Old Christmas, New Year  

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Christmas is done and dusted for another year, and despite my pre-Crimbo gloom, it turned out to be quite an enjoyable one. Perhaps prompted by a bit more explanation of the deeper meaning that Christmas carries with it for us gaijin, the wife made a big effort to make it a fun time for all of us. And indeed it was, despite the absence of that special Christmas Day feeling. It is totally unreasonable to expect that we will ever fully replicate the feeling of a “true” Christmas as far as I am concerned. Nevertheless, and as the missus pointed out, their family traditions are no less valid than mine. What I think of as a proper Christmas is just my opinion; that’s all. What I’ve always wanted is to try and bring a bit of extra magic and a bit of depth to their day. And I think it’s fair to say that this was achieved. Well, as much as can be expected anyway.

Now we are in the full throes of preparation for O-Shogatsu, the Japanese New Year. In contrast to Christmas, the Japanese take New Year very seriously indeed. The house has to be cleaned from top to bottom and all duties and obligations discharged by the end of the year, so that everyone can start the New Year afresh. It’s a nice thought and one that I am more than happy to go along with. It is customary to visit a Jinja (Shrine) to pray for good fortune in the coming year. In the past we have visited the massive Sensouji temple in Tokyo on New Year’s day. But it gets very crowded, so I think this year we’re going to sample the delights of our local jinja at the end of our street. They’re planning some special events so it looks like fun.

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A stiff drink  

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Spotted in Kichijoji

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Great expectations  

Sunday, 21 December 2008

I have just returned home from my first Bonenkai – the Japanese version of the Western Xmas party. Bonenkai means “forget the year”. While there is no tradition of Christmas here, as my last post explains in great detail, great store is placed in the year-end/New Year. So it’s a time to bring the year just gone to a close and to begin to look forward to the year ahead with renewed spirits of comradeship and shared endeavour.

Naturally, this is best accomplished with the aid of copious amounts of alcohol.

This evening’s do was courtesy of my iaido dojo. I say the word “my” with a good deal of pride, because I have today been formally accepted as a member of this dojo. This is actually a real honour and one that I am personally very thrilled about. I won’t bore you, dear reader, with the details but suffice to say, the lineage of my teacher – and therefore my own learning – can now be traced back over 450 years in a direct, unbroken line. It means a lot to me that I have been allowed to share in this treasured heritage.

But aside from all that, tonight was fun. I feel like I have joined a new little family. And I feel that I am a genuine part of it rather than just the “token gaijin”. I have read blogs by other western martial arts students in Japan – some of them in reference specifically to my dojo – where they have expressed a sense of bitterness about feeling “excluded”; of being allowed to participate, but not feeling part of the group. I am a bit perplexed by this, as this has not been my experience. It appears to me there can be only two explanations: Either I am too dumb to have noticed that I am being “excluded” or the person complaining of such exclusion has had a different experience to me. I genuinely feel it must be the latter, although I feel at a loss to explain why that should be the case. I suspect, however, that it’s something to do with people’s expectations.

Before joining this dojo, I had read on a particular blog about the “intense” sessions; the remorseless training regime that allowed no respite. As a middle-aged bloater, the words “intense” and “training” used in a single sentence are a genuine cause for anxiety. But as someone who prefers to make up his own mind, I went anyway.

The first class was tough: My legs hurt like crazy for a week afterwards and I had no skin left on the toes of both feet. But this is not unusual – I’ve had the same experience in England many, many times. It’s called a normal training session. It’s what I would expect from following any martial art discipline. Nobody said much to me while I was there – it didn’t bother me because I was there to train. So I went again, and again, and again. Slowly, people respond to the fact that you are serious about what you are doing.

