Monday, 31 December 2012

Foreigner Bubble

When you ask Japanese students what their goals are for the year they're about to spend in Canada, you will never hear them say, “I want to stay in my room, never use English and associate only with Japanese people.” Unfortunately, that's the attitude taken by a lot of expats who come to Japan, and I don't want to point the finger specifically at only English teachers because it's hardly limited to them. In a lot of ways it's understandable, because God knows we're put into a situation that encourages it. Constantly amongst our so-called fellows, sometimes actively herded into groups with them, inundated with negative imagery of the country and often with little or no language skills, it's no wonder that this ends up happening.

They're living in what I (along with probably everyone else) like to call the Foreigner Bubble. It's a magical realm cordoned off from the surrounding space, untainted by locals and their strange customs and their incomprehensible tongue. You have a few who will freely perforate its membrane, embarking on the occasional sojourn into the cultural wilderness, but they will always return to the warm womb that forms their transplanted home. A particularly aggressive local sufficiently masterful in the lingua franca of that domain may be cautiously allowed entry, but will never make purchase on the Bubble's inner sanctum, where the most legendary expats sit around homogeneously, drinking and talking shit about the world without.

I would say that most foreigners coming into the country fall into this trap early and never quite haul themselves out. In Canada it worked to my advantage, and there were actually stretches of days at a time where I was able to construct a fully Japanese environment up around myself. But I also saw what it did to the students, and to their level of English, and I knew going in that staying as far outside of the Foreigner Bubble was going to be a priority for me here. And I also knew that it was going to be a lot of work.

That's why it's nice to be in an international dormitory where everyone is at least united in their purpose, if in nothing else. Sure, the atmosphere doesn't exactly promote use of the Japanese language, but to come to the university you have to be able to at a minimum be able to read hiragana by the time you arrive, and the majority have been studying for two years or more, so if nothing else we're guaranteed to be amongst people who are at least interested in the country and its culture. Whatever their current ability to communicate, everyone would like for it to be better.

And to some degree, we all want to escape each other. It's simultaneously ironic and totally natural. Some mind it less than others, and are only too happy to skip off to whatever new site they've elected to explore that day, several of their ilk in tow. They've made friends among foreigners and see no problem, and of course they're not wrong. But others want to move away from that a little bit. I'd argue that I've taken a bit of an extreme approach, because I've been lone wolfing it up since the second I arrived, actively avoiding foreigners and usually striking out unaccompanied.

I'm pretty sure this has made me a couple of enemies, but nothing I'm too concerned with. The only ones I care about anyway are those who are some combination of 1) tolerable, and 2) skilled in Japanese (read: won't embarrass me in front of my friends). These are the few I'd actually choose to hang out with if given a choice, not only because we connect on some level but also because I'm reasonably confident I won't have to babysit them all night, or get roped into translating every single thing they want to vomit, or get pulled out of the main conversation so that they have somebody that'll speak English to them.

Yet every time I've had this conversation with somebody, we've agreed that we didn't come to Japan to spend time with non-Japanese, looking right into each other's eyes and tacitly acknowledging that we'd rather be with someone else right now, and nobody has ever been offended.

The problem is, Japanese friends are a little harder to make. There's some barriers in your way; language, whiteness, nobody is really interested in making friends with you, awkwardness, not knowing the best places to meet people...all kinds of things can put a dent in your plans.

But after a while, everybody has met a few people, and most met one or two Kyouto-jin friends at their home universities. Regardless of their source, these friends are hoarded like so much gold bullion in a mercantilist economy. They are hidden out of view, alluded to but never introduced, lest they become a viable target for another foreigner's friendship endeavours, thus (to mix metaphors) opening the floodgates of our own evil influence. In other words, we keep them for ourselves because we're trying to escape everybody else. Everybody is doing it, everybody knows everybody is doing it, and nobody has any hard feelings about it. In fact, trying to make friends with a friend somebody else has already staked a claim on is viewed as a grave breach in protocol, and quite simply not done. Maybe the injured party won't say anything, but maybe, say, an invitation to the next nomikai will somehow slip their mind.

When people announce what their plans are for the weekend, they may try to subtly indicate that it's a private affair and nobody else had better ought to go inviting themselves. They're coy with the where's and when's, too. As of now, I'm investigating a couple other student societies in addition to the aforementioned English Club. So far I haven't breathed a word of my results, and you can bet your bank account I have no intention of asking anybody else if they'd like to tag along. Fortunately, if you have the knowledge, the means, and a ton of tenacity, there's a lot you can do to escape the Foreigner Bubble.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

RBA complains about his roommates

So last night I set the scene that plays itself out every day in night in my school's international dormitory, and apart from explicitly saying so I hope I made it clear that it's a lot of fun.

But not everything about this living situation is exactly wonderful. It's full of children, for one thing, and people really need to learn how to wash dishes. Arzenchia sometimes speaks Spanish and, worse, whistles...all the damn time...interminably. It makes me want to punch her front teeth out so she can't do it anymore. It makes me wish I'd named her Whistler, except then I guess people might think she was from Whistler. Europeans eat incredibly loudly and can't keep their fingers out of their mouths. And, as you will find in any group of people, several occupants are just plain stupid.

However, the worst complaint I have to levy is that almost nobody speaks at all. Six Japanese domestic students live among us, speaking almost exclusively in Japanese, often simplified for their interlocutors' benefit – one girl consciously tries to repress her Kyouto-ben around those she knows will struggle with it – and I truly admire their patience in trying to communicate with with people whose language skills are still immature. Yet in spite of their efforts, the lack of interest in learning the language is staggering. It's the reason I didn't feel like I'd arrived in Japan until several days after I actually had.

You might naturally assume that Japanese would be the primary mode of communication for a group of students living in Japan. It makes sense. We have all different native languages, after all, so Japanese should be our zone of common understanding. But if you were talking about my dormitory, you'd be dead wrong. I hear that in other places people try a little harder, and that even where I am things were better last semester. Unfortunately, nearly all residents' Japanese is incoherent at best, and that presents a significant obstacle to this lifestyle. They fell back on the lowest common denominator.

