Archive for April, 2011

The Meat of Japan

Click to enlarge

So for those that do not know, the Japanese have slightly different priorities to the west when it comes to cooking meat. Generally in Australia the best meat has very little fat. Japanese meat is often cut in what would be considered unusual ways for us and contains much more fat, marbling the flesh. Personally I am a fan of Japanese meat: it is tender, juicy, and falls apart in your mouth. Ingrid is definitely not a fan, but we all know she is a racist!

I had a lot of fun explaining to my school kids how we eat kangaroo meat in Australia. They wouldn’t believe me. It actually took quite a lot of convincing, diagrams drawn on the board, and descriptions involving a generous helping of broad, expansive hand gestures (sell it, Alan, sell it!). Several different kids in different classes asked, “what part of the kangaroo do you eat?” and I would delight in telling them anything I felt like at the time. “Oh, the ears are the best” or “tail-steaks”. They were almost all of them so horrified. I mean, it’s not like I said something like “Just the Joey. We only ever eat the Joey”. I’m not sure if the fact that it is one of our national animals that made it so hard for them to accept the idea but the cuteness factor of the kangaroo certainly had a huge role to play. I decided to test this theory not because I am a sadistic bastard but purely in the interests of increasing the pool of general human knowledge. “Has anyone here eaten rabbit?”, I asked.

Bit of background information may be required at this point. Rabbits are very uncommon in modern Japanese cooking, at least in any part of the country I have ever been to. However the rabbit is very common in Japan as a pet, and in particular every elementary school I taught at kept a hatch full of rabbits as school pets. I think my descriptions of rabbit stew earned eternal hatred from some of the students, their little eyes burning holes in my back while I wrote English vocabulary throughout the rest of the semester. To their protests I simply replied, “But they’re SO GOOD!” with what I hoped was an innocent and wide-eyed expression.

Talking to them about kangaroo kebabs I was met with incredulity. Introducing rabbit stew into the conversation earned me their revulsion, but they no longer doubted the veracity of my tales of kangaroo meat. At the point where I earned a certain amount of cred was when I would start talking about koala steaks.


Taking out the Trash

No seriously, it was hard.

Imagine one day suddenly deciding to move to another country. Now imagine that you have to do it as soon as possible because you aren’t completely sure you’ll be safe in the event of an escalation in a nuclear catastrophe. I did it in three days.
It was kind of like going to the toilet super drunk. You have a clear idea of your goals: get out of the country/relieve the pressure in your bladder. But then when you go about the task you discover that thinigs aren’t as simple as you expected – you have to jump through hoops to cancel your lease / you need to excersise your motor skills and get that fly undone. You see the toilet bowl, it’s right there, but now you have to do all this stuff to actually do it? Damn.

Now imagine you are in a country where the toilet system is unfamiliar to you and totally weird (which by the way traditional Japanese toilets are). You can’t ask anyone for help because it’s embarrassing and anyway you don’t speak the language perfectly. In the act of awkwardly pulling off your jeans and squatting over that alien toilet you are acutely aware that you may be doing it wrong, and offending all kinds of customs in the process of trying to achieve your goal. But your goal is important and there is significant time pressure. You have to be the sort of person who will sacrifice social niceties in order to get what you want. You have to be the sort of person who, in the event that you can’t actually figure out how to use this damn toilet, pee outside the bowl.

I did that – I did some things I really didn’t want to do and inconvenience some innocent Japanese people in order to leave the country as soon as possible. I left my employer in the lurch by cutting my contract. It was sad but I dumped our faithful bicycles in a public area, becuase there was no other way.

In Japan they have an idiotic trash seperation/collection system. Certain kinds of garbage must be sorted into categories and only certain kinds of garbage can be collected on specific days. Sounds good, you say? Sounds environmentally conscious or something? Well I say “idiotic” because while the Japanese are seemingly unanimous as to the importance of properly disposing of one’s own trash, when asked what the purpose of this strict system of categorisation and seperation is no one can offer an answer. Is it recycling? Who knows. Why are plastic bags sometimes considered “Burnable” trash? No answer can be given. People are very willing to talk self-righteously about the social responsibility of garbage disposal without actually knowing why. Not only this but since the collection days for garbage are set and you can only throw out your trash little by little over the course of a week, in a tiny Japanese apartment you are left with a significant pile of trash (often containing rotting foodstuffs) that you cannot throw out when you need to. If you do throw it out early then be prepared to face the anger of your neighbours. In our case because we lived in an apartment block filled with foreigners, we had regular problems with tenants not disposing of their garbage on the proper day and thus rotting garbage sat outside our block for days, sometimes strewn across the street. In the last couple of months in our stay we had a recurring problem where our bicycles were vandalised and the air in the tires were let out, the caps for the airtube stolen. This was almost certainly a neighbourhood retaliation for the garbage problem.

