Because the world needs more overwrought candour.

Friday, April 29, 2005

New! Serepax in living colour!

Well, I splashed out and bought a device which purports to be a mobile phone but also moonlights successfully as a digital camera, video camera, internet access point, email sender and receiver, music player, bar code reader (?) and teleporter. I think I'm in love. Anyhow, there are now pictures of My Life in Japan, sans identifying features. If you know me in real life and want to see pictures of me, Kiyono, adorable Japanese children and my gaijin friends, point your cursors to:*****/index.html

***** is my real name and the first letter of my surname. Wow, how secretive. Sorry, random visitors. The Phantom's face can never be seen, etc.


I have been neglecting tales of my brother's exploits here. I think the whole poverty thing is a bit hard to get used to for him, but he has successfully partnered up with one of the girls in the house here, after battling off a determined and handsome Swedish challenger who also lives here. The Swede managed to kiss her after Row had already been seeing her for some time; her justification was that it would have been rude to refuse. A gorgeous culture clash, that one. Anyhow, now that Row has seen off the interloper, Y. wants him to stay longer and Commit, which is, well, a rather big ask. Also, his 37 year old student who wanted his hot body turns out to have been married, which she saw as a inconvienience rather than a real problem.

We went to a sento (a public bath) together last week, which was quite a shock. Public baths in Japan are gender divided and naked. So we disrobed as quickly as we could under the watchful gaze of an elderly woman at the reception desk and scarpered into the bath, where we were confronted by a throng of Japanese men who gave us inquisitive looks which we returned. Suffice to say that I have never seen penises of the variety or like before. Also, the last time I saw my brother naked would have been, oh, 15 years ago. Good lord. It's not an easy thing to acknowledge that your brother is better equipped than you. However, two days later he admitted to 'fluffing' himself occasionally in order to present well to the locals. Yep, it's certainly bringing us closer together.

The salaryman at repose

Nipponbashi - Electronics hub


Farm amidst city

Last night

Last night, I got a raise from my boss and managed to wangle one fewer day at work. My passive aggression worked, at last. This is good, since I haven't got the guts for aggressive aggression. Then, I coaxed G, a fellow workmate, to come out to a bar where we were to meet a couple of friends.

Walking through Dotombori Arcade on the way there, I paused to take a picture and a girl appeared from the crowd and circled us. At first, I thought it was nothing, just a short cut, but she then she started doing laps, eyeing off G the whole time. Either she wanted a piece of Doug and hence was trying to see off her rival, or she wanted G and was telling her so via intense eye contact. We waited for her to complete half of her circuit before making a dash for freedom, leaving the mystery behind us. I still have no idea what that was all about.

We walked into the bar and were immediately immersed in hiphop and strange looks. One of the guys we were meeting knew the bar staff very well and disappeared into a back room for a while, returning with a little plastic bag of expensive white powder from Colombia. He then snorted quite a bit of it, openly. The rest of the patrons paid no notice. It was that kind of bar, the type you hear of but never find. Then the TV screen started playing hiphop music videos, but not the kind that MTV shows. These music videos were basically porn with more wiggling and a token singer all covered in bling. It was that kind of bar.


I was thinking of leaving my job, because I'd been put in with the newest kids, the crying machines and I couldn't hack it. Taking the one-year old kids away from their parents is so, so difficult. I feel like an paid abductor - you wrench them out of their arms, the kids cry for 6 solid hours between shitting themselves, pouring soup over their heads, crying some more and vomiting before the mothers return and magically the child stops crying and is at peace once more, while we lie on the floor like dead fish. It's like the children are machines whose sole purpose is to be reunited with their mothers; if that purpose is denied, they will express distress until the only person in the whole world who can fulfil that purpose returns. So kids go through the motions of singing and dancing and playing blocks, routine, but they cry while playing, while singing - they do both at the same time.

Luckily, I've been relocated upstairs with my favourite kids once more and all was well. God, I'm attached to them. They are all adorable cherubs, with the exception of two, who are bullies and nasty managers in the making. There is something absolutely wonderful about being the one chosen to have their shoulder cried on. Rai - my favourite kid in the world - is usually a mischievious and playful little lassie, but when she cries, she comes to me to do it and I sit against the wall with her hot tears soaking my shirt and everything is all right in the world.


This week is Golden Week in Japan - a prized week in which three national holidays fall on consecutive days midweek and employers give the other two days off. The country will almost shut down and holiday spots will explode into action.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Straw Dogs

I'm reading John Gray's Straw Dogs (read the first chapter here), which was kindly hand-delivered by an Australian friend as part of a Keep Doug Sane package. It is having the opposite effect, unfortunately. The book is fucking with my head.

To oversimplify, it argues that liberal humanism simply adopted the sense of historical progression that Christianity brought to the world, and that today we live without the courage to do away with big pictures, that we still cannot confront humans as animals, whose self of self is a fragmentary myth we impose retrospectively. The book is convincing, and comes at a time when I'm pretty receptive to Gray's arguments. I'll try and write about it more later, but for now, here are some chunks of text:

Consciousness is a variable, not a constant and its fluctuations are indispensable to our survival. We fall into sleep in obedience to a primorial circadian rhythmm; we nightly inhabit the virtual worlds of dreams; nearly all our daily doings go on without concious awareness; our deepest motivations are shut away from conscious scrutiny; nearly all of our mental life takes place unknown to us ... Very little that is of consequence in our lives requires consciousness. Much that is vitally important comes about only in its absence.


Where other animals differ from humans is in lacking the sensation of selfhood. In this they are not altogether unfortunate. Self-awareness is as much a disability as a power. The most accomplished pianist is not the one who is most aware of her movements when she plays ... very often we are at our most skilful when we are least self-aware.

On he goes, inexorably, attacking the idea that conscious thought is better:

"Subliminal perception - perception that occurs without conscious awareness - is not an anomaly but the norm", Gray writes, quoting psychoanalyst Anton Ehrenzweig as his authority: "Unconscious vision ... [has] proved to be capable of gathering more information than a conscious scrutiny lasting a hundred times longer."

Dismantling free will:
In Benjamin Livet's work on the 'half-second delay', it has been shown that the electrical impulse that initiates action occurs half a second before we take the conscious decision to act. We think of ourselves as deliberating what to do, then doing it. In fact, in nearly the whole of our lives, our actions are initiated unconsciously: the brain makes us ready for action, then we have the experience of acting.

And yet here I am in the most ordered society on Earth, with skyscrapers dotting the cityscape, with people healthy and rich and I wonder whether he is too hasty in dismissing our illusions of grandeur. Maybe?

Monday, April 25, 2005

Self harm

One of Kiyono's friends tried to commit suicide last week and Kiyono was unsurprisingly, rather sad. Unfortunately, the first time I saw her after she told me, I was roaring drunk and hence completely incapable of mustering the required level of seriousness for the situation. I woke up the next morning with a mouth that tasted like it had been inhabited by a colony of sparrows with bowel problems and thankfully, no memory of the night before. All I remembered was being briskly packed off on the last train home. Over the day, my memory gently filled me in on the details, one embarassment at a time. Oh, that's right. I kissed Kiyono's rather reserved male friend on the cheek. Where did these photos of random commuters come from? I see. Oh. I forgot to pay for my dinner and drinks. Erm. Oh. And yeah, F. tried to die and was in hospital as I crashed the solemn occasion and I was in a unabashedly good alcohol-fueled mood and that wasn't such a good look. Fuck a duck. I lashed myself with recriminations for the rest of the day, with the help of my hangover.

