Tuesday, August 31, 2004

書道:The Literary Discipline

Anyone who remembers the governor’s daughter, Jen, practicing her calligraphy in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the sensuous and moving correspondence in the sand in Hero will understand the “cool factor” of Sino-Japanese brush and ink calligraphy. “Cool” is an utterly inadequate qualifier, however. 習字 (shuji—brush writing) is a discipline on a level with 柔道 (Judo), 剣道 (Kendo), and 合気道 (Aikido). It falls under 書道 (Shodo), the non-martial art of letters. It is no less a lifelong discipline than its martial kin, and can be a powerful means of projecting deep meaning, force and beauty onto paper. I have heard it said that some of the most treasured possessions of some universities in China are banners written for them by visiting persons of stature; Chairman Mao, for example.

At Kazamaura Junior High School the art of calligraphy is somehow integrated into the already extensive extracurricular activities. These students are working through their after-lunch break.

The shuji instructor is Abe-sensei, the 国語 (National Language) teacher.

He’s quite the old pro (although perhaps not on a plane with the masters).

I used to do shuji in my youth, but unfortunately I don’t have any action photos, or even photos of my finished works. Instead, I have included a photo of my shuji teacher and me at a museum in Ajigasawa displaying artifacts of the feudal seat of the first Tsugaru lord. Needless to say, this was taken some years back.

Monday, August 30, 2004

I Like to Ride My Bicycle . . .

I like to ride it where I like . . . . It’s time for me to refocus on one of the original motives for my beginning this blog: propagating the message that Aomori prefecture is wickedawesome! Yes. Yes it is. On Saturday I determined to go into Mutsu “City” for supplies. I needed to get a multi-media reader and a memory stick for my laptop. I also wanted to recce Uni Qlo to begin laying the groundwork for my transformation into J-man. Buying running shoes and a bicycle were to be tentative secondary objectives, depending on the ground. I was going to take the bus, but while I was laying in bed wondering whether to get up yet, my supervisor called to say that his daughter was driving into Mutsu, so I hitched a ride. Mutsu is a small city, but it is still a pain to walk from one end to the other and that, of course, is exactly what I had to do. Nevertheless, every mission was accomplished in its turn until finally I made my way to the bus terminal and discovered a bike shop in its vicinity. I am an impulse buyer, and since there were only four bicycles to choose from, and since one of the bikes fit my criterion perfectly, the impulse had the better of me in about thirty seconds. Awesome Aomori, point one: I had been thinking that I would ride the bicycle the forty kilometres back to my village, but the shop keeper’s wife said they would deliver the bike. Relieved, I told her what she had just saved me from, and then she offered to deliver me along with the bike. So I got a free ride home!

This is the bike. Cheap (¥38,000), and possibly fragile. The handle bars are pretty creaky, but those are only used for steering and balance, anyway. It’s marketed as a mountain bike, but its tires seem to be geared towards asphalt. In other words, a real piece of junk to the initiated, but to an amateur like me who just wants to putter around on gravel roads and go to the 温泉 (hot spring public baths), it is perfect.

Behold, awesome Aomori point two! This is what I longed for when I was living in Toronto. This is what my village looks like just a ten minute bike ride from my house!

And of course, as always, I had to have some fun with my cell phone. I got this picture by tying my cell phone to a plastic pipe stuck in the edge of the road and videoing myself climbing down the embankment and up the tree. Then later, I used Microsoft Moviemaker to save one of the frames in the video as a picture. Mountains, forests, rivers, the sea—Aomori rocks!

Saturday, August 28, 2004

The House that J Power Built

On Friday afternoon I was invited to join my junior high school on a trip to Kitadouri Coordinated (Synthesised) Cultural Centre. When I saw it I said “wow!” and asked my school’s curriculum coordinator if the town of Ooma had financed it. He hemmed and hawed a bit before mumbling an admission that it was corporately funded. It was constructed by J Power as part of the massive social bribery plan to make the handful of people who live around here think that it’s really, really cool to have nuclear power plants and waste disposal sites in the region. The play itself was a musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes,” performed by a professional troupe. I love fairy tales, and the idea of a repressed orphan girl going mad and dancing herself nearly to death in a last gasp to grasp her crumbling dream appeals to me. But since all the students will be writing response papers on the play, I will write mine on the bigger picture surrounding the afternoon.

