Journal

 

Tuesday
Jun022015

Child Soldiers

Dad giving the one-finger salutThere was an awful report on the BBC this morning about child soldiers fighting in Syria's civil war. Unimaginable the horror these young boys are experiencing.

But then, . . .

It occurred to me that my own grandfather was sent to the front in WWI at the tender age of 16 where he would fire a massive cannon, making minced meat of the enemy.

His son, my father, joined the Navy at the age of 17, just a few years after WWII. He would later re-enlist in the Marines and get sent off to Korea. (Obviously, I wouldn't be around today if he had been one of the more than thirty-three thousand Americans who died there.)

One of the themes of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 is that WWII was fought by boys. The oft-forgot subtitle of that novel was The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.

Seems, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thursday
May282015

The Kindy Bus

I took my son, Yu-kun to kindergarten this morning and managed to arrive at the very same time as one of the school busses.

The kids all clamored out of the bus and were herded by two teacher to the main gate of the school where they put their hands together, bowed deeply, and shouted in unison: "Hotoke-sama, ohayō-gozaimasu! Enchō-sensei, hayō-gozaimasu!" (Good morning, Buddha! Good morning, Mr. Principal!)

It was my first time to see this, and I must say it was adorable.

Yu-kun also takes the school bus from time to time depending on the weather and my wife's energy level. (He rode it yesterday but ended up vomiting all over himself and had to be sent back home.)

The “pink bus”[1] usually doesn’t come rolling into our neighborhood until a few minutes after nine in the morning.

When the bus comes to a full stop, one of the teacher hops out, grabs the kids and throws them in like sacks of recyclables. Once on board, the kid is then free to sit wherever he or she likes. Yu-kun sometimes sits in the very front next to the driver, sometimes in the middle near a girl he likes, and sometimes in the very back like yesterday (which may be the reason why he threw up).

The kids are usually dressed in a variety of uniforms. Some wear the whole get-up with the silly Good Ship Lollypop hats and all, while others wear their colored class caps. Some are in their play clothes, a few in smocks, and fewer still wear their school blazers. Anything goes really and that’s fine by us.

A year and a half ago, my wife and I were considering four different kindergartens. Two were Christian, one Buddhist, and a fourth was run by what appeared to be remnants of the Japanese Imperial Army’s South Pacific Division.

It was this fourth kindergarten that initially appealed to us. The kids were said to be drilled daily and given lots of chances to exercise and play sports outside, something that offered us the possibility that our son would come home every afternoon dead tired.

Well, in the end, that school didn’t want us. (So, to the hell with them!) We went for the free-for-all Buddhist kindy, instead.

I think we made the right choice.

The other morning, I happened to see the bus for the Fascist kindergarten. Although it pulls up at the very same place where Yu-kun usually catches his own bus, the similarity stopped there. For one, all the kids were wearing the same outfit with the same hats, the same thermoses hanging from their left side. When they got in the bus, they did so in an orderly fashion, the first child going all the way to the back, the second child following after and sitting in the next seat. The bus was filled from the back to the front and I wouldn’t be surprised if the children filed out of the bus in the same orderly manner. Once seated, the kids sat quietly. It was at the same time both impressive and horrifying.

 


[1] I still have no idea why it is called the “pink bus” because nothing on it is pink. Every time Yu-kun says, “Oh, the pink bus!” I scan it from bumper to bumper to try and figure out how on earth he can tell it’s the pink bus and not the “yellow bus” which is actually yellow.

Wednesday
May272015

Boz

Spoiler Alert: Boz don' look like this anymore.

  Boz Scaggs will be in town again this June. Every time one of these stars from yesteryear comes to tour Japan, my first thought is: Is he short of cash?

 

Fart of mine~♪
Can't keep this gas from passing
Stop flatulating!

Who's done the cutting?
Fart of mine~♪
Oh what's the use in trying?
No one can stop you now (Toot!)


   Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

Monday
May252015

Hikawa Maru

   The other day when I was writing about the value of ¥100 in 1946, I remembered visiting the Hikawa Maru which is permanently berthed at Yamashita Park in Yokohama. One of the things that struck me was the cost of a transpacific voyage at the time of the ship’s completion:

   “Leaving Kōbe,” a sign on the ship reads, “Hikawa Maru picked up passengers and cargoes at a number of other Japanese ports, and entered the Port of Yokohama. From Yokohama, the ship began the 13-day transpacific trip directly to Seattle. At the time of Hikawa Maru’s completion, the one-way first-class fare from Yokohama to Seattle was about ¥500. In 1930, a new recruit joining NYK Line directly from college would have earned ¥70 a month, and could have buil[t] a house for ¥1,000. Thus, we can see that luxurious first-class travel by sea was special, available to only a handful of privileged individuals.”

