Tuesday, June 26, 2007

As the shards settle...

A further note on the glass-smashin' fighters: it's a regular event here. Here is a youtube link!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Kombat Kulcha IX

Here at Le Chateaux du Flash we have finally obtained satellite TV, a fine achievement given that for a mere $45 a month it gives us access to 68 channels of shit, and 3 extra sports channels. After it was installed I started flicking through these meaningless 68 channels, and within 30 seconds had stumbled upon some kind of game show involving a man ironing clothes while standing in a pool full of sharks.

Japanese TV.

So for the first 2 weeks we have more than 68 channels of shite, because all the non-adult channels are available for our consideration while we decide how much of our time we want to waste. Because we are in Japan, this list of channels includes the excellently named Fighting TV Samurai!, which gives unlimited coverage of fightin' sports for a mere $20 a month. This is too much money, but it doesn't matter; since we are in Japan, all the relevant fighting is also played on the mainstream entertainment and sports channels, so I won't miss much if I don't fork out the cash for Samurai TV. In fact, half of Fighting TV Samurai! is made up of Japanese Pro Wrestling (like WWF, only Japanese); the other half seems to be in equal measure repeats of old kickboxing fights, and a lot of Pancrase and other assorted nastiness. Pancrase seems to involve a lot of blood and gore, and isn't for the fainthearted.

In any case, while for 2 weeks we have this Samurai TV for free, I have been loading up on it. Why not? Tsuyu, the rainy season, is here, so there's not much better to do except sit at home waiting for one's teeth to mend watching other people losing theirs. So on Saturday morning I watched a very disturbing Pro Wrestling show, which I would like to share with you all.

As some of you perhaps know, I think these fake wrestling WWF type shows are almost as good a window into culture as porn. They were born in that crucible of High Civilisation, the Trailer Park, at about the same time as their haute couture cousins, Heavy Metal and Girls Gone Wild. So besides the enormous athleticism and hammy acting of their stars, they have a lot to recommend them. So much in fact that once I hosted a talk by Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff and Rowdy Roddy Piper with the topic "The Terminator 1 as Greek Tragedy." I'm sure you can imagine how this turned out, given these two scholars' ringside rivalry. In any case, when one sees the kind of analysis which WWF can bring to bear on modern social problems, one quickly concludes "bugger sartre" (and the rest).

On this basis, then, what does Pro Wrestling in Japan have to say about Japanese culture? In the manner of any foreigner in Japan, I shall answer this question by singling out one moment of interaction between 3 Japanese Pro-wrestlers, which I watched after breakfast on Saturday; and I shall then generalise it to the whole country. At least, I would generalise it if I could understand it.

After breakfast I turned on the fightin' TV to some kind of wrestling show from hell. I know everyone thinks these shows are faked, but I ask you: did Chomsky and Foucault fake their debate on human nature? No. So can the cynicism. In any case, I can assure you after watching this few minutes of bottled madness that this wrestling isn't faked. At least, the bits where they pull the splinters out of their arse aren't (and what is the meta-analysis of that, I ask you?) When I turned it on one of the wrestlers was lying on a table, already half-twisted and buckled, just outside the ring. The ring itself was a field of broken glass, and the wrestlers' opponent (I assume it was his opponent; just like modern humanities, the allegiances change fast in pro wrestling) was standing on the ropes, ready to leap. Which he did, landing squarely on the chest of his adversary, who bounced, and then landed on the concrete floor. The table suffered no further damage. This moment was no more faked than when Mr. Wonderful banged Roddy Piper's head on the concrete hallway leading to the changing rooms (and how's that for a rebuttal of the notion that the epistemology of scientific evidence is socially constructed, eh?) Stunningly the guy leapt straight to his feet, and rolled back into the ring, only to be whacked on the chest with a light fitting. Within moments one of his opponents had him in a choke hold using a fluorescent light tube, which he promptly shattered all over the (already splinter-shrewn) ring. The obligatory over-shoulder throw followed, with both men rolling around in the glass; and then somehow one of them got hold of a bundle of fluorescent light tubes and smashed them on the other guy. This was the source of the glass. There then followed the most berserk scenes I have ever seen on pro wrestling (aside, maybe, from the boogey-man eating worms, the only fitting thing to do given he's an adamant defender of the Keith Windshuttle view of history). Firstly, one of these Japanese chaps dragged a bundle of 6 or 8 light tubes out of nowhere and placed it on his semi-comatose adversary's chest; then the other wrestler climbed onto the ropes and leapt onto the tubes, shattering them all over his prone victim's chest and sending slivers of glass flying everywhere (thoroughly deconstructing Spinoza's theory of the subconscious at the same time). But this wasn't enough (it never is, when discussing Spinoza - Descartes is always at the edge of debate). So he climbed back onto the ropes and leapt again, no doubt intending to end matters in a suitably apocalyptic fashion; but his prone opponent rolled aside (defenders of Cartesian rationalism can be slippery); and our erstwhile hero landed full on his arse on a huge pile of broken glass.

