Sunday, 13 November 2011

The TPP Enigma

I ask my students whether they think Japan should join the TPP: some say ‘yes’; others ‘no’; and just as many look confused. The issue is one of the few things that Japan cannot get a consensus on. This is reflected at the very top: Prime Minister Noda doesn’t want to make a decision for fear of upsetting someone. And so he came up with the masterful non-decision of deciding that they would talk to the other countries who will be attending the TPP talks. He said in effect that he would talk about going to the talks. The world scratches its head at the Japanese behaving like a lawyer playing with words and procedures.

The only strong reaction in Japan has been from the JA – Japanese Agriculture thingy. They are a union, a bank, an energy provider and have an office in thousands of towns and cities up and down the Japanese islands. They have immense power because their members are easily persuaded to vote as the leadership commands. They have traditionally put their weight behind the Jiminto Party that has virtually owned the Diet since the end of the war.

It is a situation that is hard to comprehend when put in the light of the fact that agriculture only makes up 1.5% of the total Japanese economy; and yet JA wields such massive power. Agriculture is subsidized up to 700%. Traditionally the Japanese have resolutely protected their markets. They take pride in the fact that foreign giants give up on Japan as ‘Galapagos’: too alien, too far away; too differently evolved. While the rest of the world has understood that you don’t need a keyboard if you have a touchscreen, the Japanese continue to make ugly hybrid mobile phones.

It is no accident the Galapagos view of Japan. Across the board government ministries erect outrageous tariffs stopping foreign goods being competitive on the Japanese market. Rumour has it that they even buy their quotas of rice and food from other countries and just leave the produce to rot in warehouses. Ever since the 1970s the Americans have been coming to Japan and receiving assurances from Japanese ministers that the barriers will be dropped and that they will be able to fairly compete in the Japanese market. Within weeks of getting back to USA Inc. they discover that none of the promises have been acted upon. This is because elected ministers have less power than vice ministers who are career bureaucrats, who have spent many years building up influence and grooming their immediate subordinates. They hand over the baton to a hand-picked successor and take a tasty job on the board of a company that they have helped throughout their bureaucratic career. I’s called descended from heaven and it’s been going on since democracy started in Japan. Ministries set up the major corporations after the war and continue to help them. It is unlike other countries where business is separate to and independent from government. The two overlap in Japan and elected officials have always been unsuccessful at implementing their promises both to the Americans and the Japanese people because they don’t have the necessary connections in the ministries.

I suspect that Noda knows all of this. Even if he had a strong will to bring Japan into the TPP officialdom in Japan would silently scupper the agreement and the foreigners would eventually get the message and bugger off.

Here we see the limits of democracy in action. The government that is chosen by the people does not hold the power. They have to share the power with the ministries, big companies and organized crime. Every time one of these groups gains too much influence the others make temporary alliances to restore the balance of power. This is easily done as the education system and media in Japan is one of the best brainwashing set ups ever foisted upon a nation. They have turned most of the populace into robots who have been imprinted to love their company and to shun any type of important opinion. They spend endless hours at school achieving nothing and spend countless hours in the office also achieving nothing. Form has trumped content. It is more important to greet people properly than to make a pertinent comment. They wear bizarre uniforms at school and then wear bizarre uniforms at work. In times of great stress everyone dons a factory uniform. Subliminally this says everyone is the same; it also says that nobody takes responsibility. The ideal decision in Japan is one that arises by itself from the group without anyone suggesting it.

This is the problem with the TPP. The agriculture boys have donned headbands and paid for people to protest. The car and electronic lads who have something to lose by Japan not joining the TPP don’t want to marshal their resources into getting their headbands out on the streets. Conflict is bad form. The illusion of consensus is vital to keeping the populace robotized. Besides they know that even if Noda grew some balls and forced a law through the Diet enacting the essentials of the TPP the ministries would just find other ways to make sure foreign products failed in the Japanese markets.

In a way they are right to do so. The Americans have fallen in love with two very stupid ideas – deregulation and market forces. These two things have turned the world’s economic powerhouse into a laughing stock. Manufacturing has been outsourced so the working class has nothing to do, and deregulation has led to Goldman Sachs and their ilk stealing 700 trillion dollars from the world economy.

The Japanese are trying to hold the car companies in check who also want to outsource most of their jobs. They have never really believed in market forces: instead they set up chains of small companies all working for a few big companies. Prices are set and competition is only cosmetic. Their banks spunked away so much cash in the bubble economy that the card shark charms of the Goldman Sachs of the world have failed to convince a second time; besides the Yakuza would be employed by the traditional power holders in Japan to pull the pimps from the table of power.

It is no bad thing trying to protect your companies and trying to give everyone a job. This lowers crime rates and allows every family to waste their money on flat screen TVs and cars (made in Japan). Consumerism only works when the population has excess cash.

Wall Street has bankrupted its host and so it is pulling the strings to get the White House to open up new markets for American products. Japan and China are the tastiest looking victims for American food and pharmaceutical companies as well as American health providers. Hell they could do with buying American financial products as well. They aren’t offering much in return because Japan and Korea already boss the US car market. The world already knows that you would have to be a complete moron having a bad day to choose a computer made in China instead of one made in Japan.

