A Business Trip to Shizuoka, or, 真由美の悪夢

In case you didn’t know, I currently work as an English teacher in Nagoya, Japan. My company is centered around three major Japanese cities (Osaka, Nagoya, and Tokyo), but it also has quite a few schools in less central areas, including some ‘rural’ communities (Japan’s definition of rural community generally being ‘a town of about 300,000 people, and nearly as many pachinko parlours).

These schools usually employ just one or two teachers, meaning that when one of them is sick someone from the closest hub city will be called out to cover their classes. These are technically classified as business trips, which makes me feel grown-up, so we’ll stick with the nomenclature.

Last summer I was lucky enough to be chosen for a week-long trip to Kagoshima. I climbed a cat-filled mountain with a dark past. I took a ferry to a volcano. I spent part of my daily stipend on a really great umbrella. It was brilliant. More recently I went on another business trip, though this time my destination was somewhat less exciting: Shizuoka.

I’d been to Shizuoka once before, and I didn’t have a great time. The area around both the school and the hotel seemed to consist mainly of ‘massage’ massage parlors, hostess bars, strip clubs, and endless signs featuring photos of women with sultry body language and thousand-yard stares. There was nothing for me there: even if I were really into depressing red light districts Nagoya already has that pretty much covered.


Important business trip in Kagoshima

But, when offered the chance to return to Shizuoka on a one-day business trip I decided to go. Why? Well, at the risk of sounding incredibly annoying I’ve forced myself to get into the habit of trying new things. God, I know, I sound like one of those bellends whose lives only seem to exist as a series of cloying Facebook status updates. But my point is: this last year some of the best things I’ve done have been a result of my saying yes to something new, difficult, unnerving, or just not initially that compelling. Coming to Japan was hugely intimidating. Actually making a solid effort to learn Japanese forced me to try very hard at something I’m naturally very bad at, which is itself something I’m naturally very bad at. Climbing Mt. Fuji seemed like a lot of money and effort for very little reward. But all of these – and lots of smaller things – turned out incredibly well, when otherwise I would have just been sitting in my living room being bothered by the internet.

So, I took the bullet train to Shizuoka to teach a day of classes. As before, the town wasn’t anything too special; while seeming far less sleazy this time around, there’s still wasn’t a whole lot to distinguish it from other cities. In my lunch break I had some average ramen and walked around a relatively nice park.

What did distinguish my time there were the students. First, I had a 80-minute lesson with two mid-60 year-old women (let’s call them Naoko and Mayumi, though I’ve changed names since things get a little bit personal further down). We were supposed to be discussing news reports on space travel, but we quickly veered off onto other subjects. Among other things, at one point Mayumi spent ten minutes quite happily telling us about her husband – a Buddhist monk who, upon marrying Mayumi decided to forbid her from leaving the country. She told us that she travels around Japan a fair bit, but in over thirty years of marriage she’s never gone on any of the international trips she planned on. A few years ago her friend invited her to go to Canada for her birthday, to which the husband agreed, only to later thrust divorce papers on her, stating very plainly that it was a choice between her marriage and her trip to Canada. In the end, she chose her marriage.

That lesson was more interesting than most, but since it was quite highly structured there was still a lot of time spent talking about space travel (Something they didn’t even feign interest in, with many discussion questions meeting answers like ‘No, I have no interest in space or going into space’, or ‘I’d probably die before we reached Mars, so I don’t see the point’). After the first lesson, however, Naoko and Mayumi signed up for a conversation class alongside a third student we’ll call Yoko. Yoko was also very high level, and also very nice, but rather less talkative than the other two.


There’s a relatively nice park over that bridge

It was in this lesson that things became really interesting. After discussing the recent abduction of two Japanese citizens by IS, I asked about their opinions on various Japanese political and social issues.All three were thoroughly unimpressed by the ruling LDP party, but were equally unimpressed by the state of the opposition parties. Extremely interested in politics, they were all very worried about the government’s increasingly evasive talk surrounding Japan’s role in world history, particularly during World War 2.

