Israeli Postcards 2017: Preparations

My first awareness of the Jews and Israel probably was typical for Catholics, the stories of the Bible told to us as children at school and church. But my first awareness of the State of Israel and the Jews fighting to keep their state alive was in October 1973, in the TV news pictures and videos coming out of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. I wasn’t very old at that time, but I had been sensitive to political events starting with Nixon’s visit to China the year before as well as the snowballing Watergate hearings that gradually preempted weekday afternoon soaps and game shows. Although young the importance of far away events in and around Israel made an impression upon me, and my admiration for the country and its people quickly took root. Those feelings grew the older I became and the more I studied about the Jews and their religion as well as the politics of the region in high school, and especially while pursuing a degree in political science in college. Even in the years afterwards through my liberal phase and as I aged into conservatism and libertarianism I never wavered in my respect and admiration for the Jews and their fragile state in the Middle East.

But I had never been there and seen the place for myself. Until now, deep into middle age.

Jerusalem, The Western Wall, May 6, 2017

The seeds of our next trip are always planted in our last, and I remember the Wife mentioning Israel while we were roving the streets of Rome last October. A few days after our return she began tracking air fares and reading about the best times to visit, and when prices dropped soon after Trump’s election we had our tickets. A few weeks later we had our hotel, a highly-rated hotel in the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem. Over the next few months the Wife developed an itinerary centered around Jerusalem with day trips to Masada (a must given my interest in ancient Rome), the Dead Sea, En Gedi, Caesarea (more ancient Roman stuff), and Acre. Due to the necessities of our careers we couldn’t spend much time on the trip – only 7 days in country – so we made an important decision: we hired a private guide and car for 2 days. Traveling is always a balance between time and money, and being tight with money I balked at the expense. But like so often in Life in the end the Wife was right.

I’ll admit I was nervous about our safety on the trip. Every news event involving Israel or happening in Israel caught my attention. I queried my Jewish friends and others about their experiences in Israel. Was it safe to walk through the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem? How about Mount of Olives and the pilgrim’s walk to the various sites on its slope? I figured that our Israeli private guide would avoid taking us through the so-called “Occupied Territories”. In the end I would bathe in the Dead Sea outside of Israel proper, travel numerous times in and out of the “Occupied Territories,” and experienced the Arab Quarter like so many tourists who travel to Jerusalem without incident. And besides, I was with the Wife, my best friend in the world. If anything happened to us we were together – and what better way to exit the world than with your best friend in the holiest country on Earth? I’m sure G-d awards extra points for that. But being the cautious man I am, I did make sure the Kid knew our itinerary and knew where important papers were (those of us deep in middle age need to pay more attention to that even when we’re not traveling abroad). For the past several trips I carry my Verizon cell phone and for $10/day I can use it abroad without difficulty except for things like getting woken up by a US originated junk call at 2:30am in Jerusalem.

Israeli soldiers waiting to be taken on a tour outside the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem May 7, 2017

Our itinerary had us arriving on Saturday afternoon and leaving the following Saturday morning. Traveling on Shabbat limits choices in terms of restaurants and activities, but in the end we managed just fine. The New Israeli Sheckel (NIS), the currency of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, was a new experience for the foreign currency desk of our regional bank (I’ve yet to meet a practicing Jew in North Carolina after living here almost 8 years), but a few quick Google searches got us a few hundred dollars in local currency to start our trip off. There are a handful of bank ATMs in Jerusalem that Americans can use their ATM cards in without getting killed by fees, none in the Old City, and our guide took us to one after I’d exhausted the sheckels I’d brought into the country.

The big preparations for the trip had been made during the Winter, and we made the final preparations as the months remaining turned to weeks then days. For once we were packed and prepared in advance, so our last hours at home passed leisurely instead of the stressful, panic-filled way they usually do.

So here I was, a self-proclaimed non-Jewish Zionist, heading to Israel for his first trip. All the articles I’d read over the years. All the classes I took in college. All the Bernard Lewis lectures and books, all the media I’d consumed discussing the Jews and the Muslims and Arab-Israeli conflict I’d devoured over the decades would now be put to the test.

And what would this trip to Israel teach me?

That I didn’t know jack about any of it.

Desert near Ma’ala Adumim (West Bank), May 9, 2017

Just back from Israel

Israel – the land of the Jews, Druze, and happy goats.

More to come

Cord Cutting 2017

Back in Dec 2015 I wrote an update to my experience cord cutting, ending my subscription to DirecTV having cancelled my service in June of that year. Here’s an update.

So approaching two years of living without DirecTV or cable television. So how do I feel about that? Do I miss commercial pay television? That laughing you hear over the Internet is me. Having spent roughly $7,000 on pay TV till that point I reckon that since June 2015 I have saved roughly $60 a month, or over $1,300, and I still watch a ton of TV. I currently subscribe to Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu (although I’m about ready to ditch it), HBO Now, Acorn TV and recently added Crunchyroll for Japanese anime and drama all via a Roku 3. I probably watch an average of 3 hours of TV a day, less than most Americans, but what I do watch is much better quality, shows like Grimm, the Walking Dead, The Expanse, plus a slew of Japanese stuff that you cannot get anywhere but Crunchyroll.

Cutting the cord changed my viewing habits. I used to leave the TV on for company but replaced it with streaming music from Pandora. When I was bored I’d watch Discovery Channel but now I do other things. So when I sit down to watch TV it is to watch something good, not to avoid boredom. That wasn’t my original intent when I cut the cable, but it is a perk.

There is danger on the horizon. I’m discovering new streaming channels, so it’s only a matter of time before much of the cost savings is eaten up by new streaming offerings. For example I’m looking for more Japanese TV subtitled in English, and worst of all there is a competitor to Acorn TV for British shows that just started up, Britbox. There’s always plenty to watch even for a niche viewer like me who is hooked on Japanese dramas and British comedies.

Oh and DirecTV? I still get junk mail from them every few weeks with the same stale offer, return to paying $100+ a month for stuff I don’t watch and they’ll give me a $200 Visa gift card. Woo-hoo! Not. Ain’t happening and I really regret the holes in my roof caused by the satellite dish that remains there, gazing at the southern sky, slowly rusting away.

5/3/17 Update: Cord Cutting spikes fivefold. Welcome to the future!

The Correct Attitude Towards Terrorism

“I don’t want us to get used to Islamist terrorism. We have to stop being naive. We can’t leave our children a country that is not able to defend them.” – Marine Le Pen, speaking after a terror attack on the Champs-Elysees that killed one policeman and injured two others.

