Friday, October 28, 2005

Aji (鯵): In Which I Provide Illumination on Our Recently Begun Predatory Relationship with Mackerel

Our friend Mr. Niioka teaches Yuko the way of the deep fried mackerel. He was recently featured in another article as the man who butchered the giant tuna.

Last night Yuko and I went fishing for baby mackerel with Mr. Niioka. Considering the fact that I grew up in a fishing town called Mackerel Inlet (Ajigasawa) it’s a little surprising that I had never fished for mackerel before. In fact, if I were to use all my fingers and toes, I would probably be able to count the number of times I have gone fishing in my life. I have often read of fishing as being a relaxing sport involving incredibly long waits for anything to happen. However, each time we dipped our fishing lines armed with multiple hooks into the dirty Hebiura Harbour, within seconds we would have one or two baby mackerel tugging away at them. It got to the point where I would just let them tug away until I had three or four of them hooked simultaneously. The small ones were about three inches long, and the longest was probably about five. In all we must have brought home about sixty of the things. Unfortunately, I don’t have any fishing pictures for the same reason that I didn’t get pictures of us butchering squid at Shimofuro Elementary School a couple of months ago—slime.

Once we got home, Yuko got her hands slimy again while I took pictures. Under Mr. Niioka’s tutelage she learned that gutting the smaller fish was a cinch—just rip their heads off and pull out the attached innards (most people just eat them whole when they are that small, but Mr. Niioka kindly accommodated my piscine prejudices). After this smelly task was completed, they breaded and deep fried the little fishies so that they turned out something like popcorn shrimp, and these we added to our dinner.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Hiuchi-dake Expedition

Hiuchi-dake, the fourth highest peak in Shimokita, looms over Kazamaura. Surely there must be bears in those mountains!

The expedition winds its way through the bush along the ridge of Hiuchi-dake.

With winter closing in, Gaijin for Life has been frantically seeking closure to the Find a Bear Campaign. Last week, in a desperate bid to seize the initiative in Operation Bear Watch, I organized an expedition into Kazamaura’s highest mountains. Included on my team were Kazamaura’s highest ranking public servant (answerable only to the elected mayor), my supervisor and his assistant, several rangers from the national forestry department, a ranger from the prefectural forestry department, miscellaneous employees of the municipal government, an elementary school principle, four elementary school teachers, and a platoon of children drawn from all three of Kazamaura’s elementary schools.

One of my child adventurers shows signs of weakness and is pampered by his teacher. Can this team really pull off the dangerous task I have assigned to it?

My general (Kazamaura’s highest ranking public servant) stops to pick mushrooms for his wife. This is no way to find a bear!

At last, bear sign! I command one of the rangers to analyze the samples with a twig to determine content and temperature. The trail is cold.

Another ranger checks out what is called in the vernacular a “monkey seat” (猿の腰掛). The forestry department arms its rangers with double holsters each housing a handsaw and a Japanese hatchet. To the best of my knowledge, no weapons were drawn from their holsters on this peaceful expedition.

A teacher and his students mount a platform at the top of Hiuchi-dake to watch for bears.

Alas, no bears. All they see is Cape Oma. (Kazamaura begins where the right side of the triangle curves in).

My General HQ (Headquarters) staff man the observation post—but no bears. (My supervisor is on the right). Upon discovering that the prefectural forest ranger had a bear-repelling bell hanging from his rucksack, I had him summarily executed (without the benefit of court-martial).

My government-issued lunch.

The children play a game of “find the artificial objects” after lunch.

Okay, so the expedition was not exactly as I described it. In fact, I didn’t organize it at all. I wasn’t in command. Nobody else wanted to see a bear. Nobody was executed. I was just invited along as an observer because I didn’t have any classes scheduled for the day.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Report from the Discipline Committee

“English Corner”: My Inherited Vehicle for Promoting an Anglophonic Universe

After this Monday’s school assembly there was a rare (though in my days common) additional lecture from the school’s discipline officer (the Japanese teacher). He took about twenty minutes to softly rebuke the heartless people who were responsible for the recent rise in vandalism in the classrooms and hallways. Towards the very end of his sleepy lecture I was caught off guard by the barely recognizable focal point of the lengthy reprimand: “Even Ruku-sensei’s English corner has been subjected to this sort of soulless behaviour.” While I was mildly embarrassed to realize that this exercise had been conducted out of consideration for my feelings (both the discipline officer and the school principle personally apologized to me in the course of the day for the “soulless deeds” that had taken place under their watch), I was at the same time enthusiastically eager to see what sort of depraved mischief had been done to my photo story. During my first free period I popped upstairs to the English Corner with my camera, expecting to find toilet-time graffiti and giant, multi-specie caricatures of phalluses and mammary glands arranged in naughty ways—the sort of things that one would expect at a junior high school and that would make great photo illustrations for an interesting article on school life in Japan. So it was quite an anti-climax to discover (after a moment of not seeing anything amiss at all) that the only damage done was that my eyes were scratched out in the picture of me hugging a foal (or maybe a colt, what do I know about horse age?).

