Archive for January 2010

Could “Avatar” really win Best Picture?

January 26, 2010

Yesterday afternoon, I saw “Avatar” in a packed Japanese cinema with six of my fellow English teachers. The 162 minutes passed comfortably enough – we only stirred to chuckle at the George W. Bush Memorial Speech – then turned in our goggles, had some laughs at the film’s expense, and then talked about other movies on the way. It was a three star picture all the way: you don’t feel strongly enough to say “that was good” to your friends, but you certainly don’t feel like you wasted your time or that you were trapped there by your friends.

This afternoon I came home and read that this same three-star picture had won the Golden Globe for Best Drama. The Drama Golden Globe is the quasi-Oscar. This means it could actually win the real Oscar. I feel like I say “I can’t believe the Academy did this!” almost every year (I’m still annoyed that Scorcese’s first Best Picture was an inferior remake of a Hong Kong flick), but this is that one funky night in forty thousand years where I emerge from my tomb and write a ghoulish film snob essay. True, I live an hour from the closest theatre and I didn’t watch a 2009 movie until Christmas break, but I just saw “Avatar” yesterday, and of all the movies I didn’t see last year, at least one of them had to be better than that – and “Star Trek” and “The Hangover” were. This would be like the time NBA writers gave Karl Malone the MVP over Michael Jordan in ’97 because they felt like it. The voters would be saying, “I feel good about this thing, and I know I’m paid to know more about film than the average person…what the hell, but let’s do it.” The Academy has honored an average film for its blockbuster budget and celebrity director before (Cecil B. DeMille, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” 1952), but now that a a dozen movies a year cost more money than we have in all of Kumamoto Prefecture, and something even more amazing is bound to come out next summer, it doesn’t make as much sense. None of Spielberg’s blockbusters or the superhero films got this much respect.

Without further ado.

The Good:
Bringing back 3D was the best thing the movie did. That’s why we’ll remember it. Some children’s movies and IMAX have been doing it for a few years now, but this film brought it into the mainstream. It’s genius, an answer so simple and yet so elusive that it didn’t come for seven years. The question, Alex, was “How is the movie business going to get people out of their basements and back to the box office?” Ever since DVDs and High Definition TV, they’ve been stumped. The TV and video game business have a lot riding on this battle, too, so we’ll get our 3D sets eventually, but for now cinema is a step ahead again. I went out of my way to buy an “Avatar” ticket especially because I couldn’t get the same experience with my DVD player next year. It was even easier to go back into everyday life after this 3-hour film (usually I double-take just a little when I’m back in the hallway) because real life has the same dimensions the film did.

That said, we can improve on this. A theatre packed with people in glasses looked really goofy, and if Ray Bradbury were alive he’d have made some nasty comments about our choices in entertainment, but that look is superficial and needn’t be changed. The bigger problem is that the glasses darken the picture, so you take them off now and again just to see some “real” sunlight from the screen. The “Toy Story 3” trailer had cooler tricks than anything we saw in “Avatar.” And again, this film didn’t invent 3D. It just used 3D to make itself a lot more interesting.

The aliens* were great. This was money well-spent. They’re very distinct from human beings, but they’re beautiful. You really used to them, such that the contrast shots of humans and aliens in the same screen, like the Pieta, are moving, and I felt short and fat when I left the theatre. Yes, they’re blue, but to contrast with the trees and still look natural, they have to be blue, right? They moved so naturally that I decided Cameron filmed professional athletes doing these things then modeled the CG on top of them. And it was a really beautiful Duke blue. Their language was designed by a professional linguist, and it sounded legit – rhythmic and structured and everything, and the American accent the hero puts on it is great. Their secret powers were really cool, too, though they were employed too conventionally.

*Yes, I know they’re the “Navi,” but not everyone has seen it yet, and I still associate that name more with (1) NaviStar (“uh oh, now that iPhones are here, who’s going to take us home?”), (2) Zelda 64 (“HEY! LISTEN! Shigeru Miyamoto, remember that thou art mortal. HEY!!”), and (3) the Navejo Indians (but this was probably intentional).

The Environment: The graphics were of such tremendous quality that I only now remembered everything, not just the blue people, was artificially produced. It was breathtaking, and the hunting scenes were always exhilarating. I never got tired of watching the screen. There were so many new looks, so many beautiful new flora and fauna, that I really want to visit this place again. But photographs, posters, and wallpaper wouldn’t do it justice: watching everything move together, in a unique but elegant way, is the biggest reward. The only way to return is to watch the movie again. That’s where this film’s replay value will come from.

The action was exciting. But…there was a ton of action. There wasn’t much blood, but in terms of content, and divisions of screen time, it was an extremely violent movie. When the sentient beings aren’t fighting each other, they’re hunting, after all.

The actors were fine. There were no Lawrence Os, but there were no Sofia Coppolas either. The villains were intolerable, but the writing killed them. The most memorable actor is the hero’s avatar.

