Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Bower Wars

Many people join the JET Programme because they have nurtured a love for the country from a young age, fascinated by manga or oriental gardens, robots or literature, food or fashion. I on the other hand, was driven by a desire to teach English in a foreign country whilst earning enough money to pay off some of my debts from the last bout of travelling (which, if you are so inclined, you can read about here). My knowledge of Japan was limited only to a few stereotypes:

  1. They are all a little bit mental, as evidenced by such real-life TV shows as Banzai! and Takeshi’s Castle
  2. They love technology, video games and manga
  3. They are all exceptionally polite and do a lot of bowing
  4. They drink a lot of green tea

Stereotypes in general, exist because they offer wonderful insight into the behaviour of a group of people as a whole and, while there are exceptions, they’re usually pretty spot-on for the majority; as long as they’re not hopelessly outdated of course. I don’t have terrible teeth, nor am I particularly reserved, but I do like fish and chips (though the Japanese seem to believe that that is all we eat in the UK), and I am partial to watching the occasional game of football when England are playing (although this pleasure has been lessened by the World-Cup-Era realisation that our team is inherently shit). Now, the bad teeth thing? I’m presuming that this stems from when we all had scurvy getting off the boat in America, and seeing as no-one has left America since then (you only need look at the passport/population ratio), the stereotype has stuck. Incidentally, when we worked out we could prevent scurvy with lemons (which were called limes at the time) they called us Limeys. Apparently they still do today. Clever I’m sure you’ll agree. Sorry, I’m getting off track here; the stereotypes I’ve listed above for Japan are all true, except that them being “a bit mental” can generally be passed off as a cultural difference that you get used to, as well as one you assimilate to some degree when you’ve been here for 8 months.

Politeness and bowing is a big one here. I’ve spoken about it a bit before but the levels to which it is taken really deserves another mention. Occasionally my school gets a visit from a textbook salesman who takes politeness to new levels. He’ll open the door to the staff room, say shitsurei shimasu (“excuse my rudeness”) and begin his bowing tirade. Rather than walk like most normal people, some Japanese people run everywhere; even if they’re only going 3 feet to grab a printout from the photocopier, they’ll run there and back as if chased everywhere they go by an imaginary rottweiler snapping at their ankles. Some people, Textbook Boy for example, have developed this further into a kind of stiff-backed, high-speed shuffle whereby you can never stand straight, only at a permanent 10-degree slant from which you bob down in a kind of semi-bow at every other step. The poor man looks like someone shoved a broomstick up his bum and is parading him around as some kind of cruel punishment; presumably for selling some of the worst English textbooks ever written.

One day he came over to see my good friend Ueda-sensei. You’ve heard of the Boer Wars right? Well this was the Bower Wars. There were no Brits or Boers involved; only bowers. After an extended chat about (I can only presume) textbooks and with a couple of warning bows thrown in to show that they were both serious, the conversation ended and the war commenced. Round after round of bow-fire was unleashed on either party, neither showing any sign of weakness, and both clearly experienced with years of bowing practice behind them. Textbook Boy was younger; slightly less experienced but well practised in the art from the many staff-rooms he had had to visit, but just when it seemed that Ueda-sensei was losing on account of his seated position, Textbook Boy began to back away; still returning fire, mind, but backing away nonetheless. A bead of sweat begin to appear on his forehead. You could see in his eyes that he was afraid; more afraid than he’d ever been. He’d bowed above his weight this time. No amount of practice would ever outdo Ueda-sensei’s poise and experience, and then, just like that, it was over. Textbook Boy turned around, and Ueda-sensei bowed one last time, saying arigato gozaimashita; “thank you very much”. Even in war, the Japanese are polite.

One thing I had never learnt from Banzai! was the word kawaii (pronounced ka-why-eee), which literally means cute or adorable. In our own culture, people are often suddenly possessed by extreme levels of happiness when they see a particularly fluffy kitten, and can often be seen running up to it squealing “cuuuuuuuuuute!” at a pitch audible only to the animal in question while their eyes glaze over and a stupid smile creeps across their face. After plenty of strokes and cuddles, both the kitten and the person (often regrettably) get on and go about their day. The kawaii moment is over.

