In Osaka, Japan, I had recently taken the opportunity to sign up for a recording device “experiment” through a company that needed native English speakers to test out their translating device on Japanese people in some sort of field experiment. All I knew was this, and that I would get paid 100 dollars for about three hours of “work”. Most often, I signed up for things like this because for one, the extra money never hurts and two, it always turned out to be an interesting experience. I have found that if I walk into things blindly and with no expectations, I always have a new and interesting experience to talk about later. 

This recording was taking place in Kyoto, which was only a stone’s throw away from Osaka, about 45 minutes by train. On this particular day, the heat was soaring and I was suddenly very sorry that I had signed up. If anyone has survived a Japanese summer, you know what I'm talking about. Muggy, hot, humid...no wonder the Japanese carry umbrellas everywhere in the summer to shield themselves from the intense sun.

The experiment, I discovered, involved completing three tasks in which you had to use a translating device in various situations, and get Japanese people to speak into the device. The experiment was to test out the device to discover if improvements could be made on it and how convenient it would be to use them. The translating device, I was told, was worth about $4,000. I just hoped that I wouldn’t drop it. 

My first task to complete was to buy pickles, using the device to translate my English into Japanese, after which we had to try to get the Japanese speaker to speak into the device, translating their Japanese back into English so that we could communicate. 

This was not as easy as it sounded. 

Approaching the pickle stand, I chose the my first victim, a rather young and nervous looking guy. 

“Excuse me, I’m looking to buy some pickles. Do you have any recommendations?” I asked loudly into the device in English. 

The young man looked at me in alarm. 

Pressing on the button to translate my sentence to Japanese, I held the recorder up to his ear. He jumped back and shook his head. 

“It’s okay, it’s okay," I soothed him in Japanese. “I am testing this equipment. Please speak into this device.”

“I can speak English,” he stuttered, still looking at me with wild eyes, clearly terrified of me and my strange device. 

“No, no, please just speak in Japanese,” I replied back.

He looked at me in confusion and then looked at the recording device like it was a ticking bomb. I noticed his hands were shaking. Again, I pressed the button so that the device would translate my previous sentence into Japanese. Since he seemed reluctant to get anywhere near the recording device, I showed him the character translation that appeared on the small screen. 

“Aaaah…so ka,” he said, indicating he understood. 

Pointing out some fluorescent yellow pickles, he nodded. 

I pointed to the device again, indicating for him to speak in Japanese into the device. 

“You should try these pickles,” he said in English.

I sighed softly to myself. This was not working. 

“Dake Nihon-go,” I said, instructing him to speak only in Japanese. 

He nodded. 

I tried again.

This time, he replied in Japanese, which I showed him, was then translated into English. However, he still looked absolutely terrified of the handheld device. I was sure he thought I was just another crazy foreigner. I had to get this done quickly or else he was going to run away and I would have to start all over again with someone new. 

After asking a few more questions such as “how much are they?”, “do you have any other recommendations?” and “do you have any for under 500 yen?” and nearly pulling teeth to get him to answer me, I was finished with my first task. And I had a bag of delicious pickles to show for it. 

My next task was to ask for directions in the train station. 

This time, I was looking for someone who wouldn’t want to run off screaming into the night after talking to me. Approaching a young and hip-looking guy leaning against a wall and smoking a cigarette (surprising fact of the day: 70% of Japanese men smoke), I confidently walked up to him, large handheld device in hand. 

“Hello! What bus can I take to get to Kiyomizudera temple?” I asked (into the device).

Looking at me like I was the biggest nerd on the planet, he shrugged. 

“Basu….ni-ju go…tabun,” he replied, taking a drag of his cigarette. 

I pressed on.

Indicating to him to speak into the device, I felt extremely embarrassed. Why had I signed up for this? Fortunately, he obliged and spoke into the recorder. Pressing the button to translate it back into English, I showed him how it worked. He nodded, uninterested. Unfortunately for him, I had been instructed to ask at least four questions. 

