Teaching In Socks

47Black Cats
October 26, 2009, 4:32 pm
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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

Animal rescue
October 19, 2009, 1:52 pm
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The Shi Shi; In better circumstances for dancing

The Shi Shi; In better circumstances for dancing

The Shi Shi–a mythical snarling lion–bobbed its head up and down in a series of fluent movements. Occasionally, it would stop and erratically shake its mane, shedding white strips on the floor. The men surrounding it shouted “yanyoi!”(give up?).   Suddenly, in a quick direct movement is thrust its head up, inches from me.  After a momentary pause, it tried to drop its head back towards the ground, but stopped abruptly midway down. The Shi Shi was caught on something. With the light above me shaking, I noticed the pull-chain from the overhead lamp was protruding from the lion’s mouth. The two men operating the suit attempted to shake free. I wanted to yell “stop” but in the panic I had forgotten how. Instead, I thrust my hand into the beast’s mouth yelling “matte, matte!” (wait, wait). It was quite tangled; however, with some clever maneuvering we were able to free the costume and avert electrocuting any mythical creatures for the evening.

Seconds from near tragedy. Don't try this at Home kids.

Seconds from near tragedy. Don't try this at Home kids.

In some sense,  every season is festival season in Japan. Autumn can make its claim to the title as shrines across Japan hold festivals to celebrate the rice harvest. This happens nearly every weekend–and sometimes weekdays–throughout October, as the celebrations are for each shrine or neighborhood and are staggered throughout the month. As they are for different shrines, each festival has it’s own unique imprint on traditions costume and dress, and the festivals depending on where they are located and the size of the shrine can be local affairs or events with national recognition. Last weekend I had the pleasure of  attending my girlfriend’s neighborhood’s festival, which was a small, intimate but extremely lively affair.

In the morning the portable shrine, called a Mikoshi, is carried out of the shrine in a parade like manner with many locals carrying the shrine or playing the role of a fabled character related ot the shrine. The Mikoshi can vary in size and number– some being about the same size as a typical litter (not the cat type) while other can be large, multi-story tall structures that have to be pushed on carts.  The Mikoshi–which houses the temple god– is then taken to a sacred spot in town. Presumably, this is like a day trip vacation for the temple god. Everyone gathers for the day and depending on the shrine, there are usually some sacraments performed involving children and then at night a bigger parade forms when the shrine is taken back to the temple.

At the particular festival I attended, the night parade involved traditional dances by men dressed as both the aforementioned Shi Shi–which is the rather iconic looking lion figure as well Tengu–a half-bird, half-human demon (although not necessarily evil). Both of these creatures are major characters in Japanese folklore– from what I have read, the Tengu was traditionally a conniving villan of sorts until about two centuries ago when it started appearing as an aid to monks or travelers in certain stories.   Either way, I wasn’t able to discern what their roles where in this particular story, nor their affiliation to the shrine, but I did like their moves.

With the roadside fires lit, I knew they would be dancing through the street on their way back to the shrine–a route which passed just in front of my girlfriend’s house. What I did not know was that they would be doing a dinner performance as well. I heard them in the distance  as we ate, I was a little surprised to suddenly find myself dodging the jaws of the Shi Shi–and then ultimately rescuing from the danger of modern life.

Apparently, it is local custom for children of one year of age to place their hand in the Shi Shi’s mouth to receive good luck. I’m about 25 years too late for that(although I may act that age at times), but as I am one year Japanese I’m hoping I deceive the gods into the same result.

Trick or Treat. Tengu and Shi Shi

Trick or Treat. Tengu and Shi Shi

Devil Birds and Dark Magic
May 26, 2009, 5:09 pm
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Last week left me feeling pretty intelligent. While it’s been years since I was on an academic calender, I’m convinced my brain still follows the school year routine; In which case last week was finals week.

My two exams this year: birds, and a crazy lady.

First, the birds. The lovely spring weather has inspired a pair of starlings to nest on top of a utility box, three feet from my door. This arrangement quickly transformed the normal enjoyable act of returning home after a days work, to intense Hitchcokian detente.  I feared an impulse defensive dive-bomb and the birds nervously (I think) feared whatever birds fear.

