January is more than halfway through now, so this is, as entries here so often are, a little late. But there’s been plenty of activity this year, the first of benhourigan.com, so it’s time to review 2005.
I started this blog on 18 January 2005. Subsequently, during the summer holidays (in which I was still meant to be studying) I indulged in self-pity, began playing World of Warcraft, and finished the first draft of my PhD thesis. That, however, was the last major progress I made for a while. Blogging reinvigorated my love of writing, but took time away from my PhD, as did World of Warcraft.
In mid-February, I started meeting with a woman who I developed a crush on by reading her blog, and though we had some brilliant conversations, the romantic element of it went nowhere, for reasons no doubt involving but not limited to my own reticence and lack of emotional energy. Meanwhile, an old relationship was still experiencing some of its last death throes.
On 28 February, my grandfather, Hugh Slattery, died. We’d not had the closest of relationships in recent years, partly because I felt our ideological disagreements would make it difficult for us to talk, partly because his crippling emphysema really did make it nearly impossible to have a lengthy conversation with him.
The sad thing was that many of our ideological disagreements had disappeared not long before he died. In his prime, in the 1950s and 60s, Hugh was an anti-communist activist in Australia. Since about 1997, when I was just 15, I’d considered myself a socialist of one brand or another of each of the intervening years. 2005 was the first year when I didn’t even consider myself “left wing” for a single day. I rather spent my time feeling uneasy about being associated with the “right wing,” an uneasiness which continues to dissipate by the day, since I now consider myself closest to “conservative” in political disposition. More on that another time, but it’s seen me endure an unprecedented amount of personal attacks, which I’ll no doubt become inured to in the near future.
Hugh’s death made me think more carefully than I had in a while about my relationship to traditions, both political and family. Having turned against socialism, I could now view my anticommunism as being in continuity with my family’s politics (on my mother’s side particularly, but my father is no ally of communism, either). In addition, I thought of my own interest in intellectual work in the light of the role reading and writing played in Hugh’s political life and in his recreation. And even though I consider myself an anti-theist agnostic, I could still see that the orthodox Catholic religious beliefs so dear to my grandfather had, through the education I received from my mother and from Catholic schools, given me a familiarity with religious concepts that enriches my agnostic spiritual life and my understanding of the theism I despise.
In the aftermath of his death, my mother and I co-wrote obituaries published in News Weekly and The Age. These were the most major and widely circulated publications I’d ever had my name attached to.
As the year wore on (and yes, even by March it was already wearing), I plodded through revisions of my thesis, which I had long since lost enthusiasm for, partly because so much of it bore the stamp of the Marxist and post-ist cultural theory I had been indoctrinated with during my undergraduate degree, and which I now recognised as, for the most part, utter drivel.
As the expiry of my scholarship approached, I began to prepare for life after government support by applying for a job teaching English with NOVA in Japan. I’d been planning to go to Japan since 2001, but the plan had now reached the point of inevitability. My plans to leave Australia (and leave for a long time, if not for good) had kept me from investing a lot of energy in my life in Australia, and now I entered a true phase of limbo, where my life in Australia was coming to an imminent end.
I left my apartment in Malvern in July, after around 5 and a half years, and packed my life into two suitcases. Without any sense of having a home, I spent time between my ex-girlfriend Annette’s house, and my parents’, barely working on my thesis but managing to write my first published-for-pay article, “Are Videogames Conservative?”, which appeared in The IPA Review in September.
On 31 August, I left Australia from Tullamarine airport, excited about a new life in Japan.
I arrived at Narita Airport, Tokyo, on the morning of 1 September 2006. I’d already discovered that I was heading not for Tokyo or Osaka, as I’d requested, but to the industrial city of Ota in Gunma prefecture, some 2 hours north of Tokyo by train. Not so bad, I thought: at least my life was going somewhere different, and I’d soon be transferred somewhere better.
