Thursday, November 17, 2011

Through the Looking Glass

Some explanation of these two posts is due.

There is a good book called "Japan Through the Looking Glass", which seems a particularly fitting title at present. Cognitive dissonance and things happening backwards in time don't seem to concern the locals, who just get on with whatever they are told to do.

It is a bit hard to explain what happened without Lewis Carroll's superior writing skills. On a Friday we were told, by a white knight, that one of us (as yet unspecified!) had agreed to lead a sub-theme of a new large five-year project, focussing on a topic which we didn't think credible or interesting. We had not, but we did know of the general existence of the large project (and in fact currently work on its predecessor). We had even arranged to be informed about this new project in a seminar next February. The White Queen told us to prepare carefully and think of some good ideas over the weekend, which of course, was impossible as we had no idea what we were preparing for. On Monday we met with the knight and Queen, were told what the project was about, voiced our strident disagreement with the underlying premise, developed a workable compromise, and then we had 48 hours to write a proposal for our sub-theme. That same day we all also managed to meet with the White King, in transit between meetings, for 20 minutes in a coffee shop in the middle of Tokyo. There are no other candidates for the funds, and it had already been decided that the proposal was to be successful, but in a rare act of temporal sense, it had been decided that this time it would be nice to plan in advance what each sub-theme was going to do, rather than to plan it afterwards, as usually happens. There was the trifling detail of one official form being required from our employer that takes two weeks to obtain but which had to be submitted within a week, but it turns out that time can in fact be warped when it really matters. Slightly more worrying is the fact that actually James and I do not yet have jobs for next year, because they depend on the other large project (organised by the shogi pieces) which does not yet have any budget at all, even provisionally. It is almost impossible to extract any useful information from the leaders of that project and we don't even understand the sort of moves they make. This makes doing any sort of planning something of a struggle. But we did it, and the knight very kindly did the translation as well as his own proposal. The most stressful part was done by a pawn, quite new on the chess board, who was given the task of calculating the budget, getting the form through JAMSTEC, and then submitting it on-line, on Monday afternoon. Right at the last minute, we suddenly discovered that our pre-ordained budget was 30% larger than we had catered for, which caused a bit of a panic until we arranged for someone else to take the excess off our hands.

On Tuesday we took the day off and enjoyed a lovely relaxing fun-filled day in Kamakura. Now everything seems so much better.


tonylearns said...

Thanks for explaining. Makes me yearn for the inexplicableness of being in Japan. One of my many favorite stories was being with a group of performers, and wanting to have a place to juggle at night. They said they would "look into it", which they never did. As we drove from work one night we passed a building a block away from where we worked, and someone noticed there was a basketball court. PERFECT for juggling. We asked about it, and they said it was a basketball court. We asked if it was open at night. They said "yes, it was a community court, open to the public but nobody used it at night." GREAT. "Could we practice there". They said. "Basketball?". Foolishly, you can guess what we said. They said, rather nervously, having worked with Gaijin many times. "So sorry, only basketball." We argued back and forth four or five times, explaining that we needed a place to practice and since that wasn't being used and was open to the public, that it was the perfect solution. They kept asking us if we wanted to play basketball there. I think I had only been to Japan a couple of times, and did not realize that they were offering us an out for them. Just SAY you are going to play basketball so that that will be the official story, and we can go there, take a basketball and practice juggling. I got much better at the game on later visits.

James Annan said...

Ah yes, the "agree and then do what the hell you wanted to anyway" approach - very convenient once you are used to it! Not that any of this is uniquely Japanese, but they do seem particularly adept at it...

David B. Benson said...

Was that trip through the looking glass conducted in English, Japanese, or Enganese?

James Annan said...

Oh, we still get to play in English, thankfully.

William M. Connolley said...

> in a rare act of temporal sense, it had been decided that this time it would be nice to plan in advance what each sub-theme was going to do, rather than to plan it afterwards, as usually happens.

Hey, I like the sound of the old version far more. Why stifle your creativity?

> we suddenly discovered that our pre-ordained budget was 30% larger than we had catered for

Ah well, that is your salary and pension sorted, then.

James Annan said...

"Ah well, that is your salary and pension sorted, then."

Unfortunately the rules forbid any such sensible or beneficial use. It would have meant about 10 (extra!) long-haul trips a year...and we aren't starved of travel as it is. We did actually keep a fraction of it, to take the pressure off other budgets.

Hank Roberts said...

> 10 (extra!) long-haul trips a year

Perhaps you could arrange to send instrument packages on tour? Place them on the whaling fleet for example to take water temperature profiles? Repurposing old equipment to do science after the commercial or military users are done ...

EliRabett said...

Frankly that looks normal. The problem of getting money out the door is not seldom

notjonathon said...

Hey, it's still November. Some years ago, 17 to be exact, I had been designated as Department Chair in a small women's college in western Japan. I needn't go into the frictions this caused--we were establishing a four-year school at a long-established junior college.
I was also in charge of the English-language program that was to be the central sales point of the school. I needn't go into the frictions this caused--nor the lifetime enmities that resulted.
Anyway, along about the end of the first week in March, I was informed that I had a budget to establish a language learning center, an idea that had been suggested by an American teacher, but which had been bandied about for the whole two years I had been there. Talks had been fruitless.
Suddenly, I had to plan a center and then spend ten million yen in three weeks.
As if that were not enough, I was also informed at the same meeting that I had to buy books for the library before the end of the fiscal year (March 31). That budget, if I recall, was rather less, but quite substantial.
I learned a lot about the vending and purchasing process (although I was too dumb to ask for kickbacks), including the use of paper companies for competing bids and fungible purchase orders.
Actually, in regard to kickbacks, someone higher up was almost certainly getting them already, so there wouldn't have been any left for me.
Although much of the money was in fact virtually (that is, purchased on paper) before the end of the fiscal year, there was the odd sight of the gaijin madly racing through Maruzen and Kinokuniya with armloads of books, as well as scouring the music stores for video tapes and laser discs (a couple of generations of tech ago).
One final note: I didn't have the luxury of doing this in English.

notjonathon said...

Should be "virtually purchased."

I might add that I was in an otherwise enviable position as a permanent (the Japanese equivalent of tenure) employee, with no worries about next year's employment or potential visa problems. On the other hand, that meant that I had to get in there and join the fight, which created a different kind of stress.

Now I am retired and trying to divide my time between Japan and the island of Guam (officially US soil and only three and a half nonstop hours away from my home in Japan).

Anyone interested in a support group for North Americans living permanently in Japan? You'll have to come west, because I really don't want to travel to Tohoku or Kanto all that much. Of course, I am old (officially--I can get a discount on medical services), but my daughter insists that I live another 30 years, so I have to listen to her.