Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Silent Words Behind the Mask

Monday, July 28 was my first full day of work at Ye Olde Academy in a week. Classes had ended on the 18th, but the week of the 21st to the 25th had still been a work week. I'd taken it off because of the situation with my family. So why did I go to work on the 28th? Well, I'd been assigned one day of "day duty" sometime in July, and I had asked for it to be on that day.

The teacher on "day duty" has to be on call all day in case something happens. If it's a day when the office staff is off, s/he has to man the office and keep track of all people coming in and out of the school. Most importantly, the "day duty" teacher has to make sure the school is all shut down and locked up at the end of the day. It made perfect sense for me to do that on the 28th because that was a day the Kashima Philharmonic (new motto: "The ones that don't want to suck are now officially outnumbered.") was scheduled to meet at Ye Olde Academy. I have to be at the school for the Philharmonic to use it. My doing "day duty" on that day sort of killed two cockroaches with one chopstick.

As it turned out, I went to "work" on the 28th but didn't get much work done. Totally BLUED out by the situation with my family, I just didn't feel like doing anything. Besides, my friend Chuck, just returned from his miraculously successful trip to the Galapagos, had lots of stories to tell anyway. About the only productive things I did all day was research stars for Impasse (Don't ask if you don't already know.) and work a bit on both the Impasse Wiki and the Impasse online adventure. I also tutored a senior student extensively, so it wasn't like I screwed around the whole time.

Just before I started my actual "day duty" work, i.e. going around the school after closing time and shutting everything up, I got a text message from my wife. Her mother's condition had suddenly worsened a lot. She had been put on oxygen. The doctor's prognosis was not very good. Not long after I'd started making the rounds of the junior high building I got another text message. The doctor had said those words my wife had been expecting but hoping not to hear: "Gather your family. Make the final preparations." My presence was needed. Luckily, I was able to find another teacher to take care of the Kashima Philharmonic, and after running through the remainder of my lockup rounds I was soon in my BLUE RAV4 heading home to pick up my kids.

As I sped home along the edge of Lake Kitaura I couldn't help gazing in wonder at the sky because it was truly spectacular. If my camera hadn't STILL been missing I would have stopped and taken a picture. It was extraordinary! It had to be one of the most beautiful sunset skies I'd ever seen; it was a dazzling dark blue streaked with gorgeous smears of red and orange. Even more uncanny was the cloud formation hovering over Mt. Tsukuba; it reminded me a lot of a painting of Mt. Fuji hanging on the wall in my in-laws' home. It was actually kind of scary.

A strange feeling went through me, and I began to see it all as a sort of sign. Someone was about to say goodbye.

I arrived home, did a quick U-turn, let the kids hop in, and sped off to the hospital in Hokota. We arrived to find my mother-in-law unconscious, oxygen tube under her nose. My wife, who had spent the previous night and all that day there, had obviously been in tears for a long time.
Not long after we arrived my father-in-law showed up, followed soon afterward by a couple of my MIL's brothers, one of whom had just come from his home in Sri Lanka. We then started our rotation.

As the evening went on, MIL's breathing became shallower and her hands became cold, so the nurse put a full oxygen mask on her. That seemed to help; her breathing and blood pressure both stabilized. Her hands warmed up, too. My wife and my daughter each clenched one of those hands as we waited patiently, hoping against all odds that things would improve. Finally, at ten o' clock, the hospital arrived at closing time, so all staff left except the duty nurse, and the lighting was powered down to night mode. Our group huddled in the dimly-lit ward, my wife and daughter still at MIL's side, my son by now fast asleep on the bench, my MIL's brother from Sri Lanka and his wife as well as myself making ourselves comfortable as best we could, the other brother and his wife impatiently coming and going, and FIL anxiously fussing over everyone and everything. The minutes creeped along without any change. Finally, at eleven the brother from Tokyo and his wife gave up and left, saying they'd be back the next day. The rest of us just hunkered down and maintained our quiet vigil.

At exactly midnight the duty nurse suddenly banged the door open, ran in, and turned on the lights, which was when we noticed that all of us had somehow fallen asleep. A look of panic on her face, the nurse went straight to my MIL and pulled the blankets back.

