cupid’s poison arrow

February 15, 2011

Dunno if anybody ever told you, but Valentine’s Day in Japan is arse-backwards. Of course, the time-honoured tradition involves pimply teenaged dudes trying to woo girls that are way out of their league by buying them gifts, flowers, or serenading (and creeping the utter hell out of) them with an acoustic guitar from their front lawn (I guess they are just hoping for some Rapunzel-type moment, but I’ve only ever met one girl with hair that long, and I sure wouldn’t want to serenade her, nor would I want to repel up the side of her house by holding onto her hideous rat-tail lock of hair, and without doing that how the hell else do these guys expect to actually get into these girls ‘ bedrooms without having a full-frontal collision with an irate father?), but all of that is not without a certain awkward and charming romance.

Yes, dear readers, Valentine’s Day here in Japan is sadly little more than another way to reinforce an embarrassingly outdated social hierarchy and (like almost everything else) utterly void of any real emotion. Giggling girls exchange tacky trinkets instead of  receiving charmingly misspelled love letters, and repressed female members of staff are constantly reminded of their status as doting and passive sex-objects by being expected to ‘gift upwards’ to their male co-workers, who (naturally!) all enjoy a higher social status than they do. Females are expected to give gifts to males on Valentine’s Day, while the males sit back, relax, smoke their cigarettes, play slot machines and daydream about other ways in which they could slow down the country’s birth rate.

Sweet, sweet guilt.

I know this is true, because when I came to work this morning and found chocolates on my desk from the beautiful young Japanese teacher who sits opposite me, my male co-worker actually joked about the chocolates being from him as he gorged himself on his own bounty. I felt so guilty, and I don’t even want to eat these things because of it. But how can I repay the favour without a) going against the grain of my adopted society, or worse, b) looking like a smitten fool? Is there any way to show your appreciation for women, not just in Japan but in any society, without a sexual or at least a romantic connotation? I’ve heard stories about extremist vigilante feminists who don’t like having doors held open for them.

Let’s be honest, part of the fun of Valentine’s Day, and the romantic world in general, is the gamble that you take every time you put your heart on the line in front of somebody. Where would the fun be if we were guaranteed success every time we asked somebody out? It’s a delicate interplay of emotions, appetites and manipulative skill that dictates the outcome of even the most vaguely romantic social interaction.I’m pretty sure Valentine’s Day would give even Christmas a decent run for its money in the biggest-selling Hallmark-endorsed fake holiday stakes, but it’s sad that in this country it has slowly transformed from the one day of the year where people could get unashamedly romantic into yet another rigid institution, and, at least for women, a veiled opportunity for them to exercise their femininity by exchanging sweets and cards with each other, away from the prying, lecherous eyes of the men that govern them.

A final thought (what am I, Jerry Springer?): I’m told that on White Day (March 14th), males are expected to return the favour of the bounty they received on Valentine’s Day. Although, except in the increasingly rare cases of genuine romance, it seems to me that the function of White Day is not so much to return a favour as it is to unburden oneself of the guilt of having received a gift for no reason whatsoever on Valentine’s Day in the first place. The end result, naturally, is that men get away guilt-free and women get a nice gift to pacify their wild and unpredictable emotions. And everybody gets on with their lives. Seems like a fair trade to me.

This probably all sounds like a huge whinge. It’s not. I actually had a pretty great Valentine’s Day with a pretty special person. As a foreigner, I am in the priveliged position of being able to look upon these precedings with an objective sense of irony. Before y’all attack me for being a Nippon playa-hata, just keep in mind that these rants are not intended to be anything more than mildly entertaining. Yoroshiku, ne?


moths to a flame

September 7, 2010

Ah, Japanese karee raisu. Perhaps the single most reliable meal ever devised by man. No matter what the occasion, a good dose of curry rice is probably the answer to all your woes. For those unable to deconstruct the horrible bastardisation of a perfectly good English phrase back into something cohesive, karee raisu translates rather clumsily as ‘curry on rice.’ Of course, this isn’t any particular kind of curry: it’s a generically tangy, mildly spicy brownish subtance vaguely suggesting that it was once truly tasty, and whose ingredients, in keeping with traditional Japanese stoic conservatism, daren’t venture beyond being potatoes, carrots, onions and beef.

Karee raisu is a culinary last resort that caters to all situations: lack of money, lack of creativity in the kitchen, lack of time to source a meal of any real nutritional value, lack of real hunger (but urgent need to consume food; see: Fuji Rock 2009). This latest batch I’ve cooked up is a doozy; I doubled the recommended quantities on the package in a front-page news worthy act of domestic rebellion, and an equally huge ‘fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me’  aimed squarely at those boring instructions printed so coyly on the back of the box. The result? Final confirmation that too much modern Japanese fast food is never enough. Here’s all that remains from my generous helping tonight (went somewhat cold as I was typing about it’s virtuousity, but it’s former splendour is still evidently visible):

I just found out how to embed mp3s into my blog, so from now on, expect this thing to be delivered not only in full color Panavision™ but also in stereoscopic surround sound!

The first little nugget won’t be a big surprise to anybody who knows how excited I was for the debut album from Melbourne electro groovers Miami Horror, or anybody who has been unlucky enough to be pulled up at a traffic light next to me over the past couple of weeks: this track, entitled ‘Holidays,’ is the best example of the group letting their pop smarts take the wheel, while keeping their indie/dance ambitions safely buckled in the child restrainer in the back seat. And don’t forget that the lead single ‘I Look To You’ features the divine Kimbra on lead vox!

What the hell, here’s the YouTube vid as well:

There are a few missteps on the album, which is a shame considering the strength of their first EP and the ridiculous amount of time they spent putting this thing together, but the good tracks are definitely worth the price of admission.

In the past, I’ve always been a little late to the party when it comes to Sufjan Stevens. With his last two or three albums, in particular the magnum opus Illinois, I felt like the hype had already swelled and receded when I finally got around to digesting it fully myself. For that reason, the whole exhibition seemed far too overwrought, too self-referential, too smart for it’s own good and kinda just not cohesive enough. Like different neighbourhoods of the area it was describing, most of the compositions felt too far removed from the ones immediately before or after them, and I was left thinking, ‘maybe I missed the boat on this one?’ Of course, there are a few undeniable heartbreakers on that particular album: ‘Casimir Pulanski Day’ and the haunting ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr.’ are two crushingly intimate songs with an emotional resonance I’ve rarely heard since Elliott Smith died.

So I decided, when he surprised all of us with his latest All Delighted People EP the other week, to jump on this train while it was still picking up speed, so that I might not miss another revelatory Sufjan event that has people up in arms proclaiming yet another second (or third or fourth) coming of our musical saviour. And this time around, it definitely struck a chord. This release is fantastic; not just in the quality of it’s tunes but it’s structure and sequencing. I never thought I could enjoy 20 minutes of what is essentially the same song…and then still want to press play again when it was all over. The two versions of the eponymous title track that bookend this release are reverential, hymnal, intimate and catchy in that uniquely Sufjanese way. Wedged between, as if almost an afterthought, are a couple of sweet little acoustic tunes that would stand tall on their own and deserve definitely not to be overlooked. But it’s the title tracks that inevitably steal the show, and for the first real time I’m drawn in to Sufjan’s wild, sunny, musical world, where small furry animals run free, there is a (double) rainbow all day, every day, and of course, a poison tree lurking in the corner of the garden somewhere, never spoken about, yet constantly tempting everyone to darkness and despair. Consider me a convert.

