Monday, December 20, 2004

Act 3, in which secrets are revealed, villains are unmasked and our protagonist gets the girl

Been busy. Christmas party. Eating. Am fat. Gonna get in shape now. Mom email me healthy food advice.

Below is my quarterly report to OSU. Havent sent it yet. what yall think?

Oh I have a girlfriend now. Ayako, yeah. Well see.

My flight to Japan proved to be incredibly straightforward. I left from Chicago, landed in Narita, bussed to Haneda, flew to Matsuyama, and was met by Tanaka-san and Fujita-san as I got off the plane. The entire trip took about 18 hours, and I managed to stay awake the entire time, so that I had no jet lag problems after about 2 days.
When I arrived in Matsuyama, the enormity of my undertaking really struck me for the first time. They took me to eat in a restaurant that would have been very remarkable in America, but which I realized was just another restaurant in Japan. Fujita-san speaks very good English, but Tanaka-san does not, so making small talk in the car foreshadowed the months to come – generally speaking, I had to rely on my Japanese. To this day, that remains my greatest challenge here, but it gets easier every day. By the time we were on the road to Niihama, I was well fed and exhausted, prepared to start an exciting year.

The next day, Tanaka-san and Fujita-san moved me into my apartment while a typhoon raged outside. Charlie had told me that the apartment looked pretty intimidating from outside, but that the inside was actually quite spacious and comfortable. I’m happy to report that this is indeed the case – I fell in love with the apartment immediately, despite some reservations about the shower. I had my first day off to unpack, which I did while listening to the typhoon and trying not to sleep.
Finally, my internship began in earnest. The first week was spent learning about Ichimiya’s structure and history – it also served as a harsh introduction to the difficulties of long-term communication exclusively in Japanese. Nakamoto-san and I spent a few days talking about the origins of Ichimiya, the relevance of Sumitomo, and the eventual birth of today’s Ichimiya Group. Some aspects I understood right away, whereas most details took a good deal of explaining before we reached a point of mutual understanding.
Also that week, Fujita-san took me around town to introduce me to a few places and buy a few essentials – a bicycle, a futon, etc. That was the beginning of my exploration of Niihama – a task I would carry out every night, as well, using the Moped.
That weekend, the Niihama Guide Club held a barbecue party for foreigners in Niihama. It was there that I was introduced to Charlie’s old friends, a crew of mostly English teachers from around town. As a result, I had a ready group of friends to spend time with on the weekends, people who were to show me things I would never have found on my moped.
My second week in town, the Niihama Guide Club basically took me around all the local areas to show me various useful shops or tourist spots. Thanks to them I visited many restaurants, took ferry trip to Oshima Island and joined a zen meditation session (through which my allergies kept me sniffling, much to my dismay, and where satori eluded me yet again).
It was on Friday of that week that I learned a valuable lesson about hand-brakes on bikes and mopeds in Japan. In America, the right brake is the back wheel. Friday morning, on my way to work, I was on the moped and I had to stop suddenly. I pressed the right hand-brake and much to my chagrin found myself spiraling out of control. When the world stopped spinning, the moped was on top of me with the engine running and a crowd of high school girls was trying very hard not to laugh. Apparently in Japan, the right hand-brake controls the front tire. Lesson learned. Fortunately, the damage was limited to my clothing and a few bruises. The helmet protected my head, and the moped was undamaged. I took it to a repair shop just to make sure.
September’s scheduled activities concluded with a few trips around Ehime with Tanaka-san and Fujita-san. We visited primarily Ichimiya companies, but took a bit of time for sight-seeing as well. The days were long, but I learned why every Japanese business office I have seen has a little table in the corner with a few chairs and a nearby coffee pot. Everywhere we went, I exchanged business cards with the relevant individuals and we made small talk over coffee for 10 minutes before a tour of the facilities and a question and answer session. The whole process seemed a little bit repetitive at first, but eventually I realized that that’s simply the way things work here. Now I look forward to a cup of green tea before the sightseeing process begins.
The last week of the month saw me writing my September report. This was a lesson in overextension and linguistic ability. In my initial draft, I wrote about 20 pages of facts, opinions and aspirations. When Fujita-san returned the corrected copy to me, there was more red ink than black by a factor of about two to one. I could see that I had my work cut out for me.
The revision of that report was process that lasted well into the middle October, and by the time I was finished I was determined not to make the same sort of mistake again. I came here with the sense that, having finished the fourth year Japanese language program at OSU, I would have command of the language at least enough to express myself in writing. That was an illusion that died with my first September report draft. In future reports I made sure to write at my level, to express things only as well as I knew how and not to use expressions or vocabulary of which I was uncertain.
The last days of September brought with them a parting gift – specifically, a massive typhoon which flooded the office, destroyed a bridge near my apartment building and, due to the fact that I carelessly left my windows open that day, nearly ruined my apartment.
After the typhoon, the entire building basically shut down for two days while we all labored to clear the parking lot, repair the first floor, salvage the basement and in general restore order to the office. It was difficult work, involving hours of manual labor carrying furniture, mud, or various combinations of the two out of many crevices – but the whole time, I was actually quite happy to be doing it, because for the first time since coming to Japan I did not feel hampered by any sort of a language barrier. I was just as able to carry destroyed desks as anyone else, and felt like a productive member of the team.
In terms of typhoon damage and inconvenience, the biggest hit to my lifestyle was not my apartment or the days spent trudging around in the flooded basement of the office building. During the typhoon, Tanaka-san had driven me home in his car, as there would have been no way for me to get back by moped. The next day, the moped was useless, destroyed by the flooding of the center building. The days of exploring Niihama on the moped were over. When October started, it was me and my bike.

