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

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

"Volunteering"

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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

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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

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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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Sunday, 29 June 2014

Common Sense in Child Welfare (Personal Observations)

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Remember this?
Obviously common sense is culturally encoded, not actually common. One of the most interesting things for me about living in different cultures is observing the differences in "common" sense, the things that are so taken for granted that no one thinks to explain them. When it comes to parenting, "common" sense varies so wildly even within the same culture that it's hard to draw comparisons, but in the case of the officially patrolled boundaries of parenting (for example, at what age children can legally be left home alone, whether or not "spanking" is considered abuse) we can more easily draw some very general comparisons. Slightly less reliably, the advice and concerns social workers express can be another indication. I want to talk about some things that have surprised me about the way our social workers and other support people have approached our adoption experience. I'm not criticizing any of these differences, even if I sound a little cynical; in some cases I prefer the Japanese approach and in some cases I have been left scratching my head, but I am very grateful for all of the support we have received.

Co-Sleeping and Family Baths

When we were matched with an eight year old, one of my first thoughts was sadness that co-sleeping would probably not be an option. In Australia (AKA AusOMGPEDOPHILEStralia) having an eight year old sleeping in the same bed as foster parents would be unthinkable. Yet, contrary to my assumptions, we were expected to co-sleep. As it turned out, co-sleeping really really wasn't for us. After a sleepless few months we gradually transitioned first from sleeping in the same room but different beds to then sleeping in separate rooms. This really bothers the social workers and gets brought up every single time we have a visit, and was even included in the report submitted to the courts for the adoption application. They have ascribed it to "cultural difference" despite me saying that I have no cultural objection, I just really don't enjoy getting kicked in the face and feel that I am a better parent after sleeping than I am when sleep-deprived. Almost a year in, when speaking to a psychologist about self-harming issues yesterday I was told "it's probably because you make him sleep alone". Although not sleeping together seemed to be the most upsetting, they were also quite displeased that we don't take baths together. We somewhat redeemed ourselves by making periodic trips to onsen together, but it still gets brought up from time to time. It's funny that our failure to do two things Australian social workers would absolutely black list us for doing (and possibly have us arrested for) earns such displeasure.

Eating

There is a huge emphasis on eating. For the first three months pretty much all anyone asked Tiger was "do you like your mama's cooking?" When I expressed concerns about some violent incidents and talk of suicide I was asked "is he eating? If so, there's nothing to worry about." The courts asked me to provide example menus. The bento I made for his school picnics were described in detail by the teachers to the social workers and feature in our documentation. The psychiatrist asks every month about his appetite but never about his drawings, what he has been saying, how his relationships with friends are or any of the other questions I was expecting.
I got good marks though ;)

Self-Harm and Suicide

I have tried not to violate Tiger's privacy on this blog, so I wont go into any details, but to me for a child to self harm or talk about suicide should always raise red flags, and especially if the child is already "high risk" in other ways. Yet, these issues have never been addressed in depth or treated with the seriousness I expected they would deserve.

Violence and Discipline

 No one, from social workers to psychologists to the court, has ever asked us if we use physical discipline (we don't). It's very common and not illegal here, so it may not really be surprising that no one has asked, but given that everyone is aware that he is a challenging child I was expecting some kind of advice on or scrutiny of how we handle discipline. On one occasion Tiger told his teacher that I had given him a blood nose. She mentioned it in passing and excepted my explanation* without making a big deal of it... which was a relief for me but also quite troubling objectively. If he were being abused and had opened up to a teacher he probably wouldn't have bothered mentioning it again after that response. Likewise, despite having been on the receiving end of violence from Tiger, in one case I was actually meeting with a social worker with this bite mark on my arm:

 I wasn't offered any advice or support for keeping myself safe.

*It's actually quite funny, Tiger probably has a brilliant career as a lawyer ahead of him... We were arguing about something or other (whether gumboots were necessary on a rainy day, I think) and he got a blood nose. He is prone to them and gets them quite often. At the time he told me it was my fault and I asked how on earth that was the case when I was standing at the other end of the hall. "You're so annoying my blood-pressure increased and that caused the nose-bleed" he replied.

Professional Advice 

The professional advice we have been given from social workers, psychologist and psychiatrist has all been stuff that we took for granted all parents would do. Things like "tell him he is precious" and "tell him how you expect him to behave instead of assuming he knows" or "he may be afraid of abandonment". It is sometimes hard to look sufficiently impressed by these gems of wisdom.