I’m generally pro-nature, so I did my best to cope with the situation for a few days.  However, I have guest coming soon, and I reasoned that the longer the birds stayed there, or the more offspring they had in that nest, the more unpredictably defensive they would become. I needed the birds to leave.

Once again, the magical entity that is the 100 yen shop came to my rescue. In America, we really don”t treasure or utilize the dollar store to it’s full potential.

Last Wednesday, on my way to work and while the birds were away, I used a mirror  to check the nest for eggs. The nest was empty and I was beginning to feel like McGuiver.

With the nest empty, I had he moral clearance to proceed with my plan. During my lunch break I headed down to the 100 yen shop. The amount of things that have–all which can be procured for 100 yen is astounding (thanks China!). Amongst the cornucopia of cleaning supplies, sundries and toys, I found a large and intimidating rubber snake. I picked the fiercest looking of the bunch, dumped the tags in the store and hastily headed home.

I again was fortunate as the cost was clear. I quickly placed the snake on top of a portion of the nest. Since then, the nest has been bird free. It’s almost sad how proud I was of myself for outsmarting a few birds. Still it’s nice to yell “scoreboard” at nature every once in a while.

Later this week  I was approached by the crazy lady voodoo chiropractor who hangs out at the shopping center after hours. She again, wanted to practice dark magic on me under the auspice of relieveing tension in my back.

Now, I enjoy a good eccentric personality–and within reason I try to keep a genial rapport with everyone I meet, crazy or otherwise; however this time the doctor of dark arts approached me while I was in the middle of eating an ice cream cone. I don”t care you who you are, unless it’s a life or death emergency you time is not more valuable to me than my time enjoying an ice cream cone.

Thus, as much fun as I had last time, I elected that this was an experiment that had gone too far. Ice cream melts, and time was of the essence:

(Amateur Translation)

Crazy Lady: Hello

Me: Hello.

CL: That ice cream cone looks delicious.

Me: It is delicious. Ice cream is my favorite.

CL: Hey, by the way do you ever have shoulder pain?

Me: Nope, they’re pretty good, I got a massage.

CL: Oh nice! What about your back? Any back pain?

Me: (Flexing) Nope, all good.

CL: No back pain?

Me: I do Yoga (I don’t do yoga)

Cl: ohhh, that’s great.


CL: How about you legs? any pain in your knees? Do your legs feel tired?

Me: No, they are fine. I jog every day.

CL: Wow….hmm, that’s great. Although, I really wanted to practice my (flexes her forearms, pumping her hands into a fist on each hand.) devil magic. I am sad that we can’t share this awkward experience again. I’m trying to study it.

Me: Sorry, this ice cream cone is delicious.

I dare say, it was Ghandiesque, except for that I was eating ice cream and being curt Ghandi usually exhibited overwhleming kindness and protested by not eating anything (although, when he wasn’t eating I am sure he had surly moments). Still a stoic sacchrine affair. All the money I have spent on Japanese lessons has been worthwhile just to tlak myself out of that moment.

Fifty-Four Forty or Fight
February 25, 2009, 5:17 pm
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As swiftly as it was brought into action “The Apple Pie Bold as Love: American Culinary Experience” has been suspended until further notice.  The date the organizers had originally requested fell on a weekend that I will be out town and the date we initially compromised on happened to present a scheduling conflict to the cultural society.

I am both bummed and relieved. One on hand, I was really looking forward from the inevitable farce that would arise. While I’m sure it would have been injury free, (I got over my kitchen-fire phase in college) I think we can safely assume that me teaching a cooking class on two weeks notice to forty women with immensely more culinary experience than I had was worth at least one appearance on This American Life. At the very least, some dreadfully awful apple pies would have been concocted (let”s face it, that should read “attempted” –concocted assumes I get that far).

The organizers mentioned they would like to reschedule sometime in June or July. This gives me plenty of time to not practice pie-making in the oven I don’t have. So, the opportunity for disaster is not entirely lost.

Pie catastrophes aside, what I found most interesting was the process by which local cultural office informed me of the postponement. Specifically, I experienced my first serious, social, Japanese apology. while it was unnecessary, I did find it to be a noteworthy experience.

