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

Yesterday, I braved the crowds at Asakusa’s Senso-ji temple to witness a time honored Japanese tradition – shaking babies. No, I don’t mean the sort of behavior that results in Shaken Baby Syndrome, but the infinitely more entertaining one type that involves young sumo wrestlers.

Every year on the 4th Sunday of April, Senso-ji Temple at Asakusa holds a nakizumo festival, where young sumo wrestlers stand in a traditional sumo ring and compete to see who can make a baby cry the loudest and longest. A referee watches and yells, “Nake nake nake! (Cry, cry, cry!)” until finally declaring one baby the winner. The cries of the babies are supposed to bring good fortune to the children and drive away evil spirits. This type of festival is held in a various locations around Japan…in Asakusa, it has been going on for 400 years.

I was a little disappointed that they didn’t recruit full-grown sumo wrestlers to scare the kids into crying, I would have loved to see a big sumo wrestler holding a tiny baby. Instead, we got two sumo-wrestlers-in-training. Neither one of them looked much older than 15 to me. It was quite entertaining to watch these two chibi-sumos try to make the babies cry – one was fond of throwing the kids into the air (which they seemed to enjoy more times than not) while the other was trying to be very nice to the babies (which only seemed to make then cry harder). That’s babies for you, fickle creatures indeed.

When neither of the sumos could make a baby cry, the judges busted out some silly plastic oni (demon) masks and wore them in front of the babies – which made the audience burst out into laughter and the kids burst out into tears. Can anyone say, ‘Traumatized for life’?

I’m not going to lie to you, readers, and say that I didn’t have certain reservations about the new school year. I was utterly blindsided when I saw the amount of changes that occurred at my schools over haru yasumi (spring vacation). We’re talking new vice principals at BOTH schools, two new English teachers at one, and a whopping 13 teachers transferring and being replaced.

For those of you who don’t know the way Japanese schools work when it comes to teachers – teachers aren’t hired by the school, but by the Board of Education. In my prefecture, the BOE places teachers at a school for a three year term. As far as I know, the teachers don’t really have much say in where they are placed. At the end of those three years, the teacher can either request to stay at the school for another term or will be transferred to a new location. This means that there is a constantly cycling in and out of teachers every year.

I walked into the teacher’s room at the beginning of this month thinking that I was a seasoned ALT veteran who knew exactly what to expect and how things operated only to be bitch slapped back into my rightful role as wide-eyed gaijin newbie. Strangely enough, I think the hardest thing for me to psychologically comprehend was that my desk had been moved at both schools. This might seem silly, but desk placements in Japanese offices follow very visible hierarchical rules. At one school, I cheerfully walked into work to see that I had received a demotion. Before, my desk had (rightfully) been at the very lowest rung of the totem pole – but it was still connected to the rest of the other teachers’ desks, so I still felt included. Now, I’ve been quarantined at an isolated desk that is wedged into between the printers, public-use computer, and working timecards. I’m fairly certain that if a broom closet had been available they would have stuck me in there. Unfortunately, all the broom closets are being used, so they’re still going to need to see Whitey everyday (the worst part of this new desk placement is actually that I now have a very clear view of Spider Solitaire Sensei when he decides to play Spider Solitaire on the computer. The clicking, dear god, the clicking!). [Please read the above paragraph with a healthy edge of perky sarcasm, I’m not being mean here!]

Feeling pretty dejected about my demotion, I walked into the other school expecting the worst…only to see that at this school I had actually been promoted up a few rungs in the office desk hierarchy. I am now securely wedged in between another English teacher and the new music teacher. So, I guess the demotion and the promotion actually cancel each other out and I have the exact same standing that I enjoyed last year.

But, I can now officially say that I am absolutely stoked about the new school year. Not only are the ichinensei (first year students) that I had last year no longer afraid of me, but the new ichinensei in both schools are a group of extremely happy and fun kids who actually WANT to participate in English class! Even if they aren’t particularly thrilled about English, they are willing to put in some effort and have fun in class.

The one student who instantly earned my affection though is a young boy who jokingly told me that his nickname is Sukebe-kun (‘sukebe’ is the Japanese word for pervert or dirty old man, ‘kun’ is a suffix that is commonly used for guys by their friends or teachers). “Please call me Sukebe.” He was pretty shocked to discover that I actually know what that word means (his friends totally flipped and laughed at him) and he’s definitely earned a nickname that will stick.

The class that always blows me away and is always my favorite class is the sannensei (third year) Advanced English Communication Class. This class is offered as an elective, so the kids are in it on an entirely voluntary basis. Last year, there were only three boy students in the class, this year there are three boys and one girl. They are all super intelligent kids and have a serious determination to learn English. Two of the boys are members of the yakyuu-bu (baseball team) AKA The Coolest Boys in School. I’m going to write a separate post about Boys in the Yakyuu-bu, so right now I’ll just say that these boys have a certain air of confidence and bravado about them. Here on this blog, I’ll call these two boys Shaved Eyebrow-kun (because he shaves his eyebrows very thin, something that is very common among young Japanese guys) and Ikemen-kun (ikemen is the Japanese word for ‘hunk.’ During last year’s natsu matsuri (Summer Festival), I caught two Japanese housewives oogling this boy and calling him ikemen.)

