Sunday, 18 October 2009

I Hate Mr. James.

Racism is an ugly word. It’s a word that conjures images of bigotry, hatred, lynching, internment camps, heavily armed and heavily ignorant folks.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never been the victim of racism; true, most of it is the not-so-offensive ‘positive discrimination’ kind (people stopping their cars at green lights to let you cross the road, or store-owners giving away extra stuff seemingly randomly, schoolgirls screaming “I love you!” As you go by. etc.) Occasionally though you also get less welcome prejudice: the black vans driven by the ultra-nationalists are a great example, driving by and calling for Japan to be made ‘pure’ through the expulsion of foreigners. It’s not exactly what you’re longing to hear as you wander the streets (although they do often become mysteriously quiet if you smile and wave as they go past).

I don’t think Japan has a problem with racism on the whole, but I’ve often thought the nation does have an issue with racial and lifestyle sensitivity. I can’t believe that TV broadcasters get away with using Bobb Sapp as a ‘substitute gorilla’, or that ‘Hard Gay’ is allowed to continue unchecked. Just about anywhere else, ONE appearance of these characters would be enough to cause a sociological fit.

This is Mr. James. Eating McDonalds for every meal since the mid 80's hasn't made him fat, but it has made him iconographic of modern Japanese xenophobia.

The latest cringe-worthy media phenomenon to make me wince is ‘Mr. James’, the star of McDonald’s newest advertising campaign. Mr. James is American, he dresses and acts sort of like a cross between the Steve Carell’s character from ‘The 40 year old virgin’ and Mr. Bean. He wanders Japan basically looking and acting stupidly and speaking mangled Japanese. Basically he’s a caricature of a ‘foreigner’.

Usually I would have taken the whole campaign and dumped it into the ‘so dumb it’s funny’ basket, where a good 80% of commercial media over here lie anyway. But then I happened across an article in Time magazine, complete with a note that an organization had complained about McDonald’s ‘portrayal of foreigners’. I started wondering if I should be genuinely offended; is Mr. James really an unofficial spokesman for every English-speaker here? Admittedly the fact that there’s a competition that encourages people to act like the man doesn’t really help.

One of the burgers that James-san is trying to sell. It might be an attractive alternative to cannibalism in some cultures I suppose.

Personally, I’m less bothered by Mr. James than by the products he’s pimping; My friend gave me a promo-voucher for a free Mr. James burger, so I decided to try out the cheese-croquet special, which basically turned out to be a crumbed block of liquefied cheese with pieces of shrimp and corn floating in it on a bun. No Mr. James, you will NOT be getting my return business.

Now go back to Oregon, you dirty foreign dog.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

My own private culture dance.

Things have been quiet at school lately for two reasons, firstly there were the mid-term exams, which (as in educational facilities around the world) pushes students into a studying frenzy as they realize just how little work they actually did over the vacation. I sympathize, and every time I visit a Shinto or Buddhist shrine, I throw some loose change and ask that I may never have to take another calculus test as long as I live.

The other thing that’s been sucking time is preparation for the school 文化祭 (kind of a ‘culture festival’). It’s like a fair, and all the classes and clubs have to design some sort of thing to do on the day. Cafes and ‘Haunted Houses’ are quite popular ideas, and a lot of the clubs do demonstrations or exhibitions of their sport or art. My role in proceedings seems to be to provide spelling and grammar assistance in terms of signage and bilingual menus, thus ensuring that Nogatas English-speaking population (of what? 5 people?) Can successfully navigate and order coffee. That’s some cultural sensitivity right there (although if you’re Korean I guess you’re out of luck).

I often wonder if the English teachers of Japan deserve a cultural designation of their own; after all they do seem to gravitate toward each other, and they have a unique social construction and dynamic that sets them apart from any other group of people out there. Where else in the world can you sit in a maid-café with people from five different continents and argue over how to best restore consciousness to near-comatose teenagers, or which piece of animated pornography is most offensive?

It’s interesting to note how your cultural conception of yourself and others changes as you adapt to being ’somewhere else’, we define ourselves in lots of ways, but many of them are intrinsically tied to factors external to us; where we are and who we’re with; I went from not really considering my ethnicity as a factor in my existence, to regarding it as almost my single most defining characteristic. I’m Shaun, and I’m a 外人, a foreigner. Even to my fellow foreigners, I’m ‘Shaun the Scottish-Australian guy’.

