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!

Smiley hikers

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Life After Institutionalisation

Graph copyrighted to Human Rights Watch

Tiger was telling me last-night about an orphanage trip to USJ. They'd gone on the Jaws ride, but he didn't know what a shark was so he didn't really understand it. His main impression was that it smelled funny. Despite the well intentioned efforts of the orphanage staff, the system is filled with these strange gaps where things most children simply absorb through daily life remain unknown. At 11:39 in this video a young woman talks about being alone in her apartment after 'graduating' from an orphanage and having no idea how to switch the lights on. In Tiger's orphanage, too, the lights were centrally controlled.

After ageing out of the orphanage system, Japan’s institutionalised children face extraordinary challenges in their adult lives. The 2014 “Without Dreams” report commissioned by Human Rights Watch highlights some of these challenges, including lack of access to higher education, emotional and cognitive development problems resulting from institutionalisation, and lack of basic life skills. The report contains a number of informative vignettes from orphanage graduates with concrete examples of how the lack of preparation and support they received for independent living resulted in homelessness and welfare dependency. These are all issues we were aware of when we became a foster parents, yet awareness of these macro concepts did little to prepare us for the micro-issues that arose on a daily basis when our eight year old son, institutionalised since birth, first came to live with us.

Within an hour of getting home, for example, we discovered that he had never peed in a western-style toilet; the orphanage and his school both had urinals. Having driven to his (few) off-campus excursions in the orphanage bus, he was beyond excited about the power windows in our car. "You push a button and the window opens!" He raved about them to some neighbourhood kids, who laughed at him. He asked our permission to cry when he was hurt or upset, and also before passing gas (I am not sure what he would have done if we’d refused it!). After living in an institution of 100 kids and a large staff, he was terrified of silence, darkness and of being alone for even a few seconds. He woke several times each night, always checking that I was still beside him. He had never been to a friend’s house to play, nor had a friend over. He reflexively called every adult he met “sensei”. He had never been inside a supermarket, bank or post office. The more new experiences we facilitated for him, the more I marvelled at the idea that children growing up in such hermetically sealed environments are expected to find their own way at the ripe old age of 18 (or younger in some cases). As the “Without Dreams” report explains, obtaining a drivers’ license is prohibitively expensive for institutionalised young people, and not having a license limits employment opportunities. This is easy to understand and empathise with. What is harder to understand from the outside is the additional challenge of getting a drivers’ license when you may have had no experience of even being inside a car.

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Tuesday, 25 April 2017


Feeling like a fish out of water...
I used to think of cultural habits as located in the mind, but since attempting to reintegrate into life in Australia I have found my body far more often than my mind either betraying my acquired foreignness, or reminding me of habits I had never noticed I had before suddenly finding myself practising them again. Bowing is, of course, the quintessential physical habit Japan leavers find ourselves unable to control. After time in Japan bowing becomes so ingrained that even when consciously trying not to it can be impossible to stop. I bow in the car, on the phone, even when writing a particularly formal email. As for the latter category, I sat back inside my mind and watched in fascination as my body of its own accord began shaking out my shoes for spiders before putting them on within just a few days of repatriating. It careful checked towels for spiders before drying me after stepping out of the shower. I must always have done it, I suppose, but unconsciously. I was startled to see people in my home town walking around in the rain without umbrellas. I bought an umbrella and within minutes it was inside out. I had forgotten how windy it is down here, with the roaring forties blowing across the island. I stopped carrying an umbrella, but it felt strange. Foreign.
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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Monkey Tourists

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The past few years have seen some really funny and creative tourism campaigns from Oita, a prefecture mainly known for onsen and monkeys. I never got around to blogging about the international toilet festival, which is a shame because is was amazing... anyway, back to monkeys and onsen. This youtube video did the global rounds at the end of last year:

You can read more about the campaign over at Rocket News. Well, with onsen having been done so heavily in 2016 (there's also some synchronised swimming in onsen here), 2017 campaigns are going to focus on monkeys.

