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September 2004


September 28, 2004

leaping swordsmen
more swordfighting
a wicked king
Eisa dancing

On Friday and Saturday of last week the island’s villages once again had festivals. This time it was the Hōnensai (豊年祭), which translates as ‘Fruitful Year Festival’. I’m not sure quite what that corresponds to in English—I would translate it as ‘harvest festival’, if it wasn’t for the fact that the harvest festivals were in August. Anyway, the Hōnensai is considerably calmer than the Unna (harvest festivals) of August. Instead of fire, copious booze, tugs-of-war and wrestling, this time round consisted mostly of music and dance performances. In particular, the village where I live put on an Okinawan Kumi-Odori (組踊) play. Like a lot of Okinawan culture, Kumi-Odori seems to be a mixture of both Japanese and Chinese influences. The closest thing to Kumi-Odori that I know of is Japanese Kabuki, but there’s a definite Chinese flavour to the brightly-coloured costumes as well.

As well as the Kumi-Odori, there was a performance of traditional Okinawan Eisa – a sort of drumming dance. It actually reminds me strangely of Morris Dancing (although it’s slower), particularly because the men’s costumes even look quite Morrissey (and I use the word ‘Morrissey’ here mainly because I get a perverse and inexplicable sort of pleasure from the idea that we might, at this point, be joined, via Google, by a small number of puzzled Smiths fans. So: Morrissey, Morrissey, Morrissey, Morrissey Morrissey, Morrissey).

One of the things I really like about Okinawa is the fact that virtually everyone seems to learn at least one traditional Okinawan art to at least a basic level — be it eisa, sanshin (banjo), folk song or karate (Okinawa’s most famous cultural export). I’m sure this dedication to preserving folk culture is at least partly because of Okinawa’s rather sad history, which has led—as a consequence firstly of being conquered by Japan and then (a couple of hundred years later) of being the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of WWII—to there being almost no surviving writings or art from the Ryūkyū (pre-Japanese) period.

Whatever the reason, the contrast with the UK is pretty stark. Since the last time I saw Morris Dancing, when I was a little kid, I don’t think I’ve heard it mentioned other than as an object of ridicule. Folk music doesn’t have it quite as bad as Morris Dancing, but it’s still definitely uncool. The sad thing is that, hip or not, there’s a rich history there that we seem to be pissing on even as we embrace the Great Monoculture of brand name t-shirts and coffee that, though mediocre, tastes reassuringly the same here as it does at home.

As well as all that high culture, I performed in a dance to a silly children’s song that seemed to be called ‘Fish Fish Fish’. With me on stage were the (very smiley) deputy head of the elementary school, my next-door neighbour Mrs. K, and a couple of dozen elementary school kids. We had cut-out paper fish stuck all over us, and the dance involved pom-poms and mime. I danced, I think, with all the requisite poise and grace.

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a strange performance

September 24, 2004

super heroes

Last Friday, I took part in an extremely strange performance. Y’s band was playing at a party to celebrate the aged, and Y decided, three days before this, that I would play drums with them, while he played bass. Strangely enough, he decided this in spite of the fact that he is a very good drummer and I have never played drums with a band at all, whereas I’ve been playing guitar for a long time. I wasn’t playing a full kit, but rather a set-up of Y’s invention: two small taiko drums, and a larger, upright, very boomy Okinawan drum, placed on a stand at waist height, and played with light taiko sticks (which are still a lot thicker than conventional drumsticks). Despite the fact that we only had two rehearsals, I think I actually managed to play reasonably competently – since I was only playing with sticks, I didn’t have to worry about the hand-foot co-ordination that always throws me when I play on a kit, and the similarity with taiko-drumming was close enough that I wasn’t completely in the dark.

Anyway, the day before the concert, Y decided that it would be good to have some super-heroes fighting on stage while we played.

