Thursday, September 27, 2007

Life... the Comic That Tastes Like a Drama!

Note: I also posted a version of this on my comics blog.

Sometimes my life in Japan collides with my love of comic books and this is one of those times. Life, a TV drama based on a comic series by the same name concluded here a few weeks ago after 11 episodes of Japanese high school bullying, teen angst, torture, mayhem, lies and suicide attempts. It was a big hit and even a fellow American friend and I got hooked on it despite our not really being able to understand everything that the characters were saying.

See, here in Japan comics provide source material for any number of movies, cartoons and TV shows without the "superhero" or "just for kids" stigma that's sometimes attached in such properties in the West, unless it's a big summer blockbuster- the cinematic equivalent of Amazons Attack. I mean, how many times did you hear the movie A History of Violence was based on a graphic novel? Or that Road to Perdition was based on a comic that was in turn based on Japanese comic? If you did, you were really paying attention.

Oh... and by "the West," I mean Canada and the United States. And possibly some superhero comics-savvy parts of Europe.

Japan doesn't have this tradition of comics-are-strictly-for-kids. Yeah, you have lots of childish stuff but in general comics terms, pretty much everyone reads them, without fear of being considered weird or oddball (although those people exist here too). While fantasy genres predominate, there are also completely mainstream comics featuring more down-to-earth storylines like you might find in small press comics in the United States and Canada. Only instead of selling about 3000 issues like Love & Rockets, these comics sell hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

In Japan, romance comics still exist as a viable part of the mainstream market. For example Nana, a comics series about two girls both named Nana who become friends that inspired not one but two popular feature films. The Nova staff in Hamamatsu loved the Nana comic while I was working there. Copies of it littered their lunch table in the back for months.

Which brings us back to Life. Life is the genre-bending (romance, slice-of-life drama, horror/suspense) story of Ayumu, who suffers the heartbreak of having gotten into a toney high school and losing her best friend from junior high who didn't score enough on the entrance exam. Her moping catches the eye of the lovely Manami, a stylish girl with hair perfectly coiffed and dyed brown. Sensing that Ayumu's in grave danger of becoming a goth and listening to Dresden Dolls instead of SMAP as befits a proper high school girl, Manami decides to act.

Here are the protagonists/antagonists of Life. The girl on the left is Manami and the girl on the right is Ayumu:

At lunch, Manami finds a weepy Ayumu on the playground, takes a set of hashi hashi and force-feeds the girl fried egg from her bento. Ayumu's tears become a smile, they go to a photobooth and do purikura together and everything's going to be all right after all. The end!


Here's the lovely and cruel yet nutrition-conscious Manami, sitting at her desk contemplating more playground force-feedings:

Kids being kids, their burgeoning friendship soon falls apart and Manami and her gang begin bullying Ayumu, slopping wet mops in her face in the bathroom and covering her desk with cruel grafitti. And sometimes tossing it out the window. Things get even worse as Manami's sicko-psycho boyfriend Katsumi joins in, adding kidnapping, blackmail, torture and... I'm not sure about this because I missed the early episodes... rape to the mix. Katsumi is also involved in a relationship with the kids' pro-Manami/anti-Ayumu homeroom teacher.

On the plus side, Ayumu becomes quite adept at mop-fu, an ancient mop based form of martial arts handed down by janitors for generations:

Yeah, and you thought your high school was hell. As the series continues, Ayumu gains some allies in Miki, a beautiful but mysterious girl, and some nerdy guy whose name I never caught. She learns to stand up for herself both at school and at home (her mom is well-meaning but tends to ignore her). The Ayumu-bullying continues until Manami falls from favor and replaces her as everyone's target. What goes around...

The drama plays like a shopping list of social issues facing teenaged girls in today's world. Also there are so many plot reversals you half expect everyone to start talking backwards. Evidently, the manga is even more a hit parade because in it, Ayumu is also a cutter. That element is conspicuously absent from the TV show.

I'm not sure about the prevalence of cutting here in Japan. I've talked to some of my high school students briefly about Life and bullying, but only one girl knew what cutting was. She told me she has a friend who actually deliberately sliced her own face. Perhaps the others just didn't want to talk to their ugly bald gaijin teacher about it, and not willing to intrude on their lives, I didn't press.

Bullying is familiar, though. And thanks to some recent bullying-induced suicides, it's been a favorite topic in media. People are scared for their children, who don't seem to understand they can go to an adult and get help. Although much like in the case of Ayumu, sometimes the authorities just try to cover it up or take the wrong side. This makes Life a timely show, with a compelling message- develop your self-esteem and stand up for yourself because those who bully you today may themselves become the victims of bullying tomorrow.