   The Hikawa Maru had 35 First Class cabins, with a capacity of 76 people. The price, as indicated above, was about five hundred yen, or US$250. There were also 23 “Tourist Class” cabins, accommodating 69 passengers--tickets for the one-way voyage were $125 (about ¥250)--and 25 Third Class cabins that had a capacity of 138. Third Class tickets sold for $55~75 (¥110~140).

 

 

Monday
May112015

Cobwebs, Again

Japan, you are one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Surely, you can come up with a better way of wiring your nation than this.

Thursday
May072015

Vacation pay, then and now

When looking into the value of a hundred yen at the end of the Pacific War, I came across a number of interesting comments and anecdotes. One person claimed—and I have yet to fact check this—that a junior high school graduate’s starting salary in 1945 was about 100 yen. An employee in those days would be expected to work ten hours a day, and would be given only two days off a month. Paid vacation did not exist seventy years ago. By 1946, starting salaries rose to four or five hundred yen due to the effects of the post-war inflation and shortages. 100 yen in 1946, could be said to be equivalent to about fifty thousand yen today. 

A week ago, I was talking with a woman who worked for a company that runs a number of fashionable hotels and restaurants throughout Japan and in Manhattan. She was on holiday at the time, explaining that she was entitled to take a total of twenty-two days paid vacation every year. Many companies in Japan give lip service to paid-holidays, but few actually let them take so many days off. The woman had taken off eleven days in order to travel to Kansai. She said she was going take another eleven days off in the summer and travel to America.

When I first came to Japan, most people, including me, worked six days a week. The Prime Minister at the time, Kiichi Miyazawa, declared that he wanted to make Japan the world’s leading country regarding lifestyle and leisure. It made me laugh at the time. Even if companies offered their employees paid vacations, none of them could take time off. If you wanted to use the benefit, you normally had to resign from your job first. Masao Miyamoto wrote of this in his highly-recommended Straightjacket Society.

Things, I'm happy to say, really have improved for many workers in Japan over the past two decades. There have, no question about it, been a lot of losers, too—part-timers, contract workers, and the like—but that’ll have to wait until another post.

Thursday
Apr302015

A 100-Yen Distraction

One reason I am such a slow reader is that I get easily distracted by questions which come up while I am reading. The other day, for instance, I read the following passage in Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun:

 

“When I had finished disposing of the wood, I asked Mother for some money, which I wrapped in little packets of 100 yen each. On the outside I wrote the words ‘With apologies.’”

Dazai, Osamu, The Setting Sun, translated by Donald Keene, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1956, p.34.

 

The story takes place in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Kazuko, the narrator of the story, and her mother have recently moved from Tokyo to a Chinese-style villa in Izu.

 

“After my father died, it was Uncle Wada—Mother’s younger brother and now her only surviving blood relation—who had taken care of our household expenses. But with the end of the war everything changed, and Uncle Wada informed Mother that we couldn’t go on as we were, that we had no choice but to sell the house and dismiss all the servants, and that the best thing for us would be to buy a nice little place somewhere in the country . . .” 

Dazai, Osamu, The Setting Sun, p.17.

 

The changes, Uncle Wada speaks of, are the societal upheaval brought about by the end of the war and the new constitution, which became law on 3 November 1946 (Emperor Meiji’s birthday) and went into effect six months later on 3 May 1947 (Constitution Memorial Day). Article 14 of the Constitution states:

 

“All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin. Peers (華族, kazoku) and peerage (貴族, kizoku) shall not be recognized. No privilege shall accompany any award of honor, decoration or any distinction, nor shall any such award be valid beyond the lifetime of the individual who now holds or hereafter may receive it.”

 

Kazuko and her mother are members of the soon-to-be abolished Japanese aristocracy, known as the Kazoku (華族, lit. “exalted lineage”). The Kazoku, or hereditary peerage of the Empire of Japan, was created after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 by merging the Kuge (公家, royal family), which had lost much of its status with the rise of the Shogunate in the 12th century, with the former Daimyō (大名, feudal lords) of the Edo Period (1603-1868). (More here.)

Although the number of families in the Kazoku peaked at 1016 families in 1944, the Constitution of Japan effectively did away with the use of noble titles outside the immediate Imperial Family. Nevertheless, many descendants of the former Kazoku occupy positions of influence in society today. One such person who comes to mind is Morihiro Hosokawa, the 79th Prime Minister of Japan (August 1993 to April 1994). Hosokawa was the eldest grandson of Moritatsu, 3rd Marquess Hosokawa, and the 14th Head of the Hosokawa clan. His maternal grandfather was the pre-war Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe. I have heard that Hosokawa never had to touch money, relying instead upon an assistant to handle such matters. I have heard the same about Tarō Asō from his own kabanmochi (鞄持ち, lit. “bag holder”), or assistant.

 

So that answered one of my questions. The second question concerned the value of 100 yen at the end of the war.