K, another island friend, for several years performed in (ultra-Japanese!) Saturday morning live-action super-hero shows for kids at department stores. So, knowing the moves and having a pretty good feel for the storylines, this summer he created the “Sea Rangers”—this island’s own super-hero show—for the biggest festival of the summer. It went down very well with all the local kids (there’s a video of the festival, and when the Rangers take their final bow and go off stage, that triggers a stream of kids rushing past the camera towards the backstage exit to meet them that goes on for several minutes), and so since then there’s been a general feeling that the Sea Rangers will return at future events on the island. Y decided that this concert for the elderly would be an excellent time for them to come back and show off their ninja skills. Strangely enough, I think he was right.

After we finish playing the first song (an Okinawan ballad), two superheroes rush on stage and start fighting viciously with staffs. At one point they get so carried away that they nearly fall into the crowd of delighted elderly ladies clapping at the front of the audience. Me and Y give the fight a rattling, clanging percussion soundtrack – this time with Y on drums and me banging a gong. Then they bow, and walk out of the theatre. We play a more up-tempo number. Then K and one of the elementary-school teachers, chosen because she’s a karate black-belt, come on and do a karate demonstration. It’s particularly interesting to watch if you know that she’s a genuine karate expert, whereas he is actually just a very talented mimic, copying her from the corner of his eye. Before the show, backstage, he was practicing along with a video he’d taken of her on his mobile phone, which was one of the most interesting uses of mobile technology that I’ve ever seen.

The whole thing was completely nuts. I want to do it again!

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the suffering passive

September 15, 2004

Japanese has a special passive voice reserved for talking about bad things that happen to you. It’s sometimes called the ‘suffering passive’, and this weekend gave me an excellent opportunity to use it…

We had another taiko concert on Saturday, and because it was a less important one none of the real ninja members (who mostly live in Naha City on the mainland) played, which meant that I got the opportunity to play the O-daiko – the big drum, which sits on a big stand, and which you play at head-height. So that was exciting and good, and something new, and afterwards, as we loaded the taikos into the van, I was feeling quite pleased that I’d managed not to mess up. I reached up to take a drum that was being passed down to me by one of the Junior High School kids who plays in the group. I was leaning out slightly over the waist-high concrete platform she was standing on, and I realised as I grasped the drum that it was too far back for me to get any leverage on it, and I’d just about had time to say “forwards a bit, forwards a bit…”, when she let go and I experienced the blindingly painful sensation of a 25 kilo drum crushing the ring finger of my left hand against concrete from a height of several centimetres.

The immediate consequence of this was that everyone in the near vicinity received a spontaneous lesson in Advanced English Swearing – directed at my hand and the world in general: I do have enough self-control not to swear at my pupils, even when they drop large heavy objects onto my soft, fragile fingers. Now I think about it, I probably did some sort of hopping dance as well.

My finger immediately swelled to very strange shape and took on a steadily-deepening purple colour. Once I’d sat down and waited for the pain to subside from ‘agonising’ to merely ‘really bad’, I decided that it probably, despite its strange shape, wasn’t broken. The reason I decided this was that although it hurt a lot, whenever I’ve seen someone break a bone they turn a horrible grey colour and look like they’re about to be sick, and although I’ve never broken a bone, I suspect that to produce that effect it would need to hurt an almost unimaginable amount – a lot more than the merely large amount of pain I was experiencing. Which was lucky, because when my neighbour (who runs the taiko group) drove me to the clinic to get it checked, the doctor was neither there nor answering his phone.

Anyway, determined to get something positive out of this experience, I realised that this was the ideal opportunity to practice using the ‘suffering passive’, which I’ve previously never used. So now, five days later, my finger is almost back to its normal colour and only hurts very slightly, and in the process I’ve mastered a new grammar point.

In case you’re interested, the way it works, grammatically, is this: a sentence that could otherwise be expressed actively (for example, “A drum fell on my finger”) is expressed as a passive sentence, but instead of making it passive by turning (in this case) ‘my finger’ into the subject – ie. “My finger was fallen on by a drum” – you leave it as an object, which gives you a subjectless passive sentence, the implication of which is that you, the speaker, are the subject, and that the sentence as a whole is something that happened or was done to you, and which you couldn’t do anything about. You can do this in Japanese because the object is explicitly marked (you say ‘o’ after it), whereas in English you can’t because the whole subject / object thing is specified by word order. Is any of this interesting? I have no idea. Oh well, I’ll leave it in, if only to remind myself how it works in a week’s time, when I’ve forgotten again.

