Category Archive: your man in japan

Ye olde collectionne of Balladf and Requiemes on the fubject of the Japans.

Feb 10

The Yokohama Snow Plow

No, it’s not a skiing manoeuvre.


So, two days ago we had a massive snowfall. It usually snows in Yokohama about once or twice a year. Most years it’s enough to cover the ground and necessitate shovelling, but this year has been the most snow we’ve had since we moved into the Kamiooka Tea House. I think. (Update: my wife tells me that we’ve set a 20-year snowfall record.)


This is also the first time it’s happened here when I’ve been at home in the morning, and not zipping off to a A lot of shoveling to do...20140209_083655

rehearsal or job. To give you an idea, I’ve posted some photos of the area just in front of my house.

Even though my door is under little roof, I still had to shoulder it open. The temperature had risen above zero in the morning, and the sun was out, so the snow was fast melting and HEAVY.


I went to get my shovel, but no sooner had I dealt with a few shovelfuls that I realized that this was perfect weather for building a snow man.

Snowman 2014

This irresistible urge led me to soaking wet gloves and probably one of the worst snow men ever built, but judge for yourself.

So then I shovelled our walk, which included the stairs leading both up to our neighbours and down to the street, a walking path the length of our house on the road, and the area in front of our gate. And the area in front of my neighbour, Ichikawa-san’s, gate. And the path above the stairs.

Then I helped one of my other neighbours (most of my neighbours are over 60, with quite a number of them pushing 80) dig out his car. Then I kept going and helped dig out the street so that all the neighbours could get their cars out. This kept on until I’d made a complete circle around the block to the bottom of my stairs again, where I joined up with the footpath I’d made earlier. By the time I’d started digging out cars, there were at least 8 of us on the street, led by an obasan.

One group broke off and started working their way up the hill to the east, but I confined my efforts to the ring around my house, which, believe me, was work enough. If I hadn’t been worried about looking lazy, I would have snapped a photo of what was, by now, 12 people digging out the road: The “Yokohama Snow Plow” of this entry’s title. The youngest was what looked like a 10 year-old girl (I was the second youngest). The oldest was probably 76 or 78. You can tell it doesn’t snow here much. Some of these guys were shovelling way too much of this heavy snow with each stroke; I was worried someone was going to drop dead.

As I came around again, I saw another neighbour struggling to knock snow off the rickety roof over her door, so I walked over and volunteered myself, being a good two heads taller than she. I also helped her shovel the area in front of her gate (her house was in particularly deep due to the way the snow had blown). I did wonder why her husband (who I almost never see) poked his head out the door, but otherwise offered no assistance. Must be a story there.

After helping out (and telling her she could borrow my ladder if she needed to do this again when I wasn’t around), I headed home and immediately collapsed onto the baby’s futon.

Later that day, I went out to check on the snow man. Not doing so well.


And this morning:

Snowman 2014

May 16

Summer and a Long Time Coming

It’s been a while since I wrote a purely personal update, so I felt I ought to write at least a quick one. Of course, I’ll still throw a bit of Theatre stuff in because so much of my life is Theatre, but I’ll try to save the weightier content for other posts.


I’ve spent a lot of time waiting this month, which means a lot of time in my office in front of my main computer, so for this afternoon, I’ve decided to move up to the Tatami room on what may be one of the few days of the year it’s comfortable to do so. I’ve got my second hand iPhone (functioning as a music player using iSub client and Subsonic server) hooked up to the surround system playing (what else) Leonard Cohen. The sudare-filtered light and air is coming in. A large stuffed gorilla sits in the Golden Corner, and I’m working off my old X60s with the dead battery. Or hell, why don’t I just show you:




Damn, I love this rickety old house.


So, status: I’m moving closer on everything. There are lights at the ends of the various tunnels of current life, art, and work goals. I’ve got four or five things that I’m ready to launch into action on… but I can’t. I should just enjoy the limbo time, I guess, and play computer games or something, but with everything pending, I don’t feel like this is the time to switch off. What’s killing me is the waiting. And what’s killing me is that it’s all no one’s fault. There’s no one to push. The people who need pushing are at two to three removes away from me, and in one case, there’s no one to push at all. Unless its possible to push nature or the changing of the seasons, and frankly, if I was pushing the seasons, I’d be pushing the opposite way: today is the first day of summer by my method of reckoning.


How do I measure the beginning of summer? Well, it’s either the first day of the year that the air temperature goes over 25 degrees, or the first day I get a thick glaze of sweat from walking from the station to my house. As I said, that day is today. There is a nice cool wind, though, which is why I can work in the Tatami room.


Two other things I’m waiting on: a new cell phone and an air conditioner for said Tatami room, which should make the room usable for the entire year. At the moment, the Tatami room is usable during the two weeks of Yokohama “spring” and the maybe four weeks of Yokohama “autumn”, but during the long, sweaty summer and the nut-scrunching winter it becomes only usable for short periods or with enhancements (loads of blankets, several glasses of ice water, an expensive radiant heater, etc.).


