Wednesday, June 28, 2006

人生と梅雨

Here it is the height of the rainy season, and the combination of heat, damp, and press of bodies made this morning's train car reek of humanity*. Having left my ipod at home, I was forced to partake in not only the sight and scent of my fellow travellers, but their sounds as well. You could actually hear people sweltering. The earthiness of it was very grounding; I was almost moved to embrace the stern looking business man sitting next to me, reading a porn manga and attempting to clear what sounded like a small animal from his throat. It was all quite primal. Even the puddle of vomit slowly trickling its way down the platform steps in Osaka Station did not seem out of place. Ah, the brotherhood of man!

(They smell your fear.)


The key to negotiating a large japanese train station is three fold: keep constant speed, constant bearing, and never make eye contact. On my way home yesterday, I was a bit flustered (a strange japanese man had followed me for a block shouting, "Jodi Fahstah, shiteiru? shiteiru?" Apparently he felt Ms. Foster and I shared more than a passing resemblance...**), and I accidently broke rule number three. Being American, my natural tendency when I meet someone's gaze is to smile. This was my second mistake; in a train station, this is like making someone look into the face of a basilisk. The poor girl I'd inadvertently alerted to my presence missed a step and tripped into the man next to her, setting off a chain reaction that rippled through the station. I pressed myself up against the side of a pillar until the commotion passed, then cautiously proceeded on to my gate, gaze fixed on some indeterminate point off in the distance. You can never be too careful.

Yesterday was also the one year anniversary of my swearing into the State Department. While I had imagined I might be in Japan a year on, I can't say I thought I'd be waxing poetic about the train station vomit there. Such are the vagaries of life. Happy anniversary!

五月雨や
沈香も焚かず
屁もひらず

Spring rain --
not incense
not a fart


by 小林一茶 Kobayashi Issa, 1821


*For those unaware, humanity's stench falls somewhere between that of a nursing home and a stale diaper pail.

**Previously, I'd only ever been compared to Jay Leno. Oh, and sometimes Lucy Lawless' sidekick on 'Xena'.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

214(b)

For some reason, Thursday adjudications are always strange, but today was particularly weird. I had almost a 10% refusal rate, which is about 4 or 5 times my normal average. And even the issuable applicants were just... bizarre. It's difficult to explain. Things just didn't seem quite in balance. I think Wednesday night was the summer solstice, so maybe that played a part. My colleague Jerome and I found ourselves repeatedly stepping back from our windows to cast puzzled glances at each other.

When lunch finally rolled around, Jerome laid his head on his desk in exhaustion, and I grabbed my book to go find a place to hide and recover. You can perhaps imagine the scenario: I'm stepping out into the rain, book in hand, considering where one can be at least semi-alone in the urban crush of Osaka (note: nowhere), when one of the consulate guards hurries over. [in Japanese] "Uh, Katie-san," he waves his hands a bit, looking somewhat confused, "there's sort of, this girl..."

This is when I realize that one of the applicants Jerome refused is waiting outside the consulate.

I do not become scared very easily, but I was definitely tense. I couldn't believe the guards would allow a visa applicant to loiter at the consulate door, waiting to pounce. I couldn't believe that after that hellish morning I was now in the unenviable position of sizing up someone else's refusal, wondering if I could take her in a fight. I couldn't believe that I had never thought to carry mace, a gun, a nightstick, a brick... I couldn't walk away, because then she could follow me and I wouldn't even have the guard to protect me. And I don't think anyone in Japan would come to my defense if I were being attacked, especially as the applicant was another foreigner.

The situation, luckily, did not come to that, and I was able to pacify her by briefly explaining a little more about reasons for rejections, and what her options were (stalking consular officers was definitely not on the list). She told me thank you at the end of it, which is actually my goal whenever I reject an applicant. I'd say I achieve that goal about 80% of the time, but usually with the comfort of a pane of bullet proof glass between myself and the rejectee. As soon as she walked away, I turned somewhat angrily to the guard and told him to never EVER allow that to happen to any of us again.

This evening, when I left work alone and began the walk back to the train station, I found myself looking over my shoulder. I don't want this job to make me mistrustful. I don't ever want the first thing I think when I encounter someone to be 'What does this person want? Is she going to hurt me?' People are basically good. I really believe that. I want to be able to live like I believe it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Email: A Cautionary Tale

Well, this has just been a banner week in the communication department. Not only have I managed by email to insult a friend to the point that I haven't had the guts to check my personal account for fear of (not) seeing a reply, but I have also managed through work email to entangle a different friend in a ridiculous territorial posturing imbroglio between our two missions. Yes, yes... bravo me. Before starting on a career in public diplomacy, perhaps I ought to pay some attention to diplomacy's more fine-grained personal side.

