A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Monday, April 24, 2006

Cannabis in the Classroom

Never take advice from a Japanese pencil tin.

Japan has very strict drug laws. There is no drug classification, no hard and soft. Possession of cannabis carries the same penalties as possession of heroin. One of the things we are constantly warned about at every opportunity is the danger of getting caught with drugs in Japan.

Three weeks ago, an English teacher in Gunma prefecture got caught with some marijuana in his possession. In the UK or America, this would likely result in a verbal warning and a slap on the wrist. Unfortunately for this guy, he has been in jail ever since, waiting for trail.

As far as I can tell, there is little drug education in Japan, and most people have the “All drugs are bad, mmmkay?” propaganda pumped into them from an early age. This is what makes the fashion of cannabis pencil tins amongst my 11-14 year old students all the more amusing.

I doubt they really know what it is they are advocating the use of, with slogans such as “Get arrested on a Marijuana Possession Charge!”, yet I’m grateful for this trend. It always brightens up my day to see an 11 year old girl with “Reggae Monkey, Bogart the joint!” on her pencil tin. Considering the Japan’s strict attitude to cannabis, I think this is akin to an 11 year old student in England having a “Shoot Heroin into your Veins!” or “Smoke a Crack Bong: It’s Cool!” splashed across his stationary.

The Classroom Cannabis Culture.

Darn that Reggae Monkey!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Lost Seouls; Korea

Korean Coca Cola - as seen in Seoul.

I recently made the short trip from the Land of the Rising Sun to the Land of the Morning Calm to check out Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Despite Korea being Japan’s closest neighbour, with the cheap flight taking just 1.5 hours, surprisingly few of my Japanese colleagues have ever visited. Among the older generation, Korea just doesn’t seem to rank too highly on the list of “must see” destinations of the world, though many younger Japanese do make the journey.

As with all the best trips, my travelling companion The Bran Pan Man and I had made few plans, deciding instead to just go with the flow. However we ran into minor difficulties from the word go. Catching a bus from the airport, somehow we either missed our stop or were on the wrong bus altogether, leaving us a little puzzled when we were the last people left on the bus, having reached the end of the line.

We then jumped in a cab, but the driver didn’t seem to know where our guest house was, so we ended up getting out at a nearby station, which according to our map was a short walk away. However, after asking several people, some of whom made phone calls to the guest house, we ended up on a wild goose chase trying to find the place, being sent back and forth down the same streets.

At this point The Bran Pan Man got a little stressed out. Perhaps because this was the first time he found himself in a situation where he couldn’t understand anything that was going on around him, it made him feel a little uncomfortable. For me, this is a situation that I’m quite used to (most of the time in Japan!), so I was not phased, knowing we would find it eventually – which we did.

It was interesting for us to see how incredibly different Korea was to Japan, despite their close proximity. On the outside, Seoul looked similar to any large city in Japan, if a little less glitzy and a little more raw and dirty. But we soon discovered that the Koreans were quite different in personality to our Japanese hosts.

The first thing that struck us, was how friendly the Koreans were toward us. Now, the Japanese are also very helpful once you enlist their help as I have reported many times on thefunkydrummer, but in Korea, we would only have to look at a subway map with a quizzical expression for 10 seconds, before somebody would offer us their help. The shyness often seen in the Japanese did not seem to be apparent in the Koreans, who seemed much more outgoing, and jumped at the chance to be friendly.

The highlight of the trip for me was a Korean street magician we met, who went by the name of Danny. Whilst we were waiting for our Fukui friends Celeste and Sarah to change some money, we were approached by Danny, guitar slung over his back, who performed some magic for us. We ended up hanging out with him for the rest of the day, as he took us round the shopping districts, introduced us to some great food, and even took us his friend’s drum centre where I ended up banging out some beats, whilst all the time continuing to dazzle passers by with his slight of hand. We even ended up being interviewed about our opinions on fortune tellers by a TV crew.

I’d heard the Seoul was a shopping paradise, but I was a little disappointed with the goods on offer. I could not find a single t-shirt with a single bit of Korean on, which I found absolutely ridiculous. Even in Japan where Engrish is very common on t-shirts you can still find Japanese designs, but after searching some 100 stalls and shops and asking the locals, I left the country without seeing one.

It was sad to see stalls packed full of fake Nike, Puma, and other western brands, but not a single Korean t-shirt in sight. I don’t want to go all the way to Korea to buy some generic corporate brand that can be found in any city on Earth. Budding entrepreneurs take note: there is a niche for cool hangul t-shirts.

Now, everyone knows that bad experiences make for the best stories, so here’s my little portion of grief. I don’t know whether it was the super spicy food, a stomach bug, or just a little food poisoning, but my body had an internal argument with something and it let me know about it.

The famous Johnny Cash song: “And it burns, burns, burns... the ring of fire” would have been an appropriate soundtrack to the day I spent on the toilet whilst the rest of the crew were out at the border in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) trying to get a sneaky look at communist North Korea.

