Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Menagerie in Studio Moodio

It seems like I've been talking about classical music a lot lately, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not the only kind of music I do. At ye olde academy I mainly direct the Seishin Flying Eggheads, which is a jazz big band (a rarity among schools in Japan, particularly in this area). Recently I've also somehow wound up in charge of directing the 9th grade chorus to help them prepare to sing the Hallelujah Chorus at their graduation ceremony. As for the home front, I just finished recording and mixing the three "muzak box" tunes for my wife's school's graduation ceremony. That was actually the first time I'd fired up my home studio in weeks. I just haven't had time to indulge in my favorite hobby, which is ironic since my main tools for my home composing and recording are so prominently displayed in my room:

(If you think that's ridiculous, there's actually more behind me including a 12-string acoustic guitar among various string and electronic instruments. I also have another acoustic guitar at the school plus my two saxes and three clarinets.)

(No, I'm not rich.)

(No, my wife's not happy.)

I'm sure a lot of people would wonder, "Why the %#$& do you have so many guitars?" Well, you might also ask some people why they have so many pets. My friend in Singapore, Robin, has introduced me to his wonderful family of dogs (thanks, Robin!). My old friend the professor down in California, Dewkid, has also spoken of his trio of cats. I figured that, since they were kind enough to introduce me to their intimate companions, it's only proper that I introduce mine.

First I'll talk about the black guitar in the very center of the picture, and it really is black. Everything on it is black except the bridge and the machine heads. It's a Yamaha RTS 102, which is a discontinued model based on the Fender Telecaster. I bought it a few months after first arriving here in Japan. At the time, I picked it up because it was 70% off the original price (and I was still broke), figuring I'd trade it in once I had enough to get a "real" guitar. However, I wound up keeping it because it has served me very well. The pickups don't really have much oomph, so I've been thinking about replacing one or both of them, but it has done the job quite well. I've always used heavier guage strings on it than on the others and also keep the action fairly high so that it's perfect for "banging". It actually does have kind of an acoustic guitar feel to it, and that makes it ideal for rhythm guitar. In my earliest recordings I used it for both lead and rhythm, but since mid 1991 it has been my rhythm workhorse.

The bone-white and black guitar in front of the RTS-102 is my Fender (Japan) Stratocaster HSS. My friend and sometimes fellow performer (I am not worthy! I am not worthy!), guitar hero and music sage Paul "Crusty" Lauritsen says it's not a real Strat. He's right. In mid 1991 I actually bought a "real" Strat for lead work, but I sold it (to Jeff) a year later and got the Strat HSS. What's the difference? Well, for one thing, the Strat HSS is bulkier and a whole lot heavier (which is why Paul says it isn't "real"). It also has a "super-distortion" humbucking pickup in the lead position instead of the traditional single-coil type. However, the main reason I got it was for the locking tremolo system, which allows me to bend hard into every chord or even bang the tremolo bar against the body without the thing going out of tune. For the "prog rock" that I tend to write and record, it does a fine job. (I'd probably rather use a Fender Jaguar, since that seems to be a standard for British alternative and prog rock, but oh, well.) The Strat HSS has a wide range of sounds. The single-coil neck pickup gives me that nice, gritty, bluesy feel for which the Strat is famous, whereas the bridge pickup can punch out a wonderfully dirty, aggressive tone when I want one. I can also add in the middle pickup in or out of phase to round out the sound a little.

The pearl-white and black guitar to the right of the RTS-102 is my Epiphone (Japan) SG. The SG was developed by Gibson when, ironically, it stopped making its famous Les Paul model in the early 60s due to slow sales. (The Les Paul was put back into production in the early 70s, when artists such as Jimmy Page, Peter Frampton, and Ace Frehley made it popular.) The SG has been used by such artists as Pete Townshend of The Who, Angus Young of AC/DC, and James Iha of The Smashing Pumpkins. It has the same basic layout as the Les Paul, but with a thinner, lighter, double-cutaway body of solid mahogany rather than layered maple. Epiphone is actually a division of Gibson now, so you could say that I have a Gibson SG, albeit of a bit lower production standard (hence a lower price). Mine is very much the standard model with vintage pickups. It is a very light guitar, and the balance tends toward the headstock rather than the body (which takes some getting used to!). It has a very punchy sound which is excellent for rock but not always very adaptable for soft or clean tones (so I use the RTS-102 or the Strat [neck pickup] for those). Its neck is shorter than that of the Strat or the RTS-102 and has thicker frets spaced closer together. Because of that, I can usually move faster and smoother on it when playing (rock) leads (though the Strat feels better in bluesier solos and is good for short bursts of speed) and can also play a strong vibrato with more ease. I actually didn't like this guitar so much at first and was afraid I'd made a mistake in buying it, mainly since it went out of tune so easily, but it has since gotten better, and now I love it. (Still...I've been drooling over those Les Pauls in the music shop a bit too much for my own good lately...)