Now, I don't look too closely (I'm not a philosopher, after all) but I'm pretty sure that these big boys don't wear any groin guards. So that chap is going to be picking shards of glass out of his masculine essentialism for quite a while to come. There was blood all over the three wrestlers in the ring, on the chest of mister light bulb and the arms and legs of his opponent; and the third chap was pretty slow getting up. By now the ring was pretty much carpetted with shards of fluorescent lightbulb (and that stuff is sharp). It was like they were wrestling in a prickly pear packing yard (say that 5 times fast while picking shards out of your arse!) And they hadn't even finished the debate!

Not that the debates ever end in pro-wrestling; it is a deep and insightful sport. But as I said, I am unable to pick the cultural generalisation out of this story; like the man ironing in the shark pond, it is too weird. I will leave it open to my reader(s?) in the comments; speak carefully though, my friends, for I have witnessed the wisdom of Oriental Philosophers!

Monday, June 18, 2007

The poetry of the dentist

Because soccer is a "safe" sport, I do not wear my mouthguard when I play. So when I went to the dentist on Saturday afternoon, he wrote me some poetry to better help me understand my predicament. Here it is, for your edification:

Because teeth have broken, the nerve is angry.
Because the inflammation is strong, anaesthetizing is not effective.
The medicine that suppresses the inflammation is packed, and the medicine is put out.
It treats administering anaesthetics again even if the inflammation calms down later.

It treats over several-time. It will become after Tuesday in next week next time
if it is necessary to wait for the inflammation to calm down.
The god doesn't come recommended today because power to match is applied, and the pain occurs
strongly when following it in apprecation of the beautiful.

Treatment that removes the angry nerve is done administering anaesthetics again
next time. If it settles down the symptom, a temporary following is done.

I'm sure you can see it was very edifying, given the circumstances.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Notes on the status of Japanese women

This post is not so much a comment on Japanese women - a topic too big for me even to consider undertaking - but an attempt to describe some details about the situation of Japanese women as I understand it from my encounters so far in the Land of the Rising Sun. I shall make no bones of the fact that this post is partially at least in response to the constant barrage of screaming hooting scorn which westerners poor down on Japanese society, with the constant claim that women here are "subjected" (because you know, in the rest of the world complete freedom of both sexes is assured). In a sense also this post shall take on a bit of a task of comparative feministology (and word invention), based on the simple premise that, in fact, women's rights generally throughout the world are not a complete project, and therefore every country has its ups and downs in this regard. It is my intent to show that, in essence, life for women in Japan is a trade of some things westerners take for granted, in exchange for some things westerners see as a distant dream. I also wanted to touch on the idea that some, at least, of these differences derive not from a different or superior Japanese view of women's rights, but from the different way in which society here is structured, but I don't think I will have time, so I shall put it off for another post. I don't want to make any pretensions to academic style, though, so I'll try not to act like I'm writing an essay. My posts are long enough as it is!

So the first thing I should say is that, far and above anything else, Japan is an incredibly safe place for people of all ages and sexes. Public sexual assault of any scale more serious than groping has a very low prevalence (and groping has declined since the city governments introduced programs to fight it). The Japanese are not exactly unconscious of safety, but it is reasonable to say that they are generally pretty ignorant of many of the basic practices we take for granted, such as locking one's door when one goes across the road; turning off the car and taking the keys when one goes to the convenience store; always keeping one's valuables near oneself; and, in the case of young women at night, travelling in company and wearing "sensible" clothes. A young woman, alone in a dark alley, hobbling along in stupidly high heels and wearing extremely revealing clothes, far away from any assistance, is as common a sight here as ... well, as women going out at night. The best two examples of this I have seen is a woman tottering alone through the darkened university at midnight in her nightclub clothes, something I'm sure women in Australia avoid at all costs; and the woman picking her way over sleeping homeless men after midnight under Hiroshima station, her skirt no longer than her heels. This sense of safety is a very real consequence of a very real lack of harrassment and abuse in Japan; for example women in skimpy clothes never get yelled at or abused in public, and even minor acts of intimidation like whistling or group staring by men just don't happen here. Women judge what they will wear according to the usual conservative standards of their day, but not, it would seem, according to what will happen to them outside the home.

A second fascinating thing to note about women's life in Japan is that, contrary to many of the claims one hears about the language, Japanese is essentially gender neutral. There are very few words for occupations or people which are gender biassed; and those that are, are almost universally imported. For example, the Japanese word for "businessman" is "kaishain", which means "member of a company" and is completely gender neutral. To describe the phenomenon of lowly paid office ladies and hard-working businessmen on career paths, they have introduced the foreign words of "OL" and "Salaryman". Even the word for humanity - ningen - is gender neutral, since the word "nin" literally means person. One cannot speak of "mankind" in any general sense in Japanese, nor can one have "manpower" (the nearest words are based on words for "people" and "work", or "names" and "work"). Japanese changes completely when it is reduced to daily casual language, and here the language used by men and women diverges radically, even to the level of its rhythms; but I have seen little evidence yet that these differences represent some kind of discrimination, rather than just a powerful type of gender segregation which extends all through Japanese society. In general, as surely as night follows day men and women in this country naturally separate into their own groups, and why and how this happens is a mystery to me.

