Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Asahi Graduation

As the English teacher for Asahi Kindergarten I was required to attend their annual graduation. Everyone wears black as a sign that they are sad that the students are leaving the school for elementary school. It was a really good that I brought along my black dress; so I donned it and went to the ceremony. As soon as I got to the school I was ushered into the director's office (pretty swanky place) I sat in the room all by myself. Then he entered (the director that is) with a bunch of middle aged men in tow. We were served tea by the secretary who was very nicely dressed and did the whole Japanese subservient servicing tea thing. Then I sat, they all spoke Japanese and I was periodically asked some questions. After about twenty minutes it was time to go up to the auditorium.
I sat in VIP seating squished between two of the middle aged men I think that they are part owners or something. After a few moments the children (graduates) started walking in: Strangely all the boys walked in first and were seated in the front and the girls who walked in second were seated behind the boys .... little crazy eh? This sort of sexism wouldn't fly in Canada, but of course I am in Japan (a very developed country).
As the ceremony wore on I saw each little one walk up and get their diploma from the head teacher (boys first of course). What shocked me about this was the pure level of organization amongst the children, they must have been practicing for weeks, they all knew exactly where to stand such that they were exactly two meters apart awaiting to receive their diplomas. They also knew exactly when to get up from their seats so the line was always perfect, all without any coaching from their teachers.
They sang a bunch of super cute songs and the leader of the PTA gave a speech that was no less that fifteen minutes long while crying (all the mothers were crying). At this point I was on ... It was a really good thing I had been paying attention to the bowing procedure that went on before people gave a speech. I followed it to the letter and gave a very short speech that very few people in the audience understood it being in English, re followed the bowing procedures and sat down. After this; from deep in the depths of the back row five little girls clearly the prettiest at the kindergarten came forward with flowers for the teachers and .... everyone cried, I couldn't make my tear ducts work so I didn't.
Eventually the graduation was finished, I was escorted out first with the middle age men and given a a lovely parting gift of baked goods and a note. The note said that the baked goods were from, "a bakery of famous and good repute." I was just happy they were not from a, "bakery of ill repute." Some sort of evil brothel bakery.
I then went to the pool, my head still spinning from the kindergarten graduation. Graduation is a very big thing in Japan, some of our grade six students said they had been practicing for weeks for there graduation from elementary school. One of my students said hers was going to be three hours long..... I wonder what happens for University.... Now I cannot wait for the opening ceremony of Ashai Kindergarten on April 12, 2010 where I must wear light, bright colours and I fear everything will be repeated in reverse.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Concrete Rivers of Japan

While on my stay here I have observed a fascinating and terrible phenomenon more dangerous to Japan than earthquakes, typhoons or landslides. This phenomenon rises its ugly head from the most remote forests to the downtown cores of every part of Japan. The Japanese government's obsession with concrete on anything and everything has severely distorted the nations rivers and economy. Most small towns and even major cities are reliant on government infrastructure handouts, and the bureaucratic leviathan backing the process up, to the point where cities have spent all their money on a process called "river stabilization". The nature of the beast is that money flows only where it is spent so each prefecture spends all of it's money on such projects to guarantee the same amount of handouts the next year. The result has been disastrous and it is written all over the face of Japan.

