Saturday, 23 June 2012

Steaky-Guni Valedictory

There’s an element of elegy about this, perhaps lost…

After ten months, almost exactly, the sun is setting on my time in Japan. On Tuesday, the heavens permitting, I’ll be on a plane to Seoul and thence to London. The year has been cut short to ten months by my pressing need to enter a profession, but it was a very significant ten months and, despite many things, I am happy to have come.

It’s been a year of fun, zero-responsibility and high earnings. I’ve eaten some of the tastiest and most interesting food on the planet, and met some of the tastiest and most interesting people. I love the Japanese language. From the snow-lipped majesty of Mt Fuji to the tiring mania of matinal Tokyo, it has been my privilege to see places and things that I could not otherwise have experienced.

My praise for Japan is not unreserved. My affection for the country runs deep, in a kind of familial way: I feel a level of love familiarity that allows me to point out flaws, while defending it against others. I don't mean this to be critical of people I have no right to criticise, but rather I want to underline some of my observations and feelings about the time I spent there in the suteki-guni.

A word on that title: suteki (pronounced “steaky”) is a commonly used word to mean lovely, or fab. Kuni means country, but when it follows another word it sometimes becomes guni. There’s a classic book called “Yuki Guni” which means snowy country.

Now, as I leave, I feel the same feelings I felt before I came to Japan: excitement at the start of a new set of adventures, trepidation about what might and might not come of them. I land in London on the 19th June – my birthday – but will have job interviews, jet-lagged job interviews, on the 20th and 21st. I have been upright and thinking of England for ten months now: tasting custard and good curry in my dreams. I’ve created for myself a fantasy of temperate weather, decent sweet food, tolerance of difference and eavesdroppability, all of which are, in a certain measure, missing from Japan. I hope I won’t be disappointed.
My conception of life in Japan is drawn from experience of our two Japanese teachers, Ikehara-sensei and Nagayoshi-sensei. They’re both profoundly lovely people with, on the surface, distinct personalities.

Ikehara-sensei is a being of grace. She is unrufflable: always elegant, always calm, stoic in the face of embarrassing Japanese mistakes (like my tendency to refer to perverted pornography (hentai) when I mean to say ‘the opposite’ (hantai), or to talk about being gang-raped by English people again, when I mean to say surrounded by). 

Nagayoshi-sensei, on the hantai hand, is a bundle of energy. She never stops, never calms down, giggles and exclamations without hand. My favourite was when she would repeat the tape we were supposed to be listening to, as it was playing, so that had no hope of possibly hearing, never mind understanding.

Japan, to me, is a balance of the Ike and the Naga; like a Japanese yin and yang. The silent and still onsen, where heat soothes the skin and snow falls around ones ears, the tea ceremony, the graceful, kimono-clad grandma: they are Ike. The flashing lights of Shinjuku, the roaring drunk salarymen, the dreadful, colourful pop-music: those are Naga. Smooth hiragana v sharp katakana: いけ v   ナガ

But in Japan, Ike and Naga mix: the sumptuous banquet sat on tatami, with plum trees stroking at the windows, that descends into red-faced, early hangovers and, inevitably, karaoke; the geisha who knows more dirty jokes than an Irish submarine crew.

And this can be nothing but compelling. Life in Japan, whatever happens, is always interesting to outsiders. But we are always outsiders.

It is, of course, entirely true that Japanese people are, in the majority, extremely lovely, humane and welcoming. They throw you a great party, will be as polite as they can be and will look after you if you need it. I have received some extraordinary generosity and kindness in Japan. I would say, however, that this is true of all of the places I have been. Warm hospitality is the pride of ordinary, human people wherever you go. China, Luxembourg, France, America: in all of these places I have received excellent hospitality. Equally, I have met cold, rude and unpleasant people across the world and Japan, unfortunately, is no exception.

