Teaching In Socks

The problem with bags
September 10, 2010, 1:56 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , ,

This summer in Japan has been the hottest recorded in 61 years. Actually, that statement is most certainly wrong as with each day the number of years increases back further into the annals of history. This trend will undoubtedly continue until sometime in October when climate historians will announce that this has been the hottest summer since the earth’s crust was molten and people will resort to to violent and primal non-society where the only things that count as currency are ice fans. There is of course a chance that the world will begin to tilt on it’s axis and it will start too cool down, but until that happens I will continue to believe that this summer is the one where the Earth finally reveals itself to be a sun disguised as a planet.

To make it worse people have been dying–or rather people who have been dead are being found. This unfortunate series of events kicked-off around the end of July when local authorities in Tokyo went to congratulate Japan’s oldest living person. When they finally gained access to his house, they learned that he was not Japan’s Oldest Living Person but instead that he had been dead, relaxing in his recliner for thirty years. Actually it’s important to note that he had been dead in his recliner and receiving a pension for thirty years. You may have heard this story, it made the international news circuit at the time. Taken by itself, while unfortunate for the man, it’s kind of a humorous Darwin Awards-esque tragedy about the failures of bureaucracy. However, as we are dealing with bureaucracy, no problem can be taken by itself. Bureaucracies are systems and their problems more often than not are systemic; thus, thousands of municipal workers were sent scrambling through their towns and cities to check in on pensioners.

The number of missing centenarians and pensioners snowballed. In a matter of days one hundred missing pensioners became two hundred, and then three hundred with final estimates reached around eight hundred missing across Japan.It was front-page fodder.

Now, the American in me looks at this situation as eight hundred missing people in a country of one hundred and twenty-five million. It’s bad, but statistically, it doesn’t sound that bad to me. If a study was done diligently, America would probably fare far worse. However, what was at stake here was the pride of Japanese diligence, and the reputation of country known for close knit families with multiple generations living in the same home.

For the most part,  the problem for the most part was confined to urban areas but the whole country felt the international impact that accompanied the findings. Japan was predictability and cruelly mocked by Asian rivals China and Korea, who took their shots with political cartoons and editorials mocking what they purported as the “lie” of Japanese longevity.

Things got worse when authorities began to locate some of the missing pensioners. In a handful of cases the missing person’s mummified remains were found in the houses, storage spaces and, most grotesquely, the bags and backpacks of their relatives. In many of these cases, these remains had been sitting around for years, even decades collecting pensions. The relatives often explained that at the time their family member died, they had no money to pay for a proper funeral and furthermore since the death had no means of an income and instead relied on the pension of the deceased.

While it’s certainly not and honest or morale way to make a living, if this was indeed the situation, it’s hard for me to mock these people. Japan, despite having the third largest economy, has been a pattern for stagnation for over a decade.  These people may have had difficulty finding sustainable jobs, and in some cases may have had to quit such a job  to take care of their ailing relative. This is all speculation of course. I suppose the ironic part of this is that one of the primary growth industries in Japan is elderly care.

The moral of this story is a bit unclear. There are several to choose from; Should bureaucracy work harder and more efficiently to do it’s job better–of course, should people not disgrace their deceased family members for their own financial gain–certainly.  However, these morals were both kind of givens. Instead I think the real important lesson to be learned here is, if you’re a cadaver-conscious pension-collector, who is feeling a bit ill and is living with unemployed relatives who surreptitiously start buying a few large-size duffel bags, maybe it’s in your best interest to take a vacation somewhere and not come back.


cell erosion
August 13, 2010, 3:01 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Japan used to be the epicenter of new cell-phone technology. When I first arrived here I had designs on grabbing a state-of-the-art cellphone with TV capabilities, a 32-inch screen, super-internet and the ability to conduct all my conversations for me (preferably in a Christopher Walken type voice and demeanor).  Instead, I discovered that, at the time–and still, the most advanced phone on the market was the iPhone (and even that had debuted in Japan many months after it had in America). This was almost as devastating and learning that I would not have robot pets.