The music was nice at the time, but could you remember any of it the day after you left the theatre? Even worse, if you heard anything from this movie a year from now, would you remember where it came from? James Horner, like John Williams, has peaked already.

The dialogue was bland but not offensive. It was impressively average, really, in how small an impression it made on me.

The Bad:
Stereotypes
: “White men are terrible, but one white man is the most precious gift of all.” In three months, an American hero masters a culture he knew nothing about, beds their most beautiful woman, and leads them into battle. Hey, “The Last Samurai” has returned even though Asian studies majors are still writing essays about it! “Dances With Wolves” mirror’s the hero’s story arc even more.

“Our culture is rational and technological but shallow. Minority cultures are naturalistic, spiritual, and wise.” This is demeaning to everyone. One question, asked by Jonah Goldberg, that I liked: “How would this have gone over if the aliens had been Roman Catholics?” For the record, the alien society seemed slightly boring to me, like all anyone did was hunt and might made right. If you could communicate in the way the aliens do, wouldn’t you have more insightful things to say, by the way?

Ferngully: This deserves its own category because if 20th Century Fox hadn’t produced both movies, they’d be facing royalty claims right now. The love triangle is the same. The scenery for the falling-in-love scene is the same. And of course, the “Save the Rainforest” plot is the same, right down to the “unexpected” bulldozer attacks, the assault on the father tree, and the aftermath. By the way, if you want a great ecological action movie, watch “Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind,” Hayao Miyazaki, 1984. I’m no Hexas: that film brought tears to my eyes.

The Plot: To be fair, I was rooting for the hero the whole time. I liked his motivation for joining the Avatar program, his spirit, and also his identity confusion, were done pretty well. When some dick yells at him, “YOU’LL NEVER BE ONE OF US!” it got my gaijin heart right there. You can also see why the male and female leads admire each other. The romance attached to monogamy was nice. And the movie never stopped being enjoyable for me.

But the plot-holes disqualify the movie from serious consideration for me. It’s high school-grade. A mature writer says, “This is the way things are, and no matter what I have to stay true to that.” An immature writer says, “This is what I want to say, so I’ll now I’ll devise a plot that says that.”

The Ugly:
-Never mind the mind-melding. Here’s what makes this film impossible: no multi-trillion-dollar enterprise with a bigger budget than 2007 Earth would make two psychotic morons as its leaders. That combination of wealth, influence, idiocy, sloth, and dis-likability is only possible in hereditary monarchies. Cameron must have worked several flawless hundred-hour weeks to get to the top himself – he of all people should know how hard it is. The CEO demon was Ari Gold with Vince’s brother’s intellect. Hearing the CEO say “Nyah nyah nyah I don’t care about science” when his entire operation is based on incredibly complex silence was painful to my sanity.
-On a lesser level, no company with so many years and trillions invested in this project would follow a self-imposed three-month eviction notice so strictly, having FINALLY started making progress with its inside man? What’s the rush, exactly, when we have such unlimited resources?
-Where are the journalists? Something this big requires an AP presence, right?
-The hero has something crucial to communicate to the aliens for three months, and he never comes close to saying it. He doesn’t even think about whether he should tell them or not. And Sigourney Weaver, his science boss, doesn’t remind him.
-Really? They’d accept him into their society after just three months, based on his hunting prowess alone, despite his poor language skills, his rudimentary understanding of their powers and their society, and his glaringly obvious connection to the enemy whenever he fell asleep? (They called him a “Dreamwalker” in the Japanese version, like they knew what he was like.)
-Sigourney Weaver, the all-knowing alien expert who was a language snob earlier in the movie, speaks English to them when she needs to communicate really important things to large numbers of them at the climax of the film. “HEY! LISTEN! STOP!”
-After Michelle Rodriguez bailed on that one mission, she would absolutely be locked up and shipped out for insubordination, not left free to roam on the ship and make more trouble. The same goes for all the other scientists.
-The pilots all act like they’ve never thought in three dimensions before, and their planes are designed like so. Can we at least make our military read page 63 of “Ender’s Game” before sending them into intergalactic war?
-If the hero is such an aerial genius, why was he in the Marines? Doesn’t the military have aptitude testing?

It’s a little jarring that the antagonist of a three-hour film has no name and no logo. Terminator, Wall-E, and even Office Space permitted us that mercy. But because the corporation is nameless and faceless, we can more easily associate it with its true identity: it’s the United States of America, barging in and wrecking countries for resources. The corporation is not even multinational: they all have American accents, use jarhead lingo, and steal language from George W. Bush.

The rock the corporation wants is called “unobtainium.” Indeed. But we don’t even know what this rock does. At least we know what oil does – that helps our world make sense. If unobtainium is so ludicrously valuable, why do we have to have so much of it at once again?

Here’s the thing. James Cameron wrote the movie this way because he thought it would sell tickets. And it’s selling tickets. The only people saying it’s unfair are center-right writers in the States. If this is how the world sees America, then they just don’t want us around. Iraq, not Haiti, is the template for the USA’s role in the world.

