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

Monday, 16 November 2015

The Things I Love About Japan are the Reasons Tiger Needs to Leave


I ran into an elderly neighbour at the bus stop the other day. He was on his way to a junior high school reunion. "We're in our seventies now though," he said, "so there might only be twelve or fifteen of us." My first though was how wonderful that was. Can you imagine in your seventies still being in touch with that many people from when you were thirteen?! And for most of you to still be living in the same town? I imagined them all, the 74 year olds calling the 76 year olds "sempai". The class clown will still be the one cracking jokes, the smart kid will still be the one everyone asks for advice... and there my second thought hit. These things, the things I love about Japan, are the reasons we have to get Tiger out of here. Because he was the weird kid, and so he will forever be the weird kid.
When he first came to live with us he had never been to a friend's house to play, or had a friend over. Play dates are too hard to organise if you are running an orphanage with a hundred kids, I guess. We worked on social skills intensively for a while and he's fine now, but after a few bumpy visits word got around that he was weird and kids stopped coming over to play. He'd never ridden in a car (the orphanage had a bus, of course) and raved to the other kids about these amazing buttons that made the widows open. The other kids laughed; it was like he came from another planet. First exclusion, then bullying. You wouldn't pick him from a group of "regular" kids these days, but it doesn't matter. His role has been determined. We've sent him to Scouts and he's in a sports club not affiliated with school, but neither has been the source of socialisation we'd hoped for. Everything here is centered on school life, and the scouts never hang out once the meetings are over.
School. I love love love Japanese preschools and elementary schools (junior high I feel is 80% focused on crushing kids' souls, on the other hand). I'm still learning a lot about the system, however, and one thing I am learning is that the system has no safety net for kids who are too far outside 'normal'. Our local school has been accommodating and creative, but we're at the end of the options available within the system and at this point it would be hard to describe our situation as anything other than "the system has given up on our child". It turns out not to be an uncommon situation:
Sayoko and her husband, both Japanese, are the parents of an eighth-grader with autism. The family recently returned to Japan after spending five years in the U.S. During his time abroad, their son was able to transition from special education to a mainstream classroom, where he was a straight-A student in his last year and had teachers enthusiastically recommending college in the future.
Despite this stellar record, his autism and its attendant issues with communication mean that Sayako’s son would land squarely back in the “special education” track in the Japanese system. He is currently attending international school, where is he in a mainstream classroom but receives little tangible support for his autism.
“In the Japanese system we are told that even many highly educated, ‘high-functioning’ persons with disabilities can’t get jobs, so it is better for them to attend a vocational high school and gain employment under the ‘disabled persons’ scheme,” Sayoko says, referring to the quota system that exists at big companies. “This idea is instilled into parents of children with disabilities right from elementary school. The path ahead for our son is far from clear.”
The irony of leaving Japan before we're ready because that's what the only Japanese member of our family needs is not lost on us, but that's where we are right now.
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Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Mindful Dog Walking


You’re walking your dog too, but you’re not really there.
Your dog knows it. I see them looking at me and I smile at them, hoping you’ll notice me noticing them and then realize that at the end of your arm is a leash attached to everything you’re busy chasing somewhere else. You really matter to your dog, you know. If you pay attention, you might feel how important and appreciated you are. It feels real good.
I see you with your head down, eyes fixed on your phone’s screen, one arm fully extended behind you. You’re not aware that you’re dragging your dog along who is trying to sniff something very important. When you get home, maybe you realize that you forgot to pay attention to your dog the whole time you were out. It’s almost as if that walk never happened.

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Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Exploitation and Adoption in Japan

Still from the Documentary Shared Below
Some time ago, when researching how young adults cope with life after institutionalisation, I watched an interview with a woman who had become a prostitute after leaving the orphanage and struggling to live alone. "I enjoy feeling like someone wants to be together with me," she said, "even if it's just clients."* it affected me greatly and I still haven't written up the post I'd planned, several years on. I'm writing about the young woman now because I recently watched another video that reminded me of her comment. I'm sharing it below, but it's only available in Japanese:

The documentary above features a 23 year old woman named Chihiro who is facing an unwanted pregnancy resulting from "dangerous" work she is required to do in the brothel where she is, in effect, an indentured labourer. Like many young women, she became caught up in a situation where she was told she had a large debt that she could only afford to pay off by working in the associated brothel. By the time she realised she was pregnant the possibility of an abortion had passed. Unable to end the pregnancy but also unable to work, she relies on Baby Pocket, an NPO that provides housing and food for women who agree to have their babies adopted through the organisation. Raised by a single mother, who worked "without a break" to support three children, Chihiro always looked after her little sister and they would think of excuses to visit the supermarket where their mother worked and cue at her register just to get the chance to see her. With a debt of 20,000,000 yen waiting for her, all Chihiro wants to do is have the baby quickly and get back to work. She thinks she'll be able to work again within "two months" of an unmedicated vaginal birth.

