Welcome to Sophelia's Japan

A blog about adventures, academia, adoption and other things starting with the letter 'A'.
I'm a geek, a metal head, a shiba inu wrangler and a vegetarian, and I write about all of the above. You have been warned!

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Friday, 22 August 2014

Fatherhood, Ikumen and Japan's Single Dads

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Image from Kobe Ikumen Blog
I've had this post sitting as a draft for nearly a year now, intending to write some detailed commentary around the links, but I'm just going to admit defeat and post it as-is. Sadly I don't have time to flesh it out as much as I'd like to.

First, this is probably the dominant image of fatherhood in Japan- the absent bread winner:

Perhaps the deep gender chasm is to blame. In Kaori Shoji’s article “Ensnared in the office, dads increasingly remote,” she describes the enduring stereotype of the Japanese husband and dad. His principal, if not only, role is to work and provide for the family.

As for Japanese Moms, they were taught by their own mothers that once a woman was married and ensconced in parenthood, it was better that her husband was tassha de rusu (alive, well and absent from the home).

Motherhood changes the lives of Japanese women completely. Once they have kids, they are no longer “woman” or “wife” but “mother,” and that invariably affects marital relations. It is not surprising that Japan ranks lowest in terms of sexual frequency. Moreover, Kaori Shoji writes:

For Japanese parents, too many hours spent in each other’s company invariably led to relationship analysis and the surfacing of discontent. To maintain peace in the household, better to limit things to the innocuous, like a simple exchange of greetings.

So estranged are the dads from the family that when my husband once asked his daughter’s friends what their dads did and where they worked, they did not have the faintest idea. I think it is not fair for women to complain (not that Japanese women do; quite the opposite, they rarely talk about their problems almost to the extent that they seem to be leading perfect lives) about bearing the bulk of childcare when they assume that their husbands know absolutely nothing about childrearing and childcare and cannot be entrusted with the kids for more than short periods of time. Who can blame the husbands when they eventually come to believe that they are ill-equipped to care for their own kids? Some men reason they will just spend time and bond with their kids when they are older. Sometimes, that time never comes.
Active Father Level 5: You're fine to talk about poo while eating! Source
However, I don't believe that this is the model of family that a majority of either men or women want. The "ikumen" (active fatherhood) movement has received government support and there are magazines, organisations and of course TV specials dedicated to this new generation of fathers. The barrier is not men's unwillingness to perform child-caring activities or a lack of interest in their children; it's the work culture. For example, although the law permits paternity leave few fathers take it, in a friend's case not even one day in order to be there for his child's birth. It can be hard to understand from the outside, but in Japanese workplaces labour laws are basically meaningless. I've literally seen co-workers "clock out" before working another (unpaid) four or five hours in order to cover their employer from liability for excessive overtime. Entitlements might look nice on paper, but the company culture is what makes the ultimate difference. Nippon Life Insurance is working towards a father-friendly culture in a meaningful way:

Currently, Nippon Life Insurance Company has about 7,700 male employees. Among them, 280 were eligible for taking childcare leave as of the end of May, Tokyo Shimbun reported. However, so far, only 5% of them actually took the week off. Starting this month, the company’s human resources department said it is checking those who haven’t taken the childcare leave and will encourage them to do so before it expires. 
Fathers we interviewed say the contradiction comes not so much from a true desire to be at work but rather from the pressure to be a “Japanese workaholic.” …In addition, most contemporary fathers expressed great enjoyment being in the physical presence of their children and family. One father summed it up succinctly: “We are not like our fathers–I never saw my father in the house. We WANT to be involved, but our work situations make it difficult. We can’t just leave when we want to and expect everyone to understand.” 
I actually doubt very much that "our fathers" were much different, just less able to express these feelings. I know many grandfathers who are heavily involved in caring for their grandchildren and who say things like "when my kids were little I had to work all the time and I never got to enjoy this. I never took my son to the park to play catch, but now I can do it for my grandson."

