Category Archives: People

Cold Shoulders and Pocket Tissues

I have newfound sympathy for the tissue dispensers of Japan.

Ok that sounds a bit odd so here’s the explanation for anyone who hasn’t had a chance to wander the streets of Japan.

The humble flyer or pamphlet may be king in your part of the world but here in Japan the pocket pack of tissues reigns supreme. It’s unsurprising really in a nation so concerned with allergies, the flu and even the slightest case of the sniffles that they will don a mask without a moment’s hesitation that tissues would become the predominant force of street level advertising. Wander down any street in a major city, or in fact along any route with guaranteed foot traffic, say the front of a train station or the path leading to a university and you’re sure to encounter someone trying to hand you pocket tissues emblazoned with advertising.

In the past I’ve smiled, shook a hand, told them, “I’m ok thanks.”

Never again.

Last weekend in Tokyo after doing some pre-wedding dance rehearsals, not my wedding, right by the entrance in Yoyogi Park I figured I’d managed my quota for mild embarrassment for the day.

Nope.

One of the dancers that day is the man behind Sayonara Speed Tribes. We have a mutual friend and having met while playing poker, using pistachio nut shells in lieu of chips, we evidently know each other well enough for myself and the soon to be betrothed buddy of ours to be roped into handing out flyers/postcards for the screening of the documentary that night in Shimokitazawa.

So outside Yoyogi, quite possibly illegally, we set to the task of dispensing with a stack of around thirty postcards each, alternating between basic Japanese and English when we saw non-Japanese faces we tried to flog every last one of them.

Bousouzoku dokumentari de gozaimussssssssss.

Biker gangs in Japan documentary!

So how’d it go?

Well, it may have been a lovely spring day but boy did it feel frosty.

We were snidely laughed at by young Japanese men who thought it hilarious that a foreigner was handing out flyers and/or speaking Japanese.

We were flat out ignored by many people who simply refused to acknowledge our mere existence.

The young men did that too; it was quite the double act.

We were even dodged like the possessor of some virulent disease, the pedestrian taking an almost comically wide berth as they evaded our attention afraid we might breath advertising on them.

It was a nice reminder of why I often enjoy small city life so much. It’s not just being a little further south that makes where I live a bit warmer.

On the other hand though, some people did stop. Some even spoke. It wasn’t unrelenting cold shoulders and that made all the difference. Ten people in a row flat out ignoring you really is made all the easier by just one person paying the slightest bit of notice to you. Saying something, even if it’s saying, “no thanks” or just smiling and shaking their head makes an otherwise thankless task so much easier.

So if you took a flyer off me on Saturday, thank you!

And if you saw me dancing in the park… then let’s just pretend I was trying to give you a flyer.

Sayonara Speed Tribes on DVD.

Sayonara Speed Tribes on DVD.

Find out more about the movie and buy the dvd here.

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Sayonara Speed Tribes

Bosozoku

Bosozoku.

I can remember the first time I uttered the word in public. My class of elderly ladies giggled. My useless textbook had translated the term unbelievably loosely as teenager. It was frankly, a shit translation.

Sayonara Speed Tribes does a far better job of conveying what the word means; what it is coming to mean.

Literally the term bou-sou-zoku (暴走族) translates as violent-speed-tribe. It was a handy term coined by Japanese newspapers during the heyday of the biker gangs that emerged in post war Japan to describe the loitering youths, the joyrides on motorbikes and the violent clashes that occurred when these groups crossed paths.

By the 70s these groups, like all subcultures tend to become, were highly ritualized and ironically as subcultures always seem to do reproduced much of what they claimed to be abandoning and rejecting.

These bosozoku wore the uniforms of kamikaze pilots, ran their gangs in shades of samurai honour and enforced the sense of senpai and kohai that remains a dominant thread in Japanese life. They even retired from service, slipping either into the normal life of salary man or the criminal world of the Yakuza.

To me, the whole thing bears a disturbing if occasionally comical resemblance to a high school club. The uniforms, the training, the ritual, the respect for one’s elders and the necessity of carrying on the torch for them when they leave are all hallmarks of the life they apparently reject.

But things are changing.

Modern police tactics and the passing of time have led to a steep decline in bosozoku numbers and a move from violent outcry of youth and rebellion to pick and mix cultural identity.

It’s at this point where Sayonara Speed Tribes picks up the story.

