Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Listening but Not Seeing, pt. II

It was back in February when I first heard that volunteer performers from the Kashima Philharmonic (current motto: "We're still not sure whether we suck or not, but we're trying") were going to be helping out with some sort of art exhibit. At the time I was asked to participate, and I gladly accepted. Then, about a month later, I asked for details and was told unceremoniously that the bill was full, and my services weren't needed after all. I figured that was that and went on with life.

In April I was once again asked to help, but in a totally different capacity. Mr. Ogawa told me that the artist to be featured at the exhibit had written a poem for every one of his works, and that some of them had been put to music. To be specific, there was a collection of tunes, each written by a different composer but still using the artist's poems as lyrics, compiled into a single work for a choir with a piano accompaniment. Someone involved with the upcoming exhibit had requested the Kashima Philharmonic put together a chamber orchestra and perform some of those tunes. Naturally, that meant someone had to arrange them for a chamber orchestra. Naturally, that someone was me.

The tunes were all, well, very typical examples of modern choral music, i.e. lots of bizarre time shifts and very close, often dissonant harmony. It wasn't a simple matter of transcribing the parts as they were; I had to put a lot of thought into it while still staying as close to the originals as possible. As usual, I got totally wrapped up in the project. Paying little heed to such trivial things as my job, I immersed myself in the tunes, tried to get to know them as best I could, even make them a part of myself, and then try to shape them into something of my own.

Looking at the book and the examples of the artist's work it contained, I had a fleeting feeling of familiarity (or was that "a familiar feeling of fleet..." never mind). It seemed I had seen that artist's work before, or at least something very much like it. I didn't pay it much mind, however, for I soon became too engrossed in the music to care.

In the end, however, the arranging didn't take me long at all. There were a little under a dozen tunes in the collection, and I had all of them but one scored and on Mr. Ogawa's desk within two weeks. (Mssr. Maestro was quite astonished, I can tell you!) I never heard anything more about it, though, so I figured the project had quietly dried up.

I'd figured wrong. At the end of the Kashima Philharmonic rehearsal on May 12th I was told that the chamber orchestra was going to try reading through my arrangements, which the members had apparently been practicing individually during the previous week (and which I had virtually forgotten). I was asked if I could hang around and make sure nothing needed fixing. Well, with all the bizarre tone palettes and changing meters (not to mention some very unorthodox musicality), we quickly found something that needed to be fixed: the lack of a conductor. I directed the rehearsal, and after selecting the pieces that would be used at the performance, the konzertmeisterin asked me if I could conduct them regularly. I agreed with some reservations knowing full well it was just another load to try to give time I really didn't have.

There were two performances, the first of which was on Saturday the 24th after my morning of guiding people (and ill-tempered old farts) to the mass choir rehearsal. Real communication was at a premium, and the schedule kept being subject to random changes, but I still managed to get myself over to the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall for the final rehearsal followed by the performance itself. It seemed like a comedy of errors. At least a fifth of the group had never rehearsed the pieces. We started the practice session with a couple of missing members, who came waltzing in (quite out of step with our changing meters) in the middle. And if rehearsal was a confusing joke, the Saturday performance was even worse. We were called to standby backstage only to find that the stage crew had no idea who was doing what where or when. It came down to a, "Well, why don't you let [so and so] go on first, and then we won't have to move the piano," sort of thing. The members of the chamber orchestra went onstage, but no one bothered to set up my director's stand, so I brought it out myself...and was immediately introduced by the announcer as the prelude to our performance, i.e. no time to tune up. The tuning was iffy. The execution was stilted. The conducting was awkward. The playing was tentative. The performance was lackluster. The crowd response was muted. The members of the orchestra were disappointed. The Moody Minstrel was out of the building and in his BLUE RAV4 headed homeward as soon as he could get out of there.

At least we had another chance to redeem ourselves on Sunday the 25th.  Things got off to an awful start (i.e. no one told me our performance had been rescheduled half an hour earlier, so I showed up late...forcing them to reschedule it again).  However, this time the stage was set up properly and the orchestra was able to tune up.  I felt much more in the groove with my conducting, and the players responded well.  It was a much better performance than Saturday's had been, and the audience response reflected it.  We all felt much better afterward.

