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    Monday, April 30, 2007

    The calls

    So, I got the call from the Beeb. It was a bit surreal really, listening to the presenters Mat and Liz on my mobile. Their voices are so familiar that it just seemed like they were recorded... not actually asking me questions as they were. I'd done quite a bit of research on disability in Japan, but in the end there was so little time I didn't really have time to mention any of it. I seem to remember talking about taking tablets for a sex-change and toilet seats catching fire.

    Oh well. Shows how little has changed since the phone in to BBC Hereford and Worcester in which I talked about farts, age 10.

    At least I got an Ouch mug for my English cup of tea. And Mat asked me if I was a writer... he obviously hasn't read TDM.

    I would like to encourage everyone to subscribe to the Ouch Podcast. Not because I'm on it, but because I think it's really important that the wider public becomes more aware of disability issues. It also happens to be really funny, being presented by two crip comedians as it is.

    After that it was the Sheffield presentation-via-Skype thing. I've no idea how that went as it was very one-way. I get the impression people were a bit bored by it, but I don't think there was much else I could have done. I did my best, and that's all that matters. I mean, not knowing your audience makes presenting a topic pretty tricky. Not being able to see them and engage with them makes it even trickier. Still, the second we finished the 30-min conference thing, an email dropped into my inbox from someone in the US thanking me for the podcast, telling me how much they enjoy it.

    I really appreciate that. It's what it's all about. I'm also pretty pleased that I've broken my bandwidth limit this month for the first time ever - and this is despite having only released one episode in April.

    I'm not saying this to blow my own trumpet. Rather, I'd like it to be taken as inspiration, in a kind of "If that gimp can do it, so can I!" type way.

    Tomorrow morning then I'm off to the NHK studios. The show, "Kaitai Shin Show", is an educational program about the body, broadcast on NHK 1 on Saturday from 10pm ~ 10.30pm. Educational program about the body ...this sounds strangely familiar!! They'll be no excerpts of my home videos on THIS one though!

    One thing I am a little curious about is the fact that they needed a native English speaker - when they'll be dubbing over it in Japanese!

    Anyway, after such an exciting day I think it must be bedtime!



    XXX rated

    Hair cuts and aubergines

    Well, that was quite an experience...

    Last month, as usual, I went to my local Sen Yen barber (£5 barber), for the normal cut. One of the reasons it's so cheap is that the service is minimal, I mean, they just cut you hair, and then vacuum your head afterwards. There's no reception desk, instead there's a vending machine that you put your money in. Once you've paid, you sit down on the chair at the end of line, and everytime someone's done you all shufty along one place - a bit like musical chairs (but without the music).

    Last month, there was a chap working there I'd not seen before. There was also no-one waiting - unusual I thought. Still, in I went, and out I came with a hair cut that I wasn't overly impressed with, but didn't think that much about it.

    Until I saw my mate Tom.

    Did you cut your own hair?

    No, no, I went to the sen yen barber.

    What? You paid for that?!! You're kidding!!

    I later checked it out properly in the bathroom mirror - it was pretty appalling.

    A few weeks have passed, but the damage is slow to grow out. Anyway, what with the filming for my national TV debut tomorrow, I figured I should at least try and get it fixed. Thus, last night I set out to search the local area for another barber / beauty parlour place - we've been here 6 months but I've hardly strayed from the path that leads directly to our house from the station.

    I found one just the other side of the railway. It was a bit expensive, but the owner seemed pretty nice, easy to talk to. We chatted for a while, and I made my appointment.

    This morning I turned up for my cut, and was greeted by a chorus of irrashaimases, uttered by a collection of pretty lovely ladies armed with scissors.

    Tell you what, it was well worth the price. I was treated like a king. Taken from chair to chair for different procedures, fussed about by several ladies, and entertained with idle banter.

    It was after the cut, and the tea, and the chocolates, that the service really started...

    I must admit, I was pretty surprised when I was asked if I liked being massaged.

    My mind went back to the last time I was asked that by a stranger in Japan, it was on the streets of Roppongi, and soon after replying in the affirmative I found myself in a great den of sex. Which I ran away from.

    However, on answering in the affirmative today, a bed didn't unfold from the giant mirrored wall, and the whips weren't brought out. Instead, I received a very nice massage - although I was a bit curious where she got her hitting-the-customer-on-the-head technique from.

    We have a garden! Last night, whilst on my tour of the local area, I found a mini-garden centre. I couldn't resist but to buy 3 tomato plants, two aubergine plants and some kind of pea plants. In the other tub I have planted a selection of lovely pink, purple and blue flowery plants. They look a bit scraggly but I'm delighted with them!

    Anyway, must get on. A zillion things to do today! Oh, it's a national holiday today by the way, bloomin gorgeous. Highs of 27 degrees, me's happy!

    Saturday, April 28, 2007

    Then after the BBC rings, it's NHK's turn

    Could this be my big break in Japan? I've been on TV over here a couple of times, but never in an acting role.

    I just got a call from an NHK producer (the NHK being Japan's equivalent of the UK's BBC) about a program that's being filmed next week. They'll get back to me tomorrow.

    What what Year Abroad Project?!



    I made it! The other hopefuls must have been really ugly for them to choose a big-nosed monkey like me out of ten! Filming starts Tuesday. (Ends Tuesday as well!)

    I've been told "Dress university style, jeans OK but no koshi pan"

    [KOSHIPAN] (abbr) (sl) wearing one's pants low (so that they hang from the hip rather than the waist), pants worn in such a manner

    It's not that they should be worrying about, it's the face...


    oh crikey.

    I just re-read the mail I sent (in Japanese) to about 50 Japanese friends, the one in which I asked for volunteers to take part in my wedding survey.

    Instead of saying "You can still take part even if you're not married"

    I wrote "You can still take part even if you don't marry me"!

    ...and all because I missed two characters out of one word.

    A post for my Japanese friends





    Friday, April 27, 2007

    The BBC always rings twice

    I'll hopefully be on the BBC's excellent Ouch Podcast next month, recording this coming Monday (just before the symposium at Sheffield uni) via skype.

