Because the world needs more overwrought candour.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Freaks and Ghouls

First 'proper' interview today. Slightly nervous, couldn't sleep and typically disorganised. I printed a shoddy resume just before I had to dash for the station, swept up my passport sized photo (meant to have two) and my alien registration card (or letter promising I would have one). A boring train ride (wonder gone to boredom very quickly) resulted in me wandering through the frenetic splendor of Yodoyobashi station, bumping into terse Japanese, looking for my connecting subway. No matter how much of an inconvienience you make yourself, no one grunts or says anything. It's quite amusing, really. Anyway, I arrived to discover it was a group interview, information previously kept secret, and that my fellow group members a) had better suits, b) had better ties, c) had more impressive resumes, and crushingly, d) all had those wanky business document holders that zip and unzip impressively. This contrasted with my subway-crumpled inferior resume, single photo and passport, all kept in my trusty pocketses. Oh fuck, quoth I (mentally). Tis harder to get a job than anticipated. What happened to the rivers of English teaching gold I was promised? But then the interviewer arrived and set my mind at rest. He was tall, American and marginally competent, with a temper to match. Better, he had a ponytail. Never trust a man over the age of 10 with a ponytail. Still less a redhead. (God, Japan is turning me into a bitch. But seriously, these people deserve to be scathed, anonymously and wimpishly from this blog. It'll teach them Important Lessons). He made an instantly forgettable quip and made us fill out forms. I peeked at the hard-facd, winner type to my left. Fuck, again. His language competencies were high. His resume, impressive. His tie, loud and abrasive. How on earth would I compete? Ponyboy returned after photocopying our documents (I balanced my single photo near the edge of the folder, hoping to make it look like the other one had fallen out). It appeared that the group interview consisted of filling out the forms and watching him talk about the company for about a minute. He did say one interesting thing - a ten thousand yen 'administration fee' was required, and after the contract was signed, the company would pay us fifty thousand in return, for unspecified services. All of our shitmeters poinked simultaneously. Any questions, wondered Ponyboy, before I allocate individual interviews? We shook our heads, groupthink style. I had two hours before my interview, as did most of the others, so we headed to a cafe and drank expensive coffee and sized each other up for the first minute, before their appearances of professionalism collapsed in a heap. "I really need this job", confesses one Canadian guy with sharp glasses. "I don't have much money left. Japan is too expensive." Others agreed. Loud and abrasive tie man took charge and conducted the conversation. As the longest resident (6 months) he decided to confer some wisdom, telling us not to settle for bad jobs (like this one) or jobs with 'administration' fees. A small uproar started, and we found that none of us trusted Ponyboy with any kind of fee. But then a note of rueful poverty crept back in. Another Canadian left for his interview and returned, shaking his head. "Most informal interview I've been in." Abrasive Tie turned the conversation to martial arts, and bragged. Canadian Two counterbragged, and soon it was my turn for the one on one with Ponyboy. He showed me to a seat, and flicked casually through my folder. "Only one photo, Doug?" My heart sank. Damn. "Sorry." "No matter," he beamed, and flicked faster between the two pages. "University of Melbourne, eh?". Yes. "Did you know Katie W, by any chance? Half Japanese, doing chemistry?" Er, no. Why? He looked a little sheepish. "Oh, my ex-girlfriend. She broke my heart." Conversation moved to more conventional matters. He kept saying Excellent! Excellent! about things which weren't particularly excellent. The shitmeter poinked again. Then back, with no apparent link, to Katie W. "How about Susie F? Did you know her? Biochem?" No. Why? "She was one of Katie's friends." I give up any pretence that this is a normal interview and pursue it - she got to you, hey, I ask. He looks down for a fraction of a second, then up, a broad grin, a confiding grin. "Sure did. God - when was it, 1999, 2000. Geez, I'm married with a kid now. You'd think I'd be over it." He shakes his head. "I guess I'm messed up, hey?" I don't dare a reply. The interview meanders on, across which sports I follow, to what counselling is like, to what school I went to, to how broad my brother's shoulders are. Eventually, our mutual whiteness runs out of puff and he ends quickly, a rush of words. Tuesday, nine am, for training? I can't make it, citing other job interviews. His eyebrows rise. Who? Erm, Interac and Berlitz, I say. "Oh, Evilac." He grimaces. "Why would you want to go there?" His ponytail flicks greasily and the interview ends. Weird, weird, weird. Freaks and ghouls, say I.

Oh - the work could very well include daycare of kiddies, daycare of the hands on, wiping kids asses and noses variety. Unglamorous, but it's money. If it happens, I'll lie about it here, believe me.


The Canadian contingent warned me of ass pinching on crowded subways. This hasn't happened to me yet. Evidently, I'm not worth groping, which means I'm not attractive to either sex here. Fuck. Maybe I haven't given it enough time.


Watching MTV, I realised that one of the reasons punk and rock bands dress bizarrely and let their hair shag out wildly is effectively telling the world that they've made it, because they're completely unemployable by any other industry.