Gun Violence in Paris

Just a reminder that the full-auto AK-47 rifle used by ISIS terrorists to kill a cop in France are completely illegal in that country, just as they were in a terror attack in Turkey last year. Yet for some reason the terrorists have no trouble getting these weapons into the EU and using them, and worse, our liberal neighbors in the US dream of instituting European-style gun confiscation here. How can that be? Don’t the terrorists know that full-auto AK-47s are illegal to possess, and if not, how did they get them?

Yes that’s sarcasm, caused by my disgust at watching one of the world’s great countries brought to a standstill by terrorism. Worse, it’s seeing Parisian police leveling their guns at civilians with their hands raised as in this photo. The only time I was ever held at gunpoint in my life was while I was being robbed at my job. I understand that the photo was likely taken minutes after a cop was shot and tension was high, but still, leveling a semi-automatic handgun at a grey haired guy carrying a cell phone? Is that really necessary?

Just remember the rules of reporting: Anything happening abroad is a terrorist attack. Anything occurring within the United States: Gun violence.

Fox News to Become MSNBC Clone

For more than 20 years Fox News has provided an outlet for conservative voices in the United States, but that may soon change under the leadership of James Murdoch, founder Rupert’s son. According to Michael Wolff writing in the Hollywood Reporter about the dismissal of Bill O’Reilly, “If the expulsion of Ailes, and, even more dramatically, O’Reilly, mean anything, it means most of all that James is in charge. And, most immediately, this means that Fox News, that constant irritant in James’ view of himself as a progressive and visionary television executive, will begin to change. Virtually overnight.” His goal? “Where Fox News is parochial and America First, the new global brand is worldly and unlimited. It will give his family’s company, once the pirate company, new meaning and new stature — a force for stability instead of upheaval. Murdoch media, in an age of populist disruption, will stand for the established world order.”

To a progressive respectability means conformity, and in an industry where only 7% of journalists identify as Republicans conformity means turning Fox News from the sole voice of conservativism in TV news into another MSNBC and CNN. With liberals ensconced at the peak of the established world order in journalism, there can be no denying that James Murdoch’s vision of Fox News standing for the “established world order” means the end of Fox News as an outlet for anti-establishment, conservative views.

I find it ironic that the downfall of Fox News came due to unproven allegations of sexual harassment, the same allegations made against the husband of the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate that the liberals have challenged, whitewashed or completely ignored. For Democrats sexual harassment charges or in the case of President Clinton, rape charges, can be ignored or dealt with by attacking the characters of the women making them. But for Republican journalists the only option is dismissal or career suicide.

Wolff states James Murdoch was horrified by seeing the O’Reilly allegations in the New York Times, (He) “kept repeating with horror to his friends and executives: “This is on the front page of The New York Times!””

The very fact that the owner of Fox News would be horrified by anything the New York Times put on the front page says all we need to know about the future of Fox News.

It’s hard to deny the impact the loss of the network will have on the Republican party and the conservative voice. Now would be a good time for libertarian and Trump backer Peter Thiel to enter the market and start his own pirate journalism enterprise.

RIP Fox News. I’ll miss you.

The Sun God and the Vestal Virgin

The religion of Ancient Rome was unlike anything we’d recognize today. It was a set of superstitions centered around a pantheon of gods who needed to be kept happy otherwise the people would suffer. To keep them happy they demanded the sacrifices of animals and on a handful of occasions, humans. The gods manifested their will through omens, and the ancient historians would find plenty of these just before a major event in Roman history.

For example the ancient historian Livy provides a veritable laundry-list of bad omens before the battle of Cannae in 216 BC that saw the decimation of Roman forces at the hands of Carthaginian general Hannibal, leaving Rome defenseless. From Livy’s History of Rome, book 22:

To add to the general feeling of apprehension, information was received of portents having occurred simultaneously in several places. In Sicily several of the soldiers’ darts were covered with flames; in Sardinia the same thing happened to the staff in the hand of an officer who was going his rounds to inspect the sentinels on the wall; the shores had been lit up by numerous fires; a couple of shields had sweated blood; some soldiers had been struck by lightning; an eclipse of the sun had been observed; at Praeneste there had been a shower of red-hot stones; at Arpi shields had been seen in the sky and the sun had appeared to be fighting with the moon; at Capena two moons were visible in the daytime; at Caere the waters ran mingled with blood, and even the spring of Hercules had bubbled up with drops of blood on the water; at Antium the ears of corn which fell into the reapers’ basket were blood-stained; at Falerii the sky seemed to be cleft asunder as with an enormous rift and all over the opening there was a blazing light; the oracular tablets shrank and shrivelled without being touched and one had fallen out with this inscription, “MARS IS SHAKING HIS SPEAR”; and at the same time the statue of Mars on the Appian Way and the images of the Wolves sweated blood. Finally, at Capua the sight was seen of the sky on fire and the moon falling in the midst of a shower of rain. Then credence was given to comparatively trifling portents, such as that certain people’s goats were suddenly clothed with wool, a hen turned into a cock, and a cock into a hen.

But more important than all of these omens was the misbehavior of vestal virgins. It’s difficult to describe the importance of vestal virgins to the Romans to a modern audience. The Vestals were servants of the goddess Vestal, the protector home and family and ultimately of Rome itself. The vestals were viewed as the living embodiment of the state, a kind of “royal family” that consisted of women selected between the ages of 6 and 10 who served for 30 years. There is no modern equivalent, but the Romans took their vestals very, very seriously, and when they strayed, Rome was doomed.

Livy writes, “For, over and above these serious disasters, considerable alarm was created by portents which occurred. Two Vestal virgins, Opimia and Floronia, were found guilty of unchastity. One was buried alive, as is the custom, at the Colline Gate, the other committed suicide.”

1,800 years ago the Roman empire was under the domination of Septimius Severus and his descendants who ruled from 193 AD to 235 AD. Severus was of Carthaginian ancestry and his wife Julia Domna was of Syrian. Although Severus was a powerful general, the real power of the dynasty was his wife’s family, in particular his sister-in-law Julia Maesa. In 218 Maesa engineered the elevation of her 14 year old grandson, Elagabalus, to the throne.