October was dedicated to the Construction Block. Within the Construction Block are several companies and I was initially slated to split time between Ichimiya Construction and Ichimiya Kousan. However, due to the severe typhoon damage, my time with Ichimiya Kousan had to be postponed until January. I spent a week in the Construction Block, where I used their CAD software to design models of my parent’s house, my rental house in Columbus, and finally an ideal home where I would like to live.
I rather enjoyed the CAD stuff, because I got to play around with a new computer program, but frankly a whole week of it became a bit tedious. Every time I finished a model they asked me to make a new one and every once in a while someone came over and said “Sugoi!” However, I don’t mean to criticize anyone there. They all helped me with everything I needed, and I realize it was probably difficult to accommodate an intern a week after the terrible typhoon had disrupted everything.
After my week in Ichimiya Construction came the Niihama Taiko Matsuri. This was at once exciting and exhausting, as I found myself trying to sleep at all hours of the day whenever the chance presented itself. First I went to see the Saijo Matsuri, where I wanted all of the Danjiri progress up a steep hill to a temple. They were all stunning, I’d never seen anything like it, and it rather surprised me when I realized that the majority of people carrying them were drunk. This was the spirit of the event, however, to let loose and join your friends in carrying a massive wooden structure all over town. At one point, a Danjiri stumbled and looked like it wouldn’t make it up the hill. Inwardly, I must confess to not being too impressed. It didn’t look to be that difficult, so I couldn’t believe they were having problems carrying it.
This was a sentiment I would be paying for in full. For three days after that, I myself helped to carry the Kitauchi neighborhood’s taiko all over Niihama, and before I say anything else, let me say that it is indeed heavy. Very heavy. The Saijo Danjiri are much smaller than Niihama’s taikos, but in Niihama 3 to 4 times as many people are used to carry them. On my first night, we climbed the hill to Uchimiya Shrine. It seems simple when expressed in a sentence like that, but the sheer ordeal involved in lugging a 2 ton drum up a hill which in my mind was at least 3 miles long cannot be conveyed in text. Every step was a struggle, and when we finally reached the top the sense of triumph was palpable. Ours was the first taiko up, and we waited for the other 3 to arrive so that the ceremony could begin.
After that, we carried it back down (another ordeal, almost unbelievable in retrospect, I really cannot even express how impressed I am with these people for doing this every year – and willingly!) and had breakfast. For the next few days, I joined in the various wanderings of this particular taiko, culminating in a competition in Yamane park, where several taiko gathered and danced around. The highlight of that day was the fight – I had heard that sometimes the various taikos fight, but I had assumed that this was some sort of ritualistic dance where everyone made scary faces and circled each other until one group got tired.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the taiko to my left suddenly started moving faster than I had imagined a taiko could move, and rammed full-speed into the taiko that had rushed out to meet it. These two behemoths charged into each other at high speed repeatedly, and the violence and bloodlust only cooled when one float was more or less destroyed, its handles broken off and its structure – built of sturdy wood – pierced so full of holes that it was in danger of falling off. I was flabbergasted and impressed – and quite frankly, a little bit frightened. That much alcohol and competitive spirit in an environment where swift acts of violence met emphatic cheers from the spectators had me watching my back for a while.
As we got ready to leave and put away the taiko for another year, I let my guard slip and, in a moment of carelessness, got hit in the head by the handles of our taiko. These things are enormous and even the smallest children know to be careful around them, so I was a bit embarrassed, but the pain in my neck has more or less faded and I walked away with another life lesson.
Another activity that ran throughout October was a small part-time job I had acquired for the Niihama Guide Club. They had a series of essays written by a famous Haiku poet about Niihama and Ehime, and they had translated it into English. My task was to proofread their translations and make them, quote, “beautiful and artistic.” I did this on the weekends all through October, and to be perfectly candid it was not easy. 30 pages of user manual for a computer program or something is one thing, but 30 pages of poetic prose with emphasis on subtlety was quite frankly very difficult. Everyone involved was very kind, and my efforts were rewarded with delicious meals and a very generous gift at the end of the process, but between the Typhoon and the Matsuri and the proofreading, October seems like a blur in retrospect. I got very little sleep, and some of my coworkers began to worry about my health. After that, I promised myself to be sure I was in bed by 11 on work nights and to make sure I left some time to unwind on the weekends.
My final project in the Construction block was a day of sightseeing, where I was taken to a prison in Saijo that Ichimiya Construction was in the process of remodeling. There was nothing for me to do per se, and the supervisor was engaged in a busy meeting, but Kasahara-san and I looked around for ourselves and took pictures, occasionally asking nearby people to explain this or that. The day concluded with various stops at buildings that had been erected by Ichimiya Construction.

