Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, November 28, 2008

In Lieu of Thursday Thanksgiving...

...which I was totally unable to recognize in any substantial form here in the Land of the Rising Yen...

Allow me to give you Five Friday Faves (with a tip of the hat and best holiday wishes to Nikkipolani)(and this time it'll be the real thing, not a sarcastic alter-ego). Actually, what I'll do is combine the two; it'll be Five Friday Faves in the the flesh, but Thanksgiving in heart and spirit. I guess you could call it a Friday Counting of Blessings, or maybe even a "Day-After Thanksgiving". Yeah, that's the ticket.

(Excuse me, what was that? Eh? "Get on with it?" Right, gotcha. Anyway...)

1. Atarimae Blessings. The word "atarimae" in Japanese is normally interpreted as "obvious" or "it goes without saying", but a more direct translation of the words would be "right there in front of your face" [atari - hit/strike, the very front edge of something][mae - before, in front of]. Yes, the most obvious blessings are generally what's right there in front of you, i.e. life, love, people close to you, the fact that you have a far better time of things than the majority of people on this planet, etc.. Those of us that have homes that aren't being flooded, burned, shot at, blown up, or yanked out from under us, that have stable jobs and therefore more or less stable lifestyles, that live together with families that aren't broken or sadly disfunctional, that aren't suffering from hideous diseases, that aren't risking their lives every time they go out the front door, should stop and think just how fortunate we really are. No matter how stressed out with things we can tend to get (and complain about it all at length on blogs), there are many, many people out there that would give almost anything to be in our shoes.

2. The Human Touch. In the modern, high-tech, corporate-run world, it's always refreshing to see things done in a very human and personal way, even if it seems totally insignificant. I mean things like being able to pull off do-it-yourself repairs at home in a society that firmly believes in leaving everything to (obscenely overpriced) "experts". Or a clerk at the customer service counter at a large and very busy store who still not only goes out of his way to help you out but treats you almost like an old friend as he does so. (I suppose it's possible he was a former student. I don't know.) Or a nice double cappuccino bought from a guy who makes and sells them in a van parked in front of said store. (Espresso wagons are very rare here.) Or postal workers that can laugh along with your linguistic bloopers instead of laughing at them...or turning into a mass of jitters at the slightest breach of protocol (or sight of a foreigner, for that matter). Yes, humanity is still alive and well, and I can be thankful for it.

3. Exceeded Expectations. It's always nice when you don't really expect someone to be able to do something, but they do it anyway. It's even better if someone you've dismissed as hopeless proves you totally wrong. Teachers and parents alike want those in their charge to do well. I'm sure most business and political leaders hope for something roughly similar. It's easy to expect too much from someone believed to be a "wunderkind"...and to be disappointed when they don't, can't, or won't deliver. However, I'd say it's far, far better to see the underdog win. It's amazing to sit and read a clever, engaging, multi-page composition written by a kid who whined if he had to write two sentences only a few years before. Or to see youth musicians dismissed as "unmotivated, untalented, and unreliable" suddenly rising to a seemingly impossible task and pulling it off with smiles on their faces. Or to have one of your children suddenly given a special award by the city government for a "brilliant composition" that both you and the child had thought to be a routine (and half-assed) assignment. I'm not gonna take any bows. I'll let the kids do that. I'll just stand in the corner and be proud.

4. The Simple Pleasures that Make It Worthwhile. Good music. Good beer. A nice, warm snuggle on a cold evening. Good wine. Good music. Good cheese. A cat purring in your lap. Good chocolate. Good music. A nice backrub on a rainy night. Good music. Finding a new road with interesting scenery as the result of a wrong turn. Driving over water on your way to work. Seeing beautiful sunsets over faraway mountains on your way back home. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Coke & Myers Rum. Good music. Being able to forget everything on a lazy afternoon. Picking up a nearby musical instrument and suddenly having a new tune come to mind. Seeing people enjoy something you've made. BLUE. Green. Good music.

5. The Technology That Makes This Possible. And why not? Living as I am, still something of a stranger in a persistently strange land, it's good to have the magic of the internet to help me both to forget my state of "exile" and to join something even bigger. That fact that people are even reading this is testament to that. Those that actually comment or e-mail me make it even better. Isolated, perhaps, but never alone. I guess I owe Yahoo!, Google, Apple, Mozilla, and (I'm now even more willing to admit) Microsoft a round of thanks. Oh, and Sun. And Grisoft, I suppose. And Lavasoft. And Edirol/Roland. And Midisoft. And Finale. And Sibelius. And Yamaha. And Line6. And Fender. And...oh, fuggidalreddy.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

And now, just for fun, here's my latest tune, a fun, experimental (and kind of tweaked) instrumental called "Not Baroquen In". More info is available on my Minstrel's Muse site.

