Sunday, 14 December 2014

Working at working

I was clicking around my university website, trying to find the on-campus job postings. Somehow I found myself in the co-op section and then, like tripping over a gold dubloon in the jungle and falling onto the secret button that opens the gates to El Dorado, I found a page that said, hey, Did You Know that you can totally do co-op in other countries, such as, to pick one totally at random, Japan? Like seriously, Japan is the one that we're going to highlight in particular because there is actually a whole section of the programme devoted to just Japan?

My first reaction was: Holy shit!

Second one was: What the hell? Just 'cause, like, how was I only just finding out about this. Every goddamn person on campus who knows me knows that I'm the Japan guy, and I'm known to all manner of teachers, advisors and administrators, spanning practically every discipline and area of the institution because when it comes to plotting out an academic career I apparently have as much foresight as Christopher McCandless. So if any of these people had even the slightest inkling that such a thing existed, you can be your prized harmonica that at least once or twice somebody'd have said to me, "Hey, you ever thought of applying to that Japan co-op thingamabob?" So what the fuck kind of advertising are they doing with this, exactly? As my eventual co-op advisor put it, "Yeah, we're probably not doing as much to push this one as we should be." No shit?

Anyway, as soon as I saw that this was even a thing I felt like I'd found it, the final winning lottery ticket that would get me out of Canada forever. Of course a co-op is only for one semester to a year, after which you must return to your point of origin and complete your remaining schooling (or, if you are a normal-ass co-op student instead of one trying to jump on the wagon at the eleventh hour, complete another semester before alternating back to a semester of co-op, and so on), but there was more to consider. In that time, I'd be able to cultivate two things that would prove absolutely critical to my career.

The first was solid work experience. Being able to prove that I had survived and thrived in a Japanese company, under Japanese customs, in an all-Japanese environment, would go a long way to assuage any future employer's concerns about my ability to integrate into their team. Second, it would be an incredible opportunity to network with Japanese businesspeople, and if you ask a hundred people to have sex with you, one of them's going to say yes. Hell, I thought, maybe I'd even sign on for a year of co-op, and do such a damn good job that they'd take me on as a full employee! It's rare, but I can dream.

So I marched myself right down to the co-op office and tried to get myself signed up. Unsurprisingly, this signalled my entry into the kind of bureaucratic labyrinth that I have become resigned to navigating, but still cannot say I enjoy in any way, because I have not yet abandoned my humanity. It seems like for these kinds of things, I'm always cutting it right down to the wire; rarely do I have a comfortable amount of time to make my preparations. It was no different here, and I encountered problems immediately.

There's a very persnickety immigration law that stipulates all co-op students must be full-time students both immediately before and immediately after their work term(s). Years ago, this would have been no problem at all. I'd just wait for everything to fall into place and then I'd go, and then I'd come back, and then I'd continue. Work a year of study abroad in there somewhere as well and man, I'd be just golden! Unfortunately by the time I found out about this, I was already right on the cusp of goddamn graduating. In other words, I might not have enough credits left to form a full semester following my internship, which would disqualify me. So somehow I had to delay my own graduation, the very thing I'd been deliberately working towards for the last like six years.

The solution I utlimately came up with was to tack a minor in Political Science onto my Philosophy major. Basically, I was set up so that I could graduate with just one more class's worth of Science (with some reservation, I went with Biology because it's the easiest, although I think Chemistry would have had more real-world applications, for things like Breaking Bad and Fullmetal Alchemist). I already had just enough Political Science credits that I could conceivably finish out a minor in one more semester, allowing me to do a year of co-op, polish that off, and be ready for graduation. BUT – if co-op didn't pan out, I could just straight graduate. I'd have already satisfied the Philosophy major, so I'd just un-declare the minor and suddenly I'd be good to go.

So I felt pretty devious for setting into motion a plan that covered all possible scenarios, and it was good enough for the co-op office, who approved my entry into the programme. Of course that was just the first step, and I still needed to be accepted into the Japan-specific programme, and even then they'd still need to find a company who would take me. This left me in a slightly detached state academically, not knowing if any of this was even going to work, but in the meantime I just kept pressing forward, necessarily on the assumption that everything would fall into place at some point.

As another requirement for participation, I was compelled to take a 100-level career education course. Not for credit, not graded except for a completion mark, and only 90 minutes a week. I went into it assuming it was going to be a bit of a joke, and in terms of workload it totally was. Our first assignment was filling out a ten-page worksheet; the teacher asked if one week would be sufficient, or if we'd need two.

But while it may not have been academically strenuous, it turned out to be surprisingly helpful. It started with the most very basic stuff like resumees and job interviews, which, sure, I covered back in Planning 10, but I gained access to several career-building professionals who helped reformulate my resumee from something amateurish and vague into a pretty solid little document deliberately tailored to the types of employers I wanted to target. The course went on to opportunities I'd heard about but never actually considered taking advantage of, like career fairs, which sounded lame to me but which I'd learn to like. I was taught new techniques for selling myself, skills I didn't know were transferrable, the importance of networking, and the importance of constantly being pursuing some better opportunity, all the time. If you're already a shakaijin or even just a particularly ambitious student then maybe all of this is obvious to you, but it was pretty eye-opening for me.

In fact, I ended up feeling a little inadequate next to many of my classmates. Most of them had at least a job of some kind, usually someplace classy and/or in a management position; I was unemployed at the time and had been for most of my university career. They had all meticulously laid out their academic and professional futures, with clear goals and action plans; I went to university because I had no idea what to do after high school, and stumbled directionlessly through a liberal arts education until I lucked into something I liked. In fact the majority of them were first-year, and already formulating some idea of how they wanted to go through university and how best to tailor that experience to their careers. Good God! I barely knew my dick from my asshole when I was that age. But then Jugs told me that a lot of them are probably just as intimidated of me and the experiences I've been lucky enough to have, and for that matter probably have very little idea what the fuck they're doing, either. When you're uncertain, remember that everybody else is making it up as they go along too.

But after Spring 2014, the whole process kind of went dark. Yeah, sorry to end abruptly like that, but that's how it happened. I went back and forth for months with the office, apparently my profile was even shopped around to a few companies, but it looks like I didn't get any bites, because in principle I would have started at the beginning of September, which I'm 90% sure is too late now. So I guess my efforts ended in failure this time. What's important, though, is that I tried, and that I keep trying. Co-op is just one possible route to Japan. I might end up having to attempt several, much as you have to send out several resumees just to get one job. Of all the lessons I learned over the course of this whole thing, that one might be the most important of all.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Sack of garbage is worthless, spreads hate speech

I wasn't gonna do this post. Wasn't gonna draw any more attention to it than it deserved. I'm not even naming that putrid little cockgobbler, because I wouldn't want to inadvertently give him traffic, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, consider yourself lucky. But I just have too much material now to not sling words at the Internet, because even if I don't have much to add to what more socially active bloggers and vloggers have already said, I could use the catharsis.

So we've gotten the revelation that he has recently been officially banned from immigrating to Japan for all poison-vomiting activities. (He also seems to have had several venues rescind offers to host him, although MRA rallies somehow seem to keep finding niches to carve into, so I don't know how much that means.) So he'll either have to give up on any Japanese endeavours, or lie about the purpose of his trip, which would then get lanced the second he set foot in a presentation venue, and his sexual assault-promoting ass would be ejected from the country for at least ten years, I'm guessing. I'm no expert in immigration law, but that's how long you're barred from entry if you overstay your visa. So kudos to everybody who stepped forward to try and take down a true real-life villain.

The premise of the lecture (if you can give such a puerile heap of human garbage such a dignified descriptor) is to treat women as worthless, which is an absolutely fantastic shortcut to not getting laid. He garnered the wrong kind of attention when a video of one of his sessions surfaced, showing him spewing bile that comes dangerously close to advocating rape. He describes the winning technique for getting women in Japan to be grabbing a woman's head and thrusting it towards your crotch, yelling “Pikachu!” It then showed footage of him doing this to a bunch of Japanese women that he then did not have sex with. Incredibly, he states that this is all a-ok because they just giggle. Which is what people do when they're uncomfortable, you insane fuckwad.