Okay, those are my three electrics. I think they complement each other well. Firm, chorded rhythm or a clean lead? RTS-102. Bluesy lead, dirty fill, or experimental noise? Strat. Punchy riff or "jammin'" lead? SG. Still, it's an interesting combination, partly because one of my favorite rock bands of the past decade has been The Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan mainly used a Strat, and James Iha used an SG. Coincidence? I doubt it. probably doesn't matter. It also doesn't matter that all my electric guitars (and bass) are black and/or white. What happened to color???!? (In retrospect, the [cheap piece of junk] electric guitar I had before coming to Japan was BLUE!!!!!)

(Aw, fuggit! Maybe I should run out tomorrow and buy that purple PRS guitar I saw in [SMACK!!!!])


Incidentally, the bass is a Fender (Japan) Precision. The acoustic guitar in the picture is an Epiphone, as is the 12-string leaning against the wall behind me. Epiphone acoustics are actually very highly rated and many people swear by them. (I've heard that John Lennon actually used one of that same model at one point.)

What other instruments can you see in this picture? Well, let's see... There's a flute, a bamboo flute, a crystal piccolo, a fife, a shakuhachi, soprano and alto recorders, five Irish tinwhistles (2 C, 2 D, 1 F), a kalimba, 6 harmonicas (all different keys), a shichiriki, an ocarina, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

So why the hell am I sitting here typing about them when I could be playing them??!? 'Kay...gotta go.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


furu ike ya
(An old pond...)
kawazu tobikomu
(A frog jumps in...)
mizu no oto
(The sound of water.)
- Basho (1644-1694)

This is one of the most famous haiku ever written, and it has been analyzed by many people over the years. Most tend to agree that Basho's "frog" was inspiration plopping into someone's mind. Whether that mind was stagnant or simply quiet is a matter of debate. In my own case, however, I'm hearing that sound of water right now. It has nothing to do with inspiration, however. The cold hand of fate has tossed something into the quiet (stagnant?) pond of my family's life, and we are only just now starting to hear the splash. I fear those ripples are going to be bouncing around for quite a while.

It has just been confirmed. My mother-in-law has cancer.

Tomorrow morning bright and early she's off to Tokyo, where she'll be visiting a well-known and highly regarded cancer treatment center. They don't know the extent of her affliction yet. They aren't sure whether it's localized or has already spread. At any rate, with both surgery and lengthy therapy looking very likely, it's a good bet she'll be down there for quite some time. And while she's there, dad-in-law will be there, too.

It's devastating news, especially for my wife. It also couldn't have come at a worse time.

It's easy to take for granted the people or things that assist you in your daily life until that assistance is suddenly taken away. My wife and I have just been hit across the face with the plank-like truth of just how much her parents have been helping us over the past nine years. It's hard enough dealing with the fact that her mother's life might be in danger. The fact that we're coming into the busiest and most stressed-out two-month period of the school year with no one to look after the kids or take care of domestic necessities while we're at work has left us with an even bigger dilemma. Sure, there is day care for my son, and my daughter is old enough now to take care of herself to some extent, but that's not the point. It's a complicated mess for every one of us, and the whole family is just going to have to deal with it one way or the other.

I just hope and pray that my mother-in-law comes through this okay. I hope you're all with me on this, too.

The Lone Arranger Finally Gets a Break

I don't believe it! Did I actually finish that monstrous pile of work that I brought upon myself? I think it's time to celebrate...and I think Sibelius should start sending me birthday cards.

I guess I'd better explain what it is I'm rambling about.

