Thursday, August 31, 2006

尊皇攘夷, circa 2006

Whenever I tell people that, yes, even in Japan, we have protesters at the consulate, no one ever seems to really believe me. "Do they bow before or after they shout angry slogans?" was one friend's joking response. It's not quite that ridiculous, but I have to admit that it's pretty close. Like most other things, protests in Japan are an orderly affair.

There are four main types of protests at our consulate: the first is the Ultra-Nationalist Driveby. This involves japanese right-wing nationalists (uyoku) rolling slowly past the consulate in huge, black vans mounted with equally huge megaphones belching 'patriotic sentiment' as loudly as possible. These vans are plastered with nationalist slogans, japanese flags, the emperor's crest, and other assorted banners; the windows are always blacked out so that you can't see the occupants. Their protests usually involve foreign presence in Japan (they are against it), respect for the emperor as the embodiment of japanese spirit (they are for it), and greater funding for the japanese military (currently capped at 1% of Japan's GDP -- but Japan is so rich, dollar wise only Russia, China, and the U.S. spend more). You can see a video of these vans in action here. Though I'd like to point out that I don't myself believe the police are in collusion with the uyoku. Or at least I hope not, since it's the japanese police who guard the consulate.

The second sort of protests we get are Nationalists with a Sunny Disposition. These aren't full-fledged uyoku; rather, they are to uyoku as street-corner preachers are to the KKK. They strike me as bored, middle class suburbanites who've found a cause. Unlike the uyoku, members of this group are not afraid to show their faces. They fairly beam beneath their tied-on head bands, clutching pristine banners in white-gloved hands and standing in an orderly group like a church choir. Their main beef seems to be U.S. military presence in Japan, particularly in Okinawa, where I suspect most of them have never been. I also suspect that most of them have been to Hawaii. Probably if you asked them why they feel the need to protest they'd say war is bad and no one should have a military -- but especially not America, and especially not on Japanese soil. (Naturally Japan's military doesn't count, as it's only for self defense...) They love to hand out flyers. But, for what I hope are obvious reasons, I have not gone out of my way to acquire one.

The third flavor of protest we have at the consulate is perhaps also the most colorful, and that's Buddhist Monks with Drums. There's nothing like being in the middle of a visa adjudication, then suddenly hearing thump! thump! thump! thump! drifting in through the walls. It always makes me think of that old footage of the army playing Guns N'Roses outside of the Vatican Embassy to try and irritate Noriega. Honestly, I sort of like it: as a metronome, it's a great pace-setter when you're on the line. And having the monks outside in their saffron robes certainly livens up the place. I have no idea what specific thing they're protesting, but whatever it is I hope we keep doing it so that the free concerts continue.

The last type of protest is the only one for which I have any real respect. It's a lone women who comes almost everyday on her lunch break, unrolls a little sign with the title "No WMD in Iraq," and stands quietly in front of the consulate. She never bothers the passersby; she never shouts or waves or causes any sort of fuss. She just stands without talking. It's an incredibly powerful statement, her commitment to the message she wants to convey. When I see her, I always bow my head at her slightly, and she returns the acknowledgment. I've often wanted to ask her about her story, about what it is that causes her to care so much about this issue that she'd sacrifice countless hours to stand in front of the consulate and hold an English-language sign; clearly it's aimed at us, not at influencing the Japanese walking past. In the nearly 6 months I've been here, her coutenance hasn't once changed. Her eyes are very serious, very direct... but they're not accusatory. If my next posting happens to be to Iraq, I think she's the first person I'd want to tell. I'd want to tell her that I'll try and make things better, even if just in some small way. Maybe then she'd feel her protest was not in vain. For some reason, I'd like for her to feel that way.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sunday's Child


How wonderful it is that
a single morning

can compensate for an entire week.

