Monday, June 25, 2007

Temple Pooch and Alley Obsessions

Say hello to my little friend! No, I don't know who he is. He's just a friendly pooch that happens to live at one of the Buddhist temples I like to visit. He's really friendly and loves to be scratched behind his collar. On my days of leisure I like to take long walks to explore the various sites around my town. He's one of my favorite, and so I make it a habit to visit this little guy, for fear that he gets lonely here in the hidden forest holy place.

Another one of my strange quirks is that I can't resist taking photos of alleys in Japan. Something about the dense wall to wall streets create neat hallows of urbanity. These winding concrete alcoves are the living quarters for all kinds of Japanese folk, from old farmers to young families. The neat thing is walking down these snaky paved tightly compact streets and getting the sounds and smells of the burghal life of the city's core. In the distance American jazz plays on a radio, something sizzling on a frying pan, somebody singing in the shower, a baby crying, a dog dreaming under a tree just allowing himself to wake up enough to perk up his ear as I pass by. But this inner-city within the city is where all humanity tick tocks by as the story of life continues on like a steady time keeper. Here is where I roam, up and down the hot black topped paved byways until I come out into the fresh green coolness of a light summer breeze and stand before yet another ancient temple.

Here I feel at peace. Here, this land I once heard of in a lullaby. Here is my Oz, my home away from home.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Homogenius Obligation to Wa, Japanese Women's Battle for greater Equality, and Tako balls!

The Japanese have a saying, “Deru kui wa utareru.”


It literally translates to “the nail which gets pounded down.” But the saying stands for, “People who don’t conform to society will be pounded down and pressured into doing so.”

Japan’s harmony largely depends on how they all get along. Friction causes great distress in a nation that is as small as my home State of Montana but has half of the population of the entire U.S.! This makes Japan crowded shoulder to shoulder with people –mostly Japanese.

An example of getting pounded down is in how the local communities have ‘set ways’ or ‘rules’ which they expect everybody to follow without exception. Even though I’m a foreigner and can escape many high-pressure situations, oddly because the Japanese place more emphasis on other Japanese being peaceful & complacent (as if they automatically assume I’m a disreputable gaijin), there are still some unavoidable ones which spring to mind.

My own experience in this area is with the horribly complicated and complex recycling of my waste and garbage. Unlike the big cities which have a business empire of private recycling centers which thrive on people’s trash, small rural areas in Japan such as my town, which only has one recycle center (city run), requires everyone to follow any number of tricky rules to get rid of your trash.

Here’s how my garbage system works step by step. I have to go buy plastic garbage bags, but not any black trash bag, but specifically the bags which have the town’s name on them. Moreover, I have to buy the clear plastic kind because the sanitation men have to be able to see what’s in the bag to make sure it’s the right category of rubbish. Once I have the bags I have to separate my home garbage into 1) food/organic waste, 2) burnable papers, 3) cardboard, 4) milk cartons (which must be washed out and unfolded), 5) glass, 6) aluminum, 7) steel, 8) batteries, 9) Styrofoam, 10) and finally plastic. Needless to say, it’s a major hassle.

For the first two months here I couldn’t get my stuff taken out due to not following the proper rules exactly. They also require us to write our names on our bags with black markers so that they can leave a note on our door to tell us that we have ‘mixed our garbage’ together or otherwise executed an improper procedure. I once put milk cartons in the burnable papers, but they gutted my plastic bags and left the rest for me to clean up. Finally one of my neighbors helped explain to me that the days they pick up the ‘type of garbage’ are different for each item. Burnables are picked up every Wednesday and Friday of each week. Recycle items are picked up on the first and third Monday of each new month, and bulk items are every second Friday of each month.

So initially I felt a great pressure to my recycling duties… because the city rules required me to conform. In this case it made sense, because I didn’t want my house to fill up with garbage. I devote an entire futon closet to various bags of plastic bottles and cans which only get picked up once a month. But the pressure to fit in or be hammered into place also affects the individual on a peer pressure level too.