Having said that, in most of the daily interactions I witness here, women are given a fair amount of respect and time to say their piece, though they undoubtedly do so in a less assertive fashion than men. This could be a consequence of my having hung about primarily with academics and young people, but I have watched women come and go at kickboxing and they are taken seriously in their efforts and interests. Age and seniority seems to be a far greater barrier to gaining respect in most of the environments I have seen, than does sex.

The topic of kickboxing leads to another interesting point, which is that women's sport, while highly segregated and gender specified here, is taken very seriously. Women do not generally play soccer or rugby, for example; but the sports they play get a great deal of respect relative to those of important western women's sports like netball - women's wrestling, for example, gets primary position in the sports pages of the newspaper when it is on, and women's figure skating, golf and tennis is very popular. Women in table tennis are taken seriously too. The status of women in the traditional martial arts is also surprising - I think the Shimane University kenpo club is run by a woman, for example, and there is never any question of her seniority in the training I have witnessed. The traditional martial arts are also very well stocked with women compared to Australia, and women take a great deal of interest in fighting sports - I have had several discussions about K1 and Sumo with middle aged women teachers, for example. Also, of the 4 women who taught me Japanese at Tottori University one was a fanatical surfer; one a black belt in Kendo; and one a black belt in Archery. The other one was a big k1 fan.

I think this represents a simple fact about Japanese peoples' attitude to each other which is very endearing - if you are trying with all your might to do something difficult, you win instant respect regardless of all the extraneous details of your private and personal life. One is judged first and foremost on what one does here, and only secondarily on everything else. Which is terrible if one is not allowed to do certain things, for example in work; and this is a topic we have to come to next, because work is seen as the big area where women in Japan are worse off than the West.

Certainly women's participation rate in Japan is terrible, with only 48% of Japanese women in the labour force, as against 74% of Australian women. Interestingly, the Australian participation rate has increased from 35% since 1970, while the Japanese rate has been consistent at 50% for all that time. So what do these statistics mean? Women's pay differential in Japan and Australia is broadly similar, although the statistics I have been able to find on women's pay in Japan seem to be heavily biassed towards the large companies, which do not represent a full picture of the many ways in which part-time women workers and self-employed women live. But then, probably Australian statistics don't either; certainly it does not seem to be the case that women are paid any less than men here in a way which is systematically different to Australia, but perhaps discussion of this topic requires an enormous amount of attention to the way in which modern women's earnings lag men's - a problem of balancing work and family commitments, and life courses, which is probably worse here in Japan because, ostensibly, women have less opportunity for maternity leave and flexible working arrangements.

Which, incidentally, is probably also not quite the way people outside Japan perceive it to be. It is a little known fact about Japan that the shared government/private health insurance scheme, Shakai Hoken, includes 9 months maternity leave paid at 60% of full-time wages, and equivalent paternity leave if requested. For full-time company employees, Japan probably has one of the best maternity leave schemes in the world. But as we all know, access to government paid maternity leave requires permission from the workplace to take 9 months off; and many companies are probably unwilling to give this time. People in Japan are also loathe to take it, and probably prefer not to put out their workplace than to do such a thing. But it is definitely there in black and white in the information on Shakai Hoken, which all salaried employees working more than 32 (?) hours a week are required to purchase.

Probably though, the falling birthrate in Japan relates to another, more complex series of social changes which no-one here is willing to discuss, and which I will go out on a limb to identify - most women don't want to, and have the freedom to choose not to, have children. Since the 60s women have had unfettered access to abortion on demand, with "economic" reasons sufficient for women to choose to have an abortion; they have had unfettered access to condoms since the war, and although the pill has been slow to catch up, a complete lack of religious barriers to abortion has meant that reproductive choice remained very free in this country when women in the West were still struggling for it. In fact, Japanese feminism has had a pretty complex relationship with the pill, and as late as the late 80s Japanese feminists were opposed to its use. It is, however, now freely available, so women now have complete financial and sexual independence. In a society which has stressed low birthrates since world war 2, and where having a child is generally socially accepted as requiring that the woman cease work permanently, this is going to lead in only one direction - a decision to defer or cancel childbirth in favour of work. And yes, it is my view that free access to reproductive medicine makes this choice easier, and I further think that is just dandy. Reproductive choice has to include the choice not to reproduce, or it ain't reproductive choice. If Japanese women are sensible enough to recognise that, and Japanese men are happy to go along with it, well and good to them. Japan has only 2 choices here if it wants to increase it's birthrate - revoke the choice, or revoke the cultural assumption that women should stop working when they have a child. They have the maternity leave in place, they have childcare in this country and working women use it; they simply need to complete the triangle.

