Saturday, May 29, 2010

Comfortably Numb

I've been asked a few times by the locals: "How do you live comfortably in Japanese Society?" It's a strange question... how does on live comfortably or otherwise in any society without simply being yourself? I suppose it's merely a knack some peoplpe have of being able to exist with community standards.
In Japan, we (the foreigner) are often subjected to pointing and rude staring and basic name calling - the dreaded 'gaijin' word. As mentioned many a time previously, gaijin quite literally translates into 'outsider'. To me, being called a gaijin is all in the way the word is said. I've only ever heard the word said to me in a manner that denoted surprise - "Holy crap! A foreigner!" (Hora! Gaijin-da!) It's a common word that the Japanese use, and I think when they use it they aren't necessarily trying to be rude.
Regardless, many of the foreigners in Japan quite simply can't handle being called a gaijin, and opt out of the country the first chance they get. We saw about four people of our 53 Tochigi-ken AETs (Assistant English Teachers) on the JET programme leave after only a couple of months here. 
Others try to understand the reasons for the reactions they garner while walking down the street.
I, myself, have always been a gaijin in every country I've ever lived in. I was born in England, raised in Canada by Indian parents - it's something that perhaps has helped blunt myself to actions others feel is racial ignorance. In Canada, I am a minority. In Japan, I am a foreigner. Which is worse? Well... I'm supposed to be a Canadian, NOT a minority.
When I first arrived here in the somewhat rural city of Ohtawara in Tochigi-ken, I was (past tense??!!) something of a freak. An attraction. A foreigner. I used to get several 'gaijin' shouts a day as I walked downtown or past the local farms. However, perhaps it's because of my high visibility at the local bars (heb-bi du-rin-ka), restaurants, department stores and, of course, schools, people became used to me.
I was no longer a 'gaijin' - I was, and am, merely An-do-ryu sensei (Andrew teacher), a humourous guy from Canada... though that may not be overly obvious from this particular blog.
I read about the 'living comfortably' question in a Japanese English-language daily newspaper (the Daily Yomiuri) and really gave it some thought.
Until that moment, I wasn't really aware at just how comfortable I was in Japanese society. Let's see: I enjoy eating at the fastfood restaurant Mosburger; I really like to watch the comedian Shimura Ken on television even though I don't understand all of what goes on; I like to have a good time with my friends and co-workers and students; I religiously watch sumo wrestling tournaments and baseball; I have an aquarium with goldfish; I have a bonsai tree; I eat Japanese food - I just need to have a full-time Japanese girlfriend, and the way things are goiung with my current American girlfriend, that too shall come to pass.
Some of the locals have assured me that I act like a typical Japanese person.
Interestingly enough, I think I've been acting like a Canadian.
I guess it's difficult to act different for everyone else, when you find that everyone else is basically the same as you. People are people everywhere you go.

Somewhere tearing down walls,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by Pink Floyd from their awesome album, The Wall. Even if you aren't interested in Rock and Roll, do yourself a favour and at least read the lyrics. Whew.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sock It To Me, Baby!

