Mar 29, 2007

Seduced by Distance

"Is this your cup of tea?"
"If you weren't adventerous, you'd never see shit like this."
I've gone batshit insane.
I'm afraid of heights. But, there I was, on top of a concrete wall, creeping along ninja-commando style. On my right side, rocks and water. On my left, only some concrete a few feet down. If I fell, the close concrete would have been massively preferable.
Mr. Ecuador and I were trespassing at some sort of industrial fishing facility, and it was perhaps 11:30 or so at night at that point. We were bicycling around a lake near Japan's Inland Sea, and had gotten somewhat lost. The water blurred into the night in the distance, and bird disturbed the surface. Along the way, we stopped several times to check out things of interests- fishing platforms, staircases, bits of rocks, etc.
We eventually got home at perhaps two in the morning. I was sore from so much biking the next day.
Last night, I went out to Karaoke with British Girl, two students, and two of British Girl's visiting friends. I was in a somewhat expansive mood, and tried to speak as much Japanese as possible with the two Students and British Girl. Now, my Japanese isn't anything brilliant or coherent. I speak like a drunken monkey, for the most part. But, I was iin such a mood where I didn't really mind sounding like a moron, and I realized that British Girl's two friends couldn't understand me at all.
That was, seriously, awesome.
While I was able to make pronouncements to myself and exchange rudimentary things with my coworker and students, it occured to me that while I sounded like a drunken monkey, at least I could speak some Japanese. Meanwhile, the two visitors didn't even know how to get the little karaoke song selector thing to type in English. I was reminded of what a gawky beginner I was five months ago, and that I actually have learned something here. I have learned things about the language, the world, myself, etc.
I occasionally get frusturated with the job (I still like it, for the most part) so it's nice to be reminded, be it on a concrete ledge in the middle of the night, or being able to compare yourself with complete beginners, that my time here actually has been worthwhile. Combined with the mind-expanding niftyness that was Tokyo, I think I'm being seduced by being abroad...
I'm considering staying on.
I have no idea whether or not my company will want me around for another year, but I've been considering staying in Japan perhaps for another six months or a year. I'm almost halfway done with my initial year commitment, and looking back everything has seemed to have happened rather rapidly. I know there's more out there to see and do- I'd very much like to see and do it.
On one hand, though, I don't want to turn into a tumbleweed. I don't want to find myself eventually looking at thirty (oh, how old that seems!) with nothing nailed down, nothing stable. On the other hand, I figure that now is the time to do crazy stuff, to travel and learn new languages, to trek across the globe.
I have fantasies about circumnavigating the globe or trekking through weird areas. I think of such fanciful things as happening upon giant stone Buddahs in the jungle or walking or driving over the whole of the former Silk Road.
I know, I know- it all sounds very improbable and self-indulgent. But, I keep thinking... Wouldn't it be nice to try the Trans-Siberian Railway? Wouldn't it be cool to sail through the Greek isles? Wouldn't backbacking across the Great Wall be a good story, trite though it may sound?
I'm going to stop, otherwise I'll be given to histrionics. But, it keeps nagging at me...

Apparently I accidntally disabled comments on the last post. I did not mean to do that. I like hearing from you all, so if you wanted to add anything please do! Your words are made out of awesome!

Kori was the best part of Tokyo. I sort of skirted around that in the post, but holding her and gazing at the skyline was a big part of why I had such an amazingly wonderful time. Ok... I'm really going to stop now before I get too cheesy.

Mar 22, 2007

Edo Euphoria: Elvi, Celtic-ness, Buddah, Tokyo Tower, Sleazy Hard Drive Guys, Cherry Blossom Simulacrums, etc.

I've allowed myself to be unrestrictedly and self-indulgently long winded in this post. You have been warned.

Douglas Adams (a very smart man) once said that space is really quite big. Space, he said, is really unimaginably vast. Huge. Breathtaking. Everyone knows this, and everyone talks about it, but no one really appreciates how mind-bendingly huge its proportions are.
Tokyo is kind of like that. So, I've decided, is the rest of the world.