For the time being, English still functions as the auxiliary world language, so the dorm's lingua franca is English. It's incredible. Can you believe that some of them complain about people not speaking good enough English? Bad enough that they vilify each other for it, every once in a while somebody will slip up and condemn a Japanese person for not having the good sense to have mastered a difficult language that is barely used in their own country, where they were born, and currently live. I'm inclined to think that the onus is on the foreigners to, you know, learn to speak Japanese, but I guess that's naiive of me.

But maybe I need to get off my high horse? Sometimes I have to remind myself that I have years of experience, a much deeper interest, and, hey hey, probably a great deal more talent than any of the people around me, but I can always look at it in terms of “What if I was in Korea right now.” I'd be going in with almost zero knowledge of Korean, but see, in that case, you can be sure as shit that I'd also be doing everything possible to acclimate myself to the language and the idiosyncrasies of its particular communication style, and I'd be properly grateful anytime I found a Korean person with the patience to play ball, in either language.

It's funny to watch the advancement of the different classroom groups, though. My own Level 4's, the highest group, have advanced at a predictable pace, given the foundation and motivation you would expect them to possess, having already come this far. In particular, we have begun to broach academic Japanese, which, as in any language, contains an entirely separate paradigm utilised nowhere else. Meanwhile, the Level 3's have at least gone from being almost incapable of producing speech to having simple conversations. And the Level 1's are like the 350-pounder who's just started on a diet, rocking progress in terms of sheer percentage. With some measure of completely unearned pride, I've watched them grow from total cluelessness into people I could almost bear to be seen together in public with.

No, it's the Level 2's that really vex me. It's as though they got here, found out they weren't in the lowest group, decided that that was pretty much good enough, and proceeded to show absolutely no improvement whatsoever. They treat Japanese like a toy rather than a tool. Nothing wrong with playing around with it, but show a little respect! This is the language of the country you live in. Doesn't matter that you won't be here this time next year. You have all the means at your disposal, so take advantage of it. Instead, they're all more concerned with going out for dinner, Skype calls home, and unsuccessful skirt-chasing. It's embarrassing.

Don't think I'm letting the more accomplished speakers off the hook, either. It isn't always easy to keep the Japanese flowing amongst them, either. I'm not saying that it needs to be constant. The Koreans speak Korean amongst themselves, for instance, and honestly that's fine. Lord knows that with pidgin mumblings and self-censorship persisting for days at a stretch, talking with Anarchy in the UK is the only time I get to draw upon my full range of vocabulary, complexity, and colloquialisms, written exchanges notwithstanding. Where it gets stupid is when a couple of people amongst mixed company unwittingly start up a side conversation just by hitting the ground running in a language that no one else can follow. It's unsociable and just plain rude. Yes, it's a little weird for two white people to speak Japanese to each other, deal with it for five minutes.

It's not fair to expect fluency from everybody. I don't. I just want people to let a little air into their sterilized biosphere.

By the way, when I said up there that almost everyone in the dormitory speaks in English at all times, I wasn't being completely truthful. I could more accurately have said that almost everyone on the third floor, where I live, speaks English at all times. On the fourth floor, everyone speaks in Chinese, and on the second floor, nobody speaks at all.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Dorm life

There's only two Americans in my dorm. I'm the only Canadian, which is enlivening and vaguely isolating at the same time. There's an Englishman, four Italians, two Finns, a's like a cross-section of Europe, except also we have two Korean-born Koreans and a half-Chinese zainichi. We might as well have extraterritoriality, because if you were abducted and woke up inside this building, you'd never know you were in Japan. With all the multiculturalism, you might think it was Canada, which would make the upstairs Quebec, except more Chinese. Of all the nationalities populating this place, Chinese, and a litany of people who will get angry if you call them Chinese, are by far the most numerous, and for some reason have all been quarantined to the same area. But their presence at least makes sense; not only do they have the most representatives worldwide, but, for a variety of reasons, there are more Chinese in Japan than any other flavour of foreigner. Yet strangely, the European sector is one-third German.

Statistically, it follows that my roommate is German. I was strongly hoping that shared occupancy meant maybe like a shared bathroom and more cramped, but partitioned, sleeping quarters. Unfortunately, it does not. It means that I am straight-up sleeping in the same room as another guy (and a mostly naked stranger at that), and that took a couple of nights to get over. It also means that three or four times a night one or the other of us will leap out of bed prepared to fight for our lives, only to find that the noise we heard was merely our counterpart rolling over in his sleep. Sneaking out of the room without waking the other is impossible; we don't even try anymore.

That said, I barely even notice the inconvenience, because my room is really just a sleeping spot, a “place for my stuff,” and not much else. We don't even have Internet in our rooms, frankly a brilliant move on management's part. Without it, we are forced to emerge from our caves and congregate in the common room, where we inevitably socialize. I have to admit, if not for that I wouldn't know the names of half the people here. Actually, wait, let me think...yeah, actually I still don't, so what does that tell you.

Built for perhaps half as many people as like to use it simultaneously, the common room's floor is a clusterfuck of converter-laden cables and cords, every possible seat is occupied and several new ones improvised, and at any given time one may see a number of meals lying around in varying stages of preparation, the individual components of one dish sometimes laid on surfaces across the room from each other, wherever room can be found or created. Nearly the entirety of our home lives takes place in this space. It's the site of daily debriefs, continuing Internet adventures, blossoming love, studying, worrying, discussions, arguments movies, music, macking, and, overall, friendship. It may spring from no more than confluent flukes of geography and circumstance, but hell, what friendship doesn't. It cultivates an energy that won't let you go to bed, and an atmosphere that ensures you don't want to.