But I was forgiven and made amends and managed to find out a bit more about what had happened. It turned out as a story of unrequited love and desperate measures; there were fresh burn marks tracking up the arms of T, the guy she loves, and it's the third time she's tried and I wonder whether perhaps she has made him into her personal saviour, her solution to life.


I hadn't planned on being drunk but after work I collected two Australians and an American workmate and we found an izakaya and then a local bar filled with old men who commented on our entry until Jeremy revealed he could speak Nihongo and won their respect and so they bought us a large bottle of shochu (a disgustingly lovely drink, smooth and easy-drinking at 25% alcohol - it produces surprise drunkenness and large hangovers) and forced it upon us and we were grateful and then we were all remarkably drunk. God, there was such familiarity to drinking with Australians - we fell into it with an easy grace and spontaneously began gushing forth; T revealed he came to Japan to ease off on his drinking and then confessed to being too drunk to be good in bed the first time he slept with his girlfriend to be; J told of her affair with a fellow workmate which precipitated a crisis with her long-term boyfriend (Indonesian, in Japan to make money with which to buy a house in Java) and I suspect I must have gushed something or other. Not that it's hard to squeeze candour out of me. But it was immensely satisfying to be able to make jokes and know that their nuances will be entirely understood; to make reference to home-grown celebs and peculiarities and see knowing smiles and complete understanding. God, but culture is important. Any cultural cringe I ever possessed had has vanished and will remain dormant until I encounter some first-class bogans back home.
Crashes and small dreams

There was a train crash in Osaka today which killed 49 people. It happened in Amagasaki, right near where I work. I had the day off, but the airwaves were full of it, and the train drivers were all on edge. Crashes almost never happen here. Coming back from a job interview, I got on the front carriage by chance and regretted it immediately; trains in Japan are much more open than those in Australia; you can walk freely between carriages without being a rebellious teenager and you can stare out the front window at oncoming trains as they hurtle past mere centimetres away. I couldn't look away.


One of my conversation students opened up to me a little last week. The lesson rooms are open at the top, which lets the rest of the office hear our conversation (constant accountability), so she leant forwards and lowered her voice and lent me a bit of herself, showed me her tiny dream of change. She was 36, a hairdresser, and for 18 years she had nursed the dream of working overseas for a year, perhaps in Singapore, perhaps Australia, but her parents wouldn't let her and now she was 36 and couldn't qualify for a working holiday visa and she had worked up the courage to defy her parents and leave Japan for a while. Now she has to contend with the visa maze, pitting her fledgling English against the immigration systems. Which was where I came in. How can you refuse a request like that? You can't. I spent an hour trying to navigate the Australian immigration department's website (god, it's like the new version of the imfamous language testing that the government used to conduct to make sure no undesirable skin colours crept into Australia). Bureaucratese mingling with fragments of normal English. I came up with scant hope; if she gets a sponsor, she might be allowed in. I don't know the system so well. Any suggestions? Where are hairdressers in short supply in the world?


I never really understood the need for contemporary feminism until I started living in a rich country which bypassed it altogether. When my student confided her terribly small dream to me, I couldn't help but think that here is where feminism needs to happen. In Australia and the rest of the West, feminism is dying because most of its work has been done; women can have careers now and the Pill is here to stay. Third wave feminists keep trying to revive the movement but the need is less urgent now, the critical mass needed for change has faded because much change has been achieved. Here, feminism is needed, and in the developing world.

The ideas are trickling in, as Japanese youth look outside their country more and more and bring foreign ideas back home when they return. Women are no longer as satisfied with a life in the home and work as the office lady. But it's taking time for the shift in opinion (thirty years ago, something like 80% of women said the right place for them was in the home; now, it's closer to 30%) to translate through into action.

Kiyono does well out of hostess work, and many women do well out of sex work. Being an office lady pays terribly, as does teaching, translating and the other jobs which are dominated by women. It seems the only way to become rich is to become a singer.


It almost seems as if much of contemporary Japan is set up around satisfying male desires, as a reward for the exhausting demands of the salarymen life, the salarymen who rebuilt Japan post-1945. So sex is readily available - every suburb has its sex parlours - beer comes from cheap vending machines and porn is everywhere.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Musts

I've been a bit touristy the last few weeks, doing all those things you Simply Must Do in Japan in one fell swoop, so I can just get on with life and the like.

So. I have:
- Gone cherry blossom viewing
- Been to see sumo wrestling
- Caught a shinkansen

Cherry blossom season was wonderful. The winter chill lessens suddenly and the sakura (cherry blossom) trees ready themselves before churning out fluffy white blossoms by their millions. There are often no leaves on the trees and they look like fairy floss. The season lasts only a week, perhaps two, before delicate petals carpet the sidewalks and float in swimming pools. Most people go to hanami parties beneath the flowers. I caught one on my tongue like a snowflake.

Sumo wrestling was kinda underwhelming. For such a refined sport, for a traditional pursuit which requires dedicating your life to becoming a huge musclebound beast, the actual fights last maybe 2 minutes, tops. It was a real sight to see a gigantic man topple slowly over, shaking the ring. Interestingly, the top sumo wrestler is Mongolian born, which has enraged traditionalists. They're still fuming that two Hawaiian men previously reached the highest rank of yokozuna. But the hope is that seeing a Japanese sport dominated by foreigners will provoke more domestic interest.

I also managed to catch a shinkansen, by mistake. It was a really difficult mistake to make - it had a long, curved nose, sleek lines, plush seats - but I stupidly thought that there was no way a shinkansen would operate between Osaka and Kobe and that therefore of course it had to be a cheap imitation. Not so. While it was a lovely ride and got me home ten minutes earlier, the cost quadrupled. The driver hurtled through the suburbs of Osaka at around 200 k's, overtaking slower trains with a dismissive hoot, charging past Mom and Pop intersections with only a boom gate seperating pedestrians from 100 tons of fast steel.

Thankfully, I've also been less touristy at times. I've:
- Gone to a Hanshin Tigers baseball game
- Patronized a love hotel (ooh, er)

The Hanshin Tigers game came about in a happenstance way; a train after work, a brief acquaintance with free tickets. It was incredible. I didn't watch the game so much as the crowd. 40,000 people bring Hanshin Tigers plastic sticks and beat them together rhythmically in unison. Standing next to the fence were men in white gloves, conducting the crowd and leading the singing, while trumpeters played and drummers set the pace. It was really quite excellent. Everyone worked themselves into a frenzy every time a new Hanshin Tigers player came on, and they sang a song specially written for him. So, we chanted songs along the lines of Joe, Joe, he's so strong, he's going to hit it far and long, but the songs went for a full five minutes, extolling the new players virtues and no doubt scaring the shit out of him. Sadly, the Tigers were outclassed that night by the Giants, so 40,000 people would exult over their new Great White Hope only to have him go out immediately. At one point in the game, everyone produced long balloons and blew them up, releasing them in unison when the conductors said Now! and thousands upon thousand of balloons whizzed around the stadium before spiraling from the sky like shot ducks.