This conversation alone was fascinating. It’s so rare to hear people talk about these kinds of things, especially during a lesson, and I’m kind of ashamed to say that I was (happily) surprised to hear elderly Japanese people taking such liberal stances on these issues. It’s very easy to get the impression that older people in Japan are almost all ultra-conservative, but obviously it’s not that simple.

Then we started talking about the war itself, and though both Naoko and Mayumi were too young to have lived through it, they relayed some stories their parents told them when they were children. Naoko’s stories concerned the slow degradation of life during and after the war; her parents selling their clothes and possessions piece by piece to afford food. The post-war period and the long, difficult recovery of both economic and national hope. I can’t hope to do them justice here.

And somehow, Mayumi’s stories hit even harder. Her parents experienced the fire bombings of Tokyo, and she described how their descriptions of their experiences were so vivid that for years she had nightmares about being caught in the bombings, or seeing it from afar, alone in the woods at night.

Wanting desperately to hear more, but not wanting to keep treading on obviously-difficult memories simply for the sake of my own curiosity, I started to veer the conversation back to something lighter. But then Yoko interrupted me, and told us that she’d lived through the war herself. Without further prompting she explained how, as a small child, she moved with her family to occupied Manchuria in the early days of the war. Because she was so young she doesn’t have too many memories of the time, but she does remember the end of the war very clearly, when Soviet troops moved in and, well – you can look up the specifics of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria if you like, but all that really needs to be said is that Yoko’s few memories aren’t good ones.

After that we talked for a few more minutes, and then our time was up. I thanked them for the conversation, telling them how fascinating I found their stories. In turn, they told me they were very happy to talk about their lives and their experiences with someone so eager to listen. After that I taught a few more classes, caught the train, and headed home.

I realise that this blog post doesn’t have an overarching point, or really a message of any kind. It also veers kind of strangely between light-hearted observations of my time in Japan and incredibly-serious discussions I had about students’ personal experiences. But I suppose if this post has any point at all it’s that sometimes my job can be very special. It can be easy to get a little bored, and see it as just a job and nothing more. You’re teaching people English, and the purpose of any conversation that ensues is to practice their grammar, listening and fluency, and that’s the end of it. Conversation usually revolves around hobbies, holidays, and favourite foods, because that’s the easiest, most comfortable thing for both parties.

But if you’re open to it you can sometimes be lucky enough to experience moments of personal connection that stick with you. You’re not necessarily going to meet your best friend, or radically change anyone’s life, but connections with someone can be made, and you can both experience something worthwhile, even if you never see each other again, just as I don’t expect I’ll ever see Naoko, Mayumi, or Yoko ever again. I don’t think I’ll ever forget those snapshots of Naoko’s parents, Yoko’s childhood, or the vividness of Mayumi’s nightmares, though. A handful of times my job has become something special for 5, 10, 15 or so minutes at a time.

Yesterday my private student of four months left to work in America, and we were both genuinely upset to see each other for the last time. Recently a quiet, sullen student has become much happier and more talkative in my lessons, and we’ve been able to have some fun conversations after nearly eight months of grammar drudgery. This kind of thing might only happen a handful of times, but that’s more than enough for me.


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The Year in Books – Part Four

[This is the fourth and final part of my review of the books I read this year. This time I’ll be talking about Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. You can find the previous parts herehere, and here.]

Eleanor Catton - The RehearsalEleanor Catton – The Rehearsal

After falling in love with The Luminaries at the beginning of the year, I was keen to have a look at Catton’s other novel. It’s a very different beast from The Luminaries: gone is the quasi-preternatural mystery of the Hokitika goldfields, replaced by a high school gripped by a sexual scandal. Gone too is the Victorian-inspired prose, replaced by a a style that takes heavy cues from modern theatre.

The Rehearsal splits itself between two concurrent stories – the lives of several high school students in the wake of an affair between a teacher and a student, and the lives of a group of first years at a prestigious drama school. The former explores the emotional reactions of the students to the scandal, while the latter, at first, is entirely separate – focusing instead on the unusual theatrical education the students receive.  What’s interesting isn’t that the two halves come together later on in the novel, but that, from the very beginning these two separate stories form two parts of a cohesive whole.

