Monday, December 28, 2009

Dr. Feelgood

Since I’ve been ill in real life (IE 2009) with a kidney stone, I thought I’d regale you with the time I had to go to a Japanese hospital.

I caught some sort of intestinal infection that had me going to the bathroom far too often than even I had become famous for. Back then (or back there, if you prefer), I considered myself to be constipated if I only went to the bathroom once or twice a day.

I know, there had to have been something wrong with me if I considered five times a day to be pretty normal – and let’s face it, there was nothing pretty about it. I suppose I could narrow it down to my ingesting of 2 liters of Coke a day – my preferred poison of choice. As well, the only foods I knew how to cook were chilli con carne, spaghetti and lasagne. I see the splatter pattern now.

Back in 1990, however, I knew I was sick. I’ll spare you my gory details and will instead attempt to describe how I got to go to the Ohtawara Hospital.

From Monday through Thursday, I was working at a junior high school and suffering. On Friday I visited the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) offices. Not looking my usual chipper self, both Kanemaru-san and Hanazaki-san noticed my complexion to be quite ashen, and came within a few feet of my desk to query me about it.

I explained in English that... well, I had to go to the bathroom a lot. I was trying to be polite. Hanazaki-san didn’t say anything... and he’s the one with the fairly understandable English. So, I pulled out my English/Japanese dictionary. Kanemaru-san pulled out his Japanese/English dictionary and off we went.

Would you believe that my dictionary didn’t have the translation for ‘the squirts’... sorry if I’ve lost you, but it is what it is. Now unable to use words, I resorted to pantomime.

I grabbed my then slender stomach and doubled over and made farty noises. Everyone laughed. Now I appreciate a laugh, but only when I’m trying to be funny. I held up a finger a la ‘just a moment, please’ (chotto matte, kudasai) and ran to the bathroom and came back with a roll of toilet paper.

Believe it or not – they understood I was sick. Of course it may be because I actually used the facilities then and had accidentally left the bathroom door open – but they got my drift.

Hanazaki-san, Kanemaru-san and my bespectacled driver whose name I never learned drove me to the Ohtawara hospital.

Even 19 years ago, it looked 19 years behind what we had in Canada, what with the cramped halls, patients in stretchers in the halls and cracked floors and walls. No biggie. But what struck me as odd was my doctor.

He stepped out of an office into the waiting room where I sat—excluding my posse, all of the other Japanese visitors sat very far away form me, probably not interested in catching whatever international disease I had. I appreciated their concern, as I too did not want to catch something national from them.

Anyhow, the 30-ish doctor in the typical white lab coat and black glasses had a lit cigarette dangling between his lips that jumped rhythmically as he talked to Hanazaki-san. In fact, pretty much everyone who worked at the hospital was smoking—like it was part of the job description. Stranger still is that in my three years there, I never saw or heard a Japanese person with a smoker's cough/hack - I wonder if the amount of green tea ingested had some kind of preventative medicine for cancer?

The doctor stuck his face right in front of mine, pressed a tongue depressor into my mouth, exhaled some smoke at me and asked in the best English-accent I had ever heard outside of Monty Python what was wrong with me.

After Kanemaru-san helped me pick my jaw up off the cracked and dirty marble floor, I quickly explained my issue. The doctor nodded, put two fingers into his white coat pocket and pulled out five wax packages and told me to take one a day, coughed, said sayanora and walked away. Hanazaki-san ran after him.

I kid you not... these wax cachets were about two inches wide by one inch high and thinner than a sugar packet at a gas and gulp diner. Inside the packet was a very fine purple coloured powder. So... do I mix it with my coke (I didn’t drink coffee then), ocha (green tea), heat it up on a spoon and inject the liquid or snort it?

Apparently that’s what Hanazaki-san went to find out for me, telling me I need merely tip the grainy contents into my mouth and swallow it quickly before it dissolved my tongue. That’s what he said. He might have meant “dissolve on your tongue”, but Hanazaki-san was quite insistent I follow his directions.

With nothing to lose but poop, I emptied the contents into my mouth, tasted it and then swallowed. It was a big mistake to have tasted it, because if you can imagine grape flavoured dirt, then you are half-way to the map that will tell you where to find the pit that some now-extinct creature must have barfed atop this medicine. Bleagh! If I ever needed a reason to never get ill again, that magical medicine in the doctor’s pocket that he had handy for me was it. Prescription? Who needs that? Labels on the packaging? That’s for whiners.

After two days, I felt like my regular old self again. On the Thursday of the next week, I was picked up at my school by Hanazaki-san at lunch time and driven back to the hospital for what I figured was a follow-up.

Nope. I had to pay my hospital bill of 1400 yen... which is about $14 US.

Somewhere flush with excitement,
Andrew Joseph
PS – sorry no pictures, but I’m sure you understand.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ego Rock

All foreigners arriving in Japan are immediately set upon by the locals to answer the many questions they have about all things non-Japanese (that’s me).

Is it cold in Russia? What? You know I’m not from Russia. It doesn’t matter that I’ve not been there... as a foreigner, it’s expected that I be an expert in all things foreign. It was a tough question, but it really came down to what time of the year... I guess it would be cold in the winter, but not in the summer. Giving me an “Ah so ka” (kindda ‘oh, I see’), I apparently dodged the bullet of incompetency.

While one might naturally assume that the Japanese are asking me these questions and more specifically ones about myself, in an effort to get to know myself and Canada better, rest assured that did not enter into the equation.

Questions in Japan are for knowledge, and knowledge is power. But it’s also for prestige. In this case, there’s a certain amount of prestige from learning something about the local gaijin (foreigner), as that knowledge can propel one up (or down) the social ladder—at least that’s how it appeared to me in Ohtawara.

Why down a ladder? Sometimes it depends on which gaijin you talked to. Getting chummy with Andrew, Matthew or Ashley – that’s a move up the ladder. Talking to one of the nice folks visiting from India at the Asian Farm Institute in north Ohtawara, could be considered a bit of a downer—not that the people visiting Japan and learning Japanese farming techniques  weren’t fantastic people, because they were—but prestige-wise,  they just weren’t Western enough, pardner.

Simply going out to buy film for my camera (yes, I am that old), will inevitably get me stopped by people interested in learning something about me. And that’s cool. I like talking to people – especially when they do so in English. Heck... it’s the point of me being in Japan. Well, that and getting laid. That was always there in the back of the mind.

Back when I was 23 (two years before travelling to Japan), I was incredibly shy. I know you don’t believe that, especially when I’m laying myself open with this blog, but if you think about it, it might explain that whole virginity thing I was afflicted with through high school, five years of university and two years of college.  Anyhow, the point is... I’m in Japan not to teach English so much as to teach the Japanese a bit about internationalization. Perhaps Matthew will be kind enough to give me the Japanese equivalent of that phrase in the comment section bellow? He’s a smart one, that Matthew.

Anyhow, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Japanese already know the answer to every question they ask the foreigners, but just get a kick out of hearing us speak English. Remember, just being seen with a foreigner is cool – but having a conversation – wow! You must be super frosty. And dating or more? Woo-hoo! Words describing how cool you are escape me.

Since all of Ohtawara seemed to know I was dating Ashley, I was only allowed to answer questions.

The following are some of the questions I was asked ad infinitum during my first three months here until someone got smart and had it printed up in the local newspaper. This is also true.

Following each question are my answers as they would have been seen if the newspaper had used my computer 19 years later and wrote in English.

  • “Why did you come to Japan?” As long as the question is asked nicely, I usually answer: “I don’t know” and blubber for the next four minutes.
  • Why aren’t you married?” “Just lucky, I guess.”
  • "Do you have a girlfriend?" “I don’t know. What day is it?” (Was I already having problems already with my I-hate-your-guts-today-but-might-not-tomorrow-if-hell-freezes-over-girlfriend?)
  • "How many girlfriends do you have?" “I don’t know. What day is it?” (Yes, I guess I was.)
  • “How much money do you make?” If a member of the opposite sex asks – be careful. They may be looking for a spouse. I usually turned the question in my favour and asked them: “Japan or Canada?” Because we are dealing with English as a foreign language, I can safely state that most Japanese would only hear the word Canada, and will repeat it. I always made my salary in Canada higher than what I was currently earning in Japan. I found that besides making me look awesome for giving up money to come over and teach English to the youth of Japan, it will also scare away prospecting mates who will be stunned at your fiscal stupidity.

However, because I did have some brain function working, I gave the straight answer: “Enough to live comfortably here.”

As an aside, I made 3.6-million yen a year. A Japanese millionaire, though the US equivalent was $36,000. Not bad for a job right out of school with a recession going on in North America.)

  • "Do you know how to cook?” “No, I don’t. I’m very hungry.”
  • “How big are you?” Y’know, I was never sure how to answer this one, but I always gave the straight answer less the fact that I had a sense of humour confuse anyone. I told them my height.
  • "Can you give us your impression of Japan?”My “Sorry, but I don’t do impressions. Ba-dump-bump” confused the heck outta everyone. 
To the newspaper’s credit, they printed all of my answers word for word... in English, so maybe 30 people understood it.

