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The Hammering Heart

Still beating.

Month

February 2010

Hiroshima and the Ultimate Failure of Our Race

War is insane. If wars didn’t continue to be commonplace today, your history teacher would go, “Centuries ago, nations would gather enormous walls, enormous oceans of men, arm them with instruments of death, and send them to foreign lands where they would face opposing walls and oceans of men armed with foreign instruments of death. These men, only vaguely aware of their purpose, would destroy or be destroyed by the opposing men until what remained was sad enough to convince one or both sides that they should stop. Nowadays, all we have to do is describe the concept to world leaders and they are instantly convinced to solve their problems in other ways, at the considerable discount of several million middlemen.”

Your history teacher would go that and you would say, “Man, that’s crazy. Were the world leaders of centuries past smoking crack?Whyn’t they just figure things out with Rock, Paper, Scissors–the great equalizer–like normal people?”

It’s crazy that even in countries obsessed with Freedom and so put off by the taking of lives performed on a personal level (e.g., when you kill the man who’s been sleeping with your wife) they would still send men, in the millions, against their will, to places where they will kill and, likely, be killed. Crazier still is that so many people worldwide are convinced this is necessary or, even worse, right.

Well, I went to Hiroshima on Friday. In America, people are quick to justify the use of the atomic bomb, saying that it saved millions of American and Japanese lives by averting the need for a full-on invasion. This is probably true, but the Japanese people with whom I’ve talked about it tend to make the counterpoint, “But the A-bomb was horrible.” This is true, too. All acts of war are horrible, but when you visit Hiroshima and see the sheer fantastical speed and magnitude at which death, destruction, and anguish befell the regular people of this town, it’s easy to understand why so many Japanese people still resent Truman’s decision to drop the bomb, despite its apparent practicality. Ultimately, you can’t really justify the immediate, unannounced vaporization of a city filled with human beings, just as you can’t really justify raping Chinese women, decapitating the men and decorating the streets with their heads and entrails. These are acts commanded by the theoretically ambitious few, but enacted by scores of the incredibly short-sighted, who justify their violence by citing the violence that has been done unto them or will be done unto them.

This can bring no end, and I believe everybody knows it. If for every eye destroyed there is an eye taken back, then for every eye taken back there is a pissed off relative who hasn’t thought things through. We humans just can’t resist our desire for instant gratification. It’s in our blood. It’s in every car horn blast, every swear word and sideways glance on the street, in all of these arbitrary allegiances we create daily and then defend at the cost of our charisma, our pride, of the familial understanding that all humans should share. This transcends criticism. It is the inevitable state of Man.

In the context of being humans, under the pretense that all hope was lost from the get-go, the decision to drop the bomb was not wrong. It was simple arithmetic. But considered from a saner plane of reality where the only pretense is that every life deserves an equal chance at happiness and longevity, it was wrong. It was the rightest wrong in a world of nothing but wrongs. Posed with the options of Shit and Feces, Truman made his choice. But when the result of your decision has anything to do with a tricycle melting, not to mention its rider, “right” is hardly the descriptor that comes to mind.

Terms like “Axis of Evil” will destroy us. Nobody is evil. All these would-be paralyzing headlines to which we’ve grown so numb are just sums of arithmetic performed by the short-sighted and ambitious. America, the biggest power on the face of the Earth, with a nuclear stockpile numbering in the thousands, demonizes its opposition. Imagine being in the opposition’s shoes. Wouldn’t you want some nukes of your own, just in case America comes to “purify” the lands? If there’s something all Americans should know, it’s that we’ll never achieve peace by acting like police. There’s a song in there somewhere.

Wounded Bird Syndrome

It’s no big secret that my last four girlfriends have been women with suicidal tendencies (such as, the tendency to attempt suicide). I complain about this frequently: “Why I always be meeting closet goths, yo?!”

It’s never fully apparent to me when I meet these women. But I think there’s a Sad Sack Detector built into my DNA, stimulating my brain with shiny, happy feelings every time I meet a girl with a bruised face or untied shoelaces or drug-hardened veins. In college, I once fell for a girl who walked with a crutch. I thought it became her, and was secretly a little sad to see it go when her knee got better.

