Monday, December 15, 2008

So You're Visiting Brett in Japan: Introduction

Welcome to the beginning of an X-part series, "So You're Visiting Brett in Japan!"
This idea, like so many of my blog posts, is way overdue. I've already played host to two friends from abroad and answered the questions of a half-dozen more, and each time I assemble the same batch of information: Good times to travel, sight-seeing, what you need to bring clothes-wise, culture-shock-tastic expectations, tasty foods, scary foods, foods you will probably face in combat, and all things ninja-related. Although there are always personal elements to what I tell most people, there is also a general outline. Some things should be done if you're lucky enough to be strolling around on these distant shores, and to better (and more permanently) relate that, so begineth our journey.

Although I have a few ideas for how I'm going to construct these posts, I'd like to encourage my two or three readers to write down questions you'd like me to address in the coming weeks. Some of them I might already have planned, others not, but it'll at least give me an idea of where to steer this wreck. Expect the first post within the next week. The subject: Seasons Greetings. Brett, out!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Well I'll be...

The big test I've been studying for over the past month is finally over. The relief is beginning to set in, but I'm already missing studying kanji. No problem - I can keep that up on the side, probably, just with a reduced number of new characters every day. Back on the subject of the test itself, it was rough, and I'm not sure if I passed, but all there is to do is wait until February. Look for a post then.

What I really want to talk about is what happened in class today. We were beginning with the usual greetings, ie "how are you? What day is it today? What's the date today?", and after I turned it over to the teacher she further quizzed the kids. "Why is today an important day in Japanese history? This is a date you should remember, but not a lot of kids these days do. What happened?" The first guess was that it was the teacher's birthday, earning a few laughs. About a minute of speculation later, somebody nailed it - the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Any Americans out there who have committed this date to memory will be a little confused, as today - for me, anyway - was technically December 8th. But with the miracle of the Prime Meridian, while December 7th was "the day that shall live in infamy" for America, December 8th was the day the Japanese "awaken[ed] a sleeping giant" on this side of the Pacific.

Quibbles about dates aside, this was a shocking way for me to start the day. Although America has arguably become so embroiled in constant wartime politics that past wars are but the playthings of cinema and video games, Japan has scarcely seen a bullet fired compared to sixty-some years ago. Guns? Illegal. War? Hard to wage with the "Japanese Self Defense Force," an army in almost everything but name that until recently was limited to conflicts on their own shores. While it's true that, according to Wikipedia, they have the 5th highest military budget in the world, their troops are distributed sparingly compared to other countries and only to regions in need of peacekeeping. Any American can list three or four wars in which America has been deeply involved since World War 2. It is an impossible question for Japanese citizens.

The relevance the second World War holds in Japan is still visible today. All of my schools have posters giving technical details on the two atomic bombs - name, blast radius, effects of radiation, etc. Our English textbook, New Horizon, contains a six-page long story about the atomic bombs that greeted me shortly after I arrived here. A girl is hiding in the shade of a tree shortly after the bombs have dropped, craddling a crying boy who is desperate to see his mother. The girl makes the best of the situation, singing to the boy, telling him "mommy is here." Soon, the boy grows quiet, and dies; but the girl continues to sing until she, too, grows still.

All of the students also typically make school trips to either Nagasaki or Hiroshima as least once in their lives, and visit one of the peace museums. The end of the war is the main subject, and it is this date that most Japanese people remember. Newscasters will remind their viewers, and radio hosts their listeners. It is not forgotten, though at least it is remembered in the name of peace.

This being said, today was the first time I've personally heard a Japanese person go out of their way to mention Pearl Harbor. She went on: "This is a date you should all remember, and one that will be important for you to become an adult. We all remember when the war ended, but what we don't think about is Japan started that war. You hear all the time, 'oh, this was done to Japan, that happened to Japan,' but you cannot forget - we started that war."

It must also be mentioned that she said, at one point, "Japan did not have a lot of other options at the time," but I will leave that for you to decide. I imagine that statement is as charged as the debate on whether or not America should have dropped the bombs. Neither, however, is the subject of this post.

War is one of the things that retrospect will never grant perfect clarity. Propaganda echoes well past its expiration date, and progress demands that countries - like people - move beyond the atrocities of their past to show dignity in the present. If even when all is said and done, the perspective on a conflict of such terrible scale shifts in continuous - albeit subtle - degrees, how can we hope to make all the right decisions now?

