Tag Archive: japan

Feb 04

Heading Home

After 86 days in Canada, it is time to head home to Yokohama. In that time, my son has gone from six months to eight and a half months. In other words, a mostly inert sleeping airplane baby to a baby who may not take well to sitting on his parents’ laps for a 13 hour flight (mostly through daylight hours, E.S.T.).

The flight here was quite pleasant, and Hammy slept through most of it, but the logistics are different going home: we fly at noon, local time, instead of 17:00. And he was a little too long for the bassinet last time, meaning that he’ll be much too long for it now. I imagine his legs sticking straight up into the air if we try to lay him down in it. Also, when we flew here, his only movement was an occasional roll-over. Now, he’s used to crawling from room to room and pursuing different toys (or power cords, or expensive cameras, etc…).

Kumiko’s _IMG_2220

 

<— This is the baby we left Japan with.Mmmph! 

 

 

And this is the baby we are coming home with     —>

 

 

 

 

 

Hmm. I guess that doesn’t really prove my point at all.

In any case, I am looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, something I haven’t done since the week Hammy was born. (We moved up to the tatami room and slept there until we left Japan, but now that he’s crawling, we’re thinking the playpen in our bedroom may be safer for him and for our shoji.)

Feb 06

Yikes! No Proof of my Name?

The current alien registration system in Japan allows foreigners to adopt a Japanese "nickname". "Nickname" sounds very informal, but what it is is an official alternate name that can be used on any legal documents not related to immigration.

 

The info about the new registration system has been released ::HERE::. Worryingly, on page 15, it says that these legal nicknames will no longer appear on our cards. This is problematic because I’ve always used my registration card to prove that my kanji name is real when using it on documents (I bought my house under my Japanese name).

 

ResidentCardsSystemCover

I do have it as well as a note on the back of my driver’s license (glad I put it on there, now), but in the past, pulling out my alien registration card was an easy way of proving my name. I can probably still use my driver’s license for this, but what about people who don’t have driver’s licenses? Does that mean carrying some kind of paper certificate around  whenever you might have to sign or hanko something? Is that certificate even available to us? (I wouldn’t know: never had to use it.)

 

There are a few things to like about the new system (longer periods of stay, for instance, although that no longer affects me much), a few things to worry about (the rules for re-entry of under a year look a bit fuzzy; enforcement (see below)), and a few things to dislike (more trips to immigration, which since a few years ago in Yokohama, has been relocated from downtown to the sticks). On the whole, it seems like a net loss to me. My main concern is that by tying the card directly to immigration and decoupling it from municipal authorities, the penalties for not following the rules will be enforced more harshly.

 

For instance, if you change jobs in Japan, you’re supposed to notify immigration within 30 days. In the rush of leaving one job, looking for work, finding work, and starting a new job, it’s sometimes possible to end up with a gap of a few days or a few weeks when you’re between jobs and over the 30-day limit. In the old days, the municipal workers didn’t blink twice. My concern is that people will start being penalized (i.e. deported) for minor violations of this sort, the way they are now for overstaying their visa by one day (which is negligent, but also not impossible to do when dealing with flying out to a country on the other side of the dateline). As a permanent resident (who is freelance), I don’t think this affects me, but I am worried about the consequences of the new system. The old system wasn’t perfect, but it was old, and we understood how it worked, in practice.

Sep 06

Shambolic Subways

Have not had great luck with subways today.

STORY 1

On my way to give my talk for ASIOS at Bungeisha, I had to take the Tokyo subways. My final train change was at Akasaka-Mistuke. I followed the signs on the platform, noting that the line I needed to change to was a whopping 600+ meters from where I now stood. Not unused to silly distances in the subways, I started walking.

When I arrive, I realize that I have actually walked to the next station on the line– and the opposite direction of my destination. I assume if I had disembarked at the opposite end of the platform at Akasak-Mitsuke, I would have seen a sign directing me to my transfer, less than 100 meters away.

Score another victory for the absolute shit signage on the Tokyo subways.!

 

STORY 2

Arrived an hour early for my talk (whoops). Spent the time eating in the shambolic Subway Sandwiches near Shinjuku-Gyoenmae station.

1) Entrance so crammed (architecturally) that I could not get in the door.
2) Napkins rationed (one tiny one apiece, and no extras available where customers could get one)
3) Not enough seats (maybe 10 counter seats), and 50% of the people in them lolligagging, i.e. finished eating and playing with cellphone, or in one case, SLEEPING.
4) Once I got a seat, I realized that the counter and floor was filthy; it looked as if someone had put his/her cigarette out on the wall. Propped my bag on the footrest to avoid having it touch the slightly sticky floor
5) No toilets. I dropped some sandwich on myself because I am a massive klutz, and had only my tiny napkin to wipe it with. Staff were so overwhelmed it was daunting to even try to talk to them.

I realized that for North America, I’ve probably described the height of luxury, but for Japan (and a major chain), this is pretty low.

Am now sitting next door in the (comparably) high-rent St-Marc Cafe (of Chococro fame), idling the rest of my time away.

Jul 25

Arnie Gundersen – The Facade of Believability

Arnold “Arnie” Gundersen is in some ways the opposite of Michio Kaku. He’s not flashy, he avoids sounding over-the-top, even when he talks about grim scenarios, and he doesn’t wave his arms around like a mad scientist.

 

Gundersen talks a hot load of crap.

 

The first time I saw Gundersen, I thought he looked like the kind of man I could trust. He looks like somebody’s kindly grandpa. He was doing a demonstration in his back yard with a blow torch about the effect of heat on the cladding of a nuclear reactor fuel rod. It was informative and educational, and not at all dishonest, as far as I could tell.

 

I realized quickly that Gundersen was anti-nuclear power, but in the early videos that I saw, he was very cautious and said very few things that made me think he wasn’t being honest. It seemed to me that he was just interpreting the information coming out from Japan. I didn’t find his commentary particularly interesting, so I didn’t pay much more attention to him. I also missed his statement early on on “Russia Today” that the Fukushima incident was “Chernobyl on steroids”.

 

Then, on March 31, Gundersen posted a video claiming that the spent fuel pool in Reactor 4 was dry and that the spent fuel rods were exposed to the air. He based this not on information released, but on his analysis of a low-quality video of the reactor building that he found on Ustream. This video started spreading on Facebook, and so Arnie Gundersen once again wandered into my field of view.

 

Something felt wrong. He was more slippery than Michio Kaku– he wasn’t saying anything that I as a non-scientist could pinpoint as factually incorrect. As far as I could tell, he was just extrapolating a little more than I felt comfortable with.

 

Over the days and weeks that followed, I found his videos being posted on Facebook and Twitter more and more, saying more and more scary things that just didn’t sound right. It was around this time that he started being interviewed as an expert by the mainstream media. So I did a little digging to see if this grandfatherly man who seemed so trustworthy was really what he appeared to be.

 

What I discovered was that Gundersen’s company, Fairewinds Associates, is a for-profit company that hires him out to provide expert testimony and write research papers for anti-nuclear groups. He has a lot to gain then by making sure his appearances in the media make nuclear power sound dangerous.

Gundersen is the “Chief Engineer” of Fairewinds Associates, and is often introduced as such on news programs. That title is meaningless since Gundersen is the only engineer at Fairewinds: the company consists of just him and his wife.

 

On RT (“Russia Today”) in a clip that has been translated into Japanese and posted on YouTube, the host talks about Gundersen being “part of the nuclear industry” in what seems to be an effort to make Gundersen look more credible. “Oh!” thinks the viewer, “He works for the nuclear industry and he’s saying all these terrible things about Fukushima and nuclear power. He’s speaking against his own interests, since he won’t have a job if nuclear power is abolished, so he must be telling the truth!”

 

The truth is, as I’ve shown already, that Gundersen is a for-hire anti-nuclear consultant, and although he claims “39 years of nuclear power engineering experience” on his website, that is not the case. Since Gundersen has been an expert witness in several cases, his accurate resume is available online in the public record for anyone to see. According a version of his resume from 2006, Gundersen’s career did start 39-40 years ago in 1971, but he only worked in the industry until 1990.

 

In 1990 he was dismissed from his job in the industry. He claims that he was a whistleblower, his company claimed defamation, and they settled out-of-court. From that time until at least 2006 he seems to have worked full-time as a teacher at various private schools in Vermont, doing “expert” consulting in order to supplement his income. I don’t think either teaching or being paid as an “expert” witness count as “nuclear power engineering experience”.

 

Gundersen also claims that he was a licensed reactor operator (he calls himself a “critical facility reactor operator, instructor” on that portion of his resume), but some investigation reveals that the reactor in question was a 100 Watt “critical assembly” at a school. That reactor generated no power and cannot be said to have provided Gundersen with any experience in operating or maintaining an actual nuclear power plant.

 

A browse through the Fairewinds Associates website is also telling. There is no video content on the site that predates Gundersen’s March 15, 2011 appearance on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. His first self-produced video appears on March 17. It appears very slick from the get-go, with good production values, and makes me wonder if Fairewinds, smelling money in the air, hadn’t suddenly hired a PR firm right after the Fukushima crisis began. I don’t have any information to prove this, but the timing is a bit suspicious.

 

So why am I picking on poor Grandpa Gundersen? Because as he got more media exposure, his international profile grew, and his statements were being accepted without question by the English-language media and then being spread around in Japan. And as time went on and less new and exciting information emerged from Fukushima, his exaggerations and distortions became easier to spot, even by a guy with a Fine Arts degree.

 

For instance, you’ll remember that Gundersen claimed the spent fuel pool in Reactor 4 had gone dry. According to a June 15 story in the Associated Press, a new video emerged proving that the Japanese officials were right and the spent fuel pool had not gone dry, as the U.S. officials (and Gundersen) had insisted. Gundersen has not removed the video about the spent fuel pool going dry from his website, which is to be commended, but neither has he issued an apology or retraction now that evidence has emerged that contradicts his analysis.

 

On June 12 Gundersen released a video on the Fairewinds Associates site that I think is very illustrative of the kind of nonsense Gundersen is spreading into the media. He records about one “update” on Fukushima every week, but I thought this one is the most illustrative of how he is becoming bolder in his claims as time goes on.

 

Gundersen claimed:

 

  • The stricken reactors had released more “hot particles” than TEPCO had originally thought and that people in Tokyo were breathing in 10 of these every day in April
  • These “hot particles” are undetectable with a regular Geiger counter
  • These “hot particles” were detected by “independent scientists” in Tokyo using air filters
  • These “hot particles” are undetectable inside the body
  • These “hot particles” latch onto tissue and irradiate a small area (he expanded on this in a June 14th interview on CNN) (this is “hot particle” theory)
  • “People” in Japan are reporting a metallic taste in their mouths
  • People also reported metallic tastes in their mouth near Three Mile Island, when undergoing medical imaging, after Chernobyl, etc.

 

These claims, particularly those of “hot particles” were repeated in interviews on CNN, Fox News, and other TV networks, as well as in many online articles.

 

As we’ve already discussed, “hot particle” theory is pretty solidly debunked, but more worrying in this case is that Gundersen has started being cagey about where his information is coming from. For instance, the “independent scientists” in Tokyo who were allegedly sending him data on “hot particles”. Who are they? There doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to hide their identities… unless they don’t exist.

 

Also, assuming for just a moment that any of what Gundersen said was true (I cannot find anyone other than him originating information on radioactive particles in air filters; all links about it lead back to him), my question would be: how many “hot particles” per day were we breathing in before this? Radioactive particles were already in the air, long before Fukushima Daiichi got hit by a tsunami: particles that were put there by other industry, from bomb testing during the cold war, etc. So the missing piece of information is what’s the difference now? But even at 10 particles per day– if we’re talking about particles with radiation levels so low that they cannot be detected, it seems odd to hit the panic button.