Today, too, waiting at the platform for the local train to Toki, a woman beside me stood with an enormous patch of gauze taped to her face. At first I wondered what it was there for. Had she been in an accident, or perhaps just had an enormous, square mole removed? I’ve often marveled at the great number of of people in Japan with enormous moles who don’t think to get them removed. And before you go and deem me superficial, remember that this is a country where pre-teen males pluck their eyebrows. At any rate, if it was a mole on this girl’s face, I commended her for taking action.

It wasn’t long before I found myself strangely magnetized towards this girl, with her maimed face. Our physical distance had decreased. “Nobody will look at you with your gauze-face, you say? Well by all means, allow me, my sweet.” Not that it felt like a romantic attraction. It was like a literal magnet. Some people are magnetized towards nice cars, some towards delicious sponge cake. Others, small dogs. For me, it’s people with serious emotional and/or physical damage. But even I had to admit this was ridiculous. Gravitating towards a girl like I’m being tractor-beamed in, just because she’s got some gauze taped to her face?! It was like the defining moment for an alcoholic, who, gazing over the bloodied carcass of his landlord, realizes he has a serious problem. Next thing I know I’ll be chasing girls up and down Suicide Bridge and through the Betty Ford Clinic. Next thing I know I’ll be chasing Betty Ford herself. Talk about a wounded bird. She a widow!

The Value of Translation, and Its Conflicting Aims

Was reading some comics for teenaged boys the other day. You scoff, but what is a teenaged boy but a full-grown man who still doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to? Besides, my thirty-year-old friend insisted I try them.

Got to a scene featuring cat-themed pirates. Uh-oh. Conundrum. Why? Because where there are cat-themed pirates, there are cat-themed puns. That’s a good thing, you argue? Touché, my loyal reader. But imagine your job is to translate this wicked business from the language of the samurai and straight-laced convenience store clerk alike to the language of both Bill Clinton and Bill Bradley. Suddenly you’ve got a lot to consider.

Imagine, if you will, Magneto is locked in battle with Feral from the X-Force and he yells out something like, “Curiosity killed the cat, my dear pussy!” Makes sense to our English-geared brains. A typically corny comic line full of inappropriately light-hearted rhetoric. But imagine some foreign land has started importing X-Force comics, and they have no such belief that cats are particularly curious nor do they have a word that means both “cat” and “vagina”. To them, bats are considered curious, but a curious bat is said to be a sign of good fortune. “The curious bat cured my lupus!” as the saying goes there. What to do? Do you sacrifice accuracy in the name of producing something more coherent to the natives? Arguably, translation without cultural and thematic localization is a waste of time. If you make literal translations of a bunch of weird idioms and double entendres, a good fraction of your target audience are going to be left scratching their heads, wondering why people take Magneto so seriously when he’s clearly senile.

On the other hand, who is your target audience, really? Whether you’re translating X-Force comics or comics featuring cat pirates, you’re probably looking at a niche audience–the kind of niche audience that likes to refer to itself as hardcore while everyone else refers to them as sadcore. Do they want the distilled version, or will they put up with clunky translations in the name of preserving the original cultural reference, seeing it as a little bonus piece of trivia to be lorded over peers? In the land of curious bats of fortune, the man who knows about the treachery of curious cats is king. In translating Japanese works, publishers routinely leave in honorific suffixes, like -san, as is. They do this under the pretense that much of their readership consists of raving Japanophiles who either understand these suffixes to some extent already, or are willing and eager to learn them. But that’s a judgment call. If you can just leave stuff untranslated under the assumption that your readers will “get it”, then where do you draw the line? Maybe some of your readers will get that the seemingly nonsensical exclamation about stomping on a cat is an allusion to a common Japanese expression. After all, they’re probably Japanophiles. Hell, why translate it at all? If they’re really Japanophiles, they’ll just learn to read Japanese.

Therein lies the point, I think. The best translations are the most seamless, where you could look at the translated work and maybe not even realize if was from a foreign source. Often, this will mean sacrificing accuracy. But does it matter? Where does the value of a play on words, for example, lie? Is it in the literal meaning of the words, in the double meaning of the words, or simply in the fact that it is a play on words? Surely this requires case-by-case judgment, and a good translator may be able to translate a pun with another pun with similar meaning. Or sometimes, by the ever-devious threads of fate, a miraculous coincidence will occur in which the exact same pun works. Heian-era love poetry often featured imagery of pine trees because the word for “pine”, matsu, is a homonym for the word “to wait”–i.e., pine–for one’s lover (this is essentially all Heian-era aristocratic women did, and they were the ones making the poetry). But this truly is a case of a linguistic miracle. More often than not, translators must make a sacrifice.

