It seems that the people of Japan are primarily disinterested in being Taros-of-all-trades, or at least you would not be far off-base for thinking so upon your first trip into one of the large hobby stores to be found around here. For the purposes of this examination, the Yuzawaya in downtown Kobe, a multi-floor gargantuan packed with all manner of crap, though multi-floor around here means far less than single-floor. Back home, people dabble, or commit casually to some time-gobbling pursuit: the knitter, the cook, the card player. In Japan, I can come away with no better observation than to say that people pick one, and commit hard. On my favorite floor there is a jigsaw puzzle section larger than a variety of restaurants I frequent. There are puzzles there, arranged by series, and not lumped in with board games: licensed character series, environment series, photos of Japanese attractions series, sorted by piece count, price, and god knows what else. There is also a section of frames, which are not frames for pictures, oh no. These are frames for puzzles only, the puzzles that you have built, applied one of a variety of clear coatings to, matted with one of the hundreds of colors of puzzle-sized papers you can buy, and presumably displayed in your house. There is everything for puzzles.
Other things there are everything for: everything. Next to the puzzle everythings: tiny trains, and the motors, axels, wheels, fake scenery, and electrics to make them work.
In the spirit of everything and Japan, I evaluated my recent mental state, and decided that because I am unable to refurbish pinball machines due to cumbersome size, non-existent availability, and impossible expense, I would build small scale-model plastic robots from boxes of injection-molded colored pieces attached to plastic skeins, which must be clipped away tenderly, sanded, assembled, tenderly inked, possibly painted or clear-coated, posed, and admired lovingly. I started this hobby like any reasonable American would, with a handful of cash, having done no research, and owning no essential supplies. I was ready. Until I opened the box and realized I had no way to separate the parts from the plastic they were attached to. But a hundred yen trip to the coin store later and I was crudely on my way!
This hobby is known colloquially as “gunpla,” a portmanteau (the Japanese love portmanteaus) of the words Gundam, which the model robots are based usually based on, and plastic, the substance from which the models are crafted. The models themselves are called Gunpla, and the act of and/or practices relating to building them is/are also called gunpla, such to the extent that one who gunplas Gunplas is a gunplaer, one who enjoys Gunpla, and gunplaing said Gunpla. I, as a first time Gunpla gunplaer, Absolutely Suck.
This is the result of two hours of work, and it looks larger than it is. It is my own, meticulously crafted, remarkably enjoyable to have built five inch tall Gundam, the HG RX-78-2 Ver.G30th, a variant of the original Mobile Suit Gundam from the anime series made in 1979-1980 (hence the 30th, for the 30th anniversary). Do you see all the little tiny pointy parts sticking out everywhere? These are the places that I failed, and there are at least three of them on every one of the hundreds of pieces that make up one of these goddamned things. This is because I was using a pair of crappy 100 yen wire cutters.
The beauty of gunpla is that the models themselves (these five inch versions, anyway) cost no more than ten or twelve bucks here in the Land of the Rising Fun, and even one like this, which I brazenly set out to complete as quickly as possible “just to see,” was a considerably decent cost-to-time-entertained value. Where the deal is sweetened is in the Hard Commitment, and what a rich canvas of options the gunplaer has to choose from. From the methods used to remove the pieces from their trays, the tools used to do this, the surfaces one works on, the incorporation of “panel lining” (where one traces in the ridges of parts using special Gundam Markers to add an offset emphasis), painting, clear coating, and who knows what else, the Fun Literally Never Stops. It actually continues forever, until it reaches the end of forever, which cannot happen.
Having seen these damned things stocked up in piles taller than even the grandest umbrellas, but not knowing exactly what they were before I took up this hobby, I now find myself with a new paradigm of Japanese Culture to explore, and explore it I shall: tomorrow I have a paid day off, and I am going to Osaka, and I am going to buy more stupid Gundams, because not doing so would be dumb.
SHIT OF THE WEEK WHICH IS WEIRD
– Frying a slab of fish with the skin on and being like oh hey that is not very gross
– Gunpla, obviously
– seeing a 2 liter bottle of Coke at the grocery store, the biggest container of soda I have seen in seven months, proudly touting +500ml! on it, 500ml larger than the normal large containers, available for exactly the same price as the small ones, and being ignored, because welcome to Japan (I bought one it barely fits in my fridge)
– Being struck with the revelation this morning that some cheese would be good on my curry, and putting seven or eight little anemic bits of shredded cheese on it, and saying oooh it’s so cheesy
– Getting my mail, looking through it and seeing a flyer with a completely naked young woman on it, a list of sex acts, prices, and times, and thinking “oh it’s just another flyer advertising sex for money”
ENOUGH OF THAT
This is the time of year for farewells, as I mentioned last week. During this time, a variety of every school’s teachers are randomly selected to be uprooted from their jobs and moved to other schools entirely. Excitingly, the person who I met first, my go-between, the one who coordinates between myself and my main school, who picked me up and drove me to the school from nowhere and helped me get my bank account and took me for a coffee, has been transferred, as has my go-between at my night school, and one of my three main teachers at my blind school! Also both of the principals at my main and night schools. Also every young, cute, or decent-at-English person I work with save for one or two lifers who have been transferred to other grades in the same school, and thus away from where I sit. This leaves me now in a somewhat bizarre position, outlasting the people who served to get me acquainted to these totally weird environments in the first place, and in some places reducing my “people I am friends with here” count to 0 (a number relatively challenging to bolster when you speak virtually no conversational Japanese and no longer have the “I’m the curious new foreigner try to talk to me” thing going anymore).
They all say they will do their best and they know they have to do it but here’s how it sounds to me: You’re fired! but here’s a job where you don’t know anyone and which will require you to change your life and routine entirely now pack your shit you have a week left bye! The rest of you: you could be next! One guy was there for twelve years now oops, time to go. The wheels of Japanese bureaucracy grind ever onward, leaving exactly what was expected in their wake. “These blind adherences to procedure and policy are often neither beneficial nor effective, but by doing things this way will we be doing them the same ways we’ve been doing them for years dammit and by god we are going to continue not doing anything to change that!” I am stricken again with one of those inconvenient observations of discord, where the seams peel back and you see underneath for a moment, with the ironic contradictions between ideal and policy: the harmonious Japanese Wa, the peaceful unchanging balance, the togetherness of the workforce, upset by things like the transfers, the unbalance. The expressed desire to integrate with cultures and harmonize, offset with the negative perception of the Inquisitive American vs the gaman spirit: do not ask questions, just accept your situation. Let’s live peacefully, all by ourselves, with everyone!
Note to self and concerned know-it-alls: I am not an angry person, I am not undergoing culture shock, I am trying not to stereotype, I am not “finally seeing Japan for what it really is,” I am not jaded or bitter or disenchanted, my “fantasy” was not “better than my reality,” this is not “the first step,” and I make no presumptions about being any sort of cultural anthropologist, nationalistic apologist, blind Japanophile, deaf Americanist, or curator of the world’s great unjustices. I am just a guy who is happy with his life, and a little irritated about certain things that happen in it as a “member” of the Japanese work force. Other things that irritate me: American Idol, umeboshi candy, and iCarly. Time for some fried chicken with mayonnaise on it!