Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Mr. Foot-Kicker"

The ride into work today wasn't overly bad, but Mr. Foot-Kicker was standing next to me and he kicked my foot about twenty times on the way into town. The first five or six times I thought he was just accidentally acting like the big sub-human neanderthal bear he looked like, but after being kicked (and fairly hard, not the usual light accidental tap) about fifteen times, I had to consider the possibility that it was intentional.

The train finally reached my station, and as I got off (receiving a final parting kick from that low-life critter), I walked over to the next train and pondered what to do about it if the beast assaulted my foot again tomorrow. Visions of hitting the emergency door release and throwing him off the train at speed leaped to mind, but that's what bottled up frustration does to the imagination. Getting back on an even keel, I could only think of talking to him - something like this (in Japanese):

"Hi there. How are you today? Is there some reason that you have to haul off and kick me every 90 seconds? Would you mind stopping that please?"

If I'm lucky, the beast will have crawled back under a rock or gone back to its cage at the zoo, and I'll never have to see it again, but no - I see that bugger from time to time on the train, so it'll likely be (shudder-shudder) back.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"The Secret to Studying Long Hours in Japan?"

I've often wondered how some people stay up studying as late as they do here.... I think I've discovered the method - or more precisely, it has gradually dawned on me. Simply put, the method is simple - blast yourself with enough strong light that it's difficult to fall asleep in the middle of the light blast!

As evidence, note the design of typical students study desks here. The key Stay-Awake! feature is a bright florescent tube that not only illuminates the study material open on the desk, but also shines some of its bright light directly into the eyes of the person studying! No wonder they're able to stay awake!

The down side to this method though, is that (many) people get so used to having very bright light blazing away when they are studying/working, that they perceive normal lighting as "dark"....

Lyle H Saxon

Friday, February 22, 2008

"A Desire for Space - 43,200 Rides & Counting"

Growing up in the western area of the US, I didn't like the desert very much - I always preferred lots of trees in the wild on one hand, and lots of buildings and excitement in the city on the other hand. But after 12 years in Japan, I went to the US desert in 1986 and it was just so wonderfully empty! No people! No cars! No trucks! No noise! No buildings! No smoke! Just wonderful, glorious space! And stars! Lots of stars seen through transparent (as opposed to translucent) air!

With this in mind, I sometimes find myself standing in a sardine-packed train - dreaming of sitting in a car, listening to music I like on the car's stereo. That image seems like pure paradise. It wouldn't matter if the car was a traffic jam - it would just feel so nice to have that space all to myself.

There's another element to train travel in mega-city Tokyo that should be explored. Namely the Russian roulette nature of it. The overwhelmingly vast majority of people who ride the rails are decent human beings, who just want to get from point-A to Point-B without molesting other innocent souls, but there are (inevitably in any society on the planet) some unfriendly elements out there in the crowd.

Think of this way - take a two or three hour walk around your city, walking through a park, through a department store, etc. Have a good look at all the people you meet and imagine how it would feel to have them physically pressed up against you.

Ah-ha! You may well have recoiled in horror already just at the concept, without having even gone the mechanics of really imagining it. Go ahead and imagine it, because to comprehend the Russian roulette game of becoming a sardine every morning and every night to get to and from work, you must do this thing. Look at everyone and imagine how it would feel with them up against you. (Guys, I know what you're thinking, but forget it! It's not like that! Also, there's a "Women Only" car for the rush times, and aside from that, women work pretty hard to avoid the horror of RRST - Russian Roulette Sardine Time.)

Also keep in mind the time factor and laws of increasing probability as you spend year after year on the system. With different jobs and whatnot, I think it's averaged out to about two-and-a-half hours (round trip) per weekday, which would mean the following tale of woe and pain:

Five days per week
20 days per month
20x12= 240 days a year
240 days x 24 years = 5,760 days
2.5 hours per day x 5,760 = 14,400 hours
14,400 hours divided by 24-hour blocks=...
600 days in the trains

600 days - more than a year and a half of my life spent on the Tokyo trains. That's bad enough, but what makes me look into the distance with a feeling of something having gone wrong, is that 14,400 hour figure. Go back to your two-hour walk and an inevitable character or two that you would definitely not like to be in physical contact with. You can keep a watch out for unpleasant bipeds, but you can't always spot things in time to avoid them. It's a low percentage of the total - out of 14,400 hours, really bad experiences probably only amount to... say... a few hours, but those few hours out of 14,400 were pretty intensely bad, so the lingering desire not to have them repeat stays with you.