Bullying

Bullying, on the other hand, has been taking enormously seriously. I made the mistake of using the word casually when asking Ms Smiles to intercede in a very minor incident last year and within a couple of hours two teachers and the vice principal were investigating and interviewing. I actually felt bad for the "bully", it had really been a very minor thing. A few weeks ago a boy who occasionally bullies Tiger told the other kids they weren't allowed to play with him. I think it only lasted a day or two and although I kept asking about it Tiger said they had made up and everyone was friends again. I experienced that kind of clique exclusion even within the tiny circle of other home-schooled kids I knew as a child, and it hadn't lasted long so I didn't pursue it further but I did mention it to the psychologist. She physically flinched and immediately started talking notes, saying that something like that she had to inform the school about and discuss with the teacher. Her reaction reflected the emotional gravity of that kind of bullying for kids, rather than dismissing it as "sticks and stones" or "kids will be kids". 
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Thursday, 26 June 2014

Buying Extra-Large Condoms in Japan

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Chart from http://www.kimono-condoms.com/condom-size.html and therefore probably somewhat biased
Two disclaimers here:
  1. If you use normal condoms in your home country, you should have no problems finding condoms in Japan that fit (if you find regular Japanese condoms tight, try XL condoms. Don Quixote or Condomania will have them if you are having trouble finding them elsewhere). This post is about condoms that would be considered extra-large in a western country.
  2. DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT EVER buy condoms larger than you actually need. They will not protect you or your partner. Plus, seriously, who has ever been impressed by a gift that was less impressive than the packaging? ^_~
I had intended this to be an informative post, but I sadly have to admit that even after extensive searching and asking embarrassing questions in all of my on-line Japan support groups I still haven't found a good solution for the problem how to acquire what we need in reasonable quantities without going bankrupt. I'm going to share what I was able to find here, but it is slim pickings unfortunately. If you can offer any advice (that is helpful rather than snide or vulgar, please!) I would be very grateful if you could leave a comment or drop me an email ^_^; This is not a sponsored or commissioned post, but condom manufactures, if you want to sponsor it どうぞ!

iHerb stocks Kimono Micro Thin Large at ¥ 1,331 for a box of twelve, plus shipping (depends on the size of the order but about ¥400) with no restriction on order size I am aware of and prompt delivery (often within a week). Although the kimono size chart shows these as larger than Trojan Magnums, in practice they feel smaller. On the other hand, they really are very thin.

FBC stocks Trojan Magnums at ¥3,224 for a box of twelve, plus shipping (depends on the size of the order but about ¥1000 plus  ¥1000 annual membership fee). Because they ship from the US you can only order one box at a time, and the shipments come once a month, so effectively only 12 condoms per month. Shipping takes 39-45 days from the ship sailing, but the ships come once a month so if you order right after the previous ship sailed you may be waiting over two months for your order. The Trojans are the best fit, but they are quite thick and feel rubbery.

Amazon.jp stocks:

Trojan Magnum X-Large Lubricated Condoms at ¥ 2,800 + ¥ 910 shipping for a box of 12 (more convenient than FBC if one is only purchasing the condoms, but if I were ordering food as well FBC would work actually out cheaper) and

Sir Richard's Condom Company Extra Large Condom at ¥ 1,315 + ¥ 990 shipping for a box of 12

and that's it, that is all I could find.  

Don't waste your time with these domestic brands, irrespective of claims made about size on the packaging:

They really aren't.

Although, it was kind of worth it just to have "Fist of the North Star" condoms on our possession...
Seriously, if you have any advice please share!
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Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Eating Rice Weevils 米食べる虫を食べること

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Image by Swamysk
Periodically we get weevil infestations. We have a lot of grains in the house, and despite allegedly "airtight" containers, zip lock bags, dried chilis, bay leaves and every other idea we have heard of, they still manage to get through. The past few months have been busy so we've been eating a lot of fast easy foods like pasta instead of putting more time into cooking. I pulled out some quinoa flakes the other day to mix into my porridge (I think that's oatmeal in American?) and noticed the tell-tale cobwebbing. Sure enough, the rice, cornmeal, quinoa, instant mashed potato, cous cous, flour and even some of our spices are all infected. At the moment they are larvae, not full-fledged weevils:
Image by Kyopia
 Since we absolutely do not have the money to just throw away that much food, most of it imported, I suggested microwaving or freezing it to kill the larvae then eating it all anyway. This completely freaked out my darling husband, which I found quite interesting... I am (otherwise) a vegetarian while he eats meat. It seems hilarious that he would get squeamish about eating these tiny insects while I, a fourth-generation vegetarian, thought it was the obvious way to go. Don't get me wrong, I think it is gross, but they are going to die either way (if we threw everything away they'd end up incinerated) and after all, insect larvae are an environmentally friendly source of dense protein. Unswayed by my logic, the man has sworn off all grains until the infected batches are safely out of the house.
In the meantime, he refuses to watch me eating my porridge. 
Tastes better with berries.
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Thursday, 19 June 2014

Poverty in Japan

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Image by Denis Bocquet
I rely on some academic sources quite heavily in this, but since I started blogging mainly to escape from the necessity to religiously reference everything I write I hope the guardians of plagiarism will forgive me simply listing those resources at the end instead of acknowledging each instance of citation.

