Jan 31, 2007

Dragon in the Grove, Kappa in the Madhouse

Do you like literary modernism? Of course you do! Who doesn't? So, you'll love hearing all about Ryunosuke Akutagawa!
I've always felt like I sort of had to read Akutagawa- "Rashomon" is an idiom as much as it is a title of a story, so I've felt somewhat compelled to read the original story. Also, "Ryunosuke" means "Dragon's son." How cool is that?
Now, just to clear things up a bit- the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon is adapted from two of Akutagawa's stories. The story called Rashomon furnishes the film's setting, but the bit about conflicting accounts of the same episode is actually from the story In a Bamboo Grove.
So, a few quick bits about some individual stories that I particularly liked.
Rashomon itself is a nasty little story. I can't really describe it, as it is quite short and any descriptions would necessarily entail spoilers. Nevertheless, the effect is a cold spike of cynicism. "There is nothing positive in the world," you think to yourself after a few pages.
In a Baboo Grove (or just In a Grove, depending on how it's translated) is the story with the famous plot about multiple viewpoints about a rape and murder. The phrase "in a grove" is apparently an idiom in Japanese meaning that something is unknowable or uncertain. Personally, after reviewing the facts of the story, I actually trust one of the characters more than the others. But, the fact that various people have told contradictory things to a magistrate who is trying to pursue truth still gets the story's point across.
Dragon is another story all about perceptions and belief, this one adapted from an old Chinese story. Dragon begins with the idea that beliefs can be easily suggested in a populace, and ends with the contention that individuals can be just as easily be fooled. In it's own way, it's much dodgier and more distrubing than In a Bamboo Grove. Grove suggests that truth is hard to grasp, but Dragon tells us that truth can disintigrate under pressure.
Hell Screen also plays with truth, but in a more meta-textual way. One of the nifty gimmicks of the story is that it's told in the first person by a narrator who disbelieves a rather important plot point. However, it's quite apparent to the reader what is actually going on.
In Green Onions Akutagawa writes himself into a story in a way that Vonnegut would be proud of. The premise is that he's sitting in a cafe, has a deadline, and is pounding out a story (the story Green Onions) very, very quickly. He dives into the story and even goes so far as to essentially say "blah blah blah, these characters are stereotypes, you get the idea" to the reader. So, he jumps in to remind the reader that the story is just a story, and impresses us that he's just writing it to fulfill a deadline. But, he does it all with a great sense of humor. Green Onions is pretty funny in a book-y smirk-y sort of way. You know what I mean- Dave Eggers starting a book on the cover rather than inside. That sort of book-y smirk-y way. It's awesome.
Horse Legs is another story about deception, but this one is quite funny. It begins with a snafu in the beauracracy of the afterlife, and continues on with a man being reborn with literal horse's legs. He goes to great legnths to conceal his supposed deformity, with funny and sad results.
And then, there's Kappa.
Akutagwa seems to have had quite the fondness for the creatures, as he would often doodle them in the margins of his notebooks. The picture that I've included here is one of his several Kappa drawings.
"Swiftian" is the best sort of word, I think, one can use to describe Kappa. An unnamed man one day meets one of the creatures, and, following it, finds himself in the vast underground world of the Kappas. Or maybe he just imagines it. Kappa's framing story is that the man is reporting his narrative from an asylum, so he could very well be imagining it. Akutagawa, of course, is ambiguous about it.
Each short chapter of Kappa seems to be Akutagawa saying "I want to make fun of this now," as the narrator gives accounts of various facets of Kappa society such as religion, poetry, birth, music, law, economics, cannibalism, etc. Each aspect of Kappa society is, of course, alien or bizarre. For instance- early on his account of Kappa birthing pratices describes the father shouting as loud as he can into the birth canal, and asking the fetus if it really, really wants to be born. Whereupon, the fetus gives its answer, and if it says "no," is aborted. The whole book is like that- short little weird bits. It's amusing, strange, and awesome.

Funny coincidence- there's a chain bookstore in town with quite the selection of English (and French and German and Chinese) books. I've spent far too much time and money there, as foreign language books are a bit expensive here in Nihon. But, I'm hopelessly addicted to books, and they actually have a real English selection. I was actually able to get a copy of the most recent Nonrequired Reading, while other shops seem to just have lots of paperback mysteries and Harry Potter. Anyway, as I was walking out of this place one day I noticed the name on my receipt- Maruzen.
Maruzen was the name of the Tokyo bookstore where Akutagawa was constantly a fixture, and where he acquired many of his foreign language books. The place in town is run by the same company. Neat, that.
Anyway, I thought this was a cool coincidence because while I was reading Akutagawa's stories and finding out a bit about his biographical information, I formed a picture of him as a really cool guy. Obviously, he was brilliant, and his sense of humor that shows through in Green Onions, Horse Legs, and Kappa is of the sort that appeals to me. I also quite like the "gimmicks" that Akutagawa tends to use- playing with perspectives, truth, beliefs, etc., as well as his use of supernatural and fantastic elements. I wasn't very surprised, though, to find that this was something he was widely criticised for in his lifetime.
When Akutagawa was writing, the most accepted form of Japanese literature was the autobiographical novel, i.e., authors talking about their own lives, inner demons, emotions, etc. in a confessional style. Akutagwa did write a few stories like this towards the end of his life, but there were only two, The Writer's Craft and Spinning Gears, that I thought were as good as his other stories.
Akutagawa, however, was writing fiction. And, not only was it fiction, it was weird fiction. Fiction with gimmicks, monsters, and historical stuff. He was often criticised as needing a "hook" to work- a hook like a said gimmick, historical setting, or monster. The critical perception was basically that Akutagawa was good, but it was in spite of the fact that he was not conforming to the accepted literary standards of the autobiographical novel.
As someone who believes in the potential merits of all literary genres and media, this sort of strikes a chord with me. I read a rather infuriating New York Times piece a while back talking about how the film Children of Men was very good, and therefore not science fiction (it is SF- in fact, a sterling example thereof). We seem to still be in the same place as the critics who didn't get Akutagawa- we still have this backward thinking idea that literary or artistic merit is inextricable entwined with genre and conventions rather than with the actual form and ideas of a work.
But, I digress.
Anyway, Akutagawa was a bit of a literary non-conformist, as well as a journalist, editor, translator, and collector of ghost stories. So, it's quite sad that he commited suicide.
He killed himself with an overdoes of veronal, the same drug that fellow modernist Virginia Woolf had attempted to end her life with. The best evidence seems to suggest that Akutagawa suffered from untreated chronic depression and probably (also like Virginia Woolf) from schitzophrenia as well.
Neverthelss, there's something quite dispiriting about knowing that a figure you admire killed themselves. Sometimes, it's like any enjoyment you get from their work is negated- you may like Hemingway, but as great as his stuff is, it didn't stop him from hanging himself. Or, enjoying their work turns into a sort of voyerism- when I listen to Elliot Smith now I can't help but think "he really means it- he's so damn sad he stabbed himself in the end." The point is, that an artist's suicide always leaves a bit of a tinge on their work. At least for me- I can't help but think about the context of a given thing when I consume it.
So, as funny, interesting, and clever as all of Akutagawa's stories are, there's a bit of a pall on them. I keep wanting to shout at him "stop hating yourself! Stop it! You're awesome! Put down the veronal and write more funny stories!" Ah, well.
Apparently a good portion of Akutagawa's stories have not been translated into English. Someone needs to fix that. Or I need to learn more Japanese. One or the other.
Next up- the Odyssey. Also, Natsume Soseki is not a cat.