Four questions later, he was clearly annoyed. I apologized.

Finding the facilitator, I let her know which sentences I had asked him and what responses I had gotten for her notes. 

“I’m sorry, can you ask him one more question? Can you ask him if he knows how much a bus ticket is?” she asked.

It is really hard to say no to the Japanese when they ask you to do something. When you are asked to do something for your job, you do it, no questions asked. 

I nodded but inside I was groaning. That guy was going to kill me. 

Setting off to find him, I was happy to discover that he was still in the same place, smoking another cigarette. 

“I’m very sorry but I have to ask you one more question”, I said, approaching him timidly. 

He did not look happy. 

“How much is a bus ticket?” I asked, then showing him the translation.

“Wakaranai,” he replied. I don't know. He didn’t know and I wasn't going to press the issue with him any longer. I mean, if he didn’t know, he didn’t know right?

Finding the facilitator, I let her know this and also that I was unable to ask any more questions of this particular individual for fear of him taking the $4,000 dollar device and smashing it to bits on the ground (leaving out the last part of course). She nodded.
My last task of the day was to buy a souvenir at a traditional shop in Kyoto.  Entering the shop, I groaned. All the shop staff were elderly ladies. There was no way they were going to want to talk into a $4,000 dollar piece of equipment and to a foreigner at that. 

Approaching my first elderly victim timidly, I admired a stand of delicious looking Japanese sweets to give her a chance to approach me. I spoke into the recorder.

“I’m looking for some sweets for a souvenir for my family. Do you have any recommendations?”

She looked at me strangely and backed away a couple of steps. Pressing the button to translate my English into Japanese, I held it out to her so she could read the kanji. She looked at me as though I was carrying a live bomb and backed away further.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I soothed in Japanese, as though speaking to a small child. 

From the look on her face, it clearly wasn't.

She came closer, squinting at the letters on the small monitor of the device. 

Nodding, she pointed to a box of strawberry-flavored daifuku, a Japanese dessert. 

As I motioned for her to speak into the device, she backed away again. I was clearly getting nowhere. Thanking her for her time, I shuffled back to the facilitator, my tail between my legs. I had failed the task.

Explaining to her that none of the older ladies in the shop seemed receptive, I threw up my arms to indicate that I wasn’t sure what to do. She nodded. 

“I would like for you to ask that woman at that snack stand over there where the bathroom is,” she replied. 

This woman was a slave driver! This seemed to be the final task however. I could do it! 

With confidence, I walked to the lady at the snack stand, asking the question into the recording device. Laughing heartily in response, she pointed to the left and began rambling away in Japanese. Pressing the record button on the device, I tried to record everything she said. Giving a small bow to show my appreciation, I finished the recording and walked back to the facilitator.

“And what does this mean?” she asked, listening to the translation. 

I had no idea. 
 
 
I hate pigeons. I really do. 

Japan has turned me into a pigeon hater. It really has.

I wasn’t always a pigeon hater, however, since pigeons have taken residence on my apartment balcony, I have come to despise the creatures. “Rats with wings”, I’ve often heard them being described as. They came in twos or threes to my balcony, pooing all over everything and making strange noises. Since I use my balcony to hang out my washing, I really prefer the pigeons to poo somewhere else. 

Recently, I’ve tried everything from firecrackers to makeshift scarecrows to batting them away with a broom to make them go away but it seems that they always return. They don’t seem to be getting the hint that they have outstayed their visit and are no longer welcome on my balcony. 

One particular sunny day when I was hanging out my washing, I was horrified to discover a nest in the corner of the balcony, with three eggs that looked like they were going to hatch at any minute. Running inside, I grabbed a broom and a large plastic sack and began the task of gingerly sweeping the nest into the sack. My plan was to move it next to the garbage bins downstairs but in full sight so if the mother was looking for it, she would be able to find it easily. This was as humane as I could be at the moment. I had no intentions of hurting the eggs but I certainly did not want them hatching on my balcony.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw a sudden movement, a flash of wings. It was the mother, flying directly towards me and flapping her wings, while making a strange guttural sound that sounded as though it came straight from hell. 

