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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Poison Arrow

Judging from the scowl on her face, I guess Ashley wasn’t expecting me. That’s okay, as I wasn’t expecting to see her either.

We weren’t on the outs or anything, it was just an unexpected visit.

I had just been dropped off at her place by the Kanemaru family on a dull, overcast Saturday morning after spending the night at their place on a home-stay. They did not drive off, however. They were waiting…

Not knowing what to expect—and not one to quibble—I was still surprised when she grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me into her apartment. Before I could stammer that I had nothing to do with this, she planted a really decent kiss on me.

Not able to follow up on that kiss, she told me she knew all about Kanemaru-san’s visit, my visit, too, and that she even knew where we were going… though she continued to revel in my ignorance and discomfort by not telling me where we were going.

No big deal… not knowing what I’m doing or where I’m going is pretty much the norm for me in Japan.

Grabbing a coat and her camera, she got into the backseat of the car—though Tomohiro (the six-year-old Kanemaru son), wiggled around so he could sit on my side – sticking me in the middle seat (and the hump) of the white Toyota Cherry Vanette.

It was Saturday, September 8, and we’d been in Japan for a month… which is probably why Ashley decided to show off her recently learned Japanese language skills by starting a conversation with the Kanemaru’s.

I have no idea what she said, but Kanemaru-sand and his wife both turned to me and stared for a few seconds, before saying in English: “Ash-a ree Japan-eezu berry goo-do. (Ashley Japanese very good.)”

I suppose I deserved that. In the month there, I didn’t really say too much in Japanese – and surely not anything as complex as whatever it was that Ashley said.

By the way… did you notice how Kanemaru-san phonetically said Ashley’s name? It’s important for later.

A short while later, we arrived wherever it is we were supposed to arrive at. No, don’t anyone tell me – I’m only a writer who likes to think he knows everything. Which I don’t… so I suppose the trend continues.

>Anyhow, the here were we were—as opposed to the here where we are—was in the southwest area of Ohtawara, and there was a festival-like atmosphere about the place. Not surprising since it was a festival.

According to Kanemaru-san this was a festival to celebrate Nasu no Yoichi (aka Yoichi Nasu – the name/word Nasu is pronounced nass) who was a famous warrior from the 1100s.

It bothers me that I only had to learn a couple of hundred years worth of Canada/British North America history, while the Japanese learned a millennium’s worth. It bother’s me that I didn’t do it very well.

That brief interlude brought to you by ‘Whining™’, when merely complaining just won’t do.

Short story now merely long, Yoichi Nasu is a hero of Ohtawara – and you can read about him HERE.

Nasu was an archer of great renown (obviously), and not only did he shoot a bow and arrow to smite the enemy, he did so atop a moving horse. I know, I know… what’s the big deal? Native American Indians have been doing it for centuries with a lot of success – just ask General Custer. But the Japanese bow utilized in kyudo (Japanese archery) is a big one. For someone my height – 180cm (I was taller back then), my bow would be 7’-7.5” in height or 223 cm. That unwieldy weapon is a bugger to shoot with—but more on kyudo and Andrew later.

The Nasu Yoichi festival opening ceremonies began with a small, wizened old man shooting an arrow at a far away target – obviously he hit it, and the festival began. Or rather the second part of the opening ceremony began.

Next up was a kyudo warrior dressed in 11th century battle garb showing off his accuracy and long-distance shooting (that’s the photo atop the blog). Impressive as all heck. In fact, when Kanemaru-san asked me if I liked it, I immediately grinned in wide appreciation and said ‘hai!”

In fact, he then turned to Ashley and asked her: “Ash-a-ree play ah-sha-ree, too?”

I thought the old boy was stuttering, but it turns out he was asking Ashley is she wanted to do kyudo

A-sha-ree, he asked Ash-a-ree if she wanted to learn ah-sha-ree. (Actually, he asked Ashley if she wanted to learn archery.)

Man, do I love this place. The stories just kind of write themselves—a bit long-winded, though.

Anyhow, the Kanemaru’s, Ashley and I had a great time at the Yoichi Nasu festival. If you like, you may click HERE to see some photos of the event.

There was some excellent horseback kyudo and then there was a very long archery competition amongst a couple of local clubs—and though Kanemaru-san belonged to the Ohtawara Kyudo Club, and though they were at the event, he did not take part in it for some reason. I guess because he was babysitting us.

Anyways, the whole point of this particular blog was that single sentence wordplay. Okay, it’s also about how cool Kanemaru-san and his family are. And it does set in motion how I spend a lot of Wednesday nights.