I'm not trying to excuse American involvement in the middle east. I'm not trying to condemn it. I'm hesitant to even bring the subject up as my knowledge is limited to the stuff of headliners and Comedy Central talkshows. But I felt like something important was said today, though perhaps more important was the venue in which it said.

67 years ago, America was unexpectedly and brutally attacked. Four years of fighting later, the strike was reciprocated and then some. And then A LOT. Now, I laugh and joke with the children of that same country. Our homelands are allies, friends, and stand together on diverse platforms...outside of whaling. And what qualifies as "quality television."

Six years a ago, America was unexpectedly and brutally attacked. Six years of fighting later, the strike was reciprocated and then some. And then A LOT. The fighting hasn't ended, and nobody knows when it will. But if we're able to remember the ills of the past, admit errors, and move ahead... Maybe I'll grow old enough to tell a new generation I was there when a barrier slammed between us, but at least I'm there for when it crumbles away.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Casualty on the Job Front

I know I didn't directly mention the job I was gunning for on the previous post, but a lot of you knew anyway either from talking to me or actually helping in the application process. No amount of superstition can save me from the email I got today: negatory on the jobilation.

Here is where I would post the job description if it hadn't already been removed from the website, so instead I'll write up a quick blurb. It was a position for Square Enix, a company anybody who has dabbled in role playing games would probably know, and the position was "English Editor." The job duties focused on localizing myriad texts from the company into something free of Engrish and slick with style. And yes: this includes in-game dialogue. The requirements fit me so well it was almost unsettling. Background in creative writing? Check. 2-3 years working in any industry? Check. Passion for games? Excuse me, I think I need a new pair of pants...

The greatest part of the application, however, was one of the requirements: You are a character from a Square Enix game that has been magically transported to Japan. Write an 800-1000 word story on your adventures there.

This was refreshing in the latitude it gave, but unfortunate in that it opened the floodgates of everybody who has ever written Square Enix fanfiction. I chose to write about Ultros, a favorite miniboss character of mine from Final Fantasy 6, and I think I ended up with a pretty solid story after plenty of rewrites and advice from friends. In fact I think I'll post it for all to see on a separate blog I'm saving for stories (I'm well aware of the irony surrounding my attempts at blogging ANYTHING) and drop you all the link in the coming days.

Two weeks slid by between the first time I heard about the job and the day I actually sent my application in. As far as my sources indicate, that was also two weeks from the day the job was actually offered. Ten days after sending the application in, I received the letter - today - that the position has been filled. And that was after the listing was removed four days ago. If you can't tell, I've already been counting days, so do a little math to get up to speed.

The email they sent was so perfunctory I have little doubt they have stopped reading applications in whole. Now all they need is an email address and a name. Hell, you wouldn't even know what job I applied for if it wasn't copy-pasted into the opening sentence. But since they have filled the position, I can understand. Why rabbit-hunt if you've already got your man?

As for h0w this is topical to my adventures in Japan, the position was in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It also doesn't hurt that what job I get will change whether or not I write about Japan at all... but that's a post for another time.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

And Another Year Rolls By

So it has been, SHOCK, more than a year since I wrote anything. Fun fact: I started writing this post a few days before said one year anniversary, intending to do a proper "Brett Got Off His Lazy Ass and Wrote Something in his BLOG!" ceremony of sorts. Had I done that, however, there would be an unexpected surge of readership looking for cake, and this was the only cake I could find on such short notice:
Sure, this cake IS pretty awesome, and would probably sell extremely well here if the bottom text read in the Japanese "sekuhara" instead. But let's be honest with ourselves: In my year-long absence, did anybody expect me to be doing non-sexual-harassment related things? Believe you me, if the grocery store wasn't out of Irony, we'd be lined up halfway around the block with our paper plates and plastic forks. It was just not meant to be.

Since this is supposed to be a blog about my life abroad, I should probably say something about what I've been doing. The short version is that I've just been enjoying myself, though that shouldn't translate as "and updating this blog isn't enjoyable, so....". The non-updating part is mostly laziness, but it's also partially that I got caught up in ANOTHER blog (well, two, technically - but one of them sputtered out after a month) that is more post/research intensive. For the chronically curious, here's a link. Just don't come crying to me when your uninstalled Asian language pack makes it look like an ASCII monster vomited all over your monitor. You've been warned.