The Rehearsal is about performance. Catton uses the explicitly theatrical sections to reflect the ways in which the high school students and teachers engage in their own kinds of performances – both in the wake of the sexual scandal, and in their everyday lives.

It sounds like the thesis of a saccharine young adult novel – “In a way, aren’t we all performing all the time?“. But this isn’t anything as simple as ‘pretending to be someone you’re not to be popular’ – it’s a complex matter of trying on different identities, of blurring the lines between who you are and how you act, of speaking in a certain way to have a certain impact, rather than because that’s the natural way the words come out of your mouth. Instead of the starched-collar, sitting-on-a-chair-backwards guidance councillor The Rehearsal so easily could have been, it’s instead a genuine, nuanced look at the process of growing up, and picking an identity for yourself in the series of disasters – both impossibly large and pathetically small – that make up adolescence.

But while so much of the novel is centred around teenagers trying to define who they are, both internally and externally, the central roles of the saxophone teacher and the drama institute’s heads of departments shine a light on how this behaviour isn’t sloughed off at the end of adolescence. To get a bit guidance-councillor again (The Rehearsal has a tendency to sound glib when summarised because it’s a complex, nuanced work about a complex, nuanced subject; one that, if simplified, is almost inevitably trivialised) –  everyone, regardless of age or position, is acting all the time, and it’s both more and less childish and dramatic than that sounds.

Just as she blurs the line between what’s natural and what is affected, Catton also blurs the lines between what’s explicitly happening and what’s merely subtext. Several of the high school girls are at times described in an explicitly theatrical way – their characters as archetypes being portrayed by an actor; their actions feeling like italicised stage directions. Isolde and Julia’s fraught relationship is described in multiple ways at different times, all of them mutually exclusive if literally true. Lighting and set changes are described within some scenes as if they were played out on a stage even though they’re real events happening to real people. And the girls’ saxophone teacher sometimes says things to people’s faces that are hideously insulting, but that are met with nothing more than a nod or a hmm of agreement.

How much of what The Rehearsal quotes as her speech is actual speech and how much is subtext – the meaning behind what she really says? How much of what is described is fact and how much is a lie, an act, a reflection of how theses characters, consciously or unconsciously want to be seen? To what extent is this acting – this performance of a character – separate from who these people really are, and to what extent is it actually central to who they really are? The Rehearsal doesn’t try to answer these questions, because they’re inherently vague, sticky questions that can’t be answered. But in asking them The Rehearsal explores an often overlooked part of life; one that constantly upends the reader, keeps them feeling vulnerable and unsteady right up until the very end.

Wendy Lower - Hitler's FuriesWendy Lower – Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields

Not exactly what you’d describe as an inviting read, Lower’s exploration of Nazi history is incredibly tough to get through. There’s none of the stultifying denseness of text that’s so common among historical takes on this era, but the subject matter is just so deeply awful that I can’t wholly recommend it to people. I think it’s an important book, but while I’m very glad I read it, at times its depictions of Nazi atrocities were so hauntingly graphic that it tested my limits. So, take that as a warning.

This isn’t a book about the whats and the wheres and the hows of genocide in the Third Reich. Instead, Hitler’s Furies focuses on something more specific: the women who helped power Hitler’s wars, and later Hitler’s genocides. Rather than simply being pitiable bystanders on the periphery of the Third Reich, Lower shows us that many German women actively took part in Nazi atrocities. They did so in various roles: as teachers and housewives and mothers occupying the eastern lebensraum. As nurses voluntarily taking part in a campaign of mass ‘euthanasia’ of the disabled and the genetically undesirable. As clerks and stenographers relaying orders and reports of mass violence. And as wives and mistresses in the east who willingly took part in massacres and random acts of violence.

