Thursday, March 24, 2011


I've been really fascinated lately with culture, language, and the dynamic meaning of words.

It's a function of my situation, really; sitting in a room full of multicultural media goons and translators all day, the mind tends to focus on communication between languages. After all, I have some coworkers I can't even speak to, yet I need them to survive. I talk much less with my mouth here, and more with my hands. And I speak more slowly. I try to incorporate Japanese words and meanings as much as I can into what I say. For instance, "hai" (pronounced "hi") means "yes." No doubt when my Nebraskan friends next see me they will wonder why I'm so friendly.

I also recently stumbled across a list of words online that are notoriously difficult to translate into other languages because they express an idea, feeling, or both that no one else has quite figured out how to express. I've been writing them on the board daily to offer coworkers a bit of thought-provoking amusement to distract from their otherwise stressful lives. My favorite of these is "Tingo" – “the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them.” (Pascuense, Easter Island)

On top of that being an awesome word, with a meaning that is SO excellent and comical, it draws a unique picture. Another one I like is "Jayus"  – “A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.” (Indonesian) I'm guessing this is something that many of you will use to describe me in the future.

Do you notice how many words it takes just to come up with a way to describe it comparably? It's something we rarely ponder, but English has these, too. I ran into one today when I was having an intercultural conversation and tried to say something was "cheesy."

How do you describe it? Campy? What is that? Goofy? Still confused. Sappy? Nope, not ringing a bell.

This turned in to an office discussion where we finally settled on a translatable definition of "silly, and in bad taste."

Still, what is taste, anyway? Ways of thinking about taste aren't exactly the same here. After all, different is bad, here, so you might say that if everyone likes something it would be in good taste. By that definition, in America, Justin Bieber would also be "in good taste."

In Japan, there is a truly unique feeling when the cherry blossoms bloom and plants come to life. Tokyo is transformed in a couple days into a budding, green paradise. It is a very unique and emphatic time, and there is a word in Japanese that describes "the feeling that everything is budding and spring is coming." If you want to say that in English, of course, you have to at least say "spring is in the air." I doubt there is a quick way to say this in northern Russia, the Sahara Desert, or tropical rainforest regions.

How do we describe our world? Are we limited by the 250,000 plus words in the English language? The way we frame our language must tie in with the way we express and see it... The things we value, we come up with better words to describe. The words are like our tools to construct not just our communication, but our very way of thinking.

Jayus and tingo are just two examples. We come up with better words for what we value, better ways of expressing what we need most to express. We invent better tools to build a better framework for the things we think are important. This process truly reflects our own unique experiences as people.

What are some of your words that really don't translate?

Michael out.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Earthquake! Volcano! Tsunami! Meltdown! Zombies! Vampires! Hot hail! APOCALYPSE!!!!!

Alien invasion! Fire-breathing bats! Wearwolves! Pirates! Zombie Pirates! Ninjas! Seismic readings! Body Snatchers! The Grinch! Radiation! Amoeba! Snakes! Hitler! Velociraptors! Voldemort! Gojira! Garlic Breath! The Loch Ness Monster! Moogles! Thetan levels rising! The Joker! Nanobots! Hippies! Holy Hand Genade! Alex Trabeck! Cloverfield! Waterloo! Birdmen! James Blunt! The French! HPV! The Bermuda Triangle! Bullying! Jennifer's Body! Killer Whales! Justin Bieber! Poltergeist! Gene Simmons! Frankenstein! Jean Claude Van Damme! Billy the kid! Leprechauns! Mech Warriors! Emperor Ming! The Candyman! Kryptonite! CCM! Nicholas Sparks! Dalecs! Necromancers! Pirrhanas! The twelve plagues! Global warming! Hurricane Katrina! Bodily functions! Ugly people! The Sheriff of Nottingham! Insane Clown Posse! The Black Death! Cannibals! Earwax! The Soviet Union! Cavities! High school dances! Tinnitus! Unplanned pregnancy! Mutant sheep! Ghengis Khan! Amelia Earhart! Original Sin! Fireproof!