The only way in which America and the TPP could help the Japanese people is by lowering food prices. Going to a Japanese supermarket is a shocking experience: one dollar for one poxy potato, two dollars for one lousy apple, one hundred dollars for a friggin water melon and eighty dollars for a bag of rice. It is an outrageous monopoly. The farmers are laughing when they can wrap up individual items and flog them as luxury items. Food is a basic necessity not a luxury. No wonder the Japanese are constantly giving each other food as presents. It is worth nearly as much as gold.

The population has been conned into going along with this absurd inflation of prices by being made to believe that Japanese food products are superior to similar items from other countries. This is not quite true. They use environmentally unfriendly fertilizers and pesticides like everyone else and they mistreat their cows, chickens and pigs like everyone else. Maybe they don’t use GM seeds and they don’t torture their animals quite as much as the Yanks, but the difference does not justify charging the prices that they do. It is impossible to convince Japanese people of this since they have been imprinted with these convictions from an early age. Every time a student returns from a foreign country they tell the class that foreign food sucks and that the class is so lucky to eat bland over-priced Nippon food. It is about the strongest opinion that is tolerated by the group.

So what will happen with the TPP? The Japanese will flirt like a high school virgin with America; they will let the Americans get to second base but will resolutely hold onto to their cherry. The CIA will then blow something up in America and will find a pair of chopsticks at the scene of the crime that has miraculously not gone up in flames. This will lead to a wasp Tea-Party nutter getting into the White House and declaring war on chopstick countries. They will suspend all civil liberties at home until all chopstick sympathizers have been weeded out. Congress will vote trillions of dollars to the military industrial complex to wage war on the chopstick axis of evil. This money they will borrow from China. Eventually the 1% of the 1% who pulls the strings in America and Northern Europe will have stolen so much from the world that they will have to move to another planet to avoid paying taxes or giving it back.

Kind thanks to Brad for explaining the TPP to me and to the Dutch bloke who wrote the book ‘The Enigma of Japanese Power’.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Killing Propaganda

I’m writing this like Jack Kerouac on Benzedrine, without stopping except to drink beer and smoke tabs. I’m not doing any research. What I have to say all Japanese (except those still hiding out in the jungle in South East Asia waiting for the Emperor to tell them they have won the war and can thus come home) know. They know it because the facts have been continuously repeated by the media. The same media that are telling the people to ignore the facts and move back to their homes in the areas near the out-of-control nuclear power plants.

These facts are that reactors 1 and 3 at Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant are still emitting large amounts of radiation. All can see the pictures that one of them is a mangled mess of melted metal. There are so many holes in the casing for the reactors that there is no effective barrier stopping the radiation from escaping. It is also a well known fact that TEPCO have said it will take 20 years to completely stop all the radiation leaks. Just last week company officials announced that compensation claims for loss of revenues to fishermen and farmers would be unlimited. In other words, they expect to be paying out trillions of yen over the coming years. Thus, they expect lots of farm produce and fish to be exposed to high levels of radiation for the next 20 years.

These are not hidden facts. Even though most people have no idea how much a millisievert of radiation is or how much they can safely be exposed to over a long period of time, they do know that radiation is bad. That it leads to cancer, leukemia and premature death. They know only too well the horrors of radiation from being continually taught at school that the Japanese were victims in the war (ha) of 2 nuclear attacks.

And yet night after night the fucking media are spreading the killing propaganda that some Japanese are somehow doing a shameful thing by fleeing the villages in the vicinity of Fukushima nuclear power plant.

I watch the news every night in Japan. Hoping for some news of progress. Hoping very much against hope that they will announce that they have plugged the holes; that they have turned off the reactors; that the spent fuel rods have been removed and sold to the Chinese. No all we get after nearly 6 months is that they have got some robots inside the one reactor and at the other that they are installing an air cleaning system to let workers get into the damaged core area. None of this amounts to a ‘turn around point’; a point where they can honestly say that the worst is past. The news escaped recently that they tested kids for radiation in the thyroid gland just after the nuclear disaster. These were kids living near the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station. These kids had 50% of the legal limit of radiation in their thyroid glands. That was just after the disaster. What do the kids measure now? Why did they wait so long to tell people this?

These are not questions the media ask. Instead they interview factory bosses who proudly say that they are keeping their factories open although half the workforce have fled. They keep it open for the workers and for their village; that they have a responsibility to their workers. What the fuck? They are encouraging their workers to be exposed to high levels of radiation just so they can have a laugh during their lunch break and can bring home a pitiful paycheck at the end of the month. These factory bosses are like captains going down with their ships and commending the bravery of the crew who decide not to take to the lifeboats. Are they mad? Do they have no compassion? Or is that they have the ability to blatantly deny reality? If so they  qualify for the diagnosis of criminally insane.

The media interview farmers who have been forced to stop cattle farming within so many tens of kilometers of the blistering seeping wounds that are the nuclear reactors. These farmers say they want to stay and continue their work. Are they homicidal? Do they not only want to kill themselves and their families but also produce food that will poison the Japanese people?

The media interview mayors of villages who say they are decontaminating their areas and that they want people to return so they can all be happy and together again. The mayors want their congregation back in their boot wearing, radish munching utopia. Are these mayors on some dangerously reality distorting drugs? They may scrape off the top layer of soil but as soon as they do more radiation falls to contaminate the newly exposed soil. You cannot effectively decontaminate until the radiation stops.