In Japan, kawaii moments are never over. Kawaii is much less an individual moment, than a concept that permeates every layer of society. Girls and boys alike affix tassels to their mobile phones, bags and hair, and adorn them with beads, fluffy tails, teddy bears and friendship bracelets. Companies, prefectures, news programs, and even the Tokyo Police have cartoon animal mascots that they publish on many of their official materials. Some of the younger women in the country are stuck in a state of perpetual cuteness where they talk in a stupid high voice, jump up and down with excitement at everything they hear and hold onto an air of innocence generally reserved for girls of 10 or 11 in the UK.

It’s a bizarre concept which I’ve found hard to swallow having grown up in a series of schools where a boy above the age of, ooh, 4 or 5 seen with a teddy bear would likely be murdered in cold blood by his peers and have his head surgically replaced with that of the bear to send a message to other 6-year-olds daring to even consider such an act of femininity. My own bank card for the Shizuoka Bank has two little cartoon bears on it, and it pains me every time I have to get it out of my wallet and look at the little buggers smiling away. They know their brilliant plan to take over the corporate sector is working, and all they had to do to accomplish it was stand there and look kawaii while everyone fawned and squealed over them.

Fortunately all of this is balanced out by another word, kakkoii (pronounced ka-koh-eee), which means cool or handsome depending on the context. This word gives me hope for the boys of Japan. The girls can have their kawaii; kakkoii is a man’s word, and there ain’t no smarmy mascot that’s gonna take that for them. You can say it, girls, but you don’t own it; we do. Just like we own the words “tank” and “blade” and “steak”.

Kawaii is dead; long live kakkoii.

Still OK

They’re still spraying seawater onto the reactors. One wonders exactly how much longer those rods will continue to stay hot considering the power has been off for a whole week now; every day I switch on the news and every day the situation is the same, but here’s Nuclear Boy to reassure you some more:


Democracy baby, yeah!

The world is going mental; and certainly not for the first time. Last year it sat there in its chair with a wry smile on its face, like a boy given a catapult for Christmas, as it considered what it supposed to be a very clever joke. It reached down, giggling softly, found the cork embedded in itself, pulled it out with a loud pop, and began laughing hysterically as it started spewing its insides into the ocean. For a long time it laughed like this, tears streaming down its face, cheeks red to the point of explosion, heart pumping like it was running a triathalon until its eyes were bloodshot and straining from their sockets, its laughs turned to wheezes and coughs and everybody else in the room looked upon it with worry and concern. Finally, regretfully, it could laugh no longer. It leant over with visible strain, picked up the cork and plugged it back in. Who needs friends when you can amuse yourself this much? It thought, and it drifted off to sleep with a pained yet contented smile on its face.

For a long time the world was quiet. It slept there in its chair and did nothing. For six whole months it did nothing, and the people that lived on the world started to get bored. They say that an idle mind is the Devil’s playground but suprisingly, the minds of these people thought only of good; of freedom; revolution; democracy. In December 2010, Tunisia decided it’d had enough of its dictatorship and started going mental at its leader of 24 years, Ben Ali, who promptly stepped down. The Egyptians saw this, thought yeah we’ll have a bit of that, and then went mental at their own leader, Hosni Mubarak who also promptly stepped down.

It was a beautiful time. The rest of the people that lived on the world were happy for them, and things that they took for granted – the right to vote, freedom of speech, uncensored media – were now suddenly, instantly within the grasp of millions more people. Of course, the Libyans saw all this happening and decided that they too would like a bit of democracy thank you very much, but their leader saw things differently. When the Libyans began to stage peaceful protests against Muammar Gaddafi, their dictator of 42 years, he ordered the removal of all foreign media and opened fire on his own people. Hundreds of peaceful protestors were mown down by machine guns and heavy artillery, while the rest of the world listened and watched in horror as videos and stories of these atrocities slowly leaked their way out of the country.

After this there was a lot of talk. David Cameron was the first person to say that he would not hesitate to use military resources. Many people in Britain groaned, murmuring “Tony Blair” and “Iraq” under their breath. High-ranking politicians in the U.S. government made pointed remarks about there being a lot of “loose talk” around the use of military force, and people continued to cite Iraq and Afghanistan as direct comparisons, saying how we should have learnt from them, and how we shouldn’t get involved in other peoples’ wars blah blah blah, etc.

