Jessica from CNN

So, I just started writing for CNN Go, and I’m pretty excited about it.  You’ll have to excuse my shameless self-promotion, but I’m just going to link to my first article here. It’s about Burmese refugees living in Tokyo.

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If I Were Religious, I Would Say I Was Blessed

The sunset from Mt. Sinai

It’s a little cliche for someone who is relatively well-off, white, and a Westerner to talk about how travel changed their perspective. Goodness knows I wouldn’t want to get all Eat, Pray, Love on you. Since my most recent trip, however, I can’t stop thinking about what an amazing thing a US passport is. This little blue book entitles you to effortless passage into 159 countries, and with a little planning ahead and an application for a tourist visa, you can get access to almost all others. No wonder I feel a sense of infinite possibility when it comes time to plan a new trip.

But for many others, the possibilities for travel are not nearly so limitless. Let me share two recent experiences.

While I was in Egypt last month, I met with a local man through a tour. Despite his good job and economic stability, despite the fact that he has a wife and children and deep roots in the community, and despite the fact that he is fluent in English and works in tourism, he has tried and failed several times to get tourist visas to go abroad. When it comes to visiting countries like the US and Australia, it turns out that even middle-class Egyptians may find it close to impossible. So my friend has never left his country and has become resigned to refusing the invitations of his international acquaintances.

Back in Japan, I started working on an article about Burmese refugees living in Tokyo. I interviewed several of them, and almost everyone mentioned the difficulty of travel. Particularly before they are granted refugee status, a process which can take decades and is far from certain, it is not feasible to leave Japan. Often, they do not even have a passport and cannot obtain one because of the political situation in Burma. Of course, even if they had permission to travel and could afford to do so, they couldn’t go to the one place they most want to go: back home.

In meeting a man who cannot leave his home and people who cannot return to theirs, it struck me what an under-appreciated liberty the freedom of movement is. With my American passport and nationality, I have been invited to make a home for myself here in Japan, yet I can freely travel back and forth to the country of my birth. I’m free to pack my bag and leave on a grand adventure round the world tomorrow, and if some far-flung destination appealed to me, I would probably be able to find a way to stay there and make yet another place my home. All because I am lucky enough to hold a US passport.

The unfairness of it is staggering. It makes me want to grab every American without a passport by the scruff of the neck and shake them, screaming, “Don’t you know how lucky you are?!” And to my less-fortunate international friends, I can only apologize and offer to write a letter for your latest visa application.

Not Just for Toddlers Anymore: Why You Should Be Taking the Time to Nap

Businesswoman relaxing at her desk with a neck pillow

When I became a freelance writer, I had a pretty good idea that it was going to happen. I tried to avoid it by making appointments in the afternoon, I told myself that my willpower was strong enough to prevent it, but, deep down, I knew it was unavoidable: I would become a napper.

Even when I worked full-time in an office, the symptoms were there. After lunch, a lethargy would set in that even a double espresso with extra sugar had trouble budging. I’d find myself staring at the computer screen for long stretches of time, affecting the thoughtful look of someone parsing out their next sentence, but in actuality experiencing a complete mental silence. I’d call it zombie-like, except even zombies are thinking about how much they want to get their hands on some delicious, delicious brains.

So now I work from home, and I have indeed started taking daily naps. At first, I felt guilty about it. It was something that I did surreptitiously, despite having the house to myself. I didn’t want anyone to know about my postprandial snoozing because napping was lazy and decadent and showed a lack of focus and motivation. At least, that’s how I felt others would look at it. But I began to wonder why a quick afternoon kip had such a bad rap.

After all, it would seem that nappers like myself are in good company. Biologically speaking, the vast majority of mammals are polyphasic sleepers, meaning that they don’t separate the day into distinct sleeping and waking times, but sleep several times in a 24-hour period. My cats, for example, gleefully join me on the couch for my cat nap despite having spent the morning trying out various perches in their exhaustive daily search for the best place to catch a few z’s.

Across the globe, many countries are part of the so-called siesta culture, where a break of several hours is typically allowed for lunch and a nap, if one so desires. Although many of them are situated near the equator, where staying out of the midday sun might be part of the motivation for the custom, there are also siesta-friendly cultures in more northern European and Asian countries.