(When we had returned backstage one of the violinists said, "Now I finally understand these tunes!  Can we perform them again?)

I stayed long enough to hear some of the other performances, and then I thought, hey!  Since I had gone to so much trouble for an art exhibit, the least I could do was see the exhibit, right?  Especially since I had a complimentary ticket!  Well, I did just that.  I left via the stage entrance, went around to the front of the Culture Hall, and went in to find the usual group manning the reception desk and door stations.  (Kashima seems to have its own "inner circle" which is involved with if not in charge of just about every significant event that takes place in the city.  I'm well acquainted with most of them.)  I also found a LOT of people.  I hadn't expected it to be so crowded, but apparently the artist was very popular.  When I finally got to the first group of paintings I understood why, too, because I realized with a shot that I had seen them before.  In fact, I'd had one of the author's books for nearly a decade!

Tomihiro Hoshino was a young and very active P.E. teacher when he broke his neck demonstrating a double somersault to his students and wound up paralyzed from the neck down.  At first depressed and fighting for his life in a hospital, he later came to learn how to write holding a brush in his mouth.  A sequence of events led him to develop an increased appreciation for life, nature, and God, and that led him to start painting.  The rest is history.

The overwhelming majority of his works are essentially illustrated poems, i.e. the words with an accompanying picture.  Most are in an ethereal watercolor, but some are in more vivid media.  His poems are generally of a deeply reflective nature, showing clearly his great love of natural beauty, particularly of flowers.  Some are of a more psychological and/or philosophical bent.  There are also some that reflect his religious beliefs, but always in a subtle rather than "in-your-face" manner, for example:

When I thought life was the most important thing,
Life was naught but misery.
When I realized there was something more important than life,
Life was naught but joy.

(Translation my own.)

One interesting thing about Hoshino's work is that he almost always provides an English translation.  Most of his books, including the one I own, are bilingual.  Even the art exhibit I visited included a placard with a translation for each individual work.  However, I did my best not to look at them.  You see, it is easy to translate the meaning of words between languages, but not the nuance.  You wind up meaning the same thing but saying something different.  Therefore, if you want to grasp the heat of the moment when the author wrote the work, you should read it as he wrote it in his own language.

Besides, even though I hear the translations were all made by native English-speakers, I found the ones I looked at sadly clunky.  The writers just translated the Japanese of the poems into English without any consideration for the feeling or the flow.  It turned beautiful poetry into very awkward and lifeless prose.  Frankly, I don't know why they didn't ask poets to do the transliterations, but that's just my moody minstrel way of thinking.  (But if I were asked...)

I found Hoshino's work very moving, and I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit even with the crowds and the stuffiness.  I took my time, reading every single poem and enjoying the pictures that went with them.  I also couldn't help but feel a surge of pride knowing that I'd had a part in that exhibit, taking the music for a couple of his poems and making them my own work of art.

The things I can do,
Such insignificant things,
But for them
I am grateful.
If I can do them,
They are much greater things.
- Tomihiro Hoshino

(I won't tell you how much I spent at the gift shop...)

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Listening But Not Seeing

Sometimes reality trickles by like a creek in a culvert. At other times it hits you in the face like a door you forgot to open before walking through it.

As has been becoming too usual for comfort, this weekend had wound up getting wiped out by sudden obligations (read "me and my big mouth"). Things started out innocently enough. Saturday the 24th was the first full rehearsal of the mass choir they've been putting together for the upcoming Kashima Music Fest (glorious fanfare, instrumentation uncertain at this point...). It took place at Ye Olde Academy, with the illustrious Mssr. Maestro Ogawa tearing his hair out taking charge of it all. Naturally, I offered to help. Naturally, I was obligated to do so.

As it turned out, I really didn't have to do all that much. I basically had to strap on a "STAFF" armband and stand at a strategic location somewhere between the guest parking lot (located somewhere out in the boonies)(wherever the hell a "boony" is...) and the cul-de-sac at the school's main entrance so I could guide the masses to the right place and, hopefully, keep them out of trouble.

