Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Take Me Out to the Yakyu Game

Scratching out a combination of remedial Japanese and English, Omiyada students arranged to meet me at 17:30 at Shinanomachi station’s turnstiles. In a rush and taking an unfamiliar route, by the time I realized that Suidobashi was not the same as Shinanomachi, I was stuck on a Sobu line train in the wrong direction.

It wasn’t my first Japanese baseball game, or even first at Jingu Stadium. In early July I visited the Tokyo Dome, home to the famous Yomiuri Giants, to see the Chiba Lotte Marines take on Hokkaido’s Nippon Ham Fighters. Which was the home team? Last year the Ham Fighters (sponsored by a meat packing company) moved to Japan’s northern island, but still play token home games in Tokyo to please fans that didn’t migrate.

Loyalty divides the two $14 bleacher seat sections. Having no attachment to either team, but finding myself in a sea of Marines’ supporters, I cheered for Chiba. I didn’t want to stand out like a big white thumb more than I already did.

The Dome’s drab interior is peppered with ads for all of your favorite Japanese companies: Casio, Canon, Nissan, Kirin, Fuji Film, and Showa Gas. The Ham Fighters struck for three runs while I was in the subway en route. The crowd’s flag waving and tomahawk chops initially proved more interesting than the game itself, which featured what had to be a record for double plays and only one extra base hit until the 9th inning.

Down 3-1 with two outs in the top of the 9th, Chiba’s tying run stepped to the plate. The crowd chanted “home run” in English. Down to his last strike, Lee Seung Yeop harnessed the cheers and smacked the ball into the bleachers filled with stunned Fighters fans. Trumpets blared. (Yes, fans bring musical instruments to games). Chiba completed the dramatic comeback with three runs in the 10th. Final score: Marines 6, Fighters 3.

A month later I watched the Hiroshima Carp battle my now favorite Yakult (“Yak-a-loot-o”) Swallows at Jingu Stadium. The Carp seem to have stolen a page out of the Cincinnati Reds fashion playbook. These imposters struck for four runs while I was still in the subway. Minutes after I settled into my front row bleacher seat, the Carp doubled their 4-0 advantage with a single swing. Greg Larocca’s (not a Japanese) grand slam was Hiroshima’s second in as many innings. This one was over before it started. Final score: Carp 10, Swallows 0.

Despite the Swallows’ anemic performance, I enjoyed Japan’s most historic ballpark, its brick walls dating from 1926. On a pre-WWII exhibition tour, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth played here. Although room for 48,000, Jingu’s humble confines felt more minor league. Absent were luxury boxes, extravagant concession stands, and corporate promotions that are staples of Major League parks.

To be sure, Yakult Honsha Co., manufacturer of a fermented milk drink, owns the team. Uniformed “Yakult Ladies” peddle these probiotics on bicycles throughout Japan. So, why Yakult? Well, as someone who swallows such a supplement daily, my affinity truly comes from the gut. Furthermore, the Swallows are avian kin to my favorite MLB team, the Blue Jays. They’re also Tokyo’s underdogs, overshadowed by the Yankee-like Giants with their bloated payroll, aging players, high expectations, and huge fan base. Case in point: Swallows games are only televised when playing the Giants.

This brings me to my most recent game, in the shared company of two Omiyada baseball pals as our team hosted cross-town rivals the Kyojin (Giants). We spoke a little Japanese, filling the silences with mouthfuls of squid jerky. No Cracker Jack or peanut vendors in these here parts. Their jaws dropped when I jokingly tried to order three drafts beers from the Asahi lady with a keg strapped to her back.

Although forecasted typhoon remnants threatened to disrupt play, the clouds parted for a brilliant sunset. But Swallows fans tote kasa to the ballpark even on sunny days. For every Swallow who crosses home plate, fans recite a team cheer and pop open their umbrellas as a not so subtle gesture to the opposing pitcher that he should hit the showers.

Even though the rain held off, our umbrellas were in constant motion, starting with the first pitch of the game that Norichika Aoki sent into the Giants’ bleachers. Team cheers, and those personalized for each player, build community for a common cause. Unity, loyalty, and sacrifice are the Japanese way. Male cheerleaders stand on plastic crates armed with whistles and flags. Some grow hoarse before the balloon release during the 7th inning stretch.

When American Adam Riggs (“Rig-a-sue”) is announced, Old Glory appears. A Venezuelan bandera is similarly flown for Alex Ramirez (“Rami-chan”), formerly a Cleveland Indian and Pittsburgh Pirate.

