Feb 27, 2009


I'm not done yet!

The Hired Tongue is finished. This was my Japan blog, and I'm not in Japan anymore. Time for something new, something that's not necessarily about where I am. I've got a new blog for my continuing adventures: http://connectedthings.blogspot.com/

Check it out. The adventure doesn't end.

Feb 18, 2009


As I write this, I am no longer an English teacher, no longer a Hired Tongue, no longer in Japan. I'm uhired now, cut loose to pursue other things, and presently in the familiar setting that is Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. My time in Japan ended with fireworks and music, a fitting ending.

I met my students in front of the school, and we went off to a local restaurant where we'd reserved a huge table. We ordered various bits of food, drank, and I proceeded to get peppered with cards and gifts. One student, I noticed, had a rather awkward and bulky looking package. She opened it up, and announced that she had fireworks. She looked quite pleased with herself.

Fireworks. Fireworks in freezing February. There was a park, she said, nearby. A suitable place to set them off, to set them all alight and aflame. All the while, one of my students was insisting that we sample different varieties of sake. Another bought me an unasked for gin and tonic. Another, a beer. We were all drunk, and I more than most, when we stumbled out of the restaurant and ambled through dark Narita to this suitable park.

The student with the fireworks laid them all out, handed out sparklers, got the rockets ready. We held the sparklers three at a time and lit fuses with their orange and green fires, causing the sky to pop and fizzle in a way that it never does in the winter. The smell of powder in the winter, I found, was odd. It's such a summer smell, but I'd never thought about it as such before. The cold and the smell juxtaposed oddly but not unpleasantly.

I said goodbye to my students and went home feeling wonderful and a little sad about it, and I hoped that they'd be nice to the new teacher. The next day, I woke up with a horrible hangover from all of the sake, but was fortunately able to shamble my way to Chiba where two of my good friends were going to be getting behind microphones at a local bar. It was, I think, a fitting last night. I was pleased to be there with my various teacher friends, though I drank only oolong, what with the previous night's activities and all.

Two of my friends saw me off at the airport, and one of my students who worked there surprised me by showing up and announcing that she'd gotten me a cushy aisle seat. I really didn't want to go. Coming to Japan was the best decision that I've ever made, and I know that it's over now, but I had a lot of internal resistance going. Sure, there will be lots of things I won't miss, and there are lots of things that I do miss about Portland. But, I fell in love with Japan. I loved the landscape and the people, I loved the weirdness of it all and life as an alien. I loved the simple pleasure of reading labels in a foreign language, and the experience of life as a perpetual puzzle, challenge, and adventure. I loved what the experience of Japan and teaching did for me regarding my own confidence and sense of self. I loved being able to express myself, even badly, in Japanese, and, above all, I loved the camaraderie of the expat community. As I was moving away from all of that on the airplane, in the cushy, front-row aisle seat that my student had gotten for me, I broke down and cried. I know I'll be back someday, in some way. The place has been too good to me to leave forever.

I'm in Portland, now, and I know already that I won't be here for long. Hopefully I passed the Foreign Service Exam, and that will pan out. If not, I may very well join the Peace Corps and get involved with international aide and politics that way. In any case, I know that I'm not settled. I'm not stationary. I've looked through my old boxes in storage and plan on selling the contents- I don't want stored objects to hold me back. I've got a bit of money saved and I know that I can save more, because I'd rather have experiences than things. Later this summer, I'm going off to Mexico just because I can.

I thought that this would just be for a year. I thought that a single stint as a hired tongue in a foreign country would get the travel bug out of my system. Just the opposite. The world is too big not to see. Japan was a wonderful beginning.

Feb 10, 2009


I took the Foreign Service Exam yesterday. If it's graded like a university test is graded, I know I passed. If they decide to take only the top 20% or so, then I don't know if I'll go on to the next round of selection. The material was unsurprising and straightforward, I'm reasonably proud of the essays I wrote. Additionally, I couldn't help but size up my fellow test takers. While I didn't get to talk with any of them in any sort of in-depth way, it was nice to see that I wasn't out of my league at all. These were people with similar interests and temperaments to myself. If they are what the potential "best and brightest" or whatever are like, then I think I have a good chance (though not a sure chance) at being granted an interview.