More to come soon!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Where Are You, Jack?

The ancient Japanese name for November is "Shimozuki", which literally means "Frost Month", or perhaps "Month of Frost".  Not only have we not had a lick of frost yet this month, but today was the first day in which the temperature peaked at less than twelve degrees Centigrade (59 degrees Fahrenheit).   I think our old friend Jack extended his vacation without telling anyone.


The more I hear about the Tamogami affair, the more questions I have.

What's that?  You don't know what I'm talking about?  Okay, assuming you haven't checked out the above link, let me summarize in brief.  (Former) General Toshio Tamogami was the chief commander of the JASDF (Japan Air Self-Defense Force).  He was long known to hold controversial views regarding Japanese history, particularly with regard to WWII.  Anyway, in the latter part of October this year, he submitted an essay to a contest.  In this essay, an English translation of which is available (in pdf format) here, he maintained that:
  • Japan was a victim during WWII, not an aggressor.
  • The occupation and annexation of Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria all took place through mutual accords with those countries and was therefore totally legitimate.
  • Japan was the only colonial power at that time that made efforts to incorporate its colonies into the nation itself both culturally and economically.  Japan's treatment of its colonial subjects was thus far more benign than that of the Western powers.
  • Japan's "invasion" of China was a legitimate response to terrorism.  It was also the result of manipulation on the part of communist agents intending to destroy both China and Japan so they could take over, a fact long since proven (in Tamogami's opinion).
  • Japan entered the Pacific War because it was tricked into doing so by the U.S..  The U.S. government was itself being manipulated at the time by communist agents as part of their grand scheme to dominate Asia, a fact which has since been proven (in Tamogami's opinion).
  • Education in Japan must be changed so that children will not be ashamed of the glorious history of their country.
  • The Japan-U.S. security alliance is a necessity, yet Japan needs to become an independent economic and military power lest its culture be Americanized to the point of destruction.
This essay earned Tamogami a prize.  It also got him sacked as chief of the JASDF and pressured into retiring immediately.  He has since been very vocal, complaining through various channels as well as directly to the Diet that he was fired simply for exercising his right of free speech.  He even went so far as to whine that he was punished for saying that Japan was "a good country".  Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada and Prime Minister Aso both counter that freedom of speech and patriotism are not the issue; Tamogami had every right to express his views, but he had no business being JASDF commander if he openly contradicted the government's official line (not to mention making inflammatory statements guaranteed to shred Japan's relations with its Asian neighbors).

The U.S. government, not surprisingly, praised Tamogami's prompt dismissal.

Still, there is plenty of cause to wonder.  Even a tiny amount of research will show that Tamogami's essay is full of serious factual errors and distortions if not outright fabrications (not to mention some assertions that show highly questionable judgment).  It seems he just looked around at the writings of various right-wingers and conspiracy theorists and selected those "facts" that he liked.  That alone would seem to justify his dismissal as JASDF chief.  However, this isn't the first essay on this topic that Tamogami has issued.  He wrote more or less the same things in at least one other publicized work while he was JASDF chief, and no one even raised an eyebrow; on the contrary, he received a lot of praise.  To make matters even more complicated, now they are saying that Tamogami issued a directive urging his senior officers all to submit essays on the same topic.  Tamogami himself denies this, though he does insist that most if not all officers are firmly in agreement with him on the topic.  (Naturally, said officers deny it.)  Then there is Prime Minister Aso.  One would like to think he's cracking down on these renegade loyalties, but the evidence doesn't support this, either.  As mentioned before, Tamogami received nothing but praise for his earlier revisionist essays while still holding his position.  There's also the no small fact that PM Aso himself recently purchased a book written by a well-known right-wing nationalist who also shares Tamogami's views.  More than likely, this dismissal is nothing but window dressing...or even face-saving.  Indeed, looking at all the evidence, it would seem that people at the top levels of both the military and the civilian government are confusing patriotism with historical white-washing.