Thankfully, by the time we were ready to leave, there was nothing left for my body to purge and I decided to keep it that way by not eating anything more until I was safe home again, with a toilet in range.

Aside from this little illness, it was a great trip, and with some very tasty food and very friendly people I’d have to recommend Korea as a solid destination if you’re ever heading over the Asia.

Just watch out for the red hot chilli peppers...

Live life to the max. Korean cider max.

Danny - the hero of the trip; a young Korean student/muscian/street magician who dazzled us with his slight of hand and guitar playing and then took us on a tour of his city. A legend and a scholar.

We stumbled upon what we though might be an exciting political demonstation, but it turned out to be some work union disputing conditions. Nice cap mate.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

In contrast to Japan, there was a very strong military presence in Korea. This is not suprising seeing as it has been invaded by its neighbours Japan and China countless times over the last 1000 years or so, and when the capital city of Seoul is looking down the barrel of the nuclear missle from a hostile North Korea.

A colourful temple roof.

The oldies engrossed in a game of Chinese chess(?), in a park in Seoul.

Nazi party head quarters, Seoul, Korea.

Bran Van chows down on some spicy shizzle.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Gaijin, The Novelty That Never Wears Off

As the time that I’ve spent in Japan reaches almost 2 years, I’ve noticed that I’m becoming increasingly sensitive to one aspect of living here; the vacant, boggle eyed, gawking stares, that often follow me when I’m out and about.

Although this has always been part of life here, for some reason, I have found myself becoming increasingly more pissed off by it in recent months. In the early days during the honeymoon period, I found it somewhat amusing that I should draw so much attention simply for being non-Japanese. After all, in those days, the new world of Japan was just as much of a novelty to me, as I was to the world of Japan. But as the months ticked on and the excitement of octopus tentacles, okonomiyaki restaurants, and capsule hotels faded, living in Japan just became normal and homely to me. But for the local Japanese population, my distinct non-Japanese-ness always seemed to be worthy of a stare, and the novelty never did, and perhaps, never will, wear off.

Now, I realise that on a global scale of racism and discrimination, this ranks pretty low down on the list of complaints. After all, to my knowledge, I’ve never been openly called names (other than gaijin, meaning foreigner), I’ve never had to put up with any sort of violent behaviour, and overall, the Japanese who’ve crossed my path have been extremely kind, helpful and generous towards me. However, this doesn’t mean I still don’t get annoyed at the obvious stares, and under-the-breath muttering of “Look! Gaijin!”, which then causes every other Japanese person in the vicinity to stare too.

It’s now got to the point where I often just can’t be bothered to go out on my own to the supermarket or a restaurant, because I know I’ll end up getting pissed off with being started at. When I do eat out, I now select the most hidden table I can find to try and stand out as little as possible. Sometimes you just want to get on with your chores or eat your meal, without having your shopping basket scrutinised, or you menu selection talked about.

I acknowledge that a large part of this unwelcome fame is due to living in the so called inaka (countryside), because there are very few other foreigners here. For example, in my town of Ono which claims a population 40,000, there are only 5 other foreigners that I know of. In that respect, it’s not really surprising that you turn a few heads, because you are a rarity. Yet, I just find it down right rude to be so openly and obviously stared wherever I go. There have been foreigners living here for at least the last 18 years so why are we still getting started at like we’re from outer space?

As opposed to every other country I visited, Japan has a very homogenous population, and I think this leads to somewhat of a “Japan VS The World” mentality. It’s Us Vs Them; you’re either Japanese, or you’re foreign – there’s no middle ground. This is always illustrated at the immigration desk at the airport upon returning to Japan after a visit abroad. Written in English and Japanese, a sign explains the two queues at the passport check; one is for “Foreigners”, the other for “Japanese or Those Holding Re-entry Permits”.

As we have a working visa and a re-entry permit, we are entitled to join the Japanese queue, yet this is always guaranteed to cause a stir. Upon returning from Seoul last week, myself and The Bran Pan Man were joking about this very situation as we walked up to the Japanese queue. Sure enough, we were instantly accosted by a large Japanese airport official, who told us we were in the wrong queue. We then explained we were entitled to be there, and realising her defeat she threw in a quick “Well make sure you’re not carrying any meat or fish!”. Don’t worry, we weren’t.

Then five minutes later, a little Japanese kid came up to us, pointed at the foreigner’s queue, and told us we should go over there. We told him that we lived in Japan, but it just didn’t compute and he eventually walked away puzzled as to why two obviously non-Japanese people could be in the Japanese queue.

It’s one of the reasons why foreigners find it hard to live in Japan for a long period of time, because even when you feel like a local, you’ll always be seen as a foreigner. Even some of my friends who speak fluent Japanese say this never really changes, and it tends to lead to a slightly bitter feeling amongst long term expats -because the novelty of your foreignness, just never wears off.