It all started right at the end of winter vacation just before classes began in early January. Mr. Ogawa was sitting at his desk in the music department office reading what appeared to be a new musical score. On closer examination, it turned out to be the score for the orchestral suite for the DragonQuest IV video game. (I kid you not!) The thing looked monstrous; it included a total of eleven movements, one of which was actually two different ones tied by title only. All in all, it was somewhere around an hour of music.

Then Herr Maestro Ogawa gave me The Look (reedy diminished 7th chord) and said, "I'm really hoping the Kashima Philharmonic can play this, but I'm not sure we have enough money to rent the sheet music. It's really kind of too bad. This looks interesting."

I took the hint, went over to the G5 (still the only Mac in my life), started up Sibelius, and said, "Alright, give me that book."

"You really don't have to do this, you know," retorted Mr. Ogawa (in a "not" tone of voice), but he handed over the score just the same. I actually didn't mind. I've always rather enjoyed making music, and Sibelius is a good program to do it with.

It took me about five weeks of knuckle-banging, eye-straining work to finish all twelve movements of DragonQuest IV even with the G5's large, friendly monitor and ergonomically-designed keyboard. As it turned out, though, that was only the beginning. During the second week of February Mrs. Minstrel came at me with a strange request. Her school wanted me to record "muzak" versions of the three songs their 9th grade classes had sung at their choral contest. They wanted to use them as background music for their graduation ceremony. Once again using Sibelius (but on my Sony laptop this time), I arranged the three songs, all of which were full of weird rhythms and changes of tempo and meter, and scored them for "music box" performance. (Eventually I'll pipe them through my Roland synth to get an even better sound, but for now they sound kind of cool in MIDI format.) While I was working on that project, I was also asked to do something for my own school's junior high graduation, in this case converting the orchestra music for Händel's "Hallelujah Chorus" from the key of D (original) to C (the music textbook version being learned by our students). As it turned out, however, the grade chief decided to replace the orchestra with a piano, so that job got T-1000'd in the middle.

All that was just a warm-up for the real project, which I started as soon as I'd finished the last "muzak box" tune. In the end, I was called on to do some real arranging involving some real creativity on my part.

Actually, the idea had come up before winter vacation. During our "music appreciation event" last fall, the two guest opera singers finished their program by singing an Italian tune called "Time to Say Goodbye" accompanied by our orchestra. It was a beautiful piece which immediately became a sought-after hit. In my case, though, I couldn't help noticing that the chorus of the song had a rhythmic accompaniment in a Bolero style. I wondered to myself (because I often do these things for some strange reason), "Hmm...Bolero, eh? What would it be like to superimpose the melody of that song over the accompaniment of Ravel's Bolero?" Well, just for fun, I fired up Sibelius and tried an experiment. It was just a ten-measure bit of passing entertainment, but Mr. Ogawa thought it was a cool idea.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

"Run with it!" he cried. "Oh, my GOD!!! RUN WITH IT!!! RUN WITH IT!!!!! AAAAAHHHH!!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Well, okay, I exaggerated a little, but he did tell me he'd really like me to try arranging something along those lines for our school orchestra to play as an encore at the regular concert in March. I figured I might as well try. Once DragonQuest IV and the "muzak box" tunes were safely out of the way (and Händel in the circular file), I launched into the project like a rabid beast. I started out arranging a rather straightforward version of "Time to Say Goodbye" that suddenly changed into "Time to Say Goodbolero". All in all, it was good clean fun, but it was a ton of work.

I realized that Monday (Feb. 20th...yesterday) was the last orchestra rehearsal before dead week (a two-week period of no extracurricular activity before and during exams), so I did everything I could to make that deadline. I canceled everything except my regular classes, rescheduled (or missed) appointments, skipped meetings, avoided students and coworkers, and pissed off a lot of people. Unfortunately, it was all in vain. The problem was that I stayed very close to Ravel's original Bolero template, and as it gets closer to the end it just keeps getting busier. Pretty soon the page was an almost solid mass of triplet sixteenth notes with all the string parts except the double basses split into groups and strumming chords. I was at the point where it was taking me two hours to finish a single measure for all parts. I had six measures left to go when that orchestra rehearsal started. I had five left when the subsequent Kashima Philharmonic Rehearsal (which I skipped) began. I had three left when I finally gave up and went home.