I tried to show Yoko “Army of Darkness” once after raving at length about how funny it was and how Bruce Campbell was my lifetime hero because he was the master of one-liners. Upon viewing it, however, I realized that the Japanese subtitles failed to preserve any of the specialness of those one-liners. Bruce Campbell’s genius is all about the way he says things, not about the things he says. In translation, all of his great one-liners become, just, lines.

Today, I rented it again and went through with a notepad. Yes, somehow these are the activities of a man with a girlfriend. It’s hard to express how the Japanese subtitles fail to capture Bruce’s brilliance without just showing you the Japanese, so I’ve tried my best to translate the subtitles as literally as possible. In other words, these are translations of translations.

-English: “Well hello, Mr. Fancy-pants.”
-Japanese: “Hey, you old boaster.”

-English: (when asked by Henry the Red who he is) “Who wants to know?”
-Japanese: “What about you?”

-English: “You ain’t leadin’ but two things right now–Jack and shit. And Jack left town.”
-Japanese: “Snap out of that sleepy daze. You’re just an idiot.”

-English: “I never even saw these assholes before!”
-Japanese: “I’m not this guy’s subordinate!”

-English: “All right, you primitive screwheads, listen up!”
-Japanese: “You unenlightened morons!” (pretty good, I suppose)

-English: “Who wants some?”
-Japanese: “Who’s the next one who wants to be punched?”

-English: “This. . .is my BOOM stick!”
-Japanese: “This is what’s known as a GUN!”

-English: “Shop smart. Shop S-Mart. YA GOT THAT?!”
-Japanese: “If you wanna buy this, go to S-Mart. You got that?!”

-English: (when Sheela asks for his forgiveness) “First you wanna kill me, now you wanna kiss me. Blow.”
-Japanese: “Will you kiss me? You weathervane.” (apparently a fickle person can be called a “weathervane” because they’re constantly changing directions)

-English: “Yo. She-bitch. Let’s go.”
-Japanese: “Monster-hag. Come on.”

-English: “Groovy.”
-Japanese: “Ikasu ze.” (an out-of-date word for “cool”. Actually this is probably as close to perfect as they could get)

-English: (when receiving a gift from Sheela) “Good, I could use a horse blanket.”
-Japanese: A tattered rag?”

-English: “Gimme some sugar, baby.”
-Japanese: “I’m in love with you.”

-English: (just before boiling the mini-Ash inside his stomach) “How’d you like some hot chocolate, huh?!”
-Japanese: “I’ll boil you in my stomach!”

-English: (Evil Ash pulls knife out of his own back) “Backstabber!”
-Japanese: “Die!”

-English: “Hail to the king, baby.”
-Japanese: “You are my object.”

These are double-distilled excerpts, and granted they don’t sound quite this bad in Japanese, they certainly don’t sound like Ash, either. It’s not the translator’s fault. Campbell’s one-liners are so funny because of the exact wording he uses. There’s no way not to lose it in translation, short of finding his Japanese doppelganger. And here’s hoping someday we do. Until then, though, all translation comes at a fairly heavy price, and in this translator’s opinion, digestibility takes precedence over accuracy. This is literature, not some fan club for fetishists.

Kani: An Explanation (by request)

Trip number three to Immigration was today. I passed through Kani with little digression or annoyance. If not for the sudden swelling of memories of annoyances past, I might not have even noticed where I was.

I suppose it’s not all Kani’s fault that it’s terrible. Surely there’s something in the water flowing there from somewhere upstream. It’s just that, nothing good will ever happen in Kani. Kani is the kind of place you’ve got to escape for good things to start happening. In a word, it’s boring. On the train, a man chugs from a thermos of coffee. We pass through Kani moments later and I notice he’s asleep. He’s bored. In Kani, everyone is bored. When I worked there, I was bored. It did have three semi-nice places: a bakery by the station, a Denny’s restaurant, and a Book-Off. Every town in Japanese history has managed to have at least one Book-Off, but the one in Kani reeks suspiciously of excrement and coincidentally doesn’t have a bathroom. I don’t know about the people of Kani, but I’ve learned my math, and I know when two and two make poo in my used bookstore.