The problem with summer is no matter how nice a breeze is blowing through the room (it is nice and breezy), I sweat profusely wherever my body comes into contact with anything (a table, the floor, my seat, my own hand, etc.). The problem with winter is that no matter how many blankets I pile on or no matter how many thousands of yen worth of electricity I spend heating myself, the air in the room ends up turning my fingers and toes numb. A proper A/C unit that actually cools or heats the air will make a huge difference in whether or not this room is usable on a more regular basis.


So yeah, everything’s moving, but at a glacial pace. I’ve had enough of being a dreamer for the time being: let me be a man of action for a while.


(Speaking of glacial movements and taking action, this is probably the final week or so, unless we hit another roadblock, to become a YTG “Founding Sponsor”. Take action and sponsor the long-time coming NPO incorporation by ::CLICKING HERE:: )

Mar 17

Plumbing Update


Okay, so it’s all been sorted out. (I’m sure you were all holding your breath to find out what happened next with my plumbing.) The plumber showed up today at around 9:30. Despite the pouring rain, we were able to show him the leak.


Less than 30 minutes later, he’d used a hammer and chisel to knock a 30cm by 40cm hole in the concrete in front of our house and had dug down to locate the leak.


I snapped a photo of it (right). It doesn’t look like much, but this was taken after the main water valve was turned off and the pressure was dissipating. The leak itself was tiny, like an invisible hole pricked with a needle in a garden hose, but under much more pressure (remember, this pipe services the first floor toilet and all the upstairs facilities). When we first turned the water on with the pipe exposed, the force at which the water came out was frightening.


The plumber went off to get some specific tools, but by the mid-afternoon, he’d replaced the damaged section of pipe with some ABS he clamped on. Sadly, he buried the whole thing before I could get a snap of it. (And yes, we tested to make sure there were no other leaks.)


So it’s actually going to cost far less than we thought. Except… the question we need to ask ourselves is this: given the condition of this old pipe, should we not replace the whole length of it before something else happens, maybe with worse results? That will cost quite a bit more. Or, being rather depleted, do we simply content ourselves with the patchwork and hope that nothing else breaks for a while?


Decisions, decisions…

Mar 15

House Update

It has been a long time (more than a year, I think) since I last posted about the house. That’s because there hasn’t been much to say. More than 18 months since we moved in, we’re still enjoying everything about it: the neighbourhood, our renovations, the large tatami room, the modern bath, etc. Most of all, we’re enjoying having a place that is ours.


Of course, the downside to that is that when shit happens, there’s no landlord to call to fix things.


I was working on the Yokohama Theatre Group website yesterday when the doorbell rang. I answered it, and the woman from the water company was there. She showed me my bill, which was insanely high (think 4 times the usual) and asked me if any water was running in the house, as the meter was spinning around. After a quick check to confirm that there was no water running, she explained to me that I probably had a leak somewhere.


Ichikawa-san, my neighbour, overheard our conversation, and we quickly discovered the leak. A wet area in front of the front door that I had dismissed as runoff from the recent rain we’ve been getting was the giveaway. A closer inspection revealed a crack in the concrete pad and water trickling out.


This is bad for several reasons:


    1. I have to turn off the water until we can get it fixed, turning it on only for short periods so that we can wash dishes, shower, flush the toilet, etc.
    2. The house is built on the side of a hill, and there’s no telling if the extra water we’ve injected into the ground over the last few weeks has done anything to weaken the land the house is built on. (My wife is more worried about this then me; I don’t see how this would be much worse than rain.)
    3. The leaking pipe is embedded in concrete which runs from the meter, under the front door, to the northwest corner of the house. The cost of chopping through concrete alone is approximately 50,000 Yen ($500) per meter.




<—In this photo, you can see the water leak as we discovered it.























<—You can see the leak on the right, just above the white stones. The pipe runs from the top middle right of this photo (the meter) under the tree, under the concrete pad at the front door, and another meter or two off the bottom left of the frame. The repair work means that we will probably lose the marble stone.










<—This is the water meter that I have to turn on and off every few hours so that we can get on with our lives.





















So, with any luck, this will be repaired on Saturday. (The leak, that is. Rebuilding the concrete might take longer.)


Someone on twitter (@martintokyo) suggested that the water company would help pay for the repairs or at least the amount of the bill consumed by the leak. However, the info paper given to me by the water company shows that they changed their policy five years ago, and that even if the leak had been between their tank and the meter, I wouldn’t get a red yen from them.


On the other hand, the meter-reader who came to the door was super nice, and even dropped by the house today on her way somewhere else (not in uniform)  to make sure I’d got things sorted out and had a plumber coming.


So there’s that.


The other happy thing is that the leak hasn’t managed to get any water on the inside of the foundations, which I was slightly worried about.

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).



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.

Jan 13

Really Good Idea, Really Bad Execution

Am trying out this new translation site "Conyac".

where-am-i-Really good idea, I think. You get one translation for free, and I tried it out, and I think what I got was decent (at least good enough to suit my current needs).

However, the site does raise some, if not "red" flags, then certainly "amateur" flags.

  1. Bad site layout/coding.
    When you first visit the site, you’re presented with two options. Either to become a translator OR to get something translated. Either option requires a facebook account to login with. There’s an option to open the FAQ instead of logging in, which then opens, heavily truncated, within the login popup window.

