How Much?

I had my own language troubles living in Japan. One evening after work, I was having drinks with the ever so sexy Sumiko, who we met back in Girl(friend)s. Japanese has a similar distinction between “many” and “much” as English with the words “ikutsu” and “ikura”. However, the division of things and ideas between the two is different. Two concepts that fall under “ikutsu” in Japanese might be in English be divided between “many” and “much”. As I was chatting up my lovely companion, I tried to ask her “How many” she was, shorthand for “How old are you?” I got my words muddled and instead asked her “How much?” Which means pretty much what it sounds like.

Fortunately she laughed.

Unfortunately she then said “More than you can afford.”

Easy Woman

At ICI where I taught English my second year in Japan, students could buy tickets for the conversation room where they could practice their English in freeform conversation with native speakers. Each teacher took a shift in the conversation room. Most of our students were not advanced enough in their English to initiate and guide conversations on topics not in their textbooks, so a common dodge all the teachers used was to tell stories about our lives in our home countries and then ask the students about their lives in Japan. I often told stories about my family. At least a dozen different students said, after I told a story about my mother, “Oh, your mother sounds like a very easy woman.”

This is an obvious error of translation. Most words have many meanings. A word in one language might be properly translated to a matching word in another in one instance, but not in another. This particular gaff happened so often that I made up a little chart that I would write up on the white board whenever someone said my mother was an easy woman. I would work my way through the chart, adding each phrase as I explained.

amai kyandi     --->   sweet candy
yasashii onna   <---   sweet woman
yasahii tesuto  --->   easy test
yariman         <---   easy woman

Yariman is a very coarse word for a woman of negotiable virtue. I always got a good payoff as I wrote the last word on the board and the offending student realized what he or she had called my mother. It’s amazing how low some people can bow.

Don’t ask about the pretty little girl in the white, frilly blouse, knee-length skirt, and Mary Janes who always introduced herself, “Hello. My name is Yuko Tanaka. I am a Kinki University Student.”

Totoro in the Flophouse

With the end of my funds in sight, I stopped travelling and started to look for work. I found living quarters in what was then the north edge of Kyoto in an old building run as a flophouse for foreigners. Around thirty of us lived there: Africans, Arabs, North Americans, South Asians. There were no East Asians other than the landlady and her brother. Odd, now that I look back on it. The landlady’s brother was an aspiring fabric designer. I think she found him more of a burden than her varied clientele. The building was long and narrow. Traditional Japanese construction, I think it had begun life long before as a farm building of some sort. Working farms still existed just across the road. The rooms were floored with tatami, and all the doors were sliding shoji screens. Each sleeping room had two or four bunks and space for private belongings. The ceilings were high and the windows small. At night you could hear other tenants walking along the hardwood floors to the common toilet facilities; the squat toilet—which I had now mastered. Occasional unintelligible arguments drifted through the corridor until stopped by the landlady’s arrival and sharp words. She could scold and demand rent in many languages.

The other common spaces were a shared, Japanese style bath and a long room that served as our dining room and recreation area. Our landlady provided a simple breakfast and dinner, which were eaten at the determined time. No earlier. No later. In the evenings the air was humid and thick with coarse cigarette smoke as the rough, poor crowd of tenants smoked harsh cigarettes, drank cheap booze, and played card and board games until lights out. Disputes over rules were complicated by our lack of a common language. Heat came from a kerosene space heater in the corner, the daily ration of kerosene placed beside it each day.

A small TV that may or may not have seen better days provided more entertainment. Every once in awhile the picture would slowly roll. One evening as we set in to the usual after supper carouse, the man flicking through the channels stumbled upon the opening of Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro). None of us knew the movie. None of us spoke Japanese well enough to understand it. But we were all captivated from the first. Thirty rough characters from around the world spent the evening glued to the small image on the TV; cheering, laughing, maybe even sniffling a little.

Great movie. Watch it.