Day One
There's a certain amount of weird adrenaline one gets, I think, being awake at an unusual time. As difficult as it was to peel myself out of bed at 5:30 A. M., once I was out and about in the cold sunrise, I was what one could call "psyched." Making my way to the station, various taxi drivers were asleep behind their wheels and a few people filed out of seedy sex shops, the last dregs of a saturday night. On the shinkansen, I attempted to sleep a little. Mostly, though, I just gazed out at the landscape.
After Tokyo's Shinigawa station, I tranferred twice and met Kori. It was unusual seeing someone from Eugene- So far, everything here, the language, my job, the people, has been new. Other than online communication, I really don't have any remnants of my "old" (or maybe "real") life around here, so it was both jarring and nifty to see someone from that life.
We dropped off my stuff, and headed out to. First stop: Meiji Jingu, rock 'n roll, dancing elvi, and weird goth girls.
We ate lunch in a Yoyogi Park near the Meiji Jingu, and I was struck both by the sheer amount of people and the rather large number of foreigners. In Okayama/Kurashiki, seeing more than four foreigners outside one of the gaijin bars is something of an event. In Yoyogi Park, there were swarms of them. I actually tried to count them- and couldn't. We watched a rock band play in the park for a bit, and I was reminded that I missed live concerts. Around here is where I started gawking like a wide-eyed country boy, and didn't really stop for the duration.
The Meiji Jingu surprised me for the sheer amount of green space around it. My mental image of Tokyo was that of a huge, gleaming, neon metropolis. And Tokyo is that. But, there's a lot more than just that- the Meiji shrine is a shaded, wooded area that reminded me a bit of Portland's Forest Park. Several people were out strolling, and I couldn't help but rather shallowly think of what the real estate value of such open space was in one of the world's biggest cities.
There was a wedding going on at the shrine, and given the huge mob of Japanese people who were taking pictures, I didn't feel particularly voyeuristic about snapping a few of my own.
Coming out of the shrine, we saw a clutch of Harajuku girls flocking and posing for pictures, many of them with quite elaborate plumage on display. Whilst we were snapping pictures of the sundry quirkily-adorned goth girls, a crazy man started talking to us.
I'd sort of forgotten about crazy street people. In my time in Okayama, I've met not a one. Back in Eugene when I worked at a dysfunctional (but charming!) local bookstore, I had no shortage of colorful characters who would come in looking for, say, books about making bombs or crystals. You know- standard paranoid hippy stuff.
But this guy, though, randomly walked up to us and launched into an invective against the various fashion goths around us.
"There is nothing intellectual here," he said, gesturing at the crowd of preening youngsters. He then proceeded to rant to us about his, shall we say, concerns about the prevalence of Japanese girls dating western guys (I've yet to see such a thing in Okayama- so I imagine this might be mainly a big city thing). This guy wnet on for a bit about how shallow such pairings were, about how the people in them really couldn't communicate well, and how dating in general was dangerous. He asked me if I had a Japanese girlfriend ("No") and if I liked Japanese girls ("As much as any other girls") and was just another crazy weird guy until he started talking about how he was once brought up on rape charges in LA.
You want to make people feel really, really weird in a conversation? Say, "I was brought up on rape charges." It basically kills whatever talk is going on. The crazy street rapist then attempted sell us some of his haikus. We made our excuses, and met up with another English teacher, a rather jovial friend of Kori's.
Strolling in Yoyogi Park for a bit longer, we saw Elvis. Lots of him.
They appeared to be some kind of Tokyo rockabilly club- about ten or so guys (as well as two women in poodle skirts and one in leather like the guys) were blasting old style rock-'n-roll into the park, each taking turns to dance about in the middle of the circle with a collection of breakdancy/rock-esque moves whilst the others gyrated hips and shoulders to the guitar-laden beat.
I found myself summoning up a weird amount of respect for these guys. They had moves. They pulled off leather pants. They were strutting about in huge sunglasses and getting people to applaud them. The three of us decided that "Elvi" was a suitable plural for "Elvis." So, I can say unquivocally that these guys were the best Elvi I'd ever seen.
Here's a video, courtesy of Kori-

