Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Nose Knows

So now we've come to the infamous rainy season here in the Land of the Rising Sun. Actually, "rainy season" is a bit of a misnomer. It would probably be more accurate to call it the "season of high temperatures coupled with insanely high humidity resulting in such phenomena as hot mists, frequent warm drizzles, the occasional torrential rain, condensation inside of buildings, explosive mold growth, and sweat that just won't go away." (Yeah, that's a mouthful, so I guess "rainy season" will do.) It's not the most livable time of the year. The heat and the dampness are only part of the problem, too. Outside, the fragrance of flowers combines with the reek of industry in the languid air. Inside, the nose gets pummeled into a stupor by the stench of sweat and mold. This time of the year is the olfactory equivalent of a college dorm on "crank day"; no matter where you go, your senses get beaten around by several different things at once, few of them good.

...which makes it very understandable that smells have long played an important role in Japanese culture.

The Tale of Genji, a Japanese novel written in the 11th century and considered the first novel still regarded as a classic (if not the first real novel, period), often deals with the issue of smells. The Heian Era, when the novel was written and takes place, was long before the Japanese started bathing frequently. Characters are often described as "burning perfume" into their clothes, i.e. imbuing them with incense smoke, and the amount of time and effort spent doing so reflects their psychological state. Moreover, the second part of the novel centers on Genji's son Kaoru (a pun on the word meaning "to give off an aroma") and his friend and bitter rival, Prince Niou (a pun on the word meaning "to smell", actively or passively). The almost too good to be true (in a moral and intellectual sense) Kaoru is described as having an intense but strangely captivating natural body odor which he makes no attempt to hide. Prince Niou, who is handsome but not too bright - and insanely jealous - goes to great lengths to outdo Kaoru by mimicking his style but trying to make it one the point of perfuming himself almost to death. The battle of the smells mirrors the basic premise of that part of the novel; Kaoru does things to the best of his considerable ability, always in a moral manner, but Niou "smells" what his friend is up to and tries to beat him at his own game by crafting an even better "smell" that is an immoral deception but winds up winning in the end. (Well, maybe. That's the one thing that really frustrates me about The Tale of Genji: it just stops. Either the ending was lost, or Murasaki Shikibu died before finishing it. At any rate, I would've loved to see Kaoru forget his Buddhist ascetism and beat the shyte out of his even stinkier buddy, but oh well.)

Image from the website.

The Tale of Genji takes place in Heian-Kyo, the capital of Japan during the Heian Era (which is why it's called that). Now it is known as Kyoto. Even today, if one visits that fabled city, one smells incense. Lots of incense. And not just in the many temples, either. There's a very good reason for that. Japanese incense is easily among the best in the world if not the best, and for over a thousand years the center of that tradition has been Kyoto. Go to any good incense shop anywhere in Japan (if you can find one; they seem to be disappearing), and it's virtually guaranteed their best wares all say "made in Kyoto". As for Kyoto itself, incense shops are easy to find there, and they have quite a selection. So do the many gift shops. Incense in Kyoto is more than just something you stick in a dish on a family altar or in front of a grave. It's a part of everyday life, and one I've always admired. Indeed, the smell of certain kinds of incense brings back vivid memories of my visits to the ancient Imperial capital and its many treasures.

A selection of Japanese incense offered by Incense on the Way.

I mentioned that incense shops seem to be fading away in areas of Japan outside Kyoto. What has replaced them? It's hard to say, but I have noticed something ironic. The Japanese have been almost obsessed with bathing and cleanliness for at least a couple of centuries, but I found it odd that deodorant was virtually non-existent when I first came here. However, from the late '90s deodorant spray and lotions for both sexes suddenly became all the rage. Coincidentally, this was also the time when actual running sewer lines finally came to be widespread. It used to be that, wherever you went, there was always the sulfurous reek of poorly-sealed cesspools and open sewage ditches in the background. It may be that people's noses used to be more or less numbed by it. Now that the sewage stench has been all but eliminated, people are suddenly taking more note of their own smells. That's why Axe is now part of the modern culture here.

There is also aromatherapy oil. When I first got an oil burner and started using it at home, it was still something of a curiosity here. Now not only the traditional burners, but also sophisticated, self-regulating steamers are widely available and very popular. It is also easy to find a wide selection of essential oils. I'm happy to announce that I (finally) even found and bought a little aromatherapy burner that plugs into the cigarette lighter socket in my BLUE RAV4! Perhaps inevitably, when I'm in my studio or cleaning upstairs, I always have to deal with the debate as to whether to burn incense, use the oil burner, or use both in turns. That makes me wonder whether the stress of the choice winds up being more than the stress reduced by the incense/oil, but whatever.

