Saturday, February 28, 2009

Finally, I'm Japanese

It's totally official, starting today. I'm honorary Japanese.

There are a number of things that lead me to this conclusion. On Friday night, for instance, I went to a Japanese izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) and ate all the traditional Japanese delicacies while trying my best to communicate all in Japanese. I received a very warm welcome from all the teachers present, and opened a lot of doors to closer friendships. It was a good night.

But that's not why I'm now Japanese. I'm Japanese because ... I just had a nightmare about Godzilla. In my dream, I was in Tokyo with my friends Josh and Shannon, and we heard a-rumbling. We ran outside to see what it was, and everything was very similar to the movie Cloverfield. Specks of humanity chasing each other around, afraid of who-knows-what. And then, I saw Godzilla. And it was like, old-Godzilla-movie Godzilla. It looked like a dude in a suit. And when he shot a fireball at us, the fireball looked like a bad movie graphic ... until I regained consciousness (in the dream), knocked 150 feet away from where I was standing. Then I began freaking out. Suuuuure, it looks hilarious, but I was in some serious corporeal danger, here!

I have never been legitimately scared of giant, fire-breathing lizard monsters before ... though in retrospect, I can't help but wonder why...

Okay, this is premature. But, I don't know how else I'll tell you about it. When I was in Tokyo last weekend, I met my friend's friend Tomoko at a club, and she asked me why I came to Japan.
Of course, without missing a beat, I replied "Ninja." And, many Japanese people laugh when I say this, because that's like saying "Why did you come to England?" "Robin Hood," or something. But, she just thought for a minute and said "Well....there's this bar. And it's a ninja bar. A ninja greets you and leads in through a secret passage into a secret room, where you can get drunk. All your food is brought secretly by ninja."

...I am SO going to ninjabar, that it's not even funny. I hope they let me take pictures. But...I don't push my luck, when it comes to ninja.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Note or Two

I have two things to say today. I'm sure the first of these topics has touched us all at some point in our lives in a deep and meaningful way. No, it's not love. Nooooo, it's not the sacred bond of friendship. That's right. I'm talking about racist dogs.

Now, I bet you could train a dog to be racist. But, I think that it's more probably a naturally occurring phenomenon. I think all animals are programmed to group together with similar-looking animals (which, as a side note, has caused some pretty messed-up happenings in the history of human affairs). If, for instance, you dumped three dogs into a pit with a bear, I'd bet money that those dogs would team up to defeat the bear, because dogs are more similar to other dogs than they are to bears. Man, what an awesome spectacle that would be, to see three dogs fight a bear. ...Oh yeah, it was actually a horrible spectacle, and the reason there are no more bears in Europe. Shit.

Anyway, my thinking is that, sure you can raise a dog to be racist, but it probably also just happens because if dogs grow up around only one racial group, they'll get freaked out if another, different-looking human gets up in their space. So, that's what happens here. Alot. Where I'm at is pretty isolated from white people, and it seems like more often than not, when I see a dog, they go apeshit. They're all "Oh-my-God, oh-my-God, what a pale wide-eyed monster!" I mean, I want to be a racist-dog apologist and claim that they can't help it, and it's all natural...but, I'm definitely glad that they can't band together to make racist political groups (like the Republican party!) to try to keep me out of their town. The harassment would never stop. As it is, it's a pretty common occurrence.

Every time I go shopping, for instance, there's a dog usually perched on the second floor balcony of a nearby house. And, like clockwork, as I approach my bike with my key in my hand, the dog will bark and scare me, so that I drop my key (or almost). Meanwhile, everyone's staring to see what the dog is barking about, and I'm on my hands and knees searching for my bike key.

...Racist dogs...

Also, I've wanted to blog about a local asshole for forever. There's some guy in a purple van that I see all over town, and he drives horribly. I almost made him an entire blog, he grinds my gears so bad. All the time while I'm biking to school in the morning, PurpleVan will zoom past me at double the speed limit. Why are you always late, dude? You should leave a little earlier, okay? Because I don't want you to kill me. So, consider yourself blogged, PurpleVan. Don't you dare cross me again. Now that you're blogged, I can always update.