The Japanese are raised on a diet of half-truths about the outside world that few dispel through experience. There is a concerning naivety when one hears, on a number of occasions, that ‘Japanese people are all very welcoming’, and ‘Foreign people are not polite’. How do you know? I always wonder.

Sometimes this naïve acceptance of received wisdom can be endearing or, at worst, harmless. A lot of Japanese people I have met believe in fortune-telling or at least frequent fortune tellers. I have known superstition to be rife, and wrote in another post about “yaki-doshi”: years in which one is more vulnerable to bad luck and the machinations of misfortune. Another great one is the this-is-the-correct-and-only-correct-way-to-pour-beer lecture we received during a tour of the Kirin beer factory. What if I prefer it a different way? Incorrect.

Often, though, it is a bit more frustrating:

The chans have a long-running joke about how everything in Japan can be prefaced with ‘traditional Japanese…’ because every time a Japanese person explain something to us, he or she feels the need to underline the fact that Japan is somehow different from the rest of the world: my favourite was when I asked a child what he had done at school that day and was met with the response “Japanese maths” I laughed, thinking that he thought that maths was somehow different in Japan, but I’m being unfair because he meant that while most of his maths classes were taught in English, that was the day of the week where he had maths in the Japanese-language. Still, it wouldn’t have been surprising.

I have come to believe that the Japanese overestimate differences between Japan and the rest of the world and, in particular, between Japanese people and foreigners. This can be naïve, but is sometimes offensive, especially certain comments about Koreans and Chinese people that I have heard, or lawlessness and laziness in the West. Still, I am fully aware that this is not based on hate, but simple inexperience. It’s very easy indeed to make sweeping statements about people you know nothing about. The people in England who say that all gypsies are thieves rarely know any gypsies. The people who think the country is dangerously overrun with immigrants rarely see them.

The Japanese attitude to difference, however, must be slightly nuanced. Again, though, it is common to us all.
The Japanese view of the world, I feel, is informed very closely by the view that everything and everyone has a place, and naturally has a pattern of behavior dictated by that place (in a very classic, socially conservative way).

Certain comments I’ve heard are informative: ‘You’re tired? You’re supposed to be a man!’; ‘You don’t like tea? Are you really English?”. It is my feeling that, to Japanese society, all is right with the world so long as people live up to the behaviour expected of them by their place in the world.

For instance, to the extent that homosexuality is tolerated in Japan and is present in popular culture, gay people are expected to be flaming queens, making outrageous comments on talk shows, camp as you like. Lesbians do not feature.

I was at a dinner with lawyer that I know, the overwhelming majority of whom were male. I spoke to a female lawyer who told me that she would no longer be practising law because she was getting married. It was made quite clear to me when I challenged this that, at least in this situation, being a wife was not compatible with being a professional.

Indeed, certain patterns of behaviour are expected from people with white skin. White people do not speak Japanese, of course, so it’s fine to talk about them in Japanese from a few feet away, or to shout poorly pronounced English at them. White people do not use chopsticks, so bringing them a knife and fork to eat food that could not really be eaten with a knife and fork is fine.

This can be frustrating, but I do not think that we are entirely innocent of this ‘politics of position’ in the UK. We expect boys to eat lots, like sports and be promiscuous. I’m guilty too: I am perfectly happy when people assume that, given the thing hanging between my legs, I’ll eat the food they can’t eat. It entertains me when my French or Italian friends are more emotional or dramatic than I would be in a similar situation, or when my German friends are coldly logical.

In Japan, though, it is more evident. Perhaps this is simply because I have been a victim of it, though. In any case, I feel that I will be more sensitive to this kind of thing upon my return to the UK. As a white man who intends to work in the legal profession in London, I think this is an invaluable experience.