Everyone is always welcome at all times. (Well, except for one guy...everywhere has one of those, though, right?) People from all different nations and backgrounds mingle indiscriminately. Friends are made among people who would never even have met. We all have our spots; I occupy an entire couch on my own, Big Finn and Cough Medicine share the one across from me. There's constant cooperation and collaboration. People study together, plan trips and excursions together, and work together to solve those everyday problems that magically become so much more complex when you're trying to solve them in a foreign country. There's a sense of familiarity and trust. Computers are left blatantly hanging about, and if you point your ear down the hall throughout the day, you are sure to hear the sound of unlocked doors swinging shut. Most significantly, we share unity of purpose. To some degree, everybody is here to experience Japan, and, meanwhile, to better themselves. And because the demarcations in Japanese ability are so clear, there isn't even any friendly competition to distract from this feeling. More than mere housemates, we're companions on a journey.

Not everything about the dorm is loveable, no doubt about that. But those are complaints I'd rather save for another post.

Because overall, it really is great living in this house.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Another Lonely Day

Friday, we have a fairly sizable Christmas party in one of the shokudou. The attendees are a coalition of the reciprocal exchange students, our tutors, and the (all-Japanese) international club. Anarchy in the UK hosts haphazardly. Food, performances. Hyeong dances to Gangnam Style. It's uneventful, but enjoyable.

And there's Christmas cake. Not a real Christmas cake, but like a cake cake, with customary strawberries. Incidentally, the other traditional food here is chicken. Sometimes I want to complain that this is not what Christmas is. But really, what we do in Canada is hardly Christmas either. We went deep into Xmas territory decades ago and never looked back. And anyway, it's not a KFC conspiracy, it turns out it's just because they don't have turkeys here. Let the Japanese have their fun. I can get into it.

The bulletin board downstairs says “Classes offered” under December 24th. It's the worst possible choice of words, seeming to indicate that it's not mandatory, but if you really feel the need to get some study time in then hey, drop on in. It's only more confusing for we North Americans, all three of us, for whom the important day is actually the 25th.

I wake up this morning and I'm not sure how I'm supposed to feel. I settle on “pissed off,” but it's got no edge. Mostly I just feel blank. I've always kind of hated the omnipresent, commercial, overplay every possible Christmas song old and new until you want to poke your eardrums out, saccharine force-feeding session that starts at 0:00 on November 1st, so I was as surprised as anyone to find out I actually kind of miss it. I want to hear carols, and be told untrue platitudes about the meaning of Christmas, and watch Love, Actually and shitty seasonal specials. Well, that last bit I've always liked anyway. For foreigners who are into holiday spirit, family communion, and other stuff that leaves my hard heart unmoved, Christmas in Japan is probably a little bit awful.

But if that's not enough, don't worry, you'll have a whole different reason to feel bad about yourself! The focus here is very different from what you're probably used to, catering to couples, not families. Japanese Christmas is like Valentine's Day on, on MDMA.

Campus is almost empty, but almost everybody who is there is paired off. No, that must be my imagination. No, it definitely isn't. The air's finally taken on a bit of bite, and we get a little flurry, which makes me feel better.

In the evening I head to Sanjou-Shijou to bask in other people's happiness. Couples everywhere, they're all adorable, and they're being waaaaay more couply than you will ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever see on any other day in Japan. I perform my usual aimless wandering, revel in the general atmosphere, and it's wonderful. For about half an hour. After that I just feel sorry for myself. For the first time in a long time, I regret being single. I meander between depression and tragic apathy, and it's difficult to say which is more poisonous. But I came because I wanted to be depressed, anyway. Better than feeling nothing at all, so why not wallow in it. Around 10 o'clock, 70% of the couples have dissipated, secreted away to apartments and love hotels. I don't want to leave, but I have a train to catch.

Probably be back tomorrow. That's the kind of self-destructive prick I am.

At home, I open the gift I've received from my parents. We've had our differences, still do, but they're not bad people. It's Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Excellent choice, except that I already own it. Read it on the plane, in fact. Somehow, my one Christmas present seems far lonelier than if I'd gotten none at all.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Another Japan

It's four o'clock and I've just dashed off the final revision of the project that's been gnawing at me for weeks. I'm going to see the Koube Luminarie, which is a huge display of Christmas lights, so obviously it ends on December 17th. It's also ostensibly in memory of the 1995 earthquake, although you'd never know without being told, because mostly it's just an excuse to go somewhere with someone special. For me, it's just an excuse to go to Koube, because it's time to get a visit under my belt. After all, how can I call myself a Kansai man if I've never even been to one-third of Keihanshin?!

But on the way there, I've assigned myself a mission of the utmost gravity. During my first visit to Japan, eleven years ago, I was taken to visit the Pokemon Centre in Oosaka, and my fondness for them has only grown in that time. Meanwhile, the number of Pokemon Centres nationwide has grown to seven, and, breathtakingly, each one has a particular pin that can only be purchased at that specific location. Today I will take the first step in obtaining a full collection of the pins in question, and I swear to you all that no matter the cost I will complete it before I die. “Almost” is worthless; proxies are cheating. This is to be my white whale, the final and perfect expression of my Pokemon fandom.

But it doesn't start well. I don't see the building anywhere outside, and trying to navigate the Umeda-Oosaka basement is like playing Pac-Man in first person. It's tantalizingly close, I've probably circled it a dozen times already. I start to get sad and pissed off. How am I supposed to find the other stores when I can't even locate the one in my own domain? For that matter, if this is how things go in the country where I speak and somewhat read the language, what the hell is going to happen when I visit Korea? God this is frustrating, I'm never gonna--

Holy shit I found it.

I fly up 13 flights of escalator. Fifteen minutes. The store isn't nearly as large or ostentatious as it was in 2001, in the height of the Pokemon craze, but I'm at no loss for things I want. Gotta prioritize. The overhead speakers are playing worryingly up-tempo music to encourage lingering customers to pick up the pace, making it incredibly hard to think straight. But I succeed!

Riding around in the bag for hours mangled her legs a bit, so I can't get her to freestand right now (her gigantic head doesn't help), but I'm sure she can be fixed.

They didn't have specifically what I wanted, but this does have “Osaka” written on it.