Under her oxygen mask, my MIL's face looked pained, and her mouth was moving. She was obviously trying very hard to say something. Sadly, we never found out what it was, because she used her last breath to say it. She went back to looking peaceful, but now she was totally still. The nurse checked her eyes, and the pupils were fixed and dilated.

"I'll call the doctor," said the nurse with a sigh of dismay.

Strangely, my MIL's heart continued to beat for several minutes after her breathing stopped, delaying the official pronouncement of death until thirteen minutes after midnight. What was even stranger was that she therefore wound up dying at the same time on the same day of the month (though a different month) as her adoptive father had back in the late 80s.

It's a tragedy and yet a relief. Whether we wanted to admit it or not, we all knew this would be the inevitable result. It's just strange the way it happened. My MIL battled for a long time and held on despite the grave predictions of numerous doctors. But when the end finally came it came VERY quickly...even suddenly. Now my family is going through the difficult process of closure. Rites for the dead in the Land of the Rising Sun are long, complicated, (expensive,) involved, and bring a lot of people together. Arriving home from the hospital with MIL's body and laying her in state in the traditional manner, we were able to get all of two hours of sleep before the first mourner showed up at our door (at 5 a.m.). More were to come. It was only the beginning. Until the funeral on August 3rd (ironically the day the group from my school sets out for Australia...and the music club leaves for its summer training camp...) we expect to be inundated. However, the relatives and neighbors have already been giving us lots of much-needed support. We owe a lot of appreciation to many. We will get through this, I promise you.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Soap Opera Continues...

Culture clash is something I've had to live with for almost two decades now. Things have certainly gotten easier since the early nineties when I was seriously running around bumping into things (and vice versa), but I still keep managing to run up against unwritten rules. Well, now I'm finding out the hard way that culture clash can often happen within the same country.

The Tohoku (literally "northeast") region of Japan has always been quite different from the Kanto region, where I live. It is often said that the coldness of the climate, the ruggedness of the land, and the rich agricultural and timber produce that still manages to grow there have all shaped the people up there. All I know is that my father-in-law's family, who hail from the Tohoku region, never cease to amaze me. With a couple of notable exceptions, they have always been a close-knit group, always quick to come to one another's aid when need arises. They are generally as skilled as they are motivated, armed with a "screw the 'experts', let's do this" attitude that I have come to appreciate. They are also a fascinating and colorful group of people.
(Now...if only I could understand their dialect better...a common complaint among Kantoites!)

Our recent family crisis has shown all these facts clearly. As I mentioned in the last post, my wife's uncle who is a carpenter/farmer up in Hokkaido didn't hesitate to come down to our place to help out. An aunt came up from Matsudo (Chiba Prefecture) for a short but very helpful visit. Then the two cousins I mentioned came up from Tokyo. A couple of days after they left, an aunt flew down from Iwate Prefecture (in the Tohoku region) as promised even though a massive earthquake had struck her area the night before, arriving with her daughter who lives in Yokohama. The daughter put in a full day's work in our yard before work obligations made her go back home, but the aunt continued to stay, helping us take care of garden and house work that should have been done ages ago but wasn't on account of our current family situation. The aunt is still here even now, cheerfully asking what she should do next.

I'm told that this is a tradition in many if not most parts of the Tohoku region. Friends and family are considered a treasure not to be taken for granted, so someone in need tends to bring in a whole mass of people ready and eager to lend a hand.

The problem is that this is NOT a custom here in Kanto. Here in Namegata City, at least, people are much more walled off from each other. Human relations are also dictated much more by pride. Anyone who is not a member of the immediate family is a guest and therefore must be waited on hand and foot for the duration of their (hopefully short) visit. If someone is in trouble, others might express their condolences either during a three-minute stopover or when passing each other in the supermarket, but real help is unlikely to be offered for the expressed reason that the helpee will then wind up feeling obligated to repay the debt.

In other words, we've hardly seen spit of any of mother-in-law's many relatives who live in our area. They ask how she's doing in passing, and then they promptly disappear. This despite the fact that she was always very active in our community, in our neighborhood, and among her family. But as far as my mother-in-law is concerned now, that's just fine. She has done nothing but gripe every time she has found out another relative of my FIL has shown up to help. Today she told my FIL to buy a return ticket for the aunt who is staying with us now and send her home on the earliest possible flight. And since she said that, my wife immediately backed her very vociferously.