Japanese television is so startlingly bizarre that I can't begin to describe it. I spent a satisfying Saturday night channel surfing from WWE wrestling, Japan style, with little bird and clown masks, to card trick shows, to tsunami mockups, to Korean melodramas. The anime channel features shows like 'Buzzer Beaters', which employs every trick in the cartoonist's book to stylise basketball games. The players move in that vertical-line kinda way, the dunks are improbable, and the storylines usually involve at least ten solid minutes (total) of male faces straining to control themselves, demonstrated by tiny bursts of sweat. There's also a delightful homoerotic, genderbending high school drama - at least, that's what I think it is about - and a kids cartoon channel that features cutesy bears performing enemas on each other. It is an infallible cure for depression. Usually, television makes it worse, but not here.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

I'm homesick. After a promising Friday night, I spent the whole weekend inside the house. Sure, it snowed and I was sick, which are good excuses for the hermit life, but more to the point, I don't know anyone here, except my brother. I need a lot of people around me. A smothering quantity would be nice. I have been asking myself pointed questions in the night, such as, why the fuck am I here? should I be here?

There are reasons why I am not here:
- I'm not a Japanophile, one of the manga watching, Japan-girl-fetishising Westerners which dot (or greasily spot) the landscape
- I'm not here to save for a house deposit or a full fee degree
- I'm not here because I'm running away or because life in Australia sucked

This leaves a dwindling supply of reasons.

Friday night was one - a farewell dinner to one of the Japanese students in the house who was returning to her hometown (another suburb in Osaka, I believe. Strange). Row and I pre-ate, extending the cost-effective theory of pre-drinking. We arrived at the previously unknown nightlife district of Hirakata and made our way to a small izakaya, a drinking place also offering a variety of small dishes. Ushered inside, we ducked beneath curtains and navigated the removal of shoes with stylish aplomb. Our table was low and required kneeling or crossing legs. We ordered conservatively and sat back to wait, chatting to our fellow hostelmates for perhaps the first time in earnest, rapidly discovering a shortage of exploitable topics. The first wave food arrived in time to save us: a bizarre concoction of lotus root and fish eggs fried in light tempura. Not entirely pleasant, but interesting. Scattered around the table were complimentary soya beans in their pods, which served to offset the stronger tastes. Once the food started coming, it kept coming, for two and a half hours. Each time I thought that eating was approaching completion, another wave of dishes arrived, requiring sampling at the very least. Korean rice dishes jostled with Japanese-style pizza (wow!) for space, followed up by the Japanese equivalent of an omelette, okonomiyaki; egg, cabbage, fish and more indecipherable tastes, doused in barbeque sauce. Good lord. Row and I stuffed ourselves - we'd been hungry most of the week, and this was feast time, manna from above (someone else had to be paying for it, surely). The dishes piled higher and higher, the fevered eating slowed, and slowed until people opted out, leaning away from the table, exhausted.

Around midway through the feast, we became aware of the middle aged couple across from us, who had been drinking solidly for quite some time. They had both achieved the advanced state of drunkeness known as the rolling head; she would attempt to toy with her drink but spill half of it on the tatami mats and grin at the man opposite, who would bare his teeth in a gigantic grin. I spent quite a while debating whether he was her husband, or someone else's. Probably hers, which makes it all the stranger. When do you see middle aged couples get blind drunk before toddling home to make out like teenagers? Not often enough. It makes for great spectating. Before long, nature called and the man staggered to his feet and tried to saunter to the toilet, past our table. However, he was distracted by M, the girl whose farewell it was, and plonked himself down next to her. For the next ten minutes, he besieged her with queries, to the delight of our entire table and - again strangely - his wife/lover at her table. It was wonderful, to see a middle aged man drunk with a complete absence of shame about his foolish antics. He even tried to hop at one stage, before plying a tall Canadian guy at our table with questions. The scene is a hard one to describe properly, but I've spent the past week becoming increasingly frustrated at the general overweening politeness and niceness and unobtrusiveness of the Japanese, and here is this man, this couple, finally letting their hair down in fine, fine style. Mystery solved. This is where Japanese talk. It must be that the designated social areas for talking are quite strictly adhered to, while trains and streets are quiet zones, public zones.

If there were moments like Friday night all the time, that would be enough to stave off homesickness. But unfortunately, wonder moments generally have costs associated, even if just for a train ticket (rather expensive). God. I think I'm indulging in self pity. I'll stop.
Ha! The Japan Times produced a nice little article wondering whether Howard's dispatching of 450 extra troops to protect the Japanese contingent is sucking up for a free trade agreement. The article goes on to quote the 'Australian Greens opposition party' spokesperson with nary a mention of the ALP. Nice.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Yesterday started badly. Overnight, I turned into a snot factory and a coughing, tummy-ache ridden snot factory to boot. And we had our first interview, for the long-hoped for dream job as wedding celebrants. I guzzled down some drugs and suited up, dreading the interview. Mr N was waiting at the station for us, a tiny man with a walking stick. He beamed at us and filled the air with pleasant chatter on the walk to his office. Once there, he adroitly skirted the issue of the job for the first ten minutes, to our confusion. It was my first encounter with Japanese-style negotiation. Every time I tried to turn the topic to work, he'd beam, offer some tea and talk about Australia and his honeymoon there X decades ago. Finally, we passed the threshold of polite exchanges, and he turns the conversation to work. "Our company is dedicated to working to spread the word of Christ through marriages," he said. Row and and I look at each other. This wasn't what we'd anticipated. "Two percent of Japanese are Christian, but upwards of 40% of marriages are Western, which means Christian," he said proudly. "We try to convey Christianity through these ceremonies, and we want serious celebrants to help us pass on our religion." Turning to a DVD player, he stabbed at a button and we're watching a practice ceremony. The celebrant is dressed as a full priest, robes, sashes and all; there's a small choir and it's in a huge chapel. Most of the ceremony is in Japanese. The DVD ends and Rowan talks up his Japanese and Christian abilities, while I stay quiet (nonexistent and lapsed through nonuse respectively). It seems to be going quite well, until the head administrator arrives and sits down across from us. He looks at us, says "young!" in Japanese (Row translated later) and directs a stream of indecipherable, speedy Japanese at me, as the oldest. I wear a blank look (I'm getting very, very good at looking blank. Holding my hands out, palms up, helps too). He's sharp faced with darting eyes and I see our chances of novelty employment sinking. After some increasingly awkward dialogue (interspersed with loud sniffs from me), we escape. Mr N farewells us diplomatically, saying that we might be a little young, but that if we practice the ceremony at home, perhaps we might be able to get a job. He blesses us on God's behalf as we leave. Free!

