Wednesday, 28 November 2012

I love yankii

Suddenly we're approached out of nowhere by a group of young male Ryuukoku students. “You wanna get drunk, right?!” asks the leader, Nasser. Well yeah. Of course I do. We wile away some time in a nearby park, publicly urinating and smashing empty bottles, before returning to the Sanjou area. A block before Sanjoubashi we run into a small group of high school kids, whom Nasser inexplicably starts talking to. But these aren't normal high school kids – these are yankii, the kids who think you got nothing on them. The ones who smoke, drink, fail every test, get into fights, and wear their uniforms improperly. Do you know Gokusen? Those are yankii.
Majisuka Gakuen.
Crows Zero. You get the idea.
Awesome. I've always wanted to meet some yankii. The Japanese high school I went to was too high-quality for there to be any kicking around.

I try to discreetly snap a quick shot. To my consternation, the dim lighting means the shutter speed is automatically set to “a goddamn eternity.” I almost pull it off...but in the exact moment that I lower my hand, a normal, black-haired, gyaru groupie type chick (clearly sucking up to the current group and hoping to be one day inducted into it) coincidentally looks in my direction.

Gyaru Groupie: Hey, this fucker's taking a motherfucking picture, god damn!

In an instant, the swarm is upon me. Gyaru Groupie, an extremely angry blonde gyaru, a basically silent gyaru, and a totally feckless guy form a semi-circle around me. I'm taken off-guard but, to be completely honest, I'm uninspired by the tactic. I actually wonder if I'm supposed to be intimidated or what. As far as I can tell we're just having a conversation. Albeit a conversation in which the young'uns don't know their place.

Angry Blonde Gyaru: Hey, what the fuck are you fucking taking a fucking picture, god damn!
Rude Boy: Picture? I don't know anything about any picture.
Angry Blonde Gyaru: Oh fuck off, why are you pretending not to understand when you obviously speak Japanese, god damn?
Rude Boy: (lying obviously) I have no idea what you're going on about.
Angry Blonde Gyaru: Oh my god, you stink of alcohol, god damn.
Rude Boy: Then why don't you disappear?

At this moment, one of the guys comes to my “rescue.” He explains that I'm a foreigner who only arrived two months prior (technically true) and that I am not yet familiar with Japanese customs (not in any way true). He promises to delete the photo in front of all of them, that justice may be meted out. I'm a little incensed. Up until this point I've had no intention of admitting that I took a photo or even that I possessed a camera, but at this point I think oh, fucking fine.

Angry Blonde Gyaru: Why you taking that photo, god damn?!
Rude Boy: was fuckin' funny.

One of the guys charges into my personal space.

Wannabe Gangster: So if it's funny you think it's ok to take a picture of it, god damn?!

Again, I guess I'm supposed to be afraid at this point. The problem is that I know that on the inside he's a fucking pussy who won't do shit. I can sit there and insult him, I can goad him into a confrontation, I can outright invite him to take a swing at me, and he will do literally nothing. If he's feeling particularly bold and aggravated he might lay his palms on my chest, just for a second. To make the situation even more comical, I'm actually not only taller but slightly more muscular and bodily impressive than he is, and believe me that's quite something.

By the way? Here's a quick word of advice for any teenagers reading this blog post, although I know full well you won't want to believe me. Look, I understand that if you think I'm trying to infringe upon your lifestyle, you're going to want to fight back. You're going to want to show me, in as few words as possible, that you don't give a fuck who I am or what I've accomplished, because now I'm staring down the real deal. But the problem is, if you try to use gangster-type slang, you sound fucking ridiculous to adults. I want you to imagine a toddler right now, giving you his scariest voice and direst threats. That is what you sound like to us. So if you're actually trying to get something done, cool off. Appeal to our logic, our guilt, our nostalgia (oh to be young again!), anything but our fear, because you are not going to be able to tap into that. Not without a little something extra, anyway.

Gyaru Groupie tries to add something, but I completely ignore her and wave her off, because I know full well that is what will infuriate her most. I've already given in to my comrade and am trying to explain how to erase the picture, but he thinks I'm trying to trick him and so keeps doing the opposite of what I say. Eventually we settle the matter.

At almost exactly that moment, the police show up.

There's two at first. Within minutes the number has ballooned to six. Unbeknownst to me, a few blocks back Nasser dropped his pants in front of a couple of girls. Now suddenly everybody and I do mean everybody has been drawn into the incident. Chinese has disappeared. “I don't speak Japanese and never have,” I remind those near me, in Japanese. One of the police officers draws in. Suddenly I forget every bit of the language that I have ever learned. My pronunciation is shit and I can't even get through the simplest of constructions without making a catatrophic grammatical fuck-up. Weird how that happens, eh?!

We end up standing around for literally about an hour and a half. Angry Blonde Gyaru tells me several times that I shouldn't be making fun of her, since I'm older – but actually, doesn't being older than her give me the right to make fun of her? She also tells the police, twice, that I took a picture of them, which is fucking stupid, because compared to the nine or so federal laws being broken right in front of them, my completely legal photo shoot is the fucking least important issue. Annoyed me a little bit, though, since she was obviously doing nothing more than trying to get me in trouble. Ok, again. Teenagers? Don't do stuff like this. It makes you look like half-wits.