Friday, August 25, 2006

A Bad Day at the Office

Reclining on Sara's couch, legs stretched out in front of me, eating strawberry ice cream with a tinny-tasting welcome kit spoon, I felt very dreamy. If you could have opened my head at that moment it would have revealed a rainbow of glossy Lisa Frank unicorn colors, flowers and candy sketched in looped, animated lines spilling forth pinata-like to drift lazily along the floor. "I feel very young at work lately," I told her. "You are young," was the reply. But I've never thought of myself that way before. I've always been old, for as long as I can remember. We continued to proffer tidbits of information to each other, blindly groping for the click of a personal connection. It never came, despite our best efforts. I smiled apologetically, absently, wishing for her sake that I were different. She misses her friends from her old post, but is making the best of it.

At work, there are meetings. I've been marvelling at the gravitational pull of shoulder pads, the inherently duplicitous nature of seating arrangements ("After you." "No, you take the comfy chair, I insist..."). I sit in the back, in the corner. I don't need to be a big fish in this small pond. I'm given projects wholesale, neatly tied up in a package with explicit instructions and helpful diagrams. "Take this, Katie; you OWN it." Things pass through me cleanly, unmarred by my fingerprints. I am disappointed to see myself living down to their expectations. I suppose this is youth. It's as numbing as the insipid white walls of our office. I might as well blow bubbles on my balcony outside, and so I do.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"The essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order."

I stayed an hour late at the consulate to try and finish up some work on the Welcome Packet; when I finally left at 6pm I was blisteringly hungry. Rather than allowing my stomach to continue releasing strangled cries for help (borborygmi being on par with flatulence or blatant nose-picking in japanese society), I opted for what I considered to be the lesser of two evils: public consumption of food.

Eating out in the open is BAD in Japan. Despite the fact that at the end of every electric line you can find a phalanx of vending machines humming quietly away, offering all manner of beverages and snacks (and often porn -- but that's a different blog), you will not see people eating or drinking on the street. It's uncouth; it's gauche. It's just not something nice people do. And yet, having purchased a fresh-baked whole wheat roll from the bakery in the station, I was prepared to break -- indeed, was intent upon breaking! -- this cardinal social rule. And on a train, no less. Ms. Manners-san would not have been very pleased.

I did feel sort of guilty, wedged inbetween two other commuters, stuffing my face with torn off chunks of warm wheat roll and getting flour all over the green velvet bench seat. I tend to eat like a half-starved animal, with a lot of snarfling and speed, and it is not an aesthetically pleasant sight. It's one thing for a japanese person to toe the bounds of social politeness, but quite another for a graceless foreigner exhaling puffs of flour to do so... The fact that it was bread was probably also perpetuating some horrible stereotype about gaijin eating preferences, although I doubt that had I been shovelling in sticky white rice from a bowl with chopsticks it would have been somehow better received.

Somewhere in the middle of the last few mouthfuls of roll, I thought I detected a muffled noise coming from my workbag. Unbelievably, I had managed to ratchet up my shameful behavior that much more by not putting my phone on 'manner mode' in the 'no cell phone usage allowed' train car. Fumbling in my bag for the cell phone, gulping down a wad of bread, half-eaten roll in one hand, ipod wires running hither and yon... Well, you know. I'm used to being looked at, but it's usually out of curiosity rather than distaste. My only consolation is that it's nice to have your preconceived notions of things affirmed, so at the very least I hope the scene I was making was rewarding to the japanese people around me in that sense. Stereotypes save a lot of time and energy. If I've learned nothing else on the consular line, I've certainly learned that.

On the walk home from the local train station, a lone bat wheeled erratically above me for a block or two, turning somersaults in the air. A strange creature that had the audacity to both fly and drink milk. I'm amazed that we ever find order in anything.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Price of Bananas

Today I had what I think would best be described as an 'out of window experience'. One minute I was adjudicating visas, and the next I was just... somewhere else. No where specific, but definitely NOT at the visa window. It was not an entirely pleasant feeling. It was sort of akin to the sensation I have when walking to and from work: my brain was on medulla-driven autopilot, my conscious mind having sunk down inside my being like a buoy with an overly heavy weight attached. Certainly not the alert, ever-suspicious, ultra-inquisitive demeanor one should affect at the window. When I realized what I was doing, I quickly rifled back through the past few applications sitting in my 'out' bin. Luckily, everything appeared kosher. The refusals were all solid; the issuances were all standard. I am certain that I didn't mishandle any cases. And as I ended the day with a 15% refusal rate, my somewhat slow pace could be accounted for by something other than zoning out. This is good, as I didn't particularly want to try and explain what had happened.