Mainly, though, it was great to finally do something that I'd been preparing for for so long, and its completion has helped me mentally sever myself from my current situation. Goals and such seem less amorphous and hypothetical, and the possibilities are moving me towards activity. As I said in my last post, it's a very nice feeling.

I'll know if I passed in about nine weeks. In the meantime, I'll look for other options, wander about, and see what other ins and opportunities I can find that interest me.

Despite the morbid predictions on the economy, I'm sure there's something. There always is.

Feb 7, 2009

The Next Part

All week, I've been telling my students that I'm leaving, and I've also been telling them why. I've told them that I am indeed going back to the U.S., and hope to get a job with the Foreign Service. I've told them that I'm taking the test tomorrow, have been studying for it for months, and that I find this path a fitting one for me. I majored in political science and have always been consistently interested in politics, international relations, and world affairs.

It's been a mixed process. My students are not happy to see me go, which is a nice ego boost. After I explained that a new teacher would be coming, one of my kids wrapped herself around my torso and said "You're teacher. I hate new teacher." I've also started getting plenty of presents and knick-knacks, which is sweet, but right now I'm trying to get rid of stuff. Best, though, was what one of my older students said to me:

"I studied engineering at university," he said, "and now I'm an engineer. Every day, I make machines, I do what I love, and I'm happy. I understand why you're leaving." He smiled at me, said "see you next week!" and left.

I found this very encouraging, and as I've been articulating my reasons for leaving to my students, it's put into perspective what I want to do as a more long-term career. Even if I don't get into the Foreign Service, I'm going to pursue work with other government entities or with NGOs. I am determined to become a part of that which interests me the most.

To be sure, I can be interested in just about anything. There are few things out there that, when you really stop to appreciate them, are inherently boring. But, it is the system of human societies which I have found regularly fascinating. Since I was a kid, in fact. When I think of childhood reading material, I think of Encyclopedia Brown and Newsweek.

All of this, really, is a relief. A relief of a jarring sort, really. When I first decided to do this, months ago, I spent a couple of hours walking around by myself in the Meiji Jingu with an "oh shit..." sort of feeling. I had decided to act in accordance with what I wanted, and found it wonderful yet disorienting. Now it's mostly settled in, and I've become much, much more calm about things in general. I'm even managing to control my stress about the upcoming exam fairly well. In fact, I'm surprised at how unpanicked I am. I think this is a good thing.

To see one's area of passion and interest as something of value is a wonderful feeling. In 24 hours I'll be at the U.S. embassy, trying to get my foot in the door with a politically-oriented career. I've done quite well on the practice tests, and hope that my performance is competitive enough to be selected for an oral assessment. Even if it's not, though, I know what I want and where I'm going.

Feb 6, 2009

At Yasukuni

Last weekend, I finally made my way to the Yasukuni Shrine, the Shinto shrine dedicated to memorializing and deifying those who have died in the name of the Emperor. It was an absolutely pleasant day in Tokyo, and I met up with two of my friends for a fine day of gallivanting around town. Our first stop was Yasukuni, the most controversial place in Japan.

The central walk of the shrine was fairly nice, a broad avenue under a pair of fairly impressive and iron torii, one of which is the largest such arch in Japan. I was surprised to see a bunch of food stalls and a flea market off to one side. I really didn't expect a ramen shop and flea market at such a place, but it lent the shrine a certain approachability I wasn't expecting. There was also an old guy playing the shamisen, lending the morning strummy soundtrack.

The outside of the shrine features the oldest Western-style bronze in Japan, much to the delight of one of my friends who is something of an art geek. "Hey, never mind the politics," she said, "that's the oldest Western-style bronze in Japan!" It's quite nice seeing smart people get excited about their areas of expertise.

