Saturday, January 26, 2008

What the Fish Told Me

America had Love Canal. Russia had Chernobyl. India was Bhopal. The EU had Seveso. Japan had Minamata.

With the oil spill in SF Bay fresh in my mind and coupled with the environmental policy class I took in my final semester of university it's hard not to feel that acute, youthful rage about corporate greed, their circumvention or outright flaunting of the law and the victims it leaves in the wake. Not even fifty miles from my childhood doorstep it's dangerous to swim in any Central Valley river due to pesticide pollution, the former Hunter's Point naval station is so toxic it should be considered a Superfund site, fishers at the Berkeley Municipal Pier shouldn't eat more than three fish per month from their catch or risk mercury poisoning and the same goes for Delta sportsmen. That is, of course, just a handful and in California no less--the environmental, organic, hippy-dippy capital of the damn world!

When Oyama-sensei--an elementary school English teacher in Hita that I met at the solstice party--invited me to visit Minamata near the end of last year I jumped at the chance, but the trip fell through at the last minute. The call came again last week though, asking if I would come this Saturday and I immediately accepted, along with three other ALTs, Lindsey, Tom and Rachel, all in Hita.

By all accounts I can find Minamata is the third worst industrial accident in the world behind the Chernobyl and Bhopal incidents. I can only scarcely describe the feeling I had standing in such a place. All day long my stomach had a knot in it and my legs felt weak, my normally mirthful self only finding joy in tormenting young Tom on the ridiculous tassel in his winter knit cap. I also felt a bit scared, as if simply treading on this ground was going to kill me. I feel a subtle guilt about that now. In all, 3,000 people were affected with "Minamata Disease" (a misnomer, but we'll get to that in a bit) to the level that it has killed or crippled them, but as many as 20,000 have shown symptoms of it. These days the city is the picture of the normal Japanese coastal town...on the surface.

The Shiranui Sea looking north towards Kumamoto City.

In 1908 the Chisso Corporation came and set up a chemical factory in the middle of Minamata, then a tiny, poor fishing village. Having several coves and natural harbors it was ideal for Chisso to ship out their products through a private port and the town thrived off increased employment and taxes. Within twenty years the factory's waste effluent had devastated the Shiranui Sea's fishing industry, but compensation agreements were agreed upon twice. Nobody got killed for sure. In the postwar period, as Japan was rushing to rebuild, all sort of materials were needed for the effort and all sorts of environmental regulations were being bypassed to get there. In 1955 Chisso's Minamata plant began producing acetaldehyde, a chemical needed to synthesize acetic acid that can be used to produce a huge number of products from fertilizers to solvents to PVCs. Unfortunately, doing this released mercury. Lots of it. It's estimated 150 tons of the stuff was released in the factory's effluent during their acetaldehyde manufacturing days.

The Chisso factory and the city of Minamata behind it.

Mercury is one of the more insidious pollutants because it gets into every level of the food chain and lasts a very very long time if not taken care of properly. Minamata being a fishing village--by this time a city due to the influx of Chisso workers--fish are an important part of their diet even after the fisheries were shot to hell by the first wave of non-lethal (to humans) pollution. When the fish began to ingest this mercury the townspeople must have thought it was Christmas in April. Mercury attacks the brain first and foremost and though I'm not a doctor (except on TV) with fancy medi-lingo to sling around I think it's ample to say that it fucks shit up all up in there. The fish were flopping around mindlessly along the coast and people were down at the shore catching them by hand. Dinner was served.

The epicenter of Minamata Disease: the Chisso factory's drainage duct.

On April 21, 1956 a girl was taken to Chisso's factory hospital suffering from convulsions and slurred speech. Two days later her younger sister was also hospitalized and two of their family house cats were dead. This family lived next to the canal where Chisso's effluent pipe dumped into and eventually carried waste into Hyakken Harbor, the city's main public port. Chisso's doctors didn't know what the symptoms meant, calling it an "unknown disease" and alarms weren't really sounded until several other sufferers were found around the town. Victims were quarantined in case their ailment was contagious, but cases continued to spread while theories mounted about what the cause could be. Finally, after four months, researchers from Kumamoto University got on the case, but it took them nearly three years to discover that mercury poisoning was the cause. This whole time Chisso's plant continued to dump mercury into the water and more people got sick. In fact, it wasn't until the 1970s that Chisso finally stopped making acetaldehyde at the Minamata plant!

