My Japanese Adventure Began 10 Years Ago Today

Ten years ago, I arrived in Japan.  This was after the insanity of 9/11 and the shoe-bomber, but before the insanity of 3-1-1 containers for liquid.

I flew out on Wednesday, June 15 at 9:06am from Hartford to Detroit.  In Detroit, I saw the first sign of security madness then infecting our airports.  All foreign visitors were told by a TSA agent that they had to get thumb-printed before they left the country, or they might not be let back in.  Paranoia as policy.  I don’t think many of the guests complied.

Then again, the group I flew with on the plane disregarded the fasten seatbelt sign except when we were taking off and landing.  A combination of turbulence, food, and lack of sleep made me as close to plane sickness as I’ve ever come.

We were scheduled to land at 4:25 pm (12:25 am Seattle time), and I believe we landed pretty close to that time.  Customs was a breeze (as it usually is for me), but I had trouble finding my contact person, who was supposed to be holding a NOVA sign.  His name was Dan, and he had a bald head.  Others joined us, including a young husband and wife with gear that made me think they were traversing Mt. Fuji straight from the airport.  I also witnessed two friends meeting at the airport, both female: one Japanese, one American.  If I had to guess, I’d say they were high school age, and the Japanese girl was so happy that her friend was here in Japan.  I saw other reunions, too, but between Japanese men and women.

I received a packet of information at the airport, which included a phone card, preloaded with 500円.  I couldn’t get to work, so I used the computers at the terminal and sent an email to everyone, telling them I had arrived.

What followed was a long train ride from Narita Airport to my new address in Musashi Koganei. Along the way, our group got smaller, until it was only me and Dan.  When we exited Musashi Koganei Station (after transferring to another line, which I later learned was the Chuo), a light drizzle greeted us.  Dan used his cell phone once outside the station to make sure we were going in the right direction.  My bags slowed me down, and I stopped often along the way.   We also stopped at a convenience store, so that I could buy some food.  The husband of the husband-and-wife team at the airport had told me that the Japanese will change any denomination, and indeed, they changed my 10,000円 bill (roughly $100) for food that couldn’t have cost more than ten bucks.  Afterwards, Dan congratulated me on my first transaction in Japan.

I wouldn’t meet my roommate until the following morning, so I spent a lonely night in my new room, with nasty Japanese mosquitoes.  It was in a place called Birdland Koganei, reachable only by four flights of stairs.

I didn’t know it then, but at 26 years old, I was about to embark upon the greatest experience of my life.


An Open Letter To President Obama

Dear Mr. President,

Looking around, I see a country in which liberty is quashed in the name of security (even if said security won’t make us that much safer) and rational thought has been replaced by fear.

Dear Mr. President,

Looking around, I see a country in which liberty is quashed in the name of security (even if said security won’t make us that much safer) and rational thought has been replaced by fear.  Though your health reforms did not go far enough, the bill was one of the few decisions that went against fear.

Unfortunately, too much of the “war on terror” is based on fear.  Fear that 9/11 will happen again, if we don’t account for every possibility.  Gone are the days when blunt objects, sharp objects, weapons, and explosive agents were the only things not allowed on planes.  Now bottled water is such a threat that it must be drunk before boarding. Other liquids are so hazardous that they must be placed in an indestructible plastic baggy, and only allowed through 3 oz at a time.  That includes my contact solution, toothpaste, and mouthwash.  Eye drops and liquid-based chapstick, too, but at least they come in small containers, as do my contact lens cases, filled with solution–and my contacts.   And forget gel insoles.  You might as well be bringing plastic explosives through security.

Unfortunately, the world has joined us in our insanity.  And now full body scans are being installed in airports.  Did anyone ask if Americans want to be protected in this way?  Remember the quote about freedom and safety that Benjamin Franklin (may have) made.  Our freedom is certainly being taken away, but how much safety are we gaining in return?  Enough to feel harassed and have to bring sandwich baggies with us on a plane for objects that do harm to no one?  Enough to have a nude image of us appear on a screen for a stranger to view, however brief?  Enough to have our health possibly compromised by the technology used to make the scan?

