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.