Gyaru Groupie: What the fuck is up with your taking that picture, god damn?!
Rude Boy (English, lying): I don't understand why you angry. Look, your face. So angry! Why? I don't understand. Why angry?
Fun Gyaru (coming to my rescue): Maybe you should just drop it....
Gyaru Groupie: He's a fucking loser, god damn!
Rude Boy (not sorry): Look, sorry, I said, right?
Fun Gyaru: Ah, he's saying that he already apologized so why are you still angry?
Gyaru Groupie: Because he's a fucking loser, god damn!
Rude Groupie: (English, wanting badly to admit that I actually speak Japanese, but not being able to) So angry. Why angry? Sorry, aimu souri, okee?
Fun Gyaru: Seriously--
Gyaru Groupie: Fuck this, god damn.
Fun Gyaru (immediately switching attention): You wanted a picture of some gyaru, eh. So, do you want to take a picture with me?!
Rude Boy (English): Ah, picture? (miming camera)

So in the end I got a pretty nice picture with a fun gyaru. Maybe it's good they got mad, then? The guys were raring to go for a pretend fight, approaching individual police with the most aggressive body language possible. Much like me, the police didn't even flinch, because they knew full well they wouldn't do a goddamn thing. But their women didn't. Fun Gyaru, at one point, threw herself between her man and a police officer, hugging him deeply. It's ok, her hug seemed to say. I'm here. Don't worry. If we just leave, everything will be ok. I promise. I love you. Fuck, I thought, teenagers are so fucking dramatic. And then I remembered what I promised myself when I was one.

At that time, I didn't necessarily think I knew it all, but it definitely seemed to me that the world held a few truths that the adults around me no longer understood. That is, not that they just didn't get, but that they had once known but had long since forgotten. There's a really great word for this in Japanese: seishun (青春). As explained to me by a middle-aged Japanese man at a karaoke party, it means the sensation of youth, and after graduating high school, you can no longer feel it. I realised even then that I would one day lose the ability myself.

Then and there, I vowed to always try to remember what it feels like to be in the throes of seishun. After all, it has some pretty great moments. A lot of adults tend to think of high school as cut off from the so-called “real world,” which teenagers can't possibly understand. This is utterly false. High school isn't a safe haven from the real world, it's a microcosm of it. In high school I felt as alive as I've ever felt in my whole life, except I was experiencing it every second of every single day. That's why I still enjoy gakuen dramas; I can understand that when you're that age, whether or not that special someone reciprocates your feelings or not is goddamn life and death. I reflect upon this silent resolution often (in order that I don't forget it at an inopportune time – I'll forever be the patron saint of high school students!)

And so I realised – ha. That's right. I've forgotten their sense of scale, and it's a damn dramatic and enjoyable sense of scale. I kind of wish I could get it back. I instantly forgive everyone involved. I even feel bad. Please, you guys. I am not the enemy.

I am not the enemy.

Monday, 26 November 2012

School festivals, part 3: Doujo and Kyoudai

Doujo is awfully swank.

Having already visited my own school's festival and that of Kyoujo, I'm not quite satiated. It turns out that Doushisha Daigaku's own girls-only branch has yet to have its festival, and so I enlist a couple friends of a friend to make an expedition together. Doushisha itself, by the way, is quite an interesting campus, having been founded in the Meiji Jidai (by a former samurai!) and declared a cultural landmark, thus the majority of its buildings are the same uniform red brick. What's more, the founder of the Joshi section of Doushisha actually fought in the revolution herself. That's kind of cool, right? Doujo was a little bit disappointing in comparison to the previous festivals, especially Kyoujo, which benefited from a space that was not only larger but also more conducive to this sort of event. I wondered, if I were a girl, and I were to choose between Kyoujo and Doujo, which would I go for? Well, answer is, Kyoujo has a much higher campus and much stronger cachet, but if I were a lesbian, there is no jo but Doujo.
Men's bathrooms do exist at Doujo. Although this was inside the chapel.
Have I shown this stuff before? School festivals commonly have student-made billboards showing you what's in store if you'll come in. This is from Kyoudai. It had a lot. And I mean a lot. Like a lot.
Kyoudai. Big campus. Stuff all over the place.
Baseball field. Check the stage in the background, there.
Following this we cut through the grounds of the Japanese Emperor's erstwhile residence, which I was supposed to have visited earlier but ended up sleeping through. Funny enough, around this area I run into the doppelganger of former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichiro. Had I been drunk at the time I am sure I would have addressed him by that name and asked how he was enjoying his retirement. Finally we arrive at Kyouto Daigaku, the biggest and bestest daigaku in Kansai and the second-best nationwide. I'd like to tell you that we had some crazy adventures but we did not. The bane of blogging is that I usually only really have anything to say when things go wrong. When expeditions unfold per my intentions, there often isn't a lot to talk about.
Elite dinnertime: Subway. Seriously, just imagine Western Subway trying to dress stuff up like this. 
I part with my comrades and decide to take a stroll through Kawaramachi in search of Yokomitsu Riichi's Shanghai, which I've desired for a while now but been unable to obtain. I search for two hours but never do find the store I'm looking for. I explore some of the Sanjou-Shijou side-streets, determined not to get lost as dicks the next time a Japanese friend takes me somewhere. I stumble upon a huge carabet club district, am mostly ignored by the staff, and am overjoyed when a customer recruiter tries to lure me into Girls Club AKB. As always, I reward her kindness by pretending she doesn't exist. The suited men around Kiyamachi-Sanjoudoori always ignore me, too, maybe because they assume I don't speak Japanese, or because they think I'm a tourist, or because I'm young.

All this wakamono fun'iki has put me in the mood for a beer, so I decide I'll enjoy one by Sanjoubashi and then take the train home. As I pass a police box I slide my beer to the far side of my leg. I needn't have bothered, because, as I learn later in the night, drinking in the street is completely ok, or at least nothing the police are going to nail you for unless they need an excuse. I proceed to my usual spot. Just as I'm about to call it, some random guy sits down next to me and strikes up a conversation. He's from Fukuoka, travelling Keihanshin with a view to moving here, and he's actually pretty cool. My beer quickly empties and I tell him I'll buy another and return. He's startled when I actually do, and moreover, he's chatting with a couple of guys from my university. Friend get! Some other university is having some kind of celebration and we decide to go ask what they're all about.

