Friday, 23 May 2014

Loving Libraries (Flashback Friday)


Some time last year I was at the university discussing my upcoming employment. Since I wasn't actually employed at the time, I didn't have a library access card, but a friend snuck me in with a sneaky swipe of his. Unreasonably afraid of being discovered, I climbed the tiny back stairs instead of going through the main entrance. The staircase was so small I doubt my man's shoulders could have squeezed into the narrow space. The staircase opened into an area I'm used to calling the stacks... books so rarely requested that they are stored out of the way in a less accessible part of the library. The room was dark, with motion sensor lights flicking on slowly row by row as I tip-toed, enjoying the silence after an intense few months of stay-at-home parenting a child who needs constant noise to feel safe. The still air was filled with that special musty smell of old books. I may have cried, a little. There are a few places guaranteed to make me feel at ease: mountains, rivers and libraries. Nowhere really compares to a proper university library, though.

When I was ten, my father started his PhD and he, my younger sister and I lived on and off in an ex-ambulance parked near the university library. Dad fitted out the ambulance with bunk beds, and we showered at the university swimming pool. We had movie nights in the AV section of the library, where the selection of films was geared towards screen studies, meaning that although we weren't allowed to watch Sesame Street, we saw Thelma & Louise and Thelma & Louise. In the day time we lived in the library while dad was studying. We took dolls and built multi-story doll-houses on empty book shelves. We found the children's literature section and read all of it. The library was massive and one day we explored too far and got lost. After walking for what felt like hours Verity started crying and refused to go any further. I piggy-backed her, desperately trying to remember the Dewey Decimal codes near our starting point. Eventually we found a water fountain in a study hall and ran to it like desert explorers finding an oasis. I finally remembered the title of a book I'd seem near dad's desk, entered it into the catalog and despite no experience using a computer, we figured out the location. When we got back, triumphant at the trials and tribulations we had over come, dad hadn't even noticed we'd been gone. Universities in general, and libraries in particular, have been under my skin ever since.
These literate little birds have built a nest in the kanji for "tree". Picture thanks to Furiida.
Of all the emails I've had as a result of this blog, my favorite is from Vincent the librarian, who emailed me with a book recommendation. Because that is the magical power of librarians, guardians of the promised land. They reach out and tell you what you were looking for even before you know it yourself. Or, as he said: "I'm a librarian.  It's what I do.  Then walk off into the sunset." Thank you Vincent! One day I'll get around to writing about the book, Yokohama Yankee: My Family's Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan by Leslie Helm. It's a great read.

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Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Homeschool Graduates, Adult Adoptees and Nothing About Japan At All


I read a lot of blogs, on all sorts of divergent topics from dogs to vegetarian cooking to adoption to home schooling to Atheism and back again via academia and anime. Usually there is little relationship between anything I read. Lately, however, I have been noticing the same thing happening in two areas: blogs by home school graduates and blogs by adults who were adopted as children. Both groups are now, as adults, casting an often critical eye on their childhood experiences and making suggestions for how parents can prevent making the same mistakes with their children. Both groups are constantly being criticised by home schooling parents and adoptive parents for being “too negative”, “anti-“, in some cases having their stories challenged or dismissed altogether and of course, the classic “your parents just did it wrong, the system is fine!” / “Your experience was an aberration, the VAST MAJORITY [citation needed] had wonderful experiences and you should shut up and stop ruining it for everyone.”
From the comments thread of Homeschooling on the Open Seas
I find this baffling. Before going into adoption I wanted to be prepared. Part of that preparation was reading what adult adoptees, particularly transracial adoptees, have to say about their experiences. I read a lot of blogs by adoptive parents, too, but I place a higher value on what people who experienced being adopted, as opposed to adopting, have to say. One reason for this is how frustrating I have found it when my parents try to “correct”my statements about home schooling. They weren’t home schooled, I was. Being home schooling parents does not qualify you to talk about the experience of being home schooled. I say “baffling” but I guess it isn’t, really. Both adoptive parents and home schooling parents are making decisions they believe are in their children’s best interests, sometimes at great personal cost. I remember a home schooled friend’s mother talking about breaking down in tears when they made the decision to home school because she really, really didn’t want to but felt that she had to do it for the kids. I understand that it must hurt to receive not gratitude but criticism. When it isn’t just within the family, though, I really don’t get it. Every single time someone who was home schooled writes about how they struggled with social issues a dozen rabid home schoolers pop into the comments section and demand clarification: “Not all home schooled kids are poorly socialized! Not all schooled kids are well socialized!” Of course, this is true, and I have never seen anyone claim otherwise. On the other hand, how many home schoolers bother to clarify statements like “schools crush creativity and individuality” or this:

Image taken from When Homeschooling Gets Crunchy
And, in anticipation of the criticism I will get for pointing this out… no, this is not an anti-home schooling post. I don’t think all home schoolers are rabid, just the ones who stalk home school graduates. This is about parents silencing their adult children’s voices, whether it is an adult who was home schooled as a child being harassed by parents who are currently home schooling, or adoptive parents dismissing the pain expressed by an adult who was adopted as a child. First hand experiences matter, it is the reason blogs are so important to me as a source of information. If you are an adoptive parent, you have firsthand experience of being an adoptive parent but not of being an adoptee. If you are home schooling your children but were not yourself home schooled, please don’t tell us what home schooling is like. 

If you have no idea what I am talking about but are interested, here is some further reading:

Omitting the voices of adoptees of color and only asking white adoptive parents to recount their experiences of transracial adoption is a subtlety of structural racism.
Under Much Grace
I became acutely aware of the First and Second Generation Adult within or post-homeschooling when working with Hillary McFarland in the preparation of Quivering Daughters. SGAs, the “quivering daughters” themselves, loved the drafts. Their First Generation mother pioneers hated it far more often than not – and I had not anticipated the reaction at all.

 Family Ties
Adult adoptees have so much wisdom to offer because they know how it feels to grow up being adopted.  It is way past time for the industry, the media and legislators to acknowledge their voices without insulting their motives.
Darcy's Heart-Stirrings
For those of you invalidating our stories, saying "it wasn't that bad", can I ask you to take a step back for a moment? To gain a broader perspective? Because what may have been only a small part of your life, was our ENTIRE lives. You were adults when you chose to attend that Basic Seminar, when you picked up your first courtship books, when you decided to promote the modesty culture, when you chose to become part of a patriarchal system, when you made the choice to spend your kids' childhoods sheltered from the world in your own little reality and the culture you created. But us? We were born into it. We were raised our whole lives immersed in it. We spent the most formative years of our cognitive and emotional development in an alternate religious culture ruled by fear, shame, legalism, and authoritarianism. We had no choice. We knew nothing else. We had no other experience and knowledge and discernment to ground us like you did, to give us perspective, to compare anything to. For you, this was 10-20 years of your life. For us, it was our whole lives. It was all we knew. Our entire lives have been built upon a time period that was just a small part of your own life. So, yes, it was "that bad". Our experiences were nothing like yours and you'll have to see them through our eyes if you want to understand.
Gazillion Voices
 What do I want to write and talk about? I want to write about the number of adoptees who struggle with suicide and suicidal ideation because they lack a continuity with the past and because their attempts at continuity are denied by agencies that withhold birth family information, about the number of adult adoptees who are divorced because their identities are so wildly in flux it is hard for a partner to keep up, about adoptees who perform childhood even as adults. I want to write about loss; about issues with body image because for our whole lives, our faces did not reflect our immediate families or societal images of beauty; about attachment issues; about not eating or overeating as a representation of nurture; about substance abuse. I want to write about the structural inequalities on a global, political and economic scale that fully manifest when an adoptee attempts to hold the poverty of their birth parents alongside the privileges of their adoptive parents, and especially, when that adoptee tries to love them both.
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Monday, 19 May 2014