 

The whole story about people reporting metallic tastes in their mouths is also a bit of a shocker, coming from a scientist. There are many things that can cause a metallic taste in a person’s mouth. Here is a partial list:

 

antibiotics and medications used for treatment of

  • kidney stones
  • antidepressants
  • prenatal vitamins
  • anaesthetic ~ lidocaine
  • heart failure ~ captopril
  • giardiasis ~ metronidazole
  • trichomoniasis ~ tinidazole
  • CT scan ~ contrast medium
  • chronic alcoholism ~ disulfiram
  • rheumatoid arthritis ~ auranofin
  • high blood pressure ~ captopril
  • low calcium treatment ~ calcitriol
  • weight loss, diabetes ~ metformin

dental problems

  • gingivitis
  • periodontitis
  • tooth infections

other

  • cancer
  • food allergy
  • peptic ulcer
  • lichen planus
  • marine toxins
  • too much iron
  • hypercalcemia
  • lead poisoning
  • bleeding gums
  • kidney disease
  • eating pine nuts
  • copper overdose
  • selenium toxicity
  • iodine intoxication
  • mercury poisoning
  • cadmium poisoning
  • acute kidney failure
  • burning mouth syndrome

 

Tokyo is a city of over ten million people. Given all the possible causes, surely every day a number of people experience a metallic taste in their mouths. Reporting on anecdotal evidence like this is not only unscientific, but unethical given the anxiety that it causes.

 

Gundersen has got a lot of play in the international media, and his videos have spread virally via bilingual Japanese people who have translated and posted them on the Internet. I hope that I’ve shown that Gundersen is not a trustworthy source of information about Fukushima for the following reasons:

 

  • He has been dishonest about his qualifications and work experience
  • He misrepresents himself (or at least allows others to misrepresent him) as part of the nuclear industry
  • He has an undeclared direct financial interest in increasing his profile as an anti-nuclear power consultant in order to attract new clients
  • He subscribes to a theory of low-level radiation damage that has been discredited
  • He has made claims that have been proven to be false
  • He has made claims that don’t stand up to investigation, are anecdotal, and are unfalsifiable
  • As time goes on and Fukushima produces less dramatic news, Gundersen’s reports become more dramatic.

I hope this has been helpful. I wish that the media would be a little less credulous when dealing with experts, and challenge statements that sound wrong, but failing that, it’s our job to not take whatever an “expert” says at face value and to ask questions.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The information about Gundersen’s company, Fairewinds Associates is mostly available on the company’s own website at fairewinds.com.

Gundersen’s 2006 resume is available online here: http://www.necnp.org/files/docs/NEC_March_8_2006_Appeal_re_Docket_6812_filings_3_8_06.pdf pages 26 – 29.

The information about his claims about running a reactor were first reported here: http://atomicinsights.com/2011/02/arnie-gundersen-has-inflated-his-resume-yet-frequently-claims-that-entergy-cannot-be-trusted.html

The information about the spent fuel pool not being dry originally came from a June 15/16 Associated Press article (date depends on your time zone). That article has now been taken down, but the text is still floating around on various news sites:
http://articles.boston.com/2011-06-16/news/29666500_1_fuel-pool-nrc-fuel-rods

The list of conditions that can cause a metallic taste in a person’s mouth were lifted directly from an article at Healthblurbs.com: http://www.healthblurbs.com/many-causes-of-metallic-taste-metal-taste-in-mouth-and-taste-of-metal-in-your-mouth-symptoms/

 

Other references are the same as the ones for Kaku.

Jul 24

Michio Kaku Rant – Bibliography

Just a quickie bibliography for my recent post about bullshit artist Michio Kaku.

 

On Plutonium toxicity:

Most of my points about plutonium can be found in the plutonium article on Wikipedia.

 

The quotation about 5000 respirable particles was sourced from a plutonium human health fact sheet published by the Argonne National Laboratory.

 

More info about plutonium toxicity, and the list of organizations who have dismissed “Hot Particle” theory was sourced from Bernard L. Cohen’s book The Nuclear Energy Option, chapter 13 (see the section on plutonium toxicity) and his paper The Myth of Plutonium Toxicity. The latter is also the source of my statement that a microgram of ingested plutonium will give you one chance in a million of getting cancer.

 

Bernard L. Cohen is a controversial figure in the Nuclear debate, but he uses the most conservative model of low-level radiation danger (the Linear No-Threshold Model) to come up with his figures.

 

Information about MOX fuel comes again from Wikipedia’s page on the subject.

 

When using Wikipedia, I have clicked through to the references and read the source material whenever possible.

Jul 23

Michio Kaku = Douche

Here’s a section of the book chapter I wrote for ASIOS’s upcoming book. Since it’s only going to be published in Japanese, I wanted to share some of it with you. Keep in mind that it’s written for Japanese readers, and for each person or media source I wrote about, I was asked to explain why Japanese people should care.
 
***
 
Michio Kaku, despite his Japanese name, is American, and not very well known over here. Kaku is a MichioKaku_commonsrespected theoretical physicist, professor, and the co-founder of string field theory. He also is a populariser of science, meaning that he works to communicate science to the general population by making it easier to understand. He is also a futurist, which means that he attempts to predict what life in the future will be like. He frequently appears on science and news programs in the west, and has a definite facility for making science sound exciting. He’s a very imaginative man and can paint very compelling images with his words.
 

The problem is that as far as I can tell, Kaku will accept any offer to appear in the media and comment on science stories, even when they are outside his area of expertise. Kaku has said that humans have stopped evolving (“gross” evolution, he called it, using a word he just made up); opposed the Cassini space probe launch because it had plutonium on board; and has stated that UFOs are real and that aliens have visited Earth (and they’re invisible).

 

Regardless of how silly these claims are, I will limit my analysis to his comments on the Fukushima incident and its aftermath. He appeared on many television shows (Late Night with David Letterman, Real Time with Bill Maher, Fox News Insider, CNN, NBC’s Nightline, ABC news, Democracy Now, and more…) in the days, weeks, and months following March 11, saying whatever he could to make the situation sound even more dramatic and dangerous than it was.

 

But isn’t he an expert? He is a physicist, after all. True, but he is a theoretical physicist, not a nuclear physicist. Aren’t they close enough? Not really. An anatomy lecturer and a neurologist are both highly trained people who hold doctorate degrees, but if you had a rare brain disease, you’d want to consult the neurologist, who actually practices medicine, and not the lecturer, who mostly deals with paper and the occasional dissection of a cadaver.

 

As a theoretical physicist, Kaku works on paper with ideas and mathematics. He does not work with things that exist in the actual, physical world, the way an experimental physicist or engineer would.

 

Of course, this isn’t enough to condemn his opinion as uninformed or dishonest on its own. To get a clear picture of Kaku’s style, you need to look at what he’s actually said:

 

 

[Reactor] 3 is so dangerous because it’s the only reactor containing what is called Mixed Oxide Fuel i.e., plutonium. Plutonium is one of the most toxic chemicals known to science. A dust particle that you can’t even see, inhaled into your lungs, could cause lung cancer.

-Michio Kaku, ABC News, March 26, 2011

 

“Plutonium is the most toxic chemical known to science! A speck of plutonium, a millionth of a gram, could cause cancer if it’s ingested.”

-Michio Kaku, ABC News, March 25,2011

 

 

Kaku has a habit of saying things that are inaccurate and therefore misleading. In this case, his words make Mixed Oxide Fuel– the same MOX fuel that the Natural News was hysterical about– sound as if it’s just another word for plutonium. In reality, MOX is generally manufactured with 5% – 7% plutonium, the other 93% – 95% being uranium. 30% of that plutonium is consumed when the fuel is used.

 

He also describes plutonium as “the most toxic chemical known to science”, which begs the question: “Really?” Kaku seems no more informed on this subject than the people he is being interviewed by. Especially since he claims that ingesting a millionth of a gram could cause cancer. He’s right: ingesting one millionth of a gram of plutonium can give you about one chance in a million of getting a radiation-caused cancer. So yes, it could cause cancer. So can a sunburn, but people still go outdoors.

 

 

Plutonium Toxicity

 

Because I am not a physicist or a chemist or a medical doctor, I will keep this as short and as simple as I possibly can.

 

Along with beta and gamma radiation, plutonium emits alpha radiation. The alpha radiation is the biggest danger in terms of toxicity, because most plutonium isotopes release only very low energy beta particles, and very little gamma radiation. Harmless before it enters the body (alpha particles cannot penetrate the outer layer of human skin; even a sheet of paper is enough to block them), once inside the body alpha radiation is the most destructive form of ionizing radiation.

 

However, unlike other radioactive isotopes which make their way into the food chain, Plutonium tends to form itself into large molecules which have difficulty being absorbed by plants or animals, either through roots or digestive tracts. This means that the greatest risk of plutonium toxicity is by inhalation. When inhaled, about 5% of the plutonium gets absorbed into the body and migrates mostly to the bones and to the liver, where it can sit for many decades, irradiating surrounding tissue, possibly causing cancer (usually lung, liver, or bone cancers).

 

Despite how bad this sounds, this information is gleaned in part from laboratory studies of animals given relatively high doses of plutonium. Epidemiological studies of human populations exposed to plutonium dust do not corroborate the observations reported in animals. In other words, the results from high dose experiments are not reflected in studies of low-dose exposures.  Rises in lung cancer throughout the United States, for instance, generally correspond to areas with high air pollution, whereas in communities downwind from the Nevada nuclear bomb-test site where one would expect to see an increase of (plutonium-caused) cancers, there has been no such increase.

 

Further, according to a fact sheet released by the Argonne National Laboratory in 2005: “…breathing in 5,000 respirable plutonium particles of about 3 microns each is estimated to increase an individual’s risk of incurring a fatal cancer about 1% above the U.S. average.”

 

Plutonium is dangerous, but certainly does not deserve the moniker “most toxic chemical known to mankind” or the like.

 

What about Kaku’s other claim? That a tiny particle of plutonium can give you lung cancer? This is a claim we hear over and over again from the likes of Helen Caldicott and Christopher Busby. It’s mostly based on the “Hot Particle” theory, which has been discredited for years.

 

“Hot Particle” Theory

 

A “hot particle”, has no precise definition, but is essentially a very small (microscopic), highly radioactive particle that due to its electrical charge, will “hop” from one surface to another.

 

The “hot particle” theory posits that the hot particles are more dangerous than previously thought because once ingested or inhaled, their electrical charge will cause them to stick in one place. This has led to claims that the particles give a much higher than average dose to just a few cells, increasing the chance of causing a cancer by 100,000 times more than mainstream science would predict.

 

This theory has not been backed up by actual studies. In fact studies by

 

  • the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
  • the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement (NCRP)
  • the British Medical Research Council
  • the U.K. National Radiological Protection Board
  • the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission
  • the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • the U.K. Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution

 

have investigated and rejected the “hot particle” theory of increased cancer risk.

 

Nor is theory borne out in real-life incidents. According to the theory, the 26 workers who breathed in significant amounts of plutonium dust at Los Alamos during the 1940s should have developed about 200 lung cancers between them. As of 1991, just three of them had developed lung cancer. Those three were also smokers (in the United States, 87% of lung cancer cases are estimated to be caused by smoking).

 

This theory is considered to be discredited by mainstream science.

 

 

The leadership [in Japan] is disconnected from reality. They’re not physicists, they’re not engineers… -Michio Kaku, In the Arena on CNN, March 18, 2011

 

As early as March 18 and well into early April, Kaku was making the rounds on news and entertainment shows, urging the Japanese government to “call in the military” and “bury the sucker!” (meaning the Fukushima reactors). He didn’t seem to realize that the JSDF were already deployed, or that burying the reactors was a bad idea while they were still generating heat. (So apparently, he’s not much of an engineer either…)

 

Why do people believe Kaku, and why do news shows keep asking him to comment? Partly because he is able to talk in very simple, direct, and above all, entertaining language (“…we could lose a good chunk of northern Japan!”) that appeals to newscasters and their viewers, and partly because he obviously makes himself available.  In my opinion, he is a shameless self-promoter who cares more about getting himself public exposure than the truth.