Actually, hours isn't the right unit to look at here. I've both lived and worked in a number of places in Tokyo, not to mention going here and there for one reason or another, and daily train rides have ranged from two minutes (the typical distance between stations on most of the subways), to an hour. The average train ride overall, would probably work out to twenty minutes (although if you take away the hour-long rides, that would fall to fifteen minutes).

So, for the total number of train rides so far, multiplying 14,400 by three should be somewhere on the playing field: 43,200. A relatively small number of those rides have been really bad (very many have been at least mildly unpleasant - probably more than half), but the bad ones have really been bad - some examples:

- While waiting to board a train, someone spit on my backpack from behind - which I discovered as I was taking it off as I got on the train

- I was thrown up on. Not intentionally, but I was still thrown up on! And then I had to transfer to other trains smelling like I had crawled out of the sewer, with people looking at me like "Man! I knew foreigners smelled bad, but this is too much!" (the evil brew seemed to be a mixture if cheap red wine, grilled meat, and stomach acids).

- Back in 1986 this old guy who probably was in WW-II, harassed my wife in front of me (while we were in Kyoto). It could have been worse - an Australian friend of mine nearly throttled a guy who was more persistently harassing his wife in front of him on a train - and in a more obnoxious way than the experience my wife and I had.

- On Monday of this week, as I was part of the mass of people flowing off the train, this powerful neanderthal standing beside the door opening, put his knuckles into the middle of my back, exactly on the spine, and gave a mighty shove - four days later, I still have back pain in that spot and I'm about to arrange a hospital visit to see if my spine has been damaged. The people on my side who stumbled with me away from the mighty shove on my spine are probably the only thing that prevented that beast from breaking my back.

Now you know what prompted my post about heaven on wheels. Sitting here right now typing with my back still in pain, a car interior seems like a blissful paradise of surrounding sheet metal - keeping neanderthals at bay and away from my spine. Some things you wonder if they are accidental or intentional - this could only have been intentional. After all my years riding hellishly crowded trains, I have never even remotely come close to doing to another human being what that the neanderthal did to me. It couldn't have been an accident. (If you're skeptical, keep in mind that in recent years there have been widely reported cases of passengers actually murdering other passengers - like... dead, you know? No more train rides for the dead body left on the platform.)

Many more things have happened, but of a minor nature - being elbowed in the face (not often), being elbowed in the back (all the time!), verbal insults (not often, but also not forgotten), etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. Enough things have happened over 43,200 train rides, that I now approach morning and evening rush hour trains with a feeling of dread and foreboding.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Paradise on Wheels"

My commute is too horrible to even attempt to properly explain, but try telling yourself the following the next time you're sitting behind the wheel in a traffic jam, and feeling frustrated at the lack of freedom of motion.

'No strangers bodies are pressed up against me.'

'No elbows are jammed into my back, sides, etc.'

'No one is stepping on my feet.'

'No one is giving me the evil eye at close range.'

'No one is coughing two feet away.' (As a Tokyo sardine, there is no option of moving away between stations.)

'I can move my arms without irritating ten fellow standing sardines jammed up against me.'

'I can adjust the volume on the stereo' (not possible when you're a Tokyo sardine and can't even reach into your own pocket).

'I roll down the window and breath the outside air if I so choose.'

'When I have a backache, I don't have to stand in pain for three hours a day.'

'Free - free - free! I am free from the he*l of the Tokyo morning crush-rush train system!'

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"A Land of Extremes?"

There is far too much of the picture in mind to get it cohesively on the screen, but I'll try for a tiny piece of it - focusing on one example.

Public school grades and school hours.

In the early eighties, when there were books and articles in the west about the "Japanese Economic Miracle", they invariably mentioned the country's weak point being a lack of originality and inventiveness, which would be necessary if Japan were to begin to - not just effectively implement and manufacture technology invented elsewhere - but to invent and lead the world in technological advances.

