Monday, March 28, 2011

Drawings on the Wall: The Studio Ghibli Art Exhibition

Totoro Snowman
Say こんにちは/hello to Studio Ghibli, the Disney of Japan, responsible animated films including My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke. Currently the studio sponsors a traveling art exhibit full of art from all of their films. Though, be aware that this exhibit with thousands of pieces, has not one finished cell on display. Instead, it’s full of drafts drawn in colored pencils. While an America audience would much prefer to see the finished product, the Japanese are fascinated with the process of art. In 青森県/Aomori prefecture, crowds have waited patiently in line from October 9th through January 10th at the Aomori Museum of Art.

The Dotted Room


Sadly, having viewed only a few films, I was unable to connect to this exhibit. Though, having seen Pom Poko, a tale about a tribe of 狸/raccoon dog fighting for survival as their habitat is demonlished, I joyously viewed each of its sketches. Cameras are not permitted within the exhibit. Instead, the only opportunities are the chance to lay on the floor where the belly of the giant furry Totoro has been painted and to snap a photo of the wall of patron drawn dust spots. Consequently, the same two photos have appeared on everyone’s Facebook and blog.

Most of us are only shown the finished masterpieces in art galleries, but after viewing this exhibit, you’ll hunger to see pottery that just didn’t survive the oven, or early sketches of a would-be mural. Overall, for fans of the films, it’s worth the 1,100円 to take a peak at a work in progress.


Belly Napper

Monday, March 21, 2011

An Unlikely Drinking Partner: Graduation Parties in Japan

Sitting at a table with colleagues, a mature woman hiding her age with golden jewelry and charcoal stockings approaches saying, “Let me pour you a drink.” Standing up, she fills your glass with Kirin beer. A few minutes of regulated chitchat and she walks off to find another man. Before you can sit back down to grab your allotted piece of salmon, another woman arrives. She rakes her hair with wrinkled fingers before carefully pouring from a giant bottle into your nearly full glass. She keeps the chatter brief bowing 5 1/2 times. You exchange the mannerly physicality realizing the salmon will have to wait. Three more women and a gray haired man have formed a line.

Are you a celebrity? I’m afraid not. Are you a prominent bachelor irresistible to not only cougars but also the same sex? Perhaps, but not in the case. You are a 先生/teacher, specifically at a top academic 高校/high school. You are attending the 卒業式宴会/Graduation Party hosted by the Parent Teachers Association.

Each year, on the evening after graduation your attendance is required at the city’s finest hotel banquet hall. Fortunately, you don’t have to pay, because you already did. Mandatory monthly ‘party fund’ dues cover the evening’s expenses. Though, parents of the graduates each paid 5000円($60) to get you drunk.

Let the Fun Begin

For the teachers who have guided the students for the entirety of their 3 years in high school, the night is primed for celebration. The Japanese love a good drinking party with co-workers. Yet these affairs are exclusive engagements where ‘plus ones’ are outlawed. Consequently irony flows over the rim, when protective parents are watching every move and listening to each word as you, while intoxicated, attempt to remain professional.

This party functions like most 沿海. Most guests arriving 20 minutes early, check in to receive their official name badge and program. Everyone waits patiently whisper in the corridor as they review the seating chart. At precisely 6:30pm, the doors swing open and everyone pretensiously “ahhhs” over the complimentary bouqet of flowers on their chair. The master of ceremonies, always a tall attractive mother, welcomes guests and introduces the speakers. It’s not an official party until you have key note speeches.

To escape the boredom, I set up my 携帯/cell phone’s timer and make bets with those next to me on how long each speech will run. Luckily for us, the 校長先生/Principal, and members of the alumni association all average 6 minutes. Might I add, not a single drop of liquor is consumed until the official かんぱい/toast, another elongated minute speech, is delivered on stage. Everyone lifts up their plastic shot glass and downs their miniscule drop of 日本酒/sake. In past years, drinkers number 95%, though this year it seems as many are opting to skip over the drinking and just get the formalities out of the way.