It is as if this word ‘decontaminate’ has got in the way of people thinking clearly for themselves. It’s as pernicious as ‘friendly fire’ or ‘pre-emptive strike’. Such is the faith that the Japanese people have in their system (not their politicians, but in the system) that they cannot get in their heads around the idea that there is no solution. That they simply cannot go back to their villages; that they must make their own decisions to go somewhere else and start again. Every day we see pitiful morons in community centers waiting to be told that they can go home. They cannot break away from the mother’s tit that is the Japanese system. They must grow some balls and take themselves and their families away. The government, the army, the beloved mayor can do nothing more for them.

People are always comparing (irritatingly so) Japan to a communist country not because everyone is equal but because people are so effectively molded into good citizens (or comrades), all reading from the same sheet of paper, all pulling together for the grand ideal. What utter and unadulterated shit! Many of the rich fled to foreign countries within hours of March 11th 2011. They certainly sent their kids away to get educated abroad. It is this sad dependence on being told what to do that killed many people during the actual tsunami and that is now killing those people living next to Chernobyl Japan. They are not told to leave so they stay.

And to make it worse the media is suggesting that those (mostly the younger less stupid generations) are somehow traitors for leaving their bucolic paradise of a village in Fukushima. These people should be lauded as sensible and more worthy of emulation than a bunch of bucktoothed factory ladies exposing themselves to dangerous levels of alpha, beta and gamma rays.

The myth of a homogenous Japan is killing Japan and what the media are doing at the moment is tantamount to encouraging suicide and infanticide.

Watch this short movie. Fiction speaks more eloquently than blogging.

THE DOOR - Short Film from Octagon Films on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Japanese Speech Competitions

Speech competitions are ordeals that are very popular in Japan. People seem to gain an inordinate amount of pride discovering the youth of their country have nothing interesting or useful to say. And just to make it doubly disconnected from reality the young Japanese are forced to mouth their vacuities and generalizations in slurred and butchered English.

There is a reason why kids go to school, and it’s because they don’t know Jack Shit. These are surely the least hopeful candidates to give an enlightening or at least elucidating speech on any subject other than twiddling mechanical pencils, texting or spare time deprivation. What unnatural torture is it therefore that I must get up on a Saturday morning to listen to a bunch of kids spurt and garble out the incorrect English that their school teachers have made them memorize? Perhaps it is karma for my slovenly life and lessons.

As a side-show to the main attraction of ‘our kids’ shining for the community the powers that be will also slip in a few mild mannered Thais and Filipinos who will make an honest fist of speaking Japanese. I call this part the ‘house niggers section’.

The Asians and South Americans working for a better life and to feed their families back home will inevitably make their post-colonial masters happy by mentioning how beautiful Mount Fuji is and how wonderfully bland the food is. The audience gains untold pleasure of tales of slight cultural confusions and how Japan is just deep down better than the dirty and dangerous places from which the house niggers originate. Hearing the gratitude of the servant in the language of the master is one of the secret wet dreams of the Japanese. They were late to the idea of empire and now are making up for lost time. They have intuitively grasped the importance of patronizing the subservient races that they allow to make their cars and look after their old people.

One way to gain an insight into the Japanese speech festival is to compare it to other speech festivals around the world. They seem to be mostly for the young and concerned with ‘good morals’. When I was in China my university regularly held speech contests for the undergraduates. The speeches were interspersed with dances and kung fu exhibitions. The festivals where English was used required my attendance since I was one of only six native English speakers in the city of one million hawkers and spitters.

The topics at the Chinese speech festivals were all about noble service to the motherland and to the people. All about past heroes of the people – striving with every breath to help the masses attain the workers’ paradise that would surely be around the corner if they all pulled together instead of spitting together. No matter what the supposed theme of the speech festival it always in the end became a glorification of communist control.

I would stop listening after two speeches and would pass the time eyeing the audience for fit birds with any hint of a bosom. After two hours I would stand up and say a few non-sequiturs about how well all the contestants spoke English and how noble it is to have unselfish dreams. I would then be lead away by some cadres of the party to spend the people’s glorious money on a banquet that would involve copious amounts of pork fat, cigarettes and a clear fortified wine called bijou that smelt of paint thinner. I never remember anyone winning a Chinese speech festival. I guess everyone was a winner, especially the head of teaching and the work unit party vice president who got a belly full of grease and paint thinner.

In Japan they are far more refined and middle class. Strident love of the motherland is just not the thing. It must be a gentle and wistful love. The Japanese have an innate fear of concepts like ‘society’ and ‘workers’ utopia’. Indeed any concept is best avoided. It is possible in Japanese to speak for several minutes without saying anything about anything. Reading translations of Japanese writing I’m often reminded of cheating company executives in court who say such things as: “It is regrettable.”

The safe topics for Japanese middle school and high school students are ‘My dream’, ‘Why I love ping pong’ ‘My Home stay in Canada’ and ‘I want to go to Mars’ The last speech ordeal I went to had 16 speeches that needed judging. Of those 16 speeches 4 of them had the word ‘dream’ in the title, 2 of them were about home stays and 3 of them were about mother love. One was about an animation called ‘Prince of Tennis’ and another about some martial art that police learn. And of course one was about being the first mother-loving Japanese nob-end to get to Mars and start a ping pong club. (You can guess where my vote went).

As with the Chinese speeches the title really didn’t matter because the composition was always so convoluted and error strewn that comprehension was very much in the ear of the listener. The sentiments of all the speeches reflected entirely the propaganda that is foisted upon Japanese kids throughout their education: a propaganda of sacrificing to the group, of getting along with the group and of studying hard and working long hours to make their parents proud and then to make Japan proud. Throughout it all I scour the crowd for someone below 80 years old with a bosom worthy of contemplation.