Decorated Vans (AKA Yankee Mobiles)

On a rainy Sunday we were dropping Tiger off at the park for a cub scout meeting and felt that our car was distinctly under-dressed. The park has a huge car park and is a fair way out of town, so trucks often stop there over night. These van modifying enthusiasts seemed to have started their get together/party on Saturday night judging from how drunk they were and how low the BBQs were burning at 10 am on the Sunday. They had set up a pavilion in the center of the carpark and filled it with BBQs and plastic garbage bins full of ice and beers.
I desperately wanted some photos but it is always important to get permission, and especially so in Japan where people are quite sensitive to being photographed or recorded. This put me in a bit of a bind.
Note the "safety driver" sign in the window
These decorated vans are part of yankee subculture, and there's a lot of overlap between yankee, right-wing-nationalists (who drive around in black or white vans yelling for gaijin to go home, among other things) and criminal organisations (yakuza links to the transport industry is one reason yakuza groups are able to deliver aid to disaster areas before the government does).

I noticed that several of the older men, the ones sitting on the comfortable looking chairs in the tent out of the rain, were wearing suits and expensive looking jewelry. We'd have an unpleasant encounter with some right-wingers not long before, and I was feeling nervous about approaching them. In the end it was a non-issue. They were still in the jovial stages of drunkenness and thought it was hilarious that I used honorifics when asking permission to take pictures. They sent the youngest and dampest-looking guy to accompany us and that was all.
Unfortunately a lot of the vans left before I could get pictures. Most of the plates were from out of town and several from other prefectures, so I guess many people were making a long drive back.

I had heard of decorated trucks before, but the first I had heard of these vans was after moving to Kyushu.
I don't think it is a particularly Kyushu thing, but probably something you are more likely to see in the 'burbs or country-side where people have space for cars that wouldn't fit in the under-building parking at most apartment buildings.
There are some great photos from a similar sounding meet up in Honshu here.

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Monday, 12 May 2014

Working Mothers, Childcare and Limited Choices


Image by Magdalena Roeseler
Two events this weekend prompted these thoughts. On Saturday I attended a manga research symposium and the post-function dinner and spoke to several women who are career academics about gender issues in Japan. Sunday was my first mothers’ day. 
I recently shared Ken’s post on ‘who wears the pants in Japan’, and the content of some of my conversations reflected this perspective. We talked about female friends who had quit their jobs after marriage and how easy their lives were compared to our male friends’ situations. The guys work until late at night every day, while their wives enjoy hobbies and leisurely lunches at fashionable cafés with their friends. This is, of course, a highly classed perspective. Many women in lower income families are simultaneously responsible for 100% of house work and child care but also have to work because their partners’ income is not enough to live on. But among university educated women, this apparently spoiled existence seems common. The novelty probably wears off… at a cub-scout meeting recently a mother told me that after she finishes the housework she just sits alone and wonders what to do with herself. “What do you DO all day?” She asked me, looking a little desperate. Amid all sorts of moral panics about “herbivoremen” and NEETs, freeters and other apparently abhorrent versions of masculinity, few commentators ever mention that perhaps the whole system is just deeply unappealing to many young men. Sure, they may get a nice home they don’t have to take care of, but I’d feel pretty upset if I worked myself to death supporting a partner whose life seemed so much more fulfilling than mine. At a different dinner with a group of women in their sixties I was  saddened to hear them discussing encouraging their husbands to take up golf so that they could get them out of the house all day on Sundays (many Japanese people work six day weeks). “If he’s home I can’t relax” one said, as her friends nodded in agreement, “and I have to cook a full lunch for him. If it’s just me I snack on toast or go to a café.” Retired husbands are sometimes referred to as sodaigomi, over-sized garbage. There is even a name for the psychological distress wives experience when their husbands retire.

