Archive for April 2010

How Can I Activate My Neighborhood?

April 28, 2010

I wrote this for our English conversation salon at Tamana Library.

I think my neighborhood is pretty active. I’m almost never home during daylight, but I never go through my neighborhood without seeing kids playing with each other or grandmothers talking to each other. My neighbors all know each other, and they’ve known each other as long as they’ve been alive! A lot of them are cousins. We have a huge festival at the local shrine every year, and people visit it at other times, too.

I wish my neighborhood in the USA were like that, but it’s really different. The ancestors of most Americans came there from another country. They left their fathers’ graves behind to create a new life in a new country. Americans still have this perspective. They move to the place where they have the best opportunities rather than trying to find a job close to home. It’s considered immature to continue living with your parents after you’ve graduated from college and gotten a job. Sometimes, the members of a family will all live in different states, and they’ll only get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Sometimes Americans change houses while staying in the same town. For example, Eugene’s parents moved from Chinatown to another part of San Francisco last year. When I was 15 years old, my family moved across my town to a new house that was bigger, close to our church, and close to a good elementary school. I was happy because I moved closer to my high school friends, but my little brother was sad because we moved away from his elementary school friends.

I knew the names of all my neighbors in my old neighborhood, but I still don’t know the names of most of my neighbors in my current neighborhood. All the houses in my neighborhood were built in the last 15 years, so everyone came from somewhere else. Because I have to drive everywhere in America, I never walk past their houses. Because everyone does laundry and watches TV inside, I rarely see them outside. Maybe we’d be friends! I’m friends with my Tensui neighbors! But I’ll never know.

I think that New Year’s greetings, omiyage from trips and local festivals would really help us in the States. Traditions remind you of common courtesies when you’re too busy to think about others.



April 22, 2010

An omake is a bonus item, like a toy packaged in a Happy Meal or outtakes after movie credits. My brain was still in “Writing in English” mode, so I decided to upload a few more pages before my business trip.

Country Gold
Last October, I went to my first country music concert: the 21st Annual Country Gold festival at Mount Aso, an hour east of me. The boss is 64-year old Kumamoto City native Charlie Nagatani, lead singer of Charlie and the Cannonballs, owner of Good Time Charlie’s country music bar. He is the most famous J-Country musician in the world, but it’s such a small scene that he doesn’t have his own English page on Wikipedia. One, and only one, country song is well-known here: John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road.” The narrator of that tune left his country home long ago but longs to return to where life was beautiful and real…just like most Japanese people. The anthem of the Japanese countryside, “Furusato,” has the same theme, actually.

This is the one time of year when the thousands of diehard fans in this country can get together. I reckon the people they see the other 364 days of the year don’t understand them at all. It was a delight to see so many elderly Japanese people in flannel shirts, jeans, cowboy boots, and 10-gallon hats. They even put bandanas on their dogs! Some young ladies had a square dance group, and the drunken grandpas stumbled along trying to imitate their steps. The foreigners and normally-dressed Japanese aren’t typical fans, but bluegrass makes for nice BGM. Japanese musicians sound legit, except that their accented English makes their lyrics incomprehensible to Japanese and Americans alike.

Charlie Nagatani knows people. Allison Krauss and other famous musicians have headlined in years past. Miss Montana, representative of Kumamoto’s sister state, comes to show people American beauty. This year, the world rodeo champion came and regaled us with tales of wild rides and broken bones (his Japanese interpreter left out the gruesome details). “I almost died this year, but…now I’m in Japan, so this is the greatest year of my life!” he exclaimed.

American import companies bring the goods, too. This is the place to go for American beer, barbecue, and wardrobe flair. There’s typically a hot-air balloon and a solitary horse for riding or petting. My Latina friend from Miami got on the horse last year, and everyone crowded around to snap her picture: “Wow!” they said. “A real cowgirl!”