Snow on Kajigamori

I was staying at Burakujiyakushi-do near the center of Shikoku on the Yoshino River. The temple is home to the Smiling Jizo and the youth hostel was known as the Smiling Jizo Republic. The temple had a series of trials for guests of the hostel to undertake. One of these was to climb Mt Kajigamori across the Yoshino River. One morning, my feet still massive blisters from Yo-San-Kyu, I set off to conquer the trial. The kitchen provided me with rice balls for lunch and I crossed the river via the foot bridge.

The path laid out for the trial quickly left the main road and wound through the terraces of Higashiionotani. Soon enough the farmland ran out and I was hiking through woodland up steep scree slopes that often approached 45˚. At the top of one slope, the designated path ended in a sheer rock face at least 10 meters high. A huge crack ran through this cliff about 15˚ off the vertical. I scrambled up this chimney to find gentler slopes and sparser trees. A band of woodland ahead blocked any view of the summit which was so clearly visible when back on the other side of the river.

I entered the thick woods. After a no more than a dozen steps, I came out into the open again, into a field of bamboo, on the summit of Kajigamori. As I walked through the waist high bamboo, lost in the views of the valleys spread below me, heavy snow began to fall.


I ate my lunch of rice balls before hiking back to the temple.

Tokushima Rain

I trudged along the side of the road through a heavy downpour just outside Tokushima, the collar of my wool overcoat turned up to meet my longshoreman’s cap. Drenched. Cascading water from my shoulders and pack. A small white car pulled to the side of the road just in front of me. The driver’s window rolled down a few inches. (Right side, dear reader. We’re in Japan.) A hand thrust a rolled-up collapsible umbrella toward me. Startled, I took the umbrella. The hand withdrew. The window rolled up. The car drove off.

I opened the umbrella and trudged along.

Meet The Squat Toilet

After my night under the overpass with the winos, I decided to leave Tokyo. According to my guide book, ferries ran from Tokyo to points south. I found the ferry office and booked passage to Tokushima on Shikoku. I hailed a cab and after several circuits around the docklands and two stops to ask policemen for directions, the cabbie dropped me off at the correct quay. The ship had staterooms but I had booked second class passage. Second class was a large common room at the rear of the ship. Long distance truckers had a similar room on the next deck down. They had a large bath. We had shower cubicles. The common room was floored with tatami mats. Linoleum pathways divided it into three sections. There were no seats. One simply sat on the floor and watched the ocean roll by outside the large windows. Or watched the strange foreigner inside. At night you could rent a blanket for ¥100. Many people rented an extra blanket to make a pillow. Two young girls rented two between them, using one as a pillow and sharing the other.

Food service in second class consisted of a cart with rice balls, tea, canned drinks, and packaged treats. It was a three day voyage to Tokushima, so it was inevitable I would have to use the facilities. The facilities consisted of a squat toilet. My guidebook had warned me of squat toilets. They are basically a toilet bowl set into the floor. You face what we would consider the back and squat over it. I had even practiced at home before setting out for Japan, squatting low with my feet a toilet bowl width apart. Up to this point I had only encountered western style sitting toilets which were quite common. Now I faced my first squat toilet. On a ship. Rolling in heavy seas. With the walls just too far apart to brace myself.

I leave you to finish this story on your own. It’s still just too traumatic.

Second Night in Tokyo

[Note: I have decided to devote weeks 13, 26, 39, and 52 to short subjects. I will post a very short piece each day for seven days. This week we are going to Japan.]

I landed at Narita Airport late on a Saturday afternoon in mid-winter. I had my guide book, my work-holiday visa, a list of youth hostels, and a lot of traveller’s cheques. I did not have my friend who had been to Japan before. He had decided not to come. I was nineteen. The currency exchange in the airport was closed because it was after 5 p.m. on a Saturday. I managed to find the train station inside the airport and caught a train to Tokyo. This task was fairly easy as Narita was the end of the line. The only direction you could go was towards Tokyo. I found one of the youth hostels listed in my guide. It was halfway up an office tower. They accepted traveller’s cheques in payment and I had one bunk in a room with twelve bunks in four stacks of three. I was told when I checked in that I could only stay one night. Monday was the day every high school senior in Japan wrote their university entrance exams at their university of choice. There was no space available Sunday night.