It's hot. It's muggy. I'm sweaty, and it smells like a dust-fueled, sulfur-fertilized mildew factory in this room deep in the bowels of Ye Olde Academy. I have no incense or aromatherapy oil here, unfortunately, but at least I'm able to enjoy the smell of coffee.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Does Friendship Have Value or Meaning?

I remember back in my elementary school days, (which was in the late Heian Era, if I'm not mistaken,) "disposable" somehow become synonymous with "modern". It seemed like they were coming up with cheap, throw-away versions of everything, and wanting to hold onto an item you liked could get you branded as a geek. But while people were happily filling up the garbage cans with their everyday lives, there was a lot of concern expressed that society was forgetting how to value things. From entertainment TV to those annoying newsletters they kept shoving down our throats at school, there was all kinds of moaning that nothing mattered anymore; once something was no longer new and exciting, or if it had a little flaw, you just dropped it in the bin and forgot about it. How long would it be, it was often asked, until people started treating other people with the same level of callous disregard that they treated their disposable lighters? Would relationships between people become just another throw-away convenience?

(Actually, I've met quite a few people of either gender that generally treat the opposite sex that way, i.e., "Use once or twice and toss out," but I digress...)

My first forays into the world of cyber-friendship happened when someone talked me into using the social network called ICQ. The original intent was to chat with friends and family back home in the US, but there was this thing called "random chat" which was enabled by default. Suddenly I was getting chat requests from people I didn't know in all kinds of different countries. It was a new and exciting thing for me. Most such "chats" were no more significant than chewing the fat with a stranger sharing the same park bench (I might offer the example of the Taiwanese teenager who insisted s/he was a frog), but I also soon encountered the "friendship request", i.e. being asked for permission to be entered onto a regular contact list so we could stay in touch. That was even more exciting for me, and I've made some very important friends as a result. However, it also meant that I had to endure the experience of being "unfriended".

Perhaps the first was a German woman who, after being an ICQ friend for about a month, suddenly said, "I only talk to happy people, not moody people," and vanished from my list. I was more than a little put out. Still, it didn't bother me quite as much as a Japanese guy, a music aficionado who had been a "friend" for the better part of a year, who suddenly started getting on my case about my (at the time) slow internet connection before all at once typing, "Aw, fuck it," and disappearing. The whole idea that friendship was less important than one's internet provider service was something I found very disturbing.

I eventually stopped using ICQ random chat (when it became nothing but porn ads) and then quit ICQ altogether. By then my regular friends had all migrated to other services, but I didn't follow suit because I'd found a new passion: blogging. That earned me an even bigger and more varied circle of friends, but it also brought even more distressing losses of friendship. Some simply faded away as life paths went in different directions, but others just came crashing down. There was my longtime friend Dave R., who had a habit of breaking contact with me every time he lost an argument, though I was always fairly certain he'd be back, and he always was. On the other hand, I could mention a certain Palestinian woman and a few Jewish men whose passionate yet surprisingly rational debates over the Israel/Palestine issue brought me into their circle. Suddenly the Palestinian woman closed down her blog citing death threats but thankfully reappeared later under a pseudonym...only to delete her new blog a few months later and disappear completely for reasons unknown (though I have to wonder if she was the "anonymous" who strangely attacked me a few times on this site). As for the Jewish men, one made his blog "access to invited members only" and took me off his list right after W. Bush invaded Iraq, and the other suddenly became ultra-militant and blocked me when I tried to reason with him. Blogging isn't quite as personal as social networking, but I found these losses painful.

Which brings me to the almighty Facebook. It's amazing how many of my old classmates and even former ICQ friends have come to be on my list. However, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of my "Facebook friends" were and are actually game friends, i.e. "friended" for the purpose of mutual support in games like Mafia Wars and Farmville. Most of them have had little or no contact with me outside the game arena, and their personal posts don't appear in my feed. I wasn't at all upset when 200 of them vanished after I stopped playing Mafia Wars, either. However, some of those game friends came to be, or at least seemed like, real friends, which made them more important.