“I'm Chinese,” he tells me. Shy, apparently. I honour his request.

And, holy shit, they're not only from their school's English Club but they know a friend of mine from Kanbase! This whole talking to random people is turning out pretty well. Now I need to piss, so Chinese waits for me outside Lawson. I chat and joke with a couple guys waiting in line and nobody feels the need to point out that I'm foreign. The trains are stopping soon, but when I get back Chinese has become wrapped up in the exploits of two 32-year-olds. The one guy explains that he is married so he doesn't often have a chance to drink and pick up girls. In fact, although his work is not spiritually satisfying he claims it pays very well, and so treats us to a couple rounds at Ace Cafe, which is not a cafe in any sense of the word. It's a little out of my own pay grade, but I quite like the staff, who, in opposition to usual Kyouto decorum, are totally willing to chit-chat during and between orders.

The old man spends most of the time before, during and after the bar experience trying to lure girls into our company, but money alone proves insufficient. I half-expect him to suggest a brothel next. Oddly enough I am probably actually the most attractive out of the four of us, which I think might be the first time this has ever happened in my entire life. Hilariously, he actually ends up cock-blocked by Ace Bar's bouncer. Eventually the two of them leave, the one apologizing profusely for his failure to pick anybody up for us. He has, however, given me a number of tips on how to cheat on your wife, such as alleviate suspicion by never locking your cellphone and leaving it out in the open, but hiding your bitches' e-mails in a folder that looks like office stuff.

Chinese and I head back to Lawson and have ourselves some noodles and more beer. I'm in no mood for sleeping outside tonight and begin to contemplate how best to negotiate costs with a taxi driver. Just then, however, the night start to get exciting.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Japanese Politics Primer, Part 1: Background

Part two.
Part three.

In light of the upcoming national election, I thought I'd do something topical and give a bit of a primer on the Japanese political situation, for those who may be interested. Note that I have little formal training and base my knowledge in having grown up in city hall, a casual interest in politics (though I am more interested in the parties and personalities than The Issues), and the fact that I happen to live in Japan. If you want somebody who knows what the hell he's talking about, I recommend Our Man in Abiko. Anyway, I'll do my best.

This will be a relatively beefy three-part series. In this post I will introduce the facts of political life in Japan, as I understand them. The next part will focus on the events of the last few years that have lead us to where we're at right now, and finally I'll run over the major players who will be competing on December 16th.

Japanese politics is characterized chiefly by the dominance of the Jimintou or Liberal Democratic Party, which is conservative, and the competing Minshutou or Democratic Party of Japan, which is also pretty conservative. Usually the Jimintou forms the government while the Minshutou comprises the opposition, although the roles have been reversed since 2009. Like many parliamentary legislatures, Japan also features a pleasant dappling of fringe parties, although it has an advantage over most in terms of sheer number and stupidity.

The Jimintou won an impressive majority in the Lower House elections of 1955 and, while they were never monipotent or anything, immediately took it in a vicegrip. (Hi there, Americans! The Lower House produces laws, the Prime Minister, etc. Upper House representatives draw enormous salaries while trying to look contemplative.) Ten years on from World War II, this was still a highly tumultuous period in which a steady guiding hand was always going to prove more popular than any of the radical progressives who were trying to construct an entirely new country while they had the chance. The Jimintou came packaged with the promise of stability and mortar, became too big to topple, and remained in power for the next four decades.

As the post-war migration into more metropolitan areas wore on, the country's largest population centres became eddies of youthful ideals, causing the Jimintou's influence to slip there. Their local focus also became increasingly ineffective as individuals no longer living in their hometowns grew more concerned with issues at the national level. However, the smaller parties wasted their energy largely fighting for scraps amongst themselves, and were never able to form a coherent front against their ideological opponents. In fact, they actually splintered into even smaller and more inconsequential parties, so that even as the Jimintou gradually started losing seats it never actually got any weaker. You could call it undemocratic, but after all they did win fair and square, over and over again, and the consistency afforded allowed them to get an awful lot of work done.

It all became too much to bear in the general election of 1993, when general discontent coupled with several simultaneous scandals (though it can be said that the Japanese have grown basically accustomed to government corruption, from time to time they tire of it.) A massive coalition of leftovers managed to form the government, but this ended predictably: Unable to maintain such an intricate trapeze for very long, it collapsed eleven months later. The Jimintou immediately reclaimed its rightful place in the world and kept at it until 2009, when it dropped from 303 seats to 119, while the Minshutou soared from 110 to 308.

The fluidity of Japanese politics makes party histories very difficult to grasp. Japanese politicians form, break apart and reform new human-blobs like a crowd of graduates taking their final pictures together. In short, somebody is forming a brand-new party all the damn time, basically whenever they have misgivings with contemporary policy, want to make a power grab or simply realise that they'd rather be king of a hovel than servant in a mansion. The new party is usually almost identical in feel and substance to the one it sprang from. This makes the fringe parties a little complicated, but I'll try to at least present them as they are today.

Oddly enough, while the two primary parties are largely conservative – though the Jimintou has its progressive moments, and the Minshutou is a little more centrist – the first-place alternative is actually even more violently so. The Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People's Life First, stupidly) is a sort of radical nationalist type deal. Japanese political parties are highly factional, somewhat lacking in the party discipline we see in Western parliaments, which is part of the reason why representatives are so quick to jump ship, since they already oppose half their own party's policies anyway. In this case, one group of diehards within the Minshutou departed, scandalized, when the government of Noda Yoshihiko decided to increase the consumption tax. They also detest nuclear power, and you kind of have to admit that they may have a point there.