Question: Doe he buy into his own bullshit? The attendees at these kinds of things are the loneliest, most desperate men on earth. They're looking for a cheat code for instant sex because they're either too chickenshit to go up to a woman and start a fucking conversation, or they're so atrociously bad at it that they legitimately believe that the only reason for their failure is that they haven't yet found exactly the right combination of insults and vulgarities that would push her buttons ooh just right, baby, call me a fat ugly whore again, it gets me so hot. I actually feel a little sorry (but not too sorry) for the guys who go to stuff like this, because it's a pretty shitty business model. I don't mean shitty as in it's ineffective, it actually seems to work pretty well unfortunately, I mean shitty like “that's a shitty thing to do,” in that it openly preys on the deepest insecurities of the weak.

Iirc, the guy who invented invented peacocking – always pictured surrounded by a crowd of adoring men but rarely any women, for some reason – privately admitted to this, and said that he knew there was no way it would work in real life. This guy (trying to avoid naming him, I want to call him the Beast, which would suit him, but I don't want to associate him in my own mind with anything as high-quality as Transmetropolitan) might be the same. Or he might actually fully believe in every vile piece of rancid fungus that sloughs out of his mouth. I'm not sure which is worse.

One more thing, this footage was shot in Toukyou, right? Like Roppongi maybe? Cause there are definitely parts of Japan – certainly in Oosaka, and even then the rowdier corners of Kyouto – where doing that shit will get you fucking stomped. Or maybe I'm wrong. Go try!

There is one thing I believe I can contribute to discussions of this instructive failure, which is to mock him further. He does most of the work for me, but I can't resist, so here's my reactions to some quotes from his Twitter, now removed but thoughtfully archived by Tinder's Finest Bachelors.

“I like my women like I like my cell phone. Broken.”
What? That's not how you do that. Take the joke, “I like my women how I like my coffee: Black, hot, and all over my junk.” It works because it makes sense for both women and for coffee. I get that if you're a loser, an emotionally broken woman sounds like a ticket to an easy lay, but why would you ever want a broken cell phone? Because you know you're a poison to society and wish to expose yourself to as few people as possible?

“I always just assume that any girl who sleeps with me is a slut and any girl who doesn't sleep with me is a cunt.”
As far as I'm concerned there's nothing wrong with being a slut, but I guess the logic there is that she'd damn well have to be a slut to sleep with you.

“My favorite sexual position is the one where I cum and she doesn't.”
When it's with you, I'm guessing that's all of them.

“I'm too in love with myself to love my girlfriend.”
Is that why you don't have one?

“That warm load of sweet cum you just viciously gulped down has a thousand calories. In case you're wondering why you're still single.”
Take note, ladies, he's encouraging you to not swallow his cum. In case you needed convincing.
Also, fucking is pretty good exercise, so the joke doesn't even work.

“Girls, could you please save me the effort and roofie your own drink? #JustKidding”
Just kidding, he'll do it himself.

“No means no. #JustKidding”
What the fuck.

“Dear girls, you should be blowing me every time you change positions. #JustSoYouKnow”
For most men, this would be considered too time-consuming.

“I'm running out of reasons to wear a condom.”
The number of women willing to sleep with you is shrinking even further?

“Show the back of your girlfriend's throat just how much you love her.”
Oh, please; never mind the back of her throat, you couldn't even reach the tip of her tongue.

“#LOL at guys who need to use roofies...”
Like you, a few Tweets up?

“Vodka and cum. #MyGirlfriendsDiet”
Are you trying to mock her? Because that's kind of hot.

“Sometimes you fuck them, other times you jack off on them.”
You may someday find one willing to do it for you.

“Safe sex but without the condom.”
What? It's not safe sex then.

“You had me at: 'My last three boyfriends were assholes...'”
So you figure you'll fit right in?
I can't imagine fitting in has ever been a problem for you.
Yes, that was another dig at your penis size.

“A relationship with me might only last a night but the emotional damage will last forever.”
Now you're just stating obvious facts.

“My favorite sex toy is my girlfriend's mind.”
I.e. sexual satisfaction for a woman is heavily mental, and that the key to satisfying one is therefore all in her head. But I don't think he has this much knowledge of sex. Though it's not his fault, he just hasn't had enough of it yet.

“When does no mean no?”
TFB says: “EVERY.SINGLE.FUCKING. TIME.” To which I would add, “Obviously.”

“Another girl, another infinite amount of lies.”
Well it's obvious you'd never get one on your own merits.

“The hottest women are often the most insecure, so don't forget to treat them like trash. #JustSoYouKnow”
He not only summarizes his own lectures so you don't have to spend the time or money to go, but at the same time helpfully explains why everything he expounds within them is completely wrong.


You get the point. This isn't a man, this is a child, one who desires women so badly that he's come to hate them. Either that or he's a cynical bastard making bank on misery. Doesn't matter. Japan's banned him, Canada's Minister of Immigration has promised to do everything he can to block him, Australia kicked him out, Brazil and the UK are working on it, probably a lot more by now, I can't keep up with this story, I'm too worried I might get infected. But we're off to a good start, so I'm hoping that the matter can be settled quickly and this motherfucker forced to seriously reevaluate some things.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Underpowered

I spent the last few weeks before my university exchange hanging out with the new Japanese students who were arriving fresh that semester and doing not a whole hell of a lot else. Anybody who's done a study abroad or, for that matter, taught in a foreign country can probably identify with this lazy middle ground, the period in which you've completed all your preparations but you obviously can't start on the Next Thing until you arrive in your new venue. It's a little discombobulating because your day-to-day feels a little lackadaisical, yet technically you're doing exactly what you're supposed to. So while everybody around me was gearing up for classes, I was left a little adrift, which was fine, actually, because it let me catch up on my backlog of books and video games, and also gave me plenty of time to help this new group get acclimated.

More time than usual, in fact, as until this last year helping out the new group has been my customary task for the first few weeks of each semester. With all this white space on my schedule I was even able to get to know some of them a little deeper. Looking back, I think my first post ever may have left the impression that all the Japanese people I knew at the time were dicks, which was not the case at all. It was a pretty typical group, in that they were mostly people I'll never talk to again, some were pretty all right, and then there was one that I formed a genuine friendship with. She was a gyaru from Chiba, very stereotypically girly in matters such as fashion and colour-cons, and, you know, a little rough but unfortunately without the overt sexuality of an Oosaka gyaru. And yes I had a crush on her, of course I did, this is me we're talking about. Actually it's probably a good thing I left soon after, cause I'd have wanted to date her and if that had failed it would have been all awkward and stuff.

I did keep in contact with her while I was in Japan and she was in Canada, though, including one really awesome drunk-dial with her and a friend of hers, who was visiting, so she had to pretend that she was her cousin, so that the guy she was cheating on her boyfriend with wouldn't hit on her. President, who was rather smitten herself, got to be really good friends with her in the time I was gone. She even went to see her when she visited Toukyou (but didn't come to see me...pfft.) President's path to Japanese living began with some Japanese friends in high school, who introduced her to J-pop and Matsumoto Jun, and she's visited a few times, first on a field school and then on her own. To be honest I find that pretty courageous and savvy, given her limited grasp of the language, but she stayed at a hotel in Ikebukuro and everything, it sounds like it was awesome. She and this girl, I'll call her Lock-Up, went to the club where she was working at the time, and to Lock-Up, aaaaaaaand to the onsen. Yeah, she totally saw her naked. And President is bi so she was even able to appreciate it. So super jelly. And now Lock-Up is back in town.

This provided a bit of a brain-teaser for me until I was able to talk to her in person, and she clarified everything that's going on with her. Basically she's going to be taking the TESL program at my university, one a one-year working holiday visa, spending the extraneous six months working...somewhere. She hasn't really solidified her plans yet. Personally I would think that would be kind of an important thing to get sorted out before you travel across the Pacific Ocean, but then, here I am stuck in my home country and writing oddly personal blog entries only vaguely related to Japan, so what do I know. The interesting part of that is, she'll be taking classes with President, all day, every day. President applied to JET last cycle and got alternate, but no farther, so now she's going to get a formal certification to buff up her resumee (and skillset). So I sense good times in the offing.