November I spent interning at Nissen Chemical. This project had three basic parts. Sometimes, I would be taken sight-seeing, to visit various Chemical Block companies. On those days I would go with Fukushima-san, and it was basically the same sort of thing I had done with Fujita-san and Tanaka-san in September. The difference was, this time I was actually able to participate in the work at various factories – I made my own Hanko in the Takihama factory, I operated a press in the Touyo factory, etc.
When I wasn’t traveling around, I was working in the main office translating the website. Apparently the Nissen website is about half-translated from a previous intern, so I did what I could with the rest. My plan, which I managed to complete, was to go through all of the untranslated sections at least once. Much of the terminology was highly technical and some of the grammar was beyond me, but I did manage by the end of November to get rough translations of the entire website.
My last week in the Chemical Block was spent at the Seibujigyousho, where I participated in factory work. I had a different task more or less every day, and frankly, I hated it. Long hours on my feet doing mundane tasks left me physically and mentally exhausted by the end of every day, and I spent the entire week feeling that if I had wanted to do factory work, I would have gotten a similar job somewhere in the States.
However, when the week was over, I noticed that it hadn’t killed me and that I had indeed learned a lot. I was later told that all new employees have to spend some time in the factories, as a sort of learning experience. There are many people in the Center Building, but the moral of the story is that without the people in the factories, the people in the offices would be stranded. When all was said and done, my resentment dissipated and I realized that I had learned a few valuable lessons.
Early in November, I participated in the ICA seminar in Okayama. I went as an English teacher, and spent the majority of the seminar time listening to their presentations and compiling vocabulary lists on my laptop. My “class” was the first thing on the agenda on Sunday morning, and I spoke with them for about an hour about prepositions. I hadn’t been sure at first what to teach a group of 13 employees with varying competency in English, but then I realized that most of my friends in Niihama were English teachers. I asked around for some advice, and one of my friends suggested I talk about prepositions because it is an easy subject to get people to understand and from there to use. My lesson, then, was basically to show them photographs from The Last Samurai and ask them, one at a time, “Where is Tom Cruise?” Their responses ranged from “On a horse” to “In a movie” to “On the Screen,” and everyone was able to participate.
All in all I think the lesson was okay, but there was still the major problem that I was interacting with each of them on an individual level without encouraging any real discussion between them. The next time I do this, I’d like to come up with a lesson or game that would force them to speak to each other in English.
The highlight of November actually started inauspiciously. I woke up feeling terrible one morning. I went to take a shower when I realized to my dismay that the water heater was broken. Between the feeling of illness and the inability to even wash, I had doubts as to what kind of day I was going to have. When I called Fujita-san to explain the situation she told me I could take the day off, and that she would send someone over to look at the shower. When the repairman came, he told me that it was indeed broken, and that if I didn’t mind they would like to install a shower with running hot water instead of my current cold-water-and-a-heater system. I was ecstatic, of course, as my mornings would from there on out be exponentially more convenient. With the inclusion of a hot-water shower, my apartment became everything I could ask for.

