A voice crying in the wilderness

Posts tagged ‘Japan’

Small Mercies

One thing I am really liking about getting back into blogging again is that because of my habit of typing everything into a word processor rather than directly into the blog feed, I like to take a couple of days out from posting so I can reread and review the article a couple of times first. Sometimes I need to revisit my writing as I wish to inspire and motivate people rather than having them immediately click on the “I’m offended!” button. I’d much prefer they go “Oh, I never thought of it that way” or “I’m glad to see this topic from someone’s point of view” than shout “Hate speech!” and block me.

Sometimes, however, it makes me realise that perhaps I have wandered off the point and turned the article into something else; that I need to stop, go back and rewrite the whole thing again or put that article aside and write about something else.

My evening walks are useful for this – if I’ve spent a chunk of the afternoon writing and editing, I’ll go for a walk and as I’m doing my mental ‘filing and sorting’ for the day, I might realise that there is something more important that I need to write about and I can come back to that first article later with a fresh point of view.

Social media has made us prone to the attitude of “reactions now, consequences later” – we don’t think of how many people will take the post the wrong way and see something that isn’t there. Of course, you will always have those who are looking for something to be offended by and will deliberately and intentionally read something out of context so they can bolster their already flawed perspective. But if you can do something to crack through that imperfect shield of theirs, you’ve made a start.

Remember the old (new) proverb – you can lead a man to knowledge but you can’t make him think.

The essensce or the substance

Is it possible to love the concept more than the subject itself?

I find myself settling into a Madness about China and, subsequently, Japan again. What I think I understand however is that it isn’t living in Japan that appeals, but its “Japan-yness”. Because of having such a large number of people living in a comparatively small nation – Australia has 7.7 million square kilometers with a population of 24 million people compared to 129 million people living in 378,000 square kilometers in Japan, thus a population density of 3 people per square kilometer versus 340 – there is a greater focus on group harmony or community harmony. No one wants to upset one another, everyone has a great respect for each other’s space and peace.

On rereading “Persimmon wind” by Dave Lowry, I learned of two concepts. The first, “Wa” () refers to “harmony” – maintaining the peace in the group by putting aside their own individual desires for the benefit of the many. This is a concept that very much goes against First World Western perspective – we are a society that is very focused on the needs and wants of the individual. We might have a rowdy party without considering how much this might disturb our neighbours, or talk loudly into our phone whilst on the train or in a restaurant.

The second concept is “Ma” (), or “negative space” – it is often translated as “interval”, “gap” or “pause”. Its the things left out that convey more meaning that the things put in.

Put another way, the Western perspective is to fill every available space, every available moment with substance and noise – even to the point where we lose ourselves and become buried under endless nonsense.

The concept of “Ma” is that we keep things simple and empty – instead of filling a wall with dozens of posters and pictures, we might have only one or two images on the wall that we would be able to focus on and absorb all the details. Compare Bach’s “Air” to a Yngwie J. Malmsteen million-notes-per-second guitar solo. Peak hour traffic versus a quiet drive along the coast or walk in the mountains.

We fill our lives with so much stuff and nonsense that we leave no room for ourselves. Sometimes we become so filled with everyone else’s ideas and concepts that we no longer know who or what we are.

We don’t take the time to stop and appreciate what we have. We don’t take time to just stop and breath.

Despite my crazed passions of the last year, I have no real desire to live in Japan for an extended period, nor have I any great desire to learn the written language even though I have managed to (largely) get my head around the spoken language. Truly, it is to the point that I struggle to learn any other language – someone speaking to me in French or Indonesian would have me automatically replying in Japanese despite my best efforts.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t wanted to move there – during my illness and extended recovery last year, depression led me to want to leave my marriage, move to Japan and take up permanent residence, change my name to Akira Kobayashi and go native. I wanted to renounce my previous life and start afresh in a new land.

Perhaps one day I will – I’m toying with the idea of retiring to Japan; that is, at least, when I am in a position that I no longer need to earn a living or march to the beat of another’s drum. I can go out to teach, or stay home and drink beer, people watch and smoke my pipe, whenever and however I feel.

So why do I keep becoming obsessed about Japan? I’ve done my share of hard work and long hours, enough that I wouldn’t want to go back to living that way again. I’ve lived in small apartments, but even the smallest here is nothing compared with how small they are there. I’ve done my share of long commutes, typically covering 500km a week. And after 25 years of anime and manga fandom, I’m quite over the insatiable appetite and shallowness of popular culture.

What is it that calls to me from there? I’m attempting to find out some more at the Perth Japan Festival coming up in three weeks. I’m endeavoring to distill the essence of Japan in an attempt to apply it to my life here, within the confines of a self absorbed, self centered and selectively tolerant Western society. Around the world, major cities will often have their “Chinatown” and “Little Japan” areas where entire suburbs and communities are given over to a single culture, but Perth is small enough and isolated enough that we have, at best, Generic Asian Fusion Town – Northbridge – where every non-Anglo-Saxon culture rubs shoulders on a daily basis. Consider the number of Japanese restaurants and eateries operated by Korean and Chinese with how few are operated by actual Japanese.

