Monday, April 23, 2012

Food for Thought

Yesterday was Earth Day and in honor of the occasion I fed the planet. That is I buried some kitchen scraps in the little patch of dirt outside my door that I like to refer to as the "lower forty."

Looking back, it doesn't really add up to much but here is something that does - some food for thought from the democratically elected president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, who was unfortunately ousted from office at gunpoint this past February.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Hoppin' Mad in Japan Today

Japan Today screen shot
A Temple Valley Times reporter recently had an article about up-and-coming Tokyo based photographer, Natsumi Hayashi, posted on the Japan Today Internet news portal. The site is well known for its active (read: bullying) community  of readers and their often stinging comments (I penned an op-ed for the site a year ago and got virtually grilled alive in the comment section). The article spotlights Hayashi's work, which is literally taking photography to new heights as she captures images of herself levitating all around Tokyo and beyond.

The photographer, who uses nothing but a trusty old camera with a self-timer and a tripod, says she sometimes has to jump up to 300 times to capture that magical single second where she is floating on air. It was that simple statement that got Japan Today readers hopping mad. Half were super stressed out just thinking about all that jumping up and down. 

Accompanying the article is a photo taken inside a rail car and some readers seemed to really empathize with the other riders on the train who they assumed must have been a little perturbed by all that vertical movement by the young woman in their midst. They start off simply wondering about all the jumping, marveling at her terrific physical stamina, etc. Then they begin questioning if it is appropriate behavior for a public place. I could see the novelty wearing off after jump number 99 or so. Finally they end up practically condemning the photo shoots as an act of terrorism. While it all seems to be light-hearted fun, I guess the  lightness of this being was just too unbearable for some. 

Now the other half of the readers were equally (maybe doubly) stressed out by all the anti-jumping comments, accusing the participants in the online debate of being everything from anti-feminists to book-burning fascists hell-bent on stamping out everything that's beautiful in the world.

Many of the comments are replies that begin with something to the tune of "relax man," or "why the hell are you so stressed out," and "I'll tell you why I'm so stressed out..." and so on. The irony of it all is that in describing the meaning of her work, the twenty-something-year-old artist is quoted as saying, “We all are surrounded by social stress as we are bound by the force of the Earth’s gravity. So I hope that people feel something like an instant release from stressful, practical days by seeing my levitation photos." The brief article's author as well only wanted to share that uplifting experience with the Japan Today community. Who knew it would turn out be such a downer?

See: Bringing a Little Levity to Life (at - and bring an extra "of" and "the" with you if you go there, you may need them)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pissing Away an Education

 Peeing Boy at Tokyo's Hamamatsuchou Station  
This month began the new school year in Japan and the Peeing Boy at Tokyo's Hamamatsuchou station, like everyone else across the country, is dressed accordingly. When he was first suited up, his head was adorned with a quaint little chapeau which he lost to one of March's final roars. I wouldn't have noticed it was missing except for the fact that for a day or so his pate was covered with the tape that failed to keep his cap in place. His hat is now long gone with the wind but it seems that somebody at least had the decency to clean the not-so-sticky tape off the top of his head. He looks like he's pretty much back to his normal self now. If you hadn't seen that cute little lid covering his crown, you wouldn't think anything was missing. Although there isn't anything irregular about how he's dressed, I know he used to make much more of a daring fashion statement and I think we are all a little worse off without it. 

Just like the Peeing Boy, this month kids across Temple Valley were beginning new academic careers at our various local academic institutions. They all donned spiffy uniforms or got gussied up in their finest most subdued hued outfits, as did their parents, and crammed into gymnasiums across the valley to engage in the very serious business of the school entrance ceremony. The somber affair at my son’s junior high was typical, hours of sheer boredom interrupted by moments of blissful dozing. It was all sooo Japanese including what happened after it was all over.

Standing just beyond the school gates were members of Kyokasho Saitaku o Kangaeru Tsurumi-kumin no Kai (Craneview Citizens for Better School Books) a local group opposed to a new history textbook being used in Yokohama city schools. The group claims the text promotes the gutting of Japan’s famed peace constitution by demeaning its war-renouncing Article 9. They also say the new text paints the darker chapters of Japan’s history in a new light that virtually whitewashes atrocities committed by Japanese Imperial forces in Asia during the second World War. On top of that, against the backdrop of the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, they charge the book provides an all too rosy picture of nuclear power as the promise for a brighter future.

The scene was nothing out of the ordinary. People here have seen it played out at school entrance ceremonies time and again over the last couple of decades. It's just the latest local skirmish in a long protracted civil war for the hearts and minds of the country's youth. 