Yes, if your concept of junior high kids is walking, talking germ farms. Apart from the big auditorium, the “synthesized” cultural centre is basically a nuclear power information centre, and all the staff wears big J Power logos. Instead of handouts on Hans Christian Andersen and “The Red Shoes” we each got our very own J-Power pamphlet.

“Yo, yo, J-homies. I’m here to tell you that fossil fuel, hydro, nuclear and all kinds of other electric power generation are used in Japan!”

“Peace, kids. Don’t tell me you didn’t know that nuclear energy produces less carbon dioxide per kilowatt than both solar and wind energy!”

And if we bury the spent fuel deep enough, we can almost pretend it’s not there!

Hee, hee. We’re the real J-Power here. Peace!

It’s sad, because if it weren’t for all the nuclear contamination I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life in Shimokita. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can risk having kids here.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Noise Pollution: “Big Sister is Nagging You”

Anyone who has been in Japan during election time knows that if Japan has any noise pollution laws, they aren’t enforced at all. Huge speakers blaring out messages across entire neighbourhoods seems to be an acceptable means of advertising, soliciting, and delivering propaganda. I know that the so called “nationalists” (anti-foreigners) have been at it down at Gaijin-mura on the Pacific coast of Miyagi prefecture over the summer. That is an extreme example. Friendlier, but almost as annoying, public announcements are regularly boomed out of enormous speakers in almost every small municipality in Japan. In George Orwell’s Oceana there was Big Brother. Here in Japan we have the eternally nagging “Big Sister,” a woman’s voice that tells all the "good boys and girls" when to get up, brush their teeth, go home, etc.

This is one set of Kazamaura’s public announcement speakers. This morning I was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by a seemingly routine announcement. I couldn’t hear it clearly, but it probably wasn’t important enough to wake everyone up at 5:30 a.m. for. In my village we’re told when a bear has been seen, when the fishery union’s flags have gone up (i.e. it’s time to “stop harvesting seaweed”), and when a local bureaucrat is going to miss work for a week because he’s sick. That’s over and above the daily morning and evening announcements. To make matters worse, the junior high school across the street has its own set of speakers, and I get "announced at" by those, too. And to think, the fool things were originally installed to inform and direct citizens during natural disasters. In elementary school we used to keep a journal called the ハテナノート ("Question Mark" Notebook). We wrote entries in it about things in the world that puzzled us. I wish I had one of those right now.


At orientation I thought that the “one timers” who get to spend their whole year doing self-intros were pretty lucky. They said it sucked, and I didn’t believe them. But they were right, and I was wrong. I have now done my self-intro for the first and second grades of my junior high school, and although they went very well I am glad that there is only one more to go. I’m going to do a completely new one for my three elementary schools, or I will go crazy. I did my junior high self-intro on power point, and for lack of more interesting material to share today I am posting six of the twenty-seven slides. It only takes six to capture the dull flow of the マイネーム (my name . . .) world. I’m glad the students were interested, though.

To clear your palate, here’s a photo of the Japanese language speech contest we had yesterday.

I think perhaps the military did more than any other institution to prepare me for my return to Japanese society. In other, news, I’m coaching the three participants of the upcoming English speech contest. They’re good kids. One of the speeches, though, is the textbook speech: “I Have a Dream” (actually an elementary-level commentary on Martin Luther King Jr.’s beautiful original). A great little speech, but I think its selection for this contest highlights an attitude which seems to be prevalent here: “moral problems are something other countries have.” I find the inference that racial discrimination is a moral deficiency of foreign countries to be heinously hypocritical in light of the speeches that the popular governor of Tokyo has been making. I look forward to the day that teenagers in Shimokita find the freedom to step beyond their textbooks and grapple with their own real issues.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Gaijin Goes to School

It is ironic that I have begun teaching at Japanese 中学校 (junior high school), because as a thirteen-year-old I absolutely and unequivocally refused to participate as a student in the said institution. Now that I’ve finally made it to Japanese middle school it doesn’t seem like such a bad place, after all. Of course, I have to take into account the “village factor” in this assessment, but all in all 風間浦中学校 (Kazamaura Junior High School) appears to be a pretty happy zoo. Yesterday I was a little too frazzled by my official, and very public, induction into the school to take any photos. However, today I have begun putting 携帯くん (Cell Phone kun) into service capturing the kind of images that people really want to see on a JET blog: kakkoii/kirei-na teachers and kawaii J-kids. Actually, I think the most popular genre is drunk JETs, but I’m sure the category I’m covering today is a close second.