 

On the same episode of “In the Arena” quoted above, Kaku slyly seemed to accept credit for Prime Minister Kan’s statement that burying the reactors was a possibility once they were stabilized:

 

I was on national television, and it got picked up by NHK… and their Prime Minister finally got around to saying ‘And oh gee, maybe we should think about this option.’ So it’s seeping its way now into the highest levels of Japanese government.”

I could probably write a whole chapter just on Michio Kaku alone, but I hope that I’ve given an overview of why what he says should not be taken at face value. My impression is that his comments have not been directly reported much in Japan. The problem is that because he is so widely respected, and appears on television so much, on American networks of all political stripes (from Fox News to Democracy Now), what he has said has shaped the tone of the reporting coming out of the U.S. He was leading the charge of people shouting to bury Fukushima, he was giving the American networks many of the doomsday scenarios that flowed back to us over the Internet, and in general he was feeding the fear machine and enabling other doomsayers with his thoughtless “science”.

 

UPDATE: Have added a quickie bibliography in a follow-up post.

Jul 16

All Hands

Okay, here’s the blog entry I promised to write back in May. It’s fucking long, so I won’t blame you if you don’t read it. If you’re one of the amazing people I met and made friends with up in Oofunato, I really hope I don’t lose your friendship because of this post. But I need to get this done so I can forget, forgive, and move on.

 

As you may recall, All Hands was the name of the group I volunteered with in Oofunato from May 21 – 28. I mentioned after returning from that trip that I hadn’t been all that impressed with the organization, and that I would write a blog entry about it.

Cleaning the tambo in Rikuzentakata, Day 2.

Brian Chapman has probably had some good ideas. Spray painting his hand in order to brand the new wheelbarrows for All Hands was not one of them.

The reason I haven’t already done it is simply because I feel weird about calling out a group that is doing really important volunteer work. On the other hand, I feel the need to get this off my chest.

 

Let me open by saying that I’m a dick. It will help if  I’m clear with that up front. Me = dick. Anyone who knows me will probably agree that I’m a hyper-critical puckered anus of an excuse for a human being. And it’s true. It’s one of the reasons I was able to work in I.T. for so long: that job was constantly about finding new problems or inefficiencies and trying to fix them. It’s also what I try to do when I work on Theatre. A play is a problem, a question of how best to tell a story, that I try to solve—never to my own satisfaction, I might add.

 

So, now that we’ve cleared that up, here are my problems with All Hands:

 

Bad Communication & Organization

Probably all non-profits suffer from this to some degree, and with as many projects as All Hands has going on in the world, I can’t say I’m shocked. I think they may have expanded operations too quickly. The bulk of the paid staff appear to have been lifted from volunteers on other projects (mostly Haiti); they’re really young and not very experienced. I’ve heard it joked that the left can’t organize. I don’t think that’s true, but certainly the hippy-dippy attitude towards organization didn’t help.  Examples:

 

  • Time sensitive emails did not get answered promptly.
    • It happened a lot but the most annoying one was: One of my emails about whether I needed to bring certain bulky items of gear sent two days before I left for Oofunato didn’t get answered until about one hour before my arrival in the city.
  • Despite the fact that they were expecting me the evening I arrived (as requested, I was sending constant updates about my ETA as things changed) and that people frequently arrived in the late evening, the All Hands HQ has absolutely no markings at street level, nor are the inside lights visible from the street. If I hadn’t been sure about the location on google maps, I probably would have wandered around for an hour trying to find the place.
  • They had not told me that I’d need a copy of my Japanese health insurance card (I’m still not sure why), which I needed to get my wife to fax in after I was already there.
  • I had to convince them that they didn’t need to see my passport (and in fact, by law, I was not required to show it to them), and that they could use my driver’s license instead. Despite the fact that there were other long-term expats in the group, as well as native Japanese, it seemed that they were at a loss in terms of handling me
  • House rules were not communicated clearly (more on this and Marc’s insane “No Sign” rule later)
  • Towards the end of the week I was there, the group meetings which we had every day after dinner were averaging about 90 minutes in length.
  • Their introductory letter said that vegetarians would be accommodated, but advised us to have a sense of humour about it because food was sourced locally and that sometimes getting vegetarian meals might not be possible. On arrival, I was told that ALL lunches were non-vegetarian bento. Ha-ha-ha.

There was more, but that’s what I can remember off the top of my head.

 

The Young Bunch 

As I mentioned before, most of the paid staff are not very experienced. Most of them aren’t yet comfortable with the idea of being an authority figure, I think, and tend to take a kind of elementary school-teacher approach to it.

 

Granted: it’s a hard line to walk between trying to treat everyone like equals, but also assert your authority when necessary. The Flying Spaghetti Monster knows I’ve failed at exactly the same thing. But I was expecting a group of admins who had had more experience at, you know, administrating.

 

This is partly my problem too. I don’t respond well to authority figures who I feel are even more clueless than I am. No matter how much I like them (they were all very likeable people).

 

Cliques

A group like this is going to get cliquey. There’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve got some people who are more charismatic than others, you’ve got some people who everyone knows because they’ve been there since day one… and then you’ve got schmucks like me who fade into the wallpaper. This is going to happen.

 

But if you’re a paid staff member, I expect you to be above this crap. The first night I was there, since I was sleeping in the main common room (common practice for people’s first nights), I could hear the staff and some of the volunteers who had been yanked into doing some of the office work being catty about about people. This did not impress me, and it was clear right from the beginning that there was an “in” group, and like a bunch of high schoolers, they were going to gatekeep the hell out of it.

 

You can say this is sour grapes on my part because I was on the outside of that group (and the other groups as well). But I’m always on the outside, and I’m perfectly happy doing my thing on the periphery. What bothers me is that people who are being paid to handle the volunteers can’t even seem to pretend to be above it all. Later on, when I had a problem with another volunteer, I didn’t feel I could talk to anyone about it because she was a member of that main “in” group. (In fact, she’d been one of the people keeping me awake that first night being catty.)

 

The two older members of the team, Satoshi and Marc, the two directors of the project, did hold themselves aloof from the cliques, but I didn’t feel comfortable going to them for other reasons, which we’ll get to.

 

 

Cultural Sensitivity”

All Hands is an American group, with most of the volunteers coming from outside Japan, mostly the US and UK, so they need to be extra careful to make sure the community doesn’t reject them. Oofunato is a small town, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that while small town people can be extremely friendly, they can also be wary of outsiders. Accordingly, All Hands was worried about making sure their volunteers, many of whom would be considered a bit rough around the edges, didn’t do anything to upset the locals. Totally understandable.

 

They had some weird policies carried over from the project in Haiti: don’t give gifts, and don’t accept gifts. Just before I got there, they’d been persuaded to ease the rules on accepting gifts. We live in a gifts-based culture here. It’s a matter of pride for some of the locals to give things in thanks for the work that the group was doing. They weren’t doling out lavish presents: they would just drive by and drop off some Coca-Cola, or invite a few people in for tea or soup. Refusing these tokens would have been very rude.

 

The rule on gift-giving, however, had not been lifted. I came with an entire suitcase full of art supplies that I ended up bringing back with me to Yokohama because I was told I couldn’t give them away. (One of the other volunteers talked about arranging to have them donated to a local school on a hush-hush basis, but it never happened.) A gift of a guitar to an evacuee girl in the center we were staying at had also be made on the sly.

 

I’m not sure who they got their initial advice from, but by the time I got there, most of their “cultural sensitivity” information seemed to be coming from this sour, middle-aged woman from Tokyo. She would scold people for leaving their slippers or shoes pointing the wrong way outside the door, among other things. I shouldn’t need to write this, but Japanese people leave their slippers the wrong way around all the time. In fact, not three meters from the door to our common room in the community center, the residents in the center were doing exactly that.

 

Guess who my partner was on my first crew?

 

Yup.

 

We were going to clean baths at an evacuation centre, and the work pants I’d brought to Tohoku were Japanese-style construction pants (nikka-pokka), which are tight in the ankles, and not very easy to roll up. So I changed into my casual clothes.

 

Have I mentioned I normally don’t wear pants? I wear a kilt. Europe 2008

 

A casual kilt, but a kilt nonetheless. Great for a job in a place that would leave pants soaking wet.

 

Well, this sourpuss I mentioned earlier takes one look at me, and it’s not a nice look. I smile, but before I can say “hi”, “おはようございます”, “nice to meet you”, or any of the other things one might say to someone when meeting him or her for the first time, she puckers up her face as if passing a kidney stone and says: “Is that what you’re wearing?”

 

“Yes."

 

"Can you change your clothes?”

 

“Nope.”

 

I figure that’s going to be the end of it, and I’m not going to stand around and let a fight start so I go to my bag to pack my mini-bag for the day. As I do, I hear her speaking sharply in Japanese to the woman she’s sitting with. I can make out enough to know she’s bitching about me, so I stop what I’m doing and say: “何ですか?どうした?"  Basically: “What is it? What’s the problem?” It’s a little bit rude of me, but this type of person gets under my skin easily and I’ve only had about three hours sleep thanks to the chatty staff last night.

 

I take a deep breath and make an attempt to politely explain why I’ve chosen to wear this article of clothing. She goes quiet.

 

Fifteen minutes later we’re downstairs, and I see her talking to Satoshi (one of the two project directors I mentioned earlier), and the next thing I know I’m being trooped upstairs again to talk to Marc (the main project director). I don’t actually talk to Marc: Satoshi pulls me aside and has a talk with me. I try to be reasonable: the guy’s in a tough position, and he’s either decided it’s more important to keep sourpuss happy than me, or he’s accepted her claptrap that I’m going to upset the (mostly older) residents of the evacuation centre. He speaks English perfectly, which leads me to wonder if maybe he hasn’t actually spent a lot of time in Japan. If he had, he’d probably know better.

 

I make the point that I’m not fresh off the airplane, I’ve lived in Japan for almost a decade, and that I’ve already volunteered, kilted up, in several volunteer centres, with no negative results, and he tells me that this isn’t a volunteer center in Tokyo or Chiba. (If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I’d been working in other Tohoku volunteer centres.) He then does his best to mollify me with some weak-ass “It’s okay that you want to be different, BUT” bullshit , using his best “conflict resolution” voice, which I think they teach you in management school to use on assholes. What they don’t teach you, I guess, is how fucking condescending it sounds.

 

Frankly, if this former corporate suit can’t understand that I wear a kilt for the same reason other people might prefer a certain style of shirt, then I’m not going to win this, am I?

 

I swallow my fucking pride and change into the carpenters’ pants, realizing that while this sourpuss from Tokyo doesn’t have any more insight into Tohoku culture than I do, because my face isn’t a Japanese one, I’m going to get zero credit for any of my knowledge. I never expected to be put in this position by a group of foreigners.

 

Later, I found several other expats who complained about the same thing (many of whom were fluent in Japanese). They weren’t being taken seriously by the gang in charge on matters of culture either because they weren’t Japanese.

 

 

The Great Communicator

So Marc was the other director of the project. He left before I did, being replaced by Chris 1 (I think of him as pretty-boy Chris). I liked Chris, but by that time I’d had it with the group’s culture and I’d decided I was just going to concentrate on the work and then go home at the end of my tour.

 

Marc, I like less. Like all the others, he’s a decent man. The world is a better place for having Marc in it, and I’m not sure I can say the same about myself.

 

Having said that, I was not impressed with his management style. On my second night, my first night in the community centre I was going to call home for a week, I got a tour of the facilities with the other newcomers. We came to a set of shelves with food all over them. Some of it was snack food, and some of it was more substantive. We were told we could eat it. Throughout the evening, I watched people do just that.