Next Up: The Tokyo St. Patrick's Day Parade!
Yes. There was a St. Patrick's parade in Japan. Probably just one, in Tokyo, but nevertheless it was there. It was pretty much what you'd expect a St. Patrick's Day parade to be like- all manner of Celtic regalia and heraldry brought out to on display- but with more Katakana. Also, there were several bagpipers. "Nothing says 'Ireland,'" said our jovial companion, "like 'Scotland.'"
"True," I replied, "much like nothing says 'England' like 'Wales.'" He and Kori actually laughed at that. It was a relief to hang out with people who appreciate that sort of humor. After the parade we wandered a bit through the Harajuku and Shinjuku areas, espying all manner of weird shops and outlandish fashion places. Regrettably, many of the shops in Harajuku had approbations against cameras, so I don't have much in the way of pictures from there.
Then, in Shinjuku, my brain had an orgasm.
Like many a brain-gasm, it came along because of a bookstore. A really, really big bookstore. A bookstore where the English language section was larger than some bookstores back home. There were even non-manga comics, something that the local Maruzen in Okayama sorely lacks.
I could have spent the whole day and all of my money there. I wanted to make an impropmtu list of all the books I planned to read in Japan, I wanted to raid the Japanese history section for Samurai tales, and I wanted to get just one more Japanese language book.
There was even an English manga version of Hamlet which tempted me for a few moments.
Somehow, I managed to keep myself from blowing my entire Tokyo budget on Japanese history and language books, and settled for a copy of Embracing Defeat by John Dower to fulfill my Japanese history lust, and well as House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski as a fun read. (So far, Embracing Defeat is highly nifty.)
After getting books, wandered around a bit more and Tokyo turned from day to night. Around us, crowds of people in suits emerged from their offices and began to fill out the street, and above us the various sign and buildings began to glow with neon. Gigantic screens filled with advertisements, news reports, and bits of anime. The archetypical image that I had of Tokyo, that of a neon-lit megalopolis, was confirmed and surpassed.
I was sort of in bliss.
Our jovial companion said something interesting- He said that in a way he was glad that he couldn't understand Japanese, because that way he wasn't able to understand all of the various advertisements around him. Without knowing Japanese, the ads were just abstract images, just glowing things on the skyline. But, if he was able to understand the language, he'd be able to divine every bit of consumerism around us, and that it would be even more obnoxious than the constant press of ads in the U.S. I thought his opinion a rather interesting one.
Our jovial companion left us, though, and we proceeded to find a rather nice Thai restaurant where the main centerpiece was a giant golden Buddah in the main room. Or rather, it was painted gold. I imagine that if it was actual gold it would have crashed through the floor. In any case, we were eating dinner, and there was a giant golden Buddah.
Now, I'm pretty sure that the proprietor or founder of the restaurant found the Buddah first, and then decided to build the place around it. I can imagine the thought process- "I have a big, gold, Buddah statue... What can I do with that? I know! Buddah bar!" Seems logical to me.
The rest of the restaurant was lit up in a way that was simultaneously gaudy and nifty, with all sorts of candles, chandeliers, and mirrors bouncing red, flickering light around the room as we devoured (no nearly spicy enough) Thai food.
I wondered where the other bars with giant golden Jesus, Moses, Mohommed, and Confucious were. Surely Buddah can't be the only regligious figure with his own flickery Thai restaurant? Now that I've had curried chicken in the shadow of Buddah, can I have pad Thai at the feet of Jesus? I think Jesus would like pad Thai- he seems cool like that.

Day Two
So, we tried to go to the Imperial Palace, but apparently it's closed on mondays. Disappointed, we walked away.
We did walk around the city for quite a while, though, including Ginza. Ginza seems to be the type of place where people with boatloads upon truckloads of money go to have fun- Nothing quite like says "decadent" like multistorey Ralph Lauren ads, methinks. So, we wandered through streets and parks, saw a cool science exhibit, and in the evening I looked out across the Tokyo Bay.
Now, there's this certain style of writing that I really, really, hate. That's the style of writing that takes something really trivial and particular (like, say, a view of Tokyo across the bay) and tries to apply it to something big, interesting, and complicated (for instance, Japan). I'm going to try to avoid that as best as possible here.
Looking out over Tokyo Bay, out over the skyline and the rainbowbridge and the replica of the Statue of Liberty, I couldn't help but think how very, very different this all was from Okayama, and what that said about Japan. Actually, nevermind that. It doesn't say anything about Japan, it says stuff about my perception of Japan.
Okayama is a city, certainly, but it's also sort of in the middle of the sticks. Okayama has a population of 676,283 and Kurashiki 433,477, according to Wikipedia. Plus, there are several small towns and such scattered about these two towns. So, I definitely live somewhere urban, but Okayama is by no means a reflection of the shiny, bustling Japan that one sees in popular media. It's just a normal, modern city.
So, I sort of had this impression that various American perceptions of Japan- as this big, insane, crazy, consumerism-drenched, place- were overblown and inaccurate. I was, for a while, mistaking Okayama with the rest of Japan, and I was beginning to slide into the misapprehension (even though I knew intellectually that it was incorrect) that Japan is this nice rural place with rolling hills and efficient trains. Really looking out at the Tokyo Bay, and seeing the Rainbow Bridge lit up in the twilight blew all of that away. Tokyo, if not the rest of Japan, really is that enormous, insane, futuristic city. It shines and gleams with technology, it fills your eyes as you try to look at it all from a distance, it's full of crazy shit that will make your brain explode, and it seems endless.
And with good reason. Greater Tokyo has a population of 35 million people- that's like three Belgiums, or half of all France. That's about 2 million more than California. Looking at the Greater Tokyo area is like looking at an entire country's worth of people all at once.
Do I sound like a complete wide-eyed country boy yet? Okayama seemed damn puny in comparison.
We got on the train, crossed the Rainbow Bridge, and I saw from each side the massive skylines facing each other. It was like someone had taken a pair of Chicagos and put them on opposite sides of the water. I think that Kori was a more than a little amused at me marvelling at the scale.
Then, we got to Tokyo tower.
Sure, it's a big, shiny, tourist trap. But it was a fun big, shiny tourist trap. And, being up there was no shortage of continued mental overstimulation. We could see, all around, the various buildings and and streets lit up. Their lights blocked out any view of the stars, and below the streets gave an appearance of a bright, electric day.
I just sort of reeled, and was reminded why I'm here in Japan- I'm here to see things that I've never seen before, do stuff that I've never done before. I'm here for the adventuresness of it all, or the "adventure-gasms" as Kori liked to call them. The whole time had been a really, really big adventure-gasm- really. The whole time had been a really, really big adventure-gasm. The kind of adventure-gasm makes you forget about five minutes ago and five minutes from now, the kind that demands all the attention possible from your perception. I think I went through a hell of a lot of seratonin.
Later, there was sushi. It was awesome.