 

I found some interesting data on this. According to the bank of Japan, 100 yen in the following years is worth (in 2005 yen):

 

 

1931       ¥888,903

1932       ¥801,084

1933      ¥699,895

1934       ¥686171

1935       ¥668,913

1936       ¥641,795

1937       ¥528,537

1938       ¥501,055

1939       ¥453,547

1940       ¥405,180

1941       ¥378,214

1942       ¥347,751

1943       ¥324,976

1944       ¥286,718

1945       ¥189,809

 

After the end of the war, Japan experienced runaway inflation which would last for over four years. Wholesale prices doubled by the end of 1945 and continued to rise. In the first year of the occupation, prices rose by 539 percent. 1.4 kilograms of rice, which had cost 2.7 yen in June of 1946, would end up costing 62.3 yen by early 1950.

In his National Book Award-winning Embracing Defeat, John W. Dower provides the following example of what life immediately after the war was like:

 

“Okano Akiko, a middle-class Osaka housewife writing for a women’s magazine in 1950, offered an intimate picture of what ‘enduring the unendurable’ had been like for her family. Her husband, a teacher at a military-affiliated school, became unemployed after the surrender but soon found a low-level job as a clerk at a salary of 300 yen a month. At that time, about a quart and a half of rice cost 80 yen, so to make ends meet, they began selling off their belongs.

“In the confusion of early 1946—when a ‘new yen’ was introduced in a futile attempt to curb inflation—the company employing Okano’s husband went out of business, leaving him with a mere 900 yen in severance pay . . . The price of rationed riced tripled in 1946, but, out of principle as well as poverty, the family tried to use the black market as little as possible.

“Eventually, her husband found a job as schoolteacher at a salary of 360 yen per month. They had little choice but to continue to sell their possessions, purchasing black-market goods about eight times monthly, at a cost of roughly 400 yen per month . . . Her husband lost his job again when the school ran into financial difficulties, this time receiving only 50 yen as severance pay. He, too, began to suffer noticeably from malnutrition, his entire body beginning to swell up . . .

“In 1948, the food situation improved somewhat, although potatoes remained the mainstay of the family diet. Both wife an husband fell seriously ill that year and went deeply into debt. In 1949, another child was born, and meat and fish finally became plentiful again, although it was still a struggle to make ends meet, as rent and food prices continued to climb. As 1950 began, her husband found a teaching position at a college. For the first time since the war ended, they could live on his income; and so, Okano wrote, she was finally able to think about the quality of family life, not mere survival.”

Dower, John W., Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, pp. 101-102.

 

In 1945, the value of 100 yen, according to the Bank of Japan, was equivalent to \19,200 in 2012. One must keep in mind, however, this is the value of the yen based on the prices companies used when conducting business among themselves. Some, looking into wages paid or prices in the market in the postwar years put the value of 100 yen in 1945 at anywhere from four thousand to fifty thousand yen.

Whether one hundred yen in those days was four thousand yen, twenty-thousand yen or even fifty thousand today was all rather academic to Kazuko and her mother, we will learn in the third chapter, because they recieve a letter from their Uncle Wada that informs them that:

 

“. . . our money is all gone, and what with the blocking of savings and the capital levy, [Uncle Wada] won’t be able to send us as much as he has before. It will be extremely difficult for him to manage our living expenses, especially when Naoji arrives [from the South Pacific] and there are three of us to take care of.”

 

Now back to reading Dazai's The Setting Sun.

Tuesday
Apr212015

Japan, the Beautiful, and Concrete

Reading Henry Scott Stokes's The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima I came upon the following passage:

“As we left Odawara and reached the coastal expressway beyond, the car passed the first of the succession of big industrial plants which we would see on our return to the capital, still an hour away at least. There was no beach below us, only a dreary series of massive reinforced-concrete tetrapods, intended to break the force of the sea as it hit the might wall below us. ‘I believe in culture as form and not as spirit,’ said Mishima, referring to the leprous Khmer monarch Jayavarman III and his building of one of the temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon. He seemed very tired as he talked. ‘I want to keep the Japanese spirit alive,’ he added, as if unaware that he was contradicting himself . . . A few minutes later, he cradled his head in his left arm, leaning back in his seat, and fell fast asleep. The car sped swiftly on toward Tokyo, which we would reach in another half hour . . . From time to time I caught the sight of buildings, new factories, other expressways. As we passed Chigasaki, there was an occasional pine tree to be seen by the road, still standing on what had once been the historic Old Tōkaidō Road to Osaka, three hundred miles to the west. That was all that was left of old Japan, perhaps—a few pine trees.”[1]

 

It occurred to me that if in the late 60s Japan’s landscape had already become a scorched earth of industry and “modernism”, then it was stupidly naïve of me to embrace the romantic image I’d had of Japan before I actually came almost a quarter of a century ago—the sensitivity devoted to the most mundane of daily items, the beauty of manicured gardens changing with the seasons, quaint Japanese houses with tiled roofs and a zen-like simplicity inside, young pearl drivers lowering their lithe bodies deep into the pristine sea, a respect for nature that exceeded worship . . .

