Posts in May 2010

I recently read the article posted by Steven D. Levitt (author of Freakonomics) on his New York Time’s blog. Entitled Tattoonomics, Part I (presumably there will be a Part II), Levitt raises the question, “Why get a tattoo?”

I have tattoos and I get asked this question all the time. I fondly remember getting caught in a surprise pincer attack on the subject of tattoos last April by both my father and my boyfriend’s parents while we drank coffee at a restaurant in Osaka. Apparently, my boyfriend casually mentioned to his mother that he was thinking about getting another tattoo during a Skype conversation a few weeks earlier. He probably didn’t think much of it, unaware that even mentioning a hypothetical future tattoo to his mother was the equivalent of dropping an A-bomb right in the middle of their dining room. (And, no, that metaphor wasn’t meant to express any insensitivity towards the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

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Phil and I rock climbing back in 2008

Phil and I rock climbing back in 2008

I sat down with my friend Phil to talk with him about his experiences teaching English in rural Henan, China.  Phil has been an English teacher at Xuchang University since October 2009. However, his experiences in China reach far back – from a brief month teaching in Xi’an, Shaan’xi during college to an abortive attempt to teach in Harbin. In 2007, Phil graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a BA in History, with a focus on China. He also spent two of those years ‘attempting’ to study Chinese, which in Phil’s case meant routinely getting drunk with our Taiwanese-American friend Benson. As a bit of a disclaimer, I’d like to say that Phil is one of the few truly unique people that I have met in my life. I like to describe his life philosophy as, “If this isn’t going to make an interesting story, then it’s not worth my time.” (A description that he, undoubtedly, would find not completely accurate) Needless to say, Phil lives his life with a certain reckless courage that most of us are too meek to attempt. This interview is just like Phil – colorful, off-beat, and controversial – and I’m sure some readers will disagree with it. But if you don’t keep things interesting, then what’s the point? You can read Phil’s blog here:

Constantine: Why did you want to teach abroad?

Henan, China - Phil's current location

Phil: Because I was tired of the life I had at home! [laughs] No, honestly, after a great deal of introspection provided by the copious free time of this job [teaching English], I’ve realized that I left Colorado because I was terrified of the ‘failure’ of mundane life. [pause] Seriously, though, Chinese girls have nice bodies.

Constantine: What sparked your interest in China?

Phil: It was Japan, really. After a rough adjustment period in American middle school following my family’s move from Bermuda to America, I found that in high school Japanese animation cartoons provided an interest for me that I could share with other people. So, for all of high school I had a decent enthusiasm for Japanese history and ancient culture, which was almost entirely transferred to China. This gave my interest in China almost a two-year head start.

Constantine: Why did your interest transfer to China?

Phil: In college, I had a course on the combined history of Korea, China, and Japan, that presented events in a concurrent manner, and I became convinced, by my admittedly Chinese professor, that a great deal of the Japanese culture that I had idealized in my high-school fashion had in fact originated from China. That, combined with the general impression that China was the next major ‘horse to bet on’ as far as World Powers were concerned, allowed me to develop an intense interest in China.

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Pearl Harbor

Following the model laid out by Band of Brothers, The Pacific begins with actual footage of Pearl Harbor and interviews with some of the veterans of the Pacific War. We’re rapidly approaching the time when the generation who fought in WWII will be gone and I find these interviews extremely valuable. In Band of Brothers, they were often the most heart-wrenching parts of each episode. I am immensely happy that The Pacific has continued using real footage and interviews – it reminds the audience that this show is based in fact and reality.

As I mentioned earlier, the United States was not ready to go to war with Japan on December 7th, 1941. While the American military had been anticipating a war with Japan for some time, they did not have the equipment or men needed to engage in a massive war halfway around the world. On August 7th, 1942, eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal became the first major offensive of the Pacific War precisely because the United States needed to spend that time training soldiers (marines specifically) to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific.

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Wild Zero follows the three band members of Guitar Wolf; Guitar Wolf (vocals and guitar), Bass Wolf (bass), and Drum Wolf (you guessed it, drums). This trio are the hottest musicians in rural Asahi-cho and only believe in three things; love, justice, and Rock’n’Roll. Tired of the dirty ways of their evil yakuza business manager, the Captain (played by Inamiya Makoto in a variety of wigs), Guitar Wolf decides to quit and continue their career as independent musicians. Thanks to some accidental help from Ace (Endo Masashi), a young rockabilly and avid Guitar Wolf fan, the band members manage to escape the Captain, but not before robbing him and shooting off two of his fingers. Recognizing that Ace lives by the same Rock’n’Roll code of honor, Guitar Wolf makes him his blood brother and gives him a whistle with instructions to ‘blow it if you ever need help.’ Sure enough, Ace and his love interest Tobio (Shitichai Kwancharu) soon need help from the leather-clad rock stars to battle off a horde of zombies and save Earth from some nasty extraterrestrial invaders.