Sorry for cursing. I love to curse, but I've been trying to keep it mostly clean. Is anyone that read this offended by cursing? ....Is anyone enthused about it?

The Things I'll Miss...

As February slips from present into past tense, I can't help but think about my impending return to America: my horror at seeing the cereal aisle in any supermarket, the obesity (sorry, America, but you're getting soft in the tummy...and Japan is just!), the unnecessarily huge vehicles, etc. For some reason, in my mind, March-April-May is one month. It's possible that because my birthday is in June, I've always just lumped them up, so I could say "Well, it's March now, and April is like March as far as the weather goes, so it's practically the same month, and May starts with M, too, so it's like...not that long until my birthday!"

Of course, my birthday this year will pale in comparison to my previous birthdays. ...Though I'll see if I can't manage to get out and have a little fun. In any case, my thoughts are slowly turning toward home and the things (good and bad) that await me there. And all the wonderful things I'll miss.

Like the food. God, the food is good. I used to miss American food, like macaroni and cheese (it's been almost eight months now, and counting...), real pizza! (they're tiny here, and they usually have fish and mayonnaise on them. Sick), and everything else. But, that desire is practically gone from me, when I think about giving up sushi, champon, tempura, yakitori (so delicious), ramen, shuu-mai, good white rice, etc. Not to mention the shit you can buy in stores. ...Which is usually hilarious.

Like WasaBeef. Yep. Wasabe. Beef. Turned to powder and sprinkle atop potato chips. Only in Japan, my friend. Sure, it tastes...not so good. And, I'm not sure what process is needed to turn a cow into powder, but I'm sure it's horrifying in it's own way. Added to the Snackfood list, my new favorite, Kaki-pi. It sounds hilarious. Say it aloud. I dare you. "Kaa-Kee Pee!" Yep, sounds like an outhouse. Tastes delicious. It's Kake-no-tane (lit. "seed of...something"), a rice cracker with soy sauce coating, and peanuts. I'll miss it forever. Another consumable that hasn't made it stateside; C. C. Lemon. Although, in Japan, it's "shi shi remon." Still, shesheremon is incredibly delicious. Each bottle says proudly "Contains the Vitamin C of 70 lemons!" SEVENTY FUCKING LEMONS. Sometimes, I wonder how these people lost the war. And lastly, Pocari Sweat. I bet you've heard of it. Google it if you haven't. They don't drink Gatorade here. Instead, they have their own bizarre lines of sports drinks. Like SWEAT. It...looks like sweat. Tastes a little salty. ...But, what's not salty is grapefruit-y. And I like that.

So, Japanese junk foods, you've stolen my heart. And I'll never really be the same. So, now I'll take my remaining time in Japan to consume as much food as I possibly can. That way, I'll either get my fill for the rest of my life, or ... at the very least, I'll fit in when I get back to the states.

I still haven't eaten the fugu fish...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Blues and kotos...

I had a long day. A long day of not doing much of anything, if you can believe it. I had classes scheduled with a few different teachers, only one was sick, and another was doing a lesson at an elementary school, as a demonstration for other elementary school teachers. (After which, there will be a meeting regarding my future position at either elementary school or Jr. High. It seems they want to make me do one or the other permanently. *shudder*). In any case, I was left primarily to my own devices today, with one exception.

One of the teachers that I haven't had many opportunities to talk with, a music teacher, asked me to come watch her class perform. Boys played guitars and girls played Japanese koto. I was less than impressed with the guitar work (I mean, the kids are young and they need practice and all), but the koto blew me away. It's such a beautiful instrument, about 5 and a half feet long, stringed. It's really wonderful to listen to. So, after sitting through a bit of a concert, the teacher asked me if I wanted to play guitar!

I got so nervous, it was silly. Especially after I watched some kids bumble through their guitar session. So, what was the first thing that came to me? Of course, the blues. I sweated a little, and messed up more than once, but managed to play a basic blues for the kids, and I think they were kind of impressed with it. They had been learning classical guitar, so it was about as far as you could get from studied material. And it was really fun!