Also interesting is the way that foreigners generate a distinct cultural identity of their own, formed from a mélange of western cultures with some hefty slices of Japan; I’m thinking of strange saki cocktails, ‘parties’ in the onsen and perverse obsession over the horrible English grammar found on most fashion. Particularly interesting is the way that foreigners use language, wielding together parts of Japanese and English to form a set of hybrid slang perhaps that only finds use amongst this niche community; a few examples:

Genks? –How are you? (from the Japanese ‘genki’ for fine/healthy)

Iina! – Sarcastic ‘That’s great’ from ‘ii na’, Japanese for ‘great right? or ‘lucky right?’

Bow-fest – An event involving a lot of speeches and bowing.

Gaijin-hunters – Japanese people who have a fetish for foreigners.

‘(That’s) NHK’ – A waste of money, from the fact that the NHK collects TV license fees on a voluntary/honour basis and it’s very easy to evade payment.

So, example dialogue:

A: Hi man, genks?
B: Hai, I’m ok, I’m kind of hungover from my office enkai last night.
A: How was it?
B: Ok, kind of a bow-fest though, and there was this gaijin-hunter who wouldn’t stop bugging me.
A: Iina! What are you up to now?
B: I’m gonna go play some pachinko, wanna come?
A: Ugh, no thanks; I think pachinko’s pretty NHK.

Do you feel elucidated? Perhaps I’ll share some more next time. Right after I finish getting UNESCO to designate my mall as world heritage site.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

New World Order.

Hi! Remember me? Yes, I've been absent for 4 months, which while it doesn't really seem that long in terms of actual linear time, in internet and pop-cultural terms is probably equivalent to the time it took protozoans to turn into amphibians. Consider that at the time of my last post George W. Bush was still running the U.S.A and everyone on Earth could still get a 60 inch plasma TV and an SUV on credit, even if they lived in a cardboard box... seems a while ago, doesn't it?

Truth be told, I had something of a revelation, courtesy of an article by Leonard Twitts Jr. in 'The Daily Yomumuri' wonderfully entitled: 'No Time For Twitter'. (it's here) I think the internet is a great idea, and it’s wonderful that people can share their thoughts and ideas, but do you really need constant on-the-fly updates whenever that guy you once talked to once for a few hours flying from London to Frankfurt has a toothache? In more personally relevant terms, do you really want to hear what kind of fish I get in my bento every day?

I started blogging, because I moved to Japan, and my logic went that it’d be a lot easier to just write about how things were once, rather than sending endless e-mails and accidently leaving people out. I figured there’d be endless wacky tales to relate and strange things to photograph, and that life over here would miraculously always provide a wellspring of subjects of universal interest.

The thing is, life just isn’t wacky and ‘different’ anymore; after 2 + years the endless stream of crazy cartoon mascots, horrendous public displays of English grammar and esoteric supermarket products just seem… normal. I still raise my eyebrows on an all too regular basis, but the thing is that ‘life in Japan’, just doesn’t seem to warrant the wordcount that it used to.

So, I’m gonna shift the focus, and try to get more ‘idea focused’; less ‘I did/saw/went to…’ and more ‘have you thought about…’ perhaps. Of course, I’ll keep putting up photos of stuff that makes me giggle, and you’ll likely see a lot of cross-cultural musing (there’s no escaping thinking about where you are after all). But I’m gonna cut back on the pictures of shrines and ‘I went to the pub and…’ stories, unless specifically requested. Don’t worry, I’m sure you can still fill all your ‘scenery of Japan’ photo cravings with a quick web search.

Back from the carbonite (yet again),


My desk on an average workday. Note the preponderance of manga and the lack of actual work.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Rats out, Oxen in- 2009 Let's Begin! *wave pom-poms*.

Ok, so first off; I guess I owe everyone out there a giant obnoxious all-caps rendering of Happy New Year! (I was remarkably light on the cards this year after all… hey, it saves trees). So, HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope you’re all coming to terms with the Christmas weight gain, and have dealt with the New Years day hangover (both alcohol and credit-card debt induced).

And to all those native Japanese speakers that I neglected to send New Year cards to (hey, it’s not my cultural tradition… and it saves trees) a big Akemaste Omedeto! I hope you enjoyed your time off from the salaryman/salarygal salt-mines. Now back to work!

This is how they party in Tokyo; with precarious steel cables all round! Sometimes I wonder if the city has such a quaint idea as a 'fire code' in force- there is no evidence so far to suggest this.

So here we are, once more with a brand new shiny year to look forward to, full of hope promise and ‘Yes We Can!’ spirit, and a dusty old year we can hopefully look back on with a sense of satisfaction and pride rather than loathing and disgust.