Once again the kids have amazed me.  Last Saturday (November 15th) was a triple-header for the junior high members of the Flying Eggheads.  In the morning they had the annual Junior High Class Choral Competition (seriously off-key fanfare with weak altos), a major school event involving lots of preparation (though you wouldn't know it listening to the nerve-wracking performances of certain classes...).  (Incidentally, my own home room took the top prize for the 7th grade!  They did a really good job, and I was proud of them...not that they gave me any thanks for my efforts with them...)  As soon as that was over, the kids piled into cars and got hauled off to Kamisu for the East Ibaraki District Ensemble Contest (slightly better in tune fanfare with one squeaking clarinet).  There were fifty-two junior high ensembles.  Of those, our brass quintet, made up of 9th graders, took 1st place.  Our sax quartet, consisting of one 9th grader, two 8th graders, and one 7th grader, came in 2nd.  Our clarinet quartet, consisting of three 9th graders and one 8th grader, came in 5th.  (This year we didn't have any senior high groups participating, which helps to underscore some of the problems we're currently facing.)  All in all, the kids did a fantastic job.  It didn't end there, however, for the sax quartet and four of the members of the brass quintet immediately had to hustle off to the Kashima Labor Culture Hall for the 5th annual Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival.  The festival organizers were kind enough to accommodate our schedule by putting us in the very last slot...i.e. we headlined the program.

We were under enough pressure as it was.  The fact that we wound up going onstage after Malta, a very well known jazz/fusion saxophonist, and his quintet made it even worse.  Needless to say, Malta was awesome.  (The fact that he went around and greeted everyone backstage after his performance did much for my respect for the guy, too.)  I felt very humbled going on with my band of kids afterward.  The audience didn't seem to think so.  Neither did the kids themselves, because if anything Malta's performance inspired them.  They turned in one of our best showings ever.  In particular, the brass players who had been to the solo contest that afternoon seemed particularly in the groove, nailing tough entrances that had always been a bit of a problem in rehearsal or during other performances earlier in the year.  Our lead alto player ignored almost all of her written solos and did some fine improvising, showing just how far she has progressed in that respect.  Our 2nd trumpet player, a 9th grader, also turned in an excellent Miles Davis-style solo feature in the tune "Beneath an Orange Moon".  All in all, I was really proud of the kids, and they were pretty pumped up, too.

After our slot was done, the program organizers, a club calling themselves the KSJ (Kashima Seaside Jazz) Friends, came onstage for the final curtain call.  We closed the program with a version of "Hello, Dolly!" that I had arranged.  We were ALL supposed to play it together, so I included an open solo slot so the KSJ Friends and others could cut loose and have fun.  As it turned out, NONE of them brought their instruments onstage!  Faced with an empty open solo slot, I grabbed my clarinet and jammed on it myself as best I could just playing by ear with little memory of the chord changes.  That was fun, though I felt kind of self-conscious...and did my best to avoid the woman chasing me around with a microphone.

They announced the date of next year's Jazz Festival.  Guess what?  It's probably going to be another triple header...


And here's another "Guess what?".  After starting work on this post, the weather demons finally woke up.  Maybe someone saw what I had written and gave them a boot on their little, cloudy butts.  This morning saw the first frost of the year.  Finally.

Alright, time for coffee.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I See RED (aka Doing the Stadium)

You know, working with the music club at Ye Olde Academy sometimes gets me into the darnedest places...

As our reputation has increased, so have the invitations for us to come and play at different places and events. Already this year I've had to turn down three requests for the Flying Eggheads to perform at various city-sponsored functions on account of conflicting and/or overloaded schedules. Invitations are still coming in, and not just for the Eggheads.

A little over a month ago a call came from none other than Kashima Soccer Stadium. November 9th was to be a match between the Kashima Antlers pro soccer team and Albirex Niigata. They wanted some kind of attraction, and were hoping we could play. At first they asked for the jazz band, but Mr. Ogawa turned that down for two reasons:
  • The Flying Eggheads were already scheduled to play at an elementary school music appreciation event the day before.
  • A (not very good) jazz band from a different school played there last year, and Mr. Ogawa figured variety was better.
In the end, we sent a mainly senior high string ensemble plus a pianist, a drummer, and two clarinet soloists (i.e. myself and Mr. Ogawa).

When we finally arrived at the stadium to play, it was reiterated many times that they'd never had a string ensemble play there before and weren't sure what to expect (and didn't seem very enthusiastic about it). We weren't really sure, either. In all honesty, our string players had never performed in an outdoor venue before, so it was totally uncharted territory. As it turned out, however, the place where we performed, in a plaza on the second floor concessions/souvenir stand deck, acted like a form of natural amplifier and conducted our sound well. I used one of my high-power jazz reeds for my clarinet solos ("Let's Dance" and "Moonlight Serenade", both classic jazz tunes) but didn't really need it; my sound blasted all over the place. Even Mr. Ogawa's much gentler sound (playing a cheerful tune called "Guisganderie" - here's a video of someone else playing it at only a slightly higher tempo than Mssr. Maestro Ogawa did) carried well.

