The First Meeting


It’s an amazing likeness, I must say.

This one should be short and relatively non-venomous. I’ll do my best.

Prime Minister Abe will meet with Trump

This was a little unexpected, really. I figured it would be Putin, but who can tell with these things?

Anyway, I’ve long had a suspicion that Prime Minister Abe was hoping for Trump to win, mainly due to Trump’s insistence that Japan up its payment to the U.S. for military protection. Interesting fact: Japan pays about 75% of the cost of the US being here, more than any other nation. But that’s neither here nor there. Here’s the scenario I think Abe is hoping for:

Trump shakes Japan down for more money. Japan says, “Sorry, but no.” Trump then threatens to withdraw troops, to which Abe says, “Go right ahead.” This gives Abe and his party (kind of like a hawkish, just as racist but not quite as insane GOP) the excuse to do what they’ve been aching to do for years now – revise the Japanese constitution and take out Article Nine, which forbids Japan from having the power to go to war.

Japan has slowly been working out ways around this clause over the last few years. It’s pretty obvious that the Powers That Be want a proper army again, most likely in case China or North Korea get uppity. The current Self Defense Force has been gaining more and more militancy, but they’re still not allowed to really go to battle the way other armies are. At best they can engage in support actions, more or less. I’m simplifying, but you get the idea.

The rest of the Japanese population, though, is dead against it. They really like being the only country that is constitutionally forbidden to go to war, and most people would like to keep it that way. Unfortunately, the ruling party is not terribly concerned with what the people want (surprise), and are working their way to railroad constitutional revision through. Having the U.S. pull troops out would benefit that process, adding urgency to the whole thing. Next thing you know, Japan has an army and a navy again, and countries up and down the Pacific start to get very, very nervous…

Or Abe just wants to see if Trump is actually real. I have no idea. Either way, it’s an interesting turn of events.


Who Has Two Thumbs and a Permanent Resident Visa?

Photo taken by The Boyfriend, who is just bossy enough as a photographer to go pro...

Photo taken by The Boyfriend, who is just bossy enough as a photographer to go pro…

This guy!

Yes, after a very long process, a goodly amount of money and no small amount of stress and needless fretting, I am officially a Permanent Resident of Japan.

What this means for me is that my residence here is more secure. I don’t have to renew the visa every three years as before, and I don’t have to worry about the unfortunate confluence of an expired visa and an expired job contract again. If I do find myself out of work, I’ll be able to take time getting a new one without wondering how I’ll pack up my whole life and return to the United States in ignominy. [1] In addition, there are more types of work available to me. Previously, my visa status had me as a teacher or a professor, and that was what I was legally allowed to do. Now I could do anything, provided someone wants to hire me for it. If I were so inclined, this would make it easier to start a business, as well as buy property and gods know what else.

All told, this buys me some amount of security, which makes me very happy. One less thing to worry about.

That's me, baby.

That’s me, baby.

If you’ve come to this page to find out about getting a PR visa, here’s what I did: I got a lawyer. More expensive, yes, but this process is complicated and long and drawn-out, and I wanted to minimize the chances of screwing everything up, especially considering I had a time limit in front of me. My guy was Kawazoe Satoshi, who took care of everything and was very patient when I started to get twitchy and nag him for details. [2]

Also, I need to thank The Boyfriend, who stood as guarantor for me despite really not being comfortable doing so. This was partly because he didn’t like the idea of handing over personal information to some lawyer he didn’t know, but also because he was worried that the whole process might fail because he wasn’t financially or professionally stable enough for the Department of Justice. Fortunately, he was acceptable to the Powers That Be. He stepped up for me and helped make this possible. Good man.

Speaking of jobs, there’s an update there as well – Ritsumeikan Uji hasn’t gotten rid of me yet. While my regular contract does expire in April, I was taken on board by the International Baccalaureate program at our school, where I will be teaching Literature and Theory of Knowledge for at least another two years. For those of you not familiar with the IB Diploma program, it’s an internationally administered course that puts high school students through two years of rigorous academic work in various fields of study. It’s not for the faint of heart, and that applies to teachers as well as students, but the kids who come out of it are more likely to propel themselves to greater success in the years after high school.

So I’ll be teaching literature, which is exactly what it sounds like, and Theory Of Knowledge, which I’m learning about at the moment. Basically it’s a “How do we know what we know?” kind of course, which has the potential of making me absolutely insufferable on Facebook for a while. My apologies in advance.

All of this means that my 2012 Existential Crisis has come to a close, and has done so in a good and satisfying way. No doubt I’ll come up with something else to worry about at some point, but right now I’m just going to revel in my stability.

