Tuesday, August 29, 2006

WorldCon 2007

I originally planned on coming back to Canada in June. That may be delayed by a couple of months: it appears that WorldCon 2007, the world's biggest annual science fiction convention - is to take place in Yokohama (which is only like an hour from here.)

Japanese Name Translator

I just found this through digg: Your Name In Japanese. Apparently 'Matthew' translates as either 'True Genius' or, if I'm so inclined, 'Demon Genius.'



And, yeah yeah, been a while since I updated. So sue me.

Sunday, July 23, 2006


So after getting my arse handed to me by a great bloody mountain, I went to see Coldplay with my girlfriend, at the Nippon Budokan. Now, I'm not really much of a Coldplay fan, and I was really horrendously exhausted from my attempt at Fuji, but even so, I enjoyed the show. It was what you'd expect from a modern rock concert, backed by lots of label money: lights, video effects, giant yellow balloons filled with gold glitter falling from the ceiling. The frontman, whose name I can't be bothered googling, struck me as being right on the edge of offensively arrogant, but the rest of the band rocked out pretty hard. It was a good show, and I'm glad I'm went.

But there's one thing I feel bears mentioning about concerts in this country: there's no floor admission. Everyone is given an assigned seat, and expected to damn well sit there for the duration. The Japanese are big on this (the faster trains, and almost every movie theater, all involve assigned seating.) For the most part this isn't a big deal, but at a concert!? Well okay, if you're going to a Beethoven symphony, but for rock? People are supposed to be standing, moving, dancing ... there's supposed to be a mosh pit packed up in front of the stage, with the lucky getting crowdsurfed and the unlucky getting trampled. The chaos is all part of the energy, part of the experience of going to a rock concert.

To be fair, pretty much everyone was standing, clapping in time with the music, singing along, but still ... it all seemed just a bit, I dunno, micromanaged. I love this country, but sometimes these people need to learn how to let go a little.

Friday, July 21, 2006

In Which Fuji Kicks My Ass

Okay, so it's been a while since I've posted. Frankly my life's been a combination of lots of work/little of interest, so there hasn't been much time to blog nor much to blog about. Last weekend, however, was most certainly blog-worthy.

We (my friend V., my girlfriend S., and myself) had been planning to climb Fuji on the 18th for a while. The idea was to do a night climb, and be on the summit to great the Sun as it rose over the Pacific ocean and revealed the Japanese landscape in all it's glory. To this end, the day before S. and I went shopping (I got a backpack, gortex Nike hiking boots, and a rainjacket. I eschewed rainpants, a choice I would later heartily regret when my girlfriend, clad in a full body gortex rainsuit, escaped from the mountain merely damp.)

Now, late July is supposed to be prime Fuji-climbing season: not so hot as August, but still relatively sunny. Unfortunately, the rainy season is un-naturally long-lived this year - it's still going in full force - and by the time we arrived at the mountain (halfway up, at the 5th station) the wind was in full gale force and the rain was coming in horizontally. The fact that the bus we arrived in was utterly devoid of natives (except for my poor girlfriend, trapped with the crazy gaijin) should have warned us that today was not a good day for a hike.

We spent twenty minutes or so at the station, buying supplies (food, cold tea to supplement the red bulls I'd brought, souveneir walking sticks that have little Japanese flags on the them and on which you can get stamps burned as you reach each successive station), and generally getting ready. Then we set off.

We lasted about two hours, finally reaching the 7th station. The rain did not stop. The wind just got fiercer. None of us are in excellent shape, exactly, but neither are we cancer-ward patients or morbidly obese couch potatoes. Still, a mere two hours in these conditions had left us soaked (except for my girlfriend) and frozen, and by the time we reached an open hut at the 7th station we decided to nip in for a bite to eat and a warm fire. As often happens under such conditions, once there we elected to stay the night (you know how it goes: once one person says, screw it, go on without me, the rest of the group followed.) It didn't help our motivation that, the weather being what it was, even if we reached the summit we wouldn't see the sunrise.

After we'd been at the hut about thirty minutes or so a couple of Americans showed up. One of them was a Navy consultant, a giant beefy guy who looks to be in prime shape. The fact that they pussed out at exactly the same spot we did made me feel like a bit less of a pussy.

The climb down the next day was terrible. The wind had died down, but the rain was so heavy it was like we were swimming; by the time we reached the bottom, my pants had absorbed 20 pounds of water and my gortex hiking boots had become water-bags. It was the knowledge that Fuji had won, though, that really busted our morale; my friend V. was particularly pissy on the way down, as she's going back to Canada soon and this was her last chance to climb Fuji.

