Sunday, July 20, 2014

Random Memories: Brush with Terrorism


Have you ever seen one of those old detective stories in which a cop asks someone "Where were you on the morning of March 20, 1995?" Most of the suspects haven't a clue what they were doing and, if enough time had passed, they also would have little idea of where they were. We only remember where we were on specific dates is something special happened. I remember exactly where I was on the morning of March 20, 1995 because something very unusual indeed occurred.

Those with a head for dates already know that I'm referring to the date of the sarin gas attacks carried out in the Tokyo subway system. It was a Monday. I remember this very well because that Sunday and Monday were my days off from work and I generally stayed in my home area and avoided trains on Mondays. I wanted nothing more on that day to blissfully stay home and relax as I so often did, but that wasn't the way things were going to be.

I had a doctor's appointment in Hiroo that morning, however, and had to get onto the subway, the Marunouchi line, that morning. I dreaded not only going to the doctor because nobody likes going to the doctor, but also the profound physical pain that was going to accompany the trip. I was subjecting myself to medical treatment in service of my terrible back pain and it was always arduous enduring the walk as well as standing on super crowded trains. I knew that I had a great deal of agony ahead of me.

My appointment was rather early in the day, around 9:15 or so, and I'm one of those nervous types who likes to be no later than 15 minutes early. My husband is the sort of person who thinks that there's plenty of time if he believes he's got a minute to go before the train arrives. It has been a bit of a tug-of-war between us to find the happy medium between his pedantic adherence to punctuality which leaves no margin for the unexpected and my neurotic and paranoid desire to be early in anticipation of everything going wrong. On that Monday morning, "everything" did go wrong.

My husband's tendencies resulted in he and I leaving the apartment eight minutes later than I'd hoped to go. That meant that we missed the train I wanted to take to Hiroo and were one later. This meant my window of making the appointment was narrowed down to being "only" about five minutes early. It's important to note that my concerns weren't entirely due to a personality quirk. With my back pain, I often needed to find a spot even on a short walk to stop and rest to recover from the pain. I sometimes needed that extra time for good reason.

As we hustled out the door, I was more than a little angry at my husband for making us miss the train I wanted to make and very stressed out. I'm sure I was snarky with him and generally in a terrible mood for all of the aforementioned reasons. It turned out that my husband's lateness on that day may have saved our lives.

When we reached Ebisu station, everything stopped and there were crowds everywhere. We couldn't understand the announcements or what was going on, but things were utter chaos. All we knew was that we were stuck there and couldn't make our connection to the Hibiya line. It was also impossible to get a cab to Hiroo from there because of the stranded throngs. At that point, we didn't know the bus routes well enough to hop on one so we walked to Hiroo in a great state of annoyance.

As we headed around the block toward the clinic's location, there was a bakery with a T.V. on. There was an enormous crowd of people in front of it watching something, but we had no time to stop and see what it was. We knew something was going on, but we didn't know what. My husband said he suspected it related to what happened with our subway train.

When we arrived at the clinic, I profusely apologized for being so late, but they were quite nonchalant. They said something had happened and no one was getting there anyway. The doctor saw me and we had to figure out a way to get home using JR (the train line) and avoid the stopped subway.

It wasn't until a little later that we found out all of the details of what we'd barely missed being a part of. Had we made the train that I wanted to make, there was a good chance that we may have been on one of the exposed trains or in a station at which it stopped and station personnel were handling the packages.

I read later that a man who worked at one of the stations had picked up one of the paper bags and tossed it in the trash because he didn't know what it was. He later died because of his contact with the poison. The tiniest amount can kill and that poor man was just doing the job he did everyday keeping the trains tidy for the fastidious Japanese commuters and he paid with his life. Even if we hadn't been on the train itself, being in one of the exposed areas (like Shin-Koenji station) could have had a terrible effect on us.

I sometimes think back on that day and how fate kept us a few steps behind the worst of things either as more direct witnesses or as potential victims. I'm a lot less hard on my husband now for making us "late" and a lot less uptight about being early. The fact that I never went out on a Monday morning and probably hadn't done so for years at that point made the close call even more chilling and I haven't forgot that either.

The thing which has stuck with me the most though, and what compelled me to think back on this memory and write this post was the change in everyday life that followed. Because the attacks were carried out by placing newspapers wrapped around plastic bags of sarin gas (which were then punctured with the tip of an umbrella), the stations started telling everyone to immediately report any packages or items left behind on the trains. A random magazine left on the rack above the seats could incite fear and paranoia. An abandoned plastic shopping bag with the remains of someone's lunch that was abandoned by someone too lazy to find a trash can could compel one to walk from one car to the next one.

For many years after the attack, "wasuremono", or things left behind or forgotten, created an atmosphere of concern and paranoia. Signs were put up on the trains and stations warning people not to touch them and to inform personnel immediately. I don't remember at what point this sort of instruction stopped being issued, but it was definitely not for quite some time.