Alarm bells should have started ringing for me, and they certainly did, when one of NOVA’s HR managers, who escorted me to the train to Ota, told me he didn’t have a clue about where I was going because he “never goes north of Ikebukuro” (Ikebukuro being one of the more northern areas of Central Tokyo).
My good sense was initially wiped out by the shock of discovering that the world outside Australia was in fact real, and did not exist only in books and on tv, and the exhilaration of having left Australia and finally being in Japan as I had so long desired to be. But within weeks, I was painfully aware of the dire boredom that faced not just me but the other residents (gaijin and Japanese alike) in Ota, the complete lack of intellectual life, and the question of how I’d manage to find a woman to hop into bed with in a town with 200,000 residents but only 5 or 6 female gaijin and most of them married or close to it.
In one of the most unexpected instances of risk-taking in my entire life, I, already around A$8000 in debt, and with no salary coming my way, left NOVA and Ota at a day’s notice for not a job, but a mere job interview with Berlitz in Osaka. Later reflection on the decision-making process involved in moving to Osaka, coupled with philosophical discussions with my friend Sasha, prompted me to accept determinism, something I’d been fooling myself into avoiding for a while.
Fortunately, I got the job, but managed to max out my credit card at its limit of A$11,300 by the time I got my first Berlitz paycheck, around 3 months after I’d arrived in Japan.
In the beginning, Osaka was an interesting playground to explore, and with Kyoto and Kobe just 30 minutes away, the Kansai area is full of charming landscape and historical attractions. Shortly after I arrived, I also had the pleasure of doing my first radio interview, with Libby Price of 3LO, who’d been intrigued by my piece in the IPA review. (Some time later, my work also got somewhat misrepresented when blogged on by Edmund Tadros of the Sydney Morning Herald.)
As it had in Ota, though, my initial attraction to Osaka palled, partly because of a burden of debt and expensive catastrophes like hard-drive failure. Life in Japan, for a foreigner, is isolating and unstimulating. Now in the city, I got to really test whether I could live here, and found the answer to be a definite “no”. Japan is, more than 100 years after opening its ports to the West, still an extremely closed country, totally uncosmopolitan and unwelcoming. English teachers here have very limited opportunities to learn Japanese, and the “work-hard-and-long, not smart” culture that prevails here leaves most Japanese people little time to cultivate interesting and vibrant personalities. Being an intellectual, I’ve spent most of my life on the outer of Australian society, and contrary to my expectation, I’m less comfortable, not more, being an outsider by virtue of my language and appearance alone.
Living in Japan has probably permanently cured me of my fascination with it and its culture. But on the upside, I’ve a newfound appreciation for the spiritual achievements of Western culture, of the flowering of the mind that comes in the ease of an autonomous, individualisitic life in a free society (at least for those who are inclined to reflect). I’m now planning to try living in Canada, something that would never have happened had I not come to Osaka and met some lovely Canadians who speak glowingly of their country (and particularly of the city of Vancouver).
At the moment, I’m trapped here by my massive debt. But thanks to Berlitz’s excellent wages, and my willingness to work 6 days a week, it should be cleared in a matter of months. In the meantime, teaching English here is tolerably interesting, and the students and teachers at Berlitz are, for the most part, extremely gifted and interesting. My family plans to visit here in March, after which only a few months will remain until I can leave, spend a couple of months at home, and head to whichever of Vancouver or MontrÃ©al most takes my fancy at the time.
And I still hack away at my PhD, due to be submitted in August 2006…
2005 was not a splendid year, but it was a worthy one. I took more initiative that year than in any other. I pursued my dreams, I stripped illusions bare, I made mistakes and felt disappointments. I also gained a very small amount of much-desired media reputation. On this path, 2006 will see me pay for past profligate spending with achingly hard work and more stagnation in a country I have decided is no fit home for me, but it may well see joys beyond any I’ve seen once I finish reaping the ills of what I have sown.