Hardly the dramatic hate crime I had been led to expect. It looks like the sort of thing that the boy in my special ed class would do in an angry moment after being told off by me for punching the girl in the special ed class. When those two are in a bad mood they sometimes pin up ぶたるく(they mean豚ルーク: “pigluke”) drawings of me that resemble a porcine happy face. They do it to the other teachers as well. But then again, it might have been the third year bad boys who like to nonchalantly shoulder butt the thirty-year-old woman English teacher in the hallways. I can’t say that I blame them for hating English. I can still remember the time in grade two when my parents put me in a Canadian school for a couple of months. Sometime during my first week there, this stylish, mean looking middle-aged woman came into our class and had us all sit on the carpet at the back of the room. Oh, goodie, story time!! She opened to the first page of her book with a picture of a bear in pyjamas yawning in bed—oh goodie, goodie!—and then she opened her mouth and all that came out was something about “Le papa blah blah blah . . . .” She never regained my respect after that, and weeks later my displeasure with her grew into a passionate hostility when she confiscated a GI Joe I was playing with while she was going on again about “L'ours de papa” being “a faim.”

Post Script: Hopefully replacing the old photos of me and a bunch of wild horses with photos of their cute little brothers and sisters harvesting rice will remove from the soulless people’s bosoms any temptation to further desecrate English Corner.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Culture to the JETs Revisited: Hanko Making 101

Our Instructor: A Portrait of the Artist at Work

My Fifty Minute Creation in which Reckless Haste Begat Art

The above is a stylized representation of the kanji 路加 which is the original Chinese transliteration of the New Testament name Λουκας (Loukas, or Luke) subsequently adopted in the pre-war Japanese translations of the New Testament. It is still used in the Japanese name of the famous St. Luke’s Hospital in Tokyo (聖路加病院). The original Greek meaning of my name Luke is “light” or, in Japanese, hikari (光), actually used sometimes in Japan as a first name. The meaning of the kanji 路加 can be roughly given as “path of increase,” although 加 is also the kanji used for “Canada” (giving me room to argue that my name in kanji means "The Canadian Way").

It is my intention to systematically lay down in my next post the reasons why I am opposed to the modern usage of katakana in “standard” Japanese. Suffice to say here that usually when foreigners attempt to represent their names in kanji they are scorned as “wannabes” and considered ignorant of the principles of the Japanese language. Such is the power of myth. The fact is that most biblical names and a great many other “foreign” names that were introduced to Japan prior to the Pacific War already have “legitimate” transliterations in kanji. Unfortunately, my last name “Elliot” does not seem to be one of them (unless I were to accept the theory that “Elliot” is a Scottish variation of the French “Ellia” = Elijah). Elliot is nowadays invariably transliterated as “Eriotto” (エリオット) . When attempting to carry out the pre-war practice of using ateji (当て字 = kanji selected to represent a name on the basis of pronunciation/reading rather than on meaning) I am faced with a difficulty. There is only one kanji character with the reading otto (オット): 夫 = “husband.” And if I want to represent eri (エリ) with a single kanji character (since most Japanese surnames use only two kanji) my only choices are 襟 and 衿, both of which mean “collar.” Collar-husband (衿夫) is as ridiculous a name as Easy-nation-space (易国間 = ikokuma the name of the hamlet my wife and I live in, which is an Ainu name written in Japanese using ateji). If I were willing to have a three kanji surname (less common, but not a problem) I would have a great many choices open to me, but always with that awkward add-on “husband.”

So that is the long version of why I only carved my first name into my hanko. I am sorry to have made you muddle through it.

Basically I put no preparation into my hanko design. Sister #4 was visiting, and I let her do it all for me. She looked up the traditional script for路加 on the homepage of an inkan manufacturer, reversed it to加路 for a traditional right to left reading and then drew the final, compressed design by hand into the standard 21mm x 21mm square.

