Search Box

Links to Culture Cafe Episodes!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Brief Overview of the Security Bill

A struggle breaks out during the lower house vote

Yesterday, during a Parliament meeting in the lower house of Japan's National Diet - The House of Representatives - politicians threw themselves over a committee chairman in an exasperated effort to prevent the reading of bills which threaten to bring unprecedented historical change to Japan's peace adoption policies that have been in place since 1947.

The bills would in essence lift restrictions on Japan's ability to sustain a military that would be capable of combat overseas. It further stipulates that Japan would would have the ability to send soldiers into conflict zones in order to aid or assist allies as the government saw fit. Initial opponents of Abe's security bills contest that it would violate Article 9 of their longstanding constitution known as either the "Postwar Constitution" (戦後憲法 Sengo-Kenpou) or the "Peace Constitution" (平和憲法 Heiwa-Kenpou) which was in part written by The United States of America as a member of the Allied Occupation after World War II. The article in question minces no words about its intended effect.

"Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign 
right of the nation and the threat or use of force as 
means of settling international disputes"

Abe's majority party, The Liberal Democratic Party, has long denounced Article 9 as being out-dated and not fit for a so-called modern world. He has cited the escalation of China's military and strength as a nation, and even the recent murder of Japanese hostages by the Islamic State militants (ISIS) as necessary reasons for Japan requiring sovereignty over its defense policies. 
Abe awaits the decision
Militaristic sentiments are hardly new for Abe or his administration. In 2013 he raised tensions by paying respects at Yasukuni Shrine which is most notable for being the memorial site of Japan's fallen soldiers including all those who were tried as war criminals as a result of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. It was an act which earned scorn from China, Korea, and Taiwan, for appearing unapologetic towards the war and even the American government for elevating tension in East Asia.

The security bill has passed the first level of Japan's bicameral system - The House of Representatives. Though many had hoped it would somehow be halted there, none were likely surprised. 

The House of Representatives
 In order for this legislation to be completely passed in full it will require passing both the lower and upper house. The lower house as you can see below is dominated by Abe's party (LDP, green) with an overwhelming 291 seats. The lower house requires a simple majority (currently 238 votes) to move a bill to the upper house. Abe is also supported by the Koumeitou party (yellow) which provides a potential 35 votes on top of his party. Even though the bill already moved past the lower house, this is an important point to note.    
The House of Councillors

The House of Councillors, despite being known as the upper house, is actually less powerful overall. It has a total of 242 seats of which Abe and his supporting party maintain 134 with 114 from the LDP, and the additional 20 from Koumeitou (green and yellow respectively). With only 122 votes being required from the upper house, it seems quite likely that Abe will finally push forward with his highly unpopular security bill.

But should it halt at the House of Councillors it will be then be kicked back down to the House of Representatives where it could either be debated further before being voted on again and sent back, or outright refused. In the latter case, the lower house has the ability to reject the upper house's decision and push a bill into motion by a 2/3 majority vote once it has been sent back. 

Looking at the numbers again of the lower house we see that there are 475 total seats. The LDP and Koumeito combined account for 325 of those votes. A small calculation reveals that the controlling party maintains 68% of seats in the House of Representatives - just enough to make it possible should it be kicked back down provided there is full support from both parties, which is nearly guaranteed. 

The upper house now has the floor and will debate the security bill for a further 60 days before it goes to a vote. 

Amid public demonstrations in the tens of thousands outside of Parliament it will be a troubling time for a country that seems largely intent on avoiding war once again. 


Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Han Toshi

I haven't written in a long time, even though I really want to. I reached a point where I needed to divorce myself from the keyboard when I wanted to talk about school/work lest my thoughts devolve into angry musings that none would care to read. I try to stay positive. That's probably the best way I can sum up my state of mind: I try to stay positive.

Moving on, music is a great way for me to drown out the white noise and feedback loops of futility that have become my job. This year hasn't blown me away with any one release (yet), but there's a handful of things that I recommend people put on their radar. As always, until the year end best-of list, they are in no particularly order.

 Jamie xx - In Colour

Jamie xx is one half the duo called (not surprisingly) The xx. Apart
from an album he made with Gil Scott-Heron - just before he passed away, this marks
Jamie's debut solo album. He drops all notions of the subtlety that earned his former band
their well deserved acclaim, but retains his focused and calculating style, just bigger.

My jam: Seesaw [ft. Romy]

 Best Coast - California Nights

How was I not supposed to like an album and a band that is essentially 
themed around living in Southern California? Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno bring 
back their signature style of garage/pop enthusiasm for a third time.The 
edges have been softened a bit, but it still feels like something only they could have done.