So, I genuinely look forward to doing that again, though...I'll have to make sure to practice a bit more, so I have something ready to go just in case, next time.

(Because this is not a very good post, I want to direct you to three blogs that are so good that it makes my blog wish it was never born.

Please check them out. There's all good friends of mine, and they're doing amazing work.)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Notes on Personal Life, and Comments on the Nature of Japanese Rebllious Youth

Apologies. I can't believe I haven't updated in so long. But, I have excuses! Oh, so many excuses. For starters, I've been sick. Last week, I missed two days of work, in fact. I had a fever and all sorts of others troubles going on, and just didn't feel up to writing anything. Also...besides reading books in bed, nothing of interest happened to me. So, I'm sorry for the delay. On to the blog.

Friday of last week and Monday of this week, I'm teaching at the elementary school, to cover for Nigel. He helped me at the beginning of my elementary month by covering two days, so I'm returning the favor to help him through his hellish trials. But, tomorrow is the last day of elementary school that I have to worry about for a while. You see, I thought that after Nigel finished his set, there'd be a meeting, and I'd likely be shuttled right back into the elementary position. But, both Nigel and I will be sharing our desks at the Jr. High starting in early March until May. Which is great news! It means an opportunity to get back into asking him questions about Japanese, having an English conversation partner (it gets so lonely!), etc. All good things. So, tomorrow, prepare to see an exemplary performance by yours truly. I I can afford to give it 110 percent, because it's the last lap.

On to the Japanese youth. Some of the kids in my Jr. High classes are incredibly disruptive. I know that I, for one, had an impression of Japanese school kids as incredibly disciplined, and hard studiers. And it's true for a large part of the school system. Kids spend all day at school in class, then sports, then juku (cram school), then homework, then sleep for school in the morning. But, just like everywhere else, there are kids who don't want to listen to what everyone tells them they should do. I sympathize, wholeheartedly.

Er, that is....usually. Because, in Japan, "rebellion" means a totally different thing that in America. Because of manditory uniforms, the most Japanese students can do to alter their appearance is changing their hair. So, there's an entire group of students in one of my 2nd grade classes who:
1) Have mullets. Somehow, they don't realize that this is hilarious.
2) Dye their mullets blonde. Or rather, orange. Poor choice.
3) SHAVE THEIR EYEBROWS OFF. ...Even Iggy Pop realized this was a bad idea, after trying this at the Stooges first show. For starters, you get sweat in your eyes. For finishers? Oh, I don't know, you look insane?

So, there's a group of clowny-looking kids trying to command respect and fear from their classmates. The shocker? They totally get it.
To top it all off, the kids are just total jerks, too. They won't sit down, they throw things at the teacher, they steal things from other students, etc. And the teacher won't/can't do anything about it, because of Japanese law. In the Japanese constitution, students are garaunteed the right to education. Which means that, actions such as suspension and expulsion are absolutely illegal in Japan. Even touching a student (such as a guiding hand on a shoulder, or a push, or anything) can cause a teacher to lose their job, if the parents want to push it.
Personally, I can't help but think about these kids trying to look tough in an American city. I don't think anyone would hurt them, because they'd be too busy laughing. If a group of 8 blonde-mulleted guys with no eyebrows tried to hang out on a street corner in south Chicago, I'd bet money that they'd be run off in less than ten minutes. Anyway...

I personally prefer intellectual rebellion. There's one kid in school, that I call The Sleeper. In Jr. High, there are no grades. I'll repeat that, because it bears repeating: there are no grades. Students progress no matter whether they sleep every single day, or try their hardest on every scrap of homework. The entire system is geared towards studying for qualifying exams to get into your highschool of choice, so to reduce the pressure, there's no grading system.
So, The Sleeper is always getting woken up and told to do work. Only he doesn't have to. And he gave a classic reply to the teacher, that illustrates that he's not a mindless goon, at least.

Teacher: "Wake up"
The Sleeper: "No"
Teacher: "Come on. Try."
The Sleeper: "...There is a law that says I must come to school. ...There is no law that says I must study."

At least you have your facts straight, and a respectable haircut, young one.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bring out Yer Dead...

