1996--What a year it's been!
Hello everyone. One thing I thought was sorely missing from all my New Years' Postcards (nengajou in Japanese--one of my favorite traditions) was a synopsis of the past year, Steve Hall style. So without further ado, here's what happened to me and my family in 1996:
The year started off on a turbulent note. After finding a Japanese-language survey from the University Policy Study Group (Daigaku Shingikai--a government-sponsored and controlled society of scholars and concerned parties used to legitimize ministerial policy drives) in my mailbox which actively supported the phasing out of tenure for foreigners, I spent an all nighter near my birthday (Jan 13) recording the details and getting the information out to the public on the internet. It attracted attention from a group of non-Japanese scholars called TADD (Teachers Against Discriminatory Dismissals), who, having been fired and replaced by cheaper foreigners, finally found a "smoking gun" in an otherwise opaque and unaccountable policy-making arena. The "ninkisei" (term limit system) issue became a hot topic on ISSHO and Fukuzawa debate networks, and embassies got involved in the protest (Ambassador Mondale making it a pet issue. Pity we lost him.) By the end of this year, as predicted, the Ministry of Education unveiled its Master Plan--to eliminate tenure for everyone--heralding the success of its money-saving measures on the gaijin guinea pigs. It was not a good year to be an educator in Japan.
February and March saw my two big projects come to fruition. The first was my two textbooks, CAN WE DO BUSINESS? (Intro to Business English) and SPEAK YOUR MIND (Intro to Debate), which were written in the final quarter of last year. The product of three years of experimental teaching, this manuscript was polished for months, draft after draft, drawing after drawing. April saw everything get published (along with one academic essay on the New Zealand economy).
But the books were a Backburner Activity. What really took up my winter "vacation" were--no, not just the entrance exams--the videos. Enlisting the help of around 20 students and friends, and coordinating their practice schedules and diction, I made an accompaning set of videos for all the dialogs in the above textbooks. 64 dialogs in all, or on average about three a weekday. Even featured my wife and kids for a segments on "marketplace bargaining" and "Japaneseness". Those videos would be put into full use as school started, and my new satellite broadcasting courses got underway.
This was in early April. I began broadcasting live English classes to way stations all over Japan--as part of a government-sponsored "satellite broadcast" showcase to show how advanced this island nation is remaining. Teaching in Japanese, I explained how to buy from and sell to non-Japanese in both the US and Japan in my Business English course. This was all on top of my regular five classes in HIU, one extra part-time class in Hokkaido Institute of Technology (a real screw-up of a school), and my new evening lessons at Nihon Keizai Shinbun, the Air Self Defense Forces, and others. On the very top of that came "schooling"--three weekends a semester teaching intensively Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nine am to five pm, at some distant location (Osaka and Kita-Kyushu, this year). This would last until July.
Suddenly some news came up, and my wife and I were launched on another project. Japan would be foisting its financial mistakes on the taxpayer (to make up for the near-collapse of the Home Savings and Loan system--Juusen Mondai) by raising our consumption taxes, from 3% to 5%, at the start of the next fiscal year, April 1997. Since we were paying $1000 a month for rent anyway, we realized that now would be a good time to buy a house. We spent June and July undergoing a crash course in how to mortgage our life away. Interest rates were miniscule (3.4% and 3.7% variable) and the sales taxes, provided we placed a house order by end October 1996, would stay at 3%.
Wrinkles occurred when we began sniffing and digging. Some shady homebuilders kept changing their estimates for the house by tens of percents, others kept stressing how the rise of the yen (it had been floating insignificantly between 105 and 113 to the dollar) would make prices go up anyway. Other high-pressure and gouging techniques made me blow a gasket, and stop searching. I realized I would never, never buy a home built by a Japanese builder. Especially here. In Hokkaido they are ugly, shoddily-built shoeboxes (not meant to last past thirty years--drafty shacks after ten), and goddamn expensive. Imported houses were not much better--since absurd sourcing and quality laws keep the locals in good nick--and it's the junior-high-school dropout carpenters who build everything anyway. Click here to see my preliminary report on house building on my essays page.
We did find one gem in all the bull--our piece of land. Out in the middle of big-sky countryside Nanporo town, we found a corner plot adjacent to fields that was four times the size of a Tokyo plot (twice the size of a Sapporo) at a mere $100 Gs. We snapped it up and, since anti-speculating laws require us to build on it within three years, will probably build and move out there in 1997 or 1998. We just have to save around $80 Gs for the downpayment...
Hence, by summer, we realized I was in Japan for real. Land, 30-year mortgages, building something more than a hut means permanent residence, and that's what I applied for, visawise, because banks don't grant loans to accidental tourists.
Going into Japan's version of the INS (nyuukoku kanri kyoku), I asked what I needed to do. Those requirements are listed elsewhere on this web page, so I won't retell. But one story I didn't recount (I know this is supposed to be a summary, but I can't resist) was why I got my Permanent Residence in record time:
In May, I had dropped by Japan's INS to inquire, since my visa would be running out right in the middle of our summer European trip. The young advisor said I should wait for a bit and renew a month before, and I said okay. I was about to leave when I asked him a question unrelated at all to the law:
"Excuse me, but where did you get your tie?"
He blinked and wondered what the hell I was getting at. "This tie?" he said. It was a blue polyester jobbie with the white words IMMIGRATION in English running up it at 45 degree angles, like a barbershop pole. Nothing to write your home page about.
I said: "I like it, actually. Would be an addition to my collection of interesting ties. Imagine the irony one of my students would feel if he saw a foreigner looking like a government offical. Might get a laugh."