Elagabalus usually appears near the top of the worst Roman emperors. During Severan rule the worship of Heliogabalus spread through the empire, and Elagabalus became a high priest of the cult like his grandfather, Maesa’s husband. As the teen emperor of Rome he must have seen himself in a unique position to spread the religion upon the normally religiously tolerant Roman masses. One of his first actions was to bring a sacred black stone, likely a meteorite, that symbolized Heliogabalus from Emesa Syria to Rome. When it arrived he placed it in a chariot pulled by four horses and led it walking backwards through the streets of Rome to the pantheon where he installed it above the statues of all the other Roman gods including Jupiter.

Gold coin with Elagabalus on obverse, quadriga chariot carrying the sacred stone symbolizing the sun god Heliogabalus on reverse. (British Museum)

Not content with angering the Romans with that move, he divorced his first wife and married a vestal virgin, Julia Aquilia Severa, viewing the act as a symbolic marriage between the Roman goddess Vesta and Heliogabalus. The marriage was quickly annulled and Elagabalus was forced to marry Marcus Aurelius’s great-granddaughter. But the marriage didn’t last long. Elagabalus rebelled and again married Severa.

Silver coin featuring Aquilia Severa on obverse, Concordia goddess of marital and civil peace on reverse.

It is unclear whether Elagabalus had feelings for Severa or whether he viewed the marriage as religiously important. The ancient historians weren’t objective writers so it’s difficult to determine the true nature of the relationship. Nevertheless Severa remained with the emperor until he was murdered at the age of 18 by his own guards. After that she disappears from history.

Elagabalus marrying a vestal not once but twice would be like a new British Prime Minister marrying the Queen of England. I can’t imagine what the average superstitious Roman must have thought being handed a coin featuring a portrait of Aquilia Severa. Coinage was seen as an important part of the state’s propaganda efforts. Whenever a new emperor took power one of the first things he did was issue coins with his portrait on them. After a particularly bad emperor was dethroned circulating coins with his portrait were often defaced in a process known as damnatio memoriae, literally “damnation of memory.”

Brass damnatio memoriae coin with Nero’s portrait defaced. (Romae Aeternae Numismatics)

The coins of Aquilia Severa are scarce and there is no evidence that she suffered damnatio memoriae. But one wonders how a Roman receiving one of her coins would have felt. How would a pious Roman have felt holding a piece of silver with a defiled vestal virgin on its face? Would he have felt the coin would bring the wrath of the gods on him and his family, or was he happy possessing a coin that represented a day’s wages for a Roman legionnaire?

United Airlines Forgets Capitalism Beats Up Passenger

Social media is ablaze with video taken of a United passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight to open a seat for a United employee.

The video inspired this new United commercial by Jimmy Kimmel:

I understand that airlines need to be profitable and overbooking is a necessary evil. The airlines follow the best solution: pay a passenger to give up their seat. Evidently on this flight United personnel offered $400 + hotel, then doubled that to $800 but no one volunteered. United’s mistake was to stop there.

Offer enough money and someone will take it. There were 70 passengers on the flight. Would a $1,000 + hotel have convinced someone to volunteer? If not how about $1,200 or $1,500? Everyone of those 70 people had a dollar figure they would have accepted for the inconvenience of being stuck in Chicago for another day.The next flight was 22 hours later (why didn’t United offer to book the passenger on another airline? Was that really the next flight or the next United flight?) which is a considerable delay for most travelers but for the right price someone would have taken the cash.

United had an auction on their hands, the staff just didn’t realize it. They quit bidding before hitting the lowest price a passenger was willing to accept for another day in Chicago. Had they raised the offer by $200 increments they likely would have found someone quickly. $800 is pretty tempting to me but offer $1,200 airfare to Italy and I would have been off that plane and in a deep dish pizza restaurant, no beating necessary.

The problem is that United forgot that we live in a capitalist society. Airlines including United have been coddled since 9-11 by the government and have operated as a monopoly that competition is no longer in their DNA. When the capitalist tool of cash appeared to fail the United personnel immediately resorted to state sanctioned force in the form of the police. United is a private corporation and that knee-jerk resort to force over cash is what troubles me most about the incident. United acted like Aeroflot during the Soviet days instead of a competitor in a free market.

Every problem doesn’t need the involvement of Congress, but the problem this incident highlights is due to government intervention in the market. The federal government has limited competition in the US domestic market from foreign airlines to protect US airlines. Since deregulation in the late 1980s the US has gone from dozens of domestic carriers to just three. Foreign carriers are allowed to fly from domestic US airports to foreign destinations but are forbidden to fly from one US city to another. Allowing foreign airlines to fly routes like Chicago to Louisville would shake up Delta, United and American Airlines and discourage such heavy handed behavior as seen on that United flight. UK-based carrier Virgin Airlines bans overbooking so the incident never would have happened on one of its flights.

US airlines have forgotten how to compete. It’s up to Congress to act and allow foreign airlines to teach them in their home market.

Transgender vs Transracial: The Smackdown

Remember Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president outed for being born a white girl? She’s been invited to South Africa to be the special guest at an event “intended to promote a dialogue for a ‘non-racial’ South Africa.”

The American Left still hasn’t forgiven her for proving conservative critics of the “trans” movement right. In “It’s Time to Debunk Rachel Dolezal’s Big Transgender Lie.“Samantha Allen writing about Dolezal’s equating the transracial struggle with the transgender movement states, “So long as outlets on the left and in the center let Dolezal slide on the Caitlyn Jenner comparisons—and continue to give her large platforms to make them—it will keep being cited further right on the political spectrum to make transgender people seem ridiculous. It happened in 2015; it’s happening today. For transgender people, this déjà vu isn’t just tiresome, it’s dangerous.” Allen then goes on to cite several conservative publications for using Dolezal to attack the transgender movement. Allen writes, “These kinds of comparisons make transgender people guilty by association with Dolezal. They elide enormous differences between the biology and sociology of race and gender to score a deceptively easy point. Worse, they make it seem like “transgenderism” is some trend, pushed by “activists,” when, in fact, it has long been recognized by science and medicine as a legitimate phenomenon.”

Recognized by science and medicine as a legitimate phenomenon? Allen cites her own 2015 article where she lays out the proof that being transgender is real. In the article she makes four points:

  1. Allen: “There are at least 700,000 transgender people in the U.S. alone—enough to establish it as a palpable, if often invisible, population. People like Rachel Dolezal, on the other hand, are few and far between, hence her almost inherent newsworthiness.” This is the weakest of her arguments since it’s based on the fallacy “Appeal to the Crowd.” Today people who identify as transracial or transethnic might be “few and far between”, but how about tomorrow when people are able to put a label to their identity? After all in the two years between Allen’s articles her transgender count doubled from 700,000 (her 2015 article) to 1.4 million (her 2017 article).

