The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fall Has Fell

Hi everybody. No real news, but I realized it's been a while since my last post, and I had resolved to try and do these things more frequently ... even if it means rambling about nothing in particular! Yay!

The weather has gotten cool, which I love. Fall is my favourite season and I have to remind myself to enjoy it while it lasts. Actually, it has started to get uncomfortably cool, especially at school, which is on top of a mountain. Yesterday, here in town it was absolutely perfect -- sunny, about 22 degrees, a few clouds in the sky -- so I wore a t-shirt and proceeded to go up to the university to see the "Tenku-Sai", the annual student-run festival.

There were lots of bands playing on a stage, cultural events like dancing and traditional music, as well as a flea market and dozens of food stalls selling everything from octopus cakes to mini pizzas. It was a lot of fun, and I saw quite a few students, but it was really, really windy up there, and at least 10 degrees cooler than it had been down in the city. So I got pretty chilly, and didn't stay all that long.

Iaido and Jodo are still going well, I guess. I feel like I'm not making much progress these days, but I guess I'm just on a bit of a "plateau" stage right now. I'm going to be demonstrating Jodo in the prefectural kendo festival (which I also did last year) sometime in mid-November or thereabouts.

School is fine, my classes are okay, and I'm feeling relatively healthy despite being surrounded by coughing, sniffling people. Having said that, I'm sure I've just jinxed myself and will be getting sick very soon.

In a couple weeks I have a week off school ("the quarter break") so I have to start thinking about where to go and what to do. Officially, we're not supposed to go anywhere very far away as we're still "in service" whatever that means (I guess it means that we have to be able to come into work should they inexplicably need us for something) so I probably won't leave Kyushu, but that still leaves me lots of places I'd like to go.

Take care and stay in touch!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Japan vs Canada

My brother David sent me an article comparing Japan and Canada. I know this is something I do a lot on here, for some reason. I think it's because Japan is a first-world nation but it's still just so different from what we're used to. If I were living in, say, East Timor, or Madagascar, maybe the differences would be so obvious that they wouldn't be worth commenting on; but somehow, because Japan has McDonald's and Starbucks on every corner, just like we do, we are a bit more surprised at the differences.

Anyway, here is the article with my dumb commentary thrown in.

Nathalie Atkinson, National Post

Published: Thursday, October 11, 2007

In Tokyo recently, I retraced Scarlett Johansson's route from the Shinjuku Park Hyatt trying to conjure my own Lost In Translation moment, but it never came. I didn't experience the much-vaunted cultural disorientation of foreigners in Japan at all while I was there, perhaps because a few short weeks is barely long enough to glimpse each neighbourhood (and certainly not enough to see the less obvious downsides).
Exactly; plus, you're in Tokyo, for cryin' out loud. Try living on an island with 5000 farmers and fishermen.

But at the risk of sounding like a wide-eyed dilettante gaijin, it didn't feel like I was anywhere all that different so much as somewhere simply better, with more -- more people, more stuff, more choice, more neon lights. Toronto may be Ustinov's New York run by the Swiss, but Tokyo is New York run by the Japanese. Times a thousand. It's only when I returned that I experienced the culture shock, in reverse. Without all the thoughtful little Japanese details --like rear taxi doors that open on their own -- Western life's little urban annoyances and irritations seemed that much more amplified.
Here's a sampling of what both you and I are missing:

1. Lost In Space Even in cities where we no longer have vast spaces, like Toronto, we still have more than in any Japanese city. Tokyo, at 12+ million, is densely crowded, but people there have learned and honed over generations the way in which civility (and the many layers thereof) can create personal space. So it's disheartening to see how little we have. The level of noise of people talking amongst themselves becomes a dull roar. I'll take Japan's hierarchical, extremely polite codified language and strict social mores any day. The difference between the Tokyo and Vancouver airport is staggering, and my stereotype of us as the most polite citizens of the world was forever shattered by the succession of Canadians loudly yammering away on their mobiles the moment we landed.
I felt huge reverse culture-shock when I landed in Vancouver, too. People were loud, aggressive, and in my face. Some of the staff at the airport were so rude, I had to remind myself that, No, they're not actually working at being rude, it's just the way they are. It was very disturbing.

2. The Silence Menace I only heard a Japanese cellphone ring twice. For a nation where every one of the over 125 million inhabitants appears to own at least one mobile or PDA, you quickly notice that nobody is actually talking on them. Instead, they text, read or play video games silently -- and small signs posted everywhere remind everybody to keep phones set to vibrate, and not talk on them. The signs themselves are not miraculous -- the miracle is the extent to which they are observed.
If someone on a train or bus does actually have to take an important call, they always hunch their shoulders, trying to shrink down, as they cover their mouth to muffle the sound of their conversation.

3. In Transit Gloria The philosophies of just-in-time and continuous improvement, originally developed for Japanese manufacturing, are employed at every level ( just as there are health and safety committees here, there are continuous improvement committees there).
Public transit is well-integrated, inexpensive and ubiquitous. It's also quite literally on the dot -- dots on the platform show precisely where the doors will open.
I don't know where she gets the idea that it's inexpensive: a trip of maybe 10 km could run you over 10 dollars on the Tokyo rail lines; in Toronto it would be a flat $2.50.