Remember: Only 4 days left till National Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day. (yeah, it’s a silly link, ok…)

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the eye

September 6, 2004

New feature for your convenient enjoy: whenever I use a Japanese word – either in Japanese script, like those characters on the left there, or in italicised roman script, you can get a translation by hovering your mouse over it. Ooh, the joys of hypertext…

Recently, the typhoons have been coming unusually frequently. One a week, virtually. And the one that I’m currently sitting out the tail end of – typhoon 18 – has been the most violent one I’ve yet seen, by quite a long way. It didn’t quite manage the tipping-cars-over and pulling-down-trees-and-pylons that the very worst ones like to engage in, but it did show that it meant business right off by taking out the whole island’s electricity pretty much straight off, first thing yesterday morning.

As a result, yesterday was one of those boring stay-in-the-house-in-order-to-avoid-being-killed-or-injured-by-flying-debris sorts of day. And after about seven in the evening, without electricity it was too dark to even read, or do anything but heat up some red thai curry and sit in the darkness listening to the screaming wind outside and talking to Kim on the phone in between mouthfuls.

About five minutes after putting down the phone, a strange thing happened: the typhoon stopped dead. It just cut out, literally as if someone had flicked a switch. A couple of minutes later, the electricity all came back on. I went outside, and it was a completely still, quiet, warm night. “That’s funny,” I thought, “all the previous typhoons just sort-of petered out…”

I walked around for a little bit to stretch my legs, get some air, and have a look around at what the typhoon had done. There were no shops open, but I thought I’d stock up on some drinks from the vending machine round the corner. I took a carrier bag to the machine, got some change out of my wallet, dropped a couple of coins into the machine, and then – WHUMPH! – the eye finished passing over and the typhoon came back. The carrier bag I was carrying inflated like a balloon and I was pelted with horizontal rain and battered by howling winds. I managed, by a special combined process of hunching and swearing, to buy a few more bottles and cans from the machine before running, doubled-over against the wind, back to my house to sit out the rest of the storm – about another sixteen hours or so.

By the way, sorry if I owe you an email. Things have been unusually hectic lately, and what with these typhoons, I’ve had less access to email than usual anyway… (this was written on my laptop, during the typhoon) Hopefully next week things will be back to normal. Only, having said that, my satellites are suggesting that typhoon 19 is already on its way, so we’ll see…

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who decides who’s crazy?

September 3, 2004

Several times recently I’ve wondered where you draw the line between value-neutral anthropological observance of cultural differences and just going “No, no, no, no, no. That’s wrong. You’re doing it wrong. Here, give that here. Let me do it…”

I’ve often looked out at the school’s football pitch, at the scrubby loose earth that they play on, and thought it’s a shame that they can’t seem to get the grass to grow on it. The grass round the edge is really quite nice, healthy turf, but anywhere where sports are actually played, the ground is just bare, dusty earth. The topsoil must be loose, or something, I’d thought. The grass can’t get a firm hold, maybe, and just gets ripped straight up whenever anyone runs over it. I was wrong, though. Oho, I was wrong!

The first day of term, the first thing we do — everyone, pupils and teachers — is to go outside with bin bags and pull up all the grass that’s just beginning to sprout on the pitch. By the roots, just to make dead sure. I did this half-heartedly for a few minutes and then I turned to the school nurse and asked, trying and failing to keep the plaintiveness out of my voice, “Why? Why are we doing this?” The answer: “Sports day is coming up, and the team need to practice”.

Now perhaps I’m wrong. I mean, I’m no great sportsman, but is there anywhere in the world other than Japan where people choose loose dusty earth over turf for a pitch? Maybe athletics tracks go for something dusty over grass, I suppose… but the school keeps the entire field clear of grass, not just the strip round the outside.

