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

Sunday, 5 October 2014

J-Bloggers’ Carnival 3, Autumn Edition: Call for Submissions

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Photo Source (Before text was added)
The theme for the next carnival is “Comfort”, and submissions are welcome from anyone up until November 1st, Japan time. Never participated in a blog carnival before and don’t even know what I’m talking about? No problem! It’s very easy. Just email me a link to your blog post (or even someone else’s post you think fits the theme and I’ll try to get in touch with them). It can be a new post you wrote just for the carnival or something ten years old, it really doesn’t matter. Just add a link in your post to either one link I’ll email you or if you are feeling very community minded you can link individually to each of the carnival participants, then once the carnival is live please read the other contributions and leave a comment for them. The idea is to build connections with other bloggers, get a different perspective, and have some fun! Some of my favourite blogs are ones I first encountered through carnivals I was participating in. The theme is intentionally broad so that you can adapt it to fit your blog’s focus and your own writing style. Plus, comfort is just the first word that springs (ha ha) to  mind when I think of autumn in Japan… kotatsu, gluhwein, a good book and roasted chestnuts.

The previous two carnivals were both in spring, but my original intention was actually to do one each season. I’ve been procrastinating about putting up a third because there hasn’t been a great deal of interest, but on reflection I enjoy it so what the hey, I’ll go ahead and if participation stays low I’ll just include links to some of my favourite relevant blog posts!

So, if you are interested please email me at sopheliajapan@gmail.com with “carnival” in the subject line. If you don’t have a blog but want to contribute something I am also very happy to host it here, and I welcome contributions in any format (photo essays, video and multi-media, comics… please don’t feel constrained but my text-heavy style!). I would also appreciate anyone who can sharing this call for submissions to help get the word out and hopefully round up some more participants :)
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Friday, 3 October 2014

The Chair of Gynecological Doom

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I recently had my first ever visit to a Japanese OBGYN, and I found the experience of THE CHAIR* so weird that I wanted to share the story here. Be warned, however, that this post contains words describing "lady bits". If that makes you feel all funny, you should probably stop reading now and never again click on a link that has "gynecological doom" in the title. Pro tip.
Image Courtesy of http://tidbitsanddollops.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/gynecologists-say-the-darndest-things
So, I needed an ultrasound and I was aware that they are usually done trans-vaginally in Japan, so I was a little psyched out but (I thought) prepared. I was ushered from the general waiting room into the more private inside waiting room, which had pink squishy walls to, I assume, get us feeling all pink-squishy-ready. From time to time a nurse escorted a man through (I assume an expectant father come to see a grainy image of his off-spring), but only after announcing loudly "a MAN is entering the area". I guess the manly presence might ruin all the pink squishy psychological preparation. My turn came and I was told to enter the "internal examination room" and lock the door behind me. It was a small cubical with walls on three sides but instead of a back wall facing the wall with the door, there was a ruched pink curtain. THE CHAIR was facing the door, and I wondered how an examination was going to work in such a tight space. I stripped off my lower half, sat on THE CHAIR and draped a beach towel over my knees. So far, so good. Then THE CHAIR started talking to me in that soothing voice elevators have. "The chair is about to move. Please keep your legs and arms inside the chair and do not try to stand up" she said. The chair swung up into the air then pivoted to face the curtain. "The bottom is about to retract" she said, and the part of the chair I was sitting on dropped away leaving my bum suddenly exposed. THE CHAIR then spread my legs open and, bum hanging free and legs akimbo, propelled me towards and through the pink curtain, up to my waist. Sadly there was no music, but in my head the sound track was something like this:

A nurse on the other side of the curtain asked me to confirm my identity, at which point the complete ridiculousness of the situation overcame me and I burst out laughing. The doctor asked if I would prefer to have the curtain open, to which I responded "yes please", much to the consternation of the nurse who seemed decidedly uncomfortable about putting face-to-vulva as it were. "Foreigners always want to curtain open" the doctor told her, and she shook her head at our foreign strangeness. Behind the curtain was a small office space with some other nurses bustling about doing various things, but perhaps the oddest thing was that the doctor was sitting on a wheeled chair. After a very quick in-out examination he pulled his gloves off and rolled sideways. As the nurse was cleaning me up I heard the doctor already talking to the woman in the next cubical: "This is your baby's head, here's the heart..." and I realised that there may be a whole row of disembodied genitals on bumless chairs poking through ruched pink curtains, waiting for the doctor to roll from one to another. I began to laugh again, as THE CHAIR informed me that we were about to begin moving again. When I got home and told the man person about what had happened he added: "imagine the lab where they design those chairs? Do you think they take turns test-riding them?"

*I think these chairs or similar are used in lots of places (although probably not in conjunction with curtains and voice-overs), but I'd never encountered one in Australia so the whole thing was distinctly strange to me.
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Friday, 26 September 2014

Orientation Meeting for Prospective Adoptive Parents (Flashback Friday)

The gorgeous image is by Brett Davies, taken from here.