Pictured: My idea of stability

Pictured: My idea of stability

[1] Which is still an option, mind you. Just not quite as likely as before.
[2] Of which there were, usually, none. Immigration is kind of a black hole – all the documents get submitted and then you wait until they’re done. You have no idea how they’re progressing, and no matter how you nag your lawyer, he won’t be able to tell you anything more than, “Just be patient.”

Thanksgiving, Day 3: Public Transportation

(Hey, I can’t put all the Big Serious ones in a lump at the beginning. Gotta sprinkle in some more quotidian thanks, just to keep things moving.)

The last time I was home, my father very kindly – and bravely – let me drive his car. It wasn’t far, just a mile or two to a restaurant, but it was the first time I’d driven a car in probably a decade, and I was mostly just concentrating on not causing a catastrophic mess.

You thought I was kidding…

I didn’t get us or anyone else killed, of course, and I have to admit it was nice to drive again. As nice as it was, though, it didn’t make me want to get into a car on a regular basis again. The momentary enjoyment of driving doesn’t balance out the incredible hassle of actually owning a car. The insurance, the parking, buying gas, getting oil changes, black ice, getting pulled over for a brake light and finding out your license has been suspended for the last eight months, flat tires in the middle of nowhere, the engine catching on fire… I’m sure you can relate.

None of that comes into play when you have efficient, convenient public transportation available.

Japan has some of the best public transportation in the world. Trains are clean, safe, and on time, and they reach almost anywhere you want to go. They’re a wonder of efficiency and technology, and they’ve been embraced by the population as the best way to get around for your day-to-day life. From the slow local trains that will take you far into the countryside to the futuristic shinkansen, which – when you factor in all the hassle involved – will get you places sooner, in greater comfort, and with far less hassle than an airplane. Living in Japan has made me a public transportation evangelist, and if I have my way I will never own a car again.

This is my commute. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

If there were one thing I could wish for the U.S., it would be that this level of public transportation were available for everyone. That is totally unrealistic, though – even in Japan, there are places where the trains don’t reach, or come so seldomly that a car is a necessity. So we’ll never be rid of them, but the U.S. deserves at least some kind of shinkansen-level intercity light rail system that hooks up the major population centers. Acela is good, but they can do better. I know there are plans in the works in parts of the country to get this kind of system, which is wonderful, and I hope it materializes. I know, I know – it’s expensive, it’ll take ages to build, and people do love their cars. But trust me, it’s worth it.

I use public transportation every day, and if I had to go back to driving, I think I’d go mad.

Thanksgiving, Day 1: Japan

Even though Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in Japan, and I haven’t had a proper Thanksgiving since 1999, it’s still my favorite holiday. I describe it to people here as a day to think about the things that are going well in your life, instead of what we all usually do, which is to focus with laserlike intensity on the things that are going wrong. Of course, there are other upsides to Thanksgiving as well – it’s a time to get together with your family, to eat egregious amounts of really good food, and to enjoy a four-day weekend. What’s more, it’s a day that isn’t dedicated to any one religion or ethnic group or anything. It’s for anyone and everyone.

Last year, John Scalzi got the idea to do what he called a Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, in which he would make a daily post on his blog to detail those things for which he was thankful. I figure if I’m going to steal an idea, I may as well steal a good one. So without further ado, here is my own version. Keep in mind that there is no actual order of Thankfulness involved here – they come up as I think of them.

First up: Japan

Taken the day after I got here, at Higashi Honganji temple in Kyoto. Those pigeons were a force to be reckoned with…

I moved here in September of 2000, thinking I would stay for a little while, teach English, and then – after making some indeterminate improvements in myself – come back to the United States a changed man, ready to tackle the responsibilities of being a proper adult. One year became two, which became three, which then went on until it was twelve. Now that I am thirty-eight years old, I realize that I have lived nearly a third of my life here – indeed, this is the longest I’ve ever lived in one place since I was growing up in Connecticut.

There’s something about being here that just… works. It’s certainly not the language, as my ability to speak Japanese is woefully deficient, considering how long I’ve been here. Maybe it’s the history, the landscape, or the lack of that special kind of aggression that comes with living in the United States. [1] Maybe it’s the weirdness and highly contrastive nature of the country, where you can have centuries-old temples that stand amidst dense forests, smelling of incense and earth – and a five minute walk will being you to some of the trendiest and modern shopping and dining you’ll find anywhere. It’s a complex and deep country with a fascinating culture and history that is wildly different from the one I grew up in.

