Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Sexual harassment

I've had a sexual harassment claim levied against me. Well, it was always going to happen sooner or later. Hey-o! No just kidding, sexual harassment is not cool at all. But this entire case is so ridiculous I kind of can't help but make fun of it a little. Yes, I was absolutely sent a very terrifying e-mail asking me to come to the office, and then I was led to a vacant classroom and the International Office director talked to me in Japanese while the native English-speaking guy sat off to the side, ready to translate and elucidate as necessary. So it seems that one of the Chinese girls I live with has had some misgivings about some of my behaviours. I will relate them to you in the opposite order that they were explained to me, in ascending order of ridiculousness, and – I must stress this – ascending order of the severity of treatment they were given.

  1. My desktop

No need to mince words with this one. I can just show you. It looks like this:

The facts of the case. You're welcome.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing that this isn't sexual. Because I'm, you know, not a moron. This is incredibly sexual, that's for sure. Brilliantly so in fact. And I love it for it. It's raunchy and discrete at the same time. I wish I'd come up with it.

What it isn't, though, is harassment.

This is going to become more and more clear as this blog post goes on, but in my personal opinion there most definitely IS such a thing as oversensitivity. And people, in general, would benefit from exposing themselves more to things they don't like and learning to deal with them. Fuck knows I'd be happier if I did. But, lookit, in the course of very legitimate efforts against sexual harassment we've redefined harassment. Harassment, in English, has a connotation of repetition, right? And definitely, definitely willful intent. But in Japan, we're at a point here where, it was explained to me, if somebody passively sees you doing literally anything that they don't like, they can charge you with sexual harassment. That's a bit much. And it's even worse that my home culture has an attitude of “don't want to see, don't look.”

Anyway, it's not a big fucking deal. She has problems with my background. I changed the background. Whatever.

  1. Body touch

I do this, definitely. I touch people's elbow to get their attention. Put a hand on their shoulder for emphasis. Clap them on the back as I walk by, you know, for camaraderie. That kind of thing. In Canada, when I'm talking to somebody and President walks up, I'll hug her sideways just to acknowledge her but I'll get to you in a sec because I'm a little busy. In fact if I'm in a mood for it we'll hug hello and goodbye too. It's completely meaningless in my culture. In fact it's completely meaningless in general. The only thing I do with anybody I don't know well is the elbow thing. The elbow is the least sexual part of the human body, I'm pretty sure. The feet? No, foot fetish is very common. The asshole? No, anal is a thing. See?

This is neither harassment nor sexual. But again, I can absolutely see how this would offend somebody. So that's completely fine. Want me to stop, I'll stop. That's an easy fix.

She also said that at some point I “pretended to move to kiss her,” but I flatly denied that, because it's just not true. I would never do that. I may not always respect the lines that society has set but I have my own, and I would never do something like that because I have too much respect for women. Besides, why the fuck would I want to kiss someone who didn't want to be kissed? I mean what the fuck is the fun in that?

  1. Too many high fives

I'm completely serious.

This, out of everything we discussed, was the issue that was given the most gravity. The other stuff was fine but not THAT big of a deal. Here we are cutting to the heart of the matter. This was by far the most offensive and inappropriate thing I have been doing. I dole out high fives like water at a track meet, and simply sitting and watching this has been causing this girl incredible consternation.

It “makes Chinese girls uncomfortable,” apparently. I...well I mean, what the hell? I guess I can believe that. Cultural differences and shit? Ok. No, wait a second, what the fuck? No. That's cultural relativism. That's what Soymilk said, and that's a good point. He then made an even better one, which is that these completely ridiculous accusations could cause me problems down the line. He recommends that I counter-sue, basically, maybe for spreading false rumours around the dormitory or something, just to cover my own ass. I'm considering it. Because this could REALLY burn me, and seriously, high fucking fives?

I'll take more care going forward, obviously. But to be honest, I'm not really sure how I feel about this. I'd like to say that I'm a good person and so I feel bad, but...I don't. Because as far as I'm concerned, I kind of haven't done anything wrong. I'm not angry, though. I'm not going to plot my revenge, although God knows I could. I wouldn't even have to do much, actually. People would react way worse to her calling me out than to anything she's called me out for. But I'm not vindictive. I've obviously genuinely offended her – I know she's not just fucking with me because she went to the International Office instead of the ethics board, which would have gotten me in way more trouble, obviously. That's a show of good faith that I'm happy to reciprocate.