Recently, I was taking a walk around the park in order to clear my head. I do this at times to help me write. Creativity does not generally flourish in a state of mental chaos. As I exited the park, I walked through a parking lot. In the middle of a certain open area, there was an unlabeled red and black box. It made me sufficiently paranoid that a bomb might be in it that I walked more quickly out of the park.

Though my rational mind knows that it was a box left behind by someone who took part in the Fourth of July festivities earlier in the week, the irrational part is thinking "probably", "maybe", "most likely" instead of "definitely". I have no doubt that this was the mental tattoo left on me as a result of the sarin gas attack. It may fade as time goes by, but I don't know if it will ever completely disappear.

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A little reminder that a previous post contains a contest to win a free (and beautiful) book about Japan. Check out the last paragraph or so and leave a comment to enter. The contest will end on July 25, 2014. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Won't Miss #57 - drunkenness as an excuse (reflection)


This topic is one that has been on my mind for other reasons as of late. There are several things that have inspired thoughts about drinking and behavioral control, not the least of which has been the national debate about rape and alcohol in college culture. I took a graduate course in addiction last summer so I have a deep understanding of the effects of alcohol on the brain. It lowers inhibitions, it reduces sensory capacity (you can't hear, feel, see, etc. as well), and it impairs memory. It inhibits bodily control as well as mental control. Alcohol has a profound impact on control. That means that, technically speaking, being drunk is actually an "excuse" or reason for doing things that you wouldn't do if you weren't intoxicated.

That being said, most people know these things on certain levels already. In the U.S., we have drunk driver checkpoints and a judicial system that does not offer more lenient sentences because an offender was intoxicated. In fact, the system tends to be harsher on people who hurt others while drunk. The opposite continues to be so in Japan and, in my opinion, all this does is continue to encourage people not to control their drinking. As long as "he was drunk" means "he was less responsible for his actions," people have no incentive to be cautious about their alcohol consumption. I still don't miss a culture in which drunkenness is considered an reasonable excuse for bad or even criminal behavior.

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A little reminder that my previous post contains a contest to win a free (and beautiful) book about Japan. Check out the last paragraph or so and leave a comment to enter. The contest will end on July 25, 2014. I will announce winners (Tuttle has generously offer two books) based on comment order using a random number generator.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A word about lost comments

Several people have mentioned that comments are missing. I'm not sure what is going on, but Blogger seems to be having a bad time of it lately. Unfortunately, there is nothing that I can do about this as I have no control over what Google does once a comment is submitted. I either get notified of a comment and publish it or I never see it at all. If you are using a particular account and failing, it sometimes helps to use a different account to post a comment from.

I realize that this is frustrating for readers, especially when a contest is going on and your comments serve as your entry, but please know that I'm not failing to publish the comments. I'm just not seeing them at all. If you try to comment and it doesn't show up in 8 hours, please e-mail me the comment and I will post it for you. I'm sorry for the inconvenience. If it were in my power to do something about it, I certainly would!

Will Miss #56 - surgical masks (reflection)


One thing I have realized since coming back to the U.S. is that cultural context truly matters. This is something I've pondered in relationship to the debate over face-obscuring hijab or burkas being worn by women in the name of their native culture. In America, a country in which there is a fair bit of crime, covering ones face in a manner which obscures identity is a very different kettle of fish than it is in cultures in which there is less crime or crime in which identity is obscured.

In Japan, people wore surgical masks regularly to protect themselves from the flu or colds or to prevent allergens from getting through during certain seasons. In the context of Japanese society, which has little crime and people rarely rob and cover their faces to hide their identities, the wearing of such masks seems cute, quirky, and endearingly paranoid (if paranoia can be seen as "endearing"). Everything I read framed it as less than "useful", but I think the jury is still out on that.

I find that I not only miss how seeing the masks made me smile a little inside, but also knowing that I lived in a society in which covering one's face in this fashion was not seen as any sort of problem as it did not link potential criminal behavior. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Random Thoughts: The Curious Relationship Between Fish and Aggression


My mother was (and probably still is) a terrible cook. When I was growing up, I was taught that meat of any sort was not safe to eat unless it was cooked until its texture was close to shoe leather. To this day, my father will not eat a piece of meat if any sort of juice runs freely within it. Chicken in particular was considered a potential source of food poisoning unless all of the moisture was cooked out of it and the exterior was similar to jerky.

You may believe that I am exaggerating. My sister, who has the unfortunate task of living with and caring for my aging parents, would support me in my contention. She still has to contend with their notions of what "properly cooked" means and it complicates her life when it comes to meal preparation. While she'd like not to resemble a crazed wolf tearing at a carcass while eating, the level at which meat must be cooked in order to satisfy my parents requires her to contend with levels of toughness which give the jaw a good workout and wear down tooth enamel.

Because I grew up with the idea that anything close to raw (or not cooked to death) would expose one to fatal food poisoning, it took me many years in Japan before I'd eat anything that was raw. Even now, I'm a bit repulsed by the notion of raw fish or egg and eat it with a small amount of trepidation. I no longer believe it's unsafe, but the quivery look and texture are not things which I grew up feeling were a part of a great eating experience. This is one of the reasons I'm not crazy about sushi and sashimi, but the truth is that I've avoided even cooked fish for most of my life.