I have had a wonderful time in Japan and have an awful lot of affection for it and its people. And I think the future is bright, especially if Japan realises that it has more to gain from really opening up to the rest of the world. It’s a callous reality, but a huge chunk of the Japanese population will die in the next thirty or so years. Supporting the elderly costs the Japanese state dearly, and the size of the population keeps prices high .The drop in population will lead the Japanese to question whether they shouldn’t allow more immigration from Asia. And I think they’ll have to. If I’m right, the Japanese will have to become more comfortable with the outside world and that can only be a good thing I think.

Japan, Nippon, the Ike and the Naga; it’s beautiful. It is a fascinating, tiring, inspiring place. I came here open eyed, and am leaving awestruck, but wiser I think. I hope that my business with the land of rising suns is not finished for good.

For now at least, sayonara

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Turn of the Century Japanter

Look at this baby, courteousy of Rory-san. It's a 100 year old Japan guide book, published only 50 years after Japan was forced out of its 200 year long isolation:


If nothing, this is just proof that no matter what you're doing and how interesting you think it is, someone's been there before.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Star-Spangled Banter IV: Ivy League Banter and Returning to the Sun

Tak Tak Takedy Tak is a student at that clever-clogs college with the unfortunate name: Brown. It’s one of the so-called Ivy League universities and is in Providence, Rhode Island, the smallest of the American states. Trivia: the Providence skyline can be seen in outdoor scenes in Family Guy, also set in the state.

Brown’s campus is very small and more verdant than the name suggests; lots of pleasant buildings too. It’s full of steaky, healthy-looking, ambitious Americans.

My favourite thing about Brown was, predictably, the student canteen. It was big and beautiful and it was all-you-can-eat. God bless the American appetite. They had just about anything you can think of, and it cost something like half a cent. Loved it.

And I had a charming time with the students of Brown, Takedy Tak and his friends.

After Providence, I left Tak Tak and took the bus up to Cambridge. No no, not the real Cambridge, Cambridge Mass-a-choo-sets.

I took the subway from the central train station to Harvard, passing MIT on the way. That was noteworthy, since Mashu, one of the scholars who had originally started the course with us in Japan (although he subsequently dropped out), had been a student there.

I was there to see Hervé once again, and to meet our mutual friend, the divine Mikaël who studies at Harvard. No, I’d never heard of it either. Indeed, a week or two ago, said boy-with-an-angel’s-name graduated from said-University-with-a-Cambridge-graduate’s-name and, unlike a former resident of the Elysée, can now call himself a Frenchman who really did go to Harvard. Mikaël, then, is almost definitely destined to maitriser à fond le système, accéder au pouvoir suprême, s’installer à la Présidence et de là…

Mikaël and Hervé had a dinner with a French literature professor so I amused myself in a bookshop where I met some author of some book about leadership. I also read a book about American Presidents’ attitudes to North Korea.

We did a night-time tour of the Harvard campus, including the formidable law faculty; we met one of Mikaël’s charming friends who, it turns out, had also studied in Paris. She was doing an LLM and is, like myself (fingers crossed), becoming a barrister.

After that we had a drink and I tasted decent beer for the first time in almost a year.

The next day we had a little tour of Boston, a very pleasant place. After lunch, we cycled to a lake and did a little tour. Then there was excellent hot chocolate. Hervé, who is usually so careful with words when it comes to food (it’s a very serious matter, and Hervé treats it with the sanctity it merits), described it as “the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted”. So there you have it.

And it was thence to New York, to Shereen, to the airport and home (to Japan).

It was a pleasure and an honour to see these marvelous places in this marvelous country, seeing old friends (future greats like Hervé, Mikaël, Shereen and Tak Tak), and making new ones.

Still, I felt a sense of relief descend upon me when I landed in Tokyo after a fifteen hour flight. It was sunny and crisp. My flight back to Fukuoka was relaxing, and I saw all of Japan beneath me: Tokyo and the bay, Mount Fuji in its sun-soaked majesty, Kansai, Hiroshima. Everything was clean and in its place. Everyone stuck to the script. For a tired mind: bliss.


Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Star-Spangled Banter III - Banter for America

After our wee soujourn in Seacaucus, we said sayonara to Jackie-chan and hit the road for DC. The weather was changeable, like the scenery, wet and dry and flat and urban. We crossed the mighty Delaware River and I was reminded of that Mark Knopfler song “Sailing to Philadelphia” where they sing ‘the morning tide has raised the capes of Delaware’. It’s a song about a Geordie in America; even more appropriate.

In Delaware we stopped at Tak Tak’s dad’s favourite service station. I had some more Mexican food, and was, again, taken aback at the rudeness of people in the service industry, especially when compared to Japan. My usual response to impoliteness is extreme politeness: I think it makes the original malfeasor very uncomfortable, and so it is a much more powerful weapon than arsy-ness.

My theory was proven right when we arrived at the motel in Washington and I realised that I had not changed enough yen into dollars to be able to pay upfront for the room. The man behind the counter was, at best, surly and was most displeased when I suggested I go and find a bank to change some (in the end, however, Tak Tak just took some from a cash machine and loaned it to me till, two days later, I eventually found a bank that could change currencies in the capital of the world’s “most convenient nation”). Still, he was much less difficult with me than fu-ki-gen Tak Tak who gave as good as he got!

On our first day, Tak Tak and I drove into town and met with Hervé for breakfast.
Hervé, who is Head of International Communications for the Luxembourgish Propaganda Board, had been one of the coaches for that country’s Jessup team. The Jessup is a very large international law moot court competition, where law students from around the world take part in a simulated appeal before the International Court of Justice, dealing with a contrived international law problem. Hervé and I had been mooding partners in Washington two years before, the glory days when we met all the greats: Vivian, the Indian lads, Mlle du Cansas, all the big people at the State Department and, of course, the Bs.
Hervé had been living the dream for the months: he had surrounded himself with beautiful, intelligent and funny women who shared his passion for international law, and despite all of the challenges of law school, he still managed to find time to be an exemplary Jessup coach, and to bring Luxembourg to Washington for the first time.
The breakfast was far from delicious (‘where’s the bloody miso!?’, I cried) but, as you’d expect, the banter got off to a marvellous start.

Tak Tak and I did a walking tour of the town. From “the corner of Vermont and K” (yup, that’s really how they speak), we made our way to the White House, the Washington Memorial, the National Mall and had a wander in the Smithsonian. There were some excellent exhibits on the American presidency and I even saw the original ‘star-spangled banner’, that which Francis Scott-Key so proudly hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming, and that which, on proving itself still to waive at dawn after a night of battle with the Brits, has come to represent America’s independence.  
We then marched up to Congress where a man was holding a protest about circumcision. It sounds a little trivial, but he made some very compelling arguments about why it should be stopped. A huge proportion of Americans have their baby son’s circumcised on the mistaken belief that it somehow promotes hygiene and even prevents HIV, claims for which there is no serious scientific basis. Nevertheless, millions of baby boys undergo the procedure without anaesthetic, and many of them suffer side effects because of it. Indeed, the protester even told us that there were hundreds of cases of babies being taken out of intensive care because their parents insisted that they have a bit of willy skin lopped off.
I am in principle against things being done for purely religious reasons and am in principle in favour of people being able to make their own decisions about their own bodies so, on the basis of the arguments the protester presented to me, I was convinced to agree with him.
From one body controversy to another: round the back of Congress there’s a little place called the Supreme Court of the United States of America which, while I was there, was debating whether aforementioned Congress had the power under the US Constitution’s “Commerce Clause” to require that citizens take out health insurance. Though I was not able to get in to see any of the oral hearings (constitutional adjudication is a very partisan affair in the US), I listened to pleadings: they can be downloaded from the Supreme Court website. It’s a very interesting topic, and I shall write about it again when the justices give their judgment.
From the Supreme Court, Tak Tak and I were two very tired tourists and decided to trail back to the hotel. On the way, though, we passed a slightly out-of-the-way monument erected in memory of Japanese people who were interned and had their civil liberties infringed in the US during the second world war. It was a poignant reminder that in war as in politics, there are never just two perspectives to be had.

After a nap, we met Hervé and the team for dinner. It was a truly international affair. American, Belgian, British, French, Greek, Iranian, Japanese and Luxembourgish blood pumped through accelerated hearts in a Burmese restaurant: tonight was the night they announced whether the teams would get through to the knock-out rounds of the competition. Sadly, it was not Luxembourg’s year, but the team trained valiantly (I know, since I helped) and did themselves, their coach and their country proud. With that solace in mind, the greatest suffering of the night was the desperately bad food we had to endure in the restaurant. First time in my life I haven’t been able to eat what I’ve ordered.

Things improved the next night when I had dinner out in Virginia with Tak Tak and his brother. They even had decent beer (I was, of course, IDed for it). Tak Tak’s brother, Liu, is a charming gent who works in the US government. As such, he was able to arrange for us to have a tour of some government building near where the Jessup was being held. It was a rather smallish white house, where a rather tallish black man lives.
Hervé, Tak Tak and I did a tour of the place, only to realise that this was a replica of the West Wing set. Liu must have known how much of a West Wing fan I am, and gotten in touch with someone from the TV company. What a guy! They even had actors dressed as Secret Service people! Some parts of the set were slightly inaccurate of course. The patio, for instance, where President Bartlet has a smoke in the rain while making a huge military decision was in the wrong place.

Still, real life can never truly live up to art.

The tour guide, who was no Margaret or Ginger, told us that if we waited around for a while, something cool would happen. We assembled on the lawn and they called for any children under twelve to pass through the security cordon. Tak Tak is young looking, and Hervé could be Daniel Radcliffe from the first Harry Potter film, so I encouraged them both to go. They refused.

Of course, now I understand. Though I was hoping to see the President, Mr Bartlet, it was only Barack Obama who came out to shake our hands. I need to speak to Leo about this, I thought. Still Barack is a charming man with great physical presence. He asked us to pass on apologies to Consuela Lopez about comments he had made regarding tightening regulations in the oranges trade and we dutifully said we would oblige. He was off to meet President Barbosa of Brazil and so had to get a move on. He needed to be back in time for a conference with Shereen “Massive Gun” Akhtar for a conference on international policy but could we come back later? 

‘Sorry, Mr President’, we said, ‘but we’re going to Johnny Rocket’s’. And that was that. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

読み道 - Yomi-dou : the way of reading.

My Japanese is now at the level where doing a bit of reading for pleasure is not unthinkable. And since that which can be thunk, will be thunk, I dive in: a storm of kanji I can barely make out, hiragana that curl and crunk around my cranium, and grammar-we-haven’t-done-yet piled on grammar-we-haven’t-done-yet.

Still, it’s a fun challenge. No, honestly.

On my hunt for the yomi-dou, I’ve equipped myself with a three-pronged trident:

The first prong consists in banishing all shame and pestering Nihon-jin about “what the hell does that mean?” and “why is he talking about Janacek sinfoniettas if, in the picture, he’s got a helicopter stuck to his head?” This was the thrust of a conversation I had with Tak-Tak in a delayed-up New York subway tunnel back in March.

The second is a pencil. I hate writing in books, but somehow writing in pencil that I could-but-never-will rub out makes it ok.

The third is the Google Translate app on my iPhone. We have a bit of a belligerent relationship ‘the-other-G’ and I. He claims to have a voice recognition function, but does what most of my students do and JUST DOESN’T LISTEN, except he sometimes listens but only if I speak in an American accent (but ‘Autumn’ will always be Autumn and ‘the-other-G’ will not bend this G to its post-Columbus readin’ rules).