We're getting to the part of the documentary I found really traumatic, just so you are warned. Following the birth of her son, Chihiro is not permitted to hold him. She is briefly allowed to see him through the glass window on the nursery before being wheeled away. The agency staff member is coming the other way with a camera to record the baby for his adoption profile and quickly ducks into a doorway to hide as the documentary follows Chihiro's disappearing figure. Baby Pocket say it is "too hard" for mothers to bond with their babies before giving them up for adoption. They, of course, get to decide because these women are utterly powerless and alone. Mothers are allowed to hold their babies once, AFTER signing the adoption paperwork. From about 33 minutes into the video it's just awful. I don't know what the exact details of the agreement are but Hayes and Habu's Adoption in Japan: Comparing Policies for Children in Need similar arrangements with an unnamed agency are described. The agency in the book uses the housing and food provided during pregnancy as a tool to enforce the surrender of babies, insisting on an instant repayment of all the provided costs if the mother changes her mind. For a woman like Chihiro, already burdened with a massive debt and no access to legal help (both this insistence on immediate repayment and the debt that landed her in the brothel in the first place are almost certainly illegal), this would probably seem insurmountable. Please let me say again, I do not know what Baby Pocket's policy is regarding mothers who want to keep their babies.

Unable to nurse, cuddle or interact at all with her son during her hospital stay (usually a week in Japan), Chihiro talks to him through the glass at night when no one else is around. She apologises to him because all the other babies are with their mothers and only he remains in the nursery alone. When the paper work is signed and she gets to hold him he settles into sleep immediately and smiles. Chihiro breaks down. It took me three views to get through because I couldn't keep watching and I'm crying now having to think about it. She holds him until she has to let him go. This woman's body has been used by others for her entire adult life. Her baby was the result of her use by others, and then his existence too became a way of using her. Although technically adoption for profit is illegal in Japan, there are plenty of loop holes including NPOs "hiring" child care companies to look after babies between their birth and adoption. Money paid to these companies (registered to the same address and with the same director as the NPO) is then outside of the financial regulations the NPO faces and the cost can be passed to the adoptive parents with a profit resulting for the agency (I mean, ahem, the TOTALLY UNRELATED COMPANY). You can read more about dubious adoption agency practices by clicking here.

Chihiro says at the end of the documentary that she wants to quit working as a prostitute. "It'll be painful," she says, "but nothing could be more painful than this." Realistically, with no support or back up, will she be able to escape? I'm hopeful but not optimistic.

The Yomiuri Shimbun did some reporting about agencies using adoption to turn a profit and the response from international adoptive parents was disappointing to say the least. Unsurprisingly, the most "profitable" agency is one which sends babies to North America. The routine institutionalisation of children in Japan is unacceptable and adoption is part of the solution, but it is a very small part and must never, ever be at the expense of vulnerable women who are given no advice about other options. 

*I can't remember where I saw the interview, unfortunately I just closed the window in a mood of horror without recording the location. If anyone is familiar with the interview I would like to be able to properly link to it, so please let me know.
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Saturday, 31 October 2015

I didn't fight the law, and the law won.

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Chikako Kobayashi shared this image to facebook
Left, from top: Asahi, Mainichi, and Tokyo newspapers Right, from top: Yomiuri, Sankei, and Nikkei newspapers

You probably saw images from the August 1st protests in Tokyo (unless, of course, you read Japan’s more pro-government papers, which had strikingly different front pages the next day). It was actually a national day of action, and Tiger had wanted to attend our local protest. After a very upsetting “peace education” experience last year (he came home having learned that Japan was just sitting around peacefully minding its own business when America suddenly dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, and therefore Japan should kill all Americans. None of which was specifically said by his teacher, but she didn’t interject when children made these statements in presentations to the class) we talked a lot about war. We talked about what happened in Okinawa, in particular, and about how the people who decide to start wars are rarely the ones who actually suffer and die in them. He got very excited about signing a petition against constitutional revision, and then wanted to attend the rally as well. I was very happy to take him, until…

Until I heard about the intimidation and harassment of protesters at previous rallies. I work at a university, and I hear things that aren’t getting reported on the nightly news or discussed in the newspapers. Students talk about police photographing them at rallies, then calling their parents: “Did you know your child was creating a public nuisance? Who is paying for their education? Is this the lifestyle you planned to fund?” Others had their landlord called by police as part of “routine inquiries”: “Do many radicals gather at the building you own? Do you rent to any foreigners? Do you know if political meetings are being held on your premises?”