Alas, the economic crisis reared its ugly head even here, especially because the dollar’s death-defying drop against the yen crippled the organizers’ budgets. Miss Montana took the day off this year, and so did the horse. Instead of Coors, the vendors sold Coors Light. The Japanese performers were more proficient than the American headliners, incomprehensible accents aside. To my greater disappointment, the barbecue stand didn’t have any baked beans this year. That’s when the recession became real to me. When I looked down at my $10 plate of steak, fries, mashed potatoes, and greens, without a bean to be seen, I sang the blues.

The real star, I think, is the venue, the Aspecta Outdoor Theater. It’s perfect for a fall barbecue. It’s a grassy valley surrounded by emerald mountains, with cows roaming the distant hills. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, and as the sun set behind the peaks, it bathed the musicians in gold. There’s no seating, just a slope descending gently to the stage, covered in picnic blankets as if it were the Fourth of July. What a peaceful place.

A Night at the Movies
I beheld “Avatar” in three dimensions last January, so here are a few short words about movies in Japan. Last year, I saw two movies here: “Okuribito” (Departures), a reflective masterpiece about life and death, and “Dragon Ball,” the mediocre American live-action remake of the very, very, very popular Japanese animated series about a karate kid who transforms into an insane monkey during the full moon, his monk and thief allies, and his evil alien rivals. (Somehow, it felt sillier than the source material.) “Avatar” is my only film this year, and though it was a sellout, there were ten spectators at each of the other showings I attended, even though it was the premiere weekend for “Dragon Ball” and the month “Okuribito” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film!

Half the foreign films are dubbed, half subtitled; half are released at the same time they are in America, half several months later. A chunk of the features are movie versions of long-running animated programs like Doraemon and Detective Conan. As transcendent as Japanese cinema was fifty years ago, and as great as its films can be now, there are no movie stars these days: the real glamour is in television. That’s where the hunks and pinups make their money from week to week.

I’m 45 minutes from the nearest theater. I think the base ticket price, $20, hurts the industry. Not many families of five will come out for that, especially considering the popularity of network and satellite television, video rentals, Internet, and all-powerful J-phones. The concession prices and quality are similar to America. The seat is more comfortable, and you can choose your seat assignment. You get a movie promo magazine with your ticket. Japanese filmgoers are quiet. Movie-going friends tell me they’re so concerned about disturbing other patrons that they don’t laugh out loud during comedies.

If you want to watch a movie with a hundred people, do it in America, but if you want to watch one by yourself, come to Japan.

Priests Run
All Japanese months have traditional poetic names. However, since 1873, when the government moved Japan from the traditional Chinese calendar (which started on 2/14 this year) to St. Gregory’s model, these descriptions have lost their meaning, just as the Western zodiac is now a month behind the actual location of the constellations. (So, as sensitive as you may be, you’re not really a Pisces.) The only month whose old name is still relevant is December. It’s called “Shiwasu,” meaning “priests run,” because everyone is so busy preparing for New Year’s that they’re dashing all over the place.

In America, Christmas is a family holiday and New Year’s is a date holiday; in Japan, it’s the opposite. Families gather at the home of the head of the household. New Year’s Day is celebrated with some fantastic hot meals made only during that season, including rice cakes made by hammering rice and water dough with wooden mallets; money handed out to children in red envelopes; old-school games with cards, spinning tops, and kites; temple visits; poetry about the first sun/sunrise/laugh/dream of the New Year; mountain climbs to see a beautiful first sunrise; and New Year’s Day sales, in which you buy a mystery bag from a store and then open it at home to see what kind of clearance clothes and goodies you won.

I was home during New Year’s, but I could still participate in my favorite tradition: New Year’s Cards. I was one of the few college students to send handwritten Christmas cards – if you’ve received an illegible note from me before, trust me, I was wishing good things for you. Everyone in this country sends them, though, and if you send a card to someone who didn’t write you himself, you can still expect a response in the first week. The post office delivers them on New Year’s morning, so you can start your new life with the good wishes of friends. The only people who don’t participate are those who lost a parent, grandparent, or other close family member that year; they spend the holiday quietly instead, remembering their lost loved one.