This evening I politely informed the aunt that we wanted her to stop cleaning the in-laws' house. She said she understood, but she also said she felt sorry for me. Actually, though it may surprise some people, the one I really feel sorry for right now is my father-in-law, who is caught between his loyalty to his wife and his loyalty to his family, not to mention his own Tohoku-shaped sense of right and wrong. Watching his longtime closest companion melt away into oblivion before his eyes has been hard enough. Having her and then my wife bite his head off for observing what he was raised to believe is a matter of course...and insist he spit in his family's face...left him clearly devastated.

(Considering my MIL has been in no condition to do anything around the house or in the garden for months now, and the place wound up in a pathetic state despite our best efforts, I'm really not sure what her problem is, but anyway...I'd rather not make things any harder. As much as I appreciate the relatives' generosity, I guess I'll have to forgo it.)

P.S. I can't find my camera, so no pics of the lilies and gladiolas yet. They are beautiful, though.

Monday, July 21, 2008

When Crisis Turns to Soap Opera...

A couple of days ago the uncle who renovated our house last year arrived, his stated plan being to stay with us until work back home in Hokkaido summoned him away again. Meanwhile, he would help out with the house and yard work. He didn't waste any time, either. The next day (i.e. yesterday) he was up almost at the crack of dawn, calling me to come out and assist him outside in the yard. By the time the day was halfway over a wide swath of the front garden was pruned, a huge pile of rubbish was burned and/or hauled away, a whole grove of trees was trimmed down to size, my arms and neck were the color of well-cooked salmon (Lovely UV rays this time of year!), and the expected guests showed up.

Yes, the guests. Yesterday a group of relatives, specifically two of my father-in-law's cousins and the doctor/university professor husband of one of them, arrived here at the Homestead. The stated plan was for them just to stay long enough for a cup of tea and small talk before loading up in their expensive Mercedes and continuing on over to Hokota to visit my mother-in-law in the hospital.

Imagine our surprise when they suddenly changed clothes and went to work cleaning up the in-laws' house. I mean they REALLY socked it to the place. Father-in-law was surprised, but he quickly got into the swing of things. So did the uncle, who once again wasted no time in issuing orders at me, as well. By the time we were done the front rooms and entrances of the in-laws' place were spotlessly clean, furniture rearranged into a pattern that actually made sense, and a mountain of inexplicable trash (not to mention a mountain of dust twice as big) hauled off. They even had a new carpet in the living room.

Naturally, my mother-in-law was tickled pink when she heard the news.


She was furious. So was my wife. She apparently phoned her father several times begging him to make the relatives stop, but he wouldn't. He was touched by the generosity of his cousins, who were apparently observing a tradition from their home prefecture (Iwate), anyway. Both of the ladies of our Homestead, however, were feeling insulted as their enormous prides couldn't allow that sort of assistance.

That was just the beginning.

Over the past week I tried, as surreptitiously as possible, to outfit my kids for the inevitable funeral. I had terrible luck. My daughter was easy. My son was not. Unfortunately, between the constant guzzling of juice (when I'm not looking, since I quickly stop it) and frequent trips to McDonald's with his grandfather, he has developed a beerless beer gut. And unfortunately, even despite rising obesity among Japanese children nowadays, makers of children's clothing here in the Land of the Bloating Gut are stuck in the "one size fits none" point of view with anything other than shorts and sports wear. Had I been looking for something for him to wear at a picnic it would have been simple. However, I was looking for plain, black slacks, and no one had anything even remotely feasible. I finally ended up having to go all the way to the Aeon Shopping Mall down in Narita to get something that he could actually get around his belly, but I still had to have them hemmed up. That necessitated a return trip to pick them up, and therein lay the problem.

You see, I was able to bullshit my way around during my first shopping trips. However, with all the recent activity at home, it was hard for me to get away. I finally had to tell my father-in-law directly, without revealing too much, that I had to take about an hour away so I could run to Narita and get something I'd ordered for my son. I'd hoped that would be that.

"Great idea!" replied my father-in-law. "In fact, why don't we ALL go together?"

