I just watched ビリギャル, a movie set in Nagoya about an introverted girl who had trouble making friends, fell into the wrong crowd, and during her senior year, changed from having no chance of entering college to getting into Keio University’s schools. It’s a feel-good movie, very down-to-earth, and with a touch of realism, such that the girl fails getting into the main school, but still gets into the comprehensive school.

She attends a cram school run by an instructor who treats every student as individuals by using incentives that work for them. The instructor is passionate and gets along well with the kids and speak their language. At the end, he’s jumping and waving to his favorite student from afar as she rides the bullet train to Tokyo.

Before coming to Japan, I would think the timing of the scene was movie magic. But after arriving, I met a part-time social studies teacher, who was also the girl’s softball club advisor. He had learned the flight patterns of airplanes that passed over Aizu-Wakamatsu, and at times when an airplane would fly overhead, he would tell me where it was headed.

People really keep time here.

We Are Game Developers

A colleague just launched a website that interviews more of the game developers that you don’t often see in the usual game media outlets and it inspired me to write a bit.

When I was a kid, I wanted an NES. That thing entertained me for years, in addition to cartoons on TV. At one point, Samurai Pizza Cats was playing, so when my mom brought back a cart from a trip to Vietnam, I was surprised to see Speedy, Polly, and Guido. I was so excited to play this game, thinking that no one else had, but I couldn’t really share it because I couldn’t read it. It had a game feature I’d never played before: switching characters with different powers to overcome an obstacle. Since I couldn’t read the Japanese, most of the fun was figuring out the UI and HUD elements, and what button activated what, and in what menu or play state. But there were also a lot of cut-scenes with story-telling and dialogue that I couldn’t understand beyond the simple character animations, and the melody of the chiptunes. キャッ党忍伝てやんでえ was one of the discoveries that motivated me to study Japanese.

A few months ago, I sat in Makoto Goto’s lecture at Aizu University. He’s one of the developers of the latter Final Fantasy series, and is currently developing middleware for making particle effects. He recounts his first experience with programming, growing up in the rural mountains of Niigata, and having to travel 3 towns away to the nearest bookstore that carried a book on BASIC. Where he got the computer to practice executing BASIC is a question for another time.

One thing he said that I never really thought about was “Making games is to bring your dreams to reality.” It’s sort of a “duh” thing to say about any art medium, but I was reminded to when I felt limited as a kid, when dreams are still being explored and waiting to be discovered, and connections between what we experience to what we imagine could be true were being made. So things like Mario walking into pipes and Sonic the Hedgehog running through the city become iconic because we were just trying shit out.

But the game industry grows older with us. There will always be a place for experimentation, but individual experiences provide different interpretations. Possibilities and access are more open to those who carry certain privileges, and we soon discover that those who lack those privileges have other ways of achieving goals. And I think that’s where today’s impactful games are going and need. Presenting problems that many people don’t think about with solutions that are challenging to find.

The design structures are already there, now we just need to fill it with content.

Volleyball manager

During my first year, I tried to remember as many names as I could. It really helped build rapport with the students, and they loved it when I remembered their names. One chipper student, though, had a name I’d never heard before, but she had such positive energy that I couldn’t forget her face, or her voice.

“Give me a hint!”



“No! Moegi! Don’t forget it!”

“Okay! I won’t!”

And everytime I saw her, I would say, “Hi MOEGI” so that I wouldn’t forget.

In her second year, I asked what she wanted to do in the future after stopping her to chat during our lunchtime English Cafe’s. She excitedly answered, “Social Media!” I was totally into that. How do you use social media? I ask. Twitter! LINE! I tell her she would be great a social media because she’s so out-going.

Now she’s a 3rd year, and one day called me over where she and a friend were studying. I hadn’t seen her for a while.

“Cat-sensei, cat-sensei!”

“Moegi, Moegi!”

“I have something to tell you!”

“What, what!”

“I passed!”

“Wow! YAY! You’re going to Yokohama, right!”

“Yeah! Kanagawa! I’m going to learn about magazines and stuff!”

“Congratulations! I’m very proud of you!”

“Thank youuuuu <3”


The writer

English Cafe brings the best 1st years.

This year, a really excited boy came up. I must have taught a class where I revealed that I liked anime, so he comes along one day and asks what shows I like and asks if I like JRPGs, and that he’s wants to write one in the future. Unfortunately, I’m no fan of JRPGs, but I am so excited to feel such rare passion from a student, so I totally show my support. He recommends to me J-pop groups, like Back-Tick, and recently a horror anime called Kurodzuka 黒塚, a Kamakura period style modern setting based on the story of 姨捨山, the mountain where you abandon your grandparents. At least that’s what I was able to fill the blanks with.