For example: In everyday regular discussion the Japanese often affirm and re-affirm what each other has already said. You’ll have a conversation which runs as such, “Did you know that Toda-san just broke up with his girlfriend?”

“Oh yes, I heard they just broke up.”

“That’s too bad that they broke up,” a third party chimes in.

“Break ups are always hard,” says the original speaker. To which everyone in unison replies, “Yes, they are.”

What’s often strange to me is that everyone already knew Mr. Toda broke up in the first place. So nobody has brought anything new to the table, but in fear of saying something ‘harmful about Mr. Toda’ (who may or may not be within earshot), the Japanese keep a strictly generic conversation going by only re-stating what everyone else has already said. And this is the style of all conversations here. So whenever somebody changes the topic and leaves the subject out, which happens a lot, as you can probably imagine it sometimes causes a great deal of confusion to the non-native speaker.

However, none of the people talking about Toda-san would ever say, “I think that son-of-a-bitch deserved to get dumped with the way he treated her.” Nobody wants to disturb the Japanese Wa (or harmony) and so the fact that Toda-san is a scumbag for breaking up with his girlfriend is implied by an otherwise seemingly polite conversation. It took me two years to figure out how to listen and understand the layers of what was going on in a Japanese discussion.

Debate is a foreign word in Japan –they are incapable of doing it. Arguments just don’t happen as we know it to. Actually, it’s kind of funny in its own way, but this can cause a lot of dead ends when you want to do something (as an independent free-thinking foreigner) and they say you can’t –when in fact you know you very well can. Yet for some reason Japanese can’t explain it to you convincingly enough to appease your urge to argue your truth because they can’t argue their point of why ‘they don’t think you can’. They just freeze up, look at you blankly for a few moments, and then reply with an often predictable answer.

Inevitably they resort to the, “I have to check with my boss” excuse to leave the conversation, because making an independent decision is all but impossible. To put this in perspective for you, I once asked a girl at a McDonalds if I could have three extra ketchup packets instead of one. Her first reply was, sure, but then she hesitated as she thought, then retracted her statement, and ended by having to ask her manager; who luckily allowed the ketchup thirsty foreigner to have his tomato sauce in abundance. But it’s surprising how often these types of social glitches occur here.

Having to defend your point is a non-existent tactic for the Japanese, mainly because the consequences of doing so disrupt the harmony so much that a person who doesn’t check with their boss first is going to get fired for ‘going above the bosses head and making the decision themselves’. As such, expressing yourself and your ‘individual’ opinion is only allowed if you are at the top of the ‘social ladder’ of leadership and respect. People who hold high ranks (or titles) are allowed to express their opinions more freely than people of lower social status.

About a month back the Matsuka Phonics institute came to our town and gave a presentation. Matsuka-san herself came and wanted to meet Sayaka, since she had heard lots of great things about my fiancés English ability. Well, the Superintendent of the school system in my district, basically my employer/boss, had asked Sayaka in front of an entire meeting hall if she was a ‘nurturing person’ and asked if ‘she washed the dishes and treated Vick-sensei (Me) like a woman should treat a man.”

To which Sayaka came back with,

“I treat him good when he treats me good.”

This answer confused my boss prompting him to rephrase his question. Sayaka then gave the example, “If he does the dishes by the time I get home then I’ll cook something for him. But if he doesn’t help me, then I won’t help him.”

Of course, in her mind the fact that we help each other fifty/fifty was implied. But my boss, still with a confused look on his face, replied, “You’re a selfish type of person aren’t you?”

This is the generation gap. Not to mention battle of the sexes. The old man talking to the young woman as if she is and always will be below him.

Granted 20 years ago a woman wouldn’t have even been allowed at this high level meeting. But I think what is at work here is the fear of letting radical ideas such as equality and shared responsibilities no matter what gender you are endanger an otherwise ‘perfectly stable man’s paradise’. And because Japanese men have it so good, and don’t even know it, Japanese women have been being educated abroad picking up the newfound ability to distinguish themselves as strong women equal to a man. In their search for independence Japanese women have been arming themselves with intelligent minds and kowtowing their way into status. They are dainty vipers in disguise, some of them. Others prefer the old way, but regardless, women in Japan have taken their sides.

