Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Semi-Daily Haiku

eye contact through glass
maybe a trick of the light
or maybe you smiled

Weird Japanese Historical Factoid

I can't find any referrences for this (except for the historical fiction book, The 47 Ronin Story by John Allyn, that I read it in) but, if true, it's pretty crazy. Apparently Shogun Tsuyanoshi, distressed at the death of his heir and his lack of success at siring a new one, enacted the Life Preservation Laws in the hopes of bettering his karma or something. This law would thrill PETA: it outlawed (on pain of death, in some cases) the taking of any life, including that of an animals. Since all animals, even vermin, were included, this made agriculture somewhat problematic.

Like I said, though, the only source I can find for this is the above-mentioned book, so it might be an invention of the other.

Japanese Statistic of the Day

Japan, at something around 20%, is the second-largest contributor to the UN (the first, of course, is the US, and why they bother keeping it going at all is beyond me.) And yet, they don't have a seat on the security council. Cuz, you know, they were really bad fifty years ago.

Damn You Apple! or, In Memorium

After a year of faithful service, my trusty 3rd-gen clickwheel iPod has bitten the dust. Why? I don't know, though as the warantee expired a convenient (for Apple) one week ago, my paranoid side suspects that this was not an accident. This leaves me at something of a quandary: while I (desperately) want an MP3 player, I'm not sure what to buy ... I'm stuck between my newfound distrust of Apple (a $650 piece of hardware cacking out after a year is not exactly confidence-inspiring), and my long-lasting and potent contempt for Sony (they of the rootkit fame.) Or I could get the iPod fixed, but I see that costing upwards of $300.

Nevertheless, for the moment I am left with nothing to protect my ears from the clangor of the hated Outside World; after a year of being comfortably cocooned inside my own little personal soundtrack, this is a little like passing out drunk only to have your evil friends gleefully throw your comatose body into an ice-bath. I really have noticed an effect on my mood the last few days: I've had less energy, I've been more depressed and negative, and have seen my general enjoyment of life in general plummet to new lows.

I hate you, Apple.

Monday, November 28, 2005

'Tis the Season to Spend Too Much

Finally! Christmas shopping is finished! And December's not even done yet (normally I don't even start until, oh, Christmas Eve or so.) Hopefully I don't have to sell my kidney on eBay to pay for the postage....

And, Mom, when you read this: yes, it was your gift that took the longest to find. I finished the rest of it a week ago. So, you better like your present!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Students Say the Dardest Things

Me: Tomoko, are you doing anything special next year?
Tomoko: Yes, I'm going to keep studying English.
Me: Really? Why?
Tomoko: Because I want to speak English more better.


Saturday, November 26, 2005

Semi-Daily Haiku

he's pointing, staring,
(i think he says that i stink)
amazed by pit hair....

Today in my kid's class, one the boys was pointing and jabbering excitedly at me. At first, I thought maybe my deodorant had warn out ... a constant source of paranoia for me in the land that invented air freshener after first coming into contact with my countrymen. But, no, it turned out that he was just fascinated by the armpit hair he glimpsed underneath my short-sleeved shirt.

I'd forgotten: Asians don't have body hair.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Labour Day

Want to know what I did for Labour Day? (The Japanese Labour Day, that is, which falls on the 23rd of November.) Too bad, I'm gonna tell you anyways: I went to the country's largest, and probably coolest, club - Ageha - to see Armin van Buren (okay, okay, so Womb might well be better.) And, man, was it ever good.

There were some initial hiccups, like waiting in the cold outside Shin-Kiba station for my room-mate to show up, and then having to change once we actually got to the club (I'd come straight from work. So had he, but he stopped to change on the way, which is why I waited so long ... bastard.) After that, though, wow. What a great night.

Met a lot of people, both gaijin and Japanese. Talked to a bunch of girls, mostly Japanese of course (briefly, a French girl who claimed to be a head-hunter. We're pretty sure she was a hostess, though.) And, of course, drank and danced (van Buren provided the expected solid, driving trance for which he is justly famous, while other rooms provided some funky, hard-edged garage or some more unclassifiable but still eminently danceable stuff.) The usual club stuff, in other words.

Some things of note:

First, the water bar. It's outside, and includes a pool - which would have been a lot nicer in the summer, I'm sure. I don't know if people are allowed to swim in it; given that it's late November, no one tried.