Somewhere a lot of people fell off the social ladder and went ba-dump-bump,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Yes... I really was asked these questions by an Ohtawara newspaper reporter – and yes, those were my answers. I never thought it would see print. Still, after it was printed, my boss Mr. Hanazaki called me a new phrase: odokemono. It means ‘joker’. After this, I was not allowed near the media without Ohtawara Junior High School English teacher Ryoichi Shibata by my side.
PPS: Not everyone is impressed with certain foreigners. See photo above.
PPPS: Today's title brought to you by Janis Joplin.

Monday, November 30, 2009

I Hear You Knocking

This is just an observation and in my warped mind it seems to make sense.

Just in case you weren’t sure (not that it matters), I like women. I like to look at women and there sure were a lot of them to look at in Ohtawara.

The main thing I have observed about Japanese women is that a lot of them have knock-knees. The more beautiful the woman, the more the knees knock. The best looking women have knees that totally cross as they walk resembling a double helix. I guess it’s in their genes.

Or is it? A prevailing theory has it that because Japanese girls wear skirts to school from a very young age, they are forced to keep their knees together to stop the perverted male species from looking up their skirt.

This constant peer-ing pressure of the knees being forced together—which if one wants to remove some of the pressure from the knees leads to pointing the toes inward which might also explain why a lot of Japanese are pigeon-toed, too—could this be the cause?

Keep in mind the bones on these kids are still growing.

I'm not an expert, but I do play one in this blog, but there are a lot of theories floating around out there on the subject - feel free to google it.

According to some research I may or may not have done, 80 per cent of the women in Japan are supposed to suffer from bowlegs—the opposite of knock-knees… if that’s so, Ohtawara may be an anomaly, because my observations don’t back that number up at all.

By the way, some women blame their bowlegs on they way they sit – seiza. Click HERE for a description.  Again, I’m not swearing to the scientific accuracy of all of this—it’s all just an observation. Personally, I thought the knock-knees might be because the pantyhose was a bit tight. But what do I know?

Somewhere I'm a kneedy idiot,
Andrew Joseph

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Poison Arrow

Judging from the scowl on her face, I guess Ashley wasn’t expecting me. That’s okay, as I wasn’t expecting to see her either.

We weren’t on the outs or anything, it was just an unexpected visit.

I had just been dropped off at her place by the Kanemaru family on a dull, overcast Saturday morning after spending the night at their place on a home-stay. They did not drive off, however. They were waiting…

Not knowing what to expect—and not one to quibble—I was still surprised when she grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me into her apartment. Before I could stammer that I had nothing to do with this, she planted a really decent kiss on me.

Not able to follow up on that kiss, she told me she knew all about Kanemaru-san’s visit, my visit, too, and that she even knew where we were going… though she continued to revel in my ignorance and discomfort by not telling me where we were going.

No big deal… not knowing what I’m doing or where I’m going is pretty much the norm for me in Japan.

Grabbing a coat and her camera, she got into the backseat of the car—though Tomohiro (the six-year-old Kanemaru son), wiggled around so he could sit on my side – sticking me in the middle seat (and the hump) of the white Toyota Cherry Vanette.

It was Saturday, September 8, and we’d been in Japan for a month… which is probably why Ashley decided to show off her recently learned Japanese language skills by starting a conversation with the Kanemaru’s.

I have no idea what she said, but Kanemaru-sand and his wife both turned to me and stared for a few seconds, before saying in English: “Ash-a ree Japan-eezu berry goo-do. (Ashley Japanese very good.)”

I suppose I deserved that. In the month there, I didn’t really say too much in Japanese – and surely not anything as complex as whatever it was that Ashley said.

By the way… did you notice how Kanemaru-san phonetically said Ashley’s name? It’s important for later.

A short while later, we arrived wherever it is we were supposed to arrive at. No, don’t anyone tell me – I’m only a writer who likes to think he knows everything. Which I don’t… so I suppose the trend continues.

>Anyhow, the here were we were—as opposed to the here where we are—was in the southwest area of Ohtawara, and there was a festival-like atmosphere about the place. Not surprising since it was a festival.

According to Kanemaru-san this was a festival to celebrate Nasu no Yoichi (aka Yoichi Nasu – the name/word Nasu is pronounced nass) who was a famous warrior from the 1100s.

It bothers me that I only had to learn a couple of hundred years worth of Canada/British North America history, while the Japanese learned a millennium’s worth. It bother’s me that I didn’t do it very well.

That brief interlude brought to you by ‘Whining™’, when merely complaining just won’t do.

Short story now merely long, Yoichi Nasu is a hero of Ohtawara – and you can read about him HERE.

Nasu was an archer of great renown (obviously), and not only did he shoot a bow and arrow to smite the enemy, he did so atop a moving horse. I know, I know… what’s the big deal? Native American Indians have been doing it for centuries with a lot of success – just ask General Custer. But the Japanese bow utilized in kyudo (Japanese archery) is a big one. For someone my height – 180cm (I was taller back then), my bow would be 7’-7.5” in height or 223 cm. That unwieldy weapon is a bugger to shoot with—but more on kyudo and Andrew later.

The Nasu Yoichi festival opening ceremonies began with a small, wizened old man shooting an arrow at a far away target – obviously he hit it, and the festival began. Or rather the second part of the opening ceremony began.

Next up was a kyudo warrior dressed in 11th century battle garb showing off his accuracy and long-distance shooting (that’s the photo atop the blog). Impressive as all heck. In fact, when Kanemaru-san asked me if I liked it, I immediately grinned in wide appreciation and said ‘hai!”

In fact, he then turned to Ashley and asked her: “Ash-a-ree play ah-sha-ree, too?”

I thought the old boy was stuttering, but it turns out he was asking Ashley is she wanted to do kyudo

A-sha-ree, he asked Ash-a-ree if she wanted to learn ah-sha-ree. (Actually, he asked Ashley if she wanted to learn archery.)

Man, do I love this place. The stories just kind of write themselves—a bit long-winded, though.

Anyhow, the Kanemaru’s, Ashley and I had a great time at the Yoichi Nasu festival. If you like, you may click HERE to see some photos of the event.

There was some excellent horseback kyudo and then there was a very long archery competition amongst a couple of local clubs—and though Kanemaru-san belonged to the Ohtawara Kyudo Club, and though they were at the event, he did not take part in it for some reason. I guess because he was babysitting us.

Anyways, the whole point of this particular blog was that single sentence wordplay. Okay, it’s also about how cool Kanemaru-san and his family are. And it does set in motion how I spend a lot of Wednesday nights.

Somewhere a-sha-ree wondering how everyone is doing…
Andrew Joseph
Today's title brought to you by ABC

Friday, November 27, 2009

Our House

Mr. Kanemaru really is a good guy. Sure he and Hanazaki-san are my bosses and as such are in charge of my well-being in Japan, but they always go out of their way to ensure I’m all right.

Kanemaru-san invited me on a ‘home-stay’. I’d never heard of this, but it’s really quite evident – I stay at his place for an evening (sleep-over) and get to learn a thing or two about the Japanese family-life. What the heck, when in Rome and all that stuff…

It was September 7, a usual Friday spent at the OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education). After work, I rode home, packed a few things and waited for Kanemaru-san to show up at his appointed 5:30PM – which he did to the second according to the clock sitting above my television. I’m unsure if he purposely set his watch to my clock, but I wouldn’t put it past him.

We drove outside the city in a southerly direction for 15 minutes before heading east for another 10. Ohtawara is a large spread out city, and outside of the main urban area where Matthew and I lived, it’s mostly farmland – and at that, 99% rice farmland.

We arrived at a modest split-level home and met his wife, her father, and his youngest son Tomohiro. He had an older son, but he was apparently busy studying his butt off to get into a good high school--I'm unsure why... I think he was 12 and not yet in Grade 7. I never actually saw him while I was there – at least not this visit.

Tomohiro was a precocious 6-year-old. A really, really good looking kid who, if Kanemaru-san will forgive me, proved that genetics aren’t an exact science. Good looks aside, that boy also had good taste, immediately becoming a part of me.

He wasn’t afraid of gaijin/foreigners or of me as a stranger – nope, he took to me like a fish to water, and over the next three years whenever the Kanemaru family and I met, he was always at my side.

Dinner was tempura – now we all probably know what that is – HERE. But it was the way we ate that was intriguing. Dinner was in a tatami mat covered room, with the plates placed upon a large square table situated over a pit one metre deep. We sat at the edge of the pit and dangled our legs down into. How civilized! We didn’t have to sit cross-legged!

The food was delicious – and it was nice to have a home-cooked meal.

Kanemaru-san smoked his Golden Bat cigarettes throughout the meal, but reverently put them aside for the after-meal entertainment.

He brought out daisho (a pair of samurai swords) consisting of a wakazashi and a katana – I’ll direct you HERE for more information on these two types of weapons.

Kanemaru-san explained that his ancestors had been samurai… you could have knocked me over with a feather. He unwrapped the swords from a silk binding and held the larger of the two swords—the katana—reverently in two thick hands, as though he was making an offering to the gods. Even though it looked as though he was offering the sword to me, I was either smart enough or too stunned to reach out and take it. I’m pretty sure that you don’t touch another guy’s sword.

Besides the obvious wordplay, swordplay to the Japanese is not something you fool around with—especially when the 200+ year-old sword Kanemaru-san was holding was one that had lopped off more than its fair share of limbs in the past.