Day Three
Kori had to work out in country, so on day three of my wanderings I was left to my own devices. She'd been basically the best tour guide ever, but I was also looking forward to wandering about one of the biggest cities in the world by myself. I dropped my stuff off at my hostel, and decided that I'd see the Imperial Palace, as it should have been opened on tuesday.
First, though, I stopped for a bit in the Ueno district, and strolled for a while in Ueno Park. I really wanted to do this for a really dumb reason.
On one of the Japanese language CDs that I have, the segment about asking where things are is a dialogue between two people asking where Ueno Park is. "Ueno Koen wa doko dessu ka?" goes the dialouge. "Koko dessu!" (it's here!) "Asoko dessu!" (it's over there), etc. So, for the entirely stupid reason that I learned about locations in Japanese using Ueno Koen as a reference point, I really wanted to actually see it. "Koko dessu!" I thought to myself as I walked towards it. It's a nice park. Like Meiji Jingu, I was again surprised to find so much green space inside Tokyo. I hung out there, read for a while, walked next to the water, and then got on a train for an entirely different, but nearby section of Tokyo- Akihabara.
Akihabara, "Electric Town" is a big, sleazy, geek-pit. It's the sort of place that I could probably only enjoy when I'm in a certain mood, but I did like it. I spent most of my time searching the various electronic stores for a cheap external hard drive, something that was harder to find than I initially thought.
I eventually found one in a makeshift-looking storefront with the rather simultanerously promising yet weirdly inauspicious name "English Computer." The guy at the store was this sort of hurried-looking nerd type, and when he said "I can't give you a receipt," I was very, very suspicious. But, the thing was cheap. I thought that maybe it was a bit too cheap at the time, but I was feeling adventurous and decided to go for it. (The HD is fine- it's now humming beside me.)
I made it back to the Imperial Palace, hoping to get a dose of history and culture. In front of me various crowds of people, both foreign and Japanese, walked up to the gate and turned back. I was wondering if the place was closed yet again.
It wasn't. Instead, one of the gaurds in a snappy uniform said to me, "Hello."
"Konichiwa," I said, "is the palace open to the public today?"
He informed me, in perfect English, that any tourist who wants to see the Imperial Palace must fill out an application and have a background check. He also mentioned that it was mostly a formality, and took about two days. I thanked him, the guard did mention that the palace's eastern garden was open to the public, and, he added smiling, that it was free. He'd probably given this speech to loads of people that day, and probably some people complained about it. I think I'd hate his job.
The garden itself was nice, though not as picturesque or as large as the Korakuen. Neverhtheless, it was nice to sit and read for a while in the greenspace. I cracked open the Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura and sat for a good hour or so.
I left, and winded my way back to Asakusa, where my hostel was located. In the evening, I took some time to wonder around Asakusa as it was a well known tourist stop.
For a tourist trap, Asakusa has all the trappings. While the Thunder Gate was indeed nifty looking, as was the Sensoji Temple, the path between them was lined with several shops selling various cheap souvenires, the path above them decked out with artificial cherry blossoms. Between the gate and the temple, everything was red paint, cherry blossoms, Hello Kitty, inexpensive Japanese robes, and silk prints. It all seemed to scream "Holy shit! Look how Japanese this is!!!!"
Now, there were plenty of westerners (including myself) strolling along and looking at stuff, but it seemed that there were far more Japanese people engaged in the buying of cheap plastic crap than anyone else. So, this got me thinking- how much BS must a given thing have before it's rendered "fake?" I mean, Asakusa's a real place- That's a real, live Buddhist temple there, and the Thunder Gate is a real, live piece of nifty architechture. But, both of them are surrounded by sleazy stalls selling cheap shit and decorated with plastic cherry blossoms. Does that make the temple and gate any less real? Does that render the whole thing into a simulacrum and mockery of itself? Or is it merely that something real and cool has vestigial bullshit, but is real and cool nonetheless?
Or am I just a big, pretentious wanker for asking questions like this?
I found what looked to be a cheap restaurant and ordered some udon. The waitress looked at me incredulouly- "Udon," she said as if I'd said something wrong, "It's thick, it's white."
"Hai. Wakerimas. Kare Udon o kudasai."
"Ok," said, with a worried look on her face. It wasn't like I'd ordered something off-menu. It said in a mix of katakana and hiragana "kare udon" (curry udon) right there on the wall. But the waitress seemed to have an attitude that udon was something so weird and Japanese that a westerner would hava hard time enjoying it.
But I did- I love curry, love udon, and the combination thereof. I sat there for a while, finished Okakura's book, wandered about for another two or so hours, and headed back to my hostel.