My jam: Feeling Ok

 Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free

I'm new to Jason Isbell, so while I don't have much of a backstory on him
that informs my opinion of his work I probably wouldn't need it anyway. This is
a heartfelt album through and through. Even if country isn't your thing, I think there's
something that everyone can find enjoyable on this record. Check it out.

My jam: How To Forget

 Beach House - Depression Cherry

Bands don't get much more reliable than this. Depression Cherry might throw some
fans of "Teen Dream" era for a loop, but I promise you this is forward movement. 
Beach House has never sounded more sincere and intricate in their production even
when you take most of it away as they've done here.

My jam: Beyond Love

 Tame Impala - Currents

Everything about this band is cool. Their name, the name of their albums (Lonerism), and
the artwork. I don't even need to mention the music because their brand of Psychedelic Rock
does all the talking. It's replete with fantastic hooks and wonderful lyrics that only add 
to the discourse of the romantic break-up album. It was a welcome surprise.

My jam: Yes I'm Changing

 Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan is such a wildcard. It feels like he's either got a hat of ideas
for records, or he takes on dares - as in the case of  2010's electronically
driven, "Age of Adz." Whatever the case, he's a prolific lyricist and equally
powerful composer. The inspiration for the album (the death of his mother) might 
sound like a downer, but rather than a collection of brooding dark pieces it's more
of a joyful and fond send-off. 

My jam: The Only Thing
 Purity Ring - Another Eternity

I fell in love with Purity Ring upon hearing their first double A-side that 
combined the powerhouse tracks of "Lofticries," and "Ungirthed" together. Simply
describing Purity Ring as an electronic band wouldn't be doing them justice. It's electronic
pop infused with trip hop beats, and a more sinister undertone. It's good, that's what it is.

My jam: Bodyache

 Father John Misty - I Love You Honeybear

Father John Misty was new for me as well this year. I'll definitely be going back and
checking out his surprisingly huge catalog of solo work. The stage name (as you correctly assumed)
has only been in use for a few years however, with the bulk of his work having been created
under his actual name - Joshua Tillman. This album is at times emotional, sarcastic, and horribly romantic.
I don't want to get ahead of myself just yet, but this is probably the ringer for best of the year.

My jams: Bored In The USA / Holy Shit / I Went To The Store One Day 
Seriously, the last three tracks on this album are amazing.

 Sleater-Kinney / No Cities To Love

After a long absence Sleater-Kinney returns thrashing into the foreground of
everyone's consciousness. The sound is no less raw, the lyrics are no less memorable, and
their presence is never more desired. Sleater-Kinney returns in fine form with No Cities To Love.

 My jam: Hey Darling

 The Go! Team - The Scene Between

Despite the dissolution of the team in the band's namesake, Ian Parton has managed
to create a sound that supersedes anything The Go! Team has previously produced.
If I were going to declare any single album as the pop album of the year for me, this one would 
be it hands down. It's catchy, full of hooks, and will definitely find you hitting replay more than once.

 Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly

Originally titled "Tu Pimp A Catterpillar," (TuPAC) Kendrick has been quoted as saying that Tupac is one 
of the rappers that he draws most of his inspiration from whether it be style, or in day to day life. 
Kendrick has certainly made a name for himself though with his unique style of rap. "To Pimp A Butterfly" is another link in that chain, which fuses hip hop, spoken word poetry, and even jazz - seamlessly.

My jam: King Kunta
 Passion Pit - Kindred

Passion Pit's music feels like the kind of thing one is supposed to eat rather 
than listen to. Their pop synths are all so fantastic, colorful, and vibrant that they feel
sweet to the ear. I haven't decided where this one places among their three releases, but
that I have that decision to make at all says something.

My jam: Where The Sky Hangs

 Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass

Newcomer and singer-songwriter Natalie Prass gracefully glides onto the music scene
with her melodic debut album. While it might feel a bit of a slow burn for the 'gotta have it now' 
generation, there's plenty to be enjoyed throughout this album. With elements of Chamber Pop, a 
twinge of Baroque, and an overall classic feeling, it's something to check out.

My jam: Your Fool

 CHON - Grow

Despite hitting a nerve for bands with names that are all caps - seriously - CHON is
pretty exciting. I know every once in a while I recommend something immediately off-putting
and this one will probably be it unless you are familiar with the exquisitely detailed 
sub-genre known as Math Rock. Noted for it's at first dissonant sound, Math Rock is hard
to describe but easy to recognize. "Grow" contributes a few great pieces to the style.