This often causes a lot of squabbling in contemporary Japanese relationships. When a woman marries a man she is expected to be trained by the mother-in-law to learn the proper catering techniques to keep the man happy. Some modern women who refuse to cook or serve their husbands get into bickering cat fights with their mothers making it the man’s duty to be the final say –always siding with his mother and his desire to be pampered. I’ve seen this happen before. But more than this, a strong willed woman confronting a stubborn man can even affect Japan’s society so much as to upset Japan’s politics.

Several times this year the Japanese Prime minister, Abe and his cabinet ministers, have been critiqued for their derogatory and sexist comments against women. One cabinet member stating that, “Women were only good for being baby-making-machines” stopped important political issues for a whole two weeks as women politicians attacked his position and demanded his resignation. First off who even says something like that in a 21st century Democracy? When Abe defended him it caused even more outcries. Secondly, what leader of a free Democratic nation defends an idiot who says something like that? The Prime Minister of Japan of course. Then the following month Abe denied the War Brothels which the Japanese military kept during WWII, right after the military made the log books public, sponsoring a Asian Women’s march in Washington D.C. including the ex-sex slaves themselves… all Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Pilipino women demanding Japan make a formal apology, or at least Abe, who they accused of misogynistic and gender bias attitudes as he blatantly denied the lack of their existence. Japan has yet to formally apologize for sex slavery.

But my point isn’t the inequality of women in Japan, which is a separate issue entirely, but that when a man in Japan challenges a woman, the women have to find new subtle ways to combat this stigma of inequality. When my boss insulted Sayaka by calling her ‘selfish’ she wasn’t allowed to defend herself. This is the greater social peer pressure I’m talking about. If she had stood up to talk back then she would have been sticking out, disgracing the superintendent in front of a powerful corporate woman (none-the-less), and they’d have been obligated to hammer her down. Thus, in a worst case scenario, Sayaka might have been fired for saying anything back in her defense. Instead, she kept to the code of Wa, and looked across the room at me and smiled a queer smirk which silently spoke to me, “Can you believe this asshole?” I thought, “Wow, there is a smart and powerful woman. I think I’ll marry her.” And you know what? I will.

One last thing before I head off to enjoy my lazy Saturday afternoon.

Tako-yaki balls are awesome! That's a chunk of octopus fried in a 'corn-dog-esque' type batter and then seasoned and sauced up with some traditional tasting Japanese stuff. Yum!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Playing Favorites

As a school teacher I often wonder... is it okay to pick favorites?

My answer: Heck yeah.

There are reasons to this answer.

First off... I have to get it out of the way... and since this being Japan and all it is perfectly okay to say this, but I warn you -
it is shocking.

Reason Number One why it's okay to pick favorites: Potential marriage material. Yes indeedy folks. In Japan you can marry your students... well, sort of.

You might have seen it in a Japanese drama, anime, or television news report... but it does happen. When a girl turns 16 (in Japan) she is ripe for the picking. In this country women are constantly being courted by men twice their age (or more). Sayaka actually had a friend who married her high school P.E. teacher. Of course they shared a great connection and hit it off at school... but there is still a sense of professionalism one must adhere to (I guess that's why they waited until she graduated). You DO NOT DATE your students while they are under your tutelage. You merely marry them when the time is right. Yeah, but nobody said Japan had to make sense.

Personally, I myself am not in need of a woman since I have a fine one at home with me right now, but this is my 'perverted teacher' answer as Femie would say.

Another reason to play favorites is that: These kids become your friends. Not all of them mind you, because there are so darn many, but some will undoubtedly become part of your life whether you're expecting them to or not.

Granted I will always be seen as a role model figure... I don't quite qualify as a authority figure, and I'm not frightening enough to scare them into obedient submission either, and I'm not old enough to endure them to me as a father figure type, so basically what that leaves me with is a ploy of bonding and friendship. A ploy of brotherhood. Friendship is the first step into gaining their trust. After that the rest is easy, and I become their friend and confidant. Whether or not that lasts is not as important as giving them the opportunity to become well rounded people.