Students generally begin the day in their famous “sailor-suit uniforms.” I wanted to get a shot of the seriously clashing white indoor shoes they wear with them, but I figured that attempting such a photograph on my second day would come across as a little “sukebe.”

It’s not long before they change into their uniform track suits. I’m pretty proud of my school, because its track suits have some pretty cool florescent yellow stripes. Unfortunately they are for students only.

I also wanted to get a good action photo, but junior high kids are a flighty and shy species, like the pushmepullyou, and therefore very difficult to observe in ordinary social interactions. Thus, the total absence of eye contact with the teacher. This JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) is my team teaching partner, Miss Rikiko Sakata.

This is a boring photo of the staffroom in which I spend most of my time. I only included it because I went to all the bother of “Super Mailing” it from my cell phone to my e-mail account.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

No Longer Gaijin—or is He?

This is 有道 出人 (Arudou Debito), a Japanese citizen. He was born David Christopher Aldwinkle in the United States, but he is now living in Japan with his Japanese wife and teaching at a Japanese university. He is of particular interest to me because his past and present may very well become my future. His life today is the embodiment of the title I chose for this blog, because although destiny brought him to Japan long ago and fortune ushered him through the formidable maze of Japanese naturalization, he is still a gaijin to the vast majority of people he encounters everyday. Although he carries a Japanese passport, speaks Japanese fluently, buys his cloths at Uniqlo, and obviously gets his hair cut at a Japanese barber, his body marks him as gaijin for life. Most importantly, though, Arudou-sensei is a prolific writer as well as a social activist, and his enormous web of online pages is an invaluable resource for gaijin contemplating life in Japan in the long term. Check out his page to find out more about the Otaru Lawsuit and the growing number of “No Foreigners Admitted” signs in Japan. Or click here to find out about becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen. And special kudos to Jamie of avoidinglife.com who runs an awesome site through which I first became aware of Arudou Debito, the American Japanese.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon: Cell Phone Fun Continued . . .

Alas, without a car church is not an option for me in the village, so I set out once more to enjoy God’s beautiful creation with my cell phone.

Last night I discovered the invaluable function known as “Self Timer,” so of course I immediately tried it out.

Then, today I took it up a notch, to prove that my cell phone truly is sufficient for all my photographic needs. I took this shot by tying my phone to a tree branch with the neck strap. It shows me in my natural habitat, among the tree branches 15 metres above the river.

This shot I took by employing a three foot log I pulled off a roadside woodpile as a tripod or, in this case, a “monopod.” It seems to have worked well, as I was able to capture both the ever present “Bear Haunting (出没)! Beware!” signs as well as one of the haunting bears. As a point of interest, as I was heading for the hills the postman stopped his little red K-van, got out, handed me my mail, had me sign for my GoLloyds registration package, and then went on his merry way, all on a Sunday afternoon. Then, on my way home I did a little grocery shopping and the shopkeeper’s wife insisted that he drive me home since he was “going that way anyway.” He says that monkey sightings in town have been increasing. I wonder if Japanese monkeys make the peace sign when you photograph them?

The Kazamaura Summer Delinquency Prevention Baseball Series

Today I set forth into the village with my Vodafone-camera and started snapping. Unfortunately I have discovered that it didn’t come with cables for downloading the photos onto my laptop, so I have had to individually “super mail” my favourite pictures to my regular e-mail account. I wonder how much that costs?

Here is the Kazamaura Space Needle. Or should I call it the KV Tower (KV for Kazamaura Village). Actually, I will surrender this dilemma to public forum, and I invite all to present their “Name that Tower” submissions under “comments."