Somewhere a-sha-ree wondering how everyone is doing…
Andrew Joseph
Today's title brought to you by ABC

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Our House

Mr. Kanemaru really is a good guy. Sure he and Hanazaki-san are my bosses and as such are in charge of my well-being in Japan, but they always go out of their way to ensure I’m all right.

Kanemaru-san invited me on a ‘home-stay’. I’d never heard of this, but it’s really quite evident – I stay at his place for an evening (sleep-over) and get to learn a thing or two about the Japanese family-life. What the heck, when in Rome and all that stuff…

It was September 7, a usual Friday spent at the OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education). After work, I rode home, packed a few things and waited for Kanemaru-san to show up at his appointed 5:30PM – which he did to the second according to the clock sitting above my television. I’m unsure if he purposely set his watch to my clock, but I wouldn’t put it past him.

We drove outside the city in a southerly direction for 15 minutes before heading east for another 10. Ohtawara is a large spread out city, and outside of the main urban area where Matthew and I lived, it’s mostly farmland – and at that, 99% rice farmland.

We arrived at a modest split-level home and met his wife, her father, and his youngest son Tomohiro. He had an older son, but he was apparently busy studying his butt off to get into a good high school--I'm unsure why... I think he was 12 and not yet in Grade 7. I never actually saw him while I was there – at least not this visit.

Tomohiro was a precocious 6-year-old. A really, really good looking kid who, if Kanemaru-san will forgive me, proved that genetics aren’t an exact science. Good looks aside, that boy also had good taste, immediately becoming a part of me.

He wasn’t afraid of gaijin/foreigners or of me as a stranger – nope, he took to me like a fish to water, and over the next three years whenever the Kanemaru family and I met, he was always at my side.

Dinner was tempura – now we all probably know what that is – HERE. But it was the way we ate that was intriguing. Dinner was in a tatami mat covered room, with the plates placed upon a large square table situated over a pit one metre deep. We sat at the edge of the pit and dangled our legs down into. How civilized! We didn’t have to sit cross-legged!

The food was delicious – and it was nice to have a home-cooked meal.

Kanemaru-san smoked his Golden Bat cigarettes throughout the meal, but reverently put them aside for the after-meal entertainment.

He brought out daisho (a pair of samurai swords) consisting of a wakazashi and a katana – I’ll direct you HERE for more information on these two types of weapons.

Kanemaru-san explained that his ancestors had been samurai… you could have knocked me over with a feather. He unwrapped the swords from a silk binding and held the larger of the two swords—the katana—reverently in two thick hands, as though he was making an offering to the gods. Even though it looked as though he was offering the sword to me, I was either smart enough or too stunned to reach out and take it. I’m pretty sure that you don’t touch another guy’s sword.

Besides the obvious wordplay, swordplay to the Japanese is not something you fool around with—especially when the 200+ year-old sword Kanemaru-san was holding was one that had lopped off more than its fair share of limbs in the past.

While it’s always possible that he was embellishing his ancestor’s story, I always got the feeling that Kanemaru-san was a straight shooter.

The sword was in pieces – IE hilt and pommel were apart from the supremely shiny blade—within minutes, he had carefully re-built it… and like the fine piece of weaponry it was, it sang as he slashed the air in front of him. That oxygen never had a chance, as in shock I tried to suck the air in.

Right there in front of me, Kanemaru-san transformed from a humble jowled-faced salary-man at the OBOE, back to tough as nails Bushido-following samurai. You could see him glow. It truly was exciting.

He told me via his dictionary that every time a blade is drawn from its hilt, it must claim blood, so he calmly placed his thumb near the blade to nick it and feed the sword... but that baby must have been sharper than Kanemaru-san because man, did his thumb splurt!

Holy crap, there was blood everywhere. I swear it didn’t even look like he had touched it, but he was bleeding pretty good. His yells brought his wife running, who quickly sized up the situation – shocked gaijin, screaming husband, a samurai sword and tatami mats splattered with blood and ran quickly for a towel and a Band-Aid.

Prying Kanemaru-san’s thumb from his mouth, she looked at the cut, shouted ‘bakayaro!’ (stupid idiot), smacked him on the back of the head, quickly wiped the blood away and applied the band-aid – a Hello Kitty one – all in about 4.7 seconds. The samurai had nothing on the quickness of a wife chastising a husband.

Done gushing, Kanemaru-san mumbled under his breath about something-this and something-that (I’m sure now, as a married man, that it had something to do with how a wife can suck all of the fun out of a party—oh, did I mention we had a few shots of sake (rice wine) at dinner? No? Well, that goes without saying and probably explains why we were fooling around with weapons--oh my gawd... he was a Japanese redneck!), and began cleaning the blood from the weapon before taking it apart and putting it away.