Jan 28, 2007


The copy machine was covered in red flecks of spice, and the school smelled of sake. This was because a rather old woman had just sashayed about my place of work, throwing spice all over the place and spraying sake at things. She also said some stuff while doing this.
This, of course, was to get rid of evil spirits.
The old woman in question was the sister of our company's president. She doesn't really have an official job with the company- instead she traipses around Japan visiting the various schools and making sure that the decor and such is up to snuff. If she arrives at a school that's not to her liking, she makes it her business to move things around, redecorate, and other such things. Then, of course, she litters the place with udon spice and sake spray. Because, you know, those evil spirits really hate spices and sake. Total teetotalers they are, evil spirits. Yesiree.
I was sort of surprised to find that my Lady Manager actually believes in this sort of thing. I shouldn't be, really, as one religion is as improbable as another, but she defended the old woman's ability to see ghosts and such, and recounted how one rural school had indeed been haunted. I decided to stay politely silent until she asked me, "don't you believe in ghosts?"
"No," I said. She replied with a surprised sounding "Really?" as if my nonbelief was some sort of bizzare pathology. It was odd to come face-to-face with Shintoism for a moment. (Hey, I think it's odd to come face-to-face with strong Christian beliefs.) Intellectually, I knew that such beliefs existed. But that didn't reduce my surprise to find people who actually believed in ghosts and such.
Anyway, I hade to clean off the copy machine after the old woman exorcist left. The stuff was getting into the buttons and such, and the little flecks were causing interference on the copying surface.

The next day, I had to attend an all day training session, which was actually mostly useful but boring in several long stretches. I won't go into the details, but there was an overall theme of emphasizing "kihondosa." Literally, kihondosa means "expected behavior," but in practice translates more accurately to "professionalism."
I am somewhat inexperienced with anything that could be called "professionalism."
Back when I worked for the dysfunctional (but charming) local bookstore, our idea of being all professional and service-like was to wait until our customers were out of earshot and only then call them nasty things. We were basically your stereotypical surly hipster business, wherein attitudes were copped, sarcasm abounded, moodiness was the norm, and actual helpfulness cropped up maybe once or twice a day after we'd just had our coffee.
But, this was okay. The U.S. is a place where one can expect to find novel-reading service people, surly baristas, somnabulic operators, and radio-listening bank tellers. Mostly, people are alright with this. Sure, service with a smile is appreciated, but I think that most Americans don't care too much about it.
This is not the case in Japan. Over here, service is considered very, very important. Actually, important to the point where it's sometimes sort of creepy. When the entire staff of a ramen restaurant turns in your direction, smiling hugely, and says "Arigato goziimashita!" at you as you leave, it's a little unsettling. So, I'm definitely having to tweak my expectations. The students at my school are also customers, so we are all expected to reflect the bright, shiny, expectations of Japanese service. Kihondosa and all that.
One problem that I have with this personally, is that I perpetually look more negative than I actually feel. I've been told on several occasions that I look pissed off when in fact I feel perfectly neutral, and both of the managers have been constantly reminding me to smile. I can see their point- a six foot tall, pissed-off looking gaijin isn't exactly the most welcoming sight, but it's nevertheless difficult. I'm also trying to make myself more extroverted, more accomodating to low-level students, and friendlier in general.
It's coming alright- but I don't know if I'll every get to the bright, shiny, ideal of kihondosa and service-ness of most Japanese employees. My surly bookstore days are damn hard to shake off.

Jan 25, 2007

Some Directions to Other Tubes

Spurrned on by Kori's comment about this post, Katie, the highly astute observer of all things sexy, alerted me to this blog post over at Salon and the subsequent article it linked to.
I can't say I'm all that surprised by this. I mean, sex can be used to sell anything, and I don't see why tutoring would be all that different. Now, while we don't have our own personal stylists, most of the people I know who work for my company are quite attrarctive. I imagine that this can only help business.

Boing Boing, one of the most educational sites on the interweb, had two bits on Japan today, the first being a rogue's gallery of business that exclude foreigners. I've yet to actually see any signs that prohibit gaikokojin, but I imagine that for every one business that has an official sign or policy of discrimination, there are probably several others which will make their excuses or simply use rudeness to get foreigners away.
But, I've encountered none of that personally. My students are pretty much all "Wow, America!" and such, and most places have been quite accomadating to my deficient language abilities. So, no trouble for me.
I do find it quite hilarious that many of the establishments that bar foreigners have obviously foreign-inspired names- for instance a white guy got barred from a place called "Santa Monica" in Kurashiki. That's like barring Asian people from a place called Sakura.

The second link from Boing Boing, significantly less xenophobic, is a photogallery of intergenerational Japanese people, an interesting bit of visual optimism in a country with an immense generation gap.

Obvious lip synchs are pretty damn funny. I read an interesting article in Slate about Japanese pop music and iTunes, and I think that I've got to really learn more about the music scene here.

Do you like ninjas? Do you like kittens? Of course you do. Here's a song that features both.

Lastly, a pretty sweet looking shark was recently found off the coast of Japan and transfered to the Awashima Marnine Park, where it unfortunately died soon afterward. But there it is, photographed alive- thrashing and swirling like some real-life aquatic dragon. Pure undiluted awesome.

Jan 22, 2007

In Which I Am De-Angsted by the Power of Electronic Entertainment, and Tekken 5 Stabs Bertrand Russell in The Eye. Also, I Eat a Horse.