And, ah, yeah. Last night I patronised a love hotel. Let me just say that it's one of the greatest inventions I've ever encountered. Why go to a bland, ordinary hotel with your secretary/tasty piece of man meat when you can go to a hotel built for the sole purpose of allowing people make love? Australia needs them. The world needs them. Sure, it helps people cheat on their spouses, but it lets them cheat in style, which is important. Love hotels dot Japan, lurid concrete castles with pink and yellow spires, or perhaps a fake palm tree and flashing neon. But once they've attracted your attention, they suddenly become remarkably private - secret car entrances, discreet back alleyway entrances. The entrance to the hotel Kiyono and I went to was like a maze. Inside, there was no-one visible, a ghost town. We deposited cash in a hand which appeared from behind a frosted screen and received some change, a key and a frequent visit rewards card (Seventh visit free!)

Inside our room was a rather large bed, a bathroom with a spa and what looked like a torture rack. Everything was immaculately clean. We laughed and joked, a little awkward (it kinda takes the spontaneous element of seduction away) and turned on the TV. Immediately, the room was filled with gasps and moans and eruptions of sperm. It was incredible. I've never, ever seen anything like it. One channel was showing an American porno starring lusty female vampires, but the only way you could tell they were vampires were their plastic incisors and their aviator glasses. After being pummeled by a cop-like character for a while, the main vampire turned nasty and the cop killed her and then most of the other vampires. The other channel was Japanese porn, which was bizarre, and really rather fucked up. A naive and shy office worker starts work only to have her male workmates surround her in the changerooms, forcibly strip her and feed their cocks into her mouth - rape porn. But within five minutes, the Amazing Male Fantasy comes true and the raped office lady reinvents herself emerges as the Cum-Hungry Slut who Wants It All.

(If that last sentence doesn't send Serepax's popularity soaring, I don't know what will)

Sadly, it wasn't a themed hotel - you can go to hotels which have rooms full of sci-fi style equipment and costumes, or dress up as a gunslinger, or try your hand at beginner's bondage. Next time, maybe.

One reason Japanese society is so cohesive, even as the rest of the developed nations suffer identity crises en masse, is that the society has a built in respect for authority. You defer to your superiors generally unquestioningly, even if you disagree; the word 'gambare' is used to mean 'endurance', often in respect to putting up with your boss. (This is why I have such trouble with my idiotic boss; he took to the new environment with great enthusiasm and now tries to instill a similar meekness amongst his non-Japanese employees too.)

The hierarchy has endured here because it is so entrenched, and I'd argue that at least in part that is due to the structure of the language. English places the individual before the institution; "I work for X bank" and so on. Japanese is reversed: "Mitubishi no shain desu" - Mitsubishi-possessive-employee-am. It's found elsewhere, too; you say your family name first, the line of your descent, and then your first name, the individual expression of something larger. I don't know much linguistics, but generally, the most important parts of a sentence come first. By giving primacy to the family, the employers, you subordinate the self into a greater whole. It must lend such strength and meaning to their lives, to feel like the whole is greater than the individual, meaning and also perhaps a form of terror about being scrutinised on a daily basis.


While contemporary Japanese society appears remarkably cohesive, genetically, culturally and ideologically and hence gives the appearance of a tradition dating back millenia, it's not the case at all. Feudalism endured in Japan right up until the Meiji Restoration, in the late 19th century. Prior to that, Japan was torn apart and put back together by a succession of shoguns and emperors. It even possessed a well developed caste system. The lowest rung on the caste ladder was occupied by the burakumin, the people who killed animals and performed the dirty necessities. They were segregated and avoided, and even today indirect discrimination against them continues and for a foreigner to bring up the topic is very rude.

Then came the Meiji Restoration and then later the militarist buildup and the brief, bloody empire of the Rising Sun; Japan threw off its self-imposed isolation and went out to conquer its neighbours because the Europe countries had already acquired themselves nice pieces of the Earth and Japan wanted in on that too. Now, Japanese society appears homogenous, the feudal system vanquished by the American occupation and the shock of a chosen people being defeated. I think perhaps this homogeneity came about because when Japan at last had to open itself to the rest of the world, the Japanese united against a common foe, as in every sci-fi movie. The internal squabbles became meaningless when confronted by a world of marked difference.

Geography is crucially important to culture. Both Japan and England are islands. Islands breed isolation and superiority. But both countries broke out of their islands and went and conquered those they saw as lesser; the British harnessed Darwinism to put themselves at the head of the myriad races, as natural superiors and the Japanese did too; the Rape of Nanking, the atrocities in occupied Korea are still remembered bitterly today. The recent riots in China and the war of words between Japan and Korea over a few contested islands testify to that.

It reminds me of Life, The Universe and Everything, the third Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. In short, the planet Krikkit was a peaceful place, hidden from the rest of the galaxy by a dust cloud until a spaceship crashlanded and shocked them from their complacency. They built their own spaceships and went out a-plundering. Their complete lack of contact with other cultures made it possible for them to make them subhuman, conceptually, and I think that maybe that's why both England and Japan did what they did.
Poetic justice?

Well, I've been blogging about Kiyono so it's really only fair that she's been blogging about me, in a group blog. She told me on Friday when I was roaring drunk and I promptly forgot until she reminded me today. Sadly, when I ran the blog through Google's translation abilities (since mine are clearly not up to scratch) it produced a delightful collection of garbled sentences. Like these:

Little bit, yesterday drinks too much and is high. If it remembers, the low-class distilled spirits lock whether even with this the extent which is said, the kind of air which has been guzzled does. It arrived to the house, it is it is large you wail. When 2 hours you wail excessively, the inside of the early rising cod body has become bone-dry. However, the kind of air which will be been clear does.

OK, that one's about a hangover. Easy. But then there was a picture of me looking winsome while drunk and this fine translated passage:

As for this day Douglas and the ?? the schedule which meets properly. For the first time after meeting, almost 2 times have met to one week. As for Doug who is done from Australia being the rather frank person, everyone who is together becomes mild. Very in the recent leash seeing Doug of important healing type. However the Australian it was left over and until now interest was not, something peace so it is the country -. Well the ?? which also this day is healed in Doug's smiling face!

I think that's a good thing. Maybe?

For those of you who were mildly titillated by the whole hostess/sex work puzzle, it's been largely cleared up. The flesh mag was a hostess magazine and the contact details were of her bar.

Or so she says. Ominous full stop sequence: ...

(Wow. I think maybe I'm getting good at the art of Suspense! Delayed Gratification for the Reader!)

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Obligatory Yakuza post

If, for some reason, a television show was made about my kindergarten, one character you would never, ever be able to kill off would be Juan (not his real name). Oh, I'm sure you'd get a ratings blip, but long term, it would be a bad move.

OK, so he's Colombian-Italian; I've written about him before but he continues to amaze me. He likes sex a lot, which is fine, but it's mostly with girls who are not his long term girlfriend, whom he lives with. I asked him about it, and his moral juggling abilities are unparalleled. He looked shifty only for a moment, before telling me that his girlfriend cheated on him once so it's therefore ok. Then he looked a trifle puzzled. "Although, maybe she cheated because she was poor and she needed help paying the rent." Even this fact didn't affect his rationalisation powers.