May Academy 1

The guiding part was easy. The crowds found their way to the main gate (just out of sight in the above photo), went past the tiny and immediately-filled "main guest parking lot" (visible to the right), and entered my sphere of influence, or circle of influence, actually, so I could point them toward the main stairway. There was nothing to it, and I mainly just had fun greeting people, some of whom were familiar faces I hadn't seen in years.

Keeping them out of trouble was another story. For the most part it was no problem, but at one point the giant charter buses that we use as school buses pulled into the cul-de-sac, loaded up, and started to leave. Unfortunately, when one of those things pulls out, coming from the middle lane (the right side of the cul-de-sac) in the above photo, it requires the full width of the lane to make the turn.

May Academy 2

I mean, the front bumper of one of those monsters literally brushes right up against the hedge on the outer rim of the turn. There is NO ROOM in between. Anyway, when the buses fired up their engines and started to roll, a crowd was just coming toward the cul-de-sac, so I called over to them and asked them to wait. Most of them got the message and stopped. One trio of arrogant-looking, gray-haired men, however, paid me no heed and kept walking forward. I hollered at them more urgently, telling them the buses were pulling out and they were in danger. They replied by sneering at me and pressing forward...right into the path of the bus. The driver slammed on his brakes, stopping with less than a foot (30cm) to spare between his bumper and the hedge...and even less space before the crotchety trio. Giving the bus nothing more than a cursory glare, the old men squeezed their way through the space, waved me off irritably, and continued on their way.

Some people have serious attitude problems. Frankly, I almost wished the bus's brakes had been out of adjustment...but I knew I'd have to accept some responsibility if they had been squashed like a trio of cockroaches.

May Academy 3

At least it was just comfortably warm outside, if a bit on the muggy side. It was still a nice respite from the March weather we'd been having. I also enjoyed being surrounded by all that green for a change.

The real fun...and the revelation...came later. That will be in the next post.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hairy. Definitely hairy.

"Yabai" (やばい - yah-bye) is another one of those interesting and convenient Japanese words for which there is no real English equivalent.  If you look on my favorite Japanese-English dictionary site, it gives the adjective meaning as "risky", "hairy", and, amazingly enough, "motherf***ing".  As an interjection, however, it is defined as "oops", "dang", or "uh, oh".  That's probably as close as it gets.

So what is a good "yabai" moment?  Let me give a few recent examples:
  • You finally get a tiny bit of free time, so you hurry to get your car's oil changed for the first time in months.  When you arrive at the place you've always gone for that, however, you find poles and cables blocking the entrances and a sign saying, "Closed until further notice." 
  • You're (finally) getting your car's oil changed at a service station you've never been to before, and you suddenly hear a loud, metallic crash from the garage followed by a long, low, "Yabaaaai..."
  • You're commuting to work along a very narrow, one-and-a-half lane street, and suddenly a big, old dump truck comes at you at high speed in the other direction.
  • You've booked 60 rooms at the only real tourist hotel in your area for a youth orchestra visiting from overseas, and when you try to confirm the reservation a month before their arrival you're told only 10 rooms are available.
  • A newly-hired coworker doesn't show up for work, and then a couple of days later his name appears all over the news telling how he was arrested for doing something reallystupid...
  • It's only a few days before midterm exams, and you suddenly find out from your students that the teacher in top charge of the course never really told you just what you were supposed to be doing...especially when it means you haven't covered material that will be on the students' exam.
  • You don't worry about it too much, because you have one more lesson to use to cover for the deficiency, but then you're told that lesson period has been swapped out to another subject without your knowledge. 
  • You make a playfully sarcastic comment to your wife/SO on the phone, hoping to cheer her up, and she responds by saying, "I'll see you later," in a really gelatinous, evil-sounding voice before hanging up.
  • You see moths issuing from one of your food cabinets.
  • The field trip your son has been so excited about is now just a couple of days away.  Unfortunately, so is an unseasonably early typhoon.
What's another good example of a "yabai" moment?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Tagged for a story

Normally I wouldn't do something like this on this site, but things have been slow. Basically I'm supposed to add a paragraph to this ongoing story and tag some people to continue it:

I had been shuffling around the house for a few hours and already felt tired. The doorbell rang. I opened the front door and saw a figure striding away from the house, quickly and purposefully. I looked down and saw a bulky envelope. I picked it up. The handwriting was smudged and cramped, and I could only make out a few words. (Splotchy)

"Meet me at two o'clock at Grisham Square. Don't be late!"