My family did eat fish on occasion. Because we were so poor (and we actually were really poor - the sort where you ran out of money for food and had to scrounge for change or things to sell off in the pre-eBay era), the fish we ate rarely came from a store. It generally came from a river or lake. We didn't eat it very often even though it was, ostensibly, free, because my father wasn't the world's greatest fisherman, the lakes and rivers weren't well-stocked because it was nature's way or nothing, and my mother hated cleaning it. I don't know if you've ever had to gut and scale a fish, but it is pretty gross. The inside of a fish smells about a hundred times worse than the outside and the exterior is no trip to the perfume counter at Macy's.

Beyond the gutting and scaling issues, there was the fact that not all fish is created equal in terms of taste and texture. The type of fish that my father could catch, freshwater fish, is supposedly a lot less tasty than saltwater varieties and I have to say that I never enjoyed eating it. Any time my mother baked a fish, I'd opt for grilled cheese because, beyond not tasting great, I hated picking out all of those tiny bones.

One of my students once said that her husband went fishing and, when I asked her if she ate the fish he caught, she said that he caught and released because she didn't like the taste of freshwater fish. She said the saltwater has an effect on the flesh such that it's better, but, being no fish expert, I merely took her word for it and concluded what I often have about tastes and cuisine. That is, people like what they grew up eating and Japanese people grew up eating a lot more fish than me.

I've spoken before on this blog about how I think the Japanese diet is over-rated in terms of health, but it can't be denied that the composition of their diet is much heavier in seafood. It's important that I hasten to say that this is not because they are such health-minded people who take care to eat nutritiously, but rather because they live on a tiny island with a lot of accessible water and rather hard going when it comes to farming in certain places. They eat fish because their ancestors could survive on it more easily than other things. It was essentially the lowest hanging fruit when it came to food. The cuisine developed around what was available, not around what was best for their bodies. This is the case with every country.

It is quite serendipitous on many levels that the Japanese food culture is so saturated with fish consumption. Most people know that it is a good source of lean protein and essential fatty acids. Only a tiny handful know what I have learned only recently and that is that eating fish, especially if you are a pregnant woman or a young child, decreases the likelihood that you will grow up to be a violent adult. Yes, you read that right. The brains of people who are gestated by women who eat diets rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (which are available commonly in fish and dark, leafy greens - including kelp and seaweed which are also a part of the Japanese diet) and who eat such food as children have a far lower chance of growing up to have the type of brains that aggressive and violent people do.

I'm not going to go into the structural information here because I'm sure it'd bore readers to tears, or confuse those who aren't into reading about the specifics of brain chemistry for fun. If you want the details, you're welcome to read what I've read from Adriane Raine. If you don't want to buy his book, The Anatomy of Violence, check it out of your local library and read chapter 7 ("A Recipe for Violence"). He talks about a great many factors which go into breeding people with a propensity for psychopathy and violent behavior and the picture is eye-opening. It's not only about fish, but the Omega-3 fatty acid connection is pretty strong, as are factors like smoking and alcohol during gestation and income inequality.

I have always felt that Japanese society was less violent because they have relative income parity and the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" was pretty small. That is a piece of it (and studies support that), but it could also be that poverty brings other aspects along with it such as poor nutrition in essential areas that make American brains more prone to violence and self-control. Reading his book has confirmed something I've believed for a long time and that is that we create the society in which we live.

By not attending to the needs of people at the bottom of the economic scale and insuring that their children are well-fed and cared for, we create criminals on a neurological level. It's not that they are making a bad choice and we are making good ones, but rather that they have a fundamental lack of ability to make the better choices because of all of the factors that went into their upbringing. What is more, their brains are such that it's too late for them to change these tendencies later in life. You can't undo the damage once its done anymore than you can reverse brain damage from an accident (and I'll resist the almost knee-jerk explanation about what happened to Phineas Gage here).

After reading The Anatomy of Violence, I'm left with the rather stunning possibility that Japanese people are fundamentally gentler and more passive than people in other cultures because, at least in part, their exposure in utero and in youth to fish and the Omega-3 fatty acids they offer built brains that make them less aggressive. A piece of that is culture, but I have to ponder if that culture is informed by a nature that was bred in them as a result of what they eat rather than who they are. That is, their culture advocates passivity to some extent because they are inclined that way rather than they are inclined that way because of culture. It's a fascinating piece of the cultural puzzle. The evidence is quite compelling and, if I were to ever get pregnant (not bloody likely), I'd be certain to eat fish as much as I could stomach despite my general lack of affinity for it.

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A little reminder that my previous post contains a contest to win a free (and beautiful) book about Japan. Check out the last paragraph or so and leave a comment to enter.

Friday, July 4, 2014

"Things Japanese" (A Book Review and Contest)

Image courtesy of Tuttle Publishing

It was not uncommon in my English lessons for students to ask me about those aspects of Japanese culture to which I felt particularly drawn. In my earlier days in Japan, I often mentioned that I really liked sumo wrestling. This response invariably elicited a someone patronizing little smile and a question about which wrestler I liked best. The answer to that question was actually more loaded than one might imagine.