Ok, enough snide judgement from me. What makes him interesting is that his extravagant love life is coupled with a true innocence derived from simplicity. From him, the Latin American/Italian combination of machismo (on paper, a recipe for horribleness) comes across as playful. He bounces children on his knee while filling my ears with smut and innuendo, relating tales of the night before. Often, I try to stop it because it feels so, so wrong to talk about sex in the land of the innocents but it's his hobby, his preoccupation and it's tough to find anything else which interests him as much. A month ago, he came up to me, whipped out his keitai (mobile phone) and proudly displayed some rather personal photos of one of his 'friends' - a saucy version of picture ping pong, and ever since then I've come to dread his phone.

So, that's the background; he likes sex and pursues it avidly in love hotels and bars (he successfully wooed a rich bar-owner). There's nothing predatory about him; he's too simple. But about a week ago, he came into work looking a little the worse for wear, possibly even limping a little and I asked, thinking hangover, but no, it was yet another vigorous bout of sex that he was keen to tell me about. In passing, he mentioned that she had a dragon tattoo emblazoned across her back and something twigged. She was almost certainly yakuza - dragon tatts being the identifying marker of choice. Juan hadn't even thought about it, but if you own a bar in Japan, you'll most likely have dealings with them. I freaked out a little; they might be accepted as part of life here, but man, they'll still kill you.

I told Kiyono the story and she didn't react as I expected. "Yakuza aren't that bad," she said. Oh? How did she know? "Because my stepfather is an ex-yakuza. They aren't so bad." Really? "No, not so bad. But they still cut off his little finger when he quit."


On Monday I have a job interview. Work's been draining me and the pay is bad. But if I work one less day for more pay, it would be fine. So, if I have another offer, I have a bargaining platform for the showdown with my idiot boss. Some of my workmates have already left; others are leaving, and I think I might be able to extract a bit more money out of his tight grip. Interestingly, because I'm white, I have more bargaining power than the Filipinos I work with, who are just grateful not to be doing hostess/sex work or factory drudgery. Ah, the joys of immigration into rich countries. You get to complain about the newcomers and at the same time make them do all the hard work that you used to have to do before you became Developed. I think the phenomenon of treating newcomers badly is almost a Constant and Immutable rule of life, scalable to both the lofty heights of society and the smaller fact that the constant stream of new workers at my kindergarten are generally given the jobs which involve kid poo.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Bits and bobs

Since 1945, the Japanese have gained 5 inches in height, according to Newsweek. I'm not tall here. Strange how outdated stereotypes are still in wide usage; it's as if the speeding up and globalising of trends and information hasn't really done anything to shift how we feel about different cultures.


My initial torrent of words has subsided - I'm working about 40 hours a week at the moment, just treading water in the financial department. God, I'm poor here. Not quite grindingly poor, but poor enough to hold onto one-yen pieces and arrange them into a nice pile for use in desperate times. I'm even poorer now because I've given up my fare evading, or fare reducing ways. Not because I feel morally obliged to pay the exorbitant fare, but because the high-pitched beeping which signals a child ticket finally got to me. I just can't do it anymore. For the first month and a half, it was fine - I knew little or nothing about the culture, and silent disapproval meant nothing. Now, I notice old women eyeing me off, I can feel the eyes of the station staff following me, adding it to their list of gaijin transgressions. The psychology of it is astounding - it draws attention, and society polices itself, removing the need for ticket inspectors. For a week or so, I got desperate and turned my music player up loud as I passed through the gates - if I couldn't hear it, it mustn't be real. But then that stage passed as well and I became even more concious of invisible eyes. I could do it blindfolded with music, but that's about it. God, I've been policed. It sucks. Now, I have to splurge the equivalent of 20 bucks on the eight trains it takes me to get to work and back each day. Sure, I get the money back from my employer, but not for a month.


The tax rate here is 10%. It's a pittance. While on the one hand it's great - especially for me - it's got interesting flow-on effects throughout Japanese society. The government is pretty weak as a result - not much in the way of a welfare state, and the army was never allowed to be rebuilt after WWII. What this means is that, paradoxically, in probably the strongest group society in the world, the nation with the strongest sense of togetherness, you're more of an individual, in some respects. But then there is the strength of the family unit - one problem feminism faces here is the fact that the state measures its population using the unit of families, not individuals (the American Christian Right's wet dream) - and the role that the zaibatsu play in their employees lives. In the zaibatsu, the megacorporations, and to a lesser extent in the smaller corporations, salarymen are looked after from birth to death. A salary that rises automatically with age, a great pension scheme, insurance, etc. So the role of the state in providing welfare has been decentralised, the slack taken up by the businesses and the family. As a result, politics is a nest of coziness between government and big business; coziness and the remarkable success of the Japanese model (at least pre-1990) means that even now, people rarely, if ever, talk about politics, which is an abstraction. Nearly everyone seems middle class; there are a few rich, and a few poor, but a tiny number of homeless compared to America.

On a side note, it's fascinating to see how product consumption is entirely free of cynicism. In the West, advertising companies have an uphill battle against our skepticism. Will that product really make me look beautiful? Is it really that tasty? Many ads build a postmodern self-satire into their ads, or better, simply try to make their consumers laugh. Here, it's much easier; the ads for products are riddled with childlike ideals. These baked goods will make your body healthy. This drink will make your day happy. These clothes will make you attractive. And people believe it. It's a nation of unquestioning consumers, believers in the cult of consumption. And who can blame them? After all, products saved Japan. After WWII, exported Japanese products earnt a reputation for being cheap and nasty. The tireless work of generations of salarymen turned Japanese products into cheap and good, and then broadened into expensive and high-tech. In a very real sense, by their uncomplaining consumption, the Japanese are paying homage to their products, the products which made them the second biggest economy in the world.

Tonight, I walked through Dotombori, an arcade that Lonely Planet describes as something out of Blade Runner. Not far wrong. A 50 metre tall Asahi beer can; a mammoth picture of a woman in black leather, advertising Oakleys; neon gods.


Tonight, another izakaya, more random connections. A snippet, Japanese to American - "Your country beat my country in World War II, remember?" and there was a small but noticeable pause around the table.


Kiyono and one of her friends went to karaoke on Friday night; I tagged along, exhausted after a week of squealing one-year-olds (a new batch have come in, and they wail and shit and shit and wail and I think I need a new job) and we walked through Umeda, braving the throngs of sleek young men in suits, inviting women to host bars or men to hostess bars, and paused at a konbeen (convienience store) and there was a rack of flesh mags, and Kiyono picked one up - breasts mashed with hands, fading to more sedate pictures of posing girls wearing not so much, and then, another few pages, a picture of Kiyono herself, wearing a school girl uniform; sultry, pouty, legs encased in frilly black lace. She pointed and laughed and her friend teased her about the stupid pose and the night moved on, but I gotta admit, I freaked out a little. It wasn't a porn mag, where the girls have no contact with the men who masturbate to their image; it was a hybrid, a hostess magazine, with ways to contact her. It's a fine line between hostessing and sex work - the pay is better the more you're prepared to do - and I would really, really like my brand new girlfriend not to be having sex for money. The problem is, how do I delicately bring up the question?

