Monday, 4 February 2013

Ice Endurance Festival がまん大会

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This is not actually Narnia. I was disappointed too.
At the end of January we attended an endurance contest (がまん大会) on a snowy mountain top. It was -8 when we arrived but towards the end of the event the wind picked up and it felt much colder. There were a number of challenges involving being very cold while performing different tasks.

Here is a video of some of the events:

It was SO MUCH FUN. I'm tempted to enter the noodle eating one next year. 
The battlefield! All eating contests were held sitting on the little ice blocks. The person-sized one at the back was for the main event (ice-block bear-hugging).

Being conspicuously foreign at these kinds of events... the fastest way to attract media attention.
The press then stalked them everywhere >.<
Some people didn't bother dressing "up"
Scary icicles on creepy abandoned restaurant
First they had to hold ice in a bucket of icy water for a minute, then thread three needles (while sitting on ice-block chairs)
Look at the colour of her hands compared to her arms!

See the frozen looking lake there? That's the one we camped at a few years back!

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"Children's Rights" and Marriage Equality

This is another deviation from the stated themes of the blog~ absolutely nothing to do with Japan. You have been warned.
From WikiCommons
One of my brothers has started writing a blog. We differ on a lot of things, and marriage equality is one of them. He wrote a blog post a few months ago about children having the right to a mother and a father, and therefore no gay marriage.  Now, here's the thing. When conservatives say "children's rights", it's usually code for "we hate gays but it isn't socially acceptable to say that any more, so, uh, think of the children." Usually I just assume that this is what people mean, and I don't bother engaging. In my brother's case, however, I know that he genuinely means what he writes. He supports civil unions. Despite being of the evangelical, creationist, literal hell-fire persuasion he doesn't see homosexuality as a choice or even as inherently immoral. So when he says "think of the children", illogical though it is, I know he must truly believe it. I thought I'd try to write a polite and respectful comment on his blog, but then it got really long so I thought I'd post it here, and then it got kind of sarcastic because a good old reductio ad absurdum is just so damn tempting.

Here's the main body of his argument:
I opposed the Bill simply to uphold the principle that children have a right to be raised by a mother and a father.  Both genders contribute different and complimentary things.  Both are necessary for the raising of well adjusted and resilient children.  While that is not always possible in the messiness of real life, the law should as far as possible safeguard that right.  For that reason it should be unlawful for anyone to access IVF who is not a married heterosexual – and yes, we really do need to stop subsidising a culture of intergenerational illegitimacy.
Of course some homosexuals can be better parents than some heterosexuals.  Bad parenting and social dysfunction crosses all boundaries of gender, orientation, ethnicity, nationality and religion.  Some kids are better off raised by wolves than by their parents.  That doesn’t change the argument. 
And here is my response:

When you say "both genders contribute different and complimentary things", what exactly do you mean? Should heterosexual couples take a test to ensure that the male is sufficiently skilled in mechanics and the female suitably enthusiastic about baking cup cakes before they can reproduce?  Since your argument is against same-sex parenting, I assume you mean sex when you say gender (no, they are not the same thing). If so, surely the usefulness of having a certain set of genitals is limited in its parenting applications? I mean, I can tell my daughter what my periods feel like, but hers will almost certainly not feel the same way. There is also no reason why she couldn't have the same conversation with her grandmothers, aunts or godmother. She might even feel more comfortable talking to those women. It seems like a very small thing to be put on a pedestal above any other consideration of parenting ability. Don't mistake the stakes in this debate: your argument is that the law should see the very best homosexual parents as less than the very worst heterosexual ones. You acknowledge the flaw in this yourself but then brush it aside as inconsequential. It isn't. It is the very heart of the argument. To support such profound discrimination surely the onus is on you to provide some evidence or explanation for these "different things" the genders/sexes do for children.