Still, no matter what gains are being made in active fatherhood for married men, single fathers face enormous hardship. Until 2010 the single parent welfare provisions were literally "single mother" provisions, with no financial assistance for men at all.

Another amendment to the law in 2010 provided for a child-rearing allowance for single-father families, rather than just single-mother families. This shed light on the growing problem of poverty in single-parent households.
His passion for supporting fathers comes from his bitter memories of childhood.
“I didn’t like my own father, who was a negative example to me, so I wanted to become the complete opposite, and become a role model,” Ando said in a recent interview, adding that this strong yearning triggered him to set up the NPO.
Ando, 51, said he had no fond memories of his family when he was young because his late father bossed his mother around. Living in that kind of environment left a huge emotional scar, he said.
Even now there are areas of discrimination against certain kinds of single parents, for example those who have never been married:
According to Shiho Kawai, herself a single mother and a member of the Chuo Ward assembly in Tokyo, part of the problem is that single mothers who have never married do not readily want to admit their situation because of the social stigma — which is reinforced by laws such as the widow’s exemption. Kawai told Tokyo Shimbun that last fall she proposed that Chuo Ward also deem single mothers who had never been married eligible for the exemption, but the proposal was met with a “dull response.”
Eighty-three percent of single mothers in Japan work, the highest portion among developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Their annual pay is also among the lowest in the world. According to welfare ministry statistics, the average income, including the child allowance, for widowed mothers is ¥2.56 million, for divorced mothers ¥1.76 million, and for single mothers who have never married ¥1.6 million.
The reason the latter is so low is that most single mothers who’ve never married are very young, but in any case they don’t get the exemption that other single mothers get. In essence, the government is telling them it would be better if they married the guy who knocked them up, though in the end they can really marry anyone. It doesn’t matter who.
The support group Single Mothers Forum tells of one member who was married and got divorced. Later, she had a child by a man she didn’t marry, but she still qualifies for the widow’s exemption because she was married in the past, even if it wasn’t to the father of her child.
Over the next few years, he was active in an online community of single parents where he dispensed legal advice about divorce. One day in 2008, a man contacted him for guidance. He said he was unable to juggle child-rearing and his demanding job, so he quit. But he couldn’t find another job because prospective employers didn’t think a single dad with a toddler was a safe bet. When he contacted Katayama, he had used up his savings and was getting evicted from his apartment.
His dilemma: Should he kill only himself? Or would it make more sense to take his child along with him?
Katayama stayed up all night on the phone talking him out of suicide and explaining how to get help. He was outraged that this man had not been given a break and felt that not only were the unsympathetic companies to blame but also that society itself had let him down.
“That was the trigger,” he said. “It made me realize that we need support for single fathers in Japan.”
The number of single-parent families is on the rise in Japan, along with the growing number of divorces.
According to the internal affairs ministry, 204,000 families were headed by a single father in 2010, up sharply from 166,000 in 2005.
But there were only 90,000 cases in which the children were living exclusively with their father, in a household with no other relatives such as grandparents.
Single fathers fly under the radar compared to single mothers, who are still more common.
Single fathers also, on average, earn more than single mothers, who tend to struggle more financially as a result. A traditionally patriarchal society also discourages fathers from opening up about their problems, and getting help.
Though they might make more money, single fathers must contend with the attitude of employers who view them as the main breadwinner and free from child-rearing duties. Often expected to put in longer hours, they are burdened both at work and at home, making it hard to strike a good work-life balance.
However, a recent law revision highlights how the situation is gradually changing.
Since 2010, single fathers, like single mothers, have been eligible for child-rearing subsidies offered to low-income earners.
Akemi Morita, professor and dean of the sociology department at Toyo University in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, said isolation is the biggest problem facing single fathers.
Society is not yet set up to allow working men to get fully involved in child rearing, and support services for working fathers and their families are few and far between, according to Morita.
“Issues for single fathers include gaining more support from employers. Single-father families, like any other families with challenges (for example, families with a child with special needs), should be given special considerations, such as flexibility in working hours according to their circumstances. For example, they should be able to work flexible hours to leave time to tend to the child, or easily take time off work when the child falls ill,” said Morita.
Matsuo had to give up his job as foreman on construction sites due to the demanding hours. At times he was at the end of his tether.
“I even thought,” he confessed, “that I would drive my car into the sea and kill us all."
There is a great deal more research on, interest in and concern for single mothers in Japan than for single fathers. This may be natural, considering both the number and the lesser income of the former. The average income of a single father is ¥4.2 million a year. The average for single mothers is only a little more than half that, at ¥2.13 million. Welfare payments for single parents are means tested, however. Consequently, single mothers benefit from more substantial government aid than single fathers.
“The government doesn’t realize the mental pressure that single fathers are under due to the stagnating economy and the pressure on them to put raising their children ahead of their careers,” reported the Sankei Shimbun on Jan. 12, 2011. “If a child suddenly falls ill, a single mother gets much more consideration from a workplace than a single father.”
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Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Grappler