Riggs homered in the second, and the Swallows scored in all but one inning to topple the mighty Giants. The game became such a farce that benches emptied. Swallows fans fell silent when one seldom-used player stepped to the plate. Everyone looked at the cheerleaders for direction. Did a chant exist for this guy? It hardly mattered. Final score [with pictures]: Swallows 14, Giants 3.

Friday, September 23, 2005

First Week at Omiyada School

Summer vacation ended early this year thanks to the board of education’s splurging on ceiling air-conditioning units for every classroom in the ward. As a concession for such cool technology, the board tacked on an extra 10 days to the school calendar, now possible in late summer with climate control. The ward’s low testing scores didn’t help either. That additional classroom time automatically increases aptitude is Japanese conventional wisdom.

Although cooling systems are becoming standard across Tokyo, I perspire just thinking about teaching inside a technological holdover. August humidity attacks my flesh as soon as I step outside. Sweat pools in the small of my back by the time I reach the subway eight minutes later.

Jack hammering and paint fumes greeted me at Omiyada’s entrance. Tarps blanketed floors; scaffolding obscured windows. Cranes sat parked in the clay-top schoolyard ringed by an industrial fence. Instead of students, construction workers walked the halls. Were they still on vacation? Did I need to remove my outdoor shoes when a patina of plaster dust coated the indoor floor? I climbed a flight of stairs. Concrete around a windowless frame had been chiseled away, giving the stairwell a Chechnya schoolhouse feel.

I met with three English teachers to exchange lesson plan information. After the meeting, I inquired about the construction to Ms. Shomatsu, perhaps the most kind-hearted English teacher I work with. Her motherly disposition is perfect for instructing the young ones. These weren’t routine renovations. The school dates from 1975, before earthquake codes were feasible. In addition to a/c, the board is upgrading the buildings themselves, two or three every year. Hopefully all 24 junior highs will be completed in time for The Big One.

Despite it being almost halfway through the school year, this marked my first visit to Omiyada, the last of four junior high schools I rotate among on a weekly basis. For week one, the lesson plan would be back to basics: self-introduction. They broke me in easily on Monday, teaching only a 9th grade advanced English class. A typical course load is four or five per day. The same schedule was in effect for Tuesday. By Wednesday classes doubled, increasing to three on Thursday. I was sent home after lunch every day. I could get used to teaching here.

In fact, I almost enjoyed the hour-long commute, which is varied and scenic as far as Tokyo is concerned. I transfer trains in the heart of the sumo district, where I spot wrestlers riding bicycles groaning under their tonnage. Later I walk from one ward into another, and then along a river to reach students eager for their monthly dose of foreign interaction.

Unlike the three other schools, the oldest students (9th graders) at Omiyada warmed right up to me. My fail-safe recipe for popularity includes Puma sneakers, a cool belt, and love of baseball, in particular the Yakult Swallows. I emphasize devotion during self-introductions. Although rival Yomiuri Giants is Japan’s equivalent to the Yankees, Swallows fans remain enthusiastically loyal no matter how outnumbered.

I high-five any fellow fans in the classroom, easily distinguishable with team pencil cases, key chains, or laminated folders. After class, I flip through a pack of six Swallows baseball cards. The next day, "teammates" bequeathed additional cards. Touched by their thoughtfulness, I offered American pencils in return. The day after that, I eagerly accepted an invitation to attend a game with them.

In addition introducing myself with sports, I chalked up a scaled outline of the continental U.S. Brave students circled their best guess of New York’s location on the board. This exercise turned into pin the tail on the donkey. Florida, Texas, Michigan, and Maine were the most selected, perhaps because they “stick out” just like how New York sounded familiar. An alarming number landed on South Carolina and New Mexico while others honed in on Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. Bold strategies, such as circling wide swaths of the Midwest, also failed. Only one student – at any of the four schools – got it right on the first, second, or third try. Even for Omiyada’s low track English class, I felt the first priority was a geography lesson, a subject I majored in.

Ignorance of New York’s world-famous landmarks was more appalling. One girl thought NY and DC were the same city. However, she wasn’t typical, the teacher explained. “This student is a strange girl, and she has strange pets,” which included six turtles, two snakes, and an iguana. One boy asked if I liked to gamble because New York was known for it. That would be New York-New York, Las Vegas, I replied. A timid girl thought the United Nations was headquartered in Okinawa. And wasn’t the World Trade Center in Japan? Still standing are Tokyo’s Akasaka Twin Towers and the 37-story WTC in Hanamatsucho. I thought I had heard it all until one brain-dead boy mistook the Statue of Liberty as a gift from North Korea. My eyes spun in their sockets.