This may be the reason some of the students talk to me about juicy gossip going on around the school or with their friends. Often times it is trivial fun and games, but occasionally it puts me in the strange spot of having too much knowledge about their lives. Who really 'wants' to know whether or not their middle school students are sexually active and sleeping with so and so? On the other hand, my professional sense of duty takes over, and I remind myself how important my position actually is. In case somebody were to have a real problem, I have the inside track and am capable of interceding... either by directly helping or informing someone of greater authority to deal with the situation than I am capable. What I don't need is when students tell me that they actually caught (saw) their dad masturbating the night before... this is when I feel privy to too much information. But most of this stuff is over most any teachers head. I just happen to fall into an unclassified category. And since nobody quite really knows where to put me, the foreigner, they just sort of treat me like a object of fascination (something temporary) and without consequence.

Yet for me, whether I garner too much attention or slight neglect, when the fascination of the new wares off it always comes down to what's in their best interests. I'm just lucky enough to be seen more as a 'friendly guy who you can talk to' more so than 'that ALT teacher who doesn't do anything or care about us much'. The truth is I do give a fig newton (or two) about these kids. And having favorites allows you to put your energy into motivating a child's mind, and can make all the difference in their lives.

Now here's the tricky part. Having favorites doesn't necessarily mean having kids you dislike. I like all my children. Some of them tend to be more frustrating than others. Some I can talk to easier because they pay attention better. Others are too caught up in school life, while others still have all the time in the world for a good old fashion chit chat. Getting to know each other often tends to make you pick those you have closer bonds with over those you don't. We're all different people, so although I may appreciate the martial art Kendo, I probably won't join the Kendo club at school. This makes it hard for me to be their favorite person, but it doesn't mean they dislike me. Meanwhile the students on the track team are all close to me because that's my interest and I often join them, so I'm treated as a teammate. Which is good because I get to use this association and their sense of sodality in the class room by picking on them more often than they'd like. Although they do put more effort in because they know I'm not going to let them get off so easy just because they're friendly with me. But at the same time I always make it a conscious effort not to neglect anybody.

The bottom line is that it's perfectly alright to have favorites as long as nobodies being hurt or left behind. I realize this doesn't have much to do with teaching, but perhaps the ethics of teaching as a foreigner in an alien nation. But maybe its a deeper social philosophy of how we all get along. All I know is that I do have students whoI am closer with and who I like quite a great deal, and hopefully this lends itself to my influence on their lives. And vice versa.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Japan Extravoganzas

Not much new to report here. I recontracted and will be continuing my life as an ALT in Japan. Public schools here are nice. I really like the concept of school uniforms and working together. The type or harmony this brings cuts down on bullying, trying to be cool by having brand name designer sneakers is non-existent, everyone shares equal social status and equal opportunity is given. Just as the example of copying your neighbors homework being not taboo, but rather, accepted in the most charitable spirits of team work. Something which is shunned in American schools is common place here.

In a way you could say Japan schools are almost backwards to that most familiar. But it comes down to uniform simplicity, a system of structures, both social and private, and the final product is an extremely well regulated school system which creates some of the most standardized humans in the world today. They may not be anything especially advanced, but they are sweetly traditional, hard working, generous, polite, and in this society of homogeneous structures working together under the umbrella of set social hierarchies... well, you just sort of let everything fall into place on its own.

Above all, it is a nation of peace. This is the reason Japan seems so Japanized in whole... that its unique quirks sort of feed its ability to sustain its unique qualities, thus it Japanizes and then internalizes everything it comes into contact with. Afterwards it keeps the remainder of that which makes it unlike any other country or cultural plethora in the world and advances itself by constantly remaking itself.

Japan is simultaneously Asian in the most ancient sense, but also, its something western and modernized. Beautiful young women walk down the streets wearing kimonos while checking their wireless email via their digital cell phones invoking a kind of special feeling, reserved for only Japan, that puts a smile on your face. There is no other place in the world where you get this constant hybrid of classical along with deep seeded historical sentiments and at the same time sponsoring a sense of cutting edge modernity. It's the sensation of a Japanese rice farmer knee deep in the water and mud of his rice patties on a hot summer day when just a few feet beyond his land shoots the bullet train toping out at over a hundred and ninety miles per hour as it takes business commuters from their rural homesteads into the heart of the beating metropolis, Tokyo.