Unfortunately for Lock-Up, she was compelled to, for a second time, attend much of the university's international orientation, a week-long event primarily informational in purpose but with quite a lot of lighter fun stuff as well. They teach them the finer points of certain immigration laws, school policies, very basic stuff as well as cultural things. Examples:

Canadians are very time-conscious. Being ten minutes late to an arranged meeting can be considered very impolite.
If a Canadian tells you they'll “see you later,” this doesn't actually mean they plan to see you later.
If a Canadian is passing by and asks you how it's going, and then carries on without waiting to hear the answer, it's not because they were being insincere. (It's because the question is meaningless and you're not really expected to reply.)
Pickup etiquette can vary between cultures. In Canada, if a girl at a bar tells you no, that means the conversation is over, not “try harder.”

And I fucking love it all. There's a video in there on safety (e.g. how not to get your pocket picked), which I don't think I've ever viewed from start to finish, but which I've seen so many bits and pieces of that if you put them all together I have probably seen in its entirety several times. That's how many times I've volunteered for this thing. Unfortunately, since I've been back from Japan, I haven't quite had the time...and if I'm being entirely honest with myself, my motivation hasn't been there like it used to be. During my exchange I started to think about building my future in Japan, which naturally necessitated meditation on what my professional career might be, and from that point on I was pretty much ready to sell my soul. Yeah, if 14-year-old Rude Boy could see me now he'd wonder what the fuck happened and how I ended up catching Lame, row row fight the power, but nowadays the coolest thing I can think of is working in an office. All this looking forward has forced me to simultaneously look inward, so I can't be all things to all Japanese people anymore. Not quite like I used to at least. It's all right. It's a natural progression, and...well, for me personally it never really paid much dividends anyway. It was worth it, in the end, to provide a useful service (translation and all manner of other assistance) to the people who deserved, but I just got used and burned too many times. Maybe I got a little tired of it.


Besides which, my work schedule interferes with like, everything else now, since I'm now working full time as a shift supervisor at a large chain of coffee shops that you have heard of (no, not that one), so despite Lock-Up's pleas, I wasn't able to come join her and alleviate her boredom. But President and I were able to meet up with her at one of the two decent Japanese restaurants in President's part of town. It was rather humorous in a Dostoevskyesque way, an intersection of three recent university graduates each desperately trying to get something rolling so that their lives can start. But it was great to see her, and she reported that a huge number of new Japanese students have arrived at my alma mater this semester. Things are getting exciting again.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Kanabata

Tanabata has become a bit of a tradition for our Club. It started out as a fun thing to do in summer when half our membership had vanished into the ether for a few months; the first time we tried it, we got rained out, had to do it in the university student centre, and used me as the tree. But our planning skills have improved since then, and over the years we've managed to grow it to a respectable size. And since we have a limited financial capacity, we usually do it as a potluck.

This heralded some concerns for us this year, because we had invited a bunch of recent arrivals from Japan and having a potluck with Japanese people can be a little iffy. Basically they tend to bring either far too little, or something completely ridiculous. Sometimes both. I think a single bag of 5-cent candies, as the shared contribution of six people, was probably the topper here, but you're also likely to get single bags of chips or rare, inscrutable treats that elicit furtive gestures and mutterings amongst observers. Maybe it's that Japanese people tend to think of food and drink as the host's responsibility (if so, they probably figure that we Canadians are all incorrigible cheapskates trying to slough off the cost onto the guests), though I mostly suspect that they are just unacquainted with the concept and could be trained up with a little practise.

(If you are now wondering what exactly an appropriate potluck contribution would be, a nice fruit or veggie tray is usually a good choice. A couple 2Ls of pop or some dessert-type stuff is ok, but damn near everybody is going to bring pop or dessert-type stuff, so watch out for that. If applicable, something from your home country will usually go over pretty well. And if there's going to be alcohol involved, a flat of 24 beer is always welcome. It doesn't even have to be good beer.)

Anyway, we needn't have worried. This group arrived bearing mainly a bunch of Taiwanese snacks, which not only ranged from edible to tasty, but were present in appropriate volume, as well. What was better, everybody here was cool. You know, I hate to say it, but as much as ryuugakusei are generally good folk – it takes a certain sort of person to want to learn a foreign language and live within a foreign culture – some of them are just really shitty people. Cause that's just life, you take any large group of people, some of them are going to be shitty, you know? You can try to hang out with just the ryuugakusei you actually like, but you'll always have to deal with the hangers-on from time to time, the ones who only want to use you for your English or think that they are entitled to make you their personal assistant, or that they are somehow above you, just by virtue of being a foreigner amongstforeigners.

You can also organize ryuugakusei into three broad categories: Those who make no effort to engage the host culture or even actively avoid it; those who spend time with their countrymen but still make a substantial effort to engage the host culture; and those who go for full integration, sometimes to the level of eschewing their native language altogether. I've always thought that a Japanese person refusing to speak Japanese in a room full of exclusively Japanese speakers was, you know, kind of really fucking stupid, but who really gives a shit, I guess. I tend to avoid those who fall on either extreme of the spectrum anyway, the former because they're boring, the latter because they're annoying. People who visit another country and then try to pretend they're somewhere else are usually this way because they're reserved and quiet so they're rarely very much fun to hang out with. And anybody going for full integration tends to be so overflowing with cultural sanctimoniousness that they're completely intolerable. As in many things, a balance is best, really.

We lucked out, and these guys were all of the cool, balanced variety. We had a few good icebreakers, too, that is, people who aren't afraid to just go ahead and strike up conversations with strangers, an essential element of any event involving Japanese people.

Additionally, two of them were shakaijin, “society people,” i.e. gainfully employed, although working at A&W rather than a suit-and-tie company, but shakaijin nonetheless. Both have aspirations of Canadian citizenship (the standards for which, if you didn't know, can be a little...stringent), and we discussed the various laws therein in some detail; after becoming a citizen, one of the girls intended to enter a Canadian university for a four-year degree. All of this was immensely interesting to me as not only am I on the cusp of becoming a shakaijin myself, but of course have also been slowly working on a plan to do what they're currently doing but in reverse.

I also learned that many Japanese think that root beer tastes like medicine. So we'll know not to get any of that next time, I guess. Some blonde girl said she'd heard of that from her Korean friends as well. She brought up Korea a couple of times and wrote her name on her cup in Korean, but she left before I could ask what her deal was.

The main event at Tanabata, of course, is writing out wishes and hanging them on a bamboo tree. Despite stereotypes, bamboo trees aren't exactly something you can just go pick up at Wal-Mart in Canada, so we usually use a grate or railing instead (you are welcome to steal this trick for your own Tanabata party). I wrote down “That I may get back to Japan quickly.”

“I knew that was going to be your first wish,” President grinned.

Then I wished that my job search should go well, which admittedly is kind of the same thing, since the one is predicated on the other.

Additionally, every Tanabata I send up some kind of a prayer for my sister. Last year she'd recently gotten married, so I wrote out a wish for her happy married life (or in Japanese, that her household would be bountiful). Now she's expecting a child, so I wished for him or her to be born healthy and happy. This seemed right to me. I tried to think of what would make her happiest in the world, and I am sure her most feverish hope right now is for the health of her unborn child. Indeed, I saw on Facebook later that her own Tanabata wish was for exactly that.

Japanese guy: Please invite me to hang out again.
Rude Boy: Absolutely, you should find me on Facebook.
Japanese: Yeah, I just added your wife, so we can find each other.
Rude Boy: Oh, great.

Then he walked off somewhere before I realised what he'd said.

In hindsight I can sort of understand why they might have some confusion. President rooms in a full-on house, and if they thought it was ours, we probably seem pretty domestic. Plus, I'm 24 this year. I certainly remember how distant and established 24 seemed back when I was 19. Shit, back when I was 17 and my sister was 22, I was in awe of her. She seemed so mature and put-together. It was only when I turned 22 myself that I actually realised, Christ no, she didn't know what the fuck she was doing, nobody does. When you're a little kid, your parents present themselves as omniscient and practised, and it's usually a couple of decades before you figure out that they were making it up as they went along too. I got off-topic there, but I'm going to assume you all understood my point.


