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May 2004

version 2.0

May 31, 2004

fishes

This is lightvesselautomatic 2.0. New, improved, with sharper teeth and a glossier snout. Please do not be alarmed.

Here are some facts:

  • lightvesselautomatic now has nice, friendly URLs – because you are not a computer. So, /diary.html is now /diary/. So: please update any bookmarks or links you might have. I promise to keep the new URLs intact for as long as lightvesselautomatic is active. I don’t, however, promise that the old version’s URLs will still work. That is bad of me, and I am sorry. From here on, though, everything is future-proof.
  • I have tried to make sure it looks ok in as many browsers as possible. However, it will look nicer in various ways in a good browser like Opera or Mozilla Firefox than in Microsoft Internet Explorer. Internet Explorer’s support for modern web standards is extremely poor, and increasingly, other websites will look better in other browsers, too. Opera and Mozilla are also both faster than Internet Explorer, nicer to use, and downloadable for free if you follow the above links. Fight the power. And if it looks wonky in your browser, please let me know
  • There is now an ‘rss 2.0 feed’ – up there at the top of the page – for those of you who know or care about these things. God knows I don’t: I just made it because I can, because I know how, and that makes me feel powerful. What ‘rss’ means is that, if you have the right software, you can subscribe to this site, and when I put something new up – so long as I also remember to update the feed – then you will be notified, because your software will check the site regularly and automatically so you don’t have to. The latest version of Opera, for example, can do this.

and now: I’m going away for a week or so, to Kobe, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka. Kobe is for work, the rest is for fun. that’s no excuse not to email me, though…

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what makes you think there’s something on my mind?

May 29, 2004

goat face

When I came to Japan, my sister asked me to get her a t-shirt with some crazy, Japanese English slogans on it. The problem, though, is that there’s a big difference between what’s funny when you see it on someone’s shirt in the street, and what is actually funny enough to be worth getting for someone, and so I haven’t been able to find a t-shirt quite good enough. Until now! Last time I went to the mainland, I finally found the t-shirt I’ve been looking for. It says, in big bold silver letters:

WHAT MAKES YOU THINK THERE’S SOMETHING ON MY MIND?

And then, to clarify things, in small, black cursive writing, partly overlaying the main question:

I remember before I was born, wounded up like a fur ball in the highly overrated fetal position, luckily I’m not claustrophobic, but on rainy days I still feel a tightness in my left shoulder. So now that my stepmother’s pregnant, I understand what the baby’s going through, and I’m not jealous at all, really, not at all.

Which should also lay to rest the idea that these t-shirts are made by people who don’t speak English. Whoever wrote that knew exactly what they were saying.

Of all the Japanese-English t-shirts I’ve seen, my favourite said ‘I have fallen, and I can’t get up.‘ The best one I’ve ever heard of was seen by another JET teacher on a boy of about twelve, walking with his family in a garden in Kyoto. It said ‘Ten Inch Shit.

Simple, beautiful, profound.

Image: either Japanese tv, or a photo I took in a dream. I don’t remember any more.

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1984

May 24, 2004

I wrote this a while ago, and have been putting off putting it here because it’s not about Japan, and it says nothing especially new. And besides, what right do I have to talk politics at you, when you’ve come here to look at pictures of Okinawa? None in particular, I know. But I’m going to, just because I have a voice, and feel an obligation to use it. Not because anything I can say can be of much consequence, but just because I can – because that’s all I can think of to do. To add another voice to the angry electronic chatter.

I haven’t been updating much recently. There are a number of reasons for this – partly, I’ve been busy; partly, I haven’t taken many photos recently; partly, I’ve been redesigning the whole site to make it prettier, nicer, cleverer (soon, soon…). Part of the reason, though, has been that every time I have access to an internet connection, I’ve been more inclined to read the news than to write about fun, trivial things I’ve been doing on my small, safe island. Every time I read the paper, the blue skies and tree-covered hills I can see from my desk seem to fade out, and I feel the horrible fascination of seeing something terrible unfold before one’s eyes.

Living on small island, I’ve had time to catch up on a lot of reading – to read big, fat books that were too daunting when I lived in a city, to read classics that were never quite as appealing as whatever detective novel happened to be to hand – and one book I finally got around to reading earlier this year was 1984. And although it’s more-or-less become a cliché to describe that book as ‘perenially relevant’… today when I read the news, I read about torture in the name of human rights, indefinite imprisonment without charge in the name of freedom, occurring against the backdrop of a war in the name of peace, and I can’t help but think there’s some serious doublethink going on.