At times Lower takes a general view – looking at how the Nazi state operated, and how women contributed to its ability to carry out such terrible acts of violence and genocide across Europe. At other times she focuses in on the stories of individual woman fitting in the above categories of teacher, nurse, housewife, clerk. Both parts are necessary for the understanding Lower is aiming for, and both parts are equally harrowing.

Early on in the book Lower writes: ‘The consensus in Holocaust and genocide studies is that the systems that make mass murder possible would not function without the broad participation of society, and yet nearly all histories of the Holocaust leave out half of those who populated that society, as if women’s history happens somewhere else.’ This book, then, is an attempt to rebalance the scales – to address a part of history that we ignored closer to the time, and that we still largely ignore. Countless women took an active role in Nazi war crimes, but when the international prosecutors moved in in the wake of Germany’s defeat almost no women even faced trial, let alone sentencing. And even now we consistently brush over women’s role in such crimes.

By looking at the myriad ways women contributed to the atrocities of the Nazi state – either, in the minority as individual oppressors and killers, or, in the majority as cogs in a vast machine – Lower challenges the naive view of women as somehow incapable of participating in violence and terror. To do so isn’t to attack women; it’s to attack an outdated, patronising view of both genders as inherently distinct, with men as active participants capable of the whole spectrum of humanity, and women helpless victims and bystanders too good or too weak or too motherly to participate.

Hitler’s Furies isn’t just a well-researched, well-written piece of history. It’s an attempt – an incredibly successful one – to address a part of history, and a part of life, that we often neglect. It throws our unconscious views of gender roles back in our faces and argues that even the history we’d like to forget about is important. It won’t let the reader forget that history is fraught with the same issues we see everywhere else: who writes history? What do they write about? What questions do they ask and whom do they ask them to?

We get the history we have not just because of how the past was, but also because of how the present is. This book is an important way of addressing that fact, and taking small steps to improve the way we look at both the present and the past. If nothing else, it does a wonderful job of illustrating that women’s history doesn’t happen somewhere else, even if, in some cases, we may wish that it had.

Ursula K. Le Guin - The Left Hand of DarknessUrsula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness

I’d heard about The Left Hand of Darkness quite a few times before I decided to read it, and each time it was sold to me something like this: An envoy from a coalition of space-faring civilisations is sent to a new world to broker an alliance. This world is unique in that its inhabitants are neither male nor female – each individual can assume either male or female sexual attributes during brief reproductive periods, but is otherwise biologically and socially androgynous. Among other things, Le Guin uses the novel to explore issues of feminism and gender, as well as the implications of a society without men or women.

This description is pretty much right: it takes place on Gethen, a world without gender, and through the interaction between the Earth-born envoy and the natives of Gethen the novel explores these kinds of issues, and their implications on individuals, and on society as a whole.

But the description above feels like it misses something. It makes The Left Hand of Darkness sound like classic science fiction; that is, hard science fiction that revolves almost entirely around a central thesis. But it’s not. It’s not like Flowers for Algernon; focusing in on its central issues of neurobiology and personhood to the exclusion of almost everything else (including, as it happens, the ability to include a single woman that feels like actual human beings). The Left Hand of Darkness uses its science fiction to explore ideas surrounding gender, but it’s far too nuanced and multifaceted to be interested in any one single thesis statement. And, unlike so much science fiction, at its heart it’s book that’s interested in people, rather than a book that’s interested in ideas.

The Left Hand of Darkness is an exploration of gender, but it’s not just that. It’s an exploration of an interesting, thoughtfully-considered fictional world, but it’s not just that. It’s an exploration of isolation and belonging. Of clashing cultural norms. Of religion and faith. But it’s not just that. It’s a book about people, and what it’s like to be a person. A person on a planet of near-perpetual winter light-years from Earth, but a person all the same.

One of the aspects of the novel that most resonated with me was the most is the way it explores the protagonist’s position as a visitor to a new world; a stranger in a strange land. As someone who’s spent the last year living in a foreign country on the other side of the planet I found much to recognise. Japan is hardly as different to the United Kingdom as Gethen is to Earth, but it’s pretty bloody different all the same, and I’ve spent a huge proportion of my waking life this year feeling somehow unstuck. Learning a language so vastly different to my own, so wrapped up in history and customs that are completely alien to me. Attempting to navigate an unfamiliar culture that’s different in ways you often can’t see until you know exactly what you’re looking for. It’s been a wonderful experience, but it’s hard not to feel isolated, or alone, or unstuck at times.