 

I’m used to eating late, like around 20:00 or 20:30, so I wasn’t really hungry at dinner time. But by the time 21:00 rolls around, my stomach’s growling. So I take a piece of bread and put some peanut butter on it. The next thing I know there’s a guy making a bee-line for me.

 

“That bread’s for breakfast. You’re not supposed to eat it now.”

 

Oh. Whoops. “Oh, sorry,” I say, genuinely penitent (I don’t like to break rules like that), “No one told me.”

 

“Well, I’m telling you now,” he replies.

 

Maybe 40 minutes later, I seek him out and apologize. I did break a rule after all. Even though I don’t think I was snippy (I think he was), I apologize for that as well. Why? I guess naivety. I think that by apologizing to him it will give him an opening to apologize to me. But he doesn’t. He just accepts my apology.

 

The morning after, we have a morning meeting at the HQ, but before that, we have a pre-meeting at the community centre at which we’re scolded as a group for eating breakfast bread.

 

Okay, I get it. All Hands provides the breakfast food; it costs them money. The snack foods are things that people have given to us, or that other people have bought and dumped in the communal area. If we eat the breakfast food at night, there’s less at breakfasts, costs go up, etc. I get it.

 

Someone suggests a sign and we get treated to a speech by Marc about how he doesn’t like signs all over the place, because if there are signs, it means people aren’t communicating. Fair enough: we don’t want post-it notes with rules on them stuck onto every available surface. But come on! By his logic, we should tear down road signs, because we should just communicate our way around town. Besides, since when are signs not a form of communication?

 

bread (1)No one’s saying to put up a sign that says “Don’t eat!”, but a simple sign over top of the breakfast food that reads “breakfast food” would not only make people stop and think about whether or not they should eat it, it would help remind those giving the tours to tell newcomers: “Only eat this food in the morning.”

 

(The next day is our day off. Chris 2, who I think of as EM Chris (effective microorganisms, don’t ask), goes to the grocery store and buys half a dozen loaves of bread and sticks them under a sign that reads “24-Hour bread” in English, and “Fuck You” in Anti-establishmentese. Awesome guy.)

 

As the initial director of the project, it’s Marc who sets the tone for the whole group, and I think he could have done a better job. At least now I understood why there was no sign on the HQ at street level.

 

(Although, as a side note: every night at dinner, there would be sign over the vegetarian food. Somehow that was okay.)

 

 

Now Class, Aren’t We Ashamed of Ourselves”

For a group that seemed so concerned about harshing anyone’s buzz by having too many signs, they certainly did impose a lot of rules on the group who stayed in the community centre. Marc oversaw the community centre group, which, by the time I got there, was where most of us were staying.

 

I can understand his concern. Unlike at the HQ, we were living among Japanese people and even some evacuees at the centre, so there was a need to be less shouty and rude. Not that the group was shouty or rude at all. It wasn’t.

 

The community centre had a 22:00 curfew, and limited us to certain hours for taking baths, but there were other rules imposed on us by Marc and All Hands. Aside from the “breakfast bread”, there was the rule that all luggage had to be off the floor and on the shelves that lined to wall. This was a rule that kept getting repeated to us despite the fact that there was no room for everyone’s shit on those shelves. In the sleeping room I was in, my bags alone took up a shelf and a half on the only shelving unit we had to share between initially 7, later 15 people. I also wondered about the safety of this policy, given the intensity of the aftershocks that were still ongoing in the area (yes, there were people sleeping directly under the shelves).

 

Further, while drinking (booze) was allowed in the HQ, we were not permitted to drink alcohol in our centre. The Japanese volunteer group staying there did. The residents did. But we weren’t allowed to. I don’t drink anyway, but I did see people get drunk outside of the centre and none of them were badly behaved.

 

And that’s what it came down to. The group was extremely well-behaved. I’m used to touring with actors, who will tear screen doors off of trailers and other dumb stuff, so I was prepared for the worst: practical jokes, lots of shouting, vomiting, etc. But this group was incredibly well-behaved and respectful, and it drove me crazy that at every meeting, the staff would be scolding us for some minor infraction of some rule (sometimes a violation that hadn’t even happened yet, but that they were anticipating for some reason).

 

The one big time a rule got broken was when five people came back after curfew at the centre and snuck in through a side door. Strangely, as far as I could tell, they didn’t really catch that much hell. And honestly, while you wouldn’t want to encourage that kind of thing, they snuck in quietly, nobody from the centre saw them come in, and they didn’t make a big deal of it. Now, probably what they should have done is the 20 minute walk to the HQ and slept on the common room floor, but still, for a major infraction of the rules, the damage was 0.

 

But the next day at the daily meeting, we sat there for a quarter-hour lecture on “blah blah blah, these people know who they are, blah blah blah, next time, there WILL BE CONSEQUENCES!”. Five fucking people, and you need to lecture the rest of the group, who had done nothing wrong—to do what? Put the fear of a stern talking-to from a 22 year-old in them? This was sort of the final straw for me, twenty-somethings scolding us like we were 15 year-olds on a school trip, and it’s when I resolved to just put my head down and get through all the meeting bullshit and just keep my mind on the work.

 

I mean, if someone breaks a rule like that, you pull them aside, give them a ticking off, and then you punish them or you don’t. There was no reason to talk to the rest of the group as if this was going to give us “ideas” or something.

 

So they went way too far in one direction as far as rules-enforcement on our bases. The worksites were another story.

 

 

Freefall

As far as I could tell, there were no worksite rules—at least none that covered volunteer safety. When we arrived on our first day, they made us each sign a waiver form (which they did not send us to read beforehand—seriously, WTF?) that basically said if anything happened to us volunteers, it was our own damn fault. It went on to say that the team leaders were amateurs who didn’t know what they were doing and we were not obliged to follow their instructions if we felt unsafe.

 

So this may have absolved All Hands from any legal responsibility for us, but they seemed to think it absolved them of any ethical responsibility as well. There were a LOT of onsite accidents, mostly from people being too gung-ho. Everything from lacerations to punctures to fucked-up backs, you name it. Some of it was probably inevitable, but a lot of the accidents could have been prevented with a few safety rules. A lot of the volunteers wore their injuries with pride, but this is exactly the sort of culture that workplace rules are there to counteract. Workplace rules are not just there to protect workers from management, but to protect workers from themselves.

 

There were also no mandatory breaks. On my first day of heavy crew cleaning the canals, there Dirty sleeve. Where do I wipe my nose now!?!

Cleaning drainage canals in Oofunato, May 25, 2011. was one guy who didn’t even stop for lunch. The team leader pushed us really hard, and I felt guilty even stopping for the four or five minutes it took to pull off my sewage-soaked gloves and drink from my water bottle. Later in the afternoon, after I’d run out of liquid, I felt such pressure to get done, I didn’t take what would have been a 15-minute break to walk to the hose and fill up my bottles. I ended up severely dehydrated (I didn’t piss once that day between 8:00 and 18:00), dizzy, and with an aching head.

 

And while that was totally my own fault, and I learned from it (and changed to a crew that had a more concerned team leader), I saw other people push themselves even harder than that on a regular basis. They’re real heroes and everything, but All Hands should be taking more responsibility for the health and safety of its volunteers. Part of that is telling someone: “No, you need to take a break right now. I don’t care if it ‘breaks your rhythm’; you’re no good to anybody dead.” The team leader took pride on pushing his team to get the maximum amount of work done, but didn’t seem to realize that his other responsibility was the health and safety of his crew.

 

What’s interesting in this whole rules thing is that the rules that were heavily enforced were the ones that, if broken, might potentially make All Hands look bad in the community. Safety of the volunteers barely registered as a concern. The project started in March, but the week I started was apparently the first week they bought steel inserts for our shoes (to avoid nail punctures)—and there weren’t enough, particularly in the larger sizes. Also, there reportedly HAD been mandatory breaks at some point, but they’d been removed because people had complained that it broke their rhythm if they were in “the zone”.

 

 

Conclusion

Jesus, mother of piss, this got long. I really expected this to be four or five paragraphs, tops. I didn’t realize it was going to be a novella. Anyway, if you’ve read this far, you’re a fucking saint or a masochist, so thanks. I really needed to get this into the public space to feel that I’d spoken my mind about it.

 

I mean no disrespect to the people up there with All Hands, doing fantastic work (yes, even those people I’ve basically called douchebags in this post). And on some level, I want to go back and join them. I just found that it wasn’t an environment I felt safe or valued in, and I’ll have to find another way to get back up to Tohoku and do my part.

Jul 14

A Lot on the Plate

Wow. It’s been more than a month since my last posting—I’ve got a lot to catch up on.

 

A lot on my plate.

The main thing that was taking up my concentration was a book chapter that I was asked to write by ASIOS about the coverage of the 3/11 quake and the Fukushima nuclear crisis by the international media. Feeling confident in myself, I said “sure”.

 

Truth be told, I’m not much of a writer. I can bang a few words out here and there, but I have a very idiosyncratic style and I doubt I’d be able to make a living as a freelance writer for that reason. You’re reading my blog; you know what I’m talking about. What’s up with all the semi-colons and bracketed stuff I can’t jam in where it belongs?

 

Something else I’ve rediscovered (forgotten since my University days—damn! brackets!) is that I am weak at structure. One of my biggest struggles was figuring out how to structure my chapter and tie it all together. I guess a normal person would have put a structure together, done the research, and cobbled together an outline before sitting down to write the meat. But me? Hell no. I sit down and start typing, flying by the seat of my pants, researching as I go, having to change direction as I discover new information. I get bogged down in detail while researching, as I find stuff that I can’t put into the piece because, while fascinating, it’s incomplete.

 

I don’t like to admit this, but my brain hurts when I try to write like that. I got great grades on my essays in University, but I swear it wasn’t because they were good; I think it’s just because everyone else was worse.

In a Shakespeare class I was taking, a girl was complaining about the grade she got from our T.A.  I asked to look at her essay, and the very first sentence had so many grammatical and spelling errors in it, I wasn’t actually sure what it meant. Her first paragraph was incomprehensible. I am not exaggerating for effect. She was complaining about getting a ‘C-’.  I told her: “A ‘C-’ is a pass. Take it.”

 

“What?” she said, ripping it back out of my hands.

 

I tried to be gentle: “Look, you should have proofread it more carefully. You’ve got a lot of spelling and grammar—“

 

“He can only take 5% off for spelling and grammar,” she said, citing a very famous rule that students made up.

 

She didn’t listen to my advice and submitted it to the professor for re-grading, and ended up with a ‘B-‘.

 

That should tell you something about standards and how my decent grades on essays did not mean I could write. It meant I could put a sentence together without drooling all over myself.

 

That why I mostly write plays.  Plays and poetry.  Much less of the latter since moving to Japan, though.

 

Plays are great. My tactic is to write scenes as the ideas come. After a while I sit back and look at what I’ve got. At this point, a story has formed and I’ve got some kind of narrative. I know what happens to the characters. I then print out all the scenes I’ve got and spread them out on the living room floor (I guess tatami room floor now), finding some kind of order. Gaps show up. Story bits are missing. Information is missing. I write those down on a piece of paper and stick the paper where the scene would go.

 

Once I’ve got the order figured out, I write the missing material. This is usually the hardest part (second only to writing a whole new draft), but I can discipline-write, as long as the structure is there.

 

But that structure, man, in a straight piece of writing? That’s a doozy. I’m not used to that. I never wrote essay outlines because I found it easier to just bang ‘em out. But an essay? 800, 1000, maybe 2000 words, tops. This chapter? 10,000 words. I’ve learned my lesson.

 

But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

 

In any case, I’m waiting to hear back from the translator. Since the book is being published in Japanese, I’m hoping that I can post some excerpts on here.

May 21

Today’s Tweets Extrapolated

 

And the good ship Curry Express is off for Tohoku! (@ YC&AC) http://4sq.com/jmI0TI

I woke up at 4:30, and was on my bike and off to the departure site by 5:20. Good friend Dave had driven my heavier bags over yesterday, so I didn’t have to worry about how to carry them. He will also pick up my bike and drive it back to my house today.