I ended up with a phone made by Sharp. It has many many features–more than a standard phone in the U.S. would. Unfortunately, none of these are as useful or user-friendly as anything the iPhone offers. So what happened? As this New York Times article reports, part of the problem is that Japanese cellphone makers evolved too quickly. They jumped to Network structures other nations weren’t prepared to move to, and they developed an overload gadgets that have moved past the point of convenience. For example my phone has the equivalent of the Microsoft Paperclip-helper, except it’s a cartoon beluga who does tricks and sends heart symbols in my direction.

In addition to the beluga, my phone has a cellphone camera that can read bar-codes placed in the corners of advertisements (which takes me directly to their web page). It has an IC chip that allows me to use the phone as a credit card at stores. It has an infrared transmitter so I can transmit and retrieve information from other people’s phones. It has a GPS, TV capabilities (I don’t know how to use), the Internet(but not the real Internet–the Japanese mobile Internet), a touchscreen (sort of), blue tooth and a Kanji reader (that has never correctly read any Kanji for me).

The downside of having all those features seems to be that it doesn’t really work well as a phone. The speaker isn’t loud enough and the microphone picks up a ton of ambient noise. It doesn’t feel comfortable when I hold it to my ear. The whole thing makes me feel like Andy Rooney.

As the New York Times piece points out, in the last year Japanese cellphone makes have adapted their phones to try to fit to a more global market. The clamshell shape phones are gone. Some phone makers still promote their phone’s hardware however it is almost always attached to a piece of software–for instance new camera’s allow you to post videos of your cat directly to youtube or post pictures of that mime you say in Europe to your mixi profile (the Japanese Facebook).

One line of phones in Japan I have found intriguing is the Iida line. They seemingly have shunned both the hardware and software cold war and decided just to make phones that look weird. I like this idea; this is what cellphones used to be about.



The Ply for example, despite it’s claims to change how you feel about your relationship to the phone, appears to offer nothing new in terms of hardware or functionality. But, it looks kind of wild and it has a funny and apt name. It’s the kind of phone you could pull out at a party and everyone would stop to ask you what kind of phone it is and what does it do. The answer to those questions would be “The ply” and “looks cool”. It’s the phone as a conversation piece. Which, from where I’m standing, it way better than a worthless Kanji reader.

Iida’s latest phone is the Light Pool.  It has a boring phone, and probably cannot hold applications that recommend what wine to drink with my meal. It’s gimmick is that it kind of looks like the Hearst building (Norma Foster) and that lights up silly colors. I’m not going buy one (that would kill my Andy Rooney buzz) but it probably works better as a phone than the thing I have now.

shiny things

Honor or Madness
June 3, 2010, 4:44 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , , , , ,

I had a bad day

This morning, Japan had their semi-annual holiday event where everyone wakes up in the morning, reads their paper, eats their breakfast and then goes to work only to find out that at some point during their commute the Prime Minister has resigned. I say semi-annual because this is the third time it has happened since my arrival just twenty months ago. Furthermore, in the last twenty-two years there have been sixteen Prime Ministers (that crazy Elvis-loving cat, Koizumi stuck around for four years, skewing the average). At this point, I’m surprised they haven’t developed a special kind of roll cake or pastry to commemorate the day each time it happens; retailers, you are a missing an obvious cash cow.

Prime Minister Hatoyama–I’m sorry–Former Prime Minister Hatoyama resigned this morning after only eight months in office. I’ve lived in Japan long enough to not be surprised by his decision, (and as I mentioned previously, it only took less than two years) but it doesn’t mean I understand why he decided to resigned, and why others before him have also resigned so abruptly after fairly short terms. The obvious deduction to make is that this is vicious cycle of copy cat quitters, but I think this runs deeper than that. The frequent changing of the guard has evolved from a developing habit into fuzzy area between tradition and ritual

The general consensus in regards to the current case seems to be that the motivating factors behind Hatoyama’s resignation include, his mishandling of relocating an American Airbase in Okinawa (locals wanted it moved away, Hatoyama flip-flopped on issue and then kept it in Okinawa), pressure from a hostile Japanese press corps and his general inability to deliver promises on made in his party’s Manifesto published in the fall. I wouldn’t dispute any of those contentions, those things all happened. However, if we compare Hatoyama’s situation to the failures and tribulations of other world leader, the obstacles he faces seem minute–and certainly not circumstances worth resigning over.

is that a shirt or a magic eye?

