Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Winter of Discontent

(Pictured: Last year's nad-shatterer)
This morning, as I stood in the stinging air outside my mountain home, I noticed a sight that filled my noble heart with terrible foreboding. I beheld upon a mountaintop not so far from me, a crown of crisp white snow, glistening in the morning sun. I immediately felt The Fear, because I know that when the mountain turns white, it signals the beginning of the end, the perpetual, ball-shrinking winter that lies ahead. I rolled my head back and moaned in dread, watching my breath come out in a cumulous white cloud of dragon-smoke.
“Zounds!” I said. “I’d better find some way to keep warm.”
Winter. Japanese winter. That bone-chilling wind coming down from Siberia while the planet tilts us mockingly away from the sun. Will we ever be saved? Can I survive another winter here? Last winter, I took a mulligan on the season and pissed off to South East Asia for a month, but this year I’m out of nenkyu – I’m in for the duration, I’m afraid. A prisoner of this season’s bone-chilling grip.
Truly, my sainted home is not the most well-designed building in the world. A dirty block of concrete, laid like a steaming architectural turd sometime in the 1970s, it has no insulation of any kind, and as such heats up in summertime like a bread oven, and in wintertime acts as a large fridge – indeed sometimes it is actually warmer outside than in. It makes one wonder why the Japanese have never really embraced the central heating system. Today, it’s still a relatively rare thing in most parts of the country, yet in Korea they’ve had the ondol system (traditional central heating which pumps the house full of warm air through pipes) since the middle ages. Enough to make you ponder why the Japanese haven’t taken a leaf out of their book.
The Koreans have a number of other ways of staying warm that we would do well to remember. My Japanese comrade swears blind that the primary method that the Koreans use to keep cool is the consumption of vast quantities of blood-warming kimchi. Having tested this method out myself I can state categorically that this is a falsehood. Whatever else kimchi may be good for, stopping the human body from succumbing to exposure is not one of them. At best all it will do is give you a bit of a sore mouth and force you to take a drink thereby rendering all cold-related complaints secondary for a limited period of time. And even then only if you are a pussy who can’t take spicy food. Or if your idea of hot is eating an umeboshi. I got news for you Jack, just because it tastes like you’re licking an electrical socket doesn’t mean it’s hot. In reality it’s just a little bit sour. But I digress. While I recommend a hearty portion of Kimchi for consumption every day, this particular doctor urges you to seek other means of keeping oneself warm.
Probably the most popular way in Japan of staving away the Devil’s frozen fingers is by utilizing the kerosene heater. While these do actually heat your place they are unbearably expensive to run, require constant refueling (who else here has only just lain down after prayer for a nights Godly rest when the whirring of the heater’s fan stops and in an instant the room is deathly cold? Who else has had to take a walk to the landing late at night to obtain fresh kerosene? All of you, that’s who, you wretches!) they stink to high heaven, and on top of that they kill you. Yes, yes, that is right. The carbon monoxide fumes given off by said contraptions actually have quite a respectable bodycount to their name. Every year all across Japan people go to sleep with the heater on and just don’t wake up. If that’s not a reason to get an ondol or some other form of central heating I don’t know what is.
What will perhaps put you in better stead for the winter will be to get some decent winter threads – perhaps an anorak of at least three-quarter length, like the PE teacher in your local high school wears as he mercilessly drives a class of shivering, be-shorted 15 year olds around the track savagely berating them. Stick some of those hot pads in the inside pockets – slambango! Instant mobile sauna inside your clothes.
Bear in mind that the only place colder than a Japanese apartment is a Japanese school, and if you work at one – which a significant proportion of you probably do – be prepared at all times to wear your scarf and gloves indoors. Sometimes you might ask yourself why they don’t heat the place. It’s probably for the same reason that they don’t put the air conditioning on in summer. The teachers like to suffer. Why do you think they stay at work so late? Well, at least you are safe in the knowledge that any school so cold that you can see your breath in the middle of the afternoon would be closed as some kind of health hazard in any western country, and the teachers who forced students to study in there in those temperatures would be denounced as sadistic criminals and moral destitutes. Hey, it could be worse. You could be wearing a miniskirt. Like 50% of your students.
The same Japanese friend who offered me kimchi as a solution was also quick to recommend onsening. While the onsen process does stave away the cold, I would be loathe to recommend it for the following reasons: while it might be fun to sit in a warm pool of water and laugh at the snowflakes falling ineffectually around you, the actual transit to and from the water is sack-shatteringly painful. And if there are people around you, you’d better get prepared for shrinkage, because that sucker is going to retract. Men, protect your dignity!
For a temporary solution to the cold, what could be better than booze? Tried and tested for centuries by such diverse groups as Russians, the Irish and of course the Scots, a group of which I am fortunate enough to count myself as a member. The consumption of a bottle of brown liquor anesthetizes the senses to the extent that one could go to sleep naked on a wind-swept moor on the coldest night of the year. And I should know. If you want my opinion, the best way to keep warm is to stay drunk from early November to mid-March. Booze is the perfect substitute for Christmas cheer.
Well, the kerosene is out now, and stinking up my apartment like a dead dog in a shoebox, and day by day the white menace creeps further down the mountain. It’ll only be a matter of time before the snow starts falling and I am forced to start burning old copies of the Daily Yomuiri. This is an evil day. Good-bye sunlight! I pray that I will see you again. If you don’t hear from me by April, send an ambulance with a snowplow my way. Tell them to look for a frozen punk.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Happy Anniversary

Since it was our anniversary yesterday I feel completely justified in posting a large picture of me and my better half in what appears to be a very passionate embrace. I make no excuses. It is my blog and I will do with it as I please. What do you expect, articles all the time? What do you people want from me?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

TV Casualty

(Pictured: Beautiful food like this curry could never find its way onto Japanese TV)
Youtube, the internet’s most popular video sharing service was recently forced to wipe 30,000 files from its website due to copyright issues. The Japan Society for the Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers is considering lobbying for a screening process for videos being posted on the site, to prevent copyrighted material from being illegally screened. Most of the clips that find their way onto the internet from Japan are from TV shows or commercials. They are also immensely popular viewing. But why?

The answer lies presumably in the innate quirkiness of Japanese TV programming. It seems that westerners regard the everyday weirdness of Japanese TV with a mix hilarity and confusion that makes viewing compulsive. Indeed receiving an email with a link to a befuddling or disturbing clip featuring Japanese people maltreating or otherwise embarrassing themselves is not by any means an irregular occurrence for many.

