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!