Incidentally Charlotte the monkey, presented as the love interest in this narrative, was named after the UK princess. While it seemed like a good idea initially there was some controversy, with more than a few people suggesting that the royal family might not take it in a flattering light.
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Saturday, 15 April 2017

Kyushu Quakes, Remembering a Year On

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This picture shared on facebook HERE by Nelson Surjon, it is NOT mine.

On Thursday night we had the strongest quake we'd ever felt. Tiger slept right through it, unlike Hayate. We saw on the news the next day that it had originated in Kumamoto and seven or eight people had died. We checked in with our friends in the area, tidied up the spills and went about our business as usual. The next night a magnitude 7, the highest on the Japanese scale, struck. I was sleeping Japanese style with the kids (futons on tatami) downstairs while the husband slept upstairs with the still rattled Hayate.
The bowling pin fell off Round One

The quake made an extraordinary sound, like nothing I've ever heard. The closest I can think of is a wave just as it crashes over your head, or the rushing in your ears just before you pass out. As the quake rolled on and on I grabbed the baby and braced myself in the door frame while shouting to Tiger to wake up. Some how neither the quake, my shouting, or the many dogs barking across the neighbourhood woke him. I couldn't leave the doorway with the baby in my arms so I sort of leaned out and grabbed Tiger by his toe (literally) and yanked as hard as I could to pull him to safety. He got a large friction burn from me pulling him across the tatami (tatami burns hurt much more than carpet burns, in my opinion) and then spent days telling people he'd been injured in the quake... technically true but a little misleading.
Stopped when it fell. How goth.

We were in Japan when 3.11 happened. You don't really get over something like that, and we've always consequently been very conscientious about disaster preparedness. However, we were just weeks away from leaving Japan and there were piles of packing and sorting everywhere. One relief was that I had passed the baton literally two weeks before to the new neighbourhood association rep. I had spent a year as the "information officer in the event of emergencies", meaning in a disaster like this I was supposed to monitor the radio, pass on evacuation information etc to the entire suburb. Why did they entrust a barely literate foreigner with this very language heavy and important role? The short answer is, as with most things, because Japan.* Other responsibilities including taking the role call to ensure everyone in the block I represented was safe, something I was also very glad not to have to do since many of our neighbours had typically Kyushu names, meaning the kanji were read in a totally different way to standard Japanese, and I never completely mastered them all.
The supermarket shelves were bare, both because of panic buying and because the highway collapse meant the trucks couldn't get through.
Saturday dawned hot and bright, but in a foreboding, over-ripe way. All around the neighbourhood the fledgling birds of spring had been shaken from their nests and their tiny bodies quickly began to rot in the hot sun. A stench hung over everything. Heavy rain and gales were forecast for later in the day, meaning landslides would inevitably follow. With foundations shaken by the quake we felt we were on the brink of an extraordinary disaster, but no one knew quite how big it would be. Tens of thousands of people evacuated. Our neighbours gathered in nervous groups, going from house to house to form consensus in the unobtrusive way of well established neighbourhoods, discussing whether we should leave to. The consensus was no, but fearfully. The neighbourhood association had generators and other emergency supplies on stand by. On TV we saw a university dorm had collapsed, trapping students inside. We watched all day, as hope slowly faded. A fourth year engineering student, a member of the music club, died. A first year student, who had left home just weeks before, died. There were amazing moments of relief, too: A baby girl rescued unharmed from a collapsed house after six agonising hoursThe magnificent castle at Kumamoto we'd visited on our "let's contribute to the local economy" holiday right after 3.11 was terribly damaged, and the highway we would take to the airport when we left had partially been swallowed by the earth.      We slept in our clothes, torches in hand, and aftershocks rocked us through the night.
Alerts... we didn't get a lot of sleep

*The longer explanation is the the positions are predetermined based on the rotating allocation and the system may not be changed, even for reasons like 'this person is literally incapable of performing the required tasks'. Because Japan.
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Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Shower Slugs

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2015 was the worst year for mould yet. Dealing with a little baby and the mould during rainy season was a nightmare, and I was desperate for anything to help. I commented to my sister that it would be great if there were something like aquarium snails that would just hand out in the bathroom eating the mould for me, and she said "maybe there is" and immediately googled this. It sounded good, so we went out to the garden and collected some slugs.