    If you know of any interesting disability-related news stories connected with Japan I'd be grateful if you could leave a comment below. I have a few, but any personal tales would be good to hear.

    I've also just learnt that the program I starred in a few years back, Body Hits, has now been broadcast in South Africa too. It still hasn't made its way here though, thankfully.

    (What Year Abroad Project?)

    Wednesday, April 25, 2007

    Just what the sensei ordered: A Mini-Crisis

    Of course it's good that the current mini-crisis comes now, not in about ten week's time at the end of the semester, or in October when my final year begins and I realise how far behind I've slipped.

    The past week has been a real shocker. Lectures going way over my head. Grammar classes in which I've just burst out laughing when asked for the correct answer to the multiple-choice question - I could barely move my eyes across the page at the speed that the explanation was read to us, let alone process the new knowledge. We averaged one new grammar point every four and half minutes in that class.

    The translation class was an utter farce, and I, along with another 'serious' student have quit - imagine spending 3 hours a week trying to get a group of 6 of the most indecisive, nervous people on the planet to decide how to translate "Main Street". You might think that would be quite easy, but you'd be wrong. This is Japan, where no group of people can make any decision without resorting to after-work trips to the local drinking den for fear of upsetting the harmony. It's a painfully frustrating process to be a part of, and one which in our case was ultimately decided with a round of paper scissors stone - have you ever heard of anything more ridiculous? As Glenn commented afterwards, they must have huge paper scissor stone games in the Diet (parliament). The decision to quite that frees up about 8 hours - 3 of which were class time, 5 of which were homework, which incidentally is not actually checked by the teacher as they 'didn't quite get around to it'.

    I usually have nothing but praise for Rikkyo University, but academically speaking, this class is a bit of a joke.

    My kanji knowledge has slipped to an appalling level. I won't tell you which character I had to look up in the dictionary the other day. I am grateful to one of my Sheffield classmates for advising me on how many we should be comfortable with by the time we get back in September (1500 - they having been advised by the chap who runs our course). The thing is, I just never have to write kanji. Well, rarely. My reading is improving, and my recognition's not all that bad, although I remain the worst in the class (which is admittedly quite a high-level class), but when it comes to writing, I lack the confidence to try out the strokes I think they may be made up of.

    I'd like to point out that I do not believe that this is any reflection upon Heisig's Remembering the Kanji - I use that knowledge every day, but no number of imaginative stories can compete with the destructive power of a lack of use.

    I will use Japanese at home too. I have slipped.

    The biggest problem is that I tend to feel that "there's always time", when ultimately, the only time is NOW. Take my Year Abroad Project as an example. Oh yes, there has been plenty of time, a whole year in fact. And now the deadline is just around the corner.

    We recently spent the evening with a very successful business woman, who also happens to be a very good friend of ours. She really knows a thing or two, and has the wonderful gift of being able to inspire people, giving them the strength to reach deep down inside someselves to those energy reserves that they do not usually like to draw upon for fear of failure. Every single one of us has huge potential, but only a few of us choose to draw upon that potential. I have been struggling with this one a good deal this year. The last few weeks I've been on the rocks, after the incredible high I experienced late last year and early this year. I know that I can reach a stable plateau again, one that offers a clear view of the world, a firm footing, and the inspiration to proceed to ever higher levels. In a bid to regain the lost height, I've once again been listening to some inspirational audio books, and looking at the examples of others.

    And you know, once you decide to do something, even if you don't know how you are going to do it, things will start falling into place. Bridges will appear from nowhere, a path will materialise. And so it is in this case. This morning, I received a wonderfully inspirational email from my sensei. My God, if that teacher can do all that they are doing and not collapse under the weight, then I can certainly learn the kanji!

    I am still occasionally surprised by the way things work out. It's something I've been trying to work on, I believe it is far far more beneficial to always assume that things will work out. I know I've come a long way since my reactionary early 20s. I recall deliberately muffling my anger, refusing to show any emotional reaction to the harshest of news, where previously I would have exploded into a thousand pieces of anger and frustration. As a result of this conscious decision, which I seem to recall was actually a deliberate attempt to wind my ex-girlfriend up, (this was the 2.5 year relationship which towards the end of we had written on the bedroom wall, in marker pen, "If we are not happy living with each other in two months we will split up" - now there's positive thinking for you!!!), I no longer have these great emotional reactions. I don't need to suppress anything. I just try and accept what has happened, and figure out what actions I will take to make the most of the new situation.

    Naturally, there's still a long way to go, and of course ultimately there is no end to the path. Kind of ironic that. So many of us (myself included of course) spend our whole lives trying to get to a place that doesn't exist. I find that one a really tough one to work on, as so many things in our lives are designed with a goal in mind, reaffirming the (false) notion that such a thing exists on a larger scale: think my degree, think cooking a meal, think walking a 100km route - they all have their ends. Not so in the journey of life.

    Anyway, action is necessary if I am to avoid disappointment re. my degree.

    Steps taken in the last couple of days:
    • Have written to the people who provided us with the money to start our translation business and requested details of how we may return it to them as we are not in a position to devote the necessary time to starting another business at present. They replied and told us we can keep as long as we spend it by July 2008. Thus, huge weight off my shoulders there.
    • Have bought a proper electronic dictionary, reduced from £240 to £120 (due to release of new model I think, which has a colour screen etc). The Sharp Papyrus - I've seen it in action - it's mightily impressive, and has the vital handwriting recognition function I so desperately need for looking up kanji. Ultimately, good though the Nintendo DS is, it's not designed to be a dictionary. Whilst the hand-writing recognition function is handy, the lack of a keyboard has proved to be frustrating, and I fall behind in class. I'm selling it on Amazon (dictionary sold separately). ...OMG! I was going to link to it on Amazon, but it's already been sold! I only advertised it 20 minutes ago! Well, that's most of the Papyrus paid for!
    • Have bought a notebook to start writing blog entries and stuff in, in Japanese, by hand. I will then photograph the pages and upload to my Japanese blog. There's no point in me typing, it's my written Japanese I need to work on.
    • Have stopped buying comfort crap from the Konbini, and instead am buying comfort fruit whenever I feel the desire to snack.
    • Have stopped carrying money around with me when I know I don't actually need any. This has already saved me 210 yen (which would have been spent on a scone). This is in a bid to prevent retail therapy, which is intricately linked to the learning process.
    Anyway, all talk and no action won't get anything done.