In addition to the public textbook dispute, teachers across the archipelago have been standing up, or rather sitting down, for their rights as well. School boards from Tokyo to Osaka and beyond have been threatening or carrying out punitive actions against teachers who do not stand before the Hinamaru and sing Kimigayo (the nation's official flag and anthem since 1999).  Teachers have claimed orders to sing the anthem or stand in the presence of the flag infringe upon their constitutional rights. These defiant resisters believe Kimigayo, whose lyrics call for the Emperor's eternal reign, hark back to Japan's imperial militaristic past, while being forced to stand before the flag only flies in the face of freedom. When it comes to education's fundamental 3 R's of "readin' ritin' and ritmetic" they don't think nationalism and its evil twin, militarism, should fit into the equation.

In recent years opponents of Article 9 have worked hard to whittle away Japan's constitution in hopes of joining the ranks of "normal" countries around the world who proclaim the right to project military force where they see fit. Legislation passed in 1992 and in 2003 has paved the way to the deployment of Japan's Self Defense Forces for UN peacekeeping and humanitarian missions and more in places around the globe. Perhaps most notably the country sent a contingent of troops to Iraq in 2004 at the request of the US. In May of last year the the Japanese SDF opened up a naval base in Djibouti to support its fight against pirates operating off the Horn of Africa. The naval station is the first such Japanese installation built since the end of WWII. 

While it may be regrettable for many, it looks like Japan is marching on toward "normality" and the cap (the country's famed peace constitution) that has hemmed its military in is slowly falling away bit by bit. That's not all it's losing either. Along the way it seems as if history and the books that teach it are getting a good trampling. That might be the biggest loss of all since just knowing that the cap was there in the first place and the reason why it was there could provide a valuable lesson for everyone. Like Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  

Related post: Stopping Leaks

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In the Pink

One of the nice things about Temple Valley ("one of Earth's minor depressions") is that it’s fairly easy to climb out of, even with a young child clinging to your back. If you climb far enough to the east you’ll hit upon Mitsuike Park. It’s a little urban oasis that has been voted one of “Japan’s top 100 cherry blossom spots.” Yesterday afternoon my wife, Em, and I took a walk beneath the park’s perfect petals all painted in a pretty palette of varied shades of pink and it really earned the distinctive honor bestowed upon it.

It was the proverbial picture perfect day. One picture I can’t seem to forget is the sight of some members of the local volunteer conservation corps wading chest deep into the murky waters of one of the park's three ponds. They were engaged in an ongoing project to rid the pond of some non-native aquatic species that had been brought here from abroad and left to navigate the wild waterways of Yokohama all on their own. Now just as they had begun to thrive in their new found home they were being plucked one by one and unceremoniously dumped into barrels to be taken who knows where. 

They do this from time to time and it always makes me feel just a little uneasy. We share such a similar history, these invasive species and I. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter Goes Easter

BTW: no free refills (in case you were wondering)
Yokohama - It looks like Baskin & Robbins has gotten the jump on making Easter the commercial success that the business community in this largely non-Christian nation has made of Christmas. The ice cream vendor is hoping to  follow in the footsteps of that other eastward expanding American fast food pioneer, Colonel Sanders, who is credited with single-handedly making fried chicken synonymous with Christmas dinner in the minds of many Japanese. 

While other businesses are sure to try and seize this special day in the coming years, Baskin & Robbins has given itself plenty of time to put their corporate imprimatur on what is sure to be a new ice cold holiday for many. Although Easter day officially ended* on April 8 this year, Baskin & Robbins has extended the holiday until April 22 (PTL)! I'm sure the Colonel isn't going to take this surprise attack lying down though(or maybe he is since he's been dead for over 30 years) and given the already well-established association of Easter and chicks, I can only imagine what KFC has in store for the Japanese market next year.

*According to Wikipedia (and various other sources) however, Eastertide, or the Easter Season, or Paschal Time, is the period of fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday so B&R may actually be selling itself short.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Cast in a New Light

Sojiji Temple, April 8, 2012
Yesterday was Hana Matsuri (Buddha's birthday) so I thought I would stop by and look in on the festivities at Sojiji Temple on my way to buy some ice cream for my Easter celebration later that day. That's when I saw him squarely within my field of vision, standing not five feet from the head of the entire  Soto Zen sect. Wrapped as usual in a tattered and stained tan ski jacket, he clutched a rolled up newspaper in his left fist. Then stretching out his right hand to reveal years of dirt beneath his fingernails, he took the bamboo ladle offered by a nearby monk and poured the pure crystal clear water it held over a small figure cast in the image of the infant Buddha. From where I stood he was an almost unearthly vision, showered in an ethereal light reflected off the golden Buddha that resides against the far wall of this immense eighteenth century wooden structure. 

I don't know why I was surprised to see him there. He's never where I think he should be. That's tending his fruit and vegetable store, one of the last mom and pop shops in Temple Valley. Dubbed "the vagabond vegetable vendor,"  for his appearance and the meager state of his poor vegetable emporium, he spends most of his working hours away from the store. 

If you want to buy one of the few dried oranges or sprouting onions dumped in the plywood bin that sits beneath the frayed awning of his weather beaten stall, you'll have to track him down. He could be just about anywhere though, standing inside the convenience store reading the latest news items fresh off the magazine rack, soaking up the rays of sun on one of the funky chairs that make up the local bus stop, or as he often does, sweeping from one end of this little valley to the other. 