It was cold, there were some stiff fingers (and lots of complaints from the kids), and we wound up competing with a very loud PA system blasting canned cheer music, but we did okay. By far the best part was the fact that, contrary to expectations, we actually drew quite a crowd. We had that plaza packed full of eager, red-clad supporters that gave us lots of applause and demanded an encore (which we didn't have, so we just played one of the tunes again). All in all, I'd say it was worth it.

(Unfortunately, I can't post pics of the performance here because that would violate direct orders from the principal...unless I only show the backs of the students' heads...)

The best part, though, was the fact that our performance earned us complementary tickets to the match. Though I was here when the pro J-League was officially born (in 1993), and had performed outside the soccer stadium many, many times, I had never been inside the stadium, let alone seen an Antlers game. I was ecstatic finally to have the opportunity. (It hurt so much...)

Antlers 1

Here it is! Kashima Soccer Stadium! When it was originally built for the FIFA World Cup in 2002 it was able to seat 60,000, but since the temporary seats were removed it now has a capacity of 45,000 (i.e. about 80% of the population of Kashima).

Antlers 2

Looking toward the gate where we went in. When I took these (cell-phone) pics we had just loaded our instruments into the bus, received our tickets, and were starting to head in. By then most of the supporters were already in the stadium and kicking up quite a racket.

Antlers 3

And here's a view of the Antlers' supporters "box"! Since the official birth of the J-League in 1993, the Antlers fans have been famous (read "notorious") for their spirit (read "raucous cheers and occasionally aggressive behavior"). It was cool finally to see that jumping, singing, shouting sea of red in full swing!

And just when I thought it couldn't get any more interesting, out came this giant flag...

Antlers 4

...followed soon afterward by three more:

Antlers 5

I have to admit I was confused at first. I thought the one on the left was a communist flag and the one on the right was Che Guevara. It took a minute for it to dawn on me that gold and red are the Antlers' colors, and that the flag on the right showed Zico, the Brazilian former World Cup star who was instrumental in developing the Antlers as well as founding the J-League itself.

Our own seats were closer to the Albirex supporters:

Antlers 6

They were a small but very spirited group. They were also quite loud.

Basically, both groups of supporters kept up a non-stop barrage of songs and cheers (mainly songs...loud, boisterous songs!) that bordered on sensory overload. It was almost hard to pay attention to the game.

Antlers 7

Here's a view direct from my seat to the field. We got a good view of one of the goals. From this angle you can tell that the advertisement signboards on either side of the goal, which usually look like ramps when seen on TV, are actually 3-D trick art painted on the field. Note also the strip of advertisements between the upper and lower sections of the stands (even more clearly visible in the Albirex supporters pic above). It's actually a giant LED display, and they do a lot of funky things with it.

With all the fun and excitement leading up to the game, I almost with the game itself had been more exciting. There was plenty of action, but it was pretty disappointing. We were warned that this was going to be a difficult match. The Antlers were defending their current #1 spot. Albirex, on the other hand, are hovering near the bottom of the league and are desperate to keep themselves from being demoted back to the J1 "minor league". (At the end of each season the bottom J-League teams are swapped out in favor of the top J1 teams.) The Antlers dominated the game for most of the first half, keeping the ball in front of the Albirex goal for most of play...but never quite finding their way into it. Then Albirex suddenly turned up the power in the last five minutes of the first half and kept it going through the second, no doubt figuring they had nothing to lose by throwing in everything they had. Things got pretty ugly toward the end with lots of aggressive play, quickly mounting fouls, a couple of near fights, but somehow they managed not to get any red cards. (There were some yellow ones, though.) The Albirex defense managed to keep their goal plugged solid, but their offense never managed to mount anything beyond a few desperate suicide attacks that weren't sucessful. The Antlers mounted a few excellent plays but weren't able to capitalize effectively on them, either kicking the ball lamely right into the goalkeeper's mitts or bouncing it off the post.

In the end, the game was a 0-0 draw. The Antlers are still #1 in the J-League. Albirex, earning a few points a result of drawing rather than losing, managed to gain a couple of desperately-needed places. I guess both teams have reason to be satisfied with the result, but the fans were pretty disappointed.

Oh, well. At least now I can finally say I've seen an Antlers match. I can also say that I've performed at the stadium. More notches on my belt. So now...what's next?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

My Five Friday PFFFFFFFTs...

Artful chef, gardner, photographer, poet, cat-lover, observer and reflector on life, and all around wonderful soul Nikkipolani has had a custom of putting a semi-regular feature on her blog called "Five Friday Faves". It is just what the title indicates, i.e. a list of five things to feel good about (and it's generally posted on - wait for it - Fridays).