Seb’s history classes, rare as they were, have turned into Seb’s reading classes and so my first destination along the yomi-dou is Oe Kenzaburo’s short story ‘Fui no Oshi’ or ‘Dumbstruck’. Oe is a Nobel laureate, so it was rather trite of Henry-sama to observe woefully, ‘gosh, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write Japanese like this’. Still.
The story examines power relationships in Japan immediately post-war, when a group of American soldiers post in a village where they’ve never seen a white person before (sometimes you’d think that was still the case for some people, but I de-digress…). The interpreter thus becomes the power broker in this tense situation, which Oe explores using every device available to the Japanese language. This includes manipulation of the kanji he employs(a device an English reader would be – and is - at pains to grasp). Here: a character that is slightly archaic but where the radicals suggest the raping of holy Japanese soil by unholy foreigners. There: hiragana instead of kanji for aesthetic balance. Tough, but fascinating.

Doraemon is the next stop-off point. Here he is:

Robot-cat sent from the future to improve the life of the inventor’s useless great-great-great grandfather (I know, if only), Dorae-chan is extremely intelligent. His infinite pouch is bursting with gadgets (a go-anywhere-door, helicopter-hats &c) that cool in extremely handy (paw-y) in getting Nobita-kun out of the bumps in the road of his pathetic life.

Likes: dorae-yaki. Dislikes: mice (one of the little buggers bit his ears off, can you blame him?)

Last, the holy-grail: a Korean friend gave me a copy of Murakami’s new book ‘1Q84’ (‘kyuu’ is Japanese for 9, so work it out).  

If I ever read a book by Haruki Murakami in Japanese I’ll be elated. He may well be my favourite writer, even in translation. I was introduced to Murakami, who will surely win the Nobel in the next few years, when I arrived in Japan. I’ve read about half of his books, but my mind needs some rest before I tackle another. They are at once well put-together, beauteous, poignant and, best of all, mental. Like all good things in Japan.

His most famous work is “Norweigan Wood” which they made a film out of, but my favourite is “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”. Do have a try if you get the chance.

With names like Murakami, Oe, and Mishima (whose life was as colourful as his books), Japanese literature is a gold mine I cannot wait to tap into, bleed dry and profit from.


Tuesday, 1 May 2012


Recently I have been wasting my time giving kanji names to British place names.  

Of course, the first one is that holy place Newcastle, which has been very easy to translate: New + Castle and you get: 新城, shin-jô.

Here are some other places. If, like me, you have time to waste (and, I suppose, decent kanji knowledge) try to work out where I meant with these babies (I should definitely write cryptic crosswords):

倫豚                                                   easiest, so I’m not giving the readings
男胸者        だんきょうしゃ
肝臓池        かんぞういけ
来橋                      らいきょう                           lovely sound, fitting kanji
牛浅瀬               ぎゅうあさせ                       opposite of the above
船体                     せんたい
露埋                      ろうまい                               hard (think of Henry)

Answers on a postcard (or as comments) and all will be revealed soon enough!    

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Star-spangled Banter II - Sea, Caucus and Cow Carcass

I had a moment of triumph on my first night in America when I met two girls from New Jersey. I told them that I would be spending the remainder of the week in their state: “in a place called ‘Seacaucus’”, I said, separating the ‘sea’ from the ‘caucus’. “Oh, you mean ‘Seacaucus’” they said, putting weight on the ‘cauc’ but turning the sea into a ‘suh’. I did not mean that, actually, and was vindicated when Tak Tak - the gentleman so kind as to give me a place to sleep and a native of the town in contention - divided the sea and the caucus too. I felt, through this little victory, a stronger connection to the place.

You take a bus from a grotty little stop underneath Times Square (‘Port Authority’ bus station - though I don’t think it’s very near a port, and I would have thought that the people who administer the ports of New York probably work near the ports of New York), and it takes around twenty minutes to get to Seacaucus: it’s essentially countryside after the centre of Manhattan.