It was too ironic for him to get. He just said, literally, "I got it from above" (ue kara moratta n desu). So what did I do? I left JINS, got into the elevator and rode it to the top of the building, expecting to find some sort of supply store. Asking around, I got the lowdown from a confused local bureaucrat, who set me straight: things like neckties come from the bosses in Tokyo, not from up here, and they're not available to the public at any price.
I went back downstairs to my friend in Immigration and said shucks, no luck with the tie. Can't get it from above after all.
The whole Immigration staff burst into laughter. I'm sure that these guys see a lot of dumb foreigners so they're pretty jaded--but I think I took the cake.
In a perfect world or in Japan, the guy with the tie would there have taken it off and given it to me after all my trouble. But he wasn't senior enough, so rules were followed. Alas.
Now, why isn't this story covered up in the annals of "embarrassing stories best left as best-friends' secrets"? Because there is method to my madness. Bureaucrats are bastards; everybody knows that. But like a First Date, once you make your partner laugh, magic happens.
Same goes for my Immigration Necktie Man. When I went back to Immigration in late June, they said that I can apply for a Spouse Visa (haiguusha biza) and my Permanent Residence (eijuuken) at the same time. Spouse I can definitely get, PR probably, but PR might take some months to process. I said that that wouldn't mesh with my plans--we would be leaving for Europe for six weeks starting late July, and didn't want to pay the high costs for both visas (when one would suffice) and screw things up by not being here when the paperwork comes through.
The man there said why didn't I come in sooner and discuss that with them? I said I did--over one month ago, and your man, a Mr Tanaka (I had his name written down after our last consultation--ALWAYS GET NAMES TO HOLD BUREAUCRATS ACCOUNTABLE), told me to wait.
"Oh, Tanaka-san", they said, "Did you say that to this gentleman?"
Tanaka came over, took one look at me, and smiled. Said I: "I like your tie", and the whole office laughed again.
"We'll see what we can do." And my forms were filled in and processed.
My fellow prof here at HIU, Simon, said it took nearly three months for him to receive his Permanent Residency. I got a call from Immigration in early July. I got it in three WEEKS--which is the fastest anybody's ever heard of. "We pushed your papers to the front...," they said sheepishly when I came in for stamps in July.
Only in a perfect world. Or in Japan.
July was crunch month (Gosh, after all this writing, we've only covered six months. I promise to be more terse.) Aside from the house stuff, first semester final exams, and a weekend teaching intensively down in boiling hot Kyushu, Aya's dad (we call him jiichan) Sugawara Yoshio went under the knife. A man with a history of heart trouble (a myocardial infarction twenty years ago), the docs gave him "drop dead anytime" prognosis unless he had triple-bypass surgery for heart-muscle arteries. July he went under, and was recuperating faster than a man his age should.
Then we left him behind. July was the start of the Eurotrek, where we bundled both kids with backpacks for six weeks Eurailing. July 27 to Sept 6 (summer holidays--love being an academic). I had gotten a little over $10 Gs for my two textbooks, so we decided to spend it on seeing nonagenarian Aldwonker one last time, throwing in side trips around England, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy and Germany to make it all worthwhile. I won't get into the details of the trip. You can access the whole saga (with PHOTOS!) on this web page by clicking here. But it was well worth it, even with a one-year old and a three-year old in tow.
September started when we got back, and I got on with my new courses, satellite broadcasting, and whatnot, finding Japan in the throes of a new general election that was fully predictable. It was nice to have a relative break, until October rolled around, and another ninkisei-esque issue came up to keep me all nice and busy again.
If you've been on my Friends List, this is old news: Kume Hiroshi, anchorman on one of Japan's most popular news programs, is famous for causing trouble with his (refreshing) offhand remarks. On Oct 14, one got a little too bracing--where he sniped at a bilingual foreigner in Japan for being too fluent--saying that it'd be better if foreigners spoke broken Japanese (shikashi gaijin wa nihongo ga katakoto no hou ga ii yo ne). I made a public protest, friends joined in, and the ball got rolling. Two months later, the issue is still not dead, with an article coming out on Christmas Day showing the recalcitrant TV station trying to keep a lid on it all. If you want to see it all, click here.
The year's final project is what you're reading now. I started this home page on November 17, and in between exams and classes, I archived a surprisingly large collection of essays and articles that I think are very germane to the US-Japan debate that shows no sign of abating. Few, if any, countries inspire so much dissent over its world view and designs as Japan does. That is because Japan is very cagey about showing the world what it really wants. And it has ways of fomenting that very dissent--paid lobbyists in the fractious and overargumentative American polity, surprising degrees of control over the mass media (for domestic mobilization and overseas image control), a degree of nationalism producing us-and-them views of the world even at the most personal level, and a generally invincible and unaccountable career bureaucracy that keeps the elite invisible, inexorable, and impugn.
Now, before you start thinking "Oliver Stone" is my middle name, just keep in mind evidence is evidence, and the facts of the case bear mentioning. That is one purpose of my home page--to keep the debate alive until issues reach resolution. Archiving is one good way to save one's keyboard from meltdown, and save one's mind by avoiding the tedium of covering old ground. That is why this page is more than just a "look mom, I'm on the Web" sort of thing. I hope you will give it a good look.
And that's just about it, in synopsis. All in all, 1996 was a good year. Two books, land, new and lucrative courses, European trip, the Ninkisei and Kume Gaffe issues to keep the mind awake, and a place to archive it all in. The wife and kids stayed healthy, thank heavens, and though the possibility was there, nobody died. We hope that 1997 holds as many pleasant surprises and as many important events in our lives, and in yours.