  2. Allen: “The American Psychological Association (APA), too, has long recognized the possibility of one’s “gender identity” not conforming to “the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” There never has been nor is there likely to ever be equivalent recognition for identification as another race.” The American Psychiatric Association has been publishing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) since 1952, adding “gender dysphoria” to the manual in 1980. It officially removed from the DSM in 2012. Unless the American Psychological Association ( recognized that gender dysphoria was not a mental illness prior to 2012 when the American Psychiatric Association ( pulled it out of the DSM, a date which I’ve been unable to find, then five years seems a relatively short time to qualify as “long recognized.”
    Again this argument by appealing to authority suggests that given enough time it is possible for psychologists to see more people like Rachel Dolezal and for them to “come out of the closet” and be accepted by the medical community. There is nothing in this argument that separates transracials from transgendered.

  3. Allen: Transgender people transition out of medical necessity. Dolezal’s “transition” to black, on the other hand, is surrounded by layers of deception—the Howard lawsuit, the false claim to an African-American father, the refusal to correct newspapers that misidentified her as “biracial”—that she was unwilling to fully unravel in her conversation with Lauer.” Layers of deception? Couldn’t those be explained by a person being victimized by a society that refuses to accept their identity? How many layers of deception do transgender people go through before they come to terms with their identity? How many gay and lesbians lie to their friends, family and even themselves as they try to come to terms with who they are? It’s odd seeing a liberal like Allen channeling her inner Bill O’Reilly to attack another woman.
    As for transitioning out of medical necessity, how does Allen explain the growing numbers of post-op regret? There’s even a website collecting these stories. So far the stories have been attacked by transgender advocacy groups as few and far between or politically motivated stories. But a 2011 study of 324 post-op transsexuals in Sweden found overall higher mortality with the group then the general population. Post-op transsexuals also had a higher rate of suicide attempts and psychiatric inpatient care.

  4. Allen: “(U)nlike transgender people who can undergo medically-proven hormonal and surgical treatments to embody their new gender, Dolezal cannot become black in any meaningful sense. When asked by Lauer how she had altered her physical appearance, she responded, “I certainly don’t stay out of the sun.”” The first sex reassignment surgery was done in 1930. Does that mean that transgendered people were mentally ill prior to then because they couldn’t become the opposite sex “in any meaningful sense?”
    Today millions of Asian women are getting surgery on their eyelids to make their eyes look less Asian and more European or American. How many Japanese or Korean women identify as French or Italian, and doesn’t this surgery make them so? If it doesn’t, how does the sex reassignment magically turn a boy into a girl but another surgery not change a Chinese woman into an American one? And what about scientific advances tomorrow that may allow one to choose his or her own skin color. Would a darker skin through genetic engineering finally allow Dolezal to be accepted as an African-American just as surgery as allowed Bruce Jenner to be accepted as Caitlyn?
    And how does taking hormones and some plastic surgery turn a man into a woman “in any meaningful sense?” Can such a surgery allow a man to give natural birth? How about menstruate? Or are those two bodily functions baked into a woman’s DNA not meaningful?

The problem with transgender activists is that they’ve stepped on the slippery slope and are sliding down it at high speed. The human mind is so complex that once we rely upon it as judge to determine what gender is, there is no reason we cannot do so for ethnic identity, race, or other aspects of human identity. Allen’s separation of the “acceptable” transsexual Caitlyn Jenner from the “unacceptable” Rachel Dolezal is a moral judgement without any scientific or medical evidence supporting it whatsoever.

Enjoy the ride ladies…


Mainstream Media Contorts Itself to Protect Obama on Chemical Weapons in Syria

Cliff Kincaid writing at GOPUSA has a thorough analysis on the mainstream media’s attempts to square the reality of last week’s chemical weapons attack with the 2014 agreement brokered by Obama to clear these weapons out of Syria.

Kincaid writes:

According to the Scott Shane article, President Barack Obama had declared that “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.” Later, Secretary of State John Kerry had declared, “We struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.”

So they lied. Right? Wrong. It’s a complicated matter.

According to the Times, Kerry and others had tried to refer to the elimination of Syria’s “declared” stocks. This was “a nuance often lost in news reports,” the Times said.

So when Kerry talked about eliminating “100 percent” of the weapons, that isn’t really what he meant.

Shane goes on to report, with a straight face, “Despite the failure to completely eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, Obama administration officials and outside experts considered the program fundamentally a success.”

A failure is a success.

Read the entire thing.

Japan Wisely Sits Out Refugee Crisis

Do you know how many Syrian refugees the country of Japan has taken in? 100,000? 10,000? 1000?

As of October 2016 they’ve accepted a total of 6, although the government plans to accept 300 over the next 4 years.

Japan has no immigrant tradition and has a highly regulated homogeneous society with a very small foreign population, the bulk of which are Koreans who have lived there for generations. Japan prefers to deal humanitarian issues by sending foreign aid. It’s $10 billion/year budget ranks it #4 in the $ amount of spending, but that aid often comes with strings.

The simple answer is that the Japanese people don’t want them and their government reflects their will. They don’t have a tradition of assimilating immigrants or accepting large numbers of guest workers. The Japanese prize their homogeneous society and aren’t going to do anything that jeopardizes it. They sympathize with the plight of suffering people and are willing to extend financial and other types of help that do not involve taking in large numbers of foreigners.

As for the rest of the world, countries like Sweden, Germany and other European countries have taken a very naive view of the situation. They know little about the factors driving immigrants and refugees to Europe. They know even less about the apocalyptic sects of Islam that some of those immigrants and refugees believe in that encourages violence against non-believers and heretics. They hold a political correct dogma that “Islam is a religion of peace,” without understanding that there isn’t a single “Islam,” and that while most sects are peaceful some are not. Anyone who raises this fact including Muslims themselves they accuse of Islamophobia, thereby ending the formulation of prevention strategies to stop terrorist attacks by ending the conversation.

By 1971 the UK had experienced numerous terrorist attacks by the IRA in North Ireland. A point was reached whereby the IRA attacks became so common that they lost a lot of their propaganda value. The British Home Secretary at the time said the situation had reached “an acceptable level of violence.” Although not intended that way, it was interpreted to mean a failure of the British anti-terrorist tactics in Northern Ireland, and made it look like the Crown had given up the fight.