In a good plot, everyone’s motivations and actions are understandable, but there’s still irreconcilable conflict, and through the resolution, all of us learn something. This plot just tells the left what it wants to hear. It inspires an emotional, even spiritual response without giving us any concrete help for untangling the sophisticated problems of today’s world. There were really compelling and intelligent reasons not to go into Iraq (such as that their culture could never transform the way Bush predicted it would), but because conservatives associated the anti-war argument with anti-Bush, “no blood for oil” type sentiment, they attacked the straw man instead of the hard truths and stood by their man. And now here we are. It’s the right’s fault but also the leftist establishment’s for not putting up a more intelligent fight.

Anyway, if you’re reading this, and you have an Academy vote, give Cameron all your cinematography trophies, but please respect Best Picture and give it to something more balanced. “Avatar” was a good movie, after all. It just has one of the biggest style/substance gaps in film history.

The Naked Man Festival and Other Hot Licks

January 23, 2010

January is flying by. Every time I look at a clock, I’m surprised at what time it tells me. All the better: in insulated America, winter looks like a painting outside my window because it’s always 72 and bright inside, but out here, winter tunnels right down into my heart and stays there for three months. My numb fingers will gather some words from the keyboard for warmth.

Culture Day
Culture Day is my Japanese Christmas. The kids present everything I like – music, acting, art, speeches – from 9 to 5 on one Sunday of the year. They produce great things. One of our male ninth graders is a countertenor, and he stood proudly and securely in the center of the girls’ section for his class’s choral performance. A ninth grade girl’s speech was about special education and autism in particular. (My brother is autistic.) The girl who’s always bullied got her chance to shine, as she tapped out her annual solo piano performance with shaking fingers.

One ninth grade class did a mixed video/live presentation about how to help your grandparents who have Alzheimer’s disease. In the video, students played the roles of a grandmother (one of the strongest, manliest guys dressed in old lady drag), a middle-aged father, and a grandfather with Alzheimer’s and acted out different awkward situations such as Grandpa forgetting he’d already eaten and asking where his dinner was, going to the store and spilling all his money on the cash register, and wandering into a youth soccer game looking for his house. The dialogue was thick with Kumamoto dialect, which the elderly use almost exclusively. TV has filled their grandkids’ heads with standard Japanese, sadly. After video grandpa did something crazy, the kids would yell “Stop!” (literally) and take the stage to tell us about that symptom of the disease and the best way to handle it, which would then be demonstrated when the tape started up again. At the end, the class showed us their Tensui Orange Livestrong wristbands which they’d all acquired to remember the elderly.

But the most impressive production came from the mouths of babes, the seventh graders: they flawlessly performed a play entirely in 17th-century Tokyo Japanese with several lighting and music changes. It was a true story about a starving family in the midst of a famine in the Tokugawa Period. The parents are skipping meals so the six-year old boy and four-year old girl have enough to eat, and even so the family’s in such dire straits that the mother strangles the baby just after giving birth to it in Act II because she wouldn’t have been able to feed it. The father, at the behest of his farming community, goes to the capital to petition for tax relief for the poor, and in response the government crucifies all four of them together. The other townspeople make a beautiful memorial for the family, but the state’s thugs destroy it. So the townspeople rebuild it in the dead of night, over and over and over again. The kids brought us to tears. So much for sheltering them. Kids that age want to be adults, so let’s give them that respect and that responsibility. That’s how the social studies teacher ran those rehearsals.

The English Speech Contest
Last year’s contest was a triumph. “Teaching is the happiest profession!” I said after we won three trophies out of six. But no two school years are exactly alike. This fall, I had to visit four extra schools (for a total of 9) as well as move to a new house, and I took a day off for a trip to Korea, so I didn’t have as much time to practice with the kids as I wanted. Many of our best kids opted to do club sports, which they do six days a week all year long, instead of the contest. The ones who did participate were even busier than the kids who turned it down, but they were more willing to give. Neither of the other English teachers had time to practice with the kids, and they said that given the kids’ schedules I should only practice with one grade per day, not all three, so the evenings we did have were less productive. I made a schedule for each grade, but the kids couldn’t stick to it given the rolling boil of the school year, so I had to prowl the halls of school looking for people who were free, pull them aside, and practice with them. Allen Iverson would have enjoyed being on my team.

We got their pronunciation down, and the day before the competition they all finally had their parts memorized, but they weren’t expressive or exciting enough, and enthusiasm is the most important factor. The system wants to showcase kids enjoying using English. I was disappointed that we had to give our championship trophies and flags away. Time aside, I think I was too stressed and businesslike to transfer the necessary joy and expressiveness to them.

More importantly, the ALTs at all the other schools worked really hard this year to prepare for the competition. They and their kids were great! There were even two ringers, a Chinese seventh grader and a Japanese boy who’d lived in Singapore for three years. The boy from Singapore won going away, so my best student didn’t have a chance; the Chinese boy lost because his accent was so blaring to Japanese ears.