To take a shot at my own motherland, Obama, for instance, has (at the time of this writing) unequivocally failed on his explicit promise to close Guantanamo Bay, he hasn’t ended “don’t ask, don’t tell”, he edged in a heavily compromised Health Care reform bill that the general public still doesn’t fully understand, and let’s not even begin to discuss Wall Street or Afghanistan or the fact that he hasn’t mastered the ability of flight or telekinesis (that we know of). And Bush, through his eight years…well. Despite all of this, I don’t think Obama should resign, and I never thought Bush would resign. The problems they face (or created) are large the solutions required are generally equally large, challenging and to the consternation of everyone, slow. Americans, get this though. Yes, we whine, scream and do silly silly stupid things, but a general consensus seems to be that we value persistence higher (or at least equally) than the notion of honor (cough cough Mark Sanford).

Japan seems to differ in this opinion. One should be persistently honorable, rather than honorably persistent.

The big rallying moment against Hatoyama came during a series of protests in Okinawa–the biggest of which attracted a crowd of 90,000. That is a large number of people, and they were very passionate and loud about their dissent. Still, Japan is a country 123,000,000 people, it’s not like the protesters were a powerful and overwhelming majority. I’ve been ot football games with bigger crowds.

string pullers

Hatoyama’s approval rating was low (I don’t have the actual numbers, but I recall at one point last week a Fuji News Network reported them somewhere in the 20% range) but there’s no constitutional imperative for a Prime Minister with bad approval ratings to step down*. Also, last time I checked, approval ratings seems to be things that fluctuate based on a variety of variables, many of which the person being approved of has control over. In Japan, the political parties seems to hit the panic button when the ratings hit below 40%, after that it’s political quicksand.

I believe I said this before, when Fukuda resigned in the Fall of 2009, but I believe this pattern has something to do with Japan’s concept of honor. We are after all talking about a country who traditionally has no qualms about ritual suicide. Seppuku has all sort of connotations. Still, it seems to me this obsession with doing the honorable thing has started to cost Japan. In January when Obama was receiving foreign dignitaries to a dinner at the White House, Hatoyama, despite being the leader of a G7 country, was notably not given face to face time with Obama. The reports at the time were that people close to Obama had suggested that it would be a waste of Obama’s time–and frankly they were right. How can Japan remain a major player in the Global economy if no one is sure who to do business with or if the current leader will be around to enact the promises he or she has made?

soooooo honorable

I know champions of democracy often talk about the importance of term limits, but Japan may be the first developed country in need of term minimums. Enough with the pleasantries, if you mess up, do something terrible, to bad, you have to keep showing up to work for another year, it’s your duty.

I should note, that the Highlight of the Hatoyama administration has been his fashion choices. Many people have criticized that too much has been made of this, but the guy really just has too much money and not enough taste. Sometimes, when I was watching the news it would to try and concentrate on what they were saying, his outfit was just too mind-blowingly weird. As you can see, he takes Cosby to a whole new level. (Also, it should noted that you can pick up that prime colored checkered shirt from some fashion designer in China, it’s only $500. The designer called Hatoyama visionary but I think he’s just a guy who accidentally traded suitcases with DJ Jazzy Jeff one day and hasn’t noticed.


*That I am aware of– I have not read Japan’s Constitution

May 19, 2010, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , , , , ,

This year’s Golden Week made headlines for having the best Golden Week-weather in recent memory. Kansai, the week went without a single rainy day. During the weekend I had the chance to take full advantage of the great weather during   a day trip to Naoshima.


Naoshima is a tiny island in the Seto Island Sea, which the seas between the main island, Honshu, and Shikoku.  Getting there requires a twenty minute ferry ride from Okayama City and, in my case, a two-hour car ride from my old haunting grounds in Ako.  Until recently, Naoshima was a fairly unknown, sparsely inhabited island. However thanks to the Benesse House complex and works in recent years by Pritzker prize winning architects Tadao Ando and the Tokyo-based SANAA, the town has become and art enthusiasts pilgrimage site.

