I read a book that made me hate Japan. Sunday, Jan 3 2010 

It was the famous “Silence“(沈黙・ちんもく)by Shusaku Endo(遠藤周作・えんどうしゅうさく)published during the 1960s. The (historical) story follows the Portuguese Jesuit, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (whose name rarely appears) on his journey towards and through Japan during the time of intense persecution under the Bakufu (military rule of the shogun). This persecution lasted 260 years, and was so severe in its systematic cruelty that it surpassed even England’s successes against Catholicism.

Silence made me hate Japan for two related reasons. The first is Endo’s masterful presentation of Rodrigues’ sufferings as a priest in exile, watching the misery of his flock. The bakufu interrogators torment and murder the simple Christian villagers they find; not to break their faith, but to crush the faith of the captured priests. The villagers themselves are of no consequence, the sole application of their lives (in the eyes of the interrogators) is to be a tool wielded against the foreign priests. Several passages of the book are Rodrigues questioning the silence of God, asking Him why He permits these children of His to suffer endlessly at the hands of the wicked, first in their lives as ordinary Japanese peasants (already unimaginably harsher than the life of European peasants of the same time) and then moreso under the persecution of Christians.

This exploration of the sufferings of a priest, the manipulation of his love and self-sacrifice by fiends struck me to the core because I see in myself the same ideals and aspirations that sent Rodrigues to Japan. I am not a priest, and I have not given anything of myself that every good priest in the world has already given, but this is what I hope for my life and the thought that this could be so nefariously trampled sickens me.

The second reason is the simple fact that Japanese narratives are characteristically different to Western narratives in that good does not generally triumph over evil. Formed by the nihilistic philosophy of Buddhism, Japanese culture does not demand the ultimate victory of good and in fact tends to promote the expectation of suffering. Silence is truly a Japanese novel about a Westerner (and not the opposite) wherein good is slowly worn down, beaten down by evil… and ultimately defeated. I read on and on, through the chapters, the epilogue, and even the appendix hoping to find redemption but discovering none. This story left me gaping, grasping for the victory of good which I knew was necessary and right, but could not find. How could evil triumph, in any novel? How could evil triumph over a Catholic priest, especially in a novel written by a Catholic? It was disorienting, it was wrong.

But Endo was not just any Catholic novelist, he was a Japanese Catholic. And he made me hate Japan.

Kyoto Wednesday, Nov 18 2009 

I went there at the weekend, with ten friends from Yamanashi and twenty Brazilian-born Japanese from all around Japan. It was without question the most enjoyable weekend I’ve had in Japan, though my one regret is that I wasn’t able to attend Mass.

I took about 1000 photos, of which I considered 300 or so worth publishing. See them over at my Flickr page.

A name, a seal Sunday, Nov 8 2009 

Inkan

When I first arrived in Japan I was surprised at the number of things I could do without this stamp. We had been told that to open a bank account, buy a cellular phone, pay our bills and register for classes we would need to make an 印鑑 “inkan”, the engraved name stamp used as a signature in East Asian countries with a Chinese cultural heritage.

It turns out that in recent years, Japanese companies have become a lot more accommodating to foreigners and their handwriting. Japanese family names tend to be only between one and three characters long (the common Suzuki is 鈴木) and fit very easily onto that little wooden stamp. My name on the other hand becomes seven characters in Japanese, nearly impossible to write. Other foreign names have even more syllables, prompting the Japanese post office (which provides insurance plans and savings accounts), major telephone providers and government offices to accept signatures in lieu of the stamp.

Really though, if you’re coming to Japan wouldn’t you want to get one of these cool looking stamps instead of just using your boring old signature everywhere? That’s how I felt, and so my Japanese friends came to the rescue with a home-grown solution. Ateji!

(more…)

Typhoon surprise Friday, Oct 9 2009 

Some of you may have heard about the typhoons (tropical cyclones, hurricanes) currently active in the western Pacific. One of them has spent the last week sitting on northern Luzon in the Philippines, basically making life miserable for thousands. Fortunately my extended family are a little further south, and live largely unaffected. The other one approached and landed in Japan early today, and has since passed through to the ocean again.

I first found out about the typhoon (presumably from the Japanese 「台風」”taifuu”) last night, from colleagues at the university. It had already been raining heavily for a week, though I did notice the wind getting stronger. By late afternoon the city office had sent cars around telling people to go home and shut themselves in, as the storm was intensifying. I remained to teach my class, but only one student appeared so we ended half an hour early.

This morning, I woke up at 6 to wind and rain beating on my building. I checked the weather alerts, and found a map of Japan marked completely red. Melor had just hit Aichi prefecture, and was expected to travel north-east directly up the middle of Honshu, the main island. This would have put Yamanashi square in its path, as well as keeping the entire island in its most intense area of influence. Naturally, the university issued an alert cancelling all classes for the day and encouraging students and staff to remain indoors.