It probably doesn't help that I'm reading Kurt Vonnegut. This morning on the train, I allowed myself to idly imagine that the Japanese people surrounding me were Tralfamadoreans, and that I was actually involved in some strange multi-dimensional zoological experiment. Perhaps that is an apt allegory for the FS. At any rate, I've long held the suspicion that Japanese language and culture are just some cruel practical joke; that the moment I leave a room, everyone relaxes and goes back to speaking English, drinking Big Gulps, and wearing sensible shoes. When I'm done with my consular tour, and people ask how it was, I already know what answer I'll give:

EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL, AND NOTHING HURT.

Which is mostly true. And I'm a jerk for not better appreciating that I'm doing this in Japan and not in a developing world country with a skyhigh refusal rate.

To try and overcome this slump, I called up the new officer here and asked if we could have dinner. Normally I stay at home or go out by myself and read in a cafe, but I'm really tired of feeling so resigned and would dearly enjoy having a little energy. So she and I had spaghetti at her apartment, then went out to the grocery store. And what did I find there?


Yes, my friends: that is a 128 yen banana, individually sealed in its own plastic bag and cradled by a cushion of shredded pink paper. Somewhere, the inhabitants of Tralfamadore are hiding their single eyes.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

doubleplusungood refs unpersons

I think I may have come across the best job in the State Department. I used to think it was being the officer in charge of the Great Seal (wouldn't that have been a fun first tour?). But no -- there's actually a job that's even better: working for the Office of Rightsizing.

Besides the fact that you could spend all your time engaging in Orwellian Newspeak*, can you conceive of a more secure government position? I'm sure every rightsizing self-inspection shows the office to be mysteriously understaffed. You just KNOW they've got some 250+ persons employed there, probably one for every post, at least...

Also, think of the power! Imagine the look of fear and trepidation on the face of the principal officer when receiving a call from even the lowliest member of the rightsizing division. I'll bet you could 'network' yourself into any post you wanted following a tour with the OR [Note: considered using the acronym 'ORS', but 'S' was clearly extraneous and had to go].

*"In order to further develop the enterprise architecture for the United States’ overseas presence and promote internal and interagency mechanisms to better coordinate, rationalize, and manage the over-all deployment of U.S. Government overseas staff, thereby enforcing a uniform rightsizing framework, as defined by the GAO, and linking overseas staffing levels to firmly established foreign policy priorities through the precepts of competitive sourcing, which will allow the Department to move forward on regionalization initiatives while applying rightsizing standards systematically to final planning estimates for the staffing and design of all new mission facilities, the Osaka consulate will be correctly sized to the minimum required staff of a first tour Entry Level Officer and a part-time janitor. Oh, and also ignorance is strength."

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Vagaries of Karma

This past weekend I went to Koya-san, a famous mountain temple complex in Wakayama prefecture. As I was travelling with a group of colleagues from the consulate, it was not the solitary, peaceful, reflective ramble I might have wished. But it was very informative. Our guide was a swiss buddhist monk who was kind enough to share his knowledge about the complex's history and precepts with us. Certainly I know a lot more about Buddhism than I did before.

His stories reminded me of one of my earliest encounters with Buddhism in Japan, in the little town I lived in in Okayama prefecture. I had been trying to find my way to a shrine festival someone had mentioned to me; I only knew that it was being held somewhere in the neighborhood behind my house. I remember I was wearing my grandmother's black velvet winter coat -- I especially remember the texture of it. It was early morning in the Fall, and chill. I can see myself, pulling the coat more tightly around me. My hair was in a braid, because of the wind.