He looked at his thumb, grinned and painfully flipped through his dictionary to tell me one word “owie”. Who the heck put that in the Japanese/English dictionary? I mean, it was appropriate, but… anyhow, the actual Japanese word is ‘itai’, which should translate into hurt or pain. 'Owie' work, too.

It was 10PM, and it was time for bed. I slept  in a double-thick futon with a large feathery down comforter and slept very well. In the morning (7AM), Mrs. Kanemaru-san pointed to me and made a snoring noise. I have no idea what she meant – I heard nothing.

We had a horrible breakfast… a cold fried egg atop cold rice, with a glass of orange juice. If that’s a typical Japanese breakfast, I’ll never eat breakfast here again.

Mister and Mrs. Kanemaru, Tomohiro, their grandfather (where the heck had he been all evening and breakfast? – I’m kidding, he was around – just not pertinent to this particular story) and I got into the white van – a Toyota Cherry Vanette and headed back home to my place… but then they drove on by and headed along a road familiar to me… we arrived five minutes later in front of Ashley’s place in Nishinasuno Town. I’m pushed out of the van towards her place, I walk to her door – notice the Kanemaru’s are now standing outside the car – and grab her knocker. You know what I mean.

Ashley answers smiling, sees me and scowls.

Somewhere wondering what the heck is going on,

Andrew Joseph

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Private Eyes

The father wore off-white slacks, as did his wife and son that I guessed to be about five-years-old. Mom and dad were in their late 20s or early 30s—and I’m usually pretty good at judging people… uh, their age, that is, but they were 100 feet away.

The father wore a deep green sweater, the mother a deep yellow, and junior a deep blue. All were solid colours with a Vee-neck and had obviously been purchased from the same shop not more than a few hours ago, as I had watched mom pull them out of the handled paper bag and pass them around to the family.

The son was learning how to ride his white two-wheeler bicycle. White? Can’t start’em too early in having a white vehicle.

From my perch up on high—my western-side third-story balcony — I watched. From my own self-proclaimed ivory tower, I trespassed on that family’s private moments.

The family was in the old parking lot one street over from my apartment building – a scant 50 meters away.

The father ran alongside the son’s bicycle to ensure he wouldn’t fall off – but after a few seconds of stability, he let go and stood with his wife now beside him, watching the boy ride.

Wobbly at first, but generally straight, the boy let out a whoop – “Yata!” (Yay or alright!). he stopped when he ran out of room at the end of the parking lot. Getting off his bicycle, he turned it around, got back on and began riding straight towards his folks.

His father shouted something to his son, and the boy began to negotiate a circle – he almost made it, too. He tilted a tad too far and fell.

I nearly stood up with concern, but eased back into my perch as his parents came running up. It did my heart proud to watch him yell at his parents, who stopped in their tracks. He righted his bike, got back on and tried again. He fell. He tried again. He fell again.

Mom went back to the house for some reason – perhaps too terrified to watch?

The son gave up trying to do corners and went back to practicing going in a straight line. He fell one more time as he stopped.

After that initial fall, the father never moved again but only looked on anxiously.

Mom came back with the dog in her arms who jumped down and began running circles around her.

In a moment of the absurd, the son brought the bicycle back to his father, who lit upon it and rode it with legs splayed apart like Kermit the Frog, and rode the bike into a fence thanks to an inability to steer properly.

Laughing, both father and son went back to their nearby home while mom walked the dog for an additional 30 seconds before following them in.

What’s the point of this vignette? Just to let you know that people are people wherever you go—despite the Japanese love affair with white vehicles.