It's difficult not to feel like I've been attacked, that my character has been called into question, but I'm a big boy, I'll get over it. Weird, and a little distressing, that she didn't come directly to me first, but apparently she said she wasn't sure how to approach me. I've never considered myself unapproachable, unless you're wasting my time with stupid bullshit, but I can be intimidating. The director brought with her some of the appropriate literature, but had enough respect for me not to make me suffer the indignity of having to take it with me, so major points there.

As for the solution, all right. No more high fives. That's a sad declaration, but if that's what it takes, I'll deal with it. Problem solved? Also I really just want to reiterate that high fives are now sexual harassment.

Basically I guess there's two lessons to be learned from this. For one: Cultural differences, man. They take time to learn, and it's very easy to walk straight into quagmires you didn't even know were a thing. Seriously, I had no idea there was any problem at all until this. And the other lesson is, be careful what the fuck you do, because even something completely innocent can be misrepresented as sexual harassment. That sounds like a bitter snipe, but it's not, I'm dead serious – watch yourself!

What's really unbelievable is, I exhibit a ton of behaviours each day that could legitimately considered sexual harassment, but nobody mentioned any of those.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Gion, Part 3: Chion-in

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

The Buddhist master Hounen is one of the most famous Japanese philosophers in history, perhaps surpassed by only his own disciple, Shinran, who was a much more vindictive and exclusionary person anyway. Though he received his religious education from the Tendai monks of Hieizan, Hounen eventually broke away to form the Joudo-shuu or Pure Land school. Unlike its counterparts, the Joudo-shuu holds that the only thing necessary for salvation is recitation of the nenbutsu - basically invoking the name of Amida Buddha over and over again. This was quite a controversial theory at the time, as it implicitly denied the value of the multitudinous practices of other sects. Basically, unlike Shinran, who believed that the only road to enlightenment and shaking off this mortal coil was putting all of one's faith in Buddha, meaning the entire matter was out of mortal hands, Hounen insisted that you had to cut your own path, and locate the Buddha yourself.

Hounen lived a fairly eventful life for a monk, enduring the assassination of his father and experiencing periodic exile. Eventually he founded 知恩院 Chion-in (whose characters are a highly poetic way of saying that it is a place to achieve knowledge), where he propagated his beliefs, and died years later, penning a single page of advice on his deathbed. Hounen is, so far, my favourite Japanese philosopher, and Chion-in is, so far, my favourite temple.

 Unlike much of what has and will appear in this series, Chion-in is relatively unknown. That, and the Hounen thing, makes me kind of feel like it's my own special place. It's easily accessed via Yasaka-san, which looks like this, in case you've forgotten. The facade is stupidly photogenic.
 Turn left here and head down the road, through the wooden gate. You'll come to a roundabout...
 ...and see a much larger wooden gate. Like, really big. In fact the largest of its kind, apparently, although I seem to remember that Toudaiji has a much larger one that's incredibly similar, so there's probably dozens of these kicking around in various places. Asakusa almost certainly makes some claim to this effect, because Kantou thinks it has the best of everything.
 It's a giant, mazelike complex. It's great.
This is the plaza as seen from the top of the steps. To the left is some kind of museum or something; right in front of us is Chion-in-dou, which is probably another good way of getting here, though you might as well pull through Yasaka-san as long as you're here. The night I met up with those yankii, I drank out in the area to the right. Had a Phaedrus Moment when I turned around to take this picture. See that tree in the corner, up against the white wall? I pissed on it.

 Like many Buddhist temples, Chion-in features freakishly steep steps.

 Guest house.
 Unfortunately, the main building of the complex is under construction, and probably will be for some time, thus enclosed within this giant weird brown box-building thing. But you can still go inside! An old lady saw me looking back and forth, trying to see if you could, and came over to explain it to me, in Japanese no less.
 "Saint Hounen Something Something"!!

 At first I thought these people were praying. They aren't - they're putting their shoes in plastic bags.
 The beauty of the wooden art is somewhat marred, yet oddly complemented by the modern-style metal scaffolding.