I imagine speech festivals in Europe and America would not be much better. The whole thing whiffs of middle class smugness: it is the precocious kid showing off in front of parents.

But just imagine a speech festival in Africa or South America. Imagine a big eyed Ugandan kid with ragged shorts and dirty T-shirt stating his dream is to have a home with running water and a school with text books; or a Brazilian child talking about his class mates who have fallen victim to street violence and drug addiction. These would be speeches worth listening to, and indeed worth recording and relaying to the politicians who do nothing to improve the plight of these children.

Perhaps it is always the way that those who need to be given a voice, those who are morally justified in standing up for their human rights never get the audience they deserve. Send all the ‘my dream’ kids home and let’s listen to teenage English girls who have their clitoris and labia removed and their vaginas sewn up and who are sent back to Africa to get married to misogynists. Let’s listen to the homeless guy who lost his job, home and family when the banks crashed. Let’s listen to the injured war veteran. Let’s listen to the holocaust survivor. Let’s listen to Nelson Mandela. These are the people who are entitled to appeal to the public, to educate the public and to earn the consideration and help of the public.

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom of course: entertainment is its own justification. If the speeches are funny, witty, original or provocative then there might be a pleasure to be gained in listening to them.

But no. What you always get is:

“What do you want to be in the future? Do you have your own dream? Having a dream is an important thing for your success. Let’s have a dream. Thank you.”

‘Let’s have a dream’ is that English? Is it code for ‘let’s have a cup of tea’?

Judging one inane speech to be any different or better than another is difficult. Obviously the kids with access to a foreigner to correct their English have an advantage. Also the kids that display something the Japanese call ‘genki’ (which translates as manic and pointless energy like a dog chasing its tail) are regarded as having ‘the right stuff’. The winners are elevated above the group because they best represent the mediocrity of the group. I have no doubt that Jean Paul Satre wouldn’t have won any speech contests in Japan. A nausea that makes it hard to breath is not the genki thing to talk about.

After a Japanese speech contest the token foreigners as with China are invited to a meal. I turn them down whenever possible. At least the Chinese banquets were colorful: full of vomiting and dirty jokes about tofu. Although the Japanese like the Chinese would find it hard to refrain from making a comment to the effect that they are impressed with the foreigner monkey being able to use chopsticks, the conversation and action around the table would be confined to a stifling middle-classness. A chit chat full of mock seriousness whose only dogma is to avoid controversy.

As a footnote to this meandering diatribe, I have a Toyota worker in one of my classes who is in a Toyota speech competition. It seems that every Toyota employee must make a speech about his or her dream; or failing that how Toyota can get a man on Mars; and that’s preferably a mother-loving nihonjin we’re talking about.

If the Toyota worker succeeds in impressing he has to re-live the nightmare in the regional finals. I imagine the reward is delayed retirement: just too much of the right stuff to let go when they are 65. What is interesting about the Toyota student is the amount of time he says that he devotes to his speech. It’s not about cars of the future or Japan’s energy policy. It’s about nothing and surely a waste of company time to listen to. It’s just about torture; about making sure the workers will do anything that is asked of them; and do it without grumbling.

You break a man’s will by asking him to do a pointless action over and over again. This process starts early in Japan and continues throughout adult life. The kids are forced to spend more time playing sports than studying. They are forced to attend after-school schools where they are taught to pass exams. It is unnecessary to learn anything more than the fundamental importance of fitting in, of buckling down, of enduring. Eventually a type of Stockholm Syndrome manifests itself and the prisoner begins to love his or her captivity and begins to respect his or her captors.

At present the Japanese public is slowly but surely being poisoned by Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. I wish I could say it was an unprecedented event in Japan. If history was taught properly at school then the Japanese citizenry would never stand for the criminal negligence that TEPCO has shown. They would probably never have agreed to nuclear power stations in the first place.

Having been told what to think all their lives the Japanese population is in a state of denial. They hear the government say that this bit of meat has a bit of radioactivity in it; that they would have to eat the same meat for 6 months to get any ill effect from it. Such news fills them with relief.

If only some smart kid would stand up at a speech festival and say:

“Hang on a second. We are eating the same meat every day. What they are really telling us is that we will be sick in 6 months!”

That’s my dream. And also going to Mars with my favored paddle.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Japan's Aging Society - Is It Really a Problem?

A dear old lady that I teach asked me today to write a model answer for the Aiken test that she is studying for. I’ve done this plenty of times before for other classes. It struck me I could do an alternative one for Trippy Traveller. The Eiken test is incessantly writing questions about the pension problem and the aging society in Japan and so I thought it a good topic for my Eiken model answer. Here it is.

It is a fact that now Japan has the oldest society in the world, meaning the average age is higher than any other country. The Japanese media is the same as the European media in trying to set an agenda in there reporting of this fact. They see an aging society as a ‘problem’. This is looking at the phenomenon in simplistic economic terms. The thinking goes that if too many people are retired than the government cannot raise enough taxes to pay for the pension system.

The media in Japan fail to mention that the world is all ready over populated and that Japan has the highest concentration of people in the world. They espouse trying to increase the birth rate: the thinking being that more young people equals more taxes equals more pension money. This is stupid logic. All these imaginary young people are also going to get old and the ‘problem’ will only get bigger; besides the world is already struggling to feed itself. Water supplies are running perilously low – in 25 years demand for water will outstrip the supply.