Here is the melting pot where East meets West and finds a delicate balance by means of spectacular assimilation and re-articulation. Japan is a sort of cultural revolving door, yet always manages to come around again to its roots and deeper heritage. All of these tings in unison make it more than just an experience. So please, won't you join my experience and come along for the ride?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Kobe Seminar

My first year as an ALT in Japan comes to a close, but fret not dear readers, I re-contracted in full. And I will probably do so for several more years. As such all JET Program ALTs who re-contracted were required to meet up in Kobe last week for our major 're-contracting seminar'. Over 600 ALTs from the southern half of Japan attended the conference, allowing many of us to glimpse the beautiful port city of Kobe Japan for the first time. Granted we spent most of the three day business trip in meetings, we did get our evenings to ourselves. I took advantage of the extremely limited free hours and went out on the town snapping shots of everything I could... starting with the famous Kobe tower. Kobe is also famous for its expensive Kobe beef, an impressive 'earthquake' memorial, and last but not least... the most beautiful women in Japan. Yes, Kobe boasts a big boast, but after checking it out for myself... it was all spectacular!

In Japan most restaurants put out picture menu displays showing the main courses. This makes it easy to walk in and order what you want, especially if you don't know how to read kanji 漢字. But most 'food' is written in katakana, so it's quite easy to get around. While this restaurant only had a photo menu many other places have full displays of lifelike food made out of plastic and wax. It's just all part of the larger food sensation that people can enjoy on an island nation such as Japan. You can find any variety of cuisine hailing from all four corners of the globe. The only downside is that it's always difficult to figure out what you're in the mood for.

Don't be fooled... these aren't kimonos. Rather they are the lighter cotton summer version of a kimono called yukata 浴衣. They are very beautiful, and a lot cheaper than a regular kimono. They are worn casually for summer festivals and after bathing at an onsen 温泉. It's very lovely to see, and this time of year many of the young women are putting on the sandals and light yukatas and going shopping. This is one of the reasons I love Japan so much, because you get to see stuff like this.

Japanese cities are great for shopping, but even better still are the port towns. Most Japanese cities are port towns, so it makes Japan one of the leading countries on cutting edge fashion. Any shopping strip will have a few hundred shoe stores displaying their products ready for purchase, such as the image below. The nice thing about these stores is they sell their shoes for slightly cheaper than the big department stores so girls can stalk up. They also have a much wider variety, since brand names tend to be limited to 'seasonal' or 'popular' styles. But here, down in the market place, you can shop until your heart is content.

There's something for everyone:

While shopping around I found a figurine/toy store. Japanese toy stores are really fun and a lot different than American toys. Mostly these toys are made for adults... unlike action figures which are meant for kids. Anyway, I saw a real life Lolita Girl walking around in the store. She was all dolled up (literally) and I was going to take a picture, but her angry looking boyfriend told me to put the camera down. She only smiled at me. But oh well, I'll catch a shot of a cute Japanese Lolita fashioned girl aware on the street some other time. For now enjoy the figurines (which by the way your also not supposed to take pictures of, but once again I played my dumb 'tourist' gaijin card... and once again it worked!)

This is the 'Portopia Hotel' in Kobe (where I and all the other ALT JETs stayed). If you didn't notice, the hotel is on a small man-made Island and has a transit going right to it. At night time this thing is lit up and looks like a massive Imperial Star Destroyer or some kind of futuristic space ship ready to take off. Pretty impressive, although, quite a fancy hotel. A little too expensive for casual sight seeing as rooms began in the low $250/per night and went up from there.

Here is a good shot looking out across the cove at Kobe city from the hotel's south wing.

Well, that concludes my Kobe trip. I really hope to get back in the near future, since I didn't have time to do all the fun touristy stuff. See you around... Japan that is.