I remember some time ago I received an email with a link to one such clip. The show was one of these physical challenge type shows where the guests have to perform feats of limited athletic prowess to an audience who invariably laugh as they are humiliated. In this show, a group of pretty young Japanese women had balloons stuck to their backs, and had to run around for sixty seconds and evade an aggressor who was determined to burst them. The aggressor in this case was a muscular seven-foot-tall shirtless black man bearing an expression of affected animalistic cruelty. Having a microphone shoved into his face, he bellowed in English “I SHALL DEFEAT YOU ALL.” Then the referee blew his whistle and he was off. For such a huge guy, he moved with the swiftness that surprised and terrified his cutesy-girl opponents, who squealed and shrieked in naked terror as he pursued them relentlessly around the room, bursting one balloon after another, howling and ballooing. The Japanese girls slipped and slid around in a futile effort to escape his terrible wrath, but when the sixty seconds were up, not one balloon remained. The presenter broke up the melee and separated the victorious gaijin from his vanquished foes. A couple of the girls were actually crying. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Aside from doing absolutely nothing to negate certain ingrained racial preconceptions in Japanese culture – that all foreigners are animalistic and rapacious - this clip serves to highlight the sadistic edge of Japanese comedy. The Germans would call it Schadenfruede. As the Japanese would say: “Tanin no fukou wa mitsu no aji” which roughly means “others misfortunes taste of honey.”

Popular with internet viewers is the game show “Silent Library” where inexplicable and terrible things happen for no reason at all. The game plays like Russian roulette, each player picks up a card, one of which has a skull and crossbones motif on it. If they draw that card, a horrendous punishment will be inflicted upon them by their fellow contestants. Among the tortures I witnessed was “Wasabi Roll”, where the hapless contender is forced to consume the some sushi laden with the aforementioned foodstuff. He of course then hacks, coughs, slavers a bit and demands some water. Later on in the show the poor fool falls victim to two other pranks – “Bad Smell Air” and “Slapping Machine”, the first of which involves the donning of an air mask which supplies the contender with foul air, as he once again nearly loses his lunch, the second of which needs no explanation: his colleagues hold him down while a machine delivers a series of painful looking slaps. The most terrifying of the torments inflicted though was “Old Man Bites Tenderly”. This involved an elderly Japanese man who removes his dentures and then furiously gums the ears of the unfortunate bearer of the skull and crossbones card. He whimpers and moans in obvious discomfort as the old man takes his fleshy earlobes into his toothless mouth and jaws on them. Truly awful. Also I forgot to mention as it's set in a library they have to be silent at all times.

I have to confess, I don’t really “get” Japanese TV, and not just because I suffer from the twin curses of cultural ignorance and lack of Japanese language ability. Japanese TV programs, in general are a great deal cheaper-looking than their US, Canadian or UK counterparts – the sets seem to be sparsely decorated and the props seem to be primarily made out of card. Possibly it only seems this way to me because there are so many variety shows on Japanese TV and they are reportedly very cheap to make, or because my TV set is broken and I can only get two channels.

I remember the first time I switched the TV on when I arrived in Japan. The show that I watched featured a man with a red coat, whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to wake people up really early in the morning, for no discernable reason. He would drive around town in his car, wearing his red coat, in the early hours of the morning, when it is still dark outside. Then he would select a house and go up and knock on the door. When the residents emerge, bleary-eyed, he announces they are on TV and their expression immediately changes from weary irritation to delight. Usually then the resident will invite the red-coat-man in for tea and they will discuss the prank in detail. One time, the red coat man arrived at a door to discover that the resident had left it unlocked, so being as quiet as he could he snuck himself and his camera crew in, and made his way to the residents bedroom. Seeing a woman asleep, he shook her awake. She immediately freaked out, thinking the intruder was either there to rob, rape or otherwise mischief her. But the red coat man explained she was on TV, and she soon saw the funny side of it. I cannot begin to comprehend what the point of this Endeavour of his was was.

But it’s not all juvenile torture and dubious pranks on Japanese TV. From my experience, Japanese TV is generally very boring. For instance, most shows on Japanese TV in the evening - especially around mealtimes - stick to the following formula. Some food will be cooked. The food will be Japanese in origin, or if foreign in origin at least so thoroughly Japanified for public consumption that it will be unrecognizable as such. Generally speaking, I have no idea what the food is, often it is sushi, which is easily identifiable, but more often than not it will be a food that the gaijin does not know and is possibly not meant to know. Ask your Japanese wife. In any case after the food has been thoroughly examined a middle-aged woman in a kimono will pick up a pair of chopsticks and gingerly take a bite. She will usually look shocked for about three seconds then cover her mouth and say “O… O… Oishi!”, elongating the last syllable for an inordinate amount of time to accentuate just how delicious the food is. I myself gain no pleasure from watching middle-aged women eat sushi so this type of programming does not interest me, but there does seem to be quite a lot of it, so it must appeal to somebody. God only knows who though. Some degenerates no doubt.

The other thing that bothers me about Japanese TV is that there’s always so much clutter on the screen. Numerous titles and assorted text cover the screen at any given interval. What they say is an enigma for my non-kanji-reading self, but much of the time they seem to have a sense of mysterious urgency about them, or so the double-exclamation points would suggest. Also, is there any reason why there needs to be a box with somebody’s face in it in the corner of the screen constantly? Why is the host’s reaction to a woman eating sushi deemed important enough to merit being shown in a separate frame while the event is taking place? My theory is this: just as Japanese school students will seek to confer with others before answering even the simples of questions, so the Japanese TV viewer needs complicity before reacting to the images the TV shows. It has the same effect essentially as the laugh track does, it encourages the audience to react thereby strengthening the empathy between the viewer and the people on the screen. Ha! Nice psychological voodoo, but you won’t fool me. I can see through your cheap parlour tricks.

So am I selling Japanese TV short? Am I missing out? I decided to spend the whole day watching TV to try and find out. I witnessed rather a lot of baseball coverage, which given the season is unsurprising. Also I saw a documentary on the Japanese volleyball team. In this documentary the exquisitely coiffed members of the volleyball team are harangued and pushed about by their menacing coach, who forces them to perform various menial tasks around the gym to learn self-discipline. He has them scrub the floor and sweep up. Then he forces them to write some kind of essay. This both amused and delighted me. The boys of the volleyball team are of the bangs-and-white-jeans type you see in trendy clothes stores, with immaculately plucked eyebrows and vacant expressions. The kind of feminine-looking guys my good friend Mike was referring to when on one lagery evening he said in his broad Southern drawl “Some of these guys, Dave, if I was drunk, I’d fuck ‘em.” Which makes it all the more hilarious to see them being savagely berated by a squat, square-headed minotaur of a volleyball coach.
Later on in the afternoon I witnessed a singular event, a father/son swimming competition which pitted three families against each other. Not too interesting except that the men were all rake thin with a ghostly pallor, and clearly in far worse shape than their kids. Too much work and not enough exercise perhaps? The best bit of this show was when the presenter tied the kids together and made them swim in opposite directions. How nobody drowned I have no idea.

The next show I watched actually was quite transfixing. It was that show where the hosts reunite families who have been separated for years. In a series of reconstructions it told the story of Yumi-chan, the guest on the show. A child of mixed Japanese and Filipino parentage, when her parents split up she is forced to return to the Philippines with her Mother who abandons her in the rural Philippines. My favourite part of the reconstruction was when the mother tells her this is where she is going to live and the child-actress says “eeeeeehhhh???”. Of course, of course the poor girl doesn’t want to stay in the smelly Philippines, poor thing! God forbid. In any case, she eventually goes back to Japan to live with her mother and “new father” an abusive drunk. Eventually Yumi-chan’s mother snuffs it and leaves her alone. Quite sad, of course but that’s when TV does its magic. The presenters locate her father and they are reunited on the show. Yumi-chan, now an 18 year old mother, who has been sobbing solidly since she entered the studio, finally meets her father, who also starts blubbering and raking his hands through his thinning hair. Then the host, who had surely been selected for this job due to how dignified he looks when he cries also let a noble tear roll down his cheek. And then the other presenters started sobbing uncontrollably too. Then the audience. I could hear the woman in the apartment next to me start to cry too. That must be good programming.

