Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cut & Run

For those of you fortunate not to have been tricked into selling your soul to who don't use Facebook, I've finished a new song. It's called "Cut and Run". After coming off a series of more mellow, serious tunes, I felt like kicking out the stops and rocking a bit. I also felt like venting some frustration about a recent incident that took place here and on Facebook. Give it a listen through the link here or on the ReverbNation player in the right-hand margin.

More details on my Minstrel's Muse site.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Common Tongue

One of the fringe benefits of being an assistant director of the music program here at Ye Olde Academy is that we sometimes host musical groups visiting from abroad. That means I get to hear some really good music and get acquainted with the musicians themselves. (Most of them thus far have been great people.) Thus far, during my time here, we've had acts come from the USA, Indonesia, Austria, Italy, Germany, and Ukraine.

This time we were fortunate to be hosting what may very well be the finest youth orchestra in Switzerland. (Sad though it is, I'll refrain from mentioning the name of the group or its wonderful directors so there'll be no chance of my getting put in the dock again.) It is actually a combined group comprised of students from a public school and a private music school located in the same city, which is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Their program is similar in many ways to the one we've been putting together at Ye Olde Academy, though based on a somewhat higher standard. It also seems to share many of the same goals and philosophies. The director of their orchestra was kind enough to attend our Big Regular Concert last year during a visit to Japan, and he was very enthusiastic about the idea of putting us on the schedule for their planned trip here.

Needless to say, we were determined to make the event as worthwhile as possible for both parties. Since this wasn't just a performance by a touring group, but rather a joint endeavor (and hopefully the start of a beautiful friendship), we were under far more pressure than we'd been with any previous international guest. It was an enormous undertaking. We threw everything we had into the preparations, sometimes at the expense of other things (such as our regular jobs). Mssr. Maestro Ogawa seemed about ready to combust spontaneously at any second, so we did our best to catch the cinders and keep the temperature down. When the day finally arrived, we were all nearly in a state of panic as we waited for our guests.

The director arrived first with his family, and he turned out to be a very warm and agreeable chap. He even remained that way as we ran about bumping into walls and each other as we tried to tie down all the loose ends that had suddenly come undone. The buses with his students arrived one by one after that, and they were definitely high school kids. (A few of them came in making loud, snide remarks about Japan in German until they discovered I could understand what they were saying and reply to it. Then they promptly shut up.) Once we got the whole crew together, things started falling into place. That's when it really got interesting.

The kids in my school's orchestra spoke to each other in Japanese. The kids in the guest orchestra spoke to each other in German. Since English was the common tongue between us, it was what we used as the main mode of mutual communication. I used all three languages. The Swiss kids were generally far more proficient in English than their Japanese counterparts, and certainly more than I was in German (especially with a couple of decades of rust built up), but the fact that I was able to understand most of what they were saying without having to wait for a translation definitely came in handy (and surprised me). I'd listen to the German conversation, relay it to my group in Japanese, and then reply in English.

It was even more interesting when Mr. Ogawa took the stand to conduct a rehearsal of one of the pieces we played together. He doesn't speak a lick of German, and his English is limited. However, he does speak French, which happens to be one of Switzerland's four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh). That meant he was able to carry out his rehearsal in French without any trouble.

One concert event, four languages. Why do you think they call it "internationalization"?

But there was a fifth language there, too, one which was central to the event and known to all. That was the language of music, and it was spoken loudly and clearly that day.