My jam: Book

 Belle and Sebastian - Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance

I was greatly anticipating getting my hands on this album. Earlier this year I saw 
them in Tokyo performing some highlights of this release and of course a ton of old standards. 
Any new Belle and Sebastian album is a cause for celebration, and this one is no 
different. Their occasional melancholic but always poppy songs have been injected with 
a more dance-worthy beat, as the title would suggest.

My jam: The Party Line

 Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

First off, the award for best title ever goes to? Panda Bear follows his previous solo
work with another album that will be on rotation for some time. Constructed as a kind of concept 
album that deals with exactly what you think it does, but not in the way you think,
PBMTGR packs a punch. It's chilling while catchy, psychedelic but poppy, and 
grabs your attention throughout.

My jam: Mr. Noah

 Hiatus Kaiyote - Choose Your Weapon

Okay, I lied. This is the crazy one. Haitus Koyote's "Choose Your Weapon" appears to be
an experimental album. Just by the sheer number of genres and styles that get mashed within
the course of this record (jazz, soul, funk, R&B, and so on) it's incredibly difficult to 
give it a singular label - which isn't a bad thing. They describe themselves as 
Neo-Soul, but I don't know if that helps.

My jam: Shaolin Monk Motherfunk
(How about that title, right?)

 Ratatat - Magnifique

Ratatat is a jam band. This album, like almost all of their work, features no vocals. On "LP3"
there was a jaguar-esque sound on a track called "Wildcat." That's the kind of band
that Ratatat is. Magnifique rolls with crunching guitars that constantly seem on
a path of out-cooling the other - much like their previous work. It has moments of
introversion, but that just means there's breathing room in between. 

My jam: Abrasive
 Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

Seemingly in a competition with Fiona Apple for the longest album names ever, Courntey
Barnett delivers a resounding debut album. It rocks. She rocks. Her voice is amazing, and she 
shreds the hell out of more than a few songs here. I don't know much about her, but I'll definitely
be keeping my eye on her after this. Give it a listen if you care about rock at all. 

My jam: Pedestrian At Best
The Vaccines - English Graffiti

These guys came out of nowhere for me. Though they've been around since 2010
apparently, I hadn't caught wind of them until the single "Handsome" off this record 
was released earlier this year. It immediately became the song of the summer for me
and I had to investigate the rest of the album, where many more gems would lay.

My jam: Minimal Affection

Here's the list one more time, alphabetically:

Beach House - Depression Cherry

Belle and Sebastian - Girls In Peacetime Just Want To Dance

Best Coast - California Nights

CHON - Grow

Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear

The Go! Team - The Scene Between

Hiatus Kaiyote - Choose Your Weapon

Jamie XX - In Colour

Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly

Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass

Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

Passion Pit - Kindred

Purity Ring - Another Eternity

Ratatat - Magnifique

Sleater Kinney - No Cities To Love

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowe

Tame Impala - Currents

The Vaccines - English Graffiti

Happy Listening.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Tales from the Shokuinshitsu Vol. 4

Tales from the Shokuinshitsu

Volume 4: In which it's not always about her, but it usually is.

I saw a wireless router up on a shelf when I first arrived this school about 2 years ago. For the longest time I didn't even ask about connecting to the WiFi because there was really no need. There's a LAN cable that runs to each person's work laptop, and I would never be doing anything on my phone that required heavy internet use - checking the dictionary, mailing myself a picture for work, etc.

So as the Beatles once said, I let it be.

One day I brought my own laptop to school. I needed to do something which required software not available on the work laptops. I plugged in the LAN cable assuming that it would connect without issue, but it did not. I know now that there was (and is) a proxy running, which meant I couldn't hop on to the internet unless I knew the IP address and port they were running it through. It's not complicated but it meant that I would not be using the school's internet unless I was told these specific values.

So I availed myself of the classic wisdom, "Ask and you shall receive."

Exactly one half of that worked.

I was told that there was no WiFi, it didn't work. At the time I was doing my best to play nice and thus really didn't question the things that I was told. There was no reason not to believe them so I took that answer in earnest.

At some point down the road, after the first teacher swap happened, one of the new teachers asked about the internet as well. I listened carefully to the ensuing conversation. It wasn't complicated at all though. That teacher was given a password to punch into her personal iPad, she thanked the one who relayed it to her and went back to work.

So there was WiFi and it does work. That's lie number one.

After that, I asked other teachers about using the internet, but none of them knew much about computers so they said they didn't know the password, or how they were signed in, just that they were. Frustrating, and confirmation of the first lie.

