Monday, March 23, 2009


"The problem with Japan is that I like the aesthetic a lot, but I don’t like the actual operation." -Foreign Resident of Japan
Suddenly my vision clears, and I find myself caught in a flood of bright wide eyes, swaying capes and skirts, flowing wigs of sexy color, and lashes fluttering like butterflies.
I’m captivated by it all, awed by how attractive and alluring this country can be, or knows how to be. A shy smile and wide innocent eyes are proven to be the most seductive, though both messages are affected. Images, ideas – people – are crafted here, in stunning, meticulous, effortless detail, crafted to and for perfection. No reservation here, no need for dignity when you have what you want. The display is on, batting eyes at clicking shutters, selling the image – self – for the thrill of a flash. All fear and uncertainty washed away, all safe behind the mask. A mask over masks, nothing more, and no hiding that, at least. There’s no claim to be anything but superficial, playing at hope, escape, a touch; all that we can’t stop wanting but can’t ever have. It’s all here to see, all here to want. Looking through the contacts, the lenses, the empty rims;
Let’s act like life, sleep through dreams, grin at love, snap a picture. It’s as close as we will get.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spring Photography

Spring is here, which means Plum and Cherry trees perform slow-motion explosions of color, birds burst into long-stifled song, the gracefully stunning kimonoed flowers of Japanese youth walk the lanes of Kyoto, and fire-festivals abound. Yes, Spring is here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Being an ALT in Japan

For those interested in knowing why I talk about "working" and "teaching" in Japan with quotation marks, and understanding what it's like (for me, at least) to be employed in the context of Japanese culture, I point you to this essay on my other blog:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


In response to a question about the nuclear bombing of Japan, Azuma-san (who was 6 when the bombs were dropped) said: "You musn't ever forget it, but you have to forget it."

Melting-Pot Anyone?

Why are so many people drawn to America? What is it about the “American Life,” whatever that might mean, that makes one country the destination or dream or perceived “Promise Land” of so many disparate cultures? The fact is that the American Dream is just that, a dream, for the majority of immigrants, and many cultures set up their own closed communities as if they wanted no part of the “American Life.” Yet the migration continues. It is not that America has found the perfect cultural common denominator, but rather that the material goods and quality of life that draws in every culture and lifestyle. In short, the key is not the American lifestyle but the perceived American easy of life. And this is important, because often we talk of people seeking out the “American way of life,” and then wonder how they can complain or refuse to adapt themselves when they finally arrive. They didn’t come for an “American way of life,” they came to continue their own lives and dreams (rooted in their own cultures, religions, languages, and experiences), only more comfortably.

(Photo: New York City, August 2007)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