My visa was up for renewal two days after the protest. As a foreigner, attending a political rally is a valid reason for my visa renewal to be refused. I thought about the consequences if it was declined before we had a valid visa to take Tiger to Australia. In fact, I was even cautious about publishing this post, which is why it is appearing so late. I told him that we couldn’t go to the protest. This is, of course, the exact response the intimidation aims to elicit. Every person who attended was risking something. A promotion, their living allowance, getting into the university of their choice, something important. That might be hard to grasp for readers for whom political engagement is a natural part of democracy, but it’s just the reality in “democratic” Japan. Yet, tens of thousands took the risk.


The Education Ministry on October 5 announced its plan to issue a notice putting restrictions on high school students’ political activities as a measure to respond to the implementation of the 18-year-old suffrage.

The planned notice will impose a ban or restrictions on political activities which senior high school students are engaged in outside of school. Students will be prohibited or constrained from demonstrating in political movements within school-bounds even on holidays and after school. In addition, any such action will not also be allowed in student councils and school club activities.

This notice will not only cause students to hesitate to take part in political activities, but also restrain students from even thinking about and discussing political matters.
Essentially, Japan’s government just ordered all of the country’s public universities to end education in the social sciences, the humanities and law.

A controversial new Japanese personal identification system came into effect on Monday. My Number IDs will unite personal tax information, social security and disaster relief benefits, but critics worry about possible leaks and invasions of privacy.
Protester Hitoshi Ogawa said he is concerned My Number might be abused by the government to collect the most sensitive details of citizens’ lives, from health records to political ideology.
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Monday, 26 October 2015

The Curious Case of Kumamoto


Photo from this site
In Kumamoto, it is easier to abandon your baby than your dog.
I do not know how to feel about that.
Of course abandoning a dog should be discouraged, I'm not critical of that. It's an awful thing to do, and all too common in Japan. I think it is great Kumamoto City is trying to discourage people who bring dogs to the pound:
When an owner brings in a pet, they don’t take it in easily like most centres. They ask them to remember the time they’ve spent with their dog or cat, and ask them if they’ve really tried seriously to find a new owner. One staff member explains, “We don’t want to give local people a bad impression. But we do want the people who come to us to get rid of their animals to leave feeling bad about it. Sometimes we might even be able to change their minds.
“We don’t mind being hated. Even if it comes to tears, we need to ask the owners to think about what they are doing.” Sometimes there are disputes, but if the staff persevere they’re sometimes successful at persuading the owner to take their pet back home with them and give them another chance.
One time a man in his 60s brought in his corgi, saying, “He chews everything, I can’t keep him.” The dog’s original owner, his son, had moved abroad and the dog was nothing but a nuisance to his new guardian. The man was of the opinion that “if the dog does something bad, it’s natural to punish him.” In response, the staff asked him, “Isn’t it your son who’s taught him it’s OK to chew things? If it’s your son’s fault, why should this dog pay for it with his life?”
On the other hand, it jumped out to me immediately that Kumamoto also hosts Japan's "baby hatch", a box into which parents can anonymously abandon their child. Usually these babies cannot be adopted or even in most cases fostered, because consent cannot be obtained from anonymous parents.

This post has been sitting in my draft folder for nearly two years. I don't know what to conclude about the topic and didn't want to do ANOTHER post that just trailed off. In the end, though, I realised I may never figure out how to "conclude", so I'm just going to leave it here and back away slowly. 

Related reading:


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Thursday, 30 July 2015

Creepers and Life Lessons Learned at the Pokemon Store

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A Pokemon store opened a couple of months ago in our little backwater, and Tiger has been dying to visit. First I put him off until the summer holidays, then until payday, then just a few more days, then eventually yesterday I promised we'd go after some running around we had to do in town. It was 33 degrees, the chores took forever, we ran out of time to go before his gymnastics lesson but I promised ABSOLUTELY after gymnastics. He was incredibly patient and good about it, and when we finally made our way towards the shopping center he was literally jumping with excitement. As we searched around in the maze of new shops for the Pokemon store I noticed a British guy trying to engage passing school girls in conversation using loud, aggressive-sounding English. "What a creep" I thought, but having the kids in tow I didn't want to start anything so I just ignored him. He noticed us, however, and followed after us yelling "HELLOOOO" at the top of his lungs. I tried to ignore him, but he ran ahead and then blocked our path and began a rambling and largely incoherent conversation about how we didn't know each other but our friends had probably met each other so we should be friends. He reeked of booze. He was being friendly enough but he was swaying and touching me and the baby and kept poking his finger into the baby's face saying "beautiful eyes, beautiful blue eyes" and I was terrified he was actually going to stick a finger in those eyes. I tried to extract us from the situation in the usual ways, but he continued to follow us, block our path an get in our personal space. I took the kids to the toilet and we hid there. Poor Tiger, after his long wait he was close enough to smell Pikachu and some jerk was ruining it for him. We checked a couple of times but the creeper was lurking, waiting for us. I spent thirty minutes in the toilets with an increasingly upset Tiger before eventually calling the husband to come and get us. He came in a hurry and parked in a spot we couldn't use for long, so in the end our poor little boy got a five minute run around the store and a frustrated promise that we'd come back another day. For us, it was a scary situation with a stalker. For the creeper, he probably saw it as a friendly encounter.
As we hid in the toilet Tiger ran through our options.
"Get angry and tell him to leave us alone?"
"He'll say 'why are you being like that, I'm just being friendly' and then he'll still follow us around but he'll be angry and yell at us a lot."
"Ignore him and tell him we're in a hurry?"
"He'll just follow us into the shop."
"Ask the staff for help?"
"It'll turn into a big scene and we'll be dragged into it."*
As we ran through each scenario I realised that what I was relating to Tiger were not hypothetical outcomes but rather the results of years of my own experimentation with dealing with street harassment. I've tried every variation imaginable to extricate myself from drunks, creepers and perverts and I am well aware of the dangers inherent in each one. The safest course, in my experience, has always been to avoid confrontation. In the end though, this leaves the creepers blissfully unaware of the havoc they cause.

Clementine Ford wrote recently about an experience at a restaurant in which the owner stuck his fingers into her friend's meal:
He acted like I was being incredible tedious and said that I didn't understand that this was a "fun" place and that it wasn't a big deal. (Yeah, because it's always so "fun" when someone puts their fingers where they're not wanted.) I pushed the point and he grudgingly said that he would get a new meal for my friend (who also said to him explicitly, "I need you to know that I wasn't okay with that.")
He then returned to the table and further tried to press his point. That I didn't "get it", that no one else ever has a problem with that kind of behaviour, that I was being difficult and "fucking unreasonable". At that point, we stood up to get our money refunded and he followed us to the bar and actually tried to stop the bar staff from refunding our money....
We got our refund and then as I turned to leave, the owner said "fuck off, you cunt". 
This is what happens when you tell creepers they are being creepy. They get aggressive, insist you are misunderstanding them and in my (extensive~ I was barely eleven the first time an adult man on the street commented on my breasts) experience they often follow it up with physical intimidation and violence to drive home the point that they are a nice guy and you are just a fucking ungrateful lesbian bitch. Much as I would have loved Tiger to see me standing my ground, when you have a four month old baby strapped to your chest facing into danger just isn't the right thing to do. It wasn't the right thing to do when I was trying to get the bus home after work when I was sixteen and alone either. The more I think about it the angrier I feel that I'm sitting here feeling guilty for letting the guy get away with it as though his behaviour is my responsibility to stop... but then, that's always how we treat these things, isn't it? Jill should have worn sensible shoes. I say "creepers" because that's how I think of them, but even my dad does the same thing. My parents had a high school student do a home stay and my father made a joke about her electric toothbrush doing double duty as a vibrator. She asked me to help her deal with it. When I told my parents it had made the girl uncomfortable the usual happened. He wasn't a creep, it was just a joke, she was over-reacting. I patiently tried to explain that maybe her feeling uncomfortable was a good enough reason to avoid such conversations whether or not HE thought they were creepy but no, it just didn't compute. Then my mother, who as so many women do staunchly supports a patriarchal social order, jumped in with "well she clearly provokes such comments and young girls all secretly love attention from older men." In frustration I ended up snapping at them both: "she's a CHILD and she is in YOUR CARE, get over yourselves!" They sulked with me for quite some time.
Anyway, to look on the bright side, when I need to talk to Tiger about these issues we now have a convenient short-hand: "Don't be the guy at the Pokemon store."