But seriously. I'm fine.

Okay. So there have been a lot of disasters here, lately. We've had an earthquake, a tsunami, a volcanic eruption, and radioactive contamination. NBD.

None of these are things I had really thought about or expected to live through in my lifetime. Nonetheless, I am safe, and I am working hard to help people in need.

What a tremendous and opportune time for me to be here in Japan! I have been doing press and social networking for CRASH Japan, an organization created for disaster response. They mobilize volunteer teams to meet the needs of local communities in relief efforts.

Granted, there is an incredibly high level of stress around here. There is the looming shadow of possible (but unlikely) meltdown, an urgency of cause in helping those who are suffering, continued earthquakes, and twelve-hour work days. I am tired and stressed. But I am safe, and doing important work. I think that counts for something.

I understand many of you are worried about me. I discourage you from worrying, but I ENCOURAGE you to pray for Japan!! Not only that, but send aid. Here's how you can "love on Japan" through my organization:

1-Like the Facebook group Love On Japan | Crash Quake Relief
2-Donate by following instructions on the website
3-Follow the @LoveonJapan twitter page
4-Let your friends know!
5-Pray. Safety and focus are absolutely essential to preventing more suffering.

Remember, kids.. this is where I spend most of my days from now on. Get connected. We can all help from where we are right now.

Seriously, I love you all, and I am okay; and if I wasn't, I would be on a plane tomorrow.

Stay tuned,

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Earthquake, Tsunami, Chain Reaction ... Mothera is scary when he's real...


First, I want to thank all of you who have shown an interest in this crisis around the world. As I have watched your responses on Facebook, Twitter, and news websites, the outpouring of emotional energy, empathy, and compassion has been tremendous.

Here's to hoping that your momentum carries over into international aid.

Friday was the first earthquake of my life. It seems it was about 3pm in the afternoon that I first realized I was bouncing. 230 miles away, the Pacific plate was making some serious progress in its quest to burrow beneath the North American plate. I didn't know it at the time, sitting in my closet-office talking to Alysondra on Skype, but I was actually moving. I moved a whole 8 feet East. I DO miss my friends in the states, so I guess it felt good moving a little bit closer to home.

In all seriousness, this quake is obviously no trivial thing, but a waking nightmare for thousands of people. On the other hand, here in Higashikurume my living room was not turned upside down. My train was not derailed. No mudslides or boats crashed into my house. At no point during the event did I feel afraid. I didn't know that, not far from me, offices and houses were being shaken like a child shakes a candy box, trying to get every last piece.

It began slowly at first. I looked around, confused. Why am I bouncing? I wasn't shaking my legs. No one was behind me grabbing my chair, and there was no jackhammer doing construction near my apartment. I took out my headphones and thought for a moment--then it dawned on me. Oh, yeah, Japan has earthquakes! I slid down to the floor underneath my door frame and waited.

The quake rolled in ambling, almost leisurely, as if it had plenty of time to make its point. At its climax, the building groaned and creaked like an old spinster on a hiking trip, then the vibration dwindled away, as if it was feeling lazy but didn't want to stay. At no point did I feel unsafe. If I could have guessed, in my infinite earthquake innocence, I would have given it a 6 on the Richter Scale--impressive, but not scary. In fact, I was exhilarated. I felt like I had just taken a roller-coaster ride for the first time. After it passed, I resumed what I was doing, and, later, checked my house to find that a book had been tipped over on my shelf. 

More than an hour later, I was shocked to find out via websearch that I had just sat through a 7.9. Then an 8.9. Then an 8.4. Then a 9. There didn't seem to be a clear consensus for about 5 hours. I was aghast that such a powerful beast had slipped by without me giving it the time of day.

Tuning in to the footage didn't take long to give me a different perspective on what was going on. The Tokyo Metro is shut down.. millions of people stranded.. a giant wave is crashing into the city of Sendai right now.. boats and houses and cars all floating around like playthings.. airports are flooded.. a refinery burns.. several nuclear power plants shut down.. My little quake caused quite a ruckus.