Before this starts sounding like some kind of praise for how great a gender segregated work culture is for women, let me elaborate on how this really is not a choice for women. One of the academics I was talking to had completed her PhD in Australia and we were talking about how abnormal it would be for a women in Australia to quit her job because she got married. “In Japan we can choose” she proudly said. She is single, so I can see why it seems that way to her, but when I began explaining the barriers to mothers working in Japan her jaw dropped. Even though I work just three days a week and my son is in school, I have found it extraordinarily frustrating.  If I had a pre-school aged child, I just wouldn’t work unless I had to. The majority of Japanese women I know who take their careers seriously are single and childless.

Maternity leave and day care are out of reach for many women.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 24,825 children across Japan were on waiting lists for authorized nurseries in 2012.
Yet a survey by Hoikuen wo Kangaeru Oyano kai (roughly translated as parents looking into day care group) led by Aki Fukoin, who has been dealing with this issue since the 1980s, found that 55,222 children in 70 municipalities were waiting to be placed in authorized day care centers last year.
The gap reflects how the government defines “children on the waiting list.” The government figure does not count children whose parents declined admission from day care centers that were not of their choosing, or children who were accepted by unauthorized day care facilities that receive government subsidies.
The article continues
Experts cite several reasons behind the shortage of facilities. First, municipalities are generally reluctant to spend money on setting up more nurseries when the increase in senior citizens outpaces that of newborns.
In addition, despite deregulation in 2000 that allowed private companies and nonprofit groups to offer day care services, entering the market has actually been difficult because established facilities want to protect their turf.
“The Social Welfare Corporation (the main provider of authorized day care centers) opposed private operators from entering the market and colluded with local politicians to ensure their applications were rejected,” said Hiromi Yamaguchi, CEO of JP Holdings, the largest private operator of day care facilities.
Thus out of 23,711 government-authorized day care facilities, only 1 percent are currently run by private companies, welfare ministry figures show. But with Abe encouraging municipalities to authorize more company-run day care centers, things may change, Yamaguchi said.
Entering school doesn't aliviate the problems, either. Although either I or my partner are home by the end of the school day most days, we have still gone through a huge amount of hassle in the past month because the school keeps randomly sending our son home early, with sometimes only one day's notice. First we had two weeks of him coming home after lunch because of "home visits" by teachers (all of which were completed in three days, incidentally). Then there were some staff meeting and workshops that couldn't possibly have been held after 3, so again, all the kids were sent home after lunch. On Friday we get a notice listing the next week's return times, so if Monday is a short day I don't even have a single business day's notice to try and organise some kind of care. After burning through leave at a rate of knots, we looked into our school's after school care program. LOL. It's expensive, very few adults are supervising a huge number of kids many of whom have special needs, and there is a waiting list so long we didn't bother registering (thereby contributing to unreliable statistics on waiting lists...)
Many working mothers have had to give up their jobs just because they can’t secure spots for their children at such facilities. The problem has become so acute that there is now a term describing difficulties confronting working mothers with first-graders: “shoichi no kabe” (the hurdle of the first grade).
Even students who are fortunate enough to gain admittance to an after-school club benefit for only a limited time. Many clubs — particularly the traditional, publicly funded ones — accept students only through the third grade, meaning that older children often have nowhere to go after school. Many end up staying home alone, often with a TV or computer games as their only companions.
Concern for such kids has recently given rise to another term: “shoyon no kabe,” or the hurdle of the fourth grade.
The article continues:
A survey by the liaison council suggests that the actual number of children on waiting lists might be between 400,000 and 500,000, many more than are officially recognized.
“Of all the working mothers with first- to third-grade children, almost 70 percent of them work over six hours a day, which is considered full time. There are 1.32 million children whose mothers work full time,” said Yutaka Sanada, deputy secretary-general of the council.
“Only 880,000 of those students belong to gakudo clubs, which means that the rest — about 400,000 students — don’t have anyone to look after them after school.”
So what about women who, despite all the hurdles, persist in getting back to work? They face continued discrimination at work and may be labeled devil wives with no shame by wider society:
“It was like a weekend marriage,” Suzuki, 45, who works at a Japanese telecommunications company, said of the arrangement started 14 years ago. “I had a satisfying job and really wanted to go back to it. In Japanese society, when a woman chooses work instead of staying at home to look after her husband, she’s called a devil wife.”
Tanaka, 37, said in his post that while “woman power” is necessary to revitalize the economy, he thought that the mothers “had no touch of reserve nor shame.” “What I am saying is don’t force your child-rearing on society from the start. . . . (The mothers) should have the manners enough to say ‘Please help us raise our children,’ ” Tanaka added on his blog, adding that he was not married and had no kids.
A multitude of angry comments flooded the blog, with people expressing sentiments like not wanting to raise their children in a district with a representative like Tanaka and that it is because of people like him that Japan has a low birthrate. Tanaka was not available for comment.
More on the protests by Tokyo mothers at Japan Probe:
The reporters visit the house of a woman who lives in Itabashi ward of Tokyo. She gave birth to a baby a year and one month ago, and was planning to return to full-time work. Unfortunately, she was unable to find a nursery for her child. She applied for five places, and they all turned her down because they were full. Because her maternity leave only lasts until April, she will be forced to abandon her job.
Government-run nursery schools have pretty strict entry requirements. Because of a shortage of such facilities, they give preference to people in the worst financial circumstances. The woman they interview says she has heard about some couples getting divorced so they could have a better chance at passing the entry screening.
For some reason I can't embed it, but this is an interesting clip from a documentary titled "Mothers' Way, Daughters' Choice".