*This being Japan, we would have been implicated by our shared foreignness. I doubt the guy spoke Japanese so I would probably have been dragging in to interpret. The staff would have freaked out and the whole situation then called the police. The police require ID and statements from anyone "involved" in an incident... a friend was fingerprinted and had her mug shot taken when she reported being the victim of a mugging. I doubt they would have accepted that I didn't know the guy and I felt it would have made the situation worse for us.
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Tuesday, 28 July 2015


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Life is crazy and the blog is suffering, so I'm sharing something I wrote to friends last year that isn't really up to blogging standard but I hope may be slightly entertaining. I used made-up names for friends who would find it easier, but you can read a proper blurb over at Stella Lee, from whence I stole this lovely photo:
Too sick (morning sickness will apparently never end) to do anything except watch TV, but out of good shows so I tried picking a random show from hulu and watched a very problematic Japanese comedy about an obese girl who loses weight to work at a fashion magazine, is sent off to write cake reviews and subsequently gets force fed cake by a violent patissiere she falls in love with but who causes her to regain all her weight and then says he won’t date “fat chicks“. Do I watch episode 2 in morbid curiosity or try to erase it from my memory?!

OK, I have braved the disturbing world of "Rebound" and am ready to share the exciting events of episodes 2-5.

At the end of episode 1 Prince had declared his love for Piglet, who had "rebounded" to obesity (a fat suit) as a result of his cakes, but tells her he can't date "fat chicks". She's already at the shop when he says that and before she can leave he sees her and, not recognizing her, assumes she is his new part time employee. She plays along, calling herself Choko. She was also fired from her job at the fashion magazine for gaining weight.

In episode 2 Piglet tells Prince that she needs a couple of weeks before she can meet him, and tells him to make her a new cake in the meantime. He suspects that she is playing him and turns to "Choko" for advice. During this period Piglet meets up with an old boyfriend who seems to get off on jiggling her fat. I shall call him Feeder. Her employer also tells her that if she can lose the weight in two weeks she can have her job back. She admits herself to a weight-loss clinic and undergoes various painful looking procedures before getting back down to 40-somthing kilos. In the meantime Prince is desperately drowning his insecurities in cake. At the end of the episode Piglet calls him to say they can meet and he has a delicious cake delivered to her, but it turns out that now he has become obese.

Episode 3 is largely Piglet trying to deal with the fact that she doesn't want to date Prince now that he's fat. In this episode we learn that he was obese as a child and his unhappy memories are why he wont date fat women, so his comments in eps 1 and 2 are totally justified while "women only care about appearance" and are shallow. He starts calling "Choko" and suggests they should date instead since they are both fat. At the same time Feeder ends up working liaison with Piglet's company. He tells her he always liked her the way she was and suggests they date again. Just as she seems tempted, Prince has another new cake delivered to her, and realizing that even though the only thing she liked about him was his looks she actually also really likes his cakes, so she goes running to him... and he has also lost weight. Now they are both skinny they can finally shag, so they run off to a hotel. However, both get up in the night to down diet pills.

Episode 4 starts out with them waking in the hotel then going to the gym together where they commiserate about to horrors of growing up fat while obsessively exercising. Their excessive lovie-dovieness quickly begins to tire them both and they both keep chugging down diet pills despite warnings of dangerous side-effects. Still feeling insecure Prince tries to rush into marriage but Piglet gets cold feet when she realises he expects her to quit her job right as she is offered a promotion of sorts in the form of a company trip to Paris. He makes her a giant pink wedding cake but she says that isn't the cake she wants, she wants a "I'll support your career" cake. He then gets depressed and wallows around in the wedding cake and she feels bad, so she quits her job and hands back the plane ticket. Not knowing this, Prince shows up and with a "I actually totally support your career" cake and takes her to the airport, telling her to have fun in Paris but not to gain weight or he'll dump her.

Episode 5 Not able to actually go to Paris or afford a hotel, Piglet is offered a place to stay by Feeder, who knows the whole story. He takes her to a hotel, orders a bunch of room service and threatens to tell Prince everything unless she eats it. As they scuffle her diet pills all end up in the toilet. He then takes her to her old company to try and get her job back. As they wait to speak to her old boss, a fashion designer who had announced a partnership with the magazine says he will cancel their contract unless the magazine staff eat 200 cakes. They can't manage it and Piglet steps in, eating all the cakes, saving the day and getting her job back. She once again "rebounds" and confesses everything to Prince who says he is sick of her lies and tells her not to come back.

How will it end? Well, I did watch the whole thing but it turned into a pretty ordinary love triangle then "oh no, filial obligation or love?" drama after episode 5 and got kind of dull to write up, so you'll just have to watch it yourselves. It is worth holding on for the end though... they make a deep-fried pork cake. For realsies.
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