In 2009 the Shin Koumeitou (New Koumeitou) lost some serious ground percentage-wise but experienced little change in practical terms, as they merely fell from 31 to 21. Built on a foundation of Buddhist pacifism, their rhetoric holds that human life should be the starting point of all political consideration (strangely, they are unaffiliated with the PLF). Accordingly, they call for nuclear anti-proliferation, bureaucratic decentralization, and the pursuit of peaceful solutions to foreign affairs issues.

Next in line is Minna no Tou, which is officially “Your Party” in English but would be more accurately called “Everyone's Party.” What the hell that even means is unclear. It was formed for the 2009 election, pushing electoral reform, small government, and neoliberalism. Oh, and they too aren't so hot on the whole nuclear thing, so you may be sensing a pattern here.

Finally we have the Socialist and Communist parties, two incredibly bland lefty jamborees doing their usual lefty stuff. The Social Democratic Party is made from the remnants of the Japan Socialist Party, the running second fiddle throughout the 1955 system. Their very own Fukushima Mizuho is the only female party leader, and frankly I'm surprised they have that many. The Communist Party, in addition to communism, also believes that Japan needs to start cutting ties with the United States, putting it at odds with the ruling parties and also reality. Neither party is a fan of Noda.

So we have a somewhat conservative government, a strongly conservative opposition, a dappling of silly fringe parties, splinter factions that form yet more parties at the drop of a hat, Prime Ministerial musical chairs, and a bunch of leaders who compete in absurdity. Isn't politics fun?!


I think you will have probably noticed that a running theme with Japanese fringe parties is that they all have ridiculous names. The following parties all hold five seats or fewer and are therefore not really worth getting into (and, in fact, are not even legally considered parties), but as a little bonus, here are some of the funniest offenders:

Genzei Nippon, “Tax Cuts Japan” (at least you know what you're getting!)
Okinawa Shakai Taishuutou, the “Okinawa Socialist Masses Party” (awfully militant!)
Taiyou no Tou, the “Sunrise Party”
Midori no Kaze, “Green Wind”
Shintou Kaikaku, known in English by the less than literal title of the “Renaissance Party”
And finally, Han-TPP – Datsu-Genpatsu – Shouhizei Zouzei Touketsu wo Jitsugen suru Tou, the “Anti-TPP, Anti-Nuclear, Consumption Tax Hike Freeze Realisation Party”  

Friday, 23 November 2012

Next A-Class

Quick - how many tabs do you have open right now? I'm really fond of opening new tabs, myself. And since the university Internets have torrents blocked, 8 of my 31 tabs are currently occupied by YouTube. This means I end up getting hit with a lot of commercials, and as long as they're in Japanese I usually watch them. You know, for practise. That's how I was introduced to this:

And immediately wanted to share it with you. Damn, it's a masterpiece.

If you are unwilling or unable to watch, here's a precis: We open on a scene of a high-speed police chase in America, pulling back to reveal a young girl watching a television screen on the streets of Shibuya. A nondescript truck trundles by and she takes off after it with a cry. We cut to two detectives, an older bearded guy and a bespectacled young gun. The girl implores them to help her give chase and for some reason they immediately agree, but are quickly given the slip. They pull over by the road so that the old guy can attend to some minor maintenance issue when the truck pulls past for a second time. They all leap inside their vehicle to resume pursuit, only this time the robotic seats shift around so that the girl, now wearing a different costume, is driving. Around this time we finally get a good look at this supercar they've been blasting around in, and we see that it's actually a shitty little van-type thing. After a long chase sequence, they succeed in pulling over the truck, which transpires to be a travelling ramen shop. They all enjoy some ramen, the owner thanking them and remarking that he'll be able to buy some sake. Then they all drive off and the camera dives inside the forgotten ramen bowl, which has the Mazda logo emblazoned on the bottom.

This is really something else. It's now my second-favourite Japanese ad campaign ever, slightly below ホワイト家族 but above 宇宙人ジョーンズ。 Is this where modern advertising is headed? Oh man, I certainly hope so. The fact that it has an actual plot is a novel development in itself, and the smooth, clean animation makes it easy on the eyes. The action is exciting, as well, at least if you're a fan of driving. The pacing is practically perfect, as well, maintaining a good balance of action and "k no seriously what the hell is this" that hooked me from the beginning and kept my attention in a stranglehold throughout.

I think what a lot of YouTube advertisers fail to consider is that after five seconds, I'm allowed to skip to the video I'm trying to watch. There's absolutely nothing obligating me to pay it any more respect than that, so if you can't secure my attention within five seconds, you've got nothing. And yet somehow we still get ads that open on a dramatic logo revelation or something similarly inane; I'll be out of there before I even know the name of the product. You have five seconds to tell me what you're selling and give me one good reason why I should be interested. It's not necessarily easy, but it's clear-cut, isn't it?

This is where this ad really succeeds in my eyes. It immediately hits the viewer with some pretty attractive animation; even if you're not interested in anime, there's visual appeal to bank on, and if you are, you're probably already scanning the corners of the screen for a title, wondering what this new series is. And actually, that's where the ad fails: I suspected, but was unable to confirm what I was being sold until extremely late in the game. A lot of people won't even last that long. Of course, the real question is whether this extended commercial (a luxury afforded by the format, by the way, a clear benefit to YouTube advertising over traditional television) will move units. And I would have to suggest that, no, a fancy show is not going to convince a young working couple to purchase a family car. The selling points there are invested in functionality and practicality, not style.

By the way, am I the only one who totally wants Mazda to turn this thing into a 26-episode series?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Puppet Emperor

As I mentioned earlier, I am somehow slowly gathering authority within the English Club without actually intending to. I guess it makes sense in that my native English would make me a hot commodity, which is also why I was recently asked to chair a follow-up speech contest. On the grounds that it would be an interesting new experience and I'm quite well-equipped to do something like this, I foolishly agreed without really understanding the job.