The work problem was ENTIRELY my fault for being so simple-minded. I had asked my friend for some insight into a portion of our applicant pool which is very opaque for me; i.e., third country nationals in Japan transiting back to the country where he happens to be serving. He gave me some very useful information and suggestions. To my mind the information was so useful, in fact, that in my wide-eyed naivety, I forwarded his message to 2 people in Tokyo. I really honest to goodness thought that we could improve information flow and do a better job of adjudication at both of our posts, and that they would be HAPPY for this opportunity. 'Hooray for proactivity!' I told myself. Well, needless to say, by the time Tokyo was through becoming well and truly worked up over the whole thing, my friend had received censure directly from his CG, and I'm stuck down in Osaka feeling rather distraught at such seemingly overblown, self-righteous reactions from the higher ups in both missions. So much for being proactive.

The worst part of the entire mess was that there was no way for me to take the focus of the blame off of my friend and put it on myself. Talking to Tokyo had already proved an incredible mistake, and talking to his mission would have just been silly. Luckily he has a cool boss who will, I hope, protect him. And maybe he won't take me off his Christmas card list, as threatened...

So, what lessons have I gleaned from this past week?

1. Never forward anything to anyone in its entirity. Paraphrase, outline EXACTLY how you intended for the message to be interpreted by the receiver, and EXACTLY what actions you intend to result from sharing the message. And don't use your source's name unless you are quoting Condoleezza Rice. Or maybe God.

2. One can not overestimate the political nature of a bureaucracy. There's bad blood, and hidden agendas, and sensitive nerves, and just generally a lot of baggage involved in every exchange, no matter how innocent it seems to you. The workplace is a mine field. I'm not sure how many times I have to have a limb blown off before that truth finally sinks in.

3. For interactions of an intense, personal nature, remaining silent is preferable to sending an (inevitably) misunderstood email. From now on, any heartfelt outpourings on my end will only take place via carrier pigeon, or more likely just not at all. I'm not even sure I trust phone calls for this, but at least over the phone there's no written record for someone to return to and misinterpret over and over again.


My NIV chief is trying to arrange a TDY for me in Tokyo. I'm not looking forward to it.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Socialization and Tenuous Communication

Something rather shocking occurred to me today: I'm quite busy this weekend. I had dinner with a co-worker and some of his friends on Friday, attended a Japanese-themed birthday party on Saturday evening, and am having dinner at the NIV section chief's tonight. I'm not sure how this fits in with my sense of self as hermit, sitting in the dark in my apartment while rocking back and forth, eating lead paint off the walls, and thinking 'deep thoughts'. I recall that this sudden social awakening happened to me midway through A-100 as well, just as I was preparing to crochet myself a huge woolly cave to live in. So now that I've identified a tentative pattern (agitate for a bit, give up and withdraw, get comfortable with solitude, then - voila! - social opportunities magically present themselves), I feel I can organize my life a little better. Friday was my 3 month anniversary of arrival at post. Next tour of duty I'll expect a similar timeline, with adjustments made for number of personnel, time of the year, moonphases, etc... Someone please remind me of this 2 and 1/2 months into my next posting, when the lead paint is making me froth at the mouth.

On a probably unrelated front, I had a fight with a friend recently. It was not a fight I wanted to have; it was not a friendship I wanted to lose. But it was a situation in which not knowing how to do the right thing was causing me a great deal of stress -- I didn't realize how much until it started to make me physically ill. I think this is the danger of being isolated and turning inside yourself: a lot of things become amplified, like staring into one of those fun house mirrors where the image multiplies itself over and over. It's easy for things in your head to reach a level of intensity perhaps not warranted by the circumstances. In my mind, this problem was reverberating over and over at some high pitched tone, till I felt I had strike out just to rid myself of it. It frustrates me that if I could have just communicated things more efficiently, more perfectly, I could have resolved the issue in a better way. If you're ever staring at an email at 2 in the morning thinking, "Should I send this?" the answer is probably 'No'.

This lack of ability to communicate dogs me. Short of some sort of vulcan mind-meld, I don't think there really is any way to truly let someone in on your thoughts and feelings. Words always seem very inadequate; they are far too easily misunderstood. It is my own belief that the impossibility of communication is a theme running through a great deal of Japanese films and manga -- the notion that in light of the insufficiency of words and the strictures of social rules, the only 'true' communication one is left with is physical transgression. Certainly bludgeoning and rape leave little doubt as to one's intended message (though, I don't think "I was just trying to communicate" would hold up as a trial defense...). Japanese pop culture is full of violent imagery and lonely, isolated characters, who struggle with feelings of detached estrangement that cause them to lash out in misguided attempts at cutting through the barriers to understanding. It's a constant presence in the songs of my favorite Japanese singer, and especially prevalent in anime.