Sunday, April 10, 2005 which our hero finds love (perhaps)

I seem to have acquired a Japanese Girlfriend. Actually, she probably acquired me. I’m not sure. After a number of drunken pashfests and one disturbing encounter with her live-in Brooding Ex Boyfriend, it seems we are now Together. This is actually quite exciting. She’s deliciously complicated. The Japanese-female-submissive-personality graft failed to take in her case, and she’s freer than a lot of her peers, living out of home since her teens, one arm decorated in tattoos she did herself, the other in scars she made to ground herself, a photographer. We went out to an ‘Asian’ restaurant and talked as best we could (she taught herself English from a dictionary) and flirted and I wondered at her – she has to touch objects to see how they feel, extending a questing hand to small Buddha statues and studded belts and tree bark, like a child, wonder in her eyes, and then later, cosier, she paused and thought hard and asked, how do you say in English, ah, ah, will you be with me? and I said, yes, why not. Her laugh is infectious, her English unusually tinged, free of the imprinting of teachers, gravelly (she smokes), full, round, she kisses me in public (very much Not Done here) and we are a Mixed Couple who draw glances and silent opinions. Friday night, we went out to an izakaya with her crazy friends and armwrestled and had chopstick speed races to overcome my lack of Nihongo and then went to karaoke and I sang Sometimes by The Strokes loudly and badly in English and they sang beautifully, with feeling, in Japanese and the drinks were free and the night swam by in cigarette smoke and laughter. At the Asian restaurant, I asked her about her work at a bar and what time she finished and she said four am, mostly, and I said how do you get home, the trains don’t start till 5 and she said taxis (which cost a lot) and I said oh, you must get paid a lot and there was a large pause and she drew on her cigarette and looked at me and decided to trust me. Ok, I will tell you the truth, she said. The truth is that I’m a hostess. I’d wondered about that – she’s free with her money - so it was no real surprise. So she gets paid to flirt with lonely businessmen and encourage them to buy very expensive drinks and one proposed to her two weeks ago. So, this is an interesting development.


Before I started seeing K, I dated another girl, N, for a little while, before she went back to her hometown in Kyushu. Dates in Japan include one element which is entirely lacking in Australia – window shopping. Every time I saw N, she dragged me through a number of shops – lolly shops, cute fluffy animal shops – and K does the same, and I had no idea why until one of my conversation students told me it’s puppy love, you both look at cute stuffed toys and the like and go all misty eyed together, and then transfer that to each other.

Dating N was one of the more bizarre experiences I’ve had here. She was a couple of years older, and her sense of obligation to those younger than herself forced her to help pay for my drinks and food. That was nice. But on the flipside, she often treated me like a child, and I teased her a lot, calling her my mother. “Where is your wallet? Haven’t you got a jacket?” she would say. We made an excellent dinner one night and she asked me if I could cook and I said yes, of course, I’ve lived out of home for a while now, and she watched me dubiously as I pushed steak around a pan and said no you can’t, you can’t cook at all and I was kinda offended but said nothing. We spent a lot of time discussing her ex boyfriend (also from Melbourne, which is why she contacted me in the first place) and the inside of her head and she told me a lot about herself and we were very, very different and would never, ever work as a long term thing. She called me ‘simple’ which I considered being offended at, but stopped. I am kinda simple. Or at least, not very complicated. Unlike her. She was a little bit crazy, a self-confessed control freak who made me wash each individual lettuce leaf and forced me to wash my hair ‘properly’ before I saw her again (!) and seeing her was exasperating and hilarious. I asked her once, mock exasperated, how the submissive gene missed her and she smiled and answered seriously. “It is because my mother is very strong, she grew up around foreigners on homestays in her house and she became strong after that,” she said. Her ex boyfriend messed with her head (bipolar, she wondered?) and she couldn’t study for her final exams to be a pharmacist (much more responsibility here than in Australia) and failed and now she has to wait an entire year to retake them – such inflexibility in the system. Then she left, giving me all her food and strict instructions not to use the child tickets on the trains because it was bad and left my life abruptly and then K entered just as quickly. I am very much enjoying the novelty of being foreign.


Oh! Hina, my biggest two year old fan has a mother (single) who has also taken a shine to me and on Friday she beckoned me over before she took Hina home and gave me her phone number and told me to call. Amazing. The offer of a Real Family, readymade, right there and then. I am still a wee bit young, methinks.
Alternative life

I’m thinking seriously of staying longer, for at least a year. It’s such a relief to be out of university, free. It’s like an entire alternative life, living here. My self is changing, adapting to the new environment; I’m populating my world with people I like, adding language slowly, learning to speak again, adapting my old habits to new situations, renewing myself. I like the feeling of another life. It’s as close I’ll ever get to being someone else, which I think is one of our deepest desires; cosmetic surgery, charismatic men with self-help bestsellers, relationships. There is such restlessness in a coalesced self, such a desire for change vying with the safety of habit. I don’t know why people assume that their self is somehow fixed, that after the turbulence of teenage formation the self is sacrosanct, an unchangeable vantage point from which we see the world. It’s not true at all. A self is an adaptation to an environment. When you’re a child, your parents look eagerly to see the formation of habits, things of note which, cumulatively, form the self. I think the self appears fixed primarily through our interactions with other selves, other people – other people confirm our selves to us, they tell us that that is who we are because this is how it looks to them. A self is simply a collection of habits, routines, methods of dealing with the world, set paths which can be changed slightly to deal with new situations. But habits can be changed. One of my Japanese conversation students told me of her time in America. She spent two years there, and she felt her ‘Japaneseness’ lifting away. “To live as an American is a very easy way to live,” she said. “You just do your own thing, you let it all hang out, you don’t think so much of society or other people.” Then, she came back and her Japaneseness reimposed itself. “I felt the Japanese way of thinking creeping back in,” she said, “and while I’d prefer to think like an American, this is Japan.” She readily adapted her self to her new environment and back again. As for me, I started to invert my personality after I was 16. I used to be horrifically shy; now, I characterise myself as an extrovert. I chose to change myself largely as a reaction to the way I was before, which I hated. In fact, you could say that I define myself largely against the former version of me. Here, it’s happening too, to a lesser degree. There’s no place for reticence, Australian tall-poppy embarrassment, no use for my own unthinking deferral to authority.


I don’t know if you’ve read it, but The Dice Man is a cult book from the 1960’s which deals with the self. The main character tries to dissolve his self and replace it with a multitude of minority selves by writing down options for actions and then rolling a dice to decide which he would do. He tries to break down the habits which constitute himself and replace them with randomness, unpredictability. It’s an excellent book.
My boss is a twat

Oh, how I dislike my manager. He is an idiot. I have already written and rewritten my resignation letter/speech in my head a number of times. I may or may not have the guts to say it, but it runs like this:

D, you need to rethink how you interact with people. You can’t decide if you want to be liked or respected, and so you fail at both. Your staff resent you, both Japanese and foreign. You treat your Japanese staff like shit because you can, because there is respect accorded to Westerners because America rules the world, and you abuse that respect. You order them around, talk over people who are twice your worth and complain about Japan often enough that I wonder why you are still here. And after you order someone to do something, you look at the foreign staff – maybe you don’t realise you do this, but you do – with this look that makes it seem like a contest, a clash of cultures, and you’re doing your best to Help the White Race. But you pay us a tiny wage for difficult work and expect us to act like real employees when you make it clear we are Businesspeople and Contractors. You’re a borderline megalomaniac, pompous and full of your own self-importance. You do a nice imitation of appearing open to new ideas, but then you shut them out with a few cursory sentences and replace them with your own. It’s embarrassing to watch you verbally fellate the company president. You are never wrong. Credit where it’s due; you’re a successful self-made man, you’re good with kids, you speak good Japanese and you work hard. But you really, really need to change the way you interact with your employees. It might help with the high staff turnover rate.