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Image by Angie Muldowney
I’m adding a new tag to the blog, “Tales from the Trenches”. As I mentioned in this post (aka whinge) about all the “volunteer” and committee stuff I have to do, I end up at a lot of random meetings, some of which can be quite entertaining. Today I’m sharing a story from a cult meeting (I know I promised ages ago to explain how I came to accidentally join a cult, but you’ll have to wait a little longer sorry).

During a cult meeting, a young mother expressed concern that her two year old son was behaving violently towards his big brother, and asked for advice. A more experienced mother spoke up to share the story of her youngest. He was always getting into fights, wrestling other children to the ground and hitting them. By the tender age of four he had earned the nick-name “The Grappler” and was known as such by the entire neighbourhood. His mother spent many hours worrying about his behaviour. Then he started school. Many Japanese elementary schools keep some sort of small animals like rabbits or chickens. A school in my area has a very sad looking dog. In previous years monkeys were popular but they (thankfully) seem to have fallen out of favour these days. The school The Grappler attended was a rural school, and instead of fluffy bunnies they had a belligerent billy goat all the first graders were terrified of. On the first day of school The Grappler walked right up to the goat, grabbed his horns and wrestled him to the ground, winning fame and popularity for the entirety of his elementary school years. And so, his mother concluded, even violent traits can be positive in the right context.
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Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Remembering the Atomic Bombs, Problematically

Today is the 69th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, and like every other school child in Japan, my son is interrupting his summer holidays to attend a special school session in remembrance. I support this, although I wish the "peace education" focused a little more on pro-active steps for peace and less on the promotion of a victim mentality. It's a small niggle, and I am glad that this day is treated with importance. It was an event that changed the world, not only Japan.

You know there's a "but" coming, so I'll get right to it.

The significance of the use of nuclear weapons lies in the type of destruction and the way the world was changed as a result. I don't in any way want to diminish or minimise the suffering of the people affected, but the loss of life was not statistically significant in comparison to other war time events. Around 70,000* people lost their lives in the bombing of Hiroshima, while the firebombing of Tokyo killed around 87,793 and was described by flight commander Gen. Thomas Power as “the greatest single disaster incurred by any enemy in military history”. In the battle of Okinawa around 100,000 Okinawan civilians and 110,071 Japanese soldiers died. Japan's overall death toll during the war was around 2,350,000.

While the atomic bombings are important events that deserve significant memorials and attention from the school curriculum, I'm frustrated by the lack of knowledge about anything else that happened during the war... and that's just speaking domestically, the issue of what Japan did to the rest of the world is a whole other can of worms. 

From Japan's Bureau of Statistics
I included this chart in a packet of demographic data on which I asked a second year university class to base essays. 90% of my students wrote that the huge dip in population growth in the 1940s was "because America dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki". The emphasis on those bombs throughout their elementary, JHS and SHS educations makes their answers unsurprising but still disappointing. 