Unless the world wakes up from its self-imposed stupor and begins to scrutinize immigrants and refugees before they accept them, the recent attacks in Sweden and London will become more common. We are already in danger of reaching that “acceptable level of violence.”

The Japanese are wisely sitting this one out.

How I Learned to Like the AK-47

After I got over my aversion for guns and started shooting and owning them, it took me several years before I would touch an AK-47 or one of its many variants. To me the AK-47 was the weapon of America’s enemies. It is a favorite of terrorists the world over. It is on the flag of Hezballah, the Iranian backed Shiite militia responsible for the deaths of 242 US marines in Beirut Lebanon in 1983. It was standard issue for the North Vietnamese Army. In my mind that weapon engraved thousands of the names on this wall in Washington DC.

Then one day I realized that my old gun-fearing emotions were at the root of this attitude. As the old saying (now cliche) goes guns don’t kill people, people kill people. The AK-47 itself didn’t cause the deaths of those men in Vietnam. The Viet Cong did.

Once I realized that the AK-47 was a tool just like any other, I familiarized myself with the platform, read up on the thousands of AK-47 vs M-16 blog posts, and eventually started shooting it. It is now one of my favorite weapons. Just a joy to carry and shoot. It will eat anything you give it, including cheap Russian steel-cased ammo, without a misfire. It is rugged, so you don’t have to worry about it when you are in the woods or mud. A good AR-15 can beat it when it comes to accuracy, distance and weight, but the AK-47 is like a carpenter’s favorite chisel or a mechanic’s go-to socket wrench: For most jobs it’s the one he reaches for first.

I’ve met others who feel the same way I did about the weapon and I respect that. There are way too many names on that wall, too many good young people killed. But the AK-47 shouldn’t be blamed for their deaths and should be seen for what it is: a simple yet effective tool and one that every American rifle owner should consider.

Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese Part 5: Conclusion

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to the United States after 5 years spent living abroad, mostly in Kyoto Japan. To mark this anniversary and to explore what I learned from my experience I will be posting articles focusing on my experiences there.

Part 5: Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese – Conclusion

We lived in Africa for a year and returned to Japan. I got my teaching job back and the Wife worked on writing up her thesis. For our first few months we lived in a Japanese professor’s apartment taking care of his cat while he and his wife were in Africa, and while there we saved up enough money to rent  small apartment in a building where the landlord only let to foreigners in a neighborhood that was shabby and run down by Japanese standards but worked for us. Soon we learned a baby was on the way and we began to entertain an extended life in Japan as the Wife’s advisor said she had a good chance to get a fellowship to continue her research on chimpanzees in Japan. We envisioned making Japan our home for years to come.

When things fell apart they fell apart quickly. On Jan 5, 1997 after submitting her thesis she learned that the post-doc had fallen through. Her advisor had failed to pull the strings necessary for her to land it. Such positions are treated as favors among scientists, so I don’t know if her advisor, one of Japan’s eminent primatologists, had used up his chits with other scientists or if he had simply forgotten to ask. Regardless, her scholarship was finished with the thesis submittal, and it would be another year before she would be able to find another fellowship. The loss of the scholarship halved our income at the very time when we needed money more than ever, and with a newborn it would be impossible for her to make up the difference editing scientific papers or tutoring English.

And I was burned out as a teacher. The lessons taught at Nova were extremely regimented, based around a textbook American Streamline. American Streamline was designed to be taught by any native speaker, teaching experience was not required. 20 years later I still dream about it, finding myself in a crowded teacher’s lounge, struggling to find the manila folder containing the student’s record, my heart sinking to learn that I’m stuck with a 7C alone – the least capable of students. It’s then off to find the blue edition of American Streamline, a book that I have memorized. 20 years later I can still recite Lesson 25, prepositions of location: “Pete’s standing outside the movie theater. He’s waiting for his friend Betsy. He’s looking at his watch because she’s late.” The bell-tones sound and I see the high school student forced to take the class by her mother waiting for me. Her face shows a smile at first then her eyes fall ever so slightly as she realizes that handsome Greg or Steve are not her teacher for today, but me. It’s going to be a long 40 minutes “man to man.”

And what about our newborn? Was it fair to him to grow up in a place far away from his grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins? What would life be like for him, an American child growing up in Japan? Growing up for anyone is tough. Growing up in Japan is even more difficult. But growing up a foreigner in Japan? We decided we couldn’t do that to him.

Besides, after completing her degree the Wife was having a change of heart, something that I noticed during our stay in Africa. She really wasn’t interested in becoming a primatologist. She was interested in medicine. So within days we formulated a plan. We would return to the US and live near her parents. She would take care of our child and take some required courses needed for medical school. By the time they were complete she would apply for medical school, right around the age our son would start school himself. I would get a job and build a career, supporting our family alone until she finished medical school. It was a crazy plan and would take almost 10 years to fulfill. But we stuck to it and it worked.

So what did I learn?

Living in Japan was nothing like I expected. I had studied the place in college and read everything I could on it but wasn’t prepared for the reality of what life in Japan is like and who the Japanese are.

I have said this many times and only because it bears repeating: I have traveled the world and the most unique people I’ve ever run across are the Japanese. Everything they do they do differently than other nations. In fact I don’t really consider the Japanese just a nationality: they are more of an ethnic group or even a religion. Being Jewish or African-American shapes your thinking and determines how you react to the world. It determines what you wear, what you eat and other aspects of daily living that we really don’t consider.

The same is true with the Japanese. Being Japanese determines what you eat, how you speak and relate to others, what you wear (depending on age group and sex), even how to laugh. Cultures are different, and the Japanese culture is one of the most different of all.

Just as importantly I learned about what it meant to be an American. I saw the US through the eyes of not just the Japanese but the Canadians, New Zealanders, Brits and Australians I lived and worked with. I realized that outsiders think they understand the US, and believe they know how to fix us. Some see us as the root of all evil, yet when disasters strike or wars start abroad no one wonders how New Zealand is going to react: they look to the US.

I realized that being an American I had to accept the shame of our mistakes, such as slavery and the treatment of African-Americans after the Civil War. But I also could accept the wonderful things the US has done in the world, like helping Japan, a former enemy, to rebuild and encouraging it to grow into a peaceful unique society true to itself and not becoming a clone of the US.

Living in Japan humbled me and made me a better citizen of the United States while making me realize that the people in the world are much more different than we expect – and that’s actually a wonderful thing. Why travel if the people on the other side of the planet are just like you, they just speak a different language? How easy it must be to solve the world’s problems when everyone is the same, sharing the same outlooks, perspectives and values, divided only by language.