This is a post I wrote over a year ago, and it has been sitting in my draft folder because I was worrying about potential invasion of the privacy of the other people I discuss. After a log time thinking about it, I'm confident that it would be impossible to identify any individual mentioned here, so I am publishing it.

It’s interesting how telling people we were adopting opened floodgates of infertility stories. I wonder how many Japanese couples are struggling to conceive while feeling like they are the only ones. One teacher I worked with who had recently had her first child told me that she tried for eight years, another for five. One of my naginata friends and her husband were never able to have a child. I feel like an interloper in this world of private pain and monthly disappointments. I’ve never tried to conceive and have no reason to believe that I couldn’t. We are adopting as our first choice, not as a last resort after all else has failed, but the people around me always assume the latter. Early in our exploration of adoption in Japan we attended an orientation meeting with a private adoption agency. It was a pretty eye opening experience. Our cheerful responses about looking forward to adoption seemed incongruous in the atmosphere of sadness. At the start of the meeting we all introduced ourselves, and the other attendees all discussed the length of time they had been trying to conceive and the fertility treatments they had tried. After the introductions we realised that the majority of couples there were not potential applicants but successful adoptive parents who were there to help with the orientation. In fact, only one other couple was there for the orientation, which was the only meeting in Kyushu that year and was compulsory for applicants with the agency.
After the introductions we watched a video about the agency that outlined their policies, after which we were expected to give 感想, responses or impressions. There seemed to be an expectation that we would object to the policies, for example not being permitted to request a specific kind of child (age, race, sex or ability). We then watched a second video about a couple whose adopted daughter experienced some delays in her physical development, and how they felt about it. Again we were asked for feedback, and again there was a heavy expectation that we would be uncomfortable with the possibility of adopting a child who may be disabled. When we responded that if we conceived a child naturally we would have no control over sex or ability either, there was some surprised murmuring around the room, as though the comparison hadn't occurred to anyone else. I learned later that the government agencies (CGCs) often prefer to keep infants in institutionalised care until they are old enough to access if their development is "normal" before placing them for adoption; a policy that becomes a sort of self-fulfilling-prophesy since it is a well documented fact the institutionalisation in early life causes developmental delays.  After running through the policies in greater detail and also going over the costs, we broke for lunch.

The afternoon session was "small group time", and we sat with a group of parents who had successfully adopted through the agency. Most had brought their children with them, and the kids had a fine time playing together while the adults talked. This ongoing support network was the thing we most liked about the agency, although we later learned some less positive information and are happy that ultimately we did not proceed with them. After telling us about their experiences the "sempai" parents then asked us some questions and encouraged us to ask them anything. In a slightly humorous moment, one gentleman asked us earnestly if we were comfortable with the agency's policy that required us to tell our hypothetical future child s/he was adopted. Trying to keep a straight face I responded that a Japanese child with two white parents would probably not find that to be particularly shocking news. This led to some questions about race; were we really OK with not having a say over the child's race? One woman explained that while she was OK with the rule when it came to disability, she had difficulty agreeing to accept a child of any race. "What if the baby were black?" She asked. "I mean I don't mind, but other people might be so cruel and I really worried about if I could handle that."

In the late afternoon we merged back into a single group and the two prospective adoptive couples were asked, again, to make some comments. We said we'd enjoyed seeing all the children playing together and that this ongoing support was wonderful. The other couple said they had decided to try a few more rounds of fertility treatments before revisiting the idea of adoption.
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Friday, 19 September 2014

Vindicating My Face (Flashback Friday)

OK, my face can be kind of scary, but I've got nothing on this terrifying "training baby" doll!
The infant home we spent a couple of years visiting had a very progressive attitude toward having people through for training purposes. University social work students, prospective foster parents and all sorts of other interested parties were able to spend time there getting first hand experience of the system and of the children's needs. Some were timid and earnest, wanting to learn everything and assume nothing. Others, usually women who had experience in education or childcare, were overly confident that "all children are the same" and that exactly how they had always interacted with other children would be just fine with institutionalised kids as well. On one occasion I had a slight run in with one of the later kind of visitor.

The very first baby I held at the home was a little boy just a few months old who I shall call Napoleon, because his real name is equally grandiose and also because he was particularly tiny. While a lot of babies were in and out of care, or stayed for a month or two then left for good, no one ever came back for Napoleon. Visiting every week, I was able to develop much more of a bond with him than with kids I saw less frequently. One day, when he was about 15 months old, Napoleon was having a hard time. He was teething, he had a slight fever, and another kid had hit him over the head with a wooden block. I was giving him a cuddle but he was crying very hard. At this in-opportune time, a staff member came in with a new "observer", an older lady who took one look at the situation and announced "He's scared of you because he isn't used for foreign faces, I'll clam him down." She confidently strolled over, plucked Napoleon from my arms and spun her back to me to shield him from the terrifying sight of my big nose and lack of epicanthic fold.  "There there" she said, "you're OK now."

Actually, for a few seconds Napoleon did stop crying. I guess being unceremoniously grabbed by a complete stranger will have that effect. Before she could congratulate herself on her success, however, the "observer" copped a punch to the face (from Napoleon, not me). He punched and kicked and squirmed until she put him down, upon which he ran back to me, threw himself into my lap and buried his face in my neck.

Miss you, Napoleon. My scary face thinks of you often.
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Friday, 12 September 2014

Rural Depopulation, Japan Agriculture and the Failure of the Concrete Solution

Road through Japanese forest in fall, inoshishi visable
Wild boar foraging for acorns by the side of the road: There is so much beauty when the pachinko parlors are out of sight!
Japan's ailing agricultural sector, demographic crisis and the death of rural towns and villages are not new topics, but I hope you'll forgive me bringing them up when you read this brilliant and passionate recent post:


I thoroughly agree with the criticism of how zoning laws make the Japanese countryside look dingy and messy when it could be so beautiful. What really interested me, though, are these comments about Japan Agriculture:
Japan’s agriculture actually contributes zero to GDP because the Tokyo Foundation estimated that subsidies balance the economic wealth generated by the agricultural sector.

Tragically, real farmers, who want to grow rice profitably, find it hard to buy farmland. Greedy gerontocrats sit on their micro-plots in the hope of a re-zoning windfall, and because owning farm land exempts their family from inheritance tax. Real farmers also find it hard to lease land because lessors are worried by the strong protection the law grants leases. Furthermore, non-farm investors like public companies are officially barred from buying land. These measures are all remnants of well-meant US efforts post-1945 to prevent the rise of usury, rural exploitation, tenant farming and absentee landlords.

In short, the farm lobby is ironically destroying Japanese agriculture. Their perverse policy of using tariffs on rice of almost 800% and of being paid subsidies NOT to grow rice in order to keep prices high has been disastrous. Although Japanese rice is good quality and in demand abroad, a lack of concentration and scale is preventing Japanese rice farmers from doing for agriculture what Toyota and Panasonic did for manufacturing – take the world by storm with excellent export products.
Many moons ago I studied the influence of Japan Agriculture in the LDP (the relationship is under strain at the moment) and the way voting district allocation gives farming areas a disproportionate representation that leads to extraordinary pork barreling (more so in the '80s and '90s). It's not a new topic. I do have a different perspective on it having lived in a rural area though. Just the other day we were driving up into the mountains looking for a river swimming hole and we passed through a small group of old farm houses, of which only three or four looked like they were still inhabited. There was an old overgrown gas station and an ancient looking vending machine facing the dirt road. Yet just on the other side of this little settlement there was a brand new, two story concrete JA office resplendently modern-looking with a car-park that looked like it had until recently been a rice field. When riding the local bus a recorded voice gives information about each stop: "get off here to transfer to south-bound routes" and so on. Before the bus stop that is actually named Japan Agriculture, however, the voice over tells me that Japan agriculture is defending Japan's farming culture and giving us safe crops we can be proud of, before playing the JA jingle. I'm deadly serious.

Autumn rice fields~ hard work getting a shot without power lines or (much) concrete in sight

So, as young people abandon the unattractive (in many senses) countryside described in The Delphi Network article, how are those communities responding?

The tiny Japanese community of Mishima was desperate to reverse its shrinking population so officials came up with what they hoped would be a game-changing plan: free cows. Anyone willing to pack up and move to the remote southern village of 379 residents would get a no-cost calf or 500,000 yen in cash.
Mishima’s bovine brainwave has fallen well short of expectations, however.
“The program has been going for more than 20 years, and so far there has only been one person who took us up on the cow, and that was two decades ago,” village official Shingo Hidaka told AFP, adding the cash had only a handful of takers.

Japan needs to stop its population from cramming into the capital and create towns "overflowing with individuality and charm," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday at a roundtable on reinvigorating the countryside.
One unheralded Yubari success story is its rewilding, although no Japanese administrator would use that expression, which smacks to them of defeatism.
As humanity recedes, nature returns. By a railway station on Yubari’s somnolent branch line, a man who in a small act of public spiritedness is watering the bare concrete floors of the station building (“It keeps the dust down”) points to a Sika Deer doe in the nearby undergrowth. “Unusual to see one around here until just recently.” More deer vaulted in front of my car on Yubari’s main street the following day, forcing a swerve. Good use is being made of the return of nature, too: an abandoned elementary school has been turned into a nature academy, where big-city kids can kayak down the now pristine rivers and catch stag beetles.
 That last quote brings is very nicely to Alex Kerr, who wrote in Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan over a decade ago about the failure of the government response to dying villages and offers a different approach which he describes in this 2013 TEDxKyoto talk:

This post contains an Amazon affiliate link. That means if you click and then buy the item I get a small commission. It does not mean that I am being paid to promote a particular product or opinion. I will only include affiliate links that are directly related to the subject of a post. If you want to know why I have begun including affiliate links you can read about it here.
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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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