*Estimates vary wildly and can get very political, but the difference in scale should be clear irrespective of which numbers you believe. 
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Monday, 4 August 2014

Our Adoption Story; a Guest Post

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I'm delighted to host a guest post today sharing the adoption experiences of an American-Japanese family. I hope to be able to share more stories in the future~ if you are comfortable sharing your experiences, please get in touch! All opinions expressed are the author's own.

  I found Sophelia’s blog one day, searching for some information about finalizing my son’s adoption.  I read her posts on adoption in Japan with great interest, as it is a subject near and dear to my heart.  I reached out to her via her blog and she wondered if I would like to post our experiences with adoption in Japan.  After mulling it over for a few days on what I might write that people might find helpful or interesting I decided to give it a try.  My wife and I have been blessed with two children, both adopted from Japan as infants.  Our daughter was born in 2009 and our son was born in 2012.  Both children are so very bright and have such wonderful personalities.  They truly go together like peas and carrots. 

  My wife is Japanese and I am from the United States.  We met through a mutual friend and after a few years, I convinced her to give me a chance (it wasn’t easy).  Our desire for a family started out like a lot of families, struggling with fertility issues.  We were not having success with the more scientific approaches and decided to look into adoption.  My wife spent a lot of time on the internet researching the agencies in Japan and the US.  We spent a lot of time on the phone calling agencies and asking questions.  In the end, we went with an American agency on the West Coast that was placing children from Japan, mostly because we were living in the US at the time.  We traveled to their offices, had an interview and were told they primarily placed infants, but there was a possibility we could be matched with a toddler.  We told the agency director we would be happy with, and would love, any child placed with us.  With that, we were told to put together some information about ourselves, along with both sides of our family, into a photo album and given a stack of USCIS forms to fill out.  When birth mothers chose to place their child for adoption internationally, they would look through the albums and, based on the information there, would choose the family they would place their child with.  While that seems like a rather large decision to make based on a small album, that’s the way it was done.  Since we were living on the East Coast, we were also told we’d need to make arrangements with an agency locally to do all the required home study documentation.  With all the USCIS documents, and some uncertainty of the road in front of us, we boarded a plane back home to wait. 

  We finished our required tasks to be eligible to adopt an orphan and my wife made a very nice album of pictures along with some personal notes in Japanese, which we submitted to our agency on the West Coast.  We kept in contact with some of the other families on the waiting list as well as the Japanese liaison at the adoption agency.  It was tough hearing about other families being selected and, while happy a child had been placed into a loving family, we often wondered if our turn would ever come.  We were eventually selected and got a wonderful phone call letting us know our daughter had been born and she was doing fine.  After the call, the Japanese liaison forwarded us the most precious pictures and asked us to make preparations to travel as soon as possible to Japan.  We spent what seemed like an eternity getting our documents together and making travel arrangements.  We arrived in Tokyo and made our way to a furnished, short term lease apartment not far from the US Embassy.  The next day we waited nervously for the women who had cared for our daughter the last two weeks to bring her to meet us.  Oh what an angel!  She was a little small, just a tad under 6 pounds, but she was very healthy with good color and a good appetite.  She immediately stole our hearts.  We spent the next few days getting acquainted with her and wandering around Tokyo, Yokohama and Kawasaki buying every kawaii baby outfit we could find.  We also bought what seemed like a semi-truck full of infant formula.  In hindsight, that was a good idea since there was going to be some stress over the next few days with appointments at the embassy and then a rather long plane ride from Tokyo back to the East Coast.  Since our daughter was doing well with the Japanese formula and was having normal stools it just didn’t seem worth taking the chance with something new.  We eventually switched her to US formula, but it was long after all the stresses of travel and being in strange places had passed.

