Thursday, May 03, 2007


I'm not still in Japan (see my post below), so I've moved my blog to the following address:

Wondrous things await you.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

late spring

I started this blog about two and a half years ago, living in a borrowed room at a friend’s house, translating for free room and board, living on about $100 a month, rewriting essays until three or four in the morning. And now I’m sitting down to finish it, living in a borrowed room at a new friend’s house, my life stuffed into a backpack. In one week I'll be on the boat to China, not much sense in keeping a blog about not leaving Japan.

I wish I could write more, or better, about what it has meant to live here for close to five years, but I don’t know that it did mean anything. If my four years of liberal arts education in the states was spent putting the world together into discrete and simple stories, battles of justice and freedom over greed and self interest, then the last few years have been a slow dismantling of that. I’m sitting here in the late spring, having graduated from a life in Japan with a first level certification in Japanese, volumes of stories, a better sense of who I am, and a profound confusion over what kind of world we live in.

In August of 2002, the White House was scrambling for an excuse, any excuse, to invade Iraq. The nation was just entering the screaming session over American lives, Iraqi lives and the right to wage war. I had just moved to a village in the mountains of central Japan, to teach rural Japanese schoolchildren the language of America: the language of the modern world.

It would be easy to give a timeline, provide a list of places I lived, experiences I have had, but I don’t think you or I would learn much from that. I lived these four years outside the reach of television, at the most lazily catching news from the New York Times online or the tabloid ads from the train on my morning commute. When did bother to think about it, I brushed the whole thing off as the noisy clutter of the media. I refused to get the internet installed at my apartment. For close to a year I spent whole days, whole weeks, wandering Tokyo with a film camera, taking pictures and trying to figure out what I was doing, what this meant, what I wanted to see. I read books by Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Montaigne. I bought several editions of the Best American Essays series. I renewed my work visa, twice. I wrote in this blog, but not very often.

Last year I began to get very tired. I was working limply at a desk job, every morning and evening coursing through the veins of Tokyo’s commuter rails with millions of other people. People who were born here, people

who feel the tug of this country in their bones, who see America as an abstraction, a caricature. The future, the other, the big, the liberated. Where Conan the Barbarian becomes governor and no one blinks, they’re just shocked to hear he wasn’t born in the US. When push comes to shove their fears are not my fears, I have my American burden, they have their J

apanese ennui.

We shared the life of this city Tokyo, the apocalyptic city. A city whose imaginary death has been played out thousands of times in film and television and my occasional nightmare, and whose real death has been played out twice in eighty years, in earthquakes and firebombings. It is the safest metropolis on the planet, and it feels like it is going to explode.


I was hit by three visions of doom in the past month.

The day I finished reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse the world around me looked about as sturdy as a sand castle. Twenty years ago our visions of apocalypse involved the world ending in a single nuclear blaze, mankind killed instantly in a car crash with destiny. Now it doesn’t look like we’ll have it that easy. Things look like they will be slow and painful, trapped on a globe as the elements thrash around us, rising seas and unbelievable storms.

That very night I decided to calm my mind and rent a video. After watching it, Children of Men didn’t seem like the best choice, but now it does. I spent the two hours literally gripping my knees in horror, as I watched a near future world tearing itself apart. This was the only science fiction movie I have ever seen where the future didn’t only seem plausible, it seemed like it could happen next year. Immigrants from crumbling societies scramble to get into the last remnants of peace and civilization, only to be pushed out by a police state desperately clinging to what they have. Far beyond the immigrant holding pens a government official attempts to gather and preserve Western civilizations greatest artworks, sipping red wine beside the screaming bulk of Guernica, happily oblivious to very real suffering all around him.