I sent thirty or forty cards last year. This year, I figured it would be the last chance for my friends and co-workers would receive a handwritten Japanese card from a foreigner, so I sent one hundred and thirty. I wrote some traditional blessings and a personal note at the end of each. When I returned to Japan to find a stack of personalized postcards as thick as the Bible on my doorstep, I felt loved. Most people print out their cards now and write personal messages in the margins. That way, they can include pictures, so I saw my co-workers’ wives and children for the first time. People typically don’t mention their personal lives at work, so when I saw the pride they took in their families, I felt very happy for them. That warmth returns every time I leaf through these cards.

This is the Year of The Tiger, so a ton of cards had cute tigers on them. And one had a tiger piloting a plane during sunset, giving a thumbs-up with the caption, “TIGER! TIGER! TIGER!” (In Japanese, that’s “TORA! TORA! TORA!”) “I thought it was an awkward thing to send to an American, too,” the loquacious teacher admitted, “But that was my format this year, and I figured you’d get what I meant!” We had a big nervous laugh together and forgot about it. A teacher I admire, the just-married tennis coach who no longer works with me, gave me a proverb I’ve used every week this year: “Jinji wo tsukushite, tenmei wo matsu.” Loosely translated, “Exhaust yourself in good works, and leave the rest up to heaven.”

This weekend, I’m going to the 21st International Japanese-English Translation Conference, hosted this year in nearby Miyazaki. Next Thursday, I’m flying to India to spend a week in Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, and Mumbai/Bombay! I hope you’re having a wonderful spring. Happy Easter!

Sacred Ceremonies of Fat Athletes and Effeminate Grandfathers

April 21, 2010

Lately I’ve been thinking about my childhood and all the free time I had. Once, when I was 8 years old, my best friend went out of town for the weekend and I spent half my time alone walking in circles around the house. I played a handful of Super Nintendo games over and over, and when I wanted some sun I ran around the backyard fighting dragons and opening treasure chests in my mind. I spent two thirds of my time in elementary school classes sketching out my own games, reading stories or thinking about reading them, and testing how far back I could lean in my chair before it fell over.

It would be nice to get some of that time back. I’m in the middle of eight months with plans for every weekend, and I feel like I’m careening downstream. But most people would say I’m actually taking it easy, and really I have nothing to feel sorry about: my job is to teach English to children in the Japanese countryside, and on weekends I travel, attend cultural events, and receive invitations to dinners and wedding parties. I just feel pressed when I want more time to, well, study and write emails.

Mottai nai is Japanese for “don’t let it go to waste,” and I hear it a few times a day. That’s how I approach my past and future now. No experience is wasted if you use it later. A lot of kids played as many video games as I did, and as a teacher, my bad experiences as a student have served me more than my good ones. People who while away their time on movies and TV shows, like my students, can get pop culture jokes out of it, so how much more could I learn from the 300 things happening to me this year? None of this is making me any money, but…I’m alive!

Research Classes: Here’s a practice we should bring to America, since it makes instructors more accountable for how they’re spending class time. Every year, a teacher has to run a class in front of all the other teachers, who then critique it. A couple times a year, school is held on Saturday, and the parents come see their kids’ homeroom teachers at work; then they all have a conference. Sometimes, experts on the subject from other schools come in, as well. Every couple years, the Board of Education pays a visit. Every five years or so, teachers from the entire school district descend on your school. I have five schools, so I helped prepare and perform about eight different English classes for guests this year. Even if teachers spend an artificial amount of time preparing for these particular classes, the teachers and parents can spot problems in their techniques and critique them.