While it’s always possible that he was embellishing his ancestor’s story, I always got the feeling that Kanemaru-san was a straight shooter.

The sword was in pieces – IE hilt and pommel were apart from the supremely shiny blade—within minutes, he had carefully re-built it… and like the fine piece of weaponry it was, it sang as he slashed the air in front of him. That oxygen never had a chance, as in shock I tried to suck the air in.

Right there in front of me, Kanemaru-san transformed from a humble jowled-faced salary-man at the OBOE, back to tough as nails Bushido-following samurai. You could see him glow. It truly was exciting.

He told me via his dictionary that every time a blade is drawn from its hilt, it must claim blood, so he calmly placed his thumb near the blade to nick it and feed the sword... but that baby must have been sharper than Kanemaru-san because man, did his thumb splurt!

Holy crap, there was blood everywhere. I swear it didn’t even look like he had touched it, but he was bleeding pretty good. His yells brought his wife running, who quickly sized up the situation – shocked gaijin, screaming husband, a samurai sword and tatami mats splattered with blood and ran quickly for a towel and a Band-Aid.

Prying Kanemaru-san’s thumb from his mouth, she looked at the cut, shouted ‘bakayaro!’ (stupid idiot), smacked him on the back of the head, quickly wiped the blood away and applied the band-aid – a Hello Kitty one – all in about 4.7 seconds. The samurai had nothing on the quickness of a wife chastising a husband.

Done gushing, Kanemaru-san mumbled under his breath about something-this and something-that (I’m sure now, as a married man, that it had something to do with how a wife can suck all of the fun out of a party—oh, did I mention we had a few shots of sake (rice wine) at dinner? No? Well, that goes without saying and probably explains why we were fooling around with weapons--oh my gawd... he was a Japanese redneck!), and began cleaning the blood from the weapon before taking it apart and putting it away.

He looked at his thumb, grinned and painfully flipped through his dictionary to tell me one word “owie”. Who the heck put that in the Japanese/English dictionary? I mean, it was appropriate, but… anyhow, the actual Japanese word is ‘itai’, which should translate into hurt or pain. 'Owie' work, too.

It was 10PM, and it was time for bed. I slept  in a double-thick futon with a large feathery down comforter and slept very well. In the morning (7AM), Mrs. Kanemaru-san pointed to me and made a snoring noise. I have no idea what she meant – I heard nothing.

We had a horrible breakfast… a cold fried egg atop cold rice, with a glass of orange juice. If that’s a typical Japanese breakfast, I’ll never eat breakfast here again.

Mister and Mrs. Kanemaru, Tomohiro, their grandfather (where the heck had he been all evening and breakfast? – I’m kidding, he was around – just not pertinent to this particular story) and I got into the white van – a Toyota Cherry Vanette and headed back home to my place… but then they drove on by and headed along a road familiar to me… we arrived five minutes later in front of Ashley’s place in Nishinasuno Town. I’m pushed out of the van towards her place, I walk to her door – notice the Kanemaru’s are now standing outside the car – and grab her knocker. You know what I mean.

Ashley answers smiling, sees me and scowls.

Somewhere wondering what the heck is going on,

Andrew Joseph

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Private Eyes

The father wore off-white slacks, as did his wife and son that I guessed to be about five-years-old. Mom and dad were in their late 20s or early 30s—and I’m usually pretty good at judging people… uh, their age, that is, but they were 100 feet away.

The father wore a deep green sweater, the mother a deep yellow, and junior a deep blue. All were solid colours with a Vee-neck and had obviously been purchased from the same shop not more than a few hours ago, as I had watched mom pull them out of the handled paper bag and pass them around to the family.

The son was learning how to ride his white two-wheeler bicycle. White? Can’t start’em too early in having a white vehicle.

From my perch up on high—my western-side third-story balcony — I watched. From my own self-proclaimed ivory tower, I trespassed on that family’s private moments.

The family was in the old parking lot one street over from my apartment building – a scant 50 meters away.

The father ran alongside the son’s bicycle to ensure he wouldn’t fall off – but after a few seconds of stability, he let go and stood with his wife now beside him, watching the boy ride.

Wobbly at first, but generally straight, the boy let out a whoop – “Yata!” (Yay or alright!). he stopped when he ran out of room at the end of the parking lot. Getting off his bicycle, he turned it around, got back on and began riding straight towards his folks.

His father shouted something to his son, and the boy began to negotiate a circle – he almost made it, too. He tilted a tad too far and fell.

I nearly stood up with concern, but eased back into my perch as his parents came running up. It did my heart proud to watch him yell at his parents, who stopped in their tracks. He righted his bike, got back on and tried again. He fell. He tried again. He fell again.

Mom went back to the house for some reason – perhaps too terrified to watch?

The son gave up trying to do corners and went back to practicing going in a straight line. He fell one more time as he stopped.

After that initial fall, the father never moved again but only looked on anxiously.

Mom came back with the dog in her arms who jumped down and began running circles around her.

In a moment of the absurd, the son brought the bicycle back to his father, who lit upon it and rode it with legs splayed apart like Kermit the Frog, and rode the bike into a fence thanks to an inability to steer properly.

Laughing, both father and son went back to their nearby home while mom walked the dog for an additional 30 seconds before following them in.

What’s the point of this vignette? Just to let you know that people are people wherever you go—despite the Japanese love affair with white vehicles.

Somewhere falling off a bicycle,
Andrew Joseph
Today's Title is by Hall & Oates

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fly Like An Eagle

So… in 2010 - did you hear? Apparently U.S. President Barack Obama is in trouble with his own media for bowing to the Japanese Emperor Akihito during a recent meet and greet.
Click HERE to read it and see the offending bow. It really must be a slow news day, or it’s yet again Obama’s enemies clutching at straws to show that he’s ignorant. He's not. Love him or hate him, he's the President, and he deserves respect.
I don’t care too much about U.S. politics - it is what it is - but as a human being, I’m proud that the country was smart enough to not let race stand in its way of electing someone to this high office.
Did you see the photo? Did you read the article? Go back. I’ll wait. He’s shaking the Emperor’s hand while bowing. If anything, he’s doing too much at once, but offensive? Nope.
What would the media and political pundits have him do? He’s in Japan – and when in Japan, do as the Japanese do - to paraphrase a famous adage.
If he was in France and the leader wanted to lean in and plant a kiss on each cheek should he stop the friendly showing by sticking an outstretched hand into the chest – because that’s the way we do things in America?
People who believe that it’s 'the American way or no way' are suckers. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with the American way – especially when dealing with Americans… but the world is full of different social customs, and when you try to fit in, the world is a happier place. I should know... it's kind of what It's A Wonderful Rife is all about.
Obama probably got thrown for a loop… he was probably told that he could show respect to his Japanese friends by bowing, but the Emperor wanted to show Western respect by proffering a hand to shake.
Should he have ignored the Emperor’s attempt at a handshake and left him hanging while he bowed, or should he just have done what the Republican media wanted and just done a handshake?
Slow news day that it is, if he just shook hands and not wanted to bow, they probably would have roasted him for not observing Japanese protocol.
As an aside, I, too have been caught bowing and shaking hands with the Japanese – we’re all just trying to get along, and no one is offended.
Somewhere, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by the Steve Miller Band

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fire

Ohtawara, my adopted home away from Toronto, does not have a full-time fire department, instead opting for a volunteer one.

So, is it like on the Flintstone’s and Simpson’s where the boys go to the fire hall, play cards and drink until a call comes in, or if nothing’s doing, head home and wait for a dispatcher to call everyone? Not quite… In Ohtawara, the volunteer fireman would get in their truck and drive around the streets of the city, with a siren on.

Now I’ll be honest… I never actually saw a fire in Japan, and I never saw the fire truck wander the nameless streets… but I did hear it. Droning on at night, I was told the lights do flash as a warning that they are on the job – even if there is no fire to proceed to.

By the way… there are no street signs in Ohtawara denoting an address – so getting to where one needs to go can be frustrating.

"Uh, Fire Engine ichi-ban (#1), we have a fire at Farmer Suzuki’s residence over at the corner of three rice fields and a pachinko parlour.”
Kso! (crap) Suzuki-san? Which one?”
“Uh, the one near the gaijin, Fire Engine ichi-ban.”
Bakayaro! (stupid idiot) Which gaijin? The stupid Canadian one or the giant pale one?”
“Uh… let me check…”
(add elevator music of The Girl From Ipanema)
“Uh, we’re still chec---nani (what?)… uh, never mind Fire Engine ichiban… the fire has burned down the house and has put itself out.”
Ah so ka (I see) We’re proceeding to travel aimlessly around town with our siren on and lights flashing. I’m unsure where we are now…. but we are directly under the moon… … now!”
“Ah, you are in south Ohtawara - Sakuyama district.”

That amusing incident never happened, but it could have. How do you find a fire if you don’t know where you are going? Apparently you look for smoke… because where there is smoke, there is fire.

That answer was given to me by a volunteer fireman who took a single English night school class with me as teacher. His English was actually sweller than my own.

Anyhow, chatting with him during a break, he mentioned that one time while en route to a fire, they accidentally drove the truck off a narrow goat path (road) and into a rice paddy. All of a sudden farmers appeared ninja-like out of the dark to help push the truck back up onto the sidewalk (road).