What spurred me to take up the mantle again is that this is, most likely, going to be my last year on JET. I haven't made it official yet: I still have to sign and turn in my decision by February. But I feel pretty sure right now that this will be it.

When I first started this job, my only sure decision was that I would stay on for at least two years. That made the first year of recontracting a piece of cake, especially when Jeff - one of my good friends here - decided to do the same thing. When the chance to recontract again rolled around it was also a pretty simple choice. I was having a great time and had a good base of native friends to fall back on once my foreign friends got out of town, which they by and large have (though some will be coming back). I also wanted to turn my efforts to writing and studying moreso than I had the previous two years in en effort to have a more effective springboard into employment somewhere else. While I have been studying more, my writing has been sorely lacking...which is part of why I want to write in this blog now, even though rambling about myself hardly constitutes a worthy narrative.

The forces influencing my decision of whether or not to recontract this year are of a completely different sort. First off, the JET program is fundamentally changing, by which I mean it's weakening. My prefecture is cutting back on almost every JET employee it can. If you choose not to recontract, there's a good chance your position will get taken up by a "private company" instead of another JET. Their reason for doing so is simple: money. JET is one of the highest paying jobs of its kind (ie. low qualification English teaching) because it's also one of the most expensive for the companies who hire us. They're expected not only to pay our salary, but also to fly us over here, fly us back home at the end, subsidize or flat-out pay for our housing, foot the bill for sending us to conferences, etc etc. When they go to a private company, however, they literally pay on a class-by-class basis. I don't know what the exact difference is, but it's enough that every school in my area seems to think it's worth it.

So why would a school hire a JET teacher in the first place? Again, a few reasons. First off is that with a higher salary will be higher competition, hopefully yielding a richer pool of employees. I can say without a doubt that this is not 100% true, as I have met both many JETs and a few private company teachers, and the JET is not always the higher quality pick. Still, the general trend would be there, you'd think. Beyond this, a JET employee is expected to be at school all the same times as the other teachers. This means you must still go to the school when students are not present, which is a complete bummer. One of the major perks of being a teacher - at least in the States - is the idea that you get all that vacation time. Not so in Japan. There are legends that a long time ago it was the same way in Japan, but then somebody raised issue with the fact that teachers were taking tax money to sit around at home over summer, and now the teachers take tax money to sit around in the school and spend even more on airconditioning. Well-played, Japanese tax payer. Well-played.

I could go on and on about this, but the short-and-sweet is that JET is losing its footing, and I have a whole bunch of other rats to join fleeing this ship. You might imagine that I'd rather hang on to such an opportunity as long as possible since it may soon be out of my reach, but JET's decline has other effects that are making that option less and less appealing. Since the school system is low on money, they are spreading their teachers as thinly as possibly. That means everybody's number of schools are going up, and often their numbers of classes are going up, too. I am definitely much busier than I have ever been my past two years on the program. I shouldn't be in a place to complain (oh no! My job is making me do work!), but when you assess the increasing work-load over the year, hanging around to see what new budget-crunching schedule will look like with even fewer teachers next year is not an enticing proposal. Especially when they're planning on raising the number of overall English classes, too.

JET has also reached the limit of what it can teach me. I came with the understanding that this would be a temporary job, and trying to carry it on for another year or two would be avoiding my future more than it would be progressing towards it. I have learned a lot from this job and will be forever grateful that I was accepted, but any employment with a 5-year limit on recontracting is by default a dead-end.

The notion that I will have to find a completely new job next year, however, is daunting. Since I will have to leave my current residents regardless, I will have to find a new place to live. It can very well be anywhere or anything, which is another topic I've yet to really wrap my head around. Everything in my life until this point has been the result of a pretty clear path. My entire academic career seems prescripted, and I was so set on getting into the JET program that I didn't apply to a single other job. Luckily for me, here I am. But where do I go now?

I have some prospects I'm checking out now on future jobs, but I don't want to talk about it too much here until things develop more. I'm a little superstitious and will keep it on the downlow until I have some real results to share, good or bad. Suffice to say that I'm excited, nervous, and all those feelings that crop up when you're reaching out for your future and you're not quite sure if you'll be able to grab it. But until I do hear back, maybe I'll manage to give you guys a few more posts on what may turn out to be my last year in Saga. Brett, out! (pardon shoddy editing. I figured you deserved a hastily assembled post over no post at all.)