Screaming, I ducked and swung the broom, avoiding having my eyes clawed out by mere seconds.  The mother pigeon circled and quickly dove at me again. Swinging my broom like a madwoman at the mother, (who was clearly not scared to fight me for the right to birth her children on my property), I fought back. The pigeon, deftly dodging the broom, continued circling and diving towards me, the target. While swinging the broom, I backed up, until I was against the sliding doors of the balcony. With one swift move, I slid the door open and squeezed inside, slamming the glass door shut just as the mother pigeon had reached me. It flapped at me from the other side of the glass, still making guttural noises. 

I had to do something. 

Picking up the phone, I called the landlord, explaining the situation. He stated he would be over the next day to put up some netting over the balcony to keep the pigeons out. 

Once the netting was put up, I could clean up all the pigeon poo that covered everything, he told me. I had never been more excited.

Sure enough, the next day he came to put up the netting. Luckily, the mother pigeon was nowhere in sight. She must be out getting a bite to eat or something. 

The netting was put up quite quickly and I thanked the landlord profusely for his part in eliminating the pigeons. Now, I could get rid of that nasty nest. 

Immediately, I began scooping up the nest (very carefully) into the plastic bag and (very carefully), carried it downstairs. Upon arrival back into my apartment, I heard a strange sound. 

It was the guttural noises. Peering through my curtains, I saw that the mother pigeon had returned, but she had gotten her wing caught in the netting while trying to get onto the balcony. I really had not intended to bring any harm to any pigeon. Now, I was feeling really bad. 

Opening the sliding glass door, I grabbed a writing pen and went out onto the balcony. Taking the pen, I used it as I would an extra finger (as there was no way I was touching a pigeon) and slipped it under the part of the netting that was wrapped around the mother pigeon’s wing, eventually freeing her wing. After she had clumsily flied away, I hoped she would find her unborn children where I had left them. 
 
 

Receiving a few curious looks from other Japanese women that lasted merely a few seconds (after realizing that I had the same exact body parts as they did), I went safely unnoticed as I submerged myself into a near boiling pool of water at the foot of a Roman statue. The Japanese were pretty tough when it came to hot water, taking plenty of time to simmer themselves while catching up on local gossip with their friends. 

I had also grown accustomed to the high temperatures of the hot baths and after a couple of minutes, my body would adjust and my muscles would relax. It was only several minutes later that I would realize that my skin had turned a splotchy red color, which took a couple of hours to disappear. 

This time was no different and I decided to head for the sauna to give my skin a break from the water. The sauna of course, was also extremely hot, but in a different way. In America, warnings on sauna walls always suggested staying inside for no more than 10 minutes, as saunas make you release buckets of sweat and you can easily become dehydrated and faint, where some hours later somebody finds you dead and shriveled like a prune inside. I was always painting lovely pictures such as these in my head. 

In Japan however, I couldn’t read the signs so I had no idea if there were any warnings or not. However, I often saw women stay inside for 30 minutes or more. Heading inside and greeted by a sudden gust of pure dry heat, I saw that it was only myself and another woman in the sauna. The other women, was laying on her back, with a towel over her face. I wondered how long she had been in there. 

I laid down, allowing the heat to penetrate my body and instantly, little beads of sweat poured out of my pores. I think that my ears were even sweating. After a good ten minutes had passed, I sat up. The woman was still there. 

Was she breathing??

Tiptoeing gently over to her to make sure she was still alive, I was relieved to see her chest still moving up and down with each breath. Reaching out my hand to tap her on the shoulder to make sure she was okay, she suddenly shifted, grunting, and pulled her towel off her face in one sudden movement. Looking a bit shocked to see me, her eyes widened. 