As you might have noticed from this blog, I am pretty big fan of Tadao Ando. While my appreciation originates with his work that he did on the Contemporary Museum in my hometown, St. Louis, I have become a genuine admirer of buildings. I think this can partly be attributed to that fact that I have had to chance to see a number of his sketches and plans, and have a feel for the amount of thought that went into to his process. I also think that as a self-loathing pack rat, I really admire the simpleness and beauty of clean open areas and nice geometric shapes–these things are scare in my life.

The Benesse House, designed by Ando, must have been a challenging concept. The building is both a modern art museum and a luxury hotel. Luxury hotels aren’t the type of building that are in Ando’s wheelhouse. Who wants to pay $400 a night to sleep in a room with bare concrete walls–the answer of course is people who pay millions of dollars for Pollack’s splatterings and Morris’s stripes and Klein’s Color, so imagine many people find it money well spent.  I didn’t check out the room situation personally, but the rest of the hotel was filled with gallery rooms with a moderately sized collection of art. I really felt as though the layout of the hotel framed the Seto Sea and the surroundings very nicely. The balconies has great perspectives of the coast, and the interior of the building flowed really nicely. If anything, some of the building concepts were too nice and made you forget about the art. (this might be the biggest whine wine on the Internet right now)

The pinnacle of the island was the ChiChu Art Museum, also designed by Ando. The museum sits a couple hundred meters up the hill from the hotel. The building is entirely under ground, with the exception of a few lighting windows, the emerge from the top of the mountain to let light into the galleries. In fact,  from above the only clear indication that the museum exist are the windows that protrude from the ground to let light into the museum below.

fit for a Bond villian

There are only three displays inside the museum (well four if you count the museum itself). Two of them are interesting installations,  and the third is the Monet collection. By far, I enjoyed the Monet room the most. I must confess that before entering this room, I don’t think I had ever had an enjoyable Monet experience. That’s not to say I hated his work, but if I was going to make a list of artist I liked, I would probably not put him on the list, or probably only would so as to not to appear foolish or uncultured. The Monet room at the ChiChu art museum changed that. Mostly because looking at Monet in the ChiChu Art Museum is like looking at Monet in Space, in the future, hundred of years from now. To enter the room you have to take off your shoes, and put on sandals. The floor is made of small soft white stones, that somehow have the sensation of walking on felt.  On the walls five paintings hang, only illuminated by the small amount sunlight let in from above. The painting are encased in plexi-glass, free of the tradition frame. It would be cliche to say that I saw them in a new light, but something about the way these paintings were prepared allowed me to appreciate them in way I did not before.  That said, it will probably also make me critical of any other Monet I see, just hanging there, displayed in a manner that I know is highly inferior.

The only draw back of the island (if you call it a drawback) seems to be a popular destination especially amongst foreigners. While the island was packed over Golden week, we had to wait and hour and half to gain entrance to the museum, the crowd there had to be the highest ratio of foreigners  of anywhere I have seen in Japan, Kyoto included. Also, while we arrived on time for our ferry, the ferry was already full and we were forced to wait an hour and half for the next one, which of course was when we learned that the island doesn’t have many restaurant options, but that’s minimalism for you.

Just because we’re both foreigners doesn’t mean we’re friends
April 16, 2010, 4:29 pm
Filed under: Japan, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , ,

Gaijin (pronounced “guy-gin”) is the informal word for foreigners in Japan. Boiled down to it’s literal translation “gaijin” means “outsider”. Because of it’s context, it’s a word you don’t hear coming from the mouth of a Japanese person unless either you have done something excessively offensive, or if they happen filled with some pretty heavy prejudices. In polite conversation its considered more appropriate to instead use the word “gaikokujin” which means “foreigner” in a more literal, less slanderous sense.