Japanese neighborhoods are not laid out in any logical manner, so naturally I became quite lost. This didn't particularly bother me; thankfully, my hopeless sense of direction is balanced by a robust belief that one can always, somehow, find home. All around the air was still and quiet. The scenery was varying shades of gray, from the sky, to the road, to the walls surrounding the plots of each household. I walked on, not really knowing where I was going, just following the cloud of my breath.

The sound of highly animated talk and laughter from behind one of the tall, concrete walls was not startling so much as comforting, and I crossed over the empty street to discover the entrance to a gigantic graveyard. There was a large, dark, wooden building in the center, and the densely packed stone gravemarkers seemed to flow out from the sides of it, peaking here and there like waves where an occasional pillar stood taller than the rest. I didn't fully understand it at the time, but I had come across a temple complex. The wooden building -- the temple -- looked like a ship floating on a sea of stone. A group of elderly Japanese women was performing ritual grave cleanings; they continued on as if I wasn't there, ladling water from buckets over a grouping of gravemarkers. Their involuntarily stooped backs and chatty voices provided a soft contrast to the hard, somber edges of the stone. One broke away from the group and trundled towards the building, limbs moving at impossible angles, to place a mikan she'd drawn from her apron pocket at the foot of a carved granite Buddha. The seated Buddha's hand was raised in what looked to be a sign of benediction; his eyes were half-closed, serene. The mikan shown like a neon sign, the brightest object in a square city block. Then abruptly the women and their voices were gone, having moved back behind the temple, and I was alone again.

I'm not sure how long I stood there, considering the Buddha and his offering, looking out over the sea of graves, and running one hand over the sleeve of the opposite arm to feel the nap of the velvet. The moment felt very pregnant. My ears stung a bit from the cold.

Then, as if on cue, a gray and white shaggy dog appeared from the far corner of the complex, moving briskly and silently towards the Buddha with purposeful intent. Without breaking stride, he lifted the mikan off the statue's pedestal with a single practiced motion, and continued his journey across the yard and out the entrance to disappear around the wall. It happened so quickly and so efficiently, I almost couldn't believe it; I'll never forget his eyes rolling up at me in a strange mix of pride and guilt as he hurried past. I turned to follow, but there was no sign of him on the street. He'd made a clean escape, mikan safely in tow.

Relating this story later to my friend Kana, she chuckled and said, "That dog was very bad. I do not think he will enjoy his next life." Perhaps not. But at least, I suppose, he appeared to be enjoying this one.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Friday, August 04, 2006

All Gods are Carnivorous

This evening -- my last evening in Tokyo -- I wandered into Starbucks to sit and read where I knew I wouldn't fall asleep. There's something faintly deathlike about falling asleep before 9pm, and I seek to avoid it when possible. Starbucks is as good a place as any for reading.

Upstairs, all the tables with comfortable chairs were occupied. I glaced around quickly, debating whether or not to ask if I could take a seat in an empty padded chair. A young looking foreign man saw my consternation, and waved his hand at the seat in front of him. "Please," smiling; "please sit here." He had long wrists and over-white teeth. I hesitated. The way his legs were splayed, with his cellphone -- an expensive cellphone -- resting a little too casually on his thigh, it was more than an invitation to sit. I thought about missing someone's hand on my back, walking together. I thought about how grotesquely large I felt everyday, hulking past shop windows filled with tiny clothing for tiny, doll-like women who minced about in exquisitely ridiculous shoes. I held back, uncomfortable. "Sit," he said again. I sat. "Thank you"; I returned his smile with this and a slight nod, and opened my book.

"Where are you from?" he started, sliding the cellphone lazily up to his hip as he leaned back in his chair. A one word answer on my part, then a moment of guilty silence as I realized I wasn't living up to the bargain I'd entered into by taking the seat. I closed the book over my finger to hold the page: "And you?" He smiled triumphantly and began to explain his life story, adding touches here and there that he thought might impress me. If only he hadn't been wearing such a large emerald ring, or a shirt unbuttoned just a little too far down. If only he'd been a little more introspective, maybe a little more reserved, not so cavalier with his money. More subtle in his intentions. Then maybe I would have gone on his offered walk, or returned his purposefully offhand comment about frequent travel to Osaka with more than a suggestion that he sample the food there. At times it's hard being a foreign girl in Japan; the chances you get are never ones you want to take. He seemed mildly insulted when I regretfully explained I'd rather finish my book, and strolled out in his too-tight jeans.