And I swear I am NOT making this up, while a line of farmers was at the scene of the blaze working a bucket line, two men were trying to put out the fire by peeing on it. Apparently they made matters worse as the sake in their urine acted like lighter fluid, adding fuel to the fire, as it were. Okay, maybe I made that part up… but it made you laugh, right?

Okay, here’s some factual stuff from the volunteer fireman – whose name I never learned. Unlike our western stereotypes, he wasn’t built like a Chippendale dancer, standing about 5’-6”, 130-lbs soaking wet and worked in a bank during the day.

He said: newer Japanese structures that are less wood-based (ie drywall and aluminum siding) tend to cause more damage than their older all-wood counterparts.

Apparently the newer structures are more airtight and tend to keep the fire contained within the house. This means that the fire burns the house interior more before it is discovered (IE, smoke doesn’t escape sooner). The flames circle inside the house and then explode outwards with the force of a detonating bomb.

In older structures, the flames could escape easier and thus the early detection meant the fire department could get there sooner. In the newer building, the fire was not discovered until the building exploded in flame.

Neat, huh? Of course, the above explanation is for nighttime fires when people are sleeping.

As a final thought: sis you know that the music from the movie Backdraft is used for the tv cooking show Iron Chef? Something’s burning.

Somewhere wondering why the Flintstone’s needed a fire department when everything was made of rock,

Andrew Joseph

PS - Click HERE for your music video - The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

Friday, November 13, 2009

Please Mr. Postman

It might sound stupid and whinny, but even though I’m in a foreign country with new friends, a girlfriend, have my own apartment and am experiencing new things I’d never thought I’d have the opportunity to pursue, there still exists a feeling of lament. A feeling of homesickness.
While I’m no quitter, there were more than a few Assistant English Teachers (AETs) on the JET Programme who could not handle the life in Japan and chose to leave. One bugger, an American guy, who in my third year in Ohtawara decided to leave Japan so he purchased an airplane ticket, sold all of his apartment’s furnishings and left—without telling anyone… you know, like his board of education employers. To top it off, the furnishings didn’t even belong to him. Our apartments are rentals and come fully furnished with items the employer purchases on our behalf to make us more comfortable, and so save us quite a few Yen (Dollars/Pounds/Euros). What an ass, eh?
In Japan for about two months, the euphoria I felt at being here had begun to wane, because I constantly found my thoughts drifting back to my home in Toronto.
Phone calls to my family only seem to exacerbate the feeling. I missed my mother, father, brother, my three rottweillers, my cat, my friends, my comic books and my televisions shows – especially hockey which was just starting training camp for my beloved Maple Leafs.
It’s why watching the mailbox became a pastime of mine, one that lasted the entire three years there.
I don’t mind telling you that getting a letter from home was like water to a thirst-starved wanderer in the desert. Lifesaving.
My mother realized that and made an effort to send monthly shipments of a letter, food products – microwavable lasagna shells, and VCR (remember those) tapes of television shows my brother Ben would tape for me—it would always be a pot pourri of shows – maybe a hockey game, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Star Trek: TNG, comedy shows galore… always stuff I could share… and to Matthew’s credit, his folks did the same… we were looked after. But the feeling of abandonment or loneliness always seem to pervade my oft-time moody personae.
Along with standard news from my family, it was also uplifting to get a letter from a friend. When I left Toronto, everyone said they would write. Everyone being maybe 25 people. The reality is that about half of them wrote – once.
All of those writers except for two people – maintained a more constant letter-writing presence: my good friend Rob Jones who has been my friend since I was 14, and this cab driver named Doug McIntosh whom I had only met once a couple of weeks prior to leaving for Japan.
Rob first. I’m unsure if I was Rob’s only friend, but I was certainly his best. While he never sent over a package of videos, he more than made up for it with letter frequency. Over my three years there, Rob sent 69 letters. Remember… this is in the days before e-mail where one had to put pen to paper, find an envelope, buy a stamp and then post it. How Rob was able to send me so many entertaining letters without poisoning himself with envelope glue, I’ll never know. But he did it. And I’m here to tell him now just how much it meant to me.
Also – and here you have Rob to blame for this – but he’s the one that kind of got me started on this whole creative writing kick.
Sure I had been writing a primitive version of It’s A Wonderful Rife once a month for the Tochigi-ken AET newsletter, but it was the letters that got me thinking about writing professionally when I got back home.
For Rob’s upcoming birthday at the end of March, I thought I would write him a letter every weekday for the month as a cheap present. After three days of “How’s it going? I’m fine” crap, I decided to write a creative short story instead. For some reason, the creative juices were flowing, and I actually wrote three that day. And two or three or four the next, and every day until it was his birthday… I wrote close to 60 short stories that month. Lots of comedy, but other more series stuff too. Despite the grammatical and spelling errors, that stuff was/is dynamite and I’ve converted more than a few of them into comic book stories (www.strangefuncomics.com).
So… blame Rob for my writing. I do.
And there’s Doug who equaled Rob's output of 69 letters. A little background info is required here. I was 24-years-old to Doug’s 41 when we met in 1990. I was working for the Toronto Star as a reporter on a summer internship program. On a hot and humid July day, I was asked to go out and do ‘pick-ups’. That means I had to go out to the homes of people and pick-up photographs of a loved one who had just passed away. That job sucked. Its still bothers me to think about it.
I went down to the line of cabs parked in front of the Toronto Star, peered into the open passenger window and asked if he could take me around for the day, as I had several photos to get. A deep, clean voice that made me think of radio beckoned an assent.
I still have no idea why I did it, but I opened the front passenger door and sat beside him.
We made intros and shook hands… but who sits in the front seat of a taxi when there’s plenty of room at the back? Me, I suppose. 
We spend the day together making the pick-ups – I bought us lunch at a Harvey’s, and at the end of the day, he knew more about me than I knew about him. He said (and I quote), “Ya gotta write to me from Japan,” and gave me his business card.
A couple of weeks into Japan, I began writing letters to everyone on the computer at the OBOE. Even though I am loathe to admit it, I sent off a few form letters – changing only the addressee name. Doug’s was one of those. Hey, writing was hard back then.
A week later, I opened up my mailbox at my apartment – and lo and behold, there’s a letter from Doug. I wrote back – and surprise, surprise, so did he.
All I can tell you is that we became story-telling sounding boards for the other… but more importantly, we became friends. And now while I’m older than Doug was when we first met, we’ve only physically seen each other a few times, but the letters keep a-coming… each as interesting and heart-warming as the first.
It’s funny where friendship can occur. Sure still being friends with Rob is to be expected (It is, isn’t it?) And so, too making a friendship with Matthew? But how does a chance taxi ride turn into a 20-year-friendship? I have Japan to thank for all of that.
Letters kept me sane(ish). Who would have thought that writing would ever be so important to a writer?
Ending in a melodramatic note: Why is it that it takes so little time to write and send a letter, but to receive one, months seem to pass?

Somewhere starting a letter to Doug (I’ll see Rob when we go comic book shopping later!),
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by The Marvelettes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

The photograph to the side here shows a poppy pin – something that is, of course, used as a memento for those who gave their lives in the service of their country in war. American servicemen after the ill-named war to end all wars – World War I, used the poppy as a reminder back home, while a Canadian Colonel named John McCrae immortalized it in his poem, In Flanders Field: HERE. Careful, it can make you cry.

The currency pictured below it is a 10 Peso bill called 'scrip' that the Japanese Government used as currency while it occupied the Philippine Islands during World War II. It helped show the Filipino people just who was in charge.

When applying to the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Programme, I was asked why I wanted to go to Japan. I answered that history is always written by the winners, and I wanted to see if I could talk to any of the Japanese folk about WWII – to get their take on things.

The first thing one realizes when traveling around Asia, is that Japan is not well-liked. Memories die hard. Japan utilized an expansionist policy in the 1930s and invaded quite a few countries – hence the resentment even 50 years after the fact, as someone always knew someone who was killed in said invasion.

When traveling to countries like Korea, Saipan or Thailand – when someone asked me where I was from, it wasn’t prudent to say “Japan” even though I was very proud of my adopted country. No, the correct way to answer it was “Canada.” For those traveling anywhere in the world, it’s also a preferred way of traveling safely.

At some point in time when I purchase a new scanner, I will share with you a photo album I picked up at a ‘garage sale’ in Japan – it’s a collection of photos from the 1930s, some of which show Japan’s expansionism in action.

People in Thailand et al, really maintained a hate-on for the Japanese to the point that they would begin to rave. It would always be about how Japan had tried to exterminate their people, and how even in defeat, they failed to apologize for their mistakes.

I talked by Shibata-sensei (and English teacher at Ohtawara Junior High School) about Japan and WWII – he said it’s NOT something that is taught in the schools, because it’s an embarrassing part of their history – one they all wish had never happened.

I can understand that, but failing to learn from one’s mistakes can doom you to repeat them.

My downstairs neighbour – who also runs the variety store directly below his place (and mine) was 72 years old in 1990 and was a soldier in Japan’s Imperial Army during the war.

Over a couple of bottles of rice wine (sake), he opened up to me through his 30-year-old son who acted as translator. I’ll give a better blog description of our party another time.

He said he was stationed in the Philippines, and while he surely did shoot at the enemy (Philippine soldiers), he says he has no idea if he actually hit anyone.

