May 2004 Archives


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I have only recently realized that a dear friend read something I wrote and completely misunderstood, inspiring that person to do something that has destroyed our friendship forever. I just want to make it absolutely clear what happened: I got on the wrong train and wasted a couple of hours going the wrong direction. Now you should feel really stupid over what you did, and what you thought I did.


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On a fine spring day in late April, I visited Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. This temple was constructed in 645 AD and is Tokyo's oldest temple. Sensoji is dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. There is a legend that two fishermen pulled up a statue of Kannon in their nets while working in the nearby Sumida River, so this temple was erected on the site next to the river where the statue was found.
Each year on the third sunday in May, the Sanja Matsuri is held, a festival celebrating Kannon and Sensoji Temple. The matsuri was just over yesterday, I wish I could have been there. So I'll just put up a slide show with my best pictures for everyone to enjoy. Click on the photo to see the slide show.

The Smokatorium

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Japanese attitudes towards smoking are a bit different than here in America. I was taught that it is considered rude to smoke out in public in Japan, since you are polluting other peoples' space, but it is polite to smoke indoors, even if there are non-smokers present, as long as it is in an enclosed area where the smoke can't escape out into the public. Even after living in Japan for a while, I still wonder if my Japanese teachers (who were nonsmokers) were just making this up, or whether such attitudes really exist, I still can't tell.

I remember a funny story from a few years ago, the Prime Minister (Nakasone, I think) was a chain smoker, one of his idiosyncracies was the elaborate antique lacquerware smoking set he kept on his desk. An anti-smoking group accused the Prime Minister of setting a bad example for children, he responded that he would henceforth set an example by smoking as much possible.
People in Japan feel free to smoke anywhere at all, and non-smoking zones are pretty rare. There has been considerable government resistance to establishing any sort of anti-smoking rules or anti-smoking publicity. This is largely because the Japanese Government owns 65% of Japan Tobacco and part of every tobacco purchase goes directly into the Japanese Treasury. Some people even speculate that the Government encourages smoking because it reduces the average lifespan, killing off elderly people who would otherwise be drawing a pension, saving the taxpayers a fortune.
But those attitudes are changing. Before I left on my trip to Japan, I heard that Chiyoda-ku passed a law completely prohibiting smoking in public, and on the public sidewalks in particular. The rationale was that Chiyoda-ku has extremely crowded sidewalks in areas like Akihabara, and smoking caused a danger to others, lit cigarettes could injure people or burn holes in their clothing. Of course that's merely a propaganda point to give everyone a good reason to cooperate. I was skeptical that such an anti-smoking campaign could be successful.

But one day I got off the train in Akihabara, I was just about to light up, and then I noticed signs painted on the ground at every street corner, declaring that a No Smoking order was in effect everywhere in Chiyoda-ku. Nobody was smoking outside the train station, which is a pretty unusual thing. I stopped at a Police koban and asked if it was true, that smoking was completely prohibited everywhere in Chiyoda-ku. The policeman said you can not smoke on the street, but there are a couple of places where smoking was still allowed indoors. And he directed me to a place where smoking was permitted, I call it "the Smokatorium."

After you walk through the double-door airlock entrance, the first thing you notice about the Smokatorium is the overpowering density of cigarette smoke, and that every single person is smoking. Everyone is drinking coffee and smoking, talking on the phone and smoking, reading a book and smoking, but everyone is actively smoking, and they leave immediately when they've finished smoking. The premise of the Smokatorium is that it's a room with vending machines, you're encouraged to buy a can of soda or coffee to help defray the expense of providing a smoking lounge. The smoke is so intense that you couldn't possibly stay there longer than it takes to smoke a cigarette, and then you leave. Each table has a huge air vent built into the tabletop, you flick your ashes into the air intake, and it sucks the smoke out of the air too. The air currents are quite strong inside the room, but the wind was full of stale smoke. I thought it would be less smoky to stand close to the air intake, but quite the contrary, all the room's smoke was rushing right past me into the vent. After smoking a cigarette, staying inside the Smokatorium for just a minute or two, I felt quite ill like I'd been suffocating for lack of oxygen, my clothes reeked of smoke, I wanted to take a bath and change my clothes. Perhaps this was the whole point of the Smokatorium, negative reinforcement.
And the negative reinforcement is right up in your face. Covering the walls of the Smokatorium are anti-smoking posters, I saw one and immediately burst into laughter at the silly infographic-style images. I've posted a couple of those graphics in this story, and you can inspect the entire poster by clicking on the image below.

