July 22, 2009

(Originally Published 7/12/2007)

And … we’re back!  Did anybody else see that?  Man, what was that Uncanny Sun?  I’m pretty sure that was more than just scheduled server maintenance.  But, what are you going to do, huh?  It’s a free server after all.  So, a few days ago I was horribly spambombed and from now on I have disabled all comments.  I just can’t deal with hundreds of spam messages every day.  So, if you’re reading this and you want to leave me a comment, you’re probably someone who already knows my email address so send me a message there.  If you don’t know my address and want to talk to me, I’m sorry.  Man, spammers are jerks.  And most of them are robots with random messages that make absolutely no sense at all!  How can I hate a robot?   More...

So, as I was walking home from Hirakata-shi tonight I passed the sewage treatment plant and all of a sudden a tower of flames about five meters tall shot out from within all the tanks and pipes.  A couple of people in official-looking orange suits (everyone in Japan wears a uniform of one kind or another, I’ll talk about that sometime) were running around but they didn’t seem particularly concerned so I guess it was normal but I wish I had my camera with me so I could have taken a picture.  There are two giant storage tanks at the sewage treatment plant labeled “No. 1 Hopper” and “No. 2 Hopper.”  Does anyone else see the humor in that? (^_^)

I’ve been kind of a jerk lately.  I’d love to say that it’s because of the people I’ve been hanging out with that I’ve become a jerk but the truth is that I’ve always had these tendencies and thoughts hiding inside me.  Usually I’m better at controlling them but sometimes I let my insecurities take control.  Sometimes I wonder if I’m slightly bi-polar because I’m usually so happy but sometimes I can be pretty angry.  But, I don’t really think it’s anything like that.  I’m really good at making jokes about things that are culturally inappropriate and at making people uncomfortable enough to laugh.  However, sometimes I go too far and end up hurting some feelings of people who really don’t deserve to be bullied by me.  So, I’m going to rant for a little while now.  Why?  Because I just got back from a walk and the only time I’m able to think clearly is when I’m walking and alone.  Because I’m in a foreign country, experiencing a completely different culture, I find myself constantly analyzing everything that happens here.  But, more importantly, I need to analyze my culture and myself.  Here are my thoughts.

Are Japanese people racist?  You bet they are!  But not nearly as racist as we want them to be.  It’s time to dispel some myths (and create a few more).  Where do all these myths come from?  I think most of these myths start from gaijin themselves.  We experience a sort of feeling of inferiority (a gaijin complex?) and create stereotypes we think the Japanese have about us.  I find myself often goading my Japanese friends on to try to provoke the answers I expect to come from them.  Why do I do that?  Why am I so bitter sometimes?  Usually I am incredibly happy and I feel so lucky to be able to be living the life I am right now but sometimes … sometimes I just get so mad at everyone for not being as happy as I am!  I get angry at people for not enjoying the sunset as much as I am.  How petty can one get, huh?  But seriously, what right do I have to expect anything out of anyone else?  And really, you want to talk about racism?  I’m totally racist.  Even my online nickname – ricecracker – is a racial slur.  Sometimes I think to myself, “Argh!  You Japanese are so much better than I am!  And I resent you for that!”  I know I’ll never be Japanese.  But I don’t need to be.  I love Japan and I love the Japanese people – that’s why I’m here.

For the last 2,100 years there has been no difference between ethnicity and nationality in Japan – they are one and the same.  I don’t think my Japanese friends really understand the concept of race.  For them there is just Japanese and other.  One of my Japanese friends looked at me today and said that if I was to marry a Korean girl we would have the cutest babies ever because they would have blue eyes, blonde hair, and an Asian complexion.  I asked her what she thought about me marrying a Japanese girl and she looked shocked and said she had never thought about it.  She looked at a young child and her gaijin father as they passed us on their bicycle and said that the child was a “half.”  “What does that mean?” I asked.  “It means she’s only half-Japanese.”  “Ah, but what does that mean?” I asked further and she just stared at me in confusion.  I found out later you can go even further in these and there are some people called “quarter” who are only 1/4th Japanese.  Sometime I need to talk about the “new-half” and the reality of the “burakumin.”

