Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Krispy Kreme Hits Japan!

Holy dog nuts... DOUGHNUTS! See what you can learn from Peter Payne at J-List? There's a Krispy Kreme open on the south side of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo:

Click on the photo to see a massive line. According to Peter, some of these people waited for 2 hours to get their doughnuts, and salarypeople were carrying away 3 dozen or more for their coworkers. That does my heart good. Maybe not in terms of cholesterol or trans-fats. But my soul heart, the one I love with. I certainly didn't see this when I was there over New Year's, so maybe it's even new than 2007 is...

Hopefully, we'll get on in Hamamatsu. Our Subway restaurant is closed now, just an empty room with papered-over windows. And Mr. Doughnuts is good, but it just doesn't fill the doughnut need like Krispy Kreme. To me, Krispy Kreme simply IS doughnuts. One of the negatives about living in Athens was that most people I knew there were Dunkin' Doughnuts fans, and the only Krispy Kreme was way out on the Atlanta Highway, near the mall.

But that seems less of an inconvenience with the trip I'm faced with now... because I'm planning my next Toyko junket to include an overnight stay in Shinjuku and a trip to Krispy Kreme to eat so many doughnuts I vomit!

I have little for you today...

I really should scan my New Year's photos and do another photo-essay, but I haven't really felt like it lately. Spring is in the air, I'm semi-sorta seeing someone and I'm feeling really antsy and restless, which makes it difficult for me to concentrated on anything long enough to see it to completion.

The nights are still cold, and we're having on and off again rain showers but recently the days have been mild. Just a little cool and breezy. We're approaching one of the two best times to be in Japan, spring. The other is fall.

Hina Matsuri is this month. This is the girl's doll festival. Girl's Day, March 3rd. Toys-R-Us has had a big display of dolls for sale for a while now. In some homes across Japan, families have set up displays of traditional dolls for their daughters. They have to remove them before night on March 4th or the girl won't marry before next year.

Which is less of an issue, I suppose, for the younger children. At least one of our post-university students still enjoys putting out her dolls each year.

And we're slowly sliding towards Golden Week. April 29th kicks it off, a holiday known as Greenery Day. This used to commemorate the Emperor Showa's birthday, but after his death it was renamed. This year, however, Greenery Day is being moved to May 4th and April 29th will be redesignated Showa Day. May 3rd is Constitution Memorial Day, May 4th has been traditionally known as People's Day and May 5th is Children's or Boy's Day.

I think the Hamamatsu Matsuri was originally established to honor Boy's Day, with kite flying and celebrations. Now I think it honors getting drunk and making lots of noise. Either way, it's 3 days of Golden Week fun.

Golden Week is peak traveling time here, with hotels booked and trains packed and the roads full of office workers let off the leash and in search of fun and relaxation with their families. Few societies work as hard at having fun as the Japanese. Relaxing and having fun is serious business here.

And Peter Payne of J-List has a nice entry today on his blog. It talks about the original foreigners here in Japan, goes on to discuss the real-life inspiration for the Anjin-san character from James Clavell's Shogun, and then covers a crime wave here. Interesting reading, so check it out! It's illustrated with a really cool photo you should see, but warning... at the bottom there will be some product pictures there inappropriate for little people and shocking for people more sensitive than, say... myself.

But don't sweat those. J-List has plenty of other cool stuff. And this guy has been here a lot longer than I have, so he really knows what he's writing about. It's worth your time to keep scrolling down past the funky pics and read some of his other entries. If you want to know what it's like to live here for an ex-pat, it's a must-read, plus he's really been on a roll with interesting things lately and I've been wanting to link a few but I've been suffering from...


Monday, February 26, 2007

Hamamatsu... Gyoza City!

Gyoza are Chinese dumplings and they're very delicious. You usually dip them in this oily, spicy sauce. And the city I live in, Hamamatsu, recently was declared the top gyoza-consuming area in Japan. We are the Gyoza Kings and Queens.

Coincidentally, or not, the first place I ever tried gyoza was here in Hamamatsu, at a Denny's style Chinese restaurant.

The Oscars are over and my predictions- based as they were on the experts' predictions- mostly all came true. Letters from Iwo Jima was my sentimental favorite, since it's a rare film about WWII told from the Japanese side and was directed by a personal hero of mine, Clint Eastwood.