What’s striking, though, is that it is so close to Manhattan: it’s on a hill overlooking the NYC skyline (you can see the Empire State Building from almost any position), except you’re in a different state and there’s grass everywhere. This highlights the weird urban geography of the Big Apple: go that distance from the centre of London and you’ll be in, well, the centre of London. New York, however, extends east and doesn’t deign to dwell on the western shore of the Hudson. NY, NY only.

Despite its proximity to mania, Seacaucus feels very small town-y. You live in a wooden house that is painted a light colour. You have a lawn and you take your dog for a walk. They have a Starbucks, a pharmacy and a place to dunk one’s doughnuts, as it were. Apart from that, you have to get in a car and “hang out at the mall” as Americans do (NJ has no VAT on clothing so I managed to get some lovely, sturdy walking boots for less than thirty pounds!).

I stayed with Tak Tak, his Dad and his dog (Jackie-chan), the yelpiest little dog in the world (possibly). To no-one’s displeasure, Tak-Tak’s Dad took the presence of a guest as an excuse to gorge on red meat, so we went to a fantabulous Asian barbecue place called ‘Gyu-kaku’ (you can take the boy out of Japan) for some yaki-niku. I had left Seoul a handful of days earlier, so this was a welcome continuation of the meat binge I had started in Korea.

Japanese people often express naïve surprise that I “can” eat Japanese food. When they ask me how it is possible that I, as a westerner, “can” eat raw fish and grilled meat (of all the things in the world) I reply that I love Asian food because it is interactive (NB – this is an excellent way of wasting time in an English lesson: explain what ‘inter’ means, explain what ‘active’ means and get them to work out what interactive might mean (they’ll rarely have the balls to make a guess, though)). I love food that involves a bit of fannying about: put this sauce on here, sizzle this like that, put this in that, wrap it up and then ram it in your gob, &c. None of the boring, western, “here’s one plate with your – and only your – food; now shove it down your neck and get out” for me, thank you. This Gyu-kaku place has adopted, to some extent, the Asian way: the DIY way. It has been said that the USA is the land of tortious liability and so the experience of restaurant DIYBBQ is somewhat different on the other side of the Pacific, where the waiter does most of the setting up for you and instructs you on how long to cook the meat for (“please, [insert name – American waiters always seem to want to tell you their names], I’ve done this before, yeah?”, I want to say). In Korea, some gruff little old lady as good as slams the white hot coals on your lap and you had better be grateful, and eat the kimchee you have before asking for more. “You enjoy your meal now”. “Thanks, I will”.

In the few days I spent in Seacaucus, we did a surprising amount of driving and drank an unsurprising amount of coffee. I’m very grateful to all of the Nagayoshis (especially Jackie-chan) for their hospitality!
It was thence that we drove to DC! 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Star-spangled Banter I – 大きいりんご

Keen to get out of Japan for a while and to see friends old and new, I decided to book a flight from Fukuoka to New York.

Full of excitement I flew from Fukuoka Airport to Narita in Tokyo, then into the rising sun towards the Americas. I flew with the superbly clean, efficient and friendly Japan Airlines and then the not-so-clean, not-so-efficient and not-so-friendly American Airlines.

The huge decline on the politeness index is the biggest and most immediately obvious contrast between Japan and the US. I remember coming to JFK two years for the finals of the Jessup competition (and more on them later). The arrivals hall was extremely incompetently administered and it took us over an hour to have our passports checked, the worst I’ve ever experienced. The same was true this time, but was compounded by extreme rudeness from the staff there. This is made all the worst by the fact that, as it’s airport security, you can hardly start arguing with people. One little woman in particular was extremely unpleasant: she had decided that you could not turn on your mobile phone in the arrival hall and enforced her rules with such outbursts as “You with the haircut! Turn that off!”, and by shouting in her very strong New York accent at groups of Japanese people who obviously could not understand what she was saying. When they did not immediately dance to her tune, she loudly bemoaned the fact that they “didn’t listen”, but then contradicted herself with the rhetorical question “why come to America if you don’t understand simple English?” If that’s your English love, call me Japanese.  

