Thursday, 10 May 2012

Spring = Picnic Bento!

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I love  being outdoors and picnics in particular, but the window in which the weather is pleasant enough (between being icy cold and steamy hot) is pretty narrow here. This spring I am determined not to waste a single sunny day! Every picnic is just another excuse to practice cute bento-making. I need a lot of practice... I suck at anything crafty as you can see from the broccoli monster's eyes. This bento was for my non-vegetarian husband by the way; the sun is made from a sausage.

Boy's Day display near the orphanage: Unrelated to this post but pretty.

 The old port area of my town is being made over into a trendy esplanade, and I love it. 
Isn't it pretty?
We had a picnic there recently with some friends and their kids. The water was so clear that we saw all sorts of marine life (much to the excitement of the children)

This jellyfish was HUGE!
This fish was tiny!
This bento was delicious, if carb-heavy.
This is not a bento, but my students made it for me (because I am Australian) <3
This is also not a bento... but how massive is this bag of shiitake mushrooms in my local supermarket?!
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The Dreaded Shiba Shed

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Spring is in full swing (it's been up to thirty this week, which is summer really, but whatever) and the great coat blow of 2012 has begun. One of the quirks of the shiba breed is that their thick, snow-proof undercoat blows out when the weather warms up. In some dogs this happens so suddenly that owners have been known to rush to the vet thinking that their dogs has mange. Mine blow theirs much more sedately, meaning that my apartment, clothes, food and usually mouth are full of fur for a good six weeks. I come home to this every day

Lucky she's cute as well as fluffy!

Another fun aspect of spring with shiba (well, my two at least) is that either because of the itchy fur or the warm nights or the early dawns they wake up... early. I get to enjoy pre-work walks that look like this

Sunrise: Officially NOT as romantic as sunset.

 Anyway, I went to the 100 yen store to stock up on lint rollers. I guess the picture of the dog must have been misleading to someone (probably an exhausted shiba owner)... leading to the warning message in the yellow box on the right-hand one.

If only one COULD use it directly on the dog....
A good roll in the clover helps with the itching...
...and playing in a vacant lot on a sunny afternoon cheers everyone up.
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Non-Normative Parenthood


This post contains major spoilers about Marumo no Okite (Marumo's Rules) and Kasefu no Mita (Mita the Housekeeper). If you don't want spoilers, watch the shows and then read this... and leave a comment, because it sucks not having people to discuss TV with in a language I can talk textual analysis in. Seriously, leave a comment...

I wrote before about Marumo no Okite and touched briefly on the status of Marumo as a single, working ‘adoptive’ parent. A lot about that situation is non-normative, but in some respects the father in Kasefu no Mita is even further outside the constrictive definition of fatherhood. He says during the course of the show that “natural feelings of fatherly love” never came to him. He feels nervous around his children and can only relax when he locks himself in the toilet. Although it is never said in these exact words, his fear stems largely from the dissonance between his image of “natural” and “good” parenting and his actual feelings. These two shows (Marumo no Okite and Kasefu no Mita) were in the top three rating dramas of 2011. Kasefu no Mita had record-breaking ratings with 40% of Japan tuning in to the season finale. While I’m not suggesting that dramas can tell us what real life is like (the third show in the top three was about a time travelling brain surgeon), I think the popularity of these two shows in the same year does indicate an interest in the theme of how family composition and behaviours are changing. As in many parts of the world, the traditional structure of families in Japan is becoming less and less common despite remaining the definition of ‘normal’. What is fascinating is the difference between these two single working fathers. Marumo has no interest in children and has parenthood thrust upon him suddenly when his friend dies, leaving orphaned twins. The friend’s plan had been for his brother to adopt the children, but at the funeral the brother reneges on his agreement and insists that he can only take one of the children. The sister unwillingly takes the other, and the pilot episode features a tearful scene of the children in their funeral clothes being ripped from one another. Long story short, Marumo can’t bear to see his friend’s wish for the children to stay together disregarded and temporarily takes the children back to his one room apartment. 

Throughout the course of the show Marumo grows more and more attached to the children and develops into a dedicated and loving parent. He never acquires legal custody of the children and throughout the show characters question the ability of someone to raise children with whom they have no biological link. The opening line of the show is “What is a family? Is it blood?” The implication of the program is no (a character at one point says “a husband and wife aren’t related, but they become a family”), despite Marumo’s decision to hand the children over to their mother when she appears on the scene. I’m extremely interested in adoption and fostering in Japan both intellectually and personally. I spend every Sunday volunteering at an orphanage and hope to adopt myself soon. Consequently I am happy to see a popular program question the primacy of genetics in family relationships (particularly after former Prime Minister Abe’s wife’s comments on thesubject). What is interesting about Marumo is the role the mother plays. Motherhood is subject to incredibly strong social pressures in Japan (and Australia, and America, and… you get the idea). The mother in Marumo seems to have suffered from post-natal depression that escalated as the twins got older. She felt overwhelmed and depressed. She and the twins’ father divorced and he told the children that their mother was dead. The entire family cut her off, and various characters say that they can’t forgive her. It appears that no one even contacts her when the father dies. Part of this is undoubtedly the general stigmatisation of mental illness, but her failure to comply with the image of ‘natural’ and ‘good’ motherhood is what makes her unforgivable. Marumo only forgives her and allows her access to the twins after finding an old letter from the twins’ father. In the letter he says that after becoming a single parent he realises how hard it is to care for twins and he understands her unhappiness. He wants her to come back to the family whenever she feels ready. I wondered several times during the show whether the family could have stayed intact if she had been able to ask for help without being labelled a bad mother (I take my TV very seriously). Although the mother is eventually redeemed, what we see in the show is someone with no biological connection bonding with children while their mother was unable to bond with them after their birth and their aunt and uncle are neglectful and callous. 

