Friday, February 24, 2012

Stories and Fairy Tales

When I was a little kid, my parents used to read to me before I went to bed. Though we covered a variety of "genres" (I use quotation marks there because I wonder how many genres there truly are in children's literature), my favorites were fairy tales and fantastical stories like The Wizard of Oz. That early fascination with fantasy and imagination has stuck with me throughout the years, and I still enjoy a good fantasy story or learning new folk lore or fairy tales.

When I was living in Japan, I learned a few folk tales just over the course of my work. The first one I remember coming across is this story called Urashima Taro (浦島太郎), that was in one classes' English reader.

To my knowledge there are slight variations to this story, but basically, the titular character is one day walking along the beach and spots some young boys tormenting a turtle. He takes pity on the creature and chases the boys away. To his surprise, the turtle thanks him, and to show his gratitude offers to take Urashima Taro to see the beautiful Ryugu Palace and meet the Emperor of the Sea. He accepts and goes with the turtle. When they arrive, he meets the emperor and his beautiful daughter, with whom he spends several days. Soon, however, he becomes anxious to get back home and check on his elderly mother. The princess is sorry to see him leave, but wishes him well and gives him a strange box as a parting gift. She tells him, however, never to open it. Taro returns home, but everything has changed. His home is gone, as are his mother and all of the people that he knew. Asking after his mother and if anyone knows his name, he discovers that he was said to have mysteriously disappeared 300 years ago. He then opens the box and with a puff of smoke he is transformed into an old man with a long beard. His old age had been inside.

...Well, so much for that.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Life update

Been meaning to post a little more frequently, but a lot going on recently that I decided I'd share briefly. Yesterday was my birthday, so a lot of sushi was eaten. Also been trying to commit to going to the gym (had a session with a personal trainer on Monday and my body is still sore), get an appropriate mix of video games in there (beat Mass Effect 2 last week) and keep up with my Japanese.

Speaking of Japanese, I had a 3-hour-long job interview with a Japanese organization on Friday, much of which was in Japanese. Despite getting a good vibe, haven't heard anything back from them yet. I've also booked tickets to take about 10 days to visit Japan at the end of April, so looking forward to that.

Anyway, more to come soon. I have another review coming down pipeline (this time for a service rather than a book), so there's that.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hook Book Row

Some days I watch a little TV Japan in the afternoon, and often there is a children's show or two running (because little children and me are the only people at home during the day). I'm not above watching them to improve my Japanese, and there's one in particular that I like. It's called フックブックロー in Japanese (the guide calls it Hook Book Row), and I really like the opening theme song.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

J-Word Play #23 (Answer)

Last week's riddle was:


Before the answer, some kudos. We had two correct answers this time. Our winners?

First, our Riddle Master Cocomino of Life in Kawagoe. Second, Brian of Fee's List. Brian may also be a Riddle Master for all I know, but this was his first time answering, so he's gonna have to earn that title.

And now the answer.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Galneryus memories

My first time in Japan was a 6-week trip to study Japanese at Waseda University. We had classes and tests everyday, and most of us were eager to both do well in class and soak in as much of Tokyo as we could in that short period of time. Much of it is a blur to me now, but one thing that takes me back is Galneryus.

Galneryus is a kind of ridiculous Japanese metal band, and their Beyond the End of Despair was the first Japanese CD I ever bought. I don't listen to this kind of music much anymore, but whenever I come across them in my iTunes library I am reminded of my first time in Japan.

Friday, February 10, 2012

My Favorite J-TV Show: Game Center CX

I've been intending to write about Game Center CX for quite some time now, but I guess I was a little daunted. I wanted to make a really good post and get everyone to watch this show. But I just kept kicking the can down the road, so I'm just going to do it already.

One thing you'll hear about studying Japanese is that watching TV or movies is a great way to gain exposure to the language, and study (often in a more passive sense). This is true, but here's the thing about Japanese TV - it tends to be a lot lower budget than American TV and at least in my opinion a lot more boring. These days I find myself biting the bullet more often, but it seems like a majority of Japanese TV shows follow the same format: plunk half a dozen members of the Japanese celebrity pantheon onto a set and watch them watching something (be it a fluff piece or something educational) or watch them eating. Often you get to watch them watch someone else cooking, and then they eat said food. Bleh.