We strolled around the central area, but refrained from directly approaching the altar. I've done so at other Shinto shrines, and have no problem with Buddhist temples, but here I felt that it would be a bit ideologically weird to go up to the main site at such a place, to become a participant rather than an observer. I left the wooden steps untrod.

The shrine has a fair bit of statuary in it, most notably that of a kamikaze pilot. Also depicted are a military dog, horse, and a carrier pigeon. I was most fascinated, though, by this portrayal of a warship, lording itself over a stone map of Asia. It seemed imposing and, despite the shrine's reputation, brutal and artistically honest. But who knows? I couldn't read the inscription. It might be about how cuddly warships were, for all I know.

Before going to the museum, I'd mentally prepared myself for the worst sort of revisionism so as not to turn into some rage-spouting history geek decrying the lack of truth upon my exit. I didn't get angry or have much in the way of emotional responses to much of what was in there other than a weird sort of amusement. Many of the historical lies were so downright bullshit-laden that I found them hard to take seriously. For instance, there was an item about how Manchukuo was apparently formed by five of China's northern ethnic groups coming together of their own accord to form a new nation, with the administrative help and support of Japan. Also, according to the Yasukuni museum, Korea was an independent state after the first Sino-Japanese war. I'm sure that's news to a lot of Koreans. Japan was also forced into WWII. I was expecting that bit, though.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The early parts of the museum were all about early Japanese warfare- samurai and such. I and my companion spent a fair amount of time looking at the various swords, naginatas, old style guns, and other sundry implements of destruction. It was a fairly kickass panoply of lethal shit, to be perfectly honest. "Hell yeah!" said a certain part of my brain, "motherfuckin' GUNS 'N SWORDS! Rock!"

The various labels and whatnot all extolled how glorious it was to die in battle for the Emperor and such, with various poetical odes to mortal selflessness and anologies of slain warriors falling like a thousand sakura petals. It reminded me a lot of 300, to be honest. Sure, it was a bit more subtle (and a lot less homoerotic) than that movie, but it had the same general ethos: "Isn't this all great and glorious? Isn't it great to utterly abandon yourself and give yourself over to death and battle and blood? Doesn't it sound absolutely glorious to go and kill a bunch of dudes and then eventually get killed by some other dude? Awesome, Right? SPAAAARTAaaa... I mean... JAAAAPAAAN!"

Basically it was kitschy death porn, and I'm sure it would have given Yukio Mishima a raging erection. This sort of militaristic ideology is indeed dangerous and in reality does inspire people blow themselves up on a fairly regular basis, but in sunny Tokyo I found it hard accept as very real. I had much the same attitude through the more contemporary exhibits. "Does anyone," I thought to myself, "actually take this stuff seriously?" I knew the answer was yes, but I wondered anyways.

To be fair, not all of the exhibits were complete bollocks. There war just a significant percentage of bollocks. The museum's biggest flaw was that it often said that certain things happened, but didn't say why. Many of the timelines and displays made mention of the movements of Japanese troops and ships in various parts of Asia, but it didn't say what, for instance, the Japanese military was doing in the Philippines. (Answer: Invading and setting up a puppet government.) It just mentioned that they were there. There was a lot of facts, but a dearth of analysis.

This happens in the U.S. too, though. I recognized a lot of the sins commited by textbooks and national monuments as described by James Lowen in Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America. A lot of it was the same sort of revision and omission that one can find in the good 'ol U.S. of A. I'm pissed off by such behavior in the U.S., and pissed off by it in Japan as well, but such symmetry engenders a kind of understanding.

The last part of the museum was a fairly impressive display of military hardware, which, again, tapped into that part of my brain that actually likes looking at guns 'n swords. It was diverting enough.

Japan has every right to memorialize it's war dead, and private organizations, such as the Shinto group that runs the Yasukuni shrine, have every right to practice their religion. As a foreigner and one who has not extensively studied this matter, I'm not in an expert position to offer recommendations. But, here's my unsoliscited advice.