Oh... and I have to point out the theme song for Life is sung by Nakashimi Mika, who played the punk rock Nana in... uh... Nana. Nana! Currently, it's #6 on the J-Pop charts. The TV drama uses it about 30 times per episode, whenever the action reaches a dramatic crescendo or to underscore a quiet melancholy scene.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Human Face of Nova's Decline...

I've read quite a few message board posts along the lines of "Good riddance! They deserve it!" I don't think people who post things like that understand the effect Nova's implosion is having on ordinary human beings who work for the company. It's one thing to deplore Nova's business tactics (and believe me, I do) and it's another to gleefully celebrate something that's damaging lives.

Don't get me wrong. For the company itself, I have no feelings whatsoever. But for the Japanese staff, the teachers and the students, this is bound to be a very troubling time. People who've done nothing wrong are being put out of apartments, losing out on scads of money and generally being sent scrambling for job security. For some of these people, living in Japan is an adventure that's going to come to a crashing, tragic end all too soon.

For them, I have a lot of sympathy and wishes for all the best.

So it's one thing to be interested in what's happening with Nova, but it's quite another to celebrate the true cost of it- what's happening to these people. When I think of the kinds of "Screw Nova!" messages I've seen about this, I can't help but think of the kinds of people who would dance a joyful jig after killing a dog or kicking the crutch out from under an old woman's shoulder.

Read this and this and then decide if you want to crow about Nova as if it were some top-down embodiment of evil, instead of merely a flawed corporation full of ordinary people. These people aren't Nova, they're individuals.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Here's a Great Overview of Nova's Woes...

Is it all over for Nova? If you're interested in the downfall of a company I worked for from May 2004-December 2005, you can find it all in the Japan Times Online. The only thing they left out was the Roppongi drug bust of a Nova teacher and the murder of another, which you can read about on the Japan Probe site (with which I'm truly impressed!).

It comes down to the false advertising/contract scam, but the concurrent scandals didn't help either. While the murder wouldn't necessarily reflect badly on the company other than by association (it just tends to make customers nervous even if it's merely about the other students in their classes), more than likely the drug bust generated unease among the students. I've written about this at length- most of the Nova instructors I worked with were awesome people but there was also a significant percentage of sleaze artists and irresponsible drunks. And then in some locations, there are the bloggers who post about how stupid the students are and how horrible Japan is.

Nova's long had a reputation for hiring fly-by-nighters who sleep with all the female students, only level up those who say "yes," and then teach piss-poor lessons while hung over.

That's a deserved reputation from what I saw firsthand. In spring and summer of 2004, Toyohashi and its satellite branches were rife with completely dysfunctional fuck-ups, users, abusers, assholes and racists who made my dream of living in Japan a nightmare for the first 4 months I was here until I wised up and transferred to the more inviting climes of Hamamatsu. The nice people of Toyohashi deserved better than that, and it's all the more mystifying when you consider the RAAM's office was located there.

Or whatever the title is for an Area Manager. Like I've written, I had no intention of climbing the ladder so I didn't bother to learn the nomenclature. The first manager I worked for there was a random, sometimes arbitrary flake who frequently muttered like the animated Popeye, but the last one I worked for was an excellent manager with professional and people skills. I think I was lucky to go out under someone that nice. She even called me personally on my last day to thank me for my hard work and tell me I'd always have a job with Nova if I wanted it.

Hmm... maybe now's the time to take her up on it!

Actually looking back, some of the drunks I worked and lived with in Hamamatsu were really fun to know and were very popular with the students because their lessons were full-on entertainment... if only they could've been bothered to show up for work as scheduled; our school had more sick days than all the other schools in our area combined and most of those days were from just two instructors. However, I also saw plenty of dedicated people who were there day after day, teaching effective lessons. I saw their efforts to help students improve their English conversation skills and we all witnessed the results. Many of these teachers have since moved on, but I can think of two specifically who are still soldiering on locally and I wish them all the best. Not only are they first class teachers, they're first class people.

They definitely deserve better than this.

Fine Dining in Tokyo

So you made it to Tokyo and you've been wandering around, seeing the sights, groping people on the Yamanote Line, snapping photos of little old hunchbacked women wearing t-shirts that read "Crazy Sick Bitch" and now you're hungry. Starving even! What do you do?