You can make out the sponsor of the event in the water. You basically would have to have been blind not to know that the Kool brand cigarettes were behind the festivities; the Kool logo - sometimes just the two interlocking O's - were everywhere. There were three people behind a table hawking the cigarettes, too (I actually got a free beer out of that, getting my room-mate to take me up on a bet that they smoked. Turned out one didn't, the other two did, which I thought was kind of funny. I mean, come on: who takes a job marketing cigarettes if they're not going to smoke them?) Then there were these guys, wandering around the party all wrapped in neon and bouncing around with springs on their feet and pogo sticks on their arms (I'm not making this up, I swear.) Sadly the pics are a little blurry ... besy I could do with a camphone (and actual cameras weren't allowed in, so it wouldn't have made a difference even if I had one.)

Sadly, I had to leave early: my room-mate Tom, who had already had a few girls dance away from him (he's not a loser or anything, just in this case unlucky) sent me a text saying, first, where are you, and second, i'm at the station see you later. So I called him up and found that he'd had a couple of Spanish gays come onto him, which was pretty much the last straw for him. It was a long way home (two hours from Shin-Kiba to Hachioji - Shin-Kiba's even more in the ass-end of Tokyo than Hachioji is) and I didn't fancy doing it alone, so I told him to hold up and I'd catch him there in a few minutes, especially as it was pretty close to the end and I didn't want to get caught in the crowd.Two hours later we got back to Hachioji (we had to wait on the platform for a train one stop from Hachioji ... why it didn't just go all the way, we don't know, but resented deeply whatever the reason); shovelled down some beef-and-rice and Yoshinoya, and crashed out until three in the p.m.

Monday, November 21, 2005

I Am the Living God of Korean Barbecue


Let's talk about the public transit system in this country. They're noteworthy for two things.

The first is that, unlike in most (all?) major North American cities, you pay by distance in this country. On the one hand, this makes it a little more complex to get into the system (you have to go to a ticket machine, like this one, and if you're not sure how much the fare will be you have to go to another machine to get your fare adjusted at the end), as well as making it way more expensive to travel. On the other hand, the train system here is actually able to support itself, unlike, say, the subways in Toronto or New York, which require massive annual subsidies from the government to meet their operating costs. The only people who pay for public (not really public, as it was all privatized after the bubble burst ten years ago) are the ones who use it; tax payers in, say, Hokkaido don't have to shell out so that a bunch of sararimen in Tokyo can get to work.

The other thing worth commenting on is that, sometimes, they get crowded. Now, before I go on, let me emphasize that they're not packed all the time; in fact, usually they're fine. It's only early in the morning (when everyone's going to work) and late at night (when everyone's coming back from the bars) that they get bad ... the latter case by far the worst, which probably goes to show you peoples' priorities in this country. This picture was taken when I caught the last train back last Friday night. It doesn't really do the situation justice: simply retrieving my camera phone required miraculous economy of movement; for the first three stops there was no need to hold onto anything, as the human pressure was enough to hold us up. I've literally never in my life experienced such a density of people ... it was awe-inspiring, to squeeze my way on, thinking 'wow, what a lot of people', and then have so many more pack in that I was pushed all the way to the other side.

So that's trains in Japan. At the very least, they squash your wallet, and sometimes they squash you as well.

(Semi-)Daily Haiku - Christmas Shopping

earliest ever
never before december
six weeks in the mail!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

(All Right, so Semi-) Daily Haiku

Today's theme: paranoia

Welcome, we love you!
Exotic barbarian.
You can't leave too soon.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Daily Haiku

Overcrowded train.
Ow! My foot has been stepped on!
I forgive: she's cute.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Can Anyone Guess What's Wrong With This Picture

Pictured is the heating/air conditioning unit for my room (Japanese residences don't tend to have central heating, apparently.) Now, don't get me wrong, it's a brilliant air conditioning unit, probably saving me from brain damage by heat stroke during the Brutal Tokyo Winter, and, certainly, it's quite ingenious (and typically Japanese!) to combine two appliances in one.

However, as a heater, it leaves something to be desired. Look at it's position, up near the ceiling....

That's right. Heat rises.

And my toes are very, very cold.

Nippon no Piza

(Language note: the title means 'Japanese pizza'.)

Last night was payday, and as we were hungry and had no food in the house but lots of money, my roomate and I decided to go out for some food. One of the items on the menu was pizza.

Now, I haven't had a lot of pizza in Japan. This is largely because, in contrast to the vast majority of delicious Japanese food, it often isn't very good. There are a number of reasons for this: the Japanese prefer their pizzas with extremely thin crusts, occasionally verging on tortilla-esque crispiness; also, one of the more popular toppings is corn.

Yes, that's right. Corn. On pizza.