(but on this topic, one has to consider; with a participation rate of 50%, there are an awful lot of working-age people in this country not working, so Japan does not need to increase its birthrate to avoid its so-called demographic trap; it just needs to encourage the half of its female population who are not working to return to work).

The topic of encouraging women to return to work is an interesting one, for it leads to another sly observation I have to make about Japanese women's supposedly terrible state of discrimination. One would suppose that in a society where not many women work, part of the reason they are choosing not to work is that they would rather be kept by a husband than have to take up some crappy service job they don't want to do. But this is not a requirement for women in Japan, because women in Japan actually have available to them a much larger range of socially acceptable jobs than their Western counterparts. Japanese women can be doctors, nurses, child care workers, school teachers and librarians just as they can in the west. But they can also work in construction, transport, fisheries, agriculture, engineering and industry. For example, 33% of farmers, lumber workers and fishermen are women (of course, in Japan "fisherman" is a gender neutral word). 6% of transport workers, and fully 43% of labourers, were women in 1998. To quote from my personal experience, I think I see a female taxi driver here in rural Matsue at least once a week; riding to work this morning I passed a huge dirt moving truck being driven by a woman; and I see a female truck driver at least once a month. Bus drivers are also female. The fantastically handsome Mr. Hiroki's pretty and charming girlfriend, Miss K, has a boat license at the age of 23, and works as a tour guide using this license. Women's work opportunities here are much wider than they are in Australia, and interestingly so are men's. Men can be hairdressers (all the coolest boys are) and, according to my Japanese teacher, child care work and old age care work is very popular with men. There is no such term as "checkout chick" in Japan, because they are half male; and clothing salespeople are also very often men. Floristry is also a popular pursuit for the cool boys, and why wouldn't it be? Flowers are very manly. This is precisely the opposite situation to that envisaged by the opponents of 60s feminism, who supposed that when women started working in construction it would push men into narrower job opportunities and out of the workforce; but here, where women can do much more, they work less and men take up their posts. A fascinating contradiction...

This sharing of labour seems to occur across the age periods, with for example retired Japanese men and women taking up farming. In this case frequently the man farms rice, and the woman farms vegetables and fruit (which makes the man a dole- bludger, since rice here is heavily subsidized). It is almost as if the Japanese are at every step of the working process blind to the differences in gender which sensitize Australians to "womens" and "men's" work; but at the same time acutely aware of women's role as wives and mothers, which forces them to think that women should leave work for children. This has a huge effect on women's lifetime earnings, since progress at work here is strongly associated with seniority and uninterrupted service, and this cannot be achieved by women who have to take time out for work. Which might explain why they don't return.

Finally, I should mention another area of "men's" and "women's" work which is far less discriminatory and much safer than in the West: prostitution. Prostitution is treated with much less scorn and derision here than in the English speaking world, it is much more open and it is much more honest. There is also a whole world of non-sex bars where men go to be charmed by, and spend money on, young women; and in this world of equal opportunity working roles, there are a growing number of such bars where women go to be charmed by young men. These bars undoubtedly come with the assumption that if you spend enough, your young charmer will put out; but you have to go through a certain ritualized pursuit first, and the young charmer juggles several suitors before deciding which one to accomodate. How different can this world be to the seedy backroom life of the Australian sex industry?

So there we have it, a society which for women is generally safer, offers a wider range of job opportunities, and comes with the massive benefits of complete freedom of reproductive choice and freedom from childbearing. In exchange, women have to endure some additional kinds of discrimination at work, which I think have a lot to do with the importance attached to the childbearing role; and greater restrictions on the range of roles available to mothers. This hardly seems like a nightmare of women's discrimination, unless you judge the entirety of women's rights primarily through the prism of work and family, the current boutique obssession of the Australian middle class. If, on the other hand, you also value (as I do) your partner's ability to move freely at night without harrassment; her ability to choose working roles freely; and her confidence in her complete right to control her own body; then Japan is a much less discriminatory place than you have been led to believe.


Our time tables had us down to wake up at 6:30am on the morning of the second day, and to do tsudoi at 7am. We were then to clean from 7:20 and have breakfast (awful) at 7:40. For an hour and a half. Weird. So I pointed out to everyone that we didn’t have to do anything before 7am, so could we please set our alarms for 6:55 and ignore the timetable. This led to some… confusion, and resulted in everyone getting up at 6:30. But not only did they get up at 6:30, but Ryugenji had to do some moving of things and getting ready, and making his bed (presumably this is what you do when you have half an hour to get up), and every time he moved something or did something he had to say “ush!” to himself, or “gozaimasu” or something. I think secretly he was horrified at our laziness for sleeping in, and was trying to rouse us to do nothing with him.