    Once you’ve logged in using your facebook account (or whatever), you’re presented with a window in which to input your free 720 character translation request. If you want to buy more credits, there is no obvious way to do it. You have 4 items along the top of the page: Request, Translate, Vote, [Username]

    Request and translate are obvious. Vote allows you to vote on accuracy of translations (done for other people) into your native language. Clicking on your username brings up a dropdown menu that gives you:

    Setting, Balance/Withdraw, FAQ, Logout.

    Setting lets you tinker with a (very few) options for your profile, including what languages you speak.
    Balance/Withdraw, which is where you’d think you could buy credits, is only for withdrawing money earned from translation.
    FAQ is where you go to find the link about buying credits, except that it’s not a link. It’s a non-hyperlinked URL that you must cut and past into your address bar. Seriously? What the hell were they thinking?

  2. Communications issues.
    After submitted my test translation, I was not notified in any way that I had received results. Only a chance visit to the site revealed my completed translations. This despite the umpteen permissions the site’s Facebook app asks you to grant it.
  3. Consistency
    While writing this, I discovered that they have two homepages: and .cc appears to be the original one. But even on that site, the pricing is different from the front page and the page where you sign up. On the front page, there are different character limits for English and Japanese; on the page to buy credits, one credit gives you 720 characters, which is more than before (500 characters for English, 200 for Japanese), but now seems distinctly unfair, since you can say a lot more in 720 characters of Japanese than in 720 English characters.

This site is a really good idea. I just hope that the young men behind it realize that their pants are too loose and hike them up.


It is inexpensive enough, and the translation I got seems good enough, and I am desperate enough right now that I will give them a test run this month, though. I hope with my money, they can buy some website experts. (I recommend


Update: Add sinister to the equation. For their monthly plans, credit cost 30% less, and you can get special features. For the “lite” plan, this gives you the option of only allowing native speakers to translate your request. Fair enough. For the “medium” plan, they have something called the “Private” option. Apparently, this means your translation won’t be searchable after 12 hours. So that means any translation request I put in there is searchable forever? Why, other than to extort people to use their more expensive plan?


I’ll just have to make sure I limit my translations to things that don’t include search terms that point back to my site, since I don’t want a translation site (with possibly bad translations) showing up in searches for my Theatre company. Yikes!

Sep 21

Meditations on the Wall of Shame

More than six months have passed since the great Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011. And thus more than six months have passed since I started the Bad Journalism Wall of Shame. Although entries still trickle in (reporting on Fukushima in particular continues to be sensationalistic and unscientific), the Wall’s heyday has passed, so it seems like a good time for me to gather together my thoughts about it.


The Wall became more than I had intended it to be. As I’ve written before, I did not expect it to go international, and I did not expect so many people to read it and submit stories. I also did not expect the media attention around the issue (although, interestingly, other than a student paper in New Zealand, the Berliner Zeitung. and the Columbia Review of Journalism, and one or two other small outfits/bloggers, no international media source that ran the story bothered contacting me or anyone involved—many of them just reprinted the dismissive Japan Times story that didn’t even give the link to the site).


Having said that, I think that the Wall, ultimately, was a failure. I know that a few people might disagree with me, but I mean a failure in the sense that the Wall’s potential was not achieved and that there are lessons to be learned by acknowledging that failure.


But let’s start out with the positive. What did the Wall of Shame accomplish? Some of these items are general, and some of them are personal to me.


  • Documented the great anger that prevailed over the media coverage.
  • Provided material for an upcoming Theatre production
  • Introduced me to a bunch of people I never would have met otherwise
  • Did manage to document a number of actual, in-the-flesh, bad pieces of journalism
  • Did generate several offline discussions about the state of journalism

Now for the negatives. What did the wall fail to do?


  • Failed to initiate a productive discussion online about the state of journalism
  • Failed to generate or motivate any action on the part of news organizations
  • Failed to compile a high-quality list of bad articles.


I’ve done a lot of pondering over the last three months about what I might have done differently, and come to the conclusion that, erm, not much. There are things I would have liked to have done differently in terms of setting up the wall, but to this day I don’t know of a single way to combine the wiki-ness that I wanted (i.e. people could contribute and edit, but be identifiable by user names, discuss entries, edit others’ entries, etc.) and the the ease-of-use that I needed without creating a very custom solution. My use of wikispaces originally caused a lot of problems because a number of contributors couldn’t figure out how to use the tables… and worse than that, the tables couldn’t be easily exported (for, say, alphabetical sorting). The switch to Google Spreadsheets allowed people to submit with no technical knowledge required, but made the submission process irrevocable and anonymous.


The fix I (and my five valiant editors) tried to apply by creating an edited version of the wall didn’t really do the trick either.


But, I really don’t think, in hindsight, that we could have done much better.


However, moving forward, I do have some ideas of what should be done.


Since March, I’ve thought up and discarded grandiose ideas for fixes to the problem of sensationalism and the status quo of journalism, including:


  1. Treating journalists like we treat other professionals like lawyers, dentists, etc.
    • pay is higher for members of the professional organization
    • licensing is required and can be revoked
    • there are written standards and set consequences for not meeting those standards
  2. All media companies need to be non-profit
    • eliminate the profit motive of news organizations
    • funding is transparent; donors must be listed OR run through a separate agency in such a way that the news organizations have no specific donors

These methods wouldn’t work for a number of reasons. First of all, they all require a massive change to how the economics of news works today. Furthermore, the first solution has the problem that if the professional organization is compromised/corrupted, then all reporting is similarly compromised or corrupted.