During today’s jiko shoukai, Ikemen-kun informed me, “Shaved Eyebrow-kun is my teammate. But today he is being shy boy.”

Absolutely endearing, even though hearing the term ‘shy boy’ applied to anyone over the age of 5 makes me think of serial killers. =P

Ikemen-kun also told me that he wants to move to New York City and ‘be like Derek Jeter.’ That might not strike you as super interesting, but here in inaka-ville it’s highly unusual to meet someone who wants to move abroad. I’m sooo excited and lucky to get to teach in a class full of fantastic students like this!

Needless to say, I’m an unbelievably excited about the 2010-2011 school year! JET is definitely something that takes some getting used to. If you can learn how to adapt to the surprises that unexpectedly pop up during your time in Japan, JET is definitely one of those programs that keeps getting better the longer you do it.

Every person why applies to the JET Program knows that they are going to be assisting in teaching English in some way during their time in Japan. The title ALT can mean anything from BigDaikon‘s infamous ‘glorified tape recorder’ to being given the responsibility of designing and teaching all of your classes (which is my situation…lots of work and a steep learning curve, let me tell you!). But something that I definitely DID NOT expect to find myself doing was giving JAPANESE LESSONS.

One of my schools has a heavy ‘international’ focus. Part of this involves the school not only sending students to study abroad (in places like Switzerland as well as the US). It also means that every year a new international student is brought to study at the school and live with the Japanese students in the dorm. Last year’s student was an extremely smart Korean girl who not only spoke fantastic Japanese but near-fluent English as well. She came to speak with me every day after school and I really loved listening to her whip out slang from episodes of Gossip Girl. Seriously, I had to start watching the TV series so that I could keep up with her…and to be able to field her many questions about American culture and teenagers. No, not all American teenagers are drug addicts. No, American teenagers do not leave school and head directly to the nearest swanky bar and knock back martinis. On a side note, this is probably the only time in my life that people will tell me that I look like Serena van der Woodsen.

But, I digress.

The new international student is an equally bright boy from Vietnam. Yesterday, my favorite English teacher came to my desk and asked me if I would help teach him Japanese every Wednesday after school. My initial reaction was something to the effect of:

“Are you joking? No one should ever learn Japanese from me!”

Sounds like a case of the blind leading the blind here…or more accurately, a retarded blind person (namely me) leading an unsuspecting victim off a cliff. The reason why this situation came about is because the new exchange student can’t speak any Japanese but CAN speak excellent English. So, the Japanese English teachers have taken him under their wing. Unfortunately, none of the English teachers have any experience teaching Japanese (or taking Japanese lessons, obviously). And thus they turn to me – the retarded blind person.

Now, before you go off criticizing the Japanese education system or the JET Program, I want to say that this isn’t really a bad idea. Not only do I have a large amount of Japanese language textbooks lined up of my bookshelf, I have also taken three years of Japanese lessons. More importantly, my role here is more to provide moral support and a break from his mandatory three hours of sitting in the library studying Japanese from a textbook every day. I know exactly how much fun sitting alone in a room with a Japanese textbook for hours can be…NONE. On top of this, these lessons take place after school on a purely volunteer basis. Today was our first Japanese class and I made it clear that, while I would be helping Sensei teach him Japanese, I would also take the role of a student in this class. I will be doing all of the homework and tests alongside him.

I have to say, I have enormous respect for this kid and his determination. He can’t speak any Japanese. At all. Other than two months of studying from a textbook, he hasn’t taken any Japanese classes. He can read hiragana, some katakana, and no kanji. And yet he was brave enough to come to Japan and study abroad in a Japanese school for a year. When I was his age, just going to my private Japanese tutor’s house every Sunday was enough to make me a nervous wreck. AND, when it comes to our Wednesday classes, he is not only trying to learn Japanese from scratch but he is also having it explained to him in English, another foreign language! Writing this fills my head with terrifying images of me being taught Japanese in German. Terrifying, I say, absolutely terrifying!

We’re starting from Chapter 1 and 2 of the first volume of Genki, the textbook series that I used during my first two years of Japanese classes in university. This chapter covers the most elementary basics of Japanese grammar, like:

__X____Y__ です。 As in: 私はコンスタンティンです。

What really surprised me is that, halfway through an explanation about conjugating Japanese verbs, I realized that I’m not as inept as I thought I was when it comes to Japanese. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely inept – just not completely inept. I tend to think that I can’t speak Japanese until I open my mouth and Japanese pops out. Looks like this is another lesson in “Constantine needing to relax, stop worrying, and just do it.” That’s my life, a perpetual Nike advertisement.