What? I already had an appointment at that time. In fact, that was the only reason I had even taken off work that Wednesday. But, when I saw the photos, I knew I had to go and see what the hell was going on. Oh gosh, now I wish I hadn't, but how was I to know then that Elizabeth would take this whole thing so far? (Freida Bee)

She had exposed the nefarious Republican oil-for-neckties program, skillfully dismantling its diabolically brilliant mind control scheme, giving each man, woman and child his or her freewill back, and this had made her a national, nay, worldwide, heroine, but -- the fear -- the look of stark, otherworldly terror on the -- could they even be classified as faces anymore?

No, I had to swallow the overwhelming dread that was threatening to force me into complete shutdown, collapsing on the hallowed ground where I would silently, naively wish it all away until it came for -- me. Fruitlessly wiping away a flood of icy sweat, I knew I had to steel my resolve, look upon those photos once more and let them burn their horrific images in my psyche. Permanently. (Randal Graves)

Yet something was tickling my psyche, trying to work it's way to the surface of my consciousness like that bad memory for grade school I buried long ago. The one where I had to give a speech to the whole class and was trying to imagine them in their underwear so I wouldn't be nervous, when I suddenly realized I was the one who was in my underwear as I had forgotten to wear pants. I realized that the faces in the picture weren't faces after all. I was holding the picture upside down. (Dean Wormer)

Ah, that was better. What had first appeared as people and then abstract art now resolved into pictures of cells. Plant cells. I stifled a chuckle thinking the cells were heads of people, but wait! The lower row of cells had twice as many chromosomes as the first row. Then it hit me, the gaunt figure striding away from my door was Elizabeth's old botany professor. His ambling gait percolated back into my consciousness. What could he want with me and why give me pictures of mutated cells? (Don Snabulus)

Still examining the photos under furrowed brows, I went back into the house and went straight to the liquor cabinet.  Normally at that time of day I would be content with the old standby gin & tonic, but this was different.  I was puzzled and I was bothered, and that really annoyed me.  You see, I've never really believed in emotions.  Definitely overrated.  They just get in the way.  It was bad enough to feel one at any given time, but I was feeling two, and that had given rise to a third.  Triple whammy.  I needed to force myself back to single-mindedness, and that called for single malt.  Yes, it was definitely a job for McCallen.  (tympani roll)

I continued to stare at the photos intently as I poured the whiskey, only partly aware of the liquid that was missing my glass and trickling onto the floor.  Yes...the old botany professor.  I remembered him well, because Elizabeth had told me so much about him.  She always said he was a weird, old fart.  Kind of a mad scientist, really.  He was the sort that was both a genius and a tempting spitwad target at the same time.  But he was also intriguing.  In fact, now that I thought about it, hadn't Elizabeth said something about an experiment?  (The Moody Minstrel)

I think I'll tag Olivia, Pandabonium, Agus, The Intrepid Adventurer, and the seventeenth person to read this post (whoever that is).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Now Pause and Reflect

When that earthquake hit the Ibaraki area the other night the only casualty in my household was a cracked bottle of some old, high-quality whiskey that my FIL gave me right after my wedding. At least only a few drops were lost.

But now on the TV, in the newspapers, and on the internet shocking images and even more shocking news continue to pour out of Sichuan Province in central China. A couple of days ago a massive earthquake ripped across a fault line of unprecedented size. Many thousands of lives lost. Many thousands more unaccounted for and likely buried beneath a wasteland of debris. Countless others homeless, many with serious injuries.

For the first time in what seems like ages there is no mention of the Olympics. No mention of protests. No mention of Tibet. No mention of Darfur. No mention of tainted product scandals. No politics or nationalism. All we see now are human beings who have suffered an unbelievable catastrophe through absolutely no fault of their own.