It’s a naive view, and one I see infecting today’s political discourse on topics as varied as Chinese actions in the South China Sea to the threat posed by radical Islam.

When I returned from Japan I started my IT career and although teaching and IT don’t have much to do with each other on the surface, I view my experience working in Japan as critical to success in my IT career.

Accepting Different Cultural Assumptions: Working in Japan prepared me for integrating better in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic IT field. I learned that the same base assumptions we have don’t always hold, that there are fundamental differences between cultures and ethnicities that we have to consciously bridge. I realized I needed to approach people from other countries and ethnic groups with a broader, more open perspective. I couldn’t assume they would think like me, and that it was up to me to help understand their thinking and harness it for the benefit of our team and company.

Improved Communication Skills: Teaching English made me realize how we often speak using overly complicated grammar and syntax, and by using idioms that are useless to most non-native speakers. Not only did this teach me to communicate better with non-native speakers, it also helped me communicate more effectively with those outside of IT and to higher management by stripping out jargon and simplifying my speech (an ongoing challenge!)In Japan I taught ages 7–84, students with 0 ability to simultaneous translators. I got pretty good at understanding a wide level of pronunciation, something that comes into play everyday on phone calls with teams in Mumbai or in conference calls in rooms with acoustics like a bank vault.

It Sparked My Curiosity: I grew up in a monocultural environment in the American Midwest. I went from one monocultural environment to another, one that was in many ways its polar opposite. But living and working in Japan fed my curiosity and helped create within me a strong drive to see what made “things” like computer hardware, software and their systems work. It also made me intensely curious about the world around me, and that curiosity to learn about the lives of my colleagues from China and India, as well as to study systems and see where they succeed and where they fail, lays at the core of my IT career.

Would I live there again? Absolutely not, although I’d love to visit if only to sate my deep love of  Japanese fried food.

Do I regret living there? Nope, although I do wish I could redo the first few years with my current perspective.

When will I go back? I’m not sure. Japan is so far away and there are so many other places to see in the world that are just as far away such as India, China and Australia.

20 years on my love of Japan and the Japanese continues. You can take the gaijin out of Japan but it’s impossible to take Japan out of the gaijin.

Post script:

While the culture shock of living in Japan should be clear through these essays, what I haven’t mentioned is the culture shock I experienced after returning to the United States. Reverse culture shock is real, and the State Department has a good write up on it. For my first two years I had a rough time adjusting back to life in the US.

I remember being depressed riding the SEPTA trains in Philadelphia. The trains were filthy compared to the Japanese trains, and the train workers surly and uncooperative as opposed to the polite and cheerful Japanese train drivers and conductors. The neighborhoods the trains traveled through looked worse than anything I had seen in my travels in Japan or even Africa. Through the scratched yellowed windows of the train, Chester Pennsylvania looked as if it had been recently devastated by a war. It made me feel ashamed to be an American.

Then there was readjusting to family and friends. I had had so many unique experiences over the prior five years that I felt I would burst unless I shared them with others. But most people weren’t very interested in hearing about them. What I had seen wasn’t very interesting to them, and my experience became a conversation killer. “So what have you been up to?” “I just returned from Japan.” “Oh, that’s nice.” (crickets).

I found myself seeking out Japanese people, food and culture, and I was lucky enough to land a consulting job for a Japanese client in New Jersey, helping them protect their systems from the Y2K bug. Although I didn’t interact with them much, it was a comfort of sorts just seeing Japanese language on the computer screen and hearing snippets of it in the break room. I took to the Internet and advised people interested in Japan in various forums. It took some time but eventually the frustration of reverse culture shock went away. But those who were interested in my experiences were likely a bit overwhelmed by my overly eager responses.

Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese Part 4

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to the United States after 5 years spent living abroad, mostly in Kyoto Japan. To mark this anniversary and to explore what I learned from my experience I will be posting articles focusing on my experiences there.

Part 4: Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese

Within 3 weeks of my arrival I had found work as  English instructor at Nova Intercultural Institute. In 1992 the only qualifications I needed were a college degree and be a native speaker of English. My first assignment was at a school in the suburbs of Osaka. Nova once was the largest employer of foreign workers in Japan, but it suddenly went bankrupt in 2007 and now is only a shadow of itself. Work provided me the security I needed and my culture shock began to abate. In its place was the optimism that I had before I left the United States. I began to study Japanese, and explored Kyoto with the Wife on our days off. I made a serious effort into becoming a good instructor for my students, and pushed them to succeed. By spring of 1994 the Wife and I were settled in a cozy apartment in western Kyoto. I was working in downtown Kyoto and had been promoted to manager of a small school. The Wife had finished her masters at Kyoto University and had begun preparing the outlines for her doctoral research. To do that would require another move, and it was a big one: to Africa.

Journal entries

June 1992, Kyoto Japan.

We are still living together at a girl’s residence for foreign students. Being a man my presence in the dorm has to be hidden from the landlord, a wealthy middle-aged woman with 2 grown daughters who loves to pop in to visit her foreign renters. So each day I have to sneak out of the Wife’s room, catch breakfast at a coffeeshop in the neighborhood or on the way to work, then sneak back into the room after work after a visit to the public bath. The situation is a strain, but our attempts at locating suitable accommodation are hampered by our lack of money and more importantly our status as foreigners. Although the Wife speaks fluent Japanese and is a graduate student on a Japanese government scholarship at the prestigious Kyoto University, and I have a solid income and am fully aware of Japanese customs such as removing my shoes whenever I enter a room, landlords don’t want to rent to us. We are reaching a point where we would have to either split up or leave Japan.

August 1992, Kyoto Japan

Mrs. N is the wife of one of my wife’s advisors. She heard about our housing predicament and stepped into action. Although 7 months pregnant she spent considerable time on the phone and visited numerous apartment realtors. Her task wasn’t easy: she faces the same problem we did on our own, a landlord willing to rent to a foreign couple. But Mrs. N was tenacious and within a week she accompanied me to the real estate agent’s office to place a down payment on an apartment sight-unseen. Then it was time for me to learn about “key money.”

Key Money entry in Wikipedia
In Japan, reikin (礼金?, literally, “gratitude money”) is a mandatory payment to the landlord that is often the same amount as the original deposit (shikikin). However, reikin can be the equivalent of six months (or more) of rent, but is typically the same as one to three months of rent. This money is considered a gift to the landlord and is not returned after the lease is canceled.