 One of the dangers for anybody the first time they leave home is the demon known as excess. For me, leaving Toronto for the do-inaka ('the sticks') that is Ohtawara, was my first time without my parents. Granted I was 25, and had done University and College (5 + 2 years, respectively), but my excesses then were tempered.
Here in Japan--though rife with supervisors (Hanzakai-san and Kanemaru-san - two awesome gents with the Ohtawara Board of Education aka OBOE), I still had a lot of free time with like minded individuals who were bored.
Because Japan treated me very well with social engagement after social engagement, I went to a lot of parties, and being a some-what popular guy, I always had people around me who wanted to share the good times... in a small town like Ohtawara, those parties (enkai) had a lot of drinking.
I think for me, it wasn't that I liked drinking, but rather it just happened to be something I was good at. I could power them back - beer, hard liquor, sake (rice wine) - whatever - and never ever had a hangover in my life. As a result, I never felt like crap the next day, and as such never had to pray to the gods to get me through the night, or that I would never drink again.
I think it was a challenge.
In Japan, I felt like almost everything was a challenge... to eat their most bizarre foods and not complain, or to not only keep up with their drinking, but to surpass them as well. Does that sound stupid? Even now (20 years later) I believe that to be a truism. By being one of the guys, I earned their respect.
Cue the highlight film. Allow me to take you to a team-teaching get together of all of the AETs... that took place on Wednesday, May 29, 1991 at a renewer's conference n Kobe. I'll spare you the feelings and other irrationalities going through my mind at this time, just know that the conference was for us AETs (Assistant English Teachers) who were staying for an additional year on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme.
I'll tell you a funny Kristine story in the next blog, but suffice to say, this one is about drinking.
At the reception, after picking at the meals being walked around to us, someone said we should have a drinking contest. There were four of us, and so help me, I only have memory of three of the participants: One was a big American guy; one was a smallish American dude of Japanese background; one was myself; and the last competitor was Mister Arakawa, who was, I believe, one of the bosses of all of the Tochigi-ken AETs who taught at the high schools (like Ashley did on Ohtawara).
Our drink du jour was sake - fermented rice wine - because when in Rome...
I am pretty sure there was no wagering involved amongst ourselves - but who knows what the observers were doing.
We had about 20 six inch tall slender glasses that were each about 2/3's full with sake.
At the count of three, we each yelled kanpai (Cheers)! and downed our drink, turning the glass over.
We looked at each other and laughed. The first drink or two is always easy, because sake tends to taste a lot like water - until it hits you, and you become drunk very quickly.
We upturned seven more drinks... and that's when I noticed the American dude of Japanese extraction being carried away... apparently he had passed out.
The remaining three of us pointed and laughed. More drinks were ordered, and we continued. At around the 25 mark, we lost the American. I never saw him leave, I never saw him fall -- and I'll be honest, I only think this guy was part of our competition because, by this time I was wasted.
I looked over at Arakawa-san, who held up his glass and saluted me, and then downed
 it. Bugger! He was red as a lobster, and probably looked as tiured as I was, but he didn't seem to be tiring.
At around the 35 drink mark, Arakawa-san and I were huffing for breath, but still standing unaided... by that I mean we stood straight ??!! and didn't lean, although I seem to recall that the walls were standing at a strange obtuse angle.
People... we got to our 45 drink apiece, sucked it down and grinned at each other. Arakawa-san - whose English was better than mine at this point of the evening -- checked his watch and said he had to stop because he had to go to a meeting... it was 9:55PM, so who was I to doubt him. he shook my hand, and stumbled off.
That man is my hero.
Me? I still had a girlfriend (Ashley), and I'm pretty sure that hot little Kristine was around somewhere... so I staggered off to the local disco in the hotel. Would you believe it? Apparently I was so inebriated that they wouldn't let me into the disco.
I'm pretty sure I swore at a lot of people, but I decided to go look around the hotel.
I awoke at around 3:30AM... I opened my eyes, and stared up into the face of a deer.
What the fa - ?!
Apparently, I had broken in to a locked taxidermy exhibit of a forest scene. I have no knowledge of that, which is too bad, because that seems like a skill that could come in handy if my life as a fine upstanding citizen should ever fall onto hard times thanks to me becoming an alcoholic.
I staggered out, found my room - pretty sure I left my contact lenses in my eyes and passed out.
According to my roomie, Matthew Hall, he got up twice during the night to smack me to make me stop snoring.
Matthew, buddy, I'm sorry. Twenty years later, I don't snore anymore.
The next morning, I was up bright and cheerful (no hangover). I saw Arakawa-san downstairs and shouted an ohio gozaimasu (good morning)! to him. He held his head, whispered "itai" (pain) and begged me to be quiet.
I laughed and marched off to listen to the conference's opening address.

Somewhere missing the good old days - I think.
Andrew Joseph
PS - I haven't given up drinking, but I've probably only had 20 drinks in the past 10 years.
PS2 - the photo is of myself and Arakawa-san at another conference a couple of years later sharing a small shot of sake for old time's sake.
PS3 - today's title is brought to you by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels...
PS4 - Ohtawara isn't really 'the sticks'.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Video Killed The Radio Star

Since I 'work' as an Assistant English Teacher (AET) in Japan, I am usually afforded large amounts of free time to take care of pressing personal matters like: "What video should I rent?" or "How many videos should I rent?" or "Which video should I watch first?" I would watch television if there was something half-decent on, but that is an increasingly rare moment.

For those of us foreigners with a bilingual television (Bilingual televisions have three settings: one that can pick up just the Japanese signal; one that can pick up an English signal if available from the Japanese networks; and one that picks up both the Japanese and English signals at the same time and in stereo, which I am unsure why anyone would need), we are given the opportunity to watch classic American television programs or translated news broadcasts for the increasingly inert, or terrible movies that you would never have watched in the movie theatre but desperation caused you to rent just last week. For further clarification, it's mostly movies available on Peachtree TV (formerly Ted Turner's TBS). Bleagh.