    This learning a language business is bloody difficult, but we shall prevail!

    love, joseph

    Sunday, April 22, 2007

    A year of resistance

    The resistance I have to writing my project for Sheffield University (that's the one that we were told about a year ago, and the deadline for which is now just a couple of weeks away, and the one for which I have done virtually nothing) is pretty remarkable. You see my walking around in circles like a caged zoo animal, brain not really functioning, fearful of having to deal with the comment tags that were appended when the draft was looked over by the sensei. I did manage to get a fair bit done yesterday - translate the questionnaire, insert missing statistical figures etc, but only because these didn't really require any thinking.

    However, today I WILL finish all the pre-interview work, and write a summary of what the bridal planner told me when I interviewed him last month.

    I would like to recommend a few of my friends' websites.

    The first, The Home Sensei, is aimed at private English language teachers based in Japan. My friend, Shari Custer, with whom I worked in Tokyo over the winter of 2002~2003, has been teaching for almost two decades, and has a wealth of experience in lesson planning, and also has experience writing text books.

    Whilst I now find my conversation classes pretty easy, there are still times, with some particularly reluctant students, when I really struggle. This has caused me a lot of stress - thus I was delighted when I received an email from Shari telling me about her new site where she was posting a lot of her lesson material.

    I've found it to be very helpful, inspirational and reassuring. I highly recommend it should anyone find themselves struggling for ideas as to what to do in their next private English lesson.

    The second site I would like to recommend is also penned by Shari. This is her personal blog, "My So-called Japanese Life", and offers a superb insight into what life is like for a Westerner in Japan. Shari has a knack of really hitting the nail on the head when it comes to discussing such things as 'The REAL Japan' - have a look at her recent blogpost on that very topic and you'll see what I mean.

    I find her blog to be very informative, and also a great inspiration, something to aspire to.

    The third site I would like to recommend is that of a classmate of mine from the Hereford Waldorf School days, Billy Salisbury - a.k.a. the Undercover Hippy. Those of you who heard Episiode 1 of my podcast series A Year in Japan will have heard his classic, "Money Money Money".

    Anyway, Billy has just launched his new website, check it out at

    I thank you.

    Friday, April 20, 2007

    Assuming a new role

    Wow. Things really are rollercoaster-esque at the moment.

    It's good though. It's a result of being forced out of our comfort zones in a bid to better ourselves.

    One major factor is *Twinkle*'s new-found confidence, the coming into bud of which is an absolute delight to behold, whilst also being shit scary. It often happens this way though, when a partner trades their old role in for a new, far more powerful one. The power struggles are almost comical at times. I'm trying hard to adapt to the situation, and I know we'll get there. It's good for me to be made to feel inadequate, I mean, I can't always be wonderful at everything can I?

    It would be nice to live in a slighter bigger house though, to allow for our two egos battling it out.

    There's the challenge of uni too - I note from my friend's blogs that I am not the only one finding this semester the toughest yet ever (and we're only 8 days into it!). I'm just grateful I don't have know-it-all classmates, and that all teachers at Rikkyo are so damn nice.

    I am gonna get through this, and I'm gonna do well. This is all good. No pain, no gain.


    Tuesday, April 17, 2007

    Live from the library

    Tuesday, my longest day.

    I'm now on my lunch break having just had my first "Introduction to Life and Environment" class. I think I made a good choice there, it's quite interesting, focusing upon the impact of humans upon the environment etc. It's pretty simplistic stuff, perfect for someone who doesn't speak the gauge terribly well. More importantly though, the teacher is female, and relatively young.

    Before you cry out, "But Joseph! What about *Twinkle*?!", let me elaborate on why my preferred sensei is of the young female variety:

    I've found that young (36 and under) Japanese women speak a lot more clearly than Japanese men of any age. They don't mumble their words like a thick wooly jumper might were it to speak, nor do they use the archaic language of the older male staff. Furthermore, they are much more inclined to engage with their students, rather than simply read from a manuscript whilst gazing out of the window (I'm not quite sure how the old men manage to do these two things simultaneously, but they do).

    And yes, young female teachers do tend to be easier on the eye than the grey-haired professors.

    We were told that the use of mobile phones in class is permitted provided it is done under the desk and does not distract others. Long text conversations should not be engaged in, but making arrangements for lunch etc is OK. Sleeping in class is also OK, but no snoring. It is not necessary to take notes, as everything is on the powerpoint handouts.

    This is good news, as it gives me the time I need to tap away at my two dictionaries - the Nintendo DS Lite for the kanji, and the Casio ExWord for the technical terms that the DS doesn't have English translations for (that's why you shouldn't buy a Nintendo DS for studying Japanese).

    My next class is the second of two weekly sessions that I have in Japanese -> English translation. This is actually designed for Japanese students, and thus is quite challenging. Having said that, I'm not alone: almost a third of the class is made up of exchange students, and all but two of us do not have either English or Japanese as a first language, so compared to them I have it easy.

    The final class of the day is with the very genki Ikeda sensei whom we had last semester. That's all about new grammar and sentence structures, which form the core of our entire learning experience. It's following this that I will start to get an idea of just how much homework we're going to have this semester. It's looking pretty harsh already!

    After uni I'm off to Nihonbashi for my part-time job as an English teacher. I'm looking forward to tonight's classes; the students are very enthusiastic and open, which makes a world of difference.

    Anyway, best get on with some reading. You know, I'm really noticing a difference now, it's very exciting!