Imagine another 20 million people were added to the Japanese population that is already nudging the 130 million mark. That’s 20 million more stupid consumers who will no doubt buy cars and consumer products wrapped in plastic. The environmental cost will be immense. More rubbish, more pollution as well as more crowding. Believing that the answer is having more people is the same as believing that the only way out of debt is to borrow more money.

When you are in debt you have to change your lifestyle to reduce your outgoings. You must prioritize and cut out the frivolous. The Japanese must do the same. First they must cut out the cancer that is their media, their education system and their retarded political system and then they must focus on using their resources in the most effective way possible.

The focus of the media is on tax. That is a nicely emotive topic. It is a subject that affects everyone and is related to something everyone can understand – money. The middle class hate paying more taxes. They already pay more than they can afford. The middle class are so worried about paying more tax to look after old people in Japan that they are even toying with the heretical notion of bringing in millions of Indonesians and Filipinos to wipe the bums of the old and make up the short fall in tax revenues. This is pure heresy because the Japanese (as part of their religious credo) believe they are a homogeneous (or dare I say it ‘pure’) race. Risking the taboo will remain forever theoretical in Japan. No government would actually do this.

Instead why not simply reduce government and government spending. Not only are government offices over-staffed, but they are also only averagely productive. Get old people to work for the government for free. And why not spend less on building roads to nowhere, culture centres with no culture, and the countless other concrete projects that pork barreling politicians love? Deduct from the revenues the pension money and then spend the rest on the most urgent stuff.

I am no doubt not the first to notice that governments pull out their wallets for banks and big businesses that are in trouble faster than a hooker drops her panties; but when it comes to paying for their old citizenry they bitch about the cost and talk about how they can’t keep paying what is due to the people.

Why not pay the Mickey Mouse army they have in Japan less? Give them less toys.

Education, pensions and health care must and should come first; at the end of the list should come politicians, bureaucrats and soldiers.

People live longer, thus they can contribute to society for longer. There are more ways to contribute to the welfare of your compatriots than by simply paying taxes.

Rather than imposing an arbitrary age upon the individual as to when he or she is deemed superfluous to the economic life of a country maybe they should be judged on their performance. If you can do your job and you don’t want to retire then why not continue working? If someone is in his late 30s and keeps scoring goals for his team and country why tell him to hang up his boots?

And if a person retires from a job it doesn’t mean they retire from society. People in their 50s, 60s and 70s can still do other work to contribute. They can volunteer. They can work for their local community. They could even do jobs (for free or a minimal wage) that were done by the more able bodied. This would reduce the budget of local authorities. There are masses of jobs in Japan that involve standing around and waving a flag or light saber. Why are these people being paid tax payers money to do this when there are legions of old people who could do it for nothing?

It’s not just grudge work that the elderly can do either. They have a wealth of experience and knowledge to offer. They could work in education, in social work and in care work. Why not get the fairly old to look after the really old?

By re-training the old they that can be empowered to help. Nobody wants to be a burden. Giving the old a way to justify themselves in the eyes of society is the answer. The media are implicitly saying that the elderly are bringing down the country’s economy. If people thought that the elderly were actually helping to maintain the general welfare and economic health of the country the problem would immediately disappear.

What is stopping this from happening is institutionalization. The average Japanese man spends all his life being told what to do. Ever since childhood free time is discouraged. The group ethic is elevated. You work for the company 10 hours a day and when you get home you shut off entirely. Have dinner, watch the idiot box, have a bath and go to bed. At the weekend you are a good citizen by consuming – go to the shops, go to the golf course, waste petrol driving around: just waste the money you have earned. It is an unreflective working life that once it has ended leaves a man in a vegetative state. Having been told what to do for so long, a salary man or a factory worker or a construction worker cannot plan his own time. He cannot for the life of him think what to do with the free time that retirement has given him, other than to consume, watch TV and continue to get up at 5am. It is my opinion that one original thought is worth more than a life time of getting up early.

From the bottom up Japanese people must adapt to the fact that they are getting older. They must stop relying on their politicians – who frankly are clueless. Rather they must work together to make things work and to change the policies of those in charge.

Everyone in Japan knows that local governments between January and April go crazy by spending money on resurfacing roads and re-painting white lines and doing a million unnecessary public works just to make sure they spend their entire budget. Otherwise they will be punished the following financial year with a smaller budget. The fact that everyone agrees this is stupid but nothing changes is indicative of the wider problem.

Why not get somebody to run for office that proposes a policy whereby those local authorities that save money will be rewarded in the future, and those authorities that spend their budgets will be punished with smaller budgets the following year?

There is a yawning gap in Japan between what the people think and what the government does. The average turnout for the last election (April 2011) was about 25%. The electorate obviously doesn’t like any of the political parties. They are not given anything worth voting for. After the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster any politician that made the central tenant of their campaign the phasing out of nuclear power in Japan would surely have garnered plenty of votes. Instead the main political parties side stepped this issue. It wouldn’t surprise me if the media didn’t start banging on about the dangers of an aging society just to divert attention from the fact that the country is slowly but surely being poisoned by radioactivity.

The people of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain are rousing from their slumber, what will it take for the Japanese to do the same?

Monday, 28 March 2011

A Very Japanese Disaster

On Friday 11th at 2.46pm my bed started shaking. For a moment I thought that the ground was shaking from the animal magnetism I was exuding in my dream – that dreamy Hollywood starlet was swooning at my crusty charms, delighted at my cheap beer drinking and furious smoking; but no, the flat was shaking. Not just the average temblor. It was a violent toing and froing. My wife and baby were on the other side of the sliding door milking.