December marks the last month of my tour of the Ichimiya blocks. I spent the month in the Transportation and Logistics block, and by this time was an old hand at doing the intern thing. This time around, I spent only three days in the office. The first day, Isshiki-san and Ozaki-san explained the company history and the organization of the block, and then the other two days we visited various companies with ties to the Ichimiya Transportation and Logistics block.
The highlight of this sightseeing was the trip to Anchorage Marina; this came on the tail end of a very long day. We had driven out to Matsuyama and visited the Distribution center, the I-LOT warehouse, Item-Ehime, etc, and our last stop on the way home was the Marina. I was quite tired, and I was rather surprised when we got there. The guy in charge just said “This is a Marina. You have those in the states, too. Let’s go ride the boat.”
I had a lot of fun. We basically cruised around Matsuyama harbor for an hour and a half – he even let me drive for a while. I probably looked like an excited little kid, but that’s how I felt. It would be great if there was some way I could intern out there, I would love to learn all about boats, but Hojo City is a bit of a commute.
After my three days of sightseeing, I spent two weeks in the Shikoku Distribution Center, doing warehouse work. I was actually dreading this, given my time in the Chemical factory, but it turned out to be a different environment altogether. The first week in the warehouse, I was packing beer. The procedure was very straightforward – we put two cases of beer and a box of mochi into a cardboard box, taped it shut, and did it again. In the course of that week I must have had my hands on tens of thousands of cans of Asahi beer. To be honest, I almost enjoyed the week with the beer – I liked working with everyone else on the line, and it was a completely different environment from the chemical factory. Everyone was really friendly, we joked around a lot and when we were working it was a matter of doing everything efficiently so that everyone else could do their job efficiently.
The only thing I really hated about the beer packing job was all the dust in the air. I have had pretty severe allergies since coming to Niihama, and spending a week breathing cardboard dust left me with an agonizing headache and difficulty breathing for a few days when I was done.
The second week at the distribution center I spent in the freezer warehouse. The workload there was frankly minimal – every once in a while I would go in and wrap a stack of crates in plastic, or help push things into a truck, but 90% of the work there required the use of forklifts and I don’t have a Japanese forklift license. The result was that I spent a lot of time talking to people in the warehouse office. They were all very interested in America and American life, and a favorite game of theirs was trying to come up with some sort of Japanese food I would refuse to eat. The only thing they found that I hesitated about was namako, sea slug, but that just made me determined to try it.
After my week there, Onishi-san, the supervisor, invited me to dinner at his house, where his wife had prepared a delicious meal – complete with namako, which, may I add, I rather enjoyed.
The other thing that happened in November was the I’LL cooking class. Fujita-san had been looking for a cooking teacher for her I’LL group so that they could make a Christmas dinner, and I mentioned that my friend Pat is a very good cook. One thing led to another and this month Pat led the charge into a Roast Beef dinner, complete with Mashed Potatoes, a salad, and hot apple pie with ice cream. It was delicious.

