeks, give or take. Probably when that day comes, I’ll blog on the experience of getting here. Until then, I want to touch on some changes since the good old days–how things have changed.

I was on the phone with my father last night, and we spent more than an hour and twenty minutes chatting. We realized that such a long call was going to cost maybe six or seven dollars on his present calling plan, and a lot less on a plan he is considering joining. I myself pay maybe 8 cents per minute calling the U.S. This is all in contrast to what we used to pay 20 years ago. Or more accurately, what I had to avoid paying in Japan. Back then, KDD was it–the only long-distance carrier, period, and calling the U.S. cost a few bucks every minute. Calling from the U.S. wasn’t cheap, either, but it sure was by comparison. So we had a system: I would call via the operator, making a collect call, saying that Quincho was calling for Malachi. Those names belonged to our dog and cat, respectively. So when my dad got a call from an international operator saying that the dog was calling the cat collect from Japan, he knew I wanted to talk. So he would tell the operator that the cat was out, but would call the dog back in 15 minutes. The code was necessary because the operator would not let us hear each other, and would relay only limited messages. But it was enough so that I knew my family was home and I would be getting the call back soon.

That was back in the days when people actually used public phones. When the phones in Japan were red, yellow, green, pink, and I think pale blue, and you needed a scorecard to figure out what the colors meant. Back when you had to pay a 70,000 yen non-refundable deposit to get a phone line, instead of signing up for a cell phone. There was no email, no voice-over-IP, no instant messaging.

So one of the things I want to do this week is to be an old fart and tell you about how I had to walk for miles in the snow to get an English-language magazine, and how there was only one bilingually-broadcast English-language movie on TV each week, and it was usually Death Wish III with Charles Bronson and we were grateful for it. And believe it or not, the last sentence was actual truth. So sit right back down, you young whippersnappers, and get ready for some nostalgia.

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Neighborhood Noise

September 11th, 2005 1 comment

[Note: sounds should open in a new window when clicked. For full effect, play them all in sequence.]

Well, now that the election is over, hopefully now all the noisy political campaign loudspeaker trucks will stop crisscrossing the neighborhood all day long until 8:00 in the evening. But that’s little relief, because just as the loudspeaker trucks and vans vanish into the night, the Star-Trek-Phaser-on-Overload insects are startup up. I swear, they sound just like phasers about to blow up, a constant, incredibly loud, piercing high-pitched whistle. And then at sunrise, the other bugs, including the annoying “MEEEE, ME-ME-ME-ME-MEEEEEEE!!” cicadas and the Bone-Chilling-Wail-Eminating bugs, get started for the day. That along with the morning crows and partridges, and the afternoon bulbuls. But that only lasts through the summer. When they stop, it’ll be just in time for the Kerosene-sellers to weave through every single parking lot in the neighborhood at 5 kph, with their loudspeaker-enhanced mind-numbing electronic note song: “DO-doo … do-Do-DOO-Doo-do … do-Do-DOO-DOO-do-do-DO-do-do-DOO-DOO!!” Now. Repeat that. ONE… HUNDRED… TIMES.

I suppose I can at least thank God that they don’t all come at once, all the time. But what I would like to ask is, what happened to that famous Japanese neighborhood “wa” that we heard about? Okay, so we can’t control the bugs or the birds, but what’s with all the loudspeaker trucks? I want some wa, dammit!

In for a Storm

August 25th, 2005 1 comment

Typhoon #11 is making its way for Tokyo, dead-on, hitting us from the southwest via Shizuoka and Kanagawa. Should be overhead after midnight (peaking maybe at 3 am), about six to eight hours from now; right now, the Izu Peninsula is getting hit pretty hard, affecting some train services, with many services closed after 4 pm today. Dozens of flights have been cancelled tonight out of Haneda. The forecasters say that 14 inches of rain will be dropped on Tokyo and Tama by tomorrow morning. Strong winds and high waves are also in the cards.

This is, after all, Typhoon season, which lasts from June to November, most storms hitting in August and early September. While this is not the first typhoon to hit Tokyo this summer, it is certainly the strongest to hit this area so far this year. They’re showing scenes on TV of huge waves breaking on docks, a lot of rain and winds. Trees are down in Shizuoka. Three houses have been flooded and more than 80 households have been evacuated along the coast. Looks miserable there, and already rain is falling pretty heavy inland here, the wind throwing the rain directly onto the windows.

If you go to work really early, expect some train delays. If you’re planning on staying out late tonight, don’t expect to get back easily.

This should be quite a storm.

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