The pizza above, however, was possibly one of the best pizzas I've ever tasted, possibly because I've never had a pizza like it before. The toppings were as follows:

-Teriyaki chicken
-green onions

Sounds a little gross, maybe? (especially the mayonaise part?) Not so. That was one damn fine piza.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Yasukuni Jinjya, Part 2

As promised, here's the second installment, in which I actually visit the shrine itself (and the musuem, though regrettably I was unable to take pictures - strictly prohibited, apparently.)

First, the Toori gate:
Yes, yes, I posted an image of this before, but this time you can see just how damn big it is. There are, I believe, three of these, two leading into the outer courtyard, and the third leading into the inner courtyard.

Just inside the third toori, there are two pillars, each with eight friezes around the base. Here are two of them:

Of course I took pictures of all sixteen, but I'm not going to put them all up ... that would just be overkill, and I'm not sure how many pics blogger will let me publish (the rest of them are up on my Flickr account.)

This caught my eye as soon as I entered. I'm not sure what it is, but it certainly is decorative.

The shrine itself was, to my admittedly untrained eyes, a fairly standard and unexceptional example of Shinto architecture. Which is, elegant buildings:Surrounded by trees and interspersed with the occasional rack of prayers:

To tell the truth, I didn't spend much time in the shrine itself ... I felt, somehow, as though I were intruding, an unwelcome stranger in a place I didn't belong (admittedly, this is a feeling that gaijin get a lot, it seems.) Seeing people cleansing their hands with holy water, clapping twice and bowing their heads to pray didn't make me feel any more at home; it was as though my very presence was an imposition. Not, mind you, that I was given any "Go away, dirty foreigner" looks, or anything at all like that ... I don't want to give the wrong impression here. It was just that, Yasukuni is a shrine dedicated to those who died for their country; two and a half million souls are entrusted to it. The Japanese come here to pap their respects to ancestors - or brothers, or lost uncles - who paid the ultimate price. So I tried to tread lightly, and spend no more time than absolutely necessary.

So, on to the musuem. In the courtyard were various statues, honoring everything from battleships to horses (apparently only one or two horses ever returned from Japan's various campaigns; cavalry veterans, grateful for their mounts service, paid to have the statue on the right put into place.)

Now, as I said at the top of the post, I was unable to get any pictures of the musuem ... or, really, I was just too cowardly to disobey the 'Photos Strictly Prohibited' sign, which is really too bad as there was some very cool stuff in there, like (what I assume is) a Zero, and even one of those human-guided torpedoes the Japanese Navy used during the really desperate closing days of WWII. And, of course, Samurai armor, swords, and all other things military from Japan's long, occasionally inglorious but never dull military past.The two photos you see here were, of course, taken by someone with more balls than I.

Now, I've been to a number of war musuems, both in my native Canada, and in Great Britain, and there were two things that really struck me about the one at Yasukuni. The first was the abruptness of change the museum shows; in British war musueums, you can see the long, slow, and painful evolution of military hardware, from armoured knights to musketeers to WWI riflemen to Spitfires. At Yasukuni, you see medieval equipment right up to a certain point (specifically, around July 8 1853, when Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to international trade.) Then, there is an abrupt transition to European-style military hardware, not just in the technology (primitive rifles, cannons, etc) being used, but even in the style of uniforms: ornate piping on the sleeves, regimental cap badges, round Civil War style hats, it's all there.

The second thing was the somewhat different interpretation of history offered by the museum. It's hardly even-handed; it glosses over the atrocities of the firsy half of the 20th century, such as the Rape of Nanking, the use of bubonic plague against the Chinese, and the brutalization of POWs and occupied territories. This is hardly surprising; the Japanese are famously reluctant to acknowledge the crimes of their grandparents' and great-grandparents' generations. However, the central way in which the account differs is not one of ommision, but one of perspective: the section on modern history (which is most of the museum) starts off with a map of the world, centered on Asia, showing the encroachment of the Western powers. Essentially, the museum takes the position that the Japanese were simply taking action to preserve themselves, and other Asian peoples, by forging a pan-Asian superstate that would have the resources, manpower, and military might to withstand the European onslaught.