Oh, I would really like to say this to him. See, my boss thinks he deserves respect because of his position, but he has to earn his employees respect every bit as much as we have to earn his. He thinks that because he pays me, I have to respect his power over me, but there are plenty of other jobs I know could get which pay better and have less commuting time. At present, I’m staying for the kids and my co-workers, but that might change. He thinks I have an “attitude problem” (according to a fly on the wall) which is a new label for me. I think it may translate to a reluctance to smile and agree while he fucks me over. He encourages meekness and pliability in his staff. He boils easily and his eyes get twitchy when he encounters resistance and I don’t respect this man at all. He is a twat. He has a large belly, which makes his shirt look like it is being slowly inflated, and his mobile dangles from his neck, bouncing on his stomach as he walks. The ostentatious mobile is a mark of his importance, his Means of Contact, the symbol of the managerial class. He constantly talks over and rudely cuts off the headmaster of my kindergarten, a quiet Japanese man who speaks five languages, has a number of degrees, makes jokes and is liked by the staff.

My dislike of him was fine in the abstract, when he lived in the ivory tower of head office and rarely contacted me, but it’s recently blossomed into a fleshed out dislike, and may one day, if I work at it, grow into a solid, enduring and violent dislike. He’s told me off two times this week for being late. Yes, I was late, four days out of five. Two were my fault – I missed trains, and I know that’s bad. But on Monday, I was very late because I tried a new sequence of trains which he told me would be quicker and was in fact a good half hour slower. But the boss is never wrong, of course, nor the customer, which leaves the balance of responsibility on humble employees such as myself. On Thursday, I was running a bit late and stressing about it, packed into a train full of strangers who were becoming intimately acquainted with each others armpits, when the door opened and trapped a poor salaryman’s arm in the door. He let out a shriek, we milled uselessly around him and I tried to keep the door open which just resulted in more pain for him. The driver sprinted down the platform, freed him and dusted him off. As a result, I was late and hence deserving of punishment. God, I hate criticism, and especially from people I don’t respect.

Here are some extracts from the manual he wrote for contractors, written as a guide to help us become “successful businesspeople.” As “independent proprietors,” we are responsible for the “maintenance of our skillbases.” But we mustn’t forget hygiene in the schools – “cleanliness is next to godliness is not an exaggeration” [sic]. And unless we “enjoy the intense pain of food poisoning, it is best to refrain from semicooked meals.” Nice patronising tone. Oh, and “any display of sexual harassment or discrimination will be followed by immediate termination of contract and possible prosecution. What used to be known as ‘office humour’ is now being viewed as being in poor taste.” That last is rampant hypocrisy.

He’s got that brand of superiority which pretends not to be superiority, he pretends to listen before there is this curious tipping of his head, his eyes, away, like blinking but more, his shoulders, and then he returns, he surges back over the top of you and says yes yes but no. His potbelly overpowering his belt, another signal of difference – it is quite hard to be fat in Japan, sumo wrestlers really have to work at it – and the mobile hanging over it which he professes to hate, this his instrument of Middle Management Power, his wand, a comfortable man with a Japanese wife and kids, the very picture of adaptation. His contractors equal in name and culture but nothing else. But the way he treats his Japanese employees! Snatching phones, bellowing terse Nihongo, talking up and over and always looking at us afterwards, he does it for us, the supremacy of a threatened culture, a minority culture of firsts amongst seconds, wannabe Americans. See, he knows he’s not accepted and that his staff have to defer to him – he is Western, a god made flesh, to be imitated, even though he is anathema to their politeness and reticence, and they resent him, you can see it curdling in their eyes, being amassed only to be talked about to drunken strangers and spouses at safe hours, resentment to die with, stomachs full of it.


Oh, I am such a bitch, such a big big bitch, but it is really quite rare that I manage to dislike anyone this much, and in such a short time, too. While I’m thankful that he was born a manager so that I don’t have to be, why is it that the people who gravitate to jobs of authority are so often the people who shouldn’t be doing that work? Prison guards who thrive on sadism, kiddy fiddlin’ scout leaders, charismatic and lethal politicians, managers who could easily be autocrats in a tinpot country.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Excellent article

This is really, really interesting (to me, anyway). It's New Scientist's Top Ten things evolution ever produced. Humans, of course, are up there.


Sunday, April 03, 2005

Life and the like

I'm hungover and a little homesick, which is possibly not the best time to write a post. What a crazy, crazy week it's been. Hard to know where to begin. I'll start with trivia.

There was a man on the train yesterday with thick, shaggy eyebrows set close together, tectonic plates pushing together and forcing his nose outwards, a slow eruption. Another man stood next to me, sniffing, a salaryman. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him unwrap a wet tissue and then clean the entire train window, top to bottom, scrubbing hard at the dirty spots. Job done, he inspected the tissue and tut-tutted the dirt. Everyone watched him warily. Next, he peeled off a warning sticker, and then slapped it back on, bang, making us jump.


On Monday, I asked for a pay rise. I'd heard that some of the others at my kindergarten were getting an extra sen (1000 yen) per day simply because they asked for it. My dodgy employers like to believe that by labelling their employees as `Independent Contractors`, they make us all competing individuals and stave off any hint of communal sympathy or (surely not) even a union. That's bollocks. We bitch about them on a daily basis. My boss also likes to think that as individuals, we won't share information which benefits us personally. So when he gave J a raise, he suggested that it might be a good idea not to tell the other workers - it would be their little secret. Thankfully, J wasn't bought off so easily, and told me about it. So I did. I've never done it before, but it was easier to ask than I thought. I don't like or respect my boss, and I could easily get another job now I have experience, so I was able to be more forceful than if I was genuinely worried about irritating him. He was running late, doing ten things at once and quickly filled out a new three month contract. He finished, gave it to me and prepared to dash off to a meeting. I asked for the raise and he stopped in his tracks. "You've only been here two weeks" he said. True, I said, but I'm a good worker, the kids love me and your kindergarten has high staff turnover, which puts the parents off. We haggled for a while, and he compromised a bit. "Sign a contract for a month and then we'll see" he said. I accepted this, although in retrospect, I probably could have pushed it more by mentioning that I'd been offered a better paying job with his competitor (untrue). Leaving, I felt good for a while, but then doubt crept back in and I became angry. Another fucking month of terrible pay, and then only a possibility? So now I'm planning an elaborate (real) defection to his competitor. I thought I'd be working with the same kids, but I think I've been given the new ones, who will cry and shit a lot more. This is bad. But I do get to work with J, my favourite person here.