But what if you could watch a show about a middle aged guy who plays video games? And he's a comedian. Man, I'd watch that in any language. Ok, maybe a little nichey, but in my experience the two realms of "interested in Japan" and "interested in nerdy stuff like video games" tend to overlap quite frequently. For those of you who are fully in tune with your unabashed nerdiness, there is Game Center CX.

The show is hosted by comedian Shinya Arino, who takes the role of the 課長 (section chief) of this company that, I dunno...makes him play video games? Arino's Challenge is a segment of the show in which he must beat a game or complete some other task (like get a certain score). These games tend to be older, like from NES or Sega. In earlier episodes, this part was kind of equal among other segments (like looking at old consoles, visiting arcades, and interviewing game developers), but as the show picked up steam, this challenge became the main feature of the show.

For me, it's not just the games but the dynamic of the show that makes it so much fun to watch. Arino is by no means a game wiz, and he often needs help from his crew. His interaction with his staff is entertaining, and although he sometimes gets stuck playing the same part of a game for hours, he never seems to get angry and tries to stay positive.

Here is a random clip if you want a sample (sorry, this one has no subs):

It can be difficult to watch this show, unfortunately. The DVD sets sold in Japan only contain a few episodes each (not entire seasons) and are very expensive...they can be upwards of 8,000 yen for one set. Episodes on You Tube are hard to come by, as they are on Nico Nico Douga. The VG Masters Club does have a number of episodes with fan subs, but after the first few seasons they seem to be missing a lot.

I recently got in touch with Ray of Crunk Games, who has set up an awesome informational page about Game Center CX, and he directed me to a Facebook group. If you're interested, the Facebook group and VG Masters are good places to start. Other sources do exist, but that's not something I can condone in this medium...
*Edit: You should also check out a link in the comments below.

Anyway, if this sounds to you like a fun show, I can assure you it is and you should check it out. If you're already a fan, are there any other websites or sources you'd like to add? If you're not interested at all, well, you'd best get out of here.

Jinnai Tomonori: JOS

Jinnai Tomonori-JOS Airline [English Subbed] by Princessmia

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

J-Word Play #23

The first Japanese riddle of the new year, I believe. Here's one I just saw on a Japanese TV show...


As always, if you'd like to venture a guess, send it to blueshoe[at], and include a link to your blog or homepage.

Happy riddling!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Book Review: For Fukui's Sake

In November, fellow JET alum Sam Baldwin emailed me a copy of his new book and asked me if I might give it a read and write up my thoughts. Being the type of person who is always reading a book or two with several more in queue, it's taken me a while to get to this (apologies, Sam!). Once I started, however, it didn't take long to finish. So without any further delay, here is my review of For Fukui's Sake: Two years in rural Japan:

For Fukui's Sake: Two years in rural Japan
By Sam Baldwin

Rating: 4/5*

Unsatisfied with his job at the lab, Englishman Sam Baldwin applies to the JET Program and in 2004 is accepted and sets off for the Japanese countryside. Adventure ensues.

Although I haven't actively sought them out, I find that whenever prompted to read a book about a foreigner's experiences in Japan, I have enjoyed doing so. The most obvious answer to this is my interest in Japan and my ability to relate to a fair amount of the content, but I'm not sure that's the case (or at least the best explanation). I think it is perhaps because the kind of people who write these books tend to be interesting, curious, and adventurous sorts, and when combined with a talent for writing...well, that translates into a good read.

In this 208-page e-book, Sam takes us through the highlights of his two years in Japan. He touches upon many aspects of his life abroad, including his relationship with his girlfriend, making friends, adventures both in the wild and in civilization, and his more artistic, spiritual endeavors. I don't want to spoil anything for those who may pick this up, so I'm going to proceed to some elements of the book that I liked and didn't like and then give a little more of a qualified recommendation.

What I liked:

When I said that it didn't take me long to get through this, I didn't mean because of its length, but rather because the way in which Sam presents his anecdotes and weaves his stories are engrossing and familiar. This is the kind of writing that I think is perfectly suited to a memoir (or blog) and helps to engage the reader. The book is well-paced, too. Chapters are divided up so that it's easy to read one or two in a sitting and then come back to a new story.

