Dec 31, 2008

2008: Most Awesomest Year Ever

I've thought about it for a bit, and I really don't think it's an exaggeration to proclaim that 2008 is the single Most Awesomest Year I've ever had. Yes, it was so awesome it made English grammar contort itself.

This was the year in which I hung out in the biggest city in the world, made an eye-opening trip to China, took up cycling, hiked in Korea and saw the DMZ, saw Kabuki for the first time, learned tons of Japanese in an awesome class, took (and possibly passed) the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, saw snow-covered sumo wrestlers throw beans at people, saw more than a few giant Buddhas, played lots of frisbee, appreciated the giant temple that's right by my apartment, read a bunch of brilliant authors for the first time, made some awesome friends, and decided what sort of career I want later in life. All in all, it was exceedingly kickass. A few memorable pictures:


This statue of a wandering monk is towards the back of Narita-San, the temple I live near. There are myriad statues of monks, Buddhas, and gods throughout the temple, either on pedestals or worked into the rocks. It's the second largest Buddhist temple in Japan, and it's become a place I quite love, particularly at night when all of the shadows make everything look menacing. This picture was taken in March when Japan's iconic sakura were out.


Some rather enthusiastic participants at Kawasaki's annual springtime fertility festival.


Kawasaki's Buddhist temple on the same day as the Shinto penis festival. The Buddhist temple was a bit more sedate than the nearby Shinto shrine, but still bustling.


A view of Zhouzhuang, a water village just outside Shanghai.


Shanghai's unmistakable Pudong skyline by night. Seeing all of the newness, all of the development, commerce and newly built infrastructure was amazing. All the while, antiquated red flags flapped in the wind.


I took this pictures while surrounded by the noise, lights, and heat of Narita's summer festival. The wooden wagon, called a dashi, was pulled up the hill by a team of enthusiastic (and somewhat tipsy) Naritans, all the while cheered on by the crowds.


Things made by enthusiastic Japanese Star Wars fans have tons more life in them than anything made by Lucasfilm.


Seoul's statue of Admiral Ye Sun Sin, the man who helped to thwart Toyotomi Hideyoshi's plans for a conquest of Korea. And he did it with turtle ships, some of the first marine armor ever created. The whole of Korea was great. If anything, I got the satisfaction of learning to read (though not necessarily understand) Hangeul.

Unfortunately, I don't really have an pictures of the place that has meant the most to me this past year: Tokyo. I don't bother to bring my camera with me when I go into town, though I should probably get a few shots of the place before I leave. Admittedly, I love Tokyo so much mainly because I don't have to live there. I live out in Narita, an hour away from Tokyo station, and the Metropolis is mainly my playground on the weekend. But what a playground it is. Whenever I get off the train I'm enthusiastic about doing stuff, about not having to be a teacher in the suburbs anymore- instead I get to be a city guy for a bit. I've got a month and a half left of this awesome place, and I know I'll miss it terribly.

But missing it is entirely necessary. In 2009 I'm starting my career.

Dec 29, 2008

In Which I Get a Personal Stereophonic Device

I bought an iPod yesterday. Not "a new" iPod, mind you- I bought an iPod for the first time ever. It's the first personal stereo that I've owned in twelve years. The last time I had one I was a black-clad, sideburn-sporting teenager equally obsessed with Kurt Cobain and Mozart. It was a battered up old Walkman, a taped together mass of black plastic that I kept stocked with classical mix tapes, Led Zepplin, and 90s alternative. I don't remember how I got it, the earphones were dodgy, and I had to sort of jiggle it sometimes to make it work. I either lost it or it broke- I don't really remember, and never bothered to replace it.

Not that I don't like music, mind you. I love the stuff, and in the intervening years have cultivated a fairly large collection of LPs, CDs, mp3s, and even casette tapes, the majority of which are stored back in the States. In my old demi-house (it was more of a duplex than an apartment) I was quite proud of my stereo with my shelf of nicely retro LPs, kept my CDs stocked prominently in my living room, and went to concerts often. But, I never got an iPod. Part of the reason was money- they aren't cheap after all. I also listened to a lot of music on cheap and easy-to-aquire vinyl that could never be stored on a digital device. Another issue, though, was that I never really thought of myself as someone who owned such a device. It was just an immutable fact about me- I have black hair, brown eyes, and don't own a personal sterophonic device.

Recently, though, I've been going on this tear of musical geekery. It's been great. For whatever reason, I've started aquiring new albums at a fairly rapid pace, and I'm quite simply not in my apartment enough to enjoy them all. I've also taken up jogging, and figured that music would be nice while I did that. So, yesterday, I picked up a silver iPod nano in Shibuya. I was weirdly reluctant for a bit to get one, but fortunately a friend of mine was on hand to goad me into it.

Anyway, these things are awesome. I guess everyone has known that for a while ago, what with the Walkman and its descendants being popular for something over twenty years now. You know that stock sci-fi scene where someone gets zapped back into the past and then impressed cavemen with something simple like a lighter? Well, right now I feel like that caveman- I'm impressed and awed by something that everyone else has been aware of and enjoying for quite some time now. But, it's great- I didn't have to listen to insufferable muzak jingles at the supermarket this weekend. Instead, I listened to Vampire Weekend while I picked out vegetables, and was completely exhuberant about it.

So, what are you guys listening to right now? I'm caught up in full on music fandom and would love some suggestions. Right now I've been listening to Girl Talk, Vampire Weekend (who I've already mentioned), the new David Byrne and Brian Eno album, TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem and Frightened Rabbit. I've also given Chinese Democracy a couple of listens, which I feel like I should be embarrassed about, but whatever.

So... suggestions?

Dec 23, 2008

Better Than Palanquins

Palanquins are silly. Sillier even than the most outsized of SUVs. As much as one can display conspicuous consumption today with a stupidly large car, that pales in comparison to being carted around by two or more humans whilst inside a gold box. And, it was precisely these monstrosities of wealth that a friend and I were looking at this weekend, at a special exhibit at the Edo Tokyo Museum.

The whole display was a showcase of indulgence. What we were looking at were the playthings for the very rich, objects that only a sliver of the population actually utilized. I pointed this out to my friend and she said, "Yes, but the rich were the ones who made all the decisions and started all of the wars." I can't really argue with that. But still, looking at playthings and status symbols is not wholly satisfying. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy them- I did. Just that looking at such a tiny sliver privileged life for so long tends to provoke a bit of irritation at the decadence.

One amusing thing, though- towards the end of the palanquin exhibit, there was a showcase full of objects that belonged to a princess whose things were on display. Amongst them were a laquerware basin and towel rack which looked like, well, a basin and towel rack. There were also helpful little labels that said "basin" and "towel rack" in English. Nevertheless, this older woman decided to help us out by pointing at the objects, and mime washing one's face and using a towel. This was really rather endearing, her making sure that we foreigners understood what the objects were. On the other hand, presuming that we were ignorant of such basic objects such as a basin was a bit patronizing. It was sort of sweet of her, nonetheless.

We ventured out of the palanquin exhibit, into and through a gift shop selling bowls for over ten thousand yen, and up into the normal exhibition hall wherein I lots of stuff far more interesting that the feudal equivalent of SUVs resided.

Like books. Books that were printed with old style woodblock presses, books bound together with strings and lavishly decorated on the covers and inside with all manner of illustrations. These were the publishing products of a feudal society and a direct descendant of mass media. Also impressive were the woodblocks- mass produced bits of adornment and entertainment, made in great numbers and sold to the public. There was likewise a whole exhibit about coinage and currency, of which there were apparently several kinds in the Edo era, in addition to using rice as a currency. I wondered how inflation worked back then, and at what rates the different currencies were transferable to each other.

These things, books, prints and coins, were about ideas and communication, commerce and the popular sentiment of a place. Seeing these old examples of popular culture, the direct descendants of manga, newspapers, and publishing houses, inspired me far more than any relic of a gilded, idle life. These things were products of a vibrant society, not just a tiny minority.

The next day I got into an IM conversation with an old friend of mine, and he mentioned that he'd been reading up on the Heian period, and would have loved to have been a noble back then. I mentioned that I was far more interested in Japan's modern era, and studying the rapid rate of modernization in the Meiji period could be instructive with regards to the speedy modernization happening now in other parts of the world. He replied with something about the importance of beauty and poetry and whatnot.

