Monthly Archives: August 2007

MOVING WITH THE PACKS LIKE HYENA-ENA

New article today in The Japan Times: The blame game. It gives a summary of some recent scapegoating of foreigners in Japan, and the picture it paints is one of all-around unpleasantness in a great many aspects of Japanese life. Foreign or half-caste children in schools are unclean and smell bad because their foreign mothers are sending all their money back to their home country! War brides are foreign spies! Too many African kids on a school running team gives them an unfair advantage! If the thousands of foreign workers on Japanese ships had to return home due to turmoil in their country, Japan’s shipping industry would grind to a halt! It’s a pretty angry editorial written with maybe a little bit too much passion, so you’ve got to question how reactionary it is. Especially me, someone who’s only been over here three months. Who am I to comment?

Well actually, just last weekend I had my first experience with police in Japan, and this article pretty accurately reflects my (admittedly tame by comparison) experience. E and I returned to Roppongi (yeah I know, don’t ask) and were still there at about 7:30am dancing when we noticed one of the girls we were with had been gone a while. We went outside and she was crying on the steps, her bag having been ripped from her hands by a group of men. I stayed to comfort her while the others went looking for culprits; about ten minutes later they returned with police. They established pretty quickly that I couldn’t speak Japanese, which I guess gave them confidence to say what they said next.

I can’t say I speak Japanese, but when I listen to people talk I can usually understand enough to make out what they’re saying, especially if it’s clear-cut and unambiguous. The following exchange happened about three times:

Policeman/detective: Who’s this guy?
Girl (through tears): A friend.
Policeman/detective: OK.
*three-second pause*
Policeman/detective: Are you sure?

E said that at the bottom of the stairs, he was experiencing the same thing, though he could understand more than I could. They referred to him as ‘koitsu‘ (this is very informal, possibly rude between strangers, and basically means ‘that guy’), and their tone was particularly suspicious – “what’s he doing here? I reckon he probably did it” etc.

Eventually they understood that we weren’t evildoers, she got into the police car and they went off, and we sleepwalked home swapping our tales of discrimination. It’s not like it was a big deal for me or anything – I was never in any doubt about whether I would be hauled off to jail or not – but it was interesting. And in light of the above article, I’m beginning to feel like it’s symptomatic of a pretty common attitude towards foreigners. Admittedly some of these foreigners are 50-something men with a bad haircut throwing themselves at barely resistant young Japanese women in Roppongi bars (don’t take it personally, guys), but we’re not all bad, not really.

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FIND MY WAY INTO THE GOLD RUSH

I only live about a half hour by train from Kamakura, which is referred to by some as the Kyoto of Eastern Japan, which is to say there are a lot of splendid temples to be seen there. It being summer vacation and all, I woke up on another beautiful morning yesterday and decided I’d go and check it out.

I arrived there around midday. MISTAKE. It was about 33°C with ~80% humidity, so it felt like 40°, and I was melting. Cleverly, I had stopped at Shop99 on the way and bought some face and body refresher towelettes – portable showers, basically – but I could see that they would only provide fleeting relief. As I walked through the Shopping Town, I would hear someone say ‘atsui’ (hot) about every five seconds, so it wasn’t just me with my New Zealand-accustomed body.

I also arrived wearing $3 jandals from the Warehouse. Again… MISTAKE. When choosing my wardrobe for the excursion, I didn’t really consider the possibility of walking for about 10km on stony roads and steps, but I figured I was stuck with them. In case you’re wondering, Ma, I also forgot to put on sunscreen, and no, I won’t do that again. Although it would’ve been much worse under New Zealand’s cleaner skies.

Enough of that, though, because it was a really great day out. I set out from the station amid hordes of holidaymakers, armed with my DK guidebook and a willingness to beat less travelled paths. What most people do is head straight for Hachimangu, which is quite close to the station, but I decided I wanted to get away from the noise and bustle of crowds. So, when I got near it, I hung a right and struck out in the direction of Zuisen-ji, renowned for its Zen garden. On the way I stopped briefly at Hokai-ji, a small, quiet, rather poorly maintained temple. Not much to see there apart from a poorly concealed corrugated iron shed and a bunch of kids possibly up to no good, so I carried on.

If I wanted to escape noise, I was kidding myself, because I was truly in the Land of Enormous, Incredibly Loud Cicadas. It’s not like I haven’t seen or heard them before, but man, not like this. It’s a generally uniform sound though, unlike crowds talking, so it eventually becomes part of the wallpaper. Which makes it better. Right? I mean, it’s more peaceful, more natural. And as I got closer to Zuisen-ji and further away from the main drag, the cars and motorbikes thinned out and the serenity began to take over.

Zuisen-ji wasn’t quite what I was expecting. They had the most detailed information leaflet, complete with a detailed explanation of the place and its philosophy and an impressive old-style map which made the water garden seem enormous. However, when I eventually I got there I found it wasn’t any bigger than my apartment. Quiet and peaceful, certainly, but it didn’t seem like there was really a lot of beauty about it. The temple itself was not open to the public, so you could only peer into small sections of it from behind a barrier. The history was all there, but it was almost like it was protected from the prying eyes of visitors.

I pressed on to Sugimoto-dera, which was the greatest delight of the day. Where Zuisen-ji was prohibitive and unwelcoming, Sugimoto-dera was informal and open. There were places where you obviously weren’t supposed to go, but they didn’t throw up KEEP OFF THE GRASS signs everywhere; instead, they leave it to you to figure it out. The temple itself was compact but impressive. I spent a good ten minutes in there just looking at statues, smelling the incense and enjoying the calm atmosphere. The rewards of this place weren’t spelled out for you, but they weren’t sheltered behind poles of bamboo. Perfect.