Acknowledging that the Emperor was akin to a god for the Japanese people back then, he and the rest of the soldiers blindly followed orders to attack others—even if he, himself, thought it was strange.

Strange - because these countries had never proved to be an enemy of Japan, so why should we kill them? While surely others thought the same way, it was never discussed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, ‘The nail that stands up, gets hammered down.’

So he kept his mouth shut.

He told me in slurred Japanese that he and his unit had been stuck on one of the Philippine Islands for about four months – it was hot, sticky, bugs everywhere, snipers, dysentery and more. He had been a farmer before having to join the Army.

When the American soldiers poured onto the island to mount a counter-offensive to rid the land of the Japanese soldiers, the Imperial Japanese Army was only too happy to capitulate. He said they had long ago run out of proper food, they were all sick, and wanted to go home. They were all quite happy to be captured by the Americans because they knew they would be treated well.

I know, I know… the Japanese are infamous for their treatment of prisoners (Bridge Over The River Kwai – which I visited and have photos of – later) and of women – called comfort women, non-Japanese who were used as sex objects for the military… definitely not part of the Geneva Convention codes. And that’s just two examples – I’m sure there’s more.

On August 15, 2009, Japan‘s Prime Minister Taro Aso expressed deep regret over the suffering Japan caused on Asian countries during WWII. You can read an account of it HERE.

Japan to its credit does not have an airforce, navy or army – it dissolved its Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy after WWII and replaced it with the Japan Self-Defense Forces in 1954.

It’s nice that the Japanese regret their actions in the war, but to be honest, if they really want to do the right thing, they need to apologize for their actions. It may not sound like a great distinction – but for those who were there, it’s an important distinction.

War IS hell. It’s not just a cliché. Not every boy who joins the army comes out a man. Not every soldier kills. Not everyone wants to be involved.

Still, on Remembrance Day (November 11) here in Canada and other Commonwealth countries, it’s a day to reflect and to thank whatever god you choose to pray to that you or your ancestors will not need a poppy to be remembered.

Somewhere - lest we forget,

Andrew Joseph

PS – Here’s a song about today’s title: HERE by War sung by Eric Burden, former lead singer of The Animals.
PPS - Special thanks to my friend Janice Bishop for helping out with the scanning.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Birthday

Today, in 2010, November 8 is my birthday.
My first birthday in Japan was spent like this:
I was watching an old television show called THUNDERBIRDS. It was all in Japanese, but I recall watching it in English when I was a wee brat in England.
Yes, they made a crappy live-action movie in the 2000s - but back in the 60s, Gerry Anderson was churning out marionette tv shows - hitting gold with Thunderbirds. How popular were the Thunderbirds? My students thought it was cool - and there was even a Nintendo video game for them - all in Japanese, unfortunately.
I was also able to buy a myself a model kit of the vehicles for  3000 yen ($30) - see above. Yes, it's sad but true - I still have the box.
I suddenly felt a stirring in my brain as I espied a female "puppet" who seemed familiar. A few minutes of patience bore me out - it was Tin-Tin... she was the girlfriend of Alan Tracy (hero), and the daughter of the servant, Kyrano, to the Tracy family - who happened to be the brother of their arch foe, The Hood.
As a child I was so smitten by this charmingly beautiful marionette (CLICK HERE) that in 1967 I named the best present I ever got from my folks after her. She was a Blue Roan English Cocker Spaniel - and she was and is beautiful... the gold standard that every one of my subsequent dogs has had to measured against - and despite all being fantastic creatures in their own right, still managed to pale in comparison.
A phone call home was inevitable.
By the way, Tin-Tin is Malaysian for 'Sweet'... but in Japanese, due to the fact that there is no "Ti" alphabet, they use "Chi"... so we get Chin-Chin - which might be a form of 'cheers' when drinking, but in Japanese it happens to be slang for 'penis'.
I didn't tell my students about my dog's name. 
Somewhere, F.A.B. (Full Acknowledgment of Broadcast)
Andrew Joseph
PS - Thanks to my recent move, I can't find a photo of Tin-Tin. But I have the model kit box. Go figure.
PPS: Title by The Beatles

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dude Looks Like A Lady

There’s a double standard in Japan.
One for women, and one more the men.
Women serve men. I’ve written about how female teachers—even those with more seniority than their male counterparts—serve the men (even the gaijin) their morning, break and lunch-time green teas. I did initially state that I loved it here, but talking to the women, I told them how things were back in Canada. I’ll probably lose my ‘he-man woman hater’s club’ card for doing that.
But the double standard goes well beyond tea.
I have heard from numerous lecherous men in Japan that it is okay to cheat on your wife with your mistress… that the women know about and put up with it as long as it still keeps the family dynamic somewhat dynamic.
I don’t have any numbers on how many men have a mistress, but I do recall hearing the number 70 percent bandied about. Bikurishita! (Oh my garsh!).
Do you guys recall Madame Butterfly? – the Puccini opera set in 1904 Nagasaki. It’s all about a Mistress.
For more on Japan and his Mistress, I’d suggest giving this e-book a read: READ.
Japan is also loaded with what the locals call a ‘ra-bu ho-te-ru’ which is phonetic Katakana English for ‘love hotel’.
One of my favourite love hotel names is the national chain: Go-Go-Go. In Japanese, the word ‘go’ means five, so it’s the hotel ‘five-five-five’… but those of us who speak English see the obvious double entendre (a phrase that is itself only half-English), implying a chant of “going for it”.
Love hotels offer a convenience to the young folks who live with their parents until marriage. You may stay for the night, or stay for the hour - see photo above, and you can see the price differences.
On one such excursion to Tokyo, Ashley and I were hopelessly lost. It was late, and we were tired. We just wanted a place to crash. And then we saw it. A love hotel – the one in the photo below the title.
Since we were looking to sleep, we chose the ‘stay for the night’ option. Nowadays, customers need not actually see a hotel worker—kind of a privacy thing—as you can put your money into a slot, and a set of keys/entry cards will pop out. But not back in 1990. We had a female clerk – a mama-san, if you will, who took our money, made a phone call and soon we had four or five Japanese people come out to stare at the two gaijin who wanted to stay at the love hotel.
Because of the lateness of the hour (1AM), there was only a single room left…
Now, love hotels come in various shapes and sizes – or at least their rooms do. Should you be so inclined, you could rent out the Tarzan room, complete with jungle vines, or the Star Wars room that offered replica lightsabers and costumes, or even the classroom – with teacher and female student clothing. See the last blog for more on this phenomenon - CLICK.
Our room was actually quite tasteful… red silk everywhere, rose petals scattered on the very round bed and floor and a hot tub.
Forget passion, we needed sleep—one of us (not me) more than the other.
I do recall rolling off the bed at least twice during the night.
We awoke to the sound of banging – on our door. I glanced at my watch (still wearing the same watch 19 years later) and noticed it was 10:30AM. I guess we missed checkout time. Part of the problem for us was that the windows—well, there weren’t any. The room was sealed and painted black. No sunshine to wake us up.
Anyhow, back to the story I wanted to tell.
Japan has a strange hang-up regarding sex. They have love hotels all over the place. The men have mistresses, but the women sure as hell don’t have misters. Every men’s magazine contains scantily clad women – or topless (which I guess is scantily clad since they are wearing bottoms). And, there are numerous soapland massage parlours (see THIS blog).
Yet, despite it all, sex is not a subject talked about in the open. It’s all very hush-hush… that they know everyone is doing it, so no one needs to talk about it.
And then there’s homosexuality. The Japanese are not very tolerant… virtually everyone who whom I queried on the subject really was uncomfortable in discussing it. They’d screw up their faces and say “okama”.
The ‘o’ is an honorific, and is used here in a non-polite way. A ‘kama’ is a pot or kettle. Originating in the Edo period (1603–1868), it refers to the pot or kettle looking like an anus. Okama usually refers to a gay man, but more often than not, it refers to a transvestite. Now I'm neither, but presented for you tongue-clucking is this photo. It was Halloween. I'm a Japanese school girl. Aren't I pretty?