One interesting thing, reading 1984, was realising that book’s name has become so synonymous with certain of its warnings – state surveillance of the individual, political control of language – that others often tend to be forgotten. One theme in 1984 concerns the political usefulness of endless war in rallying the public behind a corrupt regime. I wonder, though, whether any previous episode of history could have been a better model for ‘endless war’ than the current War on Terror – not a war against any particular country or organisation, not even a war against a particular doctrine. A war that can be allowed to go on as long as it’s useful, and struck up again whenever there’s trouble at home. What could end the war on terror? The end of al-Qaeda? I’m still not clear what the final, settled-on reason for the war in Iraq was (other than “he was a bad, bad man”), but even Bush and Blair long ago gave up trying to draw any connection there.

1984’s direst warning is that, given the right conditions, a regime could exist that, once in place, would be impossible to bring down. I am not suggesting that any regime today has quite that ambition, but I do think that a lot of the ways in which the world is being changed could pave the way for worse to come. In both the US and the UK – and many other parts of the world – politicians are scrabbling more frantically than ever to please and appease politically unaccountable, usually commercial, interests, and in the process very important freedoms and rights are being trampled on: the right to a fair trial, for example. Freedom of speech. The unacceptability of torture of anyone, whether they be a ‘prisoner of war’ or an ‘unlawful combatant’ (the difference words make: the former are covered by the Geneva convention, and thus torturing them is a no-no. But here the ‘war on terror’ comes in handy again: since it’s not a war on any concretely-definable enemy, that provides a fair bit of room to play around with what you call your prisoners. Finding international law a little inconvenient? Just redefine your terms! Another game that Orwell understood).

I feel vaguely ill at writing all this, shaking my fist from a tiny island at something so massive and far away, and the only people hearing me are… a bunch of my friends, who probably agree with me, have probably heard and thought it all before, and almost certainly came here to see some photos of Japan. Who do I think I am? The best excuse I can offer for getting all political is simply that I feel speaking out isn’t a right but an obligation – the more people who stand up and scream and shake their tiny fists at the outrages committed by their governments, the more chance there is that things might change.

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taiko

May 17, 2004

taiko
taiko

Well, I’m now finally a full member of the island’s taiko-drumming group, and my first performance was on Saturday, which completes an arc of weirdness that began two years ago in London, when, completely by chance, I saw them performing on the South Bank along with my two predecessors – the only other two westerners to have lived on this island, in all likelihood (I’ve told that story previously here). It’s complete madness: in a London street, I watch and enjoy a band from a small island on the other side of the world, and then I walk off without even finding out their name. Two years later, by pure coincidence, I am living on that small island, and my next door neighbours run the band. A few months after that, and I’m a member.

I began practising weekly with the group in January, but for the three weeks or so leading up to the concert, we were practicing for an hour or two every evening. My hands are getting quite nicely calloused, and I think I might even be getting fit. Taiko involves a lot of movement, and this particular group jump around even more than most (which was why when I subsequently saw other taiko groups in the UK, I always compared them back to the first one I saw, and felt that there was just something lacking…)

Most of the band members are around my age, and most of them have been doing taiko since they were kids, which means they now absolutely rock. It’s pretty daunting (but very fun) being in a band with people so outrageously good, but it’s a good incentive to get good myself. We’ve got more concerts coming up in July and August, and I’m determined not to make any mistakes next time round…

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bureaucracy

May 14, 2004

Before you read this, please take a deep breath. Maybe make yourself a cup of coffee or something. I have written far more here than I have any right to expect anyone to read…

When I first arrived here, I was shocked at the bureaucracy. Of course, a new arrival in a foreign country probably gets a particularly big exposure to that country’s bureacracy, but what really shocked me was the realisation that a country that in my mind was the most futuristic, technologically advanced place on the planet in fact relies for the most part on paper stamped in triplicate and the postal system in situations where almost all developed countries (and frankly, probably a fair number of developing countries, too) would have a computer system in place, and that it seems to flag behind Britain (and probably most of Europe) in pretty much all non-gadgety implementations of technology. If you want phones with built-in 1.3 megapixel video cameras and megabytes of memory, Japan is the place to come. Just don’t expect cash machines that are open outside office hours, is all (they’re mostly manned, apparently…) Liquid crystal tvs in cars? Yes, but don’t expect to buy one with a credit card: Japan is cash only, in all but large hotels and department stores. The prevalence of the office, and of the shuffling and stamping of forms, came as a surprise and a puzzle to me. Recently, though, I discovered something about Japan’s bureaucracy – something which has led me to see a lot of the things around me in a new light.