It's tempting to dismiss such a view as a post-facto rationalization, an attempt to duck the guilt for their crimes. And that's probably partly the case; any accurate history of Japan in that period must, after all, take those crimes into account. Yet there is, I think, something to this. Try to imagine, after all, what the world must have looked like to the Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century: after centuries of intentional isolation, happily slaughtering one another in an endless series of vicious internecine wars, a fleet of strange-looking, ill-mannered gaijin come up to one of your ports and say "Trade with us, or we blow up your cities." So you trade with them, and suddenly become aware that, 1) their technology (the steam engine, firearms, printing presses, etc) has made them very, very strong and that 2) they have subjugated more or less the entire planet. Your culture immediately begins a series of protracted upheavels as it attempts to assimilate all the new technology gained through this trade; by the time you've finished, you take a look around and realize that you may well be the only non-Western country in the entire world to have gotten it's shit together. Still, you're much smaller and weaker than any of them are ... then, at the very beginning of the 20th century, you find yourself at war with one of those powers (namely, Russia.) It's comparitively short, but immensely costly in both lives and treasure: fighting it almost bankrupted the Japanese government, and 85,000 were wounded or killed. But, in the end, you win ... you (and, not trivially, the rest of the world) realize the Europeans can be beaten. You know another war with European powers would be a Bad Idea (hence, the Anglo-Japanese alliance) but at the same time, you can see that, with a little bit of expansion (just like the Europeans have been doing) you can get the resources necessary to avoid being smashed, and maybe even push them back a little.... and there's the rest of Asia, still reeling drunkenly from it's collision with European culture, poorly defended and ripe for the taking....

I'm not saying the war was right, of course. What I'm saying is, the Japanese didn't do anything the Europeans hadn't been doing, and did it for essentially the same reasons (principally, greed, with possibly a very small helping of their version of the White Man's Burden.) One can understand why they behaved as they did, and if they behaved like animals during WWII, well, that wasn't a war noted for easily troubled consciences, by any of the players. And, to be fair, the Japanese took their share of lumps. Their entire country was burnt to the ground in air raids, and to this day they remain the only people to have been nuked. Twice.

To close: one of the somewhat touching things I learned in the musuem was that, before they flew, the pilots of one of Japan's fighter wings vowed to meet in the second life by the second cherry tree from the left of the toori at Yasukuni. The survivors - there weren't many, of course - planted this tree when they returned.

(I think this is the right tree....)

Friday, November 04, 2005

Yasukuni Jinjya

Today was a holiday in Japan (Culture Day, apparently, though I didn't know this until just now, when I checked it out on google.) So I decided to use the time to see something I've been meaning to check out for some time now: Yasukuni Jinjya, the Shrine of the Peace of the Nation. Things got off to a bit of a rocky start (my evil room-mate got twisted my rubber arm and got me to stay up all night playing Tekken 5 and Soul Calibur II, so I woke up a little late) and as a result, the shrine was of course closed by the time I found it ... assuming it was open at all today, Shinto shrines following schedules that are frankly opaque.

At any rate, I was still able to walk around for a bit and snap some pictures. To start things off, here's one of the Toori gates that marks the entrance to the shrine's grounds. These things are
massive, imposing concrete monsters; you've probably seen more traditional kinds before in pictures from Japan, usually painted red and decorated and such. It's really hard for this picture to do justice to what it feels like to walk through one of these.

Some background on Yasukuni may be in order. If you've heard of it at all, it's probably only in relation to Prime Minister Koizumi's annual visits to the shrine, which stirred controversy in Japan and quite a bit of acrimony in Korea and China (even leading up to anti-Japanese riots in some Chinese cities.) The reason for this is that, since 1978, fourteen Class A war criminals have been enshrined here, including the executed Tojo.

Before I came here, that was pretty much all I knew of Yasukuni, and I found myself wondering how a modern, liberal democracy like Japan could have a shrine to war criminals. It just didn't make sense.

The answer is quite simple: Yasukuni is not a shrine to war criminals, it is a shrine to every single soldier who has died serving Japan since the Meiji Restoration. 2,466,532 names are written in it's Book of Souls. When Koizumi visits the shrine, he's not honoring a handful of monsters; he's paying his respects to the two and a half million young men who gave their lives for their Emporer. Regardless of what one might think of Japan's motives for the carnage it inflicted throughout the first half of the 20th century (and there's a museum nearby, which I didn't get a chance to go to, that puts forth the view that those wars were motivated not by callous expansionism but by a desire to check the influence of European powers in Asia) it is very difficult to say with a straight face that the Prime Minister is out of line in visiting the shrine. There are many, in Japan and outside, who say the visits needlessly antagonize China ... but if the Chinese are so easily angered, then frankly they're looking for an excuse (which I think they are, though that's a subject for another post.)

Here's another picture I took, a little further in on the grounds. It's a statue of Omura Masajiro, the admiral who presided over the modernization of the Japanese military during the Meiji Restoration. I know this because of a bronze plaque at the base, helpfully translating what I assume is the writing you can just make out on the column.

Now that I know where the shrine is, I plan to go back there next week and check it out in more detail (including, hopefully the museum with it's, er, unique take on the history of Japanese militarism.) Check back on Tuseday or Wednesday for more....