And, in those turbulent 1990s, one can’t have homosexuals without mentioning AIDS.
Back then, AIDS was non-existent in Japan—at least that was the official stance by the country’s politicos. It was a foreign matter, not Japan’s. That was how it was conveyed to me.
As a visible minority growing up in England, Toronto and Ohtawara, I’m not prejudiced… that would be like calling the kettle black (ba-dum-bump). As such, I just tell anyone who’d listen that it was okay to be yourself.
However, I was told (by many a sighing Japanese person) that: “The nail that stands up, gets hammered down.”
Ugh. I guess individuality is not really a good thing here. “Except for you, An-do-ryu. We like you.”
Baby steps. As part of my job as an English teacher here in Japan, I was asked by the JET program to ‘internationalize’ the Japanese… basically, let them know how the rest of the world (Canada) acts and thinks.
So I did. Do you know how many single Japanese women (with boyfriends) befriended me to ask for advice on what to do with their chauvinistic men? Plenty. It could have been my full time job. Although, what the heck did I know about relationships? You know the old saying, though: “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.”
Back to AIDS. With the Japanese men going out to dally with a mistress (or two), and their latex (I mean latent) fear of condoms—something’s gotta give.
Men would also frequently go on business trips to Thailand. Not for business, but rather to get busy.
In my second year, I traveled to Thailand (so you’ll have to wait awhile for those tales—I went with my mother!), and talked with a lot of the locals, who would only shake their head when I told them I was living in Thailand. I was regaled with story after story of how the Nihonjin (Japanese) would come in for a day-trip, load up on hookers and head back home.
If AIDS was only a foreign concern, it would soon be a Japanese concern.
I hope you can all dig that although I had only ever slept with one woman up until this time in Japan, I am writing this 19 years later with some knowledge on the subject.
It’s a funny place, Japan is. One full of warmth, humour, honour, and kindness… but like every culture, it, too, has its dark little secrets.
Somewhere, not sworn to secrecy,
Andrew Joseph
Title brought to you by Aerosmith.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hot For Teacher

There’s a complete industry devoted to the garb of the female Japanese student. That’s me being polite. In this case, however, I’m not talking about the manufacturing of said clothing, rather the predilection of some people (men) who find the catholic school/naval uniform to be sexy. Here’s an example of a kids cartoon that men seem to like: CLICK
I thought it was a sexy look back in high school, but then again, a girl could have been wearing a garbage bag and I would have found it hot. This is not to demean the clothing worn by any of the women I dated, ‘dated’ or had a crush on while in Japan—though Kristine South recently described my choice of women in Japan as “flaky”. I can’t argue with that, Kristine.
Click HERE for an image of the Japanese school girl uniform. Do you know how difficult it was to find an image on-line that wasn’t overly sexual that would label me a pervert? (Be quiet, Matthew).
There are a plethora of men’s magazine’s in Japan, and in every single one of them you can find an adult female model dressed up (or down) in one of these skirts and blouses. Did you see that skirt? Pretty short, huh? Some of the high school girls—and the junior high school girls—just like the one’s in a school near you, would roll up the elastic waistband to make the skirts shorter.
Make-up and jewelry are strictly forbidden additions for the student while at school.
The Japanese teachers do check out the students—but not in the way you think. They check for shirts not tucked in properly, improper shoes, hair colour (like Henry Ford said: "You can have any color you want, as long as it's black.") and the aforementioned make-up jewelry—that includes watches—and I bet you they sure as heck don’t allow them to have cell phones, I-pods, Blackberry’s or any other handheld device. School is for learning. Socializing—that’s called school club activities (like on the tv show GLEE – watch it!).
While I did not ever see this at any of my seven schools, other AETs (Assistant English Teachers) did—and I even read quite a few news stories on it—but teachers would check female students to ensure that they were wearing the correct coloured panties (white, because white stands for purity… and the Japanese want to be pure. I didn’t make that up. I was told that by quite of few of the native Nihonjin {Japanese}). I believe that the news stories involved male teachers doing the checking, so at least there was some moral outrage.
So, to sum up. School girls wear what some consider to be a very sexy uniform. Girls will be girls and many try to make themselves more attractive to boys by shortening their skirts or wearing non-white underwear.
So… there I sat in the teacher’s room at one of the schools—let’s say, Kaneda Minami—after eating my lunch. I was writing down a few Japanese alphabet characters in a shoddy attempt to memorize them and was hunched over my papers when I suddenly felt two warm and soft hands on my shoulders.
I tensed up, but didn’t look around. Instead, I glanced straight across my desk to see a Japanese teacher sitting there having his back thump-thump-thumped by an attentive, acne-charged student. I wondered if my would-be masseuse was as oily a guy as his was.
Hazarding a glance, I espied a cute, young girl—a first year, Grade 7, 12-year-old—smiling at me asking: “An-do-ryu sensei, okay?” It was mostly English, so I said “hai” (yes), but not really understanding what I was hai-ing to.
That’s when she began lightly thumping me about the neck, back and shoulders with her balled up fists.
Just so we’re on the same page here—my back was and is crappy. I had a herniated disc and a disintegrating one, and sleeping on a wafer thin futon on a tatami (grass) mat really wasn’t doing it for me. I even wore a back-strap (brought with me from Toronto) to hold myself erect (I know there’s a joke there, too). 
Anyhow, I was enjoying the massage, drifting in and out of consciousness, when in a moment of clarity, I realized that the massage was now feeling different, and that something had moved. Fans of Seinfeld will know what I mean – not sure? Click HERE.
Being a decent guy (back then), I grabbed the hands working on me and turned around. Gone was the little girl. In her place was a very tall, well-built phys ed. teacher. And female. Very female. She looked at me and smiled, took her hands out from under mine and continued the massage. Glancing around me, I espied several young students staring at her with arms and faces crossed—like I was spoiling their fun. I noticed many of the other male teachers smirking at me—I caught the odd wink, too, as they shook their head and bellowed for a student to come over and work on their back.
Twenty minutes later, when I figured she had enough, I turned and said “Bikurishita. Domo arigato.” (Smokey Hokes! Thank you very much).
She was gorgeous. About the same age as me, 25, black shoulder length hair, tall – 5’10” or so, slender, but built. I quickly peeked at her left hand, and didn’t see a wedding ring (I know, Matthew). So I asked her: “Anatawa do-desu ka.” (ah-gnat-awa doe des ka means ‘How about you?’ – the word “ka” denotes a question – the Japanese do not use question marks in their written language!).
She leaned close to me and in a hushed, breathy voice answered into my ear: “Atode” (ah-toe-day, which means ‘afterwards’). It moved again, Jerry.
Now some of you might be saying – ‘Hey, you idiot! Don’t you have a girlfriend?’ Well, depending on the day of the week or the phase of the moon, I may or may not be dating my southern belle, Ashley. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we were dating, so I merely filed her response for atode should I ever require options.
After my masseuse departed my shoulders, a gaggle of students rushed over to continue.
Five minutes later when the school klaxon sirened denoting that lunch was over and classes were start about to start, my student masseuse, Kimiko Atsushi (Atsushi is the family name, and here in Japan the surname is said prior to the given name – ergo, Atsushi Kimiko or simply as Atsushi-san – in a more familiar setting, girls might be Kimiko-chan and boys might be YY-kun) bowed to me and left while I stammered my thanks.
She turned, came running back and handed me something. If you check out that photo below the title, you’ll notice that the teddy bear is holding a black, plastic gadget—a paw-held massage device for slapping yourself about the neck and shoulders.
I still use it 19 years-later.
Somewhere, my back still hurts.
Andrew Joseph
Title courtesy of Van Halen - with Dave Lee Roth singing!
PS:  I like how the bear knows where the camera is. Work it, baby. Work it!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Paradise By The Dashboard Light