I can't dispute that such things- beauty, poetry, adornment- are nice. I do, after all, rather like seeing temples, shrines, screens, and statuary, things which are hardly practical in the strictest sense. Yet, I want to look at history with a practical, not just an aesthetic eye. I want to see how problems were solved, how goals were persued, how technology was applied, how organizations were administed, and what the result of it all was. A book, after all, is just a book. But seeing the Edo era prints called into mind an entire infrastructure that would have to exist to sustain such things. If books were popular enough to be printed and sold, then that means literacy was widespread. It also means that the economic and agricultural structure of society (even though it's often called "feudal") had to be efficient enough to support sizable (albeit, still minority) non-agrarian specialist population. That is highly cool to find out about.

For better or worse, I've also started thinking about broad-based societal phenomenon in a professionally curious way. As I continue to review political science, I'm more and more seeing myself as someone who will be entangled with the infrastructure and workings of societies. And that means knowing about industry, media, and commerce. These things are sizable and engaging, and soon I'm hoping to see such things in more than just an amateur fashion.

Dec 19, 2008

Christmastime in Japan

I like Christmas. That might come as a surprise to some of the people who know me, as there are lots of things about it that annoy the hell out of me. For the most part, I agree with everything that noted atheist/drunkard Christopher Hitchens has to say in this rather characteristic column. It is indeed a nightmare of consumerism, stress, religiosity, and vulgarity. But, on the whole, it's worth it. It gives everyone a few days off at the end of the year, drives the economy a bit, and gives us yet another reason to consume grossly obese birds. Also, I like the Nutcracker Suite and the novelty of having an indoor tree.

Well, it's more than that. I remember when I shared an apartment with an old girlfriend and we agreed to get a tree. Neither of us believed, and neither of us cared much for the family stress that we'd have to endure come Christmas Eve and Day. But still, be got ourselves a tree and set it up in our apartment, festooning it with a few ornaments and lights. Even though our relationship didn't last, I remember looking at that tree and thinking to myself "This is real- we actually have a connection. We got ourselves a goddamn tree." I remember looking at it and thinking "this is my home now." It was a feeling that was fleeting, but wonderful, and all because of something as simple proping up an evergreen in one's living room. In other words, I know I can't escape the emotional connection that I have with this holiday- it is something that is fairly ingrained in me, and I will probably acknowledge Christmas in much the same way that I acknowledge Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Indepedence Day in my own way.

Now, as much of a distaste as I have for religion in general, I tend to prefer the religious trappings of Christmas to the secular ones. Really- I'm not being ironic here. I'd take a nativity scene over Frosty the Snowman any day, and vastly prefer O Holy Night to any such dreck as Winter Wonderland. I suppose the reason for this is that the religious stuff seems to come from a real place on the part of the creators. This is not to say that relgious stuff can't be ingenuine or kitsch (it most certainly can). What I mean is that the non-secular trappings of Christmas are generally more real, emotion-laden, and unmediated than the non-religious kinds. And, even as a devout humanist I'm capable of enjoying such things on an aesthetic level. Much in the same way that I admire Dante, I also admire Adeste Fidelis.

Which brings me to Japan...

There is Christmas in Japan. Oh my, is there ever Christmas in Japan. But, Japan is not a Christian country. Nor is it particularly Buddhist or Shinto. Based on conversations I've had here, it seems that Japan has ceremony without devotion, and secularism without abstention from ceremony. A very intelligent and articulate student of mine said to me "When we are at the temple we are Buddhist, when we are at the shrine we are Shinto, and on Christmas we are Christian." I can't say that she speaks for the entire population, to be sure, but her words stuck with me.

I think that she's wrong on the last point, though- while Christmas is most certainly in the air here, there is nothing particularly Christian about it. It's a season and time of naked consumerism, a festival of lights and shopping that culminates in the consumption of fried chicken, cake, and subsequent sexual coupling. I'm not kidding- "Christmas Cake" is a popular confection here, and students are surprised when I tell them that it's utterly absent in the U.S. Likewise, KFC has somehow gotten itself brand-identified as Christmas food in Japan. I have to applaud whatever evil marketing genius is responsible for that. And, somehow, Christmas has turned into a popular date night, where young Japanese couples spirt off to love hotels and celebrate Jesus' birthday by fucking the shit out each other. While I think Jesus, hippy-type that he was, would probably be amused by this course of action, it is a little weird. There is a Christmas-themed love hotel near my apatment that is quite the sight to behold. The whole place, year-round, is decked out with wreaths, lights, candy canes, Santa, etc. And here, all that stuff means "let's do it."

In any case, it's a curious and obnoxious sensation, seeing all of this. I was walking today in one of the Chiba suburbs where I teach, and plinky, midi-like versions of Christmas carols were being piped through the street's PA system. I wondered how many of the bent old women actually knew the lyrics of, or much cared for, the treacle that was being pumped into their public space. I noticed that all of them were generic holiday tunes only about winter, snow, jingle bells, and Rudolph. Nothing at all religious or devotional, nothing with an emotional core.

Why? Because here Christmas is even more shallow, more consumer-oriented, more superficial than in the U.S. In the U.S. Christmas is a main festival of western civilization, and here it is merely an unofficial holiday that's all about shiny things and buying stuff. And Japan is nakedly unapologetic about that. There is no patina of devotion or meaning to it, no veneer of greater significance, no pretension of importance. Only lights, gifts, and empty adornment.

I don't disapprove of this, mind you. I believe that Japan has every right to adopt our shallow gestures and use them for it's own benefit. Yet, I feel a bit of nostalgia for the emotional core of it all, of seeing my Catholic father's genuine joy at the holiday, of hearing Linus earnestly intone the Gospel of Luke at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

To be sure, the nonbeliever in me can't complain- I would gladly see the entire relgion that venerates Christmas consigned to the dustbin of history. Yet, I balk at the emptiness of yet another repitition of idiotic non-songs such as Jingle Bells. Here in Japan there is a shell and surface, but nothing behind that blinking lights.

Dec 15, 2008

Knowledge is Nifty!

For some reason, I sort of like getting up early. There's a sense of purpose to it.

Two weeks ago, I got up early and peeled myself out of bed to go to Nihon University to take the third level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. It was quite the thing. I'd taken the test before, last year, and failed. But last year I really should have taken a much lower level. Last year was kind of like being trampled by an angry rhino that was made out of language. This year was much better, and I may have even actually passed the thing. Even if I didn't pass, though, it was an awesome experience because of the mental place that it put me in.

I've been studying for my entire time in Japan, but I been studied far more intensely than normal the week before the test, and loved it. Absolutely loving it. I studied so much that I got a sort of high off of it. Really. For the entire week beforehand I'd made myself do little else with my free time, and while I definitely couldn't keep up that level of work all the time, it was great while it lasted. Finding stuff out, seeing how systems work, looking at a pile of information and seeing how it all fits together is one of the most pleasurable sensations ever. To suddenly understand something new, to have a new skill or ability, to see the world in a new way- that is a niftier aquisition than any new object.

Seriously. Knowing stuff rocks.

Anyway, nerdy knowledge junky that I am, the test gave me a focus and reason for my studies. I'm fairly goal-oriented, and something like the test is just the sort of thing that can make me work and act in such a way that I wouldn't be able to under normal circumstances. Also, the experience of the test was wonderful compared to last year. Like I said, last year's examinating trampled me handily. This time, though, I actually understood almost everything that was on it. I didn't know all of the vocabulary, and on some of the finer points of grammar I had to guess, but even in questions where I didn't know the specifics of the language mechanics I was still able to understand what the sentence was about. That's a fairly big deal, and comparing that with last year's experience gave me an awesome feeling of progress.

Afterwards I joined a bunch of friends (several of whom had also taken the test) and we commemorated our academic endeavors by getting absolutely trashed on Brazilian sugar-cane booze. Fun times.

Come February, I've another test to prepare for- the U.S. Foreign Service Officer Exam. While I'm still studying Japanese for the fun and immediate utility of it, I'm also refreshing my knowledge of political science. Yay studying! Yay knowing stuff! Yay!

Dec 3, 2008

Aspiring to 61%

I've been pacing around my apartment a lot, listening to Japanesepod101, sitting with my textbooks on trains and in coffee shops, and have given myself a temporary respite from studying political science. During my breaks at work I've closed the door to my classroom and am reviewing grammar and testing myself with flash cards. The primary forms of leisure that I've allowed myself are either reading Dragonball in Japanese, or watching Witch Hunter Robin (albeit with subtitles), so that I don't have to exit my Japanese brain space more than is necessary. Yesterday I tried to limit the amount of English that I used with my manager and coworker (much to their amusement) and have generally tried to soak my brain in the language.