There are regional variations – in Kantō (Eastern Japan, including Tōkyō), a renewal fee (更新料 kōshinryō?) is typically charged at contract renewal, similar to repetition of key money, while in Ōsaka key money is instead deducted from a large security deposit, which is known as shikibiki (敷引き?), from “rental deposit” (敷金 shikikin?).[1][2]

The landlord was willing to rent to us, but we needed to come up with ¥500,000 ($4,000). After all the struggle finding a place, neither my wife nor I knew about key money. I didn’t say anything to Mrs. N, but she sensed something was wrong. Because of the language barrier between us I couldn’t explain we didn’t have the money. And I was also extremely embarrassed. I could name all the prime ministers in the Japanese government but I had never heard of “key money.” After meeting my wife I explained the problem, and she spoke to Mrs. N. About ready to give birth to her first baby which would likely stretch her own finances, Mrs. N lent us the money. We were complete strangers to her but she handed my wife a thick packet full of Japanese ¥10,000 notes. A professor at the African Studies Department would be our apartment guarantor.

On August 25, 1992 I met Professor K at his office. He smiled brightly from behind a thick cloud of cigarette smoke, and we exchanged introductions. Professor K and I then visited the real estate agent’s office, where he spoke on our behalf and filled out complex looking forms as I sat numbly sipping tea, feeling the weight of the money in my pocket. Not only did I have the key money from Mrs. N, I also had 3 months rent up front as well as a large deposit, our entire savings in Japan.

The real estate agent than drove Professor K and I to the landlord’s representative’s house in the Kyoto suburbs. For 2 hours we sat in a room full of smoking middle age men drinking coffee and exchanging pleasantries and watching my money be divided up among several of them. Each would then take the rental agreement and then add his honko, inked name block, to the document. By the end of the ceremony the rental document was covered in light red stamps, we are completely broke, but we have a place to live. Through the kindness of Mrs N and Professor K we are able to stay in Japan [Almost 25 years later I feel I owe them both a debt of gratitude for their help].

Kyoto November 2, 1992

Preparing for bed I can hear the horse-like clop-clop of the traditional wooden sandals called geta echo off the shuttered storefronts, the noise rising as the wearer approaches then descending as the pass in front of our 3rd floor apartment, probably off to the local bath for a a refreshing hot soak before bed. I can hear the distorted crooning of a singer in the karaoke bar two floors below as I spread the futon on the tatami floor, and laughter and light chatter as others pass. I crawl between the covers of the futon and hear a car, then a motor scooter, then nothing. Welcome silence. I begin to drift off to sleep.

The sound of bagpipes pulls me back. At first I think they are part of a dream but soon hear the sound bouncing off the shuttered store fronts in the neighborhood. I open my eyes and check the time. 1:05 am. As the sound creeps closer it rises in pitch and intensity, and I feel myself starting to get angry. I dare the frigid early morning air and step onto the balcony. It is a piercing sound but beneath it I hear the low putter of a small engine. I look up the street and see a pint-sized pickup truck slowly crawling towards me. As it gets closer I see that it is truck dispensing hot noodles behind heavy red curtains displaying the company name and the characters for ramen.

The noodle truck is a tradition in a country that even takes care of its drunks, providing them with something to sop up the alcohol in their stomachs so that their hangovers in the morning won’t be as bad. Failing that, it’s something for them to throw up before they head to work.

The late night noodle truck captured on video. Proof that I’m not making this stuff up.

Osaka, December 29, 1992

I’m sitting on a train platform in central Osaka waiting for my train, the 2nd of 4 I need to get home in my in my 1 hour and 45 minute commute. I’ve got 9 days of paid vacation which I hope to do nothing with except relax. If there was any doubt in my mind that I wasn’t a hardworker, the past 9 months have dispelled it. This company works us to death.

The author with his favorite students at the goodbye party at his first school at Moriguchi, Osaka Japan. Feb 1993.

As for this country, sweeping generalizations and summaries are impossible. It is so complex and secret because of the language and cultural differences that every time I try to come up with an observation something else comes up and undermines it.

Nine months here have given me a glimpse into the Japanese spirit. The Japanese are having a bit of an identity crisis right now. It’s like each one is asking himself, “Are we part of Asia or the West? Or are we something so unique we don’t belong anywhere?”The Japanese are a very orderly people. They instinctively order classify things around them: foreign/Japanese, man/woman, different/same. These classifications make it all but impossible to bridge. I’ve spent so much of my time trying to calm students down because they are terrified of speaking English to me. They’ve been taught to classify foreigners as English speakers and Japanese people as unable to speak English. The Wife has noticed the reverse is true. She speaks Japanese pretty well but often has trouble being understood because when people meet her they expect her to be unable to speak to Japanese. So when she does it’s like their brains can’t understand the words because they are coming out of a foreign mouth. It’s only after they become used to her that she’s able to communicate effectively. I read the Japanese have an “English complex” but tonight three of my students corrected me. They told me they don’t have an “English complex,” they have a “foreigner complex.”

Osaka Jan 8, 1993

Today the Keihan train line was a mess. It seems someone leapt to their death in front of one of the trains, thereby disrupting the entire line and the patterned lives of thousands of commuters. The train conductors are giving out small slips of paper expressing the line’s apologies for the delay in case our bosses demand to know why we are late. This is the third time in six weeks this has happened on a line I use to get to work. Last month a nurse was pushed, or threw herself in front of a limited express train as it ran through a station. She hit the side of the train as it was passing at about 60 mph, and her body was thrown into the crowd of people waiting for the next train. A few weeks ago another person killed themselves on the line, but did so at night and so few commuters were inconvenienced.

Suicide is acceptable here and since Japan has zero tolerance for guns, trains are a common way of getting the deed done.



Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese Part 3

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to the United States after 5 years spent living abroad, mostly in Kyoto Japan. To mark this anniversary and to explore what I learned from my experience I will be posting articles focusing on my experiences there.

Part 3: Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese

Within days of my arrival my Wife was about ready to send me back. I was absolutely petrified, afraid to speak even the rudimentary Japanese I needed to order at food stands and restaurants. Having grown up in the suburbs of St. Louis Missouri I hadn’t even left the country until I went to college and crossed the border to see bands in Tijuana Mexico. 25 years later it’s hard for me to describe the vertigo I felt as I explored Japan. Everything was different except for the presence of my Wife, and I was so desperate for familiarity that I smothered her. I was 25 years old but incredibly naive and “green” about the world. I had thought traveling in the United States and living and attending school away from home in California had prepared me for life abroad, but it hadn’t.