There are any number of angles that could be taken in exploring this concept/issue, but to focus on just one of the steps that was taken:

The public education system was rather drastically altered (private school haven't changed much). Two of the most substantial changes being:

1) A five-day school week was phased in, giving kids not only Sunday, but also Saturday off from school.

2) The grading system was changed. For the first year or two of elementary school, instead of regular grades, there were only two (and if this isn't word-for-word accurate, it's very close - I'm basing it on actual report cards I've seen): "Yoku yarimashita" (You did well!), and "Motto ganbarimasho" ("Try harder").
The idea was get kids away from being overly competitive based on a contest for higher scores, so they could relax, be more imaginative, and become more inventive.
I've forgotten the precise progression, but the number of grades was (is?) gradually increased with later grades, with the next step being three - something like: "Taihen yoi" (Very good), "Yoi" (Good), and... I'm not sure, but maybe "Ganbarimasho" (Try harder).

If this had been a system-wide change, it would have brought about a nearly instant change in the next generation, but private schools didn't change along with public schools, and since compulsory education is only through middle school; high school and university entrance tests were still *the* hurdle to clear on the way to a respected education. (Sometimes respected for good reason, and sometimes not....)

So - people in private schools just did what they had always done, and the parents of people in public schools sent their kids to juku's (usually translated as "cram schools") on Saturdays (and/or after school) in an attempt to keep up with the private schools, all focused on doing whatever they could to get past the entrance test hurdle.

Nevertheless - there definitely are fairly large numbers of a new group of people, within the 18-24 year-old crowd, who act substantially different than previous generations of people in this country... but that's been the story for around the past 150 years, so I guess it's just the normal flow of time.

Probably a bigger society-changer was companies giving their employees Saturday and Sunday off, and not just Sunday. Having two days off - people can have more of a life outside the company.

But back to the... strange?, innovative?, system of "Well done" and "Try harder" grades. Hard line politicians and nationalistic groups are pushing to get things back to how there were. One of the slightly scary things they've managed to implement is required singing of the national anthem, required bowing to the flag by each and every student in a ceremony (bow to person-A, bow to the flag, bow to the watching parents, etc.). They are also pushing for a six-day school week and more rigid... everything in general.

Well, that's barely coherent, but I need to get some sleep!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Slashed Bicycle Tires... ('Deru kui wa utareru')"

When I walked past the bicycle parking area of my apartment building yesterday after work, I noticed that the rear tires were flat on a few of the bikes... including my own. A closer look revealed that they had been slashed with something - probably a box cutter. Some details:

- It's not the first time my bicycle has been sabotaged in this apartment building, but nothing (nothing serious anyway) had happened for a couple of years.

- The only bikes with their tires slashed were the type with a lean-type kickstand - as opposed to the big, heavy, cumbersome U-shaped stands that lift the rear tire completely off the ground and whose sole virtue is that the bike can be parked exactly straight, since it's not leaning. (Actually, when there are a lot of bikes to be packed into a small parking area, there's something to be said for this design, but it makes the bike heavier and slower.)

- Taking the bike to a local bicycle repair shop today, the repair guy commented that he had just fixed another customer's bike that also had the tire slashed.

- Reporting it to the police, they also commented that I was not the first one (today) to report that my bicycle had been illegally sabotaged.

Thinking back to the bike I had before that was most often sabotaged (there have been numerous things happen to a couple of my bikes since moving to this apartment building - from punctured tires, to torn-off bell, to various gouges, bends, etc., maliciously inflicted on the defenseless contraction); it was a strangely modified bike (weird handlebars) that had been given to me. I theorized at the time about the unseen/unknown criminal who kept attacking it, that it was some extension of Japan's infamous "Deru kui wa utareru", which is typically translated along the lines of "The post/nail that sticks out gets knocked/hammered down", apparently based upon the concept of a fence with its neat row of uniform posts - when one is at an angle, it's straightened out to put it in line with the others. When one is sticking up higher, a hammer is applied to it to pound it into the ground to the point where it's level with the others... you get the picture. Nice neat posts, all in-a-row, deviation is bad. Great, except people aren't fence posts!