Halloween
When I moved, our annual 100-person mixed-race Halloween Party was thrown up in the air. The problem: we couldn’t find a new location. Whereas American farmers build their houses right in the middle of their land, such that homes are miles apart, Japanese farmers cluster in neighborhoods and drive to the outskirts to work their land. So we couldn’t find a place, residential or otherwise, within 30 minutes of our city center that was both big enough and distant enough to host a LOUD ALL-NIGHT AMERICAN PARTY. My old house was on the outskirts of a neighborhood itself, but since the party had always been held there, my neighbors would grin and bear it and say “well, it’s only once a year,” which is exactly what I said last year, as I lied down on my bedroom floor with a toilet-paper roll for a pillow. “It’s a poor excuse for damming up a man’s septic tank and turning his bathroom into a moat every 31st of October. Bah! Humbug!”

Three weeks to the blessed/cursed date, the teacher in the most distant town came through! The new location is a struggling hotel/resort in the low mountains called Sekia Hills. We lost the house-party feeling, and the room was a little big and hot for one hundred people, but the party was still a success. The drive up the mountain, winding through a nightscape of deep forest and the ruins of fun never had, from boarded-up shops to a Western-style wedding chapel, set the mood. We rented their “International Mall” (a big empty room with a wooden floor) for the night for $200, charged $10 a head for unlimited beer, jungle juice, and oranges, and had DJs going until 3, using speakers borrowed from the hotel. The revelers could sleep at the hotel across the parking lot, then visit a hot spring and dine at an Italian restaurant.

This year, Santa Claus came for drink every time he failed to pick up a girl, and eventually he got really sick; our doorman did a Dick in a Box gag (to deposit your money, do Step 3); there were some X-Men, Dracula, a couple pirates, an iPhone, a vending machine, a Rubik’s Cube, a Luigi without a Mario, a doctor with hard liquor in his medicine box, a mad scientist who lost all his clothes somewhere halfway through, a 300-pound panda, and two gratuitously exhibitionist Ladies Gaga. The best costume, I thought, was the girl who wore shimmering blue clothing and carried a sparkling white umbrella with silver streamers dangling from it: she was a jellyfish. My friend Luke wore a full blue bodysuit covered in felt crustaceans: he was “The Sea.” (Last year he was The Milky Way: a black bodysuit covered in stars.) Two guys came as Mr. James, the buffoonish American face of McDonalds in Japan (One, Two: these commercials are funny and famous among Japanese people.) Oddly enough, I go by “Mr. James” myself (because foreigners are addressed by their first names here while Japanese people go by their last names), and I own that book, that shirt, khaki pants, and a pair of glasses, but I went as St. Francis Xavier, the first missionary to Japan. I carried around a Bible and a brown felt beard and hosted people. The Japanese people got the joke, and the foreigners didn’t, the opposite result of last year, when I was the guy in Magritte’s “The Son of Man.”

The tag line for our “spine-melting fusion of Western and Eastern witchcraft and tomfoolery” (my friend wrote a promo so blistering that it made me jealous) was “show up in costume, check your shame at the door, and party like you still have a soul and enjoy life.” And it was good. Our hosts were ecstatic that we brought so much business and asked us to come back. And once again, East met West to celebrate the most party-friendly American holiday.

I’M ON A BOAT
According to the ALT who lives there, Nagasu, a small city 25 minutes north of here, is one of the poorest cities in Japan. You couldn’t tell by looking at it, because it’s a nice place if not a happening one, so I think it’s a statistical trick. You have to surpass a certain population to be considered a “city”; otherwise, you’re a “town.” In order to trim the number of rural bureaucrats and the payments Tokyo is required to give small towns, the central government is giving tax incentives for cities and towns to legally merge: my city, 70,000-person Tamana, was five years ago one city and three towns, one of them 6000-man Tensui. Kumamoto City will get special status if its population exceeds 600,000, but since no one’s moving there, it’s growing the cynical way, by adding more and more of its neighbors to the bottom line instead. The big cities take on their neighbors’ debts and shore up their infrastructures and tax bases, which were sagging due to flight to urban areas. So most of Nagasu’s competitors in the misery index have been wiped off the map. Finally, there aren’t any wealthy people there to boost the per capita income, the way Hollywood celebrities balance out the poverty in South Central. Everyone’s in the same lower/lower-middle class boat.

Speaking of boats, Nagasu’s most famous business is a ferry which traverses Ariake Bay to the Shimabara peninsula of Nagasaki Prefecture. You ride across in your car. To promote the ferry line, one Sunday per year the company sponsors English classes on a boat! Last year, the TV cameras came, and all my friends got on the prefectural news! So I brought my Mario box to the poop deck and teamed up with Master Chef Huy, who plays the ukulele, to give the elementary school kids a teaching. I was at my totally-nuts-and-jumping-everywhere finest. After 70 minutes, the kids went up to the deck, looked out over the water, and entered the pilot’s room for a tour and a talk. I put on a borrowed Big Bird hand puppet everywhere and played with it so much that our minds melded. Big Bird got more English out of the junior high school kids than anything else! They loved him. But the elementary school boys really enjoyed beating him up. I guess that’s what you do for kicks in Japanese South Central.