I was surprised at my ability to face up to my boss, though. It's strange - living here has given me a lot more confidence, because I care a lot less about the consequences. I've lifted myself by the seat of my pants out of my culture, my place and doing so has freed me from the invisible restraints of Australian society. What if someone I know sees me? What if I get fired? What will other people think? Now, it doesn't matter. Gaijin are expected not to conform to Japanese society, which gives rise to head shaking by the older generation but also a level of tolerance beyond that extended to, say, young Japanese. I really like the change in me though. I used to be terrified of getting in trouble - the certainty of people in authority scared me, the fear of consequences.


Anyway, I'm going to be poor a little longer. I've got another job to help me in the meantime, though. So I'll work at the kindergarten and then do three hours of conversational teaching. I'm going to be working a full forty hour week, compressed into four days. This is not exactly what I expected. I know I must be able to work smarter, not harder. But how?

The interview for the job was bizarre, as usual. Standing in the elevator, I saw a man walking towards me but a little far away to hold the door. So I closed it, took the lift up and found the bathroom. I was putting my tie on in preparation when I heard someone say - through the wall - "Doug, come in when you're ready". Of course, I'd managed to close the lift doors on my interviewer and also let him know I wasn't wearing a tie pre-bathroom. But regardless of these black marks, he gave me a job instantly. We talked for a little while to prove I could speak English and then he asked for my resume. Whipping out a pencil, he dissected it in front of me, advising me where to pad, what to include, that I should get a keitai (mobile) as soon as possible and that in future, to put him as a reference. "But you don't know me yet," I said. "Doesn't matter," he said, "I`m happy to lie for you." Nice. I asked him who his students were and he laughed. 90% are bored women, he said, bored housewives or office workers who can't have a career because they are female, and so they take up hobbies and interests. But they aren't really serious students, he said, they want it to be fun - make it edutainment. Teach naked if you want. I must have looked a bit surprised at this, and he laughed again, one of the long term gaijin. "Most English schools have rules against teachers sleeping with their students," he said. "I don't. Just make sure they don't leave the school, OK?" I was having trouble controlling my face. "Hey, don't worry about it. I'm married to one of my old students, it's fine. Flirting with the foreign teacher is one of the reasons the students come here," he said, and winked.


I worked three days this week on kids camps. It was like a military exercise. We had to marshall 200 kids, aged between 5 and 12 in preparation for boarding a packed train at Osaka station in rush hour. Next, buses appeared and shipped us off to a `Sports Island` with a camping area. Mind you, being Japan, the sports island and natural camping ground is situated in the middle of the craziness of Osaka Port; the trees and fountains contrast nicely with the tugs spouting diesel fumes and the distant thrum of cranes. The camp was good clean family fun, with the exception of the adventure playground. This playground was clearly designed by an ex-boot camp sergeant. It was lethal, in a Darwinian selection kinda way. Picture this: ropes perhaps two metres off the ground with buoys for kids to sit on. If they fall off, they'll be cushioned by a gentle concrete slab, carefully positioned so as to do as much damage as possible. I positioned myself under a steep steel ladder, designed to eradicate the clumsy or hasty - anyone who fell would be bisected by a couple of steel bars. It was carnage. After a frazzled hour, we gathered the survivors, counted the dead and sent short messages to their parents. `Sorry, your son didn`t survive. We suggest you try again and hope for a smarter/stronger one`. Seriously. Playground, my ass. Militarist training ground, more like. Don't they have lawsuits here? Between deaths, I whiled away the time talking to a fellow Australian. While her accent was oddly comforting, she talked and complained far too much and succeeded in eroding my patience. At the end of the day, she asked me if I knew many other gaijin, and I said no, I try to avoid them because I find I rarely like them. There was a pause. Does that include me, she asked, a little cautiously. No, no, if I didn't like you I wouldn't tell you, I said, and accompanied it with a large, vaguely reassuring grin.

The second two days were much better - the kids were wonderful. Although I was meant to be a sensei, my lack of Japanese and their fledgling English meant that I functioned much better as a large redheaded playmate. They taught me jan-ken-po (their version of scissors paper rock) and I taught them forty-forty. I started, and they told me that I was `oni`, which I thought meant `it`. Oni plays the same function in childrens games, but it translates as devil or demon, which is kinda cool. Oh - and crusts of bread are called panno no migi - ear of bread. One serious little girl noticed my complete lack of Nihongo and took it upon her self to be my translator. Her English was better than the others and she would tell me what they wanted, if she could. I'd also point to something and she'd tell me its Japanese name and correct my pronunciation solemnly. It's really quite good fun learning a new language while in the country - everything is readily useful and you can pick up words in other people's conversations as soon as you learn them. We stayed overnight in a hotel on the island (Japanese camping is more like log-cabin or hotel living) and I had my first sento (public bath). You strip and wash yourself before entering the tub. It was a little disconcerting at first to be naked with a bunch of other men, but only a little. We slept on futons, laid on tatami mats on the floor, six in a room. At night we had a bonfire and toasted mashmallows, before undertaking an English lesson en masse. What comes next, the leader would cry, twinkle twinkle little star...? and a roving microphone would descent on any child brave enough to raise their hand and it would be broadcast for all. During the days, we made hamburgers and did some simplified orienteering using English and trod the Playground of Death again. The foreign teachers were amazingly varied - Italians, Australians, Nigerians, Americans and Chileans. As usual, I resented the expectation that I would bond with them based on what colour our skins weren't, so I didn't mix with them much. This proved to be a blessing. At night, after the kids had been 'put to bed' (which meant having pillow fights but behind closed doors) Beers were downed and the Americans started grumbling, led by one guy, an African American, who was developing a flu because of the cold, hadn't been fed properly (he was huge) and hated the pay. We all nodded and bitched about our mutual employer. I thought that after a solid bitch session, everyone would feel relieved. Not so. There was a meeting scheduled for 10.30 pm and most of the foreign teachers turned up with beer in hand (bad manners), a bit drunk, exhausted after the day and spoiling for a fight. The Japanese head teacher rose and gave a brief speech in Nihongo. One of the African American teachers piped up with typical sass. "So, for those of us who don't speak Japanese, would you mind translating?" Another Japanese teacher translated rapidly - it was a good day, well done everyone, let's look forward to tomorrow. Then Juan, a suave man with fluent Nihongo and a sleek skivvy spoke up, clearly and slowly and said "That's not what she said at all. She said the foreign teachers needed to do better and they need to interact with the students much more." There was a collective intake of breath, and both Japanese teachers turned crimson. The meeting only went downhill from there. There was a concerted attempt to destroy the meeting, led by the African Americans, and joined shortly after by the white Americans. The Australians culturally cringed at their brashness and the Japanese teachers vainly tried to continue with the meeting. Admittedly, the meeting was largely pointless - it was reconfirming the next day's schedule, which we already had in paper form, and making one cosmetic change. But the rudeness from the foreigners was really, really embarassing to watch - a true culture clash. It's amazing that Japan and America can actually get along at all - a group culture versus the pioneers of heady individualism. Anyhow, the Americans left en masse and the rest of us tried to patch up the rift.