The organizer, who I met last week, dropped by yesterday with his English speaking colleague. Unfortunately, I was in class, so they left a message with my manager, that the even wasn’t going to work. They then returned today just to apologize to me personally for the misunderstanding.

I found this to be quite polite, but again, not necessary; scheduling conflicts happen, I am aware of this was certainly not insulted. However, they took the matter intensely serious; if you had observed this interaction on mute, and only seen their faces, you would have deduced that they were explaining to me in detail  and with great remorse that my dog  had died an agonizing and gruesome death. The man from last week was sweating profusely, he slouched in his chair as if weighted down by shame. His colleague, spoke English fluently, but still he chose his words diligently and in a slow, deliberate pace, apologizing, on my count at least six different times during a five-minute conversation–at least two of which were apologies for hypothetical things, that in case I had started working on they were sorry for.

As  I thanked them for their apology while reassuring them that it wasn’t necessary, the obvious revelation–that western culture could use a dose of this behavoir–hit me. It felt nice to get an overdone apology. Well maybe it was the apology, or maybe I was just feeling better because in the midst of this planning we cleared up any confusion there may have been about me being a Canadian. U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A.

More words about the pictures; also, less pictures.
January 28, 2009, 5:23 pm
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Compared to last week, I really have nothing of supreme interest or intrigue to report. I didn’t almost faint anywhere in the past week, and any cultural faux pas I committed have yet to flourish into repercussions as of this writing..

On Sunday, I went to farewell party for another teacher in Himeji, and had quite a good time. I was introduced to a cornucopia of friendly, interesting Japanese people. The only notable setback of the evening was that the bar didn’t stock have any good Scotch in stock. Luckily, I was able to overcome, and like always, conquer adversity.

The weather was terrible on Monday, so I settled on an comfortably late wake up and hitting up the movie rental store for the first time. Usually I just grab something off the Itunes store and save myself the trip outside, but I wanted to grab something with subtitles so my Japanese friend could watch.

At my movie rental shop, the selection is pretty evenly divided between Japanese films and Foreign, Anglophone films. There’s a substantial selection dedicated ot American Television shows. I think this layout is pretty standard.  As you might imagine, the organization and categorization of Foriegn films is a bit of a farce–a defeating prospect to anyone searching out a particular title.

First, Alphabetizing is attempted, but it is a wasted effort. I foolishly spent twenty minutes trying to make sense of it all while looking for my favorite movie, Rushmore. I even considered that it might be alphabetized in Roman characters, but by the Hiragana alphabet this theory held no water. There would be spurts where “E” would follow “D” and maybe “M” sequenced into “N” only to be stonewalled by a slew of Jim Carey movies (alphabetized, nor arranged chronologically) before moving on the “S”. On the bottom shelf there were the mutts: a season of “Da Ali G” show, a Meg Ryan movie and multiple copies of every what I imagine (read: hope) is Police Academy movie ever made.

This was just the beginning of the labyrinth. The comedy and drama section were by virtue of misinterpretation, presumably by someone has a very serious sense of humor, interchangeable. The Shawshank Redemption was in the comedy section– a very dark comedy if you ask me.

In retrospect, It’s not surprising that both genres were also jammed back in the corner,  farthest from the entrance, and the least desirable shelf space by far. I can’t tell if it’s because the films are the least popular, or if because American Humor vs. American Drama binary is an entity the staff prefer to pretend doesn’t exist–like getting a “D” on a history exam and then refusing to acknowledge that the Crimean War  ever happened.

I could understand why a store or a worker might take this reaction. Especially when “Ace Ventura” and “Old School” were placed in the “Love Comedy” section. This is not entirely a misguided placement,  but designating these titles as “Love Comedies” could be viewed as someone’s interpretation of “love” as an entity that crude, sophomoric, and slapstick (wait, it’s not?). Frankly, I’m not sure which culture this would be an indictment against.

Despite the perplexing organization and the fact that I couldn’t even find one Bill Murray film, it wasn’t all chaos and entropy.

The “Foreign Horror” section seemed to carry an established logical sequence throughout the cannon. I wonder if this says something about the genre, Japanese culture, or that it was simply a product of the particular shelf they were on having more empty space, allowing an employee to keep things organized effortlessly.