But I'm happy for Martin Scorsese. He was robbed so many times... practically every time he was nominated. He should've won for Raging Bull and Goodfellas, most definitely. And I've always admired Forrest Whitaker's work as far back as Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Kikuchi Rinko, the local favorite, didn't win. That's a bit of a disappointment. A lot of Japanese people I know were pulling for her. She's young... I don't know how much Hollywood work she'll get from here on out. Hollywood doesn't do a lot for Asian actors. The occasional villain, the martial arts sidekick, or the dragon lady is about all you can expect.

Hey, they wanted to cast Zhang Ziyi as Adam Sandler's mail order bride for one movie that sensibly didn't get made. And even when they make a movie about Japan, they have to cast Tom Cruise in the lead. Leave it to Clint to make a big exception... he's a guy to admire, who said his least favorite trait in a person is racism.

So I don't really look for Kikuchi Rinko to get another nomination unless things change. And... they won't. People can bitch about the supposed liberal attitude in Hollywood, but those liberals are just the actors and occasional directors. And Clint's a Republican. The real powers there are totally apolitical and worship only money and themselves. All they want is your money.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


You know them as geisha and probably have a lot of incorrect ideas about them. But I don't even know too much about them either. Right now on Discovery Channel Japan, there's a documentary about a 15-year-old girl named Yukina who goes from the bumpkin towns of northern Japan to learn to be a maiko.

A maiko is an apprentice geiko. Geiko is the Kyoto- and perhaps preferred- term for what we know in the west as geisha. I had a student at Nova who is friends with many geiko and she corrected me pretty sharply when I said, "geisha."

"No!," she said, probably more forcefully than she intened, "Call them 'geiko.'"

It's interesting to see this girl doing something that's not all that common anymore. According to this documentary, there are fewer than 1000 geiko these days. School here is compulsory through junior high, and she's quit and moved far from home to do this thing that's her dream. Her sister Misato inspired her in her love of dance, but the decision to become a maiko shocked their mother.

It's also fascinating to see everyone walking streets I've walked, streets that even now seem exotic to me. At one point, Yukina is shopping in the very arcade my friend M took me to two years ago. I really want to spend more time in Kyoto. Maybe I can talk M into making another trip there when the weather's nice and she has some free time.

Memoirs of a Geisha, both the book and the movie, are more like the fantasy version of the geiko life. The romanticized version. It probably exists in the same fictional universe as Gone With the Wind and its vision of antebellum Georgia.

Many of the students I've met love Kyoto. M does, as she's made clear. I think it's a very special place for some Japanese people. Although to be honest, so is Tokyo Disneyland.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

And Sometimes You Encounter Stupidity...

I don't want to waste a post painting Japan with a big brush like some foreigners (or ex-pats) seem to enjoy doing. You know, the "Japan is one screwed up little country!" anger that bubbles over in the Nova teacher's rooms and the Starbucks across the country. But sometimes you get a reminder that you are under some suspicion here.

Foreigner crime makes good copy for sensationalistic magazines. And like people everywhere, people here tend to believe what they read in the papers or see on tv. Received knowledge, usually accepted at face value. Without asking critical questions.

And there are certain right wing elements in Japanese politics (as anywhere) who want to demonize foreigners. I can't make any deep observations about this except I know it exists. It's human nature, really. You fear the other, the alien.

Fortunately, as you'll see if you read the Japan Times story about the anti-foreigner magazine, there are some very responsible journalists here. The story points out at great length that crimes by foreigners have actually decreased. That's some very important information the magazine itself glosses over.

Lately, my old school/universe Nova has been in the news because of drug arrests and the company's refusal to refund students' money. This means a new wave of generalizations will be made and misunderstandings will proliferate. One of my ex-Nova students emailed me with her concerns. She's worried she's mixed up with some shady characters.

Well... during my time in Toyohashi, she was. Not that she was in any danger from them. But by the time I transferred to Hamamatsu, a new group of more pleasant people with positive attitudes had arrived and some of the sketchier individuals had either left the country or else were working at isolated Jusco branches where the harm they did to the company image could be kept to a minimum.

Another issue lately has been the indictment in Brazil of a Brazilian citizen who killed a teenaged girl in a hit-and-run traffic accident, then fled Japan before he could be arrested. There's no extradition treaty between Japan and Brazil, so he'll be tried in his home country.