Even when it became clear one group "friended" me for the sole purpose of inundating me with a steady stream of Tea Party propaganda (which ranged from interesting and informative to some of the most ridiculous, bottom-scraping tabloid sludge I've ever seen), I still valued them enough to comment in a respectful manner when I pointed out blatant factual errors and outright hypocrisy in some of those posts. I wasn't surprised when their inability to refute my arguments led them to attack my character (classic Rush Limbaugh style) and then "unfriend" me, but I still felt a strong sense of loss. I felt even worse when, soon after that, my old friend Dave R. did the same thing to me (yet again, though this time more maliciously, though I'm happy we patched things up again before his tragic death).

Then there's this latest incident, which involves a "game friend" who has been a frequent face in my news feed and has come to seem very much like a real and significant friend over the past couple of years. Without prying too much or getting too personal, I'd done my best to be supportive as she'd gone through what was clearly a very difficult time in her life. Finally, after things had taken a strong turn for the better for her, she posted an open question which I answered quickly and bluntly. She said she agreed with me, but it turned out my wording had been careless; it sounded like I'd attacked someone close to her. My attempt at damage control apparently went wrong. The post soon disappeared, and over the next day or two I apparently got "unfriended" (though the person's "likes" and photos tagged to me keep appearing on my profile at times she's usually offline and disappearing again when she's likely online, meaning I was more likely blocked). What's really ironic is that, about a year ago, this person wrote a number of posts asking what I'm asking right now: has friendship been reduced to the level of a video game? Do people declare someone a "friend" when it seems like fun at the moment and then delete him or her from their world without a second thought when it seems old or inconvenient? Is real friendship passé? And if so, what does that say about us as human beings? Is it old fashioned to care about anyone other than yourself?

At Ye Olde Academy I was once told that a need for friends was a sign of immaturity or even mental sickness. Fine. I'll be immature, mentally sick, and old fashioned. It makes for a more attractive world.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mother Knows Best

When I first mentioned Mi on this blog, she was known to my family as "Urusai Neko" ("the annoying cat"), and she definitely was. She was one of three abandoned cats that suddenly appeared and made themselves at home on our property during the summer of 2009 when we were trying to observe the first anniversary of my mother-in-law's death. As for the other two, Hana quickly became an established member of our household, and Kushi (formerly known as "Shiro-Kuro") still wanders by at feeding time. As for Urusai Neko, she continued to be annoying.

Urusai Neko 1
("Urusai Neko" in 2009)

It wasn't just that she was so damned stubborn and persistent. It wasn't just that she had an aggressive personality and was good at rapid ambush attacks. It wasn't just that she made life for our other cats miserable. It wasn't just that she was too smart to be fooled easily. It wasn't just that she was affectionate to the point of being obnoxious. It wasn't just her occasional habit of giving love bites that drew blood. And it wasn't just that GODAWFUL, NASALLY YOWL of hers and the demonic grimace she made every time she uttered it. It was all that and more.

And yet we couldn't deny some things. For one thing, she was beautiful. She was definitely a people cat and hated to be alone. A lot of her pestiferousness could be offset by just pausing and giving her a scratch on the back (which would send her into total ecstasy). Once, when I thwarted her attempt to raid some garbage, she sat down, straightened herself, curled her tail around her body with a dignified air, gazed off into the distance with a resigned look, and sighed. I suddenly felt so sorry for her, that I went and got her some food. It wasn't long before my FIL succumbed to her flawed charms, too. He started calling her "Mi" (which is what he calls ALL female cats out of habit...or sheer mental laziness) and treated her as a bona fide pet. She wasn't allowed into the house (as if that stopped her, smart as she was), so she mainly lived out in the greenhouse, but she still became more or less a member of the household. And unfortunately, since FIL refused to have her spayed (just like he refused to have Kushi neutered), we figured it was only a matter of time before she gave us an unwanted present...or several.

Her first litter was three babies, which she placed inside an old school desk in the greenhouse. That may have been a fatal error; all three of her young soon disappeared without a trace, and she didn't seem concerned. It was really hot that year, and the greenhouse was like an oven inside even with the vents open. We figured the three babies probably died of dehydration and were disposed of somewhere by the mother.

She had better luck with her second litter, which consisted of four. She kept them in her own bed near the greenhouse door. They had actually grown up to the point that their eyes were fully open and they were starting to explore their nearby surroundings when FIL decided to keep one and cull the rest. He chose the friendliest of the lot, but while he was busily catching the skittish remainder and disposing of them (I won't elaborate), Mi apparently figured out what was going on. She quickly grabbed her remaining baby and vanished. We searched all over and finally found that she'd placed her now-solitary offspring inside the living room of FIL's house! It was then that FIL decided to let Mi be a housecat, and she has remained so ever since.