I have become quite ill, and can't make myself update.
I almost went to a Japanese hospital, just for the flu or something, but that's not looking probable now.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Puff the Magic Dragon

For those of you I haven't told personally, I sometimes feel like my job is something akin to being a glorified Chuck E. Cheese, especially at the elementary schools. None of the kids can really understand what I'm saying, and really, who cares? I'm tall, I sing silly songs, I sound funny when I speak, and my eyes are really wide and blue! Who wouldn't be stirred into a sugar-fueled grope-frenzy at my walking into the room?

At the Jr. High, it's much more merciful. I'm still kind of a joke but, much like Chuck E. Cheese, I'm not held in particularly high esteem (as far as my amusement value) by teenagers. Mercifully, they've outgrown it, to some extent. There's still the odd kid - and I do mean "odd" - who insists on calling me Spiderman or Superman. Now...initially I was flattered, you know...
"Oh, you think I look like Superman? You little flatterer, you! Well, really, you can call me Clark Kent. *psst*'re blowing my cover"
But hey, even flattery gets old when it's repetitive.

Anyway, at the Jr. High, even though my entertainment value has diminished, I still have to sing in front of the class. We've moved past "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," thank god, and are firmly entrenched (or so I thought) in the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. Well, that was until yesterday. That is, until "Puff the Magic Dragon" became the new themesong to my lessons.

How awkward! As I've said in previous posts, because of extremely strict drug laws in Japan, most citizens have no idea what drugs even look like (hence the reprehensible wearing of Marijuana-print t-shirts by pre-pubescents), let alone the nuances of drug references.

So, there I am, trying to explain to Faux Feminist sensei (who loves to point out the sexism in Japanese society, but is always the first person to get up to serve male guests tea) why Little Jackie Paper loves Puff so much, without cracking up.

"Jake-sensei, why do Puff's scales fall off when Jackie Paper leaves?"
"Well, Faux-femme, it's because the marijuana cigarette is all burned up, and the ash is falling off. That's why Jackie Paper and Puff won't walk down the 'cherry lane' anymore. 'Cherry lane' means the lit part of the marijuana cigarette, as it progresses through the joint. ...Any other questions?"

Having to defend a nonsensical song full of drug-references to a classroom full of naive children (who, additionally, really love the song) is one of the more perplexing tasks I've faced. And it certainly wasn't in the job description.

It almost makes me feel strange to be exposed to so much drug culture by virtue of growing up in America. Snickering to myself in front of a room full of students all genuinely interested in the tale of a dragon and his boy makes me feel really cynical and jaded, now that I think about it.


(Postscript; I didn't actually say those things in front of the class. I didn't mention drugs at all. I was just taken aback at how to describe the lyrics literally without cracking up.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Last night was one of the best nights I've spent in Japan. No lie. I went out with a friend of mine from the nearby (well, relatively speaking) city of Ogawa-machi, the end of the line stop from Tokyo in northern Saitama. I'd only gone out to Ogawa once before, to eat yakitori with a few other English teachers in the area. Today is National Foundation today in Japan, so I had the day off work. And I was ready to blow off a little steam.
So I met up with Dave (who works in Ogawa-machi) for yakitori and beers. And the place that we went was amazing. It's a family-run place with pictures of grandkids tacked right on the wall, calandars from years long passed, and the whole lot of it smoke damaged from the cooking and grilling in the back. The toilet in through the kitchen, and I wouldn't recommend its use to the weak of heart or sensitive of smell. Basically, just a hole in the ground; or formally, a Japanese-style toilet.
We got a seat, ordered two "dai nama biru," (big draft beers) and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the mugs were bigger than my head - you don't get a whole lot of that in Japan. Then, after placing our order, we get a huge plate of one of the best-tasting things I've ever eaten; teriyaki chicken on a bed of thin-cut cabbage. So simple, so delicious. When the guy was bringing it over, he told us it was a present!
We ate all of that, six skewers of yakitori each, half a fried chicken and THEN we got three more plates of presents: delicious garlic spicey daikon pickles, ji-ji ba (which I guess is a Chinese dish of cold chicken, hot peppers and cabbage), and then a big plate of beef and peppers. I don't think I've ever eaten so much good food in one sitting, and the whole time the owner is just smiling at us and telling us to please come back. Oh, and I drank four beers bigger than my head, so I was pretty buzzed.
It's nights like that that make me remember why I wanted to come here. I wanted to meet people, and go to the places off the tourist maps. I wanted to make connections with people I would never get a chance to meet otherwise. I wanted to eat every single thing that was offered my way, and get drunk with people I can hardly communicate with. I especially get a kick out of peeing in strange, new places.
And I did all of it! I spoke in Japanese with some new friends, I ate great food, I found a new hang-out, I blew off some English-teaching steam with Dave, and I absoultely can't wait to do it again.
All the free food makes me remember something wonderful about travelling and being an obvious stranger in a strange place; the random acts of kindness. There's something fantastic about walking into a place you're obviously unfamiliar with, juggling a language that you don't have all the pieces to, and still coming out with new friends. It feels really good. The shop owner told me to call him "Papa," and I will, the next time I go.