The word “Chair” used in a similar Canadian context would suggest that I was running the show and making decisions. I would set the tone of the contest, make alterations to the schedule as I deemed necessary, things like that. See, that could be fun; that's stuff I'm good at it. Sadly, I quickly learned that my function at this Japanese “English Oratorical Contest” was to read a script word for word, in some of the most stilted and unnatural English that has ever been set to paper.

I was to say almost the exact same line to introduce every one of the 11 contestants, ask the audience to “give the honourable judges your warm applause” five or six times over the course of the proceedings, and, most unforgivably of all, give people's names in Western order. The final line was written as “Thank you to all our contestants for your good speeches. Thank you to the honourable judges for your help. Thank you to you, for your good attendance and nice cooperation. Thank you.” See? It was problematic because so much of it wasn't strictly wrong, but was an incongruous compilation of word combinations that no native speaker would ever use ever. Luckily, some of it was also just plain wrong, so after conferring with Takamatsu I received tacit permission to mess with it a bit, which I then intentionally misinterpreted as carte blanche to say something appropriate in place of whatever was written down. Additionally, I usually just do this kind of stuff off the top of my head, so I ended up with the unanticipated benefit of getting to feel very professional shuffling papers around and penning annotations.

The day prior to the event itself, the organisers, a few of the 2kaisei, and myself gathered to prepare the necessary rooms. Yokozuna (a girl) and I found several signs of great amusement, including twins labelled 燃える (burning!) and 燃えない (not burning), respectively, suggesting that the contestants would be separated into those who were giving it their all and those who were half-assing it (until we figured out that they were for garbage separation). Another was inscribed with パンツルーム. This unfortunately did not signify that a new lingerie shop was soon to be opened on campus, but was rather a very eccentric contraction of “Participants Room.” The hilarity was only increased by the contestants being collectively referred to as “Pants,” and their assistants as “Pants Helpers.”

Following these preparations, about seven of us did a quick rehearsal using stand-ins for the timing. Though this was genuinely useful, my enthusiasm for the task was somewhat dampened by Se no Takai Yatsu, the main organiser and the one who had personally recruited me, seeming to think me incapable of following simple instructions and being convinced that I was at some point going to irreparably cock something up. If nothing else this experience has taught me that I could never cut it as a figurehead leader. After being lectured on the importance of one section, I asked a very simple, reasonable question: “Do I say line X while he's still standing at the front, or wait until he goes and sits down?”

“After he goes and sits down, obviously,” said Se no Takai Yatsu, and began to stride away.

Oh no. I leaned right into the mic and said:

“I don't need the 'obviously.'”

He kept walking but his head whipped around at me, his eyes flashing with fury. Instantly, all attention was on me; eyes widened; one girl covered her mouth. The timing was incomparable, the message unmistakeable. I might as well have said “Know what, if you're going to give me attitude, maybe fuck right off.” I'd taken him down a peg so cleanly, and so precisely, and in such a subtly Japanese way. Ten points!

Later I checked with Takamatsu to see if I'd gone over the line, if I shouldn't have attacked his powerbase in front of his lackeys. She confirmed that he was being a bit of a dick, and that it was just a plain awesome line. Additionally, my speaking some semblance of Japanese had apparently sliced the usual instruction time in half, as previous Chairs had required much more explanation, translation and reinforcement.

Day of, the contest started at 1 o'clock. This being Japan, we were all required to be there by 9. I arrived even before Takamatsu, and had to use my Deus Ex skills to talk my way into the building. I spent every free moment propped up against a desk with my eyes closed, keeping my mental bandwidth fresh for the contest itself. Unsurprisingly, it was a very stiff and formal affair, as they tend to be. Most everyone but the judges was dressed in a suit, and I in the closest thing I have to a suit; it says something about certain sectors of Japanese youth that when I told him I didn't have one, Se no Takai Yatsu gave me a confused look and a “Your parents never bought you one?”

Were I to organize a speech contest, I'd make it as casual and enjoyable as possible. But I didn't make this one, so that's fine, but the thing is, to watch sometimes borders on boring, although actually participating can be quite fun. As Chairman (or as most competitors addressed me, “MC,” which I like a little better) I was required to monitor the status of several parts of the room simultaneously, so that we could proceed at a reasonable pace without any one judge, timekeeper or other component getting left behind. I made a few minor mistakes but the English Club President (and Discussion Section Chief), was seated directly beside me, so although he remained silent to the audience, a quick consultation through words or hand signals saw me through the ambiguous parts.

In the intermissions I basked in compliments on the job I was doing, how good I looked in a “suit,” and how much cooler I sound when I speak English. The unspoken implication here, of course, is that I'm ordinarily ugly as sin and sound like a loser in Japanese, neither of which is 100% true. The second one is worse, since it's like a keeper being loudly praised for the shot that ricocheted off the goalpost while his numerous daring saves go completely unacknowledged. Comments like these used to bother me but lately I've started to think I might as well take what I can get.

I did cut off a girl earlier than I should have, thinking her time had expired when it hadn't. It would have been a humiliating gaff, had she not finished her speech at almost that exact second. Luck like that doesn't swing by often; too bad it never shows up when the ladies are around. One girl actually did run over her time, and when she tried to continue anyway (wouldn't you?) I confidently and authoritatively cut her off. Bit of a perverse pleasure, sad to say, even if I also felt bad. The other big hangup was the lack of a mechanism for dealing with moments when contestants forget their next line, a huge oversight, but that was Se no Takai Yatsu's mistake, not mine.