Sayonara Speed Tribes follows the path of someone who stands with a foot in both worlds.

That someone is Hazuki, a legend within the bosozoku world. He is also a man left stranded by how quickly that world has changed, by how much he himself is desperate to change.

Fascinatingly, Hazuki lets filmmaker Jamie Morris into his life and allows him to see the changes he’s trying to make, the life he’s fighting so hard to build as at the age of forty he attempts to leave the world of bosozoku and Yakuza behind in order to follow his childhood dream into the kickboxing ring and beyond.

It’s an at times funny and moving documentary as Hazuki proves to be the perfect thread to follow between the past and the present realities of these groups. A charming figure, it’s hard not to root for him, not to hope that he’ll find the happiness and respect he craves.

Yet, Hazuki bears all the markings of his tribes, the tattoos and the scars of violence. In trying to leave his youthful world behind he still cannot shed the signs of his past life and rebuild.

For all that struggle though, I recommend you watch him try.

To learn more about the fine folk behind this documentary visit Figure8 Productions.

Tokaido Trailing

Every Sunday since the end of January I’ve been dragging my sleep deprived self out of bed at six a.m. to crawl into the shower, quickly shave, wrap up warm for the twenty-five minute walk down the street to the local train station to hop on the early morning bullet train bound for Tokyo.

It really isn’t that far away, in reality I probably spend almost as much time walking to the station and changing to the Tozai subway line in Tokyo as I do on the bullet train to Tokyo itself.

But for Tokyoites?

Well I might as well live on another planet. The shock and awe that I come from a different prefecture is entirely at odds with just how pleased Japan is, and rightly so, with their wonderful bullet trains and remarkable local train services.

It’s a wonder, a marvel I say!

You traveled for more than thirty minutes?! Good lord man, was it entirely necessary?

This is not an accurate translation or reflection of the people speaking by the way. This is how I translate it in my head for my own amusement. If I’m particularly bored I might translate it directly into the Yorkshire dialect…

Tha came from over yonder that there hill? Ecky thump!

Anyway, I’m drifting off here, back to the case in point.

I’m on a teaching course over in Tokyo every Sunday for the next few months and so I’m spending an awful lot of time heading up and down the Tokaido line.

My journey along it could not be more unremarkable despite the protestations and shock of those who call Tokyo their home. As far back as 1700 it has been endlessly traversed and is now the most traveled route in Japan as it links Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe.

Unlike the original travelers along the Tokaido though I’m heading by train, shaving a nice twenty-two hours off the journey by foot in the process. In that context my 230km weekly round-trip journey seems both remarkably speedy and yet utterly ordinary in regards to my own effort.

But therein lies its charm to me.

My morning commute by shinkansen (Bullet Train) seem to flash by in a haze of coffee and mini-croissants purchased on my amble down to the station.

I take the time to tweet or facebook my sleep deprived state, because if I’m suffering, then well, I want you dear followers to know about it. Comedic suffering that is; I’m far too English to reveal actual suffering… not that I do have any of that… sod it, you get the point.

Then provided I’ve hooked up my IV drip of black coffee, mainlined straight from coffee can to my veins, I will quite jauntily bound through Tokyo station to transfer to the Tozai subway line. At nine-ish on a Sunday morning it would be fair to say that I bound somewhat out of step with the rest of the early morning populace, hardly aware they exist beyond some imagined bonus level of Tokyo 3D Frogger: Dodge the Commuter!

In contrast, my journey home by local train, if I’m not too tired, is a fine opportunity. I’ve chatted to families returning home from a visit to the grandparents’ place (the daughter doing her English homework on the way), observed all manner of sleeping positions, been slept on/against by an innumerable number of strangers, almost fallen asleep and face planted into the carriage floor while leaning forward to read my kindle (a rookie mistake a Japanese would never make), snickered too loudly at The Bugle podcast (much like the Tube in London, one should remain an emotionless zombie whilst riding on public transport here) and drawn undue attention to myself as a result.

While the journey may at times be productive, more often than not it seems to take an age. After close to two hours heading south I change at Atami for the next step of the journey and fifteen minutes later exit my local station. I begin my walk home, buy a nikuman (Chinese style steamed bun) from the Konbini (Convenience store) along with a couple cans of beer in all likelihood and shuffle in the front door at around nine o’clock having left the classroom around six. I make dinner, box up the next day’s bento for the day job and hopefully crawl onto my futon before midnight.