I finished it this morning. The damned thing clocked in at 9 minutes 43 seconds at the scored tempo, obviously way too long for an encore. Mr. Ogawa was amazed when he listened to it, but it was clearly unusable in its current form, at least for this year's concert. He asked me to make a cut version and also provided some musical suggestions of his own. I went back to my computer and spent this afternoon nipping, tucking, choppingm and editing. After only a couple of hours, I had the encore version ready. Even with all the cuts and a few extra "piu mosso"s (i.e. "move it a bit more") stuck in to pick up the pace, it was still more than 6 minutes long. I didn't see how I could make it shorter without wrecking it.

Mr. Ogawa suggested that I leave it as is, saying that he would figure out what to do with it in rehearsal. That is only fair, since he is the director. Even so, the maestro seems quite taken with the thing, and I actually got a lot of compliments for it (always a rare treat). As for me, I'm quite happy with the result. Even proud of it. I haven't heard it played by a real orchestra yet, and I'm looking forward to it. It sounds awesome on MIDI.

No more tunes to score or arrange for the first time this year. Whatever will I do with myself? Compose some more? Do some (prose) writing for a change? *gasp* Think more about my job? I don't know. I do know that my eyes are fried and my fingers are feeling pretty stiff. So why the &%$# am I typing up this blog???!?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Old Smells and Sounds Die Hard

(Ibaraki Prefectural) Kashima Senior High School.

From 1990 till 1992 this school was the center of my existence. It was the initial reason I was sent to Japan and, though I wound up doing far less there than at the other three public senior highs I visited once a week, I was treated with far more respect and civility by my Japanese coworkers there. Inevitably, because of the same (disastrous) curriculum changes that got me more or less stuffed in a closet, I was rotated to (far less friendly) Kamisu High School, which served as my home base till my contract ended in 1993. However, I still looked forward to my visits to Kashima H.S. every Friday. I never had much to do, and I had little contact with the students, but it was still a very friendly place.

The last time I set foot in Kashima H.S. was in 1994, when I popped in with a friend to borrow their broadcast media club's studio equipment. Although I frequently drove or walked past it in the years that followed, I never went there again.

...until today.

Ironically, this was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. It was a meeting of the association of senior high music teachers for our local district (motto: "The guy who knows the motto didn't show up today"). Mr. Ogawa had some "important" business to take care of, so he asked me to go instead. It was just supposed to be a quick summing up of the schedule for the upcoming school year and a naming of the new officers. Considering the chronic apathy that affects most music teachers worldwide, it was a given that the meeting would be over in thirty minutes. Basically, all I had to do was sit down, drink my coffee, and then get up and leave again.

It sounded easy enough. Still, I was intrigued with the idea of setting foot in my old stomping grounds for the first time in more than a decade. I was convinced I wouldn't remember the place any better than the people there now would remember me.

The fact that I accidentally drove in through the exit (ignoring the "do not enter" sign) reinforced that theory. When I went in through the main entrance, as I'd done so many, many times in the past, it didn't feel familiar to me at all. I was a total stranger visiting a totally new place. It was actually kind of scary.

But then the chief secretary came out of the office. She was the same one that had been there in my day. She'd come out to talk to another music teacher who had just arrived, but when she saw me she stopped short and just stared at me with surprise. She responded to my greeting by just continuing to stare at me blankly.

It's good to see you again, too.

Actually, the music teacher who had just arrived turned out to be the one that had been there back in the early 90s. Now he's stationed at a different school, but when I was an (increasingly bitter) ALT at Kashima H.S. back then, he was the one in charge of the music program. As we walked down the old corridor/bridge to the music room, we couldn't help reminiscing and laughing at the irony of it all.

Then, all at once, it began to hit me. The dim light of the hallways. The view of the traditional garden in the courtyard below. The way my footsteps echoed. That same, old, musty smell. And then the chime rang; not the clear, bright, electronic chime of the academy where I work now, but that old, deep, dark, grandfather-clock-like ringing that sounded with a hint of warm, tube-amplifier distortion. Memories came back like a flood.

Frankly, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to go sit in the staff room for a few hours and wallow in sentiment or run away screaming. As it turned out, I had no chance to do either. We arrived at the music room on the third floor of the middle block, and the meeting began in earnest.