I often (offen) wonder if Japanese people ever watch these Yankee shows and believe America to mirror the program. Do the natives know that Little House On The Prairie is supposed to have taken place in the past and is not representative of the current mid-West?

So. Lesson #1 is that Little House On The Prairie took place in America sometime before the Japanese invented the White Car - maybe during the 1950s.

You think I'm joking, right? Well, when I say I'm from Canada, I am always asked back if I know Anne? Anne, who? Oh, Anne of Green flippin' Gables. Do the Japanese think Newfoundland looks like it does in the TV movies. If they do, they are sadly mistaken... Hmm, come to think of it, that was a poor example ... Newfoundland does still look like it did back in the 19th century.

Can you imagine the image conjured up of of the U.S. if the Japanese were exposed to All In The Family and its racist undertones. "See American's hate koko-jin's (Blacks), too!". Or how about M.A.S.H.: "See, we're not the only ones who hate the Koreans!"

In deference to AITF, I realize it poked fun at the stupidity of racism. And M.A.S.H did the same, while taking the monkey out of the glory of war. Both of these shows exhibited classic social commentary on our lifestyles that made a person think through laughter.

But, and there's the big but... the Japanese do NOT have any true television sitcoms, and thus have never been able to laugh at their own misgivings. There are samurai dramas, cooking shows, cooking shows, variety shows and cooking shows.

Perhaps if these classic American programs were shown here the social commentary would be lost.

Ah... but people in glass houses should not throw stones.

In good old America, land of the free if you have the money (and the U.K. and Canada, too!), cartoons are being altered so as to not mentally scar the children. Bugs Bunny and even Disney cartons are routinely pruned of material currently deemed to be offensive before being aired on television.
Bugs Bunny Nips The Nips.
Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs.
Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer's Face.
The Smurfs, Care Bears. Ugh.... okay, the only offensive thing about those later two cartoons is that they suck, and the previous three were WWII or previous, back when being racist must have been cool or something - how else to explain this Parker Brother's board game:

As well, some North Americans probably watched AITF and cheered on Archie Bunker.

Why are there no Japanese comedy sitcoms? Why are there so many cowboy serials (Japanese samurai dramas)... the U.S. grew out of that when Gunsmoke died in 1975.

Let's see - how to bring television in Japan into the present... the police drama in Japan... you never hear much about Japan's police like you do in North America... so maybe it's not a hot topic.
The Fujiwara (Brady) Bunch - naw... no one has hair of gold like their mama-san.
Hospital drama... maybe this one would work. Who wouldn't like watching a show about someone sick and then getting a diagnosis that entailed them getting some strange purple powder cure-all? Naw... too obvious, like an episode of House.
(My three visits to the hospital all involved the same purple powder cure, despite it varying from: gastroentroitis; a scratched cornea; and a bad back. This is not a joke).

Actually, I think the television landscape is determined by the work environment. In Japan, the workers do crazy hours, come home, eat and pretty much pass out asleep before getting up to do it again. Who has time to watch some other person's stupid life when they don't have one themselves?  

There have been numerous reports of Japanese workers working themselves to death. As well, in Japan, it's considered bad form for the lowly worker to leave the workplace before his superior does. I did all the time - but then I'm just a stupid gaijin (foreigner), so I had a built-in excuse. Leaving early gave me more free time to watch television... too bad there was nothing on the six national networks or seven regional affiliates out of Tokyo. This was before satellite television.

There was one show I enjoyed, however... the Shimura Ken variety show.
Click HERE to find out a bit about Ken, and click HERE to see a few examples of his physical comedy that is still understandable without knowing Japanese. And yes... I wrote this before seeing what was written on the video site.

On top of my viewing of this weekly show (Wednesday night at 8PM), Matthew, Ashley and I enjoyed the numerous video tapes regularly sent to us by our families. Despite their kindness, I still managed to find the free time to rented over 500 movies in three years. I had a lot of free time.