    Sunday, April 15, 2007

    New York to London (courtesy of Google Maps)

    A Google Maps search for directions from New York to London suggests a somewhat interesting route.

    Step 23 could pose a problem for anyone wanting to reach their destination alive.

    Thursday, April 12, 2007

    The Rieth Lectures 2007: Jeffrey Sachs

    I've just been going through Arudou Debito's website, a website which raises issues that every foreigner in Japan has a duty to be aware of in my opinion - those relating to the racism that we experience every day living here as non-Japanese. Another thing I should have added to the end of my banana post when listing the things about Japan that make me sick.

    The general 24/7 racism isn't all that difficult to deal with. You just come to accept it as a part of life. The staring, the hesitancy of people to interact with you, the constant reminders that you are not one of "Ware ware Nihonjin" ("We Japanese").

    The fact that one clearly is an "outside country person" (the literal translation of the Japanese word for 'foreigner') does have its benefits: it gives funny old men in the gym a good excuse to point at you and say, "Amerikan?". I have 3 new friends there now. One of the pensioners I met yesterday lived in Birmingham for 6 years, news that took me by surprise! I decided to hold my tongue and not ask him how on earth he managed to survive such an ordeal.

    This morning's encounter on the warm-up exercise mats was quite entertaining. The old fella beside me responded to my 'konnichiha' with the finger and "Amerikan?" routine, and then proceeded to ask me about what I was doing in Japan etc, all the usual stuff that I also ask foreigners I meet over here. I explained what I was up to, before mentioning the fact that I'm currently struggling with the kanji. Hhhmm, big mistake.

    That was it, he was off. Clearly a frustrated teacher, desperate to impart his knowledge. We must have gone through all the kanji for the various body parts (as displayed on the exercise guide on the wall in front of us) at least 3 times.

    This was ok though, I did actually learn a couple of things. However, what did upset me was seeing just how flexible he was. He could do things with his legs that a Chinese acrobat made of strawberry laces could only dream of. Pretty disturbing stuff.

    He saved the best for last though, when he told me "You know how old I am? 71!"

    Made me want to cry.

    I've been reading up on training, and what one should be eating and drinking to maximise performance. I found what seems to be a pretty basic, independent, easy-to understand site called, with some recommendations for what to consume and when, and what the potential adverse effects are (I've also been having a look at some scientific research papers to find out whether the intake of sports drinks etc does actually have an effect - it does!) . I didn't know a thing about amino acids and all that until it was mentioned during the Trailwalker information evening. I knew I should be getting enough protein (which can be problematic for vegetarians / vegans), but didn't understand the link between protein and amino acids.

    I've now come up with a great 2-litre cocktail to take to the gym: it has a base of a sports drink (containing the carbs, electrolytes and antioxidants), a does of protein powder, and a splodge of honey - delicious! It's all completely natural too, which is jolly good. In line with what I've read I drink a load just before I start training, then continue to drink at regular intervals throughout the session.

    Once back from the gym I had to deal with a rather distressed phone call from my uni - I made a major bubu yesterday when submitting my registration form to the wrong department. I don't really see why this is such a big deal, but apparently it is. There was even a mention of "ichiman yen" (£45), but in a bid to get off the phone asap I didn't pursue the matter - I'll go and see them tomorrow.

    Whilst at the gym this morning I listened to the first of this year's superb Reith Lectures, given by one of the world's foremost economists, Professor Jeffrey Sachs.

    If you are the kind of person who cares about this planet and its people, you really must listen to this man. I subscribe whole-heartedly to his approach to dealing with the immense problems that we are facing. This first lecture was absolutely fascinating (so much so that I had to listen to it twice), and I am really looking forward to next week's, which is coming from Beijing.

    What I found almost as interesting as the lecture itself, was the Q&A session at the end of the session. It demonstrated only too clearly just how pessimistic many people are. Seriously, if we don't believe we can find solutions, we won't!! If only there were more Jeffrey Sachs' in this world.

    I have placed him very firmly on my list of role models.

    Don't forget, if you would like to make a difference to the lives of those who are far, far poorer than you, please do help us raise £2000 for Oxfam. We only have a few weeks left to reach our target, and are only just over half-way there. Please, donate here. A mere $5 dollars can buy a mosquito net that will save the lives of those who sleep below it for up to five years. As Jeffrey Sachs points out, the more childs lives that are saved the more the fertility rate will drop, thus impacting upon many of the other problems we face.

    Any amount would be very gratefully received. If you have already donated, THANK YOU so much for your generosity.

    You can listen to this year's Reith lectures via the Radio 4 website, or you can download the first episode here. Best of all, you can subscribe to the series as a podcast: Basic RSS feed | Subscribe via iTunes

    Wednesday, April 11, 2007

    The more you know the more you realise you don't know

    Today was the first 'proper' day of uni. I met my adviser, the very kind Reiko Seki, and discussed my subject choices. That was all fine; she finished off by suggesting that I at least attempt to take the exams aimed at Japanese students this semester, as that way I could get more than the straight "Fail" I got for not turning up for her exam last term!

    Met up with a few friends at lunchtime. There's a lot of freshers around, what with this being the beginning of the academic year and all. They're so young... all that clapping and jumping, does make me laugh.

    After lunch, it was time for the Class of Death. The Sakubun Hour.

    This time, there are no furigana on the handouts to help you with pronunciation. It's a veritable kanji feast; one is bombarded by complex sociological terms, with nothing but an overworked Nintendo DS for comfort. You stumble through your paragraph, tripping up (ironically enough) not on the kanji but on the hiragana. To make matters worse, when the person next to you takes over, they read on without a problem, their sentences are lyrical, they are more fluent than a parrot on speed.

    So yes, another of those "I have sooooooooo much more to learn" type realisation days. Another "Right! No more English spoken at home" type days. Another "I'm going to write my Japanese blog everyday from now on" type days.

    But I need some sleep first. I'm exhausted.


    2 days later...