My HTC Desire Android missile command centre has been chugging along like a champion for the last month or so, and I am yet to encounter any task that it is not fully eager and willing to perform at my behest. It really is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of mobile phones; I’ve pumped it full of ‘roids (overclocked it to 1.3ghz) and it still hasn’t faltered. I’ve put it through stress tests that would make Mr. Incredible’s knees buckle (I have cracked 1800+ on Quadrant). And that’s not to sell it’s brainpower short, either; I’m pretty sure if I pushed it, it would be equally as capable as good old saggy-titted Arny of becoming Governor of any given US state.

In fact, I’m so proud of the little guy that I’m attaching a screenshot just to show off how flexible and understanding he is to my needs and, um, desires. Notice the modern Japanese twist?

Ok. So this next thing isn’t exactly relevatory news or anything, but I feel it deserves a mention on my little blog, just once.

I’ve been known to go off on scathing tangents in the past, spouting pithy and mostly ridiculous garbage about the state of the mainstream media (and it’s audience) in the Western consumerverse, particularly in Australia. I have complained about the way news programs run lead stories featuring death, bloodshed, lies, pollution and corruption as if in some endless attempt to eventually plunge all of us into some equally endless spiral of despair and misanthropy, contrasted with some sick, twisted sociopathic shit that is apparently only included to make us all feel uncomfortable and inadequate about our own boring sex lives.

Take, for example, a random selection of headlines from the front page of (Australia’s finest and most widely-read conservative news source) on my mobile phone as of this very moment, 8:45pm, Monday August 6th, 2010:

“Dad, why did you kill mum?” son asks.

Broke, scared man hides in shed for a year.

Politician’s wife exposed as prostitute.

KK (ed: who?) gets steamy with two naked men.

Long-distance romance ends in murder.

I don’t think I’m turning into one of those crackpot paranoid conspiracy theorists when I suggest that these headlines seem to be tending towards some pretty dark and violent topics. Why? It not only frustrates and confuses me on a philosophical level, but it makes me angry on a political level, too: there is so much fuss in Australia about censorship, the banning of this and and labelling of that as ‘not suitable’ for your children, or your disabled neighbour, your homosexual school teacher, your terminally ill grandparent who longs for euthanasia, your mixed-race girlfriend or your Nazi sympathiser pit bull terrier. Mainstream media and conservative politicians seem to love nothing more than telling us what is in the best interests of society, and that all these modern fancies (such as sex on TV, bad language and of course, the worst offender of them all, violent video games) are damaging the very fabric of society.

So what do they do in turn? How do they, judges of morality and final word on good taste, remedy this rot and atone for all the ills of the ‘alternative’ media? They jam violence and corruption down our throats, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 363 days per year (they tend to take Christmas Day off so they can push their pro-Christian agenda a bit harder), with headlines like the ones I quoted above. They commission ads which are, in a word, terrifying, scaring us into taking out expensive insurance policies and making voluntary super annuation deposits in case some horrible accident should befall us. And, judging by the amount of death and decay I see on the news every night, those odds are pretty high.

Then, in their most horrible act of hypocrisy and exploitation of a dumb population, already juiced up, primed and baited to swallow each and every terrifying tidbit thrown their way, the media networks present an endless parade of ‘reality TV,’ manufactured precisely to show us how scary and awful the great big world is: drug traffickers at airports, corrupt CEOs swindling honest-working employees, drug-crazed criminals attacking little old ladies in quiet suburban streets, and of course, their piece de resistance, paedophiles and rapists who are still on the loose, everywhere, in all their different guises, lurking around each and every corner, ready to pounce on your kids as they make their merry way home from school, scarring them for life and opening up your chequebook to years of expensive professional emotional therapy (because what kind of parent would you be if you didn’t provide this kind of professional help for your children?).

It’s the hypocrisy that pisses me off the most: telling us what is and what isn’t acceptable in the media, and then subjecting us to their own twisted brand of news and ‘entertainment,’ the whole while passing it off as wholesome, informative, relevant and appropriate.

I mention this because since living in Japan I have noticed that the predilection with fear and violence is not world-wide. No, friends, in two years living in Japan, I have seen less than ten ads for banks, insurance companies or anything like that. Likewise, news reports are rarely focussed on local crimes, so people aren’t constantly reminded that there are horrible violent crimes occurring just around the corner. The result? A somewhat repressed, but generally upbeat population.

Take Exhibit A. I love this ad. There is no pretension here. There is no pressure. There is no exploitation, no stereotyping, no condescending dialogue. Just a catchy jingle and some dancing around. It’s all over in fifteen seconds. And that girl is seriously such a babe.

Why can’t Australian ads be more like that? Instead, we get this kind horrible shit. Words cannot describe how much this kind of thing infuriates me. If you, humble viewer, can endure this ad from beginning to end, then you are a bigger man than I:

That was a horrible song when it came out ten years ago, and your awful amateur actors aren’t making it any better. The worst thing about this ad, though, is the singularly selfish message behind it. Complaining about your fellow citizens and whinging that you always get the short end of the stick seems to be socially acceptable these days, and even ad-worthy.

Unfortunately, that one particular car insurance ad isn’t even the worst offender. Why didn’t I include an even more offensive one? I was talking to my mum about this the other night. The absolute bottom of the barrel ads, the ones that have been making us hate turning on the television for decades, are so God-awful that neither of us could even remember the name of the company they were advertising, rendering it impossible for me to even look them up on YouTube. That really says something for the effectiveness of television commercials.

Of course, I know I’m not alone in voicing these kinds of sentiments. Michael Ruppert has far more experience (and eloquence) regarding these matters than I do.

Well, that’s enough spite for one day. I’ve been pretty busy over the last week, mostly writing and marking exams under excruciating sweatshop conditions for the powers-that-be at my school. Somebody (me, perhaps) should make a webcomic about Japanese bureaucracy, and how anything slightly out of the ordinary is ‘difficult’ and subsequently muri desu (impossible). Like for example, how I was told that a percentage mark is ‘unfair,’ so instead I should write an exam out of exactly 100 marks. That would be some pretty good material for my first edition.

Tonight I am gonna go home and perhaps get stuck into some video gamin’. By gar, it’s been a while, and that new Metroid game looks like a riot. Maybe I’ll pick up some chewing gum on the way home…

Til next time!

If there’s one thing I am traditionally no good at, or that I will do anything to avoid, it’s admitting defeat. Those of you lucky enough to have been on the end of one of my semantic diatribes will know that in my case, logic often fails in the face of blind conviction, that tectonic unstoppable force that inevitably ends in some prolonged awkward stand-off.

But guess what, blogosphere? Today’s your lucky day, cause as of right now I’m admitting to being neglectful, tactless and lazy. My lack of regular posting has nothing to do with being busy – it is only due to being uninspired, which of course is entirely my fault. I came here expecting every single day to be a tidal wave of creative stimuli, but when the initial rush of being an utter alien on a new planet wore off, and the sensation of having my new world spin by like an infinite cascading mess of encoded computer garble became de rigeur, I simply stopped trying. My lack of output has been gnawing at my conscience lately, and as someone who deeply values creativity and an analytical edge in others, I have become somewhat ashamed of my own attitude.

So here’s to yet another e-rebirth, full of hollow promises to my stockholders and Steve Jobs-like overstatement. Boom!

It’s hard to keep up with international current affairs in a country where you do not speak the language. Of course, there is the infinite mystery and wonder of the internet, where tweets can actually premeditate the normal space-time continuum and updates filter through from the other side of the world before even the world’s most punctual news sources have time to catch up. However, nothing beats the palpable sensation of simmering along with the dissenters and antagonists and bystanders in the midst of a common language. Opinions, trends and perspectives are accumulated through a Babel fish-like osmosis, so that when the time comes to sit down at a keyboard and bash out yet another politically-charged manifesto, all the ammunition is already there.