Later on I watched a solid action movie about a Japanese Naval ship that gets taken over by bad army men, and are fought off by two navy guys who save the ship with only minor scratches. Having not seen a decent boat movie since Under Siege this was refreshing to me. Lots of people get shot and one of the heroes drowns a woman in the ocean. Fresh.

So in the end of the day, behind all the juvenile humour and arbitrary punishments, perhaps Japanese TV is worth watching after all. It’s just like TV back home, if you sift through the tripe for long enough, eventually you might come up with a golden example of televisual ambrosia. But at the end of the day maybe you’d be better of reading a book or getting some exercise. I feel ill.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Observations on Dick and Mayumi

I’ve been working out of Open Door Oral Communication for a long time now, using it for my 2nd grade class and some of the 3rd grade. All things considered it’s a good book. The sample texts are long, relatively free from errors and unnatural English and the raise decent enough grammatical points for study. Of course as with any Japanese English textbook there are the obligatory multiple choice answers which waste time and teach nobody anything, but there you go.
The thing I like best about it is that the chapters form a linear narrative, telling the story of Shirai Mayumi, a Japanese high school student and her one-year stay in San Francisco. The other primary characters are the family she is staying with, the Stones, and a couple of other minor characters, including her friends Kris and Maria. One character however appears in a number of scenes, which lead me to become suspicious that his relationship with Mayumi was less than innocent. His name is “Dick”.
In the pictures, Dick looks a little older. He has light brown hair and sleazy sideburns. He wears flash clothes, expensive-looking sneakers and checked shirts. Mayumi, who is somewhat awkward and slightly boyish in appearance (she has the look of a young girl who is hot, but hasn’t quite realized it yet) would surely be flattered by his advances. But something makes me not trust this boy. It’s no secret that Dick took Mayumi to the prom (see Chapter 3 “Going to the Prom”) but one has to question how quickly he took to the new kid in school, after all, she had only been in school for one chapter (see Chapter 2 “Mayumi’s First Day of School”). That’s like a week. Could it be love at first sight? Or has sexual predator Dick spotted his next mark and quickly moved to defile her before anybody else gets the chance?
Well, did he or didn’t he? After the prom, the next time Mayumi and Dick meet is at a volleyball game (see Chapter 5 “At a Volleyball game”) where Dick seems aloof and detached. He more or less ignores Mayumi to watch the game with her friend Kris. Could it be that having had Mayumi, he moved on to her best friend like a cad? Very possibly. One thing is certain, after this Mayumi never talks to Kris again. She is notably absent from any of the other dialogues. The plot thickens.
However in the next chapter (Chapter 6 “At an Amusement Park”), Dick and Mayumi appear to be on an actual date, and their dialogue is loaded with innuendo. This suggests to me that Mayumi, so to defeat her dirty friend Kris in the battle for Dick’s affections, would have to get dirtier, just like Christina Aguillera defended against Britney’s “sexy” new image by wearing assless chaps and spraying herself with a hose. See what I mean:

Dick: Do you like roller coasters?
(Is this some kind of metaphor?)

Mayumi: Yeah. I love them. I’ve ridden on some really big ones in Japan.
(I bet you have, you saucy mare.)

Dick: Great, let’s ride the rollercoaster first.
(Dick is playing coy.)

Mayumi: OK. Then let’s try the log ride.
(Log ride? Could she be more overtly brazen?)

Dick: We should save that for last because we’ll get all wet.
(Smooth. Dick has caught on and is now dirty-talking to Mayumi. What this means is she is getting it the second they get home.)

Mayumi: Oh yeah. So, after the roller coaster, we can try the Ferris wheel.
(Now Mayumi is playing coy.)

Dick: That’s a good idea. And after that, we can go and get something to eat.
(They’re both just pretending that it never happened, but the can read each other’s signals. Some naughty sex will be had.)

Mayumi: I saw a pizza restaurant near the merry-go-round.
(Pizza. The food of fornication. Cheap, beloved by everyone, and a man will bring it to your door and then leave.)

Dick: Sounds good!
(Damn right it sounds good.)

Well, I think the results of my investigation speak for themselves. Mayumi is now Dick’s full on, sexually active girlfriend. And she’s only seventeen. While this is legal and in fact preferred in Japan, in the U.S. this would be considered paedophilia. Dick, who I stated previously is probably a little older and should be more responsible. But as I have said he is a predator and a degenerate and therefore cares not for the laws of society.
What is worst about this is how much Mayumi has been corrupted by this sick deviant. Look at how she gets more and more provocative. In Chapter 9 “Eating at a Mexican Restaurant” she once again resorts to innuendo to keep Dick interested. Look at this:

Mayumi: What’s do you usually have here?

Dick: A burrito.

Mayumi: What’s that?

Dick; It’s a tortilla with beans and cheese.

Mayumi: Oh, I like beans and cheese.
(That’s right: Your beans and cheese)

Truly awful. After that, Mayumi and Dick don’t meet up again for a while. Mayumi gets sick, then is very busy volunteering in the community and taking a camping trip with the Stones. Very possibly this means that Dick has had his fill of her and given her the heave-ho. If this is the case it’s possible Mayumi’s flu was psychosomatic, or she just wanted time off school to mourn. Then perhaps she flung herself into her charity work and spent some time outdoors to take her mind off it. Well anyway, the next time she and Dick meet is at a party (see Chapter 15 “A Party Held by the Cosmopolitan Club”) which is also Mayumi’s leaving party. Dick comes across as very cold – seems to be there with Maria, yet another of Mayumi’s friends he appears to be rooting. Maria and Mayumi carry on a staid conversation, while Dick ignores both of them. Look:

Maria: Have you tried any of the Italian food yet?
(Very polite, Maria is obviously less of a bitch than Kris was, and still tries to be civil to Mayumi even though she is screwing the man she once loved. Apparently she’s also Italian. Nice winch, Dick.)

Mayumi: No, not yet, but I’ve had some Vietnamese food. It was delicious.
(Very polite. But one false move and this could be Springer)

Dick: Oh, look! the Spanish dancing is starting.
(Dick doesn’t give a shit. He just wants them to stop talking.)

Mayumi: Wow! I wish I could dance like that.
(Maybe if you could, he would have stayed)

Dick: When does your taiko performance begin?
(This is the only time Dick directly addresses Mayumi after their breakup. It’s cad-speak for “When the hell are you leaving?”)

Mayumi: In an hour, right after the Scottish bagpipes.
(I can hear the hurt in this resigned statement. Mayumi is now a ruined girl. Nay, woman.)

Maria: Dick, let’s be sure to see Mayumi’s performance.
(Too little, too late, you boyfriend-stealing harpie.)