 

Thirty years after Stokes biography was written, humorist David Sedaris had this to say about Japan:

 

“Riding the high-speed train—the Shin-kansen—to Hiroshima, I supposed that to the untrained eye, all French cities might look alike, as might all German and American ones. To a Japanese person, Kobe and Osaka might be as different as Santa Fe and Chicago, but I sure don’t see it. To me it’s just concrete, some gray and some bleached a headachy white. Occasionally you’ll pass a tree, but rarely a crowd of them. The Shin-kansen moves so fast you can’t really concentrate on much. It’s all a whoosh, and before you know it one city is behind you and another is coming up.”[2]

 

Out of fairness to my adopted country, I should note that Japan is seventeenth among nations in the world (and the third industrialized nation, after Finland, 72.9%, and Sweden, 69.2%) for forested area. 68.6% of the land in Japan is covered by forests. It is also one of the few countries in the world where the percentage of forested land is increasing.

 

The title of this post might not ring any bells for most readers, but this was a play on the title of Yasunari Kawabata's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature: "Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself. Kawabata won the prize in 1968, and, four years later, killed himself.

 

 


[1] Stokes, Henry Scott, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, New York: Cooper Square Press, 1974, pp.234-35. 

[2] Sedaris, David, When you are Engulphed in Flames, London: Little, Brown, 2008, p.295

Monday
Apr132015

Selling Snake Oil in Japan

After cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, a fifty-something-year-old American man, someone I have never seen around town, taps on a microphone a few times then jumps right into his presentation.

From the get-go, it stinks of some multilevel marketing scheme and, looking around the room, I can see that it’s the same old crew that has come together to push it: guys who were doing Amway, then NuSkin, then Noni. And now they’re gung-ho about something called Rexall Showcase: a new name to the old scheme of pushing overpriced supplements and dubious weight loss products on family and friends and kicking the profits up the pyramid.

“This is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for, folks!” the speaker exclaims. “This is The Golden Opportunity! The chance to get into a business when it’s just getting off the ground. Amway, NuSkin, yes, they’re all good business models, excellent business models, in fact, but if you really want to make money with them, why, you should have gotten into the business twenty, thirty years ago. Folks, I’m tellin’ ya, Rexall Showcase is the opportunity you’ve all been dreaming about!”

As I listen to him, I must admit that what he is saying doesn’t completely lack merit. Imagine being able to have entered into a business like Amway when it was first taking off, before overeager fools irretrievably ruined its reputation. But today? Try to become a millionaire in Amway today and you’ll probably die trying. Your hair and skin will look fantastic, though. You might even feel fantastic, too, if you can manage to swallow their horse-pill sized megavitamins.

The American tells us he has been living in Japan for over thirty years, longer than anyone else in the room. “I’ve been here since Nixon was president!”

Laughter.

“And all these years, I have been running a business. Several businesses, in fact!”

He’s quite successful, he assures us, saying that he even supplies Fukuoka Airport with his products.

There are oohs and ahs.

“And, let me tell ya, folks, I know a good opportunity when it comes up from behind me and kicks me in the ass.”

More laughter.

The American talks like a snake oil salesman, but the others in the room eat it up; so eager they are to get their grubby little hands on cold hard cash that what he is saying must sound like the sweetest of music to their ears.

And then, he invites a long-haired douchebag by the name of Clive up to the front and says, “Clive has been blowing us away . . . Tell me again, how much did you earn last month?”

“Two million yen.”

There are whistles of astonishment and why wouldn’t there be? Two million yen for a month’s worth of work is a respectable amount of cash, twice what I am making, working what amounts to three jobs. But, why is this “very successful” guy dressed like someone who is only earning a tenth that amount? The Canadian, a former strip dancer at a “ladies’ club” that went bust years ago, is wearing ripped Levis, old cowboy boots, and a dowdy sports jacket. Any moment now I expect him to tear the jeans off and start jiggling his nuts.

“See, I told you it was fishy,” Akané whispers into my ear.

“Fishy doesn’t even begin to describe it. This is borderline fraud what they’re doing. Let’s get out of here.”

 

This is an excerpt from A Woman's Hand, a sequel of sorts to the novel A Woman's Nails. The novella was inspired by events which happened about fifteen years ago.

Wednesday
Apr082015

Beatitudes of the Republican Jesus

Blessed are the rich: for only they have earned the kingdom of heaven the hard way.

Blessed are the bold: for they shall possess the land and the mineral rights below the surface.

Blessed are they who rejoice in their success: for they shall be comforted in the lap of luxury.

Blessed are they that have eaten their fill: for they shall have seconds and thirds after they loosen their belts.