I spent all day Sunday wandering around Tokyo trying to find a place to sleep that night. No dice. Every single bed in every single hostel was booked. I asked the desk clerks to direct me to alternatives. Every capsule hotel was booked solid. Every single reasonably priced hotel had multiple students in every room. As night fell I was wandering the streets of Tokyo with a map in a guide book and my knapsack on my back. I spoke not a word of Japanese.

I walked through the deepening night. It was getting cold. I identified the occasional landmark on the map in my guide book, but in between I had no idea where I was. I didn’t know if I could sleep in a park. I didn’t know if it was safe. I didn’t know what the law was. I didn’t know where a park was. It was getting colder. It started to rain. Hard.

Eventually I was passing through an underpass that sheltered several bums. They were dirty and smelly and they were drinking cheap liquor. They hailed me boisterously. I had no idea what they were saying. A few words sounded like they were trying to speak English, but with the slurring it was hard to tell. They offered me some of their cardboard to sleep under. So I spent my second night in Tokyo sleeping under a bridge with a bunch of winos.

Nice guys.

Things That Go Bump In The Night

I sometimes refer to myself as a Professional Dilettante. One of the many jobs I have had was driving a patrol car on the night shift for the Commissionaires. I drove from site to site, checked that private property was secure, patrolled the Lower Causeway and the wharfs around the Inner Harbour in Victoria, closed and opened facilities in city parks, and did walkthroughs of construction sites. All of this in the dark during winter storms. I would get wet and stay wet. The heater in the car only served to make my clothes steam and fog up the windows. Also, in BC security guards are not (or were not) allowed to carry any flashlight larger than three-cells. (A three-cell flashlight holds three batteries. A four-cell holds four. And so on.) The reasoning seemed to be that if we had anything larger, we’d use it to beat people. We carried bulk packages of batteries in our cars as a three-cell light had a better than even chance of running out of juice before an eight hour shift was finished. This was just before large LED flashlights with longer battery lives were common.

One of the construction sites on my beat was the Crystal Garden. The Crystal Garden was a botanical garden, tea room, and conference site named after the original Crystal Pool which was the original use of the building. The Crystal Pool in turn was named for its glass roof. At the time it was built, it was the largest indoor salt water pool in the British Empire. A good view of the glass roof can be seen at the Provincial Capital Commission’s website, where you can also read about the history of the building. When I was crawling around inside night after night, the Crystal Garden had been forced to close after the Provincial Capital Commission said they could no longer collect rent from the other tenants in the building. It was being re-purposed as The BC Experience. It was a brief, bad experience, and the building is now part of the Victoria Conference Centre.

My route through the building was to climb the fire escape at the rear and enter at the upper balcony. With the tarp over the roof and safety paper over many of the horizontal windows, which are above the level of the street lights in any event, it was very dark inside. My little three-cell Maglight was the strongest source of light, and it often flickered and failed. The building was an empty space from the peak of the roof to the bottom of the empty pool with balconies around the sides. This space was filled with a ring of scaffolding which changed every night as work progressed on the roof. On the balconies, new free-standing walls and rooms appeared creating new nooks and blind spots. Hundreds of glass panes waiting to be installed were stacked all around, reflecting my light and my image. Construction workers left coats draped over the paint shelves of six-foot stepladders and hard hats on the top steps. As I shone my light around the gloom, human sized and shaped figures loomed. Winter storms lashed and the windows and the tarp. When the wind shifted to a certain direction, the whole giant tarp cracked with a boom like a thunderclap directly overhead. It was spooky.

After circling the upper balcony, I climbed the scaffolding to check below the roof peak— both for intruders and for damage from the storms. Then it was down to the lower balcony to check all the side rooms, down both grand staircases to check the doors to the street. The building was constructed in the ’20s as a grand public palace. The architecture was very impressive, very grand, and—in the dark in a dilapidated state—spooky. The building echoed with the storms and street noise.