Row and I talk it over, and laugh a little at the idea of acting as covert missionaries to wannabe Westerners in a wedding ceremony chosen as a lifestyle statement. I read the sample ceremony text on the train and gravitated to the celebrant's message, written for each wedding in order to convey Christianity-in-a-nutshell. The sample one runs like this: 'God is love. God sent His only son, Jesus, to reveal His unfailing love ... Some religious leaders did not like [Jesus] because he was free and was setting people free. They decided to have him executed. It looked as if Jesus and his love were defeated'. You can guess what happens next. Wow. I think that was myfirst Only In Japan moment. No job though.

That night, we went to Kyoto (as in the Protocol) for the second time. I didn't really want to go, but I'm glad I did. The train was slow and the windows steamed up; a plain rainy night in concrete Osaka. But in Kyoto, the rain was beautiful - a hazy tracery of lights on water, the dipping fronds of willow. I'd emailed a local English language magazine, asking if I could get involved, and received a courteous invitation to their monthly drinks in Kyoto. The magazine looked like it was gunning for expats between twenty and forty, so I was expecting a young go-getter of an editor. We arrived; it was an Irish pub and a gentleman of distinction opened the door for us; kindly eyes, a woman's lips, hair halfway between middle and old age. "Red hair; you must be Doug," he said - it was the editor - and ushered us upstairs to a smoky table populated with distinguished gentlemen and a couple of up and comers. They smiled at me with expat smiles, holding out our commonalities, a sense of instant community based on skin and cultural history and non-Japaneseness. I sat next to a middle aged man, J, who beamed and extended his hand and his friendship. This man deserves description. He had a ruddy face (English), his hair lightening and lifting away from his scalp like fairy floss, an expansive man, a man who looks good when he gestures with a wine glass in one hand. You could tell by his tongue that he was a sensualist - the lithe tip flicked between his lips when he spoke, or even at rest, unconciously. Almost immediately, we were talking about sex, or rather, talking around sex. It was old lion to young lion; he exerted a jovial magnetism, a magnamious conferral of Male Knowledge. How long have you been here, I ask. He laughs. "I was one of those blowing through, 15 years ago, and I've stuck around. How long are you planning to stay?" Six months, I say. His smile broadens. "Six months! That's a story we've heard before, isn't it M?" M laughs too, a knowing conspiracy. "M was planning to stay six months. He's been here four years now. D (the editor) was just passing through. He's been here - well, I went to his 25th anniversary years ago, so a long time." Why, I wonder? If possible, his smile broadens further and he points at each member at the table. "Japanese wife. Japanese girlfriend. Japanese girlfriend. Me, I've got a Japanese girlfriend. Best girls in the world, Japanese girls. After two to three years here, you won't find white girls attractive at all." I'm taken aback by his candidness. I was expecting polite talk about the magazine and perhaps some talk of Japanese culture - he was a professor, after all. But this? His charm is strong, his face compelling and he knows he controls the conversation. There's a brief lull. Then: "It's why we stay, we long termers. Japanese women are something else. Elegant, graceful, beautiful. And as for their bodies..." Here he briefly enters a reverie, eyes closed, then flickering open to find mine. He's testing me out, this man, to see if I'm of like mind. I'm fascinated by him. But what about their famed submissiveness? Doesn't that irritate you, I venture. Another broad grin. "No. No, I like it." He must have seen something in my eyes - too much too soon - and backpedals, tempers his last sentence with pontification. "It's mostly only on the surface," he says, subsiding a little. "A friend of mine once said that American women are strong on the outside and weak on the inside, while Japanese women are weak on the outside and strong on the inside. I happen to agree. Do you know what happens when Japanese salarymen bring home their wage to their wives? (I don't) Their wives take their salaries and then give them a spending allowance. If the salarymen step out of line, their allowance is cut. It's why you see businessmen eating at McDonald's." Ah. Well then. The terrain of the conversation soon shifts to safer climes. "You know, the Japanese don't read much at all," J declares. I express disbelief. "It's true - I'm an English literature professor, and when I ask my students what books they've read recently - or ever - they come up with one or two books, no more." M joins the conversation and agrees. "That's mostly true. Although I had an student taking English lessons once who I'd nearly given up on when one day she asked me if I liked Nabokov. It turned out she'd read Proust and many of the European greats. It was amazing." J is waiting his turn. "Is that right, M," he says. "Well, I was in a hostess bar once and I met a Romanian hostess who had a formidable knowledge of Proust." At the first mention of a hostess bar, ears prick up around the table. "She was so tall, she terrified all of the salarymen. She forced one to dance with her and the poor man was quivering. She was going to pay for her entire university degree with three month's hostessing work." Another man - older, even more venerable - jumps in with a quip and a wink. I find him disgusting. But why? Why shouldn't old men think about sex, especially if they're actually having sex rather than dreaming? Why is lovemaking reserved for the young? Perhaps it's the obvious obsession, the constancy of thought about it that old men should leave in their youth. J couldn't leave it alone. Five minutes later, a nice little conversation about youth subcultures had started. M told me that last year, bandage chic made a brief appearance, birthed in Tokyo, of course. Healthy young women would swathe a limb in bandages and walk down the street. Magazines homed in, the trend flared briefly before fading, but not before puzzling many, many visitors. But don't forget the Lolita subculture, offers J. (How could we?) Have you seen those girls who dress up as Bo Peep, he inquires of me. I haven't. "Oh! The shoulder puffs, the bonnet - I even saw one with a crook, just walking down the street. It's amazing what freedom they have here in Japan - could you see someone wearing that on a Saturday night in Glasgow? Not a chance," he says. "And then there are the true Lolitas - I taught one once, bleach blonde hair, cut like a little girl, wearing a school uniform at university. Pretty girl, but her thighs were much too thick for the skirt she was wearing." Nice. My first encounter with the sexpats.