You come with Hiro the World's Angriest Chef TM and me on a tour of some of Tokyo's culinary delights.

Hiro: You look at me funny, I knock your ass out.

First, a tip. Because you probably don't speak or read Japanese, many restaurants feature window displays of very realistic plastic food. Do not eat the plastic food. Instead, if you're really stuck for how to order, simply ask the staff to come outside and point at what you want. Actually, you probably won't have to do this because the menus are usually illustrated with color photos. You can just point and say, "Kore!" and you'll probably get what you want.

But be careful. Unless you have a good idea of what the dish is in the photo, you might get something surprising. If you're lucky, you'll discover some new wonderful taste. If not, you're out 20 bucks and still hungry. Here's a recommendation- you can't go wrong with tempura shrimp and soba:

Hiro: That's a good basic meal, but may leave you fat Westerners with more hungry. We Japanese don't eat big dishes like Americans. That's why Americans are so fat!

Most people associate the words "sushi" and "Japan" the way others associate "Gimme" and "some damn money." There are all kinds of sushi and sashimi (sashimi is delectable, by the way... that's the sliced raw fish you probably think of as "sushi"). When I was in Tokyo in August 2007, I finally got to try something I'd heard about. Horse sashimi.

That's right- I ate raw horse meat. I got it at Shirokiya in Shibuya. And let me tell you, it wasn't bad at all. It tasted like very rare roast beef with just a little undertone of something unusual.

Hiro: You eat this, you can run real fast. But when you try to do math, you have to stomp your foot to give answers.

I love sashimi and sushi, which surprises many of my Japanese friends. To be honest, I think Japanese families consume more curry rice than they do raw fish, but if you ask various people what their favorite food is (and due to my job, I have to ask this question a lot), most of them will probably tell you it's sashimi. And sashimi has become one of my favorites, too. Here's an example of a Tokyo sushi bar:

That's Standing Sushi Bar, a chain that you can find in quite a few neighborhoods around the city. I'm pretty sure I saw one in Shinjuku as well, but this one is in Shibuya not too far from the 109 building. I didn't go in because I eat a lot of sashimi in Hamamatsu and I was in the mood for things like steak and pizza while I was in Tokyo, those being difficult to come by here. I assume in Standing Sushi Bar you actually eat standing up, which is perfect for the gyaru on a shopping spree whose skirt is too short to sit on a stool, or the salaryman who doesn't want to get all wrinkled.

Notice the nice person in the foreground trying to duck out of the frame.

Too late! Shashin daijobu desu ka?

Speaking of pizza, one of the best bargains in Tokyo for the truly hungry is the Shakey's Pizza lunch buffet. There's a small Shakey's above a convenience store in Shibuya, but expect long lines and wait times during lunch rush on the weekends. If you're in Ikebukuro, however, you can go to this Shakey's, which is about a 5-minute walk from the station on Sunshine-dori:

It's pretty roomy inside. I went there at 12:30pm on a Saturday and while it was busy, there were a few empty tables. The buffet is around 1050 yen or so... sorry, I can't remember exactly. But it's cheap and you can sample all kinds of pizzas with Japanese style toppings- octopus, seaweed, mayonnaise and potatoes.

Save some room for this:

This photo doesn't do justice to the size of this ice cream behemoth! The handle to that mug is roomy enough to fit a hand and a half of a normal-sized man. That's probably 3 or more pounds of delicious, frosty heart attack.

Hiro: Anyone who eat that is crazy! Maybe you feed an elephant that much ice cream. Human being? No way!

For people with a taste for home, Japan is one of the most McDonald's-laden nations on earth. Just in Kabuki-cho alone there are 532 McDonald's restaurants. In Japan, there's little or no stigma attached to eating at McDonald's, or McDo as it's sometimes called because the katakanization of the name is practically impossible for foreigners to pronounce. Businesspeople, high school kids, moms, dads... few if anyone's read Fast Food Nation but surprisingly, people you meet may have watched Super-Size Me. People here think American portions are insane. No joke.

But you can still get some crazy-big Big Mac varieties in Japan. This McDonald's is in Harajuku, right on Takeshita-dori:

Hiro: McDonald's is okay, but I prefer MosBurger. MosBurger is healthy.

One place I like to go to in Harajuku is Wendy's. My dad and I had a ritual of stopping at the Wendy's in Madison, Georgia, whenever we passed through there around lunchtime. Plus, sometimes I crave Wendy's hamburgers, which I find much more edible than McDonald's. Here's the Coolest Wendy's on Earth:

The upstairs dining area is a bit cramped, but there's a larger one in the basement. Actually the first Wendy's I saw in Japan was in Kyoto, but I didn't eat at that one.