It was a fun, chill kind of a night (President's roommate: “This is a drinking party? You can have Asians over for drinks anytime.”) Mostly, I was just glad to be hanging out with Japanese people again – it's been faaaaaar too long since I've done that. I miss it. And it was good, too, to be back in the thick of things. I've always been more comfortable leading than following, and I'm certainly more comfortable on the field than in the sidelines or, fuck's sake, the audience. For at least that night, I felt like President and I really were President and Vice President again; all thoughts of guiding Club rather than commanding it, and being careful not to change the system through observing it, all that shit had fled my mind. Ah, I don't know – maybe this summer will be our victory lap?

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Canada Day

The Interview

President and I tried to go to bed at a not completely moronic time, but then we stayed up late talking because couldn't sleep and now sort of ready to die. But we're pretty stoked, too. It promises to be an interesting day.

A Japanese girl we've known for a few years gets on the bus and sits down. We wave.

“She's really grown up since she got here,” I note, by which I mean that she no longer dresses like a small child. It's a bit more than that, though. People get older, and ryuugakuing really accelerates the process. Or maybe just augments it?

We're headed for the Hilton downtown, where a delegation from our sister city in Japan will be staying for the week. They've just gotten in last night but we're hustling them out of bed bright and early for a CBC interview. President and I relax in the lobby and watch an older, lanyard-wearing Asian woman make her way from the elevators to the breakfast hall. So we're at the right place then. Shortly thereafter the CBC guy arrives and then so does the mayor, along with the man in charge of Water and Sewage and also some third individual who hangs around the periphery and whose function I never do divine. They spend a few minutes socializing as hotel staff set up an interview area for us.

The interviewer attempts some English conversation with the water guy, and with a little effort and a lot of smiling they are able to communicate some basic pleasantries. I let them struggle. In situations like this, I generally try not to jump in with the interpretation unless it seems necessary, or if somebody specifically asks. Partly this is because people like to practise, but more importantly I don't want to mess up any flow they've developed; even if they end up fully depending on me immediately after, those first few minutes can provide a crucial icebreaker. The mayor is a pleasant enough man, somewhat lacking in the flair of his predecessor, but a good guy and very mayoral.

“Who's going to do to the interpretation?” he says suddenly, looking to the others.
“I'll be interpreting,” I assure him.
“Oh, great,” he smiles, and hurries off to his place.

At no point does anyone present suggest that my speaking Japanese is anything other than the most natural thing in the world. It's weird.

The interview goes pretty well, I think. It's a fairly fluffy piece and I asked to see the questions in advance, so I was able to look up a couple of words beforehand. Though I'd thought I might fixate on the microphone and start to get tied up in the minutiae of my own speech, within seconds I forget all about that and am able to mainly focus on interpreting the mayor's sentiments as accurately as possible. Because it's in the moment, and I want him to come off well, I err on the side of a “feeling” translation rather than a “word-for-word.”

I only have one serious slip-up: one of the mayor's responses is complex, makes heavy use of technical vocabulary, and goes on so long that by the time he finishes I've forgotten what he said at the beginning, and by the time I remember and make my way through that, I've forgotten what he said at the end. Fortunately after some consultation with him and a few (painfully long and quiet) moments to collect my thoughts, I'm able to avoid mangling it too badly.

The rest is pretty smooth. The questions have mainly to do with the sister city agreement, his thoughts on its significance, and so on. The most interesting went something like this:

Question: How would you feel about shifting the sister city agreement to a more business-oriented arrangement?
Answer: Business is indeed very important to our city, and to Japan, and if the possibility is there we should definitely pursue it. However, it would be a mistake to focus on only business at the expense of other opportunities, such as cultural and educational exchange, which are themselves very valuable and would be a shame to lose.

I thought that was interesting because basically all sister city relationships, everywhere, are derided by citizens as a bunch of free vacations for mayor and council. So while the true benefits are self-evident to those of us lucky enough to be in the thick of these functions, they are intangible, and thus justifiably dubious to anyone not directly involved. This is why the financial issue comes up from time to time, often accompanied by the suggestion that the soft stuff should be abandoned in favour of a strictly economic arrangement. Obviously I myself am a huge proponent of the intercultural aspects of sister city relationships, which changed my life, but I also see the unused potential for such “business opportunities.”

A Lazy Afternoon

After the interview President and I walk over to park, which is already saturated with festival atmosphere. Later, we notice various persons of interest begin forming up in the reserved section of the audience. I see the youngest member of council, a Green, enthusiastically mingling. “Ohio,” he says to the delegates. He says this a few times.

“That's about the limit of my Japanese,” he confides to me.
“Oh, it's a start. Actually,” I remind him, “they'll be pretty stoked no matter what you say. They pretty much just appreciate the effort.”
He laughs and agrees, and heads off for more schmoozing.

The two of us spend most of the rest of the day taking things in. It's scathingly hot but at least the atmosphere hasn't liquefied, like it does in Kyouto. We walk amongst the crowds, and run into Jugs. We take in interminable speeches, and also a performance by our local taiko group. We eat some Indian food. We point out hot girls to each other, because President is bi and an awesome gf. Oh, and also President is my gf now, that's a thing.

We see a guy with a German flag draped about his shoulders.
“But Belgium played today,” President frowns.
“Maybe he actually is German,” I suggest. “Anyway, what do you suppose would happen if a guy showed up at the 4th of July in America wearing a German flag?”

For a moment, I feel like I've hit upon the heart of Canada Day, and, indeed, Canada itself.

Fireworks and Frustration

There is only one thing that spoils my mood, and it really does. In previous years, since I was 15, I've volunteered to help with the sister city delegation and spent a week or more trundling around with them, interpreting and just generally making myself useful. And I love doing this. I love Japanese people, I love helping out, and this event is a bit of a personal tradition of mine. But suffice it to say, a miscommunication meant they ended up going with other interpreters, presumably because they didn't realise how much better of a job I'd do. So I ended up feeling like I'd been cheated out of something very dear to me through someone else's incompetence.

But maybe all isn't lost. We have just one chance. I happen to know that they'll take dinner (where I should have been interpreting) at a certain room in the park stadium, and that afterward they'll be milling around for a while waiting for the fireworks. It would be inappropriate to crash the dinner, but surely no one will mind if we show up and socialize afterward? We won't be costing the city money, and the Canadians there will all be city hall types, so I'll know most of them anyway. It won't be the whole week, but at least I'll get one shiny hurrah.

Alas, we're quickly foiled, as there's no way into the building. I get steadily more melancholy over the next half hour. I try not to let it show but I can't hide anything from President. We settle for watching from below the balcony, on the off-chance that somebody will look down, recognize us, and invite us up. I know it's a dumb plan but it's the best I can think of. We hear people talking and laughing above us, the occasional snatch of Japanese. I can't stand it because I should be up there.

“Would it be easier if we moved away?” she asks, brow knitted.
“No,” I say miserably. “It's like trying to get laid. If you at least ask, there's a chance somebody'll say yes, even if it's very small. So if we at least hang around here there's a chance somebody might come take pity on us. Even though I know that's not actually going to happen.”

The fireworks start. I try to enjoy them. It's hard to do when all I can think of is how much better of a view I usually get. We start to move, to get a better angle around a tree.

“Hey guys, do you wanna come upstairs?”

It's the youngest member of council, standing right behind us, holding the door open. Well, I'll be fucked. The three of us rush upstairs so as not to miss anything. No way. I'm seriously actually getting my due.

“And it's open bar,” he laughs.

The fireworks go on an appropriate fireworks-y length of time, during which we touch base with various dudes and dudettes, such as the lady who failed to get us up there. We spot a young Japanese guy we'd noticed earlier in the day, and President goes to talk to him. Later she confirms that he's a new student at our university, here as an interpreter rather than as a member of the delegation, which makes sense. I'd thought at least a couple of new students would be here, and meeting them was one of my main goals for the night, so, success! I point him out to another councillor and tell her that he looked so lonely and bored, we'd been thinking of absconding him to the nearest bar.

“I really think you should,” she grins conspiratorially.

Heading Home

My spirits buoyed, we go to catch the bus back to President's, where we run into the Japanese girl from the morning bus ride. This girl is young and adorably useless. She's the kind of girl you're afraid to leave to her own devices for more than a couple of minutes, lest she get lost between the front door and the sidewalk, or accidentally lock herself inside her apartment. She knows it, too. It's hilarious.