Not me, though. I'm going back in August, when the weather improves. Up yours, Fuji. You ain't playin' me like that. You're goin' DOWN.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cool New Webtool

I've been waiting for something like this for a while ... actually went looking for it a few months ago, when the need arose, but sadly (as all too often happens) what I wanted hadn't been invented yet, and I didn't need it badly enough to learn how to invent it myself.

Well, now that's all over! WetPaint has opened it's doors to the world. Making your own wiki is now as easy as making a blog (ie, as easy as writing an email.) I've already set one up: eikaiwa sensei, for all your curricular needs (if you're teaching English, that is.)

Friday, June 09, 2006

In Which I Brag

So I've been studying Japanese at the sedate pace of a few hours a week (on average: I go through flurries, two+ hours a day for a couple of weeks, followed by weeks of not even glancing at the book) since last September, which I like to think isn't all that long. I think I'm officially starting to get somewhat decent at it, and here's my proof:


And the translation:

Now, my Japanese is more skillful, and, the book is not good and so before class I have to write a lesson plan. 2000 yen is too small. Thus, if it becomes 3000 yen, I will teach.

Actually, that's a pretty rough translation (and after I sent the above, I discovered a spelling mistake ... and there's probably more. I'm not saying that my Japanese is perfect ... just better.) At any rate, as you can see, I successfully engaged in simple wage negotiations, in Japanese (weirdly, this is the first time I've ever negotiated for higher pay.)

At any rate, I received an email a few hours later, in which the company in question (that would be Hello Teacher) agreed to pay me 3000 yen an hour. I felt pretty good about myself after that.

Getting Screwed at the Immigration Office

So, it's been almost a year in Japan (officially, one whole year tomorrow) and so a couple of weeks ago I trudged down to the immigration bureau (the small, less-well-known one in Tachikawa, much closer than the main center in Shinagawa) to get my landing permit extended by another year. Of course, me being me, I forgot a crucial piece of documentation at home: while I brought my passport, gaijin card, and tax forms, I left my contract back in my room. Luckily they were nice enough to do all the paperwork, and told me simply to come back in two weeks or so (once a postcard came in the mail), with the contract, and they'd finish the process.

The postcard came a few days ago, so I woke up early-ish today - it being my day off - trudged down there in the pouring rain, took a number, and waited for an hour. Finally it was my turn, and I went up, gave the clerk my postcard, and was told 'please give me your passport, your gaijin card, and 4000 yen.'

'4000 yen? For what?'

'The revenue stamp.'

'But I bought a revenue stamp the last time I came!'

So the clerk went, took out my file, and leafed through the various forms and documents therein. I could very clearly see a little square of abraded paper on the corner of the application, where the stamp had obviously been removed.

I pointed it out, but of course it counted for nothing. So, once again out into the rain, to track down an ATM and buy a revenue stamp.

The moral of this little story? Well, I take away two. First, obviously, always remember to bring all your documents ... especially when going to a government office in east nowhere, suburbia, where the nearest ATM is a fifteen minute hike away. And second - while I'm sure there's a perfectly rational explanation for the missing revenue stamp - my inherent paranoia and prejudice against bureacrats leads me to suspect that the slime removed the first revenue stamp after I left, purely so I'd have to pay twice and, thus, increase their precious revenue (after all, what could possibly happen to them? If I start complaining, then 'sorry, I do not understand. My English is not so good.' Not that I don't do the same thing in reverse whenever convenient, but still.)

Sunday, June 04, 2006

A Tale of Three Words (or, depending how you look at it, of One)

Back when I was a teenager being forced to study French, it one day occured to me that maison was very similar to the English mansion, at least insofar as both words referring to a dwelling of some sort. The interesting thing, to me, was where they differed: maison refers to a simple house, whereas mansion refers to a big, fancy, luxurious house. This made an intuitive kind of sense, given that the French-speaking Normans conquered Britian in 1066, and for several hundred years after that the English aristocracy spoke French almost exclusively. Given that, it's not at all surprising that the word was adapted in English to mean 'big fancy luxurious house'.

When I came to Japan, one of the first things I learned was that modern Japanese contains a very large amount of 'katakana English' (katakana is the alphabet the Japanese use to write foreign words.) Only rarely does the meaning survive entirely intact, and manshon (マンション) is one of those. For some reason that I don't really understand yet, manshon refers to a large apartment. This can lead to occasionally amusing situations (Me: "Where do you live?" Student: "I living in manshon in Tachikawa." Me: "Wow! That's really cool! It must be very expensive for all that space!" Student (looking confused): "It is expensive, but it is very small." Of course that doesn't happen anymore, now that I know what manshon means.)