The reason I call this place the Smokatorium is because it reminds me of the old Judge Dredd comic strip. In the future world of MegaCity, tobacco possession is totally illegal outside the Smokatorium. If you want to smoke, you must go to the Smokatorium, where you are issued a bubble helmet, it's like a space suit helmet but it has a little hole in the faceplate where you can insert a cigarette. You exhale into the interior of the helmet and the smoke is blown out a vent into the room. The room is so thick with smoke that you can barely see, so everyone gets fresh air from their helmet's oxygen tank, and nobody has to breathe secondhand smoke. In a comic strip I remember, someone is arrested and charged with possession of tobacco outside the Smokatorium, so Judge Dredd sentences him to an extremely stiff penalty, one minute inside the Smokatorium without a helmet.
Ever since I smoked a cigarette at the Akihabara Smokatorium, every time I smoke, I have the sensation that my nostrils and lungs are burning. So I decided to quit smoking completely. I'm wearing a nicotine patch right now, this is my 3rd day of no smoking. If I ever feel like I want a smoke, and I need to motivate myself to stay clean, I'll just think about the couple of minutes I spent inside the Smokatorium without a helmet.
I have previously written about the cowards that compose our local military reserve unit, the 109th Area Support Medical Battalion. They claimed to be on the front lines pulling wounded soldiers from foxholes, but they actually sat around well-fortified base camps like cowards, while other medics risked their lives on the front lines. But today I was astonished at the front page story in my local newspaper; I had no idea they were war criminals, they were deployed at the notorious torture chambers of Abu Ghraib prison. Of course they claim they are completely innocent. Here is the full article from today's newspaper.

The Commander of the 109th ASMB, Lt. Col. Steven Wieneke, claimed the tortured prisoners of Abu Ghraib and the soldiers under his command had a "pretty good relationship and pretty good rapport." Surely some of those prisoners developed that rapport while being treated for injuries inflicted during torture. It was the duty of the soldiers of the 109th to blow the whistle on those injuries, it is still their duty to come forward and tell everything they know about the torturers of Abu Ghraib. But the Commander has interviewed his soldiers, determined that they have nothing to say about the matter, and that they saw no evil, heard no evil, so they will speak of no evil.
This is a dereliction of duty on a monstrous scale. The very medics who were responsible for the health and safety of imprisoned Iraqis sat idle and said nothing as those prisoners were tortured and injured. They are cowards, they continue to cover up for the torturers so they are accomplices after-the-fact to war crimes. They can only do one thing to atone for their war crimes: come forward, tell everything they know, and take their punishment like a soldier.


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One of the first words I learned when I started studying Japanese was "jisaboke." Literally "jisa" means "time difference" and "boke" means "stupidity" so combined it means "time difference stupidity." But jisaboke really means "jet lag."
I've never had such a bad time with jet lag before. I'm usually a night owl, staying up until 3AM, but since I got back from Japan, I've been staying up until 6AM or more, and sleeping all day. My schedule is completely backwards. But I am finally recovering a normal schedue, today I managed to get up at 9AM after getting to sleep at 1AM.
I was worried I'd have terrible jet lag problems when I got to Japan, you really have to live on a daytime schedule because the trains stop running at midnight and you have to go home or else you're stuck wherever you are until 5AM when the trains start again. I even got a prescription for sleeping pills in case I had trouble getting to sleep. But I never needed them at all. The moment I got to Japan, I got up with the sunrise (which was about 4AM since they don't have Daylight Savings Time) and I fell dead asleep about 9PM.
But now that I'm back, my schedule is in shambles again. I feel lethargic all day, and some days I sleep 4 hours out of every 8, it's like my day is 12 hours long. I can't keep my mind on my work, I feel like the past week has been a total loss.
I used to joke that I lived on Tokyo time even in the US, waking up and going to sleep at roughly the same times as people do in Japan. But I wasn't really that close. Now I know what it's really like to be that far off the local time zone, and it's wearing me out.
Anyway, this is a sort of apology for not having blogged much since I got back from my trip. I'll get my life back in order shortly. I mean, really REALLY get my life in order, I decided to quit smoking and I start on the nicotine patch tomorrow morning. I have a feeling I'll have a lot of nervous energy I'll need to channel into something.
As I left Japan, speeding towards the airport on the express train, I took one last blurry picture out the window. I thought it expressed my mood perfectly, with the train conductor standing alone, with a bowed head, beside an empty train carriage with open doors.