It was so fascinating to watch the two different youth orchestras perform and to compare them. The Swiss stuck with tradition, performing a Beethoven violin concerto and Brahms' 1st symphony. Our orchestra took a more modern approach, playing Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite". Those are all very challenging pieces that take both ability and musical maturity, but even that made an interesting comparison. I can't say that the Swiss orchestra was made up entirely of virtuosos; there were definitely a few weak spots here and there in the wind instruments. However, whatever small, scattered lack there might have been in technical ability, there was absolutely NO lack of musicality. Brahms pieces in particular are notorious for being performed badly by inexperienced orchestras; people think that the lack of flash and bang means that the tunes are easy. Not even. There may not be a lot of notes going all over the place, but there is an awful lot of emotion packed into the ones that are there. Simply making the sounds written on the page guarantees a performance that is trite, meaningless, even stupid. Not so with the Swiss youth orchestra. The tone quality of certain individual players suggested inexperience, but the playing style as a whole suggested musical expression as inherent as laughter or crying. They pulled off Beethoven and Brahms with comfortable ease as if they'd been born and raised with them (and in fact, come to think of it, they probably had been). Our kids probably couldn't hope to do the same, but they made a good accounting of themselves with the (sometimes quite literal) flash-bang and powerful, literal imagery of the "Grand Canyon Suite". European tradition vs. the current age viewed through Asian eyes. It was pretty remarkable.

I got on the stage after our orchestra finished and vamped around a bit with a mike while they reset the stage. I mainly said what I've written here. I also called the conductor of each orchestra out in turn for a quick interview. As I spoke to the Swiss director, a couple of his students came out in traditional costume bearing alphorns and played a tune. (That almost brought tears to my eyes.) (Incidentally, for those who are interested, the 4th movement of Brahms' 1st symphony is based on a traditional alphorn melody.) Then I asked Mr. Ogawa a couple of quick questions before they did the encores: Brahms' Hungarian Dances #1 (directed by Mr. Ogawa) and #5 (directed by the Swiss director).

What a show.

The reception we had after that was pretty amazing, too. The kids and adults both had a total blast, helped along with mutual PowerPoint slideshows of our respective towns and schools, games, and an impressive and totally unexpected Soran Bushi dance performed by our 11th graders! I was surprised (humbled?) by some of the brass that was there, too: not only city officials, but also people from important organizations in Tokyo as well as the All-Japan Orchestra Federation.

We got quite a write-up in the news, too! We were called "perhaps Japan's most beautiful-sounding youth orchestra". (Sound of head swelling...)

Yes, language is a wonderful thing. It crosses boundaries. It brings people together. I teach it, and I enjoy it, especially when it's music!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Political Comic Opera