 No idea what these are. But the couple walking in front of me took photos so I did too.
 The best photo I have ever taken. Everything about this is beautiful.
 The inner sanctum is quite impressive, and there was even a session in...session, but of course that wouldn't be appropriate to take pictures of. Instead I took a picture of my shoes, to underscore how ridiculous I felt carrying them around in a plastic bag.
 Outside again. The inner temple part leads you on a linear path, spitting you out somewhere completely different. You get to walk over a sort of bridge-path thing to get there, no matter where you start, so there's that. At the end you deposit your plastic bag in a receptacle for someone coming the other way to use, and don your footwear once more, ready to continue your walkabout.

Not pictured: A display on the "Seven Mysterious Things of Chion-in." My favourite is a forgotten umbrella, whose origin is unknown, and which is now regarded as being in some way holy (various different ways depending on the tradition being followed.)
 The front gate, viewed from higher up and farther back. See, it is pretty sizeable.
 The place was crawling with couples. It would be a pretty lame first date, but I bet it's awesome on a relaxed afternoon with somebody you care about.
 Some incense-burning going on in that background building.
 Foot traffic really dies off once you advance past that main building, and especially so if you follow the little path around behind it. Nothing much beyond that except for a ton of stairs. Hey - who's that?
 Hounen! It's him!!
 They lead here.
 A smaller temple off the left. A giant group of Japanese tourists eyed me with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.

Back the other way, and it's just rows upon rows upon rows UPON ROWS UPON ROWS of Buddhist headstones, such as they are. The paths are all infested with spider-webs and it's never clear if you've reached the top or not, until you hit the electric fence and realised there's nothing spectacular up there at all. Well, maybe one thing: The views over Kyouto are pretty awesome.

That wraps up the big landmarks of northern Gion, so in the next installment, we'll be venturing a little further afield.

Thursday, 16 May 2013


Probably most people who've spent a long time with Japan have some invisible checklist in their head, filled with all the things they'd like to do, eventually, at some point, when they get around to it. One thing I've always been curious about is going to a goukon, a group date. Until now, I'd only ever seen one in the drama Nodame Cantabile, which featured drinking, singing, and an aged German orchestral conductor, only one of which, I suspected, was common in actual goukon. I finally got to see for myself earlier this week when Shiga, in apology for having fucked up an English Club conference in Oosaka for me, invited me to one.

To be honest, I was a little conflicted at first. On the one hand, what if the girls were hot? On the other hand, would they be going to a goukon if they were hot? On the other hand, would they get invited to a goukon if they weren't hot? On the other hand, if they were hot, I was likely to get nervous and kill the mood for everybody, so hadn't I best bow out, for everyone's sake? On the other hand, what if they were hot?

I was definitely nervous, partly for the obvious reasons, and partly because I wasn't entirely clear what was expected of me. How much of the conversation would I be expected to carry? Would it be structured (perhaps with set questions, or maybe set up like a mini-speed dating session), or more just a party with a particular theme? What boundaries was I working with; for example, would the girls pretend that they totally had nooooo idea that it was supposed to be a goukon, thus making it passe to call it one in front of them? And if the girls did not find me sufficiently entertaining, would I be forever blacklisted from all goukon in the Kansai area, or perhaps summarily executed?

In the end, my curiosity, desire for blogging material, and love of women won out. As anybody in an international relationship will tell you, differences in dating culture are very real, with their own shortcuts and pitfalls to learn; like, I've dated a couple of Japanese girls, right, so I guess I've got some understanding, except that I've actually never dated a Canadian, so in fact I know nothing because I have no basis of comparison. Anyway this whole concept just seems so uniquely Japanese, or if it isn't, then in any case it's definitely not part of the English-speaking world. How do these even work? Obviously this isn't exactly a broad sample, but here's what happened.

In a somewhat strange twist, the event transpired to be held for Shiga's 20th. Which, I guess you can do whatever you want for your own birthday, although oddly enough he did all of the invitation, planned everything himself, and, when he called the restaurant, was awkwardly forced to admit that he was, in fact, making a reservation for his own birthday. To cap it off, Shiga has explained to me more than once that he specifically decided he wouldn't get a university girlfriend because he wants to focus on his studies...yet this is the second goukon he's singlehandedly organized in the last six months. Sometimes I just don't know about that kid.