What a lot of nonsense. The situation in Libya is incomparable to that of Iraq or Afghanistan. Here we have a country that has been ruled by a murderous regime for 42 years, and which has no weapons of mass destruction (thanks to bad, nasty Tony Blair who demanded their disarmament in exchange for a removal of UN sanctions in place at the time). Here the similarities with Iraq end. Iraq was an illegal war which we started. We had no approval from the UN, we were not invited by anyone, and we shouldn’t have gone. The situation in Libya is not a war, but a revolution started by the people. Where peaceful protests against dictatorship should have been enough they were instead turned into a massacre by a madman intent on holding onto power.

The Libyan people and the Arab League have requested Western air support, and it has taken a week for it to finally be sanctioned by the UN after having to be forcibly pushed down their throats by Britain and France. A lot of innocent people have surely been killed in that time but we’ll ignore that; this is a step in the right direction.

Right now I’m going to draw a deep breath, fight through the pain and say “well done David Cameron.” He set the stage for a world fraught with indecision, and had he dillydallied like everyone else we might well be looking at genocide, and many more years of oppression for the Libyan people who would undoubtedly be punished for their “insolence”. At least now there’s hope, and maybe soon they’ll get the democracy we’ve been taking for granted for so many years.

Some More Reassurance

I am continuing to get some rather touching emails and messages from people in various parts of the world, expressing their concern for my safety. I figure I ought to try and put a few more minds at rest.

Regarding the earthquake itself, it’s worth noting that I live in Shizuoka which is a full 320 miles from the epicentre of the earthquake. Yes we felt it, but only at a magnitude of 4. The Richter scale is logarithmic, which means that by the time the earthquake reached us it was 31 million times less severe than it was at the epicentre. Few, if any buildings were damaged, and the resulting tsunami might have mown down a mollusc or two but that was it.

You’ve probably also been hearing about the horrendous aftershocks. A couple of these have been clocked at a magnitude of around 6, but the epicentres of these have been in the same area as the big one (as well as being around 32,000 times less severe) which means that by the time it reaches The Shiz, the only thing that can detect it is a seismograph.

The nuclear reactors? Well first of all, we’re 215 miles from the nearest dodgy one. Secondly, this is not Chernobyl II. The reasons for my confidence in this matter are outlined in the document here, which provides a good, in-depth breakdown of the reactors and what exactly has happened without any of the scaremongering and sensationalism present in most of the national press. It’s an interesting read, but if you haven’t got time I’ve listed the main points here anyway:

  • The explosions at the nuclear reactor were caused by pressure being vented from the core in the form of steam. Water can split into hydrogen and oxygen at extremely high temperatures and when this mixture ignites, well, you remember your chemistry experiments don’t you? This is pretty awful for the poor engineers that are working there, but makes no difference to the core.
  • Radioactive material is contained within four layers; a ceramic with a melting point of 2800 Celsius, a zirconium alloy with a melting point of 1200 Celsius, a thick steel pressure vessel designed to withstand the high pressures that might occur during an accident (it was from this that the steam was vented), and a very thick steel-reinforced concrete structure. That final one is designed to contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown.
  • “Core meltdown” does not mean Chernobyl II. The disaster at Chernobyl happened because all the fail-safes were shoddy (thanks to poor Soviet safety measures) and the hydrogen/oxygen mix ignited and blew a hole through everything releasing the radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Life in Japan now is no more dangerous than it ever was. In 2002 the United Kingdom there were 723,886 assaults, 348,169 car thefts and 1,201 murders reported to the police. In the same year, Japan had 55,766, 62,673 and 637 respectively. Let us not forget that Japan also had 68 million more people in that year. Now I’m no statistician, but I’m pretty sure that the probability of me getting killed or injured as a direct result of an earthquake or radioactive poisoning here is still less than that of being murdered or assaulted back home; especially living in London.

So stop worrying, please. I’ll keep you abreast of any minor updates on Twitter which you can see over there in the right-hand column. You won’t get any email/Facebook notifications for these so you’ll either have to keep coming back to this page periodically or “follow” me on Twitter. Thanks for all your messages and concern; I feel more loved than a puppy in a primary school!