Further disturbing: the bakery and the Denny’s restaurant are dead now. Denny’s was replaced by a 7-11, the bakery by an enormous, square block of void. Hello, I’m Kani. Perhaps you’ve heard of me in your nightmares.

In Kani, which is boring, people’s minds grow numb and rot. The kids run wild, either because they’ve gone feral, or because they’re trying to fight the numbness, trying to push back the great shadow of mundanity before it swallows their souls, but by high school, they’ll all be teenagers with far more slack in their jaws than there are dreams in their hearts.

“Uhhh, whaddayawanna doodaday?” the Japanese equivalent of Butthead will ask his friend, futilely.

“Ah’unno. We could grow out our neo-mullets even more and pretend it’s awesome.”

“Hey, yeah.”

As they bake in the Kani sun, letting their mullets go, an elderly man lurches by. He is senile, with rotten teeth to complement his festering, unused brain. Sad as hell, he has turned to Christianity, brought to him by the Brazilians who inhabit this town in impressive numbers, and are the only ones who seem to be able to suck any life juice out of the damn place. He clutches his free Portuguese Bible, all that still sustains him. He can’t read a word of it.

A victim of circumstance, I, too, arrive in Kani, having traveled from lands distant and populous. Relatively speaking, Barack Obama is my best friend, and I’ve had sexual intercourse with Cameron Diaz. I look only vaguely like John Lennon, but if you squint your eyes a little bit, I am him and I will sing to you from beyond the grave. I will save you from the mundane hell of Kani with my melodic tales of travel and fill you with the long lost emotions of hope and pride by continually professing my love for Yoko Ono, who, relatively speaking, is you. Simply by being unfamiliar, I am the most interesting thing that’s happened all year to the pack of teenagers on my left. My white face is a blank screen upon which they may project whatever they wish. I am a spectacle to be gazed at. I am what they’ve only seen on TV or, if you’ll allow me–I am TV. Coming from a land where the act of staring frequently leads to gunfights and Indian women occasionally give birth to Chinese babies who later become American hip-hop artists, the position I find myself in is unnerving. But they are just teenagers. It isn’t until I realize that the reaction of the eighty-year-old man to my right is exactly the same that I start to get depressed. Upset. Sandwiched by the bookends of an entire life lived, it dawns on me that in a lifetime spent in Kani, perhaps the most noteworthy thing that has ever happened, ever will happen, is the presence of a mild-mannered white man who, in his free time, writes about grammar. This bears meditation upon.

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With little recourse (I am unmistakably white, or else just as much a spectacle with a paper bag over my head), I can’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed by my “popularity”, if you can call being the equivalent of an infomercial when the TV remote is lost a form of popularity. I’m all there is to see, it being Kani, so all eyes are on me. But it’s tiresome being made a spectacle. These people only see me, like TV, as an escape from the reality of Kani, and they make no attempt to see the reality of me–that I’m just a regular human not entirely different from themselves. That they don’t really have to communicate with me through chopped up squawks of funny-talk; I can understand real words, too. That I’m just not a damned morning person.

The escape train out of Kani only comes once an hour, so you better be sure you’re not cooped up in the stuffy old, poopy old Book-Off when the time comes. The locals will try to follow you, sit next to you, coddle you. You must hiss at them, so that there is no mistaking your intentions to flee. You must hiss desperately at the lurching Kaniites.

Immigration: The Place and The Life

Immigration. What better reminder that you hate living in a foreign country and that they hate you living there too? I’ve never visited the American Immigration Bureau, but I like to think that any American public servant, whether they be government staff, bankers, mechanics, or waiters, approach those whom they serve with a general attitude of human frankness, for better or worse. Personally, I believe that it works out for the better more often than not. You get your occasional scheister or Joe Q. Notmyprobleminsky, but in general there tends to be an understanding that humans should be treated like humans–no more, no less.

