Monthly Archives: October 2005

Return of the Drifter (updated)

So I got back to Hirakata on Sunday night, after spending the weekend visiting Hiroshima and Miyajima. There’s a lot to talk about.

The journey from Hirakata started at about 6:30, when our party took an early train into Osaka to catch the shinkansen, or “bullet train”. Travelling on one of these extremely fast and luxurious trains is something everyone should do at least once while in Japan. I didn’t enjoy the ride to its fullest, though, as I was asleep for a lot of it. We passed through the rain that had been falling since I woke up, and arrived in the centre of Hiroshima – a prosperous, modern city – at 9:30.

Walking along the wide modern streets, I thought about how Hiroshima the city and Hiroshima the cultural signifier were entirely different things. You could be in any large city in Japan, until you turn a corner and find yourself face-to-face with the bleak, skeletal structure of the Atomic Bomb Dome.

The main feature of the trip was a talk from a Hiroshima survivor, organised by Prof. Scott. Ms. Yamaoka was 15 at the time of the bombing, and only started talking about her experience after her mother died twenty-five years ago. She’s a very small woman, but she doesn’t look frail at all. The term “inner strength” is much overused, but that was what she had. It was very moving, and humbling, to be in a room with someone like that and to hear about their experience. As the generation who lived through the Second World War diminishes worldwide, opportunities for understanding the experiences of ordinary people on all sides of the conflict will also fade away. I count myself very lucky that I had the chance to meet someone like Ms. Yamaoka.

After the talk, I joined the crowd of people around the table waiting to thank her. I managed a couple of sentences in Japanese before the emotion of it all hit me, and I had to leave. Looking around, I could see that emotions were running high for a lot of people. A friend of mine was very upset, from both the talk and a question afterwards about the Chinese attitude to the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It threw me to see her like that, but also because it made me realise everyone took away something different from the talk, depending on their country, culture and personality. At a place like Kansai Gaidai, you navigate through different cultures during the course of each day. Humour and friendliness ease the way, but sometimes you have to step back and realise that someone else’s experience is not the same as yours.

I had a lot to think about as I headed off into Hiroshima for lunch with some friends. We had okonomiyaki, a delicious Japanese dish made from cabbage, egg and noodles which looks a bit like a pancake. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is slightly different to that found in the rest of Japan, and we watched it prepared in front of us on a hot surface running the length of the counter.

Afterwards I took a tram down to the coast and checked into the youth hostel. It was a real dive, run by one old man with a beard I hadn’t seen outside of kung fu movies. But it was cheap, and it was right next to the ferry service to Miyajima Island. I took a ferry out as dusk was falling, and stood at the railing watching the darkened mountains draw nearer. Because of the number of Kansai Gaidai students coming on the trip, I ran into groups of people everywhere – on the tram, on the ferry, walking around Miyajima. In fact, we’d pretty much taken over the youth hostel. The advantage of staying in a place like that was that there were no stringent rules on alcohol – in fact, there was a beer vending machine in the lobby. So we stayed up and got drunk in one of the rooms.

I woke up pretty early and returned to Miyajima in the daylight. It’s a sacred island set in Hiroshima Bay. Its most famous landmark is the huge torii gate standing out in the bay.

Tame deer wander about the island. They look very cute, but will make a beeline for you if you have any food. I wandered about the island in the morning, exploring the thick forest covering the mountains, the Buddhist temples, and the Shinto shrine set out into the sea. Here’s my favourite of all the photos I took there, standing on Itsukushima Shrine looking out into the bay.

I took the train back into Hiroshima and revisited the Peace Park. As well as a memorial space, it is actually a park, which oddly enough I wasn’t prepared for. Along with the tourists and school parties, you could see couples taking walks, businessmen on their lunch breaks, old men playing go at folding tables. The place was as much a celebration of continuing life as a memorial to those lives cut short on August 6th, 1945. It was a quiet end to the weekend, but I’m glad I got the time alone to reflect on everything I’d seen and heard.

In the news: Japan and the US are stepping up military cooperation as part of a reorganisation of US forces in Japan. The consequences of the war and its end are still with us, and how we deal with them depends on our understanding of the past.


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Anguish adjustment

I thought I owed it to you, after a rather anguished post last week, to tell you that things are alright now. I talk to my host family more, and get on well with them. I’ve been thinking about applying for homestay next semester, as we have to make a decision by next Monday. I liked living in dorms for the first week, but it gave me a glimpse of a lifestyle I’d rather avoid. Homestay, by contrast, is a completely unknown quality. It could be better than my situation now, and it could be worse. That alone makes me feel that it’s something I’d be better off doing.