By this time my feet were really bloody sore, so I headed back to Hachimangu to see what all the fuss was about. I must confess, it was a really cool place, and the crowds were actually one of the best things about it. I realised that I was wrong: the sounds of nature aren’t superior to those of humans, they’re just a different type of deal. Here you could revel in the energy and fascination of others and feed off that, not to mention simply being able to watch people do interesting things. Like the pilgrims throwing coins into a shrine and praying briefly, before running off to get their children under control or charf some shaved ice.

I wondered, is there more holiness in the lives of these pilgrims than there is in mine (if there is any)? They throw in their coin, put their hands together and bow their heads for a few seconds, and presumably recite what they’ve been taught. To my secular thinking, that doesn’t constitute being holy; it’s just a procedure. But then, some are more diligent than others. One guy took ten minutes to get through it, while another couple was done in fifteen seconds. Just like Christianity I suppose, there are varying levels of diligence, of faith and adherence.

My thing is that I came to these places and I greatly admired what they stood for, without actually believing in it. I soaked up the atmosphere and took several moments of pause (especially at Sugimoto-dera) to reflect on why I was here, and none of the reasons were religious. Is my way of thinking less appropriate for these stunning locations than that of those pilgrims? I mean, it’s not going to keep me awake at night, but I just wonder if it really matters. It’s easy to say no, it doesn’t matter at all, and that’s probably what I think, but I’m not going to commit to that without at least considering the idea that I may not be doing it right. After all, those who know me will tell you that I’m not at all an arrogant, elitist, selfish prick. Not in the slightest.

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STITCHES OF SPACE THAT SLOWLY COME AND GO

About 1000 JETs have passed through Tokyo in the past week before heading out to their various outposts around the land. When I first decided to come to Japan, the first avenue I explored was JET, and by all accounts it’s the most attractive option for people arriving in this country. The pay is better, the work is more enjoyable, the lifestyle more interesting. Still, I’m really happy with the decision I made. My transition from New Zealand to Japan was near seamless, and that’s almost entirely down to the hard of work of people at the company I work for. Plus a healthy dose of optimism and self-assuredness on my part, of course.

I knew a couple of people from Christchurch in this JET intake, so I headed into Shibuya on Tuesday to have a few drinks with them. A few drinks turned into pitcher after pitcher at nomihoudai karaoke, and various drunken introductions. Here’s the crazy thing: two of the other guys in the group we were with came from Christchurch, and it turned out that they knew some good friends of mine who are now scattered about the globe. Then there was another guy who was taught maths by my friend Marty’s dad. And the other week I met a guy whose brother used to live in my last flat.

That’s the thing about New Zealand. You talk about there being a maximum six degrees of separation between any two people in the world, but in NZ I reckon it’s more like two or three, and often the connection is even more direct than that. It’s a small country, and people move around a lot – around the nation and around the world – so it ends up being pretty easy to find a link with another person, and that tends to be first on the order of business when you meet another NZer. I’ve lived in the Waikato, in Auckland and in Christchurch, plus I have friends from all over the country – and some from overseas – so it really isn’t hard. Still, it surprises me every time.

Last night I headed back into my favourite part of Japan so far: Ginza/Nihonbashi. Shibuya’s cool and all, but you won’t see ganguro girls or hordes of hosts dirtying the streets around here (although I was offered a massage on my way to the station – which I declined). I visited the Tokyo International Forum, which has an extremely impressive glass atrium, and took lots of arty photos. Then we went to 100 Dining, where drinks and food are very cheap (usually ¥100 or ¥200) and pretty nice, and after that to an izakaya called Gohan. Gohan means ‘food’. I love that. Where shall we go for dinner? I don’t know, shall we go to Food? We haven’t been there for a while. They had some really great stuff there…

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EVERYONE CHOOSE SIDES

An election was held in Japan last Sunday for the House of Councillors. Because campaign rules are so limiting, candidates resort to parking a van on a corner and having one of their cronies bark out ‘Please vote for me!’ speeches as they stand and wave. This is inescapable, wherever you go, for the three weeks or so leading up to the election (and reasonably apparent outside those times, too, as the more extreme parties drive around making rallying cries). Usually the leaflets and packs of tissues thrust into our hands by street walkers advertise izakaya, hostess bars and English schools (of course), but around this time a good chunk of them say how great and banal candidate X will be if you give them your vote.

So the election happened. The people voted for change, incidentally – the Democratic Party of Japan took a majority in the house while the incumbent Liberal Democrats lost seats all over the place. (Why do these parties have nearly identical names? Then again, the two Koreas are the same – perhaps it’s a regional quirk.) Right, that’ll be enough loudspeakers, won’t it? Wrong. Instead of a return to the comparative quiet of car and train traffic, the same vans drive about the place thanking everybody for voting for them. Even if they lost! Which means that the Japanese electoral campaign is as follows:

before vote: Please vote for us! Please vote for us!
*voting*
after vote: Thank you for voting for us! Thank you for voting for us!

I’m sure they stated a whole lot of campaign promises in there that I couldn’t have a hope of understanding, but that’s basically what it comes down to. A month of noise pollution. You’d think people would hate it, and I suspect many do, but that doesn’t stop crowds gathering and staring whenever one of these vans is on show. I don’t know, maybe they’re onto something. Maybe Helen Clark should hit the streets in an ice-cream van next year, with my mother at the mic.

In other news, I’ve discovered after two months of trials that DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… is the best train music. Listening to Mutual Slump or Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain and looking at the scenery going past, the people sleeping or emailing on their cellphones, is somehow perfect. Oh, and I’m on vacation for 13 days starting Tuesday. Maybe I’ll have something interesting to talk about for a change.

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