Also last month, an album was released by a rock band whose lead singer is exactly my age. He has also moved through twenty seven years, but somehow he has moved himself to a place where he, his wife and his friends can make music that echoes the same feelings love and terror in mine and almost makes me weep in pity. There have been all sorts of extreme reactions to The Arcade Fire’s second album Neon Bible, but for me the hardest blow was knowing that this was made by Americans almost identical to me in age and upbringing. And here they are singing songs that seem to have risen out of my unconscious.

“I don’t wanna fight in a holy war.

I don’t want the salesmen knocking on my door.

I don’t wanna live in America no more.

Cause the tide is high,

And it’s rising still,

And I don’t wanna see it out my windowsill.”

I didn’t either, but looking away hasn’t helped. It’s time for me to get out, take a look at the world, and see what needs to be done here.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

usa notes

Catching the late commuter train back from New York. Two lily white couples get on at 125th st. Same age as me, but with haircuts and overcoats from income brackets in the stratosphere. One couple grabs the two free seats next to mine. On the commuter train the seats are turned front and back in little two and three seater pods, not the long democratic benches of the subway. On our three seat pod I scrunched up against the window with my brand new hardcover and they talked about people they knew. "Look at that skiht though, just look at your skiht. There's practically nothing there." My eyes flicked over to her skirt; deep blue, clinging toddlerlike to a pair of tanned thighs marked once or twice by birth marks or field hockey scars. His voice was marked by objective observation while his fingers ran circles round her kneecap and little forays higher up. I really tried to just enjoy my book, half of me just wishing they could do this somewhere else and the other half of me glad that these guys had sat next to me and given me such a good story.

The other couple spoke up from the seat ahead of us. "Ohmigod my ass is so big, my ass is so big in this photograph." As far as I could get from the furtive glances the photograph was her drivers license. "Can you believe my Dad told me that I looked liked shit in this?" Still waving around the drivers license. "But whatever, I just told him that he was fucking ugly anyway." Okay, I was ready to move now. The boyfriend next to me turned his voice of objective observation to the voice of objective amusement. "Jesus, that's hor-(laugh)-rible (laugh)."

I settled back into the book, but by the time I'd glanced over again her hand (silver ring on the index finger, silver bracelet on the wrist) had moved between his leg, and looked like it was massaging his crotch through the thin black cotton of his trousers. Oh Jesus. Read the book, just read the book. This isn't happening less than a foot away. His jacketed arm is pressed against my own, her hand is pressing firmly along the folds and creases of his... oh for chrissakes! Just get off at the next stop please.

Maybe I've been out of the states too long, but their conversation was as light and breezy as if she'd been running her hand through his hair. He asked about the ring on her finger that was running the length of his member, she lifted up the hand to look at it. "This? Jeez, I haven't taken this off in like, fifteen years." And maybe she was in love, because she slid it off without a second thought, held it with the edge on her fingertips, all three of us with our eyes on the ring, and the finger it had left.

Friday, October 27, 2006

I did it.

I drove one of the fish hauling carts from the Tsukiji Fish Market.

a short list of persons who have emailed me about enhancing my penis

What with all the dope we smoked I can't remember it too clearly, but I think the cornerstone of comedian Patton Oswalt's routine was a joke that went "Oh yeah, and to all you spammers in the audience, just one thing. Spell check your fucking emails." Even sober that joke is pretty funny.

The problem is I think the spamming bar has been raised recently. I came in this morning to find that "Carly Bishop" had taken the time to write me, an average citizen and generally savvy consumer and investor, not about investment oppurtunities, West African bank transfers, the latest advances in shedding weight and enhancing male organs, or the wonders of pound-melting. No, Carly had decided that I, a total stranger would be interested in this: (I've left it unedited)