Nappers can even claim luminaries like Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, and Salvador Dali among their number, so it’s clear that enjoying a little beauty sleep midday doesn’t necessarily make you a slouch. But try using that explanation with your boss.

But even if napping is common and anecdotal evidence exists that it is not necessarily a sign of sloth, it doesn’t automatically follow that it is good for you. Determined to assuage my nap guilt and to have a bullet-proof explanation for anyone who might attack me for my sleep proclivity, I looked to that beloved resource for pedants everywhere: research reports. What do the experts say about the power nap?

According to a 2002 study funded by the National Institute for Mental Health, a nap helps to reverse mental burnout. The researchers found that when participants performed a visual task, their performance deteriorated over time. However, if they were allowed to take a nap between sessions, their performance returned to earlier levels. Researchers hypothesized that the visual cortex gradually becomes saturated with information and the brain needs sleep to consolidate and convert the information to memory.

This finding was backed up in 2005 by a sleep study conducted by NASA, which found that cognitive skills, in particular working memory, benefited from nap time. Working memory, as the lead researcher explains, “involves focusing attention on one task while holding other tasks in memory … and is a fundamental ability critical to performing complex work [like piloting a spaceship]. A poor working memory could result in errors.”

Hey, I have something in common with NASA astronauts! I also have to hold some stuff in my memory while doing something else. Like when I have to remember what I was about to write when my editor calls to check how an assignment is coming along. Granted, an error on my part is less likely to result in fiery and tragic loss of life, but still.

So far, the science gels with my experience. After spending the morning writing and researching, my brain is pretty fried by lunchtime. I grab a little shuteye and suddenly I’m ready to get back to it. I also find that I often wake up with the solution for a problem I’d been turning over all morning or with a new idea for an article. I’m definitely more focused and productive for the rest of the day.

Next, I read research that claimed napping assists with cell repair and hormonal maintenance. I’m not sure how my cells are getting along, but I do tend to be in a much better mood in the evenings, so I guess my experience bears out that hormone part. There was also a six-year Greek study that demonstrated nappers have a 34% lower risk of dying from heart disease. Well, I haven’t died yet, but I’ll probably have to get back to you on that one.

So what gives, corporate America? It’s in the best interests for everyone if we just let ourselves grab a quick nap from time to time, but getting that shuteye is becoming more and more difficult in the business culture. Being caught taking a quick break is treated as shameful and damaging, rather than a conscious (pun intended) effort to maintain your productivity, health and sanity. The only thing that is going to change that mindset is some out and proud nappers, so I for one will no longer be ashamed of my mid-afternoon snooze.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m feeling a little drowsy and the couch is calling.

Left Behind Parents

Left Behind Parents protest

Father’s Day is a holiday that celebrates the bond between child and parent. For most of us, that bond is considered to be sacrosanct, and even if a mother and father separate, no one expects one of them to give up their rights and responsibilities to their child. That’s not the case in every country, though. Here in Japan, as a matter of fact, a divorce results in one parent retaining all rights to the children. The noncustodial parent is left with little or no recourse under the law to see their kids. It is a sad situation, not only because many Japanese parents are unwillingly separated from their kids, but also because it is making Japan a haven for international abductions.

This Father’s Day, I joined a protest held by the Japan branch of the group Left Behind Parents. The informal theme of the rally was “Fatherless Day,” as many of the participants were fathers who have been prevented from seeing their children by the outdated and unfair custody laws. We marched for about an hour through the busy streets of Shibuya, one of the most popular shopping districts in Tokyo, and despite our relatively small group, we garnered a lot of attention from both media and passersby. As we marched, we shared the Left Behind Parents’ main complaints.

Domestically, they would like to see laws for divorce and child custody laws changed. Legally, joint custody does not exist here. In the event of a divorce, custody goes to one parent who then has complete control over the child. They do not have to allow for visitation. They do not have to consult with the other parent when making decisions, large or small. They do not even have to inform the other parent if they take the child and move away. There is nothing a noncustodial parent can do to insure access to their child.