This happened back in 1999, before I got here. But it happened here in Hamamatsu. See? We're international! Brazilians already have a bad rap here in Hamamatsu, where they make up a relatively large percentage of the foreigner population. Things like this don't help... but in all the discussions I've had with people about this one thing has been overlooked.

The killer driver is of Japanese descent.

However, unlike some foreigners here, I'm not going to blame Japan itself for these attitudes or incidents. I will never understand the rage these people fly into whenever they hear about things like the stupid anti-foreigner mag, or some of the comments people make to them. They seem to think this is something lacking in Japan, in the Japanese people, when actually it's universal. And their own home countries have pretty sorry track records as well. Mine too.

The people I've met here have been kind and honest. When they find out I'm pretty open about things and willing to own up to some of the negatives about America, they tend to be open with me with the problems here in Japan. I've heard some interesting opinions about Japan and also my home country, some of which I've agreed with and some of which I've taken great pains to correct.

As an American abroad, I'm an ambassador. Like it or not, people will judge other Americans by my example. We would do the same at home meeting a Japanese person. I have a tendency to think the Japanese person would actually make a better showing.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Nova Does It Again!

The Japanese government is investigating my former employer, giant English school chain Nova. By Japanese law, when you sign a contract, there's a "cooling off" period where you can cancel it and get a refund.

Not, however, if you're a Nova student. Nova students have to pay in advance, and not only that but quite a few have recently complained that while they cancelled their contracts during the cooling off period Nova refused to refund them their money.

As I've written, my experience was generally positive working for Nova. I had problems with the sleazy nature of some of the teachers, the insular nature of Nova-culture, and the general weirdness of Nova as a company, but I really liked a lot of my coworkers (almost all of them in Hamamatsu), the Japanese staff, one of my bosses, and practically every single student.

Plus, it brought me to Japan and I had some exciting experiences and adventures. I like to think I grew up a lot, belatedly.

I still cast doubt on some of the worst horror stories, and cannot believe the vast amounts of negativity I encountered in the teachers' rooms. Still, when you read stories like this one, where the company is just hammering its customers in what I consider a highly unethical way, you have to wonder what the hell kind of people run the company.

It's definitely a good idea to read accounts by others who worked there if you're interested in working for them or you want to know what it was like for me and other teachers. Some of them are completely reasonable. I won't link you to the bullshit ones.

However... if you're a prospective Nova student (although if you're reading this and digging it your English is probably better than mine and not only do I salute you, but I also want you to teach me), and no matter how cute you think that pink rabbit is... STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM NOVA.

You can do much better.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In Japan, Valentine's Day Is Nothing But a Scam!

Even more so than in the U.S. In Japan, it's such a corporate con-job, it's been split into two holidays! The first, on February 14th, is St. Valentine's Day; next month comes White Day, which is even more of a made-up farce. In Japan, St. Valentine's Day is a day when chocolate companies and department stores cash in on the idea that women must buy chocolate for all the men in their lives.

These chocolates come in two flavors. The first and most common is giri choco (gee-ree cho-ko, with a hard g as in guy). This is "obligation chocolate." If you're a woman, you're obligated to give this chocolate to male coworkers, family members, all your non-romantic guy friends.

The second and most special is honmei choco (hone-may cho-ko), which is the romantic kind. This is for husbands and boyfriends.

For the past few weeks, department stores have put out big, gorgeous displays of ultra-expensive chocolates, leading to... well, lots of sales. Our students with parttime jobs at stores like Entetsu, MayOne and Jusco have been answering the traditional, "How are you?" question with: "I'm tired. I had my parttime job. We were very busy!" The followup discussions have always involved chocolate and shoppers.

The female students have mixed feelings about it. They're aware of the artificiality of the holiday, but at the same time, they're enchanted by the romantic aspects of it. And mostly, they genuinely enjoy doing nice things for others. You know, the way people are. We're nice as a species, for the most part. So they can have both a cynical and sentimental view of Valentine's Day.

And obligation is a part of Japanese life.

Yesterday, I heard the Wonder Twins out in the hallway whispering "Joel-sensei" and discussing something. Then they shyly entered my classroom and said, simultaneously, "This is for you."

They handed me two small, ornately decorated boxes. Giri choco. In fact, my first giri choco of quite a lot during the day. I was really surprised and touched. Either the Wonder Twins are very thoughtful kids, or else their mom is a very thoughtful woman. I told them, "Arigato gozaimasu!"