My point is, don’t be disappointed if this blog lacks a political edge from now on. Yeah, like I was ever well-informed in the first place, but you know what I mean. The summer All-Japan High School Baseball Championship is approaching, and my school is only two games away from representing Fukushima-ken. Tomorrow I get a free day off to go and sit in the sun, read, cheer when I feel like it, or mingle with my students when they aren’t too busy shortening their skirts or complaining about the heat. Time moves a little slower in Fukushima-ken…that is, until the students graduate and realise that there’s nothing else to do here than to get pregnant at an early age and settle into a daily routine of kicking about town in old tracksuits, smoking, shaving off their eyebrows and going to Gusto. At which point time really slows down.

I miss Melbourne. I miss the sophistication, the cutting-edge fashion and music and the feeling that despite its grey exterior, there are hidden secrets and new experiences lurking around every turn. I miss the multicultural texture of the streets. I miss feeling like most people are on the same intellectual and existential level, and the unity provided by Australian Rules football and the outspoken pride in the fact something so local and yet so universally beloved is unique in the world. Of course for every snappily dressed hipster and hot Asian girlfriend, there are four or five race-going Melbourne Uni commerce undergrads, and at least the same number of toothless bogans stinking of Woodstock on the Lilydale train, but that all just serves to add yet another patch to the quilt.

In that sense, it’s timely that I’ll be going back there for a short break in September, and this time somebody else will be able to share in that sense of discovery and awakening that can be so overcoming when you first realise you are standing right in the midst of one of the world’s best-kept cultural secrets.

In anticipation of this, I’m noticing a slow trickle of ideas making their way into my day-to-day awareness, from philosophical one-liners to Escher-like short story fragments that are gonna take some serious unravelling. Perhaps it has something to do with repeated exposure to the electric Tokyo nightlife, or the fact that I’m re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray (admittedly more so to arm myself with some diabolical one-liners than for some critique of decadence and homophobia) but I’ve been wanting to try harder, to challenge and analyse my own opinions and instincts and to make more of a document of them. Full disclosure here, people.

Summer over here is oppressive to say the very least; days that aren’t spent wringing out clothes made sopping by the tropical rains are similarly wasted wringing out clothes on the brink of utter ruination due to sweat caused by the suffocating humidity. This kind of atmosphere is not usually conducive to gettin’ stuff done, which is why I accidentally-on-purpose chose to join a local gentleman’s sporting collective and had my first training with them this weekend. It was good to get the wheels turning again, despite feeling at the same time like I was pulling out from some long-since abandoned station with the accumulated weight of many a winter’s worth of undelivered freight tugging behind me. Competitive sports are cathartic pursuits, and it’s actually interesting (and not wholly useless, I might add) to take note of how people’s personalities manifest themselves on the sporting field. An attacking player is more likely to be feisty in their opinions, and a creative player is almost always going to turn out to be someone engaging. These are the curious cases where, just like in life, ambition isn’t always met with success, but the inspired spark of an idea and the jolt of effort in getting it off the ground ultimately proves to be the true reward, regardless of outcome. What’s even more interesting is seeing those work-week tensions and relationship inadequacies bubble over. If only we were allowed to bash each other on the back of the legs (heads?) with a hockey stick every time something went wrong.

Holy shit the most frightening insect just landed on my wall.

I thought it was pretty interesting how Leonardo ‘Mr. Reliable’ aka ’13 year-old to Scorcese’s Polanski’ DiCaprio’s last two major roles have been basic carbon copies of each other. And to be honest, I’d be hard pressed to say whether I liked Shutter Island or Inception better – both entertained me while I was watching, but the residual images faded from the backs of my eyelids pretty quickly after they ended. In my opinion, Rian Johnson’s criminally neglected and critically underrated The Brothers Bloom does the spiral-shaped meta-fiction thing in a much more original and entertaining way. What’s more, for a serious movie positing itself as a comedy, or vice-versa, or whatever the hell it actually is, its emotional pay-off is a lot more rewarding. With Shutter Island, I was kinda just thinking, ‘lobotomise him already.’

For a good-looking guy, Leo’s certainly got that furrowed brow, too-much-whiskey-and-cigarettes thing down to a fine art. Whatever happened to that Oliver Twist-esque adolescent who so readily convinced Kate Winslet to get her considerable tits out on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner? Now he’s chasing his own over-wrought imagination around rainy warzones and I just don’t know what to think.

As for Inception, my feelings can be pretty neatly summarised with one sentence: for a movie that tries to hard to be clever, I spent more time trying to figure out all the plot deviations than absorbing the philosophical themes of the story itself. It was just too confusing without being thought-provoking enough. With movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was left in a trance, with barely-formed yet naggingly relevant existential notions swimming about my recently-pulped brain matter. That is a movie that opens doors and windows onto all sorts of territory (or lack thereof, as it were) and leaves you thinking about the big picture (really, really big). Inception had so much potential but in the end got buried beneath an avalanche of special effects, plot layers and a score containing way too much trombone.

It comes as no surprise that the best scene in Inception features the infinitely cool Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a dapper suit fighting some thug in a snazzy hotel hallway that keeps tripping over itself. I mean, who could not be into that? Even when he’s drinking gin and juice for breakfast and overdosing on The Smiths in (500) Days of Summer I still wanna date that guy. Put him in zero-gravity and I go to water.

In memoriam of my addiction to David Letterman in eras past, and in homage to the quiet confidence of my former self as demonstrated in this post, here’s a list of top 10 observations made in Tokyo last time I was there.

  1. There is a direct correlation between the severity of the blond hue of Shibuya girls’ hair and their sheer volume.
  2. Same goes for the guys.
  3. Nothing is more white than sitting in Starbucks with an iPhone.
  4. Conversely, nothing is more unbecoming on white girls than dressing up like cute Japanese girls. Just stop. That Minnie-chan bow in your hair is awful.
  5. There are more wonderful sights and sounds to be experienced in one day in Yoyogi Park than in an entire month in Fukushima.
  6. I still fail at navigating the Tokyo Metro. This is some top-serious devil labyrinth designed to lead everyone astray. I have a feeling that it’s actually protecting some magnificent unknowable secret, like the Holy Grail or the lost city of Atlantis.
  7. No matter where I am in the world, it’s comforting to be able to have a singalong to The Strokes’ ‘Last Night.’
  8. The old-school elderly Tokyoites who hobble their way from place to place must be so frightened, confused and disappointed at what has become of their once-fair city.
  9. Nowhere else in the world do business women look so damn sexy.
  10. It’s only a matter of time before I become a permanent part of the problem.

This blog has succeeded in extracting from me (like blood from a stone…or some other thing with no blood in it) a few catchy turns of phrase and points about myself that I barely realised were there. So I can only imagine the interminable disappointment it must have been for you, dear reader, to realise how selfish this whole exercise has been. But isn’t that what blogging is all about? At least, that is how it’s always been for me. And it has worked for me in the past, so I plan to keep it going as my ideas and motivation sprout, blossom, and then turn ugly. Now, to congratulate and honour your bravery and tenacity in reaching the end of this mighty quest, I shall reward you with a ‘comment’ link, with which you may do as you please.

So long, friends.