The second solution has the problem that non-profits are more heavily vulnerable to government regulation, and in some countries (and to some people), this move might be seen as a nationalization of the media (which I think we can all agree is a very bad thing when it actually happens). While, philosophically, I think that all corporations should be non-profits, I realize that this is not currently a viable solution.


Both of the proposed solutions also marginalize or exclude the emerging ‘citizen journalist’ movement, which, while frequently frustrating and annoying and low quality, has become an important part of the modern news landscape.


The best I’ve been able to come up with, then, for the future, is this:


An International Media Watchdog Organization, which will rate all news organizations and sites, is non-profit and has a number of permanent employees. Readers submit articles that they think are incorrect, or factually wrong, and those articles are evaluated by editors. Evaluation is done using a grading system and a short summary.


All media organizations start out with the highest rating possible (let’s call it 10 stars), and ratings will be lowered by a set amount based on submitted stories. Organizations can get their rating raised again by prominently issuing retractions/corrections. Media ratings are displayed on the watchdog website, and can be searched using several criteria. Individual journalists and pieces can be searched as well. (It’s possible that individual journalists could have a rating as well, but that might be problematic for several reasons, not the least of which being that two or more people could have the same name.)


There’s a little more to it than this, but those are the essentials. The advantage of this system is that it does not require the participation or cooperation of the Media corporations themselves. It simply gives readers the ability to research a particular news story (a la, or, if a story is not yet in the database, to check out the trustworthiness (by rating) of the publisher of that story.  The other advantage is that it doesn’t stop anyone from publishing anything. Mr. 9/11 Truther McGillicutty can still run his blog about how 9/11 was caused by the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa; the watchdog NPO might give it a bad review/rating, but that’s not the same as preventing him from publishing (and true believers won’t care anyway).


If this caught on, and people learned to check stories on the watchdog site, then the media corporations (and individual bloggers too, I suppose), would actually have a economic incentive to keep a high rating.


I think it could work. I really do.


And that’s the main lesson I learned from making the Wall of Shame site.

Sep 06

Shambolic Subways

Have not had great luck with subways today.


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.!



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 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).



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?




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?”




"Can you change your clothes?”




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.




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”.




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 28

Back to the Good Life

I’m typing this (or at least starting to type this; we’ll see how long the battery holds out) in Sendai city, waiting for the Curry Express to come and pick me up, ostensibly at 16:30, but we’ll see. While I wait, I’m burning a good ass-mark into a seat in the Starbucks near the station’s East exit.


Given that I’ve been occupying prime real estate here for over an hour, I should probably buy something else, but since I haven’t had a call from my rescuers yet to tell me they’re on their way, it might be wise to save that for later.


So how to sum up the experience of volunteering in Oofunato? I have no idea. I’m not going to get all drama-queen on you and say stuff like it was shocking, or that it was a life-changing experience. The images I’d seen immediately post-quake had prepared me to some extent, and I had been pre-warned about the various smells and such. None of my crews came across a human body (or even an animal body, barring one dead frog I found yesterday); maybe that would have changed things.


Despite my differences with All Hands as an organization, which I’ll deal with fully in a future post, I was very impressed with all the people (yes, even the ones I think are assholes and/or idiots) who came out from all over the world and volunteered to help the country that I love. Many of them have been and will be here for months, and we, as residents of Japan, owe them our deepest thanks. Even people who are assholes and idiots can be good people on some level, and I salute them for that. I particularly, though, salute the volunteers I met who not only worked hard, but weren’t assholes or idiots. I met some amazing people, who will remain in my memory for the rest of my life. In a good way.

 Cleaning the tambo in Rikuzentakata, Day 2.

The work itself, being out on the streets and in the fields, in many cases doing work that no one else was willing to do, made me feel like I was finally doing something concrete to help Tohoku. I only really did three days of back-breaking labour, a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, but it did feel good, and I want to do it again.


I read yesterday that there is a shortage of volunteers in Iwate-ken, so I will be looking for ways to get back there and ways to encourage others to go. We are just beginning to take the first few steps on the long road back to normal, and we’re all going to have to pitch in if we want to get there.


And wow! My ride’s arrived 45 minutes early. Will post more later in the week when I’ve caught up with all the work that’s been piling up.

May 27

Last Day in Oofunato–The Best of Both Worlds

Today I got back into the canals… the ones on the rice field, though, not the ones in the city. The ones on the paddies definitely smell better.


I’m so tired that I can hardly type. I’m writing this while I wait for my photos to transfer from my camera card to the PC. That will be done in a moment, and I will brush my teeth and go to bed. All I am waiting for is an appropriate photo to post with this entry.


Annnddd…. nope. Too tired. Will try tomorrow on train

May 26

Paddywhacking and Meetings

2011-05-26 12.48.24

Today I signed up for the Paddywhacking crew, which meant that we went out to a bunch of rice paddies in Rikuzentakata and pulled junk out of them. We also started work on the canals and ditches around the site.