This made them crack up, saying "Nihongo? Nihongo! Nihongo?" to each other like they couldn't believe their ears.

One of my grown-up students also gave me giri choco- a plastic heart-shaped box with some delicious crispy chestnut bonbons. I know they were delicious because I ate all of them last night.

Mostly, I feel awkward receiving giri choco. I suppose honmei choco would be a different story, but there's little or no chance of that this year. I'm not too heartbroken about it. The big question is, will I have to respond in kind with giri choco on White Day? I'll be happy to do it, but at the same time...

The Emperor's New Year's Greeting... January 2, 2007

One of the things I wished I'd done the first New Year's I spent in Tokyo was to see the Emperor's traditional greeting. I forget why I didn't then, but this time I made sure to be there. The government opens the inner gardens of the palace, and the Imperial Family appears several times during the morning and afternoon. The Emperor makes a very brief address each time.

This was the only cloudy day of my stay this time. We lucked out because the rain held off, but it was cold and dreary outside. Feel free to click on the photos to see them larger... and enjoy!

You cross into the parks surrounding the palace across one of several bridges. Just across this moat, behind me, is one of the most skyscraper-filled vistas in Tokyo, the ultra-modern Marunouchi area just outside the quaint brick Tokyo station.

Security was heavy. This is a mounted officer, giving some pomp to the occasion. Just before I took this photo, a father had his tiny daughter pose in front of this horse. She grinned happily and held up two paper Japanese flags.

I tried to take some wide shots, imagining myself as filmmaker David Lean shooting one of his classic 60s epics. Here's a view of the long line of pilgrims making their way into the palace gardens across a gravel lot. At this point, given the surroundings and despite the sober, anticipatory feel among the throngs, it was easy to picture crowds going into a stadium for a football game.

Uniformed Tokyo police. A helicopter hovered overhead, and there were loudspeaker vans everywhere, with amplified voices making announcements I couldn't understand. The police frisked us before we got to this point. In today's world of heightened terror concerns and given Japan's involvement in the Iraq War, I can understand why the police would be out in force.

Although they probably would have been anyway, if this event were held under different circumstances.

Entering the palace gardens, crossing another bridge.

This is a view of the inner moat and what I'm guessing is a guardhouse.

And crossing the innermost bridge.

Looking back at Marunouchi. The mix of the very old and the very new was breathtaking. From the ornate ironwork of this bridge, and the palace buildings rebuilt in Edo-period style, looking back at steel and glass and concrete... I can't think of too many places where you can stand in one century and see another.

The palace itself. Those two guys in the long coats are plainclothes police, maybe Tokyo city or federal. They didn't volunteer the information, and of course I didn't ask.

The Imperial Family appears. Immediately the crowd erupted into patriotic cheers. I didn't join the cheers, but I waved my Japanese flag.

The crowd settled down while Emperor Akihito spoke. He said a very few words in simple Japanese so everyone could understand. The gist of it was: "I am happy to welcome the new year with you. I hope we will have world peace. Thank you."

I was actually closer than it looks from this photo.

After he spoke, the crowd began cheering again as the family waved from the balcony. The older gentleman in the foreground looks like a stunned mackerel as my flash goes off right in his face.

Zooming in a little. The Emperor is second from the left. I think Empress Michiko is on his left. People I showed my little cellphone snapshots to told me who each person was, but I've forgotten.

In my hotel room later that evening, I watched a Japanese TV documentary about the Imperial family. They really seem like nice people. The pressure they live under is enormous. Imagine being the living symbol of your nation, a job you're born to and can never resign.

The Crown Prince, Naruhito, stirred up controversy a couple of years back for publicly defending his wife, Princess Masako, in the press. She was educated in the United States and worked as a diplomat before the marriage, but afterwards had to forcefully transition into a more traditional role, and probably most importantly, produce a male heir.

Instead, the couple had a daughter, Princess Aiko. This set the stage for a constitutional crisis that was only recently resolved, at least temporarily.

Prince Naruhito made his statements because the unceasing pressure on his wife was damaging her health, especially during the debate over whether their daughter, should be allowed to take the throne. He told the press Princess Masako's "individuality had been suppressed at great cost." In 2004, approaching her breaking point, she sought psychiatric help and went into seclusion.