Today her existential crisis is actually semi-legitimate. She came straight to Canada after graduating Japanese high school and is now on the cusp of getting a certificate, which she's pretty sure is going to be borderline worthless in the Japanese job market in the absence of an actual degree. So she's debating whether to spend another year here, which will incur extra cost on her parents, or to return home and just take a stab at it. I try to give her advice but she rejects it and then chases herself in mental circles for a good five minutes or so. So I tell her to do the opposite thing, and then she repeats the process in reverse. She knows she's not being reasonable or making any sense, but I get the feeling I'm helping her work through it just by standing there and listening, so I don't feel like I'm wasting my time.

Basically, she just wants to escape the situation and get married. Yup, that would be the life. In fact, she's 21 now and a bunch of her friends are married already. Her own mother waited until 23, but if you think about it, you have to know somebody for around two years before you marry them, right, so to keep to that schedule she has to meet somebody, like, tomorrow! Has she been looking? No...no, she hasn't... So what kind of a guy would be good? Rich. Oh, and also tall.

She worries, too, that people always think she's younger than she is. When she was in junior high school people thought she was in elementary school, etc. I point out that maybe when she's 50, people will think she's 30. Ooh, she likes that! But she still doesn't get why.

“Maybe because you seem so pure,” I say honestly.
“Heh! You have no idea, do you?” she smirks.
“Oh? So you've been up to a lot of impure things?”

“No,” she says sadly.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Japanese traffic

Previous experiences with Japan had girded me against nearly all the vagaries of culture shock, but there was one part of the country that just didn't wash: The driving was just plain messed up. I haven't had the pleasure yet, but I've gleaned a fair amount just by observing my surroundings, such as the razor-thin alleys and switchbacks that pass for residential streets in the country. Reed Richards would be hard-pressed to squeeze through the average Japanese neighbourhood. Roads near my university were so poorly maintained that cars rolled up and down like a ship on stormy seas, creating the impression that everyone was constantly flashing their lights at you, a prospect that seems not entirely unrealistic to a foreigner in Japan.

Vehicles are not allowed to turn left on a red in Japan, which to me seemed totally bizarre until I realised the reason for it. Fact is, stop lines are generally set back several hundred kilometres from their associated intersection, requiring all Japanese motorists to carry a telescope in the glove compartment in order to discern when the light changes. This would make any attempts to creep up to and slip around the corner potentially disastrous. The eccentric positioning of these stop lines is, in turn, a necessity borne out of the narrow streets, as any lateral traffic that turns towards you needs to be able to swing into your lane without punching you in the face, otherwise buses, fire engines, and monster trucks would find most every route impassable.

But that's just the conditions; the real issue is the participants. Driving in Japan is less a means of transportation and more a contest to see who can break the largest number of traffic laws at a time. When I first arrived and began observing the traffic, the entire ecosystem seemed chaotic and dangerous. Japanese drivers constantly made risky manoeuvres that would have caused Canadian passengers to scream in fear and anger. They pulled out to block an entire lane so that they could turn in. If somebody ahead of them was waiting to make a right turn, they freely swerved around them, continuing on like it was no thing.

While often in Canada the centre line may as well be a physically impassable barrier, here it does little more than demarcate the midpoint between either side of the road. You park wherever you can, be it in a marked parking space, a random nook or cranny, the middle of a busy thoroughfare, a stranger's living room, on roofs, in alleys, every way but upside down, really. People whip around at a startling pace, dodging grannies and inconveniently placed hydro poles, giving the reflexes and brake-pads of every other driver a good solid workout, and it's all just considered normal.

Pedestrians aren't much better, possessing a relationship with self-preservation that is antagonist at best. They are fond of wandering around on the road when there's a perfectly good sidewalk across the street, swaying back and forth, stumbling around blind corners, and generally presenting as large a profile as possible when ambulating in groups, for the benefit of any casual human-hunters should they happen to make a go of it on their way to the store. I ended up becoming eminently comfortable with cars hurtling past my body at breakneck speeds, casually forgiving scandalous incursions into my personal space bubble that would earn them a stream of expletives and public humiliation in Canada.

At about the seven-month mark, however, it finally dawned on me that while the Japanese style was certainly much less cautious, it wasn't necessarily worse. I never actually encountered an accident, after all, despite weekly witnessing situations that in Canada would have caused ruination or, at best, an interminable delay as the confused drivers tried to work out how to extricate their vehicles from the tangle they'd tied. Japanese drivers, meanwhile, balletically weave between each other at high speed, never in doubt, never in danger. It was frankly beautiful to see in action. It was as if tight Japanese traffic conditions had forced the drivers to hone a better sense of timing and spatial understanding, a deeper intuition regarding the intentions of the vehicles around them, or, if not that, then at least they as Japanese drivers had a better sense than I had of how another Japanese driver was liable to react at any given moment.


In other words, all these differences that had initially seemed incredible turned out to have their own logic, which became perfectly clear once I'd discovered it – much like many things I came to grips with in Japan. It was an interesting revelation. Culture really is pervasive. When we imagine foreign countries, we think of the food, the music, the language, but the driving culture doesn't generally occur to us until we're forced to confront it. And, as in all those other cases, unfamiliar doesn't automatically mean worse.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Reparation

Now to provide a little context for my last post. Every spring, a university from Toukyou sends a cadre of Psychology students to my Canadian university. The students commune with Canadian Psychology majors, receive an intensive English course, and explore the world outside Japan. (Sometimes we also get groups of future CAs coming to practise English for their internationally oriented jobs, but this seems to be more sporadic, although, as you might imagine, also more fun.) Back when President and I were the Japanese Club leaders, we also tried to show them our hospitality, holding parties for them, sharing meals with them, and, as if I even have to say it, taking them out drinking.

And that's awesome. Unfortunately, that's also what got me into trouble a couple of years ago. I ended up getting way too drunk at an informal function at the campus pub, and, I am told, mouthed off a lot. I say “I am told” because I actually recall very little of what transpired. I do remember falling asleep in the bathroom and being set upright once more by a concerned citizen, then leaving suddenly for no apparent reason, to President's consternation. She ended up tracing the route back to my apartment, but missed me, because I'd stopped off at another bathroom and fallen asleep there too. After a while I woke up on my own and made my way to the next building in my path, where I fell asleep in a third bathroom. Luckily I did eventually make it all the way home, where I finally fell asleep for the night...in my own bathroom.

So I got an amusing anecdote out of it, but unfortunately, before all that happened I ended up getting in a scrap. For all the reasons I explained in that last post I feel I had call to get my hackles up, at least in regards to the one asshole who was provoking me. Unfortunately, that one asshole was their teacher, who comes every year. I'd obviously offended him at least as much as he'd offended me, hence the escalation of the confrontation. And since we never actually resolved our dispute, my anger never really dissipated, even when they'd all gone back to Japan. You can see how diplomatic relations might become strained.

Obviously, I completely mishandled the situation. Setting aside the fact that I should never, ever have gotten that drunk to begin with, I shouldn't have risen to him, either. What the hell did I think I was going to accomplish? Nothing I could say would have persuaded him to my point of view, because he had his mind made up and just wanted to unload at me. And when it's somebody of authority such as a teacher, even if you win, you lose. Especially if you win, you might argue. No, I should have just kept my head down, bitten back every response, and quietly accepted his completely unwarranted criticism of my entire lifestyle.

Instead, I put a palpable strain on the rest of that group's trip, and holy hell do I regret that. That experience specifically is why I never drink “on the job” anymore. So I absolutely take responsibility for that mistake (God knows I've pissed enough people off while drunk), and for some time feared that I'd caused irreparable damage to what had been a very profitable partnership between the other university and our Club. By putting my own aggravation ahead of the interests of the Japanese students, I'd betrayed the very people I was supposed to be serving.

Of course, I wasn't around last year, and since I'm no longer officially affiliated with Japanese Club I was able to put a little cognitive distance between me and my own past transgressions. So when a group came this year, I considered avoiding the whole thing, but ultimately decided, fuck it, if there's a problem, I'll just stare it down. When I arrived at the campus pub, it was already roaring with a crowd of J-students and a complement of white people. Gently squashing the realisation that I was blowing off class to go hang out at a bar, I quickly found President, pulled up a chair, and – within minutes – was offered the teacher's hand.