  Our appointments at the embassy went rather well.  If you have never been to a US Embassy overseas, it is quite an experience.  The line for Japanese citizens was very long and it was very cold that day.  Since we were applying for a US visa for our daughter, we had to wait in the Japanese line.  Once inside, we turned in our paperwork, answered a few questions and made an appointment to return in a few days.  If everything was in order, our daughter’s Japanese passport would then be given back to us with the proper visa required for her to enter the US as a legal immigrant.  Our next appointment went smoothly and we got all the documents back, in a sealed envelope, which we would have to turn in to USCIS once we arrived in the United States.  One important thing I did prior to traveling was to arrange all our documents in an accordion style folder, with labels, for each form.  With the number of documents required, and the rush, rush, rush atmosphere at the embassy, organization was the key to success.  The embassy staff seemed to appreciate that we were organized and had the required documents quickly available after they were requested.  With our embassy appointments completed, and every cute article of girl clothes in Japan purchased, we spent the last few days getting our fill of Japan.      

  Flying with a newborn is quite an experience.  We flew on a Japanese carrier, ANA, and they were really great.  The flight attendant would go in to the lavatory first and got the diaper changing table ready every time one of us got up to change a diaper.  What service.  We arrived at the airport and were directed to the USCIS holding area where they processed newly arrived immigrants with visas.  My wife brought a thermos from Japan in her bag and made sure it was full of hot water before we left the plane so she could make formula.  What a great idea, especially since we were there in the holding area for a while.  With our required stamps and paperwork completed, we bundled up our daughter, got in the car and drove home to start our life as a family.

  Over the next few months, we completed our homestudy and did the required paperwork to finalize our adoption.  I hired an attorney to do the documents and work with the court.  It was not a requirement, and I could have made it through the process by myself, but in the end felt it was a good investment because it was a stress reducer.  When our court day arrived, we went to Family Court and the judge made it legal and with some judicial pomp and circumstance thrown in for good measure, our adoption was finished.  We still needed to do two more things however, get a social security number and then a US passport.  Our daughter had an ITIN (individual taxpayer identification number) assigned by the IRS but you must have a social security number to apply for a US passport.  Our family was preparing for a move to the West Coast so I pushed the passport application to the back burner as we packed up all our stuff and headed to a new home.

  Once in our new location, I headed down to the social security office and applied for a social security card.  It was not easy since the adoption documents were from the state where we previously resided, with some of them in Japanese (with translations) and that kind of blew the mind of the nice person helping us.  After a bit of back and forth, they processed our application and we eventually got a social security card in the mail.  Armed with my daughter’s social security card, completed passport application and very cute passport photo, we applied for a US passport.  It came in the mail about three weeks later and on that day, our daughter gained dual citizenship.  There is a document you can get from USCIS (Certificate of Citizenship) that confers official US citizenship but at the time, it cost over $700 to process.  A passport is the only stand-alone document that is recognized by the US as a form of identification and if it is a US passport then, according to the US government, the bearer is a US citizen.  Since I had already shelled out a lot of money to USCIS, I just couldn’t see forking over more just to get a document that did the same thing as a US passport.   So I didn’t and it hasn’t been an issue yet.   The official portion of our journey had come to an end.  Our daughter was legally our child and a citizen of both Japan and the US.  She had been placed on my wife’s koseki (official family tree in Japan) and we had a birth certificate from a US state.  My wife and I both thought it was time to relax.  
  As we progressed through the adoption process for our daughter, the Japanese liaison from the agency we used had become a very close family friend.  She had asked us once, in the course of a conversation, if we had ever thought of adopting again.  We told her we were interested, but as a couple, really didn’t give it too much thought.  There are very few infants available for adoption in Japan and there is a long list of both Japanese and international families waiting to be selected.  We were told early in our adoption journey that adopting from an orphanage, when not living in Japan, was problematic so that was not an option.  Our Japanese friend asked if we would fill out the required paperwork anyway, update our family album, and get ready for the call notifying us we’d been selected.  I am a pro at filling out USCIS documents, so I filled them out and filed them.  We would occasionally call and discuss with our Japanese friend what was going on in Japan with adoptions and she would always end our conversations with “be ready”.  Life went on and we were preparing for another move, this time back to the Far East, when I got a call on my cell phone, from our old friend, letting me know our son would be born in the next few weeks.  As a family, we were floored and very excited at this wonderful news.  Our furniture had already been packed, plane tickets bought and the three of us were living in a hotel waiting to travel.  Now, we really had a reason to get moving back to the Far East!  Our son was born 15 days after we arrived in Japan.  