Finally, she even made an inverted copy on the back of the sheet of paper to represent the actual design to be carved into the stone seal, together with an encouraging note. For some reason I had it in my mind that the hanko class would introduce us to a magical method of painlessly transferring our designs onto the blank hanko stones. I was shocked to discover that I was expected to copy the design myself by freehand, and under the pressure of time (only fifty minutes in total) I completely botched the whole thing with a fine point felt marker. However, when I presented my prepped hanko stone to the instructor in the hopes that he would fix it up to look like the nice design that Sister #4 made for me, he said it was perfectly fine. I spent the next thirty minutes groaning and sighing as I made a worse and worse mess of my hanko with a little chisel that looked like a flathead screwdriver. An accidental gash here, a slip of the hand there, and I barely managed to finish the thing on time. The result has already been presented at the top of this post for the reader to judge.

Interestingly, when I took it to the front to “try it out” the instructor showed a great deal of interest in the origin and development of Sister #4’s design which I still had with me. He concluded by indicating her handiwork and saying: “if you took that design to a professional hanko maker and had it made, it would not be art. But this (indicating my sloppy imitation), this is more like art. Well, I suppose it frankly embodies the dissonance between my mind's eye and the work of my fingertips—which would, perhaps, make it a kind of representational art.

This is my inkan collection. I have made the image very small in order to discourage forgers, and I might add that I am very poor and exceptionally violent. Gradually growing more familiar with the conventions of inkan has made me an obsessive inkan collector. When I first returned to Japan a little over a year ago my contracting organization presented me with a grotesque inkan bearing only my first name, and using a transliteration that I did not grow up with and which I do not favour (ルーク). Now my (expensive) collection includes my:

Jitsuin (registered seal): bearing my full romanized signature spread over two lines
Ginkouin (banking seal): bearing only the surname portion of my signature
Mitomein (daily usage seal): bearing my first name and surname transliterated into katakana (this one was made for me when I was a young teenager, and although it uses ルカ, the transliteration of Luke that I favour and with which I grew up, the inkan maker took it upon himself to put my first name first in what he believed to be a properly “foreign” way, which I did not and do not appreciate)

I Have Recontracted for a Third Year in Kazamaura

Since I forgot to bring my camera (Bear Runner) to work yesterday, I had to employ my near sighted cell phone (Mobile Man) to capture the moment for posterity.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Hazards in the Japanese Workplace: Aomori JET Culture Day

Actually, this post is not so much about hazards in the Japanese workplace as it is about the second annual Aomori JET Culture Day. And it isn’t so much about Culture Day, either, since I spent most of the day in an exhausted daze. To start with, my wife and I had to drive three hours just to get to the venue (not complaining—it’s nice to get over $100 in extra pay in order to travel to a city we like to travel to anyway). Then, when we arrived, Yuko went shopping while I was left to muddle through sensory overload upon being exposed to so many young Westerners at one time. English is indeed my first language (or so I like to think), but I’m discovering that the culture shock of being surrounded by cosmopolitan youth is socially overwhelming for me. I must be getting old and disoriented.

Never mind, though . . . I still enjoyed the kendo presentation. Which brings me to another irrelevant point . . . isn’t it just a little too much in the eleventh James Bond movie Moonraker when a Japanese?! villain named Chou?! travels all the way from California to Italy in order to attack 007 while wearing a kendo outfit and armed only with a shinai bamboo sword? And why on earth isn’t James Bond carrying his Walter PPK in Moonraker? Yes, that’s right. I not only own and watch all of the James Bond movies, I get annoyed when the producers don’t get the balance of cheese and glamour just right. So there, I’ve stepped out of some sort of intellectual closet. I feel better now.

Children of the Rice, The Return of

I have, over the course of my residence in Kazamaura, chronicled the trans-curricular activities of Hebiura (Snakeshore) Elementary School with great enthusiasm. I have harvested seaweed with them, and I have planted rice with them. In my absence, they have planted gardens (mainly potatoes) and collected cow manure from Oma farms with which to fertilize their gardens. As a kind of harvest festival, they gave presentations on their potato harvest in front of visiting teachers from other school districts and demonstrated parliamentary procedure in planning a potato party. I was present for that. I was also invited to their potato party which they held on their seaweed claim (i.e. a rocky stretch of beach leased by the school). That potato party began with a massive beach cleanup in which they picked up multi-national garbage that washes in from the nearby shipping lanes while facing such hazards as exploding aerosol cans (no, really, one of the garbage bags exploded as a kid was carrying it). Today, I present for your viewing pleasure this years rice harvest in which I had the honour of participating.

The harvest began with the arming of the peasants (I mean, children) . . .

They used these mini-scythes to cut the standing rice. Hebiura Elementary School’s rice field is actually in Ikokuma, about a five minute walk from our house. It sits on a hill overlooking the sea, and through the gaps in the trees on the brow of the hill one can see the beautiful view of the Tsugaru Strait and, beyond, the northern island of Hokkaido. If it weren’t for all the nuclear facilities being developed in neighbouring towns, I would want to stay here in Kazamaura forever.