Home Visits: Here’s another good practice: in the first month of the school year, each homeroom teacher takes several weekday afternoons to visit the home of each of his students and get to know the parents. This makes it easier for the teachers to understand their students’ family lives and for the parents to get to know the teachers.

Thanksgiving: Twenty-five foreign teachers, not all of them Americans, had a potluck in the city. I brought the salad. We cooked a couple turkeys imported from Costco, American grocers’ gateway to Japan. We don’t have turkey, cheddar cheese, or breakfast cereal here, but I don’t miss them anymore: out of sight, out of mind. We thanks and enjoyed our little community.

Peach Boy: Each elementary school has a talent show of sorts. Instead of solo performances, each class runs its own 15-20 minute presentation. It could be a musical, a play, or a Powerpoint presentation. It could be about their town, vegetables, their grandparents, their dreams, the alphabet, environmentalism, a moral: because so many homeroom teachers create their own presentations, no two are alike. A couple classes talked straight to their parents, thanking them for giving birth to them and raising them, showing their baby pictures on Powerpoint and talking about their dreams for the futures. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Speaking of dreams, what do my sixth graders want to be? Here are some sample answers: baseball/basketball/soccer player, farmer, flower shop owner, wedding planner, architect, public servant (“because it’s a safe job”), teacher, doctor, beautician, truck driver, pastry chef. The most glaring omission: businessmen.

A 3-student first grade class did a musical about two kids flying around the world with a cloud for a day. Almost all their parts were solos! In their goodbye song to the cloud, they said they’d never forget her, and they asked her to come back and see them again some time. I teared up. It happens a lot when you travel: you meet the perfect person for the moment, and you spend an hour or a day together, then trade contact info and hope you’ll see each other again, but it isn’t meant to be.

Two of my sixth grade classes performed plays in English: a teacher wrote a script for the well-known story of Momo Taro, literally “Peach Boy.” Here’s the scoop: one day, a childless old woman is washing clothes in the river when a huge peach floats down to her. (The peach is a symbol of fertility. It looks like a woman’s hips, and “peach” and “hips” are even homonyms.) She brings it home, and when her husband returns from chopping firewood, they slice it open – and Peach Boy jumps out! They adopt him, and he grows up to be “a very powerful boy, indeed!” He tells his parents he wants to go to Demon Island and conquer the demons there. They protest that it’s too dangerous, but he throws a tantrum, so they give in and send him off with kibidango (small rice cakes) to fill his stomach. He trades in his rice cakes to a dog, a monkey, and a bird for their companionship, and together they storm the island, conquer the demons, loot their treasure, and return home as the Number One Boy, Dog, Monkey, and Bird in all of Japan!

I proofread, and the kids memorized their lines and made props and posters with Japanese captions for their parents and grandparents (who all know the story already). I took the stage in the Third Act as the leader of the demons, dressed in all black with a mask on. “MWAHAHAHAHAHA!” I bellowed ten times louder than anyone in the history of Tensui performing arts. “NEXT, I’LL FIGHT YOU!” I challenged my 12-year old peach-fuzzed rival. We did battle with cardboard swords, and as he took out my limbs I kept lunging at him like the Black Knight from Monty Python until finally giving up and promising not to do bad things ever again.

Sumo: I saw two sumo tournaments in November. The first was for the county’s elementary school students. It was a cold, cold day to be an 8-year old boy in a loincloth, but the kids enjoyed performing in front of hundreds of people, and in the afternoon, the professional wrestlers came to the temple to tutor them. A couple weeks later, I went north for the Grand Sumo Tournament of Fukuoka.