Somewhere falling off a bicycle,
Andrew Joseph
Today's Title is by Hall & Oates

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fly Like An Eagle

So… in 2010 - did you hear? Apparently U.S. President Barack Obama is in trouble with his own media for bowing to the Japanese Emperor Akihito during a recent meet and greet.
Click HERE to read it and see the offending bow. It really must be a slow news day, or it’s yet again Obama’s enemies clutching at straws to show that he’s ignorant. He's not. Love him or hate him, he's the President, and he deserves respect.
I don’t care too much about U.S. politics - it is what it is - but as a human being, I’m proud that the country was smart enough to not let race stand in its way of electing someone to this high office.
Did you see the photo? Did you read the article? Go back. I’ll wait. He’s shaking the Emperor’s hand while bowing. If anything, he’s doing too much at once, but offensive? Nope.
What would the media and political pundits have him do? He’s in Japan – and when in Japan, do as the Japanese do - to paraphrase a famous adage.
If he was in France and the leader wanted to lean in and plant a kiss on each cheek should he stop the friendly showing by sticking an outstretched hand into the chest – because that’s the way we do things in America?
People who believe that it’s 'the American way or no way' are suckers. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with the American way – especially when dealing with Americans… but the world is full of different social customs, and when you try to fit in, the world is a happier place. I should know... it's kind of what It's A Wonderful Rife is all about.
Obama probably got thrown for a loop… he was probably told that he could show respect to his Japanese friends by bowing, but the Emperor wanted to show Western respect by proffering a hand to shake.
Should he have ignored the Emperor’s attempt at a handshake and left him hanging while he bowed, or should he just have done what the Republican media wanted and just done a handshake?
Slow news day that it is, if he just shook hands and not wanted to bow, they probably would have roasted him for not observing Japanese protocol.
As an aside, I, too have been caught bowing and shaking hands with the Japanese – we’re all just trying to get along, and no one is offended.
Somewhere, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by the Steve Miller Band

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fire

Ohtawara, my adopted home away from Toronto, does not have a full-time fire department, instead opting for a volunteer one.

So, is it like on the Flintstone’s and Simpson’s where the boys go to the fire hall, play cards and drink until a call comes in, or if nothing’s doing, head home and wait for a dispatcher to call everyone? Not quite… In Ohtawara, the volunteer fireman would get in their truck and drive around the streets of the city, with a siren on.

Now I’ll be honest… I never actually saw a fire in Japan, and I never saw the fire truck wander the nameless streets… but I did hear it. Droning on at night, I was told the lights do flash as a warning that they are on the job – even if there is no fire to proceed to.

By the way… there are no street signs in Ohtawara denoting an address – so getting to where one needs to go can be frustrating.

"Uh, Fire Engine ichi-ban (#1), we have a fire at Farmer Suzuki’s residence over at the corner of three rice fields and a pachinko parlour.”
Kso! (crap) Suzuki-san? Which one?”
“Uh, the one near the gaijin, Fire Engine ichi-ban.”
Bakayaro! (stupid idiot) Which gaijin? The stupid Canadian one or the giant pale one?”
“Uh… let me check…”
(add elevator music of The Girl From Ipanema)
“Uh, we’re still chec---nani (what?)… uh, never mind Fire Engine ichiban… the fire has burned down the house and has put itself out.”
Ah so ka (I see) We’re proceeding to travel aimlessly around town with our siren on and lights flashing. I’m unsure where we are now…. but we are directly under the moon… … now!”
“Ah, you are in south Ohtawara - Sakuyama district.”

That amusing incident never happened, but it could have. How do you find a fire if you don’t know where you are going? Apparently you look for smoke… because where there is smoke, there is fire.

That answer was given to me by a volunteer fireman who took a single English night school class with me as teacher. His English was actually sweller than my own.

Anyhow, chatting with him during a break, he mentioned that one time while en route to a fire, they accidentally drove the truck off a narrow goat path (road) and into a rice paddy. All of a sudden farmers appeared ninja-like out of the dark to help push the truck back up onto the sidewalk (road).

And I swear I am NOT making this up, while a line of farmers was at the scene of the blaze working a bucket line, two men were trying to put out the fire by peeing on it. Apparently they made matters worse as the sake in their urine acted like lighter fluid, adding fuel to the fire, as it were. Okay, maybe I made that part up… but it made you laugh, right?

Okay, here’s some factual stuff from the volunteer fireman – whose name I never learned. Unlike our western stereotypes, he wasn’t built like a Chippendale dancer, standing about 5’-6”, 130-lbs soaking wet and worked in a bank during the day.

He said: newer Japanese structures that are less wood-based (ie drywall and aluminum siding) tend to cause more damage than their older all-wood counterparts.

Apparently the newer structures are more airtight and tend to keep the fire contained within the house. This means that the fire burns the house interior more before it is discovered (IE, smoke doesn’t escape sooner). The flames circle inside the house and then explode outwards with the force of a detonating bomb.

In older structures, the flames could escape easier and thus the early detection meant the fire department could get there sooner. In the newer building, the fire was not discovered until the building exploded in flame.

Neat, huh? Of course, the above explanation is for nighttime fires when people are sleeping.

As a final thought: sis you know that the music from the movie Backdraft is used for the tv cooking show Iron Chef? Something’s burning.

Somewhere wondering why the Flintstone’s needed a fire department when everything was made of rock,

Andrew Joseph

PS - Click HERE for your music video - The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

Friday, November 13, 2009

Please Mr. Postman

It might sound stupid and whinny, but even though I’m in a foreign country with new friends, a girlfriend, have my own apartment and am experiencing new things I’d never thought I’d have the opportunity to pursue, there still exists a feeling of lament. A feeling of homesickness.
While I’m no quitter, there were more than a few Assistant English Teachers (AETs) on the JET Programme who could not handle the life in Japan and chose to leave. One bugger, an American guy, who in my third year in Ohtawara decided to leave Japan so he purchased an airplane ticket, sold all of his apartment’s furnishings and left—without telling anyone… you know, like his board of education employers. To top it off, the furnishings didn’t even belong to him. Our apartments are rentals and come fully furnished with items the employer purchases on our behalf to make us more comfortable, and so save us quite a few Yen (Dollars/Pounds/Euros). What an ass, eh?
In Japan for about two months, the euphoria I felt at being here had begun to wane, because I constantly found my thoughts drifting back to my home in Toronto.
Phone calls to my family only seem to exacerbate the feeling. I missed my mother, father, brother, my three rottweillers, my cat, my friends, my comic books and my televisions shows – especially hockey which was just starting training camp for my beloved Maple Leafs.
It’s why watching the mailbox became a pastime of mine, one that lasted the entire three years there.
I don’t mind telling you that getting a letter from home was like water to a thirst-starved wanderer in the desert. Lifesaving.
My mother realized that and made an effort to send monthly shipments of a letter, food products – microwavable lasagna shells, and VCR (remember those) tapes of television shows my brother Ben would tape for me—it would always be a pot pourri of shows – maybe a hockey game, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Star Trek: TNG, comedy shows galore… always stuff I could share… and to Matthew’s credit, his folks did the same… we were looked after. But the feeling of abandonment or loneliness always seem to pervade my oft-time moody personae.
Along with standard news from my family, it was also uplifting to get a letter from a friend. When I left Toronto, everyone said they would write. Everyone being maybe 25 people. The reality is that about half of them wrote – once.
All of those writers except for two people – maintained a more constant letter-writing presence: my good friend Rob Jones who has been my friend since I was 14, and this cab driver named Doug McIntosh whom I had only met once a couple of weeks prior to leaving for Japan.
Rob first. I’m unsure if I was Rob’s only friend, but I was certainly his best. While he never sent over a package of videos, he more than made up for it with letter frequency. Over my three years there, Rob sent 69 letters. Remember… this is in the days before e-mail where one had to put pen to paper, find an envelope, buy a stamp and then post it. How Rob was able to send me so many entertaining letters without poisoning himself with envelope glue, I’ll never know. But he did it. And I’m here to tell him now just how much it meant to me.
Also – and here you have Rob to blame for this – but he’s the one that kind of got me started on this whole creative writing kick.
Sure I had been writing a primitive version of It’s A Wonderful Rife once a month for the Tochigi-ken AET newsletter, but it was the letters that got me thinking about writing professionally when I got back home.
For Rob’s upcoming birthday at the end of March, I thought I would write him a letter every weekday for the month as a cheap present. After three days of “How’s it going? I’m fine” crap, I decided to write a creative short story instead. For some reason, the creative juices were flowing, and I actually wrote three that day. And two or three or four the next, and every day until it was his birthday… I wrote close to 60 short stories that month. Lots of comedy, but other more series stuff too. Despite the grammatical and spelling errors, that stuff was/is dynamite and I’ve converted more than a few of them into comic book stories (www.strangefuncomics.com).
So… blame Rob for my writing. I do.
And there’s Doug who equaled Rob's output of 69 letters. A little background info is required here. I was 24-years-old to Doug’s 41 when we met in 1990. I was working for the Toronto Star as a reporter on a summer internship program. On a hot and humid July day, I was asked to go out and do ‘pick-ups’. That means I had to go out to the homes of people and pick-up photographs of a loved one who had just passed away. That job sucked. Its still bothers me to think about it.
I went down to the line of cabs parked in front of the Toronto Star, peered into the open passenger window and asked if he could take me around for the day, as I had several photos to get. A deep, clean voice that made me think of radio beckoned an assent.
I still have no idea why I did it, but I opened the front passenger door and sat beside him.
We made intros and shook hands… but who sits in the front seat of a taxi when there’s plenty of room at the back? Me, I suppose. 
We spend the day together making the pick-ups – I bought us lunch at a Harvey’s, and at the end of the day, he knew more about me than I knew about him. He said (and I quote), “Ya gotta write to me from Japan,” and gave me his business card.
A couple of weeks into Japan, I began writing letters to everyone on the computer at the OBOE. Even though I am loathe to admit it, I sent off a few form letters – changing only the addressee name. Doug’s was one of those. Hey, writing was hard back then.
A week later, I opened up my mailbox at my apartment – and lo and behold, there’s a letter from Doug. I wrote back – and surprise, surprise, so did he.
All I can tell you is that we became story-telling sounding boards for the other… but more importantly, we became friends. And now while I’m older than Doug was when we first met, we’ve only physically seen each other a few times, but the letters keep a-coming… each as interesting and heart-warming as the first.
It’s funny where friendship can occur. Sure still being friends with Rob is to be expected (It is, isn’t it?) And so, too making a friendship with Matthew? But how does a chance taxi ride turn into a 20-year-friendship? I have Japan to thank for all of that.
Letters kept me sane(ish). Who would have thought that writing would ever be so important to a writer?
Ending in a melodramatic note: Why is it that it takes so little time to write and send a letter, but to receive one, months seem to pass?

Somewhere starting a letter to Doug (I’ll see Rob when we go comic book shopping later!),
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by The Marvelettes.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

The photograph to the side here shows a poppy pin – something that is, of course, used as a memento for those who gave their lives in the service of their country in war. American servicemen after the ill-named war to end all wars – World War I, used the poppy as a reminder back home, while a Canadian Colonel named John McCrae immortalized it in his poem, In Flanders Field: HERE. Careful, it can make you cry.

The currency pictured below it is a 10 Peso bill called 'scrip' that the Japanese Government used as currency while it occupied the Philippine Islands during World War II. It helped show the Filipino people just who was in charge.

When applying to the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Programme, I was asked why I wanted to go to Japan. I answered that history is always written by the winners, and I wanted to see if I could talk to any of the Japanese folk about WWII – to get their take on things.

The first thing one realizes when traveling around Asia, is that Japan is not well-liked. Memories die hard. Japan utilized an expansionist policy in the 1930s and invaded quite a few countries – hence the resentment even 50 years after the fact, as someone always knew someone who was killed in said invasion.

When traveling to countries like Korea, Saipan or Thailand – when someone asked me where I was from, it wasn’t prudent to say “Japan” even though I was very proud of my adopted country. No, the correct way to answer it was “Canada.” For those traveling anywhere in the world, it’s also a preferred way of traveling safely.

At some point in time when I purchase a new scanner, I will share with you a photo album I picked up at a ‘garage sale’ in Japan – it’s a collection of photos from the 1930s, some of which show Japan’s expansionism in action.

People in Thailand et al, really maintained a hate-on for the Japanese to the point that they would begin to rave. It would always be about how Japan had tried to exterminate their people, and how even in defeat, they failed to apologize for their mistakes.

I talked by Shibata-sensei (and English teacher at Ohtawara Junior High School) about Japan and WWII – he said it’s NOT something that is taught in the schools, because it’s an embarrassing part of their history – one they all wish had never happened.

I can understand that, but failing to learn from one’s mistakes can doom you to repeat them.

My downstairs neighbour – who also runs the variety store directly below his place (and mine) was 72 years old in 1990 and was a soldier in Japan’s Imperial Army during the war.

Over a couple of bottles of rice wine (sake), he opened up to me through his 30-year-old son who acted as translator. I’ll give a better blog description of our party another time.

He said he was stationed in the Philippines, and while he surely did shoot at the enemy (Philippine soldiers), he says he has no idea if he actually hit anyone.

Acknowledging that the Emperor was akin to a god for the Japanese people back then, he and the rest of the soldiers blindly followed orders to attack others—even if he, himself, thought it was strange.

Strange - because these countries had never proved to be an enemy of Japan, so why should we kill them? While surely others thought the same way, it was never discussed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, ‘The nail that stands up, gets hammered down.’

So he kept his mouth shut.

He told me in slurred Japanese that he and his unit had been stuck on one of the Philippine Islands for about four months – it was hot, sticky, bugs everywhere, snipers, dysentery and more. He had been a farmer before having to join the Army.

When the American soldiers poured onto the island to mount a counter-offensive to rid the land of the Japanese soldiers, the Imperial Japanese Army was only too happy to capitulate. He said they had long ago run out of proper food, they were all sick, and wanted to go home. They were all quite happy to be captured by the Americans because they knew they would be treated well.

I know, I know… the Japanese are infamous for their treatment of prisoners (Bridge Over The River Kwai – which I visited and have photos of – later) and of women – called comfort women, non-Japanese who were used as sex objects for the military… definitely not part of the Geneva Convention codes. And that’s just two examples – I’m sure there’s more.

On August 15, 2009, Japan‘s Prime Minister Taro Aso expressed deep regret over the suffering Japan caused on Asian countries during WWII. You can read an account of it HERE.

Japan to its credit does not have an airforce, navy or army – it dissolved its Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy after WWII and replaced it with the Japan Self-Defense Forces in 1954.

It’s nice that the Japanese regret their actions in the war, but to be honest, if they really want to do the right thing, they need to apologize for their actions. It may not sound like a great distinction – but for those who were there, it’s an important distinction.

War IS hell. It’s not just a cliché. Not every boy who joins the army comes out a man. Not every soldier kills. Not everyone wants to be involved.

Still, on Remembrance Day (November 11) here in Canada and other Commonwealth countries, it’s a day to reflect and to thank whatever god you choose to pray to that you or your ancestors will not need a poppy to be remembered.

Somewhere - lest we forget,

Andrew Joseph

PS – Here’s a song about today’s title: HERE by War sung by Eric Burden, former lead singer of The Animals.
PPS - Special thanks to my friend Janice Bishop for helping out with the scanning.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Birthday

Today, in 2010, November 8 is my birthday.
My first birthday in Japan was spent like this:
I was watching an old television show called THUNDERBIRDS. It was all in Japanese, but I recall watching it in English when I was a wee brat in England.
Yes, they made a crappy live-action movie in the 2000s - but back in the 60s, Gerry Anderson was churning out marionette tv shows - hitting gold with Thunderbirds. How popular were the Thunderbirds? My students thought it was cool - and there was even a Nintendo video game for them - all in Japanese, unfortunately.
I was also able to buy a myself a model kit of the vehicles for  3000 yen ($30) - see above. Yes, it's sad but true - I still have the box.
I suddenly felt a stirring in my brain as I espied a female "puppet" who seemed familiar. A few minutes of patience bore me out - it was Tin-Tin... she was the girlfriend of Alan Tracy (hero), and the daughter of the servant, Kyrano, to the Tracy family - who happened to be the brother of their arch foe, The Hood.
As a child I was so smitten by this charmingly beautiful marionette (CLICK HERE) that in 1967 I named the best present I ever got from my folks after her. She was a Blue Roan English Cocker Spaniel - and she was and is beautiful... the gold standard that every one of my subsequent dogs has had to measured against - and despite all being fantastic creatures in their own right, still managed to pale in comparison.
A phone call home was inevitable.
By the way, Tin-Tin is Malaysian for 'Sweet'... but in Japanese, due to the fact that there is no "Ti" alphabet, they use "Chi"... so we get Chin-Chin - which might be a form of 'cheers' when drinking, but in Japanese it happens to be slang for 'penis'.
I didn't tell my students about my dog's name. 
Somewhere, F.A.B. (Full Acknowledgment of Broadcast)
Andrew Joseph
PS - Thanks to my recent move, I can't find a photo of Tin-Tin. But I have the model kit box. Go figure.
PPS: Title by The Beatles

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dude Looks Like A Lady

There’s a double standard in Japan.
One for women, and one more the men.
Women serve men. I’ve written about how female teachers—even those with more seniority than their male counterparts—serve the men (even the gaijin) their morning, break and lunch-time green teas. I did initially state that I loved it here, but talking to the women, I told them how things were back in Canada. I’ll probably lose my ‘he-man woman hater’s club’ card for doing that.
But the double standard goes well beyond tea.
I have heard from numerous lecherous men in Japan that it is okay to cheat on your wife with your mistress… that the women know about and put up with it as long as it still keeps the family dynamic somewhat dynamic.
I don’t have any numbers on how many men have a mistress, but I do recall hearing the number 70 percent bandied about. Bikurishita! (Oh my garsh!).
Do you guys recall Madame Butterfly? – the Puccini opera set in 1904 Nagasaki. It’s all about a Mistress.
For more on Japan and his Mistress, I’d suggest giving this e-book a read: READ.
Japan is also loaded with what the locals call a ‘ra-bu ho-te-ru’ which is phonetic Katakana English for ‘love hotel’.
One of my favourite love hotel names is the national chain: Go-Go-Go. In Japanese, the word ‘go’ means five, so it’s the hotel ‘five-five-five’… but those of us who speak English see the obvious double entendre (a phrase that is itself only half-English), implying a chant of “going for it”.
Love hotels offer a convenience to the young folks who live with their parents until marriage. You may stay for the night, or stay for the hour - see photo above, and you can see the price differences.
On one such excursion to Tokyo, Ashley and I were hopelessly lost. It was late, and we were tired. We just wanted a place to crash. And then we saw it. A love hotel – the one in the photo below the title.
Since we were looking to sleep, we chose the ‘stay for the night’ option. Nowadays, customers need not actually see a hotel worker—kind of a privacy thing—as you can put your money into a slot, and a set of keys/entry cards will pop out. But not back in 1990. We had a female clerk – a mama-san, if you will, who took our money, made a phone call and soon we had four or five Japanese people come out to stare at the two gaijin who wanted to stay at the love hotel.
Because of the lateness of the hour (1AM), there was only a single room left…
Now, love hotels come in various shapes and sizes – or at least their rooms do. Should you be so inclined, you could rent out the Tarzan room, complete with jungle vines, or the Star Wars room that offered replica lightsabers and costumes, or even the classroom – with teacher and female student clothing. See the last blog for more on this phenomenon - CLICK.
Our room was actually quite tasteful… red silk everywhere, rose petals scattered on the very round bed and floor and a hot tub.
Forget passion, we needed sleep—one of us (not me) more than the other.
I do recall rolling off the bed at least twice during the night.
We awoke to the sound of banging – on our door. I glanced at my watch (still wearing the same watch 19 years later) and noticed it was 10:30AM. I guess we missed checkout time. Part of the problem for us was that the windows—well, there weren’t any. The room was sealed and painted black. No sunshine to wake us up.
Anyhow, back to the story I wanted to tell.
Japan has a strange hang-up regarding sex. They have love hotels all over the place. The men have mistresses, but the women sure as hell don’t have misters. Every men’s magazine contains scantily clad women – or topless (which I guess is scantily clad since they are wearing bottoms). And, there are numerous soapland massage parlours (see THIS blog).
Yet, despite it all, sex is not a subject talked about in the open. It’s all very hush-hush… that they know everyone is doing it, so no one needs to talk about it.
And then there’s homosexuality. The Japanese are not very tolerant… virtually everyone who whom I queried on the subject really was uncomfortable in discussing it. They’d screw up their faces and say “okama”.
The ‘o’ is an honorific, and is used here in a non-polite way. A ‘kama’ is a pot or kettle. Originating in the Edo period (1603–1868), it refers to the pot or kettle looking like an anus. Okama usually refers to a gay man, but more often than not, it refers to a transvestite. Now I'm neither, but presented for you tongue-clucking is this photo. It was Halloween. I'm a Japanese school girl. Aren't I pretty?




And, in those turbulent 1990s, one can’t have homosexuals without mentioning AIDS.
Back then, AIDS was non-existent in Japan—at least that was the official stance by the country’s politicos. It was a foreign matter, not Japan’s. That was how it was conveyed to me.
As a visible minority growing up in England, Toronto and Ohtawara, I’m not prejudiced… that would be like calling the kettle black (ba-dum-bump). As such, I just tell anyone who’d listen that it was okay to be yourself.
However, I was told (by many a sighing Japanese person) that: “The nail that stands up, gets hammered down.”
Ugh. I guess individuality is not really a good thing here. “Except for you, An-do-ryu. We like you.”
Baby steps. As part of my job as an English teacher here in Japan, I was asked by the JET program to ‘internationalize’ the Japanese… basically, let them know how the rest of the world (Canada) acts and thinks.
So I did. Do you know how many single Japanese women (with boyfriends) befriended me to ask for advice on what to do with their chauvinistic men? Plenty. It could have been my full time job. Although, what the heck did I know about relationships? You know the old saying, though: “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.”
Back to AIDS. With the Japanese men going out to dally with a mistress (or two), and their latex (I mean latent) fear of condoms—something’s gotta give.
Men would also frequently go on business trips to Thailand. Not for business, but rather to get busy.
In my second year, I traveled to Thailand (so you’ll have to wait awhile for those tales—I went with my mother!), and talked with a lot of the locals, who would only shake their head when I told them I was living in Thailand. I was regaled with story after story of how the Nihonjin (Japanese) would come in for a day-trip, load up on hookers and head back home.
If AIDS was only a foreign concern, it would soon be a Japanese concern.
I hope you can all dig that although I had only ever slept with one woman up until this time in Japan, I am writing this 19 years later with some knowledge on the subject.
It’s a funny place, Japan is. One full of warmth, humour, honour, and kindness… but like every culture, it, too, has its dark little secrets.
Somewhere, not sworn to secrecy,
Andrew Joseph
Title brought to you by Aerosmith.