The People of Modern Japan: "We're proud to be peaceful! We're proud to have renounced war! We're proud that we don't have a standing military!"
China, N & S Korea, The Philippines, etc: "Oh, yeah? What do you call all that?"
The Government of Japan: "Oh! That's our Self-Defense Force! It's civilian! You know, like the police!"
China, N & S Korea, The Philippines, etc: "Is that so? Well, just make sure it stays in your own space!"
The Government of Japan: "Um, no problem! I think... You know, come to think of it, it is a problem. Especially with North Korea doing all that...stuff. And also China getting more and more...
China: "More and more what?"
The Government of Japan: "Nothing! Nothing! Heh heh! Aw...we need more protection!"
The People of Modern Japan: "We need protection!"
China, N & S Korea, The Philippines, etc: "Don't even think about it!"
The U.S.: *AHEM*
The Government of Japan: "Right! Well, say...I know the Cold War is over, but since you're here, would you mind hanging around and, you know..."
The U.S.: "Not a problem. We've got the bases here, and we're glad to stay. Especially since the Philippines booted us out, the ungrateful jerks! In fact, on that note, since things are heating up, why don't we just beef things up a little..."
The Government of Japan: "Fine with us! We need the protection! Right guys?"
The People of Modern Japan: "Yes! We're proud to be peaceful! We want America to protect us!"
Okinawa: "But wait a minute! Wait just a gosh darned minute! It's easy for you to talk about peace and all that! We've had to put up with all these Yank G.I.s treating our island like their own personal sandbox ever since they invaded us!"
The U.S.: "Hey, it was a war, remember? We captured you fair and square, and it was one freaking bloody fight, too! Be thankful that we gave you most of your island back! After all, you started it!"
Okinawa: "No, they did!"
The Government of Japan: "We did not! And besides, last we checked, you were still part of our country!"
Okinawa: "Right! You are absolutely right! So how about if the rest of 'our' country takes a bit of this load off our backs, huh? Huh?"
The U.S.: (sighs, facepalms, shakes head)
The Government of Japan: "Oh, kwitcherbitchin!"
Okinawa: "UNFAIR!!!!"
The People of Modern Japan: "Look, they've got a point, poor souls!"
The Government of Japan: "Alright, alright. Maybe it's time we started pulling our own weight. Why don't we start by showing the world we're nice guys now. Let's help out with some, you know, non-combat military stuff for our allies and see how it goes!"
The U.S.: "Thanks! That's the spirit!"
China, N & S Korea, The Philippines, etc: "Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
The Government of Japan: "No, no! It's okay! This is all non-combat..."
China, N & S Korea, The Philippines, etc: "No! No you don't! Not yours! Not even!"
The Government of Japan: "Oh, come on, guys! We're just trying to..."
China: "Beetchewup!!!!!!!!"
The U.S.: *snicker*
The Government of Japan:
"Oh, come on! You didn't have to do that!"
The People of Modern Japan: "You're just mean!"
China, N & S Korea, The Philippines, etc: "You were mean first! Now get back in your box!"
The Government of Japan: "But we promised we'd...alright. But only after we finish what we agreed to do."
China, N & S Korea, The Philippines, etc: "I suppose that's fair. But don't do it again!"
The U.S.: "Oh, come on! Don't let them intimidate you!"
The Government of Japan: "Oh, right! 'Don't let them intimidate you!' Surrrrrrre! Are you really going to protect us?"
The U.S.: "That was the deal, wasn't it?"
Okinawa: *AHEM*
The Government of Japan: *sigh* "Okay, let's talk about this base thing again."
Okinawa: "At least get rid of that Futenma thing! I mean, they're landing big cargo planes right in the middle of a freaking residential area, for heaven's sake!"
The Government of Japan: "Fair enough. You're right, that is pretty nasty. Okay...why don't we try moving it to...oo? Hmm. (paces) Let's see... Ah, I know! How about (various places)?"
The Local Governments and People of Those Places: *AHEM* "NOT YOURS!!!"
The People of Modern Japan: "We want America to protect us, but not in our backyard!"
The Government of Japan: "Alright, alright, alright! Sheesh! Then I guess the only option is to move stuff to another part of Okinawa."
Okinawa: "What?"
The Government of Japan: "It's really the only option."
The People of Modern Japan: "Yeah! It's really the only option."
Okinawa: "Now, wait a..."
The Government of Japan: "SHH!"
The People of Modern Japan: "SHH!"
The U.S.: "So do we finally have a deal?"
Okinawa: "No!"
The Government of Japan: "SHH! Yes!"
The U.S.: "That's good! Now, while we're at it, you know we've got our navy out there protecting our cargo ships...and yours. How about helping us out a bit?"
Okinawa: "Don't change the subject!"
The Government of Japan: "Hush! Hmm...good point! Can we help?"
The U.S.: "Helping with the refueling shouldn't bug your jittery neighbors too much, should it?"
China, N & S Korea, The Philippines, etc: (rattle, rattle, rattle)
The Government of Japan: "Hey, we're helping protect YOUR cargo ships, too!"
China, N & S Korea, The Philippines, etc: (sound of crickets chirping)
The Government of Japan: "I guess we're in!"
The U.S.: "Excellent!"
Okinawa: "Now hang on here! We've still got something to say!"
The Government of Japan: "Quiet!" (slap) "You're hysterical! A deal's a deal!"
The People of Modern Japan: "That wasn't very nice!"
The Democratic Party of Japan: "No, it wasn't nice at all, was it? Poor Okinawa!"
The People of Modern Japan: "Poor Okinawa!"
Okinawa: "Poor us!"
The Government of Japan: "Come on, you guys! A deal is a deal! Whining isn't going to help!"
The U.S.: "So when can we start moving the base now, huh?"
The Democratic Party of Japan: "In fact, come to think of it, the government is paying for this whole naval refueling thing with YOUR TAX YEN!!!!"
The People of Modern Japan: "WUT?!?"