Japan is a wealthy, highly industrialised nation with the second highest life expectancy in the world. It is a land of sleek sky-scrapers and nano-technology where everyone has a white collar job and a pet robot. If we children of the 1980s learned nothing else from Gibson and Techno-Orientalism, it was that Japan=the future, and corporate success.

Which is why I was a little surprised when some of the first people I ever spoke to in Japan were living in cardboard boxes, why I was unprepared for a school staffroom with a single shared PC running Windows '95 (in 2009), and why the first time I was told "school lunch is the only meal some of these kids will eat today" I had trouble grasping exactly what that meant.

38 percent of Japan's population (19.7 million people), live on or below the poverty line.  

Japan is a wealthy country. "The Japanese" are not a wealthy people. Although Japan ranked 9th in the OECD for income inequality (2006), poverty is enormously concentrated on families. After income redistribution (ie, comparing net not gross income) child poverty in Japan surpasses the OECD average. In single parent families the situation is even worse.

Single parent households in which the parent is employed have a poverty rate of 50% (2000 figures) compared to an OECD average of 20%.

The term "working poor" doesn't fully capture the situation I'm talking about here. The ratio of non-full time (casual, part-time or contracted) workers has increased from 19% in 1996 to 30% in 2006. The average hourly wage of part time workers is only 40% that of full time employees, and they are likely to miss out on pension contributions etc, meaning they face a precarious situation when they become unable to continue working.



Check out 2hj.org/english/problem/data.html  for disturbing graphs like this:
If we break these statistics down further by age and gender, we can see some sections of society that are extraordinarily vulnerable.

As reported in The Japan Times
This year’s Global Gender Gap Report ranks Japan at 105th among 136 countries, its worst showing since the WEF started the survey in 2006. Japan ranked 101st last year.
Often lost in commentary about Japan's declining birthrate is that for over a decade a quarter of married women of reproductive age reported that they could not afford to have as many children as they wanted. With the barriers in returning to work after having children I wrote about here, the decision to have a child involves not only the cost of raising that child, it entails to loss of the mother's income for what may be over a decade.
Graph taken from Naohiro Ogawa's work, see reference list at the end of the post

Blogger won't let me embed it, but this short report is really worth watching: http://youtu.be/87C9MyDwA9I

This survey shows 40% of retirees surveyed have a monthly income of just 100,000 yen.

Graph taken from Aya K. Abe's work, see reference list at the end of the post

This post makes some great (but depressing) observations about the lack of public housing, especially in the areas devistated by the tsunami, and how the Tokyo olympics really aren't helping:
According to a recent report on NHK, the city of Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture has set aside a large tract of land for a new public housing project that was supposed to start construction last August, but no construction company even submitted a bid because the local government set the starting bid too low. Builders looked at the project and assumed they would likely lose money on it, so they didn’t even show up. Throughout the disaster area, there are plans to build more than 27,000 public housing units specifically for disaster victims, and by the end of September only 450 had been built. Right now more than 100,000 people are still living in temporary digs.
Will things change once the tax-inspired housing boom is finished and construction of single-family homes slumps again? Not likely. Tokyo needs those workers to build infrastructure and venues for the 2020 Olympics. The Tokyo government, as well as the central government–who has already expressed is feelings for the poor by recently tightening welfare requirements–is more than willing to pay top yen to get the city ready for the big event, which means other construction projects, those with lower priority, will be neglected, probably until the next decade, at the earliest. And public housing has the lowest priority of all.
This article describes the exploitation of homeless as a disposable workforce in clearing irradiated areas.

Shizuya Nishiyama, 57, says he briefly worked for Shuto clearing rubble. He now sleeps on a cardboard box in Sendai Station. He says he left after a dispute over wages, one of several he has had with construction firms, including two handling decontamination jobs.
Nishiyama's first employer in Sendai offered him $90 a day for his first job clearing tsunami debris. But he was made to pay as much as $50 a day for food and lodging. He also was not paid on the days he was unable to work. On those days, though, he would still be charged for room and board. He decided he was better off living on the street than going into debt.
"We're an easy target for recruiters," Nishiyama said. "We turn up here with all our bags, wheeling them around and we're easy to spot. They say to us, are you looking for work? Are you hungry? And if we haven't eaten, they offer to find us a job."
For what is probably a larger number of people than you may think, this is what daily life looks like.


Sources not cited in text:
Abe, Aya K."Poverty and Social Exclusion of Women in Japan" in Japanese Journal of Social Security Policy, Vol.9, No.1 (March 2012).
Ogawa, Naohiro "Japan's Changing Fertility Mechanisms and its Policy Responses" in Journal of Population Research, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2003.
http://inequalitywatch.eu/spip.php?article58

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