Between the fleshy stories, there were a lot of fascinating tidbits I gathered. J told me of how the Yakuza (Japanese organised crime) were only criminalised four years ago - prior to that, they had offices and wore uniforms. I suppose there's a logical link between the heavy emphasis on corporatism and the existence of the Yakuza - someone has to organise the grey and black economies, I suppose. And without the Yakuza, the art of back tattooing in Japan would fade. Some Yakuza get their entire backs tattooed into tremendous works of art, and showcase them in hot spring baths, tipping hot mineral water down their backs.


As J and I were running out of steam, D, the editor, pushed a piece of paper at me: an application for a job. He hadn't talked to me at all, beyond a few niceties and a promise of a chat. I filled it in and handed it back, he scanned it quickly and looked at me. His eyes held mystery and I wondered at him. He hadn't been part of the sex conversations, or let anything about himself slip. He came to Japan in middle age - a widower? a divorcee? a desperate man? - and I was curious. We talked for a little while before he called out to the rest of the table. "Right, we have a student here, fresh from journalism school, and he needs an assignment." A table full of grizzled writers turns to me (I beam brightly) and then back to D. "He can't speak Japanese - hasn't even been in the country a week," says one. "He should interview a long time expat - the oldest expat, the one who's been here the longest." "That would be Rudy," says another. "Fifty years, he's been here." The ideas keep coming, and J suggests focussing on second generation expats, those caught between Japan and their former culture. D likes it, and I have an assignment. It's a little exciting, in a cub reporter kind of way. D fishes out some glasses, and I look at him, expecting them to add to his air of quiet command, but they're small and maroon and bohemian and make him look like an aged hippy with an air of quiet command. "I don't like grilling people," he says. "I'll give you a chance - everyone should get a chance - and I'll see what I can do." I say a few nothings - fair enough, I know lots of old journo's don't think much of journalism school, the only true learning is doing. He pauses and looks at me with a twinkle in his eye - he looks like I'd imagine Roald Dahl would look, if still alive. "The only thing I've ever learnt to do is how to add ice to scotch. Everything else I've done." I heard scraps earlier: working as a boilermaker in Australia, scorned for being a Pom. Now here, an editor of an English language magazine, living in conservative rural Japan. His conversation rambles a bit, as older men tend to do, and he tells me the story of a girl in Japan who was crushed to death by her school gate, which shuts automatically at nine am no matter what. "A newspaper asked me for foreign comment, and I told the reporter that criminal charges should be laid," he says. "The reporter replied that it was the Japanese way. The Japanese way!" He clucks to himself. "You know, I've been here perhaps thirty years and I'm still not Japanese. I'm somewhere in between, like my magazine. We straddle both cultures. Master of none."

The night winds up; bikes are saddled and trains caught and D farewells me. "You should come and visit my house sometime," he says. I think I'd like that.


Here, twice now I've seen the Japanese make delightful use of the Statue of Liberty. Once, on television - the statue turns into a Japanese girl who uses the flame to balance upside down on a tall building, before giving her blessing to Japanese consumers, the users of liberty. A second time, today, I caught a train and saw a pachinko parlour (the Japanese version of pokies) crowned with a denuded Statue of Liberty, complete with icecream cone flame. There's also an otherwise bland apartment block which has a large concrete triangle atop it, marked "SPACE VILLA II". I love it. Also! Men in green uniforms and white gloves walk through the trains, bowing each time they enter a carriage, trying to sell monthly or weekly train cards. It's great - they have to bow every single time they enter, hundreds of times a day.


It seems that in poorer Asian countries, imitation is not a threat but admiration. A successful restaurant in Vietnam can spawn imitators, who take the name and add a number to it. It might be aping success, but it is also recognising success. The close copies of Western brands irritate Western content producers to no end - watches, clothes, software, music - but the poorer countries are unfazed, unencumbered by draconian copyright laws. In communalist societies, what need of individual creators?

Japan is similar, but its advanced economy allow it to look to global success - the West - and reverse engineer Western technology and institutions, picking them apart to see how they tick and then putting them together, but better. Japan has gone from imitating to pioneering in a few short generations. To pick a silly example, the expats spoke admiringly of the rapid uptake of breakdancing in Japan. "Better than anything I ever saw in the States," said one. "Truly amazing." Another silly example: the pizza I've had here has been the best I've ever had, better than the pizza I sampled in Italy by a long way.


