Monthly Archives: September 2005

The economy: stupid?

Not a lot happened yesterday, apart from me and Sean turning up to the CIE wearing the same shirt. He hadn’t the foresight to rock the beautiful red sleeves, though.


We are currently awaiting modelling contracts from H&M.

In today’s Pacific Rivalry class the lecture was on Japan’s post-war economic success. Prof. Scott’s lecture had two main thrusts; 1) it wasn’t an “Economic Miracle” as some described, but very easily explainable, and 2) people only saw it as an economic miracle because they weren’t paying attention to Japan. As a result … well, Scott mentioned how the U.S. doesn’t have a TV industry anymore. A quick canvas of the class revealed that most of us own Japanese TVs. For my part, I was talking to my host dad, a car salesman, the other night. He asked me for the names of Japanese car firms. I rattled off eight and still hurt his feelings cause I missed off Mazda, which he works for. Then he asked me to name some British car firms. The only one I could come up with was Rover, recently sold to the Chinese.

There’s a lesson here, but I’m not sure what it is. I reckon most people from around the world, if asked, would like Japan’s economic strength, but would they want the societal effects? (For example: my host dad is away at work most of the week, making me wonder who’d want to buy a car at 10pm on a Sunday night. And yesterday I found out one of my host brothers has got a job with Mitsubishi, which means he has to live in a company dorm in a different prefecture.) I’d give a thumbs down, myself.

On an interesting (and international) note, I saw this op-ed piece in the Japan Times the other day, in which this Indian chap really lays into China for its thuggish policy towards both India and Japan, and states that because of this, the two countries are now moving closer together. Given that the guy works at “the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi” I had him down as your typical free-market loon who will say anything just to piss off the Commies. Then I saw this in the Mainichi. “Japan, India agree on comprehensive energy tieup”? Ooh daddy, I’ve been a bad boy. Ooh daddy! Ooooh! Energy is one of the key areas of potential conflict in the future for Japan and China. This really does look like they’re getting closer at China’s expense. For what it’s worth, I think the future will be more of a multipolar world than a unipolar one, organised around regional centres of economic and political power, such as China, India, the US, EU (economic power? *snort*) and Japan. This seems to confirm my theory.

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When you’re a stranger

When I logged on today, my first thought was that not much had gone on in the past week to warrant a new post. But I’ve been here a month now, and stuff that seems routine may not seem that way to anyone reading this. For starters, late last week the Japanese students arrived at Kansai Gaidai. Bizarrely enough, for the first few weeks the only people here were the international students at the Centre for International Education (or the CIE, as everyone here calls it), and the sports teams. Then overnight, the previously deserted campus lost its eerie 28 Days Later atmosphere and filled up with students. As all Japanese students preparing for a year out do their lessons in the CIE, it’s now not such an Anglophone bubble, which is a relief. As much as I try, I still end up speaking more English than Japanese everyday.

It’s as if I have two languages to contend with; Japanese in my language classes and everyday life, and American English in my studies class (and a fair amount of socialising). A lot of the Asian studies teachers are American, and often use the word ‘we’ or ‘our’ during lectures without really thinking about how the Brits, Aussies, Chinese, Spaniards, Swedes, Germans, or other nationalities may feel about this. It’s an odd situation, especially as I see some students from the U.S. who have obviously never thought about how they can or should relate to people form different cultures, and still don’t have to think about it, thanks to the large American presence here. I find it sad to think that some people can spend a semester (or even a year) here and return home none the wiser.

This only seems sadder when I think of the conversation I had at lunch today with a girl called Scarlett. She’s Chinese, but lived and studied in the States for five years. She remarked to herself, “I wouldn’t want to go back there” as if it was just a few months’ stay. Then she added “Actually, it was more like six years, but every summer I went back for three months, so if you take those out it’s five.” I tried to imagine living in a place for six years and seeing yourself as just a student there, flying back to your real home every summer. I knew people in college who did that for two years, and I thought they were brave. I admire this girl. It must take some special quality to live like that, the kind of quality not many people seem to have, the kind of quality I hope one day to gain. That’s what I want from this year abroad; not the experience of having lived somewhere for a year, but the certainty that I can live anywhere I want for as long as I want. Not one more thing finished, but a host of new things to do.