On a good day, I feel like I’m getting the hang of the commute, moving from amateur commuter to professional in no time at all.

The next day I arrive at work around eight fifteen (ok more like eight twenty…five…ish) and immediately see the P.E. teachers who’ve been at school since seven, who’ll be there until nine that night.

They’re smiling.

I don’t know how they do it.

Compared to these teachers, I’m just a rookie. I do that long day once a week, they do it every day and they do it while working their socks off.

Think I best keep my amateur status.

I’m not ready for the big leagues yet.

tokaido shinkansen

The Ojigi’s Up Part 2: Dogs and Monkeys

So where am I now?

How far gone am I?

Well evidently I’m at the stage of ojigi-ing to strangers on the tube, I also accidently said sumimasen (excuse me) to a group of people earlier that day as I made my way through a crowded corridor at Paddington station. Fortunately I rather mumbled it and beyond relaying my embarrassment to my friend who was with me at the time I doubt anyone else was the wiser.

But, Japanese is there now, firmly locked into my head for at least as long as I live here and that is beginning to have other side effects beyond excessive bilingual politeness.

Because not only is it locked in; it wants to get out.

It wants to show off. Or I do. Frankly I’m not sure where to draw the line.

First of all there are natural trigger points for the language. It has in some way become automatic as the incident with the inadvertent sumimasen-ing demonstrates. If I’m thanking someone at a shop 99% of the year I’m saying doumo (thanks) or arigatou (thanks) and if I happen to be in Kyoto well I’m saying okini (thanks for saying thanks). Ta very much is generally no longer on the menu. It’s on the specials board but only makes an appearance around Christmas time. It’s a seasonal specialty if you will and makes about as much sense to the Japanese as the idea that Yorkshire pudding is not a dessert.

Home sweet... wait I am in King's Cross, right? Great, like I wasn't confused enough.

Home sweet… wait I am in King’s Cross, right? Great, like I wasn’t confused enough.

Then there are the moments where a Japanese word would actually work far better than an English word.

Natsukashii which translates as nostalgia or ahh that takes me back works far better in Japanese and conveys a multitude of feelings in a tenth of the time it takes in English.

Genki which means how are you? Is not only the question, it’s the answer. The how are you? exchange boiled down to two words.

Also it can be used to describe a hyperactive kid, a naturally energetic person and a person surprisingly energetic for their age too.

Japanese; more in common with a swiss army knife than a katana.

Then there’s KY. It’s short for kuuki yomenai and directly translates as can’t read atmosphere. I’m sure you know these kinds of people; most of us at some point are one after all. But as short hand for your socially useless mate or relative it’s a real time saver and compares favourably to, “Him? Yeah, he’s lovely when you get to know him…no, I know he seems like a dick now but…”

So there you have just a sliver of what’s going through my head as I walk around my hometown. A constant but rather patchy subtitling system throwing up possible alternatives that fulfill the criteria of being better than the more common term but then rather falls down on the fact that you are the only person within god knows how many square miles who has any idea what you’re saying.

It’s like dogs and monkeys I suppose (cats and dogs, a bad relationship).

Maybe English and Japanese just isn’t supposed to share one cranium.

There’s only one thing for it.

Talk to the family dog.

Turns out he already knew suwatte (sit).

I might have taught him last year…

I may have taken the idiom the wrong way.

This may be chronic.

The Ojigi’s Up

It was my third time home and I knew things would be different. The first time I came home Japan was still new and shiny, I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of the country, the language remained utterly mystifying beyond the simplest of exchanges and I had little idea that some two years later I’d be visiting home for the third time still with no end in sight to my time in Japan.

Coming home this time was different for a quite simple reason; I’ve passed what Malcolm Gladwell coined The Tipping Point when all the little things begin to coalesce and emerge as the beginnings of a new whole… on the London Underground of all places.

I’d made it through Heathrow airport in one piece and was at this point on the tube winging my way through London. As I went to alight at Oxford Circus to change to the Victoria line an older gentleman attempted to get on the train at the same instant. There was a moment of sidestepping in unison, left then right, a lean back and a shimmy forward before I thought to myself, hold on passengers get off first, and slipped past him with my mid-sized duffle bug.

As I put the bag down on the platform it occurred to my jetlagged brain that perhaps the older man had not in fact been letting me off first and had been thinking age before youth, or more likely in London, screw you mate I’m going first.