Which tactic worked; after 15 minutes (at 6:45) while I was clinging to the last shreds of my overly brief rest, Gosuke arose, alert as the day he was born despite an hours’ sleep (bloody kids). He wandered about groaning for maybe a minute and then, adopting his role as room leader, said to me “Stuart, you have to wake up!” to which I grunted. After two more attempts at same, I said “Gosuke, breakfast isn’t until 7:20, I’ll get up at 7:15”. To this he said “but you have to do tsudoi.”

Now, the night before when discussing the alarm settings, I had asked about this tsudoi, and no answers were forthcoming. Gosuke had said “it’s a thing”; and Ryugenji said “it’s a bit like prayer”, to which Watanabe sniggered and Gosuke hit him, and they both said “no it’s not”. So I assumed tsudoi was something like, you know, standing about on the balcony going “fuuuuuuuuuuuuck, mate, sparrow’s fart eh?” So when Gosuke told me I had to get up for tusdoi, I said “No I don’t” and rolled over.

So Gosuke says “You have to get up” and I said “Why?” and he said “Tsudoi”, and I said to him (actually losing all remnants of sleep), “Gosuke, WHAT is tsudoi?” And he said “it’s a thing”, and I said “Look, Gosuke, you’re standing around doing nothing. Your tsudoi is going to be going on the balcony and having a smoke; Ryugenji’s is going to be standing around saying “ush!”; and mine is going to be lying right here waiting for breakfast.” Which I think Gosuke didn’t understand, because he stopped making me get up, and wandered out. So at 6:55 I started hearing everyone swarming down the hallway, and I thought “what?” and decided I had better get up and have a look; at which point I discovered the rooms empty, and Gosuke wandered up and said “It’s tsudoi now,” looking pointedly at me. “I’ll be late,” I said, and went in to get changed, and when I emerged everyone was gone. So I wandered out of my room and down the hall, and was halfway down the hallway from our building to the main building when a gaggle of schoolgirls from another tour group went running past me in a mad flap, obviously rushing to this tsudoi. I followed in their direction and ended up back in the entry way to the whole building, and there before me stood the Gates of Hell, and beyond them my worst nightmare, writ large and waiting to pounce.

For tsudoi, it appeared, involved every single inhabitant of the camp gathering in the meeting room where we had been introduced yesterday, in lines facing the front. The doors to the meeting room were open, and everyone was facing away from them towards the stage at the front. The woman who had introduced the camp to us yesterday was just starting some kind of statement about “making a small speech” to which everyone was paying attention, and the little gaggle of schoolgirls I had seen running was just sitting down in a corner; and the woman was standing facing the door, so if I took even one step through the doorway she was going to see me, and everyone was going to turn to face me, and I had seen on the map that this room held 400 people and I could see now that it was chock full, so that would mean 400 heads turning, and there I would be, 2 minutes late as usual only this time 2 minutes late for the 400 person morning pep talk.

No thank you, Gosuke, I thought, and fled as fast as I could back the way I had come, with the woman’s words taunting me as I slunk back down the stairs … “Just a little speech”…

… which was just as well, because I discovered upon returning to Matsue that a friend of ours had been to this camp on a previous year, and part of their morning tsudoi was the flag-raising ceremony, at which she, the only foreigner in the camp, had been made to raise the Japanese flag. And she was on time!

(And by the way, curse my electronic dictionary for saying tsudoi means “gathering”, rather than its true meaning, “Convocation of Acolytes of Pure Evil, waiting to ambush tardy foreigners and hang them upside down from the flagpole” – the distinction could have been helpful).


Drinking in Japan is an interesting phenomenon, but this time it was also painful. Drinking was arranged to start at 7:30; as usual I was late (my version of punctuality, 0-2 minutes late is okay, is 2 minutes behind the Japanese version, so I constantly find myself turning up to events 2 minutes late, and everyone is staring at me). When I arrived I was confronted with another envelope, from which I drew the number 3 with alcohol-coated fingers (we were back in the dining room), and so was directed to table 3. Are we noticing a theme about seating arrangements here? I was fortunate to get a table with Masae (I think that's her name) who is in my Convex Analysis class; and Ryugenji, who was in my room. So there were two people at the table who know how to talk to foreigners (i.e. loud and slowly, using dumb words). We had to wait half an hour for the drinking to commence, and everyone always seemed to know without asking exactly why - "oh, we're waiting on so-and-so Teacher" - "oh, the food" - etc. Eventually we started and, horror of horrors, our first task was to stand up, one by one, and announce ourselves and any details about ourselves to the whole room of 110 people. We did it table by table, and when my table came and we were looking at each other waiting to see who would stand up first, people at other tables started saying my name ... anyway, with that out of the way, we could drink properly, which I did, quickly.