After being cut, the rice is tied into bundles (shocks?) . . .

. . . carried across the field in little arms . . .

. . . and hung up to dry.

Following all their hard work, the students are rewarded with a ration of Pocari Sweat. For some reason the Coca Cola company has never tried to market this “sweat” in North America.

This rice harvest brought back solemn memories for me. It was while we were planting this very same rice that I dropped Mobile Man into a deep and fast flowing irrigation ditch. Mobile Man still functions perfectly well as a cell phone per se, but the tragic accident put an end to Mobile Man’s most valuable functions——camera and video——and, consequently, an end to my favourite hobby: Keitai Cinema.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Go Go Hebiura!!--Shimokita Baseball Champions

Early last spring the children of Hebiura Elementary School featured in a special Keitai Cinema production entitled Weed of the Sea. This short movie may be downloaded from the Keitai Cinema section of the sidebar. The movie closed with the explanation that the school sold the 650kg of seaweed they gathered in order to buy new uniforms for the baseball team. A couple of weeks ago the Hebiura baseball team wore its new baseball uniforms to a magnificent victory in the Shimokita baseball tournament involving twenty-four elementary schools. I should point out that there are only thirty-three students at Hebiura Elementary School. As may be seen in the photo above, seventeen of them are on the baseball team——literally over half the school.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

“The Sacred Duties of the Family State”

Yuko and I Practice the Domestic Art of House Hunting in Kazamaura: Just Kidding! The Book We’re Reading Discusses How to Build and Organize an Attractive, Efficient and Clean House Even with Limited Means

Lately, Yuko and I have been reading an agéd text called The American Woman’s Home by the mid-nineteenth century sisters Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. One reason for this is that reading together is good for family life. The second reason is that lately Yuko has been facing the sharp edge of negative public opinion in her determination not to participate in the “workforce.” In order to boost her morale and formulate an intellectual defence for the stand she has taken we have decided to do some research together into the profession of domestic queenship (I have coined my own personal phrase since I refuse to give credence to the status quo language of “housekeeping,” “home economics,” or even “home making” . . . since language = power). We decided to begin with the classics and hit upon the Beecher sisters’ comprehensive treatise which opens with the assertion: “It is the aim of this volume to elevate both the honour and the remuneration of all the employments that sustain the many difficult and sacred duties of the family state . . . .”

Declining the enticements of a double-income has not been easy for us but, to those who agree with the above mentioned authors that there are many well-to-do people who reside in splendid houses and yet who are at the same time homeless, it seems a sacrifice worth considering.

As a little background history, we offer an exert from one of Yuko’s early emails to give an idea of the process by which the two of us discussed our views and ideas for our own "family state." For context, we met for the first time in four years on 15 November (of 2003), became engaged to be married on 24 November, and exchanged the quoted email and the reply to it on 1 December (those under time constraint might consider skipping to the sections in bold print):

About your job:
I'm glad that you decided to stay there until June, 2004. Yes, it seems too long wait, but I think you should stay there until June as you have said to your co-workers (army peopleだよね?). . . . Also I have to work at the mental hospital (at least) until the end of March, 2005, because they (my bosses) required me to do so when I began working for them. And I can't leave my patients right now, I don't think I've completed what He wants me to do for them at the mental hospital yet. I'm not licensed clinical psychologist yet, and I have to take the exam next year (sometime in October) and if I pass the exam I will be officially licensed counselor in Japan, so that I can work as a counselor anywhere in Japan. If you will be working as a JET worker in Aomori or anywhere else, I'll follow you and work where we will be at if you want me to - so my question is "do you want me to work?" I personally want to stay at home and take care of house (and kids:). Oh, about kids, I've actually prayed for that I would have six kids (!) - I think it will be very busy time for parents, but I also think it will be so much fun as a family!

To me, the most poignant words in this email are “because they (my bosses) required me to do so when I began working for them.” There has been a good deal of lofty talk about “careers” over the past hundred years or so, but what do “careers” really mean in our corporatized societies except the acquisition of “bosses?” It is bad enough for one parent in a family to be indentured to a “career” and its accompanying “bosses” without having two parents in a family under two sets of bosses and corporate obligations. So if Yuko wants emancipation from the corporate world (yes, mental hospitals are corporations too, even public ones) so that she has the time to grow and prepare real food, the option of not underpaying other women to take care of our kids, the latitude to beautify our existence in creative ways, and the flexibility to help out other people, hey I’ll back her up.

Post Script: Yuko did pass her exam in October 2004 to become a licensed clinical psychologist and continues to attend professional conferences as a member of the Japanese Association of Clinical Psychologists.