For lunch I dined like an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) superstar. The largest portion was set-aside for the hungry American, as were any leftovers, like extra shrimp and vegetable tempura to top my udon. I waited with my tray in the teacher’s room until Ms. Shomatsu sent the “two prettiest girls” to escort me to their classroom.

Shades of Kanokita J.H.S.’ notorious disobedience appeared during recess at Omiyada. Like any proactive teacher, I investigate the source of odd noises. This metallic banging wasn’t coming from the construction outside. In an 8th grade classroom I stumbled upon unsupervised cacophony. A rusty freestanding cabinet housing white uniforms students use to serve lunch was transformed into a cell. A gang of boys barricaded one tormented classmate inside, using a metal lunch cart to block egress. Frenzied pounding from inside was answered by ramming the cart into the cabinet doors. The game continued until a jailbreak – when the jail broke. One of the doors unhinged and clattered to the floor. The boy repelled the cart and set himself free, collapsing onto the floor in exhaustion.

After lunch the next day, I caught students lobbing insects and fruit from the school garden into open second story windows. The cicadas flew away before landing inside, but a Japanese nashi, or pear, hit the target.

From what I could understand from the half dozen teachers and students on the scene, this green pear was not ripe and was not to be eaten – not now and maybe not ever. It changed handlers like a hot potato. Nobody knew what to do with it or how to explain it – in any language.

It had the hardness of a rock, and its now breached, dry interior smelled like pumpkin flesh. An electronic dictionary translated it as a “quince”, which I only knew as Spanish for “fifteen.” The second definition read “superphosphate,” so perhaps something got lost in translation, which wouldn’t be the first, second, or fifteenth time that’s happened.

Up Next: evening at the ballpark with two Omiyada Yakult fans.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

New York In A New York Minute

The offer sounded absurd. Could I make it to New York – all expenses paid – for the weekend? A family friend wished to present me as the ultimate surprise gift at my father’s 60th birthday bash. The chance to be the “icing on the cake” outweighed the long haul. Already starved for sleep from a week with no more than four hours rest on any night, I pulled an all-nighter before departure to wrap up last-minute preparations.

That morning I straggled into work an unprecedented 17 minutes late, barely in time for the last bell for the first of three scheduled classes. “How did you spend your weekend” was the lesson plan. I couldn’t help but gloat. The students “played basketball” or “didn’t do anything.” One virile chap “played sex everyday.” I was headed home for a cameo. The teacher translated, but the students still looked shocked.

I would like to thank Northworst for living up to its moniker. After a four-hour delay, a chilly reception awaited onboard. The cabin was super-cooled. My nose hairs stuck together when I inhaled. A stewardess overturned a beverage bin full of ice cubes, creating a watershed that trickled through the economy class aisle. I wondered if the water would freeze.

My time on the ground fared better. The customs officer noticed hesitation on my declaration form with a crossed out answer. “Where is your residence?” he asked. “Uhhh, I don’t really know,” I trailed off. He returned my smile with one of his own. Maybe he hadn’t seen it all. “Where do you receive letters?” “Both countries, but mostly USA.” “Okay, you’re a resident. Welcome back.” And happy to be back was how I felt opening a yellow cab’s window on the Triborough Bridge to soak up the night skyline that blurred by with familiarity.
To maintain the element of surprise, I couldn’t return home, and instead spent the night out on the town. With driver’s license and passport in luggage, I hoped my Japanese foreigner’s card would do the trick at the door. “Show me something in English!” laughed the bouncer, waving me inside. For effect I pointed out the birth date, and explained that I lived in Tokyo…but am a resident of New York.

At 3 a.m. I left the bar craving a subway ride. I boarded an uptown 6 train, and in Japanese style began to nod off, not worried if exhaustion tipped my head onto the shoulder of the black youth next to me. I awoke to his saying, “Dude, you don’t look so cool,” followed by a recorded, “This is 96th Street.” Sayonara! I bolted off the train before it chugged into El Barrio de East Harlem.

Saturday night I cinematically entered the birthday feast, held at a sumptuous Chinese restaurant in Midtown. The birthday fly-by mission was better orchestrated than the Iraqi invasion and Katrina’s response. My family and most of the 30 guests were stunned. “Jeff?” my sister questioned. Mom’s eyes widened to the point that they could have rolled out of their sockets. She couldn’t believe them, and ran over to touch my cheeks. “Are you real? Are you real?”