While Japan hasn’t exactly welcomed me with open arms – I still am, and always will be, an outsider here – it has been welcoming, patient, and kind. I’ve met some of the most interesting and generous people I knew while living in this country.

There’s always this as a fallback, but the commute is awful…

Hell, maybe it’s just because I can get a job. Whenever I think about moving back to the States, the first thing I think is, “Yes, but what would you do there?” I don’t know that I have the skills or training for anything outside of ESL, and as I approach the more venerable age of forty, I realize that my employment opportunities in general are dwindling. Thoughts of moving home are usually followed by thoughts of having to work in retail again, and that just can’t happen. Switching careers is a hard enough thing for anyone to do, but to do it while switching countries at the same time? I’m not sure I’m up for that yet.

But here I have a skill. A valuable skill, at that. It is true that, at its most basic levels, you don’t need any special training to teach English here, but my experience and my time make me more valuable (I hope) than some yahoo who’s trying to extend his tourist visa. In Japan, I am employable. Elsewhere, I’m not so sure.

Japan has been good to me, in ways I never thought it would be. There’s still a lot for me to learn and to do, but I know that I’ll never be bored here. For that alone, I am thankful.

[1] The first time I came home for Christmas, I was shocked by how aggressive and angry people sounded when they said, “Excuse me.” Not to get my attention or anything, but just as they were moving past me in the store or something like that. It had this very distinct undertone of, “Why the fuck are you in my way?”

Oh, that’s right – earthquake

So remember when I said that I wanted to write more than book reviews over here? Yeah, I remember that…. Well, as I have been gently reminded, the recent events in Japan this weekend are pretty good as far as blogging fodder. This is for several reasons: they’re dramatic, and I am far enough away from said events that I am not only alive, but still have a home and an internet connection by which to blog them.

Anyway, a timeline: The first I heard of the quake was when The Boyfriend sent me a text saying that he and the pets were fine, there was just a little shaking, nothing to worry about. Since my school is apparently built on something quite sturdy, I didn’t feel a thing, but within moments the TVs in the teachers’ room were on, and we were all watching the events unfold in horrific real time.

This was right after the high school graduation ceremony. We had all had a nice morning, seeing off our graduated students, taking pictures and swapping contact info, and then this. One of my colleagues has family up in Sendai, and was trying to get through to them, but the phone lines were, as expected, jammed. He had hoped to take a quick flight up there to help out, until we watched Sendai airport get crushed by a ten meter wave.

The rest of the day – the rest of the weekend, in fact – was just a constant parade of horrors as more and more terrible news came to light. Cities had been washed away, and some were not only under water but also on fire, like Kesennuma.

I made sure to put messages out in the Social Network-O-Sphere that I was fine, undamaged and well away from the quake. When I got home, The Boyfriend was watching live coverage on both the TV and his computer, and was pretty wound up about the whole thing. Considering that our building is right next to the Yodo River, this is understandable. He wanted to make plans, what to do if it happens while we’re home, what to do if it happens while we’re away, where we should meet and if anyplace around here could truly be called safe. If the quake had happened down on, say, Awaji island, a wall of water would no doubt have come slamming into downtown Osaka, which would make Friday’s devastation look like small potatoes.

I spent most of my weekend fielding emails and messages and phone calls from people who wanted to make sure that I was okay, which I was. When I wasn’t doing that, we were watching the news and following along as things went from bad to worse. Bad enough that the quake was the biggest in Japan’s recorded history, that entire towns had been flattened, that some towns still couldn’t find half their residents – now we had a nuclear problem as well.

The media in Japan is pretty much like the media in any other country – they’re not allowed to stop and say, “Look – we have no information for you. When we do, we’ll let you know, but until then let’s all just chill and watch some funny cat videos.” So they invited experts on to try and guess what had happened, and those experts predicted everything under the sun. Everything is fine, they said, unless it isn’t. No, there’s going to be a meltdown, just like Chernobyl! No, it’s totally different from Chernobyl, but let me mention Three Mile Island…. The news ran the footage of the Fukushima plant explosion over and over again, without any real information to back up what had happened.

And even after the Chief Cabinet Secretary came on TV and said, “Everyone relax – here’s what happened,” no one could relax. Not with the word “MELTDOWN” being repeated every fifteen to twenty seconds. Not when we learned that they would be flooding the reactor with seawater – an absolute last resort, given that it would permanently cripple the mechanism. Not when problems started arising in other reactors…. Then the internet starts to spin up the panic cycle, with people predicting a massive nuclear cloud swirling across the Pacific and irradiating the west coast of the US, people sending messages as they leave Yokohama for Kyushu just to get away from the possibility of a meltdown, and all the smug hippies going online and saying, “We told you nuclear power was bad! We TOLD you!!!