Tomorrow I’m going on a field trip to Hiroshima, organised by Prof. Scott. It’s undoubtedly going to be a moving experience, as people who’ve been there previously have told me. I hope to tell you about it after I get back.

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Enter the sack.

I played hacky sack at lunchtime today, for the first time in ages. In fact, I think the last time I played it was when I was previously in Japan, over two years ago. Needless to say, my skills have gone downhill. Sadly there exists no photographic evidence as with some expert practioners, but I hope to resolve that soon.

For Pacific Rivalry I have to write a position paper on an existing political tension in the Asia Pacific region. At the moment, I’m thinking of doing the confrontation between Japan and China over resources in the East China Sea (handily summarised in this article in the Guardian. Having little to go on except what I pick up from the Japanese and international media, I pricked up my ears when, during our Making the News in Japan class, a student called David gave a long and detailed explanation of the geographical background to the situation. David is an interesting guy. He’s a mature student from Australia, and a practising journalist who took a leave of absence from his paper to go and learn Japanese. Thus, it’s always good to hear what he has to say. I caught up with him after the lesson and he talked me through the layout of the oil and gas fields, which lie on the same continental shelf as China, Taiwan and Okinawa. In this light, China declaring an Exclusive Economic Zone which runs all the way up to Okinawa seems a little less blatantly aggressive.

I asked him what I could do for research, besides watch the newspapers. He unleashed an enormously complex overview of the workings of the entire oil industry, causing me to almost visibly wilt under the onslaught of pure knowledge. Please bear in mind that I’m a guy who thinks of ‘business’ as this monolithic, vaguely threatening entity that lets me alone through some aspect of its capricious will. Any inquiry on my part would be akin to poking the slumbering beast with a stick. The consequences of its wrath, I can but imagine. In short, I’m kind of out of my depth here. However, it’s a fair bet that I wouldn’t be having a conversation about the ins and outs of the oil business around the Leeds campus.

Oh yeah, and I also informed my family that I might not be coming home for Christmas. I get the feeling that our roles are somehow reversed, and I should be worrying about them.

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A few home truths never break the ice

On Sunday night I had an argument with my younger host brother. It was basically about me leaving food on my plate and his ordering me to eat everything, although there may have been other factors; the fact that we know next to nothing about each other and rarely ever speak, the fact that the Japanese I used to tell him he was being quite loud was taken as “shut up” in that context, or perhaps the fact that I hate his guts. Anyway, as you can probably tell, this was the trigger for a lot of thinking on my part about whether I was doing the right thing staying in this host family.

I still had the option to move out, but didn’t want to, chiefly for the reason that most of my friends are doing homestay, and I didn’t want them saying to me “Don’t worry, I’m sure you tried your hardest” while thinking “You loser”. I was waiting around in the lounge yesterday to speak to Hashimoto-san, who is in charge of the homestay program, Yumi asked me what was wrong. She’s the girl of “the guy and the girl” that I met on my second day here, and ever since then she’s been a great friend. I thought I might as well tell her, as she could tell I was on edge, so I started to tell her about the problems I’d had with my host brothers. Once I’d opened up, it seemed good to carry on. Why the heck not? I ended up on this terrific spiel about how I hated my host brothers and couldn’t stand to live in the same house as them, and how pathetic it was that I’d stay in my room rather than talk to my host family as I had nothing to say to them. As the spieling continued, I realised this was one of the first times I’d opened up to someone at Kansai Gaidai about my less palatable thoughts and feelings.

Whenever anyone really opens up to another person, they invariably get a glimpse of the big huge cauldron of craziness bubbling away under their facade of normality. In my case, the craziness on show is truly epic. It compares to the moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the wrath of God spills from the ark and melts all the Nazis. I sneaked a panicked glance at Yumi. Was she about to dissolve under the sheer force of my neuroses? Dear God, was I melting her?

Fortunately not. But she was looking at me as if I was suddenly in dire need of help. She leaned forward, and said the exact last thing I wanted to hear:
“Dude, how can you not have anything to say to them? I mean, you’re in Japan, there must be so much about this place you want to know…”
That, of course, was the response of a normal person. I know that these people have rational problems, to which rational solutions are always provided. And they never move out of homestay. Right then, moving out was out of the question for me. Not because I wanted to take Yumi’s advice and “give it my best shot”, but because I didn’t want her and the rest of my friends to lose whatever respect for me they might have.

Hashimoto-san was pretty helpful. I don’t know if I’ll ever get on with my host brothers. They’ve both got their own lives, despite living in the same house, and I guess the best we can hope for is to treat each other civilly. Things were alright this evening. I ate with my younger host brother in the room, neither of us saying a thing to the other. And I finished every single thing on my plate. I talked to Okaasan, and to Otosan when he came home. I went to bed feeling that while living here might not be perfect, I could at least try to make it as good as possible.

Today, I was walking down the stairs in the CIE when Yumi clocked me and said hi. It took all my titanic willpower (and my vestigial knowledge that films are not real) to stop myself executing a Sin City-style headfirst plunge down the stairwell to escape. Instead, I mumbled a few words about everything being fine and brushed past her. I clattered down the stairs, wondering if or when she’d realise that she didn’t see me the same way now.

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Alcohol, nudity, sleep deprivation: my three-day weekend

Coming out of a long underground tunnel, I tried to get my bearings. We were about five minutes away from Umeda Station in central Osaka, and we appeared to be lost. Where was the beer festival? The Umeda Sky Building. Where was the Umeda Sky Building? I couldn’t see it anywhere. We turned a corner around the large building next to us, I tilted my head up and saw this:

Under the arch formed by the enormous building were tents selling beers and food from all over the world. I turned to the three people with me – Scarlett, a French guy called Ben, and a Japanese girl called Asumi – and grinned. This was looking good already.

For a society stereotyped as stait-laced and organised, the Japanese do outdoor revelry very well. There was a fun atmosphere in the crowd, which was largely divided between what looked like wholesome family outings of Japanese and gaijin who were obviously there to either get drunk or chase girls. (Our group being composed of two white guys and two Asian girls, we were prime targets for both sets of foreigners.) I charged in right away, grabbing a Corona first off as a little private tribute to absent friends (here’s to you, Matt…) and leading our intrepid party through the throng.

Within about ten minutes, Ben found some more French guys (I swear they must have some Gallic radar or something), some of whom fitted the “dirty expat” stereotype a little too well. One was in his early thirties but dressed like one of those oh-so-fashionable freshers that clog up the Leeds campus; tight T-shirt, earrings, gelled hair. They were good fun though, and didn’t confirm the stereotype by hitting on the two girls present. I talked to Asumi, and found out she was funny, clever, and best of all, doesn’t conform to the high-pitched, giggly stereotype of the Japanese girl. Even in a country that values kawaii, or cuteness, very highly, it’s strange to see young women in their early twenties act like pliant, squeaky-voiced anime characters whenever they see a foreigner. What’s more depressing is that a lot of the international students at Gaidai seem to lap it up. (Jo from Leeds summed up the situation succinctly, if none too tactfully, when he said “Most of the guys at the CIE have yellow fever and most of the Japanese girls are gaijin hunters”.) So when you come across a girl who’s the exception to the rule, it’s such a relief you want to thank her for just being normal.

It was a fun night. I wonder now how I must have looked to the Japanese people on the last train back, sprawled by the full seats cradling an empty bottle of Grolsch (bought for me by a lonely Danish-Canadian expat) as a souvenir. Hey, you’re only young and stupid once. I was back at the Sky Building at 1 o’clock the next day for the British Council Education Fair. Jo and I had volunteered to help out at the Leeds University stall, talking to prospective Japanese students about living in Leeds. We met some cool people, including a Kansai Gaidai graduate who’d done her year abroad at Leeds.

As often happens with things like this, I did’t really think about the possibilities on offer to me. While Jo was talking about asking the British Council for an internship, I was grabbing free coffee and reading through this year’s Leeds accommodation guide. At one point I had the initiative to ask what organisation the Japanese woman at our stall worked for. She told me about the British Education Office, in effect an agency which helped students apply for British universities in exchange for a commission on tuition fees. I’d just finished taking in this interesting information when Jo strode back to our table and announced that he’s talked to the head of the British Education Office at this event, and it was possible he’d be working for them over the winter. I bristled. Why didn’t I think of that? I hated him at that moment. He turned to me with a supremely gracious smile and said I could have the contact information if I wanted.

A small voice in my head said, Why bother? People like him have all the luck. A smaller and more truthful voice said, Yeah, right. You don’t hate him for having these chances. You hate yourself for having the same chances and not taking them.