Why on earth am I doing this, you ask? On Sunday I'm taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, third level. This is the same test that I took last year, and failed. Granted, last year I was biting off a bit more than I could chew- I really should have taken the fourth level, the lowest one. I'm a bit more confident this time around- hopefully my brain will be sufficiently marinated in Nihongo that I pass.

But, the test is a bitch. So much of what I know I've learned from context, and the test is entirely decontextualized. This is good and bad. On one hand, language is always in context, so the test (much like many English test) is very artificial. On the other hand, it really does test whether or not you know the language in and of itself, not just whether you can read situations and deduce stuff.

Anyhow, this has made having to teach English a little odd. I'd rather be a student now, and would like to selfishly refrain from having to teach my own language. But, my free time is packed with an intesity of study that I never had when I was a university student, which is a nifty feeling.

To pass, all I need is over sixty percent. Here's hoping for sixty one...

Nov 21, 2008

Book Rant: Samuel Huntington is Wrong

Given that I'm taking the U.S. Foreign Service Exam in February, I've been devouring political science books for the past two months. Recently, I held my nose and picked up The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington. I read Huntington's original article in Foreign Affairs back in university, and found him to be a deplorable xenophobe. Nevertheless, he is widely quoted, refuted, and talked about, so reading what he had to say was important for my autodiactic endeavors.

To sum up Huntington's argument: The principal divisions in the world are now among so-called "civilizations." Huntinton names seven major ones- Western, Latin American, Orthodox, Islamic, Hindu, Chinese, and Japanese. He also identifies separate African and Buddhist civilizations, but does not regard them as of major importance. These divisions, says Huntington, will define the chief source of conflicts after the Cold War. The violence and competition of the future will mainly come from competition between Western, Chinese, and Islamic civilizations.

Back when I was a student of political science, I found his divisions to be curious and unecessary. Now that I've lived for over two years in another "civilization," I find his divisions to be not only odd, but actually destructive. Civilizations do not have clear-cut borders, there are divisions within civilizations, and culture is more changeable than he imagines.

To be fair, Huntington does have a point when he says that culture matters. Culture is important, and must be taken into account to an extent. However, Huntington seems to think that culture is both immutable and overpowers all other concerns. Japan in particular, I think, offers a nice refutation of Huntington's views.

A bit over one hundred fifty years ago, the spot at which I'm now sitting was a rural patch in a closed, feudal state. The U.S. and Europe had factories, industry, democracy, liberal economic systems, railroads and steam engines in the 1860s. Japan didn't. Japan had rice fields, swords, and a system of medieval patronage wherein the Shogunate hoped to keep the social order frozen in time. Had Samuel Huntington been around then, he would have written off Japan with the same sort of dismissal that he gave to Africa and Latin America.

Then, that whole culture was scrapped. The Meiji Restoration is really, really mind blowing when you think about it. The whole medieval system was scrapped, the entire country was industrialized, and the whole culture was overhauled. Of course, there were members of the samurai class who resisted, but the modernizers carried the day. The modernizers of the Meiji Restoration didn't want Japan to be a backwater, didn't want it to be controlled the way China was being controlled, and wanted to create a globally competitive nation. And they did, much to the peril of China and Korea. As awful as some of the things that Imperial Japan did, it is worth emphasizing that modernizers within Japanese society determined that economic prosperity, national security, and global competitiveness were more important than conservative notions of cultural identity.

This all happened again at the end of WWII. This time, the emperor system revealed itself to be an inefficient, dangerous, and unsuccessful model in the twentieth century. From what I've read, it seems that the American forces were extremely surprised with how little resistance and hostility they encountered when they came in and began the process of democratizing Japan. The reason for this was that modernizers within the society saw clearly that the prevailing cultural system had failed. Cultural systems, like economic systems, have to be accountable to their populations. They have to retain legitimacy, otherwise you get things like the Meiji Restoration and postwar Japan. Culture is not the unchangeable and implacable roadblock to global accord that Huntington imagines. It is something that can be altered, destroyed, upgraded and improved by determined liberals.

There will always be conservatives like Huntington who cling to antiquated notions of culture and declare them to be a fundamental truth. But, the fact of the matter is that Western society now is radically different from Western society even fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Now, gay people can be happily married in countries like Canada and Spain. China is no longer really communist. Here in Japan, the generation gap is gaping. Huntington's notions do not stand up to the dynamism of the world today, where economic and technological trends chip away at old notions.

Some years ago, I read an interview with Marjane Satrapi in Salon. At the end of the interview she said something to the reporter that I thought nicely summed up their interaction and conversation. Speaking of the Iranian regime and the Bush administration she said that "The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same."

Satrapi's comment, while a little on the pithy side, accurately illustrates how liberal-minded, modern-minded and internationally people can relate to each other, especially when governments do not foster a mood of international cooperation or accord. Her insights are especially interesting given that she's from Iran.

Anyway, I'm glad I got Huntington out of the way. There's only so much of his doomsaying and xenophobia I could take. I'm reading Thomas Friedman now, and he's sort of obnoxious in the other direction, what with incessantly declaring how flat the world is and all. But, he's a nice antidote to Huntington's backward-looking cultural myopia.

Nov 13, 2008

xkcd: Font of Geographical Profundity

I completely identify with this. Even more so because I live in "The East" yet I'm from the American west coast (which of course is east of here).

I also read somewhere that in Japan "the West" traditionally meant China.

Nov 12, 2008

(Un)Teacher

I've been most successful as a teacher when I've stopped teaching. I know that sounds like some stereotypically "Zen" thing to say or whatnot, but it's true.

People don't learn English (or any language) to do grammar drills or rote practices. Those things are, at best, a necessary burden. At worst such blunt, direct means serve as dangerous demotivators. Language is communication. It is one human talking to another. It is not grammar or vocabulary. Grammar and vocabulary are tools that humans make use of in order to make communication better and more specific. They are means to a universal end.

One of the best ways to teach new language items is to expose students to the meaning and feeling behind them, to show them that there is life and verve in words and structure. I've started telling students that "grammar has feeling," and they tend to look at me oddly, but it's true. Consider the examples-

"Having done that task, I will do my homework."

vs.

"I'll do my homework when I'm done."

Tell me: which one sounds like something voiced by a normal schoolkid, and which one sounds like a precocious little poindexter said it? There really is a lot of feeling conveyed grammar, and it's cool to see when students realize that.

To say that I've taught best when I've stopped teaching, then, is to say that I know that I impart the emotional character and feeling of language best on students when they see me as an approachable fellow human rather who happens to be knowledgeable about a particular subject (English) rather than as a teacher. I've been least successful when I've tried to use my supposed authority to pound and drill language into other people's heads. When I've been the most honest with students, the most friendly, and the most genuine, I've also been the most successful as a source of English.

Funny, that.

Nov 5, 2008

Upon the Occasion of the Election of Barack Obama

(Every so often I just want to use really flowery language. Today was one of those days.)

I woke up this morning, the morning of November 5th, crawled off of my futon, and began to check election results. The polls hadn't closed yet, and the various news sites were just flurries of speculation and unreliable exit polls. As I write this now, MSNBC has called Pennsylvania for Obama, and the New York Times, though not willing to make the same definite pronouncement, shows Obama in the lead in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. This election is over, and Obama has won.

My students, throughout the election, have had all manner of questions for me about it. Almost all of them know that I majored in Political Science, and when asked directly about my political beliefs I am honest with them. There are two questions that they've asked me at the start of conversations: Whom I support (Obama) and why do I support him. The answer to that second question is a bit more complicated. (I always try to turn the conversation around and ask them about the Japanese government as well. Most often, students lead in with a laugh about how the new PM, Taro Aso, is a huge otaku.)

Why do I support Obama? Why am I filled with glee and buzz as I'm reloading news sites in the other tabs on my browsers? I want the answer to be something more substantive and well thought-out than "because he's a Democrat." I am a Democrat, and a liberal one at that. But, I want my opinions to come from reason and discernment rather than an emotional sense of partisanship.

Why do I support Obama? One of the biggest reasons, is seeing how positively my students talk about him. I've seen several Japanese people smile and speak approvingly of the Democratic candidate, and what he represents about the U.S. One of Obama's greatest strengths (and perhaps a huge stumbling block to his presidency) is that he is a symbol as well as a man. This will undoubtably lead to a certain amount of disappointment from people who see him as the Second Coming, but this rare asset is also something that can help us (that is, the U.S.A.) in our dealings abroad.

Obama, as a symbol and an icon, shows two things to an international audience like my students. First, he is an obvious break with George W. Bush. The world at large has not been impressed with the current president, and Bush has done obvious harm with regards to our reputation and image in other countries. It is profoundly important that other countries like us. Even admire us. We are a military superpower, the biggest economy in the world, a mitigator of international disputes, holder of the most important currency on earth, and all-around superpower. With all of that ability and responsiblity comes a whole host of unique problems. We are also used as a scapegoat by ideological elites in less-well off countries, employed as a symbol by ideologues (like Hugo Chavez) who want to define themselves against us, and an obvious target for those who would seek to violently restructure civilization, such as Bin Laden and others like him.

To perform these responsibilities and combat these challenges we need legitimacy. Not only do the leaders of other countries have to agree with out official policies, but peoples in other places need to be comfortable with, say, American troops stationed within their borders and American diplomats and aide workers working on solutions to local problems. If we do not have support from the populace, if American troops, aide workers, etc., are seen as objects worthy of protest (protest which can potentially become violent) rather than as part of a solution, then our tasks abroad become much, much more difficult. George W. Bush has eroded that essential legitimacy, and Barack Obama, I hope, can restore it.

I have high hopes for Obama because people such as my students know that he is a profoundly different man than the current president. Not only in terms of his party and his race, but also in temperment and character. At one time I would have dismissed such things as emotional and unimportant, I would have only cared how a politican voted and decided on certain issues. Now, though, I can see how Obama's bearing has already benefited us a little in terms of burnishing our image. Hopefully, that trend will continue.

The second major way that the U.S. can benefit from Obama as a symbol is that he shows how a civilization can transform itself. Much has already been said about how the elction of Obama is the culmination of years of work regarding race relations in America. This is true, though racism and racial divisions will not vanish with his presidency. I do think, though, that it is extremely wonderful to see that a democratic, industrialized, economically liberal country can indeed actively move past divisions that were once seen as immobile and immutable.

Yesterday I was talking with a Japanese coworker of mine about Japanese attitudes towards Chinese. My coworker, who has traveled abroad extensively and lived in China as a child, mentioned that she feels odd when students say things that spring from obvious prejudice. She even went so far as to say that she herself even feels the pull of that prejudice, a whole array of social emotions that pulled her away from her better reason and nature. Obama, though, shows that one of the gifts of modernity is that it can help us pull away from ugly old tribalisms, and that divisions such as the one my coworker described need not be permanent. Through Obama the U.S. can show the world that such liberalization is possible and desirable.

I know that Obama's presidency will be as flawed as any other, and that his halo will undoubtably dim when his administration ends in (hopefully) eight years. However, right now, just for a moment, I'm delighting in a moment in history where a man who has become symbol of liberalism has acheived the presidency of the most powerful country on earth. The New York Times has called Pennsylvania for Obama. Ohio and Florida are still blue. Slate has just called the election. The world at large, I think, is looking on appreciatively.

Oct 24, 2008

Tick, Tick, Tick...

I'm leaving Japan.

I'm leaving in the first half of February, and I feel great about it. I've had this planned for a while, but this past month I've gone through the official channels at my work, written a letter of resignation, and am prepared to leave my job behind in less than four month's time. This is happening, I believe, at precisely the right time. As of tomorrow I'll have been in Japan for two years. Over the course of my time here I've learned quite a bit, changed much more than I thought I would, and had a wonderfully unexpected experience. But, it's time to go. I find myself going through the motions at my job without passion or a feeling of being challenged. In some ways, it's great to not have to think much about my work. In other ways, it feels maddening to be underutilized. Arrogant as it may sound, I know that I've got skills that my current position will not allow me to use. At work I may be busy in a technical sense, but in more meaningful, intellectual ways I'm quite idle. I aim to fix that.

So, I'll be back in the States in February, though not permanently. At least that's the tentative plan. In February I'll be taking the Foreign Service Exam, and I hope to get a job at a U.S. embassy or consulate somewhere around the globe. I thought that a stay in Japan would get the urge to live as an expat out of my system. Instead, it just got it more into my system. What's more, I know that I will be continually unsatisfied if I merely read about, talk about, and think about politics and world affairs all of my life. I want to work with it in some small way, to put that political science degree to some measure of use.

I know I'll be out of Japan in four months, back in the States in five, and no idea where I'll be in a year's time. Right now, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Gyeongju: Hills of Tombs, Mountain of Buddhas

I should have finished this up a while ago- this is my last post on Korea.

J and I grabbed Korea's high speed rail and zoomed our way South of Seoul on Korea's answer to Japan's Shinkansen. We pulled into Gyeongju, the old capital of the country, a place awash in all manner of outdoor historical curios. Many of them looked something like this:



That there is a tomb, an earthen encasement of the bones of someone who used to be rather important. Gyeongju has quite a lot of them, and they were about as interesting as earthen mounds filled with dead people could possibly be. Far better than the hillock-tombs was the highly nifty national park known as Namsan. J and I rented a pair of mountain bikes and spent two days in the place, a rather picturesque hiking are with stuff like this:



And this:



And this:



And this contemplative looking fellow, a rather large Buddha carving that we encountered at top of the mountain on our second day. It's exceedingly satisfying to sweat, huff and puff up an incline, and then find a nifty giant Buddha waiting for you. It's sort of like getting a message that the Powers that Be approve of your healthy, active lifestyle.



And, I'm going to leave it there. I'm sure there's plenty I've left out, but J has also recorded his take on the trip over at his blog. He's kvetched a bit about me scooping him, so I imagine he'll appreciate filling ya'll in on the stuff I've missed.

We now return to your regularly scheduled Japan blog....

Oct 10, 2008

The DMZ: Extra Special Dress Code Bonus Post!


I wrote the last post in a frame of mind wherein I forgot the most amusing detail: The DMZ's dress code!

We had to agree not to wear any overly baggy, tight, or distressed clothing. The reason? To prevent the North Koreans from taking pictures of us that could be used in potential propaganda. Potential propaganda that would say something like "Look at the pathetic South Koreans/Westerners/Japanese! They're so poor that they can't even afford clothes that fit/don't have holes! HAHAHA! Communism and economic isolationism rules! HA!"

I certainly wouldn't want my picture on a poster like that. Anyway, J and I had to forgo our hot pants, ripped jeans, fishnet shirts, chain mail, and assless pants when we visited the DMZ. I'll admit, I had visions of myself posing in front of North Korea wearing spiked shoulder pads and platform boots, but it was not to be. Alas...

Sep 26, 2008

The DMZ: Standoff Tourism

I majored in Political Science, minored in Philosophy, and dabbled in Economics and Sociology. I've heard the refrain before: Social scientists complain and kvetch that they can't do experiments, can't adhere to the scientific method the way "real" scientists like physicists can. It's not like they can set up similar societies with differing economic systems and see what happens. It's not like they can take areas of similar cultural backgrounds and observe the results when different political systems are applied.

To that I say: Korea.

If I were some kind of evil polisci supergenius with an infinite budget and bottomless ruthlessness, the Korean peninsula would be my idea of a pretty good experiment. Take a single nation that shares a common cultural, linguistic, and political background and spit it in half. Apply one set of political and economic realities to one half, and another set of policies to another. Wait fifty years, and see what happens. The result looks something like this:



You may have seen that picture before, as it's semi-well known. There it is, though. The area of the peninsula devoted to democracy and economic liberalism is lit up in bright technological glory, and the side of totalitarianism is literally swathed in darkness. You couldn't ask for a better illustration of the abject failure of communism, especially relative to the alternative.

We had some difficulty scheduling our trip to the DMZ. Tours weren't offered every day, and we had other travel plans as well. Eventually, though, we were able to secure a seat on a bus heading into Panmunjeom, the village that serves as the Joint Security Area between the two Koreas, and is where the two sides sit down to have occasional meetings. Our first stop, though, was at a couple of war memorials. I found them to be an odd mix of bland grayness and strange gaudiness. They were at once colorless and overmuch, triumphal and oddly unmoving.



After the monuments we made a stop at the Reunification Park near, but still outside, the DMZ. (This, by the way, was where J and I downed a few silkworm larvae.) The park itself was a bit more picturesque than the monuments. We climbed a green ridge dotted with pinwheels and white banners, all of which spun and flapped in the wind. Dominating the landscape was a series of wire-framed figures that abutted Moai-like from the ground and stared out into the borderlands.



We got on the bus, followed their gaze, and entered the DMZ. The Demilitarized Zone is, oddly, beautiful. The place has been untouched for fifty years, and the vast greenery of it all is sort of odd when one considers how densely packed the nearby Seoul suburbs are. The place's name is also something of a misnomer- it's easily the most militarized place in either North or South Korea.

The tour guide pointed out signs warning of land mine areas, areas of the road that were ready to be blasted apart in the event of an invasion, and sundry other things that all marked the place as tense and dangerous. Our presence there seemed extremely odd when compared with the gravity of the surroundings. The DMZ is tense, it is dangerous. There have been a number of incidents of violence there, and the two countries have never officially declared peace. However, it's tame enough to drive a tour bus through on a routine basis. Weird, that.

Unfortunately, talks were going on the day that we arrived, so we were not able to see the inside of the conference room, the thing that I'd been most looking forward to. We did, though, sit through a rather over-enthusiastically narrated presentation on the history of the DMZ. The man who got on stage and informed us spoke in a kind of English that I seldom hear in Japan: the bad, loud kind. What the guy lacked for in basic grammar skills he made up for in sheer volume and pro-South enthusiasm. He particularly emphasized how childish the North was for insisting on having a bigger flagpole on its side of the DMZ. It's the biggest flagpole in the world, as a matter of fact. A great, big, Communist, penis substitute. Here's a picture of it:



It's 160 meters high, 100 meters higher than South Korea's also-enormous standard.

After the presentation we took a few pictures at an observation point, looking into the distance at the above flag, and into the North Korean side of the peninsula. It was weird to think of myself standing about fifty meters away from totalitarianism. Not just authoritarianism (I've been to China, after all) but total dictatorship. Fifty meters away from me was somewhere where reason stopped working, where citizens wear pins on their clothes displaying either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, where the government has banished religion by becoming a worldly cult.

I'll admit that I'd love to go to North Korea properly, to see it. Me and my blue American passport (and prominent Japanese visa) probably wouldn't ever be allowed in, but I'm perversely curious. Of course I want things to change, of course I'd love it if Kim Jong Il choked on his kimchee tomorrow, thus bringing about the destruction of the North Korean state. Of course I'm for that. But that part of me that's a curious political scientist would love to see the inside of the enemy's lair. More realistically, though, I'll have to settle for this- me and the gigantic Northern banner in the distant background.

Sep 25, 2008

Suwon: Fortress and Sprawl

We had at best a loose structure planned for our trip, one which was constantly revised and altered. Hostel reservations were canceled and remade, DMZ tour times constantly seemed to shift, and plans regarding trains were more or less fluid. Fortunately, J and I know each other well enough that we kept itinerary-related bickering to a minimum approaching nil, which was cool. On the second full day, we cracked open the guidebooks and wondered where to go. We were basically thinking "What the hell should be do before we can see the DMZ and then head to Gyeongju?" Basically on a whim, we and decided to head south of Seoul to Suwon, the site of Hwaseong Fortress, of which there are a few interspersed pictures.



It was only about an hour away on Seoul's exceedingly user-friendly metro. But, just about any train system would seem user-friendly when compared with Tokyo. Tokyo's train system is a fantastic mess of twisting, labyrinthine train lines, of different mass-transit companies swirling in and out of each other's way. The whole of the Tokyo train system seems like it was designed by stoned minotaurs who decided to take a crack at urban planning after blowing their minds on Jackson Pollack paintings.

Seoul's metro, on the other hand, seems to have been designed by actual people. The only issue I had with it was that the ticketing machines weren't consistently designed. The transport system itself, though, was superb.

Look! More fortress!



We got to Suwon, and made our way up the hill upon which the fortress rested, and got a full view of the massive sprawl just south of Seoul. In the downtown area where our hostel was situated and where we'd wandered around the night before, it was sort of difficult to get a sense of just how dense the Seoul-Incheon metropolis is. Granted, being in Tokyo has inured me a bit to density, but the sheer size of these things was amazing.

There they were, great stacks of concrete that proclaimed beigely how the city had burst its boundaries and outwardness was being supplanted with upwardness. Oddly, one of the colossal buildings had a gigantic cowboys-and-indians mural on it, a strangely outdated American cultural signifier that clashed with the distinctly Asian fortress upon which we stood. I didn't get any particularly good pictures of the sprawl, sadly.

More fortress, though:



We trekked over and around the walls, and were sort of astounded that the whole structure dated from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. By that time, Europe had abandoned castles and America had never bothered to make them. I'm at a loss to adequately explain the technological differential, and J reminded me that I really ought to read Jared Diamond.



More into town, more into the body of the fortress, there were people lounging about on the castle structures, myriad students and smokers sitting on the walls and in the shade of the roofed structures. It was heartening to see something so old and stylized used as a public space. It was nice to be reminded that the place were were strolling was not a static museum but a very real town on the outskirts of a booming city. The structures pictured above and below were, up close, filled with refugees from the sunlight.



More to follow...

Sep 24, 2008

Seoul: In Which I Arrive in Korea

Recently, I took a very much needed vacation to Korea. I hadn't had a real break from work since China, and English teaching was starting to take up way, way too much brain space. I met up with J (my dear friend who goes by the rather inscrutible nom de net of xe.qon). It was good to see him again, and I was happy to have a travel buddy.

One of my first sights of Korea was a larger-than-life statue of Gandalf outside of a theater near my hostel. I'm pretty sure that the appearance of statues of English wizards in Asia means that globalization is more or less irreversible.



I met up with J that night at the hostel, and we got ourselves some of the famous Korean barbecue. I was pleased to learn that J had given up the untenable ideology of vegetarianism, and we ate with relish the fricaseed bits of beast and fowl. Then, during dinner, a dwarf tried to sell us gum. Oh brave new world with such people in it.

On our first full day J and I made our way to Gyongbokgun, one of Seoul's historical palaces. We were lucky enough to show up right when a collection of rather nattily-attired reenactors were performing a changing of the guard ceremony. It was quite the impressive crew of dudes spiky things and big hats. I really don't see that kind of thing often enough.



When I've been to palaces and castles and the like I've often wondered "Ok, this is a big space, but how did the utilize it?" Most of the places I've been to in Japan have not been furnished, and simply seeing an empty room won't tell you too much about how people lived or whatnot. Gyongbokgun did have a few reconstructed rooms, which was nice to see. I do dig the screen.



Another part of Gyongbukgun, an audience hall set upon a lake. I ever had ridiculous amounts of money, my place would probably look something like this.



Onto a totally different topic- I dig chick drummers. Lady guitarists definitely have there own appeal, but for some undefined reason, I find myself most attracted to XX percussionists. Make no mistake: I'd jump Joan Jett before the chorus of I Hate Myself For Loving You even got started, but Janet Weiss is my idea of Rock 'N Roll Fun.

This is relevant because near the palace J and I went to the Folk Museum and saw a rather nifty and random presentation of Korean folk music. The two dudes with flutes were, shall we say, calming. Calming enough that J fell asleep. Fortunately, the performance was capped off by the lady in the center leaping around in a circle, rocking out on a drum solo, and punctuating it with some well-placed yelps. It was pretty nifty. She rocked.



Away from the palace we found ourselves walking into downtown Seoul, modern Seoul, the part of the city that wasn't devoted to show and history. We wandered in and out of markets and commercial districts, and I was amused to find a statue of Admiral Ye Sun Sin, whom I'd never heard of. I had, however, heard of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and apparently this guy kicked his ass with some of the first ever armored ships. I get a daily diet of things Japanese, what with living in Japan and all. I do love it here, but it was nice to see a small bit of someone else's perspective.



More to follow...

Sep 11, 2008

Something Rich and Strange

Why is there "C?" Seriously. Why? Three steps into the ABCs, one gets to an artifact of English that is seemingly odd and nonsensical. Three steps into the basics of English, absurdity abounds.

C doesn't do anything. The hard C sound like in "cat" can be duplicated by K, and the soft C sound like in "secession" can be duplicated by S. The only unique sound that C makes is "ch," and, really, that should be it's own unique phonetic symbol, given that it really has nothing to do with either the C or H sounds. (Someone a while ago did point out that C can affect word stress- that the stress on sounds in "school" is slightly different than in "skool," but this is a fairly minor advantage to be gained from this mostly vestigial letter.)

I know it's too much to ask for a language to be regular and logical. Languages evolve over time time, come from a variety of sources, etc., etc. But, I've been teaching myself Hangeul (the Korean script) in preparation for a trip to Korea next week. It's amazingly logical and easy. I was sort of surprised by how non-difficult it is to read. Granted, I still have to slowly sound things out a-la a kindergartener, but I know that there's no way one could read the Roman alphabet in the same way.

When I teach my kids phonics, or when I'm dealing with adults who aren't so hot at reading, I sometimes feel sorry for them. There's no good reason why "hyperbole" is pronounced with a long "e" at the end, and "cough," "enough," and "through" seem designed specifically to confuse learners. The list goes on.

Phonics is just the beginning. As others have pointed out, how can you be "disgruntled" but not "gruntled?" People can be "ruthless" but not really "ruth." What the hell?

But it's a beautiful mess. Aesthetically, I absolutely love the chaos that is English. I love the irregular verbs, weird spellings, and unregulated grammar, given that we mercifully do not have an academy. I love the regional irregularities and even the pervasive jargon. I love that there's a bunch of stuff that makes no sense and we use it every day. From all of this we can get some real gems of linguistic niftiness- two of my favorite exploitations of English are the stand up of George Carlin and the quirky dialogue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both use the ideosyncracies of the language to wonderful effect, creating something rich and strange. I'm also reading Ulysses right now, and while it's plotlessness is sort of hard to put up with, it's dizzingly wonderful as an aesthetic object simply because of its use of language (it's still overrated, though). I pity any translator who would try to tackle Joyce- so much of his art and humor comes from linguistic oddness and the bending and folding of English.

In contrast, every past tense verb in Japanese (and therefore every sentence in the past tense) ends in "ta." How regular. I'm sure there's weirdness aplenty in Japanese, but I'm not there yet in terms of study. There have been plenty of movements to simplify English spelling, and I'm glad that they've consistently failed. In my heart of hearts, in what I truly, fundamentally, want and love, I choose the panoply of disorder and all of its accompanying beauty.

And yet...

I can understand that my students have very real difficulties and frustrations with the material at times. I wish that the connections were more explicit for them, the path better marked. I can understand (even as I disagree with) why someone would advocate linguistic simplification, or an easily understood and regular language like Esperanto. A pernicious and weird part of me does long for order and regularity, would love to see modes of expression as a beautiful machine. But we'd lose too much.

It seems cruel and selfish, but my students' frustration, difficulties, and confusion is all worth it. It's worth it because even though the system of English is disorderly, it is still a system. It's worth it because we, as native speakers, can indulge in something gloriously odd and complicated. We have an awesomely privileged, entertaining, and nifty position, and even though it causes my students to knit their brows in consternation, I wouldn't have it any other way. Ours is a fantastically labyrinthine means of communication, and we're lucky to have such complexity.

Of course, maybe the Japanese feel the same way about all those kanji...

Sep 3, 2008

Sayonara, Fukuda-San

Yesterday, Yasuo Fukuda resigned as prime minister. Like Shinzo Abe before him, he was in office for less than a year and had approval ratings hovering at about 30%.

For decades, Japan has been run by the same conservative political institution, the Liberal Democratic Party. Over the past two years the government has led the economy into a recession and garnered apathy and dissatisfaction from the electorate. The opposition, the Democratic Party, did make some significant gains in the last election, but not enough to seize governance from the LDP.

Where, I wonder, is the outrage? Where, even, is the pissed-offedness?

Every student with whom I've talked about politics has said that they didn't think much of the current administration. They don't believe that they government can or should do very much, and when I've asked them to name a politician they really like, they've almost always named Barack Obama. I don't want to draw broad political conclusions from my own biased experience, but it seems that people here just aren't angry enough about their government.

The Japanese economy was called a "miracle" at one point- it went from a pile of rubble to the second largest in the world. Now it's in recession. Why aren't people more riled up about this? Why do they keep electing the LDP over and over again even after that party hasn't delivered? Why isn't there a more vocal opposition? Where is the discontentment that forments change?

As someone for whom politics is an addiction and passion, I find it all frustrating. I hope I'm wrong, that the next round of elections sweeps in some new coalition government. I hope that I'm misreading the situation, that there's passion out there and I've just missed it.

Sigh...

Aug 30, 2008

Sales: Sort of Like S&M

A friend of mine recently described my blog posts as "verbose." I can't really disagree with that... This is another long one.

Last night, one of my favorite students paid the equivalent of over two thousand dollars to take more lessons. I'm happy about this.

When I was a kid, I'd mow lawns for money. My dad didn't give me an allowance once I was in middle school. Instead, I had to do yard work for people in the neighborhood, and they'd pay me for it. There was an older woman whose lawn I mowed every weekend, and whose leaves I raked in the fall. I took care of her dog when she was away, and helped her build a shed. For any given task, she'd give me ten dollars.

Being older, she occasionally forget to pay me. She'd just say thank you and absentmindedly start doing something else. It wasn't that she was trying to cheat me, she just really was old and forgetful. When she did this, I hated reminding her to pay me. Hated it. I'd shift awkwardly on her front porch like I was about to ask her something horrible, like I had some sort of confession to make, or was somehow in the wrong. I'd usually utter something like "So, ten dollars, right?" She would look embarrassed and come back with a combination of bills that added up to ten. I was happy to have the money, but I also felt oddly and strongly guilty after I had to remind her to pay me. I wished that the money would just show up, that I wouldn't have to vocalize my wants, that I didn't have to force this old woman to open her purse.

This weird and specific guilt took a while to dissipate, and it returned in an odd way when I began my current job. My job not only involves teaching, but also a bit of sales.

To be perfectly clear- I'm not a volunteer. I'm not working for the Peace Corps or CARE or some admirable international entity. My job is not at a public school or a community center. Students pay to be there, and we want them to come back for another round of lessons when their contract is finished. I'm working for a huge company (granted, one that sells something fairly worthwhile), and they want to make a profit.

When I started, I thought this was horrible. Sickening, even.

Why, I thought, weren't we a nonprofit? Why weren't we pure? Why were were soiling education with filthy, filthy commerce? Why did we have fixed tuition rates, and not sliding scale? Why on earth would we do something as vulgar as set profit goals to ourselves? The idea of asking a student whether or not they wanted to buy another contract for lessons, asking them whether or not they wanted to pay to take more classes with me, was something that filled me with guilt and revulsion. Selling, I thought, was something inherently sleazy, regardless of the merit of the product.

In other words, I thought that being a successful salesman meant you had to be something like this:


That was my vague image, and it affected the initial feeling of asking, and such a lack of confidence did not allow me much success in either my beginning teaching or sales experience. To learn a language, (or to make a large purchase) people must feel at ease, they must feel confident. How on earth can one instill confidence and ease when they, themselves, lack confidence and ease?

I'm now fairly good at my job, and my prevailing feeling at work is one of satisfaction. When students say "yes," when people agree to pay large sums of money to learn English from me, the sensation is one of confidence and pleasure. There is more than a little in the way of testosterone-fueled gratificating here, more than a little feeling of conquest and dominance. I have successfully made a person part with large sums of money. I quite enjoy persuading people, seeing people do what I want, affecting people's decisions and actions, and a successful contract renewal or new student sign-up feeds directly into that.

It was this feeling of dominant and controlling satisfaction, I think, that so frightened me and made me riddled with guilt about initially asking for money, or asking for what I wanted. From the beginning, I definitely wanted my students to approve of me by signing up for classes. I wanted them to pay for me. I wanted them to open their wallets and give me what they wanted. I wanted success and impressive numbers, and was intimidated by the supposed dauntingness of it. I wondered how on earthy my coworkers did it, how on earth they successfully took what they wanted from students, from customers. I very badly wanted to be successful at selling myself, and for most of my first year I was more or less a failure because in a certain way I've always been hideously afraid of what I wanted. I was afraid that my desire to control and influence people would mean, if satisfied, that I was some kind of bad person, that fulfillment of my goals would be coterminus with a kind of moral failure, that my fulfillment would necessarily come at others' expense.

Anyway, I realized three things that allowed me to revise my opinions on this, and I'm now much more successful.

First- Customers (in this case, my students) benefit from a successful sales transaction. People spend money on things because they believe they will derive a certain amount of utility from those things. A good salesman believes in the utility of his product, and connects people with that utility. Nonintuitive as it may sound, sales is a service. The common line in popular culture is that the greatest salesman in the world is one who could "sell ice to eskimos," that is, rip people off. I disagree with this. Such a hypothetical ice-peddler would not be providing his customers with any kind of utility. A good salesman is someone who connects people with the utility they need.

Second- I'm not a rip-off. I'm a good teacher, and actually worth paying for. Students do not waste their money or their time in my classes. They benefit from their purchase because I'm good enough to deliver that benefit. I deserve a salary, and I shouldn't feel at all guilty when students pay the tuition that make that salary possible.

Third- People have different definitions of utility. I know this is all very Econ 101, but it's true. While I think it's weird to pay so much for a native teacher, and wouldn't do so in the States, the fact of the matter is that the scarcity of such an instructor is very different here. In any given major American city you can probably find a native speaker of a major language. Not so in Japan. When I lived in Okayama, I was one of the very few people there who was able to, say, pick up something by Milton and get something out of it. In, say, St. Louis or Baltimore, though, you could probably find dozens of people who could devour Basho in the original old Japanese. The utility and scarcity of foreigners here is dramatically different than in the U.S., and thus, what people are willing to pay and what they feel they get is very different.

There are lots of situations where different parties can be mutually satisfied by fulfillment of their different definitions of utility. Take, for instance, S&M (you were wondering when I'd finally get to the S&M bit, weren't you?)

In a good S&M situation, everyone gets what they want. The doms, subs, switches, voyeurs, whoever. It's not like the doms actually rape anybody, or the subs actually get abused. Everyone agrees on what role their playing, and gets something out of it. Granted, the doms get something different than the subs and vice-versa, but everyone walks away satisfied and will hopefully come back for more later.

Likewise, in a good sales situation, everyone gets what they want. The sales staff, customers, managers, whoever. It's not like the salespeople actually rip off anybody, or the customers actually get taken. Everyone agrees on what role their playing, and gets something out of it. Granted, the sales staff get something different than the customers and vice-versa, but everyone walks away satisfied and will hopefully come back for more later.

My school met all of its monetary goals last month (this is not something that happens often) and is doing very well again this month (I can't take all the credit for this, by the way- my coworkers are also good at what they do). There's still a mushy, pinko, part of me that's scared of all that cash, but mostly I'm just pleased about it. I'll probably never work in sales on a permanent basis, but I no longer think of it as devil's work.

Aug 29, 2008

Not Again...

Coming out of my apartment this morning I heard-

"Umbrella."

Did someone just say "umbrella?" I sort of wondered if I was hearing things, whether or not someone said "casa" and I had mentally translated it. After a few moments, though, it was apparent that two women were coming out of an apartment below me, speaking English. I walked down and saw that one of them was Western.

"Hi!" I said, "I thought I was the only foreigner here."

I had a pleasant conversation with the woman, and she had some questions about getting a job in Japan. I happily obliged her with some information and thought to myself "Maybe these people are awesome and we can be friends!" I'm occasionally starved for non-professional contact out here during the week...

Then her Japanese friend said to me, "We're spreading the message of the Bible. Are you Christian?"

Aw, shit. "Um... no."

"We're Jehova's Witnesses. Here, let me give you a pamphlet." She opened up a small book of pamphlets that looked to be printed in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, and sundry other languages. She found an English one that bore the title "Can This World Survive?" I thanked them as politely as I could and went off to work.

This is the fourth time that I've been approached by Jehova's Witnesses in Narita. The fourth. Back in Oregon I had a grand total of zero conversations with anyone who tried to chat me up about the end of the world. (To be fair, though, Eugene had other, different types of crazies.) But here, across the Pacific, in the middle of a country where English isn't spoken and religion not generally ascribed to, Jehova's Witnesses are finding me at a pretty steady rate. Even now two of them are on the floor below me, with their multilingual pamphets.

What a small world we live in. Sure hope it survives.

Aug 23, 2008

I'm Exceedingly Mature. Really.

I teach an advanced kids class, and it's one of the highlights of my week. The kids are all very high level, having lived abroad for a bit, and they're bright little bundles of joy. I'm not being ironic. They really do kick ass.

Yesterday, I was doing a class with them about describing past events, and everyone had to tell a funny story about something that happened to them in the past. The first kid mentioned that when he was three, he burned himself when attempting to grab a candle flame because he thought the fire was neat looking. We had a good laugh at that.

The next kid's story was a little different. "When I was three years old," she said grinning, "I touched poo."

"What?" I thought I misheard her.

"Poo. I put my finger in poo. When I was three."

"What is poo?" asked both of her classmates, almost at the same time.

"Poo is unchi." Immediately the two other classmates lost control of themselves laughing, doubling over with convulsions of hilarity. Even I started laughing. They were losing it, so I was losing it. The two students eagerly wrote down their new vocabulary word, with accompanying sketches of it. Poo is unchi! Really, how is that not funny?

The student who initially uttered the scatological syllable spread her arms of her head, and pixielike proclaimed "POO!" in a voice loud enough to carry outside the classroom. The absurdity of excrement dominated the air and it took a few moments for the students (and myself) to calm down.

I then had a choice- should I curtail this conversation, put an end to all this poo-talk? Or should I use this, milk it for all it's worth, really get the kids going? EFL experts recommend sticking to topics that students find interesting, and there is a part of me that likes being a showman, so when it was my turn to tell a story about my past I said:

"When I was a child, I liked to eat..." I paused for dramatic effect, "ice cream. Delicious, chocolate ice cream. Creamy, brown, delicious ice cream..."

"Chocolate ice cream looks like poo!" shouted a student. Hilarity ensued.

The rest of the class went great, and afterwards I was wondering what the lesson said about me as a teacher. Was I a great teacher for creating rapport and getting students interested in the lesson? Or, should I have nipped the poo thing in the bud, and not allowed shit talk to pervade my classroom. I'm sort of worried about whether or not the kids will expect shit-based humor next week as well. Gotta keep expectations in check.

Hehe... Poo!

Aug 22, 2008

Words on Loan

My ketai died a bit over a week ago, and I had to get a new one.

Certainly, referring to it as a "cell phone" would be the proper, English way to say it, but since I've been living in Japan the word "ketai" has primacy in my mind. "Cell phone" is a sort of vague, secondary syllable. Granted, I most often refer to it simply as a "phone." But the two word term "cell phone" still seems strange. This may very well be because I didn't own such an object before I came to Japan. Since I've owned one, it has always been a "phone" or "ketai." "Cell phones" remain something else, conceptually, for me.

Life here has affected my language. That I use several Japanese terms in casual, otherwise English, conversation is simply the most obvious. I often buy onigiri (rice balls) or tea at a konbini (convenience store), a few weeks ago I rode on the Shinkansen (bullet train), I drink nama biru (beer on tap) and order nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) when out with friends, fret over the logistics at work of students with kyufukin (government sponsered) contracts, read emails from the kaicho's (the CEO's) office, and I've got nothing but sympathy for my kids who have to attend not only eikaiwa (english conversation schools), but also juku (cram schools).

And so on.

For the most part, this list only includes nouns, and that seems logical. When introduced to another culture, one can find a lot more in the way of objects and phenomena, but probably very little in the way of new verbs or adjectives. (Though there are few of those. Almost every expat living here will know kawaii, cute, and baka, stupid.) When presented with a new concept or phenomena, it's perfectly natural to use the native term for it, rather than contriving a new word in your native language.

Take for example the word "onigiri." Onigiri are rice balls often wrapped in seaweed and filled with tasty things such as fish and vegetables. I've eaten these things at a pretty steady rate since I've gotten here, and they seem to be a universally favored snack thing. Last weekend, out on my bike with Kori, had one in my backpack and mentioned that I was hungry and wanted to stop to "drink some water and eat my rice ball." I used the English term.