Day Four
The next day, I had to be checked out of my hostel by eleven, so I didn't have too much time to do things in the morning. I did content myself with a walk through Asakusa, and I regret that I didn't bring my camera. I found, of all things, the corporate headquarters for Ban Dai.
Given that there's a shiny Ultraman statue out front, it was kind of hard to miss. In addition to the big red and silver dude, there were a few other statues of Gundam, sentai, and sundry other anime and superhero characters.
There were also several toys and products on display in their window, though the office was closed as the 21 (the spring equinox) is a national holiday here in Japan. It was sort of odd to look inside and see how many things I recognized from when I was a kid. It was also sort of odd to think "this is where the Gundam guys work." Or, at least the guys who produce and distribute Gundam stuff.
I don't want to go too much into the realm of generalizing about the general from the specific, but it occured to me that Sentai and Kamen Riders are sort of like salarymen. Think about it- salarymen all wear more or less interchangeable suits, work in groups, and oftentimes seemingly subsume their identity in favor of their job. Japanese superheros, also, wear more or less interchangeable suits (seriously- you try to tell the Kamen Riders apart), work in groups (which sometimes turn into giant robots), and subsume their identity in favor of their job (do you know what the Green Ranger does on his off days? Does it matter?)
I eventually had to make my way back, get my stuff, and catch a Shinkansen for Okayama. I sat on the bullet train, ate a bento box and read Embracing Deafeat. I was, as the hippies say, blissed out. It's a big, nifty world out there.
I want more.