In 2005, Princess Masako began making public appearances again, and was photographed looking fit and healthy while skiing with her daughter, but who knows what the long term prognosis may be?

I can't even begin to imagine that life.

Still, it was a unique and enjoyable experience to stand with the crowds and greet the New Year with the Emperor of Japan, the latest in a long line of memorable New Year's for me stretching back to 2000.

Friday, February 9, 2007

A 3-Day Weekend...

And it's about time. I'm exhausted. Not from work, just from lack of sleep. I'm in one of those weird patterns where I fall asleep easily, but wake up after 5 hours and stay awake. Despite being heavy-lidded and low-energy all day.

Monday, a person or persons affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi crime family (Japan's largest Yakuza organization with 21,000 members) gunned down a top man in the Sumiyoshi-kai family. This is the first I've heard of it, but the Japan Times online says it's the latest incident in an escalation of turf war between the two rival gangster groups.

Leaders of both families had a sit-down recently to hammer out a truce, which can only be good for everyone. As we all know from The Godfather, war is bad for business. The shooting actually led to police action against the Sumiyomi-kai, which is something of a novelty. Usually, the police turn a blind eye to Yakazu doings, instead focusing on DUI roadblocks and arresting lone (and foolish) gaijin on drug charges.

As for me, I'm contemplating a day-trip to Shibuya ward, Tokyo tomorrow. Depends on the weather. I have no business there, really. I just feel antsy and have a lot of nervous energy to burn off. I'm hungry for Shakey's pizza buffet, one of the best bargains in Japan.

If I can get in. As I related a few weeks back, my lone attempt at pizza buffeting was rebuffed because the line stretched out the door.

Lunch at Shakey's involves my getting up early so I can get to the train station. The shinkansen takes about an hour and a half to get to Shinagawa. Then I have to take the Yamanote Line to Shibuya.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Sushi Time, Yakuza-Style!

That's a pretty stupid title for a post. Last night, one of our students took me to a small sushi restaurant. He's an older guy, in his early 60s, a business owner with a weight problem and hyper-tension, a low level student who works very hard but doesn't feel he's making any progress.

Still, he can be counted on to talk in class. That's always a plus. Please, please talk. That's what I want. Although some students have complained I talk too much, I really have no desire to talk at all. It's just that sometimes, if I don't then nobody will, and we'll all sit there in silence for the last 15 minutes of class.

So it's nice to have him in class, even if he tends to get frustrated.

Right at 9pm, he popped his head into my classroom and said, "Let's go!" We gave me directions as we walked, practicing his direction-giving skills: "Turn left here. Go straight. Turn right at the next corner, turn right at the next corner."

This sushi restaurant? If you didn't know exactly where it is, you'd never find it. Not with a map. Not with a handheld GPS system. Not only is it on the fabled side alley I like to call "Yakuza Street," it's hidden in a dark corner, features no signage except the kanji on its entrance curtains and I seriously doubt they've ever bothered to advertise.

Yakuza Street is still decorated for Christmas, by the way. Icicle falls of white bulbs are hanging in front of the bars and restaurants there. And there are many, many restaurants. Tiny mom-and-pop operations, and nondescript bars with terse English names. Things like "Land Bar" and "Drink Pub."

Those aren't actual names, but you get the idea.

There are no cheery open window fronts, so there's a still, a hush, a forboding quality about Yakuza Street, despite the festive lights. The doors of all the bars and restaurants are closed, no light spills out, no rousing drinking chants or songs can be heard.

And then this place, a small L-shaped sushi restaurant run by a small guy with a gray flattop and a woman I took to be his wife. The only other patron was a middle-aged guy sitting by himself. The raised tatami platform with its comfy pillows- which should've held a happy little drinking party- was empty and used to store the current newspaper and my student's overcoat.

In a real sushi restaurant, you usually sit at a bar, or a counter with a plexiglass case where you can see the day's catch on display. The chef usually cuts up your order and does it all right there in front of you, a patently transparent process that to my mind, engenders a trust between chef and patron. Unlike American restaurants where it's all done in secret and people spit in your food and stir the pasta sauce with the same hand they used to hold themselves while peeing... and then didn't wash.

To be social, I had to drink 2 big bottles of beer (I turned down the offer of sake), and my student talked to me in the best English he could muster, and I responded in a mix of really bad Japanese that delighted everyone and English that helped the student. Really, that's what it was- a chance for him to speak English with a foreigner outside the classroom setting.

