Recent happenings in Japan

You know when you watch a natural disaster happening in another country there’s a sense of shock, sympathy, and suspicion of it travelling and affecting you and your loved ones? For me, it’s usually followed by a state of numbness. 9/11 was pretty close to home. I still remember talking about it in the car, trying to envision one of Vancouver’s buildings crashing and sinking into the ground. It just feels so surreal. I’ve lived in Japan for 2.5 years, and still have relationships with people who live there (one of who is working in Tokyo). Like anyone else who has ties in Japan, I contacted about everyone I knew to make sure they and their families are alright. To see that repeated footage of waste flooding an entire village was unsettling. I’m sure with the Japanese economy and their hard-working nature, restoration is a matter of time. I have faith that the earth has its own way of healing itself, like it usually does. What is scary for me, are the casualties. When I e-mail people back in Japan, what I want to hear is that everyone is alright. If the tsunami had hit Tokyo, where the population is exponentially bigger than the villages in Miyagi Prefecture, there wouldn’t be enough sympathy to go around. Anyway, it’s hard for me to comment on the situation as a bystander. Here are some recent photos by Tokyobling:

emptied convenience store

squished masses relying on buses instead of the electricity-runned subways

Drop by at his blog for more details, as well as old photos of the recently-hit Miyagi.

Japan–losing my way home

So far in my life, I have lived in five different places I’d consider as home. The first seven years of my life was spent in a condo in Taipei, Taiwan. I’ve lived with my parents for the majority, so wherever they are, it will always be a home for me.  And wherever I am, with my boyfriend, that is my current home. During my time in Japan, I moved from the boons to Kyoto. That, I count as two separate homes because of the impact they’ve had on my life.

The 2.5 years I spent in Japan were very tumultuous. I left Vancouver because I felt stuck. Nothing ever happened, no one ever changed, and tried as I might to do or create something worthwhile, I was uninspired. I went to university to appease my parents and grandparents. The classes were humongous, and I didn’t join any social clubs or live on campus for the full college experience. Looking back, I can say that the whole five years I spent in UBC can be summed up as a gray blur of trudging from one class to the next, and skipping class to spend hours in the Student Union Building (SUB) with friends chatting, and getting away from the cold. I took a range of classes, all within the Arts Faculty, from Shakespeare and Classical Japanese, to Art History and Religion, I did it all. I can honestly say, the most significant thing I learned was not the religious undertone of C.S. Lewis’ work. It was how to think.

Japan was a chance for change. I felt I had crammed a lot of life in those two (and a half) years in Japan. There was a lot of drama, and new friendships constantly being built, then withered away as people went back to their countries. Japan was more like a port for us foreign English teachers; a place of rest; a comma. I had two very different lifestyles in Takatsuki than in Kyoto. I switched from JET to a private company called, Interac, which paid less but at least I was in the city. I went from living the single life (my boyfriend at the time was an ocean away, and we eventually broke up after a few months), to starting a serious relationship with the wonderful person I’m with now. My weekends changed from taking the train down to metropolis to shop and party, to ordering a pizza and renting a movie with my sweetheart, sometimes traveling to other cities.

I really only started to drink and party after I moved to Japan. The laws on alcohol consumption made more sense there. One can drink in public, and purchase alcohol in convenience stores and the supermarket, but, as a teacher, if one was caught drinking and driving–or biking–he or she can be fired. Imagine the damage a drunk driver can do in those narrow streets and streams of pedestrians. There was a wonderful thing in Japan called Nomihodai (飲み放題), which is an all you can drink event. In the summer, these events are held on rooftops of hotels, usually paired with all you can eat. This may sound like a dangerous idea to our sensitive, North American mind, but the drinking culture in Japan is very subdued, just as one would guess. I have never been harassed by drunk men, even in clubs (for another post), and I have never seen a drunken brawl.

I’ve been dreaming about Japan. That’s always how it starts; first, I dream, I reminisce, I try to take it apart and analyze it, a few days later, bam! I have a new post. The premise of these dreams are all pretty much the same. I’m back in my little hole of an apartment in Kyoto, and I head to wander the streets. Along the way, I get lost. I try to get back but can’t remember the names of landmarks, like that temple my street was named after. I don’t even remember my phone number. It’s dark… I always revisit in the eerie twilight. The language is slipping but, images of my neighbourhood, restaurants we often went to, downtown, are still so fresh in my mind that I can rebuild the scene and take a stroll around the city.

Missing Japan

A few years ago, I had the good fortune of going on the JET Program to teach English in Japan. I lived in a small town in Shiga (滋賀) called Takatsuki (高月). After about a year, I decided to leave the gorgeous little town with its empty streets ideal for bike riding through peaceful rice fields, and move to a city where the last train was much later than 9PM, Kyoto. That year and-a-half was not what I expected. It was still full of exciting adventures and each day offered new challenges, but my first year in Japan in the country-side was still the most vivid, much like a first love, unshakably hard to forget. Perhaps because it contained memories of a lot of “firsts”, the most prominent being the first time living on my own which I tried to take full advantage of.

I had a dream last night about the first junior high school I worked at in Japan. In my dream, all the second-year teachers were crowded around me, gossiping about something I can’t remember. One of them was Mr. Soga, a guy a year younger than me whom I taught with the most frequently and had a desk right beside mine. Single, quiet, and an older brother to two, his superior English and age inevitably made him my confidant. He was a typically reserved Japanese man who spent his weekends in pachinko parlours, which were gaudy and noisy places businessmen, and women, frequented to play metal ball machines (aka Plinko?) for money, much like the mind-numbing effects of a slot machine.

image taken from Wikimedia

Our relationship was on a strong foundation that could be explained by how we addressed each other: him, by last name, and me, by my first. I had no qualms in sharing practically every detail of my life, which he would respond to most genuinely, but never shared much about himself outside of the office.

Soga was taller than most Japanese men, and had handsome features: large eyes, prominent nose, dark skin, the works. He was nice to look at, but beneath what would’ve been the window to his soul was emptiness. His stare was always a little placid, and made him an interesting subject for psychoanalysis and set a framework on understanding all other Japanese men I encountered thereon.

I moved to Japan in the fall of ’06. I remember receiving the phone call that changed the course of my life when I was shopping with my dad at Rona, a hardware store. I had a month to pack up my bags and say good-bye to my family, friends and my then-boyfriend, who was suspicious of the survival rate of a long-distance relationship. I didn’t feel unprepared, after all, I thought I knew all that I could about its culture through the language I had invested four years majoring in. I was so wrong. It was as if all this time I had been reading a fairy-tale version of this foreign country, and at other times, the reality of Japan was more surreal than anything I had ever imagined.

cont’d..