By the end of the seven-hour day I'd really gotten it down (as well as worked out the rules, which were never properly explained to me), and if I'm ever asked to do something like this again I'll do a much smoother job. And Not Overtime girl ended up taking third, so there. The winner, funny enough, was a ryuugakusei from Viet Nam. I tried to drum up a little tension and excitement through my voice, which received favourable reviews later, but unfortunately at the time elicited only subdued applause and a victory lap that resembled a gallows march. Japan, man. Japan.

Overall it was fun, I picked up a few more MC'ing skills, the speeches were decently interesting, and the judges were mostly easy to manage. At the risk of repeating myself, this is why I'm in Japan – to do things I'd never be doing in Canada.

Takamatsu, Yokozuna and I had been planning an オール (a type of party where you drink, karaoke, whatever and stay up “all” night), but that fell through. Leave it to my real life to be anticlimactic.

Friday, 16 November 2012


Though I unfortunately had to leave my many video game systems behind for now, I have watched a few playthroughs since I got here. Normally I confine myself to games I'm interested in but can't be bothered to actually play. However, for some reason I recently decided to concurrently view the Wii games Ookami and Muramasa, which is unusual since I actually intend to knock both off my list at some point in the future. On the other hand, both sets had player commentary, which I abhor in English but view as good practise in Japanese, so it will be a significantly different experience (and good kanji practise) when I get around to playing them myself.

I didn't put them together on purpose, but after I started watching I realised they actually had a couple of interesting superficial similarities. For one thing, both represent fairly experimental and extremely high-quality visual styles. More significantly, both draw their entire plots from the vast reservoir that is ancient Japanese mythology, taking unrelated elements and mashing them together to form a larger story. In fact, Muramasa takes a lot of stuff from Buddhism and Ookami is more focussed on Shinto, making them practically sister games! Muramasa is all action, taking two of the most well-known Noh plays, throwing them together, and adding demons and acrobatic swordfighting. Ookami, more interested in exploration, has you play as Goddess of the Sun and, really, the Whole Damn Universe, Amaterasu, stripped of power after an intense battle and forced to take refuge in the form of a wolf (or 狼 – 大神, get it?), armed mostly with a cosmic Ocarina calligraphy brush.

I was already familiar with a lot of this stuff in passing, but I ended up getting interested, so I read up and learned a bunch of new stuff as well. I'm not completely sure how useful this information is since in the long run I don't really care much about mythology, but in my opinion if you intend to live among the Japanese it's good to have some knowledge of such matters. For example, you should at least know who Momotarou is and what went on with him, because that's going to come up from time to time. It isn't necessary to have an encyclopaedic understanding of the Shinto pantheon, but if you want to understand the references and appear culturally up-to-speed you're gonna need to have little bits and pieces tucked away somewhere.

Anyway, my real point here is that I can totally envision Ookami and Muramasa existing within the same continuity. They both explicitly take place in Japan in the distant past, after all, and of course the storylines should be completely compatible. Just from looking at the technology depicted I would have to say that Ookami likely takes place several hundred years earlier at the very least, but there's always ways around stuff like that. Maybe in the future we'll see a Capcom-published, Vanillaware-developed interquel linking the two games together? Get to work, fanfiction authors!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

School festivals, part 2: Kyoujo

Last night we were all finally paid the money we made from our little World Karaage adventure. It turned out to be a startling 4500 yen per person. Now, I am sure I spent at least 2000 enjoying the rest of the festival, put in about ten hours of labour extolling our product's virtues, and went to a 3000-yen nomikai with English Club, but still I have to say that with materials costing 1000 yen this turned out to be quite a high return on my investment.

As I mentioned, we sold out so many times that we elected not to even do the third day. This new opening in my schedule would have been well-spent enjoying the festival some more, but instead an English Club guy and myself decided to check out one from another school, which happened to be running concurrently with our own. The institution in question was Kyouto Joshi Daigaku, that is, Kyouto Girls' University, because how can you say no to that. We talked some big talk about going out to get ourselves some girlfriends, and it was only later that I realised I was the only one who was joking. He did score some e-mail addresses and, apparently, a date, so credit where it's due.
Entering felt like being let inside a secretive enclave, and our first few steps were furtive and tentative, as though we trod upon sacred ground (and in a way I would like to think that we did). Obviously this was my first visit to a joshidai, and I was able to sate my curiosity as to what one is like (answer: basically like any other university.) I had also been wondering where the male teachers and staff go when they need to piss; it turns out that there are roughly as many mens' bathrooms as womens', which I guess is nice, if spatially wasteful.

Some of the students did have me wishing I could attend the school myself, making me wonder, as I often do, if you were a lesbian, wouldn't a joshidai (or joshikou) be fucking paradise? This, in turn, raises the question of just how many lesbians and bisexuals are present on campus? Did they choose the university because of the array of possible partners, or for other reasons? If they did come here looking for love, how easily are they able to find it? Is the dormitory a continuous sapphic orgy? Do they steal a sideways glance every now and then in the changerooms, and would the straight girls around them mind if they knew?
 There was a haunted house for some reason, which struck me as just slightly out of season. This sign warns that the club putting it on will not be held responsible for any relationship troubles that may arise (what?).
 No touching the girls!
 They're voting on a new mascot. I like 21 and I think it makes thematic sense, but 19 is also cool. What do you guys think?
 You get a couple of one-yen coins and have to drop them into one of those shot glasses. (If you're not aware, one-yen coins are incredibly light, so this is much more challenging than it would be to drop in, say, a penny.) You're supposed to turn the coin sideways or put both of them together so that their combined weight will allow you to make a straight shot, but I instead let mine manically swing back and forth before striking the inside of the target and settling. Did it in one try, too. Just saying.
 Kyoujo has an English Club, too! My buddy spent some time making nice with them. I think he was 10% trying to forge ties between the clubs, 90% trying to pick up one of the girls.
 Traditional dance type thing. Pretty cool that they can set up a little grandstand like this, eh?
 Visual Kei bands played inside Kyoujo Hall all day long. You can't see, but the drummer, Mao-chan, is pretty cute. Really missed an opportunity there.