Here's what this Wendy's looks like at lunchtime on a Sunday:

There were a lot of worn-out looking foreign tourists in there that day. None are pictured here. Good luck finding a place to sit, people!

What I love, though, is Mexican food. Right after I ate lunch at Wendy's, I found a Mexican restaurant just a few meters down this side street. I wanted to slap myself in the face.

If you're seriously short on funds, you can find some lunch boxes at the convenience stores. Or, if you're in direst straits, onegiri. A triangle of rice with tuna and mayo inside, the blue-labeled onegiri is usually only 105 yen. Two of them will keep you going until you can find an ATM.

Sometimes you find some interesting things. Take for instance this Dr. Pepper can I got out of the vending machine at Hotel Kent:

I don't know who she is, but looks like she made someone's can spew. I really don't know what to tell you about this. People ask me about hentai manga (porn comics) all the time and I try to explain there's a lot more to Japan than stuff like that. Huh.

My girlfriend see that and make me quit drinking Dr. Pepper.

If you're not feeling adventurous enough to go into a real restaurant, there are various chain places around that offer mediocre but edible food for prices that aren't too outrageous. Like the Hub, which can be found all over the place. Here's a location just behind Hotel Kent, and within sight of Koma Stadium:

I included this photo because two years ago on New Year's Day, I did a solo tabe hodai/nome hodai (all you can eat/all you can drink) for about 3000 yen and ended up with food enough for 4 people. A salad course, french fries, fried chicken plus a lot of other stuff I can't remember. Why can't I remember? The nome hodai part kicked my ass. I'm lucky I was able to walk the 1 minute distance from the front door of this place to my hotel.

Hiro: Americans like to drink beer. How often do you drink alcohol? Every night?

But my favorite restaurant in Tokyo is this place, a shabu-shabu restaurant not far from the Hub:

The food is a bit expensive, but the staff there is very friendly. Not overly friendly, because that's not the Japanese style. But each time I've eaten here, I've been the only foreigner and I've made horrible messes with my shabu-shabu and yet they kept cleaning up after me and smiling. That's perseverance. The last time I ate there I was much improved though!

The upstairs section is small, but I believe there's a downstairs. My guess is upstairs is non-smoking and downstairs is smoking. Unlike in America, restaurants here maintain smoking sections. And in classic style, you usually end up sitting at a table immediately adjoining the smokers where you can breathe in the fine cloud of smelly, burnt particles of ash exhaled from someone's lungs.

This is the window display at the restaurant:

In Japan, dining out usually means quaffing alcohol. And beer makes a fine accompaniment for a course of shabu-shabu.

This is what shabu-shabu looks like, thinly-sliced beef that you bowl in a large pot of water along with vegetables and noodles:

If you ever come visit me, I'll take you to my favorite shabu-shabu restaurant here in Hamamatsu, a superb place where tabe hodai is affordable and the staff is briskly professional and friendly to just the right degree!

Hiro: I would visit but you piss me off by being smart ass! Go back to America!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shinjuku Street Music Scene: August 2007

Japan isn't just a place for creative visual expressions a la the Harajuku fashionistas. It's also a country with a vibrant and eclectic music culture. And anyone who knows me well knows that I love music of all kinds.

In just about any sizable city here (even in blue collar locales like Toyohashi) you can find street musicians outside the train stations. Free music! Sometimes you find just a couple of guys strumming along with acoustic guitars. Sometimes, it's a jazz ensemble. Occasionally, it's a complete rock combo with a full set of drums, amps and monitors. Many of these impromptu concerts are- to be frank- lousy. But some feature crackerjack musicians and venue-ready showmanship.

When I was in Shinjuku over my August holiday, I got to see some impressive bands around Shinjuku Station. There's a wall just outside the south exit where musicians set up and play their sets to passersby. Like these two guys, who are representative of the form:

A small amp, a mike, and improvised percussion. I can't remember what genre their music fell into. Maybe it was something that defies easy labels. I mean, I can't think of too many groups I've seen where the drummer plays a wooden box. But I do remember thinking they were pretty decent. That guy's a much better guitarist than I'll ever be. Although I dream one day to master the box.