This post is very long and rambly, and there are no pretty pictures at the end. If you are afraid of words, I suggest that you do something else, like play with kittens or make jam.
Yesterday Ghost Face took me to a video arcade in Kurashiki, and lo, it was awesome. Prior to going out, I'd been working on a new post for this blog, and I don't really know what sort of mood I was in, but whatever sort of mood it was compelled me to write something that was really rather sophomoric. I went out, with every intention of completing the below post when I got back, but thanks to the healing power of video games, I have since concluded that the following thing I was writing is fairly immature (though I do like the title):

Through a Normally Transparent Thing (Say, a Glass), But Without Any Light (Which is to Say, Darkly)
She asked me, "So, do you like this place?" This an innocous enough question, it seems, when one goes to a new restaurant. I said something like "yeah, it's alright," but then I just started thinking about how I really couldn't answer that question.
The place in question was a Kurashiki restaurant which seemed to cater to a younger crowd. Concert fliers littered the walls, ads for art shows were pasted up prominently near the bar, and a bulleten board was cluttered with all manner of announcements. I was sitting on a couch drinking a beer amongst a group of about seven people, and I thought about how I couldn't completely answer that question.
Certainly, it was the sort of place that I tend to like, the food was good, and the beer was quite acceptable (though still lacking to my Oregonian tastebuds). I was having a good time, but the reason that I didn't feel like I could answer the question "So, do you like this place?" was because of language limitations.
I have taught myself to read katakana and hiragana, the two Japanese phonetic alphabets, and I know a handful of Kanji. But, just a handful. While I can read foreign loan words or various words that are only spelled with hirigana, I'm at a loss when it comes to things written in Kanji. Not to mention that my Japanese vocabulary, while getting better all the time, completely lacks nuance or connotation. I only know things in a totally literal manner.
For example, "uma" is the Japanese word for "horse," (which is hilarious, I think). When I think about this, I don't think of an "uma" as an oft-domesticated equine- I first have to sort of mentally translate it to "horse," and then from there the word "horse" conjurs up images of an oft-domesticated equine.
Likewise, when I read Hirigana or Katakana, I sort of mentally Romanize them. I still think of all of the syllables as being abbreviations or signifiers of sets of Roman letters, which, of course, they are not. This feeling gradually dissipates as I'm exposed to various bits of the language, for example, "otsukaresamadesu" has meaning in and of itself, for me, but it's still a very odd mental sensation.
For a long time, I really hated Bertrand Russell (this is related to stuff above, I swear) for threereasons. The first was because he was an advocated of using a nuclear first strike to eliminate the Soviet Union, but he later recanted this. The second was because he was an insufferably arrogant person, and it showed up in pretty much everything he wrote. The third reason was because he insisted on bringing up all these moldy Cartesian arguments about "how can we know if the world is real or not?" and other such ponderous mental exercises.
For instance, he constantly complained that we can only know things because of our perceptions, and we can't know "things in and of themselves." He maintained that there was always the possiblity, however slim, that our perceptions were being manipulated, and we were unable to really know the world.
Now, as much as I like The Matrix, I still find this line of thinking to be circular and boring. It's the sort of question that's fueled all manner of Philosophy 101 wankfests, and I don't really want to waste my time with it. (I've since mellowed on Bertrand Russell. He did do some cool stuff when he came out against nukes, later in his life.)
However, there is something to be said for mediated experince. I know that I'm experiencing Japan through the distorted lens of my language and culture, so there are lots of things that I can't "get" or percieve. It's as if I've got all the Cartesian limitations of mediated experience, but someone who's actually from here can experience Japan "in itself," something that I won't ever be able to do.
It goes the other way, too.
For instance, a Japanese guy told me about how he's excited to go to an upcoming Red Hot Chili Peppers (or, as I like to call them, "rap with training wheels") concert in Osaka. This guy spoke very little English, and I doubt that he's going to get much of what Anthony Kideas is talking about, both in terms of vocabulary, and in terms of cultural references and signifiers. This is not to say that he's not going to enjoy the shirtless antics of men named after spicy plants (in fact, he'll probably have a better time that I would) but his Chili Pepper experince will be somewhat different from a native English speaker's.
Now, none of this is to say that mediation of experience cannot be compensated for. I just finished a collection of Akutagawa's work, and loved it. It was in English translation, of course, and loaded with footnotes. They were footnotes explaining historical and literary references that Japanese readers would be familiar with, bits of langage background, and sundry bits of trivia. I love footnotes like this, and they vastly improved my experience of reading Akutagawa.
But, the simple fact that I needed footnotes reminded me of this experience of mediation. It is quite a different sensation to read a book and know exactly what the author is talking about, then it is too have a third party editor chime in to tell you what a given reference means.

And that's as far as I got before leaving. Blah-de-blah-blah.
What the fuck was I thinking? What sort of angst-crack was I on?
Well, of course all experience is mediated, of course people see things in different ways. Wow, didn't I just ever have the most insightful insight ever there. God, what a dumb thing to get worked up over- there's your Philosophy 101 wankfest, right there.
Let's go back to Mr. Akutagawa- the guy was highly literate, multilingual, and really smart (also, depressed as hell). English wasn't his first language, but that didn't stop him from enjoying English-language literature. Hell, now I'm re-reading The Odyssey. Am I going to be completely ignorant of it's aesthetics and the experience of it because I'm not traipsing about in sandals and a toga? Of course not.
And I came to that conclusion because of video games.