In Japan, humans are treated like gods at the gas station and donut shop, garbage at the government office. It’s not just an Immigration thing, although surely Immigration is one of the worst places one can go, but any place where people have a secure job regardless of the satisfaction of their patrons, you can be bet on having an unsatisfying experience, whether you’re a foreigner or not. Chalk it up to human nature and forget everything you’ve heard about Japanese people putting the needs of others before their own. You could be a Japanese guy trying to figure out your taxes at the City Hall. Better prepare for a bad day, Japanese guy, because it makes little difference who you are. And it’s as simple a matter as the presence or absence of incentive. The donut shop guy’s grotesque, overwhelming obsequiousness has nothing to do with anything like genuine gratitude. All it is is the grease on a single cog in an enormous money-making machine.

The sallow-faced folks down at the Gifu Prefectural Immigration Office don’t need a machine to make their monthly paycheck because it’s paid for by the immigrants themselves, and other taxpayers. Hence, no grease. Evidently they also don’t need any specific degree of competence, because I encountered none on my visit.

I’ll be in Japan until maybe July, but since I first showed up in February, my visa’s about to expire (word has it no matter how many times you apply for the three-year visa, they’ll never give it to you until the year you happen to be leaving). The day I visited Immigration, my boss had already graciously prepared all of the documents necessary for applying for a visa renewal. It should’ve been a clean execution of leg one in what is theoretically a two-leg process. I was feeling optimistic, so I didn’t even mind that getting to the office, which is in Gifu City, required passing through Kani, my nemesis town.

Passing through Kani, an intense, non-blinking man in probably his thirties sat down across from me, strange considering the ample supply of seats not directly in my face. He stared at me until getting off the train much later, bolstering my disgust for “life” in Kani and its satellite regions.

Gifu City has a wonderful, gigantic, sparkling train station. The station has a donut shop with obsequious, toe-kissing staff, and a Vie de France, which is distinguishable from all other Japanese bakeries by its Vie de France logo. Gifu Station is the best part of any trip to Gifu City.

A small hop away from the station looms the Immigration office, gazing down upon you from its third-story spot in the Nippon Izumi building, foreshadowing the condescension that lies within. In the lobby, a mother and her toddler waited for the elevator. The great thing about toddlers is that they express everything that adults must keep to themselves for fear of being treated like toddlers. This toddler fidgeted with the elevator’s up and down buttons, pressing both of them. The elevator came down and they boarded, waiting a tick for me.

“I’m going up,” I said and the doors closed immediately. As the elevator descended the woman could be heard screaming at the child. “Why you gotta fidget with the buttons?! God!” An instant later the toddler’s ascending yelps of anguish rose back up to greet me. I supposed she had beaten her son out of concern for me, or rather, how I would judge her for letting her son fidget wildly. Clearly she wasn’t a government worker. I remained awkwardly silent during the brief elevator ride, but to be sure, I shared the toddler’s anguish. Above us, the Immigration office waited menacingly, licking its chops and tapping its fingertips together like a hungry beast with fingertips.

Things could have gone so easily. There were two parties ahead of me, and one of them had already been helped once (typically a trip to Immigration requires multiple waits, not to mention multiple trips). This is about as rare as being one of three parties at the DMV, so I suppose I might be forgiven for mistaking fate’s grimace for a smile just this once. I took my number.

I was soon called up by a guy I’d never seen before. At first glance, he lacked charisma. He wore glasses that screamed “I work at a lowly government position in Gifu Prefecture, famous for being next to Aichi Prefecture, famous for housing Nagoya, famous for being a great transfer hub for traveling to other places far away from both Aichi and Gifu. He was underweight and wore a haircut that was genuinely bad; you can call Japanese haircuts outdated, you can call them misguided, you can even call them tragic, but this was just a bad haircut, like the kind you might see on a high school freshman in America when that freshman is deeply immersed in a rousing session of Magic: The Gathering. Was it the influence of his constant interaction with foreigners, or was he just a social derelict? In this country, hair is really the first sign of a social derelict. That and the presence of facial expressions. But if he had any of those he could never have made it as a civil servant.

I presented my Visa Renewal Application form, my company’s yearly fiscal report, my passport, my official gaijin membership card, and a variety of pamphlets proving my company’s existence (yes, this is required). He glanced over the application and I was overcome with an ocean of dread. I don’t know whether I’ve developed a sixth sense for impending disappointment or if I’ve just come to assume it’ll make a flashy appearance at anything involving Japanese bureaucracy (not sure I even need the “Japanese” qualifier), but haircut boy was about to be the harbinger of it and I knew this.