Coming back from dinner in Shibuya, I found this electric scene outside the Kabuki-cho exit, just across from Studio Alta:

An androgynous superstar with rainbow hair and nightmarish clown make-up furiously screaming into a highly-amplified microphone, one moment bellowing in a throaty masculine pitch, the next shrilling away in a crystal and ear-drum shattering falsetto, accompanied by a beatbox set at approximately hummingbird heart tempo. In front of him, his loyal fans, 4 or 5 girls and a guy in punk-wear.

This was a performance that definitely defied categorization. And also anything resembling actual music. With the Studio Alta videoscreen providing alternating shadow and light, heavy metal headbanging met avant sound glam clown-style, causing passersby to glance over in horror and dismay, then scurry to get as far away as possible from the sonic disturbance.

But to these two striped punk supplicants, Clownface was like unto a god.

And in a supreme moment where like met like and achieved synthesis, transported by religious fervor into spiritual realms inhabited by knife-wielding maniacs instead of angels, they genuflected to their idol:

That was a truly inspiring scene. The next day, I found something more to my taste, an adorable duo (boyfriend and girlfriend? brother and sister? just pals/bandmates?) playing energetic pop-infused emo rock with a slight twist of twee:

This was behind the station again, with other bands waiting their turn. This is Toy Missile and on this sweltering summer afternoon, their music was as cheerful as the smile that constantly appeared and disappeared only to reappear on the drummer's face.

There are few sounds I love more than tasty, upbeat melodic guitar-based pop-rock. Especially with harmonies. Man, I do love the harmonies! Give me more than one voice, kudasai.

Toy Missile had one of the largest crowds watching, too. About 20 or 30 people watched their entire set, a testament to both their talent and their performance charisma. I mean look at these photos. Can't you practically hear their chirpy music? They have a warmth about them that draws a listener in.

But they also serve to illustrate the reality of playing near a station. No matter how talented and charismatic you are, there are some people who just don't give a damn. They have important places to be and can't be bothered to stop and listen:

Toy Missile also embodies another aspect of Japanese live performance. Between songs, the performers spend a lot of time talking to the audience. Explaining songs, making jokes, expressing their gratitude. I know this happens elsewhere, but you're also more likely to have shoe-gazers or drunks being assholes, like I saw at a Modest Mouse show back in Athens in 2003 where Isaac Brock annoyed the hell out of the audience by prefacing the performance with what seemed to be an endless stream of rambling drunk nonsense that only he found amusing and the audience's increasingly irritated reaction to it only encouraged him to continue.

Whereas in Japan, it's more a matter of the band acting as their own interlocutors. I think. I also have to admit I fell head over heels in love with the drummer approximately .00005th of a second after I spotted them. I think her name is Nakanokumi:

The guitarist seems to be a nice guy. I think his name is Abe Kotaro. I bought their CD single "Rain in August," and he shook my hand and thanked me in shy, broken English.

Toy Missile also illustrates another aspect of playing near the station. If you're in Tokyo or somewhere like that, you just might get to have a backdrop infinitely more impressive than anything a club could rig up for you:

Whaddayaknow! I found a video of the full band on YouTube. Here they are... Toy Missile, playing in Akihabara:

God bless the person who taped this and put it up on YouTube. You are my Greatest Hero right now.

Congratulations Forrest Griffin for Your Win at UFC 76!

This is off-topic, but I just want to take a break from the Nihon-blogging to congratulate Forrest Griffin for his win over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua last night at UFC 76. I know slightly more than nothing about mixed martial arts, but a good friend of mine is a serious aficionado and through him I got the chance to hang out with Forrest a few times before he hit the octagon, a few nights out drinking and a few times talking movies.

Forrest is real. He was back then, he is today. People should approach whatever they're into with his heart and work ethic. Nothing but the best to him.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

More on Nova...

I think the situation differs from branch to branch. I just read a post by one alleged block trainer who says he used to do demos every day and he hasn't done one in 2 months. As he points out, no demos equals no sales equals no students... equals big trouble. But he also name checks the old Diplomat books, which haven't been used since before even I left, which makes me question his credentials.

Still, if he is who he claims to be and this is part of a general trend, then his basic point is correct. Nova is in big trouble and teachers and staff need to start getting out. Out out out. Like I did. Not to panic, but to use this time to first think over how important it is for you to stay in Japan... and then to act. If you really want to continue living in Japan, there are opportunities galore out there. It'll just take some dilligence and time on your part.

And if you're not happy here, if you have severe allergic reaction to Japan and Nova... then this is the perfect time to go home. Which I highly recommend to just about anyone who wants to sit around and complain about all the social ills of Japan. That's not helping you, Japan or anyone. So go home.