Only temporarily real. The brevity of my visit added punch to my presence. Fourteen hours later I jetted back to Tokyo with memories that will persist until dad turns 70.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

On The Radio

What began as an off-hand joke became reality Saturday, September 3. A month prior I suggested to Hicca, of Daruma fame, that I be a guest on Rainbowtown 79.2 FM where she produces.

The first weekend of every month a token foreigner is invited into the studio to share viewpoints on Japan. From 10 to 11 a.m., a voice from America hit the local airwaves. Hicca, who translated and produced, planned to question me about teaching. Given the immediacy of an increasingly man-made catastrophe, I wished instead to give voice to Katrina.

The Japanese press hadn’t been covering enough about the flood with upcoming national elections, reminders of which I struggled to block out. Vans outfitted with bullhorns cruised streets broadcasting party platforms. Candidates and staff waved with white gloves from inside, or from atop the van’s roof deck if parked near a train station or supermarket.

Otosan, Daruma’s genial father, dropped by to deliver a needed energy boost: an ice-cream sandwich breakfast. Rainbowtown’s stationmaster (and Daruma regular) was happier to see me than I was him on four hours rest. He asked if I was American. “Sort of” was my first response, unsure of what being American meant anymore except shame and embarrassment over foreign and now domestic affairs.

He pointed to a picture in the paper of black people waiting for food. In Japanese he recounted driving a relief truck to Niigata after a 6.8 quake killed 40 people in 2004. Some survivors abandoned the refined civility for which the Japanese are famous, and grabbed his collar to demand supplies. Storm orphans in New Orleans were grabbing more than just collars.
9:57 a.m., show time. I was nervous. Jishin omote gambarimasu, I told him. I’m going to do my best with confidence. Hicca ran through procedures, although neglected to instruct how to switch on my mic, leading to on-air confusion.

In between The Beatles and Aretha Franklin, I delivered a Reader’s Digest summary of Katrina. After all, Hicca had to translate, and many out there didn’t even know the basics of a hard to grasp reality of an all-American tragedy: a major metropolitan area was flooded, sweeping away thousands of lives. I logged onto CNN.com videos of floods, fires, and looting. Graphic scenes enlivened still words. “Ehhhhh, I had no idea,” Hicca kept repeating, off-air.

Before we transitioned to teacher talk, Hicca played “Stand By Me.” I reflected on the irony of government's failure to do the same for citizens in the most dire of circumstances, with the most basic of needs.

What would happen should a devastating earthquake cripple Tokyo? The bleak reality is that the underclass of foreigners would assume the roll of hapless black Southerners left to fend for themselves amid the rubble.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Born Again Banking

Only in Japan could opening a bank account qualify as the highlight of my day. As a foreigner, I expect the unexpected, and realize that no task is mundane when literally at a loss for words in an unfamiliar and complex culture.

Japan is a paperwork heavy society, and I dreaded the hassle of filling out endless forms as is customary when opening an account, even in the States. To complicate matters, I did not have a hanko, or personal seal the Japanese use in lieu of their signature that is necessary to execute official documents. While rubber-stamping papers sounded fun, seeking out a hanko merchant to translate my name into Katakana and craft a stamp would be a chore.

So would selecting a Japanese bank. Were any giving away free tote bags? That would make the decision easier. It never hurts to ask; I snagged a reversible one from Vodafone last month. To get paid for my article, I followed the financial advice of a Japanzine editor – use Shinsei Bank, Japan’s answer to Washington Mutual.

Shinsei Bank’s progressive features eliminated the need to comparative shop: bilingual telephone support 24/7, online banking, free bank transfers, no minimum balance requirement, no hanko, and no ATM withdrawal fees – even when abroad. Japanese for “new birth,” Shinsei reimburses fees incurred when using another ATM. Take that, WaMu.

ATMs in New York are not pleasant places, characterized by harsh lighting, grimy screens, and floors littered with receipts. You look over your shoulder at the homeless guy who held the door open on your way in, and whom if you don’t tip on the way out might hold you up.

Electronic glass doors parted. Shinsei Bank’s ATMs sparkled against the wall. I had the immediate attention of three sharply dressed representatives. The receptionist greeted me and thanked me for coming in. I inquired about a Powerflex account, and was cordially invited to have a seat. I sank into comfy lounge chairs, and watched Bloomberg news images flash silently overhead. I felt like a slob checking into a four-star hotel. Dressed to outsmart the humidity in my reliable ensemble of t-shirt, wind pants, and Tevas, I was at odds with the professional setting.