I thought about doing the same thing, but then I realized I'm in one of THOSE moods. One of THOSE moody sorts of moods. And you know, the only way to beat THOSE is with THEM. However, being that there are none of THEM handy, I'll resort to the next best thing: a sort of "anti-faves", if you will. In other words, here are five things that are really chapping my hide on this most gray-skied of Fridays.

1. Glitchy Automatic Updates. I'm sure my most recent computer-related headache has absolutely nothing on the office solution hell currently being suffered by my sister. It's still enough to rankle. First I noticed that my wife's computer, which I hooked up to the internet only a few months ago, kept repeatedly downloading and installing the same Windows security patch over and over and over and over again. It always said that the download and install were successful, but it would immediately go through the cycle again. I looked back through the log and discovered that it had been doing it for over a month. After none of my (feeble) attempts at a solution worked, I finally grit my teeth and got onto the Microsoft support site. It turned out that there was a page dedicated to the very problem I'd been having; apparently it was widespread. The fix was easy. All I had to do was uninstall and reinstall Internet Explorer, which I had upgraded to version 7 a little over a month before (apparently when the trouble started in the first place). That took care of it, and everything was hunky dory...for a few minutes.

Actually, my wife's computer problems were solved. What happened next was that I immediately discovered that my desktop machine, this machine, had been doing something very similar. It was a different security patch, and the installation was NOT working, but my computer was still downloading and attempting to install it over and over and over and had been doing so for months without my knowledge. This time I couldn't find any useful info on the Microsoft support page, so I e-mailed them. The automated response said that they would get back to me in about three days. Guess what? They got back to me immediately! Their suggestion was to uninstall and reinstall Microsoft Office and then go through the update procedure again. I did just that, and it fixed the problem quite handily. I've got to hand it to Microsoft: so far, all my dealings with their customer service have been very positive, and they've done a good job of helping me when I've needed them to (unlike IBM or Canon [Japan], who "helped" me in the past by suggesting I stop using their products).

Wait a minute...that's something good. Ahem...

2. Over-blinged Websites. Okay, okay...I know. You don't want your web page to look dull as aluminum foil, and there is a lot of really happening stuff out there. Yes, you have a lot of cool photos, and you've linked a lot of even cooler videos. I'm sure all those ads you've linked are helping you pay the bills, and that's perfectly understandable. However, if accessing your site means having to wait a couple of minutes for all those little tidbits to finish downloading (even with broadband), and moving back and forth from each peripheral page to the main page means yet another long wait, I'm probably not going to visit your site very often...if at all.

3. Institutionalized Redundance. Look, I'm honored that you've given me this position. I'm happy to have been put in charge of this project. You know I've always done my best so far, and I'd like to continue doing so in the future. As far as I know, every endeavor for this project has produced good results till now. There have been no complaints about my efforts whatsoever; on the contrary, I've heard nothing but praise. I even heard you say - publicly - that you were happy to have me on the job.

So why have you just taken over the project yourself and moved forward on a new endeavor without the slightest word to me about it?

4. Fame-Hungry Bureaucrats. Look, I know that bureaucrats are professional dorkwads by default and should always be considered guilty until proven intelligent, but give me a break! I don't know what sort of ministry pencil-neck-geek-sans-real-life thought he was getting off on his miniscule speck of power and making a name for himself by outlawing passing on all two-lane roads, but he's in desperate need of being whipped to death with his own coke-bottle frames. Either that or he should be forced to get stuck behind a slow-moving farm tractor every time he tries to commute 25 kilometers to work. The problem is even worse now since gasoline prices skyrocketed; even though prices have come way down recently and are still dropping, you still see - and get stuck behind - "eco drivers", i.e. people who think they are saving a bundle by habitually driving at or just below the speed limit. Actually, I'd be tempted to pay good money to see them run off the road.

5. American Presidential Campaigns. Election seasons are among the few times that I consider myself to be totally blessed to be on the opposite side of the ocean. I've heard that Europeans are fond of describing American presidential elections as a "beauty contest". Yes, that does seem to fit...except for the fact that campaigns invariably devolve into really ugly character assassinations and smear campaigns. That being said, I was thankful that Barrack Obama actually tried to keep the debates rational, intelligent, and centered on issues, at least till he finally got fed up with McCain's constant mudslinging and started throwing some of it back. Any Presidential election tends to polarize the country more than any other time. This year's was particularly ugly.

I'm glad it's over, though I'll shamelessly admit the result fills me with pride. (Um...that's good, too...)