The law has in fact been used in the past in Australia to uphold the principle of only married heterosexuals having children. We ensured that children had this "right" by tying unwed mothers to hospital beds and placing pillows over their faces as their baby was born so that they couldn't see it being taken away. If you genuinely believe that children have the right to married heterosexual parents, you presumably want to see a return to this policy? We should also consider legislative approaches to resolving custody disputes after divorce. Obviously custody should be awarded to the parent who remarries the fastest, to ensure the children's right to married parents is upheld. Likewise if a parent dies and the surviving parent refuses to quickly remarry, the State must step in to remove the children from this gross violation of their rights. If a heterosexual couple has children out of wedlock we need coercive measures to ensure their immediate marriage. Perhaps forced readings of Jude the Obscure. It would greatly simplify matters if everyone were fitted with a contraceptive device they could only deactivate after providing the State with proof of marriage and suitably cisgender-normative hobbies. It's the only effective way to really protect the children.

Once we have taken these measures, the child preparing to move to his eleventh foster home or the toddler dying from treatable illness and malnutrition in a third world orphanage can rest easy at night knowing that they are safe from the TRUE horror: having parents with matching genitals.

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Sunday, 3 February 2013

Dividing of the Seasons 節分

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A very scary ogre
 Today is Setsubun, one of my favourite seasonal festivals. Unfortunately I am stuck under the kotatsu blowing my nose and can't enjoy it much this year though [/selfpity]. I was going to write a nice educational post all about what Setsubun is and how to celebrate it, but there are so many good posts on the topic that you should really read those instead. Like Fran-Japani's. Or Gaijin Wife's.
 In summery, dried soybeans are thrown while saying “ogres out, fortune in”. This is meant to both ensure a safe and fortunate year and also to bring spring on. I say “ogre” here for the Japanese “oni”. Some people translate oni as devil. I think that’s because they are often red and have horns. Otherwise it’s a silly translation. The oni live in mountains, carry clubs and dress in tiger pelts. They carry off and eat children. My perspective is skewed because I first encountered oni in the picture book “The Red Ogre Who Cried”. It’s a beautiful book about a gentle oni. Anyway, it’s traditional for someone to dress as an oni so that really little kids can throw beans AT THEM, making the whole thing more exciting. This isn't some kind of morality tale where kids get to triumph over the oni though. It's all about the age-honoured Japanese tradition of scaring the crap out of tiny children. In all seriousness, I think it's great. This video is from a kindergarten. As you can see, the Oni don't hold much back. Notice that the boy who repeatedly tries to stand up to the Oni and throw his beans at them gets particularly targeted, eventually getting "abducted". This is a common "Oni" tactic. Can't have the kids being too brave!

In years past my delightful partner got to play the role of oni at the preschool where he worked. The staff prepared a hit-list of children for the oni (including the girl who had told everyone she “wasn’t afraid of ogres”). The kids (some of whom are as young as two) were gathered in a room and sang a song to cheer themselves up. The Mr and his fellow oni came stomping down the hall, banging on the walls; at first in time with the song but gradually increasing the tempo until the song could not drown out the sound. They burst into the room and began terrifying the children, throwing the targeted kids over their shoulders and dragging them away to a store room. One kid remembered his beans and valiantly flung them with all his might, trying to rally his friends into defensive formation, but it so happened that he too was on the hit-list and he was promptly dragged away. The reduction of tiny children to terrified sobbing messes is a much beloved part of the pre-school experience here. I’m sure they’ll laugh about it one day… The terror didn’t stop there, however. The staff kept it up for weeks. A group of kids went to the toilet and some came back before another; the Mr was furious with them for “abandoning” their friend “when you know there are ogres around”. They were tearfully bracing themselves to go back out into the newly terrifying corridors to secure their friend when he returned in one piece. The sound of road works nearby was designated as “ogres beating their clubs”. Any staff member who hadn’t been seen for a while was presumed eaten. Hilarious fun for all the adults and probably only mildly scaring for the kids. In all seriousness though, I think the mixture of terror but suspicion that it's probably actually completely safe makes for a good experience for the kids. They get the exhilaration of the adrenaline but they can "check in" with their caregivers and see that they aren't genuinely panicking at the same time. It's like a safe way to experience a real fright. Much better than roller-coasters. Setsubun isn't the only occasion that kids get terrified by the way, just the only time they are given ammunition to fight back with. This "kidnapping" was during an Obon dance.