I spent more time pondering what color to select for my cash card than filling out half a page of paperwork. Selection rivaled that of Dutch Boy. Evocative choices included Christmas white, orange juice, chocolate caramel, straw hat, baby face, air mist, fresh leaves, tomato kiss, and red wine cocktail. Some sounded delicious, but I settled for pain old black.

I sat back and leafed through the latest Japanese Esquire. A woman with a brochure approached me. Would I like to take advantage of the American Express promotion? Was there a tote bag involved? No, but how many credit cards did I have, and didn’t I need another? This sounded annoyingly American. I brandished my credit card to appease the saleswoman. She complimented my glitzy wallet, calling it “rich.” I revealed its ¥2000 ($18) contents and corrected her: “No, poor.”

I returned to the special section on New York fashion. Five minutes later she returned with the hard sell. If I signed up, my baggage would be delivered from Narita airport to home for free. Wait, did this include a tote bag? I didn’t have any luggage at Narita, and would be more than capable of transporting it myself, but thanks very much.

Shortly thereafter I was ready to bank, Shinsei style. The associate deposited a packet of information into a sturdy paper shopping bag. I asked for her business card. She demurred. She must have been hired this morning not to have an obligatory meishi.

So impressed with the English-friendly service, I asked to speak to her supervisor, which created the awkward position of her translating my praise for her to her boss. Everyone seemed pleased. I flashed thumbs up, and they bowed until I was out of sight. From start to finish, their treatment of a young and shabbily dressed client with little purchasing power was reverential.

Alack, if only I had money to deposit.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Audition Call

The sun was setting on Tokyo. I had already trekked to two agencies that day, but telephoned Flamingo to arrange a future registration time. Mike picked up. “Sure, I could come in now,” I responded, startled by the offer. “Meet at exit A3 of Kachidoki station? No problem, see you in 20 minutes!”

Mike hails from Macau. “Crazy place!” I told him, speaking from experience. He was a cool guy, and treated me like nakayoshi, or buddy-buddy. He had just received word that Canon needed a young businessman for a promotional video – did I have a suit? The dates fit my schedule, and Mike said he’d call with further details. He never did.

Four days later, another agency contacted me for the same audition. I accepted the invitation as well as one to attend a Dartmouth alumni barbecue at the American embassy housing complex earlier that day.

For a few hours, I was transported back to the States. The complex included benches, grass, grills, and a pool. A passing Ford Explorer almost moved me to tears. I sank my teeth into 100% American beef, which Japan embargoes over mad cow concerns. Only connections with the military base could secure such a treat. I garnished the burger with Heinz ketchup, mustard, and relish. Condiments, oh how I’ve missed you, I thought as I raced home to suit up for Canon.

I got off on the wrong foot by arriving eight minutes late to the audition meeting point. Who knew that Exit 1 at Roppongi station was only accessible from the Hibya line (I had arrived on the Oedo line)? Kai, the agency representative, and I dashed off to the audition already in progress. I felt like the bumbling newbie, arriving tardy in a suit soaked with sweat. The others had changed on location. Competition numbered about 10, but most were veterans. Patrick, 34, carried an impressive book of his printed accomplishments. I overheard him boast to Kai that he’d been in Japan for seven years and had some special relationship with Canon. Had I known, I wouldn’t have traded relish for certain rejection.

I was the last have an audience with the Canon panel. Kai accompanied me into the conference room. Videotape recorded my 30-second introduction, during which I casually mentioned my camera of choice, Canon’s Powershot S50. I then did a few stiff catwalks.

The final test was to sit in a chair, pretend to write notes, and then look up to announce, “I’ve got an idea!” Easy enough, but Kai told me to relax more. I tried to crack a smile, but my lips were parched. I was also battling a dry hacking cough.

Take two. Sliding into the chair, I felt my lungs squish. I had to clear my throat, or I’d sound like I had a tracheotomy. Cameras were rolling – I couldn’t hack up a lung. With no choice but to speak, I croaked, “I’ve got an idea.” The staff recoiled. I felt like a figure skater landing on his ass. There was nowhere to hide.

The rejection call two days later lasted 20 seconds. Kai said that I had done my best. But what I didn’t expect was a second rejection call, from Mike at Flamingo. I was speechless. At the time, I was registering at Free Wave, trading culture shock stories with Arata, who spent a year attending a Kentucky high school. Oh, the mess I would have created if selected. Both agencies would have duked it out over commission entitlement, but agree upon blacklisting me for violating modeling’s golden rule, double booking. Relief circulated through my now clear lungs. I await the next audition call.