The school eventually bought a series of iPads for use in the classes. I have an iPad myself and I like it, but I'd be the first to admit that an iPad without WiFi is fairly useless. One of them popped up in an English class, and I saw that glorious monochrome triple rainbow, which could only mean one thing. By that point there were several things I knew: one, there is WiFi here; second, there are iPads; third, those iPads are definitely connected to the WiFi. I thought I would try again to ask about the internet but this time I framed it in terms of my iPad, reasoning it would make for a stronger case.

I think the accepted term here is "Swing and a miss."

I had a legitimate reason to use my iPad too. I wanted to browse the bookstore and download a picture book, because my kindergartens tend to send faxes on the day of, rather than in advance. I try to prepare many things, but sometimes (believe it or not) our plans do not always align when we fail to discuss them ahead of time.

The response was different, but still a no. I was told that it's very complicated to set up the WiFi. And as a compromise I was offered a cable to connect my iPad to the computer so I could transfer files that way. I offered my thanks but added that I had my own cables.

That response was really interesting though. I'd be willing to admit that possibly, there was no WiFi or it did not work when I first showed up. That's entirely plausible, but extremely unlikely. I know what routers are and people had been using the WiFi. This defense only confirmed that the first excuse was a lie. It's hardly a defense at all, to be honest. It was worse than a, "No," and far worse than being told I could not use it. This was, "There is, but I don't want to tell you."

Just last Friday there was an IT guy here who had been replacing the router, and possibly the modems. He announced to the staff that the password for the internet was different now. One of the teachers immediately shot up, "What?! Tell me what it is now!" He told the teacher, and I quickly jotted down as much as I could of the information being relayed to her. This is when I learned that there is a proxy server. The teacher complained that it was much easier before with just a password.

Ah yes, the smoking gun.

It was only a password? All the lies.

I was annoyed. A proxy is not that hard to figure out; one just punches in some extra numbers and it's done. The crux of my angst was centered on how much people had danced around telling me the WiFi information.

And to what end, I wondered. I would've been more comfortable with someone telling me that I can't use it because I'm American. Flat out discrimination would feel better than just being lied to. At least one of those two is honest.

As all the teachers learned the new information for using the WiFi I sat down and tried my best to write the parts of the IP, port, and password they were reiterating out loud as they typed them in. Everyone trailed off though and I could only get half of it. I heard the IT guy mention that the password was on the back of the modem - they didn't change the factory one. I went up and took a picture of it with my phone. At the very least I would have that piece of the puzzle.

One of the very new teachers (who is quite nice) had just set it up on her phone. I approached her and asked if she could pass the details along to me. In an adorably meek way she replied, "Someone else did it for me." Another teacher, the one who initially complained about the change, heard and came over. I had my phone at the right screen, ready to put in the remaining parts, but she just took over. She went back and then started hitting buttons on my phone as if I didn't know what I was doing.

Thus, the circle of frustration was complete.

But at least I have really slow WiFi now.


Thursday, June 4, 2015


I think I'm just going to start writing and see what comes out today.

Bottling up depression is dangerous and quite different than when someone bottles up anger. When one bottles up anger, it's apt to explode like a can of soda opening after rigorous agitation. Depression, is like putting a hole in the can first. And every time one feels like they can't tell someone about it for fear of coming across as a downer, whiny, or otherwise annoying, it puts another hole in the can.

I was driving with Mitsuko over the weekend and out of nowhere I unloaded. A lot.

I didn't shout or get mad at her, mind you. Nothing like that at all. I had a breakdown after another couple months worth of trying to repress what I'm thinking might be a deep-seated depression at my ineffectiveness and inability to do anything related to the reason I came to Japan on JET in the first place.

Every time I start to talk about how frustrating my placement is, it seems that someone will almost always inadvertently talk about how maybe "culture shock" has finally hit me. That's bullshit. It hasn't. I'm going to go on a limb here and expand this following point to more than just my current situation. The worst thing people can do is tell someone it's their fault when a given person is having problems. It makes them not want to speak up. What might have been handled in one conversation gets dragged out and repressed over an agonizing course of time. It takes a lot of gall to assume (and you are assuming) you know what someone is dealing with in their life, or in their workplace. So, stop it.

I love Japan. I have the best time on the rare occasion when I get to do a bit of traveling, exploring, and interacting with people who want to talk to me. It's my work environment that's destroying me.

I looked through my journal and for the past couple of weeks, every entry has opened with the following words:



Not today.

Or today.

I think you get the point.

Nearly every other day, while I was sitting here with little to do but collect my thoughts, there would be a phone call to the office. It came from the 2nd year teacher asking for help because the class was too out of control or there would be some kind of fighting that required all available (2nd year) teachers to run up and help.