At the beginning of April, there was a big staff change in the board of education. I didn’t think much about it at the time – lots of teachers change schools at that time, too, because it’s the beginning of the academic year (like I said before, none of the teachers stay on my island for longer than three years). But over the last couple of weeks, I began to notice that other places seemed to have had a change of staff, too. I didn’t put two and two together until T-sensei, the maths teacher, said yesterday that school dinners have got better this year, now that S-san is running the school dinner center. And then it clicked: everyone has changed jobs. Almost without exception, everyone on the island with a public-service job – the village office, the board of education, the school dinner center, and so on – has swapped jobs with someone else, in a different office. Dozens of people, changing jobs after one year.

At the time, that just seemed surprising, but I thought “fair enough – I suppose it’s a way of limiting the damage that anyone who’s really bad at their job can do, by shuffling them somewhere else after a year.” I could see how that could work. But I kept coming back to it, puzzling about it, and I realised that it also means a number of other things. It puts very tight limits on the extent to which anyone can learn from their mistakes, or get useful experience at anything other than shuffling paper. It also means that for the most part roles that could be filled by someone with some level of experience in the field in question (education, say, or environmental management) are presumably filled by people who can really only bring to it general-purpose experience of office work. Suddenly, the huge amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that I’ve been seeing everywhere began to make sense, and I began to think again about some of the things that have struck me or bothered me since coming here.

My island is a place in decline. The population is less than half what it was thirty years or so ago, and if you spend an afternoon walking around, you see the signs all over the place: coastal footpaths and paths through the hills that are now overgrown and impassable in places; picnic areas whose toilets are out of order and which are clearly rarely tended, let alone used. At first, this all just seemed sad – a sign of the changing times, an unfortunate consequence of Japan’s (or for that matter, any country’s) technological and commercial development presumably having been that people leave relatively poor rural areas for the big city, and don’t come back.

But recently, I began to wonder to what extent it is a sign of this. I began to notice that all over the place there are signs of staggering mismanagement. Picnic areas stand virtually unused on the hills, but meanwhile they appear to be constructing new ones along the coast. With car parks. On the north coast of the island, there is a viewing tower shaped like a monstrous voodoo face. It’s about five-stories tall, and it’s made of sculpted concrete that looks like fibreglass. The effect is like something that’s been lifted out of a third-rate would-be Disneyland, and the main appeal of climbing to the top is that that is the one place in the vicinity where your view of the next island isn’t obstructed by a grotesque voodoo tower. Around the tower’s base are an adventure playground – again, overgrown with creepers, although it’s probably only a few years old – and a car park, in which I have never seen a single car parked.

The whole thing makes me think of the cargo cults that arose on some islands in the South Seas. The islanders, realising that the source of all the Europeans’ cargo (and therefore wealth and power) were aeroplanes, set about constructing full-size runways in the forest, so that the planes could deliver their cargo to them, too. This island also seems to have been developed with an ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy in mind: What do tourist attractions have? Picnic areas, car parks, giant concrete faces. Therefore, if you build these things, you will have a tourist attraction. And so a beautiful, semi-tropical island is concreted over at a cost the local council can’t afford (the village office is widely rumoured to be in very serious debt), in an effort to make it a tourist attraction.

The coral reef that surrounds the island is dying, too. At first, I assumed that this was due to climate change, since coral reefs are now calcifying and dying at a fairly rapid rate all over the world. But a couple of months ago, I learnt that the neighbouring island, which is larger but less populated, has an intact reef, less than two kilometres away. No-one knows why the reef on this island is dying, but I’ve heard a number of people blame it on the huge amount of construction work (and consequently deforestation and stirring up of sediment) on and around the island.

But if the people in charge of development here are only in their job for one year before being shuffled to some other department, if the only useful experience they bring to the job is whatever office skills they have, is it any wonder that things are as they are? The philosophy behind this annual job-shuffling would seem to be that managing children’s education, managing commercial and agricultural development, and managing the environment are all essentially just managing something. Unfortunately, the extent to which educational management is anything like environmental management seems to be indicated by the dying coral reef, the acres of empty car-parks, and a monstrous concrete face.

Of course, I live on a small island in a rather atypical corner of Japan, and so I can’t really generalise to the whole of Japan. Next, I have to find out how widespread the practice of everyone swapping jobs is. If it’s peculiar to my island it wouldn’t go far as an explanation of Japan’s bureacracy, but I know that a certain amount of job-swapping happened in the (local government) office where Kim works at the same time… I strongly suspect this is a Japan-wide thing.

It’s a sad fact that one of my reasons for wanting to scuba-dive is to experience a beautiful thing while it still has some glory left in it. The things I’ve seen lately have made me begin to fear that learning Japanese might turn out to be a similar exercise. I hope it doesn’t, because I want to hold on to my belief that the world has things to learn from Japan, but the more I see of Japan, the more pessimistic I become about it.

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