March 10, Sunday
Mari and I went snowboarding for the last time this year. We took an overnight bus from Tokyo to Hakuba (白馬) in Nagano (長野). Hakuba is another resort town famous for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics. The slopes didn’t disappoint. Most trails were easy and wide, perfect for learning to cut back and forth. By the end of the day I felt like I had become an actual snowboarder. I could easily point my board in any direction, change course, stop and start with no problem. It only took three years.
The highlight of the day came on our last run down the mountain. The sun was high in the sky and it was beginning to feel like spring in the mountains. The snow below me was melting and my board cut a path everywhere I went. I stopped on a landing to remove my hat and gloves. I started back down again and the breeze blew back my hair. I was finally snowboarding in style.
Monday rolled around, Mari and I celebrated 18 months of dating. A year and a half together and we were standing on top of a mountain. Literally. It proved to be a good day.
March 15, Friday
March 17, Sunday
I had lunch with my old friend Hamish and I finally introduced him to Mari. Later after lunch she told me, “he has a good aura.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
For dinner I revisited my old station, Odakyu-Sagamihara (小田急相模原) to have dinner with some old students. It was great to catch up with them. I hadn’t seen anyone for four months. But we picked up right where we left off. The only difference this time was an 80 minute commute home opposed to the 2 minute walk from last time.
March 20, Wednesday
Wednesday was the first day of spring. As such I ceremoniously shaved off my winter beard. My three month goatee came off in five minutes. I stepped outside and felt the cool air on my skin. Spring is in the air.
March 24, Sunday
The cherry blossoms began a week early this year. Mari and I visited Shinjuku Gyoen Park for a relaxed afternoon. It was overcast and a little chilly. But we were still able to enjoy the beautiful cherry trees.
I also attended my first Japanese wedding. My futsal teammate married my former student. I suited up and went with Mari to celebrate with the couple.
A quick point on modern Japanese weddings. They’re big and expensive. The ceremony is usually carried out by an English-speaking foreign priest reciting the bible. This lasts about 10 minutes. The couple dresses in formal western attire. The couple and guests then proceed across the hall to the reception. Usually weddings are in hotels. The bride changes her dress and sits at the head table with her new husband. The next two hours are filled with entertainment from the bridal party, and speeches. Lots of speeches. It’s expected your boss should offer a few words too. If it’s a formal wedding, and they often are, the newlyweds will never leave their seats. The guests will rotate through and take their picture with them. After you enjoy some well presented food and a few glasses of wine it’s over. The couple and their friends, but no family, proceed to the second party for two more hours of finger foods, drinking and games. Again the bride changes dresses. If you’re lucky you’ll have a chance to talk to the couple at this point. After the time is up, lights are on and you go home.
I must mention the money. In the States most couples have a gift registry where you can buy them items for their new home. Or you can give them your own gift. Or you can give them cash. In Japan, it’s cash only. If you attend the ceremony and reception it is expected you give either ¥30,000 or ¥50,000 ($300 or $500). If you only attend the second party it’s normally ¥7,000 ($70) cash. This is in addition to whatever you want to spend on your clothes or hair.
Back to my friends’ wedding.
I didn’t actually go to the wedding ceremony. Nor did I attend the reception. I attended the second party. We arrived to a nice hotel at Yokohama station. Inside we found our friends and took over a table. Standing room only. We enjoyed a few drinks and food. There was a slideshow and video tribute. Then we played bingo and I won a gift card. I managed to get a picture with my friends and wished them well. No sooner had we arrived then we left.
After the party I went out with six boys and we had a few more drinks. Love was in the air and dominated the conversation. Oh boys.
March 25, Monday
I met up with Luke in Akihabara. We visited a Maid Cafe. Japanese Maid Cafe’s are a small niche of Tokyo culture. Patrons pay a table charge and buy drinks in a cafe run by cute young girls. The girls dress in wild french maid costumes. They call you “master” and will play card games with you, if you pay extra.
Luke and I had a coffee. At ¥ 1,500 ($15) we didn’t need to spend anymore. We watched the maids fawn over other customers who had spent the money. The whole thing came off a little strange.
Funnily the staff seated all of the foreigners in the corner. Luke and I were first there. Then three Dutch sat next to us and we struck up a conversation. To my left sat an American couple. They didn’t feel like chatting. I’m not sure if they seated us together on purpose, but it definitely went noticed by everyone in the cafe.
After Akihabara I moved into my new apartment in Yokohama. I’m on an assignment for two months in Yokohama and it’s a bit of commute from my apartment to the office so I’m staying in a company apartment. As such I now have two apartments in the Tokyo metro. One in the north and one in south. Depending how I’m feeling I can stay at either one. I feel so important.
-The Rising Sun-
Japanese nationalism is back. National flags adorn light posts and decorate private residences. A sense of unity and brotherhood permeates the air. Businesses tout their determination and greatness. The yen is surging. Politically the conservative party is back in power. Competition with neighboring countries is rising. Japan is back.
I find the resurgent nationalism in Japanese interesting. Since my arrival, in late 2010, until now, early 2013, patriotism has surged. When I first came to Japan, and for the latter half of the 20th century, Japanese nationalism was strongly suppressed. The nationalism of the early 20th century contributed in great part to World War Two and the horrific devastation that followed. But because of recent events, it’s becoming chic to be patriotic again.
Japanese flags. This was my first tip off that something was changing. Seeing the flag used to be an unusual sight. Now it’s a daily occurrence. Flags are an easy way to show support for your country. There’s nothing assertive about flags. But it’s interesting that they’ve become popular in such a short amount of time.
After the Tohoku disaster in 2011, many Japanese people felt connected and united with each other. Those that survived, survived the worst Japanese disaster since WWII. It took a team effort to rebuild and everyone pitched in. The attitude of community brought many people together and renewed their love of their country.
In 2011 the Japanese GDP dropped from the second largest economy in the world, to the third. See: China. At the same time the yen became extremely strong, 76 yen to the (US) dollar. This made Japanese exports, the backbone of their economy, too expensive to buy. Already in a 20 year recession, the economy began to teeter to the breaking point. When many American businesses would have downsized and laid off millions of employees, their Japanese equivalents did not. At least not on an American scale. The businesses trudged along, fully in the red, but determined to get into the black again.
Now the yen is beginning to weaken. A new conservative government, back in power after a five year break, put tremendous pressure on the Bank of Japan to fight inflation. In just six months the yen has weakened to 96 yen to the dollar. This is a far cry from the high water mark, 360 yen to the dollar in the 1960’s, but it’s moving in the right direction.
The conservative government came back to power, in part, because of their nationalistic rhetoric. They spewed Japanese exceptionalism. Promising a return to economic prosperity and respect abroad. And it worked. People voted them back in an overwhelming majority.
There is also a powerful sense of “us vs. them.” The Japanese have long been an “us” people, often feeling, and being treated, inferior to western powers. However in the beginning of the 21st century there has been a tremendous rise in east Asian economies. China, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and others are seeing rapid growth much like what Japan experienced. This growth has threatened the Japanese. They feel competition for their place in east Asian politics. In addition territorial disputes with China and Korea have created tension. With none of these countries backing down the stakes are heating up.
Personally I find the whole thing fascinating. I come from arguably the most nationalistic country in the world. Overt, in-your-face-American-nationalism has always turned me off. I remember the swell of patriotism and American flags after September 11th. So when I watch this change in Japan I’m coming from an American background. Already numb in a sense, the Japanese trend is hardly comparable. Yet living in the country for so long, I can see it’s effects at a more local level. I’m watching how it influences individuals. I’m seeing the national psyche change. And to be honest, it’s fascinating.