Not in marriage, mind you. I mean he reached around the guy beside him – I mean like tried to lean past him, not give him a reacharound – and he wanted to shake my hand, that's the point I'm making. No, it's actually not, of course it isn't. The point I'm making is that he greeted me with a goddamn smile. “It's good to see you,” he said, and he seemed to actually mean it. Well, fuck me. That's just great. Here I've been holding a quiet grudge against this guy for two goddamn years and he hasn't thought twice about me. Of course he hasn't. People think about you way less often than you think about them thinking about you. So I felt awfully silly.

Tell you what, though. President and I had a great time at that thing. Somehow the two current executives, neither of whom actually speak Japanese, had gotten all caught up in a group with the aforementioned teacher and one of the Psychology dudes from our university, so we broke for the far end of the table to chat up some of the other students. President just led us straight into the crowd and we sat down with some people and suddenly, socializing. It was just like the old days: President intrepidly charging into battle, me at her side as loyal lieutenant, in this case providing translation and social lubrication. Not that she needed much of either; she manages quite admirably to communicate with a mixture of English and Japanese, and she's one of the most social damn people I know (as am I, which is one of the reasons we get on so well).

Right after, we had to practise for our performance at the international culture festival the following week. I'm using the Royal We here because I was not, myself, performing, rather I offered feedback as a group of about ten practised in a dance studio at student residence. I'm pretty damn brutal about it, but it's all out of love. As a huge fan of rhythm games, I can tell instantly when any individual member is off time. Not that it's very hard when half of them are following different beats and others, none at all. But that's just a matter of practise. Anyway, this is part of the story because some of the J-Psychology Majors came to watch for a little while. When they'd seen a couple of runthroughs they retired to the penthouse, where their teacher was holding an afterparty, which he does every year, and which does not in any way scream of harassment lawsuits.


President had managed to get us invited to lunch two days hence. As always, we seemed to have hitched ourselves to, or been hitched with, a small group of students, in this case five of them. I don't know why it so often seems to work out this way; I guess just because the people most motivated to make friends tend to find each other, and because it takes time and energy to get to know someone and you really can't do that with 20+ people in just two weeks. Of course, they've left now, and we'll never see them again. Every once in a while, though, we'll pop up on each other's Facebook feeds, until the day we all die. More to the point, we made their visit as much fun as we could. I hope that, this time, they walked away with a favourable impression of Canadians, and that maybe that's something they'll take with them.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Attitude

I originally wrote this way back when I was still toying with the idea of starting a blog, after a particularly frustrating incident left me needing to vent. That was over two years ago, so the writing is a little amateurish compared to my more recent stuff. Next post, I'll tell the story that inspired it.

*

When most Japanese people I meet find out that I'm interested in the language and the culture, they're delighted. They're flattered that I'm trying to participate and pleased that I'm trying to understand. They're forgiving when I make mistakes and wonderfully supportive of everything I'm trying to do. This has overwhelmingly been my experience, and I'm grateful to all the people who have helped me, been my friends, and invited me through the door.

Some aren't like this.

Some are of a very different opinion. Because I'm not Japanese I can never understand Japanese culture. Sometimes I screw things up when I talk, therefore I don't speak Japanese at all. My goals are messed up, or else they're a waste of time because I could never possibly achieve them as an outsider. I'm just a sad hanger-on, a skinny obsessive little weeaboo, and would I just knock it off and go wallow in my own ignorance with my little white friends who, like me, also speak only one language but fetishize Asian girls and sit alone in our rooms by ourselves all the time.

And it pisses me right off. When I encounter stuff like this elsewhere in my life, I can pretty much let it be. Because I've made a point of surrounding myself with people who like me, and will call me out if they think I'm wrong but mostly just make me feel good about myself. Anybody who tries to go against that, I don't need. But this is a little different. A handful of magic words can make my blood boil.  "You can't X." "You don't know what you're talking about." "Your Japanese doesn't make any sense." I can and I'm going to. I've been looking into the topic for YEARS of my life now and I've earned the right to put forth an informed opinion. It does make sense and you goddamn know it, it's just not perfect. It's the attitude, the condescension. It's the dismissiveness.

As soon as I can, I'm going to move back to Japan and then I'm going to live there for the rest of my life. I decided that a very long, long time ago. This is the primo goal I'm working towards at all times, to which all others are subordinate. So when someone tries to tell me that all the energy I'm putting towards this – the hours of study I put in each day, all the work I do, both as Japanese Club Vice President and on my own time, trying to make sure the Japanese students on campus are taken care of and feel comfortable and welcome, without agenda, simply because I love Japanese people – is basically worthless, I get angry, because they're making me feel like my identity is being invalidated. Not as some loser white guy trying to 'be Japanese,' but as a proud Canadian who has decided to make Japan his home.

What really gets me is the double standard they apply, a sort of Japanese exceptionalism wherein it's totally possible for them to grasp Canadian culture (and yes, there is such thing as Canadian culture, but we're not going to talk about that right now), but I can't do the reverse, and when I point this out they just wave it off as me just plain not understanding. Can you imagine if I went around telling foreigners in Canada that they'll never be able to learn English? People would think I was a complete asshole! That's not  really material, though. And I've done some things in the past that people had every right to get angry about, and from time to time I still do. But I think that's a separate issue, too, and when that stuff happens it's usually an honest mistake, or at least not because I'm trying to make waves.


I really believe that the good I do outweighs the bad, and that I take more flak than I deserve. The only thing I can think to do is refuse to give in. Try to show how I earnest I really am, that I mean business, and maybe, every once in a while, get somebody to rethink their view of me. I don't expect to change many minds, but I really shouldn't let the naysayers upset me, either. Keep studying Japanese, keep trying to learn about the country, and keep making Japanese friends. Then surround myself with the ones who get me.

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Warrior Who Never Shaves

There is a Culture Festival held at my university every year, serving as an opportunity for all the various peoples on campus – noted as one of the most international in the province – to share of themselves, teach, learn, and party. It's fucking awesome. Since I've been doing international-type things since I was a little kid, it's always struck a chord with me, and as a member and later Vice President of the Japanese Club, I've been an enthusiastic participant for years.

Just one difference this time: President and I are retired now, so we didn't have to do a goddamn thing. I saw a problem, I told either the current President or Vice President about it and then I let them deal with it. Or not. What do I care? I don't want to see Club's reputation suffer but I don't feel responsible for it anymore either. Not like I used to. Anyway, all this meant a lot less work for us and not that much less glory.

Or should have, except that New President is kind of useless and couldn't lead either of the dances that Club was supposed to be doing...so President, ever stalwart, stepped the fuck up and took over the whole operation. And then I got in on that, and pretty soon both of the current executives were kowtowing to the will of the Ancients. Which was fine; I certainly don't mind being afforded the respect I'm owed. But it is a little worrisome considering that President and I have been trying to let go of the reins and let the next generation come into its own. It was kind of good, though. As much as I love the festivities themselves, I enjoy the weeks leading up to them nearly as much. The preparation, I mean – the heady feeling that you're putting in a lot of work that's leading up to something truly impressive, and you feel so driven to do the best you possibly can because your Club's reputation is on the line and you're trying to share of yourselves and show what you're capable of.

Although I wasn't slated to perform, I attended every practise, serving as DJ and then, more importantly, sort of micromanaging individuals. Chiefly, the issue was timing, which both President and I found bafflingly frustrating. She used to be in Cadets and taught music to the goddamn military, and while I don't have quite such impressive credentials, I am an avid player of rhythm games so I too have a pretty bulletproof understanding of how to keep a beat. Trying to work with people who did not was therefore pretty vexing for us, because trying to teach somebody to stay on beat is like trying to explain that the sky is blue. Fucking look at it. Blue. What the hell else can I do to help you understand? Why do you still think it's purple?

Overall, though, it was a fun experience, as it always is. There was a good mixture of both Canadian and Japanese students, with a group of six performing a relatively recent AKB song and an impressive 15 doing a rendition of Soran Bushi. The latter has gathered us surprising renown over the years, with our slot being gradually moved toward the back end of the program, where the audience size peaks. We wanted to live up to the prestige, so we tried to get it as close to perfect as possible, with President patiently putting the performers through their paces, and me shouting out corrections and accepting only the utmost quality, because people have a tendency to deliver what you expect of them. It's called the Pygmalion Effect, I learned that from Running Man.