This is just cool.

When I get my stuff home, I'll look through the flyers they packed in and realise there's more stuff I need. Pikachu eating different foods – THAT'S the national collection I should be going for. But I should make sure to grab anything with the name of the location on it, too, just in case. And damn, this Efi thing is so cool, I restrained myself at the time but I really think I'm gonna be going back and getting the other six...

Damn it, Nintendo. Stop exploiting my latent OCD tendencies.

It's eight o'clock now. If I go to Koube now, by the time I enjoy the festival I won't be able to make it all the way home.

Me: Are we seriously doing this?
Myself: We are.
Me: We have no plan, we're going to a place we've never been, in a foreign country.
Myself: What are we going to do, write in our blog that we almost went to Koube?
Me: That blog is going to be the death of us someday.
Myself: It'll be fine, don't worry. I got this.
Me: Ok...I trust you.
I: Quiet down you two, people are staring.

A cute couple rides with me much of the way. I love cute couples. Maybe it's vicarious wish fulfillment. If so, that's fine. The third time she stumbles, the guy laughs. “You can hold onto me, you know.” “Thanks,” she blushes, shyly taking hold of his sleeve. A high school girl dozes on my shoulder.

And then I'm in Koube.

It's my favourite type of town. Swarming with young, fashionable people of varying repute enjoying each other's company, awash in wastefully bright lights shining from every angle. I decide I like Koube. Which is good, since I'll be spending the night here.

I feel like I'm playing Grand Theft Auto and the game's just opened a new borough for me. Maybe it's not as interesting as the old areas, probably I won't be spending much time there aside from story missions, but I still like the look of it and for the moment it has my full attention. I'm stumbling around, happily confused, spotting a million things I'd like to investigate and wanting to walk off in all directions at once. And once you've been there the first time, you can go again whenever you want. Koube is just another point in the geography of my life now.

It's refreshing being back in a real city for once. Local ordinances limit the height of Kyouto buildings, the idea being to preserve its Old Capital flavour. This might make it a bigger tourist draw, but seems a little wrong-headed from where I sit. In its heyday, Kyouto was the biggest and liveliest spot in the country – and so you think that to capture the Kyouto of a thousand years ago, it needs to seem a thousand years out of date? Luckily, Oosaka and Koube are better known for being on the cutting edge. Much more my speed.

The streets of Sannomiya are relatively straightforward and logical when compared to Umeda's spastic autofellatio, and I figure that this, combined with my normally impeccable sense of direction – which has gotten me out of more than a few potential scrapes here, by the way – will make it difficult to get lost, but I've always been one to defy the odds. Despite the density of the party area, suburbia is almost immediately adjacent. I figure this is because Koube, though decently large, stretches around the harbour, drawing it long and narrow. I spend a couple of hours wandering near the freeway.

Then I encounter my destined rival. We duel briefly before he comments that it isn't time yet, and departs with a mysterious one-liner.
Of course what leads me so far afield is my search for the lights, and although even my most promising leads take me nowhere it's quite interesting to see the Christmas displays all over the place. In Kyouto or Oosaka you'll hear Christmas songs in stores and restaurants, and sometimes...actually, no, that's about it. Koube is a little more into it for some reason. That said, I'm looking for this:

And can only find this:

Interesting, but not on the same level. I never do find those fucking lights, and later on it turns out that maybe they actually ended the day before. After a while, the formerly exciting Sannomiya turns into a skeezy ghost town, and I'd really like to find a nice park or alley or something to sleep in for a few hours, maybe get arrested for vagrancy or whatever. But I'm wearing a very nice jacket, so I can't. At least it's warm, leaving me free to wander for hours, and hours, and hours, so I still end up having a lot of fun exploring Koube.

Wanting to keep from becoming depressed and urgey, I've lately been trying to look at the girls around me, but here I can't help myself. Kyouto girls are great, Oosaka girls are excellent, but Koube girls are outright fantastic.

Kyouto and Oosaka have a smattering of police, the occasional McDonald's, and one or two Christian churches, each. Koube has an inordinate number of all these things. It was like the Hell's Kitchen level of Deus Ex, and also religion, and also seriously how the hell many McDonald's do they really need?

Have I explained yet how recruiters work here? The way Japanese buildings are set up, where you have buildings made up of five stories filled with completely unrelated businesses, there are lots of restaurants and other venues you'd never find by chance. So they hire persuasive young people in distinctive clothing to try and coax you in. The ones in Koube are the most aggressive I've ever seen. The ones in Higashimonsen in particular are pushing Girls' Bars and the like, where you can pay for the privilege of having hot girls pretend you're interesting. Luckily I get ignored. In fact, sometimes they act like I'm not even there. It's kind of fun listening to them bullshit amongst each other in between waves of customers.

Nine, fucking nine Chinese prostitutes approach me – in Chinese. And that's discounting the ones who merely say “Masajjii?” (“massage,” i.e. handjob.) No judging, but what the hell, white guys in Koube? What's with all the whoring, and how come you all speak Chinese?

Speaking of which, just from looking around I think Koube has the largest population of Chinese and Koreans I've yet seen in Japan. Even witnessed a screaming drunk argument in Korean. Although I was the only sober person there, so doesn't mean much. A lot of signage was in Japanese and Korean but not in English, and there were rather a lot of Korean restaurants. I remark that Koube may be the most diverse city in Japan, which I then realise is meaningless since it's still 99% Japanese Japanese.

And finally: Couples kissing! In public! Where people can see and everything! We're talking a whole three of them! For a total of six people! In Japan! Koube: Another Side of Japan.

Friday, 21 December 2012

School festivals, part 4: Doushisha

This actually happened weeks ago but I was planning to put it together with whatever festival I went to next. But gakkousai season is now over, so Doushisha ended up being the last one I went to, which was fitting since it was also the best by far. Thanks to my Doujo visit I already knew the location and the dates of operation, so although I knew it would be mega-awkward I decided to venture forth on my own.