“Anata wa daijobu desuka?” I asked her. 

“Hai, daijobu des”, she answered, breaking into a slow smile.

At least she had sensed my concern. 
 
 

Gion Matsuri was clearly in this area. However, I didn’t see any floats, just people. Determined to find the floats, I set off to Yasuka shrine, where the festivities were supposed to start. After wondering through Gion, the geisha district, I managed to follow the signs until we reached Yasuka shrine. Situated on the top of a hill, its main feature was a giant stone Buddha which seemed to come out of the bamboo forest that surrounded it. It was beautiful and quite impressive. 

Next to it, at a smaller shrine, a large group of children and adults were preparing for Gion Matsuri. All the children, standing next to a couple of smaller floats, were all dressed in similar festival costume. Adults scampered around, tending to the last details on the floats and getting everything in order. It seemed as though I had stumbled upon a “mini Matsuri”, one where the kids would be carrying the floats through the streets and chanting to the beat of Taiko drums. 

Old men, dressed in their jinbei (resembling a men’s summer kimono) and old women in their yukatas (summer kimonos) stood around, chatting and nodding their heads slowly. Mothers tended to the needs of their children. Tucked away in this quiet area of Kyoto, there was a sense of excitement in the air. 

The children, anxious to get on their way, could barely contain themselves, fiddling around and yelling to each other. 

Suddenly, a whistle blew. The children, heaving, lifted up the mini float and began to chant to the beat of the Taiko drums which had also begun. Their chanting was angelic, yet full of determination and vigor, as they slowly turned out of the shrine and began to walk down one of the many winding and tiny streets of Kyoto, followed by their families and friends. 

“Mechasugei!” a bystander next to me exclaimed.

I agreed. It was really awesome. After the first float passed, I soon heard the sounds of another one coming and sure enough, from around the corner, a new group of kids barreled toward us with a rather heavy looking float. With the assistance of a few adults, they were able to keep it steady. 

After watching for awhile, I decided to head back to the Kawaramachi street, where the main festivities were being held. By this time, it was beginning to get dark. Making our way back to the main area, I nearly collided with two businessmen, red-faced and drunk. 

“Sumimasen”, they slurred, as they took another sip of their Asahi canned beer. 

I laughed. The poor Japanese could never hide when they were smashed, as their faces turned a bright red color. I had read somewhere that the Japanese lacked an enzyme in their body for metabolizing alcohol and the side effect of this was flushed skin. So therefore, whenever they had a drink (or a few drinks), it was quite obvious that they had been boozing. 

Unfortunately for them, there was no way to lie to anyone about whether or not you had been drinking. They just couldn’t rely on a simple breath mint or a spray of perfume to do the trick. As a spouse or a parent, it was a foul proof way to tell if your husband, wife, or child was under the influence. Ingenious, really. 


 
 

On my way through Osaka Castle park, I passed many tents, where homeless people had set up little homes for themselves. One tent home, was actually quite nice, the tenant himself sitting out on his homemade porch, reading a magazine and eating some noodles, all the while looking quite content. His home, right on the water of the moat surrounding the castle, had view that couldn’t be beat. With the rapidly rising costs of real estate in Japan, I’m sure he could have charged a bundle for his waterfront property. 

Of course, setting up a home on the grounds of a national monument would never fly in America. I had heard that the Japanese government tried to kick out the homeless out of these parks and monuments but the homeless had quite a resolve. They would pack up and leave, only to relocate to another park or even come back. So if it wasn’t one set of bums, it was the other. I suppose the term would be “bum circulation”. 

Some of the bums however, do not have nice tents like these ones in Osaka castle park. The ones I have passed in the subway sometimes sleep in long cardboard boxes or on top of newspapers. Many times, they are dressed in business attire, looking as though they were just taking a short nap before heading to work. 