June 7, 2010

Lately I’ve been trying to tap back into all the pastimes that used to capture by imagination and spark my creativity before I came Japan. I realise this makes it sound like some kind of ancient legend, and in sense it is; I can hardly recognise myself in some of the blogs of old, and I find my attention to detail dwindling with every changing season, each similarly consisting entirely of overcast, windy days, every over-sweetened coffee I naively expect to be otherwise, and each and every God-awful Japanese power ballad that assaults my dignity in each and every supermarket or department store.

Living in rural Japan is, despite what overzealous travel guides and intrepid tourists may have you believe, very monotonous and uninspiring, particularly when you live in a town with a ratio of about three or four semi-trailers to every one normal-sized car. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy my job or my life here; far from it, however there are certainly times I find myself frustrated and angry as my remaining youth withers away in this oppressive ghost town. To some degree, my silent cultural rebellion has been working. I’m finding more time for exercising, reading, watching movies, and even video gaming, which (contrary to popular opinion) can be both innovative and inspirational. And of course, buying a car has helped the situation to no end.

I’ve also dived into the overwhelming and somewhat intimidating world of Japanese manga. When I say ‘dived,’ of course what I really mean is ‘cautiously dipped a single toe,’ but it’s a start. Does anybody remember those grotty underworld porn shops in the Nick Cage film 8mm? In truth, second-hand manga repositories aren’t too far removed from this kind of fetishism. Long, musky walls of paper swell and bulge with countless discarded volumes. Floorboards creak and groan while low-powered light globes barely provide enough illumination to make out the scrawl of characters along the spines. Dedicated fans, dotted like moths at seemingly random points throughout the network of caves like, spend hours reading entire series from start to finish, barely moving so as to conserve energy. Genre tags warn of all sorts of unimaginable debauchery within the hand-drawn black and white cells of the pages, and an author’s years of toil – scratching away at a dishevelled desk amongst piles of his hero’s works, on a sparse diet of convenience store instant noodles, begging for a publisher and praying for an audience – goes on sale for 300 yen for the entire series, twelve volumes, read once, immediately forgotten. But please don’t misinterpret; I believe the Japanese are lucky to have a pastime which is both so vast and rich, and so culturally unique. The breadth of material and styles which fall under the umbrella of manga is mind-blowing, spanning from the predictably trashy and vapid to highly intelligent, keenly-observed and moving.

One such notable entry is クロ號 (kurogou), a collection of short anecdotal stories about an orphaned black cat, his friends and foes, and his hapless owner. Sure, it sounds childish and simplistic, however this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our hero must deal with rejection, loneliness, disappointment, unrequited love and loss of innocence. Sound heavy? Sure, it is, but that’s what all great authorship somehow manages to do: transport the reader into another world, where separate yet parallel feelings exist as if they were our own. John K. Sampson of the Weakerthans has penned a beautiful couplet of tracks about his own pet cat, casting the creature’s own habits, needs and perspectives in a tangibly human light. Kurogou does the same. It ponders the secret life of felines and exalts their mysterious sentiment, while at the same time distilling their playful nature into its most innocent and adorable. I believe it’s out of print now, so I’ll have to hunt down second-hand copies of the remaining volumes. Looks like more tomb raiding is on the horizon.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this year I have decided to take on some added initiative with my classes and write their exams myself. I do this because of  the ludicrously regressive approach to assessments that my school takes when it comes to English (memorising a few phrases of vocab without understanding any of the underlying structure, mentally photographing a page of a textbook and then reproducing it verbatim for the test when an embarrassingly low-grade monochromatic photocopy appears with a few blank spaces sporadically added in for dramatic effect.

Of course, when I mentioned that I was making the test myself, and that it would be somewhat more challenging than what they were used to, I was met with the Japanese equivalent of a violent protest rally: stunned, vacant stares from everybody at once. I said that there would be no Japanese on the test, and more desolate confusion ensued. I seem to recall my high school German examinations, when I had to speak for a solid fifteen minutes about a variety of subjects, including a detailed analysis of a politically-charged movie called Sonnenallee about life in the GDR, which incidentally got me hooked on the Stones’ Exile on Main Street (which, aside from going on exchange for six weeks, was probably the most rewarding part of my six years spent studying German).

I just hope that this little experiment of mine generates the reward for effort that I’m hoping for. Realistically I’m probably only making enemies out of my students, and it could be many years before they realise the opportunity they had at high school to make the most of their English education, but I hope they appreciate it one day.

Ocassionally I have these uncomfortably postmodern experiences when I stumble across some beautifully manicured creature in cyberspace. Maybe it’s a blog, a photography portfolio, a delicately-worded Twitter post, or some drunken happy snap that flashes up for a few fleeting moments on my news feed in Facebook, but all it takes is a split-second and inevitably I am immediately overcome with pangs of excitement and jealousy.

Of course, it always involves a girl, always excruciatingly hip, yet always with a knowing eye to the nostalgic appeal of past eras (knitting, second-hand paperbacks, cycling); lists of preferred authors and artists so taut as to withstand even the most strenuous pretentious indie stress-test; and a geographical location that jumps off the screen with all sorts of signifiers attached: venues so underground they are literally underground in New York City, indescribably drunken nights out rubbing shoulders with the indie nomads of the world in London, the schizophrenic fashion of Tokyo.

Maybe it’s just the Photoshop talking, but then again, maybe you are so utterly compatible with this girl, you are convinced that if you could somehow just meet her, make eye contact, offer her a light, then she would instantly see in you the same  hypnotic and addictive qualities you see in her, because you are so clearly soul mates. You are convinced that this girl embodies everything you admire and yearn for in the opposite sex, and that just makes the truth all the more painful: she is so far away, so abstract, and you are, and always will be, so anonymous.

The final insult – and the fatal moment when one resigns himself back to the common existence of the real world – is the recognition of a repeated name upon the wall, a discreet hand around the waste or resting upon a knee in a photo, an ever-so-slightly too prominent link to an ever-so-suspiciously trendy blog…and with this inadvertent pattern recognition (the tell-tale signs of an unfathomably cool, probably superhuman significant other), and the realisation that these kinds of girls exist in a dimension utterly inaccessible to the likes of you.

These are the moments when one leans back from his desk and averts his gaze for a brief few seconds, and is transported from his regressive fantasy back into the world of bricks and mortar, of voices echoing from outside his door, of money and debt and obligation, and of real, tangible opportunity.


February 12, 2010

Leave it to someone like me to leave it until sometime like now to get to know my soon-departing students. I had ground out a pretty comfortable little crevice for myself, tucked away in my quiet office with one of the other English teachers and presuming that, as blossoming young adults with graduation and fornication on the brain, my students wouldn’t have much interest in or time for chatting to a foreigner without a firm grasp of their language.

It dawned on me that the time to say goodbye was rapidly, unavoidably approaching, and that I had better make the most of what little time I had left with them. Subsequently I have been far more outgoing and active around my schools of late, inviting myself in to eat lunch with my students, taking photos with them, kicking a soccer ball around the corridors until the librarian tells us off, that kind of thing. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the last few days with my san-nensei’s have been my best as an ALT (ie. sponsored foreigner) in many months.

This change of attitude in one area of my life has been countered by multiple miniature failures in another.  As I become closer to those people in my life with whom my relationship is bound to be irreparably severed at the hands of fate, I am realising countless missed opportunities to establish relationships which were never doomed to such finality, but rather ones that I let slip due to my own pride or carelessness.

