Jul 31, 2007

In Which the LDP Gets Trounced. Woo!

For the past year, Shinzo Abe's cabinet has at least been entertaining.
Well, entertaining in a horrible sort of way.
One of them had to apologize for calling women "breeding machines," another said that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "couldn't have been helped," and still another hung himself before he could be investigated for corruption charges. And of course there's the matter of tons of missing pension documents, something that's given Japan's old people one more thing to be cantankerous about. The Japanese cabinet lately has been a sort of tragic comedy of errors that begs to be mocked by someone like John Stewart. Of course, he's busy mocking our own government. But, for the local Japanese John Stewart types, the past year has been the sort of pure comedy gold that only comes from utter political incompetence.
And on Sunday, Abe's party got their ass kicked. I'm very happy about this.
The party that's dominated Japanese politics for decades now is the Liberal Democratic Party, an entity that brings to mind Voltaire's description of the Holy Roman Empire. Just as that Germanic landmass was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, the LDP is certainly not liberal, not especially democratic, and not really a party either.
Instead, it's a mass of factions and interest groups held together by a common (though not always coherent) conservative political ideology, and a network of political relationships, convenient alliances, favors, and vague nationalism. It's certainly not as right-wing as the various splinter groups in Japan (like the guys I saw in Osaka), but it's certainly not progressive. I don't pretend that legislation can dictate culture, but I certainly don't think that the LDP's decades-long reign has helped Japan with regards to stuff like women's rights, workers getting overtime pay, or the institution of more reasonable working hours. I do think that Japan is changing, and have every confidence (I admit, maybe naively) that it will. And, I think that one of the key things that needs to happen for Japan to liberalize is for the LDP to get knocked around a bit.
Which is just what happened yesterday.
The opposition party, the more liberal Democratic Party of Japan, now controls the parliament's weaker upper house. They can't force Abe to resign (though at this time, there's pressure for him to do so) but they certainly can make the LDP's life more difficult. Again, I don't think that culture can necessarily be legislated, and I don't think that this is the be-all and end-all of what needs to happen in Japan. But nevertheless, I'm quite happy about it.
It'll take a while. It might take a long while. But right now, I do think that Japan is on the right track.

Jul 20, 2007

In Which I Get Hit By a Car

So, there's this stereotype in Japan that people from Okayama are bad drivers.
It turns out this is true, as one of them hit me last night.
I was on my bike, crossing a narrow street, and all of a sudden a car turned, suddenly, and hit me as I was in the crosswalk and he was rounding the intersection. Fortunately for me, he hit the back of my bike and not my leg, and I proceeded to go flying off of my bike.
You know that thing they say about time slowing down when you're filled with adrenaline? Quite accurate, actually. It was probably just a few seconds, but from the moment the car hit my bike, time really did seem to slow down in all of the typical ways that they say it does. I fell/leapt from my bike, freeing my leg from the space between my ride and the car. In front of me was the sidewalk, and I successfully managed to land there rather than on the street in the path of the car. My left hip (which still hurts a bit) hit first, followed slowly/quickly by my left arm and right hand. I managed to tuck my head, though. The expanse of my back and shoulders took the rest of the weight of the fall, and I'm somewhat proud of my reflexes, as they ensured that my skull did not hit sidewalk.
I watched the car slide a bit more into my bike, which is a gratefully sturdy machine until it eventually stopped. I lay there in the glare of the headlights, covered in a spontaneous sweat, and found myself suddenly very, very pissed off.
More than anything else, I was angry. I wasn't worried about broken bones or bleeding, I wasn't thinking about any of that. The only thing I wanted to do was to physically retaliate against the man who'd done this to me, the man who was emerging from his car at that moment.
He opened the door and said something frantically in Japanese that I couldn't understand, and then stopped suddenly when he saw I was a foreigner. I don't know what I looked like at that point- I probably looked angry as I forced my left leg to cooperate.
(In retrospect, this guy was probably scared out of his mind. He'd hit a guy, which is bad enough, but that guy happened to be a six-foot pissed of white dude. Foreigners seem to make people nervous often enough- I imagine that an angry, bloody foreigner would be even more cause for alarm.)
He seemed like a normal business guy, maybe in his forties. His shirt was undone and his tie hanging loose, and he looked like he'd just come off of one of Japan's typically long days at work. He looked at me and nervously said,
"Nihongo...?" Meaning, "Japanese." I told him that I study Japanese but don't know a lot. He asked if I was alright. I said "I don't know, maybe."
And, at this point, I really, really wanted to punch him.
He'd hit me with his car, after all. I'd been thrown to the ground and bloodied up because of him, and I wanted to physically retaliate. Perhaps I'd hit him in the neck or throw him down on the same sidewalk that I fell onto- my imagination was not keeping up with the kind of violence that I wanted to commit.
But I didn't, of course.
I think it was the language barrier that stayed my hand. As soon as he said "Nihongo...?" I was put into a frame of mind where I had to think. Speaking the Japanese I know doesn't require much thinking, but I still need to put myself in a specific mental place in order to do it, if that makes any sense. Because I had to go to that specific mental place and say something, even a simple something, in Japanese, my more reasonable parts won out.
And, after I said "I don't know, maybe." He got in his car and drove away. In an abstract, moral sense I was glad, am still glad, that I didn't retaliate. But in a more visceral, emotional way I still wish that I'd done something to him, even though I know that it would probably not have been wise.
I went home and washed up. I'm fine- just a few cuts, though my left hip still feels sort of weird. Nasty cut on the right hand though- it'll be fun to explain to students.
Goddamn Okayama drivers. They really do suck.