Click the arrow on the player below to hear Last Train to Clarksville by The Plastics

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I like to listen to The Plastics when I'm in Japan, they were the first Punk band in Japan, their 1979 album still expresses a lot of the Postmodern bizarreness of living in Japan. I played the album for one of my friends, and he asked me, "is this all there is, a Japanese band singing American songs in bad English?" I told him that in Japan, people practically live their lives in trains, so a Japanese band singing Last Train To Clarksville has an entirely different meaning.
I like to listen to this particular song as I take my last train ride to the airport. When I heard this song, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of loss, not because I was leaving Japan, but because I had to go back to America. I never have culture shock going to Japan, I get it severely when I come back to the US. My instant reaction is that everyone in America is so rude and inconsiderate, they ignore all the little social rituals that make life easier for everyone.
I knew I was back in the US when I tried to get off the plane. I was stuck in the Coach section way in the back of the plane, and it was a long 11 hour flight from Tokyo to Dallas. It took a long time for everyone ahead of us to deplane, all I could think about was getting off, getting past Customs, and popping outside the terminal for a cigarette. Just as the the forward sections were clearing and Coach passengers filled the aisles, there was an announcement over the speakers that the Customs asked that each passenger have their passports in hand as they exited the plane. I pulled mine out of my shirt pocket. But there was an elderly couple ahead of me, towing luggage bigger than the suitcases I checked through, they immediately dropped them in the aisle, started unzipping them, and searching for their passports, like it never occurred to them that they would need their passports upon arrival in the US. I watched for about 90 seconds as the entire plane ahead of them cleared out, leaving me and the entire Coach section stuck behind these two idiots. People behind me started shoving in frustration.
Now in a situation like this in Japan, you would merely say "orimasu," which literally means "I'm exiting," and people move to let you pass by. I tried saying what the phrase would really mean in this context, and in my politest tone, said, "pardon me, if you're not ready to deplane, please step aside and allow others to pass." In response, the short, fat old man screamed at me, "what did you say to my wife? If you talk to her like that again, I'll smash your face in!" His wife, standing between us, looked mortified. I said nothing in response, I merely stood there holding up my own passport. They leisurely searched their luggage, and after a few more minutes, finally located their passports, and deplaned.
In Japan, about the worst thing you could possibly do is cause inconvenience to a large group of others through your own selfish actions. And about 50 of us in Coach were inconvenienced because these idiots decided to block the aisles to hunt for their passports. But I laughed and laughed when I saw Instant Karma in action, I got waved through Customs without a search, while Mr. and Mrs. Asshole got sent for a full luggage search.
But it could always be worse. And shortly, it was worse, oh so much worse. But I will spare you the horror of listening to my story about being jammed into a seat next to a sweaty 450 lb man on the second leg of my flight home. I once rode in a cargo plane full of goats, and this flight was much worse. Enough said.
So excuse me if I vent. It will take me weeks to get over the trauma of my trip back home. And now that I'm back, I'm totally jet lagged, I'm exhausted. It will take me a while to decompress before I can process my photos and write about the more pleasant experiences I had in Japan.