 

Someone farted on the Curry Express. I suppose it was inevitable.

We left nearly on time (6:10), and while it was inevitable that someone farted, at least it wasn’t me.

 

 

The driver didn’t forget to take this down; I saw him put it up. (Aboard the Curry Express.) http://lockerz.com/s/103320684x2_6288c6c

None of us were quite sure what this mean, other than the driver had less patience with us this week. Who can blame him? A bus full of adults is noisier and much hard to control than a bus full of easily-cowed schoolchildren.

Road breakfast of muffins and samosas aboard the Curry Express.

I personally preferred last week’s croissants, but the samosas were amazing.

The Curry Express is making great time. Only 130km to Sendai from here.

We changed routes this time, avoiding central Tokyo, and saved more than an hour just by not sitting in traffic!

Just a few klicks out of Sendai. Stopped for a slash, and suddenly had to run back to bus before they closed the highway!

This was a hoot, watching our Japanese navigator and bus driver trying to herd everyone back from the toilets when they found out the highway was closing.

Arrival in Sichigahama. Time to serve some curry (in the rain).

Photos soon (still on a bus). Fewer people than last week, and although it was raining when we arrived, we actually ended up serving indoors this week, AND it stopped raining and got sunny. After we finished serving the people living there, we served the volunteers, some of who were cute, and some of whom were very tattooed.

Curry served. Cats herded. Back aboard the Curry Express and bound for Sendai station.

Not quite. The group did its usual kerfuffling. This isn’t an exact science. I could see that our driver and guide were getting a little antsy, as was I by this point, because we were coming up on 15:00 and I had a feeling that my last train from Sendai to Ichinoseki was sometime around 16:00. My bus from Ichinoseki wasn’t until 18:20, which I probably shouldn’t have mentioned, because I think people fixated on that time…

We just passed a 5-storey mountain of bulldozed rubble.

And I just checked the train schedule. It’s now 15:15. My “last” train is at 16:43, which will give me about 45 minutes on the other end, in a station I’ve never been before, to figure out where to catch the bus.

There is some doubt as to whether I will make my train at 16:40.

Given how close we were to Sendai, I kind of wish they’d dropped me before this second leg of the trip to drop off some food, find out what else is needed, and chat with volunteers. By this point I’ve made it clear what my deadline is. The driver and our navigator know what I fear: we will not make it in time.

Train duly missed. Will take the next one and will have 7 minutes to get from train platform to bus stop or I don’t get to Oofunato.

Sure enough, we pull up to Sendai station at 16:45. I quickly try to rig up a way to effectively carry my bags, but to no avail. Also, this entrance has no escalator/elevator. Hilarity, I’m sure, ensues. The next train I know of leaves at 17:43, and will arrive at 18;13 in Ichinoseki. Only 7 minutes before my bus departs.

Paid an extra 1780 to get on the Shinkansen. Now I have 11 minutes to find where my bus is with my Zsa Zsa Gabor overpacked bags.

Good news: found a train that leaves at 17:30 and arrives at 18:09. Bad news: those extra four minutes cost me.

Have made the humiliating call to a good friend for help. Will owe said friend big time.

I call my friend, @peacefulandjust, and humbly ask her if she can find out where exactly I need to catch my bus from Ichinoseki. Just knowing where to go will save me precious minutes.

 

Made it just in time, all thanks to @peacefulandjust. On the last leg of my trip to Oofunato.

@peacefulandjust comes through. As I’m retying my bags together (this time using my bungee cable), I get a message telling me Bus Stop #5, West exit.  The train stops and I bolt… well, as fast as I can with my bags. I make it just as the bus pulls in. Minutes later, we are on the road.

So, that was my day, in a nutshell. Going to sign off now and save what little power is left on my laptop for an emergency.

May 21

Oofunato Bound At last

21052011034I’m writing this on the bus to Oofunato, which I caught with just moments to spare, thanks to the help of @peacefulandjust (I mean, her help is the reason I caught it at all, not the reason I was running to catch it).

 

Where to begin?

 

About a month ago, I signed up with ALL HANDS to go to Oofunato and help out. They rejected me.

 

Then they changed their minds and un-rejected me.

 

In the meantime, I got involved in the Universal Brotherhood of Japan’s day trips to serve curry (see my last entry regarding the good ship Curry Express). When they offered to take me again this week to save me money on my trip to Oofunato, how could I have refused?

 

Packing. Well, there’s an interesting story, too. I’ve never really done this kind of thing before, and All Hands was a little bit vague about the exact work I’d be doing and the conditions I’d be doing it in. Plus, they made it pretty clear we volunteers would be living in our own filth for a week (only cold running water, no showers, 20 people in a small room). So I packed a lot. A LOT. Like the Zsa Zsa Gabor of volunteers. It didn’t help that I also bought 5000 Yen + worth of (heavy) art supplies to donate to local kids in shelters. That was the small grey bag I have dubbed “Megaton” right there.

 

Aside from that, I packed one pair of work clothes (Japanese carpenters’ pants I bought for a costume party two or three years ago, and a work shirt); a pair of underoos, socks, and an undershirt for each day; a set of good clothes, including a couple of extra underthings, not including the kilt I am wearing right now; two pairs of boots on top of the ones I’m wearing, one pair rubber, one pair tabi carpenter boots; a heavy sleeping bag and a hard hat (which, according to an email from All Hands that I received JUST AN HOUR AGO, I don’t need); an air mattress (probably a mistake); batteries for air mattress; charger for batteries; first aid stuff; safety stuff; my camera; my laptop, plus all adapters and AC… shall I go on, darlings?

 

Suffice it to say that my luggage consists of one small grey suitcase (carry-on size) filled with art supplies and snacks; a green canvas army surplus laundry bag filled with clothes and, apparently, bricks; the air mattress; my overfilled backpack; my camera bag; and my hard hat (which wouldn’t fit inside anything else.

 

They said “pack light”. Have I arsed this up?

 

Oh well…

May 19

Good Day Becomes Bad Day

I set out yesterday morning to clear a bunch of stuff from my to-do list, related to my upcoming volunteer trip to Oofunato. I had 40,000 Yen in my wallet, thanks to scrupulous scrimping and saving over the last three months, which I planned to use for the volunteer trip.

 

The day started out with a ride to the insurance office to buy volunteer insurance. Score one for my Japanese skills. I took the insurance card and popped it in my wallet.

 

Then I rode back to to my neighbourhood to get my hair chopped into a maintenance-free style since I will likely not be able to shower between May 21 and 28.  I had a dentist and doctor appointment at 14:00, but I didn’t have enough time to run my other big errand (home center to pick up mask, gloves, work shirt, eye protection, etc.), so I rode back out towards Maita and found a little Italian place to eat lunch at.

18052011030

I totally scored on the Italian food and had the best margherita pizza I’ve had since moving to Japan. The staff were friendly and chatty. I paid, took the receipt, put it in my wallet, and then shoved my wallet into my vest pocket (I wear a workman’s vest during the summer because I need the extra pockets). I went outside, slung on my backpack (strapping it across the middle) and rode off.

 

I arrived at the doctor’s office about five minutes before my appointment time. The receptionist asked me for my insurance card, and I started hunting through my card holder. Hmm… not there. I must have transferred it to my wallet at some point. Well, I’ll just—wait—no—what?—shit!

 

Wallet gone.

 

I had strapped my bag over top of my vest, and the strap must have put pressure on the lower part of the vest pocket, pushing my wallet up and out.

 

The dentist and doctor both agreed to see me on the promise that I’d return tomorrow with the insurance and the money. The receptionist was kind enough to call the restaurant for me and confirm that I had indeed put my wallet in my pocket before leaving.

 

Right after my appointment, I retraced my exact route. A normally 15-minute ride become 60 minutes as I pissed off other vehicles on the road by riding extremely slowly, looking for that square of light brown. I got all the way back to the restaurant, where the manager helped me search the bushes outside where I’d had my bicycle parked.

 

The bushes that line the side of the road for much of my ride are these super-dense thickets, which began to get me worried that my wallet had perhaps fallen into one of them. So, as I began to retrace my route again, I experimented by dropping my card case into one of them. I was hoping that it would bounce off or stay on top, but it dropped into the middle of the bush and was almost impossible to find even though I knew exactly where it was.

 

I finished retracing my route a second time, which put me back in Motomachi where I thought I would check with the police. The sign in the window of the Koban (police box) said “On Patrol”. Just after I read that, a cop bicycled by, completely ignoring my waving. I waited another 25 minutes or so for him to return, but no luck, so I got back on my bicycled and retraced my route a third time.

 

This time I actually started searching bushes, concentrating around areas where the road was a little bumpy. But there kilometres of these bushes, and it was impossible to search them all. So I bicycled to another nearby Koban to file a report.

 

Koban_Sign

Once again, no cop. This time, I did notice a sign inside.  It was pretty clear that I needed to dial one of the three numbers printed on the sign.

 

Actually, the sign says essentially “pick up the phone and be connected to the police”. Well, picking up the phone only connected me to a dial tone.

 

I snapped a photo of the sign and posted it to Twitter. Within 5 minutes, a friend (@peacefulandjust) had replied with instructions. I was able to summon an officer of the law and make a report. Sadly, no one had turned in my wallet.

 

So, after spending another hour searching bushes (it was dark by now, so I removed the headlight from my bicycle and used that), I headed home empty handed, knowing that on top of having to repeat my errands again the next day (back to the Doctor to show insurance and pay; back to insurance office to see if they will give me another card; no second haircut, thanks…), I would have to report my credit card missing, cancel my bank and Yodobashi point cards… and worse, I would have to tell my wife that I’d just lost the replacement wallet she bought me in December after having lost the last one in Tokyo.

 

Yeah, this is the second time in six months.

 

Here are the possible scenarios, in order of my preference:

 

  1. I’ll find it today while I rerun my errands (highly unlikely)
  2. It was lying in an obvious place and someone picked it up and dropped it in a mailbox (according to @soness, this is a good way of returning wallets) or will turn it into the police today
  3. It was lying in an obvious place in Motomachi, and someone popped it in to a nearby shop; the shopkeeper will turn it into the police this morning.
  4. It was lying in an obvious place, someone picked it up, removed the money, and dumped it in a mailbox.
  5. It fell into the bushes, and it won’t be discovered until fall.
  6. It was lying in an obvious place, and someone stole it.

 

So. Yeah. Bad day. I still feel sick to my stomach thinking about it. But no time to dwell. I need to hit the road before 11 to redo all the errands from yesterday, plus today’s. First step… find a temporary wallet…

May 14

All Aboard the Curry Express

I’m writing this aboard a school bus borrowed from the Indian School in Japan that I have dubbed The Curry Express (related more to its function as a curry delivery platform and less to famed actor Tim Curry), as we hurdle through the night at full bore to try to make Yokohama before 2:00 am.

 

This was a trip I’d planned to go on way back at the end of March, but plans changed.

 

The plan: this group, called the Universal Brotherhood of [I forget] is a mixed group of mostly Indian and Japanese folks was going to go to Tohoku to server a curry dinner at a shelter for tsunami evacuees. They would drive up to Tohuku, serve curry, and drive back.

 

I was actually going to be riding shotgun in one of the follow trucks carrying supplies for the volunteer center provided by Yokohama Country & Athletics Club members. The driver was my friend and occasional partner in Theatrical misadventure, Dave.

 

At the last minute, Dave got sick, but the fellow in charge of the operation, Chugani-san, assured me that there was room on the good ship Curry Express and that I could still be useful. So, I woke up this morning at 4:30 and hopped on my bicycle at 5:15, before the first train, to meet the group at the YCAC premises.

 

After loading the Express with supplies, we boarded it, and after much discussion about seats which I stayed out of, I sat in one of the jump seats.