He asked a series of questions, his speech impeded by his own mouth. I nearly mistook him for a gaijin!

-Did you fill out this application yourself?
No, my boss filled it out and I watched.
-Have you been in Japan awhile?
Almost three years, or you could check my visa that you’re currently holding with your hands.
-How long have you worked for your company?
Since April, 2008.

A little more third degree than I usually get, and I once got my visa renewed working for a woman I didn’t even trust, whose company had three other employees, all of them Nigerian (to be fair, the Aichi Prefectural Nigerian Laborers Coalition is a pretty great group of guys, but that’s a whole separate post). And this despite my picture being on the official company flier. What doubt could he possibly have?

“You don’t have your company’s seal on the last page.” He pointed to the exact spot that I had held under suspicion and confirmed with my boss the day before. “I don’t need a signature or anything here, do I?” I had asked my boss. “DO I?!” “No, not if you submit the forms yourself,” she had told me. And she was right, for all we could’ve known; she had gone through this process at least three times a year for the last four years. But haircut boy had a different story to tell.

“You gotta get your company’s seal, or we can’t process these forms.”

“But that’s the exact spot I confirmed with my boss.” I objected futilely.

“Sir, don’t be a toddler,” he didn’t say. But he could have.

“Can I at least send the documents by mail next time? This place is an hour and a half away from my house.”

“No, you have to come back. Also, you need to bring your last four pay statements.”

“My pay statements?” I asked. And then something very strange happened. Haircut boy replied with the following explanation, of which the one emboldened word was what he apparently thought was some kind of autonomously effective English explanation:

“Yes, your pay statements. Essentially, a pay statement is the PAPER upon which your monthly salary is enscribed.”

Thanks for the smashing simultaneous interpretation, Donald Keene*. Sure glad I’m a taxpayer in this country. Now why–oh why–would a man even bother trying to explain something in English to someone he’s already conducted a full goddamned interrogation with in Japanese, when the only English he actually knows is the simplest, most irrelevant word in the sentence? Let’s assume I didn’t understand Japanese and that the conversation up to that point had been an uncanny series of lucky guesses, like in that SNL sketch with Chris Farley. “WA-KA-SUR-PEE-NEE-KU?” I would stutter frantically and somehow make it to the next round. Supposing this was the case, what on Earth would possess any man, horrible haircut notwithstanding, to complicate matters with random spewings of English vocabulary? To Farley-Greg, the conversation went like this:

“Wah-pee-ku-kee-no-jo-hee-ho-ka?!”

“Uhh. . .Gu-shee-ba-ra-mu. . .ka.”

“Shi-chi-ho-jo PAPER mo-te-ku-ri-na.”

I don’t want your sympathy English, asshole. Just give me the damn visa stamp and I’ll get back to paying your salary.

Ultimately, though, I left empty-handed. My boss was quick to call them up and ask why everything right was wrong. Whoever answered the phone was kind enough to reveal that the company seal had become a requirement as of January 2010, and that the pay statements were only necessary in the case of a new employee or something (any employee who’s already been paid four times in Japan couldn’t possibly be that new). Why hadn’t the website been updated to tell people about the new requirement? Most people use a sick day to go to Immigration, traveling long distances at costly rates. Why had the man mistaken me for a new employee when I’d told him moments before how long I’d been working there? Why did he ask me that question in the first place if he wasn’t going to listen to the answer? The explanation to all of these riddles is that, simply, nobody there cares. Nobody’s responsible for bringing in profits, and there’s no threat of going under since, sadly, we need them, these so-called civil servants. We need them because we are required to need them, and they know this. If making up an answer is the quickest way to make a visitor disappear, you better believe they’ll do it without once being interrupted by their own conscience. Surely it must take a certain special degree of snakelike callousness to become a civil servant, to claim yourself a servant of the people while treating all of them as subhuman.

A week later, I came back with the company seal and even brought my pay statements since you never know what story you’re going to get the next time you show up. This time I was served by a woman whom I had recognized from last year. Her sallow countenance lacked Haircut Boy’s Napoleon Dynamite-style pathetic immediacy, instead favoring the flower-trampled-by-humanity-and-wilted-by-age look. She could’ve been sweet once, but lord knows she’d probably been ordered around by more than her fair share of Haircut Boys.