Many of the homeless had once been salary men, working for various companies and making a lot of money. In the 90’s, Japan’s economy dipped slightly, resulting in many people losing their jobs due to budget cuts. With the shame of losing one’s job, one could not return home to the family. Many of these people chose to be homeless instead. With the choice between getting a low skilled job and becoming homeless, many of these people chose the homeless route because they refused to go from working for a company and making lots of money to cleaning the subway station toilets. Today, many of them pick up cans for a living, turning just enough profit to get by; just enough to buy a couple of bowls of noodles a day. 

Sometimes I wonder if these people ever even want to go back to real society. The bum with his waterfront property looked pretty content. 
 
 

After work one day, I decided to go for a bike ride to explore my friendly Osaka neighborhood. After tentatively crossing several roads where you can’t see around the corner for speeding cars, I breathed a sigh of relief that I had not been hit yet. The last thing I wanted was to be scraped off the highway and sent home to my parents in a plastic bag. 

One story that I had learned from a coworker at my workplace was that they were very strict about arriving on time to work. One worker was hit by a car on the way to work and was taken to the hospital. He was docked a day and a half’s pay for not calling in. 

I was really hoping to not be hit by a car on the way to work.

Stuck behind an old woman with shockingly fluorescent purple hair on her bike and with no way to get around her, I used my time wisely by pondering the names of various shops I passed. 

Hmmm, what was Sea Brain? 

Thinking that it was some sort of aquarium, I was disappointed to see that it was just another one of the many Pachinko parlors on every corner. 

Pachinko, a strange type of mindless slot machine game, exists everywhere. Moving around silver balls seems to be the main point of the game. I am very intrigued by the people who play Pachinko and spend all their money feeding these brightly lit machines. Surely there’s a Pachinko Anonymous group out there somewhere where these people could get some help. 

Finally passing around the purple haired lady, I managed to attract some surprised “Oh” sounds coming from two old men on the street. I’ve found that I can either attract a lot of attention, simply none at all, or even be ignored. All while doing the same thing. It depended on the person. It was all very exciting.

Later that same day, I went to do some shopping in Namba, one of the main shopping areas. Nearly stumbling across a man doing an extensive set of pushups against a bench right in the middle of the shopping strip, I had to stifle my laughter. 

Older Japanese men sometimes like to do silly things like this, often accompanying these movements with exaggerated sounds, as though they were really doing something strenuous. You will often see them doing simple stretches or in this case, push-ups, in the middle of a busy area. I’m not really sure what motivates one to do this. Lucky for them, I’m the only one who seems to notice. 

Recently, I’ve been trying to study Japanese. Memorizing a few key phrases, I decided I would practice them. Feeling confident and proud of my newly acquired language skills, I went to get a cell phone. 

“Eigo ga dekimasuka?” I asked in Japanese (do you speak English?). The shop owner, a young man, gave me a confused look. 

“Eigo?” he asked.

I nodded. 

“Eigo”, I repeated clearly.

“Eigo?” he asked again.

I nodded.

“Eigo ga dekimasuka?” I asked again, this time very slowly.

“Eigo?” he asked again. 

I nodded.

“English” I said.

“Okay, Okay”, he said, nodding. “Just a little”. 

Had I not just been repeating the same thing he was saying to me over and over? My new found confidence was shot. 
 
 
“Why do you want to come here?” my Japanese friend asked me as we arrived at Yasukuni shrine, a curious look in his eyes.

I wasn’t sure if I really had an answer for him. Yasukuni Shrine, if you don’t already know, is a shrine dedicated to the war dead who served Japan from 1867-1951. When enshrinement occurs, it is believed that all negative acts committed on Earth are absolved. Enshrinement is permanent and irreversible, according to the current priesthood at the shrine. The criticism that Yasukuni shrine faces comes from the fact that Class A war criminals (as convicted by the IMTEF in post WWII trials) are enshrined here. The war museum next to the shrine has also been accused of having a nationalistic approach and the Japanese government (whose officials sometimes honor the enshrined here) has been indicted by the Chinese, Koreans, and Taiwanese as being “revisionist and unapologetic” about World War II.