A popular JET mantra is "ESID" - "Each situation is different." Reading about Sam's time in Japan really reminded me of that. Of course living in a rural prefecture contributed to how his experience shaped up, but I noted that little of his book was about his actual time at work/school, either teaching in the classroom or interacting with his students (although there is a good story about a sock smeller). I suppose this struck me because high school ALTs, at least in some prefectures, have to go to work even when classes aren't in session, and so a lot of my time was spent at school. It was with a little jealously that I read about Sam's 9-week vacations from work (いいなぁ).

Still, it's interesting to read about people from different stripes of life, with different hobbies and likes/dislikes. Sam is clearly an outdoorsman and an adventure-seeker - two descriptives that I wouldn't apply to myself. Reading about his excursions and fishing trips was kind of like seeing a side of Japan I hadn't during my own time there.

I also think he struck a good balance in his reactions to and musing about his encounters in Japan. He admits at one point that he never experienced the downs of culture shock and was pretty upbeat for his whole time in  there, and I think most of his stories focus on the positives of his trip. Despite this, he doesn't sugarcoat or downplay his frustrations and the challenges he and his companions face during their journey. If you're reading this, Sam, my heart really went out to you when you couldn't get a spot in the empty lot because of the "Rules are rules and no exceptions" mentality. Man, that is frustrating.

 What I didn't like:

Although I did enjoy the book, there were two nits that I wanted to pick. First, despite all the nice things I said about Sam's writing style, I was a little thrown off by his periodic transitions between past and present tense. Some stories were presented in one or the other, and I couldn't really figure out why. Perhaps a minor complaint, but it was something that struck me as I was reading and made me a little uneasy. That could just be the former writing tutor in me talking, though.

Second, although I think Sam did a fairly good job in his portrayal of the Japanese people he met (as far as I know anyway), there were times when I felt like he was giving in to popular perception and his style of narration seemed to be highlighting the foreignness of the Japanese from our perspective. I could be off-base in this, but it just felt sometimes as if he were catering to readers who might not know any Japanese people or much about Japan, which I think is unnecessary. In his recollections, most of his Japanese friends/colleagues/acquaintances seem to constantly be referring to him as "Sam-san."

‘Sam san, you like Beatles?’ said the deputy head.
Being from England, it was obvious to my colleagues that I must be a huge fan.
‘Erm, yes, they are good.’
‘Yes Sam san. Very, very good. I like Beatles very much also. Please sing for us Beatles.’

I suppose this is only more of a feeling than anything solid I can refer to, but I was a little incredulous that he was actually called that so often. Personally, I was usually only called "Paul-san" by people I didn't know very well, or "Paul-sensei" by my students and some colleagues. Once familiarity was achieved, I found that most people simply called me "Paul." But again, ESID.

What bothered me slightly more was the way conversations were recalled. Living in a rural town, I am betting a lot of the people he spoke to used Japanese. However even if they did speak in broken English, I find it a little hard to believe that so many conversations (like the one above) could be remembered verbatim. So why give most of the Japanese speakers broken and unnatural English? Well, because they don't speak English, I imagine.

Perhaps I'm being a little too harsh and critical, but those were two of my reactions as I read. I guess I'm a nitpicky reader.

*You'd like this book if...

If you have lived in or visited Japan, or are interested in Japanese life/culture, I'd be willing to bet you would enjoy this book. Likewise if you like travel stories and exotic places you may want to pick it up.

In many ways, Sam's book reminded me of Will Ferguson's Hokkaido Highway Blues, a book about a former English teacher's experiences hitchhiking across Japan; a book that I enjoyed quite a bit. If you've read and liked that one, here's another to check out.

So there you have it. If this sounds like it might be up your alley, you can visit Sam's website here or have a look at his book on Amazon here.