For the better part of the country (some 98% of all rivers) dams, concrete river encasements and waterflow baffles have removed any sense of nature from the landscape all in the name of spending government handouts and 1950s style developmentalism. I will not get too far into analyzing bureaucracy and the foolish inefficiencies of Japan's government, but suffice it to say that the Japanese economy has become addicted and indebted to the process of burying the land and rivers in concrete. Lulled by an intense campaign of propaganda and a social order that values hierarchy and subordination, people are not willing to speak out against the lunacy. With the resulting lack of a strong civil society or bureaucratic accountability the machine rolls on, burying Japan's once beautiful landscape in sheets of drabness.
The process is not much lamented by many Japanese people I have spoken to as they feel it is "safer" and more "kirei" to encase all waterways in concrete. In North America we have long realized that concrete is not only ugly it is counterproductive as water can not permeate the barrier and the flow of rivers speeds up and does not filter. So you end up with dirtier, deeper, faster-moving water that cost a lot of money to achieve.
On the topic of "Kirei", a Japanese word which means "neat and clean/beautiful", there exists a sense that "mess" and disorder are to be avoided and everything constantly cleaned. "Kirei" is the reason that city governments cut the limbs off of city trees at the end of summer to keep the leaves from falling "messing up" the grounds. Most people have pointed out that "messy things" like riparian buffer zones of cattails, water loving trees, shrubs and the animals that live in these habitats are not "kirei" are better off "cleaned up". It is viewed as somehow unmodern to most people to just let rivers flow their courses, and construction upon them is a sign of progress, a frame of mind that died out (thankfully) in the 1960s in North America.

Japan has "stabilized" almost every delta, river bed and stream to the point where you can find concrete drainage flues and flood breakwater gates on remote hikes anywhere in the country. This frantic attack on the land stems from the Japanese need for total control noted in Alex Kerr's "Dogs and Demons" and a strange sense that Japan is full of peril and natural dangers, many more than faced by any other country in the world (They obviously have have not visited Hurricane alley, the Tornado plains or the San Andreas fault). Without total control the Japanese government feels that it might lose control, that some natural calamity will overtake the country if some planning office has not approved the flow of every stream and the depth of all lakes. Hence you find a nation covered in concrete.

Alex Kerr has noted that in the "Construction State the situation reaches Kafkaesque extremes, for after generations of laying concrete to no purpose, concrete is becoming a purpose in its own right." Earlier he points out that
"even as Japan fell deeper into recession during the 1990s, it continued to provide more funding for civil-engineering works [on rivers, reclaiming land and covering mountain faces in concrete] than ever before. In 1994, concrete production in Japan totaled 91.6 million tons, compared with 77.9 million tons in the United States. This means that Japan lays thirty times as much per square foot as the United States. In fiscal 1998, spending on public works construction projects came to...$136 billion...the kind of money that dwarfs the building of the Panama canal and far surpasses the budget of the U.S. Space Program. It meant an almost incalculable quantity of concrete and metal structures overlaying rivers, mountains, wetlands and shoreline, in just one year--and a "poor" year at that, since Japan was mired in a recession. One can only imagine the heights that such expenditures may rise to when the economy begins to rise". The laws of bureaucratic inertia have meant that this has only gotten worse in the last decade since Kerr's writing.

I have been shocked by the extent of this addiction Japan has with laying waste to it's natural beauty. The historic cities such as Nara and Kyoto are not exempt from this pattern as even there you will not find a nice view of even one river, and there are several in both cities. I can only hope that the Japanese people start to react to this senseless and bankrupting practice which is erasing natural habitat, water quality and just plain old good views. As a foreigner here for a short time I can only witness it in awe and be glad that I will not be here to live with the consequences.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Forget Cherries Look at the Plum Blossoms!

For the past three weeks we have been watching as all the plum trees around the neighbourhood, and my two bonsai plums, have been opening into quite intense displays. The Asian plum is a very long lasting tree blossom (compared to it's cherry cousin) and sends off a strong yet delicate fragrance into the air around the tree. This has made the start of spring really feel...um...springy. If you are ever in Japan around this time of year ask the locals where a good park or farm or even a natural forest featuring "oume" ( ) is located. This plant is a great one to take in as it is scented pleasantly and provides an interesting contrast with it's bare twiggy branches.

We took a trip to the walk behind our friend Seiji's psyche hospital (his job is there, not a patient) and although a rainy day, the sight of so many plum blossoms on a terraced slope was incredibe. Definitely a relieving stroll for a sufferer of dementia.

Jackie posing with the plum out the front of our house, quite a nice view for the past few mornings, actually I think this is the first picture of our place. Spring is really here, the plums told me so.