One September night, I took a rare night off. There was no after-school teaching at the Ohtawara Friendship Association, no Ashley or Matthew over, and no phone calls to other AETs (Catherine Komlodi or Kristine South), whom I had huge crushes on.
Heading home on a week-night after a pleasant day of team-teaching at Sakuyama Junior High School in the south end of Ohtawara (a 20-minute car drive away from the downtown core where I lived), I visited a small grocer to see what pre-cooked meals they offered.
Hey… I’m all about convenience. It probably explains why I only had crushes on the two vastly different women mentioned above. Cryptic? Another blog.
Anyhow, I purchased a 2-litre bottle of Coke (my preferred choice of suicide) and a pre-cooked tonkatsu meal – breaded, deep-fried pork on rice with a nice thick Bulldog sauce—(this LINK has it all) that I only had to heat up in my microwave oven.
Yummers. Geez. Did I actually write that word. Sorry.
While this following statement might sound ridiculously inaccurate to my wife, back then I had a dining room table and I actually sat there while eating my dinner. I did have the television on, though.
It was 6:35PM, and a baseball game had just started between the perennial great Toyko Yomiuri Giants of the Central League and the Kintestsu Buffaloes of the Pacific League – both played in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB – akin to MLB in North America).
The Giants were/are owned by the Yomiuri newspaper—a daily Japanese paper that offers some national Japanese news, as well as the foreign stuff. There’s even an English version of it that I received at my doorstep every morning. I know I didn’t sign-up for it. I never ever paid a newspaper boy for it, and until this very moment never questioned who was paying for it on my behalf. Probably the OBOE. Thank-you!
Here’s a baseball lesson.
The Kintetsu team (not the pork tonkatsu team) was owned by the Kinki Nippon Railway Co. (later the Kintetsu Corp.), and was known through the years as the Kintetsu Pearls (1950-1958), Kintetsu Buffalo (1959-1961), Kintetsu Buffaloes (1962-1998) and Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes (1999-2004).
Unbeknownst to me in 1990, in 2004 the team was sold to Orix Group—the owner of the Orix Blue Wave baseball team. The new owner merged the two teams into the Orix Buffaloes.
The Giants? Those guys are the New York Yankees of Japanese baseball. Sadaharu Oh holds the record for most homeruns in a career with 868. The Giants won nine Japanese League titles prior to 1950 when the NPB started and have since won 20 more championships.
These Giants are named after and have uniforms similar to the former New York and now San Francisco Giants—perennial also-rans to the evil empire that is the Yankees.
After finishing my meal, I laid down on my couch and gently rubbed the bruised areas of my body that still hurt a week after being hit by a car or two.
I should note that earlier this week I was hit a second time – this time right in downtown Ohtawara--and when you are hit in the downtown area, it hurts. I flipped over my handle bars and actually landed on the car’s front hood. I was okay – Japanese cars are mostly plastic. He popped his hood opened, pushed up on it from below and snapped it back into shape – none the worse for wear… although it’s possible I did get a concussion—I’m unsure as I did briefly pass-out.
Back to the couch. I curled up with a Japanese comic book purchased last blog while down in Tokyo with Matthew, and only half-glanced at the television while the game went on.
My telephone rang a few times—but since I was getting annoying phone calls from some Japanese woman who couldn’t speak English, I decided to ignore it—even if it was from any of the people mentioned above. Actually, I knew it wasn’t Kristine, as she was long-distance, and the phone rings differently.
By 8:45PM, it was apparent that Japanese comic books are not understandable by someone with zero Japanese language abilities, so I looked closer at the ensuing baseball game.
It was a tight one, with the Giants and Buffaloes tied at 3 in the 8th inning. The Buffaloes had this whiz kid pitcher named Hideo Nomo who had a twisty tornado-style delivery. The kid was a rookie, and was after his 18th win of the season against 8 losses. Instant favourite player as I watched him whiff a couple of Giants while throwing it 153kph (95mph).
With the Buffaloes going 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, the Giants were up. It was just about to turn 9PM when the television station immediately shifted programming to some inane Japanese western—a samurai drama.
What the fa-?
What happened to the game? Surely it was accidentally switched at the TV station?
I waited a minute… then another… then another. It never came back. The game had gone the way of the samurai (except for this show which was entering its 14 year on tv).
Because the next day was Friday, I went to the OBOE and asked Hanazaki-san what was going on.
He shook his head and said that there is only two-and-a-half hours allotted to the televised baseball games, and if it goes over, too bad for the sports viewer.
I explained how sports in Canada and the U.S. seem to have a precedence over other televised properties, and you could see the tears welling up in Hanazaki-san’s eyes as I described what could only be the promised land for him.
He told me that that is the way things have always been for sports in Japan, and that the Japanese were not likely to change, because change doesn’t necessarily mean change for the better.
I told him it would, in this, be a change for the better. He sharply sucked air between his teeth, and nodded meekly and said that for all things Japanese, change is very difficult.
Ah so-ka (oh, I get it).
I then asked him about Japan inviting all of us foreigner AETs into the country to teach the kids English and internationalization—what about that, then?
He laughed, slapped me on my hurt shoulder (I wish I hadn’t taught them that) and said, “tabun” (maybe).
While I later learned that the Japanese have 47 different ways of saying ‘maybe’ (including sucking air between the teeth) , my ignorance of social custom made me believe I had made them believe that change was possible. Just not likely.
Later that night, the same two teams locked up again and this time made it to extra-innings before the broadcast switched out.
Months later in April of 1991, when Japan came out with its first set of baseball cards, my rookie card of ROY (Rookie-of-the year) Hideo Nomo showed that he had indeed won 18 games. Years later (in 1994)  Nomo-san became the first Japanese-born player to play in the MLB for the Dodgers. At least it wasn’t the Yankees.
Somewhere, this swinger had a miss.
Andrew Joseph

PS: In the photo below the title: that’s my dog Buster wearing my Kintetsu Buffaloes cap with my mint rookie card of Hideo Nomo. Buster later ate the cap believing it to be tonkatsu. He doesn’t like Bulldog sauce. He does like Meatloaf, who also sang today's title song.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Rock On

I have very little sense of direction.
When I had casually mentioned to my OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education) office that I was heading down to Tokyo on the weekend, there were yells of “bakayaro” and “bikurishita” from my Nihonjin (Japanese) handlers.
Since I had heard those two terms bantered about quite often whenever people discuss me, I decided to look them up—kind of trying to be proactive… though I’m still unsure what that means. I’ll look it up later. Anyhow, my Japanese-English dictionary says “bakayaro” means ‘stupid idiot’ and “bikurishita” means (loosely) ‘oh my gawd’.
Kanemaru san, with the aid of his Japanese-English dictionary slowly pointed out word after word to me in an effort to ask me a question.
If I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it again and again—I love that man and his effort.
He asked: “A-sha-ri go with An-do-ryu?”
I shook my head that Ashley wasn’t accompanying me: “Dame” (dah-may – means ‘no way’).
More screams of “bakayaro” and pounding of chests and desks ensued.
I then quietly added: “Mashu-sensei is going with me.”
I must have stunned them, because they all settled down, smiled and went back to work. One or two (okay, it was Kanemaru-san and Hanazaki-san) came over and gently patted me on my shoulder. I’m pretty sure they learned that gesture from me, because MY Japanese have always been pretty good at keeping their space.
Anyhow, I guess Matthew was an acceptable alternative to Ashley. I’m sure Matthew is reading this and grimacing.
So, early on the Saturday morning, Matthew came to my apartment, woke me up, waited while I got ready, and rode our bicycles 20 minutes northwest to Nishinasuno eki (train station). Here’s a modern view of the station. PHOTO.
The overhead concrete structure looks like it is a Shinkansen (bullet train) track.
Following Matthew’s lead I correctly purchased a ticket north to Kuroiso eki to catch the bullet train south to Tokyo. Yes, we traveled north in order to go south, as Kuroiso is the closest stop to pick up the Tohoku bullet train.
The bullet train turns a 2 hours plus regular train ride into a 40 minute one, with speeds reaching about 235 kilometers per hour (146 mph). By the way, if you look at the photo linked into the word Kuroiso above, you’ll notice the regular JR (Japan Rail) passenger train in the bottom right – resplendent in its green and orange livery. We catch the bullet train in the above right corner.
The Japanese rail system is all right in my blog. While you purchase a ticket depending on how far you are traveling, the best feature about it is that it’s never late. Okay, there was a typhoon that once delayed the trains by 20 minutes – it made the news. Anyhow, we got to our Shinkansen with enough time to buy a box lunch (bento) and a coke before getting aboard the train.
Holy smokes! Luxurious is a barely adequate word to describe the seating arrangements. Big comfy chairs, lots of room—like 1st Class in an airplane—at least what I assume it would be if I should ever be afforded the luxury when I fly.
Regardless… after a one-minute stop in the Tochigi capital of Utsunomiya, we arrive in Tokyo’s Ueno station. So… why are Matthew and Andrew heading to Tokyo? Why to go to Akihabara, of course.
Akihabara is the so-called ‘electric city’ district in Tokyo. I can no longer recall why my girlfriend Ashley didn’t come down with us—either she was angry at me and we’d broken up that week, she was sleepy and wanted to stay home or she had no interest in listening to two nerds yammer on about whatever it is nerds tend yammer on about. In the case of Matthew and myself, we yammer on about pretty much everything. And with no Ashley about, we more than likely yammered on about women.
Vaguely recalling how hideously lost I had become while walking with Kristine on my first evening in Tokyo a couple months past, I deferred to Matthew and his keen sense of adventure. By the way… here in 2009, I recently found Kristine again! But more about her royal wittiness later. Just know that I have photos. Who is Kristine? Read this blog. BLOG.
Matthew marched us down to the Japanese subway system—there are a lot of subway systems in Tokyo, and that deserves its own blog. Suffice to say we arrived in Akihabara.
I thought Toronto was huge. It’s not when compared to Tokyo. And Akihabara—it was lit up in neon so bright it threatened to outshine the sun. And the crush of people! Wow!
It beats me how Matthew knew where he was going, but he marched us into a stereo shop—no, not the other hundred plus ones that lines the street—but one he seemed to know. Click HERE for a picture of what Akihabara looks like.
Here’s what the interior of one looks like: PHOTO.
Pointing to a nice stereo system, Matthew said this one would be perfect for my place.
How the heck did he know that that was what I wanted? Matthew seemed to always know what I was thinking before I even thought it.  Yes, I did want a stereo player – one with a CD Player. It also came with a dual cassette tape deck, but some of the younger readers are confused by that term so I’ll leave it alone.
It was a steal at only thirty bills: ¥30,000.
Just look at that number. Scary isn’t it? To get a US$ equivalent (and now Cdn$), simply subtract two of the zeroes from the right. $300.
I bought the overly large monstrosity and then had to cart the heavy boxed stereo around with me over the next six hours in Tokyo—through the thick crowds in the busiest city on the planet. I wonder if Matthew knew what I was thinking at this time.
Whatever… I didn’t have to buy it then… or maybe I did. After numerous other stops into other shops, I only found three places that were selling the exact same stereo system for less. Now, what am I thinking, Matthew?
After a quick lunch at a noodle shop, we headed over to a CD shop where I purchase some music. Along with Pink Floyd’s The Wall, I pick up a pair of mini CDs. See the photo below the title above showing Buck Tick and The Beatles (Let It Be/You Know My Name Look Up The Number). These minis are singles… what we used to call record singles with two songs on them…but again, some of the younger readers are getting confused.
Did you know these little suckers cost ¥937 for The Beatles and ¥930 for Buck Tick? (Just move two numbers from the right and insert a decimal).
And here’s the reason for the blog: In pretty much every single ‘modern’ Japanese song, the artists include English words. Words that are inserted for no other reason than to have English in them because English is considered cool.
Here’s an example from the Japanese punk group, Buck Tick and their song ‘Under The Moon Light’:
“Dreaminess-Japanese word-Japanese word-Japanese word-Stillness-Japanese word-Japanese word-my heart. My lover-Japanese word-Japanese word-Japanese word-Japanese word-Cry out.
I cry out under the moonlight. Darkness-Japanese word-Japanese word-Japanese word-Sadness-Japanese word-Japanese word-My lover-Japanese word- Japanese word-Japanese word-Japanese word-Japanese word-Japanese word-Japanese word-cry out-I cry out under the moonlight.
(refrain – and my favourite part)
Woo good bye my love.
Woo good bye your love.