Here's where I get really mad and start to hate humanity.

By 1959 Chisso knew they were the cause of the illness. In fact, they'd done their own tests of the process used to make acetaldehyde on cats before the production began in 1956 and all the subjects died. Fishing hauls in the Shiranui Sea had declined by over 90%, a chunk of the town was now crippled entirely or partially, miscarriages were through the roof and children born live were deformed or catatonic. Taking advantage of the still somewhat poor citizens Chisso payed a pitiful sum of money to them as "sympathy money" and made them all sign a contract to never seek compensation again. When things got worse the citizens finally decided to sue Chisso in a national court where the judge took one look at the contract and invalidated it as a gross affront to basic morality and responsibility. Chisso hired an army of lawyers and scientists to try to dispute the cause of the sickness and held up the case in the courts for ten years! Ten YEARS! Meanwhile another company in Niigata used the same technique to produce acetaldehyde and poisoned another town, adding another thousand cases to the nation's victims of mercury poisoning.

Chisso lost in the end and has been paying out the nose to victims for decades now, but they still fight every claim to compensation that crosses their desk tooth and nail. To clean up the harbor where most of the 150-odd tons of mercury lay required over a decade of dredging the entire floor and depositing it in a landfill that has now been made into a park. There's a bit of an issue with that I learned. Of course Chisso paid for this operation, but the phrase "spare no expense" must not be in their lexicon because they did a piss poor job of making the landfill. It's estimated the retaining wall that holds the mercury goo and buried fish back will collapse around 2025. Why? Because it was made of fucking wood! Wood vs. seawater...who did they think was going to win that one? Again Chisso doesn't want to shell out to reinforce the wall with concrete that doesn't, you know, rot and that leaves the expensive operation in the hands of the prefecture or national government. Knowing Japan's bureaucracy it won't be resolved until the last second.

The place we spent most of our time yesterday is a vocational training, well, cafe started by the mother of a victim. Called "Hot House", it's located in the city's entertainment neighborhood and is mostly staffed and frequented by victims of Minamata Disease. I admit my role there yesterday wasn't very involved considering that my language skills only extend to clearly worded Japanese, but some conversation was had and much was learned. Most of the surviving victims of Minamata Disease (over two-thirds of the original victims have died) now live in the Tokyo area where care is more advanced and easily available. Chisso Corporation...well, nobody can say they don't have balls because they still operate the factory in Minamata. And they still cause trouble. Their pipes run suspended above houses and through neighborhoods bound for their private port and I was told these pipes often break or leak, spilling acids and other chemicals into people's houses. There are mixed feelings amongst the citizens on what to do with Chisso: some want to burn them down and run them out of town; others realize they're a vital economic keystone for the city, without which Minamata would virtually cease to exist; others forgive them for their crimes. I'm with the "lynch mob" crowd on this one, personally. Seeing the factory made me sick to my stomach.

The enduring message from Minamata is that we have a lot to learn as humans about what it is to make a prosperous society and live a good life. Do we really want to plow ahead at full steam and leave in our industrial wake a sea of wrecked lives? That's not only unfair to those not privileged enough to live upstream from the harmful effects of society, but just morally wrong any way you slice it. Of all the literature I read yesterday about the disaster this passage stood out to me the most:

"The Minimata disease incident is not simply the crime of one corporation. It was the historically inevitable result of what seemed the proper thing to do: the pursuit of convenience and wealth. Historically speaking, the Minamata disease sufferers were sacrificed to humanity's desires."