The sumo wrestler I chose would convey something about not only my understanding of Japanese culture, but also whether or not I had nationalistic tendencies. If I said an American wrestler's name, they'd conclude that my enjoyment was based solely on seeing one of my countrymen participate. If I chose a popular and physically appealing Japanese wrestler, they'd think that I was only attracted superficially to the sport and did not have real depth of understanding.  And, yes, there were physically "pretty" wrestlers who had a lot of muscle and handsome faces. The Western notion of blubbery guys in thongs is not entirely incorrect, but often is based on insufficient experience with the sport.

Knowing that an answer was going to say something about me and my knowledge of the deeper aspects of the culture steered me toward saying "Mitoizumi". During my formative years in Japan, he was known for his lavish tosses of salt into the ring before bouts and his happier than usual nature for a sumo wrestler. In fact, one of the reasons I liked him was his, by Japanese standards, "flamboyant" behavior and lack of suppression of his joy when victorious. When he won his first and only tournament, he shed tears of happiness. This was nearly unheard of in the sumo world, but I loved him for it.

My choice of Mitoizumi was calculated because it not only allowed me to show that I wasn't a superficial fan, but it encouraged follow-up questions that allowed me to show off my in-depth knowledge of this particular corner of Japanese culture. When I talked about how I loved it when a wrestler won using a dramatic "utchari" move - a winning maneuver in which a man with his back against the edge of the ring who looked close to being pushed out would pick up his opponent and swing him around to lift him out (famously performed on many occasions by one of the aforementioned pretty boys of sumo, Kirishima) - the patronizing smiles were history. They unerstood that I knew what I was talking about, and often remarked (quite accurately) that I knew far more about sumo than they did.

It's not particularly uncommon for foreign folks who have a niche interest in some part of Japanese culture to know more than the natives in one or two areas. Japanese people often could not answer my questions about the deeper meaning or history of many of the tokens of their culture and I found that rather disappointing at times. I am not only a curious person by nature, but I also like to be educated rather than only know things superficially. This could be rather troublesome at times for my students who would often have to tell me they didn't know the answers to my probing questions about their culture.

When I was interested in sumo, I scoured the bookstores for resources to inform me in English about it so that I could understand it since I couldn't really query my Japanese acquaintances for answers I knew they didn't have. One of the places which I often visited was a bookstore in Jimbocho called "Tuttle". This is the name of a publishing company that many foreign folks know well for their excellent materials on Japan. If you bought a book that told you all you needed to know about a subject, there was a very good chance that their name was on the spine. One of my earliest guides, a book that I kept with me for many years called A Guide to Food Buying in Japan, came courtesy of Tuttle.

The folks at Tuttle contacted me and offered me a chance to review the release of a beautiful book they're releasing called Things Japanese. Considering the name of my blog, how could I say "no?" Their brief description of the book gave me some idea of what it may be like in terms of the pictures, but the content was much more than I had expected. It offers an in-depth guide to those little things that you see all over Japan, but don't know what they mean, how they came about, or even why they happen to be placed where they are. It answered a lot of the questions that I asked my students about why something is designed in a particular way or how it came about.

What I expected from this book was that it was going to be full of pretty pictures, and it is. The photography makes this a splendid coffee table book at a softcover price. What I didn't expect was that it would provide background information in such great detail and answer questions like, "Why do Japanese people still use tatami when it needs to be replaced so often and attracts dust mites?" It even answered a question I would have asked had I thought of it and that was why my living room was the only room in my old apartment that included a "half mat" as part of its measurements. 

Reading though this book reminded me of my experience with sumo because it allows a non-Japanese person to know Japanese culture in a way that Japanese people often do not. If I were still teaching, I would love to have this book on hand as a resource for starting conversations about Japanese culture. It was always my experience that my students enjoyed talking about Japanese culture both because it was something they had intimate experience with and because they were flattered when a foreign person showed such interest in it. Given that it is often difficult for Japanese people to express themselves in English, being well-versed in a cultural aspect allowed me to help students complete thoughts or find vocabulary for things they wanted to talk about when it came to icons and various elements in their environment. In essence, I was a better teacher for already knowing the answers to at least some of the questions I asked my students. 

Beyond the aid to teaching this book might represent, it's quite interesting to anyone who wants to dig a little deeper into what those stone lantern things are sitting in Japanese gardens, why and what those curtains that are in the doorways or many businesses, or why those short coats worn during summer festivals. The truth is, despite my many years in Japan, I don't know what the history or in-depth information is on such items. I know the names, sure, and I've seen such things plenty of times, but I still don't know the background or reasons. This is a very informative, not to mention attractive, book for those who'd like to achieve the same sort of deeper understanding of Japanese culture that I have of sumo.

In addition to providing me with a free copy of Things Japanese, Tuttle has offered two of my readers a chance to win their own. If you'd like a chance to win a copy in a random drawing, please leave a comment on this post (comments on other posts will not count) telling me your favorite book about Japan (fiction or non-fiction) or, if you don't have one, the cultural icon or aspect that you find most appealing or intriguing. Winners will be announced on this blog at a later date and receive a copy directly from the publisher.