Oh, and if you do take my advice, make sure you tell any friends who are considering working for Nova not to do it. I didn't have a terrible time there, but that's what I tell people who ask me about it. Don't work there- unless you do it to get a visa and then get your ass busy finding another job pronto.

Evidently, at some branches, teachers haven't been paid. Or something like that. It's difficult to puzzle all this out because the message boards are jammed with people weighing in with breathless predictions and alarmist rants. But if I'm sifting the bullshit out, it does appear that Nova has changed the pay dates for its trainers (the ol' titled teacher position... a kind of corporal/E-4 or to continue the military analogy from my previous post) in some areas.

Boy, that's some serious stuff if Nova doesn't pay teachers. Most teachers will refuse to work. I wouldn't have gone to work without pay, I know that much. We had maybe one AT at our branch... maybe two if they approached her the right way... who probably would've continued working. But come to think of it, that AT jumped ship not long after I left and everyone thought he was a corporate suck-up and Nova lifer.

My image of it went something like this: Upper management (RAAMs and AMs or whatever they call them... never could keep that bureaucratic nonsense straight as I never had any inclination of climbing the ladder) and Japanese staff getting the pay-shaft in order to keep the teachers from walking en masse. A cut-off on new teachers (according to one poster, the airplanes are still bringing them in, though... not sure if that's true) and a lot of transfers. Cutting operations and expenses at much as possible (causing some teachers to bitch even more and with good reason this time). A number of people resigning and going home (there are almost always people who hate Japan at a branch who should be more than willing to get out ASAP)... and then the company coming back as a leaner, smaller organization.

But maybe not. To be honest, Nova's closure would probably be a good thing for our school. We've signed a few new students in the past month to replace all those who've moved to Canada to use their English in a native setting. We're not looking to expand or grow, but we could always use a few new dedicated learners to fill out our schedule. If we're lucky, that's what will happen.

So what exactly will happen if Nova goes down? Some say they know already.

Nova has (or had) about 480,000 students in 900 branches. Someone speculated that it'll lead to boom times in ESL, the way things were in the storied get-rich-quick days of the Japanese Economic Bubble when all those students flood the market.

But I'm not so sure. First of all, we have to consider if this adverse publicity hurt the other big eikaiwas. Japan is an image-conscious nation and once an idea gets out there, it tends to solidify. Plus, there's already a growth industry in Korean language. Korean pop culture is very popular here right now; maybe learning Korean or even Chinese will be the trend of the future. That leaves cats like me out in the cold, doesn't it?

And we can't be certain at this point that Nova will close its doors. Some of the posters seem hysterically bent on this point. I'll concede it's a definite and even likely possibility. But not a given. There are still hundreds of thousands of students in the mix. That's a lot of money coming in. If Nova can stop the hemorrhaging, they do stand a chance of being a better company. You can take that as you may, for better or worse.

Nova's Troubles Continue!

The false advertising scandal just took another chunk out of Nova. According to a story on Japan Times Online, the giant eikaiwa (English school) may close as many as 200 branches. Just another reason I'm glad I got out when I did.

You have to imagine this is also related to the highly-publicized drug bust of a Nova teacher in Roppongi, and the horrific murder of another in Chiba. As one of my friends who still works there recently told me, "We are hemorrhaging kid students."

This isn't schadenfreude, or one of those typically anti-Nova posts by a disgruntled employee. I've read quite a few of those horror stories on blogs and on message boards, and heard versions in conversation by people who know them only secondhand or thirdhand. But I was there. I know what goes down at Nova. Some of these stories are true; many are the outpourings of socially dysfunctional or highly inexperienced people who committed job suicide there through failings both professional and personal. My own time there was generally positive, and as a result I have what I think is a very realistic view of the pros and cons of that frequently (and sometimes most deservedly) maligned giant of English education. Wounded giant, these days. Actually, this is the result of my ongoing nostalgia for what was one of the best and worst times of my life.

I think a lot of angry ex-Nova teachers tend to conflate everything negative about their experience (a lot of which is self-inflicted if they'd only be honest with themselves) and lump the staff and students together with the company itself in this big mass of hate. Maybe that's the normal result of experiencing severe negative reinforcement. Maybe it's some sort of displacement for their own failings. But whatever it is, it's not fair at all.

Do I blame the company for profiting off its employees by charging us ridiculous rent for our accommodations? Of course! Do I think the non-fraternization policy idiotic and unenforceable? Sure (except I also know of at least one Nova branch where the male teachers poached incessantly off the female students and only granted level-up slips to the cute ones and the ones that slept with them). Is it stupid to have Tuesday-Wednesday off instead of a normal weekend? Yeah (except the students there are generally office workers who only have Saturdays or Sundays free for self-enrichment projects like studying English).