The racism in Japan is not bad, it’s not mean-spirited.  It’s really just naive.  People don’t look at me and freak out because they hate me, they just don’t know what to do when they see me because I’m weird.  Everyday, there are more and more foreigners in Japan, and people are starting to get used to us, but its still going to take some time.  In America, why do we divide people up into “White,” “Black,” “Asian,” “Hispanic,” etc?  Hispanic doesn’t mean anything in Mexico.  Black doesn’t mean anything in Kenya.  One of my friends from Taiwan had never even heard of the idea of a person being “Asian” until he came to the United States.  “Hispanic” used to be part of “White” in US census (how do you pluralize census?  Censuses?).  For awhile, “Italian” was separate from “White.”  If it’s so easy to change the very structure of this classification system, how important is it really?  Why do we have it anymore?  What purpose does it serve?  My ceramics teacher listens to all sorts of great music while we’re in the workshop and today there was a song about “whites and blacks crossing to the other side of the tracks.”  I was in the dining room the other night and some people were watching Clerks 2.  The characters in the movie were talking about reclaiming racist words and giving them non-racist meanings.  “You can’t call someone a porch-monkey, it’s a racial slur!”  “My grandmother used to call me that all the time.  It just means a lazy person.”  “Your grandmother was racist!” (Later…)  “Hey there, you little porch-monkey!” (Turns to mother of child)  “It’s okay, I’m taking it back.”  You know, the only people who really call us gaijin are the non-Japanese.  We’ve claimed it as a badge of honor amongst each other, and we’re able to give each other the head-nod when we pass each other on the street.  Yeah, that’s right.  We’re Gaijin in Japan.

One of my favorite movies is a Japanese movie called “GO.”  It’s a really well done movie about a teenage boy who was born in and has grown up in Japan but was born to Korean parents so he is considered a Korean citizen.  He has never been to Korea, he speaks Japanese fluently, but he has to carry an alien registration card at all times or he can be deported.  This is a sad but unfortunate truth – there are 60,000 Koreans living in Japan (that is, not half-Japanese, there are many more people who are part Korean but won’t admit it) – these are the “zainichi.”  This movie could really get a lot of Japanese people thinking, but unfortunately it’s not really well-known in Japan.  Many Japanese people know it because it has a famous actor in it but they’ve never seen it.  During the last few years Japan experienced something called the “Korean wave” where Korean dramas became incredibly popular with older Japanese women and inspired a somewhat shallow but incredibly busy cultural exchange between Korea and Japan.  However, this didn’t really do much to improve the relationships between the two governments (neither did the joint World Cup match between the two countries).  The governments still don’t get along even though most younger Japanese people today say they like Korea.  It may take a generation before there is positive change between these two countries because the governments are still mainly run by a bunch of old dudes.

One of my fellow classmates (an American) complained the other day because she’s not getting As and it’s not fair for them to treat her as a Japanese student because how will she get into Yale now?  I was quick to point out to her that most of the Korean students are taking the jump test next term (skipping an entire level of Japanese) and that even though my Korean roommate only started learning Japanese the beginning of this term he’ll probably be up to level four by next term (the level I’m in right now).  Also, take a look at the Estonian in our class who got 119.1 out of 120 possible points on our combined kanji quizzes this term.