Despite constant talk from politicians and media about the need to both increase women's participation in the workforce and to get the birth rate up to try and do something about the aging population, nothing really changes. On the surface I have a certain amount of envy for women who seem to enjoy such carefree, unburdened lives without ever having to go to work, but it is delusional to see this as a choice. Choice only exists when the odds are not heavily stacked in favour of one option to the exclusion of others.
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Friday, 9 May 2014

Thin Doesn't Equal Happy, But Puppy Does


This meme has been so all over the place I couldn't figure out who to credit it to... if you know, please share!
I've lost 13% of my body weight in the past four months. I've been wanting to look after my health better for a while, and I decided to stop putting it off. The weight-loss was a consequence of a healthier lifestyle, not the goal. Yesterday Tiger forgot something important, so I brought it to school for him and on the way bumped into Ms Smiles (who sadly isn't his teacher this year). "You've lost so much weight" she commented, "are you OK? Is it stress?"
This makes me happier than a number on a scale
Even though I sat down to write about this conversation I am struggling to find words to express how happy her comment made me. She didn't give a casual "looking good" or congratulate me on the "achievement". She knows how hard things have been, and she wanted to check I was fine. There is nothing inherently better about being thinner, and skinny does not equal happy.

Lovely man + puppy is, however, a reliable formula for happiness
The lightest I have ever weighed as an adult was the unhappiest year of my life. I was too stressed to feel hungry. I survived on coffee and lived almost entirely online. My life away from the computer was unbearably painful, and eating meant shopping and cooking and disconnecting my dial-up. When the man and I first moved in together we both put on huge amounts of weight. We had both been unhappy for a long time, and together created a happy domesticated existence that involved a lot of nights in with cheesy pasta-bakes and Stargate SG1. It wasn't great for our health, but man did that weight gain signify a change for the better in my overall quality of life! So although this time, losing weight has been a positive thing, I was so happy to hear someone make a comment that did not assume thinner = better.
Here is a random video of Hayate as a puppy trying to get his reflection to play with him. I was going to try and make it sound profound, but really, it's just another puppy video.
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Thursday, 8 May 2014

Face Masks

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Picture source:

 Hay fever season is in full swing, and face masks are popping up everywhere. I'm recovering from a cold, caught from a student who annoyingly came to class and coughed everywhere without wearing a mask, so I am enjoying a soothing ginger infused face mask. Each time I inhale, my throat get a temporary reprieve from soreness. At first I felt self conscious and uncomfortable wearing a face mask, but they quickly become second nature. A few years ago I read this article about Japanese people wearing face masks for non-health related reasons. It wasn't the first time I had encountered the idea of using masks as a form of barrier between oneself and the outside world. When I first came on the JET Programme I worked with a young English teacher who was still in his probationary period. He was morbidly obese, and the combination of his weight and low status in the staff hierarchy led to quite a lot of teasing and cruelty from other teachers and students respectively. I remember one day asking if he was ill when I saw him wearing a mask. He said no, but "the students won't say that I am ugly if I cover my face." On other occasions male teachers told me they wore a mask if they couldn't be bothered shaving.

Masks may be helpful for hay fever, but the way kids use them makes them fairly ineffective in preventing the spread of viruses in schools, I think. Kids tend to wear one mask all day, and often pull the mask down to expose their noses. They will touch the mask repeatedly throughout the day, probably ending up spreading as many germs from their fingers as they would have from their breath. Nevertheless, they make everyone feel safer.

There is a fascinating article on the topic titled "Risk, Ritual and Health Responsibilitisation: Japan's 'Safety Blanket' of Surgical Face Mask Wearing":

This article begins to develop understanding of surgical mask wearing in Japan, now a routine practice against a range of health threats. Their usage and associated meanings are explored through surveys conducted in Tokyo, with both mask wearers and non mask wearers. It contests commonly held cultural views of the practice as a fixed and distinctively Japanese collective courtesy to others. Historical analysis suggests an originally collective,targeted and science-based response to public health threat has dispersed into a generalised practice lacking clear end or purpose. Developed as part of the biomedical response to the Spanish flu of 1919, the practice resonated with folk assumption as a barrier between ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’. But mask wearing only became socially embedded as a general protective practice from the 1990s through a combination of commercial, corporate and political pressures that responsibilized individual health protection. Developments are usefully understood amidst the uncertainty created by Japan’s ‘second modernity’ and the fracturing of her post war order. Mask wearing is only one form of a wider culture of risk; a self  protective ‘risk ritual’ rather than collective, selfless practice.
The full article is available for free, and it is an interesting read.
For further musings on face masks, see Tofugu.
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Friday, 2 May 2014

When I Was Mongolian (Flashback Friday)

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You may not be aware that I was, once and many years ago, Mongolian. It was just for a couple of hours in the mountains of... Gifu? Possibly Aichi or Mie but probably Gifu. See? I had a hat and everything.

I have been trying to impress on my international students the difference between gaikoku in Japanese and any translation into English. "Foreign countries" or "abroad" just don't carry the same connotations. The time I was Mongolian is a good example of the difference, I think.

A small village in remote mountains wanted to invite some foreigners to attend a festival and liven things up, so the community leaders very kindly paid for a bunch of international students (myself included) to travel into the mountains, stay at a ryokan, have a big beery party/karaoke night with them, then attend the festival the next day. There had to be some sort of purpose beyond just attending while foreign, so the solution hit upon was that we would run a Mongolian booth, selling Mongolian cookies while wearing the kind of things you can see in the picture. Our little band included Australian, American, Chinese, Korean and French students... but no one from Mongolia. At the end of the day, though, we were all gaikokujin from the gaikoku, and Mongolia is in the gaikoku, so it totally made sense. Apart from the deep awkwardness of dressing up as a nationality, the situation became even more confused when well meaning villagers asked us to teach them Mongolian words and phrases.

It was actually a lot of fun and I have fond memories of the kindness of the village leaders ("you're vegetarian and can't eat any of this food? Let's order more beer for you!"), but it remains one of the weirder things I've been asked to do.

For more articulate musings on "the gaikoku", click here and visit This Japanese Life.
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