Blessed are the vengeful: for they shall mete out retribution upon the Darkies and have mercy on Whites with Affluenza.

Blessed are the conservative of heart: for they shall see God in their own likeness and it will be very good.

Blessed are the chickenhawks: for they shall be called the children of both Patriots and God.

Blessed are they that persecute others for law and order’s sake, for they will have the keys to the kingdom of heaven as well as the keys to the for-profit prisons.

 

Thursday
Mar192015

Speak of the Devil and She is . . .

As a rule, I try to avoid former girlfriends, particularly the ones I cared for.

Such as Mié?

Such as Mié, yes.

So, the two of you never met again after that night?

No, not even once.

And if you were given the opportunity?

To meet Mié again? I would probably take a pass on that.

Why?

Because old girlfriends (past flings, too) are in a sense time capsules, vessels containing the memories, hopes, desires, and pains of the time you dated or slept with them. And anytime you meet an old girlfriend it’s as if you are uncorking the capsule and letting it all come spewing out again. It can be . . .

Discomfiting?

Unsightly is more like it.

Why so?

Well, suppose I bumped into Nahoko.

That was the young college girl who dumped you after sleeping with you once . . .

Yeah, that’s the one. The girl just vanished right off the face of the earth, and, well, as hard as that was to take for a few weeks, it really was for the best. Nice and clean, like a surgical cut. Now, suppose I had bumped into Nahoko six months or so later, after I had gotten over the disappointment. Meeting her again, I’d probably discover that she wasn’t nearly as pretty or intelligent or engaging as I had built her up to be. That reminds me of a saying in Japanese—nigeta sakana-wa ōkii (逃げた魚は大きい)—which means “The fish that get away are big.” Well, this fish, Nahoko, that wiggled out of my arms starts getting bigger and bigger and bigger in my mind and the regret of not being able to reel her in, so to speak, also grows and grows. But then I bump into her and, now that I can look at her with fresh, objective eyes, I see that I had been tormenting myself all this time over a girl who was at best mediocre.

Mediocre? That’s a tad severe, isn’t it?

Reality is fucking severe.

And Mié?

As for Mié . . . Mié, on the other hand, truly was a lovely thing . . . special . . . But, let’s not kid ourselves: over two decades have passed since we parted and Time is not very kind—it can be especially cruel to a woman after she’s had children. But that Mié I fell in love with, that Mié who broke my heart all those years ago, she is, in my mind at least, still a woman only twenty-six years of age, full of life, hopes and potential; she is still agonizingly beautiful. The reality, I fear, is probably very, very different.

 

___________________________________________

 

 

Speak of the Devil and she’s sure to appear.

 

I had no sooner written the above piece for a novella I’m working on when I noticed that Facebook was suggesting one of my ex-girlfriends as a friend. Not sure what algorithm Facebook was using, but in spite of “Umé” and I not having any mutual friends nor my having worked at the university where she studied, we were being asked whether we knew each other, and if so, whether we would like to “friend" one another. Yes, we did know each other, in the biblical sense, but, no, I was not interested in friending her. 

It’s been over ten years since Umé and I dated. It was during a rocky patch I was going through with the woman who would become my wife, that Umé and I had our little fling. She was going through her own rough patch with the man, I assume, became her husband. He was a resident at the time, terribly busy with his training to see Umé who turned to me out of loneliness. (Or was it desperation?) At any rate, Umé is now a mother of three.

The last time I saw Umé was about two years after we parted. She was pregnant, about to explode, and my first thought was: “Aonghas, you dodged a bullet there."

Seeing her in photos again after all these years, I must admit that she has aged fairly well despite the three kids. (I wish I could say the same about myself after only two.) Funny thing, though, as I looked at her photo I kept saying things to myself like “Was her chin always that pointy?” “Was her mouth always so small?” At the time, Umé seemed like the cutest thing I’d come across in years. I just wanted to eat her up. As for now? I’d have to say, my wife was a much better catch. 

 

Just yesterday, I came across yet another former girlfriend, one I dated Lord only knows how many years ago. (I am reluctant to specify as I don’t want to needlessly self-incriminate myself.) 

“Miki” and I dated briefly and sporadically. Nevertheless, there are things about her that I will never forget. One of the lasting images I have of Miki is when she stripped down to her bra and panties which had a dalmatian pattern on them and barked playfully, “Wan-wan! Wan-wan!”

Miki, in spite of the years, hasn’t changed much either, though she is not quite as slim as she once was. As for wanting to stop her and talk about old times, I passed. The very last thing she said to me was “Hikyō!” (卑怯)

I didn’t know what the word meant at the time and had to look it up. The dictionary will tell you it means “cowardice”, but, judging from her body language, a better translation might be: “You fucking arsehole!”

It’s true. I was an arsehole back then. But no more! Mark my word; I am no longer an arsehole.

Tuesday
Mar102015

Wrong, Very Wrong

A few months before I was to move to Japan, I looked at a map of the world I had on my bedroom wall and trace my finger in a horizontal line from Fukuoka City, across the Pacific Ocean, all the way to San Diego, California. 

"Perfect!" I said to myself.

Having moved to Portland, Oregon after living in Southern California for the first half of my life, I was never quite able to tame the longing in my heart for the subtropics.

I'd had enough of Oregon's miserable weather, the rain, the drizzle, the sprinkling, the showers, and the constantly gray, overcast skies. I was sick of the mud on my shoes, the musty smell of Pendleton wool as I chopped wood for the fire, and the firewood that was always too damp to catch fire. I'd also had it up to here with the runny nose, the pasty white skin, the bronchitis. I wanted to escape. And now Japan was beckoning me like Bali Hai. 

And so, looking at that map, I recall saying to myself, "I guess I won't be needing my sweaters. Won't need that heavy coat, either. Gloves? I'll toss those in the Goodwill pile . . ." 

And then I came to Japan and for those first few weeks in late March I nearly died from exposure (and hunger, but that's another story).

This morning, March 11th, it snowed, if you can believe it. Not enough to stick, of course, but enough to remind you that living in a subtropical climate comes with no guarantees.

I wore four layers, a scarf, and my heavy peacoat when I took my son to kindergarten. I was still cold. When I took a look at today's weather, I was both amused and chagrined to discover that it was 18°C in Portland.

All I can say is, thank God I don't live in Korea.

 

Some boys have pictures of large-breasted women on their walls. I had maps and posters of world destinations. That is the kind of nerd I was. (Am.)

Saturday
Mar072015

The Possibilities are . . .

“You know, last night I was walking around Daimyō when what must have been three Dutch swimmers walked by me. These guys were huge! Well over two meters. Like superheroes. I didn’t even think people came in that size.”

Azami asks if they were good-looking.

“How could I tell? These giants’ shoulders alone were in the stratosphere!”

“I want to meet them!”

“Oh, I’m sure you do. Seeing them, kind of helped me understand how I must make some of the men here feel.”

“But you’re not that tall.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“I mean, you’re tall, but you don’t look big.”

“Thanks again. Must be my lack of personality.”

“I mean, you’re just right. You’re perfect.”

“There’s no need to patronize me.”

“C’mon, don’t take it so seriously.”

“Don’t worry, I don’t.”

And to be honest, I don't. After all, I have never harbored any complexes about my body. Sure, I wouldn’t mind being taller, stronger and so on, but as tall as those swimmers? Nah. Being tall like that must come with its disadvantages. And think of the limits it must place on your choices of something so basic as clothing. And how would you fit a body like that into an economy class seat?

“Still,” I confess to Azami, “as those three massive ships sailed past me and I bobbed violently in their wake, I couldn’t help think that there was yet one more thing that I would never be able to do, that options had just been taken away from me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Seeing them, it dawned on me that I would never be a champion swimmer. That no matter how hard I practiced, my efforts would never compensate for what nature failed to provide.”

“I didn’t know you swam.”

“Oh, I don’t.”

“W-what?”

“What I’m trying to say is that the option became a non-option without my even knowing it, without my even having the chance to consider it. It’s as if you’re in a restaurant, looking at the first page of the menu, when the waiter comes by your table, takes the menu from you and rips a page out of it. ‘Sorry sir, but you can’t have any of these.’ And it’s not just swimming, it’s pretty much everything in life. Every day, month or year that passes, you have fewer options, there are fewer things you can do or accomplish or even try. No sooner did you take your first steps than you’re old and decrepit and the only option left you are: eat or shit, continue to live or just give in and die.”

“You’re crazy,” she says, laughing.

“Yes, it’s one of the options I choose to exercise.”

“I’ve always thought of it differently.”

“How so?”

“I’ve always believed that my options were limited or non-existent from the very start, that only by practicing or training hard, learning new skills, getting experience and so on could I finally have some choices.”

“Well, yes that’s true, but I just see it as more options. You have the choice to study or not studying and how you decide will have a big impact on what the subsequent options are. Choose to study and then you find yourself with a ravenous appetite looking at a seemingly endless menu. Choose not to go to school and you’re standing in front of a counter, well, probably behind the counter, choosing between a large order of french fries or a small one. I don’t know. I guess, I’ve always been foolishly optimistic and considered the possibilities to be infinite. You know, like Fujitsu.”

“Huh?”

“Fujitsu. You know, the company. Their slogan is ‘Fujitsu: the possibilities are infinite.’”

“Oh really?”

“Funny thing is, a student of mine recently applied for a research job at Fujitsu but didn’t get it. You’d think that with such an encouraging slogan, he’d be able to land the job. Guess the possibilities aren’t infinite after all.”

 

I found this infographic. Happy to say, that my height is slightly above average for an American and my waist is 20 cm slimmer. (Been a busy year.)

