Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, January 16, 2012

Saying Goodbye to a Year of Changes

Finally I have a bit of time to write a long-overdue blog post. Now that the first month of 2012 is half over, I guess I'll take this time to say farewell to the year just ended.

2011. The Year of the Rabbit.

The Year Everything Changed.

I remember that, at this time a year ago, my biggest concern was for my kids; for them 2011 would be the Year of Hell as they prepared to take the entrance examinations necessary to get into the next level of schooling. My son intended to enter the junior high at Ye Olde Academy. My daughter, for various reasons, decided to go for Sawara High School, the highest-level public senior high in our area and Ye Olde Academy's staunchest rival. In any case, it looked to be a year of academic prison for both of them, as pretty much every hour not spent at school, at their cram schools, or in bed would be marked for study, with their mother ready and willing to relieve them of their scalps should they think otherwise. I knew well that it was going to be a heated battle of wills, and there would be lots of family squabbles about the matter, not that tension was new to our household.

As winter neared its end, other issues began to come into focus. I had finally been invited to join the KSJ Special Project (the staff band for the annual Kashima Jazz Festival, itself something of a municipal jazz project for the entire Rokko District of Ibaraki Prefecture) but had yet to attend any of their meetings or rehearsals. Although I was happy to become a part of the team, I had trouble getting my schedule to match theirs. I also continued to give priority to the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra, and it was hard for me to justify participating in both groups while my wife continued to be insanely busy with her job and at home. Meanwhile, in the Ye Olde Academy Music Club, it became increasingly clear that our peak-level ensembles would soon be losing almost all of their strength with not much left to fill in the gaps. As the March date of the annual Regular Concert drew near, the mood among the teachers that direct the club became increasingly mournful. Mssr. Maestro Ogawa even spoke of putting the club in maintenance mode for the year and terminating all performances. Even as my status on ReverbNation improved, and people were really starting to listen to my music and even request it to be made commercially available, music itself was becoming an increasing source of stress.

The end of winter was also the beginning of the Hikari Wars. As fiber optic cable ("hikari cable") service was FINALLY due to arrive in my neighborhood at the end of February, I suddenly found myself being bombarded by calls from very persistent phone salesmen, all claiming to be proxy firms representing NTT (the Japanese phone company), all sounding suspiciously like the same people, and all trying very hard to railroad me into using an internet provider called iNext. iNext was said to be the fastest-growing company in Japan at the time, but no one seemed to have heard of them, let alone knew anything about them, so I decided to steer clear. They tried all kinds of pushy and unscrupulous tactics to get me to sign up, even telling me at one point that iNext was my only possible choice if I wanted to use fiber optic service. Calls direct to NTT and Yahoo cleared that BS, and soon I had fiber optic phone and internet service of my own choice.

Two weeks later, it was as if the world had ended. With just five minutes left in my last class of the day on March 11, one of the worst earthquakes in Japan's history came as if from nowhere. It brought with it a tsunami of biblical proportions and set in motion a seemingly endless chain reaction of destructive aftershocks. To the north, along the coast of the Tohoku Region, whole cities were erased. Tens of thousands of lives were lost. Here in southeast Ibaraki, we were fortunate in that we just lost our entire infrastructure. Roads were rendered impassable. Bridges collapsed. Water, power, and phone services were knocked out. Unable to leave the school until well into the freezing night, but still not sure of the safety of the buildings, the faculty and students at Ye Olde Academy camped out in a makeshift tent village in the middle of the rugby field. I was finally given clearance to go home, but I arrived to darkness. It would be days before we had power. It was a whole week before we had running water (but we were lucky in that we had a backup well). Even with our utilities restored, food and gasoline were scarce and rationed for over a month. There was also the very real threat of radioactive fallout from the damaged Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. It was an apocalypse that tested our mettle and reminded us that we should never take anything for granted.

The earthquake disrupted everything in its wake. All March events including graduation ceremonies and our Regular Concert were canceled. The new school year started in April in uncertainty as buildings, nerves, and schedules were patched together. For a while it seemed like everything was paralyzed as we just did our best to function from day to day.

Less than a month into the new school year, the teacher in charge of Grade 9 English told me he was too busy to manage the job himself and asked for my help. When I agreed, he proceeded to put my name down as the person in charge instead of his; while he continued to set policy (mostly in accordance with his philosophies behind my back), I got stuck with the busy work and the reputation...and got constantly railed at and attacked if I did anything except according to his method and schedule. It got old really fast, but the year was still just getting started. Even when my wife's grandmother died in June, leaving me with all kinds of family obligations, I found myself under attack...and the target of a monumental guilt trip for daring to put my "personal affairs" ahead of the "school" (i.e. Grade 9 English chores). There were some screaming battles in the staff room, and I threatened to quit my job more than once, and I was a lot more serious than they probably thought. In the end, I just had to stand my ground where I could and hope we could get things done as reasonably as possible.

The death of my wife's grandmother was in itself a big change in the scheme of things, though not unexpected. Mourning requirements also meant that all trips and celebrations were off for the rest of the year. Not that there was time for any; my daughter discovered that there was no longer any bus service going to Sawara High School from our area, so she switched her target to Ye Olde Academy. That meant a harder entrance exam and even more demanding preparation.

Summer ended, and fall meant the annual School Festival. The class for which I'm assistant homeroom teacher was planning to do a musical. I couldn't wait to help out. Unfortunately, the homeroom teacher and students completely locked me out. (The homeroom teacher said that he was afraid to ask me to do anything, partly because of my higher age and partly because of the screaming fights I'd had with the "chief" English teacher of the grade. As for the students, they just told me not to worry about it.) I was content to focus my efforts on the music club's projects, but I was still very hurt and pissed off about it, and the wound still hasn't fully healed even though I worked well with the class during our grade's trip to Okinawa in October.

Perhaps as a result of all the stress, as well as new interests encountered on Facebook, I finally got myself a genuine tube amp for my guitars. That also encouraged me to do a considerable overhaul of my guitar and studio gear, which meant a mad buying spree. A new guitar would probably still have been more expensive, but I still dropped a lump.

I was finally able to perform with the KSJ Special Project jazz band, and as my activities with them increased, so did my overall standing. Other than the Kashima Jazz Festival in November, perhaps the high point was a Christmas Eve performance I did with them at a jazz club in Kamisu. Together with the pro rhythm section, I improvised on Christmas songs on the spur of the moment...something that had been neither planned nor expected...and kept getting called back to do more impromptu stints in support of other acts. I apparently attracted some attention, and it's hard to say how it'll pan out.

Now we are into 2012. Both my kids passed their entrance exams and will be going to Ye Olde Academy. The Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra was finally able to hold the concert that was supposed to have happened last summer. Meanwhile, I'm told that my job is probably going to change completely when the new school year starts next April. I'm not sure what I'll be doing, and I'm not sure I like the hints I'm getting, but we'll see. At any rate, 2012 is going to be a completely different chapter in my Life in the Land of the Rising Sun. This much is certain.

Happy (belated) New Year, everybody!


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