And if we refuse, then we are subject to a vigorous pat-down.  Are we entering an airplane, or a prison cell, Mr. President?  Targeting innocent civilians for such a security measure seems excessive, especially considering that the TSA is telling us that we can’t put certain things in our carry on bags that we used to be able to put in them, while most airlines are charging us for checked bags.  Wonder why we’re a little pissed off?   Civility is dying in this country, and customer service may already be dead.

Part of this problem is due to our reliance on air travel.  We have lagged far behind Europe, to say nothing of Asian nations like Japan, which have multiple and more efficient modes of public transportation, such as trains.  And not just trains, but trains that run at different speeds, depending on how far away your destination is.

Still, when we travel overseas, planes are much faster than boats.  So why, then, would you put security measures in place that make us want to fly less, which cost the airlines money, which they then take out on their remaining customers, who then decide they don’t want to fly anymore?

Fear has claimed other victims, too: prisoners are still being held in Guantanamo Bay, when that place should’ve been shut down years ago.  Your opponents used fear to stay your executive order.  That should have told you that your argument was just, and theirs was nonexistent.  The war in Afghanistan continues, costing us far too many lives, goodwill, and money to be sustained (even with the draw down of troops in 2011, we will be there for many years to come).

And then there’s tax cuts on the rich (driven more by toeing an imbecilic party line than by fear).  The rich aren’t suffering right now.  In fact, they hardly feel the effects of the bad economy, except that they’re making far more money than they deserve, or that any person should be entitled to.  I believe in upward mobility in this country, but money should never be the goal, and after a certain threshold is reached, the money would do better to leave the hands of the few, in order to benefit the lives of the many.

Consider this, Mr. President: the rich did pretty well under Eisenhower, when they paid much higher taxes (around 90%).  Hell, they did well under Clinton, and paid higher taxes–the tax rates, in fact, that they would return to if the Bush tax cuts expired.  I feel you should go further and increase them to the rates they were under Eisenhower, arguably the most prosperous time in American history.  And cap executive pay, so that net profits are shared among the workers, not just the guys at the top.  After all, does it make sense that most of these men make more than you do as leader of this country, Mr. President?

Recently, Jon Stewart held a Rally to Restore Sanity.  I think it would be wise if the federal government returned to sane ways of dealing with our nation’s very real problems, instead of trying to get re-elected. Democrats being voted out of power in the House doesn’t mean that the American people want you to show less spine on issues, or that they believe that the Republicans have the answers they’re looking for. We, as a nation, are looking to people who can get things done.  Sadly, neither party seems to be interested in getting things done right now.

But getting back to airport security: I think this speaks to a larger problem in this country than just fear, a problem that you said you would fight, Mr. President, but apparently have forgotten about. The problem has to do with powerful interests being invested in the governmental power structure, on both sides of the aisle. There’s lots of money to be made in fear, in insecurity, in war, and these invested interests are profiting at the expense of the Republic.  At the expense of our freedom. At the expense, even, of our security.

Your mistake, early on, was in not holding these forces accountable.  There have been no investigations into wrongdoings by the last administration, no investigations into criminal activity (or, at least, reckless behavior) by the companies that caused the economy to collapse, and no accountability attached to the millions of dollars that were shoveled at them (unlike, say, the strings attached to car companies that received federal funding).  The way that we turn the page, Mr. President, is by seeing that justice is done, that past wrongs are corrected when it is still possible to do so.  Not by acting as if nothing happened.  Not by sending a message to future administrations that they can engage in criminal activity, so long as they prevent any investigations from happening while they are in power, since none will happen when they are out of power.

I’d like to remind you of one other thing you forgot. You forgot that an army of young and disenfranchised voters swept you to power.  These voters, myself included, wanted you to launch an investigation into the Bush administration’s misdeeds.  We wanted a public option for health care.  We wanted you to go after Wall Street, and the banks, and the CEOs making money for short term gain at the expense of long term stability.  We want you to root out these powerful interests.  Yet, time and time again, when the numbers were on your side (and the Democrats side), you (and the Democrats) caved in to Republican fear tactics.  What you need to remember, Mr. President, is that the same people who elected you are the same people who will give you the power to overcome Republican (and Democrat) opposition to your plans.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’d like to remind you that we are still out here, Mr. President. Waiting for you to rally us. Waiting for a leader to lead us.