The Account

Setting sun

Sayonara, Japan.

Let's do this again sometime.

The biggest mistake of my life?

In my experience, most gaijin who move here don't stay long. This country's emphasis on tradition and conformity can be pretty imposing, and the culture shock can feel like a straitjacket to some. Of course, many come here with a suitcase full of misguided expectations—about the culture, the economy, the women... mostly about themselves. Even the ones that say they're planning to stay here forever may be doing it for the wrong reasons. Whenever I ask, the long-termers always say the same thing: "There's nothing for me back home."

If you've read this site's archives, you'll know my first year here in Tokyo was no picnic. So, what with the previous three months of no blog entries, it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that I ultimately got depressed, gave up, and bought a plane ticket outta here.

Which is pretty ironic, considering how sweet my life is right now. Stunningly sweet.

I live in a cozy apartment with a loft bedroom, a widescreen projection TV that takes up an entire wall, ample closet space and a small park just outside my front door. I'm a nine-minute walk from Ikebukuro station, one of the main transportation hubs of central Tokyo, and surrounded by a thousand shops and restaurants. In 30 minutes, I could be in Ginza. In an hour, Yokohama. In two hours, Kyoto. I work at most five hours a day—usually three. My job consists of chatting with charming Japanese grandmothers, teaching them how to pronounce words like "collateral," and answering tricky grammar questions. I spend at least an hour a day walking around Tokyo, and I eat Japanese food like sushi or tempura for lunch pretty much all the time. I have movie-watching parties at my apartment twice a month (which few people could attend if I didn't live in a hub city like Ikebukuro), and spend my free time teaching myself computer animation, watching Naruto or videoconferencing with friends over the Internet.

You'd have to be pretty nuts to walk away from all that. And yet that's what I'm doing, in four days. I don't know what my future in New York holds, but I'm pretty sure I'll be working more than three hours a day, and I'm pretty sure the job'll be a lot more stressful than just talking about verbs. I doubt I'll be seeing cherry blossoms outside my window, either.

Is my need to be a filmmaker so important? It's a pretty blissful existence I'm giving up. Obviously some part of my thinks so, or I wouldn't be doing this, but you know, I've been wrong before.


That short animation I translated from Japanese is online now, if anyone's interested.

It's 30 minutes; science-fiction.

Is this thing on?

I'm back.


The Account is coming to a close. On April 20th, I'll be leaving Tokyo to pursue my film-career ambitions in New York, yet another city I've never lived in before. (I'll also be making a weeklong stop in San Francisco, if anyone wants to hang out.)

I apologize for abandoning the blog this year. Over time, more and more of my overseas friends have stopped responding to my e-mails, and by January, I wasn't sure there was anyone left who was still reading this. It's not that I stopped updating out of spite, or anything like that—it's just that it didn't make much sense to spend all that time relating my experiences to an empty theater.

In the last few weeks, though, a good number of my local friends have chided me over the lack of updates, and with my impending return to the States (and considerable increase in free time, now that all my classes are over), now's a good time to wrap things up.

Here's what you missed:


A photo of Shinjuku I took during a New Years' shrine visit with Daisuke.

The first half of January in Japan is basically an extended national holiday (much like the last half of December in the U.S.), so I took advantage of all the cancelled classes to grind away on my animation project, which went well. I also continued "Movie Night," a biweekly get-together in my living room at which I screened movies for my Japanese, Australian and British friends. Highlights included Shaun of the Dead, Say Anything, Tremors and Supersize Me.

More of the same. English teaching during the day; animation at night. February's a pretty bland month in any country. By this point, I'd already made my flight arrangements, and I began informing my students of my imminent departure.


Shao Guee, animator at large.

March was a crazy month, the kind of hectic, unpredictable whirlwind I fantasized about before I came here. I feel kinda bad about not writing about this one before—as you can see, I took pictures and everything.

It all started with the Hash Animation:Master Forums, an online community of animators devoted to the character-animation software of the same name. One of the members posted a link to Haruwo, a stunningly elaborate science-fiction anime epic. At 37 minutes in length, it represented one of the most impressive projects ever put together by a Hash A:M user, and the community was in awe. Just one problem: It was completely in Japanese, with no way for the forum enthusiasts to understand it.

Which is where I came in. Now, my Japanese is still, even after all this time, sub-kindergarten level. (What can I say? Speaking English all day is my job.) But I have a good conceptual understanding of the language, and a lot of free time, and... well, you can see where this is going. I volunteered to spearhead the translation effort. The next four weeks were an obsessive, grueling crash-course in online dictionaries, yakuza lingo, dialects and slang. I made a number of bizarre mistranslations, but fortunately Haruwo creator Shao Guee was able to catch them, and helped me out with lines whose nuances I just couldn't figure out.

It was this same Shao Guee who treated me to yakiniku a few days into my self-imposed linguistic marathon, partly out of gratitude, partly out of curiosity. Shy and self-effacing, he spent hours describing his style and his influences, from Akira to H. G. Wells. My own meager animation experiments have thus far yielded about 14 seconds of finished product; now I was sitting across from a man who had produced almost 40 minutes using the same tools. "Dedication" doesn't even begin to describe it.

(Incidentally, my Japanese-to-English translation of Haruwo can be viewed here.)

I had to make a lot of goodbyes to a lot of great students. Being poor, I couldn't buy them going-away presents, but I did what I could and printed out a "greatest hits" selection of my favorite photos, with my e-mail address printed in the margins, and passed them out. The Karuizawa Mist image was the hands-down favorite, for some reason.

I also went to visit Daisuke in the hospital. He'd torn a ligament while snowboarding, which not only forced him to cancel our trip to Studio Ghibli, but also jeopardized his plans to attend Alliant University in San Diego this August. Now he's stuck in a grimy, sweltering military hospital, with only the pirated Hollywood movies I bring him to ease the pain.

Well, that just about brings us up to date. Sorry to leave you all hanging like that. I'll try to post a couple more entries between now and when I board the plane, but no promises.

This site is the account of Mike Stamm's life in Japan.
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