The Democratic Party of Japan: "In support of a militaristic campaign!"
The People of Modern Japan: "A militaristic campaign?"
The Government of Japan: "Um, our ships...our oil supply..."
The Democratic Party of Japan: "And we're proud to be peaceful!"
The People of Modern Japan: "We're proud to be peaceful!"
China: "What he said!"
The Government of Japan: "Um,, North Korea has nukes and is test-firing ballistic missiles...over our country?"
The Democratic Party of Japan: "Death to all expensive militarism, elitism, unilateralism, and pork project-ism!"
The People of Modern Japan: "Yeah! Kill 'em all!"
The Government of Japan: "What? No elitism? No unilate...HEY, why are you knocking the pork? Pork is good! It builds bridges!"
The Democratic Party of Japan: "No more bridges! No more services that cost money!"
The People of Modern Japan: "All services free!"
The Government of Japan: "Say, what??!? We were just going to raise taxes to make ends meet, and now you're saying..."
The Democratic Party of Japan: "No more taxes!"
The Government of Japan: (bangs head against desk)
Okinawa: "And those bases..."
The Democratic Party of Japan: "Oh, yeah...right! No new bases!"
The Government of Japan: "Guys, puh-leaze!"
The Democratic Party of Japan: "No more criminals in government!"
The Government of Japan: "Now, that's not fair! You can't blame me for what just a few...dozen...okay, hundred... Okay, so we all suck! But at least we're realistic!"
The Democratic Party of Japan: "Shut up, you criminal!"
The People of Modern Japan: "Get out! We're sick of you!"
The (Defeated Former) Government of Japan: *whimper*
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Thanks, guys! Now to start shutting everything down..."
The Corporate Oligarchs and Former Government: ""
The Democratic Party of Japan: "That refueling thing...BAM!!!"
The People of Modern Japan: "Yay!!!"
The U.S.: "What the...?"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "And the bases agreement...BAM!!!"
The U.S.: "Now wait just a goddamned minute..."
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Unneeded pork...oink oink! BAM!!!"
The People of Modern Japan: "Yay!!!"
The Corporate Oligarchs and Former Government: "You'll be sorrrrrrry!"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Half-finished dams, bridges, roads...BAM!!!"
The People of Modern Japan: ""
The Corporate Oligarchs and Former Government: *snicker*
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Cutting-edge technological research to keep us competitive...BAM!!!"
The People of Modern Japan: "Wait...was that really necessary?"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "You want this country to be cheaper and more livable, don't you?"
The People of Modern Japan: "Well, yes, but..."
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Free expressways and free public high school?"
The People of Modern Japan: "Well, um, yeah, but..."
The DPJ Government of Japan: "BAM!!!"
China: *snicker*
The Corporate Oligarchs and Former Government: "You guys missing us yet?"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Shut up, you criminals!"
The Corporate Oligarchs and Former Government: "Who are you calling a criminal, Mr. Illegal Funds and Money Laundering?"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Oh-ho, no you don't! It wasn't me! I deny it completely! It was all those other guys! They're all evil! Besides, the people need me!"
The People of Modern Japan: "Um, excuse me...about those expressways?"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "What about 'em?"
The People of Modern Japan: "You said you were going to make them free!"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Oh. Yeah. About turns out free just isn't doable. We did revise the toll system, though. It's a lot simpler now."
The People of Modern Japan: "But it's more expensive now!"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Well, I can see how it might look that way, but...well, actually, you're right. It's more expensive for shorter trips, but isn't that great? It'll discourage people from driving! It's better for the environment!"
The People of Modern Japan: "But you promised..."
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Yeah, well, shit happens. At least we're going to make public high school free...and give out all kinds of stipends for children, etc.."
The Corporate Oligarchs and Former Government: "Where's the money coming from?"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "If you can't see it, you don't need to know!"
Okinawa: "Um, excuse me..."
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Oh, now what do you want? Look, we terminated that new base agreement! It's done! Now go away!"
Okinawa: "But the original bases are still here! You know? Futenma? Big cargo planes landing in a residential area?"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Yeah, so what?"
Okinawa: "So what are you gonna do about it?"
The U.S.: "Yeah! What are you gonna do about it?"
Okinawa: "Look, you! We're not on the same side!"
The U.S.: "But we have the same problem now, don't we?"
Okinawa: "Good point."
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Look, we'll solve this problem one way or the other."
The U.S.: (intimidating glare) "Can you follow through?"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Yeah, well...I've got an idea. Why don't we move part of Futenma here and the rest here?"
The U.S.: "Wasn't that the original idea?"
Okinawa: SHRIEK!!!!!
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Well...okay, why don't we try moving it (alternate plan in another part of the country)?"
The Local Governments and People of Those Places: *AHEM* "STILL NOT YOURS!!!"
The People of Modern Japan: "Hey! When do we get our free services? When do we get our money?"
The DPJ Government of Japan: "Look, will you people just shut up and let me work?"
The U.S.: "That's what our boss said!"
The Corporate Oligarchs and Former Government: "Isn't it about time for another election?"