Mystery solved: I was wondering why so many people were wearing cotton masks on the streets and in trains. Apparently, it's to prevent colds, but they're also worn by cold-sufferers in a spirit of civic mindedness, to prevent the spread of the illness.


Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Today we went to Kyoto. An unprepossesing city at first, at odds with its fame, but give it a little time (a little shy) and it blossoms. Small rivulets everywhere; a trainee geisha having her hair done, a laneway of bustling shops culminating in a silent temple, men cracking oysters and cooking them in their own shells.

I love it. We live on the Keihan line, halfway between Osaka and Kyoto, and I like Kyoto much, much more. People are friendlier (we got flirted with for the first time, which means people actually noticed our presence).

We caught the wrong bus but it didn't matter, the driver waved us out to speed up his circuit, we arrived too late at a temple and climbed a nearby mountain instead, rushing against the dark and watched the sun go down and the lights of Kyoto flicker on beneath us, sitting in a giant Chinese character meaning 'great' carved into the hillside which they light once a year in conjunction with four other mountains. Kyoto flows like a glacier through the tight junction of two mountain ranges. No-one builds on the mountains, so the buildings sit like an uneven sea in the basin.
Yesterday, I walked past a flower shop which smelt strangely neutral. Half an hour later, I walked past another. Still no smell. I looked closer. Fake. The entire shop, fake. Fake roses, fake daisies, fake orchids. Amazingly realistic fakes, but fake nonetheless. Japanese restaurants also specialise in fake mock-ups of what you'll be eating inside - again, remarkably realistic, so much so that they have to put signs on them warning off opportunists like us.

That night,there was to be free pizza at our gaijin house that night - manna from heaven for we poor unemployed. But the details were sketchy. Why free? We didn't find out till we got home. As it turned out, the free pizza was in payment for us featuring on Japanese television. Our fourth day in the country, and already one of my goals in sight - appear on some bizarre game show. This was a quiz show, but still bizarre. The clock hit ten pm and a hot young man walked in the door, toting some serious attitude and an aging sidekick with permanent acne and a small digital camera. This young man was more than hot, it must be said. He was HOT. His jeans had holes in their knees so large that he'd been compelled to wear khaki leggings underneath. His hair had been whisked into a bleached froth, restrained by a yellow bandanna (there are more hairdressers in Japan than any other place on Earth I've seen). I can't muster words for what he was covering his top half with. In short, he was the shit. But for a TV crew, they seemed underdone. If he was the star, where were the pamperers? The danglers of microphones? The lighting guys? The clock ticked, time passed slowly on empty stomachs, and finally it was our turn in the sun. Our lounge had been transformed into a couch paradise, and we filed in slowly. All we had to say was 'no' to the camera, and make a stupid face. But it was my first time in the spotlight and I was nervous; I muffed my line and cut off the presenter. The presenter was not the hot young man (a mere camera-jockey) but a girl in red, presumably the face which launched a thousand commercials (she looked vaguely, advertisingly, familiar) and the segment consisted of this. We were the foreign residents of Osaka English House and when asked in Japanese if we spoke Japanese, we would reply 'no', quite forcibly. Then (and here's the kicker), the Japanese residents of our house would enter and in turn be asked if they spoke Japanese. And they'd say 'no' too! Oh, lordy. To finish the shot, the HYM pivoted around and pinned us under the camera while the presenter (in a breathy, unbelieving voice) wondered aloud what we did speak. Could it possibly be English, she ventured, to which all of us return a resounding YES!

It was badly hilarious and also wonderful. Less reality tv than unreality tv. Anyway, tune in March 3rd, Channel 10, 8'o clock if you're anywhere in Japan (yep, national tv). Otherwise, please feel jealous.

After that we were loaded with pizza. Eggplant pizza. Korean pizza. Pizza the likes of which I have never seen nor tasted nor smelt before. I can't recommend it highly enough.


We live with nerds. Big nerds. Sit around the main table playing LAN Diablo kind of nerds. Sweet nerds, in a chase-Japanese-girls-down-the-hallway kinda way. But also the kind of people you wouldn't trust with a high school and a semi-automatic rifle. They'll probably read this and kill me. I wasn't talking about you.


Rowan and I opened a bank account, with the aid of a helpful interpreter from our house. It took forever and is quite uninteresting, except for the use of the inkan. An inkan is like a personal chop or signature, something which the Japanese use to sign important documents. The young woman behind the counter was a practiced wielder of the inkan. With a fluid grace, she spun my application around, deftly plucking a large stamp from a rack with her left hand, stamping it down and - at the same time - conjuring up her inkan with her right hand, rubbing it in a neat hole left by the first stamp before singlehandedly recapping it and hiding it somewhere on her person. Two more stamps followed in quick succession; the whole process was counter-bound ballet. Wow.