I am the sort of person who loathes inconveniencing strangers, especially if they are Japanese. Being half Japanese myself I know just enough about the culture to know how much i don’t know, and that I am in constant danger of committing a terrible disservice to those around me with my gaijin ways. For the most part the Japanese are extremely generous regarding foreigner faux pas but this doesn’t serve to make me feel any better about putting my foot in it.

Social Blunder

So it was with a great deal of nervousness that I discovered, given the time pressure, I could not PROPERLY dispose of certain articles of trash left in my apartment, one of them being an inconveniently long metal laundry pole. I’d been informed by my employer that if any trash was left in the apartment upon my leaving then the real estate company would charge large sums of money, hundreds of dollars, to dispose of it themselves – regardless of the size or the amount of trash. Considering we had already lost thousands in our desperate scramble to leave the country this was not something I could afford to have happen. I regarded the offending object with fear and hatred, and wracked my brain for an answer to the problem at hand. Dumping the bicycles was heartbreaking, but also physically easy: I rode them, one by one and on seperate days, to a bike parking lot and just left them there. Totally inconspicuous.

Totally inconspicuous.

Getting rid of this damn laundry pole on the other hand could land me in some significant trouble. I had no idea what the penalty was for dumping trash in Japan but considering The Law’s scarily draconian attitudes towards gaijin transgressors in the past, I didn’t want to risk being spotted and I kind of had no clue where an appropriate dumping ground would be anyway. I had to be careful about this. I had to be… smooth. That’s when I had this brilliant idea.

Ingrid and I had witnessed our next door neighbour fleeing the country a few days prior. His balcony was possibly within reaching distance from ours. They weren’t exactly real balconies: they were tiny cramped affairs specifically for housing the air conditioner and for hanging laundry, so I was sort of afraid the whole thing would collapse under my weight. When I dropped the pole with a loud CLANG I couldn’t hurry back inside: Since my weight on the balcony was a problem I had to escape veeeery sloooowly, and then I had to climb awkwardly back into the window. So that is what I did, in the freezing cold of a Japanese winter, trying to be as quiet as possible and hoping I wouldn’t be spotted, during a blackout in Omiya.


As I’m sure you’re all aware by now, Alan and I have fled Japan and are now safely back in Australia. So what happened?

On Monday 14th March (3 days after the earthquake), the trains were all down at Omiya station (which is the 3rd largest station in Japan, by the way, so that was a big deal in itself) so Alan and I couldn’t go to work. Instead, we stayed at home all day watching the Japanese news and reading the international news, and consulting with friends and family back in Australia. We were scared enough by the worsening situation at the nuclear reactors in Fukushima that we went to see our bosses to tell them we were leaving. I think the idea in our heads at the time was that we could escape back to Sydney for 2 or 3 weeks, and come back once the reactors were under control and things had calmed down a bit. With the option, of course, of not returning at all if the situation got out of control and dangerous.

I should explain here the way things stood with our jobs. At that time, there were only 2 weeks left of the school year, so classes were winding up anyway. After that, the students and teachers have a 2 week holiday before the new school year starts (on April 8th). So we could give Japan up to 4 weeks to prove to us that it was habitable. Predictably, our bosses did everything they could to try to convince us not to leave. They said we were far enough away not to be at risk no matter what happened, and that the situation at Fukushima was under control. They also said that if we left now we would lose their trust and most likely will not be welcome back. Alan and I took this all on board and, after a discussion over Ventrillo with some of our cannier friends back in Sydney we decided the risk wasn’t high enough yet to throw away everything we’d worked so hard to set up in Japan.

The next day was the graduation ceremony for my 3rd grade students. Ceremonies like this are a big deal in Japan. They had already spent a couple of days practising for it. For this reason, and because I knew it would be my very last chance the see my 3rd years, I made a big effort to get there, in spite of transport problems. But checking the news at work after the ceremony was over, I found out that reactor #2 had exploded. Reactors #1 and #3 had both had explosions over the weekend, but the reactor vessels were still intact so there was no radioactivity leak. But this time, there was a dramatic increase in radioactivity, indicating that the containment vessel had been breached.

