The question of “family”

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m having a tough time with the often-used expression, “Family is more important than anything”.

Is it, really? Is the idea of family really so strong that it takes precedence over nearly anything else in life? Many movies and TV shows certainly seem to give that impression.

The idea of “family” has changed considerably for me over the years since I came to Japan. Going through a rocky marriage and an eleven-year-long divorce (which is still unresolved, largely due to the manner in which the Japanese judicial system upholds the unit of family to the point of exclusive veneration) has likely instilled in me a severe bias against the whole notion and system of “family” as it is known and revered in both the U.S. and in Japan. Don’t get me wrong—I’m happy for those who have strong bonds and connections with their parents and siblings. I’m glad for people who have good relationships with relatives and children. It’s good to see that there is something that still lasts in this world: the strength and sense of belonging that comes from being the member of a healthy family.

From a personal standpoint, however, the concept of “family” really doesn’t hold much weight in my life right now. Yes, I love my mother and father and sister and daughters, and even some of my relatives; but I don’t feel that the idea of “family” per se matters to me any more than anything else in this world. Granted, perhaps two decades of marital strife and attempting to get a divorce on two battlefields has dulled my appreciation of the entire concept. Even so, while I was a teenager, I held largely the same opinion of family. I loved my mother and father and still do, and I even appreciated my sister, as much as fighting siblings in their impressionable and angst-ridden teenage years can “appreciate” each other. Still, the question of “what was good for the family” never figured into the equation for most of the decisions I made in my life. (Some might point out that this is why I failed miserably at my marriage. To my own defense, I’d like to point out that I cared for my wife and children a great deal and tried to show them how I felt on many occasions. The decision of whether to “break up the family” came over many years of turmoil, failed negotiations and personal suffering. I wouldn’t do it again, and I don’t think there was much that I could have done to circumvent the problems and make it all work out better, even if I had a second chance.) 

That said, would I do nearly anything to protect the lives of my daughters if I could? Yes, I would. Do I care about my partner’s physical and psychological well-being? Of course. All of those things are a given to me, as obvious as the rising and setting of the sun.

Now, here’s the thing: these feelings do not stem from the fact that they are “my family”, but from the fact that I care about them. My choice. I don’t love my daughters because they are my daughters. I love them because, well, it seems natural and right, and no harm has come of it. It is for me just as much as it is for them. Maybe some people might say that familial love must be unconditional to be successful, but I am not of that camp. I’ve seen otherwise close families literally torn apart over the course of many long years by drug abuse, crime, selfishness, and neglect. No amount of unconditional love can make such a “family” succeed. All human relationships require acceptance and tangible effort on the part of both parties, not blind declarations of allegiance based simply on ties of blood. The law may have much to say about what a family “should” be, but it will never have any jurisdiction over how we feel, nor can it force people to love or care for one another, simply based on a socially acceptable familial connection.

So… forgive me for not accepting certain traditional notions of family. If it seems like I’m being selfish, all I can say is that “family” means more than just the people that gave birth to you, more than the people that lived with you in the house in which you grew up, and certainly more than the people that cling to the title of “spouse” or “partner” simply because it gives them reassurance that they are not alone in this world. None of us are alone, “family” or not. There is a larger family to which we belong, and that is the greater family that I am gradually learning to accept as my own… if only I could be so worthy of its name.

What should I call myself?

Ever since I began work as a full-time freelancer in the summer of 2012, one question I’ve consistently grappled with is: what do I call myself? I’m not talking about pseudonyms—I’m talking about what kind of job title I can apply to myself that neatly describes who I am and what I can do in just a few words. Social media services such as Twitter and LinkedIn encourage the use of these kinds of keywords in user profiles, to help people to attract or weed out others with similar or divergent interests. After all, if we want to connect with others online who share our love of knitting, enjoy taking photos of manhole covers or manufacture radiator covers, why not mention this in our profiles?

Personally, I found that it’s not as easy as I thought to come up with a meaningful set of keywords to add to my social media profiles. Twitter currently limits the length of each user’s profile to 140 characters. Even worse, when it comes to creating a “job title” of sorts for myself on LinkedIn, I still feel rather unhappy with summarizing who I am using a smattering of words. Why is it so hard? Why not just throw together a bunch of self-pious marketing crap and call it a day?