The destruction seemed so direct, definitive.. callous. How could such a powerful force be? How could a wave be massive enough to wipe out an entire city? How could a nuclear plant be in danger of meltdown? Can't we just have one disaster? It was as if nature wasn't satisfied enough yet, and kept saying "and NOW, THIS is gonna happen." It was a chain reaction of disasters outside of anyone's control. 

But it wasn't a matter of satisfaction. No one was getting anything out of it. The tsunami didn't hesitate in wiping out an entire city, despite the fact that it would cause immeasurable suffering and wailing. Why? And who could give such a callous force so much power to do its will, even if that means to mercilessly and relentlessly destroy without warning?

It is hubris to even continue living in the knowledge that such power exists. Tokyo is, reasonably, the largest metropolis in the world. Japanese architects have been making earthquake resistant buildings not for decades, but for centuries. There's no such thing as a "ranch" style home here. Japan has been preparing for years for a quake that would break records. It's one of the most earthquake-aware, earthquake-safe countries in the world, yet that didn't stop whole cities from being destroyed in minutes.

The Kobe earthquake of 1995 leveled most of a city, resulting in 6000 deaths. That quake was a 7.3, almost indiscernibly small next to Friday's on a scale of actual energy. Callous, wanton energy. The same earth that nurtures us also has the power to obliterate us.

Tokyo's tallest building for a long time was Tokyo Tower in Minato. Built exactly like the Eiffel tower (only 13 meters taller), this frequent tourist destination looks out over the entire city, and is a symbol of Tokyo. Or, if you look at humanity as a whole, it is a symbol of man's accomplishment. After the quake on Friday, the top of the tower was bent, possibly symbolically "bowing down" to the power that had humbled it.

In honesty, Japan is lucky if this was the "big one" of a century (which we hope it was). No matter how how well-designed the towers, if Friday's epicenter had hit Tokyo, casualties would not be in the hundreds or the thousands, but the millions. We would not have lost a city, but a metropolis. Even Tokyo's strongest and most-ingeniously built skyscrapers would have contorted violently at the hands of a 9.0 quake. The raw power of such an event could have leveled the skyline.

What kind of being would allow such power to exist? In times like this it is neither right to accuse our Creator, nor to thank Him. It may very well be that the hand of God prevented an obscene power from wreaking its evil in Tokyo, but evil was still loosed, and the tragedy is real. We are not grateful, but we are humbled.

The "why" is an unanswerable question, and therefore irrelevant. Our natural reaction to the callous acts of nature is to be callous ourselves. This we must not do. We must keep our hearts soft and accept the pain in order to empathize with and reach out to those around us.

A Chain Reaction
I remember what I did after I found out about the tsunami. I went to the store to get emergency supplies, and dinner. A feeling of fear and panic was obvious, as cars rushed by to pick up loved ones, and families flocked to the supermarket for emergency food and water. I had wanted to buy some to-go sushi from the supermarket, but all the onegiri (pre-made meals) were completely sold out. Disappointed, I came home and watched a movie. It was my anti-climax.

My feelings were of helplessness and powerlessness. Even as people were suffering just on the other side of my city, I could do nothing for them. There are no words to describe the feeling of helplessly watching someone else suffer, and wondering if you're next. I'd imagine that's how ancient Christians felt when they were thrust into an arena to fight lions.

Later that night, the tension overwhelmed me, and I had to get out to see and feel something. As I walked outside, I was drenched in the palpable solemnity. The stream that runs next to my house is lined with well-lit bike paths on either side. It is a rarity to see it empty on any given night, even late in the evening. Yet I heard and saw no one for minutes. I think others must have sensed this powerless tension, too. When I finally encountered others, there was a nervousness and a restlessness. Disorganization, chaos, and confusion are uncharacteristic of Tokyo. Sirens wailed in the distance. Trains, packed full of work refugees, howled into the station as family members waited anxiously in nearby cars.

As I write this, I feel even more aftershocks in the earth. The groaning. It is a reminder that the earth, too, is in pain, and will pass away like we shall. Maybe nature was unleashing its own pain on us that night. I continue to hope for a time of no more groaning. 

I love you all. Please know I appreciate your thoughts, prayers, and concerns. So far, I'm alive, and I'm carrying the fire.

Michael out.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Club Asia & Angry Japanese Housemums

Hello, Nebraska!

I'd like to start off by saying that I know it's snowing there. I would like to continue by saying that I just finished a pleasant, 50 deg. midnight run. Conditions were perfect.

Club Asia
Friday night was bro night. Aaron Michael, Michael Aaron, and myself (Michael David.. it was an odd name-meld kind of sitch) put on our fancy pants and headed out to Shibuya to check out Club Asia. This is one of the best clubs in the city to play at for House Electronica artists, and, of course, Tokyo is a great hub of electronica anyway, so clearly this club is trump material. Dishner (Michael Aaron, goes by Aaron) was kind enough to invite me along for the ride.

Our train ride went smoothly, and when we got to Shibuya we wandered the streets for a little while in search of the club. I'm always amazed by the energy of Shibuya Station.. thousands and thousands of people wandering around this plaza, and yet this is only one of the many vibrant, hopping joints all around the city.

Y1000 per hour.. not bad!
On our way in, we passed by a love hotel. (Hotel "Elegance") Yes, this is the kind of hotel where you pay by the hour. If you have questions about what that means.. ask a trusted friend.

One important point is that this is not a brothel. In fact, the word is that many married couples use these when they want to "get out" since many houses are so small here. They even have theme rooms! I wonder what the American one looks like...

Feels just like home..
We also passed this guy in a cow outfit. There are tons and tons of people standing outside businesses doing advertising (yelling and wearing funny getups) in Japan, and this guy was no exception. But he reminded me of home just a little bit. I hate to ask for a photo-op, which he was MORE than happy to grant..

Once we got to Club Asia, it said no cameras.. but I wasn't worried. Always better to take a risk to preserve the moment, right? We were on the guest list because of a friend connection, and we only paid Y500 to get in!! That's six bucks (ordinarily more than $40)! Plus, we each got a drink ticket. We basically got in for nothing.

Once in, we stuffed our jackets in a rental locker and I found out what kind of show we were there to see. Cutie-Pai. That was the first artist we saw. And yes, she was a tiny Japanese gal. And, yes, she dressed like a life-sized doll.

Cos-play. They are a cos-play group. It's difficult to explain (explaining would require understanding), but playing dress-up is basically really popular here. It's like the Village People but with doll, video game, comic book, movie, and fantasy character costumes. Cutie-Pai is just one of many groups, and ordinarily there are six of them up there (all dressed like dolls).. it would be cool to see the full group. Sadly, it was just a lonely doll-girl.

She started out her show by saying something really funny, like "I am a doll robot from the future" or something like that. Dishner laughed, and explained a couple things to me, but I don't remember right now. She really got the crowd going. Then the music started. And everyone started dancing. They were all dancing JUST LIKE I DANCE.

This was epic. Yes, of course, most of them were a little more reserved than me on an average night, but I still had to smile inside and out. And the best part is that they were all doing it together, despite the absurdly varied demographic. There were old people, businessmen off work, teens, 20-somethings, all mimicking the artist's motions and dancing in between. The crowd was so unified! My favorite person was definitely a scrawny old businessman in glasses who looked like he was having the time of his life. There was also a dude wearing a polka dot outfit. It's Japan.

After the strongest kamikaze of my life, and a few more artists played, I realized I was having a lot of fun. All three of us were dancing and joining in just loving the show, which slowly got louder and louder. The visuals were awesome. It's the kind of scene that got America in trouble with cocaine in the 80s. I've never done hard drugs, but I'd imagine it would feel pretty great at something like this. (stay off crack, kids!)

Some of the artists did a live show like Cutie-Pai, but some were obviously just dancing to a track. I criticized this to Dishner, and he explained to me that recorded tracks were more popular than live shows here. Ashlee Simpson should reinvent herself as a Japanese Pop Star.

Cutie-Pai glamor shot
The last artist was definitely the best, and the loudest. After the crazy show, everyone went out and milled around the lounge area. I took this chance to scan some tables and pick up some merch. I also got glamor shots with some of the artists.

We three wandered the Streets of Shibuya briefly, and decided to hit a ramen place in Ikebukuro on the way home. It was really satisfying, as always, but probably some of the greasiest, oiliest ramen I've ever had (reminded me of food in the states, like a noodle-cheeseburger). We ordered our food out of a machine, which I had never done, and then took our ticket to the counter so they knew what to prepare for us. Interesting! Okay!

On the way home, sadly, we were forced to wait forty-five minutes on the train to leave Ikebukuru. This, of course, is the disadvantage of public transport. The bigger question in Japan (and sad commentary) is "did someone jump in front of a train?" It happens. Just does. In our case, no, we just got lucky enough to have to wait for no apparent reason. I'll still take that over the former.

All-in-all, that was one of the most authentic Japanese experiences I have had, to date, and I completely enjoyed myself. I'm exploring my J-Pop musical interests. I'll let you know what I find.

This is the part where I get in trouble with a Japanese lady..
The next day (Saturday) I was walking over to meet up with Nancy and some guests who she was showing around the city. I had just left my apartment on this beautiful day and was still in my neighborhood when I saw a balcony just FULL of clothes and laundry. Many people don't have driers here, and often just dry clothes outside or in special rooms of their houses.

I, of course, wanting to document this and many other characteristic sights of Japan, walked past the house and snapped a photo. I didn't see any unmentionables, and it seemed like a great shot. Well.. I must have overstepped myself. This small act has created an incredibly awkward situation with a neighbor.

You see, she was up on the balcony still putting out clothes, and she caught me taking my picture. I know, I know, carelessness. I should be perfecting the art of Gaijin-Cam, not getting caught in my shots. But alas, she did, and it led to an incredibly awkward interaction that lasted about 5 minutes.

Basically she repeatedly asked me questions in Japanese that I couldn't understand. I tried to explain that I was sorry and immediately had deleted the picture, but I don't know if there's a universal hand gesture for that. She seemed to be angry. I was flustered. She asked me my name, which I told her was Michael. And of course she understood I was in the TEAM housing. After a couple minutes of this humiliation, she let me go.

I thought I was off the hook and we could just forget about everything, but, tonight, while I was walking home from the station, she came up BEHIND ME ON A BICYCLE while I was walking down our street!!  ASDKJLFH %*$@)(#... how awkward. She asked me if I was Michael and again mentioned the photo, which I again unsuccessfully tried to explain to her that I was sorry and had deleted it. I understood absolutely nothing of what we spoke to each other, and then carried on to my house. It was so uncomfortable. I have no idea what to do about this situation except try to avoid her, but it is funny and embarrassing, and my own dumb fault. But, if this is the most embarrassing thing that's happened to me since I got to Japan, I guess I'm doing pretty good...

Anyway, wish me luck. Your prayer and encouragement means everything to me. Thank you everyone for reading this.

-Michael Out-

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Will someone help a humble Gaijin!?

Just yesterday, I was lost in Tokyo...

Okay, I'm exaggerating. I was under the impression that one of the buses in Mitaka station would take me home to Hibari-Gaoka.. but, unfortunately, none of the buses have even a little bit of English on them.

So I just went up to the drivers.. "Hibari-Gaoka?" I asked.. One shook his head and pointed to another bus across the circle. Relieved, I sprinted over there and asked the same question. The driver shook his head no and waved me away. Confused, I tried another bus... "No, no!" The driver explained.

By this time I felt like I was going on a wild goose chase. I tried a bus that had just pulled into the station. The driver again, shook his head no, said "gwleen bus, gwleen bus!" and pointed.. he was referring to the second "green" bus I had already tried. I furrowed my brow in frustration. Are they just messing with me, now!? I thought. Did they get on their walkie-talkies and conspire to keep me running around in circles?? I'm just some white guy wearing a backpack, looking lost. I ended up taking the trains home. Won't someone help a humble Gaijin?