I've been feeling like shit for a little while, hiding in my room and taking refuge in my cold/flu/tummy upset, resisting Ro's coaxing. But then we were called upon to help some of the long termers move house, a delightful odd couple, a Dutch and an Indian female, and it was a crisp night, beautiful and we walked a futon down the narrow streets balanced on our heads and all was suitably bizarre and I felt fine.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Same same, but different

I am taking far too much pleasure in discovering pockets of Engrish. The similarities between 'l' and 'r' in Japanese pronunciation (they use a hybrid sound of both) is a well known source of foreigner fun: laughing at missaid and even misspelt words. A small can of vended hot coffee (a great leap forward for mankind) which boasts on the side that the "beans have been loasted for a long time." Strangely, the next sentence claims that the drink is both "rich" and "rewarding", both sans the l. Another frequent source of amusement are directions for the 'Derivery' section of a business. Yes, I'm lonely. Yes, this is petty. I should be grateful that there is any English at all - without it, I'd be utterly fucked. The train system runs to the second; the trains are neat, clean and full, but the maze of intertwining lines puts London to shame. We embarked upon our first full visit to Osaka proper today; a strange city, an alien landscape, but still similar, still not so far from home. A large building which culminates in three seperate peaks, each covered by what looks like a sleek hankerchief. Massive freeways running on top of department stores; the stores themselves stretching at least five kilometres beneath it. Wires and phone lines everywhere, thick above the ground.

It was a lonely day; I'm getting sick (it's been about five degrees, and I'm typically underprepared) and so I was silent most of the time. My brother and I know each other so well that speech is often redundant. I kept hoping for some kind of new human contact (I can already spot a white face at a hundred metres) but had to settle for stilted exchanges of goods for money. This is quite a nice spectacle, but still such distance between us. Everyone speaks a certain code, everyone reads this code fluently, everyone connects with this. When I buy something, if I buy it from a girl she does this: head down, she murmurs a sing-song chatter which does not need me except for crucial moments - eyes up to mine, I mutter something inadequate, it does not matter, the singsong slips back in and the food is mine.

It's such a quiet culture, this. I was struck by it leaving the central station in Osaka: no conversation. The cars buzz, the trains hum and shake, the remarkably irritating tune the little blue man plays when it's safe to cross the road: all this and no talk, no connection. No, not true; there is some talk, muted chatter, occasional blips on mobile phones or small bowings and exchanges. But on the whole, it is so, so quiet. Toooo quiet.

We spent the whole day in a cone of alienness. Down at the City Hall, we had to register as aliens (nice) which involved several forms, much pointing and attempting to connect with each other, and a small piece of triumphant paper telling us to wait a month and then come pick up our registration. People are kind here, but I have the feeling it's the kindness born of sufferance. Then, towards dusk, the streets chilling quickly, the homeless men scurrying for cover; one moment, a young Japanese man in retailwear, two Japanese girls in matching but different, straining (uncharacteristically) in public to bend back a pole hit by a car. The metal groans but remains crumpled. A chance! We offer our services, feeling like boy scouts; there is laughter, awkwardness, wriggling to accomodate the five of us around the pole and then the pole squeals, lifts a little and halts. Our alliance falls apart (I touched someones hand) and we're back walking but I feel happier.

I'm starving. I'm always hungry. I have never been this concious of money. I'm going to have to lie to get a job, I can tell. Better that than to come home with my tail between my legs.

The kids and Young Adults here are hot. They look good. They look better than good. They've imitated Western chic so damn well that they're out the other side and pioneering away. But the strange thing (to me) is that their appearance says so much (subcultures abound: neo-mods, schoolgirl chic amongst the older girls, the lolita look) and so much time and effort is spent that it's as if they are the works of art of their generation, the vain generation, but still there is silence on the streets. Where do people talk here? I've been poking my tongue out at kids all day, just because I can.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

We're staying in the outskirts of Osaka, I think, and so far, we haven't seen the centre. But here's what it's like:

Barber shops with European barber poles (they live on!), special rubbish disposal trucks with loudspeakers churning out bad J-pop; housewives dropping everything and running their trash down to the truck, extraordinarily well dressed youth (hair coiffed and coloured, jeans really, really distressed, light leather jackets on men, a startling array of stockings), bakeries which force the use of trays and tongs, open-air fish shops giving the lie to this supposed obsession with hygiene, many men, women and children wearing Michael Jackson masks (SARS? Colds? Pollution?), wel-dressed kids, very, very few white faces, sideways glances from schoolgirls, a veritable explosion of arigato gazhaimas's from a 60+ woman whom I hold the door open for, motorbike gangs, old-style bicycles, very narrow streets, purple and yellow cabbages growing outside seemingly every house, the utilisation of every possible space for shrubbery, impeccably trimmed show-pines, rice paddies in backyards, cars parked atop each other by means of a lift, square box cars, thin vans, three-wheeled scooters able to bend around corners, faces empty of emotion, and the supermarkets... god, the supermarkets. Strawberries gleaming as if they'd been airbrushed; fifty dollar melons in boxes for gifts, three dollars an apple, an amazing range of riceballs, noodles, vast quantities of fish sliced expertly, giant fugu - deadly blowfish - baby octopi, fantastic mushrooms - long and slender, bulbous and brown, cakes I'd sell my cousin for (probably not my mother though), the bizarre love child of a eggplant and a cucumber, eighty dollar salmon steaks and fifty dollar fat-mottled cow steaks, and juice made from what look like large nettles. Rowan and I dallied for half an hour on our inaugral shop, hazarding guesses as to what sauce would taste nice.

So far, we haven't really got to know anyone in our gaijin house. The Japanese students seem nice, but our fellow whites seem either unnaturally friendly or horribly geeky, in an anime-watching, I-fantasised-about-Japan-since-high-school kinda way. Hopefully, that assessment is too harsh. Otherwise, I'll drive my brother nuts inside of a week.