I moved amongst the crowd silently and anonymously, feeling like Altaiir, Ezio or Connor from Assassin's Creed, and looking equally conspicuous. I immediately notice the huge number of international students, relatively speaking; there's a little group of them standing together every hundred metres or so. There's so many of them they probably think I go here too. I think my own school has them beat in foreigners per capita, though. Anyway, perhaps owing to this almost everybody approaches me with the assumption that I speak at least some Japanese, which, as I think I've explained before, is a very effective sales pitch on me.

What really put Doushisha at the top of my list was that it had all kinds of stuff going on. Virtually every inch of space not being used as an avenue of transit was occupied by a stall or event.
Like whatever the hell was going on here.
The energy of festival fun filled the corners of the entire area. Everybody was excited to be there. Girls in their old school uniforms tittered about. A girl in hanbok gave me a slip of Japanese-language propaganda concerning North Korean zainichi being legally disallowed from studying their own heritage. A group of girls did a tap-dancing routine on a raised platform outdoors. And also, there were cute girls everywhere, moreso than at any other school festival, even the two joshidai I visited. I realise I just wrote four sentences that were all related to girls, but you know, you end up seeing what you're looking for.

But the best thing of all was the festival's unifying theme. There was a ton of different and varied stuff going on, but the most by far was music. Live performances all over the place! It lent not only a positive, energetic ambient soundscape that was absent at other festivals, but also lent a sense of cohesion to the entirety of the proceedings, holding them together like mortar: Live - food stalls - live - painting exhibition - live - food stalls - live - etc.

Even one inside! This one was modern-type songs played with classical instruments. A recruiter dragged me in.
Yeah, there were a lot of performers.
The main feature. It must be nice going to a university that has money. But in all seriousness, this show was awesome. Could have stayed there all night. A bunch of the crowd were from "FSS" (French Studying Society? Or would that be FES...) and I danced with some of them. Then they shook my hand. Unfortunately I eventually had to go, since I was due at a nomikai held by one of my teachers...and there's a story in there, but it'll have to wait until I've graduated.

I love festivals, and I now especially love school festivals. If I'm still here next year (working on it!!!!!) I'll be right back, maybe clean up all of Kyouto or even go beyond its four walls. How many do you think I can manage next year?!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Japanese Politics Primer, Part 3: Election Debrief

I realise most of you probably don't care about politics, never mind Japanese politics, so I'll wrap up this series as briefly as I can before returning to what I do best. I originally promised an overview of the various contenders for PM, but once it became clear Abe was going to win I thought it might be more interesting to examine how things stand after the fact. Even still, we're going to focus on the leaders, because that's the part of politics that I like best.

Abe Shinzou, Jimintou (LDP) – 294 seats

You have to give Abe some credit here for winning such a massive victory. You could chalk it up to voter apathy, or to the lack of competition, or to the current political climate or anything else you want to spin it towards, but a two-thirds majority is a job well done as far as I'm concerned. On the other hand, just about any criticism that could be levied at him has some degree of merit. He's vapid and bland, a career politician from a family of career politicians, he's got oddly shaped bones in his closet, and while he's no Ishihara or Asou he's not the most articulate or exciting speaker, either. What he does have going for him is experience, in particular his one-year PM stint in which he demonstrated his foreign policy prowess in the area of the North Korea kidnapping crisis. Well, actually Koizumi started that, but Abe finished it out, and now the Japanese public tends to view that at his big accomplishment. And if you're going to be defined by just one thing, you could do worse than “saved some people from being tortured to death.”

Noda Yoshihiko, Minshutou (DPJ) – 57 seats

This was a huge blow, funny enough pretty much a reversal of the last election, in which the Minshutou smashed the Jimintou. And like in the aftermath of that election, in which Asou took responsibility for the catastrophic loss and resigned, Noda has announced his withdrawal from the party's ruling council, so we're now waiting to see who ends up as leader of the opposition. Not that it'll make all that much of a difference anyway, what with that huge gap they left the Jimintou to stretch their legs in. It looks like he won't be retiring from politics entirely, though, as he did win his own seat, and it sounds like he intends to continue legislature service as an ordinary legislature guy.

Ishihara Shintarou, Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) – 43 seats

This is where things get a little more fun. With a clear winner almost from the beginning, the big story this election was the formation of the new Ishin no Kai party, and what they were going to do about the election, and who was going to lead, and what the hell was on their minds exactly. Well, now we have the answers to those first two questions, and as you can see, things worked out pretty well for them, as they're now within striking range of the Minshutou. In a surprise move, Hashimoto, the Mayor of Oosaka, ceded leadership to Ishihara, his ostensible senpai and decrepit lunatic of a co-founder. This was a bit of a personal disappointment for me since Hashimoto is so much more charismatic and assholish, although, it may be a strategic move on his part since Ishihara is going to retire or die within the next like ten seconds, at which point Hashimoto can take charge, make use of the groundwork Ishihara has lain, and appear that much more legit in the long run.

Yamaguchi Natsuo, Komeitou (New Komeitou) – 31 seats

This is where my initial premise falls apart as I realise I only know the Big Names, and start focussing on the parties instead. I mentioned this before but it's still funny: Japan's ruling party is right-wing; its opposition was formed by refugees from the ruling right-wing party; the third-place party is made up of wacko right-wingers; and the fourth-place party is a right-wing religious offshoot party. But at least it's Buddhist, which is a nice change of pace. Oh, right, and it's called the Komeitou in Japanese but the New Komeitou in English. That isn't stupid or anything.

Watanabe Yoshimi, Minna no Tou (Your Party) – 18 seats

Everyone's Party.

Kada Yukiko, Nippon Mirai no Tou (Tomorrow Party) – 9 seats

Japan Party of the Future? Party of the Japanese Future? Future Party Japan? Hey, I think we've just hit upon a great title for an anime, or album, or band, or blog. Have at it. Also, they're down from 61 seats. It's bad to go from heavily relevant to significantly less relevant, it must be awful to go from barely relevant to meaningless.

Shii Kazuo, Nihon Kyouzantou (Japanese Communist Party) – 8 seats

Down one seat. A minor tactical loss, but, with the Jimintou's landslide victory, strategic devastation.

Fukushima Mizuho, Shakai Minshutou (Social Democratic Party) – 2 seats

Down from five. Very lonely.

Jimi Shouzaburo, Kokumin Shintou (People's New Party) – 1 seat

One seat. One. Also, note how the staunchly left-wing parties all kind of bunch up near the end? That's symptomatic of a general inability to form a united leftist front. The Minshutou is theoretically centrist and the Jimintou has its moments, but if they keep splitting the leftist votes they'll never get anything they really want. Admittedly, if they all amalgamated tomorrow they'd still only have 11 seats, but maybe in some future election they'd be able to win a handful more if they weren't forcing their base to choose between the socialists and communists.

As was the case prior to the election, I'm still mostly interested in Hashimoto and wondering if he'll do anything spectacular. And to reiterate something else I said before, it's my personal wish to see Abe either bookend the one-year Prime Minister thing by being both the first and last, or to break the tradition he himself started and actually last a while. Not sure it's wise to bet on either, though.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Japanese Politics Primer, Part 2: PM Parade

Part one.
Part three.

Unfortunately the last installment ended up being much longer than I had originally envisioned, but that was somewhat necessitated by the depth and density of the material. Hopefully this time will be a little easier to swallow and possibly more entertaining, since we'll be talking about the fact that the Japanese Prime Ministership has been a complete gong show going on seven years now.

Even if you're totally unfamiliar with Japanese politics, you've probably caught wind of this development in the media at least a couple of times (for some reason it was particularly popular fodder when Kan was in power). The gist of it is that ever since 2006 we've been presented with a new PM almost annually, the situation becoming successively more absurd and the reasons more sigh-inducing.


Koizumi Jun'ichiro (2001-2006)

I think Koizumi might be my favourite Japanese Prime Minister ever. Not particularly for his policies or anything, which I'm not even that familiar with, but because he was fun to watch, even if he was kind of before my time. He's become a bit of a minor legend, with newsanchors regaling us with tales of his Segway expeditions, need for speed, dress-up sessions, discovery of some psychadelic mushrooms, and, of course, his magnificent hair. He was kind of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau of Japan in that way. Though he attracted international criticism for his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, he was ultimately one of the most successful politicians in Japanese history. He enjoyed considerable popularity and pushed through a number of reforms, but after his postal privatization bill was defeated in 2005 he announced that he would step down the following year in order to make way for his successor.

Abe Shinzou (2006-2007)

Koizumi endorsed no one, and the Jimintou leadership convention appointed Abe, who easily led them to victory in the 2006 election. For the most part he continued on with the policies that Koizumi had set into motion, but also made enemies with stupid moves like stoking existing WWII textbook controversy, denying the existence of comfort women, and trying to mess with the Imperial orders of succession. His worst mistake by far was to suggest that Article 9 of the Japanese constitution needs to be changed. Because oh man, that is just asking for heat. Article 9 is the one that prohibits Japan from having a real army and Abe had been thinking that maybe Japan needed one of those after all. Of course, this brooked a huge argument over whether trying to destroy the constitution was unconstitutional, which it was, unless you look at it retroactively. On the other hand, his Asian foreign policy is generally praised as taking positive steps towards understanding and reconciliation, in spite of the comments he made in that area.

Less than a year after his ascension, he stepped down, citing serious stomach problems, because this is a culture where you can speak publicly about gastrointestinal trauma without being publicly ridiculed. There is some speculation about whether this was a legitimate medical issue or merely an excuse allowing him to gracefully dodge responsibility, but it's kind of a useless argument as it's all conjecture. It's still a lame way to go out regardless, though. That said, we may not have seen the last of Abe.

Fukuda Yasuo (2007-2008)

Fukuda was kind of unremarkable and in fact, the only thing about him that particularly sticks out in my mind is that he looks kind of like a turtle. After some discussion over whether he or Aso Tarou should assume the Prime Minister's seat, he took over from Abe in quite undramatic fashion and proceeded to not accomplish much of anything at all. He did come up with some stupid word choices and the occasional superfluous sexist or xenophobic just, you know, kind of thrown in there for flavour. A big contributing factor to his eventual fall was his inability to cooperate with the Minshutou, as exemplified by his statement that Japan would continue to provide United States naval forces with fuel even though the Minshutou had made it quite clear they would tolerate no such thing. Mostly, though, he is noted for his ineffectiveness, so in hindsight it's not surprising that he didn't last. Realising that the Jimintou and Minshutou were hopelessly at loggerheads and it was all his fault, he resigned out of nowhere following the failure of his medical reform package.

Asou Tarou (2008-2009)

A high-ranking Jimintou guy since the early Koizumi days, Asou was left heir apparent with Fukuda gone, and he gladly leaped into action. Asou is easy to hate, but I kind of like him. I find his completely unearned cockiness just somehow endearing, his smirking sneer oddly compelling. His unbelievably ignorant and inflammatory comments are also amusing in their own way, insulting Jews, burakumin (butchers, morticians, etc), Ainu, Zainichi, Korea, China, America, and Japan. He's kind of a magnificent asshole. Shockingly, the voting public were, it would seem, not so keen on him, as he called an election and promptly got kicked to the moon, giving the Minshutou an unprecedented majority. Having presided over the party's worst loss in its history and (so it seemed at the time) possibly having destroyed it outright, he immediately resigned as party leader. Intriguingly, he is a professed manga fan, inspiring Otaku Nation to take him as their own, with a billboard in his image once erected in Akihabara.

Hatoyama Yukio (2009-2010)

Hailing from Hokkaidou, Hatoyama pulled off a victory mostly by being less repulsive than Asou, not an especially impressive feat. Counterpoint: I realise that looks should be irrelevant in evaluating a politician, but holy hell, this guy's face is goddamn terrifying. You're welcome. Naturally, he does deserve some credit for taking down the ordinarily invincible Jimintou, and he also pushed through an impressive number of reforms, although he doesn't quite compare to Koizumi in terms of either numbers or necessity. What ultimately took him down, a mere six months in the job, was a couple of poor foreign policy decisions. The American military's presence in Okinawa has been a contentious issue for decades, and promising a round of base-kibosh was less than savvy, especially when the DPRK sank an ROK submarine and indirectly forced him to keep it open. Throw in the de rigeur financial scandals that come with the territory and his party ultimately compelled him to step aside. Interestingly, Hatoyama comes from a whole family of politicians.

Kan Naoto (2010-2011)

Hatoyama's deputy stepped in to replace him, and it turns out he had no shortage of past transgressions against good taste, which is surprising considering that I mainly remember him for how incredibly bland he was. Not that I was really paying attention at the time, so maybe I'm just totally off. Like his predecessor, he managed to piss a whole bunch of people off by dicking around with stuff that ought not to be dicked around with, in this case the consumption tax. For whatever reason, the Japanese public is strongly, strongly against even the possibility of a rising consumption tax, which has always seemed strange to me given that Canada's is substantially higher, but then again, we also have much stronger social services. His foreign policy was outright incompetent; the current Senkaku dispute, which political analyst Tougou Kazuhiko believes will develop into something truly worrisome within the next year, first broke under his watch, and also antagonized the nuclear-equipped DPRK after its island bombardment. But perhaps his worst failure was the poor handling of the 2011 Touhouku Earthquake relief, and after a little touch-and-go he too stepped down, mostly voluntarily.

Noda Yoshihiko (2011-present)

Finally we arrive at our current Prime Minister, a well-intentioned guy who is at least more likeable than those of recent memory. He has pursued an agenda of nuclear non-proliferation as best he can, this being one of the Minshutou's main tenants, but the opposition's constant dickish interference anytime he's tried to do almost anything at all has seriously stymied any initiatives he might like to take. In kind of an interesting case of rollover, he evoked ire in the same vein as not only Hatoyama but Kan as well, by trying to both double the consumption tax and incite an Asia-Pacific war. After realising that nobody wanted him around anymore, but pretending not to, he called an election for December 16th and proceeded with an elaborate show of looking as though he believes he might be re-elected.


The way things stand, Abe seems poised to re-take the Prime Minister's seat, but on an absolute scale he's not actually all that popular. Personally, I hope that this means that he will last only one more year before making way for yet another...someone who will last. It would be fun if the man who kicked off the one-year term trend was also the last one to continue it, 'cause that would not only bookend things nicely but also maybe mean we could stop faffing about and get some work done.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Snow in Kyouto


Though this is my first time being in Kyouto passed August, and I was frankly beginning to wonder if it maybe had not so much four distinct seasons as one continuous summer that happened to get slightly cooler around October. Of course Japan is so far south that I wasn't really expecting much, but, nope, this morning we finally got a burst of real, honest-to-God snow. Several months late of course, but it looks like it'll stick.

Although snowfall is actually symptomatic of an increase in temperature, this prompted me to finally admit that it is starting to get cooler; last week it reached the point where I could tolerate the heat without having to roll up my sleeves, and today I wore an actual jacket. As the dorm's resident Canadian it is incumbent upon me to chuckle appreciatively at all those who were seeing a whole bunch of the white stuff for the very first time, and also to mill around absentmindedly while all those in my vicinity dance back and forth, pull their hoods over their eyes, and encase themselves in seal lard.

I admit I do put up a bit of a front (my disuse of the word “eh” is apparently throwing people), but in all seriousness it is just honestly not that cold, at all, in comparison to what things are like back where I come from. I also enjoy watching the neophytes, with their sliding on the ice, imitating the Michelin Man, and trying to take pictures of falling snow. Guys, stop it. Not possible. Of course, I laugh now, but I'll get mine when Legit Summer comes back around and the roles are reversed. I survived Kyouto summer once before but I do not look forward to suffering daily heat stroke between the bed and the shower.

Regardless of your politeness or gender, being abroad has a strange effect on your sense of time. During my last ryuugaku I felt like the entire universe had accelerated. I'd think about stuff that happened the week before and it'd feel like it just happened. Holy shit, it's Thursday again? Didn't we just do that, like, yesterday?

Curiously, this time I initially had the opposite experience. I've been here barely two weeks but it feels like about three months. It must be because the experiences I've accumulated so far have come so tightly packed, and to gather the same number in Canada would require much longer. Now my perception of the passage of time is back to normal, but until today the lack of cold weather had my metabolic clock thinking that it was still roughly September, so that anytime the date was mentioned I felt like I was being left behind.

Saturday, 8 December 2012


Anyone acquainted with the rudiments of Japanese culture is most likely familiar with hanami, in which people hold big outdoor drinking parties against the backdrop of the beautifully blossoming sakura trees. What's comparatively less known is that it has an autumn counterpart as well. Momiji is the term for going out to view the beautiful red leaves, and according to Seven, Kyouto is particularly famed for them, which is why we were swarmed with (Japanese) tourists a couple of weeks ago. Like many things in Japan, it's really just an excuse to get out and spend some time with friends, and truly, what more could you ask of a Sunday afternoon?

Thursday, 6 December 2012


Professional shots are prettier, but mine are more personal and won't get me sued.

Life abroad teaches some people as much about themselves as it does about their host country. They find new interests, discover an inner strength and independence they never knew they had, and finally realise what it is that they really want to do with their life.

I, meanwhile, have been learning what an exclusionary asshole I can be. The other dorm-dwellers tend to travel in packs; I am an ordinarily solitary adventurer and in no mood to entertain tag-alongs. In the last three months I have lied, misdirected and outright hidden information, all to keep the white scourge out of public events. I'm pretty good at it, but it's pathetically easy to foil, even by accident. That's how three of the most annoying girls in the house ended up coming on the English Club's trip to Oosaka-jou.

How would I feel if the roles were reversed? In fact, they would be, if I were in Korea right now, not to mention that English Club actually wanted the girls there. I felt unworthy and penitent. Then they actually arrived, and I immediately stopped. They yelled on the train, drew unnecessary attention to themselves, required an inordinate amount of explanation to accomplish simple tasks, annoyed me, and ran around saying individual words of Japanese they happen to know and thinking that doing so was fucking hilarious (this is one of my least favourite Japanese behaviours, tied with “thinking you're speaking fluent Japanese with an edge of self-satisfaction in your voice, while making no goddamned sense whatsoever.”) I spent most of the day avoiding them.


Oosaka-jou is a strange mixture of memories for me, starting with my first visit to Japan way back in 2001. Being a little kid at the time, I got put up with some Japanese families during the boring parts, and one of them took me there from Uji by bullet train. My first host family, my first shinkansen ride, and my first real exposure to Japan. Years later, during my high school exchange, I was with a group riding back from an Oosaka excursion, seated with an intriguing, dark, 19-year-old Jgirl who pointed it out as we went past. Night was just setting in and it was all lit up and beautiful. Not long after she became my first girlfriend.

And in any case, it was also the first Important Japanese Thing that I ever went to see, so when you put all of this together I feel like it is, in some small way, mine.


The grounds themselves are open, relaxing and lend themselves well to exploration, and we saw joggers, old people taking a stroll, a Chinese tour group and even a few young couples.

To what era of history do you suppose this pipe dates back?
I leaped atop a partition and literally almost pitched myself over the edge. This is what would have awaited me.
Like all historical sites of a certain age, Oosaka-jou has been razed and rebuilt a number of times, so that I always end up a little confused as to how much of what I'm looking at is legit and how much is just show. Maybe it doesn't matter in the end; maybe Theseus's ship is still the ship that won the war even if you set it on fire and rebuild it from scratch. I certainly know that when we crossed the bridge and walked through the main gate, I saw horses shuffling around and waved to the sentries welcoming me back from a successful sortie.
I'd like to attend this university. Oh, wait, this is Oosaka-jou.
I guess they had cannon stationed here at some point. They've obviously moved it, though. I mean where the hell's the firing lane supposed to be? The crew wouldn't even be able to see over the lip of their own wall.
I had quite a lot of fun examining the design of the castle and its various layers, especially the ramp leading up to the main doorway, which would require an attacking force to wind its way around and up while being assailed from above at all angles. Once inside, it's...pretty clear that the place has been refurbished since the Sengoku period. The gift shop, industrial lighting, marble foyer, and elevator kind of give it away. Per official recommendations, we started at the top and worked our way down. The eighth floor was mostly a viewing platform, and my but I do love city views. Takenoko and I could have stayed up there for hours.

Love this juxtaposition. It's the only block of greenspace in a sea of concrete and glass.
The seventh floor showed scenes from the story of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Oosaka-jou. If I hadn't been with people I probably would have sat myself down and learned all I could. Toyotomi, along with Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, was one of the Big Three in Japanese history. Each successively contributed to unifying the country during its outrageously destructive civil war period, after which followed the Edo Jidai, which comprised 300 years of peace and culture. Toyotomi was the guy who finally realised Nobunaga's ambition, afterwards constructing the castle to serve as the seat of his power and military strength. He was eventually overthrown by Tokugawa, who destroyed the castle and then rebuilt it, which seems terribly inefficient. Ultimately when the Tokugawa bakufu was itself overthrown in 1868, the monarchy restored and the Meiji Jidai slashed open, the fortress was once again obliterated, before the Mayor had it restored in 1928, only to see it used as an Arsenal and blown to bits in World War II. The current iteration was completed in 1997, but you'll probably never remember all these dates, the important thing is damn but she's been rebuilt a lot. Used to have another tower, though.
Surprised this could even be captured, but I guess light is light.
Two floors down (suspiciously, there is no sixth floor) we have little plastic men engaged in a fight to the death. We also acquired some commemorative stamps. Yuutarou then pulled out a small book of them, which he had collected from points of interest all over Japan.

Beneath that is two storeys of ancient artefacts, mostly weapons. No photographs allowed, understandably, which is too bad because some of the stuff is really cool. The full suits of armour were especially impressive, in my opinion. I'd like to have one made so that I could wear it to special events, or around the house, or whatever. There is some consolation in that for 300 yen you can try on a kabuto and a jacket and have your picture taken, which the pamphlet claims is “extremely popular.” Nobody in our group tried it, but we did watch a few other people embarrass themselves.

Good times having been had, our fearless leader, an Oosakajin, figured it only made sense to hit up Nanba for some takoyaki. Though my plan is to live in Oosaka at the earliest opportunity, I have unfortunately long waged a battle with takoyaki, its local specialty. I'm fine with the “weirdness,” I don't even mind the taste, but the fact is it takes about a hundred chews per swallow. It'd be easier to eat a bicycle tire. Also, we got to see the Glico man. If Oosaka-jou is the official Treasure of Oosaka, the Glico man is probably its unofficial one. So I was glad to cross that one off my list.
At night he lights up.

The girls then shopped for 90-odd hours. While Takenoko, Yuutarou and I waited for them and their handlers, Yuutarou pointed out his favourite clothing store, a decent bar, and the best street to find a prostitute. Sadly, they managed not to get lost on their way back. They'd been ragging at my patience all day and at this point even completely innocent comments like “this is way better than Sanjou!” are annoying the tits out of me because no shit, welcome to a regular-sized city, I mean, Jesus, grab a brain.

I will now end on the most trivial note possible, just so I can get this here out of the way. Have you ever seen this? You probably have. You go to a restaurant and there's a stove in the middle of your table. They bring you the stuff and you cook it to your liking, or sometimes they make parts of it for you, as you watch. It's pretty common at yakisoba and okonomiyaki places, and if you put octopus legs on them they writhe around as though still alive. Most people don't even notice, I find it disturbing. The uneaten bits get scraped into a cavity underneath, and I pity the person whose job it is to clean it.