Saturday, October 24, 2009


Two weekends ago I went to Nikko, a UNESCO world heritage site. To those outside of Japan Nikko will have very little or no meaning, so I will explain a little bit about Japanese history. As some people know, Japan has an emperor and that empirical line has “ruled” Japan for as long as most written history goes. The true origins are unknown although there is a first recorded instance of someone claiming the descent from the gods and that is where the empirical line can legitimately be traced to. In any case, the emperor has not always been the actual ruler, the present being one of those times. Two things have to be considered. First; although the emperor has not always been the one in control, the line has always been recognized as the legitimate heir to Japan, as it were. Which enters my second point, Japan; as it were. Japan has not always been what we think of it now. Most early history crowds around the areas of present day Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo and that was Japan. It is not until the last 500 years or so that anyone gave any concern to what was to the north of those regions, like where I live now, or to the giant island of Hokkaido. Okinawa is a different, but similar story, but I digress.
The point of all of this is that the unification of Japan, the establishment of a country, and who ruled what when, changes so who ruled what when gets slippery.
So, why the history lesson? Well, Nikko is the burial site of one of the most famous of Japanese people, Ieyasu Tokugawa. He was the first shogun to unite all of Japan, which means he was the first to wrest control of Japan, as it was, from the hands of everyone else, including the figure head emperor of that time. You see, for a large portion of recent Japanese history the country has been ruled not by emperor but by shogun. When we westerners picture old Japan, full of warriors and temples, etc. this is probably what we are picturing, the time of the shoguns.
Along with Ieyasu, his grandson Iemitsu is buried at Nikko. There is also the Futarasan Shrine, which dates to the year 767. That is enough to be pretty cool. Before the discovery of the Americas, before the Magna Carta, before… you get the point, and you can touch it! There is also the famous Three Wise Monkeys, yes, you know them. Hear no, see no, speak no EVIL! There is also a fourth, do no evil, but he was out doing evil so I didn't see him. It’s those monkeys and that is where they come from! Well… at least that is where their fame comes from, the proverb is likely much older. How about that?

Back to Ieyasu; the reason he is important is that he was the first shogun to consolidate power under one shogun. This ushered in about 300 years of rule by his family that ended shortly after the opening of Japan to the west by Perry’s black ships in the 1850’s. That is why he is important. When I asked Aya why he picked Nikko for his burial place she didn’t know. Later, after we had wandered around a bit she said that he had never been to Nikko. I am still wondering why he would want to be buried there. It is a beautiful place, but I can’t see someone wanting to spend eternity somewhere they had never been given that they could have easily gone there during their lifetime to check it out.

There are a few animal carvings around the temple grounds. The first and most famous is the three monkey mentioned above. The second is the sleeping cat. People were piled up to take a picture of this cat, why I didn’t know. I snapped a picture of it because I happened to be walking under the gate and thought it might make a good story later. Turns out that the sculptor Jingoro, was quite well known and that the spirit of Ieyasu is believed to reside in the sculpture. The third, and I think most interesting sculpture is of two elephants. As you can see, one elephant is very strange looking, kind of furry and just generally grotesque looking while the other looks more like a rhino/tiger cross. This is not what the affect artist intended. You see, the artist, Kanyo Tanyu, never saw an elephant! Yes, that is right, never saw one! At the time, it hardly mattered, since no one else had seen an elephant either. I can imagine his thought process, "hm...yes, fur, three claws, a monstrous eye, perfect... yes!"

You would think with all this interesting and beautiful stuff in one place (and there is more than I mention) that my favorite part would be something old or ornate, but it was not. Toward the beginning of our walk around the grounds we went up to a shrine on top of a hill. Around the corner from the main objects was a very small shrine built into a tree. Aya jumped in line to pray as I waited and in line with her was a mother with a boy of about 6 years old. As they stood in line the boy asked, “mama, what are we doing here?” she said, “well, we will put this money in the box and then pray for what we want.” And the boy said, “I want to be a ninja!” and started prancing around like a ninja/pony cross. Everyone in line had a good giggle. It was the best thing I saw all day. Aya said it was refreshing to know that even Japanese kids want to grow up to be ninjas, and that someday, maybe, he might get his wish.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Mr. James

McDonald's Japan came out with a new ad a few months ago that has raised the ire of some white residents living in Japan. The new ad campaign features a character named Mr. James, who promotes a new series of burgers called the Nippon All Stars. The character, while not readily identified in ads as American, is indeed so. However, to know that you have to access his blog through McDonald's. In the ads Mr. James speaks poor Japanese and on posters uses poor Japanese combined with katakana, the writing system for foreign words (even though Mr. James is speaking Japanese, however poorly, his words are rendered in katakana).

