More Disassembled Ideas
(1) Spotting Japanese tourists from a distance
During a one-day visit to downtown Torontoin July with my daughter, I realized that in Canada I can spot and accurately identify Japanese tourists from a distance. I mean, I could reliably distinguish them from other Asians, or domestic Asian Canadians by their appearance alone (dress, posture, body language, etc.) without hearing them speak. Getting closer to them and hearing them speak only confirmed my first impressions that they were Japanese instead of, say, Koreans or Chinese. What’s up with that? When abroad as tourists Japanese have a big-eyed, lost look on their faces, like lemurs out of the forest.
The Russian island of Sakhalin, bordering the Sea of Okhotsk, lies north of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. From 1905 when Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, until 1945 when Japan was defeated by the Allied Powers - including Russia, which kind of cynically joined the conflict in the Pacific theater at the last minute to partake of the spoils - the southern half of Sakhalin was annexed to Japanand part of its territory. Flying into Japan from Canada, I always pass over eastern Siberia - the Kamchataka Peninsula and then Sakhalin. Maybe sometimes the Air Canada aircraft just skirts the area, but that is the route - the far northern route from Toronto, over the Northwest and Yukon Territories, Alaska, and then south along the western Pacific rim, over Sakhalin, the island of Hokkaido and finally the Pacific coast of the Japanese main island, Honshu, to Narita, Tokyo. I have always known it. But not until this year did I ever see Sakhalinisland outside the plane’s window. First, to begin with, I dislike the window seat of an aircraft because I like to go to the toilet without having to climb over strangers. The window seat is a trap. (The aisle seats are my preference.) Second, flight attendants are habitually draconian about keeping the window shades down, “for the comfort of other passengers” (the return flight to Japan is always a daylight flight all the way, lending itself to a standing request for drawn shades). These days it is a serious federal offense to disregard the instructions of flight attendants. Third, even if I have the chance and the will to look out, there is usually nothing to see but clouds anyway, so why bother?
But this year was different. My daughter had the window seat next to me, and I didn’t mind leaning over her to peek out. I knew where we were and that it was Sakhalin island down there because the map of our route and our current location on the cabin video monitor told me so. I was quite impressed. The sky was clear and I could make out the mountains, the coast, even some roads.
I thought, “Wow! Roads! Some Russians are living down there, right now! I wonder if they can see my plane? I wonder if they hate me? Right now they’re probably eating their lunch down there and speaking Russian. Wow! Real Russians, not like those paper Russians from novels or newspapers, or model Russians from the movies.” That’s how impressed I was. Then I thought of Slim Pickens riding his atom bomb down onto Russia from his disabled B-52 bomber in the Stanley Kubrick movie Dr. Strangelove. The landscape outside my window looked like how I remember the Russian landscape in that movie. But then, from thirty thousand feet I suppose all landscape might look the same.
(3) Lindsay Lohan
I had a dream about American actress Lindsay Lohan. Please don’t psychoanalyze it. It was a science fiction-horror dream. Lindsay was an astronaut on the American Space Shuttle. I was also aboard as some kind of flight technician. Lindsay went outside to do a repair mission space walk in the cold vacuum of space - something involving the articulated robot arm (made in Canada and called the “Canadarm” by Canadian media, but always referred to as “the shuttle’s robot arm” by American media). I stayed inside, and for some reason I had a piece of antique Egyptian papyrus, given to me as a totem, or a talisman, or a toy to take into space. The problem is that the papyrus had an ancient Egyptian curse on it, which I learned late. After Lindsay left the craft the papyrus began changing into all manner of horrible things, one after another. But no one else aboard the space shuttle was witness to it. Only me. Was it space sickness? Some kind of altitude dementia? Not in the dream it wasn’t.