The plain fact of the matter is: I don’t want to lie, I don’t want to exaggerate, and I’m not satisfied that attempting to woo readers with a paragraph of dren is going to have a substantial effect on their desire to contact, befriend or trust me with their corporate secrets, much less inspire them to hire me for anything. I am what I am—I do what I do. I’ve translated an immeasurable volume of documentation (so much that I have all but forgotten what projects I worked on even a few months back); spent years writing and editing English advertising and technical copy; designed, planned and developed Web sites; played piano at a private club in Kokura; composed background music for a local department store; fathered children; hiked and biked thousands of kilometers throughout my young adult life to the present… so, what do I call myself? Is there a word or set of words that seem appropriate to neatly sum up anyone’s life?

Rather than trying to impress people with a lengthy title or a lofty rank, I’ve simply settled on the phrase “creative director” to describe what I do. A prospective English student recently asked me what it meant. I simply said, “I’m here to help people create good memories.” I make stuff; I help people with their projects. If it’s within my realm of ability and experience (and even if it lies slightly outside of the same), I’m game. All I can hope is that the people that I have the privilege to work and associate with can understood what I have already done and what I am capable of doing, and that they come out of our time together feeling like it was time well spent. Both personal and working relationships can be warm, growing and evolving, rather than just cold, ultra-specific and inhuman interactions with… a title.

What are you avoiding today?

“Is my life going to be richer because I have avoided this… or poorer?”

—That’s one of the greatest questions I have started to ask myself. The word avoidance (I prefer not to use the word “procrastination”, which covers a more specific pattern of behavior in daily life and habits)—and all that it implies—has been a seriously troublesome issue in my life, and a thorn in my side to this day.

How it all got started.

Jeff Chapman: Keyboard magazine photo

One of the times in my life in which I had been creating things with reckless abandon and with a total disregard for whatever else might transpire was when I was a teenager. (No, I’m not talking about making homemade incendiary devices or volatile chemical compounds, sorry…) I spent hours and hours on most days in the dark basement, bashing out improvisations on the piano, notating whatever seemed like good ideas to develop, making multitrack recordings of the more promising ideas, and listening to as much music as I could get my hands on. Music was the center of my life.

During those inevitable years of teenage angst and explosive self-expression, most of my best friends were musicians (and we were in the same band together!). When we weren’t whiling away our time at our own jam sessions or making off-the-wall recordings of some spontaneous idea that we happened to come across, we would take long walks down to the music stores to check out the latest gear, browse through the racks at the local record store down the street, or go to a concert at a local venue when we could scrape enough money to do so. The money that I had earned from delivering newspapers went into buying a new P.A. system for our own concerts. I was also taking piano lessons once every week or two at the time, although I rarely devoted the time to practicing the materials that were given to me, preferring to do “my own thing”.

After the years of high school angst had drawn to a close (although with all of the avoidance of responsibility that accompanied it) and I was faced with the hard reality of what the heck to do with the rest of my life, the only idea I had was to continue focusing on my music and to make it into a “practical” career, broadening myself so that I could last for “the long haul” while developing my original music and continuing to evolve as a musician. So… it was off to Los Angeles I went.

During the time that I attended music school and for a while thereafter, I continued to spend quite a bit of time in much the same way that I did when I was a teenager—devoted to making music—although my fellow band mates and I had split up years ago while I was still in high school. I had been cultivating different relationships with different kinds of people, not necessarily musicians, although I must say that my field of vision was still rather restricted. I became much more reflective, spending a great deal of time by myself on walks in the San Fernando Valley in the cool evening air, perhaps trying to find a worthwhile path in life, trying to find solace in comfort in my own meager presence, or both.