For a small village, Kazamaura has a HUGE baseball field, and as there was a tournament on today, I dropped by to see and be seen. It’s about time for me to start presenting my gaijin self to more of my new neighbours. Notice the beautiful setting in which the Kazamauraites combat their athletic foes! According to Mr. Kawashima, this mid-summer baseball tournament for elementary and junior-high boys is designed to channel their testosterone away from delinquent behaviour during the holidays.

This photo of “little-league moms” is little different from what one might see in the West . . .

. . . but the elaborate etiquette of the players is something to behold. Here they have come to attention and performed the “arigatogozaimashita” bow, but it did not end there. They proceeded to their respective dugouts and repeated this salute to their fans. Then, they ran across the field, tipped their hats and shouted a friendly greeting to the opposing team as they crossed paths, and likewise saluted their opponents’ fans. I had almost forgotten that I used to do the same thing when I was on my elementary school’s mini-basketball team.

Aomori JET Orientation

It is in the nature of JETs, as it is in the nature of most people, to complain about required events, especially conferences and seminars. I have no complaints about JET conferences. The opportunity to come together with other JETs, both new and veteran, is in itself sufficient justification for holding such conferences. And in the case of the Aomori JET orientation I feel that the information sessions and workshops were helpful to some degree in disseminating information and to a very large degree in boosting confidence levels in the newbies. I still have to admit, though, that it was the “after-hours” activities that really made my week in Aomori City. First, I became the enthusiastic owner of a very expensive, but VERY COOL cell-phone. Behold the Vodafone 602SH! (yes, you need to click on the link). This beauty transforms into a 2.0 Megapixel digital camera perfect for taking pictures destined for web-pages. Expect a deluge of local Kazamaura photography in future posts. Second, I had an opportunity to meet and spend time with some of my fellow Christian Aomori JETs at Korona World (=shopping plaza complete with exotic hot-spring spa).

Here I experienced for the first time the crass pleasures of a kaiten-sushi bar, and I single-handedly vanquished fourteen ¥100 plates. Gluttony aside (I repent, and will only eat ten plates next time!), I’m really looking forward to this year’s services and Bible studies at Itayanagi chapel. Mr. Kawashima, my supervisor, made the six-hour round trip to pick me up Friday evening, and once again invited me to eat dinner at his place.

This is the Kawashima family (minus their son whom I’ve never met). As I have stated before, they are good to me. Last time I ate at the Kawashima’s the Canadian women’s Olympic softball team was kicking some Japanese butt, which made me feel bad about eating their food. So I was a little relieved this time when they turned the TV on and the Canadian men’s baseball team was losing to Japan 9-0. Not that I’m not patriotic, but there’s diplomacy to consider when you’re eating somebody else's food.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Marriage Across Cultures Part II: The Ballad of Luke and Yuko

This past weekend I journeyed to the town of Tobetsu near Sapporo to meet my future in-laws and to receive their blessings on the impending marriage of Yuko Takahashi and myself in June. According to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, by the year 2000 there were 300,000 marriages between Japanese and non-Japanese persons registered in Japan, and it is not uncommon for JET participants to join these ranks during their brief sojourns in the land. It is therefore circumspect to inquire closely into the legal machinations governing these international unions within Japanese society. The prospective spouse of a Japanese national may be surprised, upon browsing through respective Japanese embassy web-sites, to discover that visas for spouses of Japanese nationals are generally covered by one unexciting paragraph informing the reader that such a spouse must renew his or her spousal visa every one to three years depending on the duration of the marriage and the whim of the Ministry bureaucrats. More in depth research will lead to the discovery of an even more sinister instrument of discrimination: Japan’s Family Registry System, governed by the Residents Registration Law. While it is a popular conception among Western ex-pats in Japan that it is easier for gaijin guys to “score” than it is for gaijin girls, the truth is that 80% of international marriages here are between Japanese men and non-Japanese women (primarily Korean, Filipina—yes, that’s how you spell it—and other Southeast Asian nationalities). Consequently, discrimination against gaijin spouses in Japan is also a grave issue of discrimination against women. There are a number of organizations and mutual support groups in Japan seeking to empower gaijin spouses, two of them being ISSHO and UMJ (United for a Multicultural Japan).

My own journey with Yuko began nine years ago at the Word of Life Bible Institute in the Adirondack Mountains where we basically had very little to do with each other.