It was a temblor like I had never experienced before. I’ve felt quite a few earthquakes in my time in Japan but this one was longer and harder than anything previously. The TV immediately abandoned regular programming and started flashing up a map of the country dotted with numbers showing magnitudes. 8.9! Fuck that was big. Live images started coming through of shaking buildings. I went back to bed. And then another one came: equally as ferocious and that was the end of my Friday afternoon sleep.

At that point the TV took over. We had just been given a new flat screen digital TV because the death of analogue was imminent in Japan. The picture is sharp and clear and my wife now loves watching it when she has a moment when the baby is not demanding love.

It was not long before the most shocking images came on the screen. It was so real it was like big budget movie computer effects. A wave of water was moving rapidly across a flat landscape carrying cars and houses and boats. We shouted at the TV. There were people on bridges seemingly gawping at the engulfing wave. It’s one thing to rubber neck from the comfort of your living room: it seemed both crass and stupid to do so from the actual scene of the disaster.

As the hours went on more earthquakes in various parts of Japan (mostly the East coast) were recorded on the flashing map. The map was now intersected with lines showing tsunamis.

The news was coming in thick and fast, just like the wave. Boards of first figures of deaths were hastily handwritten and held up by TV anchor men. Some of the anchors were wearing hardhats, like they expected at any moment for the studio to collapse on them.

The TV was compulsive watching but at the same time repulsive. Like a horror movie or some nature documentary of a boa digesting a water buffalo.

My wife and I discussed what we should do. Consume. So we got out the baby pram and walked down to a big supermarket in town and bought a bottle of water, candles, matches and extra nappies.

It was the following day (Saturday) that the story of disaster was aced by the story of impending nuclear doom. The reactors at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant had been battered by a 10 meter high tsunami. One looked like it had suffered from an American air strike – just a blackened tangle of melted metal. Two others had only ragged parts of their frames remaining. This was truly shocking news. Fuck that looks bad.

In the days that followed that impression only got worse. An area of 10 then 20 then 30 kilometers around the reactors was evacuated because of radiation levels spiking. It seemed that TEPCO the electricity company couldn’t get in to fix the water cooling system because of the high radiation levels.

On TV very dull looking TEPCO executives wearing factory uniforms tried to deflate the growing hysteria with a technical vocabulary that nobody understood and a natural charisma that only a Thai hooker could find appealing.

The Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, not wanting to be left out of the action, also came on wearing a blue factory uniform (apparently some type of emergency clobber). Luckily for Japan, the Prime Minister does have a personality and his speech seemed tinged with real emotion – anger at the TEPCO geeks and some vague Winston Churchill defiance in the face of adversity.

The whole weekend we watched as the tragedy unfolded. Outside things were going on as usual in the peaceful little rural city that we lived in. Well nearly as usual. It seemed in times of disaster the Japanese reveal odd consumer habits.

Within hours bottle water was sold out at the local supermarket. Not so strange. Toilet paper flew off the shelves. They were shitting themselves. Anally obsessed. Clean shitting was a top priority.
Pot noodles were one of the first things to vanish from the shelves. This puzzled me. If there was no gas or electricity to make hot water, what use was this junk food? Perhaps to wipe your arse with when the toilet paper supplies depleted to zero. Bread also sold out. This only lasts for a few days and was just plain stupid to hoard. And batteries. This made sense to me. Power cuts were being announced all over the country and having a torch nearby and a battery powered radio seemed a sensible precaution. Or maybe the batteries were for the space age toilets.

Monday rolled around and I had to go back to work. With nuclear disaster looming on the event horizon and thousands dead and many more thousands homeless and without homes, heating or kerosene; shivering in community centres as it snowed outside, it all seemed so purposeless teaching English. Earthquakes were still rippling through the main island of Honshu. Would any one come to lessons?

I went downstairs to my classroom with images of broken house trash everywhere playing in my head from watching TV. Odd images of metal hulled boats lying surrounded by rubble with old people picking through the devastation looking for relics of their former lives.

Yes, of course old ladies came to the lesson. About half of them. That is half in numbers not in physical appearance.

“What are you doing here?” My question was pregnant with unspoken assumptions challenging their need to get in a car and drive to the classroom when gasoline was being rationed and the whole country was in a state of shock.
This is a question I repeated every morning to the few idiots who came to lessons. Some of them looked confused about my insistence that we turn the lights off to save electricity. They were and will forever be cocooned with their very Japanese middle class-ness destined to lead the rest of their lives disturbed by nothing but the need to follow forms and traditions, to clean the grave of their ancestors, to go to hot baths, to travel hundreds of kilometers to see cherries in bloom (even though cherry trees are everywhere), to be Buddhist and Shinto without knowing anything about religion.

Every class I resented. I tried to get a conversation going about disaster. Pitiful. Only one young mother seemed to get it. We talked about the fear of radiation sickness and TEPCO’s tight-lipped approach to the situation. She was near tears in her worries. Was I going crazy in wanting to get out?