"it is a proof of your own attachment to hertfordshire. anything beyond the very neighbourhood"she will drop the acquaintance entirely."
"i advise mr. darcy, and lizzy, and kitty," said mrs. bennet, "to walk to oakham mount thisenough to drive happiness away.
catherine de bourgh, does not look on the match with a friendly eye.'claim an acquaintance with you-mr. bingley and his sisters."
"his manners are very different from his cousin's."
come in again and rest herself."you are quite a visit in my debt, mr. bingley," she added, "for when you went to town last
"ah!" said mrs. bennet, shaking her head, "then she is better off than many girls. and what sort
answer, and took her place in the set, amazed at the dignity to which she was arrived in being allowed
"do not give way to useless alarm," added he; "though it is right to be prepared for the worst,
"he has made me so happy," said she, one evening, "by telling me that he was totally ignorant of"i admire all my three sons-in-law highly," said he. "wickham, perhaps, is my favourite; but i
actuated by one spirit, everything relating to their journey was speedily settled. they were to be off as
downstairs. as they passed through the hall, lady catherine opened the doors into the dining-parlour"say nothing of that. who should suffer but myself? it has been my own doing, and i ought to feel it."

I'm no expert, but based on my extensive knowledge of Jane Austen gleaned from BBC costume dramas, it looks like Ms. Bishop decided to email me a fragment of "Pride and Prejudice."

Even with the literary constraints of having to come up with unorthodox spellings and hyphenations to sneak around email filters I think the genre is starting to spawn it's own Shakespeares. Or at least Mark Twains. I have been saving a lot of the crap that finds its way into my mailbox because of the pure genius of the names they come up with. For wacky descriptive character names these guys wipe the floor with David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. Hell, they give Dickens a run for his money. I am tempted to steal these names and write a series of short stories. The ideas just pop right out.

"Tension Q. Denigrates finished his cigarette, flicking it to the rain-slick sidewalk. From the corner of his eye he caught the grimy old geezer on the stoop watch the butt bounce along, fingers tapping against each other in a vague half-rhythm, eyes in anticipation. Tension turned up the collar of his jacket against the wind walked over the abandoned butt, the tip of his cowboy boots grinding the thing to a million little specks. So the vagrants wouldn't scavenge it."

Man, this stuff just flows out.

I've copied the full list below, in the order they arrived to my inbox. Enjoy.

Ricochets V. Jogger
Poseurs B. Tarpaulin
Weller J. Illegalities
Intruded C. Vasectomy
Assuming C. Lascaux
Chariot Q. Whatsoever
Paranoia Q. Breeziest
Missourian M. Suckled
Objector L. Corking
Miscarriage P. Nodded
Prohibition K. Benedict
Atari H. Repackaged
Keywords K. Eyewitnesses
Hybridizing B. Regimented
Geography E. Charles
Implication T. Kapok
Unsuitably U. Politicizing
Armando L. Thrifty
Sellouts J. Laundries
Observatories H. Mushier
Livens Q. Coauthored
Motivating S. Tortoiseshell
Snootiness E. Thundershower
Grunts H. Cenotaph
Vomit J. Brewing
Cudgels K. Methanol
Churchyards U. Forgivable
Briefness K. Sandpapering
Drained E. Eutectic
Gorbachev R. Unhappily
Nudity L. Celerity
Tension Q. Denigrates
Their R. Georgina
Lithographer I. Thunderhead
Boxcar F. Extempore
Misfits E. Mooring
Recount G. Preserves
Mumps I. Swivel
Doling H. Dismemberment
Lamarck O. Ejecting
Headset R. Huntsman
Appliqu H. Inducing
Wildfowls D. Crankiest
Doughty I. Accessibly
Pyxed L. Cruddiest
Francoise R. Piglet
Sidelines Q. Billy
Pacesetters B. Pervasive
Caledonia M. Nazism
Eating L. Coquette
Oceanographer V. Imperfection

(My personal favorites: Keywords K. Eyewitnesses and Snootiness E. Thundershower.)

(And Wildfowls D. Crankiest.)