Fortunately I had no classes for the rest of the day, so I spent the afternoon reading international news reports. This is when I read that radiation levels in Saitama (where I live and work) were now 40 times the normal level. Alan and I were on the phone to each other a lot while we were at work that day to keep up-to-date, and so I heard that his school had been sent an emergency safety notice from the Board of Education telling them that even though there was nothing to worry about, they should avoid letting the kids outside for the time being (!!!). His school was also receiving calls from panicked parents asking if they should come to pick up their kids. My school hadn’t heard anything along these lines (that I know of), so I told another teacher who then told the principal. He said it was an overreaction and our school wouldn’t do anything like that.

By this time, Alan and I had made our decision. He called our bosses and quit on the spot. I contacted our travel agent in Australia to get flights home ASAP. And then I only had half an hour to say a stealthy farewell (stealthy because I hadn’t told the principal yet) to the English teachers that I worked with.

That was really the worst. For one thing, they were all so incredibly surprised. They didn’t know that I had even been considering leaving, so it was really sudden. And I think they couldn’t really understand why I was leaving. I think the general feeling amongst the teachers at my school was that the problem was serious and terrible, but also far away and very unlikely to affect them. So I think they couldn’t really see the need for me to leave, and certainly not so suddenly. And of course, Japan is their home. So I think they felt that if something bad was going to happen, then it would just happen and there was nothing they could do about it. I guess I can understand that (although I would still consider taking a holiday to southern Japan if I was them), but I’m not Japanese. I had somewhere I could run to.

Alan ended up having to stay in Japan a couple of days longer than me because I had bought a return flight (for visa purposes) and only had to change the date, whereas he had to buy a ticket from scratch and it would have cost over $5000 (!) to get the same flight as me.

So we packed as much as we could into our luggage, posted a few boxes off to Australia, and (with heavy hearts) threw a whole lot of stuff in the dumpster. This was all the stuff that we didn’t love quite enough (like my work shoes that were a bit too big), bulky items (like our fold-out table and the futon) and stuff you can get back in Aus (like the iron). We also had to abandon our bicycles (T_T). Of course, we had known all along that we’d have to abandon all this stuff eventually, but we spent a lot of money setting ourselves up in Japan because we thought we’d be there for a couple of years. The investment is much less sensible when you’re only there for 6 months!

On top of these hassles, Alan had to take care of the mundane stuff like settling things with the utilities companies and cleaning the apartment for inspection. Of course, the real estate company we rented from charged us every fee they could think up (2 months rent plus cleaning – about 200,000 yen (more than $2000) all up).

The final time we went in to our company to tie up the loose ends they were generally pretty helpful (although one of the Americans that we had liked was clearly furious at us). They got me to write a letter to my teachers and another one to the students. I’m sure they will censor them though. I only alluded to my reason for leaving in my letter to the students, but the bosses might think even that is too much. After all, those kids have to stay in Saitama so they might freak out if they knew I was leaving because I didn’t think it was safe! I understand that, but I’m still sad to think that my students will think I left for no reason. Maybe they think I didn’t care enough to say goodbye 😦

My biggest regret about leaving the way we did is leaving my students, especially without a chance to say goodbye. A lot of them were really awesome. I was especially fond of my 2nd year students. Those classes were split in two so I only taught 20 students at a time, and consequently got to know the students pretty well. I hate to think that they might think they weren’t important to me, because they (especially my favourite students: Akashi, Ookahata, Morita, Hakuri, Yoshida, Sakai, Isobe, Sate and Sudo) were a big part of why I loved my time in Japan so much.

Anyway, that was that. I left the country only about 30 hours after we made the snap decision to flee. I don’t regret the decision to leave. We had said we would leave if things got worse, and they got worse. In fact in the week that followed, the situation got progressively worse and worse, and every moment I felt more justified in my decision. But at the time it wasn’t easy, particularly with all the Japanese people around us telling us we were being paranoid and overreacting.

I still feel pretty down when I think about everything we left behind. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve lost something I can never get back. I had a really good relationship with each of my English teachers, and I still can’t believe I’ll never see most of them again. Saying goodbye to my two favourite teachers was distressing. In one case because he had tears in his eyes, and the other because the last expression I saw on his face was… I don’t know… disapproving? And I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Shimizu-sensei 😦

Anway, that’s the whole story. I’ll write later about what we’re thinking of doing next. But one way or another I’m pretty sure we’ll be going back to Japan in the future.