Please make only one comment. If you make multiple comments, I will have to delete one of them because it would be equivalent to two entries in the contest. If you have another comment, please leave it on a different post and note that it refers to this post. Thank you!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Won't Miss #544 - emergency call fear


One of my greatest fears in Japan was that something would happen and I'd need to call for the police or an ambulance. Communicating in a foreign language can sometimes be trying in the best of times depending on the context, the person you're speaking with, and the vocabulary required. Doing so in a situation in which one is in a panic is almost unimaginable. If there is ever a situation in which you won't be able to get your head straight, it's when a loved one is lying unconscious on the floor.

I'm very happy that nothing ever happened which required me to call for emergency services in Japan and I don't miss the fear that occasionally popped into my head at the notion of having to do so. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Random Memories #78 - the last weeks in Japan - part 11


This final installment is more of an epilogue than a memory, though it will include memories. I'm sure that people who have gone away for a short trip or even a somewhat long one imagine my return to the U.S. was like a breath of familiar air as I stepped out into the world into which I was born. It wasn't. It felt more like being expelled from the womb into the bright, noisy, painful light of day. Coming home taught me a whole new understanding of the phrase "gaijin bubble".

For those who are not Photoshop geeks and don't know what a gaussian blur is, I offer this example with the right half blurred and the left half clear.

The bubble that I lived in in Japan was one in which I was outside of society and not entirely aware of what was being said, written, or done in my presence. Because of my incomplete language skills, much of my life in Japan was like a version of reality that had had a gaussian blur applied to it. I could work out most of what was going on, but I had to focus and concentrate. If I didn't feel like paying attention or studying a situation, it was easy to not even know it was there. Tuning out was far easier than tuning in.

Suddenly, I had popped out into a world in which everything was crystal clear. I knew every word. I had to communicate with every person because I had no excuse for not doing so. There was no shaking my head and smiling while waving my hands and either pretending that I didn't understand in order to abdicate any responsibility or escape a situation or actually not understanding enough to fully take part in it. I was fully engaged and had no way to walk away that I didn't have to be fully responsible for. After years of purposeful tuning in, I was utterly out of practice when it came to tuning anything out and it was a full assault. Even now, two years later, I find it hard to place much in the background and remain hyper-aware. I can't undo over two decades of patterns in such a short time.

Living in Japan was like having spent 23 years in a cocoon that both protected and isolated me from the outside world. Sometimes, I hated it because I wanted to be more engaged with things and I resented the limits that shell placed on my life. Only after leaving it did I realize how well and truly it protected someone of my nature from things which would potentially do me harm. I'm a highly sensitive person, as I've said before. I see, hear, smell, and feel things more strongly than average people. I'm easily startled and my nerves are quickly jangled. I'm like a wind chime that tinkles in the slightest breeze whereas others are like rocks that are only moved by great force. I have no choice in the matter. It's the way my nervous system is built, but I didn't realize how being in a different culture buffered me in ways I did not appreciate until after I'd gone.

What was worse than being fully present in this seemingly new reality was the fact that I was a child in the ways it now worked. I didn't know how to use a debit card, work a gas pump, use a self-check-out, or when and how to pay for things in various circumstances. I didn't know that you could sign your name on a credit card transaction on a screen using an electronic pen or that you could tip on your credit card bill at restaurants (as I didn't have a credit card before I went to Japan and they don't tip).

I spent a lot of the first six months of my time in America apologizing to people for my ignorance and mistakes by mumbling about how I'd been out of the country for over two decades and didn't know how things worked. In essence, I fumbled around everyday things in the U.S. the same way I used to bumble my way through them in Japan in the early years. The only difference is that, there, I was a gaijin (foreigner) and my ineptness was excused because no one expected me to know what I was doing. Here, I was just an idiot who couldn't do or understand what even many kids knew and understood. A ten-year-old had greater mastery of the American environment than I did.

I've realized all too often, even now, that Japan isolated and insulated me in ways I failed to appreciate while I was there and being able to bumble and not be snorted at derisively was another piece of the gaijin pie. My foreignness kept me in and others out, but that had enormous benefits that I failed to see until I'd lost them. Yes, it was harder to keep and make good friends, but I've found that the free and easy access that people have to me here has been enormously disruptive and disappointing at times. People contact me when they need something from me and don't when they aren't in any need of my assistance.

Often, the lack of that old cocoon means people can be invasive and blocking them is awkward for me or impossible without alienating them. I'm sometimes taken aback at the vitriol that can be incited by putting up any sort of boundary with people in the U.S. It's as if there is no greater insult to them than failing to meet their needs. The attitude seems to be that I am obliged to give them whatever it is that they want to take and my not permitting them to barge in and grab as much as they want when they want it is an affront. There is frequently no consideration for me or my needs. There is little understanding of boundaries. The entitlement people display is shocking in its size and boldness. The boundaries in Japan were often frustratingly thick and often impenetrable, but they protected me, too.