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

fuck the bomb

North Korea has the bomb. Most likely they are pointing it a few miles south of my apartment. Recently I’ve had a string of apocalypse dreams. Blinding flash of light, running through burning hulks of concrete and melting steel, silver rivers snaking across pavement. Stuff like that


Recently everyone seems to be getting pregnant. Emails from elder cousins arrive with grainy photographs at the bottom. Swaddled infants cradled in someone’s arms, an x-ray of a white creature curled like a shrimp in the big black pond of someone’s belly. People at the office clutter desks and computer screens with pictures of unconscious infants and toddlers grinning like idiots. Yesterday Mori-san was a sensible systems engineer, read the paper at lunchtime, did laps at the pool after work. Today he has pinned a photo of a shrieking bundle of goo next to his monitor. When it catches his eye he’ll sigh for a moment at this thing that has sprouted out of a dab of his semen. His semen.

My boss’ family came to the office the other day, his lovely wife and the scheming little parasite that calls itself his son. What had this thing, barely two years in this world, what had he done to earn our respect? His mother had brought a ribboned box of department store cookies for these men and women at their desks, but the boy just hobbled around with a goofy grin and babbled ungrammatical sentences in this weird squeaky little voice. Yet the girls in research coo over his little hands and his soft hair, the guys in sales quit the dirty jokes and turn their charm on this snotty little creature. His mother handled him carefully, this little goblin that wiggled out of her flesh and into the world. There he is, a Voyager probe launched from her body, and, if their luck holds, into the future.


Every Thursday night I bike out to a dull and quiet suburban neighborhood to tutor a lovely couple in their fifties in English conversation. She has left her job as the manager of an organic grocery to start an all organic baking business named after a Swedish cartoon character. He is on the board of directors of Japan’s largest organic produce distributor, and is currently organizing a national organic agriculture symposium and looking to import organic olive oil from Jordan. We’ll sit down to dinners of handmade sausages and homegrown vegetables, then discuss our week and read a short story or an essay. They giggle and laugh and tease each other in English fragments cut down to the essentials. Every other sentence will remind them of a song from the 60’s. “All You Need Is Love! John Lennon. My favorite!

They have two children, both about my age. Their daughter and their son’s girlfriend got pregnant within two weeks of each other. Everyone lost a few nights sleep, then decided to get married. Their daughter is now in her ninth month, and has come home for the last few months of her term, padding around the house with this basketball hidden underneath her shirt. She sits on a sofa in the corner of the room stitching baby clothes while her parents sit at the dining room table, frowning and giggle over strange words like “lilting” and “superstitious”. “Superstitious? Stevie Wonder! It’s a great song! Ja ja ja ja JA ja ja ja!

Their daughter is still wearing a basketball under her shirt, but their son's wife ejected her volleyball last week. I stopped by on Friday night to drop off a souvenir I'd brought back from a short trip I'd taken to the highlands. They were sitting in the living room flipping through an album of old photographs and drinking from a bottle of Hatsu-Mago sake. They flipped on a music program on public television station and I sat with the thing in my lap, looking at fuzzy photographs, the colors slowly yellowing over twenty-odd years. There were graduation pictures from nursery school, visits to grandma's house and trips to the shrine, little things running around. A picture of their daughter, five years old in the middle of a temple courtyard pulling the hem of her dress right up to the her grinning face. Her mother looked at the picture and collapsed in a fit of giggles. "Kaya, she always... moh!!" She had taken the picture. They poured me a cup of the sake, and we drank to their first grandchild.

"This sake is... from Yamagata. It's name is Hatsu-Mago. The name means..."

"First grandchild?"

"Gah! Jamie, you... moh!"

The other day someone hired two men to sit on folding stools in front of my building and count the pedestrians as they walked by. They were both equipped with a clipboard, a mechanical clicker you depressed with your thumb and a blank stare like the back of a truck. I was off to work, still swallowing the coffee in my mouth, brain straining at the arithmetic I do every morning of current-time + (minutes-to-station,briskly-walking vs. minutes-to-station,flat-out-sprinting) = (train departure time + 50 minutes to get to work?)