We got to the arcade, and Ghost Face showed me around the place. The whole thing was like a mixture of a dance hall and a casino, with blipping machines and colored lights blaring all over the place and I think the best adjective for it all is "overstimulation." Various games had musical instruments as their controllers, there was of course DDR, and the back was full of pseudo-slot machines that spit out tokens for prizes instead of coins. Rather impressively, there was also a bank of monitors set up for Counter Strike, and a glut of retro games, which was music to my eyes.
My instict was to go straight to the fighting games, but Ghost Face insisted that I try out some of the various musical games. I said ok.
The machine we went to had nothing like a standard controller on it. Instead, the controller was a pair of taiko drums and sticks. The idea of the game is that the machine plays a song, and when various signals come up you have to beat your drum in time with the song. Now, we don't have this sort of thing in the States, really, but we do have DDR- and I think that I may have called people who play Dance, Dance, Revolution "ridiculous looking" at various points.
So, I was sort of skeptical as I took up my taiko sticks, and wondered how this could be nearly as much fun as shooting zombies or single combat. The music started, I began banging my drum in time to Japanese pop music, and soon discovered that I was having a lot of fun. We played for a while, and afterwards I was amazed to find that a video game had caused me to break a sweat. We tried a few more music games, and then I eventually did wind my way over to the fighters. I found Tekken 5, and proceeded to kick the computer's ass with my kung-fu prowess.
Until this guy challenged me.
Now, this guy was Japanese (obviously) and I have no idea if he spoke any English, but when he sidled up to the machine, put in his coin, and selected his character, we both knew the protocol, and we commenced digital combat.
While this was happening, I thought to myself about how I was interacting with someone who had a different language and of a different culture, in a totally familiar way. My wankery of the previous night all vanished as I realized that me and this other gamer shared a common language of punches, throws, and kicks, and that even with our different backgrounds, our experience there was unmediated direct.
And, maybe because I was thinking about this, the guy ended up wiping the floor with me. Fortunately, I managed to beat another fighting game in one credit, which was awesome.
When we left, Ghost Face and I started talking about basashi for some reason, which is raw horse meat. I'd never had it and he insisted that we get some. At the local supermarket, we were able to procur some of said uma flesh, and went back to my coworker's place where we fired up his newly acquired Wii.
Firstly- basashi is delicious.
Secondly- the Wii is incredible. Earlier I'd been surprised that a taiko drum made for an enjoyable game controller, and was further surprised by how workable the Wii's remote controller is. Of course, I'd read plenty about it's intuitive-ness when the machine came out, but that didn't really prepare me for the actual use of the thing. One can use the Wii's odd controller utterly without thinking, which says a lot about the design, I think.
Both of the games that Ghost Face had were in Japanese, and both were a collection of miscellaneous multiplayer party games. One, a Wario game, was masterfully absurd. Any game wherein you must high-five puppies, fight with samurai, and shoot mechanical mice all in the space of thirty seconds is a winner in my book. Oh yeah- there were also disco kittens. What's not to love about disco kittens? I was thoroughly entertained by the game, and then realized that it was all in Japanese.
Granted, the graphics were all pretty self explanitory, but all the controls and such were in hiragana and the bits of dialogue in Japanese. But, the mediating screen of language didn't really matter here. I was able to get it, to enjoy it, have fun with it.
I had many things turned around, it seems. Language does not make experience, it describes and organizes it. It is a tool and signifier, not a system of the world. One of my favorite Shakespeare quotes is about poetry, and he describes it as "giv[ing] to airy nothing local habitation and a name." The naming of experience (i.e., using language or cultural signifiers) does not dominate or dictate that experience. Cultures and languages are different, yes, but people are not so different, I think.
Yeah, I liked the place from the night before. Also, an uma is an oft-domesticated equine animal that is most delicious whilst playing Nintendo.

Jan 19, 2007

Life as a Luxury Item

Earlier this week, I talked to a very rich woman for just over an hour and a half.
She seemed the sort of person for whom "conspicuous consumption" had been coined. Not only were her fingers encrusted with enough rings to make Snoop Dogg look frugal, but she also had these particular glasses whose frames seemed to made out of one of Versaille's curlier mouldings. She was very low level in terms of ability, but apparently insisted on having a native speaker as a teacher. She wants to learn English to help out her hobby- travelling. She likes to traipse about the world to see the original versions of various artworks. This spring, she's going to Rome.
Later, I edited a university professor's English-language resume. The man is smart, published, and respected. I may be his teacher, but he's got quite an enviable career. He also likes to travel.
I am expensive.
Very expensive, actually. As are my coworkers. We've bandied about a bunch of desriptors for our rates. Among them are "shit expensive," "damn expensive," "hella expensive," and "fuck-all expensive." All of these are more or less accurate.
A regular group class costs about sixty bucks, and a fifty minute private class costs almost one hundred. This Boggles (and Scrabbles and Strategos) my mind. But, I can sort of understand how market forces drive up my price. While this sort of job is actually fairly popular with people of a given sort, we're not exactly easy to find. And we do rack up a lot of expenses. We need to be trained, our work visas have to be taken care of, and my particular company takes care of the apartment deposit that one much secure in order to have a place here. This is known as key money, and in Japan, can usually be the equivalent of a few thousand dollars.
I'm going to digress for a few moments.
I can understand that I'm actually a fairly scarce commodity here in Japan. Other than English teachers such as myself, native English speakers aren't that easy to find here. So, someone who can teach a language with the ear of a native speaker is scarce, and does command a high price.
Coming from an American perspective, this is rather jarring.
Go to a major American city, and you can probably find native speakers of any number of languages other than English. Spanish, obviously, but my neighborhood back in Portland had a substantial amount of Vietnamese immigrants, for instance. My parents used to be neighbors with a couple from Ethiopia, and there's a small Russian neighborhood as well. Add to that all manner of drifters and immigrants from all over the place, and you've got quite the mix.
And that's just Portland, which is by no means huge.
Take somewhere like Chicago or New York, and you can probably find representatives not only of languages, but dialects. And in the U.S., this is normal.
This is not normal in Japan.
Skill with English is valued here, both for its utility and because English is considered cool. This is a good thing, I think. The U.S. could do well to follow Japan's enthusisasm for multilingualism, even if Japanese English does end up giving us lots of unintentionally hilarious translations.
Ok, I'm done digressing now.
So, we've got lots of up front expenses that makes us hard to get. Most teachers only stay for a year, so the company has to hire new ones fairly constantly, who in turn also rack up a lot of upfront expenses that need to be paid for. On top of that, we've also got normal salaries that need to be taken care of.
If you have a commodity that's scarce, expensive to acquire, and also has upkeep costs, the end result of this is that the average student needs to comp all that. One pays quite a bit to have the priveledge of learning a second language directly from a native speaker.
So, I can understand the economic reasons. From that point of view, it all seems pretty reasonable.
There is the obvious question, "Am I really worth that much?"
Really. Would I pay almost a sixty bucks to talk to the Japanese equivalent of me for fifty minutes? Even thinking about the economic logistics of it, I can't really convince myself that the answer is yes.
For one thing, I'm new to this "having a real job" thing. I did work full time in a dysfunctional (but charming!) local bookstore following university, but my pay was so paltry that spending twenty bucks at a bar seemed like a wild night out. So, when I think about numbers like, say, "sixty dollars," I still think of them in terms of significant percentages of a now obsolete paycheck.
For another thing, I've met Japanese native speakers plenty of times in the U.S. There were a fair amount of them at the UofO, and our Japanese language section in the bookstore was (along with Spanish) the most popular of the various foreign language sections. So, for reasons I mentioned above about the U.S., I find it hard to accept that I'm worth what I am.
I know exactly what every English word in our class means. Even by native speaker standards, I do dare say I'm a pretty good at "wordy-talky" stuff. And, at the risk of sounding arrogant, they're probably getting better English instruction with me than they every got in school. I suppose that what I offer here is something singular, so I shouldn't feel so bad about it.
Still, it's quite odd to think about the demographics of the sort of people that I'm teaching. I'm basically here to be of service to well-off, educated, motivated people. Or, as the case often is, their children. Back in my bookstore days people would agonize and think about whether or not they wanted to buy a three dollar used paperback. Now, people casually plunk down a wad of cash to have a native speaker talk about art with them, edit their resume, or tell their children that "F is for fox."
I'm quite ambivalent about this. I'm not cynical, certainly- I like what I do. But, I know that I'm not exactly doing Peace Corps type stuff here. I'm a luxury item living a "Wowie-zowie, I'm in Japan!" life. When I think to hard about it, it doesn't seem probable. Real, certainly, but also discordant and a little absurd.