  We arranged to meet our friend in Tokyo and met our son for the first time a week after he was born.  After a cup of coffee and some discussion about how our son was doing, we pushed our newest family member out the door, his big sister in tow, into a brisk spring Tokyo day.  He was very healthy, was bigger at birth than his sister was, had a monster appetite and was very alert.  He was also a really good, sound sleeper.  I know that because his (three year old at the time) sister loved to go in and check on him all the time.  It seemed as if there was a bond between them almost immediately.  

 I am not an expert on what is required to finalize an adoption in Japan (or the US for that matter).  Honestly, my wife did most of the work.  I will say, from my point of reference, the adoption process in Japan was easier than it was in the US.  There was less paperwork and fewer home visits.  We sat with the social worker in his office once, he came to our house once, and he visited our son’s birth mother to make sure she was doing what she felt was best for her child.  With that information, he filed a report with the family court judge, who signed an order, and that was that.  Our son was added to my wife’s koseki and, according to the government of Japan, he was legally our son.  The difference in the process might be because we weren’t immigrating anywhere with our son (yet).  In our daughter’s case, we were taking her to the US as a legal immigrant and needed a ton of USCIS documents to do that.  There was also FBI background checks, state background checks and fingerprinting requirements in the US.  There were more home visits, more office visits, more e-mail and more phone calls.  The level of complexity is obvious in this little tome, since my son’s adoption process could be condensed into one paragraph.  None of these extra steps, or any Herculean efforts to line up lawyers and court dates and paperwork, was required in Japan.  Later this year I will apply for an I-130 visa for my son to enter the US.  Once his Japanese passport has an entry stamp into the US, I can return to Japan with him and apply for a US passport at the embassy in Tokyo.  He will then be just like his sister, a dual citizen.

  I am biased, but our children are great.  Both are very smart and are in the upper percentile in the Japanese growth charts for kids their age.  They are in the upper middle on the US growth charts, which is a good place for them to be.  Our daughter is bilingual and switches between Japanese and English like flipping a light switch.  She is doing kumon for math and Japanese and can read and write in both hiragana and English.  She has a stubborn streak that can be exasperating, but I love it so.  Our son is growing and developing on the same trajectory as his sister and is such a joyful little soul.  His presence brightens a room.  He isn’t as vocal as his sister was at the same age but he is stringing words together into simple sentences.  He has recently taken quite an interest in small toy cars and also the tools in my tool box.   Sometimes he uses the latter to fix the former, much to the displeasure of his dad.  They are both in love with each other and play together very well (seriously).  My daughter shows so much concern and empathy for her brother.  As a father, I couldn’t be more proud of them.

  Well, that’s our story.  It was quite an adventure and my wife and I learned a lot about each other and this tragicomedy we call the human condition along the way.  We learned that some people (especially Americans) can be totally oblivious to the blindingly obvious.  Most Americans were mildly surprised to hear our daughter was adopted, mostly because, in my opinion, my wife is Asian.  Our daughter is very Asian in appearance and I always found it humorous when I told people about her adoption they would say “really, she looks so much like you and your wife”.  Really.  We also learned a lot about what Japanese thought about adoption and how different it is from how people feel in the US.    I will not be negative; I will just say I find most widely held Japanese beliefs about adoption personally disappointing.  On the positive side, we had no issue adopting our son through the Japanese family court system.  We were treated fairly, with decency and respect at every juncture.  That may be because we live in a big city, which has many foreigners, so my Japanese adoption experience may be different based on location alone.  In closing, my wife and I are the two luckiest people we know.  We beat some long odds and adopted two fantastic kids.  If you’re reading this, that means you might be either somewhere along the path to adopt a child, are considering it as an option, or know someone who may be considering it.  While it may sound rather simplistic, the only worthwhile advice I could offer is to stay positive, remain hopeful and work towards your dream.  Our family wishes your family the best of luck on your journey! 
  Thank you so much for sharing your story! ~Sophelia 
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Wednesday, 30 July 2014