    So, today I had my second class of the semester, this one concentrating on reading skills.

    I must admit I was feeling pretty depressed on the way into uni. Sometimes the enormity of the struggle we're faced with (that struggle being learning Japanese) just gets to be too much. There are times when you just think "what's the point? I can live without the language". This is how I felt last night when I was on the verge of looking online for opportunities to go and live in remote African huts.

    Reading is not my strong point. It's right down there, just above essay-writing. Thus, the idea of a reading class on a Friday afternoon did not enthrall me, but I must say, sitting here an hour after the class, I'm feeling thoroughly refreshed and ready to tackle the kanji once again.


    The teacher. She is absolutely fantastic. 29-years-old, plays darts at a semi-professional level (almost unheard of for a Japanese women to be such a pro at the game), specialises in Japanese as spoken by the younger generation, teaches us the reading skills we need in order to make sense of the many different forms of Japanese text we're going to be faced with over the next year or so.

    We were given four passages to read, and then asked to answer the questions at the end of the sheet to check our comprehension. These four passages took up about a page and a half; we were given 6 minutes to do the lot. We laughed when she told us that.

    I did better than I'd expected, skimming through trying to pick out the general meaning of the piece from the kanji that I recognised, and then looked for those key bits of grammar that act as signposts. All in all, not too bad. We then discussed where we'd gone wrong, and analysed why it was we'd selected the wrong answers where we had.

    That was interesting: I'd not done that before, root around to discover the specific cause of such a mistake. The idea is, is that we do this consistently, and once we have identified our weaknesses, work on them.

    Following this, we were given a much harsher piece. I really fell down here, unable to even figure out what the overall theme was (it turned out to be about the balance between an artist's 'innate' artistic sense, and their artistic skill).

    What let me down here? My inability to identify two key kanji, two characters that were repeated throughout the piece. Without these keys, I was simply stumbling around in the dark.

    I've been studying the kanji 'full time' for just over two-and-a-half-years now. At uni in the UK we used The Basic Kanji Book, which is pretty good. I still use that series as I like the way it expands both your kanji knowledge and vocab at the same time. However, it's not perfect, and when one has learnt several hundred characters they start to get mixed up in your head... That's where Heisig's Remembering the Kanji comes in, with its little stories to help you remember the writing and meaning. I use the knowledge I gained through studying that text everyday. I think it complements the Basic Kanji Book very well, although it cannot be used in a classroom setting, and ideally should be studied in your own time during the holidays.

    Anyhow, back to today's class. We were told, in no uncertain terms, that the majority of our study has to be done outside the classroom. It's going to take up a lot of our time, and it will not be easy, but it is perfectly possible.

    There was something about the manner of our dart-wielding sensei that really inspired me. She's so convinced that we are all going to become excellent readers that it's hard not to believe it. If we put the work in, it will happen. That I find tremendously exciting.

    My Japanese isn't half as good as I would like it to be, but I still get tremendous pleasure from those situations where I do understand what it being said / what is written. Sometimes I'm amazed by how much I've learnt - and feel positively clever for a few minutes, that is, until someone starts talking about something about which I have no prior knowledge.

    I now have over 30 hours of MP3s that I've recorded with my mac, containing grammar, kanji stories, and vocab. Listening to the early ones proves to me that I am learning stuff, which is reassuring during those times when I feel pretty down about my language abilities.

    I never actually thought that learning a second language could be so difficult; I have immense respect for the millions of people in the world who can speak multiple languages.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    Bananas and dandruff

    So, holiday's over. It all kicks off tomorrow, with one 90 minute lesson. Then a day off. Then another 90 minute lesson. Then two days off.

    I'm dead chuffed that I've managed to get Thursdays off again, and on Wednesdays and Fridays only have to go in for 1 class in the afternoon. This will give me plenty of time for, er, study. And stuff.

    The gym thing is going pretty well. I've been every day now for the past week or so, excluding Saturday when I was busy drinking beer in the park, and Sunday when I did that 15km hike. My body is in shock, wondering what all the heavy weights and bicycles that go nowhere are about.

    It's the treadmill that really does me in though. I can't jog, as my knee with its 'shelf disorder' starts to hurt as soon as I assume the position, so instead I walk at about 6km an hour, up a 15% gradient. I challenge you to do that for any length of time and not break into a sweat. I'm pleased to note that the myth that Japanese people don't sweat is actually a myth - you should have seen that granny this morning, my god, I swear she must have lost about 3 litres on the gym floor. Anyone would have thought she'd wet herself if she hadn't been wearing a drenched T-shirt too.

    I'm intending to carry on with this routine right up until the big day.


    Teaching English continues to be a great challenge. Most lessons are OK. The students whose English is at a pretty basic level are quite easy to cope with - I actually enjoy those classes. Likewise with the majority of the advanced students. However, I have one advanced student who I get the distinct impression doesn't really want to learn English. I feel that they're doing it just because they feel they should. They don't particularly like texts, and so whenever I produce any kind of worksheet, no matter how exciting and non-worksheet like I can feel a chill fill the room.

    This has resulted in me actually dreading these classes. If they were a private student I wouldn't mind, they could simply choose not to come anymore, but the fact that this is arranged through a little English school means that there's lots of feelings of obligation etc on my part.

    I do like this student. They're interesting, and they have good English, but sometimes I just can't stop thinking about the words 'blood' and 'stone'. It gets to that silly stage where I'm silently racing ahead in the conversation, anticipating its end, and desperately trying to think of the next question to ward off the lethal Wall of Silence. Oh, and there's the prep beforehand too. I end up fretting so much that I lost almost an entire day, all for the sake of a single hour. It's quite ridiculous.

    I tell myself it's good for me. A learning experience.

    In reality though I'd rather be having my nostril hairs plucked out one by one.

    For seven years. Non-stop.


    Moving on. I accidentally made an interesting discovery regarding dandruff this week.