They also had a rather impressive collection of French and German cinema, and a collection of older classics as well.The price was hard to eat as well. Three movies, for eight days, 700 yen (about $8). As long as the returns go down smoothly and they pass the litmus tets of not accusing me of “never returning Batman” (I’m looking at you Blockbuster) I won’t have to cut up my rental card in protest.

Laugh it up Doctorheads
January 21, 2009, 6:47 pm
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In Japan, the network of independent and private doctor’s offices Americans are accustomed to doesn’t exist. Rather, if one is afflicted with any sort of ailment, they go to the Hospital. There are private hospitals and a small assortment private offices (there’s a pediatrician right next to my school), but they aren’t as prevalent or nor are they the standard ethos to treatment like as they are in America.

As a result of a bug I picked up on on the plane during my flight home, I found myself in Japanese hospital.  It wasn’t an emergency, but I was having trouble hearing out of my left ear. Normally I embrace a situation and use it to my advantage, expanding my selective hearing bold to a boundless range or irresponsibility.  Unfortunately, I no longer have that option.  When you are trying to teach someone how to speak proper English and pronounce words correctly, your left ear (both of them actually) is a useful and necessary instrument and I can’t afford to get fired in this global economy.

I was sans translator, but flush with patience resources; every coat pocket carried some kind of document I assumed might be important or a conversational dictionary that I thought could be useful if things really deteriorated. Although the experience wasn’t as daunting as you would imagine or as my previous sentence would suggest.

First, it helped that I was equipped with very precise directions from my friend on where to go to reach reception (the second floor), and she had presence of mind to send me an email to my phone with the Kanji for “Ophthalmologist”, and a written request to see one. Secondly, you have to remember, the Hospital is one of those stages where the intentions of both parties are fairly evident.  Most of the script for a conversation is therefore already written out thus pretty consistent across the globe, in fact I could probably could have communicated what I needed to even if they all spoke Kilgon (God forbid I end up in a Kligon hospital,who knows what nerd injury/space travel scenario that might entail).  Essentially, they know I want to see a doctor, I know they want me to fill out some forms.

Perhaps the greatest lapse in communication occurred when two nurses handed me a thermometer while I was still in the lobby. They motion that they wanted me to put it under my arm right there, amongst the other patients and plebes. I was wearing a few layers, and proper placement of the thermometer was going to require a feat of wardrobe adjustment that would in most advanced civilizations be considered slightly awkward. This being winter, the “pale areas” would be be exposed and unguarded. I didn’t think Japan was ready for this, but they were persistent. It wasn’t until a third nurse  entered the fray and saw me start to reluctantly attempt to make the proper adjustments that she got the hint that maybe this wasn’t going to be something everyone would want to see. She kindly offered to escort me back to a room so a public viewing could be avoided.

I’ll spare you most of the glorious medical details, but I will say the Doctor determined that, for one reason or another, “irrigation” of the ear was the best method of treatment. This involves running a saline solution through the ear canal– it’s basically a really good thorough cleaning.

Now, it maybe have been because I was nervous, or wearing too many layers, or feeling dizzy from having a bunch of liquid throw off my equilibrium, but midway through I started to feel sleepy and the light in the room started to get really bright. The sensation was terribly painful or uncomfortable, but I decided that I really didn’t want to faint. I mean, who knows what was written on those papers I signed– I could be part of Japanese Candid Camera show right now and on the brink of becoming the you-tube fainting gajin sensation.

I needed some water and a minute to gather myself. Unfortunately, I haven’t learned the word for “stop” in Japanese. I’m not even sure what I said, but I think I tried to wave my hand and said “atsui” (hot) a few times. Apparently one of the three assistant nurses caught my drift and within seconds I had a cup of water by my side and my chair was flipped backward so that blood could rush to my head.  After a few deep breaths I was back in peak form. The doctor finished and sent me along my way.

In the lobby I could hear the staff and doctor rehashing the story and having a bit of a laugh, but I was more than happy just to be able to hear them.

Japanograph 1
January 14, 2009, 4:20 pm
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I’m going to try and do one a day, or maybe less if it begins feels like even more gratuitous over-sharing…