Then, two days before the big event, an interesting thing happened, which is that President and I hooked up. And to be honest it was about fucking time, you could have cut the sexual tension with a goddamn knife. Both of us had been wanting it for weeks and weeks and weeks, but neither of us was willing to make a move for fear of hurting the friendship. Hilariously, everyone else in the universe predicted it and we chided them for being silly, but then, it's hard to get a good look at something if you're too close to it. Anyway, we did as much as we could and later it wasn't weird at all, it was awesome. Only thing was, I really wanted to bang her, so on Judgment Day, I was determined to obtain some condoms – not assuming anything, but also refusing to be unprepared.

Leaving my car at the arcade where they know me and let me park all day without giving me hell, I first checked Shopper's Drug Mart, but I couldn't fucking find what I needed. I don't know how that's even possible, and it certainly made me feel like a dumbass, but I was too self-conscious to just stroll up to somebody and go “Excuse me, where are the condoms?” So I decided to give Target a shot, and I saw the sign for the section called “Baby,” and I was like “No I'm looking for NOT Baby!” Luckily Jugs advised me they should be “with the women shit” but then when I got there, there were three pharmacists who do nothing but fucking stand behind a counter and judge you while you consider your purchases, so I couldn't even bring myself to look. So I went to cocksucking Safeway and...could not fucking find them there either. In a last-ditch effort, I visited my favourite gas station, and finally managed to get a three-pack. Oh, Husky...you've never let me down.

It was a condom quest as epic as it was asinine, made all the more difficult by the fact that I was wearing geta at the time, and so was limited to a speed of roughly 0 kilometres per hour. I mean I haven't moved that slowly in my entire life as I did while wearing geta, including when I was a baby. And to make the whole thing even goofier, I was dressed in a fucking jinbei and happi while I was going around trying to be inconspicuous and casual. In the end it felt too weird to go into a store and buy just three condoms, so I got a chocolate bar as well. Yeah, that'll throw 'em off.

With all that finally taken goddamn care of I made my way to the university and met up with President again. So far we'd taken in a Japanese tea ceremony and a photo-booth type thing with like various kimono and such for people to try, the latter of which has sort of become a staple of ours. But today was the best part: Performances. Sikhs did weapon demonstrations. Africans performed hip-hop. A Chinese guy did Shanghai-style street dancing. It was rad. And all of it was in an atmosphere of celebration and exultation, all the very best of all the countries smashed together into a delicious medley of colours and motion.

And President and I got to see all of it. It was...oddly disconcerting, actually. For the first time in our lives, rather than watching from the sidelines, we actually got to, like, sit down, in the goddamn stands, and like...enjoy the performances. Because the event's success or failure was not dependent on us in any way. No, things were going along just fine, without us, somehow. Bizarre. Without any obligations I actually kind of had trouble finding things to do, not because I was bored but because I was used to not a moment's rest, which was troubling because it was a five-hour programme.

I did, fortunately, get a taste of the old life, for just a scant few minutes. A bunch of countries and regions were, as always, given space to set up booths at which to showcase whatever the hell they wanted, be it pictures from the motherland, art, clothing, whatever. With President, New President, and New Vice President all doing Soran Bushi, I was the only person left who could competently man the booth during the twenty minutes or so they'd be absent. So, without any real preparation, I eased behind it, and...yup, turns out my skills haven't rusted. I can still speak eloquently, establish rapport with strangers, and promote like a motherfucker at the drop of a hat. I hadn't ever really doubted myself, but it was reassuring to know that I could still call upon those skills whenever I might require them.

“You must miss being Vice President,” commented New Vice President when he got back.
“There are days when I do,” I admitted. “Like today. But then there are also days when I really, really don't.”


To cap it all off, President and I went home and fucked. When we woke up we went for lunch, like it was no thing. And then bought condoms together, because evidently I can't be trusted to locate them for myself.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Introduction to Japanese Philosophy, Part 2: People and Concepts

In the last post, I outlined the historical and cultural/religious factors that influence the Japanese understanding of Philosophy. And it took way longer than I thought it would, so I ended up having to break it up into another post. Which is fine. Thinking up stuff to write about is hard sometimes. Messes up my posting schedule.

As I noted before, most of the big names in Japanese philosophy are Buddhist thinkers. Here's a few of them and a couple of abiding concepts.

The 17-Article Constitution

Shoutoku Daishi
Way, way back in the day, Japan was ruled by the young 聖徳大師 Shoutoku Daishi or, as he is called in English, Prince Shotoku. He was responsible for the drafting and promulgation of Japan's first constitution, except the thing is, it is entirely unlike what you or I would envision. Rather than a system of rights and regulations, Shoutoku Daishi's constitution had more to do with what was considered acceptable and virtuous behaviour. To some extent it was a little biased towards court officials, who were expected to lead by example; this kind of follows the ancient Chinese thinking that if the Emperor is good, his underlings will emulate him and be good, and so on, so that ultimately all of society is good. Trickle-down morality, basically.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Harmony is to be valued
  • Sincerely revere the Buddha, his teaching, and the ordained community
  • Turn away from that which is private, and turn toward that which is public
  • Important decisions should not be made by one person alone.

So there's Buddhism, right there, written into the ancient Japanese constitution. You are literally required by law to be a good Buddhist. The first and third, meanwhile, would not seem out of place in modern Japan! Let's not exaggerate, but it's not unfair to say that Japanese people strive for harmony and facilitation in their everyday lives. And finally, that last one – one person should not have absolute power? That's an interesting thing for an autocratic dictator to write into official policy.

Interestingly, since it was never actually struck down by any act of parliament, some Japanese legal scholars theorize that the 17-Article Constitution is technically still part of Japanese law.

Kuukai

Kuukai
Also known posthumously as 弘法大師 Koubou-daishi, 空海 Kuukai was an explorer of tantric Buddhism and of the most prominent religious figures in Japan. A poet of some note, he is credited, perhaps apocryphally, with writing the いろは歌 Irohauta, which uses every character of the ancient Japanese syllabary exactly once. It's one of the most famous works in all of Japanese literature and is sometimes thought to embody the very spirit of Japan itself (that's “spirit” as in a shared sense of values, purpose, and culture, not like a religious spirit). Also, if I recall correctly (and I may not), Kuukai was the first Buddhist of influence to assert that women could reach Heaven without needing to first be reborn as men and then taking another crack at it. Also, his name is a combination of the character for “air” and the one for “sea,” so that's pretty cool.

Nenbutsu

Yoshimitsu from Soul Calibre
In brief, 念仏 nenbutsu is the Japanese word for invoking the name of Buddha. If you have a passing familiarity with Japanese popular culture, you'll have heard the most basic version before – namu amida butsu. For example, Yoshimitsu from Soul Calibre sometimes recites it after battle. The idea is that invoking Buddha himself brings you closer to the enlightenment he was able to achieve. The nenbutsu is often done in repetitions of 108, which is the number of worldly temptations that humans must attempt to avoid (or seek out, depending on your point of view). To help with counting, Buddhists will sometimes use a string of prayer beads, which, again, you've no doubt seen people holding – hell, some of the pictures on this very page have them plainly visible. But while the basics of nenbutsu are more or less agreed upon, there is still some contention, such as that between...

Hounen and Shinran

Hounen
放念 Hounen and 親鸞 Shinrann are kind of the Obi-Wan and Anakin of Japanese philosophy. The latter studied dutifully under the tutelage of the former, soaked up every bit of knowledge he could, and then said “thanks for that, Imma go do the exact opposite nao,” and then founded an evil empire. Or in the case of Shinran, a competing sect of Buddhism, which I guess isn't quite as bad.

The two had many minor points of contention, but one of the most important was their differing beliefs regarding salvation. Hounen thought that through dutiful nenbutsu recitation, you could effectively reach out to Buddha and rise up to Heaven of your own accord when you died. Shinran was a little less optimistic. He thought that since humans are so utterly mired in sin and confusion, there was no way they were getting anywhere without Buddha's direct intervention. Concordantly, where Hounen advocated busting out the nenbutsu at the slightest provocation, the better to achieve a more thorough enlightenment, Shinran held that it was more for giving thanks to Buddha rather than asking him for more stuff, sort of like saying grace in Christianity, I suppose.