What really surprised me was the size; in contrast to the raucous 30+ nomikai I had envisioned, it was to be a small gathering of only eight, that is, four on four. Shiga selected what I can only assume to be his three closest and least creepy friends for the task; Photography tragically came down with a bad cold just the day before and had to send a proxy, which was awfully good luck for that guy. In a sitcomesque twist, the guy he sent in his place was basically just Photography as played by a different actor. Shiga's final pick was a guy who already had a girlfriend, which seemed to me to completely defeat the purpose, but ok. For the girls, he grabbed a friend of his from high school and entrusted her with the rest. So the players were chosen: Shiga, myself, Photography's buddy, a guy with no solid reason for being there, and four girls from a university even more obscure and low-quality than our own.

To ease the process, Shiga opened up a LINE conversation and had everybody introduce themselves, which I expected, but this then spiraled into a round of small talk that I would have thought more appropriate for the evening itself. But then I thought, what if this is actually all part of the process. What if they're all feeling each other out right now, making judgments on who's a good conversationalist, who has the most interesting hobbies, who might be worth looking into further. And then I thought, shit, I'm kind of not saying anything at all, here. Excellent, we're fucking up already. I hastily tried to powerslide back into the fray, with no idea what kind of impression I was making.

Mercifully, this stage somehow only dragged on for a few days. In stark contrast to many things I've done in Japan, where the planning time for any given social occasion exceeds the length of an average parliamentary session, with just as many sub-committees and as much indecision, the day was upon us almost before I'd prepared for it. I did my normal date things, which is to say, I straightened my hair, tried not to dress like a homeless person, and so forth, and then we were there, suddenly a blob of eight young, vibrant people trying not to make eye contact or accidentally interact with each other. Shiga had reserved a private booth in a really, really upscale-looking cafe/bar type thing in Imagium, which favourably impressed the girls but made me worry for my pocketbook, even though I knew the price had already been set beforehand. The lighting was low, the décor mildly eclectic, the patrons mixed, and the staff unusually jokey and conversational.

As we sat down, broken up into teams of two, I realised that although I had gathered some basic impressions about the people I was about to spend the next couple of hours with (remember, I didn't know anybody there besides Shiga), I could not for the life of me tether the faces in front of me to their LINE personae. Fortunately neither could anybody else, prompting a recap of the small talk that had already ensued. The first ten minutes went roughly how you would expect a room full of 19-year-old Japanese kids to play out, which is to say that momentum was painfully slow to build.

It was at this point that I had a minor revelation: I can lead an English conversation to water and outright force it to goddamn drink, but I still have limitations in Japanese. In English, I can dominate a crowded room without ever raising my voice. I can end an argument with a few well-chosen words, or shut down a heckler with a surgical barb. I can cajole even the most listless and uninterested of interlocutors into choking out an opinion or a response. In Japanese, I'm still working on that. I manage much better when somebody else is doing the legwork, allowing me to focus on timing over volume. When I get that going, I can appear fluent, and witty, and “learned” with two syllables. If I'm with somebody shy, I struggle. The two girls sitting across from me and Not Photography were shy.

Luckily, as I have mentioned before and will do again, Shiga is savvy. I have solved many problems by throwing Shiga at them, or asking him for advice about them, or casually mentioning them in his presence. So when he saw that the conversation on our end of the table had somewhat bottomed out, whereas his was rockin', he called for a change of seating on the pretense of just mixing it up. Fortunately, the other pair had a lot more energy and sociability, and so thanks to this tactical move the tempo was able to start ramping up.

All four of the girls were in the physical sciences; specifically, they were being educated as sports trainers. All were passionate about sports and were even in the “sports rehabilitation club” at their school, whose athletes they actually treated for actual injuries. I could not care less about either sports or biology, but I feigned profound interest as I tried to at least figure out what exactly the fuck they studied, and how. Shiga's friend, though she didn't look it, was one-quarter French and one-quarter Italian, and was considering studying abroad to France. Somehow the fact that I am a foreigner didn't come up until almost the end of the night, making me wonder if they'd noticed. I may live for attention, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't refreshing.