I have visited the Hyogo Prefectural Government Culture Centre in City Beach though I have yet to sign up for their study groups – I work alternate weekends at The Day Job but it is a better arrangement than it used to be. Aside from formal lessons, there is a comprehensive library for everyone to read (though you have to be a paid up member to borrow items) and casual chat sessions where one can just drop in and pass the time of day over a coffee, each helping another to practice a less familiar language – open to members and non-members alike.

Though it occurs to me why I might desire to learn about Japan from someone who has chosen to leave there.

Perhaps it would give me a better perspective and appreciation of “here”?

Gaijin behaving badly

DSC02882“Before you complain about bad customer service, ask yourself if you are being a bad customer.”

There is a perception in the media that Japan, as a nation, is largely xenophobic and prejudiced against foreigners – even the word itself, gaijin (外人), means “outside person” – a label all non-Japanese will carry no matter how long they live there, no matter how well they assimilate into the culture.

The laws often cited as being discriminatory, including the residence card issued to any foreigner who intends to stay in Japan longer than the 90 day visa allows and is required to be carried on their person at all times, appear on the surface as biased against non-Japanese. A child born in Japan of non-Japanese parents is not considered a Japanese national – they would still have to apply for permanent residence and naturalisation to be granted the same rights as a “full blooded” Japanese. Even then people will often ask them “When are you returning home?”

The media often seems to get into hysterical frenzies about the rights of the individual but how much of this is unfounded media panic and gonzo journalism, and how much of it is a genuine concern to the non-Japanese citizen?

Searches online seem to find a lot of sites claiming discrimination, or at least bureaucratic fumbling and stalling, when dealing with non-Japanese – ranging from being refused entry to shops or bars, being refused rental of apartments and houses through to police hostility and social ostracism.

If I look to my own experiences during my previous short visits to Japan, I can certainly recall no issues; a few moments are memorable, such as my arrival at customs with the officer having studied at the William Shatner school of English – I was greeted with a war chant of “Anything! To! Declare!?” and having already been awake for 26 hours at this time, shook my head numbly and wandered off through the gate, completely forgetting about the two bottles of wine in my backpack that I had brought as gifts for my host family – or at Yokohama station, my associate Quetzal and I were trying to work out which train to take to our next destination so we asked at the Green Window information counter (Midori no madoguchi) and the staff member gestured to an area behind us. We turned to find three sets of stairs leading off in different directions. When we turned back to the counter, the staff member had wandered off to help another customer. Fortunately we were able to find our train with the assistance of some very helpful passengers.

Truth be told, this became a familiar theme – on several occasions we were looking confused (our natural state of being, really) and trying to figure out a map (word of advice – don’t buy your railway guides from the ¥100 shop), we would have people approach us, usually quite elderly gentlemen, and explain things or point us in the right direction. Whilst viewing the Great Buddha statue at Koutoku-in (高徳院), Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, we were given a private tour by one of the groundskeepers, a sprightly 73 years young gentlemen who helped out twice a week.

About the only occasion of “discrimination”, or more accurately exclusion, we encountered was when attempting to buy a camera in Akihabara from the cheapest store we could find online – we entered the store and approached the counter but again and again the staff would address customers standing behind us. Realising that we had somehow become invisible, we decided to move on to the next cheapest store, Wink Digital, would could not have been more helpful. Even though the weekend staff were not fluent in English, they made use of Google Translate to explain things that they did not otherwise know the words for. During the week they had staff more fluent in English (and other languages) but they certainly tried their hardest and made quite a big sale as a consequence.

As a side note, bigger stores like Laox Duty Fee spoke English and stocked the same camera but charged an additional ¥20,000 for the international version, about the same price I could buy it for at home. Though an international warranty appealed to me at the time, 10 years on I am still using this camera.

The only experience we had where we felt uncomfortable was whilst walking around the Imperial Palace in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo – a documentary was being filmed that day so the grounds were closed to the public. We were disappointed but continued on our journey around Tokyo. However, one fellow – a white foreigner like ourselves – didn’t take well to the situation and walked around in circles talking to himself, cursing angrily and gesticulating to no one in particular. We watched which direction he went in and then turned the other way.

Walking through Akihabara, we encountered one of the right wing political groups (uyoku dantai, 右翼団体) with their black vans and slogans – they didn’t slow down or abuse us, merely continued on their way promoting whatever their campaign was at the time.