If I hadn’t been so preoccupied I would liked to have stopped and asked them a few things. Like, how do you guys divvy up the work? Does one of you count pedestrians going one way and the other the opposite direction or do you guys both just count everyone you see and then they average your numbers together later on? Don’t you guys feel an overwhelming urge to click when the other guy does? Do you wear earplugs to prevent that from happening? What happens if, say, some gangly American walks by you at 8:20 in the morning, then remembers he has left his mobile phone at home, rushes back in front of you to get it, then runs past you again in a frantic effort to make his train? Would you count him once (same guy in five minutes), twice (doublebacked within a few seconds, back again a few minutes later) or three times? How long is a shift for chrissakes? And how much are they paying you to do this? You know, to count of all of us tramping along the pavement. All of us, rushing to work, bumping into each other, having kids, tossing bombs.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


I bought a grey hardcover copy of an E.B. White essay titled “Here Is New York” today. It was one of those things you want to find more of in used book stores, little publishing oddities, a 54-page essay, hard bound, published by Harper & Brothers, New York, the name and address of the original owner carefully written on the title page. Even with one monochrome photograph and a hand sketch in the back there isn’t enough copy to fill the whole thing: there are four whole blank pages in the back of the thing, just flapping away in luxurious uselessness. It cost a little over two dollars, and I finished reading it in less than an hour. There are nice big margins on each page to pad it up to fifty-four pages. Probably just too long for The New Yorker, so they pumped it up to the size of a very tiny book.

It was written in the summer of 1948, a brief little piece on New York, how it feels, how it tastes, what it is. It was a brief little read that made you feel better for reading it, made you feel a little cosmopolitan, a little nostalgic, left a pleasant aftertaste. I usually wouldn’t write about it, but buried in there was one of the strangest and most unnerving passages I have encountered in a book in a long time. It is both a complete and accurate prediction and a totallyy weird coincidence, something that E.B. White took from his own memories of the war but which weirdly echoes our own time. I don’t really have much more to say about it, so I’ll just quote the passage in full:

“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak about much but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, the black headlines of the latest edition. // All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”

Whoa. Weird.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

It's A Boy!

I'm sure all of you have been anxiously following the drama of the Japanese Imperial family, Japan's original reality TV show. Unlike the British royal family, who work extremely hard to provide the public with a fresh turnover of drama and scandals, with occasionally moments of unbelievable weirdness and irony (Lady Di, literally chased to death by paparazzi), the Imperial Family mostly just deals in slow, sadistic, tragedy.

I have pretty much next to no interest in the petty little novels of royal succession and imperial weddings, but they force themselves on me anyway, leading off news broadcasts, the disembodied face of Princess Masako flapping from a tabloid advertisement on my train to work. I mean, I guess I know the outlines of the story. Harvard educated Princess Masako giving up her promising career as a diplomat in order to marry Crown Prince Naruhito, she is unable to produce a male heir, grows depressed and reclusive. She has a baby girl, Aiko, who is the cutest little princess ever. Maybe just cute enough to become... Empress!

Can a girl really do that? Let's forget the fact that girls were empressing all over the place in the 8th century ordering deaths of their enemies, consolidating power; does a girl really have what it takes to be a meaningless, powerless icon in the 21st century? I have a first hand account of the daily rigors that a modern day emperor must endure. My buddy Jolyon is currently in Tokyo doing research on modern Japanese religions, and the emperor pays his rent. To say thanks, he and a few other scholarship winners put on their Sunday best, combed their hair, pulled back their dredlocks, and sat down to drink tea with a living god. While Jolyon and the others nodded, gave brief little descriptions of their research, offered thanks for the rent money and smiled for the cameras, one girl decided her research could not be adequately summarized in a brief response, launching into a twenty minute lecture while Jolyon, the students, the god and his wife clenched their teacups and waited for her to shut the fuck up. But, being an earthly diety, Akihito withstood the onslaught, smiled politely and thanked her for coming. Could a girl be trusted with responsibilities like these?