It's times like this that tend to make one feel totally helpless, not only because we're so absolutely unable to do anything to make things better, but because a disaster like this shows all too plainly how tiny and insignificant we really are.

(Image from

Was this really necessary?

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Just Out of Curiosity...

Why is our modern civilization so intent on politicizing an event whose original purpose was so totally apolitical? Are we really so much less disciplined and rational than the ancient Greeks?

How many of these Japanese protesters with their "Free Tibet" T-shirts and flags would be willing to give Hokkaido back to the Ainu?

For that matter, how many similarly-accoutered Americans would be willing to acknowledge the treaty made long ago by the U.S. government promising all of North America west of the Mississippi River to the native tribes "for all time"?

In 1997 the chief of the Cherokee Nation, Joe Byrd, after apparently misusing federal funds, declared the U.S.-backed Cherokee Supreme Court inferior to his rule , impeached its justices, created his own personal militia, and removed Cherokee marshals that tried to arrest him under existing constitutional law, in effect mounting a coup against U.S.-backed administration of tribal land and declaring sovereignty. The Federal Government hesitated to take action beyond an FBI investigation, but the State of Oklahoma did not, sending in state troopers and even anti-terrorist units to force Byrd to submit himself to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Byrd was more or less subdued and defrocked but never formally arrested. But would the government have shown similar restraint if Byrd and his followers had started burning white-owned businesses and killing white Americans in Oklahoma City?

Did the rioting Tibetans actually think Beijing wouldn't send in the troops?

Does China really think the Dalai Lama stupid enough to instigate a violent uprising that will only make things worse?

Have either Tibetans screaming for independence or Chinese who claim Tibet has "always" been part of China actually studied history?

Does an appeal for solving problems through reason and communication amount to treason? Is it really grounds for revoking someone's high school diploma, mounting a national smear campaign against them, and forcing their parents into hiding?

Not so long ago there was an Asia Cup championship match between China and Japan played in China. Japan won. The Chinese fans, who had been booing and shouting nationalist slogans throughout the game, reacted by rioting. The Japanese soccer team and its staff had to be hustled out with police escort under a hail of lobbed bottles and debris. The Japanese fans, including some diplomats, were trapped inside the stadium for hours as riot police held off a crowd that was burning Japanese flags and screaming for blood. Roads to the Japanese embassy had to be cordoned off because groups of young Chinese tried to rush it. Tour buses and hotels catering to the Japanese team and its supporters were attacked and damaged even with police protection. Yes, it's true that there's a lot of historical bile between China and Japan, but after seeing mobs of angry, young Chinese blocking Carrefour department stores and screaming anti-French slogans in response to pro-Tibet protests in Paris, one has to wonder what kind of assurances China can give that any non-Chinese athlete winning an Olympic event won't find himself or his country winding up a target of irrational jingoist furor?

Can we expect the Olympics to wind up being something like this? (The video is of clips from an Asia Cup soccer qualifying match between Japan and China in China last February. There were no riots this time, but check out both the sportsmanship and the quality refereeing.)

Nearly all the Chinese I have met, and I have met quite a few, have been very good people. I'd like to believe they still represent the majority. I have not met any Tibetans, so I have no basis to judge them.

I'll be very glad when this Olympics is over...

Thursday, May 08, 2008

From Golden to Shakin'

I hesitate to give Olivia another reason to hunt me down and slap me, but...

Last weekend plus the Monday and Tuesday that followed were the so-called Golden Week holidays here in the Land of the Rising Sun. Actually, many people would argue that it started earlier, since the first holiday in the chain, Showa Day, was the Tuesday of the week before. That led a lot of people to take Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday off from work, giving them a full eight days to play with. I didn't have it so lucky. Ye Olde Academy had its annual Sports Festival on Showa Day, with a substitute holday the next day. That was fine except that my wife and kids weren't free then, and I had enough to do at home. Thursday and Friday were normal work/school days for all of us. Then followed Constitution Day on Saturday, Green Day (the holiday, not the band!) on Sunday, Children's Day on Monday, and an extra government-assigned holiday to make up for Green Day (since it was wasted on Sunday) on Tuesday. That gave my family four full days to play with. Guess what we did?