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Mar 13, 2007

In Which I am Fascinated by an Angular Syllabic Alphabet


English, right?
Well, sort of. The above are examples of "katakana eigo," English words that have been rewritten in katakana. Regrattably, since I'm using an American computer, I can only type the syllables, not the characters themselves. Katakana, I think, is fascinating and amusing, as it is a system of writing that most oftem simulates my own speech, and spits it back out at me.
Katakana is one of the three ways that Japanese is written. Most famously, there are the Chinese pictograph, kanji (a Japanese word that literally means "Han characters") and two phonetic alphabets, hirigana and katakana. All three of these styles are combined together in Japanese writing.
Writing in katakana can be sort of likened to writing in italics or boldface in English. Most often, it's used to write foreign words, but its also used for onomotopeia, emphasis, sound effects, and sometimes humerous effects. For example, a robot character in a manga might speak entirely in katakana, or someone shouting incoherently would likewise be written in katakana.
But, mostly, it's used for foreign words. Most of them ex-English words.
English words that have been put through the blender of Japanese spelling and pronunciation, and sometimes bear little resemblance to their western originals. Sure, most are straightforward, like "cado" for "card" or "isucuremu" for "ice cream," but there are also some tricky ones like "furunto gurasso." That means windshield. Get it? "Front glass."
Anyway, it's weird to see my own culture and language getting borrowed and used by another culture and language. Being from the U.S., one often gets the (mistaken) impression that America is an empty, cultureless, shell. Time and time again (often in political science classes) I've heard people say, "America has no culture." Usually this contention is filled out with a bit of exposition about how we have to "steal" things from other cultures- stuff like Pizza and English.
I find this argument to be totally fatuous. Of course the U.S. has a culture. And it's more than just pop culture. Oftentimes, liberals (and I bear that label proudly, I'd like to add) are quick to point out how other cultures are multifaceted, complex, and interesting. But, they (we) seem to miss the fact that the U.S. is no exception- it, too, is multifaceted, complex interesting.
And all of this is brought starkly to light by being surrounded by katakana.
As I said, I think there's a prevailing assumption that the U.S. borrows but is not borrowed from. We take from other cultures to fill a percieved vacuity, but only consume.
To entirely change the subject (this will be relevant, I swear): Pizza. Pizza is an American food. Is it from Italy? Yes, of course. But it's different in Italy. I know all about American pizza and its various subgenres, but have never had Italian pizza. Or, as some people would call it, "real" pizza. But, American pizza is "real" pizza- it's simply a different kind of real pizza. It's not meant to be a simulation of Italian pizza, it's meant to be a thing in and of itself.
Now, katakana. Like I said earlier, it's used to spell out foreign words.
Are they foreign words anymore? Many foreigners think so, and I've heard complaints as to how Japanese people mispronouce English when they use katakana. And, many conservative Japanese people think so, complaining about the incursion of foreign words into their vocabulary, and the tide of new katakana words that comes every year.
But, an entire generation of people here has grown up in a world where katakana words have been the norm. Are they speaking English? No, certainly not. I don't think "furunto gurasso" could be considered English by any stretch of the imagination. Is it a simulation or emulation of English? Well, maybe it was at the start. But, katakana words use Japanese syllabaries and pronunciation, are used with Japanese grammar, and used by Japanese people.
So, just as pizza is in fact an American food, katakana "English" is in fact Japanese.
Here's another example- the word "biology." English, right? Of course. When one pronounces the term "biology," it is not as if one has suddenly shifted to Greek. One's words remain English from the first plosive to that last back-of-the-throat "ee." So, it's not like Japanese people are phasing in and out from Japanese to English- It seems more like the Japanese language is changing just like other languages evolve. And, just like other evolving languages, Japanese is freely borrowing from other cultures. In this case, us. The only difference here, though, is that new stuff has its own alphabet.

By the way...


Edit: Kori oh-so-nicely furnished me with these pictures. It's odd to see how from even a young age katakana both elucidates and obscures English, all the while being something else entirely.

Mar 11, 2007

My Reviews of Japanese Stuff, Part Roman Numeral Four

The Word "Neko"
"Neko," meaning "cat," has become my favorite Japanese word for some reason. It really does sound catty and furry and adorable and such- say it a few times. Neko, neko, neko, neko. And look at that Kanji! Is that not the most adorable pictograph ever? Neko, neko, neko.

Death Note

I love comics- have since I was a wee young thing reading Calvin and Hobbes books. But I've never been into manga. Except for one title, Blade of the Immortal, manga has always struck me as sort of "meh." I have no clue how many X-Men trade paperbacks I've read, or how many random alternative comics I've gone through, but I was always sort of oblivious to manga.
I think one of the main reasons is that when I worked at a dysfunctional (but charming!) local bookstore, we had loads of the stuff, and it got bought in droves. The manga we had seemed to be mainly about high school girls who really, really wanted to get with superskinny guys. It's not that I disliked manga, I just didn't think that it would appeal to me. The one series that I did read was about an immortal samurai who killed shit-tons of people, and I thought that such amusing morbidity was not the norm for manga.
I think that "amusing morbidity" is a great way to sum up Death Note. The protagonist, Light, is a high schooler, and happens to be a superskinny guy, but the story is, happily, about him killing shit-tons of people. Basically, he has this magic notebook that used to belong to a death god. When he writes someone's name in the notebook while mentally visualizing their face, they die. The protagonist and the death god have a fun dynamic- Light is much more clever than his divine companion, but the god certainly comes off as more intelligent. Both of them manage to impress the reader with their wit on a regular basis.
The story goes from their, with the egotistical young Light being pursued by an anonymous supercop called L, and all the while Light is convinced that he can save the world by killing people. L, meanwhile, methodically tracks him down. Apparently, there's an anime of this, and I'm most interested.
(Speaking of comics, there are links to a bunch of good ones on the right side of this page. All of them contain awesome.)

Shonen Knife
Do you like happiness?
If you do, then, you'll probably like Shonen Knife, as their music is made out of pure happy; happy that is awesomely rendered into sonic form. Rainbows, kittens, and dancing bunnies emanate from their guitars in a superpositive rendering of pop/punk that's superlatively smile-inducing without ever being schlocky. Think of it this way: If the Ramones were to come back from the dead, get a sex change, do a bunch of Prozac, and watch cartoons for four days straight, then you might have something like Shonen Knife.
Also, they have lots of songs in English, which is nice, as their lyrics are about two thirds of the fun. Instead of doing stuff like rhyming "baby" with "crazy" over and over again, they have songs about flying saucers, superheroes, jackalopes, and spam.
Are they guitar virtuosoes? No. Are their songs all three-chord punk chugs? Yes. Do either of those factors matter? Not really. Hot punk women wailing on guitars and screaming about flying saucers is a force of good in the world, methinks. Rock.

Guilty Gear

Back in the land of Eugene, Joseph and I played hours and hours of Soul Calibur. I have no idea how much of our lives we invested into making pseudo-historical people beat the crap out of each other, but I still look back on nights of drinking and fighting fondly. Joseph is freakishly good at fighting games. He's the sort of guy who's good enough to take one move and just kick your ass with it because he thinks it's funny. Aggravating, really, but, I think I've reaped a fair amount of benefits from this kind of abuse.
Because damn, do I kick ass at Guilty Gear. True, I can't yet defeat the scary-hardcore Japanese gamers, but I've dispatched most challengers. And, Ghost Face is yet to beat me, much to his consternation.
I didn't even know this game existed before I came to Japan, but it's the ultimate 2D fighting game. It's a big, cartoony, over-the-top smorgasborg of ninjas, demons, zombies, samurai, and yo-yo weilding transvestite nuns. It's splashy, stupid, and awesome. And, I reliably kick ass at it. And why do I reliably kick ass at it? Probably because I was best friends with a freakish fighting-game savant who has since made everything else seem easy. Thanks, Joseph.

Okay, one more time- Neko, neko, neko, neko. I'm out.

Mar 5, 2007

"Duties Included Teaching, Paperwork, and Dungeon Mastering."

"You tell him that he's an alcoholic jerk," said the mouse puppet, "and if he wants to see me again, he has to stop drinking!"
"Okay," said my student, grinning at the felt animal, "I'll tell him." I put the mouse puppet under the table, and got out the hippo puppet.
"Hello, there!" said the hippo puppet.
"Hello," said my student to the puppet. "Your girlfriend was just here. She wanted me to tell you that you're an alcoholic jerk, and if you want to see her again, you need to stop drinking."
"What?!" said the incredulous land mammal.
My student, at this point, was laughing quite a bit. "She said you need to stop drinking. I think she's right."
The lesson was all about reporting speech- "She wanted me to tell you..." "She said..." "She told me to tell you..." etc. With many students, I'd have had them give messages to each other, but with just one student, I needed a gimmick. So, I got two of the puppets that I sometimes use in kids' classes, and had them fight. The hippo and mouse were a couple who had a terrible argument, and it was my student's job to act as mediator. The hippo was a fat drunk, and the mouse had been having an affair with Hiroshi the delivery man.
Fortunately, my student was able to successfully get them back together, all the while making gleeful use of the lesson's target language. I however, was just thinking to myself "I'm getting paid to play with puppets and make this girl laugh." Life, at that point, was sort of awesome.

What's funny, is that doing stupid stuff like that has actually made my lessons better, not worse. I sort of worried that such actions would be viewed as unprofessional, or that my students would not take me seriously. But, I've found out that when people are relaxed and laughing, their learning ability goes way up.
So, I do dumb stuff in class like making puppets fight. It's amazing, really. When I do this, English isn't something to be dutifully studies or memorized, it turns into something that can be fun and weird. Which is why Dungeons and Dragons is great teaching practice.
Really. D&D helped make me a better teacher. That's right, everyone- fantasy roleplaying games where one pretends to be a halfling have real world applications. Geeks everywhere, you may commence with the rejoicing.
I doubt anyone reading this blog is unacquainted with D&D, but for any chance strangers who are not, here's how it works: A bunch of people sit around and pretend to be stuff they're not. Say, dwarves or something. One person pretends to be Gorfak the Dwarf, someone else pretends to be Fakgor the Dwarf, and still another person pretends to be Bob the Dwarf. One more person invents a world and situations in which these dudes can do stuff. This person is the Dungeon Master.
"You step into the dungeon and you see a troll," says the Dungeon Master (or, DM).
"I hit it with my axe," proclaims Fakgor the Dwarf whilst taking a swig of Mountain Dew.
"It dies," says the DM.
"Huzzah!" exclaim the various dwarves.
And so on.
Back in the states, I played a fair amount of D&D, and usually liked to take on the role of the DM. It was more fun for me to play as various trolls, orcs, vampires, ghosts, zombies, lizardmen, minotaurs, dragons, skeletons, goblins, etc., than as a single character. I also enjoyed constantly having to make up new situations, characters, and worlds for the players to interact with.
Being an English teacher, I've found, is remarkably similar to being a DM. Or, at least my terminally geeky brain has come to that conclusion.
I oftentimes have students do roleplays in class to practice different types of situations. Most of these roleplays are pretty non-weird; they're stuff like "You're the boss, you're the employee," and such. But every so often I slip some odd ones in- recently I had a class where I decided that, appropos of nothing, I would slip robots into all of my example sentences and situations. The students didn't really notice it at first, but by the end they were laughing and enjoying themselves at the broad absurdity of it all.
I keep thinking how it would go over if I tried to run an actual roleplaying game with my students. But, instead of with axes or swords or whatever, they had to use English grammar to kill monsters. I'm thinking something like:
"You're all in a dark chamber filled with zombies. The zombie's only weakness- The pluperfect subjunctive!"
"Eeeek! If I'd known zombies were in here, I would not have come!"
"Ker-splat! A zombie's head explodes!"
I don't think that I'm geeky/shameless enough to try someting like this, and I imagine that most students would give me a sort of blank, weird stare if I attempted something like this. But, nevertheless, teaching English and managing students is a lot like talking to people who are pretending to be elves. At the end of the day, the same sort of communication, explanatory, and group-management skills are needed in either position, as well as enough presence of mind and charisma to make sure that everyone is having a good time.
Now, if I can only find a practical application for all those video games I've played...

Mar 2, 2007

Anecdotal Little Bits- The Sequel

The Death of Smalltalk
I like to begin all my lessons with easy smalltalk . I think of it sort of like stretching before exercise- something that gets students used to the language and ready to do more with it. And, I almost always ask "How are you," first thing.
"How are you," I asked a student.
"I'm very bad," she replied, looking depressed.
"Oh," I said, "why is that?" I thought, hopefully, I could cheer her up.
"My friend died."
The room was silent for what dramatists would call "a beat." I think my mouth hung open a little.
"I'm sorry," I said.
She blew her nose. The lesson was very, very low key.

Someone Likes Her Bishi Boys
So, this student was going on about makeup.
Here in Japan, women are basically expected to wear makeup more or less all the time. And, this girl was talking about how she was really, really annoyed by women who chose not to. "It looks messy," she said "women should be beautiful."
Personally, I think this is complete bullshit, and I'd much rather find myself in the company of a woman sans-makeup than with. But, I wasn't about to say as much. Japan has sexist stuff in it, and I'm not going to be able to change it. There are plenty of young, liberal people in Japan who want change, and they're the ones who are going to bring it about.
But, I couldn't resist saying-
"What about guys? Why don't guys have to wear makeup?"
"They should!" she said with surprising enthusiasm, "Guys in makeup are really hot! So hot!"
I couldn't very well call this conclusion "sexist," so I decided to change the subject.
"You'd look good with long eyelashes," she said.

"Not tonight kids, Fido is tired."
I was trying to teach some kids "I need to..." phrases. "I need to do my homework," "I need to clean my room," "I need to walk my dog," etc.
"I need to do my homework!' I said to them, holding up an illustration.
"I need to do my homework!" they all said.
"I need to walk my dog!" I said
"I need to do my dog!" they said.
I just started laughing. But, I have to give them credit for thinking about the verb "do."

Wrong On So Many Levels- Like Levels 58 and 305
We recently got a company email where one of the managers tried to be cute. She made this photoshop of the famous Iwo Jima picture- you know, the one where the American soldiers are all raising the flag together. But, she photoshopped out the American flag and replaced it with a flag bearing the company logo.
Hip Hop opened the email, and said "Look at this."
"Who the hell thought that was funny?" I asked.
He told me the manager's name. "As a Japanese person, I find that really offensive," he said.
"I can empathize," I replied. He asked me if I was offended that the American flag was desecrated in the name of "humor." I told him that us Americans desecrate the flag ourselves all the time, so that it wans't a big deal, but I did find it distasteful nonetheless because it was an image of war tweaked in the name of "cuteness."
He sent the manager in question a pissed off email, muttering the word "idiot" on several occasions.