Likewise in Kasefu no Mita, the assumption that parenting comes naturally is challenged by the character of the reluctant father. Mita is a much darker and more adult drama than Marumo no Okite (which has a talking dog and a lot of comedic elements). The father in Mita also has no interest in children and is thrust into parenthood, but with a very different outcome to Marumo. The mother in Mita conceives while the couple were dating and she threatens suicide if the father insists on an abortion. He is forced into a shot gun marriage and unwanted parenthood (four times). Eventually he decides to divorce her and cut off contact with the children (he says he will “pay alimony appropriately”). His wife immediately commits suicide. The show begins when the father hires a housekeeper to relieve some of the domestic burden. The father’s lack of love for the children is a dominant theme, but the mother’s suicide is also discussed as her abandoning of the children. As with the mother in Marumo, she cannot fulfil the ideal of living for the sake of her children and finding emotional fulfilment in stay-at-home motherhood. There are also overtones of mental illness to the back-story, with her history of suicide threats and her use of the children to try and bind her husband to her emotionally. 

In both Marumo and Mita, men step in to care for children ‘abandoned’ by their mothers; in both shows the happy end comes from the men’s acceptance of their roles and not from the reinstatement of a two-parent family structure.
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Marumo no Okite and Monster Parents

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Marumo was THE show of 2011. I swear every kindergarten and elementary school sports day in the country used the closing theme and dance last year. 
It’s easy to see why; it’s funny and heart-warming, there’s a talking dog and the acting of the young stars (Mana Ashida and Fuku Suzuki) is breathtaking. Well, more hers than his, but he is super cute so it’s ok. Personally I enjoyed every episode, but I thought that it revealed some interesting beliefs about what is ‘normal’ family life. A common theme in a lot of family dramas and movies is that a certain level of physical violence is an expression of love. In Always Sunset on Third Street (ALWAYS 三丁目の夕日) for example, the moment we realise that bachelor Chagawa has truly come to love the little boy he accidentally ‘adopted’ after a night of heavy drinking is when he slaps the boys face. The boy had gone missing (looking for his mother) and the slap tells us that Chagawa had worried about him just like a ‘real’ parent. The slap in Marumo is exactly the same device (Marumo is also an ‘adoptive’ single father), except in Marumo the incident is talked over several times between different characters. The final interpretation of the slap, and the one that convinces the six year old girl to forgive Marumo, is that slapping her “hurt him more than her” and that only parents who truly love their children hit them. 

Monster Parents 
Something that really stood out for me in Marumo as a topic that I wasn’t familiar with was the burden elementary schools place on parents. Because I work in elementary schools I have always heard the other side of the equation; the dreaded monster parents. Monster parents are very real and deeply infuriating. An example of monster-parenting happened after a recent school picnic. We’d hiked to a park on the top of a very steep hill, eaten our picnic then hiked back down. It took pretty much the entire day and after supervising hundreds of children walking through the city and playing in a public park the teachers were all quite hot and tired by the time we packed the kids off home. Just as we were about to call it a day and hit the showers a mother called to say that her seven year old daughter had dropped her house key at some point during the day. Better not to ask why a seven year old  needs her own house key by the way. The teachers from her grade then all had to retrace the route of the hike, scouring the ground, and crawl around the park looking under bushes to find the key. The mother, needless to say, did not bother to come and help. Perhaps worse was the case last year of a boy from one of my junior highs who didn’t come home after school. His parents called the school and demanded that we find him. All the teachers had to search the local town, looking in every game arcade and manga store. It was a Friday night before a long weekend, and the boy wasn’t found until after 7pm. periodically while teachers were out searching the parents and grandparents called the school to abuse us for not finding him yet. They didn’t help look for him, of course. Clearly that was our responsibility. They also wouldn’t let us call the police to ask if he had turned up at a koban. So my image has been that parents sat back and did nothing while teachers spent their entire lives running around after kids. Marumo was an interesting insight into what schools do require from parents. Upon enrolling the twins in grade one, Marumo learns that he has to hand make a range of items from cleaning cloths to home economics aprons to library bags. This requires the purchase of craft materials, fabrics and pattern books. Because he is a single working parent he has to spend all night hand stitching these items. Although Marumo dodges the PTA responsibilities that many parents accept, he still has to attend a meeting about the sports festival held during working hours (unable to leave the office, he sends a friend). At this meeting parents have to learn the dance the children will be performing in order to coach them at home. These are only two examples, but they do show the assumption on the part of the school system that students have a (female) stay-at-home care giver. Marumo has to contort himself to try and comply with these expectations rather than the school making allowances for his situation.
More on the theme of single fathers to come in a separate post, since this wall of text is big enough already!
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