However (in the spirit of objectivity here), the trials by the IMTEF (which was comprised of the victors of WWII including Australia, Canada, China, France, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, the UK, the USA, and Russia) have been criticized “for using a method of information collection called "Best Evidence Rule" that allowed simple hearsay with no secondary support to be entered against the accused.” The criminals were therefore all released in 1958, giving many Japanese people a reason to believe they were not war criminals. Note also that “none of the victors faced trials for mass civilian killings in fire bombings of major cities, the mass deaths of non-repatriated Japanese soldiers, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Simply put, the trials by the IMTEF were considered biased. However, no one disagreed that there were many terrible atrocities committed during the war.

Controversy surrounding Yasukuni shrine also revolves around the Yushukan War Museum sitting beside it. Yushukan shows a documentary to museum visitors that shows Japan’s conquest of East Asia before WWII as “an effort to save the region from the imperial advances of the colonial Western powers. Displays portray Japan as a victim of foreign influence, especially Western undermining of trade. Critics say the museum fails to portray any atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army. On the invasion of Nanking, the museum omits any mention of the massacre and states that "General Iwane Matsui observed military rules to the letter. The Japanese established a safety zone for Chinese civilians and made a special effort to protect historical and cultural sites. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.”

I had been to an exhibition on the Nanking Massacre in London a couple of years and the information about it was night and day from what I had seen at Yushukan. Of course, bias occurs everywhere and history has certainly been rewritten before. However, knowing the truth about history is important; it helps prevent misunderstandings and prejudices, and it inspires us to prevent our past mistakes. Isn’t that worth more than pride?


 
 
“The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.”

(Japanese proverb)

     In Japanese society, where conformity is valued, there is only one group that refuses to go along with the rules. This is the proud group of yakuza, who unlike organized crime groups in other countries, don’t like keeping a low profile. In Japan there are 110,000 active members divided into 2,500 families.  By contrast, the United States has more than double the population of Japan but only 20,000 organized crime members total, and that number includes all criminal organizations, not just the Italian-American Mafia.

     The yakuza are quite powerful in Japan and have many political alliances, especially with right-wing groups. They also operate in the corporate world in Japan. It is well known that weddings and funerals of yakuza members are attended by politicians of high ranking and corporate bosses. The yakuza however, do not only operate in Japan. They have extended into America as well, in Hawaii of all places.

     Lots of people, especially Japanese people, head to Hawaii to relax and forget about the stresses of home. Playing in the surf, laying by the hotel pool, or enjoying a lomi-lomi massage, they have no idea that the other Japanese “tourist” sitting across from them at the bar just might be their local yakuza member. Although most of us see Hawaii as a vacation destination known for its lush flora and fauna, beautiful beaches, and the home of surfing, the yakuza see Hawaii not as a vacation destination, but as a perfect place to smuggle goods to and from Japan and America.

     Hawaii, as a midway point between Japan and America, is a perfect place for the yakuza to hide out, blend in easily with the other Asian tourists or residents. Its location also makes it the perfect place to smuggle guns from America to Japan and crystal methamphetamine from Japan to America. According to a publicized report of the National Police Agency of Japan, the yakuza, in 1988, grossed almost 10 billion U.S. dollars in revenue, one-third from crystal methamphetamine, known on the street as ‘ice.’ In fact, the yakuza control an estimated 90 percent of the 'ice' flow into Hawaii. They also work with local gangs to direct Asian tourists to gambling parlors and strip clubs and receive a commission for this.

     So if you happen to be on the back streets of Honolulu and are asked if you would like to enjoy some fun by a stranger, just say no. Politely.


 
 
*names have been changed

“I hope you will come. The temple is such a wonderful place and there are so many nice people there. All your stress will go away if you visit there,” my friend Akiko said to me one day, as we were eating lunch together.