So, in terms of keeping the public record current, I’m here to present a short sampling of some of the more memorable moments of 2008, as witnessed by this humble soul:

  • New Year 2007-2008, it’s best to start at the start; so when the year of the rat ticked round I was sprinting through a throng of people in Harajuku, Tokyo on the path leading to Meiji shrine, head full of ideas about ‘Hatsumode’ and spending New Year partying with Japanese people in a Japanese way, the clock ticks down, there’s screaming, shouting and general cacophony, and then… cold. And the reality of waiting in a queue for hours to have low-denomination coins likely impact the back of your head sets in. We decided to head back to the pub instead. This year I got things right by just curling up with a pint from the get go.

  • Salarymen in the classroom; I love my shiney new high-school gig, but I firmly believe that the world of the Eikiwa (conversation school) is unrivaled when it comes to quality of soundbites. ‘Sensei, please explain ‘Suck me sideways’, I think Japan should be king of the world, like Toyota’, ‘My wife is a whore, it is bad for our health’, ‘Is Australia big, like the ocean?’ ‘You are a man who is worthy of fine death’ and ‘Does this textbook have sexy pictures?’ Are just a few of the question/comments I fielded in the line of duty.

Also how they party in Tokyo; this shot is from a delightful bar appropriately named 'Sex Trumps'. Yes the word stitched into the nuns habit on the right is the four letter expletive that you think it is. (Read that sentence again and adjust your reality appropriately)
  • Leaving Sasebo; It’s fair to say that my leaving party in Sasebo was possibly the biggest ego-trip a person could imagine; I’m not sure if I’ll ever get over walking into a bar plastered with my own visage and standing on stage singing mangled Backstreet Boys songs for a goodly portion of the night. To everyone involved again, a massive ‘Thank You!’

  • Return to Oz; I’d often wondered during my time away what coming back to Adelaide might feel like, but I know I never visualized being semi-conscious and nauseated. My girlfriend pleaded with me to stay a few extra days, (‘Shaun, you might die’ being her exact words) but in the end she dosed me with Tamago-saki (that’s hot saki with raw eggs dumped in it, uhhh… thanks Mina) and gave me a shoulder to lean on as I staggered to the departure gate. I stopped over at Singapore and blacked-out on some benches; then got back and tumbled into my parents arms. A definite candidate for most horrible aeronautic experience ever.

  • Cultural-reaclimitisation; It’s amazing just how ingrained cultural-behavior and expectation can become; after a year of bowing and ‘arigato gozaimas!’ It’s hard to stop, and I’m sure I weirded out more than a few baristas in the Rundle Mall coffee shops, using a knife and fork again seemed novel, and my house seemed HUGE. In terms of food too, switching from bento-boxes and sushi-platters to plates of steak and pasta was kinda trippy. It’s always strange to be reminded just how much you are a product of where you are, some things never change though; I still tingle whenever I take a bite out of a Tim-Tam (no matter which hemisphere I’m in)

  • Reality-checking; Remember that old TV show ‘Northern Exposure’ about that big-city doctor who got sent up to Alaska kicking and screaming? That kinda what moving to Nogata felt like; I remember riding the train in with my luggage and seeing a giant chain of rice paddies and thinking maybe I should be scoping for Viet-Cong out there; images of having to grow my own vegetables and bartering stuffed koalas for baked goods ran through my head. Lucky for me I’ve got a giga-mall next door and I like the wildlife; now I love Nogata, it’s like the ultimate blend of quiet-living and wanton commercial decadence!

  • Parties, parties, parties; End of year parties are a giant deal for the overworked proletariat the world over, and this year was no exception; there are school parties, private parties, company parties, family parties… and as a minor local celebrity (‘cause of y’know… bein’ foreign and speakin’ English and all) I end up going to a lot of these things, which is fun; but often ends up with your colleagues trying to recruit you to sing old sea-shanties… in Japanese, or your students grandma starts quizzing you about your financial independence, just in case romance is blooming, or your girlfriend’s co-workers giggle manically while trying to embarrass you with poorly phrased ‘risqué’ questions (‘girls… you like?’) Sometimes a guy just wants a beer and some cake!

Who knows what wonders/terrors the year of the Ox/Cow/Water-buffalo/Bison (whatever it is) will hold? Only time, and rampant global governmental spending will tell!

Actual snow, in *my* town; which like all snow looks pretty but is actually cold, wet, slippery and dangerous. Making snowmen is still fun though.

Party like it’s 2009 (‘cause it is),