Like other words of it’s ilk, the word “gaijin” is used frequently amongst the group of people it’s intended to offend.We call bars that foreigners frequent “gaijin bars”, certain cities have “gaijin networks”, and we ask each other if they know any other “gaijin” in the area.  I’m not exactly sure why this word was appropriated into the foreigner lexicon. It’s inception could have been an instance of the oppressed (relatively, obviously) seeking to dull the verbal weapons of the oppressor (again, relatively) by co-opting their vocabulary. The usage could have been the result of a collective attempt to try and sound more native, by using a bit of Japanese slang. Maybe it’s a hip-hop thing; Rappers sound cool tossing around the n-word, and thus foreigners wanted to sound cool by dropping their own forbidden fruit in casual conversation.

I tend to lean towards the third possibility, but maybe that’s just self-fulfilling colloquial historical revisionism because I like Wu-Tang and Lil’ Wayne.

While many of us gaijin subscribe to the same vocabulary, gainjin interactions beyond that can be complex. When I see a foreigner on the street I am often conflicted about what to do. On one hand, I know there is a good chance that this person and I have the shared experience of being a stranger in a strange land. We could probably share embarrassing stories about onsen trips or the number of times we have been asked if we know how to use chopsticks. I also know, that there might be a chance that we speak the same cultural language, and I could always use more friends around me who get my Chris Farley references.

On the other hand, I didn’t come all the way to Japan to rehash the greatest moments of Matt Foley: Motivation Speaker (in a van down by the river!). I also don’t want to perpetuate the Japanese misconception that all gaijin know each other. I can’t tell you how many times I have been a shop where there happened to be another random foreigner and the shop keeper assumed that we knew each other. I feel like I’m always trying to avoid looking like I’m part of a great gaijin conspiracy.

As I mentally debate these two contrasting view points I often find myself either giving the other person the polite but subtle head nod (which never looks cool) or doing the very obvious “I don’t know you” cold-shoulder.  In retrospect, the deciding factor on which one I do seems to be whether or not I suspect the person of being a tourist.

Don’t get me wrong, I like being helpful. I just don’t like being caught in a situation where I am helping the hopeless, and if you’re walking around look like a tourist, then you are already lost beyond my ability to save you.

These past week I was playing pool with two gaijin friends, a Kiwi and a Brit, when a foreigner couple strolled in past us. As they walked by, the guy yelled, “People speaking English, that’s what I like to hear”. No one in my group replied. Internally, I sighed; the man’s accent was American, I was going to have to take care of this or it was only going to reflect poorly on me amongst my peers.

As predicted, within minutes the girl came over to our table are started asking us where we were from. We were polite, I asked her where she was from. “Orlando” she replied. “Which is great in Japan, because when people ask us where we are from we just say Mickey Mouse”. That is great, I thought. Really great.

In my experience, people from Orlando are particularly dangerous on foreigner countries. They are generally entirely uncultured, but completely oblivious to it. They assume that their proximity to a theme park that is visited by people internationally has put them on a some sort of cultural pedestal and clued them in to the secrets of proper international relations. Just because the restaurant you work in taught you how to say “My name is Renee” in their language doesn’t mean you are some preferred customer to come poke around their country.

The girl left  us alone, but over the next thirty minutes they kept finding reasons to pop back over to our table. It quickly went from”Where are you from?” to “Do you know any good hotels in the area?”, “where can I get wifi around here” to bumming cigarettes. Like I said before, I am happy to be helpful, and politely helpful, –we drew them maps and wrote down Kanji; however there are travel agents and an American Embassy for a reason.

As we left the bar, my friends lightly lamented about how a day dedicated to shooting pool and drinking beer became a tour guide symposium. I rued that this was another reason the terrorist hate us, and vowed to stick to the cold shoulder routine more steadfastly. Some gaijin are gaijin enough to be “gaijin”

47Black Cats
October 26, 2009, 4:32 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , , , ,

The 47 Ronin are Ako’s most notable contribution to Japanese history. In Edo Period Japan, 47 Samurai from Ako exacted revenge in the name of the former master- Asano, the Lord of Ako, against his enemy Kira. To accomplish this, they executed a masterful plan which involved them feigning disinterest and deceiving their enemy for two years before attacking. The immediate reward for their service was that they were forced to commit seppuku by the Shogun as punishment for the murder of Kira. The greater reward however, was that they had restored their honor (as well as the honor of the Ako domain)  and today their story is held in high regard as an example of loyalty and bravery.

Oishi Kuronosuke cat

Oishi Kuranosuke cat

I have noticed that the 47 Ronin are often depicted in cartoon form as black cats. There is even a series of black cat samurai dolls that seem to make a yearly appearance in Ako station as well as at local city events.  The choice to portray them as cats was something I questioned, albeit passively, never giving much thought into why they would be cats. I suppose that I casually  assumed that it was somehow related to the popularity of Hello Kitty.  However, since I am more of a dog person, I did think it was a little regrettable that these fearsome and treasured Samurai were not bestowed the honor of being a creature that perhaps inspired more respect. Also, cats are creatures more known for their independence and less for their loyalty.

Recently, I have started to do a little extracurricular study of Japanese history. My investment paid its first significant dividend last week as I was able to uncover and understand why the 47 Black Cats are black cats.

Last Tuesday a representative from the Post Office dropped by my school and asked if we would put up a promotional poster in our lobby. The poster was advertising a line of post cards which chronicle the story of the 47 Ronin using the Black Cat characters. While putting the poster up, I scanned through the listed of characters and noticed that one character, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, was depicted as  dog.

During my reading I came across a short biography of him. He was the 5th shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate–the dominate shogunate of the Edo Period. He was also the Shogun who punished both Asano and 46 of the 47 Ronin by forcing them to commit seppuku.

The beginning of his reign as Shogun was actually rather successful. He enacted many popular reforms; He chose advisers for their merit as opposed to their lineage, he was known to reward common people who were generous to their parents and he kept close tabs on local bad governors.

Unfortunately, in his late 40’s he decided to hand over the daily mechanics of the government to his close advisers-which resulted in political chaos. In addition, the economy began to decline. This was partly a result of Tsunayoshi’s extensive government spending and issuing of bad currency.  Tsunayoshi’s decline in popularity came a direct result of his fondness for dogs.

He established a law forbidding the killing of dogs across Japan–which seems like a positive reform, but he also began to build large (and expensive) kennels for stray dogs across Japan.  Under normal circumstances this is a policy I would support, but  the fact that he was nick-named the “Dog-shogun” is probably evidence that he took his obsession to an unhealthy extreme. When people begin to think the government cares more about dogs than them, it usually is cause for dissent.

As a result his legacy is not one of a prudent and pragmatic leader, but instead he plays the snarling canine foil to the noble and heroic Black Cat Samurai from Ako. Let this be a lesson to us all; if you try to do something good and this is what happens.

Images via The 47BlackCats Blog

The Berlusconi

The train home from Kobe last night was bit crowded. My girlfriend was able to grab a seat, but I had to stand next in the aisle and brace myself by holding on to a ring hanging from the ceiling. Next to my girlfriend was an old man. The old man was part of some local tour group. He had a booklet, a full backpack and he was eating an assortment of rice balls. As a person who eats breakfast on the train once a week I’ll refrain from criticizing his etiquette too much, but it’s one thing to down a donut in an empty train and another to have a hot meal during rush hour.  My girlfriend didn’t seem entirely pleased to be sitting next to him, but she wasn’t about to give up her seat.

Then he opened his newspaper; double-page wide, his left arm stretched well into her personal space.  This is rude on it’s own, but it was exacerbated by the fact that that he opened to the exact page that happened to have a half-page black and white picture of a naked woman. Classy. I don’t want to get into detail, but let’s say the woman in the picture was proportioned in a way that made everyone in the area (did I mentioned it was a crowded train?) simultaneously double-take. Luckily for everyone involved (and extra luckily for my girlfriend), the old man was kind enough not to hastily turn the page.   For some reason, I want to name this man’s maneuver The Berlusconi–I just feel it’s appropriate.

This seems like a perfect moment to go with something completely different and share some cartoon mascot I have seen around Japan.

Ako's mascot.

Ako's mascot.


Dad? what are you doing here?

Dad? what are you doing here?


Dad, why are you a castle?

Dad, why are you a castle?

all dogs repair locks.

all dogs repair locks.