Unfortunately, the meeting didn't end in earnest. I was a substitute from the only private school in the lot (i.e. there to observe and take notes, naught else), so I mainly just sat there while the others discussed a lot, and went off on a lot of irrelevant tangents, but decided nothing. Finally, after two hours (of one hour scheduled), everything was suddenly decided in a three-minute burst of decisiveness, and the current music teacher at Kashima H.S. told us to hurry up and get the f*** out. I did just that.

I found my way back to the exit alone, seriously worried I was going to get lost in that massive complex. Indeed, though the sounds, smells, and outdoor scenery were still digging all kinds of memories out of my brain, the layout of the buildings was still unfamiliar to me. It still looked and felt bizarre, as if the familiar had somehow been superimposed on the alien. Still, I found my way out without any trouble.

Interestingly, as I went along, every student that passed me greeted me cordially in a loud, confident voice. What a change that was from the final year of my ALT era, the first half of 1993, when the students in general (mainly the younger ones, not the older ones) seemed to be getting colder and more apathetic, and the new freshmen were so hostile to English and to foreigners in general that teachers at Kashima H.S. stopped inviting me to their classrooms and I was asked to stop practicing kyudo (Japanese archery) at the school's range (since the freshmen said they refused to practice if "that gaijin" was there). The cycle has come and gone, I guess. Besides, Kashima H.S. now has a much higher academic ranking and a much better reputation than it did back then. Maybe I should also comment that the students there now seem friendlier and more proper than the (spoiled rich) kids at the academy!

Yep, there is definitely a "do not enter" sign at the exit. Oh, well.

Okay, the trip down memory lane is over. It's back to the academy for me. I have a tune to arrange for the orchestra.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Some time ago I posted an article discussing whale meat. Specifically, I talked about how the whale meat industry here in Japan was trying to encourage whale meat consumption by promoting new products such as "whale burgers". This coincided with an increase in the number of minke whales harvested for "scientific research".

I myself wound up running smack into that. I was having a very enjoyable dinner at a kaiten sushi restaurant (a restaurant in which patrons can select plates of sushi or other dishes from a moving conveyor belt buffet), and I saw a plate with a type of sushi I didn't recognize. The fish was of a tantalizingly rich, dark color, so I tried it. It turned out not to have much flavor at all. It was like eating soft, juicy plastic. Then I noticed the sign showing a picture of that type of sushi and saying (in Japanese), "New! Whale sushi!" So much for defending my principles.

A kaiten sushi restaurant.

Well, it appears that science has gone overboard, because there is now a whale meat glut. Prices have plummeted, and stocks are in danger of going bad because the product simply isn't moving. In short, increased "research" is threatening to put the whale meat industry out of business. As a result, they have started selling it as dog food.

Bargain-priced whale meat at a Tokyo market.

Hmm...when a gourmet delicacy winds up in Spot's dish, you know something's wrong! Does this mean a possible war between consumerism and science?

An Orchid Blooms

Princess Kiko is in bloom.

Actually, that has two meanings.

The orchid named "Princess Kiko", planted two years ago by Prince Akishino (second in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne) and named after his wife, bloomed on the night of February 7th. That is actually an interesting coincidence because, on the very same day, it was announced that Princess Kiko is pregnant.

This actually throws a very large wrench in the works. The Japanese government has been up to its ears in debate over whether or not to change the law to allow women to ascend the throne. The problem is that Crown Princess Masako has had only one child, Princess Aiko. Obviously, Aiko-chan, as she is affectionately known, is chronically female.

An awful lot of pressure has been put on poor Masako-sama to have another child (i.e. a boy), but the prospects are rapidly dimming. Part of the problem is that she is now in her forties. There is also the no small matter that she miscarried a number of times before finally having Aiko-chan. Add to that the stress-related illness that has kept her cooped up for the past few years, and you have some serious doubt as her maternal abilities. As for Princess Kiko, she has already had two children, but both of them are daughters, as well. That has left the imperial line with a serious dilemma which the government has been hard pressed to try to solve. Right-wingers and die-hard traditionalists simply haven't been willing to give ground on the males-only rule (even though it was written into law by the American Occupation), and the more progressive set has been trying like crazy (but without much success) to get them to yank their heads out of their aft-shafts.