Akiko was my language-exchange partner and we often studied together over lunch, at a café near my apartment. From the beginning, Akiko had been so nice and sweet to me. However, over time, Akiko began talking more and more about her religion and had begun to ask me to visit her religious group’s center in Osaka. Almost every time we met, Akiko gave me a new book, magazine, or brochure for me to read, in order for me to learn more about her religion. I was starting to feel a little bit of pressure from Akiko, but to preserve our friendship and language-exchange, I finally agreed to go to the temple center with her.

All I really knew about Akiko’s religious group was that it was led by a middle-aged man who called himself El Cantare, who had achieved Enlightenment in 1981. El Cantare’s mission was to spread happiness through the world. I guessed that any guy who wanted to do that couldn’t be too bad, but I couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical. Having been chased by the Jehovah Witnesses for years, I was not exactly thrilled at being pressured into a religion.

Arriving at the temple center on a Sunday to meet Akiko, I was impressed by the interior of the building. Everything was lacquered in glimmering gold and several shiny marble statues of playful-looking angels were placed around the lobby, which had a domed ceiling painted to look like the heavens. I wondered where the group got the money to pay for such extravagant furnishings.

“Actually, I have a surprise for you,” Akiko confessed, as we went inside. “The Master, El Cantare, is here today and is giving a talk. It doesn’t start for another hour so I would like you to meet the temple’s Head Advisor before the speech,” she said, leading me up a set of stairs.

Arriving upstairs, I was led to a table where a small, bright-eyed old man was sitting. He was wearing a suit and looked very professional. On the table were several books.

“Hello, nice to meet you,” he said, shaking my hand. “You must be so excited about hearing Master’s speech today,” he said, smiling.

“Um, yes, very excited. Nice to meet you too,” I replied, sitting down.

“First, I want to explain a little bit about our center here and about our religion. Our religion aims to spread Truth in the world and is open to people of all backgrounds. It is based on faith in our Master and living leader, El Cantare, who is Buddha, God, and the great consciousness of the universe.”

“Wait a minute; did you say that your Master, who will be speaking today, is both God and Buddha?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes, Master is the reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and Buddha. That is why he has been able to write over 500 books about the Truth,” the old man explained. “There is one large tree in this world and the name of this huge tree is El Cantare. The tree has many large branches, and we are all connected by these branches. The 21st century will usher in The Golden Age, a utopia, or what El Cantare calls “The El Cantare Civilization.”

I was beginning to feel nervous. I wasn’t sure if I could believe in a man who claimed he was a reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and Buddha. Akiko smiled, patting me on the hand.

“Would you like to become a member of our group?” the old man asked. “You only have to fill out a small application form and there will be a short welcoming ceremony in which you will be asked, “Do you believe in the Lord?”

“Actually, Master will be giving a welcoming ceremony after his speech to all new members. I signed you up because I hope you will join us,” Akiko said, looking at me with a face full of hope.

“You signed me up?” I asked, surprised and a little angry. “But, I never agreed to become a member.”

“Yes, but I hoped you would be,” Akiko said.

“Well, I will listen to Master’s speech first and then I will decide what I should do,” I replied firmly.

I had the full intention of saying no.

“We hope that you will join us,” the old man said, smiling.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *         

An hour later, I was sitting in the back of a crowded room and listening to Master’s speech. Master was a clean-cut guy in his forties, who looked nothing like Jesus Christ or Buddha. He stood at the front in front of a podium, wearing a religious cloak covered with jewels and symbols which I could not understand. He explained that he had awoken to the hidden part of his consciousness, El Cantare, sometime in the 80s. He had been born mouth first so that he needed no manuscript or preparation when giving speeches and therefore, he could speak well.

After Master had explained a little bit about himself and his speaking abilities, a woman came to the front of the room, to give her personal testimony. She had experienced a lot of difficulties in her life and had turned to Master’s religion when things had reached the bottom. Now, she had changed her life and vowed to live the rest of her life believing and trusting in El Cantare’s teachings.