Some of the foreign white community in Japan have taken offense to these ads for a number of reasons.

I have to agree. While the community outside Japan may see this as no big deal I do and I am offended by this ad. I wish that McDonald's would stop this ad and I have not eaten there since the ad began and will not until it is stopped.
Unfortunately in Japan people have little idea of what an actual foreign person is like. This is part of the reason I am here. I am here to be a foreign person, any person not of Japanese decent, in my community. There are 6,000 people in my town, they are all Japanese. When ad campaigns like Mr. James give reason for the people in my town to apply ideas to me I am not happy. I have spent the past 2 years here trying to break those ideas down, to show the people in my town that I am an individual and part of their community. Although I think this man said it best in an editorial on the blog of Arudou Debito, a foreign man with Japanese citizenship.

"The people complaining about this ad live in Japan, pay taxes here, and in some cases have naturalised and become Japanese citizens. Of course from the outside it doesn’t seem like a big deal -it isn’t going to affect your lives or the way your children are treated in school or on the street.

We find this campaign reinforces unwelcome stereotypes that affect our lives here. I have been denied housing, bank loans, and even entry to businesses specifically because of my race/nationality. By pandering to the ‘hapless foreigner’ stereotype, McDonald’s is reinforcing the idea that non-Japanese cannot speak Japanese or conduct themselves properly in Japan.

A multinational corporation like McDonald’s should be more careful about the subliminal messages they put out, and we are just trying to bring that to their attention."

I hope McDonald's, regardless of what they originally thought was a good ad campaign, will now realize how insensitive they have been and stop their ads.


This morning I ran the Wakamatsu Tsuruga Castle Marathon. In Japan, any race can carry the name marathon and be under marathon length. It is also common to say marathon(ing) instead of running. I decided to run the 10k, which while my longest race, is not the longest distance I have ever run. I was the only foreign person running the 10k, one my friends in Wakamatsu ran the 5k, he got a 21:03, which is a pretty good time. My fastest 5k has been just under 22:00.
Today I ran a 51:43 which while a decent time was not what I had hoped for. In training I was running just over 50:00 and was hoping that the added plus of actually having people running with and against me would propel me to do better and maybe get a 49 or 48. It was not to be. While I finished the first 5k in about 23:30, twice during the second half I had to walk in order to bring down my pulse quickly. I became dizzy and so decided to check my pulse. My watch has a heart monitor on it and when it exceeds 185 beats per minute the watch will beep, which means, STOP, and it did twice. Normally I run between 155-165 beats per minute and will go to 175 or so when I am sprinting at the end of a race, but the day was hotter than normal and I was overheating. So twice I walked.
In any case I am happy with my run, it is the first formal race that I have done in a long time and in the past two months I have run the fastest and longest distances that I have ever run. Many of you are probably thinking, that is great, but why even run? What is the point?
There are two reasons I did this race. The first is that I took initiative to have people pledge money for my run, the proceeds of which I am donating to an orphanage in Thailand called Baan Dada(see sponsor names above on my homemade shirt). Some of the JETs in the prefecture responding by pledging money to see me finish, so I couldn’t let them down. The second reason is that. I love running. My day doesn’t feel complete if I don’t run, or exercise in some way, and it is a great time for me to unwind mentally and physically. Beating the paths around the river in my town I have had lots of moments of peaceful reflection, improved my health, and seen wildlife that I would not have otherwise. I also see my students out and about town and I hope it encourages those that already do to stick with it. Today, I saw many of my students at the race. A few of them were cheering me on as I ran and a few I met after where I learned what race they had just done or were about to do. It was great to see them so happy with what they had achieved. Seeing the power that inspires these kids to run inspires me also. I hope that in turn seeing me at the race will encourage them to keep running.