I had bought this mini flower pot as a hide for Tiger's pet snails.

There was plenty of mould for them to feast on :/

They only really took to the grouting, but that's OK, it's the hardest part to clean anyway.

The difference between the slugged side and the not slugged side is pretty amazing. Also amazing: a "gluten free" label on BUBBLE BATH. For all the people with Celiac disease who like to drink soap, I presume.

Sadly the experiment had to be cut short because we had so many textiles go mouldy that the bath had to be used to soak them in very unfriendly solutions for a few weeks so the slugs were evacuated back to the garden. One eventually found its own way back though. It made a little home under a shampoo bottle and sneaks out to help with the cleaning at a leisurely pace.
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Tuesday, 9 February 2016



This is hard to write, but even harder to do. We’re leaving Japan. It was not in our plan, but then, so much that happens in life isn’t that I’m not sure why we bother with plans anyway. We’re here until roughly summer, and after that we’ll be heading to sunny/windy/rainy/snowy Tasmania (you’ll understand if you’ve ever visited Tasmania).
It’s not you Japan, it’s us.
Well, it is a little Japan. Tiger needs a change and he needs some support we can’t afford to provide here. We could have tried to find a solution moving inside Japan, but there are other factors, the main one being an extended family situation I don’t want to go into detail about but which requires our presence ASAP. I have a ton of posts in my head waiting to be written down, so I’ll keep the blog going until they run out and then see where we’re at. I don’t know how well we’ll cope with repatriation. I really don’t.
I’ve spent more of my adult life in Japan than Australia.
We came to this decision (as much as it was in our hands, anyway) at the end of summer. Tiger was away at a camp so we sat down that night to hash out the details. We were fast being confronted with the bottom of our very classy $10 bottle of wine when we heard music that just went on and on. Eventually we decided to go and check it out. I strapped Cricket into the carrier and we headed to the park. It was that bruise-purple light somewhere between dusk and true darkness, and a horde of dragonflies hovered at waist height, as motionless as the humid air. A little girl in a yukata called out that she was going to dance and were we dancing too? An old man in his old-man-uniform of dirty-white vest, waist warmer, and plastic slippers complained that the walk across the park was too far. We all ended up at Tiger’s school, where we realised it was the neighbourhood Bon Odori. We’d been too preoccupied to pay attention to the date. We watched the dancers until the purple turned to black and thought about how much we would miss moments like these.
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Tuesday, 19 January 2016


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At the end of a long frazzled day of dragging around town on public transport and a trip to the pediatrician for vaccinations I finally got home and Cricket was desperate for food. I cradled him and he started to nurse furiously only to break away after a few seconds crying. I latched him again, and again, furious nursing before pulling away crying. Tired, frustrated and now covered in leaking milk I was getting increasingly agitated and didn’t notice the father figure getting home. After watching quietly for a minute he suggested “why don’t you try the other side?” I flipped the baby over and he latched on… and his whole body relaxed as he settled in to feed properly. I asked in awe “what made you think of that?” and my lovely husband replied “I saw the bandaid from his shots and figured it might be painful to hold him with his weight on that arm.” I’d completely forgotten about the injection. Parenting Tiger is a lot like this, except he doesn’t have bandaids to helpfully warn us of sore spots. I was rushing to try and bring a load of laundry in before the clouds burst and dumped their rain down when Tiger came home from school and demanded toast. I toasted bread and dumped it on the table with a knife and the peanut butter jar then ran back outside. Cue much dramatic whining about how if I really loved him I’d spread the toast, everyone else IN THE WORLD gets their toast spread for them, and how much he hated me. As I dumped an armful of laundry and prepared to lecture him for being selfish and spoiled something about the sad way he was slumped at the kotatsu made me pause. “Have you ever spread toast before?” I asked, and learned that no, he never had, and he felt embarrassed to say so and frustrated because he was hungry. Instead of a fight we ended up having a lovely afternoon practicing on endless reams of toast. All too often, though, I miss the signs and fight when I should be nurturing. If only there were bandaids to warn me.
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