My personal opinion on this: Nuclear power is like airplanes – you never really think about it until something goes horribly wrong. For the most part, it’s a fine way to generate electricity, especially when we’re trying to cut down on greenhouse gasses and fossil fuel consumption. There are certainly drawbacks, as there are with any kind of power generation. But by and large, nuclear power is safe and clean. Except when it isn’t. And a 9.0 earthquake followed by a tsunami of historic proportions is one of those times. Engineers in Japan are very good at preparing for disasters, but the Earth is also very good at creating them. And the Earth will, inevitably, win.

When I got online this morning, there was a message on my Facebook home page that Tokyo Electric was going to start rolling blackouts across the prefectures that had been receiving power from the Fukushima plant. Across Eastern Japan, train services will be suspended or limited, and areas will experience power outages lasting about three hours each. How long this will continue, no one knows. Fortunately, I live down in Kansai, which is run on a very nearly separate power network, so we won’t be affected down here.

That last line is full of frustration, too: we won’t be affected down here. Really, all we can do is watch and donate money. The economic hit that the country is going to take will catch up with us pretty quickly, I imagine, but in terms of actual aid or sacrifice right now, there isn’t a whole lot we can do.

And of course, this has brought out the cockroaches as well, figuratively speaking. Apparently there’s this diseased meme going around the dark, sweaty, squalid parts of the internet wherein this whole disaster is some kind of cosmic retribution for – of all things – Pearl Harbor. One of the earlier jackasses to use this is a Family Guy writer who has a cutoff point for disaster humor. When the death toll is 200, it’s okay to make jokes. When the death toll is possibly 10,000, it’s insensitive. I would really like to know at what number of drowned, burned and crushed people, missing family members, destroyed houses, businesses and livelihoods, things go from funny to not-funny. If Alec Sulkin would like to provide us with his estimate, I would greatly appreciate it.

Also, the less said about those who believe this was triggered by a “supermoon” or HAARP, the better.

All in all, a pretty crappy weekend for Japan, and it’s not going to get a lot better. Entire towns are gone, and the week will probably be a relentless parade of body recovery. The rebuilding will be a Herculean effort for a country that is not in the best of economic shape as it is. All we can do is what the Japanese are very good at – pick up, move on, and recover.

Reflections on a Conference

One of the things that my school does for its new teachers is to encourage them to go out and see the wider world of English Teacherdom. In this case, it meant sending me to the JALT 2010 Conference here in Nagoya. For those who don’t know, JALT is the Japan Association for Language Teaching, one of the biggest such groups in Japan, and its national conference draws tons of people as presenters and participants. There are companies selling books and resources, professionals peddling their wares and their curricula, and lots of people trying to steal ideas from each other. Good fun.

Having more or less finished with the conference (there’s still a half day to go tomorrow), I am of two minds.

There were certainly a lot of creative ideas around, many of which I will be taking back with me. I went to workshops and talks on error correction, writing, the use of humor in the classroom, and the use of logic puzzles. I saw a production of Henry IV which gave me some ideas for my drama class, and picked up some books which, while they may not be entirely helpful right now, should definitely be an advantage in planning for next year. So, from the practical side, it was a worthwhile event.

But there’s a social side to it as well, one that I’m less comfortable with. Lot of people seemed to know each other, and I knew barely anyone. Two other teachers from my school went, but one stayed only for Saturday and the other had to go back today. So by the time the big old wine-and-cheese, backslapping, Irish pub music hootenanny started in the evening, I knew basically no one. And all I could think about was getting out of there, away from the camaraderie and the shop talk and the forced cheerfulness.

I’m sure they’re all nice people and all, but overlaid on top of my natural dislike of socializing and meeting new people there is a general feeling that I’m not really one of them, despite having spent over a decade teaching English in Japan. These are people who can use phrases like, “establishing the pedagogical effectiveness of negotiated interaction” without skipping a beat or, as I wanted to do, giggling at the ridiculous level of buzzwording going on. Speakers threw out names and the titles of articles as though it were a given that I should know who B. Laufer was and why his work on passive and active vocabulary would be valuable to know. They passionately debated the benefits and drawbacks of student evaluations as though that argument would decide the issue once and for all.

I just wanted a few new tricks to use in the classroom.

So, it’s 8:30 in the evening on a Sunday night, and I’m where I was last night and Friday night – in my hotel room. Because despite being one of them, I don’t feel like One Of Them, and the idea of trying to infiltrate my way into that crowd just strikes me as futile and desperate.

It’s not you, JALT. It’s me.