Despite the sourness of the staff and their incompetence, I eventually got through. A nostalgic trip on the subway took me to Shereen’s pad in Greenwich Village.

Obviously, Shereen being Shereen, she has found herself in the coolest possible situation: she shares an entire HOUSE in the centre of Manhattan with some extremely cool housemates. With some of the most glamourous places in the world just a walk away, I arrived at an extremely elegant welcome party. They have a little yard and, thanks to the lovely weather, we were able to have an outdoor dinner party. The menus, one of which I have pinned to my wall now, were headed ‘Casa Hardin’ after the newly moved in housemate whose arrival we were celebrating. For the first time in half a year I tasted drinkable wine, vegetables, and lovely lovely sweet food. The company, too, was charming and they gave me some fun suggestions for the next day.

Shereen was off to Louisiana the next day and so left me with the keys to the pad. Up early, I enjoyed the Manhattan sunshine and amused myself around Chelsea (including the spectacular ‘High-Line’: a former raised train line, now restored and made into a garden / walk way / jogging track which gives some lovely views of that bo-bo part of town, the meat packing district, and the East River), Union Square and Broadway. I walked through Chinatown and Little Italy and down to the financial district which is also, more interestingly, the legal district.

I met Tak Tak in Port Authority which is the bus station under Times Square. We took the bus to his part of New Jersey, the charming sounding ‘Seacaucus’ where I stayed with his family for the next few days. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Great Peace

Any regular readers that I have will know that I recently visited the United States. I shall write about that trip later (am still in the process of coming up with some dreadful pun as a title), but here I’d like to discuss my feelings on returning to Japan.

The winter in Japan was dreadful. It was freezing, of course, but it was an awful cold because it never let up; I found it impossible ever to get warm. This is partly my fault because I hadn’t realised (for the six months that I’d been here) that there are vents above the windows which had been left open; in essence, I had the windows open all winter. I suspect sometimes that I may have a form of seasonal affective disorder because my mood followed the thermometer in those months. I found it very very easy to get very very annoyed at what I would have called at the time (don’t ask me about now) the immense Japanese bullshit I witnessed everywhere: dormitory staff who think that because of their age they own you and have a right to invade your life; immense bureaucracy and accordingly inefficiency; people who don’t say what they mean but insist on hinting at it; sweeping statements about Japan, the Japanese and how extremely different they are from everyone else on the planet.

As the mercury has risen, my mood has too. The gentle warmth in the air makes it a pleasure to be outside, away from the dormitory staff and feelings of claustrophobia. Sun on skin makes smile.

The Japanese, and I, love the sakura (cherry blossoms) that explode like pale pink fireworks on every street and on each hill. Having a little party under the falling petals (a ‘hana-mi’ or ‘flower viewing’) is a great tradition. Often companies will send their most junior employees to nab a good sub-sakura spot (I’ve even heard stories of people being ordered to camp there overnight). There are many sakura in New York's Central Park. My students giggle when I tell them that the only people I say picnic-ing under them were Japanese.

I felt a great sense of calm flood over me when I landed back in Japan from America. The latter is an energetic country where every day can be a struggle against yourself and your fellow citizen, where boasting is acceptable if not encouraged, where you go big or go home. The former is the opposite. Interactions between people who don’t know each other well are almost scripted in Japan, and it felt very reassuring when, at the airport in Tokyo, I knew almost exactly what people would say to me and how they would interact. I smiled when we flew over Mt Fuji in all his majesty and, after the cabin crew announced his presence on our left, the passengers gave a great “eeeeeeee, sugoiiiiiiiii” as you knew they would.

In Japanese, the kanji for the Pacific mean “great peace ocean” (the beautiful sounding ‘dai-hei-yô’); crossing that ocean, I can perhaps see why.