Hard to believe it’s a year since the last round of high school entrance exams, upon which a swarm of foetuses descend upon my school to sit a pointless exam that determines their ability to wear baggy pants (if you’re a boy) or teeny-tiny skirts (if you are girl). These are seemingly the most important criteria for acceptance into my school and I can’t seem to be able to pin down any other common traits amongst my students. Anyway, this year the corridors were even more deserted than last year, so I was forced to partake in my overpriced bentou by myself.

And of course, classes are as frustrating as ever. Today my students whinged and complained about having to take their ‘oral communication’ test, which (you guessed it) involves no speaking whatsoever and requires nothing more than memorising three or four words from any given set phrase and then filling in the gaps. Of course, we had been drilling these same exact phrases for the past two months, yet the students all cry bloody murder and righteously proclaim English to be ‘impossible’ whenever I ask them a question that isn’t branded onto their eyeballs (such mind-bending, challenging things like ‘what’s up?’).

This one particular class has not improved by a single fraction over twelve full months. In fact, I think they have gone backwards. The difficulty of this class started out lower (much, much lower, in fact) than what they had been doing the year before, and has remained consistently ridiculous for the duration of the year. The tests and other assessments follow the exact same formula, week in, week out. It’s at a point now where if I suggest anything that doesn’t ascribe directly to this deadening monotony, the teacher complains that it’s ‘too hard.’ I know it’s too hard, that’s why I’m suggesting it, moron. How else are they ever going to learn anything? And God help me if I suggest undertaking an assignment that might require (gasp! shock! O great hell fury!) homework.

What a rewarding, wholesome approach to learning a new language! I’ve said it before and I will repeat it again: it’s no wonder the children here hate English so much. On days like this, I hate teaching it. I hate identifying myself as a native speaker of a language that can be reduced to something so fucking sterile and lifeless.

With this in mind, I have decided that if I can bare this kind of bullshit format of ‘English education’ (I use both words reluctantly) for another year, then I’m gonna write the tests myself whether they like them or not.

By the same teacher in question, I was also told off for sitting on the ancient oil heater with one of my students before class started. God forbid I should try to relate to them outside the confines of militaristic class time. I was then also scolded for having my phone in class (not really even in class because it was during the break) when there were students sitting not three feet away from us furiously sending emails to their 好きな人 in the precious seconds before class started up again. Yeah, I love the respect I get over here as a teacher.

Perhaps I should also mention at this point that Japanese people don’t ‘get’ The Far Side. Not that there’s much to understand, I would have thought: a majority of them are basically just ‘if animals could talk…’-type gags. I gave a bunch of my students Far Side cartoons with the captions removed, and asked them to write their own, based on the picture. I had heard from a friend of mine that this kind of exercise worked well with his students. Alas, it would seem that by the time the kids have ground out their first year of senior high school, their capacity for lateral thought and well-observed humour has been well and truly beaten out of them. I even told the kids they could write it in Japanese first, and then I would help them translate, but even after that, most of the captions were nothing more than the poor victim exclaiming ‘OH NO!’ Some of the kids even asked me, ‘what’s happening in this picture?’ I nearly blew a fuse. If I told you the punchline of the author’s original joke, wouldn’t that make the whole exercise kind of pointless?

I had other notions about exposing the kids to different styles of Western journalism, social politics, cartoons and humour (all of which The Far Side embodies well), but…well, if they can’t even think of witty captions for funny drawings of animals, then I suppose maybe I’m aiming a little too high. And here I was thinking I could find something that would transgress cultural barriers! Ha!

I guess I’ve been going snowboarding a fair bit lately. After nearly throwing in the towel after numerous failed ordeals and career-threatening injuries (at least, they seemed career-threatening at the time when I needed to be snow mobile’d back down the mountain), the last few times I’ve been have been really great, and with night skiing in full swing it would appear my weekends are booked out for the foreseeable. Last night we had more snow in my little town than I have ever seen before (almost knee-deep outside my apartment this morning) and despite the cries of fear and panic from my Japanese driver, I kinda got a kick out of the whole experience.

Snow is still very much a novelty for me. I feel like it casts of blanket of tranquility over daily proceedings, as if tucking the whole town into bed at once. Snow makes unnecessary haste impossible, and I’ve noticed that it brings people together in a common fight to simply go about their business with such an unwelcome menace pervading their day.

However I admit that if I lived in an even more snow-prone region, shovelling and digging my way out of mountains of frozen white torture every morning – combined with the mere knowledge that I would frequently require the use of gumboots – this whole snow caper would probably get old pretty quickly.

Seems like I’ll be heading down to Tokyo again soon to purge myself of my sins. Until then, take care.

holding hands

December 22, 2009

The only things keeping me grounded at the moment are Nintendo games, Raymond Chandler and Saul Bellow. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. My tastes could be decidedly less wholesome, and no doubt they would be were I still in Melbourne, or hanging out in Tokyo with the boys. As for The Adventures of Augie March, I have rarely been so impressed by the density and scope of any work of art, and that it could be the product of a singular mind, calling upon nothing more but narrative skill and delicate observation of the intricacies of human existence just make it all the more inspiring.

It just feels so complete, as Bellow can address everything from nihilism to professional relationships to class struggles through the prism of middle American life in the 20th century with such clarity, and identifies hidden motivations, weaknesses, and agendas in every character it introduces, from lowly union foremen, the the numerous women who come and go, to the matriarchal Grandma, to Augie’s various mentors, and so on.

Not to mention that the plot and pacing are nothing short of immaculate; characters’ true intentions are only ever slightly hinted at so as not to prematurely spoil any eventual climax or create unnecessarily gratuitous tension where there need not be any. Nevertheless, through the strength of Bellow’s descriptions alone we feel like we know the characters well already, so that their actions never come as a complete surprise, either. Everyone is flawed, undoubtedly even more so than Augie himself in all his restlessness. And that’s the thing; it’s so human, it doesn’t romanticise except where absolutely necessary, life is unfair and it doesn’t shy away from this fact. Augie’s biggest struggle is between his desire to preserve his own integrity and the weight of his aspirations.

The thing felt like it lost steam over the last 100 pages or so; since Augie spends the entire first half of the book talking about Grandma Lausch and Einhorn, it seems slightly rushed when he joins the army, goes on three tours of duty, marries, and resolves with his estranged older brother within the space of a couple of chapters.

Anyway, after months of toil, I finally finished it a week ago, and I’m worried that whatever I get stuck into next will either be too lightweight or comparably far too existential and depressing. Options include Tender is the Night, Cat’s Cradle, The Trial, and Speak, Memory, something I’ve been threatening to read for years. I guess this is what happens when I try to prepare reading lists months in advance – my moods and expectations change, and then I feel like a petulant kid being forced into doing some kind of boring homework when I have to start a new book without an entire bookshop at my disposal.

I’m gonna go ahead and call this movie ‘death affirming.’ It’s almost perfectly acted and despite a fairly predictable ending, still works really well. The characters are well balanced, suitably eccentric when they need to be and yet always compelled by real and honest motivations, rooted firmly in compassion for their families and their fellow man.

Personally, I had no idea these kinds of professions were so scorned in Japan, and really, you would think that someone with such responsibility would at least be quietly respected, but apparently not. The movie’s greatest success is how it frames the deceased body as a vessel for transgression, as much for the living as for the dead. It really ends up being quite reverential, and some of the embalming (is that the right word?) scenes are painfully, wonderfully emotional, without any dialogue being necessary.

I wasn’t ever really sure where the cello-playing aspect was supposed to fit in, other than as a showcase for the lead actor’s obvious cello-shredding skills. But that’s OK, as it lent a nice subtle soundtrack to the proceedings.

All in all, a pretty good movie.