The Impermanence of It All

By now you will have heard the news; the largest earthquake in Japan since records began hit the north of Honshu (the big, main island with Tokyo on it) on Friday. I’m sure you’ve read the reports, seen the footage, heard about the nuclear reactors possibly melting down, scoured Youtube for more footage and maybe, you’ve looked for or stumbled across articles about the possibility of more earthquakes in the country.

I have.

Long before we even arrived in Japan we were told that a huge earthquake was due any time soon. This earthquake, known as the Tokai earthquake, has hit the same area in 1854, 1707, 1605 and 1498 according to historical records, which means that it reoccurs every 110 years (give or take 33 years). This “same area” is not Sendai, but Shizuoka. What does that mean? Well dear readers, it means that even though 157 years have passed since the last Tokai earthquake and despite Friday’s events, it still has not happened, and experts reckon that it could happen 30 years from now or tomorrow. No-one knows when; just that it will. This has always freaked me out a little bit and every now and again I find myself somewhere, wondering what I’d do if an earthquake hit at that moment in time. Am I far enough away from power lines? Will this building hold its own or collapse on top of me? Could roof tiles fall off and hit me? But then the thoughts sink into the back of my head where they belong and I resume my giggling at the eccentricities of Japanese culture. The Sendai earthquake has only served to put it back, firmly, in the forefront of my mind.

But let’s forget about that for a moment and talk about Sendai itself. I was at work, getting my computer fixed, having a chat to the IT guy about how busy he looked and suddenly, I thought I was going to faint. I was getting ready to say something (“catch me”, maybe?) when he looked at me and said inquisitively, “jishin?” (“earthquake?”). A few people across the office heard and nodded in agreement, and then it became obvious; the whole building started rocking calmly like a ship in the ocean. Surprisingly, it was nothing like the bone-shaking, brain melting, crashing and rumbling nightmare that you see at the movies or on TV. There was no noise; no rumbling of the earth, no smashing of plates, no screaming or shouting, just a gentle “ohhhhhh…. nagai…. nagai ne?” (“long… long isn’t it?”) from a few of the staff in the room. This gentle rocking lasted for a good minute, before one of my JTEs scrambled for the TV remote and started to look for coverage. She needn’t look for long – it was on every channel.

There was a map of Japan with little flashing lines all around the coasts showing the different tsunami warning levels; red, yellow and green depending on the severity. The whole of the north coast was lit up in red, but by the time it got round to Shizuoka it was a slightly more reassuring yellow colour. At the top of the screen was an estimated time of arrival, which said 2 minutes, and we were presented with a static view of the sea from a camera mounted on a building in Sendai. Two minutes passed and nothing was happening. I wondered if it had been and gone and we hadn’t seen it, but then everything just started filling up with water. My image of a tsunami had always been this enormous wall of water that comes flying towards the coast but at first, it wasn’t like that; the tide just got higher and higher, the port started filling up with water, boats were getting chucked around and huge lorries were suddenly being picked up and swept away like they were Matchbox toys. Someone changed the channel, and there was the Hollywood wave, except it was no longer a wave of water, but a mountain of sludge carrying cars, houses, trucks, ships and fires for miles across pristine tea fields and strawberry greenhouses, smashing over barriers and roads with no signs of losing momentum or power. We watched in horror (footage here) as cars sped along roads, desperately trying to outrun the wall of sludge but then getting swallowed up by it on live television. What had started off as something a little bit exciting was quickly and tragically turning into one of the biggest natural disasters of this century.

Shizuoka, and indeed much of the country below us, is the same as it ever was. Besides the earthquake itself (around 4 on the Richter Scale here apparently) life continues as usual, and all the news of melting nuclear power plants and total devastation seems like it is coming out of a different country. The fact that you could get to Sendai in a little under 3 hours on the Shinkansen only makes it more surreal.

We were fortunate, and for now my thoughts go to the people in the north and those who have friends and family there. I read one story about a man who was picked up in his car by the very wave in that footage; it floated on top, and he lived to tell the tale. I can only hope there are many more stories like his.