Rounds of food are placed on the rotating chinese top on each table. Often, each dish has been divided into exactly the right number of pieces for each person. Though, luckily none of the food needs to be warm, so guests can mind the interruption of pouring parents. As bottles are emptied, servers quietly replace them. Though the only liquids available are Kirin Beer and unsweetened tea. Though, strangely at one point a mother approaches with a tray of whiskey and 諸チュ/shochu, a Japanese distilled liquor.

After a half an hour of mingling, a slide-show of pictures and videos from the past year appears on a gigantic screen, but with so much alcohol having been consumed, this gets ignored. The party continues until the last half and hour, when the entire congregation sings the school song, an old man serves as a cheerleader beckoning the audience to scream and clap their hands, and finally a flower ceremony for the homeroom teachers of the graduating students.

Before you can dash out, you have to bow to a row of parents who have assembled in front and out of the door to respectfully see you on your journey. Most teachers will secretly meet up with their friends and commence with the “real” party at a local snack bar or izakiya.

“I don’t understand why the parents don’t want to be with their children,” remarks a co-worker. This is often the case in America, where families will gather at a fancy restaurant to celebrate graduation. In America, actual parties occur over the summer and are an excuse to receive monetary gifts and drink for the first time with friends and family. There may be a party, but it would be exclusive for teachers and their plus-ones, often hosted by the local ring or gown supplier as a means to “stay in business.” American teachers are often placed in the same situation as the Japanese when they are invited to graduation parties. Though these, in many cases, will feature a student’s entire family, all of their friends, with most of them drinking. This is why most teachers kindly refrain from attending, though some option only if they use “safety in numbers” and arrive with several colleagues. The Japanese teacher doesn’t have that luxury, but at least it’s not in front of students, and it’s the parents who are pouring their drinks.

“I do not like this party,” said a co-worker. While this is not a complaint against parents, it’s simply an argument against the unusual circumstance of the occasion. Those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, should realize that alcohol is not seen as taboo. Teachers freely discuss their favorite drinks with students and openly comment on how “hungover” they are with co-workers. At anytime after 5pm, you can see a parade of drunken well-tailored men, and on the weekends it’s not unlikely to see an 80 year old drunkily collapse on the sidewalk.

It’s also one of the rare cases of “popularity.” While some teachers act as quarterbacks amidst a huddle of listeners, others catch up on their sleep dozing off at their table. This graduation party is clearly evidence of what teachers contribute the most to their students. Though, just like America, those who coach sports receive the most attention. However, parents also seem to adore those notorious for dishing out “tuff love.” Clearly, some teachers enjoy the chance to boast or receive their fair share of overdue ‘butt-kissing.’ The problem lies in how the teachers want to “party,” but have to remain “on the clock” until they can start the unofficial, parent-free 二期会 second party.

This form of graduation party is a Japanese tradition. Though due to its unsettling formalities, the custom is changing. While 青森高校/Aomori High School continues the tradition, attendance from parents has dwindled over the years. 青森南高校/Aomori South High School abandoned the custom in 20___. While, 富山高校/Toyama High School has found a solution by hosting an alcohol-free parent, teacher and student gala in the gym. Afterwars is when the teachers gather together to drunkilly wash away their hard work and guidance.

If you fancy older women, but are too shy to approach them, my advice is to become a high school in Japan. For only once a year, do parents and teacher gather to celebrate student success over glass bottles of liquor.

Got Flowers?

Monday, March 14, 2011


"A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes that he has got the biggest piece." - Paul Gauguin

Free Cake!
卒業式 (Graduation) is a time of celebration. Especially at 青森高校 (Aomori High School), arguably the top academic school in all of 青森県 (Aomori Prefecture). But for a society fueled by respect, rules, and organization, graduation is a piece of cake, literally. Every year, the head teacher of 3年生 (3rd year / comparitive to senior year) pushes a cart through the office. He delivers a piece of cake to everyone. But unlike Santa, he doesn't make a list and exclude the bad little boys and girls. Instead, everyone gets a piece, the same piece of cake. As the resident foreigner, and technically only an 'assistant language teacher,' sometimes I'm not professionally seen as an equal. But thankfully when the bakery bandwagon rolls into town, I'm one of the gang. What especially delighted my senses was a label with my Japanese name, クラバクステイブン (kurabaku, suteibun) attached to the package. Talk about organized fairness!