I was pleased and surprised to discover she had remembered me from the previous visit. “Did you get the seal?” she asked, not bothering to use polite Japanese. This relatively rare occurrence doesn’t tend to bother me much since, as an American, it comes off as friendly when people act like they don’t owe you anything, but by principle of it being Japan, I had the right to be angry already. Then she asked me this:

“Did you get your tax forms from your city hall?”

I wondered for a moment if by “tax forms” she meant pay statements, and if by “city hall” she meant the mountain of crap on the desk in my living room. Even if she had meant that, I had already been informed that I didn’t need the pay statements, so I cut away this favorable possibility with the ever humbling edge of Occam’s Razor–the simplest explanation is usually the right one, or in the case of Japanese bureaucracy, feel free to chance “simplest” to “most infuriating”. I’ve heard of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing, but at Immigration, the right hand doesn’t even know what the right hand is doing. Meanwhile the left hand has a shitty haircut.

As you’ve likely deduced, I also needed some tax forms from my city hall. In Tajimi.

“No,” I finally answered.

“Okay, you can just mail ’em in,” she said. How novel, thou trampled flower. To think, we’ve come to live in a day and age where paper can be delivered from Point A to Point B by way of some sort of paper-delivering middleman. Okay, so here’s my theory: when presenting documents to Immigration, one is free to mail them in instead of taking the day off work and wasting several hours if the following conditions are met:

1. The clerk is having an okay day.

That is all. Although in retrospect, being white may also be a factor. Even in the Land of the Straight-Laced, our reputation precedes us. We’re not as good and wholesome as the natives, of course, but still more wholesome than non-white, other foreigners. I think it all traces back to Josh Hartnett somehow.

At any rate, I thanked the trampled dandelion woman and left, this time with a stamp in my passport declaring that I was at least trying to get this done. It would keep the feds off my back for the time being.

Later on, Yoko and I visited the local post office to inquire about the cost of sending electric guitars and the Sega Saturn back home .

“Certainly, sir,” said the cheerful-but-professional clerk. “There are several available options available when sending large parcels overseas, sir, but if time doesn’t happen to be of the essence, you can send them for as little as 7,000 US dollars per fluid ounce. It’ll take up to twelve extra years for your items to arrive, but it’s the best option if you’re in not in a hurry.”

“I’m not sending them to Saturn.”

“Oh.”

Once the confusion had been cleared up, the clerk was quick to give us all of the information we needed in a thorough, respectful manner. She was clear and concise, yet personable. She was everything you could ever want in a post office clerk, and more.

“The post office employees sure have gotten friendly ever since the post office went private,” Yoko said on the walk home. Her voice, like the word of God, echoed through the streets of Tajimi, through all of Japan, and across the entire world.

Your traditions are vile, neighbor!

Well, my next-door neighbors have adorned the outside of their door with what appears to be a mummified fish head skewered on a twig of holly. Yes, it must be that time of year.

A quick Google search reveals that this is just one of the many frightening ways in which Japanese people celebrate the beginning of spring, commonly referred to as setsubun.

Other ways that I had already been familiar with included having someone in the family put on a demon mask and pelting that person with roasted beans, and eating enormous sushi rolls while facing west-northwest (the direction changes yearly). But even with all this pandemonium to look forward to, somehow I managed to let setsubun sneak up on me once again. Imagine my shock when I came home one cloudy night to find that my neighbors–whom I know nothing about–had skewered a mummified fish head and put it on display. Was this some kind of threat infused with Japanese-style indirectness? My girlfriend has moved out now, maybe this is their way of telling me, “You’d better not linger”.

What better way to brace one’s homestead for the splendor of spring?

But as Google tells it, the holly-fish head combo is a one-two punch against demons, who both hate the smell of sardines and are easily pricked by holly leaves. Clearly these are not the terrifying demons of Western legend. It seems to me that if they’re scared of holly leaves, you could probably just ask them to go away and they would.

At any rate, chalk this one up to the weirdness of tradition. I’d be a filthy liar if I said only Japanese tradition is weird (Christians celebrate the miraculous resurrection of a man by painting chicken eggs delivered by an enormous rabbit!!!), but surely they seem extra weird since Japan is an island country, and a lot of these traditions are unique to this place. Surely shit’s just as crazy in Madagascar.

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