So you see, their relationship has come full circle. Dick can’t wait to get rid of her. He can’t wait for her to be out of his life so he can resume letching on those Spanish dancers or piling Maria like the whore she is. What a shame. Mayumi was too good for him anyway. If anything, this solemn tale should prove a warning to other young girls to be careful who you trust, because there are men out there are only after one thing – your flower. They seek to steal your feminine virtue and corrupt your soul. Oh, poor wayward Mayumi, it is a sorrowful journey back to Japan for you.

Fuck you, Dick, fuck you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Why I love travelling but hate actually going places.

(Pictured: Schmoozing at Ayanna and Raj's wedding in Montreal)
Good evening brothers and sisters. I must apologise for the relative length between this and my last post. A combination of exam time, international jet-setting and crippling laziness mean I have not had occasion to get to the computer and actually write down my many wonderous observations for the benefit of you, the public. So what have I been up to?

Well, let me tell you - I have visited the new world and seen it with my own eyes. What a thing to have done. I have experienced both the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, and - albeit accidentally - had a little taster of Texas. But I will get to that eventually. For you shall see even the best laid plans can be ripped usunder and brutally defiled by bureacracy and paranoia. The plan was this - visit Montreal with my better half, meet her mother, see a bit of the town and then attend the wedding of her best friend at which she was to be a bridesmaid. Easy! But what was all that about bureacracy and paranoia? Well, I will tell you.

Kaki left Japan for Montreal a week earlier than me, to do general wedding-oriented stuff that a hirsute and uncivil Scotsman had no place in. I was to leave from Kansai airport for Dallas Fort Worth and transfer to Montreal. Again, easy. Nothing to it. Or so I thought.

A quick word for those of you going through U.S. customs - Don't. I have never been subjected to a more invasive and accusitory screening procedure anywhere in the world. One step inside a U.S. airport and it's 100% clear that innocent until proven guilty doesn't cut it here. I was subjected to probing and unnecessary questioning to prove I was indeed who I said I was and fingerprinted like a common criminal. In addition to this, all passengers had to remove their shoes and put them through the metal detector - to the obvious displeasure of the Japanese passengers, whose custom it is to have specific footwear for indoors and outdoors. Making them take off their shoes and stand around in their socks in the dirt goes against the most basic principles of decency in Japanese. It considered both unhygienic and tremendously uncivilised. They could've put a tarp down, but no - this is U.S. Customs and the only important thing is security. I could see some kind of ad campaign: U.S. Customs - Because We Don't Give A Shit About Yours. Because for some reason there is no transit in U.S. airports, which would have allowed me to stay in the departure lounge and go straight to my plane, even though I wasn't visiting the U.S. I had to fill in the immigration papers and the rather erroneous form asking me if my purpose of visit was business, pleasure or international terrorism, and if I had taken any part in any war crimes or acts of genocide during WWII (I wonder if they actually ever expect to catch someone out with that? That would have to be one severely dumb terrorist, or slow, senile Nazi). In addition to this, I realised too late, that this means I had to re-check my baggage in Dallas. By the time I figured this out, I had wandered past a security desk and was not permitted to go back for my luggage, which sat in plain sight on a conveyer belt. That's how it happens in U.S. Customs. Bam! You're meeting your girlfriend's mother in some other guy's clothes. It was 24 hours before I would get my stuff back.

However, when I eventually arrived I had a tremendous time. We stayed for the first few nights at the rather stylish abode of Kaki's friends Steven and Dahlia. They have a beautiful house, a wiiiiiiidescreen TV, a pool table and a homosexual pomeranian. We were made to feel very welcome and treated to barbeque and beer. Since I don't really get jetlag, and Kaki suffers from it in a big way, I had a few mornings on my own, which I utilised by watching the Sopranos in the highest definition possible on that truly massive TV. My favorite Soprano is Paulie Walnuts, which probably reveals more about my character than it should. In any case, after my sweetheart had raised herself cursing and baggy-eyed from her pit we'd go to town and see the sights. We took in Montreal's scenic Old Port area, from the shore and from the river, and we patrolled the stylish centre-ville streets of St Laurent and St Denis. Finally, we sampled the colours and culinary delights of Chinatown. Montreal is a beautiful city, comparable in so many ways to any city in Europe, and not just for the chatter of French spoken on every streetcorner. The city is overwhelmingly Catholic and many beautiful churches can be seen, dating back to around one hundred years ago, notably the massive St Joseph's Oratory also St Patrick's Basilica (which I would visit for the wedding).

We passed by Dawson College, the spot where a week previously a psychotic 25 year old gunman walked into the school and started shooting at random. It made me think about how lucky we are in the UK to live in a country where use of guns is not so widespread. The worst we have to worry about is getting chibbed by some wideboy outside the kebab shop on a Friday night. Could you imagine if these idiots had guns? Scotland has more than it's fair share of street violence, and some places aren't exactly safe, but I count myself lucky every day that guns aren't a part of our culture. Think about Dunblane - after that there was a huge armistice of weapons. My Grandad was a farmer, and he handed in every gun he had. That's the sensible pragmatic solution. But that couldn't ever happen in the States. Guns are a huge part of their culture, and nobody seems to think to say, I know, why don't we just make guns illegal? "But then only criminals will have guns" they would say. But it would stop high school kids blowing each other away with their father's hand cannons and automatic weapons which they *need* to hunt small bunnies. So stupid.

Anyway, sorry for that little digression, back to what I did on my holidays.

We also went to Ottawa, where we toured the Canadian Parliament building and I was strongly chastised by a mountie for applauding one of the politicians, which apparently you aren't supposed to do. Hell, I was just being polite. Outside I got my picture taken with some genuine mounties. I have nothing but respect for these people. They're like a dapper F.B.I. on horses.

I did eventually meet Kaki's mother and sisters. Despite my fears, they actually turned out not to be terrifying as I had anticipated, but very welcoming. I put my success down at least in part to my almost supernatural ability to charm women over the age of 40. I went round to their place for dinner and ended up meeting a seemingly inexhaustible supply of relatives who turned up. I think I made a good impression anyhow, despite minor difficulties - Kaki's mother has a very strong African accent and sometimes I can't follow what she's saying, although a lot of the time she has no idea what I'm saying so I guess it all evens out. What the hell, we'll get used to it.

The wedding, of course, was quite an event. I had prepared for it by wrapping myself in my kilt and all the associated paraphanelia. I cut a spectacular figure walking into the church let me tell you. Since the bride was West Indian in descent and the groom Sri Lankan, I was clearly nobody's relative - people just assumed I was a bagpiper, though why they'd hire one is beyond me. The bride and groom both brought a little of their culture to the proceedings - there was Caribbean music and Sri Lankan dancing. It was very colourful and impressive. After the wedding we removed to the Ritz Carlton for the reception (classy!) where I quickly befriended the white-coated gentlemen at the free bar and started to mingle. I got a bunch of attention for my kilt-wearing, including a dozen people asking me if I was wearing anything underneath (no) and some even asking to take a photo with me. There was also a few people who came to me to practise the standard North American art of cultural denial - ie coming over and explaining to me exactly why they are Scottish too, and describing their family's rather tenuous links to the Motherland, which are rarely convincing and always make me feel a little uncomfortable for some reason. Nevertheless I had a great time, and I must have had a fair amount of booze because I danced without feminine coercion, which is rare for me.