Avoidance finds a familiar form…

In time, those moments of reflection were replaced with the need for companionship. I eventually visited Japan, found a job in Nagoya and got married, had two kids… and over time, music didn’t seem as important as it had in my burning days of “youth”. Seven years flew by, and I grew further and further distracted from the goal of developing myself further as a musician and from developing better music (much less the goal of turning it into a viable and sustainable career), and more concerned with satisfying the demands of my wife (who wanted nothing more than just to see me hold a steady job, which I infallibly did for almost nineteen years), keeping the kids happy, and somehow trying to just get a few decent hours of sleep here and there, not to mention trying to enjoy a few precious moments of privacy.

As the kids grew older, I had more time on my hands to develop musically—but I found that family matters, most notably the difficult and unstable relationship with my wife at that time—had consumed my efforts, leaving me with almost zero time to pursue the musically creative interests I once craved. I had worked at a steady full-time job as a writer, editor and translator for many years, which in itself was satisfying in some respects… but whatever creativity and energy I had been channeling into music from my early teenage years up through the time that I moved to Japan and got married was completely focused on trying to maintain a stable family relationship.

Eventually, the relationship with my ex-wife crumbled, and I separated. Sadly, she chose to severely limit the time I had to spend with my own kids to a matter of 3-4 hours each week (which I was told was a “pretty good deal” for being a non-custodial father in Japan). I spent the next ten years in the Nagoya area, trying to make sense of what I needed to do next in order to rebuild my life.

After the fall, but back to the old ways?

Phashion cover-student project, Jeff Chapman

After the separation in 2002, I had become more and more interested in graphic design for print and for the Web, through working as a project manager with other designers at my day job, and through hands-on experience as a webmaster and content developer for a rather large Intranet customer service website of a major automotive company here in Japan. In 2007, I eventually decided to formalize my interest in graphic design by attending a three-year online program with Sessions College of Design. However, while I was enjoying most of the projects and felt increasingly more satisfied with my skills, after the first year or so, I spent a considerable time in avoiding the lessons, shirking the tasks at hand, updating my project schedules over and over only to break them again.

It’s true that my full-time job had been keeping me quite busy, and I was suffering from chronic eye fatigue and the ongoing stress due to the still unresolved marital situation with my ex-wife (although we were physically separated in late 2002, she still opposes our legal divorce to this day and has mustered up all of the strength she can to try and prevent the divorce from taking place). The fact of the matter is, though, that I had found yet another thing in my life to avoid—yet another thing that I hadn’t fully accomplished.

Frankly, I have been feeling like a failure as a musician (for practically abandoning what could have been a promising music career), and I failed to graduate from design school because I was unable to finish the coursework. There was also a string of other projects that I hadn’t been able to properly follow up on or fully capitalize on, such as the Kyokusen-Yokocho project, the Exploring花子 project, and an interesting iPad app design project for which I was basically commissioned in 2011 that I eventually turned down, as I was trying to finish up my graphic design certification (which did not happen anyway). I did a cute and effective website design for a local gelato shop, which I never completely followed up on, eventually just handing over to the owner without charge. (He massacred the design later—I am ashamed that my name is even associated with this project.) I even cut back on my day job hours back in 2011, but I wasn’t able to capitalize on the extra time. Don’t get me wrong—there were some successes as well… but the failures still ring out clearly to this day in my mind.

Even now, when it comes to music and design, avoidance seems to come as second-nature for me, as I create weekly schedules, maintain lengthy to-do lists in OmniFocus or Things, and then of course feel disappointed when I cannot muster up enough energy to bringing all of my plans to realization. The aggregation of tasks in life seem overwhelming—taxes, career directions, managing my finances, and trying to maintain some kind of a personal and family life, not to mention trying to settle my ongoing divorce (which is now an international matter requiring the service of the Hague Convention)—and it seems like nothing ever really gets done, although I suppose that I am accomplishing… something… in some fashion.

For God’s sake… why?

I’ve thought in recent years that perhaps the areas of music and design really aren’t as interesting as I believe they “should” be, and so I have made excuses to avoid them. The fact is, however, that both music and design still hold great fascination for me. I enjoy playing the piano (even just hammering away at Hanon exercises) and I really did get a lot of satisfaction out of the Sessions graphic design courses. I enjoy listening to music, although I feel impatient at times with all of the things that are going on in life and I find it a task to really sit down and devote my full attention to the music that I purchase to listen to. I like seeing new designs online, and a visit to the art museum is always something that I enjoy, although it has been a while since I’ve visited one, now that I think about it.