One hundred and fifty years ago over half the country had never heard of the emperor, they were up to their knees in the mud planting rice so they could pay their local taxes. One hundred years ago the emperor was an oil painting, scowling with through his beard and his Prussian military uniform, chest puffy with medals and gold braid. Eighty-five years ago they didn’t really publicize the emperor too much: he was mildly retarded. Sixty-five years ago his name was on the lips of battalions marching through every corner of the Eastern hemisphere, his portrait in the front of every school room, staring dumb at the millions who repeatedly chanted praises. Fifteen years later, his job (and his neck) spared by the American occupation he shook hands with his beloved childhood friend, America’s Prince: Mickey Mouse. Who knows what havoc a girl might wreak on this hallowed institution?

This is the question that has gripped many of Japan’s best minds for the past year or so, newspaper editorials sounding for and against the idea. Practical minded moderates proposed retracing the imperial line down to some weird cousin. Some conservatives pushed the old “Just conceive through a concubine!” route. Some saucy liberals suggested that maybe we could just let that cute little Princess Aiko be empress, but only her! The rest should be guys! Let’s not get out of hand here. The thuggy far right wingers soon took up the “Males Only!” stance, the message booming from loudspeakers on the black vans draped in Rising Sun Flags. The Crown Prince’s younger brother (winner of the I’m Still In Japan Lamest-Facial-Hair-On-A-Japanese-Public-Figure Award) publicly criticized his sister-in-law: “She is failing her sacred duty to conceive!” Prime Minister Koizumi convened a special commission to look into the issue. Japan’s intellectual climate was whipped into a froth of debating and politicking: Who will be our next Homecoming King and Queen? The country waited with bated breath. Families chewed dinner through the evening news, then Dad flipped the channel to see if “Police Inspector Tamura!” was a repeat this week. Princess Masako smiled through the headaches, wondering why she had given up her diplomatic career to have an entire nation speculate on the condition of her fucking womb.

Well, Princess Masako and the rest of us can take a big sigh of relief, because, like the title said: “It’s a boy!” As usual I wasn’t exactly waiting on this news, it had to walk up and grab me. I was hurrying to work in the Ginza district of Tokyo when I had to wade through packs of camera crews picking off telegenic pedestrians. They usually don’t come out to hunt until noon, getting street interviews from office workers on lunch break and little old ladies laden with department store shopping bags. Ginza is a good area for interviews. The sidewalks are wide, the buildings look good on the screen, the people have enough money and they’ll say nice bland things for the tv. I had always felt safe as a loping and conspicuously non-Japanese pedestrian, but all bets were off the this morning: god had been born, and god was a boy. One of the reporters picked me off, and once my ability to understand and answer questions had been confirmed we launched into the first episode of Jamie: Japanese Pundit.

Q: So, are you familiar with the imperial succession issue?

A: Umm, yes.

Q: Did you know that their Imperial Highnesses Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko had conceived a child nine months ago?

A: Oh, the younger brother? Actually… no, I didn’t.

Q: Well, this morning that child was born! (Voice twinkling with excitement.)

A: Huh.

Q: Do you know what the gender of the Imperial Child turned out to be?

A: …

Q: It’s a boy! What do you think about that?

A: Well… I don’t know, I’ve always wondered what the problem with a having a female Empress is. Actually, to tell you the truth, I don’t really understand what the big deal is.

Q: Thank you so very much for your time!

By noon, everyone at work had heard I’d been on television, and they wanted to know where they could catch the first episode of Jamie: Japanese Pundit.

“I don’t know, I forgot to ask the guy what station he was. Was worried about being late.”

“Well, they probably won’t use you anyway. Just a string of old ladies saying ‘Oh, isn’t that nice...’”