When he first comes up, he would try a few English phrases with me. I would continue the conversation in English, ask him a few questions, and I receive a stream of excited Japanese. I have to tell him to slow down, or explain a few things to me. I told him about a local Game Jam that’s happening at the local university. He hesitates, saying that he’s more of a writer, and will probably focus on that. At least he’s got his priorities straight!

There’s something about Kansai…

When I make my rounds at school, I usually ask the 1st years what club they’re in, the 2nd years what they’re studying, and the 3rd years where they want to go or what they want to do after graduating high school.

Once I asked a 3rd year why she didn’t pick any schools in Kansai. She said she was afraid she’d turn into a gyaru.

“But aren’t there gyaru in Kanto?”

“Yeah, but the gyaru in Kansai are pretty rough and scary. “

“I see…”

Aizu-Wakamatsu Hipsters

9NINE and Straight Arrow Motors are owned by a couple of middle-aged businessmen, who used to run men’s fashion shops together in Tokyo, selling clothes that they bought on their trips from Southern California. When the Japanese economy was booming, they could sell pieces for quite a profit margin. I’m pretty sure they had a great time, as they are incredibly into American culture. One tells me he loves Coronado, and the Spanish ladies, and I wanted to tell him, they’ll eat you alive!

What I like about hanging out with these guys is their authenticity. They’ve embraced this do-whatever-it-takes culture, which makes them street-smart and people-smart, but they also have personal pride that allows them to have long-term relationships with their customers. Their customers are a community of rag-tag townies who enjoy their fixie bikes and imported cars. Most of them are also middle-aged guys, some with families, and some who’ve been through divorces and separation from their kids, so sometimes it’s like a group of Lost Boys, who share an interest in their bikes and cars. Several of them also enjoy indoor/outdoor bouldering as well, and a few of them actually opened a bouldering cafe to introduce beginners.

Every year, they throw BBQs, drinking parties, and rides around the lake, and they invite anyone and everyone. It’s probably good business sense to have a large network, but it’s their personal policy that they stick by the products they sell you and keep their relationship with you for as long as you’re around. Many people living here in Aizu-Wakamatsu had probably come from a small town or village in the depths of the mountains. Their hometowns are pretty spread out, so it’s definitely a family affair.

As for their shop names, 9NINE, which sells stylized track bikes, comes from the number of cyclists on a track in the sport of keirin, or track bike racing.

Straight Arrow, which sells imported cars… comes from doing things in a stupid way, like how idiots go about living their lives. So it was explained to me. I have a feeling it was lost in a translation because these guys don’t seem like straight arrows to me!


Before coming to Japan, I’d went to visit a friend in New York, and joined him and his friends on a bike trip in Poughkeepsie. I needed a bike, so we went to his friend’s, a girl about my height, to borrow her single speed. It was quite a ride, with hills that challenged my body that I hadn’t been taking good care of. But I had so much fun, coasting on the empty roads and feeling the wind on my face, that I was determined to do the same in Japan. I didn’t know what kind of bike I wanted, except that it had to be light with a quick release front wheel.

When I came to Japan, the school was required to get a mama-chari for me. For a common bike, it was pretty expensive, starting at a little more than $100 for a single-gear mama-chari. I got a new mama-chari for a little only one available under $250, with 3 speeds.

I was really excited to ride a mama-chari at first. I felt like I was riding a beach cruiser, and I could get to school in the humid heat without worrying about being a sweaty mess. But it soon lost its charm. Mama-charis are built for stability, so its frames are heavy steel, their wheels are wide for traction. They are also built for moms, so when you buy them, they come standard with aluminum chain guards, which I’ve built a certain hatred towards, metal fenders, a rear upright kickstand, a rear wheel lock, a rear rack, a dynamo light on your front wheel, and a basket.

As I got stronger and more used to biking, the mama-chari felt slow and sluggish. I really wanted something light to feel that cool air in my face again, but I wasn’t ready to fork out a couple thousand dollars for a professional road bike. I am an urban girl through and through, with a taste for earthiness.

An acquaintance who knew more about bikes than I did took me to his favorite bike shops. The first sold GIANT bikes and Cannondales. Their catalog had a couple of single-speed bikes, but they seemed heavy at an average of 13kg, and expensive to boot.

And then we visited 9NINE. Oh my god, did it feel like home. While the shop interior was comforting, I had no idea what I was doing and wanted. It was intimidating, even though the store owner was really inviting. All I could say was I was just looking.