For my part, I think I did all right. I certainly didn't dazzle my audience with a jaw-dropping display of courtship prowess, but at least I managed to avoid being blatantly offensive, or worse, boring. Being that it was a goukon, we had decided before that the guys would bear a little more of the cost, and then there was a great kerfuffle as everybody except for Shiga simultaneously tried to avoid letting Shiga pay for himself. I purposefully laid out a little extra just because I'm older.

Rude Boy: Thank you very much, seriously!! I had a great time! And your friend from high school is cute ^^ But I wonder if I took my non-joking joking flirtation too far? If I did, I'm sorry
Shiga: It's fine! She says so herself ^^
Rude Boy: What the hell? Did you show her the message?!
Shiga: I showed her! She was super happy
Rude Boy: ...lol, whatever

I do still have one question left unanswered: Exactly how many goukon result in a romantic relationship? I'm going to suggest “not very goddamn many,” but I could be wrong.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Gion, Part 2: Yasaka-san

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

For its fame and accessibility (it's like ten minutes on foot from Sanjou-Shijou), 八坂神社 Yasaka Jinja is one of those things that you sort of have to see if you come to Kyouto. Yasaka-san, as older people affectionately call it, is not as spectacular or exciting as some of the city's other attractions, but the exhibitionism generally gets reserved for the temples anyway. Which seems strange, doesn't it, considering that the latter is a place for adherents to practice asceticism and restraint, whereas the former is a home for the gods themselves. Anyway, Yasaka Jinja is a nice little place, a convenient meeting spot, and popular for hatsumode, among other things.

 Here we are a few steps back from the shot that closed out Part 1.
 From time to time they set up a bunch of food stalls selling staples like mochi and takoyaki, creating a festival kind of atmosphere. I used to think I just had impeccable timing, but actually it happens with startling regularity.

 There's a lot of open space in the main section, which as far as I've seen appears to be characteristic of many shrines.

 If you read Japanese, I heartily recommend creeping these things. They paint all the hopes, pain, and humour of life, compressed to the size of a small wooden panel. It's like the Twitter of prayer.
 Just to the right, you can get your fortune read.
 This, of course, is the main reason you'll have come: Throw in some money (a 5-yen coin, if you've got one) and ask for good luck on your shuukatsu or konkatsu or whatever.
 There's the south gate, which leads to some other interesting parts of Gion, though I would recommend you actually leave by the east gate if you plan on walking south. The streets you'll end up taking are a little more interesting.

 This would be the east end here.

 On the north side, meanwhile, you can find some bits and pieces like this. If you, like me, can spend hours thoroughly exploring a shrine or temple, it's mildly worth strolling through. Otherwise no.

 This gate leads to a park in the northeast, which is also worth a miss. When I say the word "park," what do you envision? If you said "a field of dust," congratulations, you live in Japan.
 A famous baseball player from the mid-20th Century, if I had to guess, which I don't.
 All right, let's wander back. South gate...
 ...east gate.
 What the hell?
 Oh, got it.
 It's an anti-nuclear protest. Nuclear power is a question of much debate among the Japanese populace in light of Fukushima, but this protest was actually against nuclear weapons. I don't know if this was a perfunctory event or if some politician suggested that maybe they should consider discussing the possibility that Japan possessing nukes might be beneficial in some way. Either way, it's fitting that they would choose the location of this particular sakura tree, a Kyouto symbol of peace, as their site.
Here it is lit up during hanami season.
 Live music washed throughout the area. I'd say that most Japanese people agree with the sentiment these people were expressing, though they would not share their enthusiasm or, judging by this photo, their lifestyle.
 There's a weird little modern art outdoor exhibit on top of a hill behind this whole area. Make of it what you will.
Past even that, we arrive at this statue. It's certainly striking; who is this guy to have earned such immortalization? Why, it's cultural hero Sakamoto Ryouma! Kneeling beside him is his retainer, Nakaoka Shintarou, who was also killed when Sakamoto was assassinated. At the time, Sakamoto was beloved and esteemed as a visionary, and indeed he was quite ahead of his time intellectually, so his death was met with shock and dismay. Though the Mimawarigumi eventually confessed to the crime, it was initially believed that the Shinsengumi were responsible, which led to the group's swift downfall thereafter. Well, that and the fact that the government they served was overthrown, but yeah.