Jul 8, 2007

How I Got All Culture Shocked Even Though I Tried To Be All Stoic About It, and Have Subsequently Decided That I Don't Mind Being an Outsider

So, a flashback-
Back in the days of high school, I had this system. This was ten years ago- I thought that the lyrics of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness were basically the most profound thing, and spent a fair amount of time spouting pseudo-deep anti-profundities with other members of the speech and debate team. One of these pseudo-deep anti-profundities was the Emotional Fiat System.
I can't take credit for inventing the name. The name was the invention of one of my debate teammates, but we both had a hand in the tenants of the system. Also, I'm pretty sure that it was invented during statistics class. The basic idea was that sufficient intelligence could trump emotion in all manners.
Emotion and such, we thought, was for the weak. It was for those people who were too dumb to see through to the truth, too lacking in will to mentally discipline themselves. We believed (or thought we believed) that we could train our minds to always experience a feeling of detatched bliss, always float above the world in a state of Vulcan-like perfection. I think we might have even used the word "ubermensch" unironically when talking about this.
Obviously, we wised up. I haven't kept in touch with my former comrade in stoicism, but I'm pretty sure the Emotional Fiat System went flying out the when I decided that kissing girls is totally cooler than making pretentious pronoucements. After that, I was just confused a lot.
Anyway, that's the type of thing that I like to look back on with a bemused mixture of humor, irony, and wistfulness. You know the various campy emotions contained in Wonder Years voiceovers? That's how I like to think of the Emotional Fiat System.
I think of myself as an emotionally mature person, but part of me is still that weird little speech and debate geek who thought he could get over everything by thinking. For instance, there was a part of me that really believed that I could beat homesickness just by thinking about it. Really. I thought, that if I just kept being cognizant of homesickness as a phenomena, it would never occur to me.
This strategy does not work. At all.
At least this time, I've kept open the possiblity that I could become homesick.
But, that's not really what I wanted to write about. I've already written about homesickness in general, and it's kind of a dull topic as it is. I suppose what I want to say is that, despite my best efforts, despite all my rationalizing, despite the fact that I thought about this phenomena, I got really homesick, and was very, very culture shocked when I got here.
I can only really adequately reflect upon this in retrospect. It's quite strange to think that I went through all sorts of times and episodes where I had no idea that I was having an emotional reaction to an alien environment. There were all sorts of times when I felt strange, was in a bad mood, or depressed, and I thought that it was something sourceless or groundless. I know now that I had a bit of trouble adapting to living in a foreign place, which is something that happens to everyone. Given that prior to this experience I'd never ventured outside of the U.S., that compounded the whole experience.
I'm alright now. But, I remember having all of my strengths kicked out from under me. My sense of humor- useless. Sarcasm doesn't work here. My way of speaking -articulate by American standards, but speedy and incomprehensible to Japanese. Too many colloquialisms and big words. The fact that I'm well-read- doesn't matter. I was illiterate when I got here.
So, for a while, I thought that those strengths were gone. I thought that everything that made me a talented person was irrelevant given the circumstances, and that other, ephemeral, undefined skills were needed to succeed here. In particular, I thought that I was an idiot because I could neither speak nor read Japanese. At present, I'm one of the only foreigners that I know who doesn't have more than day-to-day fluency (All of my coworkers speak Japanese, as well as a few other foreign friends). Plenty of other people can have conversations. I can do stuff like go shopping and order things. For quite a while I thought I was a sort of pariah for my lack of language skills- it was as if I was some sort of intruder or uninvited guest, that my ignorance was something hateable. Not only was I an intruder, but a stupid intruder, a barbarian, lower in intelligence than Faulkner's idiot man-child.
Which, of course, was a load of bullshit.
Most foreigners here don't speak Japanese. The fact that most everyone in Okayama-Kurashiki does is rather freakish. Also, Japanese is not some incomprehensible super-difficult code of mystery that foreigners can't learn. The spoken language is actually really easy, Hiragana and Katakana quite simple compared to the Roman alphabet, and even Kanji starts to make sense when you study it a bit and see it all the time.
Studying Japanese, having the bits of the language fall into place, was something that reminded me that I could do this, that I was not an idiot, and that I did, indeed, have skills.
So they came back- My sense of humor? Hey, I can't use baroque sarcasm, but I can still make my students laugh with weird stuff and over the top humor. I'm still a funny guy. My way of speaking? If I can make big, weird sentences and whatnot than I can definitely be concise and understandable to non native speakers. The fact that I'm well read? I love to learn stuff already, so that definitely makes learning about the language and culture much easier. I'm also dorking out over Japanese history. Last night a student of mine and I talked all about Japanese folktales. It was great.
It's odd, though, thinking that all of the lousy parts of moving to a foreign country are a step on the way to this kind of thing. I'm having a great time, but integral to having a great time now is having a less-than-great time then. Every so often, I think to myself "Wow, I'm in Japan," and exult in that fact.
Now, I actually sort of enjoy being a foreigner. That might sound a bit strange, and there might come a time when I get sick of the sensation, but now I actually like the fact that I'm an outsider. I'm looking out my apartment window right now, and I can see all manner of cars, a few bicycles, and some people in the nearby parking lot. All of those people are having a normal Sunday, doing things that they would do on their day off. Lucky me, though, I'm having an adventure. I'm in a place where I'm challenged and bothered and aggravated and inspired by everyday things, much more so, I think, than any of the folks presently within my field of vision.
I like that, actually. And I like to think that right now, somewhere in Portland or Eugene, some Japanese exchange student is looking out their window onto a normal American day, all the while struggling with English and a strange culture, and all the while loving it. I hope that's happening right now. I'm sure it is, actually.