Sunday dawned bright and early, which after a second night at the beer festival really wasn’t what I wanted. Okaasan had arranged for me to go and stay with a fellow host mum and friend of hers today. Her foreign student was a genial American, who wears an eyepatch at the moment as a result of an eye infection picked up while volunteering in Africa. That evening, both of us went out with his host dad to an onsen, or hot spring, near their house. I knew about the whole “going round naked” aspect of the thing, and I’d been prepared to feel awkward, but actually it’s not embarassing at all. I always knew I’d end up naked in a room full of disinterested-looking strangers. I just thought I’d be more drunk when it happened.

Everything there is wonderfully relaxing, from the hot pools to the sauna and steam rooms to the ice-cold pool, handily coloured blue. You come out of there feeling brilliant and ready to sleep like a log, even without the few late nights I’d had. The following morning we got up early to set off on a journey of some kind. I found out what sort when, up in the mountains, we unexpectedly pulled into a car park, got out and started walking. Thousands of identical graves stood in perfect rows all the way up the mountainside. We were going to see the family grave. We stood by it, host mum and dad poured water on it and we chanted together, then we went to a “rest area” and had sandwiches. Then we set back off.

If the day taught me one thing, it was that while my host family may not be perfect, they’re a lot better than some others. This host mum was completely insane. She would ask her student odd questions, based on no discernable train of thought or outside stimulus, most of which she already knew the answers to. I asked the guy at one point how this kind of treatment didn’t drive him insane. He fixed me with his one good eye and said “It does.” Maybe being constantly tired despite sleeping decent hours was getting to me. All I knew was after spending all day in the car listening to host mum’s bizarre non-conversation, along with constant exposure to the Eagles and Jimmy Buffet, I was either going to go mad, kill myself or become a born-again Christian.

Fortunately, I was delivered back to the Ogawas late on Monday night, unharmed in body or mind. I got into bed and closed my eyes at 9:30, and didn’t open my eyes until 7 the next morning. It seems to have done the trick. Now all I have to deal with are the Japanese language midterms this week.


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Let’s parler Nihonglais

You may recall that, at the start of this year, I didn’t say much about my classmates. That’s because I didn’t know much about them, nor did I want to know. During my first year in Leeds I didn’t make a huge effort to get to know people in any of my classes, and although I wound up with some good friends from my language classes and seminar groups, it wasn’t because I tried desperately hard. Leeds being the biggest university in the country, it’s very easy to become a face in the crowd, and I preferred to stick with the people I’d met in my flat and through various societies. [NB. I am studying for a degree in English and Japanese, and yet had to look up “preferred” on to see how it’s spelt. Make of that what you will.]

This unfortunate habit has stuck with me into Gaidai. I didn’t really bother talking to people in my classes until quite recently, and that was cause I talked to them outside the classroom. Which is why it took me quite a while to notice that my Japanese language class has developed a kind of esprit de corps, a grumbling camaraderie that sustains them through the high-intensity whirl of Gaidai’s Level 3 Japanese language program. (Our teacher, Saigo-sensei, is very enthusiastic, but that sometimes leads us into bizarre places, as we listen to Queen medleys translated into Japanese or dream up example sentences that rival The O.C. for frequency of heartbreak, betrayal and shagging.) Or at least, they think they have. I myself couldn’t care less what they think. That was my view until very recently, when the only fellow classmate I had any contact with was Nick, an insufferably smug American who would incessantly poke fun at my problems with timekeeping and organisation. Slowly, though, I’ve started to address the odd comment to them, crack a joke from time to time, y’know, generally be a bit less aloof. I thought I owed it to them.

I was at lunch today when I grabbed a table next to a guy from my class. I hadn’t really talked to him before, but we got chatting and had a fun conversation. I learned that he was missing home, and that his host family were alright. We didn’t borrow each other’s sweaters, but it’s a start, I guess. And if I find I only have the ability to talk to them outside the classroom, then that’s what I’ll do.

Aside from that, the last few weeks have been pretty good. I somehow feel it all falling into place. My Japanese, both in and out of lessons, friends, being organised, and generally enjoying my time here. Tonight I should be going to a beer festival in Osaka with Scarlett and her friends. Hey, it’s not like I don’t deserve it, and while I don’t think it’ll be much like the Histon Beer Festival, it will at least make up for missing it this year. (Plus, I don’t think I’ve been invited to a beer festival by an astoundingly beautiful girl before.)


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