Perhaps the fact is that I don’t truly believe that I can be financially successful or maintain a stable lifestyle while pursuing a career composing and recording original music, or doing graphic design work for print and Web projects for clients. I often feel helplessly inferior, completely outgunned in terms of my conceptual skill level, especially in the area of design. Honestly, I know this is no way to live—it sucks. But this is the mental barrage of self-torment I’ve been putting myself through, each and every day.

The excuses never end.

Thanks to my time spent in school, I have the tools and probably the technical skills to do most graphic design work; but as for my conceptual abilities, I am still a fledgling in many ways. In the area of music, I used to have a fair degree of technical skill, enough to play in most general studio and live settings with practice. However, I have lost a great deal of my conceptual abilities over the years. Every time I start to create a new piece of music, I end up shelving it and moving on to something else. I fail to follow up. I exercise and indeed practice avoidance.

While I was working at my day job, I eventually decided to once again put together a studio rig, to get some decent gear so that I could play and record more. I did end up finally composing and recording the backbone of a song for the first time in years. However, I didn’t play nearly as much as I had wanted to. Again, I avoided the idea of practicing, of sitting down to compose or record music for the most part. I let other activities take precedence. As a result, I spread myself thin, and my musical gear ended up sitting in the corner of my living/dining room for years, mostly untouched, collecting dust.

Other things can be a distraction as well, especially with an Internet connection. I’ve met some unique and interesting people on Twitter, but there really is no end to all of the news and information there… from humorous pics and comics, to technology and travel blogs, to the latest world news about some mad dictator gone ape-wild or some big natural disaster that killed thousands or some amazing little technological advance that is supposedly going to change our lives… somehow, someday. I also get sidetracked easily by new apps and gear—the “technology” side of things—and spend a great deal of time just browsing around Amazon,, Yahoo! Japan Auctions or the iTunes/Mac App Store, looking for things that seem interesting. (Honestly, the nighttime in particular is difficult for me. When I’m alone at night, I tend to spend more money… perhaps to “console” myself…)

Excuses hurt.

To add insult to injury, one of the things that hurt the worst in recent months was the words of an old acquaintance from my first year in Japan. After I had mentioned my failure to complete the graphic design program in 2011 and sheepishly pointed out a list of reasons, including fatigue and being busy with work, she quickly pointed out, “That’s all just an excuse”.

Yes, that’s right. Any excuse would do. The effect is the same—I did not finish. She knew it, and I know it. I was secretly hoping for sympathy, a little understanding, a shoulder to cry on… but I also see the reality: you do, or you do not. (Yes, I know that this is a famous Yoda bit…) Either you finish what you started, or you don’t. In this case, I didn’t. I gained a lot of valuable skills and knowledge, and even a bit more confidence… but in the end, I didn’t get that piece of paper (the diploma), and I didn’t benefit from the advice and experience of the instructors in the remaining group of classes that I wasn’t able to complete. It may have been a beneficial experience in some ways, but it was a blow to my self-confidence, to know that I “really didn’t have it in me” to finish after all.

Back to the races, again.

Jeff Chapman: photo (Desert Hills, Las Vegas, NV)

Since returning from a four-month stay in Las Vegas in late 2012, much of my time has been devoted in launching and maintaining my freelance translation business. I have been playing my Korg digital piano quite a bit more than I used to. During work breaks, I sometimes move over to the piano and just start playing Hanon technical exercises, poke around on some Scarlatti pieces or make attempts at memorizing the music of Joplin… or just plunk away at the improvised passage of the day. I still find that I spend more time in avoiding it mentally or in finding mental excuses not to do it than just sitting down and giving it a try. I don’t know why I have spent so much time in my life like this. What I do know now, though, is that every day, every hour, every minute I spend in avoiding the things I enjoy—the things that could potentially bring satisfaction—is a day, an hour, or a minute of life that I can never reclaim. (Even the time I spent in pounding out this blog is forever lost, but I digress.)