As the boat took off, the foreign teachers introduced themselves (“HI! MY NAME IS JAMES! I’M FROM AMERICA! I’M 23! I LIVE IN TENSUI! SO I LOVE ORANGES! I EAT THEM EVERY DAY! DO YOU LIKE ORANGES? THANK YOU!”), the captain gave directions to the kids in intentionally American-accented Japanese, which got a lot of laughs. As the boat came into harbor, after we’d all said thank you and bowed, an awkward silence came on: the boat wasn’t finished just yet, and everyone was expecting us to do something. So, like T-Pain, we sang. Our large numbers (ten people) were our Auto-Tune. We did the choruses of “We Are The World,” a song so loved here that elementary school kids do it for music recitals, and “Let It Be.” Afterwards we received $10 Ariake Ferry Boxed Lunches and thank-you envelopes with $30 inside, a traditional surprise gift to volunteers (such as referees at sports games). Kings of the world were we.

Testing: One, Two…
I took a Chinese exam November 8th. My reading was much better than it was in Chinese 1 and my listening much worse thanks to two years in the miso pot. I’ll send a copy of the score with my application for National Taiwan University. I took the most difficult Japanese test available to foreigners on December 7th. Once again, 97% of the room was Asian, mostly Chinese; I sat next to a young Taiwanese woman who runs a Chinese-language school in Kumamoto City. She went to NTU and married a Japanese man who’d also come there to study Chinese abroad. Anyway, I think I passed, but I’ll know for sure in a month.

Two listening section dialogues were hat-tips to otaku. The video game one was a picture of Link on a world map surrounded with three locales: “Bro, I go to the marshes and then the castle, right?” “No, no, no, the marshes are a maze, so first you get the map from the town, then the sword from the Dead Marshes, and THEN you can conquer the castle!” Another was based on the dramas with giant robots so popular in anime. This one sound effects, voices, and names similar to Evangelion: “I’m the only one who can pilot this machine! I’m going to go out and save him!” “Asuka, stop, you’re too young!”…(sound of footsteps pounding away)…“NOOOOO!”)

Anyway, my next exam will be the Business Japanese Test in June, and then the top Japanese test again in July if I failed it this one.

The Naked Man Festival
Last week, port town Nagasu again made my world a better place. Their biggest festival, the Break the Magic Bow Festival, is held in the middle of January. Foreigners call it “The Naked Man Festival,” but the Japanese title is a swell euphemism itself. The town’s men strip into loincloths, huddle together skin-to-skin, and jump around like an NBA team during pre-game intros. One of the participants was cut like Michelangelo’s David and had cameras following him everywhere, so I think he was a TV personality. They yell “Banzai!” and “Graaah!!” and hoist each other into the air (more perilous than you can imagine given the risk of tea-bagging). It was really hot. So hot that the firemen followed the guys around to douse them in water, because that much touching for that much time leads to dehydration: there’s a reason they do this in the middle of winter. 45 degree weather was not cold enough. The man-mass circles the temple for an hour and then makes a masculine march to the sea, where they jump in and break their bows because it’s so cold. Usually, people don’t touch each other here; never give a Japanese person a BIG AMERICAN HUG because he’ll feel violated. So this was special. The gods were honored, I’m sure.

That’s all for tonight. You haven’t heard the half of fall semester yet.

A Bit of Politics

January 16, 2010

Happy New Year! I know it’s a little late for that, but people have been in such a good mood since the holiday that I want to keep it going. Legends of the fall and winter’s tales are on the way, but first I have just the thing to read between timeouts of playoff games: a long essay about the Japanese economy! Go Colts!

I’ve mentioned before that Barack Obama is kind of a big deal here. He’s the no-nuclear weapons president, and this is the no-nuclear weapons country. A ten foot-tall portrait of him drawn voluntarily by our students sits in the rafters of our gym. They ran for student council with slogans like “Yes We Can!” and “Change.” Everyone in Japan knows these words, and well they should, because Obama’s influence brought not just change in the Tensui Junior High School Student Council, but change in the entire country! On August 30th, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took the reins of power, winning a landslide election over the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which had nearly uninterrupted control of Japanese politics ever since MacArthur went to Korea.

By and large, the people don’t care about politics or talk about it. It’s a rich man’s sport. Ex-Prime Minister Taro Aso was related to seven past Prime Ministers as well as the Emperor. New Prime Minister Hatoyama may come from the long-tormented opposition, but he is related to three past PMs himself, including one of the founders of the LDP, the previous ruling party, not to mention a Speaker of the House in the 1800s. Some call his clan the Kennedys of Japan. My host family’s family rule includes the injunction “don’t join any political parties (because it will get you in trouble).” My 24-year old supervisor, Akaishi, says that to get high enough in politics to be on TV, you have to be a weirdo or a crook. So such a dramatic movement in such a passive political climate was stunning. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