There's really no telling where he could be, just where he isn't. I used to think that it was a miracle that he was able to stay in business. Now I know it is for sure, standing there in that heavenly light I came to the sudden realization that this vagabond vegetable vendor was among the truly blessed. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Translation Revelation

“Existence of Transportation Communication Exhibition Persons.”

From time to time different Japanese corporations, universities, etc. pay me to proofread and rewrite documents that have been translated into English. My job is to localize, or maybe globalize, them by making them look and read like a similar document you might see produced in any English speaking country around the world.

I’m not the best person for the job. I get a lot of complaints about my work. If I write a photo caption that says “Two people talking on a train,” I’ll get it back with a note saying, "this should be: Transportation Communication Exhibition."  If I write a sentence like “Here are two people talking on a train,” I’m likely to get it back with a note to make it, “Existence of Transportation Communication Exhibition Persons.” It’s taken a while but I’ve come to the realization that my clients like nouns. When it comes to verbs, articles, etc., not so much, but the bigger the noun the better.

I used to chalk these corrections off to sheer stupidity on their part, but my clients are some of the most intelligent, well educated people on the planet. They invent things I couldn’t even dream of. Many of them have walked through the gates of Tokyo University as honored graduates and I can’t even find the gates with a global positioning device(which one of them no doubt invented). Now I realize I missed the train completely. They are doing what the Japanese have been doing since the country emerged from a state of self-imposed isolation back in the 19th century. That is taking some of the best the world has to offer (in every field from cars to cuisine, electronics,etc.)and remolding it into something infinitely better. Who needs all those pesky prepositions and other confusing parts of speech when nouns alone can do the job? This is English streamlined, stripped to its barest basics. It’s minimal English, maybe even Zen English, and it’s basically brilliant.

Related post: In Other Words

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bringing Levity to Life

Tokyo-based photographer, Natsumi Hayashi, is someone who definitely does not have her feet firmly planted to the ground and here is the photographic evidence to prove it. Hayashi is literally taking photography to new heights as she captures images of herself levitating all around Tokyo and beyond. What's even more amazing is that she completes this feat without any help from photo shop or any other digital gadgetry. All she needs is her trusty old camera with a self-timer as well as a tripod and she's ready to take off. Hayashi says she sometimes has to jump up to 300 times to capture that magical single second where she is floating on air.

When discussing the impact of her work, the twenty-something-year-old has told the press, “We all are surrounded by social stress as we are bound by the force of the Earth’s gravity. So I hope that people feel something like an instant release from stressful, practical days by seeing my levitation photos.”  The date on the artist's latest entry to her blog, Yowayowa Camera Woman Diaryindicates that it's been over half a year since she has posted a new levitation photo. Even if that date is accurate, it' s not likely that her growing legion of loyal fans from around the globe will give up hope that she'll take off again some time soon. 

Nobody may know for certain exactly when the “levitating girl” (as Hayashi is known) will grace the lower atmosphere surrounding Tokyo, but we hope it's soon because if there is one thing we could all use it's a little more levity in our lives.

See more of Hayashi's levitation photos at Yowayowa Camera Woman Diary.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Visit from My Drug Dealer

"Make a cup with your hand," he says as a wry grin ripples across his face to reveal the glimmer of a gold cap covering some no-doubt rotten tooth in the top left quadrant of his mouth. I hadn't ever noticed that glimmering feature about him before, maybe it was something new. As I comply with with his request he pulls a foil packet from his right trouser pocket and furtively pours out the contents into my hand. He tells me the yellow powder now resting squarely in the hollow of my hand has a little bit of a sour taste and then adds, "But it's great stuff. Go ahead and try it."

That's when I realize I've completely lost my marbles because I do exactly what he tells me. I bring my paw to my mouth, tilt back my head, down the substance in one gulp and then lap up the powdery residue left on my palm with my tongue. Just as he warned, it's a little tangy but I don't feel any immediate impact. For some reason I trust him. He's been my drug dealer for years, ever since I moved into Temple Valley.

Gold capped tooth aside, he's really not your typical drug peddler. I guess he's kind of like the pharmaceutical version of the Fuller Brush man. He hawks medicine door-to-door for a relatively big pharma company and the business at my doorstep is usually booming. Today he is pushing powdered vitamin C.

After taking inventory of the little medicine chest we keep on hand in our house, he replenishes it with all the basic antidotes to an assortment of ailments but mostly he fills it with aspirin and a couple of different cold remedies. Adding up the damage on the little Texas Instruments calculator that's permanently fixed to the interior of his huge shiny metal suit case containing everything for what ails you, he hands me the bill. It comes to five thousand yen, about fifty bucks. It pinches a little but looking the record over in my hand I realize it's been a mild winter.

Related post: Swept Away