As for the baby, he was named Koko, and he gradually overcame his trauma and skittishness to become quite a friendly and easy-going youngster...till he wound up losing an argument with a motor vehicle out on the road. FIL was devastated, but we figured he'd get a replacement soon enough.

Earlier this year, Mi was obviously pregnant, and then she'd obviously given birth, but we had no idea where the litter was. After a while, FIL found it buried in the depths of his bedding closet. Mi eventually moved it out to her bed, where it was revealed she'd had five babies. Once again FIL decided to keep one and cull the rest, and when he did so, Mi quickly relocated her remaining baby not just once, but frequently. If anyone found it, let alone touched it, she'd immediately haul it off somewhere else. Finally she put it somewhere we weren't able to locate. About two weeks passed before FIL finally stumbled on it nestled in a pile of junk in his (mostly unused) study. He prepared a sort of bed there for mother and baby but reported to us that the youngster was not people-friendly; it had apparently grown up hidden from humans too long and had become wild. I went into the study to have a look, and sure enough, there was the little me the most evil-looking threat display I've ever seen on a little fuzzball.

"That's just great," I grumbled to my wife afterward. "We have a feral cat growing up in grandpa's house!"

But I'd underestimated Mi.

The very next day, to everyone's amazement, Mi actually came into the living room of my FIL's house, carrying her baby by the neck, while we were there. She then deposited the little fuzzball in the middle of the room as if to present it. It immediately scurried for cover under a table, but the proud mother then moved to the nearest human and asked to be petted. When the human obliged, Mi started calling to her baby, encouraging it to come closer. Then she moved to a different person and did the same. In this way, she seemed to be showing her baby that we weren't a threat. Slowly but surely, the baby gained the courage to come out, eventually even curling up to snooze right next to my knee.

Baby Coco II
(Who needs a hidey-hole, anyway?)

Now the little one (who my FIL named...wait for it...Koko II) is mostly used to humans. He's (she's? I don't know yet) still skittish, and you have to let him set the social pace, but he has already let me pet him without running away, and he likes to be able to play with a human. As for Mi, she has already trained her kid to use the litter box and has been encouraging him to eat solid food. She still seems more interested in being petted than caring for her baby, but she hasn't been negligent.

Mi the Proud Mum

Never underestimate a mom!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Life and Death in the Big City, pt. II

As with my mother-in-law, the grandmother who died recently had her funeral scheduled for one week after her death, partly because of limited availability and partly because of Buddhist superstition regarding calendar dates (i.e. there are lucky and unlucky days that follow a regular cycle). Although she is scheduled to be buried in the greater family's graveyard here at our local temple, the action-packed sequence of events that constitute the Japanese funeral was to take place at a funeral home/crematorium there in Tokyo not far from where she lived.

I've described the process involved in the Japanese funeral before (when my MIL died), but I'll briefly reiterate. There are actually three different observances. The first, called tsuya (通夜), is a sort of preliminary rite held the evening before the main service, known as sōgi (葬儀). This is followed immediately by the cremation, after which the family members take turns putting the remaining bone fragments into the burial urn. There are also feasts after the tsuya and again after everything is finished. At any rate, the whole thing takes a couple of days to complete.

As it happened, the calendar worked out in my favor. The sōgi and cremation were to be on Thursday, which I already had off for my regular substitute Saturday half day and "training day". The tsuya was on the Wednesday before that, which I already had off because the Ye Olde Academy music club was participating in a regional high school music event. I went to that just long enough the direct the performance of the Flying Eggheads jazz band before lunch, and then I took my leave, hurried home, threw on dress black, loaded my wife and son in the BLUE RAV4 (My daughter, as I mentioned in the last post, was away on a school trip), and headed for Tokyo.

Traffic was thankfully light, and with the help of Navi-chan (cute, electronic fanfare), I was able to find our hotel without any trouble. Of course, parking was another story; the family had been booked into a medium-sized travel hotel not so far from the funeral home, but its parking lot was probably designed to humiliate country hicks like us. It consisted of a row of two-level elevator parking spaces arranged around a lane that seemed impossibly narrow even without the obstacles. Having no idea how to operate the elevators (and having NO help from the hotel staff whatsoever), I just tried to back into one of the lower levels...and found out the hard way that my BLUE RAV4 was too tall to fit. (Luckily the thing was cushioned.) Abandoning that idea, I aimed instead for the one lot that was in the lowered position, i.e. open above. Maneuvering my car into the space was an excruciating ordeal of going forward and backward a few centimeters at a time, gradually rotating myself enough to get the wheels into the grooves. Once that was done, I was able to get us checked into the room so we could clean up a bit and then grab a taxi for the funeral home. We got there just in time.

Of course, as with so many things here, "just in time" translated as "hurry up and wait", but it gave us time to greet various relatives we hadn't seen since the last time someone died.

The funeral for my MIL in 2008 was held at a typical funeral home here in the country, and we had it all to ourselves. However, this time the Tokyo-based funeral for my wife's grandmother was in a very Tokyoesque, big complex like a multiplex cinema with several (small) service rooms all crammed in next to each other. We'd brought the priest from our local temple to conduct the rites. As with the overwhelming majority of rural temples, ours is of the Sōtō sect, which is Zen Buddhist. Sōtō rituals tend to be rather low key; the "hocus pocus" is kept to a comfortable minimum led for the most part by the priest, whose chants I've noticed are never exactly the same. This contrasted sharply with the group in the room next to ours. They were obviously of one of the mainly urban Nichiren sects, who are very big on (loud) unison chanting and don't give a damn about any heretics outside their group. All the time our tired, aging priest did his best to lead our simple tsuya ceremony, a blaring cacophony of, "Namu-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō," repeated over and over like a college basketball cheer raged from next door. As if to add insult to injury, the official attendant/hostess of our event apparently wasn't familiar with our country bumpkin Sōtō funeral procedures, and the priest had to pause and gesture for her to carry out the next step. There were some annoyed looks in our group, but we managed to avoid a repeat of the intersect battles that kept trashing parts of Kyoto back in the 13th to 16th centuries.

The feast after the tsuya was, well, a typical greater family feast. I purposefully stuffed myself so that I wouldn't be done in by the constant refilling of my glass by distant relatives of my wife eager to chat with a foreigner (and get him as drunk as possible). I managed to come away in good shape, and we got back to the hotel without incident. Once there, however, my wife and I found out that the drainpipe shared by the sink and shower was not only mismatched but also partly stopped up; using the shower resulted in the bathroom floor becoming a pool. We were too tired to care too much. We turned in early for what promised to be our first good night's sleep in ages. (Or at least it would've been if I hadn't been awakened by horrible heartburn at 3 a.m..)

The next morning we got up, had breakfast, put our dress blacks back on, and caught a taxi for the funeral home again. We'd gotten about halfway there when my son noticed that he'd forgotten the farewell letter he'd written (an important tradition), so we asked the driver to turn around. We finally got to the funeral home just in time for the actual funeral, or sōgi. It was similar to the tsuya the night before (including the loud Nichiren yelling next door), but there were more people there...such as members of my father-in-law's family (including one aunt who recently sued him). (I also couldn't help noticing that there was one large bouquet that had been sent by the relatives on FIL's side who live in Rikusen Takada, Iwate Prefecture, a city completely obliterated by the tsunami last March. They're apparently doing okay even though their neighborhood and main shopping areas are gone.) There were also some more intense farewell gestures and lots more tears shed. Once that was all done, the casket was put in a hearse and driven across the parking lot to the crematorium, where we gave a last prayer, watched as the casket was loaded in the oven, and then waited until it was time to sort out the ashes.

Special chopsticks are used to pick up the remaining bone fragments and put them in the burial urn. It is always done by two individuals in tandem so as to reduce the risk of a curse or possession. Once everyone present has had a turn, the official attendant carefully places the remaining bits in the urn saving the skull fragments for last. Then it's all done till the burial takes place. But of course there is another feast after the rites are done for the day. (I avoided drinking since I had to drive, but I stuffed myself silly...despite being chatted up still more by people eager to compare the Japanese and American educational philosophies.) Then we went back to the hotel, got back into the BLUE RAV4, and headed for home.

Thank heaven there was a Starbucks at the highway rest stop we picked for a break...

I'm told the burial will take place in about two more weeks. It won't be in Tokyo, but will be here at our local temple and graveyard here in Namegata. That'll make it simpler and quieter. It won't be as flashy, and I'm sure there won't be as many people there, but at least we won't have loud, invasive chanting next door or an attendant who doesn't know what to do. I also won't have to worry about not being able to navigate the parking lot.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Life and Death in the Big City

Tokyo has often been called the ugliest city in the world. Looking down on it from a height, it looks like an endless expanse of LEGOs dumped at random and then jammed together into a sort of carpet of horribly mismatched blocks separated by avenues that show no hint of any pattern comprehensible to a sane human mind. Every part was created as if in a vacuum, i.e. without any attempt to blend in with its surroundings. The result is a chaotic mess that would make the designers of R'lyeh green(er) with envy.

And yet it is perhaps for this reason that Tokyo is so full of surprises; there is simply no way to predict what vistas or unexpected forms of entertainment lie in wait to leap out at the unwary.

It was my first trip to Tokyo since January, and the first time I'd been on its subway system in years. Things had definitely changed a bit. For one thing, instead of simply "Subway", the signs in the trains and stations all said, "Tokyo Metro", which was a new one on me. The old LED displays in the trains had been replaced with LCDs, too. I was also taken by surprise by the walls with automated gates on the platforms to help prevent people from falling/jumping/being pushed onto the tracks. It would've been nice to travel around a bit and maybe hit some of my old favorite haunts (like the Ochanomizu music village...*pant pant*), but the purpose of the trip was anything but fun.

My wife's 93-year-old grandmother, her last surviving grandparent, had died the day before. The woman's health had been failing for a number of years, but her mind had remained sharp as a tack right up till the end. The last time we'd seen her had been during our last visit to Tokyo back in January. Then she'd moved only with difficulty, had to wear an oxygen mask, and spent the overwhelming majority of the time asleep, but she still had all of our names straight and was surprisingly up to date on our current events. Her knack for pointed comments hadn't faded a bit, either. As it turned out, on that fateful day this month, she'd gotten up, had her breakfast normally, and then complained that she wasn't feeling well. The one son (my wife's Uncle T) who had been living with and caring for her since her husband died took her to the hospital, and she passed away quietly a few hours later. If nothing else, the end came peacefully.

For a number of reasons, the funeral had to be scheduled a full week later. Unfortunately, as it tends to happen, it coincided with my daughter's school trip to Kyoto and Nara, a once in a lifetime chance. Her school was fully prepared to excuse her, but the extended family didn't think that would be right. Instead, since I already had the day after the grandmother's passing off for my "substitute Saturday holiday / training day", it was decided that I would take both the kids to Tokyo to let them say their own farewells. My wife took the day off, too ("conveniently" missing a demonstration lesson), so it became a family event.

My wife's grandmother (and grandfather, who'd died ten years earlier) were both originally from our little rural town in Ibaraki, but they'd moved to Tokyo for career reasons soon after getting married. Uncle T, having been born and raised in the Metropolis, had little understanding of rural ways, and our visit baffled him. He insisted that no one was going to come, and that he was going to have to deal with almost all of the funerary necessities himself. We countered that pretty much the entire clan was already making preparations. To punctuate the point, a phone call came announcing that the first carload, consisting of my FIL and a couple of siblings of the grandmother, was already getting ready to head out.

Uncle T was livid. "I just don't get this!" he railed. "I grew up here in Tokyo! I don't know the names of any of my next-door neighbors, and I like it that way! We all live and die. It's just what we do! Why is it anyone else's business?"

Ironically, I remembered hearing something similar when my wife's mother died three years ago. In fact, I remember SAYING something similar. The extended family on the mother's side, being mainly based in our neighborhood, came to support us from the start (read "starting with one great aunt suddenly bursting into our house in hysterics at 5 a.m. the morning after MIL died"), but only little by little. The support and mourning seemed to be a sort of rotating duty performed in shifts. This contrasted sharply with the extended family of my father-in-law, who hail from Iwate Prefecture (in a city that was erased from the map by the tsunami last March). In accordance with Iwate tradition, pretty much the entire clan tried to converge on us all at once and shoulder our burden, and we practically had to beat them back with farm implements. In the end, the locally-based mother's side and Iwate-based father's side wound up basically hating each other. And of course, no one even bothered mentioning the branch that had moved to Tokyo. Them city slickers is just all high n' mighty n' don't give a dead cockroach 'bout nothin', anyway.

Except that that's not true. It's just that city slickers in Tokyo, as in pretty much every big city in the world, tend to have very thick walls. Despite Uncle T's griping, it wasn't hard to tell that he appreciated all the support...and even felt a bit guilty about it. Speaking of it turned out, my family's dropping in on him that day turned out to be surprisingly fortuitous. You see, in Buddhist tradition, especially in the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism, before the body of a deceased individual is moved to where it will lie in state before the funeral, there is a little ritual that is performed first to help prepare the soul for its transition...and help prepare the body so that it will be preserved for the duration of the period till cremation. Usually the rite is attended by the closest available immediate family members. Uncle T had expected to participate in it alone with the priest and attendants. As it happened, we had arrived just in time, so we were able to take part, too. It allowed my kids to say their farewells, helped bring some closure right off the bat (if there is such a thing as closure here in Japan...where people live with their dead), and did a lot to lighten Uncle T's heavy spirits.

It was still pretty hard, especially for my wife. She'd been close to her grandmother in her younger days and had even lived with her during her time in college. It had been hard enough seeing her looking so weak and frail back in January. Seeing the body lying in state, we could see just how horribly emaciated she'd become. Her face, wearing a toothy smile, looked peaceful enough, but her body was more or less a skeleton, as Uncle T said it had been for weeks. He'd kept that fact hidden from everyone...once again rationalizing it with his Tokyo, "It's our business," attitude. My wife and kids were horrified. As for me, though I admit I say this with some guilt, I felt the same way as I had when my MIL had died: If the body has become wasted to the point that life is hell, with no hope of reprieve, it's a far better thing...a far more merciful let it end peacefully. I wouldn't want to hold a tortured soul in its agony just for the sake of keeping it near me; better to say goodbye, let the suffering end as gently as possible, and then celebrate the life that we were blessed with before. My wife's grandmother had lived a long, full life and, despite her fading body, had stayed in sound mind till the end. She'd been blessed, and thus had many others been blessed. Now it was time to see her off hopefully on her way to something better.

Meanwhile, all around us, life in the ugliest city in the world went on as always, each part within its own walls, its own vacuum, without any concern for anything around it.

Kind of a shame, really. You never know what you're going to see! This very eye-catching structure buried within the morass of Tokyo is the great hall of the Rissho Kosei faith (English website here), a lay Buddhist sect, kind of the Buddhist equivalent of Assembly of God, or something like that. Apparently my wife's grandmother was a member, as she died at their hospital, and the great hall pictured above was across the street from where we performed the preparatory rites. To their credit, they neither proselytized to us nor had any qualms about performing rites associated with the Soto Zen sect, a rival branch whose teachings they do not support. Then again, they apparently do a lot of interfaith activities...including conferences with the Vatican. I never even knew they existed even though they have millions of members worldwide. Just another LEGO in the pile?

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Life in the Wake of the Great Quake, pt. IX: The More Things Stay the Same...

I've never been good at making plans.

Actually, that's not right. I've never had good luck with plans, especially those involving my course in life. I was actually quite adept at making them; during my college days I made lots of them. It also got to the point where I tended to make alternative plans, back-up plans, back-up back-up plans, alternative back-up plans, plans with Spam, emergency survival plans, emergency plans with Spam, and last-resort face-saving options (with or without Spam). They had a bad habit of not working out. Instead, things would wind up running smack up against walls of solid granite (or Spam) for reasons that were completely beyond my control. It seemed like fate, or whatever, was determined not to let me call my own shots.

And yet, as with Parsifal the Pure Fool, things always seemed to turn out for the better as a result. For example, the failure of my engineering and chemistry majors led me into fields to which I was far better suited. Disasters in my social and romantic lives actually saved me from what later revelations showed would probably have been even bigger woes. Had my plan to go to Germany and change my major to music succeeded, in all likelihood I would probably be a far poorer and more frustrated man now. Instead, a whole string of almost random choices, unexpected opportunities popping out of nowhere, people suddenly appearing just at the right time to steer me in just the right direction, and successes I never would have dreamed possible all combined to get me where I am now.

It's one of the main reasons why, despite my objective, question-asking, "doubting Thomas" nature, I stubbornly believe in God.

There's just one problem: I'm a teacher.

I know I've mentioned it here more than once before, but teaching was the one occupation I vowed to avoid at all costs. I saw what being an educator did to my father, and I had no intention of putting myself through that. However, like Parsifal, it seemed like I was cursed to wander without ever being able to find my true path in life until I was finally just led...or maybe pushed...onto it. And even then it never went where I expected.