It goes on with more Japanese words with various other English words tossed in for effect and lots more woo-ing. By the way, clicking on the photo makes them larger.
While I’m sure the majority of the Japanese listeners have no clue to what they are listening (or this English-speaking listener), I would imagine that even the most die-hard anti-establishment Japanese punk would still look up the English words in their English-Japanese dictionary while nodding their heads in appreciation at Buck Tick’s clever English wordplay. I wonder what ‘woo” translates into for them? In the case of the song, it’s really just a doo-wop sound effect… but if they are to look it up (the words are printed in the CD jacket!) ‘woo’ in the dictionary means ‘courting’. Now the song makes even less sense.
I know it looks like I’m mocking Japanese music—and I am, but really, anything that gets them to learn a few English words is okay in my book.

Somewhere going on like a broken record—in stereo!
Andrew Joseph

PS – Matthew and I made it home without incident and my OBOE office was very thankful and presented Matthew’s boss, Mr. Suzuki, with numerous omiyage (souvenir food presents—mostly the ones I had brought back for them) and a hearty slap on the back. I taught them that.
PPS: Today's title is by Humble Pie.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Paperback Writer

Please sir or madam will you read my book…

Perhaps it’s because Buddhism’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was recently on Larry King Live, but I’m going switch karmic gears here.

A few years ago, I actually e-mailed the Dalai Lama asking for some background information for a story I was writing. Now he may not have physically answered my e-mail – perhaps one of his aides did – but along with the information, I was sent a Tibetan prayer stone as a gift.

I’m not the most spiritual person in the world, but I do like the Buddhist philosophy as a way of living my life—though the only thing Buddhist-like about me in appearance is…hmmm… I’m drawing a blank—does a blank stare count as part of Buddhist philosophy?

Not sure what Buddhist philosophy is? Notice that I call it a philosophy, not a religion, because that’s what it is. It's a philosophy of how to live your life.

I’m going to tell you about a book I recently read called: Something You Forgot ... Along the Way (Stories of Wisdom and Learning) written by a gentleman named Kentetsu Takamori. It's a book that offers insights on how to live your life.

Takamori-san is a Pure Land Budhist teacher, born in 1929 in Japan. He has lectured all over the world on the teachings of Buddhism for over 50 years and has authored several best-selling titles written in Japanese. He is currently the chair of the Buddhist organization Jodo Shinshu Shinrankai which spreads the teachings of Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), the founder of his Buddhist sect.

His latest book, Something You Forgot…Along the Way, offers the reader 65 short stories—each highly entertaining in their own right—but containing a message that will make you go ‘hmmm’. Or at least that’s what I did.

I’m not saying we should all go out and become Buddhists, though I’m sure that Takamori-san would appreciate it if we did—rather, I think there are many lessons contained within the stories that we could put to practical use to not only better ourselves, but those around us. Uh-oh! Better others? That’s a story in the book, but the implication is that by simply being nice or happy, we can affect how others live their life.

Takamori wants everyone to know the message is far more important when it comes to human nature. He cautions us that nothing is permanent… I feel that way often when writing about my wonderful rife in Japan.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Tell Yourself You Have Just One Arrow
The Art of Focusing the Mind
As the youth standing in the archery ground faced the target with a pair of arrows, the grizzled old master beside him said bluntly, “You’re still a beginner. Make it one.” To hold two arrows was customary. Why should he, a beginner, use only one? The advice made no sense.
Despite his misgivings, the youth obediently cast one arrow aside. Then the thought struck him, “Now I have only one.” He focused all his mind on it, and successfully hit the target. The onlookers erupted in applause, surprised to see one so inexperienced perform so well. Still, the archer puzzled over the advice he had been given. Finally he sought out the master and asked him for an explanation.
“It’s simple,” said the old man with a twinkle. “Knowing you have a second arrow to fall back on prevents you from focusing on the first. Your guard goes down. Unless you are prepared to stake all on a single arrow, you could have dozens and it wouldn’t be enough.”

Pretty cool, huh?

Having done kyudo (Japanese archery) – future blog – I can relate to the advice on a physical level, and the message within the story on a human nature level.

“Once this reality sinks in,” Takamori says, “we cannot help treasuring each moment of our association.”

The stories contained within focus on such basics as the importance of perseverance, the real meaning of honour, and how success is not gained by chance, but by the fruit of our efforts. The stories aim to give guidance and help the reader see deeper into life.

Individuals looking for answers may find them in Something You Forgot…Along the Way. Those who accept the inevitability of change may have taken their first steps toward a brighter future.

It really is a wonderful read - written in such an easy-to-understand manner that belies the profound nature of the topic.

Released by Ichimannendo Publishing, Inc., Something You Forgot…Along the Way follows on the heels Takamori’s previous self-help bestseller in his native Japan, You Were Born for a Reason.
Translated from Takamori’s Japanese to English by Juliet Winters Carpenter, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

To purchase it, visit www.i-ipi.com.

Somewhere remembering along the way,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Title is by The Beatles - who could probably provide a song for every blog entry I come up with. 

Friday, October 16, 2009

Here Comes The Sun

Although I may have first surfed the so-called Internet back in 1980 with my Atari 400 computer and the telephone placed onto a modem, all that was available then were message boards. Ten years later in 1990 when I first got to Japan, it was still much the same.
Al Gore didn’t invent the real Internet until about 1992 or so, and even then, information contained within should have been taken with a grain of salt thanks to 90 per cent of the information that wasn’t porn, was inaccurate. The porn may have been inaccurate, too.
I mention this because in 1990, I really had no concept of what Japan was like, except that all of my pre-conceived notions may have been incorrect.
I knew there were navy-blue suit clad Japanese men with glasses and Moe Howard haircuts; there were radioactive monsters; and there was sushi, which every kid on the playground knew was raw fish.
Readers of It’s A Wonderful Rife now know that not all men have the Moe haircut (see Shibata-sensei), the only monsters I’ve seen aren’t radioactive (giant spiders), and that sashimi is the raw fish meal and sushi is actually various fish, cephalopod, eggs and/or veggies wrapped in cooked sticky long-grained Japanese gohan (rice)--not American or Indian rice!--and nori (dried seaweed).
What I didn’t know about Japan could fill a blog every few days for years—see what you’ve signed up for!?
Here for your edification is some information about Japan’s climate, and because some of you have asked for it (okay only one of you), a brief mention about the time difference.
Weather you’re ready or not: Not all of Japan is created equally weather-wise because of its geographical layout. A map of Japan will show you what I mean: MAP.
While a lot of the country is situated east-west, you’ll notice that a lot of it also stretches north-south. It’s because of this verticality that Japan has a very varied climate.
There’s teeth-chattering Sub-Arctic weather to the north (Hokkaido or the disputed Kuril Islands claimed by Japan, but occupied by Russia since 1947), Sub-Tropical (Okinawa) to the very south (Okinawa), while the larger Kansai, Chubu and Kanto regions on the mainland are considered Humid-subtropical and have the variable four seasons just like Toronto.
Honestly, the weather for Ohtawara is very similar to Toronto—so, I lucked-in (-out… what the heck is the correct term?)
Winter is December 21-March 20; Spring is March 21-June 20; Summer is June 21-September 20; and Winter is September 20-December 20. Officially.
It starts to get very rainy in August and September, though August is also the hottest month and on average 11 of the 30 days of September are wet.
It cools down quickly in October and November, is downright frigid in December, with some snow (maybe three or four storms) between January and February—more if you are closer to the mountains. March is wet and windy, but cool. April is warm enough for you to wear shorts. May through July it’s hot and you’re going to do a lot of sweating.
Temperature for Ohtawara is (on average): 1.2 Celsius in January up to 23.1 degrees Celsius in August, with an annual average temperature of 12.5 degrees Celsius.
Hmmm, I’m reading this as I write it, and for the three years I was there, those summer month temperatures—especially August were always in the mid to high 30s where it was mushii atsui (humid & hot). Could some of this information I’ve glommed from the Internet be wrong?
Ohtawara averages about 158.7-mm of rain a year, with the wettest months being June through September (I’ll actually say September, as it always has about five typhoons roaring through the country).
Weird fact #1: Approximately 50 per cent of Ohtawara is covered by rice fields.
Weird fact #2: Ohtawara is 217.76 m above sea level.
Weird fact #3: Ohtawara’s official flower is the kiku (chrysanthemum).
Weird fact #4: Japan does not follow daylight savings time.
Weird fact #5: Japan is 14 or 15 hours ahead of the U.S. and Canada’s eastern standard time (EST) and 10 or 11 hours ahead of the U.K. Why the inability to peg down the actual time difference? Remember, o noble reader, we all have daylight savings time to shift on us.

Somewhere, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet
Andrew (my blog is on the Internet) Joseph
PS: I might exaggerate, but you can always believe your stupid guide-jin, An-do-ryu.
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