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Tomomatsu Naoyuki’s Zombie Self-Defense Force (Zombi jietai) is one of the most ridiculous genre spoofs out there…and I mean ridiculous in a good way. A UFO crashes in a forest and releases radiation that can reanimate the dead. In close vicinity to the crash are a gang of yakuza and their chinpira lackeys, a photography crew on location to shoot a Japanese idol, and a few members of the Jietai (Japan Self-Defense Force) on a training mission. Pop idol Hitomi, Yuri (Watase Miyu) a female solider who is more than meets the eye, and a few others manage to survive the initial carnage. They band together and take cover in an isolated hotel. Zombie/alien/fetus/ghost/android madness ensues.

But, honestly, the actual plot is inconsequential. What the film lacks in budget and screenwriting it makes up for in some genuinely funny parodies.

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Everyone who watches Japanese film knows about Versus. And for good reason, this is an awesome movie. I tend to shy away from movies that are excessively popular. This is because having never been popular myself, I harbor a deep subconscious resentment for all things that become popular. But, in this case, I will grudgingly accept that Versus has earned it’s popularity for good reason.

Written and directed by Kitamura Ryuhei, Versus stars Sakaguchi Tak and Sakaki Hideo in roles that garnered them huge cult status. Versus was so popular that it inspired the 2002 film Alive, starring the two actors in virtually identical roles and also directed by Kitamura.

After spending hours watching atrociously low-budget Japanese zombie films, Versus and the film’s amazingly choreographed action sequences look like works of art. This movie is a full throttle action movie. And, like any good action movie, the main characters are simply too cool for names.

The two main characters – Prisoner KSC2-303 (Sakaguchi Tak) and The Man (Sakaki Hideo) – are trapped in a karmic cycle where every century or two they must fight to the death over the entrance to the 444th Portal (the Japanese equivalent of 666), the power contained within it, and the life of a girl.

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Directed by Tomomatsu Naoyuki and based on a novel by Otsuki Kenji, the 2001 film Stacy seems like a pretty good idea – what’s not to love about undead zombie schoolgirls? The film opens with the following narration:

The beginning of the 21st century. Young girls aged 15 to 17 began dying one after another, after all over the world. Even more surprising the dead girls began to reawaken as zombies. I don’t know who coined the term, but they began to call the zombies ‘Stacies.’

This tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the film – for some reason, girls start turning in zombies and it’s up to the fathers or boyfriends of the dearly departed to dismember them (in a oddly precise number of body parts, 165). Thanks to the crackpot research of the bespectacled Dr. Inugami, all the distraught population knows about the outbreak it that girls suffer from ‘Near Death Happiness’ (NDH) before dying and turning into ‘Stacies.’ These Stacies glow blue from a ‘Butterfly Twinkle Powder’ that they secrete when they are exposed to what we might as well call love.

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As a part of the ‘Japan YouTube community’ (though somewhat reluctantly) I’ve encountered a lot of the videos that people have posted about racism in Japan. I don’t really agree or approve of a lot of these videos, because they are almost always very negative and extremely one-sided. Personally, I haven’t experienced much racism while living in Japan. While many Japanese people do seem to be somewhat shy and nervous around gaijin, I don’t consider this racism. As someone who grew up in the United States of America and in a family that is very interested in different cultures, it is not always easy to try and understand the perspectives of people who have spent their entire lives in one of the most homogeneous countries in the world.

Japan always seems to get a lot of criticism for it’s ‘insular mindset’ and inability or unwillingness to try and relate to foreigners. The JET Program itself was created as an attempt to address these criticisms, criticisms that I often find unfair. Many of the Japanese people that I have had the pleasure of meeting are very open to learning about different cultures and different people. Most of the time, Japanese people consider me strange not because of my own culture, but because I am so interested and invested in learning about Japanese culture.

Of course it is difficult to live in a rural area of Japan around people who do not speak the same language and have not traveled outside of the country. It is also very difficult to be the one person who looks different from everyone else. At least for me, it has been very hard to adapt to being stared at all the time – it makes me feel like I am living my life underneath a microscope. This is not necessarily racism and it is not necessarily a bad thing.