Somewhere still watching television,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title brought to you by the Buggles, who also happened to have the very first video played on MTV on August 1, 1981. Okay.. HERE it is.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Turning Japnese

Any first time visitor to Japan could relate to you how shocked they were at the eating habits of the Japanese. In fact, using Western standards, the Japanese here have a total lack of table manners.Even though Japan is not in the west, nor should it ever be judged by Western standards, I'm going to do so right here.
I ate a lot of my meals around the Japanese... at least one meal a day, seven days a week, for whatever length of time I've been in Japan.
There's the sssslurping of soups and noodles - even dry foods, which takes some doing , let me tell ya; the cramming of more food into their mouth than it is possible to chew (though I did watch one guy actually dislocate his jaw on purpose  - like a snake - to eat); there's also belching and farting as a norm... and I think I've found a new home!
While everything described above is NOT done in the elitist society of pretty much any country I've ever heard of, amongst us common folk, the Japanese manner of eating is, to put it mildly, noisy. But, since it's not considered ill-mannered to the Japanese, it's not to me. I just wanted to raise the point on a cultural difference.
So, I've been here for numerous months now (will it never end?), I am turning Japanese (I really think so).
I've begun to slurp and power chew my food in an attempt to emulate and, dare I hope, surpass the natives. (I've already got that belching/farting thing down pat).
Because I spend my week-days, Monday through Thursday at one of my seven junior high schools in the town of Ohtawara, I partake of my midday meal at a school. The lunches are prepared by lunch ladies, but students bring big steaming pots of whatever is on the menu to the class homeroom where  students distribute it. Teacher and teacher-gaijin - that's me! - get served first... though we still have to wait until everybody else is served and sitting be fore we can say 'itadakimasu' (literally translates into: 'I gratefully receive"), and then we eat.
We actually eat at 12:45PM - with me being served at 12:31PM... I think the honour of receiving my food first is done because usually the food is friggin' hot, and it needs a chance to cool to room temperature, which is a real drag if it's February, like it is now. I can't wait until May when I can eat a hot meal again.
So, basically, we all get 15 minutes to scarf down our meals, before mealtime is over and it's time to go outside and play sports... yay... I get to run around and puke up some barely swallowed lunch. At least it's warm the second-time down.
Now with only 15 minutes to eat this free meal (kami (god) bless the Japanese), I have to eat fast.
When I first arrived in Japan, I could barely finish half my meal in the allotted time - probably because I hadn't earned the respect of my students yet, and always was given the chopsticks that didn't work. So, after become a tad emaciated - I was TOO skinny, once - I learned to eat faster.
The trick I realized was not to taste my food, but to just shovel it in and hope for the best later. I, too learned how to dislocate my lower jaw... it still cracks (ask me to crack it for you). Now, six months later, it was no longer a chore to finish my food - but rather a challenege to see who could finish first.
Now, this was a challenge to eat fast, not to eat as much as possible, like this skinny Japanese kid, who until recently was a world champion competitive food eater: HERE. What is interesting to note was that Kobayashi Takeru-kun would have been a junior high school student while I was in Japan... just not in my town (thank goodness).
Being a guy, and a goof at that, I decided I would challenege all of the top gumslingers at my schools.
That first lunch on the Monday was a surprise at each of my schools - a surprise to them at how fast I could now eat.
I would invariable beat their class champ that day - perhaps because he wasn't aware that there was a race, but we'd have a duel the next day. Why aren't there any fast female eaters?  Anyhow, I ate my food faster than a contented cow, just because I cud, and soon had a reputation as a fast eater that could choke a horse.
Probably that's why you you should never look a gift horse in the mouth.
After conquering six schools, I came at last to lucky number seven, where the fastest eater in all of Ohtawara hung out, as luck would have it. It wasn't a student, but rather the boys Phys Ed teacher.
He had also heard of my growing stomach and reputation.
On that first Monday, we looked at each other, grwoled and snarfed our food. It was a tie. And so it was for Tuesday and Wednesday, as well.
On Thursday, my last at the school (Wakakusa Chu Gakko), we had glorious natto for lunch, which if you'll recall is rotting soy beans we mix with a small package of mustard, stir up the sticky mess and slop onto a bed of rice.
While I was beaten quite handily in the mixing and deployment of the beans onto the rice, I caught up to him and took the lead for good when he choked on a some of the beans. Even after he hawked it up, where it hung in a goopy mess from his quivering lower lip, he continued to bravely finish the contest.
Gracious in defeat, he offered me congratulations and some rice from his shirt.
Somewhere with indigestion,
Andrew Joseph

Sunday, May 2, 2010

10 Excellent Examples of Fake Photography

Photo manipulation is a really wonderful art. Its uses, cultural impact, and ethical concerns have made it a subject of interest beyond the technical process and skills involved. Photo manipulation gives a realistic view of an unreal picture.

All images are property of Erik Johansson.

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