CLOSE

Having woken up at my usual 5:30, I decided to leave the Tokyo compound and walk about for a bit in Roppongi before work, in hopes of happening upon an early opening coffee shop. Everywhere I went I was met with signs saying 'CLOSE' in large, capital letters. Japan loves English, but finds it somewhat cumbersome; their own language being elliptical in nature, the Japanese choose to extend this property to other languages as well. 'CLOSE', not 'CLOSED'. The feeling is always, 'If you'd just come a few minutes earlier, you might have caught us...' Or in this case, 'Nothing in Japan opens before 7am. Would you mind waiting just 10 or 15 minutes more..?'

Still, this sort of freetime is delightful, even if I am only wandering around watching the shop owners clean their sidewalks. Living a 15 minute walk from work as opposed to a one hour train ride makes all sorts of psychological difference. Once I get home from work in Osaka, I contemplate going out again with a certain feeling of dread. I'm sure there's a lot more I could be doing in my 3 1/2 hours of freetime besides self-reflection and recuperation (shamisen lessons and Japanese study spring instantly to mind; running would also be pleasant, since my only other option for weight control now is starvation), yet it's so hard to get out the door. It feels pathetic and mealy-mouthed to say so, but it's true. I'm hoping that the new group of personnel coming over the next few weeks will provide some incentive to be a bit more peppy. Last night I sat out on an officer's porch with a group of Tokyo colleagues, chatting and having a beer. I hope we can do the same soon in Osaka. I'd be willing to devote at least 2 1/2 hours a week of my pie chart to it.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

比べ物にならない

To live in the Foreign Service is to live a life of constant comparisons: 'At my LAST post I had a MUCH nicer apartment'; 'In CAMBODIA, people were MUCH friendlier'; 'When I was at this mission BEFORE, the work wasn't NEARLY so stressful', and so forth. Even now on my TDY in Tokyo I find myself walking around my borrowed compound unit thinking, 'In OSAKA the units are laid out MUCH more sensibly.' It's funny how comparisons invariably result in your present situation coming out on the losing side. In the military, the conventional wisdom is 'Home is always the place you just left.' I'm not sure how you break that tendency and learn to really appreciate the moment you're in (but of course, in the MILITARY they deal with the problem MUCH better than we do...).

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

EERs and Barber Shop Poles

Innovation for the sake of innovation is not progress; it's like a barber shop pole, merely offering the illusion of upward movement. The EER-driven nature of the FS (EERs being our yearly work evaluations) encourages project building and sweeping change, without any regard for the possible merit of maintaining the status quo. A lot of half-baked things in the Service appear to be traceable back to a blip on some aspiring officer's EER. I can understand the reasons -- the FS is full of people in lackluster jobs who want a creative outlet to offset their boredom, and a way to 'sparkle' and set themselves apart. It's hard to shine when your job is the consular equivalent of the DMV. If I didn't have side projects to occupy my brain space, I'd be rubbing myself raw against the 'bars' of my visa window like some 1950s zoo animal.

I worry, though, that the things I want to do won't really be beneficial in the end -- or if they are, that they won't be carried on by the people who follow me. I've uncovered enough hints of the lengths to which my predecessor went to improve things to know that the majority of his work fell into a blackhole the minute he left; and I'm experiencing the painful aftermath of a number of well-intentioned projects begun idly by other officers who departed long before seeing the infeasibility of their plans. I've concluded that a good deal of consultation and input is necessary before implementing any of the many projects I've conceived of. This isn't natural for me, and it's anathema to an EER culture which by its nature asks you to stand out among your peers. I really think the EERs need to change. Maybe we could start an evaluation category rewarding teamwork and future planning... Or maybe that's just me imposing my own desires on the system in a discussion vacuum.

But wouldn't piloting an EER reform project look good on my EER..?