4. White Noise Japanese construction sites are self-contained and keep the surrounding area immaculate. I noticed a strange device at one construction site and realized it was a pair of automatic decibel meters. The ever-changing digits are writ large for the public to read, measuring the construction noise against the ambient traffic and street noise, showing that the former does not exceed the latter.
This one is pretty laughable, actually. Japan must surely be one of the loudest cultures on earth. You go to the supermarket and some moronic jingle is being played at ear-splitting volume on an endless loop. You go to the electronics shop, and it's a different, but equally loud, stupid jingle. You go to the market, and people are yelling the Japanese equivalent of "Step right up!" at the top of their lungs, as if that's not going to make you run in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, political campaigners drive around with roof-mounted loudspeakers, inanely repeating their name. "Tanaka Koji! Tanaka Koji! I'm Tanaka Koji! Vote Tanaka Koji! That's TANAKA KOJI!" Again, I think I'm more likely to vote against anyone who does that... Except they ALL do it. And then there's the Bosuzoku, "Noise Gangs" ... young punks who remove the mufflers from their 2-stroke motorcycles and cruise around at 15 km/h, revving their engines wildly, for absolutely no other reason than to create ill-will. How do they get away with it? Because, apparently, there are no noise laws in Japan. The police literally follow them around in low-speed pursuit, at 15 km/h, until they make a mistake and break some other law. Oh, and don't forget the ultra-nationalists who drive around in black vans, making vaguely menacing statements via loudspeakers. Apparently, they are not so much a political party as a bunch of goons, who park in front of businesses, loudspeakers blaring, and refuse to budge until the business makes a "political contribution", at which point they move on.

5. Economies of Scale To deal with the sheer volume of stuff, everything is designed for efficiency, productivity and hygiene, from the individually wrapped cookies (which also goes hand in hand with the emphasis on presentation) to the near-compulsory, voluntary wearing of surgical-grade white masks in public when one has a cold, so as not to infect others. I wish the guy coughing and hacking on my flight home had worn one.

What, so individually-wrapped cookies are a good idea now? We really need to quadruple the amount of packaging that ends up in a landfill, just so that you can be absolutely certain that no human hands have touched your cookie (at least since they were pawed at the factory, anyway). Surgical masks, however, are an absolutely GREAT idea; next time you've got a cold, go out in public with a mask on and explain why you're wearing it to anyone who asks. Hell, why not write "I have a cold and I don't want to infect all of you" on the front of it? Maybe, just maybe, it will catch on.

6. Portion control The largest clothing size for women maxes out at about a six (though in most places, it's a four), which is tyrannical for an average-sized Western woman on a shopping expedition. But, if I had stayed long enough, I could easily have fit into them thanks to smaller portion sizes for food and drink (and I wasn't even hungry!) As a souvenir, I brought back a so-called "supersized" Kirin Stout glass, a dwarf that resembles a thimble when compared to the rest of my beer mugs. This difference is clearly a factor in why our size large and theirs are so different.
Um, no comment.

7. Convenience Stores The Japanese "just-in-time" manufacturing philosophy trickles down from the department store down to the corner convenience store. The 7-Elevens restock ready meals and fresh items like bread and delectable pain au chocolat just as they are about to run out of them. I already miss the phalanx of vending machines that helpfully gobble up heavy pockets of loose change and dispense everything from chilled lattes to warm meals.
I absolutely agree with this. I wouldn't even think of buying a hamburger or a sandwich from 7-11 in Canada, but in Japan, the food is fresh and delicious. As a result, everyone shops there. And so, the food is fresh and delicious. Vending machines, on the other hand, are just plain evil. There are something like a million of them in this country; so many that they need an entire additional nuclear power station just to power them. Japan is HOT; running a huge refrigerator in direct sunlight in the heat of summer is just stupid. And you certainly don't need "phalanxes" of them, often ruining very picturesque landscapes and historical sites. Nothing says "Japan" quite like a photo of a thousand-year-old temple with a whole bunch of Coke machines off to the side. I'd like to come out in praise of the Japanese summertime habit of opening up the front of your store, and then cranking on the air-conditioning to create a blast of cold air welcoming in anybody who walks by ... it feels really nice ... but the icecaps are melting, in case nobody's informed you.

8. Ablutions Once you have used the Japanese version of a Western toilet, it's hard to come home. In a pristine, quiet and privately enclosed space, complete with purse hook, bench and a gently warmed seat, they have built-in front and back bidets controlled at the touch of a button (like a car wash) and, for the toilet-timid, sound effects like faux-flushing, birdsong or chimes summoned with a wave of the hand. Western public toilets and their grimy bathroom stalls now fill me with dread.
I have to agree whole-heartedly with this. From a hygienic point of view, they are superior; also from an environmental standpoint, as you use less toilet paper. And the sound effects are a great idea, although I've never found them in men's washrooms. Just some muzak would suffice, I should think. Public washrooms are also much cleaner here. In 5 years in Japan, I have gone into a stall where the last person didn't flush ... maybe a dozen times, I don't know. In Canada, I would estimate the rate is something closer to 30-50% of the time. What the hell is wrong with us??