On the whole, I've always felt that Hounen doesn't get nearly the respect he deserves. Shinran is by far the more famous, but Hounen is pretty interesting too, and his temple is pretty rad. Plus, compared to his pupil, he was a rugged individualist who believed in relying on your own power, so where are your stereotypes now, hypothetical Japan-hater who I invented just now?

Dougen

Dougen
I haven't studied 道元 Dougen as much, so I'm less familiar with him (because that's how studying works). Mainly I'm aware that he was pretty up on 座禅 zazen, which is – know what, just go ahead and imagine a Buddhist deep in prayer. There, you almost certainly envisioned him doing zazen, the sitting meditation with legs crossed. For extra potency, you can have his thumbs and forefingers around his abdominal chakra. My History of Japanese Thought teacher demonstrated on himself. “I know it feels stupid,” he said, “but don't be embarrassed, and give it a try.” No one did.

Kyouto School

Full disclosure: I did not talk about the Kyouto School in my original presentation and took most of the information in this next section from Wikipedia, although I had heard of it before, it just completely slipped my mind until I rediscovered it recently while researching something unrelated to this project.

I thought it was interesting for a couple of reasons, one of which is that it originated in the 20th Century, balancing out the ancient slant present in the rest of the post. I'm not a huge fan of 20th Century philosophy – it has, what? John Rawls? Ayn Rand? Vandanna Shiva, if you can call that philosophy? A couple of French guys, Camus I guess, and (that guy Bruce translated). And a handful of Germans, of course, but Germans are just extremely dominant in philosophy in general, owing, perhaps, to their having the best educational system in the world in the 19th Century.

Fittingly, the Kyouto School is heavily influenced by the German tradition, particularly their own German contemporaries. This is pretty natural, though – once you hit the 19th Century or so, the Germans become pretty heavy hitters in philosophy. In fact, my teacher actually went to Germany to study philosophy – in German. (And some of my friends told me not to worry because I could speak German if I wanted to, even though I don't speak German, but do speak Japanese, and they all should have known that, particularly as they were explaining all of this in Japanese and we'd never spoken anything else to each other before then either, but that's another story.)

The other reason I thought them particularly relevant is that the Wikipedia article contained a couple of quotations specifically on the relationship between Japanese philosophy and religion, which, as I've intimated elsewhere, is something I've grappled with myself in trying to understand the topic. I'd feel a little chintzy directly quoting something I'd heard about before but never properly researched, so I'll just recommend you follow the link if you're interested, which, if you've read this far, you probably are. Pay special attention to Nishida, who founded the tradition, and explored the concepts of mu, “nothingness,” and 場所論 bashoronn, “the logic of place.”

The Ten Bulls

Finally, we've come to the main thing I wanted to talk about, and the focus of my presentation at the conference: The Ten Bulls! I'm actually not sure I like the translation, because there's ten images, but only one bull, and he doesn't even appear in all ten panels. The Japanese is 十牛図 juugyuuzu, more like “ten bull pictures,” but anyway, it's an allegory of the search for knowledge, the truth, inner peace and understanding, something along those lines. It actually originates from the Chinese equivalent of Zen Buddhism, but is studied enough in Japan that I'm willing to consider it Japanese philosophy as well. So we're going to go through, step by step, and see what we can figure out.

#1, the boy – or man or whatever he is – is alone in the forest, searching. But he has no idea where to go, or what to do, so he wanders aimlessly, lost.

#2, he comes upon some footprints – a path to follow. He hasn't found what he's looking for just yet, but now he's moving in the right direction. This could be in the influence of Buddha, or a Bodhisattva, trying to help us out. It actually reminds me of that little place near the front of Kiyomizudera, where you descend into a pitch-black basement, and have to follow a railing so you don't crash into anything, and the railing is supposed to represent Buddha's guidance.

#3, he spies the bull's back legs and hindquarters. The bull seems to represent “wisdom,” or whatever you want to call it. But he hasn't caught sight of the important part of it yet – just the tip of it, the ancillary, irrelevant parts.

#4, he manages to actually catch the bull. But it doesn't immediately relax under his grip, it struggles for control. This is significant – at times, the things we most want seem to actively reject us.

#5, the boy has gotten to a point where he can take the bull around on a lead. He no longer needs to exert quite so much discipline to get it to do what he wants.

#6, now he's attained REAL mastery! He's riding on the bull's back, he's playing the flute while he does it, he barely even needs to pay attention to what he's doing. He rides it all the way home.

#7, sitting at home now, alone. The boy seems to have aged, matured. More importantly, the bull is gone – the target was an illusion. He doesn't need it anymore.

#8, this one sometimes moves around, but I'm going by the most common order. My philosophy teacher, in Kyouto, said that this was the most most important image of all. When he explained it to the class he said, “As you can see, this one is blank. Why do you suppose that is? There must be some meaning hidden in that. …Think about it, it's going to be on the final exam,” and then he moved on, without any further explanation whatsoever.

As far as I can tell – through reading various secondary sources – this panel is meant to imply a sort of transcendence. The boy has moved beyond the trivialities with which he was so concerned until now. Another interpretation is peace and tranquility, as the mind has been allowed to fade to white. Personally, I am reminded of Wittgenstein (fucking Wittgenstein), who believed that words, by themselves, were insufficient for understanding ideas. They could cajole you into understanding, drive you down the right avenues of thought, but they could not, by themselves, transmit knowledge. So you could use them as a sort of crutch, a ladder, but one which, as he said, you would then have to “throw away after you have climbed up,” because they're just tools, not the object of the exercise themselves.

#9, both boy and bull are still gone, nothing but the sound of cicadas chirping. Again, tranquility perhaps? Or signaling that he is now attending to more important matters?

#10, the boy has become a sage or Bodhisattva, and is now using what he has learned in his experiences to educate others.

Obviously, the intent behind this series is very Buddhist. That would make it of very limited interest, but it doesn't have to be that way – actually, you can take this and apply it to almost anything you want to learn! Hell, I could use my own experience learning Japanese as an example.

  1. I knew that I wanted to “learn Japanese,” but I certainly had no idea where to start, or how to go about it.
  2. Fortunately, I had many excellent teachers to show me the way. They provided learning outcomes as well as relevant materials, helped me with difficult concepts, etc.
  3. Naturally, I started simple. Everything written out in roumaji and exceedingly simple. I was not, at this point, actually communicating in Japanese in any meaningful way, but it was a start.
  4. Try as I might, I couldn't actually get to a point where I could use Japanese fluidly or for any length of time. Frustrated, I actually considered giving up a couple of times.
  5. Once I'd mastered the basics, I started to show measurable improvement. Further progress became a little easier. Eventually, I even started having bursts where I could use Japanese without first translating in my head (without even noticing when it happened until later).
  6. Finally I actually came to be able to use it with some degree of fluency, to make it do the tricks I demanded of it. (In the analogy I would now be “done learning,” though in reality of course you are never done learning a language.)
  7. The goal was never to make it all the way through the textbook, or to get a certain score on a test; the goal was to learn Japanese. I don't need those things so much anymore, so I abandon them. (Though if I ever find another textbook that works for my current level, I'm obviously not going to pass it up.)
  8. While I still actively strive to improve my Japanese, I've gotten to the point now where I can just use it.
  9. Cicadas. I admit I don't really get how this one works.
  10. Nowadays, I am capable not only of teaching Japanese to others if I wanted to, but of helping them through the same steps and struggles that I have already overcome.

See that? Ok, it's certainly not perfect, but for the most part it works. Philosophy isn't just this academic, impractical discipline; if it were I'd never have become wrapped up in it. It honestly doesn't provide any answers, either, because for every assertion there's a million objections, and nine different philosophers will give you nine contradictory proposals. But the fun parts of philosophy are finding applications for it in your everyday life. Apply the categorical imperative to your coworker's bad behaviour. Do a Marxist analysis of the other tabs you have open right now. See if you can prove your own existence. That sort of stuff.


As long as Japanese philosophy gives me things to think about, I'll keep it in my mental notebook.