Winter came and went and I walked. When the snow melted, I was in the market again for a bike again. I happened upon the Fuji Feather on the Internet, and fell for its sexy urban marketing. I was still reluctant to get it, and searched for places where I could see and ride one in person. Getting to a bike store that had it in stock took too much time and was too much trouble and I really wanted to get started.

I decided I would buy it after making a visit to 9NINE, which I hadn’t done since the first time. In my terrible Japanese, I told the owner that I was planning to get the Feather, but wanted to see if he carried frames my size. We tested the smallest bike he had in stock, and it was still too big for me. I gave in at the point, and told the owner I would buy the Feather, and whether I could I it delivered to his store in case one had to put it together. He readily agreed.

Once I got the bike, the  owner slowly introduced me to his group of friends and invited me to their rides around Lake Inawashiro, their BBQs, and drinking parties. A lot of the guys, shy and quiet, work for the post office, and the loud ones are business owners who own an American car dealership. In the past, the bike shop owner and the car dealer used to resell fashion they bought in LA boutiques. That’s how you hustle in Japan!

Only one other person on the rides is a girl, the wife of the childhood friend of the owner. Thanks to her, I feel more relaxed around the guys, and she’s is unexpectedly fit for a nerdy sort of person, so she’s like my unofficial pace-setter.

I still take the mama-chari to the bus and train stations when I go out of town, or when I can’t carry everything in a rucksack.

Fun shit

<I’m hanging out at the senior students’ lounge for lunch. Some of the students are loitering around. A baseball boy beyond the partition does what I think is an impression of a foghorn.>
Me: <To the student who’s lingering between our two partitions>Tell him to shut up.
Student: Pecchaaaan, shut up.
Pecchan: すみません (sorry…)

It was much funnier in person.

Smart Energy in Fukushima

On Mondays, I’m sometimes invited to attend an adult English conversation class that is run by one of my students’ parents. This past week, she invited a researcher at Aizu University who is working on how to harness “smart energy” with information technology. “Smart energy” is the buzzword that refers to wind, solar, geothermal (地熱), and underground thermal (地中熱)energies. How he got to this point was incredibly interesting.

After the nuclear accident (he kept using bomb at first… freudian slip?), offices in Tokyo were asked to conserve energy because there wasn’t enough going around. At the time, he was a manager at his office, and was put in charge of energy conservation, which meant light regulation. Every day, he had a routine of turning on and off lights in different parts of a wide open office room and different times of the day. After a while of doing this, and seeing the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of scheduled manual regulation, he thought that this could so easily be automated. So he did a lot of his own studying in energy automation.  (I didn’t ask if he actually implemented any automation software.)

Conveniently, the university was looking for someone who could lead a project that would process and analyze data collected from smart energy sources to efficiently distribute that energy to individual homes. And they found this researcher. With Fukushima’s vast land area and varying climates, the researcher was excited to talk to about transporting smart energy collected from all three parts of Fukushima to and from each other, and regulate that energy transport depending on seasons when the respective areas collect less energy than usual.

What is great about this project is its goal to make smart energy distribution and transaction an open source model, so that localities can take advantage of the system and engage in self-revitalization. The top 3 players in the energy business are Hitachi, Toshiba, and Fujitsu. Instead of using these companies to do business and sell to the public consumer “smart energy” collected from solar panel and wind turbine farms, and geothermal sources on land that belong to the citizens, this open source system cuts out corporate middle-men.

Of course, this is just the vision, and our visiting researcher has been doing a lot of work in the last few years without significant results, but certainly small progressive ones.

I asked him if he liked Aizu and what hikes about it, and he loves the sake here, and how close it is to the ski slopes. That was great to hear that from a guy born and raised in Tokyo.


Today was the  awards ceremony for this year’s seniors. There were awards for effort (努力賞), attendance (皆勤賞), highly distinguished (特別功労賞)、distinguished (功労賞)、and best student of diligent character and outstanding grades (総合学科卒業生成績優秀者賞). I was happy to recognize the student that received that last one, which should itself win an award for being such a tongue twister (sougou gakka sotsugyousei seiseki yuushuu shashou), as the one who had asked me what my thoughts were about Hayao Miyazaki’s announcement of his retirement.

The gist of my answer was, “Let the man rest and enjoy the rest of his life! Steve Jobs worked so hard and he passed at 52!”

The next day, they had a radio show during lunch where they broadcasted my answer in Japanese, along with how this would be the fifth time that Miyazaki has mentioned retirement, and a list of when he mentioned it. Below was the script:

9月5日 (木) 学鳳ちょこっとニュース


今日は、ジブリの宮崎駿監督 引退についての話題です。