I made enquiries with a number of friends who recently visited Japan for periods ranging from a week through to several months and not one of them could recall any bad experiences, no harassment or obstruction. Quetzal had spoken of a few restaurants and cafés that had signs up excluding foreigners but there could be a number of reasons for this – there are probably a number of times that they had had bad experiences with foreigners causing trouble, but it could be just as likely that they were merely shy around us and didn’t want to make a bad impression either through miscommunication or unintended insult. There would probably be only a small number of locations who genuinely wanted to exclude foreigners for racist or other hostile reasons. Rather than campaigning to have such locations opened to non-Japanese, wouldn’t it be better to simply take our business elsewhere? If we aren’t welcomed, they won’t profit from us.

During my research, the overall philosophy seems to be “behave yourself and be respectful to the people and to their culture and everyone will get along just fine”. Provided that you don’t stir up trouble yourself or demand everyone conform to your expectations of conduct – how many times have people gone to another country and then complained that no one spoke their language, accepted their currency or served their style of food in restaurants – you shouldn’t run into any troubles. Its not a difficult task to carry your passport or registration card with you when you go out so don’t start a fight when an official requests to see it. Don’t get drunk and disorderly in public, something that seems to be a frequent occurrence among visitors, don’t vandalise other people’s property and don’t talk on your mobile phone on public transport. And always, always be polite.

Don’t be that person who fulfils all the negative stereotypes associated with your culture.

Healthcare for foreigners in Japan

Rescue atop Mount Takao, Hachiōji, Japan

Rescue atop Mount Takao, Hachiōji, Japan

Cross-posted from City Cost

A recent but prolonged illness forced me to cancel much of my plans to travel and study in Japan and remain in Australia for the foreseeable future. Between the surgical consultations and medication, my savings and holiday leave evaporated requiring me to start over again.

Perhaps it was fortunate that this occurred in Australia where my wife could drive me to hospital in the middle of the night and explain the situation as I was in no condition to communicate. I would hate to attempt to describe my condition with my limited Japanese, especially trying to mime the symptoms, when I was almost delirious.

In Australia, much of our healthcare is publicly funded by the taxpayer – although private health insurance is encouraged by our government’s obsession with cost cutting. Due to the tight budget, the consequence with both the emergency department and the hospital stay itself is the approach of “treat ’em then street ’em” – deal with the immediate problem and then as soon as the patient is out of danger, handball them back to their General Practitioner.

Also due to the tight budget for public healthcare, there are often long waiting lists when being referred to specialists or being admitted for surgery. As I took out basic private insurance after I was married, my GP was able to call in some favours and get me to see a specialist that afternoon – the specialist examined me and told me “you are not going home today”. I was admitted immediately.

My hospitalisation was brief, but recovery was much longer and required several follow up consultations due to ongoing complications. I didn’t think too much of it until bills for both consultations and medication started arriving – my insurance covered the hospital stay but very little else as the specialist wasn’t “endorsed” by my insurance provider. I hadn’t seen bills that large since my wedding.

Should this have happened in Japan, I find myself wondering what the situation would have been. I’ve known people who visited America and fell ill or were injured during their stay, only to have doctors refuse to treat them because they didn’t have the right kind of insurance. Having injured her back, one was required to pay cash upfront for treatment, the other had to administer their own treatment – the family she was staying with were all doctors but couldn’t help her, but did show her how to inject herself.

Previous study trips I have taken have been to places where comprehensive treatment was available for a modest annual fee, or covered by my own travel insurance for shorter stays – the arrangement being that once I was out of danger, I would be flown back to Australia for the remainder of the treatment required. These have typically been “tourist destination” and often operated by Australian businesses.

I would be interested in learning other people’s experiences with healthcare in Japan – how much was covered by different insurance schemes versus how much they were out of pocket, what difficulties they encountered both in communication and if they encountered any discrimination. Even differences in treatment between cities and rural areas.

The Perils of Stuff

Embracing your inner minimalist, or travel light, move fast

I encountered an article in The Japan News highlighting a movement of people reducing the amount of clutter in their lives to the point that they barely owned any items at all, and those that they retained served multiple purposes – a place to sleep that doubled as a lounge suite, a smart phone that acted as television, library, music collection, game console and camera on top of being a communications device. They don’t entertain at home so they don’t require much in the way of utensils or crockery, or even furniture. An advantage to this being that a very small apartment suddenly permitted a lot of free space.

By modern, particularly Western, standards this would seem mind boggling – surely the standard by which one measures success is how much stuff you own. Moreover, how much more you paid for it. To encounter an individual, or even a community of people who have come to the realisation that stuff does not make you happy would cause many a person to think if they actually understood this correctly.

I am a natural born hoarder – I’ve been prone to accumulating stuff, and then dragging all of that stuff with me whenever I moved. I relocated 400km from the city to the country and took 10 years of computer magazines and comics with me. When I worked in a computer store, I would scavenge parts from broken systems and build new ones, grabbing whatever parts that came to hand “just in case” because “you never know when you will need it”. When I moved out of my two bedroom apartment into a three bedroom house, the amount of stuff I owned seemed to expand to fill all available space.

And then I got married and my wife brought all her stuff along as well.

When my wife moved from her family home into mine, her family decided to get rid of a lot of stuff – and passed it onto us. Stuff was accumulating, filling every room and taking over the shed. We made several valiant attempts to get rid of stuff, taking boxes, car loads, trailer loads of stuff to the recycling centre, selling stuff where we could, giving stuff away to those who needed stuff.

And yet we still have a house full of stuff.

Two years ago, my parents suffered a series of health scares – my Father suffering a stroke, though he recovered well; my Mother suffered a heart attack that we thought she escaped unscathed following minor surgery but proved to have ongoing effects. I felt compelled to move back to the country to be with them – but even if my wife agreed, with all the stuff we still had, it would be a logistical nightmare.

Then I read the article on minimalism and it struck a note with me. Not a chord, just a single note – like a bell ringing clear and pure, resonating deeply within. People being happy and content without stuff – and because they weren’t spending all their money on stuff, they had more money to play with or invest. They had traded regular visits to StuffMart for quality time with friends, dining out or entertainment.

I badly wanted to be a part of that.

So we’ve started small – replacing some of our extensive collection of books (my wife and I are avid readers) with digital copies; ebooks. Albums and singles on cassette and vinyl replaced with digital versions; CDs extracted and uploaded to The Cloud. Our collection of game consoles and games sold off and replaced with emulators and updated remakes. Photo albums and negatives scanned, displayed on a digital photo frame, phone, tablet or television – who needs a slide show any more?

And clothes – so much that we don’t wear any more! Those in good condition sold or given to charity, those that were worse for wear taken to places like H&M in exchange for discount vouchers.

Its a slow, ongoing process – decluttering can start easily but when you come to items close to your heart, of sentimental value or family heirlooms, the process becomes so much tougher. Photos can be scanned but ornaments not so – perhaps one day in the age of hard light holograms, we can summon distant memories from the ether to recreate and display and dispose of when needed.

The Cloud is the declutterer’s friend – your music, photos, ebooks, videos, documents and the like can be accessed from anywhere with internet access and shared with whomever you wish, wherever and whenever you wish. But don’t forget to keep backups – if you only have one copy of something, it isn’t precious – don’t be disappointed if you delete it in error or a system failure wipes it out.

Japan and the Christian mind

Crossposted from City Cost
It intrigues me that less than 1% of Japan’s population identify as Christian. According to Wikipedia, this still equates to over 1 million people if you lump Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox together. A respectable number even if a tiny, tiny proportion of the nation. When I began studying Bahasa Indonesian some six months ago, I learned that around 10% of the population identify as Christian, but this number is closer to 23 million people.

I began studying further, utilising search engines, blogs, ebooks and even talking to Actual People and the prevailing thought seems to be that Christianity is disruptive; it spoils the harmony of the community and provokes a selfish, individualist attitude.

What kind of “Christians” have these people been talking to? The question stopped me in my tracks. In my own experience, Christianity seems quite in tune with the culture – it is focused on community, assisting those around us who cannot assist themselves and reaching out to those around us, lifting one another up and teaching one another. The question really should be “How have we Christians been conducting ourselves?”

I started thinking about my own experiences with so called Christians before I found my faith again and I began to understand the negative viewpoint. I encountered a great of hypocrisy, bigotry disguised as doctrine and wild eyed, mindless fanaticism. People confronting me in the street, grabbing my arm and shouting how I was doomed if I didn’t accept Christ as my Saviour, buskers committing crimes against music to the point that even the church they were performing in front of ordered them to move on. And then you have the prosperity focused churches who are all about the money. Certainly one can understand how these false teachers are seen as disruptive and objectionable.

As I began to write this entry on New Years Day, I received multiple interruptions that disrupted my train of thought – these proved to be beneficial however, as they gave me time to further my research and realise that my original idea was incomplete. Whilst I had briefly glanced at the history of Christianity in Japan, I discovered that there was a great deal more than I first thought and my original understanding was flawed.

I came to discover that part of the problem was they way we approached the subject – Christianity explained from a Western perspective can be construed as sometimes meaningless, sometimes objectionable and offensive. Expressions and similes that we use in English (or even the original Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic texts) don’t translate well into either the Japanese language or the culture. In addition to translating the language, we must also seek out a cultural equivalent to explain.

So as I renew my studies of Japanese, reviewing my textbooks and notes from my night classes dating back from 1997, I realise that I need to approach my learning from the other direction – I need to study not just more about the culture but also the religion of Japan to find parallels, to find the parallels that make the gospel more comprehensible but more accessible. We will never inspire people to look further into the gospel if we start off offending them.