 Like I say, things gets pretty lively! Gender lines were pretty even except for the occasional sea of girls, and me the only foreigner in sight.
 There's anko baked inside. I also had some deep-fried ice cream.
 Yeah, they put an awful lot of effort into beautification.
The Shoudou Club room was unattended but had some stuff laid out so everybody could do some collaborative artwork type stuff. Let's Try indeed.
 "I want a Kyoujo girlfriend." "Me too!"

 "Hatsukoi," first love. I signed my work after; considered leaving my e-mail address and a solicitation as well, but thought better of it.
 "Kyoujo girls are all so cute."
 While dicking around in the Shoudou room we met a couple of girls with whom we then spent the rest of the day. They were traditional dancers of some description, hence the footwear.

One stall was selling pork buns, and if you bought one you got to take a picture with literally about twenty hot Kyoujo girls decked out in full cosplay brocade, from standard nurses and maids to more animeish stuff. I tried to demur but somehow got dragged into the chaos...I can only imagine what they must have thought of the pathetic skinny white boy in their midst, this lucky loser enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Which is why I tried to demur.

 Receive a ticket every time you buy something. Collect five and you get to pull for a prize. I ended up with a lot more than five. No surprises there.
 I won two of the same thing: A couple 2-litres of cold coffee. I'm not too sure how to react to that.
 Sadly, the day had to end at some point. The school is serviced by the "Kyoujo Princess Bus Line." It...yeah.

Monday, 12 November 2012

School festivals

You breathe in the atmosphere and can't help but enjoy it. The everyday walkways have become almost unrecognizably crowded with stalls and signage. The throbbing crowd bumps and grinds like a moshpit, at points becoming practically unnavigable. Every few feet you're assailed by an aggressive student asking you to buy some food. And the noise, it's a strangely harmonious cacophony of chatter, sizzling grills, and people yelling at you. Basically you're enveloped in a vortex of off-time dubstep. And it's great!

You're at a school festival!

As fall wears on, universities throughout the country invite students from other institutions as well as the general public to come on in and check the place out. (As a Canadian, I feel that the fact that holding an outdoor festival in November was even worthy of consideration is noteworthy in itself.) We have food! We have entertainment! We have stuff we've been working on and want to show you! They last around three days, for which period the campus is transformed into a carnival grounds. Well, not like rides or anything, but that kind of vibe, except without the feeling of needing to take a shower when you get home. There's really nothing comparable at most Western universities, I think, so it's a little hard to describe the mood if you haven't been. But if you can, go check one out!

My host university's school festival was a little while ago, and I spent an enjoyable couple of afternoons just wandering around, taking in the atmosphere, and stopping to talk with people I knew. I also ate a lot of horribly unhealthy food, including french fries, waffles, ice cream with pieces of toast, baby castellas with jam, yakisoba, yakimeshi, milk tea, yakitori cooked in miso, and anything else I could be convinced to buy. The portions are small for the price and it's nothing you couldn't make for yourself, but anybody who complains much about this is missing the point. I didn't buy my lunch at the festival because it was the smart choice, I did it in a show of support for my fellow students, and simply because, you know, it's fun! I don't see how anybody can go to a Japanese festival and fail to enjoy themselves.

We of the international dormitory sold World Karaage, the “world” coming from the various unusual seasonings to which we subjected it (Finnish salt, Polish sour cream, Korean spicy sauce, and Chinese soy cause, all bizarre yet tasty combinations in their own way.) Karaage transpired to be a deliciously disgusting kind of fried chicken cooked in a mixture of strange chemicals whose exact nature was never revealed to those of us outside the cooking station, thus preserving its secret. Instead, I was among those responsible for bringing in customers, for which the main technique is yelling into people's faces about what you're selling and extolling its virtues. I teamed up with Creepy Finn, one of my few maamaa Nihongo dekiru dormmates, and we started trading off until we actually had it down to a system: “It's World Karaage!” “There's four flavours!” “World flavours!” “Starting from 200 yen!” “It's good!” “Please try some!” “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!” Then repeat for the next crowd.

The most effective technique is to actually try and engage them in conversation, though most passersby are not amenable to this because they know where it leads. But if you can isolate a group of two or three from the surging masses, your job is halfway done. If you hold their attention for more than thirty seconds, especially if you can entertain or gratify them, the sale is practically made. One of the best things to do is just start talking about the most absurdly irrelevant and pointless thing that comes to mind. The gimmicks of “World” Karaage (as opposed to the regular karaage being sold elsewhere on campus) and foreigners speaking varying levels of Japanese was usually pretty good by itself. We also resorted to having some people dress up as chipmunks, Pikachu, and Batman, so there's that.

Whatever we did must have been effective, because we ended up selling out three times, eventually deciding not to risk buying more supplies and continuing a third day. When we finally dispensed with the last plate late Saturday night, a cheer went up from our stall and several of us started spontaneously dancing, drawing the attention of every sane person within earshot and deeply intimidating the girl who had bought it.

The whole also had the ancillary benefit of dramatically raising my profile on campus, as I'm sure any number of people will remember me and tell me so later. I've also decided that I'm just going to throw awkwardness to the wind and just go up and start talking to people who seem like they might be cool, because damn it, I miss being at a school where every third person knows my name (even when I don't know theirs), and building up my profile here is just taking too damn long.