I'm sure whoever had the task of wrapping each box in the celebratory Aomori High School paper and labeling the names was dying for a drink, but instead of hiding behind a union, they got the job done. I vividly recall, these same 'kind gestures' bestowed upon the high school staff where I taught in Florida. However, with no intended disrespect, it was chaotic. Often times, people would be 'left out.' I'm not sure if the person in charge simply failed at math, or if others 'behind the curtain' were greedy and took more than they were allotted. Regardless, I love Japan's tradition of organized giving. Even though its お茶 (green tea) flavored, this rebel is happy to enjoy his namecake and bow to conformity.

Green Tea Cake?
Beggars can't be choosy!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Winter Blunderland

"A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water." - Carl Reiner

Enter the Igloo
Japanese is rich in festivals. While, they are often smaller in scale than fairs and carnivals in the states, the Japanese are professional festival goers. Therefore, you can't fault the festival organizers for not reeling in has-been celebrities or plotting a garden of spin and puke rides. These festivals are more about people coming together in harmony.

Organized Tubing
Personally, I like to put off outdoor harmony until spring. But when your city receives enough snow to bury a giraffe, you have enough courage to face Mother Nature head on.

Every festival has a party pooper.
Welcome to this year's Gappo Snow Fest, an annual weekend festival held in January in Aomori City's seaside Gappo Park. The main objective was festival food: candied strawberries, chocolate covered bananas, yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus balls), and karage (fried chicken). Sadly, the food tents were scarce, and the quality decided to stay indoors.

Sold Out Performance
There wasn't much to do per say, but I suppose I'm turning Japanese as I found the atmosphere enjoyable enough. There was a snow tube slide, igloo, and even a shamisen performance. The strangest sight was groups of people throwing around taped up brown bags of ice. Overall, the snow fest didn't stimulate all of the senses as it's more intended for the youngsters, but like all Japanese festivals, it's worth the trek. Just leave your expectations at home, and feast on the fun of people.

Questionable Quality

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Leaf in the Parking Lot

"And God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light, but the Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected." - Spike Milligan

A parade of "ohhh" and "ehhhh" shattered the office stillness like pebbles pouncing on a pond. Curious, I looked around, but none of my fellow teachers were behind their desks. They were staring at the parking lot. Welcome to another episode of "Why is everyone looking out the window."

"Teacher's Eye View"
What's everyone looking at?
In 2006, "Who Killed the Electric Car?," a documentary/obituary on California's electric cars premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Here in Japan, I think a sequel is in order. "Who Revived the Electric Car?" Well the answer lies in certain math teacher at 青森高校 / Aomori High School. For in the parking lot rests his newest purchase: a leaf. But this 'leaf' didn't fall from a tree. It came from engineers at Nissan. The Nissan Leaf is the newest bad boy on the road of 'eco-friendly' driving. When I heard that "Mr. Green," had purchased an electric car, I immediately pictured a 2 person micro-sized golf-cart. The kind of vehicle you would see janitors driving in Disney's Tomorrowland. I was shocked to find that this 100% electric car was the sexiest thing in the lot. It's moderately priced, seats five, and with some blue highlights has a hint of the future without looking like something only sci-fi nerds would drive.
Nissan Leaf
The most popular car at school.
I'm not about to advocate everyone rush out and purchase an electric car. At the same token, I urge all of you who are already guarding your brainwashed theories and looking to find fault with an electric powered car, to open your mind. Sure an electric car may not be the perfect transport for long trips, for rural areas, or cities with expensive electric bills. But at least for one man on a modest teacher's salary in the Japanese country-side, change is not only good, but it's fun.