It's amazing the contrast between the African Americans and the Africans. The African-Americans were even brasher than the white Americans, a sassy insouciance perhaps born of their culture's final rise to popularity in white America after being leapfrogged in the socioeconomic stakes by every single other immigrant culture. The Africans - mostly Nigerians - were quieter, peacemakers, group-concious; large grins and good humoured. Oh, and there was a white American guy from Georgia who was unwittingly hilarious - he was like a parody of every televised Southern character (man, I got so drunk on shochu one time that I couldn't find my ass with both hands, he said). He had jowls you could keep a thousand acorns in, pouchy eyes, a failed marriage behind him (crazy, she was, she was cray-zee! she hit menopause and boom! she was gone. Now she's married again. She said she just didn't love me anymore. How can you stop lovin` someone?) and a new marriage here in Japan (she's cray-zee too, she wants children so bad that she throws plates at me. Man! I mean, can't we jest talk? Is it that urgent? She wants them Now Now Now). Whiling away an hour between activities, he told me about the dubious companies for whom he'd worked - apparently, ours was by no means the worst of them. "ABC English school - stay clear of that one," he said. "I had to threaten them with physical vio-lence." Really? "Sure! I told the head guy I'd punch his face clear through his head if he didn't pay me. He paid up, alright." This seemed to be a reoccuring theme: "As for Horizon English school, they're terrible too," he said. "Stay clear of them! They owed me a lot of money for a long time, and I had to threaten to plant my foot in his bee-hind before he paid up."


One night, I bought a beer from a vending machine and snuck out of the hotel to the sea. There was a forlorn stretch of palm trees and benches overlooking Osaka port and Osaka proper. I sat there for perhaps an hour, a gentle breeze lapping at me and I looked at Osaka and Osaka looked back at me, an alien city. At night, the big port buildings are outlined by eerie red lights at each corner. In the distance, the whoosh of traffic. Ships floated at anchor and Osaka city was lit up by a festival of light, the dim suburbs building to a climactic white explosion. I felt like I was on another planet and that this, this massive, inhuman thing was alive, alien, pulsing, something humans had built but no longer controlled.


At the end of the camp, we took the kids to a 3D Imax theatre and we donned daggy glasses and sat back and gaped. There was a preview of `Haunted Castle` which terrified many of my charges to tears before the real movie started - an all-American love-in celebrating the diversity of New York City in which a young boy walks the streets looking for his grandmother and he asks people from many different cultures and many try to help and he is given free food. Thankfully, a dose of realism comes in later and he gets mugged by a gang of boys, before finally finding his roots as an immigrant in the Great Melting Pot. There is also some unhealthy Statue of Liberty footage in which the camera lingeringly travels her body, freedom porn. The 3D gimmick really works, although it hurts your eyes. You actually feel like you are there. The kids had their hands out the entire time, trying to pluck an apple or grasp a gargoyle. I can't imagine what this will do for the porn and computer game industry if it ever takes off.


It's like musical chairs, Osaka at 8am. People rush frantically, barge around corners, jump between closing doors on the train - and then stop! suddenly it is 9 am and the music stops and everyone is in their seats in their offices and the day can begin for Osaka, the city can function fully.


I've met a couple of Japanese women in their thirties recently, and it proved almost impossible to have a conversation with them. Feminism never took root here and they are condemned to the house and the children or to be an OL (office lady). Things are changing, but only a little. One woman I talked to, M, loved travelling. She lived in Canada for a year, and if she'd had her way she'd still be there, but even in Canada she could only find work in a department store, a retail life. She was one of the so-called `parasite singles` - in her thirties, living at home with her parents. Married Japanese women can exact some revenge through nagging and controlling the house finances (salarymen often give their paychecks to their wives and receive back a living allowance), but still, that's no real solace.


Last night, Row and I hit the town to spend money we don't have. We went to bar Rock Rock, where last week Rowan carved up the dance floor, commanding people to dance and to imitate his moves and generally having a Wonderful Time. His night out was sponsored by one of his students, who shouted him a movie, karaoke, dinner, lots of drinks, club entry and a very expensive taxi home, all in an attempt to Get In His Pants. Row demurred, citing the teacher student thing, and (unspoken) the fact that she was 37 with a small child and hence very nearly double his age. Now he feels guilty that he didn't sleep with her after she spent so much on him and is trying to make up for it with free lessons. Rock Rock is maybe the Osakan equivalent of Cherry, although even smaller. The walls are populated with pictures of famous and imfamous rockers and metalheads who have graced the bar (Cannibal Corpse looked, well, more normal than I expected). Row and I smuggled in a small bottle of Japanese whiskey each which we bought at the convenience store for 250 yen (3 bucks) and topped up our purchased drinks with illicit moonshine. Before too long K arrived, my
teenage-style pash pardner of last week, this time with a friend. Rowan descended upon her friend and wooed her in breathtaking time (they were kissing within five minutes of meeting) before whirling away to rip up the dance floor and in the process kiss several other girls briefly. K and I exchanged halting Japlish before ditching that method of communication for another solid pash. The night was shaping up to be pleasingly decadent when her ex-boyfriend arrived, also a gaijin. He delivered me a look of Painful Death and K somehow disappeared from my arms and appeared at his side, tending his love wounds. I turned my attentions to the dancefloor and for the rest of the night, K and I had to meet illicitly, en route to the toilet or some such, and exchange wary greetings beneath the radar. Waiting in the bathroom queue was a Japanese guy, one of the cute ones - large eyes, a little winsome, and roaring drunk. He spotted me and immediately spilled his heart out. "You like Japanese girls," he said, nodding vigorously, "and they like you, they do. You are very lucky!" I tried to tell him it was only because I was foreign and hence exotic but he wouldn't listen, too caught up in his own tragedy. I managed to discover he was 27, and very single because he was very shy. Then his eyes lit up. "Ah! We should go and talk to Japanese girls together!" he said, clearly stoked at the possibility of capitalising on my supposed success. Then he disappeared somewhere in a whirl of people and the night moved onto the final stretch before morning. K left with her large and intimidating ex (they still live together, which may be a problem along the lines of Romeo and Juliet. He refuses to budge) and the dancefloor intensified. It was a wild dancefloor, full of people dancing freely, with abandon, panting a little. People, guys, girls beamed at us, danced in close, danced away, the DJ left the booth and came and danced, the barmen danced for us and our energy drained away by dawn and we had to leave before our ears exploded.

Outside, Row discovered that ichiman (about a hundred and twenty bucks) had been stolen from his wallet, although the thief had been considerate enough to leave the wallet. This was the last money he had left in the whole wide world, minus the possibility of drawing from the Bank of Mum and Dad and we cursed the fucker for a good while. Then we caught the first train and fell asleep and woke up in Kyoto and had to turn around and now my head hurts quite a lot.


I was feeling a bit bad about dating Japanese girls - so many gaijin seem to be here for that reason alone, and many of them leave a trail of broken hearts/pregnancies/STDs and so I swore I would be good but that didn't last. But! I will be respectful to my lovers and I will not be a girlhunter, or go out on `nanba` (girlhunts) and so that makes it ok, I think. I was also feeling guilty about the whole exotic thing, about finding a particular ethnicity more attractive, but that disappeared once I realised that exoticising was going on on both sides, that if she was in some sense a trophy then so was I.


I am thinking seriously of staying here longer. In six months, I'll only scratch the surface here. If I stay a year, I'll be able to speak Japanese, able to move around, able to understand Japan a bit better. This country has got me hooked, already. I am very, very glad that I have come. But being hooked makes me also a little sad, that my life in Australia is passing me by.