Monday, April 10, 2006

My basic life in Japan

I’ve named my car ‘Hakuchan’ which means ‘white boy’ in honour of both its colour and its usual occupant. I always drive to work.
Sometimes I’m at the Town Hall, a squat troll of a building steeped in a warm cocoon of happy uselessness. There my boss sits in his office, at the top of the status pyramid, where no work is attempted at all. His position is so ceremonial that a job description, written by me, would mention only the shredding of incoming junk mail and the persistent glaring at a stapler, dark red in colour, and, I believe, never used.
Over the last few weeks I’ve come to believe that not only is there a work inversion pyramid in Japan, where the more you are paid the less work you do, but there is also a power inversion pyramid. I say this because Reiko, the Tea Lady, outwardly submissive, hold the reins of power firmly in her capable hands. She radiates sense, strength and purpose. When she disappears for several hours, I believe she is honing her martial and mystical skills by bending spoons with her mind and flying around volcanos. I’ve also seen her use the Jedi Mind Trick on more than one occasion:
“These aren’t the documents you’re looking for”
Short pause
“These aren’t the documents we’re looking for.”
“You can go about your business.”
“We can go about our business.”
In the town hall I attempt conversation in Japanese and I access email. In addition, mindful of the diet of 116-year-old Hongo Kamato, the oldest living person in the world and a Kagoshima resident, I imbibe quantities of green tea.
I also attempt impromtu English lessons. I am a big fan of the Osmosis School of English, which argues that you can acquire English by being around it. I started by playing English songs as background music in the office; and while pleasant enough, the lyrics to Pauline Pantsdown’s “I’m a backdoor man” are a little removed from the Japanese context to be truly motivational. After that, I instructed them to sleep with a dictionary under their pillow. It has certainly improved MY second language skills, because before long I had learned the Japanese words for ‘idiotic’, ‘delusional’, and ‘psychiatrist’. Ah well, you’ve got to break down these cultural barriers…
Usually when I teach it’s in the junior high school and various primary schools. In the junior high, I’m limited to reading passages from the text so that students can listen. The English teacher, Miyamoto sensei, has certainly not been polished to the fine shine of professionalism, flexibility and technical skill of a BBC ESL teacher (Ah, how so few on this sad globe can aspire to such achievement!) But that’s okay. Time that might otherwise have been spent on preparation is (more usefully?) spent in the library, chasing the affections of the school librarian, a honey-lipped young nymph who bears no resemblance to Miss Nola, the librarian of my own sad but happily departed school days.
Primary schools are another matter. I run my own classes; and when there are only 17 students in the whole school this is not difficult. In fact, the only real inconvenience of teaching in primary schools is the real and constant threat of a surprise enema. Yes, that’s what I said. I was warned at JET orientation, but who would take such a warning seriously? Yet Japanese primary school students have a disturbing and seemingly inexplicable habit of poking two fingers up the anus, John Hopoate style, of any likely looking target that comes along. This enema, ‘kancho’ does not really penetrate clothing, but it is unpleasant to receive that kind of attention. (unless of course the administrator of said act is a leather-clad chimp-masked woman who later forces you to wear a dog collar and lick custard off her feet. Um.) I can’t put my finger on it, but somehow the kancho seems darkly symptomatic of some unholy malignancy lurking at the heart of Japanese culture. Or maybe they just like enemas.
The main tourist attractions in town are the beach and the onsen, (hot spring). At the beach I often get asked for my autograph. At first I signed a simple ‘Michael Radcliffe’, but I thought, why limit myself, so I moved onto Michael Jordan, Jabba the Hutt, and my current favourite, Nikki Webster.

I have a bit of trouble with the garbage. It sounds strange but everything has to be separated; paper, cardboard, bottles, tins, plastic, food. Those of you who know me well can guess at the enthusiasm I’ve applied to separating plastic wrappers from their bottles. Anyhow, several weeks ago, shortly after I arrived, I had the temerity, the brazenness, the gall, the impudence, the sheer bloody-minded audacity to put a used cotton bud in my food garbage. Well. The theory of karma must be true, because two days later that garbage came back to me, in the form of a white gloved old woman who knocked politely on my front door and ceremoniously returned the putrescent waste, together with the cotton bud which she held between gloved thumb and forefinger. So how did she know the garbage was mine? It may have been the fact my name was written on it, a humiliating procedure not only followed by other residents, but also enforced by Jedi Master Reiko herself, and thus not to be resisted.

In conclusion, I am ready to unleash one those amazing insights, those profound clarifications, those cutting elucidation for which I am justly famed. Are you ready? It is this:

Japan is different. Yes I know I risk controversy with such outrageously provocative and inflammatory rhetoric, but I stand by it. Despite being here before, the inexplicable, confusing and frustrating (and wonderful) things still happen. Where do disposable chopsticks come from? Why can’t I swim at my beach? How does the economy survive when nobody works? Why are rockmelons $50? Why did they spend two hours drawing me a map of the supermarket? Why does everybody love the Carpenters and who are they anyway?

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