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Let’s talk politics

Japan held its snap general election on Sunday (the same day, apparently, as George W. shamelessly invoked the memory of 9/11 in an attempt to shore up support for his administration following the catastrophic blunders and mendacity surrounding the devastion caused by Hurricane Katrina). Anyway, the Liberal Democrat Party, which has held power more or less permanently for about fifty years, won a huge majority, the biggest since its temporary loss of power in 1993. (N.B. If you’re at all bored by politics, I suggest you skip down a couple of paragraphs to the funny picture.)

Junichiro Koizumi, Prime Minister and leader of the LDP, called the election after his bill to privatise the post office was rejected by the upper house in the Diet. Japan Post is also a savings bank, one of the biggest in the world, in fact. There’s about 3 trillion US dollars tied up in there. Koizumi presumes that if Japan Post is privatised, the money which was previously just sitting there will enter the market, give the economy a much-needed boost. Of course, privatisation has many opponents, not least in the rural areas, weighted to be more powerful than cities, where privatisation will mean ‘streamlining’ and branch closures. Because of this, several MPs in the LDP voted against the bill. In response, Koizumi kicked them out of the party, and parachuted in hand-picked candidates to stand against them. Suddenly, the usually unchanging world of Japanese politics had become a lot more exciting.

The rebel MPs, who formed two micro-parties and fought the election on a shared platform, were powerful faction bosses who came from the old school of Japanese politics. For them, what mattered was keeping their mainly rural voters happy through lucrative public works projects that would bring jobs and investment to their constituencies – pork-barrel politics, as one unkind, but not necessarily untrue term would have it. Post office privatisation wouldn’t have gone down well with their voters. Koizumi fielded some decidedly new-school candidates against them, incuding people from business, the media, and a lot of women (who were constantly referred to in the Japanese media as the “female assassins”). Some won against the rebels and some didn’t, but all got in on the proportional lists – another quirk of the system.

Simply put, Koizumi took an enormous gamble, and it paid off. His party has won an outright majority for the first time in over a decade, and no longer needs the Komeito, the Buddhist-aligned party who have been coalition partners with the LDP for some time. They’re very popular in the Kansai area, and Hirakata is covered with posters of its leader striking the cheesiest pose in history. Here he is, for your viewing pleasure.


What a stud. It’s stuff like that makes me almost tearfully grateful for the way the British constantly rip it out of our politicians. Well, I hope you enjoyed this little potted history of the election. At the very least I hope I’ve outdone the Australian guy I met last week. He was a friend of a friend I was going to lunch with, and spending time with him was about the most unbearable thing I’ve ever done in Japan (just ahead of eating natto). To save his blushes, I’ll call him Annoying Aussie Guy, or AAG. One of the first things he said to me after I’d told him my nationality was:

AAG: Ah, so y’know about how Australia was once a prison colony?
Me: [thinks] Oh yeah, and every time I talk to an American student I mention how I once used to own their country. Grow up.
AAG: Y’know where the word ‘pom’ comes from? It used to mean “Prisoner of Bloody Mother England”…
Me: [thinks] Which would be ‘POBME’. You must be so proud that your brilliant country did such a great job of teaching you how to spell.

But the coup de grace was his display of knowledge about the election:

AAG: Yeh, I been studying up on the election, and I know way too much about it.
Me: So, what do you know about the election?
AAG: Well… [brow furrows, steam comes out of his ears] I know it’s about the privatisation of the post office.
Me: [thinks] I know that. Everyone at this table knows that. Anyone who’s spent more than 24 hours in Japan knows that. Would the world judge me harshly if I pushed this guy under a bus? Ooh, there’s one now…

AAG then proceeded to reel off the professor’s entire explanation of the election from our last Making the News in Japan class, right down to reproducing his turns of phrase. I would dislike him, but I just feel sorry for Australians, who are really great people and don’t deserve this kind of bad press. To redress the balance, I will tell you about some wonderful Aussies I know here in a future post.