I have been informally uninvited to these classes after several incidents (including an altercation with a student) wherein the teacher apologized to me once class was over and the students were dismissed.

So that's a third of the potential classes I can't go to. I wouldn't want to go anyway as it stands. I don't need to be insulted, have obscenities shouted, or be the target for paper airplanes, paper wads, etc - while I'm trying to talk. Unless they fix this I won't be making an appearance. I make use of the indefinite pronoun in this case only to point out that I don't care who corrects their behavior, just that someone does. I've had talks with the principal of the school about this, as well as the 2nd year staff. Everyone unabashedly agrees that something is truly wrong. But that is as far as the conversation ever goes.

Those who would teach these children are holding them under a faucet, waiting for the water so that they may wash their hands of the whole affair.

That's just one thing.

The former English teacher still haunts these halls. I don't know what she does other than tell me things I already know. Every time she walks near me I start to become a little bit annoyed at the possibility that I'll be dragged into a conversation I don't want to have. She'll say something in English that I don't understand - which is entirely not a problem. The problem is that she will phrase it in a way that sounds as though it's a new thing she's referring to. This causes me to ask, "What?" or state that I'm not aware of the thing she's just mentioned. Then when I find out what it is in Japanese I come to realize that there's nothing new and I'm on task, on schedule as always. She's just always trying to be on my case.  Let's have an example.

We have an assembly once a week. Every Wednesday morning in the gym the student council will go over any important news, and then any teachers wishing to make announcements will do much the same. She frequently reminds me about this - two years into doing it. It's not a friendly reminder though as she laments the information unto me with an elongated (mis)pronunciation of my name. She'll follow that up with a prolonged drawl oozing instructions out of her mouth to me as though I require it so. I have to hand it to her though, she knows how to sound like a complete asshole when she's trying.



"The meeting is todaaaaaaaaay." She will say with a rising intonation of impatience, sounding thoroughly annoyed.

"What?" I'm alarmed because she's expressing this to me as though it's something I am late or not prepared for.

"School meeeeeeeeeeeting.... in the gyyyyyyyym." I know you're thinking that maybe she just pronounces things like this and it's a complete misunderstanding. I'll put that to rest right now. She doesn't speak English like that to anyone else. I've heard her in and outside of class.

"Oh, the zenkouchoukai." I quickly respond both at ease and frustrated. First, she's not at the meeting. So I'm not late. I look at the clock to confirm it doesn't happen for 10 more minutes. Then, I looked at the rest of the staff room. Everyone else is still here so it's not as if I'm supposed to be there early.

Anyway, that's just one of many stories involving her. She never speaks Japanese to me, nor do I to her. Not since she made fun of it. The third volume of journals should really list her somewhere in the credits because she's got more screen time than anyone else in it.

Despite knowing there would be fallout I also canceled my school lunch recently.

Doing that itself was a process and required talking to multiple parties. One instance I remember quite well. It started when I talked to the quite nice JTE (with whom I get along splendidly) that sits next to me and it came up in conversation that I might be able to cancel my school lunch. I left it at that for a while, but eventually I truly wanted to cancel the lunch because of dietary reasons. I have to say first that I don't mind kyuushoku at all, and I almost always enjoyed it - Natto isn't food. I didn't drink the milk however, because who does, and I didn't want to eat the rice because I'm trying to lose weight and that amount of empty carb loading just wasn't doing me any favors. It's a lot of rice for those not in the know and wasting food (throwing it back in the bin to be later tossed) is unacceptable to me.

Eventually I talked with the office lady because she was in charge of collecting the lunch money every month. The former JTE, y, was there as well. I wasn't going to ask about canceling the school lunch on that occasion. Originally I was double checking how much I was required to pay for it. An important point for later: It's been a well known fact since I arrived that I don't drink milk, and as a result I don't receive any for lunch. Irrelevant to the milk issue, I found out a year later that I was being overcharged because I have a half day on Wednesday and thus don't eat at the school. This being the second year, I asked the office lady if the amount on my payment envelope was correct. It showed 5000 yen, which is the same it always was. She said it was right. I paused then explained the whole overcharged scenario to her, but I made a mistake. I had forgotten it was because of Wednesdays, and I mentioned milk.

She was confused then looked past me towards y, made a face, then explained it was because of not eating on Wednesday. Immediately I felt stupid. Of course that's what I meant to say, I just slipped up. She looks at me and says, (in Japanese, she doesn't speak any English) "Do you understand?" She looks past me at y again and repeats, "Does he understand?" Now of course I'm feeling a bit annoyed because I do understand, and now y has been brought into this discussion as well - something I did not want.