When it was time for us to leave, Kaki's mum dropped us off at the airport and we lined up to once again traverse U.S. customs (which is done in Canada for some reason). I maintain there would have been no rush if the guys in front of us hadn't been checking in boxes of guns for which they needed a million forms. I was fingerprinted and interrogated AGAIN and we arrived at our plane with five minutes to spare, as I hopped on board tying my shoelaces. Of course, then we sat for around three quarters of an hour waiting for the rest of the passengers to get on board, before finally taking off. At this point it was obvious to us that we were not going to make our connecting flight. When we did get off we ran for the flight but found it had already left. Despite the Captain of our first flight's heroic attempts to stall the flight so that all the passengers could get on board, apparently this Captain didn't feel the need to stick around. So we did all we could - we left, forced the airline to give us a hotel, which they did as it was their fault, and disappeared into Texas. We were seperated from our luggage, for the second time in my case, so we had very little to keep us going. I changed some money and we went back to the hotel. We ate lunch and tried to chill out and see the bright side of it - two countries for the price of one and all that. The only thing to do in the area was go to the mall, where we went shopping, ate fajitas and saw a Kung Fu movie. We also saw Oprah's gopher Dr Phil, who was in the mall promoting his wife's book. I had no idea who he was so failed to be star-struck. I wonder if Phil is his first name or last name? Anyway the next day we went back and got on the plane, and when we arrived, a day late and a day of nenkyu (holidays) less, I opened my luggage to find it full of ants.

Fucking ants!

By this point I was more or less completely hacked off and was glad to get home and roll immediately into bed.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hail to the King, baby

(Pictured: No images of the royal child are yet published, so here is one of me instead)
Although it was probably only a minor news story back home, here in Japan the birth of a baby boy to Princess Kiko and Prince Akashino was big news. The young prince, as yet unnamed, is the first heir produced by the Imperial family in 40 years. The birth comes as a great relief for Japanese conservatives, who are now hoping that the debate that has been raging regarding whether or not women should be allowed to succeed to the throne will go away. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who proposed the reform last year was heavily opposed by hardline conservatives who believe that only a male heir should be allowed to succeed, some suggesting solutions as radical as Crown Prince Naruhito taking concubines. Survey suggests public opinion is that there isn't any reason why women shouldn't be given the chance to succeed, but the conservative minority is by far the more vocal of the two camps. Thankfully, the birth of a son gives the Japanese government the chance to objectify the discussion; perhaps a dispute whose consequences lie 70 or 80 years into the future will be a less touchy subject. For now though, the mood is joyous. Japanese people are unequivocally delighted by the news of their future Emperors birth. Both camps are united in celebration. Everybody seems to have accepted the birth with a feeling of relief and pride.

While not a monarchist by anyone's standards, I find this quite touching. Growing up all I can remember about British Royal Family is scandal after scandal, affairs, alchoholism, public racial slurs, the Queen snapping a pheasant's neck, and whole lot of other events I don't care to remember. While the media must take a certain amount of blame for pursuing them endlessly and not giving them any privacy, I've always felt a little embarrassment on account of their antics. It's refreshing to visit a country where they actually respect their monarchy. It's just different. It feels good not to wake up every morning and see Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi on the front of my newspaper and think These are the people who are representing me on the world stage. If you want to look at a country whose people have respect for their monarchy, take a look at Thailand. Everywhere you go in Bangkok the King's face can be seen. They have huge posters, giant billboards, statues, paintings hanging in every household. His bespectacled visage is inescapable. I went to see a movie, and at the beginning of the film the words "All Rise And Pay Your Respects To The King" came up on the screen. Immediately everybody stood up, and the national anthem started to play. Still seated, and knowing if I stood now I would be spotted, all I could do was awkwardly sink lower into my chair as a montage of patriotic images of the King was played - the King riding a horse, the King addressing his people, the King wearing safety goggles and gazing intently at a test tube (he's a chemist? Inspiring.) and finally the King playing golf. While the sheer distilled patriotism of the occasion was enough to make any believer in liberal democracy shiver slightly in trepidation, it was still impressive. Here, like in Japan, is a monarch people actually look up to.Maybe we need a King. Ideally someone like a monster hybrid of Elvis, Jesus and Robert the Bruce, someone with style, daring, intelligence, guts and an agenda. But that's dangerous thinking.

Greeting from the Mountain...

As this is my first post, allow me to introduce myself. My name is David Blackwood. I was born in Kirkcaldy in 1983 and grew up around the town. I studied in Aberdeen and then last year I moved to Japan to teach English. My town is called Ena, in Gifu Prefecture, a beautiful and mountainous area roughly in the centre of Honshu, Japan's largest island. Ena sits in a river valley, surrounded on three sides by mountains. It has roughly 58,000 people, a little less than Kirkcaldy, but spread out over a larger area in smaller villages which have emalgamated with the town over a period of time. In the surrounding forests monkeys are often seen, and very rarely bears are sighted.

Japan, as many will be aware, is an extremely homogenous society. Long periods of isolation, from medieval times up until the end of the last century, and again after the war, have meant that immigration is minimal. The largest groups of immigrants are Chinese, Koreans and South Americans, - the majority are Brazilians - who mostly do low-paid manufacturing work and are kept at arms length by the Japanese community in general. Most of the non-Asian immigrants are centred on the urban areas like Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, so you can imagine the regular Japanese persons confusion at seeing me wandering around in a small city up in the mountains.

Yes, when I first arrived I felt like a regular rock star. Everybody was curious, and they all invariably asked me the same questions: Do I like Japan, do I like Japanese food and what part of America am I from? Fortunately I had memorized the phrase "Watashi wa Amerika-jin ja nai" (I am not American) in case of this eventuality. The answers to the other two are more complex. Do I like Japan? - Yes, I do but sometimes it drives me up the wall. Do I like Japanese food? - Yes, but if I have to eat another cup of dry white rice I'm going to karate chop someone. Like its food, Japanese culture is often frustrating and confusing, but it's these differences that are teaching me day by day to be a more open and understanding person. I'm no longer scared to try new things - I've knowingly eaten bowel. And like its culinary counterpart you have to react the same way to the cultural opportunities afforded to you in this place - never refuse an invitation, never miss a chance to see something that could change your life. You have to take life by the reins and accept what it throws at you, and enjoy it, even if it did used to be part of an animal's digestive tract.

Fortunately for me, the curiosity has worn off now, and although people recognise me on the street, and I am pretty much an accepted member of the community, people mostly leave me to get on with it. At school I am comfortable teaching and interacting with the students, and my Japanese is good enough to get me out of most scrapes (there's still room for improvement though). I have a number of good Japanese friends, and a number of good foreign friends. I also have an awesome Canadian girlfriend. I know my way around town pretty well and often take long trips in my beautiful but filthy & dangerous car. I am very much in my element. Yes, life is pretty sweet.