And I can't tell you how sick it makes me to have been associated with a company that deliberately misleads its customers. Or how insane it was to have to put up with roommates who were almost constantly drunk and all too frequently unable to show up for work due to hangovers. Or dealing with sleazy guys who, back home, couldn't get laid with a bottle of Maker's Mark and a palm-load of Cetaphil doing the aforementioned student-poaching.

Still... once you've been a Nova teacher, you've been marked for good or bad. It's like having been in the military, one of those formative life adventures you share with a handful of others who were briefly your coworkers, best friends, family and roommates. The analogy holds when you consider that many of those teachers are fresh out of college and impossibly young.

So most of all, I genuinely feel bad for some of my friends who are Nova teachers (yeah, I met some shady, sketchy characters but I also met some kind, trustworthy and genuinely compassionate people as well), and for the many wonderful students I met and interacted with during my stint with the company. Oh yeah... and the hard-working Japanese staff who will no doubt bear the financial brunt of this, whatever that might turn out to be.

I'm thinking of the little Nagasakiya branch... an all-Nova Kids branch in a dumpy shopping center where I worked one day a week for about a month or so. That's where I taught my first Chibiko (tiny li'l kid) class, featuring a single adorable girl who alternated between shy reluctance and deliriously enthusiastic participation... until she fell against the wall and an unfortunately placed coffee table, banging her head twice and bringing on the tears.

I'm still haunted by that, and the image of her falling replays itself as I type this. I'm still pissed at myself for not removing that coffee table before the class. Any idiot would've known it for a hazard. And I still rankle a bit when I think of the near-argument I had later that week with our area Kid's coordinator about getting the damned thing out of the room during lessons.

For some reason, I feel protective of unloved and unlovable places like Nagasakiya. No style, no grace. A grubby orphan of a shopping center, standing off by itself and alone even in the midst of a densely-packed urban environment. I guess to a certain extent, I feel that way about Nova and its ambiguously-gendered pink rabbit spokesmodel.

Not the company. Certainly not the scumbags scattered amongst its employees. But the rest of the people. Kind, normal, everyday people with good intentions.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Harajuku Fashionista Spectacular: August 2007

I like to explore Harajuku when I go to Tokyo. Back during the heyday of the Japanese Economic Bubble until 1998 when "Pedestrian Heaven" was closed, Harajuku was the epicenter of Tokyo street fashion... a torrid zone of visual artistry where self-expression, fashion school students and avant garde musicians mixed in a creative free-for-all... and therefore, pound for pound or kilo for kilo, the absolute coolest place on earth.

The visual bible of street fashion, FRUiTS, is still around, still going strong but Harajuku itself, especially narrow shopping street Takeshita-dori, is the home of a new breed of fashionista. The street style of legend has moved to newer places... Omotesando (which is also mostly a haven of upmarket and super trendy and expensive boutiques full of international brand names) and Kitijoji (lots of fashion students live there including an ultra-cute girl I briefly dated who broke my poor heart in twain) just to name two.

But in some ways, the Harajuku spirit lives on, in mutated form. I mean, beyond the outdated living corpse trendmonger Gwen Stefani is whoring around and cashing in on, 10 years too late. Currently, when you cross the street from Harajuku Station, you can find an advertisement featuring one of the most beloved icons of Japan- Audrey Hepburn. A symbol and patron saint of haute couture the world 'round:

She represents classic fashionista heart and soul. Not trend-following, but trend-setting, muse of the great Hubert de Givenchy. Style and grace. But the modern Harajuku girl is her own muse, a little wilder, a bit more colorful, at once childish and sophisticated. Like these two girls, our sailor-scout guides on a foray into the colorful wilderness that is contemporary Takeshita-dori:

I have no idea how long it took them to get ready on this steamy Sunday afternoon, but they're perfectly accessorized, each piece coordinated into an overall theme, or a visual expression of their personalities. They look almost like sci-fi princesses.

It was very sunny that day, and the ideal complexion is milky-white... hence a profusion of frilly parasols. The girl in black with all the bags and the stripey socks is a doll-like member of another Harajuku fashion breed, the gosu-rori, or gothic lolita. These are generally fans of a rock style known as visual-kei, a sort of darkly androgynous glam/goth movement.