So, nervous that I may have offended the man I turned around as the doors were closing to give the man a slight nod to show my appreciation or apologies.

Except I didn’t nod.

The head moved forward yes, but my neck didn’t so much as creak. The pivot had come from my waist.

I’d bloody well ojigi-ed (bowed) to the miserable old bugger.

Ok it was only a slight ojigi certainly but it was noticeably not a nod.

Two and a half years ago I’d barely scratched the surface here; I knew that. What I didn’t know was that Japan had not only scratched my surface it had damn well got under my skin, buried itself in my subconscious to the point where muscle memory if left unchecked would leave me bowing to poor defenseless Brits across the land.

However, uncontrolled and hopefully largely unobserved ojigi-ing is not the only symptom.

I’ll get to them in the next post.

In the meantime though, I may have found a cure while I was at home at least.

Simple yet effective.

I wonder if they serve it on British Airways?

The cure to what ales thee.

When Aliens Try to Poke Aliens: How to survive a trip to the hospital in Japan

The face goes blank, the eyes widen and an arm stretches out, index finger leading as if to greet ET. He’s slipped into automated curiosity, an autopilot for exploring the world around him, activated by the presence of anything new or out of the ordinary. At five years old that’s pretty much everything he sees. Under normal circumstances it’s a good thing. A biological imperative to learn, develop and understand the world around him. Today, for me, that’s a problem. Today I have a fresh scar on my neck concealed beneath a large white bandage that might as well be a giant red button and he’s heading straight for it.

Perhaps I should explain how I got here. About a month before that kids finger began to make a beeline for some very tender and fresh scar tissue I was sitting in the Doctor’s office in a small clinic at the heart of the Izu Peninsula. What had brought me here was my third cold of the year. I teach at a day care centre, catching a cold every couple months is pretty much a quarterly contractual obligation, so usually nothing to write home about. Except in this case it had had something of a knock on effect. It had caused a small epidermal cyst in my neck to double in size and so I made my journey to the heart of Izu, to this tiny rather ramshackle clinic, to begin my guided tour through the Japanese health service.

Alongside me in that room, aside from myself, my friend and the doctor were a pharmacist, another patient behind a curtain and three nurses whose sole job appeared to be smiling at me with their heads at a jaunty yet unthreatening thirty-five degree angle. In smaller towns, where the tone of your skin is liable to make you something of a B-list celebrity, it’s perhaps better to forget all thoughts of privacy.

Well-worn cliché number one, Japanese people stare at foreigners, now attended to we move onto number two; the notoriously low English level of the Japanese. How low? Well, my first Doctor’s professional thoughts as to my treatment were that,

“Considering the language difficulty, I recommend you go home.”

Hardly what you want to hear when you’re speaking to a doctor. Especially so when a return trip home is liable to set you back a thousand pounds and result in the loss of your job by your absence. Particularly when you are legally obliged to pay into the very health system that has just decided to inform you, in Japanese, that even though you have barely uttered a word of English to the doctor, that despite turning up with a Japanese friend willing to translate for you, that the doctor’s phobia of the English language is so great you ought to consider repatriation.

Having ignored this advice and moved onto a larger hospital, with a letter of recommendation from the first Doc (she was freaked out by English, not unprofessional), I’ve since made it out of the Japanese health system alive and well. Aside from the suggestion of flying over two thousands back home for a minor medical ailment, I’ve had a positive if somewhat complicated experience. So here’s some advice for those who’ve yet to venture down the red tape, rabbit hole.

Work on your Kanji

Let’s face it, Kanji (Chinese characters) is hard. Not impossible, but reaching the level of competency required to understand medical Japanese is going to be pretty far in your future. So if you live outside of any major metropolitan area in Japan and your Japanese isn’t fully up to scratch you’re going need a native speaking friend or co-worker to help guide you through all this, because while foreigners in Japan are legally obliged to pay into the national health insurance scheme there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of English, Portuguese or Chinese language help. No one is looking for an on call translator, but the odd bit of multi-lingual paperwork would be helpful.

That Japan has only recently introduced full time translators to its major airports would suggest that help for those who haven’t mastered their Japanese quite yet might be some time coming. An ethnic Japanese population of around 98% might suggest it might not even arrive at all.