So here you have a word, which originated waaaay back with the Romans (the Latin mansio, according to my online dictionary); was elevated, on a rainy isle off the coast of Europe, to the status of 'rich man's house'; crossed two continents and found a third home in the difficult tongue of another archipelago, where it was used to refer to a kind of dwelling that didn't even exist when the word itself was first spoken.

Kinda cool, no?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Dark Side of Japanese Trains

Johan over at Lost in Japan writes to remind us that not all is sweetness and light on Tokyo trains:

The last two mornings have been like a visit to commuter hell. Actually, yesterday was not that bad, but today’s train ride was every bit as fun as being dragged by wild horses and chased by an angry Irish mob (no offence to any Irish people) at the same time. When I came down to the platform all I could see was an endless sea of people. It was almost impossible to even reach the platform, because the lines reached up the stairs from the ticket gates.

I've had to deal with that a time or two myself, actually. Luckily, it's not often, as the hours I work (3:30 to 9:30, most days) mean I board the train at low periods, but there have been the occasional times when I have to get somewhere early, or when I go drinking and have to catch the Last Train Home. Especially in the latter instance, the crowds trying to cram themelves into the train are something to see. Like a vastly powerful, but very well-mannered force of nature.

(last post on this topic for a while, promise!)

Trains, Public vs. Private

The whole transit strike thing in T.O. gives me an excuse to mention something I've been observing for a while, namely, how much better the trains are here.

In Canada, almost every large train company - and every public transportation system - is a government monopoly. Inside city limits, the business plan (if you can call it that) is to charge a flat rate for a lift anywhere inside the city. This is a great deal for commuters, because it keeps their visible costs low, but it ends up screwing over everyone who doesn't live there because their taxes inevitably end up bailing out that public transportation. Not only can it not turn a profit, it can't even break even.

This was the model in Japan up until the early 90s. Most of the trains were run by JR (Japanese Railroads), which became famous here for inefficiency, laziness, high prices, etc. When the bubble burst, any patience people had for JR vanished, and the entire thing was privatized. JR itself still survives - under its old name, no less - but as a private entity. Although there are other train lines (in Tokyo, the Keio and Odakyu lines, whose names translate as 'King Capital' and, mysteriously, 'Little Rice Field Fast'), JR remains the biggest, most expensive to use, and least efficient. There isn't really competition, except in very specific circumstances, due to the inherent economics of railways. Railways really are a natural monopoly, in that if you want to get a train somewhere you generally only have one choice; but Japan's experience shows pretty clearly that it doesn't follow that it should, thus, be a 'public' entity. The easiest way to see that? The business plan.

In Japan, when you take a train anywhere, you pay by distance. This makes the visible costs higher, but it also means that no tax money is required to support their public transportation, which I imagine (though lack the data and training to prove) keeps total actual costs significantly lower. At the very least, it means some hapless fisherman in Hokkaido isn't subsidizing the lifestyle of a Tokyo salariman (or, for that matter, a filthy gaijin such as myself.)

Unions and Strikes

So I hear those unfortunate chuckleheads in the Toronto Transit Commission's union have decided to go on strike, this bringing the city to a standstill (at least for those too poor for cars), all over something just as trivial as the strike perpetrated by the New York transit workers not too long ago. There are a lot of things I could say about this (the phrases 'selfish assholes', 'overpaid bureaucrats', 'cancer on society' and 'criminal' spring to mind) but they're sort've outside the scope of this blog.

It's interesting to compare unions here and there, though. Western unions tend to be for the working classes and occasionally the skilled trades; while there are plenty of professional associations catering to white color workers, they're certainly not unions. The common office worker is almost never unionized.

In Japan, on the other hand, professionals, such as engineers, generally are unionized but - at least according the Japanese union bosses I've talked to at school - the working class usually isn't. These Japanese 'unions' seem a lot like associations: while they might to collective salary negotiations, they don't, as a general rule, strike.

And that seems to be the major difference: the Japanese (unlike, ohhh, say, the French) don't throw a temper tantrum and refuse to work just because every aspect of their dental plan isn't entirely satisfactory. They understand the idea of consensus, of negotiation, of meeting the other party halfway and not expecting to get every little thing you want. This isn't just a union thing, it's a very deeply rooted cultural thing. And, to be honest, it can be a little infuriating at times ... but at least the trains are run well.