Friday, May 23, 2008

Obamans for Obama

Fukui Prefecture, on the southwest coast of Japan, was always linked in my mind with nuclear power plants. I thought that it was a relatively poor area that could not refuse the revenues these power plants would bring. Power plants aside, I was wrong about the poverty.

There was a little article in today's newspaper that showed a very different Fukui. Lowest unemployment rate in the nation, third in terms of individual savings, second lowest infant mortality... it's also tops in terms of female employment as well as second in birthrate, proving equal opportunity for women has nothing to do with the ever-declining birthrate in Japan. Who knew Fukui was such a progressive prefecture!

But right now, the prefecture's number one claim to fame is the little town of Obama. Previously known only as an unpretentious seafood processing town, today, it is the base camp of the "Obama-koho wo katteni o-en suru Kai." ("The Unofficial Group for Unofficially Supporting Presidential Candidate Obama")

The town is filled with tributes to the American politician -- support posters are plastered throughout the town, the senator's mug is baked into Obama Buns, there's a pachinko parlour named "President" and every Tuesday is "Super Tuesday." Now, there's a CD. I haven't heard it yet, but someone who has says that they sing mostly about the beautiful shores of Obama (Fukui) and Obama's boyhood home, Hawaii.

And to think, before the senator's rise to the political stage, the only political thing associated with Obama, Fukui was the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents.

But sometimes I think everything is connected and there are no accidents. Maybe in time, we will see how all of these small coincidences come together.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Too Many Strokes, Too Many Folk

Tokyo is not for the psychologically feeble. The density alone is tiring if you aren't used to it, but today, as I wandered around the 'burbs, I realized that it's also the visual density that wears one out.

Just think about it. English has 26 letters in its alphabet. Each letter is made up of 1 to 4 strokes. Japanese has 4 different writing systems (one of which is the Roman alphabet -- the ABCs of English,) 50 "letters" each in 2 of those systems and 50,000 to 80,000 kanji. Why no definite number? There's always dispute over whether a particular kanji is an independent kanji or just a variation of another. Many kanji are made up of only a few strokes, but here's one with 33 strokes.
It's actually made up of 3 kanji that mean "deer." It means "coming together all at once."

But that's not the "densest" kanji. Here's one that's 64 strokes.
It's made up of 4 kanji that mean "dragon." This one means "being verbose." How apropos!

Is this the "densest" kanji? Once again, there is dispute. One writer claims that this is it:
However, it is not of Chinese origin, being a domestic creation, so some linguists claim that you can't really call it "kanji." After all, kanji means "Chinese character." And no one could tell me how one would read it, much less what it means. But, at 84, it's tops in number of strokes.

What it all boils down to is, no matter what the media, if there is text, it is bound to be stroke-heavy and visually dense. You have to be oblivious to clutter in this kind of world and Tokyoites certainly are. The city is crammed with mismatched architecture. Shops are literally stuffed to the gills with merchandise. My Very Japanese Sister-in-law is only being her Very Japanese self when she buys more than the house can possibly contain, but I've gotten too used to open space, empty houses, minimal possessions. The clutter, the density, all the strokes and all the folk are slowly wearing me down. Or out.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Scary World of Japanese Subways

Oh, yeah. Unlike other places, you don't have to worry about muggers or rapists or vandals or panhandlers. No need to worry that someone will rip off your wallet while you are crashed out, drunk out of your mind on the last train home. No matter how crowded it is, no one gets belligerently in-your-face and it's rare that you come across another passenger who's too crazy for comfort. Operators aren't too concerned about terrorists (though they should be: in 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo wackos attacked multiple trains with sarin gas) or floods (this happened, too, a few years ago during a massive typhoon) or earthquakes (a very real threat).

No, in the Scary World of Japanese Subways, this month's Number One Threat is.....drum roll, please.....


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Thursday, May 15, 2008

LowTech Graphics in HighTechLand

My current stay in Japan was due to a family matter and I was definitely NOT looking forward to it, but strangely, so far, so good. Sometimes I look forward to these visits and am disappointed. Other times, I dread it and am pleasantly surprised. I've learned not to expect anything.

I'm enjoying a more international news coverage in both the print and TV media. The difference is especially pronounced on TV where we get unglamorous but reasonably intelligent reports. Right now, there's a lot about the Shichuan Earthquake, however, unlike American news shows that tend to focus on One Big Story All The Time, there's more variety here. The graphics are still a little retro, but at least there's content.