Am I asking the right questions in life?

There was an inspirational quote from Anthony Robbins (presumably) that I recently saw on the “feed” of the Forismatic app I’m using on the Mac, which stated that successful people are the ones who ask the right questions, or something like that.

I really feel that I haven’t been asking enough questions lately. Most of the time, I inevitably make a lot of inward suppositions about how life is “supposed to” be, or how I want it to be. The fact is, however, that asking questions in the past has really opened up my eyes to the clear difference between how I want things to be and the way that they are now.

A question a day keeps the doctor away… this may well be quite true…

Some of the people that I’ve respected the most over the years have asked brilliant, insightful questions. By asking a series of penetrating questions, a lot can be accomplished. Using little visual tools like mind maps and flowcharts, or just simple word association drawings seems to help. Even better is to bounce your ideas off other people who tend to be inquisitive. Often, just a few minutes with a trusted acquaintance or friend who is good at asking questions can be more valuable than an hour spent puzzling it out on your own.

Even during the many years that I worked here in Nagoya at various divisions of Toyota Motor Corporation, I was reminded from time to time of the “5 Whys” philosophy, asking “Why?” five times in succession to come to the heart of the matter. Toyota uses this philosophy primarily in manufacturing, to uncover defects such as waste, overburden, and irregularities in the production process; but it seems like this philosophy is something that we can apply to our own lives, every day.

There’s probably nothing wrong with a question leading to an answer, which leads to another question.

Heck, why not try today?

Mapping around in metro Japan… on an iPad.

There are a lot of fantastic tools out there now for getting up-to-date maps online in Japan. What’s more, the quality of map data is pretty impressive.

The Maps application comes preinstalled on the iPad and accesses Google Maps (up until iOS 6.0, which features Apple’s own much-maligned Maps program). The first-generation iPad (released in May 2010 in Japan) can only run the previous version of Maps, which uses the Google Maps API. (How long the API will be available to this app is another matter…)

I’ve been about 85% satisfied with the iPad Maps app. It’s directed me to many a place, both in the U.S. and in Japan. When I lived in Las Vegas during the summer-fall of 2012, I often used the iPad to find bus routes and directions. The RTC of Las Vegas has kindly provided a data transit feed to Google for their bus system, so I was able to ride my bike to the nearest bus stop, rack up my bike on the bus and catch the bus into town using the iPad’s map application.

However, I’ve found that some public transit companies in Japan are still lagging behind, as far as offering bus transit information on Google. What this means is that if you want to go anywhere via public transportation that can’t be reached by rail, you will have to look up the route from the nearest rail station, and then check the transit companies’ own Web site to get the bus route and schedule… and somehow manage to piece them all together.

(If one could convince both Meitetsu and the Nagoya Transportation Bureau to set up a transit feed, there would probably be quite a business opportunity there in preparing the vast amounts of data required. Creating a transit feed for Google is apparently quite a complex job.)

All this transit talk aside, aside from the original Maps application on the iPad, I’ve been suitably impressed with Yahoo! Japan’s Y!地図 application. As you can see below, the map quality is crisp, the design and color usage is very readable, and the detail seems more than acceptable.

Y!地図 サンプル画像

In comparison, here’s what the original Maps app for iPad will show you on a map of the same area.

Maps sample image (using original Google Maps app on iPad)

Did you spot the differences? There are a few, at least at this zoom level:

  • The original Maps app (hereafter “Google Maps”) shows CoCo壱番屋, the famed curry chain restaurant as text; while the Yahoo! Japan map shows it as an icon. (There are actually several restaurants in the Nagoya Dome promenade area as I recall, but none of them seem to show up on either map.)
  • Both maps offers different details on the housing, educational and research facilities just east of the Dome. Even the names of facilities and buildings are slightly different in places. (Zooming in provides even better details and more facility names for both maps, as you can see below.)
    Y!地図 and Google Maps side-by-side 

Overall, it’s refreshing to see that there are decent map options available for mobile devices like the iPad… and users like us are the ones who stand to benefit.

(Best of all, both maps above are free.)