I really, really need survival Japanese. I am not going to survive otherwise; Rowan's gone through high school Japanese, but the real version is much, much harder. Even counting is hard: sure, ichi ni sun chi sounds easy, but then you add a suffix if you are counting in long, straight objects (ichi-mi = one loaf of bread)

None of the Japanese girls who work retail or hospitality walk; they all half-walk, half-run, a kind of trot, which I suspect reflects their lower position.

I've never been truly poor until now. 80 yen to the dollar sounds good, but we're going to be living very, very cheaply in terms of food. The one positive is that supermarkets have plenty of sampler bits of food, so we'll be "sampling" quite often for lunch. Otherwise, dumpster diving is in. Our room is a thousand a month. It's about the same size as a medium bathroom back home. We have bunks. The communal toilets combine a cistern with a washbasin, to save space. There are special toilet slippers as well. Train travel is hideously expensive. We'll get bikes, I think. That is, supposing we get jobs. It doesn't sound as easy as it did back home. Wish us luck. Tomorrow, we try the Christian pastor job. Then red-hair modelling work. Then English teaching for adults. Then, expectations suitably lowered, English teaching for kids. Then bar work. Then handing out flyers. Then renting out my body. Then home. The idea was to be valued for things I was born with: red hair, white, English speaking. I'll tell you how that goes.

Also, it's bloody freezing. It reminds me of Ireland; crisp, bright, brutal. There's a homeless man who lives not far from me on the side of a canal: a shack, a barrel with a fire, a fruit tree.

But I'm glad to be here, even though I miss you all.

Oh: I'll try to avoid mass-produced emails (the blog will do) but if you write to me, I'll definitely write to you.
Right, I'm in Osaka. This is going to be a difficult post - the apostrophe is carefully tucked away above the 7, requiring a complicated combination of keys to oblige. Also, the colon is not where it should be and there is an amazing button which, if pressed, converts every letter I type into its Japanese equivalent. As for dashes - these are almost impossible to achieve.

I feel better about being here now, but on the trip across I was in a vile mood. Depression vied with a curious feeling of dawning stupidity. Why was I going, after all? I'd spent much of my going away party insisting that I wasn't going to find myself (solemn doses of reality at 3 am in bed in Melbourne do just fine for that) and that travel for that purpose was stupid. Wherever you go, there you are and all that. I spent the rest of the party attempting to persuade my friends that yes, they'd miss me and they'd better bloody well tell me so. I have a group of up and coming young journo friends (hi, Ben, Pat, Andy and Melinda) who largely dislike being touched, whereas I have to touch my friends, most of the time and hence our last parting meant that they had to submit to me hugging, lifting, poking and generally making a nuisance of myself. In retrospect, I wouldn't have been displeased if my going away ended up as one gigantic flesh pile (yes, clothes on - please!) in order to make me feel as wanted and alive as possible. Mind you, it would have been nicely ironic if the pile had dissolved, giggling and grumbling, to reveal a suffocated doug. Anyway, the past month has been wonderful, with much carousing and many people asking why, exactly, I was going, and I didn't know anymore. I think the reason I'm here now is a combination of stubbornness and inertia.

The night before I left, I was planning to sneak out of the family home (so as not to risk my mother's disapproval, which stimulates my guilt gland remarkably well. How old am I?) and go out to Cherry for one last dance. All of my housemates came along and we danced wildly and badly for other people's amusement, bordering on debauchery. Time flew, I confessed to my housemate that I had a large crush on her (surprising and not surprising at the same time) and suddenly it was 5.30 and the plane left at 8 and I drove home, tired and happy. An hour later, I was on the plane, bundled off too fast to think, a little sadness seeping in as I said goodbye to my family and friends (instant empty nest syndrome for my parents cos I'm here with my brother) and an hour later we were in Sydney, eight hours later in Vietnam and five more flying hours to Osaka.

We were in Vietnam for six hours or so (why the flight was cheap) and this meant a free hotel, which meant negotiating Vietnamese immigration (self important little men with gigantic green caps tilting upwards to the roof and military ranks on their shoulders), a half-hour bus ride, and a brief hour in a hotel before we had to reverse the process and catch our flight. Bizarre. Vietnam, even briefly, was amazing - the sheer quantity of scooters and bikes on the street was incredible, a cacophony of horns and tyre squeals. It's amazing how constrained our road rules are - all refined, distanced, so that we don't actually have to come into direct contact with each other at any time, whereas Vietnamese riders are constantly aware of themselves and other riders. They flow around obstacles like our bus as if they are water; traffic lights are generally suggestions, and after hours, many lights flash orange and it's all on - might makes right, and riders form spontaneous mobs in order to charge across an intersection, forcing other traffic to stop and allow them through. It makes amazing viewing. We took a quick walk away from our gecko-festooned hotel: shoe shops with the wares dangling by their laces from the ceiling, tiny children playing with tin foil in gutters, old men looking at us with the memory of the American war reflected in their pupils, token Communist posters losing out to the lurid mobile phone ads, traditional temples beefed up with neon strips, everywhere people sitting squatting standing talking, tuk tuk drivers asleep in their seats. Why has it been so long since I left Australia? Why do you have to leave to realise that ours is only one method of living together in a society?

