Wednesday, 30 July 2014



One of many weekend events I worked without pay as an ALT
 I've been volunteering since I was twelve. It's something that is important to me and that I enjoy. I was eager to continue volunteering when we moved to Japan and had my first opportunity just a month after we arrived, at a residential school/treatment center for troubled kids. Next came the orphanages, and they became something closer to an obsession than a volunteering opportunity. When I mentioned my volunteer work at my paid work (I was an ALT at the time) I was taken aback at some of the responses. Teachers commented that they also did a lot of volunteering... maintaining the school grounds or coaching school sports teams. Neither of those activities was actually voluntary, it was required of all teachers. They were simply expected to do it as unpaid overtime, and this was called volunteering. That goes against everything that makes volunteering meaningful to me, and I was frustrated at the comparison. Being exploited by your boss is not the same thing! Yet, I began to participate in more and more of these weird exactly-like-your-day-job-but-unpaid "volunteer" activities. I did weekend workshops, day-camps, over night camps, after work speech contest practice, texting lesson plans to teachers on Sundays... I was always happy to help out because I adored my students and I genuinely enjoyed the extra time outside of the classroom, but the extra time away from home became a real strain, especially once we had two puppies to care for. The kids were always happy to see me, but there was little acknowledgment from the adults that I was sacrificing my family time to be there. It was always treated as though I were merely complying with expectations, because that is what all the teachers were doing. In one particularly outrageous case I was told I should take paid leave on a day when I had been asked to help run a workshop because it didn't fall within my job description and therefore should be done on my own time. I stopped working as an ALT a year ago, but just yesterday I was asked if I could return to some of my duties on a volunteer basis. It used to really blow my mind, but having crossed over to the other side and looking now as a parent, I can see that it isn't only schools. Enforced "volunteering" is everywhere.

I was told I had to "volunteer" for one PTA activity a year, and hold a year long PTA committee position once per child I have in school. Cub Scouts require parents to "volunteer" at least four times a year. When I signed Tiger up to join the fire festival I didn't realise that every single parent was required to "volunteer" at the festival. Being childless doesn't get you out of it, either. The neighborhood associate requires regular "volunteering" for things like street cleaning and hedge trimming. This year it is our turn to act as the 班長 (hancho), meaning we are the representatives for our "block" of 19 houses. I have to attend meetings, distribute junk mail from the city council twice a month, collect fees, dance in the neighbourhood Bon Odori, run in the neighbourhood sports festival, turn up to the meeting hall at 6 am to clean it, weed the nature strips and more. I'm going to write more about this because I think there are some really good points to having an active community, but my experience so far has made me really wonder what my city taxes pay for. As far as I can see, everything is delegated to "volunteers" from the neighbourhood association. There's no real point to this post other than me complaining and sharing an aspect of Japanese culture that short term visitors may not encounter, so I'm going to close with a Japan Times article on the neighbourhood association system.

On the origins of the system:
“Chōnaikai actually started with Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1537-98), and they were originally called gonin-gumi (five-person associations). Their purpose was social control. If any member spoke a word against Hideyoshi, all five members were executed. This helps explain why, even today, Japanese are afraid to speak out (against authority).”
The Japanese Wikipedia page traces the origins of chōnaikai to 1937, whereas the English page pushes the start back a bit further to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. While omitting these apparently darker roots, these sources, along with what’s taught in many Japanese elementary schools, highlight the World War II variation, tonari-gumi, or “next-door groups.” Contrary to the pleasant-sounding name, tonari-gumi served as a highly effective spy network to root out war dissenters, who were likely to be subsequently tortured and imprisoned for their views. It was probably for those reasons that occupying U.S. forces outlawed chōnaikai until the Treaty of San Francisco was signed in 1951, returning sovereignty to the Japanese.
“The government still wants to keep chōnaikai for the same reason,” Ueda says. “If ever there’s a war, chōnaikai will prove invaluable.”
 Use by the local government:
The government supports chōnaikai in subtle ways. For example, they have members perform duties, like maintaining parks, that should be covered by tax money. The amount the government pays the chōnaikai is low: Ueda reports city hall paying only ¥120 per person per year for maintaining a park. The irony, he says, is that members in turn are expected to buy insurance for ¥165 in case they get injured while doing public works. “The government uses Japanese as a cheap labor force — almost slavery.”
Tiger's on summer holidays right now, so posts may be few and far between. Thank you for your patience :)
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Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Butt Stickers and Drop Bears