I remember how we used to laugh at the low-tech visual aids on Japanese new shows. Instead of some snazzy graphic, the anchors would hold up a board with charts and bullet points. Once, after some airline accident, there was an analyst who actually used a toy plane to show how the airplane went down. We don't want our news people to look like stars. In the past, they'd even be verging on frumpy, though today, the producers tend to go for "attractive but serious-looking." And it's a nice contrast to the sheer goofiness of the rest of the programming.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I'm currently AWL -- that's Absent With Leave -- from the construction crew for a brief visit to Japan. And while I am grateful (yes, really!) for the ability to cross the ocean in hours rather than days, we really aren't meant to be moving at 500mph. Look at the rest of the world's creatures. None travel faster than they are physically able. Okay, so pets now travel with us in cars and boats and planes, but that's an unnatural phenomenon, too.

I think we lost something with the invention of the wheel. It gave us artificial mobility. And with each new invention, we moved further and further away from our natural selves. No wonder we're so disconnected.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bird Condo

While the blackbirds are happily raising their little ones in the tiny "studio" apartment, the sparrows have found their nursery in the second floor bathroom vent.

"Turn the vent on!" Big Dog says. "I don't want critters living in my house."
"No way! I'm not going to churn up the birds with the vent. Gross me out. You want blood and feathers and baby bird guts dripping down the outside of the newly washed house? You want to be up there again on that deathtrap ladder, washing the gunk? Not me!"

Guess Big Dog pictured that scene, too. He hasn't mentioned anything since.

I know my presence on ladders so close to their nursery makes them rather edgy, but while Mama and Papa keep a keen eye on me, they also fill my porch painting days with song. There's something to be learned here.

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Monday, May 05, 2008


While we've had a couple of unusually sunny days last week, it's your typical Arcata day today, soft, grey skies muting the town. Construction work continues at Casa Dos Perros. Washing, painting, sorting, ripping, filling, caulking, more filling, sanding, more painting... There are a couple of guys upstairs sanding down the hardwood floors. This year we've actually been able to hire out some of the work. In the past, because we came during the summer, all the contractors were all booked up.

A Blackbird Family has taken up residence in the shack in our backyard.
"Studio. Not 'shack'," says Big Dog. Well, you tell me. Here's a photo of the structure, partially hidden behind the apple tree, on a prettier day.

Lots of people have lived here for years, but it is rather spartan. They have to walk across the yard to use the facilities in the house

But for the Blackbirds, it might be quite the mansion. The inside of the studio is untouched, but they've found a nice little nook between the walls. They come and go through a knothole in the outer wall. It's kind of like a magician's hat, with a false bottom. The birds fly into the cabin, but...look! No birds inside!

They keep me happily distracted from the aches and pains in my shoulders and neck these cold, cloudy days.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Bye-bye Bamba

La Bamba left us.
She was Big Dog's old 1975 Volvo that he kept in the garage here in Arcata for the last 15 years. It was a bomb of a car, but ran well and when he had it in LA, was the perfect Urban Camouflage Vehicle. It was originally a maroon color, but I've only known it to be a tri-colored monstrosity, with exploded seats and an actual working eight track. Friends laughed at first. Then, when their nice Mercedes and Beemers kept getting stolen right from their driveways, they began to make offers on La Bamba.

When people panhandled Big Dog, he'd tell them, "Yeah, I've got a quarter. And it's going into a piggybank when I get home. See that car over there? When I've saved enough money, I'm going to get a paint job." Sometimes, the panhandlers would actually give him some change "for the cause." That's how crazy people are about their cars in LA!

We thought she'd eventually come to The Ranch. It would have been the perfect place for her to spend the twilight of her days. But this year, Big Dog finally got sick of her taking up so much space -- excruciatingly valuable space -- in the garage and even after he was able to start her up by dropping in a new battery, he put her up for adoption (i.e., he tried to give her away to a Charitable Cause.) After too many hours of negotiating with towing companies and red tape, he gave up and called a local tow operation.

A giant ramped truck arrived (their motto, "We don't want an arm and a leg; just your tows" painted on the cab in beautiful script) and in no time at all, La Bamba was pushed onto the truck. Big Dog only had the Volvo hood ornament and an old, sun-bleached Sensoji amulet that had been hanging inside. The amulet's already inside our Tacoma. Maybe I'll weld the Volvo ornament onto my bike.

People have relationships with their cars the way they don't with, say, their washing machine. I've never owned a car, so I can only imagine, but it was still sad to see her rolling away from us. Big Dog didn't appear to be too torn up about it, though. There is certainly something new and different in the air. Not only did BD off La Bamba, he's been in the process of trying to sell the first piece of property he bought, when he was still in university.

I might have written about it before, but Big Dog collects real estate the way others collect cars. He's not into real estate the way many people are -- he doesn't buy anything to "flip" and these are not really investments. It's like the guy who loves fine art and pays a bundle for a Picasso and justifies it by telling people about its investment value even though he has no intention of ever selling it. So this new move is a Big Deal. What is going on here?

"I'm finally moving on," he says, but he's usually way more tied to the past than I am. So why now?

When you start letting go, interesting things can happen. We might be coming upon some exciting times...

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