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In Other, Happier, News

I shot off to the outlet malls in Tosu, Saga Prefecture (next prefecture over, south of Fukuoka) at the behest of one of the teachers I work with last Sunday. I went with Chizuru from Hita and tried to drag Lindsey along, but she was nursing a vicious hangover and I wasn't prepared to clean any vomit out of my car just that day. Didn't matter, the mall was a copy of any of a thousand in The States and we both recognized it immediately, hurriedly looking for something to justify the trip. We found it at the bottom of two delicious Starbucks lattes (I reiterate, I am NOT a Starbucks person, but it's virtually the only latte in Japan) and a new scarf. Mom, don't take offense that I bought another scarf please, this one's for casual occasions while yours is a more work/formal style.

Truth is it was love at first sight and I was compelled to buy it by the spirit of the Fourth Doctor, a.k.a. Tom Baker. He's not actually dead, but I could feel his spirit anyways. Yes, I've always wanted his signature ridiculously long and colorful knit scarf and this one was the closest I've ever seen to it. I don't have pics just yet as the lighting as of late has been atrocious and too much for my craptastic camera to handle. I'll model it on the first sunny day along with my new pants and sweater. Yay, fashion shoot!

(Did I just say that?)


Is Our Children Learning?

Today saw my first near eruption at a class and school officials over in-class disruptions. I'm not sure how my friends and colleagues in the city schools, where these issues are much, much worse I'm told, are coping with it. Maybe my skin is too thin and my standards ridiculously high, but I'll let you judge that.

My Tuesday school is Kusu JHS, the town's largest one and located just across the street from my apartment. Not much to add about its state of decor or how many cracks line its concrete walls, but the behavior of the students has certainly taken a big messy fall. Let me preface this whole thing here and now by saying I know how old and crotchety this will make me sound using words like "disruption" and "behavior", but I tell it like I see it and work with the tools alloted. So, anyways, a recent trend with Kusu JHS has been to schedule me to teach for all six school periods plus sitting at lunch with one of the day's classes. That means from 8:45AM to 3:40PM I am in constant contact with the students with no break and while that has led to some good relations with a handful of students, by and large it saps me of all strength, willpower, bodily fluids, etc. No teacher--I repeat, NO TEACHER--in the town teaches every period and of all the JETs I've asked none of them teach more than four periods a day. If I did this at Mori JHS, the second largest in town, there'd be no problem, but then again the students there are chill.

As I teach at different schools of varying size it's been fascinating to watch the complexity of the social structure as it rises and falls in proportion to the number that make up the student body. Some of the really really tiny schools like Yamaura JHS and Hiju JHS don't have any social roles or pecking order at all since the third-year students don't have much choice than to befriend the first-years. These schools with no bullies or pariahs to speak of are like a utopia and speak bounds to me about keeping communities small and tight-knit. Then there are schools like Kusu JHS with seven classes of 30+ students and things get complicated. In each class, in each level, a ringleader pops up invariably and can be a force for either good or evil, depending on what their Dungeons & Dragons-like alignment is. At Mori JHS they've all ended up running the gamut from lawful good to lawful neutral, however Kusu JHS is a pack of neutral evil and chaotic evil with the exception of second-year, classes one and two, whose ringleaders are both chaotic neutral.

Leaving the wacky D&D analogy for the time being, ringleaders have their assorted lieutenants and minions, all of whom torment one or two students per class. This is part of the reason Japanese student suicides are the second highest in the world (per capita) next to Russia, the other part being the harsh exam-centered academic life.

So what am I really mad at today? Three things in particular: certain individual students at Kusu JHS; the Japanese educational system; and finally the practice of education/raising our kids in general. The story starts on a day in Oita Prefecture where the driving rain is cold enough to numb the skin in seconds while stubbornly not being quite cold enough to turn to snow. In my first class with third-year students it became apparent within minutes that someone had decided to remotely activate the dormant "misbehavior circuit" inside the ringleaders' skulls, inciting them to lead a class-wide non-violent resistance movement against doing or saying anything to Ms. Suehiro and I. It didn't help that she was in a foul mood (and told the class!). Before my next period began I found Yuki, one of the girl I chaperoned at Universal Studios Japan on the second-year student trip, huddled next to the staff room heater, her eyes shrink wrapped in tears. I find her here every week between certain periods and recently found out she's the target of her class' bullies. She's in 2-2 and all her friends are in 2-1, but is there even a chance of a class reassignment? This is sit-on-our-hands Japan, folks--of course not!