It never ceases to amaze me how Japanese people regularly take their supposed conformity, shyness and unwillingness to be publicly singled out, and also their formalism, and crap on it from a great height. For example, why do these people who refuse to be singled out insist on everyone standing up to talk about themselves? And why did Gosuke and Takuma insist on dragging me around to talk to every teacher? And why did I end up doing impressions of myself whacking Takuma from three feet away with an engorged penis, while his mates watched and laughed (this relates to the bath story)? This isn't the behaviour of shy and formalistic 21 year olds. Also, if everyone is so afraid of standing out, why is it that at midnight one of the camp seniors (a third year in my room) started talking about his dreams and goals in front of 12 people? He slowly became more animated, and as he did so the others in the room stopped to listen. He then gave a full, improvised speech to 12 people (including his teacher!) about why he wants to become a teacher, what he thought of Professor Miwa’s opinions, his study and lifestyle philosophy, and why education is important. Everyone listened raptly, and he finished it by assuming the most reverent posture he could (the Shinto bowing posture), saying “I will try harder to achieve my goals, and so should you” and bowing several times. Everyone else applauded him, and his teacher said “that was a good speech”. This is hardly the behaviour one expects of shy and retiring people!

Furthermore, the drinking was in 2 "stages" (their words, not mine); after the official drinking hall closed at 10:00 we all adjourned to our dorms, which were in their own separate building, and gathered in the larger rooms. We again waited for about 20 or 30 minutes while people gathered in the rooms (already drunk) and mysterious people ran around throwing alcohol at us. In my room for example we had 12 kids, and: 2 litres of plum wine, 750 ml of bad red wine, a 6 pack of beer, 3 cans of dark beer, 3 separate cans of normal beer, 6 cans of chu-hai (see previous posts) and some kind of odious crisps whose smell lingered on my fingers for 2 days. that's a lot of booze when you consider that almost everyone in the room weighed less than 60 kgs, and I wasn't planning on drinking much (it might also explain why some people gave speeches). It was this second stage which ended at 5:30 am, though I kicked everyone out at 1am and went to sleep.


Dinner and bath was slated for 5:30 to 7:00pm precisely, and because I am still a bit leery of the whole Japanese bathing custom, and didn’t want to intrude naked and alone into a huge bath with 60 students in it, I decided to go with Gosuke and Takuma (my lab juniors). This had several interesting consequences, the most immediate being that they worried hugely and vocally about how small their dicks would look next to mine. This happened quite a few times, and although I am not at liberty to divulge the details of my dimensions (since that encounter with the Queen I have had to sign the Official Secrets Act, or I would assuredly tell you). However, these boys had not read any secret details, and were merely passing on the fear that all Japanese men seem to have that their willies are smaller than everyone else’s.

So Gosuke and Takuma and I trotted on down to the bath room, with the obligatory comments as we passed the women’s bath on the way, and soon enough found ourselves in the men’s changing room. I have not mentioned the Japanese public bath (onsen) to my readers before, but shall give a brief introduction here. The front of the bathing area is a changing room, generally consisting of an area for shoes, a large open space with a sliding door on one side (entering the baths) and a wall lined with baskets for possessions on the other. There are no lockers of course – we are in Japan. One dumps one’s belongings in the basket, including one’s towel, and waltzes through the door (covered with a modesty towel if overly well-endowed) into the bath area properly, which is the most intimidating area. Here there is a huge bath filled with enough hot water to soak in up to the shoulders when seated, which takes up most of the room. There is a tiled area outside the bath, and on this area are many small stools in front of a shower apparatus. The purpose here is to clean oneself before hopping into the bath, so one has to scrub, fully naked, squatting on a bucket, in front of everyone in the bathtub. I don’t mind walking naked in front of strangers (after all, they aren’t going to see anything interesting without binoculars), and I don’t mind bathing naked in front of strangers; but I must say I don’t like scrubbing my bits in front of strangers. So I always approach this part with trepidation, especially since it is considered very bad form to enter the bath with any soap on one’s body.

So today was very busy, there being 100 students in the building. Gosuke and Takuma and I had to wait in the changing room while about 10 men changed, some drying themselves and some getting into or out of clothes, all packed in a rather small space and studiously avoiding one another. Takuma commented with words to the effect that it was all a bit gross, and then the space freed up and we changed. Both Gosuke and Takuma were suitably stunned, horrified and impressed by the sight of my tattoo (it is “formidable” and “scary”), and everyone else studiously looked away; and then we were into the bath room itself, which I entered with my towel and so then had to leave promptly to put my towel in my basket. Upon returning I had again that feeling of always being the last to enter the room, with the attendant extra attention. All the shower spaces closest to the door were taken, so I had to slink across the entire width of the room, starkers, to the furthest booth to shower (fortunately these washing spaces had barriers; frequently they don’t). I have heard many stories about how Japanese stare at foreigners in baths, but if they do the are quite good about it; so I don’t usually notice any undue attention, but I still feel it.