I mentioned a few times last year that people hated Taro Aso. He made a plethora of errors organizationally, diplomatically, and grammatically. You might have noticed one such catastrophe: his Finance Minister got sloshed at the G-8, cashed out of the administration, financed a one-way ticket home after the 8-30 elections, then became so distraught that he bought the farm. But in normal circumstances, he’d simply be replaced: there have been 27 Prime Ministers in the last 62 years. There are more past and present faction leaders within the Liberal Democratic Party than there are dishes in a conveyer belt sushi restaurant. But this time, the people decided everything on the menu was rotten, and they walked out. The LDP’s M.O. was winning, not advancing a particular philosophy, so they’re totally confused about what to do when they aren’t governing. Good riddance. The guys in the new party are young – my eye told me the average DPJ candidate was 20 years younger than the average LDP candidate – and fresh. And even if freshness equals foolishness, there’s finally some accountability. As good as my personal circumstances have been, it’s hard to ignore the country’s structural problems.

Japan is the second-largest economy in the world, but it hasn’t had robust growth since its asset bubble burst 20 years ago. China’s GDP will soon officially surpass it. The ‘90s were called “The Lost Decade.” The government is now deeply in debt, having already shored up the banks after the 1990 crash and funded many stimulus projects in the interim. Its debt is 200 percent of its GDP, by far the highest rate in the industrialized world (US and the European democracies are scattered around the 100% mark). However, this debt is domestic, owed to Japanese people themselves, but about 20% of state revenues have gone towards interest payments throughout the past 20 years. Any state-funded solution would exacerbate that problem. The birth rate has cratered at 1.34 children per woman (2.1 being the replacement rate), and immigration is held low, so the population is declining and aging faster than any in the world. It’s also the most expensive country on the planet. How did this happen?

Let’s start with the local. I live in Tensui, a town of 6000, which was recently merged into Tamana, a city of 60,000. The Japanese love their small towns as much as John Mellencamp loves Seymour, Indiana, but there’s nothing for them to do here. The Chinese, Autralians, and Americans stock our grocery stores: 60% of calories come from imported food. Some farming families are proud enough and successful enough that their bright children stay home to continue the business, but most others take up another occupation.

There are really small businesses here – printing shops, bookstores, a sporting goods distributor catering to team uniforms for schools – but nothing that grows and pulls people in against gravity the way Nike did for Portland, Under Armor for Baltimore or Gatorade for Barrington, Illinois. Partially this is because businesses work so closely with the government that it just makes more sense to establish in Tokyo from the start.

The better the city, the better the job, and the farther it is from here: Kumamoto (pop. 600K) is 30 minutes away; Fukuoka (1.4M) is 80; Osaka (3M) is 4 hours out; Tokyo-Yokohama (20M) is 8. Every year, there are more empty desks and empty classrooms, and even empty school buildings.

If you don’t want to work in the fields or for the local convenience store, you throw in your lot with City Hall. You’re protected from the market: this year, public employees of Tamana City have had their pay cut by 0.3 percent. You advance on time served, starting at $30,000 a year and topping out at over $100,000 with mandatory retirement at age 60 and a pension in perpetuity after that.

With so many public servants at work, we are very well-served. The roads are small, but they’re well-maintained. Pot-holes and other annoyances are quickly fixed. Construction work is done at night so less people are inconvenienced. The water is cleaner here than in America. I’ve never heard of power or water outages. I grew up in a wealthy American suburb which built all manner of strange and wonderful public works, such as lifelike statues on Main Street sidewalks that frighten tired teenage drivers, but my Japanese city of the same population, in one of the poorest areas of Japan, has a much bigger local budget.

But there’s also a lot of official paperwork in Japanese life. Teachers are writing reports and sending lesson plans to the Board of Education, taking trips to other schools for educational research classes and speeches, and putting official red stamps on documents for each student every single day. Every week we get bulletins from the BOE. As for me, after driving in Japan a year with my international license, I had to go get a Japanese license. It took me three tries to pass the driving test (I must have been really dangerous before!), and each time, I had to take a day off of work, drive an hour and a half to the License Center with my supervisor, check in, wait an hour for lunch, then eat it and go out to the track for the 30 minutes we’re allowed to walk the course. Then I waited another hour, took a 10-minute test, did some papers, and returned home. When you do City Hall business, things go smoothly, and you feel like you’re being productive, but what are you actually producing? As an American, it seems like things could stand to be a little less organized.