I tried and failed to dissuade him, and I have a feeling he had an ulterior motive. You see, my wife and I often take the kids and go down to Aeon Shopping Mall when we're able to scrounge up some free time on weekends. I also go there a lot because there are shops there, such as the musical instrument and import goods shops, that we don't have close to home. FIL has often complained about our trips there, demanding that we do all our shopping at the local supermarket instead. I have a feeling that he wanted to take this opportunity and spy on me, hoping to find some new argument against our going there in the future. (His constant statements like, "Things like that are cheaper at the store down the street," and "I can get you discounts on that sort of thing back home," lend evidence to that theory.) At any rate, all the time we were at the shopping mall he basically hovered over me, looking over my shoulder at everything I did. There was no way I could hide the fact that I was picking up plain, black slacks for my son...slacks whose purpose was painfully obvious.

"You could've gotten those at the Aoyama Men's Wear back home!" he remarked. I then took great pleasure in the irony of informing him that these slacks were the same thing, only much cheaper...and guaranteed to fit. That shut him up.

But it didn't shut him up enough. You see, after we got back home, he headed off to the hospital to relieve my wife in the care of her mother. The first thing he did when he arrived was inform my MIL that we had gone to Aeon Shopping buy formal, black slacks for my son.

He may as well have said, "Okay, we're ready for your funeral. You can die now."

After my wife came home, when she finally stopped screaming at me, she said her mother's morale level took a quick, chronic plunge after hearing that. She's apparently still stressed out about all the kind help we received from the relatives yesterday, too. As far as MIL's condition is concerned, she has dropped several levels in one fell swoop.

You know the old adage, "The road to ruin is paved with good intentions"? Well...

In other news, the lilies and gladiolas are starting to bloom in the garden. Maybe I'll post a pic if I find the time to take one...and don't collapse from stress and/or heat exhaustion in the meantime.

Friday, July 18, 2008

When Blue Turns Black

First a haiku:


ajisai wa
kuroku natta yo
mou tsukita

The hydrangea
Has turned black.
It's exhausted.

(It really has turned black, too. That's what's really sad...)

Well, the good news is that, for the first time in AGES, I actually have a summer vacation that really is a vacation. The bad news is that I had to quit EVERYTHING to do it. I was supposed to help with summer school. I was supposed to help with the music club. I was supposed to help with the Kashima Philharmonic. I was supposed to have a couple of musical performances.

I was supposed to go to Australia again for a couple of weeks with another group of students and teachers. (I even got the uniform for this year's trip...a BLUE polo shirt with the logo of Ye Olde Academy on it...which I'll be wearing at home.)

Everything is off the list now. Making the announcements today was extremely painful...and yet also strangely relieving. I probably feel worst for all the people I'm inconveniencing by this. I'm not the sort that feels good about ditching his responsibilities on others. People are being very understanding, and yet...the looks on their faces and the tone of their voices after I break the news that I've just been forced to let them down not something I'm going to live down very easily.

Even so, the worst news by far is the reason why I have all this free time now. My mother-in-law has now outlived the doctor's worst expectations, but... She is still lucid, still sharp, even showing some energy in her talk, but... The problem is that it's impossible to ignore the extremely dark color of her face, a hallmark of advanced cancer. We've been told to encourage her as much as possible, try to give her reasons to go on living, but we're forced to do it while looking at proof that it just ain't gonna happen. How long can we keep up this pretense? And should we even keep it up in the first place?

Yes, more than one BLUE hydrangea of summer has turned black. And they're all exhausted.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Whistlin' Dixie (Well...Tootling it, at least!)

A number of years ago I was asked to sit in with a Dixieland combo. The leader, who played sousaphone (a type of tuba that is round so as to sit on the shoulders) was an American who was with the JET Program, the government project that was responsible for bringing me to the Land of the Rising Sun in the first place. The lead trumpet player, Mr. K, is a music teacher in my area and a musician I've worked with off and on for years. The clarinetist was the father of one of my students at Ye Olde Academy at the time. (There were a couple of other members, but they were people I hadn't met before.) I was asked to play tenor saxophone. After that first gig together, which was at an International Fellowship event in Kashima, I was invited to perform with them more regularly. My schedule made it hard for me to participate very often, but I did manage to appear with them in a number of gigs, usually at festival events. With a constantly-changing lineup, we played at a number of places including a few festival halls, the Ibaraki Prefecture government building, and a culture center down in Yokohama.