So having washed, I splashed in, and Gosuke and Takuma and I sat together in the water, discussing the size of Japanese men’s willies (topic du jour, as it were) and my tattoo. I suggested we all get a shared laboratory tattoo (maybe “math before dishonour”?) and they were horrified; I also told them I like Japanese style tattoos and wouldn’t mind getting one before I leave, a comment which has occasionally aroused very disturbed responses from my interlocutors; but in this case it merely inspired suggestions that I should get cherry blossoms, the guaranteed tough-sticker in this country which proves one is in the yakuza. I ain’t, so I probably won’t. Nor will they, since my suggestion produced shudders of horror. Interestingly they didn’t ask me if it hurt. Probably because Japanese people assume that if you want or need to do something, the pain is irrelevant.

The bath was also, I should add, horrifically hot, but soon after we entered there was a huge influx of cold water and it became really rather comfy. Ryugenji joined us, and a few boys left, and everything quietened down, and I was able to see the full form of all the boys leaving, and I must say that young Japanese men are intimidatingly skinny. They almost all, for example, have a six pack and a triangular upper body, simply on account of being so damn stupidly skinny. They are also all generally very small (I barely ever look up at people in this country). It’s quite an intimidating effect to be surrounded by slender, muscly, hairless men with perfect tans and clear skin. And always leaves me wondering why western women aren’t flocking here for the sex. But there you go. Maybe it’s the willy myth. Or maybe it’s the hairy bums; I noticed an awful lot of that. Weird.


On the first day of Orientation camp we had an hour long talk by 3 lecturers on what is expected of students, followed by 2 hours of self-study in a big room, where people were assigned seats according to their room number (I studied Hazard Modelling, i.e. I took an hour to read what I would have read in 3 minutes in an english text and wasted time on a proof which can be done in 5 minutes using induction). Then, after dinner and bath we had a 30 minute talk by Mr. Watanabe about joining NOVA. Almost everyone slept in these lectures, for this is the nature of the Japanese student – they sleep through everything. Professor Miwa, who is retiring this year, gave a long and suitably rambling talk on his own history and on peace, and when I looked back from my position near the front fully two thirds of the room were sleeping.

On the second day of the Orientation Camp we had more lectures; 2 on the life of a high school and primary school teacher, and then a question and answer session with the same two people, which I skipped because I ain’t graduating to become a teacher. This was interesting because of the difference in attitude towards teachers in this country. Many students want to become teachers, and they earnestly strive to this end, which is not easy. Primary school teachers, for example, have to be able to swim a certain distance in a certain time, play the piano, and do basic acrobatics. High school teachers attend a special test which is notoriously hard to pass, and many honours students in every field strive to do this test, taking it multiple times before they pass. So no-one slept through this presentation, which involved details about teachers’ schedules, their teaching materials, and their work conditions, which are abominable. The male teacher, a high school teacher, told the students in no uncertain terms, that he works from 8am to 8pm 5 days a week, with no rest, and is paid shit (about $3000 a month). He said to them “I’m sure that you are wondering why I decided to become a teacher?” and proceeded to explain to them that he did so thinking that it would be an easy, enjoyable job with good pay. No such thing, he revealed. And why does he keep doing it? “Because the job has great importance, and the reward of seeing my students understand something, or thank me when they graduate, makes it all worthwhile.” The Japanese value honesty in their dealings, and he wasn’t sparing the lash! The result? Takuma told me he “will try harder to become a teacher, because that man reinforced my desire to do it”. (There is more of this in the drinking).

Monday, June 11, 2007

Orientation Camp

Life in the University proceeds apace, and so it becomes necessary half way through the semester to go on the Faculty of Science Orientation Camp, 2 days of ... orientation ... at a ... camp ... in the nearby Sanbe National Park (pictured).

Sadly for me Japanese society has many secrets, many of which I have not been let in on. I thought I was going to a weekend of drinking, playing frisby, long walks, and dawn raids on other peoples' dormitories with hoses. Isn't this the Universal Nature of Youth? Not in the society of tsudoi. I shall share the outline of my weekend of orientation, but the weekend was full enough of diversions and revelations that I have chosen to put some of them in separate posts, which shall be laid out after this one.

On Saturday at 9am I arrived at the University to catch my bus to Sanbe. I was greeted with an envelope with random numbers in it, which I pulled out to reveal my seating arrangement on the bus - ookii 11-D, seat 11 D in the big bus. My room had already been arranged - room 219, with Gosuke (a fine chap from my lab), Mr. Ryugenji ("Dragon Seeing Temple"), and Mr. Watanabe (a returning graduate who now works for NOVA) (We are seniors). Gosuke (and this is relevant later in the story) was to be our room leader. The bus left promptly at 9:30, everyone aboard. Punctuality is a strong point of Japanese life, and beyond fault.

On the bus we all had to introduce ourselves to our fellows. We were given a name badge to wear, which included a brief space to write our "PR point". Mine: blank. Gosuke's: Yesterday's enemy is today's friend. His friend Tamadani's: "A splendid person?" So on the bus we chatted but I slept, because I was sat next to a very shy girl and, let's face it, when you can barely count to 10 there is no point in belabouring the introductions is there? We also played bingo, but I didn't win. Then we arrived at Sanbe, and so commenced the Orientation Camp.

The very first thing we did was ... shuugo!! I.e., Gather! Everything Japanese people do as a group starts and ends with Shuugo. So we all filed into a big room and sat down to be given an introduction to the Sanbe holiday camp, which has four key points: 1) greetings (always greet others in the camp); 2) self service (you have to do everything for yourself); 3) take your rubbish home; 4) time - dinners and such like are on a strict schedule. So we were shown the timetable for the day, with dinners set out on their strict time table and at the beginning and end of the day this mysterious phenomenon, 20 minutes of cleaning (including the toilets!) preceded by 20 minutes of ... tsudoi! I didn't think about it at the time, but it was there, waiting for us...

So then we gathered again, before setting off to our rooms. We collected sheets on the way and made our beds, and then we went to lunch, which was awful but involved an excellent regimented hand-washing process (including alcohol sprays!) beforehand. Then we had to do the actual work of the camp. At my last orientation camp, work was an hour long talk about what could be expected of uni. Not so here! The work was actually really tiring, tiring enough to be put in a separate post.

After work was the allotted time for dinner (again, awful!) and bathing (an interesting experience, never so bad as one expects, and again posted elsewhere in detail). Then came the drinking, which I have also described separately and which lasted (in the case of people other than me) until 5:30 am. At least some of my fellow students were rushing hand over mouth for the bathroom before breakfast, so I think some were up for a dire second day.

The second day started in an amusing fashion, at least for those of us not puking. I have described the details of our arisal and cleaning in the post on tsudoi, because really they aren’t separable. My confusion was not helped by my foggy head after very little sleep, but I think I survived my brush with death admirably, and was able to present myself at breakfast without too much risk of embarrassment. From there it was a mere hour and a half at breakfast, and 2 hours of (still) stupidly banging my head on the arse end of an induction problem which I would solve in 5 minutes the following day, and then it was home and hosed – we left Sanbe 3 minutes late, with me in exactly the same bus seat I arrived in. And I think 3 minutes late is pretty good when you have to round up 110 hungover college students.

So that, dear reader, was my Orientation Camp, which has left me truly disoriented and discombobulated, and completely at a loss as to anything. I think I was meant to meet everyone and generally relax with them, but this went the way things always go with me – everyone now knows me and knows my name, and will remember it because they always do; and I didn’t even hear 90% of their names, and the other 10% sounded like “Sshhshhhnn” or I forgot them straight away (I could do a whole post on how hard it is to even hear people when they say their names in this country, let alone understand them – Japanese has a strange rhythm); so now everyone is saying hello to me and, to confound it all, I met them properly at the drinking binge, which was after the bath, so everyone’s hair was floppy, and I tell all these 18 year olds apart by their hair, so I can only remember Tamadani (who told me his first name 3 times, but buggered if I can remember it or if I even caught it); because his hair is dyed, and everyone else was just floppy. So there you go. 100 more people now know that I’m a big rude red faced foreigner with a tattoo and a ***** dick who is always late, doesn’t attend compulsory pep talks, and can’t remember their names.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Summer is coming ...

The weather is warm, the insects are out, and summer is in the air. Riding home, swallows flit over the river and dive bomb my bicycle, chittering madly. In the late evening air, tiny bats replace them to ghost along the paths, circling the lamp posts and flicking through the arc of my bicycle light. The turtles bask on the rivers' edge beneath hovering dragonflies, and the afternoons are lazy with the warmth of early summer. Soon it will turn from pleasant, comfortable days in the shade to the buzzing furnace of high summer, when the air throbs with the hum of cicadas and drips with the constant, steamy humidity of Japanese summer.

Between now and then lie the rainy months of June and July, which the locals call tsuyu. Last year tsuyu didn't really come to this side of Japan, or if it did it is overrated; and although the first storms of this year broke like clockwork on the 29th May, there has not yet been much sign of a break from the perfect May weather. Everyone has paused, breathless before the next change, which in this country seems to happen so perfectly and suddenly. I am so used to summer in Australia, however, when the days just keep getting longer and drier and the months stretch out in a desolate, dusty eternity before me, that I cannot believe it will happen. It is hard to comprehend a summer which bursts over the country in mid-June, flares briefly and intensely in August, and then is gone by the end of September. Four months! One of them mostly rain, and another two only middling hot.

Summer is also the season of festivals, when the Japanese come out to celebrate the middle of the year with beer and fires. There is the hotaru festival in early June, when we visit dark forests to watch the fireflies; then in August we have Obon, the festival of the dead, when people light fires to guide their dead relatives back to their homes; and straight after, hanabi, the firework festival. Japan in summer is about fire and water, and the omnipresent celebration of the passing of things.