-The most obvious objection is the inclusion of 14 class A war criminals in in shrine's register of names. The people memorialized in the shrine are considered not only fallen, but deities of a sort. A good solution would be to simply strike the name of the 14 offenders.

-Likewise, there are several people, particularly those of Korean descent, whose relatives object to their inclusion. Inclusion in the Shrine should be with the consent of the family of the deceased. That way, it would be a voluntary honor, rather than something foisted upon people who have ideological issues with the place. An option for de-listing should also be included.

-Yasukuni specifically enshrines those who have died in the name of the Emperor. Since WWII, several members of Japan's Self Defense Forces have died in international conflicts, and they are not included in the Shrine. If Yasukuni were to change it's criteria from those who died for the Emperor to those who died for the people and nation of Japan, contemporary members of the armed forces could also be honored, thus secularizing and modernizing the place.

-Lastly, at a certain point China and Korea really ought to stop complaining. Yes, Japan did absolutely horrific things to them, but that was a generation ago. Nearly all of those people are dead, and arguing over who did what to whose parents and grandparents is something of a childish exercise. Of course Japan should apologize, but as wronged parties China and Korea can't just bring up wartime atrocities whenever it's convenient. Such complaining does not effective diplomatic relations make.

Not that any of those are realistic. More realistically, the veterans and their children will someday all be dead, and hopefully it will all be an unemotional historical abstraction.

Yasukuni did not offend me, nor did it make me angry. I don't think it's a symbol of hate or aggression. More than that, I think its inaccuracies represent a certain immature desire to believe that our forbears were better than they really were. Columbus was a geographically incorrect murdering jackass and the U.S. committed genocide on the native population, yet we still have a national holiday commemorating those three ships landing on Hispanola and romaticize western expansion. There is a compulsion to apologize, to pretend that there was neither sin nor unwarranted blood. Such historical revisions can't, to borrow a phrase, handle the truth. They suffer a poverty of ideas because they feel people can only be inspired by a sanitized version of history, even though the flawed and tragic truth is often more fascinating.

Jan 28, 2009

Things I'll Miss, Part Two

A few more parts of the landscape that I'll miss...

The Metric System
The metric system wonderfully intuitive, and it's absolutely ridiculous that the U.S. doesn't use it. Here in Japan, I've gotten used to thinking in terms of centimeters, kilograms, kilometers and the rest, and have found it all far more understandable than the imperial system. I really couldn't tell you how many feet there are in a mile, for instance. But, I know how many meters there are in a kilometer and grams in a kilogram- 1,000, easy as that. It's great! The metric system an intuitive, user-friendly and global set of standards, and the U.S. would do well to abandon it's clunky and ill-conceived proprietary set. I'll miss you, metric system. Maybe one day you can come to America.

The View From My School

From my classroom, I can see Narita-San temple, Mt. Tskuba, a constant stream of airplanes, and lots of trees. The school is on the sixth floor of an office building, and from the balcony one can see Mt. Fuji on a clear day. What's more, it's a westward view of Fuji, so the sun sets nicely behind it. No, I don't have a picture. Just trust me that it's awesome.


Yes, there is clubbing all over the world, I know, and occasionally clubbing just hasn't worked for me. But all in all, I enjoy getting assaulted by the blaring rhythms and beats, feeling my sternum vibrated by the sound system, navigating amongst the milling crowds. At clubs, I've mostly considered myself an observer- I'm still not "good at" clubbing. Apparently one can meet people at these places, but I don't really know how you'd do that if the music's too loud for conversation.

I suppose what I'll miss, though, is how clubbing facilitates unselfconscious revelry. There is no form or steps to the dancing- one simply moves how one pleases, often while drunk. I appreciate the otherworldliness of it all, the feeling that one is in some sort of suspended place, and techno often brings with it a kind of looping mindlessness that I've come to appreciate. A well places sample or hook coupled with the freedom to jump around as one pleases lends itself to a certain abandon. I know that that much can be said of a lot of music, yes, but I won't forget Tokyo's immense, dark, smoky chambers.