I didn't mind. I was drinking some Kirin beer and eating lots of real sushi, freshly cut for us as we ordered it. The chef grimaced and smiled as he worked, chatted up my student who in turn chatted up the older woman.

They complimented me on my hashi use (that's chopsticks to you and me, Russ!), which is a fairly common thing you'll hear as a foreigner in Japan. Some people get bent out of shape about it, assuming it's condescending. Maybe it is, but a lot of people project their own stupid negativity onto others, too. I do that. Maybe I'm doing it now.

Anyway, I appreciated it. And when I ate octopus sushi and declared it to be "Oishii!" my student happily exclaimed, "You are Japanese!"

On the way to the taxis parked in front of Zaza City, we almost caught up with a couple of young dudes walking slowly along in front of us. I was about to pass by them, when my student grabbed my arm and pulled me back aside. We kept walking, but now I matched his slower pace and we both gave them a wide berth as we passed.

Then we met a group of smiling men in dark suits coming the other way.

I could've sworn one of them said, "Kombanwa" to me, so I said, "Kombanwa" back and we kept walking.

My student said, in a low voice, "They are Japanese... mafia. Do you know Japanese mafia?"

I replied, "Ah... so ka!"

Yakuza Street.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Middle Eastern Night at No Name Bar...

Granted, No Name Bar International doesn't quite qualify as a bar name, and it's not particularly original. But the owner is a super nice guy originally from Turkey. He's the kind of bar owner who greets you personally, and he's been known to buy drinks for my friends and I at Ohgiya from time to time.

No Name Bar International is on the 3rd floor of a small building right across from the giant pachinko parlor on "Mall Street" in Hamamatsu. The pachinko parlor is impossible to miss, but you have to look for the bar. The sign is small, green, as nodescript as the name it bears. You go up the second worst elevator in Japan (the first is in Toyohashi, in the building on Hirokoji-dori that contains Shirokiya... do NOT ride in it. Take the steps... all 5 flights of them).

Inside, it's a small shoebox place, dimly lit, with an electronic darts game and for atmosphere, a wall covered with tons of photos of happy customers. It's not exactly a dive, the staff is incredibly friendly, it's cleaner than it appears at first glance.

And the beer is 500 yen a mug. That's what we call a bargain here in Nihon. There aren't many choices in Hamamatsu if you're a gaijin bar-lover. Right now, since the passing of Groovy Gravy (and the loss of its amazing cheesecake and slick hipsteresque decor), it's pretty much No Name and Down Under. If I was more of a bar-type person these days, I'd be holding forth at No Name on the weekends.

Except I already have Ohgiya for my clubhouse, come to think of it.

So, what can get the new, 2007 model me into a bar? The offer of freshly made, all-you-can-eat Middle Eastern food. And two drinks, all for 3000 yen.

My co-worker told me it was coming up. Two Israeli guys and the sister of one of them, plus the No Name owner do this from time to time, but I'd only attended once. They cook up a ton of food... by now I've forgotten the names of everything. Falaffel was included, I'm pretty sure, and it was all loaded with garlic and supremely delicious.

I got there around 7:30pm, and what few tables there were already had maximum occupancy, people eating from bowls, soups bubbling in small cauldrons over flickering candles, lively conversation and atmospheric music.

I ended up standing at the bar, but the upshot of not having a chair or a stool meant our hosts felt a little bit of extra responsibility for me, so I ended up having a table's worth of food, enough for two people or more, with a standing offer to load up at will.

Armed with that knowledge and being an old hand at scoring from having spent my formative years as a moocher crashing tailgate parties at the University of Georgia and making a complete pig of myself, I laid into the bread, had some ground beef stuff on thin triangles of what tasted like taco shells or pizza crust, munched a salad, burned my tongue on some ultra-spicy mashed potato looking stuff, drank two big mugs of beer and talked to a Nova student I knew back in my days at the eikaiwa.

He introduced me to his date as "a famous Nova teacher." Infamous is more like it. We talked about the Nova drug bust. That's been a topic of Voice Room conversation even here in Hamamatsu, just as I predicted.

After I'd eaten my fill (relatively speaking, because the food was so delicious I wish I were eating it still), I made my rounds. And by rounds, I mean I found some people I know and talked to them until I missed my #9 bus and had to take an expensive taxi ride back home.