After checking all the crannies of the lower balcony, I climbed through the scaffolding again and down into the bottom of the pool. The pool itself was imposing. Almost Olympic size, and clear space almost to the peak of the roof, it felt much larger in the dark when you could tell it was large and indoors but couldn’t see two walls at once. This was also where I ran into the most rats. In the day they hid in the interstitial spaces, but at night they came into the pool to find sandwiches and other tidbits the construction workers dropped from above.

My route took me across the pool to a passageway cut through the end when the gardens were built and into the basement spaces. The pool is a separate structure from the building. There is a space between the pool basin and the exterior walls. I checked that space, the boiler room, maintenance and storage rooms, and the old animal pens from the building’s time as a botanical garden. Finally, I would exit via the basement door, check the construction yard, and return to my car. Throughout my whole patrol—with dressed ladders, reflections in random places, storm and street noise—I was always convinced there was someone else in the building with me. One night there was.

One of the contractors had hired another security company without telling anyone. As I did my checks, my usual paranoia was gradually replaced by the absolute certainty that someone else was in the building with me. For reals. As a security guard, your goal is not to surprise anyone, nor sneak up on them. Let them know you’re there. Let them know they aren’t supposed to be there. Why he didn’t answer my calls, I don’t know. I assume he was an idiot. Answer when someone calls out “Security! Identify yourself.” Especially when you’re security yourself. Eventually I spotted him while we were more than ten meters apart, so a panicked flailing of flashlights was avoided.

Still, I think I could have taken him. Even though he was cheating and had a four-cell flashlight.

Transparent Technologies

Before we start today, I’d like you all to find five instances of amazing technology within reach of you right now. I’ll wait.

I’ll bet none of you thought of paper and pencil. Paper and pencil (or pen and paper) is an example of what I call transparent technology. Someone way smarter than me coined the phrase. I can’t remember at the moment whom I stole it from. It refers to technology so ubiquitous that we aren’t even aware of it. Think about the humble paper and pencil. I can pick up a pencil and write on a piece of paper, “Mary, please pick up eggs, butter, & milk.” Mary comes home, sees the note, and goes to the store to buy eggs, butter, & milk. I have communicated complex desires across space and time without Mary and I ever having to be within earshot of each other. That is abso-frickin-lutely amazing. Yes your snazzy cell phone can do the same. So can your state-of-the-art computer with its email and instant messaging. But paper and pencil could do it first.

I can go to the library and read dead peoples’ thoughts. Okay, you say, but that isn’t two-way communication. I ask all of you who have ever worked in a group environment, been married, or had parents, siblings, or children, how much communication is two-way? Paper and pencil are certainly capable of two-way communication: letters, notes in class, dueling articles in journals, graffiti on a bathroom wall. (Okay, the last isn’t on paper, but it could be if paper in bathroom stalls wasn’t in such danger of being appropriated for other uses.)

My examples so far have involved the alphabet, another transparent technology. Symbolism seems innate to the human condition, the earliest evidence we have of modern human brains are paintings in Chauvet Cave from some 35,000 years ago. While these paintings are representational, they are not photo-realistic. They are symbolic. All cultures throughout history have had symbolic art forms. Children given a box of crayons (more transparent technology) draw a symbol of their house and symbols of their parents. The stick figure symbol for a human seems ubiquitous through time and space. The two dots and a line symbol for a human face seems to actually be how we perceive faces. Alphabets, however, are symbolism on steroids—an arbitrary and abstract set of symbols that allow us to express with perfect clarity anything we can say. Try drawing, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” It would take you awhile and be subject to misinterpretation. Even, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” would give you trouble to draw out in pictures. Forget “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

Astounding as alphabets are, paper and pencil do not require them to be amazing. Give me paper and pencil but no alphabet: I can still sketch a map, design a contraption, draw dirty pictures. (I wouldn’t be the first. Look at some of those 35,000 year old cave paintings.) I don’t even need paper, or a pencil. Give me a stick and some soft ground, or a burnt stick and a hard surface, and I can plan, daydream, and communicate. If I draw three stick figures with their heads falling off, anyone coming along at any time later that the image is still legible (which could be thousands of years) would understand the message is something about danger.

Paper and pencil—a transparent technology.

I’ll give you a moment to be impressed.