    I've had dandruff for most of my life. It sort of comes and goes. Never figured out what to do about it, and wasn't really concerned enough to bother ask anyone else. Anti-dandruff shampoos never helped - and have you smelt Head and Shoulders? I shudder to think what they put in that stuff.

    Anyway, the other day I noticed that my dandruff was much better, i.e. it wasn't there. I was a bit puzzled by this, as I hadn't changed my shampoo or hair-growing lotion in a long time (that, by the way, was a joke, Stephen). Well, whatever, I wasn't going to try and figure out why I no longer had dandruff, I'd just be happy I was free of snowflakes on my sweatshirt.

    Three day ago I was in a frantic hurry to get out of the house to meet someone, but having just come back from the gym I really needed a shower. I was in such a rush that I failed to link the rather chlorine-esqe smell to the fact that *Twinkle* had the previous night turned the water filter off in order to wash the bath (chemicals good for cleaning bath), thus washed my hair in your bog-standard Tokyo water.

    It was yesterday that I noticed that my scalp was falling off again. Now I could be wrong, but is it not rather coincidental that my dandruff only came back after my head received a nice dose of chlorine?

    It has never occurred to me that my dandruff might be coming and going in time to my moving from water supply to water supply. It would explain it though. If you have dandruff, you might want to check out what's in your water - pick up some testing tablets from your chemist, then when you find its full of domestos, move house. It'll cure your dandruff.


    I was wondering this afternoon if I might get banana poisoning, from eating too many bananas. The greengrocer continues to unload wheelbarrows of them on us (I often wonder why he just doesn't stop buying so many in the first place...), and the bin is more banana-skin than chocolate wrappers, always a bad sign.

    Especially when one reads up on the facts behind the banana industry...

    Where they come from
    Between 1988 and 1997 the world’s exports of bananas almost doubled, to just over 12 million tons. This was, however, less than a quarter of the total world production of 58.8 million tons, the remainder being consumed locally in producing countries. Ecuador, with 4.4 million tons in 1997, is the world’s largest exporter, followed by Costa Rica with 1.8 million tons, the Philippines with 1.6, Colombia with 1.5 and Guatemala with 0.6. Aotearoa/New Zealand imports the highest per capita amount of bananas in the world, at 20.4 kilos a year, closely followed by Malta at 19.6 kilos.

    The chemical content

    Almost all the bananas we eat are treated with chemicals throughout the production cycle. By far the heaviest users are the plantations in ‘dollar’ countries that have minimal monitoring or healthcare services. Plantations in Central America apply 30 kilograms of active ingredients per hectare per year – more than ten times the average for intensive agriculture in industrialized countries.

    Fungicides: Aerial spraying up to 40 times per year. Some, like mancozebare, are suspected carcinogens.

    Nematicides: Applied between two and four times a year. Designed to kill parasitic nematode worms, they are extremely dangerous. The use of DBCP resulted in the mass sterilization of tens of thousands of plantation workers from Central America and the Caribbean to the Philippines and West Africa.

    Insecticides: Like chlorpyrifos impregnated into plastic bags and tags placed around banana bunches.

    Herbicides: Are sprayed between 8 and 12 times a year. Glysophate is a suspected carcinogen.

    Fertilizer: Applied regularly throughout the year.

    Disinfectants: After harvest, the fruit is washed with tisabendazol and aluminium sulphate, which can cause severe dermatitis in direct contact with human skin.

    This diagram showing Who gets what from the price of a banana looks great on a page with a white background

    Banana split.2

    As with almost all commodities produced in the South and consumed in the North, more than 90% of the price paid by the consumer stays in the North and never reaches the producer. Most of the risks of producing a perishable fruit are, however, born by the producer. The largest chunk of all is taken by the retailers – mostly the dominant supermarkets and chain stores.


    What bananas cost the environment

    Waste: For every ton of bananas produced, two tons of waste are left behind, frequently contaminated with chemicals and non-degradable plastic.

    Deforestation: Rising demand for bananas is met by extending the size of plantations, which often means cutting down rainforest.

    Soil: Copper and other residues accumulate and can leave land permanently sterile. Fragility of exposed soils, together with the concentrated water flows in irrigation systems, cause severe soil erosion and increased flooding during tropical storms.

    Biodiversity: Large amounts of plant, fish (including coral) and animal life are lost from the intensive use of chemical agents. Monocultures encourage diseases, some of which are becoming resistant to the chemicals designed to eradicate them.

    Exhaustion: Many of the plantations in Latin America are now more than 25 years old – the maximum optimal productive life for a conventional plantation. Del Monte, Dole and Chiquita are establishing new plantations in other areas of Latin America, India and Indonesia.


    I really look forward to being able to eat organically again when I return to the UK. I especially miss organic nuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and all fruit and veg. Yes, all of these can be bought in Japan, but they are hard to find in bulk, and currently way beyond my budget. Organic food has been around in Japan for over 10 years, but people are still clueless as to what it really means and what the benefits are. Japan is so backwards like that. Anything that involves making an effort to do what is morally right. Whether it's the death penalty, whaling, organic agriculture, supporting charitable organisations, environmental protection, human rights in general, respect for others and the acknowledgment of past wrong-doings... I could go on, but it just pisses me off.

    I'll just concentrate on how 'convenient' everything is instead.



    Saturday, April 07, 2007

    Synchronised Signalling

    There's been a lot of coverage recently of the World Figure Skating Championships, held last month here in Tokyo. I usually couldn't give a blind wombat about that kind of sporting event - the hurty bit when they fall over puts me off - but such was the hype that accompanied the rivalry between the two top Japanese competitors this year (who eventually took Gold and Silver medals) that even I had to tune in.

    Also taking place last month was the synchronized swimming world championships, which again caused uproar over here when Japan came in second just behind Russia. Once again, I wasn't really that interested at first. All that chlorine, silly hats and inability to see the faces of the participants to check out how cute they are.

    Still, all the media hype and TV coverage meant that in the end I had to kind of get involved (by that I mean I had to watch it on TV). It was, I must admit, pretty impressive, especially for someone like me who finds it hard to do anything but doggy paddle when it comes to deep water. It's the big monsters in the bottom of the pool that scare me.