Gaijin, as far as I can tell, just means "white person." I have yet to figure out if it's derogatory or not (possibly like "gringo?"). But, a gaijin I remain. Honestly, we stick out like sore thumbs. Even if it was derogatory, it would probably be understandable.

No one wants to sit next to a gaijin on the train. I frequently find I will only have someone sit next to me if the other seats are full. It makes sense. There is a strong probability that I will ask you a question if I am confused or lost. Citizens of Tokyo consistently would prefer to zone out.

And who can blame them? Rubbing shoulders with other people all day. I would shut people out, too. I already find myself, doing so, in fact. Most of the time, people just sit on the train looking at their cell phone. It seems to be instinct, in fact.

Every train ride looks something like this. Breathing masks. Cell phones. Hats, coats, iPods, Playstation Pockets.. No one wants to acknowledge the fact that they are surrounded by other human beings. No one cares. It's better to just try and get to your station in peace..

People Watching, Camera Games (Gaijin-cam!)
I've been playing a game lately where I take pictures of people as sneakily as possible. Getting caught in my gaijin-tourism photos is pretty much what a Japanese person would want to AVOID. So I do it without asking, and, hopefully, without them noticing. I'm like Google.

I call this game Gaijin-cam! I hold my camera in my hand by my waist, covering it with my fingers in the front, just letting the lens peek out.. then I snap a picture with my thumb. I try to do this while I'm walking, or I pretend to stop and be thinking about something, looking the other way. I'm trying to snag photos of fashion mostly.. Japanese people in their natural environment. Too obvious, and it's awkward. Yes, I'm a creeper.

I've gotten pretty good! Not great. I still get a lot of blurry shots, but there are a few you might be interested in:

In general, Japanese fashion among young people looks like you took the entire century of the 1900s and smashed it together into one decade... 80s, 20s, and all. I'm still working on finding pictures of some of the bizarre and rare fashions... but I will find them. OH YES. I WILL find them *maniacal laughter*.. check out this article to see what I mean.

One note on fashion is that, while many young people may display this "century-hodgepodge" of fashions and designs, most people over 35 look exactly the same. Seriously. Greys, browns, suits, turtlenecks, pleats. It is not cool to stand out in Japan. I can't illustrate this enough. Architecture, clothing, behavior--it is all part of the collectivist culture. The nail that sticks up gets pounded down. You don't want to stand out.

Case-in-point: Burberry scarves. You know those plaid scarves that are so hot in the states this year? Guess what.. everyone has one here. Everyone. I'll see groups of girls all walking around wearing the same scarf. Businessmen. Moms. Schoolkids. Boys. Girls. Doesn't matter. (I'll try and Gaijin-cam this, soon)

One of these days, I may stab someone with chopsticks for wearing a Burberry scarf. Or claw my eyes out... And, as a gaggle of bicycle cops are chasing me down, taisering, and restraining me, I'll just smile, knowing I freed one person from the tyranny of Burberry... Collectivism apparently makes me crazy.

Girl Day
Apparently Feb 3 is Girl Day in Japan. May 5 is Boy Day. It's just for kids, really, but hey! I'm all for celebrating gender. In honor of this, my language tutor gave me a delicious treat, which I photo-documented.

It's sweet bean dip filling wrapped in cherry dough. The leaf you see on the outside is a sakura (cherry) tree leaf! And yes, it was oishii (delicious)! I'm not sure what boys get on their day.. maybe squirt guns?

I have had lots of other great experiences here so far this week, but I'll have to cut this short, and tell you about them when I get back. Simply put.. I'm getting hungry right now. And it's too beautiful here to stay inside any longer! Oh, is it 39 deg. in Nebraska right now? I'm sorry to hear that. Really. I'm crying in my stir fry.

Alright, everyone. Going to Shibuya tonight with some friends to do it up! Let's hope I see some craaaaazy fashions. Wish me luck!

Michael out.