The act of willingly putting yourself through a physically difficult routine is really the essence of martial arts. What you are doing is conditioning your mind as much as your body. But of course, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Unfortunately, this seems to have become the case with iaido in some parts of the world – the UK included. In some quarters, the perception of iaido appears to be – as with some Aikido schools – that it is a purely esoteric/spiritual pursuit, completely abstract to a real physical confrontation or a life-or-death encounter with an opponent armed with a razor-sharp sword. Consequently, the attitude in some quarters appears to be that if you don’t feel comfortable with a technique because your knee hurts or you are too fat to sit in tate hiza or you don’t like doing breakfalls, you can adapt the technique to suit your liking. Of course, this is utter nonsense.

In the UK, for example, it is very common to see people performing kneeling techniques from a standing position, even during a grading or in competition. I have not seen that done once here: either you do the technique properly, or you don’t do it at all.

There is a reason for that: It is the act of deliberately throwing yourself at the ground, or relentlessly practicing the same sword technique, even though your toes are bleeding and your legs are killing you that is training your mind to cope with difficult physical situations. The discomfort is the very essence of martial arts practice. Some people just can’t deal with that. Perhaps it is a sad reflection of our something-for-nothing western culture that some of these kind of people appear attracted to iaido because they see it as an easy route to a dan grade in a martial art. That maybe true in some places. But not here.

Personally, I am very happy to have been given the opportunity to spend 3 hour sessions under the gaze of an attentive and extremely knowledgeable teacher. I don’t expect anything in return – fancy certificates or impressive titles -  nothing except the hope that my technique will improve if I work hard and that I will enjoy the companionship of my fellow students while I practice. And perhaps even a few beers afterwards…What more could any martial artist want?

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よBloody ほほ (yo bloody ho ho)  

Friday, 19 December 2008

It’s Christmas time and here in Japan, like everywhere else in the known universe, that means streets festooned with decorations and Last Christmas blasting out from every shop PA system. However there is one major,major difference between Christmas here in Japan and the rest of the world: While the rest of the world will be enjoying a fun-filled, relaxing Christmas Day on December the 25th, in Japan all the decorations will be gone; the Christmas CDs shoved in the drawer under the counter until next year and all trace of Christmas spirit erased. The commuter trains will once again be packed to capacity during the morning rush hour and all over the country it will be very much “business as usual”.


The word superficial doesn’t even begin to describe the shallowness of Christmas here. This is not the first time I’ve been in Japan for Christmas, but there is something very different about this year in that I am actually living here rather than merely choosing to visit during the festive season as has been the case in the past. Previously, I guess like most Westerners, I was simultaneously amused and bemused by the Japanese approach to Christmas. As in everything else they do, the Japanese throw themselves at it with a vigour and enthusiasm that few other people could match. Every street, every shop and every window is lit up with galaxies of fairy lights. Yet they have absolutely no concept of why or what it’s all for. The meaning is utterly lost on them; like a middle-ager dropping some highly inappropriate Yoof buzzword they’ve picked up into a conversation, without realising its true obscene meaning – Christmas in Japan is amusing but at the same time, a bit disturbing.


The thing that is the most disturbing is that they really don’t care about the meaning – it’s just an excuse to put up lights, buy presents, eat cake and Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve. Once that’s done, that’s it. There is no significance whatsoever in any of it – it is as false and plastic and contrived as the Santa-suit clad Colonel Saunders figure that stands outside KFC.

I don’t consider myself to be a religious person as such, and if I was, I doubt that I would be particularly inclined to adopt mainstream Christian belief. Nevertheless, like most people around the world, I do believe that Christmas, Yuletide – whatever you want to call it – is a special time. A time when, just for a day or so, there can actually be Peace on Earth and where everyone, no matter what their beliefs and circumstances, should be able to feel the warmth of human affection, as expressed through family or friends. This appears to be an utterly alien concept to the Japanese - my wife included, who scoffs at the very notion.

According to her, Christmas means nothing – it’s just a shopping festival. My assertion that the festival carries with it a deeper and more profound personal significance for most people was roundly and aggressively slapped-down.

I was quite offended by the arrogance of this. How can someone who clearly has no concept of Christmas dismiss it as being trivial and worthless?