    However, today, all that was simply blown away by an astonishing spectacle I saw played out on the street of Shinjuku - a staggering display of Sychronised Signalling.

    These guys were just stunning, directing traffic in time to the boom wiggy boom of the music from their portable stereo.

    They may look like your average group of traffic people who have an absolutely pointless job (like the team of 12 I saw in Osaka last month whose task it was to see pedestrians across the road when the little green man was on green! (Or should that be 'blue'...?!)), but no, these guys had the funk, they were groovin' and a movin', in the yo yo wiggy synchro styleeeee.



    Yo Yo YO WIGGY!

    Ok, so we are now conducting an experiment in Forceable Sobering Up. My spell-checker has broken into a sweat - and we're only just into the second sentence.

    I've spent the afternoon in the delightful Shinjuku Gyouen with Stu San (of met-on-a-bus-in-Hokkaido fame), his wife Mariko and about 30 other folks from all over the world who came together to celebrate the beauty of the cherry blossoms. Oh, and drink alcohol. It was great to see Stu san again, who like me was wearing a very groovy hat...

    The other folks present were also highly groovy in a yo yo wiggy type way. I met a professional ballerina from Poland, a break dancer from Yokohama, a bread expert from France, a university lecturer from Kent (south east UK) who has the pleasure of teaching Japanese flight attendants English, a chap from Niseko where Stu and I first met on that bus, a Brazillian chap who had the body I am striving to obtain by May 18th, a very drunk girl from Western Tokyo, and a Chinese girl from a place that I didn't recognise the name of but who nonetheless was absolutely lovely and provided some very useful information for our trip to China later this year. There were lots of other people there too of course. Thousands of them in fact - the park was positively HEAVING with ohanami participants from across Tokyo.

    What it's all about: A can of fosters, and sakura

    And with good reason too - the cherry blossoms were absolutely beautiful. Who wants to go to the tarmac'ed Ueno Koen when you have the vast expanse and beauty of Shinjuku Gyouen?

    looking towards Nishi Shinjuku (Microsoft Building and Tochou visible on left)

    I thought that this scene could be framed and sold as "The Traditional O-hanami". Here we have two well-presented Japanese girls, exchanging business cards under the cherry trees.

    As someone who usually has very little connection with the expat community in Japan, I find these kinds of gatherings really interesting. So many stories, so many pathways. And my god, so many foreigners who speak Japanese! That's always a bit of a funny experience. The days when Japanese-speaking foreigners were a rarity are certainly over!

    All this certainly helped me to forget about what I discovered this morning: I have been systematically deleting all emails that I have received that are over ten days old without knowing it. In January I set up a mail rule that says that any messages from Mixi or MySpace or The Japan Times that are over ten days old should be deleted. Unfortunately I made a wee little error when creating the rule, resulting in exactly 1935 emails that I have received from friends between Jan 07 and Mar 07 being deleted. I had noticed a few emails disappearing, but until today hadn't bothered to find out why. As my friend would say, "Head > Desk".

    Oh, I passed my exam, and thus can proceed to the next level of Japanese. My chosen subjects for this semester are Japanese language (6 hours per week), intorduction to translation (3 hours per week), and something which roughly translates as "The relationship between humans, animals and the environment".

    "What animals?" I'm wondering. There aren't any in Japan except for 3 billion pet dogs dressed up in Louis Vuitton pyjamas riding around in bicycle shopping baskets. The rest have all been killed off as a result of the program to cover 95% of all Japan with concrete. Ok, slight exaggeration. There are a couple of bears living in Ueno Zoo.

    My cunning plan to get Thursdays off uni would have been thwarted had I failed the test, so it's a jolly good job I didn't!

    I've really enjoyed going to the gym these past couple of days. So much so that I've even been considering joining up to the uni gym when I get back in September. I'm actually starting to notice a difference in my strength and stamina. I've also cut out chocolate and sweet cakes from the convenience store, something which had become a bit of an addiction. Tomorrow I'm off for a hike again, although it won't be anything like as difficult as last week's - that was a killer!

    The DoCoMO Biru, as seen from Shinjuku Gyouen this afternoon

    The only thing with the uni gym is that it'll be full of really scary fit young people, not the old fogeys that I get on with so well here in Tokyo.

    Anyway Anyway, my mission tonight is to re-learn the basics of Flash animation. I had a dabble 4 years ago - the results of which can still be seen online (I've long since lost the FTP details I need to remove it!).


    Thursday, April 05, 2007

    Oxfam tells us in no uncertain terms...

    During my stint in the Oxfam office I did a fair bit of proofreading. The staff there do have pretty good English on the whole, but sometimes mistakes are made.

    There was one document - the mapbook, which will be distributed to over 700 Trailwalker participants (many of whom are native English speakers), which I didn't check.

    My reaction, on reading through a copy of this document which has just returned from the printers, was a mixture of absolute horror and immense amusement.

    In this mapbook, it talks in Japanese about not throwing rubbish away on the path - take it home with you.

    Check out the English translation of the header!

    Spring REALLY is here!

    On my way to the gym this morning I passed through the park. That really made me smile.


    I really enjoyed recording tonight's episode of A Year in Japan. After I uploaded it, I thought I'd check the statistics which tell me how many times it's been downloaded etc. I was a bit surprised to find that last month I almost exceeded my bandwidth limit - if I do that I'll have to start paying for the bandwidth.

    2 days ago I emailed all my friends about the Trailwalker challenge, asking them to consider donating to help us reach our target of £2000 - money to be given to Oxfam to help in their programs to relieve suffering in some of the poorest regions in the world. Having never taken part in a sponsored event before I wasn't sure what kind of response I'd get - I have been completely taken aback by people's generosity.

    People with whom I haven't had contact for a long time. People whom I know are not 'wealthy', making generous donations. It really is a credit to each and every one of them, and I thank them all from the bottom of my heart. We have now crossed the half-way line, £1000 raised, £1000 to go.