 

This was fine at first as the jump seats provided slightly more legroom than the regular seats, but after the 7 hours it took to get to Iwanuma the metal from the seat was digging into one particular vertebrae so hard that I was sure there was a bruise there. I cracked my back painfully as I descended from the Express and onto the unsuspecting residents of the shelter, who had likely never before seen a 185cm tall gaijin man in a skirt. (Interestingly, I found that Northerners, despite what I’d heard of their reputation for directness, were actually really polite about it.)

 

Long story short (photos to fill in the gaps posted later when I’m on a non-bouncing and pitch-black platform), we served curry lunch (with me mostly filling a support/gopher role, making children laugh when my kilt blew in the wind, and shooting photographs), I donated some art supplies that I’d personally bought to the kids of the shelter, and then the good crew of the Curry Express hit the road again in order to make landfall at another shelter and a volunteer center to offload more goods and check needs for the Express’s trip next weekend. On the way, we stopped in Ishinomaki, in a neighbourhood hit by the tsunami in order to get a grip on what happened.

 

While it was awful, it wasn’t the bleak hellscape I had been expecting, possibly because a lot of the major bulldozing and body recovery work has been done. But seeing it still immediately made me feel like I was trying to swallow a fist-sized stone. I took a few photos, mostly concentrating on minutia, because I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the whole thing in a photographic way.

 

A quick stop at the second shelter, and then on to our last stop at Ishinomaki’s campsite for volunteers. What a bunch of great guys. Yeah, so much for being a great prose writer, but I can’t think of any other way to describe these man and women. I look forward to joining their ranks next weekend, although I am no going to be hardcore and camping out in a field like these rock stars were. We passed over the last of our supplies to the volunteers and then after about an hour (no kidding) of goodbyes, we were back aboard the Express and on our way.

 

Well, after stopping for alcohol we were on our way. Which, inevitably, led to a busload of Japanese and Indian ojisan singing a mix of very off-key Enka and Indian Bollywood songs; an inordinate number of toilet breaks; spilled beer; many complaints that the bus was too hot; and snoring. In that order, precisely.

 

As I type this, it is 23:00, and, barring the unlikely event of heavy traffic heading into the Tokyo area late at night on a Saturday, we should be back at the YCAC between 1:00 and 2:00 in the wee hours of the anti-meridian. One of the (non-intoxicated) crew members of the brave ship has offered to give me and my bicycle a ride home. Despite the fact that I managed to secure a non back-crippling seat for the return, I am way more tired and stiff than I’d like to be for a wee hours cycle, so I am very grateful for his offer.

 

This has been a great day. I should probably say that the whole thing kind of depressed me, but it didn’t. Wherever we went, I saw good people, tsunami survivors and volunteers alike, working hard to make the best of a terrible situation. I should have been filled with despair or pity, maybe, but instead I felt hope and pride, and I aspire to do the best that I can to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these men and women who represent to me the best of my adopted country.

 

Oh yeah. And I ate Fukushima manju and my skin isn’t peeling off, so fuck off Helen Caldicott, Chris Busby, etc.

 

Yeah, sorry. If I end too many blogs on an inspirational note, I’ll lose my reputation.

Mar 22

Wall of Shame Needs Your Help

The next step for the bad journalism wall-of-shame is in progress.

 

Remember, as important as we think this is wall-of-shame project is, right now human lives are more important.  If you do nothing else today (and haven’t already), please DONATE! (<—that link will take you to a page that lists reputable groups you can donate to, based on your geographical location)

 

Having said that, there is work to do on the wall.  What we’re missing are articles from the first few days following the quake; if you can go looking for those and submit them, that would be great.  We’re looking for the worst offenders, particularly those from major news sources who made big factual errors (on purpose or by negligence) on things that could easily have been checked.  We missed a lot of articles because I didn’t get the idea until almost a week after the quake hit.  Remember, the point isn’t to get worked up over little mistakes, but to find generally trusted news sources who have misrepresented the facts in order make a sensational story.

 

We’ve got a huge information dump on the site right now, but no real editorial oversight to start filtering the worst offenders and presenting them in an easy-to-read way for the general public.  I was using a wiki originally, because I was hoping the site would evolve on its own.  Since I’ve had to lock the pages due to problems with wikispace’s seeming inability to merge multiple edits in a table, that is no longer going to be possible.

 

The first step is to figure out presentation and data management.  I’m working on that myself, but I would LOVE if a web developer could lend a hand.

 

NEEDED – WEB DEVELOPER

  • To advise and implement our new front end.
  • Will need coding skills

Contact me (@stagerabbit on twitter or through this blog) for further discussion.

 

 

While that is happening, some of us need to get editing.  I have a couple of volunteers, but I need two or three more to make up the team.  You will be moving data from the current wall into the new one and/or editing entries to clean them up and make sure they are all clear and readable.

 

NEEDED – COPY EDITORS

  • Good command of the English language (for now, anyway; versions in other languages are a possibility in the future)
  • Need to have reasonable availability online (e.g. Skype)
  • Comfortable with a collaborative process

Contact me (@stagerabbit on twitter or through this blog) if you’re interested in helping.

 

Okay, that’s it for now.  I need to get to sleep.  I will leave you with this:

 

 

IMG_4788

 

Not the best photo I’ve ever taken.  But this was Sunday lunch on our balcony, and I just wanted to point out that the only significant radiation around was that coming from the big thermonuclear ball in the sky—the sun.

 

Not even a banana.

Mar 20

WTF Toronto Star

Here is an article filed by Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star:

 

http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/955721–dimanno-no-rest-for-japan-quake-victims

 

The article was brought to my attention by a contributor to the Bad Journalism Wall of Shame that I started Friday night.  I clicked through to read it and was absolutely flabbergasted at it.  I had expected a somewhat ill-informed, badly fact-checked piece like the one I submitted myself to the Wall of Shame as its first entry.  At that time, I thought that Ms. DiManno was just misinformed and not careful enough checking her sources, and the score I gave her reflected that.  However,  this second piece was so awful, and to my mind represented such a brutal distortion of fact (in service of a fairly obvious anti-nuclear agenda*), that I was instantly moved to respond directly by reporting it using the Report an Error button at the bottom of the webpage.  I could have let it go, I suppose, like so many others, but that it was printed by one of my hometown papers.  Given that the Toronto Star editorial staff are unlikely to read, let alone respond to it, I thought I would repost it here.

 

I don’t know where to begin.  I don’t know what alternate reality Ms. DiManno lives in, but it’s certainly not the Tokyo, Yokohama, and their environs that my friends, family, and I live in.

 

There are so many factual errors (including an unsupported assertion that a meltdown could inject "thousands of tonnes" of radioactive dust into the air"; and suggesting snarkily that nuclear winter is a possibility–something that is a theoretical result of a full-scale nuclear war, not a plant meltdown), that to list them all would require an article of my own.

 

The worst is perhaps the off-handed way she insults the workers who are risking their lives to keep the plant cooled, calling them "a selfless skeletal work crew doing whatever it is they do at the Fukushima plant…" which makes it very apparent she can’t be bothered to check facts and find out what it is they actually do.

 

In terms of officials (and scientists) telling us we are safe, Ms DiManno opines that "No one in Japan believes any of this babble." and that everyone able is moving as far away as possible.  This may be true of paranoid foreigners like herself, but I can assure you that myself and all my neighbours here in Yokohama are staying put, despite it being pretty much as easy as it ever was to head for western Japan.  I find her tone and her assertions offensive.

 

Finally, the entire tone of this article adds to the panic of the families of foreigners still living in Canada, some of whom are sick with worry… unnecessary worry caused by such irresponsible reporting.

 

Please recall Ms. DiManno from Japan immediately (if indeed she is actually here).  It is clear that she doesn’t want to be here, and we don’t want her here.

 

Shame on you, Toronto Star.  Shame on you, Rosie DiManno.

 

*I will make no secret that I am pro-nuclear power, but there are plenty of strong anti-nuclear power arguments to be made without resorting to untruths.

 

And now, I will try to calm down by posting a photo I took this afternoon at Kamiooka station as part of my series (really? I don’t know…) Life Goes on in Yokohama.

 

Life Goes on in Yokohama

Mar 17

Why Bad Journalism Has Driven Me To Desperate Ends

In retrospect, I should have had this idea before, but I guess today I just hit critical mass (not sure if it’s appropriate to use a nuclear energy turn of phrase here): one too many pieces of bad journalism.

 

So I decided to start a wiki Bad Journalism Wall of Shame and invite some of the other people who were frustrated with some of the shoddy, alarmist, and shockingly wrong journalism we’ve seen since last Friday’s Tohoku quake.

 

I take everything I read with a grain of salt these days, and have for many years.  When I read an article or see a television report that makes sensational claims, I try to fact check on my own, because I no longer trust most journalists to have done it for me.  There are several major areas that journalists particularly suck at:

 

  • Science reporting.  I have a degree in fine arts, and I could write better science articles than most science writers could.  Any journalist who suggested that Fukushima could be “another Chernobyl” should be made to retake his 9th grade science class and then have his journalist license revoked.   Oh wait…
  • Reporting on Japan.  JAPAN IS SOOO WEIRD!  JAPANESE PEOPLE HAVE NO EMOTION!  If everything you think you know about Japan was learned from the movies Gung Ho and Mr. Baseball, then maybe you’re not qualified to write an article about Japan.  Also, spending a few days, hell, even a month in Japan (probably in a hotel or furnished apartment, or otherwise isolated location) does not make you an expert on the place.  Nor does interviewing someone who has lived here for a few months (or even year, if living in one of the many gaijin bubbles).
  • Disaster reporting.  Two and a half words: Exaggeration and fear-mongering.

 

This is not new information.  Not to me, and probably not to you.  However, in the aftermath of the quake, all three of these elements joined together to create (to use a term journalists are so fond of using themselves) the “perfect storm”.  News piece after news piece full of inaccuracies, misinterpretations, and just plain lies.  (My favourites are the photos, shown out-of-context.  For instance, showing a photo of a girl in a surgical-style mask and implying that she was wearing it due to radiation, while the reality is that we’re in allergy season here and many people wear masks to keep pollen at bay.)

 

The worst offenders are the 24-hour news networks.  A few hours into the quake, I stopped looking at them.  The problem there (as we learned during the 9/11 coverage) is that the anchors feel like they have to keep talking to fill dead air, which means that they inevitably end up saying dumbass things.

 

But no news source gets off scot free.  Some seem to make stuff up, others seem to repeat rumours floating around in the electronic ether, while others interview obvious idiots or crazies and take what they say as gospel truth.  Some, I think, pick information up from another news source, and never bother to check it for accuracy.

 

Journalists are important.  If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be writing this, because I wouldn’t care.  They are as important as doctors, or soldiers, or firemen.  And they often get paid significantly less than all three.  If I was prone to hyperbole, I would say something like “journalists are the shoulders upon which freedom stands”, but I’m not, so I’ll just say good journalists are heroes.

 

Bad journalists, then, like bad doctors (think Doctor Moreau), bad soldiers, and bad firemen (I guess arsonists, then) make the world a worse place to live in.

 

Okay, like what?

 

In the case of this disaster, here is my list:

 

  • Incited a level of panic among people worldwide about Nuclear energy (pro or anti, I don’t care, but let’s talk facts, not histrionics)
  • Incited a level of panic among people worldwide regarding OH MY GOD NU-CLEE-AR WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!
  • Incited panic among foreign residents in Japan
  • Caused significant worry to the families, friends, and loved ones of those of us foreigners living in Japan.  Several people I know have left Japan, not because they were concerned about danger, but because their families were so stricken about the perceived danger they felt they had leave in order to comfort them
  • Probably (hard to measure) have caused economic damage to Japan due to foreign companies pulling out their people and, in some cases, talking about shutting down their Tokyo offices “due to radiation.”
  • Once again mischaracterized the Japanese people to fit their lazy stereotypes

 

 

Okay, so what’s the point of making a Wall of Shame for bad journalism?  Someone on Twitter implied that I was starting a witch-hunt and that we should be contacting journalists and publications directly and pointing out their errors.  Firstly, that is impractical.  There are too many.  Secondly, a witch-hunt implies that I will ruthlessly prosecute people I perceive to be guilty but who are actually innocent.  All the items posted are available for anyone to read and check against the facts.

 

The point of this exercise is simply to provide negative feedback to journalists who are, as we perceive it, not doing their jobs.  (And positive feedback: I’ve also started a Good Journalism wiki page for pieces that really shine.)  This may only end up being of interest to those of us who live here, but I think it’s important.

 

And crap it’s getting really late.  There is so much more I could write, but I really need to sleep.

 

I leave you with this: life goes on as usual in Yokohama.

 

180320111082

Mar 16

Japan: I’m A Resident, Not A Tourist

In response to the big Tohoku earthquake, some people are fleeing Tokyo (and Kanto) and some are fleeing Japan.

 

I am staying put in Yokohama.

 

A lot of friends have offered me places to stay throughout the world should I elect to leave.  Many have urged me to leave.  This is heart-warming and touching, and I am really grateful for all the truly great, caring, and generous friends I’ve got.

 

I am staying put in Yokohama.

 

A quick rundown of the reasons below:

 

First and foremost, I am not a tourist.  That is to say, when I go to Canada, I visit Canada, I don’t “go home”.  I stand in the “Visitors to Canada” line at immigration.  When I go “home”, I take the train to 上大岡 station, climb over a large hill, and walk to my flimsy wooden house.  When abroad, I get “homesick” for Japan.

 

I have put down roots.  I have permanent resident status; I own a house; I am married and have an extended family of in-laws here.  How could I leave my mother-in-law and my grandparents-in-law behind?  Grandmother is non-ambulatory and requires around-the-clock care.

 

I don’t like everything about this country, and I am forever an outsider and often am proud to stand apart.  But home is where you hang your hat, as the cliché goes, and I hung my hat here nearly eight years ago.  The hat may come down one day, but not today.  I will not behave like so many expats who leave when the going gets tough; these “captains of industry” who desert what they perceive as a sinking ship like the rats of industry they are.  In fact, if I am still gainfully unemployed when the call for volunteers goes out, I intend to head up north and help with the clean-up effort.

 

I’m not suicidal.  If I perceived a real, immediate threat, I would do my best to get myself and my loved ones out, and encourage as many others as possible to do the same.  But the foreign media has exaggerated the risk, particularly relating to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  If you’re watching CNN, STOP NOW!  I’ve seen articles on TIME magazine and on The Toronto Star websites that have scientific errors that even a brief check with an expert or (god forbid) Wikipedia would have caught.  The biggest risk we face is another earthquake in this region of the country as the Tohoku quake seems to have triggered other earthquakes on different fault lines (which makes them not aftershocks, but separate quakes, I am told).  However, this is Japan, and earthquakes are part of the package.

 

This country has survived so much in just the last 150 years, and come so far in that time.  We will survive this, too.

 

So thank you all for your concern, and your kind offers, but I need to be here right now.

 

And now, I leave you with this: a picture of the blossoms on the plum tree in my yard that I took this afternoon during the blackout.  As much as the terrifying power of the earthquake and the tsunami is Japan; so is this.

 

IMG_4749

Dec 25

There’s Another Train, There Always Is

So Kanazawa city is behind us now; we’ve just boarded the second of two trains that will carry us to Washizu; the city near Hamamatsu in which we’ll spend the night.

 

I’m not going to go through and do some travelogue.  The photos I’ve posted on Facebook and (shortly) on SmugMug will convey the general sense of the proceedings.

 

A few observations:

Kanazawa: as the saying goes, you might forget your o-bento, but don’t forget your umbrella.

Hotel bathrooms: having a European-style bath now makes me feel dirty.

Onsen: you can actually dry off using just the little towel that you carry on your head in the baths.  Amazing!

Hotel Towels: Jesus, has anyone ever heard of fabric softener?  I feel like my skin has been sanded!

Trains: 6 hours on a train goes really fast when you’re used to intercontinental flights on shit airlines like JAL.

Writing: you always think  you’ll get more done than you actually do.

 

So, one more day on the road, and then back home tomorrow evening… in time for the six-day run-up to hosting the Aragaki family New Year celebration on the 2nd.

Dec 23

SEISHUN 18 KIPPU – Day ONE

Arriving bleary-eyed at six in the morning; rushing along platform after platform to not only make your connection, but to get a good seat; finally pulling out your laptop and connecting to the internet to post your thoughts, just as the train plunges into a week-long tunnel; high school girls in their ridiculous full-length parkas, face masks, and athletics gear laughing at your clothes; amazing mountain scenery that you can’t be arsed to photograph because you’ll get a shit photo through the train window anyway; the disgusting smell of beer and dried squid (yes, before 8:00 in the morning) of the two old men riding across the aisle… this is all part of the great experience of training it through Japan.

 

My wife and I bought SEISHUN 18 KIPPU, hopped on the Moonlight Nagara train last night at 23:30ish, and have been in motion ever since (except for a 20-minute stopover in Maibara where I was able to brush my teeth).  We’re due to arrive at our destination at 10:00am this morning (Kanazawa station).

 

For those of you too lazy to read the link above, the Seishun 18 Ticket is a ticket that costs 11,500 Yen or so, and gives you five days (midnight to midnight) free travel on all JR local trains, and a limited number of special trains (like the sleeper we were on last night).  I’ve been wanting to do this for ages, and I really wish that my wife could get more than one day off from work (today’s a holiday, tomorrow she took off, and then there’s the weekend) so we could travel for five whole days.

 

It does involve a lot of hours on trains, the heaviest day being today and the 25th, when we ship out from Kanazawa to Shizuoka (leave at 10:00, arrive at 18:00, lots of little transfers in-between).  What a way to spend Xmas!  We’ll have to call my family that night from the hotel.  If we’re lucky, the hotel will have an internet connection so we can save on long distance charges.

 

But this is the way to travel Japan.  You can take your bullet trains and your highways and your busses; the clinking clanking local trains are the way to see the country.  I just wish they weren’t so aggressively heated; I feel like my damn legs are burning up.

Aug 06

On the Road Again

Well, I’m sitting in Narita airport, at my gate, just shy of two hours before boarding.

 

I’m flying JAL this time, which isn’t so bad (they have a great Japanese lime drink that they serve), but I mislike Narita’s Terminal two.

 

One: it’s too hot.  I’m dressed in cotton for my flight, and I’m overheating!

 

Two: the gates are dumb.  At least this time I’m not in the section of the terminal you have to take a shitty little train to.  Which always struck me as weird, because some of the other gates, for instance the gate I’m at now, are equally far out, so why not at least have an open pedestrian walkway for those of us who don’t want to have the Japanese subway experience at the airport.

 

Then, the gates are down at the arrivals level, which means a long flight of stairs.  Which is fine.  Except that the toilets are on the upper level.  For a passenger traveling alone, that means hauling hand luggage up and down.

 

Three: the souvenir shops are tiny and cramped.  The Tiffany’s and Hermes and all of those shops are huge, and open, and empty, but the souvenir shops are not, and they are crammed with people.  Also, the selection in Terminal 2 sucks.  I wanted to buy a Hachimaki for a friend’s son, and they didn’t even have any!  At a souvenir store in the airport?  As the French would say: Quoi le fuck?

 

In any case, I’m looking forward to getting back on the road with this show.  I need to do some serious line running, as the four or five weeks I’ve had away from the show (with only two long rehearsals to break it up) have broken my confidence (such as it was) with the lines.

 

It’s so damn amateur to read actors go on about lines.  Lines are something that are supposed to just happen at this level, but I’ll be frank and say that I’ve always had a memory like a… what do you call those things… metal… with the holes… oh, goddamn it.

 

Bloody hell!  How many times are they going to check my frigging passport?  Apart from all the regular checks: insurance counter, check-in machine, luggage check-in, security, immigration, and when boarding the aircraft, they’ve started checking at the upstairs entry to the gate area (and presumably, if I use the toilet, I will have to show it to get back in again).  As if that isn’t bad enough, they just checked my passport again while I was just sitting here minding my own business.  What’s next?  Passport scanners on the toilets to make sure the craps we take are authorized.

 

Wow.  I talk about doing Theatre, but these airplane people are true experts.  At Security Theatre, that is.  Maybe they should tour the Fringe next year instead of me.  The whole show can consist of being checked, searched, questioned, and probed to get into the Theatre, and by the time you’re in, the show is over.

 

Actually, that’s not a bad idea for a show.  Except who would pay to be treated like that outside of an airport setting?

 

Nyug.  I’ve been feeling nauseous since the cab ride from the house (lots of narrow streets and twists and turns while I checked my bags for 忘れ物 (shit I forgot)), and I really can’t shake it.  Hope this doesn’t last onto the plane.  I would blame lack of sleep, but with 5 hours under my belt from last night, I got more than usual.  I’ve only once come close to losing my cookies (tossing my lunch) on the airplane, and I really don’t want to repeat that experience.

 

Oh well.  So the point is that I’m back on the road with 39.  And while I will definitely miss Japan (my home), and my wife, I am really looking forward to really do some serious Fringing this time, unhindered by social, production, or family obligations.

 

がんばりますよ!

Jul 22

Another Week Slips By

Another week slips by, and with it another chance to sign our renovation contract.  I’m pulling some real yuppie shit here right now and I’m writing this in a Starbucks in central Tokyo where I’ve taken refuge from a stinking hot day.

 

I haven’t kept up with this blog at all, but here are the significant details of the past 7 – 10 days:

 

  1. My friend Dave Waddington came by to look at the house last Wednesday and give me advice on how best to do the items of maintenance that need to be done.  The first priority is the metal holding up the ‘front yard’.  With Dave’s help, I will scrape off the rust, treat it with rust proofing, and repaint it.
  2. Other items that need to be done, some of which will require Dave’s help to choose the right supplies: re-painting the ageing wood on the window shades, re-caulking a good chunk of the siding, and scraping the green mould off the roof tiles
  3. The price on the tile bathroom is nearly 400,000 more than the unit bath, and that’s without the water heater.  So no go on that.
  4. We visited show rooms with URBAN, and decided on a more expensive unit bath from Noritz anyway (sigh).  Despite the bath being 20 litres smaller than the TOTO, it has cut-outs on the side that make it possible for me to sit much more comfortably without having to necessarily keep my knees together and up.  We’re still waiting for the quotation, but the comfort level is so different, we’re considering that a difference of between 100,000 and 200,000 Yen from the TOTO price would be acceptable.  Gulp!
  5. We’re waffling on the washstand (powder room sink) as well.  The one in the quotation is cheap and tiny and short.  Also, ugly.  So my wife has proposed a different one and we’re waiting on that quotation as well.
  6. We were supposed to sign the contract for the renovations last week, but the bathroom stuff held us up (Kitchen is decided and quoted).  The plan now is to sign the contract this weekend.  This means the move-in date is now pushed to late September, meaning that we’re paying for two residences until then.  Sigh.

Jun 09

Toronto Bound

I am writing this on the airport bus.  I had about 5 hours of sleep last night, which is much more than I usually get the night before a flight.  Of course, today’s flight departs at 16:00, which gave me some wiggle room in the morning.

 

Not that I wasn’t tearing out the door at the last moment anyway.  Or would have been.

 

It was raining, and since I didn’t want to try to lug my bags down the three flights of stairs near my house in the pouring rain, I called a taxi.  I had been on time until I made this decision.  It took me 15 minutes to find a taxi number (I was looking on the internet while I should have been looking on the fridge) before I was able to call.