Monday, October 15, 2007

Hobby or Obsession?

There is something very interesting about the Japanese psyche, and that is a full-fledged belief that, "If something is worth doing, it is worth doing right." You observe it at every level of society, from garbage collectors diligently picking up tiny paper scraps with long metal tongs, to convenience store workers who literally run to serve you, to post office employees who (enfuriatingly) won't let you proceed with a transaction if there is the tiniest little mistake or discrepancy in your paperwork. The garbage collectors hate their jobs, I'm sure, but they don't take it out on the job itself; they do the very best they can until they find a better job. And the postal employees don't do it to lord it over the customers; they do it because there are rules, and they have to be followed.

I think people in Japan are the same way with their hobbies. People pour their entire heart and soul into their pastimes. My friend Akiko says she plays tennis "just for fun" and she claims that she's not very good; I find that hard to believe as she practices between 6 - 8 hours a day every Sunday.

So it's not all that surprising that Japanese people dominate every kind of competition you can imagine (except for some sports where size is an unavoidable advantage). Some Japanese names in the news recently: (much of this taken from the Japan Times)

  • Mayuko Kamio, 21, won the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Violin competition
  • slender Takeru Kobayashi is the most feared competitive eater in the world, regularly devouring more than competitors who are twice or three times his weight
  • Yosuke Ochi has won the world Air Guitar championship two years running
  • five of the top 20 finalists in the world Yo-yo championships were Japanese, including the runner-up
  • Japan won the international Rube Goldberg machine competition this year
  • Japan routinely ranks highly in ballroom dancing
  • the world Rubik's cube champion is a Japanese 17-year-old who practices 5 hours a day and can complete a cube in an average of 10 seconds
Obviously, a lot of these competitions are in fields that are ... well, pretty weird. But I guess that's the point. There is little or no financial reward for most of these hobbies, and yet the Japanese people who take up these hobbies do so with the mindset that, naturally, they are going to try and be the best at what they do. And try damn hard! (5 hours a day doing the Rubik's cube??)

I haven't mentioned much about athletics yet. I don't know how to say this without sounding like an ass, but the Japanese are small. They have a real disadvantage when it comes to size. But, look at their accomplishments in any field where size is not a distinct advantage: Ichiro Suzuki is the record holder for most hits in a season; this is something that undeniably takes skill, not doping yourself with steroids. Japanese women excel at marathon running, despite being much smaller than their biggest rivals, the Kenyan team. Marathon running is clearly a discipline that is equal parts mental and physical. The Japanese are also good at gymnastics, synchronized swimming, diving, and most team sports.

I guess the downside is that practicing Rubik's cube for 5 hours a day tends to make a guy kind of one-dimensional. I like to think of myself as fairly well-rounded. I do martial arts (not very well, mind you); I can draw a bit; I'm somewhat musical; I can write to a degree (keep in mind I rarely edit these posts before publishing them!); I've been told I'm funny.

While I often think that it would be really cool to be the best in the world at something, no matter how obscure (at this point, you should go to YouTube and do a search for "cup stacking" ... no, those videos aren't sped up) I guess in the end, I'm pretty happy to be well-rounded.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A Video About Beppu

Hey, if you want to know more about where I'm living, check out this video about Beppu's hot springs. (Click the link, then scroll down to near the bottom right, where it says "Warm Hearted Hot Springs - Beppu and Yufuin" or something to that effect...)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Kyushu Fauna

That gross bugger there was waiting for me when I got home. As you can see, his legs span one of the bricks on my front steps, which are about 5 inches across. Blechh. And it runs like the wind itself, too. I didn't kill it because, supposedly, these things eat worse things, like centipedes, which in turn eat cockroaches. Unfortunately, I hate centipedes more than I hate cockroaches, and I hate spiders more than I hate centipedes. The whole world's topsy-turvy!

So anyway, I've done a couple days of classes now. Boy, I'm not used to this "working" thing. I'm exhausted! Good thing I don't have to work tomorrow. My schedule this semester isn't as favourable as it was last time, but it's not too bad. I guess I'll get used to it.

No other real news, I guess, except that I made the mistake of asking somebody to store a box of my stuff over the summer, and that person made the "mistake" of giving my stuff away to the Salvation Army, who have since doubtlessly distributed my belongings to homeless people. So, my hard-to-find and expensive kanji dictionaries are now serving as pillows to bemused Japanese hobos; drunks are guzzling my after-shave for its alcohol content; my bus tickets are being used as rolling papers; my sketchbooks are kindling; and my bicycle pump is ... well, probably being used as a bicycle pump. But for SOMEBODY ELSE'S bicycle! You see the problem. I'm trying to be philosophical about the whole thing ... not to be too attached to material belongings, and all that; what's done is done, etc. So far so good. "Serenity now ... serenity now ... "