Next class, 1-2, and the students are either not answering simple questions or they're shouting them at the top of their lungs into our faces. We ask them to copy something off the board and most do, but some just close their notebooks, smile and look straight at us, challenging us to do something about it. I go over there, open their books, watch while they write a line or two, but when I walk away the same thing happens. Usually they then try to talk to people taking notes or throw things around the room. I don't care if they want to fail--can't fault me for being honest, cold as it may be--but I take umbrage when they disrupt others.

Next class, 3-1, and the shit starts to hit the fan in my brain. We're doing a group activity and the class' two ringleaders get separated, so one goes over and physically latches onto the other and won't sit down despite "warnings" from Ms. Suehiro. I put that in quotations because as much as she warns and threatens there's nothing she can do: Japan does does send its students to the principal; there is no detention; there is no extra homework or writing lines on the board; and corporal punishment was done away with some time back. She blows hot air for a minute or two and moves on, but the class is in an uproar now and not paying attention. I don't move on. I walk over to the two and physically tear them apart and take the one back to his seat like a soulpatch-sporting bailiff. Don't worry, I won't get in trouble. The class shut the hell up after that.

The only bright light in my day is fourth period and class 2-1. Their English level is atrocious, but they're ever so fun to teach. Their favorite activity is to steal the hat off my head and secret it away somewhere in the room--they've all the mischief of a chimpanzee and the hiding powers of a squirrel in them. At lunch I refused flatly to go to a class and ate with the staff. I must have looked pissed because nobody talked to me. It was better this way.

The class after lunch is where I really almost lost it. 2-3 is absolutely the worst class of all the schools I teach at as it has two ringleaders, their two lieutenants/cronies and two pariahs. Tormenting doesn't stop during class and neither does whatever conversation the four jackasses were having beforehand. Through fear of violence the two ringleaders force the class to eat or not eat at lunch, whether or not to return our greetings in the hallway and class and whether or not to torment the two pariahs. It's pathetic. Today they were walking around class at their leisure, talking at normal levels while the class was taking notes and once even left the class entirely. Again the teacher, Ms. Sakio this time, lobbed threats at them and again they ignored her. It wasn't until one of them chucked open scissors at someone's face that Ms. Sakio went to fetch the vice principal. Yes, that's the level of behavior that must be reached before any real disciplinary action is taken--possible loss of eyesight!

Sixth period with 1-2 was a blur due to fatigue and blinding rage at the events of the past period, however I still smiled and read passages like I didn't want to put my fist through glass. I hid in a changing room during the cleaning period and took a fifteen minute nap then reflected on the day's events.

So I'm pissed off. I'm pissed at the bully ringleaders and their cronies, that's obvious enough. I'm partly pissed at the classes that harbor and condone their actions instead of standing up to them too, but they're kids, not revolutionaries and thus I realize it's unrealistic to hope for...more, or whatever.

I'm pissed at the Japanese education system for tying the faculty's hands and having no discipline system in place, instead looking the other way and muttering under their breath about superior Japanese morality and cultural respect for teachers. Bullshit, that ship sailed 25 years ago. I don't propose using fear to keep students in line like in America, but there have to be some consequences to back up warnings or they're just a load of rubbish words. And then there's the case of Yuki, the bullied girl from 2-2 whose friends are in 2-1--LET THE GIRL MOVE CLASSES, FOR FUCK SAKE!!! Do it now before she becomes another of the nearly thousand students a year in Japan that jump off a condo roof or slit their wrists!

I'm pissed at education in general, and a good deal of parents too, for NOT TELLING US AT EVER STEP OF OUR EDUCATIONAL CAREERS WHY THE HELL WE'RE EVEN THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE! "To learn" is not good enough, we should be told explicitly what the fruit of our efforts will be. Two simple explanations would suffice I think, one practical and the other a bit more romantic. First is the dry-yet-practical reason that the more we learn the more opportunities we have to seize upon our personal dreams, or to even find out what those dreams really are. The second reason given should be that the world is just an amazing and fascinating place and education can only help us appreciate its grandeur while we stride upon it. I'm happy to say that my parents and certain educators, whether they knew it or not, bestowed the latter romantic reasoning on me at some point and it stuck.

Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to drown my sorrows in spaghetti, rice pudding and hot bath.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Getting Back On the Horse

It's been my long-standing policy that the worst thing one can say while living abroad is 'no'. With the obvious exceptions of situations that endanger life or threaten deep rooted moral principles I think that's largely good advice. I'm going to revise that after recent events, however: the new advice is “the worst thing you can say while living abroad is 'no' to new experiences.”See what I did there? Doesn't say anything about saying 'no' to old experiences that you know are going to be total bullshit wastes of time.

Having said that let me just jump into the heart of the matter and say that I'm sick and tired of Japanese company parties, and my god are there a hell of a lot of them around the end/start of the year! They come in two varieties: the bounenkai, literally meaning “forget the year party”; and the shinnenkai, “start of the year party”. If they're held nearby to the workplace as they usually are they can cost between 3000-5000 J-bucks, but if they're out of town, and even worse out of town with only other men....Watch. The. Hell. Out.

The guy on my right here is one of the few people I had a good convo with this night that didn't involve the ways in which American and Japanese coitus differ. Wish I could remember his name...

They're very near mandatory events, though I was able to shrug one off last week when I was feeling under the weather and didn't want to get three sheets to the wind so soon after almost jumping drunkenly into the Kusu River the week before. Anyways, when my supervisor #4, Goto, sprung it on me at the town hall while surrounded by coworkers I couldn't think of a feint quick enough to throw him off and ended up signing up for an over night shinnenkai in Kumamoto City, one of my favorite places in Kyushu. The trip didn't start too well when we met with our two carpool partners and Goto made a snide comment to them about my Japanese comprehension level, which I did comprehend, thank you very much dickwad. There's a time when I would have called him a friend, but he's been making a poor impression on me lately. Oh well, things cleared up when we drove through a very rural town on the border of Kumamoto Prefecture and I saw a barber called the “Spic Salon”...ahhh, unintentional racism through Engrish lifts the spirits.

"Please sir, may I have some more?" Then, the feast is over and the House Elves wait behind the paper screens to do the cleaning up.

It's strange what about 120km of driving will do to the weather in Kyushu—Kumamoto was hot! Well, comparatively to Kusu. I shed the winter jacket and scarf and pranced about gaily in just a short sleeve until the sun went down and we headed off for dinner. About thirty men, every guy between the ages of 21-30 who works at the Kusu town hall, was in attendance. The stench of shenanigans was strong in the izakaya air already, but things really took off after the drinks began to take hold. The subject of Kumamoto women and how apparently “easy” they are already came up on the drive over, but someone else regurgitated the topic and off they went with the sex talk. “Here it comes,” I thought, “time to pick the gaijin's brain about sex in exotic North America.” And so they did. Do you make noises while having sex? How loud and what kind? Do you have sex in fields ever? Parks? How about the bonnet of your cars? The strangest line of questioning was about how much I pay for sex. Uh, nothing, I responded. They weren't talking about hookers either, trust me. I told them sex is pretty much free and widely available in the USA for anyone determined to find it. They cracked up over this; they couldn't believe sex could be free. What a world...

The bill payed we moved on to the next venue, which I thought was going to be a member's bar judging by the 2000 J-bucks that was collected from everyone including me. These bars are where you purchase booze by the bottle and have really nothing to do with being a “member”, but they will store the bottle on the premises if you don't finish it that time around. When we entered the place I knew instantly my assumption was mistaken by the line of young women in gaudy cocktail dresses and layers of caked makeup. They had brought me to a hostess bar.

I won't make any bones about what I think about the typical Japanese hostess bar: these places have got to be one of the more pathetic aspects of human culture I've ever witnessed. No wonder these guys think you have to pay for intimate contact with members of the opposite sex when they're paying just to talk to them! If you didn't click the link above let me run down a hostess bar briefly. These are bars you pay a cover charge at for a semi-private booth and time with a woman who has your undivided attention. She'll light your smokes, pour your drinks, laugh at your jokes and praise your work no matter how degrading or debased it may be. Don't get me wrong, I can see the appeal in that, sure, but it doesn't take Freud to know it's socially unhealthy to frequent these places.