It was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed it, but I have to admit there was a small degree of frustration on my part. The sousaphone player and Mr. K knew what they were doing, obviously, but among the various other members that came and went (usually based on who was available at the time) there was an awful lot of WAWD (What Are We Doing) syndrome, i.e. they were more or less lost. If we played a tune that had a full arrangement things went okay, but if we only had the melody and chord changes, which is what jazz is supposed to be about anyway, the performance had a bad habit of devolving into a chaotic mass of noise, no one paying any attention to what the others were doing (or what the chord changes were, for that matter). That's fine for a while, but I admit it often got a bit irritating, especially since the tenor sax plays more of a supporting role in a Dixieland combo. I continued to play with the combo as much as I could for a while, but eventually a combination of an increasingly complicated schedule and declining motivation on my part led to my participating less and less. Eventually the invitations to play stopped coming altogether.

Cut to a week ago. I suddenly got a phone call out of the blue inviting me to play with the combo again. It was to be at a beer garden event at Kashima Central Hotel, where I had stayed to help out with the Garfield High School orchestra only a couple of weeks before. It had been at least a couple of years since I'd played with the combo. Come to think of it, it had been quite a while since I'd done ANY kind of real jazz performance in front of an audience. There were some nagging doubts. I was happy with my performance with the Kashima Philharmonic at the Kashima Music Festival in June, but there's a big difference between "Bolero" and Dixieland Jazz. I was seriously worried about mold and rust, so I wasn't sure about it, but I went ahead and said yes anyway. Considering all the pressure in my life at the time, I figured it would be a welcome distraction.

The day of the performance came, and yet another surprising phone call came. I admit that, for a number of reasons (including fear of rust), I was starting to feel inclined to bow out of the gig, but it turned out they had a problem. The clarinetist who had been a regular member before had long since dropped out, and the "in training" replacement had suddenly phoned in to announce his absence. They asked me if I could play clarinet instead of sax. Considering the importance of clarinet in a Dixieland band, I didn't want to let them down, but I felt even more pressured even though clarinet is (theoretically at least) my #1 instrument. I went for it.

I'm glad I did, too, because that was probably the most fun I'd had on stage in YEARS! Yes, there was some rust in my fingers, but I managed to work the worst of it out. One of the characteristics of Dixieland is that the tunes are simple but fun, i.e. none of the really obtuse, rapid chord changes you find in modern jazz. I was able to relax and get into it. My horn was responding really well, and once I was fully in the groove I was able to cut loose and wail like there was no tomorrow. Unlike the tenor sax, the clarinet in a Dixieland band has more authority and therefore more right to do what he wants when he wants. I milked that for as much as it was worth while still trying not to step on too many toes. What was really fun was when Mr. K and I started trading twos and fours and finally jamming together (i.e. me improvising a countermelody to his improvised melody), something I was never allowed to do on tenor saxophone. The second trumpet player and I also had fun improvising backing rhythms behind other solos, something else I'd never been able to do with that group before. I also had some fun singing vocals on a few tunes. The leader of the group on his sousaphone eagerly drew the tunes out so we could keep the energy going, giving us the signal to go back to the melody when it was time to quit. All in all, it was a total blast, and I'm very glad I did it.

The audience in the beer garden, most of whom were there by reservation, gave us a warm (if comfortably inebriated) response. It also turned out that Mr. K and I knew some of them...and were known by several more...because they were people involved with Kashima's music and/or festival scene. We were also photographed for the local newspaper.

I guess there's nothing wrong with a little image-dropping, eh? Especially when it's SO MUCH FUN?

After the gig I was told that I'd be hearing from them soon. I hope so. I'd really like to do something like this again!

An (unpleasant) update

After coming home from the Dixieland gig with my feelings (and my ego) all nicely pumped up, I was given some very bad news. The doctors had had a look at my mother-in-law earlier that day. The prognosis was about as bad as it could possibly get. The doctor recommended that we have anyone wanting to see her one last time come within the next week. After that there are no guarantees. Ironically, she seemed more chipper when we went to visit her today, but the doctor says it won't last long. It appears that her fight is pretty much over.