As the week wore on people outside of Japan – friends and family – started getting in contact. That was a positive. People I hadn’t spoken to for ages (silent facebook friends etc.) sent me messages, phoned me at odd hours of the night and suddenly got my Skype address. It seemed that the British media were playing the Japan card to the hilt and especially the nuclear reactor scandal. My mother actually phoned after one moron on UK TV said the number 3 reactor was going to blow ‘any day now’ and that Japan would be a nuclear wasteland. My mother made an emotional plea for me to pack up my family in a car and head at high speed south away from the impending cancerous cloud that would envelope the mainland and kill everyone.

Well its 3 weeks later now and the cloud of death hasn’t arrived. I’ve been following the radiation levels carefully. They spiked in the water in Tokyo around the time when loads of foreigners fled the capital. The levels have since dropped. Water is a serious issue. It can’t be got for neither love nor money in Tokyo. The local wards are dishing out a few bottles at a time to mothers with young babies. This is not something my mother would know because the British meejah now have the American (er I mean NATO) bombing of Libya to get their teeth into.

Since that interrupted sleep on Friday 11th, I’ve got a passport for my 5 month year old kid, I’ve taken a wad of cash out of the bank for emergencies and I’ve sat through numerous lessons wondering why my students are almost fanatical in not altering their pretty little schedules. The school has bribed me to stay by doubling my holidays.

On the 15th March another quake of magnitude 6 struck Fujinomiya city – a place just north of where I live. The flat really shook. My wife and I ran desperately around collecting emergency supplies and the baby and bolted outside. Nobody was around. I had a fag to calm down and went back inside. The apartment building where I live has cracks up the walls. We didn’t feel safe living there so we moved to my parents-in-laws house, a few kilometers down the road.

The following lessons were all about my delighted old ladies telling me how they saved their flat screen TVs from falling over during the local shaker. Was this any better than discussing toilet paper and pot noodles? That was the week of my birthday and also the week when Patrick cast out all the snakes from Ireland. All depressing. I ended up getting really drunk to celebrate my birthday just in case it was my last one.

Meeting my friends at the weekend was good: somebody to talk to and to put the crisis in perspective. Over the course of the group drunk one idea came through clearly: there are two types of foreigners – those who stay and think the whole thing about nuclear disasters and food shortages is outrageous scaremongering and those who just bolted when their governments told them to. Time will tell which one is the smarter bunch. Naturally, amongst those who have stayed there is a tendency to think that those who jumped boat are Lord Jims who will later regret their cowardice. There are now plenty of jobs up for grabs. Even an idiot like Shnade might land a cushy job.

One of my old lady students was telling the class how sad she was that her Italian son-in-law had fled with her daughter and granddaughter. I pointed out to her that every single one of the old dears in the room would automatically go to the nearest airport if the Japanese government told them to leave a country. The exercise in the second conditional made no mental connection with a woman shorn of one of the lynchpins in her perfect life.

I haven’t left. I’m ready to, but I’m waiting for a clear sign that there is no alternative. It might be that when that comes it will be too late. On my side is the experience of having lived through plenty of power cuts before, of having left places by following lines of Africans merrily walking through the bush because the bus didn’t arrive. We can adapt. Unlike the daft old people in the Fukushima exclusion zone who refuse to leave their homes because well they refuse to change, to show some fucking adaptability.

What is quite literally getting on my nerves are the continued mini earthquakes that are hitting nearly daily. Some are confirmed by the TV, some, it seems, are only noticed by me. I say to my wife: “Another one.” And she just looks at me sadly. I’m hallucinating vibrations. This is paranoia like PTSD. Like a soldier in the jungle, any crack of a twig and I’m on the deck praying for my arse. This is an arse I might add that doesn’t worry about not having toilet paper or pot noodles, but does worry about becoming another statistic on the growing death toll.  

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Day I Lost My Job, I Hope

Since early December last year I’ve stopped going to my juku job. Remarkably enough I haven’t officially lost the job. That is until today.

I had told snot eyes several times that I had quit but by the end of the conversation she would invariably say something like:

“So you will come in on Monday to teach?”
“How about Friday?”
“I’ve told you that they haven’t paid me, so I’m not coming in to teach.”

She of the gummy eyes and crumpled wrinkly face was marvelous in her forbearance. She would listen to me using liberal doses of the ‘f’ word both as noun and adjective and allow me to eventually run out of steam before popping up with her succinct:

“So you will come on Monday to teach then?”

It wasn’t that her English wasn’t up to understanding me; it was more that her duty as a disgruntled employee (who had recently been given a month’s notice to quit and move on) was to persevere with pressuring me to continue teaching.

The job had been all right. The pay was lousy but at least I was left alone to teach two brothers aged 9 and 12. They were two smart lads who responded well to my bribes of games for the last 20 minutes if they applied themselves for 40 minutes to their studies. Their studies being the Aiken test: a brand of English efficiency test designed by the Japanese to test Japanese-ness as much as English, dealing with topics that often had no relevance to a 9 year old. At one point the older brother asked me what ‘dating’ was and why a boss would be in trouble for taking his secretary out to dinner at an expensive restaurant. I felt Tiger Woods should have stepped in at that point with an explanation. But unfortunately he was being treated for sex addiction so I ventured my own opinion:

“Women don’t like men having 2 girlfriends.” The child chewed on that nugget of information for a while before breaking into a frown of confusion. I decided to head the Indians off at the pass. “Ask your dad about it.”

So the job was frankly a doss, the conditions third world and the salary second world, but this only served to take any weight of responsibility off my shoulders. I could go in unprepared, give it 30%, take cheeky cigarette breaks and shoot off the moment the lesson finished to get beered up. It was almost therapeutic – like not bothering to confab with the caddy, just lining up and whacking the ball.