Haneke is a director who really matters. This guy makes films that are not only deeply disturbing, but very relevant. Think you know what a scary movie is? Go watch Hidden and get back to me.

Anyway, his new one The White Ribbon is quite a departure from his other films. For a start, it’s much broader in scope, is set eighty years ago and is shot in black and white. I guess many of the themes are familiar: guilt and shame, violence and repression; but given it’s historical context I think this film is even more salient than his other works, even if perhaps it’s not as purely entertaining or thrilling. Haneke has insisted that we’re not supposed to see the movie as simply a foreboding prelude to the atrocities of Nazi Germany and World War 2, but as a snapshot of ignorance, intolerance and terrorism in all it’s forms.

The acting is top-shelf, production values are through the roof, and to be fair there are some truly gripping scenes, but overall I just wasn’t as engaged for the whole duration, like I was with Hidden. This is serious, formal film making, and I fear it’s just too cool, too self-aware, too detached to ever really penetrate. Nevertheless, definitely not for the weak of heart or short of patience.

Also, it became clear to me as I watched The White Ribbon that the only German phrase I have remembered from my high school days is keine ahnung. That figures.

OK, enough of the heavy stuff. Raymond Chandler has been keeping me entertained and rescuing me from the depths of being-foreign-and-alone-at-Christmastime-related despair through the strength of his biting dialogue alone. Here are a few choice cuts from the first fifty or so pages of Farewell, My Lovely:

“His smile was as cunning as a broken mousetrap.”

“Suspicion climbed all over her face, like a kitten, but not so playfully.”

“She was as cute as a washtub.”

“It was Malloy all right, taken in strong light, and looking as if he had no more eyebrows than a French roll.”

“Dames lie about anything – just for practise.”

And, arguably my favourite so far:

“She’s a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she has washed her hair since Coolidge’s second term, I’ll eat my spare tyre, rim and all.”

Man, people just aren’t as eloquent (or as charming, apparently) as they were seventy years ago. I seriously believe that our tendency towards email, in all its benevolent, automated glory, is hampering not only our literacy, but the very stuff of our interpersonal relationships. In the past, a scorned lover would compose page upon tear-stained page of hateful yet poetic hand-written prose in order to purge him or herself of heartache. Nowadays, retribution is as easy as uploading a photo to Facebook. Yikes! The sad thing is, even the retorts are borderline unintelligible.

But seriously. As recently as ten years ago, flirting with a girl involved carefully synchronised ‘chance’ meetings, a delicate dance of hints dropped here and there at measured intervals, and a whole lot of good timing and luck. These days, it’s as easy as dropping a text message: ‘hey. i wna ride u like a black mercedes.’ Charming, no?

Yes, my eloquence is slowly dying, and with it, my patience and tact. I only have myself to blame for this, and I feel the only proper remedy would be self-imposed exile from the internet, and more time spent with the likes of Chandler, Bellow, Nabokov and those countless others who express so much with so (comparatively) little.

I bought a snazzy little netbook computer! It’s an Eee PC 1005HA.

Inluded with the iPhone to give a proper sense of scale.

In fact, I’m using it right now. The rad silver colour is not available outside Japan, so TAKE THAT, WESTERN CONSUMER MARKET! What’s more, the construction feels way more solid than my pricey elite Dell machine. It’s running Windows 7, effortlessly installed off a 4GB SDHC card, and does everything I need, like typing, and wasting my life on stupid websites. Also, with the strengthening of the Aussie dollar, this stuff has become ludicrously cheap. Like $350 kind of cheap. Party!

On a more personal note. I’ve resolved to spend the winter break seriously improving my Japanese. The last couple of months (and in particular, the last month itself) have seen my conversation skills increase significantly, and although I still have more than my fair share of furrowed-brow, panicky ‘wtf was that word again!?’ moments, at least I can keep a conversation more or less going now. I mean, that is, as long as the person I’m talking to doesn’t get bored and give up. To them, it must be like talking to a toddler with learning disabilities.

I did learn something interesting lately though; according to one of my supervisors who studied linguistics at university, dyslexia is far less prevalent in Japan (and presumably also in China and Korea) than in the Western world. This must be something to do with both the form of their characters and their grammatical constructions. After all, it’s hard for most English speakers to imagine a first language where each ‘letter’ corresponds to an entire syllable; where words can be pronounced phonetically without any danger of misplacing stress or timing, and where an entire universe of meaning can be contained within one simple symbol, such as 空, or 人. The Japanese and Chinese don’t learn to spell, so much as they learn to paint pictures of the world through language. Likewise, reading isn’t a constant deconstruction of bunches of letters, or educated guessing at the appropriate phoneme; everything is there as it’s written, except in the case of an unfamiliar kanji character, where, upon encountering these new characters, a Japanese person will simply ask their neighbour,  どういう読むの? or この漢字の読み方は何ですか? (“How the fsk do you read this?”).

Furthermore, owing to the grammatical hierarchy of the language, the relevant reading for any given kanji is immediately apparent to any native speaker of Japanese; there is no guess work necessary. It’s pretty remarkable.

According to The Language Instinct, Japanese (and to an extent, Korean) are something like language orphans which have evolved separately, leaving behind little grammatical resemblance to other East Asian languages. This isn’t so hard for me to believe, because as I’ve said before, Japanese more or less resembles the exact grammatical inverse of something like English, and I’m sure this has a considerable impact on the structure of society over here, especially when compared with our own.

The main point I wanted to make when I started this huge theoretical rant, however, was that I’m at a point where Japanese people no longer feel comfortable gossiping about me in my presence, because they fear I might just be able to understand them. Pretty satisfying in one sense, although I was kinda enjoying being able to eavesdrop as I pleased.

Well, on that note, it looks like I’m gonna be all too alone for Christmas, and unless I get my act together and ask for paid leave, I’ll be sat at my office all day without any other kindred spirit (ie. lost soul) in sight to share the holiday with. I’m not a religious person, but I guess I am a pretty sentimental one, and despite all my misgivings about Christmas and the sham that it is, I do feel an unwelcome sense of isolation as the year draws to an end. It’s not that I’m depressed. There’ll be plenty of time for that come 2010. But I just kinda wish I had stayed in contact with more of you this year. So I’m sorry. I guess that’s it.

Stay tuned for my best and worst of 2009, along with the usual solemn reflections and empty promises, in the next edition!

So long.

falling pianos

October 26, 2009

I’ve always been of the opinion that most people are far too hasty to distinguish between intellectual life and physical life. Why do we do this? People place an incongruent value on scholarship and other intellectual pursuits, while frowning upon drug use, promiscuous sex, etc. Even those that work out all the time seem to be sniggered at by academic types who invariably value mind over body. It is no coincidence, therefore, that these people are usually out of shape and without any tangible sense of style. Conversely, gym junkies like to scoff at intellectuals who spend more time with their faces in books than getting tans. This is most obviously manifest in the common ‘nerd’ stereotype.

I’m advocating a healthy balance between the two. I don’t see why we need to neglect our physical desires, or give inordinate amounts of attention to intellectual appetite. They are both equal parts of the same whole, and what’s more, they both exert the same monolithic influence over it, whether it’s for better or worse. Truly balanced and sensible people should look for pleasure not simply of the body but of the mind, and seek wisdom not only through quiet reflection but through actions.

I’ve been forced into this perspective recently through my own single-mindedness, and the realisation that to absorb oneself either in books or exercise alone is no remedy for restlessness, frustration or inadequacy. Well, the scales have levelled out pretty nicely, or at least they had, until I went ahead and put my foot right into one of the most uncomfortable and regrettable situations of my life in Japan so far on Saturday night. But heaven knows, and I’ve said this a hundred times before, that a public blog full of self-indulgent rants is hardly the place to go into juicy details.