I heard rumors from other mothers in Japan, whispers in dark corridors. The school will give you a sticker, they said, and you have to attack it to your kid's bum. Not just anywhere, actually over the anus. I laughed, at first, assuming the bum sticker was the mothering-in-Japan equivalent of drop bears. You know drop bears, the fearsome scourge of tourists to Australia?

All Australians know about drop bears, and if you hole an Aussie up in an Irish pub anywhere in the world (we always seem to be in Irish pubs, I don't really know why) and ask they will doubtless regale you with horrific tales. The rest of the world is so convinced of the deadly nature of all things Australian that the drop bear story goes unchallenged for more often then you might think in these cynical days of instant snopes-ing.

It turns out, the bum sticker test isn't an exaggeration. You really have to do it. Twice, actually, to confirm the results. For really little kids the stickers may be left on overnight. My 8 year old just had to have it "applied" then "removed" immediately. Note the passive verbs. Put more actively, he had to spread his cheeks while squatting and I had to stick the clear round sticker of doom in place then peel it off again. And here was I, thinking that adopting an older child had cleverly let me off all parent-child'sbum interactions. This year, grade three, is the last year we have to do it, so there's that I suppose.

So why? Why is the Kewpie Mayonnaise cupid squatting for a sticker? It's a test for worms, and the kids have to get the all-clear before they are allowed in the school pool. The worms emerge during the night to lay eggs around the anus, so the sticker either applied overnight or immediately on waking is supposed to catch them poking their little heads out. Personally my vote would be prophylactic worming tablets (it works for the dogs...), but then, what do I know. I'm still telling people about my near miss with a drop bear.

*No photo credits for the "deadly Australia" pictures sorry, I just have no way of figuring out where any of them originally came from m(__)m
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Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Rainy Season 梅雨

The shades of green become vibrant to the point of seeming surreal during rainy season
My first and second rainy seasons were an experience of awe. Silly though it sounds, I had no idea so much water could fall from the sky. I know theoretically that Australia is the driest inhabited continent and that not raining for seven years at a time isn't exactly normal, but theory and experience are worlds apart. I took literally hours of video of rain falling (see a small sample below). It was all new and amazing.

Then, the magic wore off. I read a short sci fi story once (unfortunately I don't remember the title or the author) about explorers on a planet where it rains constantly. They go gradually insane, unable to ever get completely dry or avoid the sound of dripping. That's basically what rainy season is like, but add in everything growing mold and mushrooms. Wear a pair of shoes, put them away, take them out two days later and they are green and furry. Forget your sandwich on the counter for an hour? Don't even think about eating that bad boy. I mean it. Food poisoning spikes nation wide in June.

I seriously thought about quitting my job and leaving Japan during rainy season two years ago. My hatred of the season progressed to irrational levels of anger: why doesn't someone DO SOMETHING about this STUPID WEATHER?! It didn't help that I was being forced to cycle to work because of a very stupid policy. No matter how many layers of rain suiting I wore, I'd arrive soaked every day and developed a perpetual smell of damp dog from my steaming, damp, dog hair speckled clothing. I feared for my life every time a truck drove by spraying me with water and leaving me blinded and shaky. I started to go mad. Then one of my co-workers started cycling to work in his swim suit, his work clothes in a waterproof back pack. "I get soaked no matter what" he explained, I may as well keep cool and not have to carry wet things around. Somehow, that made everything better.
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