Marios and Luigis

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Life After JET: Joe

Paul asked me to do a blog entry about my life post-JET. Since I like the idea of me being able to say I blog, I follow through on his requests from time to time. This way I can tell people “Sure I have a blog! I’ve posted on it this many times.” But I don’t hold up any fingers. It adds to the mystery.
I was a JET. I’m not any more. I wonder, are you a JET? If you’re not, are you wondering what one is? JET is what you become when you can’t speak Japanese but want to work in Japan. The Japanese government hires you to teach a foreign language, 99% of the time that’s English, to Japanese grade school and high school kids. It was a sweet gig. But life had other plans and I got married to continue this charade of being a functional adult. My wife’s job was objectively better due to the higher pay, benefits, and my job having a built in time limit with no hope of career advancement. This means when my wife was transferred to a random branch office, as big Japanese companies like to do for mysterious and nefarious reasons, it was I who had to clear out my desk. I was sorry to give up some of the perks, like having a desk, but we agreed that it would be far easier for me with my lengthy list of credentials (SPEAKS THE ENGLISH) to get another decent job.
I moved from Kansai to Kyushu. I hired a moving company that took all my fragile stuff like my TV, my guitar, my computer, my Fabergé egg collection, and delivered them unharmed and for a reasonable price. The moving company was definitely better and cheaper than shipping it all myself.
Secretly I wasn’t planning on rushing out and getting a job. I figured I deserved a month off to just drink coffee and read manga. But I quickly learned that without the structure that a daily job brings, I act the same as a dog that is left at home without a cage: the dog wrecks the house and feels too apathetic to clean up after himself. Having no job was agony to me. I’d say goodbye to my wife in the morning, my nose pressed up to the glass of the window watching her go, a small whimper slipping past my droopy jowls, then I’d go and tear up some important paperwork and watch a Bill Murray movie. I quickly decided to check out the local International Association. I don’t know who funds these places but they’re all over Japan. They’re a place where foreigners can go to get cheap to free Japanese lessons, post messages on a literal bulletin board (with tacks!), and ask if there are any jobs around. The helpful people there directed me to their website’s forum where job offers are sometimes posted. I used the computer they had available, noticed a job offer for a kindergarten English teacher, and thought, what the heck, I’ll give it a shot.
I’m the youngest in my family so I never spent much time taking care of kids, but I saw Kindergarten Cop so I thought I had an idea of what to expect. My only real experience was when I volunteered a couple weekends a month at an orphanage with Paul and some other JETs (I wanted to rack up some karma points to sell on eBay). I did learn a thing or two about young kids though, and that is: boys will turn anything into a weapon, even weapons, which then become double weapons; and that girls will murder their best friend and a puppy to become a princess.
There are a couple English language kindergartens in my area. I didn’t even know that was a thing in Japan before I started working at one. It seems that the usual way of doing things is everyone speaks Japanese and then they have a half hour a day of “English time”. Obviously this is an awful way for kids to learn a language, and in fact, they don’t. They do things differently at the one I’m working at though. No Japanese allowed. And, who’d a thought, when you make kids speak English they speak English. It’s pretty amazing how good these Japanese kids are considering they’re only at the kindergarten a couple hours a day. The oldest kids who are around six years old can all understand fluent English spoken at normal speed, and can speak pretty well, but some kids are better than others. All of them have a high English vocabulary but when they try to make a complex sentence, some just don’t have the grammar, so they default to Japanese grammar with English words. This comes out bizarre. Obviously, Japanese being a different language and all, its grammar has parts that English lacks. For example the gobi “ne” and the particle “wa”. So at some point a student asked a teacher what “ne” is in English, and they were told “right?” Which is a fair translation I guess, but that spread throughout all the other kids and degraded to “rai?” And somehow “wa” became “is”, and “aru” became “I have it” regardless of who has the thing that exists, since in Japanese that’s just left up in the air. So the other day a girl wanted to tell me about a poisonous spider and she said, “Spider is, rai, poison I have it.” And I’m like, “What are you, a windtalker? Are you speaking in tongues?” They can all understand each other fine but it’s like these 70 kids have their own private language. At least they can understand us when we speak English, and next year they’ll go into the Japanese school system, start studying English the government-mandated way, and immediately lose everything they learned.
So that’s what I’m doing now, post-JET. I occasionally teach the odd English conversation class but mostly I try to get kids to speak a language that exists on earth.