A professional and fairly sizeable stage was erected in the plaza. The second evening had a free concert (“live”) by a fairly well-known Kansai rock band, and the first one had a goddamn karaoke tournament. I mean how cool is that? I sat in the audience with Seven, Yoritomo of the Genji, and Zombie Nurse, because Hyeong was competing. I half-expected him to bust out Gangnam Style, because I mean, well because he's Korean, obviously, and has kind of the same body type as Psy, and because shit would have fucking killed. But Hyeong, see, he's way too classy a guy to go for that. He performed in Japanese. And I can sympathize with that, because fuck knows I hate being forced to sing in English when I do karaoke with some people. So Hyeong, he's got a great singing voice that he really knows how to use, so he did this real soulful romantic type song that I'm sure had most every girl in the audience either swooning or soaking, or both, yeah in fact probably both. And evidently that was the way to go, because he won! He straight-up won the whole damn competition. That's right, my man, that is how it's done.

Good times.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Guide Section

Up to this point, I have mostly been associated with the Conversation Section of my university's English Club, for basically no other reason than that they happened to pick me up first. And that's fine, because most of them are pretty cool, and I've managed to make some genuine friends after sifting through the weirdos and the Anglophiles. But, hey, I decided not to formally join the club because I wanted to keep myself open for other opportunities, right?

The main quirk that sets Guide apart from the other two sections is that from time to time on weekends they take groups of foreigners to various sightseeing spots around Kyouto. You would logically think that at least a few members would therefore be aspiring tour guides, but I have yet to meet one. They shouldn't be hard to find, either, considering that it is for some reason larger than the other two combined, with over fifty members. It seems that originally there no divisions, but they got divvied up when the three foreign English teachers started having differences of opinion, one exchange leading to a fistfight and subsequent restraining order, which I can only imagine means that staff meetings are conducted by handwritten notes and teaching schedules arranged by awkward phone call, so that the two in question can maintain the requisite distance. All three then followed this up by utterly losing interest in their respective sections and never involving themselves with their day-to-day affairs ever again, rendering the whole differentiation thing meaningless.

But I had heard reports that besides this key difference they were otherwise functionally identical to Conversation, which turned out to be completely untrue. Both sections utilise the "speech," whose actual English meaning would imply a single participant reciting something in front of the group but is used here to indicate pair work in which one partner rambles on about some completely trivial topic for a little while before being interrogated on their assertions, then switching roles. Some of Conversation's typical activities are free talking, light role-playing, and 2-minute speeches. Guide Section discussed an English news story, translated a passage of a difficult book, and did 5-minute speeches.

In short, Guide Section is more like a study group, and Conversation Section is more a place to dick around as much as possible. Guide's topic of discussion tonight was "Kyouto," Conversation's was "which is a better place for a first date, a horserace or a hotel." You can probably guess that I will not be visiting Guide Section too terribly often in future, as well as which one I observe to have the higher aggregate level of English ability.

I don't even dare delve into Discussion Section, whose section chief also heads English Club overall. They're said to be strict as a classroom and run until 10 pm. On the other hand, there's one cutie who may possibly lure me in, though I am receiving mixed reports on her, one girl telling me "I know her pretty well, and she's a little loose," and another saying, "I've only talked to her once, but she definitely isn't," leaving me at a loss as to what to believe, not that I mind anyway.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Nara photoglut

Another pretty ok set! I hope we're not all getting tired of these yet, because there'll be more in the future.
 Gyouki, a Buddhist monk, enemy of the government and hero of the people. He travelled around the Kansai area establishing temples in the vein of community centres. Later on he and the ruling officials made peace, and he used his expertise to help oversee the construction of Toudaiji. And now there's a statue of him outside Kintetsu Nara.
 This is just for all the girls who squeal over cute animals. This one is cute, right? I don't really understand girls very well.
 Five-Storey Pagoda and Daikodou Hall. Even if you infiltrated the Five-Storey Pagoda you wouldn't actually be able to reach the top, because the stairs and stuff just stop. Way to falsely advertise, Buddhism.
 Weird little lake that Cologne, HK and I went to check out while the other ten or so stood yelling at us to hurry up for five minutes straight.

 Anarchy in the UK and I found this hilarious for some reason.
 Green space that stretches on like this forever. Do they cull the trees to keep them from growing up too close together? They're awfully consistent.
 Fairly big mansion right there in the middle of the park. Sort of like what Mr Sunnyside had going in Central Park in Sakura Taisen V.
 They let you get awfully close. Well obviously, since they assume you're going to feed them.
 Solid twelve feet tall at least, I'd say. Although the shashin doesn't really utsuru it.
 These lanterns line the paths for a looooooong way. Like, kilometres.
 In thanks for the bounty your grace hath given us, we offer! Well, if I ever became a deity, I know I'd appreciate beer more than incense or cow's blood.
 Can you kind of see that dog statue on the left, there? This will be important later.
 REALLY close!

 I told you, they're goddamn everywhere.
 The terminus of Lantern Lane.
 Right, so, dogs. Though perhaps the ugliest and least intelligent animals in the universe, dogs are revered as protectors of this general temply area, hence the statues you can find of them here and there. I have even heard rumours that some people willingly keep dogs in their presence, even adopting them as pets, though I find this a little incredible.

 Guarding the first gate to Toudaiji. Stupid net kind of kills the shots, but what do you want.

 There are broad, long lanes between the gates. The masses of people make it a pretty fun walk. Feels like you're in the midst of doing something momentous.
 Right before the final gate.
 By the way, since Buddhist temples are made of wood, they have a tendency to burn down. That's why they have those gold things on the roof. Not to act as lightning rods or anything, but because the shape represents a fish's tail. And you know, fish live in water, which almost never catches fire, so.
 Pretty detailed, right? You can locate it in the photo above if you like.
 He's actually kind of intimidating!

 Close-up view of the guardian warriors' faces. It's a little macabre, actually.

And our history tour finishes with some modern convenience.