The office lady explains that she'll give me my refund at the end of next year rather than adjusting how much I have to pay now, which is ridiculous.

I say to the office lady that I understand, but we again go through this song and dance at which point y gets up and says, "Do you understand?"

Or at least she would have. As she got up I turned around and said, "No." She sat right back down.

If we weren't friends before, we sure are now.

A week after that I just told her (office lady) that I wanted to cancel it outright. I was done with it. It took a couple weeks before another person talked to me about it, because it somehow involved him. He said that they would look it but that it would require some phone calling and double checking to make sure I could be removed. His explanation was that there are people who work for the town that carefully balance - that word comes up so often - each meal and he worried that I wouldn't be eating enough, or eating a balanced meal.

That might sound sweet to you, but this is a person who made fun of my weight for quite some time after I arrived, and poked fun at myself and the other ALT in Kotoura-cho at our welcome dinner with the BOE people. After that dinner, I thanked him for his "kind words," and he respond thus:

"Those weren't kind words." Anyway, moving on.

They eventually picked a day when the lunch would stop for me, and now I bring a salad I make at home. Every once in a while though he'll stop by and ask if I'm eating enough.

Yes, I am. Thank you.

This is of course annoying because that same person will equally ask what I'm eating for dinner. I'm honest, and there's no shame in what I'm cooking. I don't eat unhealthy. Despite this, I've always received a warning to "not eat too much".

I won't. Thank you. 

I have plenty more to say, but I guess I should stop here.


Monday, May 25, 2015

Single File: In The Flowers

Things have been tough lately. 
I thought I would try writing about that which has always lifted my spirits.

Single File is segment that analyzes a lone track off an album I enjoyed. The track being discussed isn't necessarily always a 'single,' but rather a song that I believe contributed greatly to the feel of the album in question.

The band: Animal Collective

The album: Merriweather Post Pavilion

The song: In The Flowers

In The Flowers is a great place to start with this new segment. Some albums are good, others are great, and the song for today hails from the latter. And in the pantheon of great releases there are those which leave a lasting mark after their first listen. Merriweather Post Pavilion earned the question, "Do you remember the first time you listened to it?" and it is well deserved. To understand the reason why I love this song, and especially as a part of a collection, it will help to expand the argument just a bit more.

Music is tricky. I would argue this is largely because listening to it is an investment of time few care to spend on things they aren't positive they will enjoy. With this in mind and admitting that the art form as a whole is extremely subjective, recommending songs (let alone entire albums) to people can be tough. Both parties have something to lose if the enjoyment doesn't transfer. Thus, the responsibility of an opening track is huge when suggesting an album to a friend.

With the influx of portable music came a shift to the way we actually listened to it. Take a look at any digital shop and it will be instantly apparent what has changed. I hopped onto the iTunes music store and clicked on the first album they were promoting as of today. As is obvious, the album (in its entirety) can be purchased at a base price. Apart from the single - which still exists - music was ultimately purchased as a whole. You couldn't piece out an album in other words. The trend for today is in the individual track selection. 

I could never buy a single track
I apologize for beating this quite obvious concept over your heads. I'm sure everyone reading is well aware of the current trends in the music industry; one would only need to check their smartphone and a handful of apps to find any number of examples. I only make this point so exhaustively because I feel that it has destroyed the concept of what an album should be: a collection of songs meant to be heard and enjoyed together.

I'm a record collector, and though that market is increasing (much to my excitement) it is still a relatively small area of industry. When listening to a record one can't simply skip a track, at least with the ease in which a portable player could. It is a physical process that's reproducing the sound and as such it is also a physical process to skip a track: getting off the couch and moving the needle to the song you want to hear. I don't bother with that (apart from the necessary side flipping) because I trust that these albums had blood, sweat, and tears poured into them. I believe there's a reason the tracks are in the order they are in. There's a reason they are in one collection. Having said that, I do realize that some albums seem to built of 'fillers' designed to couch one or two singles, but that's a topic for another day.

So, albums are important, songs matter as do their order, and listening to albums as self contained experiences is critical for me. This is why I suggested earlier that the opening track to an album carries such weight.