(4) Lord of the Flies
I recently watched the American film version by Harry Hood of Sir William Golding’s modern British classic,Lord of the Flies. I think I had seen it before, and I’ve certainly read the novel before. It remains a disturbing story, and the film is a quite excellent rendition of the novel. I was thinking anyone who knows the Lord of the Flies story knows what teaching Grade 5 and 6 boys is like. They are kinetic to the point of being described as violence prone, they are completely and overwhelmingly selfish, petty, adamant, demanding, stubborn, snide and insolent as they consistently push the envelop of behavior with adults, and they are very conformist and group-ish. They revere power and have strategies for their own empowerment that look tribal and barbaric to adults. That does not mean that they are ‘bad’boys. That’s just how they are. It’s the wonder of boys. And, that is why Grade 5 / 6 teachers - male and female - must be strong characters. Firm, clear, consistent, and unyielding because this is what their boys are looking for. It’s what they want, and I have come to believe that children, especially 10-year-old boys, do not appreciate a soft or compassionate demeanor. They don’t like humor, and they want things delivered to them simply and in black-and-white. Despite their annoying tom-foolery, they’re are very serious about their dependence on simple black-and-white boundaries. They don’t appreciate libertarian treatment by adults in speech or in manner. They want hierarchy and order and they want it firmly applied, whether or not they are aware of it or would even admit it. It’s a male thing. Older teens are more independent and ready to defy authority to force a place for themselves in the world. But younger teens are not so independent and they definitely rely more on adults to set things straight. Without adults they become - well, Lord of the Flies.
(5) Suspicious Things
The airplane’s passenger cabin video monitor displayed the message “Report anything suspicious” before take off, in addition to the usual traveler’s fare of overhead compartment, seat belt and emergency exit procedure information. It is symptomatic of the entire slew of public safety warnings we are bombarded with today that have cropped up like mushrooms after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. Here in Tokyothere are multi-lingual warnings about reporting suspicious, untended packages on the trains, and similar warnings at the entrances to major office towers regarding suspicious persons that were not there before 9/11. Not that they were not deserved before 9/11, though, because home-grown terrorism in Japanhas a long history. In fact, there is no history of foreign, imported terrorism here that I know of.
The infamous “Nippon Sekigun,” or “Japanese Red Army”reached its peak kidnapping, killing, hijacking and bombing in the 1970s, first against authority figures in Japanese society and finally against each other. But its remaining, jailed members (and their children living in exile in North
Korea) still make the news and still display an unapologetic extremism. Then, the Aum Shinrikyo (“Aum Supreme Truth” religious cult that released poison gas on Tokyo subway trains in 1995) still exists, and still recruits new members. These are the prime culprits that Japanese overlook in order to concentrate on an invented, fictitious foreign danger. But it was not until after the 2001 incident that public warning signs began to proliferate.
There is a bilingual, Japanese-English sign that I have noticed on the door windows of the Yamanote Line commuter train cars. In English it says that the National Police Agency and JR East are in a condition of high alert (in red ink), and asks passengers to report “something suspicious” (again in red ink). This vagueness is such a typical Japanese way of speaking that automatically I am persuaded that the English translation of the adjacent Japanese sign is accurate. The signs are permanent fixtures, so I guess that means the police and the railway company are permanently on high alert, which seems very unfortunate because just thinking about it is exhausting. Someone ought to tell JR East that saying“something suspicious” indicates that they have a particular thing in mind. But what is it? They don’t say. They probably don’t want to be asked because the truth is that they suspect no imminent danger at all.
The explanation, of course, is to foster a permanent feeling of fear among the public. That softens us up to make increased government interference in our lives easier. I also find it a very merican sentiment - fear.
The strategy doesn’t work well on me, first because I do not perceive imminent risks of danger and so I do not live in fear. Next, I consider most things “suspicious,” especially signs trying to control my thought by getting me to report suspicious things. If I conscientiously obeyed the public warnings I would make a nuisance of myself reporting things all the time.
See that man sleeping on the train? He’s suspicious. See that high school girl talking on her cell phone? She’s suspicious. See that child on the park swing? That’s suspicious, too. Hear that blabbering politician? Hell, yes, that’s suspicious. Did you see the detergent commercial on TV last night? That was suspicious. Look at that baseball game! That’s suspicious. And while I’m at it, straighten your necktie, you suspicious freak! My students suspiciously said hello to me. That woman I passed on the sidewalk suspiciously looked in my direction. Am I ridiculous? Of course I am, and of course it is. I am tired of being told to watch out for and then report what other people say is suspicious. It’s suspicious to ask me to do so and even more suspicious to make it a mandatory civic duty. What’s next? Teachers, scout and church leaders urging us to report on our family members (for state security)? You bet it is. In fact, it’s already here.
(6) Unemployment Insurance
Unemployment insurance is called “shitsukyo hokken” in Japanese, and I recently found myself in the unenviable position of having to apply to receive it. In the end, I did not in fact receive any money, but that is another story. Not everyone who finds themselves out of work in Japanis eligible for benefits - maybe this is true in Canada as well. Only if your employer pays into the unemployment insurance scheme is an unemployed person eligible. In fact, it is a legal requirement for employers to contribute to the funds on behalf of all their employees (full timers, anyway), but many do not, especially if their employees are foreigners - who are largely expendable commodities in the common Japanese perspective and relatively easy to let slip through social cracks.