Speaking of averages, Kurt Vonnegut wrote about them in his Breakfast of Champions:

"Trout wrote a novel one time which he called How You Doin’? and it was about national averages for this and that. An advertising agency on another planet had a successful campaign for the local equivalent of Earthling peanut butter. The eye-catching part of each ad was the statement of some sort of average—the average number of children, the average size of the male sex organ on that particular planet— which was two inches long, with an inside diameter of three inches and an outside diameter of four and a quarter inches—and so on. The ads invited the readers to discover whether they were superior or inferior to the majority, in this respect or that one—whatever the respect was for that particular ad.

"The ad went on to say that superior and inferior people alike ate such and such brand of peanut butter. Except that it wasn’t really peanut butter on that planet. It was Shazzbutter.

"And so on. 

"And the peanut butter-eaters on earth were preparing to conquer the shazzbutter-eaters on the planet in the book by Kilgore Trout. By this time, the Earthlings hadn’t just demolished West Virginia and Southeast Asia. They had demolished everything. So they were ready to go pioneering again.

"They studied the shazzbutter-eaters by means of electronic snooping, and determined that they were too numerous and proud and resourceful ever to allow themselves to be pioneered.

"So the Earthlings infiltrated the ad agency which had the shazzbutter account, and they buggered the statistics in the ads. They made the average for everything so high that everybody on the planet felt inferior to the majority in every respect.

"And then the Earthling armored space ships came in and discovered the planet. Only token resistance was offered here and there, because the natives felt so below average. And then the pioneering began."

 

While I’m on the topic of heights, who you do you think the tallest Asians are?

Tuesday
Mar032015

Two Kinds

   Many authors confess to having the scales fall from their eyes when first exposed to certain authors or works. Gabriel García Márquez wrote in his autobiography Vivir para catarla (Living to Tell the Tale) that reading Kafka was like a revelation to him. He learned from Kafka that “it was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice.” I had similar revelations when I was first exposed to Camus, Roth, Vonnegut, Salinger, and el Maestro himself, García Márquez. 

   I’ve noticed that when it comes to the arts there are two kinds of people: the majority who are satisfied to merely enjoy and appreciate creations of art, and a small minority who are not satisfied unless they create them themselves.[1]

   Whenever I read a great book, eat an excellent meal, see a beautiful work of art, or watch a good movie, my first reaction is not to read, eat, see or watch more. No, I find myself more often than not more eager to write a great book, to cook an excellent meal, to make a beautiful work of art, and, yes, to even direct a good movie myself. Obviously, someone must have dropped me on my head when I was an infant.

 


[1] Many, many, many years ago when I was leaving a “kegger” with a friend and somewhat disgruntled, I made the following drunk observation: “There’s the hippies. And there are people like us. And then there’s everyone else! Fuck ‘em!”

Friday
Feb202015

God Bless the Godless

Proportion of atheists and agnostics around the world.

Four years ago, a nephew of mine posted the following quote to his Facebook profile:

 

Atheism is the opiate of the morally degenerate.

 

Let me tell you, that really pissed me off. But, rather than admonish him for being so damn ignorant, I let it slide. What would the point be? At the age of eighteen he already had such strong beliefs in his Christianity that he would have been impervious to anything I had to say.

The boy had a reason for being cocksure: he had just been admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy. He would by and by graduate with honors and get accepted to the Top Gun fighter pilot training program, his childhood dream. The kid was no slacker, was certainly bright. Nevertheless, he was dumb.

When you have as many brothers and sisters as I do—there are thirteen of us—there’s bound to be differences in opinion about politics and religion. My siblings fall into a number of camps politically: there are liberals, like myself, moderates, kooky libertarians, and way-out there conservatives. There are born-again Christians, devout Catholics, salad bar Catholics, Agnostics, Freethinkers, and the token salad bar Buddhist: me.

My nephew, needless to say, aligns himself with the conservative born-again Christian camp of the family. His mother, an older sister of mine, home-schooled many of her children, and none of them have fallen far from the tree. They are for the most part aliens to me. Whenever I have the rare chance of talking to them—We met in person for the first time in 18 years a three summers ago—I honestly don’t know what to say. It’s like tiptoeing through a landmine. Now, I’m not saying that they are obnoxious, because they aren’t. They’re extremely decent and polite. All of them are very good-looking, too. It’s just that they have such firm beliefs about everything you know you’re going to end up arguing. And afterwards, they’ll pray for you: “Poor uncle has strayed from the path, O Lord. Please help him see the light.” Or some kind of crap like that.

I just checked my nephew’s Facebook profile and saw that the quote remains, indicating to me that he must really believe it.

 

Atheism is the opiate of the morally degenerate.