One of the tiny elementary schools (a total of ten students at the time I taught there) I taught at held a summer "camp" at the school (it's between a river and a forested mountain) where the kids were challenged to climb the mountain in the dark with flash-lights. The teachers and enthusiastic local sadists hid in the forest and stalked them (rustling the bushes and making weird noises) or even jumping out at them. Not a single kids made it all the way up the mountain without freaking out and running for his or her life back down to the school!
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Minami Minegishi and Feudal Employment Systems

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Because I've been home sick, I've actually been watching a bit of TV (breaking a three year stint of absolute broadcast abstinence). The bizarrely named "AKB48 Sex Scandal" has been so ubiquitous that there have actually been shows talking about how all the shows are talking about it (and now you understand the reason for my TV chastity). For a wonderful discussion of the "issue" I recommend the delightful Gaijin Wife.

In summery, a 20 year old woman spent the night at the home of a 19 year old man. That's it. That's the whole scandal. Yup. The thing is, the woman (Minami Minegishi) is a member of AKB48, and when she was 13 her parents signed her into a contract that prohibits her from having a love life. Seriously. Since in the past girls who broke the rule have been fired or exiled to lesser groups, in a frantic attempt to keep her job Minami shaved off her hair in "penance" and released a tearful apology on youtube begging for forgiveness. Yup.

"I'm so sorry I acted with sexual agency as though I were an adult woman with the ability to make my own decisions. It will never happen again. Please continue to include my school-uniform wearing avatar in your sexual fantasies."

 The Japan Times has a nice article up talking about the issues this all raises with the entire pop idol culture.  The gendered aspect of the story is undeniable~ young girls (or their parents) literally contracting out their sexuality to an agency for marketing to older men (although AKB have a lot of young fans, only adults who have purchased a record are allowed to vote). The agency representing the singer Minami spent the night with released a statement saying that it was none of their business what he does in his private time, a stark contrast to the fate that has befallen Minami. Moreover, the most frustrating reactions have come from AKB48 fans themselves, who overwhelmingly agree that she did something wrong, deserves punishment, and if the girls don't like the rules they shouldn't be in the group. Even the comments section on another Japan Times article that argues that virginity clauses are a breach of workplace law and calling on members of AKB48 to unionise has comments repeating the "if they don't like it they should quit" line. As though illegal workplace conditions are acceptable because employees can just quit.

So, although the gender issues around commodified sexuality, infantilisation and ephebophilia are all serious I think this case also sums up some of the massive issues about boundaries between personal lives and employers that plague Japan. A feudal mindset when it comes to employer-employee relations leads to a lack of clear boundaries between personal and work life. It is commonplace for Japanese employment contracts to contain sweeping provisions covering all aspects of an employee's life. My contract, for example, prevents me from doing anything at any time that may harm the reputation of the City which employs me. What exactly does that mean? Who knows. Despite having specific work hours, it is usual for contracts to be exclusive. So even if one works from Monday to Friday, one can't take a separate Saturday job. My employer will only pay my wages into an account with a specific bank. This is also apparently common. I have a friend who went through a series of short term jobs, all requiring different bank accounts, in the space of a single year. It is well known that after work drinks can be more or less compulsory, but less well known that employers take advantage of their powerful position to ask employees for things like free childcare, yard work or even pet-sitting. These are all "personal favours", so of course labour laws don't apply. Employers can dictate where staff live and with whom. They can transfer staff overseas with only a few weeks notice and no consultation. Despite laws prohibiting excessive over time, employers still require these hours to be worked... they just call it "volunteer work". Hint: It isn't voluntary. Then there are quibbles about what time spent at work actually counts as working. You can read a little about that here. Japanese death certificates include 過労死, overwork, as a cause of death. Read more about that here. Although issues like overtime hours and pay get the odd airing in court, there doesn't seem to be any concerted social movement to charge the feudal attitude that an employer "owns" an employee even outside of work. I can kind of understand it back when employment was for life and a company took care of the whole family. But I do not understand why people tolerate it now, when they are asked to give so much and get so little in return.
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