Oh, and to top it all off, I started playing Pokemon in Japanese this week. And my Japanese is getting good enough to follow what's happening! Granted, it's a game intended for shougakkou students, but it's great to navigate a game without a scrap of English in it. So, good for me on all counts.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Few Climiatological Observations

I don't know why I never conceptualized Japan as a windy place before. With the coming of "Spring" comes the gale-force winds that the Japanese are so used to. Yesterday was such a day.
The wind can be so bad that it makes bicycling impossible. Especially on the route that I take to the Jr. High, as I ride through the center of a rice field for over a mile with no wind cover. Luckily, yesterday was a Sunday and I could stay inside, where it's relatively safe. But, on the days when it's really howling, it's not uncommon to see 20 Jr. High kids walking their bikes huddled together, like some downtrodden penguins in an animal documentary.

Anyway, all this hardcore blowing *childish giggles* has really got me thinking about wind as a facet of Japanese identity. As an island country, Japan serves as a bit of a wind break for mainland Asia and gets all manner of natural disasters as a result. Good for Japan.

But, in a mostly positive sense, this wind has had incredible effects on Japanese culture and history. The Japanese word for wind is "kaze," as in "kami-kaze" (literally, something like "Divine/Holy Wind"). ...Maybe you know where I'm going with this.

Kamikaze first came into use as a term after both attempted Mongol invasions of Japan. Notice that I said "attempted." Apparently, as the Mongol ships were crossing the sea for Japanese soil and conquest (Oh, Ghengis Khan, you try-hard!), an incredible wind swept through the sea from Japan and dashed more than 1/2 of the Mongol ships to pieces in the sea. 1/4 returned to mainland Asia, and the 1/4 that landed in Japan were easily cut down by the Japanese army. This "Holy wind" was touted as proof that Japan was superior to the mainland Asians and that the divinities supported their national division from Asia.

The second time the Mongols tried to invade, bizarrely, just about the same thing happened. To the nationalist ruling class, it was enough proof to cement Japan's identity and give them a superiority complex.

Though, I'll pause for a second, only to ask you to think about how remarkable that is. Name any other nation that was able to turn away the Mongols twice, or even once. They even sacked Baghdad, for Christ's sake, when it was the capital of the Islamic Empire at close to the height of it's power.
Obviously, the cultural myth of the kamikaze was tapped for other more recent military actions that I don't really need to get into. Suffice to say that the cultural importance of kaze is still affecting Japan in lots of important ways.

Anyway, you get the point; it's really windy here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

One More Day...