Now I'm on the verge of learning about an area of Japanese culture that is both very important and full of very old traditions. It's also an area that I know almost nothing about. Frankly speaking, I'm not looking forward to the opportunity.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Hit and Run Update

The word hikinige (heekeeneegay) in Japanese means "hit and run". Normally it applies to the crime of the same name. However, I have heard Japanese use the term to describe any action which is carried out on the fly, so to speak. In this case, it applies to my drying to cover some lost ground case I have any readers left. My posting has slowed to a deer-in-quicksand rate of progress because I've been so tied up elsewhere. Just a few points:

- I described the almost miraculously successful Kashima Music Fest in my last post. It really did make an huge impression on the city of Kashima and everyone who participated in it. Mssr. Maestro Ogawa, who came back from his "retirement"(?) as conductor of the Kashima Philharmonic in order to direct at the Fest, was impressed, thankful, and much relieved by our performance. So how did he show his gratitude? By completely severing every last tie to it. He even resigned as musical advisor, a post he'd vowed to continue as long as the orchestra continued to exist.

He put it this way: "The performance was great, like a dream, and for that I'm thankful. However, I'm fed up with the half-assed attitude of many if not most of the Philharmonic's members. There's no point in my continuing, so I'm out."

I understand exactly what he's saying, but that doesn't really help matters, especially since so much has been dumped in my lap as a result. I'd basically been left with a choice, either shoulder much of the burden myself or kill the Kashima Philharmonic and toss eight years of effort and progress into the dustbin. I think you know what I chose. I'm now the only one ensuring that the Philharmonic has a place to rehearse, instruments to use, a rehearsal conductor on standby, and student musicians ready and able to provide desperately-needed support at performance time. I got the first taste of my new role last Monday, when I had to hold the fort at Ye Olde Academy during a meeting of the Kashima Philharmonic's planless planning committee. The meeting was typically directionless, pointless, and grievously dull. They promised to be done by 9:00, got told to get out by a security guard at 9:30, declared the meeting over at 9:45, and finally got their asses out of the building well after ten. It was eleven p.m. by the time I got home and had my dinner. I was NOT happy.

It's looking like the "chairman" of the Philharmonic is going to have us (attempt to) perform Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony", a piece we have no business even trying to play. We tried sight-reading it on Monday, and it was so pathetic several of us were about ready to cry. The level of the Kashima Philharmonic just isn't yet to that point. If the chairman does ram it through and into the performance folder, several members including our concertmaster/chief violin trainer will likely bolt. I may do so, too, though that would pretty much doom the orchestra once and for all.

- The 4th of July came and went. In recent years it has actually been given some media attention, so I was able to acknowledge and celebrate it. This time it just sort of blipped by while no one was watching. If it weren't for some Happy Fourth e-mails I got from certain friends on the 5th, I probably would have missed it completely. As it was, I was too busy to do anything anyway.

- The Tanabata Festival (July 7th) also whipped by in the shadows and vanished. It is a Japanese tradition which has faded practically to zero during the time I've been here. At Ye Olde Academy Tanabata trees used to get set up in classrooms, hallways, in the lobby, etc.. This year I didn't see a single one. No one can be bothered with tradition much anymore. They're too busy with their cell phones, their Nintendo DSes, and their neuroses. Welcome to 21st century Japan.

(A picture of a lonely, little Tanabata tree at the school in 2005.)

- I just got my BLUE RAV4's annual checkup taken care of, and it came through beautifully. I've been using it for eight years now, and it is still going strong. I'd say it's still good for some more years.

The new RAV4's do look cool, however...and it would be nice to have a 4WD version...with a sunroof...


- My mother-in-law's condition has deteriorated rapidly, and the doctors say it's only a matter of time. She's just skin and bones now and can't move very far on her own. The worst thing about it is that the worst culprit is her own attitude. The doctors say there is treatment available and waiting, but they can't use it because she has more or less given up the ghost. Unless she gets her spirit back and makes an honest effort to beat this thing, she doesn't stand a prayer. Unfortunately, all she has done since coming back from the hospital last April is whine, complain, make demands, and wait for death. It has been really hard on everybody.

Alright, back to The Project...