I don’t know why Japanese culture and language attracts such hardcore, militant foreigners. Similarly, I don’t understand the bullshit false modesty that accompanies so many of this country’s permanent foreign residents. Shyness is an inherent part of Japanese culture, sure. But it very unbecoming on foreigners, especially since it makes their endless lust to fit in over here all the more blatant. The irony is that is has the opposite effect: it just makes you look like a wanker, when I ask you if you can speak Japanese, and you say no, and then I find out that you are 1-kyuu level. Have you ever even known what it’s like to not be able to speak Japanese? When my friends and family back home ask me if I can speak the language, I give them the honest answer: I know enough to get around, day to day, enough to order food and ask for directions. Nothing more. But Japan seems to be the only country that gets this kind of cult following from the West, and while modesty might be endearing on the natives, it is pretty sickening on foreigners.

You can’t fire me, I quit.

Way too tired to write anything more in here at the moment. I’ve gone way too hard lately and I’m exhausted. Today was rainy, and my bike was stolen. Not the best conditions under which to decide to write a blog entry, but that’s life. I’m hoping I can straighten myself out over the next week or so and leave this trail of destruction behind.

it’s a jungle out there

October 16, 2009

This blog is rapidly turning into a place where I can air my identity crises. The crucial difference between this blog and real life, though, is that around here I can’t be interrupted. In their past lives, my blogs were forums for confidence issues and (barely) veiled jabs at various girls who had gon’ up and don’ me wrong, but I guess these days my problems are more existential in nature, and are probably, in the long run, better off for it.

My desk is a hideous mess of Australiana (dig that rad kookaburra), lollies I use to bribe minors, Japanese textbooks that I have skimmed, not read, and a variety of teaching materials that, surprisingly, have been getting a pretty solid workout of late. While it is true that at times I may have been something of a lazy ALT, that trend has definitely been reversed as I’ve been able to identify the more bothersome areas of my job and work on improving those, rather than the aimless stressing of eras past. I’m steadily realising that bored, unmotivated students aren’t the problem; it’s disorganised co-workers. I am repeatedly inundated by inconsiderate and illogical requests for help with classes that aren’t mine, translations of things of a singularly personal nature, and so on. I believe the thought process resembles something like this: Darren is an ALT, and ALTs aren’t busy or just don’t work very hard. だから、Darren mustn’t be busy. It’s beautifully Socratic.

Anyway, in light of these revelations, job satisfaction is at an unusual high, as I have adopted an even more nihilistic approach to my job: I chat with students whenever I feel like it, and about whatever I please. I play DS with them and snap unflattering photos of them. I ask them about their boyfriends and girlfriends and point out cute girls in magazines. So when it comes to classes, most of them are comfortable enough with me by now to play along with whatever I come up with. However, I think the main thing that has improved my working life is that, as the months have rolled by of late, I have become increasingly willing to strike up a conversation in punctuated Japanese, and the kids have started to realise that I am actually a living organism of equal or greater intellectual capability, one who has thoughts and feelings of his own and the gift of self-expression. Who would have thought – a foreigner!

I’m definitely beyond repair. When I start visiting – and enjoying – websites such as this (a cute girl appears in the day!) there seems to be little chance of redemption. To make things even worse, this link was sent to me by a female Japanese friend of mine. There’s just something irresistible about homely girls posing for coy photos and bashfully describing their personal traits.

The longer I spend observing other cultures, the more convinced I become that the world we inhabit is governed primarily by sex and money. The sex industry in Japan is omnipresent and, as a young woman, there is no better way to make easy money than to become a hostess or waitress in a fancy bar. Middle-aged men pay through the nose to merely be in the company of these creatures, and while prostitution itself is outwardly frowned upon, its no secret that money can buy everything, the porn industry is rampant, and the vast majority of establishments fronting as pleasant, classy lady bars are little more than extortionately-priced brothels. On a more personal level, it seems that wherever I go in the world, the thing that impresses the majority of girls with the most boring regularity is a boy with money and the willingness to flaunt it, both on himself and on his girl. The extravagance that passes for class and style in Japan can be truly sickening, especially when a dude in parachute pants can be considered cool just because they cost hundreds of dollars. Oh, and on that note: fuck you, Ed Hardy. I hate you and everything you create.

I always misspell the word ‘opinion’ and it comes out looking something like ‘onion.’ Perhaps there’s something in that.

Dudes. I’ve been all over this new Paramore single for a week now. How is it better than anything they have done in the past? Let me count the ways: Hayley’s voice isn’t as pitch-perfectly auto-tuned as the last album, and, moreover, she sounds way more pissed off on this track. Whilst ‘Misery Business’ was definitely a catchy (dare I say good?) song, it always seemed a little trite and forced to me. On this one, she simply spits out the lyrics in a much more natural meter, and the whole song is better off for it. Next, this song plays with time signatures and syncopation in a way that would make even the most capable metal bands envious. Its structure consists of multiple layered elements and constantly blurs the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge distinction. The arpeggios in the pre-chorus and breakdown are simply insane. Paramore’s drummer is awesome and is clearly the most impressive thing about the band besides Hayley’s voice. Listen carefully next time!

This movie was rad. The first half of District 9, in particular, takes the now-familiar mockumentary style into pretty interesting and challenging territory, offering a charicature of bureaucracy that is comical, satirical and confrontingly honest. Its themes are superficially obvious, and its a kind of wonder that it has taken so long for sci-fi films to come up with this idea. But the allegory extends further that just ‘how should governments deal with illegal immigrants,’ into far more personal territory: how do we overcome language barriers with foreigners? Is there any way to deal with the issue whilst retaining personal sensitivities? Indeed, can there even be a non-violent resolution to these kinds of problems? It nods towards the pervasive racism issues with a handful of ingenious quips, the kinds of slips-of-tongue usually reserved for mid-level politicians that are likely to see their superiors caught up in some heated PR backpedalling:

“I mean, you can’t say they don’t look like that, that’s what they look like, right? They look like prawns.”

It is amazingly well-acted, particularly by Sharlto Copley, who carries the second half of the film single-handedly and prevents it from ultimately becoming little more than a gruesome FPS-inspired alien blastfest, although even Copley can’t save it from crashing and bashing its way to a somewhat underwhelming end. District 9 combines some of the cinematic elements of Independence Day, Children of Men, The Host and…well, Starship Troopers, but its South African orientation gives it a pretty unique feel overall. Definitely see this movie!

Well, there was going to be more, but now there isn’t. ‘Til next time!

the third wheel

July 21, 2009

Alright! Summer holidays. No classes for five weeks. I do have a list as long as my arm of things I need to do, such as developing photos, posting certain things home, marking hundreds of haiku, and preparing for my school’s open day, but in the meantime…

I guess I’m caught in some kind of vortex where I am neither in touch with Japan nor completely alien to it. This results in a number of misunderstandings and presumptions. For example, the assumption that as a white guy in Japan I am only here to try to hook up with Japanese women, contrasted with the shocked gasps from my students when they ask me ‘Japanese girl is cute?’ and I say ‘yes.’ Likewise, some people go bananas when they hear me utter even the most basic Japanese phrase, while others refuse to talk to me until I am fluent in the language.