The number one thing I am afraid of is people – and I’m sure I’m not the only one.  I’m not afraid of other animals, I’m not afraid of acts of nature, I’m only afraid of people and the unpredictable way they’ll act towards me.  You ever sit around and people watch?  I do.  Look around at people as we walk around with our heads down, avoiding eye contact and pretending we don’t notice each other.  It’s amazing how we can always seem to find something extraordinarily fascinating to look at in the other direction just as we enter conversational range with another person.  Strangely, we always seem to seek other people out in order that we won’t be approached by other people.  Almost everyone I know seems to try to find someone to go eat lunch with just so they won’t have to eat alone and maybe get approached by some new people who want to talk to them.  Some people dare to eat alone and savagely attack their food, slurping and nearly growling as they guard their space hunched over with their eyes pointed intently at that fascinating speck on the table in front of them.  I want to talk to people – but I want to be alone too.  What is this crazy dilemma?  I have the most guts to talk with someone when it’s just the two of us alone somewhere in the country away from other people.  It’s easy for me to say “Hi” to someone I pass on the walking trail but it’s scary to even look at people in huge crowds such as at train stations.

Speaking of trains, the trains here in Japan are completely different from those I ride in Portland.  Almost nobody ever talks, even groups of friends that enter together.  Most people do one of the following, absolutely silently:
1) Close their eyes
2) Text message on their cellphones or surf the web
3) Read manga or novels
A few people talk quietly with each other but only if they boarded the train with the other person.  This is totally different from riding the MAX in Portland.  On the MAX, everyone talks to everyone else and it’s really loud and crazy.  Man, I’ve had some crazy conversations with even crazier people on the MAX.  I always seem to meet people who want to talk about their criminal records…  Of course, there are exceptions in Japan (to everything I’ve been saying) and usually it’s the cool old dudes (ojiisan) who will risk talking to me and asking me a few questions.  These guys have some serious moxie.

I went to the Post Office for the first time this last week.  This is an experience that I have been anxiously dreading for months.  I finally had to go to cash in some postal money orders I got so I could pay my outrageous hospital bills (don’t get me started on health care costs).  And you know what, it was easy!  I looked up a few words in my dictionary before I went in and I didn’t have any problems communicating.  Why was I so afraid?  Why am I still so afraid to call Yodobashi Camera and find out what’s going on with my camera?  Well, for one thing, I don’t like talking on the phone to anyone – no matter what language they are speaking.  Add in the fact that Japanese becomes more difficult to understand when garbled on the phone and the fact that people speak at normal speed because they may not realize the person on the other side of the line is a foreigner who would really appreciate it if they talked a little slower and phone calls become really quite frightening!  So, why haven’t I asked one of my Japanese friends for help?  No idea.  Pride, I guess.  Well, enough of that silly stuff, eh wot!

I watched the movie Matango with my film class on Thursday afternoon.  It’s a movie about a group of people who are sailing around leisurely on a boat and enjoying being away from humanity (“Then what are we, if not humanity?” asks one of the crew members playfully,) and they get caught in a strange storm in which their boat is ripped to shreds.  They become shipwrecked on a small island and discover another boat that grounded there about a year ago but there are no survivors from that boat left (no corpses either, just some strange giant mushrooms…).  Anyway, they figure out it’s a research ship that was conducting experiments with radiology at sea (this was written and directed by the same guy who did the Godzilla movies).  They find the ship’s log and discover that no matter how hungry they become they should not eat the strange and wonderful mushrooms that grow on this island.  Once members of the original crew ate them, they began to disappear in groups of two and three in strange circumstances.  They fix up the ship and begin living there while they attempt to repair their yacht and sail away.  One night, a ghastly apparition appears on deck – a half man/half mushroom mutant!  It disappears and they try to shake it off as a ghost – but what are those strange footprints?  Anyway, sure enough, one guy finally succumbs to his hunger pangs and tastes the forbidden fruits.  He begins tripping out on mushrooms and decides to kill everyone from his crew.  Well, his aim isn’t very good because he’s seeing all sorts of sparkly things and dancing girls so they’re able to wrestle the gun away from him but soon he begins to turn into a mushroom too.  One of the girls lets him out of the brig they’ve constructed and together they are banished from the ship after they kill one of the crew members.  Soon, another man goes to join them and they all begin turning into mushroom people (which always seem to stumble around slowly either laughing hysterically or moaning like zombies).  Soon the army of mushroom-men boards the ship and kidnaps all but the last man.  He attempts to rescue the girl he loves but it’s too late – she’s already eaten one of the mushrooms!  He becomes suddenly surrounded by the army of mushrooms but is able to blast his way free with his gun which apparently never needs to be reloaded.  He escapes to the yacht which he has just barely repaired and heads to sea where he is rescued eventually by a Japanese freighter and locked in a mental hospital on his return to Japan because of his talk of mushroom-men.  In the final scene he talks about how he wishes he had eaten the mushrooms and stayed on the island because if he had truly loved the girl wouldn’t it have been better to become a mushroom and live with her for the rest of their lives on that island?  Now that he’s back in Japan, staring out of his barred window at the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Tokyo with all of it’s flashing neon and honking cars, he says that all people are changing and becoming less human and it would have been better to stay with those he already knew because he doesn’t belong with these people.  It is at this point that he turns around to face the doctors who are listening to him from behind the safety of the barred door and we see for the first time that his face is beginning to transform into a mushroom too.

Sometimes I get so mad at the Japanese government.  But really, they’re not any worse than my government.  And I get mad at Japanese people for not being more involved in their politics – but how involved are Americans in their politics?  This is how it seems to me:
1) If someone somewhere is being hurt, we complain about it.
2) If someone we know is being hurt, we complain louder.
3) If we are being hurt, we finally do something about it.
Sometimes I wonder at how the governments of the world can be so stupid but then I remember – what am I doing about it?  What can I do about it?  I don’t even know how I should act.  Should I riot?  Should I picket?  Have a sit-in?  A bed-in like John Lennon and Yoko Ono?  Immolate myself?  Someone important once said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” and I don’t even know who said it, let alone what that means I should do to change.  I tremble every time I watch CNN as Bush seems to keep pushing us further and further towards another war with Iran even though there is blatant evidence that his accusations are completely false.  How can he do that?  How was Clinton almost impeached for having an affair and we don’t impeach Bush for leading us from one war to the next and not doing anything to take care of the already staggering amount of problems we have in our country.  Unless we do something now (not soon) America is going to witness the end of its day in power and Americans are going to have to start getting used to much less comfortable lives.  Being halfway around the world from my country has allowed me to gain some pride for my country that was previous lacking – we’ve got some pretty good things going for us.  But if we don’t make some big changes pretty quick, we’re going to lose a lot of progress we’ve made.  We don’t have to be the world’s police force – the world doesn’t want us there.  Sure, I agree we should give humanitarian aid and help struggling economies but we don’t need to send armies to do it.  Soldiers are trained for one thing – killing.  We can’t improve the world by killing.  We want to help the world – send teachers, doctors, engineers, environmentalists!  Also, invite more people to come study in the US and allow them to make suggestions when they discover things in our system that are different.  There are a lot of things we haven’t thought about yet.  One of my friends here at Kansai Gaidai is from New Orleans.  What are we doing for New Orleans?  We don’t have any money to help them because we’re spending trillions of dollars ruining the lives of millions of people in the Middle East by sending soldiers to do the jobs of civil servants and scientists.

Anyway, I guess that’s about all I want to say for tonight.  I finished glazing all my pots in ceramics today and I get to set up my final exhibition next Wednesday.  I bombed my oral exam because I’ve got a sore throat from a cold I caught earlier this week but I’m pretty sure I’ll still be okay as far as my Japanese classes go.  It’s finals week so I’ve got to study like crazy but all I really want to do is get started on my long walk to Tokyo.  I’m planning to do in two weeks what took another man over a month to do.  However, I bought a map and I’ve been working out the route and I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to do it.  I’ve bumped my start date forward a few days so I’ll have a little more leeway just in case I run into some problems on the way but I don’t think I’ll have a problem walking forty kilometers every day.  Hey, if I’m running ahead of schedule, I can always make a little detour and climb Mt. Fuji or chill in Kamakura for a day.  However, he walked during the summer and I’m walking during winter but I’ve got a nice scarf and stocking cap and a really warm rain/snow jacket so I’ll be just fine.


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