The Tokyo Skyline

I'm from Oregon and a nature lover since childhood. I love trees, mountains, and all of that wonderful green stuff. My own hometown, Portland, is dotted with greenery in a lovely way, and I love it for that. However, there's something undeniably sexy about the busy, neon-lined machine city that is Tokyo.

I can understand how it could be stressful, or someone's idea of an urban hell. I can see how it could overload the senses or tire people out, and if I had to live downtown during the work week, maybe it would exhaust me as well. But I love how inexhaustible it feels, how in the innards of Tokyo there doesn't seem to be an end to the wonders of civilization and technology, and it all makes me wonder what comes next in terms of technology and civilization.

Among the crowds, even when walking alone, you feel part of something, part of something that's much larger than yourself. It's as if you're standing on some sort of hub or axis and watching the world's gears click and spin around you in a colorful panoply.

I don't want to romanticize it too much, the crushing crowds and the noise. The movement and the light make it a place without peace. The sensory saturation of it all, though, is a certain kind of wonderful. In Tokyo, your eyes wander over more objects than you could hope to contemplate and more people with whom you could ever hope to talk with. The world magnifies itself in unquiet motion, and stretches in all directions.

Things I'll Miss, Part One

After that little bit snarkiness, a few things I'll miss about Japan. Not big things like my students or friends, but little things about the landscape itself.

Temples and Shrines

Sure, a lot of them look alike. But I like them anyways, especially my local, massive Narita-san. It's nice to see these buildings which are characteristically Japanese nestled amongst all the modernity, reminders that modernization need not mean complete westernization. Here, temple attendees read New Year's fortunes in Asakusa.


Japanese trains are wonderful. I wish I could uproot the train system here and take it back with me to the States. With them, one can go most anywhere rather rapidly and affordably, and I've hardly missed having a car.

Kaiten Sushi

Proper sushi bars, the kind where you sit at a table and order items individually, are fairly expensive. While in Japan, though, I've been to such a place all of one time. I'd rather go to kaiten sushi, the restaurants where cheap sushi revolves around the counter on a conveyor belt, with the chefs often standing in the middle of it. At their best, these places are crowded and raucous, with customers yelling orders at the chefs, and the chefs yelling right back. There's the constant sound of clinking plates and chatter, and the whole place is infused with the distinctive smell of fresh fish. I usually have to limit myself to about seven plates or so, otherwise I think I could devour the contents of the conveyor belt.

The Tone and Edo Rivers

These two rivers have awesome bike paths, and I've quite enjoyed riding along them. The Tone is near my apartment, and it's wind-buffeted bike path is part of my regular cycling loop. The Edo stretches into Tokyo from the suburbs, and down into the Southern coast of the metropolis. I've zoned out on my bike quite a bit on these waterways, and will miss my river-lined cycling sessions.

Yoyogi Park

I've mentioned this place before, I know, but ever since my first day in Tokyo Yoyogi has consistently been my favorite place in Tokyo. On Sundays, all manner of people come out to play. The place is filled with drummers, dancers, jugglers, and, of course, the Elvis-like Tokyo Rockabilly Club.

It's been cold lately, but on warmer days Yoyogi Sundays are virtual outdoor concerts. All manner of bands and musicians are out there, playing for whoever passes by. Here, a solitary trumpeter braves the cold.

The flea market is considerable. Here in Japan I've tried to limit my intake of stuff, given that I'll just have to move it or get rid of it later. Back in the States, though, I would have had a field day with all of the LPs and vintage jackets for sale.

And of course, there are the goths and weirdly-attired youth. Once, I was having a class with an older student, and the topic in the textbook was clothes and appearance. The Harajuku/Yoyogi goths ended up coming up in class. My student said "I think they look stupid, but that's okay. They remind us that we are free."