Emotionally difficult for sure, but also a very difficult thing for me to grasp intellectually. How can an otherwise rational and intelligent person fail to acknowledge that the idea of Christmas is – if not one of religious significance – then at least a noble one.

Of course I am very aware that Japan has no tradition of Christmas, and so I held no preconceptions that Christmas here would in any way resemble that in the UK. But in true British style, my natural inclination was to acquire the various iconic Crimbo elements as best I could i.e. Turkey, Crackers etc, and do the best to create a semblance of Christmas Day. Now, after experiencing my wife’s cold dismissal of its significance as a family festival, I have – quite unexpectedly – become a little depressed about it all.

But, after trawling through various blogs, I find that I am not alone. It seems that many gaijin before me have stubbed their toes on this particular cultural rock that lies just below the waterline. The words “depressing”, “shallow”, “bleak” are commonly used to describe the feelings that a Christmas driven exclusively by commercial cynicism evokes in the hearts of many Westerners. Some use stronger language; some even go so far as to return home at this time of year to avoid it.

Perhaps the answer is that there are some things that just can’t be explained or translated without a cultural reference point to relate it to. Christmas is perhaps one.

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If the shoe fits « Margaret and Helen  

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

I saw this post, written by an American lady called Helen Philpot concerning George Bush’s “shoe-dodging” incident. I can’t help thinking the views she expresses are echoed by a lot of American people, and certainly one held by this Englishman.

Well, I would have written sooner but I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to type more than a sentence or two.  Oh my goodness but did any of you see the incident with the Iraqi journalist, Muntathar al Zaidi, throwing his shoes at Georgie Boy?  I gotta believe there are millions of us who have wanted to do that very same thing.  It’s too bad Zaidi didn’t hit his intended target because he just might have knocked some sense into that thick Bush skull.  Not to mention the lucrative Nike contract that surely would have followed.

Eventually I did stop laughing, however, because after the initial reaction wore off, I started paying attention to the gravity of the situation.  In truth, it is not funny at all.  Offering someone the “sole of your shoe” is considered a grave insult in the Arab world.

But even more sobering is what  Zaidi said as he threw the shoes: “This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.” And after he was knocked to the ground he continued saying, “Killer of Iraqis, killer of children.”

OK. I am not thinking it is all that funny anymore. How about you?

But the way Bush reacted is probably the best example of why our 43rd President should be run out of town on a rail. After the shoe incident, Bush tried to laugh it all off by saying, “It didn’t bother me, and if you want the facts it was a size 10 shoe he threw at me.”

Well it should bother him, at least a little bit.  He is indeed responsible for thousands of widows and orphans. His orders to war did indeed result in the deaths of children.  Now look.  I understand that war is hell and unintended casualties are going to happen no matter how hard we try to avoid them. But this isn’t the first time Bush has displayed an apparent “carefree” attitude towards his presidency.

Three months after the World Trade Center went down, Bush was quoted as saying, “It’s been a fabulous year for Laura and me.” And in a more recent interview last month, he summed up his entire presidency as “a fabulous experience”.

Fabulous? Really? Not so much for the rest of us.

Maybe it’s just me, but when you are President during war time, you probably shouldn’t act like you are enjoying it quite so much.   Maybe more time pondering the consequences of your actions and less time feeling fabulous…

Folks, let me apologize in advance because I feel a big rant coming on. I can’t contain myself any longer. This moron of a soon to be past-President is a disgrace and a stain on the reputation of the United States of America. No that’s not good enough yet. I’m feeling like one of those Dixie Chicks and I think I need to say some more. George Bush is an asshole and a real son of a bitch. And yes, I did meet Barbara Bush once and I am not taking that statement back.

I am making a request of future generations:  The next time a village loses its idiot, please don’t elect him or her President.  Thank you.

There, I feel a better… but only slightly.

My apologies to all you good people out there who stopped by to read what I have to say. You probably deserved better than that last little rant. But I am glad you stopped by and I do hope you will again. I mean it. Really.

If the shoe fits « Margaret and Helen

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A contemporary history of teaching Maths in the UK  

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

(Old Cynic's Perspective)

1. Teaching Maths In 1970

A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is 4/5 of the price.
What is his profit?
2. Teaching Maths In 1980
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or £80.
What is his profit?
3. Teaching Maths In 1990
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is £80.
Did he make a profit?
4. Teaching Maths In 2000
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is £80 and his profit is £20.
Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

5. Teaching Maths In 2008

A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands.
He does this so he can make a profit of £20.
What do you think of this way of making a living?
Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes?
(There are no wrong answers. )
6. Teaching Maths In 2018
أ المسجل تبيع حموله شاحنة من الخشب من اجل 100 دولار. صاحب تكلفة
الانتاج من الثمن. ما هو الربح له؟

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an Englishman in Osaka  

Friday, 12 December 2008

 the gaijin dilemma

It's the stuff of nightmares for the gaijin in Japan. The thought of it is enough to send them running to the toilet. The reality of it is enough to cause profuse sweating and the breakout of an itchy rash in the nether regions.
The dilemma is whether to acknowledge fellow gaijin walking along the street. Don't let any gaijin tell you it's not a dilemma. In fact, the ones who pretend not to notice their fellow gaijin are the ones with the loudest voice in their head and the biggest knot in their stomach. It's written all over their face.
Their internal dialogue usually goes something like this:
"Oh, what a nice day, I think I'll go and.....oh shit is that a gaijin up ahead? Or just a Japanese person with blonde hair? Shit, it IS a gaijin. What shall I do? Acknowledge? Smile? Completely ignore him? If I smile and he doesn't, I'll feel like an idiot, and maybe it looks like I've just arrived in Japan yesterday and I'll look all naive and lost, but actually I've been here nine years and I know everything.
But hey, I'm friendly, why shouldn't I say hello? Maybe he's nice. He probably won't even look at me; pretend I'm not even here, pretend he hasn't seen me.
Shit, he's getting closer. Hey, he's looking the other way in a most unnatural fashion - so he's definitely seen me! He's looking all over the place, everywhere except AT ME. So he's going through the same hell as me right now. Moving into the critical zone now...I'll go for it....Hello."
Other gaijin: "Hello."

A gaijin with a red T-shirt and a red face.

an Englishman in Osaka

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Mt Fuji at sunset  

Sunday, 7 December 2008

We visited my beloved J-Mart DIY store this afternoon. On coming out, I was surprised to see Fuji san silouetted against the evening sky. It's not often that you get to see the mountain due to the cluttered skyline and photochemical haze that hangs over the city during the day. My shaky picture taken on a cellphone doesn't really do it justice. But it was a powerful and unexpected encounter with this most Japanese of icons, made all the more striking by its appearance in the most mundane of settings.

Fuji is an impressive sight. At 12,388 ft (3776m) it is the highest of Japan's many mountains. Even though it is around 60 miles away, it has a brooding presence that makes it seem far closer. I was surprised - and a little shocked - to learn that Fuji san is officially an active volcano, albeit with a low probablility of eruption. As someone who grew up in the comparatively benign environment of the British Isles I must admit to being quite terrified of volcanoes. I sometimes question the wisdom of moving to a country that boasts over 10% of the world's active ones! We Brits are not accustomed to thinking of Mother Nature as anything other than nurturing and obliging in her bountiful gifts. Here it's a different story. Of course it's a beautiful country, but there is an unspoken understanding that it is also a fragile one; for all its rich culture and its technological advances, Japan is completely at the mercy of Mother Nature. Fuji san awakening from its slumbers, for example, would be enough to turn Tokyo into an ash-choked wasteland.

As I gazed at Fuji san, it was a sobering thought that this dark silouette on the horizon had the power to change the lives of literally millions of people at a stroke - not the sort of apocolyptic vision likely to be encountered in the car park at B&Q Canterbury.

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