    Another benefit that results from emailing all of your friends is that contact is reestablished with people from whom you may have drifted. This really is a joy. Tonight I received an email from one such friend - he attended the Hereford Waldorf School for a couple of years - boy do I feel blessed to know this person. His email was such an inspiration I had to print it out; it's now on the wall beside me, and is making me smile, giving me hope.

    As I mentioned on tonight's episode of A Year in Japan, I went to see the doc about my knee earlier today. I like that doctor. We laugh. Anyway, the diagnosis was one of a "Shelf disorder of the knee". I wouldn't have believed it myself if I hadn't seen it printed in his medical dictionary. i don't even have a shelf in my knee! Anyway, for the next 7 weeks I have to go to the gym as often as possible, starting tomorrow morning.

    Bloody hell. 3.15am. I really should go to bed.

    Life's good. Oh, and today's exam was fine. This means I can have thursday's off uni again next semester...

    A Year in Japan - Episode 8 out now!

    The Tame Goes Wild Network proudly presents:

    www. A Year in Japan .com

    Episode 08: Capsule hotels, Love Hotels and Electronic Dictionaries

    In episode 8 of the most-downloaded podcast by Joseph Tame ever, A Year in Japan, Joseph brings to you insider information on not only life in a Capsule hotel, but also play in a love hotel. If neither of those take your fancy, try a Manga-kissa, about which the Tame has some disturbing info.

    There's some great info about dictionaries - are the electronic type all they're cracked up to be? Plus, some amazing listener feedback that brought tears to host's eyes.

    All this and more on the bed-wettingly exciting 8th episode of A Year in Japan.


    Links to stuff I mention in the show:

    Trailwalker: Link

    Osaka Capsule Hotels: Link

    Love Hotels: Link

    Electronic dictionaries: Link to

    Tokyo city atlas: Amazon

    Giant shoes shop: Website

    Finding Japan podcast: Website

    Download Episode 08 now (a whole hour of audio extravagance!)

    Advanced Version (suitable for most computers and iPods etc. Features chapter markers, lots of photos, and hyperlinks)

    Basic MP3 version (suitable for wind-up gramaphones and other devices that refuse to play the advanced version. Audio only).

    More listening options here

    Feedback welcome: joseph[at-mark] (mp3 messages / videos also ok)
    Skype: josephtame

    Wednesday, April 04, 2007

    First Day Back

    Excitement. Trepidation. A little bit of fear. And a big smile.

    Maybe it's not all that bad to be going back to uni after all!

    Monday, April 02, 2007

    A Letter to You

    Dear Mumbler,

    In February 2007 I signed up to do some voluntary work with Oxfam Japan, a relatively young branch of the UK based charity Oxfam International that carries out vital relief and development projects in many of the world's poorest countries. Through my work there, I came to hear about Oxfam Trailwalker 2007, a 100km hike across some pretty tough terrain in southern Japan, the goal being the legendary Mt. Fuji, a couple of hours west of Tokyo. This challenge has to be completed in teams of 4, within 48 hours.

    I saw that this was not only a great opportunity to help bring relief to many communities devastated by natural and man-made disasters, but was also a way to make the most out of my limited time in Japan as a student, by providing countless opportunities to put my Japanese language skills to use (I thought I'd opt for English with this email though!).

    Myself, 3 other students from Sheffield University, my good mate Tom, my girlfriend's father Takashi and two other Japanese acquaintances have formed two teams - "The Blisters" and "The Longlegs". We are now training hard for the event which will be held from 18th - 20th May 2007.

    Our collective goal is to raise £2000 for Oxfam. So far we have raised approximately £900, the majority of this having come from our own pockets. We are now asking you, our friends and relatives, if you would consider supporting us in order that we can hit our target. We would be immensely grateful for any donations, no matter how small, and shall in the meantime be doing our absolute best to raise more here in Japan, whilst trying to turn the bottom of our feet into leather.

    Donating is very easy, and only takes a couple of minutes. We have a website

    which shows all the options available, including credit/debit card payments, Paypal transfers, bank transfers and cheque deposits. If you donate online your donation will have 28% of its value added to it thanks to the Gift Aid tax break.

    On our website you can also read about the team members, have a look at a very scary map of the course showing all the mountains we have to cross, and check out our progress on the amazingly professional Donate-o-metre.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to read this blog, and thank you for your anticipated support. Your donations will have a huge positive impact upon the lives of thousands.

    Many thanks,

    Joseph and the Trailwalkers

    Link: Official Oxfam Japan Trailwalker website


    I don't like it when I feel I'm losing my grip. Too many things to do, too little time.

    I think it's pretty much been brought on by tomorrow's placement exam, a harsh wake-up call after a 11-week holiday. I need to revise, I want to podcast. I need to prepare for tonight's English lessons, I want to read my book.

    *Twinkle*'s unemployed status is a little unnerving too. We've got enough money to live on for a little while without her working, but nonetheless.

    Anyway, it may be a while before I post again. And there's unlikely to be much new about cherry blossom viewing parties and things round here - but a quick google search will reveal many thousands of entries penned by others sitting under the pink. There also won't be much by way of a description of last Sunday's hike, which was great fun.

    Nor will there be my thoughts on the murder of a British girl here in Tokyo last week.

    I'm implementing some time-management processes as recommended by Merlin Mann, those tips on how to deal with your inbox have been especially useful. I have had my mail program to check for new messages every minute for the past 3 years - now, shock horror, it's only doing it once every 30 minutes.

    It's difficult at times like this to not resent life - but then one just have to remember that essentially it's not like that at all. Life is always the same, it's just what you choose to make of it that differs.

    I have had some very good news lately - the results of dad's angiagram. The docs have decided operating, instead opting for a change in medication. Dad has also decided to work hard on his attitude towards what he can and cannot do - he has a tendency to never stop even when his body is screaming to him that it's not 20-years-old anymore. This is great news. Well done dad.