Luckily, In The Flowers handles this in strides.The track opens with a wave-like wash, as if to symbolize a cleansing of the palette before heading deep into uncharted territory. The downward spiraling, rhythmic plucking again reinforces this idea of descending towards the clandestine, an audible trip down the rabbit hole. It has a quality which is ever so slightly cautious, but equally curious. From out of this nebulous dream-space comes our narrator, who begins to describe a dancer he meets in a field. The dancer is spoken of as maintaining a trance over our narrator. Her movements seem to catch the narrator off guard, and incite a force deep within himself that cannot be controlled, noting that even her surroundings appear more joyful due to her presence. She presents a flower to him, an invitation. He adds later a sense of envy towards those such as the dancer who will "dance despite anything." Wistfully, he ponders what it would be like to live in such hedonism before ultimately giving into the temptation, at which point the song explodes into a cacophony of bliss.

Perhaps the most telling, and most important lines to the album overall come next from our narrator as he answers the hypothetical he proposed moments earlier.

Then we could be dancing
No more missing you while I'm gone
There we could be dancing,
And you'd smile and say, "I like this song"
And when our eyes will meet there
We will recognize nothing's wrong
And I wouldn't feel so selfish
I won't be this way very long

Suddenly everything has changed. Dancing now appears to be a metaphor for simply enjoying life, whatever form that pleasure takes. In this case, we might understand it to mean the album that we're about to dive right into. In a wonderfully earnest moment, the narrator admits that if they simply chose to enjoy themselves, nothing bad would come of it, and though it might be selfish to consider only one's happiness, he understands that it will only be for short time.

As an opening track for an album that falls well outside of 'mainstream' music, could you ask for a more honest start? It speaks to the innocence of enjoying music, as it should be enjoyed. Remove label, identity, associations, and listen to it for the sense of wonderment that we often find so hard to describe, yet easily recognize when around, and deeply miss when gone. It encourages the listener to let go, because as it argues, there's no harm in having a little bit of fun.

The album stays strong throughout, and stays true to the opening manifesto. There are songs more playful, and stronger, and probably more popular as it goes on, but none can replace the feeling of being guided slowly into a world of frivolity - if only for a while.


"In The Flowers"

I'm a dancer

Met a dancer
Who was high in a field
From her movement
Caught my breath on my way home
Couldn't stop that spinning force I felt in me,
Everything around seemed to giggle glee
She walked up with a flower and I cared

Found a dancer
Who gets wild to the beats
of record rhythm
But I'm always away for weeks that pass slow
My mind gets lost
Feeling envy for the kid who'll dance despite anything
I walk out in the flowers, and feel better

If I could just leave my body for the night,
Then we could be dancing
No more missing you while I'm gone
There we could be dancing,
And you'd smile and say, "I like this song"
And when our eyes will meet there
We will recognize nothing's wrong
And I wouldn't feel so selfish
I won't be this way very long

To hold you in time
To hold you in time
To hold you in time
To hold you in time

While we were dancing
Early hours
Drunken days finally ended
And the streets turned for a pillowcase
Then I fumbled our good lock
Then the ecstasy turns to rising light
Through our windowpane
Now I'm gone
I left flowers for you there

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Write, Reflect, Repeat

On The Importance of Journaling Abroad

     About two weeks ago, a fair-sized group of us were enjoying dinner at a restaurant called Steak Gusto down in Yonago. We dined and caught up on the latest happenings from our respective schools and lives. During this dinner, talk of writing and journals came up. I mentioned that I keep a journal (which I write in almost daily) and even shared a bit of it. I'm sure most people are tired of hearing about it, but I wanted to spend some time talking about how invaluable keeping one has been. And perhaps the best way to do this is to explain what not keeping one was like.

So let's go back in time.
     In 2007 I came to Japan for a study abroad program. It was a lot of firsts for me. It was the first time I was away from my family for a prolonged period. It was the first time I came to Japan. It was the first time I flew in an airplane for that matter. We spent five weeks in southern region of Kyuushuu, wherein the bulk of our time was centered around Fukuoka. I love Fukuoka. It's one of the best cities (if not the best) I've been to in Japan, and easily trumps more popular choices like Osaka, or Tokyo. The trip overall was an amazing experience, which is probably obvious since I once again found my way back to Japan. Reminiscing aside, we did a lot of stuff. From Fukuoka we ventured out into almost all of Japan's southernmost region, exploring Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Beppu, Mt. Aso, Sakurajima, Amakusa, and more.

    I like to think I have a pretty decent memory, but I know too well the trappings of relying on something that inherently prone to failure. Eventually I reasoned that my experiences in Japan would be no better than the dream they used to be if I couldn't remember them. Everything simply felt too good to be true and perhaps the heart of my fear was that it might vanish completely. I wanted to somehow preserve it while I was there, and so I photographed everything. If memory serves correctly I used four SD cards and took just over 4000 pictures.*

     There was plenty to remember - and plenty of things to remind me - but still, I spent more than a few nights worried that I might one day forget elements of the trip. If you asked my roommate at the time, the talented Dustin McCurdy, he probably would remember at least one or two late night conversations about this. For the next few years after I returned home though, I could easily recall and retell any singular experience from my time overseas.