I stuck with paddy work today because I was wearing my tabi workboots, which are not waterproof, and I hadn’t brought a change of boots to the HQ base at Sakari in the morning.


It was hard work, but my crew chief today was Brian, who encouraged hard work without making us feel like we couldn’t take breaks or rehydrate, etc. I drank a lot of liquids, but I must have sweated more than I thought, because there was no toilet out there, and I didn’t have to pee until we ended up back at the HQ, six hours (and about 2 litres) after we started.


Great lunch today, though. It was ebi fry, so I could eat it, and fellow crew member Xavier doesn’t like shrimp, so I got double portions for once, instead of half portions. Huzzah.


We got back to the HQ at about 16:45, and then waited a bit longer than usual for dinner. Then we waited an extra long time for the evening meeting to start because the staff wanted to get the 15 new arrivals today processed before we kicked off. Then the meeting went on forever. For. Ev. Er.


Finally, we got to sign up for crews. Despite a couple of interesting new ones, I picked the rice fields again for tomorrow. I nixed the idea of walking back to the FS centre (where the majority of us sleep) because it was likely too late to go to the grocery store anyway, which is what I wanted to do.


Looking forward to tomorrow’s crew; I plan to diving into the canals and clearing them. It will be nice to have a hard work crew for my last day. Then, afterwards I can come back, go to sleep, get up, and get away from all the organizational bullshit. I can then make plans to come up again, either on my own or with a smaller group of people.


I’ll try to post my other photos from the paddy tomorrow; I left my camera in the other room, so I can’t transfer them now. Well, I could, but I don’t want to go back to the sleeping room to get the camera. If I go back to the sleeping room, as I will in a few minutes, it will be to sleep.


Yes, so: time to hit the hay.

May 25

Of Ditches and Bitches, Of Pals and Canals

So I finally manned up this morning and joined a proper crew: the Ditch Bitches.25052011045


Our job was to clear out the canals that drain the grey water from local houses because they are totally blocked with tsunami debris.


Ow. I hurt.


My job was to shovel or otherwise haul muck that others lifted out of the canal into wheelbarrows and haul them over to the nearby refuse piles.


Mud is heavy.


Our crew chief, Mark, is a pretty hardcore worker. Within the first ten minutes, he’d got a huge gash in his arm, but when i pointed it out to him, he just said that he would let it, and I kid you not, “clot up”. Yes, while he continued to work in sewage.


As you can see from the photo, I was originally pretty kitted up. After lunch, I took off the safety glasses and the mask, as they just got in the way (and fogged up my real glasses so badly I couldn’t see).


I will probably not join that crew again, if I can avoid it. As I mentioned, Mark is pretty intense, and he expects everyone else on his crew to be similarly so. I didn’t feel like I could even stop and walk two minutes away to fill my water bottle, especially near the end of the day when he’d assigned my an extra (simultaneous) task. This was around the end of the day when my mouth was dry, I had a pounding headache, and obviously was in a state of dehydration. I was so thirsty, I was tempted to drink the canal water (bad idea).


Now Mark is a cool guy, but this is the reason that you need someone leading a team who has had some training in doing so. A trained team leader would be enforcing break times, not allowing team members to work through lunch (as one did), etc. Oh yeah, and probably notice when one of his team members was so dehydrated that he could barely walk straight.


I find it so weird that All Hands has all these rules governing our lives and behaviour (and endless meetings about those rules), but very few rules in terms of onsite safety.


But don’t get me wrong. I would not voluntarily do canal crew again (unfortunately, as the biggest crew, it’s the most likely crew one will end up on), but I actually do like Mark. He’s just one of those guys who kind of expects everyone to live up to his example.


There are a fair number of people I don’t like here (as there are in any communal living situation), and most of them are what I call the “Happy Camper” type. That means they’ve drunk the organizational kool-aid, and the organization can do no wrong in their book. They also feel the need to play the camp counsellor role and take over situations. I really hate that. They also frequently happen to be recent Business program graduates. I really hate that.


Anyway, I’m looking forward to tomorrow. We’re clearing debris from a rice field, and the team leader is a guy who I know I will feel comfortable with (meaning that I will work hard, but still do what I need to do to take care of myself).


Time to sleep!

May 24


I need to write this briefly, because I don’t find myself with a lot of time. There are a number of people here who are awesome and I’m loathe to trade time with them for writing on this blog or any one of the other things that I REALLY need to get done before Saturday.


Today was our day off, but try as I might to be productive, it just wasn’t going to happen. So I will just list some of  the highlights and lowlights of my volunteer experience thus far.



  • Cleaning photos at a local evacuation centre on Sunday * (see caveat on this in the lowlights section)
  • Working in the Greater Kitchen Co-Prosperity Sphere with Adam and Ranko to make dinner for the whole group on Monday night
  • Karaoke on Monday night and racing back to make curfew (the community centre we’re staying in locks the doors at 22:00)
  • Buying a 1000 yen microwave at a recycle shop and stealthily setting it up in our common room.



  • Getting told off by the person in charge of the photo project for not doing the work properly (despite the fact that we had no instructions and that she’d said she’d bring some over in the afternoon and never did)
  • Getting told I could eat any of the food on the food shelf and then being told off later by the project bigwig for eating bread outside of breakfast time
  • Being forced to change my clothes to go to the evac centre to do the bath cleaning/photo cleaning job by my team leader, a middle-aged uptight Japanese lady, because I would scare the residents. When i refused, she sic’d a bigwig on me who used his bullshit conflict-resolution voice on me to tell me that I basically had to do it. (If we had ended up cleaning the baths, my workpants would have been totally inappropriate, as they don’t roll up) All in the name of ‘cultural sensitivity’, which is fine, except that I’ve been volunteering at evacuation centres now since April, and it’s never been a problem before (Tohoku people are really cool).


I’m really enjoying a lot of the people here, and I’m enjoying the work. I think that next time I come up here, though, I will try to come with a smaller group. The realities of a large group seem to mean that those in charge feel like they need to treat us like children. Now that I’ve made some friends, and sort of carved a place, I’m really looking forward to next week.

May 21

The First Night

Typing this on the air mattress, which turns out to be like, a queen-size.


I’m sleeping in the All Hands common room at the HQ tonight, because they didn’t want to move me over to the second set of facilities in the Evac center. Which is fine. Except they made a big-ass deal about quiet/lights out hours starting at 22:30, and it’s now 23:15 and the main gaggle have gone off to the sleeping room, while the admins continue to talk in here with lights blazing.


Given that this room is supposedly going to turn into Grand Central at 7:00, I’d really like to get some shuteye.


Also, it seems like I’m hearing a lot of drama stuff that I probably should—whoops, earthquake—should not be hearing.


Oh well, it’s the first night. I should be happy that I have a degree of privacy to write this that I likely won’t have when I move tomorrow.


First impressions of Oofunato:


  • Smelly: partly fresh, sea air (which I think I’m not a fan of), partly dust, partly sewage
  • Quiet (well, it is a small town)
  • That’s it so far: I arrived in the dark

First impressions of the group:

  • A little bit immature
  • A bit catty
  • A little bit disorganized (they really need a sign down at street level; I found the building no problem, but there’s no indication until you walk up the stairs, which I was loath to do due to my heavy bags… maybe something I’ll suggest when I get to know them better)

First impression of the HQ

  • No flush toilets (washiki that’s just a hole into a sack of some sort)
  • Stinky; toilets are particularly bad
  • Definitely worse for wear
  • More amenities than I expected (I may be able to have occasional sento privileges!)

Anyway, really not looking forward to waking up all bleary-eyed with a whole bunch of volunteers eating breakfast over my head, but I figure I’ll get into the swing of things tomorrow, and once I’m installed at the other place, cheek-to-jowl with my/the comrades, these first impressions will improve.


I’m really looking forward to it.


Maybe if I pretend to sleep now, they’ll be quiet and turn out the lights…

May 21

Today’s Tweets Extrapolated


And the good ship Curry Express is off for Tohoku! (@ YC&AC)

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.)

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.


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.



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 16

A Class Act, Er, Acting Class

In real life, I run a 111 year-old Theatre company called YTG, which I am in the process of registering as an NPO here in Japan.The Beggar's Opera as performed by The Yokohama Theatre Group


The first half of the mandate of the company is to bring contemporary Theatre to people in Yokohama and Japan. To fulfill this mandate, we obviously mount shows, but we’re also trying to get a Theatre school off the ground. There are several reasons why the school is an important part of what we do.


Firstly, with our limited resources, shows can only happen a couple of times per year for the time being. This gap between productions causes YTG to drop out of public awareness for months at a time. Running workshops gives us something to publicize all year long.


Secondly, good training will empower and inspire students to go off and do their own projects, which will mean more Theatre buzz. I strongly believe that art begets art in a positive feedback loop. A city that has lots of active artists has lots of demand for art because everyone is aware of it. That is true for all the arts, but especially performance-oriented arts like dance and Theatre.


Thirdly, there is a dearth right now of Theatre artists who have both the need to create contemporary work and the technical skills to do so. The YTG classes are being designed to develop both of these requirements in the hopes generating future YTG company members.


We’ve had some problems finding suitable rehearsal spaces for these classes, so we’ve just got one coming up: Voice for the Actor. Voice_For_The_Actor_Spring_2011_Graphic_and_TitleBut what a class to start with. My friend and Theatre colleague Graig Russell has been working his butt off to write the curriculum for the class, and it’s going to be eight weeks of intense voice work. It’s not all the time I get to work with someone like Graig whose philosophy toward Theatre is so much like mine that it’s uncanny. Although voice work will always involve technical elements, what’s great about this course is that it doesn’t concentrate on technique to the exclusion of all else. Graig has really built a workshop that emphasizes the idea of the individual voice, so that each student will learn not something that’s standardized, but something that’s unique to his or her own body.


(And I’m not talking sight unseen here; Graig was my vocal coach on William Shakespeare’s R3 two years ago, and did some wonderful work with a number of my actors.)


Because we’ve had trouble booking space at YTG’s usual Yokohama haunts, this workshop will take place in Tokyo at the OUR SPACE rehearsal lounge. I’m so lucky that the management at that space are also good friends


So my job now is to sign up seven students to take this course. I’ve printed flyers and we’re sending them out to Universities; I’ve sent out the YTG newsletter announcing the class; I’ve notified a Yokohama English-through-Theatre school; I’ve sent email to my international school contacts; I’ve updated the YTG facebook page; I’ve tweeted it; etc., ad nauseum… Publicity is definitely the part of the job that I’m worst at.  I know that there are people out there interested in this course… the question is simply: how do I reach them?


Oh well, I’ll find the magic formula one day. In the meantime, I just need to keep plugging away. I really do believe that if I build something based on good, solid, ideas and ideals, that it will eventually generate interest. Art begets art and all that.

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.

May 11

Finally Signed Up

It’s been two months today since the Tohoku earthquake, and nearly a month since I first talked about going up to Tohoku to volunteer.


I’ve done a couple of volunteer things here with a local group, and in three days I go up as part of a caravan delivering supplies and Indian curry dinners to evacuees. But that ride has been planned for more than a month.


In the meantime, I’ve finally managed to sign up with ALL HANDS for a one week tour doing backbreaking clean-up labour. I know that opportunities have existed before this, but I had problems either being accepted (due to my poor Japanese skills and/or inability to drive) or joining for logistical reasons (some groups have their volunteers sleep in self-provided tents; I neither have the money to spend on a tent, nor the skills to rough it like that, being 90% city-boy). Actually, ALL HANDS initially rejected me as well, but apparently, someone has dropped out, leaving a place for me. Huzzah!


ALL HANDS has secured part of an office building, cramming 20 or so people into a small room. Apparently we will have cold running water and a roof over our heads, which is enough for me. So this week, I’m spending my time scrounging the following items;


  • air mattress
  • proper mask (ALL HANDS gives me the type, but can’t tell me if they’re sold under the same designation here in Japan as well: N95 or N100.)
  • insurance (found a provider, but need to get my wife to read the terms; it’s all in 日本語.)

Anyway, I’m really excited to finally be doing something concrete, and a bit scared about what I’m going to see.


In any case, allow me to leave you with two photos. These are the ones that are in the MY JAPAN photo exhibition tonight:





And yes, you can tell by the (lack of) quality that these were selected by popular vote, not by a panel of qualified judges. But I guess it worked in my favour this time…

Apr 09

TV Interviews and Other Creatures

On Tuesday, Yuko Aotani from NHK World Newsline, her producer, and crew met with myself and the other Journalism Wall of Shame editors at OUR SPACE in Hatagaya.  Jack and Shinji, the men behind OUR SPACE, were very accommodating, as always, and made sure that all the technical needs were met.


Some volunteer editors have now joined the Wall of Shame project, and are helping me create an edited version of the wall. Rather than edit the submissions page, which I am now calling the Raw Feed, we’ve decided to leave that as it is, with minimal editorial oversight, and create an edited page, which will be easier to read and have a more standardized format.

NHK World filmed us as I walked through a how-to-edit tutorial for the others, and then they filmed while Aotani-san had a conversation with us.  (In English: for those of you who aren’t aware, NHK is the the national broadcaster, but NHK World is the English-language cable news channel.)


Then, on Thursday, I let the same crew into my house to film me working on the wall and to interview me. I spent Wednesday day and Thursday morning cleaning the house.  Aotani-san and the crew arrived at about ten after one, and decided to shoot me working on the wall in my downstairs home office, and then shoot the interview upstairs in the tatami room.


It took almost four hours to do, including filming me greeting Aotani-san at the door (which we filmed at the end, and had one apparently hilarious outtake in which I bowed in a strange way). All this for a three-minute piece!


They did mention that a lot of the interview wouldn’t be aired (of course—even at my most succinct, the answer to one question might take me several minutes), and that it was mostly for research purposed for them so they could understand what exactly we were doing with the wall and what our longer-term goals are.


I, of course, had to confess that the wall team and myself didn’t have any at the moment, and were mostly playing it by ear.


The most frustrating part of the otherwise pleasant interview was when they asked for an example of a hard news story from a major news source with a very glaring factual error. I found a couple, but they were from non-English language media, and I couldn’t locate an English one. I know they are on the wall, but the problem is that there are so many entries, covering so many different types of news sources (there are a lot of tabloids and ‘alternative’ news sources, and columnists make up a good chunk of the major media outlets’ entries on the Wall), it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.


But other than that, it was a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, and if the price ends up being that they make me look like an idiot on international television (which I don’t think they will), well, then I guess that’s the price I pay for enjoying their company.


I was busy doing wall stuff, so I took no photos while NHK World was at the house, so instead, I offer you a photo from my hanami excursion along the Oooka river last night.




Apr 02

A Response

I’ve got a little bit of flak for starting the Journalism Wall of Shame, not surprisingly, though not as much as I actually expected.


One person tweeted that he hated “fucking crusader bloggers” who had “never set foot in a newsroom in their lives”. Given that this was tweeted immediately after he’d tweeted about finding  the Wall of Shame, I can only assume that he was talking about me. (Note: although I use quotation marks, I might have got some of the words not exactly right; this was tweeted a few days ago and is apparently lost in the ether.)


I don’t expect everyone to like what I’m doing, and as we’ve seen with that Japan Times article, press people begin circling their wagons when they hear about us. However, I would like to address the point that not having ever been in a newsroom disqualifies me from criticising bad journalism.


To wit: do sports writers have to be or have been professional athletes? Do music reviewers need to be professional musicians? Do Theatre reviewers need to be professional actors, directors, etc.? Do they have to have ever been backstage during a show? Does a journalist who criticises a speech given or an action taken by, say, Barak Obama, need to have been president?


No, of course they don’t.


I could go on, but I think that sums up my point very nicely.


I leave you with this photo of the TERRIBLE COKE ZERO SHORTAGE that is hitting many convenience stores, drugstores, and supermarkets in Yokohama.  Noooooooooooo!




Yes, with all the blackouts this week having been cancelled, this is the extent of my discomfort.  Why not DONATE and help those suffering actual hardship?

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.



  • 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.



  • 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:





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 21

Japan Times: Oh Really?

Remember, as important as we think this is, human lives are more important.  If you do nothing else today, please DONATE! (<—that link will take you to a page that lists reputable groups you can donate to, based on your geographical location)


The venerable Japan Times has posted an article by Eric Johnston on the reaction of people living here to the bad reporting  that has gone on in (mostly, but not only) the international media following the Tohoku quake and its aftermath.  You can read it here.


The first half of the article deals with describing the issue, including some of the worst errors (such as the famous Shibuya Eggman “power plant”).  The second half of the article sets up the argument that “occasional bursts of sensationalism” are the price we pay for “a vigilant media”, as if there is no ground in-between.


I agree that the Japanese media is frequently complacent and derelict in its duties.  I sometimes get the feeling that investigative journalism here is a much rarer bird than it is in the west.  By the same token, the Japanese media can also sensationalize when dealing with stories from abroad (I lost my first job in Japan due to the over-the-top coverage here of the SARS “epidemic” in Toronto).  So if anyone thinks I’m giving the local media a pass, you can forget it.


However, in this case, they are not the problem.  They might be mostly reporting on information released from TEPCO and the government, but what else can they report on?  Radiation is also being measured by independent parties, including amateurs, and my impression is that they are reporting on that as well.  This is supplemented my commentary from actual scientists in the field.  (Not to mention the fact that last week we heard a reporter go for the jugular of a TEPCO executive when he tried to apologize rather than offer information!  Finally!)  But don’t worry: I’m not holding the domestic media up as a shining example.


The main problem that this Japan Times article fails to address is things like:



This is just a taste of what we’ve seen in the last week, but don’t get me wrong: nobody wants a press that just sits back and takes officials’ words as gospel truth, but we need investigative journalists, not journalists who turn and twist limited information in order to make their stories more interesting.


Finally, you can’t turn around and say “well, the Japanese media does a really terrible job” and then use that to excuse the international media!  That’s like saying that Americans’ complaints about China’s human rights abuses must be entirely dismissed while Guantanamo Bay remains open!


And don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful to Mr. Johnston for at least bringing up the issue in an official forum, even if the conclusion of the article seemed to be a smug “well, let’s keep the status quo”.


Blah!  Did I just waste two hours of my life putting this together?


Allow me to leave you with this.  Another plum blossom from my plum tree (didn’t take any new photos today or yesterday).



Mar 20

WTF Toronto Star

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



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.



Mar 14

Quake News – Bits and Bobs

Just some miscellanea regarding my quake experience before I continue with my interview thingy.


  • My mechanical clock is running 20 minutes slow as of this afternoon; must be the continual bumping. I’m planning to leave it for a few more days to see how slow it will get.  It’s losing about 5 minutes per day.
  • During the 8-hour blackout on day of the quake, I spent 5 hours not flushing the toilet until I realized that the water was, in fact, running.
  • The upstairs toilet flooded. Salient points below:
    • This toilet has a small, random leak on the left side, under which I’ve placed a bucket
    • Japanese toilets frequently have a water-fountainy thing at the top (see picture)
    • We have incense cones sitting on the window sill in case of a particularly monstrous odour
    • I used this toilet only twice during the blackout, at which point it was already dark outside
    • I went back in yesterday morning while vacuuming, and discovered water on the floor
    • Inspection revealed that there was now way the normal leak could have missed the bucket
    • Further inspection revealed that an incense cone had fallen (presumably during the quake) near the hole on the top of the toilet where the water ‘fountain’ drains into the tank
    • The cone is smaller than the hole, so it must have originally fallen sideways
    • The water from my first flush must have pushed the cone towards the hole while simultaneously engorging it
    • Thus, said engorged cone blocked the hole
    • Second flush must have flooded the tank top
    • Interesting?  Probably not.
  • Around 12:30 today, two obaasan (Japanese old ladies) rang the doorbell.  They wanted to present me with an impeccably-written note in English informing me about the power outage from 15:20 – 19:00ish.  Of course, my wife is home from work today (trains too unreliable and crowded from here to Tokyo), so it was completely unnecessary, but they were worried that I was home by myself.  The hilarious part to think about is that, knowing how little old ladies do things here, it probably took them 3 – 4 hours from coming up with the idea to executing it, working solidly the whole time, with many discussions.  It gave me a bit of a smile to think about that and about how much my neighbours care about me.

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