Now, for a while at least, they don't have to bother. Until the gender of Kiko-sama's "bread in the royal oven" is determined, there is enough optimism to keep the discussion sidelined for the time being.

Actually, the fundamental issue here is clearly the conflict between tradition and realities of modern society, and it's not just the succession issue. It has more to do with the improving status of women in general. Naturally, any potential marriage partner of a member of the imperial family is going to be scrutinized to the point of pain, and only someone of "quality and status" is going to make the grade. The thing is that women of quality and status in this day and age are usually well educated and have career paths of their own. They aren't going to be content being housewifes, no matter what titles are attached or how many servants are in attendance. That is the dilemma facing poor Masako-sama, who (with MUCH reluctance) had to sacrifice her promising future as a career diplomat in order to be a good, little crown princess. (Rumor has it that that has been a serious point of contention between her and the Empress. At any rate, the two apparently don't get along.) When I first came to Japan in 1990, Kiko-sama had only just gotten married, and she and her famous smile were still media darlings. However, I was told by many people that she actually hadn't wanted to marry Prince Akishino at first because she hadn't wanted to give up her own chosen path in life. In the end she accepted her "duty", bit the bullet, went through with the marriage, and "just kept smiling". Because of that, she was seen as a heroine by many young women at the time.

Now perhaps Princess Kiko will be seen as a heroine again, especially if she does have a boy. I just hope Princess Masako will survive the inevitable fallout intact. At any rate, I hope both of them will find reasons to "just keep smiling". Besides, it really is a beautiful flower. A good omen? We'll see.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

How About a Little On-The-Job Learning?

Some of you (amazingly enough) may recall that, about a year ago, I put up a rather lengthy post describing ye olde academy's first-ever shokuba taiken (lit. "workplace experience") in which I drove an unlikely trio of boys a couple of hours away so they could spend the day picking strawberries. Well, the chief of this year's grade 9 class decided that last year's event was such a big success that he wanted to do it again this year. The day of this year's vocational extravaganze was today.

For the most part it was the same as last year, but they carried it out a little differently. The schedule and procedure were simplified, the teachers were given a bit more of the workload, and a bit more care was taken when choosing venues to make sure that things stayed a bit closer to home.

Last year I was in charge of two groups which carried out their work study on different days, so I was able to be totally focused on each, one at a time. This year I was responsible for three groups which all did their thing today. It was a bit hectic, but at least they kept all three of them in Itako City. Plus, as it turned out, it turned out to be an interesting day (if a bit less eventful than the trip out to the farm last year).

Whenever I drove toward Itako I could always see that big, square, blue-and-beige smokestack towering up over the hills, but I never knew what it did or what it was attached to. For all I knew, it could be playing atonal choral music while apes danced around and touched it (and then ran off to smash things with whatever they found lying around while the intro to Also Sprach Zarathustra played in the background). Today I actually got an opportunity to satisfy my lingering curiosity. Two of our 9th grade boys were sent to the Itako Clean Center as part of their day to be spent touring Itako's main municipal projects. Although I knew where to find the smokestack, I used my car navigation system to plot my course just for fun. It turned out to be quite an interesting complex.

The Clean Center consists of two large, squarish buildings with connected but different functions. One (the one with the smokestack but, sadly, no Legiti, no apes, no tapir skeletons being smashed) is a high-tech, ultra-high-temperature trash incinerator which is said to produce little in the way of emissions. (It certainly doesn't have much of any smell to speak of!) The other, however, is a recycling center, and that was where our boys were sent. I arrived to find them just suiting up after having seen an orientation video.

After that, we went into the center, which was like a small factory filled with humming and banging industrial machinery. It looked fascinating. I don't know what all the boys got to do there today, but while I was there they got assigned to a sorting belt.

I was told that about two tons of cans and bottles go through the center every five hours. All of them have to be sorted by hand before going to press or shredder. Bottles with labels still on them have to be de-labeled. Cans that are rusty have to be sorted out. All this takes place in a noisy room that smells sour milk. It's an important job, but I'm really thankful I don't have to do it.

The PET bottles get shredded and turned into things like serving trays and shopping bags. Cans and white glass bottles get sent out to plants to be turned back into cans and bottles. Colored glass is powdered and mixed into certain kinds of building materials. (Actually, until last year, it was also used to make asphalt for road surfacing, but the government pulled the plug on it on account of its expense.) Bjorn Lomborg, author of (the horribly misnamed) The Skeptical Environmentalist, says that recycling only makes sense when resources are scarce. I'd say it also helps a lot in terms of keeping waste useful instead of littering beaches and roadsides.

Seimiya's Aso branch has been my family's main supermarket for several years, and we're generally happy with its prices, selection, and service. I also sort of know the owner of the whole shabang (because I taught both his daughters in their senior high days). When it came to dealing with them for this event, however, I really had my doubts. When I called the head of the personnel department to ask if they were interested in participating, the guy said really brusquely, "We'll do it. The same arrangement as last year is fine. Is there any need to say anything more?" He then cut off my lavish, traditional Japanese thank-you rather rudely and terminated the conversation. A month later, he sent us a fax saying (in surprisingly brash language), "The number of student participants is too high. Split them up."

Aye, friggin', aye, SIR!!!!

After finishing up at the Clean Center, I popped by the main Seimiya store in downtown Itako to check up on the students and say thank you to the store manager. I found the kids hard at work stocking shelves, but they all had smiles on their faces. As expected, photographs were strictly banned, so no pics here.

The floor manager at the service counter was busy but polite and accommodating. The store manager (who I think was the owner's son) was not. When the floor manager called him to the front so I could talk to him he approached to a distance of about five meters (fifteen feet), glared at me, and said, "What do you want?" When I identified myself, stated my business, said my thank you (as briefly as possible because the guy looked impatient as hell), and held out my gift, he huffed with annoyance and stepped only as close as he needed to allow him to lean over, arm stretched out full length, and snatch away the package like I was radioactive. Then he turned on his heel and stomped off before I could complete my last sentence.

Asshole. I know where I won't ever shop again. Then again, I don't need to shop much in Itako, anyway.

Itako Post Office was completely the opposite of the supermarket. I arrived to find only two customers and a very relaxed, easy atmosphere. When I went to the counter and identified myself to the postmaster, he smiled and invited me back behind at once. The whole crew back there was extremely friendly and an interesting group of individuals to boot. As it turned out, since it was an unusually slow day in the mail room, our kids were upstairs in the administrative section, where I found them hard at work counting unused, blank New Year cards.

Once that was finished, they were given a ten-minute break, where I couldn't help being a typical gaijin with a camera and having the kids pose for a shot.

After that, half of the crew got to use a special boring machine to punch holes in the cards' postal stamp marks so they couldn't be stolen and used again. (Huh...I posted two pictures of it on my photo collection site, and they've both disappeared! Oh, well...)

Meanwhile, the other two were put to work stapling together official mail notices.

The boys told me that their eyes would probably never be the same again after that ocular workout.

Reluctantly, I pried myself away from the really interesting postal crew and made my way back to ye olde academy where, unfortunately, I arrived in time for the English Department staff meeting. (zzzzzzzzzzzz*)

Okay...that's a wrap!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Life in Cyberland

It has been almost a year since I last set foot in the "I.T. classroom" at ye olde academy, and it has changed a lot.

Actually, that room has already gone through some considerable changes since I started working at Seishin in 1996. It started out as just a large extra classroom, one that was often used for my upper-grade English lessons. Then, in 1997, they started converting it into a computer lab. They put in special desks with pop-up monitors and keyboards on pull-out drawers. Each one contained a Pentium II computer. There was also a projector in the corner, two large network printers, and a teacher's desk with a pair of master control computers, a MIDI music setup, and a number of conveniences. The neighboring room, which was originally intended to be a department office, came to contain twin servers, extra hard drives, a couple of workstations, and a whole lot of spare parts.

As it turned out, they hardly used it at all except as an ordinary extra classroom with the machines locked up. Frankly speaking, it was a bloody waste of time, effort, and money (not to mention potential...though it did provide plenty of advertising propaganda).