Free as a Nerd

March. It’s the month we’ve all been waiting for. For the first two we’ve been made to slur together four syllables whenever we say the date, helping to accentuate the feeling of being stuck in a slow, cold, muggy, dreary corner of time surrounded by space heaters and blankets, and looking like Joey from Friends when he wears every item of clothing Chandler owns. The word “march” is one of confidence and pride. It instils a sense of urgency and purpose into those who do it, and when the world reaches the 3rd month of the year it begins its march towards spring and summer. The cherry blossoms begin to appear, the days get lighter, the sun gets warmer, everyone gets a little bit happier and to top it all off, in Japan at least, it’s the end of the academic year. After a long, laborious struggle of exams and revision, evenings under the kotatsu and steaming pots of nabe, the students emerge from the proverbial tunnel and find that it’s spring, and that they have 6 weeks to enjoy it before they’re thrust back into the education machine to be plied and moulded into the perfect Japanese citizen.

Tuesday was the graduation ceremony for the 3rd years on their way to university or work. I don’t remember us ever having a graduation ceremony at school; one minute I was there every day of the week, the next I was skipping around Salisbury with a wicker basket in my hand and the wind in my hair, revelling in the feeling of freedom and personal choice. This feeling was only amplified by the fact that Wyvern College was a hell-hole full of bored, uninspiring teachers and delinquent students; a school where the ridiculous notion of “studying is gay” prevailed, and anyone who actually wished to learn anything more than how to give a great wedgie would be taunted and bullied until the end of his days. I was never inspired by any of my teachers and I believed that maybe this was just because I didn’t like school, but having been a teacher I can now confirm that, yes it takes a little more effort to make lessons interesting, but not a great deal more. Most of these teachers were just bone idle and incompetent, and it is entirely due to my own ambition and my parents’ unwavering support that I am not hanging around outside Spar dressed in a tracksuit and hoodie, smoking Lambert & Butler cigarettes and drinking Special Brew. Obviously these kids have had some incredible English lessons and doubtless, would rather stay at school forever, but in the words of any great Italian-American gangster, “whayagonnado?”

The stage was set, the brass band started playing the school anthem, and the 3rd years marched into the sports hall in single-file taking their seats near the front, lining up, and then bowing deeply before sitting. This went on for around 15 minutes until the front of the hall was filled with 300 or so 3rd year students and the school anthem had been played at least 6 times. After that we were treated with a couple of speeches, then every student was called out by name and one-by-one they had to stand up, say “HAI!” and bow deeply. Each time a whole subsection was standing, one representative from the group would come up to the stage bowing about 6 times on the way, receive a plaque, bow, turn and walk to the edge of the stage, bow to the audience, walk down the steps, turn to his left, bow, turn 90 degrees left, pause, turn 90 degrees left again, bow and then, finally, he would make his way back to his seat and his subsection would sit. During all of this, the speakers were churning out a cutesy little melody like we were all stuck in a Super Mario Brothers game having just been transported into a special level where there are cushions and bunnies everywhere, where you jump in slow motion, collect any number of the billions of extra lives lying around and the sun and the clouds all have smiley faces. This, coupled with the otherwise extreme formality of the event made for rather amusing viewing… Well… For 5 minutes anyway. When we reached an hour I was rather less amused, and had I not stayed up until 1am watching episodes of Boardwalk Empire on my laptop my eyes would probably have been rolling around in their sockets rather less than they were.

After a few more speeches it was done, and all the teachers raced to the back of the sports hall and clapped every student as they exited the sports hall. If you’ve ever clapped for 15 minutes solid you’ll know about the bruises, but it was worth it to see the smiles on their now grown-up faces. I thought it was a nice touch to be applauded to your teacher and, as I signed a bunch of yearbooks, I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous for the sense of freedom they must have been feeling. I had the very same feeling when I left school, left college, drove a car on my own for the first time, went to uni, graduated from uni, and went travelling the first time. After that it gets harder to obtain. How much freer can you get than when travelling the world for a year at your own pace with no expense spared? It’s difficult, and while I’m thoroughly looking forward to going back to the UK and getting stuck into my IT career, I can’t help but wonder about what the next big adventure will be.