 

The  dispatch guy told me 7 minutes.  It took them almost 30 minutes.  When I called the cab company at 11:20, I had expected to be at the terminal by 12:50, on the bus by 12:05, and at the airport at 13:30, about 30 minutes later than my intended arrival.

 

I’ll be 15 minutes later than that, which doesn’t sound like much, but with Air Canada’s online check-in system rejecting me, I need to do a complete check-in.  And in my past experience, the Air Canada counter is always swarming with people by the two hour mark.  I didn’t end up having time to pack a lunch, so I also need to eat.

 

I would like to eat at the SUBWAY which is on the outside of the security area.  There aren’t really any good restaurants for invertebratarians like myself inside security, unless lunch is going to be a Starbucks frappuchino.  Given that I’m going to be eating Greek when I arrive in Toronto, that’s probably not the best plan.

 

I’m wearing as much natural fibre clothing as I can.  I’ve been watching a lot of Air Crash Investigations lately (probably not the best idea before an intercontinental flight), and I’ve decided that I don’t want my clothing to melt into my skin in the event of a fire.  So, my disintegrating O’Neils that I picked up years ago in Bangalore (cotton), and my new cotton cowboy shirt.  My undershirt is a cotton/poly blend, because I have no natural fibre T-shirts.  I’m wearing my combat boots, because I can’t fit them in my bags.  Normally, that’s a problem because I take my boots off at security to avoid getting frisked when the alarm goes off, but these are real combat boots this time, so they are hard-toed, but not steel-toed.  Or so I’ve been told…

 

Anyway, while I’m already missing my wife, I am looking forward to being in Toronto again, no matter how briefly, and seeing some old friends.

May 23

Toaster

image

Busy weekend at the house so far. More on that later.

I snapped a photo of the vintage toaster I mentioned last week, so I thought I’d post it.

May 06

Oh, Some More Notes

I think I forgot to mention that one of the reasons that the Kamiooka Tea House is inexpensive is that our contract specifically limits the responsibility of the previous owners to absolutely nothing.

 

If we turn the water on and the pipes explode, or there’s no water pressure, or the gas pipes have a leak… it’s just like buying a house in North America… it’s our dime.

 

Interestingly, this is not usually the case (although common with older houses), and had to be specially provided for in our contract.

May 06

Too Late!

If only this book had been available when we started!  Now I’m paranoid that it contains information on managing risks that would have been useful to me:

 

http://www.debito.org/?p=6636

 

But holy fuck, the book is around $87 U.S.D. ($659 HKD).  Now, that’s not a big investment in terms of buying a house, but you’d think that there’d be a chapter preview of some kind so that you could get an idea of whether this guy is out-to-lunch or not.

 

Still, I’m kind of disappointed that this wasn’t available when we started looking for a place this February.  Given that no one really walked me through the process of buying a house (the agent doesn’t speak English, and the bank, I guess, assumed that the agent would do it), it probably would have been worth the steep cover price.  (Provided that the guy actually knows what he’s talking about.)

Apr 30

Contract Signing – Part 2

Right, so in Part 1 I wrote about the owners of the Kamiooka Tea House and how they seemed cool, and how their real estate agent was a bit of a dingbat.

 

After going through the contract, we started the signing.  Occasionally, my wife would talk with Friendly.

 

Friendly was the one who had complained about our offer being too low (19 million from nearly 22 million, and the house had only been on the market for 2 months).  I originally had thought this meant that he was greedy, but, as it turns out, this wasn’t the case.  He just seemed interested in the process, and interested in us.

 

At one point, the subject of all the stuff left in the house came up (if you’ve looked at the photos, you’ll see that the house still has the deceased owner’s stuff in it), and if we could maybe keep some of it.  We were thinking primarily of the air conditioning units (provided they’re working, of course), but they also had some nice dishes, china sets, and such.

 

The words were hardly out of my wife’s mouth when Friendly and the others insisted that we go there and mark all the stuff that we want to keep.  Hirasawa-san said something about how the owners might want to go through it first, in case there was anything valuable like Kimonos (there was a Kimono wardrobe in the storage room which was definitely full of something), but they replied that they’d already taken everything out that they wanted.

 

They were happy to just have us go and choose on our own, but my wife suggested it would be better if one of them was there with us in case we unearth any treasures.  Friendly laughingly agreed to this, and suggested we come during Golden Week… at which point Hirasawa-san interrupted and suggested that perhaps we should wait until the financing was final first.

 

The strange thing is that there is treasure in the house, according the Friendly and the gang.  Their father was really into Bonsai, and while the plants themselves, like him, are long dead, the pots he used are still in the yard.  Apparently these are relatively valuable.  There is also the good possibility (according to them) that the kimono wardrobe actually contains kimono, which are also not cheap items to be lightly discarded.

 

And it turns out that the mother (the last occupant of the house) did not run a tea ceremony school, as I had suspected, but instead just loved tea ceremony.  And apparently the tea ceremony set and tools are still in the house somewhere… and the owners are happy to let us keep them!

 

My wife was incredulous and asked if perhaps the grandchildren wouldn’t be interested in any of these things… but apparently not.

 

Maybe the owners just don’t want the hassle of organizing and removing things… but it’s weird, since things like the bonsai pots could probably sold for a decent price on an online auction shop or at a flea market.

 

As my wife and the owners spoke, we continued to learn more things about the house and the family history.

 

Apparently, none of the three sons lived in the house after the second floor was put on it.  And while I thought that the second floor was built to accommodate the mother’s growing tea ceremony business, it turns out that they just built it because they “wanted to feel rich” (the translation I got).  Friendly wouldn’t say how much the addition cost because he was embarrassed about how much his parents had spent on it.  But he and the rest of the owners were relieved that I thought it was beautiful.

 

The husband and wife used the second floor only for guests and tea ceremony, which is mind-boggling to me.  Why spend all that money and then essentially confine yourself to the dingy first floor of the house?  Of course, the upside is that the second floor rooms are pristine… it’s the only part of the house that we don’t need to do some kind of work on.  Even the tatami don’t need to be replaced!

 

There are some quirks about the house and land that we learned that I’ll deal with in another post, because this one is getting long, but all in all, it was fascinating to listen to, when I could understand, and more fascinating after-the-fact when Kumiko filled me in on what I’d missed.

 

We finished signing (well, sealing with inkan), passed over our money for the deposit, and Hirasawa-san wrapped everything up.   After the owners and their agent had left, we paid him (refundable if the bank doesn’t come through, though), and Hirasawa-san sealed the documents for the bank up in an envelope and addressed it, and then gave us a very handsome binder that held all the documents about the house (many of them copies, but we’ll get the originals if we get to the payment step).

 

He’d waited for the owners to leave because he didn’t want them to see the nice binder we were getting, since their agent hadn’t prepared anything that nice for them… I joked that it was the most expensive binder I’d ever bought (har har har).

 

So now, we are just waiting on the valuation from the bank.  The two worst-case scenarios are either that they decide not to lend money, or that the valuation is so low that we fall below the minimum loan amount of 15 million yen.

 

Other bad things: the bank asks for more paperwork or to wait on the 2nd floor registration and holds things up.

 

I’m really hoping none of this happens and that we get a positive answer the week after next (next week is Golden Week, so I can’t imagine we’ll hear before that).

 

Fingers crossed!

Apr 30

Documents Issue Resolved

Whew.  The person filling in for our rep has intercepted the package and made sure that the contents get to the Valuer… which is good, because they were apparently required.

Apr 22

Good News and Bad News

Okay, the good news is that the owners of the Kamiooka Tea House have accepted our offer.

 

The bad news is that they want to delay the contract signing date from this Saturday to next Thursday, screwing up my schedule even more.  (I’m kind of set on getting everything done before I leave for Canada at the beginning of June, and I’m having trouble setting my flight date because I don’t have an idea of a probable closing date.)

 

Apparently, two of the three owners are in the hospital, and one of the hospitalized ones is getting out next week and wants to be present at the contract signing.  Grrr!  Also, this same owner apparently complained that our offer was too low (it’s just under 3 million yen below their asking price) given that the house has only been on the market for two months.

 

Luckily, Hirasawa-san is a master negotiator, and managed to convince them.  He reportedly told them that because the house didn’t have a car space, that we’d have to pay for parking, and calculated it out over 25 years.

 

So, things are moving ahead.  Now it’s really just the bank that can throw something unexpected in our path…

 

Stress!

Apr 21

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

So, we put an offer in on the Kamiooka Tea House last Sunday, and we’re waiting to hear back.  Apparently there are three owners that must all be consulted, so I wonder if our contract-signing date will actually be able to be this Saturday as scheduled, or not…

 

In the meantime, here are some images from other houses we saw.  I’m not going to make entries for these, since I’ve annotated the photos quite nicely, I think. Click any of them to see the whole gallery.

And some photos of the outside of the Skinny Idogaya house (not the Idogaya Sunroom house), which was rejected due to its distance from the station (20 minutes from Idogaya, a non-express station). Again, click any of them to see the whole gallery.

Apr 18

Real Estate Agent Weirdness

We had a meeting with Rehouse today to put an offer in on the house we’ve chosen.  For some weird reason, the seller’s agent wanted craploads of info about me… Workplace, salary, etc.  I made a bit of a stink about this because there is absolutely no legal requirement for this.  The bank has all the necessary info, and why should I give it to a third party?

 

The seller should only care about whether or not the bank will give me money, not about my salary, or workplace or how long I’ve been working there!  Besides, we have to negotiate with this agent, and it’s hardly fair if he knows how much money I make!

 

In any case, Hirasawa-san and my wife talked and agreed not to pass this info on to the other agent… but seriously!

Apr 17

Kamiooka Tea House Revisited

So, you may remember that we saw a place I called the Kamiooka Tea House right at the very beginning of this process and that it dropped off our list as we saw more places.

 

Well, funny thing happened there… when the Higashi-Totsuka House, which had been our second choice after the second round of visiting houses, got eliminated by the bank, suddenly we weren’t left with much.  The only possibly liveable places left that we’d seen were the Skinny Idogaya House and the Kamiooka Tea House.

 

The Skinny Idogaya House was too far from the station (18 minutes from Idogaya station, a local stop on the Keikyu line) and was at the top of our price range, leaving no money for renovations (there was at least 1 million yen worth of renovations that needed to be done there, including completely redoing the Tatami room which had been mauled by a bear).

 

So, despite the fact that we’d rejected it earlier on, we took another look at it and decided that it would be liveable, provided we could do some renovations before we moved in.  Hirasawa-san arranged for a renovation company rep to go through the place with us.

 

Below are the proposed before-and-after images:

 

 

Kamiooka_5LDK_Tea_House_Floorplan Kamiooka_5LDK_Tea_House_Floorplan

 

(I’ve also drawn in some furniture placement ideas on the ‘after’ one.)

 

Major changes:

  • Complete reconstruction of the bathroom (not the toilet) in order to modernize it and add a changing and laundry area.  This will eliminate the current mop-closet thingy that has half a toilet in it.
  • Removing the current sink and stove area and replacing them with a modern ‘system kitchen’ along the south wall.
  • Blocking the west door from the kitchen (dropping the number of doors to the outside from 7 to 6!)
  • The opening up of the living room by removal of the hallway.  I wanted a more radical opening up, but apparently, parts of the wall are structural.  However, we will remove the skin from the wall, leaving the wood bracing only, which will help light up the space quite a bit.
  • Changing the altar space in the front bedroom to a closet, and the existing closet to a nook for the bed.  We originally wanted to rip that whole space open to create a bigger room, but there is a structural and beautiful piece of wood dividing the closet and altar that we can’t and don’t want to get rid of.
  • Removal of the living room closet to make a television nook.

Minor changes:

  • Changing some walls and doors, especially in the kitchen area, where they are badly stained
  • Changing an altar space in the living room to a mini-closet.
  • Adding doors in places where none exist now

 

We think that with these changes it will be liveable, provided we can afford both the house and the changes.

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