If you visit Hamamatsu, ask around the gaijin community about Middle Eastern Night at No Name Bar. You might get lucky.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

You Don't Have to Be on Drugs to Work for Nova... But It Helps!

When I got to my school Thursday and shouted "Konnichiwa!" to the empty lobby, I heard my boss' voice from his office: "Joel? Did you hear the bad news?"

My definitions of "bad news" usually consist of death, natural disaster, firing, going out of business, either separately or combined. The first thing I thought was, "Oh no, one of our students died in an accident!"

I told him I hadn't heard, and braced myself for something really horrible. He came out of the office and said, "Six Nova teachers were arrested for drugs."

My boss wore a sardonic smile as he told me this, and it was such a relief, I broke out laughing. Nova teachers? Arrested for drugs? That's not bad news- that's hilarious. Sure, it's schadenfreude, and I can admit it. I could care less about what Nova teachers do now that I'm out of the loop, and the very idea of a group of them, ones I don't know and have never met, getting busted for drugs cracked me up.

"Where was this?" I asked. I thought I might hear some familiar names if this was such a huge deal locally.


Ah. News about foreigners is often national news.

He told me more details, how he'd seen it on the news the night before. An American had been dealing coke and pot to his fellow teachers, just for their private use, no students involved, and how the news anchor had been outraged that Nova spokespeople didn't even know the names of the six suspects. How could a company not know their employees' names, he asked; he shook his head, chuckled. A massive company like that, the largest in Japan. Even with its size, they're the eikaiwa (big English school chain) people associate with the very idea of eikaiwa. They set the standard.

He couldn't get over it. It seemed absurd to us both.

"The news report said the apartment was very noisy and filthy, with garbage everywhere," my boss said. I could picture it- Nova accomodation much like the two apartments I'd lived in, with 3 oversized guys bouncing off each other constantly, drinking Kirin or Asahi tall-boy beers in cans, smoking pot and snorting coke, a few different female students spending the night there weekly. As my boss added, "The neighbors did not know who lived there."

All foreigners are like that, neh?

According to Japan Today, Errin Valentine, who was arrested in Tokyo last November on drug charges (posssession of cocaine and marijuana... like a common college student), told police he'd bought it for his friends. That's when being a drug dealer dude really looks especially romantic and super-cool: When you're alone in the hands of the police, isolated and eventually give into self-interest and rat out those party friends you shared all those intimate stoned-off-your-asses times together. We're all in this together, dudes, until I get caught!

This led to the arrests of Adam Renwick and 5 other Nova teachers in Saitama. It all goes back to a drug deal in Roppongi on November 19th. My first impression was these were a lot of fresh out of college guys, but Valentine is 32 and Renwick is 36. Old enough to be more responsible and have some common sense. I don't know what brought them to Japan- adventure, fun, interest in the culture, the ease of hooking up- but their stay here is going to be quite a bit different than intended.

Well, the news was hilarious to me when I first heard it. Now that I've put a face on Valentine and his family, I feel a bit guilty about laughing.

He's more than likely spending a very difficult time in Japanese jail, and his family is probably heartbroken; I can only imagine how mine might've felt if I'd done something so stupid.

And Japanese prison is no joke. Just ask Paul McCartney. Ok, then sometimes it can be a joke. But not for Errin Valentine or the other 6 Nova teachers.

It's not as violent as in the United States, but it's a lot more spartan and disciplined. No prison is a country club- except those white collar minimum security place where you go if you steal multi-millions with paperwork instead of $100 with a gun and even those aren't exactly bed and breakfasts.

Also, if nothing else, it'll add to the stereotyping of foreigners in general and Nova teachers in specific, and if someone can score Voice Room rhetorical points against the Brazilians here in Hamamatsu, I'm sure he or she will. There's already a growing xenophobia here, in a culture that has xenophobia as its historical inheritance.

My boss lectured me and my co-teacher on being careful about who we associate with.

"Even if you are not doing drugs, if you are there when the police come, this is very bad," he said. "You would be released later, but it could give the school a bad reputation."

He had a point as I flashed back to all the times my Nova roommates and our friends were burning one down in the common area, watching Love Actually or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. I didn't participate or hang out, but we would've all been taken down to the tank together, I guess.

There's nothing like empathy to cure schadenfreude.