Jan 15, 2007

In Which I Remove All of My Clothing

“We’re gonna get naked!”
“Wait, what?”
“We’re gonna get naked with a bunch of old Japanese guys!” I’m in the back of Catgirl’s car when Ghost Face tells me this. We’re on our way to an onsen, a Japanese hot spring.
“So I brought swim trunks for no reason?”
“Pretty much, yeah.” I knew that some onsen were clothes-free affairs, but I’d just sort of assumed that only traditional or smaller ones were like that. More popular places, I assumed, were beclothed and such.
Now, I’d been to a nude hot spring before outside Eugene. It was ok- but my friends and I had the unfortunate experience of having strange old naked hippy dudes recite poetry to us whilst trying to be our friends. So far, Japan has been mercifully absent of strange old naked hippy dudes. I hoped this trend would continue when we got to our destination.
The place that we were going to was about a half hour outside Okayama in the countryside, allowing us to get quite the view of all manner of rice paddies and roofs on our way there. The place itself was a hotel with an adjoining onsen, and I was surprised that the admission was only 600 yen. I was expecting it to be far spendier. I went in to the locker room, and steeled myself for my imminent nudity among a bunch of strangers.
I think I would have been less hung up on it in the states, but here in Japan my self-consciousness has been turned up to eleven. I might as well be walking around with a flashing neon sign that says “FOREIGNER!” over my head, so I feel metaphorically naked quite a bit. Getting literally naked just sort of drove the point home.
Funnily enough, I was far more anxious about doffing my shirt than my skull-and-crossbones patterned boxers (yar, matey!). Taking off my shirt meant revealing my great swathes of chest hair begat my by my Italian/Irish heritage. Surrounded by a bunch of nigh-hairless smooth-chested Japanese guys, I felt more than a little simian. The fact that my chest hair is a black mass upon a pasty white field didn’t help matters.
After a few minutes, though, no one screamed in horror at my Chewbacca-like torso, so I think I was okay. Ghost Face and I showered, and got into one of the many tubs at the onsen. The first one was this sort of reclining thing with various water jets hooked up that massaged one’s back, sides, and feet. Several of the Japanese guys there had drenched their towels in warm water placed them on their head, so I did likewise. And lo, it was nice. Very nice. The various jets and streams were able to successfully vanquish the various knots and such in my back.
We moved to the outside tubs, various pools of steaming water arranged in ascending hotness. The idea is that one begins in the least hot tub, and gradually moves to the uppermost steamy pool. Various old men reclined in the pools, and I could have sworn that some of them were asleep. One guy’s broad glasses had steamed over with condensation, making it look as if his eyewear had been frosted by an eccentric glassworker.
And soon, I could understand their state of relaxation. While stewing there naked in very hot water, a mixture of steam and sweat began to form on my skin, and I gradually felt my various mental processes start to shut down. I sunk in to my chin, feeling my muscles loosen with the heat, and acquired what I’m sure was a dumb looking relaxed smile. Also, there was the complete lack of strange old naked hippy dudes, which was nice.
Smiling, submerged in hot water, with a wet towel on my head, I completely understood the appeal of an onsen. I becoming quite zombie like- but not the shambling, brain-craving zombie; more like a docile, non-mobile zombie.
Seriously- I was in utter aquatic ecstasy. It was like I loved everyone, everything was cool, and stuff was nifty. I was all “yeah, man,” and mellow. Despite having lived in Eugene, OR, "yeah, man" capital of the world, for quite some years, sitting there in a tub was the most calm I’ve felt in a long, long time.
So there it is- definitive proof that hot springs are better than marijuana, jam bands, and drum circles. If we had these sort of hot springs readily available in the U.S., I swear we could get the average hippy to trade in his ganja and bongos for hot tub time.
When I got out, felt more than a little woozy, and doused myself with cold water, which brought back a small percentage my various mental faculties. Out in the lobby, I got myself some green tea ice cream. Because, man, it just sounded so cool that someone would put green tea in ice cream. I had to try it.
“So, how do you feel,” asked British Girl, coming out of the womens’ half.
“I feel very Dude.” I said, sinking into a couch, eating my ice cream.
“Have you ever seen The Big Lebowski?”
“There you go. I feel very Dude right now.”
We regrouped, headed out, called a few people, and spent the rest of the evening wailing out pop music in a karaoke box. Johnny Cash makes for some surprisingly good karaoke singing, it turns out.

