One of the things that appealed to me initially about the JET Program was its infrastructure. As I’ve mentioned here before, there are many places a person can teach English abroad, and many means to do so, but few among these offer a support system to rival JET. For advice-seekers or those simply in need of a sympathetic ear, we have at our disposal an embarrassment of riches, and from alumni to veteran JETs to the organizers at CLAIR, everyone seems eager to help. There’s even a hotline, staffed all night, every night by CLAIR, for questions or concerns that can’t wait for business hours.
All this is, of course, a good thing, but it comes at price. When you have a million people willing to listen, you probably have a million people willing to talk, and that is certainly the case here. Which is why on Friday, instead of going to school, I headed north to Nagasaki City for my fourth JET Program orientation. Now, all these orientations have been slightly different from one another and in some way meaningful or enlightening, but as a rule, four orientations is at least three too many. At some point, advice becomes rhetoric, and when that happens people need to be allowed to fail so that they know what advice to seek. That point was reached, breached, and scoured beyond recognition some time ago.
After many hours of speech-making, work-shopping, and power-pointing, we eventually reaped our reward: a welcome party, hosted by some of the veteran JETs at a bar/club in Nagasaki City. Now, I know nothing about Nagasaki City, but I’ve been to enough bars to be skeptical of a $13 cover (exchange rate is approximate). If this skepticism is valid anywhere, it is definitely valid in Japan, where–as I’ve mentioned–there are no open container laws. Thus, rather than actually enter the bar, my friends and I stood on a second-story landing immediately outside the bar, drinking (cheaper) cans of beer purchased at the convenience store (konbini) down the street. While this started out as a sort of grudging compromise, it quickly took on a life of its own, as people filtered in and out of the bar to smoke cigarettes or cool off. Pretty soon, there were 15 or more people circulating around the landing, and we had a party of our own going on outside. This lasted for a couple of hours, during which we were repeatedly told to keep it down or move inside, because evidently there are residential buildings nearby and somebody couldn’t modulate his/her voice properly. After attempts to intercede proved fruitless, the organizers gave up on coercing us, and waived the cover just to get us inside. Did we hold out until they let us bring our konbini beer inside? It’s called leverage, you dig?
Got to tip my cap to the party organizers for one thing, though: while the bar itself may have been over-priced, the konbini down the street sold Bud Diesel by the can. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “If you’re in a foreign country, why would you dip into the Diesel when you could sample some local flavor?” (A) Japanese beer is, in general, not very good; (B) There is almost no variety among Japanese beers. (This is probably a whole other post, but basically, there are really only four major beverage concerns in Japan: Suntory, Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin. These produce basically all of the drinks–alcoholic and non-alcoholic alike–regularly available for purchase in Japan. As far as I can tell, craft or microbrewing doesn’t exist here on any kind of reasonable scale); and (C) I’ve got a Diesel engine, and she just don’t run right on premium unleaded.
After a month of exclusively Japanese beer, finding a can of the Diesel was a cause for celebration, and as a group I’m proud to say we bought out the house. Easily the best Budweiser I’ve ever had and, unless I become marooned on a desert island, the best I’m likely to have. But this isn’t America, and among citizens of the world, the King of Beers doesn’t enjoy the cachet he does back home. A South African girl I met accused me of being a “typical American” when she saw me sipping Anheuser suds. I asked her what was so wrong with that, and soon enough, she bought me a beer at the bar just so I would have to drink something else. (And, yeah, I got her number–how typically American of me).
The walk home from the bar was largely uneventful, with one wrinkle: I saw (albeit briefly) the second high-speed pursuit of my life. Unlike the first one, which happened in a park when I was too young to realize what was going on, this one was very apparent, as two people on a scooter cruised by us at what had to be maximum velocity, followed immediately by an officer yelling into a megaphone from his car. The whole thing was past us in about two seconds, but on the dark, narrow roads of Japan, I gotta think the scooter makes for a prime getaway vehicle.
The next day, we had some time to kill before heading home, so we went to check out the Nagasaki Peace Park, which as I’m sure you’ve guessed is built on the site of the atomic bombing. The park itself is quite beautiful and elegant, replete with statues, fountains and commemorative monuments. It is also the site of the Atomic Bomb Museum and the ruins of the Urakami Cathedral, a Christian landmark which was destroyed by the bomb and subsequently rebuilt nearby. I didn’t have my camera–you can see that this is becoming a theme–but there are plenty of excellent pictures available online.
The Atomic Bomb Museum was, as you can imagine, a sobering experience (especially for someone sobering up at the time). Jokes aside, for those of you who have visited the Holocaust Museum (I haven’t), I’m sure you can relate to my experience. The museum documents the war and its impact on Nagasaki up to August 9th, 1945, and then spends considerable time unraveling the events of that day. The footage is well-preserved and simply ghastly, although from an emotional standpoint, it doesn’t compare to the first-hand accounts of survivors also on display. There was one particularly moving piece entitled “Alone in Middle Age” that I am not capable of reproducing here because it doesn’t seem to be online. If you are able to find it, it is a powerful read, but brace yourself. The rest of the museum focuses on two main threads: the rebuilding of Nagasaki and the nuclear arms race that took off during the same time period. While the museum is largely devoid of judgment–the Japanese are not in the habit of pointing fingers when it comes to WWII–the subsequent arms race is presented, justifiably and for obvious reasons, as a perilous (and continuing) foray into human destruction. And that is one value judgment I think we can all agree on.
We saved the most famous part of the park for last: the Peace Statue, formally titled Aspirations for Peace. The sculptor, Kitamura Seibo (1884-1887), was actually born right here in Minamishimabara, making him something of a local legend. While he seems to lack for worldwide recognition, his work is masterful, and can be found in many places around Nagasaki. The Peace Statue was his magna opus, and he spent something like a decade on it from conception to unveiling:
Every aspect of the statue is thoughtful and significant: the right arm is pointed skyward towards the threat of nuclear weapons; the steady left arm signifies composure and strength; the right leg is bent in as if preparing for meditation; the left leg is outstretched and poised for action; the eyes are closed in prayer for the victims. The long-hair and cloth are, I’m told, designed to invoke Christian themes, while the dot on the forehead (not visible here) is supposedly an appeal to Buddhist and Hindu traditions. The statue is 10-meters tall.
All in all, the trip to Nagasaki City was fun, lighthearted, celebratory, solemn, and humbling at various turns. And the orientation itself? Already forgotten.