It all changed in November when the boss with an interest in my procreative powers decided to move out of his disorganized and dirty hovel of a main office into the disorganized and dirty room where I taught. The advantage being that the new location had more room to dirt up and fill up with filing boxes.

I went in the week of the move to teach and saw that the boss in his wisdom had decided to dye the top of his hair pink and had made the further executive decision to take up three quarters of the teaching space. The white boards with no marker pens and the tatty partitions had all been squeezed into a corner by the door. The acres of space created had been used for a scruffy brown leather sofa and coffee table. The broken computer was gone and the walls lined with boxes of papers and teaching books that I suspected would never see the light of pedagogy. The boss lingered around making loud calls on his mobile phone and another dude in a brown suit that reminded me of China lingered nearby. The kids and teachers were bunched in the corner trying not to elbow each other and doing their best to continue the substandard service above the din of the dick obsessed boss.

My two kids didn’t like the arrangement and liked it even less when the boss took a break from his power brokering on the phone to come over and peer at the lessons in progress. Kids like cats and dogs sense the mean spirited and insincere and recoiled from the boss’s friendliness like little Red Riding Hood being doubtful about her Grandmother’s newly formed big ears.

They later confided in me how little they liked the man and I did my best not to tell them their instincts were Tiger sharp and true.

This went on for a couple of weeks before I noticed that I hadn’t been paid for the previous month yet. I tackled snotty focals about this. She made some bizarre comment about the office move necessitating the withholding of payment for a few days. I pointed out the wages were done by electronic transfer and that it was a simple matter of turning on a computer and inputting in some time sheets and then going down the bank and organizing money transfers. As far as I was concerned Japanese employees were spineless cowards for passively accepting they wouldn’t be paid on time because the boss moved office.

A few days stretched to weeks. I got bored of checking my bank book to find no salary forthcoming. And being a man of limited patience I easily let drop the ultimatum that I would quit if I wasn’t paid in a week.

I wasn’t and so I took it as a given that snooty had communicated news of my resignation to the boss. This was my mistake. Of course in Japan and maybe in Asia generally you don’t do such things. All decisions come from above. I knew this was the case because every week I failed to show up for work gummy vision tackled me at our next private lesson insisting:

“So you will teach in January?”

I stayed silent because I got tired of denying. I felt like a Canute who got bored of ordering the waves to retreat and instead went off to a beach bar to look for a cocktail and a dodgy geezer to score from. Besides I still wanted to get paid. The illusion of being employed although not going to work left me almost philosophical. How long could this go on for? Was I trapped in a Kafka novel? In which case would the boss turn into an insect (surely a better reflection of his true nature)?

Conveniently December and the holidays came round and the issue could be put to one side. I continued to teach gummy oculars on the side and she continued to let fall her automatic refrain:

“If you get paid will you teach next Friday?”

I patiently explained that I had already quit and now I just wanted my money otherwise I would tell the tax office that the Juku was breaking the law and that I would make damn sure that anyone who searched on Google or Yahoo in either Japanese or English for the name of the school would encounter a first entry telling in a no holes barred way why a person shouldn’t send their kid to the school. All of this washed over sticky eyes making as little impression as England at the World Cup.

On the 4th January I checked my bank account and my wages were as absent as Tiger is from the leader’s board on the Pro Circuit. I instantly got on the blower to Vaseline iris demanding my wages. I withheld my anger because I was in the bank and I had only just a few weeks back called an employee of that bank ‘an fing C’. My niceness must have given her hope because she vocalized ruminations about me getting paid and coming back to work. I hadn’t worked at the place for weeks. I had already told my 2 charges that I was finished with the place because they hadn’t paid me. The older one must have realized that this was on a par with taking the secretary out to dinner as he looked downcast when I said sayonara.

And today I get a phone call on my mobile. My wife and kid were sleeping so I took the call.

“Hello. Mr. John?”

“Er, yes. Who is this?”

“I’m the boss from xxxx Juku.” His English then started falling apart. I knew that he was trying to say something about me coming to work. I let him drone on for a few seconds. Making him suffer the English language made me feel good.

Eventually I interrupted him, “Where is my salary? My money? Watashi-no okane doko desu ka?” He understood that and he assured me it would go into my account the following day.

That let the flood gates open. Like Tiger at a celebrity dinner with models in attendance I had the bit between my teeth and wasn’t going to hold back:

“Listen you don’t say ‘sorry’. No ‘gomennasai’ or anything. You arrogant fuckwit. You haven’t paid me for over 2 months now and you phone up and ask me to teach. If you had wanted me to teach you should have paid me.”

“I don’t understand English”

“That’s too fucking bad.”

“You teach this week”

At that point I took the mobile from my ear and held it to my mouth and I shouted at the machine: “You kept my money for over 2 fucking months. Grow some manners you fucking pink headed moron!” With that I cut off the connection.

He phoned back. I didn’t answer. Bogey scope rang while I was teaching. She said the boss hadn’t understood what I said. As if shouting and hanging up and an over-liberal use of swearing wasn’t enough to communicate my anger. She advised my wife to keep my resignation a secret until I got paid. Remarkable since I hadn’t taught there for ages anyway. I truly believed I had lost my job. Calling the boss a fucking pink headed moron must be an automatic red card. But no the parents want the teacher back.

Losing this job is proving as difficult as me quitting the cigarettes or Tiger the center folds.