I had a somewhat similar experience a few days ago when I went to a small party. They had red wine, which is unusual, because it’s much less common in Japan than the UK. So when I was offered a glass I said “yes! nice!” and the bloke who was sitting next to me reached for the bottle with one hand and plunged the other into the ice bucket, which caused me to let out out an involuntary “WOWOWOwowo wo wo! No ice! Um, just wine. Thanks.” Then, because I felt the need to explain my slightly violent reaction, I added something along the lines of “It’s just that… I’ve never seen that before, ice in red wine.” Which I suppose was intended as a tactful way of saying “No-one, no-one, no-one ever puts ice in red wine. It’s meant to be drunk at room temperature, damnit! That’s like, virtually a law.”

So, OK, you might say. So red wine isn’t that popular in Japan, and so unsurprisingly, people don’t necessarily know how you’re meant to drink it. Get off your high horse already, why don’t you Mister? It’s not the end of the world if an ice cube melts, cooling and diluting [‘ruining‘, you might also say] a glass of red wine. And I would agree with you. The reason I’m telling you about this is not to sneer like an arrogant chef at anyone’s culinary faux-pas, but because what happened next was interesting. Instead of taking on board the foreigner’s involuntary startle-reaction — in the way that I’d pause for thought if my way of drinking saké caused a Japanese person to involuntarily let out a shriek — everyone just sat back, sipping their iced wine, and said things like “oh, he’s a very strong drinker – he drinks it neat”, “he drinks everything neat”, “yeah, he doesn’t even drink his Scotch on the rocks!” I wanted to shout “No no no no noooo! That’s an aesthetic decision, that’s just because I prefer whisky without ice. Other people drink it with ice. But wine… wine… nobody, nobody ever – anywhere – drinks red wine with ice in it.” I wanted to point at the whole rest of the world and say “look, they don’t do that. They’re not doing it. None of them are. Only you. I’m not the funny one here. You are. You lot. Not me.”

Final and, in fact, far and away the least trivial anecdote in this trilogy… I walk into the Board of Education, and a young woman I’ve never seen before is sitting there sipping a cup of tea. “I saw you walking up here”, she says. “I nearly stopped and offered you a lift. Has your car broken down?”

“Oh don’t worry. I don’t have a car, but it’s so close it’s not even worth cycling – I usually just walk.”

Close?” she said, in an ‘oh come on now, you must be joking’ tone of voice.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s only about two hundred metres” (in truth, it’s probably less than that)

“No way,” she said, “it’s much further.” She said this in the tone of voice you might use to talk to a wildly but harmlessly deluded person, to try to get them to snap out of it and realise where they are and what they’re saying.

I felt the situation slipping from my grasp.

“It is. It is close. Look. It’s just across there. You can see it out of the window. It’s really near.”

She turned her head very slightly, perhaps even let the school’s image briefly brush her retina, then snorted slightly and turned back to scrutinise me intensely for a few seconds. Then she said: “Your head is very red. The sun is very strong in Okinawa.”


I’m sorry, but this whole ‘you need a car to travel more than a hundred metres’ thing is crazy. Crazy, crazy, crazy. It’s also a belief that is universally held by all but one other person on the island, as far as I can make out. Teachers have been baffled that I often walk between my house and the school — a journey which can sometimes take as many as five minutes to complete. I have more than once been offered a lift when I said I was going to the post office, which is almost exactly halfway between my house and the school.

It seems to me that while there are obviously genuine vive la différence cultural differences that I would not only be an idiot to criticise, but which in fact are really what I’m here for, there are other times when I just want a referee to step in and say, “no, in fact, on this occasion, he’s right.” Deliberately ripping up grass to leave a layer of loose, pitted dusty topsoil. Putting ice in your red wine. Being baffled — utterly, incomprehendingly baffled — by someone who chooses to walk a little over a hundred metres rather than take a car. These things are (though to different extents) crazy. And, on some level, wrong (ok, the wine thing isn’t morally wrong, but it’s… it’s… just wrong). The thing is, ‘crazy’ is almost always defined by the majority. And that can leave you feeling distinctly uneasy when you look around for confirmation, and find that you’re the sole foreigner on a small island…

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