Last Updated: Sept. 4th, 2010

A Note: Please keep in mind the information in this post is based on the content found in Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program by David L. McConnell – one of the few published academic studies of the JET Program. Throughout this post, I continuously note when the data was collected (the 1980s-1990s) and that it might not be reflective of the current selection process of some or any of the Japanese embassies or consulates that conduct interviews. This entry is not meant to serve as a definitive guide to the application process or as a list of the exact criteria JET candidates should fulfill. It’s just here to provide a bit of information to people who are interested in reading more about the application process. While I find the information within this article to be a fairly accurate representation of my experiences with the JET Program, please keep in mind that both the JET Program and it’s participants are a very large and diverse group. As such, the selection process seems to vary widely between individual consulates and between different countries. I don’t wish to encourage or discourage anyone for apply to JET with this post – I simple want to present a little bit of information on a process that many find extremely daunting, long, and fairly mysterious. ~C.

When I began applying to the JET Program in the fall of 2008, I spent a lot of time online trying to find information about how the JET selection process actually works. While the official JET Programme website, the AJET website, and every website for the consulates involved in the program all contain some information on the process, none of them actually get into the specifics of how JET goes about selecting candidates. Most of the websites just tow the party line, which goes something like:

“The recruitment and selection of JET Programme participants is conducted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is based on guidelines set by the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications. (The number of participants from each country is determined according to the needs of the local governments in negotiation with the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications.)

The final decision regarding acceptance of candidates is made at the Joint Conference for International Relations where the three Ministries (Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) meet.”[i]

In other words, they don’t tell you a whole lot about how the selection process actually works and the criteria they use to accept people is somewhat unknown. After acceptance or rejection, most people just forget about the whole application process and don’t write about it anymore. But, something about its extremely opaque nature has always rubbed me the wrong way. I think that it is this opaqueness that makes the long selection process so uncomfortable for the applicants, especially for people like me who tend to micro-analyze things. So, I set out to find out more on how JET actually selects candidates.

David McConnell's book

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information out there. The best study of the JET Program is undoubtedly Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program by David L. McConnell. While discussing his methodology, McConnell accurately points out that “I found negotiating access to Ministry of Education and CLAIR officials and gaining permission to observe national-level conferences quite difficult; a general ministry policy forbids any outside research on the JET Program.”[ii] The fact that outside research is prohibited, while not at all surprising, does a good job explaining why it feels like so much of the JET Program is shrouded in secrecy. Before you start demanding more transparency, keep in mind that this is not an entirely abnormal policy for a Japanese ministry to adopt…it just makes the application process more frustrating.

The following information draws heavily on the research in David McConnell’s book. Importing Diversity is the best book I’ve ever read about the JET Program and I think that it should be required reading for anyone who participates or applies to the program. However, the biggest problem with this information is that it is outdated. It was published in 2000 (making it at least 10 years old already) AND the book examines the early years of the JET Program. JET began in 1987, which officially makes the program as old as I am. Any organization that has operated for that long is bound to have undergone some operational changes. Therefore, it’s impossible to know just how outdated McConnell’s description of the application process actually is.

I still think that the information in his book is extremely valuable to potential JET applicants. In fact, my own experience with the application process and the information in Importing Diversity are extremely similar. Still, be sure to exercise your critical reading skills with the rest of this post.

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HBO's The Pacific

The Second World War is a massive subject, so I will endeavor to stick closely to the subject of The Pacific – the land war fought by the marines in the South Pacific and on the islands surrounding Japan. This will be very difficult for me…those who have had the misfortune of experiencing one of my rants about military history no doubt know that I have a tendency to get a bit overexcited. So, please forgive me for any subsequent deviations from the main theme.

When you think about the Pacific War, you need to think about two things: naval and air power. So much of our modern view of the military application of naval and air power is the product of WWII. When we examine the late 1930s and early 1940s, we need to understand that military thinking was quite different then. For example – the destruction of two-thirds of the Russian fleet at the hands of Admiral Togo in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima convinced nearly every military planner that battleships were going to be the most important and valuable piece of technology for a modern navy. Thus, everyone began building battleships. However, it was not the battleship that proved critical in the war in the Pacific but the aircraft carrier. The development of aviation caused the battleship to get leapfrogged. Nowadays, this seems completely obvious – of course an aircraft carrier’s ability to effectively project military force far exceeds the battleship. However, during the interwar years, military strategists were still unsure of exactly how to use aviation effectively. The Air Force didn’t even exist then, it was still merely a small and little respected division in the Army called the Air Corps (and another division with in the Navy). More importantly, most of the top brass in the Army and Navy remained unconvinced over how effective airpower could be. Yes, it had proved effective during WWI for gathering intelligence or when used in conjunction with land forces such as infantry. Many were skeptical of how effective airpower would be when used alone. This was partially because aviation was still rapidly developing at that time – in the late 1930s, airpower would not have been enough to replace either the navy or coastal artillery in America’s defense, despite Brigadier General William Mitchell’s claim that it could.[1] But it was also due to the revulsion that many felt at the idea of using airpower on civilian targets. You see, it was during WWII, with the aerial bombardments of Britain, Germany, Russia, Japan, China, and almost every single nation associated with the conflict by almost every single nation involved with the conflict, that we began to desensitize ourselves to the questionable morality of bombing densely populated urban areas. In any case, while it is difficult to overemphasis the importance of airpower in the Pacific War, it is also unlikely that many of America’s military planners fully realized this in the late 1930s-early 1940s.

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