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Golden Week is over and so is Constantine’s Crazy Japan Traveling Extravaganza: Part Two. I now have more raw video footage to add to my already enormous backlog of videos that I need to edit together and post on YouTube. The editing will be slapdash and half-thought-out, as usual. =P So this upcoming month will definitely be the month of epic travel blogs/vlogs…I’m sure all of you readers are very excited.

And by ‘all’ I mean ‘none.’

I’m back home and back to dealing with the day-to-day triumphs and defeats (they aren’t really defeats, but ‘Triumphs and Defeats’ has a good ring to it, so I’m using it!) that have come to make up my life in Japan.

Triumph #1 – Successfully guiding both of my parents (separately, of course) on very aggressive trips through Japan and introducing them to the two Japanese people who I hope, someday, maybe, to call my parents-in-law. (Let’s not have this sentence mutate into a series of comments speculating on my relationship status. I can’t define it even to myself, so don’t expect me to be able to successfully articulate to any one else.)

Defeat #1 – My old, old car is back in the car shop, presumably with a rusty muffler. Hooray, I get to through more money down the black hole known as ‘car ownership.’ One of the Japanese teachers (who I will refer to as Kusaya Sensei) laughingly informed the mechanic how I had foolishly left the car parked near the harbor for a week (as if I had some sort of alternative). Of course it would rust, silly Gaijin!! Well, no, that isn’t all that obvious to me; I grew up in a mountainous region of Colorado with a terrain that is classified as ‘high desert.’ I don’t understand concepts like ‘humidity,’ ‘mold,’ and ‘rust’ very well. And besides, what other option did I have to get to the port other than driving myself and my mother there? Teleportation??

Triumph #2 – My English lesson on ‘Tastes and Smells’ that used various Kit-Kat flavors was a success with my students. Nothing like wasabi, satsumaimo-aji, melon, and corn flavored Kit-Kats to spark some English conversation. Or to trick my students into thinking I’m ‘cool.’ Mwahahaha…ah…yeah.

Defeat #2 – I brought back a HUGE amount of omiyage from my HUGE trip for the teachers – stuff from Nara, Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi Inari Taisha, and Koyasan. It was entirely consumed in the space of one hour. Of course, no one came up to thank the gaijin for the snacks, even though said gaijin had left a polite note written in keigo explaining who it was from and that even though it was lowly, humble, ill-tasting food that the honorable teachers should honorably do me the honor of eating it, even though I am a lowly bottom-feeder. (And, yes, that is how I like to mentally translate keigo in my head.) If I can write a note in keigo, then I can probably understand a simple, ‘Arigatou, Constantine-san.’ But, nope, nada…even though I have heard some of the teachers referring to me as ‘Omiyage-chan’ when they think I can’t understand them. Oh well, I will continue to bring in omiyage in the vain hope that my clumsy attempts at conforming to Japanese culture will endear me in their hearts forever.

Triumph #3 – The new vice principal smiled and greeted me today. Now, this might not seem like a big deal to you normal, well-adjusted people. But I have silently been developing a complex about this guy and his military-style buzz cut in my head over the past month. I call him The General. Until today, he has never spoken a word to me (even when we pass each other in an empty hallway and I say Good Morning/Afternoon/etc. in Japanese). He also periodically looks in the direction of my desk and sternly frowns in a displeased way that I have chosen to interpret as his way of showing that he thinks ALTs are a useless waste of space and funding. (I am aware that he probably doesn’t feel this way and probably never even thinks about me, but like I said before I am NOT a normal, well-adjusted person.)

Defeat #3 – I was again creeped out by the intense, unfriendly staring of the slightly overweight girl in one of my English classes. I haven’t really figured out what her aggressive eye-contact really means (and I mean aggressive by American standards, by Japanese standards this must be the equivalent of the Death-Stare.) Is she just intrigued by me or does she hate me? And if she hates me, then why? For the love of god, WHY? I’m beginning to lead towards the ‘hate’ interpretation because every time I try to get her to participate in class she belligerently likes to say, “This-u is-u JA-PON.” (Her way of saying ‘Japan.’) She also likes to say things about my appearance to the other students in Japanese when I am within earshot like “Hana ga takai!” (Big nose!) Again, is this a compliment or an insult? I’ve had it used to me both ways; in a mean, insulting way and in a complimentary, cute way by Hidefumi. I’m trying to be fair here and not just call her a racist (because, honestly, what do I know?) but this is really starting to make me feel pretty uncomfortable.

Anyways, using the scoring method that my mother taught me years ago during one of my “What is the purpose of my life??” bouts of hysteria that I would get when I was a teenager, the positive things that you remember count for +5 points while the negative ones only count as -1 (because you remember more bad things than good), I am resting at a healthy +12.

Hopefully that math is correct. =P