Ironically, the thing that most reliably earns me the admiration and acceptance from Japanese people, particularly my students, is the fact that I carry around my Nintendo DS with a Japanese dictionary loaded on it. Of course, it’s not because of the fact that I’m making an effort to learn the language that they recoil in shock, but rather that I have a DS, and I didn’t buy it over here.

There are probably two easy routes out of this situation: either to become completely immsersed in Japanese language, culture and tradition, or to reject it completely. However, neither of these options appeal to me, for obvious reasons. I guess I should have known before arriving here that I would be destined to remain on the liminality between being a real person and a prop, but I could probably have never predicted the repercussions and reverberations, or how simply being identified as an outsider can effect every facet of my daily life over here.

I have chosen to profile some of my more memorable students in this blog.

Many of them go to my special school. It’s still really hard for me to go there. I’m not fnding the experience any more comfortable even after a year. The kids don’t have any chance of learning a foreign language, so the fact that they insist on even having English classes still doesn’t make sense to me. I would be just as useful, if not more so, in other classes where I could freely participate, instead of standing at the front of the room reciting phrases that they will forget as soon as I produce a picture of a koala (to be fair, this phenomenon is not exclusive to my special school).

Nevertheless, there are a few individuals who make the arduous experience more enjoyable. For example, Yuta. This kid always had a smile on his face. In some ways I kinda envied that about him. I wasn’t ever really sure what he was saying in Japanese, cause my Japanese still wasn’t good enough when I was teaching him. But he did know three or four very important English words: “I like ~,” and “yes.”

Our meetings would proceed as follows, never straying from this basic but effective formula: Yuta would spot me from across the room/hallway/yard, and come barreling over towards me, coming to an unsteadily gleeful stop about a foot away from me. In his eyes was an unbridled lust for life and a complete lack of intimidation.

“I like….sushi!”

“Haha! Really?”

“Yes! Yes!”

“What’s your favourite sushi?”

“Yes! Yes!”

He would then turn on his heels and bound away from me, perhaps at a greater speed than that with which he arrived. Sometimes, he would switch it up.

“I like….hanbaagu (Japanese for ‘hamburger’)!”

“Is that so, Yuta?”

“Yes! Yes!”


He was hilarious.

These days I spend the most time at Nishigo hanging out with this girl called Yuka. She’s 16, but owing to whatever disability it is that she has, only looks about 11. I like her because even though she knows I usually can’t understand her, she never slows down what she’s saying and comes to hang out with me week in, week out. She always asks me to sit next to her on the bus and then tells her (speechless) friends about it. She asks me questions like, “are there birds in Australia?” Which may seem stupid, but is actually really cute. She loves singing and, like Yuta, doesn’t let a damn thing bring her down, ever.

She tells me how she fell over on her arse at school, she warned me to take care cause of the swine flu when I went to Hong Kong, and talks about the scary bugs around her house. She comes into my office every Monday at 3:20pm to warn me that the bus is coming soon and I shouldn’t be late. Sometimes I have absolutely no idea what she’s saying and have trouble identifying a single Japanese word amongst the torrent. But I like her because she talks to me more than any student or teacher at that entire school.

Back at Kohnan, there is Yurie. I am not sure whether it is me or Australia that she is in love with (I suspect it is the latter), but we became friends through her proudly presenting me with a new flavour of Tim Tam each week. The first one was something like wild raspberry, and I was suitably impressed. I guess her older sister lives in Tokyo or something, and has more reliable access to strange and exotic (and exorbitantly priced) foreign delicacies. Anyway, she always says to me ‘Australia ikitai! (I want to go to Australia!).’

Her English is, I guess, fairly standard for a san-nensei student at my school, or maybe a little above average. She understands everything I say to her, and I mostly understand everything she says to me. It’s a bad habit, that I usually speak in English to my students and they usually speak in Japanese to me, but in the end I suppose it’s the most reliable way to communicate with them.

She is really pretty and outgoing, which is why it’s hard for me to understand why she’s not somewhere closer to the top of the social pecking order at my school. She always has a dazed, anime-style look in her eyes and an adorable habit of always showing up five seconds too late to whatever it is that has grabbed my students attention, and then lingering around for a few moments after the cacophony has subsided just to smile at me and make sure I had seen it, too.

Nine times out of ten when I see her, she is alone, either knitting or reading in an empty classroom. She enjoys horror movies and I burst out laughing when I was describing No Country for Old Men and she cocked her head and chimed in with a quizzical “splatter!?”

As for the boys, easily the most noteworthy must be The Rock Star. This guy! At my school, wearing a uniform isn’t compulsory, and he takes full advantage of this fact. I’ve never, not once, seen him wearing regulation school pants. Before school, after school, during lunch, even in the ten-minute break between classes, he is perched upon a desk with an acoustic guitar, and a handful of doe-eyed Japanese girls staring up at him. He is also prominent in that he has probably the waviest hair of any of my students, so much so that one of the girls commented that we look ‘like brothers’ together. He also likes to exploit this particular gift that has been bestowed upon him, since he gets his haircut like every two weeks. Needless to say, we look nothing alike.

But by far my favourite moment with The Rock Star, was one day a couple of months ago, when I arrived at school to see him decked out in bright blue skinny jeans, a Strokes-esque vest and a bright white t-shirt underneath. By the start of the fourth period, he was wearing three-quarter length jeans, and a hoodie. After school, he had regressed entirely into a pair of shorts and a V-neck t-shirt, designed entirely to accentuate the fragile lines of Japanese dudes’ shoulder blades and collar bones. Yeah – three costume changes in one regulation day! And not a school tie to be seen. He’s soooo dreamy.

The punchline of the story, however, has to be the fact that this guy hates me, because one sad day he realised that I can play guitar way, way better than him. And I don’t even have to dress up to look like I’m in a rock band.

I guess that’s enough for today. But do not despair, avid reader! I have plenty more anecdotes to share with you. Stay tuned for another edition of ‘serious breaches of privacy and potentially inappopriate student-teacher relations in the Land of the Rising Sun!’

So long!

home truths

June 23, 2009

I need a haircut. Of course, this isn’t news to anybody who has laid eyes on me over the past six months. But I feel like this time it signifies something more.

My hair is the embodiment of all the unchecked and misguided behaviours of the past eleven months. It is a painful reminder of my awkwardness and utter inability to assimilate. It is the end result of what happens when you remove someone who has barely come to terms with his situation in his hometown and the spiritual connection he has forged with it, and place him somewhere that is more or less ignorant of all the values that have become so close to him over the course of his short existence. I hate to trot out all the familiar cliches of culture shock, and to be quite honest I’m not sure that that’s the problem here. Any problems I have encountered on that front can probably be attributed to my own apprehension. No, friends, this is a much more internal conflict.

Hark! The unrepentant tug of loneliness prevails! The blogosphere attracts the isolated, the mediocre, the desperate as if it were an immeasurable whirlpool of the kind you would only read about in the seafaring tales of eras past. Surprised? Neither am I.

I went to China.

The point was to escape the groove that I could feel myself settling into, and you know what? It worked. Although it was but a brief adventure, and it lacked the same sense of discovery that enveloped me the first time I went there, it gave me the perfect respite: anonymity, an absence of expectations, and despite the incessant hustle and bustle of China and Hong Kong, it also gave me some peace and quiet.

I often jot down notes to myself, intended to serve as lightning bolts of inspiration when it comes to actually writing something. Of course, as I’m writing them, I say to myself, “yeah, this is good, there is no way I will look back on this in a few weeks’ time and not know what I was going on about.” I don’t need to point out that it never works out that way. What in the hell does ‘A guide to better living in Japan’ mean?

So long, friends.