April 27, 1999
First the big news -- I took a test in Shorinji Kempo (that martial art that I do) and I passed, so I am now a brown belt. Before you get too impressed, I should mention that in this particular martial art brown belt immediately follows white. However, there are three levels of brown belt (called, surprisingly enough, third level, second level, and first level), so it will still be some time before I get to black. Anyway, it's pretty cool to say that I am a brown belt in a Japanese martial art that you've never heard of. If things go according to schedule (as in, if I don't get injured), I should be able to reach black belt before returning to the states.
I am glad that Shorinji Kempo teaches discipline, because this month I have needed all of the self control that I could muster to deal with the farce that is Japanese elections. You see, there are no commercials on TV. There are no local commercials on TV, so local political candidates have to resort to much more intrusive, public nuisance methods to spread the word. The most popular campaign tactic (other than stuffing mailboxes, which in this case means exactly that) is to outfit a car or van with very powerful loudspeakers and drive slowly around the city blasting the candidates name. Several people in matching, brightly colored outfits sit in the vehicle with fake smiles and wave. By law, this can only be done between 8 am and 8 pm, and for the past three Sundays I have been woken up between 8 and 8:05 by these monsters.
But how annoying could this really be? Honestly, you just have to hear it to believe it. The majority of them use very high-pitched female voices which cut through any sound barrier that you try to erect. They sound like Mickey Mouse on speed. In fact, the only thing that can interfere with one of these deafening things is another one. You see, in the recent Kiryu election there were over a dozen local candidates for various offices, and all of them had these roving annoy-mobiles. They couldn't always avoid each other (and I have a suspicion that they didn't try) so every once in a while I heard two (or even three) of them at once. I swear that they turned the volume up at these times. It's like they were trying to deafen as many people as possible so that they wouldn't be able to hear the opponents' campaigning. My theory is that the only reason this kind of thing exists is that hand-guns are illegal in Japan. I'd like to see someone try it in LA. I am also convinced that the first time a candidate does not employ such tactics he or she will win in a landslide.
Another thing that is often unbelievable is the blind and unflagging faith in weather reports. I can say with some authority that weather reports are wrong 50% of the time under ideal conditions. Moreover, Japan is hardly an ideal place in which to forecast the weather. There is an arctic current beating down from the North, a tropical current (much like the Gulf Stream) warming Japan from the South, and what with the Sea of Japan on one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other, and that sneaky jet stream always changing directions, I am sure that it is nearly impossible to accurately predict the weather here. However, that does not stop people from reading the forecasts everyday,making plans based on them, and following through with those plans no matter what the weather is. It doesn't seem to matter how often the forecast is wrong. I have heard of people being invited to play golf on rainy days because the forecast said it would be clear, and I have heard of golf courses closed on clear days because the forecast called for rain (both of those stories were from the same person, by the way).
Perhaps an anecdote is needed to convey the scale of this phenomenon. I am sure that anyone who has spent significant time in Japan can tell similar stories. I came to school one morning last February and the vice-principal asked me whether it had been difficult to ride my bike in the snow. I looked at him, puzzled, and said "What snow?" He explained to me that the night before he had seen on the news that it was going to snow overnight, so he took the train to work rather than drive in dangerous conditions. I was still puzzled, because I had not noticed any snow, so I took this opportunity to look out of the window. Fortunately, one entire wall of the teachers' room is windows, so it was easy for both of us to look outside. As I had thought, there was no snow on the ground. In other words, my principal believed the weather report of the previous evening over his own senses, even to the extent of changing the way he went to work. Not only that, but it is a 20 minute walk from the train station to the school, and apparently at no time during that walk did he notice that he was not walking in the snow. I then said "But look outside -- there is no snow!" He smiled at me pityingly, opened the newspaper, and showed me the forecast. Sure enough, it said that it was going to snow. He actually believed the paper rather than his own eyes. I was powerless against this monumental display of faith. I am still a bit flabbergasted when I think about it.
Perhaps the most annoying thing I have run into lately is the blanket condemnation of America and Americans resulting from the terrible shootings in Denver. Too many people have come up to me and said "Oh, it's so unsafe in America" or "Do you have a gun?" or "Americans are crazy." This is especially infuriating because a few months ago all of Japan was buzzing about an incident of mass poisoning that killed several people, and a few years ago the whole world heard about the lethal Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. A friend of mine here had a great response, which I use every time.
Me: There crazy people in America, right?
Them: Yes, of course.
Me: Are there crazy people in Japan?
Them: Well, uhh, yes. (If they say no, I remind them about the poisoning)
Me: Right. The only difference is that the crazy people in America have guns, and crazy people in Japan have poison, right?
Them: Yeah, I guess so.
I know that America is not perfect. I would never claim that it is. However, Japanese people tend to turn a blind eye to Japan's problems while gleefully pointing out the shortcomings of others. I think this is extremely closed-minded sometimes, but I will admit that every time I used the above argument, it was like a light bulb went on in "Them"'s head. It's not that people here are stubborn, it's just that many of them have never tried to look at things from another point of view. Of course, I think everyone in the world is guilty of that, yours truly being no exception.