Well, virtually nothing anyway.

You see, my son and I were mostly free, but my daughter had a huge pile of Golden Week homework, and my wife had had a whole schlock (as opposed to half a schlock) of work dumped in her lap in the last minute. Neither of them could pry themselves away. To complicate matters further, mom-in-law is still in the hospital, and dad-in-law has been alternating between going to visit her and generally doing his damnedest to interfere in our business as much as possible. And unfortunately, any suggestion that my son and I, or even I myself, go off and do something on our own other than visit MIL in the hospital would elicit a flurry of whining punctuated with a few threats. Needless to say, we stayed high and dry through most of Golden Week...which was amazing considering it rained at least half the time.

In the end the only outing we got, not counting the visits to MIL, was a rather brief shopping outing to Narita on Sunday, mainly so my wife could get a new outfit for a friend's wedding. It wasn't a whole lot of fun for the rest of us, however. I picked up some potentially cool DVDs of American TV programs I'd never seen, but the kids whined they were bored the whole time. The fact that my son's Nintendo DS had broken, forcing him to use his own imagination and entertain himself for a change, made his mood even worse. It was black cloud city inside my BLUE RAV4 when we finally headed for home. I tried to cheer everyone up with a (forced) ice cream stop on the way home, but the ice cream place had a line half a kilometer long. The cafe we went to instead for drinks and cake wound up reeking of extra-potent cigarette smoke from a nearby table, giving all of us headaches, and my slightly larger than HO-scale cake was gone in three bites. (Considering it was a reputable cafe that I'd chosen because my wife had always recommended it, well...let's just say we were more thankful than usual to be back home.)

I did manage to spend a lot of time writing during Golden Week, which is always good. I don't know if any of that writing will be put to any use, but it's still something I enjoy doing. Also, as I mentioned in a recent comment thread, I finally got my new, computer-based studio setup working. I'm still hacking my way through its learning curve jungle, and it has been frustrating. After carefully stowing away my venerable (as in ten years old) 8-track MD recorder and associated gear and replacing it with the new laptop and Sonic Cell, I connected it up, plugged in my Telecaster, opened Sonar 7, created a project, added an audio track, set all the proper inputs and outputs, pressed the "record arm" button, and...nothing. No sound. It took a while to figure out that the Sonic Cell and Sonar were set at different bit resolutions. Fixing that, I was able to record, but no playback. After all kinds of mucking around, screaming, yanking hair, etc., I figured out that there was a conflict in the Sonic Cell's routing. Once I got that down I was able to record and play back an initial rhythm guitar track. Then, using the Sonic Cell as a MIDI synth, I successfully laid down a MIDI drum track which worked just fine...till I tried to convert it to an audio track. I was able to do it using the Sonic Cell both as the MIDI synth and as its own audio interface, but I got so much lag that the resulting audio track was playing at a slower tempo than everything else. I'm sure I could probably fix the problem, but I wound up giving up and using Sonar 7's built-in "Session Drummer" drum synth, which worked just fine (and sounded every bit as good). I really want to get busy and do some more recording, especially to experiment more with the new level of flexibility and wider opportunities at my fingertips. However, since I still haven't gotten the procedure down pat yet, I have to overcome a certain level of intimidation-based reluctance even to switch the machinery on.

Yes, Golden Week wasn't exactly golden. It was more of a faded bronze. As if to add insult to injury, when I finally managed to find a stopping place in my activities Wednesday night at around 1:00 a.m. and bedded down for the night, less than five minutes later the house was rocked by a small earthquake. We get those all the time, but this one was a bit stronger than usual and lasted a long time. That got my attention. Then it was followed by a tiny aftershock, and then another, and then another. That was odd. Worried, I ran downstairs and clicked on the TV news for the report. It turned out that it was centered just off the coast of Ibaraki, but it wasn't particularly serious. Relieved, I went back upstairs and bedded down, but then the little tremors started up again...over and over and over. I ordered the Pacific plate to knock it off, but it didn't listen. (It never does, the insolent sod!) Instead, there was another larger quake at about 1:30 followed by another burst of tiny aftershocks. By now I was feeling jittery (heh), so I tried my best to calm down. I had just succeeded in drifting off to sleep when, at around 1:45, the big one hit. I was jarred to full wakefulness partly by the shaking but mostly by the items crashing down from shelves and bookcases. "Fuggit!" I cried, and I went back downstairs.