Although I had been sober for three years I took to drinking and found “courage in a bottle.” The Japanese are heavy consumers of alcohol and the “beer machines” outside liquor stores stocked with Asahi Super Dry, sake and even whisky became my first “Japanese friends.” After the Wife returned from a trip out of town, her friends told her about the numerous empty Kirin beer bottles I had kept by the door, disposing of them a few hours before her return. Alcohol would be a factor in my life for the next 8 years.

Morning Voices – Kyoto Fall 1993

I lay in the futon in a half awake state. I open my eyes and look at the curtained sliding glass doors and see only darkness behind them. I hear the clickety-clack of the Keifuku trolley nearby as it cuts through the cold dawn air. It begins its run at 5:30am and the darkness alerts me that I have only a few brief hours of sleep left. Beside me my wife’s rhythmic breathing and her warmth entice me to snuggle close to her and I quickly fall back asleep.

Soon she is awake and making coffee for us in the kitchen of our 3 room apartment: a living area, a bedroom and a dining/kitchen known as a 2DK. I begin to stir when I hear men singing outside. A chorus of middle C followed by C sharp sung by a different group. The song is faint, but it grows slowly in intensity. I notice that the different groups of voices act in opposition, but occasionally mix together. I brave the cold bedroom air and throw on sweatpants and a sweatshirt, open the sliding doors and step onto the balcony three floors above the narrow street.

Video I shot of the monks from my balcony.

I look down the street as the sun rises over the eastern mountains of Kyoto. Uzumasa, our neighborhood, is bustling already at this early hour. Two old women, backs bent at angles perilously approaching 90 degrees attend to the street outside their homes, sweeping it with straw brooms. The whisk-whisk sound they make on the asphalt adds percussion accompaniment to the men’s chorus.

One by one the Buddhist monks appear, dressed in black cotton cloaks and white linen trousers bunched up into their white knee-high boots, topped by wide-brimmed straw hats which hide their faces and serve as a primitive amplifier for their voices. They walk briskly in two groups of ten spaced a few feet apart on both sides of the road, their arms held before them, palms together in prayer with fingers straight except for their index fingers which are folded together.

The brooms stop as the old ladies bow deeply to the monks, somehow managing to avoid falling over. After they bow a monk stops and stands before the ladies and they deposit coins into a cloth sack around his neck. He bows deeply in gratitude before rejoining the group.

They continue down the street at a brusque pace. Each monk stops before a doorway of a house, sings briefly and, if a housewife fails to appear with a donation, he bows deeply and moves to the next house. I stand for a few minutes in the cold, leaning over the balcony and watching the monks as they work their way down the street, the chorus fading until it blends with the everyday sounds of the neighborhood.

After I return inside and rejoin the wife for coffee we hear another man’s voice, this time distorted by a loudspeaker mounted on a recycling truck. As the small truck putters slowly down the street people bring out their old newspaper and comic books – some as thick as telephone books – for recycling. Although the tape recorded voice is incomprehensible to me I have grown accustomed to it. It differs from the recycling truck of our old neighborhood across the city. Every morning that truck would awaken us with a recording of a woman’s voice warbling “konnichiwa” followed by a request for paper overlayed on a background of organ music. In Osaka I have heard a paper recycling truck using a man’s voice on a background of incoming artillery shells. I found that particular truck interesting considering that the neighborhood it collected from had been flattened by American bombs during World War 2.

This is video of the second recycling truck described in the paragraph above. The Internet never ceases to amaze…

A few minutes pass and I grudgingly leave the warm bath area and step out into the cold air of the bathroom. Central heating and cooling is rare in this part of Japan, even though we are at the same latitude as North Carolina. As I towel off I can clearly see my breath before me and the steam rising from my body. I pad down the hallway, my skin numb from the shock of the cold, and step onto the tatami matted floor of the bedroom.

As I dress I hear a faint sound outside which gradually intensifies into a woman’s voice shouting two clipped syllables answered by a chorus of children’s voices. It reminds of a chant one might hear in a military-style bootcamp although devoid of all masculinity. I throw open the sliding door and take advantage of my stunned skin to weather the cold.

I see two lines of six year old children jogging somewhat in unison, all wearing yellow caps, red shorts, shoes of various colors and nothing else, following their athletic-suited teachers. Although it around freezing temperature the children seem oblivious to the cold. I am told that such exercises are common in elementary and junior high school to build group identity and individual fortitude. The chant rises and falls as the lines of 60 or so children pass beneath our balcony. At the end of the lines I notice the children seem to be playing with other more than running and chanting in unison. Another teacher dressed in shorts and a thin white blouse chides them and corrals them onward.

It is time for us to join the morning’s activities, my wife to the lab at the university and me to the office in downtown Kyoto.

On my way in I walk passed a pachinko parlor. Imagine taping all the sounds of all the video games ever made. Add to it all the sounds of a pinball arcade and the flat tones of a touch tone telephone. Speed up the tape to 3x normal. Add the amplified chanting of a carnival barker and garnish with the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip, then cram it all into a building the size of a 7-11 and you have a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a game of upright pinball in which people purchase steel marble-sized balls, load them into the machine and shoot them to the top where they cascade down, hitting pins and targets along the way. Some targets release more balls into the loading tray and the fortunate end up with more balls than they purchased. These can then be exchanged for prizes such as food or cheap electronics or for a receipt which the winner can redeem for cash at a small kiosk located near the parlor, thereby getting around the laws prohibiting gambling in Japan. The lucky few can win several hundred dollars in a few hours. The not so lucky can lose those sums in minutes. The din of the machines, electronic music and announcements bursts out of the parlor whenever the sliding doors open.

At the office I slide open a window to let in some air. Behind the office building there is a small cemetery. Stone monuments composed of 3 stacked marble slabs stacked pyramid-like are engraved with the funerary names of those whose ashes are interred beneath the base. Behind the grave stones are metal racks which hold long thin wooden stakes painted with the “death names” of the deceased, dates and short prayers. Each year on the anniversary of the death a small ceremony is held and the family places another stake into the rack. Most of the graves contain several of the stakes with the newer stakes light tan with dark black Japanese kanji and the older various shades of gray. Today a cold drizzle-laden wind blows and the prayer stakes rattle, a chattering which sounds like the murmuring of a large crowd of people outside of the office, building to a the sounds of applause with the rising of the wind. At other times on windless days the prayer stakes sound like soft tapping at the office window, a gentle reminder that the dead are still there.