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Weekend Dads of Kanto

Saturday, January 6th, 2007

The Tsukuba Express train line opened in late 2005, linking large areas of Chiba and Ibaraki prefectures with high speed Tokyo-bound rail service. Although I live in a tiny rural town surrounded by rice paddies, I can be in Tokyo in about an hour. Tokyo’s proximity to small towns has spurned the social phenomenon of the weekend dad. Thousands of families choose to live in suburban and rural Kanto, away from crowded Tokyo, while the breadwinner lives in the big city five nights a week in an apartment or dormitory.

Every Friday the salarymen fathers and husbands of Kanto board trains like the Tsukuba Express to start their weekly family time. It is a somber procession of silence, where passenger’s eyes tell stories of lonely lives spent more often drinking with the boss or sleeping than with their families. I’m on a car full of these shells. Half of them will spend their precious family time hungover or sleeping off exhaustion. It is a strange way to end this trip, and I find it more difficult to ignore these sad characters like I usually do. There is something about Tokyo that is different from the rest of Japan. There is an air of hopeless dedication that reaches such heights as to choke off any dreams of a better life, as if such a possibility could never even exist. In the past year I’ve become more disillusioned with the capital. It’s not the crowds and pace that I can’t stand, but the faces of these men; their mechanical lives. I feel empty in their presence.

It is 12:26am. I’m on the second to last train bound for Moriya. I’m tired and hungry and want to go home. I hope I can transfer trains in Moriya, but it’s late and I don’t expect the rural Joso line to be running at this hour. I made the decision in Tokyo that if I’m going to be stuck somewhere tonight, I should be stuck somewhere I can camp. I imagine I’ll be stuck in Moriya. The man next to me is very drunk and very unhappy. He keeps pounding his fist into his forehead, recounting some awful memory. I shift to the other side of the car. I can’t watch him anymore.

It is fitting for me to see this now after experiencing so much of western Honshu. My past year in Japan has made me steadily more negative about society here. When I look at the sad faces of commuter trains or hear the stories of infidelity, divorce, or loveless persistence by lonely housewives, I don’t blame the individuals for their fates, but rather the strict system of social controls that exist. Japan’s culture is rigid and most live according to its rules. In Tokyo these examples are most salient.

Tokyo is a super-capital. Every political or economic decision goes through this city, if not originated here. More often than not, I’ve found, these decisions don’t make Japan a better place. It boils down to how much people enjoy life. On paper Japan is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, but wealth doesn’t translate to livability as Tokyo proves. Everywhere I see examples of the bizarre slice of the world this “economic miracle” has carved for itself; crowded, uncomfortable, and cold.

An entertainment assessment: Korea v. Japan

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

Late start needless to say. We caught a movie before shifting into New Years mode. The movie got me thinking about Japan. Throughout the trip I’ve tried to be careful about comparing the countries too much, but it’s been difficult to resist. Korea is often described as being somewhere in between China and Japan, and I’m not talking solely about geography. It’s not as clean and overly polite as Japan, but not as dirty as China, and Koreans have figured out how to form an orderly line. Cost of living is less than Japan and more than China. I’ve also found that people are genuinely interested in foreigners here as in Japan, but are more outgoing in their willingness to approach you. This gung-ho attitude is also present in Chinese society, but when taken to extremes comes off as aloofness or blatant disregard for others. While I don’t like using blanket descriptions or comparisons, I have had occasions in my time here where they are useful.

So in regard to Japan, I’ve been refreshed by the entertainment options readily available in Korea. It seems that Korean’s enjoy their free time more by the numerous options available to them. Japan’s primary entertainment venues are karaoke and Pachinko. Pachinko in particular is everywhere and is an activity that is so incredibly unappealing to me personally that it has become a symbol in my mind of the depressing workaholic lifestyle of some Japanese. It is a type of casino gambling that’s akin to vertical pinball. I haven’t quite figured it out completely because it’s played in a brightly lit, noisy, smoke-filled hall that I can’t stand, and is expensive to boot. As neither a fan of gambling nor sitting for hours at a time breathing second-hand smoke, I will never understand Pachinko’s popularity. But by its prevalence on every corner, it appears to be the entertainment of choice.

In a typical shopping area in Korea you can find many internet cafes, pool halls, noribong (karaoke), and movie theaters. There are simply more choices. Movie theaters tell a larger story. I spent about $10 to see an evening show, the price including popcorn and drink. In Japan, seeing a movie in a theater costs between $15-20 dollars for the ticket alone. This doesn’t include the train or bus ride that getting to the theater might require, as theaters are few and far between.

The prevalence of affordable, convenient movie theaters and Korea’s thriving entertainment industry are no coincidence. The film and television industries have been exporting Korean movies and shows around Asia for years, and a few movies have enjoyed acclaim recently worldwide. The most popular soap operas in Japan are Korean, sparking a surge in middle aged Japanese women tourists coming to Korea to chance a glimpse of their favorite heart-throb stars.

While manga and anime are Japanese mainstays, film that falls out of the animated category is stagnant in Japan. The movie companies are barely hanging on, bolstered slightly by the recent Japanese horror boom, but generally in a slump.

In the two years I’ve been in Japan, I’ve seen three movies in theaters. A week in Korea and I saw one because how can I resist when the option is there and cheap? While we waited for the show we played a few games of poor downstairs, the whole experience making me realize what I’ve been reluctant to admit; Japan is kind of boring.



Japan’s natural state

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006
The Kokai River flows below me toward the pink horizon to the southwest. Its flooded waters surge over a small diversion dam before bending west and exiting my view behind a concrete embankment, the future site of yet another bridge. ... [Continue reading this entry]

On the proper care and feeding of managers

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

Japan’s over flooded market of English conversation and children's schools ensure that most English-speaking university grads around the world will be able to find a job.  But be prepared for an east meets west experience.  ... [Continue reading this entry]

Modern education in modern Japan?

Tuesday, December 12th, 2006
When I was young I remember hearing about the studious Japanese youth, slaving away well into the evening and even on Saturdays. This was at the height of the economic boom, now referred to as the “bubble era.” The ... [Continue reading this entry]

Let’s talk about Japan!

Thursday, December 7th, 2006

Are you thinking about coming to the far-off nation of Japan to land a teaching job? Has the dust been collecting on your diploma, and your job stocking shelves at the grocery store ... [Continue reading this entry]