With this blog I hope to give you a little insight into what it's like for a Scot living abroad - the various trials & triumphs, some facts, some outlandish anectdotes. Hopefully armed with those ingredients I'll be able to paint an accurate portrait of this unique experience.

Don't be a Fool

Here is my News blog. I have created it in the solemn hope that pieces of it will be reproduced in the Fife Free Press newspaper. It is exactly like this blog except I can't swear.


Everytime I write an article in it, I'll reprint it here, partly because having two blogs is too confusing for the four or five people who actually read this, but mainly because I like Blogger better for ease and the ability to add pictures wherever I choose. The Fife Free Press editors are trying to start a sort of online blogging community and they say they want to take the best pieces from the blogs and print them in the paper weekly. It's still very much in the development stages so we'll have to see how things go. In any case, here are the two articles I wrote today, one giving my personal history which you don't need to read if you already know me, although it contains some interesting philosophical information and the topography of my area, and another truly magnificent piece about the monarchies of the world. Shitting it? you should be.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Steve Irwin We Hardly Knew Ye

Devastating news - yet another true life hero has been struck down in his prime, adding his name to the list of such dead luminaries as Bill Hicks, Hunter Thompson, James Belushi and John Candy. Yes, today in the cruelest twist of fate imaginable by a morally decrepit butcher of a God, Steve Irwin, TV's the Crocodile Hunter has been savagely murdered by a Stingray in the a diving accident in Queensland's Great Barrier Reef. The stingray, whose identity cannot be disclosed for legal reasons was arrested by Queensland police and taken into custody.

Several Australian cities now lie in ruin after riots broke out shortly after his death was announced this morning. And who can blame them? We have surely lost a Herculean figure. Irwin was always a larger than life character, and through his TV series and movies brought us closer to many exotic breeds of creature. Dubbed "The man without fear" Steve had no qualms about getting up close and personal with the animals he studied. In fact, it landed him in trouble sometimes - in addition to the myriad bites, stings, gauges and chomps he received, he was also wildly criticised for feeding a rampant croc while holding his strangely sedate baby son and slammed by animal rights groups for getting too close to penguins and rare whales. Nevertheless the main selling point of his show was the way he pushed, prodded & cajoled creatures to lure them into some kind of camera activity. Indeed, the image of Irwin jabbing a venomous snake with a stick and saying "He's REALLY aggravated now" was possibly enough to women sigh and grown men sob piteously for their lack of manhood. But there was a sort of almost lackadaisical innocence about him that really appealed to people - he was almost like the natural progression from a child poking worms with a stick, full of curious delight for the world around him and its treasures.

Steve was a truly decent man, and his loss is a grave one. This is a sad case of the heaven's injustice. Why God, why? Why take Steve of all people? What did he ever do? Why take an entertainer like Steve when Jim Davidson is still alive? One day perhaps I will understand why. It is better for us to never forget him, remember him as he was, a hi-octane blend of Indiana Jones and Rolf Harris that couldn't but hold mass appeal. A thatch-haired, iron-nutted, khaki-wearing legend wrestling rolling crocs with a cheeky grin on his face and poking hairy tarantulas with sticks for the power of education and, of course, our entertainment. May flights of angels wing thee to thy rest! He is survived by his wife Terri and two children.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Monkeys don't give a fuck

(Pictured: A monkey consumes a used condom somewhere in Asia...)
On a recent daytime trip upriver in mountain-town (Neo) I was thrilled and delighted to witness a family of monkeys going up their business. A nuisance in town, the furious Japanese threw rocks to try to scare the monkeys off but they just howled, ballooed and cursed in their own monkey tongue. The monkeys of ruratopia Neomura have a reputation as gifted helions - they steal, screech and throw poo at passersby and I even hear they disrupted a child's birthday party by eating the whole cake and then biting the host's head and neck while he pissed and wept. They are vicious, savage little bastards to be sure. I remember when I came face to face with one in 'Nam - the screaming shitsack got down on all fours and opened its mouth wide and howled at me. I did the same and succeeded in confusing it. Then I caught it in my hand, gave it a quick rabbit-punch to stun it then drowned it in the ocean. Then one of its companions bit Jeremy. What can we learn from this? Only that monkeys hate tall people.

Well met, monkeys, well met.

Driven to Distraction: A Motorist's Lament

As a Scot resident in Japan, you prepare yourself mentally to be shocked and awed by a variety of cultural differences on an almost daily basis. After a while of being continually being served squid-eyes and raw eggs you gain a learned indifference to those sorts of daily culinary atrocities, and after about the 100th crotch-grab you are even able to take that with desensitized ease. However, sometimes - just sometimes - a cultural difference will pop up unannounced with such alien vigour as to completely boggle the mind.
Of course, as we all know, the place where we are most susceptible to fall prey to the ugly vulture of bad temper is at the wheel of a motor vehicle. It seems that in a car, even the tightest wound coils of human virtue unravel and start damning and cursing other motorists. One need only think back to family holidays, with their excesses of ring-road traffic jams, to imagine the familial good humour disintegrating in a haze of hissed insults and pointed criticism of Dad’s route-planning.
This perhaps explains my chagrin to be driving on a narrow, unlit, mountain road, turning a blind bend and encountering a parked vehicle in the middle of the road with its hazard lights blinking, while the driver stood by the side of the road catching frogs with a net. One emergency stop later, I was driving away fuming in an impotent rage. This sort of thing actually happens a lot in Japan. In Britain, hazard lights are only deployed in an emergency, if at all, whereas in Japan the hazards are chucked on if the driver needs to nip into the shop for a tin of juice. The Japanese as a people are unusually apologetic, in Japanese one has often apologized three or four times before a conversation has even begun – criminals are even often released if they say they are sorry. The hazard light is a way of saying “sorry!” for bad driving practices even as they are being committed. While this will drive a foreigner up the wall this is perfectly reasonable for the Japanese.
My brush with death of course got me thinking about this. Worldwide there are many different conventions for driving. In Cambodia for instance there are no lanes and right of way is determined more or less by a game of chicken, in which two vehicles will go for it at once and the first driver to slam on the anchors in naked terror is forced to give way. Luckily since Cambodia has more or less a lack of cars this does not happen very often.
On a recent trip to Hanoi I got to know another inventive, if flawed traffic system. Hanoi is a city of roughly 5 million, and has about 3 million scooters and motorcycles. There are no lanes here either, and the traffic flows in one direction like a river. Rarely does traffic ever flow two ways at once. In addition to this, the horn is used here rather than as a tool to register one’s dissatisfaction with another driver as some bizarre form of orientational equipment. While honking the horn constantly to inform other drivers of their whereabouts, the Vietnamese driver uses the other driver’s honks to disseminate their locations from the cacophony. I wouldn’t be surprised if most Vietnamese drivers could drive with their eyes closed, so much they rely on the horn to orientate themselves. It’s almost like a bat’s sonar. The honking usually starts with the morning traffic around 4:30 am and continues long into the night. How anybody gets any sleep at all is a mystery to this confounded westerner. The Japanese by contrast use the horn primarily as an expression of thanks to other motorists – like the British they would rather suck in any anger relating to other drivers and rage about it later in private.
If driving conventions differ from country to country, surely must attitudes to driving. A recent EU-wide survey by the RAC has revealed various different attitudes displayed by residents of the EU. Unsurprisingly, the Brits take the crown for the most uptight drivers, with a whopping 87% revealing that they sometimes became “very annoyed” with drivers. Quite what very annoyed encompasses is indistinct but I took to mean shouting, huffing or flicking the V’s. I understand this a great deal. I don’t know how many times I have howled and raved in the driver’s seat of my car while doddering behind some poor old grandmother who can barely see over the wheel driving 20 miles an hour on the motorway and dragging a length of fence and a dead sheep behind her. But as we are British of course we would rather stew in private than actually confront the other road user about their conduct. The French on the other hand, showed a different tack with 60% of drivers admitting they had acted aggressively to other road users. The reasonable Belgians were revealed to be the most laid-back of drivers in the EU, with only a 55% annoyance ratio.
Of course all this really means is that if you intend to go abroad this summer exercise the proper care and discretion when dealing with traffic, and always expect the unexpected. Foreign drivers will be prepared for some little Italian taxi drivers making an emergency stop and reversing down the left hand lane while looking over his hairy shoulders and swearing, but perhaps you will not. Statistics indicate that UK drivers are three times as likely to be involved in a fatal accident in Spain or Portugal than at home. UK drivers are to be advised to pay attention, drive carefully and bottle up their rage for release at a later date, probably in the form of a nervous breakdown or a massive coronary. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Friday, August 04, 2006