International Church

After an afternoon of reading Pico Iyer’s (an Indian born in England, raised in California, now living in Japan) account of Toronto, where one typical school “had fewer than a thousand students, in all.. but seventy-six different languages could be heard along its hallways, and more than 70 percent of its students spoke a mother tongue other than English... not a melting pot, as the people in Toronto politely reminded me, but a mosaic”, I was picked up by my new Japanese friend (a retired sailor with a myriad of stories and a zest for life) to go to a catholic mass in the small city nearby. I wasn’t sure what to expect, except that it was a Japanese church, and this service (every Saturday evening) catered to the Latin American population in the city. What met me was astonishing, especially in the context of the famously homogenous and impenetrable Japan. I first followed my guide into the meeting room, and as he entered I heard a stream of Japanese greetings, so I came in bowing, only to be confronted with an obviously Latin face of a young woman who turned to me with a friendly “Hola!” This was enough to throw a monkey-wrench into my determinedly mono-linguistic mind, but there was much more to come. The young lady, Senorita Maria, was from Peru (though her grandfather was Japanese), and had lived in Japan for over 10 years. She taught Japanese to foreigners and Spanish in the university and “No no, I don’t understand English. I mean, I studied it for 10 years, but I don’t know it very well,” she said in barely accented English. At that point the Father came in, an 80 year old American, with a Japanese name and face, who leads the mass alternatively in Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. His English had a forced feel to it, perfect in grammar and accent, but somehow too deliberate and self-aware. He’d been a priest in Japan for 50 years. Already I was a little bewildered in trying to get my bearings, as the (officially) American, Peruvian, and Japanese all chatted away in Japanese, then somehow switched to Spanish (even my friend unveiled his Spanish sentences), as I tried desperately to drudge up my high school Spanish without loosing a grip on my few vital words of Japanese. And then the children came in. I’ve never been so aware of my compulsion to read someone’s nationality in their face, first and foremost. It always seemed essential to me, to know what we have in common, what language we might be able to communicate in, how I should interpret a touch on my arm, and how life had taught them to view the world (or, at least, to help myself think that I know). These kids, however, defied my most desperate attempts to snatch up the slightest clue as to what was going behind their eyes. I eventually decided -more to give my mind a rest than any sense of certainty- that they were all Japanese, with the exception of the obviously Latin girl and boy, even when the 7 year old boy (Juan Garcia), started chattering away in Japanese and translating for his father. “No, he’s full Peruvian,” I was told, “and has only been in the country for 3 years.” The girl, however, was half Filipino, though she spoke not a word of English. One obviously Japanese girl was actually half Brazilian, and helped translate from Portuguese, while another jerkily introduced herself in an English thick with a typical Japanese accent “Hello, my name is Laida, I’m from the Philippians,” all the while turning the deepest shade of pink I’ve ever seen. The only fully Japanese girl in the room kept interjecting in Spanish. I felt my sense of bewilderment intensifying to dizziness. Having all the answers made orienting myself even more daunting, for what is the nationality of a half Brazilian, half Filipino, born and raised in Japan? Or a half Japanese half Peruvian living with a Mexican relative? “Oh, I have an American passport!” said little Juan to me, almost impishly, in Japanese. “Stop the room please,” I wanted to say, “I’d like to get off.” What does nationality or ethnicity even mean in a context like this? For the young girl with a Japanese face and language, yet born in Peru to a Brazilian mother, how ought this child respond to the most basic of questions “where are you from?” Whenever possible, of course, she will say “from here,” since all the question really seeks is a connection, but is it a lie? Is it ever the whole truth? The UN declaration of human right states as one of its basic tenants for humanity that “Everyone has the right to a nationality,” which is a core need for those who lack it, but might be just as much a source of friction in abundance. Of course all we’re really just looking is a label, a starting point, and nationality has been a fool-proof way to expedite an understanding of where the other is coming from. But in a world where I can sit behind a couple and eventually deduce (based on overheard language, accent, and appearance) that I’m seeing a Japanese man and his Brazilian wife, only later to learn that it’s a Peruvian man and his Filipino wife (what does that make their 5 year old daughter, born and raised in Japan?), in this world, is nationality quickly becoming less a convenient coat hanger and more a mental hang-up? And if nationality is, like family, something a man does not choose – as many of us are becoming more and more like an individual passed from one foster parent to the next, none really making a claim on “belonging”- then language is like the friends he can choose, which tell more about how he sees himself and wants to be seen. For in this small church room the ability to navigate is no longer dominated by origin, but by language. All around I can begin to track the web-like lines of communicate, as I try to keep up with “Buenos Noches”s here, “Konban wa”s there, and everywhere a deer-in-headlights look as the other follows up on my signals that we can communicate. I find out that Spanish speakers can understand Portuguese, but not the other way around. I meet adults who have lived in Japan for 10 years, yet their kids have to translate my most basic of Japanese to them. Some few who speak all the languages gathered there rush around like whirlwinds of activity, while others close into small circles of those they could communicate with. In this place, a forerunner of the world stage, the “sense of belonging” goes not to the highest bidder, nor to the holder of the correct passport, but to the speakers of the right languages. And so while the world is shrinking, it’s becoming exponentially more fractured. The teenage girl next to me might indeed hold an American passport, but I can’t speak Spanish, and if I did I wouldn’t know where to begin commenting on her favorite childhood cartoon in Japan, or what kind of relationship she has with her English-only father. It’s still true of course that speaking the same language doesn’t mean you have anything to talk about. So that’s one more thing that struck me about this place, again in contrast to the norms of the country waiting outside the front doors: warmth. I spent 10 minutes speaking mutually broken Japanese with a Bolivian who thumped me on the back more times then I can count, and discussed religious culture with a Japanese woman using little more than sincere smiles and hand-motions (not an unusual exercise, but somehow it felt like real communication). During the greeting time a full 20 people gave me a double-handed handshake (even the Japanese had picked it up!), unintentionally teaching me to say “Peace be with you” in four languages. The world has changed, again, without most of us realizing it. The number of people falling through the cracks of how we traditionally see and understand the world is growing, but once the cracks are full it is we “normal” ones who will be out of place. Our ways of seeing each other will have to change, categories must be reorganized, What question will replace “Where are you from?”? Will it be “What language do you speak,” “Where do you live?” or perhaps even “Where are you going?”? In any case mankind shows no signs of abandoning the need to see itself in groups, but the rules of membership and the shape of the anchors we toss out are all changing rapidly. If it can be so visible in a small church in suburban Japan, the world can’t be far behind.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Japan Anecdotes 1, The Informer