This is when the unexpected happened. (more…)

Out of the frypan… Monday, Jun 1 2009 

…and into two tests in one week. Tomorrow is a usual fortnightly progress test (my intensive Japanese course covers one textbook chapter per day, four days a week). Wednesday is our day off, and Thursday we are being tested on all material to date. 25 chapters, including all grammar forms, vocabulary, and of course kanji.

I also need to prepare my second methodological analysis. The first one was (I think) a success, based on observation of the five “groups” of Catholics in Kofu – Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, and Filipino. Truth be told the Spanish and Portuguese groups may well be the one group of “Latin Americans”, but they attend separate Masses and have their own priests.

I think the next analysis will be survey-based, and very simple. Perhaps I will compare the level of catechesis amongst typical Kofu Catholics with non-Catholic Japanese, and Australians (both Catholic and non-Catholic). I’ll have to write very basic questions so the meanings are strictly defined in both languages (and understood by non-native speakers). I’ll also have to consider assessing the attitudes of non-Catholic Japanese towards Catholics and Catholicism, compared to that of non-Catholic Australians.

In the meantime, here is a piece of news from last year. Apparently this Spanish-speaking fellow lost something in the moat around the Imperial Palace and went to fetch it. Here we see his mighty weapons employed against the Japanese police: rocks, water splashes, a traffic pole, and nakedness (blurred to preserve custody of the eyes).

Procrastination… Friday, May 29 2009 

…is from satan. He will even happily turn our attention to doing good deeds if it will affect the greater evil of neglecting pressing duties for the sake of things that can wait.

As an example, I have today begun a project I’ve had in mind for a while. As mentioned earlier, a lot of people are finding this blog while searching for information about Catholic parishes and things in Japan. At the moment I don’t have much up at all, and what there is can’t be easily found (buried in comments), even my own searches have turned up very few online resources for English speaking Catholics in Japan. There are a precious few sites with essential information in broken but usually understandable English (Mass Times for 外人). The site linked in that entry is buried deep in subsections, links circularly, can’t be easily navigated, and can’t be easily found with a straightforward search in native English.

Of course, I can’t complain if I’m not willing to use my own abilities to fill the need. (more…)

Quick update Thursday, May 28 2009 

Apologies dear reader. My blogging habits still haven’t settled. However, it’s worth noting that a lot of the time I comment on my flickr uploads in a way akin to twitter, so it’s certainly worth clicking the left sidebar to see my flickr photostream from time to time. I’ve found it to be a lot less troublesome commenting on my photos that way than trying to illustrate coherent blog posts with them.

This weekend another major assignment is due for UTS, so I’ll probably write a big, deep post here in a fit of procrastination. I’ve been meaning to write about last Tuesday’s birthday outing for my friend Fay (we went to “kaiten (revolving) sushi” and karaoke, both firsts for me) as well as our trip to a small town in Yamanashi which is the centre of the local traditional paper manufacturing industry (I made a lamp!).

I’ve noticed a steady stream of people clicking through to this blog looking for information on various elements of Catholic life in Japan, which I haven’t yet got around to publishing. I will do my best to get to Tokyo soon and record what I can.

Please pray for me everyone, so that I can focus well and produce some decent work for my taskmasters back in Sydney. The current assignment will probably be on how the five different Catholic communities (divided by language) in Kofu worship, and developing my research methodology. 2500 words!

PS: Also updated the UTS Yamanashi blog with some more details in the finances, university, and residence sections. Feel free to take a look and leave suggestions!

Airport capers (the first day) Friday, May 8 2009 

Arriving here in Kofu and getting settled wasn’t a mere matter of carrying my bag off a plane, opening it in my room and unpacking my belongings. First there was the hectic dash around Sydney the day of the flight, trying desperately to collect my converted currency from the bank, get a haircut, pick up a large order from the camera shop that was a week late, get home in time to shower, repack all my luggage, eat dinner and make it to the airport.

Then there was the flight. (more…)

Photos: First Day in Japan Monday, May 4 2009 

Well, it’s now 0300 on Monday morning and I’ve managed to get 50 photos from our first day in Japan onto Flickr. I have spent probably six hours learning how to use Lightroom and painstakingly fiddling with these things, so I won’t get onto labeling them until tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll have the time and energy to write a post too. To see the photos, visit my Flickr page (easily accessed on the right sidebar).

Golden Week Saturday, May 2 2009 

Adult Japan is infamous as a society of overworked corporate drones who routinely sleep at the office, miss landmarks in their childrens’ lives and throw themselves off buildings when “downsized” (fired).

This reputation is in some ways unfair, but half-truths are a lot more resilient than complete lies. To make this situation a little more human, large Japanese firms have started reducing the burden placed on their employees in various ways. (more…)

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