Generational Issues

The one thing I really wasn’t expecting, aside from the suggestion I get my minor ailment treated back in England to save on language difficulties, was how much my ability to understand my doctor’s Japanese would change from person to person.

My first Doctor, age fifty something, 70% understanding.

My second Doctor, age thirty something, 80% understanding.

My third Doctor, twenty something… 0%.

Take a moment to consider how you, your parents and your grandparents speak. Same language but great, impossibly deep chasms can separate the young from the old in terms of syntax and phrasing.

In this case my third Doctor sounded like she majored in cuteness at Hello Kitty University. Her conversation may have been peppered with the cute linguistic, idiosyncrasies of the young in a country obsessed by all things, ‘Kawaii’ (Japanese for cute), but there is something quite disturbing in having someone who could voice a Muppet inform you of the length of the scar you’re about to receive.

Even more staring than usual

Whatever your problem is, pray it isn’t sexual or highly visible. Particularly if like many English speaking foreigners working in Japan you’re a teacher. Because your students are going to ask what’s wrong, your colleagues will ask what’s wrong and then your boss will.

If it’s visible, as the bandage on my neck was, prepare to be stared at even more than usual.

This place is not designed for the likes of you

No not foreigners, though we certainly aren’t at the top of the list of people to consider. I mean anyone under sixty-five. When I arrived in the waiting room of a hospital early one morning, ticket stub in hand to wait for my turn with the doctor, I realized that at precisely eight in the morning I was the only person below retirement age in an utterly jam-packed waiting room.

There’s a fairly simple reason for this phenomenon in my inaka (countryside) hospital; you can’t make appointments or advanced reservations. It’s first come first served and the old folks are up and waiting outside that doctor’s door at six a.m. on the dot. All this despite the fact that that doctor’s door will not open until exactly eight a.m.

And finally, for those who teach… have cat like reflexes

I teach at a day care centre once a week. It has its up and downsides. Upside, enthusiastic, endlessly entertaining kids. Downside, they don’t know what personal space is. Nor are their social skills too refined by age five.

As such when entering a classroom I got a, “ Hello Masshu (my name once Japanafied) Sen…. ehhh.” That final ‘ehhh’ was delivered with a pretty impressive synchronized head tilt and thirty little faces that screamed, why the hell is there a bandage on your neck!

But this isn’t sympathy, it’s curiosity and while this kind of curiosity is unlikely to lead you to such a fate as enjoyed by overly inquisitive felines it is liable to attempt to jab you wherever it hurts.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing though, considering where they usually try to poke you.

Murdering the Art of Conversation: a silent death

I’ve been contemplating a list of banned phrases lately for my classroom walls. That may seem rather counterintuitive for a person whose profession largely involves the expansion of vocabularies, but I promise there is a benign intent here.

You see Japanese and English are frankly about as disparate as two languages could ever hope to be. It may not be a particularly positive position to take but inevitably when encountering things that can limit or impede your progress in acquiring a new tongue, a language barrier that has more in common with a chasm than a wall is going to be rather hard to miss as you plunge gormlessly into it, your shoelaces artfully tied together in knots of misused grammar.

So yes, it’s hard work, no one ever said learning something as powerful, beautiful and profound as a language would be easy. But the reality is that these natural obstacles can seem like little more than a speed bump when you consider some of the monuments to frustration that students themselves construct to block their way.

In adult classes students are generally interested in improving their conversational skills so I begin every lesson with something open ended to allow them to flex their linguistic muscles, to let them make use of all their years of hard work. So how do many of them choose to answer? By slashing the throat of the conversation, by stamping on the budding tête-à-tête and blowing out the candles early on any possible discussion with a, “So-so” or, “Nothing special.”

It’s usually at this point that I remember that not only does my job involve teaching English but for some people the basic tenets of a conversation. However, if these are self-constructed walls then the foundations they rest on are of a more professional variety. You’d have to go to school for this kind of solid bedrock.

When I asked my sixteen-year-old student last week what he’d done that week I was expecting a list of exams, such is the life of the average high school kid.  So when he mentioned he’d had an English test I inquired further, what exactly had he done?

“Did you have to speak in the test?”

“No.”

“Any listening?”

“No.”

“So just writing?”

“Yes.”

“So what was the subject of the test?”

“Oral communication.”

Teacher’s brain explodes in blind fury within the confines of his cranium.

Of course it was.