The City Hall brigades devote more and more of their resources to the elderly. Municipal bulletins have tons of cute cartoon demos of older people calling the city for help with health and safety problems. They’re the one group that won’t budge from the countryside. It’s all they know and sometimes all they can afford. Like America, there is a Social Security system here. More than 60% of the elderly entirely depend upon it for their income, and they paid into it their whole lives. But the elderly make up 22% of the population, and they’re living longer than anyone has ever lived, and their numbers are growing. To wit:

JAPAN IN 1950: 84 mil; 35.4% ages 0-15; 59.6% ages 15-65; 4.9% ages 65 and older
JAPAN IN 2000: 126 mil; 13.5% ages 0-15; 64.5% ages 15-65; 22.1% ages 65 and older
JAPAN IN 2050 (proj): 95 mil; 8.6% ages 0-15; 51.8% ages 15-65; 39.6% ages 65 and older
Source: Statistics Bureau, MIC; Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare

Foreigners are jealous of the Japanese national health care system. It is pretty nice: for 6% of our salary, we get a 70% co-pay on everything, and there aren’t many frauds or hypochondriacs to bloat overhead. My routine visit to the dentist cost me $18. I saw an elderly woman pay for her own cleaning with pocket change. But according to the statistics, that 6% payroll tax covers only 30% of actual health care costs. The city and the state cover half, and another 20% come from a separate payroll tax on businesses.

The elephant in the room is that my city is already unsustainable. 70% of Tamana’s local budget comes from the national government, which means income and corporate taxes, which means the urban middle and upper class. The ten big cities are holding the countryside up like Atlas. The elderly farmers in the rice fields, hunching their backs a little lower each day, are admirable, but they are subsidized, much to the chagrin of my businessman friends. My old supervisor likes to needle me about how much I’m costing the city, but even my salary is subsidized: the Ministry of Culture, Education, Sports, and Technology in Tokyo covers 75% because I’m part of a national foreign exchange program.

Privately, the people living in Tokyo have to be unhappy about shouldering municipal welfare, but like Social Security and health care, this municipal welfare is a third rail. All three programs protect the less fortunate; cutting these programs would free up a load of money, but it would literally bring the problems they address closer to home. Returning the countryside to the forest gods means moving their parents out of the only homes they’ve ever known.

Besides, the countryside has a lot of clout. Since Confucius, farmers have had a higher social status than tradesmen and merchants. Country life is revered and romanticized: our literature book includes pictures of plants and birds common to each season, because you need to memorize these to understand the metaphors in Japanese high culture and poetry. Hayao Miyazaki (Totoro, Princess Mononoke, etc.) uses nature so well in his films that they’ve saved some landscapes from being altered by public works projects. Finally, like American Senate and even The House, countryside voters are disproportionately represented: though the Japanese constitution says House seats should be spread evenly among the population, voters in some country districts get 3 times more representation for their vote than citizens of some city districts.

Now for the problem of high prices. After traveling in Asia this summer, it became abundantly clear that Japan is the most expensive country in the world. Thanks to the strong yen, the two most expensive cities on the planet are Tokyo and Osaka. Taiwan is also an island, and it’s really close and it’s technically poorer, but even in Taipei everything costs half as much as it does here in the Japanese countryside. My 60-minute train home from the Fukuoka airport cost as much as a 4-hour train from end to end in Taiwan. Dinner money in Taiwan buys snacks in Japan. A tiny mom-and-pop stand in a podunk Japanese festival will charge $3 for a small bag of French fries cost $3 and $4 for an ear of roasted corn. For every work party, I have to pay $30-50 for dinner. A taxi from my home to the train station costs $30. Rent here in 6000-man Tensui starts at $500 a month. I have friends paying $700 a month to live in an 80-story high-rise in the middle of Hong Kong. Even Yokohama Chinatown is expensive: all the cheap baubles and greasy food are cleaner than the average Chinatown’s goods, and they also cost ten times more.

People get by, but that’s the extent of it. They can’t save money, which is what they’d do in a normal economy, and they rarely travel. I stopped talking about my trips because people would respond with “Wow, you must be rich!” Even if you live responsibly and don’t make big purchases, small things chip away at your wallet until it’s empty. Spending $100 in a day is just too easy. When I go to the ATM, every other week, I take out five 100-dollar bills. Like in America, more and more families have both parents working. And when people work here, they work overtime. With time and money pressures as they are, it’s logical that families are so small.

How did things get so expensive? Goods here are high-quality, but that’s only part of the story. The bigger problems are the corporate tax, mercantilism, and the friendships between the state and big business. The federal government subsidizes about 6000 businesses. The new ruling party is holding televised hearings to decide which businesses they should keep supporting and which they shouldn’t. Their biggest head case now is Japan Airlines, designated too big to fail but doomed; its desks are overstaffed, and every plane of theirs I’ve taken was an 80% vacant jumbo jet.

The state gives, but it also takes away: Japan has the highest corporate tax in the world. Companies from large to small have to raise prices to keep their profit margins healthy. To protect its investments, Japan puts up high tariffs or blocks foreign companies from entry altogether. I have never seen a Western car here because import taxes are so high. These taxes weaken the competition, which would otherwise drive down prices. Protected companies with weak or redundant models can stay afloat, which may explain why Japanese workers are statistically less productive than their American counterparts despite working countless hours of uncounted overtime, having much more continuity of profession, and never ever goofing off on ESPN.com.

Friendship between the top levels of state and business is common: “amakudari,” or descent from heaven, refers to senior bureaucrats retiring and taking positions in the industries they once regulated. My favorite current political-economic relationship is the one between current Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his mother, Yasuko Hatoyama, the daughter of Shojiro Ishibashi, founder of the Bridgestone Corporation, a multinational rubber conglomerate. She has donated tens of millions of dollars to Yukio’s party, and when running against fundraising limits, she has instead paid her son for “business consulting.”