My very first job here in Japan was as an "ALT", an Assistant Language Teacher, i.e. a teaching assistant who was never supposed to have any real responsibility. Nevertheless, I was put partly in charge of an international course I helped create and made responsible for several hours of solo teaching of that course every week. (That was what led me to stay the full three contract years instead of my planned two.) After that, having gotten engaged, I accepted the first invitation I got to work at Ye Olde Academy...which turned out to be a hoax, or at least somebody's failed pipe dream. With my visa's expiration looming only a couple of weeks away, I got the "just in case" miracle call asking me if I was willing to work for IPK English School. There I fully expected to be attached to marionette strings and made to dance to a pre-recorded script, but it turned out that they'd just ditched their regular program and were trying to come up with new ones, giving me plenty of opportunities to apply what I'd learned and test different things. Finally, when I got the second (and this time legitimate) offer from Ye Olde Academy, I was asked once again to be mainly a teaching assistant, not responsible for my own classes. I was told I'd be team-teaching 9th grade reading classes and 12th grade writing seminars. But after one year, I was told I'd been judged fit to teach solo and asked to make a 9th grade English Communication course and my own 12th grade writing seminar. I was also told that I was to be chiefly responsible for the school's international affairs.

Cut to now, fifteen years later. My role at Ye Olde Academy has evolved in various ways, but it has remained largely the same. I was asked to create and teach a 7th grade English Communication course a little less than ten years ago, but the 9th grade course is still my primary focus. My 12th grade writing seminar was taken away from me and given to a different American teacher three years ago, but now I'm teaching an 11th grade writing course which is largely the same thing. In other words, for sixteen years I've worked more or less as a specialist, revising and (I hope) improving the courses I teach but still sticking largely to the same, basic game plan. As it turns out, however, as with so many other things in the wake of the Great Tohoku Quake last March, that plan is suddenly taking unexpected and ominous turns.

For one thing, after having been a member of the 7th grade staff for several years in a row, I was quite surprisingly moved to grade 9 for the new school year starting in April. The teacher in charge of grade 9 English, himself having been suddenly plopped there to replace someone who'd gone on maternity leave, started making all kinds of demands. He told me he wants me to be at least 50% in charge of the program (though he replaced his name with mine on the official list as the "guy in charge"...which has me seriously worried) and is rather noisily insisting that I drop a lot of my other activities (i.e. my music club work) just so I can be his spare tire. With the full backing of the new chief of the English Department, he has been demanding that I completely change my whole approach to my job, let alone my longtime work (and even life) habits, apparently with the aim of somehow increasing my overall usefulness. I'm suddenly being told that I'm "bad" and "wrong" because I've been working as a specialist (as I was hired to) and largely left out of the loop for sixteen years but somehow haven't been keeping myself fully updated on and experienced in the teaching methods of the rest of the faculty in their reading courses (which, quite frankly, has been of little relevance or interest to me even if the regular teachers had wanted to take the time to indulge me with such information). I'm told that I'm "uninformed" and "unprofessional" because I value first-hand experience and concrete reality over abstract theories printed in some "expert's" book. And to top it all off, all these attempts to remake my life in his image are coming from a teacher with less than half my experience (though he insists, as one of his base principles, that experience is meaningless).

It wouldn't be half as bad if I didn't have so much respect for the guy. He's actually one of the better teachers, as far as I'm concerned. That still doesn't mean he isn't going way out of line.

That's just the beginning. I've been told that, in light of new (and baffling) changes to the curriculum to be implemented next year, my 9th grade English Communication course has been labeled "In The Way" and thus is to be scrapped. They're also saying that my newer 7th grade course may very well suffer a similar fate, blended with if not absorbed outright into the regular reading course. There has even been talk of eliminating the 11th grade writing course since it is widely accused of being "too difficult" (in a high-level academic school?). Even my work with the international affairs committee has been eroded to the point where virtually all tasks related to the sister-school project I created myself almost single handedly (after numerous administrative fuck-ups) are now being given to other teachers, and I'm being left completely out of the loop. The bottom line is that the roles I've had for the last sixteen years are suddenly being taken away. Sixteen years' worth of effort on my part has suddenly become a disposable inconvenience. And the trade-off is that now they're apparently determined to make me abandon and forget everything I've done till now and become a regular teacher teaching a regular course as part of the regular system ...precisely the thing I was hired NOT to do. Precisely the thing I DO NOT WANT to do. And I'll be damned if I give everything else up just to become another ritualistic, one-pattern, pretend workaholic member of the team.

The Great Tohoku Earthquake of last March changed life in the Land of the Rising Sun perhaps forever. Now the Great Ye Olde Academy Englishquake taking place right now is threatening to shake things up just as bad.

Still, if things follow their usual pattern, it'll all work out for the better in the end. I don't have any reason to lose faith just yet.