(The end.)

Tune in next week when we hear The People of Modern Japan trying to choose who to vote for. Some scenes may not be suitable for small children. Parental guidance advised.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Learning Is Golden

I'm a teacher by trade. My primary job is to teach something that most of the kids know they will probably never use in their lives except when taking a particular examination. In other words, I do my best to find creative, new ways to beat a dead horse. However, my second job is to try to get the kids to learn something. Hopefully, in and among all that academic stuff, they'll acquire some knowledge and experience that will actually help them later in life.

Even though I'm a teacher (or even because I am a teacher), and even though I'm more than three times as old as my youngest students, I'm not above learning a thing or two myself. As far as I'm concerned, learning should only stop at the grave. Last time I checked, my heart was still beating; therefore, I continue on the path of gaining knowledge. And during the recent Golden Week holiday season and the week leading up to is, I learned a number of things:

  • I've always known that music from different periods needs to be played in a different way, but recently I've been learning more and more that individual composers have their own signature style, as well. For example, as the Flying Eggheads jazz ensemble here at Ye Olde Academy has built up a tradition and raised its ability level over the past decade, I've come to teach them that a Count Basie tune isn't played quite the same way as a Glenn Miller tune even though they're from the same period, or that a Herbie Hancock number shouldn't be performed in the same style as a Chase one. There are all kinds of small differences in such things as attack, note length, dynamics, the pulse of the rhythm, and so on. The thing is that I didn't really understand these differences myself back when I was playing jazz in my high school and college days. It's something that I only came to realize after listening to the original recordings intensively in preparation for teaching them. (They do say that the best way to learn is to teach.) More recently, I came to learn something similar regarding classical music. The Kashima Philharmonic played a concert on May 2nd, and the program included Sibelius' "Finlandia", Smetana's "Vltava" (also known as "Moldau"), Borodin's "On the Steppes of Central Asia", and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Our principal encore was Brahms' Hungarian Dance #1. The whole thing was very educational for me for a number of reasons. Both "Vltava" and the Hungarian Dance #1 have technically difficult clarinet parts, and I had to work at them. (Actually, I didn't think I'd ever nail that Hungarian Dance! I swear Brahms had a death wish against clarinetists or something. As it was, I had to slur my way through a difficult duet break since I haven't mastered the double-tonguing technique, at least on clarinet.) On the other hand, neither "Finlandia" nor "Central Asia" looks difficult, but each has its potential pitfalls; quite often "technically easy" is synonymous with "musically difficult", after all. By far the biggest challenge, however, was the Mendelssohn concerto. The director kept getting on our cases to "play it like Mendelssohn, not like Wagner". I got chewed out quite a bit myself. Indeed, it took a bit of learning. I had to revise my playing style in a few ways both to get the style right and to keep up with the tempo of the third movement. All in all, it helped me grow as a serious musician.
  • [TECHNOBABBLE ALERT!] Speaking of musical stuff, I dusted off my home studio, got to work on a new inspiration, and wound up making a few discoveries. I really like the sound of my Marshall Reflector reverb pedal, but like so many others, I kept having serious problems with it. It would suddenly start distorting the tone, and then I'd get a constant, crackling noise until the reverb stopped working altogether. I tried all kinds of things, including following advice I gleaned from the internet, but nothing really worked beyond just a temporary fix. I debated just tossing the thing, but during Golden Week I made a priceless discovery: The pedal only malfunctions if I use an expensive, gold-plugged input cable! If I use an ordinary nickel one, it works without any trouble! (Irony of ironies!) Then, the very next day, I made a similar discovery regarding my Fishman Neo-D clip-on acoustic guitar pickup and BOSS DI-1 direct box. I'd always tended to get a little bit of a background hum with it, and while it was never a problem with more intense play (mainly because I could gate it out), it really got to be obnoxious during the soft, sensitive part I was trying to record. Then I decided to try something. Up till then, I'd always connected it to my recording input using the unbalanced 1/4" TRS output and a special (i.e. rather expensive) shielded guitar cable optimized for acoustic guitars. This time I experimented with using the balanced XLR output and a microphone cable, something sound engineers had done with my gear onstage before, but I'd never tried at home. Presto! No hum, and the sound quality was even better than before. BOTTOM LINE: EXPENSIVE CABLES DON'T NECESSARILY MEAN SQUAT.
  • It appears that basing your opinions on personal experience, first-hand accounts from people in the know, major news sources, and documented research makes you "prejudiced" and "paranoid". Apparently you're supposed to learn about life by watching reality TV. No, I promise you, this is NOT something I learned, but someone tried very, very hard to teach it to me. And when I rejected this "lesson", I wound up being viciously slandered by name online. I think it would be within my rights to sue this individual, and a lot of people probably would under similar circumstances, but I won't bother. Which brings me to my next point:
  • It seems that no friendship is too old and set in stone to snap without warning, even for reasons that seem barely relevant. On the other hand, as I also had the chance to see during Golden Week, no friendship is too damaged by needless quibbling to be repaired, and it can really feel good to reconnect. And finally:
  • Letting the weeding go can be dangerous, especially in early Spring. I know I could plop down an enormous pile of excuses, but it doesn't change the fact that, within a very short span of time, the backyard we share with my FIL wound up being all but taken over by horsetails, which are very difficult to get rid of. My FIL basically refuses to do anything his late wife used to do, i.e. take care of the yard and flowerbeds, unless we actually start to do it ourselves. I finally started digging up those horsetails, and then I somehow got my wife to help me. (She loathes yard work and usually can't be forced to do it.) Between the two of us and my son, we managed to make quite a bit of headway. That's when my FIL finally decided he couldn't let us take credit for doing the work, so he immediately came in afterward, dug up the parts we'd already finished, and cut the remaining horsetails with a grasscutter (i.e. the plants are all still there, and now they're even harder to get out). I guess I've finally come to understand the meaning of the term "passive-aggressive".
Yes, this was truly an educational Golden Week in many ways. What's really amazing was that I actually managed to squeeze in a tiny bit of R&R, too. But now vacation is over, and it's time to try to coax myself into work again.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Plug It In, And...

Recent events and discussions have really brought to the forefront the issue of power. It's not something that gets talked about much in the cybersphere, at least not directly, because it seems like such a simple thing. So everyday. It is so desirable, so necessary, so inevitably useful... intoxicating... easily abused.

Forgive me if I wind up repeating myself, but thanks to that recent, oh-so-controversial law passing in Arizona, there has been an awful lot of talk about just how much power police should have and just how they should exercise it. People are quick to bring up the problems of both illegal immigration and Mexico's drug wars and how Arizona seems to be bearing the brunt of it all. These are very valid arguments, of course, and it's easy to see how people feel so strongly about them. But then you have the other side of the coin, i.e. the human side; specifically, there is the matter of how human beings, i.e. the police, will respond to such increased power.

Since I've already been misunderstood, I want to make some things very clear here. I have become personally acquainted with a number of current and former police officers (even more if you count security guards) over the years. Two of them are relatives. A few more are people I count among my friends. Without exception, I would regard any of them as respectable, professional, and very serious about what they do/did.

On the other hand, and this is central to my point, many of them, maybe even most of them, have boasted to me on at least one occasion about how they abused their power. Mostly this involved them targeting people who belonged to a particular ethnic group or segment of the population (or a particular type of person), singling them out, and harassing them even though they'd done nothing wrong. Their reasoning was simply that the targeted person or persons were one of "them" and therefore suspect by default.

One policeman acquaintance put it to me this way: "It doesn't matter if only one in ten is bad. I mean, one in ten...don't you think it makes more sense just to assume they're all that way and keep 'em out of our neighborhoods?"

Actually, the communities served by those policemen would probably be in total agreement (like Arizona now), and therein lies the rub. Like I said, these are not "bad cops" at all; they are simply letting their zeal for their job get the better of them, and in so doing they are overstepping their boundaries for their perceived good of the people. A guy on Facebook recently told me that for policemen to ignore the written legal code and impose their own arbitrary law, even to the point of trampling on the legal rights of innocent people, was simply "the rules" and "there [sic] right". However, there is a dictionary term for that sort of thing; it's called "vigilante justice", and it is technically a crime. Fighting crime with crime is not supposed to be part of a law enforcement officer's repertoire. Good or bad, it is abuse of power.

Don't think I'm only singling out police here. Any kind of power over others carries with it the potential for abuse. Schoolteachers like myself have power over others, and that power can be and sometimes is abused (as the news media is so fond of pointing out whenever possible). Ironically, in my college days, education was the one occupational area I vowed to avoid at all costs simply because I saw so clearly how many (but definitely not all, maybe not even most) teachers misused their authority, mainly in the form of favoritism if not outright bigotry (i.e. "I don't like that kind of person, so I'm not gonna pass him"). After actually becoming a teacher, I saw even worse abuses, sometimes even inflicted by senior teachers on junior ones. For that matter, here in corporate-ruled Japan, the tradition has long been for people to be constantly at the mercy of those above them; if you work for a company, for example, your superiors are traditionally expected to control every aspect of your life, business or personal, and abuse of that power in the form of bullying, theft or destruction of property, and/or sexual harassment (if not rape) was long considered simply par for the course. As Japan has become more internationalized (read "Westernized"), people have begun to question both the traditional hierarchy and the abuses that tend to go with it, but it is still very much part of the culture. In recent times we have also seen that abuse of power can and does happen even at the hands of our beloved, supposedly-moral spiritual leaders, as the recent morass of sex scandals in the Catholic Church has come to show. (Heck, I've even been accused of abuse of power in my execution of the role of administrator of this blog!) Despite their trusted status in society, these people are all human, and the old adage, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," definitely seems to hold true.

The intrinsic dangers of power over others were shown with chilling clarity by the Stanford Prison Experiment. College student volunteers were taken to a simulated prison and separated into two groups, prisoners and wardens, and then told to serve their assigned roles in a simulation of prison life. It was intended to be a two-week experiment to analyze the psychology involved in prison life, but it had to be terminated after only six days because things went horribly wrong. Many parallels have been drawn with the Abu Ghraib debacle with regard to how the warden group began to abuse its authority in increasingly sadistic ways. Even after the experiment was stopped, the personalities of the student volunteers seemed changed; those who had been wardens had become more aggressive and brutal than before while those who had been prisoners suffered from depression and stress disorders. These were perfectly ordinary college students who were more or less the same in the beginning. When one group was given total power over another they learned to regard as "bad", that power was almost immediately abused.

And if it can happen that easily among students carefully screened from a much larger pool who knew from the beginning they were participating in an experiment, think how easily it could happen in a much more uncertain, real-life situation.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

When You're On the Receiving End

The year was 1996, and I was on my way home after a visit to the US Embassy in Tokyo. Since my visits to that fabled city have always tended to be few and far between, I decided not to take the same way back, i.e. travel via the Toranomon subway station on the Ginza line. Instead, I looked at a Tokyo atlas I'd brought and chose another station that was a bit further away in a different direction. It wasn't easy to plot my course through the maze of twisty, little streets, all alike (Plugh!), but I saw what appeared to be some of the landmarks mentioned on the map. I then headed off, eager for a little adventure.

My course took me off the main drags and into what appeared to be a residential area. Some of the homes planted among that hopeless tangle of narrow streets looked rather large and impressive. I was apparently skirting the edge of a ritzy neighborhood. I didn't think it would be a good idea to go in there (mainly because the morass of tiny roads looked intimidating), so I tried heading back toward the larger routes.

As I went, I spotted a policeman on a bicycle standing on a corner eying me suspiciously. Then he began talking into his radio. Next thing I knew, I had one officer standing in front of me and another behind me, barring my way. The one in front of me smiled, held out his hand, and politely asked to see my identification.

All foreigners staying in Japan for reasons other than tourism are required to have an Alien Registration Card, which is basically a residence permit along the lines of a green card in the US. We're all told by the immigration authorities and local public offices that, as long as we have the card on our person, we are not required to carry our passports. However, I'd already been warned by some ex-pats I'd met here that police in some parts of Tokyo (and probably other cities) don't recognize the Alien Registration Card, let alone accept it; indeed, the very act of trying to show one's Card to such an officer guarantees a humiliating trip to the station. Therefore, I made damned sure I had my passport on me when I went to Tokyo, and that's what I showed the officer.

He thumbed through my passport, tilted it around in the sunlight, and tested the feel of the paper. Then he asked me if I had an Alien Registration Card. I showed him that, too, and he subjected it to similar treatment. Then he asked me what I was doing on that particular street. I explained, showing him the map. He and his partner looked at it and burst out laughing. It turned out that:
  1. I'd apparently misidentified a couple of landmarks,
  2. I'd been holding the map upside down, and was therefore headed in the opposite direction,
  3. The map was hopelessly outdated anyway, so some of the streets were wrong.
They pointed me in the right direction and then escorted me back to the nearest main boulevard.

Japan, like the US, has an illegal immigration problem, though it's probably nowhere near as severe. Most come from countries like China, Thailand, or the Philippines, though there are a lot from Brazil, Sri Lanka, and (during the 90s at least) Iran, too. Apparently African countries like Nigeria are also getting in on the act. Organized crime, both here and abroad, is strongly involved in bringing them here, mostly so they can be employed as slave labor in sweat shops or the sex trade. Such things have been considered a fundamental part of society for at least the better part of the last century, so the authorities have long looked the other way. However, there has been an increasingly negative reaction on the part of the general public; the illegal immigrants are seen as a major source of crime (though statistics definitely do not agree) or diseases such as AIDS, a drain on the public infrastructure, even a threat to the very Japanese way of life. Because of this, the Japanese public is only too happy to let the police crack down when, where, and how they see fit. If that means finding out where foreigners tend to gather to socialize and herding them up like stray dogs, so be it. If that means arbitrarily ignoring the written law and employing vigilante justice to weed out the illegals, so be it. If that means harassing and humiliating people who are legitimate, productive members of society, so be it.

After all, someone who is here legally has nothing to hide, right?

Oh, it's very easy to say that if you're on the side that is dishing it out, but try being on the side that is forced to take it. Seriously, I dare you. The ex-pats I talked to had nothing to hide when they showed the police their perfectly legitimate Alien Registration Cards and wound up being hauled to the station, fingerprinted, interrogated, and degraded by police detectives for not observing an arbitrary, vigilante version of the law. Police sweeps in areas frequented by foreigners, such as Roppongi, have thus far mainly consisted of harassing and humiliating people who turned out to have nothing to hide. I certainly had nothing to hide when I got pounced on by two police officers and treated like a suspected criminal when my only crime was getting lost on public streets. We didn't look Japanese, therefore by default we were guilty until proven innocent, and we could expect no sympathy from the Japanese public. Face the facts: racial profiling may not seem like a big deal, but try getting racially profiled yourself.

Once you've actually had that experience, then...maybe then...I'll listen to your arguments in support of Arizona.