Until I am finished with the elementary school marathon 2009. And not a day too soon, really. Again, I realize that people have much more incredibly difficult jobs, that they do and are glad to do. It's more the tandem attack of isolation and a rigorous workday that really break me down. Though I'm not dog-tired at the end of the day, as I was at the start of this experiment (hey, are those muscles?), I am just generally worn out and worn-down.
Here lies Jake's immune system, a loving protector who will be missed.
That's right. After a long struggle against more than a thousand diseased Japanese schoolchildren (this sounds like the making of one of the best horror movies that could possibly be made), I'm sick. But no worries! It's just a common cold. ...Common? Yeah right. I've been pouring snot for the last week, and it just gets worse every day.
I've moved from the American over-the-counter pharmaceuticals to some pretty bizarre Japanese medicines. The top of today's bizarre medicine list? Some strange, bright yellow, bitter powder that you put in your mouth before chugging a glass of water. Only, here's the beauty, in Japan, people drink their vitamins in a condensed citrus liquid. So, a bit of bitter powder drawing all the moisture out of your mouth before you chug a bottle of funny-tasting vitamin syrup.
...It was a new experience.
Anyway, tomorrow's the last day. In a way, I'm almost sad. I've gotten to build something of a bond between some of the kids, and I've gotten a handle on the feel of some of the classes I visit more often. It's a little sad to think I won't be seeing some of my favorite students like "Crazy Eyes," "Smarty Pants," "Too tall," or "Germaine" for a while. So, this one's for you, Crazy Eyes.

On a simply funny cultural note about Japan, and I believe this is something I mentioned before, kids often wear clothing promoting marijuana usage. "What?!" you'll say. "Yes!" I heartily reply. No one knows what pot looks like, because it's like, super-double illegal here. But, the marijuana leaf shape adorns a lot of clothing here in Japan, specifically clothing for really young kids. Everyone just thinks the pot leaf is a symbol for Jamaica, like the Maple Leaf is for Canada! If you ask what they think it "stands for," you'll get answers like "Hanging out with friends!" or "Relaxing and enjoying life!" You poor little things. I wonder how many Japanese people have been stopped and searched in countries with strict drug laws, without understanding why. Preliminary guess? Maybe 1,000.
Anyway, very related note, the Playboy bunny is another such symbol on youngster's clothing. Apparently, it's been mostly stripped of all it's symbolic meaning and is prized only for its aesthetic value. In a country that already sexualizes young women and school uniforms, it's a pretty sketchy adornment. I'm not even really gonna get into how I feel about all that stuff, because that's a whole series of posts. But, today, during an exercise with 6th graders to find out what they like and what they don't like, I had a 12 year old girl (wearing a Playboy bunny hoodie) look me in the eye and tell me that she likes "Lolita," which is apparently a fashion style for young women in Japan.

...Man, I may never understand this place. And with all the weird fetishes and tentacle porn and all that, there are certain aspects that I'm sure I never want to.

On that weird note, gaijin out.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Spring Has Come...

Or so they say. Yesterday, I had a partially comprehensible conversation with some of my fellow teachers about a Japanese custom. Every February 2nd, the old traditionalists throw fried soybeans out their front door, to ward off oni (particularly Japanese "demons" of a sort). Apparently, the sound of crackling soy beans scares the monsters out of the corners of the house, and throwing the beans chases them out into the street.
...Admittedly, it sounds pretty far-fetched. But, take a similarly discerning view of, say, Easter and you'll come to the same conclusion: A man was killed, came back from the dead, and to celebrate we eat chocolate and eggs that a giant rabbit hides around our yard. It's best to be as understanding as possible when confronted with new cultural customs, I find, lest my own come under such scrutiny.
Anyway, after the ceremony of cooking and throwing the beans (which happens on Feb. 2nd), the next day is considered the beginning of Spring. And, to tell the truth, it has felt a lot like spring here. That is...if it ever felt like winter at all. Still, many teachers and principals are commenting to me lately about a certain "Spring feeling," and the principal at today's school gave me a run down of "ri-shun" (literally "stand up, spring"), as today is called.
As I mentioned, it never exactly felt like winter. That is to say, that it never once snowed, and the temperature only dipped below freezing a handful of times. While that may sound like an almost tropical paradise, remember that insulation and heating in home and school is not exactly as highly regarded in Japan.

So, I made it through the winter, and I stand at the mouth of the rising spring. I suppose that makes two seasons down, two to go, right? In the same vein, only two days remain of my elementary school visits. I'm amazed that I have come through this gauntlet of kancho and crying 6 year olds more or less unscathed.
Although, I have become quite ill lately. And that's not a fun way to spend a couple of days at the elementary schools, even if they are my last for a while.

Spring, arise!