We would attend the same birthday parties . . .

. . . but seldom made it into the same photographs. We were casually in touch on and off for a number of years (mostly off)

. . . until we met again in November, 2003 at my sister’s wedding in Hokkaido. I will state for the record once more that I am not drunk in this photograph—just very jetlagged. A few days after I returned to Canada we decided via e-mail
to get married
. . . so we were on very friendly terms when she visited me in Toronto in May. As mentioned above, this past weekend I made the journey across the Straits of Tsugaru to Hokkaido where I proclaimed to the Takahashi’s my love for their daughter and received their blessing to become their gaijin son-in-law.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Farewell to Arms

Today is Thursday, and in “Phase Canada” of my life I used to spend every Thursday night at the armoury. I was checking out an old army buddy’s blog the other day, and it came to my attention that in the rush to come to Japan I never conducted any sort of closure to my army reservist days. So here’s to good times, commemorated in a mini photo essay. I joined for three reasons. First, I watched too many war movies as a kid. Second, as a lifelong ex-patriot I wanted to do something that would make me feel uber-Canadian. Thirdly, I was ashamed to admit to guys coming from nations with compulsory service that I had no military experience. I discovered early on that there is too much shouting in the army, and that everyone is very bossy. But I was happy as a little puppy because . . .

. . . sleeping with an assault rifle is SO COOL!

I was still pretty excited when my officer training started . . .

. . . but that was the LONGEST three months of my life and I began to get really tired!

Still, I tried to put a good face on it.

Then, important parts of my body—like the skin on my shoulders—began to get permanently damaged.

Nobody told me that we would be going up to six days and nights at a time with no bedtime—I thought only the special-forces did that!

I was so happy the morning it was all over!

After that summer my army weekends seemed pretty cushy in comparison . . .

. . . and guys I used to try to stay away from turned out to be pretty cool after all (that’s Sgt. Wellowszky, my Platoon 2ic).

And I got to take part in the great traditions of my regiment. The army reserve was a humbling experience for me. I never went anywhere near a theatre of operation and none of the training was abusive, yet I was pushed to the limits of my physical and psychological boundaries and discovered weaknesses in me that I was ashamed to face. I am pretty sure that my platoon commanders’ course reduced my lifespan by at least one year, but I have no regrets about the experience. I have added two permanent links in the right column. Jordan Sullivan was one of the section commanders in my platoon and, incidentally, also the first instructor I ever had in the army. He generates his blog out of the civilian side of his life. The other link is to my regiment’s homepage. I would like to add in closing that I consider myself to be a conditional pacifist. The army is an interesting experience for soldiers, but war is hell for civilians.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


It is perhaps impossible to convey here without the support of photographic evidence the unique environment in which I am spending my summer days. How can the uninitiated accurately imagine the figure the superintendent of the Board of Education cuts as he slouches in his enormous office in his sleeveless undershirt listlessly fanning himself. His style is that of benign neglect, and one gets the impression that the Social Education Section and the Schools Section are autonomously run by their respective supervisors. The supervisors and their staff occupy a shared office next door to the superintendent’s, the two rooms being roughly equivalent in size. Both supervisors have an assistant, and besides these full-time staff members there seem to be two temps and an office lady (OL). There is also a middle-aged woman who comes in a few days a week. Her role in this office is puzzling, but I saw her ironing tablecloths this morning, and when she’s not sitting on a sofa fanning herself she can often be found hanging out in the Board of Education kitchen with the OL. She is probably the reason my coffee mug is sometimes cleaner than I remember it being. She also seems to have a mysterious power over the Social Education supervisor and spends a lot of time berating him in the local dialect. His humble submission to her diatribes causes me to suspect that they share a family tree and that he occupies a lower branch therein. My own position falls under the Schools Section, and my supervisor’s assistant is his nephew. As I have previously indicated, my supervisor and his wife are good to me. This morning, as I was returning from my morning prayers in the park,

he passed me on the road and let me know that he had left some mustard-pickled cucumbers and a dish of fresh, raw squid in my fridge for me. As I had locked my door on the way out, he simply entered through the sliding screen doors of my living room. That is the way we live here, and I am content.