Most foreigners in Japan quickly learn that there are certain unwritten rules about what you do and do not tell Japanese people. These rules are motivated by two main characteristics: 1. Japanese people are not generally interested in foreign countries, or at least not interested enough to inconvenience you by asking. In 7 months in Japan I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been asked anything about the culture, history, politics, education, economic, or lifestyle of my home country America (and this during the time of the wars on terror, Obama’s election, and the financial crisis). For the most part questions revolve around my thoughts on Japan, which brings up the fact that 2. Japanese people do not respond well to anything said critically (or for that matter, anything not glowingly optimistic) about their country. The main purpose of foreigners I’d say – and I’m not the first to go this far – is to confirm the remarkableness and even superiority of Japan. Try telling them honestly that the education system is a little misguided, or that the temples start to all look the same after awhile, or that you actually prefer Korean food to Japanese, and... well, the short answer is that the subject will be changed faster than a samurai drawing his sword, the conversation will go downhill rapidly, and you will get signals (verbal or otherwise) that you clearly “don’t get it,” as no gaijin can, after all. Or perhaps the results of allowing a little real honesty to slip into conversation will hit closer to home, as befell one of my fellow American teachers here in Kansai inaka (central Japan countryside). He was riding the train one evening and fell into conversation with a curious (in all senses) old gentleman, who wanted to know where he lived in Japan, what he was doing here, what school he worked at, etc. After the standard introductory small talk, the man moved on to the standard line of questioning, which included “what do you think of Japanese students?” My friend replied that the elementary school students are genki (energetic), and in Jr. High the first graders were also pretty genki, second graders average, and the third graders sleep a lot. There’s nothing remarkable about this evaluation, it’s simply true, though probably not a truth we’d express to the teachers we work with; it often seems that we’re honestly expected to just not notice anything negative in the school. My friend might have also mentioned that he gets rather bored in school at times, and perhaps even implied that the students didn’t seem to learn much English overall, but he’s not sure how much of his opinions he let show. Soon his station arrived and he bid the man adieu. But apparently his opinions and lighthearted evaluations had struck a chord, or perhaps the old man was more disturbed by the audacity of a foreigner being allowed to experience anything short of heaven-on-earth for a single moment in Japan. Several days later my friend was sitting at his desk and got called to talk with the English teacher for the third graders. A few minutes ago, the teacher said through a nervous grin, she had gotten a call from a certain old man who had expressed severe concern over reports that the third graders were sleeping in class, which had made a certain foreigner very dissatisfied. This old man had in fact been a teacher himself, and proceeded to enlighten her as to what she had to do to fix this intolerable situation. My friend was informed of all this, and then the conversation was over. Of course all the details of the call were not divulged, and to this day he doesn’t know how much he told the old man, or how much was passed on. In any case the simple answer to both questions is “too much.” The work environment has now become noticeably awkward. My Dad, in response to this story, replied “so it takes a village, huh?” And yes, that about sums it up.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Random Thoughts, March 2009

-If you find that the only thing preventing you from becoming who you want to be is the people around you, then it’s time to reevaluate who you want to be. -1.III -The fact is that the answers to all humanity’s deepest problems have been given, again and again, but never really followed more than half-heartedly, to the point where we decided that they must not really be answers after all. So we go scurrying around in the dark searching for something else, anything else, just so long as it be new. -3.III -In any observation that a man makes about humanity it should be remembered that he is his own primary source of evidence. 22.III -Made in the image we’ve made. 23.III -The only thing more staggering than man’s capacity to learn is man’s capacity to not learn. 23.III -I keep forgetting that I seek to be broken. I think when you get close without being pushed over the edge then all the survival mechanisms kick in and you flail about just trying to keep your footing. But once you’re over, all the voices go silent, the mind releases the heart, the eyes loose their protective scales, and all you can do is feel. Those are the moments that Life is made of. 24.III -A passive civilization is best equipped to be a passive by-stander. -31.III

Blurred, Into Nothing, Almost

At the oddest, most mundane moment, I feel both my heart and head about to explode. I’m just standing in the corner of class, though it is the last class, of a difficult and frustrating group of students, students with whom I have failed to connect, and I'm thinking of nothing, but a nothing surrounded and suffocated with revelations and feelings that can’t quite get in. An odd moment, about to explode.