The practice of giving all rights to one parent is particularly problematic because the system is strongly biased against fathers and non-Japanese. Custody almost always goes to the mother or to the Japanese parent in the case of international marriages, regardless of his or her financial situation or ability to care for a child.

In one case, the court granted custody of a little girl to the Japanese mother in spite of the fact that she had already abandoned one child with severe disabilities and was not working. The father, meanwhile, was caring for the abandoned child, owned his own business and was willing to relocate to the U.S. to obtain better medical care. The court also allowed the mother to move her daughter to a remote island, making it even harder for the father to see his daughter.

On an international level, the Left Behind Parents would like to see Japan become a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Because Japan is not currently a signatory, Japanese parents living abroad can simply return to Japan with their children if a custody ruling goes against them. The Japanese government is under no obligation to and will not return the child to their previous country of residence. Once in Japan, the jurisdiction of the case will fall to the Japanese courts regardless of whether there is an arrest warrant for the Japanese parent issued by another country or even by Interpol. And in thousands of such contested cases, the custody has never been awarded to the non-Japanese parent.

It’s always hard to define success when it comes to protest marches. Certainly Japan’s legal system and international commitments are not going to suddenly change just because of one small group of people holding signs and chanting slogans, but at the same time, if we made a few more people aware of the situation, if we have garnered a few more supporters, then then we’ve made progress. Eventually it will be enough to force real change. So in honor of Father’s Day, think about the cruel situation these parents find themselves in and take a moment to share your support.

Thank you, George Alan Rekers.

Thank you candy heart
It’s happened so many times now, it’s (almost) not even funny anymore. Another anti-gay rights activist has been outed by a male prostitute. George Alan Rekers, a professor of developmental psychology who has written numerous books on teen sexuality that deny a biological explanation for homosexuality and who has advocated against gay adoption, was found to have hired a gay prostitute to accompany him on a 10-day European vacation.

Rekers, who co-founded the ultra-conservative Christian lobbying group Family Research Council and is a board member of the pray-the-gay-away National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, was photographed at Miami International Airport accompanied by a young man the media have codenamed “Lucien.” When contacted, Rekers admitted that he had hired the 20-year-old through the graphic gay website, but denied that he knew Lucien was a prostitute and claimed he was hired to help lift luggage. He also claimed there was no sex on the trip and that the two men spent a great deal of time talking about Jesus Christ.

Sure you did, George.

“Lucien,” for his part, backs up the claim that there was no sex, however, he does say that he was paid for daily, nude, “long stroke” body massages. He also states that there is no doubt that Rekers is gay and denies that he was hired to carry luggage.

Well, George, at least you are in good company. Other big name conservative bigots outed in recent years include Senator Larry Craig, fellow pastor Teg Haggart, and Congressional page-lovin’ Representative Mark Foley. And that is by no means an exhaustive list. It almost seems like there is another revelation about a social conservative’s dirty doings every time I turn on the news.

My reaction to stories like that used to be anger. These days, however, I find I am having a totally different reaction: gratitude.

Thank you, George Alan Rekers, for providing another example of how rabid anti-gay advocacy often stems out of self-loathing. Thank you for making a emphatic stance against gay rights about as telling as tattooing a rainbow flag on your forehead. Thank you for making it more and more uncomfortable for those on the far right to deny LBGT citizens their civil rights. If it hasn’t arrived already, you are hastening the day when talking about the evil ways of homosexuals will be met with a snicker and an invitation to come out of the closet.

Who’s Your Daddy: Gender Identity and Paternity in Japan

Japan Lifestyle

In 2004, the Japanese government enacted the Gender Identity Disorder Law, which allowed transgendered people to finally change their sex on official identification. Although some argue that defining a change in gender identity as a disorder is wrong-headed and biased, the law does at least allow for people to live in society as their true gender without being outed every time they show ID. However, recent events have shown that although the law recognizes their gender, it doesn’t consider them equal to naturally born men and women.

Recently, a case came up where a man who was born as a woman was not able to register his child because officials noticed the change of gender in his files and would not recognize him as the legitimate father.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Japanese system, this requires a little bit of background. In Japan, official identification is based on the koseki, or family registry system. A household is required by law to report marriages, births, deaths, adoptions and the like to the local authorities, who compile a family record. A person must show proof that they are entered into a koseki to obtain things like government-funded health insurance or a passport. For Japanese, the koseki serves roughly the same purpose as a social security number, although it is not a number unique to an individual, but rather a record of all the major events in your family, including your birth.

Back to our story. The man in question changed the gender in his koseki from female to male, as allowed under the law. He then went on to marry his girlfriend, which was also allowed now that the law recognized him as a man. The couple wanted children, so the man’s brother volunteered to donate his sperm and the man’s wife was artificially inseminated. Nine months later, they became the proud parents of a healthy baby. Everything seemed to be going swell.

The problems began when they went to register the baby in the family koseki. Normally, if a baby is conceived by artificial insemination, there is no problem registering the child because city officials have no way of knowing about the methods through which a child was conceived. In this case, however, the official noted the man’s previous change of gender and concluded that the baby could therefore not be his biological child. The city sought the advice of the Ministry of Justice, and in the end, the child was not allowed to be registered.

The couple was given two options. They could register the child as “born out of wedlock,” an archaic designation that nevertheless still carries some stigma in Japan today. And after all, anyone reading your koseki will see this information. The other option was to have the man officially adopt the child, another option which will remain clearly written in the koseki and eventually become known to the child, regardless of the parents’ wishes. The couple decided neither option was fair and appealed the decision, leaving the child in the meantime with no koseki.

I try not to be judgmental about different value systems, and I understand that the koseki is a reflection of the traditional importance of family in Japan, but I find this case truly upsetting and a damning indictment of a system that punishes anyone slightly nonconformist. The koseki system is archaic and invasive and has allowed this  clear case of discrimination, and for what? To maintain a clear definition of biological legitimacy? It’s absolute nonsense.

It remains to be seen what will happen in this particular case. The man and his wife are continuing their appeals and Justice Minister Keiko Chiba has shown some interest in reviewing the issue. Let’s hope that the government will allow this poor family to live a normal life, and that in the future, such intrusions into personal privacy will be neither tolerated nor even possible.

‘A’ Week on Facebook

Those of you with a Facebook account may be noticing another viral trend on the site this week.  Some of your friends are going to disappear and be replaced by a scarlet letter. No, not that scarlet letter. They are going to be switching their profile pictures with a red A on a black field which has been chosen as the symbol for atheist awareness week.

Although the number of people who report that they have no religion has been steadily growing over the years, the number of people who are willing to clearly identify as atheist or agnostic is still very small.  In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the American Religious Identification Survey reported that approximately 15% of those surveyed said they had no religion. That’s almost 35 million Americans. Yet only about .7% identified as atheist and .9% as agnostic, which together make up just 3.5 million people. So why are so many people without religion hesitant to identify as atheist or agnostic?

There is certainly a bias evident in society. Where it is considered unacceptable to question another person’s faith, lack of faith seems to be fair game. From the vandalism that plagues secular billboards (more examples here, here and here) to the disparaging comments made by public figures, such as Bush Sr. reportedly questioning whether atheists were still citizens, many people seem to think that a lack of faith constitutes a lack of morals. Atheists are seen as at best seriously misguided and at worst as criminal advocates of anarchy and hedonism.

The reason that prejudices like that can remain is that many people don’t know how many of their friends and loved ones are actually non-theists. The idea behind ‘A’ week on Facebook is to raise the profile of the unassuming atheists and to show people how many “normal,” moral people out there are, as the billboards put it, good without god.

Of course, whether or not it is important to choose the label of atheist when there are less loaded ones available, is up for debate. Many organizations that use the terms secular and humanist have also be showing increased membership in recent years and seem to have less stigma attached to them. Whatever the term you prefer, however, the important thing is to increase awareness that a moral life can be lead without the guidance of religion. So if you are comfortable calling yourself an atheist, why not join us this week? And if not, perhaps you could think about joining or making a donation to an organization like the Secular Coalition for America or the American Humanist Association.