Apparently the quake activity ended with that last jolt. That was good, because it was still centered right off our coast. Mito, the prefectural capital, was hit the hardest, but luckily there weren't any injuries or serious damage. It was still odd to have a burst of quake activity suddenly break out like that, especially in this area. Maybe I or Pandabonium needs to go to Kashima Shrine and make sure the kanameishi (the huge keystone, only slightly visible above ground, believed to restrain the earthquake-causing giant catfish spirit under the shrine) is still okay.

Kanameishi. Image compliments of Pandabonium's Pacific Islander blog.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Speaking of Service

I recently commented on a post Snabulus put on Isis' blog. I remarked that, when dealing with any kind of specialty shop, one is bound to find lots of service that is anything but...particularly "experts" that are more likely to humiliate you than help you if you ask for anything beyond the status quo. Arkonbey apparently misunderstood my point and took issue with it, thinking I was claiming there is no good service anywhere. I wasn't. Service is something that comes in many different forms, and its quality (or lack thereof) can depend a lot on your point of view.

Speaking of which...

With a convenience-oriented culture and an advanced level of domestic technology, it is only natural that Japan has some wonderful home electronics shops. Chain stores such as Ishimaru, Yamada, Laox, and K's are large and filled with an impressive array of hardware ranging from simple flashlights to impressively sophisticated home media entertainment centers. Modern Japan seems to have an almost symbiotic relationship with her technology, so it is no surprise that the big electronics shops tend to be busy most of the time. After all, it seems like one can find almost anything there...

...except service. As usual I have come close to pacing a hole in the floor by the time I finally spot a free clerk and manage to flag him down before he either disappears into a crevasse or gets lassoed by someone else. The man, wearing the black-and-white uniform of a lower-level manager, comes over, a smile of recognition on his face. (I am, after all, a very noticeable regular customer here.)

Pointing toward a row of boxes on a high shelf, I tell him my predicament. I want to get a high-speed USB 2.0 card for my newest laptop, the one that is to form the basis of my home studio. The problem is that, as a new machine, it runs Vista (loud bass thrum with tympani). All of the high-speed USB 2.0 cards on the shelf, at least as far as I've seen, only say that they're compatible with up to XP sp 1. I ask if that will be a problem. The clerk sucks air through his teeth a few times before pulling out his handy communicator and paging someone who will be more capable of answering my question.

After a pause of a few minutes I am approached by clerk #2, who is wearing the colors of a regular employee. I repeat my inquiry, and he tells me that there will likely be a compatibility problem, but I should be able to download the proper driver off the internet. In fact, he even takes me over to one of the display machines and proceeds to do a search for a few of the products they carry...and comes up empty. The manufacturers' sites list the products, but there is no mention of Vista driver upgrades whatsoever. There is only a repeat of what's on the boxes, i.e. compatible with up to XP sp 1. Not willing to let it go at that, the clerk starts frantically Yahooing around to see if he can find anything.

That's when I make a Decision. I admit that my experience with Vista is still very limited. My new studio laptop is my first and only contact with it, and thus far I've used that machine only a little bit. Still, since all the new music software I've bought is obviously designed for XP with Vista compatibility added as an afterthought (evidenced by the fact that the instruction manuals all mention Vista but show XP), I've had to wonder whether it's just more trouble than it's worth. This bit with the USB card swings the jury as far as I'm concerned.

"It's okay," I tell clerk #2. "Don't bother. Do you have a copy of XP available?"

The clerk looks strangely relieved...even enthusiastic. "We sure do," he says, and he goes and fetches one. As we walk to the register, he assures me repeatedly that it's a simple matter to remove Vista and replace it with XP. "All your hardware should be compatible," he says. "It should be no problem. But if there is an issue, we can help you."