While Japanese people often had curiosity about my life and asked about me, often because they saw me as an alien being that they wanted to understand - an objectified way of seeing me - people in America rarely express any interest in me or my life at all in social settings. Curiosity in the U.S., it seems, is dead, or at least wheezing its dying breaths. I have had social gatherings with people for hours and hours and often multiple times in which not one question, including "how are you," has been asked of me.

I've also had people act as if my asking them certain questions, ones that I routinely asked of people in Japan and an eyelid was never batted, is an affront or invasive. In social situations in the U.S., I'm not sure how we're supposed to talk to each other if they don't ask me anything and they're so touchy about what I ask them that I have to navigate a field of social landmines. Most people think you magically "know" what is right according to their values even when they are not explicitly offered and they won't offer helpful feedback about them when you trespass on their issues. There is an assumption that "correct" social mores and manners are their own private ones despite the lack of an organized social code or set of manners in the U.S. When you unintentionally step on one of their (often idiosyncratic) landmines, they are offended and hold a grudge, often acting out passive aggressively in future interactions as they continue to lick a wound you never meant to inflict or anticipated would be hurtful.

In Japan, this was far less of an issue for me. My foreignness engendered rapid forgiveness. Sure, I was the dull-witted pet gaijin, but the underestimation of me that accompanied their sense of my inferiority in comprehending their culture also meant that they forgave me when I piddled on their cultural carpet. The fact that the rules are more explicit and most people shared a common mentality also meant that, at least eventually, one could figure things out and act in rough compliance. If you screwed up, you were forgiven. If you did things right, you got a lot of credit. It wasn't always that way, but it often was.

There is less of such forgiveness in the U.S. in my experience. I'm simply supposed to be like everyone else magically in social circumstances while also being an individual who is unique and different from everyone else. Is it any wonder Facebook is filled with drama when we all operate by different unwritten and unspoken rules because we're all just so non-conformist and individualistic yet we expect others to read our minds? We expect order and are offended when life does not unfold in accord with our sense of it, yet the culture is incredibly chaotic. Having been outside of that long enough, I can see that about American culture now. When I lived inside of it, I had no idea that it could be any other way.

Since returning, America has very often felt like the "foreign" land full of people who have ways of living which annoy and frustrate me. Their unfamiliar ways cause me to hate it here sometimes and be angry and disappointed a fair bit of the time. Frankly, it's just like my early time in Japan when I was going through the stages of cultural adjustment, but it sometimes feels worse as this is supposed to be my home and it "shouldn't" be so difficult. Part of the reason for that is that this is supposed to be my home culture, but a bigger part of it is that I don't have that nice hazy, gaussian-blur-like filter of not understanding exactly what is going on to block out a lot of the annoyances or that big, comfy cocoon that separates me from the outside world.

Sometimes, it feels like I'm being pelted by hail the size of baseballs and there's nowhere to run for cover. This sense of being under siege by a culture I lost touch with has abated somewhat, but I strongly miss the odd sort of "protection" I had in Japan more than anything else. This, more than anything, in my opinion, forms the unconscious backbone of why many people find it so hard to leave Japan and the sense that it's a Neverland in which we can avoid the pain of growing up and responsibilities of the "real' world of our home countries.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Changes to My Blogs

I've been blogging regularly and steadily on both of my blogs since each one's inception. Both were created to serve several purposes from the outset. One was to bookmark experiences regarding life in Japan so that I could remember them as well as share my perspective on things both trivial and important with others. Another was to set myself a task such that I would develop my writing skills in different directions by focusing on a particular niche (Japanese snacks) or a particular style (short form for 1000 Things About Japan). Still another was in hopes of generating some income for my writing work. Despite my spotty proof-reading, I do put a lot of time and energy into my blogs.

I have realized two of my three goals. For various reasons, I make nearly nothing from my blogs despite having a pretty decent readership that has continued to grow at a slow pace. This is disappointing, but not the primary reason for the changes that are to come.

For some time, I've been writing a book. It's well over 100 pages now, but I keep having problems finishing it. The primary reason for this is that I tell myself each week that I'll do my eight blog posts (five for Japanese Snack Reviews and three for 1000 Things About Japan) and then I'll work on my book. All of my energy and time is taken by the blogs such that there is not enough left for the book and I have decided that has to change.

I've always been the sort of person who believes in structure and discipline. One of the reasons that my posting is regular is that I think that you have to set a goal and stick with it in order to make sure you achieve it. On 1000 Things About Japan, I met that goal awhile back when I hit 500 "Won't Miss" and 500 "Will Miss" posts, but I kept going and added in other content. On this blog, my goal was the number and type of posts and I've steadily stuck with each of my goals for a long time. It is time for my goals to change to getting the books I want to write finished instead of writing a certain number of blog posts each week for each blog.

In terms of what this means, I'll say first what it does not mean. It does not mean these blogs are ending or dying. I will continue to post, but I will be posting like most other bloggers do from now on. That is, these blogs will be second or third in my writing priorities rather than occupy first place as they have for so long. I will blog essentially when I feel like it rather than according to a self-imposed rigorous schedule.

For my kind and faithful readers, this means you'll have to track changes in some way rather than know when something new will be here. I recommend using an RSS reader (like Feedly) as it will automatically notify you of new content when it arrives, but you could simply pop in occasionally to see if anything has been posted. My best guess is that you'll see at least one post per week, but I can't say now as I haven't yet embarked on this new path.

As a postscript, I have to also say that this sort of change was inevitable since I knew at some point that I'd have to start leaving my connection to Japan behind and focus on making new and different ones. That connection will always be there as I spent so much of my adult life there, but it will fade. I love to write, so I will continue to do so, but it will likely branch into other areas rather than be monopolized by all things Japan. I hope you'll stick with me and read when I have something to say. I appreciate all of the kindness and support I've been shown over the years and look forward to continuing to offer something to those who enjoy my writing, albeit on a less frequent basis.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Will Miss #543 - "gift" wrapping


Dave Barry tells a story in his "Dave Barry Does Japan" book about a woman whose son gives his son a small gift-wrapped package that contains candy. Since it is not likely that the boy was carrying around candy in case he ran into a child that he wanted to give a little present to, Barry is initially puzzled as to how the Japanese boy was able to produce such a present so rapidly. He finds out that one can get even a bit of candy bought at a kiosk gift-wrapped in Japan. It's a small and insignificant item that costs about 100 yen (about a dollar), but you can still get a clerk to wrap it up as a gift for you.

There were some little touches to life in Japan that I didn't think I'd miss, but now that I'm back in the U.S., I find that I do. On occasion, I've wanted to pick up a little something and give it to someone as a gift - a nice bar of chocolate, a candle, or a box of cookies. At such times, I am left with only two options. I can take it home and wrap it myself or hand it over in the plastic shopping bag (assuming I got one) that I purchased it in.

In Japan, in nearly any type of store, you can probably get someone to do some sort of gift wrap on an item you buy and I miss the way in which you could have nearly any item, no matter how big or small, gift-wrapped in Japan. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Random Memories #77 - the last weeks in Japan - part 10


I wish that I had written my memories of the last weeks in Japan shortly after I'd lived them. Two years down the line, there are things I remember with perfect clarity and things that I'm sure have slipped away. The same goes for my early experiences after returning to America. There were some very important things which happened when I had just gotten back that I wish I had taken the time to type out, but I think that it was just too difficult to manage emotionally. Even now, two years later, it's a chore for me to go back to those last moments. It has been the case on more than one occasion that writing about my memories has brought  me to tears and I'm sure the writing on some of these posts has suffered for it.

The final day in Japan is still hard for me to write about and I don't know if I can really make others understand how difficult it was to just let it all go. I can say that I knew something for sure that I can't easily make others completely comprehend. That was that I knew without a doubt that I would never live in Japan again and I was nearly as certain that I'd never go back there again for any purpose. 

I've talked about that sense - that strong feeling of knowing - with others and they have generally misunderstood what I've meant. They seem to think I'm saying I don't want to go back or don't feel I can afford to. It's not that at all. I want to go back. In fact, I'd love to go back again, but I knew in my gut that the chances that I'd ever set foot on that island again were infinitesimally tiny. This "knowing" amplified my grief in the last day. It wasn't simply a "see you later" or "maybe... possibly... ", but it was "I'll never see you again." The book of my life there was finished and no new chapters were going to be added on. Everything that has happened since my return to the U.S. has confirmed this and I have not for a moment felt otherwise. What I want is not a part of the equation, but rather what I "know".

I had my last twenty-four hours completely mapped out long before the day came. As I mentioned in the previous post, I wanted to go to Akiyoshi for our last real meal and I wanted to wake up and walk around and have "choco cro" for breakfast. Those two things accomplished, it was time to face getting in the cab and heading away.

The landlord and his wife were incredibly kind and supportive of us that final morning. They helped us haul our four enormous suitcases out and put them in the cab. I am a person who believes in mindfulness of experience and not simply blowing past life or sleepwalking through it. This has not only helped me as a writer, but also helped me understand the world. The last thing I did was purposefully look around our home of the past 23 years and take in the atmosphere that it held for us. It was, as could be seen in the previous post, dirty and decimated of most of its belongings with nothing but trash left behind. It was also as or more familiar to me than the home I'd grown up in as a child.

I'd spent 24 years of my life in a the same place in rural Pennsylvania and 23 years in which I was much more self-aware and verbally capable in our apartment in Tokyo. How could it be any less of a space that I'd strongly identify with than my family home? It wasn't. It was more of a "home", especially since my childhood home had long been sold and plowed to the ground and covered over with earth during my long absence.

I looked out the window of the bedroom where the osmanthus tree had grown, bloomed, and aged during our stay. The tree had some weathering or bark loss on the side that faced our bedroom and I always felt it had absorbed some of the negative energy of my life from the frustrations I'd felt living in Japan and taken on some damage. It also gave up its fragrance every autumn and reminded me that, though I lived in a concrete box, nature would find a way to be a part of my life.

The window behind the living room showed the view of the noisy old neighbor's entrance. I thought about how they'd stood out there so many times having loud conversations punctuated by "ne" so many times that it seemed as though that word constituted a quarter of the vocabulary. They also banged around their miniature garden and loudly snapped shut their screen door more times than I can remember, yet I never got used to it or learned to tune it out.

Of course, despite its poor condition, I looked at the space itself inside the apartment. I loved that small space and the way that it was shaped like a square and had sliding doors that opened or closed off compartments as needed to capture heat or cool air according to our needs. I loved how it was small, but felt bigger than it was. I loved that I could always feel my husband's presence no matter where he was and the sense that he was never very far away from me. Most of all, I thought about how much we loved each other and whether or not any of the positive energy of two people who felt passionately about each other would have embedded itself in the walls or the earth. We knew that nothing materially would be left behind, but would anything energetically remain for the next inhabitant?

As I stood at the door giving it a final look, I started to cry and cried all the way to the cab and during the loading of our things. The landlady looked at me sobbing away with such compassion and kindness that it made me weep all the more. We had always had a very cordial and formal relationship with the landlord and his family and I think that was the first time that we connected on a profoundly emotional level that quite clearly made us all humans rather than partners in a contractual relationship.

The cab drove along a route with which I was extremely familiar. It was along Ome Kaido avenue from Asagaya to Shinjuku. I'd traveled this path hundreds, possibly  over a thousand of times in 23 years and walked or ridden a bike the entire length dozens of times. When the big quake hit on March 11, 2011, my husband walked home along that large street. As the cab made its ways, I intently watched every building as it went by in an attempt to burn the experience as deeply into my memory as possible. I can still recall with perfect clarity how it felt as I watched those all too familiar buildings go by.


I hadn't gotten on a train for Narita in 20 years nor set foot in the airport since 1992. Things had changed a lot since then. Service had gotten far worse and more perfunctory as well as automated. We arrived early, as one is supposed to for international flights. It turned out that the United counter didn't open until 12:30 and we spent a lot of time standing in line watching the staff mill about doing nothing while they waited for the clock to force them to start managing us passengers. We had hoped to check in to relieve ourselves of our heavy bags and then wander the airport, but some of our precious time was being stolen away by unexpected changes in availability.


When we finally were allowed to check our bags and get boarding passes, we were confused by the way in which you use machines to feed in your passport and get a printed pass. We were regarded as being dim-witted because we were unfamiliar with the machines and a woman who was in Japan as a tourist rather smugly instructed us in how to manage. At the time, I thought that I'd like to see her manage the Tokyo public transport system. Everything is easy when you're familiar with it.

Mochi sweets, explained in English (which is not usually the case in Tokyo)

I'm sure that being in an airport is not a meaningful experience for most people. For me, however, it was a way station between two worlds. It was the point at which I was in limbo in a spot which straddled life in Japan and life in America. The mix of travelers, the shops that catered to both domestic and foreign tastes, and the bilingual services made it feel like the last stop that would fully cater to the Japanese on the road to the rest of my life.

As we headed down the escalator after passing the security checkpoint and into the final area through which we'd end up boarding, there were signs (shown at the top of this post) saying Japan awaited our return. Seeing them made me start crying again because Japan will be waiting a very, very long time to ever see me again. It was an incredibly bittersweet moment when I saw what to most people was a meaningless PR move.


My husband and I had popped for the extra couple hundred dollars to get seats at the front of a row because my knees are pretty bad and the idea of keeping them bent in a tiny cramped space for nearly 12 hours was not a happy one. I had my plan in place for how to kill the time. I'd saved Baye McNeil's book to read on the journey. This was a good idea as the book was incredibly engaging and helped pass the time and distract me from thoughts of what was to come and what was happening.

I've flown away from Japan three times in my life and I spent two of those trips crying my way through the trip to America. The first time was because I was flying away from my boyfriend (later husband) and the last time was because I was leaving the place where I'd spent most of my adult life and had built a tiny little place that was "home". Japan wasn't home, but the space I occupied was all I had and could conceive of as home. I sobbed all that much harder when the plane touched down and I entered a world that was both familiar and alien. (to be continued)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Won't Miss #56 - slow payers (reflection)


During my twenty-three-year absence from the U.S., a new way of doing business popped up. It became possible for people to do something which I never imagined that they'd allow them to do. That is, they could check themselves out at the register. In fact, there are some places which only do self-check-out ("Fresh & Easy"). At first, I found the prospect intimidating. Now, I wish every store had that option.

The reason that I love self-checking out is that it means I don't have to wait behind some granny or grampy who doesn't seem to understand the fact that money will have to exchange hands at the end of the transaction. The idea that the logical conclusion of events should also be preceded by the removing of ones wallet from a bag or pocket also seemed to come as a shock to many customers in Japan as they only reached for their cash when the checker had his or her hand (or cash tray) out and asked for it.

There are still slow payers in the U.S., but the use of debit and credit cards as well as self-check-out makes it less frequent and offers a way to get around such people. I certainly don't miss the slow paying people who seemed to always be in line in front of me in Tokyo.