These girls are probably fans of one of the big visual-kei bands, but their look is a sort of future punk with gosu-rori undertones. Note the white creeper shoes, probably chosen specifically so they'd match each other. The girl on the left wears over the knee socks, which are ubiquitous in Japan these days, crossing almost all style boundaries. High maintenance gyaru (a bleached and tanned brand-oriented style emerging from Shibuya's famed 109 Department store and its environs but common in Hamamatsu and other metropolitan areas throughout Japan as well) and more conservative stylies wear them as well.

This b&w shot is me being artsy again. It's more dramatic this way, with a Dutch tilt to give it a kick of energy. This next duo is another interesting phenomenon:

The girly-girl and the boyish-girl team. Best friends, one adopts a very feminine gosu-rori style with artfully customized sleeves, a triple-tier pyramid hardware belt, a layered skirt with a flash of milky thigh above her over the knee socks, while her friend goes for something more butch, a sort of ska look accessorized with big bangle bracelets. A little bit of gender variance for spice, safe transgression and an expression of a sort of platonic love-ideal between two female friends.

Here's another gothy punk duo:

Witchy striped knee socks and fat treaded shoes for a little aggro look. And the frilly parasol... again!

Here are a couple of really femmy girl-girl types. Note the piano key motif on the big white bag, perhaps indicative of the musical influence of many of these looks. The red plaid girl also has a few sailor accents bringing to mind the infamous high school uniform cliche, and childish mary janes for a sexy-cute look. Her friend goes for something a bit more mature and overtly sexy with her chunky-heeled shoes and black socks.

Here's something fun- literally a living doll:

This is another permutation of the gosu-rori look. There are sub-genres of this look. I'm not sure if this denotes fandom of particular visual-kei bands or some sort of tribal allegiance, or if she was just feeling a bit pink and childlike that day. Her shoes look like some sort of iced pastries. This is an almost aggressively cute look.

This girl almost crosses over into the cosplay (costume play) subculture. I'm not sure what the significance of the nose-band is. Maybe it's inspired by some manga or anime character. If you look closely, you'll see her blond hair is actually a wig. Maybe she is cosplaying!

This is also interesting:

That's obviously a man, wearing full-on gosu-rori regalia. Despite his hair and the female attire, he makes no particular effort to pass as a woman, meaning he might be differently gendered or maybe he just figures why should girls have all the fun?

Here are two more gosu-roris. This tribe was out in force! I would've liked to have photographed some decora (a look of multi-colored energy and lots of cute dangling cartoon characters) or some hip, urban individualists a la FRUiTS, but alas it was not to be that day:
The baby blue is an interesting choice. Alice's Adventures in Nihon-Land; where's Sir John Tenniel when you need him? Lots of layers and petticoats and lace make them both frothy confectionery treats.

This next girl is a floral representative:

The difficulty of taking pictures on Takeshita-dori is amply illustrated by this photo. The street is very narrow and just jammed up with shoppers and tourists. Getting a shot of anyone was almost impossible. It's really a 2-person job, for a spotter and a shooter. About halfway down is a t-junction that's the perfect place for two observers to stake out and get some really fun photos, one person covering two angles and the other covering the third.

Here's another fun gender-transgressive pair:

The boy-girl has a vaguely Germanic look, doesn't she? Almost as if she were wearing lederhosen. Her girly friend is in a modified high school uniform, perhaps the one she was wearing in earnest the week before, or last year in the event she's a graduate. I doubt either of them is any more than 18. The boyish one holds the umbrella; in Japanese culture, young lovers walking in the rain and sharing an umbrella is a common romantic image.

Here's another less extreme duo:

The girly one is a frothy pink vision, and the boyish one has a hard-edged ska/punk look. In some ways J-Pop group Puffy predicated this style. Ami (happy birthday, by the way!) is usually presented as the femmier of the pair, with Yumi being depicted as ever-so-slightly more butch or edgy. But in reality, their looks are fairly interchangeable. It may have something to do with various comic book and cartoon pairings as well.

And yes, they're holding hands.

Take a gander at the girly-girl's elaborate thigh highs. Black lacing highlights down the back add a not-so-subtle element of sexiness to her otherwise doll-ish get up.

Here's a blurry pic that again demonstrates the difficulties I faced on this mission:

Here's a gosu-rori pair made delightful by the expression worn by the girl on the right:

Her skirt isn't as lacy as some others I saw, but it does feature a big white bow accent. Her friend's costume is much more elaborate, a darker presentation of black and blood red.

And in conclusion, here's this guy: