There Are No Bad Questions

Stuart Langridge made a guest appearance on Linux Downtime episode 50 to raise a concern regarding the topic of the previous episode, where four very active members in the Linux community wanted to discuss the definition of a Linux distribution. The issue has to do with gatekeeping, which can be best described as being a spiteful jerk to anyone who doesn't share an opinion in the hopes they go away and never appear again. There's no denying that Linux groups have struggled with these sorts of malicious actors for decades, though they can be found in any community that shares a common appreciation for a given subject. Stuart – and everyone who was part of episodes 49 and 50 – have voluntarily spent years encouraging people to participate in Linux communities and have rightly called out self-righteous gatekeepers for their unabashed behaviour. So I was taken aback when he went on to state that episode 49 was empowering callous individuals. He then went on to effectively say that there are some questions that simply cannot be asked; a position I vehemently oppose.

My issue here is not that you were going about the business of gatekeeping, […] it's that putting the discussion on the table at all is a bad idea because it only serves bad means. Literally no one needs a hard, bright-line definition of what a Linux distribution is. The only people who want that are people who want to be able to point to something they don't like and say "That's not a Linux distribution". […] The issue is not how you address the question, it's that you address that question. Because putting that on the table at all, first of all, so we come back to your "What is a Linux distribution?" question; no one needs an answer to this. As I say, it's not that you're doing gatekeeping. It's that people want that question so they can do the gatekeeping. And the fact that you, a bunch of influencers […] You are people who are looked up to by the community. And you're putting questions like "What is a Linux distribution?" on the table, which means that people will take away from that that "This is an okay thing to discuss". But, actually, no one needs an answer to this question. And you, putting it out there, empowers the sort of people who want to ask it because they want to be able to say "That thing you're doing, that is not a Linux distribution". That's gatekeeping. It's not that you're doing gatekeeping, it's that you're empowering gatekeepers. You're encouraging people to think that gatekeeping is okay. And that's my complaint.
– Stuart Langridge: Linux Downtime - Episode 50 (1:21 ~ 3:36)

Regardless of who is asking a question, be it "influencers" or just two people at a coffee shop, to suggest that asking a question at all should not be done is absurd. It prevents discussion. It inhibits examination. It actively blocks someone from thinking something through. Conversations such as the one Stuart has an issue with are a means of active thinking, of discovery and exploration. To suggest that some questions simply cannot be asked is to encourage ignorance at best and prejudice at worst. We cannot allow this. We must not.

We can already see the effects of "taboo questions" on various topics du jour today. We cannot ask questions about certain matters without fear of being cancelled, even if these are honest questions to better understand a legitimate issue. We cannot question definitions of certain words handed down by those "more virtuous" without fear of being cancelled. We cannot disagree or seek clarification when some aspect of a current issue seems to contradict itself. This is madness and I am loathe to see this sort of compelled censorship creep into the few remaining subjects that bring me joy for the sake of imaginary assholes.

Taking just one piece of Stuart's opening salvo:

But, actually, no one needs an answer to this question. And you, putting it out there, empowers the sort of people who want to ask it because they want to be able to say "That thing you're doing, that is not a Linux distribution".

By this logic, we shouldn't ask any questions. Ever. Because doing so will allow another human being – and remember, there are over 7.7-billion of us – to be a jackass to someone else.

Here are some questions that I have seen create some intense arguments over the last 25 years online:

  • Is J.J. Abrams' Star Trek actually Star Trek?
  • Is a parsec a unit of distance or time?
  • Is Star Trek better than Star Wars?
  • Is Dumbledore actually the villain?
  • Why do skyscrapers exist in the Marvel Universe when supervillains (and heroes) have been destroying cities for over half a century?

Or how about some more serious questions?

  • Does God actually reward a man for istishhād (martyrdom) through jihad with 72 virgins?
  • Is it a sin to work on the sabbath if your family does not have enough to eat?
  • How does one honour their parents to fulfil the 8th Commandment?
  • How did thousands of people hear Jesus' voice when He delivered the Sermon on the Mount (or on the plain)?

The list goes on, and an argument can be made that the vast majority of these questions may not matter in the grand scheme of things. But they should be allowed to be asked. If there are gatekeepers – or fundamental orthodox individuals – who will use these questions to deride someone's love of Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel comic books, or God, then it's up to the community to address those bad actors and correct their behaviour. Hiding questions from view simply to prevent at asshole from being an asshole is no way to go through life, and it's no way for the rest of us to learn more about a subject.

Stuart Langridge is an intelligent, funny man with a keen insight on a lot of technology-centred topics. I like the vast majority of what he says on his own podcast, Bad Voltage. However, this complaint is something that I cannot agree with. For better or worse, speech must be permitted. If we are going to start censoring ourselves for fear that "someone, somewhere might use our words as justification for being a dick", then we may as well stop communicating altogether. Otherwise, let's stop being cowards and stand up to the handful of individuals in our communities that seek to discriminate and disrespect those who just want to learn about and rejoice in the same things that bring us joy. Maybe by growing a bit more of a spine, we can discriminate against the discriminators and make our communities a more welcoming place for honest and truthful conversation.

What Is My Why?

While tossing a salad today my mind started asking questions, as it's wont to do while the body is operating on auto-pilot. The plan for this past weekend was to rest and do zero work, including the weekly cleaning1, and it couldn't have gone better. The ultimate goal was to watch baseball, read thoughtful books, and answer a single question: What is my "why?"

We all need a Why. This is the reason we get out of bed in the morning. This is the reason we work. This is the reason we don't hop on the next midnight train going anywhere. For the longest time my answer to this question was simple: I will provide for my family any way I can.

This answer probably seems over-simplistic given its vagueness, but it conveys the ultimate purpose of every action I have performed since the summer of 2007. As a foreigner in a foreign land, I needed to be flexible enough and responsible enough to ensure everyone had what they needed. At first "the family" was just Reiko and I. Then it expanded to include Nozomi. Many years later the boy came along. However, as I went around the house this evening to close the blinds and mindlessly talk to the few remaining stuffed animals, this answer no longer seemed valid. There's nobody here to provide for. Suffice it to say, I need a new Why. Ideally one that is more challenging.

Providing for a family is no simple matter. A remarkable amount of commitment is required and people are often better off as a result. However, with the prospect of being denied access to my son until his 18th birthday (or longer), there is a giant question in front of me that is demanding an answer: If I am unable to see my son for at least the next thirteen years, does it make sense to stay in Japan? As one would expect, this is the question that requires an answer. Everything else is secondary.

Will I continue to work for my employer or move to another? Will I start a business? Will I stay in my home or sell it and live in something smaller? Will I buy a car? Will I replace some furniture? Will I seek companionship? Will I adopt a dog? All of these questions will change drastically if I decide to leave the country.

And, if I were to leave Japan, would I return to Ontario? Would I consider moving to another country in order to further broaden my knowledge of the world? Regardless of where I go, economic security will be paramount as the boy will need financial support. Backpacking across Western Europe will not pay the bills.

As important as these questions might seem, though, a very pragmatic statement rose out the subconscious within seconds of the salad being set on the table: These aren't the right questions.

Indeed. These are the questions that a person can ask when they've fulfilled all of their responsibilities, including the ones that have seemed too large to address properly. These are the questions that a person can ask when there is nothing left to do where they are; when the frayed ends on their tapestry of life have been sufficiently mended. I have a long way to go before this claim can be made. There's a divorce to finalise. Paperwork to file. Weight to be lost. Relationships to repair. Leaving is not an option. These dragons2 need to be faced.

So where does this leave me in the search for an answer to the ultimate question of Why? Believe it or not, it answers the question. What is my "Why"? It's the conquering of these new challenges; these responsibilities. I will need to stand up straight with my shoulders back. I will need to look after myself better. It will be necessary to meet new people and, ideally, make friends with those who can help me grow. Do the meaningful things. Listen carefully. Speak clearly and truthfully. And to be mindful before critiquing things that I may not fully understand. There is very much a theme here; one that I've been on for several years now. There is still much to do and learn, but this is to be the new answer to Why for the near future.

I'm lead to believe that overcoming the obstacles before me will open golden doors of opportunity; ones that are completely invisible to me today. To open those doors, though, I need the golden keys. And those keys, for all intents and purposes, are currently under guard by dragons that become larger and stronger the more I avoid them.

  1. Rather than compress all the effort of cleaning the house into a single day, I spread it out over the weekdays, allowing for an actual day of rest on Sunday.

  2. The dragon is not literal, of course.

Love and Loss

Eighty-five days have passed since my family left and everything points to several hundred days more before any decision involving visitation rights with my son or custody of my dog will be made. As one would expect, the house has been a very different place these past weeks. Gone is the barely constrained commotion of raising a child and the joy that comes from their play. Outdoor exercise is still part of the daily schedule, but Nozomi is not here to enjoy the nearby parks. What was once a home has become an abode of solitude.

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."
– Genesis 2:18

There is a lot to be said for living independently. Being able to effectively look after oneself and all of the accompanying responsibilities means that a person has their house in order. Between the summer of 1999 and 2007, I managed to survive just fine while living solo. There were certainly a number of trails and tribulations that had to be overcome, but it was not an impossible feat thanks to the remarkably safe world we live in1. One of the biggest challenges of the time, though, was staving off loneliness.

The spring of 2000 was the first time I truly felt lonely. I had been living on my own in town for almost a year by this point, and worked at a company that also employed my step-father. Every couple of weekends I would be invited to stop by for dinner and spend time with my mother and four of my seven siblings2. In addition to this, I would drive an hour south to visit my father and step-mother once every month or so. My days were filled with interaction, and yet I felt alone. As a 21 year-old "man"3, it was obvious to everyone that what I was looking for was a mate.

In time, one found me. We had a short, platonic relationship that came to an end before Christmas that same year. Looking back today, I think it would be fair to say that I was better friends with the woman's father than I was with her. An unfortunate consequence of being young and stupid. However, this brief connection taught me a great deal about myself and the things that needed correction before trying again.

Four years later I was living on the other side of Canada and had become a little more responsible. The financial situation was not particularly great, given how expensive life on the west coast of the country can be, but things were looking better. I had a good-paying job, a growing list of responsibilities, and people around me expected a great deal. Thanks to the efforts of friends and colleagues, I started to show signs of becoming a mature adult. There were invitations to important meetings, fancy dinners, events at the mosque4, and more. However, just like before – and despite all the people, I started to feel alone.

Some friends noticed and would introduce me to women they knew, but none of the young ladies I met seemed right. They were generally pleasant to talk to, conservative, and soft-spoken. What I wanted, though, was to find was someone with spark. Someone who would challenge me in unexpected ways.

In October of 2004, I found that person and fell madly for her. The next ten months witnessed some of the most exhilarating, terrifying, and heartbreaking moments of my life. Never before had I felt so high. Never before had I felt so low. As one would expect, I discovered a lot about myself and about relationships. The lessons were some of the hardest learned up until that point and I'm still thankful they happened.

Just a few months later, though, the irrepressible desire to be with someone returned. This wasn't out of lust or some desire for intimacy, but a longing to find "the one" … if such a person can be found at all. In January of 2006, Reiko came into my life. In April of 2022 she left.

Several weeks ago I was asked when I might consider meeting someone new. The reasoning behind the question was that a 43 year old man is still young enough to help create and raise children. My answer was a non-committal "It's too soon for me to think about that" yet, in reality, it's all I seem to be thinking about lately. Why, though? Not three months have passed since I lost my entire family5 in one fell swoop. I'm not yet divorced. I'm not yet able to mask the sadness I feel when I walk into my son's room every morning to open the windows, then again in the evening to close them. There is no guarantee that I can even afford a relationship that involves children going forward, as there has been no discussion with Reiko regarding child support payments. For all I know, I'll need to work two jobs just to get by. There's simply no way to know at this point in time.

Yet a little voice in the back of my mind, one that sounds very much like my conscience, is telling me:

Then God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth."
– Genesis 1:28

The first part is easy. Being fruitful means being useful; having a job, doing good things, and being a respectable member of the community. Multiplying, though … that should not be toyed with.

When I was a child there were always some kids in my class that came from a large family. By Canadian standards in the 80s, this would mean any household with more than four children. Often times these families were poor and would look forward to the child support benefits6 handed out by the government every month in order to put food on the table. A household with five or six kids under the age of 13 could expect about the same amount a person working a full-time job at a department store would receive. The common pattern seen here would be that the father would work, the mother would stay home to deal with the half-dozen children of varying ages, and the bank would see deposits that resembled a family where both parents worked. It was not an easy life, but it certainly lived up to the first part of God's blessing.

However, by the time these kids reached middle school, the two-income homes had often morphed into "single mother homes". The child support benefits were reduced every few years as kids grew up (and became more expensive) and the single parent would be forced to find work somewhere in town during the day while their many children were at school. Household chores would often go undone as there was never enough time or energy. Lunchboxes would consist of crackers with cheese, a juice box, and perhaps a sandwich. The kids were often hungry, unkempt, and – when mixed with the onset of puberty – increasingly aggressive.

This is something that I had witnessed numerous times while attending public school in Canada and it has certainly affected the way I approach the matter of raising children. I have already failed my son by not being mentally strong enough to weather another two decades with his mother. How can I possibly think about having more? Particularly now when the future is still so unknown?7

Sometimes I wonder if this is a test. Since the boy has come along I've made a conscious effort to be a more responsible person; someone who thinks before they act. There are still a number of areas that I need to work on to become a better person, but I'm closer to my ideal today than I was in 2017. If I give in to the voice, will it prove that I am still an irresponsible person who focuses more on the desires of the present than the needs of the future? Or is this a genuine message that, despite the pain of separation, insists I follow one of the oldest prescriptions in recorded history?

As with so many of the questions I've struggled with in recent months, I simply do not know.

  1. Canada is many things, but it is not a violent place. So long as you're not going out to intentionally provoke people or Mother Nature, then you will have some semblance of security, no matter how far down the social hierarchy you may find yourself … an I was pretty darn low for a while.

  2. Both parents remarried, so there was a combination of families. I remained the oldest, however.

  3. Unless someone has survived something truly horrific, any person under the age of 25 is still very much a child; full of potential and naiveté.

  4. It was around this time in my life when I studied Islam. I spent a great deal of time studying when not at work.

  5. Yes, I have parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces, and nephews in Canada. Hundreds of relatives. But none are on this side of the planet. For all intents and purposes, Reiko, the boy, and Nozomi were my whole family.

  6. Commonly called "Baby Bonus"

  7. The future is always unknown, but I've yet to make the decision as to whether I stay in Japan or not.

They Like to Bask

Despite living in my house since April of 2018, the yard was not completed until the end of May last year. There are a number of reasons for this, but the core issue really came down to time; there was never enough to properly work out which trees would be planted and where, and how much of the yard would be covered by grass. Prior to having plant-life, the house was surrounded primarily by hard dirt and garden stone. The property looked respectable despite its incomplete state, and this was in no small part due to the effort put into pulling weeds every weekend. Undeterred by the desert-like appearance, some wildlife had started to take notice of the arid space, and a pair of long-tailed lizards could be seen on sunny days. They would find a place in the middle of the yard or on the concrete blocks that formed the lower-half of the fence and sit nearly motionless for hours at a time.

Later, when the parched soil had been replaced with greenery, the lizards could still be found. As before, they might stretch their bodies and incredibly long tails on the concrete section of the fence but, more often than not, they could be found enjoying some peace under one of the many dwarf conifers that dot the property.

The Japanese Grass Lizard that basks in the parking area

At some point in the last few months, a third lizard has made itself known. To the best of my knowledge, the three keep to themselves. One stays near the front door. Another is along the southern fence. The newest, and most patient1, enjoys the raised soil area behind the parking space. Not being an expert in lizards – or in any kind of life, really – I cannot guess as to whether the three are related.

As silly as it may seem, I like that these Japanese grass lizards are able to call parts of the yard outside home. It means that this property, perhaps small by human standards, is large enough and flourishing enough to offer these creatures enough comfort and food to enjoy their brief existence. The daytime temperatures this summer are hovering just under 40˚C with forecasters warning of a brutal July and August. This weekend I'll aim to add a small pool to the yard so that these lizards, and other small animals, can enjoy a brief respite from the heat. Hopefully it will be enough.

  1. This third lizard seems not to mind when I come within a metre. It even seemed a little curious about the camera while I was taking pictures, lifting its head as though to get a better view of the lens.

Five Things

This past April my mother and I started having weekly phone calls. Every Saturday night at 10 o'clock I give her a call and we chat about recent events or whatever happens to be on our mind. It's something that I should have been doing for decades and even said as much on our first call. However, this is yet another one of those instances where "better late than never" is true; no matter how many years have passed since the last call, it's (almost) never too late to pick up the phone and reach out.

Yesterday one of the first questions that my mum asked was "How are you doing?". An innocuous inquiry that people will use to allow someone else to offer the initial conversation topics. My reply was quick and to the point: I'm feeling great. Better than I have in years. Maybe I should be sent to prison more often so that I can appreciate just how good people have it on the outside. Injecting a bit of humour into the start of a conversation generally creates for a more relaxed atmosphere, but the answer is wholly accurate. Despite the various struggles that can face a person at the start of divorce proceedings, I have enjoyed the past week immensely and feel pretty good. Aside from a 15 ~ 20-minute period of negativity on Thursday or Friday, my outlook on life has been remarkably positive. The 20 days of detention were certainly stressful and humbling, but the genuine appreciation I feel for my current freedom is absolutely refreshing. It will not be taken for granted.

So, with this in mind, on to the five things.

Hindsight on Dreams

During the final nights of detention, I would occasionally dream of returning home, only to wake up either as I read the front door or when I get to the mailbox just outside the front gate. Rather than see the inside of the house, I would see the inside of my cell. This was incredibly disheartening as I considered it a sign that I would never again return home. In hindsight, however, could this have been a vision of the future?

Dreams that repeat have often held a special meaning for people. In the Bible, the Egyptian pharaoh who released Jacob from prison did so after having his dream interpreted as a message that there would be seven years of bounty followed by seven years of drought. Thanks to the insight from Jacob, the people of Egypt and neighbouring territories were spared starvation1. Even today, there are numerous intellectuals who pay attention to the messages contained in dreams; particularly those that repeat.

Looking back at these unconscious visions, I do wonder if the dreams were trying to say "You will return home, but not just yet." This would certainly explain why I would wake up shortly before walking into the front door2.

Why Am I Here?

One of the questions that I've been thinking about since returning home regards my purpose in life. This isn't so much a "why do I exist?" sort of question, but more of a "what am I expected to do now that I have been gifted with a return to society?"3. There are a number of possible answers that have emerged from the recesses of my mind, and they all follow a common theme, namely …

Interacting With People

For the better part of four years I have been unable to interact with people outside the house in any meaningful manner. On April 12th, the family and I moved into this home and almost immediately became disconnected from the rest of the world. We would occasionally meet extended family, and I would have an opportunity to chat with neighbours while outside with Nozomi, but the interactions were always time constrained. However, as I am no longer expected to be a constant presence in people's lives, it has become possible to rekindle old relationships and also to build new ones. While I certainly lean towards introversion, there is something uniquely rewarding about meeting people, sharing ideas, and learning new things. This interaction also extends to calling family members more often, which has made it possible to learn about the people I grew up with but know almost nothing about4.

Re-Reading Important Books

Reading has been one of my favourite pastimes ever since I borrowed my first book from the library5 at the age of six. Over the last few years I've been reading books from people like Dennis Prager, Jordan Peterson, Bishop Robert Barron, and others. These books cover important and complicated topics and have helped guide me to be the person I am today. By going over these books again, there's an opportunity to appraise the decisions I've made, recognise what worked, learn from the errors, and re-examine the lessons to see whether they apply or not6. First were the two Rational Bible books from Dennis Prager, and I'm now in the middle of Jordan Peterson's first 12 Rules for Life book.

My goal is to continue reading books from people who are smarter than I will ever be in order to make fewer mistakes going forward. After reading the books that already exist in my library, I'll being expanding the pool of authors to better grasp the world we live in. I needn't agree with everything, but I do need to understand more perspectives in order to build a …

Plan for the Future

A number of people are strongly encouraging me to return to Canada. I still have responsibilities to tend to here in Japan but, depending on the final terms of the divorce, remaining half a world away from the nearest family member (that I'm allowed to see) seems illogical. My employer has been incredibly understanding and patient with me over the years but, as the global economy continues its downward spiral, they may need to downsize further7 in order to survive. If this happens, then I will need to act quickly in order to continue paying the mortgage, the bills, and everything else that creditors or society demands. So it is with this in mind that I am trying to collaborate with people to develop financially viable – not to mention ethical – software and services. There are four projects being discussed, all of which have potential. If just one proves to be somewhat successful, then it will become possible to pay the bills while also having the freedom to work from anywhere on the globe. It's a long-shot, but not completely outside the realm of possibility.

This past week has been incredibly productive with a lot of good communication with great people. Despite the challenges earlier this month, I feel positive and incredibly fortunate. So it is with this energy that I hope to transform the potential for good into something that is good. Given the patterns that are present in my life recently, this will not be a solo effort. There will be interaction. There will be communication. There will be learning. There will be disagreement. However, when it's all said and done, something truly interesting will have been discovered.

  1. This is a gross oversimplification of the story, but the gist is mostly there.

  2. What's odd is that my dreams had me walk towards the front door. I never use the front door unless with Reiko or the boy. If it's just me, I enter and exit the house from the side door connected to my home office. However, when I returned home on June 15th, I did use the front door. This was because there were three other people with me; two police officers and an interpreter. Entering through the side door would have been awkward as there wouldn't be enough space for everyone's shoes. Did the dream contain all of this information? Or was it just a figment of a depressed imagination?

  3. Yes. I see my return home as a gift.

  4. More than fifteen years have passed since I've seen most of the people in my family. People can change quite a bit in this time. My sisters have been mothers for most if not all of this time, and raising multiple children will change a person. It's good to have an opportunity to learn about them again, even if it's just over the phone.

  5. The first book I borrowed was "Mr. Bounce", a short story written by Roger Hargreaves. It was borrowed from the library at the elementary school I attended in 1985. The things we remember …

  6. There is no book that I read and agree with 100%. The things I disagree with, however, are often topics that I think a great deal about afterwards to articulate why there is a disagreement. A rational approach to reading and introspection makes it possible to better develop the self, after all.

  7. There have been a number of downsizing efforts over the last year or so thanks to COVID, but it's gotten to the point where the next round of people will be those who cost the most and generate the least amount of income. The software I write now is not used by students or teachers, so the value I offer may not be worth the salary in the eyes of management.


Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible.
– Dr. Jordan B. Peterson

The spaces that we spend the most time in tend to get messy rather quickly. We're usually bringing more things in than we take out and we're generally bad at dedicating time at regular intervals to organise and clean the area. For most people, this is just the way the world works. In my case, I tend to like things to be organised in such a way that I never have to ask "Where is X?", because X has its own spot and only leaves that location when I am actively doing something with X. That said, it would be terribly misleading to say that I didn't also suffer from the accumulation of stuff over time in the spaces where I spend most of my days. The home office is a perfect example of this.

Having the privilege of working from my house means that I could, if so tempted to, wear my pyjamas all day long, eat meals in front of the keyboard, and generally life in front of the computers. So much of what I like to do involves typing on a keyboard, and so much of what I'm paid to do requires the same set of tools. If I were to spend as many as sixteen1 hours a day in the same general space, that location would quickly become a mess. Rings from the coffee cup would form on the desk. Pages from the notepad would be torn out and stacked nearby to be put into recycling the next time I stand. A plate from a meal might be left because an idea captured my attention while eating. In no time at all, the office area would come to look very "lived in".

However, I do not do any of these things. I tend to wear proper clothing when sitting at the desk. Meals are consumed in the dining area next to the kitchen. Papers to be recycled are tossed in the plastic bin almost immediately. And the place where I keep my coffee cup and glass of water is always free from the rings that signify spillage. The home office is where I generally create things, which means that mess cannot be tolerated. Items must be in their proper place. Dust and other dirt must be cleaned at least once a week. By sticking to a routine, my workspace can look like this most of the time:

Image of home office

This is how I like to start my working day as it means there is no time wasted looking for hints of ideas that were paused the day before. The paper notepad contains a list of open tasks that must be tended to and the desk itself is ready for whatever I might do next, regardless of whether I need to use the keyboard or touchpad.

The space is functional. Things are laid out efficiently. But is it beautiful?

Two decades ago I would have thought this a gorgeous working space. The lack of disruptive wiring alone makes this a distinct improvement over a lot of the places I've worked over the years. However, the space tires me out after just six or seven hours every day. Just because a space is functional and efficient does not mean it's beautiful. What this place is missing is "life".

Up until a few months ago, this working space had photos and hand-drawn pictures all along the wall. This introduced colour and uniqueness to the space, making it possible to look away from the monitors and instead see a photo of a family member or something they had created with pencils and crayons. This would allow me to remember the story that describes the picture and enjoy the human moment that was captured. I miss the stories.

One of the rules from Jordan Peterson's famous Quora answer told us to make one room as beautiful as possible, and it's a good rule. Beauty inspires us to action. So, with this in mind, some new photos will be put up on the wall over the coming weeks. I'll find some of the better shots of the boy and Nozomi, print them out on some photo paper, then mount them to the wall with some adhesive boarding. A similar thing will be done in other rooms around the house as well. Because while it's true that this place is generally clean and organised, it's also monochromatic. Having some vivid imagery of the family during happier times will go a long way to making the house feel more like a home, even though it's just me here.

  1. I don't spend 16 hours in my home office. That would be excessive and unhealthy. That said, I do generally spend about 12 hours a day, five days a week in front of a computer.

My Problems Are Not Yours

During the last two days of interrogations at the police station, I was asked a number of questions that did not seem to be directly related to the case, but were instead used to better understand my thought process. One that came up multiple times was about the lack of aggressiveness during the three weeks of detention: "How come you don't get angry at any of my questions? If I were in your position, I would be pounding the table and shouting. You've been very calm for most of our discussions. It's almost like you're not defending yourself."

The investigator was quite right regarding the lack of anger and frustration that was shown during the questions. Given the seriousness of the allegations, most people would probably gesticulate wildly during questioning while also raising their voice as the consequences of a possible guilty verdict becomes more clear. However, this didn't seem like a logical thing for me to do, and I said as much.

What value is my anger or frustration in this situation?

As one would expect, I was incredibly angry and frustrated at times during the 20-day detainment. Who wouldn't be? I was angry that I couldn't contact anybody. I was frustrated with the lack of things to think about. I was angry with some of the questions that were asked. I was frustrated with how repetitive many of the days were. What kept me balanced was what – and who – I wasn't angry at. At no time during my captivity was I angry at Reiko or the boy. I understood why I was arrested and it made perfect sense. As a result, the actions I had to follow were very clear.

I will be patient, respectful, and honest. Anything else is just unnecessary noise.

Like a lot of people, I was rather quick to anger as a teenager. Something would upset me and I would go off on a tangent, shouting expletives and stomping my feet like a fool. Not once did these rages result in a satisfactory solution. If anything, these outbursts pushed the people I cared about away. Who wants to be around an angry grouch, after all? So it was with great effort that I learned how to control and channel rage. By my late 20s, I'd become so adept at redirecting or burying anger that people would sometimes ask if I ever got angry. This control of emotion eventually went further so that I could mask just about anything, allowing me to present a calm and respectful demeanour under most circumstances. This was incredibly important during the last half of my marriage, too. While frustration would escape from time to time, my emotions could be "paused", making it possible for me to deal with them at a later time.

This is what I did in my cell when nobody was watching. However, even there, the anger and frustration did not come out in any obvious manner. I would walk around the cramped quarters, bouncing my shoulder against the concrete walls just for some sort of physical contact with the world while also making sure that there was just enough force used to create a bruise. In the mind's eye, every interaction was like a transfer of raw emotion from my upper arm to the building itself. In time the intensity would dissipate and I could go back to reading or running an imaginary coffee shop. The bruises that developed would heal after an evening or two.

One of the things that I've learned over the last four or five years is how to complain. Or, more accurately, when to complain and what to complain about and why I am complaining. For the vast majority of the problems I face, it makes little sense to communicate them to others unless I need help with a solution. For everything else, nobody cares.

There were a hundred things I could have complained about at the detention centre, but none would have resulted in changes. It's a jail, not a hotel.

There were a number of problems that I had with the way questions were asked in a manner to test a person's honesty, but complaining would not have resulted in better questions.

The prosecutor really got under my skin a couple of times, questioning my faith and intelligence as though I were less than human. Would complaining about this have resulted in a better dialogue during his questioning? Not in the least. Knowing him, it would have encouraged further line-crossing.

As one would expect, there were many what's to complain about, but never any when. Nobody would have cared. These were my problems, nobody else's. As a person in custody – as someone suspected of doing evil – there was no reason for anybody to accommodate my wishes. So, why engage in a senseless activity?

Being angry would have gotten me nowhere. Being frustrated would have gotten me nowhere. Acting on emotion would have gotten me nowhere. Complaining would have gotten me nowhere. Doing any of these would have likely resulted in the same consequences I faced as an angry teen. So, with this in mind, all I could do was to be patient, respectful, and honest. Anything else would have been unnecessary noise.

The Length of a Day

In 1955 The Righteous Brothers lamented that "time goes by so slowly", a concept that has eluded me since high school when it seemed that everything was getting faster with each passing week. The flow of time also increased noticeably when the boy learned how to play. Up until my 43rd birthday an entire week could pass by in what felt like a handful of hours, leaving me to wonder when I might find the time to complete the various projects I had committed to. However, after the family split on April 8th it seemed as though every day contained 30 hours. Then, by the end of last weekend, a single day seemed to contain enough hours to fill a week.

“When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”
– Albert Einstein (or Helen Dukas1)

One of the oddities that I noticed after returning home from jail last Wednesday was a lack of time perception. We all recognise the feeling of watching a clock and thinking that the second hand has come to a stop or is moving backwards, but this is something I've yet to feel in my house. Over the next few days, time did seem to accelerate again, but it has yet to return to a state where a single day feels like a 24 or 30-hour period. Our perception of time is certainly relative, as the famous quote from Einstein reveals, and this has me wonder whether a person is more productive when time seems to drag on forever.

In March I felt that there was never enough time in the day. I would sit in front of my computer for 10 hours, invest an hour for Nozomi, three hours for the boy, two hours as a family, two hours for whatever demanded attention, then six hours for sleep. However, the days never seemed productive enough. By the end of the evening, I would check in my work for the day job and wonder if the things I just handed in actually needed 10 hours to complete. Now, though, I seem to complete everything I had planned to work on plus a number of additional tasks before lunchtime, then wonder what to do for the rest of the day.

A quick check of reality shows that there are still 24 hours in every day, with each hour consisting of 60 minutes. So how is it that I seem to be so productive now while each minute feels interminable?

The only thing I can think of is that there's less to think about. After Reiko left with our son and Nozomi there was a lot less to occupy my mind. I could focus on communicating with lawyers and neighbours, filling out paperwork, planning for the future, and more. Later, while sitting in a jail cell with little more to do aside from breathe at regular intervals, there was even less going on in the head. Indeed, by the end I was engaged only in a single thought at a time. This allowed for a degree of attention that was once impossible given the myriad of distractions that we all contend with on a daily basis. Gone were the electronic devices. Gone were the other voices. Gone were the colours of objects2 within view. This level of focus is not the same as one might experience when sitting with a loved one or absorbed in an activity, where time moves at a rate far faster than we perceive. Instead it's more like a Zen state; inner peace and calm while engaged in a single effort.

The price paid for this insight has been incredibly high but, if this tranquility can be honed and maintained, I wonder if the endless races against the clock that once defined my days and weeks can remain a thing of the past.

  1. This was Einstein's intermediary, and was likely the person who communicated this idea to the reporters who would often ask questions about relativity.

  2. The cells I resided in were not monochromatic, but they may as well have been.


Between May 26th and June 15th of this year it was necessary for me to answer to two names; the one my parents gifted me with at birth and another that was assigned when I entered into the detention centre at the police station. My designation was 29番1 and it was the only way people could refer to me while in the jail. We were not supposed to share our real names with guards or other detainees. Most of us have been called far worse things throughout life, but there's something utterly dehumanising about being referred to as a number; as though we are no more significant than cattle.

Perhaps this is the point.

When a person is detained and stripped of the freedoms afforded by society, are they any more important to the outside world than a cow that grazes in the field? We are permitted the basic necessities of life2, a shared newspaper, a handful of minutes to groom ourselves, and a shower twice a week. Time spent in the cell can be passed by reading a book, writing3, sleeping, walking in circles, staring out a mostly-obscured window or – as I quickly discovered – spending exorbitant amounts of time in your head. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes watching primates within a cage at a zoo would find it interesting that humans will often do the same things as the great apes and orangutans might in order to get through the day.

The numbers people are assigned are handed out sequentially and, because they are relatively low, reset at regular intervals. The lowest number was #14, assigned to an elderly gentleman who I shared a cell with for the last five days of my detention, and the highest was #32, assigned to a man of few words. Knowing a person's number would give you some indication of how much time had passed since they last enjoyed the freedoms that so many of us take for granted, but asking directly was frowned upon. Still, I would occasionally think about the men who had been placed in captivity before me and wonder how they maintained their sanity given the lack of stimulus that was permitted. The old man would devour books. One would write a letter to a different person every day. Yet another would sit with this back against the wall and just stare into space. Everyone had their preferred way of passing the time.

When I was first placed in a cell, I had no idea what to do. There was a mostly-blocked window that I could stare through to examine the sky and power lines, or stand on tip-toe to see the tops of trees and buildings. When my muscles were tight from a lack of activity, I would walk in circles around the cell. Three times counter-clockwise, bouncing my right shoulder against the concrete walls as I went, then three times clockwise, bouncing the left shoulder against the same walls, then repeat. Later I would read books. Finally, to break the monotony, I would retreat into imagination where I ran a coffee shop that served good drinks and excellent sandwiches.

The books were a good distraction at first, but there seemed to be a theme of misery within the library. Only four books were available in English: Flowers for Algernon, Memory Police, Run, Melos!, and Animal Farm. I had read Flowers for Algernon in high school and couldn't read it again while detained as it was just … depressing. Memory Police started out as being interesting, but went in a direction that I really disliked and eventually ended with a depressing non-ending. Run, Melos! was a collection of short stories that had been translated into English with the most common theme being people who hated themselves despite all the good that surrounded them. So it is probably no surprise that I decided to borrow Animal Farm for the greatest amount of time, reading through the story at least twenty times in all simply to occupy the mind with something that wasn't related to the remarkable amount of loss that I was trying to ignore4. However, one can only compare George Orwell's "fairy story" to North Korea so many times before the tale becomes wearisome. So, as I was in desperate need of something to do, I created a job for myself.

Something I have always wanted to do is open a coffee shop. In my mind, I built a small cafe for a small town in Southern Ontario. The place was called "Jason's Signature Coffee", which had my signature – J²fi in a cursive script – on the cups. The place sold good coffee, healthy sandwiches, and all-natural juices. For breakfast there were yogurt cups that came with a small package of granola. At lunch there were various sandwiches, made with fresh-baked bread from the kitchen. In the winter people could also enjoy a hardy stew or chilli in a bread bowl. Connected to the coffee shop was a small classroom where I would teach kids how to program Lego robots and, when not tending to either the shop or the school, I would sponsor youth sports clubs and enjoy watching some games. It was a very busy place and there was always something to take care of.

The original concept started to take shape somewhere around Day 10 of my detention. Based on the comments and signals I was reading from the police officer and the prosecutor in charge of investigating the case, all signs were pointing to a five-year stay at a labour camp followed by a deportation. I needed something happy. I needed something to look forward to. This entrepreneurial enterprise was the best I could come up with, and it sustained me for a week. Various problems would be imagined, such as running out of bread at lunchtime or dealing with a break-in that emptied the classroom of all its Lego and supporting tech, and solutions would be played out. A number of "What If …?" scenarios played out in this fantasy town, including one where I met someone and considered starting a relationship. All in all, it was an excellent way to distract myself. Anyone who can see that a positive future awaits is in a better position than someone who is depressed.

Unfortunately, the fantasies would always end the same way: "Number 29; it's time to eat." A guard would interrupt my train of thought to let me know that it was either noon or 5:00pm; time for a meal.

Jason's Signature Coffee is one of the few positive memories I have of my time in a Japanese detention centre. It was an escape that allowed me to feel purpose. It was an exercise that allowed me to examine a possible future. It was an opportunity to possess a name that people could call me by.

My name is Jason. Not a number.

  1. Pronounced "ni-juu kyuu ban", meaning "Number 29".

  2. This would include food, clothing, and shelter.

  3. All writing had to be readable by the staff so, if I were to write anything in English, I would need to pay to have it translated so that the warden and guards could make sure it didn't contain anything that should remain within the confines of the detention centre. Suffice it to say, I did not write anything as I was not keen on spending untold sums of cash on translations.

  4. In the space of two months I managed to lose my wife, son, dog, and freedom. This was compounded by the fear of losing my job, house, and financial security going forward.

How Do I Write About It?

On Thursday May 26th at 8:00am sharp, my life came to a very sudden halt. At the front gate to my home stood 9 police officers, armed with a search warrant, cameras, boxes, and the authority to take anything that might be of interest from my house. I had just stepped out of the shower when the buzzer told me of their arrival. Naked and completely unprepared, I asked them to give me a moment while I quickly dried off and put some clothes on. A moment later, I opened the front door to be presented with the warrant and allowed them to enter the house without complaint.

Yes, this actually happened. And, after the investigators had collected everything on their list, they asked that I travel with them to the police station to answer some questions. There was no arrest warrant presented, but it was clear that my best interests would be served by getting into their van.

For almost three weeks, I did not see the horizon.

On the twentieth day, I had given up any hope of getting out of jail before 2027. Based on everything I had heard and everything I had seen, 90 days of detention followed by an all-too-predictable court case1 would have resulted in me being moved to a labour prison where I would spend my days on an assembly line making things that nobody wanted. My proclamations of innocence appeared to go unheard because they didn't line up with the details that I had slowly learned about during the course of the interrogations.

Yet here I am, sitting in my home, almost 60 hours after being released back into the world.

It still doesn't seem real. I want to write about the experience. I want to put pen to paper and explore why I had slowly given up all hope of returning to society before my 48th birthday. Yet the words fail to materialise. The question I struggle with is how to communicate the experience. Do I write chronologically? Do I write in blocks of topics, examining the interrogations, the detention centre, my cellmate, and other aspects of imprisonment as single items spanning a period of time? Do I write about how I spent my isolation when not answering questions or reenacting events for an audience of investigators? Do I write about the tears I hid from almost everybody as I thought about my son growing up and saying "My dad's in jail" every time someone asked about his father?

There are a number of half-scribbled notes on a pad of paper that I keep near the computer that contains some of the details that will likely slip my mind as the memories begin to fade. Notes about the food, the four English books available to read, the professionalism of the officers, the prosecutor, the handcuffs, the things I thought about to pass the time while stuck in a cell that measured 15m²; 20% of which was used by the semi-concealed toilet area. When it comes to preparedness, these sheets have me covered for at least 10,000 words worth of blog posts … or even a book written in a first-person narrative. Yet it's difficult to know how to approach the subject.

The last few nights in the detention centre were incredibly long. Lights are out at 9:00pm and they don't come back on for ten hours. Detainees are expected to remain lying down this entire time unless using the toilet. As I had nothing better to do, I'd often fall asleep by 8:15 and wake again after six hours so that I could examine the concrete wall nearest my nose while the old man behind me snored up a storm.

During the brief periods of REM sleep, I would dream about returning home. A dream on Day 17 involved standing at a bus stop waiting for a vehicle that never came. The timetable always showed the next bus to be five minutes away. On Day 18 I dreamed about walking from the detention centre to my home, a trek of 18.3km that I know rather well because I've travelled the actual roads for 15 years. As I approached the front gate and checked my mail, I reached into my pocket for the keys and … woke up to see a concrete wall less than 30cm from my face. On Day 19 – the last day of interrogations – it was much the same; I couldn't go home.

Day 20 was hard. This was the last day the police could hold me. One of two things were going to happen:

  1. They would find they had enough evidence between the testimony and DNA samples to indict me, resulting in another arrest warrant being issued where I would then stay in the detention centre until my court date 6 ~ 8 weeks in the future
  2. They would release me

Everything I had been told by the prosecutor and the lead investigator had me believe the first was the most likely case. My prayers to God would go unheeded, likely because my ego needed to be humbled. My house would be seized by the bank for failure to pay the mortgage. My job would be lost. Everything I had worked so hard to earn or build since moving to Japan in 2007 would be gone, with the added insult of being deported from the country at the end of my sentence2; penniless and utterly unprepared for whatever future might await.

As with the previous nights, I woke around 2 o'clock in the morning to see the scratched up concrete wall I would lean against during the day. The prayer I had said thousands of times during detention started looping through my head:

Lord, please grant me the strength, the courage, the patience, and the humility to accept these coming years.

I thought of my son, who would live into the 22nd century thinking I was a horrible person. I thought of my dog, who would likely pass away before I would see a horizon again. I thought of my father, who might also pass away before I could return. I thought of Reiko. I thought of my mother. I thought of the extreme isolation of being so far from anyone who might be able to help or, at the very least, pay me a visit.

In addition to the prayer for strength and courage, I would often say another one when standing at the barred-off window that allowed me to see little more than power lines and sky:

Lord, please allow me to leave this place and return to my home.

But something in me died that morning. Just like anyone who has spent time in a prison, I wanted to leave and return to my home. I wanted out. But I no longer felt I was going to get out. I lost hope. I lost confidence. I had to accept that the coming years were no longer in my control. This decade would be remembered as replacing one tyranny with another.

The prosecutor had the final say as to whether I would be indicted or not, and he was a tough man. His stare could freeze stars. In his office I had seen a calendar with details about my case, and on June 15th – the last day of my detention – there was a note to make a final decision in the afternoon. Based on what the officers and inmates at the detention centre said, a fax would likely be received mid-afternoon to announce my fate.

At 10:20am, the warden approached my cell: "Number 29. You're being moved."

My heart sank. They said I was being moved, which means the prefectural prison had enough space for someone to await their court date. I would be driven from the quiet detention centre at the police station and brought to a place with hundreds of men who would likely laugh at a broken white guy who rarely speaks except to say "I didn't do it."

The cell door was opened. I returned my blankets to the closet and gave one of the guards the styrofoam cup I had been using for three weeks. From there I was lead to the room where people are frisked and then put into handcuffs before transportation.

Except the room was laid out differently. Rather than seeing a mat on the floor with feet spread wide for people to stand on while being checked for contraband, a bench was pulled out from the wall and all of the clothing and belongings I had come to the prison with were laid out.

"Where am I going?" I asked.

"We can't tell you."

"Why are my clothes here? I'm going to another prison, aren't I? Where are the handcuffs?" I looked around and didn't see the metal detector wand or the specific set of restraints that the guards had dedicated for my use.

"You'll find out soon enough. Please sit down."

Two guards then went through a binder containing an inventory of everything I had handed over when I was first brought into the detention centre. My jeans, shirts, belt, watch, wallet, money … everything. Then I was asked to change out of my prison garb and put on my clothing.

You sick fucking bastards, I thought. You'll have me dress in clothes I wore as a free man to transfer to another prison, where they'll be stripped off me so that I wear somebody else's underwear yet again.

Never once in my twenty days of detention did I exercise my right to remain silent. Nor did I ever refuse to cooperate with a warden, guard, or police officer. These people were in charge of my life and, if I made too much of a fuss, it would only hurt my chances of early release. So, keeping my thoughts private, I got dressed.

Mere seconds after I finished putting on my shoes, the warden came into the room and held up a piece of paper loaded with complex Japanese characters:

"This is for you. Jason Irwin, as of 10:48am on June 15, 2022, you are released from detention and free to go."

I didn't know how to respond, so I asked the first thing that came to my head: "This is a dream, isn't it? I'm dreaming. I'll get to my home and then wake up in my cell again."

The warden shook his head. "No, you're free to go. There are some officers in the police station who you need to talk to, and then you can go home."

Is this how I should write? Narrative? In the first-person? This would allow for an exploration of thoughts as well as what happened in the real world, but I wonder if it makes sense on a blog. On this blog.

The twenty days of detention have changed how I think about things. Time moves differently. Sound is different. I pay much more attention to what people say when they communicate with me. I still feel broken, as though I lack the confidence to venture very far beyond the confines of my very, very, very large house. But each day brings another opportunity to try and reclaim some semblance of normalcy. On Wednesday, just a few hours after I was dropped off at my home, a neighbour from across the street stopped by with some snacks and asked if I was okay. She had been outside when the police had escorted me to their van so she knew what was going on. Yesterday I went to the nearby convenience store to pay a bill. Today I took a bus to city hall to pay some overdue taxes. Tomorrow I will venture into the big city to meet a friend for coffee.

As a free man.

As a normal man.

As a man who has no idea how to write about these twenty days of scrutiny and confinement.

But maybe this post can be a start.

  1. Japan has a 99% conviction rate, which is pretty much unheard of in the western world. If you go to court in Japan as a defendant, you're pretty much doomed.

  2. Although I have a permanent residence visa in Japan, being in prison for more than 365 days would result in a revocation of the privilege and a forced deportation back to Canada.