One of many weekend events I worked without pay as an ALT
 I've been volunteering since I was twelve. It's something that is important to me and that I enjoy. I was eager to continue volunteering when we moved to Japan and had my first opportunity just a month after we arrived, at a residential school/treatment center for troubled kids. Next came the orphanages, and they became something closer to an obsession than a volunteering opportunity. When I mentioned my volunteer work at my paid work (I was an ALT at the time) I was taken aback at some of the responses. Teachers commented that they also did a lot of volunteering... maintaining the school grounds or coaching school sports teams. Neither of those activities was actually voluntary, it was required of all teachers. They were simply expected to do it as unpaid overtime, and this was called volunteering. That goes against everything that makes volunteering meaningful to me, and I was frustrated at the comparison. Being exploited by your boss is not the same thing! Yet, I began to participate in more and more of these weird exactly-like-your-day-job-but-unpaid "volunteer" activities. I did weekend workshops, day-camps, over night camps, after work speech contest practice, texting lesson plans to teachers on Sundays... I was always happy to help out because I adored my students and I genuinely enjoyed the extra time outside of the classroom, but the extra time away from home became a real strain, especially once we had two puppies to care for. The kids were always happy to see me, but there was little acknowledgment from the adults that I was sacrificing my family time to be there. It was always treated as though I were merely complying with expectations, because that is what all the teachers were doing. In one particularly outrageous case I was told I should take paid leave on a day when I had been asked to help run a workshop because it didn't fall within my job description and therefore should be done on my own time. I stopped working as an ALT a year ago, but just yesterday I was asked if I could return to some of my duties on a volunteer basis. It used to really blow my mind, but having crossed over to the other side and looking now as a parent, I can see that it isn't only schools. Enforced "volunteering" is everywhere.

I was told I had to "volunteer" for one PTA activity a year, and hold a year long PTA committee position once per child I have in school. Cub Scouts require parents to "volunteer" at least four times a year. When I signed Tiger up to join the fire festival I didn't realise that every single parent was required to "volunteer" at the festival. Being childless doesn't get you out of it, either. The neighborhood associate requires regular "volunteering" for things like street cleaning and hedge trimming. This year it is our turn to act as the 班長 (hancho), meaning we are the representatives for our "block" of 19 houses. I have to attend meetings, distribute junk mail from the city council twice a month, collect fees, dance in the neighbourhood Bon Odori, run in the neighbourhood sports festival, turn up to the meeting hall at 6 am to clean it, weed the nature strips and more. I'm going to write more about this because I think there are some really good points to having an active community, but my experience so far has made me really wonder what my city taxes pay for. As far as I can see, everything is delegated to "volunteers" from the neighbourhood association. There's no real point to this post other than me complaining and sharing an aspect of Japanese culture that short term visitors may not encounter, so I'm going to close with a Japan Times article on the neighbourhood association system.

On the origins of the system:
“Chōnaikai actually started with Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1537-98), and they were originally called gonin-gumi (five-person associations). Their purpose was social control. If any member spoke a word against Hideyoshi, all five members were executed. This helps explain why, even today, Japanese are afraid to speak out (against authority).”
The Japanese Wikipedia page traces the origins of chōnaikai to 1937, whereas the English page pushes the start back a bit further to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. While omitting these apparently darker roots, these sources, along with what’s taught in many Japanese elementary schools, highlight the World War II variation, tonari-gumi, or “next-door groups.” Contrary to the pleasant-sounding name, tonari-gumi served as a highly effective spy network to root out war dissenters, who were likely to be subsequently tortured and imprisoned for their views. It was probably for those reasons that occupying U.S. forces outlawed chōnaikai until the Treaty of San Francisco was signed in 1951, returning sovereignty to the Japanese.
“The government still wants to keep chōnaikai for the same reason,” Ueda says. “If ever there’s a war, chōnaikai will prove invaluable.”
 Use by the local government:
The government supports chōnaikai in subtle ways. For example, they have members perform duties, like maintaining parks, that should be covered by tax money. The amount the government pays the chōnaikai is low: Ueda reports city hall paying only ¥120 per person per year for maintaining a park. The irony, he says, is that members in turn are expected to buy insurance for ¥165 in case they get injured while doing public works. “The government uses Japanese as a cheap labor force — almost slavery.”
Tiger's on summer holidays right now, so posts may be few and far between. Thank you for your patience :)
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Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Butt Stickers and Drop Bears