(Unemployment is only one deduction that employers are required to pay into on behalf of their employees but then too frequently ignore, especially if their workers are foreigners. Others include the old age pension plan. Ignoring the mandatory social payments is one way that foreigners fall through cracks in society. It creates a predicament that many foreigners also cultivate by ignoring mandatory payments they must make to maintain the society we livein here: resident tax, income tax, social health insurance, etc. Over the years I have known many people who glibly ignored these crucial payments and just changed address or returned to their home countries when the city government authorities came knocking. They feel no obligation to support the society where they live, and their sojourn here is only about money - their money, money for themselves.)
Now, as expected there is a lot of paperwork to fill out at the unemployment office, dubbed “Hello Work.” I was surprised when, during English-language counseling to explain the precise manner of filling out the paperwork, I was told that insurance payments would last a maximum of 180-day, or until I“decided” to work once more. Of course, Japanese think that the purpose of life is to work rather than the other way around, so perhaps my reaction was naïve. But I immediately tried to clarify the matter by saying that I had no job because of Japanese employers’ decision not to offer a contract, not my decision not to work. Naturally, the distinction fell on deaf ears, and even if it didn’t the distinction I was trying to preserve must have seemed incomprehensible.
My point is that like homelessness, Japanese see unemployment largely as a voluntary lifestyle choice, and I think this diminishes their response to it. I felt hurt to be spoken to about “deciding”to work once more because that language dismissed the financial crisis that unemployment plunged my family into. Unacceptable!
(7) Coca-Cola Zero
I have been drinking Diet Coke for years. Before that I drank Tab Cola, which at the time (the early 1980s) was the only sugar-free cola there was. To be sure, Tab had a really weird taste, but I kind of got used to it. With the spreading popularity and use of the artificial sweetener Aspartame, Coca Cola and Pepsi introduced their own diet drinks. (Remember Pepsi Free, featured in the Michael J. Fox movie, Back to the Future? In the 1955 coffee shop Marty asks, “Give me a Pepsi Free.” “Listen, kid, if you want a Pepsi you’re gonna pay for it!”) I have long preferred the taste of Coca Cola over Pepsi Cola, because the latter tastes too sweet - evening sickeningly sweet, and there’s something not quite right about it, too - while the former tastes a little sour, which isn’t perfect, either, but it beats the taste of Pepsi. Then the diet varieties with Aspartame tasted fruity by comparison which was something to get used to, but it was okay.
Last spring I saw the newest variation of Coca Cola on store shelves here, “Coca-Cola Zero,” which is another sugar-free variety, but with a different taste than Diet Coke which - fortunately, because I am accustomed to it - is still on the shelves. Like I said, I prefer the Diet Coke with its Aspartame-fruity taste, but the Coke Zero (also with Aspartame) gets back to the sour taste of the old, original Coke. I’ve drank it a few times, but I remain largely suspicious of it, preferring to seek out the old gray-and-red labels of the Diet Coke. The red-on-black Coca-Cola Zero label definitely appeals to my color taste, but it also looks a little stark and frightening. I think I will treat it suspiciously for a while longer.
(8) International Schools
There are two kinds of“international” schools in Japan, the real ones and the fake ones. A“real” international school is a school that follows the American school calendar (late-August-to-June, with a long summer holiday, long Christmas/New Year’s break, plus March break), operates in English and follows an American curriculum in English, using English-language American textbooks. They boast certification as international schools by one or more of several certifying organizations, the International Baccalaureate Association being the most prestigious, and they send their graduates to American colleges and universities.
The “fake” international schools are the Japanese schools with intense English programs, large numbers of Japanese returnee students, a grand reputation for sending graduates to prestigious Japanese colleges, and expectations of grander things for themselves. They operate in Japanese, teaching a Japanese curriculum and following the Japanese school calendar (beginning in April and running until March with only three weeks of paid vacation - two at New Year’s and one in summer). I don’t think there is anything“international” about them, but remember that in Japan the form of something, how it appears, is always much more important than the content of it, how it really is, and Japanese will not hesitate to lie until they are blue in the face, and commit bribery and fraud to spin things. Chinese and Koreans are the same, of course. One of the great lessons when studying Asia is observing, understanding and coming to terms with this whole Form/Content thing. “International” is an attractive adjective with cachet, a status symbol, and that is the most important thing about it.