Public Service Unions

Unions are an essential factor in keeping our economy healthy. Capitalists and workers are inseparable partners in producing wealth. Capitalists provided the means. Workers provide the muscle. Collective bargaining and the ability to strike embodied in unions protect the workers’ position as partners in whatever the industry is. Prior to unions, capitalists as a group proved very willing to treat workers as an expendable resource, mistreating and exploiting them to the enrichment of individual capitalists but the detriment of the common economy. Unions, of course, are composed of individuals with strengths, weaknesses and vices. Some unions overreach. Some are abusive. Some are more detrimental to their industry and the economy than they are beneficial to their members. When I was seventeen and working for Kentucky Fried Chicken, I was a member of the American Steelworkers Union because their union had bought our union. How does that make sense? When the steelworks went on strike, they put a picket line around the KFC where I worked. Other than that humorous example, I won’t name any examples of bad unions. That’s not this week’s topic. I want to talk about public service unions.

The union model has been so effective strengthening our economy and our society that we have applied it over and over, even to areas where it begins to break down such as public service. When steelworkers go on strike, the steel mill owner loses money. It is to his advantage to sit down with the workers and hammer out a deal. Similarly, when the workers are on strike, they aren’t getting paid (except out of a limited strike fund maintained by the union) so it is to their advantage to sit down with the owner and hammer out a deal. Public service workers to not directly produce wealth. They provide a service to the public. Some of these services are so critical we can’t do without them for even one day. Thus police, fire fighters, paramedics, hospital workers, and some infrastructure workers are branded essential services and forbidden to strike. I agree. I wouldn’t want my local police or fire department to go on strike. Essential service workers can still strike by not drawing pay and refusing to wear their uniforms, but they still have to provide the service. They rely on shame to bring the government to the bargaining table. Governments do not always respond to shame. The BC Paramedics went on strike and stopped wearing their uniforms. The government got a court ruling that wearing uniforms on duty was a public safety issue. The paramedics put their uniforms back on and put “ON STRIKE” decals on their ambulances. The government told them they weren’t allowed to do that because they just weren’t, and the government was going to pass a law forbidding it. The strength of unions is in the power to strike. When that power is taken away, the strength of unions is broken.

Specifically, the strength of unions is in the power of strikes to disrupt the production of wealth. If the workers do not produce wealth for the owner (government), the strength of unions is broken even if the right to strike remains. BC teachers have been working to rule since September. They have been doing everything required by their contracts with the government but have been withholding volunteer service that allows extra-curricular activities. The teachers are getting paid. Students are getting the required education. Students and parents are annoyed by the lack of optional services we all take for granted as part of the school package. Teachers and the government have been the target of pressure from an annoyed public to sort things out and get back to normal. In six months nothing has happened to resolve the dispute. The government is not inconvenienced in the least by the job action. There have been a few nasty editorials, but the BC Government is used to people saying bad things about them—and the teachers have been catching flak, too.

A three-day walkout is imminent; a mini-strike. What happens if the teachers do go on strike? The teachers stop getting paid. They will receive a portion of their usual pay from a union strike fund in exchange for serving time on the picket line. This fund is not limitless. Students will have nowhere to go during the day. Many families will be disrupted as a working parent will either have to stay home or pay for care. People will yell and scream at the government and the teachers. The government will save baskets of money by not having to pay the teachers or heat or light the schools and will be handed the lovely talking point, “The teachers say they value education, but they’ve walked out of the classroom. We didn’t close the schools.” The power of the strike is negated. The strength of unions is broken.

By protecting workers from exploitative employers, unions strengthen our economy and society. The strength of unions is founded in the power of strikes to disrupt the production of wealth. When there is no production of wealth to disrupt, the power of the strike is negated and the strength of unions fails. A strong society needs lots of happy, healthy, competent, and prosperous teachers, policemen, fire fighters, paramedics, nurses, and other public service employees. Some bright spark needs to come up with a mechanism that allows these essential members of our community to make an irrefutable claim to partnership with the government employer the same way the union strike enabled wealth producing workers to claim their rightful partnership with capitalists.

Get to it.