You'd better start running, fucko.

The news this week has provided me with many talking points. The Delhi city authorities are dealing with their monkey infestation by introducing larger, more blood-thirsty simians in the hope that they will wipe out the shit-hurling menaces without proving a bigger problem themselves. Gordon Brown has been voted “Britain’s most influential disabled man” much to his confusion and the amusement of many observers, some of whom have joked that if being born without a personality is a disability then Mr Brown would be receiving a rather large government subsidy. Israel is bombing everyone – Lebanon, Gaza, the UN – safe in the knowledge that until American jews cease to be wealthy they will never be brought to book. But one story, for me at least, has proved the ultimate zeitgeist and really hit home what it means to be alive in this accursed Year of Our Lord two-thousand-and-six.

On the tiny Davaar Island, on Campbeltown Loch in Argyll (West Scotland for those of you not lucky enough to be born in God’s Kingdom) you can see a wonderful example of some late 19th Century religious artwork, a picture of Jesus Christ painstaking daubed onto the wall of a cave in 1887 by local schoolteacher and apparent religious fruitcake Archibald MacKinnon. While not the most famous piece of its ilk, it is certainly a local treasure and attracts a great deal of visitors to the area, many of whom believe the painting to be sacred.

Unfortunately, yesterday the painting was discovered with a huge image of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara spraypainted over it in what has been described as an “apparent political attack”. This saddens and shocks me, firstly because of the destruction of such a beautiful piece of artwork, and secondly because of the way it was destroyed. Certainly this was not an act of political vandalism. Guevara’s image is one of the most instantly recognizable in the world, and although people rarely know anything about the history involved, Che’s handsome and defiant visage represents to us a righteous and indignant rebellion against tyranny of all kinds. Forget communism, what this represents to people is sticking it to the man. While a potent image, let us not forget is also a generic image, a prepackaged imaged, cruelly hijacked by capitalists and “alternative” clothing companies to give middle-class privileged kids that anti-establishment edge they will need to give them credibility while they study to be economists of some kind. What has happened, very probably is that some kid, who thinks he’s smart, and he knows about politiks has spraypainted – nay, stencil spraypainted – a picture of a long-dead commie from a different hemisphere, who means nothing to him politically or culturally over a beautifully painted, loving created piece which represents the more sublime aspects of a religion, which while has been damaging for Scotland as a whole, has been responsible for some of our greatest moments, and is a vital part of our history and heritage. It is a case of something beautiful being destroyed to make way for something that is frankly a bit rubbish. No doubt this child thinks himself the graffiti king – well if you’re so good why do you need a stencil? Why not draw it yourself? Are you a communist? Doubt it – if you were you wouldn’t use a symbol that had been so obviously co-opted by capitalist institutions, you’d draw - oh I don’t know – Frederick Engels or even fucking Leonid Brezhnev. Then I’d believe you had even a minute amount of knowledge regarding communism. Have you no imagination? Why shout so loud when you have nothing to say? Ah, what’s the world coming to? I am a great believer in the power of social revolution, and completely irreligious, so as you can see politics and religion don’t come into it for me. All I see is art that means something being replaced with art that means nothing. If I catch the kid I’m going to strike him mute and fuck him lame. Bastard.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Germany - 1, Bear - 0

Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great sadness I relate to you the news of the terrible tragedy that struck one innocent bear in the Bavarian Alps yesterday. Bruno, the sprightly - if murderous - brown bear on the run in Germany's picturesque south has finally been executed by a pack of German hunters. This is obviously an atrocity of mammoth proportions - devastating news. From my home on the mountain, in between rooting for countries I don't come from against England and the USA in the world cup, and treating my students with brutal disdain & callousness, I confess that I've felt my heart warm to the tale of a plucky bear evading the authorities like some kind of filthy, hairy Dr Richard Kimball. An epic underdog tale; Bruno was released into the wild as part of an Italian program to reintroduce extinct species back into the Alps, and making his way through the mountains eventually arrived in Bavaria. The German Environment Minister, Werner Schnappauf initially welcomed the bear, saying it had nothing to fear, but quickly changed his tac when they realised the beast was savage & uncontrollable. Over coming weeks the bear would run a murderous campaign of butchery & pillage on the area, slaying numerous sheep, goats, birds, a kid's pet rabbit and rooting through piles of garbage like it was going out of fashion. The people of Bavaria, clearly not used to this kind of behaviour, were outraged. The final nail in the coffin was when after a night of chasing residents around the streets of an alpine village, Bruno sat down in front of the local constabulary, gurgled blood and howled in open challenge. This was the last straw, and the powers that be pushed the button on Bruno. The call was out: Bruno had to be destroyed.

From all around the assassins came to try and take him down. Germans, Dutch, Finns. Until eventually he could run no more and he was capped like a bitch by Teutonic huntsmen outside the town of Spitzingsee.

But why? Sure, he was a killer. Sure, he knew no law but his own. And sure, he ate garbage and left giant, glossy shits on the bonnets of police cars, but HE WAS A FUCKING BEAR. That's what bears do. Whose bright idea was it to rerelease one of natures most batshit insane, blood-drinking, death-craving monstrosities into the wild anyway? A bear's place is in a zoo or a laboratory.

And so, that's why this whole story left me feeling a bit down. I can't help feeling sorry for the old bugger. It strikes me that essentially he was killed simply for being a bear. He was only doing what nature intended him to do, and if man can't cope with nature, he shouldn't mess with it in the first place. Species on this planet come and go. Survival of the fittest. Our forefathers and foremothers hunted bears to extinction in Europe precisely because they were a threat to our way of life. And now that we've got sloppy and complacent, and we couldn't fight our way out of an Nsync concert, this is not the time to start reintroducing carnivorous beasts to mainland Europe. And these environmentalist assholes want to reintroduce wolves to Scotland. Sweet Jesus! What next?