Voices of a Distant Star is a great example of this, where the main characters are separated across space due to obligation and circumstance, left to try and communicate through cell phone text messages. It sounds cheesy. Maybe it is cheesy. But I can identify with the sort of loneliness and frustration the anime references.

Mikako: Say, Noboru... we are far, far, very, very, far apart ...
Noboru: ... but it might be that thoughts can overcome time and distance.
Mikako: Noboru, have you ever thought about something like that?
Noboru: If... if for even one instant something like that could happen what would I think? What would Mikako think?
Mikako: ... say, there is probably one thing we would think. Say Noboru ...
[Both]: ... I am here.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Rationalization

I have no rent. I have no mortgage. I have no car, and no utility bills. I have no debts from credit cards, student loans, or hospital visits. I have no children, no spouse, and no pets. I have very few financial obligations in general. I am not a spendthrift. And our COLA just went up to 70%.

This is how I justify spending $700 on an antique lacquer table over the weekend in Kyoto.

To my credit, the original price was about $1050 -- my friend Catherine talked the storekeeper into bringing it down. It's good to go shopping with the american representative for commerce and trade.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Living a Life Free of Irony

On occasion I get a late start and so am forced to ride in the duty van to the consulate rather than take the train. This was the case the other day. All piled in the van together, my colleagues began to do something that I feel happens far too often: making fun of the japanese guard who helps guide the van from its customary spot by the compound wall out into the street. This bothers me a great deal. Besides being, I think, rather mean spirited, it underscores what little interest we have in each other; once the subject of which American Idol singer is going to make it big is exhausted, there really is not much left to talk about -- taking out our stress and awkwardness on some hapless security guard is apparently the only bond we can share. It's one of the reasons I try and avoid the van.

Too be sure, the guard's level of enthusiasm is excessive. He motions vigorously, jumps about the van seemingly needlessly, and wards off generally imagined oncoming traffic. I figure at least he seems to gain real satisfaction from his job, which is perhaps more than most of us can say. And as he was the only guard who told me how much he enjoyed the oatmeal cookies I made for our security contingent after my partial HHE arrived (I was quite touched by this -- I didn't realize he even knew my name), I know he has genuine concern for us as well. His job is to keep us safe, and it's a task he undertakes wholeheartedly. Given that we've recently had threats directed at us, you'd think we'd be more appreciative than not. But sadly, no.

One officer made the comment that a person could only achieve such a state -- and by this, he presumably meant the naivety it would require to not think of your actions as lacking real value -- by "living a life free of irony." I've found myself going back to that comment over and over again as I slog through the same visa-related quasi-conversation 150 times a day and do my best to keep from giving in to utter apathy. Truthfully, I wish that I could effect a similarly guileless state. One of the things I enjoy about the Japanese is the general sense that you should make the best of any situation, no matter how barren. One has only to see the tents of the homeless, with the occupants' shoes studiously removed and left outside the door, to understand how deep this current runs in Japanese society. There is something heartbreaking about seeing shoes placed neatly and carefully outside of a cardboard hovel -- and something very dignified in it, as well.

I was also thinking about this comment over the weekend, when I had a chance to see the Choujuu Jinbutsu Giga, generally translated in English either as 'Caricatures of Animals and Humans' or 'Scroll of Frolicking Animals'. This work is a long, horizontally read picture scroll drawn in the 12th century, one of the three oldest such scrolls still extant, and is regarded as being the root of japanese manga. Being able to finally see it for myself brought about a moment of pure joy which I would be hard pressed to explain -- it was something like seeing the Gutenberg Bible for the first time, only perhaps more fulfilling because you can actually pour over the entire scroll, and the meaning is clear even outside of its cultural context. The pictures of the animals are touchingly funny and gently self-mocking, yet lack the bitterness or hopelessness that a western (or, to be fair, a post-war japanese) perspective might bring to such images. Our lives might be silly and lack deep meaning, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy them and make the most of them; I suppose that's what it means to live a life free of irony. I don't think one can consider it naive when it's the result of conscious choice. I don't begrudge the guard his enthusiasm in the least.

To see the Choujuu Jinbutsu Giga in its entirety, please click here. The scroll is read from right to left; click on the numbers [1] through [18] at the top of the page to progress from one section to the next.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Animal Peaceful. Rabbit.

I spent a better part of the past hour trying to take a good picture of this mug. Yes, like I said; all this newly-imposed alone time is being put towards only the most enriching of tasks...

Sometimes Japan is so cute, it actually makes me a bit ill. Or peaceful. Rabbit.