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Typhoon Updates

Some news about the typhoon that struck Kyushu this week. A short report and some photos from the Mainichi Shimbun, and a very sad article about elderly people caught in the typhoon, from the Asahi Shimbun. The Mainichi‘s front page two days ago showed a military boat full of soldiers cruising down a flooded street, with roofs and street signs just protruding from the water. Only the Japanese lettering on the signs indicated whether they were the US Army in New Orleans or the Japanese Self-Defence Forces in Kagoshima. In an odd way, small tragedies can serve to remind you of greater ones.

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Hirakata Storm Warning

Apart from a bit of very sad news from home, which I recieved just today, my life has pretty much settled into a routine. From Monday to Friday I commute to Kansai Gaidai by bus, along what must be the easiest bus route ever (which I’m very grateful for – being a pedestrian in Japan offers nothing but the opportunity to get yourself killed on a variety of road surfaces, none of which remotely qualifies as a pavement). I keep pretty much the same hours everyday, heading home between 4 and 4:30. Stuff has become predictable. There are still areas where there’s room for variation, though. There’s another typhoon warning this week (hence the title, an adaptation of Elvis Costello’s brilliant “Tokyo Storm Warning”), and this one has hit southern Japan. From the stairs to my flat, you can see the ferris wheel in Hirakata Park set against the storm clouds on the horizon. Pretty, n’est-ce pas?


Another changeable area is my relationship with my host family.

Things haven’t been too good so far. I don’t really see the dad, as he works typically Japanese hours (comes home from 10pm to midnight). The two brothers aren’t around much, and when I do see them they’re either sleeping or eating. They tend to do both wearing only their underwear. Now, I know this is a cultural thing and I have to make allowances, but it’s getting to the point where it seems like a good idea to throw cultural awareness to the winds and shout “Put some damn clothes on, you weirdo!” whenever a semi-naked body hoves into view.

So the two members of the family I talk to are Okaasan (mum) and Toko (the sister). Toko is nice, and spent two months in France, which means I can switch from Japanese to French when I’m having trouble, and we can talk about France. Okaasan is a different proposition. She repeats herself several times, even when I’ve said I understand, and generally makes me feel like I’m either a complete idiot or I can’t make myself understood, or both. Jesus, I think, if that’s really the case, who cares about improving my Japanese? I’ll just move back into Seminar House, relax in the Anglophone bubble, and fail this year with a clear conscience, knowing that I’m stupid.

As the above course of action doesn’t really appeal to me (which is not to say there’s no possibility of it happening), I went to see both Dr. Hollstein, my academic advisor and Misako Hashimoto, the woman in charge of the homestay program. Both helped, but the biggest boost I got was from talking to fellow Leeds students. Both Hollstein and Hashimoto advised that I give it time (it’s only been a full week, after all) and make more of an effort to talk to them. A lot of their previous homestay students have been American, and – trust me, this is not just a stereotype – Americans do tend do be more outgoing and friendly, so it could be that they’re not used to someone who’s a bit shy.

Another thing that Hashimoto-san explained to me was that people from the Osaka area tend to be pretty outspoken and confident (I’m guessing that’s tactful code for “rude and pushy”) and maybe that was the cause of some of the friction. It’s something to remember whenever they seem a bit overly competitive. Anyway, I’ve made up my mind to talk to all of them as much as possible and try to get them to do things with me. Another deciding factor was talking to John Simmonds this afternoon. He’s doing Japanese and Russian, and spent last year in Moscow. The first time we properly talked, he asked me what halls I’d been in during my first year.

“Henry Price Building.”
“Ah, you were up there with all the Jews?”
“What?!…” I spluttered, thinking he was making some dodgy joke about Henry Price being one of the cheapest halls and the old slur about Jews being tight with money. In fact, Henry Price was a very famous Jewish alumnus of Leeds University, and the hall apparently used to be full of Jewish students from Golders Green who were very cliquey with each other. Anyway, he’s a good guy. We were talking this afternoon, and he said that he’d been having the same problems with his host family – problems with communication, lack of a common ground, not knowing how to socialise with them, that sort of thing. What’s more, he reported that several other people he’d talked to had said the same things. It’s a great help that I’m in the situation as others, and they’re trying to deal with it just the same as me.