Then those years passed.

     There was a day when I wasn't able to remember something about where I'd gone. It was a relatively small detail, but even after scanning through my pictures I only recalled the itinerary - the place and a general sense of what we did - but something was gone. It was an awful feeling.

     Fortunately, there's still plenty of it left in my head. When I went back to Fukuoka with Mitsuko - a full seven years since the last time - I was able to navigate with the utmost of ease. I knew what stops to get off at, which corners to turn on, and where my favorite spots were. I feel however, that these things I remembered so well were routines. I learned them through rote memorization as a result of living there for a short period of time. Some of the more fascinating things I did have become only a single picture with no information attached. As I mentioned earlier, when I look at those pictures I can easily remember that portion of the trip but the specifics are sometimes a wash.

     When it comes to memory it's quite easy to make exaggerations, or even worse, fabrications. Ask yourself now if you've ever recalled a story that wasn't exactly true, contested by a friend who was also there, or even called out for being slightly to completely false.   

     I brought a journal along but I wrote in it only a few times. I knew people would rather see pictures (if they were at all interested) than listen to - or worse, read - my visually challenged recollections. I rediscovered this spiral notebook many years after the trip, and had a read. There wasn't much. An old drawing of Link from Majora's Mask (likely because I bought the Japanese manga), a few notes and email addresses from the students I met (none of whom I managed to stay in contact with), and a single entry about a page long.

     You can read about that entry right here but for this post I'll say that it was an amazing thing to look back on. I suddenly became so upset with myself that I hadn't written more. It was dated, which sort of locks it down into a certain event (one would think) but when I had a look at the pictures around that period I couldn't find anything which would've inspired that entry. I made no reference to it in the spiral notebook, only claiming that whatever had happened was changing my life - for the better.

     I promised myself after that point I would do a better job of writing things down should I ever have a similar experience like that again. When I spent six months in Kofu, with Mitsuko, I filled up an entire volume (around 256 pages) mostly because I had a lot of time to myself and my thoughts when I wasn't talking with her wonderful neighbor, Keiko-san.

     Now four volumes in to all of my Japan experiences, I can say that it's been the single most rewarding thing I have ever done. Everything has been documented. My highs and lows. There are times I have already forgotten because there were so miniscule in the grand scheme of my life right now, but important enough for that day. Those tend to be the richest thoughts that I write. From making note of an instance when I was frustrated or reflecting upon an opening/closing ceremony to preserving a touching or even silly moment I had with a student, these are the moments worth remembering.

     It might be a bit scary, and it's definitely something hard to be consistent with, but if you really want to know who you are I would recommend that you get a journal and start writing.

It just might surprise you. 


*Who else remembers back when it took that many SD cards to get that many pictures. We weren't rocking these 32 and 64 gig cards. I still remember paying $120 for my first 1 gig card.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Tales of the Shokuinshitsu (The Exciting Conclusion)

Tales of the Shokuinshitsu

Volume 3: It Melts Like Sugar In The Rain

     Today something quite magical happened. The person who has been the bane of my work existence took another knee today to explain something to me. She started with her usual insincere apology about not telling me earlier. Then she told me something that she will never have to apologize for: She is no longer an English teacher. I couldn't believe it. She had hurt herself, or suffered some kind on injury that meant she wasn't able to come to work for a while, and those were the most refreshing days of my time here since those all too precious first few weeks - before I met her. I wasn't happy about her injury of course. I don't wish injury or illness to those I don't like but rather for them to carry on their ill will elsewhere. In any case, I was pretty content at the thought of simply recharging my harassment batteries, but when she laid that on me, I was all kinds of happy. Naturally I made a note of it in the journal and I wanted to share that with you right now:

3:10 pm
She took to her condescending knee and told me that although she's a staff member here still, she doesn't teach English and will instead work with various handicapped students at other schools in the area. I was really done listening by that point and in those few seconds after she uttered the words, "not an English teacher," I wanted to stop time, or maybe just slow it down enough, to the point where I could have a small party atop the mountain of her failure as an English teacher, at the end of which we could light the hills on fire, basking in the the amber glow, knowing that whatever demon had up until now forsaken the foreign language department was enjoying the sweet release of death. I wanted to do that. Instead I said, "Okay," and quietly, happily, carried on about my business. 

 Let's have a goddamn party.