As soon as I said it I thought to myself "Why the hell did I call it a 'rice ball?'" It was as if I used some weird, foreign term for it, like instead of saying "cheese" I refered to the stuff as "fromage." I think I felt this way because these things have always been simply "onigiri" to me. When I first asked "What's this?" when I first ate one my companion said "It's an onigiri." They're labeled as such in stores, Japanese people obviously use the Japanese term, and they're not really shaped like balls anyway, given that they're often triangular.

It's remarkable to see how a well-established linguistic phenomenon, that of loan words, has so quickly played out in my own vocabulary and social environment. Thinking about it also offers a bit of perspective on the Japanese language's sizable collection of English loan words. Katakana words can occasionally be maddening (i.e., "mansion" means "apartment building" rather than "big, expensive house.") and there is, every so often the urge to say "Stop! You're doing it wrong! It's not a 'handle,' it's a 'steering wheel!' Get it right!" Such urges are not only impossible to satisfy, but also display a misunderstanding of how people adopt new words and concepts. I'm not going to go so far as to advocate "Engrish" as an English dialect, but I given my own borrowing and probable mispronunciation and misuse of Japanese terms, I can summon up a bit of tolerance for it.

As a practical matter for me, it is sometimes difficult to maintain "pure" English when I'm teaching in the classroom. A big part of my job is that I'm a native speaker, I'm not Japanese, and students are hoping that the English they're learning is authentic. I know that I've used several of the abovementioned terms at work, and when I do catch myself using such words, I worry about the level of authenticity that I'm providing my students. Granted, I like to think of myself as fairly good at my job, but I do have to sometimes conciously keep my vocabulary "natural."

Oh, the joys of language...

Aug 13, 2008

More Book Stuff! This Time, Shutting Out the Sun by Mark Zielenziger

I'll call him Henry. Henry was a student of mine back in Okayama, a bright guy who lacked all manner of social skills. I would ask him something simple, something like "How are you?" and he would look around the room, quickly jerk his head from side to side as if searching for others and say "Me?"

"Yes. How are you."

"The Hanshin Tigers won." He was obsessed with the Hanshin Tigers, Osaka's baseball team. He would watch their games on television and, when they weren't televised, listen to their games on his radio. He also listened too NHK's regular English language programs, and bought the network's English learning publication with religious regularity. Often, he would bring it in to the school and show it to me. The only other thing that I knew he did was that listned to a band called B'z and bought everything they released. Henry was thrity one when I taught him, had no job, and lived with his parents, who paid for his television, radio, NHK magazines, CDs, and English lessons. I suspected then, and still do, that his fifty minute English lesson was the single longest conversation he had each week, given his extreme social strangeness. "I hate Henry," my Japanese coworker often said, "no job, not in school, nothing. He's a parasite."

Henry, though, at least got out of his house. Despite the fact that he had no job or friends and, at thrity one, still lived with his parents, at least he got out of his house and went to bookstores, CD shops, and English lessons. Across Japan, there are thousands of men (and they are mostly men) who don't even do that. They're known as hikikomori, shut-ins who simply stay hidden in their rooms, living with their parents, talking to no one. Compared to the hikikomori, Henry was downright sociable. These recluses are a departure point for Shutting Out the Sun, a book by American journalist Mark Zilenziger.

Shutting Out the Sun
was something of a bait-and-switch, in that I picked it up thinking that it would be about a specific phenomenon within Japanese society, the tragic presence of the hikikomori. However, that was only the first few chapters. The time that Zielenziger does spend on the hikikomori, their parents' struggles, conversations with community workers and therapists who have worked with them, and a few interviews with recovering shut-ins themselves, is great. It's the best part of the book, and I do recommend Shutting Out the Sun for its illustrations of troubled youth within Japan.

But then the book's quality turns south and never recovers. After doing some interesting and probing work into the phenomenon of the hikikomori and doing a chapter on Japanese women who don't wish to marry or have children (a book topic all of its own) Zielenziger goes into a full-on anti-Japan rant. The book ceases to be about the plights of troubled youth (something I wanted to read about) and turns into an elongaged rant by a whiny gaijin who doesn't like the country he lives in (I didn't want to read that- I get enough of that at the bars). Ostensibly, he's trying to explain how Japan produced the hikikomori

Now, there's plenty of stuff about Japan that I don't like, and that does indeed need to change. The overworking, the inflexibility, the LDP, the consumerism, etc. This stuff is, indeed, uncool, and all worthy of coverage. However, Zielenziger hits the same note over and over again, bashing Japan for being a "collectivist" society that fosters codependence and discourages individual ingenuity. I don't think this is completely incorrect, but I do think that such an argument lacks nuance, and that Japan is a bit more complex than just that.

Something that I found especially aggravating was Zielenziger's glowing portrait of Korea. Over the past fifteen years South Korea has indeed done extraordinarily well and is worthy of all sorts of praise. It is not worthy, however, of the glowing and one dimensional lionization that Zielenziger heaps upon it, particularly with regards to Korean Christianity.

Rather oddly (especially since he professes himself to be a secular Jew) Zielenziger points at Japan's lack of a Judeo-Christian worldview as a source of its social ills. Conversely, he points to the presense of Christianity in Korea as a factor contributing to South Korea's economic success. Zielenziger's biggest target is always "collectivism" as a general idea, and holds up Christianity as something that promotes individual rights and responsibilities. As someone who was raised Catholic and since abandoned it, I believe that I can rightly say that Christianity can just as well degrade and impede individual rights. If anything, a friend of mine who used to work in Korea mentioned that the traditional, conservative Confucian values often work in concert with, rather than in opposition to, Christianity.

Zielenziger is correct when he characterizes Japan as being a largely secular country, however. But, he stretches too far. He criticizes Japanese for having no firm relgious beliefs, seeing it as a tragic cause of so many of the country's symptoms.

I was a bit personally put out by this.

Secularism, I think, is something that countries, communities, and civilizations in general should strive for. I'm not going to get up on a soapbox and give some sort of Christopher Hitchens style anti-theistic rant, but I do think that for the most part, we are better without religion. It would be a terrible tragedy if we ever lost philosophy, mind you, but religion really ought to be phased out. I would disagree with Zielenziger in that I don't think that Japan's problem is lack of relgion, but a sort of prevailing philosophical and political apathy.

But I digress.

Zielenziger also devotes a bit of time to Japan's relationship with the U.S., likening Japan, as a nation, to a sort of world-affairs version of a hikikomori, and painting the U.S. as the overly indulgent and enabling mother who lets her child keep up his isolation. I can see how one would draw this conclusion, but I think he takes the metaphor a little too far. I do agree with him on a major point though- during MacArthur's occupation, the U.S. did it's damndest to crush emerging, progressive Japanese political parties for fear that they had communist sympathies. America successfully propped up the old guard and destroyed the emerging competition, thus screwing over Japan's chance at an emerging liberal tradition. I agree that that has harmed the social and political life of Japan.

But, when Zielenziger points out things like this it seems that he's not so much trying to explain how Japanese society produced hikikomori, as the other way around. It looks like his primary ideological project is illustrating the ills of Japanese society, and then using hikikomori as an ugly example of how bad things are. This isn't a bad approach, necessarily, but the structure of the book makes the reader think that it will be the other way around.

The biggest problem with Zielenziger's book (other than his grating opinions about Christianity) is not so much its inaccuracy, but its hopelessness. Zielenziger paints a picture of a static and staid Japan that is unable and unwilling to change. He imagines the country sliding only further into it withdrawl and irrelevance, and offers almost no real hope for the future, presenting change and progress as something stifled by the choking conservatism of Japanese society.

I would describe this view as politically immature. I can imagine Zielenziger as one of those pontificators who takes a sort of perverse joy in prophesizing doom, who gestures with eagerness at the flawless canvas of doom. I remember political science classes from university, and I've seen the type. I've even been the type. The type that can only discuss problems as if they are all-consuming and insurmountable, relishing the accompanying hopelessness and angst.

Japan, I think, can change. Just yesterday two of my students said they think that Japan will have should have a female prime minister someday. I have another student, a young businessman who has described himself as a "feminist," and still another who (without any prompting from me) said that Japan really ought to officially apologize to Japan and Korea for wartime atrocities. I realize that the people who take English lessons may not be representatives of society as a whole, and are probably more progressive than a lot of people, but they certainly don't fit in the picture of gloomy, doomed conservatism that Zielenziger paints.

Somthing will change. It has to.