That one bike stood out so much, that I eventually gave up and threw it away. I don't have the resources to hire a 24-hour secret security detail for my bike, and/or set up hidden cameras in order to catch the criminal and put the sorry excuse for a human being in jail, where it belongs, so I got a new bike, making sure to get the most common color at the time, gray/silver. As an extra precaution, as much as possible, I only parked it when no one else was in the bicycle parking area. When someone was there, I rode around the block and came back later when I could slip the bike into the parking area without anyone seeing which bike was mine. (I'm not a regulation-appearance biped in this country, so I didn't want my appearance to cause "Deru kui wa utareru" psychotic behavior being inflicted upon my new bike.) That seemed to work, as I was able to use my bike without it being molested and/or damaged for... about three years I think... until yesterday.

So, I can't be absolutely sure (you almost never can be), but after being on this spot of the globe for nearly 24 years, I think I understand what form of mental illness generated this latest attack on my - and others - bikes. Some looney feels grievously injured & personally insulted that all the bikes are not identical, and so, for God & Country, is waging war on non-standard issue bikes. And (unfortunately) I'm not even exaggerating (much? at all?)... consider these points:

1) Beginning several years ago, it became normal for bikes to sell at from around Y7,000 to Y12,000 (when the cheapest ones used to be around Y30,000). These new cheaper bikes came with the lean-type kickstands and were all - or nearly all - made in China.

2) About a year ago, there was an ad on TV showing a wholesome, pure, innocent housewife riding her bike - she applies the brakes, but - horrors!! The brakes don't work!
The screen then cuts to a stern-faced upper-middle-aged man oozing wholesome nationalistic fervor, who admonishes the TV audience to only buy bikes authorized by some national bike authority. (Incidentally - have you ever had catastrophic brake failure on a bike with it's independent front and back brakes?)

3) Almost immediately after this ad appears, the price of bikes goes up and suddenly they all have those big, heavy, cumbersome, but (I must admit) practical-for-parking, kickstands. (No difference in the brakes, which never were the real issue.)

4) The lean-type kickstand bikes begin to disappear rather rapidly (I remember thinking "How can this happen so fast? Do people really trash their bikes so quickly?"

5) My bike and others - all with the lean-type kickstands - are sabotaged in the bicycle parking area of my apartment building.

I bought a new tire for my bicycle today for Y4,000... but if it's sabotaged again very soon, I'll either have to invest huge sums of money to hire 24-hour guards for the bike, or else throw in the towel by trashing it and getting a regulation clunker with the heavy-type kickstand. "Deru kui wa utareru" rules it seems. But it sure would be satisfying to see the scum who is out attacking people's property apprehended, beaten, fined (to pay for the damage), and thrown in jail.

Oops. I guess I shouldn't say that? But why not?

One final detail - while the stand-straight kickstands can be good, they're only good when the lock tab they come with is locked (which people almost never do) after the bike is lifted up to set the stand under it (holding the rear tire off the ground). When the lock isn't set, if you very slightly bump into the back of the bike, it rolls forward off the kickstand, triggering the double-springs on the kickstand (part of its rather excessive weight) to pull it up, and the (suddenly kickstand-less) bike falls to one side with no support at all. If the the bike next to it is a lean-type bike, there is often enough force to hold it, but when you have a row of ramrod-straight bikes on the heavy stand-straight stands, the entire row will spectacularly fall down like so many dominoes. Come to think of it - I take back my comment that the stand-straight stands make some sense. They don't. They suck. The only thing that really was bad about some of the lean-type bikes, were the ones with oversize baskets in front (nearly all bikes in Japan come with baskets in front), which took up so much space that they caused some serious parking problems when a lot of bikes were packed together.

Phew! Rant over!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

"Reading Books with Nintendo-DS"

I mentioned before that I hadn't seen anyone reading a book with a cell phone (based on direct observation of the screens of my fellow vertical sardines on the crush-rush trains), but today I saw someone reading a book with an electronic device. Not a cell phone, but a Nintendo-DS, which seems to work quite well for reading Japanese, as if you turn it sideways, it even resembles a book with text on both the left and right screens, similar to the open pages of a real book. I'm not sure how well the very narrow screens would work for horizontal English, but the vertical Japanese I saw looked fine. Easy to read (if you understand all the characters that is) lines of text running from top to bottom.