I heard rumors from other mothers in Japan, whispers in dark corridors. The school will give you a sticker, they said, and you have to attack it to your kid's bum. Not just anywhere, actually over the anus. I laughed, at first, assuming the bum sticker was the mothering-in-Japan equivalent of drop bears. You know drop bears, the fearsome scourge of tourists to Australia?

All Australians know about drop bears, and if you hole an Aussie up in an Irish pub anywhere in the world (we always seem to be in Irish pubs, I don't really know why) and ask they will doubtless regale you with horrific tales. The rest of the world is so convinced of the deadly nature of all things Australian that the drop bear story goes unchallenged for more often then you might think in these cynical days of instant snopes-ing.

It turns out, the bum sticker test isn't an exaggeration. You really have to do it. Twice, actually, to confirm the results. For really little kids the stickers may be left on overnight. My 8 year old just had to have it "applied" then "removed" immediately. Note the passive verbs. Put more actively, he had to spread his cheeks while squatting and I had to stick the clear round sticker of doom in place then peel it off again. And here was I, thinking that adopting an older child had cleverly let me off all parent-child'sbum interactions. This year, grade three, is the last year we have to do it, so there's that I suppose.

So why? Why is the Kewpie Mayonnaise cupid squatting for a sticker? It's a test for worms, and the kids have to get the all-clear before they are allowed in the school pool. The worms emerge during the night to lay eggs around the anus, so the sticker either applied overnight or immediately on waking is supposed to catch them poking their little heads out. Personally my vote would be prophylactic worming tablets (it works for the dogs...), but then, what do I know. I'm still telling people about my near miss with a drop bear.

*No photo credits for the "deadly Australia" pictures sorry, I just have no way of figuring out where any of them originally came from m(__)m
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Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Rainy Season 梅雨

The shades of green become vibrant to the point of seeming surreal during rainy season
My first and second rainy seasons were an experience of awe. Silly though it sounds, I had no idea so much water could fall from the sky. I know theoretically that Australia is the driest inhabited continent and that not raining for seven years at a time isn't exactly normal, but theory and experience are worlds apart. I took literally hours of video of rain falling (see a small sample below). It was all new and amazing.

Then, the magic wore off. I read a short sci fi story once (unfortunately I don't remember the title or the author) about explorers on a planet where it rains constantly. They go gradually insane, unable to ever get completely dry or avoid the sound of dripping. That's basically what rainy season is like, but add in everything growing mold and mushrooms. Wear a pair of shoes, put them away, take them out two days later and they are green and furry. Forget your sandwich on the counter for an hour? Don't even think about eating that bad boy. I mean it. Food poisoning spikes nation wide in June.

I seriously thought about quitting my job and leaving Japan during rainy season two years ago. My hatred of the season progressed to irrational levels of anger: why doesn't someone DO SOMETHING about this STUPID WEATHER?! It didn't help that I was being forced to cycle to work because of a very stupid policy. No matter how many layers of rain suiting I wore, I'd arrive soaked every day and developed a perpetual smell of damp dog from my steaming, damp, dog hair speckled clothing. I feared for my life every time a truck drove by spraying me with water and leaving me blinded and shaky. I started to go mad. Then one of my co-workers started cycling to work in his swim suit, his work clothes in a waterproof back pack. "I get soaked no matter what" he explained, I may as well keep cool and not have to carry wet things around. Somehow, that made everything better.
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