Another good thing was that while we were sitting down, our conversation turned into a little unofficial meeting of Leeds students, which meant I talked with Mark a bit more. I laid into him a bit in an earlier post, but he now seems pretty cool. I’ve found it’s always best to talk to people without prejudice, and if they do or say something you don’t like you can call them on it. Unless they’re your host family, of course, in which case you just put up with it.

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I love my keitai

How much? As much as a hooker loves money. Glad to sort that question out.

I got my mobile (keitai in Japan-parlance) about two days ago, with the help of my host family. Any reservations about their willingness to help me went out of the window as they drove me round to a couple of stores in order to find a phone. Result: the first colour screen phone I’ve owned, the first camera phone I’ve owned, the first phone I’ve owned that can send pictures via email (I’ve tried it, and it rocks. The picture of Gaidai campus to the left was taken on my keitai and sent to my Gmail address. Expect to see some mobile additions to this blog soon enough).

I had my first meeting today with my speaking partner, Sanae-san. She’s very nice, and we chatted away for two hours pretty easily. One thing I was surprised by was her spoken English. It’s terrible. Normally I wouldn’t be so uncharitable, but she’s in her second year of studying English at Kansai Gaidai. Any student speaking a foreign language like that wouldn’t be accepted into a British university. End of. In Japan, however, the emphasis is on rote-learning grammatical formations and such. Conversation doesn’t really get a look-in. So she’s anxious to practice her English with me.

We spent most of our first meeting talking in Japanese, though. I realised again what I’d been thinking on and off for almost a year; that for me, language comes alive when it’s outside the classroom, when you’re using it in the real world. I can’t imagine being taught a language in the way Sanae described her English lessons, and doubt that they’d play such a big part in my life if that had been the case. It’s also the reason why I’m getting such a kick out of this year abroad, even if at times it becomes dull and frustrating. Nothing back in the UK comes close to the learning I’m doing here, everyday. I mean, emailing from my phone in Japanese with Kanji conversion??? That’s so cool it shouldn’t be allowed.

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Host Family Guy

If they ever made the film Meet the Ogawas, it would certainly contain more laughs than its wretched Ben Stiller-starring namesake, but it still wouldn’t be the kind of film I’d go see. As it is, I don’t have to worry about that for one reason. I’m starring in it.

I’ve been living with my host family for five days now, and I still haven’t worked out how we’re meant to get along. My host mother and sister make their best efforts to talk to me, but even that can get frustrating, as okaasan (mother) insists on repeating stuff to me about four or five times, even when I understand perfectly. It’s annoying, but other people I’ve talked to have had the same problem. I guess it just takes time for them to get used to my level.

I still enjoy talking to them, though. It’s other times that I’m worried about. I live in a flat on the floor below the kitchen and living area, and so it’s a bit awkward when I go out. I don’t know whether I’m being a recluse or whether they want me to stay down there. The dilemna is usually solved when I realise I’m ridiculously tired and fall into bed. I haven’t been a credit to intercultural relations yet, but hey, there’s still the weekend.

[EDIT] I’ve come back to this entry after today’s classes, to let you know how the academic side of things is going. In addition to Spoken Japanese and Japanese Reading and Writing, I’ve taken two Asian Studies classes; Pacific Rivalry with Prof. Paul Scott, and Making the News in Japan with Dr. Mark Hollstein. Both have turned out to be very good choices, something I’m grateful for as other people haven’t been too happy with their courses.

Prof. Scott immediately cemented himself in my estimations as the best teacher ever when he announced in the first lesson that he wouldn’t be taking attendance and we would be allowed to choose the questions for our in-class examinations. The subject matter is interesting enough, but it was made more intriguing by the picture Scott painted of our future careers as regional experts:

You go into a room with a few very important, very busy people. They may be businessmen, wondering whether to invest 3 billion dollars in X. They may be military men, planning what to do if X becomes a threat. They’ll say to you, “Tell us everything about X.” And you will. You’ll have all that information right there, and you’ll be able to tell them everything off the top of your head.

While it must be good for the soul to give a load of important people the information they need to make their decisions, it probably won’t be the career I’ll end up chasing, or achieving. For me it would be more fulfilling, if not better-paid, to go into a room with people from Human Rights Watch or Amnesty, and have them ask me about X.

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