Someone else apparently doesn't agree, for another clerk sitting at a nearby table immediately perks up. He is wearing the white shirt, black tie, thick glasses, and smugly arrogant albeit geekish look of the Resident Tech Expert. (No pocket protector, though.) He's also wearing a face like a Taliban who'd just wandered into a Miss America pageant.

"" he hisses. "Replace Vista...with XP?" Ultimate blasphemy.

Clerk #2 glances sidelong at the R.T.E. with a whipped puppy look and quietly explains that, due to compatibility problems, I want to switch operating systems. He starts to say that it's an easy process, one that he has already seen if not personally tried, but his ego gets verbally body-slammed mid sentence.

"No!" retorts the R.T.E., still in a hissing whisper. "No! He can't do that! That's a mistake! Tell him that'll only create more problems!"

"What sort of problems?" I ask him with a tone and look that say, "Talk to me, dammit!"

The R.T.E. glares at me warily for a second and then promptly looks down his nose. "Switching to XP may solve the problem with some software and peripherals," he says, huffing with annoyance, "but if you're using a machine designed for Vista, then you could lose all your onboard equipment! Your graphics, your sound card, your disk drives...even if they still work, they won't work very well!"

That doesn't mesh with what I've heard elsewhere, and even clerk #2 seems surprised at the R.T.E.'s spiel. I really want to reply by saying, "Oh, really?" in an equally annoyed tone, but I think better of it. Instead I go back and look through the stack of high-speed USB 2.0 cards again. It turns out that one of them has a sticker on it that says "Vista compatible", so I buy it and give up on the XP least for now. I also apologize to clerk #2. At least he really tried to be helpful.


We have a new beat cop in our neighborhood, and he is a totally different sort from the last one.

In Japan every neighborhood is assigned a beat cop. In rural areas like Namegata he usually lives in the area he patrols. It's his job to get to know all the people there, keep an eye on things, and be available to give assistance when and if it's needed. His base of operation is quite often a police box, known as a koban, that is directly connected to his house. He and his family live as members of the neighborhood even as he takes responsibility for it.

Actually, the last beat cop was notoriously conspicuous by his absence. I rarely saw him at all even though the koban is only a hundred meters or so from my house, and I think I saw him outside his police cruiser only once. That was when he came to our house for the traditional first greeting on assuming his post. My father-in-law naturally invited him in for tea, and he complied. (That's the norm here. There doesn't seem to be any rules against beat cops socializing with their neighbors.) He was a youngish man with curly hair and didn't really have much to say. If he was ever on duty in his koban, he was with all the lights turned off.

I might add that his wife was a frosty [censored] who quickly earned the dislike of the neighborhood with her conceited, stand-offish attitude and ill-mannered way of talking. It seemed clear that neither of them was happy at being posted out in the boonies with a bunch of hicks. The several years they spent with us (in theory) were probably pure torture for them, and they were probably happy to go.

Enter the new policeman. He's an older guy and much, much more like the traditional image of what a beat cop should be like. While making it tacitly clear that he's not one to be messed with, he has been going out of his way to get to know everyone. During his first week with us he actually flagged me down with his traffic baton as I was heading out to Ye Olde Academy, which shocked the heck out of me. I was worried that I was going to get told I had inadvertently broken some obscure law...or just harassed on account of my race. Instead, he greeted me with a hearty laugh, told me he just wanted to say good morning, and asked me if my school was keeping me busy even though it was spring vacation. Yes, he does seem to ask a lot of questions, but he hasn't gone out of line, and I guess it really is his job to know what's going on, not that I have anything to hide anyway.

I've also been seeing him out there a lot, especially in the morning when the kids are going to the nearby elementary school. When I drive by he always greets me with a smile and a salute. I guess if his job is to protect and serve, he seems to be taking it very seriously, and I can appreciate that.


Speaking of serving the public, Prime Minister Fukuda has just managed to override the upper house and reinstate the increased gasoline tax rate. He added a condition that the revenues be used for spending on things other than road construction, but that was small comfort. At midnight last night the price of gas went up about 30 yen a liter (about a dollar a gallon). You should have seen the long lines at all of the gas stations yesterday. It was insane. I bet the station owners were happy, though. I know the local governments are. The general public, however...