The Left Hand of Darkness captures this so incredibly well. It captures the feeling of isolation, and those moments during a conversation where you look down and can almost see the vast gulf of experience and understanding separating you from the other side. It captures the awful, draining coldness that runs through you when you make a mistake – either big or small – because you simply didn’t know. It captures the way two people can come together with the best intentions – with the aim of understanding – but end up wholly alienating each other because of miscommunication borne out of a lifetime of differences.

But even moreso, it captures the feeling of a connection being made; of slowly starting to feel less and less isolated. The Left Hand of Darkness starts with a vague sense of alienation, reaches a terrible point where the protagonist is utterly adrift and alone, and then finds cause for hope. It shows that connection, and even closeness, is possible in the face of such vast distances.

And all the while these ideas are explored through the logical, compelling interaction of beautifully-realised characters. It never shouts “This is the point of the novel” at you; instead it’s driven by the thoughts and the flaws and the cultural makeup of its inhabitants. It’s a science fiction about people, not just ideas, and it feels all the more profound and true because of it.

[So that was my four part review of my year in books. I hope you enjoyed it, and/or got some good recommendations out of it. I’m going to have a rest now.

In case you’re interested, my aim for this year is to read a lot more books by authors from all over the world, but especially Japanese authors. If you have any book recommendations of your own (by Japanese authors, or not), or you just want to chat, don’t hesitate to get in contact – either in the comments below or on Twitter (@nicholaskeirle). ]

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The Year in Books – Part Two

[This is Part Two of my review of the books I read this year, where I actually talk about some books. There is going to be a Part Three and possibly a Part Four. I know, I know. I’m sorry.

If you haven’t read part one yet you can find it here. Note that almost none of the following books were released this year. So, as always, if you’re looking for something timely or relevant you’ve most certainly come to the wrong place.]

Eleanor Catton-The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries

A mystery story (kind of) set in the New Zealand town of Hokitika during the gold rush of the 1860s, The Luminaries takes much of its inspiration from the writing of that era. Not only are many of the characters wrapped up in typical Victorian issues of stoicism and decorum, but the novel itself has a decidedly Victorian narrator; third-person, omniscient, and as prone to poetic descriptions of the dirty and the commonplace as it is to summing up a person’s temperament and moral character in a few decorous sentences.

The action has much in common with mystery and adventure novels of the time, but it’s also tinged with moments of the haunting and the conceivably preternatural. Structurally speaking, The Luminaries is based around the zodiac, and the movement of the heavens. Each major character represents one of the twelve zodiac signs, and the interaction between characters throughout the novel is determined by the state of the night sky – the movement of the planets through the constellations – over the town of Hokitika in 1864.

Not only this, but the chapters correspond to the waning moon – the first section is nearly four hundred pages long, and the action within is slow, unhurried. The next is around two hundred, and things start to speed up. And so on, getting shorter and more hurried and more urgent, until chapters become nothing more than brief snapshots: five pages, two pages, a page, a paragraph.

The effect is astonishing. Which is to say nothing of Catton’s wonderful use of language, or the novel’s frankly huge cast of incredibly well-drawn characters. It’s around 800 pages long, and while the beginning half is slow, it’s never boring, and it’s never too slow. It’s a slowness that’s delightful to linger in – just to soak up the atmosphere and the characters and the world. I wanted there to be a another 800 pages. The Hokitika Catton draws feels like a place you could spend a lifetime in and still feel like you haven’t seen enough. But The Luminaries doesn’t let you just sit and take it in – the mystery begins to unravel, the action rises, and before long we’re left with nothing but the sting of heart-wrenching tragedy, and the taste of yearning on our tongues.


Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale almost beat me. I crawled through it pages at a time, with long breaks between sessions. Not because it’s dense, or badly written, but because it’s so unremittingly bleak. And I thought I could handle bleak – I remember reading The Road, alongside other, vaguely similar books, and having no trouble whatsoever. But this is a different kind of bleak.

The Road is the bleakness of a broken world where you survive on nothing but your own strength, where a man has to protect his innocent child from a newly indifferent world. The Handmaid’s Tale shows us another crawling nightmare from another perspective – one where the world has always been utterly indifferent to you.

Where McCarthy dwells on a powerful, perhaps centrally masculine fear of losing society and the protection it gives us, Atwood focuses on the ways society can take from us. Instead of the protective walls of society falling down, they move in, suffocating you bit by bit, day by day, until there’s almost nothing left.

It’s the story of a society that takes everything from women, even, in time, the will to resist; the will to even hope for something better, someday. There is no way to survive off your own wits, no innocent child to protect – even that is taken away. All that remains is hopelessness, loneliness, nothing.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that, to me, felt bleak in a wholly unfamiliar way. Where the apocalypse is one of society, rather than the lack of it. Where the question isn’t if you’ll live another day, but whether you’ll be able to force yourself to; whether you’ll have reason to. Like I said, it’s the apocalypse of the walls – walls that were always there – closing in. Not the fear of dying in the night, but rather the suffocation of waking up in the morning.

And after the story ends we’re shown another perspective – another dispassionate, perhaps centrally masculine examination of what you just finished reading. And where before I was broken down, exhausted, here I was furious. The treatment of this story as a text to be picked apart and academically debated, rather than grieved over, believed in a sense that’s impossible to quantify – that was an astoundingly resonant outrage, and one I don’t think I’ve ever felt before.


NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names

We Need New Names is a book of two halves. First, the lived experience of a small child in Zimbabwe, and then the experience of being removed – of being picked up and displaced somewhere else, of only being able to look on as an outsider. Both halves are effective, and could easily have stood alone as two separate novels. But it’s the interaction between these two parts – the light they shine on one another – that makes this book what it is.

The first half starts out as a beautiful, partially broken description of a ten year-old girl’s life in a Zimbabwean shanty town. It describes hardship, and privation, but it’s mostly concerned with painting a picture of what it is to be children. The games, the fights, the child-like perspectives on things like politics and religion, and the strange, half-formed folklore they invent for their town and the people within. But as the political and racial tensions rise ever further, all this is derailed.

Then, into the second half. The protagonist is now living with her aunt in Detroit, Michigan, away from violence and danger back home. She can’t go back home, or shouldn’t, or isn’t allowed to. As she struggles to cope with life in America, a central question begins to take up more and more room in her head – is it her home anymore? She doesn’t feel comfortable in Detroit, but she’s been gone for so long, and when she calls her friends and family back home they’re different, and she’s different. They struggle to communicate as she becomes less and less connected to her past.

I’ve seen some people criticise the novel, and the author (who is herself an expatriate Zimbabwean), for failing to fully understand the reality of the situation in Zimbabwe at the time, or at least for not addressing it with enough nuance. But that’s the entire point of the novel – it’s about the experience of someone who left, and can only look on, or look back. It ends with the protagonist chastised by her childhood friend for failing to understand, for claiming that Zimbabwe is her country, after leaving it so long ago, after picking up new habits and a new accent. The protagonist rages against this, and that guilt is clearly there. It’s a book as much about guilt as anything else.

In We Need New Names the protagonist is left adrift – her past is remote, no longer a home to her, and try as she might she can only look on as an outsider now. She doesn’t understand, not fully, not anymore. It’s a novel about being adrift from your past, and your heritage. About a community keeping that heritage alive in the gaps available to them. About the small things that sometimes make life in a new country almost unbearable, even years down the line.

It’s about looking on and no longer feeling quite right calling home ‘home’. About feeling incredible guilt about that fact, and about how you’ve changed, but not knowing how to do anything else.

[Next time, in Part Three – Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Alice Munro’s Dear Life, and Ogawa Yoko’s The Diving Pool.]

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