My hostess tonight was Madoka, a lanky fake blonde with heels so vertical they'd make a ballerina wince. Let me talk about that blonde hair for a second here, because it was astounding. Hostess hair ranges from au natural straight black to massive 1950-esque beehives. Madoka's was the closest I've seen hair come to being a Klein Bottle as the thing was a maze of arcing strands that seemed to feed back into itself for the next geometric shape. Amazing work, whoever did it. Madoka's hobbies include shopping and, ummm, actually that's all. Shockingly that's even more vapid than the normal J-gal whose top hobbies, I've discovered, are 1) watching movies, 2) listening to music 3) shopping 4) getting makeovers/manicure/pedicure/aesthetic and 5) traveling to Korea...for makeovers/manicure/pedicure/aesthetic. Madoka is a native of Kumamoto and graduated from college four years prior, only joining as a hostess this past November. What was she doing before hostessing? BEING A GODDAMN NURSE! I guess I've been wrong this whole time in thinking that saving lives is more important than talking to socially inept businessmen. Sorry, trying my damnedest not to judge. Geez...where's the door?

I'm channeling Roger Moore on this one. Not Connery, Moore.

Hearing that the next venue involved Chinese massages I excused myself, backtracked to the hotel, grabbed my latest, errr, novel and fled to Starbucks for a latte and a window seat, content with the total sum of adventure tonight. Maybe I'm not a “fun” guy by male Japanese standards. Maybe I'd have more fun if we went hiking or camping or did something other than drinking and paying women for their attention. Fine, I'll take the hit. Now, will you please stop having me throw my money away on these things please?


A wiser man than I once said “sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.” OK, The Dude said that in The Big Lebowski who got it from the cowboy-narrator guy who got it from Daniel Boone, but it's wisdom of the ages as far as I'm concerned, especially since I haven't written anything for about two weeks on this blog and feel like the bear finally got me after such a long stint of the opposite being true. The term “down in the dumps” hardly begins to describe it—this past holiday season has been the most miserable of my life and it's high time to snap out of it.

The first step I suppose would be to stop lying about certain things to myself and, I suppose, you too. For example, it must be noted that Kusu is a shit place to be in the winter as it magnifies the already bleak lack of a nightlife—or much of any life for that matter. The cold shuts down any notion of a festival to look forward to and the snow or rain every day rules out most outdoor physical activities (like my mainstay of cycling). Unrelated to winter doldrums and moving to normal ones, I'm quickly discovering that there's nobody in Kusu around my age that is on the same “wavelength”, so to speak. I don't blame them of course, as this is a farming town after all. I guess I'm discovering there's too much city in me for this small town to handle, which is why I've been heading to Hita more and more lately to hang out with Lindsey from Lake Tahoe, my musician/artist friend, Chizuru, and Luchie, the man who lived in Morocco for a few years and organized the solstice party. The English Circle folks here in town are nice and all, but the one closest to my age has almost twenty years on me and all are enmeshed in their own careers, families, etc. Can't exactly call them up on a lazy Friday to come over for beers and a movie at 11PM.

It quite literally disgusts me to virtually abandon Kusu on these winter weekends for the greener grass of Hita and elsewhere considering what I've said in the past about this matter, but I feel like I'm fighting for my very sanity now. If it's just for one season perhaps it can be excused. Of course, next winter will be a different, damn it. First, I'm coming back to The States for Christmas, hell or high water. One doesn't normally long for long hours with the misfits we call extended family, but then again one doesn't normally spend December 25th in a lifeless concrete office building reading a history book about post-WWII Japan and sketching an interpretation of a dream. Next is that I will travel as much as possible around Kyushu and within the prefecture to take my mind off the dulling winter grays and whites of life here at this time. If that doesn't work then the thought of leaving, transferring to an urban school district, is on the table.

I want to thank my friend Sara especially for (remotely) being my shoulder to bitch on in the past month of so. I hope my incoherent ramblings didn't damage my rep and solid, umm, street cred that you held of me.