 

What a quote. Obviously, someone thought they were being clever by corrupting the oft-quoted paraphrase of what Karl Marx had written: “Die Religion . . . ist das Opium des Volkes.”[1]

What irked me so much about the quote was the bold assertion that Atheists were immoral and that only those who believed in God—the Christian Gawd, mind you—were morally upstanding.

As you might suspect, I disagreed.

First of all, you’re not a truly moral person if the only reason you do good or shun “evil” acts is to avoid punishment in the afterlife or be rewarded with a passage through the Pearly Gates. A lot of Christians fail to understand that this is a very low-level, if not childish, stage in moral development. No, a truly moral person does good because it is the right thing to do. He follows standards of morality that are universal, that apply to all people at all times. Do not kill. Do not cheat. Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not hurt others. Why? Because we’re all in the same damn boat here and life is difficult enough as is to be made even more difficult by inconsiderate arses.

Now, I’m not saying people who do good only so that they might go to Heaven are bad. If that’s what works for them, and if their beliefs enable them to function as good citizens, then the more power to them.

The problem is that many self-confessed “good Christians” are not very good at being true Christians, that is, loving, kind, understanding and accepting, open-hearted, giving, concerned about the less fortunate, forgiving, and so on. No, far too many “good Christians” are hating, unfriendly, unaccepting those different from themselves, close-minded, callous towards those less fortunate, judgmental, and downright mean.

They are also dishonest.

In Japan, in this den of morally degenerate Atheists, I can leave my notebook computer, iPhone, and wallet on the table at a café while I pop into the restroom and expect to find everything untouched when I return. In America, all three would be gone before I could even unzip my fly.

A decade ago while we were waiting in line at the check-in counter at the airport, my father dropped his money clip. The clip contained quite a bit of cash, his driver’s license, and some credit cards.

After I checked in and was heading towards the departure gate, I could hear my father’s name being paged over the airport PA system: “Mr. Crowe, please return to the United check-in counter.”

Back at the check-in counter, the ground staff handed my father his money clip, saying, “I believe you dropped this.”

Returned was my father’s money clip, his credit cards and driver’s license, but no cash. My suspicion is that the Naval officer who had been standing right behind us in line noticed my father drop it and, thinking this is my lucky day, had pocketed the cash. Thank you for your service, indeed!

In that God-fearing country, America, finders truly are keepers, and losers weepers. I often joke that would be a far more fitting motto than E pluribus unum.

Meanwhile in Godless Japan, you can be pretty sure—not 100%, but pretty damn close—that when you lose or forget something, you’ll get it back.

According to a recent article published in Rocket News, “In 2014 alone, a stunning amount of cash and lost possessions was turned into police stations around Tokyo. In cash alone, over 3.3 billion yen was turned in. That’s a whopping US$27.8 million picked up and taken to the authorities. Could that happen anywhere else in the world?”

No.

Incidentally, I once left my notebook computer at an ATM. A brand-new MacBook Pro with all the bells and whistles, worth about three thousand dollars, I didn’t realize I had forgotten it till I was on the other side of town. I hurried back to the ATM, and—God bless the moral Atheist—it was still there. In the half hour or so that had passed, I’m sure several dozen people must have used the ATM and seen what was obviously a case holding a notebook computer, and yet no one took it.

David Sedaris made an interesting observation about Japan in his book When You are Engulfed in Flames:

 

“You don’t put your dirty shoes on the seat like many Americans do because, one, people sit there, two, it’s disgusting, and, three, you might stain a person’s clothes if you do. You wouldn’t like to sit down on a dirty seat would you? You wouldn’t like another person’s inconsideration cause your new dress to get dirty, would you?”

 

There is a basic consideration for others here in Japan, a desire not to inconvenience the people around you that is a much better driver of moral behavior than heaven or hell ever could be. I’ve said it before, but Americans could learn a lot from the Japanese in this regard.

 

 

 

Incidentally, my quotes include:

 

In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot—Mark Twain, Notebook, 1935

 

El día que la mierda tenga algún valor, los pobres nacerán sin culo./The day shit has value, the poor will be born without arses—Gabriel García Márquez

 

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different—Vonnegut, Timequake

 

Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood—Gabriel García Márquez

 

縁なき衆生渡し難し (Even Buddha cannot redeem those who do not believe in him)

 

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them—Thoreau

 

Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole—Evelyn Waugh

 

Everything about woman is a riddle, and everything about woman has a single solution: that is, pregnancy—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

 

“The world must be all fucked up,” he said then, “when men travel first class and literature goes as freight.”—Gabriel García Márquez

 

Amputees suffer pains, cramps, itches in the leg that is no longer there. That is how she felt without him, feeling his presence where he no longer was— Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

 

We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes—Gene Roddenberry

 

It is better to spend money like there’s no tomorrow than to spend tonight like there’s no money—P. J. O’Rourke

 

 


[1] The full quote rendered into English is “The full quote from Karl Marx translates as: “The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

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