What’s it like? An all-day ticket costs $40 for a walk-in and over $100 for the better seats, which fill in the afternoon. The stadium holds a couple thousand people, and it’s a popular TV sport. Only the upper-deck seats are stadium chairs; the better digs have Japanese seat cushions. There’s a lot of money in it now, but sumo is fundamentally performed to honor the gods. Before doing battle, the wrestlers purify the ring with salt and sake; the referees dress in bright, colorful robes otherwise seen at festivals; there are drums and cymbals; the announcers sing the names of the competitors in ancient Japanese style. Before each block of matches, the wrestlers make a circle and do a Shinto dance together, and the reigning yokozuna ritually close each day’s matches. Wrestlers live together in stables (training communities) and wear traditional clothing when they go out on the town. They have their own individualized, colorful, occasionally corporate-sponsored ceremonial robes: the highest-ranked European adorns himself with the EU flag, for example. The build-up to each match, as the wrestlers glare and throw their manly auras at each other and get the crowd buzzing, can be as enthralling as the match itself. They say a wrestler can win or lose a match before it even starts.

How big are they? Sumo wrestlers are over six feet tall, and they weigh in at 250-500 pounds. There’s only one weight class, and you lose if you fall down or are pushed out of bounds, so weight is crucial. They “grow” by eating huge bowls of vegetable soup and then sleeping soon after. Matches often end within a minute: two minutes is a marathon for these boys, and if it goes that long they’ll lean against each other to catch their breath sometimes. But as big as they are, they’re still great athletes. There’s great variety among the wrestlers’ bodies and styles, and the recent Mongolian champions have been smaller, quicker, and more creative than their rivals. If you aren’t agile, you won’t get very far, and this is even more true for wrestlers than it is for NFL offensive linemen. The biggest boy in the circuit, at 600 pounds, is Yamamotoyama (his stage name means “the mountain in the center of the mountains”), but in the match I saw, he fell in ten seconds. His opponent sidestepped him at the start, and he lost his balance and flopped to his stomach.

Who are they? Futenoh (“King of the Heavens”) is only an upper-middle class wrestler, but he comes from my neighborhood, and he has the most popular blog! The two yokozuna were Mongolians: Asashoryu (“blue dragon of the morning”) and Hakuho (“white phoenix”). The current hot property is an Estonian named Balto. The Japanese are developing an inferiority complex about their homegrown sumo wrestlers, but Hakuho and Balto are still popular because they’re nice guys. Bad boy Asashoryu’s career is over now. He won the third-most tournaments in history, and he was still in his prime, but he was forced to retire this January after he slugged someone in a Tokyo bar one night during a tournament. Because of the religious element, sumo wrestlers are held to a higher standard than others. NBA Great Charles Barkley threw a guy threw a bar window once. Larry Bird once got in a fight that left him with a lacerated hand in the middle of the NBA Finals. Ray Lewis was almost charged with murder for his own bar incident. None of them were even suspended.

How is the sport organized? There are six tournaments, each in an odd-numbered month, three of them in Tokyo. Tourneys are fifteen days long, running from Sunday to Sunday with eight hours of competition a day, progressing from the novices in the morning to the big tickets at 5 PM. Each wrestler has one match a day, with his opponents determined by his rank, and the winner receives prize money. The wrestler with the best cumulative record wins, with playoffs in the 15th day to break ties. Usually one of the yokozuna wins 14 or 15 to win it all. Each wrestler’s performance factors into his ranking (and seeding) for the next tournament, which determines his opponents and also the amount of money he earns for victories. If you win a majority of matches you’ll be promoted, and if you lose a majority you’ll be demoted. Anyone who can defeat a yokozuna gets to perform a special victory ritual.

If you ever visit Japan, do yourself a favor and feast your eyes on these corpulent kings of carnage.

Kabuki: Tamasaburo, travels the country renovating old kabuki theatres and performing in them. My friends and I paid a princely sum to witness his dancing. Kabuki, like sumo, is an offering to the gods. Since Tokugawa, only men have been permitted to perform it, in order to limit licentiousness in the theatre district. So the male main character dresses, makes himself up, and acts just like a woman. Sixty years old is he, but dressed up and painted, he looks and acts more femininely than most of the female dancers I’ve seen.