And that brings us to today. As of this writing, I have completed three months of internship and am back in the main office writing reports and finishing out the year. From here on out, I need to decide where to spend the rest of my year. As I wrote above, I think somehow working at the Marina would be my ideal pick, but it seems unlikely. I am leaning towards the chemical block, because I really liked the people and atmosphere there, but I’m not really sure what kind of work I could be doing. Translating a website only takes so long.
And that sums up the company end of this report. I’d like to also take a few pages to talk about various odds and ends, a more general impression of Japan and my life here. The most relevant issue, of course, is the Japanese language. I am taking lessons twice a week at 90 minutes a lesson, and am learning a lot. I also watch Japanese movies, read Manga, and play Japanese video games. However, my language training has been really hampered so far by the fact that most of my friends here speak English. At work, of course, it is a Japanese environment, but then I go home and it’s English in almost every social setting. I’ve started hanging out with more Japanese people now, so that should start to change, but it got me off to rather a slow start. I had expected my biggest problem here to be a language barrier keeping me from interacting with almost anyone – instead, it turned out to be the prevalence of English in my daily life.
In terms of Japanese language, I do have one suggestion for the internship program. In December is the Japanese Proficiency Test, and I think it would be great to be able to take it, but the deadline to sign up is in early September. At that time, I was still getting my bearings. Charlie had mentioned it in passing, but I really didn’t know where to begin and kind of lost track of it. Perhaps it would be beneficial for future interns if the test application were provided prior to departure – optionally of course, but as something to be taken care of before the hectic lifestyle change.
In terms of cultural immersion, I have been having a great time. Between the Matsuri and Mochi-making and travel around Shikoku, I’m getting to see many sides of Japan. I had been really looking forward to studying Kendo here, as well, but so far that has proven to be very difficult. I found a dojo, and practiced regularly at first, but a variety of factors made that too difficult to keep up. Practice is either at 6am or 6pm three days a week, and when I had my moped it was easy enough to get home from work, change, and rush down to the dojo.
Now, though, the after-work practice is very difficult for me to get to on time – assuming I leave at five, I still need 20 minutes to bike home, change, and then bike back carrying my gear. I did that for a while, but frankly it was just too tiring. The morning practice would be a good choice, but the teacher comes only occasionally. If the teacher is not there, nobody can unlock the shower, and I hardly want to practice kendo for an hour and then go to work without showering. So in the end, that has proven to be a bit of a disappointment – however, my Japanese teacher recently informed me there is kendo practice at an elementary school near my apartment. I need to check their schedule, but perhaps I can practice kendo here after all.
One skill I have been working on diligently is cooking. When I got here, I used to eat bentos from the convenience store pretty regularly. Now, though, I cook frequently, for myself and for friends, and really enjoy it. I am going to enroll in a cooking class with a friend of mine next month.
All in all, my experience here has been overwhelmingly positive, though not at all what I expected. I had planned to become fluent in Japanese in about 3 weeks time and learn all of the kanji by Christmas, to maintain a busy schedule with time for work, kendo, and a good amount of socializing, and to travel all over the country every weekend.
In reality, the language is very difficult, and switching from a college definition of busy schedule to a working-world definition of the same is really rather draining. My weekends I generally spend recuperating from the week, though the 8 to 5 gets easier every day, and travel takes more time and money than I find myself able to commit. I make it out to Matsuyama now and again, and will go to Osaka for New Year, but I’m not sure when I will be able to go to Kyoto or Tokyo.
In that sense, this trip has been vaguely disappointing – but I have found pleasant surprises elsewhere. I never expected to get into cooking, I really enjoy just poking around the back streets of Niihama, I absolutely love my apartment and I have met many incredibly interesting people. My education and insights are various, and I am keeping a detailed personal log of my trip. While my spoken Japanese is improving pretty slowly so far, I can read many more kanji than I expected to be able to, thanks mostly in part to Manga and video games, I suspect.
Before I left I knew that this trip would be basically the experience of a lifetime, and I am glad to report that it is shaping up as planned. I have had my share of hardships and disappointments, but that was expected. I know now that learning a language doesn’t happen overnight, even when living abroad. The real value of this trip has been to show me a side of myself I had not seen – spending time out here, I see myself reacting to situations I would never have been in otherwise. Both at work and in my private life, I need to adapt in order to get by, and that’s the ideal environment for personal growth.

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