Considering the narrowness of the screen, for English, it would probably be easier to read with the screens horizontal. It looked pretty cool being held with the screens vertical though - rather like a real book! It did occur to me though, that the backlights in the screens must keep battery life on the short side. If they make a folding two-screen device that utilizes incident light instead of backlighting (which they should be able to do just for displaying text - something like old digital watches), and the screens are a little bigger... *and* if the device runs an open-source software like Linux, then I'll rush out and get one.

Seeing a book displayed on the Nintendo-DS, it seems like something I would like, but only if I could drop in my own text files. (The screens of most cell phone are too small to work very well for this application.)

I think I've figured out what's what with recent articles outside Japan about cell-phone books here. There have been articles outside Japan about "cell phone books" in Japan, and I think it's being assumed that people are reading books on cell phones. It could be that this is also happening, but what I've seen on the local media over here are stories about books *written* with cell phones, and then printed as regular (on paper) books.

To understand why someone would even attempt to write a book with a cell phone instead of a device with a proper keyboard, consider a few things:

1) the vast majority of people here get around by train instead of car (in the cities in any case - the countryside is another matter), so they have travel time to stand (not very often sit) and write with a pocketable device. (I've seen a couple of loonies who harass people for using cell phones in any capacity on the train, but generally, writing text with one is considered okay (in contrast with talking, which is considered very nearly absolutely taboo now).

2) In a practical sense, for a lot of people here (and everywhere, or is there something unique about this?), their cell phone is their computer, and so all their personal e-mail and writing is done with the one device.

3) When writing in Japanese with a standard keyboard, people go through two conversion processes with their text. First from "romaji" (western A-Z characters) to hiragana (a Japanese phonetic script), and then from hiragana to kanji (the complicated characters originally from China). With cell phones, they just go directly from hiragana input to conversion to kanji, so while they're losing speed with thumb input, they're gaining it in a simpler input process. (There is also the option of direct hiragana input with a standard keyboard, but for touch typing, it makes more sense to just learn one input method, which can then be used for both English and Japanese.) People who can touch type can still write more quickly with a full-size keyboard, but for someone who hasn't learned to type well, it can even be faster to input text with a cell phone via direct hiragana input.....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Thursday, February 14, 2008

"General Moods"

I dug out, and have been watching, some video tapes I took in 1991. At the time, there were news stories about worsening economic conditions, and 1991 is listed as the year that the "bubble economy burst", but for most people living here, it was just headlines and not something that directly affected their lives personally. Actually, the land price and stock price rocket ride was also just a TV story for most people (what percentage of the population was actively buying land and/or stocks?)

Now - writing this from 2008, the repercussions of the excesses (the peak seems to have been in 1989), have long since sunk in and are still being felt, and it's something that has directly affected a lot of people by this point. What is striking to me as I watch the 1991 video footage (many hours of it all taken all over Tokyo and in the surrounding countryside), is how the main body of the population was still awakening from a more austere Japan around 1986-91, and how - in 2007-08 - the seriousness of things is just starting to sink in for many people. Simply put, in one sense, during the "good times", people were in more of a mindset of struggle-to-survive, and in the current semi-bad times, people are still riding a richer lifestyle?

I'm not verbalizing the thought very well, but (one more try) there seems to be both overlap-lag (carryover from the preceding era) and realization-lag (it takes a while for a change to sink in). Add to that the opposite....

Last night on the train, I was feeling melancholy about the commute (I don't really like becoming a vertical sardine for three hours every day), and since I had gotten on last at one station (I had to get off to allow biped flow from the inner part of train away from the doors), I was standing next to one of the eight (four per side) doors. I leaned against the door (doors actually - two per opening) and idly looked into the window; simultaneously seeing the outside flowing by and the other people in the train. I noticed that people seemed to be feeling the same subdued feeling... almost a foreboding of worse times ahead? Has the two-decade long string of often bad economic news sunk in to our bones, or are we feeling an air change brought on by a coming storm (hopefully not tsunami)?

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Monday, February 11, 2008

"Nearly Full Circle..."