Jan 10, 2007

I Am a Retarded Kitten: The Amazing Adventures of Me Paying Rent

Paying rent this month was difficult. Back in the Usa, the system was simple. I would write a check, send it to my landlord, and then he would forget about it for an indeterminate period of time before cashing it. Simple. In the place before that, I just walked up to a door, handed a check to an old lady, who would go "oooh, thank you!" and that was it.
Easy, No?
Here in Nihon, such logical directness in the field of landlord payment is not at all present.
One pays their rent at the bank, where the money (almost always cash) is tranferred to the rent company's account.
So far, the Dude Manager has been helping me pay rent, but this month I was determined to do it alone. I figured it would be good survival practice. So, I got a sheet of common ATM translations, and rode the wimpy bike off the the bank in hopes of being all self reliant and such.
When I got there, most of the bank was closed, I surmised for the new year, and only the ATMs were open. No matter. The fact that I couldn't ask for help would make this even better survival practice.
So, I strode up the machine, stared at the various Japanese pictographs on the touch screen, found out which one meant "transfer," and inserted my card.
Which it then spit out.
I repeated the process.
My card was agaid summarily spit out, along with the machine saying something to me in Japanese. But, I noticed that it said "kudasai" at the end, and there was a little animation of these cartoon bank employees bowing respectfully, so I the impersonal financial contraption was at least rejecting me very politely.
I could be a few days late, I figured.
So, after new year's I told the Dude Manager about it, and he agreed to help me out. I met up with him and his girlfriend (British Girl Factor Two) and explained the situation.
"You're so cute and helpless," said British Girl Factor Two, patting me on the head in a condescending manner, "you're like a little retarded kitten!"
"Fuck you," I said.
"Retarded kitten!" Her boyfriend (my manager) thought this hilarious.
"What bank did you go to?" he asked.
"Chugoku Bank," I said.
"You should go to Mizuho. They have bilingual ATMs."
"But my landlord's account is with Chugoku, and that's where my payment card works."
"It'll work at Mizuho, too," he said.
I was filled with hope and verve, etc., and made my way to Mizuho.
Where it rejected my card.
Ok. I thought. That's fine. I can just imput this manually. So, it asked me what financial institution I wanted to transfer money to, and lo and behold the little touch screen thing has a complete lack of "Chugoku Bank." Apparently Mizuho and Chugoku have this sort of anti-transfer rivalry going on. The upside of this is that after staring at all these buttons and trying to intuit what was going on, I learned the kanji for "bank."
I quite frustrated, and gave the Dude Manager a call.
"So, can we just go to Chugoku," I said, "I just want to pay my rent and get this done."
"It doesn't matter now," he said.
"It's after three o'clock."
"Three o'clock. The bank's closed."
"Wait, what? Banks close at three?"
This took a few moments to sink in. Japan seems to be a coutry full of industrious capitalist types who refer to each other as "honorable tired people" and do lots of overtime whether it's necessary or not. But apparently banks here are different, and are actually run by French socialists.
"We'll just pay it on tuesday. Don't worry, it'll be ok."
"Tuesday, why not monday?"
"Monday's a national holiday."
This also took a few moments to sink in. We'd just had a national holiday- New Year's Day. And before that it was the Emperor's Birthday. But January 8th is yet another national holiday. It's Coming of Age Day and lots of stuff (like the banks that are actually run by French socialists) are closed. I went back to the school, and sort of wondered how long it would take for my landlord to assemble a squad of tatooed goons who would break down my door and reposses my stuff. I also wondered about the ecological impact of all the wooden chopsticks that I'm using, but that's not really relevant to the matter at hand.
It was a sort of unique financial situation to be in. The whole issue was that I had the money, I just couldn't give it to the relevant parties. It was surreal, really. There I was with a big wad of cash in my wallet (because Japan is still very much a cash-based economy) and I couldn't make use of it. It was quite the sensation of monetary vertigo.
So, come tuesday, I made my way to Chugoku bank, and was determined to try this whole thing again. Again, the machine spit out my card. I needed to ask for help. I thought about what I needed to do, swallowed my pride, thought about a few things I could say in Japanese to the staff, and went to the help desk with my tail between my legs. (I don't know about you, but I hate asking service people for help. I feel like I'm 1-annoying them, as they probably have better things to do than help me out and 2-demonstrating my own inability to do a damn thing right. It's an incoherent alchemy of pride and empathy.)
"Hello," said the lady at the desk.
"Konichiwa." I said.
"What can I help you with today?" she said in completely perfect English. I stood there for a beat, and I think that my mouth was open just a millimeter or so too much. She was speaking English. Perfect, pristine English without the trace of an accent, and I'd gotten all bent out of shape about this.
"I'd like to pay my rent," I said.
"Alright, I'll show you." She went to an ATM with me, walked me through the process, and showed me exactly what I needed to do. Apparently, through my poor translation, I'd been asking the machine for the wrong kind of transaction.
"Thank you," I said.
"You're welcome," she said, continuing to use English.
I rode to school, feeling all sheepish and such. Feeling like a retarded kitten.
But, I learned how to use a Japanese ATM. I get more self-reliant everyday. Eventually, I hope to be a full-grown retarded cat.

Jan 8, 2007

Empty Orchestra Fun Time!

Karaoke (which, in case you were wondering, means "empty orchestra") is a brilliant invention. I'm not just talking about singing to songs that have had the vocal track cut out, I mean the whole karaoke experience. In the states, one must sing in front of an entire bar of strangers. Here in Nihon, however, the setup is somewhat different. Instead of having to belt out Madonna in front of a bunch of total strangers, you and your friends get a room where you can belt stuff out to your heart's content by yourselves.
Because no one seems to hang out at people's residences here, karaoke places seem to serve as an important sort of "default" activity. "Where do you want to go?" "Let's go to karaoke," is quite the common interchange. So, you're all there in a room, singing, and can order drinks and snacks from the conveniently placed phone. It's how people just sort of hang out.
Sadly, most of the music that I'd like to try my hand at singing isn't available at karaoke places. The Magnetic Fields just haven't made it here yet. But, I've found plenty of songs that I enjoy singing, as well as a few that I crash and burn at. Here's a non-exhaustive rundown-

I Fought the Law by the Clash
For some reason, this is consistently the only Clash song that Karaoke places have (and it's not even a whole Clash song, as it's a cover of a Crickets song). While I'd quite like to try Rudy Can't Fail, Train In Vain, or This England, these (and everything else by the Clash) seem to be oddly absent. I Fought the Law is a fun one, though. It's basic and enthusiastic, and is a good evening-opener for getting people excited to belt stuff out.

Burning Down the House by the Talking Heads
I love the Talking Heads. Not just because they're all musically talented (they were) are had a lady bassist (sexy and nifty). I admire them because they were all weird and nerdy and quirky yet were still "cool" or something. This was a group composed of total weirdos, and yet they were able to milk their own geekyness for all it was worth and be considered all hip and interesting.
Do I like to contemplate such socio/musical feats when I sing Burning Down the House? Maybe a little.

Everything by U2

I am not Bono. No matter how much I may care about third world debt whilst wearing sunglasses, I will continue to not be Bono. As such, I fail miserably at singing any and all U2 songs.

Mack the Knife by Bobbie Darin
This is rapidly becoming my favorite karaoke song, as it's one of those respected standards, but I can actually sing it. Also, it's fun to sing about mobsters.

Bullet With Butterfly Wings by the Smashing Pumpkins
"Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage," is one of the most fun lines in modern music. It's got everything: It rhymes, for instance, and is about a strong emotion- rage. Also, it has a metaphore- a rat in a cage. On top of that, the line repeats over and over again, quite loudly, to better emphasize how rage-feeling and rat-in-cage-like Billy Corgan is.
So, it's tons of fun to loudly shout this over and over again while screwing up your face to look very angry. Though doing this might scare some people.

Anything by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
I know, I know. The Chili Peppers are easily dismissed by people with "cool" and "hip" musical taste as mindless "cock rock." I suppose the animosity comes from the fact that people with mainstream musical taste tend to think of the Chili Peppers as "all edgy and shit," when in fact they are "mainstream" and "surrounded by quotation marks."
But, they're great for karaoke. A lot of their songs (like Give It Away Now and Snow) are very fast, so they sound hard. But really, they actually flow quite easily and aren't too challenging. So, you can sound all rhyme-y without straining yourself. It's like rap with training wheels.

Creep by Radiohead
Don't sing this. It's a fine song, but it will kill any sense of fun that people around are experincing. Also, if you are not Thom Yorke you will sound whiny while declaring yourself a creep. I know these things.

I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That) (radio version) by Meatloaf
This song rocks.
Admit it. You love it. Bask in its warm, cheesy glow. Deep down in your rock-n-roll loving heart, you secretly want to bob your head back and forth close your eyes bite your lower lip, and proceed to rock out. The piano, the power chords, the powerful crescendos. It is a thing of eighties arena beauty, circa 1993.
I.W.D.A.F.L.(B.I.W.D.T.) is a some serious A list Karaoke. It's simple, it's easy to sing, and you can get the rest of the group singing along with you during the drum-heavy refrains. Pure rocking awesome. The last time I sang this song I shouted out "My name is Robert Paulson!" and towards the end and was the only one who found it funny. Still, the song rocks.

Jan 4, 2007

In the White Heron Castle

Ok, this post is huge. If you tire of my boring and superfluous "words" you can just scroll to the bottom where there are lots of pretty pictures.

Himeji Castle is awesome. I'm just going to get that right out there. It's huge, for one thing, and the grounds are full of exactly what you'd expect from a Japanese castle- Various gravel paths dotted with spindly trees, moats and stone stairs, sloping walls and sloping roofs. It is, in short, the Platonic ideal of a Japanese castle.
I'd never been to a real castle before today (Okayama castle, having been reconstructed after WWII, does not count) so it was quite the thrill. I will admit that more than once I thought to myself "Wow, actual Samurai lived here! Woot!" Yeah, I'm a huge nerd.

I had this sort of pretentious romantic image of going to Himeji castle on New Year's Eve, wherein I would poetically and poignantly watch the sun set on 2006 from the storied ramparts of Japan's largest surviving castle.
This plan failed.
Everything was going very, very well on the morning of New Year's Eve- I got up a little earlier than normal, packed up my bag with my nalgene bottle, camera, and guidebook, and got ready to journey eastward via Japan's nice and efficient railways.
I chose a local train rather than an express, one that would gaurantee that I would have to get off at various intermediary stops. This, I thought, would be a great way to force myself to see some of the scenery and landscape here in the Chugoku region. This was actually a lot of fun. The local cars that I got on were hardly inhabited, and the rural Honshu landscape was crisp and visible under the bright winter sun. At one point, an obliging English-speaking stranger even helped me (totally unasked) with the schedule when he saw me looking at it like a confused duckling.
As I looked out the window on the train, I was quite surprised to see two things. The first was the sheer amount of hills and woodlands in the countryside. Whenever you see a map detailing world population density, Japan is always a deep red or purple, some color denoting that it is one of the densest places on earth people-wise. So, it was with a certain amount of dissonance that I looke out on the woodlands and hills, gazing at the all the trees. I do not say "surprise," because intellectually I knew that Japan had unpopulated areas, but definitely "dissonance." The second thing that I noticed was that there were a fair amount of rural towns that looked almost exactly like rural areas in the U.S. Certainly, the rice paddies and the Japanese style architechture was different, but I mean that they had the same sort of rural forgotten look that unpopulated American areas have. Fields full of sodden and broken things, rusting farm equipment and things that have passed from useful to trash via exposure to the elements. Despite years of recession, my image of Japan is still that of an economic powerhouse (and it still is, really- the economy has improved quite a bit of late) so passing what looked to be commonplace rural despondence struck another dissonant chord in me.
I got off the train in high spirits at Himeji. The castle is a straight shot from the station, with it and the station bookending the town's main road. There's something just downright tickling about seeing such an ancient building looming over a modern landscape. Ok, Europeans and Asians (who are actually used to such juxtaposition) probably don't think that there's anything unique about this, but as an American who comes from a town where things built in the 1800s are considered old, this was quite the thing.
I approached the castle, passing through it's immense outer wooden gates, crossed the park that stretched before it, and saw a nice little sign on the entrance that said:
"Himeji Castle
Closed Dec. 29-31"
When I mentioned this to Kori the Tomorrow Lady, she said that even ghosts need to have some time off. I suppose... stupid ghosts and their ghostly new year...

I was, obviously, able to eventually visit Himeji. I went out again today, and this time the castle was open.
When I got there, I saw my first ever Ugly Americans. All of the gaijin that I know in Okayama/Kurashiki are pretty polite, nifty folks who do their best to speak Japanese and make note of various cultural conventions, so I'd kind of forgot about what total dicks that Americans can be. I didn't have any 1000 yen notes on me, so I wasn't able to use the handy automatic ticket machines they had set up. I needed to go to a teller to make change, and wanted to ask if using my camera inside would be alright and if they had any English language info pamphlets.
So, I cracked open my phrasebook, thought about what I wanted to say, and asked for what I needed in Japanese. Yes, I could get change, use my camera, and they did indeed have an English info pamphlet. The lady was very helpful, and I think she got more than a little amusement from me stumbling through her language. Behind, a rather obnoxious couple leafed through the stack of Japanese info booklets and barked "You got English?"
Now, I suppose there are worse things that he could have said, but he said it in a fairly brusque manner, like he was annoyed that there weren't English pamphlets next to the Japanese ones. I noticed the lady just sort of thrust one in his direction, not really smiling so much. "Thanks," he said. I was a little put out by this. I mean, is a phrasebook really that hard to find? If you can afford a plane ticket across the Pacific, you can drop ten bucks for a phrasebook so you can ask for help in the local language. I was a little embarassed for them. I also got off on feeling rather holier-than-thou, as you can probably see.
Inside the castle's keep, I was further impressed with the sheer hugeness of the place. I walked around the various grounds and outer buildings for a good hour or so before I entered the main building. The main outer building was unfortunately unfurnished (those are the blank interior shots in the set below) but offered a good glimpse of what castle was like for the everyday folks who lived there. Various rooms were lined up, each of which would house about three or four soldiers, servants, or staff members. I couldn't help but think that it sort of resembled a college dorm, except with arrow slits and murder holes. Surprisingly, I found out that the castle had a medieval version of plumbing which included sinks and toilets, as well as a sort of makeshift sewage system. Nifty.
Inside the main building, there was an admonishment against camera use, so I don't have any pictures of the interior, unfortunately. The main castle's interior was set up like a museum, with several old wall hangings, weapons, official seals, and other such bits and pieces from the nobility set up in glass cases. I lingered as best I could at the exhibits, particularly at the exaples of calligraphy, none of which I could read, though I tried. I was surprised to see that they had a rack of firearms on display, as gunpowder weapons were banned for some time in Japan. But, in practice lots of people had them. The rifles were pretty sleek looking- each had a little cast-metal dragon as the striker, which was a nice flourish.
At the top of the castle was a small room, of which one function was that it was where the nobility would kill themselves in the evntuality that the castle was ever taken. But, Himeji never was. It even survived WWII with hardly any damage. In this room that was intended for desperate suicide, a small modern Shinto shrine was decorated with fruit and sake bottles for the new year. Various children took turns ringing the bell and running around, and several people (including myself) poked their cameras outside to capture the view.
As I was milling about in the uppermost room, I sort of wondered what Tokugawa Ieyasu would think of this. Sure, Tokugawa didn't build Himeji-Jo, but he was it's most famous resident. He wasn't a crazy guy, but he was fairly violent and ruthless- he famously ordered the capture and execution of every one of Osaka's defenders after that city fell. And, then he founded a government that was essentially a military dictatorship and pursued a policy of isolation and (attempted) autuarky for over a century.
So, I wondered what this soldier-executing, military-dictatorship-founding, isolation-pursuing guy would think if he knew that there were a bunch of happy, bell-ringing kids running around his special suicide room. Or if he knew there were a bunch of foreigners with cameras going "ooh" at his stuff. Or if he knew that UNESCO (another bunch of foreign barbarians) had declared his old place to be a "World Heritage Site." I think he'd probably be a bit put out, honestly, which amuses me for some reason.
I eventually went downstairs and did another walk around the castle grounds. I sat a while outside, and eventually made my way back to Himeji station. I went back to Okayama, exhausted.

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Jan 2, 2007

I Heart Haruki Murakami

It's that time again! The time where I talk about books!
So, there are lots of writers out there- writers like Borges, Calvino, Dick, Garcia Marquez, etc., who wave around a bunch of enigmatic vaugely metaphorical/mystical/symbolic/mythic stuff and go "Oooooh, look how mysteriously literary I am!" I'm a total sucker for this stuff.
"Yes, Mr. Borges, tell me more about how mysterious and metaphorical labyrinths and mirrors are! Ooooh esoteric literary references! Hooray!" I don't know why, but I lap this stuff up insatiably. Maybe it's the result of what happens when a kid who read lots of horror, sci-fi and fantasy (ok, I still read all that) grows up and wants to that sort of thing "literaturified" or something.
Anyway, the point is I lap up the "Look how enigmatic I am!" subgenre. It's brain candy. One of the best writers of this sort is Haruki Murakami (or Murakami Haruki, if you want to go with the Japanese name ordering) whose Kafka on the Shore I just finished.
Compared to Murakami's "big" novel The Wine-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the shore is downright straightforward. Murakami does't spell out what's going on, but it's eminently possible to figure out what's happening if you think about it, to "get" the novel. It's basically the tale of Oedipus, but with some sister-shagging and astral projection thrown in for good measure.
The basic story is that a fifteen year old boy- Kafka Tamura, whose real given name we never learn, runs away from home to escape a prophecy from his father. The prophecy is that he will kill his father, and sleep with both his mother and sister.
A secondary bit of plot concerns an old man named Nakata, who, when he was a child in WWII, lapsed into a coma for several days and came out with no memories, losing even the ability to read. As an old man, Nakata still hasn't regained literacy, but has the mysterious ability to speak with cats. The two stories run side by side for the length of the novel, eventually meeting up with each other towards the end. I can't really say what happens, as that would give far too much away.
I can say, though, that as weird and fantastical as Murakami's fiction is, I can't help but look for some sort of "system" behind it. For instance, there are spirits in Kafka on the Shore. As someone who reads a lot of SF, I think to myself "what is the nature of these spirits? How do they work? What do they want? How do they interact with the 'real' world?" I don't know if Murakami has all the answers to these questions or not when he constructs his fictional worlds, but I can't help but think- and subsequently draw conclusions from -Murakami's fictional world. I did the same thing with the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, trying to puzzle out a sense of workability from the book's metaphysics. I can't help but do this.
Even if there's no concrete answers to any of the questions raised in Murakami's fiction, I can't help but think that he'd be pleased to know that his readers are thinking about things like this. Even if other readers came to different conclusions about his work, I don't think he'd mind. I recall reading an interview with him a while back (unfortunately, I don't recall where) and he said that his fiction was a series of riddles where all together they make an answer. I think that's actually a fairly interesting idea- the idea that a series of symbols, representation, questions, etc., is something in and of itself, not something that merely leads to an answer.
One thing that I noticed in Kafka on the Shore was the fact that the main character ends up sleeping with his sister, Sakura. In the Oedipus cycle, Oedipus' sister is Antigone, and of course she loves him dearly, though they do not ever fuck. I wondered, while reading the book, if Sakura was supposed to be a sort of stand in for Antigone. In the play Antigone she fairly clearly represents family love and practicality, pragmatism and earthly logic. I wondered, while reading Kafka on the Shore, if the Sakura character was supposed to be Antigone.
Certainly Sakura shares Antigone's practicality love for her brother (though Sophecles didn't include handjobs). I think Murakami did intend a comparison, and I think such an equation between Sakura and Antigone is one of the book's many hidden bits that it takes some thinking and research to get to. I imagine there are countless others that I didn't get at all.
Speaking of which, I'm wondering how much of the weird stuff in the books is reference to Shinto folklore or Japanese mythology. I have the suspiscion that a more thorough understading of such would shed a fair amount of light on Murakami's references and metaphore. I'm eager to research this, both for better understanding of Japanese literature, and for cultural context in general.
My incomplete knowledge of Murakami's tapestry, though, did not hinder my enjoyment of the novel. In fact, I read almost the entire second half yesterday in one sitting. Kafka on the Shore is a pleasurable puzzle box of a book, a sort of upbeat David Lynch type narrative. I recommend it.
Next up- A collection of Akutagawa Ryunosuke's works- and my edition just happens to have an intro by Mr. Murakami Haruki

EDIT: I can't believe I did that. I missattributed the Oedipus Cycle to Aristophanes, not Sophecles! And I call myself a bibliophile! Oh, the shame, the shame! My only option is seppuku.