Bruno's official website:


And the BBC news coverage of his martyrdom:


Friday, June 09, 2006

On Education

Job moans. If you have a job you undoubtedly have some. I have a few but not as many as I would have if I worked in the office of Babylon & Sons mired by bureacracy and trapped in meaningless and trivial relationships with mediocre middle-managers and grey, ill coworkers. I live in Japan for sweet Christ's sake! I am two hours away from Tokyo! If I wanted to I could be in one of the most electric hives of pure human energy in the world in under two hours, and drink, fornicate and cuss as much as I like. In the other direction, if I drove two hours in my beautiful car I would be at the tallest peak of the Japan Alps, soaring amongst the eagles and romping with bears. That's why whenever I have a moan I usually just count my blessings and set about amending whatever the situation may be with cruel & brutal efficiency - because I am a positive aggressive, and not a wimp.

Having said that, I am in the Business of Education and I find it pertinent to share with you some observations I have made since I have arrived here. Firstly the standard of English in Japan is wholly inferior to other countries I have visited. Although this can partly be chalked up to geography and the great difference between asian and romance languages, this hypothesis truly does not cut it. When one considers the Vietnamese and Cambodians whose standard of English is staggeringly high, even mostly without any formal English education, the example of Japan proves a paradox on a planet otherwise eager suckle at the teat of linguistic globalization. So why can't they speak English? English education in Japan traditionally begins at around elementary school level, sometimes even before. The answer partly lies in Japan's resistance to change and also the students reluctance to make mistakes. Japanese society, as is well known is based around the concept of "face" and keeping it. Because making a mistake would cause a student to lose face, most times a student would rather ignore the teacher asking them a question (ie me) than give a possibly wrong answer. This can be seen even in adult Japanese society, when frequently people will just pretend they haven't heard a question when they don't know the answer to it. Japanese students are also conditioned to think as part of a pack rather than an individual, and so when questioned will typically seek to confer with their confederates.

It seems that the Japanese Education Ministry has their work cut out for them. However individual schools, also obsessed with saving face schools buy textbooks so easy that they do not challenge the students at all and actually compound the problem by setting a consistent low standard for the students, all of whom of course pass with flying colours, but choke on their tongues the moment a foreigner speaks to them. The emphasis on rote learning and grammar translation methodology reduces something dynamic to something static. Language is like an equation, and Japanese schools teach you the algebra of it, but not how to add your own variables. Grammar is taught by endless repetition of esoteric expressions, which are unusable in the real world. The structures taught are not flexible enough to be used - what exists is essentially teaching by archetypes.

Of course, students can't learn natural conversational English from a textbook, which is where ALTs like me come in. Or so we are told. In reality, we're here because about twenty years ago some Japanese guy at the BOE caved to American pressure to internationalize their society, eager for a slice of the Japanese bubble economy. I think overall Japanese teachers would be glad if we weren't here, partly because they worry about losing face due to their English abilities, but mostly because the inadequacies of Japan's education system are painfully obvious from the outside, and although for the most part ALTs let them get on with it, sometimes a naive and pesky gaijin will try and shake up the bottle (I'm of course speaking in broadly general terms here, I'm very happy with my English department - they speak better English than me).

In short, Japan is in many ways an extremely atavistic nation struggling to hold on to its individuality and resisting the pressures of cultural imperialism and globalisation, but is also hampered in it's progression into the global world of the 21st Century by it's use of outdated teaching methods and it's unwillingness to treat students as individuals rather as a collective to be molded and sent out into a bog, unforgiving and scarier than expected world with a slap on the back and a hearty "ganbatte kudasai". So the self-defeating attitude of English being "too hard" prevails, while the Japanese economy declines and the Chinese one rises. All I have to say is muri ja nai - it's not unreasonable. If the Chinese and Vietnamese and Cambodians can do it then the Japanese can. However a word of warning - in the English world we have the same attitude to learning languages like French, however we speak English already right? So we don't need to. Well, we'll see. You have no spine, Great Britain.

So I do my part in my own small way, breaking down the barriers as best I can. In recent months I have received a new crop of minds to mold - in my trademark style of course. My opening address to my new first graders ran a little like this: "Ok, maggots listen up. I'm not your grandmother and I won't mollycoddle you like the others. This is going to be difficult but you'll be better off for it in the end. Step out of line and I'll fuck you up like an accident, fool. I know you are allowed to sleep in other classes but anyone is caught doing so in mine I will kick them in the throat and put them in the Boston Crab, just like any mobile phones will be confiscated, just as will any mirrors will be too, partly to help you pay attention, partly out of my own innate cruelty, but mostly because there's nothing less attractive than a girl who wears too much makeup. If you have any questions please address them to the ceiling while you're lying awake in bed tonight wondering what the fuck happened to your life." I am after all in the business of Education.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Sexualise My Beach

Avast! I have returned from Okinawa mostly unscathed. Though my travels were fraught with danger, the most notable threats being my undersea battles with seasnakes and box jellyfish and my life-and-death struggle with the fearsome Man-pig, I prevailed and discovered many new and exciting things about my surrounding, and - since everything is a metaphor and all outward journeys are also inward ones - about myself. For a start the islands of Okinawa may well be the most hospitable parts of Japan, if it weren't for the searing heat. The beaches are long and sandy, and the waters are clear blue and filled with an abundance of sealife (which no doubt pleases the sakana-crazy Japanese). You can really see why the Americans wanted to keep a hold of it for so long, but not why they've put in such a concentrated effort to turn it into Hawaii. The Okinawans are the most laid-back of Japan's people, and have the same lacadaisical attitude to subjugation by a foreign power as the French. The Kingdom of Ryuuku was
originally a fiefdom of China but was nabbed by the Japanese without much effort in the 18th century. The Okinawans didn't really care, until in 1945 a large quantity of them died when the Americans landed, and liked it so much they stayed. The most confusing thing about the relationship between Okinawa and Japan is the traditional foodstuffs used - even though Okinawa is an island they eat pork the whole time, rather than fish, the staple of mainland Japan. Why even 500 miles inland is there still fish? I get fish for every meal. Where does this fish come from? The Okinawans have it all figured out.

Another pleasant revelation stems from having spent almost four days in the company of my good lady wife and not tried to kill her. I can't remember the last time I spent that amount of time with any woman - family and close friends included - and not had a femicidal urge. It must be love.

EDIT: In response to comments and criticisms from some of the most important women in my life in regards to the above statement, let me express my apologies for any misunderstanding - I was joking! I don't really want to kill you. I love my pod-sisters!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Man You Call "Boss"

Friends, Romans, countrymen. On this most auspicious of Wednesdays I make the leap from child-blog to adult-blog and dispense with myspace once and for all. I am fed up of emo kids with bad hair and greasy skins asking me to be their friend, computer-meddling popups telling me computer is at risk and the conspicuous Tom. Who is Tom? No friend of mine.

Anyway, my previous misadventures are all still available at:


All future mild bigotry, tall tales and sick jokes shall be found here.

"The Boss"