There was a time in my life when I thought that trees and sky above were ordinary things, and I sought out the excitement of big city life. Exciting skyscrapers! Trains running underground! Excitingly shaped glass & steel everywhere.... Now all those big city things are ordinary, and trees and sky above are the new sought-for exotic component to life! There really is something to be said for balance - a balance of big city and multiple forms of life. Mono-culture in society and elsewhere is profoundly soul-killing and boring.

Short - but that's what is on my mind these days, and in that spirit, I was pleased to discover a small park in Ota-ku - Senzokuike Park - shown at night in a few images on this page:

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

"Happy Friday (Last One Before Valentine's Day)"

"Happy Friday (Last One Before Valentine's Day)"

Friday's are always nice, but this past Friday, it seemed like the women in my section were more electrified than usual. "Hmm... I guess they've got something planned" thought I. Feeing like doing something to unwind a little, I stopped by Ebisu on the way home and looked around - idly noticing happy-looking fashionable women to the right, to the left, behind, in front, all around! "Hmm... it must just be one of those things - like a full moon or something" I mused.

The next day - it finally hit me what's going on! The day before had been the last Friday before Valentine's Day! Keep in mind that Valentine's Day here is not the same as in the West - here it's the day when women give chocolate to men. (A month later - on March 14th, is when men give chocolate to women. For more details, see your friendly Google search engine.)

I did notice that the shop I bought some things at was selling chocolate in front of the store, and there were several women looking over the display, but it wasn't until Saturday that I began to wonder if the more-festive-than-usual atmosphere the day before was due to the coming romantic day? I'm still not sure, but it seems like it might have something to do with it - a last chance to get together with friends and discuss what/who/where/how/etc?

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

"Are Two Spaces Illegal?"

I'm migrating away from Netscape Composer 4.0 (from the deep misty reaches of ancient time - for those of you who don't know what that is) to newer software (non-MacroBucks of course) and I'm coming upon my original complaint with MacroBucks Word 7.0, back in 1996. MB-7.0 had this weird deal where you could have one space between sentences, or you could have three, but the bloody program would not allow two!!

Now why would they do that? Did they have a meeting and in the meeting some typical, but truly horrible, mid-level management bozo came up with the wonderful idea of eliminating double-spacing? (Probably not for that reason, but it's truly amazing how much damage is inflicted on the world by mid-level management trash!) In any case, what happened is that you got one space by hitting the space bar once (breath-taking concept, that) but then, when you hit it a second time, you got two more spaces, for a total of three spaces for two hits on the space bar! Maybe someone thought that "Three for the price of two!" was a spiffy sales phrase, so they went for "Three spaces for the effort of two!"? It doesn't make any sense.

Anyway, this unforgivable behavior pushed me to using text editors to write with and I only used the horrible MacroBucks program Word when forced to at work. (Some later versions of Word were less obnoxious with the spacing than version 7.0, come to think of it.) Now, with HTML, I'm finding that my double spaces between sentences are being reduced to single spaces. Why?! Who sat down with the programmers and told them "Look, we have to do something about double spaces between sentences. It must not be allowed! Program the application so that it eradicates one of the spaces every time someone puts two of them between sentences."? Grrrrrr....!!

Hate that as I do, I can still live with it. And then there's the spacing between paragraphs! when I hit the Enter key at the end of a paragraph, the application gives me a line space down... so I'm already to go with the next paragraph. Okay... irritating (it should take two hits of the Enter key to get there), but also something I can live with. But then if I want to have two line spaces between paragraphs, I get (shades of MacroBucks Word 7.0), three lines spaces when I hit the Enter key again - "Three line spaces for the effort of two!" Why?!

Since the programmers for these HTML programs I use seem to have been infected with Mid-level management disease, I realized that I would have to look at my old HTML pages and get into the code to fix modern damaged HTML. I'm not sure of the cause of the extra spacing between paragraphs yet, but I think I've discovered the cause of the space-killer between sentences. It seems to be this: "&quot". Proper double-spacing can be had via "&nbsp". I'd rather not have to go on search & replace missions in the code for everything I write, but bad programming is forcing me in that direction.

People can write however they want to write, but I really resent programs forcing me into someone else's style! ...... Well... anyway.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon