Saturday, April 15, 2006

Osaka! The Quick Quick Quick Version...

Any attempt to succinctly yet thoroughly explain the ins and outs of this consulate is bound to meet with failure. So I'll just ramble on for a bit and see how much I can impart.

My own section -- the consular section -- currently consists of three junior officers (myself and two others), an NIV chief, an ACS [American Citizen Services] officer, and a consular chief. The consular chief is the titular head of the section, and the NIV chief is in charge of the 3 junior officers. Right now, one of the JOs is on a rotation in the political section (so he could get at least some in-cone experience before going on a SECOND consular tour), so there are only 2 of us doing full time visa adjudication.

In this consulate there are also the Consul General (the CG; i.e., the boss), a political officer, a management officer, a public affairs officer, and a communicator (who handles any classified information we may or may not receive). We also share the building with two non-State officers. It's a small group, with all the social complexities and stresses little 'in-bred' communities contain. One officer suggested we might make a good reality TV show ('Survivor!: ConGen Osaka); I'm prone to agree. Our personality mix is not horrible, but not necessarily ideal. Everyone is very self-contained and self-sustaining. The married male officers all have Japanese spouses, which makes for an interesting dynamic on the compound (and perhaps proves my point about dating in the FS...)

To put it rather bluntly, currently the place is in a bit of systemic disrepair. The 1995 Kobe Earthquake triggered a chain of events which (apparently) still directly contributes to problems now, fully eleven years later. And the hour commute each way is a stress which only compounds things. But the CG seems sincere in his desire to improve the place, and the turn over of personnel this summer will bring in new blood, and hopefully new drive for improvement and change. I'm doing my part: I'm taking on updating arrival procedures as a project. My thought is that setting a good tone from the start will encourage incoming officers to care about making things better. I hope this is something I can do. Projects have a way of spiralling out of control as ideas become more grandiose; I want to keep things simple and achievable.

One endemic problem I've seen here is that attempts at improving things in the past have all come to naught as soon as the officer championing the cause left post. For anyone undertaking similar improvement projects, I would say first and foremost to designate a position (rather than a person) to be in charge of upkeep and maintenance of your changes. Have it written into that position's work requirements, and be specific about how often you think things should be reviewed and updated. To me, this is crucial. People tend towards entropy, and will continue along the same path for as long as possible until forced to change. Make sure your changes are structural in nature; you can't count on someone else to care enough about your project to carry it on without being forced to once you're gone.

In other news, cherry blossom season is only just winding down here. Unseasonably chill weather seems to have helped sustain the blossoms, and they've been at or near peak for a full three weeks -- an almost unheard of occurence. I was able to go to Nagoya to visit an old friend from my JET days, and had a 'hanami' (flower viewing) party there.

It was strange to have it all feel so normal: being in Japan, spending the weekend with a British friend, sitting beneath the flowers sipping beer and eating obento. Sometimes it feels like I never left. I can't decide if that's a good thing or not.


Solomon2 said...

The Washington Post ran a story this year quoting some local Japanese saying that they preferred D.C.'s cherry blossoms to those of Japan. Why? Because alcohol isn't permitted on the Mall, and in Japan people would be drunk! Can you confirm this?

Katie said...

There is a copious amount of drinking associated with the hanami season; however, I can't say that I've ever seen any disorderliness come out of it. In Japan, the presence of alcohol at an event signals to everyone that it's okay to speak freely and put aside social formalities, even if not everyone is drinking (and certainly no one need be drunk... though it's a handy -- and perfectly acceptable -- excuse for telling your boss off to his face). A hanami without beer or sake would be a painfully reserved affair, something akin to an office meeting as opposed to a party.