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The value of a good teacher

July 31, 2009

In the award-winning documentary Children Full of Life, a fourth-grade class in a primary school in Kanazawa, northwest of Tokyo, learn lessons about compassion from their homeroom teacher, Toshiro Kanamori. He instructs each to write their true inner feelings in a letter, and read it aloud in front of the class. By sharing their lives, the children begin to realize the importance of caring for their classmates.

A term in the lives of a class of 10-year-olds and their extraordinary teacher.

Sarah Palin resign Alaska thing

July 29, 2009

It comes then, the maverick, the quitter, that jumps ship, to be, to become, in the future, from now, the President of the, of those, United States.

Her final beautiful goodbye that speaking thusly:

Then in the summertime, such extreme, summertime, about 150 degrees hotter than just some months ago than just some months from now, with fireweed brooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving and reminding us that, here, Mother Nature wins.  It is, as throughout all Alaska, that big, wild, good life, teeming along that road that is north to the future.

Listening to Sarah Palin try to express a coherent thought in her first language is like listening to a beginner struggling with their second language.

Beware sun-eating dragons

July 24, 2009

As the day of the solar eclipse drew nearer, I started to pay attention to the weather forecasts, which were uniformly pessimistic.   And we awoke that morning to rain lashing at the windows, and crashing thunder.

So we made our preparations that morning without urgency or excitement as we stared up at the blanket of thick cloud, unsure even where in the sky the sun was.  Everything was grey.

But as the hour drew nearer, the cloud thinned ever so slightly, enabling us to say with a degree of scientific certainty that the sun was “probably somewhere over there”, pointing vaguely to the lighter grey patches of the sky.

We hadn’t bothered making enquiries about ‘eclipse glasses’ and I hadn’t prepared any photo filters.

But at the appointed moment, the clouds thinned a bit more and filtered through this view, and within ten seconds, it was gone again.

Black hole sun

The Great Marmite Experiment

July 14, 2009

If you have a captive audience you really should expoit them somehow.  If financial gain is your bag, you could form a cult.  But if like me, you thirst for knowledge, then you’ll perform experiments on them.

And no captive audience is as willingly captive as a Japanese audience.  Especially if you give them an inkling the test is based on the number one national obsession – food.  They’ll be rattling those cage bars in short order.

For years, the company that makes Marmite have been building brutally honest advertising campaigns around the fact that there’s a good chance you’ll hate their product.

I wanted to see whether my test group would “love it or hate it” in equal measure.

And after a week’s hard testing (yeah, really hard starting every lesson with a slice of toast and watching the looks on people’s faces), here are the results.

No. of people tested = 25

Loved it = 13

Hated it = 12

So Marmite splits Japanese opinion in much the same way as it does in Britain.  There were some interesting reactions as people grasped for something to compare it to – some suggested miso, one or two thought it similar to overcooked soy sauce, and a few even reckoned it was cheesy.

One of the early test subjects suggested a problem with the experiment – “Japanese people are too polite to tell you if they hate it.”  I assured him I’d considered this, and didn’t think it would be a problem.  Which he then found out for himself, as he spluttered, face screwed up, and reached for a drink.

Getting to know you

May 8, 2009

If there’s one thing you should be ready for when you come to Japan, it’s the Getting to Know You conversation – the one where you’re the only foreigner at a social gathering, or you’re simply accosted in the street.

First things first. Let’s be absolutely clear on this – the Getting to Know You conversation is NOT about getting to know you. While newly-arrived foreigners, still a bit green, might fall into the trap of thinking that they themselves are the point of interest, that’s not the case at all.

If ever there was a nation of navel-gazers, it’s the Japanese.  (Your word for today is omphaloskepsis.)   Some say it’s arrogance, self-obsession. Those more charitable but equally damning call it paranoia, insecurity, a desperate desire to be well thought of.  Whichever, if you’re a foreigner in Japan, the Japanese want to know what you think of Japan and the Japanese.

Except they don’t.  Actually.

This is no time for home truths.  No time for honest answers to straight questions, because these are not straight questions.  The Conversation is in fact a subtle test – a test of how you’re going to fit in, a test of your social graces.  Sounds complicated?  It is. That’s why I’ve compiled this little guide to surviving the test and passing with flying colours. So strap on your tatemae and let’s go.

Question 1 then…

Where are you from?

…is what normal people would ask. You will of course be asked…

Are you from America?

The assumption that anyone not obviously Japanese must therefore be American shows quite a lack of imagination, but don’t let that rile you. Just smile and give an honest answer. This will be the last time you’ll be required to do so.

Question 2

Why did you come to Japan?

This is a fun question. Most people will use 何で (nan de) to say “Why…?” Which can also mean “How / By what means?”

– The Green Gaijin will give an honest answer – “I came for work / chicks / travel / anime / whatever.” Bad luck, you messed up. Your interrogator will maintain a polite demeanour, but rest assured, they’re bored of you now.

– The Correct (points-scoring) Answer is “Japan is a fascinating country and I wanted to see it for myself.” 10 points.

– The answer you’ll want to give at your hundredth identical interrogation and beyond is “飛行機で。” (“I came by plane.”) On no account give this answer, you’ll confuse and alienate everyone.

Question 3

Can you use chopsticks?

– GG answer “Er… yes, of course.”

– Correct answer “I can, but yes, chopsticks are difficult for foreigners aren’t they!”

– Jaded answers “Can you use a fork?” / “I’ve only been doing it for 30 years.” / “I’m a foreigner – I only eat burgers.”

Question 4

Can you eat Japanese food?

– GG answer “Yes, it’s very nice.” (Because you’re catching on by now, aren’t you. Or so you think.)

– Correct answer “Yes, it’s DELICIOUS!” (Remember to adopt a pained expression – If you’re not saying that Japanese food is so good it hurts, then you’re paying no compliment at all.)

– Jaded answer “I can just about gag some down before I go out and look for something with a flavour.”

Question 5

“Do you like Japanese girls?”

– GG answer “Er… yes. They’re beautiful!” (Nice generalisation, buster. Warming up nicely. Without the hesitation, this would be the Correct Answer.)

– Jaded answer “You bloody fool, my wife is sitting right next to me! I want to hurt you…”

Married gents, this question is a shit sandwich. If your wife is Japanese, you’re pretty much in trouble whatever you answer. If your wife isn’t Japanese, you may as well cut them off yourself and slam them down on the table. In a world with justice the person asking this question would be taken outside and beaten to a pulp.

Question 6

“Does your country have 4 seasons?”

Unless you’re from the tropics, this will seem like a bizarre non sequitur.

– GG answer “Mm? Yyyyes…”

– Correct answer “It does, but they’re not as distinct or as beautiful as they are in Japan!”

– Jaded answer “Yes, yes, we have 4 seasons. Unlike Japan’s 5.”
On no account should you point out Japan’s secret 5th season, no matter how obvious you think it is. The Japanese have built an enormous mythology around their “4 seasons”. Pointing out that tsuyu (the rainy season, which is clearly not the same as summer) makes 5 is like tramping the toilet slippers through a tatami room.

So you can see that every question is a like a hand grenade with the pin pulled out. With a bit of deft manoeuvring, you can escape with your life and your good name. It may seem unfair to expect you to be primed when you’re fresh off the plane, jetlagged, but you’ll get used to these questions.

Oh BOY you’ll get used to them.

Japan is going to die

May 6, 2009

…of pig flu.

We all are.  In fact, it may already be too late for you.  If you want to check if you have pig flu, just click here. (Though, if you have even trace amounts of common sense, click here instead.)

In a country like Japan it’s possible to live a pretty long life without ever encountering the unsavoury side of living with other humans – threats of violence, street crime, all that really nasty stuff.  In fact you can live as sheltered an existence as you desire, so it’s vitally important that you stay tuned to your telly to find out what you should be scared of this week.

A while back we were being instructed to ramp up our well-practised fear of North Korea and its army of starving citizens and its intercontinental ballistic fireworks.

This of course came amidst the panicking we were already doing about impending pauperdom, as brought about by the global financial implosion.  Which of course was inflicted on a blameless Japan by those greedy and thoughtless Americans.  Of course.

But as these lumps of media chewing gum were beginning to lose their flavour, we needed something new to get our teeth into.

Thank you, swine flu!

With the first reports, around the country those who weren’t screaming were donning those terribly handy facemasks that all diligent Japanese households keep a supply of (and by the next day were sold out in every store in the nation).

But a week later, the scoreboard still read “0”.  In fact the tolls weren’t really rising anywhere.  The only suspected cases in Japan, newsflashed with great fanfare and drama, later turned out to be more of those disappointing false alarms that the goverment’s recently become so terribly good at.

Yes, like SARS and Bird Flu before, this was winding up into one big damp squib.  (Meanwhile, common-or-garden flu will kill nearly half a million worldwide this year.  But not to worry.)

But surely a country in a heightened state of fear is a country in a heightened state of preparedness?  You’d imagine.

An increasing number of patients with fever have been rejected by hospitals in Tokyo even though their risk of being infected with a new type of influenza is low, given that they have never been to any of the countries affected by the new flu, a Tokyo metropolitan government survey showed Tuesday. The number of cases in which Tokyo hospitals refused medical examinations for such patients totaled 92 from Saturday morning to Tuesday noon, according to the survey.

So let’s do some maths. While actual cases = 0, 92 people are refused entry into the bloody hospital. So when actual cases = epidemic, presumably the bodies will just pile up in the street. Just outside hospitals.

This thoroughly intelligent and sensible response from the medical ‘profession’ was underlined by the following –

Some patients were rejected by hospitals after telling them, ‘‘I work at Narita airport’’ or ‘‘I have a foreign friend,’’ the survey showed.

Pause over that one for a moment. A so-called doctor actually refused treatment to someone who needed it on the basis that there was a foreign name in their address book.

Abandon hope. We’re all going to die.

You’ve got to watch the quiet ones

April 24, 2009

So there we were quietly letting the morning show wash over our sleepy heads, when suddenly there’s the newsflash jingle and the headline appears at the top of the screen.

Was it an earthquake or other such calamity?  Had someone died?  Were the North Koreans firing more missiles?

None of these things, in fact.  No, the information deemed newsflash-worthy was that some famous bloke had been arrested after being found naked in a Tokyo park.

You might think a newsflash a little OTT for that, but that was merely for starters.  What followed was a media meltdown.  Frantic ‘reporters’ gathered outside buildings where nothing appeared to be happening, breathlessly delivering no new information whatsoever.  Scale models of the neighbourhood where the indiscretion happened were built and used to illustrate the scene far better than the words “in a park” could possible have done.  Estimates of how many billion yen this was going to cost the entertainment industry were rolled out as talking heads nodded, clucked, and tutted through frowns.  It even made international headlines.

For readers outside Japan, I’ll back up a little and explain.

kusanagi-140-x-122The nudist in question was one Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, member of what’s laughably still called ‘boy-band’ SMAP, though none of its members have been boys for close to 20 years.  SMAP is the definition of ubiquitous.  For a band that can’t sing, they’ve held on for astonishly long.  They’re on TV pretty much all the time.  They’re on TV between the programmes too, being among the country’s most sought-after celebrities for endorsements.  They’re on the radio, on posters, they do theme songs for other programmes, they’re even allowed to act.  You can’t escape SMAP.  Resistance, I assure you, is futile.

Tsuyoshi, who aside from all the celebrity nonsense seems like he’s probably a decent sort, is apparently the quiet one.  So it was probably bound to happen sooner or later.

The gist of it is that Tsuyoshi went out and got absolutely shitfaced.  What happened next is unsurprisingly hazy, but it all culminated in him shouting and moaning, stark naked, on a park bench.  Someone complained about the noise, the cops turned up, Tsuyoshi took exception and went ape-shit.  He is reported to have “violently resisted arrest”, shouting “What’s wrong with being nude?!”  He has a point (which was plain to see).  So multiple rozzers bundled him up in a sheet and carted him off to the copshop.

Poor Tsuyoshi’s biggest problem is that there’s simply nothing happening in Japan at the moment.  Prime Minister Aso resolutely refuses to call an election.  Kim Jong Il’s run out of rockets.  Sakura season’s long gone.  The media were like starving lions being thrown a juicy fresh Christian.

The usual routine for celebrity indiscretions (like Shinsuke Shimada punching a woman in the mouth, for example) is garden leave of between 1 and 6 months, followed by well-prepped press conference with tearful apology and bowing, and then everyone gets on with it as if nothing happened.

But in the meantime, the primetime TV schedules will have gaping holes that, alas, have to be filled.  Everyone in TVland is going to be doing overtime, no Golden Week holiday for them next week!  And all because a popstar behaved like a Finance Minister proper rockstar.