So now I'm here today, and they've completely reworked it. The basic layout is the same, but the pop-up/pullout desktop machines are gone. Instead, there are locking cabinets containing a mass of laptop computers. Each student checks out his or her own machine, takes it from the cabinet, carries it to his or her desk, connects the AC adaptor plug that is built into the desk, boots up, logs in, and is then able to access the internet via wireless network. The teacher's station not only looks more modern than before, with twin large-size LCD touch-screen monitor panels, but it also has much more comprehensive network control including the ability to tap directly into the monitors of individual student machines, send messages to them, or even shut them down remotely (displaying a very cute screen saying [in Japanese], "YOU'VE BEEN STOPPED! Go see the teacher...and do what he says).

UNLIMITED POWER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

*ahem* Anyway, that's not why I'm here. Thirty-two students have applied to participate in Seishin's first exchange contingent to our sister-school in Caloundra, Australia. We plan to take twenty. We have to weed some of them out. Today we start the trial by fire with an English proficiency test. It's not just any test, either. It's being done through a contractor, and the whole thing is carried out online.

For some strange reason I have suckered myself into setting things up all by my lonesome, so I have this sterile-looking, plastic-smelling room all to myself. The only sound is the eerie symphony of the various fans in the projector, master control, and heating system. It's bloody hot in here, and when I check the environmental controls (heh heh...I LOVE saying that!) I see it's set at 29 degrees Centigrade (84 degrees Fahrenheit), so I promptly reset it. Unfortunately, since this is one of the few well-insulated rooms, it's going to be an oven for a while at least. Taking thirty-two laptops out of the cabinets, hooking them up, connecting the mice, preparing headphones for each, and then booting all of them up takes almost a full hour. Still, it's enjoyable somehow. Kind of a Zen thing. I'm feeling peaceful and reflective, and it's almost too bad when the other two teachers show up with the company consultant.

Not long afterward, the applicants start to ooze in in gobs of three or four. I say "ooze" and "gobs" because some of them are so nervous they can barely move...and they are drowning in sweat. (Of course, that might be because the room is still so damned hot!)

The consultant guides the jittery rabble through the initial log-on and talks them through the website's complicated sign-in procedure one teeny tiny step at a time. It's a good thing, too; some of these kids are whizzes at math or English but can barely tie their shoes. After a lot of fuss and bother we finally get all of them to the "start" dialog. Then, with a few anxious twitches here and there, the kids press The Button and launch the test.

It's wild watching them take it. It starts out with basic multiple-choice problems dealing with grammar and vocabulary. From there it goes to picture/story and then listening problems. The whole thing is as colorful, animated, and creative as a modern website, and the students almost look like they're having fun even while nervous enough to shatter at the least provocation. The fixed time limit, which counts down very visibly in the upper right of every screen (fraying the kids' nerves even more) is only halfway gone when the first few get to the "end" screen. Others make it there one by one over the next half hour. After they finish, they help me break down their computers and return them to the cabinets, and then they bolt from the room as fast as they can go.

Each individual's results are available for immediate printout as soon as s/he finishes, but we decide the printer is too noisy and save them on disk for future reference instead. Still, it's convenient to be able to take a quick look at each student's score right at the end. Another beauty of the test is that each student works at his or her own pace. Most of them are in good shape, so it goes rather quickly. The trickle turns into a flash flood, and soon the room is empty again.

There is no scoring chore facing us at all. We'll just check out the results by fax in a couple of days. Isn't technology wonderful?

Japan has long since arrived at the age where most cram schools use computers or self-study machines so that (ideally) each student can always find his own guidance and support in that flat-screened world. Now our I.T. classroom has evolved into something very similar. We've heard plenty of nay-sayers, though. For one thing, it's all so impersonal and antisocial. The students basically have no need for each other or for their teachers; they just live in their own, private cyberworlds, doing what they want when and how they want at their own pace. We have to wonder if the increasing lack of motivation, blatant disregard for others, and inability to interact with classmates among new students entering our school has at least some of its roots in the increasingly online world of children in this era. Of course, a lot of that probably has more to do with those cell phones which have become something like a new vital organ for young people. Still, after watching students take this exciting, fast, convenient, automated, trouble-free, and totally impersonal test without any interaction with anyone else (unless they encounter something that isn't automated, whereupon several of them immediately get stuck), I can't help feeling that the world seems somehow colder. Quicker, easier, more seductive, but colder.

Maybe that's why the heater was turned up so damned high...