Since the Japanese economy’s bubble burst in 1990, the state has funded several infrastructure and public works projects to stimulate the economy. So, about that…Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the new guys (DPJ) for a decade, at the cusp of becoming Prime Minister, had to take a lower position in the Cabinet instead because of a brewing fundraising scandal. He was taking payments from Nishimatsu, a construction firm in northern Japan to steer stimulus projects, including a dam and a hospital, in their direction. His chief of staff is taking the blame in the courts, but everyone knows something’s fishy. He was in the rump party! How much has this happened over the Lost Decade? How many taxpayer-funded bridges were built in the wrong places by ineffective companies?

Why does the country remain so prosperous despite all this? It’s a very interesting balancing act. We say in America that the efficiency of capitalism makes up for the selfishness the players. In Japan, the basic goodness of the people overcomes the inefficiency of the system. They’re honest and responsible. When you say “You did good work today,” you can really mean it. I don’t know what the word for “cheating” is because it has never been uttered or been a problem during my time here. People work well in groups, and they frequently praise each other’s work. Office politics are less debilitating: a show like “The Office” wouldn’t make as much sense here. Criticism is rare, and when given it’s private and indirect. It’s assumed that you’re doing your best, so you’ll notice your errors and correct them yourself. People are entitled to fifteen vacation days a year, but they usually only take seven, often using one or two hours at a time for a personal errand like going to the bank or the doctor. Because people focus so much on doing things the “right way” here, and they don’t cut corners for results, scandals and structural failures are relatively rare, and Japanese manufacturing is the envy of the world. This place is full of Productive Members of Society.

Too productive, even. A friend of a friend worked at a biomedical engineering firm that literally lost one or two scientists a year to overwork. It’s called “karoshi,” and the government keeps statistics of it. The casualty list for 2007: 147 workers died of strokes and heart attacks, 176 committed or attempted suicide, 208 fell seriously ill, and 819 claimed mental illness with 205 of those given compensation. Toyota has responded by limiting employees to 360 hours of overtime a year.

A big advantage Japanese companies have over their rivals is low turnover. Repetition is the best form of training, and change and movement take away time you would be spending doing work. A line from “Avatar” reminded me of the traditional relationship between employers and employees: “Once you mate, it’s for life.” Job retention rates, tenure length, and correlation of salary with tenure are the highest in the world. 30% of Japanese males work for the same company their entire lives. The Japanese unemployment rate is 5.2%; the New York Times attributes this to firms A large number of Japanese people work in the same profession, for the same company, their whole lives. In 1977, the average American had had twelve jobs from age 16-60; the average Japanese had had just five. There were twice as many Japanese with over 15 years of tenure (36%) as there were Americans (18%). In 1969, 89% of the workforce was full-time, regular employees! Japan’s numbers have come a little closer to the US’s in the last 20 years, though – to the consternation of the old guard.

Some companies literally have life employment plans for college graduates, telling them when they can expect promotions, when they’ll have a little less responsibility so they can get married and have children, and when to retire. It’s very difficult to leave a profession and come back to it. Some of my young English teacher friends want to work in America for a little while, but if they broke contract with the Board of Education, they probably couldn’t come back, so it’s better for them to stay put. It’s also very difficult to get fired. In Japanese, it’s called “kubi-kiri.” It means “neck-cutting,” or decapitation. So they don’t like to do it.

We Americans think of collapse as something that occurs swiftly and decisively – Manhattan sinking into the ocean, the Statue of Liberty blowing up, all “2012” or “Dr. Strangelove” or “Planet of the Apes.” Maybe it goes back to Rome obliterating Carthage and God wiping out Sodom and Gomorrah. But the whole Japanese system is set up to protect against collapse, so such a dramatic event as a loan default by the national government (Argentina) is inconceivable. Instead, things get slower and slower, and quieter and quieter, as more and more energy is required just to keep things where they are. Imagine one or two percent growth with one or two percent less people every year for eternity. In a way, you get your wish because nothing changes dramatically for the worse. It only hurts if you were accustomed to growth and new life before, as the elderly were when they grew up. Hence there is a note of regret in their otherwise placid voices and content faces when they talk to me about the past or the future.

Akaishi, my supervisor, is kind, hard-working, and honest. We all love him. He sees all the problems I do. He’s giving his life to City Hall because he loves his town, and this is how he can stay there. The Mizumotos, my host family, have showered kindness after kindness on me. They are bound to this land. The 2-year old grandson, Yuu, is going to be a big strong farmer, they say. Just look at how big he is already and how much he loves those oranges! A part of me wants to come back here twenty years later, find my old friends right where I left them, and how their lives have improved. But everything is changing so fast. What if it’s better for this whole place to return to nature? So instead of wishing for my friends’ and families’ wishes to come true, I’ll just wish for their health and happiness.