After the woman’s testimony, Master stood up to give his closing comments.

“I, who stand before you, am the rebirth of Buddha,” he said. “I have written 500 books of Truth. That is my proof. My disciples, and my future disciples, be good to all people and cleanse their minds. There is only one thing you must do and that is believe. That is the starting point. I am one lighthouse. You too can become lighthouses. Please save the people who are living in darkness. The world is in need of your light. Right at this moment, you have met the rebirth of Buddha. That is why you hold a great chance in your hands. Today is the day of beginning. Together, let us save the people suffering from evil. Now, would all new disciples please come forward?”

“That’s you!” Akiko exclaimed in a loud whisper, pulling on my arm to stand up.

“No, no, no. I need more time to think about it,” I protested, trying to resist her rather strong pull on my arm.

“Oh, come on,” she said loudly, causing several people to turn and stare.

“Please come forward, don’t be shy,” Master said, noticing what was happening and looking directly at me. “Come on, please come to the front,” he said, smiling and gesturing for me to come forward.

With Akiko literally dragging me forward to the front, I stood glumly in front of Master, along with two other middle-aged Japanese women, who stared at me as though I were an alien from another planet. Akiko stood beside me, holding my hand. There was no escape.

“If you believe in higher beings, spiritual beings, that are merciful and more powerful than human kind in this world, you can be courageous, you can overcome every suffering, and you can do all things. You must save the people in your country and all the people of the world,” Master said, touching the tops of all of our heads.

“Do you believe in the Lord?” he asked me.

“Um, yes?” I replied, hesitatingly.

How did I get myself into this? How had it come that I was standing here being inducted into some kind of religion that I didn’t believe in? I was starting to panic, to feel sick.

Sweat droplets began to form in beads on my forehead and I knew I needed to get out of there.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered, and turned to leave, pushing past Akiko, past the two middle-aged Japanese women, past Master, past all the staring faces.

Without looking back, I left, running out of the front entrance and back into the real world, where cars honked, bicycle brakes squealed annoyingly, and old women chatted loudly outside of a coffee shop. Gulping in the air, I ran down the street, away from the temple. Only one question remained in my mind though. Was I a member or not? I guess I would never know. 

 
 
Recently, we’ve been overwhelmed with news about the bad condition of economies all over the world. “Because of the economy”, has become an answer (or excuse) for everything. New words have even been created, like “recessionista”, which means someone who lives frugally as possible in a recession. Most countries, however, are taking steps to influence the economy by investing in infrastructure programs such as building roads and bridges or building new schools. Some countries are even giving out stimulus checks to their residents, in hopes that they will increase consumer spending.

Beginning from the end of March, each person residing in Japan (including foreigners who are registered with their ward office) will be receiving a stimulus check in the mail from 8,000 to 12,000 yen. This is a part of PM Aso’s highly criticized 5 trillion yen (51 billion dollar) stimulus plan, the bulk of which will be delivered to us by check. But will it really have as big of effect as the government hopes for?

When I received my $300 stimulus check back in early 2008 from my country’s government, I am ashamed to say that I put that money straight into my savings account. Only after feeling a little bit guilty for receiving money which was supposed to be used to stimulate the economy, i.e. retail therapy, I decided to spend $70 of it on an online CD store. When I asked Japanese people what they would do with their stimulus checks from the Japanese Government, most of them replied that they would save it or use it for other bills. No one said they would go out and buy a new pair of shoes. Or CDs.

When Japan had an economic slump in the 90’s, the government spent a lot of money on infrastructure programs. The thought was that by spending money on big construction projects, they would be able to create new jobs. However, the effect was small and many places are still riddled with debt from projects that just didn’t make any money.

So in order to not repeat past mistakes, this time the package consists of stimulus checks, tax cuts, highway toll reductions, and increased loans to small businesses. However, economists are skeptical that this will turn things around for Japan.

So, do your part for Japan. Go buy those new shoes. Or CDs.