He was so elegant. He moved inches at a time. No one said a word the whole hour: if you took your focus off him for a second, you’d miss something. Decades of studying motion were distilled into simple gestures. He performed costume changes on stage without lifting his arms over his head: a step here, a tug there, and he’d unravel a complex white robe to reveal a sparkling golden one underneath. We’re all physically capable of moving that way, but we aren’t mentally capable.

Kabuki is spellbinding, but you might fall asleep the first time you see it. I dozed for a minute, myself. As Americans, we’re totally not used to this kind of entertainment. Our style is Cirque de Soleil. There’s a massive stage with a myriad of dancers doing death-defying acrobatics. Tempos are fast, and performers are beautiful. Bright and lush music is pumped in through the speakers, and the special effects, props, and transitions would have been impossible twenty years ago.

Kabuki is comically different from that. You could cross the stage in three bounds, and I’ve seen high school productions with more complex sets. The script is long, but the language is so antiquated, and the lyrics are wailed in such an elongated manner, that no one can understand them. Humor is manufactured from chains of puns. The accompanists are clearly visible, playing period instruments on the right side of the stage. If you’re a guitarist, it’s all about plucking and humming spookily. And the tempo! If the American metronome beats 120 times a minute, the Japanese heart rate is 50. The first beat kabuki musicians learn goes like this: COWBELL…(rest)…(rest)…(rest)…COWBELL…(rest)…“WOOOO!!”

There was little “action” as we understand it. Most of the action occurred in the very last minute, when Tamasaburo, the beautiful woman allowed by the not-quite-pious priests to enter the temple and perform a sacred dance, revealed herself as a demon, climbed the bell, and overthrew the temple. Then the curtain fell. We went home happy. It was a different kind of beauty.

It’s humiliating to be huge unless you’re a sumo wrestler. It’s awkward to be a woman in a man’s body unless you’re a kabuki dancer. Whatever talent you have, offer it to God, and it will become pleasing to other people. Don’t let it go to waste.

Charming Compliments

April 17, 2010

I wrote this for our English conversation salon at Tamana Library.

I plan to travel all over the world and have many adventures, but no matter where I go, I will never be complimented as much as I have been here in Japan. The people here have been so polite and kind to me. People who are older and wiser than me are always telling me how smart I am, how nice I am, how handsome I am, how young I am, and how good my Japanese is. I really am not as smart, nice, handsome, young, and good at Japanese as they say, but I am very happy and grateful when they say it. It encourages me to work harder. It helps me to love myself and to be happy. It shows that they care about me, and it shows that they want me to be happy. I want to become as good at compliments as Japanese people are. I’ve been here two years, but I’m not there yet. I always forget to return compliments! I say “No, I’m not” or “Thank you,” but I should good things about them instead.

A good compliment shows a good heart. It shows you pay attention to other people and appreciate their company. It shows that you look for the good things in people, not the bad. In junior high school and high school, I often looked at the bad things in people and talked about those bad things with others. But in college, in church, I learned to ignore the bad and to nurture the good. If you tell a person about his good qualities and how much they mean to you, he will want to develop them more in the future. This is good for everyone!

It is important to be genuine, to say something you really see in a person rather than something that just sounds nice. A compliment that isn’t true is called flattery. If the other person thinks you are just flattering him, or saying the same thing to everyone, he won’t be as happy.

Sometimes I get into trouble when I give compliments to women. For example, I told a teacher “your necklace looks really nice,” and she said “Why didn’t you say that earlier?” I told a teacher “You look great today,” and another teacher said “What about me?” I think they are just kidding, but it’s tricky!

To close, thank you all for letting me come to your salon. I’m sorry I cannot hear your speeches this week. Because you come from all walks of life, and you have a lot of interesting experiences, I’m always interested in hearing what you have to say. You’re very original, and your humor is great, too! I hope this week is satisfying!