It was almost an anti climax after that to land in Osaka. Pre-dawn, Japan's cities were furiously lit, in counterpoint to the dark mountains behind. The darkness shrank as we flew in over Osaka - great plumes of smoke, mammoth container ships, grey concrete everywhere - and my heart sank. The bus trip to Hirakata did nothing to shake that impression. The outskirts of Osaka look as if Dante was restricted to grays in his imagining of hell, greys and the emotional palette of boredom alone of all the torments. Apartment boxes amidst acres and acres of ports, transit places, limbolands. At least airports are confined on the ground; their limbos looping high above the world, largely invisible, but ports sprawl and loiter and generate housing clusters like mushrooms. But then we passed through the looking glass for a second time, away from the true boondocks, and hit Osaka proper; still a concrete wonderland (it was bombed to shit in WWII and you can still see it in the way very old Osaka residents look at me - they remember their glory days) but concrete interspersed with tiny rice paddies in the middle of the city, rice paddies jostling with Toyota stores, electronics boutiques, temples down back streets, small sculpted pines growing rogue.

I need a digital camera. There are so many points of wonder.

Friday, February 11, 2005

I have a hangover. Quite a large one. In fact, it's the drunkest I've been since my teens, I think, and it was definitely my most foolish escapade.

So: Pat kindly let me drink his duty free Wodka, which is divine and lethal. We went somewhere bar-like. Camille and Jock arrived. I was so pleased to see them that I just had to pour beer on Camille's lap because I thought it was funny (!) before Jock retaliated on her startled behalf. I then told everyone the intensely amusing story (for them) of my first abortive and soul-destroying attempt to lose my virginity, which just wouldn't take the hint and fuck off. Most of the bar heard and sniggered. Oh, and then who appeared? A girl from high school who I was interested in solely for lustful purposes, to my shame and discredit. And eternal embarrassment, because she keeps appearing in my life to make me feel bad. Like last night. Although this time I was too drunk to wince, instead opting for a loud retelling of the trials and tribulations of my teenage lust. I then bit some people (?), hugged some people, and collapsed in bed. My head hurts

Monday, February 07, 2005

I haven't written for a little while now, because it's been a bit crazy round here. Standing between me and Japan are:

One (1) 3000 word essay to finish my summer subject and thereby finally conquer my bloody undergrad degree, five years on
One (1) messy room and unpacked backpack. Actually, I don't even own a backpack yet.
One (1) good friend's excruciating breakup, resulting in soaring emotional requirements
One (1) newly returned lover, complete with ambiguities/tension/revisionist history

Also, in no particular order:
- No certain job as yet, just interviews
- No Japanese ability. People tell me I'm stupid. Or will look stupid.
- The big question: why am I going? I think I have the beginnings of an answer now - To see what Melbourne looks like in the rear view mirror. If sleep is the little death, travel is a middle death.
- Lots of people I love and haven't said goodbye to.
- The ending of my house, a slow sad leaking away of the people and vibe that made it wonderful

I really hope this works out. I haven't uprooted myself like this before. I expect to feel like shit for the first month, and then love it. But who knows? I might be back sooner, or later, or not at all.


Hunting for jobs in Japan, I came across one which read: Unique skills available. Below the title, it ran something like this: I possess unique skills, and require a unique employer with knowledge of the Yakamura. I am loyal and strong.

My interest piqued, I googled Yakamura (not sure of the spelling) and found it was one of the biggest yakuza clans, the Japanese underworld. It's either remarkably stupid of this footloose footpad to advertise his services openly, or the yakuza are much more mainstream than I had thought. Probably the latter: new recruits have the tip of their little finger chopped off to prove themselves, and as an identifying feature. Capsule hotels often specify that they don't want men with tatts or a missing finger joint staying. I wonder what happened to his former employer?


The elections in Iraq are over, hooray hooray, and look! A Shii-dominated state seems likely, which will complement Iran's Shii theocracy nicely until the US invades Iran too. How much blood does it take to avenge 3000 American lives? At the going exchange rate of one American life to ten Arabs/Afghans, America should be about square by now. My summer subject dealt with modern Middle Eastern history, and we learnt a lot about the horrors of Saddam's regime, stuff I tended not to believe because it was fed to us as a post-invasion justification for war. It's made me even more ambivalent about the Iraq war. WMD's and other dubious rationales aside, the West has allowed dictators to flourish as counterbalances or pawns for too long. America is unchallenged by any serious single power; the Cold War is over and with it the age of influence and proxy wars. So why not topple the Cold-War era dictators, and their newer kin? Why not use the US army more, rather than keep them bored and cloistered away. But if the terror wars are strategically motivated, not motivated by humanitarian concerns, then what? I've got an idea: the world's first paramilitary aid organisation. Why should aid organisations have to bow to internal politics; allow their shipments to be commandeered by tyrants; act as sycophants to autocrats to aid the poor? Why not tackle the problem of autocrats from the top down, by directing aid funds into a paramilitary force specialising in the removal/killing of longstanding dictators? When the power vacuum is filled by a crony, kill him too. The eternal problem of politics is that those who want to rule are not those who should be ruling; skimming off the crazies would introduce firm accountability at the top level. The International Criminal Court is largely toothless, thwarted by national jurisdictions and US noncompliance. If populations are too heavily repressed to mount their own uprisings, let revolution be outsourced to the specialists. It may sound crazy, but it would be effective and cheap in aid terms, while doing away with the agonising cost/benefit analysis of the numbers killed by a repressive regime versus the numbers killed in an Iraqi-style war. In effect, it would minimise the loss of life, and challenge the bureaucracies of terror and fear and repression from the top down, rather than creating incentives for bottom-up revolt. There, I've done it - finally advocated practical violence as a solution. It feels good.